Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Six Degrees of Kristin Chenoweth

Singing in Vancouver Men’s Chorus gives me a plausible excuse for driving across the border at least once a week. The chorus rehearses on Wednesday evenings, which also happens to be Show Tune Night at XY. 

XY is a generic gay night club in Vancouver’s Davie Village. It’s across the street from Pumpjack, the pub where members of the chorus socialize after rehearsal each week. Unlike Pumpjack, the acoustics at XY do not involve the kind of omnidirectional cacophony that promptly ejects me from the bar with an anxiety attack. Instead, inspired by New York’s legendary bar Marie's CrisisXY’s proprietors offer a weekly sing-a-long piano bar. 

The headliner is Kerry O’Donovan. Kerry is a local musician with an extraordinary gift for the unique demands of crowd-wrangling while playing and singing a shifting assortment of standards. Sean Allen, who plays a set each hour during Kerry’s break, is also a gifted performer. (Plus he’s cute and gay.) Show Tune Night is the real reason I go to Vancouver every week.

The audience for Show Tune Night in Canada is a mix of middle-aged fans like myself, of all genders and orientations; a bunch of overconfident drama types from the University of British Columbia and/or local theaters; several chorus divas who don’t even bother making an appearance at Pumpjack any more; and a few drunks who probably were expecting to watch hockey on TV. Everyone loves to sing along, even the drunks. 

It’s fascinating to see who knows the songs from each era. My own tastes and knowledge of the Great American Songbook are pretty comprehensive. Last week the tipsy housewife next to me at the bar was impressed when I could identify every song, and then improvise harmonies for most of them. I explained to her I’ve always loved musicals, but my repertoire has a gap from 2005 to 2011 when young children interfered with theater trips. (I still haven’t seen Next to Normal or Spring Awakening.)

Listening and singing along with the mix of songs each Wednesday reminds me that memory is not linear. Instead, it’s a web of associations.  

Last Wednesday, I heard Kerry play “My New Philosophy” for the first time. The song is from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but it wasn’t part of the original production. Instead, another composer (Andrew Lippa) wrote it for the sort-lived Broadway revival thirty years later. The song was sung by Charlie Brown's little sister Sally, who replaced the original Peppermint Patty character in the play. “My New Philosophy” became a powerful showcase for a pint-sized new star, Kristin Chenoweth. She won her first Tony in 1999 for playing Sally. Kristin has gone on to a successful career on television and in movies, but deep down she’s always been a Broadway Diva.

During Kerry’s smoking break, I told him I saw Kristin in the original production of Charlie Brown. It was in November 1998, before the show even made it to Broadway. Anthony Rapp played Charlie Brown, and B.D. Wong was Linus. (Both were already openly gay.) I was working as a gay rights lawyer at the ACLU in Chicago. 

Skokie is a Chicago suburb with a large Jewish community, including many Holocaust survivors. Before moving to Illinois, my only association with “Skokie” was as the shorthand for a famous First Amendment episode. In 1978, the ACLU stood on principle and successfully fought for the rights of a group of Neo-Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie. At the ACLU of Illinois, I later worked with many individuals who were involved in the decision and its consequences for the community. My experiences as a civil rights advocate further reinforced my association of Skokie with “Skokie.”

Chicago has numerous suburbs. The only time I’ve ever been to Skokie myself was to see You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Before opening on Broadway, the show premiered at the Skokie Center for the Performing Arts. 

I can’t sing along to “My New Philosophy”  too many words  but I know all the other songs from the show by heart. And I can recite one of the speaking parts.

My parents moved to Bellingham a few months after I graduated from high school in Brigham City, Utah. However, the only time I ever lived in Bellingham before now was during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Unable to find a temporary McJob in town, I spent my summer vacation doing community theater instead.

Charlie Brown is the ultimate role for any codependent person. The world keeps offering us irresistible footballs to kick, then pulls them away. I can still recite the play’s opening monologue thirty-six years later.  

Rather, I can recite what I remember as Charlie Brown’s opening monologue. I haven’t checked it against the script lately.

My next Kristin Chenoweth memory turns out to be fake.   

For years, my brain filed this memory under “I saw Kristin in a non-singing Biblical role, in that funny play by Paul Rudnick.” 

