Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Maybe I Love Showtunes Too Much

Hockey season hasn’t started, but Wednesdays are already Showtune Night in Canada. The weekly sing-a-long piano bar is hosted by PumpJack, Vancouver’s best gay bar. Coincidentally, Vancouver Men's Chorus also holds its rehearsals on Wednesday evenings. So each week I have a pretext to stop by the PumpJack afterwards and sing along.

Usually two piano players alternate in leading the assembled throng's surprisingly harmonious singing. However, Kerry O’Donovan is currently out of town for a couple of weeks, so last Wednesday Sean Allen had to cover both shifts all night. 

Each musician is an excellent performer, but Sean is more of a rocker. I’m a Broadway fan myself, so Kerry is more likely to play my favourite songs. Ironically, Kerry is the straight one.

I told Sean if he ran out of showtunes he should go with music from the 1980s. He agreed that was excellent advice.

My friend Trish is one of the organizers of the weekly event. Trish likes Dear Evan Hansen too little, and Andrew Lloyd Webber too much. But she’s a lovely person and a stellar performer – even when singing selections by Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton. (Seriously, that’s the title that Queen Elizabeth gave to the smarmy composer. Including the pretentious hyphen.) 

Trish’s showstoppers have already appeared in this blog. Last Wednesday, Trish quietly began singing a song I didn’t immediately recognize. It’s from Come From Away. This recent Broadway musical is set in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, immediately after 9-11. When every commercial flight in North America was grounded for days, Gander’s gracious Canadian hosts welcomed thousands of stranded international travelers into their homes.

In Come From Away, the song “Me and the Sky” is sung by a female pilot – the kind of person we used to patronizingly call an “aviatrix.” Beverly Bass, the real-life model of the character, was the first female captain in the American Airlines fleet. The song describes her challenges and triumphs as she competed in a man’s world. I wept tears of joy as Trish reminded me how proud and happy I am to be the father of two amazing and empowered teenaged daughters. 

Afterwards I went over to tell Trish how much her singing had moved me. Trish thanked me for the compliment, and expressed sympathy for my new role as a permanent full time single dad. She asked if there was anything she could do to help. Trish knows it takes the Village People to raise a child.

Instead, I thanked Trish for her hard work reviving Vancouver’s weekly showtunes night after the original hosting bar closed last year. Nothing other than singing in Vancouver Men’s Chorus has brought me greater relief and joy over the last couple of years as I’ve endured a preposterous litany of plagues. Spending Wednesday nights in Vancouver makes the rest of the week in Bellingham just right.

On my way out of the bar and back to the real world, I thanked Trish for another lovely escape. I also asked her to tell Sean he’d done a great job playing the whole evening solo. Before I could stop her, Trish hugged me.

I had mixed emotions. In the past, no one other than blood or adoptive relatives could get that close to me without triggering an anxiety attack. People as far away as New Jersey were constantly invading my personal space. However, my mental health is much better these days. Ordinarily Trish is on the short list of people who are allowed to surprise me with a hug. 

I love Trish and showtunes, but I was also aware that….  I decided Trish could handle the truth. So I told her: 

“You’re the only person I let hug me all night. Unfortunately, that means you’re also the only person I potentially exposed to the infectious superbug MRSA.”

Monday, September 16, 2019


Although I’m an English Major, I seldom correct other people’s grammar. That would be rude.

Nevertheless, certain vocabulary errors are so grating I feel like I’m providing a public service by sharing my linguistic knowledge. For example, a “tenant” is a person who occupies property rented from a landlord. A “tenet” is an important belief, such as the fundamental articles of faith embraced by a religion or philosophy. Although both terms are descendants of the Latin word for "hold," nowadays "tenant" and "tenet" have nothing in common besides four Scrabble tiles. And the fact that too many people confuse them.

Here’s another pair of English words that are often confused:  An “epitaph” is what you inscribe on someone’s tombstone. An “epithet” is a descriptive word or phrase intended to capture the character of a person or thing. You don’t need to lift weights and then go to a graveyard in order to "hurl epithets" at someone. Unless you really meant to hurl epitaphs.

Epithets have been an important part of literature since classical times. Greek authors teased Homer about his habit of referring to every body of water as the “wine-dark sea.” The goddess of wisdom was “Bright-Eyed Athena.” Historians characterized various rulers with shorthand epithets like “Ivan the Great,” “Ivan the Terrible,” or "Vlad the Impaler."

In an age when storytelling was primarily oral, epithets helped speakers and listeners keep track of the cast of characters. Epithets also reinforced the connections between particular themes, while emphasizing contrasts with other characters or ideas. Like leitmotifs in music. Or coloured jerseys in sports.

