Wednesday, November 28, 2018

High School Musicals

What’s the opposite of “triggering”?

Last Friday, my daughters and I went to see cross-town rival Squalicum High School’s fall musical, 9 to 5. I’ve always loved the classic 1980 movie, but I’d never gotten around to seeing a production of the recent Broadway musical. 

I don’t think I’ve seen an actual “high school musical” since the 1980s. There was no need – my own kids have only made it to middle school so far. I thought I had at least another year before I would have to accompany them to, and/or watch them perform in, a high school musical.

There were good reasons to wait as long as possible. (Hush, not your typical philistine or deadbeat dad reasons.) Although my PTSD symptoms burst out only three years ago, they were rooted in trauma that occurred three decades before, during my overachieving-and-closeted Mormon youth. Musical theatre was at the center of my life when all that trauma was occurring.

High school musicals should be triggering. 

from the 1979-80 BEHS yearbook

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. 

Squalicum High School’s production of 9 to 5 was like a magically updated version of all my fondest memories from high school. There were the same divas, dancers, excitement, and enthusiasm I remembered from thirty-five years ago.

However, there also were some obvious differences from Utah in the 1980s. Squalicum High’s beloved drama teacher is openly gay. His husband leads the battalion of community volunteers helping the students put together an amazing show on a miniscule budget. The diverse crowd on stage, in the crew, and in the audience included nerds, jocks, Mormons, gay boys, lesbians, and transgender students – all having fun and supporting each other.

Virtually all of my happy memories from the early 1980s involve either theatre or family. Watching 9 to 5 at Squalicum High School with my daughters evoked the same glow we used to get from the affirming and trauma-free moments in Glee

“Trauma-free” is not the same as “drama-free.”

High school musicals are filled with drama. They're also filled with Drama Queens. I already live with one in training.

One of the chorus members from 9 to 5 arranged for our tickets. We originally planned to attend a matinee last week. But it turns out my daughter Eleanor’s best friend from Lutheran summer camp goes to Squalicum High, and she had one of the show’s three staring roles. Because the leads were double cast, we had to switch our tickets to a night with the correct ensemble.

Friday dawned on the brink of tragedy. Eleanor’s friend had lost her voice, and she would never be able to go on that night. Snapchat buzzed. We would have to inconveniently change performance dates once again.  

Fortunately, as the father of a Drama Princess, I was pleasantly unsurprised to hear Eleanor’s friend in full voice at Friday’s production of 9 to 5.

She was amazing. All three of the show’s leading ladies, playing the roles originated by Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin, were amazing.

Now my daughter is concocting schemes for moving into her grandmother’s overcrowded boarding house. For my parents’ address. Eleanor wants to transfer to Squalicum High School so she can be part of Mr. Parker’s amazing high school musical program. [Ed. Note: Not going to happen.]

In one of the blog’s all-time most popular essays, I wrote about the many times “Drama Therapy” saved my life. Starting in high school.  

After my family moved from Vancouver to Utah, I found my first life-saving island of misfit toys at Palace Playhouse. An over-enthusiastic drama teacher at Box Elder High School had somehow convinced the school administration and the owners of the historic bank building in downtown Brigham City to give us the use of the cabaret space on the bank’s top floor. For decades, Palace Playhouse was a student-managed theater company that produced musicals and plays year round (until the principal and the fire marshal finally pulled the plug ten years ago). Palace Playhouse redeemed high school for generations of awkward BEHS grads.

Since graduating from law school, I’ve channeled my dramatic urges into a series of excellent gay men’s choruses in Chicago, Seattle, and now Vancouver. Last Sunday, Vancouver Men’s Chorus did our annual out-of-town outreach performance in rustic Chilliwack. The regular run of Christmas concerts begins next week in downtown Vancouver. 

For only the second time in three decades, I will be braving my anxieties to sing a four measure micro-solo. It's actually more of a dramatic role. Just like last year, I've been faux typecast as the outnumbered Jewish guy.

Occasionally I point out some of the preposterous coincidences in my life. As I wrote this spring in "Take that, Logoskeptics," I am comfortable describing myself as a Black Swan Event. 

