Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Birthday Parties There and Here

On Friday before the Memorial Day weekend people were asking for help at work right up until 4:30 or so. I refrained from saying, “Come on, it’s 28 minutes before a three-day weekend starts! Why don’t you go home and inventory your condiments?”

I went to see my acupuncturist Friday evening. On Saturday Tom was off to the air show in San Jose and I treated myself to an extremely leisurely day. All I did was read, go to the grocery store, and cook. I caught up on my stack of periodicals. I also talked to my friend Carol Joy on the phone.

Saturday evening I meditated and went to bed relatively early, about 10:30 or 11:30. On Sunday morning, I meditated and went downtown to meet Tom’s niece Sarah at a car rental place on O’Farrell. She showed up promptly at noon, but then we had to wait for an hour or so for a friend of hers, so we went to Larkin St. in a not-immediately-successful search for food and we drove around a bit.

Usually I take the train to Sacramento with Tom, but he was going to come straight from San Jose, and Sarah determined that sharing a car would be way cheaper than paying Amtrak’s holiday fare.

We picked up Sarah’s friend at 1:15 and headed to Sacramento for a birthday party for Sarah and Eva; Eva is Tom’s sister-in-law and Sarah’s mother. As always, it was really, really nice. Going to Sacramento to see Tom’s family is one of my very favorite things to do. We sat outside by the pool and ate Eva’s wonderful food and talked and ate some more.

(In case Chris reads this, here’s who was there: Paul and Eva, Steve and Julie, Dan, Dave C., Sarah, Tom and I, and four of Sarah’s friends: Sophia, I think, and her husband; Kirsten; and another friendly woman whose name I can’t remember. Dan gave Eva a spectacular huge vase.)

Tom and I spent the night there, on the fold-out bed in the TV room, and in the morning we came home with Sarah and her friend. We had a bit of extra time and stopped at Ikea in Emeryville, where I’d never been before, but we only went to the food part at the front. I got some Scandinavian-style potato chips. They were rather reminiscent of non-Scandinavian-style potato chips.

When we got back to San Francisco, Tom went to help a friend move and I took a little nap and finished Jim Knipfel’s book Quitting the Nairobi Trio. I skipped all the chapters whose titles were German numbers and which recount the details of hallucinations he had. The rest was reasonably enjoyable. Now I’ve started On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman.

After a while I got up and pumped up my bike tires and picked rocks out of the treads with a repurposed serrated knife (weekly chores), and then I showered and took BART down to Montgomery and walked to Chef Jia’s at 925 Kearny for a birthday dinner for me a week early.

Here’s who was there: Tom, David and Lisa C., Tom’s mother Ann and her husband Mac, Lisa M., and Mr. Marilyn Bull. The food was good and we had a lovely time. After dinner, we walked a block or two to a café in North Beach for dessert. They didn’t have any candles so Mr. Bull carried in a piece of cake for me and did an uncanny impression of a burning candle with her other hand. I received a birthday remembrance or two, including a book from David and Lisa (one of Pema Chodron’s) and a CD that Mr. Bull had made. The best compilation tape I have was made by her years ago, so I’m looking forward to hearing it. Lisa M. made me a card with her original artwork, with which she overflows in a variety of forms. I offered David C. a bite of my cake and he said, "What's wrong with you? You never let anyone have any of your cake." I told him I'm turning over a new leaf for my birthday.

This morning I had to take Thelonious to the vet. Of course there was a big fuss about getting in the cat box (which is the same cardboard box I brought her home from the SPCA in 16 years ago)—I barely escaped without having a hole put in one of my better t-shirts—and then when we were in the exam room waiting for Dr. Press, she refused to leave the box. When Dr. Press came in, she hissed at him. Dr. Press has a blond crew cut and is very cheerful. I have a friend who once saw his kids and said they are four little versions of him. I like to imagine them, though I’ll probably never see them myself. I like to imagine them going sailing.

