Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Courage To Stand Alone

The set door to PVHS' production of 12 Angry Jurors.  Photo by J. Berta

Greetings All:

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The last two evenings, I had a wonderful experience.  I watched my daughter Cassie perform in the Pleasant Valley High School production of 12 Angry Jurors.  It was terrific!  At the curtain call, we all stood up and applauded.  Now if one were to indict me as a biased parent, I'd plead guilty, of course I am.  Yet at my sentencing hearing, I'd offer as...mitigating facts THE fact that this was an amazing show put on by an incredibly talented cast.  

The program from Pleasant Valley High School's production of "12 Angry Jurors."  Photo, J. Berta.

For those of you not familiar with the story, here's a brief overview:  An 18-year-old from the slums is accused of murdering his father with a switchblade knife.  As the show opens, the judge is heard offstage giving the final jury instructions.  A court bailiff opens the door to the jury room and in file 12 people.  They have a task before them- to determine the fate of the defendant.

This play is an adaptation of the famous 1957 movie, 12 Angry Men.  Henry Fonda plays the lone hold out against an otherwise unanimous jury voting for conviction.  This is the role my daughter plays.  In the program, her character has no name, only a number, Juror #8.  Her description, "The Truth-seeker."

Henry Fonda, Juror #8, with the alleged murder weapon (a switchblade knife) from the original 12 Angry Men, original photo unknown, this photo taken by J. Berta, fair use claimed.

This show has earned a place in both in our popular culture and society.  This is what happens when a story has relevance to the larger aspects of our lives.  I found this article from The Guardian on how a former juror related this movie to his experience.  Dr. Brian Bornstein wrote about this show in Psychology Today.  He sums up the show this way, discussing how the use of the word, "angry" is not precisely accurate, yet important to explaining the show:

"Angry. This is a misnomer, even for the play itself. Only one, maybe two, of the jurors are genuinely angry, though most of them are at times frustrated, passionate, or troubled. Studies of actual jurors show that the two most common emotions are probably engagement and boredom. These seem like polar opposites, but of course cases vary widely, as do the interests and personalities of individual jurors. As in the play, the overwhelming majority of actual jurors take their job seriously and strive to be conscientious and fair."

If you love, or even like theater, this is a great play.  It's great because for this show to work (and it worked both nights) all of the cast has to be in sync.  Please allow me to explain.

Unlike most shows where characters go on and off stage, the twelve jurors are in the same place for the entire show.  As one might surmise, it is a jury room.  As the audience, we are given the treat of getting to sit up close as this show was in the Black Box Theater.  Unlike a traditional theater with a raised stage, in this setting, the audience is on the same level as the actors (with the exception of the rows further back that are slightly raised to be able to see.)  For a show like this, it makes for an amazing theater experience.  From where I was sitting, I could see this quite clearly.

The Jury Table from 12 Angry Jurors.  Photo by J. Berta.

There are other unique features of this play.  With the exception of the Bailiff, the other actors, (the jurors) are all on stage for the entire show.  I cannot recall seeing another show that uses this technique.  

So what you have is a show in an intimate setting and with everyone on stage at the same time.  After seeing the show twice, I had the luxury of getting to focus on the individual characters and their acting.  Mr. Francis Dunbar, the show's director, made great efforts to ensure that the characters were communicating without saying a word.  A piercing glance, a gesture, a sigh, even a cough.  All of this contributed to making for a great show and terrific theater experience.

If there is a takeaway from the show is the importance of standing for one's beliefs.  As with most criminal trials tried to a jury, there must be a unanimous vote to reach a verdict.  In 12 Angry Jurors, the first vote is 11-1 for conviction.  The lone holdout is Juror #8.

Unlike other shows which take a while to build tension, this show is a sports car, going from "zero-to-60" in a blink of an eye.  Some of the jurors are furious at this holdout, others surprised and a few not sure what should happen next.

Without giving the show away, I'll simply say that this is a tale of courage.  A couple of times during the show, Juror #9, The Old Man, says:  "It takes courage to stand alone." And it does.

