Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Shelf Life of Metaphor


TODAY'S POP QUIZ


Fill in the blank:   “Roger went to the Broadway musical with __________.”

(a)   Rosalind
(b)   Eleanor
(c)   Oliver
(d)   a date

The correct answer is (b). Obviously.

As Dear Evan Hansen teaches us, social anxiety can be a lonely thing. Fortunately, one of the advantages of having a Drama Queen daughter is you’ll always have someone to accompany you to the theater. 

You also get to banter like Jack & Karen, or sometimes Will & Grace, while the other two family members stare in confusion. I recently wrote in one of my notebooks that “Eleanor and I are in a different area code compared to Rosalind and Oliver.” The two of us belong in the (212), while they're more bus-and-tunnel.


Area codes are not just a metaphor.  As Eleanor would say, for once correctly, she and I "literally" have a different area code than her brother and sister. Eleanor and I got our first iPhones when we still lived in Seattle, so we’re (206). Rosalind and Oliver are (360).

I only know my kids’ area codes, not their actual phone numbers. Instead, I rely on my electronic Contacts list to keep track of my kids’ phone info, just like everyone else.   

In fact, I only know four phone numbers by heart: my own cell phone number, my ex’s cell phone number, the Bellingham landline number my parents have used for 37 years, and my childhood phone number in Vancouver. Frankly, the only reason I can still remember the first three is that I’m constantly filling out the paperwork for school field trips.


The other day at dinner the kids and I were chatting about our Leishman forebears’ life in the Old Country, i.e., Utah. (Not the Auld Country, i.e., Scotland.) 

My children were unimpressed that Grandpa milked cows twice a day by hand when he was their age. Nor did they think much of my feat of memorizing all my friends’ phone numbers in high school.

However, they were amazed that I only had to dial five digits to call my friends. In rural Brigham City during the 1970s, all the phones in town still were on the same exchange.


Beginning in the 1930s, urban phone numbers were written in the “two letters, five numbers” format. For example, PEnnsylvania 6-5000 was and is the phone number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in midtown Manhattan. Like the hotel’s neighbors, its phone number began with the two-letter abbreviation for the Pennsylvania exchange, which served the area around Penn Station. 

By the 1980s, you needed seven numerals to write down someone’s phone number, regardless of where you lived. Like the song “Jenny.” As you will recall from AM radio, Jenny can be reached at 867-5309.


Back then, a single area code covered a vast geographic territory. Today the same song wouldn’t work in most cities, because any helpful bathroom graffiti artist would also include Jenny’s area code.


I’ve been listening to the original cast album from Dear Evan Hansen on repeat ever since I got back from seeing the Broadway musical in Seattle last weekend with my daughter and nephew. I love it. If you haven't noticed already, I'm completely obsessed.

Currently, my favorite song is “Waving Through a Window.” This is Evan Hansen’s first solo in the show. He describes how his debilitating social anxiety makes him feel alienated from everybody else:

ON THE OUTSIDE ALWAYS LOOKIN’ IN
WILL I EVER BE MORE THAN I’VE ALWAYS BEEN? 
‘CAUSE I’M TAP-TAP-TAPPIN’ ON THE GLASS 
WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW

I TRY TO SPEAK BUT NOBODY CAN HEAR
SO I WAIT AROUND FOR AN ANSWER TO APPEAR 
WHILE I’M WATCH-WATCH-WATCHIN’ PEOPLE PASS 
WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW

OH
CAN ANYBODY SEE?
IS ANYBODY WAVING BACK AT ME? 

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd

The song’s primary image is a person standing on the outside looking in, unable to be seen or heard. But the song actually begins with a different metaphor: 

I’VE LEARNED TO SLAM ON THE BRAKE 
BEFORE I EVEN TURN THE KEY 
BEFORE I MAKE THE MISTAKE 
BEFORE I LEAD WITH THE WORST OF ME….

