Sunday, December 30, 2018

Parental Superpowers

Children expect their parents to know where everything is. Yet they're amazed when we usually do.

This week my daughter Rosalind asked me to locate an object she herself last used:  her favorite scissors. 

She’d been wrapping presents at the dining room table that afternoon. While setting the table for dinner, the house’s magic cleaning elf moved Rosalind’s scissors eighteen inches north by northwest, to the corner of the buffet. Next to the other ingredients from her unfinished craft project. 

There the pink-handled scissors prominently remained when Rosalind returned to the table to consume the delicious Trader Joe’s pasta she’d ordered from the house elf. The scissors still were there later that evening as she ate the Tillimook Special Edition "Pacific Northwest Apple Cider" ice cream he dished up for her dessert. (The house elf is waiting for Harry Potter to lead an intervention with his children about the ungrateful working conditions here.) 

After playing some after-dinner Minecraft in her room, Rosalind wanted to continue the gift-wrapping project. But she couldn’t find her scissors. She called on Papa for assistance.

I summoned Rosalind to my side, and pointed across the dining room table with my best Ghost-of-Christmas-Future finger extension. (The dramatic gesture was wasted, of course. My Drama Queen daughter Eleanor was away at a sleepover.)

Papa:               “That’s the first place I’d look.”

Rosalind:         “That’s the last place I’d look.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Inclusive Language

As a person living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I'm triggered by all the people claiming to be "triggered" when they're merely offended. 

Actually, I’m usually just offended myself by their imprecise language. It demeans people with PTSD, and/or culturally appropriates our experience. Their insensitivity can be upsetting. Nevertheless, we all have to deal with upsetting things in life – even ten-year-old video gamers and people with PTSD.

On the other hand, it’s possible the specific words someone uses when claiming to be “triggered” might just happen to push my buttons and trigger debilitating PTSD symptoms – presumably because of the relationship between their words and the youthful traumas I endured at the hands of anti-gay Mormons. Or because the speaker resembles my bishop at BYU. I mean, it’s  theoretically possible.

I’m reminded of the classic gender guide for choosing toys:

A similar proportion of the snowflake/free speech debate involves language that is triggering in and of itself. Rather than merely upsetting or otherwise offensive.

Nevertheless, language is a powerful tool. With great power you should be able to expect great responsibility. 

P.G. Wodehouse is the greatest comic English novelist of the twentieth century. (Don’t argue with me, I have PTSD.) 

Unlike my daughter Eleanor, I binge on good books instead of cheesy TV series. Topping off the well of Wodehouse at Bellingham Public Library, which I have now drained, my parents recently gave me a three-volume book of Jeeves & Wooster novels and short stories. 

One of the stories in the collection came from early in the last century, and early in the Wodehouse oeuvre. It included one instance of the word “nigger.” The word was used thoughtlessly rather than as a matter of writerly art, as far as I could tell. Nevertheless, no one should be offended to learn my personal library includes an otherwise exemplary text that is nevertheless representative of its time and place. 

In the same collection I came upon versions of the following metaphorical expression four times: “That’s awfully white of you,” meaning “That’s awfully good of you.” In my short theatrical career in Utah, I encountered the same phrase in the script for Kiss and Tell, a comedy set during World War II. We changed the line. (FYI, I played the handsome hero’s nerdy best friend. As usual.) 

Whether you’re in 1986 or 2018, the phrase feels wrong. A “white” = “good” metaphor is no longer part of our shared English language. At least not quite so directly.

When I was in law school, I joined the Yale Gilbert & Sullivan Society, where I sang in the choruses of H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience, Pirates of Penzance, and Ruddigore. Some might call membership in the Yale Gilbert & Sullivan Society a clue to one’s eventual sexual orientation. Like excessively groomed eyebrows.

In addition to channeling my proto-gay-men’s-chorus urges, doing theater at Yale gave me the opportunity to socialize with folks outside the law school. Participants came from all over the university. For example, our divinity student choreographer is now the thirteenth Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island. 

At a cast party my first year, the wild G&S crowd at Yale introduced me to a term I’d never heard at caffeine-and-alcohol-free Brigham Young University:  “girl-ing your beer.”

Admit it. You know what the phrase means. Certain people, and I’m not saying who, have a tendency to open a beverage and then leave it on some surface undrunk. Repeatedly.

This fall we observed a sudden increase in this same phenomenon at our house. Particularly abandoned cans of Diet Coke. All fingers immediately pointed to Eleanor. Her fingers most dramatically.

After a brief period of observation, I realized something more was going on than my daughter’s usual combination of hoarding, absent-mindedness, and casual privilege. It turns out they have a fancy new coffee-maker over the hill at my ex’s house. Teen-aged Eleanor has become addicted to a splash of coffee before school. During the weeks when the kids are with me, she gets her morning fix from a demitasse of Diet Coke.

I told Eleanor the story of gender-correlated alcohol consumption patterns at Yale. We agreed it’s best to avoid sexist language. And I suggested she work on her carbon footprint.

The other day, Eleanor came home from school and went straight to the fridge. She retrieved that morning’s mostly-full can of Diet Coke with this proud announcement:

“Look, Papa, I didn’t ‘Eleanor’ my drink!”

