Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bicentennial


Although I was born in Denver, Colorado, I grew up in Vancouver, Canada. Not counting family vacations to Utah and Colorado, my first big trip to “the States” (as I still mentally refer to the USA) occurred during the summer of 1976, in time for the big Bicentennial celebration.

I’d just turned 12. My boy scout troop was a part of a group of Mormon scouts from the Vancouver region who traveled to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. We spent the memorable Fourth of July itself in balmy Saint George, Utah – staying with kind host families, watching the fireworks, and touring local Mormon history sites. 

Along the way we explored the Grand Canyon, Zion’s Canyon, and Bryce Canyon, which all were amazing. On the drive back north we stopped in Provo, Utah, where we hiked through Timpanogos Cave. I also visited Brigham Young University for my first time – the tour organizers arranged for us to take much-needed showers at BYU’s George A. Smith Fieldhouse.

In the subsequent four decades, I’ve returned to Zion’s, Bryce, and the other spectacular national parks of Southern Utah. I have yet to make it back to the Grand Canyon or Timpanogos Cave. And as a P.E.-phobic, I don’t think I set foot in the Smith Fieldhouse the entire time I attended BYU.


Our bicentennial road trip occurred during the prime of my impressionable Mormon youth. I already idealized the Canadian Mormons I was familiar with. When my parents announced we were moving from Vancouver to Brigham City at the end of the summer, my idyllic experiences during the memorable boy scout road trip gave me confidence that I was heading to a good place.

That’s not how it turned out. In 1976, Brigham City was not an affirming place for an awkward, clueless, overachieving gay teen. As I’ve chronicled elsewhere, the move from cosmopolitan Vancouver to backward Utah came at a particularly bad time for me developmentally. 

As I typed this, I realized I should be able to sue a parade of therapists for failing to point out the obvious connection between my idealistic expectations about Utah and the traumatic reality of my years living among the Mormons. Put it on the list….


Pioneering gay journalist Randy Shilts began his history of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, by describing the flotilla of “tall ships” sailing into New York harbour in July 1976 to commemorate the Bicentennial. According to Shilts, gay men from across the country and around the world were pouring into post-Stonewall NYC, thrilled by their hedonistic new freedom – but oblivious to its eventual consequences.

Shilts can be melodramatic in his characterization of the epidemic’s Ground Zero and its alleged Patient Zero. But I can relate to Shilts’ suggestion that July 4, 1976 marked the end of a certain kind of innocence about America. It definitely feels that way for me. Brigham City, junior high, Utah Mormons, the closet, BYU, Reagan, Bush, Bush, increasing economic inequality, oligarch-enabling courts, prejudice, climate change, Trump…. Frankly, everything about the States has gotten worse since the fireworks ended.


Postscript


This is my 200th blog essay. This month also marks two years since I began publishing on this site after my writer’s block finally lifted for the first time in decades.

As my doctor predicted, writing for regular publication has been immensely therapeutic. Along the way I've had fun and learned a lot – about the craft of writing, the process of editing, numerous research topics, and my own brain and mind. Meanwhile, in addition to these blog essays and various other reading and writing projects, my draft book has morphed into three separate book manuscripts. Hopefully I’ll finish one of them soon.

I'm grateful for everyone who told me they liked something they read, as well as for those who read silently. And for the inestimable support of my long-suffering parents and my rambunctious children.

Thanks especially to those who have reached out to me individually. Particularly the members of Vancouver Men's Chorus, who have been a lifeline throughout this challenging period. Because of the quirks of both my personality and my disability, it's hard for me to take the initiative socially. So I really appreciate the gestures of friendship for a socially-challenged introvert with PTSD, and support for a weary unemployed single father. 

Like writing, parenting is fun but exhausting. And vice versa. As Hillary Clinton titled her first book, "It takes a village to raise a child." Thanks to all you Village People.

Good news - YMCA made the Disco Medley in VMC's 70s concert next month -
tickets available at www.vancouvermenschorus.ca 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Nonlinear Thinking


Although I’m a true-blue English major, I have a deep dark secret: I like math. In fact, I was the top math student in my high school graduating class.

Of course, I haven’t taken an actual math class since high school calculus. It turns out I really just like the idea of math.


One my favorite books from Bill Gates’ recommendation list is Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong. Ellenberg is a distinguished mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin. His goal is to engage you with mathematical concepts that are “both profound and simple.” How Not to Be Wrong is the perfect book for English majors and similar cocktail chatterers  we don’t have the attention span for profound but complicated math.

