Sunday, December 25, 2022

Let the World be Kind

The annual Sehome High School yearbook displays free “advertisements” where parents salute their graduating seniors with embarrassing baby pictures and a short message. My daughter Eleanor is on the yearbook staff. She chose our photos, nagged me about submitting my advertisements before the deadline, and lent me a couple of old yearbooks to see examples of previous contributions from parents.


“We are so proud of you” and “We love you” were the most common messages. Quotations came from Maya Angelou, Shel Silverstein, Led Zeppelin, John Quincy Adams, and the Old Testament. Several parents loved their children to the moon and back, while others chose to signal their affection with a dense forest of exclamation marks.


As a parent and a writer, I had two favorites. The first example was exquisitely succinct:  “Well done – the whole world awaits!” 


The second parental advertisement sent a different message: 


You came into our lives, and you’ve almost been a son to us. While you may not be our number one child, you at least rate in the top three. When you return home from receiving your diploma, your stuff will be packed up for you to take away to be someone else’s problem. Please don’t try to find us. 

Love, Mom and Dad


Here’s what I wrote to Eleanor in the Sehome High School yearbook:


You are messy, passionate, determined, curious, sensitive, creative, and kind – all mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie. You’ll be gone, but you’ll always be mine.

Love Papa


And my message to Rosalind:


You are completely yourself:  brave, loyal, artistic, and kind, with a unique sense of style. Raising you has been the greatest accomplishment of my life. I will always be proud to be your father.

Love Papa

I wrote Eleanor’s yearbook message first. It’s a shout out to Waitress, her favorite musical. Before covid, I took Eleanor to a performance of Waitress at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. In “She Used to Be Mine,” our inconveniently pregnant waitress lets go of the person she hoped she would become. Like many of the parental advertisements in the yearbook, the song involves a series of revealing adjectives baked together. In Waitress, the list opens with “She is messy” – which happens to fit my daughter.


Songwriter Sara Bareilles told the New York Times “the chasm between who we are, and who we thought we would be, is always something we’re negotiating.” New York Magazine offers its “definitive ranking” of YouTube versions of the song. (Bareilles herself only reached Number 6.) For her high school performance competitions, Eleanor chose the accompanying monologue the waitress speaks to her unborn baby. 


Other than my decision to describe Eleanor as “creative” and Rosalind as “artistic,” by the time I finished writing my message to Rosalind I’d forgotten which adjectives I used for Eleanor besides “messy” (which Rosalind emphatically is not). After forwarding my messages to the yearbook editors, I was struck to see the repeated adjective in both descriptions:  “kind.” 


When Bareilles composed “She Used to be Mine,” “kind” provided a convenient near-rhyme for “mine.” In my yearbook messages, the unconscious repetition is a reminder that my second greatest accomplishment may be raising children who aren’t lawyers.

First year law students are taught to “think like a lawyer.” Legal scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter provides an excellent summary of the concept in “On Thinking Like a Lawyer,” a short essay addressed to new law students. The phrase means, “in the first instance, thinking with care and precision.” But “thinking like a lawyer also means that you can make arguments on any side of any question”:  


Many of you resist that teaching, thinking that we are stripping you of your personal principles and convictions, transforming you into a hired gun. On the contrary, learning how to make arguments on different sides of a question is learning that there are arguments on both sides, and learning how to hear them. That is the core of the liberal value of tolerance, but also the precondition for order in a society that chooses to engage in conflict with words rather than guns. It is our best hope for rational deliberation, for solving problems together not based on eradicating conflict, but for channeling it productively and cooperating where possible. 


Professor Slaughter ends her essay with optimism about the contribution that lawyers and legal thinking can make to society: 


One of my colleagues at Chicago ends her first year civil procedure class by saying: “Sometimes in the first year of law school, people learn to think like lawyers, but to be a little less like people. You’ve learned the first of those things. You shouldn’t let us teach you the second.” I disagree. There is no dichotomy here. Thinking like a lawyer is thinking like a human being, a human being who is tolerant, sophisticated, pragmatic, critical, and engaged. It means combining passion and principle, reason and judgment. 


I absorbed a similar idealism about the legal profession when I was at Yale Law School. For me, thinking like a Lawyer or like a Writer means using words to explore and share ideas with other people, including your future self. It turns out that’s the only way I can think clearly. 


