Friday, May 27, 2011

A Cornucopia of Growth Opportunities

A few days ago, I saw something that caught my eye: a note on the neighbors’ garage saying to pick up the trash in the alley. Did that mean it was now possible to walk through that alley? Sure enough, the grilling neighbor has cleared out the alley and the trash picker-uppers can now walk through it. In fact, there is only one thing visible at the end of the alley I can see from my kitchen window, and I know I don’t have to tell you what that one thing is.

Now, my truly very pleasant letter mentioned that the fire marshal says grilling must be done at least ten feet from any structure, and that the fumes were miserable for some of us, but it also referred to the stuff stored near the grilling site. I suspect that by the time the letter’s contents were fully processed by the neighbor—and this, though irrational, is highly human—he concluded that grilling would be perfectly fine if only the stuff was out of the alley. Though he’s still inches from the side of the building and it’s still going to stink.

Ai yi yi.

Well, these are obviously where some of my ongoing opportunities for growth lie: my building manager, grilling, smoking, and the phone company. Oh, and a few things at work, of course.

One thing I’ve done over the past year or so is identify some categories of things I’m not going to contend over. One is noise. Using earplugs is not ideal. It can be uncomfortable, but in the service of reducing conflict, I’ve decided that, except for the most extreme cases, I will simply use earplugs and be done with it.

Things are also largely fine with the building manager, not to assume that will always be so. In addition, I virtually never have conflict while getting around by bike these days, which is something I used to have a lot of. But challenges definitely remain.

One recent day was particularly awful. My phone has been broken for a while, so I did sign up for WirePro, wait a decent interval, and call to make a repair appointment. Needless to say, the phone company never showed up, and in the course of the day, I completely lost my temper about ten times. I was rude, I was sarcastic, and for the grand finale, said “F*** you” to a phone company employee. Obviously, I’m not proud of this, but I recount it as a public service, so that everyone who has never done such a thing can feel even better about herself or himself.

That very same day, I was dealing with another situation where something I had bought turned out to be damaged. Fortunately, I kept my temper in that situation, though as the day wore on, my emails on the subject became increasingly detailed, emphatic and lengthy. However, when I reread the correspondence later, there was nothing I felt bad about, though at the end of it all, I apologized for getting tense, anyway.

About 3 p.m., I was screaming and yelling at someone at the phone company for the nth time and writing emails regarding the other thing when I heard something happening in the back yard of my own building. Something was being delivered. What was it? I think I don’t need to tell you what it was.

The universe was obviously messing with me, sending yet another grill into my life in the middle of such a colossally terrible day. I had to laugh, or at least smile wanly.

However, this wasn’t a charcoal grill. In fact, it was the very thing I suggested years ago that the building manager get: a propane grill. This is fine. That very evening, she and a friend or two used it, and all I could smell was whatever they were grilling, which smelled good. Yes, they will probably sit out there from time to time making a racket until 2 a.m., which merely means I will use earplugs.

As for the next-door neighbor, I’m somewhat back in problem-solving mode, though there may not even be a problem. I haven’t observed any actual grilling. Grilling is in the imagined future. I’m thinking a bit about what the options might be, but there’s nothing to do right now, and maybe there won’t be.

One thing I considered is: What if I were Anne Frank? Did Anne Frank burst out of her hiding place and say, “My good man, put out that loathsome cigar at once!” She did not. Whatever happened, she had to put up with it, and I can choose to do that, too. That’s on the spectrum of choices.

To put it in Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress terms, I accept that there has been grilling right outside my kitchen window and that there may be more of the same in the future. I choose to be happy, to enjoy my life, to have good relations with my neighbors, and to have an apartment that is nearly or entirely free of noxious fumes.

Now I get to think about the choices that may lead to achieving those goals.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Vainness Cream

I am going to have to strip the best-sunblock title from Vanicream. If you insist on a mineral sunblock, then Vanicream is definitely the one, in SPF 30 or 60, but if vanity trumps health considerations, and/or you just can’t stand to have every pore sealed shut, try this combination of mineral and chemical ingredients: Elta MD UV Facial (Moisturizing Facial Sunscreen, SPF 30+). No fragrance, no paraben, protects from UVA/UVB, doesn’t seem to block pores, looks totally fine, not greasy, not sticky, not white or pink, easy to remove.