Yet I would argue that there are many forms of courage.  Along with standing alone there is the courage to change one's mind when the facts force the issue.  What is so fascinating to me about this show is the view we get of these jurors, what matters to them, their pride, their prejudices, their fears and yes, their nobility.

I've been a lawyer for almost 23 years.  In that time, I've come to the conclusion that as imperfect as the American justice system is, there is likely no other better (and practical option.)  Do guilty people go free and commit other crimes?  Yes.  Are innocent people wrongly convicted and subjected to unjust confinement?  Sure.  There are ample examples of the inequities of our system of justice.  If I was forced to name one reason why this occurs is that we, as individuals, are not computers.  Even with our best efforts to be honest and fair and just, sometimes we miss something.  I believe Marcus Aurelius said it best: "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."

Most of us will not have to bear the burden of the jurors in 12 Angry Jurors.   We will not have a person's life in our hands.  Yet we all will, at some time and in some place, be confronted with a choice.  The choice of going along with the crowd or saying "no," or even, "not yet."  We will have to decide if we have the courage to stand alone.

And when we do, there will not be an audience applauding for us when it's over.   

Be well my friends,

Monday, February 20, 2017

"It's to you, Harry..."

On election night, 1948, photo credit, Bryon Rollis, AP, fair use claimed, full link here.

Greetings All:

It's President's Day.  Contrary to the wishes of Homer Simpson, we no longer get to claim both Lincoln and Washington's birthday as a holiday.  Instead, we honor all our presidents today.  There will be no mail and I'm pretty sure garbage "night" is now Wednesday as trash pickup is bumped a day ahead.  There is no school and while I will get (some) work done today, I won't be wearing a tie.

I have not written for a couple of weeks.  I've got a couple of posts in the works but I wanted to slip in this one as it is a day to recall those who held a certain Federal office.  

When one thinks of our Presidents, who comes mind?  There's the two previously mentioned:  Washington and Lincoln.  Our current President, Donald J. Trump, regardless of how one feels about him, certainly has created news.  He replaced a man, Barack H. Obama, who also caused strong emotions to stir in people, both positive and negative.  

Then there are the Presidents we've kinda forgotten about.  Martin Van Buren was the eighth President.  (And yes, I had to look that up to be sure I was right about that fact.)  You can read more about him 

I refer to myself as a "hobby historian."  I love the subject yet the more I learn about it, the more I realize how much I don't know.  It seems like with every book or podcast I come across, I learn more about it.  History, after all, is about people.  Oh sure, there's the history of the planet and the death of the dinosaurs, but what really matters to us is the people and what they did that impact our lives today.

For America, there is no person who can impact history, for good or for ill, than the President.  We've had 45 of them and each one played his part on the historical stage.

Then there were those who never achieved that office.  Hillary Clinton (whom I voted for in two primary and one general election) came agonizingly close.  Then, there were those who were part of the government, a "heartbeat away" as they like to say.  History is replete of those whose ambitions were denied by the electorate.  

Oh, and history would be incomplete without villains.  Thanks to the amazing musical, "Hamilton," the world knows about the treasonous acts of Vice President Arron Burr.  Here was another guy who wanted the top job and was ruthless in his pursuit of power.  Old Nicky M would have have been proud of him, to say the least. 

How about we here a little music on this subject, shall we?  Thanks to our friends at YouTube we can watch the first performance of "Hamilton" at the White House in 2009.  Here you go, enjoy!

So as to my favorite President?  Well, I have many that I admire.  Yet if I had to ping one as my favorite, that would be the man from Independence, Missouri.  A failed small business owner and a man whose own mother-in-law voted against in the 1948 election.  His formal education ended after high school and he was about as far removed from his boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in class and status.  He enjoyed bourbon (Old Grand Dad was a favorite, as I recall) and playing poker. 

