Friday, September 28, 2018

Losing my NEXUS pass

On Wednesday night, Vancouver Men's Chorus held auditions for new members. After rehearsal we adjourned to our regular watering hole to socialize with old and new chorines. It turns out two of the new guys are lawyers. Our bloc now outnumbers the gay dentists. 

Meeting new people gives me a chance to work on some of my familiar material. Yes, I've been singing with VMC for almost three years now. No, I live in the States. Yes, I really have three kids. No, I didn’t used to be married to a woman. Yes, technically I’m a lawyer. No, I'm not Jewish. Really. Yes, I grew up Mormon. Really Mormon. No, my 13-year old daughters aren’t twins, they were born two weeks apart and adopted separately. Yes, puberty is horrifying. No, I love driving to another country so I can sing in a gay chorus.

One of VMC's new lawyers eventually observed, “You must have a NEXUS pass.”

As described on the U.S. Custom & Border Patrol website, “the NEXUS program allows pre-screened travelers expedited processing when entering the United States and Canada.” After a background check and in-person interview, you’re allowed to use the express NEXUS traffic lane. As long as everyone in the car has a NEXUS pass, you can avoid the long lines at the hoi polloi border crossing.

I’ve spent most of my life living near the USA-Canada border. My parents go back and forth all the time. My brother commuted daily from Bellingham to his job in the Vancouver suburbs for years. Just this week, I was at rehearsal on Wednesday, and I’ll be back in Canada to sing in a performance this Saturday. For families like ours, NEXUS passes are very handy.

I used to have a NEXUS pass. 

Ordinarily when someone from VMC says he assumes I have a NEXUS pass, I just nod vaguely and change the subject. But because Dan and James are lawyers, I figured they could handle the truth. And I had a beer and time. So I told them the story of how I lost my NEXUS pass.

On my way home to Bellingham one afternoon last year, I was randomly selected for secondary screening. This had happened only two or three times in a lifetime of regular border crossings. The border agent kept my NEXUS pass. I parked my car, and sat in the waiting room with my book.

Eventually one of the boy scouts from Customs & Border Patrol invited me back behind the counter, where he left me alone in a windowless room. The walls were covered with patriotic posters. After a couple of hours, a deputy sheriff from the local Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office came into the room and introduced himself. 

Then he read me my Miranda rights.

The Miranda warnings originated in a 1966 United Supreme Court case called Miranda v. Arizona. I’ve been a lawyer for 28 years, including as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. I’ve also seen a lot of TV and movies. I can recite the Miranda warnings by heart. ("You have the right to remain silent....") But I’d never heard them directed at me personally.

The deputy ended his speech by asking if I’d like to answer some questions.

Various thoughts ran through my head: “Surely there’s been a terrible misunderstanding?” “Aren’t lawyers just for guilty people?” “Is anyone who represents himself an idiot?” “Where will the kids go after school tomorrow if I’m in jail?”

I told the deputy “I guess it depends on the question.”

The sheriff's deputy placed seven small pills and two larger ones on the desk, and asked me to identify them. I told him the big ones were sugar-free breath mints, and the smaller ones were generic Ritalin pills. My daughter’s old ADHD doctor prescribed them for when her attention flagged late in the school day. Apparently the border guards found the pills when they searched my car.

The Ritalin pills are the smallest possible dose, just 5 mg. They’re very tiny. I have no recollection of how they ended up in the car. However, it’s easy to visualize a scene involving squabbling children, a harried dad, moving traffic, a loose cap, yelling, and imperfect cleanup.  

Technically it’s a customs violation to cross the border with prescription drugs if you aren’t also carrying the labeled bottle. I understand the feds are concerned about anything associated with amphetamine production. But maybe I'm just naive. Do our border boys often arrest minivan dads with stray Ritalin tablets for smuggling Canadian street drugs? 

Maybe I should have watched a few episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

The sheriff’s deputy sent me home, and told me to email him a picture of my daughter’s prescription bottle. His return email thanked me, and said they considered the matter closed.