For example:

My mother and my nephew have been recommending a new barbershop in Bellingham. I finally went on Saturday for my pre-concert-run haircut. The chatty stylist revealed he graduated from Brigham Young University the same year I did. I ended up getting my beard trimmed too because we had so much to talk about.

My new barber and I had never crossed paths in Bellingham. Nor in Utah thirty years ago. To the contrary, we exemplified two of the common closet strategies of that era. He avoided all politically active students, while I avoided all potentially gay students. Guess who got laid in college.

The most interesting dish involved my stylist’s first boyfriend. I knew him. Or rather, I knew of him. The boyfriend's father was a prominent Mormon leader. According to Facebook, the son is still in Utah, now married to a man. We share five Facebook friends – three eminent gay Mormons and two fellow travelers.

Thirty years ago at BYU, I already knew this guy was gay. I don’t remember how I knew, I just did. Primitive gaydar? In any event, I avoided him like the plague he represented. 

Watching a high school musical together with my teenaged daughters recalled the magical theatre experiences of my youth – except without the toxic proportion of Mormons everywhere, and without being warped by the entire culture’s pervasive homophobia. Sharing an evening with all those straight and queer Bellingham teens felt amazing.

Sadly, gay life today in Brigham City and Provo is still very Mormon, and still very warped. For example, I previously wrote about the attorney-turned-senior-apostle who has taken up the Mormons' anti-gay mantle. Just last month, Brother Dallin gave yet another grotesquely homophobic sermon during General Conference.

I barely noticed. As they say in a proverb Mormon leaders are fond of quoting, “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” Unlike poor clueless Roger in 1980s Utah, any young gay Mormon growing up today can easily see he is not alone. 

It’s not just the brave new gay world that arose after the advent of PFLAG, Will & Grace, Affirmation, and online dating apps. Today there is a visible army of saints who unconditionally love and accept every young LGBT Mormon, no matter what Dallin Oaks says. Even in Utah. 

All three leading ladies in Squalicum High School’s musical 9 to 5 belted her solo numbers out of the park. Many other moments in the show displayed similar flashes of brilliance. 

That's what you get when you combine talent, a staggering amount of hard work, a supportive community, an effective arts program, and the well-founded delusion you can do anything. The result is unadulterated joy

It’s the same joy you see in Vancouver Men’s Chorus, regardless of whether you’re watching or performing. It’s the same joy you see with Seattle Men’s Chorus, and with the new gay men's choruses in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. It’s the same joy I felt while doing drama in high school – even in Utah in the 1980s. And it’s the same feeling I experience as Squalicum High School and Fairhaven Middle School embrace my family today.

The opposite of “triggering” is love and joy.


The ways of the Web are mysterious. I can’t resist sharing this research anecdote. 

I wanted to end my essay “High School Musicals” with a photograph of a bosomy Dolly Parton drag queen standing in front of a gay men’s chorus. However, I couldn’t find a single such photo out there online. Shocking, right? I ended up settling for a cute pile of Santas in front of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. ’Tis the season.

But here’s another photo I found among Google Images’ top suggestions when searching for the words “men’s chorus” together with “9 to 5”:

Reach Farther: October 2017

This is a photograph of Oliver and me in 2012. We’re in Denver for the international festival of LGBT choruses. Compare the photo with one of me today. Back then there was no white in Papa’s hair, and I still had imaginary bangs on both sides of my forehead

I blame the children. And/or prejudice. For everything.

Google Images’ green-striped photo comes with a link to “Sure of You,” my heart-warming tear-jerker about the time my adopted son attempted to send a Mother’s Day card to his birth mother. Go figure.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Why Trader Joe's is True

Recently I posted this photograph on Facebook, with the following note:

Even if Facebook never does another good thing in the world, which seems likely, I will always bless it for overcoming my nearly-irrebuttable aversion to flavored potato chips in time to take advantage of a briefly seasonal Trader Joe’s product: Yes, Shawn, these are life changing. — in Bellingham, Washington.

Certain Trader Joe’s products make me go all evangelical. Much more than when I was a Mormon missionary.

