Category Archives: work

Retreating

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On his way out of the office yesterday, one of my staff members stuck his head in my doorway.

“Have fun at your retreat! Bye!” he said before dashing away.

Fun? Is that really the operative word for what one does at a silent meditation retreat? I decided to I simply thank him for the kind wishes rather than debate whether ‘fun’ was the correct word. As a matter of fact, a number of people had said the same thing to me as they were leaving.  Perhaps, it being so close to the holiday season, they were under the impression I was off to some kind of Buddhist version of Christmas.

I’ve worked with this group of people for the last three years so they have grown accustomed to my occasional trips to Spirit Rock to go dwell in silence for a week or so. I would say there are three basic opinions of my desire to do retreat:

  1. Slightly envious. There are a couple of people whom I consider my work sangha (aka “The Namaste Bitches” – it’s not as harsh as it sounds, it’s all in the enunciation).  When we have the luxury of time, we talk dharma, turn each other on to teachers, and generally support one another’s spiritual endeavors. When I’m debating whether or not to do a retreat, they are always firmly pro-retreat.  I think they see me as their retreat proxy. One of them has young children at home, and right now she just can’t be away for days at a time. The other is too young, cute, and gay & living in San Francisco to be spending time in silence in Marin with a bunch of mostly middle-aged straight people.  He calls me boring and I call him a slut.  But hey, we’re sangha, we can do that.
  2. “Not my cup of tea, but if it makes you happy.” I would say most of my colleagues fall into this category. They can see some appeal of spending quiet time someplace pretty, but a week in silence meditating six-to-seven hours a day, plus another two or three hours zombie walking, is not something they would choose to do for themselves.
  3. “Why don’t you go somewhere fun instead?” One of my colleagues, someone whom I now consider a good friend, really tries to be supportive and mostly holds his tongue when it comes to my spiritual quests, but still asks me, rather gently, “wouldn’t you rather travel with your partner and see someplace you’ve never seen before, and you know, maybe talk?”  He loves to travel and would someday like to find a boyfriend with whom he could go to exotic, romantic places.  I think he thinks I’m wasting a perfectly good boyfriend by insisting on going to retreats by myself rather than spending my vacation time with my beau.  The other colleague is not so gentle. When I told him I was going on retreat, he screwed up his face and said “another one? Didn’t you just do one of those last year?”   He’ll then ask how much these things cost and then tells me how much of a vacation I could get ‘somewhere fun’ for the same price. And when I tell him I happen to enjoy going on retreat, he’ll once again screw up his face, and ask “whyyyy?”   It’s at this point I tend to get really distracted because he looks so much like an ex-boyfriend of mine. That is, if my ex was gay and Asian. They have the exact same hair cut, vocal inflections and gestures.  It’s really uncanny, and a bit disturbing too.

So, tomorrow I head over to Spirit Rock for a week-long Metta retreat with Sylvia Boorstein. I’m looking forward to it. Who knows? Maybe I will have fun. But, if I can find a few moments of peace and love in my mind, that will be worth the price of admission.

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Parking as a spiritual practice

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It starts within moments of waking up.  First, a glance at the alarm clock, then a quick snuggle with Sasquatch, my over-sized Maine Coon cat who sleeps next to my head, and then the calculating begins.  OK, it’s Wednesday, so I need to get into the parking lot by 9:30 before it fills up so that means I need to leave here by 8:45 which means I have a half hour to putz around on the computer while eating breakfast before I meditate for a half an hour which gives me 20 mins to shower and get dressed. God, I hope the parking lot isn‘t a clusterfuck today. Then I’ll notice my stomach is already knotted up, and I could have sworn it wasn’t like that when I first opened my eyes

Perhaps it is a sign of an improved economy, but the parking situation at the medical center where I work in San Francisco has been getting progressively worse.  But until very recently, I was always able to find a space on my first pass through my preferred lot.  Back then I had the luxury of merely having to practice patience, so steadfast was my certainty that somewhere in the bowels of the lot would be a spot for me. Waiting in the the funereal-paced queue of cars searching for a spot, I would remember that in those cars were people who were suffering. Perhaps the suffering was from a major illness, or even a minor or imaginary one. Perhaps they were a nervous wreck worried about getting to their appointment on time. Or perhaps they were tired and stressed from taking care of an ill loved one. Patience comes easily on the heels of compassion.

