Thursday, December 23, 2010

All I Want for Christmas Is #19 Back

Technically, it’s not gone, but its days are short.

(Note the correct use there of “it’s” and “its.” Also, we have no month called Febyooary. But I digress.)

I went to see my endodontist, Dr. C., Monday of this week for a second opinion on my tooth, poor little number 19. Dr. C. did two root canals for me several months ago. When he came into the exam room, he shook my hand and asked, “Do you remember being here?” “As it happens, yes, I do,” I replied.

He performed a brief exam and confirmed that I have a cracked root. He drew a picture showing how the distance from the gumline to the jawbone—the pocket right next to the tooth—should be 1-3 millimeters deep. You shouldn’t be able to sink a probe any farther than that. He showed me on his skinny metal probe what represents the longer distance, and then sank it easily three times that far while I watched in a mirror. He had predicted this wouldn’t hurt, and asked afterward, “Wasn’t painful, right?”

“It was psychologically painful,” I said. I think I also felt a spasm in my wallet.

The one good thing about this is that I should soon have an actual unattached human tooth in my possession. (Dr. C. showed me his collection of the same. I said, “No offense, but: gross.”) One of my relatives has a recurring nightmare about teeth (which I’m sure is fine to mention on the Internet), the same relative who is a masterful wielder of fake vomit. I had to grin, thinking of the joyful feelings I’m going to have when this person finds an entire human tooth in an unexpected spot.

This same person once sent me two little toenails via the U.S. mail. When I protested by email, the malefactor wrote back something like, “I sent one toenail only. I’m aggrieved to learn it’s no longer museum quality.”

I had made an appointment to have the tooth extracted today, but then realized it would be a grave mistake to have oral surgery right before the biggest injudicious eating day of the year, Christmas Eve, which is followed immediately by the second biggest such day, Christmas Day. I canceled the appointment and then discovered that that oral surgeon has a lot of extremely negative reviews online, anyway.

I looked up the other two people my dentist recommended, but one of them also is very poorly reviewed, and the other is clear across town. (I’m glad to report that my own dentist has nothing but five-star reviews at Yelp, as does endodontist Dr. C.) I called Dr. C. to find out what oral surgeons he likes, and now have an appointment for early January, as my insurance, for what it’s worth, is maxed out for the year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bugitarian Zeal

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night with an ant walking in one ear, and also the other: I was either covered with ants or hallucinating. Given that, I had to hope I was covered with ants, and, fortunately, I was. Fifty or sixty of them had arrived for a buffet, a tasty morsel resting between the two pillows. It wasn’t too grisly. It looked like a bug wing or something.

For a moment, I thought I’d have to go ahead and squish the ants, that the situation was out of control, but then I remembered my commitment to bugitarian principles and painstakingly scooped each ant up with a small piece of paper and tapped it onto the outside windowsill, a freezing night outdoors its punishment for disturbing my sleep and causing me to doubt my sanity for a moment. (I’m sure every one of them re-entered immediately.) When I was finally done with this project, Hammett marched up smartly, as if to say, “Anything I can do, boss?”

Several days ago, I noticed a slight swelling on my gum, long and smooth, and this afternoon decided to perform the initial diagnostic test known as Poke It with Your Finger. I was surprised at how painful it was, so then I went online and concluded I had a certain thing, of which it said, “If you have this, call your dentist immediately, and prepare to lose that tooth!” I could scarcely believe that, but since I’m a hypochondriac and don’t like to miss this kind of opportunity, I went ahead and called my dentist, who asked me to come in right away, and within the hour, he was telling me I am likely going to lose this tooth.

I asked if I could then walk around with a hole in my head—I mean, an additional hole in my head—but he said they don’t recommend that, because the teeth on either side will start to creep toward each other, seeking to huddle together for warmth, I presume. He said you can cap the teeth on either side and hang from them a toothlike object that sits gaily atop the gum, for all the world as if mocking the departed tooth. This solution (a bridge) is prone to problems, but insurance does cover it.

Then again, you can get a much better thing (an implant), a thing anyone in their right mind would naturally prefer, but that isn’t typically covered by insurance, and that costs a pretty penny. Nay, it costs a drop-dead gorgeous penny.