I’m actually blessing Trader Joe’s for its bounty, and my college friend Shawn for his recommendation – not praising Facebook itself. To the contrary, Facebook is the subject of an increasingly wordy draft essay saved under the name “People with PTSD should avoid dealing with Facebook.” (But they already know that, don’t you Facebook?)

I began shopping at Trader Joe’s when we still lived in Seattle. The grocery store chain is a cultural icon with a unique business model. They have a more limited and quirkier inventory than Safeway or QFC. But the products are uniformly excellent, particularly the produce and prepared meals. The prices are much better than Whole Foods. And each store is packed with its own thoughtful notes and recommendations from the staff, like an old-fashioned independent book store. 

Here are some of the Trader Joe’s items in my grocery cart each week:  mushroom & black truffle flatbread (Oliver); chicken pot pie and fettucine alfredo (Rosalind); $0.99 sourdough round mini loafs (Eleanor); almond butter granola and pasteurized tangerine juice (Papa).

Trader Joe’s is a perfect fit for Bellingham’s hippie culture. The parking lot, which is filled with British Columbia license plates, is microscopic. Yet it brings out our pathological politeness in the face of intractable traffic dilemmas.   

And did you know you can bring your eggplant and melons into Canada? We wouldn’t want anyone to lose their NEXUS pass for smuggling grapes across the border.

I have a strict no-Christmas-stuff-before-Thanksgiving policy. Other than rehearsing carols with Vancouver Men’s Chorus, which is unavoidable, the only exception I make is for Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Cremes. They are that good. And only $2.99. (That’s like $8 Canadian.)

Last November I found myself in the checkout line with five boxes of Peppermint Cremes, behind a little old lady with just as many. We exchanged sheepish but knowing smiles.

Philosopher/evolutionary biologist Robert Wright’s most recent book is called Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. As I recently described in my essay about Pixar movies and brain anatomy, “Inside Out,” Wright argues that traditional Buddhist meditative practices can help us learn to overcome the impact of emotion and bias and see the world more clearly. 

Desire leads to suffering. Dukkha, or “suffering,” can be translated as “unsatisfactoriness.” According to Wright, “What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best.” The ideal path involves “neither clinging to the good feelings nor running away from the bad ones, but rather just experiencing them straightforwardly and observing them.”

When we achieve vairagya or “non-attachment,” we stop identifying with our thoughts and feelings, and begin seeing the true reality.   

Trader Joe’s teaches the concept of non-attachment more vividly than Robert Wright, mindfulness meditation, or the Buddha.  

Some seasonal Trader Joe’s items regularly return, like peppermint cremes and turkey stuffing potato chips. Other ephemeral products – I’m thinking of the delicious mango salt water taffy a couple of summers ago – make a brief appearance in our lives before disappearing, apparently forever.

My children’s favorite pasta sauce is puttanesca. Trader Giotto’s puttanesca. Unfortunately, it was discontinued. We’ve tried other brands, but they’re not the same. We get by with Trader Giotto’s Arrabiata sauce. But occasionally on spaghetti night, one of the kids will wistfully ask when we’re having puttanesca sauce again. 

Enjoy life’s pleasures. But don’t get attached to things.


Today is only November 26, but the Bellingham Trader Joe's is already out of both turkey stuffing potato chips and peppermint cremes. Just sayin.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Artificial Intelligence

The hallmark of intelligence is learning from experience. To demonstrate “Artificial Intelligence,” a computer must do more than briefly fool you into thinking it’s a real person. Instead, successful AI is capable of updating its own program and adapting to changed circumstances.  

AI technology has come a long way in recent years. Have you complimented Siri or Alexa lately for picking up your family’s distinctive speech patterns? Or noticed when autocorrect makes a creepy stalker-esque suggestion for finishing your sentence?

This month I had three dubious encounters with Artificial Intelligence:

Facebook recently updated its algorithm for determining what appears in your newsfeed. Supposedly the changes are intended to make the user experience more interactive, and less driven by Russian trolls. 

