Sunday, June 24, 2018

Angry Lesbian Art History Majors / Happy Pride Parades

In honor of LGBT Pride Month, Netflix has a new crop of gay documentaries, lesbian romances, and transgender manifestos. On Friday, I favorably compared Netflix’s new gay teen rom-com Alex Strangelove to the recent major-studio movie Love, Simon.

Today, hopefully I won’t talk you out of watching Australian lesbian comic Hannah Gadsby’s amazing standup special Nanette.   

I’d never heard of Hannah Gadsby. All I knew before watching her Netflix special was Entertainment Weekly listed it as the “Must Watch TV!” event for Tuesday night. Inaudibly faint praise to be sure, but I’d already finished my current book, and I couldn’t sleep.

I immediately grooved with Gadsby’s pleasant but surprisingly generic humor about lesbians, Australians, and conservative rural upbringings. She further twists the combination by revealing she grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist community in Tasmania, during an era when most of her neighbors enthusiastically supported the state’s law criminalizing homosexual sodomy.

The humor in Gadsby’s longstanding standup act came from the usual cracks about dour feminists, clueless relatives, and lesbian dating. For example, the show’s title, “Nanette,” was the name of a woman Gadsby thought would provide a lot of comic material, none of which turned out to be funny enough to make it into the show.  

Gadsby also described her long history of meeting gender-stereotyping males, and their varied reactions to encountering a mannish woman. She re-tells the oldest joke in her act: When Gadsby was seventeen, she met a charming young woman in a bar. After returning from the washroom, the young lady’s jealously enraged boyfriend accosted Gadsby because he thought she was a guy hitting on his girlfriend. He was relieved to discover Gadsby was just another woman.

Midway through her act, Gadsby announced she’s planning to give up her successful comedy career. She’d grown weary of relying on self-deprecation and put-downs as the basis of humor.

Unfortunately for her future financial prospects, however, Gadsby uselessly majored in art history. She demonstrated her facility with both art and comedy through an extended riff on Cubism, post-impressionism, mental health, and the tragedy of Van Gogh. (I love accents where they pronounce the painter’s name as “Van Goff.”)

Eventually, Gadsby zeroed in on Artist-of-the-Century Pablo Picasso’s breathtaking misogyny, and our collective complicity in it.

Soon Gadsby admitted she’d told her last joke of the night. Instead, she moved on to full-time consciousness raising. In particular, she turned up the heat on almost half of her audience: the straight white men sitting next to their girlfriends and wives. 

Other than me, all the other males in my family are straight white men and boys. Each is sensitive and woke. (Even my nine-year-old son Oliver, on a good day.) But like Gadsby’s silenced audience, my father, brothers, nephews, and son enjoy a measure of privilege that was never fully available to me, or to my mother, daughters, and nieces. Or to lesbian Hannah Gadsby growing up in rural Tasmania.

As a society, we can only grow the pie so much; ultimately social capital is a finite resource, allocated in a zero-sum game. Much of the recent damage to American institutions comes from the anxiety of “haves” who demonize the “have nots” that threaten their continued dominance and unearned privilege.

I suppose I should muster up a bit of sympathy for the overwhelmed Trump voters I’ve met. But Gadsby reminded us we should be reaching out instead to the victims of shame and oppression. Gadsby acknowledged that like so many of us, she turned to comedy as a coping mechanism. Nevertheless, after a couple of decades of telling jokes about humorless lesbians, she recognized being a comic had paralyzed her emotional development. As I observed in my Gay Netflix Review of Alex Strangelove, the closet is a powerfully destructive instrument for denial and repression. But wounds can heal. After working through the impact of various early-life traumas, Gadsby finally achieved some major personal breakthroughs.

Instead of categorizing lesbian haircuts, today Gadsby channels her simmering rage. She no longer feels comfortable repressing her feelings. Yet she worries about the impact of unleashing her consciousness-raising anger on unsuspecting audiences. (Recognizing a kinswoman, I knew I was watching powerful Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy unfold on stage under the guise of performance art. Just like writing blog essays. Don't try this at home, kids.)

Gadsby ended the evening by returning to her oldest joke, about the jealous boyfriend who was relieved to discover she wasn’t a man after all. Now Gadsby finally told the truth. Immediately after the boyfriend’s epiphany about gender-stereotyped appearances, he had a second realization: a lesbian had been talking to his girlfriend. So he followed Hannah Gadsby out of the bar and beat the shit out of her. 