What I probably have is an abscess due to a cracked (fractured) root. This particular tooth has long been my favorite, because it received a root canal in the 1980s (and also because it once had a beautiful gold crown) and so, unlike other insubordinate teeth, has never hurt, at least until a couple of months ago. The pain that popped up at that point led my dentist to theorize that my teeth clenching at night had worsened to the point that the whole tooth was moving in its socket, but now he thinks it was that the root had cracked.

Now, when you have a root canal, the root itself is not removed. The root is a long, pink, repulsive-looking thing you can see a picture of online, and when you get a root canal, it is hollowed out, the nerve is removed, and the cavity inside the root is packed with a rubber-based substance. (Actually, my dentist mentioned gutta-percha. Could it be?)

Back when the root canal was done for this tooth, it was the prevailing thing to pack the cavity as firmly as possible—really force the stuff in there. These days they still fill the cavity thoroughly, but don’t make a point of mashing the filler in to the utmost degree, because they’ve realized that the root should be treated with a bit more care, particularly once it’s been hollowed out.

Additionally, the nerve itself has a hydrating effect, and once it’s gone, the tooth becomes desiccated and brittle (just like the rest of me is doing) and more prone to breakage. Couple that with determined teeth clenching, or even just however many years of chewing, and the root can fracture. Then I guess bacteria gets into the crack, or something, and an infection can result; that’s what the swelling is: pus.

You can also get an infection when something like a popcorn kernel gets between the tooth and the gum and sits there, but my dentist investigated and concluded that is not the case here.

So. Besides the extremely handsome penny, this is probably going to require ten appointments of various kinds on top of a zillion I just had for this, that and the other little thing. I scheduled all of my paid time off from work long ago, so I’ve been well into unpaid time off for a while, which is not my company’s preferred way of doing things, though it doesn’t bother me at all. I’d much rather use unpaid than paid time off for anything other than vacation. It sounds like I will probably use more unpaid time off starting to deal with this, making my company unhappy, and come January 1, I will start to use a new pile of paid time off, making me unhappy, but what can you do?

There is a chance the second-opinion guy will not agree with my dentist, but if he does, it’s off to the oral surgeon, who may or may not (stop reading now, Mom) cut two vertical flaps in my gum and peel it away to be absolutely sure what’s happening, and you cannot have general anesthesia for this; I inquired. Then, if it is a cracked root, they remove the tooth, and then it heals up (one hopes) and then, after you work out your ten-year payment plan, they put a titanium post into the bone, and attach a lovely crown to the post.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Casa de Hammett

Hammett’s new carrier has worked out very well. When I brought it home, I put a folded-up towel in it, plus the tiny hand-knitted blanket he came home from the SPCA with, and in short order, he was seen lying inside, and, if I’m not mistaken, displaying the gravitas of the new homeowner. Of course, this is just a starter house. His next one will have a helipad and a wine cellar.

On vet day, I put his carrier on a chair with the opening tilted up a bit and poured him in without incident. I wondered if he would feel betrayed to have his house suddenly repurposed as a prison, but after we returned home, he sniffed it as if curious about its malleable character, but not indignant.

Around that time, I saw the Kevin Costner movie A Message in a Bottle, whose plot strained credulity, but which also happened to feature my new favorite, Paul Newman, toward the end of his career. I guess I’m going to have to go ahead and see all of Paul Newman’s movies.

My hospice visitee, E., died and I began visiting a new person, F., at her home. This was described to me as being in “Potrero Flats,” so needless to say, getting there involves cycling up a hill, then a steeper hill, then a truly monstrous hill, one of those where your front tire is only tenuously in contact with the ground.

I had another triple dharma day last week. This time I had dinner at the Zen Center after sitting there, and went on to Howie’s. He wasn’t there, but had lined up a guest teacher: Ajahn Anandabodhī, one of three Theravadan nuns who have established a monastery for women here in San Francisco.

She said a helpful thing: If we are angry and give that anger to someone else, we are throwing away a valuable teacher. She said we should hold our teacher—anger, fear, sorrow, whatever it is—close to us so that we can learn what it has to teach. You can conceivably think of not getting angry at someone as missing out: Rats! I didn’t get to give that person a piece of my mind.

