Needles Like Noodles

It is common knowledge that health care in America is controlled by robber baron corporations of one stripe or another. Every time I sit down for a chemotherapy session, it costs my insurance company nearly $20,000, mostly due to high drug costs. Certain pills I take for nausea are $800 apiece. While the cost of complementary care (the holistic approaches we are using <i>en masse</i>) is not as stratospherically insane, it can still be prohibitive for regular working stiffs, largely because it’s not covered by insurance. For example, four intravenous Vitamin C&K treatments a month are running us right around $1000. Acupuncture, too, typically runs around $100 per treatment. The needles are not what hurts in conventional acupuncture.

That’s why the community acupuncture movement in this country is such a godsend. Community acupuncture centers charge only $20-40 per treatment, according to a person’s ability to pay. No questions asked, just offer what you can and sit down in a comfortable chair for some Chinese medicine TLC. For the first time in my life, I can afford to have acupuncture at least once a week. And unlike some of my other therapy encounters, my experiences at Sarana Community Acupuncture in Albany are always nurturing, tranquil immersions into the essence of true healing.

Sarana has retrofitted a nondescript strip mall office space, replete with acoustic tile ceilings and fluorescent lights. But of course those lights are never turned on. The space is always softly lit by full-spectrum bulbs enclosed in paper lanterns. The patient is seated in a Lazy Boy-type reclining chair or cot (about 4 to a room) surrounded by batik wall hangings and bamboo or rice paper room dividers. Relaxing music from all over the world floats in the background – everything from shakuhachi flutes backed by didgeridoos to spare solo piano pieces and selections from the Amelie soundtrack – all selected to sooth and smooth the senses.

The acupuncturist on duty enters, crouches down by your side, and asks what you need. Maybe you’d like support for your immune system or liver detox. You tell her, she touches your wrists to take your “pulses”, consults your chart, then inserts the needles just beneath the skin in the appropriate points.

Doctor-patient confidentiality in the well-peopled room is not a problem; just whisper. All the communication in the facility is conducted in hushed tones, as if you were in a sacred space. And even though the practitioner tends to from three to ten patients at a time, I’ve always received the utmost attention to my condition. The center feels like a safe and tranquil health haven, and I’ve always managed to drift into peaceful sleep even with several needles in place.

Sarana employs four fully trained physicians, all women. Tatania, glowing serene earth goddess; Pam, focused and deeply empathetic; Ellie, sparkly and insightful, with infectious vitality; Mari, youthful yet with a quiet grace and confidence that belie her age. All these sisters of mercy bring great compassion and expertise to what they do. They are much more than excellent healers; they feel like good friends.

The Sarana experience illustrates how even in health care, big benefits can come in small price packages. The book about this movement, <i>Acupuncture is Like Noodles,</i> proposes that acupuncture centers, “needle houses” if you will, should be like noodle houses – inexpensive, accessible everywhere, and highly nourishing, while providing a sustainable, not lavish, living for the practitioner. An excellent example of how good values can generate good value. Visualize the rest of the health care industry following suit.

For more info, or to find a community acupuncture center near you, consult the list of clinics at this website: www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org.

Siezing the good days

Prowling the streets of Paris (in our dreams)

There are four days per fortnight that I bite the magic bullet of chemotherapy. One full day at the clinic next to a Christmas tree of plastic bags full of pre-meds (meds that counter the side effects of the main meds) and chemo chems, plus iron supplements, etc. Then two days at home during which a small pump that can be hidden in a fanny pack continues to infuse more chemo into my bloodstream. And finally, Sunday, during which I am usually crashed in front of a string of televised sports events with a chemo hangover. It’s a period of low energy and low-grade nausea, no fun but tolerable.

So, needless to say, I am determined to make up for lost time during the rest of my days. Mindy and I have been doing a pretty good job of having fun lately. In August we drove down to San Diego County with my sister Claire to visit my parents, aunt and uncle, and a few friends. While we were there, my dad put the 26-foot trimaran he built a number of years ago into the water and we had a couple of days of great sailing: blue water, sweeping coastline, and plenty of dolphins to guide our way. It was inspiring, though a bit nerve-wracking at moments, watching my 86-year-old dad shuffling around the deck, setting up and breaking down the boat, and skippering to boot. Pretty amazing, actually, that he’s still up for it.