This week, as part of my fact check for this essay, I went through all my theater programs from past trips to New York. I blame lawyer harmony for my over-flowing collection of old Playbills. Despite being a bunch of unherdable cats, the national LGBT legal advocates have managed to achieve some extraordinary victories. We were always colleagues. In fact, when I was in Chicago, the ACLU, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and GLAD brought together all their lawyers from around the country to share ideas and strategize twice a year. Usually these meetings were held in New York. For many years, I regularly gabbed with lawyers, saw great theater, and then drank bad beer while singing along at Marie’s Crisis. By definition, any “dream job” should include regular paid trips to New York.

In 1999, I saw Paul Rudnick’s witty off-Broadway play about the Old Testament, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. I remember Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell in Modern Family, as a naked Adam in the Garden of Eden. (It was Adam and Steve.) And I remember Kristin Chenoweth was in the cast.

Yesterday I pulled out the program for The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. Jesse Tyler Ferguson was indeed Adam. And the part of Jane was played by … Lea DeLaria.

This was troubling. Lea DeLaria is a loud, short, brunette stout lesbian. Kristin Chenoweth is a loud, short, blonde pixy who dates men. Even a gay man should be able to tell the difference.

Then I came upon the Playbill for Epic Proportions, which I also saw on an ACLU trip to New York in 1999. Kristin Chenoweth played the leading female part, “Louise Goldman.” The program says the play is set in “The Arizona desert,” in “The early 1930s.” I infer from the pictures and cast list that the play involves the making of a Biblical epic film.

I still have zero recollection of the play, including Kristin. Reading the Playbill and even peeking at the synopsis on Wikipedia didn’t refresh anything.

The next time I saw Kristin on Broadway she was singing again. It was her signature role: Glinda in Wicked, opposite Idina Menzel as Elphaba. I saw the original cast, in New York at the Gershwin Theater. They were amazing.

This was my last New York trip before Eleanor was born. I traveled with my Seattle chorus buddy Todd. Our final junket together added numerous other memories to New York’s rich associations: the sexy charm of Avenue Q (which robbed Wicked of the Tony for Best New Musical); waiting outside Lincoln Center after the Sweeny Todd revival so Todd could get Elaine Paige’s signature on his Playbill; and Hugh Jackman’s virtuoso performance as Peter Allen in Boy From Oz. 

Actually, all I remember from Oz was the cast staying out on stage after the curtain call to make their annual charity pitch for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Hugh took off his shirt and auctioned it off to someone in the audience. Todd was jealous.

Before seeing Kristin on Broadway in Wicked, I sang with her at the Paramount Theater in Seattle in 2001. Well, me and the rest of Seattle Men’s Chorus.

Like many choruses that year, SMC presented a song cycle promoting breast cancer awareness, “Sing for the Cure.” We invited Kristin to sing the solo parts to this piece, which comprised the second act of the concert. 

In the first act, Kristin did her own set as well as singing several songs together with the chorus. Kristin charmed both SMC and the audience throughout her visit. Her stunning “Glitter and Be Gay” was the best I’ve ever heard. But the highlight of the concert was a gorgeous arrangement of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” originally commissioned by the New York Gay Men’s Chorus. The men’s voices weaved together “Begin the Beguine” and other dance melodies as Kristin soared above us with the classic showstopper from My Fair Lady. It was one of the most memorable single performances I’ve ever been a part of.

As I went through all my old Playbills, I came upon this oddity: the program from Wicked’s notorious pre-Broadway run in San Francisco in Fall 2004. Signed by Kristin Chenoweth. “To Roger.”

This was worse than Lea DeLaria. True, I’ve seen Wicked three other times, and the show itself blurs together (New York original cast; taking my mom for her 70th birthday in Seattle; and taking my daughter for her ninth birthday in Vancouver). But you’d think I’d remember a rare trip to San Francisco. Let alone getting Kristin’s autograph.

Plus I’m not really the autograph-seeking type. I’m too shy. In fact, the only time I’d ever stood outside a stage door waiting for the star to exit was after a matinee of Assassins in May 2004. My friend Todd was so bitter about missing the production he made me promise I’d get Neal Patrick Harris’ autograph for him.

Then I remembered. Later that year, Todd made a special trip to San Francisco just to investigate the Wicked rumors. He must have gotten Kristen to sign a program, then he gave it to me later. But that I don’t remember.

