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 “” 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


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


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.


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.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022


I’m frugal with my exclamation marks. Nevertheless, before approaching the lectern to present argument before any court over the last thirty years, I’ve always written “SLOW DOWN!!!” at the top of my notes. Nowadays it’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.

As I recently wrote in “Snap,” this fall I had a series of epiphanies about my relationship with “Executive Function.” According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”


The presenter at a recent legal education webinar explained that many new attorneys struggle “with some type of executive function challenge: focusing, staying on task, organizing, managing time effectively, starting and finishing tasks, keeping a schedule, communicating with others, and more.” The recently evolved neural networks in our prefrontal cortex are particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological assaults. As I listened to the presentation, I realized how easily both ordinary stressors and specific PTSD triggers impair my own Executive Functioning.

During World War I and World War II, the Royal Navy had a slogan:  “A convoy travels at the speed of its slowest ship.”


Last August I obtained major victories in two longstanding legal cases. I thought that meant we would soon begin exciting new phases in the litigation. Instead, none of our reboots occurred until January 2022. While the other side’s lawyers stonewalled, I spent a frustrating fall trying in vain to speed things up. 


Looking back, I’m grateful for the breathing space provided by our glacial litigation pace during autumn’s blessed post-vaccination window. The kids went back to school, where they wore masks and thrived while doing normal-ish things like choir and theatre. The Canadian border finally opened after eighteen bleak months. Because of room capacity limitations, Vancouver Men’s Chorus divided itself in half for rehearsals before joyously reuniting in December for a successful and revitalizing concert run.


Then anti-vaxers gave us the Omicron surge. Real life slowed down again. Nevertheless, hope has returned with the new year. Tomorrow I’m crossing the border to see my brother and to attend VMC’s first in-person rehearsal of the year.


Meanwhile, I finally accepted that the pace of litigation pace will always be set by the courts’ judicious and deliberate speed, not the parties and lawyers. More importantly, I realized I need to slow myself way down to compensate for all the stress placed on my Executive Function. I’ve learned to work on one task at a time, avoid toxic encounters, and regularly take healthy breaks with my children or walking the dogs. It turns out the courts’ speed works for me, too.

Like every good Canadian gay boy, all I really need to know I learned from Anne of Green Gables.


Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel, published in 1908, is the national epic of Prince Edward Island. It tells the story of spunky 11-year old orphan Anne Shirley, who is mistakenly sent to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a bachelor farmer and his spinster sister. The Cuthberts asked the Victorian social workers to send a boy to help work the farm. Instead, Anne’s enchanting chatter and vivid imagination quickly brighten the lives of everyone around her. 

A few years later in the story, when Anne was the same age my daughters are now, Marilla was startled to see Anne had grown taller than her. Marilla noticed “there were other changes in Anne no less real than the physical change”: 

For one thing, she became much quieter. Perhaps she thought all the more and dreamed as much as ever, but she certainly talked less. Marilla noticed and commented on this also.

“You don’t chatter half as much as you used to, Anne, nor use half as many big words. What has come over you?”

Anne colored and laughed a little, as she dropped her book and looked dreamily out of the window, where big fat red buds were bursting out on the creeper in response to the lure of the spring sunshine.

“I don’t know—I don’t want to talk as much,” she said, denting her chin thoughtfully with her forefinger. “It’s nicer to think dear, pretty thoughts and keep them in one’s heart, like treasures. I don’t like to have them laughed at or wondered over. And somehow I don’t want to use big words any more. It’s almost a pity, isn’t it, now that I’m really growing big enough to say them if I did want to. It’s fun to be almost grown up in some ways, but it’s not the kind of fun I expected, Marilla. There’s so much to learn and do and think that there isn’t time for big words. Besides, Miss Stacy says the short ones are much stronger and better. She makes us write all our essays as simply as possible. It was hard at first. I was so used to crowding in all the fine big words I could think of—and I thought of any number of them. But I’ve got used to it now and I see it’s so much better.”


Alice Flaherty is a neurologist and a professor at Harvard Medical School. Two difficult pregnancies left her with post-partum manic-depression so severe she eventually admitted herself into a mental hospital. In her memoir The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Flaherty wrote about her struggle with excruciating writer’s block, followed by intense hypergraphia (the overwhelming compulsion to write).


My own youthful traumas caused three decades of increasing writer’s block. It took a PTSD diagnosis before the fog began to lift. Writing these blog essays, as well as working on my book manuscripts and even countless legal briefs, became both a creative joy and effective Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Like Anne Shirley and Alice Flaherty, my manic early writing was overwhelmingly prolific. The output slowed down as I gained the skills and courage to confront increasingly challenging topics:  exile from my Canadian home, my repressed Mormon youth, finding my gay tribe at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and my recent betrayals by an unjust legal profession. 


