Wednesday, May 20, 2015

San Quentin

Near the end of April, those in my chaplaincy class who were so inclined went on another field trip, this time to San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. We’d had to submit our names and driver’s license numbers weeks in advance to get clearance, and Gil, our teacher who took us on this field trip, told us that even with clearance, we could arrive and be denied entry, if there had been violence and the prison was on lockdown, or if it proved to be foggy, which impedes the ability of guards to see inmates in the yard from their towers and shoot them if necessary. Gil also warned us that, in the event we were taken hostage, we would not be recognized as such for bargaining purposes.

There is a strict dress code for visitors, which prohibits the colors that make up 99% of my wardrobe: green, blue and yellow. No denim of any color is allowed. I zipped into a thrift store a few days before our visit to pick up a tan men’s shirt to wear with my black work pants.

Our group of about 12 met in the parking lot and walked to the first guard station, where our host, Jacques Verduin, advised us to stay together, to stay out of the guards’ way, and to follow any of his instructions immediately. We entered the campus, which is pretty, with handsome old buildings ringing open spaces with grass and flowers. Odd that from that pleasant spot, we could see the Adjustment Center.

We went into the chapel, where we sat in a big circle for the weekly mindfulness meditation group led by Jacques. Besides us, there were maybe 35 inmates in the room. As inmates entered the room, they shook hands with us and told us their names. Jacques had told us visitors to spread out, so almost all of us were sitting with an inmate on either side. Most wore jeans or navy sweatpants, most of which, but not all, had PRISONER running down one leg in big letters. Many wore blue shirts of a particularly lovely hue, a bright sky blue. I was interested to see that no two pairs of shoes were the same—I guess you get to keep your own—and hairstyles also varied.

Jacques led us in a brief meditation, and then those who wished to shared about how their meditation practice helps them. Jerome, sitting to my right, said that his practice helps him distinguish the stories he tells himself in his head from reality. I was impressed. I think it took me about 15 years to get that. Many of the prisoners had very clear, insightful things to say about their meditating, and many also said they love coming to the group each week, where it’s peaceful and quiet and where they can do something that is constructive and leaves them feeling calm. It sounded like everyone in the room has a daily sitting practice.

Jacques seems to be doing a remarkable job, somehow getting right to the heart of the matter in short order. A reading was handed around, and people took turns reading aloud a paragraph, and then they or others could comment on that paragraph. It is clear that one of Jacques’ priorities is to help his students understand how feelings and thoughts are experienced in their bodies. Part of the reading said, “It’s exactly in perceiving how I hold an experience in the body that I come to understand how I attach meaning to it and I become able to see it in a wider perspective.”

Then Jacques invited us chaplaincy students to ask any questions we had. He told us not to be polite, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask, “So, uh, what kinds of crimes did you commit?” One of us asked for a specific example of a moment when a prisoner’s meditation practice had been helpful and one inmate shared an anecdote about that. Another question was about racial tensions in the prison, but someone said it’s not really a problem there—it helps that 85% of the inmates are African American. Another questioner noted the feeling of camaraderie in the room—is it very different outside the meditation group? The answer, which was surprising, was that there is a feeling throughout the prison population that the inmates are brothers.

Toward the end, we meditated together again and then Jacques asked us visitors to stay seated and for the prisoners to walk around in a circle and bow to each of us, which they did. He said we were simply to receive this, but I saw some of my classmates bowing in return, so I did the same, but I didn’t need to, because next the inmates sat down and we visitors walked around the circle to bow to each inmate. I looked into the eyes of each person I bowed to and smiled and tried to see him as if I were the person who most loved him in all the world. Most inmates politely bowed back, but some followed instructions and just received our respect and good wishes, though nearly everyone whispered, “Thank you.”

A second post on our trip to San Quentin is forthcoming.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Hammett barfed once or twice a month or so ago, so I decided it was time to go to the vet. I skipped his annual check-up last year because two years ago, he went so berserk when I put him in his carrier that he cut his head open. At his recent visit, it turned out that he had lost a pound and a half, which is a lot for a ten-pound cat, and that he has hyperthyroidism. This might explain some of his more crazed behavior in recent months. I’m sorry now that I didn’t make him go to the vet last year; maybe the diagnosis could have been made then. Dr. Press said his life expectancy may not be affected at all, but said he’d need to take a pill every 12 hours for the rest of his life. Actually, he didn’t quite say that. He said “a pill every day” and left it to the person I picked the pills up from to clarify that it’s actually half a pill twice a day.

After I picked up the pills, I used a pill shooter to administer Hammett’s evening dose and did the same the next morning. At Rainbow, one of the workers showed me some soft salmon treats his cat likes, and it turned out Hammett was happy to take his pill concealed in a couple of cat treats rolled into a ball. For five days. Then he decided he hated that kind of treat, and it was back to the pill shooter, which he doesn’t hate, but which I’m sure is not much fun for him, and which definitely is not fun for me.

