Friday, April 29, 2016

Inconsiderately Overscheduled Nurse Wearies Blogger

I went back to the health center to have TB test #2 placed and was assisted again by the LVN with the daunting schedule. He inquired about my weekend and I about his—he and his girlfriend went to Renaissance Faire. Now I really feel exhausted. On top of all he does, how does he have time for either of those things? Apparently the latter is per the wishes of the former, but it’s worth it, because she is a great lady (in his words). She is Mary, Queen of Scots, and he is her second husband-to-be, so his position is a bit nebulous at the moment.

I got a call from my chaplaincy pal Sam, who has a friend who applied for the CPE program at just one place and got an interview—at Stanford! That’s impressive. Sam wondered if I would speak to her on the phone and give her any tips I could think of about preparing for her interview, which I was happy to do. We had a good talk, and afterward I sent her my written notes on this topic. It was nice to get a chance to help someone else after having been mentored myself so generously lately.

This aspiring chaplain, who is a Zen Buddhist, said she’s not interested in praying for people or doing rituals—why should she try to pretend something is there that isn’t there? I told her I sympathize. In the past, I decided more than once not to pursue chaplaincy for that precise reason: I didn’t want to become immersed in religion, even my own. But I now feel that I will be happy to learn to offer whatever will be most soothing to someone in distress. If someone wants me to pray to God on his or her behalf, I will be delighted to do that. We experimented with this in the Sati Center class. I was prayed for, briefly, by someone who was adamantly opposed to the whole thing and I was very surprised at how comforting it was. Also, in my limited experience as a volunteer chaplain, hardly anyone wants an explicitly religious conversation. Most people just want to talk.

The aspiring chaplain also asked about being able to provide love in a hospital. I’m sure she knows she can be loving in any context if she chooses, so I answered by telling her that I am an aversive type: I don’t naturally walk around radiating love, and therefore rely much more on my ability to be awake and present. I have often observed that when I am fully present, an appropriate kind and friendly response arises easily.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Gift to the Future Tsk Tsker

My 40-year friend has fallen prey to painful sciatica (right after getting a new job that involves a lot of travel), so we haven’t spoken, but when we do, I think we plan to have the same kind of conversation about being color-blind that we had about taxes: one in which the goal is to understand each other and to identify points of agreement, which won’t be hard to do since obviously her goal is to treat people fairly and with kindness. In fact, I’m starting to think maybe we’ve been more cautious than we needed to be and that it has eroded what could have been an easier connection—maybe we should have the exact same kinds of conversations about religion and politics. I will suggest it. Because we are so different and avoid so many topics, I have a constant low level of negative judgment burbling away which easily flares into active aversion, and makes me lose sight of her positive qualities, which are many. In fact, we have plenty of common ground.

I’m embarrassed that I so quickly assumed an angry, adversarial stance, though I felt a little better when I heard Dan Shapiro being interviewed on NPR. He is the author of a book called Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. I was already thinking that my friend and I needed to have a conversation in which mutual understanding would be the goal, and I felt bolstered and further inspired when I heard this author say that this is precisely what should be the aim. He also said it’s rare, or difficult, for people to take this approach, which made me feel a little better. I’m also embarrassed that I published here, verbatim, my self-righteous note to my friend (though I did refrain from publishing her reply verbatim, which was a conscious charitable act), but at least it will give me something to tsk tsk over in future years, maybe: goodness, what an idiot I was.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Unabashed Unpleasing Ululations

Last Saturday, F. and I saw Marguerite, about a rich music lover in France whose singing voice is execrable but who is humored in her aspirations due to her ability to make large financial contributions. Afterward, F. suggested taking one of the historical trolley cars up Market, which was really a treat, with a brisk, refreshing breeze coming in the window. At home, F. cooked us potatoes and eggs for dinner.

When he arrived the evening before, he made a hurtful remark on a topic he has specifically been advised to avoid. On the whole, I think he withstands many more critical remarks in this relationship than I do. Nonetheless, I told him it bothered me and he immediately became offended by my being “overly sensitive.” As in many prior cases, I was furious that he got to both make a mean remark and also somehow to be the injured party.

But instead of trying to achieve victory via verbal battle, or at least argue him to a draw over it, I thought about it for a bit and said I would like to have a conversation in which my goal was for him to understand why the remark hurt my feelings, and also for me to understand anything he felt I was not grasping. The conversation was brief and I felt that he did understand. I asked if there was anything he would like me to understand, and he said there wasn’t, though he seemed rather morose the rest of the evening and, for that matter, the whole next day.

However, that’s his problem. It has not proven in the past to be constructive to try to do anything to alter his moods (duh), let alone have an argument about why he has no right to be in a bad mood. I also reflected that I have never once seen either of my parents try to change the other’s mood. I’ve seen one of them take care not to further inflame a stressed or irritated spouse, but they really just let each other be for the most part. Can I be in a good mood even if F. is in a bad mood? Sure. So I did that. And it was also much better to seek understanding rather than to try to win an argument on Friday night, so I count the weekend as a success: I saw a good movie, I enjoyed a bracing breeze in a picturesque trolley car, I ate delicious potatoes and eggs, I went to Rainbow, I listened to On the Media, I did my cooking chores, I got a bunch of reading done.

I have finished Ron Chernow’s utterly splendid biography of George Washington. Something very sad happens at the end! (I won’t spoil it for you.) I have now started
Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton (upon which the highly popular musical was based), which promises to be equally good, and I’m reading a couple of the books I acquired for the chaplaincy course at the Sati Center. In most cases, we read only certain chapters, so I am now reading two particularly pertinent books in their entirety: The Arts of Contemplative Care, edited by Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller, and Buddhist Care for the Dying and Bereaved, edited by Jonathan S. Watts and Yoshiharu Tomatsu.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Loss of a Longtime Neighbor

Last Tuesday evening I went to Howie’s to see how the smell was coming, and found it had abated enough that I was able to be there the whole evening without distress; the other sangha member who had been particularly affected was also there and also said it seemed much better. It was really nice to see my meditation friends and Howie again. I will have to find some way of being there during CPE at least every two or three weeks, or maybe I can go for the meditation and leave during the break.

