Thursday, April 8, 2021

Un Canadien Errant


Numerous studies show the immense social and mental health benefits from singing in a community choir. In particular, nothing has contributed more to LGBT progress over the last four decades than the voices of gay choruses. 

 

This year Vancouver Men’s Chorus marks its fortieth anniversary. We planned a season filled with spectacular celebrations, including a concert with visiting members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the leather granddaddy of LGBT choruses. SFGMC is three years older than each of the exceptional gay choruses I’ve sung with over the last quarter century: Windy City Gay Chorus, Seattle Men’s Chorus, and now VMC. As a 50-something gay man, the difference between ages 40 and 43 seems trivial. On the other hand, as the parent of two fifteen-year-old girls and one twelve-year-old boy, I know three years can make a lifetime of difference.

 


VMC is Canada’s oldest gay chorus, and one of the country’s most successful and resilient arts organizations. Willi Zwozdesky, our founder, is the longest-serving conductor in the worldwide LGBT choral movement. I joined VMC in January 2016 after fifteen years singing in SMC and five years singing with WCGC. Gay choruses save lives, including mine.

 

No community has been more isolated by the covid pandemic than choral singers. Especially gay choruses. Especially exiles from bi-national gay choruses. 


An article in today’s New York Times tells the story of a choir in the community twenty miles south of Bellingham. On March 11, 2020, sixty-one members of the Skagit Valley Chorale attended the group’s regular weekly rehearsal. Fifty-three singers promptly developed Covid-19 symptoms. Two died. 

According to the president of Chorus America, news coverage about the Skagit Valley Chorale tragedy was “a huge wake-up call that saved lives.” Choruses cancelled all rehearsals and performances. Theaters went dark. A year later, we still cannot blend our voices.

My generation of gay men already endured a deadly plague. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, at least we could sing together. This time our singers face both loss and loneliness.


Like many choruses, including Skagit Valley Chorale, this year Vancouver Men’s Chorus turned to Zoom rehearsals and online performances. We’re currently working on a forty-year “Greatest Hits” concert. Yesterday I put on a variety of vintage VMC outfits so my daughters could videotape our first batch of songs. The dogs helped


 

One of the selections in VMC’s upcoming online Greatest Hits concert is a classic French-Canadian folk song, “Un Canadien errant,” which is French for “A Wandering Canadian.” Antoine GĂ©rin-Lajoie wrote the poem in 1842 when he was a young law student. The song originally commemorated patriots who were deported after an unsuccessful rebellion. It has become an anthem for every Canadian who endures the pain of exile.   

 

VMC’s arrangement of “Un Canadien Errant” is by our gifted accompanist and resident composer, Dr. Stephen Smith. Stephen set a simple choral melody against a gorgeous piano accompaniment that ripples like waves under the men’s voices. 



Vancouver Men’s Chorus performs “off-book,” which means we have to memorize all our music. Fortunately, VMC prepares rehearsal tracks that let you hear your part in one ear, and the rest of the chorus in the other ear. Most songs worm their way into memory with enough repetition. However, some numbers need extra effort.

 

I knew I didn’t have enough time or bandwidth to record all of the songs in the batch of Greatest Hits videos that were due this week. During triage I therefore eliminated the most obvious candidate – a perky dance number from a VMC concert years before my tenure. I was fine with learning new music and lyrics, but memorizing “choralography” is always a challenge. Particularly when I’m trapped at home with three teenagers and two dogs who mock my unswiveling hips.

 

Fortunately I still remembered a couple of the songs from recent concerts, even with their minimal choreography. And I quickly picked up the new song in English. But I’m terrible at memorizing songs in foreign languages. Most languages involve meaningless nonsense syllables that just don’t stick in my brain. Nevertheless, I’m even worse memorizing songs in French, even though I’ve studied the language. Because I’ve studied the language. Sorta knowing a language turns out to be a distraction. So I need to memorize both the French original and an English translation. I suspect I would have a similar problem with Korean if one of my gay choruses ever picked a K-pop song.