In our era of digitized memes, epithets continue to create powerful mental connections. Donald Trump has successfully linked his perceived enemies to colourful phrases, such as the “failing New York Times,” “Crooked Hillary,” or the “Amazon Washington Post.” At least in the minds of certain Trump followers.  

During the 1980s, the late great magazine Spy demonstrated a particular gift for generating epithets. For example, Spy repeatedly referred to one unfortunate Vogue editor as "bosomy dirty book writer Shirley Lord." Most famously, the Donald still can’t shake Spy's label as “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump.”

In November 2015, my doctor diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My symptoms were triggered by recent events, but they were rooted in trauma that occurred thirty years ago. Unfortunately, my employers thoroughly bungled their response to my disability. 

My distress significantly increase after my employers hired a Seattle private investigator. He was supposed to look into my discrimination complaint challenging homophobic bias in the workplace. This investigator was the only lawyer dealing directly with me. He had the last clear chance to avert disaster. Instead, he lied to me, accommodated my employers' prejudices, and issued a report that clumsily attacked my character.

In response to both my improved mental health and to important developments in the litigation, recently I've posted various essays about my experiences as a participant in the legal system. I realize the law is not everybody’s cup of tea. For most nonlawyers, legal topics are boring and confusing. At best. You sane folks should click on the link to a blog post about brains, my children, or showtunes.

Nevertheless, I keep trying to figure out how to make my law-related writing clearer and more memorable. For example, after months of pondering, I’ve settled on an epithet for the Ogden Murphy Wallace firm and its partner Patrick Pearce, the supposedly “independent” private investigators I'm suing:  Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®.”

Words have power. Particularly people’s names.

One of my favourite authors is Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last year at age 88. She was a pioneering feminist and science fiction writer, as well as a awe-inspiring wordsmith and writing teacher. 

The first volume of Le Guin’s classic fantasy series, A Wizard of Earthsea, remains one of the fundamental touchstones of my worldview. It’s been almost five decades since I first encountered her boy-magician protagonist Ged, who was generally known by the nickname “Sparrowhawk.” Over the years, Le Guin continued the saga in five more novels and several short stories, including a final story about Ged’s last days that was published in the Paris Review shortly after Le Guin’s own death. 

In Le Guin’s imagined Earthsea, magic is intimately tied to language. Knowing something or someone’s real name gives you power over that thing or person. When an individual makes the passage into adulthood, a witch or magician whispers their true name to them. You would never reveal your name to anyone else, except perhaps your spouse and closest friends. Instead, the inhabitants of Earthsea go through life identified by their childhood use names or subsequent nicknames. Numerous philosophical and religious traditions, including my own Mormon one, likewise place great weight on names and naming.

When I lived in Chicago long ago, I was single, young, and kid-free. The gay dating scene was very different before its hostile takeover by smart phone apps. Things were more personal. I even had a sorta social life.

Many folks consider Chicago’s Sidetrack to be the best gay bar in the country, perhaps in the universe. Each night of the week features a lovingly curated mix of music and videos. As I wrote in one of my very earliest blog posts, Mondays have always been my favourite night at Sidetrack: all Showtunes, all night long. 

Every Monday night, I would meet my friend Charles. After downing an indeterminate number of the bar's potent purple slushie drinks, we would dissect my less-than-fabulous social life. On the TV screens in the background, a plus-sized woman from Dreamgirls belted about how we all were going to love her. Meanwhile Charles or I assigned each dubious gentleman in my life his own epithet:  Mormon Boy, Skinny Pharmacist, Evil Josh, Clunky Midwest Poster Child, Coffee Boys I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII…. 

Behind every name is a story. Each of these epithets also provided a convenient code in case the guy in question wandered through Sidetrack and overheard us.

Our naming tradition continued even after I moved back to Seattle and then to Bellingham. The unfolding story introduced new characters like Chorus Guy, Funeral Dude, White Aaron, Super Fuzzy Thing, Dark Roast, and my personal favourite epithet lately, Trailer Park Single Dad. Don’t ask.

As far as I recall, I’ve never acquired a nickname myself (other than briefly flirting with “Smiley” during my painful junior high year in Utah). Let me know if you’ve heard otherwise. Even better, let me know if you have any colourful suggestions for a brand-new epithet that captures my personality these days. 

Remember I'm fifty-five years old now. Avoid references to “Boy.” Extra points for the tasteful use of “DILF.”   

Friday, September 13, 2019


Word of the day: "furuncle."

