Category Archives: Uncategorized

Peaking Too Soon

My sons often joke about how they peaked too soon when it came to their athletic abilities. I guess I am one of the boys, as I also peaked too early in sports and popularity. I reached my apex in junior high school. I started the climb in seventh grade when I was one of only two from my class to make the school basketball team (we only had one for the entire school). A year later, I played little league football for the first and only time but started both ways. A year after that, I gave up football for volleyball. My junior high school had no football team, so, in ninth grade, I figured I would play volleyball instead to help maximize my popularity. I mean, no one but parents attended little league football games, and even my parents didn’t come that often. But the school forced all students to watch the volleyball and basketball games, as we played them during the last hour and a half of school. What better way to improve my popularity than have the entire student body come and watch me play? Or so I thought back then. 

But ninth grade didn’t always go as I had planned. The school volleyball coach cut me from the team. But, through the influence of my basketball coach, the volleyball coach asked me to come back. I started as the twelfth man on the squad, but by midseason, I was starting. Then came basketball, where I started every game and was one of the leading scorers. But it wasn’t just in sports where I did well. The drama teacher picked me for the lead in our graduation play, and I took a popular cheerleader to the graduation dance. Oh, and that was the year I had my first kiss. But it was all downhill from there. I never made a high school varsity team; no one picked me for the lead in any high school play, and I didn’t date much either. I rationalized that sports and popularity were overrated.

But junior high school was also the time that I fell in love with movies. In the eighth grade, my brother asked me to go with him to see one. It was a film he had already seen, but he wanted to see it again. On the way to the theater, he told me, “You might think this is just a dirty movie, but I loved it. He took me to see The Graduate.[i] And I loved it, too. At first, I thought it was cool that an older, married woman seduced Ben. But then I saw the bigger picture. Mrs. Robinson was in a loveless marriage, and she was having loveless sex with Ben. Ben’s parents, the Robinsons, and all of their friends pursued happiness through material possessions, but none of those possessions brought them any real joy. Only Ben’s connection with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, had meaning for Ben. And he worried about his future. The Graduate got me thinking about my future. Would I marry for love, and would that love last? (Fortunately, yes!) Would I find a career that challenged me? Or would it merely be a means to material possessions, which might not bring me much happiness? Here is the final scene from The Graduate:

I love that scene. The expressions on Ben’s and Elaine’s faces as they ride that bus says it all. I have often wondered if Ben and Elaine would make it together. By the looks on their faces, I’m not sure knew either. But they were willing to take a risk (even a crazy one) to live more fulfilling lives than their parents. It taught me I wanted a fulfilling life as well. And to start figuring out how I could get it.

About this time, one of my best friends and I decided to see Cool Hand Luke.[ii] Here is the scene where Luke gets his nickname:

Cool Hand Luke is, well, cool. But I love his philosophy: even nothing can be a cool hand. And that is how he lived his life. He always tried to find some fun in every situation, even when—especially when—he was in prison. Life can dump hardship on us. Sometimes it is our fault, but sometimes not. Regardless of blame, no one is immune to tragedy. But we have a choice on how we react and deal with it. As someone once said, “No one ever hurt their eyes by looking at the bright side of things.”

In the Heat of the Night[iii] won the Oscar for the best picture of 1967. It wasn’t my favorite movie that year (see above), but it was the first movie that put race relations in front of me. When I saw it, I don’t think I even knew a person of color, let alone associated with one. But In The Heat of the Night exposed me to a problem that 50 years later, we still haven’t fixed. Watching movies that focus on marginalized groups became one of my favorite things to do, and hopefully, taught me to be at least a little less racist than I might have otherwise become. Perhaps the most famous line from the film is, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” But I like this scene better, as it taught me what it might be like to be black in the South in the sixties:

In ninth grade, at the peak of my popularity, I watched two movies that had a significant impact on me. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?[iv] I witnessed what it might be like not to know where your next meal might come from. I learned to be grateful for what I had and to be aware of others less fortunate. I have tried to live with the message of that movie always in the back of my mind. Fortunately, I married a woman who was far better at helping others than I would have been on m own. As she reminds me, “What good are material possessions if you don’t share them with family and friends?” But with Janene, being family or friends is not a prerequisite to her generosity. Sadly, people sometimes treat animals better than they treat their fellow humans, as illustrated by this scene:

I believe part of our responsibility in this life is to help relieve suffering. With COVID-19 still a pandemic and disproportionately affecting the poor and persons of color, there are plenty of opportunities for us to help those suffering all around us.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid[v] became my favorite movie of 1969. I loved Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and that love turned into a full-blown bromance after watching Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. I have to admit, though, I was a little jealous of The Kid (played by Robert Redford) because he got the girl (played by Katharine Ross, who also played Elaine in the Graduate). Both Butch and the Kid were cool and lived life to the fullest, and had fun as they went (well, until Bolivia at least).

I loved the movie so much, for drama class, my buddy and I decided to do a reader’s theater scene based on several scenes from the film. Here is one of the scenes we used:

At the end of our performance, we jumped off the stage together, like in the movie.  Afterward (we got an A, by the way), I asked my drama teacher, “Didn’t you love the movie?  She replied that she had never seen it. I was shocked. One of the best movies of all time and my drama teacher had never seen it!  She explained in words that shocked me even more. “I don’t support immoral movies.” My drama teacher was no prude. She had liberal views on just about everything, from social injustice to religion.

Immoral?  Huh?  She then explained. “I consider it immoral because it makes the viewer root for robbers and murderers.  Do we want people like them to be our heroes?”

I had never thought of it in that light before.  I did root for Butch and the Kid as they spent their days robbing banks and trains. Their Wild Bunch Gang murdered more than a half dozen law enforcement officers. And I admit I felt sad when the law finally caught up with them in Bolivia and presumably killed them.

I still watch movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And I still enjoy them. But I have never forgotten those words from my drama teacher. And now, after almost every film I watch, I think about right and wrong and what I can learn from it, either as a good example or a bad one.

I don’t wish to go back to my glory days of junior high. But I am glad I lived them, primarily because those years taught me that everything important in life, I can learn from watching movies.

[i] The Graduate:

  • Production Company: Lawrence Truman Productions
  • Director: Mike Nichols
  • Screenwriters: Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (based on the novel by Charles Webb)
  • Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross
  • Release date: December 21, 1967

[ii] Cool Hand Luke:

  • Production Company: Jalem Productions
  • Director: Stuart Rosenberg
  • Screenwriters: Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson
  • Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, and Strother Martin
  • Release date: November 1, 1967

[iii] In the Heat of the Night:

  • Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation
  • Director: Norman Jewison
  • Screenwriter: Sterling Stilliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)
  • Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, and Warren Oates
  • Release date: August 2, 1967

[iv] They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?:

  • Production Companies: Palomar Pictures and American Broadcasting Company (ABC)
  • Director: Sidney Pollack
  • Screenwriter: James Poe (based on the novel by Horace McCoy)
  • Starring: Jane Fonda, Micheal Sarrazin, and Susannah York
  • Release date: December 10, 1969

[v] Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

  • Production Companies: Campanile Productions, George Roy Hill-Paul Monash Productions, and Newman-Foreman Company
  • Director: George Roy Hill
  • Screenwriter: William Goldman
  • Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
  • Release date: September 24, 1969

It’s Time to Face the Facts

African American writer and activist James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” America, it appears, has finally started to face its institutional racism. Most of the people I associate with are not overtly racist. But some of us might be without even realizing it. But whether individuals are racist, openly or otherwise, the American system seems to be stacked against persons of color. While modern-day Americans might no longer harbor the racism that once motivated the establishment of racist practices, the effects of that old racism remain. In short, life is hard for everyone, but if you are a person of color, your race is making your life harder.     

Racism is not a new topic for this blog. I have repeatedly discussed films with themes challenging prejudice, protests, the criminal justice system, and economic inequalities.[i] But following the brutal murder of George Floyd, it feels as if we are facing America’s prejudices for the first time in a meaningful way that could bring about change.   

While you can find numbers to prove almost anything, there are so many statistics illustrating the challenges African Americans have faced during the history of this country, there must be some truth to the racism behind them. Here are a few of those statistics (as well as a few movies based or inspired by true stories related to those statistics).

Americans imported over twelve million Africans, chained below deck in cargo ships, and sold and traded them as slaves. The labor forced upon these slaves made them less than human. If you don’t believe me, watch 12 Years a Slave or the miniseries, Roots. The Founding Fathers, not sure whether slaves were people or property, split the difference—counting a slave as three-fifths of a person to establish each state’s number of elected representatives. It took a bloody civil war, the deadliest of all American conflicts, to end the legalized practice of slavery. Although the Union army did not use African Americans in combat as much as it could have, by the war’s end, 179,000 served (making up ten percent of the Union’s army). Over 40,000 African Americans died because of the war, 30,000 from diseases. Watch the films, Glory or Harriet, to get a sense of African American soldiers’ contributions to the Union cause.   