In our house, at least, one may refer to this reprehensible practice as “Eleanor-ing” without being accused of sexism.

Language is filled with hidden historical prejudices. For example, there are linguistic purists who won’t use the word “dilapidated” to refer to run-down wooden buildings, because they know the word’s Latin root “lapid” means “stone,” not “wood.”

Similarly, “dexterous” means “showing or having skill, especially with the hands,” while “sinister” means “evil or criminal.” The two words come from Latin roots with opposite meanings:  “dexter” means right handed, while “sinister” means left handed. 

As we paddle down the river of a language’s evolution, most of the baggage washes away. Today’s English speakers are unaware that our vocabulary subliminally reinforces rightie hegemony. I’ve never heard a right-hander use either “dexterous” or “sinister” for the purpose of encoding his supremacy. (Obviously we’re talking about a “his,” rather than a “her” or a “their.” Supremacy is involved.)

Now that I’ve let the right-handed cat out of the bag, no doubt we can expect an outpouring of feedback from outraged left-handers. Remember, “offended” is not the same as “triggered.”

Which brings us, at long last, to my real question today. What do we talk about when we talk about lunacy?

Sometimes I consciously apply words like “crazy” to myself in ostentatious air quotes, just to annoy my mother. She's convinced I’m not even trying to find a real job. Or I hint that PTSD caused me to be late for chorus rehearsal. Really I just lost track of time while writing at some coffee shop – but I worry folks will get suspicious if I overuse my usual excuses, i.e., kids, border, and/or traffic.

The other day I noticed the phrase “driving me crazy” in a sentence I’d written months ago about the itchiness of facial hair. Other blog posts similarly mention things like going “stir crazy,” or hearing “maddening” noises. Most of these references don’t come up in a discussion of mental illness itself. Instead, I consciously and unconsciously use the colorful language of Bedlam for its metaphorical effect. These words are part of the English language that's wired into my brain.

Every three years, lawyers in Washington have to report that they’ve attended 45 hours of Continuing Legal Education. Because I’ve been working at home instead of at some cushy firm, for the first time in my career I find myself up against the deadline. I still have another 16 hours of coursework to go before New Years Eve. 

To finish my CLE requirements, I bought the cheapest possible video lectures online. They’re taped in a conference room in New Jersey. Each of the presenters is dreadful, but in his or her own uniquely dreadful way. The Fifth Amendment speaker read her entire printed text. Slowly, in a monotonous drone. The employment discrimination instructor could barely speak through her bronchitis. The sports law guy managed to make “Boxing Law” utterly boring. And so on….

This morning I watched a generic legal ethics presentation, describing the usual parade of horrifying exemplars of the profession. In one case, the disgraced lawyer spent a year in prison after going on a 45 minute spree where he assaulted his ex and trashed her apartment. The question was how long state regulators should suspend his law license for – sixty days, six months, or three years? 

In describing the factual background and potential mitigating or aggravating factors, the instructor mentioned that after the incident, the lawyer went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with anger management issues. I don’t have an opinion about the case – the instructor was primarily using it as an example of how legal regulators vary widely in their sanctions. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard a lawyer cynically suggest mental health diagnoses are a gimmick to game the system. Indeed, much of the pernicious early case law undercutting the Americans with Disabilities Act involves judges who can barely disguise their hostility to claimants suffering from mental rather than “physical” impairments. 

I have no objection to folks appropriating the language of craziness to describe the world – particularly these days, when the world seems so deranged. As long as you remember mental illness is real. And not just a metaphor.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Confirmation Bias

Stories make sense of the world.

Being human compels us to find patterns. Or make patterns. And then to make sense of the patterns. Or at least to have fun arguments about them. For some of us, it is this obsession with patterns – logomania itself – that matters in the end, much more than our quibbles over where the impulse originally came from, or even what it inspires us to do. God, natural selection, chance, fate, delusion – the fact that we are all searching for meaning must mean something.

Unfortunately, sometimes the stories we tell ourselves take on a life of their own, increasingly untethered from real world evidence.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman observes “The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way.” As new sensory input connects to your existing memories and beliefs, your subconscious mind strives to maintain a coherent model of the world around us.

Unconscious assumptions and even stereotypes are not necessarily bad – they’re how our busy brains operate without exploding. The challenge is to recognize and overcome any implicit bias or cognitive fallacies that come between you and the truth. Ordinarily that involves tweaking your mental model around the edges. However, sometimes you’re due for a paradigm shift. 

Regional Services Division Chief Michael Shinn has the hardest job at the Washington Attorney General’s Office. 

Division Chiefs are the primary managers at the AGO, with responsibility for hiring decisions, budgets, etc. Most divisions are organized around substantive areas of the law, from Agriculture & Health to Utilities & Transportation. Twenty-seven of the AGO’s twenty-eight divisions consist of a cohesive and manageable cohort of lawyers, mostly housed together.

The AGO’s Regional Services Division gets whatever’s left over. The Division has seven small offices located in every corner of the state, from Port Angeles to Kennewick. Michael himself is inconveniently based in Vancouver, Washington (“the wrong Vancouver”), across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. 