No, it's not a term for a gay uncle who happens to be a bear or otter. It's actually the medical term for an underarm boil. I learned this in my continuing quest to endure each biblical plague, one by one.

When more than one boil merges under the skin, it's called a "carbuncle." I always thought the word carbuncle referred to a large red gemstone. Doctors are so poetic.

As I wrote in my previous blog post, I've been in an amazingly good mood this month. Even the boils weren't bothering me. 

On the other hand, the article I read on the internet said I should seek medical attention if my boil reached the size of a ping pong ball. I still was't in a rush, because the author wasn’t clear about whether I should measure an individual furuncle, or the whole carbuncle.

Then last week my daughter Eleanor became convinced she had a gaping wound that required plastic surgery. To humour her, and because boils were beginning to spread all the way down my side, we decided to visit Dr. Practical at the same-day clinic together.

This was my first joint medical appointment with my daughter. The nurses loved our witty banter, and said we should go on the road as a comedy duo.

I’m not accusing anyone of being a hypochondriac. But guess who got another round of industrial-strength antibiotics, and who got a pat on the head and sent back to school?

My daughter's favourite TV show is Grey's Anatomy. She's binged watched all fifteen seasons. Multiple times. Eleanor is also very succeptible to suggestion. So her mind and body keep leading us back to Dr. Practical's walk-in clinic.

Nevertheless, even a stopped clock is right once or twice a day. For example, several years ago, Eleanor was helicoptered from Whidbey Island General Hospital to Seattle Children's Medical Center, where they treated her for a nasty bacterial pneumonia that had attacked without warning.

While we were at the clinic last week, Dr. Practical said my furuncles probably came from an ordinary bacterial infection that was taking advantage of my stress-weakened immune system. She squeezed some blood out of one of the larger boils and sent it off to the lab, just in case. I dropped Eleanor off at school, then picked up my prescription of Bactrim from Rite-Aid. 

After a few days, the furuncles and carbuncles weren’t getting any bigger. But they weren’t going away, either.

Then I got a call from a nurse at the clinic. She said the lab results from my tissue sample came back, and my bacterial infection actually is the superbug MRSA – "Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus." Of course. So I went to Rite-Aid and picked up some amazing new antibiotic I hadn’t even heard of. 

My parents say I should stop taking everything so personally. In the Bible, Job’s parents said the same thing to him, too.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Canadian Content

I’ve been a good mood lately. Fall is lovely, Vancouver Men's Chorus is rehearsing Christmas music each Wednesday evening, writing is going well, and the kids are back in school. But even that's not enough to explain my cheery disposition. 

In March I began publishing a series of “Rock Bottom" stories, describing how the phrase resonates with many of the strange plagues I’ve encountered in recent years. I still don't know how to identify the absolute depths of "rock bottom." But here's how you can tell when you've turned a corner:  you can see it in your rearview mirror.

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

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

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

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

In November 2015, my doctor diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and severe anxiety. My symptoms were triggered by recent events, but they were rooted in trauma that occurred thirty years ago. Unfortunately, my employers thoroughly bungled their response to my disability. 

This was my dream job. These people were breaking the law. I thought if I explained things clearly enough, someone would figure out a way to fix the situation. Unfortunately, everything I tried just made things worse. As the weeks went by, I became increasingly stressed. By the time I hired an experienced employment attorney, I’d completely lost my perspective about essential aspects of my case. I’d become a “client.”

For months, the lawyers representing the Attorney General’s Office absolutely - and illegally - refused to respond to my attorney's inquiries. The combination of disability and delay pushed my stress levels beyond the capacity of even my overdeveloped coping mechanisms. At some point I crossed the line to suicidal depression. 

Despite my attorney’s sensible evaluation of the situation, I insisted that we push for me to be reinstated in my position. I couldn't give up hope. By the time of the mediation, I was completely deranged by the dissonance between my delusion and reality.

We finally mediated my claims against the State at the end of October 2016. Of course my reconciliation proposals went nowhere. Instead, with the help of the mediator and my patient attorney we reached agreement on the basic terms of a settlement agreement, and then tied up the various loose ends over the next few weeks.

The most interesting part of the mediation experience was observing how the fog of my depression lifted almost immediately afterwards, and never returned. Without the burden of false hope, I could finally grieve over my shattered dreams, and begin the long process of recovery.

One major contribution to my distress occurred when Human Resources hired a Seattle private investigator. He was supposed to look into my discrimination complaint challenging homophobic bias in the workplace. This investigator was the only person dealing directly with me. He had the last clear chance to avert disaster. Instead, he accommodated my employers' prejudices, and issued a report that clumsily attacked my character.

