Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Best Things That Ever Happened To Me

Barbara Cook singing "Anyone Can Whistle" on YouTube

Every musical theatre nerd mourns the loss of Stephen Sondheim, our adoptive artistic father, who died in November 2021 at age 91. I heard the incomparable composer speak a few years ago when I was still a lawyer in Seattle. Frank Rich interviewed Sondheim on the stage at Benaroya Hall in an event presented by Seattle Arts & Lectures. 

 

The year my mother turned sixty, I bought us tickets to see Barbara Cook perform at Benaroya. She was touring with a concert consisting of music by Sondheim, plus a few other showtunes he told Barbara he “wished he had written.” For her encore, Barbara sang an unadorned arrangement of “Anyone Can Whistle,” accompanied at the piano by her longtime musical director Wally Harper.

 

Anyone who gets to share Barbara Cook singing “Mostly Sondheim” with his mother is a pretty lucky fella.



This week’s “Must See” list in New York magazine highlights Thursday’s extraordinary musical event:

 

In a big Carnegie Hall celebration, MasterVoices honors one of Stephen Sondheim’s earlier, odder cult favorites, a 1964 satire written with Arthur Laurents about fake miracles, asylum patients who take over a town, and a corrupt (or playful?) solution for public health. Revivals of Whistle don’t come along often, but concert productions have kept its weird flame flickering. Vanessa Williams plays Cora, the crooked mayor. 

 

A young Angela Lansbury was destined for musical theatre immortality after originating the role of the mayoress, even though the original production closed after just nine performances. I’ve never seen Anyone Can Whistle. No one has. But in addition to tackling mental illness, the show introduced Sondheim standards like “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “I’ve Got You to Lean On,” and “Everybody Says Don’t.”

 

Obviously I know the original cast album by heart, as well as the recording of the famous AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall in 1995. Madeleine Kahn played the mayor, Angela Lansbury narrated, and Scott Bakula was mysterious stranger J. Bowden Hapgood. Bernadette Peters played Nurse Fay, who sings the title song.


Read “For Good,” my story about the dogs, 

in the recently published anthology True Stories Vol. IV


I’m almost to the end of my first book manuscript, entitled Anyone Can Whistle: A Memoir of Religion, Showtunes, and Mental Illness. I’ll finish writing the memoir as soon as I finish living through this part of my story – hopefully later this year.

 

A couple of years ago, I went through The Narrative Project’s flagship “Finish Your Book!” writing program. Under Cami Ostman’s expert guidance, I found a writer’s community where I learned to write through and about trauma. The nine-month program offered the perfect opportunity to practice my craft with the support and encouragement of other writers – even as I endured gaslighting lawyers and stonewalling bureaucrats, and single parented three teenagers through a pandemic.

 

I thought I would finish writing my memoir during the formal The Narrative Project program. Instead, I made immeasurable progress toward mental health and happiness. Meanwhile, after over half a million words of public blog essays and an even greater volume of legal filings and private journaling, Anyone Can Whistle needed to find its own voice and structure as a book. And to lose weight.

 

So I ruthlessly edited out all the tedious lawyer stuff, exiling it to a future sequel. The title will be Too Many Lawyers, an homage to my favourite mystery novelist Rex Stout, who published “Too Many Witnesses,” “Too Many Cooks,” “Too Many Clients,” and “Too Many Women.” Everything Is Connected became the working title for my research and writing about neuroscience and psychology. It would be my dissertation, if they awarded graduate degrees for reading a lot of interesting books while recovering your mental health. 


As I sit at my desk each morning, I ask myself whether today’s best story will be about a Father, a Writer, or a Lawyer. Readers vote overwhelmingly for “Father.” So as soon as I’m done with my tedious lawsuits and can finish telling my gay Mormon PTSD story in Anyone Can Whistle, I’ll focus on writing about Gay Sitcom Dad.



As I wrote in “Buster,” last month I was one of the writers reading from our recent work at the launch of a new anthology. My contribution to True StoriesFor Good,” comes from the chapter of my memoir where I explain that Im not really a dog person.


Bear and Buster are purebred Aussiedoodles – one of the most popular of the trendy class of “doodles.” My ex and his husband were friends with a local breeder. I never wanted a dog myself – to the contrary, I was comfortable in my role as the dogs’ fabulous gay uncle. Besides, if I’d chosen a dog, I would have picked what in my day we called a “mutt.”


