Saturday, June 28, 2014


Recently I finally did something I hadn’t done since Carlos died 15 months ago: attend a grief and loss support group, one with an explicit focus on mindfulness. I hadn’t gone to any group and also hadn’t gone to therapy. After Deborah told me it was “just going to be an effing hard year,” which it was, I thought, among other things, that I might as well save my money, and it turned out that bodywork was a better allocation of funds. From time to time, I would think I should go to a group, but before I could locate one, the particularly sad period would pass and it wouldn’t seem necessary.

I know some people start going immediately after a loss, and some never go, and that either is fine, so I didn’t feel obligated, but I got an email about this group, and just decided to go. I don’t think about Carlos all day every day (though I do think of him every day), but it is dawning on me that, sometimes when I miss him, it is with the same intensity as ever, and I’m starting to think that is never going to abate. In fact, in a way, now that some time has passed, it seems even more shocking when I have a specific memory of him: that happened? That is gone?

(Seems a little unfair that I should be with him for less than a year and then potentially have to mourn his loss maybe for decades.)

I was the first person to arrive at the group and felt quite hostile. I decided that I would share my name and nothing more, and when one of the co-facilitators approached me, I felt grumpy and very nearly left. However, I’d been thinking that maybe another group member would give me a ride home later, so a vague desire to avoid the 30-minute walk home and a degree of inertia kept me sitting there.

There ended up being six attendees, some whose losses were as long as three or four years ago and some whose losses were exceedingly fresh, plus two leaders. There was no one there I knew. I would have left if there had been, probably. What was said was of course confidential, but I think it’s OK to share the format.

We went around and said our names and who we lost and when and shared a memory of that person. I did that, except I shared someone else’s memory of a thing Carlos once did, and I said it wasn’t my memory.

Then we did a written exercise, reflecting on a past loss, not the one that had brought us to the group. We answered three questions: Did that experience change my life? Did I gain understanding or wisdom? What strengths do I have now that I didn’t have then? We got into dyads (pairs) and shared our answers, taking turns talking and listening.

Then we did another written exercise, reflecting on our current loss, again with three questions: Are there others affected by this loss? How are they dealing with it? Do I know others going through a loss similar to mine? We again shared our findings in the same dyad and then we shared on a group level a bit about what our experience had been. In responding to what we said, one of the leaders put a big emphasis on mindfulness of the body, asking us to notice what we were experiencing and reminding us that that is where our wisdom resides, not in our stories about things. That is, he was speaking my language exactly.

I thought the exercises were brilliant. My previous loss was that of Chet, who was 26 years older than I was, and an excellent friend and mentor to me starting when I was 17. He died of a heart attack when I was 25, he 51. I had been living in San Francisco for five years by then, and didn’t talk to him often, but as it happened, we had spoken on the phone maybe a month before, and after we hung up, I called back specifically to tell him that I loved him.

The experience of his death did not change my life and I did not gain in understanding or wisdom. I remember crying perhaps once, but not mourning beyond that, because it was unbearable. There was no way Chet could be gone, and that was that. Even years later, I couldn’t think about it for more than a few seconds. But thanks to our discussion, I see now that, even though I thought I was all grown up, at 25 I wasn’t able to remain awake to that loss and feel it fully, which is fine. That’s how it was, but one of the leaders pointed out that such un-mourned losses can affect our ability to deal with our current loss; hence the question about strengths we have now that we didn’t have then.

However, I don’t think not mourning for Chet has impeded my mourning for Carlos, which has been full and unstinting. Nonetheless, I plan to spend some time reflecting on Chet to see if there is anything that wants to be felt or seen.

As for my current loss, are there others affected? Certainly; many. How are they dealing with it? As it happens, I’m not in touch with the three other people who were closest to Carlos—his ex-girlfriend, his brother, a dear friend—so I have no idea! But I often run into other friends and acquaintances of his who might say, “Oh, I miss him—I was just thinking about him today.” He was very loved.