Seventeen-year-old Gadsby couldn’t bring herself to seek treatment at hospital, because shame told her she deserved the beating. Two decades later, she finally can testify about the true horrors of the closet.

Here’s a link to a recent New York Magazine interview with Gadsby about her show, comedy, and anger.

This week marks the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the birth of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Today you could have marched in riotous Pride Parades through any of the top-tier American cities, like New York, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. (Lower-tier communities like Portland, Salt Lake City, and Bellingham can’t compete in the major leagues, so they hold their pride celebrations on other summer weekends.)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the newest generation of LGBT folk as they enter the world at this exciting time. Partly it’s my recent exposure to some formidable queer youths. Partly it’s my curmudgeonly freudenschade, as I mutter about how these young whippersnappers should have to suffer like the rest of us. Partly it’s the recent performances by Vancouver Men’s Chorus of our show “Gays of Our Lives,” which included some tearful remembrances, as well as a lot more gender-bending dancing than our staid conductor can usually handle. Like Willi, I have been doing this work for a long, long time.

Fortunately, It Gets Better, and It Got Better. 

Nevertheless, it’s still hard. Kids come out at ever younger ages, and they can observe role models and representations that were unimaginable in my day. But even if the shaming voices of society and religion were stilled – which is definitely not the case, and not just in Tasmania and Utah – each LGBT youth today would still have to navigate adolescence and adulthood as an outsider. 

Happy Pride to one and all. Join us as we build a beautiful city – out of the closet, beyond shame, where we can embrace our past and future as authentic individuals and healthy communities.

Bellingham Pride

Friday, June 22, 2018

Gay Netflix Review

June is LGBT Pride Month, so the various streaming services are offering a new crop of gay documentaries, lesbian romances, and transgender manifestos for your viewing pleasure. I join Entertainment Weekly in recommending a couple of surprisingly edgy new releases from Netflix: (1) teen rom-com Alex Strangelove, and (2) Australian lesbian comic Hannah Gadsby’s standup special Nanette.  

Alex Strangelove is the gay fantasy version of a John Hughes movie, much like the recent major-studio release Love, SimonAlthough both movies are charming confections, Alex Truelove ultimately is a braver and truer coming out story.

Love, Simon began with Simon’s voiceover telling the audience about his “big-ass secret”: no one knew he was gay. Fortunately, Simon had poster-perfect parents and supportive friends. Simon’s only real challenge was to figure out which of his cute classmates had the secret crush on him. (Their eventual encounter on a Ferris wheel won “Best Kiss” at the annual MTV Movie awards last week.) Love, Simon is like a frothy Judy Garland movie, but more overtly gay. Slightly.

In contrast with Simon, Alex Strangelove’s title character is a cute, nerdy, ostensibly straight high school senior. After much delay, Alex plans to finally lose his virginity to his girlfriend/best friend. Which technically he does, in a realistically awkward and unpleasant motel assignation. Eventually Alex comes out to himself and then to her. Along the way Alex is distracted by encounters with a flirty gay guy, binge drinking, and internalized homophobia. 

My daughter Eleanor enjoyed Love, Simon. I told her she really needed to watch Alex Strangelove because of its more thoughtful treatment of the cliché situation of a BFF’s unrequited attraction to her gay best friend. (Simon also narcissistically toyed with his female best friend’s affections, but unlike Alex he was unaware of her feelings for him, and they didn’t have sex.) I figure if Eleanor is going stay involved in musical theater, she needs to be prepared for the inevitable tragedy/farce of loving the right person in the wrong way. 

As a connoisseur of coming out stories, I related to Alex’s clumsy confusion much more than to Simon’s “I always knew” narrative. In hindsight, it’s blindingly obvious both Alex and I were gay all along. Some of you will be quick to point out we must not be as smart as everyone assumed. That’s because you don’t appreciate the awesome power of the closet, and our resulting capacity for cluelessness, denial, and avoidance. 

Oblivious gay boys are entertaining. But I actually recommend Alex Strangelove because it acknowledges the truly twisted nature of the closet: for most of us, there probably was some heavy-duty repression or even dissociation going on as well, even deeper down than our oblivion and denial. 