However, in the last few years I’ve discovered that “thinking like a lawyer” is corrosive when an attorney’s duty to vigorously advocate for the client becomes an excuse to selfishly twist the truth beyond recognitionSince my PTSD diagnosis, I’ve completed an extensive reading list in psychology and neuroscience. In the field of evolutionary biology, “thinking like a lawyer” has a much darker meaning than the ideal celebrated in Professor Slaughter’s essay. 

Humans are profoundly social animals. In particular, we’re deeply concerned about social status within our tribe. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright argues consciousness arose in human brains not to promote effective decision making but rather for “image management” – the “hoarding of credit and sharing of blame.” Like Trump University, evolution taught us “shady accounting,” resulting in “a deep sense of justice slightly slanted toward the self.” 

As Wright puts it, the “human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments.” Evolution could have designed us to prioritize finding the right answer. Instead, “like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth.”

Is selfishness a bug or a feature of humanity? Is kindness?


Many atypical traits persist in the gene pool despite their lack of any obvious benefit to survival and reproduction, such as homosexuality, left-handedness, introversion, blue eyes, schizophrenia, and country music. In his recent book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry, neuroscientist and clinician Randolph Nesse examines how evolutionary processes can explain various quirks of the human brain, including the persistence and power of altruism: 


For most species, close social partners other than relatives are either nonexistent or nearly interchangeable. That was probably the case for our human ancestors until some tipping point in the past hundred thousand years, when selecting especially capable, generous partners began to give advantages. The benefits of having relationships with the best possible partners shaped tendencies to generosity and loyalty.... The resulting prosocial traits are as expensive and dramatic as a peacocks tail.


Common decency makes civilization possible. But no community can be healthy when it reaches the opposite tipping point, with too many individuals defaulting to lawyerly selfishness. 

David Browning, one of the second tenors in Vancouver Men’s Chorus, is a talented singer-songwriter. (In real life he’s just a doctor.) This year David set himself the personal challenge of writing a Christmas song. As any musician besides Mariah Carey will attest, composing a catchy holiday pop song presents a daunting assignment. 


David did an excellent job, and VMC was proud to premiere “Merry Christmas” at our recent concerts. The song’s bridge ends with the lyric “Let the anger and the tension unwind – let the world be kind.”

As Bear and I were walking through Boulevard Park last month, we met a young woman who was making a documentary for a college class. She asked if she could film me with Bear as I answered a few questions. After pointing her iPhone at us, the student asked “Are you happy?” 


Life has been extra frustrating lately. My family and I are beset with mounting health, personal, financial, and legal challenges. The road ahead is uncertain and confusing. Nevertheless, I am enjoying the best mental health of my life, and The Kids Are Alright. I found myself answering “yes.”


After I responded to a few more questions, the student filmmaker asked if I had any concluding message. I said “Be kind. And you’ll be happy.” 

Merry Christmas

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Typhoid Merry

I almost got to be a super-spreader. 


Instead, I’m isolating in my room with Bear – the first in our family to test positive for covid despite all the social distancing, masks, vaccinations, and dodged bullets. 

I got covid without even noticing it. When Bear and I got home from our usual long walk Wednesday afternoon, I had an email from someone who attended the same festive gathering in Vancouver on Sunday. After feeling a little under weather for a couple of days, he failed a home covid test. He suggested we all check our coronavirus status. Most attendees promptly reported negative results – other than an unlucky few. 


I’d taken so many covid tests before. This time I squeezed four drops into the plastic well, then watched the bright red line instantly light up. 

After observing so much suffering during the pandemic, my own experience with covid has been blessedly anticlimactic. Ive had no symptoms. The kids all stayed virus-free as we finished the last week of school. 


However, the December schedule is a mess. And I’m still trapped in “isolation”:  staying at home except for long walks in the woods with Bear; letting the kids feed themselves as the dishes pile up; and either wearing a mask as I try to get work done at my desk, or hiding in my bedroom while Christmas music plays on an infinite loop. 

Before the covid surprise, I was planning to drive back up to Vancouver on Wednesday night to attend a holiday sing-along event hosted by friends at a club downtown. According to the CDC chatbot’s calculations, Wednesday was my most infectious day. 


