Saturday, October 11, 2008

"It doesn't get better than this!"

I almost bagged my morning walk today, since yesterday was pretty exhausting (we had new windows installed which meant no rest/nap/sleep all day), but the sight of the sun shining and the gorgeous blue sky lured me out. I threw on a hoodie that I won at an MS Walk a couple of years ago (which I thought was highly appropriate), stashed my cell phone in one pocket and a plastic baggie filled with dog biscuits in the other, and headed out to do one of my longer routes (almost a mile, but not quite). I was thinking how lucky I am to live in such a gorgeous place when a woman I've seen before passed me as she was jogging. "It doesn't get better than this, does it?" she asked. "Nope," I replied, "it really doesn't. Enjoy the day!" "You, too!" she said, as she rounded the block ahead of me.

Autumn has taken hold here in Portland, no doubt. We've had evening temps down in the high 30's, and the combination of colder nights and shorter days is having the expected impact on all the deciduous trees in our neighborhood. I find more and more deep, red maple leaves in our driveway each more, and the changing colors are more obvious every day. Mornings like today's are my absolute favorites: crisp and chilly, sunny and blue-skied, and so clear it feels as if you can see forever.

As I headed up a hill towards SW Hamilton Street, I could hear the sound of children playing in the field adjacent to Bridlemile Elementary School. As I got closer to the field, a little girl in a blue outfit ran over to the fence, retrieved a soccer ball, and headed back to the game. Yep, it's definitely autumn.

There's a home across the street from the school with Halloween decorations adorning on of their trees - small, orange plastic bags with black pumpkin faces hanging from the branches. I noticed several more houses with Halloween decorations set out, and several with carved pumpkins, as well.

As I was headed back home on the final stretch of my walk, the jogger passed me again. "We have to stop meeting like this!" I said as she passed. She laughed and said "I could do this all day!" "I wish I could", was my response. "It's just as good to walk", she replied, as she rounded the corner ahead of me.

I thought about that as I labored up the final hill that leads to our street, always a difficult process at the tail-end of a walk. She's right, I thought. It is 'just as good to walk', even if my pace is slower, my distances nothing to brag about, and my 'lazy leg' starts acting up as I head down our driveway. As long as I can walk on my own, and be grateful for a beautiful autumn day in Portland, OR, it's good enough.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Autumn begins in Portland

As I readied myself for walking this morning (mainly ensuring that I had my cell phone and a few dog biscuits in the pocket of my slicker), I thought about a friend's advice, given a few weeks ago. I'm paraphrasing, but it was essentially "Don't stop walking because of the rain", and that's very good advice when one lives in rainy Portland, Oregon.

It was drizzling a bit when I left the house, but most of the drips and drops and plops I was hearing came from the trees and bushes, not the sky. I don't much care if my hair gets wet (right now, it's so short, it dries in moments), but it's a real PITA wearing glasses in the rain. When I was a kid, maybe in third grade, I told my father someone needed to invent little windshield wipers for people who wear glasses. I still think that would be great idea. In any case, the day turned clear and sunny as I was walking, so I got the best of both possible worlds: everything washed clean by the rain =and= sparkling in the sun. Not a bad combination.

Autumn is taking hold all over the place, although we're not yet in the thick of it vis-a-vis falling leaves (no pun intended). I picked up a few beautifully colored maple leaves to press (and use in making birthday cards) and snipped the last two hydrangea blossoms from "Hertha's hydrangea" in our front yard and dropped them on the front porch to retrieve when I returned home. Took one of the half-mile walks, one that takes me to a fairly busy street across from an elementary school, so there were a lot more cars on the road than I usually encounter. I was acutely aware every time a car passed me; in addition to the noise of the engine, the smell of exhaust momentarily masked the fragrance of the rain-washed trees and grasses, and I found myself holding my breath every time a I heard another car approaching. It sure is different living nestled in this little neighborhood, surrounded by trees and very little traffic, nothing like working in a city like San Francisco or Boston, where traffic and cars are ubiquitous.

I'm noticing the trees and bushes as they begin to show fall colors, and have begun trying to picture what the landscape will look like in November, when the deciduous trees have dropped the last of their leaves, all the flowering plants have gone dormant, and the only green comes from grass, moss and conifers. It will still be beautiful, I'm sure, but I'll be noticing different details as I walk along, no longer focused on summer foliage. I'm actually looking forward to this.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Harvest time

So here the thing: I'm a city girl. I was born in Philadelphia, and have lived in cities (Boston, Berkeley, Portland) my whole life. We never had much gardening space when I was growing up, and what we had was usually devoted to rose bushes and flowering plants (my dad was the gardener in our house, and he always grew beautiful things). So we never grew vegetables; the only home-grown fruit I ever tasted came from a small peach tree in our minuscule back yard.

