Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Man Over Machine

Weekly I take the magazines I’m done with to the soup kitchen for the guests, plus I always pick up a couple of San Francisco Chronicles on my way over there. One recent week, Tom gave me some of his periodicals to take along, so I had a number of items to put on the rack, most of which were not well received. Time (mine) and Rolling Stone (Tom’s) were snatched right up, ditto the two newspapers. No one really wanted Tom’s The Nation, Mother Jones, or the magazine put out by an environmental organization. Even less did they want my copy of The Economist, and the very last things to remain, which surprised me, were two issues of The New Yorker.

Now and then I have taken gossip or shopping magazines over there, if I find them in the laundromat around the corner or on the rare occasion that I buy gossip magazines—when I do buy them, I buy all of them, to make sure I fully understand what is happening with Kim K.—and those are extremely desirable items. I thought maybe it would be a bummer to look at a magazine featuring things one can’t buy, but magazines full of photos of colorful things, models and movie stars are highly sought after. I guess that makes sense. I like looking at photos of houses only billionaires could afford and places I’ll never visit.

That day, I saw that the nose piece of handsome D.’s glasses was broken, the two lenses flimsily connected with blue tape. He said they were Walgreens platinum unbreakable glasses. I observed that he had disproved that, and he said with satisfaction, “Man over machine.” The following week he had a different pair of glasses, these also falling apart, but he said he was thinking of getting a monocle or actually two monocles, which he planned to fashion into glasses using string.

There was also something unusual about B.’s glasses, namely that they were on upside down. He is another favorite guest of mine, the one who was observed using needle-nose pliers to groom his curly beard. He told me that since 1999, he has lived inside for just five years. He is working on finding housing, but it’s a challenging bureaucratic process. He’d had an appointment related to getting housing, but everything had gone wrong on his way there, including that his belt broke, and he was 30 minutes late and the lady screamed at him. Then he said, very sweetly, sounding very concerned, “Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you about this. I don’t want to make you sad.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Twenty years after starting to sew my own pants, I took the unprecedented action of ironing them, inspired by being at the soup kitchen, where I got to wondering if the guests thought I was purposely wearing crappy clothes because I regard it as a dirty place or them as not worth wearing reputable garments for, and after I saw a guest whose slacks and shirt (both!) had been carefully pressed—he looked great—I was shamed into extracting the ironing board and iron from the closet, normally only used to press fabric before it is fashioned into baggy cotton pants and not thereafter.

It took 15 minutes to iron the first pair, and since a biweekly load of laundry usually involves ten pairs of pants (mostly green), this would be two and a half hours of ironing, which is out of the question. But the next several pairs took just seven minutes apiece as my technique improved, so this is probably doable, and I must admit these pants look better ironed. The final hurdle is the temptation now to reduce the ironing chore by making one pair of pants last for two weeks.


One evening early in August I got home from Howie’s to find a phone message from my cousin, whom I hadn’t spoken with in perhaps 20 years. She said she was calling to say my uncle was—here of course I feared she was going to say he had died, but it was that he was in the hospital with a burst appendix and had asked her to let me and Dad know. She and I ended up having a nice long chat. She’s a real Texan with an actual Texas accent. She often says, in an emphatic way that makes me smile to recall, “Gotcha,” to indicate she has understood whatever you said. Oh, it turned out they were wrong about my uncle’s appendix having burst. They were able to do an appendectomy before that happened.

The next day I had another nice long chat, this time with my uncle’s fiancée, whom I’d never talked to before. She sent me a photo of herself in which her eyes are huge and childlike, as if regarding some wondrous sight. She is an artist with a sweet smile. I’m now angling for an invitation to the wedding.


Another day I became ambitious and put my stereo receiver, turntable, tape deck, and speakers in my huge walk-in closet, along with my musical keyboard, stand and bench. The main room looked barren and empty at first, but what was remaining was what I actually use: bed, desk (a table), computer, bookshelf, reading chair, meditation chair, desk chair. To replace the speakers, I ordered what I thought was a small pair that could attach directly to my iMac—I decided I couldn’t wait until I inherit my mother’s fabulous-looking and -sounding Klipsch speakers.

