Tuesday, September 24, 2019

There's a Fine, Fine Line

The furry creatures at our house have a barking problem. 

In general, both dogs are fine with humans. Too fine – they get so excited they want to jump on everyone and lick their faces. I keep explaining to Bear and Buster that the little old ladies in our neighborhood have brittle bones. 

On the other hand, the moment Bear or Buster spots another dog, they immediately yank on the leash. As we get closer, the dogs used to participate in the whole butt-sniffing Kabuki ritual. Lately, however, Bear has decided to treat all canines as enemies, preemptively unleashing his deceptively aggressive bark.   

Yesterday as we walked through campus we had an unfortunate encounter with a terrier. I explained to an observer that Bear and Buster much prefer people to dogs. As she petted the boys, she said she prefers dogs to people herself. Obviously she’s smarter than an Aussiedoodle.

In theory Bear and Buster are my children’s dogs. When I complained to them that Bear was humiliating me in public by barking at every dog he met, they told me to get out the “shock collar.”

According to my heartless children, you put the shock collar around Bear’s neck. When the audio sensor hears a loud noise, the little steel prongs give him a little shock. You can choose a setting from 1 to 5.  

I’ve tried putting the shock collar on Bear, but it makes me feel like I’m participating in one of Dr. Mengele’s experiments. For now, the most I can bring myself to do is to display the collar prominently near the back door. Hopefully it will have a deterrent effect on the dogs. The last time the shock collar actually went off was when Eleanor was five feet away squealing.

I'm a nice person. I don't want to use the shock collar. All the other dog owners would judge me. More importantly, Bear and Buster would judge me.

Instead I put the dogs on a short leash. Literally, as Eleanor would say, but this time she’d be correct for once.

According to Bear and Buster, it’s okay to bark at houseguests as long as you’re also wagging your poofy tail. This is not true. 

Every time the kids have friends over, the dogs greet them with a frenzy of wags, licks, and barks. Usually the dogs settle down eventually. However, whenever someone sleeps over, by morning Bear and Buster tend to forget we have a guest. So the unsuspecting teen is likely to be greeted with suspicious growls and barks on the way to the Lucky Charms. Especially from Buster. He’s the dumb one. And the fat one. Rosalind doesn’t like to hear it, but it’s true.

As they say in Avenue Q, Buster also is a little bit racist. I’ve noticed when the guest is Latino or African-American, Buster won’t let up with the barking. The other day Rosalind had a sleepover guest who is a person of color. Buster refused to chill. 

Exasperated, I finally blurted out, “Buster, do you realize you’re black?”

Thursday, September 19, 2019

A Great Lawyer

As a longtime reader of mystery fiction, here’s my advice:  if someone is murdered in your home, the last thing you want to do is call a Great Detective. One murder is never enough for them. Instead, the keen intellect of a Great Detective demands a pile of corpses that will eventually be high enough to appear in the final scene of Hamlet.

While the Great Detective is busy monologuing and fiddling with his pipe or mustache, the bored murderer inevitably commits additional crimes. Meanwhile some dim-witted sidekick destroys key evidence. Everyone else gets distracted by red herrings as further mayhem ensues. 

In the last chapter, the Great Detective displays his Greatness with a final monologue and a convoluted explanation. That’s how folks like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot become famous. No one wants to read a crime novel where the obviously guilty party is arrested on page 4, and everyone just moves on with their lives.

Any flat-footed cop can solve one murder. To be a truly Great Detective, you need to justify your hiring with a lot more blood and bodies. 

Lately I’ve been wondering whether a similar principle applies to being a Great Lawyer.

American English has an idiomatic phrase, “Don’t make a federal case out of it.” It’s a way of telling someone to chill. But as someone who has practiced in both federal and state court, you should be thanking your lucky stars if you can figure out a way to justify federal jurisdiction. Federal judges enjoy lifetime appointments, luxurious courtrooms, smart and hardworking law clerks, and manageably-sized case dockets. Everything in federal court is civilized and predictable, and everyone is civil and prepared. In contrast, most state trial courts are so crowded and overwhelmed that litigation can feel like you're playing CalvinBall, or buying a lottery ticket.