Now, however, with my certainty shaken, generating those lovely minds of compassion and patience in my quest for parking is not so easy, and on some days, downright impossible.  So, as part of my participation in the 100 Day Retreat, I’ve decided to make watching my mind around the whole internal  parking drama one of my mindfulness practices.

I’ve never been a particularly disciplined or organized person, so my morning schedule never quite goes as planned. And with every minute of slack I grant myself comes the thought, OK, I can still get into the parking lot. I mean, it doesn’t really fill up until 9:45. So, inevitably, I don’t leave the house until the last possible minute of having any hope of easily getting a spot.

Unfortunately, no one on the roads seems to care that I’m on a schedule, and that if I’m late the results will be catastrophic. Catastrophic, I tell you!  So, every few seconds I glance at the clock at my dashboard, carefully calculating whether or not I’ll make it to my destination before the parking apocalypse occurs.

If all goes as planned, and the Lot Full sign isn’t up and I can simply breeze in, I feel my mind and body immediately relax. All the preceding drama  and anxiety is quickly forgotten.  However, if the Lot Full sign is up, or if there is line of cars going down Geary waiting to get into the lot, that’s when my mental goat rodeo really begins.

With each car ahead of me, I can feel my mind get a bit tighter.  Suffering sentient beings, my ass!  These people are the competition who were out to take what is rightfully mine.  The nerve of them to want to get into my lot.  But, I’ll ignore the Lot Full sign (as everyone does) and take my place in the slow-moving queue. Rather than a mind of patience, the best I can muster is bored acceptance of my possible fate of having to endure an unfruitful journey through the five circles of parking hell.

Sometimes it may take a couple of  slow, painful journeys down and back up the five levels of the lot, or even trying the lot across the street, but when a spot, my spot, finally opens up, an exultant hallelujah floods my soul as if I had just found Jesus, or a favorite earring that I thought was lost forever.  I feel a wave of gratitude that my quest is over, and while I may be a bit flustered, I’m genuinely happy that it all worked out, even if it took a half hour to find a spot.

Does being mindful of my own insane obsession with parking make it less painful?  Yes, I think so.  Occasionally I find myself quite amused with the dire consequences I’ve created in my mind that have no correlation whatsoever with reality.  And rather than get angry about having my dearest parking wishes go unfulfilled, I simply recognized it for that it is; parking is dukkha, just another example of Buddha’s First Noble Truth.

Maybe one of these days I’ll have the wisdom to simply let go of all my grasping at expectations around parking. Or it just might be easier to take public transportation.

Tough love training

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I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  No worries. Everything has been (mostly) fine.  I just decided to step away for a while from constantly narrating my life to trying to live it and be more present for it.   But, I’ve missed writing and I’m missed my blog buddies.  So, here I am.

The method behind her madness finally showed itself late this afternoon. It was the end of the second day of training for this new system I had to learn for work, and Carmen and I were discussing,  using all the application-based jargon and concepts, how this was going to be implemented at my medical center

“See!  See!” she said with some glee. “Did you think earlier today that you’d understand this so well?”

“Well, frankly no”, I deadpanned, “but I had formulated a dandy plot to kill you.”  Despite my kidding, my extreme annoyance was still plainly evident with what I had considered to be the most painful training I had ever attended.

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The company I work for is no stranger to developing really obtuse  in-house computer applications. I’ve been on the designing end of some of those systems, as well as having to train others how to use them.   Training or supporting a difficult system is never fun. I always felt a little bad when an application wasn’t very intuitive, and I tried desperately to make it up to my user community by being very supportive and available for their questions.

