Monthly Archives: March 2017

Maybe We Really Can’t Handle the Truth

Every movie lover knows the famous line from A Few Good Men,[i] “You can’t handle the truth!” But few of us focus much on the statements of Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, following that line:

So why do we even have governments? According to Thomas Jefferson, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted to preserve our rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But practically speaking, what does that really mean? What is the appropriate balance between government providing us security and each of us exercising our individual freedoms? We want freedom, but are we willing to put our lives on the line to fight for it? Watch this scene in the movie, Trumbo,[ii] as Dalton Trumbo takes on John Wayne. After you peel away the sound bites, which of the two did more to protect freedom during World War II? But wait! Trumbo might have been a Communist!

I readily admit I don’t have many good answers. On the one hand, I am moved to anger, and sometimes even tears, when I hear about the loss of individual rights and abuses of power. Movies about slavery are almost always gut-wrenching to me. I cheer when I watch a movie about an independent press, exercising its first amendment rights, who investigates and exposes abuses of power by government, the military, a church or a corporation. I love legal dramas where justice and the rule of law prevail over a corrupt police officer or prosecutor. But on the other hand, outside of the movie theater, I love it when police and prosecutors put away true criminals and otherwise keep our homes, neighborhoods, and cities safe. I sleep well at night knowing we have a military and government that are vigilant in fighting terrorists, both at home and abroad. I love my freedom, but I love my security just as much. I want my government to protect my freedom, but how willing am I, really, to fight for it? No one was happier than I was when, during the Vietnam War, my lottery number was 315, guaranteeing that I would never be drafted. I’m older and hopefully wiser now and realize that war, more often than not, does more to destroy freedom than protect it. But when was the last time I participated in a peaceful protest march, wrote a letter to a newspaper editor, visited one of my elected officials or took any real action against some abuse of power? Do I have the guts to be a whistle blower? I might grumble to my family and friends, but do I do anything of real consequence to help preserve our rights?

I recently watch the movie. Snowden,[iii] the depiction of the real life Edward Snowden who exposed the U.S. government’s practice of surveillance of millions of American citizen’s private lives under the guise of the Patriot Act and the government’s war on terrorism. Here is a glimpse of what the government was doing:

And it wasn’t just surveying emails, phone records and chat rooms. The government was looking into our private lives without any of us knowing about it, including our bedrooms, where everyone has an expectation of privacy:

Edward Snowden inherently knew this invasion of privacy of people who had no connection to terrorism or were not a threat to anyone was not right and did something about it, even though he knew, by exposing the practice, he would be violating the law. But Snowden concluded, “I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” Watch the final scene from the movie (with the real Edward Snowden) and don’t stop when the credits begin to role. Branded as a traitor, Snowden now lives in Russia to avoid incarceration for his disclosures of classified government information. Yet it was Snowden’s actions that led to the courts declaring that the government’s practices were illegal and a change in policy and practice by the Obama administration.

These post-disclosure actions by the government would seem to vindicate Snowden. Yet he remains in Russia.

I am law-abiding citizen. Most of us are. But there are still things we can do to preserve our freedom and prevent abuses of power from government and others, regardless of age, race, or political affiliation. As Bob Dylan said, “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” So let’s all be heroes. Here are a few of my ideas. I would love others to share theirs as well.

  • Learn (or relearn) what the American system of government is all about. Read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, significant Supreme Court cases, and similar documents or histories.
  • Get your news from several different sources with various agendas, biases and approaches. The same events can be reported significantly differently.
  • Be willing to speak your mind, no matter how unpopular your position might be, but allow others to do the same. When others speak, listen. Find the valid points in both your position and theirs.
  • Stand up for others whose freedom might be in jeopardy. For there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
  • Write letters to editors and politicians, or better yet, get directly involved in causes that are important to you.
  • Remember that our elected officials are not perfect, but they still must be held accountable for their results (or lack thereof). Personally, I prefer a politician who has learned the art of effective compromise (which our Constitution is the result of) than one who draws lines in the sand and rejects anything that even approaches crossing that line.
  • Ask questions and challenge those in authority when government does something that doesn’t feel right. Your impressions generally are right.
  • Vote knowledgeably – in every election.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said it this way: “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking … is freedom.” Let’s find that balance between security and freedom. I close with these words from Edward Snowden: “I still love my country. And I still consider myself working for it. To serve your country, sometimes you have to disagree with the government. And that is not traitorous. That, I would say, is patriotic.”