My father sent an email late last week with a link to the obituary of our longtime next door neighbor, an award-winning doctor and a pioneer in using ultrasound imaging to diagnose prostate cancer. His middle child of five and oldest son was a suitor of mine when we were seven; he made me a bracelet out of a pounded copper nail. I still have on my right arm two tiny round scars made by the teeth of an enraged gerbil that Fred, Jr., known as Feo, had tossed in the air. He was a smart and kind boy and this act, which infuriated but did not otherwise harm the gerbil, was uncharacteristic.

Feo’s father and my father and several other people ran 12 miles or so together on Sunday mornings for many years. My father writes, “Early on in our running togetherness, I was on the verge of stopping running because of knee pain. When I mentioned this to Fred, he told me to walk away from him while he observed. He told me my feet were over-pronating and recommended arch supports. I subsequently built up the arch supports to force my feet to tilt outward, thereby transforming the arch supports into varus wedges. Fred’s suggestion allowed me to run for decades with no more knee pain.”

My father went on: “Most of my other contact with Fred is fairly recent and occurred mostly at his office. Before I became his patient, somehow or other I mentioned my high PSA readings to him. He suggested that I leave the urologist I had been seeing and let him take care of me. I was hesitant, not wishing to offend the doctor I had been seeing. While I was still hesitating, he made an appointment for me to force the issue. I’m glad he did, since he was one of the world’s leading authorities on prostate cancer and gave me excellent care. The office visits usually ran a bit long due to our reminiscing about current and past neighborhood people and events. After my prostate cancer was diagnosed, Fred invited me to his home one day. After discussing my medical situation in great detail, we spent another hour talking about all kinds of things.”

My father once told me how outstanding Fred’s bedside manner was, how he took my father’s hand and looked into his eyes while offering words of support and encouragement: “He seemed to be genuinely concerned about my health, very warm and caring, far more than any other physician I have ever encountered. Fred’s wife told me that he delayed retirement for so long because he felt so much responsibility for his patients.” He was 84 when he retired, just one year ago.

I always found him in a mood of extreme good cheer and had gotten into the habit of going to say hello to him and his wife each time I visited Ann Arbor, if they happened to be in their back yard. The last time I saw him, they were on their back deck. It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon and he said with a big smile how much he was enjoying the beautiful day. That is a nice last memory.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Tuesday I went to one of the four VFMC campuses to receive some immunizations, to have blood drawn, and to have the first of two TB tests started. The young male nurse I saw told me that he works full time as an LVN (licensed vocational nurse), is going to school full time (to become a registered nurse), and also runs a business part time! Work is 40 hours a week, his business takes 30-40 hours a week, and school takes up about 20 hours a week. I said he must be one of those people who can get by on three hours of sleep and noted that he looked remarkably well rested. 

I asked about his self-care practices and he said he used to meditate regularly, but doesn’t have much time for that anymore. He said he tries to use his breaks to best advantage and that he is methodical in this regard: He has breakfast during his first break, takes a walk during lunch, and naps during his afternoon break, outside if possible or sitting up in a chair in the hospital. He said later that he actually gets five or so hours of sleep each night. I said he must be a wizard of time management, and he said that he doesn’t watch TV, though he did watch the debates between the Democratic presidential candidates.

We discussed the presidential election at some length, including internalized racism, one of my favorite topics these days, and I could see his mood beginning to sour as he talked about how Trump is appealing to his supporters’ worst natures. To give him a chance to talk about something that would put him in a better mood, I asked about his business, which is selling shoelaces, let us say. “On another topic, why shoelaces?” His face lit up and he told me what is unique about what he sells, and he explained why he has a business as well as a full-time job: he understands that money in this country is flowing inexorably to those who are already rich, that his employer feels no loyalty toward him whatsoever, that he may lose his job at any moment, and he is worried about having enough money. His business is a means of financial self-protection. Sad. But also very impressive, how energetically and determinedly he is implementing his plans. He was also extremely meticulous about his operations in my regard, showing me each tiny vial so I could be sure I was getting the right stuff. I couldn’t read those little letters or understand what they meant, but I appreciated the care he took here.

He left the room for a few minutes at one point, and suddenly I was flooded with a visceral memory of how it felt when I myself was a cancer patient sitting alone in a hospital room: scared, curious, uncertain, vulnerable. And this was just Stage 0 breast cancer, or DCIS.

When my LVN returned, I made a point of seeing his physical appearance: the freckles on his neck, the way his earlobes (or at least, his left earlobe) came to almost a slight point at the bottom, his reddish-brown hair. Seeing something and knowing one is seeing it is a fine way to be sure of being present.

I left my appointment feeling very inspired about working in a hospital one day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Walk and a Dog

F. and I had a pleasant, peaceful weekend—the third such weekend out of the last five, I think. Friday night we went to the soup kitchen’s quarterly open mic. One performer lectured people with unnecessary possessions: “You people who push around those shopping carts loaded with stuff, you need to look at that. Do you really have to have all that stuff?” That was daring, considering the audience, but no one seemed to take offense. On Saturday, F. went with friends who have a small child to Golden Gate Park and I took a long walk with my walking friend, stopping for lunch at Ananda Fuara. He’s also the director of the soup kitchen, and so we always run into a million people he knows. On Saturday, we saw a man with a darling little dog that I petted for some time while my friend and the dog’s owner chatted. The latter said that if people come up to the dog while he’s sitting on his father’s lap or on their backpack, the dog bites them, but if you wait for the dog to come to you, he’s as gentle as can be. He was a very cute dog and seemed entirely placid.

On Sunday, I shopped for groceries at Rainbow and did my weekly kitchen tasks while F. worked on art projects in my living room. We often spend Sunday this way. At Rainbow, I told my friend who works there as a cashier that I was obsessing about whether to work as a chaplain or not, though I know that thinking and more thinking is not the best way to make a decision. I know I’d do better just to remain in the unfolding present, as Howie advised the Tuesday night group not too long ago. I know that things are unfolding organically and lawfully and that whatever is going to happen is going to happen. My friend agreed that thinking is sorely limited as a decision-making tool. I put in a plug for gathering information, but she said that gathering information is just a way to pass the time while we wait to see what’s going to happen. I think she’s probably right.