As I’ve documented elsewhere on my blog, my wrongful termination is just one example of incompetent, unethical, and dishonest conduct by attorneys in the Washington Attorney General’s Office. When these hacks needed a supposedly “independent” private investigator to help with their dirty work, naturally they hired Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®”:  Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC and one of its partners, Patrick Pearce.

After I settled my claims against the State, I reached out to Ogden Murphy and asked for a meeting with their Managing Partner in an attempt to clear my name. They responded by lawyering up, and I was forced to file a lawsuit. 

The defendants’ insurance defense lawyers quickly convinced the trial judge to dismiss the case. They relied on an obscure Washington statute that protects citizen whistleblowers who report potential wrongdoing to the appropriate government agency, RCW 4.24.510The Legislature passed the “Brenda Hill Bill” in 1989 to protect private citizens who report misconduct to the appropriate government agency. The trial judge in my case erroneously concluded that this law also grants absolute immunity from civil liability for any injuries caused by government vendors during the course of their contractual engagements. He also ordered me to compensate defendants as supposed "whistleblowers." This distortion of the Legislature’s intent obviously would have bankrupted me.

After a painfully long delay, on September 3, 2019, the Washington Court of Appeals agreed with my legal arguments. The Court reversed the lower court’s ruling in an emphatic published opinion. The Court of Appeals also vacated the cruel judgment ordering me to pay for all of the other side’s legal expenses. 

I'm grateful for this vindication. I’m particularly relieved that my family no longer has to live under the threat of being forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees. In fact, the Court of Appeals can probably take credit for a significant portion of my current good cheer.

Depression and anxiety truly are evil twins. When I resolved my claims against the State, I finally abandoned the false hope of returning to my dream job. That mental shift immediately lifted my depression, and allowed me to begin the recovery process. Similarly, for the last couple of years I couldn’t stop catastrophizing about the prospect of the Court of Appeals rejecting my appeal, and worrying about the risk that the judges would order me to pay defendants even more money I don’t have. By removing that dire possibility, the Court’s decision last week immediately relieved many of my anxiety symptoms. Plus the kids started school. Life really is good.

Compared to some of the other plagues that have beset me over the last few years, mere financial ruin wouldn’t justify my level of anxiety over the outcome of my appeal. Besides, judges have ruled against my position numerous times. I can handle it. 

Nevertheless, this appeal was different. Not because the case involved me, although PTSD certainly flavoured the proceedings. Rather, I was anxious because of what my experience seemed to say about the precarious state of the rule of law, and about the true nature of the legal profession that had been a huge part of my life for three decades.

Last month I published a book report on the most discouraging book I've read in yearsWhy Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The authors identify some of the factors that signal a nation’s decline from an open and inclusive society to an "extractive" state that primarily benefits the privileged and powerful. Looking back over the last four decades, the road from Reagan to Trump has been littered with warning signs.
When you have to go to court, being right should be enough. In my case, anyone who actually read the briefs, cases, legislative history, and factual record can tell you why I won last week. It was not a close call. To the contrary, the facts and law were clear. Ogden Murphy’s twisted interpretation of the statute would have made a travesty of Washington’s whistleblower protection law – particularly their demand that I pay the other side’s attorneys. The result would have the kind of perversion of justice we expect from the Trump Administration, or from other failed and failing states. 

Thankfully the Court of Appeals got it right, and reversed the trial court’s hasty ruling. My existential worry turned out to be unfounded, at least for now.

Earlier this week I posted a link to my previous blog essay on Facebook, describing Carol Dweck’s optimistic best-seller Mindset as my “new favourite nonfiction book.”

On the computer screen, “favourite” looked right. But it still seemed odd.

In the past, Canadian spellings only appeared while typing on my laptop in one of my favourite coffee shops in Vancouver. I thought this was another GPS setting in the iOS operating system that runs our family – automatically switching spelling modes whenever we cross the border. The process is completely unconscious, as if I’m touch-typing on an ancient typewriter with a British umlaut key.

However, today I’m at the the iMac in the breakfast nook of our charming mid-century-modern rental house. In Bellingham, USA. I've already sent the kids to school, finished the chores, walked the dogs, answered legal correspondence, read a bit more of Louise Penny’s eleventh Chief Inspector Gamache novel, and completed a couple of other writing projects. 

As Dear Evan Hansen would say, today is a good day. In fact, this month they’ve all been good days. Ever since the Court of Appeals lifted the darkest remaining cloud over my family by reversing the trial court’s erroneous judgement.

Then I figured out what's going on. This month I’ve been in an exceptionally good mood. Contented even. To the point that my unconscious had been typing “favour” rather than “favor,” “theatre” rather than “theater,” and "judgement" rather than "judgment."

