Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Shortly

When I realized that Hammett’s usual cat sitter would not be able to apply his gel-based thyroid medication, it was just two weeks before I was scheduled to leave for a trip to Michigan. I went to Mission Pet Hospital and got a list of potential cat sitters, a few of whom are actual veterinary technicians there. I called a few of them. One person’s outgoing message consisted only of his or her last name, stated in a firm tone: “Smith!” I couldn’t tell from the name on the list or the voice on the phone what gender this person might be, but I left a message and Smith showed up, well ventilated with piercings and covered with tattoos, including a giant one across the front of her neck.

I fetched Hammett from his cozy bed in the closet and picked him up. He frantically pedaled all his arms and legs in the air: put me down, put me down! But when I did, he ran straight for Smith. He stopped about six feet from her, but then walked the rest of the way over to her and let her scratch his head, so Smith is our new cat sitter.

I went on my trip as scheduled and had a lovely time with Mom and Dad, and my sister, and friends Amy and Ginny. With both Ginny and Amy, I had a salmon burger at CafĂ© Zola. I also got together with my Uncle Rick, cousin Rick, and cousin Rick’s two boys, Ben and Luke, for dinner at Haab’s in Ypsilanti one rainy night. One day I told my father that my sister would be coming over shortly, and he said, “I’ve already heard about that, and don’t call me ‘Shortly.’”

When I got back to San Francisco, I found everything completely shipshape. Smith had even made notes for each day on how much Hammett had eaten, no doubt something she does in her work as a vet tech.

The gel has ended up working out great. He has barfed only twice since starting it, and his thyroid levels are nearly back to normal, with no sign of the kidney problems that can be masked by thyroid problems. (The kidneys can look perfectly fine, bloodwork-wise, until the thyroid is straightened out, and then it becomes clear that there is a problem.) The first time I applied the gel, it was a harrowing experience, but it got easier every time I did it, and he now sits serenely on my lap in the morning and evening to have one ear cleaned with a damp cotton ball and the gel applied to the other ear. After the gel, he gets a treat of two Pill Pockets, chicken in the morning and salmon in the evening. Once a week, I clean both ears with witch hazel.

I hope he’s gained back some of the weight he lost. He seems calmer and more robust, and that brief period in the morning when he was acting like a savage jungle beast has all but faded away. Over the past year, he would get extremely wound up when I was making the bed and bite and claw me. A time or two, he even sprang into the air as I walked through my apartment, trying to bring me down from an upright position! Evidently, it was all due to his thyroid levels being out of whack.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blogger Narrowly Escapes Inflammatory Breast Cancer—This Time

Early in May, I woke up with a painful tubelike lump in one breast and that evening, before showering, I noticed there was an accompanying red streak about a quarter of an inch wide and three and a half inches long. I immediately called my breast cancer surgeon, and he called back within minutes (this was about 8 p.m.) and said to come in first thing the next morning. These symptoms pointed to two possible conditions: mastitis, a mammary gland infection which is not a big deal, or inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), which is always stage III or IV when diagnosed and fatal for most. It’s like what I had before—ductal carcinoma in situ—except no longer in situ.

When I saw my doctor the next morning, he said, “I don’t see how you could have cancer—you just had a clean mammogram four months ago,” but the Internet says that IBC is very aggressive and can easily get to a late stage between mammograms, unlike other forms of breast cancer, so that was not at all relieving. Regarding mastitis, the Internet says it is most commonly seen in nursing mothers and that it’s frequently accompanied by fever and chills. It’s often discovered when women seek medical treatment for what seems to be the flu. Figuring he would try the simplest thing first, my doctor prescribed antibiotics to be taken every six hours for a week. I asked how I could have gotten such an infection, if that’s what it was, and he said he didn’t know. He asked twice if I had fever or chills—flu-like symptoms—but I didn’t. I didn’t realize the significance of that until after I got home and performed more research, and then I was even more worried.