I tip my cap to patriots everywhere.

[i] A Few Good Men

  • Production Company: Sony Movie Channel
  • Director: Rob Reiner
  • Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
  • Starring: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon
  • Release date: December 11, 1992


[ii] Trumbo

  • Production Company: Bleecker Street Films, ShivHans Pictures and Groundswell Productions
  • Director: Jay Roach
  • Screenwriter: John McNamara and Bruce Cook (book)
  • Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren
  • Release date: November 27, 2015


[iii] Snowden

  • Production Company: KrautPack Entertainment and Endgame Entertainment
  • Director: Oliver Stone
  • Screenwriter: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone
  • Starring: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Shailene Woodley, and Melissa Leo
  • Release date: September 16, 2016

When the Sum is Greater than the Parts

This is a great time of year if you are a basketball fan. High school state championships have just been played. At the college level, March Madness is beginning. The NBA playoffs are right around the corner. Even if you don’t have a favorite team competing in March Madness, the tournament is so much fun because there’s always a major upset or two, or three, four or more. We love to see the Goliaths of the sports world toppled by the little Davids.

But what I love most about March Madness is watching a team that plays, well, as a team. Too often the tournament is dominated by a handful of superstar players from a handful of teams who, yes, want to win the tournament, but are really playing to impress NBA scouts. But I agree with Duke’s head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who said, “To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one.” Through teamwork, the accomplishments of the team sometimes becomes much more than the collective talent of each individual player.

I experienced this phenomenon firsthand through my oldest son’s high school basketball team. They were a team of mostly slightly better than average players with no superstars. They were picked to finish fourth in their district, but somehow they made the playoffs. And then the magic really happened. Picked as the underdog in every game they played in the state tournament, playing as a cohesive unit, they won game after game (a total of six) against clearly more athletically talented teams. In each game, a different player stepped up and did something remarkable to help this team win. And after every game, the opposing team walked off the court shaking their heads, wondering how a group of “mostly short, slow, white guys” (to quote my son) could have beaten them. It was the movie, Hoosiers,[i] all over again, with my son even playing the role of Ollie, sinking two free throws at the end of one game to win it. Remarkably, this team of nobodies found themselves in the Texas Class 5A state finals against the number one team in the state, who had lost only one game all year, and who had demolished its semifinal foe by more than 40 points. No one gave my son’s team a chance.

 I love the way author Daniel James Brown describes the importance of teamwork in his book, The Boys in the Boat,[ii] the story of the USA 1936 gold medal rowing team:

“[T]he greatest paradox of the sport has to do with the psychological makeup of the people who pull the oars. Great oarsmen and oarswomen are necessarily made up of conflicting stuff…. The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it. And yet, at the same time – and this is key – no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort – the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes – is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.

“…Crew races are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types. In physical terms, for instance, one rower’s arms might be longer than another’s, but the latter might have a stronger back than the former. Neither is necessarily a better or more valuable oarsman than the other; both the long arms and the strong back are assets to the boat. But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat….

“And capitalizing on diversity is perhaps even more important when it comes to the characters of the oarsmen. A crew composed entirely of eight amped-up, overtly aggressive oarsmen will often degenerate into a dysfunctional brawl in a boat or exhaust itself in the first leg of a long race. Similarly, a boatload of quiet but strong introverts may never find the common core of fiery resolve that causes the boat to explode past its competitors when all seems lost. Good crews are good blends of personalities; someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to think things through; someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way.”

