Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bumper Cars

After work last Monday I walked to the AMC 1000 Van Ness theater—it took about 45 minutes—and saw Dallas Buyers Club, which was marvelous, plus there was literally only one person in the theater besides me, making it even better. Afterward, I walked back home again, stopping at the corner store to get some Kettle organic potato chips. A month or so ago, I told Joe that these existed—he already sold Kettle potato chips, but not the organic ones—and that I suspected they would be a popular item around here. On Monday I saw there was a nice big pile of them. I asked Joe if they are selling and he said, “Oh, yes, they are.” I think he’s forgotten it was my idea, since he didn’t thank me profusely for turning his business around, but I felt gratified at having made the suggestion.

In the afternoon on Christmas Eve, Tom and I drove to Sacramento in his co-worker’s car, in heavy traffic the whole way. It took three hours instead of two, but we arrived just in time for dinner. Present were Paul, Eva, Dan, Steve, Julie, Ann, me, Tom, Chris, Kristin, Sarah, Farid, Jim, Melinda, Abbie, and Dave. Amid the traditional holiday decorations, we enjoyed Eva’s wonderful dinner and later opened a mountain of gifts, followed by dessert. Tom and I spent the night at Ann’s, and Steve and Julie came over Christmas Day morning to join us for breakfast.

Before and during our drives there and back, I kept having this image of getting in a car crash on the freeway, which is not normally a preoccupation. On our way back, as we were on the San Francisco end of the Bay Bridge, I heard Tom say in an unusually panicked tone, “Oh, shit. Oh, shit,” and I looked through the windshield and saw cars just a bit in front and to the side of us careening wildly from side to side and a big cloud of smoke; there was an awful smell. A chain reaction was underway and I assumed that in the next two seconds, we would be in a crash, but fortunately nothing appeared directly in front of us and we rolled on. I asked Tom what happened and he said the driver of a Jeep was going too fast, not paying attention, and suddenly had to lock up the brakes (causing the smoke and bad smell), causing the car right in front of it suddenly to veer into the next lane, trying to avoid being hit.

The Jeep in question had a woman driver and a woman passenger and a bumper sticker that said something like “Hope the fetus you save is gay,” and when I turned to give them a stern look, I saw they didn’t look disturbed. In fact, they looked a little smiley, like, “Whoa, that was trippy!” Maybe they were drunk. They were ahead of us on Cesar Chavez and turned up toward Bernal Hill. I proposed to Tom that we follow them and beat them up, but he wasn’t in favor.

On Thursday, Tom and I walked back to the movie theater on Van Ness and saw American Hustle—excellent—and then walked home again, stopping at Sunflower to split an order of garlic noodles with tofu. Friday night we had dinner at Esperpento.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Some Occurrences that Have Occurred

Last Friday I rode my bike way across town in the morning for a mammogram and six-month visit to my surgeon. The mammogram was all clear and my surgeon said he doesn’t think there is an elevated risk of ovarian cancer, because there is no breast or ovarian cancer in my family, so my DCIS was not genetic but “random.” So he definitely is not in favor of a prophylactic oophorectomy.

I asked what they’re saying about intraoperative radiation treatment these days: have they decided it’s a good thing? Well, where you might have a 2.5% recurrence risk with external radiation treatment, with intraoperative, it’s 4%. However, the DCIS patient shouldn’t worry about this, because now they’re starting to think that less is more and that they shouldn’t do any kind of radiation treatment at all for it, just a lumpectomy. Wish they’d been thinking that two years ago, but glad that at least there was no course of external radiation.

Then there was another bicycle ride downtown to go to my department’s holiday luncheon, and then to Rainbow to get toothpaste, and then a walk to Wayne’s to drop off work shirts and pick up the prior week’s batch, and then laundry at the laundromat, and then dinner, and then finally all the things I usually do first thing in the morning: write, meditate, stretch, knee exercises … . Long day.

My company dedicates September to community service and my department in particular must have done 25 different events to raise money. During that month, the company will match any charitable contribution, so I gave $100 apiece to Black Girls Code and two charities in Detroit. Plus I worked at one of the fundraisers and bought raffle tickets for another. I figured I’d done my share, but then, very recently, one of the administrative assistants on our floor came around to see if we
d all used the 16 volunteer service hours we’re allotted each year, and my boss said something about this, too, so I got worried that it would affect my performance review and decided I’d better try to squeeze this in before the end of the year. I also made a mental note to address this prior to December 17 next year.

It was impossible to find 16 hours in San Francisco before December 31, but I signed up for a shift at Project Open Hand and accordingly went over there on Saturday morning. Since it was a Saturday, I didn’t get to use any of those official hours, but at least they can be entered on the company’s website that tracks volunteer service and by then, I’d also found out that my boss doesn’t really care if we use those 16 hours or not (though he himself did use them, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity).

I met five colleagues hitherto unknown to me and we packed dry cereal into plastic bags to give away at the Grocery Center and then did the same with various leafy greens. I was a bit dismayed when I saw the sugary cereal to be provided to clients, and was glad to see they were also giving away all the nice greens, but my fellow volunteers said it’s quite likely many recipients have no way to cook greens, and even if they do, doubtless a lot of them end up in the nearest trash bin. That’s probably true. It was pleasant to chat and work together. There was a certain amount of kvetching about the company, which was astounding to me. I guess having been laid off for a time has permanently altered my attitude: this is the best company on earth and I am beyond delighted to work for it. I love my job (truly).

After POH, I walked down to Ananda Fuara and had a bowl of dal and some naan and a pot of genmaicha (green tea with roasted brown rice in it). Their genmaicha is particularly good, so I asked where it comes from: San Francisco Herb Company. I have ordered some. After lunch, I took a quite enchanting walk clear back to the Mission. The air smelled good and a bunch of trees on Folsom St. were shedding little leaves in generous quantities right then, as if it were the end of autumn in the Midwest instead of Christmastime on the Pacific coast. I walked over to Modern Times to pick up some books. For a while, I was getting most reading material at the library, but now I’ve decided to be a patron of Modern Times, so it doesn’t go away, so I buy books new there, and give them away after reading them, to others or to the thrift store. I also give more books as gifts these days, and for Christmas, everyone is getting a book and/or a gift certificate.

Back at home, I talked to my mother on the phone, and then Lisa M. and I had dinner at Esperpento. Afterward, we came back to my place and listened to music and watched a few videos of Lisa doing improv.

Monday, December 23, 2013


A week ago Monday I went for my semi-annual teeth cleaning. My dentist, whom I love, has bought her own practice and will be moving there in January, so I brought along a goodbye card for my favorite front-desk agent, Jeannine. As I was leaving, she said mournfully, “I’m never going to see you again.” We parted with a big hug. She is a darling young lady.

As for my teeth, there is a situation of receding gums, though mostly in an area unseen by the casual observer. Unfortunately, I did this to myself using a Sonicare plus whitening toothpaste, all the time thinking I was practicing excellent dental hygiene. Daily habits are powerful, for good or ill. Now I’m worried some of those teeth will eventually fall out. My dentist said that if I don’t have bone loss, they won’t, but decided maybe I
d better see a gum doctor (periodontist), meaning I now have as many doctors for my teeth as for the whole rest of my body.

My whole body has a primary care provider, an ob/gyn, and a cancer surgeon. My teeth have a dentist, an endodontist (root canal guy), and a periodontist. I wonder why it’s “–dontist” and not “–dentist.” It would be easier to remember if you had your dentist, endodentist, and periodentist. Or, conversely, why is it “dentist” and not “dontist”?

On my walk one afternoon last week, I saw a boy of 11 or so wearing what at first looked like an AC*DC t-shirt, for the band, but it proved actually to say AD*HD.

When I got to Randall and San Jose that day, a tall, skinny crossing guard (African American, baggy tracksuit, 28ish, relaxed manner) was cheering on a woman who’d nearly reached my side of the street: “You’re almost there!” When the light turned green for me, I wasn’t sure what he’d do, because I’m 51 and was the only person in sight. Probably he wouldn’t assist me to cross the street (unless I look older than I think), but he asked encouragingly, “Ready?”


“Let’s do this,” he said with an air of meaning to get the job done if it killed him.

As we set off, I said, “It’s nice to have a safety guard and coach all in one.”

“I’m with you. I got you.”

On Thursday I went to see the periodontist. I liked him very much and we had an absolutely riveting discussion about dental hygiene. He did an exam, after which he said he doesn’t see any need for gum surgery (to try to build up the gums) now. He gave me a new set of dental hygiene practices. I asked if it would be fine never to use a Sonicare again and he said by all means—once everyone starting using a Sonicare or similar product, the amount of gum surgery he had to do increased substantially. In my hands, particular with whitening toothpaste, that thing was a lethal weapon. I don’t care about whitening, by the way, but liked how clean my teeth felt after I used it. But Dr. M. said that if you run your tongue over your teeth and say, “Mmm, how smooth and clean my teeth feel!”, you’ve probably done a little bit of damage to your enamel and/or gums.

He said to use a regular toothbrush, not with whitening toothpaste; to hold it with three fingers and the thumb, with the fingers gently curved as if holding a violin bow and the pinky not touching the brush; to gently move the brush in a pea-sized circle over each tooth where it meets the gum and to think of massaging the tooth rather than brushing it. He said it should take no longer than one minute to do all the teeth! This is about one second per tooth: 28 – 32 teeth, front and back. 

He gave me a toothbrush a colleague of his developed. He said there’s nothing hugely special about it (though his own ideas also went into it), but since he knows it so intimately, when I bring it back in 2.5 months, he’ll be able to tell if I did what he said or not. He said it should look exactly as it did when he gave it to me. Last but not least, when I asked for a second toothbrush for work, he declined to provide one, because I’m to do this only twice a day, morning and night. I’m positive my teeth are going to be uniformly brown by the time I see him again.

I tried the timed brushing that evening but it really, truly wasn’t long enough, and it was also stressful, which could probably lead to undue pressure. The next morning, I put one of my 11 timers—you just cannot have too many timers
on count-up mode and found I could brush my teeth in about 90 seconds, which is probably good enough. Maybe he tells people to brush for one minute total knowing they’ll cheat but that it will still be a lot better than what they were doing before.

Longtime readers of Bugwalk may recall that the manager of my apartment building and I used to get into many a quarrel over this, that and the other (actually, mainly over fumes, from either cigarette smoking or grilling), but we now get along so well that I was invited to her holiday party this year, along with everyone else in the building. I admit that part of my motive in going was to get a peek at her place, which is much larger than any other unit in the building, and which I hadn’t seen since the prior occupants lived there. That turned out to be a very good reason for attending, because her place is absolutely, completely beautiful—gorgeously painted and with carefully chosen furniture and art. For about 12 hours afterward, I felt I should undertake to do something similar in my place, but, fortunately, that ambition passed.

The other guests were an interesting and varied crowd. I easily found people to chat with, including a writer who lives in the building next door, and the building manager and I parted with a little hug.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Want to Watch Me Think About What to Have for Dinner?

Last Saturday evening, my meditation friend Lesley and I went to hear Joseph Goldstein speak at the church at Geary and Franklin, the occasion being the publication of his new book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. I had planned to take a cab over there, but per my pedometer, decided to walk, first going by Modern Times to pick up a birthday present for Lesley (Joseph Goldstein’s book Insight Meditation, a marvelous collection of short essays).

Modern Times doesn’t do gift wrapping, but they provide paper and ribbons if you want to do it yourself. By the time I’d paid for the book and wrapped it, it was getting dark, and I was starting to wonder if it would be wise to walk all that way alone. I took the precaution of transferring my wallet and keys to my coat pockets in case I was mugged and my backpack was taken, but as I walked north on Harrison St., the most ominous thing I saw was a fancy butcher shop for the new type of neighbor. At 22nd and Harrison are the lofts that used to catch my eye when I was walking back from the hospital many nights last spring: absolutely enormous and hugely ostentatious, particularly in that mostly humble area.

When Harrison started to seem too deserted, I switched to Folsom and then to South Van Ness. I couldn’t quite picture how South Van Ness was going to connect to Van Ness, and indeed it got darker and emptier and creepier, and then voila! Market St., with a million lights and people.

Lesley and I both arrived early, so we got to sit in the very front row, near four other people from Howie’s group. Joseph gave a talk, and led us in a brief guided meditation, and then he answered questions. It was a tremendous pleasure to see him in person and hear his exceedingly lucid and helpful thoughts. He is a treasure.

He said that when he was in his 20s, in Asia, just learning to meditate, he was so enchanted by how you could use the mind to investigate the mind that he would invite his friends over to watch him meditate, though he said they didn’t necessarily always want to come back after the first time.

One woman asked how to work with her negative self-judgments and Joseph said that such judgments are only a problem if we believe them or if we try to get rid of them; what we resist gains strength. He advised remembering that such thoughts are not true, and we don’t have to identify with them: they are not I, me, or mine. They’re just thoughts, arising from past conditioning. We can accept that such a thought has arisen and investigate: what is it like to have this thought or this feeling? To be worried or full of self-hatred or judging ourselves or someone else? He described a period where he was wrestling with a particular emotion, often getting lost in long streams of thought. After observing closely, he was able to identify the precise thought that would initiate the whole train of unhelpful rumination, and once he was on the lookout for that thought, determined not to let it slip by, he no longer had to take the whole ride.

He advised periodically asking, “What is my attitude of mind?” and noticing what is motivating our speech or actions. Is there grasping or aversion? He reminded us that it is impossible to achieve liberation from suffering while there is greed or hatred in the mind.

Another person asked what he thought about mindfulness being so prevalent these days, and he said he thinks it’s great. What I understood him to be saying was that he thinks the more mindfulness the better, and that if it brings calm or relief or is helpful in dealing with pain or a medical condition, that is wonderful, but that it can do more than that, that it has the potential to liberate us from suffering completely. He said he used the word for the title of his book to “reclaim it for awakening,” I think were his words. A prominent blurb is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, which is a nice touch, since Kabat-Zinn is the originator of mindfulness-based stress reduction and therefore pretty much the father of the mindfulness movement. (His son, Will, is a marvelous Bay Area Buddhist teacher.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Soupçon of Self-Control

Last Thursday, when I tried to send email from Entourage (Outlook for the Mac), I got an error I’ve seen before that has always proven to be intermittent, but by the next day, it was clear that outgoing mail had ground to a halt. There was no way around it: I was going to have to call AT&T (U-verse) and see if the SMTP server had changed or something.

I worked my way through their whole phone tree, gamely answering question after question, only to end up being offered a web page to go to, and I was instantly furious and kept declining the offer until I was transferred to a representative to whom I announced that I was already angry. He soothingly said he understood and that he’d be happy to assist, if I’d merely provide the four-digit code for my account. Huh? I have an email address associated with it, and a password for that, and an account number, but no four-digit code that I knew of, and none was present on my password list.

He said he couldn’t help without that code and I completely and absolutely lost my temper and yelled, “Then can you please just tell me if the SMTP server has changed or not? That’s all I want to know. Given that I pay $46 a month for Internet service that is crappy, is it possible that someone there could at least tell me if the SMTP server is still (whatever it was)?”

At that, he primly said, “Yes, that is still the SMTP server.”

“Fine, then the problem must be something else. I’ll do some Duck Ducking. Thank you and goodbye,” I said, more calmly. (Actually, in my frenzy, I slipped and said I’d do some “Googling,” but I meant Duck Ducking.)

It occurred to me that I should see if the aforementioned email address’s password was still good, so I tried to log into Yahoo using it, and didn’t succeed but also didn’t get an error message, so I did a password reset, and soon got an upbeat email (incoming email was working fine) assuring me that my password had been “updated,” but not saying what the new password was, and I hadn’t typed in any new password.

Ugh. Now I had two problems instead of one and had to call AT&T back. This time I just screamed, “No, no, no, no, no!” to the automated system until I was talking to an agent, but while waiting to be transferred to the agent, I made up my mind not to start by telling the agent that I was already angry, and in fact, I decided to stop being angry, as the feeling was not at all enjoyable. I explained the entire situation to a different fellow and he replied, “SMTP server?” as if he’d never heard of such a thing. I very nearly politely hung up then to try for a different person, but decided to give him a chance, and it turned out that he was very knowledgeable and gave me the information I needed to fix the problem.

First of all, the SMTP server had changed. But also, the web page the automated system would have tried to send me to in the first place would have explained that and told me what to do. The second agent sent me to that same page, where you can click a button to have your system automatically updated, but it also provides the manual instructions, so I did that, so I could make a note of what had changed; there were a couple of other things besides the new SMTP server.

I did that after we hung up. While we were still on the line, the agent helped me do a speed test to confirm that my download and upload speeds were within the acceptable range for the “elite” package, and they were, so it must be a miracle radio disappearance that causes my Internet radio to disconnect over and over on some days; it’s not the device itself because it works perfectly fine when playing mp3s.

The agent also helped me reset my password yet again so I’d know what it is. However, he was also interested in that four-digit code. I warmly and sincerely assured him that I have never had a four-digit code, but he asked if there’s any four-digit code I use for anything. He said, “It’s often the first four digits that come to mind,” so I tried my ATM PIN, and yep, that was it. I have now added that to my password list. That guy was awesome.

Oh, speaking of devices, I did call The Femur to see why my HD radio was not showing their artists and song titles, and it’s because their particular HD station plays one big chunk of audio over and over; it’s been doing that for a few years and no one ever bothered to add the metadata. This would have been nice for him to mention at the same time that he told me that HD radio would display artists and song titles, because that’s what caused me to go buy one, but he explained the problem so earnestly and in such detail that I couldn’t be mad. I could have returned the radio at that point, but I was too lazy. For a while, I thought I’d keep it and just listen to those two songs when they happened to come around, but it was yet another thing on my desktop (the wooden one) and the sound quality wasn’t tremendous, so I took it to the thrift store when I was decluttering.

After my walk last Friday (thank you, pedometer), Tom and I had dinner at Esperpento. I often have the grilled salmon, which I now realize is maybe more poached than grilled, because that night it was actually a bit brown and crispy around the edges; there was some minced garlic involved. It was so delicious. I also had roasted potatoes with brava sauce and a simple house salad that was also really good—very fresh and with a tasty, light vinaigrette.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Miracle Water Appearance

Earlier this week a co-worker named Geetha suggested lunch at Tlaloc, which is a wonderful Mexican place I’d not yet tried; its very near our office. Geetha was telling me over our nice lunch about the groups she belongs to: a musical group, a group that does service projects. Toward the end of our meal, she said warmly, “You should come over to my house!” I told her I would love to, and found myself thinking afterward, “So that’s how it’s done.” That’s how you fill a life with people and satisfying activities: by joining groups, being friendly, extending invitations. As the years pass and friends move away from San Francisco, these things sometimes seem elusive, so I appreciated the reminder that maybe it’s not that complicated.

We decided to have a monthly lunch and I sent an invitation to Geetha and to a couple of other people, including my pal Venkata. I haven’t been to lunch with him even once the whole year we’ve been working on the same floor, because he’s always so busy. He told me he sleeps four hours a night and his eyes feel like they
re “burning.” I feel very sorry for him, and chagrined that he is expected to do the work of three people. Also very grateful that Im not in that boat at the moment.

On Tuesday night, I went to Howie’s, and after I returned from the tea break, I noticed that the floor in front of my backpack was wet, and so was the bottom of my backpack, and parts of some things inside: my wallet and Carlos’s scarf. My hat, which was also inside the backpack, was soaked. I showed it to Charlie and another fellow. Where had all this moisture come from? I hadn’t had tea or a bottle of water in the backpack or anywhere nearby. The other fellow thought it over and said, “Maybe it was a miracle water appearance.” I think that
’s what it was!

Because one’s risk of ovarian cancer is heightened by having had breast cancer (that is, whatever caused breast cancer can also cause ovarian cancer), this week I had a pelvic ultrasound. My ob/gyn said we could do one every 18 months, just to check. I’m glad she was willing to do this, though I must say that when I had a hysterectomy two years ago, I was happy that I’d never again have to have an ultrasound. There’s nothing to the procedure itself, but you have to drink five glasses of water beforehand, after which riding a bicycle across town is somewhat of a chore.

I had an ultrasound maybe two months ago but neither ovary could be located. Once you have your uterus and Fallopian tubes extracted and the ovaries are not attached to anything, they strike out for parts unknown, gaily going wherever the wind blows them. My doctor said that if they couldn’t be found, that was good news, but I wanted to make one more attempt.

This time I skipped dinner the night before and breakfast the day of the test, to make sure no, uh, material would be blocking the view, but still neither ovary could be seen, and the technician explained that after menopause, the ovaries shrivel up, and convinced me that it was a good thing they couldn’t be found, because if they had big festoons of cancer hanging off them, they’d be found.

The last ultrasound cost about $1200, about $600 for the procedure itself, and even more for the “facility charge.” This kind of charge has started appearing on many medical bills the past few years, and it’s maddening: Talking to our doctor costs this much but standing in our building while you talk to our doctor costs this much. At the time of the first test, I had that much in the health account that my company puts some cash in each year and that I can earn dollars for by doing various activities, but this one is going to be pretty much out of pocket.

Perhaps to minimize both her doctor and facility charges, one thing Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) did was get a pedometer so she could see if she was taking the 10,000 steps per day that supposedly confer fitness, although that number seems ridiculously arbitrary. That many steps would be nothing to a 25-year-old triathlete and impossible for an 80-year-old with a lung condition. I figured my long standard walk would more than suffice and was shocked when I found out (after my Omron MJ-112 arrived) that it’s only 7342 steps. It takes 75 minutes! Who has 102.152 minutes to spend walking around every day? (“Those women who carry the baskets of water on their heads,” explained Elea.)

Fortunately, this pedometer also counts each time a bicycle pedal is pushed down on as a step, which makes it easy to get to the magical number. I’m sure a pedal doesn’t equate to a step, but it’s close enough for me. I found some complicated schemes online for determining it exactly, using a heart rate monitor, but I’m not going to do that, for goodness’ sakes.

Going to work is better than working from home when it comes to steps, because the bathroom and kitchen at work are a hundred steps farther away than at home. I also considered that if I walked faster, maybe I could lengthen my standard stroll enough to hit the number without it taking an hour and 42 minutes, so yesterday evening I headed up Dolores St. at what seemed a vigorous pace. It was such a beautiful evening, crisp and cool, with a fresh smell in the air. I could definitely tell I was working harder than usual, or so it seemed, but when I got to the midway point and looked at my watch, it had taken me almost exactly as long as usual. There’s not much point in introducing a note of strain in order to cover ten blocks one minute faster, and I don’t want to spend any longer walking, so that’s that, but there is one thing of value that has come out of this, which is realizing that I must make a point of walking on Friday (when I often work from home and don’t get around to it) and Saturday (when I don’t walk because it’s Saturday).

Another thing I liked in Rubin’s book was the couple of reminders that what you do every day is more powerful than what you do once in a while. Even if it’s just a little thing, doing it every day is a tremendous force for good (if it’s a good thing to begin with, that is). This reminds me of years ago when I was despairing of getting a meditation practice off the ground and asked Howie what he would think of someone who meditated for five minutes a day for the rest of her life. He said very seriously and kindly, “I would think that person was very devoted to her spiritual practice.”

My father would claim this isn’t true, but he has always struck me as a steady practitioner of salubrious habits. Thank goodness I inherited that from him, ease and even pleasure in doing the same things every single day.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Citizen Stand-In

Last Monday, some protesters stopped a Google bus at Valencia St. and 24th. My first reaction was, “Excellent,” but I know out-and-out war in the Mission would not be good, though protesting and public actions can be part of bringing attention to an issue, the way that Critical Mass is part, but not all, of the pro-bicycling movement.

I was reading the comments on after work and was struck by an imbalance in tone that reminded me of the difference, generally speaking, between Democrats and Republicans. People on one side were saying things like, “We don’t want our city remade into a playground for the rich,” while some of the others were saying, “Don’t you whiny losers have jobs to go to?” I undoubtedly bring bias to this that I’m blind to, but it did seem that the pro-money crowd, if we can call them that, was much more likely to hurl insults and use vitriolic language.

Some of the comments boiled down to, “If I can afford something, who else’s business is it?” Quite so—if it weren’t for the racism and sexism that persist in our country, making it very likely that the person able to afford the luxurious dwelling and superb amenities is white and/or a man, and this effect trickles down from generation to generation. The children of the rich white man are more likely to end up studying at Harvard and having fancy careers than the children of the African American or Latino on public assistance. There are many exceptions on both sides, but they prove the rule.

The former should be grateful for their nice lives and enjoy them—it doesn’t help anyone not to enjoy what you have—but they should also demonstrate awareness that the deck was and remains stacked in their favor. Saying, “Boy, there’s a lot of haters of successful people out there. What’s wrong? The art degree didn’t work out for you?,” does not demonstrate that awareness. The demographics of the high-tech industry are a matter of record. It’s white and male.

The Google buses are symbolic of something well beyond Google itself, but they in particular use municipal bus stops without having paid any fees or made any formal arrangement with the city, and they evidently languish at the curb waiting for people to show up instead of stopping, picking up whoever might be there, and leaving. Tom has fumed over them many a time for blocking the bike lane on Valencia. Anyone else who parks illegally in a municipal bus stop is courting a nearly $300 ticket.

There are in fact other ways to get from San Francisco to Mountain View, such as Caltrain. The bus is an amenity for these workers and obviously the company has the right to offer it and the workers understandably wish to take advantage of it, though, as has been pointed out, if it weren’t offered, maybe the workers would live closer to their jobs, which would be the more environmentally friendly choice. Also, it would be great if the money and ingenuity of the tech companies and their employees went into improving mass transit for all, instead of simply abandoning it and setting up a much nicer parallel system that only certain people get to use.

Someone suggested that it would help if they lost the tinted windows—it’s like having a gated community rolling through the neighborhood. You know special and important people must be behind those windows, but you are not worthy of resting your eyeballs on them. But one commenter found that a horrifying idea. To paraphrase: “Goodness, no one wants to be stared as if they’re a zoo animal!” But as another commenter explained, people on the public buses can indeed be seen through the windows and they are not “zoo animals.” We refer to them as “citizens.”

Thursday, December 12, 2013


The items on my to-do list have been languishing there for so long because I can’t bear to spend Saturday, my one potentially free and utterly unscheduled day, on chores, but if I spend about three Saturdays that way, the whole list should be done, so besides having Ray over to deal with turntables last weekend, I did some mending that had been waiting for a while, and vacuumed, and started my Christmas cards. I hadn’t cried over Carlos in several weeks, but recounting his death in my holiday letter brought a flood of tears: it must really have happened if it’s in the holiday letter.

By the way, when Ray returned my initial phone call to him, he said, “This is, like, Ray?” From that, I knew I would like him, which I did.

I’m continuing to pick up some good tidbits from Rubin’s The Happiness Project, including one man’s advice that the best way to have a happy marriage is to leave at least three things unsaid each day. I tried it with Tom after dinner at Santaneca Saturday evening. I very often treat him when we go out to eat, which lately is almost every week, because it seems wrong to demand ten or fifteen dollars from someone who is a special ed teacher. I can afford to pay for both of us, and consider it my way of supporting special ed and thanking Tom. However, if he fails to verbally express gratitude, I tease, “Aren’t you going to thank me for that lovely dinner?”

This is the downside of being utterly correct. I will cheerfully wait for ten minutes while a pedestrian crosses the street in a crosswalk, but if the same pedestrian jaywalks in front of me, I’ll try to run him down.

But on Saturday, thinking of that sage advice, and remembering that the point of doing a good deed shouldn’t be to receive a thank-you (though Rubin mentions several times her motivating desire for “gold stars,” which I, like probably most of us, share), I decided not to say it. And then right before we parted in the hallway back in our apartment building, Tom thanked me for the lovely dinner. But that was a bonus; I already felt good about exercising some self-control.

For a while there, it seemed that I was feeling happy again, that I had survived the loss of Carlos, but over the weekend, it was as hard again as it had ever been. I found myself wishing that hopeless wish, “Please live again, please live again,” and thinking that nothing will ever really be fun henceforth. It’s lonely not to be able to say, “I miss you so much,” to the person I most want to say it to. He’s not here, including not being here to discuss the fact that he’s not here. If I could tell him, “I miss you so much,” what would he say? I can’t quite imagine what his exact words would be, but they would be placid and comforting.

After brooding for a while, some hours or days or weeks, I might remember that it wasn’t always fun with him. We triggered each other quite frequently, and along with all the pleasure and joy, there were a number of very difficult times. It is simply false to say,
If only Carlos were here, I'd always be happy.
Once I get to that point, and I’ve been around this loop any number of times in the past nine months, then I decide that maybe I actually am never going to recover from this and maybe I am going to be sad forever. Maybe I’m finished in some fundamental way. Maybe this is some sort of punishment for past misdeeds which I can expiate by gracious acceptance.

Finally, I arrive at: all right! All right! I’m going to be miserable for the rest of my life. So be it. I accept it.

And since I’m going to be miserable forever and I have graciously accepted it, expecting nothing more, I may as well turn my attention to discovering exactly what the experience of misery is. What is it? How does it behave? Is it always the same? Does it shift? What, precisely, does it feel like?

And that is the turning point, always. I arrived at that point Sunday night and lay in bed investigating my misery, and by Tuesday, I felt absolutely, perfectly happy again, and all the more so because I was dazzled by the sheer stunning fact of not feeling miserable. It did not in fact last forever! It passed—and so will this happiness, but right now there is utter well-being, and it is remarkable.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ducks Unlimited

I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project—I noticed its cheerful cover on the biography/autobiography shelf at Modern Times Bookstore—and for the first twenty pages or so, felt judgmental and superior: Doesn’t she know that obsessing about whether or not you’re happy is a very good way not to be happy? Doesn’t she know there is no such thing as achieving a permanent state of happiness? Wouldn’t most people on earth be thrilled out of their minds to be even in her pre-project situation, and so isn’t it kind of selfish to try to suck up even more happiness?

Though I was already appreciating the clarity of her prose, her program sounded highly perfectionistic and utterly exhausting. However, when I got to the part about getting rid of clutter, I suddenly was aflame. Someone tells her, “I never keep anything for sentimental reasons alone,” which made me think of the hefty percentage of my stuff that fits into that category, and the next day, I spent several hours going through things, asking myself of each item, “Why do I have this?”

I decided that I’d like to keep anything I use—meaning that it’s been used in the past two years—and anything that gives me pleasure, but that I needed to take a much closer look at the sentimental items (which can bring the opposite of pleasure). I went through kitchen cupboards, the hall closet, and the walk-in closet, including the electronics drawer, and came up with half a grocery bag of stuff to take to e-waste and about seven bags’ worth for the thrift store. I took pictures of a lot of mementos and discarded the actual items, going so far as to part with the toothbrush that Carlos was using at my place in his final weeks—I’m not kidding about being sentimental—and I took a picture of his frequently worn Ducks Unlimited sweatshirt and put it in one of the thrift store bags, but when I was all done, my efforts had been so successful that I decided I could store one little sweatshirt I'll never wear.

I still need to go through his papers and journals, my own photographs, and letters received over the decades. I fear that if I try to choose a representative few of the latter to keep, I’ll end up reading them all, which would be time down the drain, but I don’t think I can bring myself to discard them unreviewed, so it might be safer just to let them sit placidly in their bags and ancient green hard-shell suitcase.

The following day, I took all the thrift store stuff to the Community Thrift Store, the e-waste to Goodwill, and several pairs of glasses to Martin de Porres soup kitchen, where lunch service was underway. I also dropped off one of my small end tables at J&L for refinishing. The fellow there quoted me $175, so I decided not to do it—it’s an Ikea table that Frank gave me that probably cost $25 to begin with—but as I was walking back to the car, I decided that if I were to shop for a nicer end table, I’d probably spend $175, so I might as well spend that fixing the one I already have.

I also decided that this year (meaning next year), I will complete some tasks that have been on my list for a long time, such as preparing an advance health care directive and making a will. Having the end table refinished is on that list, and so was dealing with my turntables, so I arranged for Ray N. to come over yesterday and sort things out: should I have my old turntable fixed and get rid of the newer one, or should I have the newer one set up and sell the old one? For a while, I thought it would be a good idea to have a backup turntable, but I’m past that.

When Ray came over, he couldn’t get the new turntable to start at all, and discovered that it had no power cord attached, which was mystifying. It’s sitting right next to my computer and I had used it for a while before realizing I didn’t have it adjusted exactly right—why on earth would I have removed the power cord? Weird. As for where the power cord now was … oh, no—my trip the prior day to drop off e-waste!

I went to check my electronics drawer and was extremely relieved to see the power cord sitting right on top. I must have looked at it and said, “I wonder what this is,” and for some reason decided to keep it, whereas everything else of which I asked the same question was carted away. Thank goodness. After Ray adjusted the new turntable and we listened to a little Nirvana, Ray said he would definitely keep that one, and I gave him the old one to fix and sell plus $60 for schlepping across town and adjusting my turntable. Plus the manual for the old turntable, which, needless to say, I still had after 30 years.

The new turntable does sound fantastic. You don’t realize what you’re missing with mp3s until you hear a good old record. Very satisfying.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

House of Tea with a Flower in It

While I was in Ypsilanti, I read Ezra Bayda’s latest book Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment. He’s probably my favorite Buddhist writer because of his clarity in pointing us from our thoughts back to our actual, direct experience, which has the quality of shifting constantly—of being alive—whereas our ancient fears and stories can almost seem not subject to the law of impermanence. It’s rather wondrous how things transform when we put our attention in the right place: on what’s actually happening and not what we think is happening, or think about what’s happening.

He has some helpful things to say about when he was in his 20s and trying to decide what work to do. He writes, “[S]omeone I trusted told me to stop thinking about what to do; instead, whenever the anxiety arose, I was to stay fully present with the anxiety itself.” He says it was difficult, but he stuck with it for several weeks, and one day it became “crystal clear” to him that he should do a certain kind of work—something he had no experience with whatsoever, but he proceeded in that direction and it ended up being a satisfying decades-long career for him.

I found that appealing because it’s very difficult for me to make decisions, probably because my primary tools are thinking and more thinking, so that a certain course of action seems as entirely right one day as it seems wrong the next. This way of “making decisions” (few decisions actually get made) is based on fear and leaves out intuition and other emotions: When this seems most scary, I decide to do that, and when that seems most scary, I decide to do this.

In his meditation instructions, Bayda, who teaches at Zen Center San Diego, recommends sitting with our eyes open: “The reason the eyes are kept open is that it is too easy to enter a dreamy state with the eyes closed.” After starting to go to the S. F. Zen Center several years ago (I don't go often these days), I experimented with sitting with my eyes open, and soon gave it up, probably because I wanted my dreamy state back. After reading this book, I decided to give it another try and it’s proving to be great this time around.

It’s more difficult to get lost in thought for an extended period, and it makes the ebbing and flowing of alertness and drowsiness very clear. When I’m sitting there with my eyes open, using my body as an anchor of attention, I’m doing exactly what I’ll be trying to do the rest of the day, to be awake and present in my body, so it gives a nice feeling of alignment, of time put to very good use.

Tom and I took the train to Sacramento for Thanksgiving at Steve’s and Julie’s, with the usual congenial crowd, and that was very nice. We slept over at Ann’s, and Steve, Julie and Diane (Julie’s mother) came over for breakfast the next day. When I got up, I told Ann, “I think I need a hair of the dog that bit me. Could I please have six dinner rolls and half a stick of butter?”

On Sunday, Ann and Tom and I went to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, preceded by lunch on Shattuck Ave. In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Mona Golabek plays her own mother, whose parents perished in the Holocaust and who lived because her parents sent her off via the Kindertransport to England. The show consisted of Golabek telling her mother’s story in the first person and playing the piano, the latter gorgeously. Her dynamics are particularly masterful, the shifts in volume and pacing.

This past Tuesday, David and Lisa were in town from Seattle and we had made plans to have dinner at Chef Jia’s, but that favorite restaurant is no more, so they and Tirtza, Barry, Nancy, Terry, Peter, Tom and I had dinner next door at House of Nanking. Most of us ordered hot tea, which at Chef Jia’s was free or at a nominal charge and came in modest little cups, but at House of Nanking comes in large glass mugs, in each of which floats a golf ball of tea, which unfurls to form a tall flower. It’s also pre-sweetened. Lisa said when she saw the tea unfurling, she knew it was going to be expensive, and I had to chuckle when I later heard Barry examining the bill for his portion of the table: “Fifteen dollars for four cups of tea?” We went afterward to Café Greco.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


When I said that everyone spends much of her time wanting what she doesn’t have and not wanting what she does have, I certainly didn’t mean everyone’s life is terrible. Our home, work and social lives may be quite satisfactory, and we may be grateful for many things every day. For instance, what good fortune to be sleeping indoors and not in a Dumpster behind Safeway, out in the cold and rain. How lucky!

But if we observe closely, there is rarely a moment when we are absolutely content with things exactly as they are. So often, we are worrying about the future—when we might get something we don’t want or lose something we do want—or planning, even if it’s just a modest little plan to turn on the radio or pick up our pen or make a cup of tea, and so we are not entirely at ease, but feel that everything will be just right once the radio is on, once the pen is in hand, once the tea is steaming before us. But of course then we’ll be on to the next small or large want. We are reaching, subtly, into the future so much of the time.

Fairly often, we get things arranged perfectly. We are lying on the couch with an engrossing book in our hands. All the chores are done and nothing whatsoever needs attention. Everything is just right, for as many as thirty seconds. Then we notice that some body part feels slightly uncomfortable, and we must make an adjustment to be comfortable again. Once again, complete satisfaction is (slightly) in the future.

At walk time one day last week, I went to pick up a Christmas gift at Modern Times Bookstore and found myself noticing details of buildings I’d overlooked before. I’d almost never set foot on that stretch of 24th St. before spending time with Carlos, so there is still much to be discovered. I noticed for the first time yesterday the building where El Tecolote is published, with a large version of its owl logo painted on the front. There’s such a profusion of visual art in that area, murals everywhere.

For part of the trip, I was walking behind a portly white man of 45 or so. Dressed in a handsome suit jacket and shiny loafers, he stood out. He had a bouncing, confident walk, and swung his arms widely from side to side with each step, expanding well into the space around him. I was walking behind him, disapproving, of course, of his Master of the Universe air, and so I could see the faces of the people walking toward him, and they all looked unhappy, irritated, or worried after they passed him. Probably they’d been the same before they saw him, but I imagined that to some, as to me, he symbolized the alarming changes underway, the lost businesses and homes and neighbors.

I wondered where he was off to and was still behind him when he slipped into the record store. Aha! I knew he was up to no good! Buying a record!

On my way back from the bookstore, I spotted for the first time a spiffy new featureless building just west of Folsom St. At first it was not clear what it was, but then I finally saw the small sign at one end: unique Mission condos, evidently just built and not yet occupied. Right in the absolute heart of that neighborhood, it was a dismal sight.

Eventually, I was back in front of my own building when came walking up the block a solidly built brown-skinned woman in a bright-colored flowing skirt. When she reached me, she paused, looked me over, and asked, “What country were you born in?”

“This one,” I said, pointing to the sidewalk.

“You were born in this country? What state were you born in?” and she began reeling off the names of the states in clumps: “Were you born in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico?” “No.” “Were you born in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia?” After we established that I was born in Michigan, she asked what I do for a living and began naming professions: Was I an artist? A teacher? I told her where I work and she asked, “Are you an accountant?”

“I basically sit in front of a computer,” I said, and she asked, “Is that why you’re going blind?”

I agreed that is exactly why, and then she asked if I’m going back to Michigan for Christmas. I said I had just been there because my mother had surgery, and she asked if my mother has Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. I said my mother is over 65, so she has Medicare.

She asked if I’m past 54 and if I was going to cook for Thanksgiving. I said I was going to the house of friends and they were going to cook. Finally she asked (and I suspect this had been her most pressing question all along), “Why are you standing here?” and I explained that I had seen my mail lady coming and thought I would just wait for her to deliver the mail to my building so I could take mine in with me, and the woman said, as she walked off, “That’s smart. People from Michigan are smart.”