Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pleasure Dome

Mid-February, I went to the Mindfulness Care Center’s monthly grief and loss support group. The first time I went was months prior, and I found it very helpful, ditto on the more recent occasion. It’s such a balm to be among people who are speaking in a very sincere manner, straight from their hearts and from the depths of their most profound feelings, and to be able to do the same myself and feel completely safe and comfortable. My partner for the evening’s dyad exercise was a woman who is a member of Howie’s sangha. I’d never spoken with her before, and she proved to be just the loveliest, kindest person. I experience very little sorrow about Carlos these days, with very few tears, but I still fairly often feel a mild shock and disbelief that he isn’t here.


Seen at the soup kitchen: a pit bull in a tight, slightly torn wife-beater undershirt. I know we
’re not supposed to think of pit bulls as menacing, but this one really did look like someone to avoid.

While I was at the laundromat, a homeless woman came in and sat at the little table and watched with interest as I folded 26 navy t-shirts. “You like dark colors,” she observed, adding, “Well, at least you know you’re not wearing the same shirt every day.” It had actually never occurred to me that people thought I was wearing the same t-shirt every day.

Then we discussed hair. She asked if I ever braid mine—it’s not long enough—and said that she has always had layers and just recently let her hair grow out long enough to pull back into a ponytail. I told her it looked nice: “It shows off your face, and then you have the nice ponytail in back.” She beamed at that.

At times, she mumbled rather incoherently, but I could tell she was saying something about needing $13.95 more in order to be able to sleep in a shelter. I told her she was welcome to whatever quarters I had left over after my 11 loads of laundry and two trips to the laundromat. That turned out to be only $2.25 and she thanked me for it, but started to cry, saying as if to herself, “Where will I go?”

At home, soft touch that I am, I fetched a $20 bill and went back to the laundromat and gave it to her. She was pleased and moved and said, “Can I have a hug? I don’t bite.” I gave her a warm hug, as the executive director at the soup kitchen freely gives his guests. It’s interesting how right after you give someone a generous gift, they also want a hug, but it’s because being treated kindly touches our hearts and reminds us that what we all really want is love.


One of Hammett’s high-spirited activities is to hop up on the kitchen counter near the sink and sit down, right where I often set food down. I usually nudge him off the counter (and then feel like a jerk, because he clearly would prefer to sit there) or, in a more tolerant mood, pick him up and set him on the floor, which sometimes has to be done five times in a row.

One day, I decided to investigate my feeling of annoyance rather than act on it and was going about my business nearby when a tremendous perturbation occurred behind me. I turned to see Hammett attempting to claw his way out of the window above the sink, which was nearly but not quite open enough for this, and either he was standing in the plastic container full of diluted dish soap or landed in it after releasing his hold on the windowsill. In any event, he ended up soaked to the knees in dish soap, which I didn’t want him to ingest while cleaning himself, so then I had to take him into the bathroom and try to run warm water over his hind legs, which action was vigorously and successfully opposed. I put warm water in a plastic bin and set him in it long enough to rinse the soap off, and then dried him as best I could.


After chaplaincy class in March, I had dinner with a classmate, as always, this time at Udupi Palace. When she asked if I’d have dessert, I said, “No, my body is a temple,
and she replied, “My body is a pleasure dome.”


I took a walk with my walking friend. Now and then he has a cup of coffee during our outings, so I asked, “Would you like to stop for a cup of coffee?”, but he said, “No, I’m still releasing my first one,” which struck me as hilarious. We found ourselves down at the Civic Center, where we saw part of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which featured a tremendous number of police officers (marching) and nearly as many cute children. It was pretty sparsely attended, making it a nice alternative to the Gay Pride parade. We had lunch at Ananda Fuara and then walked back to the Mission and went to sit on a bench at the top of Dolores Park, which was extremely crowded. It was a very warm, sunny day. All told, we spent six pleasant hours together.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Big Pink

Early in February, I went to the San Francisco airport to pick up a very special, much-anticipated guest, my father, who’d decided that he wanted to go to the wedding of his brother (my Uncle Joe) in Bend, OR, and also to spend some time in San Francisco. My mother isn’t much of a flyer, so he came alone. Standing at the airport watching people arrive, I felt a tremendous sense of fondness for my fellow humans. It made me think of the sequences at the beginning and end of the movie Love, Actually.

