Schrödinger’s Fridge has been waking me up at night.
When my ex moved back to the Midwest a year ago, I took over the lease on his convenient rental house. The kids, dogs, and I live in a comfortable classic ranch located near the kids’ schools, in a tiny residential enclave nestled up against the university. It’s the most neighborly neighborhood I’ve known since my childhood in Vancouver. Our marvelous landlords, a professorial couple, live just down the street.
The original fixtures in older homes are doomed to fail eventually. Last month when the refrigerator died we didn’t notice immediately. The freezer was doing fine, and because the light in the fridge has never worked, no one realized anything was amiss until everything had gone bad.
My landlady relies on handyman Glen, the Appliance Whisperer, to stretch life expectancies indefinitely. Sure enough, from my description of the problem Glen immediately figured out it was something to do with the defrost unit. He’s almost as good at diagnosis as my excellent Bellingham physicians Dr. Heuristic and Dr. Practical. As soon as Glenn could fit us into his busy schedule, he came over and magically revived the fridge. He even fixed the light.
As people and appliances age, their problems multiply. Fortunately, the refrigerator is as clean and cold and illuminated as it’s ever been in its life. Unfortunately, now the fridge makes loud airplane-like noises. Based on my texted sound effects, Glen says not to worry – it’s something to do with the evaporation fan that won’t affect the fridge temperature, and he’ll make a house call as soon as he can.
In the meantime, the grinding noises wake me up in the middle of the night. I want to believe in Glen. But I can’t get back to sleep, because I worry the orange juice and cream cheese will be spoiled by morning.
There are many kinds of unanswerable questions, from quantum physics to philosophy to dividing by zero. The Buddha refused to answer fourteen questions. Here are his first four:
1. Is the world eternal?
2. ...or not?
3. ...or both?
4. ...or neither?
As a fan of Broadway musicals, here are the first four unanswerable questions I ask:
1. Why hasn’t Stephen Schwartz ever won a Tony award?
2. Is Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along hopelessly unstageable?
3. Which movie version of a musical had the worst miscasting ever – Barbra Streisand as Dolly instead of Carol Channing, or Lucille Ball as Mame instead of Angela Lansbury? (Fortunately Bea Arthur played Vera in both version of Mame.)
4. When will the theaters finally reopen?
Ever since I first discovered evidence of illegal conduct at my former employer the Washington Attorney General’s Office, I’ve been trying to get answers to some pretty obvious questions. After enduring three years of stonewalling, my questions have been getting increasingly pointed. Painfully pointed.
In one of my introductory blog posts about the mechanics of litigation I described the “discovery” phase of a lawsuit. During discovery each party can request copies of relevant documents from other side, and can ask written questions in the form of “interrogatories.” Under the federal rules of civil procedure, the plaintiff can ask each defendant to answer up to 25 interrogatories. So far I’ve only asked two questions. Here are paraphrased versions of each, translated back from legalese into English:
INTERROGATORY NO. 1:
In March 2016, the Attorney General’s Office signed a written contract that authorized an outside investigator firm to look into Plaintiff Roger Leishman’s complaint of sexual orientation discrimination by his employer. Identify the State’s legal basis for instead spending tax dollars on an investigation into the separate issue of his supervisors’ secret complaints about odd behavior resulting from Leishman’s disability.
INTERROGATORY NO. 2:
After the investigation into his concerns about implicit and explicit homophobia in the workplace began, Plaintiff Leishman hired an experienced disability lawyer for the specific purpose of negotiating with Leishman’s employer in the interactive disability “reasonable accommodation” process required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Identify any evidence supporting the sworn statement by the Attorney General’s Office testifying that “the reasonable accommodation process was put on hold” during Spring 2016.
Some unanswerable questions actually have answers.
A “rhetorical” question is asked for dramatic effect, and has an obvious answer. In case you’re wondering, the answer to both Interrogatory No. 1 and Interrogatory No. 2 is zip. My employer broke the law, and then lied about it.
According to Webster’s dictionary, a “trick” question is “one that causes difficulty.” Sometimes the truth is painfully difficult to face. When a question’s only possible answer is “I broke the law,” an individual can invoke the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination and refuse to answer. Unfortunately for my former employer, the Fifth Amendment doesn’t apply to State agencies.
Eventually the State’s squirming will end. The Attorney General’s Office will finally have no alternative to telling the truth. What do I expect to happen at that point? Either Attorney General Bob Ferguson will be offering me a public apology, or a federal judge will be making all the decisions that matter for the foreseeable future. I’ll be happy either way.
This will make other Broadway fans jealous, but my Playbill collection includes the entire Idina Menzel trifecta: I saw her in the original productions of Rent, Wicked, and If/Then.
Even straight people are familiar with Rent and Wicked. If/Then is a much more obscure musical that opened in 2014. Idina played Elizabeth, a 38-year-old urban planner who returns to New York to start life over after getting divorced. The plot turns on a classic literary device. If/Then alternates between two versions of Elizabeth’s life, depending on whether she answers a phone call from a former colleague. “Beth” takes the call, and follows a careerist track. “Liz” misses the call, and has a family instead.
