The Unfinished Work

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I think he meant that circumstances change over time, but today’s issues sound like past issues.

My wife and I recently returned from a nine-day tour of Civil War sites. Our trip included the battlefields of Manassas (Bull Run), Fredericksburg, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Gettysburg. Antietam is still the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, where close to 25,000 died. Gettysburg is the deadliest three-day battle in American history, where over 40,000 soldiers lost their lives. By comparison, 2,500 American soldiers died on D-Day. We don’t know the total number of soldiers’ deaths in the Civil War, but educated guesses range from 620,000 to 850,000, almost more than the total deaths from all the other wars America has fought in. And if you look at total casualties in the Civil War (those killed, wounded, captured, and missing), estimates soar to 1.5 million. So taking the lower estimate of deaths of 620,000, those deaths equaled two percent of the entire population of the United States at the time. Proportionately, that would equal six million based on today’s population.

Sadly, I wonder if those deaths were somewhat in vain. The significant Civil War issues of slavery, equality, and state rights existed among the Founding Fathers and continue today, despite a civil war fought to decide them.

Let’s look at each issue of slavery, equality, and states rights and see how much progress we have made over the past two hundred years.


America’s great paradox is how a nation founded on the principle of “all men are created equal” could allow slavery to continue for almost a hundred years. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words in the Declaration of Independence, is perhaps the most outstanding example of that paradox. He wrote those hallowed words and produced other important documents urging the end of slavery, yet in 1800, he counted as family eleven free whites and 93 enslaved people, two of whom were his own children. In 1772, Jefferson owned about 200 enslaved people, making Jefferson the second-largest slaveholder in his county.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention from several states wanted slavery abolished. But it became clear that if slavery remained an issue, the states would never agree on a new form of government. So, to ensure getting a new constitution, the delegates kicked the slavery issue down the road. We are all familiar with the infamous compromise in the Constitution for determining a state’s number of representatives in Congress. Northern states didn’t want to count enslaved people since they were merely property. Southern states wanted them counted to prevent disproportionate representation favoring the North. The convention ultimately agreed to count each black as three-fifths of a person.

Many Constitutional delegates opposed slavery on moral grounds but saw no practical way of ending it. And so, for the next 50 years, led by political leaders such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun, the country entered a series of compromises that kept the country together but delayed the ultimate resolution of the slavery issue. But as those willing to compromise died, the country became more polarized—similar to today’s politics.

In a four-way race, Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 with less than 40 percent of the vote. Although morally against slavery, he thought the Constitution prevented him from abolishing slavery in the states where it already existed. And so, his initial goal as President was to preserve the Union and prevent the spread of slavery into newly-created states.

He traveled by train from Illinois to Washington, D.C., for his first inauguration. But as he neared Baltimore, an undercover Pinkerton detective discovered a plot to kill the President before he could take office. A similar scheme took place recently when, on January 6, 2022, rioters stormed the Capitol to prevent the certification of Joe Biden as our new President. President Lincoln disguised himself, changed routes, and snuck into the Capitol to avoid the plot. How ironic that the President had to employ methods used by the Underground Railroad to evade his pursuers.  

In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he tried one last time to appease the Southern states: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He then hoped the “better angels of our nature” would realize the value and importance of preserving the Union.

But his words fell on deaf ears. The day after his address, the South demanded federal troops evacuate all federal facilities in the South. Then, a few weeks later, the South fired on Fort Sumter, and the Civil War began. 

The end of the war brought with it the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But a close reading of the language reveals a loophole. The prohibition against slavery does not apply to anyone convicted of a crime.

The documentary 13th[i] argues the government has effectively continued slavery by “law and order” policies that have disproportionately incarcerated people of color. Here is a clip from the film that compiles “13 truths” supporting the movie’s premise:

Although slavery does not exist in the same form as before the Civil War, if you are a felon, an abused spouse, or a young person trapped in human trafficking, you would consider yourself enslaved.


Most of the country’s early leaders, even those who opposed slavery, did not consider blacks equal to whites. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Blacks are inferior to whites in the endowments of both mind and body.” In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

Abraham Lincoln had a similar opinion. During one of his debates with Stephen Douglas, he said:

“I am not now, nor ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not now, nor ever been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. And I will say, in addition to this, there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will ever forbid the two races from living on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they remain together, there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Thankfully, Lincoln’s opinion started to change when he became more familiar with black individuals such as Frederick Douglass. Still, his statement in the Douglass debate was typical of the feelings of most whites at the time.

After the assassination of President Lincoln and the failure of Reconstruction, states began passing laws that became known as Jim Crow laws. And segregation became the rule, especially in the South. But it was more than just where you could sit on a bus or what drinking fountain you used. States in the North as well as the South, and even the federal government, instigated laws, policies, and practices that discriminated against people of color in housing, lending, employment, voting, education, and employment.

In the film, A Raisin in the Sun,[ii] Walter Lee Younger (played by Sidney Portier) and his family have lived in the same small Chicago apartment for years. Then, using part of an insurance payment, Younger’s mother buys a small home in a predominantly white neighborhood. In this scene, the head of the HOA of their new community offers to buy their new house from them, asking the Youngers, “Wouldn’t you be happier living with your own kind?”

A hundred years after the Civil War, people of color were still fighting for equality. Finally, in the 1960s, laws began to change, but not until after years of demonstrations, marches, and protests.

States Rights

The Founding Fathers constantly battled over what the new federal government should look like. Washington, Adams, and Hamilton argued that a strong central government was necessary if the states were to be united. They used the ineffective Articles of Confederation as Exhibit A to their arguments. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe saw it differently. A strong federal government would most assuredly lead to another monarchy like the one from which the colonies had just declared independence. Therefore, Jefferson considered all domestic policy off-limits to the federal government. He equated the federal government to a “foreign power” that had no authority to legislate for the states. Thus, only the states, not Washington, D.C., had the power to regulate slavery in the existing states. To help firm up Jefferson’s position, Madison, when authoring the Bill of Rights, included the ninth one—that the states retained all powers other than those specifically delegated to the federal government.

