Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Mountains Are Out

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, my mother gave me a mask with a Canadian flag design. Despite taking it on my walks with Bear, I’ve managed to go a whole year without losing my Canada mask. Or my Canada toque. 

On a recent walk through Boulevard Park, a young woman saw my mask and asked, “Excuse me, do you know the name of that crooked mountain across the border?”


Yes I do.   

During my first few years in Bellingham, we lived in a rental house on the other side of campus. My bathroom window faced north. On a clear day the first thing I could see was Canada. 


My eyes were always drawn to a pair of jagged snow-capped peaks – the same mountain that the young lady in Boulevard Park asked me to identify. It’s due north of Bellingham and visible all over town from vistas like the Boardwalk, or the lawn of Old Main, or when you’re stuck in traffic on Meridian Street.  

As I wrote in an early blog essay, Photographic Memories,” I tried to identify the double-peaked mountain from my viewpoint in our previous neighborhood. I got out a detailed topographical map of the region, but I couldn’t translate the images in my brain into the spatial information on the map. 

A couple of years ago I moved one hill further west of campus, to a mid-century ranch house that came with two Aussiedoodles. Bear and I began miles of daily walking therapy together, healing and thinking as we explored Bellingham’s historic neighborhoods and waterfront.


On a typical walk Bear and I can see four mountain ranges:  the Cascades to the east, the Olympics to the south, Vancouver Island to the west, and British Columbia’s Coast Range to the north. From the Boardwalk and Boulevard Park we have a particularly good view across the border to the peaks of the Coast Range. With the benefit of our improved perspective, I figured out that the jagged double peak is named “Golden Ears.” It even has its own Provincial Park


The snow-covered massif to the east of Golden Ears is named “Mount Robie Reid.” Originally the mountain was referred to as “Old Baldy.” But it was renamed in 1944 after Robie Lewis Reid, a prominent lawyer, historian, and educator with a full head of hair

Reid was born in Nova Scotia in 1866. He moved to British Columbia at age nineteen, and was one of the first candidates to pass the provincial teaching examination. After a couple of years as a rural school teacher, Reid ran away to law school at the University of Michigan. He then practiced law for a few years in Bellingham, just down the hill from us in Fairhaven, before finally being “called to the bar” in Vancouver in 1893. 

I’m still waiting for my call. 

The Coast Range continues west from Mount Robie Reid and Golden Ears to the familiar landmarks looming above Vancouver – twin Lions, Capilano and Lynn Canyons, 2010 Winter Olympic venues at Cyprus Bowl, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour.


If you draw a straight line northwest from our house to the Lions, it will pass through both the Bellingham Yacht Club and the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club in Stanley Park. I’ve done the math.

At night, folks in Bellingham can see the ski slopes lit up like a beacon from the Promised Land:

For the last decade, the biggest annual fundraising event for Vancouver Men’s Chorus has been a musical revue entitled “Singing Can Be A Drag.” Each spring the queens and their vast retinue put on two shows a night at intimate theatres in Vancouver and New Westminster, wowing sold-out audiences of donors and other liquored fans. The key rule: No Lip Synching! Instead, the most talented individual soloists from VMC put on stunning performances of their favourite songs, live and in full voice, backed up by a band and scantily-clad dancing boys, all in fabulous outfits and stiletto heels. 


Last March I had a ticket for the final Saturday night performance of Singing Can Be A Drag. Here’s what I naively posted to Facebook on my way to attend what the men of VMC now refer to as “The Last Show on Earth”:


After a few extra questions, the nice folks at Canada Customs let me cross the border in my first attempt since coronavirus. I’m not sure I can face their hostile counterparts at US Border Patrol. So as soon as I finish my coffee I’m going to go apply for asylum in Canada as a refugee. In the meantime, please pitch in and help my parents take care of my kids until they go back to school in six weeks. Hopefully.


Instead, after the drag show I drove home to be with my family. The Peace Arch gates have been closed ever since. But the kids are finally back in school.

Folks who live in the Puget Sound area to the south of us can see only two mountain ranges: the Cascades to the east and the Olympics to the west. Their view is dominated by Mount Rainier’s massive volcanic cone, towering above the rest of the Cascades at the sound end of the Sound. The local tribes called the mountain “Tahoma” or “Tacoma.” When Captain George Vancouver charted the coast in the 1790s, he named the prominent peak after one of his British Navy buddies, Peter Rainier. 