But, as Ajahn Anandabodhī said, the deprivation is not in foregoing expression of the feeling, but in acting it out.

Thursday of last week I did laundry, which, as it had not been done (note the passive voice there) for a month, was a horrible ordeal: seven loads. Just getting that much stuff around the corner and back was an accomplishment. I was planning to clean the bathroom Friday evening, but after all that laundry, thought perhaps I should rest up for a while before going ahead. But then it dawned on me that if I took care of both, I wouldn’t have to do either again soon!

I had not cleaned the bathroom for six months, on the theory that a bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned for six months is pretty much the same as one that hasn’t been cleaned for three weeks, so if you can stand how it is at three weeks, you’re off the hook for quite a while. However, as of this last experience, I’ve reluctantly concluded that isn’t quite true. I had to put on gloves and drench the place in Citra-Solv. At any rate, it’s clean now, so if you’re planning to visit me, do it soon.

Saturday morning I went to the Zen Center where Steve Stücky, the (or a) co-abbot, gave the talk and answered questions in the dining room afterwards, a first experiment in live streaming of the talk and Q&A. It seems like it went well. We got a question from someone in Mexico. I stayed for lunch and, because I’m a slow eater, got to have two entirely different sets of companions.

Then I went to Rainbow. I didn’t see my favorite checkout person, but had run into her on my way to the Zen Center hours earlier, both on our bicycles.

In the evening, I watched Gone in 60 Seconds, about car thieves. I kept thinking it would be a lot better if it starred Jason Statham instead of Nicolas Cage, but it was good.

I’ve also lately seen Twilight, the vampire movie, plus the two existing sequels; there will be two more later. I knew I would love them, and I did. Five trillion teenage girls can scarcely be wrong. Now my research is done and I’m ready to have an intelligent conversation about how totally cute Robert Pattinson is, should someone happen to bring it up. Tom teaches in a high school and says this topic never loses its appeal.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Melatonin Dunnit

The Saturday night I returned from Michigan, I saw Hud, with Paul Newman. He plays an out-and-out scoundrel, but he’s so outrageously attractive it’s hard to completely dislike him. I’m surprised that million-watt scene where Hud is lying on Alma’s bed didn’t actually melt the celluloid into gooey drips. Maybe it did, and they had to film it again, telling him to turn it down a bit this time.

I haven’t seen many of his films, but he was also not an entirely great guy in The Hustler, so it seems movie-makers appreciated the tension between Newman’s charisma (and looks) and some of the less admirable traits of his characters.

The following Tuesday, I had a triple dharma day: I did my usual 45 minutes of sitting in the morning before work, sat at the Zen Center after work, and then went to Howie’s for yet more sitting.

They were three days into a seven-day sesshin (period of intensive practice) at the Zen Center and it was very quiet and tranquil in the zendo, noticeably so. (Thus I enjoyed some of the fruits of sitting for three days without having to sit for three days!) On the other hand, because it was during sesshin, there would be no public dinner, so it was sort of a split personality sitting: half enjoying the great peace, and half trying to figure out where to go for dinner.

I ended up at the café one block down the hill (does it have a name?), where I knew I would see Sir Dave, and so I did. (He said, “What a surprise!”)

After dinner, I went on to Howie’s, where the talk following the sit was about metta and concentration.

Work is going well. After quitting and unquitting, I was on a sort of probation, so have exerted myself mightily to live up to or exceed expectations, and my manager has expressed his satisfaction. Into the bargain, I was able to mend a relationship with a peer that has been strained for years and caused a huge amount of frustration to both parties, no doubt. Certainly it has made me miserable. It’s a great thing to be allies, finally.

I was looking forward to going to the Zen Center last Saturday morning for the talk, but I ended up having to work until midnight Friday night, so I couldn’t.

Saturday evening Tom and I watched Oliver Stone’s JFK. During the opening credits, they show President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, and though they don’t show the actual shooting (then), by the time the movie starts, the President is dead. I’d always thought it was a biography in which Kevin Costner plays Kennedy, so I was confused—what could this movie possibly be about, then? Tom said it was about the investigation after the assassination. The running time is three and a half hours, so I very nearly said I didn’t want to see it: is there any way a 3.5-hour movie about a legal case could be anything but soporific?

