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To Err is Human

Hubert Humphrey once said, “To err is human; to blame someone else is politics.” But I like better what someone else said: “We all make mistakes. But we cannot let those mistakes define us.”

But sometimes they do. And sometimes our mistakes define others as well.

Amber Guyger might be one of those persons defined by her mistake. If you live in DFW, or Texas, or even in America, and have not heard the story, then you probably live in a cave. Guyger, of course, killed a young black man in his apartment while he watched TV and ate ice cream. Her mistake? She thought she had entered her own apartment and had found an intruder inside. Although a “mistake in fact” is a valid legal defense, it must be a reasonable one. A jury recently concluded that Guyger’s mistake was unreasonable, and found her guilty of murder, sentencing her to ten years imprisonment. She will be eligible for parole in five years.

Amber Guyger’s mistake defined her victim’s life as well. The victim, Botham Jean, was only 26 when Guyger killed him. He was well-educated, professional, law-abiding—and black. And now his life has ended. That, to me, is why murder is so heinous. You can’t undo it. You can’t bring back the life you cut short.

Guyger’s defense is the same one used 46 years ago in a murder trial of another Dallas police officer making a fatal (and fateful) mistake. On July 24, 1973, Darrell Cain grabbed 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, and his 13-year-old brother, David, from their beds, in the middle of the night. Cain handcuffed both boys and put them in his patrol car, Santos in the front seat with Cain, and David in the back seat with another officer. Their alleged crime? Robbing a vending machine at a local gas station of eight dollars. Forensic evidence later proved the two boys were never at the scene of the crime.

To encourage Santos to confess, Cain took his .357 magnum handgun and placed the barrel against Santos’ head. Playing Russian roulette, Cain pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. When Santos still refused to confess, he pulled the trigger again. This time, the gun fired, killing Santos instantly. Cain immediately jumped out of the patrol car and shouted, “My God! My God! What have I done? I didn’t mean to do it!” Later, he would insist that he thought the gun was not loaded. At Cain’s trial, the jury determined that Cain’s mistake was unreasonable, found him guilty of murder, and sentenced him to only five years imprisonment, of which he served two and a half years.

Cain tried not to let his mistake define him. After leaving prison, he moved to West Texas, became an insurance adjuster, and had a family. But the family of young Santos Rodriguez? I cannot imagine how Cain’s mistake has affected Santos’ mother these many years. And I wonder how Santos’s brother has lived with the vivid memory of watching Cain execute his brother. Mother and son, together, had their lives defined by the mistake of Officer Cain. 

My wife and I recently attended the Austin Film Festival. The closing film, Just Mercy,[i] is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson, an African American lawyer, who fights for justice for prisoners on death row. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian. A jury had sentenced him to die for murdering an 18-year-old girl, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Here is the trailer to Just Mercy:

I love the line, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Darrell Cain tried to become more than his biggest mistake. I hope Amber Guyger can do the same.

See Just Mercy when you get the chance. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received an eight-minute standing ovation at its conclusion. While you’re waiting for the film to be released, please watch this Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer whom the film is about:

But there is more to the Amber Guyger story.

The brother of Botham Jean, Amber Guyger’s victim, and the judge presiding at her trial, believed in both justice and mercy. In a moment of compassion, Brandt Jean, while testifying during the punishment phase of the trial about what the loss of his brother meant to him, Brandt paused and asked the judge if he could give a hug to the killer of his brother. When he asked a second time, and the judge relented. Brandt hugged Guyger for a long moment and told her he forgave her and wanted the best for her.  

Judge Tammy Kemp watched Amber Guyger throughout the trial and noticed how she changed after the jury announced the guilty verdict. During the trial, Guyger remained stoic. But after the jury’s ruling, Kemp described Guyger as “a broken person.” After the proceedings, Judge Kemp first offered her condolences to the Jean family and then told Guyger, “Mr. Jean has forgiven you. Now I need you to forgive yourself so that you can live a purposeful life.” Then Guyger asked the judge if she could hug her. Judge Kemp, hesitated, but when asked again, Kemp opened her arms to Guyger. When Kemp learned that Guyger didn’t have a Bible, she gave her one of her own.

Some have criticized Judge Kemp for both the hug and the gift of the Bible. I have a hard time understanding that. I believe in justice. But I also believe in compassion. As the Reverend George A. Mason, senior pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church, said, “Justice without mercy is heartless, but mercy without justice is thoughtless.”

In the past 50 years, many things have changed; but some remain the same. We still experience racism, hatred, and violence in our streets and even our homes. We still have police officers killing citizens. We still have citizen protests of those killings.

In a sad postscript to the events of the Guyger trial, another police officer, this time in Fort Worth, shot and killed a 26-year-old African American woman as she played video games in her home with her nephew. In connection with peace officers dealing with the public they serve, quoting Reverend Mason again, “Deadly force must be the last resort, instead of the first choice.  

Balancing justice and mercy is hard. We consider it just when a murderer gets what he or she deserves – the death penalty. But one in nine people on death row is later determined to be innocent of their alleged crime. And every case is different. My sister-in-law recently reminded me of a horrible car crash that occurred to a family she knows at a location less than a half-mile from where she and my wife grew up. Chris Williams, a father of four, was driving his pregnant wife and three of their children down a road I have driven many times when a drunk driver, a 17-year-old, traveling at a speed estimated to be over 75 miles per hour, rammed into the Williams’ vehicle. The impact killed the wife, their unborn child, and two of their children. A third child was critically injured and would need years of physical therapy to recover from his injuries. The crash hurt Chris Williams, as well, but he would survive – at least physically.

The story of Chris Williams became a little-known movie entitled, Just Let Go.[ii] (No clips from the film are on YouTube, but you can watch it in its entirety on Amazon Prime.) The film shows the struggle Williams has over balancing the justice demanded by the death and injury of his family and showing mercy toward the young man who made a deadly mistake. If the court tries him as an adult, the result would most likely be 25 years to life imprisonment. If the court tries him as a juvenile, the likely outcome would be he serves three years in a juvenile facility, after which the court would expunge his record. Everyone around Williams argues that justice demands the young driver of the other car be tried as an adult. But something holds Williams back. With a twist at the end, both Williams and the young driver are able to move on from the terrible incident that brought them together. There is a strong faith element running through the film, but regardless of your religious beliefs, it is worth your time to watch.

Perhaps the best film of all time dealing with redemption is The Shawshank Redemption.[iii] It is the story of two prisoners, Andy and Red, who become friends while serving life sentences in the Shawshank prison. Andy is innocent of the murder the jury convicted him of. At one point, Andy points out, “The funny thing is, on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” But Andy does not allow the mistakes of his jury and others to define him. He maintains hope for a better life and encourages Red to do the same.

In this clip from the film, we see how Red’s attitude changes over the years at his parole hearings:

Until Red met Andy, he had allowed a single mistake to define who he was. But grasping that hope instilled in him by Andy, Red determines to make a new start. Here is the closing scene from the movie:

We all make mistakes, both big and small. Let’s hope our mistakes do not define others. More importantly, let’s not let our mistakes define who we are.

[i] Just Mercy:

  • Production Companies: Endeavor Content, MACRO, and Netter Productions
  • Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
  • Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andreew Lanham (based on the memoir by Bryan Stevenson)
  • Starring: Brie Larson, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Foxx
  • Release date: January 10, 2020

[ii] Just Let Go:

  • Production Companies:  Number 7 Entertainment and Propel Pictures
  • Directors: Christopher S. Clark and Patrick Henry Parker
  • Screenwriters: Christopher S. Clark, Vance Mellen, Patrick Henry Parker (based on the book by Chris Williams)
  • Starring: Henry Ian Cusick and Brenda Vaccaro
  • Release date: October 9, 2015

[iii] The Shawshank Redemption:

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

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

Not too long ago, I checked my calendar to see what important events I had scheduled for October. That’s when I saw it. My calendar listed October 14th as Indigenous Peoples’ Day – the same day as Columbus Day. Who knew such a holiday existed? Not me.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day began in South Dakota in 1989. It is intended to celebrate and honor the history and culture of Native Americans (or “first people,” as some tribes prefer to be called). Following South Dakota’s lead, various cities and states now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of, or in addition to, Columbus Day. The states that have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday, in addition to South Dakota, are Alaska, North Carolina, New Mexico, Maine, and Vermont. A few of the cities that have adopted this holiday include Albuquerque, Berkeley, Boulder, Denver, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. Sadly, the state of Texas (which derives its name from a Native word meaning “friend”) has not yet adopted the holiday. But the county of Bexar (San Antonio) and the cities of Austin, Corpus Christi, and Dallas have.  

I recently attended a musical performed by the Dallas Theater Center. At the beginning of the performance, the theater did something I don’t recall it ever doing before. In addition to telling everyone to turn off their cell phones, the theater acknowledged and honored (I’m paraphrasing here) the history and culture of the Wichita tribe, whose ancestors once lived on the land where the theater now stands.

Even though I was born and raised in Utah, a state deriving its name from the Ute tribe, and even though I graduated from the University of Utah, whose mascot is the Ute (as represented by an eagle), I have never had much interest in Native American history and culture. That began to change when I saw the film, Hostiles.[i] This movie tells the story of a legendary U.S. Army captain whose superior officer orders him to escort a dying Cheyenne chief to his ancestral homeland so he can be buried with his fathers. The captain does so reluctantly, as he and this chief have been bitter enemies for most of their respective lives. But as they travel together and fight common enemies along the way, they begin to see each other as fellow humans, and more alike than different. Here is my favorite scene from the film:

I believe, like the captain and chief in Hostiles, if we make an effort to see our enemies from their perspective, our hatred of them will evolve into respect and understanding.

Not long after watching Hostiles, I saw Woman Walks Ahead,[ii] a film inspired by the true story of how a portrait painter, Catherine Weldon, travels to the West to paint the portrait of Chief Sitting Bull. Here is one of my favorite scenes:

I enjoyed the film because it painted (pun intended) Sitting Bull as a real, complex person rather than the typical stereotype of Native Americans. At one point in the movie, Ms. Weldon asks Sitting Bull if he liked New York City. His answer is insightful and says a lot about our competing cultures: “[New York has] too many people with too much. Too many people with nothing at all. Your society values its people by how much you have. Ours by how much we give away.”

