Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Egg Picture

One of the more distressing aspects of parenting is that you can never predict what your kids will remember. What you intend them to remember, and how, is like everything else about parenting and life in general: out of your control and in constant opposition to your plans. 

You can spend a king's ransom taking your kids on a vacation, for example, and all your daughter will keep talking about is the luxe dispenser of lemon-infused water in the lobby of the Atlanta Airport Hilton Garden Inn. Or, on the flip side, you can go to great lengths to procure a pet hedgehog, and while taking a bath your son will tell his grandma that what "stuck with him" about these efforts it that they were so focused on his happiness.

My parents are now in their late seventies, and our relationship has never been better: they've both mellowed considerably with age, and I'm trying to make the most of our remaining years together. I'm determined to not argue with them over petty things or regress into old dynamics. As an only child and a mother of two children myself now, I realize that the only things that really matter at all after you become a parent is that you live to see your kids grow up and that you check out of this planet before they do. My parents are on track for that, and I'm glad.

I moved to Alaska when I was 27. I'm turning 45 this year and my daughter, Paige, will be 15. My son, Isaac, will be 12. My life feels split into two very distinct halves: my childhood and young adulthood in New York City with a brief stint in Rhode Island for college, and my adult life in Alaska where my kids were born, where I built my career as a lawyer, and where I stumbled into my non-monetized side-hustle as a blogger and activist. 

But a few times a year, I return to the 1,200 square foot of Bronx apartment where I grew up and where my parents still live most of the time. When I do, it feels like I've entered a wormhole in the space-time continuum. I sleep in my childhood bedroom cocooned by detritus from all phases of my early life: a tacky sculpture I spent $100 of 1990s babysitting money on. An old Cabbage Patch Kid I wanted and lobbied for with a burning passion. A box of Sculpey beads I made. I go into sort of a fugue state then, picking up one object after the other and tripping out on nostalgia, contemplating dumpster services and estate sales and Marie Kondo while simultaneously wondering how I'll ever let go of any of this junk. It's like shopping at Costco, but sadder and without the risk of impulse-buying an inflatable standup paddle board.

My mom has slowly overtaken the drawer space in my old bedroom with paperwork and stationery, but I discovered on a recent visit that one drawer remains relegated--or, more charitably, dedicated--to my old artwork and journals. 

It was in here that I found The Egg Picture.

The Egg Picture, which I drew when I was eight and still very into making art, had assumed an outsized role in my mind as a literal poster for parental failings. I remember meticulously drawing this at my dad's office in a midtown publishing company, waiting for him to be done working for the day. When I was finished I showed it to him and insisted that he mail it straight to The New Yorker, because they'd obviously want it for the cover of their April issue. Always direct and never one to adjust his tone or delivery to the age of his audience, my dad said bluntly: "well, you can try, but that's never going to happen." 

When I reminded my dad of this incident a couple of years ago, I did so through tears of laughter, not recrimination or sadness. "That was a terrible thing to say! Why did I say that?!" he protested. "Exactly, dad! You could've just lied like Mr. Pahlka (my high school English teacher) and said you were positive you'd see my work in The New Yorker someday."

I couldn't believe my stroke of luck in stumbling on the original Egg Picture. I was thrilled to find it but it also made me sad for myself, my somewhat lonely and depressed childhood where I retreated into art and writing, and then also sorry for my dad for saying something off-handed that stuck with me in a "bad" way. I reminded him that he's said plenty of things that have stuck with me in good ways, too, and that parents are only human after all. 

I decided to take the egg picture home to Alaska and frame it, which is kind of weird, because my kids also make plenty of great art that I've framed and hung on my walls, and what sane adult frames their own childhood art? 

But The Egg Picture serves a higher purpose, I think. It's a good reminder that there have never been any grownups in the room. They've all just been making it up as they go along, this whole entire time. We're never done growing up, and we are always fragile and beautiful. Each one of us is a colorful, delicate, self-contained tiny and unique world unto itself. We are each of us in free fall, with the perpetual risk and inevitable fate of ultimately breaking open, all while carrying the persistent hope of developing into something magical and new. 