It turns out I had the spelling algorithm wrong. For the last two years, every time I thought I was in a good mood, I was really just in Canada. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019


The most important play of the last forty years is Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Among other things, Angels happens to be about gay lawyers, Mormons, evil Republicans, and mental illness.

The second half of Angels in America opens with a short monologue by “The World's Oldest Living Bolshevik.” On the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov begins with a couple of questions for his comrades:

The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed…?

                    (Little pause)

(With sudden, violent passion) And Theory? How are we to proceed without Theory?
After pining for the Good Old Marxist Days of the Russian Revolution, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich concludes with a call to arms:

Change? Yes, we must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.

The most encouraging book I’ve read in years is Mindset, by Carol Dweck. 

Because Mindset's optimism applies on an individual rather than a societal level, I’m not sure whether Dweck's book can counteract the pessimistic Theory I recently described in my report on the most discouraging book I've read in years, Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

Nevertheless, Dweck’s hopeful Theory is a good start.

As a parent, I was already familiar with Professor Dweck’s work in educational theory and child development. She’s the Stanford psychology professor who counsels parents to praise their children with the message “good job, you worked very hard” rather than “good job, you’re very smart/talented.”

But parenting tips are just the beginning. Like the pessimistic authors of Why Nations Fail, Carol Dweck has a comprehensive Theory for everyone.

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it. 

One image from Mindset sticks with me. It comes from Dweck’s description of a child psychology experiment. Researchers can accurately distinguish between students with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset by assigning each child a set of challenging brainteasers. 

In my mind, Dweck's example of a boy with a fixed mindset sounds just like my son, wearily sighing at the prospect of work. In contrast, the growth mindset youth rubs his hands together and exclaims “I love puzzles!”

The other day I asked my mother if she remembered me as a particularly anxious child during my idyllic early years in Vancouver. Before my parents ruined my life by moving to Utah just in time for junior high and high school. 

In hindsight, I suspect I originally had a sunny growth mindset, with just a slim dark streak of anxiety. But when I was a teenager, the same traumatic experiences that planted the bomb of PTSD thirty years ago also fueled toxic perfectionism and chronic anxiety. Blundering into the unhealthy legal profession made things even worse. I became the poster child for Dweck’s “fixed” mindset.

Three things happened to change my mind:

"Can you train yourself to be talented?"

I've never been a musician. To the contrary, I used to recognize a distinction between “singers” and “musicians,” and apply it to myself. Unfavourably.

It's not just me. Even after conducting Vancouver Men’s Chorus for thirty-nine years, Willi can’t help saying things like “we’ll go over that interlude next week, in the orchestra rehearsal when we’ll have the musicians here.” He means the professional musicians, of course. The talented folks, with their perfect pitch and flawless instrumental technique. Not the volunteer hoi poloi who sing in the chorus. 

I’ve always thought of myself as smart person with minimal musical talent, who nevertheless learned how to play a little piano and sight read vocal scores through sheer intellectual effort. Same with art, theatre, poetry, you name it. A vast gulf separated the talented few (and the genius fewer) from the rest of us mere mortals.

Things change. A couple of years ago, I wrote in “Playing By Ear” about the consequences of singing in gay men’s choruses for too long: 

Vancouver Men’s Chorus started rehearsals for this month’s holiday concerts the first Wednesday after Labour Day. As we began sight reading the pile of new music, I realized I’d left my middle-aged reading glasses at the beach.

I also recognized that after twenty-seven years of singing in choirs, I had somehow become a musician. I couldn’t read most of the words on the page. But I could still “sight read” the new and new-ish songs. The blurry blobs of notes on the staff, together with my web of memories from all the songs I’d sung over the years, in most cases were enough for me to intuit the progression of chords and melodies in real time.

As Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers, it takes about ten thousand hours of intense practice to establish real expertise in a wide variety of human endeavors. Over time, my chorus experience somehow reprogrammed the audio components in my brain. 

It's not just showtunes and choral music. Nowadays whenever one of my Korean friends posts something on Facebook in hangul, the nifty Korean alphabet, the voice in my head pronounces the aspirated consonants and alien vowels with an accuracy I never demonstrated as a Mormon missionary thirty years ago. It’s like a Hanukah miracle

My recent research into brain development also contributed to my changed mindset.

When I was kid, they told us everyone has a fixed number of brain cells. After reaching adulthood, supposedly each time you huff glue you hear the screams of millions of dying neurons. That’s actually true.