On the other hand, most people’s legal problems cannot justify big firm tactics or billing rates. When you practice law at the ACLU or at a white shoe law firm, every case is a custom job. In real life, cases typically involve routine issues that can be handled much more efficiently by lawyers who do that kind of work every day. Most of my former law partners are incapable of providing anything other than Cadillac treatment. They’re exactly who'd you call in a bet-the-company situation. But they’d be completely useless in a simple landlord-tenant or child custody dispute.   

You wouldn’t hire Sherlock Holmes to find your lost cat. The Hound of the Baskervilles would probably eat Bootsie. Nevertheless, other kinds of mysteries may indeed require Great Thinking and/or great thinking. Similarly, some legal cases justify hiring a Great Lawyer, or at least a great lawyer. The important thing is to be in the right court for each case, with the right lawyer. Preferably a pretty good one.

I spent my two decades in private practice at a couple of Seattle’s largest and most respected law firms. If anyone ever even hinted at an accusation of attorney wrongdoing, the first names we would think of to advise us were the lawyers at Seattle litigation boutique Byrnes Keller Cromwell. If Brad or Ralph were unavailable, both of my former law firms maintained a very short list of other similarly sophisticated and principled Seattle attorneys we would trust with our reputations.
Two years ago I approached Ogden Murphy Wallace, "Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®," in an attempt to clear my name after the firm prepared a character-assassinating personnel report at the behest of my former employers at the Washington Attorney General's Office. 

Ogden Murphy Wallace's response was to lawyer up. However, they didn’t call Byrnes Keller Cromwell. Instead, their cheapskate insurers hired the prominent Seattle insurance defense firm Lee Smart, P.S., Inc. 
The lawyers at Lee Smart are good at many things. They have trial experience and skills I can only envy. On the other hand, they are also known for less savory traits, like a penchant for gaslighting opponents and lying to the judge. Tactics a lawyer would never get away with in federal court.
As I wrote in “Sometimes We Are All Less Smart,” when I was a naïve young lawyer I was easily duped by Lee Smart’s approach to state court litigation. Since then, however, I’ve figured out lots of ways to take advantage of Lee Smart’s corner-cutting tactics. A couple of years into my lawsuit, Defendants Ogden Murphy Wallace and its partner Patrick Pearce continue to pay the price for early blunders by their Lee Smart attorney.

Unsurprisingly, several months into the litigation Ogden Murphy Wallace fired Lee Smart. (Defendants’ former attorney no longer is a partner at the firm.) Defendants didn’t learn their lesson and try to bring in Byrnes Keller Cromwell. However, they did hire an experienced Seattle malpractice lawyer from another prominent boutique firm. I’d never met Bob, but I was familiar with his reputation. 
I still haven’t met Bob. Unfortunately, other than an introductory telephone conversation, I have yet to interact with the Great Lawyer himself. Instead, Bob handed the case over to a junior colleague.  
My father is a retired insurance claims adjustor. When he was handling high-value commercial liability claims, there was nothing he hated more than the bait-and-switch experience of hiring a name-brand lawyer and getting stuck instead with some generic junior associate.  
Perhaps Defendants’ staffing choice was chosen as a clever litigation strategy, intended to send the message to the judge that he shouldn’t waste his time and energy on Roger’s silly little claim. Or perhaps defendants’ insurance carrier is just cheap.

When you represent a defendant, one of your top goals is to figure out a way to get rid of the case without having to go to trial. Judges aren’t supposed to decide issues of fact (that’s the jury’s job), but they are more than happy to resolve legal issues that have the potential to substantially narrow or even eliminate the plaintiff’s claims. When I was still in private practice, I would often moonlight from my primary role as an appellate specialist by writing motions to dismiss or for summary judgment, or by drafting briefs in opposition to motions filed by the other side. 

