Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Price of Love is Loss (But We Love Anyway)

If you are like me, this past month you have been trying to make sense of the senseless. When I first heard of the mass killings at the concert in Las Vegas, my first thought (after the initial shock of it all) was, what possesses a person to do such a horrible thing? The shooter must have been a terrorist, or mentally ill, or had some other depraved motivation. See, as humans, we want to believe that everything happens for a reason. Journalists and law enforcement personnel began combing the shooter’s background and associates, even flying his girlfriend back from the Philippines, to make sense of what happened. But everyone has come up empty. There was no clear motive; there was no underlying cause. In this case at least, the horrific act was just senseless. And now we grieve for the loss of at least 58 individuals that were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, not even knowing their killer. Las Vegas is now added to the other places we associate with mass shootings: Orlando, San Bernardino, Washington, D.C., Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Binghamton, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Killeen, Jacksonville, Edmond, and San Ysidro. And these are only the ones that happened in America during the last 25 years where at least ten people were killed. Despite our desires otherwise, not all things happen for a reason. As Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist, said, “After a crisis we tell ourselves we understand why it happened and maintain the illusion that the world is understandable. In fact, we should accept the world is incomprehensible much of the time.”

The title of this post is from one of my favorite musicals, Next to Normal. All of us have experienced loss because all of us have experienced love. But despite that heavy cost, we can’t exist without love, even though we know, regardless of the circumstances, it will ultimately end in loss. How do we handle that loss or separation? Unfortunately most of us do not do it very well. Grief is a part of life, and something we should embrace. As Rabbi Dr. Earl Grollman said, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

Simply said, we grieve when a connection is lost. It is often the result of a death of a loved one, but it can occur whenever we experience a change in a relationship, for example, a divorce, a good friend moving away, or even giving up the religion we grew up in.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross categorized grief into five stages. These have become well-accepted by psychologists and grief counselors as a general guide to the grieving process. But everyone grieves a little bit differently, so these stages are not necessarily linear; sometimes a person might experience more than one stage simultaneously or not experience a stage or two at all.

Stage One: Denial – This is the result of our attempt to try to make sense of the loss. Sometimes it comes in the form a shock, where we are so traumatized we can’t even do basic things for ourselves. Dallas Buyer’s Club[i] is the true story of Ron Woodruff, who was not LGBTQ, but who contracted HIV in 1985. Woodruff figured out how to work around the pharmaceutical industry and FDA to help AIDS patients get the medication they need. In this scene, Woodruff first learns he has contracted HIV. He doesn’t believe it for he doesn’t fit the stereotype of that time (if you are offended by F-bombs, you might want to skip this scene, although his reaction to the news is authentic):

If I were in Woodruff’s shoes, particularly back in the 80’s, I would feel the same way he does, and I’d probably spew a string of profanities, too. The news of a loss is never fun to hear, and our first reaction is generally some form of denial.

Stage Two: Anger – Life isn’t fair, and when something happens to us that demonstrates that, particularly when loss is involved, we get angry at someone, anyone, and often at God. In Rabbit Hole,[ii] a couple joins a grief support group following the death of their young son. In this scene the wife, Becca, never raises her voice, but it is clear she is not happy with God:

 Anger, though, can be a good thing, as it often helps us get back to reality and to start effectively dealing with the loss.

Stage Three: Bargaining – Often, our immediate reaction when we learn we have lost or might lose a relationship is to attempt to bargain with a higher power to prevent the loss. It is our way of trying to take control of the situation. Religious people tend to bargain more than others, and often guilt is a part of the bargaining. “If I had only been a better person,” we tell ourselves, and then we promise God to be that better person. In House of Sand and Fog,[iii] a dispute over a house spirals out of control, ultimately ending in the shooting of a young boy. In the middle of this scene, the most gut-wrenching one of the movie, Behrani bargains with his God for the life of his son:

There is much we can learn from this movie, including this great example of how we are willing to promise almost anything to turn back the clock and prevent whatever is causing our grief. Unfortunately, we can’t roll back time, and more often than not, it seems that God is not listening.

Stage Four: Depression – We think of depression as bad for us, and clinical depression generally is. But it is common for someone grieving to go through a period of depression where they have a sense of hopelessness. But it is these sad feelings that help us understand our underlying grief. In Inside Out,[iv] it is through the emotion of deep sadness that Riley is finally able to come with grips the loss of former home:

As this clip illustrates, all of our emotions are important to our overall well-being, even though while we are going through periods of sadness, we would do almost anything to put them past us.

