Thursday, April 30, 2020

Too Big to Fit Under the Bus

Lawyers make mistakes. Obviously everyone else makes mistakes too, but lawyer are more neurotic about it.

Lawyers also lie. It’s an occupational hazard. The challenge is dealing with lawyers who make mistakes, then won’t stop lying about their mistakes. And then about their lies.

Lawyers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office make a lot of mistakes. That’s partly a matter of statistics – the Attorney General’s Office is the largest law firm in the state, with over 500 lawyers. Even if each lawyer in the office committed only an average number of mistakes, it would add up to a lot of malpractice.

Unfortunately, as a result of inescapable structural problems, the State’s attorneys commit substantially more than the average number of lawyer errors. Under the Washington constitution, only the Attorney General and his assistants can represent any state agency or state official. That might have been an effective model a century ago. But as with Washington’s inadequate education funding and its regressive tax system, the single-law-office approach to the State’s legal problems is woefully outdated. 

Decades of denial and political stalemate have left the Attorney General’s Office overextended and under-resourced. These systemic challenges explain in part but do not excuse my former employers’ egregious pattern of blunders, such as the inept handling of my disability accommodation request; the advice to release thousands of prison inmates early; the illegal destruction of evidence in the Oso landslide litigation; the aggravation of problems in the foster system; and the erroneous deadlines included in the State’s COBRA notices.

I’ve been observing the Washington Attorney General’s Office for three decades  as a member of the bar and the public, as opposing counsel, as an employee, and now as a whistleblowing litigant. 

When I was involved with the bar association I worked closely with several assistant attorneys general, all of whom are fine lawyers. The last few years have taught me the excellent lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office I worked with while in private practice were the anomalies. Plus I was naïve. Experienced practitioners and judges corroborated my subsequent observation that although the 550 lawyers in the office include some exceptional attorneys and many dedicated public servants, unless they’re assigned to one of those high profile cases that burnish the office’s public reputation, the vast majority of the State’s lawyers would never meet the standards of any other legal organization I have ever been associated with.

The systemic malpractice problems at the Attorney General’s Office are not simply a consequence of its inadequate funding and constitutional limitations. The office’s hierarchical bureaucracy and rigidly authoritarian culture are an invitation to disaster. Ironically and tragically, these institutional traits also resonated with my experiences as a gay Mormon youth, and were the initial triggers for my debilitating PTSD symptoms.

Three years ago, I started this blog and filed my lawsuit against the outside lawyer-investigator my former employer hired to justify my termination. At the time, I thought My Story was about the challenges facing disabled and LGBT individuals. 

There’s no need to repeat the unpleasant details of my workplace experiences, which relate to other legal claims and other stories. No disabled or LGBT employee should have to face an abusive and discriminatory employer. Predictably, I reacted to my horrifying experiences in two lawyerly ways:  I filed a sexual orientation discrimination complaint, and I submitted a formal disability accommodation request to HR. 

On March 7, 2016, the Attorney General’s Office retaliated by isolating me on an abusive “home assignment” that lasted long enough for them to fabricate sufficient evidence to justify firing me. Since March 7, 2016, no one from the Attorney General’s Office has ever acknowledged any wrongdoing whatsoever. None of my former colleagues has ever expressed any concern about my health, or my family’s dire situation. The lawyers in Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office are moral failures by any measure.

Three years later, My Story is no longer about my supervisors’ initial failure to welcome an openly gay and openly disabled employee. Now the story is about what the lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office did after they realized they’d made a couple of big legal mistakes. 

The State has a rigorous government contracting process. After going through these procurement requirements, my employers hired the State’s chosen private investigator to handle my complaint of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Then someone within the Attorney General’s Office decided it made sense to combine the investigation into my narrow sexual orientation discrimination complaint with a second assignment. He asked the same investigator to evaluate a secret litany of complaints from the supervisors who had already decided to get rid of me – even though the contractual Work Order only authorized Defendants to conduct an investigation into my allegations regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation, and even though no one bothered to tell me they’d changed the scope of Defendants’ investigation. Any competent employment lawyer would tell you that was a big mistake.  