Ironically, I’d already decided to skip the Xmas sing-along and save myself for a New Years trip. Instead, I told the kids I was loopy on Theraflu. I hadnt actually taken any. I just wanted to cover up my decision to take the day off, stay home, and do edibles while pretending to be sick. Still, I’m glad I checked my email before I changed my mind about heading to the piano bar. My boisterous caroling would have contaminated numerous unsuspecting revelers with aerosolized coronavirus.


Instead I’m in isolation for ten days. Blame Canada.

This is what covid looks like (Xmas 2022)

Thursday, December 1, 2022


Eleanor at Whidbey General Hospital with bacterial pneumonia

(pre-helicopter ride to Seattle Children’s Hospital)

Facebook can be horrifying. 


Several years ago, a friend posted a cheery selfie from his sunny hospital bed after a surprise appendectomy. A day later, someone else posted the report to Facebook that our friend had died from complications after surgery.

Eleanor after hip surgery

In February, Eleanor had a sports injury that didn’t heal. In October, she had arthroscopic surgery to repair a labral tear in her hip. I sat in the waiting room, trying to read or write while my daughter was under general anesthesia. 

I am not a superstitious person. But I didn’t post a picture to Facebook until after it was all over.

Eleanor spitting up

My first paternal vigil was at Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2005. When Eleanor was a month old, her infant gastric reflux spiked. Whole bottles of formula ended up on her fathers, and she stopped being her happy self. Our pediatrician assured us this was perfectly normal. But it kept getting worse. Eventually we took her to the walk-in clinic. They immediately sent us across town to the emergency room at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Eleanor was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis.


The pylorus muscle connects your stomach to your intestines. It’s the valve at the opposite end of the stomach from the esophagus. In something like one in a thousand babies, the pylorus closes completely a few weeks after birth. Anything you try to put into the stomach just comes back up. In the old days, infants with pyloric stenosis soon died. Fortunately, a century ago surgeons figured out how snip the pylorus and get things flowing again.


It took three days in the hospital before Eleanor was hydrated enough for surgery. When she was finally ready, the surgeon explained to us what was about to happen. Then he and Eleanor disappeared behind the ominous doors, and the rest of us went around to wait on the other side.

Eleanor before stomach surgery

My friend Michael is a distinguished anesthesiologist. I met him when we served together on the Seattle Men’s Chorus board. Although Michael isn’t a singer, he traveled with the chorus on our successful Rocky Mountain tour. So did one-year-old Eleanor. Over the years, Michael has given his Facebook thumbs-up to countless pictures of my daughter as she’s grown into a graceful and confident young woman.


Michael is an avid traveler with long legs and an aversion to flying coach. Although I’ve been immobilized by parenthood and disability, I’ve traveled vicariously as Michael and his husband Ron voyaged across the globe. Michael regularly posts pictures to Facebook showing his legs happily extended in First Class, or begrudgingly squeezed into an economy row. Last month we saw a picture of Michael’s legs comfortably resting on a British Airways flight to Barcelona. He and Ron were on their way to board a cruise ship for a trip around the world in celebration of their 42nd anniversary.


The next day, Facebook reported that Ron suddenly collapsed and couldn’t be revived. As Michael himself reported, “The sad news has already been mentioned, but I’m devastated to say that with no warning, the Husband suddenly collapsed and couldn’t be revived by the valiant efforts of the Spanish paramedics. I’m now dealing with the local medical examiner, the US consulate and at least one funeral home. A million thanks to those who have reached out already.”


Michael is a social creature with countless friends. Ron was quieter. I mostly knew him from references to “the Husband” in Michael’s Facebook posts. However, I know anyone living and traveling together with Michael for decades will see wondrous things. Ron had a wonderful life, then a sudden death in Barcelona.


Michael managed affairs in Spain then returned to Seattle – terribly alone, yet surrounded by friends. Michael’s next Facebook post said “I’m absolutely gobsmacked by the outpouring of support and affection from hundreds of friends and family.” 

