Thursday, October 28, 2010

Somatic Experiencing

Last Thursday evening, I went to the Zen Center to meditate, have dinner, and attend the fourth session of a class I have not yet mentioned, but which has been very beneficial so far. It’s called Trauma and Zen Practice: A Somatic Approach to Studying the Self. I read the description a few times without thinking it would be up my alley, and then noticed it was based on the work of Peter Levine. A close friend was recently describing this and seems to have found great value in it, so I decided to go ahead and take the class, taught by Jane Lazar with assistance from Patricia, a Novato therapist.

The focus, rather than on sharing the details of particular difficulties, is on learning the theory behind Somatic Experiencing, and mostly on apprehending and practicing related skills.

Over the past week or so, I was noting the fruits of having sat with so much fear (re quitting and unquitting my job), including more openness to others and a stronger sense of shared humanity—a greater appreciation for the simple company of those I see each day, even if I don’t know them well or even speak to them. I now feel inspired anew to turn as fully as possible to whatever comes up in meditation, so I was interested by last week’s class discussion of “pendulation,” where you sense directly some physical or emotional pain, and then turn your attention to some part of your body where you are experiencing ease, relaxation or pleasure. (If there is no such part of your body at the moment, you can use something you can see for the pleasant part, some soothing or beautiful sight.)

Then, as the spirit moves, using whatever timing seems right, you “pendulate” back and forth, which our teachers said is is a way of gently and subtly rocking your nervous system so it doesn’t get stuck in either the on or off position. I’m far from an expert on this, but I would guess that if you’re stuck in the on position, you might be angry, wired, manic, agitated, or at least tense, and maybe if you’re stuck in the off position, you’re depressed or frozen.

I said I have found it very worthwhile to sit with discomfort and see that sooner or later it changes. Sometimes it even changes into something extremely pleasurable. (It can take literally days, but it’s fairly miraculous when it finally happens.) I wondered how that fit with pendulating—if I were to turn away from the pain to something more agreeable, would that shut off the possibility of experiencing that organic transformation?

The response was that both approaches have value, and where you might want to turn from bare attention to pendulation is when things get so intense that you lose your inner compassionate observer. I would think that by the time you get to that point, it might be too late to do anything constructive at all, so it might be better to turn to pendulation when you can see you’re heading for that cliff’s edge (just my thoughts there).

It was suggested that if you notice activation in your body, you can turn your attention to those sensations and see if they begin to change or ease up. If not, you can try grounding—noticing how the earth is supporting you, particularly feeling touch points such as your feet on the floor or your butt on the cushion or chair. You can also center yourself, by literally feeling your center—your hara—or noticing if your body is basically aligned and balanced.

Then there’s orienting, which I’d never heard of, but which our teachers have said is particularly useful. In orienting, you look around freely, moving your head and/or torso as desired, just noticing what’s around you. If you see something it gives you pleasure to rest your eyes on, you can hang out there and notice any positive physical sensations that might arise. In general, they said to be alert to any benefits that any of these practices bring.

I’ve been practicing pendulation since last week's class and made an interesting discovery, which is that the moment I’m aware of activation, I’m immediately eager to do the part where I turn to something more pleasant. After it happened four or five times in a row, I realized that, when not formally meditating, it must be my habit always to retreat quickly from the unpleasant, either trying to rationalize it away, getting lost in a story about it (often the story of how very right I am), or acting it out.

This is great to see because now that I know I am permitted to turn away from the feeling to something more pleasant as desired, I can be braver about staying with it, and I have noticed another thing: now that I’m noticing more about what’s happening physically, I can benefit from the messages my body sends about what to do and not. A few times in the past few days, I’ve been writing an email, for instance, and everything is humming along fine, and then I start a new paragraph and can very clearly feel a sort of “I don’t think this is a good idea” feeling in my belly, which tells me my intention may have strayed from the helpful and constructive. I'm sure that feeling has been there tens of thousands of times to date, and not noticed an equal number of times.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Date with Placido

Today I had a very long chat on the phone with Carol Joy, and then I went to the Mission Creek Café to have lunch and play a game of chess with a friend. We were quite evenly matched, making a similar number of boneheaded mistakes. (I won, but just barely.)

My chess buddy gave me a ride over to the hospice facility afterwards, where I met E. for the first time. She is 88 and entirely alert and communicative. She can hear and see well, and gave perfectly lucid accounts of much that has happened to her, including the tremendous losses of just the past couple of weeks. I liked her very much right away.

She wants with all her heart to see Placido Domingo at the San Francisco Opera on November 6. She said that she normally just buys tickets for the particular performances she’s interested in, but this season, you were required to buy a season ticket or nothing (she thinks that was to capitalize on the appearance of the big star), so she bought the season ticket, but has been to only two performances so far.

She was on her way to the opera when she ended up in the hospital instead, and then in hospice.