Unfortunately, we learned many of our stereotypes about Native Americans from watching movies. The documentary, Reel Injun,[iii] traces the history of Native Americans in film. In the heyday of Westerns (think John Wayne), Native Americans were always the savages, and the heroes were always the cowboys. Graham Greene, a Native American actor, tells about growing up and playing cowboys and Indians with his Native American friends. Despite their ethnicity, everyone wanted to be one of the cowboys, because if you an Indian, you were the loser. Always. Here is the trailer to this excellent documentary:

If you love movies or are interested in Native Americans, you will love this film (you can watch it for free on

In the 1970s, movies started portraying Native Americans more realistically. Dances with Wolves was one of the first of those movies, but despite its more sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, the film still had a white man as its central figure. In 1992, The Last of the Mohicans did a better job, but again, the central character was a white man who had been raised by the Mohicans.

In the film, Smoke Signals,[iv] a coming-of-age story of a young Native American, the makers of the movie (who were Native Americans), tried hard to dispel some of the common stereotypes of Native Americans. Here is one of my favorites scenes: 

As I began studying Native American peoples and cultures, I learned some fantastic things about their history and culture. Many of them are sad. Here are a few:

  1. Native American words or tribes are the sources of half of the names of U.S. states.
  2. There are more than 566 federally recognized Native American tribes (and many more that are not recognized). There are more than 1,500 Native American languages. None of these languages is written (other than pictographs).
  3. The word “Sioux” is a Chippewa word meaning “enemy” that the French adopted for the Lakota people. “Lakota,” however, means “where the people of peace dwell.”
  4. Native Americans invented the sport of lacrosse.
  5. The United States did not grant full citizenship to American Natives until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. Congress passed the Act, in part, as recognition of the more than 8,000 Native Americans who served in the military during World War I. Over 24,000 Native Americans served in World War II, including the Navajo Code Talkers, who were a select group of volunteers who created an unbreakable secret code based on the unwritten Navajo language. The film, Windtalkers is the story of the use and importance of this code to the war effort.
  6. Only about 22 percent of the approximately 5.2 million Native Americans live on reservations. Surprisingly, over 75 percent of residents who do live on reservations are non-Natives.
  7. Approximately 28 percent of Native Americans live below the poverty line. The life expectancy of Native Americans is five years lower than other Americans. Native Americans are 177 percent more likely to die from diabetes than non-Natives, 500 percent more likely to die from tuberculous, and 82 percent more likely to die from suicide. Native American young adults are twice as likely to die before the age of 24 than any other ethnic group in America. Native American infant mortality rates are 60 percent higher than the rate for Caucasians.
  8. When Columbus reached the New World in 1492, scholars estimate that as many as 18 million Native Americans lived in North America. By 1900, war and disease had reduced their population to about 250,000 in the United States and 100,000 in Canada.
  9. Native American women experience the highest rates of assault of any group in the United States. A young girl born on a reservation has more than a one in three chance of being abused during her life.
  10. Many celebrities claim to have Native American ancestry, including Cher, Lou Diamond Phillips, Anne Hathaway, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Burt Reynolds, Johnny Depp, Kevin Costner, Dolly Parton, the Jonas brothers, and Elvis Presley.   

My interest in Native Americans inspired me to make one significant character in my new book, Snow Angel Sam, a Native American. It is a sequel to my earlier Christmas book, The Presents of Angels. I hope to get it published on Amazon by the end of October. Please check it out. You will learn some things about Native American culture and their Christmas traditions. Regardless, I hope all of us can develop an understanding of, and respect for, Native Americans, and all other persons who might be different from ourselves.

[i] Hostiles:

  • Production Companies: Grisbi Productions, Le, and Waypoint Entertainment
  • Director: Scott Cooper
  • Screenwriter: Scott Cooper (based on the manuscript by Donals E. Stewart)
  • Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pyke, and Wes Studi
  • Release date: January 26, 2018

[ii] Woman Walks Ahead:

  • Production Companies: Black Bicycle Entertainment, Potboiler Productions, and The Bedford Falls Company
  • Director: Susanna White
  • Screenwriter: Steven Knight
  • Starring: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, and Sam Rockwell
  • Release date: June 29, 2018

[iii] Reel Injun:

  • Production Companies: National Film Board of Canada and Rezolution Pictures
  • Director: Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge
  • Screenwriters: Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge
  • Starring: Adam Beach, Russell Means, and Chris Eyre
  • Release date: June 18, 2010

[iv] Smoke Signals:

  • Production Companies: ShadowCatcher Entertainment and Welb Film Pursuits Ltd.
  • Director: Chris Eyre
  • Screenwriter: Sherman Alexie
  • Starring: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, and Irene Bedard
  • Release date: November 27, 1998

Labels Are for Jars

One of my son’s favorite sayings is, “Labels are for jars, not people.” I like the sentiment, for when we label others, we are judging them—and usually harshly. But sadly, our world is too imperfect for that sentiment ever to become a reality.

As humans, we continuously try to make sense of the world around us. And one of the significant ways we do that is through labeling, organizing, and classifying. Not all labels are hurtful. Here is a list of some of mine that I find to be helpful: husband, father, grandfather, lawyer (okay, maybe not so much), movie buff, writer, sports fan, theater fan, friend, feminist, American, and male. If you knew nothing about me, and you read that list of labels, you would have at least a start of an accurate depiction of me.

But many labels are hurtful. A few of the negative ones others have pinned on me at various times during my life have included stinky, worrywart, uncaring, unemotional, unemployed, lousy with tools, and unfriendly.

I like this statement of Henry Longfellow: “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.” I believe Longfellow is telling us that it is important what we do with the labels others give us. So, in a moment of vulnerability, let me tell you what I did with two of the hurtful ones others have given me—with opposite results.

When I was in the seventh grade, I took a required woodshop class. One day the teacher reviewed one of my projects. Although he didn’t say these exact words, the look on his face was enough to shout at me that my work was unacceptable. Maybe worse, taking my project, the teacher said, “Here, let me help you.” He then completed the project for me. I believe he intended to help me by showing me how to do it, but I took it as his way of telling me that I was lousy with tools. And that self-perception of myself has haunted me the rest of my life. Now, anytime I attempt a do-it-yourself project, I wait for disaster to happen—and it usually does. I have turned that negative self-perception into self-fulfilling prophecies over and over again. On those rare occasions where things have turned out right, I attribute it to mere dumb luck.

When I was in second grade, my teacher pulled me aside and told me that I worried too much about things that either didn’t matter or that I had no control over. She then encouraged me to change. As I thought about it, I realized she was right. And I determined then and there that being a worrywart was not going to be a characteristic that defined me. Since then, I have tried to take whatever life has thrown at me, whether good or bad, with the attitude that it was just life. And since second grade, I often have had people compliment me on being able to maintain a calm countenance and steady approach to problems that have arisen.

Sorry for talking so much about myself, but I hope to make a point. We cannot stop people from labeling us. The important thing is what we do with those labels. If they are positive, do we accept them and make them a part of who we are? If they are negative, do we agree with them, or do we do something to prove to ourselves that they are inaccurate?

No matter who we are, someone will call us a “loser” at some point in our lives, even if they do not use that word. The same is true of many characters in movies. So, here are three of my favorite losers from some of my favorite “oldies but goodies” films.

Napoleon Dynamite.[i] No one in the film tells Napolean he is a loser. But everyone watching the movie knows that he is. Here is one of my favorite scenes illustrating that truth:

Happy Gilmore.[ii] Gilmore wants to become a professional hockey player but doesn’t have the necessary skills. Even his girlfriend calls him a loser:

George McFly from Back to the Future.[iii] George is the ultimate nerd and the easy target of the school’s biggest bully. When his son, Marty McFly (the furthest thing from a nerd), goes back in time, he is horrified at just how nerdy (and picked on) his future father is:

 In his book, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D., compares our minds to a computer that we are continually programming. He says that “as much as seventy-seven percent of everything we think is negative, counterproductive, and works against us.” What kind of effect might that negativity have on us? Dr. Helmstetter continues:

“Until very recently no one understood well enough the human mind—how it really works. The result was that without knowing what they were doing, and with us not recognizing the immense effect this [counterproductive] programming was having on us, [others] have been programming us in the wrong way…—and we took it to heart. Year after year, word by word, our life scripts were etched. Layer by layer, nearly indelibly, our self-images were created.”[iv]

So, what can we do about it now? We can start to reprogram ourselves. Tell yourself what you can accomplish. Better yet, tell yourself what kind of person you are, even if you’re not yet the person you want to be. From the moment I talked with my second-grade teacher, I began telling myself that I was not the type of person that worried excessively, and I visualized myself as a non-worrier.

Studies have shown that visualizing something is just as helpful as actually doing it. For example, one study looked at the improvement basketball players made in their free-throw shooting percentages. One group practiced shooting free-throws every day. The other group only visualized themselves making free-throw after free-throw without actually shooting any. Remarkably, both groups improved their percentages at the same rate.

Those same losers from the movies can also give us some tips.

Napoleon Dynamite was smart enough to recognize that to get girls, you had to have “skills.” So,  he taught himself the finer points of dancing. Here is the finished product:

His dance performance is almost good enough to make me vote for Pedro. Napoleon decided to tackle something and put in the time to learn the skill. And proving the saying that imitation is the highest form of flattery, moviegoers everywhere started learning Napoleon’s dance moves and showing their skills off to their friends. Although we might tell ourselves repeatedly that we are good at something, most of us also need to put in the time to learn that skill.

To help his grandma get her house back, Happy Gilmore joins the professional golf tour (using his hockey slapshot, he can drive a golf ball further than anybody). As Happy Gilmore prepared for the competition, he needed the help of an expert. And so he turned to Chubbs Peterson to help him with his putting. Peterson helps Happy refine his putting on a miniature golf course with this result:

Sometimes we need extra motivation to become the person we are destined to be. Often, when a loved one needs our help, we can do almost impossible things. And that brings us back to George McFly:

When Marty McFly returns to the present, he finds a father that he hardly recognizes. George has become super cool; even his high school bully works for him now. In that one moment in high school where George told himself he could do something meaningful to protect someone he loved, he changed his future forever.

Shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? By picturing ourselves as having skills, practicing those skills until we become proficient at them (and bringing in experts when appropriate), and using those skills in times of crises, we can shed from our personalities those negative labels others have given us.

And while we are working on becoming our better selves, let’s help others to do the same by not putting harmful labels on those around us. Let’s be a person who touches someone else, but without leaving a scar.

Now if I could only get comfortable with all those tools.

[i] Napoleon Dynamite:

  • Production Companies: Fox Searchlight, Paramount Pictures, and MTV Films
  • Director: Jared Hess
  • Screenwriter: Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess
  • Starring: Jon Heder, Efrin Ramirez, and Jon Gries
  • Release date: August 27, 2004

[ii] Happy Gilmore:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, and Robert Simonds Productions
  • Director: Dennis Dugan
  • Screenwriters: TimHerlihy and Adam Sandler
  • Starring: Adam Sandler, Christopher McDonald, and Julie Bowen
  • Release date: February 16, 1996

[iii] Back to the Future:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, and U-Drive Productions
  • Director: Robert Zemeckis
  • Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
  • Starring: Michael J. Fox, Chistorpher Lloyd, and Leda Thompson
  • Release date: July 3, 1985

[iv] What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D., copyrighted 2011, published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster; e-book format by Park Avenue Press, page 9.