We had two apple trees on our property in California, and both produced prodigious amounts of fruit. I'd make pot after pot of applesauce which I'd freeze and then thaw in winter, when the taste of anything made from fresh-picked fruit was a real treat.

We now have a sizable back yard (my friend Deb's mom told me it looks like a park!), and last year David built me a small raised garden bed so I could plant some veggies. We planted late in the season and our harvest was small (maybe a quart of tomatoes and no zucchini at all), so this year we did our planting earlier.

I've learned a bit about the demands of harvesting from our amazing strawberry plants, as the gallon or so of frozen strawberries in our freezer prove. But even the strawberries didn't prepare me for our tomato harvest.

I picked a bunch this morning, and decided it would be interesting to see how much we have available at the moment (and believe me, we've been eating tomatoes every night, as many as we can manage), and it's about a pound of cherry and/or grape tomatoes. But there are a gazillion more out there, waiting to ripen and be gathered. At least a gazillion, maybe more. An on-line friend pointed me to a recipe for a cherry tomato tart that I'll attempt to make this weekend, and I've made a batch of pasta sauce that's frozen and ready for January/February consumption (along with about a quart of homemade pesto made mainly with basil we've grown here).

Oh, and I've done nothing with the pears that keep dropping onto the lawn. I have to get working on them, as well.

So, anyway, here's this city girl, born and bred, suddenly getting a real-life glimpse, if only for a brief moment or two, into the rigors of life on a farm. I don't mean to aggrandize my own experiences by saying that; I'm quite aware of how small my efforts are. But going out every morning to check the garden, harvest what's ready, and then figure out how to preserve what I've harvested has opened my eyes to just how difficult and all-consuming the lives of farming families are. I try to imagine what life would be like without refrigerators or freezers, in a time when nothing was wasted and everything needed to be preserved quickly (unlike our lives now, when I see gallons of apples fallen from trees along the streets where I walk crushed into pulp by passing cars). Hell, I'm wiped out when I make one batch of tomato sauce. I can't imagine spending day after day, keeping a stove going so all the various fruits and veggies could be prepared for canning. My guess is I wouldn't be worrying about losing weight!

David built another set of raised beds about a month ago, which means double the harvest next year. Ack!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Morning walks again!

There was a time, not all that long ago, when I'd set my alarm for 5:00am, throw on a pair of sweats and my Nikes, grab my Walkman, and set out to walk a mile around our development in New Jersey. We lived in one of the older developments, where the builders knew better than to level all of the glorious old trees, and I loved seeing beams of sun dancing among the branches and leaves of the huge pine trees and beautiful, mature rhododendrons. My regular walk was exactly one mile, and it took me somewhere between fifteen and twenty minutes to make that loop. Once home, I'd jump in the shower, get myself dressed, get Zack up (grumbling, 'cause he's NOT a morning person!), make his breakfast, feed the cats, drive him to before-school day care, and set off on my own hour-long commute to work. Oh, and then work a full day.

Life has changed a lot in many ways since then, but it occurred to me this morning, as I walked around our little neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that I chose to live in an area not all that unlike the development in New Jersey, at least in terms of foliage. Of course, everything around the house in NJ was very, very flat (we could never figure out why they called our town "Cherry Hill" since we never really saw anything remotely resembling a hill nearby!). Now we live on a rise, near the West Hills, and it's impossible to reach our home without climbing a steep rise. So the view is markedly different, with the hills rising to the north, and all the dips and rises in the blocks surrounding our home. But many of the trees and bushes are very much the same. Huge conifers, every variety of Japanese maple you could imagine, banks of rhododendrons and azalea bushes -- the kinds of plants that can thrive in clay-y, acidic soil. It's funny how these decisions get made - somewhere in the lizard-brain, I guess, and suddenly I realize that I've managed to repeat a decision I'd made many years before (this time, however, with much better results).

So. Walks, you think? But you have MS, and haven't been able to walk much at all for years, right?


However, at my dear friend Elaine's urging, I made an appointment with an amazing woman, a hypno-therapist who (as far as I'm concerned) does miraculous work. I've seen her five times, and am now able to walk about a half mile every morning. I can even make it up the final hill to our street (which is NOT an insignificant accomplishment, believe me!). It's slow going at the end of the walk, and I need to stop and rest at times, but dammit, I'm WALKING!!