Two friends of hers have taken her dog to live with them and their dog. E. said she has a group of friends praying for her, a group praying that the two dogs will learn to get along well, and a final group praying that she makes it to the show on November 6. I asked her what she wanted me to pray for, and she said I could take my pick.

I said, “I kind of like the idea of you getting to see Domingo, so I think I’ll work on that,” and she said, “Good—that’s the one I care about the most.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010


I'm way behind when it comes to photos, so here are some. Starting with the most recent, this is me and K. in Sebastopol today, as you will see if you make the photo enormous and squint terribly.

This is Mac, Tom's mother's husband, at Tom's 50th birthday party. When Steve sent the invites, he asked us to RSVP so they'd know "how many kazoos and love beads to buy." The instruction at this party, as first uttered by Jim (pictured farther down), was to "Bead up!"

Steve (Tom's brother) and Ann (Tom's mother).

The birthday gentleman himself.

Jim, a friend of Tom's family. Jim is a runner, and at one party, we were discussing running shoes. "What are those shoes with the N on them?" he asked. I said I didn't know. Some while later, Jim pointed to the shoes I was wearing at that very moment, which had the telltale N on them: New Balance.

Exclusive photo of Howie!

Ocean Beach the day I walked there with my co-worker Emily.

Hammett's darling little arm.

I had to miss this trip to Lake Tahoe and so don't know who took this photo (likely Steve), but it's of Paul (another of Tom's brothers) and Chris (Paul's son).

Ann at home, with Sophia on her lap. Ann is an accomplished pianist.

Mac at home.


A stealthy self portrait.

A blatant self portrait. I don't know if Ann has recognized this as her bathroom. For some reason, every time I go in there, I feel like taking my own picture; I guess it's that vast expanse of mirror. (This was a few months ago; my hair disappeared again later.)

Tom in his "50" glasses and "Older is better" necklace. I wish he'd been able to cheer up a little.

Seriously Drenched in Sebastopol

Today I went, in a City CarShare car, to Sebastopol to visit K.

The drive up there was beautiful, all the shades of green and brown and blue. I got to meet K.’s parents and his younger brother and see where he lives. We took a walk in Armstrong Woods among the redwoods, at first trying to avoid the puddles, but once our feet were thoroughly wet—it was pouring rain—we just went ahead and walked right through water inches deep.

After the tranquility of being among the giant trees, we went back to K.'s house for dry clothes; he lent me some socks and a pair of his own shoes, helping himself to a pair of his brother's. I asked if the owner of those shoes was going to come along and be chagrined to find them absent and K. executed an impressively high kick and said,
If he does, I'll kick him with one of them, which struck me as comical, the notion of kicking someone with his own shoe.

Then we had lunch at a Thai place in Sebastopol and went back to K.'s house so I could return his shoes and socks, and then I came home in the second-worst deluge I’ve ever been in on a freeway. (The worst ever was in St. Louis, while driving across the country with one of my sisters.)

The trip home on 101 was absolutely glorious: the window down, my arm hanging out, the rain blowing in, the Drowning Pool at a deafening volume, all those things I can't, or don't, do when anyone else is in the car, though Tom is extremely indulgent about letting me have my window all the way down on the freeway, even at night when it's freezing, and he's also nice about loud music, but I don't usually inflict both on him at once, and if loud music is the order of the day, it's not as loud as it would be if I were by myself.

On our way to Armstrong Woods, I realized we were going to pass within half a mile of the house of my friend Alix, who I haven’t seen in a handful of years. She is not good about returning calls, cards or emails, so I’ve been faithfully sending her a birthday card each year and leaving her a voice mail now and then, but half wondering if she's thinking, “My god, how do I get rid of this stalker?”

At first I thought I would just call her from in front of her house, though K. was of the opinion that that would be weirder than knocking on her door out of the blue, but I couldn’t remember her number (I can still remember the phone number I had 41 years ago, and I once had Alix’s number memorized, so I had every expectation of still knowing it), so I was forced to knock, and got to see Alix’s dear beloved face briefly. She assured me that she is happy to hear from me every time.

At the Thai restaurant, we chose vegetarian dishes on my account, and I said to K. that if he was feeling the lack of animal protein, we could stop at the corner store afterwards and get him some jerky, but before I could say the word “jerky,” he said, “flank.” He has a delightful sense of humor.

The work situation seemed less dire by the end of the week. It turns out that a bad thing I thought was going to happen may not happen, after all, though there is an ongoing situation that will continue to require much care. (I have another post more or less on this subject sitting on another computer and will put it up if it still makes sense when I see it again).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Serious Online Trashtalk

It has been a rather harrowing week in these parts. On Monday morning, after a sequence of events that began last Friday and will not be recounted here, I snapped and resigned from my job, which I’ve had for 12 years, giving the standard two-week notice in an extremely polite note to my boss.