Do I know others going through a loss similar to mine? At first, I thought not. I could only think of the other five people in the room. But then I remembered about the administrative assistant at work. And another co-worker. And a person I was in a class with long ago whom I ran into at a party in the past year and have kept in touch with a bit. And a woman in my meditation group. And—duh—another friend I see regularly; how could I have not thought of him? Plus I have two close friends whose mothers are terminally ill right now.

These questions were also excellent, reminding me that I’m not the only one to suffer a loss; I’m not even the only one to suffer this loss. The group meets monthly on a drop-in, donation basis. I plan to return. We talked a bit about things we like to hear on the subject of the person we lost, and things we hate. You can’t go wrong with, “I’m so sorry,” but as far as I’m concerned, you can go very wrong with, “He’s still here in spirit.” That actually makes me angry.

One of the leaders mentioned another potentially angering response: any reference to the loss being a growth experience or how we might receive a gift from it. However, it dawned on me that I have received at least one major gift from this loss: the gift of a broken heart itself. I cry frequently now, about my own sorrows, and, sometimes just as freely, about other people’s. I cried when I heard on the radio about the woman in Washington, DC, who lost her housing and found all her stuff outside on the lawn, that which hadn’t been stolen. I cried when I read about the little girl who was asked to leave a KFC because her facial scars from having been attacked by a dog were bothering other patrons. Until then, she hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with her face. Now she doesn’t want to look in a mirror or have others see her. I’m crying now. I can feel that. It hurts. I can feel it because I was able to feel my own loss.

It is also thanks to Carlos that I’ve ended up at the soup kitchen, which every week softens my heart further. The more open my heart is, the more satisfying and meaningful life is, and if that’s not a gift, I don’t know what is. And, yes, I did get a ride home, from a very nice person.

Since I wrote the above, it came out that the family of the little girl at KFC may have made their story up.

Also, in the days since I wrote the above, the mother of one of my close friends died, after being ill for about a year. I have vivid memories of her starting from when I was seven years old, when her daughter and I would go to their house after school to eat ice cream and sit on giant bean bag chairs, watching TV. I haven’t heard her actual voice for decades, but can hear it in my head as if it was just yesterday. My friend had been planning to marry her gentleman companion in due time, but once her mother became ill, they went ahead immediately, so that her mother could help choose her dress and be at the ceremony.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Mostly Satisfying Expansion

My own parents, in a daring move, tried to kill me by making me watch a video called Fathead on my last visit. Fathead is an answer to Super Size Me, and is more poorly produced, by a fellow much less likeable than Morgan Spurlock, but it makes a convincing case that it’s perfectly fine to eat fat—that eating fat is not what makes us fat. It even avers that a total cholesterol reading of less than 160 is associated with depression. Once upon a time, my total cholesterol was 103, and I did struggle a lot with depression in those days. These days, I can’t think of the last time I would have said I was depressed, which might be because I’m older, or because of 24 years of meditating, or maybe it is because my cholesterol is no longer 103.

The film makes a pretty compelling argument—think cancer—against eating high-carb vegetables fried in vegetable oil. After seeing it, it was out with potato chips and in with jars of coconut oil and peanut butter. I figured any amount was basically fine, based on Fathead’s favorite snack, which is cheese fried in coconut oil. The very fact of frying one substance full of saturated fat in another would suggest that anything goes.

I discovered that extra-virgin coconut oil, if spoonable but still a bit firm, in conjunction with peanut butter is remarkably like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in texture and flavor, but without a single speck of sugar. Yum. Later on, I discovered that eating the better part of a jar of soft, almost runny coconut oil with a spoon is remarkably like something very disgusting. And it is extremely high in saturated fat, so just in case Fathead isn’t completely correct, it was on to nuts and more nuts, though I hadn’t forgotten that peanuts have a poor omega 3:6 ratio, which also is associated with depression. When it comes to the omega 3:6 ratio, the very best kind of nut to eat, alas also one of the yuckiest, is the raw walnut.