Most Regional Services Division lawyers handle unglamorous high-volume cases in local courts, involving things like foster placements, the termination of parental rights, and worker’s compensation. These attorneys also answer routine questions for state agencies with a local presence. However, more substantive legal questions are generally referred to one of the specialized divisions at AGO headquarters. 

The general counsels of the state’s smaller four-year universities are part of the AGO’s Education Division, and report to the Education Division Chief. The two universities that are larger than Western Washington University – Washington State University and the University of Washington – each has its own dedicated AGO Division, with the Division Chief serving as the university’s general counsel. In a historical anomaly, WWU’s general counsel is stranded in the Regional Services Division.

Michael would be the first to describe himself as a plodding and methodical, “by the book” kind of guy. His overreliance on bureaucratic principles is probably inevitable as he struggles to manage a scattered empire of misfit toys. The Regional Services Division can seem like an example of bureaucracy for its own sake, like the fictional “Department of Administrative Affairs” in the classic BBC comedy Yes, Minister. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Michael and his colleagues broke the law and injured my family. But it’s part of the explanation of how things went wrong.

When WWU’s longtime general counsel retired after thirty years on the job, she left huge shoes to fill. In particular, the gaping hole at the university was not easily plugged with the resources of the catch-all Regional Services Division.

Three years ago, everyone rejoiced when the general counsel role at WWU opened up at exactly the same time as a Yale Law School graduate with a distinguished and varied legal career was looking for job opportunities near his family in Bellingham.

This is what Michael Shinn wrote in his letter introducing me to WWU’s President:

Roger is an experienced attorney who is joining the Attorney General’s Office specifically for this assignment. Roger was admitted to practice in Washington in 1990. Roger spent seventeen years in private practice in Seattle from 1990 to 2015, most recently at Davis Wright Tremaine, where he worked from 2002 to 2015 and was a partner from 2011 to 2015. In addition, Roger worked at the ACLU of Illinois from 1995 to 2000. Roger has extensive litigation and appellate experience which has included many of the substantive areas that arise at universities, including public records, contracts, employment, and civil rights. He has also acted as a generalist in litigation, and demonstrated a high capacity for learning a wide variety of legal areas. We believe this experience and these abilities make Roger well qualified for this role. 

Roger received his J.D. from Yale Law School, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brigham Young University. Among other service work that Roger has performed, he was a member of the Washington State Bar Association Board of Governors from 2009-2012. 

We are pleased to have Roger join the Attorney General’s Office and to step into this general counsel role. We believe that Roger fits the criteria that our office sought for this position well, and that he will meet the criteria that you discussed with us when we met in April. 

As Division Chief, Michael was involved in most of the AGO’s bad decisions that ruined my life. But I’m going to focus on one example.

After I’d been at the university for a few weeks, I had an encounter with my novice team leader that triggered strange new anxiety symptoms. They were much worse than I’d ever experienced in a lifetime of managing stress and depression. Eventually my insightful physician Dr. Heuristic  diagnosed me as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A specialized therapist helped identify how my symptoms were rooted in traumatic events I experienced thirty years before, when I was an overachieving, closeted gay Mormon missionary and student at Brigham Young University. One of the key triggers for my PTSD symptoms is a sense of powerlessness, repression, being silenced, or rendered invisible as I was in my youth. 

As I learned about my disability, I shared all this information with my supervisors. It only made things worse. After hearing about my strong reaction to my supervisor’s bungled coaching, Michael immediately leaped to the conclusion that I was a “bad fit” for the AGO. Michael also concluded it would be too disruptive to the State to get rid of me immediately. Instead, he directed his underlings to document their observations about my behavior. For the next nine months, Michael and his team acted as if they were oblivious to the reality of mental illness, as well as an employer’s legal obligation to accommodate disabled employees.

After I was fired, I requested copies of my file under Washington’s robust Public Records Act.
Reading through these documents months later was eye-opening. It reminded me of the East German experience after the Berlin Wall fell, when citizens got access the secret police’s files. Ordinary Germans discovered the Stasi maintained voluminous files about them based on their family members’ and neighbors’ spy reports. It’s shocking to see what people will say and do to please those in authority. 

Eventually the AGO handed their collated criticisms to the outside investigator who was supposedly looking into my complaint about a homophobic workplace encounter. Instead, the investigator generated a wide-ranging character assassination that I never had the opportunity to rebut. No doubt everyone at the AGO patted themselves on the back for collaborating on such a brilliant piece of faux analysis. 

I recognize my own PTSD-addled actions contributed to serious miscommunications. I also did a terrible job of advocating for my rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Eventually I had the good sense to hire an experienced disability lawyer. But it was too late – Michael and the attorney designated to represent the AGO refused to talk to my employment attorney or to hear from my healthcare providers. They didn’t want any actual facts or law to interfere with their rush to judgment.

How did a bunch of pretty smart lawyers make such terrible mistakes? And how could an organization dedicated to justice and the rule of law violate its own supposed values?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret any new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs. Confirmation bias is a particularly powerful fallacy because it effects both our unconscious and conscious thinking. 

As I’ve previously discussed in various blog posts, 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. Thing 1 is fast and automatic, constantly multi-tasking as it retrieves memories and generates intuitions. In contrast, Thing 2 allocates our brains’ limited conscious attention to effortful mental tasks. 

