Thursday, October 30, 2014

See Your Fellow Bugs

When Tom came over one lovely mid-October Saturday morning, he smelled suspiciously perfumed. Had he changed laundry detergents? No—same laundry detergent, same deodorant, same shampoo, same soap.

Completing my interrogation, I asked, “What hair-removal product did you use?”

“That’s called ‘age.’”

We were on our way to Berkeley to meet Ann for lunch, which was at a Tibetan or Indonesian place, and then to see An Audience with Meow Meow (as she explained, "I'm Meow Meow and you're an audience!"). The show starts with very broad humor, and I thought, “Oh, I’m not going to like this. Why do people think this is so great?” But by the end, tears were rolling down my face. It was subtle, surprising, and tremendously moving.

I won’t give anything more away except to say that it made me think of the line “See your fellow bugs” from this poem, which gave this very blog its name:

Bugs in a Bowl
by David Budbill

    Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:

    We're just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.

    I say, That's right! Every day climbing up
    the steep sides, sliding back.

    Over and over again. Around and around.
    Up and back down.

    Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
    cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.

    Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
    Walk around.

    Say, Hey, how you doin'?
    Say, Nice Bowl!

It so happens that even before I bumped into Meow Meow, I had been in a “See your fellow bugs” mood.

We are naturally hesitant to intrude on strangers. Knowing that we would not like being stared at ourselves, we are afraid to seem to stare at others. But as we go from being a societal whole, at least sharing several reference points (e.g., the evening news on TV), to being zillions of independent units, each frowning into our own device, each putting together a custom program of entertainment and news in sync with the opinions we already have, the misinformation, paranoia and estrangement grow.

I don’t like to be stared at by strangers, either, and I don’t want to make others uncomfortable, but I find it weirdly powerful to see my fellow bugs, even for just a second. When I remember to do this, it is really wonderful, all the different ways people look, all the expressions on their faces: lost in thought, downcast, anxious. And now and then a happy face, which gives me a little burst of joy. After seeing just a few people, I often notice a big upturn in warm feeling within myself. The biggest difficulty with this practice is that I start to feel so exuberant and so full of tenderness for my fellow bugs that I can start smiling and nodding at all of them, which some people like, but I presume most might not. As long as 20 years ago, an old lady said querulously, “Why are you looking at me like that? It’s like you know me.”

So as Tom and I walked to BART, I was peeking at my fellow bugs, and thinking about my class. Whereas I might normally walk by someone in need (though I am actually prone to random acts of kindness), a chaplain has more responsibility, for instance, for the woman standing at the top of the stairs to the BART platform, holding a walker. What if I was at Laguna Honda, where I’m hoping to volunteer, and she was a patient there? I got five steps past her and then walked back up. I called Tom to join us and he suggested she take the elevator, but she said she once got stuck in a BART elevator. Tom carried her walker down to the platform and I walked with her down the steps. During just those few moments, she told me her boyfriend is in Laguna Honda (speaking of which) and that he recently asked her to marry him. Apparently he’ll be all right, but she’s not sure about getting married to him, because he has the tendency to advise her how to spend her own money.

On the train, I saw my fellow passengers. One was a drunk fellow sitting on the floor talking to himself. I ended up standing next to him, so I started answering him and he told me that he was sober before, but is drinking again now, and he also has cancer. He told me his attorney is a really fine fellow and that he’s ashamed to have his attorney see him in this condition. He said he doesn’t want to die drunk. He reached up and gently touched my hand a few times, which was OK. Imagine never, ever again feeling the touch of someone else’s hand or their arms around you. He was visibly filthy and smelled terrible, so I would not have welcomed a hug (though I did once hug a visibly filthy homeless person on the street), but that small and respectful touch was fine.

We reached a station and people got off and on and the man got up and walked farther into the car, saying loudly, “At least I’m not a ni——.” I cringed; there were several black people nearby, but one of them, quite a large man, continued the conversation with the drunk man, which I thought was extraordinary of him. And then another woman chimed in and responded to the drunk guy.