Stage Five: Acceptance – Acceptance does not mean that we are OK with the loss; it just means that we have learned to live our lives differently. After the loss of a relationship, we are never the same, and often have to remake our lives. The grief doesn’t leave us, it just becomes somewhat easier to bear. My sister died when she was 17 and when my mother was 50. My mother died at age 100, and I don’t believe there was a single day in those 50 years my mother lived after my sister’s death that my mother didn’t think about her daughter and grieved, at least a little. Like the emotions in Inside Out, we need to experience sadness to appreciate joy. Acceptance comes when we have learned to live with all our emotions and have added (not replaced) new or strengthened existing connections.

When we are grieving, we often hear we need closure; that somehow we need to pack up our grief, stuff it in a box, and put a lid on it; that we need to move on. But what we really need to do is face our grief head-on. Embracing our emotions keeps us alive and functioning, whether we are glad, mad, sad or scared. We can’t – and shouldn’t – move on from love. Instead, grief needs to be heard. As Nina Sankovitch said it: “The only balm to the pain of losing someone we love is celebrating the life that existed before.” And how do we celebrate that life? We share stories. A previous post on this blog talked about what movies can teach us about helping others to grieve (See, We Came Over to Sit dated June 16, 2016; here’s a link: ). It is hard to know what to say to someone who has lost a love one, but one of the best things we can do is simply tell a story about that loved one and ask the grieving person for a story in return. During these sharing of stories, if your experience is like mine, you will laugh, cry, ponder, appreciate, and celebrate together.

And don’t forget to keep your sense of humor. I love this sad, but hilarious, scene from Steel Magnolias,[v] which captures all of the emotions we go through when we lose someone dear:

I close with these words of Lin-Manuel Miranda from his hit musical, Hamilton:

  • And when my time is up,
  • Have I done enough?
  • Will they tell our story?
  • Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

May we show our love for those we have lost by sharing their stories.

[i] Dallas Buyer’s Club

  • Production Company: Truth Entertainment (II), Voltage Pictures, r2 films
  • Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
  • Screenwriters: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
  • Starring: Matthew McConaughhey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto
  • Release date: November 22, 2013

[ii] Rabbit Hole

  • Production Company: Oylmpus Pictures, Blossom Films, Oddlot Entertainment
  • Director: John Cameron Mitchell
  • Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire
  • Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest
  • Release date: January 28, 2011

[iii] House of Sand and Fog

  • Production Company: Dreamworks
  • Director: Vadim Perelman
  • Screenwriter: Vadim Perelman (based on the novel by Andre Dubus II)
  • Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley and Ron Eldard
  • Release date: January 9, 2004

[iv] Inside Out

  • Production Company: Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures
  • Directors: Peter Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
  • Screenwriters: Peter Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
  • Starring: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black
  • Release date: June 19, 2015

[v] Steel Magnolias

  • Production Company: TriStar Pictures, Rastar Films
  • Director: Herbert Ross
  • Screenwriter: Robert Harling
  • Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field
  • Release date: November 22, 1989


Take a Knee

To kneel or not to kneel, that seems to be the question a lot of people are asking themselves lately. Taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem at NFL football games was started last year by Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, as a protest of police violence against African-Americans and other minorities. From all appearances, Kaepernick’s protest has backfired, as he is now out of a job and apparently unemployable, as the Tennessee Titans recently signed Brandon Weeden over Kaepernick as its back-up quarterback, even though the mobile Kaepernick seems much better suited to run the Titans’ offense than the relatively slow of foot, pocket-passing, Weeden. But perhaps the saddest thing of all for Kaepernick is the protest he started is now about respecting the American flag and the U.S. military. Kaepernick’s original goal of focusing the public on the issue of police violence against minorities is rarely even talked about any more. Instead, we have Twitter wars and the President and Vice President of the United States protesting the protests, and the NFL and its owners trying to tiptoe around both sides.

If each of us stops and thinks for a moment, we could come up with at least a handful of social injustices or other wrongs we would change if we thought we could. But we assume we can’t change anything, and so we do nothing. And as I learned from my own recent experience, even when we do try to influence an organization or people’s mindsets, our efforts are often squashed by those in authority.

This past month I have been mentally transported back to the turbulent 60s and 70s, and the social unrest that went with those decades of my youth. It started by me watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary, The Viet Nam War. It continued by me attending the anti-war, anti-establishment, free love musical, Hair, put on by the Dallas Theater Center. It continued further with me watching the recently released movie, The Battle of the Sexes.[i] There were plenty of protests in all three, although as history has shown, it took many years, and in some cases, lives lost, before change occurred, and some of those same battles are still being fought today.