Carmen, apparently, holds a very different view.  At its kindest, you might call it tough love.  At its worse, you could call it torture.

When the training first began yesterday morning, I felt some sympathy for Carmen.  An appealing young woman with a charming Southern accent, Carmen had recently taken on the role of trainer for the application.  You could tell she really wanted for us to understand the concepts behind the system and had formulated this rather elaborate analogy using different colored cars making food deliveries to different neighborhoods.  There was a lot of talk about apple pies and chocolate cakes.   She almost made it sound like fun. Or at  the very least, delicious.

Yet when it came time to put our hands on the application and do some of the exercises, that’s when it all started to go so very wrong.   She told us what she expected us to accomplish and said it was all in the training manual.  My colleague and I looked at each other blankly.  While we had learned how to deliver chocolate cakes, we had no clue how to actually operate the application. Carmen’s bubbly demeanor turned cold and brusque when we tried to clarify the assignment. “You have a training manual. It’s all there.”

Normally, I’m a fast learner. Always have been.  A big part of my identity is that I’m relatively smart and can grasp things quickly.  When that idea of myself gets challenged, I get can get pretty cranky.  And when my polite attempt at clarification gets rebuffed or ignored, I get downright pissed. My displeasure was expressed in my muttered expletives, as well as giving a rather brutal review of the training session to Carmen’s project manager.  I believe the word “clusterfuck” was used more than once.

But, as the two days wore on (and on and on), some of the concepts did become clearer, and assignments were completed with less strum und dang. Despite system glitches and a workflow that completely lacked any intuitiveness, progress was made.    With one more full day of training, we might be able to go back to our medical center and start tackling it.

I don’t know whether Carmen was simply covering her ass for some clear gaps in her knowledge and  training methods, but she explained that letting us swing in the wind was all part of her grand scheme for us to understand the application.  She seemed genuinely pleased with herself. Me, I just wanted to have a slice of chocolate cake and call it a day.

Epiphany

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In my writing group, we give ourselves a writing assignment at the end of each meeting so that even if we haven’t been working on anything else, at least we’ll have our “homework” to share with the group.  Last week’s homework assignment was:

Think of a time in your life when something happened that changed your perspective on life.  It may have been a conversation, an experience on a vacation, a relationship, a death or birth that happened in your life.  Write about it in 500 – 1000 words.

This is what I came up with.

It’s been my experience that true epiphanies are few and far between.  You know, like the kind you see in the movies: the camera moves in, the music swells, and after some intense facial emoting, the heroine gets up and rushes away, off to take action on her new found insight.   No, for me change usually comes slowly, sometimes stealthily, so subtle I barely notice it. But, there was once when I had one of those big almost cinematic epiphanies (except for of course without the close-up and the swelling music).

At the time I was working as a manager/programmer/data analyst at a small survey research firm in San Francisco.  I wore many hats and worked many hours.  When I had first started the job, I was working close to 70 hours a week. And I didn’t mind it, at first.  Within that very month when I started, not only was I beginning a new job, but I had broken up with my boyfriend of 10 years, stopped drinking, and started therapy.  Work became my refuge.  I knew my role, I knew my value, and I had less time to sit at home alone and think about my lost loves.

The company was owned by a couple, Kathryn and Michael.  They encouraged their staff to think of the company as family.  Michael was the loveable, yet absentee dad. Everyone loved it when he was around. But, he spent a lot of time away from the office wooing clients, leaving Kathryn to tend to her flock, which was an interesting mix of the over-educated and street urchins. The Project Managers were mostly PhDs  and the telephone interviewers were mostly students, musicians, artists and smart under-achievers. It was a lively, fun and engaging group.