Usually I get bogged down in a lot of fretting about the details of a possible acquisition, but this time I just went to Amazon, entered “computer speakers,” and bought something near the top of the page. It took 30 seconds. However, I was slightly taken aback when an enormous, quite heavy box arrived. The two speakers themselves are small and nice-looking, but the subwoofer is a behemoth relative to what I was picturing. It would fit on the floor under my desk, but I’m scared of the reaction of my downstairs neighbors, so it’s on my desk. It’s darn near as big as the two old speakers put together, but since the turntable and receiver are tucked away, there’s been a substantial gain in available desk space. Now there’s a free end of the desk I can use as a place to eat! (Where did I eat before? Sitting in my reading chair with my legs draped over one arm.)


Also this month Carol Joy came to town from Novato and we went to the Asian Art Museum to see “Gorgeous,” a splendid collection of conventionally and unconventionally beautiful things. It included a Jeff Koons sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp, a Marcel Duchamp urinal, a John Currin painting, a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of a naked guy, a gorgeous (sorry!) clear Lucite chair with red plastic roses embedded in it, and much else, but not an overwhelming amount of it. The exhibition fills four non-enormous galleries, so it can easily be seen in an hour or so, if you’re not compelled to read all the explanatory notes (which I am not). It was probably the most satisfying art museum experience of my entire life.

One of my favorite things was a “wall” made out of long strands of gold-colored beads. You could walk through it or riffle it with your fingers or just watch its mesmerizing movements in the gentle ambient breezes, a golden wind with 24-karat stars appearing and disappearing. There was also a particularly good thing made out of some mirrors and a pile of dirt.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

A Sufficient Amount of Service

I’m now reading Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s second book, Awareness Alone Is Not Enough, and encountered something in it while in Michigan that was really helpful. I’d fallen again into trying to be aware of awareness directly, and had also decided that maybe I’m not advanced enough of a yogi to notice my mental attitude all the time or to actively investigate my experience via questions—maybe after 24 years I’m still at the stage where it would be most helpful to choose an object and notice it as often as possible (which, after all, as Eugene Cash says, will take you all the way to enlightenment). Awareness Alone Is Not Enough is a collection of brief dialogues between SUT and various students, illustrated with handsome black and white photos.

Here’s the particularly helpful exchange:

SUT: Put your hands together like this. Can you feel the sensations?

Student: Yes.

SUT:  Do you recognize that you know the sensations?

Student: Yes.

SUT: That’s awareness of awareness.

Oh! Very helpful reminder that, just as Steve Armstrong said at Spirit Rock in April, we can’t know awareness directly, but only in relationship to an object.

The book also includes this enticement to would-be lucid dreamers: “If you can be aware of every thought that comes into your mind, you will automatically be aware of your dreams too.”

On falling asleep at night: “Don’t ever think of wanting to go to sleep.” Instead, we can be aware of our mind and bodies until reactions in the mind cease and we naturally fall asleep. Or, if we don’t, we can have a nice night of mindfulness practice! Less than a week after I started taking this approach at bedtime, I had my first definitely lucid dream in about eight months, though quite often, I’m generally aware that I’m dreaming: I know I don’t have to worry about events that occur in many dreams, because I know it’s just a dream, but there’s not enough lucidity to allow choosing actions or making things appear.


A couple of Tuesday nights ago, as almost always, I went to Howie’s. Parting from Charlie outside afterward, I said, “Cycle safely,” and he assured me, “I’ve been psycho-ing safely for a long time.” 


Lately it was once again time to find someone to cut my hair. My most recent stylist, a young lady I liked a lot, got pregnant and thus had to leave the Bay Area. Living here on a hair stylist’s salary is challenging, I imagine, and having a family out of the question. Thanks, real estate speculators, and tech companies who don’t encourage workers to live near their jobs but instead offer San Francisco residency as a corporate perk, driving rents through the roof.

