Thursday, October 08, 2015

Garlic, Part Two

The next day I happened to have my annual ob/gyn appointment. My doctor reviewed the electronic notes from the night before and exclaimed, “You have hepatitis!” I took a cab from there to the office of my primary care provider, Dr. C., and en route, I yawned and all of a sudden felt a stabbing pain in my throat, which ended up lasting for nine days.

I went over everything with Dr. C., who told me that one of my liver enzymes (AST) was three times the top normal level, and the other (ALT) was nearly five times the top normal level. She said I should have more blood drawn so they could determine what kind of hepatitis I had: C, which you get from the blood of someone who has it; B, which you get by having sex with someone who has it; or A, which you get by eating the feces of someone who has it. (I said “feces” because it sounds even more disgusting than “poop.”)

Of course F. and I both had STI testing done when we got together, and at that point, neither of us had any kind of hepatitis. Well, that is not quite true. We did have testing done, but it wasn’t in advance of, uh, spending quality time together. I figured (stupidly) that since neither of us had had a partner for a while and neither of us had symptoms of gonorrhea or anything like that, STI testing was more of a formality. Wrong, wrong, wrong! One of us could have had a dormant form of hepatitis and given it to the other. Should I have occasion to make that mistake ever again, I won’t. I am grateful to have avoided catastrophic results.

Prior to the exchanging of fluids, there must be full STI testing and there must be the seeing, with one’s own eyeballs, of a printout of the prospective partner’s test results.

Now, normally when I’m ill, I contact everyone I’ve ever met to tell them all about it so that they can worry and shower me with affection and so forth. However, I wasn’t exactly eager to announce that I had hepatitis. Oh, presumably this was hepatitis A, and how you can get that is by eating in a restaurant where a kitchen worker fails to wash his or her hands properly after visiting the restroom. My doctor said hepatitis A has been going around and that if people washed their hands after going to the bathroom and did their own cooking, there would be less of it.

Another reason I hadn’t already told a million people that I was having all these strange symptoms was that I felt kind of self-conscious about being sick again. I’ve had so many medical things over the years, including cancer, that I felt worried about my friends just getting tired of the whole thing. I felt that maybe I’d better just not say anything unless I got a firm diagnosis of something really awful.

So I had blood drawn on my way home from Dr. C.’s, and three days later, she called to say what kind of hepatitis I had: no kind. I did not have hepatitis. At this point, I might have started my communications campaign, but now was way too tired, having to lie down after every small exertion, plus my mouth was still horribly dry, my throat was killing me, and I felt itchy from head to toe, various areas at various times.

Dr. C. had taken a closer look at the CT scan from the emergency room and detected a thickening in my colon, possibly a touch of inflammatory colitis. She said the lymph nodes along my GI tract appeared to be swollen. Meanwhile, the lymph nodes in my neck were definitely swollen and aching. She said to go have more blood drawn, and if my liver enzymes were even higher, I would have another CT scan of my abdomen, to make sure nothing had been missed, and if they were lower, I’d have an ultrasound instead. She said maybe it was a gallstone that had already passed, or it might be an auto-immune thing, or one of any number of “weird little things.”

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Garlic, Part One

I am extremely fond of garlic and particularly enjoy greens sautéed with garlic and bouillon. Three or four times a week, I sauté a whole bunch of collard greens or dinosaur kale, using perhaps four cloves of garlic. This is a lot of garlic to mince, so I acquired a small electric grinder for processing the whole week’s supply of garlic all at once. It’s perfectly fine in a plastic container in the fridge; some like to add olive oil.

Then I read that it’s really best to eat garlic raw, and, for maximum health benefits, within 10 minutes of mincing or pressing it. A few months ago, I had a cold or some other symptom that the Internet suggested chewing and swallowing a raw clove of garlic for. I decided to give it a try and chewed up a whole clove of garlic, and, with my body screaming, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”, I swallowed it, to immediate and major ill effect.

