Thursday, December 31, 2015

Formerly Forbidden Foods

How many times in my life have I encountered a table laden with “appetizers” before a meal? That same number of times have I partaken of “appetizers” to the point that I’m completely stuffed when the meal begins (including on Christmas Eve at Tom’s mother’s house in Sacramento). (Present were Ann and Tom, Steve and Julie, F. and myself. Very pleasant, peaceful Christmas. No gifts exchanged, except for Steve giving us all his beautiful annual family calendar.)

While I was sick with mono, I lacked the energy to cook, so I relied on food you don’t have to do much of anything to other than eat it, and I allowed myself treats I don’t usually have in the house because I sooner or later binge on them, such as English muffins, vanilla ghee, and peanut butter. For a couple of weeks, I had very little appetite and didn’t have to worry about overeating, but as soon as I began to feel better, I was polishing off six English muffins here and nearly a whole jar of peanut butter there.

Per long-established practice, I gave the rest of the too-tempting food items to Tom. Once I took a jar of mayonnaise up to him and he said, “Fine, but can I show you something?” He opened his cupboard to reveal six jars of mayonnaise I’d previously given him.

I was lately remembering an advanced workshop put on by the Overcoming Overeating ladies. At the beginning of it, one of them asks, “Why is it so hard to stop—?” and I was positive she was going to say “overeating.” Why is it so hard to stop overeating? But her final word was “dieting.” Why is it so hard to stop dieting? It seems nearly impossible to stop dieting, to lose the idea that certain foods are forbidden, and every time I eat six English muffins slathered with vanilla ghee and then give away the rest of the English muffins and ghee, I reinforce the already very solid conviction that those foods are bad and that I can’t be trusted to have them around.

As the mono waned, there were several binges and corresponding divestments of food. I found myself eating a shocking amount of toast drenched in olive oil. I hadn’t gotten rid of bread because it’s a key component of salmon salad sandwiches, and of course one cannot live without olive oil. I’d gotten rid of every other tempting thing and that is precisely why I was eating so much olive oil toast: it was the only good thing in the house. I like everything I eat, but this was the one treat. I realized I needed more treats, and made a commitment to myself that I will always have five different kinds of treats in the house.

I aspire to eat when I’m physically hungry—it’s very easy to overeat if one is not hungry when one starts eating; if there’s no signal to start, there’s no signal to stop—and to stop when my body has had enough, but when I read while eating, it’s extremely easy to eat way past the point of being full, so, along with my five-treat promise, I decided to try again not to read while eating.

I expected the “mindfulness diet” to fail just the way it has I’ve tried it every time in the past, since it is, after all, a diet, and diets always backfire sooner or later. But so far, it is working quite well. I get hungry, I sit down, I eat mindfully—without reading, at least—and I usually or at least fairly often stop when my body has had enough. I figure that while it’s best to stop eating when physical hunger has been satisfied, if I don’t eat again until I actually feel hungry, it comes out more or less the same. I attribute these changes to my five-treats commitment, and also to the greater calm and clarity afforded by my samadhi-oriented daily meditation practice.

When I decided always to have plenty of goodies on hand, I bought quantities of cashews and macadamia nuts, and it was a couple of weeks before I ate even one of either, whereas in the past I would have eaten all of both within hours of returning from the store. One day when I was not feeling hungry, I had a single cracker with cashew butter on it. There was no need to eat the whole package of crackers and the whole jar of cashew butter because I have at least five kinds of treats. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t eat all the yummy things at once, so I might as well not try. So I had this one cracker with cashew butter on it. I hadn’t been hungry, but soon after I ate it, I noticed that I was quite hungry. It had stimulated my appetite. An appetizer! Aha!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Seeing That Frees

A note posted to the email list for Eugene Cash’s San Francisco sangha recommended the book Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising, by Rob Burbea, a teacher at Gaia House in England. I looked it up on Amazon and saw that Joseph Goldstein, in the foreword, calls it “remarkable.”

Since Joseph Goldstein had praised it, I asked Modern Times to order it for me and I am working my way slowly through it. It is not as exquisitely written as Joseph Goldstein’s own exceedingly lucid works, but is perfectly clear and understandable, the more so due to Burbea’s helpful and frequent use of examples.

An early stumbling block was the author’s recommendation to orient formal practice toward samadhi, or concentration, though it is wisdom—insight—that ultimately liberates us from suffering. It is often explained that a collected mind more easily sustains its attention on phenomena for the purpose of gaining insight; Burbea mentions that, plus several more reasons why concentration practice—via metta practice or using the breath or whole body as an object—is beneficial.

This was a stumbling block because for the past year and a half, I’ve been practicing in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, who emphasizes being aware of our relationship to whatever we’re observing, and how cause and effect are operating, rather than aiming for a steady attention on whatever the object is. He suggests that if you pay attention to the breath, you’ll know all about the breath, but won’t necessarily know how suffering is created and ended.

Accordingly, in my daily sitting practice, I simply sat down, noticed whatever I noticed, and noticed my relationship to it: did I like it, not like it, want it to go away, want more of it? To some extent I used my chest and belly area as an anchor, and I made a point of noticing if I was noticing anything or not—if I was tuned in or drifting off into thought—but by no means was I attempting to steady my attention on any particular object.

And I didn’t want to, because I have loved this Tejaniya-style practice, and I know that I am easily influenced: if I were to start conducting my practice as Burbea recommends, soon Tejaniya would be but a memory. However, there seemed no point in closing my mind to Burbea’s advice at the very beginning of his 421-page book, so I decided just to do what he said and either I will return to Tejaniya later or not.

I took my whole body as my object but was initially attending to the breath enough that I was getting headaches, which is what always happens when I attend to the breath, but Burbea emphasizes a playful, experimental approach, and I settled into a very agreeable practice of sensing the whole body in a general way, now and then reminding myself that my goal is relaxed, spacious, continuous awareness—words from Tejaniya—and always remembering that I’m not going for any particular experience, but simply to know my experience moment by moment. Continuity of knowing, regardless of what is known. In a way, it’s good when there is an unpleasant body sensation, as is frequently the case, at least in a minor way. (Howie lately observed, “The body has a ton of unpleasant sensations.” Yes, it does.) It’s good because it’s harder to ignore. It naturally draws the mind.

So far I have noticed three fruits from this practice: I feel much calmer during the rest of the day. My dreams at night have much more extended storylines, rather than a little snippet of this and a little snippet of that. (F. calls this “cinematic power dreaming.” As always, I have high hopes for my lucid dreaming practice.) And I finally have an understanding of what is meant by “appetizer.” (To be explained in next post.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


The second, third and fourth photos are of the building in the first photo as seen in a reflective surface across the street.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Monday, December 21, 2015


A recent shift at the soup kitchen was particularly exciting. When it’s time to serve the meal, I like to stand near the volunteer who usually calls the numbers on the day I’m there. I chat with the guests or just try to project a welcoming air. Usually I wait until the volunteer gets to 120—he goes by tens and it goes pretty quickly—and then go inside to pick up a bussing rag and a plate to wipe crumbs onto. While I was standing around on this day, the volunteer called, “Bugwalk—come here.” I rushed over and he said, “If you feel comfortable, could you ask the guest with the python to go back outside the gate? Tell him we’ll bring his meal to him.”

This guest indeed had an immense snake draped around his neck and seemed initially a bit disgruntled when I asked him to step outside, but I assured him that he would get his meal. I asked what he wanted: Soup? Salad? Bread? What kind of bread and how many pieces? Water? Then I brought everything out to him, in two trips.

Also hanging around outside the gate was the very first guest I ever chatted with, B., who remains one of my favorites. He is visibly declining week by week, both physically and mentally. A few months ago, he had a ghastly wound on his elbow and ended up being admitted to the public hospital, but left against medical advice and also stopped taking his antibiotics. It just is impossible for him to follow any sort of instructions, or do anything that has to be done on a schedule. The wound healed, but his elbow is heartbreakingly lumpy and misshapen, and now one of his feet has an infection. How many body parts can you lose, or lose the use of, before you can’t go on?