What they didn’t tell us was that the most important part of the neuron is the array of “dendrites” that branch out and link to numerous other brain cells. Everything is connected. As we go through life, our brain is constantly making new connections on an anatomical level. 

On the psychological level of the mind, our ability to reprogram ourselves is the foundation of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and similar mental health tools. Thinking can change our thinking. Everything I've learned about brain science in the last couple of years offers hope to people seeking transformation.

"If You're Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow," NY Times 7/6/08

A third epiphany also helped me reclaim my growth mindset. 

Over the last few years I’ve endured an preposterous variety of plagues:  mudslides, PTSD, professional disaster, trichotillomania, bad dates, bruxism, legal setbacks, poverty, discrimination, single parenthood, narcissists, bureaucrats….  This week my stomach is churning itself into knots from another round of industrial-strength antibiotics that my doctor prescribed for a new outbreak of stress-induced boils.  

Years ago I heard an excellent speech by Dr. Larry Richards, J.D., who markets himself as an expert in “lawyer personalities.” According to Dr. Richards, lawyers start out pretty similar to normal people, but begin to diverge during law school. A few statistics stand out. For example, lawyers rank in the 89th percentile for desiring “autonomy,” and in the 90th percentile for “skepticism.” Conversely, lawyers rank at the bottom for “resilience,” which Dr. Richards describes as 

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

Most lawyers exhibit low resilience. It goes with our painfully fixed mindsets.

Nevertheless, when bad things actually happen to me, I’m usually “resilient” in the word’s ordinary sense – exhibiting grace under pressure, and bouncing back from true adversity. It turns out I was much more afraid of potential failure than I was ever hurt by actual failure (or rejection, or disaster, or disappointment….) Being forced to deal with one real disaster after another eventually taught me how to bounce back from repeated failure. 

The other day my nephew and I were sharing stories about a hapless relative. As he correctly observed, “People can change. They just don’t.”

But they can. And sometimes they do.

Bellingham is blessed with one of America’s great independent book stories. Among many other literary amenities, Village Books regularly brings authors to speak at our historic Mount Baker Theatre. Last month my mother invited me to hear Canadian author Louise Penny.

Although I’ve always enjoyed the mystery genre, I wasn’t familiar with Penny. She sets her novels in a small town outside of Montreal. My mother is a voracious reader, and enthusiastically recommended Perry’s work. I’ve already binged my way through ten of the fifteen volumes on Mom’s shelves.

Penny turned out to be a charming speaker. No doubt I will be writing more about her insights, and about her winding path to becoming an author. Although she’d loved writing since childhood, Penny didn’t begin publishing fiction until midlife. Previously she had a successful journalism career, and a long struggle with writer’s block. 

During the Q & A portion of the evening, one of the audience members asked Penny what changed. Penny disclosed that she's an alcoholic. She only began writing after she finally sobered up two decades ago. As a recovering codependent person, I’m very familiar with the tangle of addiction, compulsion, and codependency. Before you can change your mindset, you have to change your mind.

But Penny also revealed how she’d changed. It’s at the heart of her novels, and what connects loyal readers to Chief Inspector Gamache and her other characters. Even though the books are set in the milieu of murder and murderers, both Louise Penny and her protagonist never stop looking for the good in everyone and everything.

Right now, all I see around me is change. Yet life is good and getting better. That's my mindset.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Moral Arc Bends

Today I won my appeal regarding the scope of Washington’s whistleblower immunity statute. 

The Legislature passed the “Brenda Hill Bill” in 1989 to protect private citizens who report misconduct to the appropriate government agency. Two years ago, the trial judge in my case erroneously concluded that this law also grants absolute immunity from civil liability for any injuries caused by government vendors during the course of their contractual engagements. The lower court also ordered me to compensate defendants as supposed "whistleblowers" under the statute, which obviously would have bankrupted me.

In an emphatic published opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals today reversed the lower court’s ruling. The Court also vacated the cruel judgment ordering me to pay for all of the other side’s legal expenses.

Tonight the kids and I are going out for milkshakes to celebrate.

Despite the long delay, I am excited about finally having my day in court, and I’m more hopeful than ever about my ultimate vindication. However, I am even _more_ excited and hopeful about the fact that some other lawyer will be representing me on remand, instead of myself.

If anyone asks, I’m a great client. And a pretty good appellate lawyer.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Why Nations Fail

The most depressing book I’ve read in years is Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. 

The bleakness of Why Nations Fail was particularly stark because I read it shortly after finishing Steven Pinker’s relentlessly optimistic book Enlightenment Now:  the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. According to Pinker, self-perpetuating intellectual and social forces were set in motion during the seventeenth century. Since then, Enlightment values brought dramatic improvements to every meaningful human measure:  life expectancy, health, nourishment, wealth, equality, freedom, happiness….