Nevertheless, it’s been over a year now, and I still haven’t gotten my NEXUS pass back. But that’s another story. Or two.

Monday, September 24, 2018

About My Yale Law School Classmate Brett Kavanaugh

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and I both graduated from Yale Law School in May 1990, along with 165 other overachieving and neurotic classmates. 

I wasn’t planning on writing anything about Judge Kavanaugh, for two reasons:

First, I recently lost my primary election for the Washington Court of Appeals. This loss was yet another unsuccessful attempt to become an appellate judge myself. I figured it’s too soon to invite comparisons between my own painful experience and someone else’s charmed judicial career. It might be triggering. And we already know I suffer from PTSD.

Second, unlike everyone in the greater DC area, I thought I had no information to share about Judge Kavanaugh. To the contrary, he may be the only member of our law school class I never met or interacted with.

My confidence level regarding my non-relationship with Brett Kavanaugh is pretty high.

I’m not merely relying on ancient memories about particular folks’ attendance or nonattendance during three years of legal seminars and intoxicating social events. Subsequent reminders corroborate my recollection. 

Since graduation, Yale’s glossy Alumni News has regularly updated me about various Kavanaugh career milestones: his Supreme Court clerkship, his true-believer service as part of Ken Starr’s dogged impeachment investigation, his work in the second Bush White House. Our class secretaries would forward pictures of George W. Bush hugging him, or his mentor Justice Anthony Kennedy swearing him in as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Each time I would pull out our Yale facebook directory, and again examine the black and white portrait. 

“Yep, that’s the guy in my law school class I never met.”

Why did I change my mind and decide to speak out about Judge Kavanaugh’s embattled Supreme Court nomination? Two reasons:

First, I was disturbed by multiple reports about Judge Kavanaugh’s legal career, as well as about his and his Republican supporters’ lack of candor. It’s not merely that we’re living through another #MeToo moment, amplified by flashbacks to Anita Hill. It’s also David Brock’s chilling description of collaborating with Kavanaugh in the 1990s as “part of a close circle of cynical hard-right operatives.” There’s the pattern of false and misleading statements about Kavanaugh’s role in the Bush White House. There’s Kavanaugh's implausible testimony that he doesn’t remember receiving the sexually explicit joke compilation emails that his other judicial mentor, disgraced Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, sent to his former clerks. Finally, Kavanaugh is complicit in the GOP’s refusal to produce or consider thousands of relevant documents regarding his legal career. Under the circumstances, Republicans’ insistence on ramming his nomination through the Senate is unseemly.

Second, the fact that I didn’t know someone in law school, standing alone, is not much of a data point. Nevertheless, my lack of any personal encounters at law school with Brett Kavanaugh resonated with others' observations.

I’m not criticizing Judge Kavanaugh for his conservative bona fides, which are readily apparent from his record. And it’s not just my own progressive perspective. Like most educational institutions, Yale Law School skews left. (I went from being one of the most radical students at Brigham Young University to being dead center at Yale.) Nevertheless, despite its decidedly liberal overall bent, Yale Law is also extraordinarily diverse. Even with the excessive number of Yale College graduates who linger in New Haven.1

1Sorry, Kathleen and Jamie. 

The rest of my classmates hailed from all over the country and the world, bringing their varied backgrounds and interests to the melting pot. In addition to the occasional pesky law class, you could spend your time with student legal clinics, cutting-edge academic journals, and endless philosophical arguments. My closest friends at law school included evangelical Christians, unreconstructed libertarians, prep-school Republicans, and even bros.

So I was struck by the paltry list of signatures on our classmates’ letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. The twenty-three signatories include just three women, and no LGBT individuals that I'm aware of. No offense to Michelle, Mary, Stephanie, Mark, and my conservative friends who signed, but overall it’s a pretty bro-ish bunch.