Kathryn, unlike Michael, wasn’t entirely comfortable in her role as  a company parent. Sure, on any given day, she could be the cool mom, just hangin’ with the crew, joking around and more than willing to take some of us out for a long lunch. On those days she was capable of immense kindness and generosity. And for someone like myself, who was using work as a life substitute, it was easy to get sucked in and start seeing her as boss, friend & mother.  But then there were the Joan Crawford days where she stomped around the office throwing fits about the smallest things.  On those days people hid in their offices, staying away from the common areas in hopes they wouldn’t run into Kathryn and become the target of her rage.  For a small woman, she was capable of casting a huge shadow over an otherwise congenial workplace.

Over time, Kathryn changed her ways.  Instead of terrorizing the entire staff on her bad days, she would single out one person to be in the doghouse for an entire week.  If you were in the doghouse, nothing you could do was going to be right.  She had a knack for finding the softest, most vulnerable spots in your psyche and then proceeded to take a sledge-hammer to them. If it was your turn in the doghouse, other colleagues would come up and offer solace, a shoulder to cry on, or a stiff drink after work. We all had done our time there.

For me, Kathryn’s form of torture was the silent treatment.  She wouldn’t rage, or verbally abuse me. Those I could stand up to.  But, she would stop speaking to me altogether. All I would get from her were looks of disapproval or a derisive roll of the eyes.  How did she know?  How did she know that this had been the way my mother had expressed her disapproval towards me?  How did she know that this treatment hurt me more harsh words, ridicule, or even a physical beating?  The silent treatment said to me, you’re not even worth wasting my breath on. You do not even exist. Those doghouse weeks were brutal.

Turnover at the company was high.  Most sane people were able to see the insanity, and left when they could. Yet, I stayed for four years. My self-confidence had been pretty well  ground down by the intermittent soul pummelings. My entire life was wrapped up in my work.  I couldn’t see my way out.

That is, until one evening after work. I was on West 580, maybe a mile from my the exit I took to get home.  It was dusk, just bordering on night.  I don’t remember my thought process or if there was even a thought process. But there it was. My epiphany. I broke out in tears when I  finally recognized that Kathryn was not my mother, and that it was not my job to make her happy.  Her unhappiness belonged to her and it was not a reflection on me. And perhaps, the longest lasting insight was that work is not who I am.  Work will never love me and I should stop expecting it to.

The tears continued into the evening.  But, at the end, I felt free.  Something had irretrievably shifted.

The next day when I went into the office, I started putting together my resume, made a few phone calls to other research firms with whom I had established relationships. One company had an opening for an Operations Director and they definitely wanted to talk to me about it.  Kathryn could sense something was up, so I was squarely put back into the doghouse.  This time it didn’t faze me. It was laughable.

After I submitted my resignation, Kathryn ceased to acknowledge me altogether. She refused to come to my going away dinner. It’s a pity.  I really wanted to thank her for all that she had taught me, and the skills and lessons I carry with me today.

Breaking the pattern

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This is the way it usually goes:

Step 1: stray or abandoned animal shows up on my doorstep or is dumped in my office.
Step 2: I say “No, I do not want/need another pet.”
Step 3: “OK, well, I’ll take care of it until I can figure out another situation for it or find its owner.”
Step 4: said with feigned resignation, “oh, OK, well the other animals have accepted it, so I guess I’m keeping it.”

That has been the pattern for all four of my current pets,  and has been the pattern for pretty much all my pets during my during my adulthood. That is, until last week.

One evening, about three weeks ago, my co-worker Patricia texted me – “I found a baby bunny in the park. You want a bunny?”  I immediately texted her back. “No, but I can advise you how to take care of it until the SPCA is open tomorrow morning.”  “Oh never mind”, she texted back, “we’ll just leave him here tonight and come back tomorrow.”  “That would be a death sentence for the bunny – raccoons, dogs, etc. – easy to keep him overnight and keep him safe” I responded back with some urgency. “Oh, OK.” she finally relented.

The next day she told me that her 10 year old nephew was going to keep the little bunny.  I kind of cringed when she told me that since children have notoriously short attention spans when it comes to small animals.  But, I proceeded to send her a plethora of links on the care and feeding of bunnies, and offered to bring her some hay.  I was happy to act as bunny consultant as long as that meant the bunny wasn’t ending up on my doorstep.

