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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I started looking into the ten hours a month of volunteering required by the Sati Center chaplaincy program. In my phone interview, I asked Jennifer if the soup kitchen counts and she said cheerfully, “Everything counts!” But the main place you might see a chaplain is a hospital, so we’re encouraged at least to go shadow a hospital chaplain for a shift or two. I’ve long wanted to volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital, so I contacted Sojourn Chaplaincy, but their training program starts with three weeks full time and goes from there. I don’t have even one vacation day left unscheduled for this year, so that will not be possible.

On to Laguna Honda, another public hospital, where I spoke to the spiritual care coordinator, Bob. I told him I was in the Sati Center program, and he said I was welcome to volunteer there. The training would be informal, except that every volunteer must attend a general orientation session, which they do only once a month, and the next opening was not until January! I found this out from the volunteer coordinator, and called Bob back to let him know, and he talked to the volunteer coordinator, and they will try to get me into the October session, or November for sure.

I’m doing ten hours a month at the soup kitchen, so I don’t really need to do anything else, but I’d like to volunteer at a hospital, perhaps one evening a week, two or three hours.


A few weeks ago, I got a call from my best friend when I was 13, Mark. In the course of a 20-minute conversation, I learned that four people had died, three of them known to me: his mother, with whom I was friends in my teens; one of his two brothers; his father, whom I never met; and a classmate of ours, who committed suicide a couple of years ago, leaving behind three adorable children about five to eight years old. It was her children who found her body. Mark’s brother, who lived quite a rough and rebellious life, died a couple of months ago while living with their father in Chico, and while Mark was out here because his brother had died, his father died, too.

Mark said that he was coming out again, this time to scatter his brother’s and father’s ashes, and that his plane would be landing at 6:15 p.m. and then he and his remaining brother, Doug, would rush over to Golden Gate Park to play Frisbee golf, a venerable brotherly tradition, until it got dark, and then might we meet at the Toronado Bar in the Haight? I somewhat reluctantly agreed, as it seemed likely this might cause me to be outside my apartment after 8 p.m., and on the appointed evening, I didn’t hear from Mark until just about that magical hour. I was sitting in my chair reading Brideshead Revisited, and I said to myself, “I herewith declare I will not leave this house,” but when Mark said rather plaintively on the phone, “I just wanted to say hello,” I couldn’t bring myself to refuse. After all, he was my best friend once upon a time, and I hadn’t seen him in about 35 years. He comes this way from time to time, but stays with Doug in San Jose, and they normally only venture into San Francisco for Frisbee golf.

I went out to Valencia St. and hailed a cab and went to the Toronado Bar, which is a totally horrible place (though I’m sure beloved by its regulars). It was very loud and very, very crammed with people. I went in and looked around for Mark, Doug and Gabe, the latter being the best friend of the brother who died. I made my way through the entire bar and didn’t see anyone who could plausibly be Mark and Doug 35 years later, and was relieved to be out on the sidewalk again. It was now 15 minutes past the time we said we’d meet, and I almost wondered if they had come and gone, but no, here came two large, solid gentlemen and one small, elfin, very beautiful one with olive skin, this being Gabe. I would never, ever have recognized Mark. Doug looked a bit more familiar, but maybe that’s because I saw him on Facebook during my brief stint there a few years ago.

They stuck their heads in the bar and decided we should go eat instead, so we went around the corner to Squat & Gobble and had a riotous good time. Mark’s eyes are clear and he seems happy and relaxed. He has an infectious laugh, and is very affectionate. He frequently threw his arms around his brother and rested his forehead on his brother’s arm and said, “I love you, bro,” and just as often, one of them said to the other, “Shut the f*ck up! That’s not what happened! I was there! You weren’t. I think I know what happened!” Mark is easygoing. Doug, like me, likes things to be a certain way. They are very funny together.

Mark asked me, “Do you remember the time we smoked pot and you were lying in our driveway saying you thought your throat was going to close?” This I did not remember, but hearing Mark’s recollection of this event, I laughed harder than I have in ten years, probably. We were extremely ill-behaved teenagers. Now that I think about it, I’m sure I behaved worse than I might otherwise have, due to spending so much time with those crazy young men.