Last week, another law school classmate questioning the Kavanaugh nomination on Facebook acknowledged she did “not have any particular recollection of him during that time.” Thena is so smart she abandoned the law after graduation and became a medical doctor. I don’t think she’ll take offense if I reveal she was not a Fox News blonde in law school.

As Slate’s chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie recently observed, Judge Kavanaugh is “the perfect nominee for our era of elite impunity.” According to Bouie, our current “crisis of accountability” reflects 

a world where responsibility and culpability are structured by race, class, gender, and your overall proximity to disadvantage. In the existing framework, we cannot ask a prospective Supreme Court justice to account for the actions of his youth, but we can hold a 12-year-old black boy responsible for not heeding police commands fast enough, or a 17-year-old black teenager for not deferring to a neighborhood watchman.

Homespun Midwestern girls and queer-ish misfits from Utah are just some of the many people who will never be part of Brett Kavanaugh’s world.

For the last several years, the Supreme Court has been closely divided – between graduates of Harvard and Yale. Judge Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Court will tip the majority to Yale. 

As a YLS alumnus, I should be excited about entrenching our hegemony. But I’m already tired of explaining how legal extremist Justice Clarence Thomas does not represent the values I learned at Yale. Not even counting the eerily similar manner of his confirmation in the face of Anita Hill’s damning sexual harassment testimony.2

2Seat-stolen-from-Obama Neil Gorsuch is also a member of the Supreme Court’s permanent asterisk club, but at least Justice Gorsuch went to Harvard.

After stress-testing constitutional norms for decades, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is on the brink of his ultimate anti-democratic triumph. The Supreme Court will lurch far to the right. And I dread the prospect of spending the next thirty years telling my children I went to law school with Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

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” (3/6/18)

Friday, September 21, 2018

Blaming the Children

Michael Chabon recently published a collection of essays about fatherhood. In his introduction to Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Chabon describes a seminal experience from early in his literary career. He was the guest of honor at a fabulous New York cocktail party. Between toasts, a Famous Author took the young man aside for a little professional counseling. 

His advice: “Don’t have kids.” According to the married-but-childless Famous Author, each child represents a book you won’t write.

Decades later, Chabon is both a prolific writer and the doting father of four children. He acknowledges some trade-offs were involved.

Have I mentioned that I used to own a sailboat? And a convertible? Would anyone like to buy the worn-out Kia minivan I traded them in for?

We perpetuate a myth that it rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest. Our propaganda repels weak and credulous invaders.

The truth is more nuanced. Most of our precipitation statistics are unremarkable. It actually rains much harder, longer, and more often elsewhere. However, we live with a reasonable trade-off. Yes, from October to April it’s relentlessly drizzly and dark. But all summer long, our northern latitude gives us sunlight until late in the evening. Then at the end of summer, prevailing wind patterns result in multiple weeks of zero precipitation. 

So it comes as no surprise that after a typically rainless August, our pond completely dried up. It’s all part of the water cycle.

Similarly, blog output has dropped off precipitously in recent weeks. You’re all much too polite to point this out, but my writing pump went bone dry.

As usual, I blame the children.

Obviously there are numerous other potential candidates to blame for the writing drought besides my three angelic children. And my saintly parents.

For example, my recent unsuccessful election campaign for the Washington Court of Appeals provided an interesting distraction over the summer. Contrary to what you may have heard, I never wrote two separate versions of any blog posts. (There may have been some draft posts with separate judge and nonjudge draft outlines.Nevertheless, the focus on the judicial campaign limited my writing output on other topics.

Losing the primary election for judge was a disappointment. There were also a few smaller disappointments during the subsequent weeks. And several more really big disappointments. As usual, I try not to complain. 

Ok, maybe I don’t try too hard not to complaint. Or maybe when I “complain,” I try to say something witty and/or thoughtful about the preposterous litany of complaint-worthy circumstances I’ve encountered over the years. Including some of the lessons I’ve learned about writing, and about short- and long-term writer’s block.