Then a few young black men came tromping along the aisle, heading for the next car, and I looked at them with interest and one of them looked back at me with what appeared to be surprise and even pleasure at being seen in a friendly rather than frightened or hostile way. On the way back, after Meow Meow, along came three other black men, these with a box for tips and a boombox. They staged a dance performance, contorting their joints horribly—is that good for their joints, or does it guarantee early arthritis?—which spontaneous work of art seemed remarkable and delightful. It was also nice, on a day of covert looking, to be invited to watch.

Back in the city, I went to Modern Times to get two more books for my chaplaincy class. Next, most splendidly, it was time for the monthly potluck at the home of the intentional community that runs the soup kitchen, which I will give the pseudonym Thomas House. There were about 20 people there, roughly half residents and half visitors, and I met two new people but already knew everyone else, and it was a very pleasant couple of hours of eating and hanging out.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Lettuce Prey

The theme of our second chaplaincy class, earlier in October, was generosity. At the beginning of the day, Paul, in offering meditation instructions, said that sitting itself can be an act of generosity—a way of “giving everything the open engagement of consciousness.”

We did some role-playing, trying out our very preliminary skills, and gave each other feedback afterward on what was helpful or less so. My partner said a lot of nice things, and also that the way I bent down after entering her “hospital room” seemed condescending. I was glad she was honest and will try to remember not to do that.

Jennifer said we will very often be asked to pray, that it is one of the main things we have to offer, after the foremost gift of listening with kindness and understanding. She said sometimes the request will be specific, but 85 percent of the time, it will be for extemporaneous prayer, so she taught us a method (and said it couldn’t hurt to carry around a little anthology of prayers). The next time we did role-playing, I told my partner that Jesus Christ is my lord and savior and that I would like her to pray for me, and she offered a beautiful, heartfelt prayer. It was surprisingly comforting, and what made it work was not the particular words, but her obvious kindliness and desire to be of help. And just like that, 52 years of prejudice against prayer, gone!

It doesn’t mean I’m going to take up a deity-based religion myself, but being on the receiving end of that ad hoc prayer delivered by someone who may not have believed in prayer any more than I did, and feeling how lovely it was to be offered care in that particular form changes the way I think about the word “prayer,” while the class overall is changing the way I react to the word “Christian.” I seem to be meeting a lot of them lately, and I find myself much more open and respectful. Not that I was rude in the past, but I had dismissive thoughts.

A correction regarding Sojourn Chaplaincy’s training program, at San Francisco General Hospital: After learning that a couple of my classmates had applied for that program, I figured I must have gotten something wrong and called them back. It does not require three weeks full time, but it would require ten half-days off work, which will be impossible at least until 2016 (assuming I remain employed).

Back in August, the spiritual care director at Laguna Honda, Bob, arranged with the volunteer coordinator that I could maybe come to the October volunteer orientation session—they do just one per month—or, failing that, November’s session for sure. The volunteer coordinator had initially said the next opening was in January, so I was glad to hear the better news, but in the days before the October training, I left messages for the volunteer coordinator and for Bob, but didn’t hear back from either, and the training day came and went.

A couple of weeks later, after our October class meeting, I tried them both again and again heard nothing back. Nightly I called Tom to ask what he thought could be the problem. He thought that they are probably understaffed and overworked and that they would call me sooner or later. Meanwhile, a classmate reported that she received a call inviting her to come to the session in November, and I began to take the whole thing slightly personally.

I recalled that Bob is at the hospital on Saturdays, so last weekend, I called him and he actually answered. I asked if I was being too much of a pest or not enough of one, and he said he’d thought I was all set to come to the October session! He apologized for the confusion and said, “You’re in the Sati Center program, right? I’ve already added a lot of people to the November volunteer orientation, but unless you hear otherwise, go ahead and come to that.” I was relieved. Now it’s a matter of letting sleeping dogs lie.

I’ve just finished Victoria Sweet’s riveting account of being a doctor at Laguna Honda, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Told in the form of engaging anecdotes, it’s about how “practicing medicine” turned into “providing health care services.” The latter manages to both cost more and provide worse care. Sweet is a persuasive advocate of what she calls “slow medicine.”