However, one consequence of Facebook’s changed formula is that my blog readership statistics suddenly dropped precipitously. Friends still get an ample supply of pictures of my adorable children and my beard, but Facebook has decided the blog is too much for most of you. 

I’m a codependent person. It only took four tries to figure out it’s not me, it’s you. (Or rather, it’s Facebook – presumably they want me to pay to “boost” my blog posts.)

So if you want to know when I post a new essay you’ll have to do something slightly proactive, such as “following” me on Facebook, or subscribing to my website at, or just bookmarking the site and checking in on the blog two or three times a week. [Ed. Note: Perhaps on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.] Remember you can always search the blog archive to see if you've been mentioned.

I’ve had the same checking account at Seattle-First National Bank since 1989, when I was a summer associate at my now-defunct first law firm. Seafirst Bank is defunct too, acquired by Bank of America long ago. It takes me a while to acknowledge change. 

Most of my banking migrated to Washington Mutual years ago. (Yes, I know Chase swallowed WaMu during the financial crisis. Denial.) Nowadays I only use my Seafirst account for foreign travel. Unlike Chase, Bank of America has arrangements with numerous foreign banks that allow you withdraw cash from their ATM networks without fees. For example, when Seattle Men’s Chorus toured Germany a few years ago, I used cash machines at Deutsche Bank and Barclays as I traveled around Europe. 

In Canada, our banking partner is the ubiquitous and user-friendly Scotiabank. Scotiabank also happens to be a major sponsor of Vancouver Men’s Chorus. In fact, you can buy some of the few remaining tickets to our Christmas concerts at the Scotiabank branch at Robson and Bute, and the bank will match your purchase with a donation to the chorus.

Anyway, before driving up to Vancouver for chorus last week, I noticed my BoA account had a low balance. I visited the bank branch in Bellingham to deposit a couple of $30 checks I found under a mattress.

Across the border an hour later, I stopped at a Tim Horton’s with a Scotiabank ATM to withdraw cash for my after-rehearsal beer. But my debit card was repeatedly declined.

Assuming it was just a Tim Horton’s thing, I tried the Scotiabank branch on Broadway. This time the ATM told me my account had been frozen. 

A few minutes later, I got a text message asking to confirm that I’m really me. An automated alarm had gone off with the bank’s Fraud Protection Services. They didn’t believe someone would deposit beer money into his account, only to withdraw it in another nearby country later that same afternoon. Obviously the bank hasn’t been paying attention to my travel and spending habits for the last three years. 

This fall Vancouver Men’s Chorus moved to a new rehearsal space, after decades in the Kitsilano neighborhood near downtown. As you may have noticed, I’m generally against change. Nevertheless, our spacious new location at the Vancouver Opera offers many amenities, including ample parking, a kitchen, and a mirrored wall for observing dance moves. Because my children are coming to rehearsal tonight – tomorrow’s a holiday in the States – I’ve already figured out the WiFi password.

I hadn’t spent much time in East Vancouver before. So I’ve had to reorient myself with new coffee shops, ATMs, and travel routes. Last weekend Siri took me through the suburbs and past the mall at Guildford Towne Square. You’d think by now Siri would know to pick a gayer route.

Then Siri and I had a "HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey" moment. I’d punched in an East Vancouver address that turned out to be in one of those cul-de-sacked neighbourhoods abutting the rail line. Understandably, I missed a poorly marked intersection. 

You know those judgmental messages you get when you don’t follow Siri’s directions? “Recalculating … Return to the route.” 

After a couple more erroneous turns, however, Siri decided it was time to change tactics. Instead of the nagging complaints, Siri became patronizing: “Ok, in 90 feet turn right. Now in 30 feet turn right. Good boy….” 

The rest of the day, Siri was all over me. But in a patient parental way. And I realized we’ve both learned to use the same soothing tone with our frustrated charges.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Trim the Beard?

“Roger’s annual Xmas beard” is actually spin for “Roger is too lazy to shave every day.” 

After law school I had the kind of jobs where everything shuts down for two weeks over the holidays. This is one of the few instances where being a litigation attorney is better than being a transactional attorney:  judges and trial lawyers collectively plan vacations for the end of the year. Meanwhile, transactional attorneys have to scramble to close all their deals by New Year’s Eve. 