I did speak to a third chaplain over the weekend. This one works one day a week! I’m starting to wonder if there actually is such a thing as a full-time chaplain. This chaplain said something about training in grief counseling, so I said that one of my biggest questions about providing care is what you say to a parent whose baby has just died. What are the very first words you would say in that situation? The chaplain, who worked for several months in the neonatal intensive care unit and so must have encountered this more than once, said one can always gain more skills, but that “Stepping forward with your own heart is the most important thing.”

I do know there is such a thing as a full-time chaplain; several visited our class at the Sati Center. I think at this moment that I’d rather work in a hospital than for a hospice, which would mean getting the full certification, so if I do the yearlong CPE program starting in the fall, I might take the year after that off and focus on completing the education and then look for a hospital job. The third chaplain said she ended up taking an entire year off after completing CPE. She didn’t intend to, but that’s what ended up happening, and she said it ended up being an important opportunity to integrate that experience. She did some volunteering and went on retreats during that time.

First we’ll see if I survive the ten weeks of CPE that starts in June. As for education, two of the chaplains I’ve lately spoken with completed and spoke very highly of a low-residency program at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. This program would afford 48 of the necessary 72 units. My own meditation background would count for a few more, and I could do the rest at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley during that same year. The latter will also provide ordination as an interfaith minister upon completion of its program. Ordination and/or endorsement is required for certification, though I heard lately that one of those may no longer be required, maybe in recognition of the growing numbers of non-theistic aspiring chaplains, including Buddhists.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Kegels Opportunity

A year ago, at a Thomas House potluck, I explained to F. how I usually don’t eat dairy, and then ate about six pieces of pizza. On our walk home, F. teased me about this until I laughed so hard that I had what I call a Kegels failure, though it was too early in our relationship for me to announce this. Ah, how far we’ve come; you’re not going to be hearing the details here. Anyway, F. proposed that in a year, we eat pizza together—on April 7, 2016. Who would have thought we’d still be together on Pizza Day? But we were, and so on the Saturday two days later, we celebrated accordingly, preceded by going to see Miles Ahead, which was absolutely, completely fantastic. Don Cheadle wrote it, directed it, and stars in it. I expect to see him get two Oscars next year, for best director and best actor. (Also, hopefully Anthony Lane will be in prison for giving it a lukewarm review in The New Yorker.)

For pizza, we had planned to go to F.’s favorite place, Chico’s, on Sixth St., and then eat outdoors, but it was raining, so we came back to my apartment and ordered from Marcello’s instead. Then later we got into a fight, which we like to do on any sort of milestone or special occasion. As always, we got through it, though cool feelings lingered through Sunday.

Last Friday I went to see Demolition, which was worth seeing, particularly if you like Jake Gyllenhaal. Also, there was a wonderful-looking kid in it, Judah Lewis. It was about opening to the people around you and being true to yourself at any cost. Beforehand, I was thinking about the chaplain who told me about doing spiritual direction and I was thinking of calling her back to see what that consists of, or even scheduling a session for myself to find out firsthand. What problems would I tell her about? Maybe about feeling worried about CPE, or about emotions seeming oddly inaccessible lately. (She said that the schedule was the hardest part of CPE for her.) I could tell from just talking to her on the phone for 20 minutes or so that it would be wonderful to discuss my problems with her. One thing she said is that she doesn’t see the task as being to eradicate suffering: suffering is what happens. It’s how we meet it.

But then I realized that I should be able to figure out how to provide spiritual direction, since I’ve been learning about it for 25 years, and since I’ve received it from quite a number of teachers—Howie plus all the teachers I’ve interviewed with on retreats. How have these teachers been helpful? By being fully present, by listening kindly, by offering encouragement, by suggesting specific practices: nothing too exotic. When I provide spiritual direction to myself, what advice is most helpful? To notice what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling physically and emotionally always apply. Beyond that, it’s tinkering with specific approaches or actions that might be helpful in stimulating whatever seems needed: awareness, compassion, trust, faith, bravery.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ah, The Things One Used to Take for Granted

The day my employer told me I was losing my job—January 15—I came home to find that my mailbox had been broken into, along with those of a couple of my neighbors. There are seven units in our apartment building. I think I recounted this around that time: I realized that one thing that had been in my mailbox was a full set of my keys, which had been mailed to me by Hammett’s ex-cat sitter. I was going out when I saw them and had meant to bring them in later, but now someone else had them, so we had to have a locksmith come immediately and change the front door lock plus the two locks on my own apartment door. I paid for the latter and made an extra $25 contribution, since if I’d brought my keys in promptly, someone else wouldn’t have ended up with them.

Our building manager set up a camera in the lobby and we collected videos of two different people breaking into our mailbox, plus one who evidently meant to do the same but saw the camera. We were going to ask our longtime, very nice mail carrier if we could give her a key to the front door so that she could put our mail in the lobby. Our building manager installed a lockbox on the inside wall for this purpose, but just then, our mail carrier went out on medical leave and the substitute explained that they’re not allowed to have people’s actual keys, so we had no choice but to have all of our mail held.

Of course the building manager called the police, but they didn’t take any interest, and the post office said they didn’t have the resources to look into it. About that time, we saw a news story about the rash of mail thefts up and down our street. I took a walk one day and saw that only two buildings on our block were without protective gates or slots through which mail could be put. Our building manager very kindly went to the post office once or twice a week to fetch our mail, but sometimes, they would only give her hers, or they would claim they were turning over all the mail, but a few times, I got only one or two pieces, obviously not a week’s worth.

We decided to install a gate, at considerable expense to the landlords, who are also paying for earthquake retrofitting currently underway, which will be more than $100,000. (Also, we have brown water coming out of our faucets, which has long been the case, but now it’s quite a dark brown, and a newer tenant called this to the attention of the building manager, so something expensive will probably have to be done about that one of these days. I gather it’s not life-threatening unless you have a certain rare disease.)

Once you have a gate, the post office has to come out and install its own lock, so our building manager called to arrange that, but was unable to get anyone to call her back, or she’d speak to someone who claimed to have no knowledge of such a request. She was told to put in a work order, which she did. Then she was told to put in another work order, which she did. Then the post office decided, after eight weeks, that she needed the signature of everyone in the building in order to be able to fetch our mail. This certainly makes sense. I’m surprised they didn’t ask for this in the first place, but since they’d been giving our manager (some of) the mail for two months, it seemed like just one more hassle.

