Friday, December 26, 2014

The Magnificent and Onion Fruit Organization

Early in December I made a bonus visit to the soup kitchen because one of my fellow chaplaincy students wanted to see what it’s like there. I thought she might get the best feel for the place if she suited up and did some bussing, and after being warmly welcomed by about ten people, just as I was welcomed on my first day, she put on an apron and plunged right in. After shadowing me for a bit, she went off on her own and bussed like a pro.

I didn’t see B. or D., who I had not seen in weeks. It was kind of rainy, as on many of the days I’ve been there recently, so it may be that D. was snuggled up in his RV. He seems like the kind of person you’d only see when it’s sunny. Maybe something similar happens for B.: if he has a dry spot, he very well may not want to get all his stuff wet. Then again, maybe he is dead, or in the hospital, or has gone to another city. I might never know, and I might never see him or D., again. I know my heart is going to get broken a million times at the soup kitchen. There is an inspiring quote from Viktor Frankl in the front of every issue of The Sun: “What is to give light must endure burning.”

A member of the intentional community that runs the soup kitchen has a friend, G., who comes from New York City a couple or few times a year to visit. G. is 90 and plays the piano in the soup kitchen dining room. He’s a lovely fellow. I got to chat with him at one of the volunteer potlucks. On this day, I thanked him for the beautiful music, and not 20 minutes later, I saw some commotion in his area: something had happened. I was worried that he had had a heart attack and expired on the spot, but it turned out that, as he sat on the piano bench, he had suddenly started to fall over backward. Fortunately, the guest sitting just behind him caught him before he fell entirely to the floor, likely preventing a head injury. The paramedics were summoned and took him away. He was lucid and able to walk, slowly, to the ambulance, but he looked forlorn and dazed.

I got a chance to visit with my new friend, H., a guest who is a poet and playwright. Re Ferguson, MO, and Cleveland, and NYC (and NYC, and NYC) he said he thinks that police officers should not work more than three days a week, given the extreme stress of the job. That’s a good idea. We agreed that if white police officers had African-American or brown-skinned friends, that might help. When we don’t know a single person who is gay, it’s easy to be homophobic, but when we have gay acquaintances, friends, or co-workers, gay people start to seem not so bad. I wonder how friendships could be facilitated between police officers and people of color. I heard lately some mention by a police officer of knocking on every single door in his area and meeting the people who live there. I’ll bet if every police officer did the same thing annually, that would make a profound difference.

The first Saturday in December was my long-awaited first visit to Laguna Honda as a chaplain. I called Bob several days prior and left him a message reminding him I’d be coming, but was fortunate to find him in his office, as he had not gotten the message. Normally he has people shadow him on a few resident visits before they solo, but he had a group of volunteers he had to be with, so he was forced to deploy me on my own.

List of residents lately arrived at the hospital in hand, I went to the rehab unit and met the resident I will likely never forget, simply because he’s the first person I spoke with at length there, just as I will never forget B. at the soup kitchen, the first guest I had a long chat with, on my very first day.

I might also never forget A. because, like the soup kitchen’s guests, he is homeless, and kept out of trouble by “recycling” (picking up cans and bottles with a resale value) in the “TL” (Tenderloin). Two months ago, he was shot in the back by an unseen assailant—the bullet is still in his back—and now he is permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He was at San Francisco General Hospital for acute treatment for two months and had just arrived at Laguna Honda a couple of days earlier. He was remarkably equanimous, saying he must now learn how to live this new life, though he teared up a time or two.

He said that he had made a point of trying to help others get food and clothing, etc., while on the streets, and in particular he helped a certain woman, who, in those two months, had not showed up to visit him. Painful. However, he has a brother in another state he hopes to be back in touch with soon.

After A., I visited with six other residents, including a slight fellow who said money had been stolen from him, ditto his credit card. His medication is wrongfully being withheld from him and he can’t sleep. There’s something wrong with his wheelchair and he wants it fixed. His roommate, C., said it’s been a long month, and here I would deploy a smiley face if this blog went in for that kind of thing. C. insightfully observed that his roommate’s problem is that he thinks he can change everything. As C. and I spoke, I could hear his roommate moaning, “This is a nightmare.”

C. told me he was assaulted and has had to have one of his eyes operated on. Next the other eye must be operated on, and then his brain. The first eye surgery went well and he thinks the second will be fine, too, but he’s worried about the brain surgery, whose outcome is not as certain. He asked for my card when I left. I don’t have one, but I wrote down my name and “Spiritual Care Department.”

At the end of two hours, I went to make a report to Bob, who seemed pleased that I’d visited so many residents. He said next time I can shadow him on a few visits.

Back at the elevator, who should be sitting there but the fellow who told me I’m lucky I can walk, precisely where I saw him before. Near him was another guy in a wheelchair, kind of a country-looking guy, who said to the first, “You haven’t told anyone to go to hell lately. Did they tell you to stop doing that?”

Complete silence on the part of the other party seemed to indicate an affirmative answer.

I got into the elevator with the country-looking resident, who observed, “You’re an interesting-looking person.”

“Because of the big mop of hair?”, I suggested.

“That’s part of it,” he agreed.

More flattering was the resident who, upon passing me in a doorway, shrieked, “Wow!” (I politely said
“Wow!” back.)
And then there was the woman I passed in a dining area who called to me, “You’re a sweetheart! You don’t know how much I love you!” I hope that’s the kind of old lady I will be, or the kind of dementia I end up with.

Back at home, I made a nice document with a table of contents to keep track of my visits with residents at Laguna Honda. I may or may not be a good chaplain, but I’m going to chart like a mofo.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Frizz Ball

After returning from Thanksgiving, I went to the soup kitchen to serve at a Sunday brunch shift. I noticed an older guest with a very cheerful face making all kinds of expressions and gestures. He caught my eye, and, without speaking a word or in any way seeming to flirt, he smiled, raised and lowered his eyebrows, looked meaningfully at me, made the zip-my-lips motion. I reciprocated as best I could.

One of our guests has fabulous rock star hair and he commented to me, “Your hair is like mine,” and he told me his hair care regime, which includes something I never thought of doing. I joked, “If my hair looks better the next time you see me, it will be thanks to you,” whereupon he said kindly, “Well, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is to be a good person.” Here I realized that he was extremely tactfully trying to tell me something that any number of stylists have told me very firmly and without any tact at all: stop combing your hair into a big ball of frizz!

I chatted with an extremely gracious guest a couple of times, a woman with a pleasant face and manner. She commented on how good the pasta was. Usually I walk home from there, but the bus was coming just as I passed the stop, so I got on it and this same woman got on, following another passenger, whom she was cursing at, enraged. She accused the woman of having tried to kiss her neck, and said, “Don’t nod your white face at me, bitch!” The other woman was much younger, perhaps 20, and she remained silent. The soup kitchen guest continued to curse and rage until the next corner, where she got off.

The bus driver, a man, evidently said something about her needing to take her medication, because she got right back on the bus and said, “You don’t tell me to take my medication, bitch! Making a remark to me like that—that’s illegal! I’m going to call and file an incident report, bitch.” Then she got off the bus again and sloshed a whole cup of milk or something all over the windshield and vanished from sight.

It seemed perfectly clear to me that all this anger is her defense against the perils of being a homeless or very low income woman, and it didn’t seem frightening to me—I mean, I sound more or less like that myself when I have to talk to AT&T—but I imagined that the young woman probably felt frightened. The bus driver stood up and asked if we thought he should take some official action or just let it go. “Let it go” was my vote, and he drove on. I remarked to another passenger that I had just seen the angry woman somewhere else and she was as nice as you could want someone to be.

I guess one thing I take from that experience is an appreciation for how our guests—and volunteers—are on their very best behavior when they come to the soup kitchen, which is a giant compliment. I like going to the soup kitchen, in part, because it’s easy to be my very best self there: calm, cheerful, absolutely present, which is nourishing to me, if to no one else.

Monday, December 22, 2014

“Hash Pipe” by Weezer

SuperShuttle picked me up at about 4:30 a.m. for my Thanksgiving trip to Michigan. It was raining, and as we headed to the airport, I was astounded to see three separate people out on bicycles. The shuttle driver had three electronic mapping devices mounted in front of him, which he consulted often, whereas his engagement with the actual road seemed more tentative. However, we got to the airport safely and he politely addressed me as “sir” two or three times, so all was well.

The day after I arrived, my parents and I went to Jo-Ann Fabrics to look for a dress pattern. My mother is a master seamster, so I had asked her to make me a housedress to wear while cooking on the hot days that have become more common in San Francisco. The three of us sat down with pattern books and thumbed through them looking for dresses. I picked out a pattern for a wrap dress and then some fabric in a bright pink print.

My mother and I spent a good deal of time on this project. I did the sewing and she translated the instructions and provided mentorship and congenial company. Her sewing machine broke when we were about three-quarters done, and the old machine she’d kept just in case also proved to be on the fritz, so I will try to finish on my own.

I had my semi-annual cable news binge, watching what happened in Ferguson, MO, after the grand jury failed to indict the police office who killed Michael Brown. Also terrible was the video of the darling 12-year-old boy in Cleveland aimlessly puttering around on the sidewalk, making a snowball and dropping it, going to stand under a nearby gazebo. Then a police car roars up to him and he is shot dead, evidently before the police officer even gets out of the cruiser, and certainly without any evident exchange of words. This little boy had been playing with a toy pellet gun and someone called 911. The police claimed they asked him to drop the gun—there is absolutely no way—and after they took him from his family forever, they radioed something like “Black male down, age 20.”

It is sickening that the NRA wants everyone to have a real gun, capable of killing people with, when we have police officers murdering children holding toy guns. It is amazing that, with environmental collapse clearly in sight, we still haven’t made up our minds if black people are human beings or not. The world as we know it may literally end while blatant racism is still being practiced. If white adults can own real machine guns, black children should be able to play with pellet guns without being murdered.

One day, I joined my parents on their regular walk. My mother has lately discovered the joy of breaking into a jog and I was able to take a little video of her running down a hill. It is a joyful sight.

After grumbling here about my new camera, I got a characteristically kind and generous offer from my father, who said that I should bring my new camera to Michigan, and we could take some pictures, and if my camera seemed satisfactory to him, he would take it in exchange for his camera, which is identical to the one I loved and lost. I can still get the camera I liked, but not in silver, only in red or black, so my father also said that if I wanted to buy one in black or red, he’d take it in exchange for his silver one.

(This reminds me of when I was about eight years old and a friend’s father gave me an old film camera. My father offered to give me a brand new camera in exchange for the vintage item. I took a lot of pictures with the camera my father gave me—an Instamatic? I can still remember how it looked and the way the film smelled. Later my father bought me a Nikon FG that I used for years and still have in the closet. He got me a case to go along with it, and a yellow lens filter for snowy days, and cleaning accessories. What a great gift that was.)

I did take my camera to Michigan and my father and I sat down and took pictures of the exact same scene and I liked the look of his photos better, and, try as I might, could not duplicate the color balance using my camera, though in trying to do this, I learned a lot about my camera’s controls. Because the pictures taken by the new camera look terrible to me, I’ve had to explore all its options, and while I wouldn’t say I love it, I’ve become somewhat enamored of all the things it can do, so I’ve decided to keep it. Maybe I will still buy another of the original camera, in black, as well.

Or not. Having two cameras seems kind of wasteful for the amateur photographer. Spending time at the soup kitchen has made me more aware of this kind of thing, and has also made me think about food. The core volunteers probably eat many meals at the soup kitchen, and I am positive they don’t insist edibles must be organic and vegan or free roaming. (I lately heard someone refer to free-range chicken as “free roaming” chicken. Cute!)

Accordingly, I decided to be a non-vegetarian for Thanksgiving. I gather that it is less work for my father to produce a non-vegetarian holiday meal than to make the elaborate vegetarian meal he has often made. The last time he did it, it required starting at 3:30 a.m. So as a gift to my father and in solidarity with the soup kitchen’s guests, I ate and enjoyed roast chicken on Thanksgiving, along with Waldorf salad, and low-carb biscuits and cheese biscotti made by my mother. The biscuits and cheese biscotti were fantastic. That was our entire meal, along with wine for some and San Pellegrino for others. My father tries to make precisely as much food as people will eat during the actual meal, which even more encourages enjoying what is offered: leftovers are unlikely.

Afterward, my sister and parents and I lounged in front of the TV and watched some football and a couple of episodes of Orange Is the New Black. The others had my mother’s sugar-free raspberry cheesecake for dessert. I had to draw the line there. I quit eating sweets other than fresh fruit January 1, 2012, and it was totally easy and remains easy. It was a one-time gift from the universe, so I’m heeding what they say in AA: “Don’t pick up the first one.”

On Monday I had a salmon burger at Café Zola with Amy and ditto with Ginny on Wednesday. Both visits were delightful. After returning from lunch one of those days, I got a glass of soy milk from the refrigerator and Mom called from the TV room that it sounded like snacking was underway. I said, “You don’t want to become weak from hunger, especially right after lunch.”

“It’s a dangerous time,” Mom agreed.

I said I’d heard a great song on the car radio. It sounded like the guy was saying “I got my hash pipe,” and sure enough, the song was “Hash Pipe,” by Weezer, as determined by visiting WRIF’s website.

“The knowledge just builds and builds,” Mom said admiringly.

I was sad the night before I left, as is often the case. I noticed my thoughts: “I hate living so far from my parents and sister. I shouldn’t have left in the first place. Should I move back here?” Then I noticed this thought: “I should be over this.” Aha! Why should I be over this? I might never be over it.

I remembered what a guest speaker in my chaplaincy class said about maintaining a “posture of tranquility” and the thought came to me that I should leave in good cheer, and I did leave in fairly good cheer, with a new batch of nice memories.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Day of Death

My chaplaincy class has a few optional field trips, including “Death in the City,” which was this past Saturday. (A classmate emailed me, “I’m really looking forward to the Day of Death.”) 

We started at the Columbarium, which is an above-ground cemetery, a round, domed building full of “niches,” each of which contains someone’s cremains (except for a couple that are just honorary, like one for Harvey Milk).

The building opened a hundred years ago, and the niches on the lower floors are simple and dignified. All you see for most of them is a metal front plate and the family’s name, or there is a glass front and you can see the urn or other container.

As you ascend to upper floors of the building, it’s more like Dia de los Muertos altars, with photographs and mementoes. One niche even featured a tiny electronic sign flashing the name of the deceased over and over.

Then it was on to the San Francisco National Cemetery, at the Presidio, where we were invited to contemplate our feelings both about death and about the military. Much of training to be a chaplain is about knowing one’s own biases and sensitivities, so that they don’t unconsciously get acted out on those the chaplain hopes to serve.

The vast majority of the gravestones here are identical—simple white marble, with larger and more elaborate monuments here and there.

It was a beautiful day, not raining for the first time in days. 

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Monday, December 08, 2014

I’ll Be the Judge of That

At work on Monday, a mild conflict arose between myself and the representative of a group I’m working on a project with. This group has been particular about how this project is carried out, more so than the other 13 groups I’ve worked with this year. They asked us to do something we really didn’t want to do and there was a lengthy detour while we had several meetings about it. In the end, we had to agree to do what they wanted. Immediately after the meeting where this became clear, I sent a note saying we would be delighted to take care of it, and then I forwarded this note to one of my own co-workers, saying I thought I’d better send that gracious message while the afterglow of reaching an agreement was still upon me. She complimented my good thinking.

A couple of days before the project was scheduled to conclude, lo and behold, the representative decided that there was yet another thing they needed changed in a system that is used by many people beyond this group. I basically said we were absolutely not going to do it, and he basically said he’d see what his manager had to say about that, which is how the former issue began to escalate, too.

To digress semi-briefly, my chaplaincy class has a reading list consisting of 19 books, plus tons of online readings. I ordered every book right away, but there was one I couldn’t get at first: Professional Spiritual & Pastoral Care: A Practical Clergy and Chaplain's Handbook, edited by Rabbi Stephen B. Roberts, MBA, MHL, BCJC. Huh! Didn’t notice the MBA until just now. BCJC is Board Certified Jewish Chaplain. I have no idea what MHL is. To the non-religious eyes, looks boring, right? Not least because of all those credentials. Amazon listed this book—for $50—but said it was back-ordered. Weeks passed, and I finally canceled the order and ordered it from—for $35—but it was also back-ordered there.

I felt a little self-conscious about my neighbors maybe seeing a box from ChristianBook waiting for me in the lobby, like I should run around and tell them all, “I’m not a Christian!”

It finally arrived the day of my class in November, and it is actually an excellent book, not extremely well-written, but chock full of interesting advice for the aspiring chaplain. I read an assigned chapter on listening and realized that I was dealing with my co-worker in just the wrong way, in a way guaranteed to increase conflict.

I wrote up some reminders for myself for effective communication at work (and, I suppose, anywhere):

—How can I foster relaxation in this situation or conversation?

—How can I support connectedness?

—How can I nurture a sense of security?

—How can I give the other person as many options as possible, to promote a sense of choice and power?

I thought of several areas where this person could make some choices, and in our next meeting, which was just him and me, I greeted him warmly and asked what he’d like to talk about first, rather than telling him what we’d talk about first. I’d absolutely thought we would end up having to do this other thing he was pushing for, and therefore would have to delay the grand finale of the project, but in the context of our pleasant meeting, with me offering him options every time I possibly could, and after I showed him what his request would entail, he said it would be perfectly fine not to make the change! (I confess I also casually mentioned that another influential group in the company was perfectly fine without this change.) Anyway, that was a satisfying ending to that particular problem.

And then I thought again about my classmate who made the racist remark, realizing it would not be helpful to spend the time until the next class rehearsing offended speeches. My task is to find a way to act in a constructive manner, as at work, and as explicitly elucidated in Rabbi Roberts’ very good book.

Saturday, December 06, 2014


Funny to think this was taken not only before Carlos died but before I even met him. That’s my old camera! Yes, I was the kind of person who had a pepper grinder at work. 

(Click photo to enlarge.)

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Man from Ft. Bragg

One afternoon, while doing an errand near work, I passed a fellow I often see standing on the sidewalk with a cup for spare change. He’s friendly, about 70, with white hair and a beard. He told me a few months ago that he would soon start receiving Social Security and not have to beg for money anymore. When I saw him, I put two dollars in his cup and asked, “Did you start getting Social Security?” He said that indeed he did, and that he had rented an apartment in Ft. Bragg, on the coast about 200 miles north of here.

I asked how he gets up there, and he said it’s two bus rides. The first, to Santa Rosa, costs five dollars and the more rural route to Ft. Bragg costs $23. He had to pay a security deposit along with his first month’s rent, so he was a bit in arrears this month, but he said that starting next month, he’ll be fine on his Social Security alone. I told him I was delighted for him, and said I guessed that meant we wouldn’t be seeing him anymore, and he said, “That’s right. As soon as I get $80, I’m going home.”

I said, “Then handshakes are in order,” and we shook hands and exchanged names. I learned for the first time that his name is Michael. I told him how delighted I was for him and headed back to work, but then half a block away, I thought, “Wait a minute.”

I walked back and put $80 in his cup and said, with a smile, “Go on home.” He peered into his cup and when he realized what I’d done, tears came to his eyes and he gave me a big hug. When I passed that spot later, leaving work for the day, he wasn’t there, and I imagined him sitting on the bus, heading to a snug little apartment of his very own.

I pondered how being generous is not about establishing who is generous and who is not, nor who is helpful and who is helpless. Generosity is a natural expression of our connectedness, and we will all take turns being the one to give and the one to receive.

There is a little addendum to this story, which is that several days later, imagine my surprise upon seeing this very person at the soup kitchen, looking rather bedraggled. Had the money been stolen from him, or did he spend it on alcohol? Here I felt a twinge of conscience at possibly having contributed to his delinquency. I had to wonder if there was even any Social Security or apartment in Ft. Bragg.

Then I waited to feel indignant, but found I never did. For one thing, if there’s no apartment in Ft. Bragg, that’s sad, not a thing to be angry about. I really wanted there to be an apartment in Ft. Bragg. Plus, whatever he did with that money doesn’t change my kind intention in giving it, as one of my chaplaincy classmates pointed out.

In the end, I concluded that if this guy is a good enough actor to get a handshake, a hug, sincere good wishes and $82 all from the same person—well, those are very impressive survival skills.

Thursday, December 04, 2014


One day at the soup kitchen, D. told me about someone he knows who has a wart on his nose and took the initiative to have little legs and wings tattooed around it. Now, according to D., people say, “Hold still!” and hit this fellow in the face, attempting to squash the bug. I suspect the latter clause was apocryphal, but I’d like to think there is someone walking around town with a wart-bug on his nose. Maybe they say, “Hold still!” and try to flick the creature off his face.

On the fourth Sunday in October, at a four-hour brunch shift. I filled eight big trays with sliced bread and then handed out numbers at the gate with a volunteer who is an attorney and a very serious swimmer. She swims to and from Alcatraz. The two large trees across the street were gorgeous in the early morning sun against the clear blue sky. A young woman in a BMW pulled up and parked out front. I wondered if she was nervous parking there with so many homeless people about, but after she got out of the car, she walked in the gate: a volunteer coming to serve rice, beans and salad.

We were at the gate from 8 until 9:30 or so, and then I sat down at a table in the dining room and ate. A fellow told me he had been granted an “Obamaphone” and just had to find two dollars so he can take a bus to a nearby city to fetch it. (I did not give him two dollars. I don’t give money to anyone while at the soup kitchen because I don’t want to be the ATM machine there. It’s also my intention not to give anyone money right near the soup kitchen, either, but I often do.)

I spotted a young woman in the food line I had talked to there before. She is covered with tattoos and has beautiful dark green eyes and a touchingly sweet manner. She has some sort of very charming accent, I can’t figure out from where. The first time we spoke, she told me her shoes are made of hemp. She appears to be entirely in possession of her mental faculties, and she is immediately likable. It makes me wonder how she comes to be at the soup kitchen—a relationship breakup or a suddenly lost job?

I noticed her wiping away a tear as she waited to get food, and I went over to see what was wrong: A Muni driver had ignored her, pulling away before she could board the bus. I could see how that one little thing could be the last straw in a period where something major has gone wrong and you don’t know if it will go right again. “Am I invisible?”, she asked. For what it’s worth, I told her Muni drivers do that to everyone, and I asked if I could give her a little pat on the shoulder. That’s one thing I’ve learned in my class: to ask before touching people. Also, institutions such as hospitals or jails may have very specific rules about physical contact that a volunteer chaplain needs to know.

The young woman nodded and I touched her shoulder briefly and invited her to come sit at our table. Sometimes people chat as they eat, particularly if they know the people they’re near. Less often, people talk to those they don’t already know, and most often, they don’t talk to anyone, but just eat silently from plates heaped with as much food as they can hold. So our table was silent after the brief conversation about the Obamaphone. After a while, the young woman looked up and said, “This is really good,” meaning the food. When I got up to return to my duties, I told her, “I’m sorry about Muni. I’m glad you’re here, and I hope your afternoon will be good.” That’s all I can do: help the soup kitchen function and try to make sure people don’t feel alone and unseen.

Another day, an agitated guest was telling whoever would listen about the bacterial infection he can’t get any doctor to take seriously. He indicated a small wound on his face, red but not actively bleeding, and said, “Look what’s coming out of it!” Before I could remember an urgent engagement elsewhere, he unwadded a couple of the tissues clutched in his hand and showed me nothing worse (fortunately) than faint smears of blood. He explained what I was seeing: “Little white things are coming out of it: plastic pellets. I’m full of them!” Then he pointed at another guest. “That woman has the same thing. I hope she isn’t also completely full of plastic pellets, like me.” I assumed he was talking about minute pieces of skin or flesh.

Thus, when he later announced the connection between gay men and Ebola, I said, “You’re probably right. That sounds like good advice,” and he walked away happy. Another volunteer said, “No, that’s not right. I’m a lesbian,” but she hadn’t heard the discussion about plastic pellets. I knew I wasn’t going to argue him out of any of his delusions, so why upset him? Also, I wasn’t personally highly offended (though if the orator is sane, we should speak up about racism, sexism and homophobia, etc., whether we are members of the group being insulted or not). Now, if he’d said my father causes Ebola, I might have said, “Hello? My father does not cause Ebola!”

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Career Advice of Bugwalk

What I said about wanting work to be afraid of me notwithstanding, here is a slightly revised excerpt from an email to a friend with a new job:

First, I’m wishing you the best of luck at your new job.

But if this job doesn’t work out, there’s another good job out there somewhere, for sure.

After I was laid off from The Best Company There Is and then rehired in another part of the company several months later, I was very motivated to keep my new job, and I adopted a new approach, which is that whenever my boss asks me to do something, I say, “Sure! I would love to do that!” I formerly was prone to arguing about details—does this even need to be done? Is this the best way to do it? Etc. I resolved never to indulge in that again.

I also try to make sure my boss’s life is easy and smooth. I handle problems myself as much as possible before going to him. What I say to him is positive and constructive. I try not to waste his time.

I never ever ever say anything negative to him about another person. A co-worker would have to shoot me before I’d complain to my boss. No matter what a colleague of mine does, there is no benefit to me in mentioning that to my boss. (I also almost never ever ever say anything negative about a co-worker to a third co-worker. I do not want to be seen as that kind of person.)

I read recently that what we say about others will be seen as attributes of ourselves, a quirk of psychology. So if I go to my boss and say, “Mulene is pretty, nice and smart,” he’s hearing those words and seeing my face and they get associated with each other, and he sort of thinks I am pretty, nice and smart. And if I say to my boss, “Mulene is ugly, mean and stupid!”, then he thinks I am those things.

I have also noticed that when Person A goes to HR to share a very legitimate complaint about Person B, Person A can eventually look forward to being laid off. HR is there to protect the company. From whom? From troublemakers! Who are the troublemakers? The ones who come to them with complaints. It’s totally backward, but I think that’s how it tends to work.

I used to have a co-worker of notably sunny and calm demeanor. One day he and I got a very provocative, complaining email from a third person. I was all up in arms, but Ben said, “I’m not letting him get my goat,” and he read the first two words of the email and then deleted it. I’ve never forgotten the way he prioritized his own happiness by avoiding things that could only be upsetting or annoying.

Sometimes the thing we have to avoid in order not to be upset is our own thoughts.

But whatever you might think, one key to hanging onto a job is for people to see you as someone who does her job cheerfully and willingly, causes no problems for the boss or anyone else, and never says anything negative, most particularly not to the boss.

By “boss,” I mean my boss, but also anyone in any position of authority, such as a team lead, or someone directing me in a project or task, or even someone training me to do a project or task.

Crossing my fingers for you!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Task Cowers as Blogger Approaches

Our landlord’s two daughters stopped by for a visit recently, taking the opportunity to meet as many of us tenants as they could. They assured me that they have no intention of selling the building, which would always have been a problem, but now would be catastrophic. If something happens to this place, I’d have to move in with roommates or move to another town. I couldn’t afford a studio or one-bedroom apartment at San Francisco’s current astronomical rates, so I was relieved to hear them say this.

One daughter lives in Coalinga, 200 miles south of here, but lately spends three weeks per month with her mother in San Rafael, about 30 minutes north of here, and she will be the one to take over administering the building once her mother is gone; they lost their father a few years ago.

The most exciting thing I had to show them was the backyard of the gentleman next door, who is evidently a hoarder. They took a photograph to show their mother. I happened to pass his garage one day when the door was open, and it was literally full of boxes of stuff—from side to side and top to bottom. All that stuff in the backyard provides excellent habitat for rats, which are prey for raccoons. If you’ve not heard the sound of a raccoon savaging a rat, you’re not missing out. Our landlord’s daughter said she’d be worried about all that stuff being a fire hazard, and I’m sure if the merest spark ever contacts it, the entire block will go up in a giant conflagration. But since the fellow has been living there for decades and no one has burned to a crisp yet, I don’t worry about it, and I don’t have any hard feelings for him. Imagine being compelled to spend so much of your life energy dealing with your giant pile of stuff. 


One day while I was making my bed, I drew my back my arm just as Hammett ran up behind me and his head collided with my elbow with a little thump. He threw himself down on the bed, and, just to show he hadn't lost his oomph, gave me a single chomp on the hand.


At work, I noticed that a colleague famous for the elaborate vegetable smoothies she makes in the kitchen using a handheld blender was looking more svelte. In such a circumstance, I quite often say, “Have you lost weight? You look great,” but when I remember, I leave off the part about looking great, so as not to value one size over another. “You look great now that you’re smaller” is equivalent to “You looked awful when you were bigger” or “If you gain weight again, you’ll be ugly.”

So I said to my co-worker, “Wow, have you lost weight?”, which she interpreted as a compliment, which is fine—I don’t insist that people feel insulted—and she said, “Yes!” and attributed it to her recent project of building an enclosure to put her recycling, compost and garbage bins in. She showed me a photo of the truly handsome wooden structure she had made. I was impressed. As I left the kitchen, she said happily, “I can do anything, right?”


I was shocked when I heard that Ray Magliozzi, one of the Car Talk duo, had died. I often listen to them on weekend mornings and didn’t realize they had stopped recording new shows two years ago. Until Ray died, I had never known which one of them was which, but after looking at their website, listening to a Terry Gross show remembering Ray, and consulting Wikipedia, now I know that the one who didn’t die was kind of the main host, the one who was the first to say “Don’t drive like my brother” at the end of the show, and the one who listed all of the personnel who supposedly help produce the show. Ray was Tom’s sidekick, with the oft-mentioned infectious laugh. In the first photo I saw of them, it was immediately obvious who was who. It was fun seeing the photos, some going decades back, and reading quotes from Ray. My favorite began, “Don’t be afraid of work. Make work afraid of you.”

Friday, November 21, 2014

See What I Mean?

I’ve been doing power saving—saving as much as I possibly can—for six months or a year and accordingly don’t have cash for a new camera lying around at the moment. What with paying the second installment for my chaplaincy class soon and signing up for a retreat in the spring, I’ll have to save up, so in the meantime, I took these flattering self-portraits with my new horrible camera.

It’s even making a weird thing stick out of the top of my hairdo! Hmm, looking a little grim. Let’s brighten things up.

Maybe if I go outside, into the beautiful, natural light.

Certainly you can't go wrong with a shot or two of your adorable pet. Here's Hammett.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Little Silver Friend

I picked up the new camera from Gasser’s and immediately hated it, pretty much in the same way I immediately loved my old camera. I asked A. if it might be possible to get my old camera back—no one ever asked me if it was all right to toss it in the trash! To make a medium-length story short, my camera is definitely gone, which A. told me in a voice mail, without a word of contrition. (Now Gasser’s has lost a customer.) I considered calling and saying I’d appreciate an apology, but decided to let it go. If he’s of reasonable intelligence, which he probably is, he has comprehended that it might be better to check with customers before discarding their cameras, and if he’s not, no amount of carrying on will help.

So that is that, though I did happen to recall that I gave my parents a gift of this exact same camera after buying one for myself, so I called my father and said that if they happen to find they have a superfluous camera, I would not be offended to receive it. I don’t think they take many pictures and they have more than one camera (if I may mention it), but I suppose after my father, my most faithful reader, sees this post and my unflattering remarks about the new camera, he will rightly prefer to keep that Canon PowerShot SD780IS and not to trade it for my new one, which is a Canon PowerShot ELPH 150 IS. Whereas many pictures I took with the former were dazzlingly beautiful, I can’t get the new camera to take a beautiful picture, and I have taken many at this point.

You can still get it my old camera new on Amazon, but only in black or red. Mine was silver. It was beautiful. I loved it. I’m sad that it’s gone.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thrown Clear

The topic of November’s chaplaincy class was ethics (sila). I felt profoundly sleepy during the class, starting during a particular presentation. It brought back vivid memories of seven hundred occasions of being in a boring class in 7th grade, even though what was being said in chaplaincy class wasn’t boring at all.

One of the teachers did a presentation on how to lead a guided meditation, and then we got to practice on each other. When I was playing the patient, I appreciated my classmate’s calm and soothing voice, and found the experience genuinely helpful. When I was playing the chaplain, I was surprised by how responsible I felt for the person sitting opposite me, how concerned that what I offered would be helpful and not in any way harmful.

During the day, another student shared an anecdote that was blatantly racist. I was shocked, and assumed one of our three teachers would respond, but none of them did, and nor did either of the people of color in the room, and nor did I nor anyone else. This came after a fair amount of lip service about honoring diversity and cultural differences, so it was all the more astounding.

The next day, Tom and I went to Berkeley to see Party People, preceded by lunch at Thai Street Food. The food was a bit sweet but not overly so (not like at Gecko Gecko) and was generally quite tasty. The place is open and airy and the presentation of the food, including the bowls and plates, is pleasing. The only big demerit is in the area of the seating, which is downright uncomfortable: a hard little stool, a hard little metal chair, or a long wooden bench being jiggled by some other luncher.

Party People is about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. I didn’t actually love it—it was loud and bombastic throughout, and none of the music really grabbed me. It was somewhat educational, but I suspect I could have gleaned the same facts in five minutes with Wikipedia. However, that I saw it the day after the racist anecdote in class was a bit striking.

On Sunday, as I did my cooking and pondered my classmate’s thoughtless statement, I felt more and more disturbed that I hadn’t been braver. I sent the three teachers an email saying this:

I have been brooding about [my classmate’s] anecdote, wherein he used “black” with the apparent certainty that we would all, with him, understand that as “frightening and menacing.”

In the moment, I was quite shocked—while there is plenty of overt racism, sexism, homophobia, size-ism, etc., online, I rarely hear bigoted remarks with my own ears. (When I do, they are generally directed against women.) I assumed one of you would speak up, or perhaps one of the people of color in the room would, but no one did, including me.

I now feel ashamed and heartsick at my own cowardice.

I am wondering why none of you three said anything, and wondering the same about myself.

I think it was simple fear: of standing out, of being disliked, of turning out to be the only one to feel shocked and thus to feel isolated. And therefore I rationalized, “Well, it must not have been THAT bad, or someone else would have said something.”

Again, I feel ashamed.

I would like this to be addressed in some way on a group level next time we meet. I feel intensely uncomfortable about being in a room where it is not perfectly clear that using “black” or “African American” to refer to a hateful, harmful stereotype is not fine.

At the minimum, I would have liked for [my classmate] to be explicit about his assumptions; e.g., “I am terrified of black people and assume my life is in danger when I am near people who are African American.”

(end of my note)

I received notes back from two of the three teachers, one heartfelt and honest, making it clear that this teacher was also anguished about what had happened and about his failure to respond in the moment, and the other a brief note saying the matter will absolutely be dealt with at length in class. I appreciated both, but was put more at ease by the second, because I’d decided that if the matter wasn’t explicitly addressed on a group level, I would probably have to read my own note above aloud.

That evening was the monthly potluck at Thomas House, which was excellent. The executive director gave a few of us rides home. I asked the guy to my left in the back seat if he wanted a seat belt and he said, “I’m not interested in a seat belt—I want to be thrown clear.”

Then the guy on my right in the back seat said he also didn’t want a seat belt, causing the first guy to say, “Oh, he doesn’t want a seat belt? Then I do want one.”

We had two papers due before our November class (described above), and chapters to read in four books, plus several articles online to read. I felt a little stressed out trying to get this all done. In addition, my boss at work has taken a job elsewhere in the company, and I’ve inherited a couple of his duties, so work is busier, too. And now Laguna Honda is entering the picture. I started to wonder if this is going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and if I should not do it. I was thinking maybe I should just stick with the soup kitchen, which I don’t plan to leave, and continue to be a stealth chaplain there, but I have been wanting to volunteer at Laguna Honda for months now, and I’d like to practice being a real chaplain. I can always do fewer hours at the soup kitchen, plus my class won’t go on forever. It will end next July. Also, I can quit my job and be a full-time volunteer! I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “Don’t tell your father that.”

Monday, November 17, 2014

Out, Damned Chaplain!

Several days after the orientation session at Laguna Honda, I went back to meet with the volunteer coordinator, Jan, and with the spiritual care coordinator, Bob. Jan showed me the various parking options, should I wish to arrive in a City CarShare car. He mentioned that HBO was there that day, in the largely abandoned old building, filming a scary movie or something. I can see why they’d be attracted to that location. It’s atmospheric, kind of ominous looking, and bulging with ghosts.

It sounds like the schedule I was envisioning will work out: to go on Saturdays for a while, until Bob sees that I’m not running amuck, and then I’ll go Thursday evenings for a couple of hours. He has assigned me to the rehab unit, which is one of the few areas of the hospital from which residents may end up being discharged, after some weeks or months. If they end up moving to another area of the hospital, they may be there for the rest of their lives.

He explained that I am there to support residents in practicing their spirituality or religion, not mine, though if they are genuinely interested, it’s fine for me to answer questions about Buddhism. He said there are plenty of Buddhist residents, but they all speak Chinese. An English-speaking Buddhist is a rarity. They offer several varieties of church services throughout the month, plus AA meetings, art, Zumba, all kinds of things. If a resident wants a bible or a rosary or Buddhist prayer beads, Bob has a closet full of those things. And if they don’t want to talk about matters religious or spiritual, we can just talk about whatever. Also, as was mentioned in my class, the chaplain is the one person a resident can order out of his or her room, in which case my gift to that person would be to leave politely and promptly.

I remember feeling mildly disgruntled when a chaplain showed up when Carlos was in intensive care last year. The word “chaplain” had a negative connotation for me—it still does—and I felt intruded upon, so I’ll try to remember that when people are asking me to get lost.

As mentioned, 80% of the residents at Laguna Honda will live out their lives there. One hundred percent of them have little money and few resources. It’s the hospital and care facility of last resort, so you might think it would be a grim place full of filthy people in wheelchairs slobbering on themselves, with grumpy nurses attending to them or not, but it is precisely the opposite. In this beautiful, light-filled, art-filled building, every single staff person I saw was smiling, almost radiant. The residents have the conditions that they have, but they are obviously clean and well cared for. I’d venture to say they are loved, and if so, that makes it a place akin to the soup kitchen. People were friendly and welcoming. You can tell Jan gets happier every day that he’s there, and he’s been there for years, coordinating volunteers along with one other person.

As I was leaving, a resident in a wheelchair—nearly 70% of their 800 residents use wheelchairs—said, “You’re lucky you can walk! I’m trapped in this prison.” I murmured something, and he said, “You’re pretty. You’re lucky you can walk. You’re pretty.” I noticed he had a bible verse on the back of his chair, written on a piece of cardboard, so I said, “I see you have a prayer on your back,” and he said, “Yes. You’re pretty. You’re lucky you can walk.”

Before I can start volunteering, I have to provide proof of having had a flu shot plus have two TB tests back to back, so I’m in the process of doing all that.

There was a tall crane towering over my neighborhood the day I went to Laguna Honda for my interviews, Mark Zuckerberg’s marble bathtub or giant server or some such being delivered. The crane was parked in front of his house on 21st St., which is a permanent construction project.

You used to hear, at night, some vehicle go by blasting extremely loud music, with massive bass causing everything in the vicinity to throb. That’s gone. I don’t know what kind of cars those were, but I’ll bet most of them weren’t BMWs, Teslas, or custom-built Mercedes convertibles. Now you hear, at night, the unmistakable sound of a high-performance sports car skidding around the corners way too fast.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I Said Belly Dancer, Not Ballet Dancer

My long-awaited volunteer orientation session at Laguna Honda was a couple of weeks ago. I’d thought it would be 500 people sitting in rows of chairs in an auditorium, but it was 18 people around a conference room table. That explains why it’s so hard to get into one of these sessions. Energetic and entertaining volunteer coordinator Jan Doyle spent two hours or so telling us about Laguna Honda and its residents and things volunteers should be aware of. He told us that women volunteers should not go into the rooms of male residents who could have the ability to overpower them physically. He said that elderly does not equal sexless, and cited the example of the 105-year-old resident whose birthday wish was for a visit from a belly dancer (which he got).

Eighty percent of Laguna Honda’s residents will live out their lives there, while the other twenty percent are getting rehab or other forms of positive care, and can expect to be released. They also provide positive care for residents with HIV, which Jan pointed out come in two distinct groups that may tend to be judgmental about each other: gay men, who got HIV via sex, and street people, who got HIV via I.V. drug use. He said the former are generally eager to go home, while the latter, once they notice they are sleeping inside and are warm, well fed, and well cared for, tend to want to settle in at the hospital permanently.

Jan said to consider what resident population our personality might be a good fit with, depending on whether we are introverts or extroverts. Some groups of residents will interact more, some less. It can take a long time to establish a relationship with a mentally ill resident, even one on medication, because he or she may have learned not to trust others.

I’d thought I might end up doing a little hospice volunteering there, but their hospice volunteers have all been through the San Francisco Zen Center’s training program, which is not as time-consuming as Sojourn’s (at San Francisco General Hospital) but is still more than I can do. They also have a group of NODA volunteers on call: No One Dies Alone, volunteers who come when death is imminent.

After the formal orientation was over, Jan took a few of us on a tour of the hospital. The room where we met is in the old building, where administration now resides, but most of this large and beautiful building is empty. Looking at it from one of the new towers, I saw blank, empty, dark windows on the upper floors. Kind of creepy.

The new building, with its two towers and pavilion, is also beautiful, very full of light and also full of really splendid artwork. Jan said it’s not OK to take photos of patients, but it’s OK to take photos of everything else, including the artwork.

They have a farm! Anyone, including volunteers, can go there and pet the animals, which are very used to human contact, with the exception of the goose, who doesn’t care for it.

Jan said it’s better for volunteers to start with a small number of hours and work up, and also that if we don’t like our area, we should tell him, because there are many different areas of the hospital. He wants us to be happy, because happy volunteers are long-term volunteers, and long-term volunteers lead to happy residents. In a survey several years ago, the residents said the nurses were their favorite thing about the hospital, and their second favorite was the volunteers. Jan said these results caused the volunteer department suddenly to be treated with more interest and respect.

When I left there, I went down into the Forest Hill Muni station—another creepy place—and took the train one stop to Castro St. station, and near there had a nice Greek omelette and green tea for lunch. Then I walked home, a short walk. I might take Muni back and forth to the hospital, or maybe a City CarShare car, partly depending on the time of day. I could even walk home if I had time. I’ll do that one of these days.

I’d wanted to get over to Open Studios, but it wasn’t going to work out, so instead I did the ironing I didn’t do Friday night and then went over to Arlequin on Hayes St. to meet my chaplaincy class small group. Many of the other patrons were quite dressed up, even in suits. Perhaps they were going to the symphony or the jazz center later. I went 25 years in the San Francisco neighborhoods I frequent without seeing a single person in a suit. It still is an odd sight.

We had a very nice visit, and then one of my classmates gave me a ride to Papalote, where I picked up a burrito for dinner.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


A few months ago, my little Canon camera developed a symptom of the flash sometimes firing when I turned it off. After it began to happen about half the time, I took it in to Gasser’s and they sent it to Canon for a $35 estimate, and then said the repair would cost just $100, which apparently was an unusually low amount. In two weeks, I had the camera back, but minus the battery. Fortunately, I had documentation showing I had left the battery with them, and they found it and said they’d mail it to me, but it never turned up. Finally, they said they’d just give me a new battery if I stopped by.

I walked over to the store—it’s not far from where I work—and a young man in the repair department, A., showed me what had happened with the battery they’d mailed: the envelope was in his hand, returned for insufficient postage. He was really nice about it and apologized repeatedly and offered me a discount on a camera bag or some such. I told him that wouldn’t be necessary: now I had the battery and all was well.

To my aging eyes, he seemed terribly young, like in his 20s? Is that old enough to have a job? I really appreciated how bothered he seemed by the snafu with the battery, and wanted to encourage him in his career, so I sent a note saying he had handled everything perfectly, and that I can see he’s an asset to Gasser’s and that he shouldn’t worry that Gasser’s had lost a customer.

I put the battery back in the camera and started taking pictures, and after about 20 pictures, the flash went off when I powered down. I called Gasser’s and someone there said they could send it back to Canon. I said maybe I would just live with the symptom, but I’d appreciate having my $100 back. The fellow said it didn’t work that way and convinced me that we shouldn’t let Canon off the hook so easily, and so I dropped the camera back off, and then nearly four weeks passed, during which every time I called, A. was at lunch or on vacation, or I was told someone else would call me back but no one did, or someone was curt bordering on rude.

I called them back recently, expecting to be thwarted yet again, and by this point had decided that the employees at Gasser’s were incompetent bordering on malevolent, so, prior to making the call, and bolstered by thoughts of the annoying things that had happened, I was mentally rehearsing peevish things to say, but also noticing what these potential statements indicated about what I feel entitled to:

“My camera has been there for nearly six weeks, all told.” (I’m entitled to a speedy resolution, to get what I want in a timely manner.)

“Every time I’ve called about this, the person I need to speak to has been away at lunch or gone on vacation.” (I’m entitled to be able to reach the person I need to speak to right away.)

“More than once, I’ve been told my call would be returned, but never got a call back.” (I’m entitled to have my calls returned.)

“One person I spoke with was impatient and unfriendly.” (I’m entitled to be treated with kindness and courtesy at all times by all people. Once in a while I reflect on the glaring contrast between how I sometimes see others and how I would like them to see me: I might assume the worst about them, but want them to assume the best about me. I take their unwise actions to be proof that they are bad people while counting on them to look beyond my unwise actions to somehow discern the mostly kind heart beating underneath.)

By the time I actually placed the call, I was back in a neutral frame of mind, intending to be polite and pleasant. I told the person who answered the phone that I was calling about my camera that had been there for nearly six weeks, but then, already warming to my topic, I started to feel a little annoyed and mentioned that I was not having much luck getting in touch with anyone in the repair department. The person interrupted me and said he’d transfer me to the that department.

I spoke with A. himself, who said he’d been on vacation (and out to lunch) and then he thanked me for the card I’d sent. Thus I was saved by my own earlier act of kindness, because then the tone of the conversation was entirely friendly. He was remembering the nice thing I did, I was remembering the nice thing I did (because he reminded me), and there was no room for petty complaint.

He said he had bad news and good news for me: Canon had been unable to fix my camera, but instead had sent me a brand-new camera, still in the box, which I can pick up at my convenience. (I guess it’s good that the repair was estimated at $100. This means I have basically bought a new camera for $100. It’s a good thing the repair didn’t cost $350.)

Weirdly, I feel a little nostalgic for my old camera. It was my shiny little friend, but I’m sure I’ll warm up to the new camera right away.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Two Chatty Pigeons

A couple of Friday nights ago was the quarterly open mic at the soup kitchen, which was short on both audience members and performers, and for unknown reasons, all the overhead lights were left on, so the ambience was more glaring high noon than cozy nightclub, but it was a dazzling evening, as the most amazing sounds issued from various poets, singers and musicians. The lack of inhibition seems astonishing, but I guess is not so odd, given that everyone is treated with love, admiration and respect.

A couple of folks from Howie’s were there, so I sat with them. I must digress to say that I said hello to the woman and introduced myself to the fellow she was with. He said he also goes to Howie’s, and in fact has been a fan of mine since my talk at Howie’s 60th birthday party last year. I was chagrined that I didn’t recognize him, especially since I’m the greeter! I asked how long he’s been coming, and he said, oh, for 20 years or so. He started when the group met at 20th and Dolores, which is where I also started. I was flabbergasted and embarrassed.

I later asked his wife, who comes maybe a third of the time, how often her husband comes, and she said about half as often as she does. She added that he sits in the back and is very quiet, so I joked, “I feel completely vindicated,” and she assured me that I shouldn’t feel bad, but, my goodness! I’m terrible with faces and maybe there’s nothing to be done about that, but I secretly suspect it’s partly due to lack of attentiveness.

During the open mic, the regular sound man got into a fight with one of the bands, and at the end of the evening, alas, one of my favorite guests—not B. or D. (neither of them was there) but someone I talk to very often—had a seizure. As we were leaving, we found him lying on the ground surrounded by paramedics. I asked the executive director to try to get his last name so we could potentially visit him in the hospital. That is a tricky thing with the soup kitchen’s guests. A lot of things happen to them, but what are their last names? We often don’t know.

(The executive director told me later that he went straight to the hospital after everyone else left, and visited our guest, and learned that he might be released from the hospital in the middle of the night, so he gave the guest his phone number. The guest did get released at 3:30 a.m., and called the executive director, who hopped in his car and went to fetch our guest and take him home.)

At the open mic, the guest who is a wonderful heavy metal guitarist did a thrilling three-song set with just a drummer accompanying, very loud and so exciting to one audience member that he ran up and started growling into the microphone in a style familiar to the metal fan.

The next day was a leisurely one of puttering around at home, taking a walk, doing my biweekly ironing. While I iron, I’m listening to all of my LPs again, needless to say in alphabetical order, starting with Aerosmith and ending with Neil Young, hitting all points in between, including Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, and the Sex Pistols. This has made ironing something to look forward to. Hearing all my LPs will take about a year, and then maybe I’ll listen to my cassette tapes. After that, I’m thinking of getting one of those newfangled communication devices I keep hearing about, where you have a pigeon and your friend has a pigeon, and the birds carry messages back and forth on little pieces of paper.

In the evening, Lisa M. and I had dinner at Esperpento, followed by a shared pot of peppermint tea at Borderlands Café.

On Sunday I made a pot of lentil soup with tarragon and thyme, and a pot of yellow split peas with lemon olive oil and garlic, and I washed and chopped a small mountain of dinosaur kale. I used to steam greens and put them in basically everything, but that didn’t end up being very many greens. Now I sauté an entire bunch of greens with garlic and one low-sodium bouillon cube, as a side dish, and shortly after I eat this little bowl of greens, I feel a burst of magnificent well-being. They don’t take long to cook, either. Ten minutes or so.

I’m happy to report that the larger fan fortunately arrived scuffed, scratched and broken, so it could be returned, with Amazon paying for the shipping (and me paying for the cab I took it over to UPS in). The Holmes 12-Inch Blizzard Remote Control Power Fan, HAPF624R-UC, which arrived first, is perfect. I love this fan! On cooking day, I carry it into the kitchen.

Tuesday night at Howie’s, another volunteer suggested that we not take every single pillow out of the enormous zippered bags. Possibly they don’t all get used, and every one that is taken out must be stuffed back into a bag at the end of the evening. Consequently, my favorite pillow did not appear, and I rooted through the bags trying to spot it, and finally took more pillows out until I came upon it.

“Are you having an attachment issue?”, the other volunteer gently teased me, insistence on things being a certain way being a chief cause of suffering, per the Buddha.

Later I remembered something: “Hey, wait a minute—aren’t you the person who brings his zafu from home every single week?” (A zafu is a round pillow often used in sitting meditation.)

“Oh, are you calling me on my attachment issues? There’s no proper zafu here!”

Later Charlie was trying to explain the location of something to me:

“Where Bryant goes under the freeway?”


“You know where Costco is?”


Finally, Paul asked, “Do you two live in the same city?”

I explained, “We live in the same city, but not the same state.”

Afterward, Charlie and I walked along Mission St. together for a bit. He usually rides his bike to Howie’s, and sometimes drives, in which case he gives me a ride home. This was the first time he had walked there. We bumped into a mutual friend, and Charlie told him, somewhat imprecisely, “We just came from contemplating our navel.”

The friend asked, quite rightly, “Oh, do you two share a navel?”

Wednesday night the Giants won the World Series, which meant five hours of car horns blaring, people shrieking on Valencia St., explosives exploding, and, my least favorite of all, a helicopter hovering overhead, since it’s necessary to report on what is happening: “Car horns are blaring. People are shrieking. Explosives are exploding.” Though report it where, I have no idea, as has managed to take another giant step downward. They’ve largely eschewed the use of words, and it now mostly consists of photos—of a weird-looking dog in Australia, of a celebrity’s plastic surgery mishap, of a woman on whose porch a beer can was found.

I can listen to KQED to find out what is happening statewide, nationally and internationally, and Mission Local and El Tecolote give me neighborhood news
the first is online and the second arrives twice a month in the mailbut as for what else might be happening in San Francisco, if I don’t observe it with my own eyes, I have no idea. If the mayor says anything of interest at City Hall, Im not going to know about it unless he walks over to my place to tell me. Regarding the Giants winning the world series, I don’t see why people can’t stay in their own apartments and celebrate with a tasty morsel of marinated tofu, perhaps permitting themselves a half-smile of quiet enjoyment, emphasis on the quiet.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

See Your Fellow Bugs

When Tom came over one lovely mid-October Saturday morning, he smelled suspiciously perfumed. Had he changed laundry detergents? No—same laundry detergent, same deodorant, same shampoo, same soap.

Completing my interrogation, I asked, “What hair-removal product did you use?”

“That’s called ‘age.’”

We were on our way to Berkeley to meet Ann for lunch, which was at a Tibetan or Indonesian place, and then to see An Audience with Meow Meow (as she explained, "I'm Meow Meow and you're an audience!"). The show starts with very broad humor, and I thought, “Oh, I’m not going to like this. Why do people think this is so great?” But by the end, tears were rolling down my face. It was subtle, surprising, and tremendously moving.

I won’t give anything more away except to say that it made me think of the line “See your fellow bugs” from this poem, which gave this very blog its name:

Bugs in a Bowl
by David Budbill

    Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:

    We're just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.

    I say, That's right! Every day climbing up
    the steep sides, sliding back.

    Over and over again. Around and around.
    Up and back down.

    Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
    cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.

    Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
    Walk around.

    Say, Hey, how you doin'?
    Say, Nice Bowl!

It so happens that even before I bumped into Meow Meow, I had been in a “See your fellow bugs” mood.

We are naturally hesitant to intrude on strangers. Knowing that we would not like being stared at ourselves, we are afraid to seem to stare at others. But as we go from being a societal whole, at least sharing several reference points (e.g., the evening news on TV), to being zillions of independent units, each frowning into our own device, each putting together a custom program of entertainment and news in sync with the opinions we already have, the misinformation, paranoia and estrangement grow.

I don’t like to be stared at by strangers, either, and I don’t want to make others uncomfortable, but I find it weirdly powerful to see my fellow bugs, even for just a second. When I remember to do this, it is really wonderful, all the different ways people look, all the expressions on their faces: lost in thought, downcast, anxious. And now and then a happy face, which gives me a little burst of joy. After seeing just a few people, I often notice a big upturn in warm feeling within myself. The biggest difficulty with this practice is that I start to feel so exuberant and so full of tenderness for my fellow bugs that I can start smiling and nodding at all of them, which some people like, but I presume most might not. As long as 20 years ago, an old lady said querulously, “Why are you looking at me like that? It’s like you know me.”

So as Tom and I walked to BART, I was peeking at my fellow bugs, and thinking about my class. Whereas I might normally walk by someone in need (though I am actually prone to random acts of kindness), a chaplain has more responsibility, for instance, for the woman standing at the top of the stairs to the BART platform, holding a walker. What if I was at Laguna Honda, where I’m hoping to volunteer, and she was a patient there? I got five steps past her and then walked back up. I called Tom to join us and he suggested she take the elevator, but she said she once got stuck in a BART elevator. Tom carried her walker down to the platform and I walked with her down the steps. During just those few moments, she told me her boyfriend is in Laguna Honda (speaking of which) and that he recently asked her to marry him. Apparently he’ll be all right, but she’s not sure about getting married to him, because he has the tendency to advise her how to spend her own money.

On the train, I saw my fellow passengers. One was a drunk fellow sitting on the floor talking to himself. I ended up standing next to him, so I started answering him and he told me that he was sober before, but is drinking again now, and he also has cancer. He told me his attorney is a really fine fellow and that he’s ashamed to have his attorney see him in this condition. He said he doesn’t want to die drunk. He reached up and gently touched my hand a few times, which was OK. Imagine never, ever again feeling the touch of someone else’s hand or their arms around you. He was visibly filthy and smelled terrible, so I would not have welcomed a hug (though I did once hug a visibly filthy homeless person on the street), but that small and respectful touch was fine.

We reached a station and people got off and on and the man got up and walked farther into the car, saying loudly, “At least I’m not a ni——.” I cringed; there were several black people nearby, but one of them, quite a large man, continued the conversation with the drunk man, which I thought was extraordinary of him. And then another woman chimed in and responded to the drunk guy.

Then a few young black men came tromping along the aisle, heading for the next car, and I looked at them with interest and one of them looked back at me with what appeared to be surprise and even pleasure at being seen in a friendly rather than frightened or hostile way. On the way back, after Meow Meow, along came three other black men, these with a box for tips and a boombox. They staged a dance performance, contorting their joints horribly—is that good for their joints, or does it guarantee early arthritis?—which spontaneous work of art seemed remarkable and delightful. It was also nice, on a day of covert looking, to be invited to watch.

Back in the city, I went to Modern Times to get two more books for my chaplaincy class. Next, most splendidly, it was time for the monthly potluck at the home of the intentional community that runs the soup kitchen, which I will give the pseudonym Thomas House. There were about 20 people there, roughly half residents and half visitors, and I met two new people but already knew everyone else, and it was a very pleasant couple of hours of eating and hanging out.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Lettuce Prey

The theme of our second chaplaincy class, earlier in October, was generosity. At the beginning of the day, Paul, in offering meditation instructions, said that sitting itself can be an act of generosity—a way of “giving everything the open engagement of consciousness.”

We did some role-playing, trying out our very preliminary skills, and gave each other feedback afterward on what was helpful or less so. My partner said a lot of nice things, and also that the way I bent down after entering her “hospital room” seemed condescending. I was glad she was honest and will try to remember not to do that.

Jennifer said we will very often be asked to pray, that it is one of the main things we have to offer, after the foremost gift of listening with kindness and understanding. She said sometimes the request will be specific, but 85 percent of the time, it will be for extemporaneous prayer, so she taught us a method (and said it couldn’t hurt to carry around a little anthology of prayers). The next time we did role-playing, I told my partner that Jesus Christ is my lord and savior and that I would like her to pray for me, and she offered a beautiful, heartfelt prayer. It was surprisingly comforting, and what made it work was not the particular words, but her obvious kindliness and desire to be of help. And just like that, 52 years of prejudice against prayer, gone!

It doesn’t mean I’m going to take up a deity-based religion myself, but being on the receiving end of that ad hoc prayer delivered by someone who may not have believed in prayer any more than I did, and feeling how lovely it was to be offered care in that particular form changes the way I think about the word “prayer,” while the class overall is changing the way I react to the word “Christian.” I seem to be meeting a lot of them lately, and I find myself much more open and respectful. Not that I was rude in the past, but I had dismissive thoughts.

A correction regarding Sojourn Chaplaincy’s training program, at San Francisco General Hospital: After learning that a couple of my classmates had applied for that program, I figured I must have gotten something wrong and called them back. It does not require three weeks full time, but it would require ten half-days off work, which will be impossible at least until 2016 (assuming I remain employed).

Back in August, the spiritual care director at Laguna Honda, Bob, arranged with the volunteer coordinator that I could maybe come to the October volunteer orientation session—they do just one per month—or, failing that, November’s session for sure. The volunteer coordinator had initially said the next opening was in January, so I was glad to hear the better news, but in the days before the October training, I left messages for the volunteer coordinator and for Bob, but didn’t hear back from either, and the training day came and went.

A couple of weeks later, after our October class meeting, I tried them both again and again heard nothing back. Nightly I called Tom to ask what he thought could be the problem. He thought that they are probably understaffed and overworked and that they would call me sooner or later. Meanwhile, a classmate reported that she received a call inviting her to come to the session in November, and I began to take the whole thing slightly personally.

I recalled that Bob is at the hospital on Saturdays, so last weekend, I called him and he actually answered. I asked if I was being too much of a pest or not enough of one, and he said he’d thought I was all set to come to the October session! He apologized for the confusion and said, “You’re in the Sati Center program, right? I’ve already added a lot of people to the November volunteer orientation, but unless you hear otherwise, go ahead and come to that.” I was relieved. Now it’s a matter of letting sleeping dogs lie.

I’ve just finished Victoria Sweet’s riveting account of being a doctor at Laguna Honda, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Told in the form of engaging anecdotes, it’s about how “practicing medicine” turned into “providing health care services.” The latter manages to both cost more and provide worse care. Sweet is a persuasive advocate of what she calls “slow medicine.”

It sounds like the old Laguna Honda was a magical place, and that much of that is now gone, but I’m still looking forward to being there.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Fine, Hot Sidewalk and a Refreshing, Cool Breeze

One night late in September, it rained and rained and rained. After however many years of drought it’s been, it was a generous, miraculous sound, especially as it continued: we’re getting even more? I thought, however, of the soup kitchen’s guests, and indeed, the next day I heard guests there asking each other, “Did you stay dry last night?” The executive director says those who are more experienced know how to stay dry, for instance by going under a freeway overpass. (The word “experienced” made me think for a moment of homelessness as something you can get a degree in, or at least a certificate.)

I have to say, being under a freeway overpass in a rainstorm sounds perfectly lousy, but those whose stuff gets wet have miserable hours or days ahead of them. B. reported that his only moisture-related mishap was that he accidentally kicked his own water bottles over. He then used a torch of some kind to dry the sidewalk, which also heated it up. Looking as pleased as if he was just back from being pampered at a desert spa, he said it’s really nice to sit on a warm sidewalk.

I also saw the particularly affable guest who had announced after his shower, “I’m clean—zestfully clean!” I told him how much I had liked that, and he seemed delighted that I had taken note of it. After I walked away from him, he stood up and yelled across the dining room, “It’s great that you remembered!”

A couple of days later, I took Tom out to dinner at Savor on 24th St. in Noe Valley for his birthday. He hadn’t been there before and liked it. I had a scrumptious, buttery rainbow trout dish, but later thought of how Dad used to take us to the Oden Fish Hatchery in Northern Michigan when we were children. They had vending machines where, for perhaps a nickel, you could get fish food to toss into the water, putting the beautiful spotted rainbow trout into a whirling frenzy. Seizing one of them and sinking my teeth into it would have seemed like a horrible thing to do. I might not eat another rainbow trout.

A couple of weeks ago, it was hot—95 degrees at the airport, a record, though inside my place it was never warmer than 84 degrees. It wasn’t that bad, mainly because it wasn’t humid. You have to try to open your heart to the heat. Nonetheless, it seemed like very good timing when one of the large fans I had ordered arrived Friday afternoon of that week, when I was working from home, fortunately.

Since hot flashes started two years ago, I’ve had little-bitty fans everywhere—next to my kitchen sink, next to my bed, next to my computers at home and at work—and they have kept me going until now. More fans just equals more use of energy which equals more climate change, and so I vowed not to acquire any large fans, but as the hot flashes show no sign of abating, and since we’re all going to die a horrible death of climate change, anyway—does that sound fatalistic?—I decided to fan up.

The fan that arrived is a Holmes 12” fan, and it is fantastic (no pun intended!). Even on the lowest setting of three, it makes the snapshots thumb-tacked to the wall flap in the breeze, and when I tried the second setting, some of my décor collapsed to the floor. I didn’t foresee this difficulty when, 16 years ago, I decided to decorate in that manner; frames seem like a waste of space. But if it’s a choice between a cool breeze and the photos remaining in place, the latter have to go.

I also ordered a 20” fan, so there would be a fan for the living room and one for the kitchen, but the larger one might be too much for this little place, judging from the performance of the smaller one. I might end up donating the larger one to the soup kitchen and just carrying the 12” fan around, using a long extension cord.

Saturday of that week, on a scorching hot afternoon, I participated in an anti-eviction march that started at 24th and York streets, where I saw Iris, Alfonso, Ana, Mario, Carolina and Elizabeth, every one of whom I met through Carlos, plus a woman from my meditation group whom I managed to meet on my own, but who turned out to be one of Carlos’s very closest friends. I saw the young woman housing activist who has been featured in stories in the Chronicle, and one of the young men who works at Modern Times bookstore. I also saw a guy with holes in his earlobes so big you could put your whole hand through one.

The sky was a deep, clear blue, a gorgeous backdrop for the big shade trees in that area, with their dense bright green leaves. There was an energetic Latin-flavored live band on a truck, and a cadre of drummers, and the mood was upbeat and determined, with a lot of dancing and chanting. I appreciated that people weren’t angry—I think it’s tricky to work for change and to confront people who are causing harm without demonizing them. I know from my own struggles how easy it is to do and how hard it is to remember that no one (or almost no one) has the conscious intention to hurt anyone.

It is a matter, for instance, of thinking that I would be secure and safe if I owned a building, or better yet, two or three or ten, and I’m not doing anything actually illegal, so what’s wrong with that? I worked hard to get where I am (in the hypothetical scenario where I’m a person who works hard) and I deserve what I’ve earned and if others haven’t worked as hard, that’s their problem.

Of course, this ignores the racism and brutality on which America was founded, from which came so much prosperity and security, but only for those of the right color. It also depends on not seeing or caring about the misery of others, or having enough rationalizations to outweigh the consciousness of other people’s difficulties.

One activist began to tell me what terrible people a certain family of landlords are, and I immediately felt a knot in my stomach. I don’t need the negative vibes, man. Or, more accurately, I have sufficient negative vibes of my own—I don’t need any more. Often people will ask Howie what will happen to their important work for social justice if they become peaceful meditators. He says you can work for justice without being angry, and that in fact, you are more effective without anger. He says tranquility does not equate to apathy
—that every single person he has ever seen become more awake has also become more concerned about the well-being of others.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Eagle Scout

In mid-September, I attended the one volunteer potluck of the year that is held at the soup kitchen itself rather than at the house where the intentional community lives. There were about 80 people there, and I finally met a whole bunch of people from other shifts. Early in the evening, the annual group photo was taken, and we made a big circle and each said our name and then a non-denominational prayer—the soup kitchen’s roots are in the Catholic Worker Movement—followed by a big feast.

A couple of days later, David and Lisa were here from Seattle, and we had dinner at Esperpento, along with Tom and Pete T., who told us the story of his very terrible bicycle accident, from which he has emerged in remarkably good repair.

At the soup kitchen, B., who has two very distinct modes, one very withdrawn and one quite chatty, was in the latter mood. He had gotten ahold of a handsome Gore-Tex jacket and a giant pair of square sunglasses with rhinestones down the outer edges. When I admired his jacket, he said the best garment to have is actually an oversized hoodie, to keep the sun off his fair skin. He told me that when he was in junior high, he played football, and he was second-chair trumpet in the band, though he actually had a cornet instead of a trumpet and coveted the trumpet another student had. He was an Eagle Scout.

It was quite a busy day, warm and muggy. D. was also there, also not enjoying the heat, though presumably not because he is subject to hot flashes. It’s now been nearly two years of hot flashes, and I can report that, while heat is certainly a causal factor, humidity is noticeably more so. I can also report that San Francisco, which has never been humid in my 30 or so years here, lately has often been.

There was a new volunteer at the soup kitchen, who helped with the bussing, and I could see that with every passing moment, she felt more and more joyful. It has the same effect on me.

Saturday of that week was a rare day of having to work on the weekend, starting at 5:30 a.m. and going right up until 3:40 p.m., when Tom and I absolutely had to leave for his nephew Chris’s wedding at the historic Lake Merritt Hotel in Oakland. My work task wasn’t quite done, but one of my co-workers kindly finished up for me.

On our way to the BART station, I saw one of the soup kitchen’s few female guests lying on the sidewalk on 16th St., evidently unconscious, looking as if she’d been punched in the mouth. She has a dog, but it wasn’t with her. I hoped it wasn’t lost. There were four strangers standing around her, apparently waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

I called the soup kitchen’s executive director, my friend, who does much more for the soup kitchen’s guests than just serve them food, which is a considerable task in itself, and requires, now that I think about it, being the kind of person that volunteers want to be around—creating an atmosphere that makes people not only willing to serve, but delighted and honored to do so. He is a very, very good person. His actions are more in alignment with his values than anyone else I’ve ever met. He values serving those in need and building community. But there was not much he’d be able to do for our guest at that moment. It could only add worry to his evening, so I didn’t leave a message, but I kept thinking of her (and him) during the evening, thinking about how for some people, there are many, many steps before they are lying on the sidewalk punched in the mouth, but for lots of others, there are no intervening steps. It’s the very next step.

However, these ruminations did not cast a blight on my evening. They were woven throughout it, but it was an absolutely fantastic wedding and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Chris and Kristin stood in a glassed-in alcove, with a wall of windows behind them, through which could be seen Lake Merritt—a lovely view—and a friend of theirs led them in the ceremony he’d written, and Chris and Kristin read tributes to each other—each hearing the other’s loving and admiring words for the first time, it appeared—and Chris’s dear friend Bino, in the wedding party, had a giant Mohawk and a distinguished eye patch to go with his elegant suit. Any wedding from now on without such a groomsman will look incomplete.

At dinner, I was sitting with Tom, Steve, Julie, Ann and Dan, and then there was dancing. At the website where you RSVP’d for the wedding and indicated your dinner choice, you could also say what song you’d like to dance to. I considered putting in Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” but I figured I probably wouldn’t be dancing, so I didn’t. But in the event, Tom and I danced and danced and danced, and someone else had requested “Happy.”