Sunday, December 31, 2017

Resolute



1.  Kids first.

2.  Write a book.

3.  Find a job.

4.  Take better care of yourself.

5.  Try to make smarter economic choices.

6.  Embrace wholesome vices in moderation.

7.  Finish unpacking.

8.  Be a friend.

9.  Read.

10. Kids again.


Best wishes for 2018

Roger



Friday, December 29, 2017

Prime Directives


When I joined my last law firm fifteen years ago, I was the only openly LGBT attorney in the Seattle office of Davis Wright Tremaine.

I began my legal career twelve years earlier at now-defunct Bogle & Gates,1 then Seattle’s second largest firm. Bogle had zero gay or lesbian attorneys. I was ostensibly straight myself, but became a pioneer when I came out a couple of years later. Bogle’s out attorney count was approaching double digits when I left to become a gay rights lawyer with the ACLU. (Most of us had been there the whole time, of course. Back in the 90s everyone was still waking up.) With all its faults, Bogle & Gates’ ruthlessly libertarian vibe opened the door to Jews, blacks, and gays long before most of Seattle’s other prestigious law firms.

1No, not that Gates. Bogle & Gates was named after a couple of long dead partners. Bill Gates Sr.’s old firm, Preston Gates & Ellis, was acquired by the East coast law firm Kirkland & Lockhart, now opportunistically rebranded as “K & L Gates.”

When I returned to Seattle from Chicago, Bogle had imploded, and DWT was now the city’s second largest law firm. For a couple of years, I worked for a Bogle refugee at an intellectual property boutique. I also joined the volunteer legal team preparing Washington’s marriage equality lawsuit. Our queer lawyer mafia meetings brought together LGBT attorneys from all the city’s leading law firms. We regularly asked each other “What’s with DWT?” The week after I joined DWT, the standing agenda item became “What’s with Lane Powell?”

DWT's lack of LGBT attorneys at the time was a strange statistical anomaly. Ironically, DWT’s inclusive firm culture had welcomed LGBT and other diverse attorneys for many years. DWT’s offices in other cities employed multiple gay and lesbian lawyers at every level. When I was interviewing for jobs out of law school, DWT was already known as the gay-friendly big firm. In fact, while studying for the bar exam, my secret drinking bud was an out gay man just starting at DWT. But by the time I landed there twelve years later, Rob and all the other openly gay attorneys had long since left the firm.

The only attorney I knew at DWT was my longtime friend Steven, another Bogle survivor. He made a point of introducing me to congenial folks at the firm, and in my first couple of weeks I enjoyed meeting various individuals over coffee or lunch. No doubt I was quick to tell each of my new DWT colleagues about my gay rights work, or to kvetch about my perennial singlehood. Becoming a professional homosexual had blown the door and walls of the closet off for good.

A strange pattern emerged. Within minutes of beginning our conversations, at least four separate people felt compelled to tell me the same DWT anecdote. It was the story of an attorney – no longer with the firm – who created something of scandal by leaving a festive birthday package on his secretary’s desk. As a joke, the package made a ticking sound. By the time they tracked the attorney down, the bomb squad had arrived. The lawyer’s career exploded. He happened to be the most recent gay attorney in DWT’s Seattle office.


Priming is a powerful mental process where exposure to one stimulus automatically effects our response to a subsequent stimulus.

As I’ve previously described, Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains how our brains rely on two contrasting mental processors, which I've referred to as Thing 1 and Thing 2. Thing 1 is fast and automatic, multi-tasking as it retrieves memories and generates intuitions. In contrast, Thing 2 allocates our brains’ limited conscious attention to effortful mental tasks.