Finally, our building manager contacted our state senator a couple of times, and our congresswoman, who happens to be Nancy Pelosi. The post office suggested opening a (third) work order and said there is a citywide shortage of the lock mechanisms that the post office installs. But shortly after Nancy Pelosi’s office was contacted, someone from the post office showed up with no notice and installed the lock. By then, of course the newly installed gate had ceased to close properly, but what a thrill it was to find a piece of mail in my mailbox last week, even if it was just a credit card offer from Delta. Three months almost to the day from when the mailboxes were first broken into.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Worryingly Overlooked Worries

On Tuesday I spoke with a chaplain about his CPE experience and current situation and ended up feeling quite discouraged. He said he has not practiced good self-care over the past couple of years and has returned to therapy, and the salary range he mentioned is something I could just barely live on, especially if I have to have a car and to pay for my own health insurance, which is likely to be the case at least for a few years.

I’m not looking forward to having way less money, nor to giving up so much control of my schedule, nor to doing without several forms of interpersonal support that I currently depend on, including going to my meditation group every week. I can’t go there right now, anyway, due to the cleaning products situation, and once I start CPE, I’ll probably have to go to sleep by 8 p.m. or even earlier.

However, the most ominous thing this chaplain said was that he is on call two nights a week! Twice a week he has to sleep in an apartment near the hospital where he works. He doesn’t even work full-time, but four days a week, which makes his on-call schedule even less appealing, as F. pointed out when I called to announce that I no longer wish to be a chaplain. (I think F. is worried about changes to our schedule and about me hanging around with a lot of rich, handsome doctors, but he is otherwise supportive. I’m also worried about changes to our schedule.)

On Wednesday, I went to see my mental health professional and told her about all the things I’m worried about, which is a lot of things. Plus I’m worried about being insufficiently worried about some things. Like, why am I not heartbroken about not being able to go to Howie’s and sit with my walking friend and walk partway home with him, things I had formerly considered highlights of the week? I don’t mind that these things are not happening, but it doesn’t feel like a wholesome, grounded equanimity, but rather a dull indifference or apathy, which can be signs of compassion fatigue—am I burned out nearly two months before even starting CPE? 

Formerly, I had felt that my future was exceedingly bright: I will either have wonderful, meaningful work that I do with fantastic colleagues, or I will be a stealth chaplain at the company I just left and get to use my brain and not have to worry about money. Plus, with my newfound even more frugal habits, retirement should roll around quite soon. Either seemed great, but earlier this week, only the latter seemed great. However, Deborah pointed out how many times I’ve said I didn’t want to be at the type of company I was working for, and how my path has clearly been leading in a chaplain-like direction in the past several years. She said that, from where she’s sitting, this seems like an excellent opportunity to make a change and that I’m just scared right now. She said I can do the summer CPE program and then try to get another job at my ex-company. She said I can start the yearlong program in the fall and then drop out; people do that. However, she did also seem to perk up at the mention of retiring pretty soon as opposed to working until I’m 70, the age at which the prudent person starts collecting social security. That would be 16 more years versus maybe five more years. But maybe they’d be such wonderfully rewarding years, it would be worth it.

We didn’t have time to get into the apathetic thing, so I’ll go back in a couple of weeks, but when I got home, it occurred to me that it’s probably due to trying to suppress certain feelings: judgments of and anger at my new neighbors, worry about all these life changes, stress in general because chaplains aren’t supposed to be stressed out, maybe negative feelings about F. Trying not to feel certain things is making it harder to feel anything. I know rationally that chaplains have all the same feelings anyone has, and maybe more stress than some. It’s not about not having yucky feelings, but about how to meet them in a helpful manner. How to be disturbed without causing harm, as Paul Haller said. Repressing feelings may be instinctive, but it’s not a way of avoiding harm.

And just then, as it happened, the phone rang and I spoke with another chaplain and ended up feeling very inspired. This chaplain was so lucid, and spoke so beautifully and thoughtfully about her experience that I asked if she is a writer and was surprised to find out she isn’t. She laughed and said, “You write it! I give you permission to take everything I’ve said and write about it.” Before we spoke, she had sent a very detailed account of how exactly she put together her equivalent of an M.Div., which was extremely generous of her.

In regard to what she likes about this work, she said that being with sickness, old age and death brings clarity, that there is an immediate invitation to a certain level of conversation, that being in the chaplain role affords entry and intimacy. When I asked if she sees herself continuing indefinitely as a chaplain, she said that providing care becomes a cellular, existential truth. These days, people tell her about their troubles as she’s standing in line at the grocery store. Serving in that way changes you fundamentally, and so she will always be a chaplain in that sense. (People tell me all kinds of things in all kinds of settings, too.)

However, she said she might not always work as a chaplain. For one thing, having to prove over and over to Christians that being a Buddhist is not the same thing as being the Antichrist can be wearing. (She is not in the Bay Area.) But then, over time, chaplains may find other ways to express their own growth, working in the area of ethics, or teaching, or teaming with others, or providing training.

She also is self-employed as a provider of spiritual direction, so her part-time work as a chaplain is not her only source of income. I was intrigued by that, as I have sometimes pictured myself doing something like that, and here she said another wonderful thing—that the Sati Center’s chaplaincy program trains people in spiritual direction, so I have already been trained. Is this true? I went to the website and looked at the covered topics. One of them is “Establishing spiritual care relationships, listening, spiritual counseling, communication.” (It also says, “For seminary students, this course is appropriate for third year students who are called to ministries of pastoral care and chaplaincy.”)