Evan sings these same words one other time near the end of the play, right before the climax of his final anthem "Words Fail":


As I recently mentioned, while housesitting for my parents this month I’ve been driving my mom’s spiffy Honda Accord. It’s a huge step up from my ancient minivan. For example, a video screen helps me back up. And I can plug my iPhone into the stereo system and listen to showtunes. 

The Accord also features a keyless ignition. As long as the electronic fob is in my pocket, I can open the doors and operate the car just by pushing a button. However, as a safety precaution, the car won't start unless you press the brake pedal before you turn on the engine.

I’ve barely met Evan’s brake-and-ignition metaphor, and it’s already out of date. Dear Evan Hansen is ruined for me.   



More responses to Dear Evan Hansen:

   "Dear Evan Hansen" (1/29/19)
   "Another Dear Evan Hansen Update" (2/3/19)
   "Three Evan Hansens" (2/19/19)


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Dear Evan Hansen


I finally saw the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen last weekend. I drove down to Seattle’s historic Paramount Theater with my daughter and nephew.

Pop Quiz Question: Which Dear Evan Hansen song reduced me to a weepy mess ten minutes before the finale, and why? 


I’ve loved musicals for as long as I can remember. As a child, my parents took me to see Anne of Green Gables at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. In junior high, I “accidentally” kept Brigham City Public Library’s copy of the Oklahoma soundtrack so I could finish memorizing it. A terrifying proportion of my brain’s storage space is devoted to showtunes. 

All kinds of showtunes. I’ve played Charlie Brown and Nicely Nicely Johnson. I’ve seen dozens of original casts on Broadway, from Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods, to Kristen and Idina in Wickedto the delightful Shakespearean blasphemy of Something Rotten. 

Sadly, the days of fabulous theater trips to New York and London are long gone. But I love musicals and plays for their own sake, not for the chandeliers and helicopters.

During law school in the late 1980s, admittedly I paid money to see Cats at the Winter Garden Theater on BroadwayIn my defense, I was hosting out-of-town tourists and couldn’t talk them out of it. My standards are no longer negotiable. For theater, at least.


Nevertheless, nowadays I see musicals differently.

Almost fourteen years ago, having kids meant giving up my theater trips and season ticket subscriptions. When my children were a little older and I was a partner in my Seattle law firm, I started going to a few shows again – often bringing my drama queen daughter as my date. But ever since our move to Bellingham and my subsequent reversals of fortune, musicals have been a rare treat.

Regardless of quantity, I still insist on good theater. I’m indifferent to the quality of numerous other products, like cars and clothing. But I maintain impeccable standards when it comes to my few remaining vices – whether it’s baked goods, fruit juice, or theater tickets. If a musical is going to tempt me out of my dad-cave, that musical had better be good. And I want a comfortable seat where I can see and hear everything. Ideally orchestra center. 

My frugal mother bought our Dear Evan Hansen tickets on sale as a Christmas present for the other showtune fans in the family. Not that I’m complaining – my daughter, nephew, and I enjoyed a great play and an amazing daytrip to Seattle together. Grandma herself missed out on the show because she’s snowbirding in Hawaii this month.

Don’t tell my mother this, but when we got to our seats at the Paramount, Eleanor announced, “I’ve never been in the balcony of a theater with Papa before!”


I also see musicals differently in other ways. In the old days, I would do my homework before seeing a major musical for the first time. I would track down the source material and New York Times reviews, then listen for tiny vocal differences between the London and New York cast albums. I wanted to be the perfectly prepared audience member.

Nowadays I take the opposite approach. As soon as the back pages of Entertainment Weekly hint there’s some new Broadway phenomenon in the pipeline, I immediately impose a complete moratorium on spoilers. When the curtain finally goes up, I want to listen to each great new musical with completely fresh ears. (Unless you count all the other musicals my ears have already heard.)

My embargo on info about Dear Evan Hansen was surprisingly effective. Before Saturday at the Paramount Theater, my expectations were for a Broadway musical, about a teenager with a cast on his arm, in a blue palette. 