There was a woman waiting near me who didn’t seem friendly, but when her people appeared—a younger man and woman and a baby—she snatched the baby from its parents and turned beaming to me, showing the infant off. I smiled back, appreciating, with her, this particularly excellent baby.

On the way back from the airport, my father and I saw a double rainbow, very wide and very close to the ground. Both ends could be seen all the way back to town. Dad pointed out how all the sky visible between the two rainbows was perfectly grey, which he thought was unusual.

I had some photos to drop off with a guest at the soup kitchen, but had forgotten what day it was, and so found the place deserted, except that the executive director had by chance stopped by, along with one of his housemates. The housemate yelled, “Hi, Dad!” and gave my extremely reserved father a big hug.

The next day, Dad took a long walk to Buena Vista Park and back. We went to Esperpento for lunch together, and then he came with me on my regular walk.

Since we were going to Bend, it had occurred to me that we might as well go to Seattle to see my cousin and her husband and daughter and mother-in-law and David and Lisa, and if we were going to Seattle, then we might as well go to Portland, where neither of us had never been. I proposed this itinerary and I was sure Dad was going to say he’d prefer just to go to Bend for the wedding and otherwise hang out in San Francisco, but he said, “Sure!”

I think he probably came to regret that, as it turned out to be, using his word, quite a hectic undertaking. We flew to Seattle the day after our lunch at Esperpento, took the light rail downtown and the monorail to our hotel, then walked over to the Row House Café for lunch and back to our hotel via the Center for Wooden Boats. In the evening, we drove a rental car to Shoreline for dinner with the aforementioned crew.

The next day we drove to Portland, which struck both of us as gloomy. We did have a tasty lunch at the Portland City Grill (recommended by David) and appreciated the expansive view from the high floor of “Big Pink.” Our server was raving about how lucky we’d gotten with the weather, though if that was good weather, I don’t want to see the bad weather. That evening we made an attempt to visit Willamette Falls, but couldn’t find it, plus the traffic going back into town was awful.

I’d brought a number of maps and printed out many pages of driving instructions, nearly all of which were useless: we got lost over and over and over. It turns out the best use of a paper map is to cause someone with a smart phone to rush to your assistance. One day as we were driving on the freeway, I thought, “I’m going to have to get a smart phone” (though I subsequently decided it would be simpler and cheaper just not to travel) and just at that moment, Dad said, “I’m going to have to get a smart phone with GPS.” Mom has long wanted one, so I gave her a call from my dumb phone to give her the good news: soon she will have a smart phone! She was happy.

The next morning, we had breakfast at Milo’s Café on Broadway in Portland, across the bridge from downtown. Dad got a little plastic giraffe with his hot chocolate and kindly turned it over to me. We drove that day to Bend, passing Mt. Hood, which I think was a highlight for both of us—so beautiful. The wedding was held at the performance space for an arts complex. Of course we got lost on our way there, but made it just in time. Another guest told us that if the weather had been typical for that time of year, there would have been too much snow for us to be able to drive from Portland.

Uncle Joe’s bride, Roxanne, is short and pillowy and laughs a lot and is a fantastic dancer; Uncle Joe said she was actually not even showing off all her moves. I joked, “That’s low gear?” and he said it was.

The invitation had said 3:30 – 6:30, with reception to follow, but it turned out that the entire event took place between 3:30 and 6:30. The ceremony itself took about five minutes, and included a mention of my father's mother, my Grandma Helen (whose birthday it was), which made me tear up a little. How odd to hear her, last seen 45 years ago in her bed in her house west of Ann Arbor, mentioned in February of 2015 in Bend, OR.