After the Civil War, the country replaced slavery with other forms of racial hierarchy, enforced through lynchings, disenfranchisement, and segregation. According to the NAACP, from 1882 to 1968, America lynched 4,743 persons, 3,446 of whom (or 72.7 percent) were African American. Watch Rosewood, for an account of vigilante (in)justice against African Americans. Jim Crow laws reinforced the “less than” status of black Americans. Watch The Help or The Green Book to get a sense of what that segregation was like. Poll taxes, literacy tests, property ownership requirements, and strict registration laws prevented many blacks from voting. A hundred years after the Civil War, the federal government finally began declaring such practices illegal. Watch Mississippi Burning to see how difficult it was to register African American voters even after the changes in the law.

Most of us can acknowledge the sad history of race relations in America. And although things have improved, racism remains a part of America’s culture without most of us knowing it. For example, during the Great Depression, Congress created Social Security to help guarantee a stable retirement for most Americans. But when initially passed, it excluded domestic and agricultural workers, rendering 67 percent of black Americans ineligible for that benefit. Banking laws and practices made it all but impossible for black Americans to obtain mortgages for houses in certain areas, effectively keeping them in the poorest sections of cities and towns. And although Congress has eliminated those banking practices, its effects remain. In 2016, the average African American household was worth $17,000, while the average white-owned home was worth more than $170,000. In 2018, 72 percent of whites owned a home. For African Americans, it was only 42 percent.

The film, The Banker,[ii] tells the story of Bernard Garrett (played by Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who help other African Americans pursue homeownership. They do this by training a working-class man, Matt Steiner (played by Nicholas Hoult), to pose as the wealthy and privileged face of the real estate and banking empire they have created. But their success catches the attention of the federal government. Here is the closing argument of Bernard Garrett before a Congressional committee:

Those hearings led to prohibitions against discrimination in housing and banking practices. But the disparity between black and white housing has other effects. Although the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954, more than half of America’s children still attend racially concentrated schools. That’s a school that has more the 75 percent of its students either white or persons of color. Since most school districts rely primarily on local property taxes for funding, the economic resources of predominantly black schools are significantly below those of mostly white schools. According to a 2018 report from the nonprofit EdBuild, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more than those serving primarily students of color. That means the average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less per student than a white school district.

And the disparity continues into higher education. According to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 64 percent of whites entering college complete their degree within six years. For black students, only 39 percent complete their degrees.

Of course, disparities in education translates into less earning power. According to census data, black families with a new-born baby have a median annual income of $36,300. For a white family, it is $80,000. But even black Americans with advanced degrees are not competing with their white counterparts, earning only 82 cents for every dollar earned by whites. For black women, the gap is worse, making only 64 cents per dollar. When it comes to net worth, according to William A. Darity, the co-author of From Here to Equality, blacks make up 13 percent of the population but hold only 2.6 percent of its wealth. Incredibly, the net worth of black American heads of households with a college degree averages only two-thirds the net worth of white heads of families who didn’t even graduate from high school.

Less income means less saved for retirement. Sixty percent of white families have at least one retirement account; only 34 percent of black families do. And the median balance of those accounts is $151,000 for whites compared to only $46,100 for blacks. All this means there is less wealth to pass on to the next generation. The median inheritance for whites in 2016 was over $56,000; for blacks, it was only $38,000.

And we haven’t even touched the disparity between whites and blacks in healthcare where a black woman is almost four times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. As of 2018, 9.7 percent of black Americans have no health insurance, while only 5.4 percent of whites are uninsured. And blacks are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of our inherently racist society is in the criminal justice system. It is a system designed to keep a person in it once entered, regardless of race, but it affects blacks harder than whites. If you don’t believe me, watch the films, Detroit, The 13th, Brian Banks, and 16 Shots, and the Netflix series, When They See Us. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2.3 million persons currently behind bars, with 7 million more on probation or parole. Unbelievably, one in three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail or on probation or parole. In large urban areas such as Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., those percentages increase to between 50 and 60 percent. In Alabama, 34 percent of all black men have permanently lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction.

If you are thinking, well, it’s good that all these felons are behind bars, making our streets safer for the rest of us, think again. Two-thirds of the people currently in jail are there while they wait for their day in court. In other words, they have not been convicted of their alleged crime and remain incarcerated because the court denied them bail, or they are too poor to pay it. Of the 12 million arrests in this country, only five percent of those are for violent crimes. Only five percent! The vast majority of arrests (about 75 percent) are for low-level misdemeanors. If you think the system is always fair to all races and all economic classes, then consider the homeless man in Texas who, on a cold night, stole four blankets to keep warm. He spent eight months in jail awaiting his trial because he had no means to pay the $3500 bail. Or the Louisiana court that sentenced a man to 13 years in prison for possession of two marijuana joints.  

The film, Brian Banks,[iii] is the true story of an African American unjustly accused of rape by his 16-year-old classmate. While his accuser was also black, it is a compelling tale of how difficult it is to prove your innocence once the system finds you guilty—even of a crime you didn’t commit. Even his lawyer, Justin Brooks (played by Greg Kinnear), who started the Innocence Project in California, acknowledges how one-sided the system is in this clip:

The movie, Just Mercy,[iv] is based on the early career of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), who has tirelessly represented individuals that the system has wronged. Here is his closing argument in the case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), on death row for a crime he did not commit:

DNA evidence ultimately exonerated McMillian, but how many others are there like him? As of 2018, courts have exonerated 367 convicted persons by DNA evidence. Of those, 61 percent are black. Stevenson, who also specializes in defending young boys who are tried as adults (some as young as 13 years old), argues that race and wealth need to come out of the justice equation. He often asks the question, how does it happen that we allow judges to turn a young boy, maybe as young as 13, into something he is not [an adult]? He would like that same young boy to be turned into a 70-year-old white CEO of a major company and see what justice looks like then.  Or, in his words, “The opposite of poverty in America is not wealth; it’s justice.”

There is much work to be done to break down the institutional racism of America. Those of us who enjoy white privilege need first to educate ourselves about the problem. Watch the films I suggest in this blog. Take the time to listen to those of different races, cultures, and wealth and learn to empathize with them. As Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird counsels, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

 I recently watched The Best of Enemies,[v] a film about the integration of public schools in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971.  It pitted civil rights activist Ann Atwater (played by Taraji P. Henson), against C.P. Ellis (played by Sam Rockwell), the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As these two enemies work together, they learn to realize, as Atwater says to Ellis, “The same God made you, made me.” Here is the trailer from the film:

I close with this quote from Jake Tyler Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey) in the movie A Time to Kill: “Until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be even-handed. It will remain nothing more than a reflection of our own prejudices.”

Come on, America. We can do better.

[i] See for example:

[ii] The Banker:

  • Production Companies: Romulus Entertainment, Hyphenate Films, and Iam21 Entertainment
  • Director: George Nolfi
  • Screenwriters: Niceole R. Levy and George Nolfi
  • Starring: Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Nicholas Hoult  
  • Release date: March 20, 2020

[iii] Brian Banks:

  • Production Companies: ShivHans Pictures, and Gidden Media
  • Director: Tom Shadyac
  • Screenwriter: Doug Atchison
  • Starring: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, and Sherri Shepherd
  • Release date: August 11, 2019

[iv] Just Mercy:

  • Production Companies: Warner Bros., Endeavor Content, and One Community
  • Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
  • Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
  • Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
  • Release date: January 10, 2020

[v] The Best of Enemies:

  • Production Companies: Astute Films and Material Pictures
  • Director: Robin Bissell
  • Screenwriters: Robin Bissel and Osha Gray Davidson
  • Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, and Babou Ceesay
  • Release date: April 5, 2019

A Day of Remembrance

A week ago Friday, I was scooting around Lake Kiowa on my PWC when I noticed a flag at half-mast. I wondered who had died. The only person I could think of was Jerry Sloan, the long-time coach of the Utah Jazz. I doubted, here in Texas, that the half-mast flag would be for him. Then it hit me. Duh! It was Memorial Day weekend. It saddens me a little that, for many of us, Memorial Day is just another reason to have a barbeque with the family. While no one enjoys getting together with the family for good food and fun more than me, I figured it was also time to reflect on those who gave all so the rest of us might live free.

Growing up, we called it Decoration Day. It was a day the family went to the cemetery and decorated graves. I remember some graves had little American flags next to their headstones, honoring military veterans. And that is what started it all. Soon after the Civil War, people began decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. A Civil War veteran, General John A. Logan, made the holiday official by declaring, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

It wasn’t until 1971 that Decoration Day became Memorial Day, and moved from May 30th each year to the last Monday of May. Despite the well-intended efforts of my Texas neighbor, on Memorial Day, the proper way to fly the flag is to first raise it quickly to the top of the pole, then slowly lower it to half-mast until noon, and then raise it back to the top (or full mast) for the rest of the day. In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which asks all Americans to pause at 3:00 pm on Memorial Day to give a minute of silence in honor of those who died while in military service. Who knew?