Ellenberg begins his preface with the answer he wishes he had the nerve to give at the beginning of every introductory math course, when yet another lazy student asks “When am I going to use this?”:

 “Math is woven into the way we reason. And math makes you better at things. Knowing math is like wearing a pair of X-ray specs that reveal hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of the world. Math is a science of not being wrong about things, its techniques and habits hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, sounder, and more meaningful way.”

Or as Ellenberg encapsulates his argument elsewhere, “Mathematics is the extension of common sense by other means.”    


As I’ve previously discussed in various blog posts, Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a useful model of how our brains rely on two contrasting mental processors, which I've referred to as Thing 1 and Thing 2. The first system is fast and automatic, constantly multi-tasking as it retrieves memories and generates intuitions. In contrast, the second system allocates our brains’ limited conscious attention to effortful mental tasks. Thing 2 would prefer to lazily coast along with the information and unconscious assumptions it receives from Thing 1.

Humans’ unconscious Thing 1 is a powerful “parallel” processor, simultaneously making nonlinear associations among multiple memories and concepts. Our conscious Thing 2 processor is better at linear reasoning from A to B to C. But with some extra glucose-burning effort, Thing 2 can also make the nonlinear leap from A to Z. Eureka!


Ellenberg makes a more mathematical distinction between “linear” and “nonlinear” thinking.

Linear phenomena can be graphed as a straight line, because increasing x results in proportionately more y. Ellenberg uses the example of a diehard libertarian’s view of socialism: countries with less “Swedishness” will automatically be more prosperous.


Sadly for the Cato Institute, real life phenomena tend to be more complicated than the libertarian ideal. The graphed relationship between two variables often results in a curve, rather than a straight line. At some point, increasing will reduce the amount of y. As a result, purely linear thinking will lead you astray.

Curved functions also convey more information than straight lines. At any given point on the curve, you can determine not just the ratio between and y, but also the direction and rate of acceleration or deceleration. According to Ellenberg, “nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.


Of course, there’s a difference between curves and curves.

According to Washington DC legend, the tax-cutting “Lafler Curve” that was used to justify trickle-down Reaganomics was drawn on a restaurant napkin. However, a simple parabola-shaped graph doesn’t necessarily capture the complex relationship between a particular and y. Actual results may vary.


Ellenberg’s graphs merely plot the relationship between and y. What happens when you add to the mix? And a, and b, and c…?

As astronomers figured out long ago, charting the interaction between two moving objects – such as the Earth and its moon – involves a straightforward arithmetic computation. However, adding a third object to the mix, such as the Sun or Mars, brings a whole new dimension to your calculation. In fact, it turns out that it’s impossible to solve a “three-body problem” (and the more general n-body problem) with mathematicians’ traditional tools. 

We’re going to need a bigger mathematics.


Centuries before Newton and Leibnitz came up with calculus, mathematicians already realized it was possible to find real world answers to complex problems by relying on elegant fictions. 

For example, everyone knows it’s a pain to measure a round object with a straight ruler. Instead, you pretend it’s a regular polygon with numerous sides. As Ellenberg observes, “the great insight of Eudoxus and Archimedes was that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a circle or a polygon with very many very short sides. The two areas will be close enough for any purpose you might have in mind…. The slogan to keep in mind: straight locally, curved globally.”


Famed French mathematician Pierre de Fermat was a lawyer. So were Leibnitz and Copernicus. 

Conceptually, mathematics is very like the law. You isolate or emphasize particular variables, then propose a story that hopefully fits together. As Ellenberg observes, 

Real-world questions aren’t like word problems….  It’s only after you’ve started to formulate these questions that you take out the calculator. But at that point the real mental work is already finished. Dividing one number by another is mere computation; figuring out what you should divide by what is mathematics.

If you’re doing your work correctly, you constantly test your model against reason and experience. According to Ellenberg, “a mathematician is always asking ‘What assumptions are you making? And are they justified?’” 

A lawyer asks the same questions – or at least a lawyer who’s attempting to get at the truth, rather than trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes.


Garrison Keillor used to have a daily segment on NPR called “The Writer’s Almanac,” sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. (After a #MeToo hiatus, Keillor revived the feature last year as a daily podcast on his own website.)

Unlike my plugged-in-from-birth children, I can’t write anything on my phone longer than a shopping list. When I’m away from my computer and laptop, I instead write in pencil on blank sheets of paper. Eventually I laboriously transfer what’s legible into electronic files.  

As I was copying handwritten notes from my chorus music binder last week, I found something that looked sorta like a poem:

Lessons from Math  

some things you approach obliquely

others you pretend involve a line

because you’re a nonlinear thinker

in every sense of the words


Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.