Kahneman begins his discussion about the power of Thing 1 by asking readers to look at two printed words:
Bananas       Vomit

If your body had been hooked up to a monitor just now, it would have shown a lot of activity in the one or two seconds that elapsed as you read and reacted to the juxtaposed words. Your face twisted slightly in disgust. Your heart rate increased. Your brain automatically made a causal and/or temporal connection between the two words, evoking a story that in turn caused your body to respond similarly to how it would have reacted to the corresponding real-world experience. Right now, your mind is prepared to quickly recognize or respond to concepts related either to bananas (yellow, fruit, Marx Brothers), or to vomit (keggers, bulimia). Hopefully your temporary aversion to bananas has already faded.

Perceptional priming is based on the form of the stimuli. For example, in a “word stem completion” task, subjects are unwittingly exposed to various words prior to the actual test. If one of the words is “property,” participants are likely to leap to that word when asked to complete “PRO___” with the first word that comes to mind.

In contrast, conceptual priming is based on the meaning of the stimuli, such as semantic categories. The well-known implicit bias test developed by scholars at Harvard and the University of Washington demonstrates how susceptible we are to stereotypes by associating positive words or images with certain traits. The test measures how “positive” and “negative” priming can either speed up or slow down the speed of mental processing.

As Kahneman observes, the result of priming is a coherent “self-reinforcing pattern of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses.” For example, in the famous “Florida effect” study, college students were asked to assemble short sentences out of a set of assigned words. One group of test subjects was given words associated with the elderly, such as “Florida,” “forgetful,” “bald,” or “wrinkle.” Afterwards the subjects were sent down the hall, purportedly to take the next test. Actually the researchers secretly measured the time they took to walk down the corridor. The group of students who had been exposed to the elderly-themed words walked significantly slower than the control group.

Priming effects can be reciprocal. In another study, half the participants were asked to walk around the room extra slowly for five minutes before taking a word recognition test. They were much quicker to recognize words related to old age than the non-walker control group.

You, i.e. your Thing 2, are seldom aware priming is happening. To the contrary, numerous studies have demonstrated the priming impact from purely subliminal messages flashed on a screen. Priming happens much faster than we can possibly be consciously aware of, let alone choose to act deliberately.
           
Your powerful, automated Thing 1 is constantly sending messages to your entire body, including your lazy and easily tired Thing 2. Automated associations can result in invidious stereotyping. I shouldn’t have to point this out, but not all gay lawyers plant bombs at work.


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

JWTYHCOYO!


Erma Bombeck’s syndicated column was the voice of fin de siecle suburban housewives. My parents’ bookshelves held many of her bestsellers, including “Just wait till you have children of your own! Unlike Bombeck’s other books, JWTYHCOYO! included comic illustrations by Bil Keene, the cartoonist of “Family Circus.” The book meanders through all the major parental milestones, from baby showers to diapers to learning to drive.

JWTYHCOYO!’s title actually came from Bombeck’s own youth. I don’t remember what she and her mother were arguing about; I don’t recall whether Bombeck herself remembered. What stuck was the image of her mother turning to her and saying “Never mind why I’m smiling. Just wait till you have children of your own.”

Decades after reading those words, other episodes from JWTYHCOYO! regularly emerge from memory as I walk the age-old path of parenthood. For example, Erma Bombeck has now achieved a certain kind of immortality: I think of her every time I sit in a bathroom staring at an empty toilet paper roll, as I wonder how my children will survive when I am dead. Indeed, I fear certain skills will die out with my generation. Operating a mechanical toilet paper spindle may always be beyond the reach of my lazy iChildren.

Fellow Burnaby-boy Michael Bubl√©’s Christmas album joined the rotation this year. A few perky repetitions resulted in a Bombeckian epiphany. How had I previously failed to notice “It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” includes the poignant line “Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again”?

This week I passed another Bombeck milestone. After regaling me with some fresh drama from the soap opera that is middle school, my daughter Eleanor caught me rolling my eyes. I finally got to say it myself: “Never mind why I’m smiling. Just wait till you have children of your own.”