I know you're probably thinking something along the lines of "Big F***ing Deal", those of you who are able to stroll a mile to the nearest coffee shop and pick up a large latte without thinking twice. But lemme tell ya, this IS a BFD for me. I've missed walking more than any of the things I've lost due to MS, more than my work (which I loved), more than the seemingly boundless energy I used to have -- more than anything. And now, miraculously, I am able to step off our front porch, walk out into the street, and make a half-mile loop around our neighborhood. I encounter neighbors and chat with them, pet the dogs they're walking and move on. I notice tiny details about gardens and trees. I chatter to the squirrels and listen to birdsong. I breathe deeply, loving the smell of grasses and trees and flowers.

I think this was the best 60th birthday gift of all.

Friday, August 08, 2008


I am NOT good with details.

If you know anything about the Myers/Briggs Type Indication (MBTI), you'll understand when I say that I have zero preference for "Sensing". I've had to learn to pay attention to details (like when I'm trying to follow a recipe, or read instructions or drive somewhere I've never been before). I try to pay attention to one thing, to focus and concentrate, but inevitably I find my mind has flitted somewhere else (like just now, when I started to think about our cat Caruso, who isn't eating at the moment, rather than focusing on this post). We ENFPs aren't known for our ability to concentrate and pay attention to details (unless, of course, we're really, really interested in the task). When I try to look for something positive about being disabled, I often think about having the opportunity to slow down -- stop, even -- and pay attention to what's going on around me.

About a week ago, I turned to David and said something along the lines of "Well, the end of summer is coming". He responded "What?! It's just the beginning of August!" I'm sure he thought I was into one of my glass-half-empty, down-the-rat-hole things, but that wasn't it at all.

The thing is, I'm paying a lot more attention to the changes in the gardens that surround our home, and it's pretty damned clear that things are starting to wind down out there. Here are a few examples:

  • The hydrangea bushes are flowering. Hydrangeas flower towards the end of the growing season, into the fall, not in spring or early summer.
  • The dozens of volunteer columbines have produced hundreds of seed pods, all bursting and ready to inundate the surrounding area. Another end-of-summer activity.
  • The grape vine in the back yard is producing a prodigious amount of grapes.
  • All the tomato plants are covered with little tomatoes.
  • The pears on the pear tree in the back yard are getting bigger every day, and they're no longer bright green.

I have more examples, but you get the picture, I'm sure. I don't need a calendar to tell me that summer is on the wane. Just paying attention to the details that nature provides can do that for me now.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

On my walk this morning... I rounded the corner onto SW 47th Avenue, I stopped to look at the intricacy of the leaves on the conifers that border the home on the corner, and began to think about how much more I'm able to notice when I walk around the neighborhood.

The first house I pass as I walk south has a lovely collection of planters, all filled with a different variety of plants, from tall, waving grasses to brightly colored flowers. I noticed that the two big planters on each side of the driveway stand on several large, flat rocks - a little detail that somehow makes the arrangement much more interesting than if they sat flat on the ground or in a matching saucer. Little details, but boy, are they fun to encounter.

In the next driveway, I ran into my neighbor Barb, who was talking with the young woman who owns the house at the next corner. We were introduced, and I got to meet her three (absolutely beautiful) chickens. The hens were sitting close together, in the shade of a bush, rubbing against the cool soil - and obviously having a great time in the process. I complimented her on the garden they put in last year, which I love to see as I walk past, we talked a little about the raccoons that have appeared in the neighborhood (and at some point, in most of our yards), and I excused myself so I could finish the walk before it got too hot for me.

In contrast to yesterday, when the temps were in the low 50s as I walked, temps were nearing 70 and the sun was already feeling hot, so I knew I needed to finish my circuit and get back home as quickly as possible (heat and MS do not play well together).

I made it home just fine, decided to water the pots on the back deck to help the plants make it through the heat of the day, and wandered down to check on our little vegetable beds. Our tomatoes are going nuts and I had to scrounge a couple of sticks to support branches that had escaped from the cages and were threatening to climb the fence and attack the homes to our south. They're covered with green tomatoes, and I'm optimistic that we'll have a great harvest this fall! Still not sure about the zucchini or the pepper plants, but time will (as they say) tell.

So now I'm back in the house, where the indomitable heat pump will keep temps in the mid 70s, even though it will hit the 90s today outside.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sam, the feline escape artist strikes again

My dear, dear friend Liz is here for a few days, a mid-way stop on her trip from the Bay Area to Seattle and back.