Warned by online headlines, I even managed to avoid exposure to Dear Evan Hansen’s
affirming anthem “You Will Be Found.” I hear there’s a popular mash-up version combining “You Will Be Found” with some song from Hamilton. Whatever a “Hamilton” is. (Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know until I find a job where I can finally afford tickets.)


The other musical theater fans in my family do not share my attitude about avoiding spoilers. To the contrary, as we drove south on I-5 in Grandma’s borrowed Honda, both my daughter and my nephew were listening on headphones to the original cast album of Dear Evan Hansen. Again.

As a family, we agreed that during the performance at the Paramount there would be no audible singing in the mezzanine. But it’s okay to silently mouth lyrics if you know a song.


I had an amazing encounter with Dear Evan Hansen on Saturday.

Two days later, now that I’ve listened to the original cast album a million times myself, I’m even more impressed with Dear Evan Hansen as a well-constructed theatrical contraption. The play has a cast of just eight characters, who are arranged and rearranged in rapidly shifting combinations. The audience watches and listens while a handful of powerful themes and metaphors ricochet among them. It works.

But that’s the old-fashioned English Major in me talking.

“Mindfulness” is about living fully in the present moment – as they say in Rent, “No day but today.” The magic of live theater comes from the fact that every performance, even of a musical you already know by heart, is a singular experience – shared by these performers and this audience, here and now.

Much of Dear Evan Hansen’s impact came from the direct experience of hearing and seeing a powerful theatrical story unfold in real time, while sitting next to my daughter and nephew in the darkness of a restored old Seattle theater.


So what's this musical about?

First, Dear Evan Hansen deals frankly with mental illness. I appreciated how the play didn’t get distracted with details about which characters might be diagnosed as anxious, depressed, or some other specific disorder. Instead, the playwright respectfully presents people in deep distress, regardless of its root causes.

Of course, Dear Evan Hansen also is a well-crafted contemporary musical comedy, not a Greek tragedy. I’m happy to report It Gets Better and #YouWillBeFound. Nevertheless, the play takes mental illness seriously, and ultimately earns its affirming message. 

That still wasn’t enough to make me cry.


Before arriving at the theater, I already had one of the songs from Dear Evan Hansen accidentally memorized.

For the last couple of years, the highlight of my week was Showtunes Night at a piano bar in Vancouver. Each Wednesday, several regulars would request the charming “Waving Through a Window.” For some reason, I thought the song came from another of the many other new musicals my children caused me to miss. In the weeks before the piano bar’s tragic closure last month, I learned to improvise various harmonies to the song.

“Waving Through a Window” is about the kind of profound social anxiety that prevents a person from participating fully in the human tribe. If I’d known “Waving Through a Window” was from Dear Evan Hansen, I would have avoided it by going outside to hang with the smokers. Instead, I was able to mouth all the words along with my daughter and nephew. Silently.

ON THE OUTSIDE ALWAYS LOOKIN’ IN
WILL I EVER BE MORE THAN I’VE ALWAYS BEEN? 
‘CAUSE I’M TAP-TAP-TAPPIN’ ON THE GLASS 
WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW….

I TRY TO SPEAK BUT NOBODY CAN HEAR
SO I WAIT AROUND FOR AN ANSWER TO APPEAR 
WHILE I’M WATCH-WATCH-WATCHIN’ PEOPLE PASS 
WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW
OH
CAN ANYBODY SEE?
IS ANYBODY WAVING?

BACK AT ME 

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd

I watched Evan Hansen’s painful social struggles with a great deal of empathy. Still, “Waving Through a Window” didn’t make me cry. Maybe it’s because my own mental health is so much better lately. 

Or maybe it’s because I'd watched the first episode of Sex Education on Netflix the night beforeLike Dear Evan Hansen, this new British import begins with an excruciatingly shy boy on the first day of senior year, at a posh school where he’s a complete outsider, other than one loser friend and the girl he secretly has a crush on. Unlike Dear Evan Hansen, in Sex Education the gawky teen’s single mother is a famous sex therapist (elegantly played by X-Files’ Gillian Andersen), and the son’s trauma comes from his mother’s complete lack of boundaries. 