Sunday, July 17, 2022

Voting No on an Alaska Constitutional Convention in 2022 is the Single Most Important Vote You May Ever Cast. Here’s Why.

It's not an exaggeration to say that. More than any one candidate, more than any single issue ever to come before Alaska's voters--voting against a constitutional convention this November is the single most important thing Alaskans can do for democracy.

That's true no matter where you fall on the political spectrum: far right, far left, or anywhere in between. In a country and state that's increasingly divided and averse to nuance, this should be something that all Alaskans can unite against in force.

I wish I could adequately convey the gravity, expense, and pointless danger of a constitutional convention in Alaska in this moment--both for Alaskans here today and for future generations. 

As I write this, outside interests are pouring millions in unlimited dark money into an effort to turn Alaska into a civic guinea pig. They want to shred and rewrite Alaska's founding document and start over again with a boot on the neck of your personal privacy, natural resources, PFD, schools, the judiciary, and civil rights and liberties--all to the tune of $17 million of Alaskans' money.

First, some background.

Every state in the union has its own constitution. State constitutions can provide more--but never fewer--individual rights and liberties as the federal constitution. The Alaska Constitution is a model of clarity, thoroughness, and individual freedoms. 

There are two ways to change it: amendment or convention. An amendment is the more surgical way. Amendments are single issue and have happened many times in state history. The legislature must pass a three-fourths resolution and then the amendment goes on the ballot for the people to vote on.

The second way is a constitutional convention, like the one we held in 1955 when Alaska was first becoming a state. The question whether to hold a convention goes on the ballot every ten years, and Alaska's voters have always rejected it. The legislature also has the power to call a convention at any time, but never has. The question is up again this year on the general election ballot.

It's hard to pick the worst thing about a constitutional convention, but you could start with everything we stand to lose.

Public schools; subsistence and personal use hunting and fishing; the PFD; public services; power cost equalization and ferries in rural Alaska; the court system; and the Alaska Constitution's crown jewel--an explicit right to privacy from government intrusion--could be vaporized in whole or in part with the stroke of a pen. These explicit rights, and decades of Alaska Supreme Court caselaw affirming and interpreting them, could simply vanish.

You could also lose plenty of sleep over how a convention would run and how the delegates (the people in charge of the rewrite) would be chosen.

Any legally qualified voter in Alaska may run to be a delegate. Sitting legislators could and probably would run as delegates and win on name recognition alone. Recall that these are the same folks who are bickering in Juneau one dysfunctional, gridlocked session after the next while the rest of us watch the state burn, literally and figuratively.

Not to mention the cost.

A constitutional convention would cost Alaskans about $17,000,000 (17 million dollars), and that's a low-ball quote. The convention is expected to last 75 days with 30 more days of post-event wrap-up; lawyer fees; venue rental and event security; support staff for delegates; convention operations; and salaries and per diem for some 65 delegates. The changes they make wouldn't come to the voters until 2026. It's a long, expensive process with no guaranteed outcome of any kind.

Meanwhile, outside groups representing special interests on every facet of the ideological prism will flood these delegate races with cash in order to put their foot soldiers in the room where it happens. 

That means oil companies, environmental groups, school voucher opponents and proponents, abortion opponents and advocates, and others could raid the permanent fund and literally re-write your freedoms and access to public resources and services--all to their own benefit, not yours.

And then there's the impact on Alaska's business climate. The specter of a full constitutional rewrite means businesses would have no way to plan for the future. Among other things, a statewide income tax, the PFD, and environmental regulations would be up for debate, leading to years of legal and regulatory uncertainty and litigation that would discourage or prevent investment in Alaska and paralyze our industries.

Bottom line, a constitutional convention is a costly, unnecessary, and dangerous can of worms that Alaskans would be gravely mistaken to open. Don't risk it. Vote no on a constitutional convention this November, and in the meantime visit defendakconstitution.com to join the nonpartisan effort to protect our Alaskan rights and freedoms. 




Thursday, May 19, 2022

Not Gonna Lie: Nothing Cooler Will Ever Happen to Me in My Life, That's a Wrap, The End!