He asked for a bowl of soup plus a paper cup of soup to be brought to him while he waited in the medical van line, but when I brought the soup out, he was lying on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. He said he also wanted two servings of salad, in paper cups, and he wanted four pieces of a certain kind of bread and two pieces of another kind. I walked in and out, in and out, getting everything he wanted, which soon ended up spilled on the sidewalk. For the third or so time, I wrote down my name and phone number for him, so he can call me when he’s in the hospital. I have told him I’ll come and visit him, but I am sure he loses my number minutes after he receives it.

While I was outside making one of my trips to bring B. something, a fight broke out, somehow involving B., who picked up a big pipe and starting swinging it. The main combatants were two other men, and at first, the fight was so volatile that I hopped off the sidewalk into the street to avoid accidentally being hit. Then the executive director came out and inserted himself between the two people, saying, “You can’t fight here, you can’t fight here.” They at first backed off, but then one became belligerent again and tried to push his way through the executive director, who has become a close friend of mine—he’s my walking friend—and who is 70 years old. He has poured everything he has into this work for 40 years now, and done without so much, living nearly as frugally as the soup kitchen’s guests do in many ways.

The guest was twice his size, but didn’t persist long with his renewed effort, thankfully. I was afraid he was going to injure my friend. I told him later that I had not enjoyed watching him in that situation, and he said he hadn’t enjoyed being in it. Certainly if the guest had started hitting him or had knocked him down, any number of people would have rushed to his rescue, including me, but premature intervention would likely just have made things worse.

I went over to stand with B., who was very agitated, now screaming at the executive director in his Arkansas accent, “You need to give this work up! You’re too stupid to do this work! Your brains are too fried! You need to give this up!” He was expressing the same anxiety I had felt, that the executive director would be injured. I think my friend understood that, too. He said to B. calmly, “Yes, I probably am too stupid for this work.”

Then all was more or less tranquil and a passerby drew abreast of us and started to reach into a large blue recycling bin with its lid open. B. warned him off: “Excuse me, that’s my stuff: I stole it.”

The passerby said pleasantly, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought it was trash.”

B. replied, just as pleasantly, “It is trash.”

Thursday, December 03, 2015


One day on Market St. near Castro, I came upon a woman with an armful of clipboards with petitions. As I got near her, she started yelling at the top of her lungs, “Get away from me! Get out of here, you disgusting filth! Stop wrecking my country!” She was evidently yelling at a passing homeless man, who edged away from her. He had a scruffy grey beard, loose-fitting clothes, and a mild, almost timid, expression.
Busybody/do-gooder that I am, I rushed over to apologize, to try to erase any trauma before it set in: “Sir, I am so sorry you had to be spoken to like that.” Then, sympathetically, “Does that happen every time you pass her?” The man looked back at me and said, “Oh, I don’t think she was yelling at me,” at which point I realized he was not homeless.

I replied, partly to erase the sting of having assumed he was homeless and partly because it had just dawned on me that this might in fact be the case, “Oh, maybe she was yelling at me!” The man and I smiled at each other and shrugged, and went our separate ways.

This caused me to remember Judy S., who said something a few years ago about being careful with her attire so as not to be mistaken for a homeless person, which struck me as being somewhere between very unlikely and impossible—a curious and even irrational notion on Judy’s part. But I’m starting to be able to see it. My neighborhood seems now to be almost exclusively populated by affluent young tech workers and affluent visitors from Europe. When I shamble by in my baggy cotton pants, grubby tennis shoes, men’s t-shirt, and ancient cotton hat—I’ve lost track of this hat’s exact birthday, but I know I was wearing it on my first meditation retreat, which was in 1996—do some of those people think I’m homeless? I’ll bet they do!

I did my errand and had to walk again past the yelling woman, except this time she wasn’t yelling. She was saying, just like a normal petitions lady, “Look at petitions to sign? Look at petitions to sign?”

Thursday, November 05, 2015


Lately I have been having this excellent meal for dinner several times a week: one egg mixed with one-quarter cup of egg whites scrambled in one tablespoon of avocado oil, with half an avocado, and three-quarters of a bunch of greens sautéed with four or so cloves of garlic. (As the mono faded, the garlic in the latter dish gave me a headache a few evenings in a row, but it isn’t doing that anymore.)

My manual osteopathic bodyworker Jack once told me that putting avocados in the fridge “stop-actions” them. I would say that it “slow-actions” them. The ripening process continues, but much more slowly. Since it is now crucial to have a ripe avocado ready to go while at the same time not having any become overripe, I’m now often found standing in front of the open refrigerator worriedly palpating my avocados.


After my recent experiments regarding how to discourage fruit flies, as seen in and around the outdoor compost bin shared by everyone in my apartment building, my two main conclusions are:

—It’s impossible to rid the inside of such a bin of fruit flies unless perhaps someone cleans it out with soap and water weekly, and who has the time or the inclination for that?

—Given that we are going to have fruit flies, the key objective is to keep them out of the faces of human visitors (so that one or more of those visitors doesn’t resort to the use of some highly toxic product). What seems to be working well is a cotton ball soaked in an essential oil that the fruit flies find disagreeable—lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, lemongrass—and suspended near where the faces of depositors will be. The fruit flies avoid the area of the cotton ball, and so are not right in people’s faces. As a bonus, the lemongrass oil really smells great (to me). I can’t explain why fruit flies hate it so much.


Post-mono, I received seven medical claim statements, some of which said my plan starts paying after I meet a $2000 deductible, while others said $4000. I thought I would call and inquire, and then decided not to bother—I was sure it was all proper, if mystifying—but I had some other questions, so I did call and learned that the difference is whether a provider is in network or not.

One of the claims that said $4000 was for my colonoscopy doctor. “Why would my primary care provider send me to a doctor who is not in my network?”, I wondered aloud. This is the same doctor I saw for my first colonoscopy three years ago, so this seemed curious. The claim specialist, who was wonderfully helpful, offered to look up this doctor and discovered that she is in my network.

Similarly, my very own primary care provider and ob/gyn had also been coded as out of network; plus I had been charged for the visit to my ob/gyn, though it was my annual preventive visit and supposed to be 100% free. The claim specialist said she’ll get all of these things switched to in-network, which should erase some bills and result in a refund or two.

Then I got to thinking that that $473 facilities charge for the colonoscopy might also have been based on an incorrect notion that the facility was out of network for me, and sure enough, that charge was supposed to be $180, not $473. Since they collected this payment the second I walked in the door, a refund will be forthcoming. So, good thing I did delve into all of this. It was a fair amount of work but not quite as fatiguing as having mono itself.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Simple Hippie

The Internet says that an adult who gets mono might feel fatigued off and on for a year, whereas if a toddler gets it, it might just be a few days of a sore throat or being tired. The child’s parents might never even know their youngster has mono. I was kind of looking forward to having an excuse to sleep 11 hours a night for a year, take a nap whenever I felt like it, and sit around reading instead of going out, but must say I am feeling much betterin fact, pretty much perfect. Late in the mono experience, after I’d plowed through many of the works on my to-read shelf and on a day when I felt well enough to make the walk, I got a stack of books from the library and have been very happily immersed in Family Furnishings, selected stories of Alice Munro’s from 1995 to 2014.


I think I have mentioned from time to time the evident hoarder who lives next door. His back yard is almost always crammed with stuff, ditto the walkway alongside the building that his tenants would otherwise use for egress in a fire, ditto his car, ditto the lobby of the building, and ditto his garage. I don’t often get to see inside the latter, but now and then the door is open when I go by, and I have seen artifacts filling every square inch both horizontally and vertically. I can only imagine what his own apartment is like. I know it is quite a large place, because that building is a mirror image of ours. His apartment almost certainly has three good-sized rooms along with a dining alcove, a long hallway, kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room off the kitchen. Plus, being the building
s owner, he has the building’s whole basement at his disposal.