If your skin tends to break out or be oily, go with the Elta MD UV Clear (Very Light Sunscreen, SPF 46). This is on the expensive side and will flake if applied generously, but seems good if applied lightly. And if you are called upon to exert yourself, perhaps the Elta MD UV Sport (Very Water Resistant Sunscreen, SPF 50).

The chemicals involved aren’t the worst chemicals. In fact, these sunscreens get wonderful ratings on the Environmental Working Group website. They contain micronized minerals, which is fine—such particles are big enough that they shouldn’t get into your lungs, etc. It’s the nano-ized particles one might wish to steer clear of.

Emily at work was the one who told me about Elta MD. She has given me so many handy hints over the years, I went ahead and proposed marriage, in my own way. During a conversation about something else, I said, “I’ll be your roommate when you’re old, if you want.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Grill Drill

Naturally, right on the heels of phone problems came grilling problems. I’ve been noticing lighter fluid fumes coming in my kitchen window the past couple of months, just a little, and I assumed someone was grilling on a nearby deck or rooftop. This past Sunday, it was much stronger, and I ended up with a headache, and then realized someone was performing the heinous act of grilling with charcoal right outside my window, in the trash area shared by our building and the building next door, where it is now illegal to smoke cigarettes.

At first I thought it was the young fellow who most recently moved in, but after sitting with it for a bit, I realized who it had to be: the owner of the building next door, who has not demonstrated much in the way of affability, and who is an extreme pack rat.

In our building, there is an alleyway that leads from the sidewalk to the trash area. The people who pick up the trash walk through it in order to carry out their duties. The building next door has the same feature, but no one walks through it because it is literally filled to the ceiling with stuff. This fellow was grilling about one foot from the wooden side of his building, and just a few feet from the enormous pile of tinder in that alleyway.

It has crossed my mind more than once that the building next door is a firetrap, but I’ve also been living here for 13 years without burning to a crisp, so I haven’t worried about it too much, but if he’s going to grill right there, that amplifies that worry considerably, and Tom felt the same way.

I’d of course drafted a note right away and was going to just drop several copies outside the neighbors' front door, since I hadn’t figured out who the griller was at that point. Once I figured it out, I thought better of the note, since I’m not sure this guy won’t come over and punch me out. (Though Tom said I could put his name on the note along with mine, so maybe it would be one punch for each of us, rather than two for me.)

I called the fire marshal and they said absolutely it is not permitted to grill within ten feet of any structure, so we’re on firm ground there.

I went to sleep last night thinking this all over. Whereas once upon a time, I drafted a note and sent it shortly thereafter, I’m starting to get the hang of waiting, waiting, waiting. This allows some time for the pieces to fall into place, for helpful research, to understand what exactly I hope to achieve, and to make sure that attention is given to the matter not only when I’m angry and anxious, but also when I’m calm and in a good mood. Better ideas are likely to arise in the latter case.

At one point, I was thinking I was not going to start with this guy and that I would just let the fire marshal handle it—they might well like to have a look at that completely blocked exit.

I woke up at 2 a.m. (ugh) and was almost tempted to get online and continue my research, but instead I told myself that that would likely guarantee I would not get any more good minutes of sleep before morning. I told myself it was regrettable that I was wide awake at such an hour, but that this was the exception, not the rule, and that I would undoubtedly enjoy many more fine nights of sleep in the future. I told myself that a good plan of action regarding the grilling would emerge in time, but that the process was still underway.

In short, very different from former procedures.

By early morning, I’d decided that I will actually go ahead with a note, but not a terse and businesslike one, rather a friendly, chatty one that sounds like of course he is a good guy, and I’m a good guy, and Tom is a good guy and of course we all are interested in a favorable outcome. I decided not to assume that he’s a bad guy who will behave poorly.

Then I said metta phrases to myself, and the next thing I knew, my clock was chiming, I had slept, and I remembered three dreams, though not necessarily the world’s best dreams. I called Tom around 7 a.m. and said, “I thought it would be nice to start the day by discussing grilling.”

He said good-naturedly, “Didn’t we end yesterday by discussing grilling?”