I went to see a stylist recommended by a friend and found her shop (which says “Full Service” on the front door) colorfully decorated, with a huge TV on at top volume, and quite dirty, with hair all over the floor and grubby implements of beauty strewn here and there. I decided that if I didn’t end up with an infection, at a very modest $25, I’d consider it a fair trade. I knocked on the door at 4:00 sharp, was let in at 4:01, waited until 4:03 for A. to get off her cell phone, and explained I wanted a trim—there was a language barrier that precluded anything more elaborate and also precluded nitpicking.

A. spritzed my hair with water—her long fingernails make shampooing difficult, so it’s discouraged via a $10 additional fee—made a few strategic strokes with her scissors and pronounced the job done. She said, “You have too much hair,” but added that its salt-and-pepper color is good. I prefer to think of it as burnished mahogany and platinum, but that was nice to hear. At 4:07, I retrieved cash from my backpack and thanked her, and at 4:08, I was back on the sidewalk, leaving plenty of time for a walk, and my hair looks perfectly fine. In fact, one of the guests at the soup kitchen said, “I like your hair,” so if I don’t actually get an infection, A. is my new stylist.

The guest was one who took an instant disliking to me on our first meeting several weeks ago. He gave me on that occasion a symbolic punch on the arm along with a discouraging look and word, so my hair must really look fantastic.

Also at the soup kitchen was one of my favorites, the fellow who was grooming his beard with the needle-nose pliers several weeks ago. He was carrying a bowl of chili, in the center of which was firmly planted a plastic cup half full of water, in which floated several lettuce leaves. A plastic bag was tied around one of his ankles and one eyepiece of his sunglasses had been replaced with a random piece of metal tubing. After being outside for what sounds like a long time, he is working on getting housing. He said he thinks his time is short and he doesn’t intend to die on the sidewalk. He told me he gets so tired that he passes out very suddenly, sometimes coming to with half a mouthful of unchewed food.

He had been nearly incommunicado for several weeks before this chat, but on this day he was back to his old self, and explained that someone had advised him that he’d have better luck with women if he talked less, so he’d been giving that a try.

I met another guest for the first time, someone I hadn’t spoken with before, an extraordinarily fast-acting and aggressive matchmaker. “Are you married, divorced or single? Single? That fellow over there is handsome, isn’t he? Do you like to go to Opera Plaza? Why go through life alone? What’s your phone number? I’m going to go tell Dennis you think he’s handsome and that you want him to have your phone number.” I had to leap up and scurry off before I found myself standing before a justice of the peace.

As it happens, the guest named Dennis is extremely handsome, and charming and affable. He also says all sorts of entertaining things. For instance, he thinks it would be good if the soup kitchen, along with offering showers, massages, basic first aid and other medical services, clean needles, clothing, and assistance with a large array of bureaucratic needs, could be a medical marijuana dispensary. He told the executive director that offering marijuana to guests would be a meaningful step toward “simplicity and peace.”

He’s also weirdly sweet and generous. The first time I spoke with him, he said, “For you?” and gave me a section of newspaper he was done with, and another week, he gave me a small pin featuring a sinister pair of eyes peering out of the blackness, which I affixed to the back of my hat.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Hard Concrete Heart

Switching to new email addresses is basically complete now except that my Dubai email does not return an error when I send it a test message. Since that company is incompetent bordering on criminal, I’d feel better if those old email addresses were verifiably gone. Hypothetical situation: A merchant sends an email to my old address with an enticing, clickable offer. An evil-doer at the email company clicks on it and arrives at the merchant’s website, where my login is, of course, the email address that received the offer, and my password is ... the same as my email password. (I know ellipses are to be used to indicate missing words, not to build suspense, but there’s no other punctuation mark that quite does the job.)