I have been told that every now and then someone complains to the fire department and he has to tidy up, though of course after a bit, things are again just as they were. He’s been in the process of cleaning up for several months now, sometimes in the middle of the night. After immense effort on his part, his back yard began to take on an uncluttered appearance, and I realized he was putting his extra-good stuff off to one side, which includes, I’m sorry to say, not one, not two, not three, not four, but five charcoal grills. Also quite a number of ancient chairs in poor repair. I think he must have the idea that he’s going to whip the place into shape and have friends over for a cookout, but Tom said there will never be a day when his yard is actually ready for entertaining—before it’s empty enough, it will fill up again, so there’s no point worrying about it.


The past couple of years, I’ve been saving as much money as I possibly can, to the point where I couldn’t afford to replace my toner cartridge, couldn’t buy a set of ankle weights, and so forth, let alone the new computer I now need, now that my browser is so far out of date I can’t get to my bank’s website or to YouTube or to the website for my long-distance service. I can’t upgrade my browser because my operating system is so old, and I can’t upgrade my operating system both because my disk drive is broken and also because system resources are insufficient, so I decided to give myself a raise via cutting back a bit on how much I save. Newly rich, it was time to have my kitchen knives properly sharpened.

I looked online, discovered the existence of a well-regarded cutlery shop two blocks from my place—I’ll probably see Zuckerberg in there one of these days—and took my knives down there. The place is called Bernal Cutlery.

I paid for rush sharpening service, and bought a honing steel, plus one of their cutting boards, after they explained that bamboo is bad for knives, as is plastic. This cutting board is made out of hinoki (a type of fragrant Japanese cypress), and it is really, really nice. It’s extremely smooth, and it smells wonderful, and it gives slightly under the pressure of the blade, and cuts in its surface kind of seal themselves up after the board is gently rinsed in cold water (now that I know it’s bad to wash a wooden cutting board using soap and hot water). Using a super-sharp knife to cut an apple on this cutting board is a treat for the senses: the smell of the wood and the apple, the sound and feel of the knife going so smoothly through the apple, and how the blade feels against the soft hinoki.

I was telling my mother all this, and she mused, “I like to think of you as being a simple hippie like myself, but every now and then, I realize it’s not the case.”

Now I’m racking my brains trying to think of everything I own that can possibly be sharpened. I took them my old lineman’s knife, from when I worked for PG&E, and while I was there, I bought a knife that is smaller than my big knife and bigger than my small knife. I wanted a 5” blade, which they didn’t have, so I bought a 5.75” Sabatier paring knife. The fellow there said Wüsthof probably makes something the length I wanted, but I’d rather spend my money at this lovely little neighborhood shop.

When I was a child, my mother had a Sabatier paring knife of which she was particularly fond, if I recall correctly. I’m sorry to say I broke its tip off while using it to pry something or other open, but she didn’t get mad. I remember being surprised by that. It was kind of her, or perhaps it happened when she was in a particularly philosophical mood. Afterward, she ground the blade down so that it came to a point again, so it was still a nice Sabatier paring knife, just noticeably smaller than before.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hair Au Contraire

Before this whole mono thing, after making a haircut appointment, I showed F. some pictures of myself with haircuts I have liked in the past so he could choose his favorite. “This is nice,” he said of one.

“You think my hair looks good like that?”

“Oh, sorry, I was looking at the San Francisco skyline behind you.”

Of a selfie taken in my bathroom, he said, “Wow, this one is great—look how clean your shower curtain is!”

I ended up just having it trimmed, partly because F. really likes long hair. I also suspect that my hairdresser had been pushing for me to grow it out because she’s perplexed about how to cut such thick, bushy, wavy, coarse hair. It had gotten long enough that it could be put into a ponytail, and she averred that it was going to look very beautiful by the time it was down to my shoulders, but it was a good deal of work, all the various things that had to be done to it after I washed it, and after I started feeling lousy because of the mono, one day before stepping into the shower, I thought, “I just can’t do it” and picked up the nearest scissors and cut it off instead.

Every time I warned F. that I was thinking of having it cut short, which is how I personally prefer it, he lamented, “Don’t mutilate your hair!” Then I would explain that hair is dead. It has no capacity for physical suffering or aggrieved feelings. Henceforth, I refuse to serve as the life support system for a big wad of scraggly hair, and it’s OK if no one ever again thinks it looks pretty, though, oddly, the next time I was at the soup kitchen after that, I received a big surge of attention from our African American gentleman guests in particular, one of whom said he was feeling “miraculous” that day. He said, “If you keep working like that, I’m going to fall in love with you!” Then, leaning across the table toward me, he asked, “Are you married?” I told him I have a boyfriend, but said I’d warn him that a fellow who feels miraculous is in line right behind him.

Another man, older and white, noticed my haircut and recalled a conversation where I had said that people always want whatever kind of hair they don’t have. He said thoughtfully, “If I had hair like yours, I would probably wish it was straight.”

Friday, October 09, 2015

Garlic, Part Three

The next day, Friday, I had blood drawn for the third time and on Saturday, I used Dr. Duck Duck Go (which, unlike Google, does not track its users or their searches) to look up all the ailments that can elevate the liver enzymes, and found one that perfectly fit my symptoms: mononucleosis, which I did not have when I was a teenager or young adult. On Sunday, Tom drove me in a City CarShare car to Rainbow for my weekly shopping and, in the afternoon, to Berkeley to keep our date with Tom’s mother for lunch and Berkeley Rep. Normally we take BART, which would have been too much exertion, but going in a car and not speaking a word all day to rest my throat, it worked out all right.

On Tuesday Dr. C. called and said my liver enzymes were even higher: my AST now four times the top possible normal level, and my ALT nearly seven times the top normal level! I asked if what ailed me could be mono and she said, yes, it was possible this was an infection. She said she would check to see if some of the blood already drawn could be checked for Epstein-Barr.

In the meantime, she was focusing on the abnormality noticed in my large intestine and had signed me up for a colonoscopy on Thursday. She wasn’t worried I had colon cancer. She was worried I might have lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes). How a colonoscopy helps rule that out, I have no idea, but on Wednesday, I fasted and talked to my mother 95 times on the phone. She was very nice about keeping me company during this phase of the whole thing, having to not eat when I already felt extremely lousy.

It dawned on me that I was probably just going to barf the colonoscopy prep stuff right back up after I drank it—that which smells like something used to sanitize a porta-potty—and I called the colonoscopy doctor, who called in a prescription for anti-nausea medication, and Tom went to Walgreens after work and stood in line for an hour to pick it up. Drinking the prep liquid was totally horrible, but I reminded myself that many people were having to do the same thing that very afternoon, and that if I just kept taking tiny sips, alternating with sips of clear apple juice, it would eventually be gone.

Thursday morning I had to drink the other dose of the prep stuff. One bright spot in all of this was reading other people’s colonoscopy prep tips online, many of which are quite funny. One said something like, “After you drink the stuff, get ready to spend some time in the Oval Office.” You’re not supposed to chill the solution, but on Thursday morning, I added a number of ice cubes and used a straw to drink it while holding my nose with my other hand. It was definitely much more tolerable chilled, and I now have a complete colonoscopy prep protocol fully refined for future occasions.

I had the colonoscopy—no problems found whatsoever—and Tom, who has been a remarkable friend throughout this whole thing, left work two hours early to fetch me afterward and I came home and, per the advice to avoid greasy food, ate an entire pizza. It was the first time in weeks that I’d felt well enough to overeat, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. There weren’t any ill effects from that at all. 

(My colonoscopy doctor, who is a darling young woman, explained that, since the intestines are always in motion, a CT scan, taking a brief snapshot, often captures something that looks suspicious. She said that about once a week, she performs a colonoscopy on someone for this reason and it almost always turns out to be nothing.)
That evening, nearly two weeks after my evening in the emergency room, Dr. C. called to say it was (and is) mono! Which I figured out by looking online. She apologized for putting me through an unnecessary colonoscopy, but I told her all is well that ends well, though this hasn’t quite ended. Also, bills will probably be rolling in for weeks. My own responsibility for the facilities charge for the colonoscopy—not the doctor and not the anesthesia, but just standing in their building—was nearly $500. Plus there is the doctor, the anesthesia, the emergency room, the CT scan, and having blood drawn and analyzed three times. But that’s OK. I’m glad to not have cancer and almost equally relieved not to have an auto-immune problem. Dr. C. said I
probably” won’t have permanent liver damage.