“I think it’s nice to start and end every day by discussing grilling,” I said, and read him my latest note. “Very nice!”, he said. I’m going to continue to sit with it, and then I will probably send it off. Now that I know who the griller is, I can just send it directly to him.

Monday, May 09, 2011

It’s a Little Harder if You’re Actually Dead

Lately my mother gave me a compliment that I appreciated. She observed that I was doing some new things, and doing some things better. “It’s largely due to your cancer,” I told her. “Thank you for getting cancer. That was excellent parenting.”

So, yes, my mother very graciously did get cancer and is now, thank goodness, free of it. The diagnosis was early in February and successful surgery—no radiation or chemotherapy required afterward—was late in April, on Good Friday, but my mother did better than Jesus by twenty-four hours, rising from her bed the very next day. It took Jesus until Easter Sunday. Of course, he was actually dead, so credit where credit is due.

I am not a Christian. I don’t believe in any deity (though I do believe in the kindly presence of my grandmother in heaven), but because I’m a trumpet player, I’ve spent any number of Easter mornings in one church or another, and I do love a rousing Easter sermon, with its themes of redemption and rebirth, another chance and more chapters to come.

There were some snags along the way, including a medical complication that threatened to prevent surgery, and required several tests. I’ve been dreading losing my mother (and father) since I was four (i.e., when it occurred to me that they would die, ditto me), so when the positive cancer diagnosis came, I was utterly and completely beside myself, grief-stricken and sure I was soon to be half an orphan.

One thing became clear immediately: my usual way of coping with crisis was not going to do. That usual way is to line up the amount of emotional support and comfort I think is required and avail myself of it freely. However, this was going to require so much of both those commodities that after two weeks, there would probably be no one left willing to offer either, at least not on a pro bono basis. I was going to need a new plan.

It is also my custom to tell everyone everything, but this was kind of a big deal, and my mother has the opposite approach, so I didn’t feel right about sharing her news with every soul on earth and was selective in my disclosure. I never told any co-worker, for instance, even Emily. One day, I received phone messages of concern from Amy and Sally. I made a mental note that I needed to call them back, and then realized I could have made the exact same mental note 40 years ago! Those are my friends from when I was seven, still here in one case, and here again thanks to Facebook in the other case.

I was driven back into therapy by this, and that has been a good thing. I’m making better use of it this time around. (Which therapist? Both! Sorry, therapists, I know you don't like it when people see more than one of you at once, but I need you both.) I also realized I needed to make haste and read the two books my mother most often cites as helpful before she died: Handbook to Higher Consciousness, by Ken Keyes, and the aforementioned Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress. I’m just starting the former, but the latter has been ridiculously helpful. It has changed my life, actually.

(Of course, every time I mentioned some helpful tidbit I’d gleaned from it, my mother cited the other: “Yes, well, in Handbook to Higher Consciousness, it says … .”)

In addition, I went to see Patricia Meadows, a wonderful Somatic Experiencing practitioner in Novato, one of the teachers of the class I took at the Zen Center. I saw her only once—I love her, but getting to Novato is a bit of a trek—and it was exceedingly helpful. I left understanding completely that while 48-year-old Linda might have a coping skill or two, it was four-year-old Linda who was completely distraught. Patricia said I would need to build up the emotional muscle to stay with the feelings that arose. That idea has stayed with me, and I also have made a practice of going back in time to reassure that younger self. These imaginary journeys can be kind of distressing, because I can’t tell that child it’s all going to come out OK. I find this work very helpful in my current life, but revisiting how anxious and lonely I felt in 1966, how chronically hungry for attention and affection, makes me feel kind of heartbroken for that little girl.

So, all of these things have been extraordinarily helpful: therapy, reading the book, seeing Patricia, identifying some changes I needed to make, the mental trips back in time to provide attention and comfort. And I’m seeing the fruits of this work, and I’m delighted. Plus my mother is fine.

Early on, it was clear that that would probably be the case, though you never know with cancer, but it still took a while for my initial upset to abate. The day she was actually having surgery was a hard, kind of horrible, almost surreal day. People die in surgery! My father provided great, detailed updates and spent the night with her in her hospital room. She was able to go home the next afternoon.