Thing 1 is responsible for maintaining our brain’s working model of the world around us, which allows us to smoothly interact with everything from gravity to peer pressure. For the sake of efficiency, our brains rely on numerous mental shortcuts, including the presumption we shouldn’t adjust our current world view without a really good reason.

Thing 2 has the power to question and overcome our default biases – even though it usually prefers to lazily coast along with the information and assumptions it receives from Thing 1’s autopilot. Nevertheless, even when we intentionally engage Thing 2’s conscious reasoning process, confirmation bias still can lead us astray. As Kahneman observes, “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.” As a result, we only see what we expect to see.

The impact of confirmation bias is summarized in the Venn diagram at the beginning of this essay. Our brain gives great weight to factual evidence we encounter that confirms our existing beliefs. Unfortunately, we give similar weight to untrue things that also happen to confirm our beliefs. And we ignore, belittle, and undervalue all those pesky facts that contradict our assumptions. 

Confirmation bias is particularly pernicious when combined with other unreliable thought processes, such as authoritarianism, bureaucracy, and group think. Like our fierce tribal instinct, a default mode of confirmation bias can lead us astray in a complex modern world.

My Mormon ancestors crossed the prairie and the Rocky Mountains before the transcontinental railroad arrived in 1869. They rode in covered wagons or walked with handcarts. You can still see the wagon ruts marking the Mormon Pioneer Trail.

Such deeply-grooved furrows make the journey easier. But sometimes they take you to the wrong destination.

Why do our false stories make sense to us long after a reasonable person would have seen the light? 

“Roger is a bad fit for the AGO” is not a terrible explanation if you’re trying to make sense of the information available to Michael and his colleagues. Our brains rely on easy shortcuts because they usually work. Until they don’t.

On January 7, 2016, Michael summoned me to Seattle to receive my long-delayed performance evaluation. He began the meeting by reading from a secret list of my alleged offenses over the previous six months. Many involved matters I thought had been resolved directly with the affected individuals long ago. Some of his complaints included obvious factual errors where I had already corrected the record, apparently to no avail. Other items were new to me, including the homophobic incident that is the subject of my sexual orientation discrimination complaint, and additional examples of the AGO accommodating bigotry by State employees.  

After reading his catalogue, Michael repeatedly demanded that I acknowledge it reflected a “pattern of serious misjudgment.” He became frustrated when I refused to agree. Instead I objected to his inquisition. 

Yes, Michael, there was a pattern of serious misjudgment. Yours.   

I found this cartoon on a legal blog named “Persuasive Litigator,” in a post by Dr. Ken Boda-Bahm called “Fight Confirmation Bias: Consider the Opposite.” As Dr. Boda-Bahm points out, part of the power of confirmation bias is that it “protects and perpetuates itself.” We see this phenomenon with “fake news”: in the attempt to debunk a falsehood, often you merely reinforce the original lie in the minds of listeners. Asking jurors or listeners to be “fair and impartial” is not enough.

However, there’s one technique that has been proven to dispel confirmation bias: “consider the opposite.” Your brain’s Thing 2 may be lazy and easily duped, but it’s also capable of powerful higher-level thinking. When you consciously approach a problem with something like the scientific method – asking yourself how the evidence contradicts rather than supports your initial assumptions – you can overcome the effects of confirmation bias. 

Eighteen months after starting this blog, I now think of myself as a writer rather than as a lawyer. That’s good for both my writing and my mental health.

Lawyers are very like writers – they turn ideas into words, and vice versa. But most of the time lawyers primarily act as advocates for a particular outcome. As a result, lawyers are skilled at exploiting many of the fallacies that are hardwired into the human brain. 

Like other primates, humans are profoundly social animals. In particular, we’re deeply concerned about social status within our tribe. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright argues consciousness arose in human brains not to promote effective decision making, but rather for “image management” – the “hoarding of credit and sharing of blame.” Like Trump University, evolution taught us “shady accounting,” resulting in “a deep sense of justice slightly slanted toward the self.”

We are programmed to deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better. As Wright puts it, the “human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments.” Evolution could have designed us to prioritize finding the right answer. Instead, “like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth.”

Searching for the truth places you at a serious disadvantage in ordinary litigation. Lawyers are notorious for “gaslighting” their opponents by making things up on the spot, then acting like everyone else is crazy for raising questions. 

On the other hand, I’ve found some advantages to thinking like a writer rather than like a lawyer. My appeal briefs are much readable than the drivel produced by the insurance defense hacks hired by Ogden Murphy, Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®.” It’s not just the English major in me. It’s also the contrast in the types of arguments we make. Compare a diagram that puts the sun at the center of the solar system, and one that insists the sun, moon, and planets all revolve around the Earth. If I were a judge on the Court of Appeals, I’d rather spend my time reading my story, rather than trying to figure out Ogden Murphy’s incoherent legal arguments in favor of an unjust and incorrect result. 

A writer’s other advantage is that our primary goal is to convey the truth to the reader. That means we’re at much less risk of embarrassing “gotcha” moments. Sure, you make mistakes, which you acknowledge and learn from. But your essential story won't collapse under the weight of some newly discovered evidence that contradicts your previous short-sighted spin. (Unlike Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Guiliani as he peddles new lies on the Sunday morning talk shows each week.)