That I will never do again, but after reading about the 10-minute thing, I decided to try mincing a clove of garlic and putting it on top of olive oil toast. This was not bad tasting and was tolerable to the stomach, but it also gave me a headache and a very dry mouth. I tried it again a couple of days later and the exact same thing happened. It actually seemed that this one clove of garlic had dried out my entire system, including my brain. I always drink a lot of water, but had to greatly step up my intake to try to ease my dry mouth.

So, raw garlic seems to be out, and it’s probably logistically impossible to eat garlic within 10 minutes of its being minced or pressed, since it takes me longer than that to prepare my scrumptious sautéed greens, but I figured it would be good if I minced garlic just before starting to cook my greens rather than to use garlic from the refrigerator that might have been minced several days prior, though I’m sure that’s still better than eating a doughnut.

Accordingly, I acquired a small version of an OXO chopper that I have found very satisfactory for nuts, and also a Garlic Twist, a really pleasing, very low-tech item made out of translucent plastic that you bang on your garlic clove to loosen the skin and then use to mince the garlic. This thing is brilliant and it works very well, but even freshly minced garlic was now seeming too strong.

Meanwhile, a fatigue had been creeping up on me, and for about a week, I had pain in my stomach after eating. Once that abated, I noticed a lot of bloating after eating and my appetite fell off markedly. Somewhere along in there, I had the two garlic-related episodes of dry mouth and headaches, and then I got even more tired, such that I could hardly get up a flight of stairs. I announced to F. that I was starting to look forward to getting a cancer diagnosis so I could lie in a hospital bed with a nice nurse to take care of me.

Then, on a Sunday afternoon when I’d drunk glass after glass of water still trying to get rid of my dry mouth, I noticed that my pee was pumpkin colored.

I looked online a bit and concluded that somehow I might have done something to my kidneys. I called my doctor’s office and got the number of the 24-hour nurse, who advised having it checked out that same day, either at urgent care or the emergency room. I went in a cab to the emergency room at Davies, which is a nice, calm place with no wait.

I felt unbelievably lousy and lying in a hospital bed with a nurse fussing over me was just as great as I’d pictured. The doctor came in and I told him my various symptoms. I could tell he thought I was a hypochondriac, which I am. He said the only thing he could really observe was perhaps a touch of malaise. They took a urine sample and pronounced it normal. I found out later that, despite the odd color, it was actually even better than normal, very dilute.

Then they drew some blood, and the doctor came in again, seeming much more engaged, and said there was nothing wrong with my kidneys, but there was something wrong with my liver. He asked if it hurt here or there in my abdomen, and if I’d noticed that the whites of my eyes were yellow. This I had not noticed, and in fact, the whites of my eyes and my skin were not yellow. The bilirubin in my blood was elevated enough to cause the weird pee color, but not enough to cause jaundice. The doctor sent me to have a CT scan with dye to see if there was a mass in my pancreas.

In the past couple of years, the father of a friend of mine died of pancreatic cancer, which has a poor prognosis. I lay on my comfy hospital bed reflecting that someone was going to come into the room and say either that I had a mass in my pancreas or that I didn’t. If the former, I was probably going to die, so I thought about what I needed to do before dying: make a will, so my sisters don’t pay a fortune in estate taxes. Find a top-notch home for Hammett. I’d want to spend my final weeks or months with my parents, lying in a La-Z-Boy in their media room. And that’s about it. I concluded I was ready to die, if necessary. Actually, I felt even a touch of relief at how simple life had (potentially) become.

Nonetheless, I was not displeased when the doctor came back and said I did not have a mass in either my liver or my pancreas and therefore I either had hepatitis or a gallstone. I took a cab home and called my father to report on the evening’s events. I was at the hospital from about 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. My father is up off and on around the clock and was awake when I called, though when I asked, “Are you awake?”, he answered, “Now I am,” because that’s the only correct answer to that question after a certain hour.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Just Do THIS

I’m noticing lately how many of my thoughts pertain to my immediate to-do list: I need to do this, then this, then this, as if I will forget to brush my teeth or have a cup of tea if I don’t remind myself several times. Thus I am oriented not in the present but almost the present—five minutes from now, but that isn’t good enough. Being lost in thoughts about five minutes from now is precisely the same as being lost in thoughts about 40 years from now or 40 years ago. Well, maybe thinking about five minutes from now is slightly more useful than thinking about 40 years hence, but both lack the freshness and vividness of being present in this moment.