When Alex hits rock bottom after the movie's obligatory drunken frat party, he finally comes out to himself in one of those “life passes before you” moments. But instead of a charming montage of crushable camp counselor memories, or a flashback to his recent confusing gay kiss, Alex instead replays only his repressed memory of being bullied in junior high P.E. after getting an erection in the locker room. 

Yes, we always “knew.” That’s why we were oblivious.

Bellingham Pride

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

So Many Books

The book that may have survived the longest on my shelves is a battered used copy of The Manual of Heraldry that I acquired while still in elementary school. I predicted the Manual’s detailed Order of Precedence would prove useful someday if I ever throw a dinner party for assorted nobility. I won’t need the Internet to confirm that an Earl’s eldest son outranks a Marquess’ younger sons and the Bishop of London, but not a Duke’s younger sons or the Archbishop of York. 

Actually, the Manual abides on my eclectic bookshelves because I’ve always been fascinated by the rules for designing and describing coats of arms. For example, did you know that the black-and-white shield with the eagle that appears on US dollar bills is secretly in color? The top part of the shield is engraved with horizontal stripes, signifying blue (or what the heralds call “azure”); the stripes below alternate plain white – which is called “argent” because it’s generally interchangeable with silver – and red, or “gules,” which is signified by vertical stripes. 

The language of heraldry is like a top-secret Medieval code that anticipated Nicholas Cage movies, paint-by-number sets, and full-color copy machines.

Forty-five years later, I still remember enough lingo from The Manual of Heraldry to offer a translation of the herald’s formal description of the colorized coat of arms pictured above:

Or, on a bend sable, a spear of the first, steeled argent; and for his crest, or cognizaunce a falcon his wings displayed argent, standing on a wreath of his colours, and supporting a spear or, steeled as aforesaid, set upon a helmet with mantles and tassels as hath been accustomed.

“Or” means the background shield is gold. "Bend” means the shield is crossed with a wide downward diagonal stripe. (If the stripe sloped up, it would be called a “bend sinister,” and signify illegitimacy.) “Sable” means the stripe is black; “of the first” means the spear on the stripe is the first named color, i.e. gold; “steeled argent” means the gold spear is tipped in silver.

This description come from four-hundred-year-old records maintained by the College of Arms. The coat of arms belongs to William Shakespeare, or rather to the Shakespeare family. John Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms when his son William was still a child. However, John fell upon hard economic times, and the application was abandoned. William apparently renewed the application twenty years later when he was a successful playwright and property owner. The Garter King of Arms ultimately granted the application (although someone objected, unsuccessfully, that a mere player is no gentleman). The family coat of arms appears together with Shakespeare’s bust over his tomb in Stratford-on-Avon.  

The Shakespeare family motto, “Non Sanz Droict,” translates from the heralds’ archaic Franglais as “Not Without Right." 

If my family applied for a coat of arms, our motto would probably be “So Many Books.” 

There’s some question about the motto’s proper punctuation. I favor an unpunctuated sentence fragment, like Shakespeare’s and so many other heraldic slogans. As a writer, I’m all for ambiguity. 

My thoroughly modern children’s motto would be printed in lower case, presumably by autocorrect. You can expect an excess of horrified exclamation marks. Even within a direct quote, I can barely bring myself to type them all: “so many books!!!” 

Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol to convey Eleanor’s valley girl upspeak version.1

1Confidential to Eleanor: I did track down a useful socioeconomic glyph:  

The phrase “So Many Books....” often appears with ellipsis dots. Ellipses allow for ambiguity, but in a more bludgeoning way. For the Leishmans and Phillipses, most of the bookish phrase’s connotations will involve abundance.

Typically, however, the ellipses after “So Many Books….” are intended to refer to a specific following phrase. When combined, the two phrases may be seperated by a comma, semi-colon, or space. That concluding phrase is “So Little Time.”

The Internet teems with cute and/or oppressive pictures of the entire “... so little Time” aphorism, often credited to Frank Zappa. None of them represent the Leishman family motto.2

2Confidential to the Pinterest Crowd: There aren't any cute pictures out there showing just the “So Many Books” half. I had to create mine with PhotoShop. 

There is always time to read. Now is always a good time to read. There will always be a time when you can read. We therefore are grateful for the blessing of So Many Books. Time doesn't enter the picture.

Despite what you might conclude from our sardonic comments and our past history of plagues, we Leishmans are incurable optimists. There will always be time to read. And, fortunately, So Many Books to read and write.