I won’t lie you guys. Nothing cooler has ever happened to me in my life than what happened in the span of 8 hours yesterday afternoon. Aside from giving birth to my kids, I mean, which is a whole other adventure and not necessarily as fun and painless as this was. 

The writer David Sedaris was in Juneau on his book tour. He was here a few years ago too, but due to a family medical emergency, I had to give away my tickets. This time I had a ticket to the show and was looking forward to a girls' night out, listening to his readings at the Juneau Douglas High School Auditorium after watching my daughter perform in a jazz concert elsewhere downtown.

The afternoon of the show, a friend of mine who works for the radio station that was sponsoring the event called me. She was David's—can I call him David? Mr. Sedaris? DS? I don't even know—anyway, she was his local tour guide, as she’d been several years earlier, and she asked if I wanted to join them for lunch in an hour. "I just think you guys would hit it off," she said.

"Hmm. Let me think about that. Do I want a private audience with one of my all-time literary idols? Whose work I read religiously and whom I have modeled my writing after for years and could only hope to be half as good as? Um, yes please." 

Play it cool, BE CHILL. I thought to myself. Conduct yourself like Steve in the Tao of Steve. Be excellent. Be desireless. Be gone. In other words: don't be thirsty. I can do this, I thought. I was fan-girling hard and I hadn't even left my chair; at this point I was just grateful I'd dressed up for work that day. I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime--to meet someone whose work I’d admired for so long. How was I going to act normal? 

I had to be myself. “Self,” I told myself, “be you.”

We went to lunch at a local restaurant with a nice view of the water and, as I tend to do when I'm nervous, I just kept talking. 

I'm a nervous talker. I don't sit well with silence when I'm nervous. I just talk and talk and talk. I talked about Alaska and Twitter (which he is not on). I talked about politics and my lawsuit. I talked about relationships and parenting. I talked about books and fitbits and garbage bears and the zombie apocalypse. 

My friend--and his friend who was traveling with him--did their level best to get a word or two in edgewise. But I just kept talking. He did a bunch of talking too, but in my head, I was thinking, as I always do, "you're talking too much. Stop talking." But he was smiling in his warm, affable way--even taking out a notepad to scribble things down—THINGS THAT I WAS SAYING, APPARENTLY?!—every now and then. So I was encouraged (or at least not discouraged) to continue running my mouth; before I knew it, two hours had passed.

My friend and I both had to leave to pick up our kids at school. Their group walked in one direction and I went in the other. "Wait wait wait--Libby!" I heard him say, and he turned around and walked back toward me. I turned around and started walking back toward him. "Would you like to open my show tonight?"

Well. WEEEEELLLLLL.

I don't need to tell you that I almost dropped dead of shock and excitement right then and there, which of course he must have known, because who wouldn't feel that way in my position. Nonetheless, I tried to react modestly BUT/AND ALSO like a literary luminary asking me to open the last stop on his book tour with my random blog posts that he hadn’t seen and only learned existed an hour ago happens to me every other Wednesday.

“Um ... really? Ok?" I said. "Yeah, just read a few things, maybe 10 minutes or so?" My brain was racing as I tried to digest this mind-blowing invitation and then I pivoted quickly to OMG SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT WHAT AM I GOING TO READ?!

I raced back to my laptop and started scouring my blog for posts that I thought would work as an opener for an event like this. "You think you can hang with David Sedaris," I muttered to myself. "You better find some material that proves it—and FAST." 

It was 3:00 p.m. and the show was at 7:00. I had to be there at 6:00. I dug around in some promising labels on my blog and came up with these three posts: Old Sturbridge Village Failed to Make the Desired Impact on Me, You'll Never Guess What I Learned on My First Whale Watching Trip, and The Accidental I Love You: I sent them to a few friends who green-lighted them for topic, tone, and length. 

PHEW. Ok. I am ready for this!

I went to my daughter's band concert and then over to the auditorium for the show. Alone in the student drama room, I found a wrapped Lifestyles condom on the floor and mused with relief that at least These Kids Today (TM) are practicing safe sex. I looked myself over in the mirror and again congratulated my 8:00 a.m. self for dressing up and wearing makeup. 

