Monday, March 30, 2020

Hammett Would Also Have Made a Great President

If this isn't a presidential look, I don't know what is. Look at all those limbs!

Aw, he was the cutest. Look at his little white goatee.

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Michigan for President!

While I was cycling to Rainbow over the weekend, I heard a loud shattering glass sound and turned my head, along with a few others in the vicinity, to see that the source was a second-story residential window. Accident? Boiling over of frustration? Domestic violence? A mystery.

At Rainbow, the wait outside, in the rain, was probably 45 minutes, noticeably longer than the week before, no doubt because there was a second line going off in another direction for Instacart shoppers, and they were alternating between the lines, trying to balance the needs of those who make a living from shopping (maybe) and those who make dinner from shopping.

I had brought an item to return, which was an unopened bottle of hand sanitizer which had cost $18, but they are not taking returns at the moment. I had used this product outside the store the previous week, then bought some, and later realized it was absolutely going to cause itching.

On my way home, I asked a homeless woman if she would like some hand sanitizer. She would not. I stopped at a collection of tents and said, “Does anyone want some hand sanitizer?” No one answered. The only sign of life I could see was the top of someone’s head; I think he was asleep. I tried again at another collection of tents—I was freely zigzagging back and forth across all lanes of Folsom St. on my bike, as there wasn’t much car traffic—and this time a voice said, “Yes!” and a fellow emerged and took the hand sanitizer.

I had brought empty containers to Rainbow to fill in the bulk section, as always. There are still many bulk items, but you have to use their containers, ranging from a biodegradable bag to a plastic container with a lid to a new glass bottle or jar.

One bright spot was running into a friend of mine, shopping with his partner.

Also, when I asked a worker a question about the bulk containers, she answered very pleasantly, and added, “There are also no returns right now—but you’re not a big returner.” How lovely to shop where a worker whose name I don’t know knows I don’t often return items (though I would have liked to return one that day). That was a nice feeling.

There was still no toilet paper. Everything desired in the produce section was easily had. As for the bulk olives they had packaged up, my first- and second-favorite kinds were not present, but my third-favorite was, so I got some of those, and also a small container of some olives I don’t like much at all, thinking that maybe it’s time to develop a taste for them. When I got home, I discovered that they actually were my very favorite olives, mislabeled. I will look more carefully next time. I’m glad to have any of them, and if I’d noticed they were my favorites, I would have gotten more.

My panic buying impulse expressed itself this time in the realm of small jars (about four and a half ounces) of artichoke spread from Italy. I had two unopened ones at home, plus half a jar in the refrigerator. I had planned to buy three, just in case, but I bought six. Serving suggestion: Toast a piece of Vital Vittles Real Bread, put a tablespoon of EVOO on it, sprinkle on some garlic granules, and finish with this artichoke spread. Yummy.

Trump has now made a federal disaster declaration in Michigan and is sending money. I guess the one company having been ordered by Trump not to sell supplies to Michigan was a blip. I got a text from a someone saying she is worried about my work in the hospital and that she is praying for me. If she were really concerned about my welfare or that of anyone else, she would have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, so that we’d have adult leadership right now rather than this grotesque game show: “The Michigan governor hurt my feelings! No medical supplies for Michigan! Fine with me if everyone in Michigan dies.” A bit later: “Now I like Michigan again! Lucky Michigan! Sending more money to Michigan than anyone ever sent in the entire history of the universe!” People ill and dying, people dying alone, funerals with no attendees, children not in school, college students going home, financial catastrophe, destroyed businesses—all this is as nothing compared to what Trump likes or doesn’t like moment to moment.

My entire immediate family is in one or the other of what are the top three hot spots at the moment.

Today I reached a significant milestone in my quest for board certification as a chaplain: I sent in all the materials to apply for an MDiv equivalency. Tom and I strolled to the Castro and I went to the post office—few people there; lines on the ground to keep customers six feet apart—and then we went to Walgreens and to Cliff’s. It was a beautiful afternoon and great to be outside.

At home, I talked to a co-worker who said that there seems to be a pattern where people get COVID-19, get better, and then six to nine days after becoming ill, get pneumonia and die. My plan, if I get the virus and become short of breath, which is a symptom I rather dread, is to boil water, put a few drops of eucalyptus oil in it, turn off the heat, put my head over the steam, and put a towel over my head and the pot to keep the steam in for a bit. Pursed-lip breathing may also help in this case. As for avoiding pneumonia later on, FWIW, my co-worker said that drinking lots of fluids while recuperating from the first wave is important, including hot fluids, like herbal tea. He said going outside and getting some fresh air is good, and he claimed that lying flat on one’s back is the worst position for the lungs.

Sunday, March 29, 2020


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United States Governors, All Clumped Together, for President!

Plus Gavin Newsom. Also Cuomo.

Reducing the amount of sauerkraut I put atop my morning salad has eliminated the sharp chest pain lately mentioned here. Maybe next time it happens, I will remember right away that it is gastric, not cardiac.

There has been constant new information at work about PPE. At first, chaplains were asked not to use any—not to go in any room where it is required—so as to save it for physicians and nurses. Last week, the recommendation changed: every staff member is now required to wear a procedure (surgical) mask for every moment of patient contact. The next time I passed through a temperature-taking station, I was issued a standard procedure mask, and soon discovered its annoyingly persistent tendency to slide down my face.

Assuming, as one should, that someone coughed COVID-19 all over the outside of this mask right after I put it on, was having to touch it constantly to put it on, take it off, or try again to keep it on my face not merely increasing my risk? I sent my boss an email saying that if this measure was exclusively to protect patients, then it seemed like a great idea, but if it was supposed to protect staff members, I wasn’t so sure.

The next time I went to work, I found there were two types of procedure masks available at the temperature-taking station: the standard yellow one, and a blue one I had never seen before that looked a little smaller. I tried the latter, and it was much better. It threatened to slide down only once the entire day, whereas the yellow one did that about 30 times. I don’t know if the blue one will always be available.

I also waded through a whole bunch of COVID-19 updates and read that extending the use of a mask is preferable to re-using it: Once it’s on your face, just leave it there. And I saw a recommendation to perform hand hygiene before and after touching the mask, every time. So that problem was solved. I sent my boss a follow-up email saying never mind.

I am keeping my fingernails particularly short, to reduce places for the virus to hide. Staff members at work have been asked not to wear makeup so that masks can more easily be cleaned for re-use. There are special containers for putting used masks in at the end of the day.

Each morning, my colleagues have been wiping down the surfaces that people touch in our office and the adjoining meditation room, so I, there alone, did the same. It is now my habit, every time I touch anything outside my apartment or just after I re-enter my apartment, and most particularly at work, to think “COVID,” reminding myself that my hands may now have the virus on them.