One Small Step

On July 20, 1969, a young baseball player in the San Diego Padres farm system got the call he had dreamed of all his life. Padres’ management brought him up to the major league team. He arrived in San Diego barely in time for the team’s game that night. To his amazement, the manager inserted him into the starting line-up.

His first game as a major leaguer would be one he would never forget.

Even the best hitters are successful less than one in three times. And a rookie, batting in the majors for his first time, normally would do even worse. To everyone’s surprise, including the young man himself, he got four hits in his first four times at-bat. As a major leaguer, so far, he was perfect.

The two teams were tied as they entered the bottom of the ninth inning. The rookie was up next. He felt nervous as he picked up his bat and headed toward home plate.  But as he stepped out of the dugout, the crowd began to applaud. The applause grew louder as he reached the batter’s box. Soon, every fan was on his or her feet in a rousing standing ovation. But not just the fans. His teammates were whooping it up in the dugout. He glanced at the opponent’s dugout.  Remarkably they, too, were standing, cheering. Even the umpires clapped. The ovation lasted over five minutes.

The young man moved back toward the on-deck circle, overcome with emotion. With tears running down his cheeks, he nudged the on-deck hitter and said, “Four for four is pretty good, I admit, but I never expected this. These fans, this team, everyone. They really love me!”

The on-deck batter shot him a disgusted look. “You idiot,” he said and then pointed to the scoreboard.

The rookie turned to center field and read for the first time:

Astronaut Neil Armstrong just became the first man to walk on the moon.

I heard that story at a continuing legal education seminar. And since a lawyer related it, and his lips were moving, I don’t know for sure that it is true. But true or not, I love the story because it illustrates how life is. Whenever I think my life is going well, that I’m pretty smart or successful, when I start to believe that it’s all about me, something comes along that puts things into perspective and humbles me. 

One thing that humbles me is the size and complexity of the universe. In comparison, each of us is rather small. We just marked the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. If you were alive at the time, like me, you probably were glued to a TV set somewhere watching the drama unfold. An estimated 600 million persons worldwide watched that broadcast live.

Of course, a lot needed to happen before Armstrong made his historic landing. The film, The Right Stuff[i] is the true story of the selection of the original Mercury astronauts. But even before NASA chose those astronauts, there was Chuck Yeager, the first test pilot to break the sound barrier. At the time, no one knew if it could be done, or what would happen if someone did. Here is a clip from the movie. Note that when the clip shows the photographs rattling on the wall, those are photographs of test pilots who died trying to break the sound barrier before Yeager succeeded.

The race for space began in the 1950s in the middle of the Cold War with Russia. When the Russians successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the earth, the United States feared that Russia would arm similar satellites with weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, that never happened. But the Russians’ success propelled the United States into space. On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech at Rice University that challenged the country to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Here is part of that speech:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade …, not because … [it is] easy, but because … [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

And so began the nation’s search of a group of men who had the right stuff. To be one of the original astronauts, you had to meet all of the following criteria:

  1. Be less than 40 years old;
  2. Be less than 5 feet 11 inches tall (due to the limited size of the space capsule);
  3. Be in excellent physical condition;
  4. Hold at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent;
  5. Be a graduate of test pilot school;
  6. Have a minimum of 1,500 hours total flying time; and
  7. Be a qualified jet pilot.

Most of us have seen videos such as this one from First Man[ii] that shows some of the physical testing astronauts had to undergo:

The space program was expensive. From 1960 to 1973, the United States put 12 men on the moon at the cost of about $24 billion (about $155 billion in today’s dollars). That equaled about 4 percent of the total federal budget. It is less than one-half percent of today’s federal budget. But exploring space has been expensive in terms of human lives as well. Twelve men from both the U.S. and the USSR died during space flights or training missions before 1973. And since then we have had fatalities associated with the Soyuz 11, the Challenger, and Columbia space flights.

The space program was mostly white and male. All of the original astronauts were white males. The first African American in space was Guion Bluford, who orbited the earth during a space shuttle flight on August 30, 1983. Since then, 13 other African Americans have been to space, three of which were women. NASA selected Robert Henry Lawrence for astronaut training in 1967, but Lawrence died in an aircraft accident shortly after that. In 1961, Ed Dwight made it to the second round of an Air Force program from which NASA selected its astronauts, but it never chose Dwight. He made it that far primarily due to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s influence in supporting the notion “that for symbolic purposes in crossing the frontiers of space, this country [sh]ould have qualified members from minority backgrounds.”

Women did not have it much better than African Americans at NASA. Several women were working in computer programing during this period. We now now acknowledge those women as indispensable, as illustrated by this scene from Hidden Figures:[iii]

These women were known as computresses. In those early days, only one woman worked in an operational support role in the Mission Control Center. Frances “Poppy” Northcutt started as a computress straight out of college in 1965. NASA promoted her in just over a year to the team responsible for bringing the Apollo spacecraft back to earth from the moon. “I was sort of the trophy,” she says. “I was blonde, I was young, I was thin, I wore the ladies fashion clothes.” A reporter once asked Northcutt whether it’s true that whenever she clocks in, as “a pretty girl wearing mini skirts,” the “mission grinds to a screeching halt.” Northcutt explains her feelings at the time: “Well, of course, I was being used. My feeling was, you can play this both ways. The mere fact that a lot of women found out for the first time that there was a woman in mission control was a very big deal. I thought it was important that people understand that women can do these jobs — going into science, going into technology, doing something that’s not stereotypical.” In the early 1970’s she learned that her male counterparts were being paid overtime, but she was not. Since then, she has become a powerful voice against gender discrimination.

Although we look at our astronauts as heroes, they were not particularly heroic in every aspect of their lives. Of the 30 astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the marriages of only seven remained intact. “If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home,” said Barbara Cernan, the wife of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. Here is a scene from First Man illustrating the tensions at the homes of our astronauts:

The Apollo program occurred during a time of great unrest in this country. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were both in full swing. Many protested that the money the government spent on the space program would be better used solving problems here on earth. a scene in First Man shows musician Gil Scott Heron rapping his protest poem, “Whitey on the Moon.” I couldn’t find the clip from the movie, but here are the words to his rap:

A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey’s on the moon

I can’t pay no doctor bills
But Whitey’s on the moon
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
While whitey’s on the moon

You know, the man just upped my rent last night
Cause whitey’s on the moon
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
But whitey’s on the moon

I wonder why he’s uppin’ me?
Cause whitey’s on the moon?
Well I was already given him fifty a week
And now whitey’s on the moon

Taxes takin’ my whole damn check
The junkies make me a nervous wreck
The price of food is goin up
And if all that crap wasn’t enough
A rat done bit my sister Nell
With whitey on the moon

Her face and arm began to swell
And whitey’s on the moon

With all that money I made last year
For whitey on the moon
How come I ain’t got no money here?
Hmm, whitey’s on the moon

You know I just about had my fill

Of whitey on the moon

I think I’ll send these doctor bills

Airmail special

(To whitey on the moon)

The day before the launch of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, along with about 500 other protesters, rode up to the launch site in a horse-drawn carriage (symbolizing poverty in this country) to protest misplaced priorities in federal spending. At the time, 20 percent of the population lacked adequate food, shelter, and medical care. Abernathy met with a NASA representative, Thomas O. Paine, who described his meeting as follows:

“I said that the great technological advances of NASA were child’s play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems with which he [Abernathy] and his people were concerned. I said that he should regard the space program, however, as an encouraging demonstration of what the American people could accomplish when they had vision, leadership and adequate resources of competent people and money to overcome obstacles. I said I hoped that he would hitch his wagons to our rocket, using the space program as a spur to the nation to tackle problems boldly in other areas, and using NASA’s space successes as a yardstick by which progress in other areas should be measured. I said that although I could not promise early results, I would certainly do everything in my own personal power to help him in his fight for better conditions for all Americans, and that his request that science and engineering assist in this task was a sound one which, in the long run, would indeed help.”

If we learn anything from our quest to land a man on the moon, I hope it’s that we can accomplish almost anything when it becomes a priority. During a time of war, civil rights unrest and racial and gender discrimination, politicians, scientists, and experts from many areas joined together to solve the problem of landing a person on the moon and bringing them safely home again. And they did it without much thought about a person’s race, religion, culture, or gender. How much better of a world could be ours today if we placed the same amount of time and energy in solving the continuing problems of poverty, racism, and discrimination?

I close with the last sequence of the documentary, In The Shadow of the Moon,[iv] as some of the astronauts who walked on the moon tell of their experiences. (Watch it until the end when the astronauts discuss the conspiracy theory that we faked the lunar landings.)

As we think of the earth upon which we live and the heavens above us, may it humble you as it has humbled me, but also propel us into action to continue to solve the problems we face

[i] The Right Stuff:

  • Production company: The Ladd Company
  • Director: Phillip Kaufman
  • Screenwriter: Phillip Kaufman (based on the book by Tom Wolfe
  • Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, and Ed Harris
  • Release date: February 17, 1984

[ii] First Man:

  • Production companies: Universal Pictures, Dreamworks, and Perfect World Pictures
  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Screenwriter: Josh Singer (based on the book by James R. Hansen
  • Starring: Ryan Gosling Claire Foy, and Jason Clarke
  • Release date: October 12, 2018

[iii] Hidden figures:

  • Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, and Levantine Films
  • Director: Theodore Melfi
  • Screenwriter: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
  • Starring: Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe
  • Release date: January 6, 2017

[iv] In The Shadow of the Moon:

  • Production companies: Discovery Films, FilmFour, and Passion Pictures
  • Director: David Sington
  • Starring: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Stephen Armstrong
  • Release date: November 2, 2007

The Sixties are Over

During the past few months, I enjoyed watching two movies about two of my favorite rock stars. Rocketman[i] tells the story of Sir Elton John. Bohemian Rhapsody[ii] tells the story of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen. Both were musical geniuses. Both lived troubled lives. Both happened to be gay.

