Monday, December 15, 2014

Day of Death

My chaplaincy class has a few optional field trips, including “Death in the City,” which was this past Saturday. (A classmate emailed me, “I’m really looking forward to the Day of Death.”) 

We started at the Columbarium, which is an above-ground cemetery, a round, domed building full of “niches,” each of which contains someone’s cremains (except for a couple that are just honorary, like one for Harvey Milk).

The building opened a hundred years ago, and the niches on the lower floors are simple and dignified. All you see for most of them is a metal front plate and the family’s name, or there is a glass front and you can see the urn or other container.

As you ascend to upper floors of the building, it’s more like Dia de los Muertos altars, with photographs and mementoes. One niche even featured a tiny electronic sign flashing the name of the deceased over and over.

Then it was on to the San Francisco National Cemetery, at the Presidio, where we were invited to contemplate our feelings both about death and about the military. Much of training to be a chaplain is about knowing one’s own biases and sensitivities, so that they don’t unconsciously get acted out on those the chaplain hopes to serve.

The vast majority of the gravestones here are identical—simple white marble, with larger and more elaborate monuments here and there.

It was a beautiful day, not raining for the first time in days. 

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Monday, December 08, 2014

I’ll Be the Judge of That

At work on Monday, a mild conflict arose between myself and the representative of a group I’m working on a project with. This group has been particular about how this project is carried out, more so than the other 13 groups I’ve worked with this year. They asked us to do something we really didn’t want to do and there was a lengthy detour while we had several meetings about it. In the end, we had to agree to do what they wanted. Immediately after the meeting where this became clear, I sent a note saying we would be delighted to take care of it, and then I forwarded this note to one of my own co-workers, saying I thought I’d better send that gracious message while the afterglow of reaching an agreement was still upon me. She complimented my good thinking.

A couple of days before the project was scheduled to conclude, lo and behold, the representative decided that there was yet another thing they needed changed in a system that is used by many people beyond this group. I basically said we were absolutely not going to do it, and he basically said he’d see what his manager had to say about that, which is how the former issue began to escalate, too.

To digress semi-briefly, my chaplaincy class has a reading list consisting of 19 books, plus tons of online readings. I ordered every book right away, but there was one I couldn’t get at first: Professional Spiritual & Pastoral Care: A Practical Clergy and Chaplain's Handbook, edited by Rabbi Stephen B. Roberts, MBA, MHL, BCJC. Huh! Didn’t notice the MBA until just now. BCJC is Board Certified Jewish Chaplain. I have no idea what MHL is. To the non-religious eyes, looks boring, right? Not least because of all those credentials. Amazon listed this book—for $50—but said it was back-ordered. Weeks passed, and I finally canceled the order and ordered it from—for $35—but it was also back-ordered there.

I felt a little self-conscious about my neighbors maybe seeing a box from ChristianBook waiting for me in the lobby, like I should run around and tell them all, “I’m not a Christian!”

It finally arrived the day of my class in November, and it is actually an excellent book, not extremely well-written, but chock full of interesting advice for the aspiring chaplain. I read an assigned chapter on listening and realized that I was dealing with my co-worker in just the wrong way, in a way guaranteed to increase conflict.

I wrote up some reminders for myself for effective communication at work (and, I suppose, anywhere):

—How can I foster relaxation in this situation or conversation?

—How can I support connectedness?

—How can I nurture a sense of security?

—How can I give the other person as many options as possible, to promote a sense of choice and power?

I thought of several areas where this person could make some choices, and in our next meeting, which was just him and me, I greeted him warmly and asked what he’d like to talk about first, rather than telling him what we’d talk about first. I’d absolutely thought we would end up having to do this other thing he was pushing for, and therefore would have to delay the grand finale of the project, but in the context of our pleasant meeting, with me offering him options every time I possibly could, and after I showed him what his request would entail, he said it would be perfectly fine not to make the change! (I confess I also casually mentioned that another influential group in the company was perfectly fine without this change.) Anyway, that was a satisfying ending to that particular problem.

And then I thought again about my classmate who made the racist remark, realizing it would not be helpful to spend the time until the next class rehearsing offended speeches. My task is to find a way to act in a constructive manner, as at work, and as explicitly elucidated in Rabbi Roberts’ very good book.

Saturday, December 06, 2014


Funny to think this was taken not only before Carlos died but before I even met him. That’s my old camera! Yes, I was the kind of person who had a pepper grinder at work. 

(Click photo to enlarge.)