Thelonious had lost eight ounces in the past six months or so, so she had to have blood drawn for tests. She seems pretty cheerful and she still likes to chase her toys around, but I know one of these days I’ll have to make the decision to have her put to sleep, unless she happens to die on her own at home. Maybe it will still be a couple of years or so. Unfortunately, she has Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the food she eats to control that is the opposite of the food she would eat if she starts to have kidney disease. Dr. Press is not one to borrow trouble, but he mentioned today that she may have problems if we have to take her off her current food.

I took a cab home and found my building manager smoking on the front porch. We had a genial exchange, plus we had a genial exchange last week via email when I offered to print the latest lists of what can go in the recycling and compost bins for everyone in the building.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Questioning Requirements

I felt absolutely exuberant for several days after I got back from my retreat. This kind of meditation tends to create a lot of intensity, so whatever is happening emotionally is magnified. Good things were happening. (Nothing jaw-dropping, but even the simplest nice thing was profoundly pleasant.)

Last year the teachers warned us about the increased intensity and said to be careful in our communications in the period right after the retreat. I was sure I wouldn’t have any problems, but within a few days, I had mortally offended a coworker, when, to my mind, I was just making a simple clarification.

Nonetheless, excited about the pleasant effects of concentration practice, I decided to make that my daily practice, but had to give it up when I found myself being unduly cranky, and go back to vipassana and metta.

This year I got a ride home from someone who does much concentration practice and loves the effects, including what he experiences as a great clarity. I decided that maybe my problem had been that instead of simply directing my attention to the object of awareness (my breath) and letting whatever happened happen, I was seeking to achieve pleasant feelings, and that was bringing a grim Type-A sensibility to my practice and my life.

So I have been doing an hour a day of concentration practice since this year’s retreat and after a few days, it seemed I might be going to get the same results as last year. I realized that though I was making a conscious effort not to exaggerate my breath so as to have something to notice, I was still doing that to some degree, which produces a headache; I had a persistent headache at the beginning of the retreat and had one off and on until the end of the retreat.

Instead of seeking to notice the sensations of the breath, I decided just to notice the spot where I would feel the sensations if there were any to feel, and that is working much better. The spot is the top of the upper lip. I focus my attention there and after a breath or two, faint sensations are detectable, but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter, since it’s an exercise in paying attention, not a breathing exercise.

I also found myself expecting to feel a certain way as the result of my practice—to feel calm, or not to feel angry. I had to go back to square one and remember to say yes to things exactly as they are. I will suffer if I have a goal to be calm, while having the intention simply to notice things as they are can bring magical results at times. Then the trick is not to get attached to those results and want more of the same, but to let things morph as they will.

It turned out not to work so well to focus on my breath throughout the day. It is working best for now to attend to the breath in formal sitting periods, and to attend to other physical sensations and thoughts during the day, particularly noticing my requirements or how I think things are supposed to be, or how I’m supposed to be. Ezra Bayda’s first two books have been inspirational in this regard.

He also has managed to make it sink in that life will never be problem-free, that having a goal not to have problems is absolutely unrealistic, and that problems are, as Stephen Levine says, grist for the mill. They aren’t obstacles to the path, they are the path. They are in fact wonderful opportunities to see the beliefs that make us miserable, which kind of boil down to “It shouldn’t be like this. I should have more of the things I like and less of the things I don’t like.”

This is not to say that I should let people treat me unfairly in the name of accepting what is, but to take the opportunity to see what my thoughts are and how those thoughts create suffering and to sort that all out before I communicate whatever needs to be communicated, if anything.

In the past week I had been going through some jitters about an upcoming event and found things unfolding in a way that I am pleased about. It seems a lot easier lately to see my thoughts and moods and to accept them as they are, whatever they may happen to be, instead of believing every last thought and then, on top of that, seizing the opportunity to make unkind judgments about myself.

For instance, I might start to think someone else involved in the event should be doing a certain thing. If I believe that thought, I might work myself into a complete state about what has to happen and how upset I’ll be if it doesn’t. Then I might notice this and berate myself for not being calmer. “I just don’t know how to handle these things and I never did. I’m just not good at these kinds of things. Maybe I shouldn’t participate.” Much misery.