Here is a scene from Rocketman, followed by its official trailer:

Here is a clip from Bohemian Rhapsody, which illustrates the creative musical genius behind Queen in general, and Mercury specifically:

Both Elton John and Freddie Mercury were born at a time when being gay was far less accepted than it is today. Both had confidants that helped them accept their gayness. For Elton, it was John Baldry, a member of one of his early bands, Bluesology, and from whom he took his last name (it wasn’t John Lennon, as portrayed in the movie). For Freddie, it was his lifelong friend, Mary Austin, as illustrated by this scene:

I bring up these two movies because June is Gay Pride month. In honor of that, my wife, Janene, and I flew to Salt Lake City to attend Love Loud, an annual musical festival supporting the LGBTQ community, headed by Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons. You can see how Love Loud came about in the documentary, Believer.[iii] Here is its trailer:  

I recently watched a documentary that had a more significant impact on me than either Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, or Believer. June 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the riots at The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, which became the defining moment of the gay civil rights movement, and led to the first gay pride parade. This documentary, entitled Stonewall Uprising,[iv] gives the viewer an up close and personal look at the people behind the riots, and the world in which the LGBTQ community had to live back then. Here is the official trailer for this documentary:

The most significant impact Stonewall Uprising had on me was the realization of how far we have come the last 50 years in connection with LGBTQ civil liberties. In 1969, every state but Illinois had laws making “homosexual activity” a crime, with the penalties for violating such laws being incarceration for a term ranging from five years to sixty years. Those punishments were longer than those for such other crimes as public intoxication, armed bank robbery or second-degree murder. And it didn’t matter that the “homosexual activity” was between consenting adults in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Stonewall Uprising sets the stage for the Stonewall Inn riots by incorporating portions of a CBS Reports documentary entitled The Homosexuals.[v] It was the first American network TV documentary to explore the topic of homosexuality. You can watch the entire show here:

In connection with the making of The Homosexuals, CBS News commissioned a survey to determine how Americans felt about gays and lesbians. That survey found that, in 1967, “two-thirds of Americans considered homosexuality more harmful to society than adultery, abortion, or prostitution,” and looked upon homosexuality with “disgust, discomfort, or fear.” One out of ten Americans looked at gays and lesbians with “hatred.” And the vast majority back then considered homosexuality to be an illness. Stonewall Uprising takes a clip from The Homosexuals in which Dr. Charles Socarides, a New York psychoanalyst, lectures to a group of resident psychiatrists at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. Dr. Socarides states, “Homosexuality is, in fact, a mental illness which has reached epidemiologic portions.” The residents are taught that “No man is born homosexual; that it is not genetic in origin; not the result of a hormone imbalance.” Instead, Dr. Socarides tells these residents that “homosexual behavior is learned behavior.” In response to this query from one residents, “I was wondering if you think there are any ‘happy’ homosexuals, for whom homosexuality would be, in a way, their best adjustment to life,” Dr. Socarides states, “The fact that someone is homosexual, a true, obligatory homosexual, automatically rules out the possibility that he will remain happy for long, in my opinion. The stresses and strains, the psychic apparatuses they are subjected to, over the years, will cause him, in time, I think, to have increasing difficulties. I think the whole idea of saying the happy homosexual is again to create a mythology about the nature of homosexuality.”

In a blog post last year (see, “Where is the Love?” posted October 15, 2018), I discussed Believer and gave a brief history of my relationship with the LGBTQ community and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church has made great strides since the 1960s to help LGBTQs feel loved and accepted. It no longer considers same-sex attraction, in and of itself, to be a perversion. It no longer teaches that homosexuality is a choice. It has established a website for the LGBTQ. It has donated significant dollars to a group called Affirmation, whose mission is to help prevent youth suicides, especially among LGBTQ Mormons (whose rates of death by suicide are far higher than for any other demographic). The Church has even expressed support for Love Loud. And perhaps most dramatically, the Church rescinded a policy it had established in November 2015, which prevented the children of LGBTQ from participating in Church ordinances such as baptism and priesthood ordinations. I have encountered many good Church members who love and support their LGBTQ friends and family members. I also believe that the overwhelming majority of church leaders are much, much more accepting of their LGBTQ members than they were in the 1960s.

I rejoice over these changes, especially the rescission of the November 15 policy, although I acknowledge that many people had been emotionally harmed, even scarred, by its implementation in the first place.

But one church leader seems to be stuck in the 1960s.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, the number two person in the leadership hierarchy of the Church, continues to paint the entire LGBTQ community with disdain. At a recent talk he gave at BYU Hawaii, he said, in part, the following:

“We also have the challenge of living in a godless and increasingly amoral generation. More and more publicized voices deny or doubt the existence of God. More and more support the idea that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected as one chooses, each person being free to decide for himself or herself what is right and wrong.

“Along with these challenges and caused by them, we are confronted by a culture of evil and personal wickedness in the world. This includes:




The diminishing of marriage and childbearing

The increasing frequency and power of the culture and phenomenon of lesbian, gay, and transgender lifestyles and values.”

I acknowledge that a lesbian or gay relationship can be abusive or immoral, just like any heterosexual relationship. But many gays and lesbians live in committed relationships where each partner loves and respects the other, where each partner is honest, law-abiding, a good parent, and a hard worker. They love their children; they pay their taxes; they donate to charities and serve their communities. Most believe in God. Most do their best to love God and their neighbors—just like most of those of us who are straight. Are such relationships a culture of evil? I think not. To consider all gays, lesbians, and transgender people to be part of a culture of evil and personal wickedness, to me, is wrong. We no longer live in the sixties, and thankfully, most of us do not still consider homosexuality to be more harmful to society than “adultery, abortion, or prostitution.”

Elder Oaks, I invite you, no, I plead that you move on from the sixties and join the rest of us in 2019. Your rhetoric, whether intended to be hateful or not, needs to stop. Too many people, both queer and straight, are being scarred by it. Too many people feel marginalized by it. Too many feel “less than” because of it. And too many good, wonderful, faithful young men and women are ending their lives as a result of it.

And to all of my LGBTQ friends and family everywhere—whether I know you yet or not—please know that we see you. We love you. We admire your courage to be your authentic selves. Toward the end of the Love Loud festival last night, Dan Reynolds invited to the stage parents of Stockton, a young gay man who took his life by suicide. I echo the words of Stockton’s father who told all the LGBTQ in the audience that “you have a beautiful light within you—whether others can see that light or not.”

[i] Rocketman:

  • Production Companies: Marv Films, Marv Studios, New Republic Pictures
  • Director: Dexter Fletcher
  • Screenwriter: Lee Hall
  • Starring: Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell
  • Release date: May 31, 2019

[ii] Bohemian Rhapsody:

  • Production Companies: GK Ffilms, New Regency Pictures, Queen Films Ltd.
  • Director: Bryan Singer
  • Screenwriters: Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan
  • Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, and Gwilym Lee
  • Release date: November 2, 2018

[iii] Believer:

  • Production Companies: Live Nation Productions, 9.14 Pictures, and Another Brother Productions
  • Director: Don Argott
  • Starring: Dan Reynolds, Aja Volkman, and Ben McKee
  • Release date: June 25, 2018

[iv] Stonewall Uprising:

  • Production Company: PBS American Experience
  • Directors: Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
  • Screenwriters: David Carter and David Heilbroner
  • Starring: Paul Bosche, Alfredo Del Rio, and John DiGiacomo
  • Release date: June 16, 2010

[v] The Homosexuals:

  • Production Company: CBS
  • Writers: Mike Wallace, William Peters, and Harry Morgan
  • Release date: March 7, 1967


I love to do jigsaw puzzles. I like the process, not the completed picture. So, after I finish a puzzle, I almost immediately tear it apart and put it away. I like puzzles that have a lot going on in the picture. I avoid doing ones with too much sky or too much of one color. That’s because, when you are down to one color left, the process becomes mostly one of trial and error. I like to be able to look at the piece, then look at the picture on the box, and know where it goes. In that light, I can never understand how some people like to do jigsaw puzzles without ever looking at the picture.

I recently watched a little-known movie called Puzzle[i] (it is currently available on Starz). The film is about a woman who discovers she has a talent for jigsaw puzzles, and that discovery changes her life. This scene from the movie explains better than I could why puzzlers like me love to do puzzles:

In short, completing a puzzle is one of the few experiences we can have in our random lives over which we have some control, and when we complete the puzzle, we know we have made (ultimately) all the right choices. This scene reminded me of the old Howard Jones song from the ’80s (yes, I am showing my age), No One is to Blame,[ii] a song about life’s attractions, frustrations, and contradictions, especially the line, “It’s the last piece of the puzzle, but you just can’t make it fit.” Fortunately, although my life has been full of contradictions and irony, I have never had a problem with jigsaw puzzles. But I digress.

I found the movie, Puzzle, thought-provoking in another way. Although set in modern times, Agnes, the lead character in the film, is a housewife straight out of the 1950s. She is married to an auto mechanic with two grown sons and has, her entire married life, sacrificed her feelings and dreams to run an efficient household. She makes sure the men in her life have everything they need to be happy—a tidy house, clean clothes, three meals a day. Then a friend gives Agnes a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday present. When Agnes decides to put it together, she discovers a hidden talent for doing puzzles. She decides to buy another one, which ultimately leads her to question her current life and opens the way to finding new and enlightening experiences. Those experiences give her the strength to begin to challenge her current way of life and begin to make changes, as illustrated by this scene:

I found the attitude of Agnes’ husband a bit frightening in today’s world, but I suppose those types of beliefs persist with many. I have posted on this subject before (see, for example, my March 15, 2018 post, “Doing it Backward”); I will probably do so again until some of the injustices I see against women disappear. I like to think of myself as a feminist especially considering this definition of the word by historian, Claudia L. Bushman, who defined a feminist as someone who believes that “all of the talents and abilities of women should be developed for the benefit of themselves, their families and their communities.”

Recently, I have watched or re-watched several movies dealing with a lack of this feminist value. William Shakespeare lived at a time when society barred women from doing much of anything but running households. In Shakespeare in Love,[iii] for example, women couldn’t act in public, even when the role was a female character. In this scene from the film, the theater is shut down due to the scandal of a female actor:

Think of what we would have missed without being able to witness the great performances of our female actors. One of my favorites is Glenn Close, a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in The Wife,[iv] in which Joe Castleman, the husband of Glenn Close’s character, Joan Castleman, is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for works that were written by Joan. Here is my favorite scene in two parts (warning: some strong language):

Again, Joe Castleman’s attitude is puzzling in today’s world.

The Wife is a fictional story, but sadly, there are many true stories with a similar theme. In Mary Shelley,[v] the author of Frankenstein must initially publish her work anonymously because no one at that time would read a book written by a woman. And she was not alone. Each of the Bronte sisters (authors of such classics as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, had to use male pen names to get their works published. Mary Ann Evans needed to write under the pen name of George Elliot before publishers would take on her classics such as Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Daniel Deronda. Even Mary Louse Alcott, the author of Little Women, began her writing career as A.M Bernard to mask the fact that she was a woman. And the recent movie, Colette,[vi] is the true story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who, using her husband’s pen name Willy, wrote her first four novels making up the “Claudine” series, all of which became best sellers. Here is the trailer for the film:   

Colette went on to write novels under her own name and ultimately nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1948.