Many movies have focused on righting wrongs and changing social injustices. While I could list dozens of these movies, in the interest of your time, here are just five favorites of mine, some new, some old, with scenes I especially enjoyed:

  • Stand and Deliver[ii] – The true story of Jaime Escalante, who adopted unconventional teaching methods to help Hispanic gang members and no-hopers learn math:

  • 42[iii] – The true story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break the color barrier of major league baseball:

  • Amazing Grace[iv] – The true story of William Wilberforce’s fight against England’s parliament and public indifference to end Britain’s transatlantic slave trade:

  • Erin Brockovich[v] – The true story of an unemployed single mom who became a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brought down a California power company that had been polluting a city’s water supply:

  • Battle of the Sexes – The true story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and the backstory of professional women tennis players’ fight for gender equality (you can stop watching after the first part, but the rest – the trailer for the movie – is quite entertaining):

Our hearts are warmed by the successful efforts of the heroes and heroines of these movies, but still we do little to change the world around us, whether it is in politics, religion, education, business or otherwise. Many of us have tried to change things by the ballot box, but as we have seen through the last several administrations, regardless of the political party, nothing of substance ever seems to get done, as politicians are too concerned with their images for their reelection campaigns to actually try to effectuate any meaningful change. The art of compromise has become a lost one, intelligent conversations of issues have become shouting matches, and those entering politics on any level with hopes of making a difference are soon frustrated and beaten-down, with little change to show for their efforts.

So how can we make a difference? With the help of these movie clips, I offer a few suggestions.

First, find a cause that you feel passionate about, in a realm small enough for you to influence. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver did not set out to change all stereotypes of Hispanics. He focused on math (his passion), and determined to change one classroom in one school. But like ripples from a rock thrown in a pond, his influence on his students, and his students’ successes and their influences upon others, would spread over a larger area over time.

Second, use your particular talents to instigate change. Jackie Robinson in 42 let his baseball skills do his talking for him. As fellow players and fans saw his unique skills, they started to realize that race did not define a person’s ability. Granted, few of us in any area have the superior skills that Robinson had, but all of us are good at something, whether it is writing letters, organizing meetings, talking to strangers, donating time, raising money, or when all else fails, simply saying something when we see an injustice. The other beautiful thing about Jackie Robinson in 42 is, as his coaches and teammates got to know him, they began to see him as a person and not a face from a different race, which leads me to my next suggestion.

Third, help people empathize with your cause by giving them experiences with those you’re trying to help. In Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce didn’t just talk to others about the plight of African slaves, he took others to a slave ship where they could see the conditions in which the slaves were transported and, perhaps even more impactful, smell the smells of death of so many slaves that didn’t survive the journey. In my own experience, my positive feelings toward LGBTs intensified when one of my best friends came out as gay, and several daughters of good friends announced they were lesbians. It confirmed to me that regardless of sexual orientation, people are people and should be treated with love and respect and allowed to enjoy the same right and privileges the rest of us do.

Fourth, whatever you are trying to change, make sure you know as much as anyone on that subject. Research and analyze every point of view. In Erin Brockovich, Ms. Brockovich was able to out-negotiate the high-priced attorneys on the other side because she knew the facts better than anyone, and relayed those facts through real live persons. And a bit of polluted water didn’t hurt.

Fifth, sometimes you need to take a chance and be the change you want to see. Billy Jean King and her fellow women professionals did more than just bemoan the disparity in tournament prize money between men and women. They were willing to risk their livelihoods by walking away from the established system and start their own association. Instead of just complaining about the current system, they became the solution.

Someone once said, if no one is complaining about your ideas, you are either brilliant or the boss. Most of us are neither brilliant (or at least few acknowledge our brilliance) nor the boss. We are not like those good shepherds whom the sheep naturally love and will follow anywhere. Instead, most of us are like cattle herders. If we get too far out in front of the herd, the cattle scatter in all directions behind us. So to get the cattle to go where we want them to go, we must work the edges of the herd and patiently steer them in the desired direction. It is tireless work, but the rewards can be great.

Let’s all find a cause we can believe in, even if it is as simple as making our homes and neighborhoods places of love, respect and safety. Rather than just take a knee in protest, let’s be part of the solution.