But then I decided that, if nothing else, it would be a lot of looking at Kevin Costner, so I stuck with it and it was absolutely riveting. There was not a single dull moment, and it was reasonably easy to keep the various threads of the plot straight. It seeks to persuade that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, and it is very convincing there. Sir Dave’s primary interest is 9/11, but he has a sideline in the Kennedy assassination, so I’ve heard my share about Dulles and so forth, but really didn’t know enough about the whole thing to form an opinion. JFK took care of that.

After the movie that night, I undertook my first and last experiment with melatonin, a supplement probably readily available in your drugstore. More than once I’ve read that it’s good for lucid dreaming, so I decided to give it a try. The fellow in the pill department at Rainbow said you can take six milligrams, but he recommended taking only three. I asked what people actually take it for, as I imagine its main use is not for lucid dreaming, and learned it’s primarily for problems sleeping.

I went ahead and took three milligrams, one tablet, and within 20 minutes, I was nearly on the floor. It had a very powerful, very unpleasant effect, including that I felt kind of dizzy and disoriented and couldn’t quite seem to see what I was looking at. My face turned red and I felt burning hot. I went right to bed—there was not much else I could do—but not until I’d written down what I took and when I took it, as I had every expectation I was going to wake up dead, and didn’t want to leave a mystery to compound my relatives' terrible grief.

All I can say is, thank goodness I didn’t take six milligrams. I read later that if you take fifty milligrams, it increases the amount of REM sleep you have and the vividness of your dreams. I don’t doubt that at all, but will not be experiencing it firsthand. I poured the rest of the bottle into the trash the next day. Sorry about the tiny bit of melatonin you’re eventually going to get in your glass of water.

Do you ever think about that? Every drug anyone ever takes, puts in the trash or compost, or flushes down the toilet, legal drug or not, ends up in our water—all the hormones, chemotherapy, hallucinogens. I’m sure water treatment is supposed to remove all of that, but wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


(A person who lives in Demonym.)

I flew to Detroit the Saturday before Thanksgiving and shared the Custom Transit van from the airport with a pair of—I won’t say “major jerks,” but a pair of really lovely, I’m sure, persons temporarily acting like major jerks, who complained loudly half the way to Ypsilanti about Custom Transit’s lousy service, when they had shown up with an extra person, which is not how Custom Transit works.

I made sure to give the driver a huge tip and thank him profusely for Custom Transit’s fantastic service. Honestly, those people could have been standing beside I-94 with their thumbs out. Instead they were in fact rolling along toward their destination, despite not having booked in advance, and still had the nerve to list all the people they were going to badmouth Custom Transit to and to try to estimate exactly how many dollars Custom Transit was going to lose for not kissing their feet and on and on. It was all I could do not to turn around and say, “Can you shut the $*%!! up?” They must have been Ann Arborites. They could learn from us humble (and tolerant!) Ypsilantians (?). Ypsilantoids? Ypsi-ites?

I had to phone my mother to ask what you call a person who lives in Ypsilanti.

“Why do you want to know?”

“You know why.”

“No, I don’t: I’m getting old. Oh, right, for your blog. I should polish up some witticisms so I can be ready. Write down that my favorite program is Hoarders and you can get it on Netflix. No, don’t write that down.”

“I already wrote it down.”

“All right. I guess there’s nothing that can be done about that, then.”

“So what do you call a person who lives in Ypsilanti?”

“I don’t call them anything. I call them ‘fellow citizens.’”

“Maybe Dad knows this?”

My mother yelled my father’s name, then laughed and said, “He says, ‘Heh heh heh, you don’t want to know.’”

It turns out my first guess is (possibly) right: Ypsilantian. At least, that’s what my father thinks it is. We did at least figure out the word that means what you call a person who lives in a certain place: demonym.

(Iggy Pop lived in Ypsilanti in his teenage years, and Domino’s Pizza was founded there.)

Speaking of Hoarders, I know a guy who knows a guy who was featured on one show, and also I had this idea for a cartoon to be submitted to The New Yorker: A Hoarders episode with the guest star saying, "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested."

My first evening in Ypsi, Dad made the three of us avocado salad for dinner, and then we watched The Green Zone and The Hustler, featuring a toothsome young Paul Newman.