It sounds like the old Laguna Honda was a magical place, and that much of that is now gone, but I’m still looking forward to being there.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Fine, Hot Sidewalk and a Refreshing, Cool Breeze

One night late in September, it rained and rained and rained. After however many years of drought it’s been, it was a generous, miraculous sound, especially as it continued: we’re getting even more? I thought, however, of the soup kitchen’s guests, and indeed, the next day I heard guests there asking each other, “Did you stay dry last night?” The executive director says those who are more experienced know how to stay dry, for instance by going under a freeway overpass. (The word “experienced” made me think for a moment of homelessness as something you can get a degree in, or at least a certificate.)

I have to say, being under a freeway overpass in a rainstorm sounds perfectly lousy, but those whose stuff gets wet have miserable hours or days ahead of them. Billy reported that his only moisture-related mishap was that he accidentally kicked his own water bottles over. He then used a torch of some kind to dry the sidewalk, which also heated it up. Looking as pleased as if he was just back from being pampered at a desert spa, he said it’s really nice to sit on a warm sidewalk.

I also saw the particularly affable guest who had announced after his shower, “I’m clean—zestfully clean!” I told him how much I had liked that, and he seemed delighted that I had taken note of it. After I walked away from him, he stood up and yelled across the dining room, “It’s great that you remembered!”

A couple of days later, I took Tom out to dinner at Savor on 24th St. in Noe Valley for his birthday. He hadn’t been there before and liked it. I had a scrumptious, buttery rainbow trout dish, but later thought of how Dad used to take us to the Oden Fish Hatchery in Northern Michigan when we were children. They had vending machines where, for perhaps a nickel, you could get fish food to toss into the water, putting the beautiful spotted rainbow trout into a whirling frenzy. Seizing one of them and sinking my teeth into it would have seemed like a horrible thing to do. I might not eat another rainbow trout.

A couple of weeks ago, it was hot—95 degrees at the airport, a record, though inside my place it was never warmer than 84 degrees. It wasn’t that bad, mainly because it wasn’t humid. You have to try to open your heart to the heat. Nonetheless, it seemed like very good timing when one of the large fans I had ordered arrived Friday afternoon of that week, when I was working from home, fortunately.

Since hot flashes started two years ago, I’ve had little-bitty fans everywhere—next to my kitchen sink, next to my bed, next to my computers at home and at work—and they have kept me going until now. More fans just equals more use of energy which equals more climate change, and so I vowed not to acquire any large fans, but as the hot flashes show no sign of abating, and since we’re all going to die a horrible death of climate change, anyway—does that sound fatalistic?—I decided to fan up.

The fan that arrived is a Holmes 12” fan, and it is fantastic (no pun intended!). Even on the lowest setting of three, it makes the snapshots thumb-tacked to the wall flap in the breeze, and when I tried the second setting, some of my d├ęcor collapsed to the floor. I didn’t foresee this difficulty when, 16 years ago, I decided to decorate in that manner; frames seem like a waste of space. But if it’s a choice between a cool breeze and the photos remaining in place, the latter have to go.

I also ordered a 20” fan, so there would be a fan for the living room and one for the kitchen, but the larger one might be too much for this little place, judging from the performance of the smaller one. I might end up donating the larger one to the soup kitchen and just carrying the 12” fan around, using a long extension cord.

Saturday of that week, on a scorching hot afternoon, I participated in an anti-eviction march that started at 24th and York streets, where I saw Iris, Alfonso, Ana, Mario, Carolina and Elizabeth, every one of whom I met through Carlos, plus a woman from my meditation group whom I managed to meet on my own, but who turned out to be one of Carlos’s very closest friends. I saw the young woman housing activist who has been featured in stories in the Chronicle, and one of the young men who works at Modern Times bookstore. I also saw a guy with holes in his earlobes so big you could put your whole hand through one.

The sky was a deep, clear blue, a gorgeous backdrop for the big shade trees in that area, with their dense bright green leaves. There was an energetic Latin-flavored live band on a truck, and a cadre of drummers, and the mood was upbeat and determined, with a lot of dancing and chanting. I appreciated that people weren’t angry—I think it’s tricky to work for change and to confront people who are causing harm without demonizing them. I know from my own struggles how easy it is to do and how hard it is to remember that no one (or almost no one) has the conscious intention to hurt anyone.