So much more relatable.


Dear Evan Hansen is also about the power of writing.

Before we saw the show, I didn’t even realize where the musical’s title came from. But it didn’t take long to figure out that Evan Hansen’s therapist had suggested Evan use journal writing to help him work through his issues. Evan’s assignment is to write affirming letters to himself, which begin “Dear Evan Hansen….” 

We learn about Evan’s writing therapy assignment from the portentous opening lines of the musical, before anyone even starts singing. Overwhelmed single mother Heidi Hansen begins the play by nagging her son:

Have you been writing those letters to yourself? “Dear Evan Hansen, This is gonna be a good day and here’s why.” 

Dear Evan Hansen goes on to show how writing is central to human invention and reinvention. 

Writing also can be an effective form of therapy. As Emily Esfahani Smith observes in her recent best-seller The Power of Meaning, “Mental illness is often the result of a person’s inability to tell a good story about his or her life….  One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise, and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”  

Evan Hansen’s fictional counselor and my own insightful physician Dr. Heuristic are not alone in prescribing writing as therapy. As Smith notes, multiple peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that “this form of therapy is as effective as antidepressants or CBT….  We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we’re telling them.” Some of us learn to write for our lives.


There’s yet another reason I approach theater differently than I did during my fabulous gay uncle phase. Did you realize most of the Western canon is actually about parenthood? HamletOedipus Rex, Oliver!, Les Misérables....  Who knew?

Despite being an English major, I never really noticed great literature’s parent-child obsession until after I had kids myself. Now I see it everywhere.

Dear Evan Hansen was no different. And it’s not just me projecting. Obviously Evan himself is at the center of the musical. But so are an array of parent-child dynamics. For example, look back at the beginning of Dear Evan Hansen’s original cast album. What happens immediately after Heidi Hansen casually mentions her son’s “Dear Evan Hansen” therapeutic letter-writing assignment? (Before she draws Chekhov's gun on Evan's cast with a Sharpie.) 

A song, of course.

Rather than an ensemble number or an Evan solo, however, the show’s opening song is a powerful duet. "Does Anybody Have a Map?" is sung by two parents:  Evan’s frazzled single mother Heidi and Cynthia Murphy, the affluent but equally overwhelmed homemaker mother of Evan’s troubled classmate Connor:

SO WHERE’S THE MAP?
I NEED A CLUE
‘CAUSE THE SCARY TRUTH IS
I’M FLYIN’ BLIND
AND I’M MAKING THIS UP AS I GO 

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd


Dear Evan Hansen begins and ends with parenthood. At least for me. 

After Evan’s reinvention schemes inevitably collapse, Heidi joins Evan’s other betrayed loved ones to confront him in the angry “Good For You.”

But in their last scene together, it’s just mother and son. Heidi delivers a raw monologue confessing how hard she struggles, and how often she fails. 

I can pinpoint the exact moment in Dear Evan Hansen when I lost it. At the end of her speech, Heidi cried something like “You’re the only good thing that’s ever happened to me!”

I continued weeping as Heidi sang “So Big / So Small,” about the day when Evan was seven years old, and his father drove away to start a new life without them:

IT WAS A FEBRUARY DAY
WHEN YOUR DAD CAME BY, BEFORE GOING AWAY
A U-HAUL TRUCK IN THE DRIVEWAY
NOW IT'S JUST ME AND MY LITTLE GUY

THAT NIGHT, I TUCKED YOU INTO BED
I WILL NEVER FORGET HOW YOU SAT UP AND SAID
"IS THERE ANOTHER TRUCK COMING TO OUR DRIVEWAY?
A TRUCK THAT WILL TAKE MOMMY AWAY"