Tests performed on the matter removed showed that the cancer had been the earliest possible stage and was now therefore gone.

All is well. Which means my mother is never, ever going to die!


Sunday, May 08, 2011

Crocodile Phone

My retreat was nine days long. I left on a Monday and returned home on a Wednesday. On Thursday—I’d taken the remainder of the week off work—I finally completed a project I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, making a CD that approximates Now & Zen’s chiming alarm clocks.

I had recorded several sounds, using my meditation bell (close to the mic, farther from the mic, hitting the bell hard, hitting it more softly, etc.) and chose the best one, figured out how to paste it into a sound file at intervals (not immediately obvious), exported the finished product into iTunes as a WAV file, made a playlist containing that one thing, and burned a CD of it. I am very happy with it, but will probably revisit to make a couple of tweaks. However, it’s working just as desired, ushering me gradually from sound sleep to full alertness, with plenty of time to finish up and remember the last dream of the morning. Waking up mid-dream can produce tremendous grogginess.

After that, on the very same day, I washed the insides of all my windows, and the outsides of the ones I can get to. It was a big improvement, and only took an hour or so. And then I put together a piece of furniture I’d acquired but not been able to set up until I got rid of my old bed. (Oh! I got rid of my old bed just before going on retreat. I listed it for free on Craigslist and it was out of my life in no time. Tom grumbled that he suspected the person who took it was just going to resell it, thus making a tidy profit, but I said that was perfectly fine with me—that’s how capitalism works, and more power to him.)

The new thing was an audio tower, where you can stack items like your tape deck, your CD player, and your turntable (I know: what could those terms possibly refer to?) vertically. I was hoping this would allow reclaiming some desk surface, but once it was all set up, it took up too much space in my one room. I had to move my computer and chair over to make room for it, which canceled out the space savings on my desk, so I put everything back the way it was—at least all my wires got vacuumed and everything got dusted off—and listed the audio tower on Craigslist.

The next day I BARTed over to Berkeley to buy baggy pants cloth at Stonemountain and Daughter, and then I gave Lisa M. a call to see if she might happen to be free, and we had tea and cake at Sweet Adeline Bakeshop.

Yesterday, I went to the Zen Center, where Jordan Thorn spoke, and today went to Rainbow and did some cooking and watched a Kevin Costner movie.

About six months ago, I went through a completely hideous ordeal with my home phone, which developed a very loud buzz. I magnified the problem about ten times by grumbling to the phone company that they could just cancel my service (phone and DSL), and in the ten seconds before I took it back, they went ahead and did that. That made me a “new customer,” which we all know the meaning of, and of course my building manager and landlord attempted to disavow any responsibility for the phone wiring, which is entirely the landlord’s responsibility, so there was an unpleasant exchange there.

Lately the phone has been acting strange again, but has responded favorably to being pounded on the floor (one and the same as the building manager’s ceiling, but not chosen for that reason). When I returned from my retreat, I called Hammett’s cat sitter to let her know I was home, and the phone sounded fine, but the next time I picked it up, there was a loud buzz and there still is. I took the phone up to Tom’s and it sounded fine, so it’s not the phone.

Wish I’d done that test before I pried it open with a screwdriver and pounded it back together with a hammer after stuffing all its parts back in. Its handsome good looks are a thing of the past. Plus, while it was pried open and parts of it were hanging out, it looked disconcertingly like a crocodile with snaggleteeth.

Then I tried swapping out the wire, which made no difference, so it wasn’t the wire. After the last episode, my landlord told me to get the WirePro plan. It costs about $7 a month and so I decided not to, since the wires are, again, her responsibility. (I guess she’s technically a landlady, but I think of her as my landlord.)

I envisioned that I would email her and say the phone was broken again and that I didn’t get the WirePro and she’d say something mean. I steeled myself to deal with this, but then, while I was thinking the whole thing over, I decided that not having to argue with my landlord and not having to worry about future phone problems (even though they’re not my responsibility!) actually is worth $7 a month, so I went online and added the WirePro, and, after a while, I’ll call the phone company and ask them to come fix it. Problem (probably) solved!