More Showtune Night Stories:

"Missing Marie's Crisis" (5/6/17)

"Get Out and Stay Out" (10/18/17)

"Comfort Animals" (4/24/19)

"I am Third" (5/29/19)

"Spongeworthy" (6/13/19)

"Maybe I Love Showtunes Too Much"  (9/17/19)

"Artificial Emotional Intelligence" (2/25/20)

"Do Gay Androids Dream of Electric Brunch?" (2/26/20)

"A New Brain"  (5/5/20)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Last year was the 150th anniversary of the confederation of Canadian provinces – the country’s “sesquicentennial.” As a member of Vancouver Men’s Chorus, I sang various songs on the occasion and/or pretext of Canada’s birthday. Many of those events began with acknowledgement that we met on the unceded lands of various identified First Peoples. 

Even if they are only words, they are words I cannot imagine hearing in Donald Trump’s America. In fact, when Microsoft Word refused to accept “unceded” as a word, I checked my internal lexicon against the internet. According to the Collins English Dictionary, in British and Canadian English the word means “not ceded or handed over; unyielded,” as in “The reserves are unceded lands, remnants of the Indian realm of old.” 

Americans don’t even have a word for their original sin.


Yesterday’s essay, “Lost in a Good Book,” was my 150th post since starting this blog last year – my sesquicentennial. Thanks to everyone for their interest and encouragement.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Lost in a Good Book

One major benefit of my PTSD diagnosis and treatment has been a restored ability to read for pleasure. As I wrote last year in “Reading Again,”

I can’t remember a time before I was a voracious reader. As a child I would sit on the heating vent in the corner of our living room, reading books for hours. I once negotiated with the Tooth Fairy to get the next installment of my favorite Enid Blyton series instead of cash. I have cut myself shaving because I couldn’t put down my book.  

My whole family and extended family are also notorious readers. You will walk into a room and find multiple Leishmans or Phillipses, each sitting silently with his or her book.  

These days visitors to our house once again are likely to find me curled up with a good book. Unfortunately, the only time you’ll see the whole family sitting together reading is after dinner, during mandatory reading time.

No one would describe any of my three adopted children as a reader. This may be evidence of the power of nature over nurture. It could also be the impact of growing up addicted to cellphones and other electronics. Or just generational rebellion.

Fortunately, I’ve observed enough examples of my children taking pleasure in reading that I haven’t given up hope. I try to be flexible about reading time, and I look for opportunities to match each kid with books that speak to them.

I’ve also thought about other people’s confessions that they don’t read, or that they dislike reading. The most common reason is that they see reading as a chore – an unpleasant school-related task. That’s definitely what my kids would say.

Many nonreaders also believe that when they get bogged down in some book they're not allowed to start another until they finish the first one. This is nonsense. I’m usually in the middle of several books myself, switching between them to suit my current mood.

I also ruthlessly abandon books without finishing them. Sometimes I recognize within a few pages that we’re not a good fit. Other times I get distracted by other books or life, and never get back to them. If I still think a book has potential, I’ll give it multiple chances to speak to me. Certain highly recommended books deserve frequent flyer miles for being carried around the country unread. (I’m looking at you, Wolf Hall). Once in a while I’ll return to a book years later and discover we’re finally ready for each other. It’s like friendship or dating. Chemistry is unpredictable.

So I’m taking things gently with my kids and reading. I don’t want them to turn into one of those adults – a shocking percentage of the population – who never read, because they still can’t make themselves finish that last book they started in high school.

In the 1970s, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi became fascinated as he observed artists who got lost in their work. He coined the term “flow,” which refers to a mental state of “complete immersion in an activity.”

Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Csíkszentmihályi and his colleagues have identified ten indications you are in a flow state. One in particular leapt out at me:  

Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.

Sounds a lot like reading to me.

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

Humans’ big brains suck up much more energy than the rest of our organs. In particular, it turns out we have a very limited supply of fuel available for Thing 2’s two most important tasks:  deliberate thought and self control.

According to Kahnemen, the intensely productive flow state is possible because “Flow neatly separates the two forms of attention: concentration on the task and the deliberate control of attention.” What sets flow apart from other mental activities is that our brain doesn't need to waste any of its precious fuel on keeping itself on task:

Riding a motorcycle at 150 miles an hour and playing a competitive game of chess are certainly very effortful. In a state of flow, however, maintaining focused attention on these very absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.

Because I love to read, I seldom have to apply any self-discipline to the task. Instead, I quickly achieve a pleasurable flow state, and lose track of time.

In contrast, during reading time my children will repeatedly ask how much time we have left. From my point of view, rudely forced out of flow, it seems like I just answered the same question seconds ago. For them, five minutes of reading seems interminable.

