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.