As I wrote in "Reading Again," anhedonic reader's block eclipsed my longstanding writer's block a couple of years ago. Fortunately, both finally lifted.

Here is the list of books I’ve finished reading so far in 2018:

Bruce Handy, Wild Things: the Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult
William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?
Robert Wright, The Moral Animal
Isaac Asimov, Foundation
Angelika Huston, Watch Me
Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name
Joe Hagen, Sticky Fingers
Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain
Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
David Sedaris, Theft By Finding
Mary Karr, Lit
Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
Mark Ausiello, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies
Tina Brown, The Vanity Fair Diaries
Marie Phillips, The Table of Less Valued Knights
Robert Nye, The Late Mr. Shakespeare
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members
Roger Ebert, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook
Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
Michelle Dean, Sharp
Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Sheryl Sandberg, Option B
Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair
Michael Chabon, Pops
Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life
Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant

The current list is much longer than it's been for many decades. For example, the corresponding book list for the second half of 2016, when life was at its worst, has zero entries.

If ellipses dots must qualify “So Many Books,” there can be only one appropriate completing phrase, always spoken with a sigh: “So Little Space.”

As we age, even inveterate readers like members of the Leishman and Phillips clans eventually reach this begrudging epiphany. (Except for the worst of the hoarders, and you know who you are.)

Whenever my kids' classmates come to our house for the first time, they invariably exclaim "It looks like a library!" Even in 2018, I insist on taking that as a compliment. But nowadays I secretly sigh, thinking of the mountains of books I’ve “deaccessioned” in the last few years. "Deaccessioning" is a library's euphemism for literary euthanasia.

I noticed when a similar change occurred a few years earlier at my parents’ house. Like doting pet owners who ultimately acknowledge that it would be cruel to prolong Fluffy’s life any longer, even my mother and I finally accepted the inevitable: some books would have to go. It starts with the duplicate copies, and then the textbooks. Then the out-of-date encyclopedias. Finally the boxes of books in the attic or storage unit that haven't been opened for years. Bloody floodgates.

Eventually you become capable of sending to a "better place" not merely an unloved book, but also some of your pretty-well-liked books. You ultimately adopt a heartless Zero Population Growth approach – at least one old volume must be deaccessioned before a new book is allowed to come home from Henderson's or Village Books.

To my father's and my children's relief, the libraries at our houses no longer inexorably expand. Instead, just like when we lived in Utah thirty years ago, we are singlehandedly keeping our local public library in business. In fact, my mother and I have an entire pickup shelf to ourselves in the alphabetic “Online Holds” section of the Bellingham Public Library.

My children are right, I’m becoming my mother. Particularly the So Many Books part.

Friday, June 15, 2018


“Depression” and “Anxiety” are labels for the two categories of mental illness that affect the largest proportion of the population. Here is a model I’ve found useful for contrasting these two distinctive types of mental experiences:

Anxiety is a disproportionate response to the futureDepression is a disproportionate response to the past.

I was introduced to this dichotomy years ago when I read Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Solomon described depression and anxiety as "fraternal twins." As Michael Pollan recently observed in his excellent new book How to Change Your Mind, "Both reflect a mind mired in rumination, one dwelling on the past, the other worrying about the future. What mainly distinguishes the two disorders is their tense."

The skewed responses of anxiety and depression are rooted in powerful emotions that generally benefit the species. Humans should worry when a saber-toothed tiger is approaching at high speed. And we should grieve at the loss of a loved one. When these two healthy emotions lose proportion and negatively affect important aspects of our lives, however, they become potentially deadly disorders.

As I described yesterday in “Lawyer Personalities,” lawyers rank in the bottom percentile for “resilience,” which Dr. Larry Richards describes as “the degree to which a person bounces back quickly from criticism, rejection or setbacks.”

I’ve had less personal experience with depression, and much more experience with anxiety. It’s exhausting. Sustained stress wears out our bodies and minds. This is the lack of “resilience” Dr. Richards sees in lawyer personalities. We’re much too concerned about what might go wrong, and what other people might think. You know the cliché “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only one”? An anxious person endures endless imagined death wounds.