On Sunday, Dad made tomato soup, and pasta and asparagus with cheese sauce, and we watched the first part of the John Adams miniseries and A Walk on the Moon.

I was amused to see a new photo had appeared in a prominent position near some framed family pictures: Michelle Obama.

I’m glad Michelle is now apparently one of our relatives, but I’m enraged at her husband over the tax breaks for affluent Americans. That absolutely boggles the mind. We are going to borrow money to spare those who can easily afford it from paying taxes? Where is President Obama’s spine? Those Republicans in Congress who have said they will refuse to work on anything else until this goes through should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. As well as being angry, I’m heartsick at what our actions reveal about what our values have become.

On Monday of my week in Michigan, I had lunch with Ginny at Seva in Ann Arbor. While we both went to the same junior high, I don’t think we really spent time together after elementary school, so it had been the better part of 40 years! We had a very nice time. It was fantastic to see her, and great that we had plenty to talk about.

After lunch, I visited a spot I’d had an emotional dream about just a couple of weeks prior. It is odd to walk into a dreamscape, of which there are several in Ann Arbor.

That evening, Dad made us mushroom soup, a salad, and biscuits. Mom is normally in charge of biscuits, so this was a new venture for Dad. Mom had made a wonderful batch of bagels before my arrival that I ate and enjoyed all week.

That evening, we watched more John Adams, maybe two parts.

On Tuesday, my sister came over. That night, Dad made lasagna without mushrooms—he is always testing and refining his recipes, and he was wondering if lasagna without mushrooms would be just as good, since the mushrooms are time consuming. We also had salad and biscuits. Afterward, we watched A Single Man and The White Ribbon—Michael Haneke. I had my misgivings regarding the latter, and indeed we all found it grim.

On Wednesday, I went over to Sally’s and we took our now-traditional walk around the neighborhood, through more dreamscapes, and it was of course lovely to see Sally.

That evening, Dad made pasta with tomato sauce, tomato soup, and cottage cheese with artistically arranged tomato slices—a meal with a theme.

Thursday was of course Thanksgiving. My sister came over again and we had vegan nut loaf, gravy, stuffing (the best version ever), cashews, olives, cranberry-orange relish, bean salad, and wonderfully soft rolls. Mom made the rolls and the cranberry-orange relish. Dad made the vegan nut loaf, gravy, stuffing, and bean salad. Dessert was chocolate-chip cookies made by Dad (based on a recipe I sent him a few years ago that features oil instead of butter) and lemon bars made by Mom. Both were delicious.

Just before we ate, Dad picked up a sheaf of printed-out emails and announced, “Topics for discussion,” which made me and my sister giggle.

After Thanksgiving dinner, which we had at 2 or so, we watched Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Derailed, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (for the millionth time—marveling once again over Leonardo DiCaprio's amazing performance), and a documentary about Charles Bukowski.

On Friday, Amy and I had lunch at Café Zola (and, yes, it was splendid to see Amy!), followed by tea at the Sweetwater Café across the street. That night, Dad made tofu with peanut sauce, a favorite of mine, and we watched more John Adams. On Saturday I flew home, and there you have it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Captain Skullcrusher

Today, a lovely warm autumn day, I took care of yet another chore that has been on my to-do list for a very long time: getting a carrier for Hammett, who has lived with me for four years. He doesn’t go out often, but when he does, it’s in the cardboard box Thelonious, now deceased, came home from the SPCA in 20 years ago. I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of that box (particularly considering that it was free), but I’ve always meant to get Hammett a real carrier, and today I finally did.

I rode my bike first to Pet Food Express at Dolores and Market, and then to Petco at 16th and Bryant. Both places had more or less the same stuff, but at Pet Food Express, they’d taken the trouble to assemble the carriers and set them out nicely, whereas at Petco everything was in random piles, so I went back to Pet Food Express to make the purchase. The checkout lady asked me what my cat looks like and told me she also has a tuxedo cat (Hammett is sort of a tuxedo cat, I guess). She pointed him out—her cat is featured on a large poster in the store, with the name “Captain Skullcrusher.” I asked if that’s really his name, and she said it is, so I asked what her favorite bands are: Blood Brothers and Nine Inch Nails.