At night my mom put together jigsaw puzzles with Claire and Mindy as Dad and I watched baseball: San Diego, his team, and San Francisco, my team, have been battling for first place in the division for months. We managed to get my mom, also sprightly in her eighties, to go to a chick flick with us: Eat, Pray, Love. She was reluctant at first – the endless string of pearly whites in Julia Roberts’ mouth is off-putting to her. I enjoyed the movie, and especially liked the Balinese healer’s advice to smile from your liver. It’s my new practice.

A few nights ago, we went to a restaurant in Berkeley and 16 of our friends showed up to celebrate my birthday. I felt very blessed looking around that table at all those cherished faces toasting to my health. I’m surrounded by angels wherever I go. Talking to these pals all at once was like wading into a wonderful cross-sampling of cultural creatives: authors, concert musicians, athletes, opera singers, photographers, and designers. One friend in his seventies is suddenly determined to become a jazz pianist and just passed an audition to take an ensemble class at a Berkeley jazz school. Another, in his mid forties, just participating in his first Pro-Am slalom water skiing event. A woman violinist is just back from England where she runs an annual music camp for aspiring young classical players. Hanging around with these people makes me want to increase my IQ – illustriousness quotient. I started writing a new song the very next day.

Last Thursday, Mindy and Ben and I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor to see the City of Lights exhibit. It was a gorgeous sunny day in our own City of Light, San Francisco. For a couple of hours, we immersed ourselves in the charms of the artistic community of gaslit Paris in the 1890s. The painters, poster makers, and photographers of the time whisked us off into another world. Afterward, M. and I hikes the sun-drenched trail along the bluffs overlooking the Golden Gate. (Note the photo of us wandering the narrow streets of the Left Bank, at least in spirit.)

When old man chemo comes a-courtin’ again, I’ll be amply fortified with memories of good times to help me smile with my liver despite my discomforts.

Mind Gardener

Vietnamese Buddhist monk and prolific author Thich Nhat Hahn speaks of the mind as though it were a garden in which we nurture the good “plants” (thoughts, emotions, memories, mental images, etc.) and avoid nurturing the bad. In my life, though I’ve reveled in the positive probably 65% of the time, I’ve most likely brooded on the negative the rest of the time. Amongst the passion flowers in my mind garden have sprung up plenty of crabgrass and stinkweed. In terms of the body-mind connection, this is not a formula for optimal health.

After my condition was diagnosed, I sought counsel from my dear friend Reverend Patricia Keel. During our meeting, she mentioned some research she had recently run across that indicates that people who get cancer in the liver are often prone to feeling outraged by the injustice in the world.

I definitely resonated with that, because I had just indulged in several months of emotional upheaval – frenzied activism, fevered letter-writing, and obsessive media-watching –around the madness of the health care reform debate. Ironic, but just maybe this has something to do with my compromised health.

I later remembered that 35 years ago, before my TM (transcendental meditation) teacher assigned me my mantra, he asked, “What is your general outlook on life?” I answered, “I love life but worry about the world.” And that is still true. I write joyous songs about God’s creation and I also despair over man’s desecration of it. I guess I’ve just always been like that.

Now Thich Nhat Hahn’s advice about cultivating the positive and weeding out the negative in the mind is more than mere words of wisdom to me. It has become a key to my survival. So, how does one achieve peace of mind and greater healing? Here are some ways I’m doing it:

1. Deep ecological, Taoist Brewmaster’s view. Though I hate to contemplate the pain and suffering that would happen in the worst case scenario of Man destroying itself and a lot of other species, at least the planet would be free of us and could heal itself. And since I feel more a part of the planet than of my own misguided species in some ways, that’s a win for our side. Of course it would be better if humankind could live in harmony with itself and the planet, but I’m through worrying about that now.

It’s like brewing beer. The yeast (Man) eats all the sugar (resources) and excretes it as alcohol (pollution), which eventually kills off the yeast – but in so doing makes something good to sip while watching a football game. The mighty Earth will endure, and maybe even one day will let us come back as dolphins or something.

2. Marginalize media. I summed it up in a verse of one of my songs: “TV, movies, news and ads/Keep us moody, needy, sad/Suggest the best cure-all/Is a visit to the mall/ It isn’t real, it’s media/Don’t you let it feed on ya/Walk into the woods/Recalling all that’s good…” Remember that the media is simulated high drama designed to keep your eyeballs focused on it. Also, no matter how dazzling and spellbinding it may be, it is not an accurate reflection of the world — even if it calls itself “the news.”

3. Mind the mind. Watch your negative thought habits grinding away. Each time a grumpy notion pops up, think, “You’re not a part of me,” smile, and dismiss it as a silly notion made up by your ego self – bye-bye.