Based on that principle, the Southern states saw no prohibition to their secession from the Union. And even after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, the states still claimed the power to discriminate. In this scene from Selma,[iii] the state of Alabama is determined to prevent any change in their Jim Crow society:

We continue to battle over states’ rights. Thus, for example, many states have passed new laws on abortion that are in direct contravention of the constitutional standard of Roe v. Wade. We have states passing more restrictive voting laws, which depending on what side of the argument you are on, either prevent people of color from voting or preserve fair elections. And you have the governor of Texas “at war” with the President of the United States over immigration.

At Gettysburg, we stood where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg address, commemorating a portion of the battlefield as our first national cemetery. Despite anyone’s political beliefs, the words are profound and inspiring. I close with the final part of that address:

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we can take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Whether we prefer a strong federal government or preserving power to the states, all can agree that slavery, in whatever form, must be abolished. And equality of opportunity should be our nation’s standard, regardless of one’s skin color. So let’s take Lincoln’s challenge and finish that work.

[i] 13th:

  • Production Companies: Forward Movement, Kandoo Films, and Netflix
  • Director: Ava DuVernay
  • Screenwriters: Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay
  • Starring: Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, and Cory Booker
  • Release date: October 7, 2016

[ii] Raisin in the Sun:

  • Production Company: Columbia Pictures
  • Director: Daniel Petrie
  • Screenwriter: Lorraine Hansberry
  • Starring: Sidney Portier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Lee
  • Release date: May 18, 1961

[iii] Selma:

  • Production Companies: Pathé, Harpo Films, and Plan B Entertainment
  • Director: Ava DuVernay
  • Screenwriter: Paul Webb
  • Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Oprah Winfrey
  • Release date: January 9, 2015

Courage Under Fire

English philosopher G. K. Chesterton said, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms: it means a strong desire to live, taking the form of readiness to die.” We have seen courage displayed many times in Ukraine over the last month, and none more remarkable than in Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

President Zelenskyy recently spoke to the US Congress. Here is a crucial part of his speech:

“Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided, the destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy. Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, not just our cities; it went on a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values. It threw tanks and planes against our freedom, against our right to live freely in our own country, choosing our own future, against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams.”

When I first heard President Zelenskyy’s speech, I immediately thought of this similar speech from one of my favorite movies, Braveheart:[i] 

History books didn’t record the actual words of Sir William Wallace back in the early 1300s, but my imagination tells me he must have said something similar to the terms of this clip to inspire his army.

Ukraine President Zelenskyy has likewise been inspiring his troops and the world with his videos deep in the heart of Ukraine as Russian invaders close in around him. He had my admiration and my support early on when he showed courage under fire with his response to the US of safe passage out of Ukraine: “I don’t need a ride; I need ammunition.”  

Since the war began, I have watched the daily news about the war. I have been shocked at what I have seen: the brutality of the Russians against the civilians of a free country, the bravery of the Ukrainians who have stayed to fight against overwhelming odds, the suffering of the 6.5 million refugees (and counting), mostly women and children, who have been forced from their homes with few worldly possessions, and the outpouring of support from the rest of the world.

I have debated what the appropriate response should be, knowing there must be a fine balance between resistance and escalation resulting in the next world war. Could economic sanctions successfully compete against military might and destruction? At first, I doubted it. We have tried economic sanctions before with less-than-ideal results. But I then realized that America’s revolutionary war began as an economic boycott against England’s taxation. The military war began when England sent troops here to put down those financial weapons the colonists were engaged in. And the Continental Army only had to win enough battles to convince England that the cost was not worth it.

Perhaps the odds of Ukraine winning a war against the military might of Russia are similar to the odds the colonists had against the military strength of England back then. But coupled with the economic war, I give Ukraine a fighting chance (pun intended). And the difference today is most of the world is participating in economic sanctions against Russia and Russian leaders. According to the Brookings Institution, thirty countries have imposed more than 2,500 sanctions on Russian targets. Borrowing a military term, Putin characterized the economic sanctions as “economic blitzkrieg,” Sharlyn Alfonso, from CBS’s 60 Minutes, described it this way: “Never before has such a large modern economy been cut off so quickly from most of the world.” Adding to the government sanctions, over 400 companies have stopped operations or pulled out of Russia in just three weeks since the war began. Wouldn’t the closing of 850 McDonald’s be enough to get the Russian people to revolt against their leader?

But seriously, are the sanctions working? Ms. Alfonso recently interviewed Daleep Singh, the Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, the White House official responsible for coming up with the economic sanctions against Russia. In response to whether the sanctions are working, Mr. Singh said: “Russia is now on the fast track to a 1980s style Soviet living standard. It’s looking into an economic abyss, and that is the result of Putin’s choices, and I can see from his reaction that’s where it’s headed. The best projections I see out there right now are suggesting that Russia’s economy is going to be half of its size before this invasion.”     

While I hope the economic sanctions will ultimately cause Putin to realize the war is not worth the costs, it is hard to watch the daily atrocities against the innocent people of Ukraine. I recently read an article by former news correspondent Eric Weiner who warns of “learned helplessness,” which results from too much exposure to negative stimuli beyond our control. Learned helplessness can affect us mentally, often leading to low self-esteem and depression, and even drug abuse and physical illness. To prevent the effects of learned helplessness, Mr. Weiner suggests we limit (but not eliminate) our consumption of the news and don’t ignore the brutality of the war but focus on its humanity. Seek out positive stories of heroic resistance and acts of moral beauty. With that in mind, here are just a few:

  • Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova held up a sign during a news broadcast that said, “NO WAR. Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you here.” In a video posted online before the protest, a woman who appears to be Ms. Ovsyannikova said, “What is happening now in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor country. The responsibility for that aggression lies on the conscience of only one man, and that man is Vladimir Putin. Now the whole world has turned away from us, and the next ten generations of our descendants will not wash away the shame of this fratricidal war.” Her protest has now been seen online by over 2.6 million people. Sadly, she has since been arrested and could face up to 15 years in jail.
  • When Sharon Florio wanted to give her community a way to voice their support for Ukraine, she placed a sign, and some chalk outside her storefront, and the community quickly began writing positive messages on the store’s brick wall. Florio said, “I think it’s wonderful. I love seeing parents explain it to their children. It brings an awareness that not everyone’s as comfortable as we are right now.” 
  • Ukraine defied Moscow’s demand that its soldiers lay down its arms in besieged Mariupol. “There can be no question of any surrender,” in Mariupol, responded Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov praised the city’s “heroic defenders,” saying their holdout had helped thwart Russia elsewhere. “By virtue of their dedication and superhuman courage, tens of thousands of lives throughout Ukraine were saved. Today Mariupol is saving Kyiv, Dnipro, and Odesa.”
  • When Russia invaded her home of Ukraine, Maria decided she had to help defend it, even if it meant leaving her fiancé behind in Chicago days after getting married. So she married on Saturday and left Monday morning for Ukraine. “People are running out of there, and she is running in,” said a friend at the wedding. Her American husband intends to follow her as soon as he receives his passport.
  • Once in Romania, many Ukrainian refugees have nowhere to go. So one Romanian family has taken matters into their own hands. They have sent cars to pick up refugees at all hours of the day or night, help them cross the border into Romania, and take them to a summer camp owned by the family. The refugees stay there for a few days, and the family then sends them on to more permanent safe houses. This family has helped over 600 refugees in the past two weeks alone.  
  • Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, in Chicago for a joint speaking engagement, made an impromptu visit to a Ukrainian Catholic church in a Ukrainian neighborhood in the city. In a bipartisan show of unity, and with blue and yellow ribbons on their jacket lapels, they walked side by side to place bouquets of sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, at the base of a statue.

President Zelenskyy’s speeches remind me of another excellent wartime speech—this one given by Winston Churchill to Britain’s House of Commons during World War II. The film Darkest Hour[ii]captures it in this scene:

I hope you will join me in supporting the Ukrainians who have been forced from their homes in the only way I can—with my credit card.

I close with two of my favorite quotes that fit these difficult times:

  • Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
  • William Gladstone: I look forward to the time when the power of love will replace the love of power.

[i] Braveheart:

  • Production Companies: Icon Entertainment International, The Ladd Company, and B.H. Finance C.V.
  • Director: Mel Gibson
  • Screenwriter: Richard Wallace
  • Starring: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, and Patrick McGoohan
  • Release date: May 24, 1995

[ii] Darkest Hour:

  • Production Companies: Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures, and Working Title Films
  • Director: Joe Wright
  • Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
  • Starring: Gary Oldman. Lily James, and Kristen Scott Thomas
  • Release date: December 22, 2017

Winning at Any Cost

Recently my doctor prescribed me some oral steroids for some arthritis I have in my elbows and knees. As I took my first tablet, I jokingly remarked to my wife, “Well, I just blew my chance to compete in the Olympics!” But, ironically, later that day, I learned that maybe I hadn’t. The news broke that Kamila Valieva, the Russian 15-year-old phenom figure skater, had tested positive for a banned heart medication but had not been banned from competing in the Olympics.

It seems no matter how hard we try, controversy surrounds Olympic figure skating. We first had the infamous injury to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee by Tonya Harding’s handlers immediately before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Then, in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Canadian pair skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier appeared to have easily won the gold over the Russian skaters. But the judges saw it differently. Or did they? The day after the competition, the judge from France claimed she was pressured to pick the Russians over the Canadians. In a not-so-satisfying compromise, the IOC ended up awarding both pairs with a gold medal.

And now we have Kamila-gate.

Former U.S. Olympic gold medalist skater Tara Lipinski said what many of us were thinking: “I have so many mixed emotions. One of those emotions is I have enormous empathy for Kamila. She is just 15 years old. Clearly, the adults around her have failed her, and now she is dealing with their decision-making, and those consequences are now on her shoulders—the weight of the world. But again, she should not be skating in this event after a positive test.”

Johnny Weir, the former gold medalist skater from Canada, echoed Lipinski: “There is no gray area when it comes to doping. If you fail a drug test, you cannot compete.”

But the Court of Arbitration for Sports disagreed, allowing Valieva to continue competing. Sarah Hirschland, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, responded to that decision by stating. “We are disappointed by the message this decision sends…. Athletes have the right to know they are competing on a level playing field. Unfortunately, today that right is being denied. This appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia.”

That systemic and pervasive disregard led to one of the most fantastic examples of a distinction without a difference. The IOC banned Russia from the Olympics, but Russian athletes are still allowed to compete under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee.

I wondered how we got to this place in sports history, so I naturally turned to movies. The Oscar-winning documentary, Icarus,[i] reveals how the Russians doped their way to 13 gold medals (33 overall) in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It was the most gold medals and total medals ever won by Russia in a Winter Olympics. Here is the trailer for Icarus:

When I heard the decision to allow Kamila Valieva to continue competing, I thought of Sha’Carri Richardson, the U.S. sprinter who could not compete in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 because she tested positive with THC (marijuana). Richardson took her punishment with honesty and grace, explaining her mental turmoil during the Olympic trials over her mother’s death led her to marijuana to ease her grief and anxiety. But where is the honesty and grace from the Russians? I am still waiting for an explanation from Valieva or her handlers of how the banned substance ended up in Valieva. Valieva’s only comment since the controversy broke: “These days have been very difficult for me. I’m happy, but I’m tired emotionally.” Valieva went on to say the entire process had taught her that adult life “can be unfair to some extent.”  

The banned substance, trimetazidine, increases blood flow to the heart, improving endurance. Is that a possible reason Valieva could perform so many quadruple jumps in her program? On the other hand, there is no evidence that marijuana enhances anyone’s physical abilities. So, of course, we ban Richardson but allow Valieva to compete. Go figure. But karma, I suppose, caught up with Valieva in the end. She fell twice in her free skate program, dropping from first to fourth and off the Olympic podium.    