AND THE HOUSE FELT SO BIG, AND I FELT SO SMALL

AND I KNEW THERE WOULD BE MOMENTS THAT I'D MISS
AND I KNEW THERE WOULD BE SPACE I COULDN'T FILL
AND I KNEW I'D COME UP SHORT A BILLION DIFFERENT WAYS
AND I DID
AND I DO
AND I WILL

BUT LIKE THAT FEBRUARY DAY
I WILL TAKE YOUR HAND, SQUEEZE IT TIGHTLY AND SAY
THERE'S NOT ANOTHER TRUCK IN THE DRIVEWAY
YOUR MOM ISN'T GOING ANYWHERE
YOUR MOM IS STAYING RIGHT HERE
NO MATTER WHAT
I'LL BE HERE

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd


In the scene right before “So Big / So Small,” for the last time Evan Hansen sings one of his own powerful solo anthems. It’s a beautiful song, but it didn’t make me cry. As Evan sings, “Words Fail.” 

I’m a writer, I already knew that. But true love never fails.


Caritas numquam excidit



More responses to Dear Evan Hansen:

   "The Shelf Life of Metaphor" (1/31/19)
   "Another Dear Evan Hansen Update" (2/3/19)
   "Three Evan Hansens" (2/19/19)




Sunday, January 27, 2019

Brushes With Fame


After I graduated from Brigham Young University in English in 1986, I stayed in Provo, Utah, for an additional gap year. My ostensible purpose was to get a master’s degree in linguistics. I’d already completed most of the coursework while I was still an undergrad, so all I really needed to do was write my thesis. (I still haven’t finished it.) 

Mostly I spent the year having a secret nervous breakdown after all those years of overachieving Mormon repression. But I also found time for my first kiss (from the red-haired older woman I’d had a crush on for years); teaching freshman English (I still haven’t finished writing comments on that last stack of essays); performing at the newly-founded Hale Center Theatre (I was typecast as the nerdy brother/best friend); and applying to law schools (I turned down Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the University of Washington).

At the end of the year, I drove across the country to Yale Law School. There I began the long process of escaping from Mormonism, coming out of the closet, and eventually facing the effects of trauma and codependency.


Other than the nervous breakdown, my biggest project that year was the inauguration of BYU’s first independent weekly student newspaper, Student Review

My roommate Bill Kelly was the publisher and I was the editor. We operated out of our living room, on the second floor of the historic Victorian home pictured on the masthead. Most importantly, we surrounded ourselves with an amazing cohort of Mormondom’s brightest young things. For example, our art-major former roommate Henry Woodbury drew the house and served as Art Director. Last year I published “Three Memories” from my year editing Student Review.


One of Student Review’s most popular features was a regular column entitled “Brushes With Fame.”

When Publisher Bill married Arts & Entertainment Editor Melissa, I had copies of the inaugural year of Student Review bound in hardcover as a wedding present. I also got a copy for myself. This morning I opened it up to pick out some of my favorite Brushes With Fame.


The only time I’ve ever seen Barack Obama in person was during his 2012 reelection campaign, when he spoke at Seattle’s historic Paramount Theater. (Remind me to write sometime about some of my other Paramount memories, from hearing concerts like Sandra Bernhardt and 10,000 Maniacs in the 1990s, to taking my mom to Broadway tours of The Book of Mormon and Wicked, to singing along to the short film “What’s Opera, Doc?” with Seattle Men’s Chorus and Bugs Bunny, to attending Dear Evan Hansen with my daughter and nephew last weekend.)

President Obama spoke at the Paramount the day after he finally announced his support for marriage equality. His timing electrified an already enthusiastic Seattle crowd.

As directed on my event ticket, I arrived three hours early so I could stand in the long security line that snaked through the closed streets of downtown Seattle. Fortunately, one of my lawyer colleagues at Davis Wright Tremaine saw me waiting in line, and invited me to join her family in the VIP section instead. I worked with Karen Russell for years on numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives. Karen is also basketball legend Bill Russell’s very tall daughter.