I wiped down all the obvious things in the office and meditation room, and then, as I went about my day, became very aware of all the things that I touch that I was not formerly aware of: Oh, when I enter the office, I touch this spot on the door! When I need to move a chair, I touch this spot on its armrest! Every time I became aware of a new spot that gets touched, I wiped it with a sanitizing wipe. Normally I avoid those things because of the chemicals and possibility of getting an itchy rash, but now I am glad they are so abundantly supplied at work, by our safety person.

There is now a security guard sitting right outside the chaplain office all day, because it is right near one of the couple entrances to the hospital that is in use. When I approached in the morning, the security guard said, “I’m glad you’re here. I appreciate you.” It made me feel good that he was happy to see a chaplain.

After I read all the COVID news, I worked for a couple of hours on my board certification application, which our boss has given us permission to do, and in the afternoon, I strolled through every unit in the hospital saying hello to staff members and checking for referrals. I saw three patients. One was under the impression that her husband has invited a lady of ill repute to move into their house; this designing woman stays out of sight all day, but the patient can hear her at night.

When I got home, I talked to Dad on the phone. We discussed Trump’s ordering one company not to sell needed medical supplies to Michigan because Michigan’s up-and-coming Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, dared to make the factually correct observation that the federal government is not doing a very good job of responding to the pandemic. We both felt enraged: The President of the United States is trying to kill my parents and my sister, not to mention my sister’s two fuzzy cats.

I would like to think this would piss off Michigan voters, but I soon saw something from Trump reminding them to blame Whitmer, which I’m sure most of them will.

This was also the day Trump threatened to quarantine people in NY, NJ and CT—not because he gives a crap about any of those people, but so they wouldn’t drive down to Florida and infect Republican voters there. Later, he changed his mind. In other words, we’re back to normal life in one sense: that every day is about Trump’s selfish, juvenile, ignorant, hateful behavior and the chaos, confusion and misery it creates.

I’m thinking that maybe the governors of other states will help Michigan—that they could act together to do what the federal government has declined to do: identify resources and get them to where they are needed at the moment, instead of having states compete for them.

In addition to governors for president, beans for dinner! My routine now is to hurl several cups of beans into the pressure cooker before I make my breakfast. By the time I’m done eating breakfast, I have a lovely pot of beans to have for dinner all week. It takes about ten minutes to reheat the beans; I toss in a handful of fresh kale (washed and chopped on Sunday afternoon) and a fistful of sliced frozen shiitake. I add three grinds of black pepper after the beans are reheated. The beans always have toasted sesame oil, olive oil, and a bit of hot pepper oil in them, along with a crapload of fresh garlic. In addition, they have either two vegetarian bouillon cubes plus tamari, or porcini powder plus tamari, or rosemary salt. Because there are so many kinds of beans and because the other ingredients differ from week to week, there is sufficient variety, though I am a person who can easily eat the exact same or nearly the same thing every day, such as my morning salad, which varies only in that I rotate four kinds of vinegar in the dressing, and the olives change week to week.

On NPR this morning, there was a short piece about how necessary hospital chaplains are right now, to provide care for patients who may be forbidden to have visitors, and to support other hospital staff. I texted my boss and she texted back instantly to say she’d tune it in. My newish boss is truly fantastic. Becoming a chaplain has caused “new boss” to cease to be a worrying phrase.

Finally, I am sure it is unseemly to mention it, so begging pardon in advance, but in some ways, this pandemic has improved my life. First, it hasn’t changed it that much: I still go to work two days a week and sit around my apartment the other days. One change is that I don’t go to County Hospital to volunteer one day a week, but that had been on hiatus, anyway, while I work on my board certification application.

And some things are actually better: Zero eating out—in particular, no pepperoni and sausage pizza—has made me feel physically very well. I talk to my father on the phone every day, which is very nice. And I’m connecting with a lot of other people and groups via a variety of not-in-person means. I’m getting phone calls from friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues that I might not have gotten before, as people heed the advice to reach out more. And I make a point of taking a walk on most non-work days, which I didn’t necessarily do formerly.

If the federal government does send me a check, I plan to donate it. I know many people are in terrible situations, which might not have been quite as bad had Trump not wasted several weeks putting his head in the sand.

Thursday, March 26, 2020


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More Than Anything

One of my co-workers said that when she got on the normally packed bus to come to work from the North Bay, she found not only that she was the only rider, she was the first person to ride that bus in four days, according to the driver.

I was positive that I would be devastated forever over Hammett, so it was rather remarkable to find myself mostly feeling peaceful and accepting after just a couple of days. Perhaps COVID-19 has overwhelmed everything else, but my theory is that the essential has not been lost. His body and personality are gone and are very much missed, but the love remains. When I see a photo of him, of which there are many around, I am happy to see how relaxed and contented he looks.

This week I returned to work after being out for two weeks, a period in which much has happened. The night beforehand, I emailed my father and one of my sisters an impromptu last will and testament, explaining where my assets are to be found. (It had occurred to me that maybe Hammett died when he did so he won’t be left parentless when I die.) Then I sent an addendum saying, “But most of all, remember that I had a really great life, and that I loved you all more than anything.”

The next morning, instead of being in a crowd of frenzied cyclists and people riding scooters and electric bikes on Valencia, I had blocks and blocks of the bike lane on this normally bustling street basically to myself. I saw maybe two other cyclists as I passed one boarded-up business after another. Number of Lyfts and Ubers sitting in the bike lane: zero, rather than about one per block.

At the hospital, there is now one entrance for staff and another for visitors, of which there are very few. A patient can have only one, and I think that is only if the patient is approaching death. I saw only about three visitors the whole day, so the hospital was actually very quiet and serene. It is much more complicated now to get from the bike parking room into the hospital; trying to do it in reverse at the end of the day was genuinely confusing, but next time it will be easier.

Because the chaplain office is near the periphery of the building, we have to pass through a checkpoint to go to any unit, so my temperature was taken about seven times and was always fine.

It was great to see my colleagues again. We are not seeing very many patients because instead of rounding, we are asking the charge nurse for referrals, and there are few. Our boss advised keeping visits to 15 minutes or less. I spent time on three different units with COVID-19 patients, but didn’t go in the room of any such patient.

At the end of the day, I was asked to visit a patient in the ICU who was soon to be extubated. His daughter was sitting alone in the room, distraught. She said she had wanted to be here for these final moments, but had felt afraid of being there alone. I assured her that I would not leave her, and thus the visit ended up being five hours and 25 minutes long. About four hours into it, I got a crushing pain in the chest, which persisted until I went to sleep. I imagined having to tell my boss that I’d gotten COVID-19 thanks to staying in a patient room five hours and ten minutes longer than she said to.

At 10:30 p.m., I found my bicycle and set off for the ride home. Eerie. Virtually no one on the streets, and those who were appeared to be exclusively the homeless mentally ill, except for one intrepid fellow walking his little dog. I normally never run a red light, but last night I went through many of them, out of eagerness to be home and also, what’s the point of sitting there when the nearest cars in any direction are blocks away?