Sunday, May 12, 2019

Opportunistic Infections


Several folks requested an update about the painful boil on my chest that I wrote about last monthThe doctor at the walk-in clinic who diagnosed my nasty bacterial infection warned me there was a 50/50 chance fluid would collect under the skin, requiring me to come back and have it lanced. Instead, a small crater opened up next to my left nipple, and the boil slowly drained itself. Now it's gone dormant again, and looks like a mostly-healed bullet wound. 

When I picked up the powerful antibiotic the doctor prescribed, I recognized its brand name: Bactrim. As Sir Alec Guiness would say, “That’s a name I haven’t heard for a long, long time.”



I became an advocate for people affected by HIV/AIDS during the early 1990s. We were barely a decade into the epidemic. Doctors had isolated the virus and developed tests for the presence of HIV, but we were still years away from lifesaving anti-retroviral combination therapy. The only available anti-HIV medication at the time, AZT, had toxic side effects, and merely slowed rather than stopped the progress of the virus.

HIV is insidious. It doesn’t attack organs directly. Instead, the virus hides in the body for years, silently targeting the immune system itself. As patients eventually lose their ability to ward off attacks, they become vulnerable to a wide variety of “opportunistic infections” that a healthy immune system would easily deflect. 

Public health officials first became aware something bad was happening when a handful of urban young gay men were diagnosed with Karposi’s Sarcoma – rare skin lesions that previously appeared only on elderly Mediterranean men. Doctors treating HIV patients encountered other exotic diseases, such as avian flu, pneumocystis pneumonia, and cytomegalovirus. During the 1990s, Bactrim was the go-to antibiotic for many of these opportunistic infections.


I wasn't surprised by my recent bacterial chest infection. I expected it, or at least something like it. Last month the Court of Appeals held oral argument in my pending lawsuit. As with other major crossroads over the years, I could feel the huge wave of stress building in the weeks before the big day. I was tired and run down, and I knew my body was preparing to act out. This has happened before. In fact, the chest boil was only the third grossest of my anxiety symptoms last month. (Don’t ask.)

Just as predictably, most of my bodily complaints settled down immediately after the big deadline passed, with or without medication. Still, I was glad to have extra material for my annual physical exam this week. I’ve been making a list of new quiz questions for my insightful Bellingham physician, Dr. Heuristic.

For example, when the doctor at the walk-in clinic was examining the boil on my chest, she suggested I have someone look at the ominously dark mole a few inches away. I explained that last year Dr. Heuristic said it was merely a “barnacle” from ordinary aging. She gave me a look I recognized from the faces of fellow lawyers: “If someone else wants to commit malpractice that’s his own business.” I’m sure my friend Dr. Ken can point me to the appropriate emoji. 


My all-time favorite author is an obscure woman from the Scottish Highlands who used the penname Jane Duncan. She had an extraordinary story-telling gift, evoking memorable characters while subtly tackling profound themes, with an authorial voice that connects directly to each reader.

As I’ve written before, even after reading Jane Duncan’s books numerous times over the decades, I still marvel at our many personal connections. For example, last month as I was washing blood out of my shirts from my leaking boil, I remembered how in times of exceptional stress, her protagonist inevitably develops an itchy skin rash. Then she proceeds to tear off her flesh in long strips. (I told you these things are gross.)

On my most recent re-reading of My Friends George and Tom, I was struck by another thing Jane Duncan's narrator and I have in common: we both know exactly when and how our bodies are going to react, but that knowledge merely makes us angry at ourselves. Which makes the itchiness/hairpulling worse, and then stokes the anger, in a vicious cycle. 


Years ago a therapist recommended I try mindfulness meditation. Even as a casual practitioner, mindfulness was a helpful tool for coping with the pressures of legal practice and parenthood. Then when PTSD and its aftermath upended my life, I committed to daily meditation. I also began to seriously research the relationship between mindfulness and brain function.

Numerous apps and gurus offer tools under the "mindfulness" label. Most of these approaches are based on ancient Buddhist practices, but with a thoroughly secular bent. Mindfulness cultivates a focused awareness on the present moment – closely examining our sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The key is not to judge or to seek change, but rather to dispassionately observe and accept things as they are. Along the way we learn to treat ourselves and others with a mindset of loving kindness. One paradox of mindfulness is that meditation will improve your life, but change is not supposed to occur right this minute. Nevertheless, mindfulness techniques can help calm some of our overreaction to specific events.