Everyone has unanswerable questions about how their own lives would have turned out if things had gone in a different direction at key pivot points. Three years ago in “Flashpoint” I wrote that I have no regrets about anything that occurred before Spring 2011, when we salvaged Oliver’s adoption.
Still, I can’t help asking about my past. My greatest curiosity involves the major life change that occurred when I was twelve. That’s when we moved from Vancouver, Canada, to a small town in northern Utah. My parents came to their senses five years later and moved back to the Pacific Northwest, but the damage was already done. Three decades later, abusive conduct by employees at the Attorney General’s Office triggered the PTSD symptoms that ended my legal career and destroyed my health. But the underlying trauma began during the years when I was a teenager in Utah, where the Mormon church and Mormon culture overwhelmed me with their relentlessly homophobic and dehumanizing message.
After examining and re-examining my own Canadian childhood memories, I keep badgering my parents and others about what they remember about me. I want to know what kind of person I was before I left Vancouver at age twelve – because I wonder if that’s the kind of person I’m turning into now.
During times like these we all find ourselves asking unanswerable questions. For example, “What one thing are you most surprised to find out you can bear to lose, and still be able say you are as happy as you’ve ever been in your life?” Here’s my answer: The other day my mother and I were asking each other when was the last time we’d gone this long without setting foot in Canada. I’m at 1984. Mom’s at 1981. I do not have words to convey how much I miss Vancouver and Vancouver Men’s Chorus during this pandemic. Yet all is well.
Lately I’ve been making amazing progress with the manuscript of my book Anyone Can Whistle: A Memoir of Showtunes, Religion, and Mental Illness. The chapters of the book are divided into three parts: “Traumas,” “Triggers,” and “Recoveries.” In many ways I’m still living through Part III. Fortunately, four long years after mental health rock bottom, I feel better than ever. If I’m never able to think or write any better than I can today, I’d call that a huge victory.
We can’t say the same thing about my poor body’s recovery. To the contrary, as a result of decades of traumas, triggers, and stresses, my trichotillomania and bruxism are off the charts. Fortunately, mental health comes with various benefits. I’ll close with one example about how it wasn’t just writing that got blocked during the plague years. It was everything else, too. Rather than finish the smallest of ordinary tasks, I would let them simmer, percolate, fester. Eventually my paralysis reached the point where I couldn’t finish anything until I absolutely had to. Instead, my desk was always covered with stacks of procrastinated projects. The dishwasher, sink, and counter were always half filled. The entire house consisted of “staging areas” where I would put things on their way to where they belonged.
One of the reasons we moved from Vancouver to Brigham City in 1976 was to be close to my paternal grandparents. They lived twenty miles away from us, on the family farm where my dad grew up. My ancestors settled Wellsville, Utah in the 1850s. After hearing the message of Mormon missionaries in Scotland, my Leishman forebears sailed across the ocean and walked across the plains to Salt Lake City. Then Brigham Young sent them 90 miles north to plant crops and raise cows in remote Cache Valley.
My daughter Rosalind is busy writing an essay about her family for English class. Last night I told her the story of my grandfather Ernest Leishman, the finest example of devoted love I’ve ever known. During the five years my parents lived in Utah, my grandparents would drive through the canyon for family dinner at our house every Monday night. But I do not have a single memory of Grandma speaking. She’d already started the long decline into Alzheimer’s disease.
Grandpa cared for her at home as long as he could. When Grandma had to move into a nearby nursing home he visited her every day, and brought her home as often as possible for as long as he could. She died two decades later. Grandpa died less than six months afterwards, having held on long enough to make sure Grandma was cared for to the end.
One day we brought her back from the nursing home to the farmhouse. By then Grandma didn’t recognize anyone, but she could still move around. As my mother helped her change into a different dress, Mom told Grandma she looked beautiful. Grandpa took his wife’s hand, and said “That’s because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”
When I started observing an increase in my short-term memory loss a couple of years ago, I nervously raised the subject of dementia with my physician Dr. Heuristic. He added a new item to his standard repertoire of go-to diagnoses: my symptoms are just a perfectly normal response to stress. And by any objective measure, right now I’m under as much stress as I’ve ever been in my life. Starting with the fact that the Peace Arch gates at the border are closed for the first time since the War of 1812.
The good news? I’ve made so much progress with other aspects of my mental health that I’m no more avoidant than a perfectly normal person. In fact, nowadays I’m much less avoidant than most people. The festering piles of unpaid bills are gone. The kitchen counters are clear. All the staging areas have disappeared. Just in time to cancel out my stress-induced memory blanks.
For the first time since my childhood in Vancouver, I can answer the unanswerable questions that matter most: when I can’t remember where I put something, at least I know I’ll find it in the right place.