At home, I called the advice nurse, who concluded that I was not having a heart attack and said to call back if it got worse or anything changed. This morning the pain was largely gone. I talked to my father on the phone, and with four friends, one after the other, while I ate breakfast. After a bit, the pain returned, so I called the office of my primary care provider and a doctor there performed triage. I started out by letting her know that I am a total hypochondriac, and also that twice over the past fifteen years, I have gone to the emergency room with chest pain only to find in both cases that it was basically some heartburn-type thing.

This probably is, too. It may have started yesterday evening due to going so many hours past my normal dinnertime, and may have recurred today due to the acid in my morning salad. In fact, salad dressing was precisely the culprit in one of those two ER visits, after which I greatly reduced the amount of vinegar I use. There’s just a trace now, but maybe that combined with the forkful of sauerkraut that tops every salad has gotten to be too much.

This afternoon, I went for a walk and enjoyed looking at the astonishing variety of beautiful plants, flowers and trees along my route.

Monday, March 23, 2020


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Because Rainbow’s customers were helped to feel safe and relaxed, there was much less evidence of panic buying, though admittedly also many fewer customers to observe. I saw just one cart piled with a mountain of food, where the previous frenzied week, many carts had been like that. I saw one fellow carefully place about three cassoulet beans into a tiny paper bag, and hoped it wasn’t because that’s all he could afford.

After I returned from Rainbow, I spent the rest of the afternoon chopping vegetables and listening to music. As the sky darkened, I felt a bit of fear, reminiscent of the night before, but it was soon washed away by sorrow, which was very welcome, particularly in contrast with the fear. There were many tears.

My working belief regarding what happens when we die is that the little allotment of consciousness somehow assigned to a particular body, personality and set of habits dissipates into a universal consciousness. I don’t believe that anything is created when a living being is born, nor destroyed when it dies. I think there is what there is, reconfigured over and over.

However, the moment Hammett died, this belief about the end of life suddenly seemed wholly unsatisfactory. I thought about theology, or dharmalogy, a bit: Is the point of one’s dharmalogy to afford comfort, or is the point that it is true? I think the most important thing is the latter, which of course is the part we can never know, at least as regards what happens after death. I wish I could believe that Hammett is sitting on the lap of a kindly grandmother in heaven, but I cannot. I cannot comprehend the mystery of life and death, but as I remind myself to have as many mindful moments as possible, I feel that this—at the moment, the death of Hammett—is workable. I feel peaceful at many moments. I remember that nothing has gone wrong.

As Fleet Maull said at school a year and half ago, “The more mindfulness practices we can do, the better, because our conceptual mind is continually working to replace our actual experience with concepts.”

Also: “To the extent we’re able to relax into the present moment, things are pretty simple and joy is pretty accessible.”

Also that when we practice (mindfulness) in the presence of another person, that person is also practicing, because we are connected.

(Also: “Let’s have one person talking at a time, which at the moment would be me.”)

I won’t bore you with the details, but I bumped into a problem with my beloved Logitech Squeezebox Boom, and after searching the web and doing various resets and tinkering with various settings, got it working again, which was profoundly satisfying.

Thinking about Hammett at moments when he was enjoying something has brought pleasure, and it has also helped to reflect on how great his life was. He was fostered during his first six months by someone who must have done a great job, because he came to me a sweet, relaxed kitten who did not mind being cradled like a baby, on his back. I imagine he was often lonely when I was away, particularly in these past two years when I had to go to school 26 days per year, in addition to the trips I usually take, and he had quite a number of health problems, all manageable until he got renal lymphoma. Those were the hard parts.

But every possible need was met, and he was treated with affection and care every day of his life with me, including when I was away, because of his excellent cat sitter. He had lots of comfortable places to nap, and I think that he really enjoyed his life, on the whole. Reflecting on these things does bring some peace of mind, as does the recent reminder from one of my peers from school that all things are subject to dispersal.

Hammett When He was a Baby

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Sunday, March 22, 2020

If Line Not Long

On Friday morning, Hammett was still alive—drinking water, peeing a little, hissing at medication time. I figured he was too weak to inflict any real damage, which he disproved when he bloodied both of my hands, which pleased me. I was glad he still had so much oomph. Maybe self-defense is the last thing to go.

It has been an emotional rollercoaster regarding COVID-19 and Hammett. There have been a few moments of genuine fear regarding the former, but when I took the first sip of green tea on Friday morning, the joy of being alive coursed through me.

The afternoon walk outdoors is the best and also the worst part of the day. It’s great to be out in the fresh air and see the green and trees and flowers, but annoying to encounter people strolling or standing right in the middle of the sidewalk. It occurred to me that maybe it would be nicer for now to take a bike ride instead of a walk. It should be easier to maintain biological distance on a bike.

Saturday was Hammett’s last day, and I think it was a good one from his perspective. We spent two hours or more just sitting together on my bed. I stroked his soft fur, and he purred steadily, which he had not done in days. It was also far more contact with me than he had wanted in days. The people at the animal hospital were extremely kind, and Hammett didn’t ever seem unduly alarmed.

In the weeks before he died, I often felt perfectly at peace. In some moments, I felt engulfed in sorrow, which is not an unpleasant feeling, and shed many tears. The strongest feelings since he has been gone are fear and a sort of confusion: how can he be gone? Where is he? At such moments, I wish I did believe in an afterlife, but I don’t, nor in reincarnation. My boss texted, “I’m so sorry for you. Hammett was a beautiful companion. May his soul rest and carry your love and care on to his next life.” I did find that comforting. (Oh! I just realized she assumes I have typical Buddhist beliefs, and was trying to be consonant with those beliefs.)

So many others have been there over these past couple of months, on Saturday before we walked over the vet, and since then. My father has been wonderful. Lisa and David have been wonderful.

Saturday night, I woke up feeling afraid. Not terrified, but just enough to trigger that downward spiral that starts with, “I feel afraid. What if it gets worse?”, which it then immediately does. I tried two things. One was “box breathing,” where you breathe in, hold your breath, breathe out and hold your breath, each for a count of four. I also tried noticing the sensations briefly in my left foot, right foot, left hand, right hand … . The latter seemed more helpful. I also have various words I speak to myself at such moments, including Howie’s reminder that every person has to learn to navigate fear.

As I did when Thelonious died, I have to keep reminding myself out loud what has happened: Hammett is not here because he is dead. He had cancer, and he had not eaten in eight or ten days. His last day was good.

The vet said I could probably take him home if I wanted and have Sunday with him, but that by Monday, he would probably be “recumbent” — unable to get up. She said that at that point, the only options would be euthanasia or intensive care. She said she thought I was doing the right thing, and that she thinks it’s better to euthanize a day too early rather than a day too late.