As I’ve previously chronicled, early in my lawsuit the defendants’ attorneys zeroed in on a 
shiny silver-colored bullet – Washington’s whistleblower protection statute. Sure enough, they convinced our trial judge to dismiss all of my claims based on this inapplicable technicality. This was the erroneous legal ruling the Court of Appeals reversed earlier this month.

It turns out that Ogden Murphy’s defense lawyers didn’t even write their whistleblower argument. Instead, they plagiarized it from several pages of a brief that attorneys from the Byrnes Keller Cromwell firm had recently filed on behalf of one of their clients in a totally unrelated lawsuit. In the case handled by Byrnes Keller, the whistleblower question was one of many issues before the trial judge at the same time. It didn’t dispose of the entire case, and it was never subject to close judicial scrutiny. 

The folks at Byrnes Keller Cromwell would never have bet their client’s future on such a dubious legal argument. In contrast, Ogden Murphy Wallace and its lawyers hoped that the trial judge’s hasty and incorrect ruling in their favor would slip through a crack in the overburdened state court system. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

In his novel I Claudius, Robert Graves tells the story of a famous Greek oracle who offered to sell a stack of her prophecies to the emperor. He was notoriously cheap and refused. So she burned half the stack and offered the remainder for the same price. Again he refused. And again she burnt half and offered the rest for the same price. Finally his curiosity overcame him, and he accepted the oracle’s deal.  

He must have been a Great Emperor.

Before filing my lawsuit, I shared Graves’ story of the emperor and the oracle with the defendants’ original attorney. I offered to settle my claim for much less than they’ve now spent on the litigation. So far. I also offered to leave the Ogden Murphy Wallace firm and its partner Patrick Pearce out of the story as I tried to educate the public about the challenges facing people living with mental illness, and about the pattern of incompetence and dishonesty at the Washington Attorney General’s Office.
Defendents and their attorneys never even responded to my offer. In fact, Defendants ignored each of my subsequent efforts to resolve the case. Instead, they’ve stonewalled and relied on futile litigation tricks. When you’re a Great Lawyer, apparently it makes more sense to put your clients’ professional reputations at risk. Perhaps they’re still in denial. God forbid that anyone at Ogden Murphy Wallace should actually examine the damning evidence. Or take responsibility for their actions.

Meanwhile, the amount of money Ogden Murphy Wallace and Patrick Pearce (or rather their penny-pinching insurers) will eventually pay to extricate themselves from our shared disaster continues to increase, even though the relief they ultimately obtain will be less and less complete. Sounds great to me.

Thirty days after the Court of Appeals issued its opinion, the case will be “remanded” back to the Superior Court. We'll start over with more discovery and trial preparation, two years older and hopefully a little wiser.
I wonder when and if the defendants’ Great Lawyer will finally show up. Will Bob turn out to be an empty suit, as so often happens with these Baby Boomer legal dinosaurs? Or will I miss out on ever meeting him, and instead read Bob’s Notice of Withdrawal when his clients fire him? 

I’m not sure which I look forward to more. Actually I expect the latter to occur, because that’s what happened last time the attorneys provided by Ogden Murphy Wallace’s cheapskate insurers fucked things up in the case, and exponentially increased Defendants’ exposure. 

Either way I’m zen. This month I won my appeal, and life in Bellingham for my family has been going well. Maybe I’m a Great Lawyer after all. Or at least a pretty good one.

Click here for more information about my lawsuit against Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC and Patrick Pearce

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Schrödinger's Summer Vacation

The most famous thought experiment in modern science is about an imaginary cat.

Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that attempts to describe the universe at the level of atoms and subatomic particles. It involves a lot of uncertainty. In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised a paradox involving a cat in a closed box. Schrödinger's Cat is alive when it's placed in the box. When the box is opened, the cat is already dead. The timing of the cat’s demise depends on the state of a particular radioactive atom in the box, which may or may not have emitted its radiation yet. According to Einstein, Heisenberg, and their uncertain physicist buddies, the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead – at least until someone observes the state of the atom.

This year I experienced Schrödinger's Summer Vacation. It was as if an Amazon box would arrive at our house once a week, at some point each Monday afternoon. The box might be empty, or it might contain a couple of adorable Aussiedoodles. The dogs would either be alive or dead. Like my dreams.