Despite the fog of mental illness, that spring I managed to do one smart thing:  I used my savings to hire an experienced Seattle employment lawyer who specializes in disability accommodation and discrimination to represent me in my dispute with the Attorney General’s Office. I didn’t ask her to handle my pending sexual orientation discrimination complaint, because that’s one of my own legal specialties. Based on what the Attorney General’s lawyers and their investigator said, I assumed the investigation into alleged sexual orientation discrimination by my supervisor was separate from any issues related to my own conduct and my disability.

Hiring a disability lawyer interfered with my employer’s secret plan to use their investigator’s report as a pretext for firing me. Rather than change their plan, however, the Attorney General’s Office’s made an even bigger error. In violation of the ethical rules governing all attorneys, the lawyers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office denied me the benefit of the disability attorney I hired to represent me for the specific purpose of engaging the Attorney General’s Office in a good faith dialogue about my continued employment and potential accommodations of my disability. 

Of course, I never knew about either legal mistake until a year and a half after my termination, when Defendants belatedly produced undeniable evidence in my lawsuit against Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC, the second sleaziest law firm in Washington after the Attorney Generals Office.

If you’re looking for evidence to back up my accusations, here’s a sworn declaration I filed with the Washington Supreme Court that outlines the facts, including copies of each of the incriminating emails begrudgingly produced by the Attorney General’s Office in response to my unyielding requests under the Public Records Act.   

The lawyers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office figured out that they’d made a couple of huge mistakes by May 3, 2016. That’s when the junior lawyer assigned to my case must have realized she should have told my disability attorney and me about the expanded scope of the investigation, and she shouldn’t have directed her investigator to interrogate me about the subject of my representation by counsel without first getting permission from my lawyer. At least May 3, 2016 is when we know she told her supervisors what happened.

When the folks at the Attorney General’s Office uncover a horrendous legal mistake, their response typically comes from a familiar playbook. Usually they’ve already resorted to a favorite strategy by now:  throw someone under the bus.  

But don’t take my word for it. Just four months before the Attorney General’s blunders in my case, the public learned about a very similar incident of legal malpractice. Relying on incomplete legal advice from another Assistant Attorney General, the Washington Department of Corrections released thousands of prisoners early. Governor Inslee subsequently commissioned an outside investigation into the scandal. Pages 36 through 39 of the final report offer a damning view of the Attorney General's Office. According to footnote 15 of the report, within six weeks the junior attorney was no longer employed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

As the Seattle Times reported, that was the same playbook the Attorney General’s Office followed when a young Assistant Attorney General missed the appeal deadline for a $17.8 million verdict against the State. The office put new trainings and policies in place, and a junior employee was blamed and fired. No doubt the same thing has happened to numerous other lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office when the State was caught getting got the law dead wrong. Statistically, it’s the biggest and clumsiest law firm in the State. There will always be someone to throw under the bus. 

After four years of increasingly embarrassing revelations, the Attorney General’s Office still hasn’t publicly identified a scapegoat in my case (other than blaming the victim, of course). Why not?

Perhaps it’s because the “junior attorney” involved was not some newly hired law school graduate. To the contrary, she was an experienced employment lawyer, with the office’s most distinguished title of “Senior Counsel.”

Or maybe it’s because her supervisor, the lawyer who made the bone-headed decision in March 2016 to secretly expand the scope of the lawyers’ investigation beyond my sexual orientation discrimination complaint, was a big man – the Division Chief of the Labor & Personnel Division.

You can’t make this shit up. But let me add one more fact. March 2016 was a busy month for the State’s top employment lawyer. In addition to bungling my case, the big man was promoted to Chief Deputy Attorney General.

A very big man indeed. Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s #2.

My lawyer and I had no idea about any of this at the time. Rather, I learned about the Chief Deputy Attorney General’s involvement eighteen months later, when Defendants belatedly produced a copy of what turned out to be the first of many incriminating emails. I figured out the wrongdoers identity when I deciphered the recipient’s address on the email:  “” “ShaneE” is Shane Esquibel – Bob Ferguson’s long-serving Chief Deputy Attorney General. 

I barely knew who Mr. Esquibel was during my employment with the Attorney General’s Office. In 2016, I didn’t realize he was involved with either my sexual orientation discrimination complaint, or with the disability claims my employment lawyer was pursuing on my behalf. To the contrary, as I wrote a couple of years ago in “Mapping Mistakes,” the State’s lawyers and their investigator successfully concealed the Chief Deputy Attorney General’s role until October 2017. Since then, the Attorney General’s Office has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid scrutiny into Mr. Esquibel’s conduct.