David Sedaris asked me how to pronounce my last name, and this is what he said to introduce me — (Wait … HE is going to introduce ME? First?!) He said:

I had lunch with someone today and I was just so enchanted by her. I can’t remember the last time I met somebody and laughed that hard. And I know that she writes, so I said ‘Please open for me. Please come and read a little something?’ And so, I don’t know, on two hours notice or something she said, ‘um, Okay.’  So here she is, Libby Bakalar.” 

He said ENCHANTED. I made him laugh harder than he could remember laughing! I DIIED. I really and truly and fully DIIIIEEEEED.

But I got up there and read my three blog posts. I tried to read slowly but stick to my time. People seemed receptive; I got some laughs. I sat backstage and listened to the show and marveled at his genius. He talked about David Foster Wallace, one of his idols and an undisputed genius also. I thought about how everyone has their idols and how modesty and authentic self-deprecation are underrated. 

After the show he asked me to repeat a few things I’d said so I handed him the printouts of my reading. CBS 60 Minutes was recording the show, so no other recording was allowed. Thus, my 9 minutes and 58 seconds of fame remain undocumented for posterity.

I thanked him for an amazing opportunity and he commented that I seemed comfortable with public speaking, and that the audience seemed to know me already. “Yeah …” I said. “It’s Juneau, and I’m a loudmouth lawyer. So that explains that!” 

I asked him if it was tiring for him to be “on” for so long and sign so many books. He said no, and also he’s been on the other side of the table plenty of times. I said “it’s hard, you know, because these are really special, once-in-a-lifetime interactions for people, and for you it’s kind of just another day in the office. Kind of like when you go into the hospital to have a baby, and it’s the doctor’s fifth delivery of the week, but for you it’s only ever going to happen once or at most, a few times.” 

Ugh. I was talking too much again, I could feel it.

But here stood a person who is just so open and genuine. Who obviously knew, that despite all my efforts to act nonchalant, I was over the moon about this. During his reading, he plugged and read from a novel by a young woman author named Patricia Lockwood; her book, “Nobody is Talking About This,” was already on my Goodreads list to order and read. He spoke so lovingly about his relationships and animals. He was, as ever, hilarious and self-effacing. Best of all, he was quietly, naturally, and un-ostentatiously using his fame and platform to uplift others. 

Sometimes our idols disappoint us. I’ve known many occasions where someone meets a musician, a writer, an actor they admire—and they just feel snubbed and rejected and terrible. This was the complete opposite of that. I’d always told myself that I’d get along with David Sedaris if I just got to meet him—and DAYENU as we say at Passover— that would have been enough!

The fact that I got to perform with him was truly next level. This is one lunch I’ll be dining out on for the rest of my life.






Monday, May 16, 2022

Crisis of Competence

I don't want to survive the Zombie Apocalypse, which is one of the reasons I don't have a disaster prep kit. I've written about this before, but I'd like to go out with the first wave. I was born in the age of Costco guacamole, and if I can't drive to Costco and buy a six-pack of mini guacamoles, then I don't want to live. It's that simple. 

Some people shoot their own hot dogs and grow (?) their own sourdough starter, but I'm going to starve in the end, and I am fine with that. Except that my level of incompetence is embarrassing and demoralizing, made worse by decades of living in Alaska where everyone seems to know intuitively how to not just survive, but THRIVE, for ten days in a snowbank with nothing but a scrap of fur and a matchstick.

But think of the children! What about your kids? Fortunately, they're growing up in Alaska and already know how to do a lot more useful things than I ever will.

I can't even sew a button onto a peacoat or fix a windshield wiper. Last week I called a friend to come to my office and help me with this button. My mom taught me how to sew, mind you; but rather than sew things, I would just walk around with loose buttons and holes in my clothes until they were too damaged to be of use any longer. Both my friend and I are former east coasters raised by striving academic Jews who, just a generation or two removed from Ellis Island, believed that the secret to conquering the American Dream was memorizing Latin declensions and Shakespeare sonnets and deriving equations in AP calculus. Between our two Ivy League degrees, we could barely sew a fucking button. My friend is also half blind, so we just sat there on the floor, huddled over my coat and laughing uproariously at our own ineptitude as I thread the needle and she tried to sew this button onto my coat.