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Man from Ft. Bragg

One afternoon, while doing an errand near work, I passed a fellow I often see standing on the sidewalk with a cup for spare change. He’s friendly, about 70, with white hair and a beard. He told me a few months ago that he would soon start receiving Social Security and not have to beg for money anymore. When I saw him, I put two dollars in his cup and asked, “Did you start getting Social Security?” He said that indeed he did, and that he had rented an apartment in Ft. Bragg, on the coast about 200 miles north of here.

I asked how he gets up there, and he said it’s two bus rides. The first, to Santa Rosa, costs five dollars and the more rural route to Ft. Bragg costs $23. He had to pay a security deposit along with his first month’s rent, so he was a bit in arrears this month, but he said that starting next month, he’ll be fine on his Social Security alone. I told him I was delighted for him, and said I guessed that meant we wouldn’t be seeing him anymore, and he said, “That’s right. As soon as I get $80, I’m going home.”

I said, “Then handshakes are in order,” and we shook hands and exchanged names. I learned for the first time that his name is Michael. I told him how delighted I was for him and headed back to work, but then half a block away, I thought, “Wait a minute.”

I walked back and put $80 in his cup and said, with a smile, “Go on home.” He peered into his cup and when he realized what I’d done, tears came to his eyes and he gave me a big hug. When I passed that spot later, leaving work for the day, he wasn’t there, and I imagined him sitting on the bus, heading to a snug little apartment of his very own.

I pondered how being generous is not about establishing who is generous and who is not, nor who is helpful and who is helpless. Generosity is a natural expression of our connectedness, and we will all take turns being the one to give and the one to receive.

There is a little addendum to this story, which is that several days later, imagine my surprise upon seeing this very person at the soup kitchen, looking rather bedraggled. Had the money been stolen from him, or did he spend it on alcohol? Here I felt a twinge of conscience at possibly having contributed to his delinquency. I had to wonder if there was even any Social Security or apartment in Ft. Bragg.

Then I waited to feel indignant, but found I never did. For one thing, if there’s no apartment in Ft. Bragg, that’s sad, not a thing to be angry about. I really wanted there to be an apartment in Ft. Bragg. Plus, whatever he did with that money doesn’t change my kind intention in giving it, as one of my chaplaincy classmates pointed out.

In the end, I concluded that if this guy is a good enough actor to get a handshake, a hug, sincere good wishes and $82 all from the same person—well, those are very impressive survival skills.

Thursday, December 04, 2014


One day at the soup kitchen, D. told me about someone he knows who has a wart on his nose and took the initiative to have little legs and wings tattooed around it. Now, according to D., people say, “Hold still!” and hit this fellow in the face, attempting to squash the bug. I suspect the latter clause was apocryphal, but I’d like to think there is someone walking around town with a wart-bug on his nose. Maybe they say, “Hold still!” and try to flick the creature off his face.

On the fourth Sunday in October, at a four-hour brunch shift. I filled eight big trays with sliced bread and then handed out numbers at the gate with a volunteer who is an attorney and a very serious swimmer. She swims to and from Alcatraz. The two large trees across the street were gorgeous in the early morning sun against the clear blue sky. A young woman in a BMW pulled up and parked out front. I wondered if she was nervous parking there with so many homeless people about, but after she got out of the car, she walked in the gate: a volunteer coming to serve rice, beans and salad.

We were at the gate from 8 until 9:30 or so, and then I sat down at a table in the dining room and ate. A fellow told me he had been granted an “Obamaphone” and just had to find two dollars so he can take a bus to a nearby city to fetch it. (I did not give him two dollars. I don’t give money to anyone while at the soup kitchen because I don’t want to be the ATM machine there. It’s also my intention not to give anyone money right near the soup kitchen, either, but I often do.)

I spotted a young woman in the food line I had talked to there before. She is covered with tattoos and has beautiful dark green eyes and a touchingly sweet manner. She has some sort of very charming accent, I can’t figure out from where. The first time we spoke, she told me her shoes are made of hemp. She appears to be entirely in possession of her mental faculties, and she is immediately likable. It makes me wonder how she comes to be at the soup kitchen—a relationship breakup or a suddenly lost job?

I noticed her wiping away a tear as she waited to get food, and I went over to see what was wrong: A Muni driver had ignored her, pulling away before she could board the bus. I could see how that one little thing could be the last straw in a period where something major has gone wrong and you don’t know if it will go right again. “Am I invisible?”, she asked. For what it’s worth, I told her Muni drivers do that to everyone, and I asked if I could give her a little pat on the shoulder. That’s one thing I’ve learned in my class: to ask before touching people. Also, institutions such as hospitals or jails may have very specific rules about physical contact that a volunteer chaplain needs to know.