I’ve learned to be patient. And I’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years. Eventually, someone in authority will pay attention to my story. 

In the meantime, all the key evidence is tidily arranged for an aggressive journalist, smart lawyer, prudent politician, or honest judge to examine. Every road leads back to the same incriminating facts:  blunders by lawyers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office, followed by an increasingly clumsy cover-up.  

The truth is too big for the Attorney General’s Office to fit under their bus.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Oliver Picks Asparagus

Pandemic living reveals the diversity of personality types. For example, when it comes to taking long walks around Bellingham, Buster is the weakest link. However, most voters would also pick Buster as the happiest camper in the family. 

In contrast, although Bear is the ideal walking companion, my new Best Friend is generally recognized as the biggest whiner in the house. (I am third.) Fortunately I’m still #1 on the “Showtunes” list, followed by my daughter Eleanor. Across town, Grandma and my nephew are battling it out for #3

Ordinarily Eleanor and my father are the only ones in the running for the family’s TV-watching championship. However, coronavirus’ abrupt cancelation of all live sporting events devastated Grandpas statistics. Similarly, my other daughter is a distant second to my son in the video game standings. 

When my kids say “Papa, you’re just like Grandma,” they’re usually referring to reading or to house cleaning. I take either as a compliment, even though my children intend both as insults.

On Sunday we had dinner with my parents and watched the Stephen Sondheim 90th birthday live-stream together. While waiting for the roast to cook and for YouTube to fix the technical glitches, my three adopted children and I played “Sorry” on the family room floor. 

It took me right back to my childhood with three younger brothers. Then or now, every Leishman board game involves four poor losers with interchangeable tantrums. Unlike most personality traits, bad sportsmanship apparently is a matter of nurture, not nature.

I told my mother if coronavirus had arrived forty years earlier, she would have had a relatively easy time holding her quarantined household together. Dorothy Parker once described Katherine Hepburn’s acting in a long-forgotten Broadway play as “running the gamut of emotions from A to B.” That basically describes the Leishman brothers.

In contrast with my own monochromatic youth, my children are growing up in a home that is thoroughly diverse, and utterly lacking in genetic connections. Even our two Aussiedoodles seem unrelated – Bear is all Australian shepherd, while Bear is a big fluffy ball of poodle. Perhaps most significantly, this whole hormonal adolescent girl phenomenon is a completely new experience for everyone in the house. 

Parenthood necessarily teaches me how to deal with multiple personality types. Every message or activity must be tailored to a variety of audiences. For example, none of the kids has ever been terribly fussy eater. But collectively they’re a menu-planning nightmare.

Like other folks who are trapped at home by pandemic, we’ve been cooking more lately. Not the elegant cuisine on display in the Facebook photos posted by my fabulously kid-free gay friends. At our house we’re focused on comfort foods:  spaghetti, mashed potatoes, fruit salads, stir fry, soft tacos, chocolate chip cookies…. 

Nevertheless, occasionally I try to push the envelope. This month I served my children both steamed and sautéed asparagus. 

Any stable social structure allows for a few veto situations. Even though my son insists it would be his best hope for a scholarship to the University of Washington, I’ve already used one of my precious parental vetos to rule out what Oliver refers to as “tackle football.” Someday his brain will thank me.

Like parents, children also need the opportunity to select a few veto-worthy items, such as nonnegotiable food loathings. My brothers and I each chose brussels sprouts. Eventually. When my mother finally acquired a new china cabinet a few years ago, she discovered my middle brother’s ancient stash of petrified brussels sprouts hidden behind the old china cabinet. (Perhaps they were my fathers.) 

My kids have grown up without the horrors of brussels sprouts. Instead, Eleanor despises avocado, including guacamole. So she doesn’t have to eat any. It’s her loss, but not a huge personal or familial inconvenience.

Rosalind hates tomatoes, even though they’re one of the glories of nature. For years I’ve tried to convince her to pick a less essential fruit/vegetable, to no avail. Fortunately her tomato aversion does not extend to pasta sauces.