Each year I would stop working, and stop shaving, shortly before Christmas. Often my beard barely lasted the two weeks of winter break. A couple of times I made it to March without shaving. Two years ago I met my goal of Groundhog’s Day before the itchiness drove me crazy. After more than two decades, the annual beard has become a combination time-lapse photographic record / sociology experiment. 

My beard wasn’t always so white. I blame the children. As usual.

This was my first beard to stick around past January. Baby Hugo is currently a sophomore in college.

That year the beard atypically survived all the way until October. In hindsight, my insightful physician Dr. Heuristic would probably blame my codependency. When I met my Chicago boyfriend in spring that year, I still had the holiday beard. Once we started dating, I didn’t dare shave it off because he would have seen how hideous I am underneath. 

As soon as he dumped me that fall, however, I shaved my beard off. I also went from 150 to 125 pounds in less than a month. Stress is slimming.

Last year the beard endured all the way from Christmas to my birthday in May. I shaved it off because a summer beard would be too hot. And I didn’t want a tan line.

Even though I usually don't like facial hair on other guys, I've decided it works for me. When you’re basically chinless, a beard is a useful framing device for your round face. (Apparently, like everything else, Shakespeare figured this out much earlier in his writing career.) Once you get past that prickly initial phase, beards are nice and soft. You soon appreciate the freedom from shaving every day. And the best thing about growing my own beard is I don’t have to look at it.

Rather than wait for the holidays, this year I started the beard in September. It’s okay to wear white after Labor Day.

Some might say the early beard is another symptom of depression:  I lost my judicial election, there are no job interviews on the horizon, I’m broke, no one ever calls, life sucks…. Why bother shaving? On the other hand, I’ve already identified some of the benefits of a beard:  it’s soft and warm, it disguises my “chin,” and I save all that time shaving. 

In addition, a beard can be a useful marketing tool. Even though in my mind I look like a bohemian grad student, in reality I’m a middle-aged dad who drives a minivan. It’s time to embrace my true identity. 

In an early blog post, “Massaging Numbers,” I discussed last year’s New York magazine cover story about a recent trove of revealing demographic data. The authors concluded “Pornhub is the Kinsey Report of Our Times.” On the occasion of its tenth anniversary, the porn-aggregating website released fascinating viewer and search statistics. It turns out “Daddy” is one of the most popular porn categories, ranking below “Big Dick” but ahead of “Interracial” and “Twink.” And compared to straight porn, gay porn viewers are almost three times more likely to search for “daddy.” 

As I’ve written before, my most visible PTSD symptom is trichotillomania – compulsive hair pulling. I’m pretty lucky compared to many other sufferers. Even though it’s painful and distracting, the impact of my handiwork is not particularly noticeable to observers. And I can often divert my hands by fiddling with “fuzzy” and “unfuzzy” things. (The unfuzzy thing pictured above is an industrial sample from the innards of a Purple mattress.)

For whatever reason, even though it involves both hands, my trichotillomania currently targets only the right side of my forehead. (My right, not the viewer’s.) Because I’m balding anyway, you probably can’t tell the difference between the scrub fuzz on my left, and the clear-cut on my right.

Recently I’ve endured a particularly virulent bout of picking. Not to enter gross territory, but blood is involved. Worsening symptoms are a predictable consequence of a few additional stressors in my life. Nevertheless, some of the extra hair-pulling actually comes from increased productivity – when you’re sitting at the computer writing you have to keep your hands free. My forehead is throbbing as I type this sentence.

If you look closely at my recent selfie at the Peace Arch, you can see what happens when someone rubs one side of his forehead too energetically. My receding hairline is now frozen in a backwards swoosh, like a pathetic misplaced pompadour. Unless I remember to check the mirror before I go outside, I look like I have a cartoon haircut.

One final benefit of the beard:  it counts as a fuzzy thing. The beard creates a diversion from my forehead, giving my hands an alternative target to unconsciously rat and tease. This is what I look like at the end of the day:

So should I trim the beard, or keep growing it longer? The additional fuzz gives my hands something to fiddle with, and helps preserve my dwindling supply of unfuzzy things. On the other hand, I’m not sure “Crazed Mountain Man” is part of the “Hot Dad” palette.


