Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Statistics 101

 

Bear and Buster are social creatures. They particularly love interacting with our collegiate neighbors next door at Western Washington University. College girls love sloppy dog kisses, and college boys share leftover junk food. After months of lonely frolicking on the empty quad, Bear and Buster were glad to see a few students return to campus last month. 

 

So far classes are mostly online. Faculty and staff are still working from home, and only one of the dorms is inhabited. The dogs usually have the lawn to themselves. Nevertheless, these days as we walk through campus we often encounter a handful of students doing student things. Bear and I already have gathered enough data to make some observations.



I can report that Western has successfully socialized members of the community to follow at least two of the three “Ws.” (I can’t speak to their hand washing.) We’ve definitely watched a high proportion of earnest social distancing and mask wearing.

 

For example, if Bear and I time our evening walk correctly, we will encounter a jazz combo jamming on the plaza in front of the library. (Look, a tuba  thats how you can tell youre at Western.) 


Note the drummers have their masks on. And all the musicians are at least six feet apart.


The compliance rates for masks and social distancing remain high even when students engage in vigorous activities. Almost everyone wears masks as they walk through campus. In fact, we counted over 80% of cyclists and runners wearing masks. The number for trapeze stunts and games of “Four Square” approached 100% masked.



Of course, millennials are still millennials. If they’re not actually touching a ball, they’re touching their phone.

 

As Bear and I walked through campus on our last sunny warm day, we saw twenty or thirty students hanging out together or lying on suitably distanced blankets. Alone or together, busy or relaxed, at least half of them were staring at their smart phones.

 

I surreptitiously took the next photo at the park. As you can see, the masked photographer is taking a picture of the picture of the sunset on his phone.



Even at earnest WWU there are outliers. Me, for example. I have my mask ready in case Bear and I stop at a coffee shop, pub, or bookstore. However, because of the cumulative damage to my nose from PTSD and trichotillomania, I can’t breathe if I wear my mask while walking the dogs. 

 

Occasionally on our maskless walks through campus I’ll get confused glares from brainwashed students. If anyone asks, I tell them about my disability, and explain the situation would be different if I were indoors, or bunched together in a group. When I see others outdoors without masks on, I try not to judge. Unless they’re wearing MAGA hats. 

 

One final piece of data:  last week Bear and I saw a student zipping by on his skateboard. I wanted to flag him down and ask why he was wearing a mask but not a helmet. But he was too busy listening to his phone. 





Sunday, October 25, 2020

Rescue Me

Yesterday morning it was sunny and 34° in Bellingham. With the windchill it felt like 24°. (For our metric system-loving neighbours, that’s 269° Kelvin.) 

It was my first dog walk wearing an Oh Canada toque. My worn black fleece kept me warm. As a top layer I added the magic high-tech wind breaker my ex gave me for Christmas years ago, back when I had a sailboat rather than children. 

With a dog leash the real cold-weather issue is gloves. I had two choices. There’s a fancy pair of ski gloves in the closet that some guy left behind. But they make me overheat, and I could only find the left glove anyway. So I went with the cheap pair of cloth Ace Hardware work gloves.

 

After lunch I stopped by REI to check out alternatives. Did you know that gloves these days are “touch screen sensitive”? For just $40?

 

I decided to wait for Santa to leave a pair in my stocking. It’s not that I’m an unemployed disabled singled dad on a limited budget. Or that I’m too healthily unplugged these days to justify dog walks with touch screen sensitivity. It’s just that my old work gloves from Ace Hardware match Bear’s coloring.



Like the autumn leaves, Bear is currently at peak foliage. 

 

When my ex moved away a year ago, I inherited three kids full time, a conveniently located rental house, and a couple of dogs. Bear was already getting shaggy. When the Covid shutdown came, the dogs were long past due for grooming. By spring Bear looked like a Mad Max-era Tina Turner wig with legs. 

 

By the time the dog groomers finally re-opened this summer, the dogs’ fur was so tangled they needed buzz cuts. With his hairs variegated shades of cream and brown no longer blended together, Bear looked like a blotchy weasel. 

 

Fortunately, after a couple of months his fur finally grew in enough to restore his natural pied beauty. As we walk along the boardwalk and the sidewalks of Fairhaven and South Hill against a flattering backdrop of sunshine and autumn leaves, we meet countless beaming smiles and gushing compliments. Bear is more attractive than anyone I’ve ever dated, and obviously way out of my league.

 

Sigh. It’s never going to be about me.



November is the cruelest month. I wrote a year ago that “many of the darkest times of my life occurred in this light- and joy-deficient time of year.” As we approach this particular November, everyone’s hopes are locked in a battle with Trumpian darkness. 