When bad things actually happen to me, I’m usually “resilient” in the word’s ordinary sense – exhibiting grace under pressure, and bouncing back from actual adversity.It turns out I’m much more afraid of potential failure than I’m ever hurt by actual failure (or rejection, or disaster, or disappointment….) That’s the evolutionary advantage of being an anxious person: things seldom turn out nearly as badly as you imagine. And on those occasions when things are as awful as you feared, you get the compensating satisfaction of being right. 

1Adversity and trauma are not necessarily the same thing. I’ve written about how unresolved trauma may result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a separate type of mental illness. Nevertheless, PTSD correlates with depression and/or anxiety, and involves some of the same symptoms.

In contrast with my mostly managed anxiety, I’ve personally experienced major depression only a couple of times in my life: thirty years ago at BYU, and a couple of years ago at the nadir of my struggle with discriminatory and hostile employers. 

Both times my mind responded to traumatic life events with sustained anhedonia and destructive impulses that were out of proportion to actual events, horrific as they were. Both attacks left me beyond the reach of reason, and exceeded the capacity of my ordinary mechanisms for coping with grief.

I love Star Wars. I practically worship Shakespeare. Surely I would be the perfect audience for a series of dramatic adaptations written in Elizabethan verse? Ya’d think.2

2My lawyer-honed skepticism was well founded. A small bookstore sample confirmed the gimmick was unsustainable/unreadable beyond a page or two.

I’m very picky about my genres. A “genre” is a “category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” Some genres by their nature are likely to attract me: writer memoirs, cozy murder mysteries, BBC comedies, impressionist painters, etc. Other genres offer less promising candidates: Alexandrine verse, rap music, country music other than Christmas albums by Amy Grant. 

Nevertheless, I’m also attracted to works that perfectly exemplify, transcend, or subvert any genre. Which brings me to a very contemporary genre: the TED Talk.

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Faceback. She’s the author of the bestselling book Lean In. I haven’t read the book or seen any of Sandberg’s numerous TED Talks and other speeches. A cursory look at Wikipedia suggests Lean In is some kind of post-capitalist-neo-feminist manifesto. Not one of my go-to genres.

Recently I picked up Sandberg’s subsequent book, Option B, from the “New Arrivals” section at Bellingham Public Library. According to the book jacket, it’s a memoir about how Sandberg processed the loss of “Option A” from her life. Sandberg’s husband died from a sudden heart attack, leaving her with two small children, a high-powered career, and a global communication platform. I figured I had made enough progress with my own grieving process that I was ready either to appreciate Sandberg’s wisdom, or to fling the book across the room in bemused disgust.

At first, I found Sandberg’s style exasperating. Although Option B purports to be told from Sandberg’s first-person perspective, the book was obviously written by a committee. The kind of committee involved in Hillary Clinton’s inept presidential campaign. Sure enough, Sandberg’s voluminous Acknowledgements section identifies numerous co-writers, editors, and researchers. The result:  Inoffensively bland prose. Humble-bragging anecdotes (Did you know Sandberg had the honour of throwing a dinner party for Nobel-winning-girl-advocate Malala?). Home-spun factoids that could have come from the pages of USA Today, or from one of Ronald Reagan’s notecards. An affirming ending.

Then something clicked. I realized I wasn’t reading an ordinary book – I was consuming a TED Talk in book form. A practically perfect TED Talk.

Although I’d never heard Sandberg speak, my brain immediately generated the corresponding voice in my head for her narrator. It was the kind of voice you associate with flawless nails and perfectly timed PowerPoint slides. With Malcolm-Gladwell-New-Yorker-article-counterintuitive-but-not-really insights. Focus-group-tested timing. And sensible but intimidating high-heel shoes.

This may be a dated reference, but the associated image came not from Sandberg’s dust jacket portrait, but rather from a speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention. Do you remember when Elizabeth Dole introduced her presidential-candidate husband? Senator Bob Dole was the Senate leader and a modest war hero. As she spoke, his wife “casually” walked among the convention delegates with a hand-held mic. The text of her speech was just as shellacked as her Southern hairdo. Dole's rhetorical performance eerily anticipated speakers like Sheryl Sandberg and the whole TED Talk genre.

As someone with a lot of book learning as well as even more real-life experience dealing with trauma and grief, I would recommend Option B as useful primer on the subject. Not just as a quintessential example of the TED-Talk-in-print genre.