My cousin, who, along with her husband, works in medicine, emailed me, “I’m embarrassed for the healthcare system that failed to look for such a common cause for your symptoms.” I do wonder how many more tests I would have had if I hadn’t suggested to my doctor that it could be mono.

I still have fatigue and dry mouth and mild headaches and minor itching, better or worse depending on the day. Apparently the older you are when you have mono, the more severe the symptoms are and the longer they can last, coming and going for a year or longer. My mental health professional was grumbling about how frightening this experience must have been, but it was actually not frightening at all. There was no moment when I felt scared. I think it’s scary, or highly worrisome and upsetting, when it’s happening to someone else, like your mother or your cat.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Garlic, Part Two

The next day I happened to have my annual ob/gyn appointment. My doctor reviewed the electronic notes from the night before and exclaimed, “You have hepatitis!” I took a cab from there to the office of my primary care provider, Dr. C., and en route, I yawned and all of a sudden felt a stabbing pain in my throat, which ended up lasting for nine days.

I went over everything with Dr. C., who told me that one of my liver enzymes (AST) was three times the top normal level, and the other (ALT) was nearly five times the top normal level. She said I should have more blood drawn so they could determine what kind of hepatitis I had: C, which you get from the blood of someone who has it; B, which you get by having sex with someone who has it; or A, which you get by eating the feces of someone who has it. (I said “feces” because it sounds even more disgusting than “poop.”)

Of course F. and I both had STI testing done when we got together, and at that point, neither of us had any kind of hepatitis. Well, that is not quite true. We did have testing done, but it wasn’t in advance of, uh, spending quality time together. I figured (stupidly) that since neither of us had had a partner for a while and neither of us had symptoms of gonorrhea or anything like that, STI testing was more of a formality. Wrong, wrong, wrong! One of us could have had a dormant form of hepatitis and given it to the other. Should I have occasion to make that mistake ever again, I won’t. I am grateful to have avoided catastrophic results.

Prior to the exchanging of fluids, there must be full STI testing and there must be the seeing, with one’s own eyeballs, of a printout of the prospective partner’s test results.

Now, normally when I’m ill, I contact everyone I’ve ever met to tell them all about it so that they can worry and shower me with affection and so forth. However, I wasn’t exactly eager to announce that I had hepatitis. Oh, presumably this was hepatitis A, and how you can get that is by eating in a restaurant where a kitchen worker fails to wash his or her hands properly after visiting the restroom. My doctor said hepatitis A has been going around and that if people washed their hands after going to the bathroom and did their own cooking, there would be less of it.

Another reason I hadn’t already told a million people that I was having all these strange symptoms was that I felt kind of self-conscious about being sick again. I’ve had so many medical things over the years, including cancer, that I felt worried about my friends just getting tired of the whole thing. I felt that maybe I’d better just not say anything unless I got a firm diagnosis of something really awful.

So I had blood drawn on my way home from Dr. C.’s, and three days later, she called to say what kind of hepatitis I had: no kind. I did not have hepatitis. At this point, I might have started my communications campaign, but now was way too tired, having to lie down after every small exertion, plus my mouth was still horribly dry, my throat was killing me, and I felt itchy from head to toe, various areas at various times.

Dr. C. had taken a closer look at the CT scan from the emergency room and detected a thickening in my colon, possibly a touch of inflammatory colitis. She said the lymph nodes along my GI tract appeared to be swollen. Meanwhile, the lymph nodes in my neck were definitely swollen and aching. She said to go have more blood drawn, and if my liver enzymes were even higher, I would have another CT scan of my abdomen, to make sure nothing had been missed, and if they were lower, I’d have an ultrasound instead. She said maybe it was a gallstone that had already passed, or it might be an auto-immune thing, or one of any number of “weird little things.”

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Garlic, Part One

I am extremely fond of garlic and particularly enjoy greens sautéed with garlic and bouillon. Three or four times a week, I sauté a whole bunch of collard greens or dinosaur kale, using perhaps four cloves of garlic. This is a lot of garlic to mince, so I acquired a small electric grinder for processing the whole week’s supply of garlic all at once. It’s perfectly fine in a plastic container in the fridge; some like to add olive oil.

Then I read that it’s really best to eat garlic raw, and, for maximum health benefits, within 10 minutes of mincing or pressing it. A few months ago, I had a cold or some other symptom that the Internet suggested chewing and swallowing a raw clove of garlic for. I decided to give it a try and chewed up a whole clove of garlic, and, with my body screaming, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”, I swallowed it, to immediate and major ill effect.

That I will never do again, but after reading about the 10-minute thing, I decided to try mincing a clove of garlic and putting it on top of olive oil toast. This was not bad tasting and was tolerable to the stomach, but it also gave me a headache and a very dry mouth. I tried it again a couple of days later and the exact same thing happened. It actually seemed that this one clove of garlic had dried out my entire system, including my brain. I always drink a lot of water, but had to greatly step up my intake to try to ease my dry mouth.

So, raw garlic seems to be out, and it’s probably logistically impossible to eat garlic within 10 minutes of its being minced or pressed, since it takes me longer than that to prepare my scrumptious sautéed greens, but I figured it would be good if I minced garlic just before starting to cook my greens rather than to use garlic from the refrigerator that might have been minced several days prior, though I’m sure that’s still better than eating a doughnut.

Accordingly, I acquired a small version of an OXO chopper that I have found very satisfactory for nuts, and also a Garlic Twist, a really pleasing, very low-tech item made out of translucent plastic that you bang on your garlic clove to loosen the skin and then use to mince the garlic. This thing is brilliant and it works very well, but even freshly minced garlic was now seeming too strong.

Meanwhile, a fatigue had been creeping up on me, and for about a week, I had pain in my stomach after eating. Once that abated, I noticed a lot of bloating after eating and my appetite fell off markedly. Somewhere along in there, I had the two garlic-related episodes of dry mouth and headaches, and then I got even more tired, such that I could hardly get up a flight of stairs. I announced to F. that I was starting to look forward to getting a cancer diagnosis so I could lie in a hospital bed with a nice nurse to take care of me.

Then, on a Sunday afternoon when I’d drunk glass after glass of water still trying to get rid of my dry mouth, I noticed that my pee was pumpkin colored.

I looked online a bit and concluded that somehow I might have done something to my kidneys. I called my doctor’s office and got the number of the 24-hour nurse, who advised having it checked out that same day, either at urgent care or the emergency room. I went in a cab to the emergency room at Davies, which is a nice, calm place with no wait.

I felt unbelievably lousy and lying in a hospital bed with a nurse fussing over me was just as great as I’d pictured. The doctor came in and I told him my various symptoms. I could tell he thought I was a hypochondriac, which I am. He said the only thing he could really observe was perhaps a touch of malaise. They took a urine sample and pronounced it normal. I found out later that, despite the odd color, it was actually even better than normal, very dilute.

Then they drew some blood, and the doctor came in again, seeming much more engaged, and said there was nothing wrong with my kidneys, but there was something wrong with my liver. He asked if it hurt here or there in my abdomen, and if I’d noticed that the whites of my eyes were yellow. This I had not noticed, and in fact, the whites of my eyes and my skin were not yellow. The bilirubin in my blood was elevated enough to cause the weird pee color, but not enough to cause jaundice. The doctor sent me to have a CT scan with dye to see if there was a mass in my pancreas.

In the past couple of years, the father of a friend of mine died of pancreatic cancer, which has a poor prognosis. I lay on my comfy hospital bed reflecting that someone was going to come into the room and say either that I had a mass in my pancreas or that I didn’t. If the former, I was probably going to die, so I thought about what I needed to do before dying: make a will, so my sisters don’t pay a fortune in estate taxes. Find a top-notch home for Hammett. I’d want to spend my final weeks or months with my parents, lying in a La-Z-Boy in their media room. And that’s about it. I concluded I was ready to die, if necessary. Actually, I felt even a touch of relief at how simple life had (potentially) become.

