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.