And many have died in such service. According to statistics published last year by the Department of Defense, here are the number of military personnel who have died in battle:

  • The Revolutionary War:                         4,435
  • The War of 1812:                                     2,260
  • The Indian Wars:                                    1,000
  • The Mexican War:                                13,283
  • The Civil War:                                    498,332
  • The Spanish American War:                   2,446
  • World War I:                                       116,516
  • World War II:                                     405,399
  • The Korean War:                                  54,246
  • The Vietnam War:                              90,220
  • The Wars on Terror:                              6,852
  • The total number of American soldiers killed in war is over 1.1 million. The Civil War remains our bloodiest. Two percent of the country’s population died, which is the equivalent of 6 million today. Our bloodiest battle was the battle of Argonne Forest during World War I, where over 26,000 American soldiers died. During World War II, about 12 percent of the total U.S. population was a part of the armed forces. Today, out of a nation of nearly 329 million people, only 1.3 million Americans are in active duty military, and another 800,000 serve in the reserves—less than one percent.

Growing up, my parents had a copy of the film, Gone With the Wind.[i] As a kid, I found the movie boring. But one scene had an impact on me and helped me visualize the horrors of the Civil War. It was this scene following the Battle of Atlanta:

But war is not about the numbers killed or wounded. Real people are involved and affected by it, and none more than family and friends at home. Vera Brittain was one of those. She served as a nurse during World War I and witnessed the death of her brother, her fiancée, and two of her closest friends. Here is a scene from the movie, Testament of Youth[ii] (based on her memoir):

We sometimes forget the suffering, pain, and grief that results from war is the same on both sides. There is no real victor in war, except perhaps the manufacturer of coffins.

The generation who lived through World War II became known as the greatest generation because of their courage and strength of character. Perhaps the best example of those qualities is Desmond Doss, who, as a conscientious objector, volunteered to serve as a medic. As this scene from Hacksaw Ridge[iii] illustrates, because of his religious convictions, his enemy was not only the Japanese but sometimes his fellow Americans:

The U.S. Government twice awarded Doss the Bronze Star for his actions in Guam and the Phillippines. Then, during the battle of Okinawa, he saved the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers and received the Medal of Honor for his actions. He remains today the only conscientious objector to receive that honor.

You don’t find too many comedies made about war. But perhaps the best movie made about the Korean War is just that—a comedy. I  saw MASH[iv] while in high school. Here is a trailer for the film that gives a glimpse of blood and laughter surrounding at least one MASH unit:

My high school friend’s dad was a surgeon during the Korean War in a MASH unit. He told us the film is a fair representation of what his life was like during the war. You always had to be joking, pranking, and looking at the bright side of things, or the pain, despair, and death would drive you crazy.

I was a teenager for most of the Vietnam War. I was old enough to know that I didn’t support the war (primarily because I could be one of those fighting it), but too young to understand the horrors of it entirely, and what it did to the young men who fought there. The movie, The Last Full Measure,[v] tells the story of how a group of Vietnam vets worked for almost 35 years after the war to get a fellow soldier, Airman William H. Pitsenbarger, Jr., awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. In this scene, Tom Tulley (played by William Hurt) exhibits survivor’s guilt when he admits that he was glad it was Pitsenbarger, not him, that entered the jungle to help the injured, and ultimately died because of his actions: 

Even those who survive the killing come back changed—many scarred by what they experienced. And sometimes those scars are just as deep in the ones they left at home. 

Similar to Desmond Doss, Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescue airman—those medics in helicopters whose job it was to help the injured on the ground below. He flew over 300 missions during the war and later died in a battle after rescuing 60 of his fellow soldiers.

We are now fighting the war against terror. Similar to the Vietnam War, I wonder whether this war is worth the sacrifice of so many young men and women. But I will save the politics of war for another blog post. Whatever you think of war, all of us should admire how the military honors their dead. My favorite film in that regard is Taking Chance.[vi] Here is one of my favorite scenes, followed by a tribute to the real Chance Phelps, upon which this movie is based:

That clip hits me in the gut every time. Similar to Lt. Colonel Mike Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon), I did not know Chance Phelps or any other person who has died in the war on terrorism. But today I miss them. I grieve for their families. And I thank them all for their ultimate sacrifice.

Perhaps the best way we can honor the sacrifices of our military men and women is to put them out of a job. Or, as John Lennon encourages us, let’s give peace a chance. I am not so naïve to think we could ever wholly dismantle our military. But we should hate war and declare peace wherever and whenever we can. Armed conflict should always be the last resort. In that regard, I repeat the words of Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander) from Testament of Youth:

“I speak to those of us who are left behind—the mothers, the sisters, women—we send our men to war … because we think it is the right thing, the honorable thing. But all I can do is stand here and ask you, is it? Is it right? Can I find the courage to accept there might be another way? Perhaps their deaths have meaning only if we stand together now and say no. No to killing. No to war. No to the endless cycle of revenge. I say no more of it. No more.”

There has to be a better way. Helen Keller once said, “I do not want the peace that passes understanding; I want the understanding that brings peace.” Understanding ourselves and others is the key to peace. I close with these beautiful words of Graeme Edge: “And he thought of those he angered for he was not a violent man. And he thought of those he hurt, for he was not a cruel man. And he thought of those he frightened, for he was not an evil man. And he understood. He understood himself. Upon this, he saw when he was angered or knew hurt or felt fear it was because he was not understanding. And he learned compassion. And with his eye of compassion, he saw his enemies like unto himself. And he learned love.” 

May it ever be so with all of us.

[i] Gone With the Wind:

  • Production Companies: Selznick International Pictures and Metro-Golden-Mayer 
  • Directors: Victor Fleming and George Cukor
  • Screenwriter: Sidney Howard (based on the book by Margeret Mitchell)
  • Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
  • Release date: January 17, 1940

[ii] Testament of Youth:

  • Production Companies: BBC Films, BFI Film  Fund, Heyday Films
  • Director: James  Kent
  • Screenwriter: Juliette Towhidi (based on the Memoir of Vera Brittain)
  • Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton
  • Release date: January 16, 2015

[iii] Hacksaw Ridge:

  • Production Companies: Summit Enetertainment, Cross Creek Pictures, Demarest Films
  • Director: Mel Gibson
  • Screenwriters: Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
  • Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, and Luke Bracey
  • Release date: November 4, 2016

[iv] MASH:

  • Production Companies: Aspen Productions (I), Ingo Preminger Productions, Twentieth Century Fox
  • Director: Robert Altman
  • Screenwriter: Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on the novel by Richard Hooker)
  • Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt
  • Release date: March 18, 1970

[v] The Last Full Measure:

  • Production Companies: Foresight Unlimited, Provocator, SSS Entertainment
  • Director: Todd Robinson
  • Screenwriter: Todd Robinson
  • Starring: Sebastian Stan, Alison Sudol, Asher Miles Fallica
  • Release date: January 24, 2020

[vi] Taking Chance:

  • Production Companies: HBO Films, Motion Picture Corporation of America, Civil Dawn Pictures
  • Director: Ross Katz
  • Screenwriters: Michael Strobl and Ross Katz
  • Starring: Kevin Bacon, Tom Aldredge, Nicolas Art
  • Release date: February 21, 2009

While Making Other Plans

In his song, Beautiful Boy, John Lennon uses the lyric, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.[i] How true that is! In life (and in movies) often the best, well-thought-out plans do not go as we intend. That is what keeps films interesting—and life challenging.

We learn from movies that sometimes the guy doesn’t get the girl, or the girl doesn’t get the guy. In this scene from La La Land,[ii] Mia (played by Emma Stone) daydreams about what might have been, but she and Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) end up taking different paths:

Our war heroes often return home with PTSD. One of America’s greatest war heroes, Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), has difficulty adjusting to family life in this scene from American Sniper[iii]:

And sadly, sometimes, loved ones die. This scene from Titanic[iv] gets me every time:

If you were like me, the new year came with a bright future ahead. We had planned a European river cruise with good friends. Our retirement funds remained steady and adequate. All family members were employed, healthy, and happy. But then, everything changed. The coronavirus proved once again that John Lennon was right. Life gets in the way of our best-laid plans.

And almost everything we, as a country, tried (although often too little, too late), did not go as planned as we fought what President Trump has called it—the invisible enemy. A few things went better than expected. The City of Dallas has seen a 19 percent drop in crime. City streets and freeways are free from traffic congestion, even during rush hour. Our air is cleaner. In the northeastern U.S., smog is down 30 percent from a year ago. In Rome, it’s down almost 50 percent. According to the Health Effects Institute, air pollution kills as many as 7 million people worldwide annually. And urban sightings of coyotes, pumas, and even kangaroos, are now commonplace. My local gas station is selling regular unleaded gas for $1.39 a gallon. But I bought it in Gainesville, Texas, last week for $1.09 a gallon. Compare that to last month, where the average price of gas in the Dallas area was $1.82. And to show support to those of us with little or no hair, “buzz cuts” for men are up over 58 percent.

But most of the news surrounding COVID-19 has not gone according to plan and not in a good way. President Trump thought he had ended the threat of COVID-19 when, on February 1, 2020, he banned entry into the U.S. of all foreign nationals traveling from China. We now believe the virus came to the U.S. primarily from European travelers to the U.S. 