Nonetheless, I was not displeased when the doctor came back and said I did not have a mass in either my liver or my pancreas and therefore I either had hepatitis or a gallstone. I took a cab home and called my father to report on the evening’s events. I was at the hospital from about 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. My father is up off and on around the clock and was awake when I called, though when I asked, “Are you awake?”, he answered, “Now I am,” because that’s the only correct answer to that question after a certain hour.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Just Do THIS

I’m noticing lately how many of my thoughts pertain to my immediate to-do list: I need to do this, then this, then this, as if I will forget to brush my teeth or have a cup of tea if I don’t remind myself several times. Thus I am oriented not in the present but almost the present—five minutes from now, but that isn’t good enough. Being lost in thoughts about five minutes from now is precisely the same as being lost in thoughts about 40 years from now or 40 years ago. Well, maybe thinking about five minutes from now is slightly more useful than thinking about 40 years hence, but both lack the freshness and vividness of being present in this moment.

I thought of the often-repeated meditation instruction to pay attention to “just this.” And how Ajahn Sumedho uses the formulation “ ___ is like this.” “Back pain is like this.” “Stress is like this.” It occurred to me that I needed another “this” formulation: Just do this. Not, just do this, but just do this.

I also see that there is a usually hidden view underlying my thoughts about what I need to do, namely that something bad will happen if I don’t get it done. That might be true, or it might not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Exact Procedures Pertaining to Icing

F. often participates in Diamond Dave’s Friday afternoon Internet radio show, at their studio in the Mission, and I sometimes join him for an hour or so. The whole show is three hours long and features a motley collection of poets, musicians, essayists and ad hoc ranters. One Friday late in July, I met F. at the radio station and then we had dinner at El Metate—he had never been there before and liked it—and went on to the soup kitchen for their open mic. A fellow known to both of us came along eating a cupcake and F. exclaimed over the profusion of icing; he doesn’t care for it. “Good,” said the man firmly. “You can keep your hands off it, then.” Later the same man turned up with a cookie and instructed, “You can treat this cookie the same way you treat my icing: stay away from it.”


As my apartment is an insect sanctuary, meaning that none is knowingly harmed, I found myself co-existing with a spider who had made her web on the window nearest my bed. (Are all spiders girls? I’m sure I’ve mentioned that when I was a child, my mother would tell me and my sisters, “Spiders are our friends and sisters.”)

One day there appeared in the web a spider larger than the webowner, and of disturbing appearance, with thickish legs and body, all or mostly a translucent pale yellow, as I recall. The first spider was a regular dark spider, not particularly beefy. Could this other spider have fallen prey to the first? It appeared entirely intact, but when F. blew gently in the direction of the web, the first spider twitched, but the second didn’t: dead.

Yet the next day, the second spider was entirely gone. It seemed unlikely that the first spider could have consumed every fragment of it already, since there were still remnants in the web of other tiny creatures left over from days or weeks before. No, this second spider, employing notable malevolence, had played dead when F. performed his test, and was now elsewhere in my apartment waiting to walk on my eyelid in the night.

I decided the charm of co-existing with a spider had worn off and took it out to a large planter box in front of my apartment building, then wiped the web off the window.

Next I turned my attention to the fruit flies that were swarming out of the compost bin when one lifted the lid to make a deposit and generally hanging around in that area. They didn’t really bother me, but the compost bin is not far from the back door of the apartment under mine, and its inhabitants didn’t like getting a face full of little flying creatures every time they came out of their door, and so installed a chemical bug-killing device.

I offered to see if I could find something less toxic at Rainbow and found a product that was made specifically for this and which initially worked remarkably well, but after a while, the fruit flies were back to being out of control. I’m not sure if this is because not everyone was sprinkling the product on top of his or her compostable materials, as a handsome nearby sign, made and laminated by myself, recommends, or if after a while, the fruit flies got used to the stuff and returned to vigorous reproduction. I told the downstairs neighbors I’d go back to the drawing board and experimented with sprinkling in cinnamon or powdered ginger. This caused the fruit flies to scatter right away, but the next day I would find just as many there as the day before.

A couple of days ago, I soaked two cotton balls with tea tree oil and hung them over the lid of the compost bin and that seems to be working excellently. I can see live things strolling around in there when I open the bin, but no creature comes flying out. As an auxiliary measure, I plan to make a spray of eucalyptus oil, witch hazel and water to leave by the bin.


My three favorite words: vermin, goiter and fritz, as in the TV is on the fritz.


I passed that place the other day where I took the puddle photos and saw it still was a puddle. There must be some sort of drainage issue there that makes the place permanently wet. Maybe I had better keep the exact location to myself in case I have to drink that water someday.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Breaking Together

In the final issue of Inquiring Mind, Larry Yang of the East Bay Meditation Center (in Oakland, a short stroll from the 19th St. BART station, it appears) writes about forming a very diverse sangha. He says a few things that I thought were nicely applicable to romantic relationships, as well, or any kind of relationship: “When differences arise, our conditioned response is to fragment. What would it be like, even in the complexity, even in the injury, even in the harm—to break together rather than to break apart? … We may not have the skills yet, or the awareness, or even the kindness, but that will come if we have that intention of not leaving the room. This is where peace begins.”

And this: “When we work with people who hold different views and/or life experiences, it often takes longer than we think it should and carries more contradictions than we would like. We need to remember that what matters is not what we think or what we like: it is how we are with each other.”

And: “Injuries still occur, but by navigating the suffering over and over again we break through thoughts that we are unable to create a sangha together or that we do not have enough resources to do it or that we are not good enough to deserve it.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

Us Day

I guess now that we’ve made it past the six-month mark, I can mention my darling, handsome, funny, romantic, artistic new gentleman companion, F.

Places we’ve eaten at that were new to me:

Taqueria San Jose. Mission near 24th St. Good burritos at good prices.

La Taqueria. 25th St. and Mission. This is supposed to be the best taqueria in the entire country. They don’t believe in rice or tofu. Their burrito is basically a big pile of meat wrapped in a flour tortilla. The meat in the one I had was rather tough, but flavorful. They don’t serve chips with their burritos, but you can order them on the side. The chips come with a huge amount of wet salsa dumped on top and quickly become soggy. We haven’t gone back there, but probably will at some point.

Heung Yuen. 22nd St. between Valencia and Mission. A favorite of F.’s for several years and now a favorite of mine. Tasty Chinese food served with alacrity by very pleasant people, at excellent prices. I particularly like their garlic eggplant and a pepper beef chow fun dish.

Roosevelt Tamale Parlor. 24th St. however many blocks east of Mission. A place F. had remembered fondly from decades ago. We had a nice time there, but haven’t been back. It’s dark and small and relatively expensive, meaning more than the $8-15 per person we usually spend for dinner.

Teriyaki (not sure if that’s its actual name, but that’s what it says out front). Potrero between 16th and 15th  streets. F. eats here regularly. The California rolls are good, ditto their prices. 

Mekong Kitchen. 18th St. a bit east of Castro. Neither of us liked what we had very much and it was kind of expensive. 

Ali Baba’s Cave, at the corner of Valencia and 19th St. Mediterranean food. The hummus was smooth and wonderful. The falafels were hard as rock. F. had some sort of chicken wrap that he didn’t care for.

In other dining news, my chaplaincy class buddy and I tried Old Jerusalem, on Mission between 25th and 26th streets, which we both absolutely loved. Delicious, fresh Mediterranean food. We also tried Baobab, on 18th St. east of Mission, which we both hated. African food. Everything we had was yucky. We also didn’t like The Front Porch, on 29th St. off Mission, which serves Southern food. It was quite expensive and the chicken was flavorless once you got past the coating. Now and then, I’ve come upon references to boiled peanuts and always thought they sounded wonderful. They are repulsive. At The Front Porch, anyway, they are boiled in the shell and when you open the shell, you have liquid everywhere, and the soggy texture of the peanuts is exceeded in unpleasantness only by the horrible flavor. 