Before and after Kamila-gate, I have often tried to answer this question: If you win by cheating, do you really win? How satisfying can a win be when you know you had an unfair advantage over the competition? But sometimes, athletes will go to any lengths to win. We are willing to win at any cost, even if we have to cheat to do so. We assume others are cheating, so our only chance of winning is also to cheat.

Sadly, winning at any cost is not limited to athletics. Unfortunately, we see the same occurring in almost every phase of our dog-eat-dog existence. Fortune, fame, and power seem to be our primary motivators, and we are sometimes willing to do almost anything to achieve them. Governments try to regulate fairness, but most of the laws we enact tend to punish the majority who play by the rules, while those that don’t find creative ways to circumvent those laws.

The documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing[ii] traces how Boeing, after its merger with McDonnell Douglas, changed from a company primarily concerned with safety to one more concerned with profits. And that change of culture led to two plane crashes within five months that resulted in the deaths of 346 persons. Here is the trailer for the film, which you can see on Netflix:

Rep. Peter DeFazio, Democrat from Oregon and the chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of Congress, said of Boeing: “In the 21st century, to lose two planes within months of each other, and kill so many people, it just never, ever, ever should have happened. The safety culture at Boeing fell apart. It was corrupted from the top down by pressures from Wall Street, plain and simple.”

How did the company react when the truth came out that its 747 Max plane had known design defects that led to these crashes? Boeing’s Board of Directors asked for the resignation of Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO, two months after he testified before Congress and Boeing’s efforts to hide the plane’s design defects became apparent. But he left with stock and pension awards worth 62 million dollars. Sixty-two million dollars! And to me, that’s the problem with corporate America. You can be behind the deaths of almost 350 people and still walk away with a payoff of over $60 million.

I recently watched an interview of Joseph Gordon Leavitt about his latest role as Travis Kalanick, The CEO of Uber, in the upcoming TV series Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. Leavitt described Travis Kalanick’s core business Value No. 1 as “Always be hustling, even if it includes some ethically questionable behavior.”

When asked how we can change people to act more ethically, Leavitt said, “When a company is prioritizing profits over everything and doesn’t mind who they have to step on or negatively impact in order to produce those profits, you’re going to keep getting companies doing harm. We keep asking, ‘How do we fix Facebook? How do we fix this or that?’ Until we have different incentives where they can care about more than shareholder value, they’re not going to fix any of these problems because it is not good business.”

The film, I, Tonya,[iii] chronicles the rivalry between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan surrounding the 1994 Winter Olympics. In the court case following the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, the judge punishes Harding where it hurt the most. Here is the scene from the movie:

If we want to stop the Russians (and others) from cheating at the Olympics, we must punish those who cheat consistently by banning them from competing. Likewise, if we want businesses to act more ethically, we must punish them where it hurts the most—their bottom lines.

Let’s support those athletes who can win with class and businesses that stand for more than just profit. Let’s stand with former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart by teaching our children that Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

And may we live that way as well.

[i] Icarus:

  • Production Companies:  Alex Productions, Chicago Media Project, and Diamond Docs
  • Director: Bryan Fogel
  • Screenwriters: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe, and John Bertain
  • Starring: Bryan Fogel, Dave Zabriskie, and Don Catlin
  • Release date: August 4, 2017

[ii] Downfall: The Case Against Boeing:

  • Production Companies: Imagine Documentaries, Moxie Films and Moxie
  • Director: Rory Kennedy
  • Screenwriters: Mark Bailey and Keven McAlester
  • Starring: Andy Pasztor and John Fantasia
  • Release date: February 18, 2022

[iii] I, Tonya:

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

Football Is Life

The Dallas Cowboys did it again; they made an early exit from the NFL playoffs. So, as a Cowboys fan, what do I do now their season is abruptly over? Maybe the next best thing: watching movies about football. And that is precisely what I did. In this post, I will focus only on two—one based on actual events and one a documentary. (This post contains spoilers, so you might want to watch them first if you haven’t already!)

Watching 12 Mighty Orphans[i] (available now on Starz) reminded me of one of my best friends in high school. He was an undersized defensive lineman at about five feet ten inches and maybe 160 pounds. But pound-per-pound, he was the most formidable player around. In one game as a junior, my friend lined up across from an All-state center, who towered over him at six foot six. But using smarts and quickness, my friend constantly beat his larger opponent, making tackle after tackle.

12 Mighty Orphans tells the true story of a group of undersized orphans who became known as the Mighty Mites and captured the hearts of the nation during the Great Depression. Their coach, Rusty Russell, left a successful program at Temple High School to start a football team at the Masonic House—an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas. But unfortunately, they barely had enough players to field a team and had no field to play on. In addition, they had no uniforms or equipment, and none of the twelve players had played football before. Ever. But worse, these young men were “throwaway orphans,” having no self-respect or hope that life would ever get better for them. Or as Doc Hall (played by Martin Sheen), the film’s narrator, says: “Orphans were stigmatized as misfits and outcasts and often referred to not as orphans but as inmates. It didn’t matter that they had done nothing wrong. Kids without parents were simply second-class citizens.”

How many of us spend too much time listening to what others think about us? Remember that what other people might think about me is none of my business. Or worse, how many of us repeatedly tell ourselves negative things about ourselves? Studies show that over 85 percent of what we tell ourselves is harmful. So why do we keep listening to those false narratives?

Coach Russell believed that football would help these orphans develop character. He told his players, “You’re better than most boys. You’re unique. You’ve dealt with some hardship. Now you’ve got something to prove, and that’s called motivation.”