Today one of my windshield wipers was acting kind of wonky after I'd had my car serviced. After inspecting the wipers for 15 minutes, I concluded that a piece was missing and went back to the service station to ask about it. The mechanic pushed the blade back up into the plastic housing of the wiper and looked at me like I was the biggest moron on earth and like . . . I FELT that, as the kids say.

I have an expensive education that I worked hard for and that I like to think I've used and continue to use for the greater good somehow. And I'm proud to say that I've never been voluntarily unemployed for a day in my life since age 17. But my lack of practical skills is really demoralizing and embarrassing. For numerous reasons that are too painful and private to get into right now, I'm going be jumping feet first into learning how to do a lot more practical things for myself, and while I welcome the opportunity to learn new things, I hate being terrible at stuff and I hate the embarrassment of incompetence.

Fortunately there'sYouTube and Google, which go a long way, but I still have a very long way to go even from there. It's kind of a shame spiral: I lack confidence in myself when it comes to things like basic car and house repair; home economics; computer and tech issues; pre-fab furniture assembly; etc. etc. Then the more confidence I lack, the more my neuroses kick in: I'm a bad feminist because I always count on some man to rescue me from a flat tire or a dead battery. I'm a spoiled princess because I was never made to learn these things. All my friends in Alaska--women!--know how to do this stuff. How can I STILL not know how to do this? I grew up in a city. I've never really mowed a lawn. I don't know how to garden and I can't tell lettuce from poison ivy. I resent myself and the adults who deprived me of these important skill sets. I resent myself for not forcing myself to learn them.

Recently I read a book called Breath by James Nestor. The subtitle was "The New Science of a Lost Art," but it might as well have been "Here's Another Thing You're Doing Wrong." The book was all about how regulating our breath is basically the secret to eternal health, mouth breathing is worse for you than smoking, and our teeth are all fucked up because of the soft foods we eat and the amount of snoring we do at night. 

But what I took away from the book was that here's one more thing I'm doing wrong that I need to fix. Something that I had heretofore thought was completely automatic turns out not to be automatic at all, but rather yet another thing that I can and should consciously change immediately, or otherwise court an early death. 

I'm sure eventually, if I just keep at it, fixing a dead car battery or troubleshooting a boiler will feel as automatic as breathing -- which is to say, something I've been doing wrong all along and will probably never learn how to do right. 




Sunday, April 3, 2022

How to Stop Doing Shit that Feels Bad and That You Don't Want to Do with People You Don't Want to Do it With

I'm turning 45 this year, which is comfortably middle age, if not beyond. When I was 22, as a going-away present from my second ever full-time job, my supervisor gave me a book called How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

This was in the early 2000's, before “self-care” had evolved much beyond "Calgon, take me away.” Before “female empowerment branding,” when the word "boundary" meant the confines of a geographical area and a “trigger” was just part of a gun.

These concepts (if not the terms) existed, of course, both in life and in this book and others, and although I read the book, I failed spectacularly to internalize it. 

This year I really hit a wall in terms of "self-care." I realized that I needed to stop treating my body and my mind like shit; learn to ask for what I need (or take it, if necessary); set and enforce kind but firm boundaries with people and with my time; be more present; do deep breathing; exercise five times a week; practice “gratitude”; drink more water; write more; read more; and generally do a lot of other mental (and to a lesser extent physical) re-wiring that I’d previously dismissed as bullshit new-age pablum for sad privileged white ladies like myself with nothing of consequence to be sad about. 

I didn't want to do these cloying things until I realized that they were the only things that were going to save me from an unrecoverable life tailspin. And they were all free, so my disdain for their marketing didn’t have to be an obstacle.

2022 was going to be the year I did this.

So I started reading more books to help me see the value in this annoying fucking crap: The Body Keeps the Score; The Courage to Be DislikedBreathCodependent No More; and the Mountain is You, to name a few. (That last one I wish I could put 10,000 copies of into a UN Cargo plane and air drop them, rescue-style, onto the roofs of every woman I know). 