Late Saturday night, after having talked to my mother, and David and Lisa, and two of my friends from CPE, and Hammett’s cat sitter, and having exchanged texts or emails with various other people, I talked to Dad, whose response was empathic, as always. I told him I was planning to bake whole wheat bread if I couldn't buy bread at Rainbow, but that it seemed like kind of a project to figure out what equipment I would need, as I got rid of all that stuff years ago. He mentioned that maybe making flatbread would be easier. Brilliant idea! Online, I immediately found a complicated recipe that would be nearly as much work as making yeast bread and also had an ingredient that I don’t usually eat, but within a minute or two, I found a very simple recipe that looked great, with like three ingredients.

So strange to wake up and see Hammett nowhere, yet immediately obvious that so many pleasures remained: my breakfast salad and two cups of green tea; brief, fun chats on the phone with Lisa and David; the people on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me saying funny things; getting to listen to heavy metal again, which Hammett certainly was used to but probably never came to enjoy. Actually, he probably tuned it out years ago, but in his final days, I listened to no music and I kept the main room dim to spare his enlarged pupils.

There was a good new weekly hour-long show about COVID-19 on NPR. It was informative and the calm voices were soothing. Someone mentioned just having enough groceries for an extra week on hand. Deciding that I would set a good example in the grocery store, I crossed a whole lot of things off my shopping list. Also—huge sacrifice here—in the spirit of not wasting food, I peeled and used even the tiniest little cloves of garlic in my weekly beans. Usually I just put cloves below a certain size straight into the compost because it seems like too much work for such a small amount of garlic.

Off to Rainbow I went on my bike. The day was lovely, the streets empty, the air fresh smelling. I felt happy. I counseled myself to relax, and to be prepared to adjust to unexpected conditions. Last week’s shopping trip was quite stressful. The cashier whose line I went through seemed rigid with fear. Today, I found a line outside the store extending around the corner, leading up to the one entrance that was open. People in the line were calm and pleasant and leaving each other plenty of space. The fellow behind me initially came too close. I politely asked if he would back up, and he immediately did and never closed the gap again. When we got the front of the line, I thanked him and he offered a beautiful smile in return.

Near the entrance, there was hand sanitizer, paper towels (though if you’re using hand sanitizer correctly, there isn’t anything to wipe off; rub your hands together until they are dry), and gloves for each customer to put on. I had brought my own to save Rainbow’s. A worker outside the door asked which of two kinds of shopping carts was desired, and a worker inside the store rolled the cart up to the door.

Inside the store, life could hardly have been better. It was nearly empty due to the metering. The cashiers were relaxed and happy, chatting with each other. They were about the only workers in sight. There was one directing traffic, and one or two at the front desk, but nearly all of the workers who are usually seen throughout the store were absent. The produce section still had three workers; usually there might be four or five. One of them happened to be the same person who had been standing outside the entrance. I said, “You’re everywhere! This store could not operate without you,” and she beamed and thanked me. Pickings were slim when it came to spinach. I got a packaged mixture which has spinach, chard and kale in it. Every other thing I wanted in the produce section was available.

Because of the lack of workers, if one could not figure out by oneself where the whole wheat flour was, one was out of luck. The flour section was rather depleted, but they had whole wheat flour in bulk. I got some to have on hand, but I don’t need it yet because the bread section was fully stocked. Here is where my only hoarding impulse arose: I bought three loaves, which I sometimes do, anyway, because my shopping schedule doesn’t always match the Vital Vittles delivery schedule.

There was not a single roll of toilet paper, but I have plenty. (There was a cheery sign there saying, “We’re working on it!”) Last week, bulk olives were unavailable. This week, they had packaged up a whole bunch in clear plastic containers, which I would normally avoid, but I bought a container of kalamatas. Fewer than I would normally buy, but each salad will have olives.

Periodically there was a friendly, low-key announcement asking people to give each other six feet of space.

Last week, the lines for the cash registers were very long, so I had noted on my shopping list to buy a couple of packages of frozen fruit “ILNL.” If line not long. This week, they were directing everyone to line up in just one aisle. On the floor were pieces of tape showing how far apart to stand, and a worker was directing the person at the front of the line to the next open cashier. There were two people in line when I got there. It was about 30 seconds before I was directed to a cashier; I was able to buy the frozen things.

I was absolutely delighted with the whole experience. Rainbow is doing a remarkable job! And they are a collective, probably operating on the consensus model. There is not one person who gets to decide what will be done. Really outstanding.

Back at home, I discovered there was still no sign of Hammett. We did not interact every minute we were both in the apartment; far from it. There are many minutes now when I am not conscious of his absence, as I go about the current task, which is often very pleasant and absorbing. But in the moments when he is missed, it is acute. I buried my face in his bed by the radiator just to get a hint of his lovely cat smell, and gave the bed a little kiss.

Saturday, March 21, 2020


April 14, 2006  — March 21, 2020

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Trump Pandemic

(What Paul Krugman suggests we call this—sounds like the simple truth to me, at least in regard to the United States—rather than the “Chinese virus.” As to why Trump and his team “denied and delayed,” that’s obvious: They literally don’t care if 99 percent of Americans die, as long as the very richest never experience a moment of anxiety or lack. Wait until they find out we are all connected and that whatever happens to the rest of us will eventually happen to them.)

I heard Hammett vomit during the night last night and figured it was more of the thin white juice he has thrown up a couple of times in the past day or two. He remains thirsty enough to slurp a little water a couple of times a day, but then it seems he is vomiting it right up. This morning, I saw that the vomit was green: bile. Later I guess he had a little water, and then there was more green vomit.

Dad and I spoke at some length this morning, which was an absolutely lovely one: clear and sunny and cool. And it was the first day of spring, one day earlier than usual! That seemed auspicious. I pictured myself saying, “Yes, he died on the first day of spring. What a beautiful day it was.” But then I decided that was a stupid reason to euthanize a cat if it really wasn’t quite time yet.

I called his vet, weeping, to make an inquiry. “So, if a person brings a cat over to be euthanized—preferably her own cat—is it possible to bring the cat home afterward to lie on ice in state until the next day, and then to bring the cat back for cremation?” (I actually have no intention of using ice in this scenario, because I have friends who always let their departed cats lie in state for three or four days, surrounded by flowers, and they assure me that even that length of time presents no problem, with no ice.) The kind person who answered the phone thought for a moment and said that would be fine. I asked what the latest was that I could arrange euthanasia today, and she said to call by 3 p.m.

Hammett was lying in his bed by the radiator and I noticed a mild, unpleasant smell in the area, which honestly could just as easily be me as him at this point, but it was him. I also saw that his breathing was very faint: we had both had the good idea about a peaceful death during the vernal equinox!

I tidied up the room a little, and turned both phones off, and did my stretching. I wanted the atmosphere to be calm, orderly and quiet. After I stretched, I meditated, and devoted the whole 30 minutes to metta, for me and then Hammett: “May my body be filled with peace. May every cell of my body be filled with peace. Hammett, may your body be filled with peace. May every cell of your body be filled with peace.” And so forth. May I know that I am loved. Arriving in this spot, letting go of this spot. Arriving in this body, letting go of this body. Arriving in this life, letting go of this life. May I fully experience this moment.