If you think discrimination against women in the world of publishing doesn’t happen today, consider that the publisher of the best-selling Harry Potter series, penned by J.K. Rowling, did not want her to use her first name (JoAnne) because of concern that a woman author might drive away potential readers. On the contrary, we should welcome women authors, if only because their experiences and emotions are often different from men’s. I love this short scene from Mary Shelley, which emphasizes that Frankenstein is much more than a ghost story:

And such attitudes don’t exist just in the literary world. For example, the film, Big Eyes,[vii] tells the true story of Margaret Keane, whose husband took credit for the artwork she created. Here is a short clip from the movie:

If you haven’t seen any of these films, I recommend you do so. But more importantly, let’s give all women their due. Our society still has a way to go before women can feel equal to men. I am puzzled as to why this is. A recent article in Marie Claire magazine provides some statistics on several ways women still trail their male counterparts. These statistics include:

  • Women make 16 percent less than men in comparable jobs. That percentage increases to 23 percent worldwide.
  • Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, but only 20 percent of members of Congress.
  • At Fortune 500 companies, women comprise only 17 percent of board members, and only 5 percent of CEO s are women.
  • Women are more likely to live in poverty than men. In the U.S., 15.5 percent of women live below the poverty line, while only 11.9 percent of men do.
  • Between 20 to 50 percent of women serving in the armed services have reported being the victim of rape or other forms of sexual harassment.
  • Women are more likely to be victims of human trafficking. Of the 800,000 victims of human trafficking each year, 80 percent are women.

So, although the opportunities for women are improving, we still have work to do. As Claudia Bushman’s definition states, let’s encourage women everywhere to develop their talents and abilities for the benefit of their families, their communities, and especially for themselves.

[i] Puzzle:

  • Production Companies: Big Beach Films, Rosto, and Olive Productions
  • Director: Marc Turtletaub
  • Screenwriters: Polly Mann and Oren Moverman
  • Starring: Kelly MacDonald, Irrfan Khan, and David Denman
  • Release date: September 7, 2018

[ii] No One is to Blame

  • Music and Lyrics by Howard Jones (Released March 1986)

[iii] Shakespeare in Love:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Miramax, and The Bedford Falls Company
  • Director: John Madden
  • Screenwriters: Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
  • Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, and Geoffrey Rush
  • Release date: December 13, 1998

[iv] The Wife:

  • Production Companies: Silver Reel, Meta Film, and Anonymous Content
  • Director: Björn Runge
  • Screenwriter: Jane Anderson (based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer)
  • Starring: Glen Glose, Jonothan Price, and Max Iron
  • Release date: September 28, 2018

[v] Mary Shelley:

  • Production Companies: BFI Film Fund, Film Fund Luxembourg, and Gidden Media
  • Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
  • Screenwriter: Emma Jensen and Haifaa Al-Mansour
  • Starring: Elle Fanning, Bel Powley, and Owen Richards
  • Release date: July 6, 2018

[vi] Colette:

  • Production Companies: Number 9 Films, Killer Films, and Bold Films
  • Director: Wash Westmoreland
  • Screenwriters: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
  • Starring: Kiera Knightley, Fiona Shaw, and Dominic West
  • Release date: December 20, 2018

[vii] Big Eyes:

  • Production Companies: The Weinstein Company, Silverwood Films, and Tim Burton Productions
  • Director: Tim Burton
  • Screenwriters: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
  • Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, and Danny Huston
  • Release date: December 25, 2014

The Classiest of Class Acts

Some time ago, I posted a blog entitled, Winning with Class. I am going to revisit today some of the concepts and movies I discussed there. But I couldn’t help myself in light of the recent events in the Dallas sports world. Of course, I am referring to the announced retirement of Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. And if anyone exemplified winning with class, it was Dirk. In my mind, when it comes to the sports world, he is by far the classiest of class acts.

          His numbers[i] speak for themselves and emphasize what a remarkable athlete he is. His ability, standing at seven feet tall, to be able to hit jumpers from outside the three-point line consistently, revolutionized the game. He became and still is the epitome of the “stretch four” position so prevalent now in the NBA. In short, his game changed the game. Or as the legend, Larry Bird said it, Dirk left the game better than he found it.

But it is Dirk, the person, that sets him apart from other great athletes. Another of Dirk’s childhood idols, Charles Barkley, once described Dirk as, “the best combination of player and person ever.” When I think of Dirk, the person, five characteristics immediately come to mind. These are qualities that each of us should emulate. And these qualities remind me of some terrific movies as well.

Dirk is loyal.  Dirk played his entire NBA career of 21 years with one team. That is more years with one organization than any other player in NBA history. That is a remarkable feat in today’s professional sports world of free agency. I agree with Dirk’s coach of eleven years, Rick Carlisle; it is unlikely anyone will ever break this record. Instead of following the money, as most professional athletes do, for several years now Dirk has agreed to accept much lower salaries than he could have received elsewhere because he knew his actions would allow the Mavericks more opportunities to bring in better players. Please don’t misunderstand me. There are times when we can take loyalty to an unhealthy extreme; where we need to look out for number one. And like all of us, professional athletes deserve their due. But when you reach the salary levels of elite athletes, is there really that much difference in a salary of $25 million per year and $10 to $15 million a year? As one of Dirk’s childhood idols, Shawn Kemp, expressed it, being willing to play with the same team, the same family, and the same people for so many years speaks for itself.

When I think of loyalty in sports, I think of this scene from the film Rudy.[ii] Like Dirk, Rudy’s Notre Dame teammates were loyal to a fellow teammate who gave his all every day to help the team, even though he knew he would likely never play in a game for the Fighting Irish:  

I believe, if Dirk had played for the Notre Dame football team that year, he would have been the first to offer his jersey to Rudy. Are we willing to go to such extremes for a family member, friend or coworker?

Dirk works hard. His work ethic is legendary among NBA players. He spends more time in the gym perfecting his skills than just about anyone. In the press conference after Dirk’s final home game, Coach Carlisle told reporters that even getting Dirk on the court this year was a miracle because of nagging injuries Dirk has suffered throughout the years. Of course, in Dirk’s typical way, no one knew anything about that other than his teammates, the coaching staff and the trainers. Coach Carlisle attributed Dirk’s even being able to play this year to Dirk’s dedication and hard work. When a reporter asked Dirk about his work ethic, he answered, “It makes victories just a little bit sweeter if you work really hard and really, really long.”

When I think of physical demands, I think of the movie, Lone Survivor.[iii] No one trains harder than Navy Seals, as illustrated by this clip from the beginning of the film:

Dirk has always worked hard to stay in the best possible shape for the NBA wars. Here is a brief clip about Dirk’s workouts with his mentor.

Are we as willing as Dirk is to put in the hours of practice to perfect our talents or abilities?

Dirk is humble and always put his team first. At that final home game celebration, Coach Carlisle called Dirk “the greatest athlete in Dallas sports history,” while 20,000 fans chanted in unison, “Thank, you, Dirk!” Later at the press conference, a reporter asked Dirk what he thought when he heard that well-earned compliment. Dirk said, “I don’t see it that way. There’s been some tremendous athletes come through here. This is a great sports town, as you guys know. There had been great sports played throughout history here. I’m honored that you say that, but just to be mentioned with some of these guys is an honor for me. I’m humbled by that.” Throughout his career, Dirk has always complimented his coaches and fellow players for pushing him to reach new limits and inspiring him with the confidence that was not always there. For those of us who have watched Dirk for more than 20 years, it is evident to us that it was Dirk that inspired his teammates and pushed his teammates to reach new limits.

Basketball is a team sport, and although there is an “I” in Dirk, there is no “I” in team. When the Mavericks made their championship run in 2011 and beat the Miami Heat with what everyone thought was an unbeatable combination of Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, although Dirk led the way, you always felt it was a team effort. And what a run it was. To win the title, the Mavs beat their arch-rival and perennial champions, the San Antonio Spurs led by Tim Duncan, then swept Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers, before overwhelming the Heat in six games. Through it all, Dirk gave most of the credit to his teammates. It reminded me of this scene from Mean Girls:[iv]

I suppose most fans feel this way about their favorite teams, but as a Dallas Mavericks fan, I felt as if Dirk and his teammates won the championship not just for themselves but for all of us. They even let me get up close and personal with the trophy.

Dirk laughs at himself. Dirk always took the game of basketball seriously, but he never took himself too seriously. During his final home game celebration, when overcome with emotion as his illustrious career was coming to an end, in his typical fashion of never taking anything in life too seriously, Dirk said, “I’m trying my yoga breathing, but it’s not really working too well.” And who can forget all the videos Dirk was willing to make where he became a multitude of silly characters to entertain us during timeouts and halftime of games? When it comes to being able to laugh at yourself, I always think of this clip from Roxanne:[v]

While perhaps not as funny as Steve Martin, Dirk has earned his share of laughs. Here is a clip of some of Dirk’s most hilarious moments:

Dirk gives back. Dirk commented that he came from Germany over twenty years ago and immediately became a Texan for life. As fans, at first, when the skinny 19-year-old joined the Mavericks, we worried that he might be a bust. But it didn’t take us long to accept him as our new basketball hero. And it didn’t take Dirk long to return that love. He did it both on and off the court. Dirk never tires of posing for photos and signing autographs. A friend of mine and his son went to an activity where a former manager of the Texas Rangers was to be the speaker. As luck would have it, my friend, his son, and this manager arrived at about the same time and had to walk across a field together to where the gathering was to take place. There was no one else in sight, so as they were walking, my friend asked the manager if he would mind stopping for a brief moment to pose for a photo with his son. Without breaking stride, the manager curtly told my friend that that was not going to happen. Contrast that to another friend of mine whose son wanted to attend a Mavericks game and perhaps get Dirk’s autograph. They went to the tunnel where the players entered and exited the locker room. When Dirk came down the tunnel, Dirk willingly obliged and posed for photo after photo. Is it any wonder that I fist-pumped when I heard the news the Rangers had fired their manager, but couldn’t help but shed a tear or two when Dirk announced his retirement?

Dirk gives back in other ways. For many years, his trips to Children’s Hospital as Uncle Dirk remained mostly unknown. Dirk finally let a reporter accompany him one year to watch Dirk in action. During a quarter break at that last home game, the Mavericks played the video of that reporter’s trip with Uncle Dirk. Of all the feelings Dirk had that night, he felt the most emotion watching that video. And the reporter paid Dirk one of the best compliments possible: during the several hours they were there together, Dirk never looked at his watch or asked anyone what time it was. Here is a video of a few moments of one of Uncle Dirk’s trips to Children’s Hospital:

As I watched that video, I thought of this similar clip from the film, Patch Adams:[vi]

Dirk might not be quite as entertaining as Robin Williams, but no one has a greater love for these kids than Dirk.