For example, one of the first things I wrote for this blog was a long open letter to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson describing my experiences at the AGO. After re-reading my "Dear Bob" letter eighteen months later, there’s nothing I would change other than simplifying some of the sentences. In fact, my open letter asked the reader to try exactly the kind of mental exercise that can dissipate the fog of confirmation bias. 

Here’s my answer to the rhetorical question “So why won’t I just shut up and go away?”:   

Let me propose a thought experiment. Assume for the sake of argument the people at all five links in the chain of command at the AGO between you were wrong, and I did not in fact leave behind a distinguished 25-year legal career only to become a boor with a fake disability. Assume the AGO created a new office structure for the Bellingham office without realizing it handicapped the role of university general counsel, then reflexively defended its poor management choices while refusing to communicate with me or my disability attorney about ways to ameliorate their impact on my health. Assume my novice “Team Leader” Kerena Higgins was not prepared to juggle the complicated roles of colleague, new lateral supervisor, and part-time university counsel, and that she intentionally and unintentionally triggered obvious PTSD symptoms, which were corroborated by multiple healthcare providers. Assume the Bellingham Section Chief was well intentioned but passive, and may have failed to communicate vital information about my disability to her superiors. Assume Michael Shinn is an over-extended middle manager with probably the hardest job at the AGO, who is intensely loyal to his longtime colleagues even when he lacks or ignores important information. Assume Deputy AG Christina Beusch is an arrogant and impetuous decision maker with a fierce devotion to the AGO that sometimes clouds her judgment. Assume the taxpayer-paid investigator from Ogden Murphy, under the direction of the AGO's top employment lawyer, falsely informed me his assignment was limited to sexual orientation discrimination issues. Assume this fiasco could have been averted if anyone along the way had the decency to call for a timeout – or had bothered to return my employment attorney’s phone calls. Assume that I provided indisputably exceptional legal services to my clients even under extraordinarily trying circumstances, yet received no gratitude, empathy, or compassion. Assume the AGO’s conduct in Fall 2015 caused strange new anxiety symptoms rooted in trauma that had been buried for thirty years, and the AGO’s and Ogden Murphy’s subsequent conduct caused further physical injuries and distress that continues today. And assume that my family, career, finances, and health have been irreparably harmed as a result.

Then re-read the Ogden Murphy Report. You will see that I was sandbagged. You will remark on the lack of any references to the witnesses and documents I identified, and the omission of any analysis of implicit bias and homophobia. You will marvel at the Report’s credulous recitation of third-hand hearsay as gospel. For example, does the State’s investigator really believe I told a group of university students and administrators that it’s okay for members of Generation X to use “phrases like ‘retard’” [sic]? Do you believe I said that? If nothing else, the purported quotation doesn’t sound like the words of a longtime civil rights lawyer who majored in English and has a special-needs adopted daughter who endured horrible trauma while in State foster care

If you read my tragic story with something other than the AGO’s skewed vision, you will recognize the documents and compilations they chose to rely on in your name are not reliable contemporaneous business records, but rather a self-serving and inept attempt to paper the file before firing an eminently qualified disabled gay single father. You will blush at the aggressively pro-AGO spin, and the jarring logical gaps. And you will know exactly where I am coming from. Even if you sincerely believe your representatives at the AGO and at your vendor Ogden Murphy are utterly without fault, which I doubt, you can understand why I am hell bent on telling my story, warts and all.  

Do you know what else is a tragedy? How the inept and xenophobic folks at the AGO still think their only mistake was hiring a well-qualified outsider to be WWU’s general counsel. That’s how much poisoned Kool-Ade they’ve all chugged together over the last three years.

As I was adding pictures to this essay, my daughter Eleanor looked over my shoulder and asked me if I’m finally getting a tattoo. I said I was still deciding between a bust of Shakespeare, my children’s names, and this blog’s motto:  e pur si muove.

Then I told Eleanor the story of the Italian phrase. Although a favorite since college, it’s taken on an even deeper meaning for me in the last few years. It’s what Galileo is reputed to have said when the Inquisition forced him to recant his belief that the earth moves around the sun. After confessing the then-Catholic dogma that the earth rests motionless at the center of the universe, Galileo supposedly muttered under his breath e pur si muove:  “It still moves.”

It only took 359 years, until the pontificate of John Paul II, before the Vatican finally admitted Galileo was right all along. As Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan, sometimes it takes a while to escape from clutches of confirmation bias.   

The inconceivable is obvious in hindsight. Eventually.

After each episode of Game of Thrones, the online magazine Slate asks “who is currently the worst person in Westeros?” “Westeros” is the fictional continent whose throne everyone is fighting over on HBO. “Western” is the shorthand everyone in Bellingham uses to refer to our community anchor, Western Washington University. My former employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office hired me to serve as Western’s chief legal advisor, then spent the next year abusing and discriminating against me. When I’d made enough progress with PTSD to share some of the stories about my experiences, I decided to borrow Slate’s framing device. Stay tuned to see who will ultimately be crowned as the Worst Person in Western-eros…. 