When my ex and his husband divorced a couple of years later and I ended up with three kids and two dogs fulltime, Bear turned out to be the comfort animal I never knew I needed. Although many of the dogs Bear and I encounter on our walks look like mutts, their owners always refer to them as “rescue dogs.” I feel like a “rescue human.” A rescued human.

 

Each of the chapter titles in my memoir is the name of a showtune, such as “If You Were Gay,” “Turn It Off,” and “I’d Rather be Sailing.” The title for my dog chapter is from Wicked. I’ve seen Wicked three times: (1) the original production on Broadway with Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel; (2) with my mother for her 70th birthday at a lavish benefit for marriage equality at the Paramount Theater in Seattle; and (3) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver with my daughter Eleanor for her ninth birthday. It’s hard to pick a favourite performance.


For Good” comes near the end of Wicked. Elphaba and Glinda sing “I don’t know if I’ve been changed for better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”



Stephen Sondheim won his Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George, which is a musical about Children and Art. In addition to his artistic genius, Sondheim was a born teacher who often said his greatest regret was never having children. 

 

I came to fatherhood unexpectedly and late in life. The President of the Mormon Church when I was born was David O. McKay. President McKay’s famous motto was “No amount of success can compensate for failure in the home.” Growing up as a closeted gay Mormon during that era, I was taught that fatherhood was essential to human happiness – yet impossible for me. 

 

It Gets Better. I was forty-one years old when I watched my daughter Eleanor being born. We adopted Rosalind three and a half years later, and Oliver the following year. Having children transformed my life.

 

Every science fiction fan knows there are fixed points that connect the multiverse. The most important moment on my own timeline occurred in Spring 2011, when we salvaged Oliver’s adoption. Since 2011, I have made numerous mistakes I would reverse if I could. I have been beset by plagues I would have avoided with the benefit of Doctor Who’s or the Flash’s time traveling abilities. I would love a do-over of the last few years. 


I also made a lot of mistakes before 2011. I suffered trauma that still haunts me. But I would not change a single moment that led me to my daughters and son.



The first Sondheim show I saw on Broadway was Into the Woods with Bernadette Peters. I also saw his next two Broadway openings, Assassins with Neil Patrick Harris and Passion with Donna Murphy. Sondheim and others describe Passion as his most personal work, because he wrote it after falling in love for the first time in his life.

 

If I had a favourite song it would be “If Love Were All,” from a forgotten 1928 musical by Noel Coward. Bitter Sweet is about an English maiden who must choose between her stuffy nobleman fiancĂ© and her dashing Austrian music tutor. (Spoiler alert: she runs off with the musician.) The song is actually sung by the musicians plucky ex-girlfriend – sorta like Eponine pining after Marius in Les Miserables


In her classic cabaret album It’s Better with a Band, Barbara Cook sings a lovely version of “If Love Were All.” But the definitive performance is from Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert on April 23, 1963. You can listen to Judy for yourself on YouTube.


If wealth were all, I would be a failure.

 

If professional success were all, I would be bitter.

 

If art were all, I would be grateful for my own talent to amuse, and the mental health to finally use it.

 

If social justice were all, I would be proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

 

If romantic love were all, I would be as lonely as Judy Garland sounds on her Carnegie Hall concert album.

 

But if love is all, then I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of this earth.



The chapter of my memoir where I write about gay choruses in general and Vancouver Men’s Chorus in particular is called “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.” Windy City Gay Chorus, Seattle Men’s Chorus, and Vancouver Men’s Chorus represent my tribe at its best. 

 

“The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me” is the title of a song from Sondheim’s final Broadway musical. Road Show tells the story of colourful brothers Addison Mizner and Wilson Mizner from the Klondike gold rush through the Florida real estate scams of the 1920s. Addison Mizner and Stephen Sondheim both were gay. Sondheim came from a generation that survived homophobic psychoanalysis, yet continued to take comfort from the closet for decades. The composer worked on this particular show for years as it evolved from Gold! to Wise Guys to Bounce before finally opening as Road Show in 2008. “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me” started out being sung by Wilson Mizner and his wife Nellie in Bounce, but ended up as a comic love duet in Road Show between Addison Mizner and his lover Hollis Bessemer. 