The antibiotic was Cephalexin, which I mention because, unlike other antibiotics I’ve been on over the years, it did not cause stomach upset or a yeast infection. The red streak got no worse and began to fade slowly, and the pain abated, but the lump actually became larger and rounder for a few days. However, I figured that if it was IBC, which does not respond to antibiotics, the redness would be getting worse. After several days, the lump also started to get smaller and, in the course of a couple of weeks, went away completely, so it was some kind of localized infection, thank goodness.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Self-Portrait with Toilet and How It Used to Look from My Living Room Windows



This little house is gone and there is a very fancy house there now, and the park beyond it has been beautifully redone. I meant to do a before and after, but before I got around to taking the after pictures, trees grew up in front of my windows, so now it looks like trees.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Five Fingers

At the soup kitchen late in April, I spotted what appeared to be a woman I was pretty close friends with soon after I arrived in S.F., 32 years ago now. We lost touch 20 or so years ago, and I have often wondered what became of her, but her last name is very common and there was no chance of finding her online, though I tried now and then. I stood there trying to decide if it was her, and if so, what her role was. She was very professionally dressed, chatting calmly with another nicely dressed woman. When I was last in touch with K., she was training to become a therapist or psychologist. Perhaps she was conducting a study or writing a book. I decided it was her and walked over.

We greeted each other warmly, and I asked, “Where have you been?” “I’ve been everywhere,” she replied. “I’ve been here and there—around the world—and now I’m homeless.” It was utterly shocking. K. is smart, educated, charming, capable. When I knew her, she was a serious student of Buddhism—in fact, a student of Howie’s. In fact, she was the person who took me to Howie in the first place. She and I are the same age.

She told me later on that same day that she has been homeless for a year, ten months of which she spent sleeping on the ground in the Mission before getting into a shelter, which she loves because of the showers. Losing a job is what set her on the path to homelessness. She has three siblings and a mother, including a brother who lives not far off, which you would think would make a difference, but in our culture, not necessarily.

I mentioned this encounter to my esteemed Indian co-worker, who was horrified. She agreed that siblings might have differences. She said, “All five fingers might not be the same length, but you remember that not everyone is perfect and you take care of your family.” She said that if she became homeless, her sister or brother would take her in. She said their parents stressed that they must care for each other, and that she and her husband tell their two sons all the time to be kind to each other: your brother is the one who will always be there.

In my family, and I only mention it because I think it’s probably typical, no one said we had to get along with our siblings simply because they were our siblings. I was told that you don’t have to be friends with people just because they’re family members, and that if even a close family member doesn’t want to be friendly, it’s out of your control. This is in line with the American ideal of independence. My co-worker diplomatically said she tries to find good things in every culture, but that there are things she learned in her own culture that remain values for her.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Imminent Danger

Back outside in the bright sunshine after attending the meditation group at San Quentin late in April, we sat on a low wall to eat our bag lunches and walked through the main yard to a classroom where Jacques Verduin teaches the GRIP class: Growing Rage into Power. As we made our way there, I thought, “I’m walking through the yard at San Quentin.” Per instructions from Jacques, when inmates greeted us, we politely said hello in return and moved on. We sat in a circle with the members of the GRIP class, which includes 28 inmates, who collectively had killed 23 people. Thus, it is almost certain that I was sitting between two murderers.

At the first class session, they added up the minutes and seconds elapsed between the time violence could have been avoided and the time the crime was committed, and it was cumulatively 69 minutes, or an average of 2.46 minutes per class member. Jacques said the longest such period for anyone in the room was 20 minutes; the shortest was four seconds. The man sitting to my right said it had been seven seconds in his case.

A primary aim of the class is to learn to recognize the moment of imminent danger and respond in a way that avoids violence. This, you will not be surprised to learn, is done by mindfulness of the body.

One class member told us in detail about killing his girlfriend of two years. (His imminent danger period was seven seconds, he said, after which he stabbed his girlfriend in the chest.) Did he look like a horrible monster? No, he did not. He looked precisely like most everyone else we ever see, like a regular person. He passed around some photos of his victim, of whom he spoke with love and tenderness, saying she had been a light in the world. He also told us about meeting with her sister and cousin, and being forgiven by both of them.