 

As I wrote last month in “Deadlines,” my improved mental health means an improved relationship with procrastination. I’m better at teamwork. And even when I need more time, I’m better at recognizing avoidance. In this case, I love Stephen’s arrangement of “Un Canadien Errant” and wanted to sing it. But I wasn’t able to finish recording my tracks earlier because the song reminds me I haven’t crossed the border to Canada in over a year:  my longest period of exile since I was a Mormon missionary in Seoul in 1984.



I began publishing essays on this blog four years ago, eighteen months after I was first diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. By April 2017 I had barely started on the long road to recovery. Nevertheless, I knew I was on the right track when three decades of terrible writer’s block lifted, and I finally began to find my voice. I wouldnt have made it this far without my family, my writing, the dogs, and Vancouver Mens Chorus.  

 

Although April is National Poetry Month, I hadn’t written any fiction or poetry since I was in college. I still haven’t yet. But this week I passed another mental health milestone. Here’s my poetic translation I used to help memorize “Un Canadien Errant”:

 

A wandering Canadian, banished from home,

Traveled through foreign lands in tears.

One day, sadly thoughtful, thoughtfully sad, 

He sat by the shore, and whispered to the fleeing current:

 

“If you see my homeland, my tragic homeland –

Go, tell my friends I still remember them,

Even though our days filled with delight are gone.

Alas, my home – will I ever see you again?”

 

Be that as it may be. As I take my last breath, my beloved Canada,

I will look back longingly toward you.

 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Deadlines


I missed a writing deadline last week.

 

Fortunately, my mental health is vastly improved these days. I no longer beat myself up about reasonable delays. And I don’t let anyone else shame me.



Fairhaven Village is Bellingham’s quaint Olde Tyme neighborhood. The dogs enjoy walking to the waterfront through Fairhaven. Along the way we encounter historic markers that reveal tidbits from the community’s frontier past. According to Atlas Obscura, a local historian obtained community grants to fund the project four decades ago

 

Some of these markers reflect Fairhaven’s Wild West beginnings:  “Location of Town Pillory.” “Spanish Chalice dated 1640 found here.” “Counterfeiters’ Hide Out, 1905 - $5 and $10 pieces passed in saloons on weekends.” “Office of F.A. Higg, Alaskan Photographer, 1890.” “Huge freight wagon disappeared beneath quicksand, 1889.” “Benton’s Bath Parlor & Tonsorial Palace, 1903.” And my favorite: “Here is where Mathew was cut in two by a streetcar, 1891.”



I used to be an awesome procrastinator. College was one long straight-A all-nighter. Eventually I honed avoidance to the point that I could unconsciously gauge the exact amount of time it would take to finish anything just before the deadline. 

 

Becoming a lawyer was a disaster for my mental health in multiple ways. One of the undiagnosed consequences of traumatic experiences in my youth was a case of increasingly operatic writer’s block. Judges, clients, and law partners got used to reading my first-and-final complete drafts.

 

Eventually I became my law firm’s specialist in Washington appeals. Appellate practice is the most civilized home for a litigator – no messy discovery, jury trials, or frantic emergency hearings. While a case is on appeal, nothing happens for years at a time, other than filing a couple of oxymoronically lengthy briefs. And you can always get another extension of the filing deadline, usually in thirty-day increments. 


I believe writers should take as much time as they need to get it right, particularly judges finishing their opinions. I never complain about anyone else’s procrastination.

 

Practicing before appellate courts teaches you that anything other than the “real” deadline is fake. For years, my colleagues completely failed in their efforts to impose artificial milestones on my writing process. In my defense, procrastination is written into Washington’s Rules on Appeal. According to RAP 1.2(a), “Cases and issues will not be determined on the basis of compliance or noncompliance with these rules except in compelling circumstances where justice demands, subject to the restrictions in rule 18.8(b).” 