 

After the Omicron covid variant temporarily shut down choirs once again, Vancouver Men’s Chorus gathered online for Zoom rehearsals and weekly fellowship. In January we watched the video of our 2018 concert “Gays of Our Lives,” which showcased songs from our communal history of activism and anger, pride marches and prejudice, loss and love. Sondheim was represented by “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.”

 

You can find a recording of the song on YouTube by the actors who played Addison and Hollis in Road Show on Broadway. But my favourite version of “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me” will always be the duet between tenor David Browning and baritone Alex Burns, backed up by the rest of Vancouver Men’s Chorus.



I spent last Wednesday evening with my two favourite Ukrainian-Canadians: my sister-in-law Kyla Moojalwsky Leishman and VMC founder/conductor Willi Zwozdesky. 

 

I saw Kyla while visiting my brother Doug on the spine floor at Vancouver General Hospital. Then I went to VMC rehearsal, where Willi conducted the entire chorus together in one room and off Zoom for the first time in two years.

 

Willi grew up singing Ukrainian folk songs among immigrants on the Prairies before founding Canada’s first LGBT choir in 1981. At rehearsal on Wednesday, Willi handed out the sheet music for “Mnohiji Ljita,” which means “Many Years” in Ukrainian. It’s the celebration song Ukrainians sing at birthdays. Willi picked “Mnohiji Ljita” because we only had to learn two words repeated over and over. You sing the song twice at normal speed, then a third time very slowly and dramatically.

 

Like every other Ukrainian folk song, “Mnohiji Ljita” usually sounds either like Rachmaninov’s Vespers sung by the Yale Slavic Chorus as a soundtrack to the classic Soviet-era silent movie Battleship Potemkin, or like a vodka-infused group of soldiers linking arms in a Kyiv pub. Sung in four-part harmony by 100 voices from a chorus that survived one plague as a band of brothers only to be silenced temporarily by a new pandemic, “Mnohiji Ljita” sounds like Hope.



In addition to our first real VMC rehearsal in two years, the recent liberalization of BC’s covid restrictions also meant that after rehearsal a group of us were able to gather for drinks at our longstanding watering hole PumpJack. (Sadly, showtune singalong night remains homeless and on indefinite hiatus.)

 

While at PumpJack I chatted with Xavi, a fellow Second Tenor who also happens to be a regular reader of my blog. When I asked him which kinds of anecdotes he prefers, Xavi voted for Gay Sitcom Dad. So over a couple of ginger-infused cidres I regaled him with unprintable stories from my less than fabulous life. Before heading for the border, I thanked Xavi and told him I couldn’t remember the last time I had the opportunity to talk to someone who wasn’t named “Leishman” or “Bear.” (Xavi realizes Bear is the name of my dog, not my porn fantasy.)

 

At rehearsal last week we got copies of the new songs for our June concert that VMC’s stable of arrangers completed during the pandemic. “Chosen Family” is by Rina Sawayama, a Japanese woman who lives in Britain. (Here’s a YouTube link to her singing it as a duet with Elton John.) The lyrics include “We don’t need to be related to relate, we don’t need to share genes or a surname – you are my chosen family.” The best things that ever happened to me are my biological, adoptive, and chosen families. 
















Sunday, February 27, 2022

Nurses are Fiercer than Drag Queens


As we inch towards a post-pandemic New Normal, the entire Vancouver Men’s Chorus is finally gathering to rehearse together again on Wednesday evenings. Our June show on Granville Island, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” will be a salute to women’s music. We started learning the same songs two years ago, before the coronavirus pandemic silenced choirs and closed the Canadian border for the first time since the War of 1812.

 

The week before the border closure, I was in Vancouver for VMC’s annual fundraiser “Singing Can Be a Drag.” I’ve never done drag myself. Instead, I was a volunteer usher.

 

In addition to avoiding high heels, prior to February 2020 I also had never lost consciousness. The last thing I remember about the drag show is the lights dimming at the beginning of the queens’ performance. I’m told I fainted and fell down the stairs backstage soon afterwards. As I wrote in “Falling Can be a Drag,” I still can't remember anything from the rest of the night, including the hot fireman who arrived to minister to me after someone called 9-1-1. (Inevitably, VMC President and uberextrovert Yogi Omar ended up with the medics telephone number.)

 

Back home in Bellingham the next day, I woke up feeling sore all over without knowing why. When I returned Yogi’s frantic “how are you feeling???” text, I discovered what happened the night before. So I drove across town to the walk-in clinic. After the nurses heard my story, they made me walk across the parking lot to the Emergency Room at Saint Joseph’s Hospital for an ECG and CT scan. 