Now I can just say, “Oh, having a thought that such-and-such has to happen.” As soon as I see it clearly, it’s already lost the majority of its power and I can go on to inquire if my happiness is really dependent on whatever thing. It’s not giving myself a pep talk: “No matter what happens, everything will be great!” but just taking a moment to question the requirement.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Your Existence Gives Me Hope

I’ve just gotten back from an eight-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre and, naturally, came back with some big life questions to ponder, such as what if someone invites me to dinner at a fancy restaurant? What would I wear?

What I pretty much wear all the time is loose cotton pants that I make myself and, these days, a t-shirt, which is generally navy or yellow, because those colors go best with the colors of my pants, which are mostly medium blues and kelly or olive greens, with some forays into red/pink/purple. My mother made me the pattern for the loose pants about eight years ago, when the loose pants era began.

Accordingly, my closet contains nothing but loose cotton pants, t-shirts, and some men’s button-down shirts left over from that era.

So I asked my mother what I would wear if I got invited to a fancy restaurant and she said, “Oh, I don’t know—baggy high-water pants and a t-shirt?” That was quite funny. She said I could have a saying printed on the t-shirt to suit the occasion, something like, “Down with money.” Then, not apropos of the preceding, she offered to send me her old exercise treadmill in many small pieces to facilitate shipping. “Get yourself an arc welder,” she advised.

I also called Steve Harriman with the clothes question on the theory that he has observed lots of dressed-up women and because he knows and appreciates me (as I do him; I love Steve Harriman), and he and his wife Julie had plenty of good advice. I knew he’d be the right person to ask.

With that resolved, I went out to Papalote to get a burrito. Around the Mission, someone has lately spray-painted a lot of romantic slogans onto the sidewalks using various stencils: “I’ve waited my whole life for you.” “This time itll [sic] be different.” “Your existence gives me hope.” I like them, but, predictably, not everyone does and yesterday I saw that someone had scrawled a response with a thick black marker: “Fuck off!”

Someone else had gotten very organized and made his or her own stencil for use near these sayings. It says “Shut up honky” and has a graphic of a steaming pile of dog poo.

I had left Tom in charge of Thelonious. On a previous occasion, I came home to find a dreadful smell in my apartment, very like shit, but I could not locate its source for some minutes. Finally I discovered that Tom, instead of flushing the cat poop down the toilet, had carefully placed it in the little brown paper bag that serves as the bathroom trash bag. The smell had permeated all the towels and lingered even after I got rid of the poop and changed the towels.

So when I left this time, I asked him to please flush the poop down the toilet, not so much put it in the trash, but please go ahead and just flush it down the toilet if you will. And when I returned yesterday, there was quite a dreadful smell in my apartment, very like shit. “Then what’s that bag there for?” he asked when I mentioned it, which I had resolved not to do, as Thelonious was alive and well and had plenty of food and fresh water. But then it turned out he had made other plans for the weekend we were going to celebrate my birthday, and then I couldn’t resist mentioning the cat poop. (That’s one of those key relationship skills: The Floodgate of Grievances.) In the end, we changed the day of the birthday celebration and all was well.

As for the retreat, it was tremendous, as always. It was mindfulness meditation, which can be deployed in the service of insight or of concentration/tranquility. This kind of retreat was the latter and it was very pleasant and the teachers were wonderful and the weather was idyllic and the food was fabulous (and one of the cooks was kind of cute) and it was just very great. I interviewed with Phillip Moffitt, who is very darling and lovable. (Interviewing is when you meet every couple of days with a teacher for 15 minutes to discuss how things are going.)

My own teacher is Howard Cohn—Howie—and I love him and have been going to his meditation group off and on since 1991. But I’ve noticed that it hasn’t really led to my making like-minded friends, though I like very much the people who go there. Another of the teachers on this retreat was Eugene Cash. The woman who gave me a ride to the retreat mentioned that she thought he, who also teaches in San Francisco, had more of a community thing underway, with more potential to make friends, and it appears that is the case.