But I probably can thank Sandberg’s named co-author for the one mental PowerPoint slide from Option B that still sticks with me weeks after finishing the book. Adam Grant is a prominent psychologist who teaches at Wharton Business School. Dr. Grant presumably is the source of much of the book’s clinical advice, including the following:

After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three Ps can stunt recovery: (1) personalization – the belief that we are at fault; (2) pervasiveness – the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) permanence – the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever. The three P’s play like the flip side of the pop song “Everything Is Awesome” – “everything is awful.”  The loop in your head repeats, “It’s my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.”

Hundreds of studies have shown that children and adults recover more quickly when they realize that hardships aren’t entirely their fault, don’t affect every aspect of their lives, and won’t follow them everywhere forever.

I wish I had figured out the three P’s a long time ago. 

Perhaps TED Talks are not your cup of tea. If you want to read what an actual writer has to say about passing through grief, track down a copy of C. S. Lewis’ slim A Grief Observed.

It’s no surprise Sheryl Sandberg name-checks Lewis’ 1961 classic on first page of her introduction. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor who married late in life, only to lose his wife to cancer within a few years. A Grief Observed is his powerful journal.

Sandberg quotes Lewis’ opening sentence: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Ever elegant and insightful, C.S. Lewis captured how the symptoms of anxiety and depression can ultimately converge.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Lawyer Personalities

I once heard an excellent keynote at a professional responsibility conference by Dr. Larry Richards, J.D., who markets himself as an expert in “lawyer personalities.” 

As I wrote last year in Astrology for Nerds, I’m a little sheepish about my fondness for Myers-Briggs personality typologies. I realize the underlying science is dubious. (But did I mention I’m a classic INFP?) Dr. Richards offers some Myers-Briggs insights, but he also relies on the more rigorous “Caliper” test, which measures numerous separate traits.

According to Dr. Richards, lawyers start out pretty similar to normal people, at least with most attributes. A few anomalies stand out. For example, lawyers rank in the 89th percentile for desiring “autonomy,” and in the 90th percentile for “skepticism.”

Conversely, lawyers rank at the bottom for “resilience,” which Dr. Richards describes as 

the degree to which a person bounces back quickly from criticism, rejection or setbacks. High Resilience people tend to take these negative events in stride. They aren’t as easily thrown off course by them as Low Resilience people are, and when they are impacted, they recover more quickly.

Most lawyers are Low Resilience. However, there’s a caveat to this generalization. Two specific groups of lawyers rank in the highest range for “resilience”: rainmaker partners at major firms, and high-stakes plaintiffs’ attorneys. Both exhibit the relentless drive and tough hide that characterize most successful salesmen. Apparently the rest of us are a bunch of Low Resilience snowflakes.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Take that, Logoskeptics

Last week I finished reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller The Black Swan. It’s about how humans fail to anticipate highly unlikely but consequential events until after they’ve already happened. The world is filled with implausible patterns.

I am comfortable describing myself as a Black Swan Event. 

My most recent blog post, “My Best Friend Paul,” was about my childhood best friend from Vancouver who killed himself eighteen years ago. I began this particular essay last summer. Even though Paul died long ago, it took a little bit of extra time to process some aspects of the complicated relationships among myself, my friend, and my childhood home.

As I mentioned, for the last few years of his life Paul lived in a West End condo on Haro Street, between Burrard and Thurlow. I stayed in Paul’s guest bedroom whenever I visited Vancouver during the 1990s.

This was opening weekend for Vancouver Men’s Chorus’ spring show, “Gays of Our Lives.” (Dancing boys galore! Tickets for next weekend’s performances available at

As I wrote in “My Best Friend Paul,” this year’s concert on Granville Island presents entertaining and occasionally poignant views of gay life, including the infamous Divas Medley, as well as odes to both lesbian gym teachers and nearby Little Sisters Bookstore.

Rather than driving back and forth to Bellingham, I’ve been staying with a friend from the baritone section. His West End condo has a charming guest bedroom.  

Today is another lovely June day in Vancouver, where I'm wearing pajamas and typing on my laptop in a comfortable leather chair rather than at one of my usual coffee shops. I’m also enjoying the amazing view north from the 20somethingth storey.

And I just realized that this is one of just a handful of vantage points in the city where you can look down…  and see the window blinds a couple of blocks away at my best friend Paul’s old building on Haro Street.

Take that, Logoskeptics.