Actually, my family and I spent the summer of 2019 waiting for the Washington Court of Appeals to issue its ruling in my lawsuit against the private investigators that my former employers hired to do their dirty work: Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC, “Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®."

One major factor contributing to the problems with my former employer was that Human Resources engaged these supposedly “independent” private investigators to investigate my original complaint about homophobia in the workplace. After I settled my claims against the State, in an attempt to clear my name I naively reached out to Ogden Murphy and asked for a meeting with their Managing Partner. They responded by lawyering up. I was forced to file a lawsuit against the firm in order to obtain answers and relief. 

A few months later, the defendants’ lawyers convinced the 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. In addition, the lower court ordered me to pay for all of the other side's legal expenses as supposed "whistleblowers" under the statute.

The wheels of justice grind very slowly, particularly in Washington’s underfunded court system. A year after the parties filed all their briefs, the Court of Appeals set April 16, 2019 as the date for oral argument. A panel of three judges was assigned to hear my appeal that day, along with several other cases. 

I'm an experienced appellate lawyer. For better or for worse, I not only wrote my own appeal briefs but also handled the oral argument myself. I thought overall the hearing went well. However, opposing counsel made yet another dodgy misstatement that left me tongue-tied for a minute – always a risk when someone with PTSD represents himself. Particularly when you only have ten minutes in front of the tribunal. (No wonder I'm looking forward to someone else being the lawyer when my case returns to the trial court.)

After surviving the appeal argument in April, I was hopeful about my prospects. But I steeled myself for the inevitable impact of living with uncertainty as we waited for the Court of Appeals to reveal its decision.

I’ve been living with chronic anxiety for over thirty years. I’m always looking for ways to understand and manage my body's response to life's inevitable stressors.

We’ve learned a lot about stress from a few decades' worth of scientific experiments on rats and college students, as well as from a new generation of brain scanning technology. Some of the factors that aggravate the effects of stress include uncertainty; a perceived or real lack of control; looming and/or indeterminate deadlines; delay; overwhelming responsibilities; and high stakes.

Sounds like my summer.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s classic novel Good Omens is the story of how the Apocalypse gets derailed when the Spawn of Satan is accidentally switched at birth. Instead of being raised surrounded by demonic power, he grows up in an idyllic English village. 

The new Amazon TV series is fun and true to the book, with David Tennant playing the ambivalent demon Crowley, and Michael Shannon playing the fussy angel Aziraphale. Frances McDormand provides the omniscient voiceover narration, including the following revelation:

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

I spent the summer playing a similar cosmic game. Every Monday afternoon from April until September, I repeatedly attempted to log onto the website that lists the Washington appellate courts’ most recent opinions. Each week’s batch of new rulings from Division One of the Court of Appeals would appear at a mysteriously random time between noon and 3 pm. 

Some weeks I started intensely fretting several days before. Usually by Sunday evening I could barely function. Once I actually made it all the way until noon before I remembered it was a Monday. To pass the time, most weeks I would analyze all the new decisions and crunch the numbers – looking for potential patterns that might hint at the outcome in my own appeal, from the type of lawsuit to the identity of the lawyers and judges. It was all noise, no signal. Pure uncertainty.

Sometime in July, here’s how I described the situation to my ever-supportive parents:  

It feels like someone else is tossing a single six-sided die every week, and I have to wait until Monday afternoon to learn the results. If they rolled a 1, I lose everything I have left, and I have to declare bankruptcy. If they rolled a 2, 3, or 4, nothing happens, and we roll again next week. And if they rolled a 5 or 6, I get a chance to recover all the money I’ve borrowed from my retirement savings over the last couple of years, and the kids finally get braces. Someday. 

On September 3, 2019, someone somewhere rolled a 6. Whew. 