Another class member asked, the longing evident in his voice, “After they said they forgave you, did you feel free?” I don’t think the person telling the story spoke of feeling free as such, but he said over and over how grateful he was to be offered such a huge gift, and he said that very few inmates in California have the opportunity for this kind of meeting with the loved ones of their victims.

Then other class members asked him questions, and we meditated together a bit, with one of the students offering instructions, and Jacques had each of us visitors say a couple of sentences about our experience of being there. “Honored” was used more than once; one of us said she felt privileged to be able to have this experience. Finally, we stood in a circle and held hands.

I’ve been thinking ever since then about how practically every one of us acts impulsively multiple times per day: Before the thought of having a sip of water has left my head, my hand is around the glass. Thought and emotion, followed instantly by action, but not usually then by life in prison. How amazing to contemplate how someone’s entire life, perhaps decades of life, can become about an act that took a few seconds to conceive and perhaps just a few more seconds to carry out. That person is thereafter seen as nothing more than the person who did that terrible thing, irremediable garbage.

The last thing we did at San Quentin was to go into a cafeteria building, I think for staff, and debrief with Jacques and a woman who is interning as an interfaith chaplain there. She deeply impressed me. Her presence was profoundly tender and open. Because I’m susceptible to this kind of thing, I asked this chaplain what she does when she feels attracted to a prisoner. “It’s never happened,” she told me. This was confounding: never? Well, then, what about when a prisoner is attracted to her? She said that behavior is forbidden and that the one time an inmate said something suggestive to her, she thought the three nearest inmates were going to beat him up.

(In our next chaplaincy class, we did a segment on sexual attraction in caregiving relationships. One of our teachers said it will absolutely arise; the question is how to avoid acting on it where prohibited by ethics or where there is the possibility of causing harm. I reported what the San Quentin chaplain said about never feeling this, and my teacher was skeptical. She suggested that maybe the chaplain just didn’t feel like talking about it with a stranger. It also occurs to me that perhaps her sexual orientation simply is otherwise.)

I’ve also been thinking about how the San Quentin chaplain intern clearly is not there to be nice, or to fix anyone, or to provide love in a personal sense, let alone romance. I’m sure she is very nice indeed, and that she does love the inmates she works with, but her service is obviously about manifesting the powerful but impersonal forms of love, generosity and kindness that connect us all, every last being, whether our worst act was eating the last piece of tofu jerky or murdering our girlfriend. And she was doing that. I could see it when she looked at me, and I would like to be able to do that myself, whether I work as a chaplain or not.

She and Jacques talked about ways not to internalize trauma and violence. They hear such ghastly stories about horrific crimes and somehow must not let themselves be scarred. Jacques said human touch is helpful, and both he and the chaplain intern find immersion in water, or doing activities on the water (e.g., boating) restorative.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

San Quentin

Near the end of April, those in my chaplaincy class who were so inclined went on another field trip, this time to San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. We’d had to submit our names and driver’s license numbers weeks in advance to get clearance, and Gil, our teacher who took us on this field trip, told us that even with clearance, we could arrive and be denied entry, if there had been violence and the prison was on lockdown, or if it proved to be foggy, which impedes the ability of guards to see inmates in the yard from their towers and shoot them if necessary. Gil also warned us that, in the event we were taken hostage, we would not be recognized as such for bargaining purposes.

There is a strict dress code for visitors, which prohibits the colors that make up 99% of my wardrobe: green, blue and yellow. No denim of any color is allowed. I zipped into a thrift store a few days before our visit to pick up a tan men’s shirt to wear with my black work pants.

Our group of about 12 met in the parking lot and walked to the first guard station, where our host, Jacques Verduin, advised us to stay together, to stay out of the guards’ way, and to follow any of his instructions immediately. We entered the campus, which is pretty, with handsome old buildings ringing open spaces with grass and flowers. Odd that from that pleasant spot, we could see the Adjustment Center.
 

We went into the chapel, where we sat in a big circle for the weekly mindfulness meditation group led by Jacques. Besides us, there were maybe 35 inmates in the room. As inmates entered the room, they shook hands with us and told us their names. Jacques had told us visitors to spread out, so almost all of us were sitting with an inmate on either side. Most wore jeans or navy sweatpants, most of which, but not all, had PRISONER running down one leg in big letters. Many wore blue shirts of a particularly lovely hue, a bright sky blue. I was interested to see that no two pairs of shoes were the same—I guess you get to keep your own—and hairstyles also varied.