"Unfuzzy Things" (8/12/18)

"Shaving the Beard" (5/10/18)

"Keep the Beard?" (2/10/18)

"More Fuzzy Things" (7/15/17)

"Fuzzy Things" (6/25/17)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Growing Up with the Chorus

My daughter is a Drama Queen.

Last year Eleanor performed in the annual middle school play together with her best friend, who is the only child of doting academics. They are the kind of parents who enthusiastically support their daughter’s drama bug. During intermission, I asked the couple if they would have kept having children until they got one who liked theater. 

Fortunately, I didn’t need to find out for myself. Eleanor has been performing since she was two. Not that I’m a stage father, but everything should be coming up Roger by now.

Unfortunately, my daughter is also a Drama Queen in the metaphorical sense. She’s a mistress of the sarcastic eye-roll and the distraught overreaction, and suffers from chronic hypochondria. Of course, she’s also the child who had emergency surgery when she was one month old, and who was helicoptered back to Seattle Children’s Hospital six years later.

Having a father who sings in a gay chorus didn’t make Eleanor a Drama Queen. But it probably helped.

When Eleanor was a year old, she accompanied the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus on our “Rocky Mountain” tour to Pocatello, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; Billings, Montana; and Yellowstone, Wyoming. That’s her on the boardwalk at Old Faithful.

I was on the chorus board of directors fifteen years ago when we created the women’s chorus. Several years later, I asked SMC's longtime conductor Dennis Coleman what he found to be the biggest contrast between the two groups. I expected an insight about the essential differences between men and women, or the differing social dynamic when the queer/straight ratio is closer to 60/40 than 95/5. So I was surprised by Dennis’ answer: the biggest disparities between the cultures of each ensemble came from the fact that so many of the women are part of families with children at home.

Although several members of Vancouver Men’s Chorus have kids from youthful heterosexual marriages, I’m the only singer who is currently raising young children as a gay man. Everyone in VMC has welcomed my children as they’ve shown up for the occasional rehearsal. The “guncle” role comes naturally to many singers. Others are more like me when I meet a cute dog – I smile and say hi, but my allergies prevent any actual physical contact.  

During my time with Seattle Men’s Chorus we reached a critical mass of fathers, even as we also welcomed a generation of bi, straight, and trans singers. Gay dads still make up a small minority of SMC. But we represent an important part of the community’s evolution. 

I’ve been dragging all three of my kids to chorus concerts for their entire lives. For many years, Rosalind refused to believe there were men beneath the lavish drag outfits. 

Eleanor was always the one who looked forward to the concerts. She listened attentively and remembered the names of all my chorus friends. When she was seven or eight years old, Eleanor became entranced with one of the singers who was featured in the dance ensemble for several concerts in a row. Like Eleanor herself, he had an inviting face and an enthusiastic smile.

For my first Christmas concert with Vancouver Men’s Chorus, I bought tickets for my whole family. I watched from the stage as my father, Rosalind, and Oliver all fell asleep during the singing. Now I only get tickets for my mother and Eleanor.

Parents love all their children equally, but you develop a distinctive relationship with each child. As I wrote last year in “Love is Not a Fallacy,” each of my kids can make an argument that one of the others is Papa’s “favorite.” Rosalind is the only one who will ride roller coasters with me, and she’ll probably be the one who takes care of me in my declining years. Oliver’s video game skills and direction sense will make him invaluable during the Zombie Apocalypse.

Eleanor is my go-to theatre date. This was particularly useful when we still lived in Seattle and I had a pair of season ticket subscriptions to the 5th Avenue, the Paramount, ACT, etc. Because of my congenital inability to ask anyone out on a real date, Eleanor got to accompany me to a lot of shows.

Above the bookcases in our living room you will find my collection of theater programs. Many, many theater programs. Mine fill fifteen magazine storage boxes. As I wrote last month in “Six Degrees of Kristen Chenoweth,” I’ve been doing this for a while.