It is a matter, for instance, of thinking that I would be secure and safe if I owned a building, or better yet, two or three or ten, and I’m not doing anything actually illegal, so what’s wrong with that? I worked hard to get where I am (in the hypothetical scenario where I’m a person who works hard) and I deserve what I’ve earned and if others haven’t worked as hard, that’s their problem.

Of course, this ignores the racism and brutality on which America was founded, from which came so much prosperity and security, but only for those of the right color. It also depends on not seeing or caring about the misery of others, or having enough rationalizations to outweigh the consciousness of other people’s difficulties.

One activist began to tell me what terrible people a certain family of landlords are, and I immediately felt a knot in my stomach. I don’t need the negative vibes, man. Or, more accurately, I have sufficient negative vibes of my own—I don’t need any more. Often people will ask Howie what will happen to their important work for social justice if they become peaceful meditators. He says you can work for justice without being angry, and that in fact, you are more effective without anger. He says tranquility does not equate to apathy
—that every single person he has ever seen become more awake has also become more concerned about the well-being of others.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Eagle Scout

In mid-September, I attended the one volunteer potluck of the year that is held at the soup kitchen itself rather than at the house where the intentional community lives. There were about 80 people there, and I finally met a whole bunch of people from other shifts. Early in the evening, the annual group photo was taken, and we made a big circle and each said our name and then a non-denominational prayer—the soup kitchen’s roots are in the Catholic Worker Movement—followed by a big feast.

A couple of days later, David and Lisa were here from Seattle, and we had dinner at Esperpento, along with Tom and Pete T., who told us the story of his very terrible bicycle accident, from which he has emerged in remarkably good repair.

At the soup kitchen, Billy, who has two very distinct modes, one very withdrawn and one quite chatty, was in the latter mood. He had gotten ahold of a handsome Gore-Tex jacket and a giant pair of square sunglasses with rhinestones down the outer edges. When I admired his jacket, he said the best garment to have is actually an oversized hoodie, to keep the sun off his fair skin. He told me that when he was in junior high, he played football, and he was second-chair trumpet in the band, though he actually had a cornet instead of a trumpet and coveted the trumpet another student had. He was an Eagle Scout.

It was quite a busy day, warm and muggy. Dennis was also there, also not enjoying the heat, though presumably not because he is subject to hot flashes. It’s now been nearly two years of hot flashes, and I can report that, while heat is certainly a causal factor, humidity is noticeably more so. I can also report that San Francisco, which has never been humid in my 30 or so years here, lately has often been.

There was a new volunteer at the soup kitchen, who helped with the bussing, and I could see that with every passing moment, she felt more and more joyful. It has the same effect on me.

Saturday of that week was a rare day of having to work on the weekend, starting at 5:30 a.m. and going right up until 3:40 p.m., when Tom and I absolutely had to leave for his nephew Chris’s wedding at the historic Lake Merritt Hotel in Oakland. My work task wasn’t quite done, but one of my co-workers kindly finished up for me.

On our way to the BART station, I saw one of the soup kitchen’s few female guests lying on the sidewalk on 16th St., evidently unconscious, looking as if she’d been punched in the mouth. She has a dog, but it wasn’t with her. I hoped it wasn’t lost. There were four strangers standing around her, apparently waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

I called the soup kitchen’s executive director, my friend, who does much more for the soup kitchen’s guests than just serve them food, which is a considerable task in itself, and requires, now that I think about it, being the kind of person that volunteers want to be around—creating an atmosphere that makes people not only willing to serve, but delighted and honored to do so. He is a very, very good person. His actions are more in alignment with his values than anyone else I’ve ever met. He values serving those in need and building community. But there was not much he’d be able to do for our guest at that moment. It could only add worry to his evening, so I didn’t leave a message, but I kept thinking of her (and him) during the evening, thinking about how for some people, there are many, many steps before they are lying on the sidewalk punched in the mouth, but for lots of others, there are no intervening steps. It’s the very next step.