I felt exhilarated for the rest of the workday, and then in the evening, I was stricken with grief: my job is gone! That became fairly strong fear, which persisted for several horrible sleepless hours. At 3 a.m., I got up, logged onto my work laptop, and sent my boss, three time zones to the east, an unresignation request, which did not end the fear, just changed its subject matter.

When I sent my unresignation notice, my boss hadn’t yet responded to my resignation, but when I logged on again about 7:30 Tuesday morning, there was his reply: “Accepted.” Yikes! I called and left a voice mail, and sent a company IM asking if he’d seen my second note. He had, and he was working with HR to see if my resignation could be rescinded.

My resignation could indeed be rescinded, and several hours later, Tuesday afternoon, it was, but not without rather severe repercussions to myself, some of which were entirely justified and others that seemed much less so.

The fear briefly abated when I found out I was re-employed, then flared back up, so that by Tuesday evening, I’d felt frightened for what seemed like 24 continuous hours.

I think that little peek into the moneyless abyss must have shaken some ground that I’m in the (erroneous) habit of thinking of as firm, and reminded me of everything else I must sooner or later let go of: my loved ones, my health, my life. My cat!

At the end of the workday, it was once again time to decide: Howie’s, Paul’s class, or take Swedish visitors out to dinner? There were no Swedish visitors in sight, which eased the decision-making process. I decided that it would be nice to spend an evening at the Zen Center, which is increasingly a place of refuge for me, and did that. I sat in the zendo (where I felt afraid), sat at dinner with a few familiar folks, and went to Paul’s class for the first time (where I felt afraid).

After I got home, I called Tom and asked if I could report on my 24 hours, and he kindly listened. He’s such a fantastic friend.

Then I pondered how I might most constructively proceed at work in the near term, seeking to sort out what I can control and what I can’t, and what kind of help I might need. I contacted two former bosses and asked if I could speak with them about how best to navigate the current situation, and both agreed right away. Some things I am powerless over, but there are many choices that are mine to make, for good or ill.

Thank goodness, by Wednesday morning, I’d gotten a good night’s sleep, and arrived at work full of enthusiasm for doing my best. I still felt vaguely uneasy, but the fear was gone. I received some good work-related advice from Emily, and also from David C. in Seattle, and saved both in my email inbox so I can review now and then. I found myself really enjoying the day, happy to speak with those I’m entrusted with assisting, happy to help.

In the course of telling 37 people that I’d resigned, and later that I’d unresigned—I didn’t know I even knew 37 people who would need to know this kind of thing right away!—I had occasion to mention that I would like to have a job that I care about, that I can do with my whole heart. (Not that anything is stopping me from doing this job with my whole heart.) In particular, I think I would like to do hospice work full time, perhaps as a medical social worker.

During the day, a woman I used to sit near stopped by and told me that her very best girlfriend has been diagnosed, out of the blue, with medium-stage stomach cancer—one day, as far as she knew, she was perfectly fine, and the next, she was officially very ill. My co-worker came to me because of what I said in my note about quitting my job—she knew it would be fine to talk to me about her very ill friend.

She went on to reflect on how she’s getting to the age where people are likely to have health issues, and I could see she was rattled, understandably so. I was in the perfect mood to empathize completely, and in turn appreciated the reminder that I’m not alone in feeling scared, whatever the particular fear might be.

After I spoke with my co-worker, my hospice volunteer coordinator told me she has a new person for me to visit. As it happens, this woman was also going about an active life thinking she was perfectly fine. On her way out for an evening of entertainment, she collapsed, went to the hospital, was diagnosed with the exact same thing my co-worker’s friend was diagnosed with, and is now in hospice.

So: two good reminders of the fleeting nature of—everything.

I’m grateful for this horrid week, overall. It showed me how attached I am in some areas, and how much anguish that can cause. It made me think about what I can do better at work.

In the resigning phase, I received many congratulations, and in the unresigning phase, nice expressions of understanding for my predicament and support for taking care of myself, whether that means leaving the job or asking for it back, plus some rather funny emails from people who have made, or almost made, the same mistake. (One woman wrote, "I once did the very same thing myself. What scared the crap out of me was when I came home and told my husband what I had done!!!")

I was reminded about the vast sea of love and care I live in. And it even let my co-worker know who she could talk to about her sick friend.

When I told my mother I’d chickened out of leaving my job, she said via email: “OK. Whatever you say! Quitting and unquitting isn't that bad, not like sabotage or serious online trashtalk.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Severely Edited Post

This past Saturday was a one-day sit at the Zen Center. It’s nice to go there Friday after work, sit in the zendo, stay for dinner, and try to line up one’s preferred chair for the next day. In particular, it’s fun to identify others who will be doing the day of meditation and get an initial feeling of esprit de corps which carries into the next morning and imparts a congenial feel to the effort. However, I decided that sleep was more crucial than trying to get my hands on the right chair (i.e., one of the two smaller black chairs) and correspondingly retired just before 8 p.m.—and then lay awake until 12:30 a.m.