Humans’ powerful fight-or-flight instinct evolved over millions of years. What we experience as “stress” is a potentially healthy response to the various serious stressors we encounter. But stress leaves us vulnerable to opportunistic assaults. For people like Jane Duncan and me, looming life crises are the modern equivalent of a mastodon charging. You can’t blame your body for overreacting. Or your mind. Instead, you have to navigate through stressful situations with a practical mix of medicine, meditation, fuzzy things, and walks with the dogs. And lots of patience and humour.

Click here for more information about Trichotillomania 
and other Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Lost Youth, Part 2


In “Lost Youth, Part 1,” I discussed the current Netflix documentary The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, about Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along. The doomed original production of Merrily was cast with inexperienced young actors. Each looks back on his or her younger self – and the transformational experience they shared – with wistful awe.     

The same week I watched The Best Worst Thing, I finally got up the nerve to stream the powerful new HBO documentary about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men in their 30s who accuse Michael Jackson of repeatedly molesting them as children. Like The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, HBO's Leaving Neverland illustrates hows how the events of our youth cast long shadows.


Celebrated documentary director Dan Reed divided Leaving Neverland into a pair of two-hour segments. Most of the first half consists of excerpts from Reed’s one-on-one interviews with Robson and Safechuck, along with interviews with their mothers and a few other family members. These segments are intercut with contemporaneous news footage of Jackson, as well as archival photos, audio, and video from the families. 

Robson’s family is from Brisbane, Australia. After winning a Michael Jackson dance contest, Robson met his idol and then was invited onstage at a concert. Soon after, Jackson flew Robson to visit him in the States, and eventually sponsored most of the family’s emigration to California.

Safechuck is from suburban Simi Valley, California. With the encouragement of another stage mother, Safechuck began working in commercials. He met Jackson on the set of a Coke ad. Jackson adopted the family, sneaking over to their ranch house for “normal” nights out, and inviting them to his mansion.

Robson and Safechuck calmly relate parallel stories of being groomed for something special. The sexual details are matter-of-fact and chilling. In each case, Jackson slowly seduced the preteen superfan, both emotionally and physically. Meanwhile, Jackson successfully campaigned to alienate the boys from their families, and to make each boy complicit in their lovers' secret. The twisted bond with Jackson became the foundation of each man's successful career in show business, while disabling their capacity for healthy intimate relationships as adults.

The men’s accounts are relentless and cathartic. Yet the documentary's most interesting and troubling portraits are of each mother – juxtaposing the excitement of their brush with fame with each woman’s gradual recognition that she enabled horrifying abuse.

After watching the first half of Leaving Neverland, you are completely drained, absolutely convinced, and wonder what the filmmakers have left to say.


The second half of Leaving Neverland is even more devastating. The documentary’s true purpose is to show how abuse still traumatizes victims and their families many years after the original acts.   

The interviews with Robson and Safechuck turn from the crime to the cover-up, as each boys describes how he lied to protect Jackson from accusations of abuse. They also recount the difficulties they encountered as adults attempting to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Video footage from their 20s shows a couple of emotionally stunted adults. Robson and Safechuck tell the interviewer “We’re mentally little kids – we’ve just gotten older… Your putting it on yourself … I had a lot of self hatred, and I didn’t know why.”

As a traumatized gay Mormon who became an LGBT advocate, I’ve been examining the tyranny of the closet for more than three decades. Leaving Neverland resonates with other descriptions of the longterm effects of lies and emotional compartmentalization, such as therapist Alan Downs’ classic book Velvet Rage.

Leaving Neverland documents the collateral impact of abuse and deceit. Robson and Safechuck are not the only victims. For me, the most jaw dropping moment of the documentary was when we learned Robson’s father hanged himself the day after the rest of his family moved from Australia to California to be close to Jackson. 

The second half of Leaving Neverland also introduces the men’s wives. They describe the challenges of connecting with Robson and Safechuck, and the cloud that lifted when their husbands finally confronted their past with Jackson. The documentary shows how having children themselves became the catalyst for both men's transformation. With effective therapy and the support of their families, each began the long process of excavating memories, rebuilding human connections, and telling their stories.


The backlash to Leaving Neverland began immediately after the documentary premiered at Sundance. Diehard Michael Jackson fans refused to credit Robson’s and Safechuck’s allegations, and instead attacked the two accusers. They complained about the filmmakers’ choice to focus on the victims and their families rather than devoting equal time to Jackson’s side of the story. They also criticized the documentary for failing to cross-examine Robson and Safechuck about their motivations and potential inconsistencies in their stories. 

Leaving Neverland does include contemporaneous news footage showing other Jackson accusers and defenders. For example, Macauley Culken describes multiple sleepovers with the singer, and insists nothing untoward occurred. I believe him. However, Culkin already was a movie star when he met Jackson, rather than a starry-eyed groupie. Unlike Robson, Safechuck, and similar Jackson accusers, Culkin doesn’t fit the profile of a vulnerable youth ripe for grooming. Culkin's story is completely consistent with Leaving Neverland’s portrait of Jackson as a cunning sexual predator hiding in plain sight. 