It was great to finally meet Karen's dad. Unfortunately, after the Secret Service eventually finished processing the crowd, I had to go back to my plebeian seat in the balcony. So I didn’t get to go backstage with the Russells and meet their buddy Barack. I also didn't stay with them at the White House and play NBA All-Star pickup basketball for the President's 50th birthday. But I've seen the selfies.

Coincidentally, when I left Seattle three years later, one of our two straight male lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office in Bellingham was Karen’s nephew and Bill Russell’s grandson.


Seeing President Obama and meeting Bill Russell makes for a great story. But it’s not a "Brush With Fame." In fact, you lose points for A-listers and direct contact. 

Nor, for example, does it count that I obtained Neil Patrick Harris’ autograph at the stage door after a matinee of Assassins. I intentionally accosted NPH (at my friend Todd’s insistence, of course.)

Student Review would also refuse to publish my name dropping about the cry-baby Supreme Court Justice in my law school class, or the fact that Michael J. Fox, Michael Bublé, and I all grew in up the same Vancouver suburb.

Rather, a true “Brush With Fame” involves just the right amount of brushing.


Here are some of my favorite Brushes With Fame that we published in Student Review during 1986-87:

Matt Jube’s “dad’s uncle performed hemorrhoid surgery on George Brett.”

Michele Stone “was at Haagen-Daz in Westwood at the same time as 'Albert' from Little House on the Prairie.”

Karen Slade “dared a friend to kiss Scott Baio at Hard Rock Café in Los Angeles.”

Renee Vasquez “knows a girl who slept with David Lee Roth [original Ed. Note: who doesn’t?].”

Vanessa Deene “was looking at watches at Macy’s when Doris Day stood next to her and brushed her sleeve.”

Debbi Swanson “met Rock Hudson when he played King Arthur in an Indianapolis production of Camelot.”

Stephanie Terry “was almost run down in Chicago’s O’Hare airport by a pre-rehab Liza Minelli.”

Marilyn Fix “has an empty pack of Marlborough cigarettes that Kristy McNichol left in her car after getting a ride from her hotel to the Osmond Family Telethon.”

Kristen Page “stood in front of Dr. Ruth in the customs line at the Hong Kong airport.”

Willa Murphy’s “father carried Eudora Welty’s luggage on a train.”

Lance Larsen’s “sister arranged the fruit and cheese plate that was placed in Johnny Mathis’ dressing room at a Tupperware Jubilee in Logan, Utah.”



I was thinking about Student Review and our Brushes With Fame column this weekend because at Netflix’s insistence I finally started The Assassination of Gianni Versace. I ended up watching an episode of Sex Education instead, but I can see why Darrin Criss won the best actor Emmy for playing gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan.

The last time I visited New York, I was on my way to our law school twenty-fifth year reunion. After seeing Sleep No More, I went as usual to my favorite Greenwich village piano bar to belt out showtunes until 4 am. 

Earlier that evening, gay pianist/chanteuse Michael Feinstein had taped a holiday special at Lincoln Center. Afterwards he brought several of his tuxedoed guests to the bar. I can therefore report the following:

            “Darren Criss touched me on his way to the bathroom at Marie’s Crisis.”

If that isn’t a Brush With Fame, I don’t know what is.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Tragedy of the Commons


For the umpteenth consecutive year, my parents are spending most of January in Hawaii. FYI, fabulous gay retirees snowbird in Palm Springs instead. Unemployed middle-aged single dads are stuck in the grey Pacific Northwest with their children and a bottle of Vitamin D pills.

This year I’m house sitting for my parents while they’re gone. Their house comes with the keys to my mom’s Honda Accord, which gets much better gas mileage than my ancient Kia minivan. The Accord sports numerous bells and whistles that weren’t available ten years ago, at least in Korean minivans. Refreshingly, my mom’s sedan also lacks the visible scars left by a decade of ravaging children. On the other hand, the Honda is so much lower than my car that I feel like I'm driving a go kart.

I bought the minivan exactly ten years ago this month, when I had three young children in clunky car seats and needed lots of extra room. If you haven’t already guessed, I loathe my car. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to trade in the minivan until my employment situation improves. 