4. Right View. One of the Buddha’s eight approaches to deeper understanding is called Right View, which Thich Nhat Hahn clarifies as No View. Did you ever notice  that as we process inner and outer phenomena we are constantly, though often subtly, catagorizing  things our minds highlight  as good for our interests or not good for our interests? Constantly defining our emotional relationship to everything that comes up. Paisley: what I like. Ayatollas: what I don’t like. Pinots: what I like. Spiders: what I don’t like.  Blah, blah, blah. Always the reactive state of mind. Always the small or large emotional charge. Not a very streamlined way to view the world. See and Be. That’s all that’s required.

In a nutshell, these days I still my beating heart by thinking less and observing more. It’s a recipe for happier days. It might even  increase the number allotted to me.

Vietnamese Buddhist monk and prolific author Thich Nhat Hahn speaks of the mind as though it were a garden in which we nurture the good “plants” (thoughts, emotions, memories, mental images, etc.) and avoid nurturing the bad. In my life, though I’ve reveled in the positive probably 65% of the time, I’ve most likely brooded on the negative the rest of the time. Amongst the passion flowers in my mind garden have sprung up plenty of crabgrass and stinkweed. In terms of the body-mind connection, this is not a situation for creating optimal health.

After my condition was diagnosed, I sought counseling from my good friend Reverend Patricia Keel. In our meeting, she some research she had recently run across that indicates that people who get cancer in the liver are often prone to feeling outraged by the injustice in the world.

I definitely felt a resonance with this, because I had just indulged in several months of emotional upheaval – frenzied activism, fevered letter-writing, and obsessive media-watching –around the madness of the health care reform debate. Ironic, but just maybe this had something to do with the proliferation of cancer in my body.

I later remembered that 35 years ago, before my TM (transcendental meditation) teacher assigned me my mantra, he asked, “What is your general outlook on life?” I answered, “I love life but worry about the world.” And that is still true. I write joyous songs about God’s creation and I also despair over man’s desecration of it. I guess I’ve just always been like that.

Now Thich Nhat Hahn’s advice about cultivating the positive and weeding out the negative in my mind is more than mere words of wisdom to me. It has become a key to my survival. So, how does one achieve peace of mind and greater healing? Here are some ways I’m doing it:

1. Deep ecology/Taoist/Brewmaster’s view. Though I hate to contemplate the pain and suffering that would happen in the worst case scenario of Man destroying itself and a lot of other species, at least the planet would be free of us and could heal itself. And since I feel more a part of the planet than of my own misguided species in some ways, that’s a win for our side. Of course it would be better if humankind could live in harmony with itself and the planet, but I’m through worrying about that now.

It’s like brewing beer. The yeast (Man) eats all the sugar (resources) and excretes it as alcohol (pollution), which eventually kills off the yeast – but in so doing makes something good to sip while watching a football game. The mighty Earth will endure, and maybe even one day will let us come back as dolphins or something.

2. Marginalize media. I summed it up in a verse of one of my songs: “TV, movies, news and ads/Keep us moody, needy, sad/Suggest the best cure-all/Is a visit to the mall/ It isn’t real, it’s media/Don’t you let it feed on ya/Walk into the woods/Recalling all that’s good…” Remember the media is simulated high drama designed to keep your eyeballs focused on it. Remember, no matter how dazzling and spellbinding it may be, it is not an accurate reflection of the world.

3. Mind the mind. Watch your negative thought habits grinding away. Each time a grumpy notion pops up, think, “You’re not a part of me,” smile, and dismiss it as a silly notion made up by your ego self – bye-bye.

4. Right View. One of the Buddha’s eight approaches to deeper understanding is called Right View, which Thich Nhat Hahn clarifies as No View. When taking in the phenomena of the outer world or the chatter of the inner world, don’t lock into a perspective toward any of it. There can never be a correct perspective because perspective indicates that there is a You vs. the World. And you can never truly reach the unified field called Oneness if you’re always saying, THIS is good, it’s so me. THIS is bad, it’s so not me. THIS makes me mad, sad, glad. Blah, blah, blah.

In a nutshell, these days I still my beating heart by thinking less and observing more. It’s a recipe for greater enjoyment of my days and might even help increase the number of them.

The Joys of Juicing

I was thinking about Michael Jackson the other day. I’d just seen the movie This Is It and wondered about his life offstage. He and his family lived in a palace in the Middle East for a number of years. He named his first kid Prince I and he loved to wear ceremonial military garb from the 19th century. Apparently he liked living like royalty.