None of the tests revealed anything abnormal. My excellent physician Dr. Heuristic eventually concluded the episode was a stress-related manifestation of my disability, triggered by particularly intense emotional experiences. 



A random convergence of legal, medical, family, and financial crises made the last few days my most stressful and triggering week ever. 

 

On Wednesday I was in Vancouver on my way to chorus rehearsal when I lost consciousness for the second time in my life. However, instead of drag queens, this time I had the good or bad luck of fainting in front of a couple of nurses while visiting my brother on the spine floor at Vancouver General Hospital. 


Leishman Brothers:  Brian (lung cancer survivor); Roger (PTSD); Warren (bald); Doug (spine cancer)

My next younger brother Doug was diagnosed with spine cancer five years ago after back pain revealed an inoperable tumor. As the heaviest Leishman brother, Doug was defensive about failing to notice a grapefruit-sized lump in his pelvis: “They’re big bones!” 

 

Despite many challenges, Doug is blessed with the best family in the world, marvelous medical providers, and Canada’s sane healthcare system. He was able to walk my eldest niece down the aisle at her wedding two summers ago. Since then, Doug has spent most of his time bed-ridden at home in British Columbia. This month he was airlifted to VGH for nine hours of emergency surgery after a growing neck tumor paralyzed his upper body. The surgery went well, and Doug is learning how live with a wheelchair. 



Our family has observed numerous parallels and contrasts as my brother faced cancer at the same time as I was learning to live with mental illness on the other side of the border. Last Wednesday, I arrived late to visit Doug in the hospital after spending my morning writing a particularly stressful letter to the State’s lawyers in response to their continuing refusal to acknowledge that I have a disability. My stress was further exacerbated by the fact that the judge in my lawsuit against the Governor’s Office had scheduled an inevitably triggering hearing for Friday morning.  

 

While visiting my brother’s hospital room and listening to a discussion of pain management, I became lightheaded and collapsed to the floor in front of two nurses. I thought it was just a low blood sugar moment. The nurses quickly placed me in a wheelchair and gave me apple juice. I was pale and clammy, with a slow heart rate, but still alert. Until yesterday, I’d never had an even slightly elevated blood pressure reading – I inherited my father’s high cholesterol, not my mother’s hypertension. However, one of the VGH staff said she had never before seen a blood pressure reading where both the numbers had three digits. 

 

Other than losing consciousness in the wheelchair after they checked my vital signs, this time I remember the rest of the experience. Despite the melodramatic interruption, Doug said it was educational to watch me pass out. My sister-in-law told us I looked just like my brother when he overdoses on morphine. 



There are both advantages and disadvantages to passing out in a hospital. Rather than attend chorus rehearsal, I spent Wednesday evening at Vancouver General being tested and observed. 

 

Once I regained consciousness, one of my brother’s nurses insisted on wheeling me through a backstage maze to the ER waiting room. By the time she handed me over to the triage nurse my vital signs had all returned to normal. A technician wired me up for a quick ECG and assured me my heart looked fine. 

 

At this point they took away my wheelchair and sent me back to the ER waiting room, where I found my efficient sister-in-law on the phone finding me a place to stay overnight. Then the nice Canadian nurses tricked us. They led me down a hall to finally get my insurance information, something that happens much earlier in the process in the States. 


It could have been another triggering situation – trying to communicate about a stressful topic through a plexiglass screen while wearing masks. Fortunately, although English was not her first language, this was hardly the first time she had filled out the paperwork for an unfortunate American finding himself trapped in the province’s largest hospital.  

 

“Trapped” is the right word. After I signed a bunch of forms without reading them, she led me alone through a new set of doors to the secret inner waiting room.



Someone politely drew a few vials of blood. I texted my sister-in-law and told her I’d been kidnapped. Then I found a chair in a waiting room filled with sniffling children, Asian grandmas, and moaning hockey players. 

 

As I looked at my new surroundings, I took a picture of the sign above the chair directly across from me. It asked:  “Do you struggle with opioid use?” Ironically, this is what the nurses were talking about in my brother’s hospital room when I fainted. As Doug says, the best thing about having cancer is that even in the middle of a fentanyl public health crisis you get as much morphine as you need. Too much, in fact.