In our efforts to stop (or at least slow) the spread of the virus, state and local governments have issued stay-at-home orders and have imposed social distancing requirements. But that has led to more than 1.5 million Texans filing for unemployment benefits since March 15. That means more than 10 percent of Texas workers are currently out of work. In the restaurant industry alone, 688,000 workers have lost their jobs. The state has paid more than $1.4 billion in unemployment benefits so far. Ironically, at the same time, there are 481,000 job openings in Texas at companies such as Amazon, Lockheed, and Baylor Scott & White (hospitals). 

Due to the large number of people out of work, North Texas food banks have handed out more than 6 million pounds of food. The Texas National Guard has dispatched 250 soldiers to work with the food banks. Half of those seeking assistance from the food banks have never needed such help before. And one of the results of unemployment that few people are talking about is how many people who lost their jobs also lost their health insurance. I fear that one of the unintended consequences of our responses to the pandemic will be the increased economic inequality in America. Will the gap between rich and poor become even wider?

To help those hit economically by the stay-at-home orders, Congress passed an initial $2.2 trillion stimulus package. The law included payments of $1,200 to most individuals. But based on the median income of families in the U.S., that amounts to only one week of lost wages. The package designated most of the money to specific industries hardest hit by the pandemic (such as the airline industry, where travel has decreased by 95 percent) and small businesses. But we have all heard the stories of large companies getting most of the money, many with little need for it. Harvard University, for example, received $9 million in stimulus money even though it has a private endowment fund totaling over $40 billion (that’s billion with a “b”).  Under pressure, Harvard agreed to return the money, as have many other companies that didn’t need it. The Small Business Administration said Monday that companies had returned $2 billion in stimulus funds. That’s the good news. The bad news is nearly 80 percent of small businesses that applied for loans under the stimulus package were still waiting to hear on their applications when funds ran out. Fortunately, Congress recently authorized a second $500 package for small businesses. Oh, but if you are a small business owner with a felony record during the last five years, or on probation or parole, don’t bother to apply. You are ineligible. Many former felons have become entrepreneurs because few employers would hire workers with criminal records. But despite having “paid their debt to society,” the federal government just gave them another slap in the face.   

With this second relief package, then, federal aid will surpass more than $2.5 trillion so far. But when asked how the country would pay for it, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin responded, “We’ll deal with [the debt] later.” Two trillion dollars equates to about $15,000 per household and exceeds all the federal government’s revenues last year. Interest on the federal debt is growing faster than any other major category of federal spending. Can America ever dig its way out of this financial hole?

But the unintended, negative consequences of our responses to COVID-19 are not just economic. Although crime is down overall, family violence and abuse are up, as are cases of depression and other forms of mental illness. Noise complaints have more than doubled. In the first week alone of the shelter-in-place order, Dallas received 606 noise complaints. And household trash is up 14 percent (the City of Dallas collected 22,374 tons of trash in March).

Even more serious, I worry about our healthcare workers who battle COVID-19 every day. Despite their valiant efforts, 80 percent of people on ventilators with COVID-19 have died. Typically, it is about half that amount. Will such loss of life affect these healthcare warriors with widespread cases of PTSD? And people are dying alone, without family and loved ones around. And you don’t have to die of COVID-19 to be affected. Just this week, my sister-in-law suddenly died from a medical condition unrelated to the coronavirus. My first instinct was to hop on a plane to be with my brother. But he then reminded me that, under current restrictions, there could be no funeral—only a small graveyard service with no more than a handful of people attending. There won’t even be enough spots for all his children and grandchildren. So we are being forced to learn new ways of grieving.

It may be years before the world gets back to those carefree days before the pandemic. I wonder if life will ever be the same. But were those days before COVID-19 all that carefree? Regardless of circumstances, life has a way of throwing things at us when we least expect it. In the film, Cast Away,[v] Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) is a Federal Express executive whose plane crashes, leaving him stranded alone on a deserted island. His plight tests him physically, mentally, and emotionally. But thinking of his fiancée and their happy life ahead help him to survive. He is finally rescued but returns home to find that his fiancée, assuming Noland had died, moved on and married another. Here is Noland’s reaction to his latest unplanned event: 

My son recently reminded me of these words from the musical, Les Miserable: “Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.” And so our night of COVID-19 will end; there are brighter days ahead. And as we always do, even though life consistently throws unintended consequences at us, we will find a way to survive and hopefully thrive. Or, as my father-in-law would say, “We can weather whatever together.”

[i] The original quote is attributed to Allen Saunders. It appeared in the “Quotable Quotes” section of the January 1957 issue of Reader’s Digest. The original quote is: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

[ii] La La Land:

  • Production Companies: Summit Entertainment, Black Label Media, and TK Films
  • Director:  Damien Chazelle
  • Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
  • Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and Rosemarie DeWitt
  • Release date: December 25, 2016

[iii] American Sniper:

  • Production Companies: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, and RatPac-Dune Entertainment
  • Director:  Clint Eastwood
  • Screenwriter: Jason Hall (based on the book by Chris Kyle)
  • Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, and Kyle Gallner
  • Release date: January 16, 2015

[iv] Titanic:

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

[v] Cast Away:

  • Production Companies: Twentieth Century Foc, DreamWorks, and ImageMovers
  • Director:  Robert Zemeckis
  • Screenwriter: William Broyles Jr.
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, and Paul Sanchez
  • Release date: Decembeer 22, 2000

It’s 1918 All Over Again

With theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I have spent my fair share of time lately watching online movies. The masochist instinct within me led me to view some films on disease epidemics. But I consciously avoided those featuring zombies. They just didn’t seem relevant to our current situation—at least not yet.

One of my favorite sayings goes something like this: Experience is the ability to recognize the mistakes we continue to make. So, I focused on fact-based movies, wondering if we are learning from past errors or merely repeating the same ones.

I started by comparing our current pandemic to the influenza outbreak of 1918. Unfortunately, there are not too many movies about that epidemic, fact-based or otherwise. There are two insightful documentaries[i] about it, both less than an hour long. You can find them on YouTube. Here is a short clip from the CDC that summarizes the devastating effects of the 1918 flu pandemic:

Wow! The 1918 flu pandemic led to more than 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 deaths in America—more than all the Americans who died in combat in all the wars in the 20th century. The vast majority of those deaths came within a single year. In October 1918 alone, over 195,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of the pandemic. Amazingly, in WWI, more American soldiers died from the flu than in battle. And interestingly, the 1918 flu hit Americans between the ages of 19 and 30 the hardest.

Let’s put those numbers into perspective.

So far, the U.S has had over 4,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Compare that to the flu where each year, on average, over 30,000 Americans die. And each year, 35,000 to 40,000 people die from automobile accidents in the U.S.

But the coronavirus is far from finished. Health experts say, without our current preventative measures, COVID-19 might be the country’s worst pandemic since 1918.

So, what can we learn from the 1918 pandemic that might help us during our current crisis? At least three lessons have emerged.

Lesson No. 1: Early action is critical.

Sadly, most government officials in early 1918 failed to recognize the growing threat. Royal Copeland, the health commissioner of New York City, said, “The city is in no danger of an epidemic. No need for our people to worry.” That statement sounds eerily similar to some of the first messages from the White House. President Trump initially dismissed the potential pandemic as “the new hoax,” stating that he wasn’t worried about it, “Not at all. We have it under control.” He claimed news outlets like CNN and the Democratic Party were “doing everything they can to instill fear in people,” and they were “trying to gain political favor by saying a lot of untruths.” Now, with our late start, we can no longer control the spread of the virus; we can only hope we can “flattened the curve” to the point where our medical resources are not overwhelmed.

Lesson No. 2: Social distancing works—at least to slow the spread of a pandemic.

As we look back on the history of the 1918 pandemic, we find those cities that practiced social distancing were the places least affected by the virus. The opposite was true. Philadelphia was one of the hardest-hit locations. Immediately before its surge in outbreaks of the flu, the city held a massive parade to sell war bonds. People lined the streets like sardines to watch the participants march arm-in-arm through the downtown streets.

At least some Asian countries heeded the warnings from 1918. For example, experts predicted Taiwan, only 81 miles from mainland China, would be among those with the highest number of cases. Instead, by February 1, it had implemented travel restrictions from the mainland, as well as other social distancing techniques. Those efforts have resulted in only 77 cases as of last week—fewer than even Iceland. Hong Kong and Singapore have had similar results by instituting the same restrictions.

America has now done the same, but far too late to prevent the spread of the disease. 

Lesson No. 3: Vital Resources Become Scarce

If you have seen old photos of what hospitals looked like in 1918, you would have noticed beds, barely inches apart, crammed in warehouses, hospital hallways, and just about any place where space was available. But the most significant shortage of supplies in 1918 were caskets. Today, fortunately, we still have plenty of coffins to handle the demand. But the need for ICU beds, respirators, masks, and face shields are testing the limits of our medical readiness. Planners or government officials underestimated the extensiveness of the disease or didn’t heed the warnings. But it is fruitless now to cast stones, other than to ensure we are ready for the next one.