Jacques led us in a brief meditation, and then those who wished to shared about how their meditation practice helps them. Jerome, sitting to my right, said that his practice helps him distinguish the stories he tells himself in his head from reality. I was impressed. I think it took me about 15 years to get that. Many of the prisoners had very clear, insightful things to say about their meditating, and many also said they love coming to the group each week, where it’s peaceful and quiet and where they can do something that is constructive and leaves them feeling calm. It sounded like everyone in the room has a daily sitting practice.

Jacques seems to be doing a remarkable job, somehow getting right to the heart of the matter in short order. A reading was handed around, and people took turns reading aloud a paragraph, and then they or others could comment on that paragraph. It is clear that one of Jacques’ priorities is to help his students understand how feelings and thoughts are experienced in their bodies. Part of the reading said, “It’s exactly in perceiving how I hold an experience in the body that I come to understand how I attach meaning to it and I become able to see it in a wider perspective.”

Then Jacques invited us chaplaincy students to ask any questions we had. He told us not to be polite, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask, “So, uh, what kinds of crimes did you commit?” One of us asked for a specific example of a moment when a prisoner’s meditation practice had been helpful and one inmate shared an anecdote about that. Another question was about racial tensions in the prison, but someone said it’s not really a problem there—it helps that 85% of the inmates are African American. Another questioner noted the feeling of camaraderie in the room—is it very different outside the meditation group? The answer, which was surprising, was that there is a feeling throughout the prison population that the inmates are brothers.

Toward the end, we meditated together again and then Jacques asked us visitors to stay seated and for the prisoners to walk around in a circle and bow to each of us, which they did. He said we were simply to receive this, but I saw some of my classmates bowing in return, so I did the same, but I didn’t need to, because next the inmates sat down and we visitors walked around the circle to bow to each inmate. I looked into the eyes of each person I bowed to and smiled and tried to see him as if I were the person who most loved him in all the world. Most inmates politely bowed back, but some followed instructions and just received our respect and good wishes, though nearly everyone whispered, “Thank you.”

A second post on our trip to San Quentin is forthcoming.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hyper

Hammett barfed once or twice a month or so ago, so I decided it was time to go to the vet. I skipped his annual check-up last year because two years ago, he went so berserk when I put him in his carrier that he cut his head open. At his recent visit, it turned out that he had lost a pound and a half, which is a lot for a ten-pound cat, and that he has hyperthyroidism. This might explain some of his more crazed behavior in recent months. I’m sorry now that I didn’t make him go to the vet last year; maybe the diagnosis could have been made then. Dr. Press said his life expectancy may not be affected at all, but said he’d need to take a pill every 12 hours for the rest of his life. Actually, he didn’t quite say that. He said “a pill every day” and left it to the person I picked the pills up from to clarify that it’s actually half a pill twice a day.

After I picked up the pills, I used a pill shooter to administer Hammett’s evening dose and did the same the next morning. At Rainbow, one of the workers showed me some soft salmon treats his cat likes, and it turned out Hammett was happy to take his pill concealed in a couple of cat treats rolled into a ball. For five days. Then he decided he hated that kind of treat, and it was back to the pill shooter, which he doesn’t hate, but which I’m sure is not much fun for him, and which definitely is not fun for me.

I called Dr. Press to ask a few questions: Does the pill have to be given precisely every 12 hours? How early or late can it be? What about when I go on vacation? What side effects of the medication should I watch out for?

Dr. Press said if I made a compelling case that I simply could not medicate Hammett every 12 hours, he would agree to a once-a-day protocol, but twice a day works better. Therefore, it’s fine for the morning or evening pill to be very early or late, and it’s fine for him to get his daily dose all at once while I’m away. As for side effects, he said to watch out for vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite.