Anyway, nuts and more nuts, and then I noticed something curious, in a photo taken of me in Tilden Park by Lisa M. I walk with her there every month or so lately, and we always take a few snapshots in the very flattering natural light. In this photo, it almost appeared as if my stomach were sticking out, and in the photos taken on the subsequent walk, there was no mistaking it: I was gaining weight. Once upon a time, this would have been terrible and I would have felt ugly and awful, but for whatever reason, weight gain seems almost entirely excellent to me now.

After I had DCIS, I stopped eating sugar and dairy and I lost a whole lot of weight, and I could barely recognize myself in the mirror—I felt like crying when I saw myself—and people were basically telling me how lousy I looked, all but wondering aloud if I was dying. I don’t have a scale, so I don’t know how much weight I’ve gained back, but, according to myself, I look superb. I feel splendid, and, as for my work pants no longer fitting—duh—I bought the same pants in a larger size. I even am noticing other people around me looking better as they happen to gain weight. All that scrumptious flesh!

There’s only one consideration on the other side, but it’s a major one, which is that my DCIS was estrogen positive—it was fed by my body’s own estrogen. Because fat cells produce estrogen, being larger raises the risk of breast cancer, so if you want to keep breast cancer risk to a minimum, being as skinny as possible is probably good. I certainly do not wish to have breast cancer again, so I totted up just how many grams of fat and ergo calories I was taking in—yikes—and decided that barrels of roasted cashews are probably to be avoided.

To be fair, my father basically said the same thing. He said that he no longer worries about what percentage of his daily intake consists of fat, but he also doesn’t drink olive oil by the cup in an effort to get up to 5000 or 6000 calories daily. His overall intake is normally quite moderate, and so is my mother’s. So it’s possible that they weren’t actually trying to kill me.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


I have to say, I’m having some misgivings about the whole blogging enterprise lately—are my efforts in the blaboratory really worthwhile? I think this is yet another result of the Tejaniya-style retreat at Spirit Rock in April: What are my motivations for doing this? To what end? I enjoy doing it, which maybe is reason enough, and since I like reading about other people’s lives, perhaps there are those four or nine or as many as 12 people who like reading about mine, but if not, I relish my minutes of writing every day, anyway. Knowing that my father faithfully reads every single post is a motivator. (Thanks, Dad!) But lately I find myself, on the one hand, deleting many paragraphs of draft material after I ask myself, “Does this actually seem interesting?” and many other paragraphs after the question, “Do I actually want to share this about myself on the Internet?”


A couple of weeks ago, instead of taking my customary walk, I took a bike ride around the city, and found myself cycling along the Embarcadero, where I heard what sounded like one of those super-loud motorcycles, but it turned out it was a low-slung Mercedes convertible covered entirely in a gold-colored metal. Very striking, and it made an absolutely earsplitting noise when moving. Then I realized that wasn’t the car making the noise—it was a similar Mercedes, right next to the gold-colored one, this one covered entirely in shining silver. Even more fabulous looking, but obnoxious beyond belief. I’m sort of sick of living near rich people (which I guess is not news, in this blog).


To celebrate my birthday earlier this month I had a massage including TMJ work—I felt great afterward—and then Tom and L. from meditation group took me out to dinner at Radish. I had the veggie burger again. Tom had their hickory burger, overflowing with cheese and sauce, and L. had one of the specials, a fried chicken dinner.

The next day I treated Tom to brunch at Radish. Yelp advises that there can be a two-hour wait if you get there at 11 or noon, but we went minutes after they opened at 9 a.m.—there were other people there already—and had no wait, but the service tends to be slow and somewhat haphazard, though the people who run it are darling. When we were there the night before, the adorable woman (maybe the owner) who took our plates away dropped one item and then another. As the silverware crashed to the floor, she called, “I got it!”, making everyone smile.