Mark, I’m happy to say, came out just fine. He stayed home with his and his wife’s three daughters, as his wife had the better job, and now that their girls are college age and older, he works, and bicycles, and plays Frisbee golf, and skis, and has dogs, and goes here and there with his wife. It sounds like he has a really nice life, full of things and people he loves.

Monday, September 22, 2014

I Ain’t Gonna Tell Nobody

I started reading How Can I Help?, the first of four chaplaincy books to arrive at Modern Times, and at first I didn’t care for it. It seemed hippie-ish and overly general and self-evident, but not far into it, I came upon something that really struck me: “Implicit in any model of who we think we are is a message to everyone about who they are. … The more you think of yourself as a ‘therapist,’ the more pressure there is on someone to be a ‘patient.’ … You’re buying into, even juicing up, precisely what people who are suffering want to be rid of: limitation, dependency, helplessness, separateness.”

The book is liberally studded with anecdotes and personal reflections. A few pages later was one woman’s story about a homeless woman she came to love so much that she eventually considered inviting the woman to live with her. She wrote about doing everything she could in her capacity as social services worker, but it wasn’t enough, and the woman finally said, “You know, dear, there’s nothing you can do for me anymore.” One evening, they sat together in silence in a rainy park as night fell, and the social services woman never saw her friend again. I could all too easily imagine that being me and Billy, and I cried and cried reading it.

My shift at the soup kitchen has a peculiarity, as I may have mentioned, which is that besides fetching second bowls of soup for those with mobility problems, we fetch second bowls of soup for everyone. Some volunteer just started doing this, and it stuck, and now every server/busser for this shift does the same thing. Most guests are pleased and grateful, a handful say, “I’ll get it,” and one or two, you can tell, are offended, which is probably because they feel they are being treated as if they aren’t capable of standing in line for another bowl of soup or of taking their empty bowl to the bussing station. Of course that is not our intention. It’s because we want our guests to know that they are not only welcome, they are special and they are loved.

I now know who the people are who always say, “I can do it,” and I don’t approach them, but I bump into this over and over with Dennis, who walks with a cane. I most particularly want to do something for him, because I really, really like him, but he most particularly doesn’t want people doing things for him. It must translate to him as, “I see you’re a cripple and that you can’t do this.” I should have gotten that before, but now, reading this book, it has sunk in completely, and I’m going to try not to offer to fetch Dennis anything anymore.

The soup kitchen serves Sunday brunch, with regular volunteers for the first through fourth Sundays of each month. When a month has a fifth Sunday, they post a sign-up sheet for the 7-11 a.m. shift. I’m thinking about becoming a fourth Sunday volunteer, so I thought I’d do the fifth Sunday in August and see how it went before committing. I met several new people, all very nice, and spent maybe an hour unwrapping sliced bread and putting it onto big trays. Then I asked the crew chief if I could go hang out in the yard with the guests, and she agreed enthusiastically. I saw several regulars, though not Dennis or Billy.

The crowd was extremely light, and we were able to start serving a bit early. When the volunteer started calling numbers—“Up to 10, up to 20,” and so forth—a large man seated in a wheelchair and wearing a puffy fake fur vest, yelled, “Oh, hell no! It’s not supposed to start for 22 minutes.” Nonetheless, he wheeled over toward the door and the volunteer told him, “She’ll help you get lunch,” meaning me, and I accompanied the man inside. We were serving pasta with tomato sauce, salad, and fruit, and the man brayed, “Pasta only, lady! Pasta only, lady!” There were several women behind the counter, evidently used to this fellow and even fond of him; they smiled at him. One asked, “Would you like salad?” and he yelled even louder, “Pasta only, lady!”

I asked where he’d like to sit, and he said, “Outside, by the gate. You can wheel me.” With some effort, I got us over the bump in the doorway and outside, where the man began yelling, “I ain’t gonna tell nobody! I ain’t gonna tell nobody!”, which translated to, “It’s my hope you’ll take the initiative to get out of the way when you see I’m approaching.”

I joked, “We’ll see if we can pick up some speed,” and he said severely, “Don’t pick up no speed!” When we got near the gate, he stepped out of the wheelchair and walked smartly to his spot.


Later that day, Tom and I went to Dolores Park for a performance of the S. F. Mime Troupe. Charlie from Howie’s had said he might be there, and indeed he did come along and join us. It was hot and sunny, but the show was good.