 

Even without the election and the U.S. Supreme Court’s descent into lunacy, I was already facing peak anxiety. Last year in “Schrödingers Summer Vacation,” I wrote about my experience waiting for the Court of Appeals to rule on my appeal from the trial judge’s two years earlier, when the judge threw out my damage claims against my employer’s sleazy investigator on an inapplicable technicality:

 

For as long as I’ve practiced law in Washington, Division One of the Court of Appeals has set a goal of issuing its opinions within thirty days after oral argument. Each case is assigned to one of the three judges on the panel that heard the appeal. Whenever the opinion is written by nine out of the ten judges currently serving on Division One, the Court releases the decision an average of five weeks after the argument. However, if the opinion is assigned to the Court's tenth judge, it won't come out until an average of sixteen weeks after oral argument. His longest bout of judicial writer’s block that year lasted 26 weeks. 


Oral argument was in April. In mid-June I looked over the statistics and realized which judge was writing the opinion in my appeal. Every Monday afternoon from April until September, I repeatedly logged onto the website that lists the Washington appellate courts’ most recent opinions. Each week’s batch of new rulings from Division One of the Court of Appeals would appear at a mysteriously random time between noon and 3 pm. Each week my increasing anxiety would spike on Mondays.

 

Twenty weeks after oral argument, the Court of Appeals finally issued its ruling. In an emphatic published opinion, the Court agreed with my legal arguments, and reversed the lower court’s decision. 

 

A year later, my new weekly bout of stress spikes on Wednesdays at 4 pm. That’s when the Washington Supreme Court announces which opinions are scheduled to be released the following morning. The Court’s ruling on the investigator firm’s appeal, which we argued in June, is due any week now.

 

Meanwhile, like everyone else, my covid-amplified background anxiety is scheduled to peak on a definite date:  Tuesday, November 3

 

But wait, there’s more. In my separate lawsuit against the State, both sides are waiting for United States District Judge Richard Jones to rule on a couple of pivotal motions that have been pending for months. Judge Jones’s decision could come any day. So that particular component of my anxiety peaks every day at 5 pm, except for weekends and federal holidays. 

 

Schrödingers Fall offers three times the excitement of Schrödingers Summer Vacation.


When I began my Phase III of blogging in September, I cheerfully observed that “despite the various plagues besetting everyone, I’m as happy and healthy as I’ve ever been in my life.” Nevertheless, despite the progress I’ve made with PTSD and codependency, living with constant stress increases many of my other symptoms, including trichotillomania, bruxism, and social anxiety. 

 

Ironically, even as my thinking and writing get clearer, I’ve become even less articulate talking to other people. Fortunately, walking the dogs give me ample opportunity to practice my social skills. Bear’s charms evoke predictable set-up lines from friendly strangers, such as “Your dog is so cute!” and “What kind of dog is he?” 

 

Bear and Buster are purebred Aussiedoodles – one of the most popular of the trendy class of “doodles.” My ex and his husband were friends with a local breeder. I never wanted a dog myself – to the contrary, I was comfortable in my role as the dogs fabulous gay uncle. Besides, if I’d chosen a dog, I would have picked what in my day we called a “mutt.”



A few millennia ago, when humans made the terrible mistake of abandoning a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and embraced agriculture and civilization instead, our ancestors domesticated (or rather conquered) various species like cows, chickens, and pigs. Cats domesticated themselves, more or less. Dogs and humans domesticated each other. 

 

Dogs make perfect comfort animals. Humans do too, when we make an effort. Many of the dogs Bear and I encounter on our walks look like mutts, but their owners always refer to them as “rescue dogs.” 

 

The fastest, leanest, and quietest dog among the regulars at our off-leash park is a beautiful greyhound. His owner is a sweet white-haired grandma who hauls a gallon jug of water to the park each day to fill all the dog bowls. She rescued her greyhound when one of the country’s few remaining dog racing tracks closed.



Last year I didn’t have a dog of my own to help me through Schrodinger’s Summer Vacation. It would have helped.

 

Fortunately, this year things are different. Like my children, Buster is allergic to exercise. However, Bear has proven to be an marvelous walking companion. Plus he’s an excellent conversationalist, and listens patiently as I work on material for my writing. 

 

Most afternoons the rest of the family kicks us out of the house to go on a Real Walk. In addition to our short walks in the morning and evening with Buster. So far this year I’ve worn through two pairs of shoes. As we approach an ultimate stress-test November, Bear and I are averaging well over ten miles a day.