It was such a treat to speak with this second chaplain. I didn’t necessarily feel encouraged about working as a chaplain after we hung up—she reported feeling beleaguered by some things; she said hospice can be an “insatiable grind” and requires a lot of boundary setting—but I feel very inspired about being a chaplain, about knowing and honoring my values and what is true for me, and about the dazzling expanse of choices and possibilities for things to do and ways to be. Deborah also said that the obvious possible paths all look good at this moment, plus I might end up doing something I can’t even imagine right now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Cheese Puff in the Hand

One thing you can do to wring “health and wellness dollars” out of my excellent former company that I love very much is to work with a health coach on a self-chosen project. I don’t have any particular health problems where telephone counseling might help. My knees give me some trouble off and on, but that’s a matter of doing my exercises and riding my bicycle fairly often. Two years ago, figuring that everyone has some sort of stress they’d like to be free of, I requested help with that. Last year, my project was learning to be more patient with my boyfriend, and I could have chosen the same this year, but, in search of novelty, I said that I’d like to understand what is happening when I eat for non-hunger reasons. Not necessarily not to do that, but to understand why: What situations trigger this? What thoughts am I having? What emotions? What bodily sensations?

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking home from the church where Howie’s meditation group meets after determining that the cleaner smell was still too strong. It occurred to me that I might do well to go get a bag or two of Barbara’s Jalapeño Cheese Puffs. I thought, as I have thousands of times before, “OK, I’ll go get some cheese puffs [or whatever], but starting tomorrow, I’m going eat in such-and-such manner.” This is an obvious win-win: I get to have cheese puffs now, along with a lovely feeling of resolve and virtue.

But it means that the only way I’m not going to eat an entire bag of cheese puffs, or whatever, is if the thought doesn’t happen to cross my mind. That is a pretty precarious foundation, and if I’m ever to rest on something more reliable, I am going to have to learn to tolerate the feeling of wanting to do something without doing it.

I walked home and observed that I still wanted to eat cheese puffs. Half an hour and an hour later, ditto. But eventually, I didn’t want to, and it was OK that I hadn’t. The feeling of desire is impermanent, like everything other than awareness itself.

When I worked out my plan with the health coach, I told him what I was interested in, and he asked if I’d ever kept an eating log. For sure. I explained that this, for me, functions as just another backfiring diet, and that I’m not as interested in what or how much I eat as in learning about the causes of non-physical hunger. He asked if I’d ever thought of not eating the whole bag of potato chips. Again I explained that that’s not the point. There’s room for a certain number of whole bags of potato chips in my life. I just would like to have more choice and to understand what gives rise to compulsive eating.

Eventually, he suggested that I keep a log covering what I had said in the first place, but it was kind of a nice exchange, because he was now speaking of it as if it were his idea, meaning that he understood it and felt some ownership. I agreed that was an excellent idea, and that’s what I’m doing.

One big trigger is the transition between activities. The end of any meal can feel like stepping into something amorphous and undefined, a worrisome feeling of being without landmarks. No wonder some meals can last quite a long time. Quite often the thought accompanying a desire to eat for non-hunger reasons is simply an image of myself doing it, or the trigger might be a situation in which I have done the same thing many times before: I always buy Plentils when I visit Whole Foods.

I’m not getting too much when it comes to emotions, but investigating thoughts is very helpful: “I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, so I should get to eat potato chips.” “It’s inevitable—I might as well go ahead.” “I don’t encounter this food often, so if I eat all of it, that will be that,” which is a form of “I’m going to do this now, but not later,” which is all about avoiding sitting with the experience of desire right now. Then there’s, “Oh! I’ve never seen those before—shouldn’t I try them?” and, “Oh, well, I’m already stuffed, so I might as well.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

On Seeing Color

I guess I spoke too soon about being all set in regard to my ex-company’s health account money—when I went to the new URL last Tuesday, it didn’t work, and I had to call the health company again and get yet another URL, which probably won’t work for long.

I also spoke too soon about resolving differences in my 40-year friendship. In a recent conversation, she was telling me about her new job, which is at a religious organization. The home office is in Atlanta. I asked how many people work at that location and about what diversity dimensions she was able to observe. In retrospect, I think I was trying to find something to disapprove of. She said there are about 20 people in that office and, yes, there is a black person, but then, she doesn’t notice color because we’re all exactly the same. We’re all Americans!

That, of course, pushed my buttons. It is a hallmark of white privilege to not see race. I appreciate and applaud her intention, which obviously is to treat everyone fairly and to not practice racism, but it is in fact racist to refuse to acknowledge that being black or brown in America is different from being white. It began that way, and it’s still that way. I sent her a brief, friendly note and included a link to the first article that came up when I searched online for “colorblind white people.” The article, by a black therapist, was short and did a reasonable job of summarizing the main ideas. Claiming not to see color also makes it pretty hard to acknowledge internalized racism, which we all have.

Very soon, I received a reply in which she said she felt “sickened because this person who wrote [this article] is not coming from my particular point of view” and “in what I did read it felt like I was being discriminated against for thinking the way I do. … I see people as God sees them—as people.”

She said she’s positive she has never offended anyone with her color-blindness, because they would have told her. Therefore, I felt obligated to be offended and sent this:

I guess I should speak more directly: I was offended by your comments, while at the same time understanding that you did not intend any offense. Long ago, I took a class geared toward getting a job in the trades. Our teacher said, “Your co-workers may make racist remarks. It is your responsibility to speak up when you hear racism.” When I hear a white person say that we’re all exactly alike, I hear racism, and, while knowing it might not be well received, I know that I have to speak up.

We are not all alike. Most places I go, there are plenty of other white people. Rarely do I feel, “Whoa—I’m the only person of my color around!” People of color feel that in many, many situations, including where they work and shop. When I go into a department store, the store detective doesn’t follow me around in case I steal something. That happens to people of color all the time, who also are pulled over in their cars for no particular reason, and then often beaten, sometimes killed. (It’s called “Driving While Black.”) If I wanted a mortgage, I wouldn’t have to fear that I would be turned down or given a poor deal because of my skin color. People of color experience that routinely. Etc.

So, again, I absolutely, truly think it is wonderful that you seek to treat all beings with love. I understand that completely, and I’m sorry that the article I sent upset you. But thinking that we’re all just the same is offensive to people of color.
[This is one thing I wish I’d said differently: It’s offensive to everyone, or should be.]

Now if YOU would like to take a break, I totally understand. :-)

With best wishes,

To my friend’s credit, she sent a note the next day saying she did not wish to take a break, and would prefer to continue the conversation by phone rather than email. We haven’t spoken yet.