Rumor has it (although an exhaustive 12-minute internet search failed to confirm this fact) Truman was playing poker when he was summoned to the White House on April 12, 1945 around 5:30 p.m.  It was then he learned that he was about to sit down at a table of truly "no limits."  FDR had died and a few hours later, he was President of the United States.

Unlike others, Truman had no sincere presidential ambitions.  He had already exceeded expectations.  He was not picked to be FDR's running mate in 1944 not so much for who he was, but for what he was not.  The current Veep, Henry Wallace, had gotten uncontrollable.  Another candidate, James (Jimmy) Burns had exemplary political credentials, yet was from South Carolina at a time where segregation was sadly still in full effect.  Truman, from Missouri, was a solid, safe choice.  

Truman did have certain character traits that were admirable.  He was a hard worker who took his role as a Senator seriously.  He had been an artillery captain in World War I and could relate to the life and death decisions war leaders have to make.  He was also well-liked by colleagues.  It may seem hard to believe in this era where the battle lines in our current political world are akin to the trench warfare Truman saw (and heard and smelled) of World War I, yet back then, politicians talked to each other.  They socialized together and (gasp!) were even friends.  All these qualities made him FDR's VP...for about 83 days.

Truman was far from a perfect man.  He had a temper and might have made decisions that were driven from too much of an "all politics is local" standpoint.  Yet he was a man of principal.  He desegreated the military in 1948.  When Stalin shut down the roads to West Berlin, Truman refused to take the bait and start World War III, instead initiating the Berlin Airlift.  This effort not only prevented war but kept West Berlin free, miles inside the Iron Curtain of post-war Soviet domination.  

Truman was not supposed to win election in 1948.  The photo that opens this blog post is of him showing the (dare I say it, "fake news") incorrect headline of him losing to the presumptive winner, Thomas Dewey of New York.  Talk about drawing an inside straight...

Truman never had the benefit of a transition period.  He was both mocked and despised by many, including those whom owed him their service and subordination.  Still, he kept playing the cards he was dealt.  Here's a good read on Truman that articulates this point better than I can.

I don't play poker often, hardly ever, actually.  I've heard it is a game that requires a variety of skills to be employed simultaneously.  I suppose aside from the math skills, one has to read people as well as cards. Truman played this game well, very well.  (Please read this terrific story by a true historian,Michael Beschloss that is linked in the previous sentence.)
And I do not mean just at friendly card games.  I also mean at the most dangerous poker room in the world from '45-53.  

Retired President Truman playing poker, photo from the Truman Library, fair use claimed.

If you play any type of strategy game, from cards to chess, sometimes the thing you DON'T want is to have to make a decision, a move.  I probably lost more games of chess against my Scoutmaster growing up because I made the wrong move late in the game.  Yet sometimes in a game, in life, you don't have the option of not making a move.  That can be an inconvenient fact, aggravated by the fact your opponent probably knows what your going to do next.

If you love, or even like history, then I highly, highly recommend you check out Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast.  He is an amazing storyteller and goes into a deep dive of historical fact with the skill of a seasoned screenplay writer.  I have a link above to the episode I just listened to, "The Destroyer of Worlds."  I'm compelled by my conscience to point out that Mr. Carlin captures the poker analogy wonderful and I'm (kinda) backing up the truck to steal this line for my blog post.  (In fact, I will reference this podcast likely again in a future blog post.  But let's see if I stay focused enough to finish it...)

So here's to my favorite President, Harry S. Truman.  He played the cards he was dealt about as well as possible.  When the game turned to Truman, be it in a friendly game in Kansas City or on the world stage, he kept his poker face when someone said, "It's to you, Harry."

Be well my friends,


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Perhaps So

Today's Quad Cities Times sports page, fair use claimed, photo by J. Berta.

Greetings All:

The 51st Super Bowl (played February 5, 2017) is in the record books.  It ended with the New England Patriots, once again, winning the Lombardi Trophy.  This is number 5 for New England, an impressive feat indeed.  Here is CNN's take on the game.  