Therefore, I might as well go back to Plan A for future one-day sits.

I got up at 4:20 a.m. on Saturday, fed Hammett, did a bit of stretching, and took a cab to the Zen Center. I like to give the driver $20 for this $6 trip so that even if the whole rest of the day is lousy, I can have the pleasure of remembering that moment of generosity.

The whole day was not in fact lousy, though it’s hard to know what criteria to use: If I’m in terrible physical or emotional pain, is that a lousy day or a great day? If I decided to go home in the middle of it, would that necessarily be bad? (Phillip Moffitt once told me that leaving a period of intensive practice in the middle may turn out to have been the wisest thing to do.)

It’s hard to avoid seeing a day with pleasurable feelings as a good day and the reverse as the reverse—it’s only human—but who’s to say what will ultimately bring more benefit? Perhaps a better criterion is: Did I mostly fulfill my intention to be present with whatever occurred?

Mostly I did, and I didn’t have particular emotional pain, nor terrible physical pain, though I finally did trade the thing I was sitting on for one of the aforementioned chairs. During one oryoki meal, my chant card slipped out of my hand and slid about two thirds of the way across the floor toward Paul, in his abbot’s spot, of course making what seemed like a horribly noticeable sound. I waited for a moment to see if it might come back of its own accord, but it didn’t, so there was nothing to do but to stand up and retrieve it.

I also made a grave miscalculation in the area of wardrobe and was freezing all day. I had a jacket with me, but it’s yellow, and also probably noisy in a room where it’s otherwise very quiet, so I decided to just be cold.

Sunday it was rainy as well as cold, so I made my first trip of the season in rain gear, to Rainbow.

Note to anyone who may have seen this post before all the exciting parts were taken out: yes, there is some life confusion at the moment. Please stand by.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lifelong Fans of Jerry. Not Garcia.

Yesterday I was going to mention having been born anxious, but the soliloquy ended up drifting in another direction. In the evening, Howie’s talk proved to be on that very subject: fear—the anxiety of finding ourselves thrust into this world not of our own accord, and the anxiety of knowing we’ll be leaving it later at some undetermined time.

He said that our foremost strategy when it comes to fear of life and fear of death is to construct selves out of thought, which we then take to be real, and which give us a reassuring sense of being in control. In fact, these “selves” we build out of stories are largely detached from the “raw data of cognition”—what we actually see, smell, taste, touch, etc., and even think, the trick with the latter being to know that we’re thinking and what we’re thinking, and not to mistake thoughts for reality.

He said he regards living one’s entire life without realizing the whole thing is constructed out of thoughts as the scariest thing of all. The proposed solution is to turn to that raw data, which might mean we feel less in control, and maybe that we notice all of our emotions more, including the ones we might want to avoid, but then we are at least dealing with reality, and we can eliminate the portion of our suffering that is based on regret about the past (or longing for it) and anxiety or upset about the (imagined) future.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, we have no idea what will happen later, so likely most of our worries are about things that will never even come to pass. It’s not generally my custom to lie in bed worrying before I go to sleep, but for some number of years, I would have one crippling fearful thought after turning out the light, such as, “I’m on a train that is going in one direction only—I’m going to get old and I’m going to die.” (Of course, that “I’m going to get old” was ambitious; I might not get old.)

Now I do my best not to entertain that type of thought at all, but to recognize it as Mara. On the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Mara came to try to frighten the Buddha, to tempt him from his mission with enticing sense objects, and finally, worst of all, to shake the Buddha’s self-confidence, which the Buddha answered by simply touching the ground: the very earth bears witness to my right to be here.

So when I notice a thought that starts with “Later on … ” or “When my parents are really old … ” or “When I’m really old … ”, I say, “Mara, I see you,” which is extremely effective at deflating the thought. Whatever it was going to be, it couldn’t possibly have had much to do with reality. I might be able to take a guess about certain things, but I can’t know for sure until I get there.

After I turn off the light at night, I focus on feeling my body sinking into the bed, and I do my lucid dreaming-related samadhi practice, and I usually feel very relaxed. Often (but not always), I fall asleep right away, and rarely have explicitly bad dreams. Nonetheless, once asleep, I apparently descend into a maelstrom of tension, as evidenced by clenching my teeth hard enough to require a night guard. Lately I’ve been clenching them so tightly that I caused a tooth with no nerve in it to hurt, evidently by moving the entire tooth in its socket!

So this morning it was off to my dentist’s office to pick up a bottom night guard, to use instead of the top night guard, not in addition to.

My first cab driver this morning was incredulous at my proposed route to the dentist’s office (which he took, but at about 10 miles per hour) and said he’s not voting for either Whitman or Brown, he thinks the whole thing is bullshit, and he thinks politicians should get their own families in order before they go around telling anyone else what to do. By the time we got there, we’d bonded enough that he ran around and opened the door for me and called me “ma’am.”