[i] Battle of the Sexes

  • Production Company: Cloud Eight Films, Decibel Films, Fox Searchlight Films
  • Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
  • Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
  • Starring: Emma Stone and Steve Carell
  • Release date: September 29, 2017

[ii] Stand and Deliver

  • Production Company: American Playhouse, Olmos Productions, Warner Bros.
  • Director: Ramon Menendez
  • Screenwriter: Ramon Memendez, Tom Musca
  • Starring: Edward James Olmos, Estelle Harris, Mark Phelan
  • Release date: March 13, 1988

[iii] 42

  • Production Company: Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment
  • Director: Brian Helgeland
  • Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, T.R. Wright, Harrison Ford
  • Release date: April 12, 2013

[iv] Amazing Grace

  • Production Company: Bristol Bay Productions, Ingenious Film Partners, Sunflower Productions
  • Director: Michael Apted
  • Screenwriter: Steven Knight
  • Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon
  • Release date: February 23, 2007

[v] Erin Brockovich

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Jersey Films
  • Director: Steven Soderbergh
  • Screenwriter: Susannah Grant
  • Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, David Brisbin
  • Release date: March 17, 2000


Send Regrets Only

Spoiler Alert!! This post contains a lot of personal information about me, so if you are one that does not appreciate true confessions, this post might not be for you. It is also a little longer than usual, although most of the clips are relatively short.

Someone once said only the good die young because only the young die good. During the past two weeks I have thought a lot about getting older. I guess I should be grateful that I worry about aging, because when you stop doing that, you’re dead. It all started when my weekend was ruined by a pain in my back. I thought I might have hurt it that morning exercising, but it turned out to be a kidney stone. I went to the emergency room for strong drugs (one of God’s greatest creations), but came home with the added bonus of pneumonia. Both ailments really wiped me out. Our counter looked like a pharmacy. I had no appetite, so I ate little, but still managed to gain four pounds. How is that even possible? After several days of this, I finally announced to my wife, that if this is how I am going to feel when I’m 80, please, God, let me die when I’m 79. To add to my glumness, during my recovery, we met with our financial planner, who focused on my upcoming retirement (a good thing!), but also making sure “our affairs were in order” when death ultimately comes (a depressing thing). That same night, we went home and watched the little known movie, The Last Word,[i] on Netflix.

The basic premise of The Last Word is Harriet, a retired businesswoman, decides to write her own obituary, and seeks the help of Anne, the local newspaper’s obituary writer. It is a tense relationship at the outset, as Anne explains, “She [Harriet] puts the bitch in obituary.” In this scene from the film, Harriet tries to tell Anne how to do her job by explaining to her what makes a good obituary:

As these elements of an obituary illustrate, a dull, useless person has either never existed or has never died. I don’t read obituaries often, but when I do, they typically tick off the accomplishments of the deceased, as if each one is a necessary building block of their mansion in heaven. I guess most people feel a little like Maximus in the movie, Gladiator[ii]that we need to somehow leave a great legacy behind us – one that will “echo through eternity”:

If I were to write my own obituary, it would simply say, “He lived a relatively long and mostly happy life in which he loved his family and friends and felt their love in return. He learned a few lessons about life, saw some beautiful things, and had plenty of interesting experiences along the way. He died with the belief (but with little help from him) that the world he left was a little better than the world he entered.”

During this obituary obsession, I thought about two of my favorite movies about death. In the original Flatliners[iii](the remake was just released), five medical students try to learn what the afterlife is like by putting themselves in near-death experiences. But instead of learning about the next life, they learn more about this life, and the traumatic experiences that shaped their lives. In this scene (which is really a collage of several scenes), one student flatlines and discovers a young boy waiting for him that he had bullied growing up:

A less intense, but still thought-provoking movie of a similar vein is Heart and Souls[iv] where people who have died find themselves on a purgatory bus, with something they must resolve on earth before they are taken to heaven. Here is a scene where a mother is able to find her son that she gave up for adoption many years ago:

A few years back an Australian nurse wrote a book entitled, The Five Top Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed.[v] You may find the regrets surprising. Here is a link to an article about the book:

Are there things in our own lives that we regret, need to resolve or find out about before we die? I am basically satisfied with my life, but I do have a few regrets. In a rare state of vulnerability (and in an effort to avoid ghosts from the past), I am sharing with you my top five regrets of the dying and my plans for attempting to atone for those regrets:

Regret No.1: I wish I would have put more emphasis on wellness and less emphasis on right and wrong, particularly in connection with religion. Crazily, my favorite book in the Bible is Ecclesiastes. I mean, how many people have even read it other than the famous verses about a time for every purpose under heaven? Solomon is credited with writing both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. As I read Proverbs, everything is black and white, good and bad. But things become more nuanced for Solomon by the time he writes Ecclesiastes. Truths are now shades of gray, and tempered by experience. I wish I had had a bit more of the Ecclesiastes outlook much earlier in life. I grew up in a religion that puts an emphasis on absolute truth, and the only sure way to get into heaven. Although I have never fully believed all that my religion taught me, I went along to get along. Our kids did not always see things the same way as that religion did, and although we were more liberal than most members of the religion, it led to disagreements and in some cases mild rebellion, as we drew certain lines in the sand that our children had better not cross. In hindsight, I wish I could have been more supportive of allowing our children to find their own truth and way in the world. While I think most of our now-adult children have gotten over some of that tension of the teenage and early adult years, I know there are still some scars that have not entirely healed.