I reluctantly started to internalize their lessons with help from other converts--numerous lifelong friends who evangelized the revolutionary concept that it is actually--shockingly--totally fucking OK to just stop doing shit that feels bad, and that you don't want to do, with people you don't want to do it with. In fact, someone should write that book: "How to Stop Doing Shit that Feels Bad and That You Don't Want to Do With People You Don't Want to Do it With." For now it'll just have to suffice as the title of a blog post.

But that’s what a lot of it all boils down to: not spending what precious time you have on earth engaging in futile conflicts or going places out of a sense of obligation or trying to make other people happy when everyone is responsible for their own happiness. Recognizing when the path you are on is uncomfortable and having the clarity to know it and do something about it, which can be even more uncomfortable at first because growth and change is scary and hard.

It requires an enormous amount of “checking in” with yourself from moment to moment, which is another version of being present I guess. It requires 
embracing hard and uncomfortable and real feelings, and letting them wash over you and acknowledge the reality of them without necessarily hearing them as a call to impulsive action.

It requires establishing and enforcing firm boundaries with the people in your life who, for their own reasons, tend to ignore your boundaries, and it sometimes means moving on from those relationships. It requires identifying your own needs and asserting them —not in any “selfish” way, but in a way that you can conserve valuable energy and show up for the things and people in your life that matter most. It means taking tiny concrete steps toward what seem like insurmountable goals without tripping on the future.

It’s hard AF, but it’s worth it. 






Friday, February 25, 2022

No But for Real Though What the Fuck Did I Just Read

Ok my dudes. 

I know that a lot of people loved this book. Enough to make it a number one best seller in the Failing New York Times, and a pick for Elle Woods’ book club. So far be it for me to shit in anyone else’s root beer float — but seriously … what in the North Cackalacka fuck did I just read?

I’ve been reading voraciously (on paper) of late, in a vain attempt to escape the “news” of plague and war that continues to stream from this glowing rectangle in a relentless surge of clickbait, and the feelings of despair and helplessness it engenders.

Being an unrepentant snob about literary fiction and all fiction … and also nonfiction … and ok fine every 
word ever printed, I suppose I was predisposed to hate this book. But I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, I enjoy mass market candy as much as the next customer at Hudson News. Stephen King, for example, is a master of the craft. But this book was a hot mess, and believe me it takes one to know one.

They say life’s too short to finish books you hate. I say I can’t rip a book like this a new asshole until I get to the very last word. It’s just unfair. So I persevered in my hate-read, and I am officially renaming this book “Where the Sun Don’t Shine.” Because by the time I reached the last page, that’s exactly where I wanted to stick it. Again: if you read this book and liked it, I’m sorry. If you haven’t read it, don’t worry: I won’t include any spoilers in this “review.”

This book was basically a discordant mashup of Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, the Secret Life of Bees, an Audubon Society quarterly edited by Jane Goodall, the Blue Lagoon, Mary Higgins Clark, and soft-core erotica for white wine moms. 

You can almost see the 108-minute movie playing as you read it: picture a Prince of Tides/The Lake House remake starring Ryan Gosling, one of those Chrises, and maybe that creepy nanny from “Servant” on Apple+, all in a dumpster fire triumvirate of leaf-peeping, crying, and dry humping in a skiff tied up to a tree in the Outer Banks. 

For all I know, it’s already in production.

The book is set in the 1960s, apparently to make full use of all historically available racist/sexist tropes and pidgeon English, with the dialogue written in cringey, contrived southern slang. Sentences like “well that thar fella’s so lowdown he’d hafta climb a ten-foot ladder to kiss a rattler’s ass!” Not that exact sentence, of course, but ones like it. Also a lot of courtroom cliches like “the State rests” and “I’ll allow it!” Which, as someone who’s spent the better part of two decades in and out of courtrooms, was extra cringe.

The main character, Kya Clark, lives alone in a marsh shack after her psycho abusive alcoholic dad drove the rest of her family away with a crow bar. She manages to outrun North Carolina children’s services for years and survive off the land, collecting bird feathers, painting shells, gathering and selling mussels, and buying sardines and saltines from a jolly old Black man named “Jumpin’.”  