So far, Oliver had been hoarding his food veto – mostly by feeding undesirable items to the dogs when Papa wasn’t looking. However, while trapped alone at the table last week, Oliver picked asparagus.

Before Oliver was required to make his fateful decision, we had a family discussion about the social implications of our food vetoes. 

Rosalind asked what I do when I’m invited to dinner at someone else’s house where they serve brussels sprouts. I told her I figure out a way to be polite. Besides, like Oliver I’m pretty confident in my ability to avoid an unpleasant meal without getting caught. 

Eleanor pushed the issue – what I would do if I’m dating a nice guy who likes to cook, and he surprises me with brussels sprouts? As usual, the other two kids chortled at the implausible prospect of Papa being invited on a date, which allowed me to duck Eleanor’s veto over-riding question.

Until now. It’s purely hypothetical, but the answer probably involves butter, bacon, and hot sex.

Dr. Khush Mark on Brussel sprouts

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Opening the Sluices

During World War II, my maternal grandfather Hyrum Boyd Phillips was a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. His father, James Wilford Phillips, worked on the Panama Canal as a young man four decades earlier.

Hiram M. Chittenden served with the Army Corps of Engineers a generation before my great grandfather. During his long career, Chittenden worked on projects across the country, including many of the original improvements in Yellowstone Park. In 1906, Chittenden was appointed to head the Seattle District of the Corps of Engineers. He designed the waterway that connects Lake Washington with the Puget Sound. My map collection includes a 1907 copy of Chittenden’s canal proposal.

Lake Washington is the largest lake in the state. Before Americans invaded the Pacific Northwest, the lakes surface was 30 feet above sea level. The lake emptied at its marshy south end into the Black River, which joined the Duwamish River before meandering into Elliott Bay. 

Nearby Lake Union was 21 feet above sea level, and drained into a protected salt water inlet to the west. The future location of Seattle’s Ballad neighborhood was a native village named sHusHóól, meaning “Tucked Away Inside.” Paler folks named the sheltered inlet Salmon Bay. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Chittendens ship canal changed everything. 

On the east side of Seattle’s isthmus, the Corps of Engineers dug the Montlake Cut to connect large Lake Washington to small Lake Union and Portage Bay. To the west, the Fremont Cut replaced the stream draining Lake Union with a navigable channel. And where formerly salt-water Salmon Bay connected with the Puget Sound, the Corps built a pair of locks, a sluiceway, and a small fish ladder.

In July 1916, the engineers closed the gates at the western entrance to the newly-completed locks, and let water flow west through the Fremont Cut. Freshly desalinated Salmon Bay rose nine feet to meet the level of Lake Union. 

Click here for the Seattle Times’ cool before-and-after sliding version of these graphics

While engineers construct a dam, they build a temporary “cofferdam,” a watertight enclosure that is pumped dry during construction. On August 25, 1916, the Corps of Engineers breached the cofferdam protecting the Montlake Cut. Water poured through the gap into the finished canal. Over the next few months, Lake Washington’s water level gradually fell nine feet, permanently altering the lake’s 72 mile shoreline. The spillway at the west end of the locks became both lakes sole outlet. The Black River dried up and disappeared.

The last surviving member of the Shilshole native community, “Salmon Bay Charlie,” was forcibly removed to make way for construction of the locksHiram Chittenden died in 1917, three months after the Ship Canal’s dedication. In 1956, the canal locks – no longer “Second to Panama” – were renamed in Chittenden’s honor.

Everyone more or less adjusted to the new normal. Except for the salmon.

This week marks three years of blogging, with 300 essays published on this blog so far. I lost track of the total word count long ago, but it’s probably approaching 400,000 words. Collectively that’s somewhere between the size of Middlemarch and Gone With the Wind.

Appallingly, my published blog posts are only tip of the writing iceberg. I already have another three hundred individual MS Word files containing draft essays, book chapters, and book or article proposals, with titles ranging from “Oliver Votes for Asparagus” to “Me Too, Bruce.” At this rate I could keep publishing a couple of blog essays each week for another five years, even if I had no new ideas, and completely ignored current events.

Instead, as a result of my much improved mental health, the writing muse has picked up the pace. For example, a couple of months ago I woke up with the idea for “If Love Were All,” and published the final essay three hours later (choosing the pictures took 45 minutes). Last week I wrote “Buster is the Weakest Link” in my head during a four mile walk with Bear. 