At another time, Coach Russell told his team this:

“It’s tough to believe when all you’ve known is hurt and loss and abandonment. I know because I’ve felt it my whole life. I’m an orphan, just like all of y’all. I know what it feels like not to have a mother or a father cheering you on from the stands. I look at you boys, and I can honestly say I’m proud to be an orphan. I’m not ashamed, and I’m not worthless. I’m a mighty warrior. And you’ll feel the same way if you can believe in yourselves and believe in each other. You do that, you’ll be able to do what they all say is impossible. So say it with me. I am worthy. I am valuable. I’m a mighty warrior. I’m a mighty orphan.”  

For the players to believe in themselves and each other, there had to be some success on the field. And how do you win against bigger, stronger opponents? You use some creativity and emphasize the abilities you do have. So speed became the name of the game for the orphans. Coach Russell revolutionized football by developing the spread offense, which relied on forward passes (rarely used in the game up to that point), sweeps around the ends and misdirection plays. And it worked. Soon, the Mighty Mites found themselves in the Texas Class A championship game.

The Mighty Mites found themselves down seven to zero at halftime in the championship game. Their opponents had figured out how to stop their spread offense and punished them repeatedly with hard hits against their much smaller opponents. The orphans were ready to give up, but then a player took over in the locker room:

The Mighty Mites battled back and scored a touchdown of their own but missed the extra point. And their final drive came up short, losing 7 to 6.

That was the same score as my friend’s high school football game. And even though the Mighty Mites and my high school lost those games. I considered the Mighty Mites and my friend the real winners because they accomplished so much despite the odds stacked against them. And isn’t that the correct measure of success?

Undefeated[ii] (now available on Netflix) is a documentary about the Manassas High School football team in Memphis, Tennessee. And like Rusty Russell in 12 Mighty Orphans, Manassas had a terrific coach. Coach Bill Courtney took over a program that had never won a playoff game in its 100-plus year history. Worse, the Manassas Tigers had not won a single football game in over ten years.

In the opening scene of the movie, Coach Courtney describes the state of Manassas High’s football program:

“Let’s see here. Starting right guard, shot. No longer in school. Starting linebacker, shot, no longer in school. Two players fighting right in front of the coach when he’s trying to make things work out. Starting center, arrested for shooting somebody in the face with a BB gun. For most coaches, that would be pretty much a career’s worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me. And you know what? I know damn good and well what I signed up for every year. And I keep coming back because I love this program, and I feel very responsible to make sure that you guys have a football season—that you have a football program you can be proud of.”

Oh, and Coach Courtney is an unpaid volunteer coach.

I love Coach Courtney’s philosophy in his own words:

“The foundation has got to be a solid platform that you can stand on and speak to these kids and say, ‘This is the way you build yourself. If you build yourself this way, and handle yourself this way, and have character, you get to play football. And winning will take care of itself because young men of character, and discipline, and commitment end up winning in life. And they end up winning in football. Well, when you flip it, and the foundation of what you’re doing is football, and you hope all that other stuff follows—well, then you think football builds character—which it does not. Football reveals character.”

As you might expect, all did not go perfectly for the Manassas Tigers. Their first opponent beat them handily. But the life lessons Coach Courtney instilled in them started to pay dividends, and they learned through discipline and commitment they could do hard things, as evidenced in this clip:

Perhaps the best lesson from Undefeated is that we learn more from our failures than our successes. Watch this clip about how we should measure character:

The Manassas Tigers ended up nine and one for the year, earning a trip to the playoffs. As with many things in life, they fell short of their goal, losing their first playoff game by one point. Here is the scene following their heartbreaking loss:

I admit it; I shed a few tears along with Coach Courtney. And like Coach Courtney, in the two hours spent watching this film, I grew to love these young men—for the men of character they had become.

Who knew we could learn so much from a group of high schoolers?

As a postscript, I also recently watched the inspiring film American Underdog.[iii] Although I didn’t have room to write much about it in this post, being fluent in movie quotes, here are my three favorites from the film:

“Destiny belongs to the underdog.”

“Character translates anywhere.”

“Life is not about what you accomplish; it’s about what you become.”

I hope all of us can become people of character, discipline, and commitment. If we do, winning in life will follow us, regardless of whether we ever play football. 

[i] 12 Mighty Orphans:

  • Production Companies: Santa Rita Film Co, Greenbelt Films, and Michael De Luca Productions
  • Director: Ty Roberts
  • Screenwriters: Ty Roberts and Lane Garrison (based on the book by Jim Dent)
  • Starring: Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, and Vinessa Shaw
  • Release date: June 18, 2021

[ii] Undefeated:

  • Production Companies: Zipper Bros Films, Five Smooth Stones Productions, and Level 22 Productions
  • Directors: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
  • Starring: Bill Courtney, O. C. Brown, Montrail “Money” Brown
  • Release date: August 3, 2012

[iii] American Underdog:

  • Production Companies: City on a Hill Productions, Kingdom Story Company, and Lionsgate
  • Directors: Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin
  • Screenwriter: David Aaron Cohen (based on the book by Kurt Warner and Michael Silver)
  • Starring: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, and Hayden Zaller
  • Release date: December 25, 2021

Better Than Bullying

Recently I stumbled across a movie based on actual events entitled Joe Bell.[i] It tells of a man (Joe Bell) who decides to walk across America on a campaign to tell the harms from bullying. But, unfortunately, classmates repeatedly bullied Joe Bell’s son, Jadin, because he was gay. And that bullying was one of the significant factors that led to Jadin’s death by suicide. Here is a scene from the movie, along with the trailer for the film:

As I watched that movie, my mind flashed back to two experiences growing up. When I was in the sixth grade, my teacher selected me to be part of the safety patrol. That meant we helped fellow students, especially the younger ones, cross one of the school’s busy streets. As a reward for our service, the school district invited all the safety patrol members to go on a field trip to a University of Utah football game. After the game, we took a bus back to the elementary school. Upon our arrival, I got my first taste of bullying. Unfortunately, I was one of the guys doing the bullying.