But, let’s go back to Step 1, shall we?  While I may have avoided having the bunny land on my doorstep, I didn’t dodge having the bunny dumped in my office.  As I feared, the nephew showed no interest in actually taking care of the little creature, and for close to a week had kept it exclusively in a 2′ x 2′ Rubbermaid storage box.  Well, that’s not completely true, they let it out once, only to have their two foxhounds terrify and attack the little guy.

Patricia brought the rabbit into the office on Monday to let me “see it”.  What a cute little guy.  It wasn’t a baby like Patricia said, but a full grown English Spotted Rabbit.  He looked in good condition, though I quickly saw that she had taken none of my advice re: his litter or food.  Once she told me that he hadn’t been out of that box for 5 days, I offered to let him hop around my office for a while, though I still insisted I had no intention of taking him home.  Apparently, no one in the office believed me.

I could tell he was so happy to get out of that damn box.  He did a few laps of my office,  and then proceeded to check everything out. Finally, he stretched out near my feet, looking quite normal and well adjusted, especially for a little guy who had been through so much.   And unlike my two bunnies, he didn’t fuss when you picked him up, so we also got in some major snuggle time.  What a sweet, sweet little guy. And soft?  Insanely soft – made Mr. Binkles feel like a damn brillo pad.  But, still, I had no intention of taking the bunny home.

When 5:00 came around, Patricia came in to say good bye to the bunny.  “What?  No! Listen I spoke with a couple of rabbit rescue organizations and they recommended that you take him to the San Francisco Animal Control Shelter – they work with Save-A-Rabbit.  He’ll be fine.”  I said somewhat unconvincingly. “Thanks for taking care of Mr. Bunz!”  Patricia said as she flounced out of my office.  I could have sworn I heard some of my co-workers laugh in the background.

So, now we’re at Step 3.  Of course, I could have taken the little guy to the SF Animal Shelter.  But, I wanted to talk to Judy, the rabbit rescue lady in Berkeley first.  Maybe even try and get him placed with her. But she wasn’t in, so I had no choice but to take the little guy home with me.  Really, I had no choice.

When I started the day, I had no idea I would be taking home a rabbit, so I was ill-prepared.  But, I figured as long as I kept him away from Mr. Binkles and Mrs. Peabody, everything should be fine.  Since the sun room is the only thoroughly bunny proofed room, I put him in there – separate from my two buns, though they were able to see each other. Perhaps that was a mistake.  Binkles was FURIOUS.  Fit to be tied.  Fire coming out of nostrils.  That was one pissed off bunny.  When I let him out for his free time later than evening, one of the first things he did was to come over and take a big bite out of my arm.  Mr. Binkles was not pleased.

Later that evening, I moved the visitor bun into my office where I could close him off and seperate him completely from the other two.  But, that didn’t fool Mr. Binkles.  As I sat in my office with the little guy, I could hear Binkles pacing back and forth at the door, like some kind of jealous enraged lover.  This was not promising.

For the next week I tried to make it work, hoping the Mr. Binkles would eventually calm down. The house ended up being divided into two different turfs: Mr. Binkles and Mrs. Peabody had the front part of the house, while the back part belonged to the visitor. Moving between those two turfs became increasingly difficult as one of the bunnies was always waiting at the door trying to get at the other.  And finally it happened.  Mr. Binkles slipped underneath my feet and charged towards the little visitor bun. An ugly and ferocious fight broke out.  Tufts of fur were flying.  Not wanting to stick my hand or my foot into the middle of that melee, I grabbed a shoe and placed it between them. I was then able to pick up the visitor bun, but not before Binkles once again latched himself onto the little one with his teeth.  I had a hold of one bun, but I ended up lifting them both up.  Grabbing Binkles’ jaw, I was finally able to get him disconnected from the visitor.  Everyone got put away for the night so that mommy could take a Valium and try to figure out what to do.