Eleanor is only thirteen, but she’s almost filled her first box of programs: Peter and the Star CatcherMama MiaLittle Shop of HorrorsHairspray, Oliver!.... Eleanor came with me when I braved the Seattle traffic to to see SMC: Everything Broadway. For her ninth birthday, we took the train to Vancouver to see Wicked at the Queen E. And when Glinda/local heroine Megan Hilty sang with SMC, Eleanor snuck backstage at Benaroya Hall to meet her.  

One of my daughter’s most prized possessions is a framed poster from Seattle Women’s Chorus’ sold-out Spring 2015 concert “Reel Women.” The poster is signed by Dennis Coleman and the women of the chorus.

The theme of that year’s SWC concert was women in film. Their set of Disney songs included a skit where a mother pulled out a stack of VHS tapes to play favorite movies for her daughter, including Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

Nine-year-old Eleanor successfully auditioned for the daughter role. Eleanor explained to her lesbian “mother” and the audience about the new generation of empowered Disney princesses. These days girls have better things to do than sit around and wait for Prince Charming.

Now we live in a small town, I’m unemployed, and Eleanor is an annoying teenager. Compared to when I was a lawyer in Seattle, we don’t have nearly as many opportunities to go see shows together. 

At least the kids are finally old enough to tend themselves on a Saturday evening. Indeed, as long as there’s food and wi-fi in the house, my children would prefer that I stay out of their hair. 

As I recently wrote in “What Happens at Retreat,” for the last seven years Seattle Men’s Chorus has held its annual out-of-town retreat at the Bellingham Sheraton, just across the freeway from us. Last weekend I joined my longtime chorus buddies for Mexican food, UW football, and the notorious “No Talent Show.”

When I left to watch college football and then naked boys singing, this was the brief exchange with my daughter: 

        ELEANOR:        Where are you going?

         PAPA:                To the Seattle Men's Chorus retreat.

         ELEANOR:        Will that dancer guy be there?

         PAPA:                I don’t know.

         ELEANOR:        When will you be home?

         PAPA:                I’m not sure. The No Talent Show should end by 11. Or I’ll be home later if I have a drink with the boys.

         ELEANOR:        You should stay for a drink.

After the Huskies defeated Stanford, my SMC buddies and I left their wine-spattered hotel room to go mingle with the crowd in the ballroom. As the lights went down, I texted Eleanor a picture from this year’s No Talent Show, with this note:

“Your chorus crush Aaron is one of the drag MCs.”

Eleanor still hasn’t responded to my text.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Inside Out

How do you pick a favourite Pixar movie? They speak to so many different parts of ourselves. But if you happen to be obsessed with how brains work (rather than with fatherhood or art, at least this week), you probably should choose Inside Out.

As a person living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Inside Out helps me explain the long-term impact of trauma. Experiences create memories. (In the movie, coloured glass globes represent individual memories.) Our brains automatically process, sort, select, and store memories for potential retrieval later. The interaction of our feelings, thoughts, and sensory experiences constantly updates the complex array of our stored memories.

Inside Out shows how memories of trauma can be painfully powerful. Sometimes traumatic memories are repressed or twisted in ways whose impact may not become apparent until years later. When you encounter a triggering stimulus that your brain associates with the poorly-processed-and-stored traumatic memory, whole systems can go haywire.

Inside Out also introduced a second important part of our model of how the brain works: modules. The film represents this concept by placing the brain’s control panel in the hands of five competing colour-coordinated emotions: Fear, Joy, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. 

Specific structures and neural networks in your brain are associated with particular emotions. Neurobiologists have identified priming effects that correspond to each of these brain areas, such as the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, insular cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex. Both our perceptions and our actions will depend on which of these modules is activated at any given time. This process happens much faster than we can possibly be consciously aware of, let alone choose to act deliberately.

Inside Out shows the power of particular brain modules. When activated, each specific module directly affects not only what we remember, but also how we think and make decisions.

Fear is associated with the area of the brain called the amygdala. The name is Greek for “almond,” which is what primitive dissectionists thought the structure resembles. The amygdala is part of our brain’s ancient “fight or flight” impulse, and tiggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol.