The next day, we drove from Bend back to San Francisco and had dinner with Tom on Valencia St. Dad’s final day in San Francisco was Valentine’s Day. He took a long, long walk to Ocean Beach and back, and I went over to the soup kitchen to drop the aforementioned photos off with the guest. That day was expected to set a heat record in San Francisco and a cold record in Ypsilanti, MI. Dad said that while he was strolling on the beach in the warm sunlight, Mom called to see where the ice scraper was.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It’s Alive

In February, my chaplaincy class went on a two-day retreat at the Insight Retreat Center, in Scotts Valley. I took the train down to Redwood City on a Thursday evening and one of my classmates picked several of us up there for transport to the retreat center, which is a beautiful place and has luxurious accommodations, relatively speaking. It was once an old folks’ home, and there is one bathroom per two bedrooms. (At Spirit Rock, there is one bathroom per about 10 bedrooms, though each room has its own little sink.)

I’d never gotten a response to my email to the fellow who made the remark considered by most to be racist, so I approached him in the dining room that evening to say I hoped I hadn’t made anything worse. He was very warm and friendly, and said that my note had been fine; there had been a death in his family. He and I sat together at one meal and chatted away, and he also gave me a very nice compliment during a group session. We addressed the topic one final time, to see if anyone had anything more to say, but by this time, it was pretty clear we were past it, and not only that, we were tighter as a group for having worked through something difficult together. The mood was relaxed and congenial.

On Friday, we went to the anatomy lab at Cabrillo College to see their cadavers. They had two, one quite intact (if you don’t count being dead), with tattoos and chest hair visible, and one that had been very thoroughly dissected. The last dead body I saw was Carlos’s, and when they wheeled in the first body bag, I cried. One classmate never entered the room at all, but stayed outside with one of our teachers. I and one other student took up a position as far as possible from the cadavers, and the rest of us, including our other two teachers, examined the dissected human with interest. It wasn’t a large room, so I could easily see what looked like (and in fact was) a pile of little scraps of meat. At one point, the anatomy teacher who was hosting us (a very stylishly dressed woman) sort of casually heaped up the bits of meat and laid a big dried-out flap of skin over them. The heads of both cadavers were concealed, but my classmates wanted to see the face of the dissected cadaver, so the teacher removed the covering. I ventured closer but couldn’t see the head, which was just as well—I gather it looked like a lump of meat with eyeballs in it—and then the smell and general horror of the whole thing overwhelmed me and I left the room.

We had nearly a full day of class on Saturday and then my buddy gave me and one of the teachers a ride back to San Francisco, and then she and I went out to dinner at Esperpento.

The next day I noticed that one effect of seeing the two cadavers was feeling thrilled to be not dead. Noticing my aging body in the mirror, I thought, you know the great thing about this body? It’s alive!

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


Several months ago, I wrote about spending an evening with the person who was my best friend when I was 14, Mark, and his older brother Doug. They had recently lost their father and their only other brother, and their mother died years ago, so they were the only two members of their family remaining. At the end of January, Mark called in tears to report that Doug himself had suddenly died! Mark and I are 52, and Doug was just 54, dead of a heart attack.

The following day was incredibly beautiful, like the most gorgeous Ann Arbor summer day. I was ironing and listening to the Brothers Johnson. When “Stomp!” came on, I got a vivid image of Doug way, way above us in the brilliant blue sky, dancing, joyful. Since he was so close in age to me and Mark, I have many memories of him from when I was a teenager.

That evening, Tom and I picked Mark and his wife Beth up at the airport and took them to San Jose. We went to their hotel so they could drop off their stuff, and stopped by Doug’s apartment, the door sealed by the coroner. Per the recommendation of a friend of Tom’s, we went to Santana Row for dinner, a strip of glittering high-end shops, including a Tesla showroom. We had burgers at the Left Bank Brasserie.

(Burgers? Yes. I decided to be a non-vegetarian just for Thanksgiving, and it has turned out that the slope between being a non-vegetarian just for Thanksgiving and being a non-vegetarian, period, was exceedingly slippery. But that’s OK. I still am a vegetarian at home, and I still care about the welfare of animals, but hanging around the soup kitchen has made me feel that being rigid about what one eats is unseemly, and so now if I feel like having meat when I’m eating out, I do, but not without guilt.)