Reading is a relatively new human phenomenon. As I observed last month in “Pandemonium,”

Over the eons, each of the components of our uniquely powerful brains evolved together, and made us distinctively human. These include our capacities for consciousness and language, as well as our deep mental programming for traits like tribalism, altruism, music, and religion. 

In contrast with our pre-wired brain functions, reading is practically brand new – only about 5,000 years old. The invisible hand of natural selection hasn’t had time to tweak the human genome in the few hundred years since literacy became widespread. Instead, our brains have repurposed innate neural structures to accomplish the strange modern task of reading words on a page.

Reading takes your whole brain. Sometimes that’s still not enough.

This month my mother decided she was finally ready for a new phone. She is not a gadget person. But she’d grown frustrated with the frequent “limited memory available” messages. The folks at the AT&T store were impressed to find someone still using an operational iPhone 5c. (I didn't tell them we were planning to erase all her photos, and give the old iPhone to my dad as an upgrade from his flip phone.)

Reading is like running new software on old hardware. It uses up virtually all the processing capacity of the human brain, leaving nothing left for self-discipline. So don’t trying forcing yourself to read. It probably won’t work anyway. Instead, go find the right book for right now.

Here’s the updated 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 Goldblatt, Tyrant
Anjelika Huston, A Story Lately Told
Ethan Nichtern, The Dharma of Princess Bride
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
Andrew Greer, Less
Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Ken Jennings, Planet Funny
Robert Lacey, The Crown
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge?
Dan Harris, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics
Robert Heinlein, Double Star
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Ursula K. Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea
Anne McCaffery, Dragonsinger
Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Other Wind
Ursula K. Le Guin, Words are my Matter
Christopher Buckley, The Relic Master
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind
Julie Schumacher, The Shakespeare Requirement
Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years
Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl
Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu
P.G. Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Negotiating With Terrorists

As a codependent person, I can be excessively solicitous of other folks’ wants and needs. 

I’m also a loving parent. It doubly pains me to deny my three children anything they desire. Despite the various professional and personal disasters that surround me, I’m always trying to get to yes. Indeed, other than my biased and ungrateful dependents themselves, most observers would accuse Papa of indulging even the most outrageous demands, regardless of whether they involve ice cream, bedtimes, videogames, the mall, cellular data, or trips to Canada.

Nevertheless, even I have my limits.

One notorious family story took place outside Denver a few years ago. The community where Pops and Gram lived, and where my Uncle Dennis and Aunt April now live, has the perfect outdoor pool for hosting a sunny family reunion. Everyone was looking forward to splashing around. 

Unfortunately, after receiving numerous opportunities to complete some now-forgotten task, one of my daughters missed out on the day’s swim. As everyone else walked out the door, she was heard to wail, “But Papa, you always give us another second chance!”

This year the Bellingham School District provided a laptop computer to every Eighth Grade student. My daughters now complete most of their assignments online.

The school district also gives each parent a password to log in and track their students’ progress. In the three years since we moved from Seattle, each girl’s “Missing Work” inventory has been the subject of multiple parent, teacher, and family conferences. All to no avail.

No more second chances.

The girls have a Thursday deadline to reduce their “Missing Work” list to zero before losing access to electronics. As I wrote to each of their affected teachers, copying each girl,

This week we're making a concerted effort to bring things up to date. I've challenged ______ to eliminate her Skyward backlog by the end of school Thursday (or face dire consequences, i.e. loss of cellphone and electronics privileges). That means she either needs to finish the work, or arrange for an email from you explaining why that is no longer an option, and identifying any alternative task for her to complete this week.

I know what all you soft-hearted liberals are thinking. Nope, this time it’s is a firm, nonnegotiable deadline. 

We are raising a generation addicted to iPhones since birth. This raises the stakes for parenting. In the old days, kids cared enough about their car, phone, prom, or other privileges to motivate school work. Now the only threat any child takes seriously is the Ultimate Power to Unplug. 

I’m confident no mountain of Missing Work will come between a girl and her precious. Eventually. However, there may be a painful period of adjustment. In the meantime, I recognize it’s cruel to deprive addicts of their fix cold turkey. The Geneva Convention probably requires a daily minimum amount of online access.

So assuming one or more wailing maidens will be spending the weekend without the internet, what’s a reasonable accommodation? Ten minutes twice a day to check messages? Twenty minutes of Minecraft? Is an interactive game more valuable than mindlessly watching YouTube? Email me your ideas.