“May I let go fully and gracefully (as best I can). Hammett, may you let go fully and gracefully.” 

I didn’t need to add the qualifying phrase for him because he doesn’t have the problems with this that I do.

By the time I was done meditating, I felt very at peace, saw that Hammett was still alive, and went out for a walk. Most people were leaving a good amount of space between themselves and others. I saw just one group of three people walking close together; maybe they live together.

Nearing the end of my walk, I came upon a man and woman walking side by side a few feet from each other. They continued in that manner as we drew near. I could not go any farther to the right because of the houses there, and so was forced to pass within two or three feet of the woman, at whom I directed a murderous glare. I don’t actually think she put me in any detectable amount of danger. It’s more the principle of the thing, and mainly, it is having a chronic case of frayed nerves at this point, or always being very near that point. Like, I am under the impression that I feel fine, but when I get that angry about something that small, it tells me there was already something stewing under the surface. As I imagine it is for nearly everybody.

A block later, I saw an oncoming pedestrian veer to her right to leave as much space between us as possible. I smiled and said, “Thank you for the six feet! Be well!” She smiled and said, “You, too!” and we both offered a thumbs-up.

Next time I encounter the former situation, I will say, "Stop! Please arrange yourselves so that we will have six feet of space. Perhaps walk single file for a moment."

I have a neighbor, a youngish man, who does this three times a day, give or take: Steps out his back door, takes a hit off a joint, hawks up a giant ball of phlegm, and spits loudly onto the ground. It is the most revolting noise, one which I have been listening to for six or seven or eight years or maybe longer, because no one with a rent-controlled apartment in this neighborhood can afford to move. He will never move, I will never move.

Oddly, yesterday the most charitable thought I’ve ever had about this crossed my mind: Maybe he has cancer and uses marijuana for related symptoms. (But no; he wouldn’t have had cancer for so many years.) And today I lost my temper more than I ever have about this. I heard the usual sequence of events, and yelled, “SHUT! UP!” My window was open and he could certainly hear me. Honestly, if everyone else can do their phlegm-related operations in their own bathroom, so can he. Maybe at some point he’ll get nervous about coughing where 50 people can hear it. I understand that some people are calling 911 when they hear someone coughing. That didn’t really surprise me, but learning that the authorities are actually responding to such calls did.

Oh, as for Hammett, I honestly thought he was going to die while I was meditating. I honestly think he will be gone when I wake up tomorrow. However, I am sure that if I were to put him in his carrier, he would protest. He smells bad. I am sure he is not having a huge amount of fun, but as best I can tell, I think he wants to be in his own house. I don’t think he is suffering unduly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Hatchet Job

This is a tree I used to see from my living room window before a quite sadistic pruning job was done on it. Parts of it remain, but it is a dismal sight. Or maybe the third photo is of another tree that is right outside my window. Anyway, these are some green things that can or could be seen from the window.

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What Is a Shower? How Do You Take One?

Hammett was still alive this morning. He is having another very quiet day, lying on the seat of my desk chair, or on the bed, or in his bed next to the radiator. He is quite wobbly when he walks. He went into the kitchen and I heard a bit of slurping, maybe water or a bit of the gravy from the food I continue to put out each day. He hisses and growls when I give him his prednisone, and last night he gave me a little notification-style chomp on the hand, but he otherwise seems content. If he shows any clear sign of distress, I will take him to the vet for a merciful departure from this life. As much as I don’t want to wake up to find him dead, I hope he will die at home, to spare him the distress of another trip to the vet.

During my own breakfast today, I spent some minutes trying to figure out if it was Wednesday or Thursday. I’m keeping the place dark and warm on Hammett’s behalf, and I am not listening to music. NPR is on at times. One day seems much like the other.

I decided it was time to examine my mustache. When did I last do this? I sat down near a good light with a little mirror in one hand, tweezers clutched in the other, and saw I had a good start on a beard. As time goes by, I increasingly understand why you see otherwise elegant older ladies with a three-inch white chin hair. It’s just hard to see all those little details. Also, in the greater scheme of things, does it really matter?

In the afternoon, Tom and I took a walk. There were even fewer people out than yesterday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Trapeze School on the Hudson!

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Subject to Reality

Hammett was still alive this morning. His wet food, dry food and fresh water are in place as always. Over the past couple of months, he has scarfed down many crunchy treats after getting his prednisone, but over the past week, he stopped eating those, too. I put just two in a little bowl a few days ago so I’d be able to tell if he ate them, which he didn’t. This morning it occurred to me that maybe two little treats is not enough to emanate an enticing scent, so I put two more in the bowl, and he came in and ate two of them! So then I added another fistful, even though I won’t be able to tell if he is eating them, unless he eats them all, which I don’t expect to happen.

He is mainly just lying in one spot or another for a long time. When he walks, he is wobbly. He does not crave much interaction, so any little moments of this have brought me joy. When I was meditating today, he lay down just in front of me.

After I got the bill for $150 for the out-of-network provider who had some hand in my ultrasound earlier this year, I filed an appeal and by today, had not heard anything. The due date for the bill is tomorrow, so I called ABC insurance. I had compiled a giant list of things to discuss with various entities, and was prepared to mention that I planned to complain to the California department of insurance, and also to send a letter to our (awesome) governor, Gavin Newsom, who is doing a great job in regard to the coronavirus. I feel not much confidence in the federal response, Dr. Fauci aside, but tremendous confidence in California’s and San Francisco’s.

However, my problem with that bill evaporated after one simple call to my insurance company. The person there explained that it is a technicality that the provider is considered to be out of network, and after putting me on hold briefly, she came back to say that I will have to pay only ten percent of the billed amount. She also provided a convincing explanation as to why another bill pertaining to this same ultrasound is the amount that it is. I asked if there’s any way to avoid having an out-of-network provider involved in my care and she said, “Not necessarily,” but confirmed that I would never have to pay more than my annual out-of-pocket maximum in any event, and, anticipating my final question, she said that if I have to have surgery and they invite an out-of-network anesthesiologist to participate, for instance, that would be billed as if it is in network—they understand that a patient has no control over all the various entities that may participate in a major medical undertaking such as surgery.

I was delighted when I got off that call—instead having to make a zillion calls and issue various threats, it is all resolved and my mind is at ease. The worst part about that bill was fearing I could not trust ABC as a health care provider, but now I think I basically can. It always pays to closely examine one's EOBs! (Explanation of benefits.)

In the afternoon, Tom and I went out for a rather strange walk in the Mission. There were many fewer people outside than usual, and ample street parking where there is always none. Business after business had a handmade sign on the door saying it was closed. Just inside the door of one restaurant—taking food out is allowed; sitting down to dine is not—stood a uniformed security guard. We walked over to the laundromat we use and were pleased to find it open. Laundromats are supposed to be open, but the one nearest our house is not. (We stopped going to that one after the thrill of taking dripping wet clothes out of the “dryer” wore off.) We also went over to see the lady who washes and irons my work shirts and she said that at this moment, I could drop off a shirt, but after tomorrow, who knows?