We can also learn a few things from a deadly pandemic that hit a significant portion of the U.S. populations during the 1970s and 1980s, and which continues today worldwide. That is the spread of AIDS. Although we don’t talk much about AIDS anymore, its numbers remain staggering. In 2018, there were approximately 37.9 million people across the globe with HIV/AIDS. Of those, 36.2 million are adults, and 1.7 million are children ( under 15 years old). An estimated 1.7 million individuals worldwide became newly infected with HIV in 2018. Fortunately, deaths from AIDS-related illnesses peaked in 2004, but still, in 2018, 770,000 persons died from the disease (down from 1.7 million in 2004).

There are several great fact-based films about AIDS that can provide insight into our current pandemic. While there were scattered AIDS cases before 1970, it became an epidemic by the mid-1970s. Sadly, since in the beginning, the disease hit mostly gays, few people noticed what was happening. Worse, not many cared. President Reagan did not even say the word “AIDS” in public until 1985—five years after taking office. Here is a scene from the film, The Normal Heart,[ii] which illustrates the frustration of researchers studying AIDS in those early days to get anyone, especially those in government, to pay attention to their work:

One scene from the movie, And the Band Played On, shows a newspaper headline quoting a person with AIDS: Let not my epitaph read, “He died of red tape.” Sadly, though, many did.  

Those who had AIDS in the late 1970s found it difficult, if not impossible, to get the treatment and drugs they needed. Although early drug trials had obtained encouraging results from some medications, and other countries had made those drugs available, the FDA had not approved them, so the only way an AIDS patient could get them was illegal. But if you had AIDS, you would do almost anything to get them. Here is a scene from The Dallas Buyer’s Club,[iii] in my opinion, Matthew McConaughey’s finest two hours as an actor:

I love the line, “Screw the FDA; I’m going to be DOA.” Fortunately, in today’s crisis, we have already approved some drugs used for other illnesses that are showing promise against COVID-19.

But as we see COVID-19 overrun the medical systems of Italy and New York City, tough choices are being made. If you have two patients, one an otherwise healthy twenty-year-old, and the other, a ninety-year-old, with pre-existing medical conditions, who should receive the bulk of the medical resources? Most people, when faced with such an unwanted Sophie’s Choice, would pick the younger and more healthy of the two.

But does similar logic apply when we attempt to balance a person’s life against a faltering economy? Currently, some economists are predicting that unemployment in the U.S. might reach 37 percent. Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, recently said this on Fox News:

 “My message is that let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

President Trump has taken a similar stance, although he has said it more subtly. He originally wanted the country “open for business” by Easter, despite the advice from his medical experts and other government officials that such a move would be premature and disastrous to the health of U.S. citizens. Further, the President has proclaimed in a Fox News town hall meeting:

“You can destroy a country this way by closing it down. You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or a depression. You’re going to have suicides by the thousands. You’re going to have all sorts of things happen. You’re going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say, ‘Let’s close up the United States of America.’”

Recently, President Trump pushed back his target date, wanting the country to be open for business by April 30.

I acknowledge that some, maybe many people will be ruined if the “shelter-in-place” orders remain in effect for a prolonged period. Hopefully, the recent economic stimulus legislation will ease at least some of that burden. And I agree the economy needs to get back on track as soon as it is practical. And with commentators fussing over Dan Patrick’s comments, most have failed to focus on his statement, “Let’s be smart about it.” Perhaps that means certain age groups or specific geographic areas open before others. I will leave it to those much smarter than me to develop a workable plan. But like the AIDS epidemic, our priority should be saving as many lives as possible. Here is an excellent scene from the film, And the Band Played On:[iv]

This scene not only focuses on the fight between health and the economy, but it also emphasizes that, in crisis, it is typically the marginalized parts of our society that are the most impacted. Will it be the same with COVID-19? I hope not.

Admittedly, I am a person of privilege, and it is much, much easier for me to sacrifice economically than most other Americans. I also believe, as did the poet, John Donne, “that every man’s [and woman’s] death,” regardless of age, race, economic status, or health, “diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” The great uncle of the best friend of one of my grandchildren recently died from the virus. He was 70 years old but otherwise healthy. And although I had never met him, I left that loss, for I know my granddaughter’s best friend and her family. That same week, the father of the best friend lost his job. I don’t know which news he took the hardest, but I suspect, like me, he would always prefer unemployment over the loss of a family member.  

I have watched this scene from The Normal Heart repeatedly, but I am moved to tears every time I do. With the death of anyone—whether from COVID-19, the flu, AIDS, an automobile accident, or even natural causes—I contemplate what humanity has lost.

 In a recent editorial, The Dallas Morning News said this:

“This is a moment when we can look back and say we did what was selfless and right, or a time when we can say we left others to look after themselves and thereby needlessly accepted the loss of life.

“The nation we will be when we emerge from this depends on that choice.

“We want to be the nation where the strong among us determined that it was our time to make the greatest sacrifice for the good of all. That is the America that budded in the revolution and saw us through the Great Depression and the second World War.

“That is the America we can and want to be.”

I am not so naïve to think that we can save all people all the time. Some will still die from the flu and other diseases. We will lose lives through automobile accidents, and the coronavirus will claim many of us, despite our best efforts. But in crises such as these, we need real leadership, creative ideas, and a compassionate heart to help everyone get through it, especially those who are most vulnerable, whether medically, economically, or otherwise.

So, let’s all do our part to be part of the solution.

[i] The documentaries are (1) We Heard the Bells: The Influenza of 1918; and (2) PBS’s American Experience: Influenza 1918.

[ii] The Normal Heart:

  • Production Companies: HBO Films, Plan B Entertainment, and Blumhouse Productions
  • Director: Ryan Murphy
  • Screenwriter: Larry Kramer
  • Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Groff, Frank De Julio, and Julia Roberts  
  • Release date: May 25, 2014

[iii] The Dallas Buyer’s Club:  

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

[iv] And the Band Played On:

  • Production Companies: HBO Films and Spelling Entertainment
  • Director: Roger Spottiswoode
  • Screenwriters: Arnold Schulman (based on the book by Randy Shilts)
  • Starring: Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, and Patrick Bauchau
  • Release date: September 11, 1993

Let the Consequences Follow

I realize this post might come across as political. That is not my intention. Rather than focusing on the politics, policies, or prejudices of the individuals I discuss below, I hope you will look at their courage to stand up for what they believed in and their willingness to let the consequences follow from their actions.

The initial inspiration behind this post comes from Senator Mitt Romney. I know. Some of you might dismiss my praise of Romney merely on the basis that we are both members of the same religion. Or that I am not particularly fond of the rants of our current President. But we can learn from people of courage, even if we don’t agree with their stances.

As a recent article from The Atlantic described it, Romney “is voting his conscience when doing so comes at a cost.” Of course, the vote referred to is the Senator’s decision to place his conscience over his party when he became the lone Republican Senator to vote in favor of one of the articles of impeachment against President Trump. For those that missed it, here is Romney explaining why he voted the way he did:

Romney told of a church hymn that came to his mind as he deliberated how to vote. One line from that song is “Do what is right, let the consequences follow.” That line convinced him to follow his conscience.

Someone once said, “More people would listen to their conscience if they could tell it what to say.” Romney might not have liked what his conscience told him, but he listened to it, even knowing the consequences could be severe.

Immediately following the Senate vote, his fellow Republicans castigated Romney as a turncoat. President Trump tweeted: “Had failed presidential candidate @MittRomney devoted the same energy and anger to defeating a faltering Barack Obama as he sanctimoniously does to me, he could have won the election.”

Mike Lee, Utah’s other Republican Senator, tweeted, “Congratulations @realDonaldTrump. I’m looking forward to your next five years in office. Those who voted to remove you were wrong. Very wrong.”

The President’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., stated that Romney is a member of the resistance, and the GOP should boot him from the party.

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference, tweeted, “Hey Utah, you have a problem, and we @ACUConservative would like to help you fix it. #DumpRomney.”

Since Romney is not up for reelection for another five years, we will have to wait to see if the backlash ends his political career.

Sorry, but I don’t understand how you can criticize someone for doing something they believe in. How can you fault someone for choosing conscience over politics?

In announcing his decision, Romney referred to his religious faith, which led some commentators to compare him to Sir Thomas More. More served as the Lord High Chancellor of England, and was one of King Henry VIII’s chief advisors. But More was a devout Catholic and refused, on religious grounds, to acknowledge the King’s annulment of his marriage to Cathrine of Aragon and as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Those refusals led to his conviction of treason, which ultimately led to his execution.

The film, A Man For All Seasons,[i] captures the political battle between King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More. Here is the scene where More is convicted: 

Losing his head became the consequence that followed Sir Thomas More’s courage.

Centuries later, as Union forces battled Confederate forces in America’s Civil War, The Union’s Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, had to fight members of his cabinet to gain the support of the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. The film, Lincoln,[ii] dramatizes this battle.  Here is one of the best scenes from the movie:

Of course, soon after the end of the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, at least partly as a consequence of his standing up to the enemies of preserving the Union and abolishing slavery. 

