Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Passive Aggression

Some people are born with a profound sense of place. For example, I only feel at home in the Pacific Northwest. When I’m away too long, such as during my missions in Korea and Chicago, homesickness eventually overwhelms me. Any trip out of the Northwest that’s longer than a vacation becomes an exile.

In particular, I’ve developed a lifelong affinity for Vancouver, British Columbia. Everyone should – Vancouver is stunningly gorgeous and warmly welcoming. Being forcibly transplanted to Utah as a teenager only reinforced my initial imprint. Other than being close to family, the best thing about my move to Bellingham four years ago has been spending as much time as possible in Vancouver. My nostalgomania for the city tends to spill over and bathe everything Canadian with a warm glow. 

My place sense can also pinpoint on a particular spot. For example, as I wrote last year in “God Save the Queen E,” driving past Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre triggers intense positive memories from different eras of my life. Conversely, one of the many reasons I’m glad I finally moved out of Seattle after twenty years is that most blocks on Capitol Hill remind me of at least one regrettable gentleman.

Even though my parents moved to Bellingham in 1981, only a few of my memories have tattooed themselves on the city. I can’t drive down Yew Street without missing Gordie’s Bakery, even though it closed decades ago. And even though the site is now an Italian restaurant, passing the original location of Rumours on State Street evokes fond memories of when it used to be fun to sneak out to Bellingham’s lone gay bar. 

Fortunately, PTSD has not cursed too many places with painfully negative associations (other than the entire state of Utah). Nevertheless, whenever I look at a certain one of Bellingham’s many hills I’m painfully reminded of a particularly malignant narcissist who used to live there. The only time I was ever in the neighborhood was to visit his house for work.

All three of my brothers and several of their children graduated from Bellingham High School. Just across the street from BHS you’ll find Assumption Church and school.

I’ve never been inside the Catholic church or school myself. But every time I drive by, or simply see the spire from across town, I think of my former colleague Sarah Reyes.

Most of my interactions with Sarah occurred in the local offices of the Attorney General, located on third floor of the former Bellingham National Bank building downtown. The Bellingham Section includes about ten lawyers and the same number of nonlawyer staff. 

Sarah Reyes is the Attorney General's Bellingham Section Chief. Sarah was appointed as the local manager several years ago. She took over from the Bellingham office’s founder, an outsized personality who also served for thirty years as the Western Washington University's general counsel. 

Sarah’s style presented a huge contrast with her extroverted predecessor. I would describe Sarah as quietly maternal. In general she does an excellent job of attending to the needs of the office's close-knit longtime employees.

Although I spent a couple a days each week in the downtown office, all my work was for nearby WWU. On campus, representatives of the Attorney General are located in a suite in Old Main. 

After I had been working there for five weeks, I had an awkward coaching session with my immediate supervisor Kerena Higgins, the newly-designated Education Team Leader in the Bellingham office. My arrival at Western presented this novice team leader with her very first opportunity to gain some management experience. 

Ever since starting the job, I had been suffering from strange new anxiety symptoms. These increased significantly when, without any warning or explanation, Kerena sent an electronic calendar notice late one afternoon saying she would be meeting with me in my Old Main office the next morning, together with her supervisor Sarah. I stewed all night. The next morning I learned that the purpose of the meeting was to convey client concerns about a recent incident where I gave a routine orientation presentation to the newly-elected Associated Students board. 

My presentation had been a fiasco. I was still fitting into the university general counsel role. Meanwhile, as I wrote in “Intended Consequences,” the new student body president was a malicious hate-monger. During a year punctuated by vicious racist incidents in Ferguson and elsewhere nationally, she loudly characterizing every perceived slight as "violence" against herself, and a pretext for her own self-promotion. Over the next year, numerous members of the campus community found themselves in her destructive path.

Unfortunately, I was one of her earliest targets. In an obvious display of political correctness run amuck, the student body president and her posse accused me of racism, sexism, transphobia, and insensitivity to people affected by mental illness. 

When my newbie “Team Leader” conveyed these concerns, I acknowledged that I had mishandled the training. I tried to explain how the students’ response appeared to be grossly out of proportion to the actual incident. But she wasn’t interested in listening.