I was finally able to get a hold of Judy, the rabbit rescue lady.  She assured me that if I took him to the Berkeley Animal Shelter that after a short holding period he would be transferred to her care.  That was the reassurance I needed.  I would be able to track the little guy’s progress, even visit him on the weekends until he gets adopted.

After Binkles and the visitor bun got a taste of each other’s blood, their obsession with each other just grew worse.   Granted I knew some of this aggression was happening because the little guy wasn’t neutered.  And sure, I could have had him neutered, and then after the hormones died down tried to bond him with my other two.  That process could have taken two months or more, and even then there were no guarantees they would get along.  Step 4 looked like it probably was not going to happen.  I hated giving up, but knew what I had to do.

I was surprised how emotional I got when I gave him up to the Berkeley Animal Shelter.  He really had a lovely, sweet personality.  I was relieved when to see that the woman who handled the bunnies was clearly such a gentle soul.  She reaffirmed that after his neutering, he’ll be sent to Judy’s rabbit rescue.

Good luck little guy.  I hope you find a permanent home where you can be happy and loved.

My frighteningly good health

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I can’t remember the last time I got sick.  Really sick.  Stay in bed and complain sick.  I know for a fact that in the last year (probably more) I have not had any colds or the flu – no sore throats, chest rattling coughs or runny nose.   I think the last time I got sick was a weird 24 hour flu where I had a fever and nausea, but the next day I was fine.  Such a shame because I was totally prepared to go down for the count.  I called into my doctor’s office  to get some Tamiflu, and had the boyfriend bring in soup and orange juice.  I was ready to be sick.  Didn’t happen.

When I started working in the medical center about nine months ago, I was certain my first year was going to be filled with lots of downtime as my system got used to being surrounded by god-knows what kinds of germs.  Hasn’t happened. In some ways this good health worries me.  It’s like I’m saving up all my sick for something big.  I don’t want something big.  Give me some sniffles, a sore throat, etc.  You know, just the standard stuff.

Sure, I did have that bout of sciatica around my birthday.  But, musculoskeletal doesn’t really count.   That counts as an injury, not an illness.

For the past couple of days I may have somethin’ a-brewin’ inside of me.  I stayed home from work today because I just felt . . . I dunno.  Tired?  After I got up around my usual time, I decided to call in sick for the day and then went back and had some of the deepest sleep I’ve had in ages.  And I’ve got a throat tickle going on.  So, maybe I got a little sumthin’.  Maybe? It doesn’t feel flu-y, which is good.  I’ll be getting my flu shots soon, so hopefully, I can avoid the flu again this season.   But, a cold, an annoying little cold would almost be welcome.

Take Your Pet to Work day

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OK, sure, it’s not an official day, but it totally should be. I mean there is Take Your Daughter to Work day (which later became Take Your Kid to Work day when the boys started whining that they don’t get enough attention). So, why shouldn’t we be able to bring our pets into the office at least one day a year. As long as they are house-broken and well-behaved, I think it would be a wonderful treat for employees and patients alike. And for those with allergies, we’d have People with Allergies Stay Home day on the same day.

Despite the lack of an official day to bring your pet to work, one of my staff brought in one of his dragons (and don’t call them lizards! While K is a very soft-spoken, kind and sensitive man, he’ll go all Komodo on your ass if you call one of his dragons a lizard).  So, meet Einstein, the water dragon who hung out at the office today.  Very mellow little dude.  Pretty much stayed on K’s desk and looked slightly worried.  Obviously, the little guy was pretty smart because I’d be worried too if all these strange ladies were coming in and invading my space, cooing and chucking my chin at least once an hour.

Water dragon w/ dying potted plant and dead air plant stick

Water dragon w/ dying potted plant and dead air plant stick

Water dragon and co-worker

Water dragon and coy co-worker

I'm ready for my close-up, Ms. DeMille

I'm ready for my close-up, Ms. DeMille