Meanwhile, my gay Mormon PTSD memoir, Anyone Can Whistle: a Memoir of Showtunes, Religion, and Mental Illness, finally took shape last month after I poured its extra chapters into my other book projects. FYI, all the sex, drugs, and other fictions filtered into my gay Mormon novel, The Word of Wisdom.

In addition to the fun writing, my life also remains flooded with wordy legal filings. Fortunately for everyone, improved mental health reduces the number of PTSD-fueled rants against injustice. My long monologuing letters to opposing counsel are down to a pithy two pages or less each, tossed off between Zoom writing classes for myself and home schooling sessions with my children.

After three decades of debilitating writer’s block, I marvel at my newfound ability to sit down at the computer and just write something. For example, I wrote my entire Supplemental Brief for the Washington Supreme Court from scratch in two days, well before the due date. I should apologize to all my clients in private practice who were told a project like that would take at least two weeks to do well. 

My increased efficiency and capacity arrived just in time. Even as the State’s stubborn denials result in additional legal proceedings, I’ve learned how to juggle numerous hot water balloons.

We think in metaphors. As I wrote last year in Indoor Plumbing, flow metaphors provide the most useful models for describing how my writing process works. At the same time, writing has also become the most useful proxy for my thinking process – such as the interaction between my conscious and unconscious mind, and the current status of my ability to think and communicate effectively.

Looking back at my blog output over the last three years, I recognize another important recurring theme:  quantum leaps. I’ve come a long way since my PTSD diagnosis in November 2015 and my suicidal nadir a year later. Much of that progress has been gradual. But as I wrote in “Nonlinear Thinking,” and as we’ve all learned from epidemiology recently, some events trigger exponential rather than merely linear change.

Starting with my Court of Appeals victory in September and the Washington Supreme Court’s favorable ruling in January, through gay Muppets and fierce Canadian drag queens in February, I’ve experienced a quantum leap. It shows up most obviously in my writing. Since the first of the year, I’ve regularly published two substantial blog essays each week. My legal work is going well. My other writing is coming along well, too. Most importantly, my family is thriving. Despite all the massive changes to our lives over the last few years, this winter the kids and I finally achieved an equilibrium. As I wrote at the beginning of March, I finally felt Better-ish

Days later, pandemic closed the schools and the Canadian border. And cancelled chorus, and sports, and travel, and art, and life. Suddenly I found myself without enough fingers to plug all the leaky dikes.

Here’s where quantum leap connects with water works.

All the Leishmans of Bellingham are desperate for something new to binge watch. Fortunately, each of the new streaming services has been competing for customers by offering free trials. So far I’ve watched the first two episodes of Belgravia, some Schitt’s Creek and Pennyworth, all of Star Trek: Picard, and the first season of Star Trek: Discovery.

In Star Trek Discovery, the ships security chief is a hot guy who suffers from PTSD. The also crew includes a gay couple, with the engineer played by Anthony Rapp and the doctor played by Wilson Cruz. (As usual, Cruz’s gay character tragically dies.) In the climactic episode of Season One, the USS Discovery is trapped in a parallel universe. To save both universes, the crew must ignite a massive explosion. Unfortunately, the resulting surge will destroy the ship. Fortunately, Rapp’s engineer character figures out how to ride the wave from the explosion and escape back to our universe.

As I was researching the history of the Hiram Chittenden locks, I came upon this additional picture of the Montlake Cut opening in August 1916. The photo reminded me of Star Trek Discovery.

After the failure of two earlier cofferdam attempts, the Corps of Engineers finally completed excavating the Montlake Cut in June 1914. However, the empty Montlake canal remained blocked at both ends by wooden gates for another two years, awaiting the construction of foundations for the drawbridge across the ship canal. In an eerie premonition of the region’s feckless transportation planning, Seattle voters refused to approve any bonds funding bridge construction until 1915. 

Coronavirus’ arrival a century after the last flu pandemic didn’t remove any of the existing pressure on my plague-filled life. To the contrary, pressure has only increased on everyone. Like the crew of the Discovery, I had no alternative to riding the wave. 