I was in quite a cheery mood when Tom and I set off for this walk, but returned in kind of a bad mood. At home, I found that Hammett had vomited the two little treats onto my bed. How durable is our ability to delude ourselves: I had half started to think that a cat can just live forever not eating. Remember the law of impermanence, as Roshi says. She also says: The itinerary is subject to reality.

LaGuardia and Bus Ride into Manhattan

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Shelter in Place

This kind of seems pointless to write down, since everyone is going through the same thing, but since doing so is enjoyable for the author if for no one else, here goes. Odd to be outdoors and know that every person you see is thinking about the same thing, generally speaking. Kind of like when Michael Jackson died!

I went off to Rainbow Sunday afternoon, the day Hammett’s cat sitter had come over to administer his medication, after concluding I couldn’t sit at home staring at Hammett hour after hour. Even if I might enjoy that, he wouldn’t. Rainbow was crowded, though I have seen it just as crowded once or twice in the past. Certain things had been cleaned out, such as every loaf of bread except for two bricklike loaves probably from Germany that likely were snatched 10 seconds after I saw them. Many people’s carts were piled extremely high. For myself, I bought two extra bottles of olive oil, extra beans, and six rolls of (bamboo) toilet paper where I would normally have bought three.

Hand sanitizer was back, but you had to go to a counter to get it, and there was a limit, and it was not any recognizable brand. It looked like some enterprising operation had made a batch of glop, poured it into containers, and hand labeled it. Was there rubbing alcohol? Gone. Aloe vera gel? Gone. Glycerin? Yes! I have some strong rubbing alcohol at home, and bought some glycerin at Rainbow, so that should hold me for a while after my four tiny containers of hand sanitizer are gone.

Swathes of the bulk sections were covered in brown paper, and there were gloves available for customers to wear while accessing the bulk items that were still available. There were plenty of beans, and walnuts were available. Alas, no olives, which I eat a lot of. I could have bought them in cans or jars, but decided just to go without. The produce section was fully stocked, except not one single centimeter of fresh ginger, which I also eat a lot of.

Customers were approaching the cash registers one at a time, with others asked to queue starting 10 or so feet away, with three feet of space left between customers; giant overhead signs gave these instructions. When two people came and stood right behind me, I said, “Can you please follow those instructions?” and pointed to the signs. When I was able to move up, they hung back, opening up some space.

Back at home, I washed and chopped veggies, and was able to give Hammett his 9 p.m. medication without too much difficulty. The hissing that scared me in the morning I now recognized as just a noise—also, when the cat is making this noise, its mouth is open, as Hammett’s cat sitter had pointed out in the morning. An open mouth is a good place to insert medication (with a pill shooter, not with one's fingers). And I concluded that what I thought was moaning in pain might well have been growling intended to indicate very strong disapproval.

However, clearly he was not having fun, and he had not eaten anything, so I decided to take him in for euthanasia first thing Monday morning. I dragged myself out of bed on Monday, got dressed, put him in his carrier—and then changed my mind. I don’t want his last day to be lousy, but when he’s not actually receiving medication, he seems content enough.

Merely and cruelly prolonging death, or hours that are of decent quality? Hard to say.

I went back to bed for a while, and when I got up, I talked to my father on the phone, and started cooking a pot of beans. I called Hammett’s vet to report that he had eaten no more than a tablespoon of food in five days, if that. His vet said that if Hammett’s quality of life seems good enough today, then fine. He doesn’t think Hammett is in pain and thinks there is no point in giving pain medication. He also thinks there is no point in giving an appetite stimulant to a creature whose body no longer wants food. I agree. I wish cats could talk, and that all vets thought the same thing. There was pretty much direct disagreement between the two animal hospitals.

In the early afternoon, I saw a text message from ALERTSF saying that everyone in San Francisco was ordered to stay home except for essential activities, starting March 17. I looked at the related document, which had a big long title explaining what had been ordered. Below that, the order was summarized by three words in parentheses: Shelter in Place. I called Lisa at her home near Seattle and we agreed that that has an ominous ring. We had a good chat. I am very grateful for friends and sanghas available via phone, text, email.


These were taken when I was in NYC for my street retreat in September. The first was taken on Ninth Avenue, and the second on W. 23rd St.

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A Saturday in mid-March was a gloomy rainy day. Hammett’s hind end was wobbling as he walked, he consumed virtually no food or drink, and his pupils were strangely large, but he seemed perfectly at ease and was able to hop up on top of the dresser in the closet to get to one of his beds that is in a darker, more secluded area. (Cats near death may hide, as they know they can no longer protect themselves from predators.)

In the afternoon, I checked online to see what the enlarged pupils might mean, and found it is not a good sign. I emailed back and forth with some school friends and began to feel that I was prolonging Hammett’s misery out of my dread of saying goodbye to him. I called his cat sitter, who is a vet tech, who advised me to try the after-hours line at the hospital; I didn’t know there was one. When I called, his own doctor answered, and when I described the symptoms, he said, “This is concerning. He is uncomfortable.” I concluded that the time had come to take Hammett to be euthanized. No fewer than three people—all chaplains—had offered to accompany me when this moment arrived, so I called one of them and she immediately said she would help, and asked when she should come over. I asked her to come in 30 minutes.

She was just wonderful. She took excellent care of us. She drove us over to the emergency vet, where Hammett was examined. I spoke with a vet who said that Hammett appeared to be pretty “lively” still, and how would I feel about trying pain medication and an appetite stimulant? I agreed to this. Hammett was indeed more energetic than he had been at home, nosing around the exam room.

The total for the exam and pain medication was $198. I was astounded. I said to the front desk, “I demand to pay more!” One of the workers said, “Usually people say the opposite.” Someone brought the pain medication over to us: to be given every 8-12 hours, as needed. I asked how I would know if there was a need. The young woman said I should give it if Hammett appeared to be uncomfortable. I asked what the signs of discomfort are, and she said enlarged pupils and rapid breathing. Grrr. That’s exactly what I took him over there to put a permanent end to.

I did learn a few useful things from the vet at the emergency animal hospital: that Hammett probably was not feeling panicked about his breathing—that when a cat really feels like it can’t breathe, it opens its mouth to breathe, which cats don't like to do.

Nevada drove us home again, and I gave Hammett a dose of the Buprenex and went to sleep.

When I got up the next day, I had a long chat on the phone with my father, as I do every morning lately and most evenings. Dad is my coronavirus buddy; he watches MSNBC and I scour the New York Times and SF Gate online, with periodic excursions to the Fox News website, to see what is being said there, and we exchange bits of news. After that, I had a long chat with one of my school friends who lives in Santa Fe. I had missed part of her presentation on Friday because Hammett began to vomit. She repeated the whole thing for me on the phone.