But no spoilers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


In 1950, gay mathematician Alan Turning proposed the “Turing Test” for evaluating whether an artificial intelligence can successfully pass as a real live person. 

In 2018, we instead rely on blurry text fragments to establish our humanity:

What enables our human brains to decipher sloppy handwriting better than Russian trolls, Alexa, or IBM supercomputer/Jeopardy champion “Watson”?


In his epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton coined the word “Pandaemonium” to refer to the demon-filled capital of hell. “Pandemonium” now refers to any “scene of riotous uproar.” Such as reading time at our house.

Despite my children’s vocal resistance, reading may be the most impressive day-to-day application of human brain power. Nevertheless, reading and writing have only been around for about 5,000 years – a blink of the eye in the brain’s evolutionary timeline. 

Homo sapiens is one of the three remaining species who make up the chimpanzee branch of the primate family. We left behind our second cousins the orangutans sixteen million years ago, then diverged from the ancestors of our cousins the bonobos and chimps eight million years ago. Modern humans parted ways with extinct siblings like Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis several hundred thousand years ago. 

Over the eons, each of the components of our uniquely powerful brains evolved together, and made us distinctively human. These include our capacities for consciousness and language, as well as our deep mental programming for traits like tribalism, altruism, music, and religion. 

In contrast with our pre-wired brain functions, reading is practically brand new. The invisible hand of natural selection hasn’t had time to tweak the human genome in the few hundred years since literacy became widespread. Instead, our brains have repurposed innate neural structures to accomplish the strange modern task of reading words on a page.

In 1959, pioneering computer scientist Oliver Selfridge published an article titled “Pandemonium” that proposed a powerful model for how reading works. 

Selfridge recognized that rather than acting like a single rapid calculator performing a series of discrete operations, our brains instead use a massive multiprocessing system. To understand the difference between “serial” and “parallel” approaches, think of the task of searching for a specific quotation you know is located somewhere in a ten-chapter book. With serial processing, you start reading at the beginning of the book and keep going until you locate your target. With parallel processing, you and nine of your friends each reads a separate chapter until someone finds the quote. 

Selfridge’s model described the sequence of basic processing steps involved in reading: receiving the optical signal, breaking down the visual cues into simple geometric features, associating those features with the individual letters of the alphabet, identifying the sequence of letters on the page or screen, then connecting each word to the corresponding entry in our mental dictionary.

As your brain executes each step, it relies on highly parallel processing. The brain’s work is performed by what Selfridge referred to as “demons” – individual neurons or neural networks that light up when triggered by a particular stimulus. At each stage of the process, multiple potentially conflicting signals result in an ambiguous tumult that is resolved in favor of the loudest voices. For example, Selfridge’s “feature” demons break down each written glyph into its component parts. When activated by specific visual inputs, each corresponding neural demon in effect shouts “I see a curve!” “I see a vertical line!” or “I see a diagonal!” 

At the “cognitive” level, the combined pattern of shouted features triggers other brain demons to associate the perceived image with one of the individual letters of the alphabet you learned in childhood: “It’s a P!” “No, it’s a D!” Within milliseconds, the voices of misguided demons are drowned out by the correct shouts of “It’s a [expletive deleted] R!”

It’s only a model. They’re all models. Every description of the relationship between mind and brain relies on a lot of conjecture. 

It’s true that today’s neurologists have access to an extraordinary array of sophisticated imaging tools, with acronymed names like PET, MRI, CT, and fMRI. Nevertheless, even these devices work indirectly – using markers like blood flow or electrical activity to identify which areas of the brain are activated by particular stimuli.

Before the era of modern imaging, most of our information about human brain processes came from the serendipitous discoveries offered by medical case reports. Patients with localized head wounds or strokes would exhibit symptoms that offered clues to the location of particular brain functions, such as Broca’s area (speech production) and Wernicke’s area (language comprehension). 

Another source of information came from the fascinating asymmetry between the left and right sides of our brains. For a few decades in the 20th century, doctors successfully treated a particularly violent form of epilepsy by completely severing all connections between the left and right brain hemispheres. Nowadays such epileptics are instead treated with powerful new drugs. But a handful of surviving split-brain patients continue to provide valuable data about how the brain works. Meanwhile, medical ethics and basic human decency prevent neurologists from exploring brains willy-nilly with surgery or electric shocks.1

1I remember a linguistic professor in grad school lamenting the failure of Nazi scientists like Dr. Mengele to design a few useful human brain experiments while they were busy committing war crimes.