When my kids were young, Michael Jordan was almost everyone’s favorite basketball player. Nike even cashed in on his popularity with an ad campaign encouraging everyone to “Be Like Mike.” With no disrespect to the great Michael Jordan, if I had my way, I would rather have my children (and me!) be like Dirk.

[i] Dirk by the Numbers:

  • Games played:                                 1,521 (3rd all-time)
  • Total points scored:                        31,560 (6th all-time)
  • Games scoring 30+ points:            245       
  • Career wins:                                     916 (6th all-time)
  • Three pointers made:                     1,982 (11th all-time)
  • Field goals made:                            11,169 (8th all-time)
  • Total rebounds:                               11,489
  • Blocked shots:                                  1,281
  • Assists:                                              3,651
  • Field goal percentage:                   47.1 %
  • Three pointer percentage:            38.0 %
  • Free throw percentage:                 87.9 %
  • 14 time NBA all-star
  • NBA finals MVP (2011)
  • NBA regular season MVP (2007)
  • NBA three-point shootout champion (2006)
  • NBA teammate of the year (2017)

[ii] Rudy:

  • Production Company: Tristar Pictures
  • Director: David Anspaugh
  • Screenwriter: Angelo Pizzo
  • Starring: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, and Ned Beatty
  • Release date: October 22, 1993

[iii] Lone Survivor:

  • Production Companies: Film 44, EFO Films, and Spikings Entertainment
  • Director: Peter Berg
  • Screenwriter: Peter Berg (based on the book by Marcus Lutrell)
  • Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, and Emile Hirsch
  • Release date: January 10, 2014

[iv] Mean Girls:

  • Production Companies: Paramount Pictures, M. G. Films, Broadway Video
  • Director: Mark Waters
  • Screenwriter: Tina Fey (based on the book by Rosalind Wiseman)
  • Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Jonathan Bennett, and Rachel McAdams
  • Release date: April 30, 2004

[v] Roxanne:

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

[vi] Patch Adams

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Blue Wolf Productions, and Farrell/Minoff
  • Director: Tom Shadyac
  • Screenwriter: Steve Oedekerk (based on the book by Patch Adams and Maureen Mylander)
  • Starring: Robin Williams, Daniel London, and Monica Potter
  • Release date: December 25, 1998

Throwing Out the Baby With the Bathwater

You can’t pick up a newspaper (yes, they still exist) or look at social media these days without seeing something about our country’s immigration mess. Let me say at the outset that I do not support unauthorized immigration. As a general rule, I believe in following the rules. But I also fail to see the immigration crisis as an emergency warranting the shutdown of the nation’s government. Nor do I see expanding a wall between the United States and Mexico as the answer. I believe in immigration reform, but reform that is practical and useful, not merely symbolic.

So, what does this have to do with movies? As with most things in life, we can learn a lot from films about immigration, mainly what it’s like to be an immigrant. So, here are a few truths about I have discovered from movies (as well as other sources) on this topic.

Truth No. 1: Immigrants (or children or grandchildren of immigrants) helped make this country exceptional. Seven of the 39 signers of the Constitution were immigrants. Almost all of the others were children or grandchildren of immigrants. Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton and three of the original justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were immigrants. But it was not only immigrants among the founding fathers who were successful here. Other prominent Americans who were immigrants to this country include Joseph Pulitzer, Levi Straus, Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google), Liz Claiborne, and Madeleine Albright (the first woman Secretary of State). For many immigrants, America’s promise of freedom and a better way of life came true. Or, as the musical Hamilton reminds us, “Immigrants—we get the job done.”

Truth No. 2: Despite its promise, many immigrants never reach the American dream. Sadly, our history is replete with examples of how many immigrants merely changed one set of problems in their old country for new ones in America. There is no better example of this than the forced immigration of millions of African slaves, who were more property than people. Even our beloved Constitution recognized these slaves as only three-fifths of a person for census purposes but with no rights whatsoever. But this truth far exceeds just slavery. Our Founding Fathers encouraged immigration, but only to a point. Benjamin Franklin, for one, said of immigrants, ”Few of their children in the country learn English…. The signs on our streets have inscriptions in both languages…. Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” Often, religion fueled this disdain for immigrants. Puritans in Massachusetts hanged Quakers; Anglicans in Virginia arrested Baptists. And no one liked Roman Catholics, meaning most Irish and Italian immigrants. In the early days of our nation, Roman Catholics in Maryland, which claimed to welcome such immigrants, were not allowed to vote or hold public office. Even John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court argued for the building of “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics.” The makers of the Statue of Liberty should have added a footnote to the poem inscribed on it: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free (unless you are African, Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Latin).” It should not be surprising, then, that fact-based films such as Gangs of New York,[i] which depicts, during the height of the Civil War, desperate men who battle each other for supremacy of lower Manhattan, at that time a den of corruption and prostitution. Bill the Butcher, heads one gang and who believes the United States should belong to native-born Americans and so the wave of immigrants entering the country, mainly the Irish, need to leave or be destroyed. On the other side, Alexander Vallon is an Irish immigrant hellbent on avenging the earlier killing of his father. It is a hard movie to watch due to both its violence and what I understand to be an accurate reflection of that period in history.

Much more subtle, but with a somewhat similar message, is Moscow on the Hudson.[ii] It is the story of a Russian musician who defects during the height of the Cold War, and who finds adjusting to the American way of life more difficult than he had imagined. Here is the closing scene of the movie:

One of my favorite films of a couple of years ago is The Big Sick.[iii] It is a fact-based romantic comedy, but it also shows the difficulty immigrants and their children have in figuring out what of their native culture they should keep, and what parts of American culture they should adopt. Here is one poignant scene:

Kumail is the son of Pakistani immigrants, which brings me to:

Truth No. 3: Dreamers should be able to keep their dreams alive. Admittedly, this is my opinion—not an absolute truth. Dreamers, of course, are the children of unauthorized immigrants who came to this country when these children were too young to remember any other home but America. Selene Saavedra Roman is the poster child for the problem. Selene, born in Peru, moved to the U.S. with her unauthorized parents when she was three. Selene grew up in Dallas, is a graduate of Texas A&M, has no criminal record, and is married to a U.S. citizen. She has a social security card and pays her taxes. She is on track to obtaining U.S. citizenship, but that process takes years. Selene took a job as a flight attendant with Mesa Airlines. She told her employer that she wanted to fly only in the United States, as she did not want to jeopardize her citizenship efforts. Her boss, however, assigned her to fly to Mexico. When Selene expressed her fears, her boss told her that since she had DACA (or Dreamer) status, she had nothing to fear. Since Selene was still on probation at her new job and not wanting to risk termination, she accepted the assignment and took the flight. This flight was the only time she had been out of the country since she was a toddler. But upon her return, Selene was detained by ICE at a facility in Houston. Legally, DACA status grants an unauthorized immigrant no rights other than an acknowledgment by the government that the person would be considered a low priority for detainment and deportation. But with the change in administrations, DACA status doesn’t carry much weight anymore. ICE kept Ms. Roman in the detention facility for over six weeks before her lawyer and a loud public outcry convinced ICE to release her. And now her path to citizenship is unknown. Granted, not everyone with DACA status may have the same resume as Selene Saavedra Roman, but Selene is the type of American I want in my country. Shouldn’t we be careful that we don’t throw out these DACA babies with the bathwater?

Truth No. 4: Immigrants are necessary to keep the U. S. economy humming. Whether we like to admit it or not, immigrants have typically filled jobs that other Americans did not want. For example, primarily Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific Railroad built the transcontinental railroad from San Francisco east to Promontory Point, and Irish and freed slaves working for the Union Pacific Railroad constructed the line from Omaha west to Promontory Point. These Chinese, Irish, and freed slaves filled these jobs because no one else wanted them, as dramatically portrayed in the binge-worthy TV series, Hell On Wheels (now available on Netflix). History has repeated itself today. From 2000 to 2017, in Texas, foreign-born workers grew three times faster than American-born workers. Texas immigrants during this period accounted for more than 25 percent of jobs in construction, manufacturing, food services, and lodging. These immigrants helped build DFW airport, Texas Stadium, and just about every high-rise in the Metroplex. What was true in Texas was also true in other border states. A smart, tongue-in-cheek film, A Day Without a Mexican,[iv] illustrates the extent most Americans have relied on Mexican immigrants. Here is the hilarious trailer for this movie:

Today, at a time of low unemployment and strong demand for workers, a group of Texas businesses is encouraging more immigration, not less. Many of these businesses would like to expand their operations but can’t because they can’t find enough workers. To compound the problem, the traditional source of immigrants to Texas (Mexico) is drying up. Now, most Mexicans (61 percent) have no interest whatsoever in migrating to Texas, authorized or otherwise. Overall migration to the United States, led by Mexicans, is at a historic low, down from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to under 400,000 last year. Admittedly, there has been a recent spike in immigration. In February, more than 76,000 unauthorized immigrants entered the U.S., an 11-year high. The Dallas Morning News reported that as many as 1,000 migrants entered the El Paso area last Monday alone. But the majority of migrants coming into America today are not from Mexico. Of the 76,000 who crossed the border last month, over 40,000 of them are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where murder, gang violence, extortion, forced conscription into gangs, and intimidation rule the streets. With legal ports of entry processing far fewer asylum seekers, many families are crossing unauthorized, turning themselves into the border patrol, and then seeking asylum. The recent HBO movie, Icebox,[v] illustrates the new world of immigration of asylum seekers. Here is the trailer for that film:

Crossing the U.S. border unauthorized, and then seeking asylum because of safety concerns is a form of legal immigration. In the last ten years, ICE found that about 350,000 asylum seekers had a credible fear of persecution and referred them to immigration courts. But the current backlog of cases before immigration courts now exceeds 800,000.

Truth  No. 5: Most immigrants are not criminals, drug lords, or rapists. But will do almost anything in their power to help their families. Of course, anytime you get together a large enough group of people, that group will have some bad apples in it. But the overwhelming majority of immigrants come to find a new way of life with hope for a better tomorrow. Some end up in jail or deported for criminal activity, but many of them engage in that activity to help their family or friends. Here are two examples from movies. In Under the Same Moon,[vi] a young Mexican boy travels across America to find his mother, an unauthorized hotel employee who hopes to save enough money to bring her son to America. Along the journey, this happens:

In A Better Life,[vii] a father and son have this honest conversation that sums up the feelings a parent has for a child that will lead them to do almost anything to provide their child with a better life. It is that desire that gives them a reason to live:

I don’t pretend to be an immigration expert. What I do know is the status quo is not working—at least not well. And although extending the border wall might be of some benefit, I believe there are better ways to spend the money that would be required to construct President Trump’s wall. Here are a few ideas.