This is genuinely uncomfortable—and this is just two white people discussing the subject! I will try to proceed with as much goodwill as possible (i.e., more than in my email italicized above) and to remember that the idea is to understand each other and to find some way of relating harmoniously. It may also be that we decide our differences are not reconcilable. Well, certainly they are not. The question is if we will be left with a friendship satisfactory to both parties given the ever-expanding list of things we can’t discuss.

I have to think this super-difficult interpersonal stuff is arising as some sort of preparation for clinical pastoral education, which I understand does a good job of turning students inside out and shining a light into every dim psychological and emotional corner. It’s odd that just as I start to get some inkling of how to get along more peacefully with F., now I’m having this horrible situation with my 40-year friend. Honestly, I’d like to say, “Oh, just forget it,” but I won’t be able to do that as a chaplain, so I need to try to do now what I might do then.

I would like to add that I actually never feel, “Whoa—I’m the only person of my color around!” I fairly often note that that is the case, but it is in a familiar location and I do not feel startled or alarmed. However, I must also add that if I found myself in a completely unfamiliar location that appeared to be a low-income area and every single person in sight was a young black man not dressed like a banker, I would feel very uneasy. Partly because of the all-men part: the more men there are somewhere, the less safe it is for women. Younger men of any color seem more potentially dangerous to me than older men. But partly I would feel anxious because of the difference in skin color and being the only person of my color.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Telling of Gelling

My former company offers employees health account money each year for completing fairly easy activities. Basically, it’s free cash, so last Monday I began that process, but got a password error on the company website, which happened a couple of weeks prior, as well. I called tech support and they said that the company site, as seen by semi-employees like myself, only works with Internet Explorer. The last time I was laid off, I had no problems using it with Firefox, but the door appears to be shut now.

I called the health people directly, a separate company, and they showed me how to get to the stuff I need to see without going through my employer’s website. In the course of troubleshooting the difficulty logging in, I aggressively cleared my browser cache and history, and when I next visited this very blog, I needed to sign in anew, and got a password error from Google, which owns Blogger, along with practically everything else. Uh oh. In an attempt to authorize my signing on, they asked what day my Google account was created. I can remember my own birthday, and I can remember the birthdays of the people in my immediate family with relative ease, except that I sometimes can’t remember if my father’s birthday is on the 28th or the 29th. As for the birthday of my Google account? This I do not know.

Another question asked was “What’s the last password you can remember?” The last password I could remember was the one that was currently returning an error! Do they think we keep a list of every Google password we’ve ever had, perhaps in a handsome frame on the living room wall? Furthermore, the email address associated with the account is long gone. What saved me was being able to have a code sent to my cell phone. That was a chilling experience. For a few minutes there, I thought my relationship with Bugwalk the blog was permanently severed.

The next day, I poked around my Google account settings to see if it says somewhere what day it was created. Apparently, the only way to know this is to consult the first automated email sent by Google after account creation. Needless to say, I do not have this. There formerly was a second method by which this date could be obtained, but it is not available any more.

However, I came upon a means of archiving my entire blog in case I want to move it somewhere else, the first good thing Google has ever done, as far as I can tell. I promptly did this and ended up with a huge file that can be opened with a text editor. It contains several miles of HTML, some Japanese kanji, every comment ever posted (I guess), including some comments I don’t remember ever seeing before, and the posts themselves. I don’t know how it handles photos, but I have a folder where I keep every photo I’ve ever published, just in case. This blog archive also appears to contain all the exchanges that were posted by the members of a Google group I used to belong to. Odd. I did a search for the very first words I ever published on Bugwalk and, yep, there they were, along with the most recent! For just a moment there, I loved Google.

The one other thing I managed to do last Monday was send emails to five Buddhist chaplains known by one or another of my teachers in the Sati Center program. I would like to ask them how they did their M.Div. equivalents, how they got ordained or endorsed, where they did clinical pastoral education and how they liked it, where they work now, if they would be able to do their work without having a car, and if they make enough money to live on.

I heard back from two of them immediately. One said “M.Div. equivalency is a strenuous process, took me a long time and a lot of effort.” I don’t like to do things that are hard and take a long time. I like to do things that are easy and take a short time. Like post a blog entry! This very warm and effusive woman also congratulated me on what she said was a very prestigious placement at TWMC, and she said, “Sending metta [loving-kindness] and deep congratulations to the path ahead! Hospital chaplaincy is a wonderful service—I am delighted that you are joining us!”

Besides hating to do anything long and hard, I’ve lately started to worry about, of all things, hand sanitizer. 1) I don’t like gloppy stuff on my hands. According to my mother, as a preschooler, I refused to finger-paint. When my hands were put in wet paint on an expanse of paper, I burst into tears. 2) I am highly allergic to all sorts of substances, breathing them or touching them. I got a large stack of paperwork from TWMC, and signed a form stating that I will “gel in and out” when entering or leaving patients’ rooms.

At Laguna Honda, there was never any mention of this. I also virtually never touched anyone. A few times, I held hands with patients who wanted to pray together. I hope the TWMC paperwork is just standard forms that everyone signs, and that chaplain trainees (and chaplains) don’t actually have to put sanitizing gel on their hands 50 times a day, or that soap and water will be an acceptable substitute.

It occurred to me that there have to be nurses who are allergic to sanitizing gel—what do they do? I found an ominous thread online started by just such a person. The advice she got was to make sure her malpractice insurance was current—it wasn’t!—and to consult these and those experts, to refuse to sign anything, and to contact her attorney.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Vertical Garden

Last Saturday, F. made us one of his wonderful breakfasts featuring potatoes, eggs and tortillas; he has several variations. We had a horrible fight the weekend prior and I was considering telling him that I’d like us to have a little vacation from each other last weekend. While I was thinking that over, a friend of his happened to send me a photo of him when he was in high school. He didn’t look at all as I would have imagined. I think he’s quite handsome, and I assumed he was really cute in high school, but in the photo he looks kind of dorky and hapless. It’s a photo of his cross country team, and he is slender and even taller than the coach, with a frizzy head of hair.

Before last weekend, I was also mentally listing and relisting his bad qualities. There was another flare-up on the phone Thursday evening. He misunderstood something I said and got upset, and at first, I was planning to clarify, but at some point on Friday, I realized: What’s the point? Why would that be important to do? I decided just to let it go and forge ahead. There’s not a law saying you have to revisit every fight or that everyone has to be forced to understand every little thing.