Brunch Saturday was tasty scrambled eggs—there didn’t seem to be any way of adding items to the eggs themselves—and crispy home fries and a biscuit. I ordered a side of avocado, which turned out to be about one quarter of an avocado rather past its prime and cost $2.50. In sum, I would say go to Boogaloo’s, where the potatoes are tastier, the biscuits are larger and softer, and you get a good amount of soft butter in a cup instead of a single pat of cold butter. The prices are better, too. But Radish seems like a fine place for an afternoon veggie burger and giant pile of fries, and it’s a pleasant place to be, open and light.

In the afternoon I went to Berkeley for a stroll in Tilden Park with Lisa M. That was fun, as always, and in the evening, I watched The Ledge, with Charlie Hunnam (wow, he’s cute!) and Terrence Howard. It also featured Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson. The latter two seemed kind of strange and wooden, even beyond what might have been appropriate for their characters. The only character who seemed entirely real was the one played by Terrence Howard, though Charlie Hunnam also did a good job and is highly watchable. The movie starts with Charlie Hunnam ascending to a ledge he means to jump to his death from. Howard is the police detective trying to convince him not to, and the story mainly unfolds in flashbacks. I watched the whole thing and found it absorbing and affecting, though it seemed in a way more like a theater piece than a movie, slightly stylized.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dharma Teachers Scientifically Proven to Be Correct

All right! All right! Those dharma teachers were speaking the truth: it is fascinating to watch the mind, or at least pretty interesting, just as Carol Wilson claimed at Spirit Rock in April.

After the retreat, I requested and received copies of Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s three free books and have just finished re-reading the one we were lent on retreat (Don’t Look Down on the Defilements—They Will Laugh at You) a few pages at a time. It’s a small book with cartoon illustrations, not a typical format for a dharma book. It’s chatty and encouraging. Here’s one of my favorite lines: “The more continuous your mindfulness is, the sharper and more receptive the mind becomes.”

It is compelling to see more and more clearly the interplay of the mind, body and emotions, how they affect each other: One has a thought and it may produce an emotion and/or a physical experience. The latter two make it seem that the thought must have been the simple truth, so then the thought gets elaborated on, and the emotion gets stronger, and maybe ditto the physical aspect, and then there is even more thinking, and the whole thing seems increasingly real.

It’s the thinking that feeds the whole thing. Said the Buddha: “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” Once we stop feeding the thought, by whatever means—putting our attention on the visceral sensations, seeing the thought as a thought, attending to our breath—the whole thing can vanish like magic. Due to the attempt to practice continuous relaxed mindfulness, storylines are pretty short lately, and the cessation aspect has become quite noticeable: What happened to that whole thing I was fretting about two minutes ago, which seemed so real? Once it was no longer supported by thinking, it was unable to persist. There are whole worlds arising and disappearing in a matter of seconds, rather than minutes, hours or weeks. Howie mentions now and then that we can go our entire lives—decades!—without noticing that we have obscured the real with the imaginary.

Aspiring to practice continuously also ensures there is never a moment without something interesting to do, because there is always something going on in the mind. At the same time, with fewer extended storylines, life seems increasingly simple, and very satisfying just as it is. The soup kitchen has helped with that, as well. It’s long been my practice to appreciate that I get to sleep inside and not on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, and that I have a refrigerator full of food, and so forth, and being at the soup kitchen weekly has heightened that appreciation, along with the wish that no person ever had to sleep outside who didn’t wish to and that no one ever had to go hungry.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Prince

Earlier this month, a plumber came to see about the toilet that, since being installed a year ago, has required two, and often three or four, flushes to get the, uh, stuff down. The flushes vary noticeably in behavior, as well. The first might just kind of swirl around on the surface, while often the third shoots right down the pipe. As we stood in my tiny bathroom discussing flush quality, I noticed that the plumber had startlingly beautiful eyes, mostly green with flecks of brown. He convinced me that it’s a matter of having an industrial—no tank—toilet installed in a 100-year-old residential setting and that there was nothing he could do other than fix a small leak that had sprung up more recently.