I called Dr. Press to ask a few questions: Does the pill have to be given precisely every 12 hours? How early or late can it be? What about when I go on vacation? What side effects of the medication should I watch out for?

Dr. Press said if I made a compelling case that I simply could not medicate Hammett every 12 hours, he would agree to a once-a-day protocol, but twice a day works better. Therefore, it’s fine for the morning or evening pill to be very early or late, and it’s fine for him to get his daily dose all at once while I’m away. As for side effects, he said to watch out for vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite.

That very night, Hammett vomited four times, and the following night, between 1 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., he vomited 13 times. I was upset, feeling I had failed the dearest cat there is by skipping his check-up last year, and by not noticing sooner that he was losing weight. He has always been skinny and from time to time, I have thought that he doesn’t have much leeway when it comes to losing weight—he wouldn’t have to lose his appetite for very long before he’d be at death’s door. Death’s door is what he seemed to be approaching, and he’s only just turned nine.

Dr. Press said the vomiting was presumably due to the pills, so to stop the pills and switch to a transdermal gel, which is rubbed on the inside of the ear twice a day. The first time I administered the gel, it got all over my bare skin and all over the inside and outside of Hammett’s ear. I found a video online in which a fellow demonstrates how he puts gel in his cat’s ear. It was helpful, but on the other hand, the feline star of the video is shown placidly lying down, happy to have the gel applied.

But the second time I applied the gel, it went a bit better, and I also ran into J.J. from Mission Pet Hospital that evening or the next and she demonstrated on my hand how well the gel has to be rubbed in, which was instructive.

Unfortunately, a week after starting the gel, Hammett barfed again. Dr. Press happened to call out of the blue just then and said he was afraid of that—Hammett may also have something going on with his intestinal tract. However, it may also just be that his thyroid levels aren’t normal yet. Hyperthyroidism can mask kidney problems, so once his thyroid levels are OK, we
’ll have to see how his kidneys are. Dr. Press said he’s rather young for kidney problems.
Well, we shall see. I invited his cat sitter over to learn how to apply the gel, but as soon as Hammett saw her, he ran away in a panic. I picked him up and he was trembling with fear. I have never been very fond of this person myself, but figured that if Hammett was always alive when I returned from vacation, that was the main thing. However, he was so terrified, it was impossible to do the demo, and so I decided it’s time to find a new cat sitter, preferably one who is also a veterinary technician, so the search is underway.

His old cat sitter said he was freaking out because he associates her with my being gone, and maybe that’s so, but it’s hard to believe that he was thinking, “There’s that person I really, really like, and she’s with my mother, who I also really, really like, but usually when I see her, it’s when my mother is gone, so now I don’t like her.” My mother said that sounded like rather complex thinking for a cat, and I agree.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

A Resounding Silence

Late in March, I came down with a cold and lost my voice completely for three and a half days. Fortunately, my job can largely be performed without actually speaking to anyone. Tom needed a ride to the airport at 4:45 a.m. on one of the mornings I couldn’t talk, and my first impulse was to say “No!” Actually, I did ask, “Are you morally opposed to SuperShuttle?” (this was before I lost my voice) and he explained that they wanted to pick him up at 3 a.m., which I could sympathize with. He does favor after favor for me, so I agreed to drive to the airport with him and return the City CarShare car to its pod afterward.

At night, when I go to bed, I ask myself, “What did I do today that was great? What do I feel remorse about? What am I grateful for?” These all have to be interpersonal events, things that happened with other people. I had asked Tom to pick up the car in the morning and swing back by our building to fetch me afterward so I could sleep for as long as possible, but I ended up being awake at 4:20 a.m. and decided to walk over to get the car with him, so he wouldn’t have to go alone. When he came out of his apartment, I smiled instead of frowned. And when we couldn’t figure out how to do this, that and the other in the Mini Cooper and he was getting stressed out, not being able to say anything whatsoever prevented me from asking, “Why did you reserve a car for just going to the airport that’s so hard to drive (and is also more expensive than some of the other choices)?” So that’s what I did that day that was great, and it was fun driving back from the airport with my arm hanging out of the window into the cold morning air, with the musical stylings of Metallica coming out of the sound system.

I looked online to see what to do about laryngitis and saw some advice to chew up and swallow an entire clove of raw garlic. This I did, against my better judgment, and will not do again. However, chewing raw ginger seemed to shock a few syllables into emerging.


One afternoon, I spilled the better part of a cup of hot chamomile tea onto my desk and watched awestruck as it soaked a bunch of papers, sloshed underneath my turntable and around my computer and a box of Puffs with Lotion, and dripped down onto my shredder, some electrical wires, and the floor. Wow. At least it wasn’t a chocolate milkshake, one more argument for avoiding sugar.


At the soup kitchen, I sat handing out numbers, consciously feeling my chest and stomach area, and mentally encouraging myself to relax and make space for what was felt there. Suddenly the guest sitting next to me said, “You’re a nice lady. Thank you for letting me sit next to you.”