Eventually I got a text back from my sister-in-law saying “Wrong number.” Apparently her contact information in my iPhone was out of date. Unfortunately, this was also the only phone number I’d given to the hospital staff.

 

Fortunately, I was finally able to reach my parents. They hadn’t answered my previous calls because they were busy driving my college freshman nephew to the ER in Bellingham. (He had a concussion. I still havent heard that story.) I tried to obtain my sister-in-law’s actual phone number from my mother without sounding too alarming.

 

As a single parent, I’ve already spent too many hours in waiting rooms with a dying iPhone battery and nothing to do, eat, write, or read. Eventually I got bored and blew up the photo I’d taken of the “Welcome to the VGH Emergency Department” poster: 



Modern technology is amazing. As directed by the poster on the wall, I clicked on the link “edwaittimes.ca” and discovered the current wait time for each emergency room in British Columbia. Unsurprisingly, Vancouver General Hospital has the largest and slowest casualty department in the province:



According to the website, I could expect to wait four hours and thirty-two minutes before getting my lab results and seeing a doctor. Perhaps coincidentally, I could expect to wait four hours and thirty-two minutes before escaping from VGH. I was almost halfway there.

 

Meanwhile, I hadn’t eaten for six hours. I could sense actual hypoglycemia on the horizon. VMC rehearsal was about to start without me. I was crabby. I’d left my library book, laptop, and phone charger in the car, which by now was illegally parked. My sister-in-law texted with an offer to bring me a snack from the hospital vending machines. I told her I’d been through enough triggering experiences for one Wednesday. 


When I was tricked into walking across the parking lot from the Bellingham walk-in clinic to the Emergency Room two years ago, the American nurses promptly put me into a hideous hospital gown and hooked me up to a heart monitor. Armed guards surrounding the hospital campus prevented any thought of escape.

 

Everything is better in Canada. Despite my sister-in-law’s maternal sighs, I went AWOL. I used the last of my colorful foreign money to buy an invigorating milkshake and fries at Johnny Rocket’s. Then I moved my car to a nearby parking spot, grabbed my backpack, and snuck back into the ER treatment waiting room. No one noticed I was gone.



Drunk on chocolate milkshake and library books but completely sane and sober, eventually I decided it was time to drive home to my children. 

 

After more than five hours had passed, I went to the nurses’ station to tell them I was invoking the Geneva Convention and returning to the States. They pulled up my chart and pointed out I hadn’t seen a doctor yet. I promised to turn myself in to my physician in Bellingham. I asked if my bloodwork had come back. The nurse said it looked fine. 

 

After I self-helped myself to discharge from the ER, I found my way through the hospital maze back to the spine floor. My brother and sister-in-law were on the phone with my oldest niece and her wholesome BYU husband. Their baby is due this week. Last month her brother and his wholesome BYU wife passed them by producing the first great-grandchildren – identical twin boys. Despite the tragicomic plagues that beset us, my family is eternally blessed. 



So far I’ve been to five Canadian province (British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia). How many states have I visited?

 

Business travel and multiple cross-country moves got me to the low forties. Then a decade ago I represented the Gay Softball World Series in a First Amendment case that involved deposing LGBT athletes across the nation. On just one trip I crossed off Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia. I also changed planes in Birmingham, but never left the airport. After my law school twenty-five year reunion in 2015, I rented a car and finally road tripped to Vermont, which brought me to forty-nine states. Fifty if you count Alabama.

 

In my first blog essay about our family’s devotion to the PeaceHealth walk-in clinic, “Dr. Practical,” this is what I presciently wrote:

 

I've managed to avoid hospitals for fifty-five years. In particular, as long as I retain any voluntary muscle function, I’m never going to be sick enough to go to an emergency room. Fortunately, being surrounding by loving family means that if I really needed medical assistance, someone will take me to the ER as soon as I lose consciousness. Then the ER stops being an indefensibly profligate expense. 

 

Six months later, a gaggle of Canadian drag queens pushed me down the stairs. The next morning the nurses at the walk-in clinic tricked me into walking across the parking lot to the Emergency Room to get my heart and brain examined. At the American ER, they stripped me and tied me to a hospital bed. 


This week the Canadian nurses were much nicer. Still, they were the ones who wheeled me to the ER after I lost consciousness, with my brother and sister-in-law egging them on. If that counts as “going to an emergency room,” then I’ve also been to Alabama and get to cross off all 50 states.