The young woman nodded and I touched her shoulder briefly and invited her to come sit at our table. Sometimes people chat as they eat, particularly if they know the people they’re near. Less often, people talk to those they don’t already know, and most often, they don’t talk to anyone, but just eat silently from plates heaped with as much food as they can hold. So our table was silent after the brief conversation about the Obamaphone. After a while, the young woman looked up and said, “This is really good,” meaning the food. When I got up to return to my duties, I told her, “I’m sorry about Muni. I’m glad you’re here, and I hope your afternoon will be good.” That’s all I can do: help the soup kitchen function and try to make sure people don’t feel alone and unseen.

Another day, an agitated guest was telling whoever would listen about the bacterial infection he can’t get any doctor to take seriously. He indicated a small wound on his face, red but not actively bleeding, and said, “Look what’s coming out of it!” Before I could remember an urgent engagement elsewhere, he unwadded a couple of the tissues clutched in his hand and showed me nothing worse (fortunately) than faint smears of blood. He explained what I was seeing: “Little white things are coming out of it: plastic pellets. I’m full of them!” Then he pointed at another guest. “That woman has the same thing. I hope she isn’t also completely full of plastic pellets, like me.” I assumed he was talking about minute pieces of skin or flesh.

Thus, when he later announced the connection between gay men and Ebola, I said, “You’re probably right. That sounds like good advice,” and he walked away happy. Another volunteer said, “No, that’s not right. I’m a lesbian,” but she hadn’t heard the discussion about plastic pellets. I knew I wasn’t going to argue him out of any of his delusions, so why upset him? Also, I wasn’t personally highly offended (though if the orator is sane, we should speak up about racism, sexism and homophobia, etc., whether we are members of the group being insulted or not). Now, if he’d said my father causes Ebola, I might have said, “Hello? My father does not cause Ebola!”

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Career Advice of Bugwalk

What I said about wanting work to be afraid of me notwithstanding, here is a slightly revised excerpt from an email to a friend with a new job:

First, I’m wishing you the best of luck at your new job.

But if this job doesn’t work out, there’s another good job out there somewhere, for sure.

After I was laid off from The Best Company There Is and then rehired in another part of the company several months later, I was very motivated to keep my new job, and I adopted a new approach, which is that whenever my boss asks me to do something, I say, “Sure! I would love to do that!” I formerly was prone to arguing about details—does this even need to be done? Is this the best way to do it? Etc. I resolved never to indulge in that again.

I also try to make sure my boss’s life is easy and smooth. I handle problems myself as much as possible before going to him. What I say to him is positive and constructive. I try not to waste his time.

I never ever ever say anything negative to him about another person. A co-worker would have to shoot me before I’d complain to my boss. No matter what a colleague of mine does, there is no benefit to me in mentioning that to my boss. (I also almost never ever ever say anything negative about a co-worker to a third co-worker. I do not want to be seen as that kind of person.)

I read recently that what we say about others will be seen as attributes of ourselves, a quirk of psychology. So if I go to my boss and say, “Mulene is pretty, nice and smart,” he’s hearing those words and seeing my face and they get associated with each other, and he sort of thinks I am pretty, nice and smart. And if I say to my boss, “Mulene is ugly, mean and stupid!”, then he thinks I am those things.

I have also noticed that when Person A goes to HR to share a very legitimate complaint about Person B, Person A can eventually look forward to being laid off. HR is there to protect the company. From whom? From troublemakers! Who are the troublemakers? The ones who come to them with complaints. It’s totally backward, but I think that’s how it tends to work.

I used to have a co-worker of notably sunny and calm demeanor. One day he and I got a very provocative, complaining email from a third person. I was all up in arms, but Ben said, “I’m not letting him get my goat,” and he read the first two words of the email and then deleted it. I’ve never forgotten the way he prioritized his own happiness by avoiding things that could only be upsetting or annoying.

Sometimes the thing we have to avoid in order not to be upset is our own thoughts.

But whatever you might think, one key to hanging onto a job is for people to see you as someone who does her job cheerfully and willingly, causes no problems for the boss or anyone else, and never says anything negative, most particularly not to the boss.

By “boss,” I mean my boss, but also anyone in any position of authority, such as a team lead, or someone directing me in a project or task, or even someone training me to do a project or task.

Crossing my fingers for you!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Task Cowers as Blogger Approaches

Our landlord’s two daughters stopped by for a visit recently, taking the opportunity to meet as many of us tenants as they could. They assured me that they have no intention of selling the building, which would always have been a problem, but now would be catastrophic. If something happens to this place, I’d have to move in with roommates or move to another town. I couldn’t afford a studio or one-bedroom apartment at San Francisco’s current astronomical rates, so I was relieved to hear them say this.