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Woke


One of the singers in Vancouver Men’s Chorus runs a casting agency. This fall he arranged for a group of tuxedoed chorus members to lip sync carols in the background of one of this year’s crop of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. Sadly, the lack of a Canadian green card prevented me from volunteering for the gig. My drama queen daughter is busy figuring out a workaround so she can sneak onto the set of her current fav show, Riverdale.

I have not yet viewed the boys’ twelve seconds of fame, because we cut the Comcast cable cord. Nevertheless, the story sounds vaguely familiar:
“Joy may be down-on-her-luck, but her humanity is intact. She jumps to the aid of a stranger, rescuing the woman from a terrible accident. The woman who nearly died, a successful motivational speaker, learns the true meaning of Christmas from her accident: Helping others is the key to true success and could be the path to finding true love as well.”

You can find rules for various Hallmark holiday movie drinking games online, as well as examples of Bingo cards for home use. My favorite Hallmark Christmas clich√© is “Bump on the head.”  For example:

A Gift to Remember (2017)
“Darcy’s lifelong love of reading has led her to the perfect job, working in a small Manhattan bookstore. One day, while bicycling to work, Darcy crashes into Aidan - a sharply dressed gentleman walking his dog. Knocked unconscious, he’s rushed to the hospital where he falls into a coma. Deeply shaken, Darcy takes the dog home, waiting to reunite him with his owner, Aidan. As she learns more about Aidan, Darcy realizes he could be the one she has been waiting for. But when the truth is revealed, Darcy learns the picture she created is completely wrong, and that sometimes the truth is even better than fiction.”  
The Christmas Spirit (2013)
“Charlotte Hart (Nicollette Sheridan), a distinguished journalist, is spending time with her family over the holidays when a real estate developer approaches their small town with quite an offer. Skeptical and looking for the real scoop, Charlotte drives to see the real estate head honcho to question him. While she's en route, she gets into a terrible car accident and wakes up in the hospital only to realize that her body is in a coma, but her spirit is very much awake. She meets another spirit, who just happens to be the greedy developer. It turns out that he was on the other end of the accident and he too is in a coma. With only a few days left before the town votes on the development, Charlotte must try to change the minds of the developer and the town, but that is no easy task when no one can see or hear her. Will her voice be heard?” 
Christmas Magic (2011)
“Carrie Blackford lives for her successful career as an event planner in New York City, but her life changes in an instant after a nasty car accident in a snowstorm. Carrie suffers head trauma and regains consciousness in Central Park with an older man, Henry. Henry is Carrie's spirit guide and is there to help her "pass over" to Heaven. But before Carrie can move on, she must fulfill one last task on Earth - a type of Angel Duty. Henry tells Carrie that she must help guide a widowed, young restaurant owner, Scott Walker, who has recently considered suicide because his beloved restaurant/catering business is utterly failing. Carrie befriends Scott and his 8-year-old daughter and immediately displays a knack for promoting the restaurant. But time isn't on Carrie's side on this mission. She has until midnight Christmas Eve to turn the eatery around. As friendship grows, romance blooms, and Carrie finds it a struggle to keep business and pleasure separate. Will the heat in Scott's kitchen be all about the food? Or is one Angel on a meteoric rise to earn her wings?”
I am not making these up. But I could.

You could too. Perhaps we should inaugurate a new holiday tradition of exchanging not-quite-preposterous Hallmark movie summaries, like the annual Bulwer-Lytton wretched-opening-sentence contest. Submit your entries in the comment section.


I am currently living in my own Hallmark Christmas movie.

Last Christmas is a blur. I retained only a couple of memories from last year’s VMC concert. Mostly I hid in dark corners. Indeed, most of 2015 and 2016 are lost in a fog. After increasing frustration with practicing law and raising kids in Seattle, I grasped at the false hope of moving to Bellingham for my dream job. Instead, a tragic confluence of bad choices, bad luck, and bad people destroyed my life.