Nowadays my parents’ house also comes with my nephew, who is living with them while he finishes high school. This week I had my kids as well, so my nephew stayed with us across town. (Yes, Mom, I turned the thermostat down while we were gone.)

Over the MLK long weekend, I begrudgingly left the Honda in my parents’ garage. I wanted the kids to unplug, go outside into the unexpected sunshine, and enjoy some family adventures each day. An Accord is not designed to simultaneously accommodate three teenagers and a fifth-grader – not to mention my kids’ two energetic Aussiedoodles, who are obviously unwelcome in my mother’s pristine vehicle.

After a long weekend with the kids, the dogs, and the minivan, I couldn’t resist switching back to Mom’s Honda. For the gas mileage, of course.


Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Science essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” is one of the most cited and reprinted scholarly articles of all time. 

As Hardin describes, before the modern era many communities shared a common pasture. Each citizen had an equal right to use this land. Numerous New England towns are still arranged around a venerable “Commons,” although cattle are no longer welcome to graze in what are now public parks.

Hardin’s article explains how perverse individual incentives can ruin things for everyone. Each farmer correctly determines that introducing one more cow to the Commons isn’t going to result in overgrazing. But if everyone adds one more cow, the total number of cattle will quickly exceed the pasture’s capacity. The consequence of such collective overgrazing is to degrade the Commons to the point that it will no longer support any cattle.

Free markets are good at many things, such as encouraging innovation, and efficiently communicating information about the preferences of numerous independent actors through the mechanism of pricing. On the other hand, markets can also fail. The Tragedy of the Commons provides a useful introduction to various destructive examples of market failure, including “negative externalities” like pollution, monopolies, “free rider” problems, political gridlock, and accelerating inequality.  


While my nephew was staying with us, each morning I drove him across town to the new high school near my parents’ house. On Tuesday morning, one of my exertion-avoiding children decided to hitch a ride to school with us rather than walk down the hill. That evening, all three of my children announced they wanted a ride to school the next day. 

I knew that adding additional stops would complicate the morning itinerary, and that adding additional kids would make the Honda uncomfortably crowded. The result would be a substantially increased risk of unpleasant sibling interactions. 


The Tragedy of the Commons, like other market failures, arises when individual incentives conflict with collective goals. 

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

In 2008, law professor/Obama buddy Cass Sunstein and Nobel laureate/behavioral economist Richard Thaler published an influential book entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Sunstein and Thaler argue that policy makers should promote positive outcomes by taking advantage of the brain wiring biases identified by psychologists like Kahneman. For example, we can dramatically increase the participation rate for retirement savings accounts by setting up automatic enrollment programs, and then requiring employees to opt out of them rather than affirmatively opting in. 


Before bedtime on Tuesday night, I announced that anyone was welcome ride to school with us in the morning – but they would have to get up 15 minutes early in order to accommodate the additional drive time.

Sure enough, on Wednesday morning my little nudge deterred at least one of my indolent children from riding in the Honda and overcrowding the rest of us. Tragedy averted.




Sunday, January 20, 2019

Road Rage


I first observed road rage when I was in high school. I was riding with my easygoing classmate Ken. While driving around Northern Utah, Kenny would carry on a cheerful conversation with his passenger. However, he’d regularly interrupt himself with a shocking torrent of profanity – directed at the hapless little old lady in the Ford Pinto that Kenny had just cut off.

I haven’t seen Ken since the 1980s. Nevertheless, I’m sure by now he’s on the same industrial-strength blood pressure medication as my mother.


For countless millennia, humans evolved as members of hunter-gatherer tribes. In contrast, we’ve been driving cars for barely a century. There’s a serious disconnect between our primitive wiring and the modern stimuli we face behind the wheel.