One daughter lives in Coalinga, 200 miles south of here, but lately spends three weeks per month with her mother in San Rafael, about 30 minutes north of here, and she will be the one to take over administering the building once her mother is gone; they lost their father a few years ago.

The most exciting thing I had to show them was the backyard of the gentleman next door, who is evidently a hoarder. They took a photograph to show their mother. I happened to pass his garage one day when the door was open, and it was literally full of boxes of stuff—from side to side and top to bottom. All that stuff in the backyard provides excellent habitat for rats, which are prey for raccoons. If you’ve not heard the sound of a raccoon savaging a rat, you’re not missing out. Our landlord’s daughter said she’d be worried about all that stuff being a fire hazard, and I’m sure if the merest spark ever contacts it, the entire block will go up in a giant conflagration. But since the fellow has been living there for decades and no one has burned to a crisp yet, I don’t worry about it, and I don’t have any hard feelings for him. Imagine being compelled to spend so much of your life energy dealing with your giant pile of stuff. 


One day while I was making my bed, I drew my back my arm just as Hammett ran up behind me and his head collided with my elbow with a little thump. He threw himself down on the bed, and, just to show he hadn't lost his oomph, gave me a single chomp on the hand.


At work, I noticed that a colleague famous for the elaborate vegetable smoothies she makes in the kitchen using a handheld blender was looking more svelte. In such a circumstance, I quite often say, “Have you lost weight? You look great,” but when I remember, I leave off the part about looking great, so as not to value one size over another. “You look great now that you’re smaller” is equivalent to “You looked awful when you were bigger” or “If you gain weight again, you’ll be ugly.”

So I said to my co-worker, “Wow, have you lost weight?”, which she interpreted as a compliment, which is fine—I don’t insist that people feel insulted—and she said, “Yes!” and attributed it to her recent project of building an enclosure to put her recycling, compost and garbage bins in. She showed me a photo of the truly handsome wooden structure she had made. I was impressed. As I left the kitchen, she said happily, “I can do anything, right?”


I was shocked when I heard that Ray Magliozzi, one of the Car Talk duo, had died. I often listen to them on weekend mornings and didn’t realize they had stopped recording new shows two years ago. Until Ray died, I had never known which one of them was which, but after looking at their website, listening to a Terry Gross show remembering Ray, and consulting Wikipedia, now I know that the one who didn’t die was kind of the main host, the one who was the first to say “Don’t drive like my brother” at the end of the show, and the one who listed all of the personnel who supposedly help produce the show. Ray was Tom’s sidekick, with the oft-mentioned infectious laugh. In the first photo I saw of them, it was immediately obvious who was who. It was fun seeing the photos, some going decades back, and reading quotes from Ray. My favorite began, “Don’t be afraid of work. Make work afraid of you.”

Friday, November 21, 2014

See What I Mean?

I’ve been doing power saving—saving as much as I possibly can—for six months or a year and accordingly don’t have cash for a new camera lying around at the moment. What with paying the second installment for my chaplaincy class soon and signing up for a retreat in the spring, I’ll have to save up, so in the meantime, I took these flattering self-portraits with my new horrible camera.

It’s even making a weird thing stick out of the top of my hairdo! Hmm, looking a little grim. Let’s brighten things up.

Maybe if I go outside, into the beautiful, natural light.

Certainly you can't go wrong with a shot or two of your adorable pet. Here's Hammett.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Little Silver Friend

I picked up the new camera from Gasser’s and immediately hated it, pretty much in the same way I immediately loved my old camera. I asked A. if it might be possible to get my old camera back—no one ever asked me if it was all right to toss it in the trash! To make a medium-length story short, my camera is definitely gone, which A. told me in a voice mail, without a word of contrition. (Now Gasser’s has lost a customer.) I considered calling and saying I’d appreciate an apology, but decided to let it go. If he’s of reasonable intelligence, which he probably is, he has comprehended that it might be better to check with customers before discarding their cameras, and if he’s not, no amount of carrying on will help.

So that is that, though I did happen to recall that I gave my parents a gift of this exact same camera after buying one for myself, so I called my father and said that if they happen to find they have a superfluous camera, I would not be offended to receive it. I don’t think they take many pictures and they have more than one camera (if I may mention it), but I suppose after my father, my most faithful reader, sees this post and my unflattering remarks about the new camera, he will rightly prefer to keep that Canon PowerShot SD780IS and not to trade it for my new one, which is a Canon PowerShot ELPH 150 IS. Whereas many pictures I took with the former were dazzlingly beautiful, I can’t get the new camera to take a beautiful picture, and I have taken many at this point.