 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

SEEKING


We live next door to Washington’s third largest university. Unsurprisingly, on our walks Bear and I frequently encounter nerds.

 

The other day we ran into a young man on campus in obvious need of a dog fix. As he gave Bear a glorious tummy rub, the student exclaimed “He has heterochromia!” That’s an impressive nerd word – Bear was indeed born with two different colored eyes. My kids picked Bear out of the litter because of his soulful blue eye and his earnest brown eye.

 

After the Western student finally tore himself away from his canine cuddle, he asked whether Bear is an Aussiedoodle. Another remarkable nerd display. When I ask how he guessed the correct breed, he said it was because he observed Bear exploring the world. 


Heterochromia is less noticeable with Tina Turner bangs

In her book Animals Make Us Human, autistic animal husbandry expert Temple Grandin reminds us humans are animals too, with brains that evolved over millions of years. Grandin uses the model of brain function 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, PLAY, RAGE, and SEEKING.

 

CARE is the emotion underlying parental love. LUST fuels sex and sexual desire. PANIC (or GRIEF) signals distress to an animal’s “social attachment system,” and “probably evolved from physical pain.” The separate emotion of RAGE evolved from animals’ experience of being captured and held immobile by a predator. According to Grandin, “frustration is a mild form of RAGE that is sparked by mental restraint when you can’t do something you’re trying to do.” 


In contrast with PANIC and RAGE, the core emotion PLAY “produces feelings of joy.” As I wrote in “PLAY On!,” the same neural pathways that inspire Bear and Buster to boisterously frolic at the off-leash park became the foundation for quintessentially human urges like art and music. All seven of Panksepp’s categories represent very human emotions whose effects can also be observed in other animals. 



In Panksepp’s model of animal brain evolution, SEEKING is the core emotion associated with curiosity and novelty. It’s the aspect of Bear’s Australian shepherd heritage that drives him to explore the world.

 

An animal’s SEEKING impulse may be in tension with FEAR, another primal emotion that is necessary for survival in a dangerous and mysterious world. According to Grandin, “at least a portion of the healthy amygdala acts as if it has an anxiety disorder – searching for threat in response to uncertainty…. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the subject.”


Grandin suggests FEAR and SEEKING “may operate like different-sized weights put on the opposite ends of a balance scale.” I agree that personality statistics for human or animal populations would probably show an inverse correlation between curiosity and dread. Nevertheless, FEAR and SEEKING represent separate emotional drives. For example, Buster is much too dim-witted for sophisticated FEAR or SEEKING behavior. (Instead, Buster is a bundle of the tics and awkwardness associated with PANIC disorders.) Buster invariably leaps out of the car into traffic, yet seldom strays far from his human monitor.


In contrast, Bear is smart enough to balance both caution and curiosity.



Last year I read several excellent books about how our brains process probabilities, choices, disappointment, and uncertainty. My upcoming blog essay “How Lucky Can You Get?” dives into these topics, including some of the insights from my favourite book of 2021, What are the Chances? Why We Believe in Luck, by neuroscientist and statistician Barbara Blatchley. According to Blatchley,

 

Luck is the way you face the randomness in the world. If we are open to it, accepting, not anxious or afraid, willing to learn from mistakes and to change a losing game, we can benefit from randomness. We can gain a modicum of control over this aspect of life, even if we can't control the universe on a large scale. Randomness will happen no matter what we do—chaos theory rules in our universe. Knowing how to roll with the punches; now that's lucky.

 

Blatchley analyzes four kinds of luck originally identified by Zen Buddhist neurologist James Austin in his 1978 book Chase, Chance, and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty. Dr. Austin’s first type of luck occurs by pure chance. Type I or blind luck is “random and accidental; it occurs through no effort of our own and against all odds.”  

 

In contrast with Type I luck, Dr. Austin’s second type of chance, “luck in motion,” is exemplified by Bear’s SEEKING attitude. According to Dr. Austin, Type II luck “favors those who have a persistent curiosity about many things coupled with an energetic willingness to experiment and explore.”



Last month Sehome High School put on its annual “24-Hour Play Festival.” On Friday night at 7 pm, four teams of writers arrived at the school to create new one-act plays overnight. The playwrights were assigned the same theme – “Keeping a secret – and the same location – “The Wilds.” At midnight the producers added a random twist:  “All plays must include the word serendipity and a trophy.”