 Click here for other episodes of "Who is the Worst Person in Western-eros?"

Monday, December 17, 2018

Adoption Stories: Think of the Children

According to Facebook, my status ten years ago was “Roger is about to have twins.”

About the same time, the New York Times published an article under the headline “In Studies of Virtual Twins, Nature Wins Again.” Technically my daughters don’t meet researchers’ definition of “virtual twins,” although it’s a useful shorthand for their situation. Even though Rosalind and Eleanor were born just two weeks apart, they weren’t raised together during their first year of life.

Eleanor got a head start. She came to us after a providential referral from friends, in what our excellent family lawyer Raegan Rasnic described as the smoothest adoption she’d ever seen. I was in the delivery room to watch Eleanor’s birth. She’s been spoiled rotten by two gay dads ever since.

In contrast, Rosalind arrived in our family three and a half years later, from the Washington State foster system.

My daughter Rosalind gave me permission to share a little bit of her early history. She went into the foster system before she was a year old, after investigators from Child Protective Services found evidence of serious neglect. Next she spent over a year with a married heterosexual couple who’d been fostering needy children for many years.

All the State social workers loved these foster parents. They seemed so devoted to the various children placed in their home. Unfortunately, they had a rare but distinctive mental disorder:  "Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome." It’s seen in caregivers who fabricate or cause an illness or injury in a person under their care in order to win attention and praise for themselves.

1The related diagnosis of “Munchausen Syndrome” applies to individuals who repeatedly act as if they have a physical or mental disorder, after actually causing their own symptoms. Both disorders are named after an eighteen century German baron who told exaggerated stories about his military exploits.

Rosalind came to us with a file from Seattle Children’s Hospital that’s a foot thick. Doctors tested to see if she was deaf, blind, autistic, you name it. Rosalind also showed up in multiple emergency rooms with a suspicious pattern of bad health.

When the State finally took away her foster parents' license, the social workers placed Rosalind with another married heterosexual couple. They already had two biological children, a young boy and girl. I’ve seen a video clip of the family together for some holiday. Rosalind is awkwardly toddling around in a velvet dress.

After three or four months, Ozzie and Harriet handed Rosalind back to the State. She wasn’t perfect enough for their family. So, as with many challenging foster placements, the State’s desperate and over-extended social workers finally turned to the gays.

Rosalind’s birth name wasn’t a good fit for our family. She had a trendy modern name that was already being used by a male cousin. Instead, we looked for another distinctive name like “Eleanor” that would be old-fashioned but not weird, and represent strong women. As I wrote in “Adoption Stories: How Eleanor Got Her Middle Name,” the name “Rosalind” resonated with Rosalind Russell, who played the iconic Auntie Mame, as well as with the brilliant heroine of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Rosalind’s name is also a link to her past, because her original middle name was “Rose.” That meant we had to come up with another middle name. We chose “Grace.” When we met her as a gawky three-and-a-half-year-old, Rosalind’s new middle name was a little aspirational. But it also reflected our gratitude for the privilege of sharing a family. Now it captures her teenaged poise and charm.

grew up Mormon, and my ex comes from a family of Lutheran school teachers. Our daughter Eleanor has embraced the community at the local Lutheran church. Each year Eleanor looks forward to attending Lutheran summer camps in Idaho and Washington. 

In contrast, my other two children have not exhibited a religious bent. Recently I overheard Oliver telling one of his online video game teammates, “Heaven and hell are myths. When you die you just sleep forever.” 

I support all my children, regardless of their eschatology. [Ed. Note: Eschatology is "the branch of theology that is concerned with the end of the world or of humankind."] I promise I won’t disown anyone. Even if they turn out Mormon.

Recently I shared a comic anecdote from my Mormon mission in Korea thirty-five years ago. I’ve reached a healthy place where I appreciate the many good things my Mormon heritage gave me.

On the other hand, I remain outraged by some Mormon leaders’ recent homophobic statements, as well as by the church’s failure to acknowledge the harm caused by its prior actions. These evils include not only decades of hate speech over the pulpit and in private “worthiness” interviews, but also sins like subjecting gay BYU students to electroshock therapy, and illegally funneling tithing dollars into Proposition 8’s campaign against marriage equality in California.

Unlike the Mormons’ ban on ordaining blacks, finally lifted in 1978, the Mormon church’s anti-LGBT bias is no relic of the past. I'm living proof. Mormon church leaders not only caused my original trauma three decades ago, but they also helped trigger the strange new PTSD symptoms that disabled me three years ago.

In November 2015, just as I was struggling to understand my body’s debilitating reaction to a toxic work environment, news reports emerged of the Mormon church’s vindictive response to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings. Mormons don't believe in infant baptism. Instead, they place the “age of accountability” at eight years old. Getting baptized is a big deal for any Mormon child. Nevertheless, in November 2015, the church issued a policy denying baptism to all children of married gay couples. Just the legally married ones – not gay single dads or couples living in sin, as we used to call cohabitation.