I’ve decided to skip the life phase where you’re upset because people call you “ma’am” because you feel like you’re not old enough yet, and just enjoy it as a sign of respect. (In that vein, once in a while, when a tech support person says on the phone, “Do you prefer to be called Miss or Mrs. A.?”, I say, “Doctor.”)

After getting my new night guard, when I was waiting for a cab to take me to work, I met a fellow in the lobby whose parents were both born in Norway, while he and his sister were born here. He’ll be 74 next month, and was in the Air Force decades ago; he was stationed near Paris for four months. He said that after his wife died 15 years ago, he didn’t brush his teeth for two months—that gave me a fleeting visceral sense of how crushing that loss was—and he now recommends doing so at least once per day. I agree with that (at the very minimum), and we also had compatible views on bars, running around after dark, and sun hats. (Anti the first two, pro the third.) We parted with a firm handshake, exchanging names. I liked him a lot.

Oddly, within the course of that 20-minute conversation, he brought up his own future death, which made me think again of Howie’s talk last night, and of the various hospice patients I’ve spent time with. My friend Sally has proposed that I quit my job and move to Michigan, and that we go to social work school together so we can do hospice work full time. Maybe she’s onto something.

But not to neglect the second cab driver of the morning, who was very calm and relaxed behind the wheel. He’s voting for Jerry Brown, not Meg Whitman. (Same here.) He’s the second cab driver I’ve encountered lately who has met Jerry in person. It seems that to meet Jerry is to become a lifelong fan.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Disturbingly Autonomous Door

Yesterday evening I received a slightly worrying phone message, from a collection agency. I think it’s not prudent to ignore that type of thing, so I called back immediately, ready to say, “No, that’s not my name, and that’s not where I live,” which I was unable to say when they asked if I was me, at my correct address.

It turned out that the phone company, my friends at AT&T, had sent my account—specifically, a bill which isn’t due for two more weeks—to collections!

It was so completely beyond the pale that it seemed quite funny, whereas when their phone tree merely failed to feature my desired option a couple of weeks ago, I was enraged. Go figure. Generally, I get angrier at things than at people, because I expect people to let me down now and then, whereas, the door? Come on, door! Just open! Or close! Why does a door get to decide how it’s going to act?

My mother often inquires on such occasions, “Don’t you meditate?” Yes, I do, and all I can say is that maybe things would be even worse if I didn’t. Think of that! And also that meditation isn’t supposed to make it so you can’t perceive or feel anything. On the contrary, but I’ll admit it would be nice to enjoy equanimity on a more frequent basis, and maybe someday I will.

What happened here is that I had received my regular monthly bill, due October 25, and it was sitting as a pending payment in my online bill pay service. Then I got an updated bill, a smaller amount, prorated because my final month of service was truncated. When the phone company wrongly disconnected my phone. And DSL.

Accordingly, I canceled the pending payment for the original amount and immediately paid the lesser amount. I have the automatic thing set up to pay the bill five days before it's due, but since I was doing this one manually and because there had been so much confusion, I just went ahead and paid it right away. That was last Thursday. By yesterday, two business days later (or one, since Columbus Day is a holiday, though I didn’t have it off work), and despite the fact that the payment hadn’t even come due yet, they had turned me over to collections.

I described all of this to the collection agency, and then—again—called AT&T and talked to a really nice fellow there. I was perfectly calm and entirely genial, and the AT&T guy said, “I must say, you’re taking this like a champ. My goodness, we wrongly disconnect your phone and your DSL, force you to buy a new modem when your old one was working fine, send your account to collections when your bill isn’t even due for two more weeks, and wreck your credit! You’re really being a good sport.”

“Did you say ‘wreck my credit’?” I’d not thought of that.

I spoke then to someone in Final Accounts, who explained that though I sent my bill payment last Thursday, AT&T hadn’t received and/or processed it yet. As long as that happens by October 25, everything is fine. She said that when they disconnect phone service, they always proceed with “pre-collection” immediately, which probably does make sense in many cases.

I knew my mother would want to hear what I hope is the final chapter in this tale, so I gave her a call, and we got to talking about their new garage door, which is trickier to open than the prior one, which broke. The first time or two she tried it, it didn’t work right away, but that might have been due to insufficient force, which she was reluctant to apply, as she can well remember her father saying, “Don’t force it! Don’t force it!”

I said, “If you did force it, and break it, your father would reach up from the grave … ”

“Right!” Pause. “Wait—what do you mean ‘up’? That’s rude. Don’t you mean ‘down’?”

I was picturing Grandpa Ernie’s hand rising out of the sod next to a headstone, but Mom thought I was suggesting he had been remanded to the underworld.

My mother also recalls that when their father arrived home from work, she and her two brothers would make sure to look busy, because that person lying on the couch reading a book was likely to get an immediate assignment to mow the lawn, but I wouldn’t think that would cause eternal damnation.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Older Is Better

This past Saturday Steve and Julie threw Tom a 50th birthday party at their house in Sacramento. I drove us there in a City CarShare car at a brisk speed, trying to make up for the traffic jam that had us crawling inch by inch from the south side of Golden Gate Park all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge toll booths, mainly people looking for parking for the Blue Angels show.