For as long as I’ve practiced law in Washington, Division One of the Court of Appeals has set a goal of issuing its opinions within thirty days after oral argument. Nevertheless, there can be various reasons for a delay beyond then, such as changes in court personnel, administrative responsibilities, the precedential significance of the case, its relationship to other pending cases, tangled precedents, and efforts by the three judges to reach a consensus on a particular issue or on specific language. 

Progress on the final opinion can also be stalled if the judges (or rather their poor law clerks) are required to examine additional legal authorities submitted immediately after the oral argument by underemployed obsessive lawyers with too much time on their hands. Er. I was just trying to be helpful.

From the outside, it’s impossible to guess the reason the Court is waiting to issue its opinion in a particular case. On the other hand, there are certain factors that appear to correlate with extended delay. For example, each case is preassigned to one of the three judges on the panel that hears the appeal. Writing assignments are allocated evenly among all the judges. In a civil case like mine, whenever the opinion is written by nine out of the ten judges currently serving on Division One, the Court releases the decision an average of five weeks after the argument. However, if the opinion is assigned to the Court's tenth judge, it won't come out until an average of sixteen weeks after oral argument.

At some point in June, I looked over the statistics and realized which judge was writing the opinion in my appeal. Yep, you guessed it. 

Despite my most recent attack of boils as well as the various other biblical plagues besetting me lately, I still try not to take these unfortunate coincidences personally. Nevertheless, am I the only one who thinks my experiences are beginning to defy the laws of statistics?

Anyway. So far this year, this judge’s longest bout of judicial writer’s block lasted 26 weeks. So I was prepared to endure spikes of anxiety every Monday well into fall. However, like everyone else, most judges are ready for a fresh start in September. That's also when their old law clerks leave and the new ones arrive. As I told my parents, Labour Day seemed a particularly auspicious date to circle on the calendar.

Sure enough, the day after Labour Day – twenty weeks after oral argument – the Court of Appeals issued its ruling. In an emphatic published opinion, the Court agreed with my legal arguments, and reversed the lower court’s decision. 

I’m immensely grateful for the Court’s ruling and what it means for may family. I’m also glad the Court removed any potential for confusion over the purpose of Washington’s whistleblower protection statute. The ruling prevents the Brenda Hill Bill from being weaponized against other actual whistleblowers in the future. If it took twenty weeks to get there, so be it. Luckily, while I waited I had a wonderful summer of kids, dogs, and good weather. Even on Mondays.

No doubt the judges had their reasons for waiting until September before they issued their opinion. I'll never know what factors contributed to the delay in my appeal, and I don’t take the long wait personally. That’s how well I’m doing these days.

I’m also confident that the judges did not harbour any ill-will toward me as a gay man living with a disability. I’d never personally encountered the judge who wrote the opinion before I appeared before him at oral argument in April. However, I know that prior to joining the bench he practiced as an environmental lawyer at a two-person law firm. For fifteen years, I served on the ACLU of Washington's Legal Committee together with the judge’s law partner. Several years ago our mutual colleague was in a terrible bicycle accident that left him paralyzed. No doubt the judge is intimately familiar with the daily challenges facing people with physical disabilities. 

And yet. 

In our efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, often the first step is to look around and ask yourself who is not in the room, and ask why. For example, people living with certain physical disabilities may be excluded by a lack of wheelchair access or sign-language interpretation. Similarly, sometimes the “reasonable accommodation” for particular mental illness symptoms should be self-evident.

Everyone knows people affected by mental illness. Their lives can be improved by simple courtesy and attention. We can all do better.

Click here for more information about my lawsuit against Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC and Patrick Pearce

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.”

More Showtune Night Stories:

"Missing Marie's Crisis" (5/6/17)

"Get Out and Stay Out" (10/18/17)

"Six Degrees of Kristin Chenoweth" (10/31/18)

"Comfort Animals" (4/24/19)

"I am Third" (5/29/19)

"Spongeworthy" (6/13/19)

"Artificial Emotional Intelligence" (2/25/20)

"Do Gay Androids Dream of Electric Brunch?" (2/26/20)

"A New Brain"  (5/5/20)

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 increased 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.”   

Click here for more information about my lawsuit against Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC and Patrick Pearce

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.