As I was packing up the guest room in preparation for returning to Bellingham after tonight's concert, I mentioned to my host that I probably wouldn't be staying in town next weekend because of family. He asked if they were coming to the concert.

I told him Eleanor and my mom would be there. (My father and my other two children haven't been to a performance since the infamous "falling asleep" episode.) I mentioned the timing worked out for my little brother to see the chorus perform this year, even though he lives in Africa. When my host looked at me quizzically, I explained my brother is in the diplomatic corps.

"Really?" said my host, who is originally from the States. "So is my brother."

I said my brother works in international development.

"Mine too."

I said my brother is a lawyer.

"Mine too. He was posted in _______ for the last four years, but this summer they're moving to _____."

Which is where my brother and his family lived until their recent move to Africa.

Just sayin.

A flock of black Canadian Geese

Thursday, June 7, 2018

My Best Friend Paul

Last weekend one of my daughters told me she would be hanging out with her “best friend.” I’d never heard this girl’s name before. Eleanor has a new BFF every week. She also has a new favorite TV show, a new favorite movie, and a new favorite color. (My own favorite color – green, duh – has never budged.)  

I can identify best friends from each chorus I’ve sung in, as well as best friends from high school and college, a best gaysian friend, best friends from Seattle/Chicago/______, etc. But in contrast with Eleanor, there’s only one person I refer to as “my best friend.” 

I met Paul Anzinger on the first day of first grade (or Grade 1, as we say in Canada). For the next four years, the school inexplicably placed us in the same class together, no doubt to the dismay of our teachers. We were precocious, creative, and fun. 

Paul had red hair and style. He lived on Eton Street, and we lived on Cambridge Street. Even when they finally put us in separate classes for a couple of years, Paul and I were partners in fun after-school adventures.

Unfortunately, the summer after Grade 6 my family moved from Vancouver to Brigham City, Utah. My parents wanted to be closer to family, start a business, and build their dream house. Presumably they didn’t also want to traumatize me. But that’s what happened. 

In addition to all my other Utah wounds, I lost touch with Paul. I didn’t return to visit Vancouver until I was in college, when my parents moved to nearby Bellingham. All through the 1980s, I would come home from college, mission, grad school, and law school. I reconnected with Vancouver, and with Paul.

I saw Paul for the last time in Fall 2000. He died a couple of months later. We were thirty-six years old.

Vancouver Men’s Chorus begins two weekends of concerts on Granville Island tomorrow. (Excellent tickets are still available at This year's show is extra gay, with everything from angry and elegiac takes on the AIDS crisis, to lesbian gym teachers, to a “Divas Medley” where Team Gaga ultimately triumphs over Team Madonna.

One of our songs, “Climb the Stairs,” is about a bookstore.

Sadly, VMC’s bookstore song is not a much-needed pretext for shifting the focus from buff dancing boys to sensitive gay nerds. Or gay dads. (Maybe next year.) We’re singing about an actual bookstore – Vancouver’s Little Sisters.

Not the current incarnation of Little Sisters, with its harsh fluorescent lighting and scant inventory of tawdry magazines and sex toys. The real Little Sisters was originally located a block away, on Thurlow at Davie. This was before Amazon, big box stores, and general illiteracy drove most independent bookstores out of business.

In “Climb the Stairs,” we sing about how Little Sisters functioned as Vancouver’s queer community center. The bookstore and its proprietors were also towering civil rights heroes, standing against discrimination and government censorship. Little Sisters even survived a bombing.  

I wasn’t around for the explosions. Instead, my most vivid Little Sisters memory involves my friend Paul and the power of paradigm shifts.

After graduating from law school and moving to Seattle, I finally began the coming out process in earnest. I also began getting my Vancouver fix more regularly. Whenever I visited my parents in Bellingham, I would try to add a trip across the border. I would see Paul and other friends, and make my pilgrimage to Little Sisters, Numbers, and similar gay shrines.

When we were in our mid-twenties, Paul lived in the suburbs. One spring weekend I made a quick trip to the West End. I hadn’t told Paul I planned to be in Vancouver. So I was startled when I ran into him in the middle of Davie Street. On my way out of Little Sisters. 

I was mortified. My immediate reaction was alarm that Paul must have figured out from my location that I was gay. (That’s how the closet works, folks, messing with your mind.) Fortunately, Paul didn’t say anything. And obviously I didn’t leap to any new assumptions about him.