We could take the $8 billion President Trump is asking for his wall and use it on programs that will keep immigrants in their homelands. These programs could include such things as education and job training, and economic incentives to Central American countries. Instead, President Trump now wants to stop the $500 million we send these countries each year to help their citizens want to stay home. We could spend the money to improve public safety in Latin American countries through anti-corruption campaigns, police training and court reforms. And while we are at it, we can improve our immigration court system by adding more judges and streamlining processes here in the United States. We could stem the flow of guns going south of the border, as most murders in Mexico involve American-made firearms. Or better yet, we need to do what we can to limit the demand for drugs in the United  States, which is a topic for another blog.

I will leave it up to those much smarter than me to develop and implement solutions to the current immigration system that will help those who need our help and keep out those who don’t. I hope the rest of us can show a kinder, gentler America to the people caught in this morass. We do this by seeing an immigrant’s plight from their perspective and extending a hand of hope.

[i] Gangs of New York

  • Production Companies: Miramax, Initial Entertainment Group, and Alberto Grimaldi Productions
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Screenwriter: Jay Cocks
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis
  • Release date: December 20, 2002

[ii] Moscow on the Hudson

  • Production Companies: Bavaria Film, Columbia Pictures, and Delphi Premier Productions
  • Director: Paul Mazursky
  • Screenwriters: Paul Mazursky and Leon Capetanos
  • Starring: Robin Williams, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Cleavant Derricks
  • Release date: April 6, 1984

[iii] The Big Sick

  • Production Companies: Apatow Productions, FilmNation Entertainment, and Story Ink
  • Director: Michael Showalter
  • Screenwriters: Emily V. Gordon and Kamail Nanjiani
  • Starring: Kamail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano
  • Release date: July 14, 2017

[iv] A Day Without a Mexican

  • Production Companies: Eye on the Ball Films, Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, and Jose and Friends Inc.
  • Director: Sergio Arau
  • Screenwriters: Sergio Arau and Yareli Arizmendi
  • Starring: Caroline Aaron, Tony Abatemarco, and Melinda Allen
  • Release date: May 21, 2004

[v] Icebox

  • Production Companies: Gracie Films and Icebox Productions
  • Director: Daniel Sawka
  • Screenwriter: Daniel Sawka
  • Starring: Genesis Rodriguez, Anthony Gonzalez, and Sarah Minnich
  • Release date: December 7, 2018

[vi] Under the Same Moon

  • Production Companies: Creando Films, Fidecine, and Potomac Pictures
  • Director: Patricia Riggen
  • Screenwriter: Ligiah Villalobos
  • Starring: Eugenio Derbez, Kate del Castillo, and Adrian Alonso
  • Release date: April 4, 2008

[vii] A Better Life

  • Production Companies: Summit Entertainment, Lime Orchard Productions, and Witt/Thomas Productions
  • Director: Chris Weitz
  • Screenwriter: Eric Eason (based on the story by Roger L. Simon)
  • Starring: Damián Bichir, José Julián, and Eddie ‘Piolin’ Sotelo
  • Release date: July 28, 2011

What’s Normal?

A few years ago, I knew someone who was so depressed we needed to admit them to the psychiatric ward of a hospital. I watched as the police officers took them away. The next day, I decided to visit this person on my lunch hour. Not knowing exactly where to find this person at the hospital, I asked for directions from the reception desk. When the receptionist looked up this person in the directory, she told me they had admitted no one to the hospital by that name. I knew that was a mistake, so I pressed further. I told the receptionist I knew the person was there, as I watch the police drive off with them. When she asked why the police were involved, I explained the person was severely depressed. After she informed me that she wasn’t supposed to tell me where this person was, she directed me to the mental health ward.

The ward was locked. I had to sign in, state whom I was there to see, and my relationship to the patient. When I was finally let into the ward, I was horrified. Patients were everywhere, most not even in rooms, but lying on cots up and down the halls. One of the nurses, seeing the shock on my face, explained that they were busier than usual, as it was just after Christmas, which was always a busy time for them. Looking around, I asked myself, how could anyone receive any real help in a place like this? How indeed.

Because the person I visited was an adult, privacy laws governed. If I hadn’t known the person was there, I never would have found them. I also learned, when admitted involuntarily by a police officer, the facility can hold the person for only up to 72 hours without a court order declaring the person incompetent (unless the hospital reasonably determines the patient is a danger to themselves or others). In short, under current laws and practices, if you are the spouse, parent, another family member, or friend of a person who has a mental illness, there is almost no way to get that person any lasting help. And unfortunately, many of those who have mental illness don’t fully comprehend that they need help.

But it used to be worse. We have all heard stories of abuses of the system where perfectly sane people, for a variety of reasons, ended up committed in state asylums. The film Changeling,[i] based on a true story, is a perfect example of this. In 1928 Los Angeles, a single mother returned home from work one day and found her 9-year-old son missing. Five months later, a boy, who generally fit the description of her son, and who claimed to be the missing boy, turned up in Illinois. Mother and son were happily reunited – but not so fast. The mother claimed the boy was not her son. Who would know better than her? But the police did not listen to her. When the mother would not back down from her claims, this happened:      

Once committed to the asylum, patients could expect this kind of treatment, regardless of whether or not they had a mental illness:

In reaction to these kinds of abuses, the government began reforms. Federal and state legislatures strengthened privacy laws and made it more difficult to commit and keep someone in an institution against their will. Specifically, the Kennedy administration pushed through Congress the Community Mental Health Act of 1963. The law’s purpose was to release the mentally ill from deplorable state-run institutions and get them into community-based mental health facilities. While states were eager to shut down their mental hospitals (and pocket the savings required to run them) few, if any, communities built local mental health centers. The result? On the fiftieth anniversary of the Act, according to Michelle Smith of the Associated Press, 90 percent of the beds in state hospitals had been eliminated, leaving only the streets, jails or prisons for those with severe mental illness. A 2016 report found that in every county with both a jail and a psychiatric facility, a higher number of mentally ill adults were incarcerated than in a mental health facility. Not surprisingly, then, an estimated 16 percent of inmates in jails and prisons have a severe mental illness. Accordingly, anyone with a mental illness is three times more likely to be behind bars than in a psychiatric facility. More statistics: The number of patients cared for in state psychiatric facilities in 1955 totaled about 560,000. That number had dropped to 45,000 in 2015. Looking at it another way, the number of psychiatric beds for every 1 million residents in 1955 equaled 680. In 2005, the number of those beds for every 1 million residents had dropped to 34. Sadly, less than 40 percent of adults with severe mental illness did not receive any psychiatric care within the last year.

The story of Tyler Haire illustrates the problem of the lack of beds for those who have a mental illness. Haire, a 16-year-old boy who received seven different diagnoses of mental illness from health professionals, stabbed his father’s girlfriend, so authorities placed him in jail awaiting a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation. Tyler ended up spending almost three and a half years in prison on the waitlist for one of the 15 beds in the state mental hospital. During this period, he never saw a psychiatrist or a therapist, and no doctor ever prescribed him any psychiatric medicine. Instead, correctional officers repeatedly put him in solitary confinement, which only worsens the symptoms of the mentally ill.  

Most people who have a mental disability are not violent. Many are brilliant. Various films provide us with examples of that. Here are three of my favorites.

Who can forget lovable Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant, who is the subject of the true story of Rain Man:[ii]   

Or the true story of Nathaniel Ayres, a homeless, mentally ill, musician, discovered by journalist Steve Lopez, who attempts to improve Ayres living conditions in The Soloist:[iii]

Or finally, the mathematical genius of Nobel Prize winner, John Nash, who battles paranoid schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind:[iv]

Most, if not all, of us, have a family member or a friend who has a mental illness. Perhaps we, ourselves, are the sufferer. Everyone has their individual quirks that others might find abnormal. I mean, what’s normal anyway? I happen to be highly claustrophobic. Trust me; you don’t want to be in a stuck elevator with me or seated next to me on a long plane ride or be the doctor who has to perform a procedure on me that requires me to remain still for more than a minute. I realize my phobia is entirely irrational, but my panic attacks are real. Medication, when needed, has become a lifesaver for me, as well as someone there to help me get through the panic attacks. I have relied on my good wife to talk me through more than a handful of such attacks.

But that’s part of the problem with many who have a mental illness. Those most willing to help those suffering, are not allowed to do so. We need to rebalance privacy and civil liberties laws against the need to provide real treatment – making it easier, with appropriate safeguards, for the family to intervene to help their loved ones. And we need to decriminalize mental illness by utilizing mental health courts and emphasizing treatment over punishment. Along with that, first responders (usually the police) need to be better trained to deal with the mentally ill. Sadly, at least one in four persons fatally shot by police have a mental illness. That seems incredible, but when you think about it, unlike other noncontagious diseases like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, who do we call first when dealing with mental illness? Not a medical professional, but the police. Things need to change. It seems to me that mental health reform would be one area where both sides of the aisle of Congress could agree.

Most of us have little power to change laws or secure funding for more mental health facilities (although we can, and should, express our concerns to our respective legislative representatives). So, what can each of us do to help?

First and foremost, love the sufferer. I realize from my own experience that is not always easy to do. I sometimes feel similar Alicia, the wife of John Nash, who answers the question, “Alicia, how are you holding up?” in A Beautiful Mind this way:

“I think often what I feel is obligation. Or guilt for having ever wanted to leave. Rage, against John, against God. But then I look at him and I force myself to see the man that I married, and he becomes that man. He’s transformed into someone I love. And I’m transformed into someone who loves him. It’s not all the time, but it’s enough.”

When dealing with family and friends who have a mental illness, let’s not forget the underlying person we love.

Second, but equally important, is help reduce the stigma around mental illness. If a loved one or we are suffering from a mental illness, we don’t like to talk about it because we are ashamed or embarrassed. But a person with mental illness, like any other disease, did not ask for their condition, and they should not be defined by it. Fortunately, we are starting to stop referring to people with a mental illness as “He’s bipolar,” or “She’s schizophrenic,” but instead, as someone who suffers from such diseases. But still, the stigma continues. Most of us still find it hard to admit to others (and often ourselves) that we need medication to help us get through the day.