This means mostly no phone for the time being. It’s surprisingly easy. I still have no intention of getting a cell phone. In my heart of hearts, I just really, truly don’t want one. My mother thinks I’m an old fuddy-duddy and should get with the times.

In a conversation I conducted using my work cell phone, she informed me that the landline is “passing into shadow,” which she repeated a couple of times for the pleasure of hearing me shriek “No way!” She concluded, with obvious satisfaction, “The only good landline is no landline.”

Lisa M. says that AT&T, which owns the whole phone grid, is starting lobbying efforts to let it crumble—they want the landline to go away and for everyone to be forced to have a cell phone. Honestly, one of these days, I think we’re going to very strongly regret having made everything digital and wireless—I think we will have security, reliability and/or health and welfare problems—but that’s obviously where we’re going. Me last of all.

In the same conversation with my mother, we were discussing the movie The Mudge Boy, which depicts poor treatment of an animal. My mother doesn’t even like to see animals on film that are pets, let alone animals being mistreated, so she warned me, “Don’t tell me about it or I’ll have to beat you to death.” Then, in more polite tones, “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to say that. There will be a surprise in your bed the next time you visit, is what I meant to say.”

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Big Snake, Small Snake, Rattlesnake

On April 25, I left for a nine-day concentration retreat at Spirit Rock. It was splendid. From the moment I arrived, I found myself very aware moment to moment of what my mind was up to—I realize that is increasingly the case all the time—and thus not lost in stories.

On a vipassana retreat, if someone is making annoying noises in the meditation hall (or doing anything annoying anywhere), a teacher might typically ask you to notice what exactly happens when the annoyance occurs, what thoughts and sensations arise, etc., so you can see your own contribution to the situation. But once on a concentration retreat, when I reported some frustration in the hall, a teacher suggested I move, so on this most recent retreat, when someone who reeked of patchouli or some such and who was already breathing at top volume sat down behind me—because we’re focusing on our breathing doesn’t mean it's a breathing contest—I moved immediately to the other side of the room. That was a good call. I ended up in this little zone of dead quiet meditators, and it was lovely. (One of my neighbors turned out to be a Bahamian filmmaker. She was delightful.)

Another great thing that happened was avoiding the second arrow. To paraphrase greatly, if I have, for instance, an angry feeling, it is as if I have been wounded by an arrow, and if I then beat myself for having been angry, I have directed a second arrow at myself. I am an aversive type (per the three basic personality types in Buddhism, which correspond to the three causes of suffering: aversion, craving, and delusion) and I am always going to have judgments and criticisms of those around me.

But when I noticed that arising on this retreat, something teacher Richard Shankman had said popped into my mind and I thought, “May I find ease in my judgments,” and voila! That was brilliant on my part, if I may say so myself. I used it throughout the retreat and was struck by the difference between that and the reverse: beating myself for being angry, wondering what’s wrong with me, reviewing and re-reviewing the faults of the other party to justify my irritation, questioning why the therapist(s) to whom I’ve given X number of dollars haven’t succeeded in completely altering my personality, etc. This process can take hours, whereas when I noticed whatever was going on and immediately wished myself ease in being with whatever it was, it was done. Already. Five seconds later, if I wanted to investigate the feeling in question, it wasn’t there to be investigated, and it was a lovely, extremely calm and tranquil retreat.

I had one brief lucid dream during the retreat. A teacher once told me that on long concentration retreats, he passes in and out of every dream knowing he’s dreaming and knowing in between dreams that he’s in between. He said he doesn’t actually like it that much because he’d prefer just to go to sleep and rest in the customary fashion.

Something I enjoy a lot at Spirit Rock are the little lizards along the pathway that leads to the meditation hall. On this retreat, I saw as many as nine on one pass. One late afternoon, I was walking by, counting the lizards, wondering if I’d break my record, when I saw a rather large lizard—no, a really large lizard—no, a snake rising up from just beside the path. I’ve never seen one there before, and compared to the little spring lizards, it was like seeing Leviathan emerging from the deep, particularly when it proved to be a rattlesnake, the first I’ve ever seen in the flesh.