I lashed the new carrier to my bike rack and took it home and then walked down to BART to go to Macy’s for another thing I’ve been meaning to buy, my first toaster oven, which will be more energy efficient for small jobs than the big oven. I figured I’d have downtown to myself on a Saturday, and couldn’t believe how jam-packed it was. I hit an unexpected snag when I came out of Macy’s with my biggish box and absolutely could not get a cab. One guy stopped, but when he saw the box, he shook his head and drove off.

What was up with that? Aren’t we supposed to buy stuff constantly? Here I’d bought a stuff, and no one would give me a ride home. After about half an hour, I caught the eye of a cab driver crawling by in the dense traffic and he agreed to take me home once he discovered it was en route to the airport, where he was heading. As he made a completely illegal turn across a lane of traffic, all but driving over a traffic island, he told me it fucking pisses him off when people jaywalk, and then he roared to the Mission at racetrack speed, using the car’s piercing horn liberally anytime forward progress ceased for any reason. It was quite exciting.

I unboxed the new item, puzzled for a bit over where to put it in my small kitchen, and walked to Sunflower on Valencia St. to meet a friend for dinner. On the way, I passed a huge café I’d never seen before, gleaming and new and full of trendsetters, and next to that an upscale restaurant. These places are popping up seemingly overnight now, while old favorites disappear, like Amore, where I’d bought cat litter for years and years, stopping to chat with Efram. (Though it turns out Pet Food Express has the same thing for much cheaper, and Jeffrey’s on 18th St. has it for cheaper still.)

I got to Mission Pet Hospital this evening, which looks positively anachronistic on our newly glittering strip, and rushed in to make sure they’re not going anywhere. I can’t recall at this moment the name of the very nice woman I talked to, though she’s been there for years, but she called me “sweetie” and smiled at me and assured me, in low and soothing tones, that they have no plans to leave that spot, and she asked after Hammett by name! (Either she very craftily looked him up while I was pouring out my heart, or she remembers his name because of the conversation we had about it the first time I brought him in four years ago: “As in Dashiell?” “No, Kirk!”)

Sunflower has never been one of my favorite restaurants, but my friend proposed it, and I was willing to give it another try, and ended up really liking the vegetable fried rice I had, as well as the very sweet fresh-squeezed lemonade, so I’ll definitely be back.

After dinner, we walked to Mission Dolores for a concert by the San Francisco Mandolin Orchestra. They played Bach, Corelli, Mendelssohn—and an arrangement of “I Talk to the Wind” by King Crimson, featuring vocalists Sean Gugler and Loren Cheng. It was mesmerizingly beautiful. It gave me goose bumps and made me cry. Luckily, they did that song again for their encore, and it had almost the exact same effect the second time.

King Crimson is not much in evidence on iTunes, but when I got home, I found a live version of the song by Steve Hackett there, which is quite nice, though not quite as goose bumpy as Gugler and Cheng, who sang like angels.

During the concert, I had an important realization, which was that the toaster oven could probably go on top of the refrigerator, and it looks like that will work fine, which is good, because the boombox can go in only one place in the kitchen, but the new item wouldn’t fit on the table along with the boombox, and so forth. Introducing anything new into this small space while avoiding the appearance of clutter is like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dyson Vacuum Cleaner: Necessity or REALLY a Necessity?

Yesterday was a Day, not just a day, and I had it off from work. I recalled that exactly one year prior, Veterans Day, 2010, was my first real foray onto Facebook: hours and hours down the drain, never to be seen again. I made much better use of my time yesterday, setting up my calendar book for 2011, which is quite an involved process and takes a few hours. When I’m done, my list of contacts (names, phone numbers, addresses) is up to date, ditto my list of email addresses, and phone numbers I might need at any moment are printed out and attached to the new calendar book, and everyone’s birthdays and important anniversaries are in there, likewise tasks that need to be done at a certain time of year.

People say, “Gosh, how did you remember it was my birthday?” Most assuredly, I did not remember—it was written in last year’s calendar and transferred to the current calendar. It’s a question of compulsiveness and organization, not memory.

After that was done, I did a couple of sewing repairs, and then cleaned the bottom of my iron with steel wool—all other measures had failed—and then sewed a pair of baggy pants. “For a change?” joked Lisa M. on the phone. These are green, for a change.