Like other primates, humans are intensely social. We are tribal creatures. And we’re deeply concerned about our social status within the tribe. According to evolutionary biologist Robert Wright, we're therefore wired to rage against perceived injustice – or at least injustice directed towards ourselves. Like Trump University, evolution taught our brains a kind of “shady accounting,” with “a deep sense of justice slightly slanted toward the self.”

As a result, we all go through life with a chip on our shoulder. Road rage happens because some people’s chips are particularly easy to knock off.


I confess that I used to suffer from road rage. Not the virulent strain of anger mismanagement that afflicts people like my friend Ken, or my son Oliver when he plays videogames. But enough to make driving unpleasant.

In recent years, however, I’ve embraced mindfulness meditation. I've learned to modulate my initial reactions to the thoughts and feelings that arise during the day. Driving actually provides an ideal test course for examining your responses to frustrating situations. Just compare the warm fuzzy feeling you get from stopping for a friendly pedestrian in the crosswalk, versus your burning indignation when someone else pulls into “your” parking spot. When you face the road with generosity and humor, you arrive at your destination healthier and calmer.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those Pacific Northwesterners who will sit forever at a four-way stop pantomiming “No, you go first.” And I don’t let every harried parent coming out of the McDonald’s parking lot cut ahead of me. That would disrupt traffic.

Instead, I use the experience of driving to remind myself we’re all in this together.  


If you surveyed my children to identify the most memorable stories in our shared family history, all three would include an incident that happened in the parking lot at Ezell’s Famous Chicken five years ago.

Ezell’s is a Seattle landmark. It’s in the Central District, across the street from Garfield High School and its lavish Quincy Jones Auditorium. Ezell’s serves excellent fried chicken and other comfort food. As you stand in line, you can read the endorsements on the wall from Oprah and similar luminaries. Sadly there’s nowhere to dine in at Ezell’s, and only a tiny parking lot. But Ezell's is conveniently located just down Martin Luther King Boulevard from the Seattle apartment we lived in before moving to Bellingham.

Ezell’s was my go-to place for fast food on those frantic evenings when I had a last-minute court filing, then picked up the kids from after-school care. Late. Again. (Sorry, Miss Melonie. We were lucky to have you looking out for the kids for five years.) On this particular occasion it was raining, everyone was hungry and angry and needed to go to the bathroom, and the staff at Ezell’s took forever to get our order right. When I finally got back outside, I discovered the minivan was blocked by a parked car containing two women and a toddler. The driver was shouting into her phone obliviously.

I honked a few times. Nothing happened. My kids were climbing the seats. I was losing my temper. Eventually I got out of the minivan. I knocked on the car door to get the woman’s attention. She leaped out and started screaming about her [expletive deleted] new car. I responded angrily. When I attempted to photograph her license plate, she tried wrestling the iPhone out of my hand, and started punching me. (She outweighed me by at least seventy pounds.) A bystander finally calmed things down. We returned to our cars, still fuming. 


Back in the minivan, my children were terrified and crying uncontrollably. Back at the apartment, no one was interested in eating fried chicken. In fact, no one was interested in going back to Ezell’s ever again. One of my young children confessed the entire experience made all black people seem scary. A child whose best friend at school was black. 

Rosalind seemed particularly affected by what she’d seen. I texted her therapist for advice. She suggested we come up with a story about why the other driver might have been so upset. So I sat down with my daughter, and together we wove a narrative about a woman who was excited about her brand new car, but worried about bringing dinner home late to her waiting husband and other children. That’s why the woman was on her phone and couldn’t hear me honk. By telling a story and putting ourselves in another person’s shoes, we reduced the impact of our traumatic experience. 

As I recently I wrote in “Woke Humans,” biologists believe the human brain’s greatest evolutionary leap occurred when we developed our capacity to see things from another person’s perspective. Sharing the road gives us an opportunity to practice empathy every day.


Every person of color I’ve ever told the Ezell’s story to, along with most of the white Seattle natives, has an identical reaction:   “Only a crazy person would bang on someone’s car in Ezell’s parking lot.”

See, I really am mentally ill. Or maybe I'm just a tired single dad.