Eleanor after stomach surgery

Last fall I sat in another waiting room while our next-door neighbor operated on Eleanor’s nose to correct a deviated septum. (Another sports injury, don't ask.) Afterwards I came back to sit with her as she emerged from anesthesia. I had to sit for a while – they wouldn’t let her leave the building until her blood pressure came down. The nurse spiked her IV drip with a couple of different hypertension medications, to no avail. So she gave Eleanor a hit of fentanyl. 


It was eye-opening. For me, not Eleanor – I watched as her eyeballs rolled back and her blood pressure immediately dropped. In the car afterwards, Eleanor said she hated how the fentanyl made her feel, and she never wants to try anything like it again. 

As a parent, I found nose surgery provides a wonderful “Just Say No” moment.

Eleanor before last year’s nose surgery 

At Eleanor’s recent hip surgery, I was invited to the pre-op area as the nurses got her ready. Her handsome surgeon stopped by, too focused on business for the kind of charming chit-chat we enjoyed during our introductory meeting a few weeks before. 


Before returning to the waiting room for another paternal vigil, I also met the anesthesiologist. His spiel was soothing, but a little too polished. He told us the odds of complications were one in 250,000, and said Eleanor was at less risk during surgery than during her car ride to the hospital.


Never tell me the odds. As I observe Michael grieve the sudden loss of The Husband after forty-two years together, I think of my sister-in-law in Canada, who sleeps on the couch across the living room from the hospital bed where my younger brother is confined by Stage IV spine cancer. And I watch my parents across town growing old together as they celebrate their 60th anniversary next year. 

I’ve been a failure with romance myself. By most measures I’ve been a failure with everything else. Instead, I’ve poured my heart into fatherhood. 


Wherever we find love, probability is not destiny. Life is fragile and precious, with no guarantees. And no day but today.

Eleanor before this year’s hip surgery

I recently read Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses by Sarah Fay. The New York Times Book Review described the book as a “fiery manifesto of a memoir.” Like other critics of what has been called the “Mental Health Industrial Complex,” Fay challenges two dangerous aspects of modern psychological treatment. First, too much weight is given to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual’s taxonomy of specific mental disorders. The DSM began as a helpful resource for practitioners. Unfortunately, its rigid categorizations can take on a life of their own, usually without the support of valid data. Rather than being seen as individuals, patients are reduced to labels and insurance codes. 

Second, market forces and Big Pharma have corrupted medicine. Pharmaceuticals became the default answer to every mental health question, causing numerous disasters including the opioid epidemic. In Fay’s case, her fifth psychiatrist prescribed Zoloft along with a new diagnosis. No one knows what powerful drugs like Zoloft and Prozac actually do to the human brain. For many individuals – including Fay and me – Zoloft offers magical relief to various debilitating symptoms. For other individuals in similar circumstances, the same drug may have no effect.


I was lucky. As I wrote in “Breaking the Glass,” I like to compare Zoloft to cartoon dynamite. The most alarming effect of amped-up stress had been on my temper around the kids. Every little mess was making me uncharacteristically angry. On medication, my fuse feels a few inches longer. Just enough to avoid explosions.


When Fay’s next psychiatrist gave her a new diagnosis, he insisted she end her reliance on Zoloft, because the drug was no longer indicated as part of standard treatment. Fay gradually tried reducing her dosage. But every time she approached zero she was wracked with horrifying withdrawal symptoms. She needed to stay on Zoloft to avoid side effects she never experienced before someone prescribed Zoloft for one of the six serious DSM diagnoses she received (none of which involved traumas or triggers). 


Eventually Fay took control of her own treatment: 


“I found the right combination and dosage of medications, which is like finding the slimmest of needles in the largest of haystacks at the end of a rainbow after winning the lottery.”

Eleanor after being airlifted to Seattle Children's Hospital

For years, I relied on the maximum dosage of 200 milligrams of Zoloft daily. A couple of years ago my amazing Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic and I agreed it was time to taper down. I plateaued at 100 milligrams for a few months. Then I made it down to 25 milligrams. However, every time I considered letting go completely, some new life crisis erupted, and I would lose my nerve. 


This year began with the usual stress at home and in the world, plus crises and/or disasters in several of my ongoing legal matters. Nevertheless, I decided it was time to let go of Zoloft. Fortunately, unlike Fay, I didn’t experience withdrawal or side effects. 