Normally we would just go across the Bay Bridge (or take the train), but my sewing machine was in need of repairs, so we dropped it off on Irving St. first. North of the bridge, we took the John F. McCarthy Memorial Bridge from San Rafael to Richmond and then drove through a vast industrial wasteland en route to I-80.

In Richmond, we were stopped at a traffic light behind a Dodge Charger which was next to a Pontiac GTO, both with vanity plates, and when the light turned green, there was a spontaneous drag race, which the GTO won.

Tom and I found we’d both brought the same CD, which has never happened before: the Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way. That’s the only Dixie Chicks CD I have, and I think it’s wonderful. I got it after seeing the documentary Shut Up & Sing, which made me a permanent fan of Natalie Maines. If I’m driving alone, I bring Korn and Drowning Pool, etc., but when Tom will be there, I try to pick out something he might like. (He also brought another Dixie Chicks CD, surf music, and Billy Idol’s greatest hits. I also brought Fuel and Aerosmith’s Nine Lives.)

The party was splendid. As at all of Tom’s family’s parties, the company, conversation and food were excellent. Steve and Julie really outdid themselves decorating and making everything just so. The weather was perfect, too—warm and caressing, as it often seems to be there.

Steve, thinking of everything, provided Tom with an “Older is better” necklace and “50” glasses. I’ll post a photo of the latter one of these days.

Attendees: Steve and Julie, Tom and Donna, Ann and Mac, Paul and Eva, Lee and Shirley, Steve and Kathy, Melinda and Jim, Dan, Abby, and me. (Chris and Kristen were off to Paris, and Sarah and Josh were camping.)

Several of the group went in on a big gift for Tom: a previously cherished MacBook, to replace the latest in his growing collection of moribund computers. This was Julie’s thoughtful idea, I handled communications and taking pledges, and Paul did the heavy lifting—shopping, choosing a computer, going to pick it up, and attending to all the finishing touches. He even threw in a printer. Tom seemed very pleased.

It was really a great afternoon and evening. When Tom and I got home, we took a quick peek at my photos from the day—I also took short videos of Tom opening his laptop and printer—and the next morning, Sunday, I went up to connect the computer and printer and get Tom online. (Next project: extracting music files and photos from the dead computers.)

Then I got a pickup truck from City CarShare (the only thing available with no notice) and went to retrieve my sewing machine, which was already done, on to Rainbow for grocery shopping, and then home to chop veggies and rinse fruit.

I noticed lately I’d drifted into thinking that I shouldn’t eat certain things, so, to counteract that in a convincing manner, I have pretty much decorated my entire apartment with bags of potato chips, which has a strangely soothing effect.

Julie sent me home Saturday night with a giant slab of Tom’s chocolate birthday cake, which I had for breakfast on Sunday. I wasn’t really intending to eat all of it, but found that was happening, and realized there was a little voice inside saying it would be better if I didn’t. Which was leading inevitably to doing so.

So I told myself, “Of course it’s fine to have cake for breakfast. It’s perfectly fine to eat all of this cake right now, and of course there will be many, many more times when we’ll have cake for breakfast.”

Some other little voice in there, probably me when I was seven, said, “There will be?”

“Yes, of course there will be,” I assured that self, and then stood up and put the rest of the cake back in the refrigerator, and I’m pretty sure I heard that other self say, “Oh, well, if it’s allowed, then I don’t want to anymore.”

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Good First Effort by Hammett

Two Tuesday nights ago, I meant to go to Paul’s class at the Zen Center but instead went to Howie’s. This week, I meant to go to Howie’s but instead Tom and I took Karolina and Matthias out to dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant on Valencia St. near 21st St., followed by dessert at the organic ice cream place.

Karolina and Matthias are the musicians from Stockholm who became acquainted with Tom’s brother Paul through a mutual friend and joined us at Sarah’s fabulous dinner party last weekend. They are utterly lovely, extremely agreeable to be with, and we had a very pleasant evening. They said that the moment they became acquainted with Paul, he insisted on lending them phones they could use while in America. Tom’s family is extremely generous and hospitable.

My own phone saga is more or less over. After the landlord said on Monday night that it was OK to have AT&T fix it, I gave them a call and they said that it was too late to specify an appointment on Tuesday—they would only be able to say they would be there between 8 and 5—but I could schedule an appointment on Wednesday, so I arranged for them to come between 8 and 12, and asked Tom if I could use the DSL in his apartment to work from home that day.

By about 11:30, I had the visceral sense that no one was coming, so I called them and the person I spoke to said they’d be there by 7 p.m., as arranged, whereupon I got angry yet again, this time to more fruitful result, anyway, and soon enough, Charlie was in the alley picking through the wires.