I thought of the often-repeated meditation instruction to pay attention to “just this.” And how Ajahn Sumedho uses the formulation “ ___ is like this.” “Back pain is like this.” “Stress is like this.” It occurred to me that I needed another “this” formulation: Just do this. Not, just do this, but just do this.

I also see that there is a usually hidden view underlying my thoughts about what I need to do, namely that something bad will happen if I don’t get it done. That might be true, or it might not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Exact Procedures Pertaining to Icing

F. often participates in Diamond Dave’s Friday afternoon Internet radio show, at their studio in the Mission, and I sometimes join him for an hour or so. The whole show is three hours long and features a motley collection of poets, musicians, essayists and ad hoc ranters. One Friday late in July, I met F. at the radio station and then we had dinner at El Metate—he had never been there before and liked it—and went on to the soup kitchen for their open mic. A fellow known to both of us came along eating a cupcake and F. exclaimed over the profusion of icing; he doesn’t care for it. “Good,” said the man firmly. “You can keep your hands off it, then.” Later the same man turned up with a cookie and instructed, “You can treat this cookie the same way you treat my icing: stay away from it.”


As my apartment is an insect sanctuary, meaning that none is knowingly harmed, I found myself co-existing with a spider who had made her web on the window nearest my bed. (Are all spiders girls? I’m sure I’ve mentioned that when I was a child, my mother would tell me and my sisters, “Spiders are our friends and sisters.”)

One day there appeared in the web a spider larger than the webowner, and of disturbing appearance, with thickish legs and body, all or mostly a translucent pale yellow, as I recall. The first spider was a regular dark spider, not particularly beefy. Could this other spider have fallen prey to the first? It appeared entirely intact, but when F. blew gently in the direction of the web, the first spider twitched, but the second didn’t: dead.

Yet the next day, the second spider was entirely gone. It seemed unlikely that the first spider could have consumed every fragment of it already, since there were still remnants in the web of other tiny creatures left over from days or weeks before. No, this second spider, employing notable malevolence, had played dead when F. performed his test, and was now elsewhere in my apartment waiting to walk on my eyelid in the night.

I decided the charm of co-existing with a spider had worn off and took it out to a large planter box in front of my apartment building, then wiped the web off the window.

Next I turned my attention to the fruit flies that were swarming out of the compost bin when one lifted the lid to make a deposit and generally hanging around in that area. They didn’t really bother me, but the compost bin is not far from the back door of the apartment under mine, and its inhabitants didn’t like getting a face full of little flying creatures every time they came out of their door, and so installed a chemical bug-killing device.

I offered to see if I could find something less toxic at Rainbow and found a product that was made specifically for this and which initially worked remarkably well, but after a while, the fruit flies were back to being out of control. I’m not sure if this is because not everyone was sprinkling the product on top of his or her compostable materials, as a handsome nearby sign, made and laminated by myself, recommends, or if after a while, the fruit flies got used to the stuff and returned to vigorous reproduction. I told the downstairs neighbors I’d go back to the drawing board and experimented with sprinkling in cinnamon or powdered ginger. This caused the fruit flies to scatter right away, but the next day I would find just as many there as the day before.

A couple of days ago, I soaked two cotton balls with tea tree oil and hung them over the lid of the compost bin and that seems to be working excellently. I can see live things strolling around in there when I open the bin, but no creature comes flying out. As an auxiliary measure, I plan to make a spray of eucalyptus oil, witch hazel and water to leave by the bin.


My three favorite words: vermin, goiter and fritz, as in the TV is on the fritz.