In his classic treatise on trauma and its effects, The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk levels some of same criticisms at his profession that Fay addresses in Pathological. Dr. van der Kolk observes “people have always used drugs to deal with traumatic stress,” and recognizes pharmaceuticals are an essential treatment tool. Nevertheless, in the particular context of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD,


Drugs cannot “cure” trauma: they can only dampen the expressions of a disturbed physiology. And they do not teach the lasting lessons of self-regulation. They can help to control feelings and behaviour, but always at a price – because they work by blocking the chemical systems that regulate engagement, motivation, pain, and pleasure.


Since my PTSD diagnosis, I’ve spent thousands of hours meditating. Through writing I’ve learned to think clearly. I’ve finished a broader and more substantial psychology and neurology reading list than most grad students. Bear and I walk six or seven miles every day. I had a 3.7 Wordle average in November. I spend as much time as possible in Vancouver with my chorus brothers or walking on the Stanley Park seawall. I’ve placed my family at the center of everything. 


After letting go of Zoloft, I was able to open myself up to tears of joy and sorrow. Of course, this also means that my emotions are more vulnerable to stress and triggers. I’m an unemployed disabled gay single dad who lives across the border from home. Every day I deal with triggering conduct by abusive lawyers. It should come as no surprise that even with the benefit of my shiny set of mental tools, my family has observed some fuse-shortened emotions lately.


I don't want to go back on Zoloft. So Bear and I are going for another walk.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Something Rotten

At the end of July each year, my mother and her friend Carolyn spend a girls’ week at a condo in Vancouver’s West End. They watch the fireworks, shop on Granville Island, and walk along the seawall. They also attend the summer musicals at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park, where the nonprofit Theatre Under the Stars has been producing shows since 1940. 


This year TUTS presented two shows in repertory. The first, We Will Rock You, is a British jukebox musical featuring the music of Queen, with a thin plot about a dystopia where music is forbidden. The second show, Something Rotten!, opened on Broadway in 2015. Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom struggle to find success in an Elizabethan theatre scene dominated by William Shakespeare’s rock star status. Christian Borle won the Best Supporting Actor Tony for his portrayal of Shakespeare as a preening but insecure narcissist. 

Seattle Mens Chorus singing “A Musical” (2016)

Desperate to get an edge over his rival Shakespeare, Nick Bottom offers his life savings to a soothsayer in return for learning what kind of theatrical production is guaranteed to succeed in the future. The only oracle Nick can afford is Thomas Nostradamus, an undistinguished nephew of the famous French seer. Thomas’s predictions turn out to be accurate but slightly garbled. In Something Rotten!’s show-stopping production number, Thomas convinces Nick he can succeed by introducing the world’s first musical. 


In 2016, Seattle Men’s Chorus conductor Dennis Coleman retired after thirty-five years with the baton. That was also my first year in Vancouver Men’s Chorus. Instead of singing with SMC, I drove to Seattle with my daughter Eleanor to see the “Everything Broadway” show. Both of us were riveted by SMC’s performance of “A Musical.”

This summer when my mother mentioned she had tickets to Something Rotten!, Eleanor and I immediately played her the original cast recording of “A Musical,” including this classic excerpt:


THOMAS:       Some musicals have no talking at all....
All of the dialogue is sung
In a very dramatic fashion.

NICK:              Um, really?

THOMAS:       Yes, really.
And they often stay on one note for a very long time
So when they change to a different note, [finally changing pitch] you notice.
And its supposed to create a dramatic effect
But mostly you just sit there asking yourself
“Why aren
t they talking?”

NICK:              That sounds miserable.

THOMAS:       I believe it’s pronounced Misérable.

Songwriters: Wayne Kirkpatrick / Karey Kirkpatrick        

A Musical lyrics © WB Music Corp., Mad Mother Music

Sure enough, my mother and Carolyn loved Something Rotten. (Mom’s review of We Will Rock You: “It was loud.”) I got a ticket to Something Rotten for the last Wednesday of the summer. As I reported on Facebook, the show was delightful.

The key to surviving Facebook is to remember you’re not the target audience in Facebook’s business model – you’re the company’s productFacebook’s actual customers are paying advertisers. In a popular and apt metaphor, the rest of us are merely a herd of cattle on display. 


I’ve run the numbers, and I’m pretty happy with our bovine arrangement. As far as I can tell, the algorithm has never lured me into buying anything. Instead, Facebook serves as a convenient communication platform and auxiliary memory bank. After posting pictures of children, dogs, and travel for fourteen years, I can now rely on Facebook for daily reminders of happy times.


For example, according to Facebook I was at the Saint James Theatre seven years ago waiting to watch the original Broadway cast of Something Rotten!. As I wrote at the time, “Shakespeare has always been my idol.”

I’m lucky I have Facebook to remind me – because I don’t have any memory of being at the theatre in New York. In fact, other than the songs I heard on the original cast album, I didn’t remember anything about the show before I saw it again in Vancouver last month.

The last time I was in New York I was on my way to New Haven for my 25th year law school reunion. This was just a few weeks before my new Bellingham physician told me my weird recent symptoms added up to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and serious codependency. My disability diagnosis changed my life – but not as much as the abusive behaviour of my employers. 


PTSD is a disease of memory. As Bessel van der Kolk observes in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “traumatized people simultaneously remember too little and too much.” Sometimes trauma results in disassociation or repression, leaving no accessible memories at all. More often, trauma prevents key brain modules like the thalamus and hippocampus from integrating our experiences into “normal” memories. According to Dr. van der Kolk, “the imprints of traumatic experiences are organized not as coherent logical narratives but in fragmented sensory and emotional traces:  images, sounds, and physical sensations.”

When I realized I had no memory of seeing Something Rotten! on Broadway in October 2015 – even Christian Borle’s Tony-winning portrayal of my idol Will Shakespeare – I went back to my collection of Playbills to figure what else was missing. 


The only other show I saw on that trip was Fun Home, a musical based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir about growing up in a repressed and dysfunctional environment (she was raised in her familys funeral home). While Bechdel was away at college, her father killed himself rather than come out of the closet. 

In contrast with Something Rotten, I remember seeing Fun Home on Broadway. I’ve also read Bechdel’s graphic memoir. But my memories of both are fragmentary.

Theatre Under the Stars

Early in his career, Sigmund Freud successfully treated hysteria patients who had PTSD-like symptoms. Freud reported his patients could not access traumatic memories because of the “severely paralyzing” effect of strong emotions like fright and shame. Freud concluded “the ultimate cause of hysteria is always the seduction of the child by an adult.” 


However, as Bessel van der Kolk observes, when “faced with his own evidence of an epidemic of abuse in the best families of Vienna – one, he noted, that would implicate his own father – he quickly began to retreat.” Freud shifted his emphasis from real-world childhood trauma to “unconscious wishes and fantasies” like Oedipus complexes and penis envy. A century later, the leading psychiatry textbook in 1974 stated that “incest is extremely rare,” while opining it probably “allows for a better adjustment to the external world,” leaving “the vast majority” of underaged victims “none the worse for wear.” 


Since then, we’ve learned PTSD is very real, and that its not just a soldier’s disease. Here is Dr. van der Kolk’s call to action in The Body Keeps the Score after four decades treating trauma victims:  “Child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.”


My childhood best friend Paul killed himself a few months after he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In a pioneering study by Dr. van der Kolk and his Harvard colleague Dr. Judith Herman, 81 percent of patients diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder also had histories of severe child abuse. On my way to see Something Rotten!, sitting in line at the Peace Arch border crossing, I read more details about the study in The Body Keeps the Score. And I remembered various odd things Paul said or did over the years. Suddenly I made the horrifying connection  my friend Paul likely endured abuse while we were in elementary school together.

Christian Borle and "Will Power" on Broadway

When I visited New York in October 2015, my PTSD diagnosis was still a few weeks away. But I was well on the way to rock bottom. Even after Theatre Under the Stars refreshed my recollection, I still can’t remember seeing Something Rotten!.


I can think of several explanations for the memory gap. The first is the general effect of my disability. As a wrote in “Better-ish,” although many of my fuzzy memories from that period finally snapped into place, others never did. Instead my brain concluded the simplest way to adjust my internal clock was to delete two years from the timeline. It was like switching to Daylight Savings Time. Or like when England converted from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, and eleven days were dropped from September 1752. Nevertheless, there’s a silver lining:  I remember half as much Donald Trump presidency as everyone else.


Another possible explanation for erasing Something Rotten! is my obsessive relationship with Shakespeare. For example, the best class I took at Yale Law School was Hal Bloom’s graduate Shakespeare seminar. My bardolatry goes beyond ordinary English Major fervor. I was born exactly four hundred years after William Shakespeare. (To the day, after adjusting for the switch to Gregorian calendar). All my life, or at least from 1964 to 2015, I could easily compare myself to where Will was at a particular age:  having his three kids in Stratford during the ’80s, writing classics like Hamlet in the ’90s, retiring to the country in the aughts, and dealing with poor health in the teens. Shakespeare died in 1616, on what would have been his 52nd birthday. On that date four hundred years later, senior managing lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office realized the State’s employment lawyers and their investigator had broken the law and discriminated against me. Rather than correct their errors, they hastily terminated my employment and embarked on the triggering coverup that continues today. My life stalled at age 51. As my health and career unraveled in 2015-16, I felt more doomed that Will Shakespeare. Now it feels like the clock has started again.

But there’s a third explanation for my memory blocking out Something Rotten!. As I sat in Malkin Bowl last month, I recognized some of the characters and plot developments from listening to the original cast album. For example, during Act I, Will Shakespeare’s rock-star narcissism was predictably charming. I was also prepared to see Nick Bottom weave his soothsayer’s misleading fragments of prophecy into the fiasco of Omelette: The Musical. (It’s no Springtime for Hitler, but it’s no Hamlet, either.) What surprised me was Shakespeare’s pathetic efforts during Act II to re-ignite own creative fire. Eventually Will is so desperate he steals Nigel Bottom’s brilliant draft script of Hamlet. After Omelette: The Musical bombs, Shakespeare conspires with the authorities to banish Nick, Nigel, their wives, and the soothsayer to America in order to cover up his own plagiarism.


Why did my memory block out the entire show, including the fact I saw it on Broadway? Because Something Rotten! centers on writer’s block. And finding your own voice. Which turns out to be how I finally worked my way through complex PTSD over the last few years. I still dont remember anything from the first time I saw Something Rotten!. But I’m happy so many of the other rotten things from that time in my life are finally beginning to heal.

Daniel Curalli as Will at Theatre Under The Stars

Thursday, September 8, 2022

I'd Rather Be Sailing

S/V Stella Maris, Deception Pass - 2000

The last time I was at showtunes night in Canada, heres how our piano player Kerry O’Donovan introduced the song “I’d Rather Be Sailing”:


“This is one of Roger’s favourite songs. And in the show the song comes from, it’s sung by a character named Roger.”

S/V Reachfar, Elliott Bay - 2007

My recent blog essay “Roger, Roger” described two of the three characters from Broadway musicals who are named “Roger”:  (1) Roger Davis, the rocker bro half of Rent’s straight tragic couple; and (2) Roger DeBris, the fabulous gay auteur who directs and stars in the terrible musical at the center of Mel Brooks’ The Producers“Springtime for Hitler.” 


The third Broadway “Roger” is another gay supporting character. Roger Delli-Bovi is the romantic partner of the protagonist in A New Brain, the 1998 musical William Finn wrote with James Lapine. The show is loosely based on Finn’s own experience at age forty when he was rushed to the hospital for emergency brain surgery, almost died, and slowly recovered.


William Finn’s surrogate in A New Brain, Gordon Schwinn, is a frustrated songwriter. Gordon composes songs for children’s television host “Mr. Bungee,” but he’s blocked in his efforts to finish both Mr. Bungee’s frog songs and his own creative projects. Gordon’s long-suffering boyfriend Roger is the one who loves sailing more than anything else in the world. Roger arrives late to the hospital because he had to wait for wind on Long Island Sound.

Gordon hates sailing. Roger still loves Gordon.


In the most recent revival of A New Brain, Jonathan Groff played Gordon, not Roger. But here is a link to Groff singing “I’d Rather Be Sailing” on YouTube

S/V Reachfar, Admiralty Inlet - 2005

Once upon a time I had a sailboat, a convertible, and a beach house. Seventeen years later, I’m an unemployed disabled gay single dad with three teenagers, two dogs, and an ancient minivan.


As Bear and I walk along the Boardwalk, we admire the boats out on Bellingham Bay. I miss my sailboat. It was a beautiful thirty-seven-foot Jeanneau, which I named “Reachfar.” What gets lost in the telling is that I actually bought my boat while we were pregnant with Eleanor.

S/V Stella Maris, Sidney Spit BC - 1995

During the 1990s, one of my gay lawyer friends lived on his sailboat at Shilshole Marina in Seattle. Many of my happiest memories involved the times I spent with friends on S/V Stella Maris. We explored Manzanilla Bay, Lake Union, and the Hiram Chittenden locks. We introduced my roommate Geoff to his husband Mike at a party on Jim’s boat. Even after I moved to Chicago to be a gay rights lawyer with the ACLU, I would regularly return to Seattle and the water, like a homesick salmon.


For several years I joined Jim on his annual 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 Sidney Spit and Wallace, Prevost, Sucia, and Patos Islands, before returning home to the drudgery of legal practice.

S/V Reachfar - Puget Sound, 2007

Sailing is naturally mellowing.  

For decades, I found every aspect of being a lawyer crushingly stressful, even before I was diagnosed with complex PTSD and codependency. Nevertheless, I could always escape my miserable life by surrounding myself with waves and forests. Sailing offered instant relief. Although I found a similar Zen on chartered sailboats in Belize, California, and Tahiti, I always felt particularly at home on the waters of the Pacific Northwest. 


Eventually I became convinced I needed a boat of my own to sustain the magic. So in 2005, I bought a used sailboat. In a rare twist, the economics of boat ownership made sense for me. When I moved back from Chicago, Id chosen to buy a weekend cabin on Whidbey Island rather than an overpriced condo in the city. Mooring a sailboat at Elliott Bay Marina as a crashpad turned out to be cheaper than renting an apartment in Seattle.


As the cliché goes, the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat, and the day they sell it. By 2008, I recognized sailing was not going to be my priority for the foreseeable future. I was happy to find a willing buyer for S/V Reachfar, for two reasons. First, I discovered being in charge of my own boat diminished sailing’s relaxing effects. Being the captain was a buzz kill. Second, I needed a place in the city that would fit my growing family, rather than a lonely pied-à-mer.

One of the poetic epitaphs in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters (1915)

We started the laborious adoption process in Fall 2004 by signing up with an agency and taking thirty hours of parenting classes. A few weeks later, I got a telephone call out of the blue and learned the cousin of a friend of a friend was pregnant. They were looking for a gay couple to adopt the baby, and chose us. 

I bought my sailboat at the beginning of May 2005. All those years of sailing, research, and trips to the Boat Show intersected with the miraculous surprise of parenthood. In hindsight, I think I grasped at the familiar comfort of sailing rather than face the terror of desiring something completely beyond my control. After the ultrasound, I realized our birthmother was just as terrified about us walking away from the adoption as I was worried about her changing her mind. Fortunately, my partner and her boyfriend were able to calm both of us down.  


At home on Whidbey Island late one night in June, I got the call saying our birth mother had gone into labor. We caught the last ferry to the mainland and raced to the hospital in Puyallup. Everyone spent the night watching movies in the lovely birthing suite. Shortly before 9 am, the doctor and the baby arrived. 

I watched Eleanor being born. Then we walked out of the room with our daughter, and the world has never been the same.

Bear, Buster, and Schooner Zodiac

“I’d Rather Be Sailing” is the simplest of songs. Gordon’s lover Roger celebrates the joy of sun, wind, and waves. Then he lists some of the things that aren’t as good as sailing, like food, sex, and other people. However, as Roger sings to Gordon, what he loves best about going out sailing is afterwards he can “come home to you.” 


Near the end of A New Brain, Gordon and Roger reprise “I’d Rather Be Sailing” as a duet. Gordon will never be a sailor. Instead, he sings “I feel like I’m sailing – holding on for life.” With the right craft and crew, sailing offers the exhilaration of the second-greatest roller coaster in the world. 


Sailing [Vancouver, chorus, writing, Bear, whatever] could be the one thing in the world I love almost as much as my children. But the point is I love my children even more. That’s the kind of Roger I am.

S/V Reachfar, Port Townsend - 2006