But it is not only heads of state that stand up for what they believe is right. I had never heard of Kathryn Bolkovac until I watched the movie, The Whistleblower.[iii] That movie tells the story of how Bolkovac, a Nebraska police officer, uncovers a United Nations cover-up of a sex trafficking scandal in post-war Bosnia. In 1995, thousands of international peacekeepers flooded into Bosnia to help repair the damage done by the war. But many of these peacekeepers became perpetrators of human trafficking, sexual violence, and abuse. Bolkovac reported her findings to Madeline Rees, who worked for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In this scene, Rees warns Bolkovac of the potential ramifications of her report: 

For blowing the whistle on these crimes, both Bolkovac and Rees faced sanctions, stigma, and termination of their careers with the United Nations. Fifteen years later, Bolkovac explained that she had suffered emotional, financial, familial, and professional turmoil since she decided to “do the right thing.” She once remarked, “People ask me continually if I regret what I did or if I would do it again, and, as time has progressed, I would now really need to think about my answer.” But then she reaffirmed her commitment to accountability and bringing the perpetrators to justice. 

Decisions of conscience often bring unwelcome consequences. American journalist, Henry Louis Mencken, once quipped, “Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.” Someone else joked that “conscience makes a boy tell his mother before his sister does.” My favorite is, “Your conscience doesn’t keep you from doing something wrong; it merely keeps you from enjoying it.”

Let’s hold up Mitt Romey, Sir Thomas More, President Lincoln, and Kathryn Bolkovac as examples of courageous people who followed their consciences, despite realizing that consequences will follow. And let’s have the courage to do the same.

[i] A Man For All Seasons:

  • Production Company: Highland Films
  • Director: Fred Zinnemann
  • Screenwriter: Robert Bolt
  • Starring: Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, and Robert Shaw
  • Release date: May 3, 1967

[ii] Lincoln:

  • Production Companies: Dreamworks, Twentieth Century Fox, and Reliance Entertainment
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Screenwriter: Tony Kushner (based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin)
  • Starring: Danield Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and David Strathairn
  • Release date: November 16, 2012

[iii] The Whistleblower:

  • Production Companies: Sadsmuel Goodwyn Films, Whistleblower (Gen One), and Barry Films
  • Director: Larysa Kondracki
  • Screenwriters:  Larysa Kondracki and Ellis Kirwan
  • Starring: Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, and Vanessa Redgrave
  • Release date: October 7, 2011

Find Someone to Love

A few weeks ago, my wife and I watched the Oscar-nominated film, Marriage Story.[i] We should retitle it “Divorce Story,” as it is the tale of a couple’s divorce. I found the film extraordinarily frustrating. The movie began with each spouse expressing what they loved about the other. First Charlie:

Then Nicole:

With so much to love between the two of them, Charlie and Nicole lead us to believe they will work things out. And even though there are a few negatives in their expressions of love, the positives far outweigh them. If they will only listen to each other, this is a marriage that can make it.

Or so I thought.

I soon learned that expressing what they loved about each other was the result of an exercise suggested by their couples therapist, but things break down, and they never get a chance to hear what the other said about them until it’s too late.

No matter. Nicole and Charlie remain confident they can work things out between them.

But then the lawyers get involved, battle lines are drawn, and compromise becomes impossible. The marriage crumbles beyond repair, and I become embarrassed to be called a lawyer.

This week I also watched the remake of Alfie[ii] for the first time. The film is about a young man who is looking for love, but being unwilling to commit to anyone, he confuses it with sex. The film is far from one of my all-time favorite movies, but I did enjoy this scene where Alfie gets some unsolicited advice from an older man who just lost his wife:  

“Find someone to love and then live every day as if it were your last.” Good advice, for sure. And notice Joe says find someone to love, not fall in love. Too often, we only want to fall in love, as if it were a passive state you live in. But true love requires action. We must love someone, not just be in love. And then live every day as if it were our last.

And I also found Joe’s last statement in this clip to be thought-provoking. In discussing his relationship with his departed wife, he says, “We were not that fond of each other. But we were very close if you know what I mean.” Joe’s statement reminded me of what a good friend and therapist, John Dehlin, once told me: “If you and your spouse are the same, there is no need for one of you.” In other words, the best relationships are those where each partner’s differences compliment the other; not where both partners end up the same.

Here is the final scene of Alfie, where the lead character realizes that all his past relationships have been about what his previous girlfriends gave to him, and how he gave nothing in return (no need to watch the credits unless you like to hear Mick Jagger sing):

Alfie concludes that he has a lot going for him, but he lacks one thing: peace of mind, which I interpret as true happiness. He then asks, “What’s it all about?”

So, in honor of upcoming Valentine’s Day, and to help answer Alfie’s question, I set out to discover, when it comes to our love relationships, what’s it all about?

I began by asking my family what’s the best marriage advice they have heard or given.

One of my favorites is from my sister-in-law. “If you have to argue, argue naked.” That advice alone might save many marriages. But loving someone usually requires us to dig a little deeper.

My nephew offered this great advice: “Something that helps me to find joy and contentment in my marriage is to inwardly focus on me being my best self while striving to be generous and patient with my wife. People fall out of love when they impose their expectations on the other.”

My daughter emphasized that it is often the little things that matter most. “Find someone always willing to take care of you, no matter the circumstances. Someone who will bring you water, your toothbrush over and over again, and rub your back when you are in one of your least pleasant states. And not only do it but do it willingly and with an attitude as if there is no place they would rather be.”

My daughter continues: “It’s ok to ask for what you need in your marriage. That goes with anything as little as, ‘Please, can you take out the trash?” to bigger things like, ‘I need you to acknowledge my feelings and validate the way I feel.’ Your husband or wife can’t read your mind. And they don’t love you any less because they can’t. Instead of getting upset that they aren’t doing what you want them to do, ask for it. I think we get caught up in the fairy-tale love that our partner will always know what we need and do everything we want them to do and all this would happen because they love us, but that’s not reality. I’ve learned that our marriage is a lot better when we communicate what we need and stop huffing and puffing around while we wait for the other person to magically know what we want.”

John Dehlin also taught me there are three common myths people tell themselves about their spouse:

1.    You belong to me, and I belong to you (our wants/needs/interests need to be the same).

2.    You’re going to meet all my needs.

3.    If you don’t achieve numbers 1 and 2 above, it means you don’t love me.

John’s comments are similar to the psychoanalyst, Esther Perel, who said that, up until the 1970s, we used to think of our partners as fulfilling just one part of our lives.  Now, we subconsciously expect a soul mate who fills all of our needs.  They need to be our best friend, our confidant, our intellectual resource who’s always reading the same books, our passionate lover, our co-parent, and also make us a better person.  If they are not doing all this, then we feel cheated or they aren’t the “one” who must still be out there somewhere.    Likewise, if we aren’t meeting all these needs for our partner, we have this identity crisis of not being “good enough.” 

The TV miniseries, Howard’s End (based on the classic novel by E.B. Forrester), has a great scene that emphasizes these points and teaches us a more realistic way of approaching marriage. In this scene, Margaret tells her sister, Helen, about her recent engagement to Henry Wilcox. Helen is not pleased to hear the news. In response, Margaret says:

There’s a wonderful feeling knowing a real man cares for you. Remember, I have known and liked him for a long while now…. I know Mr. Wilcox’s faults. He’s afraid of emotion. He cares too much about success. Too little about the past. I’d even say spiritually, he’s not as honest as I am…. I don’t intend for him or any man or any woman to be all my life. There are heaps of things in me that he doesn’t and never shall understand. So with him. There are heaps of things in him, more especially things he does, which will always be hidden from me…. I don’t intend to correct him. Or to reform him. Only connect. That is the whole of my sermon. I have not undertaken to fashion a husband to suit myself, using Henry’s soul as raw materials. It would be contemptible and unfair.     

Here are a few more ideas from my family and the experts:

  • Remember, no one wants to be married to a teacher, a parent or a missionary (typical roles we play in relationships). We want a partner, a friend and a lover. (John Dehlin)
  • There is a difference between criticism and a complaint. Criticism is an attack on one’s identity (you are a lousy person vs. you never put the toilet seat down.) (John Gottman)
  • The ratio of positive comments to a spouse compared to negative ones needs to be twenty to one. Humans remember criticism much more than praise. Said another way, an ounce of criticism equals a pound of praise. (John Gottman)   
  • The great secret of a successful marriage is to treat all disasters as only incidents and no incident as a disaster. (Harold Nicolson)
  • Choose your battles wisely. The only certainty in relationships is that there will be times when your blood beats red. But when it comes to small disagreements with your partner, you’re better off just shutting up. (Michael Thompson)
  • If you were paddling a canoe together, the important thing is that each paddle in the same direction. In marriage, if each has a different goal, they will always be in trouble. (Dr. Paul W. Popenoe)

Food for thought for all of us. If you have some great marriage advice, please share it.

In closing, remember these words from Justin Bieber (yes, that Justin Bieber): “Flowers are great, but love is better.”

[i] Marriage Story:

  • Production Companies: Heyday Films, Netflix
  • Director: Noah Baumbach
  • Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
  • Starring: Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver
  • Release date: December 6, 2019

[ii] Alfie:

  • Production Companies: Paramount Pictures and Paralex Productions  
  • Director: Charles Shyer
  • Screenwriter: Bill Naughton
  • Starring: Jude Law, Sienna Miller, and Susan Sarandon
  • Release date: November 5, 2004

Can’t You Hear the Whistle Blowing?