 


In 1904, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in Medicine after demonstrating the concept of “conditioned reflex.” Pavlov famously rang a bell when presenting dogs with food. The dogs learned to associate the sound with mealtime. Eventually merely ringing a bell was enough to make the dogs salivate.

 

Now that I have a dog, and Bear has me, I realize that Pavlov’s report was incomplete. When you ring the bell, dogs don’t just salivate. They also stare at you with sad “feed-me” eyes.

 

Dogs have expectations. So Bear and I are off for another cold walk.



Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Right Word


Leishman Family Rule #37:  Never listen to any word that follows the phrase “But Papa, you said….”

 

Rule 37 was adopted in response to a particular child. I won’t bother coyly disguising her identity, because I’m sure it’s obvious to readers. My daughter Eleanor is a notoriously unreliable witness.

 

For example, our 30-year reunion since graduating from law school was scheduled for this month. Five years ago when I attended my 25-year reunion, I flew into New York and saw a few Broadway shows – my first such theatre trip after a decade of parenthood-induced drought. This year I was planning on a similar excursion. As we were updating the family calendar at the beginning of 2020, I marked my “Yale ’90 weekend” in October. 


Eleanor immediately claimed “You said if I get straight A’s then I can come with you to New York.” As usual, my eye-rolling Rule 37 response was “I didn’t say that.” Plus “there’s no way you’re getting straight A’s anyway.”

 

March 13, 2020 was the last day my three children attended school in person. This fall we’ve been trapped at home staring at Zoom. Bellingham Public Schools have done an amazing job of adapting to a disastrous situation with an impressive structure and curriculum. But we’re still driving each other crazy. 

 

Back in the spring no one knew what to expect. Zoom School was a bunch of busywork thrown together at the last minute. In May, the high school principal sent us an email saying they’d decided to just give all the students who participated A’s in each class for the semester. Eleanor immediately started picking out Broadway shows. 

 

Rather than get into an argument with my daughter, I told her it didn’t matter. I’d already gotten the cancellation notification from the alumni office. And from the Broadway theaters. More inevitable casualties of Covid-19.

 

A few weeks ago I received an email from the Dean announcing that Yale will be hosting a delayed 30-year reunion in October 2021. Eleanor’s response:  “So the New York deal is on?”



I attended our 25-year class reunion in October 2015 – just a few weeks before my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD. I was naively excited to tell my classmates about my new job with the Washington Attorney General’s Office as general counsel to Western Washington University. But I was already exhibiting some of the strange tics and other symptoms caused by my body’s reaction to traumas and triggers. Within a few months I lost my health and career, and began the long slow road to recovery

 

As I wrote earlier this year in “The Prime of Roger A. Leishman, Esq.,” I was not sure how to describe my job status in response to the law school class reunion survey this time around:  MartyrPapa”? “Contingent-fee pro se disability/ LGBT discrimination/ public corruption attorney? / “Gadfly”? This is not what I planned to be doing with my life or my law degree. 

 

Nevertheless, in spite of numerous besetting plagues, I’m happier and healthier than ever. The kids are alright. And after thirty years of trauma-induced writer’s block, I’m thrilled to embrace my status as a fulltime single father and writer.

 

Sadly, I still waste too much of my writing on tedious legal briefs. Even sadder, I’m still waiting to change either my family’s dire circumstances, or society’s casual mistreatment of people living with mental illness. Its only been thirty years since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and thirty years since I graduated from Yale Law School.



In the last three years I’ve written countless legal briefs and almost completed the manuscript of my book Anyone Can Whistle: a Memoir of Religion, Showtunes, and Mental Illness. I've also published more than three hundred blog essays on a wide variety of topics, totaling over half a million words. According to Google Analytics, the blog post that has received the most hits is from September 2018: “About My Law School Classmate Brett Kavanaugh.”

 

In my essay I described Justice Kavanaugh as “the only member of our law school class I never met or interacted with.” We spent three years together in New Haven studying with only 160 other classmates. Surely our paths crossed. After making two more years of progress in my recovery from PTSD, I’ve been asking myself why I have no memories of him. 


In some respects were from the same demographic – members of the earliest cohort of Generation X, with parents who were born during World War II. But I went to a public high school in a small Utah town, then graduated from Brigham Young University. Kavanaugh went to posh Georgetown Prep, then attended Yale College. Since law school graduation, Kavanaugh has enjoyed life in an even more privileged bubble.