Humans ordinarily are “loss averse” – more afraid of losing what we have than excited by the prospect of a potential gain. Damaging the amygdala removes that bias. As social animals, we are also programmed to automatically divide the world into “Us” and “Them.” Destruction of the amygdala results in treating everyone as part of “Us.”

Joy corresponds to our dopamine system, which bathes our brains with bliss-inducing chemicals. It appears to be centered in the nucleus accumbens.

Multiple stimuli can activate the dopamine system: sugar, sex, religious ecstasy, exercise, flow, love, most interesting drugs, etc. Choose your poison. Then enjoy gazing at a rose-coloured world.

But only for a little while. Unfortunately, most pleasures are fleeting. In fact, according to biologist/philosopher Robert Wright, “pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure.”   

Like fear, Anger is processed by the brain’s evolutionarily ancient limbic system, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus. Anger is more sophisticated than fear. And more social.

As Wright observes, “you can see why natural selection would have made righteous rage attractive: in a small hunter-gatherer village, if someone took advantage of you – stole your food, stole your mate, or just generally treated you like dirt – you needed to teach him a lesson. After all, if he learns he can get away with abusing you, he may do it again and again. Worse still, others in your social universe will see that you can be thus exploited, so they may start treating you badly.”

Although a “desire to punish people who treat you unfairly or show you disrespect is deeply human,” our anger impulse is less adaptive in a contemporary setting, where we regularly interact with complete strangers. “Road rage” demonstrates “the absurdity of the way this feeling can play out on a modern highway.”

As the parent of two thirteen-year-old girls and a ten-year-old boy, I can attest that humans are born with a burning sense of injustice. And a hair-trigger. 

Disgust, which involves another reptilian connection between mind and emotion, is centered in your insular cortex. As with other animals, our brains have a prudently negative reaction when exposed to unhealthy tastes or smells. 

With humans, disgust also acts metaphorically. The same brain structures light up when we’re exposed to homeless people, drug addicts, or others with low social status. Interestingly, scientists have demonstrated that social disgust is only triggered by real people, and not by computer simulations.

Wacky academics keep designing new experiments to gauge the effects of various stimuli. For example, if you put people in a room with smelly garbage, they become more socially conservative.

I started this essay months ago, but I got stuck trying to write about Sadness. 

My life is depressing. Some days when the kids are gone I can't get out of bed, let alone write. More importantly, I didn’t want to characterize this emotion as a mere negative – an insufficient supply of dopamine. To the contrary, the complex relationship between Sadness and Joy is at the center of the movie Inside Out.  

Then at my friend Henry’s suggestion I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Sapolsky is an excellent writer, and he does an amazing job of explaining brain function and its relationship to other physiological and social processes. Behave starts at the level of the individual neuron, and telescopes out to address neural networks, brain modules, hormones, developmental biology, genetics, cultural transmission, and natural selection. 

Sapolsky discusses the role of the brain’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex region. The ACC monitors our internal and external environments for any discrepancies with our expectations. The ACC not only identifies “unexpected pain,” but it also helps us process the "meaning of pain." For example, major depression is linked to ACC dysfunction. 

Significantly, the ACC also plays a key part in a uniquely human trait: empathy. Observing and understanding pain – ourselves’ and others’ – apparently is essential to our shared humanity.

According to Robert Wright, “the original function of good feelings and bad feelings was to get organisms to approach things or avoid things that are, respectively, good for them or bad for them.” As a result, “natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.”

Wright’s most recent book is called Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Wright discusses how traditional Buddhist meditative practices can help us learn to overcome the impact of emotion and bias and see the world more clearly, including ourselves. But he probably could have written a book called Why the Christian Gospels are True, or Why Mindfulness is True. Or the Golden Rule, or Humanism, or Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Each of these great moral guides has a shared message: See clearly, unclouded by the effects of emotion. Then then treat everyone, including yourself, equally and with equanimity.

So if you want to become a good person, all you need to do is to stop letting strong emotions grab your brain’s control panel. How hard can that be?