A miniseries I recently watched entitled FatherMotherSon reminded me of a truth I had learned long ago: knowledge is power. In this miniseries, a newspaper mogul maintains his position of influence, even to the point of controlling elections, by using the dirt he collects (sometimes illegally) on others. Sadly, history is full of examples of persons, governments, or businesses that rose to power because they knew the corrupt or evil acts of others while keeping their own outrageous actions hidden. These people or organizations held others accountable for their actions but took little responsibility for their own. As karma would have it, often, those that rose to power in this manner subsequently fell from their lofty perches because someone finally revealed their secrets. We call these revealers of secrets whistleblowers.  

There has been a lot in the news lately about whistleblowing, which is fitting since at least two recently released movies are about whistleblowers. In Dark Waters,[i] a corporate defense attorney named Robert Bilott takes on industry giant DuPont and exposes a history of pollution and the ill effects of Teflon products. Due to his efforts, the EPA assessed DuPont a fine of $16.5 million, which was peanuts compared to the annual profits of the company. But Bilott did not rest there. He has spent the last twenty years pursuing litigation against companies for their harmful dumping of chemicals. DuPont ultimately settled a class action for $671 million.

In this clip from the film, Billot points out that we (you and I) must protect ourselves from the potential abuses of corporations because no one else will:    

That protection often comes in the form of exposing the secrets the corporation wants no one to know about. In this case, DuPont’s internal documents acknowledged that its products were harmful. And now, Rob Billot’s story joins those of many whistleblowers who have protected the public against the destructive actions of corporations taken in the name of profit. Here are a few of my favorites that became films:

  • Spotlight – The story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a massive scandal of child abuse within the Catholic Church.
  • The Insider – The story of how Jeffrey Wigand, a cigarette company insider, agrees to appear on 60 Minutes and expose closely-held secrets about the tobacco industry.
  • Erin Brockovich – The story of how a legal assistant almost singlehandedly brings down a major power company for polluting the city’s water supply.

Governments can be as destructive as unethical corporations if left unchecked. In the recent film, The Report,[ii] Senate staffer Daniel Jones investigated the CIA’s hostage interrogation program following 9/11. That investigation led to shocking secrets about the mistreatment of those hostages, which the CIA’s internal documents admitted were utterly ineffective.

Here is a trailer for The Report:

Daniel Jones was not alone in exposing the ugly secrets of our government. Here are a few of my favorite whistleblower films involving our government:

  • All the President’s Men – The story of how information leaked to the Washington Post by a government insider led to the downfall of a U.S. president.
  • Snowden – The story of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified documents of how the government was spying on all of us.
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America – The story of how Daniel Ellsberg leaked classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers that helped end the Vietnam War.

As these films illustrate, whistleblowing is almost as American as baseball or apple pie. Even before we had a union, we enacted protections for public employees who divulge abuses of power by government officials. In 1778, the Continental Congress passed a resolution “to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.” Such laws would not be needed if corporations, government, and others in power would hold themselves accountable for their actions.

Back in September of this year, an intelligence analyst blew the whistle on President Trump, claiming the President had solicited foreign interference with the upcoming 2020 election. But this analyst was not alone in complaining about the President. More than a dozen federal officials have come forward, from various departments, reporting concerns to their superiors about Trump’s dealings with the president of Ukraine. These superiors either ignored or blocked each complaint. But based on the initial whistleblower’s complaint, Congress launched an investigation that ended in issuing two articles of impeachment against the President.

I am not a constitutional law expert, so I don’t know if President Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son reaches the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as required for impeachment by the Constitution.  I am confident, though, that he did what all the analysts claim he did. I am more concerned about the second article of impeachment—that the President obstructed justice by prohibiting others in his administration from testifying, relying on executive privilege. Mr. President, if you did nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. The situation echoes the early 1970s when then-President Richard Nixon tried to use executive privilege to conceal the wrongdoings associated with Watergate. And we all know how that worked out for him.

Not surprisingly, Trump has characterized his whistleblowers as unAmerican, attacking them as “traitors” and “human scum.” He has equated them to “spies” who are guilty of “treason,” which, if convicted, would result in the death penalty. But instead, these long-time government officials turned whistleblowers, most of whom had worked tirelessly for decades for both Republican and Democratic administrations, saw their actions as essential to preserve the checks and balances on the abuse of power within our government. As a recent Time article says it:   

“For each, the decision to step forward came at a cost. None expected to become household names or to find their faces on televisions across the country night after night. And though each followed the rules and used the proper channels, some have found themselves vilified online, their decades of government service impugned and their background questioned.”[iii]

I find it sad that we have to rely on whistleblowers. If persons in power acted responsibly and in the best interest of their constituencies or customers, we would not need whistleblowers. But that is not the nature of people in power.

I believe the statement of Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Church”) when he said, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”[iv]

Somewhat ironically, the Church has had its own whistleblower in the news lately. A Church member who had worked for an investment arm of the Church named Ensign Peak Advisors recently filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS, claiming Ensign Peak Advisors should lose its tax-exempt status because it stockpiled earnings from charitable donations instead of using those funds for charitable purposes. The complaint also alleges the only two disbursements from the Ensign Peak fund went to for-profit ventures, not charitable ones.   

This situation hits close to home for me. I am a member of the Church and have paid to the Church tens of thousands of dollars over my lifetime in tithing and other charitable contributions. I do not know whether the Church violated any tax law, as that is beyond my expertise. Several tax experts have said the Church probably has not done anything wrong, although the rules in this area are somewhat ambiguous and have not been the subject of court cases. Nor am I trying to say the Church exercised unrighteous dominion in connection with these funds. Many (including me) would argue the opposite—that the Church invested the money wisely for hopefully the ultimate benefit of the Church and its members. What has surprised me, though, is the size of the fund that it is being stockpiled rather than used for charitable purposes, and how little transparency there has been by the Church in connection with these funds.

According to the whistleblower’s complaint, the fund managed by Ensign Peak Advisors amounts to approximately $100 billion—that’s billion with a “b.” The whistleblower alleges the Church brings in about $7 billion each year in charitable donations from its members and others but has annual expenditures of $5 to $6 billion. The Church takes the excess $1 billion and gives it to Ensign Peak Advisors to invest. And although the Ensign Peak fund has grown to $100 billion since its creation 22 years ago, Ensign has never used any of its funds for charitable purposes. The Church disputes that it has done anything wrong, but has not refuted these numbers.

How much is $100 billion? According to documents filed with the IRS, Ensign Peak made a seven percent return on its investments last year. That’s a profit of $7 billion, meaning the Church could meet all of its current annual financial obligations ($6 billion) using that profit alone from this fund and still have $1 billion left over to reinvest. In short, the Church could suspend the responsibility of its members to pay any tithing or offerings. I don’t expect the Church to do that, as the Church considers the payment of tithing to be a commandment of God. However, a former prophet of the Church, Joseph F. Smith, once said the day would come when the payment of tithing would no longer be required.

But I won’t hold my breath. Perhaps the Church could lighten the financial burden on its members in other ways. The Church currently has approximately 65,000 full-time missionaries, whose families pay $500 per month to support them. (In an instance of bad timing, the Church announced it is raising the cost per missionary from $400 to $500 per month effective January 1, 2020.)  The Church states that it subsidizes the cost of keeping its full-time missionaries in the mission field, and I do not dispute that. But using the current $100 billion to pay the full cost of its missionaries (and relieving the $500 per month burden on their families), the Church could support 65,000 missionaries for more than the next 250 years. Couldn’t the Church use some of its surpluses to ease at least part of that burden? Could the monthly missionary expense be made optional so those who can ill-afford it do not have to pay it?

At the Church’s last general conference, the current prophet of the Church discussed its Humanitarian Fund, which helps the poor throughout the world and those who have been devastated by natural disasters. According to the prophet, since the creation of the Humanitarian Fund, the Church’s expenditures from that fund have totaled $2 billion. That sounds like a lot, but considering the fund has been in existence for 35 years, that is less than $58 million per year, and we don’t know how much of that amount came from individual members in contributions other than tithing rather than the Church itself. But, even giving the Church credit for the entire amount (which the Church admits is not the case, as the prophet tells us Church members donated $6.5 million to the fund in a single day), that $58 billion per year is less than six percent of the Church’s excess tithing funds received in a year. As I reread the prophet’s conference address, I realized most of the Church’s help to those in need came not from the Church itself, but its members in the form of donations of money and clothing in addition to tithing, and volunteer service. Another Church leader stated the Church’s expenditures from its Humanitarian Fund amount to $40 million per year or only four percent of its excess tithing annually. So, no matter how you look at the numbers, it is less than the ten percent it requires of its members. In short, I wish the Church would be as generous as its members.