This month a majority of the United States Supreme Court declined to review an appeal brought by Kim Davis, the former Kentucky county clerk who was sued for refusing to give state recognition to legal same-sex marriages. Two justices dissented, repeating their criticism of the Court’s 2015 marriage equality decision and its “ruinous consequences for religious liberty.” When I saw the headline, I correctly guessed the identity of the two dissenting justices – Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justice Kavanaugh remained silent. For now.

 

I’ve only read one Kavanaugh opinion from his two years on the Court:  his dissent in Bostock v. Clayton County this JuneA 6-3 majority of justices joined numerous lower courts in ruling that the prohibition against discrimination “on account of sex” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to discriminatory treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. There’s virtually no legislative history about the phrase, which was apparently added at the last minute as a poison pill by a racist member of congress. Courts therefore give the words of the statute their plain meaning. 


The Supreme Court’s logic was simple:  if my employer treats me differently because my children’s other parent is a man, rather than a woman, that’s discrimination “on account of sex.” Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court’s mansplaining opinion. Of course, LGBT advocates have been making these same legal arguments for forty years. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the Court’s recent vindication of civil rights.

 

Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, wrote a Scalia-lite ranting dissent about how laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT employees threaten freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and personal privacy and safety.” In contrast, Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate dissent telling LGBT folks to suck it up – falsely assuring us “a new law to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination was probably close at hand,” despite decades of relentless right-wing opposition. Kavanaugh closed with a bless-their-hearts compliment:

 

It is appropriate to acknowledge the important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans. Millions of gay and lesbian Americans have worked hard for many decades to achieve equal treatment in fact and in law. They have exhibited extraordinary vision, tenacity, and grit—battling often steep odds in the legislative and judicial arenas, not to mention in their daily lives. They have advanced powerful policy arguments and can take pride in today's result.

 

What’s the right word for Brett Kavanaugh’s approach to justice? “Patronizing.”



There are worse words that patronizing to describe a Supreme Court justice. Byron White was dismissive his shameful 5-4 decision for the Court in Bowers v. Hardwick, when he described the legal arguments against charging Michael Hardwick with a crime for consensual same-sex conduct in his own home as “facetious at best.” Lewis Powell was thoughtless about the impact of joining the Bowers majority when his own law clerk that year was a closeted gay man. Antonin Scalia was vitriolic in his ranting dissents to each of the Court’s subsequent LGBT equality cases.

 

As the contrasting tones of Justice Alito’s and Justice Kavanaugh’s dissenting opinions in Bostock suggest, there still are differences between “Good” evil people and “Bad” evil people. Privileged Yale frat boys like Brett Kavanaugh won’t be seen personally taking aim at women’s or LGBT rights. They prefer to set up the perfect rightward shot.











Sunday, October 11, 2020

Hot Stuff


Brains make connections. When you’re a writer, nothing drills deeper into your brain than the connection between two words. For example:  the gayest two-word phrase I know is “Hot Stuff.” 



The Simpsons has been on the air longer than I’ve been out of the closet. The gayest episode of television ever, “Homer’s Phobia,” aired in February 1997, when I was in Chicago working as an LGBT rights lawyer for the ACLU. Simpsons executive producer Al Jean confesses that “Homer’s Phobia” contained “my favorite scene ever from the series”:  the transformation of a steel mill into a gay nightclub called the Anvil.


I’ve seen the scene hundreds of times on the screens at Sidetrack in Chicago, the greatest video bar ever. Until this week, if you’d asked me to connect the two words “Hot Stuff,” my brain would have immediately pointed to the video clip of a buff dude at the Anvil edging past Homer with the line “Hot stuff coming through.” 

 

As soon as Homer confronted his homophobia, my friend Charles’ brain would ask my bartender crush to pour another round of purple slushie drinks.



Last weekend I chilled and watched The Boys in the Band on Netflix. Gay television empresario Ryan Murphy produced a television version of the successful 2018 Broadway revival, retaining its glittering cast of openly gay actors. 


Mart Crowley’s play was an extraordinary event when it opened in 1968. It’s set in a Greenwich Village apartment as a gaggle of pre-Stonewall gay men gather for a self-hating birthday party. Impatient with various butch closet cases, queeny Emory delivers this deathless line while swiveling his hips and a tray of hors d’oeuvres: “Hot stuff, coming through!”



If I’d googled “Hot Stuff” and “Homer,” I would have discovered The Simpsons writers intended the gay steelworker’s line as a winking reference to a gay classic. 

 

But I should have caught the reference even before the internet was invented. I’d seen the 1970 movie version of The Boys in the Band. (William Friedkin went on to direct The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Cruising.) In grad school I read Mart Crowley’s classic script. Hell, I saw the previous off-Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band less than a year before “Homer’s Phobia” first aired, but I didn’t make the connection until this week. I guess my brain thinks nothing is gayer than The Simpsons.