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In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson outline a powerful and much more pessimistic Theory to explain why some nations succeed and most nations fail. Despite the Enlightenment.

For hundreds of thousands of years, long before any nations rose, Homo sapiens lived as hunter-gatherers. While our ancestors were eating nuts and berries, the process of natural selection optimized our huge brains and puny bodies for life in small egalitarian nomadic bands. Our predecessors couldn’t carry around much stuff, but they were healthy and enjoyed lots of leisure. 

Then a mere 10,000 years ago, someone had the ostensibly bright idea to settle down and farm. The Agricultural Revolution radically changed society, allowing much larger populations to live together. Humans acquired lots of stuff. Suddenly there was a huge difference between being rich or poor. For the first time, most people were poor and oppressed. And a tiny sliver of humanity was rich and powerful. 

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that each subsequent society’s political and economic arrangements can be characterized as either “inclusive” or “extractive.” Mostly the latter.

With inclusive societies, many people participate in political and economic decision-making. Pluralistic nations sustain the rule of law. They create incentives that reward creativity and hard work. The pie gets bigger, and the rich aren’t the only ones who get richer. Rich and poor can even trade places.

In contrast, in an extractive society a small elite controls political and economic power. Elites exploit the remaining population and the nation’s resources. When new leaders come into power, they simply seize the opportunity to become exploiters themselves. Meanwhile, growth occurs at a glacial pace. Even when those in power permit some opening of economic markets, extractive regimes can’t take full advantage of the “creative destruction” that drives robust growth – because the exploiters are too afraid of losing power themselves.

Creating and sustaining an inclusive nation takes hard work. Inertia and greed both have a tendency to push societies into the extractive camp, and then to keep them there. Meanwhile, the virtuous cycle sustaining inclusive nations begins to wind down as resources are diverted from the many to the few.

You can see the result today: an outbreak of hand-wringing thought pieces drawing comparisons between America today and the degeneration of the Roman Republic into imperial tyranny two thousand years ago.

As an English Major, I was particularly interested in Acemoglu and Robinson's theory that the pivotal moment in the development of our modern array of inclusive nations was a historical event most people haven’t even heard of  the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.  

Like the rest of the human world, society in Britain changed very slowly for millennia. The Norman Conquest in A.D. 1066 put new rulers in charge, but it didn’t alter the fundamentals of the nation’s extractive politics and economics. The only excitement came from intrafamily wars for the throne between branches of the Anglo-Norman dynasty, with occasional breaks to focus on fighting with the French over chunks of France. Then for a couple of centuries English civil wars were mostly about religion, culminating in the beheading of Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s puritan dictatorship, and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

After the Catholic James II succeed his popular brother Charles in 1685, the new king quickly alienated many of his subjects. At this point the British landowners, Parliament, clergy, merchants, and other key stakeholders all decided they’d had enough of the absolutist Tudor-Stuart dynasty. They invited James’ son-in-law William III of Orange and his wife Mary II to rule as Protestant constitutional monarchs. 

According to Acemoglu and Robinson, the key to the Glorious Revolution was that it brought together such a disparate group of stakeholders. Each group was motivated by its own selfish interest. But no group was powerful enough to simply seize power for itself. Instead, they had a collective interest in restructuring society to weaken the role of the absolute monarch, and to replace the regime with an inclusive, pluralistic society.

As a result, a small island nation built an empire. More importantly, Great Britain successfully incubated, expanded, and exported its inclusive society. Along with its English-speaking colonial progeny and eventually its European peers, Britain was able to take advantage of the quantum leaps in technology that make modern life possible. 

Interestingly, Pinker also traces the development of key modern institutions and values to the same Enlightenment period in English history. Similarly, In Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, the more pessimistic Yuval Noah Harari acknowledges that the Scientific Revolution was the most important development for the species since the Agricultural Revolution.

Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis in Why Nations Fail is that only inclusive societies can harness the full benefits of revolutionary technology. In an extractive society, the elites can’t afford to risk a revolution of any kind. And the rest of the population is trapped in the status quo.

Since the publication of Why Nations Fail a few years ago, the list of inclusive societies has shrunk. It can happen anywhere. In the United States, our broad-based postwar boom ended four decades ago, when the rich started getting much richer. Ronald Reagan managed to put a smiling face on extractive policies. Trump (and the horrors he’s done to/revealed about the modern Republican Party) are the inevitable result.