I visited Eugene’s website today (the Insight Meditation Community of San Francisco) and will probably go to his meditation group soon, after I get a reply to my email about where to park my bicycle.

Happy Bike to Work Day! And yay for the new bike lanes that I found this morning had appeared on my usual route to work.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Holding P’s Hand

Yesterday, Sunday, I got up about 11:15 and talked to my mother on the phone, mainly about extensions for Firefox, of which she had found some good ones. She was having fun testing the various features. She’s way more computer-literate than I am. She’s built her own from the ground up. She’s also way more enthusiastic than I am about customizing her PC experience. I would never bother, for instance, to change the colors of my Firefox tabs. I say, if white was good enough for my grandfather’s Firefox tabs, god rest his soul, it’s good enough for mine.

After we got off the phone, I went over to the Lumiere to see One Last Thing, which I thought was great. I laughed, and I cried and cried, more than at any other movie I can think of. The second-saddest movie I’ve seen in the past couple of years was A Home at the End of the World. If I’d been alone in the theater, I would have thrown myself on the ground and howled. But then, I also cried almost all the way through School of Rock.

After the movie, I walked down Polk St. until I had either passed Fields Book Store or it had disappeared. I consulted a phone book (not touching the plastic cover, which had obviously been spat upon) and walked back in the other direction five or six blocks to visit the bookstore. While I was there, a 65-year-old hippie began to share his frustrations with the very nice and patient cashier. It seems his parents/stepparents still don’t understand him.

I had read that A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books might be sold in the near future so I walked over there to see if they were having a massive sale, which they are, but not for a week (and it’s a Mother’s Day sale), so I didn’t buy anything. My policy on books is to borrow them from the library and only to buy them if they’re books on Buddhism, and in the latter case preferably to obtain them from Stacey’s on Market St., where you always get 10 percent off.

It was getting so toward the end of the afternoon that I feared it might be too late to call P. by the time I got home, as who knew where else I might go, so I decided to pay him a surprise visit. I would have taken the 49 to Mission and 26th, but traffic was very slow on Van Ness, so I walked down to Market and took the J Church instead.

I found cheerful Ed sitting on the front porch with a mystery novel. “What’s new?” I asked. He beamed and said, “Not a thing!” and knocked on wood to ensure his continued tranquility. He said he was enjoying the book, but that he’d sworn off trying to figure out the endings of mysteries once he realized it qualified as work, as why should he work when he’s reading for pleasure?

I found P. lying on his bed, staring into space, with his pants undone. We visited for a bit, and then I went to see Lourdes, who told me her parents are gone, but she has nine (or ten) grandchildren. Her brother fights with his wife: bing, bong, bang! She asked if I had eaten, how far away I live and how I was planning to get there. She always asks these things. She said they might have a Christmas party.

P. and I went outside so he could have a cigarette. On the phone he often says, “I want to hold your hand,” so I said, “I’d like to hold your hand,” and we held hands until I left.

Then I went to Papalote at 24th and Valencia and had a marinated-tofu burrito. When I got there, there was a line out the door. They have several vegetarian burrito options, including soyrizo, and very tasty house salsa.

I thought I might get a peanut-butter cookie at the Mission Creek Café, but they were out so I came home and there you have it.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Most Unsatisfactory Jib

On Friday afternoon I went to see my acupuncturist and it was delightful, as always. To get home from there, I walk up to Geary St. and wait for the 38, and then transfer to the 22 at Fillmore. While I was on the 22, a wheelchair passenger needed to get on. The bus was crowded and several people had to stand up to make room for the wheelchair. A few blocks later, a second wheelchair passenger got on. I heard the driver murmur, as he cleared the area for the second passenger, “This isn’t my day.”

We got to Market St. and there was some kind of drama at the back door. Someone in a uniform was bending over outside the door trying to free something and people were saying, “Someone’s stuck!” I went and told the driver and he said, “You lyin’?” which was kind of funny. The person lived.