Happily, after a few weeks of false starts we’ve achieved a new equilibrium at our house. It turns out I made some sound investments in mental infrastructure. I don’t expect the new normal to last a century, like the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram Chittenden Locks. But I’m confident the center will hold.

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

Buster is the Weakest Link

We’ve been trapped at home on coronavirus lockdown for four weeks now. Each of the Leishmans of Bellingham has made an individualized list of what we miss most. Here’s my top three:

1.     Vancouver Men’s Chorus
2.     Public schools
3.     Canada

“Public schools” also appeared on each of my parents’ miss lists, competing with bridge, golf, TV sports, church, and the public library. (For me the library closure is stuck on the bubble). The school closure would also appear on my nephew’s list if he were still in town, but instead he’s quarantined with the rest of his family across the continent. 

One of my children – the impatient extrovert who longs for softball practice and theater rehearsals – also misses school. Eleanor copes by awakening each dawn for a grueling daylong regimen of vigorous exercise, alternated with TikTok and binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy for the umpteenth time. 

My other two children are still in bed, regardless of the time of day. Their miss lists barely included “Seeing my friends at school.” Similarly, closed schools only made one of the dog’s lists. The coronavirus pandemic is making Buster miserable.

In contrast, Bear is loving it.

Our dog’s life is better than ever. He’s the lord of a large enclosed backyard, or he can wander throughout the house. Papa has abandoned the pretense of being either allergic or hygienic, and stopped shoo-ing the dogs off his bed. Bear is probably napping on the bed right now, dreaming of our next walk. As the alpha of our small pack, Bear gets first pick of all the good stuff, including Papa’s affection.

Sadly, Papa is not loving it. You probably thought someone who already works from home and who adores his children would be perfectly suited to “sheltering in place” with his family. You were wrong. It’s not just #1 and #3 on my list (plus the public library closure and zero social life). It’s also that big #2. I miss the kids being gone from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm five days a week. After adapting to single parenthood during the fall, this winter the kids, dogs and I finally settled into a lovely routine. Now it’s ruined. 

Like my children, I’ve compensated with extra sleep and exercise. For example, on Friday I walked thirteen miles:  three miles with Bear and Buster, four miles with Bear, two miles with Bear and the kids, and four miles alone. 

Buster is hating life.

Both dogs came from the same Aussiedoodle breeder, but Bear is more poodle than Australian shepherd. He hasn’t had a haircut since last summer. No one has seen Buster's eyes for months. I can barely squeeze a collar and harness over his poofy ears. With the arrival of spring, Buster regularly overheats on our walks.

The second photo is Buster. The first photo was posted from quarantine last week by my BYU friend Matthew. The resemblance is uncanny. Particularly their coloring (although I hope Matt’s chest hair hasn’t gotten as white as Buster’s).

All along the west coast, hairdressers and dog groomers failed to make the cut for “essential” businesses. Their closure made Matthew’s miss list, narrowly edging out “Church” and “Trips to the Faroe Islands.” For Buster, “No haircut” is #1.

Last week I gave up inviting Buster on serious walks. 

Before I’m accused of poodle-shaming, let me tell you about our family walk on Thursday evening. Neither of my introverted children made it outside by the dinnertime deadline. So they received mandatory invitations to join the dogs and me on what we refer to as our “short” evening walk around the hilltop.

My children only made it a third of the way before they abandoned us, announcing the route wasn’t short enough. Buster made it another block. Then he keeled over on some professor’s manicured lawn. 

Buster failed to respond to my comfort. I tried dragging him a couple of times, but he was dead weight. I couldn’t just leave Buster lying there on the grass, like I would with one of the children. I thought about texting Eleanor and asking her to come watch Buster while Bear and I walked back to get the car. However, my daughters direction sense is so terrible she’d just get lost.

As I stood in the sunshine pondering my dilemma, I saw a rabbit out of the corner of my eye. So did the dogs. They raced after the rabbit, yanking the leash out of my hand. Including Buster – the lazy malingering soccer player of the litter.

On our long Buster-free walk yesterday afternoon, Bear and I encountered a couple of little old ladies down the hill. One of the women asked about Bear’s breed. I explained I had a couple of shaggy Aussiedoodles, but the other one was staying cool at home. She said she has fourteen-year-old Labradoodle. Nowadays she has to carry him everywhere.