I was thinking I would go meditate at the Zen Center in the late afternoon, stay for dinner, and go to my Somatic Experiencing class. Then I thought I would at least make it to dinner and the class. Then just the class, but in the end, not even that. I was sorry to miss it, but I probably bought this particular piece of green cloth as long as two years ago and have been unable to find the time to do the sewing, so it was great to have the pants done, finally.

Now I can go buy some more green cloth and start the cycle of procrastination all over again. In other consumer news, I have been resisting the temptation to buy a Dyson vacuum cleaner. If anyone needs a Dyson vacuum cleaner, it’s certainly me. I know it would work a lot better than the one I have and I really absolutely should have one, but I can’t bring myself to spend that much on a household appliance when so many worldwide are struggling just for food and clean water. My latest paycheck showed that, due to all those hours of overtime not long ago, I’d made enough additional to cover such an item, but as soon as I realized that, I rushed to my (online) bank and transferred the extra pay to my retirement account before I weakened.

Once upon a time, I contributed to my retirement account with a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Now that I expect the entire economy to crumble during my lifetime, taking all my imaginary money with it, I do it with a certain queasiness. Whereas I was once sure that saving and investing were the right things to do, now I just hope they may still prove to be. If the entire economy collapses permanently, there won’t be electricity to run a Dyson or any other kind of vacuum cleaner, anyway, but one will still be able to wear green pants, probably, for a time.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Casio Wristwatch, Prevailed Upon, Falls Back

It’s still strange to have N. not at work. I find myself scolding him mentally: “Why did you let this happen to you?” Another person in our firm told me that he lost his job in the past couple of years, but took the option to work for a couple of months before his final day, and while he was doing that, he was offered another position within the company, so it would probably have been smart for N. not to rush out the door with such alacrity.

Tuesday nights I’ve quit going anywhere whatsoever, as I’ve concluded that one evening class per week (currently Thursdays) is plenty. My sleep schedule was suffering, likewise dream recall, and therefore lucid dreaming. It’s been a month without one.

Last Wednesday morning I rode my to work along Market St. per usual except for the sizeable and cheerful audience—crowds gathering two hours early for the Giants’ 11 a.m. victory parade. Barricades at the curb prevented them from plucking at my business attire. Apparently at least one family got in position at 1 a.m. I didn’t go out later for the parade itself, but hours of car horns and yelling were heard, and from my window I could see fans streaming toward Market St. When I went for a stroll at 3:30 p.m. I was surprised by how much the party was still in evidence, with confetti all over the ground and something orange to be seen no matter what direction you cast your eyes in. The entire downtown area smelled faintly sweaty, with notes of marijuana.

My most customary bike ride home from work takes me right behind the ballpark, and I wondered if anyone would be around that afternoon. Nothing was scheduled for that location, but I suspected people might be drawn there anyway, and quite a number of people were. One fellow was just standing there looking in at the empty field. The olfactory experience in the immediate area was nearly all marijuana, with hints of fish and cigar.

Last Thursday night I went to the Zen Center after work to sit in the zendo, followed by dinner with a small congenial group, and to go to my Somatic Experiencing class. We partnered up and practiced offering and receiving touch. This form of touching is not meant to move energy or work out kinks, but simply to provide a palpable sense of presence that can be relaxing for the receiver, and may help to release nervous system activation. The communication aspects were stressed, including that we should always explain what we’re planning to do and then say to the receiver, “Please let me know when you’re ready for me to do this,” so that the receiver is completely in charge.

Friday after work I went to Noe Valley for a haircut and on my way back picked up a delectable marinated tofu burrito with refried black beans and guacamole from Papalote.

On Saturday I drove a City CarShare car to my dentist’s office to have the new night guard adjusted slightly, went to Rainbow on my bike, cooked green split peas and brown rice back at home, and in the evening went with Tom to see The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg seemed a bit less evil than I was expecting, though being in a crowded movie theater was even more evil than usual. As always, I was positioned in front of a seat kicker, and when a latecomer arrived, instead of asking me if the seat beside me was occupied, she just picked up my backpack and handed it to me. Tsk.