RAP 18.8(b) imposes a strict limit on extending certain kinds of deadlines, and requires parties to demonstrate such “extraordinary circumstances” that the requested extension is necessary to “prevent a gross miscarriage of justice.” Fortunately this high standard only applies to two situations:  a notice of appeal or a motion for reconsideration of the court’s final decision. After three decades of legal practice, I finally needed to file my first such request just last month. (I asked for the usual thirty days; the Washington Supreme Court gave me ten.)



Despite numerous remaining challenges, these days I enjoy the best mental health of my life. My unconscious still unerring identifies “real” deadlines, but now I’m able to pace the writing process. I can finish a complete draft and let it percolate. Sometimes I even file things early. My brain finally recognizes that many “fake” deadlines actually provide useful accountability and structure. 


As our Fairhaven walks take us closer to Bellingham’s industrial waterfront, the dogs and I encounter a series of Asian-themed markers:  “Site of Chinese Bunkhouse, 1900 – Chinatown population 600.” “Site of Japanese Bunkhouse No. 5, circa 1903.” And “Chinese foreman traded daughter for a boy, 1908.”



This month a deranged Christian killed eight people in Atlanta, including six Asian-American woman. He shot them with a handgun he purchased that same morning. As Slate reported last week, Georgia law requires women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours to ponder their decision. In contrast, “lawmakers in Georgia trust that people who buy deadly weapons are responsible enough to decide to buy a gun and receive that gun on the very same day.”

 

My writing coach last year was an Asian-American woman who grew up in the Seattle suburbs. In the days since the Atlanta shootings, Rebecca filled her Facebook page with anguished memes and a painful examination of what Asian and female identity in America suddenly meant to her.

 

Rebecca’s visceral reaction took me back twenty-two years, to October 1998. I was in Pittsburgh for “Creating Change,” the annual conference of LGBT grassroots activists. I was attending Creating Change that year as Co-Chair of the Equality Federation, the national coalition of statewide LGBT advocacy organizations. During one of our meetings we heard the news about Matthew Shepherd – the gay University of Wyoming student who had been found beaten, tortured, and left to die in a field outside Laramie. 

 

As Matthew Shepard clung to life in a Colorado hospital, the National Lesbian & Gay Task Force organized a candlelight vigil in Pittsburgh. The folks from the Federation’s Wyoming affiliate identified a lesbian activist at the conference who knew Matthew and could speak about being queer in Cowboy Country. Every LGBT advocate at Creating Change had already spent a lifetime combatting the tyranny of the closet – always feeling somehow different, and never escaping the effects of heteronormative privilege. But we didn’t really “know” about homophobia before Matthew Shepard. Events like Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 and Atlanta, Georgia in 2021 expose the unspeakable amount of hate in the world.


The current meaning of the word “deadline – “a date or time before which something must be done” – was unknown before the early 20th century. In the 1800s, the word meant something even more unpleasant: “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” The word came into common usage during the Civil War, when newspapers began reporting on conditions at the notorious Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia.

 

In August 1864, a group of Union officers sent a petition to President Lincoln describing the plight of the prisoners of war held at Andersonville:

 

They are fast losing hope and becoming utterly reckless of life. Numbers, crazed by their sufferings, wander about in a state of idiocy. Others deliberately cross the ‘Dead Line’ and are remorselessly shot down.



There’s a reason all the historic markers referring to Asian residents are located several blocks away from Fairhaven’s traditional business district. As you follow the path from town to the shipyards and train depot, you’ll encounter a more recent plaque with two messages:

 

CHINESE DEADLINE

NO CHINESE ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT

1898-1903

 

Followed by:

 

MAYOR APOLOGIZES TO

CHINESE COMMUNITY

2011

 

Eventually, history reveals a society’s values.



Bonus Pictures of Fairhaven Village historic markers:












Original blood stain?