I adore Liz, and I love having her here. Her energy is positive, her wisdom seems boundless, and she has a killer sense of humor. Best of all, she understands the need for alone-time.

Yesterday, after I returned from an amazing session with my hypno-therapist (another story here), I suggested that we make a quick run to New Seasons (a locally-owned and totally righteous supermarket) so I could pick up a journal and a few other odds and ends.

When we came back, Liz made a phone call, and I sat down at the dining room table with the newest Willamette Week and a bowl of watermelon. For some reason, I looked over my shoulder and saw that the sliding door out to the back deck was open - and that the screen door, which should have been closed tight, was also open. "Damn!", I thought. "Sam opened the door and escaped again."

So I went outside, called his name, and was rewarded with a loud 'meow' in response. There he was, crouched down next to the tall grass and the little pond, chowing down on greens. I grabbed a bit of grass and lured him over to me, picked him up (no mean feat, since he weighs about 22 pounds these days) and lugged him up two flights of steps from the lower deck into the house. Then I went out to try and find Caruso. No luck. Liz joined me, and we scoured the back yard, calling his name, did the same in the front yard, tried again the in the back yard, and finally gave up.

It was time for my daily siesta, so I rested for a couple of hours, woke worrying about Caruso (temps were in the mid-80's, he's an elderly kitty who's in the first stages of kidney failure) being outside for so long, and went back out to look for him again. I was in the lower part of the yard, near the raspberries, when I heard a rustling above me. I looked up to see a bird hopping away from something, and realized there was a furry, gray lump crouched nearby, watching the bird intently - Caruso! So I climbed up the stone steps to where he was hiding and grabbed him.

It was easier to carry him back up and into the house, skinny old guy that he is, and I deposited him on the floor in the sunroom with an enormous sigh of relief.

Here's the thing. When we began keeping Sam in the house at night, in an attempt to decrease the number of fight-related injuries he was sustaining on a regular basis, our vet told us that he'd adjust to being an indoor cat in "oh, a month or so". It was to laugh.

We had that conversation in 2004. We are now half-way through 2008, and Sam still bolts whenever he gets the chance. Part of me feels badly that he's on permanent house arrest. But realistically, I know it's better for him (and MUCH better for the birds that come to our feeders) if he stays indoors. I remind him about those issues all the time. For some reason, he ignores me, despite my usually-effective powers of persuasion.

This morning, both guys are inside, having been given their usual morning treats, and settled down for a day of napping. With luck, they'll stay inside.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

This morning...

... for the first time in more years than I can count, I woke early, did my regular morning routine, and then (insert drum roll), went out for a walk. Yeah, I know - BFD, right? Well, it IS a big fucking deal for me, and I am so glad I did it. It's cool here today, and overcast, perfect walking weather for me. One of the things I love most about where we live is how rural things feel (no sidewalks help with that, as does the amazing abundance of lush greenery). It's not like taking a walk to, say, Solano Avenue in Berkeley (although I still miss Solano Ave.), it's more like taking a walk on a thickly settled country road.

No one was out and about, other than dozens of birds and one black and white cat, crouched low and safe close to its house at the top of the driveway. I walked slowly, trying to breathe in and out, deeply and regularly, and to pay attention to little details like the color of a blossom on a bush or the sound of birdsong high in one of the huge conifers that line the streets. Even though I could hear the faint sound of traffic on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway a couple of blocks to the south, it faded to white noise almost immediately, and the sound of birds took center stage.

We live on a rise, so any walk from our house requires navigating both a steep incline and a steep climb at one or the other end of the walk. I opted to do the incline first, and brave the climb on the way home, and managed to do both without much trouble. I stopped at the crest of the little hill, just to breathe and be grateful that I'd managed to make it.

It's a far cry from the days when I could walk a mile in fifteen minutes (it took me about that time to do what I assume is about a quarter mile stroll), but who cares? I took a walk!

Friday, July 18, 2008

What to write, what to write?

Every once in a while, I'll get an email from a dear friend back east, gently wondering why this space has been so silent lately. Am I too depressed to write? Too busy (not likely)? Have I forgotten how to type, perhaps (my question, not his)? The answer eludes me, except that it doesn't feel as if I have all that much to say.

I read blogs brimming over with the writers' achievements - culinary, artistic, poetic, corporate. I think about my own life with its rather small and sad list of 'achievements' (cleaned the cat boxes, watered the herbs, emptied the dishwasher), decide it's kind of silly to post on a blog about all of this mundane crap, and the space remains silent.