As we got off the bus, one of my friends thought we could have some fun with one of the girls. I will call her Susan. For some reason, he told us to prevent Susan from walking home. And I followed his directions. So, we surrounded Susan and blocked her repeated attempts to leave the school grounds. At one point, after perhaps ten or 15 minutes of our false imprisonment, Susan made a break for it. She got past our circle and raced to the fence separating the school playground from the street. Of course, all the guys chased her. Susan finally escaped our torment by scrambling under the fence and running home.

We thought it was all in good fun, but Susan understandably did not. She told her parents about it, and a few minutes later, her dad drove up to us as we walked home. He loaded us in his car and took us back to his house, where he lectured us on the harm of bullying and made us apologize to his daughter, who was still in tears. Until then, it hadn’t even entered my mind that I might be participating in bullying. It was a wake-up lesson for me. I saw how easy it was to follow the crowd and do something unkind. Sadly, I didn’t learn very well.

The following year, a young woman I will call Barbara decided she liked me. We had an English class together, and Barbara began passing me notes. Since I had no romantic interest in her, I never responded. We had an after-school dance soon after that, and I danced with several girls, but I never asked Barbara to dance even though she stood close to some of the other girls I had danced with. So, the next day at school, she passed me a note stating how hurt she was that I had not asked her to dance. I finally decided to write Barbara a letter to let her know I was not romantically interested in her.

I then made a mistake I have long since regretted. I asked two friends to help me write it. Under the influence of these friends, I wrote a hurtful note. Essentially, I told Barbara I was not interested in being her boyfriend because I would have been embarrassed to have a girlfriend as ugly as she was. Ouch! I later heard from one of her friends how surprised Barbara was that I had been so mean. I apologized to Barbara through her friend, throwing my two friends under the bus for the mean language of the note. That indirect apology seemed to help some, but I could tell, watching Barbara in class, that I had hurt her badly. Barbara moved the following year. I often wished that she hadn’t moved so I could have apologized to her face-to-face.

Technically, the two incidences I related above do not meet the government’s definition of bullying because each was a one-time event. But I doubt that would make either girl feel better about what they experienced. The federal definition of bullying has three components:

  1. Unwanted aggressive behavior;
  2. An observed or perceived power imbalance; and
  3. Repetition or high likelihood of recurrence of the bullying behavior.

Admittedly, my two bullying experiences were relatively tame. I hope my actions had no lasting impact on either Susan or Barbara. But some victims of bullying are not so lucky. Research shows that bullying affects the bullied youths, those doing the bullying, and those witnessing it. Often, the adverse effects of bullying continue into adulthood.

The National Center for Educational Statistics found that about 22 percent of youth ages 12 through 18 have been victims of bullying. In addition, about 15 percent were victims of cyberbullying. And 70 percent of LGBTQIA youth say they have been bullied.

The documentary, Audrie and Daisy,[ii] tells the story of two young women who experienced a different form of bullying—sexual assault. Unfortunately, Audrie’s bullying went even further, as another boy video recorded the assault and posted it on the internet. Even though the sexual assault occurred only once, to Audrie, it felt like her attacker repeatedly assaulted her every time someone watched the video. But law enforcement didn’t help Audrie much when they granted her abuser probation.

Daisy’s story is similar, although no internet abuse occurred. Unfortunately, neither Audrie nor Daisy could overcome their abuse, and both eventually died by suicide. In Daisy’s case, four months after Daisy killed herself, her mother also died by suicide. Daisy’s brother had died earlier in an automobile accident, and the deaths of her two children were too much for Daisy’s mother. Here is a collage of scenes from the documentary:

The film, A Girl Like Her,[iii] is not based on actual events, but the tagline says it well: “Based on a million true stories.” In this movie, Avery constantly bullies Jessica, who used to be her best friend. Finally, with the help of her friend, Brian, Jessica secretly begins video recording Avery’s bullying. Avery must face the truth with the evidence on camera, but it might be too late for Jessica, as she lies in a coma following a suicide attempt. Here is a collage of scenes from the film:

The causes of death by suicide are always complex, and we should never assume a death by suicide is solely the result of bullying. But it could be. And A Girl Like Her raises an interesting point. We mainly focus on the victims of bullying, who undoubtedly need our help. But often, the persons doing the bullying need our help, too. Here is another scene from the film:

As Rodney King famously once said, “People, I just want to say, can’t we all get along?” Perhaps Dr. Wayne Dyer said it best: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

As we start a new year, I hope kindness can be our primary focus—for the victim of bullying, the bullier, and all those affected by such acts of unkindness. Kindness is always better than bullying.

[i] Joe Bell:

  • Production Companies: Argent Pictures, Closest to the Hole Productions, and Endeavor Content
  • Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
  • Screenwriters: Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry
  • Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, and Connie Britton
  • Release date: July 23, 2021

[ii] Audrie and Daisy:

  • Directors: Bonni Cohen and  Jon Schenk
  • Starring: Robin Bourland, Daisy Coleman, and Charles Coleman
  • Release date: September 23, 2016

[iii] A Girl Like Her:

  • Production Companies: Radish Creative Group, Bottom Line Entertainment, and Parkside Pictures
  • Director: Amy S. Weber
  • Screenwriter: Amyh S. Weber
  • Starring: Lexi Ainsworth, Hunter King, Jimmy Bennett
  • Release date: March 27, 2015

No Experience Required

Someone once said, “The trouble with being a parent is that by the time you are experienced, you are usually unemployed.” Yet, C.S. Lewis said, “Children are not distractions from more important work. They are the most important work.” I believe both of those statements. Life becomes exciting and dangerous when your most important work is one that requires no experience.

I have thought a lot lately about being a parent, as my daughter recently gave birth to Nora, our 17th grandchild. Nora was unexpected, as my daughter and her husband thought three kids were enough. Nora’s arrival proves, as parents, we should always expect the unexpected. And now that Nora is here, we are so excited to have her as part of our family.  