This Christmas is different. I’ve made immense progress in the last few months. My mental health is noticeably better – not just the wearying projection of normalcy, but my actual mental health. I get out of bed and do stuff. The kids are thriving in Bellingham. I voraciously read and write again after years of drought. Things make sense for the first time in decades. Although I miss my faraway friends from earlier epochs, I’m putting down roots and making friends again. Not only did I enjoy singing in VMC’s holiday concerts, but I finally overcame my anxiety over socializing with all those nice Canadians just across the border. (They’re mostly harmless.) I even managed to sing a fleeting faux-Jewish solo without melting down.

It’s like I woke up out of a coma just in time for Christmas Eve. A holiday miracle.

This is the point in the Hallmark Channel movie where everyone hugs and cries. Then I ask, “So what did I miss?”


King Lear has four endings to choose from.

The pre-Shakespeare versions of the story all end happily ever after. Lear’s beloved daughter Cordelia defeats his two ungrateful daughters and restores her father to the throne. Everyone overcomes their misunderstandings in time to hug and learn important life lessons. Just like an episode of Full House, or a year-round Hallmark Channel movie.

Diverging from his sources, Shakespeare chose instead to write a tragedy. (Spoiler alert: Lear and Cordelia both die in the end, even as their army triumphs.) However, Shakespeare's original play proved unbearable for many audience members and readers. In 1681, prominent Restoration poet Nahum Tate published a crowd-pleasing version of the work. Tate kept most of Shakespeare’s poetry as well as the bard’s skillful addition of the Edgar-and-Edmund subplot. But Tate removed downers like the Fool, and ended the play with Lear back on the throne and his heir Cordelia marrying Edgar. For two centuries, theater patrons only saw Shakespeare’s play performed with Tate’s cloyingly happy ending.

Shakespeare himself left two distinct versions of his tragedy, published separately in a 1608 Quarto edition and in the 1623 First Folio. In the First Folio, Lear dies knowing that Cordelia is dead. Goneril’s surviving husband Albany delivers the final bleak lines of the play, signaling he will succeed Lear as king. In the First Quarto edition, it's Edgar who gets the final lines, and Lear dies believing that Cordelia is alive.

So what did I miss?

Donald Trump is the President of the United States. I have PTSD. My legal career and reputation are ruined. Potential employers in Bellingham ignore my resume.  I’ve already exhausted my savings and my wrongful termination settlement, and started in on my retirement. My embarrassed lawyer friends all abandoned me. Trichotillomania has rubbed off the hair on the right side of my forehead. My claim against the hack investigators who defamed me is stuck on appeal, after the impatient judge threw out my pro se case with a ludicrous gimmick. My daughters have turned into teenagers, but not the nice Mormon kind who don’t date till they’re at least sixteen. After years of struggling unsuccessfully with the impact of a massive mudslide, this year I lost my house on Whidbey Island. There are no dateable guys within fifty miles. I have tennis elbow.

None of this would have happened in a Hallmark Channel movie. I'm more like Robert De Nero's patient in Awakenings, where Robin Williams plays a fictional (heterosexual) version of Dr. Oliver Sacks. The doctor administers a new drug to catatonic patients. They awake after decades – only to discover the effect of the drug is temporary. 

Actually, my story could be filmed like a science fiction movie about voyagers to a distant planet. The ship wakes the captain from cryogenic sleep early. The computer annoyingly tells me the Dow is way up, but we'll be crashing into a star in five minutes.   

Or I could see it happening in the Saturday Night Live parody version of a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.I would listen carefully to everyone's news. Then I'd turn to the anesthesiologist and say "Put me back to sleep."
1See "Cut SNL Sketch Stars James Franco in a Bunch of Cheap Hallmark Movies You Would Still Watch." Hallmark Holiday movies really are a thing, I didn't just make it up.
In the end, however, I think we can handle the truth.

Merry Christmas Eve

Roger