Between the ages of 14 and 22 or so, Kya meets two local studs who just randomly motor through the marsh: one of them is a sort of Dr. Doolittle-meets-Bear Grylls-type who teaches her to read, tells her what her period is, and gets her panties wet. He also sets her on an improbable course to becoming a bestselling author of field guides, somehow. The other is a swaggering Tom Brady playboy/sex pest from town who swoops in to run game after Doolittle bounces to Chapel Hill for his marine biology degree. Tom Brady meets an untimely and suspicious end, and the rest is what it is.

After roasting this book in a brief earlier post, someone sent me an article in Slate about the author. Apparently, she’s wanted for questioning in Zimbabwe in connection with the murder of an elephant poacher? And there’s also a New Yorker article about it? Serious Tiger King/Gorillas in the Mist vibes! Definitely not the stuff of a LIVELAUGHLOVE publicity tour, let’s admit. I skimmed the ten-zillion word New Yorker report and it’s a whodunnit that’s more like a the author’s stepsondunnit. Three white interlopers buy a one-way ticket to Africa to save the elephants and righteously murder a poacher? 

This angle turns a benign little beach read into a chilling memoir and basically saved the entire fucking thing for me. If you have 17 hours to spend glued to a hate-read and its salacious backstory, this one’s for you!






Saturday, January 22, 2022

Abridge Too Far

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(First Amendment to the United States Constitution)

This week, a federal judge here in Alaska ruled that Governor Dunleavy violated my free speech rights under the state and federal constitutions, and also breached Alaska employment law, when he fired me for my personal blog and social media posts criticizing President Trump. 

The story was reported on extensively in local media and picked up nationally and internationally. The 39-page order from district court judge John Sedwick can be found here, for those inclined to dive into the weeds of First Amendment employment law.

Otherwise, the basic gist is this: 

From 2006 to 2018, I was a good lawyer and valued longtime employee of the Alaska Attorney General's Office. I had no problems at work---other than the fact that I was unwilling to stop complaining about Trump on the internet. 

I started this parenting and lifestyle blog in 2014, but in 2015, I began to recognize the existential threat Trump posed—and still poses—to democracy, and felt compelled to keep calling it out. I understood the risks to my personal and professional life that this involved, but knowing I was within my legal rights, I naively assumed that the government would honor them. (Ironic, I know). 

Regardless, I felt congenitally incapable of shutting up, and was unable to stop myself from identifying daily the havoc Trump was wreaking. As the main income-earner in my four-person family and the only one with health insurance, it was a big gamble.

Fast forward to December 3, 2018, when Trumpian acolyte Mike Dunleavy took office as Alaska's 12th governor, and fired me within 20 minutes of being sworn in. 

My termination came on the heels of a forced resignation letter that Dunleavy's Chief of Staff, a Karl Rove-type operator named Tuckerman Babcock, had demanded from me and hundreds of other non-unionized state employees. This was an unprecedented, norm-shattering flex by an incoming administration. I immediately contacted the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit on my behalf the next month. The ACLU also brought a companion case for two state psychiatrists who refused to submit their resignations at all.

This past Thursday, Judge Sedwick, who was appointed by George Bush, issued a long order in my case making a few important findings under complicated U.S. Supreme Court precedent governing public employees' free speech rights. (The order came three months after a ruling in the psychiatrists' case from the same judge that the resignation demands were an unlawful "patronage scheme" or loyalty pledge and therefore inherently unconstitutional).

Because I was not in a union, I lacked automatic constitutional protections in my job. So the question became whether I could be fired for political (associational and free speech) reasons. The answer would be yes, if I were a "policymaker" as that term is defined in this line of cases. But I was not a policymaker, so the question next became whether the government could prove that my personal speech caused legitimate and sufficient “workplace disruption” to refute the presumption that Dunleavy and Babcock fired me because they disagreed with my views. 

They couldn't show that. And because they couldn't, the judge concluded I had been unconstitutionally fired. And because the state had fired me unconstitutionally, it acted in bad faith, giving rise to money damages under my claim for a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in Alaska employment law. So the state violated state law as well. 