Then I arose—it was now probably nearing noon—to give Hammett his prednisone, appetite stuff, and pain medication, with water after the pills. The appetite stuff is a tiny little crumbly pill, so I tucked it into the pill shooter along with the prednisone. Hammett spat out the prednisone—I largely attribute that to my own amateur skill level—and then I saw that he was foaming at the mouth due to the appetite stuff, which he also spit out. The prednisone remained intact and I got it down him, but the appetite pill crumbled into mush.

Hammett began to moan in a way I’d never heard before, and to hiss, also an extreme rarity. I’m not sure if I had ever heard him hiss before. It was scary. I gave up and let him hop down. I was now angry at the emergency vet for encouraging me to prolong this terrible situation. I called them and expressed myself very directly, and they said they would respect my decision if I wanted to bring him in for euthanasia.

I saw a text from his cat sitter and summarized the situation for her. She offered to come over and administer Hammett’s pain medication, and refused her normal payment. I sort of didn’t see the point: what would happen that evening when I needed to give the medication again? But she pointed out that for him to cease being in pain would be a good thing, no matter what happened later, so she rode her motorcycle over and gave him the pain medication and appetite stimulant. It was very instructive to watch her technique for various things. She said that if he ceased to be in pain, he might feel like eating.

When she left, I offered her a squirt of hand sanitizer, which she accepted.

She texted an hour later to see how he was doing. I reported that his pupils were still huge and his breathing still rapid; she said the medication itself can cause both of those, and that behavior changes might be the only way to discern discomfort. In that regard, he seemed the same before and after the medication: low energy, but able to get around, including hopping on top of the dresser. His sitter also warned that the painkillers can cause dysphoria: a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction.

My father said what convinced him it was time to take Jack in to be euthanized was that he lost a lot of weight in one week and he made an alarming sound he had never made before. Even then, my father said, he could still hop up to high places, and he looked basically the same as always. I think the consensus in my family is that it’s better to let a cat go sooner rather than later. I wanted Hammett’s last day to be good, not crappy. The vet at the emergency place seemed to think that if a cat is still a bit lively, it’s too soon, but is the idea to wait until the cat cannot stagger to its feet?

Bamboo Toilet Paper

At the end of February, at the laundromat, when several choice top dryers finished around the same time, I removed the clothes from a couple of them and heaped the clothes on the table. Less than 60 seconds later, their owner walked in. I apologized immediately and said, “I hate to take people’s clothes out of the dryer, but you never know whether the person is coming right away or never.”

He said evenly, “There are dryers available.”

I said, “Bottom ones.” Yes, that was lame. I should have used the bottom ones. I compounded my error by mumbling, “That’s the nature of the urban laundromat.” Something about this person’s feet made me think he was a tech bro, and tech bros are of course always in need of having their balloon of self-entitlement punctured a little. (If there is such a thing as puncturing a balloon just a little.)

A cool silence fell, and then I noticed that among the items this person was folding were nurses’ uniforms from the very hospital system I work for. Oops. I said, “It looks like we work for the same hospital. Now I feel a little bit worse.”

It turned out that he is an ICU nurse at the exact same hospital I report to. We ended up having a good chat. As he left, I apologized again, and he said, “I could have come a little sooner.” I said, “The dryers had finished just moments before. I could have waited for a few minutes.”

A few days later, I went to Rainbow thinking I would buy some extra garbanzo beans—the coronavirus was upon us—but found they were sold out, along with much else.

Early in March, the spiritual care department at my paying job had a staff retreat in Burlingame, which was really fantastic. I won’t recount all the touchy-feely things we did, but it was a wonderful day shared by all of us chaplains, plus our harpist, our administrative person, and our boss. At lunch, I took a long walk and enjoyed looking at the houses, trees and gardens. It was a gorgeous day.

A couple of days later, the San Francisco public school where Tom teaches closed immediately upon learning that the relative of a student was being treated for COVID-19.

I was due to travel to school for graduation on March 10. I had pushed it back two days because of Hammett, and was dreading being away from him for three days. I also was not looking forward to flying because of the virus, but I was prepared to do it. Fortunately, at the last minute, they canceled the in-person program and made it virtual instead. This was extremely lucky, because it was just then that Hammett fell apart. His sitter had warned me not to leave her with an obviously ailing cat. I would have had to not go to school, which would have meant graduating a year later, which would have been a giant problem when it comes to my board certification application. (As it is, they are scrambling to figure out how to get me my certificate of completion, since the teachers who sign these are scattered all over the country, and the office staff of the school aren’t coming in.)

One evening along in there, a friend from CPE asked if I’d like to have dinner, and we went to Udupi Palace for vegetarian Indian food. We had a great time and were howling with laughter as we walked back to her car. The next day, I went to Publico to have lunch with one of the people writing a recommendation letter for me. We arranged to meet right at noon, when normally the place is packed, but there was no one in line at all and just a few other patrons standing inside.

On my next trip to Rainbow, I found not one single roll of the toilet paper I usually use. They had other kinds, including an expensive one made out of bamboo, but I wasn’t desperate enough to buy any of that.

On March 10, we had a brief meeting for school to confirm that each of us would be able to use Zoom to share his or her final presentation, and over the following two days, most of us did our final presentations. I took a walk each of those days and was relieved to find the corner store full of toilet paper, as some uneasiness about this had set in. I said to Joe, the owner, “I feel kind of stupid doing this, but I’m going to do it, anyway,” as I paid for four packages of four rolls apiece. There was much, much remaining.

We did the last of our presentations on Friday morning, and in the afternoon, we had council via Zoom. That afternoon, I bought 15 more rolls of toilet paper from the corner store, where there was noticeably less of this product than a day or two earlier. There was no strong rubbing alcohol in any of the few stores I checked. When I went into Walgreens, two security guards were telling a young woman to leave and never come back. She was yelling and swearing at them; her arms were full of stuff. Apparently she had come in and just started grabbing things from the shelves. A few minutes later, I heard the guards say to a young man, “You can’t cut in line.” As the young man went to the back of the line I was in, he said loudly, “I’ll just snatch it, then,” meaning that he would just steal the item.

By then, we knew to leave some space between people (three feet), but most people in line weren’t doing that. I left three feet between me and the person in front of me, but the person behind me was inches away. I didn’t say anything about it.

That evening, as I sat reading, Hammett walked over to me and stared intensely into my eyes for about ten seconds. He has never shied away from eye contact, as his predecessor did, but this was unusual.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Santa Fe, Also

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Small Moments, Many Times

I have been rereading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice, by Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. It looks like I read this book formerly in May, 2010. I remember finding it largely incomprehensible. This time around, after having studied at a Zen center for the past two years, it makes considerably more sense.

This was particularly helpful: “When you are sitting in the middle of your own problem, which is more real to you: your problem or you yourself? The awareness that you are here, right now, is the ultimate fact.”

He also points out that there is no Nirvana outside our practice, our practice being to not be lost in thought. He likens it to traveling along a set of train tracks with no beginning and no end. We will never arrive anywhere. The whole point is simply to keep rolling along the tracks.