A few weeks later, we were talking on the phone in preparation for another excursion to Vancouver. Paul casually mentioned that he’d seen me from a distance in Seattle the week before – in Volunteer Park at the annual Pride Festival. 

Yes, I’m that clueless. You probably won’t be surprised when I describe the similar after-the-fact conversations I'd already had with my best friends from high school, college, grad school, and law school. Apparently I’m some kind of oblivious gay magnet. Or contagion.

Or maybe I’m just particularly likely to cling to outdated mental paradigms. Even in the face of experience and overwhelming contradictory evidence.

I’m fascinated by the many variations on “doppelgangers” you encounter in your life:  college roommates marching down the road you were afraid to take, repeated versions of the same patently unsuitable admirer, people you meet just once at camp or a conference who nevertheless manage to change your life, the nemesis who got the job you wanted, etc. I’ve already published several “doppeler effect” essays on this blog.

It was my relationship with Paul that first started me thinking about the phenomenon. Not just because my childhood best friend turned out to be gay. But because Paul died when we were only 36. Since then he’s been part of my life in a different way – like a phantom limb I can still sense as life goes on.

In recent years I’ve recognized how much Paul is my doppeler in another important way: both our lives were bent by mental illness. Paul struggled with depression and other disorders. During the 1990s I often stayed with Paul at his gay West End condo, first on Broughton and then on Haro. We spoke about mental health and his experiences on numerous occasions.

The summer after I moved back from Chicago, I saw Paul a few times in Vancouver. Then no word. 

At Christmas, a letter with a Canadian postmark arrived at my Seattle apartment. It was from Paul’s younger brother. Paul had killed himself.

A couple of years ago, I went back to New Haven for the first time to attend the 25-year reunion of the Yale Law School Class of 1990. Last year I started writing about our reunion, but I’ve been stuck for months. 

At first, I was alarmed that my writer’s block might have returned. But I realized I probably just had more mental processing to do first. In October 2015, I was at the peak of my professional career,1but just one month away from my PTSD diagnosis and the beginning of the end.

1[Ed. Note: Hopefully enough voters in Whatcom, Island, Skagit, and San Juan counties believe in redemption stories and exceptionally well-qualified appellate judges. Visit]

In writing about my friend Paul, I identified a second reason my essay about the Yale Law reunion had bogged down: I’d written the sentence “I had never been to a high school, college, or law school reunion before.” That’s false. I happened to be in Vancouver the weekend of the 10-year reunion of the Burnaby North Secondary School Class of 1982, so I went with Paul.

It was fun. I recognized folks I hadn’t seen since Grade 6, and vice versa. And I learned about numerous Canadian life paths stretching into the future – if you hadn’t made the mistake of moving to Utah. It turns out Paul was my doppeler in another important respect. He represented a lost Canadian alternative to the diminished American life I was leading. 

One of the hardest parts of grief is realizing you will never have the bright future you used to dream of. And one of the signs of improved mental health is when you’ve learned to accept that particular loss.

Happily, I’ve reached that point. My life experiences – even the traumatic ones – brought me where I am today. I wouldn’t want to have arrived somewhere else instead. Even successful and PTSD-free in Vancouver. Because I wouldn't want to end up anywhere without my three kids and the strange lessons we’ve learned along the way. 

Among many other blessings, Vancouver Men's Chorus gives me a pretext to drive to Canada at least once a week. (Don't tell the border guards the chorus takes the summer off; I’m still planning on driving up every week.) Everywhere I go in Vancouver, I’m reminded of my friend Paul. They’re all happy memories. 

In my redemption story, Vancouver isn’t just a mythical lost paradise. It’s a real-life paradise, with layered memories, present-day experiences, and multiple rosy futures. It's where I drag my kids during school breaks, and where they want to go. It's where I sing and (rarely and ineptly) dance. It's been my refuge for the last two years as I gradually emerged from the fog. Contrary to what you may have heard about the climate, it's always sunny in Vancouver. At least for me.

 Eternal gratitude to my two favourite Canadians

Paul Anzinger, 1964 – 2000


Vancouver Men’s Chorus, 1981 – 

Here are links to more of my “Doppeler Effect” essays, describing other individuals whose lives have paralleled and/or crossed particular threads of my own story: 

I am Rob Lowe” (9/20/17)

Chorus Minivan Dad” (3/6/17)