My wife and I are fortunate to have had five kids. Each of their births was unique and special, but there is always something special about the arrival of your first child as you prepare for the first time bringing a new life into the world. I recently watched a fun movie that was a hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival that illustrates the challenges of preparing for a child. In Together Together,[i] Matt (played by Ed Helms), although a single divorcee, decides to become a father. And so, he hires Anna (played by Patti Harrison) to be his child’s surrogate mother. Here is a scene from the film, as well as the trailer:

Preparing to have a child has become more and more complicated, as many so-called experts have various theories of good parenting, especially in those early years. In another scene from Together Together, Matt tries to decide what color to paint his new nursery. He shows the room to Anna, who notices dozens of color swatches taped to the wall. When Anna asks about all the colors, the dialogue goes like this:

Matt: It’s very hard to pick a color for the nursery because there’s a lot riding on it. For example, take orange. Orange is usually good for joy and creativity. But a dark orange can trigger deceit or distrust. Uh, yellow. Usually associated with happiness and intellect, but it can also symbolize sickness or decay. Green makes us think of growth, renewal, safety, nature. Well, guess what? It’s also greed, money, avarice.

Anna: Where are you getting all this?

Matt [picking up a book]: This. ‘Opening the Shades: The Deeper Meaning Behind Colors and the Subconscious Hold They Have on a Developing Mind.’

   I was unable to find such a book, but you get the idea.

I also recently rewatched the rom-com Life As We Know It,[ii] in which a married couple is tragically killed in an automobile accident, leaving behind a tiny infant. In the couple’s will, they leave guardianship of the child to the child’s godparents, who are not married and don’t particularly like each other. And neither have had any experience with babies. So in this scene, again relying on a so-called expert, these new parents try to teach the child to “self-soothe”:

I don’t mean to bash child psychologists, as many intelligent people have provided us with valuable tips on improving as parents. But what is suitable for one child might not make a bit of difference in another. For example, as “Anonymous Panda” points out in the recent article, “Most of Your Parenting Choices Don’t Matter,”[iii] as you walk down the street, can you tell who was breast-fed as a baby and who was not?

As our children get older, our job as parents starts to shift. We are less concerned with meeting their physical and safety needs and more about training them to be functioning members of society. With that in mind, I watched King Richard[iv] with mixed emotions. The film is the true story of Venus and Serena Williams and their very involved father. Here is a featurette about the film, which includes two of my favorite scenes from the movie:

While I admire the self-esteem Richard Williams helped develop in each of his daughters, I wonder how I would have felt if my parents had planned out my entire career before I was born. I am sure I would have rebelled and done the exact opposite of their plans. But if the movie accurately portrays the Williams family, it seemed to work well for them. Obviously.

British American journalist Sydney J. Harris said, “The commonest fallacy among women is that simply having children makes one a mother—which is as absurd as believing that having a piano makes one a musician.” I am not the greatest parent (just ask my kids), despite what a T-shirt or mug might say. But after five children and 17 grandchildren, I have come up with some parenting guidelines, many through trial and error (with emphasis on the errors). Here are some of my favorites. Take them for what they are worth, but remember, you get what you pay for.

  1. Love each of your children equally by treating them differently. I learned this one from my father-in-law, who often quoted John Wilmot, who said, “Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.” I echo those sentiments. Each of our five children came pre-wired, and we soon learned that we had to treat each of them a little differently.
  • The way to bring up a child is to start at the bottom. Please don’t misunderstand me here; I am not a big believer in spanking, although there were times when I wanted to beat my children. (Luckily, I never did.) But discipline is a must. Kids need to learn boundaries, and the best way for them to understand them is when parents set them and stick to them. Boundaries are necessary for a child’s safety and to learn how to live in a world surrounded by others. My wife tended to follow Reese Witherspoon’s mantra: “I always say if you aren’t yelling at your kids, you’re not spending enough time with them.” I more often tried to use reason to get my kids to behave. Admittedly, her way was usually more effective than mine, but we were united in believing our children needed discipline regardless of our parenting styles. And that brings me to my following guideline.  
  • Never let your kids divide and conquer. It’s vital to have good communication between a parent and a child, but it’s more imperative to have good communication between parents. Kids will always try to play parents off of each other. So, when setting boundaries, administering discipline, or consenting to activities, make sure you first discuss it with the other parent. And always keep in mind what French essayist, Joseph Joubout, said: “Children have more need of models than of critics.”
  • Train them well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so they won’t want to. This guideline is a saying by Sir Richard Branson. I also like this quote from Dr. Lyman Abbott: “Parents have a duty to govern their children. But the object of all good government is to prepare the subject for self-government.” So, don’t be a helicopter or bulldozer parent. Several years ago, I read an article in Newsweek on this subject. Part of it stated: “Parents who hover risk crippling their children’s fledging sense of self-sufficiency. Missa Murry Eaton, an assistant professor at Penn State University who studies parent-child relationships, says she’s seen a number of parents who think it’s OK to call their freshman sons or daughters early in the morning to make sure they wake up or check in late at night to see if they’re studying. ‘They don’t allow their children to deal with the consequences of their decisions,’ says Eaton. Children and young adults build up confidence by tackling things that are hard. When they do succeed, they earn real self-esteem.”
  • The best thing to spend on your children is your time. This guideline comes from billionaire businessman Arnold Glasgow. In this regard, I love this advice from philosopher John Locke: “A father will do well, as his son grows up, to talk familiarly with him; the sooner you treat him as a man, the sooner he will begin to be one; and if you admit him into serious discourses with you, you will raise his mind above the usual amusements of youth, and those trifling occupations which it is commonly wasted in. Nothing cements and establishes friendship and goodwill so much as confident communication. When your son sees you open your mind to him, he will know he has a friend and a father.”

I could include many additional guidelines in this blog post, but I am sure you are tired of listening to me. The bottom line? The best parents love their children the best way they can. In closing, here is a letter written by Albert Einstein to his daughter:

There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE.

When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, dear Lieserl, we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life.

Love is light that enlightens those who give and receive it.

Love is gravity because it makes some people feel attracted to others.

Love is power because it multiplies the best we have.

Love unfolds and reveals.