However, these ruminations did not cast a blight on my evening. They were woven throughout it, but it was an absolutely fantastic wedding and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Chris and Kristin stood in a glassed-in alcove, with a wall of windows behind them, through which could be seen Lake Merritt—a lovely view—and a friend of theirs led them in the ceremony he’d written, and Chris and Kristin read tributes to each other—each hearing the other’s loving and admiring words for the first time, it appeared—and Chris’s dear friend Bino, in the wedding party, had a giant Mohawk and a distinguished eye patch to go with his elegant suit. Any wedding from now on without such a groomsman will look incomplete.

At dinner, I was sitting with Tom, Steve, Julie, Ann and Dan, and then there was dancing. At the website where you RSVP’d for the wedding and indicated your dinner choice, you could also say what song you’d like to dance to. I considered putting in Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” but I figured I probably wouldn’t be dancing, so I didn’t. But in the event, Tom and I danced and danced and danced, and someone else had requested “Happy.”

Friday, October 03, 2014

Timely Magic

I finished How Can I Help?, which I found very worth reading. I also finished Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, discovered in my mother’s enormous library on my most recent visit. I loved it. Waugh’s prose is witty, perspicacious and at times mesmerizingly poetic. He is wonderful with dialogue. In a recent New Yorker movie review, Anthony Lane referred to this book and I was excited to now understand the reference.

I particularly liked the part where Rex Mottram is trying to become a Catholic so he can marry Julia: “‘You’d think they’d be all over themselves to have me in,’ Rex complained. ‘I can be a lot of help to them one way and another; instead they’re like the chaps who issue cards for a casino.’”


In mid-September, I attended the first monthly chaplaincy class, in Redwood City. I drove there in a City CarShare car, though taking Caltrain is also an option. Fourteen students and three faculty members spent the day sitting in a circle together, doing various exercises, learning more about the components of the program: attending class, reading, doing writing assignments, doing volunteer work, checking in with a buddy every couple of weeks, meeting with a small group monthly, meeting with a faculty member every other month, going on occasional field trips. My small group will be the four people in the class who are in or near San Francisco, and my buddy is one of those four.

We did an exercise about noticing what makes us different from each other, and another about noticing how we are all the same. At the end of the day, we did a ritual. Since a chaplain might be asked to perform a ritual from time to time, it’s useful to know some. The one we did was for the students to write, on one side of a note card, one word to express our deepest aspiration relating to chaplaincy, and, on the other side, a word to express an obstacle we might face.

While we all chanted a simple Buddhist chant (“May all beings be happy” in Pali), we each went up to the front and traded our card for the gift of a small Buddha figure. Our teachers promised, with twinkles in their eyes, to perform magic that would strengthen our aspirations and erase our difficulties, which was good, because the very next day, I felt under the sway of my difficulty, which is fickleness.

I received an email before the class began listing four books for the course, and I obtained them all and read one and one-fifth of them before attending the first class and learning that we’re requested not to read ahead. At that class, I learned there are actually 19 books. They used to make copies, but decided that was a form of stealing from the authors, so now students can buy the books, perhaps in electronic form, or find them used, or maybe find them in a library.

I don’t read books in electronic form and I also don’t buy used books, because I can’t shake the image of someone sneezing into the book or wiping a booger on it. Furthermore, while some of these books are ones I would want to have and read, such as We’re All Doing Time, by Bo Lozoff, others are not.

We are not going to learn about the world’s religions in this class, though a chaplain should be familiar with the basic tenets of various religions. Chaplaincy is a form of ministry and, even if the chaplain herself is an atheist, in a hospital or prison she may very well be called upon to provide care to someone who is a devout adherent of one religion or another. One of the books is A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana Eck.

I started to think I had made a major mistake: I’m going to have to spend a small fortune on books I wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, and the program is going to take up a lot of vacation days. I tried on the idea of dropping out of the class and found it somewhat refreshing.

But then I realized that probably it will be a matter of acquiring a couple of books a month, which is not so burdensome, and I remembered that the purpose of this class is not to learn about religion, but to experience giving care and to learn from those experiences how to grow in kindness and presence while being supported by our own practice of Buddhism. Probably I will find those books that sound the least appealing very worthwhile when I’m actually reading them, so I decided to forge ahead.