As with many government offices, a realtor would describe the Attorney General’s downtown Bellingham space as "Class B." Actually, it should probably be marked down to C+ to account for all the homeless people congregating in the vestibule. I certainly remember the office as a dreary place where I felt unwelcome.

One of my most vivid memories of the Bellingham office came the day after my team leader's bungled coaching session. Before, during, and after the meeting, my symptoms massively spiked. The next day I invited myself into Sarah’s office. I slumped in my chair, and poured out my history of dealing with anxiety. I reported that despite years of managing various symptoms, I had never before experienced such a strong and unexpected reaction, and that much of it seemed to be related to Kerena’s “coaching.”

Sarah has social anxiety herself. We commiserated about our disparate symptoms, and shared our approaches to managing stress. I thought she understood what I was dealing with. Over the next few months, I repeatedly returned to Sarah's office to update her with additional information from my healthcare providers about my disability.

I probably connect Sarah with Assumption because her daughter went to the school. As far as I can remember, she’s the only Assumption student I've known. But my brain also associates Sarah with Assumption’s spire because she turned out to offer an example of how ostensibly Christian people can do horribly unchristian things.

Thanks to Washington’s robust Public Record Act, I've now seen the detailed chronological file memos about me generated by each of my superiors during my tenure with the Attorney General’s Office. I had no idea what was in these secret files until long after the Attorney General’s Office illegally terminated my employment. They read like the files Stasi informants in East Germany kept about their families and neighbors during the Cold War. Each memo is almost comical in its breathless attempt to characterize even our most mundane interactions with a hostile spin. It’s like they took away the wrong lesson from some Human Resources training about the need to create a clear record before terminating an employee who doesn’t quite fit in. Particularly a single gay dad performing admittedly exceptional legal work under trying conditions.

In reading Sarah’s memo, I was shocked by her account of our conversation in her office the day after my supervisor’s “coaching” pushed my anxiety symptoms to new heights. She didn’t even acknowledge my disability. Instead, she described my conduct as insubordination, and reported me to her long-distance supervisor, Regional Services Division Chief Michael Shinn

I also discovered that Sarah had listened in on my distraught telephone conversation with Michael later that week, as well as our call a couple of weeks later when my anxiety was obviously much reduced. Yet Sarah said nothing about how these events were visibly affecting me. Perhaps she thought she was respecting my privacy. Or maybe she’s the kind of person who checks off administrative boxes, then hands off problems to someone else as soon as possible.

Bureaucratic wheels grind slowly. By the time my supervisors finished my long-delayed performance evaluation in Spring 2016, most of the concerns they identified were moot. My legal acumen and my problem-solving skills were universally praised. Other than complaints about my conduct from a couple of virulent homophobes and some bureaucrats in the home office, most people seemed to recognize that despite a rocky start I was fitting into my role. 

I was still struggling to communicate effectively about my disability, however. I’d even hired an experienced disability attorney to negotiate with my employers about how best to accommodate my PTSD. Even at that late date, we could have salvaged my career – if anyone had been willing to pause the rush to judgment.

Sarah Reyes was the one person at the Attorney General’s Office with firsthand knowledge of the most relevant facts about my situation:  the very real impact of my disability, folks’ pattern of unfortunate miscommunications during the previous months, and my increasing effectiveness in performing my job. Sarah was a senior and respected manager within the Attorney General's Office bureaucracy. Her championing my continued employment – or even just sharing accurate information about my disability – would have made all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, Sarah lacked the judgment and courage to do anything.

My last meeting with Sarah took place in my office downtown. I had been helping one of the young lawyers prepare for his first appellate argument. Sarah thanked me for my contributions. She observed that I finally seemed to be integrating into the Bellingham Office, and overcoming the challenges that had plagued my arrival. Sarah’s last words to me: “I hope things work out.”

Even the healthiest human brains are wired to lead us astray sometimes. 

In addition to candid self-examination, I have strived to give fair-minded consideration to each of the individuals who have crossed my path during this journey, regardless of how they treated me. I’ve tried to figure out where things went wrong, and what I can do to make things better. But if there is one lesson I’ve learned over and over again in the last three years, it’s that being right is not enough.  

In a speech to the Canadian Parliament in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said:

The free world’s cause is strengthened because it is just. But it is strengthened even more by the dedicated efforts of free men and free nations. As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Good women, too.

Up tomorrow:  "Bar Discipline"

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?"

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