Judge Sedwick recognized that had the state gone about my termination differently, they could reasonably have taken "adverse employment action" against me for my blogging. But given the evidence in the case, this is a bit like saying to a burglar that had he not broken into a house and stolen things, he wouldn't have been arrested for burglary. 

The other interesting legal angle here, in both cases, was the judge's analysis of the qualified immunity doctrine. 

Qualified immunity is what protects government employees from personal liability in their work. In practice it functions more like absolute immunity, because it's very hard to lose. You have to do something really bad and pretty much knowingly bonkers. 

In the psychiatrists' case, Judge Sedwick found that the resignation scheme was bad enough to strip Dunleavy and Babcock of qualified immunity and make them personally liable for their conduct. Not so in my case, which didn't surprise me. As I said, it's very rare for a defendant to lose qualified immunity, and the government has an interest in a robust qualified immunity doctrine; otherwise no one would ever risk working for the government.

Judge Sedwick's order in my case resolved (at least at the trial court level) what's called the "merits" phase of the lawsuit, and the next phase is damages. The constitutional violations entitle me to injunctive and declaratory (non-monetary relief), and the state law claims entitle me to monetary damages. I'm really not sure where that phase will go--that's very much to be decided, as is the state's appetite for an appeal.

In any event, I've now had some time to process the psychological and emotional toll of this "victory." 

I put victory in scare quotes because I'm not sitting here rejoicing. I’m not running around the bases after a walk-off grand slam or dining out on the press coverage. Ok, fine, I am dining out on the press coverage.

But I'm not happy. Far from it. It took three years and ten days to make one single point about free speech. It took three years and ten days to get a federal judge to say yes, this was illegal, and yes, it was unconstitutional.

As a government lawyer myself, I’ve always known that democracy is fragile, justice is glacial, and the constitution is not a self-executing document. In other words, it means nothing if it's not enforced. The problem is, it's hard and expensive to enforce, and there isn't much incentive to do so. 

Being a litigant is time-consuming, brutal, and humiliating. By the time the average citizen catches up with governmental misconduct, the bad actors have collected its spoils, are long gone, and have paid off the victim with public money. What do they care? Nothing but media shaming and excoriation and the occasional financial penalty seems to make even a dent.

But my hope is that this case sends a few messages beyond "Trump-bashing lawyer mostly wins free speech suit," as a reporter at Bloomberg Business News so wryly and accurately put it. And while it's funny that my characterization of Trump as a "fascist cantaloupe" and "Edward Cheeto-Hands" is now forever enshrined in the federal jurisprudential canon, it's not the most important thing.

I hope this case makes future administrations think twice before demanding that everyone pledge loyalty to them or relinquish their jobs or even careers.

I hope it gives non-unionized state employees in Alaska some measure of protection in their jobs, and some assurances that they do not all unequivocally check their constitutional rights at the door just because they work for the state. 

I hope it encourages good citizens to start and continue careers in government. Most of all, I hope it encourages people to continue to speak up and push back against totalitarianism, autocracy, and erosion of the rule of law, because as every scholar of authoritarianism knows, your voice is the only weapon you have in that battle.

I was in a rare and unique position to do something grandiose to prove a point. I was a practicing government lawyer and knew my rights. I had a blog with a good following and was self-destructive enough to use it to make what I thought were important observations about a very dangerous situation. And the people in power were reckless and arrogant enough to approach my firing in the perfect way to subject them to maximum liability. 

In other words, the whole thing was teed up for a great free speech case.

But it came at a huge personal cost. I lost friends and colleagues. I lost what little faith I'd had in systems and structures of employment, democracy, and personal loyalty. My mental health was (and remains) shaky. I absorbed lots of online vitriol, most of which I tried—often unsuccessfully—to ignore. For three years, ten days, and counting, I’ve felt afraid, ashamed, and very much alone. 

People have been thanking me for fighting the good fight and for sticking my neck out and standing up to bullies. I didn't do it because I wanted to. I did it because I could, and because I had to. I'd do it again in a minute.