(By the way, I told the phone company yesterday that I had waited at home all day last Saturday, only to have no one show up, and the person I was speaking to said, “Our records show we were there on Saturday and also yesterday.” I said, “No one was here Saturday or yesterday,” and the phone company person said, “Oh, well, I guess our repair person was lying in his report,” by which she meant that I was lying.)

(Though, as my mother pointed out, by “there,” they may have meant that they were strolling up and down in front of my building, and I can’t say they weren’t. But I can say they weren’t looking at, touching or otherwise experiencing the phone wires, because I would have had to let them into that area.)

The repairperson himself is in an enviable position. Whereas the customer may have screamed at any number of his office-bound colleagues, by the time the customer sees Charlie, it's all “Oh, boy, am I happy to see you!" Again, not so much because I needed the phone fixed at any particular moment, but because the sight of the person with the tools meant the frustrating process of trying to conjure up that sight was over.

Throughout this whole sequence of events, I’d had a faint, guilty feeling that somehow I had caused this phone problem, or, more likely, that Hammett had, but it turned out there was a short in the alley near the door to the backyard, in a box with wires dangling this way and, quite frankly, that.

(I stole that last turn of phrase directly from Jonathan Coe in The Rotters’ Club.) Pretty much the only person who ever passes through that area, on her way to the backyard, is the building manager. Maybe she bumped it with a ladder or something.

After getting extremely frustrated so many times in such a short period, certainly to the point of losing my temper once or twice, I eventually noticed that, with the storms of emotion raging hither and thither, that which does not change became easier to notice and brought some peace in its wake: awareness itself.

In sum, the phone is working again, and the DSL service I will enjoy as a brand-new customer will be activated next week. It occurred to me that, as our national discussion shifts from the great things we will do in the future to how to mitigate the self-caused disasters already well underway and how we will somehow perhaps salvage this or that from the wreckage of our civilization, maybe this is the last time the phone will break and actually be restorable to its former condition.

Maybe next time the phone breaks, the whole country will be out of wire, and improvisation with dental floss will be necessary, with commensurate declines in sound quality. Which is all the fault of Zuckerberg and his ilk. As pointed out in a recent Newsweek, those who should have been figuring out how to generate renewable energy and ensure clean water and safe food for all—a whole generation of innovators—instead brought us Facebook, Twitter, and Farmville.

Yesterday evening I heard from Hammett an unprecedented noise and discovered that, at the age of four and a half, he had coughed up his very first hairball. It was only about the size of a dime, but I made a big fuss over it, telling him it was amazing and that I was sure his next one will be even better.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Also, if You Have an Unsightly Blemish, Try Taping a Ceramic Owl to It

I’ve not written for a few days, figuring I had insufficient psychological distance from the phone-related anguish of the past week, much of it self-inflicted, as always. Well, I guess all of it self-inflicted, technically. I’ll spare you the blow by blow, except to say that, no matter how furious you get, try not to say to any AT&T employee “Just go ahead and disconnect it.” Particularly if by “it,” you mean both your phone and your DSL.

I thought we’d gotten past that crisis point and were in agreement that we were going to fix things rather than disconnect them, but in the ensuing couple of days, while discussing the ins and outs of repairing the phone (and the DSL), it emerged that both actually had been disconnected, meaning that I was now a “new customer.” While the old customer that I was a week ago had a certain local toll calling plan and had been using a particular modem for years without problems, the new customer that I now am can no longer opt for that local toll calling plan and also cannot use that outdated modem.

Well, it was clear who had the upper hand here, so I agreed to everything: sure, you can have my driver’s license number. Yes, I definitely do want the Triple Deluxe Package. By all means, let’s have the faster Internet access. Anything you say—just turn my phone back on. The main pleasure I had in that particular conversation, which lasted an hour, was when I got to say I don’t watch TV and don’t have a cell phone.

Naturally (oh, never mind what I said earlier about sparing you the blow by blow), every time I spoke with someone at AT&T, he or she said the exact opposite of what someone else had said earlier.

Now, theoretically, I could have called my building manager the second I discovered the phone wasn’t working and asked her to take care of it, but after many very unhappy incidents in the past, I’m strongly motivated to get as far as I can without her and I did that in this case, but finally got to the point where it seemed clear the problem was with the inside wiring, so I called her and asked her to please look into fixing it.

Then, predictably, she claimed that the landlord has nothing whatsoever to do with whether my phone works or not and I predictably then provided, in the course of a voluminous three-way email exchange among myself, the building manager and the landlord, the applicable portions of the California Civil Code. I felt a bit rueful that I did so much to avoid having the usual yucky interaction with the building manager, and ended up having it anyway.

In due time, the landlord allowed that it was indeed their responsibility to fix the phone, while the building manager said she had other things to do and would not be available to let the repair person in any day this week! Then she grumbled that she was getting too many emails about my phone. This is the result one might well expect when one starts by attempting to disavow responsibility and goes on to be as unhelpful as possible. If she had said right away, “Sure, I’ll take care of it,” I think she would have found the conversation to be pleasingly brief.