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Gay Dad Jokes

Gay Sitcom Dad, Year 5, Episode 2


[Like all our favorite television series on The CW, Gay Sitcom Dad begins the new season with two new episodes back-to-back. Here's the link to last Thursday's Episode 1, "Facing Addiction."]



In an unexpected change from 2020, Eleanor and I now drive to the gym every day. (That’s long gay story I’m saving for another episode.) In the car today we returned to a perennial family topic of conversation: Who’s the favorite child?

 

I’m the oldest of four boys. For as long as anyone can remember, each brother and each of our parents tells a different funny story about why everyone knows my youngest brother is the favorite child. Even him.

 

My children are very different from the family I grew up in. They frequently change their guesses for the title of Papa’s Favorite. The girls generally default to picking Oliver, of course – both as the youngest and as the only straight white man in the house. Each child also spends time secretly voting for themselves (sometimes not so secretly). As usually my children are wrong, but in different ways. 

 

Eleanor told me Rosalind thinks the dogs have become my new favorites. Also wrong, of course. Although I obviously have a favorite dog. As I wrote last year in "Guncle Again," 

 

Having a favorite among your own kids is a major developmental faux pas. As a practical matter, I wouldn’t even know how to identify a favorite. My three kids are all very different from each other, and I have a very individualized relationship with each. They’re like apples, oranges, and bananas. Or rather like sushi, blueberry tarts, and gnocchi alla Sorrentina.  

 

Fortunately, unlike children with attachment disorders, Bear and Buster are just dogs. Even Buster is doing fine.



Each of my children also a very distinct sense of humor. For example, twelve-year-old Oliver is currently trying out a hostile adolescent dada-ist vibe. Here are some of the parental put-downs that Oliver tried out on the dogs last  night:  

 

“He doesn’t even have a boyfriend.”

 

“His hairline is irrelevant.”

 

“He looks like the school principal in a SuperCuts ad.”

 

“The only boyfriend he can get is a Men’s Chorus.”



Oliver’s wit is not limited to bad Gay Dad Jokes, however. Here’s an exchange with his sister a few minutes later:

 

Oliver:       Ugh, my shaggy hair makes me look like Justin Bieber.

Eleanor:    Old or new?

Oliver:       Old.

Eleanor:    The new one is hot.

Oliver:       Ew.




Click here for more episodes of Gay Sitcom Dad



Thursday, January 28, 2021

Gay Sitcom Dad


Often I ask myself whether today’s best story is about a Father, a Writer, or a Lawyer. Readers vote overwhelmingly for “Father. 


So here’s Year 5, Episode 1 of Gay SitcoDad: “Facing Addiction.”


Glee. Rachel's birth mother was Idina Menzel.


My kids have been attending Zoom School since March 13, 2020 – which means they spend weekdays invading the dogs’ and my space and sucking up all the wi-fi. 


Even though Bellingham is blessed with excellent public schools, we’ve all struggled with the challenges of online education. Quarantine came as a surprise to everyone. Last spring local educators focused on helping families cope with the once-in-a-century crisis long enough to make it to summer. Because pandemic supply chains limited the availability of ribbons and gold stars, the high school ended up giving every student who logged on A’s in all their classes.


Modern Family switched child actors mid-run. 

Like both The Partridge Family and my son

For the 2020-21 school year, Bellingham Schools’ administrators, teachers, and counsellors prepared an elaborate online curriculum. With real grades. It’s been a challenge for everyone.

 

My high-school nephew is living with us this month while my parents snowbird in Hawaii. That means the dogs and I are stuck with four teenagers. The house’s Apple products include five iPhones, three iPads, two iMacs, and one ancient Macbook. We also have four cheap school-issued laptop PCs that run Windows and Chinese spyware. 


Today the kids were particularly stressed as they approached the end of the semester, with Zoom finals scheduled for tomorrow and the next day. The first period of high school begins at 8:30 am. At 8:23 am this morning we discovered that our Centurylink wi-fi had gone down. At 8:24 am we discovered none of our AT&T iPhones worked either.