In a Washington Post op-ed commentary about the new Mormon policy, my longtime civil rights colleague and former Utah neighbor Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called it "repugnant and deeply stigmatizing." Like Kate, I thought I had made my peace with the Mormons long ago. Nevertheless, family and friends remarked at my over-the-top reaction when news broke about the church's new baptism policy. Even after deleting all the original ranting, my own Facebook response at the time was pretty damning:

The Gospel of Matthew describes an occasion when Jesus’ disciples, like paparazzi-weary security guards, attempted to block a group of little children from coming to hear the Master. Jesus rebuked his own disciples, saying with uncharacteristic harshness that “whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." Matt. 18:6.

In their public statement defending the leaked policy of denying baptism to the children of married gay couples, the Mormon Church said “We regard same-sex marriage as a particularly grievous or particularly significant, serious kind of sin.” Because of this stance, they refuse to allow children with approving but married gay parents to follow Christ into the waters of baptism – out of a “desire to protect children in their innocence.” 

The ludicrousness of the assertion that a couple’s public affirmation of commitment to each other is a more grievous sin than murder, rape, or child abuse speaks for itself. In the face of Christ’s actual statements about children, it is breathtaking.

In “Adoption Stories: A Loving Christian Family,” I wrote about the married heterosexual woman who adopted a boy she didn’t want, so she could block the State from placing him with our gay family. This was not an isolated homophobic incident. Lawyers for the Catholic church are in court fighting for the right to exclude LGBT families from their taxpayer-funded foster services. Among the many horrors inflicted by the Trump Administration, their campaign against the transgender community stands out for its cruelty. But the appointment of patently unqualified and unapologetically homophobic federal judges may ultimately do the most harm to LGBTQ individuals and families. 

In their insidious Mormon-funded television commercials, the Prop 8 campaign urged voters to “Think of the Children.” The message of fear and hate was enough to narrowly pass Prop 8 in November 2008, even as California voters also embraced Barack Obama and hope.

The next time you hear someone argue “every child needs a heterosexual mother and father,” don’t “think of the children.” Think of my amazing daughter Rosalind.

Click here for more episodes of Adoption Stories.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Indoor Plumbing

Writing has been gushing out lately. Not just the stuff that shows up in my blog posts. Or even in my various book manuscripts and legal filings. Nowadays, every text or Facebook status has the potential to become a glittering bon mot.

Last week I wrote on this blog about my experiences crossing the border into Canada. Later that day, I sent a separate post to the Vancouver Men’s Chorus listserv describing a subsequent encounter with Canada Customs. It began with this elegantly carved sentence:

Yesterday I drove up together with Kyle, our cute college student usher who volunteered last night so Tyler and Matthew would know what it feels like to look old.

Everyone in the chorus knew exactly who I was talking about. Kyle’s fellow ushers Tyler and Matthew are charming and handsome on-leave Second Tenors. They joined VMC at the same time as me, so we’ve been part of the same loving cohort for three years now. They’re both 30something, but they look ageless, dahling. I’m the old one. 

Nevertheless, I recognize the shiniest gems have sharp edges. I heard the “gasp” emojis. It’s time to dial things back a notch. As I’ve warned my daughter Eleanor about both gymnastics and humor, you shouldn’t limit your routine solely to high or low difficulty moves. And you definitely want to nail all the really dangerous combinations.

On the other hand, I was touched by the response of one chorus friend who writes for a living. He gave that particular sentence its own heart emoji and a “savage lmao,” whatever that is. A writer knows a gem when he sees it.

Before anyone else starts ’shipping me with my occasional carpool buddy Kyle, let me tell you how he and I met. It was last winter, at Pumpjack, a gay bar in Vancouver’s Davie Village. Our mutual friend Basil introduced us. Basil is a baritone who knows absolutely everyone. He’s the only uber-extrovert I know who attempts to compete with Yogi. (Yogi is a First Tenor, so it’s not really a fair competition.)

Basil met Kyle at Whistler Gay Ski Week. I’m an introvert, so I don’t go to Gay Ski Week. Or Gay Anything Week, other than chorus festivals. Kyle is an introvert who can’t sing, but he works out and knows how to ski. 

Later that month, Basil invited Kyle to visit Vancouver. At Pumpjack after rehearsal, Basil introduced him to the Men of Vancouver Men’s Chorus. In our brief conversation at the bar, I discovered Kyle is from the Seattle area, but he goes to college in Bellingham. It turns out Kyle lives on the same street as me. On the next block.

Obviously, however, Kyle and I never run into each other in Bellingham. I’m a Townie.

Besides, as my parents are quick to point out, Kyle is too young for me. 

Here’s an actual social media conversation this week with another gay Millennial. As usual, witty banter is wasted on the youth:

Horny Stressed College Student:   Sup
Roger:        Shouldn’t you be studying for finals?
HSCS:         Yeah, but I don’t wanna.
Roger:        It’s not just you. The Internets are hopping.
HSCS:         Lol true. 
Roger:        Horny stressed college students.
HSCS:         That’s me
Roger:        I’ve given them up for Lent. And Advent. Year-round, actually.
HSCS:         Oh really now
Roger:        It turns out they’re too stressed for good sex. Er, I’ve heard.
HSCS:         I don’t think that’s true lol
Roger:        How do you know?
HSCS:         Based on me lol
Roger:        Exactly. Other than yourself, and masturbation shouldn’t count, how many horny stressed college students have you had sex with during finals week?
HSCS:         Zero lol
Roger:       Let’s just say I have access to more data. But nothing recent. I learned my lesson long ago.