Today I canceled a haircut appointment for this afternoon and went off to the movies. I’ve been reading a book by Ezra Bayda, who is a fan of very detailed thought-labeling (“Having a thought that perhaps I’ll have a peanut butter and tomato sandwich”), so I’ve been doing that lately and have noticed that fully 25 percent of my thoughts are about my hair. He also talks about noticing what our requirements are: I require that people not sniffle a hundred times a day. I require that people not fill my apartment with cigarette smoke. And so forth, right on down to requiring that people not walk behind me on the sidewalk with loud clacking heels. Yet the more requirements I have, the less happy I am sure to be, as there will be that many more opportunities for dissatisfaction. And where do these requirements come from? I think them up!

I was meaning to see the original Poseidon Adventure today, and figured there would be a line around the block, as there were only going to be two shows. I was very pleased to find that I was the only person in San Francisco who wanted to do this; the theater was deserted except for a ticket-taker who told me it was showing at 12 a.m., not 12 p.m. I wasn’t peeved. I could see it would be wasted effort. It’s not like the guy was going to say, “Oh, well, in that case, we’ll show it right now.”

I got back on the bus, and then it occurred to me that maybe something I wanted to see might be on at the Kabuki, so I got off again two blocks later and indeed, I found that United 93, which I had meant to see this weekend anyway, was starting in two minutes, so I saw that.

When I saw the trailer for it a month ago, I felt a bit blindsided and thought I wouldn’t want to see it, but the reviews convinced me it would be worthwhile, and it was. I’m terrified to fly, and was before 9/11, and feared the movie would exacerbate that. Heck, just a movie about someone taking the shuttle to L.A. would be my idea of a frightening movie: “Jesus, look—that guy is at the airport!” But I don’t think United 93 will have that kind of effect after all, either because it depicts what is obviously a very rare occurrence and/or because of the magic of denial: “Naw, this could never happen,” even though it did happen. I think there may have actually been something therapeutic in watching these events, as least as imagined by the director, unfold.

After that I went to have a picture framed at Flax. It’s a drawing I made when I was seven, and evidently learning about commas, as the caption features a couple of large, careful ones. I agonized extensively over the mat and frame choices, and then worried, as I was leaving the store, that it will look ugly. It cost a rather staggering amount, but I promised myself that if I don’t love the result, I will start all over again. It can be in lieu of a fancy vacation.

I walked up Valencia and bought a newspaper and read it over a burrito and Orangina at Mariachi’s.

This evening Tom and I saw The Constant Gardener, which was excellent.

Today I received a letter from Frank Manahan in Dublin saying that he wanted me to have something personal of his to remember him by, so he was sending me his Safeway card from when he lived here.

I wrote him back right away, thanking him very much and assuring him that my pleasure in having this memento was not in the slightest dimmed by the fact that he didn’t actually enclose it.

He often bitterly refers to my having thrown what he characterizes as a “snot rag” at him years ago and hit him in the eye, so I enclosed a wad of toilet paper and told him it was the original item, which I’d been storing in a safe deposit box. I closed with an affectionate “UYC,” which stands for “Up yours, children,” which is a remark made by the principal to his students in a Simpsons episode. Frank and I have enough inside jokes to be able to converse almost without recourse to the English language.

He also is still brooding over the time he had a terrible sty in his eye and I brought Ben over to admire it. Sometimes he’ll say, “I hope you get a sty.”

One time he sent me an email saying he was about ready to bring a gun to work and I cautioned him that he probably shouldn’t express such sentiments in company email, though of course I knew he wasn’t serious. He wrote back, “Right, ixnay on the udderlay, underway.” I wrote back, “What?” and he replied, “I can't remember either.”