Teamwork is not limited to sports competition. It is hard to find any accomplishment in life that is the result of an individual acting alone. Whether it is an assembly line manufacturing automobiles, consummating a business transaction, or filming a movie with recognized stars, none of us can accomplish much by ourselves. Someone said it this way: “One man who works with you is worth a dozen men who work for you.” Watch the launch scene from the movie, Apollo 13[iii] (in honor of my fellow Bill Paxton, who recently died at a far too young age) and notice how many different teams were required for the successful launch. If any one of those teams gave the “no go,” the mission would have been aborted:

Of course, the real story of Apollo 13 takes place after disaster strikes. We all know the famous line from the movie, “Houston, we have a problem.” The spacecraft undergoes massive damage from an explosion of an oxygen tank, and NASA must figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to earth. The true measure of any team, whether in sports, government or business, is how it performs under pressure – when things do not go as expected. And in life, few things go as planned. Fortunately, NASA was equal to the task and the astronauts ultimately returned safely to earth. Here is just one of the many scenes of the technical crew and astronauts working together to accomplish a needed task:

Defiance[iv] is the true story of the four Bielski brothers, who, during World War II, help a large group of Polish Jews escape from the Nazis. Here is one of my favorite scenes, emphasizing, in the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” even impossible tasks:

Unfortunately, even when we work as a team, sometimes our goals are not accomplished; we lose despite our best efforts. Manufactured goods sometimes have defects; deals sometimes don’t close; even great actors and the movie industry’s finest technicians sometimes make bad movies. As this scene illustrates from Friday Night Lights,[v] the story of the Permian Panthers’ quest for a Texas high school championship (I had to get a sports clip in here somewhere!), there is nothing harder than doing your best, but still experiencing “the agony of defeat.”

My son’s Cinderella high school basketball team met with a similar fate. Although the state championship game was tied at halftime, their opponents were two big, too fast, and too skilled, and my son’s team ultimately lost by six points. As I talked to some of the players after the game, as they choked back the tears, they told me the tears were less about losing and more about realizing their magical run was over – that they would no longer be part of a well running team that played better, bigger and with more heart than their individual skill levels gave them the right to.

May we all have such an experience, whether in sports, work or our other personal relationships, as we swallow our egos, recognize, utilize, adapt to and appreciate the abilities of others, and, working together, accomplish something great.

[i] Hoosiers

  • Production Co.: De Haven Productions
  • Director: David Anspaugh
  • Writers: Angelo Pizzo
  • Stars: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper
  • Release date: February 27, 1987

[ii] The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Penguin Books, pp. 177-79 (2013)

[iii]Apollo 13

  • Production Co.: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment
  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Writers: William Broyles Jr. and A Reinert (based on the book by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger)
  • Stars: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Ed Harris
  • Release date: June 30, 1995

[iv] Defiance

  • Production Co.: Paramount Vantage, Grosvenor Park Productions, Bedford Falls Company
  • Director: Edward Zwick
  • Writers: Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick
  • Stars: Daniel Craig, Live Schreiber, Jamie Bell
  • Release date: January 16, 2009

[v] Friday Night Lights

  • Production Co.: Universal Studios
  • Director: Peter Berg
  • Writers: David Aaron Cohen (based on the book by Buzz Bissinger)
  • Stars: Billy Bob Thorton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke and Connie Britton
  • Release date: October 8, 2004


Marshmallows Come to Those Who Wait

I never thought I would be a day counter. You know, someone who marks days off the calendar as they wait for some big event to occur. Well, I’ve become one. As of today, I have only 336 days left until I become retirement eligible. That’s not to say I will immediately retire then, but at least at that point I can retire without losing certain benefits, and can then adopt my friend’s philosophy: I will continue to work until I have two bad days in a row. If things stay the way they are now, that will take probably no more than three days.