Mental health has numerous unexpected benefits. 

For example, it can make you more resilient in the face of disaster. A couple of weeks ago, Yogi posted some bad news to Facebook:  XY, the Vancouver gay club that hosts a weekly sing-along piano bar on Wednesday nights after chorus rehearsal, is losing its lease at the end of the month. Don’t get me wrong, this is terrible news. But I’m handling it surprisingly well.

On Wednesday after the Vancouver Men’s Chorus concert, a raucous crowd walked down the street to sing showtunes on our penultimate evening together at XY. It was a bittersweet occasion. Yes, we’ll miss our little community. But it was good to see old friends. And everyone was in particularly fine voice (except the piano, which was inconveniently missing the C two octaves below middle C). 

Despite this handicap, the two pianists were on fire, each competitively working the crowd like a Wurlitzer. Frankly the balance was a little heavy on male voices, which made for a rich Russian chorus sound. At times it seemed like our favorite soprano Trish was belting out duets with forty attractive but unavailable men.

One of my favourite musical numbers has always been “Suddenly, Seymour,” from Little Shop of Horrors. I used to identify with nebbishy Seymour, played by my Canadian doppelganger Rick Moranis. Then three years ago my insightful physician Dr. Heuristic diagnosed me as suffering from serious codependency

I now recognized the many ways codependency infected my personal and professional relationships over the years. As Audrey sings to Seymour, 

Nobody ever treated me kindly
Daddy left early, Mama was poor
I'd meet a man and I'd follow him blindly
He'd snap his fingers, and me I'd say, "Sure." [Ed. Note: The word is pronounced “Shuah.”]

Among other things, mental health means learning to ignore men of all ages when they snap their fingers.

Last summer, when the Muse took a few weeks off, I observed that my favorite author Jane Duncan used a planting-and-harvesting metaphor for the writing process. 

Agricultural models don't work for me. Maybe it’s the fact that after four billion years of evolution, I’m the first Leishman not born on a farm. Instead, I’ve settled on hydraulic flow as my primary metaphor for how writing works.

Lately my mental health has improved so much that for the first time in my life I’m approaching something like “writing on tap.” (I’m knocking on wood as I type those words.)

The flow of writing still is not completely under control, of course.

For example, I know some of my essays are running a little long, including this one. I’ll try to post a few more cute kid pictures and brief anecdotes on Facebook, for all of you with attention-deficit disorder.

Nevertheless, I like the rhythm and structure of posting two blog essays each week. It’s a pace that leaves time and creativity for the rest of life, particularly when the kids are in my hair, or if Vancouver Men’s Chorus is performing. I may be an unemployed disabled single dad, but I feel like a New York Times op-ed writer.  

However, this week I opened the sluice and quietly flooded the market with some extra blog posts. It turns out I can’t leave essays in the final pre-publish vat for too long. I can’t resist obsessively tinkering. And eventually they begin to ferment.

The other reason I like hydraulic metaphors for the writing process is they resonate with the psychological concept of flow.

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 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.

According to Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemen, the intensely productive flow state is possible because “Flow neatly separates two forms of attention: concentration on the task and the deliberate control of attention.” 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.

As I wrote this fall, reading takes virtually all your brain capacity. But when you’re lost in a good book, you quickly achieve a pleasurable flow state. You lose track of time. And of everything else – like everyone in my extended family, while reading I’ve been known to conduct entire conversations that I have no recollection of afterwards.

I’ve reached a similar point with my writing. It’s not just the familiar “all-nighter” coping mechanism that kicks in whenever I absolutely must finish a particular project before the final deadline. Instead, now flow is happening at every stage of my writing, from brainstorming to copy editing. I can even bounce from project to project without losing momentum.

It’s like the arrival of indoor plumbing.

The problem with “flow” is that it messes with your sense of time.

Yes, I’ve been amazingly productive. For example, I wrote the entire 1,500 word essay “Backing Up” from scratch in the four hours between my final Geek Squad house call to my parents and my kids’ arrival home from school.  

On the other hand, I keep smugly thinking I’ve had an efficient little early morning writing session, only to realize that it’s already 3 pm and I still haven’t eaten or showered yet. 

The other day I tried an experiment. After emerging from flow, I estimated I’d written 2,500 words. According to Microsoft Word, the actual count was 4,735. I also guessed it had been three hours, but the clock said it was more like seven. Is that good or bad?  

I can’t tell. Math is hard. Much harder than writing these days.

Earlier this evening I wrote the following in my notebook:

Too much flow?  Keep burning my Trader Joe’s flatbread, feel like the timer goes off early.

Somewhere between 5 and 25 minutes later, the kitchen timer went off on my Brie en Croûte. I remember being vaguely aware of the buzzer. However, I so was busy tweaking the paragraph about Little Shop of Horrors, I can’t tell you exactly how long ago it was. 

Now I’m staring at the box and peeking in the oven as I try to figure out what the words “golden brown” really mean. Fortunately, I’m a writer. I’ve got this.