Now, here is what would probably be good, just off the top of my head: roasted, salted peanuts heated in avocado oil and topped with mayonnaise. Yes, I just thought that up all by myself! By the way, I bought a jar of mayonnaise made with avocado oil yesterday, which I thought was going to be awful, but I think it will be perfectly satisfactory. It tastes good. The brand is Primal Kitchen. Its not organic because apparently there is hardly any such thing as organic avocado oil, but the eggs, egg yolks and vinegar are all organic.

This past Friday evening, my chaplaincy buddy and I went to Yamo, a hole in the wall on 18th St. just west of Mission where they serve Burmese food. It was delicious and very inexpensive, but when we left, our glasses were coated with a sticky film of grease. We understood then why so many people were getting their food to go, though that the place literally seats only seven people may also have something to do with that.

Tom and I tried Burma Love, on Valencia St. not far from Market, which has a clean, modern feel. The service was great and the food was good, but I didn’t find the main thing I was hoping for, which was fantastic garlic noodles, now that the Valencia St. location of Sunflower has closed. The garlic noodles at Burma Love were about one fourth as good as Sunflower’s, but cost twice as much. The best thing at Burma Love was an appetizer of garlic shrimp, which was delectable. Twelve dollars for eight shrimp.

Places F. and I have eaten at that I had already eaten at: La Cumbre, Esperpento, La Santaneca de la Mission, Café Ethiopia, and We Be Sushi; he took me to the latter for my birthday. My favorite meal at Esperpento lately is roasted potatoes with aioli, and garlic shrimp. F. and I have also been to several potlucks at Thomas House together, hosted by the community that runs the soup kitchen.

Other things we have done: Visit Pittsburg. Take a beautiful drive, on another day, along River Road between Pittsburg and Sacramento. Go to the Alameda County Fair to see Tower of Power. Go to AT&T Park for Opera at the Ballpark: The Marriage of Figaro simulcast from the opera house. Go swimming at Lodi Lake. Go to a summer evening party hosted by Steve and Julie in Sacramento. Visit various parks and Ocean Beach. Visit a large abandoned shipyard. Cook and eat meals together. He makes wonderful eggs and many different kinds of potatoes, and we have had several dinners of baked salmon and veggies with fruit for dessert, using my father’s baked salmon recipe.

We’ve seen some movies: Magic Mike XXL, which I liked a lot. I liked the first one, too, particularly Matthew McConaughey. He’s not in the sequel, but it’s very respectful of women, of women of size, of African-Americans. It has some genuinely lovely messages. Prior to that, we saw Spy, which we both liked, and, at the Castro Theatre, we saw Double Indemnity. We also saw the heartbreaking documentary about Amy Winehouse. Beforehand, I played F. both of her CDs, so he’d have some familiarity with her music. We watched all of season three of House of Cards (streaming from Amazon), and now we’re watching season one, which he had not seen before. Plot points that escaped me the first time through are now much clearer.

On my birthday, F. and I were at a bus stop at Castro and 18th and some people came along and said it was name tag day—would we care for name tags? F. said he would like one if it could say “Us” on it. I got the same thing and we received an “Awww!” or two as we made our way from place to place that pleasant afternoon.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Final Chaplaincy Class

Hammett’s thyroid medication, which is applied to his ear morning and night in the form of gel, seems to have set him right. As of two months ago (yes, I’ve fallen woefully behind here) he had gained back 44 percent of the weight he’d lost, and his thyroid is completely normal again, also his kidneys. For a while there, I could easily feel the bones in his little spine, but not any more, and he seems calm and happy. Weirdly, he’s producing a lot more fur than he ever has before. I could go months without combing him for the first many years of his life, but now he generates a big clump of hair weekly.

In early July my final chaplaincy class at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood City met. At our yummy potluck lunch, I sat next to one of our teachers, who asked if I plan to continue with chaplaincy. I told him I have decided not to, as I don’t want to learn about a lot of different religions. He mildly said that wasn’t necessarily required—if a hospital patient needs a priest, you fetch a priest, though he immediately followed that by saying there are a number of things non-priests can do in a pinch, such as baptisms. That’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to do. Instead, I’ll continue to be a stealth chaplain at the soup kitchen and in life.

Generally, it’s my custom to start things and then drop out, but at our first class, we did a ritual where we wrote down a word that expressed our biggest challenge in completing the course and gave the pieces of paper to our teachers, who promised to make our difficulties magically disappear. My word was “fickleness” and their magic worked. I feel great about having completed the entire class, including attending every session, turning in every writing assignment on time, completing the requested 100 hours of volunteering, and reading every word of the book assignments—I appear to have been the only student who did this. I also read every word of the online assignments until the final month, excluding five or six extremely long and scholarly articles. In some months, there were 15 or 20 things to read online.

They’ve been teaching this class for several years now and the teachers said that ours was the only group to date that didn’t have someone drop out mid-course. I gather it was also the first group that had the kind of brouhaha we did, over the evidently racist remark. Every one of us hung in there through that whole process, and we emerged with good feeling all around. It seems that that difficulty actually cemented us together. However we felt at different times, none of us left the room.

This class was a tremendous experience—I will never forget my wonderful fellow students—and what I learned comes in handy every day. At a recent Thomas House potluck, I was sitting next to a woman who has been through quite a number of difficult experiences in the past year, as has her husband, and I listened in the way that has now become familiar to me. Afterward, she said something like, “Thank you for listening to me so kindly, with such caring and patience.” I wasn’t seeking a compliment, and I also wasn’t particularly trying to be kind, caring or patient, though I suppose that’s better than trying to be mean, heartless and hurried. I was listening to every word and also tracking my own visceral experience, so that I remained present; that’s all. I didn’t give advice, but now and then, I said “That sounds awful” or “You have been through a lot.”

Periodically Mission Dharma offers an introduction to insight meditation class, taught by two senior students. Earlier in the summer, Howie invited me to co-teach one of these classes for the first time. It met in the church’s library on five consecutive Thursday nights. Anne and I had 15 people sign up, plus a few on the waiting list, though after the first night’s full house, about eight people showed up weekly, not always the same eight.

I gave talks on mindfulness, the five hindrances, and the Noble Eightfold Path. In between, Anne gave talks on the Four Noble Truths and on metta. I wrote my talks out word for word, though I tried to deliver them without staring at the piece of paper. These were my first official dharma talks ever, and I figured they wouldn’t be the world’s best talks, but decided that if one person heard one helpful thing, that would be good enough, and the feedback I got indicates that was the case. In addition, I myself benefited tremendously from having to rethink what I believe and understand, and then having to research to fill in the gaps.

I most often consulted Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein, which is an absolutely splendid book. Getting to give these talks was also an opportunity to pass on my favorite quotes from various dharma books and teachers, gleaned over these 25 years.

A friend asked why writing the talks was so helpful to me. This is how I answered her:

I had managed to get along without thinking often of the first thing the Buddha taught after his own enlightenment: The Four Noble Truths. 1) There is suffering in life: sickness, old age, death, not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want. 2) Suffering has causes: grasping and aversion, to employ the most commonly used terms—trying to get something, trying to get something to go away—and ignorance: not seeing clearly how things are, or seeing how things are but not understanding them. 3) If suffering has causes, then there must be an end to suffering. 4) The path to the end of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path:

Right View: Understanding the first three noble truths.

Right Thought: Inclining toward thoughts of good will rather than thoughts of ill will or grasping.

Right Speech: That which is true, kind, useful, timely.

Right Action: Not physically harming living beings, not stealing, not causing harm with our sexuality.

Right Livelihood: Not causing harm with our work.

Right Effort: Encouraging wholesome (e.g., kind or generous) states of mind to arise and persist; discouraging unwholesome states of mind from arising; once an unwholesome state of mind has arisen, encouraging it not to persist.

Right Mindfulness: Mindfulness of the sort that leads to understanding.

Right Concentration: The steadying of the mind that comes from practicing mindfulness which, besides being calming and pleasant in and of itself, allows the sustained observation (mindfulness) that leads to insight, which is what ultimately liberates us from suffering, not our efforts to get rid of suffering.