Ordinarily I would apply Ockham’s Razor and look for a simple explanation – operator error, unpaid utility bill, divine plague, etc. But none of these alternatives explained why Centurylink’s DSL cable and AT&T’s cellular reception both failed at the same time. 


Jack Donaghy’s 30 Rock gay nemesis Devon Banks (Will Arnett) 

with one of Devon's surrogate triplets

Like rest of their generation, my children are justly accused of being addicted to their phones. Addition is a serious thing. But today began with a period of farce.

 

First we tried turning everything off and on. Nada. As we continued searching for answers we kept looking in the same place – i.e. the internet, which turns out to be completely useless without DSL, wi-fi, or cellular data. Doh.

 

Someone remembered that radio stations provide useful information about local disasters that is not only streamed online but also broadcast on the airwaves. Somewhere in the garage there is an old-fashioned radio for emergencies. Apparently it’s migrated to a mislabeled bin. 

 

Cars are also equipped with radios. For the last six months I’ve been driving my dad’s old Honda. Unfortunately, my daughter ran down the battery a few weeks ago when she was banished outside to finish making loud TikToks. When we jumpstarted the Honda the stereo returned to its factory settings – and I keep forgetting to ask my parents for the security code to reinstall the radio.  

 

What about the ancient minivan, you ask? The Kia is parked on the street in front of the house, uninsured, waiting to be traded in for a new car after my ship finally comes. We discovered the minivan battery is dead when I tried to jumpstart the Honda. (One of the neighbors came over to give us a jump instead.) The powerless minivan remains parked on the street, its radio silent, dreaming of being smashed by a heavily insured drunk driver.


Brothers & Sisters (& Sweaters)


Eventually Bear and I walked over to campus to log onto WWU’s guest wi-fi. 


I was able to read one page of the 29-page legal document I’d been waiting to download. And I finally found the local news. According to the Bellingham Herald, an “unrelated contractor” cut the fiber optic cable serving Bellingham public schools, Centurylink home customers, and “some” AT&T cellphone users. Like us.


The New Normal, cancelled after one season.

Andrew Rannells also originated the role of Elder Price, 

one of the obviously gay missionaries in The Book of Mormon.


Back at the house the situation remained unplugged and dire.

 

Some Leishmans were anxious because they couldn’t attend classes or study for finals. (Obviously that was my conscientious nephew, not my lazy children.) Others were excited about skipping school – until they realized everything fun requires a connection. Eleanor was the hardest hit. Eventually she wandered downtown in a daze, hoping to find some methadone. 

 

I suggested activities like reading a book, or sorting the craft cupboard. This reminded Rosalind that just last week she mourned the departure from Netflix and Hulu of her favorite movie Coraline. Rosalind was disappointed when I wouldn’t pay $19.99 to download a movie when we already owned at least two copies on DVD. So today she and the other kids found a Bluray player that sorta worked and opened the DVD closet.

 

Ordinarily the dogs and I would relish an unplugged day where we couldn’t do legal work, and were forced to read and write between naps and walks. But we couldn’t enjoy ourselves while surrounded by whining children going through withdrawal. So Bear and I drove over to Whatcom Falls Park and took a long walk in the sunshine.

 

Afterwards we stopped by my parents’ house and confirmed their Comcast connection still worked. I decided if our wi-fi was still down after 4 pm I would take pity on my children and drive them back to Grandma’s for a fix. However, shortly after I arrived home my computer reloaded Facebook, and bars returned to everyone’s iPhones. 

 

According to the Bellingham Herald, internet service to the schools and other affected locations was restored at 4:12 pm. At 4:13 the children barricaded themselves to their rooms to stare at screens and reconnect with the Borg.


Mr. Brady died of AIDS-related cancer in 1992.


When Rosalind gave me a hug at bedtime, she said the best part of the day was watching Coraline. Until it started skipping.

Sean's Single Gay Dad was cancelled after just 13 episodes.
I'm still going strong years later.