It was an epic comeback, likely to be considered the greatest Super Bowl of all time.  For the Atlanta Falcons, it is a painful experience and likely to be a painful memory for years/decades to come.  I do feel for their fans, as this had to be a devestating loss.

At the center (or more precisely behind the center) of this storybook comeback was New England's quarterback, Tom Brady.

Much has been written of Tom Brady' process as a quarterback and that was prior to this game.  Since he engineered the miracle comeback, the accolades continue to pour in about the virtues of Tom Brady.  Whether it is his leadership traits, his philosophic   pursuits, or his uncompromising uncompromising health regime, he is a unique individual.

I've never been a Tom Brady fan.  I recall a few years ago that I saw him during the National Anthem (long before the current controversy regarding a certain other quarterback) I saw him not placing his hand over his heart and I hammered him on Facebook.  Then there was the whole "Deflategate" matter.  Some say the Commish threw the book at him.  I think he got off easy.  In any event, that is in the past.

The simple fact is Tom Brady led his team to the most improbable Super Bowl victory ever.  In the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, he found a way to win.  He was never rattled.  He never panicked.  He tuned out the noise and simply threw completion after completion after completion.  When the game went into overtime and New England won the coin toss, it was as if the game was over.  Tom Brady was on a roll and he was not going to stop until he found the endzone.  Sure enough, he did.

If I want to be truly honest with myself, my ire with Tom Brady is driven in part by a silly, stupid resentment of his discipline.  I want to say to him, "Eat a cheeseburger, drink a beer, stay up late, sleep in, skip the gym."

And I suspect if I were to ever have that conversation, Tom Brady would smile at me and politely say, "No thank you."  He would go about his business, not caring what I did or what I thought.  In many ways, Brady is a practitioner of Stoicism- focusing on what he can control and nothing else. 

I grew up in the 70s.  One of my heroes growing up was Kenny "The Snake" Stabler.  He quarterbacked the Oakland Raiders to a Superbowl victory in 1977.  Here is a review of that game. In fact, back in 2000, I got a football signed by him at a casino in Bettendorf.  He was an early icon of the game.  Here's a solid account of his his exploits.

Stabler was the other side of the coin to Brady.  Where Brady's life rivals that of a monk, Stabler's life was one of a well, 1970s quarterback.  He drank and caroused and drank some more.  Yet come game time, he was ready to play.  One could argue the Raiders had an unfair advantage as they often had twelve players on the field, 11 in uniform and Stabler's hangover.

Brady and Stabler, two men so different and yet, so much alike.  I started writing this post Sunday night (it's now Thursday) and was thinking about Stabler this whole "Superbowl Season."  Then tonight, when Carly was at dance at the Family Museum, I took the minute walk to the library and perused the new book selection.  Despite the fact I am w-a-y behind on my current reading, I grabbed this:

Mike Freeman's book on Ken Stabler, fair use claimed.  Photo by J. Berta.

I have just read a few pages of it and suspect before the weekend is over, I'll have burned thru it.  Of what I have read, it covers the expected material, yet it also goes deeper into the man.  The back cover sums it up nicely:

The back cover of Mike Freeman's book on Ken Stabler, fair use claimed.  Photo by J. Berta.

As the photo might be hard to read, here is part of the back cover:

"In the 1970s, football was a militaristic, blind apparatus, where personalities were crushed under the weight of uniformity.  But quarterback Ken Stabler was something else."

Yes, yes he was.  He told the NFL:  "I'm going to party and be ready to play on Sunday, your rules, your assumptions of how I should live be damned."

Fast forward forty years, another quarterback steps forward.  He too challenges convention, by his diet, by his shunning of the weight room for resistance band, by declining alcohol and dairy and late nights.  And most of all...not giving a damn what anyone thought of him, save his family and teammates.

Is Tom Brady the greatest ever?  Perhaps so. And I suspect that if we could sit down and visit with Kenny Stabler, he'd likely concur.  He'd concur for Brady's exploits on the field.  He'd concur for how he's led his life (on his terms.) 

Now who am I to argue with The Snake?

Be well my friends,