That very night, Hammett vomited four times, and the following night, between 1 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., he vomited 13 times. I was upset, feeling I had failed the dearest cat there is by skipping his check-up last year, and by not noticing sooner that he was losing weight. He has always been skinny and from time to time, I have thought that he doesn’t have much leeway when it comes to losing weight—he wouldn’t have to lose his appetite for very long before he’d be at death’s door. Death’s door is what he seemed to be approaching, and he’s only just turned nine.

Dr. Press said the vomiting was presumably due to the pills, so to stop the pills and switch to a transdermal gel, which is rubbed on the inside of the ear twice a day. The first time I administered the gel, it got all over my bare skin and all over the inside and outside of Hammett’s ear. I found a video online in which a fellow demonstrates how he puts gel in his cat’s ear. It was helpful, but on the other hand, the feline star of the video is shown placidly lying down, happy to have the gel applied.

But the second time I applied the gel, it went a bit better, and I also ran into J.J. from Mission Pet Hospital that evening or the next and she demonstrated on my hand how well the gel has to be rubbed in, which was instructive.

Unfortunately, a week after starting the gel, Hammett barfed again. Dr. Press happened to call out of the blue just then and said he was afraid of that—Hammett may also have something going on with his intestinal tract. However, it may also just be that his thyroid levels aren’t normal yet. Hyperthyroidism can mask kidney problems, so once his thyroid levels are OK, we
’ll have to see how his kidneys are. Dr. Press said he’s rather young for kidney problems.
 
Well, we shall see. I invited his cat sitter over to learn how to apply the gel, but as soon as Hammett saw her, he ran away in a panic. I picked him up and he was trembling with fear. I have never been very fond of this person myself, but figured that if Hammett was always alive when I returned from vacation, that was the main thing. However, he was so terrified, it was impossible to do the demo, and so I decided it’s time to find a new cat sitter, preferably one who is also a veterinary technician, so the search is underway.

His old cat sitter said he was freaking out because he associates her with my being gone, and maybe that’s so, but it’s hard to believe that he was thinking, “There’s that person I really, really like, and she’s with my mother, who I also really, really like, but usually when I see her, it’s when my mother is gone, so now I don’t like her.” My mother said that sounded like rather complex thinking for a cat, and I agree.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

A Resounding Silence

Late in March, I came down with a cold and lost my voice completely for three and a half days. Fortunately, my job can largely be performed without actually speaking to anyone. Tom needed a ride to the airport at 4:45 a.m. on one of the mornings I couldn’t talk, and my first impulse was to say “No!” Actually, I did ask, “Are you morally opposed to SuperShuttle?” (this was before I lost my voice) and he explained that they wanted to pick him up at 3 a.m., which I could sympathize with. He does favor after favor for me, so I agreed to drive to the airport with him and return the City CarShare car to its pod afterward.

At night, when I go to bed, I ask myself, “What did I do today that was great? What do I feel remorse about? What am I grateful for?” These all have to be interpersonal events, things that happened with other people. I had asked Tom to pick up the car in the morning and swing back by our building to fetch me afterward so I could sleep for as long as possible, but I ended up being awake at 4:20 a.m. and decided to walk over to get the car with him, so he wouldn’t have to go alone. When he came out of his apartment, I smiled instead of frowned. And when we couldn’t figure out how to do this, that and the other in the Mini Cooper and he was getting stressed out, not being able to say anything whatsoever prevented me from asking, “Why did you reserve a car for just going to the airport that’s so hard to drive (and is also more expensive than some of the other choices)?” So that’s what I did that day that was great, and it was fun driving back from the airport with my arm hanging out of the window into the cold morning air, with the musical stylings of Metallica coming out of the sound system.

I looked online to see what to do about laryngitis and saw some advice to chew up and swallow an entire clove of raw garlic. This I did, against my better judgment, and will not do again. However, chewing raw ginger seemed to shock a few syllables into emerging.

++

One afternoon, I spilled the better part of a cup of hot chamomile tea onto my desk and watched awestruck as it soaked a bunch of papers, sloshed underneath my turntable and around my computer and a box of Puffs with Lotion, and dripped down onto my shredder, some electrical wires, and the floor. Wow. At least it wasn’t a chocolate milkshake, one more argument for avoiding sugar.