Again, please do not misunderstand me. Over my lifetime, I have trusted the Church to use my contributions wisely in the help and support of others. I have no problem with the Church maintaining a “rainy day” fund. But with so much need in the world, is not more than 16 times your annual expenditures in such a fund more than necessary for a rainy day considering the Church acknowledges the U.N. report that more than 820 million people in the world go hungry every day? The Church asks me to give it ten percent of my increase as tithing. Could not the Church also pay at least as much of its excess to charitable causes?

Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” For the Church to be great, it has a responsibility to not only invest its excess funds wisely but to use them for the purposes we contributors had intended. And just as important, I believe the Church has a responsibility to be more accountable to its members for those funds by being much more transparent about them. Through the years, I have given my donations to the Church willingly and trustingly. But trust needs to be earned.

I hope the Church will respond to these new whistleblower revelations not as lawyers, hellbent on defending their position at all costs, but as Good Samaritans, helping “the least of these my brethren.”[v]  

[i] Dark Waters:

  • Production Companies:
  • Director:
  • Screenwriter:
  • Starring:
  • Release date:

[ii] The Report:

  • Production Companies:
  • Director:
  • Screenwriter:
  • Starring:
  • Release date:

[iii] “Guardians  of the Year—The Public Servants: Serving Country Over Self,” Time Magazine, December 23/December 30, 2019; page 77.

[iv] See Doctrine & Covenants 121: 39.

[v] See Matthew 25:40.

The Secret of My Success

How do you measure success? By your worldly possessions? By your position of power? By the number of your friends on Facebook? Success means different things to different people.

While in Austin at the Austin Film Festival, we saw The Current War,[i] the true story about the electrification of America. Who knew a movie about direct current versus alternating current could capture my attention for two hours? But capture my attention it did, and that was because of the fascinating characters involved. At the heart of the movie is Thomas Edison, considered America’s greatest inventor. His inventions include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the incandescent light bulb. In all, Edison held 1,093 U.S. patents. He founded 14 companies, including General Electric, still one of America’s largest corporations. By most measures, Edison would be considered a success. But he didn’t have much of a family life, as he much preferred spending time in his laboratory rather than with his wife and children. Perhaps he didn’t realize that when a person is so busy building a successful business, they might be busy making a failure of themselves.

And some may question how he obtained some of his accomplishments. Edison was not generous to his employees. He generally did not compensate his employees particularly well, and at least two of his more famous employees left because Edison would not listen to their ideas. Frank J. Sprague left Edison’s employ when he realized that any invention he came up with would belong to Edison. After leaving Edison, Sprague invented an electric motor that became the standard for motorizing cable cars and subways in America. Edison later bought out Sprague, including his patents, and removed Sprague’s name on all his motors and replaced it with Edison General Electric.

As illustrated by this scene from The Current War, Nikoli Tesla was a brilliant scientist who told Edison repeatedly that Edison’s system of direct current was an inferior system to George Westinghouse’s method of alternating current:

Tesla ultimately left Edison’s employment, and Edison continued to argue that alternating current was the more dangerous system. He demonstrated his point by repeatedly electrocuting various farm animals and helping to develop the electric chair as a means of executing convicted felons. He did this even though direct current could also be life-threatening at high voltages. Here is one of  my favorite scenes from the film:

Perhaps George Westinghouse gives us an insightful measure of success: Did I leave this world better than how I found it? If I could say that, in some small way, I improved the world around me, I would consider my life a success.

            As I watched The Current War, I thought of The  Founder,[ii] which tells the story of the rise of McDonald’s by Ray Kroc. Like Edison, Kroc didn’t invent the efficient system that McDonald’s used to revolutionize the fast-food industry. Here is a scene from the film:

In some people’s minds, the result justifies the means of getting there. Ray Kroc took the McDonald brother’s system and became a billionaire. Kroc left the McDonald brothers only their original restaurant and the satisfaction that they, not Kroc, had developed the art of making fast food fast. So, who was the most successful? Ray Kroc or the McDonald brothers? It depends on how one measures success.

            Another possible measure of success is this: Did we use our talents to solve a problem in a way that no one ever thought of before? Moneyball[iii] is a perfect example of this. In 2002, the Oakland A’s had little budget and few players after the departure of its stars to free agency that were good enough to turn the A’s into a competitive team. But General Manager, Billy Beane, put together a group of undervalued players—at least undervalued when evaluated by traditional scouting methods. Using a sophisticated system of sabermetrics (focusing on things such as on-base percentages and ignoring other weaknesses), Beane fielded a team of mostly “no-name” or “over-the-hill” players that went on to win 20 consecutive games near the end of the season and win their division. Two years later, the Oakland  A’s won the World Series with a similar group of “misfit toys.” Here is one of my favorite scenes from the film:

This clip also illustrates another critical point about success. We rarely can achieve it on our own. Billy Beane did not come up with the mathematical analysis used by the A’s. Instead, he retained the help of Peter Brand, a young economist out of Yale, who refined the formulas the A’s relied on. And this quote deserves repeating: “People are overlooked for a number of biased reasons and perceived flaws: age, appearance, and personality.” Almost all of us can find success in some way if someone gives us the right opportunity.

            While in Austin, we also watched Ford vs. Ferrari.[iv] If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t know the story, stop reading if you don’t like spoilers. The film, another true story, depicts how Ford set out to develop a Formula 1 race car to challenge perennial champion, Ferrari, at the 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1966. Here is the scene where the challenge got started:

Led by automotive visionary, Carroll Shelby, and his British driver, Ken Miles, the Ford team built the legendary GT40, the perfect racecar, which swept the competition at Le Mans in 1966. As the race neared its conclusion, Ken Miles was laps ahead of the other cars, including the two other Ford entries, who were in second and third. A Ford executive ordered Miles to slow down so the other two Fords could catch up for a photo opportunity—all three Fords crossing the finish line together. In the end,  the photo finish shows that Bruce McLaren, not Miles, crossed the finish line first, making McLaren as the winner. Was Miles, though, any less of a success because he slowed down to let other drivers catch up? Success can be measured not just in the result (the destination) but what it takes to get there (the process).     

            In preparing this blog post, I asked my extended family about how they measured success. A nephew sent me this link to a Ted talk given by John Wooden:

A niece came up with this checklist of questions we always should be asking ourselves. If we can answer “yes” to each of these, we could consider ourselves a success:

Did I do my very best under the circumstances? (John Wooden’s definition)

Did I do the right thing for me and my family?

Did I help others?

Did I get back up when I fell?

Did I learn something new?

Did I endure when the going got tough?

Did I maintain a healthy balance in the different aspects of my life?

I love that checklist, and I agree with John Wooden about success being measured by doing our best—but only up to a point. How do we know when we have done our best? In sports, for example, could I have practiced a little more, or practiced more perfectly? Could I have worked out a little more so I would have greater endurance, strength, or whatever else I could potentially improve upon? We can ask those same questions in life as we try to succeed. We can always second-guess ourselves as professionals, spouses, parents, friends, teachers, and every other aspect of our lives. Can’t we always say we could have done a little bit more? And if so, did we do our best?

So, how do I measure success? In short, I consider myself successful when I am experiencing true happiness. Similar to Gene Miles and Carroll Shelby in Ford vs. Ferrari, or the McDonald brothers in The Founder, I find more joy in the journey than in the destination. The term in vogue these days is when we get in or find “flow.” When I get in a flow, I experience joy. I become focused on the moment, the task at hand, and that is all that matters. I am not worried about past mistakes, or accolades I might receive in the future. As a lawyer, there were times when I became so focused on researching an issue, drafting a contract, or writing an article for publication that time seemed to stand still. I found that process exhilarating. Those were the experiences that told me I was a successful lawyer. It was not my title, my salary, or how many people reported to me. I had similar experiences in my glory days (using that term very loosely) of my basketball career (also using that term very loosely). The game became a joy to me when I focused on the moment and blocked out the outside world and all its distractions.  During those times, I  played the game for the pure joy of the game. I was not playing to hear the roar of fans or to get “atta boys” from my coach. And not surprisingly, it was during those moments of “flow” on the court that I played my best—or as John Wooden would tell me, those were the times I was the greatest success as a basketball player.

Trying to broaden those experiences into life in general, I am finding when I can “get into” whatever I’m doing, when I can experience that flow, that’s when I am the happiest and, therefore, the most successful. That is my measure of success. It works for me.

Your measure is probably different. That’s not just okay; that is the way it should be. I hope each of us can consider ourselves successful, however we individually determine it.

[i] The Current War:

Production Companies: Bazelevs Production, Film Rites, and

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Screenwriter: Michael Nitmick

Starring: Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbach, and Michael Shannon

Release Date: October 25, 2019

[ii] The Founder:

Production Companies: The Weinstein Company, FilmNation Entertainment, and Faliro House Productions

Director: John Lee Hancock

Screenwriter: Roert Siegel

Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, and John Carroll Lynch

Release Date: January 20, 2017

[iii] Moneyball:

Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, and Michael De Luca Productions

Director: Bennett Miller

Screenwriters: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Brad Pitt, Robert Wright, and Jonah Hill,

Release Date: September 23, 2011

[iv] Ford vs. Ferrari:

Production Companies: Cherin Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox

Director: James Mangold

Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth

Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Jon Bernthal

Release Date: November 15, 2019

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