From their safe social distance across the street, the women couldn’t hear me mutter “Buster is only three years old, and already I have to carry him.” But Bear heard me.

The arrival of a gorgeous spring has made quarantine bearable. This week Bear and I went on several long excursions that were potential candidates for Second Best Walk Ever. However, any Best Walk Ever will include Buster, too. And the children. Unfortunately, like a lot of good things these days, it’s not likely to happen for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, it’s nice to finally be #1 on someone’s list.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Least Gay Great Day Ever

Whenever Vancouver Men’s Chorus stalwart Len Cousineau delivers the announcements at intermission, he begins by telling the crowd “You are the Best AUDIENCE EVER!” 

Over the years I’ve heard numerous other people try versions of the same schtick. No one pulls it off like Lenny. You hear it, and you believe it – because youre convinced Lenny believes it, too. 

Every performance gets the same treatment. Regardless of the artistic or technical fiascos that occurred in the first act, and no matter how catatonic the audience seems so far, we all believe today’s performance still might turn out to be Vancouver Men’s Chorus’ best ever. Really. Lenny – and therefore the chorus and the audience, too – remain supremely confident that somehow tonight’s magic can pull it off once again.

The Peace Arch border crossing between Washington and British Columbia is closed for the first time since 1814. Vancouver Men’s Chorus cancelled all our performances and rehearsals for the foreseeable future. Wednesday’s weekly Showtunes Night in Canada is also on indefinite hiatus. Meanwhile, I’m trapped in the wrong country with three kids, two dogs, and no school. Obviously I’m going through withdrawal. 

It’s not just me. The rest of the men of VMC have similar chorus-sized holes in their lives. All of us miss the music and the hugs. (Even the introverts in VMC are huggers. It’s weird.) Increasingly desperate for a big gay fix, we’ve started Zoom meeting online on Wednesday nights at our regular rehearsal time – just so we can hear a few boring administrative announcements, then sing a shockingly atonal “Happy Birthday” to all the guys with birthdays this week.  

The coronavirus pandemic leaves huge holes in everyone’s lives. We’re filling them with old and new vices like Doritos, alcohol, and Tiger King episodes. All of us who thought we’d whipped our iPhone addictions are again wallowing in a sea of indignant anti-Trump editorials and BuzzFeed personality quizzes. 

Last week someone in the chorus challenged us on Facebook to identify something positive from the quarantine experience. I found myself grasping at straws. Does the cheapest unleaded gas price in decades mean we’ve reversed climate change? Were both of the new Star Trek television programs truly bingeworthy? Do I really need this much quality time with all three of my children, and both dogs? Will you be allowed to have favorites in an actual Zombie Apocalypse?

Then I read about the perilously low blood supply. After three decades of homophobia and bad science, coronavirus desperation finally loosened the FDA’s irrational ban on gay blood donors. It’s been four weeks since I was trapped with my children fulltime as a result of the closure of the schools, border, businesses, etc. I’m looking forward to becoming a first-time blood donor very soon. 

Any challenge to identify the best impacts of coronavirus quickly turns my thoughts to the pandemic’s worst consequences. Not that I’m a pessimist – it’s just that there are so many more bad consequences to choose from.

Right now my worst-impact vote goes to my seething frustration with how quickly everything unravelled. As I wrote in my previous Rock Bottom essay, “Better-Ish,” on a personal level at least, things finally seemed to be going well in 2020. After several terrible years in a row, all the important stuff in my life was going better. I was doing better.

Now lots of new and old stuff aren’t going well at all. My rage is prepared to combust at any moment. But I can handle it. Because I was doing better.

Every gay man from my generation bears the scars of AIDS. In an eerily prescient burst of inspiration, I took a break from writing about kids, brains, and dishonest lawyers in January, and for the first time wrote about the experience of coming out of the closet into a world dominated by AIDS. As I wrote in “Avoidant,”

I’ve never endured physical or sexual abuse, war, or a serious accident. Instead, like too many other sensitive Mormon youths, I was the victim of emotional abuse from a pervasively homophobic and authoritarian message that denied our very existence. Those unhealed wounds reopened thirty years later, when I experienced “unrighteous dominion” at the hands of ignorant employers and dishonest bureaucrats.