During a phone date, my friend Margaux in Orange County whispered, “Hold on, I have to walk away from her before I say this,” and then she told me that her dog is at her heaviest weight ever: 13 pounds. It was considerate of her to step out of Khoi Loa’s earshot before dropping this bombshell.


Our administrative assistant at work told me she deals with pain very poorly, so when she left the house knowing she was going to the dentist to have a crown started, she told her sons, “Boys, if I don’t make it back, remember that Mama loves you—be strong.” She told me that once when she had a splinter in her hand, she went to the emergency room.


At the soup kitchen, I took a plate, bowl and spoon over to the bussing station and started to scrape them, but then saw that another volunteer was doing that task, so I joked, “I’ll let a professional handle this.” The other volunteer answered, “If you see one, tell him I’m working over here.”

I’ve noticed that many of the soup kitchen’s guests have unusually clear eyes. Maybe this is from having to look so hard for what they need, and from having to be so alert for looming dangers. (Or maybe just from not being able to afford a lot of junk food?)

One guest had his own police sheet laminated and hung around his neck; it features a photo of himself looking entirely deranged. To that he had added some religious images, and the word “Manopause.”

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Foul Oath

Shriek heard from the nearby tennis court: “Son of a beeswax!”


One Sunday in January, I put on my work clothes and walked down to the symphony hall to swoon over principal trumpet Mark Inouye. I didn’t really enjoy the musical selections (John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music, conducted by the composer, and Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat), but Elvis Costello was there as a narrator for the latter piece, which was a minor thrill. The young fellow next to me sat down and opened his legs wide, so I told him, “Young man, I’m sure you’re not intending to crowd me, but you’re kind of in my space.” He looked dumbfounded, but he moved his leg. His smart phone was nestled between his legs—even off, I guess it’s a source of comfort. It’s great to have attained the age where I can call other adults “Young man.”


At the soup kitchen one day, someone’s bicycle was parked in front of the magazine rack, with a fishing pole lashed to the bicycle, extending fore and aft. A guest pointed out its owner. “Is that your bicycle?”, I asked, and the owner glared and said, basically, “Yes, what’s it to you?” I ignored his tone and asked, “Can you please move it so I can get to the magazine rack?” I had a few magazines to put there, plus the two Chronicles I always pick up on my way over. He got up and moved the bike, while threatening, “If you tear up any of my stuff, I’ll [insert threat here].” I wasn’t listening to the details of what would happen if I damaged his property, but I replied, “I don’t doubt you’re telling the truth.” The guest who had pointed out the owner came over and apologized profusely, explaining that the bike owner is mentally ill. The executive director has told me that the guests often feel protective of the volunteers. Later the bicycle guy asked me for a favor, and I did it, and he thanked me.


I was getting ready to leave the break room one day at work and encountered a fellow getting ready to come in. I politely motioned for him to do so; I would exit after he came in. He politely motioned for me to come out; he would enter after I came out. We stood there in a mannerly standoff until I lost my temper, turned on my heel, and went out the other door. I had probably instantly applied a feminist analysis: the girl can only be the recipient of politeness and not the benefactor, but I think it comes more from many a similar cycling situation, where a motorist assumes I will run the stop sign and motions for me to go ahead.

But the vehicular cyclist does not go when it’s not her turn to go, and so I have often obstinately sat at an intersection until the motorist finally proceeds, sorry to say. Such a motorist is doing a kindness, and these days I try to remember just to accept it graciously, even though it reinforces the idea that cyclists are somehow incapable of comprehending and obeying traffic controls.

After the small incident at work, I was instantly remorseful and knew I would have to apologize the next time I saw the other party, though I wasn’t sure what words to use, since it’s rare that one corporate employee treats another with blatant rudeness. However, when I saw him next, the right words appeared: “I’m sorry I gave up on our game of who would go through the door first. I felt bad about it later. I apologize. Next time I’ll let you be the polite one,” and I extended my hand and introduced myself, and he was very nice about it, smiling and telling me his name. Whew.