Suffering: Besides what is listed above for the First Noble Truth, the very states of grasping and aversion themselves and the effects of the speech and action that can arise from these mental states. And that’s what fell into place while writing my three talks.

I thought all the time about mindfulness and of course tried to be mindful, but didn’t think enough about the causes of suffering, let alone about the Noble Eightfold Path. Now I am reminding myself frequently: grasping causes suffering. Aversion causes suffering. In fact, grasping is suffering, and aversion is suffering.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


(Click photos to enlarge.)

(Yes, we will have words here again one of these days.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Big Plans for Tomorrow

I recently determined that something had to leave my schedule—every second seemed allocated to something or other—and so, with regret, have ceased to be a Laguna Honda volunteer.

During my months of going there, I always started by visiting two residents who were formerly guests of the soup kitchen. I never knew them there, but the soup kitchen’s director told me about them.

M. was usually lounging on his bed with the TV on, wearing a half-smile as he announced, “I’m getting out of here tomorrow!” In the beginning I would say “See you next week” when I left, but finally learned not to, as he always answered, “Won’t be here!” After that I said, “I’m lucky I caught you before you left.”

I liked to ask what he planned to do after he got out. The first time, he said, “Get drunk!”

“What are you going to do after that?”

“Get laid!”

“Sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful day!”

Sometimes his answer was, “Go see [the soup kitchen’s director]!” or “Have a cheeseburger!”

The last time I visited him, he said he was planning to get drunk and then “find a woman.”

“Where do you find a woman?”

“At the bar!”

“Oh, so you can do both things at the same place. What’s your favorite bar?”

“One that’s open!”

M. once pointed out a framed photo of himself with the Dalai Lama, from when the latter visited the soup kitchen several years ago. That was the only observable photograph in his room.

N., the other fellow, I think must have had a stroke, as he really can only make the sound “Uh.” Consequently, our visits usually weren’t very long. His dog is being cared for by another guest at the soup kitchen, but the couple of times I said, “So-and-so is taking good care of Annabel,” it didn’t seem to mean anything to him, though by then I had figured out he could understand me perfectly. At first I (stupidly) assumed that because I couldn’t understand what he was saying, he couldn’t understand what I was saying.

Once I realized the incomprehension didn’t go both ways, I started speaking to him more normally, and it seemed to me that, over the months, his speech improved a bit, or maybe I began to be able to tell one “Uh” from another. He was always lying in bed, staring at the TV, holding the nurse call device to his ear as if were a phone. There are a number of photos of friends, family members and animals in his room.

In my final weeks of volunteering, his face would light up when I arrived, and when I went into his room for my last visit, he put his hand on the cart next to his bed, but I couldn’t figure out what for. We had our usual type of exchange, with me talking and him saying “Uh.” However, his face was becoming increasingly animated and it really did seem as if we were somehow communicating better. I said, “It seems as if your speech is getting better. Does it seem that way to you?” and he nodded. After a short while, I got up to leave and he put his hand out on his cart and I realized he wanted me to take his hand. I took his hand and said, “How sweet! Thank you!” It really made my day. I will miss him and might go see both him and M. from time to time, though maybe neither will recognize me if I’m not there every week.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Narrator on Aerator

In recent months, the hot water coming out of my kitchen sink faucet began, at times, to be a very diminished flow which would persist for several days and then return to normal. More than once it returned to normal after I turned it off especially firmly, and when the plumber arrived, he suggested the hot water handle might just need a new washer, though he quickly caught himself and said a whole new faucet would be even better.

As with many things in life, I should have just left well enough alone, but after a while, I decided it would be good to at least try replacing the washer, which requires turning off the water to the entire building, because my hot water shutoff valve is cemented into the wall.

The plumber arrived and quickly convinced my building manager that, given the age of the equipment, a new faucet would be the best way to go. He went out to his truck to see what he might have available and installed a shiny new faucet. Cost: $600.

The new faucet turned out to differ from the old one in that the water emerges higher and much closer to the back edge of the sink. This meant that any time the water was on, there was a tremendous racket as the water fell from on high down to the surface of the sink—conversation proved to be a bit impaired—and it also meant that a vast amount of water was splashing onto the counter. Also, I was having to reach farther to get to the water. It was only a few inches’ difference, but I could feel the slight additional strain.

Over the course of a couple of months, I thought this over and solicited suggestions: Was there a more appropriate faucet out there somewhere? Could an S-shape piece be fashioned and fitted to the end of the spout so that the water came out farther forward and closer down? I discussed it with the building manager, assuring her I’d pay for any further work or parts.

A few weeks ago, when the plumber was in the building checking something in another unit, he stopped by and agreed the water comes out too high and too far back, but concluded that the real problem is that my sink is too shallow. What I needed was a much deeper sink, to reduce water splashing onto the counter. Or perhaps the real issue was the height at which the pipes come out of the wall, which, to be sure, is comically high. Therefore, he thought we might consider tearing the wall open and lowering the pipes, and I’m sure we would certainly consider that if we wanted to spend $5000, extrapolating from the cost of the new faucet.

Fortunately, after that I went on a walk with my walking friend and he suggested a flow restrictor to reduce the volume of water. I went over to Cole Hardware on 4th St. between Mission and Market and talked to David, who has helped me many times, and he sold me an aerator/sprayer with a swivel joint. It cost $7.60 and has completely solved the problem! The volume of water is less, so it’s not objectionably loud when it hits the sink, and the flow can be aimed forward, so it’s easier to reach and there’s much less water on the counter.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


When I realized that Hammett’s usual cat sitter would not be able to apply his gel-based thyroid medication, it was just two weeks before I was scheduled to leave for a trip to Michigan. I went to Mission Pet Hospital and got a list of potential cat sitters, a few of whom are actual veterinary technicians there. I called a few of them. One person’s outgoing message consisted only of his or her last name, stated in a firm tone: “Smith!” I couldn’t tell from the name on the list or the voice on the phone what gender this person might be, but I left a message and Smith showed up, well ventilated with piercings and covered with tattoos, including a giant one across the front of her neck.

I fetched Hammett from his cozy bed in the closet and picked him up. He frantically pedaled all his arms and legs in the air: put me down, put me down! But when I did, he ran straight for Smith. He stopped about six feet from her, but then walked the rest of the way over to her and let her scratch his head, so Smith is our new cat sitter.

I went on my trip as scheduled and had a lovely time with Mom and Dad, and my sister, and friends Amy and Ginny. With both Ginny and Amy, I had a salmon burger at Café Zola. I also got together with my Uncle Rick, cousin Rick, and cousin Rick’s two boys, Ben and Luke, for dinner at Haab’s in Ypsilanti one rainy night. One day I told my father that my sister would be coming over shortly, and he said, “I’ve already heard about that, and don’t call me ‘Shortly.’”

When I got back to San Francisco, I found everything completely shipshape. Smith had even made notes for each day on how much Hammett had eaten, no doubt something she does in her work as a vet tech.

The gel has ended up working out great. He has barfed only twice since starting it, and his thyroid levels are nearly back to normal, with no sign of the kidney problems that can be masked by thyroid problems. (The kidneys can look perfectly fine, bloodwork-wise, until the thyroid is straightened out, and then it becomes clear that there is a problem.) The first time I applied the gel, it was a harrowing experience, but it got easier every time I did it, and he now sits serenely on my lap in the morning and evening to have one ear cleaned with a damp cotton ball and the gel applied to the other ear. After the gel, he gets a treat of two Pill Pockets, chicken in the morning and salmon in the evening. Once a week, I clean both ears with witch hazel.

I hope he’s gained back some of the weight he lost. He seems calmer and more robust, and that brief period in the morning when he was acting like a savage jungle beast has all but faded away. Over the past year, he would get extremely wound up when I was making the bed and bite and claw me. A time or two, he even sprang into the air as I walked through my apartment, trying to bring me down from an upright position! Evidently, it was all due to his thyroid levels being out of whack.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blogger Narrowly Escapes Inflammatory Breast Cancer—This Time

Early in May, I woke up with a painful tubelike lump in one breast and that evening, before showering, I noticed there was an accompanying red streak about a quarter of an inch wide and three and a half inches long. I immediately called my breast cancer surgeon, and he called back within minutes (this was about 8 p.m.) and said to come in first thing the next morning. These symptoms pointed to two possible conditions: mastitis, a mammary gland infection which is not a big deal, or inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), which is always stage III or IV when diagnosed and fatal for most. It’s like what I had before—ductal carcinoma in situ—except no longer in situ.