In addition to appearing on our license plates, Mount Rainier also inspired a popular local expression. Whenever the sky is clear we say “the mountain is out.”

Before moving to Bellingham, I used to work with Washington’s bar, community, and nonprofit organizations that promote diversity and inclusion, particularly in the legal profession. A few years ago I was one of the speakers at a legal diversity event in the South Sound. 


Olympia is the nation’s third smallest state capital, a sleepy town at the foot of Mount Rainier. Several justices of the Washington Supreme Court were also in attendance, including now-Chief Justice Steven González. I spoke about the power of implicit bias and stereotypes – surprising many in the audience with the revelation that I’m not Jewish but Justice González is, and that he’s fluent in Japanese while I speak Korean. (Chief Justice González’s father is Mexican-American, his mother is a Jewish New Yorker, and he was majoring in East Asian Studies at the same time I was a Mormon missionary in Korea). It takes hard work to see clearly.


It also takes hard work to be seen clearly. Every LGBT individual is held hostage by the tyranny and lure of the closet. I chose to embrace liberty and honesty by coming out and staying out decades ago. Now I’m learning how to live openly with mental illness.


Our Olympia diversity forum happened to be on a cloudy day. So I ended my remarks with the reminder that even when the mountain isn’t out, Mount Rainier is still there. 

I moved to Vancouver when I was two years old, but moved away when I was a teenager. Although I've spent most of my life in nearby exile, I will always be Canadian. Even after one year, two months, and twenty-seven days of border closure. So far. 


Bear and I walk along the Bellingham waterfront every day. Usually we can see Golden Ears and Mount Robie Reid. Often we can see the ski slopes and the Lions above Vancouver. But sometimes all we can see are clouds to the north.


Fortunately, whether the mountains are out or not, I know Canada is still there.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Black Labs Matter

At a recent family dinner, my son announced “I identify as a woman.” As both the only straight white man in the household and the victim of two bossy older sisters, Oliver often feels oppressed. 


Predictably, at the same meal the children all voted for “Oliver” as “Papa's Favorite.” The dogs and I all voted for “Bear.” 

Spring means we’re going on longer and longer walks, even Buster. Improved weather also picked up the pace at the nearby construction sites where Western Washington University is adding a new interdisciplinary science building and more dorms. One of the campus parking lots is temporarily assigned to construction workers  – a cohort of drivers that typically differs from college students and professors. 

Recently I noticed a pickup truck labeled “I identify as a Prius.” Another car had a sticker proclaiming “Black Labs Matter.” Bear asked why I don’t have a bumper sticker celebrating Aussiedoodles.

The next time we walked through the parking lot neither car was there. But I felt a ping – seeking for something, realizing it was missing, then remembering the “Black Labs Matter” car seemed weird. 

In any humor or hashtag situation, “Black Labs Matters” is a potentially provocative flag. A high degree of difficulty maneuver. An opportunity to exhibit grace and empathy. 


Bear and I took these photos the next time we encountered the Black Labs sticker. Up close you can see why my brain was getting a weird vibe from Mr. Black Labs Matter. There’s a mixed message in the preamble “Coexist” – a lofty goal, but usually not spelled out with armaments arranged as letters of the alphabet. 


If my subconscious still had a question about the message intended by the slogan “Black Labs Matter,” it was answered by the sticker underneath:  “I LUBRICATE MY AR-15 WITH LIBERAL TEARS.” In black G.I. Font. With a picture of a red assault rifle. 


The stickers on the other side of the car probably won’t change your unconscious’s opinion about the car owner:

All of us who are accustomed to speaking from a place of privilege must learn to talk about less privileged folks in a way that contributes to civil dialogue. 


It’s not enough to stop stigmatizing, baiting, or “owning” the unprivileged Other. It’s also about monitoring access to The Room Where It Happens. We must look around the room, then ask who is present and who is absent. And why. 

Unfortunately, it’s been months since I found myself looking around a real life room containing anyone who wasn’t named Leishman, Bear, or Buster. 


Nevertheless, we can always question the patterns we observe around us in our culture and institutions. A few weeks ago in “Deadlines,” I wrote about how during the 1800s, the word “deadline” originally applied to “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” By the end of the century, the word’s usage had expanded to include any line drawn to exclude a group. 

Each day the dogs and I pass this ten-year-old historic marker on our walk along the waterfront: 





Followed by:






It Gets Better. Eventually.