Happy Coming Out Day (October 11)









Thursday, October 8, 2020

A Talent to Muse



My new Muse is named Cami.

This announcement predictably triggers a couple of questions:

1.  Is Cami a Greek name?

Yes. Like Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Thalia, Urania, and Olivia Newton-John.

2.  Isn’t Cami a girl’s name? 

Yes. I realize my typical Muse is a lean guy with fabulous hair who listens to my stories. Lately only my dog Bear meets those qualifications. But this year I realized I needed something more.


Along with miles of trails, beaches, and forest, Bellingham is also blessed with a vibrant writers’ community. Village Books in Fairhaven, one of the nation’s great independent bookstores, regularly hosts author lectures and book signings. Village Book also offers writing groups and classes. Last fall I got the nerve to sign up for a couple of writing and publishing classes offered through a partnership between Village Books and Whatcom Community College. At the suggestion of one of my mother’s friends, I also started attending meetings of our local Red Wheelbarrow Writers group. Eventually I even read some of my creative writing aloud to an audience for the first time. And for the last time, for now – Covid-19 came along and cancelled Red Wheelbarrow Writers’ monthly gatherings, along with so much else.

 

I met Cami Ostman at my first Red Wheelbarrow meeting. Cami is an experienced writer, editor, and teacher, as well as a licensed mental health counselor. She’s the founder of The Narrative Project, which offers various educational programs and other tools for writers. This winter I signed up for a free telephone consultation with Cami to talk about my woeful lack of progress toward finishing my memoir. An hour on the phone with Cami gave me more clarity about telling my story than a year’s worth of blogging. So I signed up for the Narrative Project’s intense nine-month program, which is designed to help stuck writers deliver their books to the publisher. Only three more months before I go into labor.



I’ve always felt the same way about writing that I do about exercise and shaving – i.e., essential bodily functions that should only occur alone in private. My approach has worked pretty well so far.

 

Ultimately writing is indeed a solitary activity. Nevertheless, even experienced writers, artists, and musicians benefit from collaboration. When you’re staring at a blank page, every storyteller relies on the same box of tools:  words, theme, plot, description, genre, style, characterization, voice, etc. Other writers’ experience with these tools can provide a fresh perspective on your shared craft. Other editors can see patterns (and typos) you’re blind to. And other readers can inspire you to endure to the end, even when you think no one else is listening to your story.



The eighteen-century English critic Samuel Johnson famously told his biographer Boswell “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Every writer knows Johnson was lying.

 

Most published books lose money. Other than anomalies like J.K. Rowling and Dan Paterson, most writers can’t make a living from their writing, at least not directly. One of the strengths of the Narrative Project is how Cami gently locates the writing process in the context of the rest of a writer’s life, as well as in the context of today’s various publishing models. Writers need to learn how to navigate an online world of social media and marketing, and how to figure out their uniquely individual relationship between writing and making a living. 

 

Calculated at an hourly rate, I will never earn a fraction of the amount writing memoir or fiction that I could make writing soul-crushing legal briefs. Or even by writing soul-elevating legal briefs. I wouldn’t quit my day job if I had one. Instead, like other creative artists, writers write because we have stories to tell, and words that insist on making their way to the page. 



Cami and the Narrative Project’s coaching model has been an amazing fit for a third important reason:  blocked stories are often about trauma. Many people struggle to tell their personal stories because they’re still struggling with the continuing impact of trauma on their lives. Even experienced writers like me.

 

Three years ago my doctor prescribed journaling as an effective form of therapy for PTSD. It makes sense that a great writing coach would also be a therapist. Since March, I’ve been Zoom meeting online with a small group of other writers from around the country. With their help I’m making tentative steps towards my eventual return to society, while making huge leaps in both my writing and my mental health. 



Elaine Stritch was a Broadway Baby. Years ago I saw her in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. She played a spirited drunk – definitely type-casting, although by then she was finally in recovery. 

 

Stritch won the only Tony Award of her eight-decade career for her 2002 one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Her entire performance, which alternates gravel-voiced showtunes with self-deprecating anecdotes, is available on iTunes. For some reason I keep hearing the same track from At Liberty on the random Broadway playlist that provides my background soundtrack as I write. Stritch begins with these words:   

 

“I’m angry. I’ll get over it, but I really am angry. I’m sore as hell that I had to go through what I had to go through to get through what I had to get through.” 

 

With writing, as with life, the only way out is through. If you’re as lucky as I’ve been, you’ll meet a few good guides to help you find your way.