When he came back with his tools, we got to chatting and he told me he has a 90-minute commute each way, five days a week. I asked what he does while he’s driving and he said he listens to KQED and learns a lot from it. I had pegged him for someone who maybe listened to talk radio or sports, so it was nice to learn we had NPR in common.

He told me all about his son, who is five—his “prince.” He said his wife has done a wonderful job of encouraging their son’s imagination. She goes on a walk with him every day, and leaves her cell phone at home, so that she is fully engaged with their child. Very nice to hear. (If going out without a cell phone sounds frightening, remember that every single mother in history did the same until 15 years ago.) Every day I see parents walking along pushing a stroller with one hand and using the other to hold the smart phone they’re gazing dully into, while the child stares into space. I really wonder what that whole generation is going to be like. Like, I wonder if 12-year-old girls are going to try to stab their best friend to death because of something they saw online.

The plumber spoke glowingly about his wife—what a fantastic mother she is, and what a fine artist. At some point, he said, “We’ve been talking all about me! What do you do?” What a lovely fellow he was.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Jupiter Morgan

I’m now reading Ron Chernow’s 800-page The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance. I so enjoyed his biography of John D. Rockefeller, recommended by my father, that I plan to read all or most of Chernow’s other books. The House of Morgan covers four generations of Morgans. It was John Pierpont Morgan, known as Pierpont, who was sometimes called “Jupiter” for his massive influence in the financial sphere.

I once read a biography of Henry Ford that I really liked while I was reading it—my mother was regaled with many an anecdote about Henry Ford in that era—but now I couldn’t tell you much about him other than that he made cars, and about the factories with vertical integration (everything needed is made right there, such as glass), and I may have learned the latter from touring the River Rouge factory with my father and not from reading the book, whereas I remember a lot of stuff about John D. Rockefeller. Chernow is an excellent writer and has a gift for details that stick in the mind. Actually, I also remember that Ford gave his workers good salaries so they could buy his cars, including on credit, so I blame him for giving consumer culture and consumer debt a big boost. Also, I think there was a period when his company nosed into the private lives of its employees, checking for moral fitness.

I also lately read David Barsamian’s eye-opening interview with Noam Chomsky in the June 2014 issue of The Sun. Chomsky says, “If you are deeply totalitarian, you identify the society with its rulers. … The U.S. is about the only nondictatorship where this is common. You’re anti-American if you criticize U.S. rulers. In Italy you aren’t called anti-Italian if you criticize the Italian president.” Highly recommended. It might be on their website.

I also skimmed and then went back and read every word of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ superb “The Case for Reparations” for African-Americans, in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. When the Federal Housing Administration was created, it put home ownership within reach of many citizens, because banks could make loans that required no more than 10 percent down—as long as you were white: “[T]he Federal Housing Administration initially insisted on restrictive covenants, which helped bar blacks and other ethnic undesirables from receiving federally backed home loans.”

In more modern times—the past several years—Wells Fargo was sued by the Justice Department for “[shunting] blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. … [A]ffidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as ‘mud people.’”

Particularly well put: “One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors. … The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte.”

Coates makes it clear that white American wealth from the beginning depended on the oppression and mistreatment of blacks, and aspects of this continue to this minute.

I needed a small book for a BART trip, so I plucked What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, off my own shelf and ended up reading the whole thing over the next few days. He explains four basic truths of Buddhism and is very convincing that it’s futile to try to get things arranged so as to guarantee permanent comfort.

He is also a filmmaker and has a gift for the startling turn of phrase: In some people’s conception of heaven, “Small babies without sex organs fly around doing our ironing.”