 

The tech crew, directors, and actors arrived Saturday morning and spent all day putting the four plays together before performing them Saturday evening. Eleanor was both a writer and an actor, which meant she stayed up for 46 hours straight. Their play “Crash Landing” presented a Lost-style jungle island mystery.

 

“Serendip” is the ancient Sanskrit name of the island of Sri Lanka. The English word “serendipity” first appeared in a 1754 letter by novelist Horace Walpole, and referred to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. According to Walpole, the three princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” They deserved trophies for their discoveries. 


That’s the difference between serendipity and mere fortuity: it is precisely because the Princes of Serendip were on a quest for something that they found something else.



“Bear, you are just like my father. And me.”

 

My Apple Watch transcribes my dialogues with Bear as we walk. That recent quotation came as Bear sniffed his way along the trail from the off-leash park to the beach. Bear enjoys playing catch and frolicking at the park. But soon it’s time to move on.

 

My father turned 82 last month. He regularly golfs, bowls on multiple teams, and plays bridge several times a week. Dad is endlessly curious, and always busy with something. I’ve never understood the attraction of golf, the alleged sport that is often described as “a good walk spoiled.” I don’t need a pretext to be outdoors. I can just go for an unspoiled walk. But like my father and Bear, I have to keep going.



In the Mormon church, the children’s program is called “Primary.” When I was growing up, “Blazers” was the class for the oldest boys, just before turning twelve and graduating to Boy Scouts. You earned a glass medallion for your personal Blazer banner by memorizing and reciting each of the thirteen Articles of Faith, which are like a catechism of Mormons’ most basic beliefs. Obviously I had to earn every one. The most coveted medallion was for memorizing the Thirteenth Article of Faith, which was much longer than the other twelve. 

 

In 1976, I was the only boy in our class who could make it by memory all the way to the end of the Thirteen Article of Faith. I still can. It happens to be what I believe:

 

We believe in being honest, true,
chaste, benevolent, virtuous,
and in doing good to all men;
indeed, we may say that we follow
the admonition of Paul—
We believe all things,
we hope all things,
we have endured many things,
and hope to be able to endure all things.
If there is anything virtuous,
lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy,
we seek after these things.

 

Serendipity is the process of looking for something and finding something else. Nevertheless, what you’re seeking matters.


Calligraphy by 1980s Roger for the family room at his parents' house










Thursday, February 10, 2022

SLOW DOWN MORE!!!


I dont have any tattoos, mostly because I cant decide between a bust of Shakespeare, my children’s names, and my longtime motto e pur si muove.

 

However, you may be surprised to find out I used to have a navel ring.



As part of a minor midlife crisis, I got my belly button pierced for my 35th birthday. My boyfriend at the time, Skinny Pharmacist, researched the hygiene at various local establishments and supervised the piercing process. For the next decade I hid my secret identity under a T shirt.



I had to give up my belly button ring a few years ago because of my right foot. And my children.

 

Have you ever had a stress fracture? They’re tiny cracks in bones caused by repetitive force, often from overuse but sometimes from structural problems. A few years ago, back when I worked for a law firm that provided Cadillac health insurance, I had a stress fracture in my left foot. I wore an awkward isolating “boot” for a month as it healed. 

 

A few weeks later, I started to feel the same burning pain in my right foot. My Seattle doctor did two things. He sent me to a podiatrist who analyzed my feet and gait before prescribing some of the custom orthotic shoe inserts I still use. (My original inserts are held together with duct tape and relegated to my house slippers.) Because I experienced stress fractures twice in a row without noticing any particular jarring event, my doctor also ordered an MRI to find out whether I have the bone density of a little old lady.

 

This was the only time I’ve even been inside a fancy imaging tube. Before the technician let Magneto do his work, she made me remove my navel ring, just in case. In the excitement I left the ring behind. 

 

Afterwards my children forbade me from buying a new one, so I let the piercing heal over. Apparently middle-aged parents with belly button rings are “gross.”


 

This is not a stress fracture boot. It’s a “night guard.” Not the mouth night guard that used to ease the impact of grinding my teeth, before Buster chewed it. Instead, this is the foot night guard I bought last year after my Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic diagnosed me with “plantar fasciitis.” Your plantar fascia is the tendon on the bottom of your feet connecting your heel and toes. You know you have plantar fasciitis if the heel pain is at its excruciating worst first thing in the morning when you step out of bed, after your tendon curls up overnight. 