This post isn't about me, though. It's about a wonderful event that was announced two days ago. A friend of ours, Kay Ryan, was named U.S. Poet Laureate. You can Google her name and read all the latest articles announcing her appointment in the NY Times or Washington Post. I just want to add my little voice to the chorus of congratulations, both for Kay, whose talent is boundless and who so deserves this honor, and for her life-partner and now-wife, Carol Adair, my very beloved friend. Carol and Kay have been together for over thirty years. They married for the first time in 2003, when the city of San Francisco legalized marriage for same-sex couples (and we chose to be married in San Francisco City Hall in solidarity with our gay and lesbian friends, even though those marriages had already been declared invalid by the reactionary and fearful folks who refuse to believe that 'different' doesn't necessary equate to 'bad'. Kay and Carol were married again on July 8th, 2008, the same day that Kay received the news of this wonderful honor. It was one helluva wedding present, wasn't it?

Congratulations, Kay (and Carol)! And my thanks to those who realized that brilliant talent has nothing to do with sexual preference or gender or race. It just is.

(Hey! I know the Poet Laureate!)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

June already?

Whew. And the last time I posted in here was April? How did that happen?

It's not as if I've been doing anything even remotely interesting. I did, finally, catch the Flu From Hell that was making its rounds in Portland, and that little episode lasted a good two-and-a-half weeks. But that's not why I haven't posted here. It's mainly because my life is so damned boring. I don't do much of anything (other than the morning cat-related duties, an hour's volunteering at the local animal shelter, and a little volunteer writing for Onward Oregon). That, a weekly lunch date with my wonderful son Zack, and the usual, boring household/garden chores seem to be the sum total of what I do most days. I see friends for breakfast, and we get together with friends in the evening from time to time, but my life is - for the most part - deadly boring. I mean, how many times can I post reports about our garden or the hummingbirds or the pesky squirrels that insist on raiding our bird feeders on a regular basis? Ho hum, ho hum, ho .... zzzzzzzzzzz. Oops. I put myself to sleep just then.

However, I can report that, after one year's residence with us, Caruso (the now-15-year-old kitty we adopted from Animal Aid) is doing beautifully. He and Sam (our HUGE black cat) chase each other around the house and play together as if they've always been buddies. Harley still doesn't like him much, but her reactions to seeing him are a little less intense than they used to be. I don't think I can say they've reached a detente, but at least they're not engaged in active warfare. Most of the time.
I doubt that my fantasy of a three-cat night will ever happen, but it's pretty clear that Mr. Caruso has settled into his new home quite comfortably. Which isn't, at least to me, boring at all.

Monday, April 14, 2008

2008 Oregon MS Walk

Our intrepid team participated in the MS Walk again this year, and so far we've raised a little over $4,800 for MS research. My thanks go to the team members and to all of our friends, family and associates whose generous contributions to The Lib*erators resulted in such successful fund raising.

Unlike the first year we participated, when it POURED the entire time, this year's weather was spectacular. It was sunny and warm, but the breezes from the Willamette River made it just right for spending an hour walking (or, in my case, being pushed in the wheelchair). According to the folks from the Portland office of the Oregon MS Society, this year's turnout was the biggest ever (including all kinds of dogs from our own Waggoner, who joined for the second year in a row, to a group of Basset Hounds who seemed to be forming their own team!). There were several of us in wheelchairs and/or motorized scooters, obviously folks with MS who found their own way to participate in the Walk, despite our inability to do it on our own two feet.

At one point, a woman I'd never seen before (and probably won't see again), walked past us and asked my friend Reva if she'd take a picture of the two of us. This wasn't easy, since Zack was still pushing me in the wheelchair, but Reva managed to do it somehow. The woman patted me on the shoulder, said "Bless you for doing this" and walked on ahead of us, disappearing into the crowd. Amazing.

It's events like this one that remind me how deep the human capacity for kindness and generosity can be. I'm grateful to everyone who participated in Saturday's Walk, to those I know and love and to all the strangers with whom we shared a glorious morning along the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Who knows? Maybe the money we raised will fund a research experiment that finally discovers the cause of Multiple Sclerosis. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Anniversary Celebration

Yesterday was our third wedding anniversary (I tell folks that we had a decade-long engagement and decided it was safe to make things legal after that). We were married in San Francisco City Hall, just two weeks before I arrived in Portland (I'm a firm believer in cramming as much major change into as short a period of time as possible in order to maximize the stress factor). We chose to be married in that venue in solidarity with our gay and lesbian friends whose deep and loving relationships were given all-too-brief legal recognition by the city of San Francisco in that same place. It rained buckets the morning we were married, but the weather cleared later that day, and yesterday's weather was much the same.