++

At the soup kitchen, I sat handing out numbers, consciously feeling my chest and stomach area, and mentally encouraging myself to relax and make space for what was felt there. Suddenly the guest sitting next to me said, “You’re a nice lady. Thank you for letting me sit next to you.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pleasure Dome

Mid-February, I went to the Mindfulness Care Center’s monthly grief and loss support group. The first time I went was months prior, and I found it very helpful, ditto on the more recent occasion. It’s such a balm to be among people who are speaking in a very sincere manner, straight from their hearts and from the depths of their most profound feelings, and to be able to do the same myself and feel completely safe and comfortable. My partner for the evening’s dyad exercise was a woman who is a member of Howie’s sangha. I’d never spoken with her before, and she proved to be just the loveliest, kindest person. I experience very little sorrow about Carlos these days, with very few tears, but I still fairly often feel a mild shock and disbelief that he isn’t here.

++

Seen at the soup kitchen: a pit bull in a tight, slightly torn wife-beater undershirt. I know we
’re not supposed to think of pit bulls as menacing, but this one really did look like someone to avoid.
 
++

While I was at the laundromat, a homeless woman came in and sat at the little table and watched with interest as I folded 26 navy t-shirts. “You like dark colors,” she observed, adding, “Well, at least you know you’re not wearing the same shirt every day.” It had actually never occurred to me that people thought I was wearing the same t-shirt every day.

Then we discussed hair. She asked if I ever braid mine—it’s not long enough—and said that she has always had layers and just recently let her hair grow out long enough to pull back into a ponytail. I told her it looked nice: “It shows off your face, and then you have the nice ponytail in back.” She beamed at that.

At times, she mumbled rather incoherently, but I could tell she was saying something about needing $13.95 more in order to be able to sleep in a shelter. I told her she was welcome to whatever quarters I had left over after my 11 loads of laundry and two trips to the laundromat. That turned out to be only $2.25 and she thanked me for it, but started to cry, saying as if to herself, “Where will I go?”

At home, soft touch that I am, I fetched a $20 bill and went back to the laundromat and gave it to her. She was pleased and moved and said, “Can I have a hug? I don’t bite.” I gave her a warm hug, as the executive director at the soup kitchen freely gives his guests. It’s interesting how right after you give someone a generous gift, they also want a hug, but it’s because being treated kindly touches our hearts and reminds us that what we all really want is love.

++

One of Hammett’s high-spirited activities is to hop up on the kitchen counter near the sink and sit down, right where I often set food down. I usually nudge him off the counter (and then feel like a jerk, because he clearly would prefer to sit there) or, in a more tolerant mood, pick him up and set him on the floor, which sometimes has to be done five times in a row.

One day, I decided to investigate my feeling of annoyance rather than act on it and was going about my business nearby when a tremendous perturbation occurred behind me. I turned to see Hammett attempting to claw his way out of the window above the sink, which was nearly but not quite open enough for this, and either he was standing in the plastic container full of diluted dish soap or landed in it after releasing his hold on the windowsill. In any event, he ended up soaked to the knees in dish soap, which I didn’t want him to ingest while cleaning himself, so then I had to take him into the bathroom and try to run warm water over his hind legs, which action was vigorously and successfully opposed. I put warm water in a plastic bin and set him in it long enough to rinse the soap off, and then dried him as best I could.

++

After chaplaincy class in March, I had dinner with a classmate, as always, this time at Udupi Palace. When she asked if I’d have dessert, I said, “No, my body is a temple,
and she replied, “My body is a pleasure dome.”

++

I took a walk with my walking friend. Now and then he has a cup of coffee during our outings, so I asked, “Would you like to stop for a cup of coffee?”, but he said, “No, I’m still releasing my first one,” which struck me as hilarious. We found ourselves down at the Civic Center, where we saw part of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which featured a tremendous number of police officers (marching) and nearly as many cute children. It was pretty sparsely attended, making it a nice alternative to the Gay Pride parade. We had lunch at Ananda Fuara and then walked back to the Mission and went to sit on a bench at the top of Dolores Park, which was extremely crowded. It was a very warm, sunny day. All told, we spent six pleasant hours together.