 

It takes a few miles walking with Bear every day to keep both of us “functional.” Fortunately, with expert guidance from both Dr. Heuristic and the earnest folks at Fairhaven Runners & Walkers, I gradually learned to pace our walks and recover an effective equilibrium. Recently I’ve only needed to wear my plantar fasciitis night guard once or twice a week, on the days when Bear cons me into walking more than ten miles.


  


A couple of weeks ago, I started feeling a familiar burning in my right foot. I recognized the signs of another stress fracture, but I wondered whether it was merely part of life with plantar fasciitis. Last Friday while the kids were at school I walked into our excellent PeaceHealth same-day clinic to find out.

 

On this visit, I didn’t see our usual urgent care physician Dr. Practical. Instead, after having my foot X-rayed upstairs, I met with “Dr. Frank.” He tends to be the most candid of my healthcare providers. Dr. Frank immediately diagnosed a stress fracture, even though it didn’t show up on the X-rays. (They never do.)

 

Dr. Frank is also a power walker, so we sat and commiserated about chronic foot problems. Obviously my big question was how long Bear and I would be off the trails and stuck on the injured reserved list. Dr. Frank said his 17-year-old daughter recently suffered a similar stress fracture. (My daughter Eleanor was at the basketball game where it happened.) Dr. Frank said his daughters foot was already better after resting for only a week. 

 

At this point Dr. Frank got up from our tete-a-tete and walked over the computer station, muttering the words “fifty-seven-year-old man” under his breath. He grabbed the after-visit summary for “Foot Stress Fracture” from the printer. It said Bear and I should expect to forego long walks for six to eight weeks. 



As I wrote this week in “SLOW DOWN!!!,” lately I’ve made huge progress in learning how to slow down my writing and thinking processes. Finding the right pace helps accommodate the various limitations that PTSD and other stressors place on my Executive Function. Regular walks with Bear have become essential to achieving equilibrium.

 

“Slow down” was supposed to be a metaphor. Living with a stress fracture already is a literal catastrophe.  For example, because I can’t hop away from the computer often enough, I already feel twinges of karpal tunnel and tennis elbow. Driving with a boot can be awkward. Bear is miserable. Hideous typos slip through the editing process. Life is a disaster.

 

Our family has compensated in other ways. I’m getting more hugs. The kids are doing more dishes. I meditate longer. My stack of library books rivals my mother’s. Yesterday I crossed the border for my first in-person Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearsal of the year. I’m rocking Wordle. I bingewatch affirming television shows, starting with The Good Place and Ted Lasso. 


Somehow we’ll make it to spring.


Ursula Kroeger LeGuin (1935 - 2018)

Growing up, Ursula K. Leguin was always one of my favorite authors. Her slowly evolving Earthsea saga remains one of my literary touchstones. In recent years I’ve also read LeGuin’s works about the writing craft itself. She is an elegant and observant essayist. 

 

LeGuin shared her daily routine during a 1988 interview:

 

5:30 a.m.—wake up and lie there and think.

6:15 a.m.—get up and eat breakfast (lots).

7:15 a.m—get to work writing, writing, writing.

Noon—lunch.

1:00-3:00 p.m. —reading, music.

3:00-5:00 p.m. —correspondence, maybe house cleaning.

5:00-8:00 p.m. —make dinner and eat it.

After 8:00 p.m. —I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.

 

I highlighted the first item in her schedule. A writer’s life requires opportunities for sustained attention, away from the temptation of a keyboard or pen. Although walking with Bear has proven most effective for me, I’m similarly productive during the drive to Vancouver, or sitting at the beach.

 

Later in my day, “lie there and think” would equal sleep. Fortunately, like LeGuin, I find inspiration in the early morning.



Currently I’m learning how to sleep late enough to get all my work done. I can get plenty of tips from my children, who are experts at sleeping in.

 

Ursula K. LeGuin’s advice comes with a bonus. Although Bear is charming and friendly, he is also an introvert – just like everyone else in the household except for Eleanor. Bear is too self-absorbed, fidgety, and passive-aggressive to spend the night with me. [Ed. Note: Bear says it’s because he hates to listen to snoring and podcasts.] 

 

However, it turns out Bear loves to crawl in bed for morning cuddles.