Monday, February 24, 2014

Yeah, Sure, if I HAD a Couch

I was reading in the Chronicle about protesters interrupting Google’s presentation at a recent tech conference, unfurling a banner that made reference to the evictions in the Mission. Mindfulness training is offered at Google, and the Google person on hand at the conference has evidently been a recipient because he (or she) completely ignored the protesters and their message, instead saying something like (paraphrasing here), “This can be an opportunity for practice. Notice how you’re feeling. How does it feel in your body when you have one point of view and someone else has another?”

I was aghast. On the one hand, yes, that’s an excellent approach to take in many situations: what is really going on? How does it feel, in detail? But what is really going on doesn’t stop at the boundary of our own skin. To ignore someone else’s very obvious distress in favor of noticing how we’ve been affected by having to be near someone in distress seems grotesque.

That evening I left two lengthy diatribes on Howie’s answering machine. The first was venting my reaction as alluded to above. In the second, I said that I had gone on to think: Haven’t these people heard of engaged Buddhism, which responds to real-world issues, to social and environmental problems? But, no, why should they have? They aren’t learning Buddhism, they’re learning mindfulness, which is great, as far as it goes.

Once I went to a presentation at the Zen Center by a Stanford neuroscientist on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, which are measurable, and the friend I was with got very exercised, raising her hand to grumble about mindfulness being taken out of the context of Buddhism, something I didn’t care about at all: if people weren’t interested in the teachings of the Buddha, beyond meditation, but found mindfulness helpful, how could I object to that?

The father of the mindfulness movement, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is himself a Buddhist (I believe I’m correct in saying that) but rightly perceived that the mindfulness part alone could be extremely valuable to a lot of people. I have a close friend who has been learning mindfulness and who reports that it has been very beneficial. We were discussing mindfulness versus Buddhism and I said I imagine the ethics that are an inherent part of the latter sneak in even if you don’t want to be a Buddhist. I think if you genuinely notice what’s really going on often enough, you’ll eventually perceive that it doesn’t feel good to speak to another person with contempt. You might tune in to the content of your thoughts and how that shapes your world. Maybe you’ll clearly see the suffering going on all around you.

At Howie’s last Tuesday night, when we were setting up the chairs, he asked if I had a topic for his talk that evening. I said I was struggling, again, with the class issues in the Mission and undecided whether to practice bare attention and noting, or lovingkindness. I said that the latter can feel forced, whereupon Howie reminded me for the umpteenth time that in that situation, one does not send good wishes to the object of one’s resentment. One sends good wishes to oneself.

It may not have been intentional, but Howie’s talk did seem to be about my problem. It was about how happiness does not consist of enjoying one pleasant experience after another. Even if we can manage to get things set up so that we have non-stop agreeable experiences, that’s still not the same thing as happiness. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite, because it strengthens the habit of wanting, which is not at all a good feeling.

Afterward, L. gave me a ride home. On our way to her car, we passed the enormous and dazzling new place at 15th and Mission, right across from the same seedy apartment buildings that have been there for years. I paused to stew at the sight of the gorgeous common spaces, giant TVs, and an actual well-to-do person using an app on her smart phone. L. was mystified. “Why would you want that? Why, you can lie on your couch and read a book anytime you want!”

I explained that it isn’t a case of wanting that (I don’t think) but of indignation regarding all the people who have been displaced and how the neighborhood is transforming. It kind of made me feel better to know this isn’t bothering L., because it means it’s possible not to be bothered by it, and that maybe someday I won’t be bothered by it. Although on our way home, I had her go along Mission St. between 21st and 22nd, so she could see the massive condo development rising ever higher as construction proceeds, and she was agog in a not-admiring way, so maybe if I keep working on her, she can also be bothered. Potential solidarity!

I am absolutely convinced that the beautiful dwelling spaces and fancy cars and endless expensive meals aren’t bringing the new Mission residents happiness. But, unfortunately, their lives don’t take place in a vacuum. While they learn, or don’t learn, how pleasure relates to happiness, others are genuinely suffering, longtime residents who are being evicted to make place for all this luxury living.

This is not just a Mission phenomenon, of course. Worldwide, our, also meaning my own, endless search for more and better is on the verge of making the planet literally uninhabitable, so this will all be moot sooner or later, speaking of Wally Periods: All we had to do was put off living in a sustainable manner until the planet would no longer sustain us.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Perspicacious Tubmaster

When I got to work last Monday, Presidents’ Day, I found my parking garage closed, ditto the one in my own building, ditto the subterranean one I used briefly last year. I locked my bike to a street sign in front of my building so I could go in and let my boss know I’d have to head back home to work, but just then another cyclist turned up and we learned from the security guard that she could buzz us into our own garage. Whew. Then she had to do some special procedure in the elevator to allow me to get to my floor, and she or another guard had to do that for every single person who was working in the building that day, so what should have been an easy, quiet day for them was the opposite, and they were obviously disgruntled, as evidenced by the fact that when I joked, “This is all Abraham Lincoln’s fault,” Olga said, “No, this is all [your company’s] fault.”

I was trying to think why I didn’t bump into this problem last year—was I perchance working from home? Oh, yes, of course I was—for about two months, from February 11 until sometime in April, weeks after Carlos died and I felt able to return to the office, where I found my cube colorfully decorated and a nice sign welcoming me back.

I went to the hardware store last Monday with a long list of items: fumes coming into my apartment, weirdly flushing toilet, old glue stains on the kitchen floor, uncaulking and caulking to be done, start/stop showerhead needed. I have a showerhead that you can turn off and on while the water is flowing, but when you open the valve again, the water might be the same carefully adjusted temperature as before, or freezing cold, or boiling hot, so I don’t use it. I’ll probably need something like this soon, in the California drought. The hardware store didn’t have a good choice, but I got lots of other excellent advice and bought some supplies.

My most pressing problem was a plumbing situation with my bathroom sink wherein water had started to come out of a hole in the drainpipe. For this and some of the other items, one might normally just call one’s landlady, but since my rent is one quarter to one third of market rate and my landlady is older and ailing and might not need that much of a nudge just to sell the whole building, I’m motivated to do what I can myself.

I was hoping to just put a cap over the hole. There’s a little bit of pipe sticking out and it’s threaded, but there was no such cap at the hardware store. The hardware store fellow suggested a thick rubber dam and a metal clamp, but I wasn’t sure there was enough pipe sticking out to attach a clamp to, so I left the store with a rubber stopper.

At home, I discovered the stopper wouldn’t go in far enough to plug the hole; it bumped into some repulsive slime-covered infrastructure in there. So I cut the stopper in half, increasing the diameter of the smaller end—it’s tapered—and was able to wedge it in there satisfactorily. Then I unfurled half a roll of my new X-Treme Tape, which bonds to itself, and am hoping the mummified rubber plug will do the trick for the rest of my tenure here.

As for my blackening bathtub caulk, I talked to Tom about paying him to remove and replace it, $20 an hour. For one thing, I’m worried about the fumes involved, and Tom said he’d be happy to do this project. But then I pictured what those hours might actually be like and told him maybe I’ll take a crack at it myself.

“You mean you’d be anal about every little thing?”, he asked in a friendly tone.

“I’d use my vast intelligence to observe carefully and ensure that everything was done correctly, if that’s what you’re trying to say.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Chemical Chronicle

After all the refinished furniture arrived and I got a whiff of the materials, I worried that the smell would become overwhelming and I’d have to go live at Tom’s for a few days—had I just made a catastrophic error?—but the smell never came to seem any stronger. I left a window cracked the first night, but there hasn’t been any real problem. My throat feels a little weird and there’s a little coughing, but nothing major.

My sense of smell, always acute, has strengthened considerably in the past year, which may be a hormonal thing, and going places where there are other people is increasingly problematic. There’s always someone in the crowd who has used a laundry detergent whose smell is utterly unbearable. When people walk past me now, sometimes I can smell their hair, which is never a good smell. Not their shampoo or conditioner, their hair. One recent day I could tell that someone in my building had used baby shampoo, also a terrible smell.

Around the holidays, I was sitting in my living room—I may have mentioned this—and was suddenly overwhelmed with strong fumes. My face turned red and I got a headache. I gave the building manager a call, and it turned out she had done a bit of spray painting in the basement, two floors below. Somehow, it piped straight in here, which explains why, in years past, I was sometimes suddenly engulfed in cigarette smoke in the same spot, not near a window: someone was sneaking a smoke in the basement.

When I discussed it with my father, he said it was “worrisome,” which of course threw me into a temporary but total panic. He agreed that if I had a carbon monoxide detector and a radon detector and also didn’t smell anything, all was probably well, but then added that it might not be a bad idea to see if the place can be inspected for obvious holes. Maybe it’s simply the electrical wiring and insulating the outlets would fix it.

Lisa M. advised getting an air filter, which is also a possibility. But the place is so drafty, it seems all that expensively processed air would just blow back out, the same way the repulsive smell of dryer sheets blows in—alas, two different dryers vent into the area below my kitchen window, which wasn’t a problem at all for the first many years I lived here. Maybe those two people didn’t have their washers and dryers yet, or my nose wasn’t as sensitive, or everyone wasn’t using scented dryer sheets yet, which are full of cancer-causing chemicals.

But I think the draftiness is for the most part good: the yucky stuff comes in, and it goes back out. If there is a harmful substance in the air that comes with a scent, it’s not like I’m not going to smell it, and I can get detectors for the known harmful things that don’t come with scents, so everything is probably fine? Once I get this all figured out, I’ll also talk to the building manager and ask her to be sure any chemicals in the basement are tightly sealed, but I want to do the other research first, so I don’t have to have more than one conversation about it.

You, like me, may be startled to learn that “Since the mid-seventies, the E.P.A. has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment.” This is not to put down the E.P.A., which I know for a fact employs smart, dedicated people who care very much about their work, but rather has to do with the very strong influence of business.

That’s from Rachel Aviv’s story
in the February 10, 2014, issue of The New Yorker about Tyrone Hayes’s research on atrazine. Hayes, at Berkeley, become convinced that the Syngenta corporation was tracking him, intercepting his emails and devising ways to discredit him. “Uh oh, paranoid,” you think, but it eventually turned out that they were doing all of those things and he was exactly correct. He was indeed paranoid, and they were out to get him. And that’s the toxic news for today.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Another item that had been on my to-do list for a very long time, along with completing an advance health care directive, was to have various pieces of wooden furniture refinished. It had finally sunk in that this is my actual life and my actual furniture. Honestly, I had been thinking, “Oh, well, I’ll be dead in thirty or forty years, at which point this will be moot,” which is reasoning that can be applied to many, many things. Dilbert or someone else in his cartoon world talks about a “Wally Period,” which is the length of time before it becomes unnecessary to do a given task. Like if your boss tells you to do something but is guaranteed to forget all about it in half an hour, the Wally Period is 30 minutes. If you can not do the task during the Wally Period, you never have to do it. I was regarding my entire life as a Wally Period.

But I nonetheless could not help but notice how not-nice my unfinished wooden furniture looked, so for years, I’d meant to have a small table refinished, and if it came out well, to have the matching table, my old chair, and my big bookcase done.

The refinishers brought my bookcase, chair and second little Ikea table back a week or so ago, beautifully redone. Pickup and delivery were free! They’re not far from here. Everything looks gorgeous except for a tiny rough spot on the top of the table, where it looks like a few specks of something blew onto it while it was drying, and also it appears we had a miscommunication about the color of the chair. I said I wanted it to be the color it was, and maybe from that Li thought I wanted it to be the color it would be without intervention—the color it was—so it appears they labored to strip off the darker stain and restore it to something closer to the actual color of the maple, which is not how it appears in my sentimental memory, nor in this photo of myself seated upon it in 1965:

Here’s how it looks now:

(Click photos to enlarge.)

’s my beautifully refinished little table behind it, by the way, plus one of my many little fans. I must admit the chair looks fantastic in this photo, but it's because it was sitting directly in the sun. Under the less exciting light in the kitchen, it looks a bit denuded, so I’m going to give Li a call and just inquire, and then maybe I’ll live with it for a month and see if I can come to appreciate the more butterscotch-like aspect, and if not, I’ll pay to have it redone darker. I should have provided a photo of exactly what I wanted it to look like. The refinishing job itself is smooth and beautiful, ditto the other two items, with the very minor exception noted above. The refinished bookcase, with its slightly shiny shelves, hugely improves the appearance of my living room.

Monday, February 17, 2014


A few weeks ago, I saw my favorite homeless guy standing on Mission St., the one with whom I had the exchange on Labor Day of last year, recounted here. I asked if he’d let me take his picture if I gave him five dollars, and he didn’t answer but instantly assumed a stern portrait-ready expression.

(Click photo to enlarge.)
Last week I saw him along that stretch, and as I dropped two dollars into his soiled paper cup, which is a sad sight—maybe he gets his cups out of the trash—he said something I couldn’t make out, which is often the case. I gather that he is quite religious and I think some of what he says is prayers.

On this day last week, there was also a lot of ambient noise, so whereas I usually just let him go on and smile and nod, I said, “I can hardly hear you.”

Man, with sudden, perfect clarity: “You can hardly hear me?”

“So many cars going by.”

“Like a conspiracy, maybe?” This with a big smile, as if he was purposely making a joke.

“Maybe!”, I said, also smiling.

A couple of days later, he said, “I remember you, from last week. I used to know someone who wore a hat like that. I called her Madam Fop. F-O-F-F. F-O-F. F-O-P!”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Horrible Imaginary Blueberry Mush

In case I didn’t say quite enough about this yesterday, it can happen that, if you end up in an interior spot at the bike racks at Rainbow, you can have some difficulty getting back out. You could potentially be standing there with your formerly frozen blueberries turning to sludge while you wait for a path to clear. I don’t think this has ever actually happened, but it’s a grim specter. Ideally (and by law), you should be able to get to any spot regardless of whether any other spot is in use or not, but Rainbow is trying to make the best of a certain amount of space, so there is not that kind of access. And if you’re in an interior spot and a bike with a trailer or cart parks on the outside, it’s that much harder to exit. So, yes, it’s nice for the bike with a trailer to have that good outside spot, but it’s also nice for me to have that good outside spot.

Also, I should certainly say that if I’d been in a more generous and accommodating mood, I might have cheerfully relocated. But even if I’d been in a more accommodating mood, my brain (I hope) would still have been working and able to perceive that there were lots of good spots for both of us, so I still might have stayed where I was. It also might have helped if I hadn’t previously felt resentful of this exact person for taking up a lot of space and radiating BMWness, but then again, maybe not.

(Why am I singling BMWs out from the larger class of luxury automobiles? Because in my experience if a motorist behaves in a dangerously aggressive way, 90 percent of the time, he—always he—is going to be in one.)

Last week I took care of something that has been on my to-do list for a long time, which was to complete an advance health care directive. Even before Carlos fell ill, I knew this was something I should do, and when he had his medical crisis, the panic around his not having one impressed upon me the grave importance of filling out this simple form. It turned out to be moot in Carlos’s case because his condition was clearly untreatable, so his doctor’s fear that he would be subjected to futile, perhaps painful procedures was unfounded, but the rest of us may still need this protection one day, so I went online and entered these keywords into the excellent search engine Duck Duck Go: advance health care directive california

The first result was a nice PDF you can type into, courtesy of Kamala Harris, who I hope will be President someday. You can’t save the form with your typing in it, but you can save a copy of the blank form for use whenever desired, and you can type into the form and then print it out, so I did that, indicating that I don’t want my life prolonged if the situation is hopeless and that any parts may be seized for sharing with others. That just required checking two boxes. I didn’t write in many instructions, because I don’t really care whether I’m cremated or buried, etc. I think cremation might be more environmentally friendly, but my agents are smart people who will do the right things, assuming they ever get to do anything.

The only amendment I made was in the section pertaining to pain relief, where the default is that pain and discomfort should be treated vigorously, even if that hastens death. Here I wrote in: “If suffering does not appear to be acute, I’d like to be as unmedicated as possible. However, if there is apparent suffering, please provide treatment for alleviation of pain.”

I took the completed form to Howie’s that evening and two dharma friends witnessed my signature, and yesterday afternoon, I made copies, addressed envelopes, scanned it into my computer just in case, and sent it off.

Time required:
Filling out the form: Five minutes.

Signing by me and witnesses: Two minutes.

Making copies and addressing envelopes: 45 minutes.

Walking to the mailbox, where I was going anyway, since it’s on the way to Papalote: 10 minutes.

Procrastinating was the big item. That took two years, three and a half months, starting from my own season of medical travails, at the end of 2011.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Lengthy Treatise on Self-Relieved and Self-Inflicted Misery

I lately began and finished Mary Karr’s third memoir, Lit, about the dissolution of her marriage, the final years of her drinking, and her getting sober and finding not only God but religion, and not only religion but Catholicism. She has lived a colorful, vivid life and has a voice to match, so it might be worthwhile to read Lit to enjoy her prose. On the other hand, she can say in one paragraph that a certain person never smiles, and two paragraphs later that this same person smiled at her, so which is true? Or go on and on about being unaccomplished and undereducated and refer vaguely to a teaching position which turns out to be at Harvard: Something does not add up and, after a hundred pages or so of this, a flavor of disingenuousness creeps in, unwelcome in a memoir, though not as bad as Augusten Burroughs’ “memoirs,” which to me are unreadable. Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, was superb, and that I wholeheartedly recommend.

When I was feeling gloomy several weeks ago, I temporarily put aside Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness and reread Ezra Bayda’s Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life. It was his first book and maybe not quite as gracefully written as his later three books (he also has a book with just a few words on each page, excerpts from his other books; you could use it as a daily reminder), but it contains all the suggestions that have been so helpful to me: to notice what we’re thinking and believing, and to reside as often as possible in our actual, physical experience. Despite the title, it’s not at all “Buddhist,” not canonical or dogmatic. I don’t think the word “Buddha” even appears in it. It’s simple, clear, utterly practical advice, and it was very helpful to read the whole thing again.

Now I’m back to Joseph Goldstein’s book and find that it has had an improving effect on my life practice. I’ve taken to noticing my posture, observing explicitly to myself that I am sitting, or standing, or lying down, this being one of the many, many things we might choose to notice, as detailed in Joseph’s comprehensive volume, which definitely is canonical. I also often inquire, “What is my attitude of mind?” Generally one is looking for grasping or aversion, expressed in whatever terms are helpful. At this moment, is my mind accepting, opposed, rigid, open?

This has more or less eliminated my problem with my new neighbors, at least when I remember to employ this approach. Before, I would often drift off into resentful ruminations, or cover up the ill feelings with rationalizations (“Why, I’m sure they’re very nice people, when it comes right down to it!”), or misuse metta. Lovingkindness practice may or may not result in friendly feelings at a given moment. Since it’s a form of purification practice, it can bring up the opposite. It may bring up rage and grief. My understanding is that, since we create our worlds with our minds, and our minds are malleable, it’s valuable to nudge our minds in the direction of openness and kindness. But when it came to my new neighbors, I was using metta practice to lard over the feelings I didn’t want to feel, the ill will and negative judgments.

Lately I pass a new building full of condos for the wealthy and think, “I’m riding my bike and what is my attitude of mind? Aversive. Hard. Rejecting.” The act of bringing mindful attention to what is happening often makes the feelings themselves vanish, though that is not the goal. I’m seeking to act in as constructive a manner as possible, and I am convinced that trying to see clearly what is going on is more constructive than the techniques described above. Yet it so happens that when the feeling is observed rather than taken as truth, its underpinnings are gone and it can’t persist. Plus, being back in reality is refreshing and inherently satisfying.

Then, if that doesn’t do the trick, not meaning that I still feel resentful or upset or whatever, but meaning that I’m still getting pulled into the story, I apply a little Ezra Bayda: “What am I thinking? What thoughts am I believing? What do I feel entitled to?” I note my thoughts explicitly, in the form “Having the thought that … ” and also note what it is that I feel entitled to: Having the thought that these people are wrecking my neighborhood. I feel entitled to having the people around me behave as I see fit. I feel entitled to my neighborhood being the way I want. I feel entitled to not having my neighborhood change.

And, finally, Bayda’s question, “What is this?” This is a reminder to notice exactly what is happening physically and to rest our attention there.

Oh! That reminds me of a little story about entitlement. At my grocery store, Rainbow, the bicycle racks have been arranged so that not all can actually be used at the same time, so I’m always happy when I get there and find an outside spot free. A couple of people have trailers attached to their bikes, and one fellow has a massive red front-of-bike cart, in which he transports his children, to whom he speaks in both English and in some other language. This rig obviously cost a pretty penny, and I have formed the probably unfair judgment that he’s the cyclist equivalent of a BMW driver: rich, arrogant, pushing his children to excel from the moment they’re born so they can also be rich and arrogant one day. That’s why the two languages, so they’ll have a leg up on everyone else when they get to kindergarten. Again, probably not the case at all.

I stopped by Rainbow Thursday afternoon to pick up some rice crackers and found there were only a couple of other bicycles parked at the racks, and both outside spots were free, along with nearly every other spot. Lately a sign has appeared above the racks asking that the outside spaces be left free to accommodate bikes with trailers, and just as I was locking up, this fellow came along, talking to his children in Language 2. He stopped, stared, and asked if I’d use a different spot. I was opening my mouth to say, “Oh, sure,” when I realized I didn’t really feel like it, so I said, “I think I’m going to stay here. Looks like you have plenty of options.” Which he did.

Aghast, he was silent for an aggrieved moment, and then asked, “Can you read that sign?” This was rather rude, implying as it did that I may not have the ability to understand the simple words on the sign (unlike his bilingual, at least, children), but I ignored that and said, “Yes, I’ve read it, and I’ve decided to stay here. Looks like you have plenty of options.”

He said, “Thanks for blah blah blah” and set about parking his massive vehicle. I don’t know what he was thanking me for, since I tuned it out and made no further remark, but it was obviously sarcastic, since what he really wanted to say was, “I hate you! I hate you! I hope you get cancer!”

Because, despite having plenty of room to park his bicycle and cart, he felt entitled to that outside space, and all the more so because there’s a sign saying so. One can easily see why he felt entitled to that space, and therefore disgruntled. In his case, he then also felt entitled to be rude, which not everyone would. It probably wrecked his entire evening, which he probably spent thinking of cutting things he would have said to me if he’d thought of them in time. (How do I know this? Psychic! Or from doing it myself a million times.) Actually, I think he was thanking me for my “commitment to the environment,” or something like that. Evidently shopping for groceries by bicycle indicates gross disregard for future generations if not accompanied by speedy acquiescence to the requests of those whose much greater concern for the environment is demonstrated by their much larger conveyances.

Anyway, he could have proceeded accordingly and been done with the whole thing in five minutes:

Now what’s happening? What is my posture? I’m arriving at the bike racks. I’m standing up. I’ve asked this person to move, per the sign.

What is my attitude of mind? Angry!

What do I feel entitled to? I feel entitled to an outside space. I feel entitled to having other people obey the sign. I feel entitled to enough space for my bike and cart. I feel entitled to other people saying yes to my reasonable requests.

What is this? There’s a knot in my stomach. My jaw is clenched. My hands are tense.

Had he kept his attention on his visceral experience—which, for all I know, is exactly what he did do—the whole thing would have been history in no time. Which is why I didn’t feel bad about saying no. I could see he didn’t like it, but I didn’t harm him, and I could see he was the author of his own misery. The more entitlement, the more misery.

Friday, February 14, 2014


Last Saturday I met Charlie at La Boheme for tea and a nice chat, came home and vacuumed cobwebs off the living room wall for six minutes, and drove down to Sears at Tanforan to pick up my repaired sewing machine. Re the six minutes of vacuuming, I’ve finally realized that if I wait for an entire free day to clean the house or sew a pair of pants, it will never happen, so I’m trying to make good use of the tiny blocks of time. The drive to Tanforan seemed a bit harrowing. I think my fondness for driving on the freeway is diminishing.

On Sunday I cooked garbanzo beans and some white jasmine rice that had been languishing in the cupboard for months. I soaked the beans Saturday night, which I’ve been experimenting with lately, and it does reduce the cooking time, but it also makes the beans taste unpleasantly sweet. There is the quick soak method, where you bring the beans to a boil, turn off the heat, let them sit for an hour, and then finish cooking them, which I plan to try again, but I suspect that if they spent that hour cooking instead of resting, they’d be done at about the same time.

I will also try soaking them Sunday morning instead of Saturday night, and, finally, bringing them to a boil Sunday morning before I go to Rainbow and then turning off the heat and letting them sit until I’m back from the store. The garbanzos and white rice tasted almost like dessert even with a tablespoon of salt and three tablespoons of lemon olive oil added, and it may turn out that the only way to avoid that is not to do any kind of presoaking. Normally I add two tablespoons of olive oil to a pot of beans, but I was trying to diminish the sweetness.

On Monday, I had lunch at a Thai place downtown on Sacramento St. with two of my Indian women colleagues. They are lovely people, with lives full of wholesome activities. Very nice to be around, though it was hard to hear each other over the overwhelming racket in the restaurant.

This time last year, Carlos’s ultimately fatal medical travails had begun. The trees with the pink blossoms are in bloom now just as they were then. I remember noticing how beautiful they were and appreciating it, but also thinking how incongruous it seemed for all that beauty to be sprouting while the worst thing that had ever happened was unstoppably underway.

After Carlos died, my mental health professional, Deborah, observed, “It’s just going to be an effing hard year.” I thought, “A year? Surely not,” but that was pretty much right. I simply could not believe an entire person could have vanished so completely and I’d say grieving was acute, off and on, for ten and a half months, at which point I started to feel what seemed to be genuine acceptance, though now, of course, it’s all roiled up again as the anniversary of his death approaches.

I was faithfully keeping my journal during that time, plus posting frequently on the Caring Bridge website that Lisa C. set up for Carlos, which was a great idea and a big help. I also found a calendar form online and made a brief entry for each day, just a reminder, starting in January, ending on March 10.

February 9: “With T&D to Herbivore; with CR later at Santaneca. Strange evening.” There was confusion about who was going to eat where when and Carlos and I couldn’t agree, so I went with Tom and his girlfriend to Herbivore, arranging to visit Carlos afterward, but when I got to his house, he wasn’t there. I wondered if he’d ended up going to the restaurant I’d wanted to go to in the first place and sure enough, he was at Santaneca, but what seemed at the time weirdly upset, berating himself for doing it all wrong, nearly in tears. I remember telling him, “It’s OK. We’re together now.”

February 11: “Take CR to MNHC. SFGH ER at night.” That was the day I walked him down to make an appointment at Mission Neighborhood Health Center, and in the evening, Don, Charlie and I took him to the emergency room at S. F. General, in case he was having a series of strokes.

February 14, Valentine’s Day: “Dr. Alvarez at MNHC. CT scan. Dinner at my place.” That evening, I got a call saying there was an ill-formed “lesion” in Carlos’s head. I’m pretty sure they said in that call that it was ill-formed, because I went online and learned that benign brain tumors are typically smooth in appearance, while malignant ones are not, so from that evening, I correctly assumed he had a malignant brain tumor.

I printed out the calendar pages for February and March so that as these anniversaries roll around, I know what to feel bad about when. In some ways, it seems as if he died minutes ago: how did an entire year vanish? But in other ways, it seems long, long ago that he was here.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


On my walk last Monday afternoon, on Mission St. near 29th, I encountered a fellow in a wheelchair, black, missing a leg, with snot dripping down his face. He wasn’t the most wretched specimen of humanity I’ve ever seen—I see many every day—but he did appear to be in the lowest ten percent of human misery. I was musing, in my liberal way, that in our racist society, undoubtedly his being black contributed at least in some small way to his current condition. Maybe it wasn’t a direct cause, but here and there, no doubt it made a negative difference. Here and there, he was denied what a white person would easily have obtained.

Just as I was musing that, he squeezed my hip. Quite shocked, I said to him in my sternest liberal tone, “Please don’t touch me!” I glared at him and he looked dully back at me, one hand folded over his penis, which was not exposed. I wondered if he was going to come back toward me and what I would do in that event, but he didn’t move, and I walked on.

A few doors farther is a B of A branch that always has a security guard standing out front, so I stopped and said to the beefy fellow there, “Did you see the guy in the wheelchair?”

“Yes, I just called the police about him. He tried to grab a lady’s wallet.”

“Oh. He also grabbed my butt.”

“He did that?”

I joked to the security guard that I didn’t want to punch a man in a wheelchair and he said angrily, “I would have. If I see him do that, I will.”

“Thank you,” I said, by which I meant, “We liberals don’t approve of physical violence in such cases, but I appreciate your spirit of chivalry.”

I shouldn’t have joked about punching the fellow. There is no way I would have done such a thing, if only because this particular person looked high in cooties. Ah, but I am still being flip and should not be: it is wrong to cause physical harm in the service of punishment, though I can certainly envision a case where I would undertake to cause physical harm, even grave physical harm, to defend myself or a loved one or even a stranger. I
m not planning to get a gun, but after this was thinking it might not be a bad thing to have a bit of pepper spray tucked in my backpack.

As I proceeded north, I inquired of myself how I felt: mildly sad and scared, no sign of anger. I thought about waiting around for the police in order to add my two cents, but it would probably have taken a long time, and I was on a break from work and had to get home.

I found myself thinking about my customary walk, how Dolores St. is largely empty, with no one around to help if danger arises, and how Mission St. is crowded with people, every last one of them a potential hip grabber. I’ve lived here for 31 years and in that time, not one single person has ever laid an unwelcome finger on me—I was mugged once, but not in that event touched—yet all it took was one forlorn likely mentally ill or developmentally disabled person doing so to throw my whole sense of security into disarray. Therefore, maybe waiting for the police would have been worthwhile, just to add my two cents and demonstrate to myself that someone, namely me, is paying attention.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Zaminar in the Blue-Air Spaceship

Thursday of last week, I left work to walk to the hardware store but half a block away encountered a gaggle of police officers and a few news trucks lined up at the curb on California St. A woman standing on the sidewalk told me that Michelle Obama was due in 20 minutes, so I decided to wait and see if I could get a peek at her.

Later, I said to the police officer I’d been standing next to for some time, “If she’s not here by midnight, I’m clearing out (or if my boss walks by),” which was a joke, because my boss is far, far away, but eventually I did have to conclude that Michelle is just as adept at sneaking past a crowd into a building as her husband, though it’s still kind of exciting to see all the police activity and carrying on.

That was my second day at work without my seatmate. It’s strange not to have him there. For months, he was there every single day that I was. We agreed “definitely!” to get together for a burrito, but we will probably never speak again.

Last Friday night, Tom and I tried The Little Chihuahua, a new Mexican place on Valencia St. between 17th and 16th. It’s medium sized, with an open, spacious feel. The seating is either a padded bench along the wall, which was comfortable, or stools with small square seats. I didn’t sit on one, but they didn’t look like they’d be very comfortable. The plates and bowls are attractive, made of plastic in pleasing solid colors, putting one in mind of Fiestaware.

The menu is burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas, and they have a salsa bar that includes a pretty good chipotle salsa. Dinner came with an abundance of superior tortilla chips, and you can get as many chip refills as you want, though I warned the friendly young woman at the counter that they might want to memorize my face so as to avoid making that offer to me in the future.

Tom had a shrimp enchilada he said was good. I had a burrito with black beans and fried plantains which was not that good, partly because of the sweetness of the plantains. Sweetness is an expected characteristic of a plantain, just not very good in a burrito. I asked for the cheese and sour cream to be omitted and the counter lady offered to substitute avocado, but I only spotted about one or two small pieces of avocado. The toasted tortilla was fairly tough to cut through. Maybe steamed would be better.

On Saturday afternoon I met Elea at Haight and Stanyan for a walk. We went into Whole Foods briefly so I could use one of the most dazzling restrooms I’ve ever seen, with walls tiled in deep blue and, starting several feet off the ground, a metal surface that slopes inward. It’s like stepping into a spaceship filled with blue air—gorgeous. Plus they have an employee stationed right outside the two restrooms at all times, keeping them clean and restocking the toilet paper and probably also making sure no one takes $100 worth of goods, which at Whole Foods you could carry in a hand or two, into the restroom for stuffing into a backpack.

We walked up Stanyan and into the Mt. Sutro Open Space Reserve via a trailhead that just opened in 2011. I’d never been there before and found it amazing all of a sudden to be amid very tall trees, seemingly in the middle of a vast woods, seconds after being in a residential neighborhood. There are no bathrooms or benches or any other amenities, just trees and trails. We walked and talked, encountering a number of other people, several with dogs, and one fellow on a bicycle.

Afterward, I walked all the way home, a trip down memory lane. When I first moved to San Francisco, I spent a year on Clayton half a block from Haight. On this walk, I passed no fewer than four places where I used to go to recovery meetings. Haight between Divisadero and Fillmore seemed sad and dead, that which used to be a very vibrant stretch. A café with sidewalk seating that was always packed is now closed and empty.

At Haight and Fillmore is a building where a co-worker and friend of mine, Jill, lived long ago. I’ve never forgotten her, in part because she introduced me to Pearl Jam, so sometimes when I think of Eddie Vedder, I think of her. I also sometimes think of a wonderful poem she wrote with this last line: “Flora can become.”

Now and then, I pass that building on the bus and wonder if she could still live there. Since I was on foot on Saturday, I walked across the street to review the list of tenant names and there she was! I used the phone entry system to leave a message: “This is Zaminar from Outer Space. Hopefully you recognize my voice.”

I went into the Safeway at Church and Market and found that the glaring overhead lighting had been swapped out in favor of something affording more agreeable ambience, and I was astonished to see that a handsome fellow who I swear was working there as far back as 1985 was still there, and still looking great. But the feel of the place otherwise was dismal. A brand-new Whole Foods opened just across the street in the past couple of months, and I guess anyone who can afford to is going there instead. There were not many people in Safeway and those who were appeared to be those who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods plus a few who refuse to do so on principle or out of thriftiness.

I went to investigate the Whole Foods itself (the sixth in San Francisco?) and found it’s not a particularly nice one, with at least one area that seemed cramped, dim and cheerless, but of course it’s full of the same enticing products as any Whole Foods, had plenty of customers, and will only have more, as the condos directly above it and the condos across the street, both just constructed, fill with gazillionaires.

Then I went by The Little Chihuahua to get one of their chili verde tofu burritos and the verdict is: go to Papalote. The Little Chihuahua’s chili verde tofu is white and mushy and without flavor, and the amount of chips they provided with the takeout order was meager, perhaps to make up for their very generous in-house chip policy. At Papalote you will get a burrito with firm marinated tofu of superb flavor, in a tortilla that isn’t so much work to cut through, that is larger than TLC’s, with more chips, and with a container of salsa that you don’t have to pack yourself that is the best salsa in San Francisco, for a dollar less.

That evening I watched Fruitvale Station, the true story of East Bay resident Oscar Grant being killed by a BART police officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009. As the fateful moments approached, I stopped the DVD, as if that could somehow make it not happen: a young father, by no means perfect, but full of life and promise, lost forever to his girlfriend, daughter and friends because of (in my opinion) someone’s inability to see anything other than menace when confronting a black person. Unfortunately, this person had a gun.

That night, as I was falling asleep, I heard Jill on my answering machine, sounding exuberant: “Of course I remember your voice! I loved that you stopped by.” After a flurry of phone tag, we got all caught up.