Most of the photos in “Deadlines” show a different kind of historic marker. Lighter in tone. Collectively they represent a time capsule from the 1980s that preserves a time capsule from the 1890s:


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.”


After leaving downtown Fairhaven, tourists finally see a few Asian-themed markers:  “Site of Chinese Bunkhouse, 1900 – Chinatown population 600.” “Site of Japanese Bunkhouse No. 5, circa 1903.” Meanwhile, comic cultural artifacts line Harris Street all the way to the train station. Historic markers commemorate the unfortunate Mathew, quicksand victims, and President McKinley driving by in a buggy. Pluse “Chinese foreman traded daughter for a boy, 1908.”

A community’s story is incomplete if its account of any marginalized group is limited to statistics and stereotypes. Four decades ago, whoever chose Fairhaven’s marker topics wasn’t paying close attention to the overall message sent by a few dozen historic vignettes.  


Convinced I’m seeing things? That I’m a hypersensitive snowflake? A few weeks later, Bear and I finally found another Asian-themed marker on Harris Street:  “Site of Sam Low’s Opium Den, 1904.”

The ACLU often uses the 19th century slogan “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” “Vigilance” means paying attention. Mindfulness. As individuals and as a society, we must eternally strive to see each other and ourselves more clearly.  

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


Pre-covid, no one could have guessed what life would be like in 2020-21. For example, who had “Buy shares of Zoom!” in the pool? Like the rest of my generation, I thought “Zoom” was a PBS children’s show located at zip code 02134. 


Some of the pandemic’s economic winners were the usual suspects:  Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, toilet paper. Others pandemic winners defy prediction. Such as “Paws for a Beer”:


Paws For a Beer was a concept that came about when two young Bellingham residents - Amy & Rylan Schoen - decided they were ready to adopt a dog….  Before long, Rylan had crafted a rough business plan for something called Paws For a Beer:


Paws For a Beer is Bellingham's first and only dog-friendly tavern. Here, dogs with memberships are able to roam freely off-leash inside and outside the premises while their owners and the general 21+ public sip on refreshing beverages.


Brushing it off as just another silly idea of Rylans, Amy encouraged his explorations and engaged with him during brain storming sessions. Before they knew it, they were planning their wedding, and simultaneously, Bellingham’s first dog bar.

Full steam ahead! A few months and two 
dos later, the Schoens became the proud owners of a place for dogs to come and play, knowing that the members romping around them are all well-tempered, healthy, and excited to be there!


When the covid pandemic closed the doors of every other Bellingham tavern and brewpub, Bear and I were glad we happened to have access to a large off-leash play area thats also a comfortable neighbor pub. In contrast, Bellinghamdowntown basement cat bar Neko remained closed. Bear and Buster like to bark at the owner’s lonely cats as we walk by Nekomournful darkened windows.

On an early visit to PAWS last summer, Bear surprised me with an orange rubber ball. I’d never seen Bear or Buster near a ball of any kind before. 


One of the bar regulars pointed me to the communal rack of Chuck-It™ “no-slobber” launchers. I gingerly loaded Bear’s chosen ball and flung it toward the picnic tables. Bear surprised me once again, this time by catching the ball mid-air after executing a triple axel worthy of Simone Biles. Apparently Bear is a natural.


We’ve now acquired our own orange ball, as well as a mid-sized Chuck-It launcher that fits into my backpack. Bear and I make a good team. However, Orange Ball is a two-player sport. Whenever the other dogs at the off-leash park try to join in, Bear’s possessive side comes out. The game turns into snarling round of Keep-Away. 

I’ve tried to convince Bear its okay to participate in multi-player games using yellow tennis balls. But Orange Ball is our game.

I’ve read hundreds of books and articles about human brains and minds over the last four years. Although I remain a devout English Major, I’ve belatedly acquired a Psychology Minor. 


My exploration began with memoirs about living with various kinds of mental illness and neurodiversity:  anxiety, writer’s block, trauma, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, Parkinson’s disease, Autism Spectrum Disorder…. the list continues. But I’m also fascinated by topics such as evolutionary biology and clinical psychology. I’ve compared theories about the origins of human ethics from Robert Wright, Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari. A century apart, Michael Shermer and William James each offers a thoughtful perspective on The Believing Brain and Varieties of Religious ExperienceAnd I’ve written before about Carol Dweck’s classic Mindset, as well as works by pioneering scholars of behavioral economics like Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman.