Atonement No. 1: It is never too late to apologize for sometimes being too narrow minded, and to openly discuss with others how my actions might have affected them.

Regret No. 2: I wish, career-wise, I had been able to have done more to help the world and less to make rich people richer. I think I’m a good lawyer and have had great experiences doing many very large transactions. But no matter how well I handled those deals, the bottom line (pun intended) was to make rich people and companies even richer. I wish that somehow the work I did would have translated into easing economic disparity. The gap between the top one percent (especially the top of the top one percent) and the middle and lower classes continues to widen.

Atonement No. 2: Having been fairly good at making money, I have tried to be generous with it in an effort to help others in need, particularly extended family. I have worked hard the last ten years to develop a decent charitable giving account that I will use to help others, especially those that are hungry and homeless.

Regret No. 3: I wish I had bought fewer houses and taken more family vacations. I say this one with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. But I counted the number of houses and condos I have owned or still own, and the number is 22(!) including the home I am currently building (and a few rentals). Of course, I have relocated for work six times, which added to the number. But for whatever reason, a nice home was my psychological sign of success. In hindsight, I wish we had taken more family vacations and put a little less emphasis on having a nice home. The real culprit of our lack of vacations, though, was sports. All of our kids were heavily involved in youth sports and played something all year round and we felt like the teams were counting on our kids being to all the games. That commitment didn’t leave much time for family trips. While our kids enjoyed the sports, did very well at them, and learned some important things from playing them, looking back, those sports were not nearly as important as we thought they were at the time.

Atonement No. 3: It’s never too late to spend quality time with family and friends and I still have a few more years in which to enjoy a family vacation or two together.

Regret No. 4: I wish I had maintained better contact with friends and neighbors from the past> I have kept close to a few good friends, but there have been many good friends from my past that I have not had any contact with for many years.

Atonement No. 4: I joined Facebook for the first time a couple of years ago as a start of this atonement, but there is so much more I could (and will) do to catch up with lost friends from the past.

Regret No. 5: I wish I had danced more, read more, written more and learned to play the piano. In short, I wish I had taken more time to pursue personal interests. As a kid growing up, I though it would be cool to learn how to tap dance. But that was something little boys just didn’t do back then, so I never brought up the subject with my parents. I didn’t learn to enjoy reading until years after I got married and I say how much my wife read and how much she enjoyed it. And I didn’t start writing anything other than legal documents until about 15 years ago. I doubt I ever would have been able to make writing a career in and of itself, but since starting to write, I have learned  how therapeutic it can be, at least for me.

Atonement No. 5: I look at my upcoming retirement as a time to do some of these things. Although I might never become a tap dancer, it’s not too late to take a dance lesson or learn to play an instrument. I have a list of writing projects I intend to work on, and hopefully will have a lot more time to enjoy reading. I look forward to retirement for these reasons alone.

There is never a wrong time to take a few minutes to evaluate how we are doing in life. Are we happy? Do we have strong connections with family and friends or are there new or improved connections we need to foster? Are there new interests or talents we could be developing? Are there past offenses that need to be righted? Is there someone in need that we have the power to help? I hope each of us will take a few moments and go through such an evaluation, and repeat that evaluation often.

[i] The Last Word

  • Production Company: Franklin Street, Myriad Pictures and Parkside Pictures
  • Director: Mark Pellington
  • Screenwriter: Stuart Ross Fink
  • Starring: Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfield
  • Release date: March 5, 2017

[ii] Gladiator

  • Production Company: Dreamworks, Universal Pictures, Scott Free Productions
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Screenwriter: David Franzoni
  • Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen
  • Release date: May 5, 2000

[iii] Flatliners

  • Production Company: Columbia Pictures, Stonebridge Entertainment
  • Director: Joel Schumacher
  • Screenwriter: Peter Filardi
  • Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Keven Bacon and Julia Roberts
  • Release date: August 10, 1990

[iv] Heart and Souls

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Alphaville Films, Stampede Entertainment
  • Director: Ron Underwood
  • Screenwriter: Gregory Hansen
  • Starring: Robert Downey, Jr, Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard
  • Release date: August 13, 1993

[v] Bronnie Ware, The Five Top Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed, copyrighted 2011, 2012.