For example, how’s the rule of law doing these days? Trump and Mitch McConnell have polluted the federal judiciary by giving lifetime appointments to unqualified and unrepresentative judges. Regardless of jurisdiction, many judges don’t bother trying to get it right, because they’re under too much pressure to get it done. Bureaucrats feather their own nests. Lawyers lie more than ever, and it costs too much to expose their dishonesty. There’s a dearth of legal resources for ordinary people. The massive imbalance is obvious whenever a little guy shows up in court alone to face one of the corporate “citizens” favored by Chief Justice Roberts and the other Bush-Trump appointees to the Supreme Court.  

My little legal corner of the world offers just one example of how extractive pressures are quietly altering important aspects of civil society. One of my former law partners recently posted David Rothkopf’s wake up call/call to arms. I’ve included the entire text below because the cacophony of alarm bells is itself one of the warnings signs we may already have crossed from Decline to Fall:

It's the racism. But it's not just the racism. It's sex crimes. But it's not just the sex crimes. It's the concentration camps. But it's not just the concentration camps. It's the corruption. But it's not just the corruption. 

It's being a traitor. But it's not just being a traitor. It's the obstruction of justice but it’s not just the obstruction of justice. It's the attacks on rule of law. But it's not just the attacks on the rule of law. It's the assault on freedom of the press.

But it's not just the assault on freedom of the press. It's the pathological lying. But it's not just the pathological lying. It's the unfitness for office. But it's not just the unfitness for office. It's the incompetence. But it's not just the incompetence.

It's the attacks on our most important allies and alliances. But it's not just the attacks on most important allies and alliances. It's the systematic destruction of our environment. But it's not just the systematic destruction of our environment.

It's the violation of international treaties and agreements. But it is not just the violation of international treaties and agreements. It's the embrace of our enemies. But it is not just the embrace of our enemies.

It's the defense of murdering dictators but it is not just the defense of murdering dictators. It is the serial undermining of our national security. But it is not just the serial undermining of our national security. It is the nepotism. But it's not just the nepotism.

It's the attacks on our federal law enforcement and intelligence communities. But it is not just the attacks on our federal law enforcement and intelligence communities. It's the fiscal recklessness. But it's not just the fiscal recklessness.

It's the degradation of the office and of public discourse in America. But it's not just the degradation of the office and of public discourse in America. It's the support of Nazis and white supremacists. But it's not just the support of Nazis and white supremacists.

It's the dead in Puerto Rico and the at the border. But it's not just the dead in Puerto Rico and at the border. It's turning the US government into a criminal conspiracy to empower and enrich the president and his supporters.

But it's not just the turning the US government into a criminal conspiracy to empower and enrich the president and his supporters. It's weaponization of politics in America to attack the weak. But it's not just the weaponization of American politics to attack the weak.

It's all these things together and the threat of worse to come. It is the damage that cannot be undone. It is pathology that has overtaken our politics and our society, the revelation that 40 percent of the population and an entire political party are profoundly immoral.

It is a disease that has infected our system and is killing it. At the moment, we still have the wherewithal to fight back. But even those who recognize the dangers of this litany of crimes are proving too complacent, too inert in the face of this threat.

It is one of those moments in the history of a country when there is a choice to be made, a choice between having a future and not, between growth and decay, between democracy and oligarchy, between what we dreamt of being and what even our founders feared we might become. The litany of crises and crimes is so long that we are becoming numb. You have heard of the fog of war. This is the fog of Trump. The volume of wrongs becomes its own defense. Is the president accused of being a rapist? Well, then remind them he is a racist and they'll forget.

This is a moment for leaders to step up. To challenge each of these abuses via every legal means available. To organize and draw attention to them. To blow the whistle if you are in government and you are being asked to violate your oath. To resist and refuse to be complicit.

If you can't do those things that make your voice heard and join a movement, support a political candidate, donate money, register voters, fight voter suppression. But whatever you do, resist becoming numb. Resist the temptation to let the recitation of old crimes and new become a deadening drone. 

Everyone matters in times like these. Everyone must stand up for what is right. In their homes. In their schools. In the workplace. In their churches and synagogues and mosques.

We are approaching a great national decision about whether the American experiment will succeed or fail, whether this moment does what two world wars, a civil war and countless past misjudgments and missteps could not.

We will make it together, resist, offer a better alternative, embrace that alternative and the best leaders we can find...or succumb, let the inertia of some among us mark the end of what for two and half centuries was an idea so compelling it inspired the world.

As a parent and a human being, I’m thoroughly depressed about our prospects. Reading Why Nations Fail made it even worse. Still, I haven’t completely given up hope, or concluded we're doomed – not until we see what happens in the next couple of years.