Saturday, September 29, 2012

Eyeball to Eyeball in Roseville

Last Saturday I went to Eddie Bauer in the San Francisco Centre to shop for a wrinkle-resistant blouse for a business trip this past workweek. I was joined by C. and Tom’s girlfriend, D., who is very easygoing and pleasant. It was a hot, sunny day. We took BART downtown and C. and D. cajoled me into trying on a flowered blouse, though I ended up buying the black blouse that had been put on hold for me. We went back to the Mission and D. got some pastries to share with Tom for his birthday, and in the evening, D. and I treated Tom to a celebratory dinner at La Santaneca.

Sunday was spent cooking and preparing for my trip the next day. That evening as I lay in bed, anxiety finally arose, which was very exciting, but I only had time to note that it had an exhilarating, energizing quality before it vanished.

On Monday I took a cab to the Amtrak office next to the Ferry Building, a bus to Emeryville, the train to Sacramento, another bus to Roseville, and another cab to a very anonymous-looking office building—I couldn’t even figure out where the front door was—where my company has a presence. The building houses a data center and has unusually tight security, so it was kind of interesting to visit.

I met J. in person and we set up shop in a little conference room to study our lists in earnest. In the afternoon, she very kindly did quite a research project to find a place for dinner that I would like, though I kept telling her I can eat anywhere, except maybe a place that serves only pizza. That was thoughtful of her. After work, we checked into our hotel and had dinner at an Il Fornaio in a rather fancy new mall. I had yummy squash ravioli.

On Tuesday, we were joined by the fellow who generates some of our lists, the one who was so helpful in explaining on the phone what was what, plus another guy. I hadn’t appreciated the value of meeting in person—what can you say in person that you can’t on the phone? However, it turned out it was actually very productive to sit together and communicate in real time. We made good headway in sorting out what remains to be done for this project.

The four of us had lunch at Teriyaki Domo. I had sushi that was strangely sweet—turns out they make liberal use of a sugary sauce!—and I also accidentally ate eel, of all things, after mistaking tamago for unagi. Both do have three vowels, and I did say to the woman, “Is unagi egg?” and she averred that it was. It took me half the meal to decide there was no good reason egg should be brown instead of yellow, and once I realized it wasn’t egg (but certainly before I realized it was eel), I went ahead and finished it, on the theory that now that the creature had died and ended up on my plate, I would be dishonoring its sacrifice to discard it. The eel was tasty, but, conceptually, one of the last things I’d choose to eat if I were going to eat an animal. (The first is sausage wrapped in bacon, as grilled in the open air by various vendors on Mission St.)

That afternoon I used the same transportation sequence to get back home again before going to Howie’s.

On Thursday I received the horrible assignment of compiling five Excel workbooks into one. I wrestled with it for a while and then beseeched the Excel master for help. He said it would be OK to send him a meeting invitation for Friday morning, so I sent one for 9:30 a.m., as early as I thought I could get away with.

In the evening, Lisa and David and I got caught up on the phone.

On Friday, I showed the Excel master my method for combining all the workbooks, which was to put the different lists in different colors, combine them onto one sheet, sort by IP address, and manually remove rows not of interest (thus ending up with one, two, three, or four rows pertaining to the same IP); I wasn’t sure how to combine the remaining data.

J.’s idea had been to view two workbooks side by side and copy and paste as needed. Of both these plans, the Excel master said, “No, no, no, no, no!” and showed me how to use VLOOKUP to do it, which he said is the handiest function in Excel. What a relief! The Excel master is also an expert with the systems I’ll be using to research servers and devices, so I went ahead and proposed marriage on the spot, but he claimed to already be engaged.

I thought about that feverish half-day I spent reading about and trying to get the hang of using VLOOKUP to compare two columns on the same worksheet. I’m so glad I did that because it made it easy to understand the Excel master’s latest advice. I’m really appreciating how much I’ve learned so far in this job, from the Excel master, and also from poking around online as necessary. It feels good to stretch my brain and to be resourceful, to know that if I want to be a database administrator at a nonprofit, I can learn those skills.