But there’s a sixth common cause of PTSD:  “Witnessing/Experiencing a Mass Disaster.” A big gay mass disaster, which resonated with and amplified the horror of the closet. 

Now we’re all living through the stress of a “Mass Disaster.” Not everyone emerges from war, abuse, disaster, or other traumas debilitated by PTSD. But for some unknown percentage of us, our traumatic experiences during the coronavirus pandemic will result in lifelong wounds.

In the meantime, everyone must endure continuing major stress. Human brains “react in predictable ways in unpredictable situations.” For example, stress can make us scatterbrained. Many people have weird dreams. But we all respond as individuals:  even in the small sample of our household, I’ve observed certain of us sleeping, exercising, reading, or eating more than usual, even as other family members sleep, exercise, read, or eat less

Even though I’m a stress-and-trauma veteran, life has been a struggle lately. Some of my most effective coping strategies remain unavailable to me, such as hugging Vancouver and Vancouver Men’s Chorus. Ordinarily my adorable children are an asset; when they remain in my hair full time, the kids frequently become liabilities instead. Meanwhile, my feverish attempts to impose order on chaos have only made things worse.

Eventually I stopped fighting. Frankly the house feels less crowded when half of us get up by 7 am, and the other half get up at noon. Ive also accepted that true “home schooling” only works for anti-vaxxer fundamentalists. The arrival of spring helped, although Bear and I are wearing out Buster with our long mindful walks. (Buster is an overheating fur ball who thinks dog grooming should be considered an “essential service.”) 

It took a few weeks to get here, but last Friday we finally had a Great Day. I did what I could, and endured everything else with my family and a smile. I finished a blog post, plus some other legal and nonlegal writing. The dogs and I frolicked in our favorite parks. I read a book and stared at screens in appropriate ratios. I took a shower, even though I didn’t need it. The whole family made it outside with minimal wailing and gnashing of teeth. Back indoors, we tidied the living room before watching the new Pixar movie Onward

I even got some good news. A couple of weeks ago I published a blog post, “Have Fun!,” about how my Mormon mission started with traumatic drama. My friend Todd was sent home from our mission in disgrace when an overzealous BYU sanitation employee found incriminating letters in a garbage can from Todd’s secret gay lover.

Decades later, “Have Fun!” concluded with a happy gay ending:

A few years ago, I got an email out of the blue from Todd. I was still a frustrated lawyer/single dad in Seattle. Todd revealed that after facing a few more challenges in his twenties, he got his life back on track. Eventually Todd became a gay English professor. 

Damn. Isn’t that the definition of a happy ending?

I lost touch with Todd after moving to Bellingham and encountering mental illness, but I still had his email address. Because my blog post included preposterously gay photos from our youth, as a courtesy I forwarded him a link to the essay. Last Friday he responded with an email updating me on his life. Excellent news – Todd no longer is a gay English professor. Instead, he’s now a gay academic administrator. In my experience, thats a huge demotion.

Quarantine still sucks. And life isn’t a competition. But if life were a competition, I’m back in the running.

A big part of my improved mental health in the last year came from transformations from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” Being forced to deal with one disaster after another eventually taught me how to bounce back from repeated failure. 

So a big part of my frustration with pandemic living was the fact that the sheer suckiness of everything suddenly made it impossible to plausibly tell myself things will be getting better any time soon. However, on our walk last Friday I finally regained my ability to tell Bear and Buster, “yes we have lots of challenges, but today still could end up being the Best Day Ever.”

One more pandemic bummer:  I’m currently suffering from my worst bout of carpal tunnel and tennis elbow ever. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been writing too much. Screen time on my computer is indeed up 685% over January. But phone usage is up an exponential 7,080,500%.  

So here’s one of the numerous handy BuzzFeed items I’ve run across: All The Disney Princes Ranked From Least Gay To Most Gay.  (at #10, “Aladdin is the Nick Jonas of Disney princes.”) Sadly, just about everything else in my life is less gay than ever. It’s like all the “gay” has disappeared from “Gay Sitcom Dad.”

Nevertheless, today still could be the Best Day Ever. If so, odds are today will also be the Least Gay Great Day Ever.

Previously in Rock Bottom Stories
Better-Ish.”   Next: "I am Karen"

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