When I saw my doctor the next morning, he said, “I don’t see how you could have cancer—you just had a clean mammogram four months ago,” but the Internet says that IBC is very aggressive and can easily get to a late stage between mammograms, unlike other forms of breast cancer, so that was not at all relieving. Regarding mastitis, the Internet says it is most commonly seen in nursing mothers and that it’s frequently accompanied by fever and chills. It’s often discovered when women seek medical treatment for what seems to be the flu. Figuring he would try the simplest thing first, my doctor prescribed antibiotics to be taken every six hours for a week. I asked how I could have gotten such an infection, if that’s what it was, and he said he didn’t know. He asked twice if I had fever or chills—flu-like symptoms—but I didn’t. I didn’t realize the significance of that until after I got home and performed more research, and then I was even more worried.

The antibiotic was Cephalexin, which I mention because, unlike other antibiotics I’ve been on over the years, it did not cause stomach upset or a yeast infection. The red streak got no worse and began to fade slowly, and the pain abated, but the lump actually became larger and rounder for a few days. However, I figured that if it was IBC, which does not respond to antibiotics, the redness would be getting worse. After several days, the lump also started to get smaller and, in the course of a couple of weeks, went away completely, so it was some kind of localized infection, thank goodness.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Self-Portrait with Toilet and How It Used to Look from My Living Room Windows

This little house is gone and there is a very fancy house there now, and the park beyond it has been beautifully redone. I meant to do a before and after, but before I got around to taking the after pictures, trees grew up in front of my windows, so now it looks like trees.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Five Fingers

At the soup kitchen late in April, I spotted what appeared to be a woman I was pretty close friends with soon after I arrived in S.F., 32 years ago now. We lost touch 20 or so years ago, and I have often wondered what became of her, but her last name is very common and there was no chance of finding her online, though I tried now and then. I stood there trying to decide if it was her, and if so, what her role was. She was very professionally dressed, chatting calmly with another nicely dressed woman. When I was last in touch with K., she was training to become a therapist or psychologist. Perhaps she was conducting a study or writing a book. I decided it was her and walked over.

We greeted each other warmly, and I asked, “Where have you been?” “I’ve been everywhere,” she replied. “I’ve been here and there—around the world—and now I’m homeless.” It was utterly shocking. K. is smart, educated, charming, capable. When I knew her, she was a serious student of Buddhism—in fact, a student of Howie’s. In fact, she was the person who took me to Howie in the first place. She and I are the same age.

She told me later on that same day that she has been homeless for a year, ten months of which she spent sleeping on the ground in the Mission before getting into a shelter, which she loves because of the showers. Losing a job is what set her on the path to homelessness. She has three siblings and a mother, including a brother who lives not far off, which you would think would make a difference, but in our culture, not necessarily.

I mentioned this encounter to my esteemed Indian co-worker, who was horrified. She agreed that siblings might have differences. She said, “All five fingers might not be the same length, but you remember that not everyone is perfect and you take care of your family.” She said that if she became homeless, her sister or brother would take her in. She said their parents stressed that they must care for each other, and that she and her husband tell their two sons all the time to be kind to each other: your brother is the one who will always be there.

In my family, and I only mention it because I think it’s probably typical, no one said we had to get along with our siblings simply because they were our siblings. I was told that you don’t have to be friends with people just because they’re family members, and that if even a close family member doesn’t want to be friendly, it’s out of your control. This is in line with the American ideal of independence. My co-worker diplomatically said she tries to find good things in every culture, but that there are things she learned in her own culture that remain values for her.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Imminent Danger

Back outside in the bright sunshine after attending the meditation group at San Quentin late in April, we sat on a low wall to eat our bag lunches and walked through the main yard to a classroom where Jacques Verduin teaches the GRIP class: Growing Rage into Power. As we made our way there, I thought, “I’m walking through the yard at San Quentin.” Per instructions from Jacques, when inmates greeted us, we politely said hello in return and moved on. We sat in a circle with the members of the GRIP class, which includes 28 inmates, who collectively had killed 23 people. Thus, it is almost certain that I was sitting between two murderers.

At the first class session, they added up the minutes and seconds elapsed between the time violence could have been avoided and the time the crime was committed, and it was cumulatively 69 minutes, or an average of 2.46 minutes per class member. Jacques said the longest such period for anyone in the room was 20 minutes; the shortest was four seconds. The man sitting to my right said it had been seven seconds in his case.

A primary aim of the class is to learn to recognize the moment of imminent danger and respond in a way that avoids violence. This, you will not be surprised to learn, is done by mindfulness of the body.

One class member told us in detail about killing his girlfriend of two years. (His imminent danger period was seven seconds, he said, after which he stabbed his girlfriend in the chest.) Did he look like a horrible monster? No, he did not. He looked precisely like most everyone else we ever see, like a regular person. He passed around some photos of his victim, of whom he spoke with love and tenderness, saying she had been a light in the world. He also told us about meeting with her sister and cousin, and being forgiven by both of them.

Another class member asked, the longing evident in his voice, “After they said they forgave you, did you feel free?” I don’t think the person telling the story spoke of feeling free as such, but he said over and over how grateful he was to be offered such a huge gift, and he said that very few inmates in California have the opportunity for this kind of meeting with the loved ones of their victims.

Then other class members asked him questions, and we meditated together a bit, with one of the students offering instructions, and Jacques had each of us visitors say a couple of sentences about our experience of being there. “Honored” was used more than once; one of us said she felt privileged to be able to have this experience. Finally, we stood in a circle and held hands.

I’ve been thinking ever since then about how practically every one of us acts impulsively multiple times per day: Before the thought of having a sip of water has left my head, my hand is around the glass. Thought and emotion, followed instantly by action, but not usually then by life in prison. How amazing to contemplate how someone’s entire life, perhaps decades of life, can become about an act that took a few seconds to conceive and perhaps just a few more seconds to carry out. That person is thereafter seen as nothing more than the person who did that terrible thing, irremediable garbage.

The last thing we did at San Quentin was to go into a cafeteria building, I think for staff, and debrief with Jacques and a woman who is interning as an interfaith chaplain there. She deeply impressed me. Her presence was profoundly tender and open. Because I’m susceptible to this kind of thing, I asked this chaplain what she does when she feels attracted to a prisoner. “It’s never happened,” she told me. This was confounding: never? Well, then, what about when a prisoner is attracted to her? She said that behavior is forbidden and that the one time an inmate said something suggestive to her, she thought the three nearest inmates were going to beat him up.

(In our next chaplaincy class, we did a segment on sexual attraction in caregiving relationships. One of our teachers said it will absolutely arise; the question is how to avoid acting on it where prohibited by ethics or where there is the possibility of causing harm. I reported what the San Quentin chaplain said about never feeling this, and my teacher was skeptical. She suggested that maybe the chaplain just didn’t feel like talking about it with a stranger. It also occurs to me that perhaps her sexual orientation simply is otherwise.)

I’ve also been thinking about how the San Quentin chaplain intern clearly is not there to be nice, or to fix anyone, or to provide love in a personal sense, let alone romance. I’m sure she is very nice indeed, and that she does love the inmates she works with, but her service is obviously about manifesting the powerful but impersonal forms of love, generosity and kindness that connect us all, every last being, whether our worst act was eating the last piece of tofu jerky or murdering our girlfriend. And she was doing that. I could see it when she looked at me, and I would like to be able to do that myself, whether I work as a chaplain or not.

She and Jacques talked about ways not to internalize trauma and violence. They hear such ghastly stories about horrific crimes and somehow must not let themselves be scarred. Jacques said human touch is helpful, and both he and the chaplain intern find immersion in water, or doing activities on the water (e.g., boating) restorative.