Friday, September 21, 2012


I’m continuing to invite anxiety to arise and it’s continuing to demur. The invitation may not be one hundred percent sincere—I’m not distraught when I fail to wake up in the night panicked—but it mostly is.

As for the 100-day practice period, the ten-minute chunks of meditation (when they happen) are proving to be very nice—chances to observe the jangling reverberation from the stress of the day, which usually goes unnoticed, which doesn’t mean it isn’t there, as a bit of meditating makes obvious.

C. made a new friend Tuesday night at Howie’s last week and ended up walking home with her instead of with me, which wasn’t particularly bothersome at the time—in part it was my doing, because I got tired of waiting for him—but then I got to wondering if romance would ensue. After this frisson of prospective jealousy, I thought, “Huh. If that does happen, then I can see what that’s like.” Could it finally be sinking in that it’s not about arranging things to suit myself, but being alive to what is, curious about it, investigating?

Nah, probably not.

Last Friday evening, C. (not yet affianced to any other) and I had dinner at El Majahual and went on to La Boheme, where a convivial group, including Hilma, was gathered.

On Saturday, Tom and V. (a woman I know from Howie’s) and I went on a ride organized by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, led by the delightful Andy Thornley. We met at the North Berkeley BART station and went over to take a look at a new mixed-use development at Pier 70 in Berkeley. Then we rode for quite a while along the Bay Trail, a lovely amenity right at the water’s edge, to visit the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park and museum in Richmond, where we saw how a former Ford factory (the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, which was used for wartime production during WWII) is now being utilized for businesses, an event venue and a restaurant. One of the “Rosies” was working in the museum as a docent and showed me photos of herself and her husband decades ago. Most enjoyable and interesting day.

Back in the city, V. and Tom and I had dinner at El Majahual, and then I went on to La Brava for an evening of poetry and music, a benefit for a children’s poetry festival to be held in El Salvador in November. C. read one of his poems and sang a song of his that I like a lot, while capering charmingly about onstage.

The next day, Sunday, Venkata came to town—he has bought a house in Fremont—and we had breakfast at La Santaneca. We both had #20, which is two eggs, fried plantains, casamiento, and tortillas. If you ask for picados, your eggs have green peppers, tomatoes and onions in them. Afterward, he gave me a ride to Rainbow in his BMW. He doesn’t get to drive it very often (he takes BART to work), so he likes to drive extremely fast, even on the crowded streets of the Mission, and he also likes to listen to very loud rap music. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but he certainly has a great sound system. I’d like to hear a little Slayer in that car. Back at home, I made red split peas and buckwheat, and split pea soup.

J. was kind of cranky at work Tuesday, not for the first time, and I wondered if I should object to what seemed to be treatment bordering on the abusive, but then she said I’m doing great and explained that she’s stressed out, which I’m sure is quite true and made it easy for me to feel forgiving. In the evening I went to Howie’s, and C. and I walked home together afterward.

Two Excel books ordered from Amazon arrived Wednesday, including the Excel 2010 Bible, at 1006 pages! If it doesn’t help you with Excel, you can use it to build your muscles or drop it on an antagonist’s foot.

After weeks of wondering why EDD had never sent me any unemployment money, I’d finally resigned myself to spending a morning standing in line at their office across town and had told my boss I would need some hours off work, so I was utterly thrilled yesterday afternoon to receive a call from a very pleasant woman at EDD who said that they have been faithfully putting the money every week on my “card.” I thought she meant an ID card and didn’t remember receiving one, but she explained she meant the debit card they sent last year when I had my uterus extracted and was on disability for a week or so. I did indeed receive that card and, once the funds it represented were exhausted, subsequently dispose of it.

She gave me a number to call at B of A, and in five minutes, I had been assured that a new card is on the way, and advised to cling to it more tightly this time, because the card itself is good for up to three years. And there we see once again how procrastination always pays off.

In the evening, C. and N. and I had dinner at Esperpento: sautéed oysters (for C.), grilled asparagus, roasted eggplant, a potato-onion omelet, spicy potatoes. So yummy, and all five dishes came to a mere $30. Afterward, the three of us had tea at Borderlands Café.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Out of the Ballpark

Tuesday was quite a stressful day at work, with J. and I having significant difficulty understanding each other when it came to our various lists. I was extremely stressed out by the end of the day.