Another day, I saw the largest snake I’ve ever seen outside a zoo, crossing the warm asphalt road, and one night, heading back to my dorm, I saw another retreatant looking at something on the ground. It was so dark, I couldn’t make out if it was a snake or the world’s largest worm or what. Thank goodness that person drew my attention to the creature; otherwise, I might have stepped on it, which would have been extremely dreadful for both parties, more so the one underfoot.

I realized someone else might tread on it, so I stood in front of it and after some minutes, saw its position had changed slightly. It was evidently crossing the path at the rate of about an inch per minute. So I kept pace with it (not too difficult) and hoped it wasn’t going to change its mind and turn around halfway across! Finally, it was nearly on the other side, near the grass. A number of people had passed in both directions, so this was time well spent. Then someone managed to nearly bump into me, and also startled the creature, which frantically S curved off into the grass, thus revealing itself to be probably a garter snake.

Friday, May 06, 2011

North-Northeast of Heaven

Late in April, I met a newish friend for tea at Borderlands Café, at 870 Valencia, between 19th and 20th. As we were leaving after a most congenial chat, she pointed out the sign painted on the front: “No wi-fi.” That’s why it was such a great place: no laptop zombies! Laptop users are perfectly quiet; that isn’t the problem. However, the fact that their attention is not in the same location as their bodies imparts a strange, kind of dead feeling to places where they gather in numbers. Besides serving tea and food, Borderlands Café sells periodicals, which you’re welcome to read without buying.

As I was leaving my building to go to the café, I saw Tom and his girlfriend. I told D. that I had given Tom my permission to marry her, due to her nice gift to me of a bread pan, and she looked pleased.

The next day, my mother was going in for a little spot of medical attention (well, actually, surgery for cancer; I’ll get to that), so I said, just in case, “You’re a wonderful mother, I forgive you for everything, and I love you very much.”

She said, “Can you rephrase that?”

“Rephrase it how?”

“So it’s more flattering to me.”

“Ah! Certainly! If you had ever fallen short in any way, which of course is not the case, rest assured that I would have forgiven you.”

Traffic was quite snarled as I made my way to work that day, due to President Obama being in town. A police officer told me Obama was at his hotel at 3rd and Mission and scheduled to come out at any moment, so I stopped and waited across the street with a gaggle of medical marijuana protestors.

In the end, the commander in chief outwitted us—I guess it’s good that he’s smarter than us—and passed by in a limo, preceded and followed by security, but someone with sharp eyes saw him waving at us through the tinted glass, and he was less than a quarter of a block away, so I was pretty excited.

When I went into work, I called my father and said, “Guess who just passed by.” He guessed that it had been Moammar Gadhafi.

I have an ex-boss who lives in that hotel (it’s a hotel at the bottom, condos for the extremely well-to-do at the top) and he said other celebrities who have stayed there include Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga.

I’m continuing to thoroughly enjoy my Internet radio, which has even produced a brief but thrilling correspondence with a Czech musician known as Blackosh. His band is called Cales, and the song I’m in love with is called “Along Paths of Return (Pagan Nostalgia).”

I was researching the matter at the Metal Observer website, where they had a link to the band’s website, with contact info, so I sent a note saying how gorgeous this song is and got a note back the next day from Blackosh! (He’s a little bit gorgeous himself.) He said it’s a one-man studio project at this point, and that the band never traveled to the States. Our loss.

I’m also really enjoying “Altars in Gore,” by Coffins (from Japan) and “Fight Song” by Methods of Mayhem, whose music is all over the map, and my new favorite band in general is Grand Magus, from Stockholm. Listen to “Hammer of the North.” What a great song that is; the whole album is great.

Finally, I have belatedly become a Slayer fan. Of course you know that the Big Four of American metal are Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. I have long been a fan of the first two (and have seen both in concert). Somehow or other, my path and Anthrax’s have never crossed. As for Slayer, someone told me once upon a time that Reign in Blood was their best CD. I got it, didn’t like it, and dispensed with Slayer for good, as far as I was concerned. It’s speed metal, whereas I like stuff that’s more ponderous in tempo.

But lately I bumped into their CD South of Heaven and really like it, particularly “Mandatory Suicide,” and then I found other Slayer songs I like from other albums, and here I am, reborn as a Slayer fan at nearly 49. I listened to Alice in Chains last night, and it sounded kind of denatured in comparison.