Love is the most powerful force there is because it has no limits.

Happy Parenting!

[i] Together Together:

  • Production Companies: Wild Idea, Stay Gold Features, and Haven Entertainment  
  • Director: Nikole Beckwith
  • Screenwriter: Nikole Beckwith
  • Starring: Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, and Rosalind Chao
  • Release date: April 23, 2021

[ii] Life As We Know It:

  • Production Companies: Josephson Entertainment, Gold Circle Films, and Village Roadshow Pictures
  • Director: Greg Berlanti
  • Screenwriter: Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson
  • Starring: Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, and Josh Lucas
  • Release date: October 8, 2010

[iii] Annonymous Panda, “Most of Your Parenting Choices Don’t Matter,” Medium (January 2, 2021).

[iv] King Richard:

  • Production Companies: Overbrook Entertainment, Star Thrower Entertainment, and Warner Bros.
  • Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
  • Screenwriter: Zach Baylin
  • Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, and Jon Bernthal
  • Release date: November 19, 2021

The Movies Are Back!

My wife, Janene, and I just returned from the Austin Film Festival, where we watched 28 movies in eight days. Pictured above are our well-used film passes. Each pass cost us $50, so we paid an average price of $1.79 per film. That’s not a bad deal in this world of rising prices. Sadly, there were several other movies we wanted to see but couldn’t due to scheduling conflicts. I admit it; I’m a movie junkie.

Because of COVID-19, last year’s festival was virtual, and it just wasn’t the same. So, the theme of this year’s festival was “The Movies Are Back!” Before this year’s festival, we had seen only two films in a theater for the entire year. Despite having to wear masks into the venues, it felt good to be back with the crowds in the theaters. And there is nothing like watching a film with movie people. They cry unashamedly, laugh boisterously, and cheer loudly when someone rights a wrong. They applaud at the end of every movie and stay to watch the credits. It always amazes me at the number of folks it takes to make a movie. Of course, we know about the leading actors, supporting actors, and extras performing on screen, the directors directing them, and the producers paying for or arranging the film’s financing. But the list of technical people behind the scenes is almost endless. To name a few, there are screenwriters, casting directors, directors of photography, cinematographers, sound editors, sound mixers, boom operators, costume designers, music composers, musicians, art and set designers, hair and make-up artists, stunt people, grips (electricians and camera operators) best boys (assistants to the grips), gaffers (lighting), script managers, drivers, caterers, and many more. Oh, and don’t forget the lawyers! In the latest James Bond movie, No Time To Die, for example, there are over 1200 people listed as part of the crew. Granted, because of multiple locations and special effects, a James Bond movie requires a larger team than most, but you get the idea.

Movie people can be some of the nicest people around. We often think of those in the entertainment industry as pretentious, and I’m sure some of them are. But most of the ones at the festival were not. Instead, they were friendly, humble, and appreciative of others’ works.

Perhaps the best part of the festival was listening to insiders from each film. At the end of each movie, someone (often several people) connected to the film, such as the writer, director, producer, or star, held a question and answer session about the film. In these sessions, you learned what inspired the people to make the film, insights about the characters and plot, and technical aspects.

The Austin Film Festival divides its films into two groups: the marquis films (sneak previews of movies soon to be released) and the competition films. The competition films are further divided into narrative features, documentary features, and shorts. The feature films are independent movies hoping to create a buzz so major film distributors will purchase them. The shorts are often made by young filmmakers showcasing their talents, hoping major studios will consider them when selecting the director for their next big film. And the Austin Film Festival throws in a handful of classic movies from the past.

This year, the AFF should have renamed  it “The Austin International Film Festival.” There were films from Italy, France, Jordan, South Korea, Cambodia, Columbia, China, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Mexico, India, Peru, South Africa, Canada, Japan, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Spain, and, of course, the United States.

Of the 22 marquis films, I recommend only two. Spencer[i] is the story of the royal family’s Christmas from the viewpoint of Princess Diana. If you are a fan of Netflix’s The Crown, you will enjoy Spencer. Here is the trailer:

My other recommendation is C’mon C’mon,[ii] which portrays the developing relationship between an uncle and his nephew, who must care for the child while his mother cares for her husband dealing with bipolar disorder. The movie is light on plot, but the interaction between uncle and nephew is touching to watch and illustrates W.C. Fields’ adage of never working with animals or children because they steal the show. They did in this film. Here is the trailer:

In connection with the competition films, I have several recommendations. Sadly, unless a film distributor purchases these films, most people will never get a chance to see them. Hopefully, though, the movie distributors will enjoy them as much as I did.

The narrative film Jury Award winner was Disfluency. It is the story of a college student who returns home to try and make sense of her senior year. It is a tough film to watch, as it deals with PTSD and sexual assault, but it does so in a tasteful way.

The documentary Jury Award winner was Buried: 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche. As the title suggests, it is the story of an unprecedented avalanche that devastated a small mountain community. Unfortunately, some people found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the ski patrol members who, even thirty years later, wrestle with whether they could have (and should have) done things differently.

The other festival movies I highly recommend are Atonement, a tragic tale from India of love, compassion, and sacrifice, and Unsilenced, the true story of China’s Communist Party’s brutal crackdown on a group of innocent students who risk everything to expose the government’s deadly propaganda. As I watched Unsilenced, I wondered if I would have the courage to fight for the truth as these Chinese students did. But then I realized it is often almost impossible to separate the lies from the truth in America today.

We have grown to love the Austin Film Festival. Does anyone want to join us next year for eight fun days of watching movies?

[i] Spencer:

  • Production Companies: Komplizen Films, Fabula, and Shoebox Films
  • Director: Pablo Larrain
  • Screenwriter: Seven Knight
  • Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, and Jack Nielen
  • Release date: November 5, 2021

[ii] C’mon C’mon:

  • Production Companies: A24 and Be Funny When You Can
  • Director: Mike Mills
  • Screenwriter: Mike Mills
  • Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, and Woody Norman
  • Release date: November 19, 2021

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