I passed that place the other day where I took the puddle photos and saw it still was a puddle. There must be some sort of drainage issue there that makes the place permanently wet. Maybe I had better keep the exact location to myself in case I have to drink that water someday.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Breaking Together

In the final issue of Inquiring Mind, Larry Yang of the East Bay Meditation Center (in Oakland, a short stroll from the 19th St. BART station, it appears) writes about forming a very diverse sangha. He says a few things that I thought were nicely applicable to romantic relationships, as well, or any kind of relationship: “When differences arise, our conditioned response is to fragment. What would it be like, even in the complexity, even in the injury, even in the harm—to break together rather than to break apart? … We may not have the skills yet, or the awareness, or even the kindness, but that will come if we have that intention of not leaving the room. This is where peace begins.”

And this: “When we work with people who hold different views and/or life experiences, it often takes longer than we think it should and carries more contradictions than we would like. We need to remember that what matters is not what we think or what we like: it is how we are with each other.”

And: “Injuries still occur, but by navigating the suffering over and over again we break through thoughts that we are unable to create a sangha together or that we do not have enough resources to do it or that we are not good enough to deserve it.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

Us Day

I guess now that we’ve made it past the six-month mark, I can mention my darling, handsome, funny, romantic, artistic new gentleman companion, F.

Places we’ve eaten at that were new to me:

Taqueria San Jose. Mission near 24th St. Good burritos at good prices.

La Taqueria. 25th St. and Mission. This is supposed to be the best taqueria in the entire country. They don’t believe in rice or tofu. Their burrito is basically a big pile of meat wrapped in a flour tortilla. The meat in the one I had was rather tough, but flavorful. They don’t serve chips with their burritos, but you can order them on the side. The chips come with a huge amount of wet salsa dumped on top and quickly become soggy. We haven’t gone back there, but probably will at some point.

Heung Yuen. 22nd St. between Valencia and Mission. A favorite of F.’s for several years and now a favorite of mine. Tasty Chinese food served with alacrity by very pleasant people, at excellent prices. I particularly like their garlic eggplant and a pepper beef chow fun dish.

Roosevelt Tamale Parlor. 24th St. however many blocks east of Mission. A place F. had remembered fondly from decades ago. We had a nice time there, but haven’t been back. It’s dark and small and relatively expensive, meaning more than the $8-15 per person we usually spend for dinner.

Teriyaki (not sure if that’s its actual name, but that’s what it says out front). Potrero between 16th and 15th  streets. F. eats here regularly. The California rolls are good, ditto their prices. 

Mekong Kitchen. 18th St. a bit east of Castro. Neither of us liked what we had very much and it was kind of expensive. 

Ali Baba’s Cave, at the corner of Valencia and 19th St. Mediterranean food. The hummus was smooth and wonderful. The falafels were hard as rock. F. had some sort of chicken wrap that he didn’t care for.

In other dining news, my chaplaincy class buddy and I tried Old Jerusalem, on Mission between 25th and 26th streets, which we both absolutely loved. Delicious, fresh Mediterranean food. We also tried Baobab, on 18th St. east of Mission, which we both hated. African food. Everything we had was yucky. We also didn’t like The Front Porch, on 29th St. off Mission, which serves Southern food. It was quite expensive and the chicken was flavorless once you got past the coating. Now and then, I’ve come upon references to boiled peanuts and always thought they sounded wonderful. They are repulsive. At The Front Porch, anyway, they are boiled in the shell and when you open the shell, you have liquid everywhere, and the soggy texture of the peanuts is exceeded in unpleasantness only by the horrible flavor. 

Now, here is what would probably be good, just off the top of my head: roasted, salted peanuts heated in avocado oil and topped with mayonnaise. Yes, I just thought that up all by myself! By the way, I bought a jar of mayonnaise made with avocado oil yesterday, which I thought was going to be awful, but I think it will be perfectly satisfactory. It tastes good. The brand is Primal Kitchen. Its not organic because apparently there is hardly any such thing as organic avocado oil, but the eggs, egg yolks and vinegar are all organic.

This past Friday evening, my chaplaincy buddy and I went to Yamo, a hole in the wall on 18th St. just west of Mission where they serve Burmese food. It was delicious and very inexpensive, but when we left, our glasses were coated with a sticky film of grease. We understood then why so many people were getting their food to go, though that the place literally seats only seven people may also have something to do with that.

