Above my bed in The Cottage hangs a Japanese-style watercolor of a contemplating monkey. The monkey is off-center against a brown background and if you look closely, another monkey, or perhaps his shadow, lurks mischievously behind him. In yoga we talk about the “monkey mind,” which is always thinking too much and playing tricks on us, distracting us from the meditative practice at hand. When I saw my room in the cottage and the monkeys perched above my new headboard, I instantly thought, Great! Just what I need, a monkey mind infiltrating my dreams at night and playing tricks on me. But as with everything on this journey, I am learning to live with my monkey friends and my own inevitable monkey mind.
The last couple of weeks were a physical low point in my recovery. I struggled with the BK virus which attacked my bladder and made things very painful in the urination department. At the same time, a blood clot started forming around my current PICC line, causing pain and cramping in my left arm and shoulder. No sooner did these problems begin subsiding then I developed an intense headache. I called the BMT hotline three nights in a row convinced my head was going to explode off my shoulders. (Each time the doctors told me to take painkillers and go to bed.) To compliment the headache, a low-grade fever developed in the evenings, high enough to give me the chills and a poor appetite, but not high enough to warrant the administration of that forbidden over-the-counter cure-all, Tylenol. Through this uncomfortable phase, my creative endeavors were abandoned and walking between The Cottage and the car was plenty of daily exercise. I buried myself in easy books or even better, mindless TV, and repeated to myself what the nurses said in the hospital, This won’t last forever. My mind remained fantastically focused on the present, acutely attuned to the physical discomforts in my body.
Then, as suddenly as the problems developed, they started to go away. One morning I woke up and urinating was no longer a problem. It was a miracle! For several days, I whispered a little prayer every time I relieved myself, Thank you God for letting me pee normally again! With the help of a prescribed blood thinner, the cramping in my arm disappeared overnight. Then my fevers left and my appetite returned. Suddenly I wanted the Trader Joes’ pumpkin pancakes and chicken pot pie and homemade cookies my caregiver so lovingly prepared. And despite my late night fears of fungal meningitis or intracerebral hemorrhage, my headache did go away bit by bit, until one day I realized, the headache was gone.
Now one would think that with all my physical complaints relieved, I would be able to sit back and enjoy feeling good. For a few days I did bask in the physical pleasure of wellness. I feel so much better than yesterday! I repeatedly told my caregiver. I must have sounded like a broken record, but she smiled sweetly every time and said she was glad.
But my satisfaction to simply enjoy wellness was short-lived. This is the way of the monkey mind: as soon as problems are resolved, the mind looks for something new. My new problem was projects. I needed projects. Big projects, work. I called my husband and bombarded him with ideas. I would like to have my electric piano in the The Cottage. Can you please bring it over? There are classical pieces I need to learn. And I am looking at engineering jobs, catching up with the industry all over the Bay Area. There are classes Stanford offers to the public with world class professors – art, literature, writing, music, language, business – you should see the catalog! Do you think I would be allowed to take a class? As he simultaneously balanced one toddler on his hip, sent our six-year-old to the shower, and reprimanded our son to get off the computer, he managed to point out, “You must be feeling better.” Yes, I realized. I must be feeling better. It turns out monkey mind is actually a sign of good health.
So what am I doing to satisfy this monkey mind? Let me tell you! I am learning about local history and architecture. I have discovered a very helpful website put together by the Palo Alto Stanford Heritage group. There is a very long registry of all the historically significant and old houses in Palo Alto, of which there are many. Each day, I pick a street and make checklists of the addresses I want to visit, noting the style of architecture and date of construction. Then I put on my walking shoes and my HEPA-mask, pick up my clipboard and go.
Feeling incognito in my disguise (hot pink HEPA-mask, sunglasses, knit cap, trench coat, clipboard), I do not worry about what people think as I stop and study houses from the sidewalk, peering through bushes to get a better look at a roof line or custom eave gussets. By looking at examples of the different “styles,” I am trying to grasp a basic understanding of the nebulous architectural language. As a structural engineer by training and trade, architects are simultaneously my best clients and archenemies. Engineers are logical and practical to a fault. We name things for the materials from which they are constructed and their height: Two-story Concrete Building, One-Story Wood Frame House. Architects are stereotypically artistic and idealistic. Their names can be much more mysterious, i.e. Traditional Vernacular Modernism (??).
I have discovered some categories are easy: Tile roof, thick adobe or concrete walls, and courtyards – Spanish Colonial Revival, makes sense. White plaster walls with exposed wood triangle frames and steep roofs – Tudor Revival. (I am not sure why we have to add “revival.” It seems obvious to me we are not actually in medieval England or being colonized by Spain, but I guess architects really like to spell things out.) However, there are other classifications that are more ambiguous: Shingle style. Is this anything with shingles that doesn’t fit in a different category? The jury is still out. I will learn by visiting more examples. My favorite category I have encountered so far is Prarie Style-Seccessionist-Craftsman-Pueblo Revival. Why not just call it the All American?
My job as architectural researcher is not without a few risks, however. One time I was peacefully making my way down Coleridge Street, rich with pre-1939 specimens, when I realized there was no question about it, I had to go number two. (My post-chemo digestive track is not always very forgiving with the timing of such things.) I quickly weighed the options: try to make it back to The Cottage, hoping for the best, or head toward the much closer Horticultural Center Garden, where I had seen a public bathroom. I chose the Horticultural Center. With a light rain starting the gardens were deserted, and I soon found out why. The public bathrooms were locked! Who could garden without a bathroom? A neat little sign explained, “Public bathrooms are open weekdays from 9am to 2pm.” What kind of hours are those? I thought, in a moment of panic. I looked at my phone, 2:39 pm. I totally missed the window.