Actually, my current email password is unique, but it used to be the same password I use for a number of websites, and the email company may still have that old password listed somewhere. It is particularly important, by the way, to have a very strong email password, because if someone gets your email password, they can go to Amazon or some other site where you log on with your email address, where your credit card information may well be stored, indicate a forgotten password, and receive an email letting them change the password to whatever they want.
So, anyway, then the person at my email company (if they think of trying my former email password) orders up a lot of expensive stuff, the charge appears on my credit card, I dispute the charge, and that’s the end of that, most likely. I guess that’s not the end of the world, and I started to think that maybe I should just forget about whether my old email returns an error or not, and that whether I forgot about it or not, I’d probably have to live with it, because I’ve called them three times to try to get them to properly delete those accounts, without success, plus I got into a fight with the “customer service” person during one of those calls, making it now three times I’ve lost my temper in the course of this whole thing, once being with Treasury Direct, the world’s worst website.

The email customer service person said the accounts were fully deleted and that she didn’t really feel like talking much, quote unquote, and things degraded from there. “You don’t feel like talking?!” I would be unemployed about five minutes after my boss learned I had said to someone I was assisting that I didn’t feel like talking. Fortunately, the next time the email customer service person and I spoke, I easily remained civil and she seemed to have no recollection whatsoever of the prior exceedingly unpleasant conversation, but I still wasn’t getting an error after sending myself a test message.

By the way, the reason she didn’t feel like talking is that she was sick with bronchitis and the reason she didn’t stay home is that she’s the only person in her department now. I think there used to be a number of people working there, but it’s starting to seem as if there are just two, the owner/engineer and her. That really didn’t pacify me in the moment: if you’re at work, you should be more or less able to work. But later of course I felt ashamed of myself (and, for the record, I was actually calm again by the end of that same conversation). Yes, to me it sounds wacky that a customer service person should travel to work, answer the phone and announce a desire not to speak, but I guess that’s the old paradigm and merely reveals the privilege I enjoy as the employee, at the moment, of a large company.

Not long ago, KQED’s Forum program was about older people, some of them homeless, struggling to find jobs. The guest host asked at one point something very close to, “Why don’t they just go golfing with their old colleagues and get hooked up with new jobs?” It was also mentioned how brutal Amazon warehouse jobs are, with employees walking for miles on hard concrete floors, and the host said dismissively, “Well, I guess they know how hard the floor is before they apply for the job.” As if, in this ageist society, 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds have tons of choices and take those crappy Amazon jobs just for fun, or to kill some time until they see their golfing buddies and get jobs as highly compensated, perk-drenched corporate attorneys.

That is to say, there can be a moment of cluelessness bordering on callousness now and then, including by Bugwalk.

It occurred to me that maybe the old email company just doesn’t have error handling in place, so the next time I sent myself a test message, I also sent one to ginger.sri.streepado at the same domain, and didn’t get an error for that one, either, so I have decided to let the whole thing go. It’s not that some remnant of my email address necessarily remains—they assure me it doesn’t—it’s that they didn’t set up error handling. (Or else Ginger Sri Streepado is wondering why I sent her a blank email.)

So that was the end of that, just in time to have to change all my financial account passwords due to the Russian hackers. I’d heard about the giant theft of passwords, but figured that with 1.2 billion people involved, it might take them a while to get around to my accounts. They might not even notice my accounts! But a close associate immediately changed all his financial-company passwords, and when I checked with another person whose judgment I trust to see if she was changing her passwords, she said it hadn’t occurred to her until I mentioned it, but now she was going to go ahead and do that, so then I had to do the same, and then I lost my temper once again. With Treasury Direct. And that’s the computer news.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Change Is Bad

For starters, at Rainbow. When I started shopping there, about 1985, at the corner of Mission and 15th, it was entirely the province of hippies stocking up on granola and bulk peanut butter. It’s now a much larger place at Folsom and Duboce, and lately, as the neighborhood has shifted, so has its clientele. It is common now to see Mercedes (Mercedeses?) and BMWs in the parking lot, and to see their owners in the store, but when I was there most recently, it seemed as if it was only their owners in the store, and me. Where did all those people who used to shop at Rainbow go? Have they left San Francisco entirely? I guess so, or they’d be at Rainbow. The workers are still mostly the same, though that is as seen by my uncalibrated shopper’s eye. My favorite cashier informs me that a shift is underway in that population, as well.