Neurons are the specialized cells that are the basis of all brain activity. The average human brain has 100 billion neurons.

In his excellent book Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Deheane identifies what he calls a “letter box” in the lower left region of the human cortex. It’s near other brain areas that are also associated with specific types of visual processing. As we learn to read a particular alphabet, our brains program the neurons in the letter box to correctly identify the component elements of words on a page or screen.

Reading in the Brain includes a couple of chapters on the phenomenon of dyslexia. For example, new readers generally go through a phase where they cannot distinguish between mirrored letters – versus d, or versus q. Unlike dyslexics, most readers eventually develop sufficient neural programming in their letter box to make the correct connection in response to visual stimuli.

Reading is unnatural. It relies on optical and neural processes that evolution spent millions of years optimizing for other purposes. When you’re being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, it doesn’t really matter whether that white spot is on the left or the right side of the tiger’s face. Recognizing asymmetry may have been much less important to the original brain function than the distinction between “dad” and “bad” in tonight's Dr. Seuss book. 

Brains combine billions of individual neural miniprocessors with miles of very flexible wiring. 

The bad news is that your mother was right – you’re done growing new brain cells. Every time you huff glue or drink like a frat boy/Supreme Court justice, listen for the death cries of thousands of neurons.

The good news is that brains are amazingly resilient. Even after terrible physical or psychic trauma, our brains can often re-route wiring and re-program neurons to compensate for the injury. More significantly for most people, exposure to new experiences and information creates innumerable new brain connections every day of our lives. For example, three decades of choral singing has rewired the auditory modules of my brain – giving me an ear for tonality and chord progressions I didn’t have in my youth.

My favorite case study from Reading in the Brain involves another epilepsy patient. During treatment, doctors isolated a single neuron that would fire when stimulated by anything associated with the actress Jennifer Anniston – her picture, her hairdo, the Friends theme music, tabloid covers nostalgically shipping a Brad and Jen reunion….

Brains are amazing. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Crossing Paths

I’m making a list of things that remind me of the gay old days, way back in the mid-1990s, before the internet and cellphones ruined everything. For example, did you ever meet someone and have an amazing one-night stand, then forget to get his phone number? (Don’t answer that question, it’s rhetorical.)

Fate implausibly brings folks together, then separates them even more preposterously. Everything is connected.

Before the internet and children transformed my life, I spent uncounted hours in a handful of gay bars located around the world. I’ve written about some of them before: Sidetrack in Chicago, Rumors in Bellingham, Marie’s Crisis in New York…. 

In Vancouver my bar was Numbers. I would nurse a beer and watch guys play pool, regularly updating my mental ranking of the most appealing gentlemen in the room. Occasionally I would talk to someone. Only if he talked to me first, of course.

* * *

Rather than choose a picture to mark that last break in the story, I inserted three asterisks. That’s the traditional way for a writer to draw a modest curtain on some interlude in the narrative. I’m shy. And my mother sometimes reads these thinågs. It would be best for everyone if we save all the sex, drugs, and rock & roll for fiction.

Anyway, one night long ago I met a charming Canadian gentleman. Unfortunately, I forgot to get his last name or phone number.

Back in Seattle the following week, bored at work and missing Vancouver, I pulled out a copy of the local gay newspaper I’d picked up during my fun weekend. I again kicked myself for failing to get Canada Boy’s contact info. As I flipped through the pages, I saw a photograph of someone who looked familiar. It was a charming portrait of my new acquaintance, in a suit and tie. He was featured in an advertisement for … a gay-friendly law firm in Vancouver.

I decided to approach this professionally. I called the business telephone number in the ad, described myself as a lawyer from a firm in Seattle, and asked his secretary if I could speak to him. (We had “secretaries” back then, rather than assistants.)

He took the call. I told him my name and where I worked, and said: “This may seem like an odd question, but do you have a _______ tattooed on your ______?”

He recognized my voice, laughed, and we had a nice chat. We made plans to meet at Numbers the next time I was in Vancouver.

The night we originally met, neither of us had mentioned the embarrassing fact that we were attorneys. Part of our connection probably came from remembering how good it feels when you stop thinking of yourself as a lawyer. Even if it’s just for one night. 