Then I remembered my sister’s words as I left The Cottage. “Call if you have any problems. I’ll have my phone on!” Embarrassed to be calling for such a silly reason, I dialed her number. No answer! At that very moment the clouds unleashed a downpour. I hobbled under the eave of the closed bathroom, stuffing my precious architectural notes into the breast of my raincoat and sweating to maintain my dignity. I left a fumbled message on her voicemail, hung up and redialed. This time she answered, but there was no voice. Hello? Can you hear me? I shouted through my HEPA-mask. No luck, I hung up again. On my third try, we achieved a decent connection but between my muffling HEPA-mask and a helicopter flying overhead, she couldn’t understand a word of what I was saying. Finally I shouted, I have to go poop! I’m at Gamble Garden! In a jiffy she arrived in her little black truck and minutes later I was home safe and sound. I managed to hold it together until I got home, but it took hours for me to recover from the physical stress of the incident.
Another time, I was respectfully minding my own business, checking off houses on my clipboard, when I arrived at a two-story Craftsman on my list almost entirely hidden from the street by ten-foot high bushes. This particular example was a number one on the registry, meaning not only was it an old house, but an exquisitely and authentically maintained example of its genre. I had to get a better look. At the only break in the bushes a carved wooden gate and brick path led, presumably, to the front entryway of the house. The gate was just about as tall as my head, so to get a glimpse of the structure I stood on my tippy toes only to come eye to eye with a person holding a leash. Upon seeing my masked face, the leashed animal began barking ferociously and instinctively I immediately crossed to the other side of the street.
The woman with the barking dog came out of her gate and glared at me. I smiled back, trying to show I was friendly, but I soon realized neither she nor the dog could tell I was smiling through my HEPA-mask, especially from across the street. She took out a notepad from her pocket, jotted some notes, looked at me again, and then started walking. She took her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed some numbers. She looked back at me several times before continuing down the street.
I was absolutely sure she was calling the police department. Was I doing something wrong? I just wanted to look at her house which was on the public historic registry! I suddenly realized I must have looked extremely suspicious, in my long raincoat, pink mask, knit hat and clipboard, snooping around, making notes. Trying to keep calm, I reasoned, When the police come I have a really good story. It’s not a story, actually, it’s the truth. I am a cancer patient at Stanford and I am supposed to go on lots of walks to regain my strength. To make my walks more interesting, I am looking historical buildings. Look at all my evidence: My clipboard with addresses and architectural styles and dates, my HEPA-mask, my medical alert bracelet that says “BONE MARROW TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT”. It would be hard to prove that I wasn’t doing precisely what I’m doing.
Either she gave in and let me go this time, or the police couldn’t find me among all the HEPA-mask-wearing, clipboard-toting stalkers in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, I made a beeline back to The Cottage terrified of being arrested. It was several days until I worked up the courage to go on an architectural mission again. Now I look at houses obscured by bushes from the opposite side of the street, which usually gives me a better view and keeps me a safe distance from scary owners.
Being on the outside looking in is one theme of my existence right now. Outside on the sidewalk looking into other people’s houses. Outside my family watching them through the screen of FaceTime. Outside holiday and social events, picking up news here and there through letters and calls from friends. Outside sitting in the truck while Krissy shops in Safeway or Walgreens, watching people bustle in and out. Outside the world of commerce. In some ways it is a nice break to be outside the rat race. But anything I get comes to me through other people. Even on-line purchases have to be driven to me from Santa Cruz and wiped with hand sanitizer before I am allowed to touch them. Always several degrees of separation.
Luckily I have never been an avid shopper, but even I occasionally long for the American joy of spontaneous consumption. The other day, while frequenting one of the only venues where I am allowed “on the inside,” the Stanford Cancer Center, I was standing in line at the pharmacy. Mostly the pharmacy is a purveyor of prescription drugs, but the pharmacy has a small selection of commercial items. My eyes started to bug-out at the things for sale. Things for sale! What a concept! I found myself picking out new deodorant and agonizing over whether I wanted an 8 oz bag of Circus Peanuts (pale orange peanuts made of marshmallow) or Trolli Peach Gummy Rings, not because I wanted candy, but because I wanted to buy something! I thought of my friend who was raised in Russia during the communist regime and LOVES to shop. I felt understanding for her passion. However, the pharamcy is an island of commercialism in my otherwise commercial free world. Outside the pharmacy I can’t even buy the Chronicle; the ITA just gives it to me for free because I am a cancer patient.
Maybe my monkey mind projects are a personal survival tactic for bringing meaning to my world outside, helping to distract me from all the important happenings I am missing on the inside. My daughter will turn seven next week without me. My husband was laid off from his job and may even get a new job without my support. My twins will go from toddlers to potty-trained preschoolers before I return home. Buildings I designed will be built and lived in without any visits from me. Whatever the case, the monkeys and I have become friends. My monkey mind keeps me going, even if I am on the outside looking in (for now). And Happy Chinese New Year! It just so happens it is the Year of the Monkey.