I spent the day cooking, and in the evening, did the weekly chore of taking compost down to the large bin, and found a suspicious object tacked above it: a Hot Shot, to kill bugs. It turns out this is a thing that releases a “deep penetrating vapor” and is meant to be used in an enclosed area that is occupied for less than four hours a day, like a garage, Dumpster, or crawl space. It’s not supposed to be used near windows, so having it releasing deep, penetrating, cancer-causing vapor under my kitchen window was highly unwelcome.

I’ve decided not to say anything about the use of dryer sheets in a dryer that also vents right under my kitchen windows—I just run over and close the windows when it’s happening—nor about the scented candle in the lobby. Even unlit, it stinks, and I know it’s also full of nasty chemicals. But I could not have the Hot Shot exuding carcinogens under my window, so I sent the building manager a pleasant note saying it appears this thing is meant for enclosed spaces and that it isn’t supposed to be used near windows—might I search for a less toxic bug-discouraging product at Rainbow?

We get along excellently these days, so I was hoping she would write back and say, “Sure!” and then I’d ask if she’d be so kind as to dispose of the Hot Shot and hopefully she’d say, “Will do!”, but I decided that if there was any friction, I’d send her the PDF related to the product and ask her to take a look at it, and then I’d ask if we could chat in person.

However, she wrote back and said, “Totally!” to my question about my finding a less toxic product, and she explained that the Hot Shot had been her roommate’s idea. I asked if we could dispose of it and offered to do it myself, but she said she would do it—that she didn’t want me to have to touch it. I said that was very gentlewomanly of her and also that I really appreciate how good our relationship is these days—how everything is so friendly and easy in recent years. “Much nicer!”, she agreed.

Monday, September 29, 2014

J.R. to the Rescue

A few weeks ago I rode my bike to Rainbow and parked near the temporary shopping cart enclosure; they are doing a major redesign and expansion. While I was locking up my bike, a woman returned a shopping cart, but instead of putting it in the enclosure, she just left it immediately behind my bicycle. I said, “Hey!”, but without tremendous force, and let her walk away.

A short, bare-chested, exotically decorated homeless fellow said gallantly, “I’ll help you!”, and moved the cart to its proper place. I thanked him, and he said, “My name’s J.R.” I told him my name. He said, “If you ever need help, I’ll be there.” I don’t plan to count on that absolutely—what if J.R. isn’t around when crisis strikes?—but was very touched by the sweetness of the sentiment, particularly given his own situation.

In contrast was the young lady driving a Mercedes convertible who attempted to pass me on 20th St. when there wasn’t time to do so before a red light. She ended up having to swerve into my lane, and I had to stop or be hit. I yelled “Hey!” for the second time that morning, this time with much more force, and she waved her index finger scoldingly in the air and said, “Buddy, you gotta pull over.” The lane there is nowhere near wide enough for a car and bicycle to travel side by side, so I was very properly in the center of it and responded, “That’s not the law. Learn the law.”

She had edged in front of me—maybe that was the most annoying part—so I was immediately behind her at the next light, and since she was in a convertible and theoretically available for conversation, I said, “If you’ve ever heard the expression ‘take the lane,’ that’s what it looks like.” She ignored me, so I added, “I have as much right to the road as you do,” and then the light turned green, and of course I spent the afternoon mentally rehearsing various speeches I might have made, some angry and some more professorial in tone, and now and then becoming explicitly aware of my thoughts and watching them vanish like the mirages they are. I would have done better, if I was going to spend the afternoon ruminating about the recent past, to think about J.R. and how much more excellent his character is than that of the convertible driver, at least going by the data I was able to gather, which I know is just a fraction of the whole.

I’m sure J.R. is a big jerk sometimes, like all of us, and I’m sure the Mercedes driver is in most situations a perfectly lovely person. I suspect she was having two thoughts that she didn’t recognize as just thoughts. One: “This cyclist shouldn’t be taking up the whole lane.” Two: “I really need to get to the red light ASAP.”

Nonetheless, I was struck by how the person who, in conventional terms, has nothing was so eager to identify an opportunity to give, while the person who evidently has so much, at least materially, was thinking only of what else she needed in order to be happy: to get to drive as fast as she wanted, to be first at the red light, etc. I suspect J.R. discovered long ago that acting in a kind and generous manner is a potent source of happiness.