The next morning, I IMed the fellow who generates some of these lists and asked if he’d be willing to do a brief consultation. We talked on the phone for about five minutes, and he cleared it up completely. “This is this and that is that.” Aha! Well, why didn’t anyone say so?

Thursday was another somewhat panicked day at work. J. had demonstrated the day before how she goes about comparing two columns, using something whipped up for her by an Excel expert who sits near her. I was impressed and asked, “What’s that?” “Oh, just a function,” she said, and I hastened to take a picture of her screen so I could try to figure out how to do it myself, while saying, “Sure, sure,” as if I knew how to use a function. At that point, my expertise was limited to the use of AutoSum and perhaps typing an equals sign in the function bar to indicate my desire to add the values in two cells, but that was about it, so first thing on Thursday, I got busy trying to duplicate what she had done.

I read a bunch of stuff online and experimented until I had it working, which was very satisfying. On the other hand, it wasn’t what J. had expected me to be doing with those hours, and when we had our regular daily meeting and I told her what I had otherwise done, she said sternly (or was it morosely?), “That shouldn’t have taken you all day.”

I said, “Well, to be honest, I spent some time delving into Excel, making sure I could use that VLOOKUP function,” and she said, “Oh, the Excel whiz is walking by right now. Let’s have him look at how you do it.” Thank goodness I spent those hours as I did, because next I had to perform my new skill with both of them watching. I got through it and said to the expert, “You probably have some much more elegant way of doing this,” and was delighted when he said, “No, that’s exactly what I would do, too.”

Tuesday I had been so frustrated at the end of the workday that I considered staying home and trying to make sense of the various lists instead of going to Howie’s, but I ended up going and was glad I did. We’re doing another 100-day practice period, intensifying our meditation practice in some way or other.

Last fall, Howie led us in a similar thing, inviting us to specify our own objectives. I set some goals, totally failed the first day, revised my goals downward, failed again, revised downward again, discovered a flaw in my method of quantifying and therefore recording what I was doing, and basically forgot about the whole thing after about five days, though of course I continued with my normal practices of daily sitting and trying to be mindful the rest of the time.

Howie encouraged us to partner with a buddy; mine was N., who decided that once the initial hundred days was over—I think she was considerably more diligent than I was—she would immediately embark on a second 100-day practice period. Seeing a chance to redeem myself, I joined her.

Soon thereafter, she asked how my new practice period was going. As it happened, I’d forgotten to set any goals for this one whatsoever, so I told her it was going extremely well, with all measures wildly exceeded. “I’d have to say I’m pretty much knocking it out of the ballpark,” I said, which made her laugh.

Not to sound as if this is something I don’t care about, though. My meditation practice is the most important and beneficial thing in my life. Diligence is good, and so are relaxation and ease. Straining and perfectionism are not so good. I’m always sorry when people say they are failing at their practice, or in their quest for enlightenment. I’m sorriest of all to hear people say they are unable to meditate, meaning they are unable to stop thinking.

No one can stop thinking. It’s the nature of the mind to think. At times, meditation may calm the mind and reduce the number or duration of thoughts, but to hold this as the goal of practice is to invite a lot of frustration and self-judgment.

As for seeking enlightenment, that makes it sound like I am in one place, with enlightenment over there. How can I get there? I never will. I will always be right here. Fortunately, right here is a perfectly fine place to be. I believe each moment of being awake right here is a moment of enlightenment.

So, another 100-day practice period is upon us now and I’m going to stick with my trademark modest goals, but do one thing differently, which is that I will keep starting over this time instead of dropping the entire thing when I don’t meet my goals for a day or two or ten.

My goals are to sit four times during the course of the day, most typically my normal 45-minute sit in the morning plus three other ten-minute sits. In the past, I’ve tried three-minute sits, but ten is actually better. I can spend three minutes just getting settled onto my seat, whereas ten minutes provides a real flavor of stepping out of the flow of activities in a still-modest bit of time.

I’m also reciting the Five Remembrances aloud once each day. In one formulation:

—I am of the nature to grow old—there is no way to escape growing old.

—I am of the nature to have ill health—there is no way to escape ill health.

—I am of the nature to die—there is no way to escape death.

—All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

—My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

These remind me of my priorities, and that time is fleeting and precious, and provide an encouraging reminder that there is much I can do toward my own happiness.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Yes, Meaning No

When I interviewed for the job I’m now doing, they asked if I could compare data in Excel, to which I said, “Yes,” meaning that, “If I have to do that, I’ll consult the Internet and figure it out.” Last Thursday they gave me my first such assignment and I said, “Sure, will do,” but when I went to look at the task, I realized I had no idea how to proceed. It wasn’t so much how to do a comparison (though indeed I had no idea how to do that) as not being sure what exactly was to be compared.

My de facto supervisor and I met on the phone and a certain amount of tension arose, in part because J.’s version of the spreadsheet appeared to be different from mine, causing me to realize that this going to be a major and ongoing aspect of this job: information management. It also turned out that one of the spreadsheets had one kind of information at the top of certain columns, but different kinds of information in the same columns at the bottom, making it impossible to sort the columns.

I found myself getting tense, thinking the person who filled in the spreadsheet had done the wrong thing in using the same column for two different kinds of data—this person was 1) dangerously out of touch; and 2) interfering with my job. But of course that is the job, or part of it: encountering things done not the way I would do them and figuring out how to handle it.

J. clarified what exactly was to be compared and the Internet did tell me how to do it, and voila! It was a very good feeling to be able to send the thing off in a timely fashion.

In the evening, David L. from Howie’s and I had dinner at Udupi Palace, an Indian place on Valencia. David worked for a long time in the nonprofit world and said that a person who is a good database administrator can be a very key resource at many nonprofits, which gave me thoughts about a possible future career.

On Friday evening C. and I had dinner at La Santaneca.

On Saturday morning, I went over to help C. set up his new phone and then Tom and I drove in a City CarShare car to Sacramento for an evening of remembering Mac with his loved ones. We stopped by Ann’s place first so Tom could try on some of Mac’s clothes. He selected some items to keep, and put others in a box to go to the thrift store, and we went on to Steve and Julie’s.

Much of Tom’s family was there, plus Mac’s three children and their families. We sat at beautifully decorated tables out back and had comfort food for dinner: lasagna, garlic bread, salad, mozzarella and tomatoes. A slide show of Mac’s life was shown in the living room, plus it turns out he had been working on an oral history, and there were CDs for those who wanted one. I took one, but haven’t listened to it yet. The thought of hearing his voice gives me a pang.

Tom stayed in Sacramento that night so he and his girlfriend could go with Ann and several members of Mac’s family to scatter his ashes the next day at the Sea Ranch. I had to get back to San Francisco for work, so I had a wonderful drive home by myself that evening, enjoying the lovely night wind.

Yesterday I took Mac’s clothes to the thrift store before going to Rainbow. I recognized some of the garments from having seen him in them, including the red pullover shirt he’s wearing in one of my favorite photos of him. I cried when I handed it to the thrift store woman.

Back at home I made dal with fresh tomatoes and listened to a dharma talk or two. To catch every single word, it would have to be turned up unreasonably loud, so I’ve resigned myself to hearing bits and pieces, but even that is great. It’s soothing to hear the familiar voices of Howard Cohn, Phillip Moffitt, Paul Haller.

In the evening, C. and I had dinner at La Santaneca again.

All the bouts of nighttime anxiety in the past month seem to have brought some definite benefits: facing the fear directly, as best I can, has made me feel more confident about my ability to be with other feelings. As for anxiety, I’ve been actually hoping it will arise so I can have a chance to practice with it again, and so of course it hasn’t arisen.

One of my favorite Buddhist authors is Ezra Bayda. I think his books At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace Within Everyday Chaos and Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life are excellent, so when Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living with Mindfulness and Compassion came out in paperback, I wanted to take my time reading it and make sure not to miss any nuggets of wisdom. Now that it's been three years since it came out in paperback and he has yet another book out (Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment), I decided it would be OK to go ahead and read Zen Heart, and it’s also excellent.