Lately I went to Cole Hardware downtown to stock up on masking tape, of which I go through about two rolls a month. Whenever Tom and I go away overnight, I say, “Don’t worry, I have the masking tape,” for the pleasure of seeing him roll his eyes. So handy for removing cat hair and random pieces of lint, but perhaps I’m in the minority on that, as well: Cole has moved the masking tape to a hard-to-reach top shelf. Soon it probably won’t be there at all.

Fortunately, after the hardware store, I planned to go to the Patrick & Co. on Mission St. to see Shirley, as I have been doing for years. She is a reliable source of good cheer and positive thinking.  Every time she sees me, she says, “Isn’t that a great hat? I love that hat!” Patrick & Co. sells office supplies: a million little interesting, colorful things. Therefore, it was exceedingly disorienting to walk through the door and see nothing but a long, bland, beige counter, with several young strangers standing blankly behind it. Surely Shirley could not be gone, along with the stickers, paper clips, pen refills, calendars, note pads and all the rest!

Signs overhead advised that office supplies were in the back, and indeed they were, plus Shirley. I said, “Thank god you’re still here!” Beaming, she agreed, “Thank heaven I’m still here,” which probably referred both to still being employed and still being alive, as she must be nearing 90. Her hair was freshly red—a welcome sort of change—and otherwise she was just as ever, though her two co-workers were gone. She explained that they had leased the front portion of the store to Copy Central. No doubt a smart and necessary move, but how long can it be before the stickers and Shirley just aren’t there?

Delta Air Lines’ new funny safety videos, like Shirley
’s fresh coiffure, are a welcome sort of change. I saw one in March and a different one on my recent trip to Ypsilanti. The latest video, when explaining how to buckle a seat belt, shows a large doughy white guy in a plaid shirt, with stubby polished red fingernails. He’s not someone we’re supposed to feel contempt for. There are many quirky characters in this video, like a fellow in a chef’s hat who grumpily closes the lid of a grill in the aisle next to him after hearing the instruction “No smoking.”  The seat belt guy is just another of them, which is a giant step up from being someone who should be beaten to death for not being just like everyone else. Delta is trying to keep people’s attention using humor, but also, I think, making the point that there are all kinds of people in this world. If Delta is smart, they want to see many kinds of people on their airplanes, not just heterosexual white ones.

Also, Wells Fargo lately sent all of its employees a link to information about planning one’s gender transition in the workplace, resources for its transgender employees. That is astonishing and wonderful. Wells Fargo, like Delta, understands that inclusiveness is a sound business strategy. Their main goal isn’t to make transgender employees and customers feel welcome. Their main goal is to make money, but it’s nice that one smart way to do that is to make as many people as possible feel welcome. Good for them.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Shale Oil Deposits Discovered Under Blogger's Cat

Toward the end of July, I went to visit my parents in Michigan and had a very nice time. They are extremely generous about letting me use their car, so besides enjoying their company, I got to have lunch with Ginny in Ann Arbor, and go out to see Amy’s new house on ten acres in the Irish Hills and meet her new husband, Jim. They’ve been together for several years now, but he has always been at work on the days I’m visiting. Amy made us black bean and sweet potato burritos. The next day, Amy and I got together again for lunch at Café Zola in Ann Arbor. They have a superb salmon burger served with inventive condiments, including pickled ginger. My sister came over that afternoon and we had family togetherness time around the dining room table.

Later in the week, I drove to Grosse Ile, an island near Detroit, to see Uncle Rick and Janet, and my second cousins Ben and Luke, and Ben’s darling girlfriend, Emma. Ben and Luke are 17 and 14, respectively. I’ve only seen them three or four times in their lives, but always remember their birthdays and get nice notes and photos from them in return. They are handsome and personable young men. Ben plans to go into the Marines, followed by college, after finishing high school, and Luke is an aspiring actor.