On perceptions of time: “Imagine a week’s holiday with your best beloved—it goes like a snap of the fingers. On the other hand, one night in prison with a rowdy rapist seems to last forever.” I imagine so.

“This is true Buddhist meditation and practice, not just sitting still as if you were a paperweight.”

Friday, June 13, 2014

Twinkling Lights

I am in love with the soup kitchen. It’s like this magical garden that, out of nothing, suddenly blooms with remarkable and unique people and objects, or like a hallucination that comes shimmering to life and then is gone as if it was never there, but later that day or early the next, the whole thing happens again, just as mysteriously and beautifully.

One week there was a long-haired guy behind some shrubbery listening to a heavy metal CD at a healthy volume as he held a triangular wooden guitar and pretended to play along. I heard Metallica, among others. He perfectly looked the part, but more than that, I eventually figured out it was actually him playing every tune. I thanked him later for the excellent music and he smiled shyly.

Yesterday a fellow I talk to every week told me he loves the feeling of refuge and safety there, just knowing, once he passes through the gate, that he’s out of public view. I never had thought about that, what it would be like to be seen or potentially seen at every moment.

There was a thing in the paper about a priest, I think, who was attacked by a homeless person who was trying to pee on one of the church’s trees. I’m sorry the priest got pushed down, which resulted in a broken wrist, but I also can’t help thinking that Jesus would have said, “Of course you can pee on the church’s tree! After that, I’ll make you some lunch.” I suspect that priest doesn’t know what it’s like not to be able to perform a basic bodily function without a lot of hassle. Maybe that homeless person had been needing to pee for hours and, after refraining from peeing on a store window on a busy sidewalk, finally spotted a tree out of sight of the public.

As I left the soup kitchen, I ran into Carlos’s friend Rodney. We chatted and then he said, “I’m going to give you a hug,” and he smilingly extended his arms as if offering a hug, but he wasn’t that close to me, so it was an energetic hug. He added, “Like the best hug Carlos ever gave you.” I think I can remember which hug that was, and I walked off in tears, over Rodney
’s sweetness, and thinking of the man just relieved to sit in the garden, and of the smile on the face of another volunteer as he spoke with the guests. I know that volunteer suffered a shocking and major loss of his own, and it was moving to see him completely absorbed and joyful, for that moment free of memories of his loss, and also passing on the love that came from that person who is now gone.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Dream Come True

It’s dawned on me lately that there’s nothing stopping me from listening to NPR stations besides KQED, such as the one of my youth, now known as Michigan Radio, or WNYC, which is zippier than KQED and seems to be about New York more than KQED is about San Francisco. The best discovery has been the NPR radio program Snap Judgment, which is produced in Oakland and is like a looser, hipper This American Life. I was particularly moved by a story in the show called “The Guide – Snap #512” about a fellow with a Japanese professor given to remarkable and mysterious utterances and riveted by another, about a guy who lost his memory in an accident and never regained it.


I took a walk down to the bay with two co-workers at lunchtime and, on the way back, we passed 101 California. I pointed it out as the site of the first famous workplace shooting. I don’t think I’d ever heard of a thing like that before that incident, and now of course it happens practically every day, at an office or a school. One of my co-workers said that a couple of years ago, every single one of her aunt’s co-workers was shot and killed at work—I think she said 14 or 15 people—and the only reason her aunt wasn’t among them was that she had arrived at work about 30 minutes late that day. Furthermore, there was no one standing guard at the door—it had just happened—and her aunt walked right in and saw bodies lying on the floor, people she’d worked and had lunch with for years and knew very well.


Walking home from Howie’s, I encountered a fellow standing outside the corner store at 20th and Valencia St., indicating a desire for money. He was older and had a suitcase with him. I asked, “What do you need it for?”, with what I hoped was a merry smile, and he gestured that he was deaf. I asked, “Do you need it for [here I mimed eating, with a smile]? Or do you need it for [here I mimed tipping a bottle to my lips, with a frown]?”