I can never help thinking that for less money, less hassle, less annoyance, and the same amount of time, I could be in my own cozy living room in my comfortable chair enjoying a double feature in company whose civility is absolutely guaranteed—my own.

On Saturday night, it was time to fall back, timewise, which isn’t as exciting now that practically every device does this unaided. The only thing I was in charge of was the little Casio wristwatch I wear only once every six months, when I’m meditating on an airplane.

On Sunday I made a vat of pasta sauce to freeze and went to see E., who, with the help of friends, did make it to see Placido Domingo. She wore a red dress and darling red pumps, sported a white camellia corsage, and traveled to the opera house in a stretch limo!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

So Cal Couch Suffers Untoward Event

It’s been a very noisy several days in the Mission, what with Critical Mass on Friday, Halloween on Sunday, and a tremendous hullaballoo last night that Tom informed me was due to the Giants’ winning the World Series. We had hours of honking car horns, yelling and gunshots.

And it’s been a very busy several days at work, with all but two of my group out on vacation. Something rather shocking happened last Friday afternoon, when N., who normally works at home that day, rushed into the office and started cleaning out his cube—after 30 years at our company, he’d found out the day before that his job had been eliminated.

Longtime readers may recall N. as the slurping guy. He had quite a number of distracting habits, and it was entirely on his account that I kept Ajahn Sumedho’s book Teachings of a Buddhist Monk on my desk so I could snatch it up when needed and read this: “No matter how much we want things to be otherwise, they are as they are,” the beginning of a long section on how irritating it is to be around other people.

So I wasn’t always crazy about N.’s behavior, but he was also energetic and charming and was the person in the office I talked to the most. Generally speaking, I found him endearing and enjoyed our chats. (He was also the cutest guy in the vicinity, not to be shallow or anything.)

He finished packing up his stuff, asked for and received a kiss on the cheek, indicated I should tuck my email address into the chest pocket of his jacket, and was gone, just like that. It was awful.

Friday night I had to labor until midnight on a project for work which continued into the next day, when I got up at 8:45 a.m., leaving Hammett under the covers. He remained there until 2:29 p.m and then walked into the kitchen to see if what he’d been served for breakfast was something he liked—it wasn’t; it was cat food—and walked straight back out.

My project took until 8 p.m. Saturday, so it was just as well it was gloomy and rainy out. It was also quite cold inside, but when I called Tom to complain—he can’t do anything about the heat, but I’m scared to call the person who can—he said that the heat is never on during the day, which I had not noticed in 12 years of residency, and which I’m not sure is actually the case. In any event, since calling the building manager was out of the question, I followed Tom’s excellent example and put on a sweater.

Sunday was beautiful. In the morning I had a very nice chat on the phone with Sally in Ann Arbor, and went to see my hospice lady, E., who had declined noticeably since the prior weekend. Then I rode my bike to Rainbow for groceries, and in the evening went out to dinner at Herbivore with Tom and his girlfriend and her son, who proved to be a smart and alert young man. It was nice of them to include me.

To show my gratitude, I forwarded Tom an email that had scared the crap out of me, but I forgot to tell him to turn his sound on, so it didn’t scare him. I tried again with my mother, albeit with slight trepidation that it might cause her to have a heart attack and die and then the rest of the family would be disgruntled. However, she took it in stride, so then I sent it to my friend Frank, lately and mostly of Dublin, Ireland, but currently of Southern California, and got this extremely gratifying response the next morning:

“Well well well. Aren’t you a funny little friend. There I was with my dinner neatly tucked away in my belly, getting ready for a nice game of basketball on telly, when I decided to view that email sent to me by my good friend LWA. And what happened next? I innocently opened it up, and then pooped myself on the couch. Nice. I’ll have my revenge!!!!”

Yes! A happy ending there, except for my co-workers having to listen to me laugh convulsively every time I reread Frank’s note.

It’s been sad to walk past N.’s empty cube. I’d worked in the same building with him for five or six years, and had sat right near him for two and a half years. Yesterday afternoon I sat in his empty seat and, as an homage, sang the first two notes of “Hey, Jude,” which made the unseen person in the cube beyond chuckle, since N. sang the first two notes of “Hey, Jude” about six times a day.

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.