Tom and I tried Burma Love, on Valencia St. not far from Market, which has a clean, modern feel. The service was great and the food was good, but I didn’t find the main thing I was hoping for, which was fantastic garlic noodles, now that the Valencia St. location of Sunflower has closed. The garlic noodles at Burma Love were about one fourth as good as Sunflower’s, but cost twice as much. The best thing at Burma Love was an appetizer of garlic shrimp, which was delectable. Twelve dollars for eight shrimp.

Places F. and I have eaten at that I had already eaten at: La Cumbre, Esperpento, La Santaneca de la Mission, Café Ethiopia, and We Be Sushi; he took me to the latter for my birthday. My favorite meal at Esperpento lately is roasted potatoes with aioli, and garlic shrimp. F. and I have also been to several potlucks at Thomas House together, hosted by the community that runs the soup kitchen.

Other things we have done: Visit Pittsburg. Take a beautiful drive, on another day, along River Road between Pittsburg and Sacramento. Go to the Alameda County Fair to see Tower of Power. Go to AT&T Park for Opera at the Ballpark: The Marriage of Figaro simulcast from the opera house. Go swimming at Lodi Lake. Go to a summer evening party hosted by Steve and Julie in Sacramento. Visit various parks and Ocean Beach. Visit a large abandoned shipyard. Cook and eat meals together. He makes wonderful eggs and many different kinds of potatoes, and we have had several dinners of baked salmon and veggies with fruit for dessert, using my father’s baked salmon recipe.

We’ve seen some movies: Magic Mike XXL, which I liked a lot. I liked the first one, too, particularly Matthew McConaughey. He’s not in the sequel, but it’s very respectful of women, of women of size, of African-Americans. It has some genuinely lovely messages. Prior to that, we saw Spy, which we both liked, and, at the Castro Theatre, we saw Double Indemnity. We also saw the heartbreaking documentary about Amy Winehouse. Beforehand, I played F. both of her CDs, so he’d have some familiarity with her music. We watched all of season three of House of Cards (streaming from Amazon), and now we’re watching season one, which he had not seen before. Plot points that escaped me the first time through are now much clearer.

On my birthday, F. and I were at a bus stop at Castro and 18th and some people came along and said it was name tag day—would we care for name tags? F. said he would like one if it could say “Us” on it. I got the same thing and we received an “Awww!” or two as we made our way from place to place that pleasant afternoon.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Final Chaplaincy Class

Hammett’s thyroid medication, which is applied to his ear morning and night in the form of gel, seems to have set him right. As of two months ago (yes, I’ve fallen woefully behind here) he had gained back 44 percent of the weight he’d lost, and his thyroid is completely normal again, also his kidneys. For a while there, I could easily feel the bones in his little spine, but not any more, and he seems calm and happy. Weirdly, he’s producing a lot more fur than he ever has before. I could go months without combing him for the first many years of his life, but now he generates a big clump of hair weekly.

In early July my final chaplaincy class at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood City met. At our yummy potluck lunch, I sat next to one of our teachers, who asked if I plan to continue with chaplaincy. I told him I have decided not to, as I don’t want to learn about a lot of different religions. He mildly said that wasn’t necessarily required—if a hospital patient needs a priest, you fetch a priest, though he immediately followed that by saying there are a number of things non-priests can do in a pinch, such as baptisms. That’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to do. Instead, I’ll continue to be a stealth chaplain at the soup kitchen and in life.

Generally, it’s my custom to start things and then drop out, but at our first class, we did a ritual where we wrote down a word that expressed our biggest challenge in completing the course and gave the pieces of paper to our teachers, who promised to make our difficulties magically disappear. My word was “fickleness” and their magic worked. I feel great about having completed the entire class, including attending every session, turning in every writing assignment on time, completing the requested 100 hours of volunteering, and reading every word of the book assignments—I appear to have been the only student who did this. I also read every word of the online assignments until the final month, excluding five or six extremely long and scholarly articles. In some months, there were 15 or 20 things to read online.