I thought about Howie periodically saying, perhaps quoting someone else, “Small moments, many times.” It would be great to be constantly aware of one of the six sense doors (in Buddhism, the mind counts as one of the senses), but impossible. Feeling one’s foot on the ground for one second: entirely doable, and a little but real break from whatever the problem is.

It also made me think of Paul Haller of the San Francisco Zen Center advocating taking a pause as often as possible. I don’t mean to sound dimwitted, but for the longest, I was like, “Pause what?” What is it that ceases during a pause? Life doesn’t. Breathing doesn’t. Input at the six sense doors doesn’t. What is it that we are trying to stop? Well, duh, of course it is being lost in thought.

So my practice these days is to feel my feet on the floor, count to three, and really appreciate how my problem fades away. I can do this as many times a day as I want! I do feel an uptick in general equanimity.

I have five chaplain colleagues who are also applying for board certification this year, all at my same hospital. We had a meeting to check in about how it’s going. I vented thoroughly. I would like to have one person who is in charge of listening to all my complaints, but there isn’t one, so everyone everywhere has to listen to my complaints. My colleagues graciously did, and empathized, as well. I pointed out that the backdrop to all this stress is the giant fact of Hammett having cancer.

Within minutes of making my whole team listen to every detail of my problems, I got an email saying an issue with my undergraduate college transcripts had been cleared up and that they were in the mail, and another from HR saying per diems are not paid for jury duty, which was good news (I incorrectly assumed at the time). This seemed to prove that it pays to complain.

A couple of days later, I got one of the hours signoff letters mentioned in the previous post, and one of the recommendation letters, so it was all in fact falling into place. I also met with my boss about the two verbatims I am going to submit with my application, and she thought one was excellent and that the other would also be fine. She pointed out several aspects of both that would never have occurred to me, so it was a very helpful meeting.

On Ash Wednesday, a fun day for chaplains, I was requested to return to all three of our campuses at night to impose ashes for patients. However, this was per three voice mails that had come in much earlier, which I normally check constantly. Either I blew it on this chaotic day, or there was some sort of glitch. I called one of the campuses to ask the nurse to ask the patient if she really, really wanted me to come in, given that I’d be coming from home. (I know. I am a bad chaplain.) The patient kindly said it would be perfectly fine if I did not, which made me feel so guilty that I went. I also went to one of the other hospitals, and it turned out my boss was working late at the third, and she went and imposed the ashes herself, which she said she enjoyed.

One of my cab drivers that evening said, “Your hair is very short! It looks nice! Maybe I’ll see you later!”

Santa Fe

This is what it looked like the very first day I arrived for school, in March of 2018. It was snowing!

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The Pizza Problem

Some interesting things that happened in mid-February, so, so long ago. I was busy collecting three letters of recommendation for my application for board certification as a chaplain, along with university transcripts, sign-off on my clinical hours from two different people, proof of my Clinical Pastoral Education units, and an updated letter of endorsement from my spiritual community. The latter took two and a half years to get, what with one thing and another, including a series of last-minute complications in February, but now has been received by the certifying body. Good thing I started that well in advance.

Carol-Joy and I went one day to Berkeley Rep to see Gatz, in which every word of The Great Gatsby is read aloud, which takes many hours. It was fantastic. We had lunch beforehand at Au Coquelet and went to Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen during the dinner break. Getting to go out to eat twice in day was an aspect of this outing that was attractive to both of us when we were making the arrangements. At the latter restaurant, I freely confess that I had fried catfish, potato salad, hush puppies with butter, and also mac and cheese with parmesan crust and bacon. All were excellent.

One day I walked over to a physical therapy appointment and then to Whole Foods to see about pizza. It is now self serve, and looks thin, dry and yucky. I stopped at the customer service counter to express my feelings about this. The young person there asked if I would like to communicate my concerns to management. I said I would leave it up to him to decide what to do, up to and including doing nothing. He said Whole Foods is aware they have problems with their pizza, so maybe things will improve soon.

I remembered earlier seeing a sign outside a café regarding croissants, and went over to get two. The young fellow there looked right into my eyes and smiled pleasantly. It was a little bit creepy: why is this person smiling at me? Years ago, I smiled pleasantly at an old lady on her lawn as I passed by and she said accusingly, “You looked at me like you know me!” That’s exactly how the croissant man looked at me, and is probably the way I often look at patients and family members. Maybe this needs an adjustment. If everyone did it, it would probably be very nice, but since people perhaps rarely smile at people they don’t know, maybe it’s more alarming than comforting.

I stood at the corner of Church and Market eating the croissants, which were superb, and heard a familiar voice say, “Hi, Bugwalk!” Tom, on his way home from work. He went off to Safeway, and I slowly made my way home. As I neared our building and finished the last of my second slice of pepperoni and sausage pizza—the croissants were just to tide me over until I could get to the pizza place half a block from the croissant place—I again heard, “Hi, Bugwalk!” Tom again!

Back at home, I finally had the chance to review several explanation of benefits forms that had piled up. This is always worth doing. I discovered that I had been billed $150 for utilizing an out-of-network provider, and was outraged. The service was an ultrasound ordered by one of my doctors. I used my ABC insurance to go to ABC’s radiology department: how much more in network can you get? But for reasons so far known only to themselves, the radiology department asked an out-of-network physician to interpret the results (which were fine). I myself did not seek out an out-of-network provider, would have declined the offer of such, and had no control whatsoever over this being done. I filed an appeal.

This spooked me. What if someday I need surgery and end up with a bill for fifty thousand dollars because ABC decides to call in an out-of-network surgeon and out-of-network anesthesiologist?

I got a very nice card regarding Hammett from my friend Lesley. It features a thick piece of cloth sewn to the front of the card, with an image of a rabbit hopping out of a fancily decorated enclosure. Lesley wrote something about cats having nine lives, so at first I thought—I was preoccupied by a jury duty notice that arrived in the same batch of mail—she was saying maybe Hammett won’t die, after all. I liked the idea, however fantastic, that maybe a cat could spend three or four lives at once to banish cancer. It turned out she was saying something much more poetic: “Here’s a bunny hopping beyond the bounds of his pen. Kitties have nine lives, so Hammett has done hopping before. Just want you to know I’m thinking of you.” What a lovely idea: that Hammett, like all cats, is an expert at dying, and will be able to do it gracefully this time, too.

As for jury duty, I filed a request to be excused because I work as a per diem and have no paid time off. I explained that I make such-and-such amount of money per month. Since I’m always noticing articles about how people making $350K a year can barely scrape by in San Francisco, I thought that would take care of that, but you have to be actually below the federal poverty line. A person in the jury duty office kindly listened to me vent, and said that when I actually get there, I can explain the undesirable effects of missing more than a few paychecks.

As I meditated one morning, someone began to play the same two notes over and over and over on a piano or keyboard, so relentlessly that I began to think maybe those other ten tones in the Western scale had been a figment of my imagination and didn’t actually exist.