Bayda’s grasp of how our human minds tend to work and his explanations of what to be on the lookout for and how to work with what arises are superb.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Pupusas Frijoles

Last Wednesday I worked and in the evening, C. came over for dinner. Years ago, I got a sturdy card table with folding legs, thinking I would set it up, drape a tablecloth over it, and have someone over for a home-cooked dinner, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that I got around to doing this. C. contributed  the tablecloth, a colorful piece of fabric he got from a friend’s giving-stuff-away party, and we had the aforementioned barley-mushroom pilaf with dinosaur kale and avocado slices, and it was very nice.

All this healthy eating (or, more accurately, elimination of the dessert courses) has resulted in a pretty substantial weight loss, and while this was a fervently pursued goal in my childhood and teens, it has been decades since I’ve striven to become smaller, so it’s peculiar, even slightly distressing, to see someone in the mirror who doesn’t look like me, both the decreased overall volume and unusually large hair.

I liked the way I looked just fine before losing weight, and to my own eye, I now mainly look old, thin and stressed out, which leads me to wonder if the weight loss is due to the anti-cancer diet or to cancer itself. Part of me is afraid it’s the latter and is worried I’m dying (more so than anyone is dying).

On Thursday I had to go into an office location of my employer to do some initial computer setup, so I biked downtown to do that. Before I left the office building, I walked around the floor and was pleased to see some familiar names, though not the faces to match; there was hardly a soul around. But one of the names was of a woman I sat right next to for years, and another was that of a man I also sat near for a year or two, so I left notes for them. On my way home, I stopped to buy a mouse for my work laptop.

I spent Friday getting organized at work, making new documents (with tables of contents!), requesting my access and meeting with colleagues. I’m kind of enjoying all of these things. J., who directs my work day to day, is continuing to be very low-key, which is good. In the evening, C. and I went to La Santaneca for dinner and I treated myself to all four important celebrity gossip magazines so I can understand completely what’s happening with Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.

This past Saturday, I had tea at Borderlands Café with a man named Charlie who runs a local nonprofit. I was interested to learn more about nonprofit organizations in the area, because I’d like to end up working at one. He told me about a bunch of great places I wasn't familiar with. After that, I bought a bike light at Freewheel and walked over to see my hospice lady. I took Tom to La Santaneca in the evening—he liked it—and then we took BART to Daly City to see Premium Rush.

On Sunday I spent the day doing nothing in particular, and C. and I had dinner at Esperpento. Afterward, he read some poems to me and we watched Tomboy.

Monday was my parents’ 52nd wedding anniversary. (Happy anniversary!) Unrelated to that, I made lentil soup with tarragon and thyme, and yellow split peas and quinoa. The evening found C. and me at La Santaneca yet again, where server Edwin knows our order by heart: we each have one pupusa frijol (bean pupusa, an El Salvadorean staple) and a side order of casamiento (rice and beans—arroz y frijoles—fried together). We share an enormous side order of platanos fritos (fried plantains). C. gets some crema (sour cream) to go with his dinner. His pupusa is made with rice flour and mine with corn flour.

Yesterday evening I went to Howie’s.

Today I found out that my hospice lady, nearing her 99th birthday, had died, which was a bit hard to comprehend: She was so perfectly, entirely alive just this past Saturday, smiling and talking. I’m so glad I saw her that day.

During our visit, she told me about working as a housekeeper when she was in her 50s, for a family with a little boy, with whom she would play catch in the yard when he came home from school. One day, workmen came and pulled the cover off a manhole in the street out front. A. and her charge were warned to stay away, but A. took the little boy over to the hole anyway, and they lay on their stomachs to peer into the depths. “That little boy must have loved you,” I said. “He was a nice boy,” she said.

One day, the lady of the house told A. to put a casserole of pork chops and grapes into the oven, but when the time came, the oven proved to be broken, so A. went next door and asked the neighbor for the use of her oven, and when her own employer came home, she was delighted that A. had been so enterprising and saved the day. A. said, “When boss came home, she happy.”

A. could still recall how delicious the casserole was, which reminded me about the man I visited for many months late last year and early this year. One of his very last reminiscences was also about food, about the chess pie his mother used to make.