In our fast-paced world of instant everything and miniscule attention spans, showing patience is a lost art – but a sometimes needed one, often because we don’t have a choice. Years ago, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with four year-old to six year-old children. He offered the children a marshmallow, but if they could wait until he returned 15 minutes later, he would give them two marshmallows. Some children ate the treat immediately. Most could wait a little while, but not even close to the fifteen-minute requirement. Only about a third of the kids could wait for the extra treat. Even more interesting, those children who could wait ended up, in their later years, having higher SAT scores, higher education attainment, lower body mass indexes, better relationships with others, and generally fewer personal problems.

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption.[i] It is a movie that teaches us many things, including patience. Andy Dufresne is a successful banker who is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at the Shawshank State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover. The only problem is he didn’t commit the crime. Knowing he is innocent, how does Andy find any satisfaction living in prison with two life sentences hanging over him? He makes the best of his circumstances, keeping a long-term, bigger picture perspective, while finding whatever joy he can in the moment – like enjoying a moment of opera (as narrated by his best friend in prison, Red):

Many years ago I worked at a job I hated. I hated it to the point I was an eyelash away from giving up the practice of law entirely and trying something – anything – different. A friend, who knew of my struggles, came to me and said, “I am going to make you the object of my prayers. I am going to pray for you every day until you find a new job.” I was humbled. Why would anyone do this for me, particularly day after day? I also knew this woman was very spiritual, and if God would listen to anyone, He would listen to her. She then avoided me for several weeks. I didn’t press it, thinking maybe she had changed her mind. Finally, she came to me and said, “I’m sorry, but it looks like you won’t be getting a new job soon. God has told me there were still some things you need to learn here.”

That was not the answer I wanted to hear. But I gutted out the job for another couple of years – until my boss fired me because I was unwilling to relocate to Yemen (yes, the Yemen in the Middle East that is a haven for terrorists). But I learned from that. I learned empathy for others who had lost jobs, realizing it isn’t always bad performers who get let go. I also learned, while unemployed, to better distinguish the difference between wants and needs. After six months of unemployment, I found a job with a small international oil and gas company but learned quickly I didn’t really enjoy international oil and gas law. And then things started to change. I found a new job at a small company where I was the only attorney. There, I experienced projects that helped me become more than just an oil and gas lawyer. And then I found my dream job. Looking back, I realized I had to go through several years of learning experiences to be ready for the job I ultimately wanted, and was now trained for. Unfortunately, my dream job only lasted about three years before a takeover started to change things again. And now I’m counting the days until I’m retirement eligible – but still learning valuable lessons, including more patience.

For Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, every time things started to get better for him, something bad would happen. But he remained patient, always making the best of one bad situation after another until one day this happens:

It took Andy Dufresne almost 20 years to find freedom, a handful of dirt and clay at a time. Here is how he did it:

But tunneling through the walls of Shawshank was only half the battle. The other half didn’t take twenty years, but might have been just as hard.

Forrest Gump reminds us that shit happens. As life dumps on us (as it always does), let’s remember, as Red might say, we must crawl through a river of shit until we come out clean on the other side. So how do we learn to be patient? I’m not really an expert, but here are a few ideas:

  • Remember that life is really a series of stimuli and our reactions to those stimuli. If we can lengthen the gap between a stimulus and our reaction to it, our reactions will be more appropriate and well thought out.
  • Keep a long term perspective, but enjoy the journey. Even in the middle of being dumped on by life, we can find moments of joy and learning.
  • Remember that life is constantly changing. Like the weather, if you don’t like where you are in life, wait awhile; things will change.
  • Finally, don’t think of things that happen to you as either good or bad, it’s just life. And as Red and Andy would say, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

I hope we all choose living.


[i] The Shawshank Redemption

  • Production Co.: Castle Rock Entertainment
  • Director: Frank Darabont
  • Writers: Frank Darabont (based on the short story by Stephen King)
  • Stars: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman and Bob Gunton
  • Release date: October 14, 1994