Part of the trouble here is certain not-so-helpful characteristics that we have in common. We both are quick to perceive undesirable occurrences and to react immediately, sometimes vigorously. Most people I’ve dated in the past have been easygoing—people in the helping professions make particularly good partners—but I myself am not easygoing, and he isn’t, either. (Some of my friends are and some are not.)

More and more these days, I find myself seeing things as if I were working as a chaplain: What if he were a patient on the cancer ward or a parent whose child had just died? Would we get in fights then? Of course not! I would be patient and understanding and kind. If I happened to know what might push this patient’s or family member’s buttons, I would refrain from doing so. And of course, I know very well by now what pushes F.’s buttons, and I often push them on purpose, or, more precisely, get swept up in the sequence of events and don’t take care not to push them.

Now, why is that? I think it boils down to an inability to sit with my own difficult feelings and/or to experience my own vulnerability. I am again appreciating this excellent practice opportunity, this wonderful teacher (also very handsome!) who shows me over and over what in myself needs to be seen and addressed. Last Friday afternoon, he was equally willing to let the past go and move on. That is a thing that, of necessity, we’re very good at: just going on, and trying to do better. And suddenly all I could see were his good qualities: how hard he tries to please me, how devoted and attentive he is, how much he loves me (and how often he says so), how reliable and considerate he is, how much he makes me laugh. Also, he virtually never criticizes me, whereas I criticize him rather freely. He also rarely complains about anything, unlike myself.

I think one of the key things we need to learn to do in this lifetime is something Paul Haller said in the Sati Center chaplaincy class:

“Learn how to be disturbed without causing harm.” Very challenging at times.

After breakfast last weekend, F. and I walked over to 16th and Mission to a dollar store with a dazzling array of items, not one bearing a brand name I recognized. I saw a long shelf full of colorful boxes of breakfast cereals and at first it looked just like Safeway. Looking closer, I realized I’d never seen a single one of them before.

The guy at the front door checking bags was a little bit rude to me, but I’m getting used to that. A couple of times lately, someone has spat as I’ve walked by, and signs have gone up on posts in the Mission lately saying mean things about white people, joining the signs saying mean things about tech workers: “brogrammers.” Nearly every time I walk anywhere in the neighborhood, I see yet another place that has closed, or some fabulous new spot for rich people. On a recent walk, I saw about eight of one or the other. The neighborhood is reconfiguring with dizzying speed, and I can’t blame the lower-income residents, many of whom are Latino, for feeling enmity toward white people, which is the color of the developers, the color of most of the tech workers, and the color of most of the European tourists.

I’ve been right here for more than 30 years, but they don’t know that. I have many judgments about the newcomers, myself, and I think am at the point where I’m just going to have to avoid Valencia St. It’s too full of people who provoke kneejerk reactions, and metta practice doesn’t seem to be helping. For a while, it seemed as if it was sufficient at least to neutralize ill feelings, but lately, that doesn’t seem to be working. One internal voice is saying, “May you be happy,” but a much louder voice is saying, “I hate you. Go away.”

After the dollar store, we made our way to Foods Co, a huge discount grocery store one block from Rainbow, so F. could pick a few things up.

On the way, we passed this building:

And this one, with a garden covering its front surface:

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Stoned Driver

Near the end of March, Tom and Ann and I went to lunch at Imm Thai Street Food (“imm” possibly means “stuffed” in Thai) followed by Macbeth at Berkeley Rep, featuring Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. The stage design was wonderful, creating a dark and ominous feel, though there was one moment of unmistakable levity, never envisioned by the author, when the actor delivering the speech with all the “knock knocks” in it looked meaningfully at the audience until several people finally answered, “Who’s there?” You’d think this would be very jarring, but it didn’t seem that way.

Somewhat more jarring were the three people seated behind us, who were having problems with their hearing aids, which hissed loudly off and on, plus one of them commented in a particularly loud voice at the end of several scenes: “‘Sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ Did you hear that? That’s wonderful, isn’t it? We had to study this play in school. I read the whole thing!” After several such announcements, another audience member issued a brief “Shh,” but that was the only response, which was rather remarkable, as all this unabashed commentary was quite disruptive. They must have thought being at the theater was just the same as being in front of the TV at home.


My little Samsung flip phone was dampened by El Niño and did not survive the experience. I briefly considered joining the modern era and getting a smart phone and even ridding myself of my landline, but came to my senses. I delayed calling T-Mobile because I knew it was going to make me angry when they said buying a new phone would require picking one of their current, more expensive, plans. When I finally called, what a pleasant surprise it was when they said they’d be happy to transfer my current plan and remaining minutes to a new phone, either a phone of theirs or any old phone, as long as it was unlocked.

I went to Amazon and ordered the same flip phone F. has but then remembered that I have another phone identical to the one that got wet. I was using this other phone for work, since it was easier to use than the iPhone issued by my employer and also had better sound quality. I never really bonded with that iPhone. It seemed big and ugly compared to the solid little BlackBerry I had in prior years. Anyway, I called T-Mobile back and they switched my phone number and plan and minutes over to this other phone, and I went back to Amazon and canceled my phone order. Back in business, without spending a cent! I really am happy with T-Mobile. Their customer support is fantastic. I’ve never had to wait to speak to someone, and whoever I speak to has been friendly and has solved whatever the problem is.


Last Friday I rode my bicycle to the beach for the first time in quite a while. Tom was going to join me, but his allergies were bothering him too much. Everything looked the same except for the gleaming new soccer fields near the beach. There was a ballot measure not too long ago regarding fake turf versus grass; unfortunately, the former won. This means, among other things, that rain, instead of soaking into the ground, becomes runoff for the sewer system to treat. However, the soccer fields do look lovely.