They’ve been teaching this class for several years now and the teachers said that ours was the only group to date that didn’t have someone drop out mid-course. I gather it was also the first group that had the kind of brouhaha we did, over the evidently racist remark. Every one of us hung in there through that whole process, and we emerged with good feeling all around. It seems that that difficulty actually cemented us together. However we felt at different times, none of us left the room.

This class was a tremendous experience—I will never forget my wonderful fellow students—and what I learned comes in handy every day. At a recent Thomas House potluck, I was sitting next to a woman who has been through quite a number of difficult experiences in the past year, as has her husband, and I listened in the way that has now become familiar to me. Afterward, she said something like, “Thank you for listening to me so kindly, with such caring and patience.” I wasn’t seeking a compliment, and I also wasn’t particularly trying to be kind, caring or patient, though I suppose that’s better than trying to be mean, heartless and hurried. I was listening to every word and also tracking my own visceral experience, so that I remained present; that’s all. I didn’t give advice, but now and then, I said “That sounds awful” or “You have been through a lot.”

Periodically Mission Dharma offers an introduction to insight meditation class, taught by two senior students. Earlier in the summer, Howie invited me to co-teach one of these classes for the first time. It met in the church’s library on five consecutive Thursday nights. Anne and I had 15 people sign up, plus a few on the waiting list, though after the first night’s full house, about eight people showed up weekly, not always the same eight.

I gave talks on mindfulness, the five hindrances, and the Noble Eightfold Path. In between, Anne gave talks on the Four Noble Truths and on metta. I wrote my talks out word for word, though I tried to deliver them without staring at the piece of paper. These were my first official dharma talks ever, and I figured they wouldn’t be the world’s best talks, but decided that if one person heard one helpful thing, that would be good enough, and the feedback I got indicates that was the case. In addition, I myself benefited tremendously from having to rethink what I believe and understand, and then having to research to fill in the gaps.

I most often consulted Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein, which is an absolutely splendid book. Getting to give these talks was also an opportunity to pass on my favorite quotes from various dharma books and teachers, gleaned over these 25 years.

A friend asked why writing the talks was so helpful to me. This is how I answered her:

I had managed to get along without thinking often of the first thing the Buddha taught after his own enlightenment: The Four Noble Truths. 1) There is suffering in life: sickness, old age, death, not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want. 2) Suffering has causes: grasping and aversion, to employ the most commonly used terms—trying to get something, trying to get something to go away—and ignorance: not seeing clearly how things are, or seeing how things are but not understanding them. 3) If suffering has causes, then there must be an end to suffering. 4) The path to the end of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path:

Right View: Understanding the first three noble truths.

Right Thought: Inclining toward thoughts of good will rather than thoughts of ill will or grasping.

Right Speech: That which is true, kind, useful, timely.

Right Action: Not physically harming living beings, not stealing, not causing harm with our sexuality.

Right Livelihood: Not causing harm with our work.

Right Effort: Encouraging wholesome (e.g., kind or generous) states of mind to arise and persist; discouraging unwholesome states of mind from arising; once an unwholesome state of mind has arisen, encouraging it not to persist.

Right Mindfulness: Mindfulness of the sort that leads to understanding.

Right Concentration: The steadying of the mind that comes from practicing mindfulness which, besides being calming and pleasant in and of itself, allows the sustained observation (mindfulness) that leads to insight, which is what ultimately liberates us from suffering, not our efforts to get rid of suffering.

Suffering: Besides what is listed above for the First Noble Truth, the very states of grasping and aversion themselves and the effects of the speech and action that can arise from these mental states. And that’s what fell into place while writing my three talks.

I thought all the time about mindfulness and of course tried to be mindful, but didn’t think enough about the causes of suffering, let alone about the Noble Eightfold Path. Now I am reminding myself frequently: grasping causes suffering. Aversion causes suffering. In fact, grasping is suffering, and aversion is suffering.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


(Click photos to enlarge.)

(Yes, we will have words here again one of these days.)