I arrived at Numbers way too early, as always. 

Canada Boy didn’t show. He never showed. He never called. And he never returned the telephone messages I left that night. My many, many, telephone messages.

This is one of those old-fashioned scenes you would never see in a film set in the present: Roger leaning against a “payphone,” in a “smoky” “gay” “bar,” scrambling to find “a quarter” so he could call the “landline” and leave yet another increasingly “drunken” and desperate “answering machine message.” No doubt the story would also be fascinating as a series of  iMessage emojis. But it wouldn’t be the same.

If I could magically go back in my own life and retrieve one series of voicemails to transcribe for a hypothetical screenplay, this would definitely be it. When the story becomes a movie, I would like my part to be played by Joan Cusack. She would capture the right combination of devastation and humor.  

I didn’t hear from Canada Boy for several months. Finally he called out of the blue. We exchanged pleasantries. At some point I probably said something passive-aggressive, like asking why I never heard from him. He said, “Didn’t you know?” Here is his version of the same story: 

We were supposed to meet at Numbers on a Friday evening. In many courts, Fridays are endless motion days. A family law colleague asked Canada Boy to cover a routine hearing in one of her family law matters. The trial was already over, and this appearance involved some follow-up issue like determining the amount of attorney’s fees. 

The husband on the other side of the divorce was representing himself. The husband was unhappy with the outcome. The husband was so unhappy he pulled a machete out of his briefcase and started hacking off Canada Boy's neck. 

Others in the courtroom tackled the murderous litigant. His victim endured multiple surgeries and spent many months in the hospital. The assailant was eventually convicted, but only on some wussy simple assault charge. Since that Friday, Canada Boy's life has never been the same.

I saw Canada Boy in person a few times on subsequent Vancouver trips, before my social life completely disappeared. (I blame the children. For everything.)

Nowadays I observe him on Facebook with envy as he attends edgy music concerts all over the world. Underscoring the contrast between our lives, he occasionally “likes” Facebook pictures of my three children frolicking in Stanley Park.

The story could have stopped there. Along with my childhood best friend Paul, also from Vancouver, Canada Boy became an early example of what I’ve referred to as the “Doppeler Effect”: the influential doppelgangers and other kindred spirits you encounter in your life, such as college friends who marched down the road you were afraid to take, repeated versions of the same patently unsuitable beau, 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.

This particular story exemplified a specific kind of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern moment: when you suddenly realize you've wandered out of your own comic vignette, and onto the stage of someone else’s major life tragedy. 

Our paths again crossed fifteen years later, at least indirectly. I was in New York for Lavender Law, the annual conference for LGBT lawyers and law students. As usual, I attended the session on “Pathways to the Judiciary.”

In “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” my diatribe about how the Baby Boomers sabotaged my judicial career, I mentioned that one of the panelists at Lavender Law that year was Paul Oetken, the first openly gay man to be confirmed to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge. Judge Oetken graduated from Yale Law School one year after Brett Kavanaugh and me. [Ed. Note: Judge Kavanaugh is the non-gay bro who was recently appointed to the Supreme Court.]

The Lavender Law panel also included the first openly transgender trial judge in the United States; a lesbian family court judge from California; and Gary Cohen, the first Canadian to be president of the International Association of LGBT Judges. One of the attendees asked Judge Cohen, who is from Vancouver, to identify the catalyst that led to his judicial appointment two decades ago.

Judge Cohen said he’d previously been involved in bar association activities and queer politics, but the experience that really raised his profile in the community was when he organized a funding campaign to support a colleague who was out of work for months after being attacked with a machete during a court hearing.

No doubt an FBI investigation into all my various connections with Canada Boy would reveal more strange intersections. For example, just now I checked Facebook and discovered we have exactly two mutual friends. Both sing in Vancouver Men’s Chorus. Both are named Steve. One is a lawyer. WHO HAPPENS TO BE THE SUBJECT OF A “DOPPELER EFFECT” ESSAY I POSTED SIX MONTHS AGO. [Ed. Note: That’s eerie. But don’t shout.]

The existing mountain of data already offers numerous potential takeaways from the Canada Boy story: "Sometimes it's not all about you"? "Make sure your body has at least one identifying characteristic"? "Always check your voicemail messages"? "Everything is connected"?

Careful readers of this blog already recognize the universe's real message. "Guys will go to desperate lengths to avoid a date with Roger."

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)

My Best Friend Paul” (6/7/18)