Recognizing the cultural significance of Leaving Neverland, the online magazine Slate recently published a collection of articles examining the impact of the documentary on Jackson’s legacy. That’s what a paradigm shift looks like. Unfortunately, whether it’s Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Les Moonved, or the Catholic and Mormon clergy, someone has to be the penultimate accuser – the last victim no one believes, before the evidence finally becomes overwhelming. Abuse is never obvious until it is.


Michael Jackson died ten years ago. Why can’t we all just move on? 

As Robson observes in Leaving Neverland, “Secrets kill you… I want to speak the truth as loud as I spoke the lie.”

I can relate to Robson’s and Safechuck’s experiences. Three years ago, my former employers gaslighted and tortured me, then illegally discriminated against me based on the disability they triggered. Telling my story was a vital part of my recovery. Meanwhile, not one representative from the Washington Attorney General’s Office has ever apologized, or acknowledged the harm caused by their actions. To the contrary, they reflexively denied any responsibility, and relentlessly attacked me – even when their increasingly preposterous assertions contradicted the undisputed documentary record, and prejudiced their own legal position. 

As long as bullies get away with abuse, victims need to find the courage to tell their stories. Not just for their own mental health, but for sake of other survivors and society. 




Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Lost Youth, Part 1


In 1981, the year I graduated from high school, the most anticipated Broadway musical was Merrily We Roll Along, from composer Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince. These two theatrical gods had collaborated on repeated commercial and artistic triumphs over the previous decade, from Company to Sweeney Todd.

Merrily introduced some of Sondheim’s most enchanting songs, including “Good Thing Going,” “Old Friends,” and “Not a Day Goes By.” The musical’s gimmick, which came directly from the 1934 Kaufman/Hart play it’s based on, is the story unfolds backwards:  starting with the characters as jaded adults, and gradually returning them to idealistic high school graduates two decades before.

Merrily was a disaster. Frank Rich, The New York Times longtime drama critic and perhaps Sondheim’s biggest booster, confesses that he still listens to the Original Cast Album with fondness. So do I. Nevertheless, Rich felt entirely justified panning the musicalSo did every other reviewer. (“Not since Carrie....”) 

Merrily closed after just 16 performances. It was Sondheim and Prince’s first flop, and ended their partnership. The problem with Merrily is that it leaves audiences feeling not catharsis but disenchantment. 

These days everyone knows the musical is unstageable, unless…. The amazing thing about Merrily We Roll Along is no one can quite give up on it. 


Netflix is currently screening a documentary about the doomed original production of Merrily, called The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. The film is a labor of love directed by Lonny Price, the actor who played Charley. After MerrilyPrice left Broadway and went on to a career as a regional theater director. In addition to recent interviews with the cast and crew, Price benefited from hours of film footage from 1981 that was shot for an unaired ABC documentary, as well as video from a reunion concert fundraiser in 2002. 

Some of Merrily’s young cast, like Jason Alexander and Jim Walton, have enjoyed successful acting careers. Others left the theater long ago. All of them look back at their experience with wistful awe. They made me think of comparably intense experiences from my own youth, such as founding Student Review at BYU, or performing at Palace Playhouse and the Hale Center Theatre. Later scenes in the documentary reminded me of various impromptu reunions of the gang over the years, when we met again as adults but still recognized the profound connections we share.


What I found most fascinating was the portrait of Sondheim and Prince in 1981 as middle-aged artists at a crossroads. Prince is the one who came up with the dubious idea of casting the show with inexperienced youths, because he saw their energy as essential to the show’s themes. As Prince observed years later, young people don’t understand “they’re building something.” Prince sincerely believed his concept would work, right up until the brutal opening night. Meanwhile Sondheim was on fire, composing amazing songs with an ease he hadn’t felt since his own youth. 

The juvenile cast comes across as overwhelmed but enthusiastic, and constantly radiating energy. On one level, Prince and Sondheim are like aging vampires – inviting themselves to a cast member’s member’s birthday party, then staying all night to hang with the perky teens and 20somethings. I wish I had a bootleg recording of Stephen Sondheim playing “Happy Birthday” on the piano in my apartment when I turned 21.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to cede creativity to young people. Samuel Johnson described second marriages as “the triumph of hope over experience.” That’s also a pretty good definition of a successful life. In the case of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, examining the energy of youth gave them a shot of youthful energy right when they needed it.