It’s fun to drive to a certain place to see a certain person, but
because I dont do it often, it’s also fun just to drive, period, in the warm summer sun, with the car windows open and the wind blowing in, lush green for miles in all directions. No drought there. I also like to smell the summer night air, a vivid, particular scent that magically erases 35 years.

During that week, I and one or both parents watched these movies, on TV or from Netflix: 12 Years a Slave, Philomena, Night of the Hunter, The Thomas Crown Affair (the older one), In the Heat of the Night, Gasland Part 2, Bullitt, Selena, King Solomon’s Mines, and Cloud Atlas.

Gasland Part 2 is a rather horrifying examination of fracking: drinking water poisoned, property values erased, children dripping blood from their noses, splendid landscapes uglified, tap and garden water that can be set on fire with the flick of a lighter and then burns steadily, oil companies of course denying any problems and paying people to move somewhere else—once they’ve signed the agreement not to discuss what happened to them. A map was displayed showing where the shale oil deposits are. The entire lower peninsula of Michigan (the hand) is one big shale oil deposit. Another substantial deposit is in California’s Central Valley, where so much of the nation’s produce is grown. If the water there gets poisoned, the results will almost certainly be catastrophic.

Plus, should we really be locating every possible drop of oil so that we can burn it, putting those emissions into the air? Methane, the gas emitted during natural gas operations including fracking, is the second-most prevalent greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide, and is 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

After I got home, I heard on the radio that Oklahoma now has more earthquakes than California does, presumed to be the result of fracking, which forces water into the earth. This is just a staggeringly bad idea all around, so it was disheartening to learn, in Gasland Part 2, that President Obama and Hillary Clinton have been encouraging other countries to start fracking, and offering assistance. Are they stupid? Woefully ill informed? Deliberately trying to kill us all? No, I suppose it’s politics—the art of the possible: We can’t get people to stop driving, or over-consuming in every area of life—the best we can do is maybe switch from burning coal to fracking. But after seeing this movie, it was clear that fracking is actually more damaging, given its threats to our food and water supplies and how much worse for the environment methane is than carbon dioxide.

Given the immense amount of bad news in Gasland Part 2, I couldn’t imagine what Gasland had been about—does fracking also cause enormous cream-filled zits? Flatten bike tires? Eat the last of the marinated tofu? Leave empty toilet paper rolls for others to replace? I asked my parents what Gasland was about and they said the same thing as Gasland Part 2. I highly recommend seeing one or the other of these.

Night of the Hunter was the only movie ever directed by the actor Charles Laughton. It is full of poetic, haunting images, particularly while the children drift down the river by night. At the time, it was received very poorly and Laughton vowed never to direct another movie, which was unfortunate, because it is now considered a masterpiece.

On my last morning there, a chipmunk sat on the back deck for quite a time considering, with evident satisfaction, its successful hiding of several peanuts in my mother’s geranium pots, the telltale sign being the little piles of dirt kicked out of the pots. My mother doesn’t mind the peanuts, but isn’t crazy about cleaning up the dirt over and over.

I was driven back to the airport by a friendly Frenchman at the wheel of a black limo. I signed up for a shuttle at Custom Transit, but lately they often send a limo, which must be cheaper to operate than a van, and feasible if there is just one passenger. Sitting at the gate, I was pleased and also alarmed to see a little bird right near me: was it trapped inside forever? I asked at the counter and was informed that there are many birds living in the terminal and that they have a fine life: they are not killed, and they have plenty of scraps from travelers to eat, and a controlled temperature (no freezing winter weather). I was relieved to hear the birds aren’t harmed (though I’ll bet some are), but sorry that once they’re inside, it’s probably for life.

During the boarding instructions, I heard this over the loudspeaker:  “If you’ve come to Michigan with an Ohio State shirt, you’ll be boarding last today.”