 The documentary, Bedlam,[v] premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival. I have not had a chance to see it yet, but I heard about it from a Radio West podcast.[vi] The documentary dives into the unacceptable conditions of our current mental health system. In one scene, the sister of a person with mental illness describes the problem that arises from the stigma we place on these diseases:

“My mom didn’t want to tell people about my brother’s mental illness, and at first she didn’t. There is a lot of shame, in black communities in particular, around mental illness. Shame is dangerous because shame makes you hide things. And when we hide things, we don’t get the support we need. And when we hide things, we are not as honest and transparent about our needs. And I think that shame literally kills people. Shame kills our possibilities of having something different.”

We need to do better. If you have a mental illness, large or small, find the help you need. If your loved one has a mental illness, help that person get the help he or she needs in the spirit of love and understanding.

Mental illness is everyone’s problem. It is time we own it.

[i] Changeling:

  • Production Companies: Imagine Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, and Relativity Media
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenwriter: J. Michael Straczynski
  • Starring: Angeline Jolie, Colm Feore, and Amy Ryan
  • Release date: October 31, 2008

[ii] Rain Man:

  • Production Companies: United Artists, The Guber-Peters Company, and Star Partners II Ltd.
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Screenwriter: Ronald Bass (based on the story by Barry Morrow)
  • Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, and Valeria Golino
  • Release date: December 16, 1988

[iii] The Soloist:

  • Production Companies: DreamWorks, Universal Pictures, and StudioCanal
  • Director: Joe Wright
  • Screenwriter: Susannah Grant (based on the book by Steve Lopez)
  • Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey, Jr., and Catherine Keener
  • Release date: April 4, 2009

[iv] A Beautiful Mind:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, DreamWorks, and Imagine Entertainment
  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Screenwriter: Akiva Goldsman (based on the book by Sylvia Nasar)
  • Starring: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, and Jennifer Connelly
  • Release date: January 4, 2002

[v] Bedlam:

  • Director: Kenneth Paul Rosenberg
  • Screenwriter: Peter Miller and Kenneth Paul Rosenberg
  • Starring: Eddie Anderson and Patrisse Cullors
  • Release date: January 2019

[vi] Radio West Podcast hosted by Doug Fabrizio of KUER Radio, dated February 1, 2019

The Opposite of Addiction is Connection

Several movies have come out in the past few months that got me thinking about drugs – not about taking them – but about the cost of drug addiction, both financial or otherwise. And like most things in the modern world, drug abuse has gotten more complicated. My thoughts about drugs have led me to these conclusions: (i) our views about drugs often change as our culture changes; (ii) drug abuse of any kind affects much more than just the abuser, and (iii) as we are currently fighting it, we are losing the war on drugs.

A Good Drug or a Bad Drug?

Growing up, about the only drugs I remember hearing about were vaccines, penicillin, heroin, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana. Of course, society back then considered vaccines and penicillin to be useful drugs, and deemed heroin, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana to be dangerous drugs – so terrible they were made illegal. We placed alcohol, which is also a drug, in the middle, making it generally legal for adults, unless you do something else unlawful while under its influence. I came of age in the 70s, along with a new drug culture. Mind-altering drugs became mainstream, with music leading the way. Peter, Paul and Mary sang about Puff, the Magic Dragon (although they denied it was anything more than a children’s song), the Beatles sang about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD), and Jefferson Airplane sang about how one pill makes you larger, and another makes you small.     

As our culture changes, so do our views about drugs. A century ago, cocaine was a legal drug and often prescribed by doctors in the form of laudanum. The soft drink Coca Cola originally had cocaine in it. And our views about marijuana have changed, as it is now legally used in at least 39 states for medical uses; nine of which have legalized it for even recreational use.

 Now, the drugs of choice are antidepressants – which most people consider to be a beneficial drug. According to a recent report by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in eight Americans over the age of twelve take antidepressants. Women are twice as likely to take antidepressants as men, and overall, the taking of antidepressants by all Americans has risen by 65 percent from 1999 to 2014. The use of antidepressants increases the older we get. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, for every 100 women and men over age 75, 60 percent of women and 32 percent of men take antidepressants.

Please don’t misunderstand me; antidepressants help a lot of people, including several members of my own family. These drugs, when used correctly, can be lifesavers for those that need them.

The Victims of Drug Abuse

But the proper use of drugs is the key. When we think of drug abuse, we often only think about the abuser. If people want to ruin their lives, we might say to ourselves, then let them. It’s none of my business. But with all things surrounding drugs, it is never quite that simple. The film, Ben is Back,[i] is about a young man (Ben) who returns home from drug rehab and how his return affects the rest of the family, especially his mother. Ben, as an opiate abuser who can no longer be trusted, even in connection with simple, ordinary events, as illustrated by this scene:

With any abuser, drug or otherwise, a strange dynamic arises between the abuser and the abuser’s support system. The supporters, based on experience, often end up hiding drugs, money, or information from the abuser – actions strangely similar to what the abuser might do. The primary factor in the relationship between the abuser and the supporter is a loss of trust in the abuser, and any time there is a loss of that trust, it takes time and many positive experiences to regain it. The heart of Ben is Back is Ben’s mother trying to extricate Ben from his previous life, which turns out not to be easy. Ultimately, the film is a tribute to a mother’s unconditional love who will do anything to help her son. Although fictional, the story of Ben and his family is all too familiar in America today, as the annual number of deaths from opiate overdoses now exceeds the number of gun homicides. And mainstream drug addiction has spread from inner-cities to the suburbs, touching all races, ethnicities, and economic levels.

Fathers get their due in Beautiful Boy,[ii] the true story of a father coping with his son’s opiate addiction of many years. This scene from the film, reminds us that being a parent of a substance abuser is difficult, and one of the most significant difficulties is helping the abuser to see themselves as anything other than an abuser:

One of the saddest scenes in the movie is when Nic (the beautiful boy) describes how, after a while, an abuser no longer gets any high from the drug. Still, they keep taking it merely to stay alive. It is a real prison, just as real as if the abuser was behind real bars. But there is hope. I honor those parents who continue to have faith in their children regardless of the circumstances. Here is the ending scene from Beautiful Boy:

But the effects of drug abuse are not limited to families of the abusers. Illegal drugs affect all of society. According to the U.S. government, the economic costs of illicit drugs exceeds over $215 billion a year in America. Illicit drugs result in an overworked justice system, crowded prisons, a strained healthcare system, and a general loss of productivity, among other adverse effects. In 2007, an estimated 2.1 million American children (3%) lived with at least one parent who was dependent on or abused illicit drugs, and 1 in 10 children under 18 lived with a substance-addicted or substance-abusing parent. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated in 1999 that substance abuse was a factor in two-thirds of all foster care placements. In my own extended family, we have taken in two foster children, both the direct result of drug abuse by a parent. The FBI reports that 12.2 percent of more than 14 million arrests in 2008 were for drug violations, the most common arrest crime category. The proportion of total drug arrests has increased over the past 20 years, as in 1987, only 7.4 percent of all arrests were for drug violations. Approximately 4 percent of all homicides in 2008 were drug-related.

In The Mule,[iii] a movie based on actual events, Clint Eastwood plays fictional character Earl Stone, a character based on the 90-year old real life WWII veteran, Leo Sharp. Stone, like the real-life Sharp, is a horticulturalist who ens up smuggling drugs for a drug cartel out of financial desperation. Here is the trailer for the film:      

Although Stone uses the cash he receives from running heroin and cocaine to right past wrongs in sort of a Robinhood fashion, he realizes that money alone cannot correct his past neglect of his family.

Is There a Better Way?

America has been fighting drugs for over a century now. In the beginning, we focused on suppliers. The country passed its first drug law in 1914, which restricted the manufacture and sale of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and morphine. 

In 1971, President Nixon declared war on drugs, calling it “America’s public enemy number one.”  He created the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973. That agency began Operation Intercept designed to pressure Mexico into regulating its marijuana production.  The U.S. government spent hundreds of millions of dollars closing up the border. We were successful in curtailing some of the supply of Mexican marijuana in America, at least for a time, but Columbia quickly stepped in to fill the void. Every effort since then to stop the supply of drugs into America has mostly resulted in the reorganization of drug trafficking, but with no overall reduction in the amount entering the country.

Johan Hari, in an article in the Huffington Post in February of 2015,[iv] suggests another way. Hari describes early experiments with rats where experimenters put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One was just water. The other was water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat became obsessed with the drugged water and kept coming back for more until it killed itself. But in the 70s, psychologist Bruce Alexander changed the experiment. Instead of putting a rat alone in a cage with nothing to do but sip water or cocaine, he put rats in what he called Rat Park – a home full of good rat food, balls to play with, and more importantly, other rats. All the rats in Rat Park tried both bottles, but when the rats were living the good life full of good food, family and friends, they shunned the drugged water. None of them died, and they consumed less than a quarter of the drugs an isolated rat used.  

Subsequent experiments then took drug-addicted rats and moved them into Rat Park. Amazingly, the addicted rats initially had a few twitches of withdrawal, but soon stopped their heavy drug use and went back to having a normal life.

Hari quotes Professor Peter Cohen who states, “human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

In 2001, Portugal took a different approach to the war on drugs and began treating addiction as a disease. It decriminalized the use of all drugs. At the time, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with one percent of the population addicted to heroin. They took the money they had been using to arrest and jail drug addicts and spend it instead on reconnecting them — to their own feelings, their families, and society in general. The country helped them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so the addict would have a reason to get out of bed each day.

Since Portugal’s decriminalization, addiction has fallen about 75 percent, and the number of deaths from drug overdoses dropped by almost 85 percent. In contrast, in 2016, about 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined. Portugal’s is not a perfect system, but it seems to be working better than ours.

Like rats, humans need connections. I am a loner by nature, but even us loners need to bond with at least a few family and friends and to have a purpose in life. Like the characters in Ben is Back and Beautiful Boy, strong connections can be the most significant factor in helping the addict. In my experience, loving a “sinner” – addict or otherwise – always works better than shaming and isolating.

[i] Ben is Back

  • Production Companies: Black Bear Pictures, 30West, and Color Force
  • Director: Peter Hedges
  • Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
  • Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, and Courtney B. Vance
  • Release date: December 9, 2018

[ii] Beautiful Boy

  • Production Companies: Amazon Studios, Big Indie Pictures, and Plan B Entertainment
  • Director: Felix van Groeningen
  • Screenwriters: Luke Davies and Felix van Groeningen
  • Starring: Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, and Timothée Chalamet
  • Release date: October 14, 2018

[iii]  The Mule

  • Production Companies: Warner Bros., Imperative Entertainment, and Bron Creative
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenwriter: Sa, Dolnick
  • Starring: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, and Manny Montana
  • Release date: December 16, 2018

[iv] Hari, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think,” The Huffington Post (February 13, 2015).