He and his friend Lochlainn, who still lives here (and who is an extremely lovely person), and I all refer to each other as Cutley, which can also be an adjective (“I really don’t think that’s very cutley”). It comes from a day I was teaching Frank something when we worked together. We came upon a task I had already done. “Oh, look,” I said. “LWA has already done this for you.” “I don’t care for the cut of your jib,” he said instantly. This has had to be announced by one party or the other quite frequently since then, plus I think he said it to my mother the first time he talked to her on the phone. Either that, or he may well have said, "Up yours."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Calling All Holmeses

Turns out I am still the bemused owner of a jar of Nayonaise, so I brought it home again. Maybe I’ll add it to the spaghetti sauce when I have pasta.

I gave the non-stick Revere skillet to a single mother who is just moving into a new apartment with her teenaged daughter. She seemed really nice and said the skillet was greatly appreciated, so I gave her the other Revere pots I got via the warranty replacement, and a couple of other kitchen items I no longer use.

I didn’t get an effusive thank-you after the second phase of gift-giving and I can’t blame her—those pots are really crappy. As I was packing them up to take back to work, I noticed the lids did not seat even remotely properly. Before the recipient came to get them, I warned her via email that they weren’t very nice, but that I hoped they’d do until she could get something better.

My father—I mean, Santa—went through phases of sending knives, things you can sharpen knives with, and garlic presses, so I have been rich in those things. Each year at Christmas there was a note saying something like, “Santa thought last year’s garlic press was the best possible, but since then he has discovered … ” He sent me a couple of knives I’m very fond of, so I passed on one I’d bought for myself.

For knife-sharpening, I now exclusively use the same thing my father uses, which is a Diamond Steel, which is a steel and a sharpener in one. (A steel does not actually sharpen a knife; it uncurls the edge.)

It had been a source of mild humiliation that I could not get the hang of using a sharpening stone—not only did the knives not end up sharp, but I often scratched the sides of them, which was annoying. But the Diamond Steel is easy to use and it works absolutely perfectly and apparently will last forever. Now my knives are extremely sharp. I highly recommend this item.

Yesterday I took the bus to my dentist’s office from work and home afterwards. On the return bus, I sat in the back amid several silent teenagers. I was doing my “I’m a bumbling white person in a dorky hat; don’t mind me” impression, at which I don’t have to work very hard. One young fellow got up and approached another young fellow sitting in front of me and starting calling him names: “Bitch, do you want to start something? Nigger-ass bitch.” It sounded kind of like certain Korn songs. The guy in front of me was a lot smaller than the aggressor and he somewhat inaudibly indicated that he didn’t want to fight. The larger guy took a half-hearted swing at the smaller guy. Then he said, “Are you calling your homeys?”

The littler guy said, “Naw, naw, I’m just on the phone.” I thought, well, now that you mention it, I hope he isn't calling his homeys. The other teenagers nearby didn’t react one way or the other, which was good. That is to say, they didn’t rush the smaller guy and start kicking him. I hadn’t expected them to jump up and defend the victim, saying, “We’re nonplussed by your ungentlemanly behavior.”

Next the bigger guy made a perfunctory attempt to steal the smaller guy’s cell phone, and then he got off the bus. It seemed kind of horrible to me, the plight of the smaller fellow, and yet maybe that kind of thing happens constantly. Maybe it’s equivalent to teenagers saying, “What’s new?” to each other in the 1970s.

What would I have done if a knife or gun had appeared? Scratch that; that one’s easy: flee the bus in a panic. What if the younger fellow had been kicked or punched or set upon by the whole group? What then should I have done?

Note to Ben: Were you ever to employ the word “homie,” as I now find necessary, would you spell it “homey” or “homie”? Google has ample instances of both. I guess I'm leaning toward “homey” now that I see them more or less side by side.

Response from Ben: Given the literacy rate of the individuals that employ such terms, I think you are safe with just about any spelling.

How about the old school "holmes" instead?

Response from me: That's a good idea, but I have to use it in the plural. "You're not calling your holmeses, are you?"

Today I read a news account of a man in his 20s who was shot and killed this morning in San Francisco by assailants who were wearing ski masks and haven’t yet been identified. That made me think of the guys on the bus.