Back near home, I passed a mourning dove sitting in the middle of the street. It looked intact, but it also appeared not to be able to move. I would have and should have stopped to pick it up and put it on the sidewalk, but a Muni bus was immediately behind me and I didn’t trust the driver not to run me over. I also
didn’t think just to pull over and rescue the bird after the bus was gone; I think I was afraid I would find the bird squished on the ground.
Walking to the soup kitchen, I saw a homeless woman pulling a wagon. This was hand lettered on the back of the wagon:


Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Up with Taxes

I have a close friend whom I met in Ann Arbor when I was 13. Ann Arbor is quite a liberal place, and my friend was Jewish, so how she managed to grow up to be Republican and also an evangelical Christian is a mystery. I guess I should have kept a closer eye on her. We are polar opposites, including in our manner of dress, and avoid political topics. I also don’t often mention anything having to do with Buddhism. She mentions God fairly often, but I understand this is in the job description of the evangelical.

Lately she said something about having learned a perfectly legal way to avoid income taxes, which provoked a crisis in our friendship. To me, the shrinking of the common pot of money is very directly about human suffering, and to hear people with homes and cars and swimming pools gloat about not paying taxes makes me angry and heartsick.

I concluded we were finally going to have to go our separate ways, but to give myself a chance to think this over, and without giving her a lecture on my views, I sent an email saying that our most recent conversation had been difficult for me and that perhaps it would be prudent to take a break. I was able to endure for a week, during which I reminded myself that it’s perfectly fine to choose like-minded friends, but underneath, I knew it was wrong to discard a 40-year friendship over something like this. Also, a more or less mentally well human being ought to be able to figure out a constructive way to deal with a pronounced difference of opinion. How can I expect our elected officials to do this if I can’t do it myself?

On the spur of the moment—which is how I make and carry out most of my important decisions—I called her and was warmly received. I proposed that in our next conversation, we each take five minutes to explain why we feel as we do about taxes, and that we then drop the subject. She said, “That’s just want I wanted!” And so that’s what we did. I was thinking that people who don’t pay taxes are harming others—now that I know a lot of homeless people, I can picture specific faces—and that this is cruel, and I still think that, but my friend made a convincing case that she gives as much money as possible to charity, and that because she herself is extremely careful with her money, it drives her crazy to give it to an entity that is not equally careful to wring maximum value out of every cent.

After we shared our views, we each did a brief follow-up, and then we agreed to add taxes and the government to the list of things we don’t discuss. It all worked out well: I got to say what I think, and I understood much better what she thinks. And I retained my 40-year friendship, which I can’t do without.

At the soup kitchen a couple of weeks ago, I was assigned to give out spoons, each wrapped in a paper napkin, and little paper packets of salt and pepper. Several feet behind me were the two volunteers who assist guests with take-out containers of soup, so I also had to field inquiries about that, and it was somewhat hectic at moments. One fellow lingered at my station and told me that I look like Meryl Streep—had anyone ever told me that? I said that I have been told that before, but not for decades, so it was nice to hear it again. He said, “You’re probably about her age, too—early 60s?” Ouch. I’m in my early—well, late-early—50s! I grumbled about this to F. later, who agreed my greying hair is likely the culprit. Looking old and having aching knees are two of the less good parts of being almost 54. Having friends I’ve known for 40 years is one of the more good parts.

Friday, April 01, 2016

The Scent of Green Tea

The church where Howie’s meditation group (Mission Dharma) meets has kindly made its large room available from 6 – 10 a.m. weekdays for homeless people to lie down and rest. (According to my walking friend, only two out of all the churches in the city were willing to offer this.) A couple of months ago, I noticed a very strong smell in the church, likely something that had been used for mopping the floor after the guests were gone. I decided to bear with it, but after three Tuesday evenings of breathing whatever it was, I had a persistent, almost gagging dry cough, so the past few weeks, I go over there, take a sniff, and then leave again. At least one other group member has stopped attending for the same reason.

When I got to the church this week, Howie and a couple of our more responsible group members were meeting with two people who work at the church, who said the problem should be solved soon. They had been using the strong-smelling cleaner both to mop the floor and also to wipe down the sleeping mats. They have quit using it on the floor, and they’re going to switch to an unscented product for the mats.

The smell was much less pronounced, though not gone, so I started setting up the chairs, my other form of service along with being the greeter. But after five minutes, I got an unmistakable message from my throat that I should go elsewhere. I hope it doesn’t turn out that trace amounts of this stuff cause the same problem as lots of it, because it’s probably in a lot of nooks and crannies in the church and may be evident for quite a while.

A couple of weeks ago, Lisa C. was in town for work and took me out to dinner at Mehfil. It was excellent to be with her, as always.

Several days later, I went to the Embarcadero Center Cinema to see Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick’s new film. Several months ago, my friend who works at Rainbow said she was at this theater and there were only two rows of seats and the people in the first row had to lie down. I was aghast. “That sounds terrible!” I thought. “I’m never going there again!” As I saw when I was there, they have redone everything and there are now nine screening rooms instead of four large theaters, but the place is immaculate and lovely, and the room I was in was totally beautiful, with fabulous enormous recliners. You have to pick your exact seat before going in, but I’m starting to get used to that. (I don’t know why that’s better than walking into the theater, identifying an unoccupied seat and sitting down in it, but it seems to be more and more common.) The Embarcadero exclusively shows independent films; two or three of the previews looked enticing, including the one for Don Cheadle’s movie about Miles Davis.

After that, per Lisa C. having mentioned doing the same, I went to the Ferry Building to buy green tea at Imperial Tea Court. I told the young fellow there that several years ago, someone close to me died, and the first thing that gave me pleasure in the days after that terrible event was opening all of my jars of green tea and smelling them. His eyes lit up and he said that when he gets to work in the morning, he likes to do a bit of that himself. He said, “That’s a sweet story.”

After hearing a snippet of Esperanza Spalding’s new CD Emily’s D+ Evolution on NPR, I got the whole album and am really enjoying it. Her music is assertive, mesmerizing at times, and inventive. It’s nice to see a young woman be such a confident bandleader. She is a bassist, and also a singer and composer.

Toward the end of the month, I saw Hello, My Name is Doris at my new favorite theater, followed by lunch at Fuzio, which included yummy thyme French fries. In the evening, F. and I went to Heung Yuen to celebrate his birthday. I gave him a framed copy of a photo of us that he likes and a little angel to keep him safe in his new neighborhood. I got two of the angels and put them in a small envelope. I wrote on it, “Keep one and give me the other,” so that he could also be a benefactor.