This is about one percent of the entire saga, but last night, the point was finally reached where the landlord, who grew up in the era where people learned manners as a matter of course and is much easier to deal with than the building manager, said for me to go ahead and have the phone company come out and fix whatever needs to be fixed, which was a huge relief—not so much that the phone will be fixed per se, but that I can stop fretting about how the phone is going to get fixed. I have also received the new modem to replace the one that worked fine a week ago, so things are looking up.

In pigeon news, I thought of a way to prevent them from sitting in a particular spot and raining poop down just outside my kitchen door, got the stuff at the hardware store yesterday, and Tom and I installed it last night. It looks like it will do the trick.

Tom also plucked the latest dead pigeon off my fire escape—picked clean by a predator—and helped me with a couple of other things around the apartment, which was very nice of him. You might think the landlords would be in charge of pigeon abatement, but the landlord’s main suggestion on this topic is “You might want to get a ceramic owl.”

That’s fine. I have a regular task now to scrape poop off my windowsills, followed by a squirt of water with a bit of bleach in it, and I might break down and hire someone someday to come and wash the outsides of the windows, which are streaked here and there with excrement. There is also a nest between my fire escape and the wall of the building. Perhaps sooner or later the area will get so soaked with bird pee that it will all collapse into the building manager’s apartment, beneath mine. Then maybe she can get a gross of ceramic owls with which to artfully conceal the rubble.

I will say that she was more civil this time than in the past. I have gotten any number of truly discourteous communications from her over the years, and didn’t this time. Obviously, our entrenched psychological patterns dovetail perfectly, to unhappy result. She will never act the way I think she should act, and I will never act the way she thinks I should act. All we can do is try to stay away from each other, and to do our best when that fails.

This past weekend featured laundry, shopping, cooking and the cutting out of cloth for three pairs of baggy pants (while I was waiting at home for the phone company to show up, which they never did), but the highlight was the magnificent dinner party thrown by Tom’s niece, Sarah, on Saturday night. Several of Tom’s relatives came from Sacramento for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and in the evening, we all gathered at Sarah’s: Sarah, Paul and Eva, Tom and Donna, Shannon and Aaron, Dave C., Elise, Matthias and Carolina (a musician couple from Sweden), Steve, and me.

Sarah had put three smallish tables in a row so as to accommodate 13 diners, and decorated each one separately, which was very artistic. The food was wonderful and the whole evening was most enjoyable.

Friday, October 01, 2010

A Wish or Two

Today it is six years since my Aunt Netta died. I called my uncle to let him know that I was thinking of him and of her. Of course, I think about both of them often, but I wanted him to know that others are with him in spirit on this terrible anniversary in particular.

Did I ever say this here before? My father, mother and I went to see Aunt Netta in the hospital what turned out to be just a few weeks before she died. I brought her a stuffed rabbit and a crystal to hang in her window; I hoped the sun would make sparkles in her room. She was curling up into a fetal position and was almost entirely unresponsive. We couldn't speak with her, but we stayed for a while, visiting with her and Uncle Rick, and when we left, my father was holding her hand and said heartily, “Well, get well soon!”

Right after he said it, her eyes cleared completely. For a moment, she was entirely with us, and she burst out laughing uproariously. I think my father felt later that it had been a stupid thing to say, but how extremely fortunate that he did. It left us with such a wonderful last memory, and it was only because of that that she actually saw us for one final moment.

Speaking of last moments, I’ve been heartbroken this week over Tyler Clementi, the young man at Rutgers who committed suicide after being humiliated in the most horrible and public way by his roommate. Couldn’t that roommate see what a shy, quiet and gentle person Tyler Clementi was? It was a heart-stoppingly cruel act. I went to the Zen Center to sit after work yesterday and devoted the period to compassion for Tyler and his family.

Compassion practice is similar to metta practice in that you’re generating and focusing on silent phrases, which may or may not open the heart, and may or may not gather the mind. In compassion practice, you might use phrases like “May you be free from suffering” or “May you find ease in your suffering” or “May you find some way to bear this terrible sorrow.” You can choose whatever phrases work for you. Maybe “I care about your suffering,” or “I care about what has happened to you.”

I sat with tears trickling down my face, mentally repeating the phrases I'd chosen and thinking about Tyler and his family, about his mother and father. I wished that most futile wish, that we could turn the clock back just this number of hours. I wished that I had been there on the George Washington Bridge with him that day, or better yet, that Dan Savage had been. I know Dan Savage wishes that, too. I wished that it were actually possible to bring a person back by offering an arm. Ah, crying again now. And I hope that the boy he was with, the other boy in that tape that had such a horrible, permanent result, I hope Tyler Clementi was in love with that boy, and that it was the most joyful hour of his entire life.