He enthusiastically copied the latter gesture and tipped an imaginary bottle to his lips, which was funny, and by then I couldn’t exactly not give him any money—we’d established a relationship—so I gave him a dollar, to be used for booze.


Another funny thing was my father on the subject of the new neighbor who came onto their property and completely dug out and removed two lilac bushes. When my parents inquired into the matter, the neighbor said, “I didn’t think anyone lived there.” My father said to me, incredulous, “This is right in the city—what did he think was on the other side of the fence that marks his property? Yosemite National Park?”


A recent afternoon walk consisted of a trek over to Ross at 16th St. and Bryant with Tom, who is traveling a lot for his union work and needed a new overnight bag. At Ross, a confounding thing happened: Tom walked past the various luggage offerings, lifted a bag off the shelf, and headed for the checkout stand. Merchandise evaluation and selection took less than 60 seconds. “Just like that?” I asked.


Sunday morning was a dream come true, in that I had dreamed a cat was brutally shredding my upholstery.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Broodings Regarding Bestowments

Someone at Howie’s told me several months ago that she had taken up my practice of never saying no to anyone on the street who asks for money, but then, more recently, she said that a friend of hers who works at San Francisco General Hospital realized what she was doing and sternly instructed her to stop—the money often goes to substances that cause problems the friend ends up dealing with in her professional capacity.

When I walk over to the soup kitchen, I pass by 16th and Mission and have decided not to give money to anyone there, because the numbers are so large: If I gave one person a dollar, I’d rightly have to give 25 or 30 people dollars, and it just doesn’t seem like a good idea to initiate what could be a sort of feeding frenzy or become known as a person who carries around what might seem to some like wads of cash. I also think it’s probably not a good idea to give money to the soup kitchen’s guests should I happen to see them around the neighborhood, for fear of establishing special relationships that could cause hurt feelings or jealousy.

I also have been thinking about what my sangha member’s friend told her. I asked the executive director of the soup kitchen what he thinks, and he agreed that he prefers to give the needed item—food, a blanket, medication—rather than cash. Maybe there are vouchers for beds at shelters. Sometimes people on the street are trying to get enough money so they can sleep inside that night.

Recently, a woman asked me for money, and I announced that I’m no longer giving cash on the street and she burst into tears, saying she’s not a bad person, whereupon I gave her two dollars. I couldn’t bear to see her in tears on the sidewalk, right across the street from a building full of multi-million dollar condos. Maybe it was an elaborate performance so she could get money for early morning cocktails, but likely it was for food, just as she said.

I decided that, along with offering a moment of human connection, I’d rather accidentally give someone money that goes for alcohol or drugs than fail to give money that is needed for food or a room to sleep in. So be it. I could ask what is needed and help to procure the thing, but that would take something I’m less willing to give: time. I could carry around packets of nuts to give away—I still might end up doing that—but making my backpack any heavier would not be good for the problem I’m working on in physical therapy.

Service—volunteering somewhere—is also an excellent thing to give instead of cash. Speaking of which, here’s my better idea about how to volunteer at the soup kitchen: I talked to my contact about doing just two hours once a week: socializing and then serving second bowls of soup and bussing tables. He said they don’t call it “socializing”—they call it “hanging out in the yard”—but otherwise he thought that idea was good. He joked (I think), “We’ll teach you to break up fights.”

I said, “I was going to bring my piece,” which he thought was funny.

The reason this is a great idea, besides sparing my hands, is that instead of doing two more four-hour shifts paid for by my employer, I can do four two-hour shifts, which will take me into June, and then maybe I can effect a smooth segue into continuing with the same schedule after the official community service hours run out. Maybe my boss will be as nice as J.’s and let me take a long lunch once a week for this purpose, and if not, I’ll have to become a breakfast volunteer instead of a lunch volunteer.