Click here for more episodes of Gay Sitcom Dad

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Walking Around Sidney Spit


During the 1990s, my friend Jim regularly invited me on his spring sailing trip from Seattle north to the San Juan and Gulf Islands. We would arrive in Victoria’s Inner Harbour in time to watch our more intense sailor buddies compete in the annual Swiftsure Yacht Race. After a fun weekend in Victoria fraternizing with friendly Canadians, our group would sail off to explore otherwise inaccessible gems like Wallace, Prevost, Sucia, and Patos Islands, before returning home to the drudgery of legal practice.


One of my favourite spots was Sidney Spit, just across the border in the Gulf Islands. We tied the Stella Maris to a mooring buoy in the bay, opened some refreshing beverages, and relaxed at the centre of the Salish Sea.


 Mt. Baker from Sidney Spit - © Mike Lathrop

From Sidney Spit you have a stunning view of four major mountain ranges:  the Olympics to the south, Vancouver Island to the west, the B.C. Coast Range to the north, and the Cascades to the east. 

 

As the crow flies, Sidney Spit is about thirty miles due west of Bellingham. On a clear day, the dogs and I can see the same four mountain ranges on our morning walk.



Last Friday morning Bear, Buster, and I began the walk in our own backyard on Bellingham’s South Hill. To the southwest we could see the Olympic Mountains looming in the distance beyond the San Juan Islands.



Crossing the street, from the neighbors’ driveway we saw the Cascade Range and Mount Baker to the east. As with so many other Northwest landmarks, Captain George Vancouver named the mountain during his voyages on H.M.S. Discovery. Joseph Baker, Vancouver’s third lieutenant, sighted the mountain on April 30, 1792. The native name for the mountain is “Kulshan,” which also refers to a local brewery and a middle school.


Mount Baker is the third highest peak in Washington, the second most active volcano, and the largest glacier field. Mount Baker ski area holds the world record for snowfall, with a total of 95 feet falling during the 1999 season. Like Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens, Mount Baker is part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc which extends from Mount Shasta in California to northern British Columbia.   


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cascade_Volcanoes


“Coast Range” and “Cascades” are actually names for the same set of mountains in two different countries. Geographers drew their boundary not at the 49th parallel but rather at the Frasier River, thirty miles north of the border. On our walks the dogs and I can see the Coast Range from the boardwalk at the foot of South Hill.



The fourth mountain range we saw on our morning walk is the spine of Vancouver Island in the distance to the west.



It was easier for Bear and me to see Vancouver Island during our sunset walk Friday evening:



You can’t actually see any mountains from our house itself – only from the top corner of the backyard. In contrast, at our previous rental house I could see a mountain in Canada with a distinctive double peak as I brushed my teeth in the master bathroom. It’s part of the Coast Range.

 

A couple years ago in “Photographic Memories,” I wrote about trying to identify the jagged mountain due north of Bellingham. Here’s how I drew it from memory:



Now that I have a fancy new iPhone with a telephoto lens, I can zero in on distant vistas. I figured out the name of the double-peaked mountain to the north is Golden Ear.



The city of Vancouver is forty miles northwest of Bellingham. Even without the zoom lens I can see the mountains of the Coast Range that tower above Vancouver. 


In the distance beyond Bellingham harbor you can see the familiar pair of snowcapped “Lions” above Capilano Gorge. Even though I can’t see Stanley Park, I know it’s there below the guardian peaks that give Lions’ Gate Bridge its name:



In the same picture you can see groomed ski slopes to the right of the Lions. When I was growing up in suburban Vancouver I saw the same white clearings from my bedroom window. 

 

Here’s how I drew my childhood view in “Photographic Memories”:



Pretty close, right?

 

At night, folks in Bellingham can see the ski slopes lit up:



It’s like a beacon from the Promised Land – reminding me that the Canada/US border has been closed by pandemic for the last 320 days.




Bonus pictures of Bear and mountain ranges: