Sunday, March 30, 2014

Intelligence Unguent

Over the decades, from time to time, I have woken up at night with a strong sense of having forgotten to do something. I may have forgotten to take my pills, for instance, and I might sit up and turn on the light to write myself a reminder. More than once I have sat there, Pentel P205 mechanical pencil in hand, wholeheartedly resolved to write this crucial note, but utterly unable to formulate the words, until it finally dawns on me that I don’t actually take any pills. Even once I’m quite awake, it’s hard to convince myself that no pills have gone untaken.

This happened recently and I did succeed in writing myself a note, which, in the morning, proved to say this: 

(Click photo to enlarge.)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Any Time

The day after it had been a year since Carlos died, I felt a noticeable relief, the sense of a weight lifting. This means either that it really does take a year for a major loss to become somewhat metabolized, or, more likely, that my therapist jinxed me by saying it was “just going to be an effing hard year.”

When I was at Rainbow last Sunday, as always, I looked at each cashier, hoping my favorite might be back. More than a year ago, she switched to a different area of the store, and then she fell ill and was not seen for months, until, all of a sudden, I saw her at the cash register one Sunday last November. But her return to work was premature and I looked for her in vain until last week. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw her beloved face. We had a joyful reunion, with hugs.

It had been all the worse not to see her again after that one time in November because I knew it meant she was suffering, and therefore it was all the more wonderful to see her, knowing she must feel better, and indeed she looked reassuringly well. She told me her news and I told mine, including my rather tongue-in-cheek hypothesis that my therapist had jinxed me by predicting a hard year, but my friend said perhaps it is just that such rituals (perhaps she meant the traditional year of mourning) are important, and I suppose she’s right.

A couple of days after the anniversary, Charlie accompanied me to the weekly poetry event at the Sacred Grounds café, for an evening of remembering Carlos. The last time I was there was right after he died, and it was packed, but on this evening, there were only about 12 people there. One of the regulars told me that after Carlos died, two other members of their group followed suit; she speculated that it just makes people too sad to attend. I brought along a lot of photos of Carlos for people to look at and take away, plus the framed photo of him to put on the wall.

When I spoke, I told the story of how we got together, and reflected on what a great last year he had: his book was published, he traveled to his homeland of El Salvador once again, he had a 25-years-younger new girlfriend and also reconnected with a longtime partner who was very important to him. Excellent final year! And I read a few selections from his journal, including a lyrical rumination about a sunny morning. The beautiful words he left behind are a treasured gift.

This was probably not done; he might have revisited and refined, but here is the piece. Also I will note that, despite the “God,” he was not a believer in the traditional sense.

A Meeting of Minds 

Morning Play

God, bird chirp
cool winds
born breeze
rising from the East
circle solar beast
soaring up and up
above a linear line
appears and disappears
a patch of yellow scene
it swoops about
there’s shades of pink
yellow countries in the sky
airplane noises roaring by
tweeter tickles for the ears
yellow splotches dance about
solar panel dance floor
solar signal rising high
airplane signal written out
celestial buzz comes in and out
take a breath
for the ride you’re on
man made earth made
phenomena song

—Carlos Ramirez, 4/7/12

One person I’d been looking forward to seeing at Sacred Grounds was Don Brennan, Carlos’s closest male friend, but Clara told me that he’d had pneumonia and, after leaving the hospital, had been ordered by his doctor to rest at home for two months.

So I was quite shocked this past Tuesday when someone at Howie’s told me that Don had died the day before, a year and a week after Carlos. I thought Don, who was near 80, was going to rest up and be better! But, no, he relapsed and went back to the hospital and passed away.

Anything can happen at any time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Tidying up in the kitchen yesterday, I tilted the plastic mat under the dish drainer to empty the accumulated water into the sink and, too late, remembered that I had seen the beetle standing on the edge of the dish drainer earlier. I have just one beetle—small, round, handsome black markings—and I never see him in motion, yet he is everywhere. I’m doing my physical therapy exercises on the living room floor, and there he is, six inches from my head. It’s bedtime and there’s a speck clinging to the side of the bed: the beetle. I looked in the sink and spied a forlorn creature in the sink, but when I scooped it out with a piece of paper, it turned out to be a waterlogged tiny spider, no doubt dead. Alas. I located the beetle as well and used a second piece of paper to set him next to the spider.

As the minutes passed, the spider began to look a bit more distinct in form, and just as I returned from fetching my camera to take a picture of the two patients near a charming display of freesias—I was going to call it “Bugs in Sick Bay near Freesias”—the spider raced to the far end of the piece of paper and hid underneath it. You could say the beetle saved the spider’s life, because I only noticed the spider in looking for the beetle. When I went out for a walk, the beetle was still sitting near the flowers, but when I came back, he was gone. When next seen, he was definitely dead, floating in the container of dish soap. However, due to the properties of this particular beetle, I expect to see him again soon.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

House of Jerks

A couple of weekends ago, I went to Maria’s place for an afternoon of singing folk songs and Beatles tunes, with Noel accompanying on guitar. The company is congenial and it’s a satisfying way to spend an afternoon. Maria and I had a cup of tea after the others were gone and chatted about Carlos. She knew him for decades, as so many people did.

The following Saturday, I took BART to Walnut Creek to have lunch with C., a former co-worker. She was my team lead, a role in which two or three of her outstanding qualities made a big difference, one being that she is a natural-born peacemaker. When I would call her grumbling that someone had done such-and-such—and we did have an out-and-out bully in that group who made life miserable for years—C. would propose other ways of looking at the matter, until I could feel the upset ebbing away and had to say, “Well, maybe you’re right.”

And she has a very strong practice of gratitude, thanking everyone for their slightest contribution. Sometimes she would email the group asking for a minor piece of assistance, and one of my co-workers would make fun of her, telling the rest of us, “I sent the answer, and now she’s going to say, ‘Thank you, Bill!’” And indeed she always did, and if she hadn’t, I think he would have been slightly crushed. Trying to follow her excellent example, I make it a point to thank everyone for everything, particularly at work, and to applaud any success I observe.

This was the first time we’ve ever gotten together outside of work, and we had a great time. We had tons to talk about. We had lunch at Lark Creek downtown—I had a superb veggie burger and fries—and then we had additional refreshments at the Peet’s across the street, and later C. drove me back to BART.

I’ve finished watching the second and final season of House of Cards. It was hard to get into, seemingly about nothing but people manipulating and mistreating each other, and it was also hard to keep track of the many subplots and characters who came and went with lightning speed. At times it was enjoyable, even dazzling, but—spoiler alert—in the end, it was about nothing but people behaving very poorly, and the ending was profoundly unsatisfying—I’d hoped to see the two main characters marched off to prison. Now that it’s done, I’m kind of sorry I spent time watching it.

A meditation friend asked if I could fill in for her ushering at The Marsh, which is three blocks from where I live. I think of it as being a theater, but they don’t put on plays there. They stage one-person shows and offer classes in developing solo performance. Once or twice, someone has suggested I should go take such a class, and for some number of years, I’ve been meaning to. I was going to say no to the ushering request, per my automatic reaction to most new ideas, but remembered my intention to get more involved at The Marsh, so I said yes, and went over there Thursday evening of last week to usher for Marga Gomez’s show Lovebirds. The work itself was very easy—I took tickets at the front door and got to say hello to everyone who attended, as I do on Tuesday nights at Howie’s—and Marga Gomez’s various characters really made me laugh. Before I left that evening, I told them I’d be happy to usher in the future. In fact, I’d like to see this very show one more time.

Last Sunday, Ann and Tom and I saw Oakland native Marcus Gardley’s play The House that Will Not Stand, at the Berkeley Rep, about four free women of color in New Orleans in 1836. The poetic language and the very strong performances were marvelous.

Howie, my meditation teacher, didn’t react a few weeks ago when I was carrying on about Google’s misuse of mindfulness—he’s low drama, as he recently mentioned, which does seem to be true—so I was gratified when he said a week or two ago that mindfulness is everywhere these days, which is great, but it misses the point if we’re not aware of the effects of our actions on others.

And if you don’t believe Howie, the Dalai Lama, speaking recently at Santa Clara University, said, as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle,  “If you forget about others’ happiness, you will suffer more.” And, “Compassion brings mental peace, mental comfort.” While business may bring “physical comfort ... we need both.”

Tuesday evening this week was our monthly Happyness Hour, formerly known as Bring Your Own Burrito, when people are invited to come early and have dinner together. This week we had ten or 12 newcomers. There is a fancy new housing development just around the corner, and I’m guessing many of the new people were from there, which is good, because once “new rich neighbors” become “my fellow practitioners of mindfulness,” it will be hard not to feel friendly toward them.

Truly, every single soul I ever see has a sincere wish to be happy and is trying his or her best to achieve that, often by means that can bring only the reverse (including myself, when I entertain judgmental, unkind thoughts). When I remember that, it’s easy to feel openhearted, but, unfortunately, it’s a very easy thing to forget.

Monday, March 10, 2014

One Year Ago Today

Carlos died, at about ten minutes after midnight.

Late in February, I received an email saying, “I’ve been thinking of you a lot, knowing you must be revisiting the many anniversaries associated with Carlos’s passing.” The writer, a meditation friend of Carlos’s, was exactly correct. It’s surprising how acute the feelings were as these anniversaries rolled around, in some ways worse than when the events actually occurred, when I didn’t know what was going to happen and was just plodding through it moment by moment.

One evening, I thought: at this exact moment last year, Carlos was sitting right where I’m sitting now, and it was the last time he was ever at my house. The next day he ended up in the hospital and never went home. That was the day he held my hand and pleaded, “Ayudame.” Help me. (He wasn’t in pain. He was just grumpy and hungry and ready to go home. I think it was dawning on him that someone else was in charge.)

The evening after that was when I sat in a restaurant near the hospital in tears, thinking of all the meals in the future I would eat alone, knowing I should go home but unable to bear thinking of Carlos just across the street, lying in his hospital room. Charlie saved the evening by agreeing to give me a ride home at the end of visiting hours, so I was able to go back and spend a bit more time with Carlos, knowing someone would be there to fetch me, that I wouldn’t just be walking out into the dark to stand alone at the bus stop. Charlie was tremendously helpful throughout this whole time.

Another afternoon I recalled that one year to the minute earlier, I had been with Carlos at the hospital, and after I left him that evening, we never again spoke in person, because the next day, after we talked on the phone but before I arrived to visit, he had the seizures that put him in the ICU in a medically induced coma. Then he was taken off life support, then he was in palliative care, and then he was gone.

A friend of his was lately lamenting that the biopsy that caused the seizures had occurred at all, and I think there’s something to that. If he hadn’t had the biopsy, he might have gone on for months. During this hypothetical time, he’d have had many visitors and would have been enveloped in love. But he’d either have been in a care facility, which he would have hated, or I’d have had to quit my job to care for him full-time, so the way it happened was probably best. He never knew he was ill. He wasn’t in pain. He was only in the hospital and conscious for ten days. (He was in the hospital for three weeks total, but not conscious all of that time.) Everyone he knew came to see him.

For nearly a year, it had been just us two, seeing each other seven days a week at first, and then at least several days a week, and all of a sudden, moments where we were alone were in short supply, which was difficult for me, but it was only ten days. Even if it had been just us two, it would have been only a week and a half before he was, for most intents and purposes, gone.

Around the time I had that memory of speaking with Carlos in person for the last time, I’d been consulting my Carlos-related calendar for a couple of weeks, conscientiously recalling what had happened precisely one year prior and being miserable over it. But shortly after that, on a particularly gloomy day, rainy and dark, the desolation became overwhelming and I tore up the calendar, which was a good thing to do. Sorrow over his loss will probably arise from time to time in the normal course of things forever. I don’t need to drum it up.

For decades, Carlos often attended a poetry event on Wednesday evenings at the Sacred Grounds café on Hayes St. I’m going to go this week so that his friends and I can remember him together.

A year ago there was talk of having a portrait of him painted to hang on the café wall. More recently, that morphed into the idea of putting up a framed photo. Pursuant to that, a friend of his and I chose a photo of him in Golden Gate Park. I ordered a print of it, and bought a frame in a glowing reddish wood. I was going to print out his name, birth and death dates, and a few words about him to put in the frame with the photo, and even found a font that was rather like his handwriting, but it looked sterile and I knew he wouldn’t have liked it at all. He wouldn’t have liked the bland white paper, nor the repressed perfection of it, so I cut a circle out of a purple Post-It note and wrote on that instead. The finished product I think he would have liked—the red frame, the purple handwritten note, the bright blue sky, the green grass behind him. It’s cheerful and colorful.

His absence seems worst of all on lovely sunny afternoons. How can he not be here, holding my hand, moving in his always leisurely way, pointing out the beautiful shadows on the ground, stopping to admire the subtle colors of bark on a tree, smiling so sweetly?

(Click photo to enlarge.)

Monday, March 03, 2014

Olive Oil Testing Protocol

I did end up talking to the refinisher several days after the furniture was delivered, first digging up the email I sent about the color of the chair to see if there could have been any ambiguity whatsoever, and there couldn’t have been. I started by assuring him that I wasn’t upset but just wanted to understand, and we had an entirely cordial conversation. He said that the chair looks lighter because, besides being newly finished, it had been dirty and now it’s clean. He said that over time, it will become darker as it oxidizes. That wasn’t one hundred percent satisfying, as it seems to me that if you say you want a thing to be a certain color, it should be more or less that color, clean or not, but I’m at peace, and also glad that friendly feelings were maintained throughout.

I’m back in physical therapy for a different symptom and this time am seeing a Rolfer as well. She was recommended by my physical therapist and is right in my own neighborhood, a striking-looking young woman with a beautiful working space in grey, silver and white. I’ve had acupuncture and cranial-sacral work and osteopathic manual bodywork and many kinds of massage, but this was my first experience with Rolfing, which I first heard about more than 30 years ago. Rolfing seeks to free up frozen fascia between muscles.

Before I went for my first session, my physical therapist and S. the Rolfer exchanged emails so the latter would know exactly what needed working on. The symptoms are likely being caused by a pinched nerve, which my physical therapist said is something they see all the time, so I’m hopeful that between the exercises my PT teaches me and the work S. does, all will be well. I think things are better already. S. watched me walk back and forth and told me to imagine a hook pulling up the back of my skull while everything else dangles in a relaxed manner; not to jut my chin forward, shortening the back of the neck and tensing that whole area up. I asked if Alexander Technique would be helpful, and she said yes, indeed, that Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais would be excellent. I’d slacked off on my ten minutes of daily Alexander Technique reinforcement, but now I’ve gone back to it.

On a walk last week, I got to wondering why there’s not a lot of fuming about well-to-do neighbors during formal periods of meditation practice. For one thing, there’s much less sensory input, with my living room completely devoid of carelessly parked luxury automobiles. Even if there was one there, my eyes are closed. And there is a very strong intention to return to the designated objects of attention. Theoretically I could do the exact same practice anywhere, and of course I have the intention to be mindful all the time, but when seeing and hearing so many things, it’s hard not to drift into stories and judgments, generally accompanied by ill will, and then I beat myself for having ill will, which is just more ill will and solidifies the mistaken idea that there is a self, and not only a self, but one that is bad because it’s so full of aversive opinions.

The day that occurred to me, I experimented with trying to do what I do in formal practice, adapted a bit for walking. I put my attention on the sensations in the bottoms of my feet, a nice object for walking practice, and when I saw something I didn’t approve of, which is pretty much all the time (in part because that habit has been practiced over and over—how I envy those who have practiced feeling friendly toward what they see), I noted the thought, naming its content, and returned my attention to the chosen object. It was a much more peaceful walk and I came home in a neutral mood. Sometimes I practice metta while I’m walking and come home in a mood of radiant love for all beings, which is wonderful, but I’d be more than content with a peaceful, neutral mood.

For the first time, it occurred to me that I might do better not to walk on Mission St. It may be, as a teacher once said, a “hindrance factory,” with constant, potentially disagreeable sense impressions. I’d assumed it was cheating to avoid things that trigger ill will or greed, but this teacher made it clear that it could be a wise choice, also known as “guarding the sense doors.”

That evening, Tom, Chris, Kristin, Bino and I had dinner at Café Ethiopia, for Chris’s birthday. It was nice to see everyone and the food was yummy. Kristin and I shared two vegetarian dishes.

A week ago at Rainbow I came upon a table set up with olive oil for tasting and little chunks of bread for dipping. I stuck a toothpick into a chunk of bread just as another woman walked up and said, “You can’t really taste olive oil properly using bread.” I assumed she was just making a general observation, so I didn’t respond. I tasted the olive oil and walked off and she walked off at the same time, repeating her opinion. I’d heard it the first time and this seemed to be more of a monologue than a dialogue, so I continued on. I suppose I should have said politely, “You may be right,” because she actually followed me and said, as if I’d argued with her, something like, “Seriously, that’s really not a good way to taste olive oil!” I wasn’t annoyed, just looking forward to life without her, and fortunately that was the last I saw or heard of her.

That evening I went back to Café Ethiopia by myself for more mushrooms and eggplant. I spied what seemed to be a hair poking out from under the edge of the injera, and when extracted it did prove to be a long, dark hair. But whatever. Some people have nothing to eat at all, and presumably it was a reasonably clean hair. If it had been a fingernail clipping, that would have been a different matter, or an entire human digit, but it was just a hair and I’ve been going there for years and this was a first. When my very nice server came back, I mentioned the hair, adding that it wasn’t the end of the world. She apologized profusely, and came back to apologize a second time, and when I got my bill, they had taken half off. I thanked her for the perfect response and left a 66% percent tip.