In 2020, I had the privilege of participating in an extraordinary cohort of writers and coaches working together as part of The Narrative Project. Last weekend I was one of the writers reading from our recent work at the launch of True Stories, a new anthology. The writers in our small group – Jennifer, Kimberly, Patty, and I – would exchange new work and support each other. The larger cohort would gather for sessions about the craft and business of writing, and the elements of a writer’s life. Cami Ostman, founder of The Narrative Project, is an experienced writer, editor, educator, and therapist. In addition to growing through the collaborative writing process, I learned how to write through trauma. 


Nowadays I recognize the warning signs of Executive Function overload – including when my work requires me to produce legal writing about triggering issues. Looking back at my court filings over the last five years, I wish I had figured out how to slow down a long time ago. I owe an apology to a few judges for some longwinded briefs, particularly those slightly ranting conclusions. Fortunately, my new slower gear and improved self-editing skills arrived just in time for new briefing before the Washington Supreme Court. 


Our group’s coach from The Narrative Project, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, is currently working on a science fiction novel. We bonded over The Mandalorian. And over the fundamental patterns and rhythms of the writing process. As Rebecca would say, This is the Way.

Thursday, February 3, 2022


Yesterday was the ancient feast of Candlemas, also known as Groundhog Day, when we celebrate the greatest work of comic moral philosophy in the Western Canon. 

Obviously Im referring to the 1993 rom-com Groundhog Day, starring national treasure Bill Murray. If you need it, here is IMDB’s summary of the classic film:


A self-centered Pittsburgh weatherman finds himself inexplicably trapped in a small town as he lives the same day over and over again.


The McGuffin driving the plot is the fact that the “small town” is Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and the “same day” is February 2. Once a year, beloved rodent Punxsutawney Phil wakes up and confronts his demons. Murray plays grumpy weatherman Phil Connors, in town to cover the annual ritual.

Groundhog Day tells the redemption story of Phil Connors’ transformation from miserable misanthrope to pillar of the community, all in one very long and repetitive day. 


The first time through Phils day, the movie provides a framework for the rest of the story by introducing his news team, various Punxsatawney residents, and their key encounters. The town’s high holy day culminates in a big party. As the same day repeats a few times in the next section of the movie, Phil figures out the nature of his existential trap, and goofs off with predictable self-indulgence. Then we see do-over montages as Phil learns through trial and error how to succeed at various tasks, such as fixing tires, saving lives, and barging into the home of the town’s piano teacher each day for a “first” piano lesson. 

Gifted essayist and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who played insurance agent Ned Ryerson, describes the movie shoot as one of the most magical experiences of his life. Some people think Groundhog Day centers on the growing attraction between Phil and his producer Rita, played by Andie MacDowell. Near the end of the movie, Phil demonstrates one of the many skills you can acquire if you have all the time in the world  by carving an exquisite ice sculpture of his beloved with a chainsaw. Phil finally breaks the curse when he wakes up to find it’s February 3rd and he’s part of a couple.  

For me the heart of Groundhog Day is not the romance, or even the comic montages as Phil gradually perfects his schtick. It’s the party that evening where Phil jams on piano with the band in front of the whole town. Rita learns from witness after witness that Phil spent his day reaching out with love and kindness.

It’s been six years since my world turned upside down after abusive workplace dynamics triggered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With the help of my healthcare providers and the support of the best family in the world, I’ve made immense progress with many of my debilitating symptoms


Nevertheless, I will never be “cured.” The stress and tics don’t go away. To the contrary, my trichotillomania and my stammer are worse than ever. Meanwhile, my mind has compensated for the vicious cycle of triggers and traumas by compressing four years of memories into two, as if the guys remodeling my brain poured the foundation off-kilter and the rest of us will have to compensate forever. (Silver lining:  for me the entire Trump presidency seems like just a couple of years.) 


Fortunately, more recently I’ve returned to the light. I’ve regained a hopeful mindset for the first time since childhood. And as I recently wrote in “Snap,” I’ve finally figured out how to slow down enough to think clearly. It involves a lot of long walks with Bear – which had the unfortunate side effect of crippling my right foot with plantar fasciitis. Now I just need to find a podiatrist who takes our terrible health insurance.

Over the last three years I found my personal Groundhog’s Day loop on my daily walks with Bear.


Many of my remaining challenges are social. Trauma had the effect of moving me several notches further away from “normal” on the autism spectrum – particularly during PTSD episodes, while under stress, and/or in my interactions with gay men. I’ve lost much of my already dubious ability to read ordinary social cues. Faces are a blank. Nowadays I can’t tell if someone is hitting on me or challenging me to a duel. Strangers overwhelm me. 


But as I walk along the waterfront trail with Bear, I have the opportunity to repeat the same social interactions over and over. I gracefully thank people who admire his pied beauty. I explain Aussiedoodles are a cross between Australian shepherds and poodles. I talk about the weather, and laugh politely when old men quip “Who’s walking who?” as if I’ve never heard the question before. 


In the beginning I couldn’t sustain a multi-sentence exchange, let alone a conversation. My attempts at humor fell flat and made me seem creepy. But dog people are nice, and you can talk to them about safe topics like de-worming medication and scheduling a groomer. Gradually I added new material. 


Last Saturday, Bear and I walked ten miles in the sunshine. I confidently risked social encounters with a high degree of difficulty. I even had the nerve to say something clever to the cute new guy at the coffee shop who is in the process of dethroning his charming co-worker from the position of Coffee Boy Crush. (I’m only allowed to have one Coffee Boy Crush at a time – a prudent rule imposed long ago in Chicago by my friend Charles.)


My one misstep occurred when I tried to strike up a conversation with a poodle owner wearing too many layers of fleece. I thought I was talking to a white-haired lesbian, but it turned out to be a little old man. Years ago I made the same mistake on my way home from the Gay Softball World Series when I stood in line behind diminutive gay comedian Leslie Jordan. 

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

in the recently published anthology True Stories Vol. IV

Last weekend I was one of the writers reading from our recent work at the launch of True Stories, a new anthology edited by Cami Ostman, founder of The Narrative Project. Here’s a link to the YouTube video (I’m reading from 35:35 to 39:25), and a link to the site where you can purchase copies of our book.


My contribution to True StoriesFor Good, ” comes from the chapter of my upcoming memoir where I explain that Im not really a dog person. Here’s an excerpt:


Bear is more attractive than anyone I’ve ever dated – way out of my league. As I walk past strangers on the waterfront trail, I often hear audible sighs of “Aw, he’s sooo cute.” Sadly, it’s never about me.


Nevertheless, the best thing about going on long walks with Bear every day is that everyone we encounter is smiling. Yes, I know they’re not smiling at me. But they’re smiling at us—and at everyone else for a little while. Surely that makes the world a slightly better place.


On our last walk along the Boardwalk, Bear asked if I planned on getting a new dog after he’s gone. I said no. I told Bear I would keep taking care of poor Buster if my daughter turned out to be a flake, but when it comes to pets I’ll stick with the fabulous gay uncle role in the future. Still, regardless of what happens in future, I know that having a dog—having Bear in my life—has changed me for good.

Which brings us to Buster, who has been conspicuously absent from his story so far.


This fall my middle brother and his wife became the first empty nesters from our generation. They immediately bought their first dog, an adorable Labradoodle named Scout who now dominates the family Facebook feed. 


I warned my brother he’s in danger of becoming a dog person permanently. Luckily, I acquired two dogs at once. Bear is the perfect companion for my life right now. In contrast, Buster is a constant reminder that lightning won’t strike twice.


Buster has more tics and is even more socially awkward than me. He steals underwear from the laundry basket and bloody tissues from my pocket, then eats them. He’s clumsy and stupid and a little bit racist. He hates going on walks. If Bear and I drag him along the trail with us, Buster just barks and walks into things before pooping out too soon. Buster’s highest and best use is to lounge on the couch and comfort my children. 

One day last summer, Bear and I begrudgingly included Buster in a necessarily short walk. On the Boardwalk we ran into my ex’s next ex Brenden. After they divorced, my ex moved back to the Midwest and I ended up with the kids fulltime. Plus Bear and Buster. 

Brenden still lives in Bellingham, but his work schedule prevented him from taking the dogs. Instead, he has embraced the guncle role with both children and dogs. The continued support of Brenden and his parents has been essential to the kids’ wellbeing during these challenging times. 


When we ran into Brenden on the Boardwalk, Bear pounced with typical enthusiasm. In contrast with his usual public awkwardness, Buster wildly embraced Brendon and smothered him with kisses. When Brenden continued in the other direction, Buster sat on the Boardwalk pining. He wouldn’t let us leave for thirty minutes, and instead stared longingly into the distance. I realized Brenden was the love of Buster’s life – and that traumatic experiences can shatter even a simple psyche.

Several businesses in Fairhaven identify as dog friendly and offer treats at the counter. If any merchant gives Bear a dog treat just once we can never walk past the doors of that establishment again without going inside. Ituncanny. Trading treats for hugs with Bear has become the highlight of the day for numerous Village Books employees. 

In contrast, dim-witted Buster approaches every gift of a dog treat like its his first time – a happy surprise.


Seasons and school calendars remind us life is cyclical. For people like Buster or Dr. Oliver Sacks’ amnesiac patients, each circle is the same. For others, like Phil Connors before the events of Groundhog Day, life is a downward spiral. Each February Phil would schlep to Punxsatawney, complaining bitterly about everything and everyone, and make every turn of the wheel worse than the one before. The opposite of a redemption story is a “contamination story.”


As I’ve slowly recovered my health over the last few years, I’ve also re-learned the power of positive thinking and hopeful living. In the best book I read last year, What are the Chances? Why We Believe in Luck, neuroscientist and statistician Barbara Blatchley writes 


When lucky people are unlucky – when something unwanted or awful happens – they learn from their mistakes, incorporating that experience into their expectations about the future. They are able to use their transformed expectations to change their bad luck into good for the next time.


Groundhog Day demonstrates the power of evolution:  not biologically as a species, but culturally as a community, and personally as individuals. Unlike Buster, we can choose to spiral upward.