You can still get it my old camera new on Amazon, but only in black or red. Mine was silver. It was beautiful. I loved it. I’m sad that it’s gone.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thrown Clear

The topic of November’s chaplaincy class was ethics (sila). I felt profoundly sleepy during the class, starting during a particular presentation. It brought back vivid memories of seven hundred occasions of being in a boring class in 7th grade, even though what was being said in chaplaincy class wasn’t boring at all.

One of the teachers did a presentation on how to lead a guided meditation, and then we got to practice on each other. When I was playing the patient, I appreciated my classmate’s calm and soothing voice, and found the experience genuinely helpful. When I was playing the chaplain, I was surprised by how responsible I felt for the person sitting opposite me, how concerned that what I offered would be helpful and not in any way harmful.

During the day, another student shared an anecdote that was blatantly racist. I was shocked, and assumed one of our three teachers would respond, but none of them did, and nor did either of the people of color in the room, and nor did I nor anyone else. This came after a fair amount of lip service about honoring diversity and cultural differences, so it was all the more astounding.

The next day, Tom and I went to Berkeley to see Party People, preceded by lunch at Thai Street Food. The food was a bit sweet but not overly so (not like at Gecko Gecko) and was generally quite tasty. The place is open and airy and the presentation of the food, including the bowls and plates, is pleasing. The only big demerit is in the area of the seating, which is downright uncomfortable: a hard little stool, a hard little metal chair, or a long wooden bench being jiggled by some other luncher.

Party People is about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. I didn’t actually love it—it was loud and bombastic throughout, and none of the music really grabbed me. It was somewhat educational, but I suspect I could have gleaned the same facts in five minutes with Wikipedia. However, that I saw it the day after the racist anecdote in class was a bit striking.

On Sunday, as I did my cooking and pondered my classmate’s thoughtless statement, I felt more and more disturbed that I hadn’t been braver. I sent the three teachers an email saying this:

I have been brooding about [my classmate’s] anecdote, wherein he used “black” with the apparent certainty that we would all, with him, understand that as “frightening and menacing.”

In the moment, I was quite shocked—while there is plenty of overt racism, sexism, homophobia, size-ism, etc., online, I rarely hear bigoted remarks with my own ears. (When I do, they are generally directed against women.) I assumed one of you would speak up, or perhaps one of the people of color in the room would, but no one did, including me.

I now feel ashamed and heartsick at my own cowardice.

I am wondering why none of you three said anything, and wondering the same about myself.

I think it was simple fear: of standing out, of being disliked, of turning out to be the only one to feel shocked and thus to feel isolated. And therefore I rationalized, “Well, it must not have been THAT bad, or someone else would have said something.”

Again, I feel ashamed.

I would like this to be addressed in some way on a group level next time we meet. I feel intensely uncomfortable about being in a room where it is not perfectly clear that using “black” or “African American” to refer to a hateful, harmful stereotype is not fine.

At the minimum, I would have liked for [my classmate] to be explicit about his assumptions; e.g., “I am terrified of black people and assume my life is in danger when I am near people who are African American.”

(end of my note)

I received notes back from two of the three teachers, one heartfelt and honest, making it clear that this teacher was also anguished about what had happened and about his failure to respond in the moment, and the other a brief note saying the matter will absolutely be dealt with at length in class. I appreciated both, but was put more at ease by the second, because I’d decided that if the matter wasn’t explicitly addressed on a group level, I would probably have to read my own note above aloud.

That evening was the monthly potluck at Thomas House, which was excellent. The executive director gave a few of us rides home. I asked the guy to my left in the back seat if he wanted a seat belt and he said, “I’m not interested in a seat belt—I want to be thrown clear.”

Then the guy on my right in the back seat said he also didn’t want a seat belt, causing the first guy to say, “Oh, he doesn’t want a seat belt? Then I do want one.”

We had two papers due before our November class (described above), and chapters to read in four books, plus several articles online to read. I felt a little stressed out trying to get this all done. In addition, my boss at work has taken a job elsewhere in the company, and I’ve inherited a couple of his duties, so work is busier, too. And now Laguna Honda is entering the picture. I started to wonder if this is going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and if I should not do it. I was thinking maybe I should just stick with the soup kitchen, which I don’t plan to leave, and continue to be a stealth chaplain there, but I have been wanting to volunteer at Laguna Honda for months now, and I’d like to practice being a real chaplain. I can always do fewer hours at the soup kitchen, plus my class won’t go on forever. It will end next July. Also, I can quit my job and be a full-time volunteer! I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “Don’t tell your father that.”