The good news is that as with a short dry spell last summer, and despite some anxiety and depression symptoms, I haven’t catastrophized myself into believing I again face two decades of unremitting writer’s block. To the contrary, except for a few predictably blue days spent under the covers, I’ve mostly been productive this summer. But the final pump in the writing process, the one that pours these blog essays into the Internet, has mysteriously dried up.

With so many plagues to choose among, why blame three deceptively photogenic cherubim?

I’ve been reading the collected essays of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died this year at age 88. She was a marvelous novelist, as well as an insightful writer about writing. Le Guin published The Wizard of Earthsea trilogy and other classics when she was a Portland housewife raising three children. Later she cast her piercing gaze on numerous thorny topics, particularly implicit bias both in publishing and in literature itself.

Le Guin was a compulsive reader who loved all kinds of great books. In confronting gaps in the Great Straight White Male Canon, Le Guin challenged the structural bias and privilege at work. She also emphasized the practical barriers that limit writing opportunities for many marginalized individuals – what Virginia Woolf described as the need for “a room of her own.”

I have a whole master suite to myself, as well as a comfortable computer station downstairs. Nevertheless, with three kids also in my hair, it’s still not enough room.

But the kids spend alternate weeks with Roger’s ex, you point out. And his neighbors pay high property taxes to educate Roger’s children in Bellingham’s excellent public schools.   


Here are eight words only a parent can truly understand, and only a parent can imagine saying with unironic longing: “I can’t wait for summer vacation to end.” 

Pre-parenthood, that sentence is inconceivable. (Yes, the word means what I think it means.)

Like Ursula Le Guin, my favorite author Jane Duncan often discussed the particular challenges of trying to write while running a household. And the particular challenges of being a certain kind of writer. 

Some writers need life to send challenging circumstances to provide source material for their writing. For other writers, life's not enough. We also need the direct and indirect inspiration of dealing with life's whirlwind as it swirls around us. Nothing happens when we sit alone day all in front of a computer.

On the other hand, no one ever finishes anything during a hurricane. Or during the days you spend recovering from last week's hurricane. Or during the days you spend preparing for next week’s hurricane. And regardless of the hurricane level, it’s hard to write in a house where there are only two computers, but always three other people who claim they’re ahead of you on the waiting list. 

The kids/writing problem reappeared in June, when I discovered I'd insufficiently vetted my ex's proposal to adjust the schedule to order to accommodate various Lutheran summer camps. I ended up spending the first two weeks of summer home alone with the kids.

Anyone who's met my children knows their idea of a perfect summer’s day would start with me driving away and leaving them to their own very literal devices. To them, my dream role is to appear only when someone needs a meal, or the wi-fi password. Careful readers also recognize the children won’t consider this to be a “perfect summer’s day” unless Papa leaves behind his laptop for them to squabble over. Along with his computer, two TVs, an iPad, AppleTV, their three iPhones, and snacks.

Sadly, that’s not how parenting works. Or writing. At least for me. I can’t just leave and pretend I don’t have kids. I'd worry. Meanwhile, the creative process is too fragile to complete certain delicate writing tasks when children are around too much. During summer vacation they're around WAY TOO MUCH. 

Besides, I need the laptop. 

Fortunately, fall has finally arrived. Because it’s after Labour Day, we can wear white again. (The beard, not the fleece.) On Wednesday nights, Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearses songs about Christmas, Xmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, and drag queens. 

In Bellingham, students are back in school. Regular readers of this blog are smiling. Just like weary parents everywhere.

Parenthood: Worth It, No Matter Where They Are This Week™

Other essays from "Roger On Writing":

"Watch for Quiet Explosions"  (10/15/19)
Lilies That Fester”  (3/25/18)
Steam Heat”  (3/19/18)
Letting off Steam”   (12/21/17)
Super Fuzzy Things”  (9/8/17)
Dear Reader”   (7/22/17)