I wondered, had Michael every picked up a mop and cleaned the kitchen, or a knife to cut vegetables for juicing? Or did he just wander out to his Neverland amusement park and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl while his extensive staff took care of all such details?

If he never cut celery, that would be a shame. Never to hear that satisfying crunch under the blade, releasing a refreshingly delectable aroma into the air. You trim them and stack them to the side like adobe tiles for building the body. Then the carrots, that lovely “thunk” as the knife pushes through and hits the cutting board. You stack the sweet, bioflavanoid-rich lincoln logs next to the celery.

Don’t forget the beets. A little harder to deal with. You have to peel them, but underneath that rough and dirty exterior is a glistening giant red ruby, flavorful and iron-rich. When the knife slips through the cabbage, the vegetable whispers “cash, cash.” Jackson had a lot of credit. I have a lot of cash these days.

Add the sweet apple and the cancer-killing ginger and put your noisy juicer through its paces, catching the roughage in a bin for the compost pile while the juice streams into the waiting Mason jar. You tip it back into your mouth and know instantly that you’ve got something that money can’t buy, you’ve transformed a fridge full of produce into a magic potion.

There was a time in my life, a long time, when I might have overlooked the simple sensory pleasures of making and consuming fresh vegetable juice. Nowadays, it’s a nurturing meditation that takes place almost every day. And I’m paying attention, enjoying the moment. After all, THIS IS IT.

I may not be able to moonwalk, but we can all do something even more miraculous if we choose to.

Smile — You’re on Cancer Camera!

Hospital Hoedown

As most people reading this blog already know, I’m a songwriter and performer (as well as an ESL teacher). Many of my songs are of an inspirational bent so I play most of my gigs at spiritual centers in California. This past February my spirit was tested to the max, and it’s still in good shape as I write this.

Arriving at Unity of Davis that February morning, I informed Reverend Larry that due to the breathing problem I was experiencing, I would prefer to do the songs sitting down that Sunday. I just thought I was suffering from an unusually bad case of asthma. He took one look at me and said not to worry about the music, that he and the music director would take care of it and that I should just go take care of myself.

Since I was also shaking with fever, I reluctantly agreed. Mindy whisked me off to the local ER, and after a few tests the doctor informed me that he was amazed I’d been able to walk in under my own power… since I had one-third the red blood cells of a normal adult male. Breathing problem wasn’t due to asthma, turns out, but to severe iron-deficiency anemia — like from a bleeding tumor, maybe? ER doc also told us I likely would be spending the week in the hospital since he surmised that I had colon cancer that had metastasized to my liver!

“Cancer!?” Mindy and I groaned in unison, feeling like we’d dropped through a trapdoor. As far as I knew, I was one of the healthiest people in my circle of friends. We refused to let the news dampen our spirits too much, though. We know the power of staying positive during any healing quest. After my third saltwater drip I tried to cheer up the nurse with a bad joke: “Guess I’d rather be saline”.

After what would turned out to be only the first blood transfusion of my week, they put me in an ambulance to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. Nobody bothered to tell us that the ride wasn’t covered by our insurance or we’d have driven ourselves and saved 3,000 bucks (news we got four months later).

Once ensconced on the oncology ward at Alta Bates, Mindy refused to leave my side, even when it was time to go to sleep. So I made a space in my little bed and she snuggled in next to me for the night. Rules were broken but apparently her devotion made an impression, because next morning we were transferred to a private room, which made the whole experience much easier.

And so ended Day One of my cancer dance. Claire soon arrived to provide practical assistance, good cheer, and moral support for Mindy and me. Thanks so much, sister!

The nurses too were great, kind and efficient. By the end of the week, my fevers had been quelled and my hemoglobin raised and I felt much better, apart from my bloated feeling from having twenty-five pounds (seriously) of various infusions still sloshing around in my body. (Needless to say, for the next week I was never far from the john.)

Had two jam sessions in the hospital room over the next few days, one with my new-ish friend, world-class violinist turned ukulele master Jim Shallenberger, the other with old buddy John Remenarich. Mindy and Claire helped me invent some new lyrics, such as: “Another Cat Scan, such endurance! You must have some good insurance. Don’t worry. Be happy.” Luckily we do have good insurance, golden in fact. The bill for that first week in the hospital was $130,000 yet we owed only $50 of it for the emergency room visit.

But what happens when the therapies you really want aren’t covered? That’s when it all starts getting tricky…

(to be continued)