For a comprehensive introduction to modern brain research, I recommend either Robert Sapolsky’s magisterial Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, or the convenient graphic textbook How Psychology Works. For brain chemistry I suggest Judith Grisel’s Never Enough:  The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. And the smartest self-help book I’ve encountered is Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, a recent bestseller by my gay BYU classmate and Student Review co-founder BJ Fogg. 


Lately I’ve sought out psychology writers with a quirky perspective on how thinking works – like Maria Konnikova’s reporting about poker players and scam artists, and Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, which draws on the author’s career as a record producer before becoming a neuroscientist. But the most useful brain book I’ve read lately is Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals.


Animals Make Us Human is based on Temple Grandin’s experience in two very different domains:  animal husbandry and autism. I’d already read Grandin’s memoirs about her life on the autism spectrum. (Ten years ago Claire Danes won an Emmy for playing Grandin in an excellent HBO biopic.) In Animals Make Us Human, Grandin helps pet owners and farmers understand how each species’ brains work, and how humans can create a healthy environment for each type of animal. 


Grandin includes separate chapters for dogs, cats, cattle, birds, pigs, etc. Obviously the “Dogs” chapter is the most interesting and useful. But as a psychology student I was also struck by Grandin’s attention to fundamental brain functions. Despite everything neuroscientists have learned from modern tools like MRIs and CAT scans, we remain mystified and awed by how thinking actually works on a cellular level. Animals Make Us Human reminds us humans are animals too, with brains that evolved over millions of years. 

I’m fond of the analogy of brain development as piling scoops of ice cream on a cone. At the bottom is the reptilian vanilla scoop of our brain stem. Every animal has a similar need for these neurons dedicated to basic life support and motor functions. Natural selection piled on extra scoops to handle our sophisticated mammal motor needs. Then evolution added scoops of the fruity flavors that create, regulate, and respond to emotions. Perched precariously on top, at least for humans, is a final delicious scoop containing the prefrontal cortex, Executive Function, and Theory of Mind.


Grandin doesn’t actually use the ice cream scoop brain analogy herself. Instead, she adopts the framework described by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp four decades ago in his research on the neural bases of emotion. Panksepp identified seven primal emotions. Grandin follows Panksepp’s custom of labeling each in allcaps:  CARE, FEAR, LUST, PANIC/GRIEF, PLAY, RAGE, and SEEKING.


CARE is the emotion underlying parental love. LUST fuels sex and sexual desire. According to Grandin, “Dr. Panksepp believes that the core emotion of RAGE evolved from the experience of being captured and held immobile by a predator. Frustration is a mild form of RAGE that is sparked by mental restraint when you can’t do something you’re trying to do.” People living with PTSD or autism tend to be familiar with the power of RAGE. All seven of Panksepp’s categories represent very human emotions whose impact can also be observed in other animals. 

Grandin writes “No one understands the nature of play or the PLAY system in the brain well yet, although we do know that play behavior is probably a sign of good welfare.” According to Grandin, “the PLAY system produces feelings of joy.” The neural pathways for PLAY evolved to become the foundation for quintessentially human urges like art and music. 


Like human children, dogs regularly demonstrate PLAY in action. As we walk through campus each morning, Bear and Buster engage in wild chases and elaborate fake combat. Even though Buster outweighs Bear by forty percent, Bear is the ringleader and the inevitable victor.


One of the benefits of suddenly adopting two aussiedoodles in midlife was the confirmation that I am not a dog person – merely a person with a dog named Bear. Buster is nice if you’re looking to give up your personal freedom in exchange for an affectionate but dim-witted housemate. But Buster’s limited capacity for walks is a deal breaker. In contrast, whenever Bear races athletically across a field toward the ball, my heart leaps with joy. Whenever Buster clumsily lumbers toward a food dish, I’m reminded that Buster’s highest and best use is to sit on the couch and comfort my children.

Last week at PAWS as I sipped my refreshing beverage, a friendly golden retriever came over and dropped a tennis ball at my feet. We tried a couple of rounds of fetch, but Bear became jealous and grumpy. 


Bear and I have a lot in common beyond a mutual passion for long walks. For better or worse, our personalities are compatible. We even have a shared understanding of the true purpose of the game of Orange Ball:  as with the game of Life, the goal is to catch it on the bounce. Even if it just bounced off your nose. Especially if it just bounced off your nose.

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 Gérin-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


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:






Followed by:






Eventually, history reveals a society’s values.

Bonus Pictures of Fairhaven Village historic markers:

Original blood stain?