Friday, January 31, 2014

Alcohol-Enhanced Generosity

Tuesday was my seatmate at work’s last day, as well as the last day of another contractor. I know that my seatmate is particularly fond of my nearest colleague, R., the only person in my own group who is also in San Francisco, so I proposed that we take some pictures before the end of the day; I thought he’d like to have a photo to remember her by. (I’m also particularly fond of R. She is smart, kind, and a hard worker. She is an excellent person and I’m very lucky to have her. We get along exceedingly well.)

When photo time rolled around, my seatmate suggested we do it right near our cubes.

Me: “Why don’t we go outside?”

Seatmate: “You know, this is actually a working day for me.”

Me: “You can be away from your desk for five minutes. Let’s go outside! I’d like to see the natural light on your beautiful faces.”

Other contractor: “Bugwalk is right! Life is fleeting! We should seize these moments and enjoy them!”

At that, I heard my seatmate grumble under his breath, “That’s the stupidest crap I ever heard,” and we proceeded outside and the two photos are lovely.

A less good thing that happened that day was reading about a 48-year-old homeless woman, Mary Freeman, having been found dead at 15th St. and San Bruno; San Bruno is a few blocks east of Potrero. The homeless man who killed her had been apprehended and there were pictures of him but not of Mary, and so I wondered if that could be the woman with the white face and I felt sick thinking she had met such a horrible end, out there all alone.

Many years ago, we had another woman (or maybe not a woman) with a white face who was quite a mesmerizing sight. She wore a draping, filmy white dress and long white gloves, and every square inch of visible skin was coated with thick white makeup. Most times I saw her, she was drifting along the grassy center of Dolores St., like a vision from a dream.

The woman I was thinking of this week has short blond hair and is slender and radiates gentleness and sweetness. She is not plastered with makeup, but always has it smeared across her face. As I have mentioned here, she once told Carlos and me that some people think you can put eye shadow only on your eyelids, but you can actually put it all over your face. The first time we saw her was on one of our first dates, an outing to hear the poet Kay Ryan read at the Main Library. She was sitting on the sidewalk across the street, near the entrance to the BART station.

We also saw her the day we walked to the Mission Neighborhood Health Center to make an appointment to find out what had happened to Carlos’s memory, last year on February 11. I remember bending to give her some money, tears dripping on the sidewalk.

On my way home from work on Tuesday, I resolved to look carefully for her. I have only seen her about eight times over the two years, about four of them in front of La Cumbre on Valencia St., so I looked there and didn’t see her, but then I realized that she actually was there—she was there! I rushed over and asked her to tell me her name. I said, “You don’t have to tell me what it is, but I’ll tell you why I want to know: Did you hear about the homeless woman who was found dead near here? When I read that, I was worried it was you, but I don’t know your name.”

She told me her first and last names and spelled them for me, and I told her my first and last names. Because of her connection to Carlos and me, and just because I like her a lot, I
ve taken to giving her $20 every time I see her (though I admit I’m glad I don’t see her every single day), wadded up so that others won’t notice how much it is, so I did that on Tuesday, but as she peeked at it, a drunk guy happened to be passing by and saw what denomination it was, and he said, “She’s giving you twenty dollars? Then I’m giving you twenty dollars,” and he did, but he also gave her a long lecture, spit spraying in her face, telling her, “You’re a good person and I care about you, but stop using people! Stop using people!” He was larger than her, and I could sense her shrinking a bit—how awful not to have an apartment to retreat to, to be at the mercy of every such person who comes along. I finally asked him if he could give us some privacy to finish our conversation. I thanked him for his generosity and so did she; she was entirely polite to him.

She mentioned that she was on her way to work (which is really not conceivable), at which I realized it had been a faux pas to suggest that she’s homeless. I should have just said that I had read a news report about a woman, not a “homeless woman.” And I actually should have thought of a way to get her name without mentioning that someone had been murdered.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sage Implement

Last Friday evening, I started to watch 2 Guns, with Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. I thought I might like it because I loved The Other Guys, with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell, and while I could see that Mark Wahlberg was going to be just as funny as in the other movie, 2 Guns was a lot more violent, so, after an early act of animal cruelty, I stopped it and went on to Detachment, with Adrien Brody and Marcia Gay Harden, an absolutely harrowing tale of incorrigible high school students and their traumatized teachers; it also featured an act of animal cruelty. It was beautifully made and Adrien Brody is wonderful, but it’s difficult to watch.

Last Saturday, I met Ann Marie for lunch at the café one block down Page St. from the San Francisco Zen Center. I had two poached eggs atop tomato slices on crispy biscuits, along with rosemary home fries. Ann Marie had passed by a farmers’ market on her way to town and brought me a handsome baton, you might say, made of freshly harvested sage wrapped in red twine. Or perhaps it was more a thing, or a bat, or a clump. Anyway, it was a pleasing item with a  lovely smell.

After lunch, we walked in Hayes Valley, spending a good while in the sake store, looking at all the lovely bottles. We also thoroughly investigated the objects in Zonal and I bought a yellow bowl. Next we went in search of a pair of shoes Ann Marie had noticed in a window while on her way to meet me, red lace-ups with metallic elements. When we got to the store, she spotted a 50% off corner in the store, so we went in, and lo and behold, the wondrous shoes were among those on sale, but Ann Marie murmured, “They’re $300 shoes.”

“After or before the fifty percent off?”

“After.” Sure enough, these shoes cost $595 (for both of them). Hayes Valley underwent gentrification long ago, but at this point, it seems to have shot a level or two past that.

Next we went into Ananda Fuara for light refreshments—I had ginger tea and a side of naan—and then Ann Marie headed home and I walked up to 24th St. via Folsom St, for a 13,000-steps day. I stocked up on novels at Modern Times, picked up a burrito at Papalote and came home.

I’ve changed my mind again about eating fish, inspired in part by my father, who said he plans to keep eating Alaska salmon; he thinks it’s probably far enough from Fukushima. I just don’t feel well without that little dab of animal protein, it seems, and let’s face it, it’s a person-eat-fish world. If God didn’t want us to eat fish, he would have equipped them with middle fingers to flip us off with and funds to hire attorneys. I did some Duck Ducking (i.e., I employed the excellent search engine Duck Duck Go, which does not gather data about its users) and have ordered some canned Alaska sockeye salmon from Vital Choice, which tests for common pollutants and also for radiation.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Air Food

On my walk after work one day last week, I ran into Lupe, a teeny tiny older woman who is always nicely dressed and cultivates a highly affable manner, reminding me a bit of my late grandmother. Lupe strolls in the neighborhood all the time, and now that I’m walking more, I see her quite often. We agreed it was a beautiful day and she said, with a dazzling smile, “Take care, OK?”

I have my new pedometer to thank for all this walking, but also Carlos, who hated sitting at home by himself, and was out and about constantly, which is why everyone knew him. He sought out what he called “air food” even more than he did actual food. My apartment is very well ventilated, but even when I had nearly every window open and the breeze was roaring through, it could seem stuffy to Carlos, who might step out for a turn around the block. It never seemed stuffy to me at all, but now I sometimes feel the same way. There’s just a different quality to being indoors, no matter how many windows are open.

When I’m out walking, I sometimes think of Carlos, and when I hear children screaming on a playground—there is one just outside my apartment building—I think of him, knowing it’s a sound he heard an awful lot of year after year, in his work as a substitute teacher. I also think of him when I see a flock of pigeons flying overhead, of his poem that includes “avian bevies.” “There’s the avian bevy,” I think, and picture how pleased Carlos would have been to see them, because there were a lot of things he was completely delighted by, no matter how many times he encountered them: birds, trees, shadows, certain flowers, little dogs, children.

Another person very often seen, until lately, was Fidel, shuffling along the sidewalk with tremendous determination. Over the years, he got slower and slower, but even when he was almost not moving at all, he was still out there. Several days ago, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks, so I asked Joe at the corner store, and he said sadly that Fidel reached the point where he couldn’t walk at all and is now in the hospital. I asked if he would be returning home, but Joe didn’t seem optimistic. Fidel lives with two roommates—he would need someone to take care of him, and there isn’t anyone to do it.

Last Thursday, the fellow who sits nearest me at work, a contractor, told me his last day will be tomorrow, which he found out when it appeared in the chat window of a virtual meeting he was attending with several others: “So-and-so will be rolling off the project on 1/28.”

He has been a congenial neighbor, with a good sense of humor, quick on the uptake and friendly. He is also extremely diligent. I have no idea what his hours are, because he is always there when I arrive and also when I leave (which may say more about my diligence than his). And because he was never set up with remote access, he has to schlep into San Francisco and into the office for every one of those hours.

I asked if he’ll be in a financial crisis and he said not for the first month, but by March, he’ll be panicking if he doesn’t have another job, which is alarming. He said it took him 18 months to find this position, and it has paid so little that he hasn’t been able to save anything. I had always assumed he had plenty of money and was working for the sheer pleasure of it, like me. That’s a bit tongue in cheek, of course, but I do actually assume that everyone saves assiduously for his or her retirement, and that anyone who is 50ish has made good progress toward that goal. Accordingly, I thought his extreme devotion to duty was some sort of character defect, but it turns out he was working so hard because, whether the job was ideal or not, it was essential that he retain it.

That makes perfect sense, particularly after going 18 months without income. Whereas in the position I had before being laid off, I used to complain about every little thing, my current manager never hears anything other than, “Sure! I’d be delighted to do that!” And that was after only five and a half months without work, during which I did not miss a single paycheck.

Fortunately, we’re now in the middle of a tech boom, so it’s an entirely different climate than when my co-worker was looking for the contract that is just now ending. I put him in touch with my recruiter friend, Ann Marie, and she said one of her colleagues has an open position in San Francisco now that might be right for him.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


(Click photos to enlarge.)


I forgot to say what Lisa and I had at Sparrow Bar and Kitchen: she had a burger and fries, and I had a veggie burger and fries. The burger was made out of black beans and quinoa and had a wholesome but rather bland flavor, and a substantial portion of it fell out of the bun the first time it was hoisted aloft. The chips were uncrisp, but had a fine flavor. The side of fried cauliflower was also tending to the soggy, though it might have been in snappier form right after it was prepared, an estimated 45 minutes before we received it. Nonetheless, it was good, most particularly the fried sage leaves, and Lisa said her burger was great.

I’ve been eating some wild-caught salmon this past year, about half a small can per day, but now that radiation presumably from Fukushima is showing up in fish off the California coast, I’ve decided to stop. I asked Lisa for her thoughts on fish oil, and she said that while she also avoids eating actual fish, she’s going to keep taking a brand of fish oil that tests for everything, including radiation, so I’m likewise going to keep taking my fish oil, which is from Carlson. For a while, a beloved relative was on an omega-3 kick, so I heard a good deal on this subject, and did give up or largely give up some things that have a poor omega-3 to omega-6 ratio (chief among them peanut butter), and I started taking fish oil or algae oil, and actually did notice it had a generally elevating effect on mood. Lack of omega-3 is associated with depression, among other things.

On Sunday I went to Rainbow and cooked kidney beans and brown basmati rice and listened to On the Media and then to music, including the extremely catchy “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. In the evening, Tom and I had dinner at the Vietnamese place Thanh Tam II on Valencia St. The server and I had a long discussion about a hypothetical dish that would feature chow fun and steamed tofu and were able to broker an agreement, but then he came back to say, with a rueful smile, “No more chow fun!”, so I had eggplant with garlic and basil, which was mostly superb—flavorful and meltingly soft, but also, as at Chili Cha Cha 2, overly sweet.

That was the night the 49ers played the Seahawks, and as we were walking to the restaurant, we passed several bars with excited patrons spilling onto the sidewalk. There was a lot of happy yelling while the game was going well, suggesting that there might be an explosive celebration later, but while we were at dinner, the Seahawks won the game, so I was surprised to hear helicopters overhead later on. There may have been disgruntled fans expressing their disappointment, or maybe it was just the TV stations hoping blood would run in the streets.

That evening, I watched Shame, with Michael Fassbender playing a sex addict and Carey Mulligan playing his boundary-lacking sister, years after hinted-at childhood trauma.

Lately when I’m in the bathroom seated in the primary place there is to be seated, Hammett rushes in and grazes my left leg, and stands facing the wall behind me, looking at something that he obviously finds objectionable. Then he suddenly swings around, like a little furry sailboat coming about, so that he’s still against my leg, but facing the same direction I am, and then he plants one of his rear feet on top of my left foot, but in an ultra-casual manner, as if to say, “Oh, am I standing on your foot? I didn’t even notice!”

On Monday, a day off from work, Lesley drove us over to near Kezar Stadium, where we left her car, and then we took a walk in Golden Gate Park, followed by lunch at the Marnee Thai that’s on 9th Avenue. I had yellow curry with tofu, and the majority of an order of fried corn cakes.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Five Most Thrilling Moments of My Entire Life

Last week, I tried Chili Cha Cha 2 on 24th St. for the first time. The server was very sweet and they had made some effort with the décor and ambience, though the seating was actually a bit uncomfortable. There was a nice breeze coming through the front door on that warm evening. I ordered tom kha soup and pad see ew with soft tofu, medium spicy. The soup was beautiful, with an artistic array of lightly cooked vegetables balanced on its surface, and also quite a bit spicier than medium. The pad see ew had lots of greens in it and lots of tofu and not quite enough noodles. The flavor was good, though less spicy than medium. Both dishes obviously had quite a bit of sugar or some other sweetener in them.

Yesterday Tom and I took my sewing machine to the Sears at The Shops at Tanforan, using a City CarShare car. It won’t go into reverse anymore (meaning the sewing machine). We took Mission St. all the way, which becomes El Camino Real, and I was dazzled by this exceedingly long commercial strip, which starts at Market St. and may go clear to Mexico, for all one knows. Certainly it looked more or less the same for the almost-hour that we were driving. I liked it a lot. It seemed like the quintessential America, with one chain store after the other. It was good that Tom came along, because he carried the sewing machine and he also is excellent with directions.

When we got back, I took a walk. The weather was superb, if you can forget it’s due to perilous drought conditions. I ended up at El Nuevo Frutilandia, on 24th St., where I had lunch for the first (and perhaps last) time. They serve Puerto Rican and Cuban food. The place is really nice
small and airybut lunch took like an hour to arrive after being ordered, and was not that good. There were white rice and black beans, both pretty bland, and a vegetarian mofongo, which sounded wonderful, but proved to be a dense mound of yellow paste covered with what would have been a tasty vegetable sauce but for the astonishing amount of garlic, way too much even for a person who really likes garlic.

I’ve started reading Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which is about her family (British, living in Africa), and which is largely a kind of exaggerated humor I don’t like, except for every now and then there is something that is absolutely hilarious, like when her mother dresses her sister and her up to go to a party. “Vanessa was a Rose, hypoallergenic and splendid in a pink tutu, pink tights and pink ballet slippers. I was I Never Promised You a Rose Garden in an old vest and a pair of knickers inside an empty insecticide drum[.]”

When she complains, her mother threatens to give her a “jolly good hiding.” “While Mum got her gun, I weighed up the cons of a jolly good hiding versus the cons of arriving at a Fancy Dress Party dressed in an insecticide drum.”

Decades later, she’s grumbling to her sister about this, and her sister says she was not a rose—she was From Russia with Love, “in a hat made out of fermenting, flea-infested carpet.”

I’m enjoying my stepped-up noticing practice, a la Ezra Bayda. Now I’m excited when I realize I’m angry or stressed or sorrowful because then there’s something to notice. Hey! A feeling! Specifically, I put my attention in the area of my chest, and generally discover there’s nothing more than a little pressure or a mild vibration. It is astonishing what we’ll do to avoid this experience that proves to be not disagreeable at all.

I’m also trying to notice my thoughts and had to smile when I realized, on a recent walk, that the proposed topic of rumination was The Five Worst Moments of My Life. How funny! That’s a perfectly fine thing to think about
—god forbid you forget what the five worst moments of your life werebut there is obviously a relationship between what we think and how we feel and act, so we may want to choose more uplifting topics. However, positive thinking can also be just another way to avoid directly experiencing feelings, and I no longer want to cover up my real life with an imaginary thought world, whether the thoughts are gloomy or cheery. However, since I am making a sincere effort to be present for a visceral experience of life, being able to choose sunnier thoughts from time to time is a bonus.

I dined with Lisa M. last night, and she said that she asks herself all the time, “What’s right in this moment?” as opposed to “What’s wrong?” (She also makes a devoted effort to reside in her visceral experience.) And then she says, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” In every moment, an incredible amount is right.

Dinner was at Sparrow Bar and Kitchen in the Haight. This restaurant has very nice ambience. It’s warm and cozy, and serves fancy comfort food, which is good but not utterly delicious, and the service is slow beyond belief and rather vague in tone, like the servers aren’t sure they really are the servers. They all seemed quite young. It’s quiet enough that you can easily hold a conversation. It was a nice evening.

I hadn’t been in the Haight in a long time and could not believe my eyes: there was not one single person in sight who appeared to be a hedge fund manager. On the sidewalk were mainly the same drug addicts and alcoholics, many quite young, who have been there for decades. Compared to the Mission, it was like a different city entirely. I noticed something similar in the Inner Sunset, near 9th Avenue and Irving, where Lisa and I met up: just regular people. It’s not that those areas have yet to become gentrified; I think they’re both post-gentrification and things have settled down.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Feature Creature

Now that the bottleneck of The Nun’s Story is out of the way, with its paralyzing-to-contemplate 149-minute running time, I’ve been able to embark on a long-delayed movie binge. One night I watched Compliance (based on a true story about a prank caller who persuades the manager of a fast-food restaurant to grossly violate a young employee’s civil rights and worse), The Kid with a Bike (about a young French boy adopted by a hairdresser after his father abandons him), and The Big Picture (Romain Duris as a French lawyer whose wife begins an affair with a photographer, leading to a dark series of events).

The next evening, I saw Prince Avalanche (I love Emile Hirsch; he’s perfectly cast in this tale of two hapless Texas road workers and really made me laugh) and Lay the Favorite (a colorful Las Vegas confection with Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones). The night after that, I saw Hadewijch, the third French film of the week, this one about a worryingly devout young Catholic girl.

A couple of nights later, I watched An Invisible Sign, with Jessica Alba, which is goofy and charmingly lightweight in some respects, but quite heavy in others. The night after that, I saw Mud, with Matthew McConaughey, about two young boys who help a drifter who is an aspiring knight in gleaming armor.

In the free minutes between movies, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was extremely absorbing. She was just 22 when her mother died after a brief bout with cancer, and she herself went astray for a handful of years, and then, after spotting a guidebook in a bookstore, decided she would hike 1100 miles, from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, all by herself.

Before she started this trek, though she had a lot of camping and outdoors experience, she had never done any backpacking, and quite a number of things went wrong. It’s an astonishing story of perseverance, vividly told. (I’m done with it, so if you want to read it and know my email address, send me a note and I’ll mail it to you.)

Wild made me think I should undertake some bravery-requiring feat. What, though, now that she already did the most remarkable thing ever? But maybe going without a shower for weeks on end isn’t necessary; maybe keeping one’s eyes open wherever one happens to be will show us what we need to see. I think what Cheryl Strayed learned from her incredible adventure was that her life was real, it was as it was, and she was in charge of it.

This week I received a couple of copies of San Francisco Insight’s newsletter in the mail, kindly sent by the author of a remembrance of Carlos. A couple of his poems accompanied the article, including one that is a favorite of mine, plus a couple of poems about him. I appreciate that so many are remembering Carlos with me.  Practically every time I mention his name to anyone who knew him, that person says, “I was just thinking about him today.”

There was another superb piece in this newsletter, by a member of Eugene Cash’s sangha named Cathi Murphy, about Martin Aylward’s rethinking of Buddhism’s basic greed, hatred and aversion as “demand, defense and distraction.”

One afternoon I walked to OfficeMax for padded envelopes and to Papalote for a burrito, which tasted unusually good, since I ate it without reading a magazine at the same time, which is an extreme rarity. It’s OK if I overeat—it has to be, since I’ve done it approximately 36,500 times and will do so many more times—and it’s also OK if I overeat while reading, but I would like to be more aware of the thoughts that occur before and during. I mean, what really is going on? This is my true life, even if I’m not hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—what is actually happening?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


It’s been a rather dismal week or so. I’ve had a head cold for a week and a half now, not really a very bad cold, and without much coughing, but I’ve felt kind of lousy and have gone through box after box of Puffs Plus Lotion (a very superior product). The only places Ive gone are to Howies and to Walgreens to buy six more boxes of Puffs Plus Lotion.

But it was more my mind that was the trouble, as I fell into believing certain venerable and gloomy thoughts. I’ve been reading Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness, but put it down temporarily; I started to feel that delving farther and farther into the canonical details of Buddhism was not the most-needed thing in these dark days.

Somewhat in desperation, I returned to that teacher—as it happens, a Zen teacher—who has cast more light than any other: Ezra Bayda. I started at the beginning of his first book, Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life. I didn’t realize how big an influence he’d had on me until I saw again in black and white his advice that what we need to do is be aware of our thoughts and reside in our physical experience. By which he means we actually have to do this. He says it might take years of naming our thoughts, but eventually we will see them as just thoughts: “[T]his tightly knit sense of self, with all its painful and unwanted emotions, begins to unravel. We can then see it for what it is: a complex of deeply believed thoughts, unpleasant sensations, and ancient memories!”

That’s his exclamation point. Here’s mine: !

I re-embarked on this simple but powerful practice. You don’t have to see and name every mundane or simple logistical thought: Having the thought that I need to go to the bathroom. Having the thought that I will answer the ringing phone.

The ones of interest are the ones that come washed in gloom, anxiety, fear, anger. Having the thought that I’ve made bad choices. Having the thought that I’ve done my entire life wrong. Having the thought that I’ve squandered my talents. Having the thought that when I’m very old (if I’m very old), I will be defenseless and alone, at the mercy of strangers who don’t know or love me. Having the thought that I’m in the wrong career, the wrong city, the wrong life entirely. Having the thought that I somehow have ended up in someone else’s life. Revisited over and over, they etch ever-deeper grooves in the brain, as Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor might explain it.

Sometimes, diabolically, the thoughts directly contradict each other: It is essential that I do X, and it is crucial that I don’t. Or, even worse, if I do this, it will be the wrong thing to do, and if I do that, ditto. Whatever I do, I will be a failure.

As for the actual doing of such-and-such thing or not, it’s slightly tricky because, on the one hand, I’m positive we can potentially be happy in any circumstances, whether we are movie stars or janitors. I believe this. Yet I also think we are particular beings suited to different things. One occupation, city and way of life may be really right for one person and totally wrong for another. Yet it is also verifiably the case that no amount of thinking “I’m in the wrong job!” has been helpful.

It’s not necessary to understand the origins of such thoughts, just to see them clearly. Nonetheless, it does not escape my notice, and is of some interest (to me) that having directly contradictory beliefs precisely parallels my situation when I was a child, starting at age seven, dieting with my mother. I felt then that if I went off my diet, I was a failure, but if I’d succeeded brilliantly at my very first diet and had never had to diet again, what would my mother and I have done together? I’m sure it seemed to me that dieting with my mother was the means of retaining her love and attention. To feel allied with someone in this world, I had to fail over and over and over, affirming countless times in my childhood and adolescence, “I am fat and ugly.”

Interesting to see, but not helpful in the current moment. I began again to note every thought that came with an emotional charge. In a couple of hours—this was a few days ago—it was bedtime and there was nothing new under the sun. I lay in bed tuning in to the sensations in my stomach and chest. There was not that much going on at all, just a slight churning or pulsing, possibly the near or far edge of anxiety or sorrow, but nothing definite. I appreciated the chance to apprehend my real, actual life, as opposed to the veneer of believed thoughts or a false covering of positive thoughts designed to keep threatening emotions at bay.

The next day I felt better, and not just because there had been a five percent improvement in my cold. It would also have been fine if I hadn’t felt better. Because I did, there were fewer emotionally charged thoughts to note, though not none. If I’d still felt awful, there would have been more. Either way, the practice would have been the same.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ripping Good

I went to Howie’s Tuesday evening, and when I was walking home, I caught up to Charlie and two of his friends walking along Valencia St. “Are you following me?” I asked.

Charlie smiled and said, “Right, I’m stalking you from the front.”

“That’s the most treacherous kind,” I grumbled.

I listened to a talk by Joseph Goldstein Thursday evening, the first of 46 talks that formed the basis of his book, Mindfulness. The inspiration was someone else in Howie’s group who said he’d been listening to these talks and planned to hear all of them before going on to the book. I found the talk exceedingly relaxing, sleeping through probably a third of it, while sitting up. The relaxing effect was probably exacerbated by the fact that I’d already encountered the same key points in the book.

I was thinking of listening to a talk every Thursday night, but maybe that’s not such a good idea. I already have a slate of things to do every day, none of which takes hugely long and all of which are beneficial (meditating and stretching, etc.), but perhaps life isn’t supposed to be one big checklist. Where’s the joy, man? Also, forget that thing about not listening to the radio or music while doing other tasks. Up with background noise.

This past week I finally watched The Nun’s Story, which had been sitting on the shelf in its red Netflix envelope for three months. Who has two and a half hours to watch a movie, even one recommended by her mother? But I finally saw it, and sent my mother a note saying it was a ripping good yarn, a phrase that pleased me so much, I now plan to say it about every story and movie, good or bad.

I also watched Another Happy Day, with Ellen Barkin, a comedy that also manages to be wrenchingly painful, as Ellen Barkin’s character strives unsuccessfully to wring deserved compassion and understanding out of her clueless family. The same evening, I watched the first episode of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix and thought the lead actress was darling, but found it otherwise awful—very different from the book, which is excellent. I’m not going to watch any more of these. I finished by watching Lovelace, which is very good, though a harrowing tale indeed. It says at the end that Deep Throat made $600 million, but its star got only $1250. However, the Linda Lovelace Wikipedia page says that her controlling and violent husband took even that. The film closes by showing the real Linda Boreman’s sweet-looking face. She died in a car accident at only 53.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Avian Accuracy

Last Friday I went in a City CarShare car to pick up the little Ikea table I’d taken to be refinished at J & L. I was prepared to be disappointed and resolved not to get upset—$175 and it looks like that?!—but in fact it looks gorgeous. I will definitely have the other one done, and I have also emailed them a photo of my unfinished bookshelf to see how much that would cost, as well as the old wooden chair in my kitchen.

After work that day, Tom and I took a walk and then had dinner at Santaneca.

On Saturday, Charlie and I took a walk in the spring-like weather and had lunch, also at Santaneca. After that, I was going to drive Tom over to visit a friend in hospice at Kaiser, but he learned she had died the night before, after enduring four horrible, very painful years with cancer. She was 55, and leaves behind her husband and their eight-year-old son. So sad, and so much misery for just one person.

I treated Tom to dinner at We Be Sushi that night, and I sent the bereaved husband and son a card, and a heart carved from rose quartz apiece, a gift I appreciated when Carlos was dying. I dreamed that night of the woman who had died. I probably only was in her company about four times over about 15 years, but she and her husband are close friends of Tom
’s, so I’d heard regular updates on her awful ordeal. I told Tom to tell the husband that we’d be delighted to go with him and his little boy to the park or out to dinner or anything they’d like to do.

I’m about halfway through Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness, and, along with noticing when there is ill will in the mind, I’m also trying to notice when there is desire / greed / grasping. (The Buddha said that the causes of suffering are grasping, aversion, and delusion; the exact terms can vary. It boils down to being confused about what’s going on and/or insisting that things be otherwise—wanting what we don’t have, not wanting what we do have.)

I was thinking that greed doesn’t play a big part in my day-to-day life, until I realized that impatience is a form of grasping, ditto looking ahead to the next activity: after I get done meditating, then I’m going to do this, that and the other. I am not resting fully in this moment’s experience. My mind has gone on to what I’ll do later, even if it’s just a couple of minutes later.

I was listening to KQED a week or so ago and noticed a knot arising in my stomach when I heard something irritating, which must happen very often, alternating with the pleasure of hearing good news: Those scoundrels! Awesome!
Those scoundrels! Awesome!
What is all this reactivity covering up? There’s probably much else (not necessarily anything really interesting, but still) that’s overlooked while I’m listening to the radio or to music. I decided to investigate, and also possibly give my nervous system a rest, by taking a month off listening to the radio or to music. The one exception will be talks by Buddhist teachers. I’ve decided to listen to one per week, but not as background noise.

In the past week or so, taking breaks from Joseph, I read Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black, which I absolutely could not put down—it’s utterly riveting—and Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.’s My Stroke of Insight, which all public radio listeners have heard of and probably feel at least slightly guilty if they haven’t read. I don’t know if I can recommend it as a piece of writing, but it was really interesting to see how her explanations about the brain correspond with the body of knowledge that comes from mindfulness meditation (AKA insight meditation). Taylor’s prescription for accessing the peace and ease that she says is the natural province of the right brain is precisely what practitioners of mindfulness meditation learn to do: attend to some piece of sense data, which puts us in the present moment, and notice what’s happening in the mind. She also points out that both hemispheres of the brain go into creating every moment of perception, so the right brain, where it may seem all the goodies are, is always being developed. Of course, we need both halves working in order to function well.

Buddhism is entirely friendly to scientific findings. The Dalai Lama has said that if Buddhism and science were found to be in conflict, Buddhism, which values direct experience over theory, would have to change. Or, as someone or other said, “If the field guide and the bird don’t agree, believe the bird.”

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Decisive Victory Over Legal Professional

I’m reading Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening—signed by the author!—and am finding it extremely helpful. It’s about the Buddha’s instructions on The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: four categories of things you can pay attention to.

The four categories are the body (e.g., the breath, among other possibilities), or feelings (specifically this means to notice whether things are pleasant, unpleasant or neither), or the mind (such as knowing when there is greed in the mind and when there is not), or to various other categories of phenomena (the five these things, the five those things, the seven other things, etc.)—overall, the list is quite long and you can choose whatever suits you. Any one of them will be fruitful. I’ve many times heard Buddhist teacher Eugene Cash say that just attending to the breath will take you all the way to full awakening, or however exactly he puts it.

Since I quite often have thoughts of ill will or aversion—so lucky!—I thought I’d work with noticing when there is ill will in the mind. What typically happens is that I get angry about someone doing whatever, and then blame and judge them at length, and/or worry about what I’ll do if they do it again, mentally draft some remarks to deliver or not, and then, finally, beat myself for being such an unkind and intolerant person.

Sometimes I can notice I’m angry and drop the story and feel the physical experience (a la Ezra Bayda), or consciously generate kind wishes for the person (which is unlikely to result in actual kind feelings, but at least stops the blaming and judging); often neither. Lately there was yet another iteration of this, with me ending up frustrated when the angry feelings didn’t abate quickly enough.

Since starting to read Joseph’s book, I decided that maybe I should for the time being forget about sending good wishes (metta) to the other person and just send myself good wishes when I notice I’m angry—after all, the person who’s actually suffering is me. The other person is probably perfectly happy.

Having practiced mindfulness meditation for more than 20 years makes it pretty easy to notice what’s happening in the mind. But what exactly constitutes having ill will there? What’s the mind, anyway? Is it the brain? I think they’re not the same things. What kind of experiences can the mind have?

It’s helpful to remember not to “identify with” the experience, as Buddhist teachers will often say. This means thinking that something is I, me, or mine. I am angry. That is my feeling (or my sandwich). Taking things to be I, me, or mine introduces a lot of unnecessary misery, but before we get into that, a word about the relative versus the absolute. Relatively speaking, you are you and I am me. You live where you live and I live where I live, etc., and it’s perfectly reasonable and fine to talk about “you” and “me.”

On the absolute level, there is no me, there never was, and there never will be. If you were to examine every single cell in a human body with a microscope, you’d see mostly space, and that every part is in flux, changing quickly or slowly. Plus, every bit of it is dependent on conditions being a certain way. Nothing in the body could exist if it were truly on its own, and every bit of it is mutable. There is no unchanging entity anywhere that we can correctly call “me” or “you.”

This is why Joseph Goldstein once told a meditator who was bothered by a lot of thinking, “Pretend the thoughts are coming from the person next to you.” I love that. It’s funny, but it points to the helpful truth that “I” am no more to blame for my thoughts than I am for your thoughts! The latter point is obvious; when we don’t see the former, we can be lost in self-judgments that may last a lifetime.

This is not to say that “I” am not responsible for “my” actions. I am, no question. But the actual, literal truth is that I am not thinking a given thought, because there is no I to do so. When conditions support a certain thought arising, it arises.

The reason this is so helpful is that when I remember not to identify with a thought—not to take it to be “mine”—I am also more likely to notice the thought as a thought and may be able to skip the whole part about believing the thought, belaboring it endlessly, taking (possibly unskillful) action based on the thought, judging myself harshly for having had the thought, and so on.

Instead I can think, “Ah, based on past conditions, such-and-such thought has arisen. Now, am I sure this thought is actually true? What action, if any, should I take based on this thought?” Very different thing.

The thought in question might be, “This person is stupid and a big jerk.” Is having that angry, judgmental thought the same as having ill will in the mind? What sorts of things can the mind experience and how do I tell one from another?

I may feel that my stomach is in a knot and that my eyes are strained slits, but what about the mind? Can’t answer this, but it’s what I’m dedicating myself to learning about right now, so I was all excited when this happened Friday morning:

The phone rang at 6:44 a.m. and a lawyer started to leave a message about a person who lives in my building. Months ago I got a similar voice mail and just ignored it; possibly it was a debt collection thing. I don’t know that it was, but I know (not from personal experience) that some debt collectors will stop at nothing.

I leaped out of bed and picked up the phone and said, “I have nothing to do with such-and-such person. It is 6:44 in the morning. This is unacceptable. Do not call me again,” and I hung up, and I was angry and upset for about two minutes, and then I was like, “Hey! This is excellent! I’m angry and upset. What is it like? What is my body doing? What is my mind doing? What’s the mind, anyway?”

I noticed the tension in my body: check. And I noticed angry thoughts: check. And once I was noticing the angry thoughts as thoughts—aha, here is an angry thought—it was pretty hard to stay angry (not that that was a goal). The emotion naturally faded. As far as I can tell, that was the whole experience: a certain physical state, and certain thoughts. When the thoughts were noticed as thoughts, they very rapidly changed and the content ceased to be angry. Instead of the thought, “How dare that person call me so early, and how did he get my number, anyway?” there was the thought, “What exactly is going on in my body and brain?” And while the former thought supports feeling angry, the latter thought does not at all support feeling angry.

It seems that the mind can either be lost in a story or aware of the story. Those are two things the mind can definitely do. What else can it do? It can steadily focus on an object, or not so steadily, or not at all.

And that’s all I have to say about that right now, except that, in regard to how the attorney got my name and number, I think attorneys hang around with private investigators, who can easily find out who all lives at a given address and what their names and phone numbers are. This attorney probably assumed he was calling a cell phone that would be silent if I were asleep, but I have a good old landline that woke me right out of a sound sleep. I guess I showed him.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Ruby Slippers

Last Saturday I finally got rid of the voice mail Carlos left on one of my cell phones a few days before he went into the hospital never to emerge, in mid-February. He had long had my landline number memorized; he told me once that he sometimes said it to himself silently over and over.

But by that day in February, my phone number, and much else, was gone. He must have looked in his address book, seen the number of the cell phone I mainly use for work, and called it. From the sound of the message, you wouldn
t know anything was amiss.

For nine months and two and a half weeks, I listened to that voice mail at least weekly, saving it each time, liking that at any moment, I could have the experience of hearing a message Carlos had left for me, as if it had arrived two minutes ago. Sometimes I listened to it many times in a row, sometimes in tears.

Eventually I noticed that while different feelings might arise while listening to this message, none of them were really good; generally I felt sad and maybe a little anxious. I knew that someday I would delete it, maybe at the year anniversary of his death. (Strange to think that soon he’ll have been gone as long as we were together: 11 months, and one and a half weeks.) As the end of the year rolled around, I thought that might be another auspicious time to let it go. After all, this was not exactly following Phillip Moffitt’s advice to be fully available to our experience. It was the opposite. It was trying not to have the experience of loss at all, to pretend he was sort of still here.

I listened to the message several times Saturday morning, and then, instead of pressing 9 to save it yet again, I pressed 7 to delete it. After a bit, I changed my mind and found the message still there, but marked for deletion. After listening to it, I pressed 9 to save it, and then, before I left for Rainbow, 7, once again, to delete it. While shopping, I felt a strong sense of liberation, the pleasure of letting go, of not clinging, of cutting my own shackles.

Yet, later in the day, rather casually, I decided to get the message back, not with a strong impulse, but more of an, “Oh, I think I’ll keep it for a while, after all,” and I felt surprisingly shocked when the electronic voice said there were no messages. The message, like Carlos, was gone for good and not coming back, which still seems strange, when his presence can be called up so vividly.

On Sunday Tom, Ann and I went to Berkeley Rep for Kneehigh’s utterly marvelous production of Tristan & Yseult. Afterward, Ann said that in her decades of theater-going, she couldn’t recall seeing anything more entertaining. The acting, live music, singing and dancing were splendid, and the production was dazzlingly inventive and witty.

On New Year’s Eve, I was one of the last people to leave the office, because I was trying to get an SQL query to work in a new environment. The fellow who sits next to me asked how long I’d be there. I said, “I’m not leaving until I get this working,” but an hour later, I said, “On second thought … ” and he said, “There’s no place like home?”

I went to Howie’s in the evening, which I thought would be a nice thing to do on the last day of the year. Even if it is purely a conceptual distinction, it’s rather widespread. Howie wasn’t there, but Yvonne was. There was a tremendous profusion of red holiday flowers up front, and members of my group had brought votive candles from home. The effect of the candles burning in all the different glass holders was quite charming.