Since I'm into the fourth month of my Year of Not Buying Stuff, we didn't exchange gifts (actually, we stopped doing that years ago), but we did exchange cards and David bought me a beautiful bouquet of French tulips (my favorite flower). Best of all, he made reservations at one of the restaurants we've been wanting to try for a while - Genoa.

I was a bit apprehensive when I looked at the menu (seven courses!?) but the meal was about as close to perfect as any I've ever had. Portions were small, thankfully, just enough to allow full enjoyment of the presentation and amazing mix of flavors without being overwhelming, and the menu itself was outstanding. I wish I'd thought to grab a menu before we left, because the menu was much too complex for me to remember, much less describe here. A few highlights:

  • Spectacular watercress soup (who knew?)
  • Kobe beef (David's)
  • Roast squab (mine)
  • The best selection of cheeses I've ever had

I loved that the waiter brought David a glass of red wine to accompany the beef course, since I mentioned that David kindly allowed me to order a bottle of white wine, even though he preferred reds. And that he put a slender candle in each of our dessert plates to commemorate our anniversary.

It was a quiet, elegant and totally satisfying celebration.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Spring Snow

I was talking with my ninety-three year old mother-in-law last week, saying I was hoping to find the energy to clean out the flower beds around our house later in the morning. She is a life-long gardener, and lived most of her life in Oregon, so when she cautioned me to wait a few weeks before doing anything like that, I listened to her. "It will get cold again," she said, "and there's always a chance of snow in March."

When I woke this morning, I silently thanked her for her sage advice, because the first thing I saw when I looked out the kitchen window was - snow! There's not a lot of it, and it looks as if the precipitation has already turned back to rain, but there are patches of snow all around our house - on the lawn and the decks, on my car, and coating the clear plastic domes that protect our two bird feeders on the back deck.

The daffodils still seem just fine.

This reminded me of the first spring I spent in Boston, after moving up there from Philadelphia. We'd had a week of absolutely perfect, glorious spring weather, after a very hard winter. My son's dad and I went for a long walk along the Esplanade, abandoning our parkas and gloves for light jackets, breathing in the smells from the trees and the newly grown grass, and loving the feel of the warm sun on our faces.

A week later, on May 11th, it snowed - big time. I think we ended up with a foot of snow in that freak storm, and the gorgeous magnolia trees that grace Commonwealth Avenue lost every single blossom. Gah!

When I lived (and gardened) in Massachusetts, I learned that it was wise to wait until May 31st to plant a garden. So when I wake to snow here on the other side of the continent, in a city that could have been called "Boston" rather than "Portland", had a coin-toss gone differently, I know that I'll be out in the garden within a couple of weeks, doing as much as I can to clear things out before my energy disappears.

I can't wait to plant vegetables again this year. But I will.

Friday, March 21, 2008

What we need is leadership

I can’t count the number of times I said those words when I worked in large corporations. I can’t count the number of times I sat in a coaching session with someone struggling to move up the corporate ladder, trying to explain the difference between a manager – even an exceptional manager – and a leader.

Here’s the thing: organizations need both. Managers – good, skilled managers – are absolutely essential to the health and ongoing success of any organization (and the U.S. is one huge organization in dire need of exceptional management skills, for sure). But leadership, that almost intangible ability to envision how a successful future will look, to communicate that picture over and over again so others can see it and taste it and feel it and (most importantly) to motivate people and convince them to pull together in order to work towards that future – well, that’s leadership, not management. A truly extraordinary leader hires talented managers without the need to micromanage them. A true leader knows how to trust.

I turned sixty in December 2007 (astounding though that seems to me, since I still feel a LOT younger inside). I’ve been politically aware and off-and-on active for over forty of those years. When Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon was one of only two members of that prestigious body to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 (I was still in high school at the time), I wrote a letter thanking him for his courage. At the time, I lived in Philadelphia, and Oregon was one of those big states out west that I figured I’d never see; who knew I’d find myself lucky enough to live in Portland forty years later? Since that time, I’ve listened to more motivational speeches than I can remember, much less count. But not one of them ever moved me the way Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia on March 18th did. I sat here at my desk in our home, watching the video on Obama’s web site and listening carefully to every word. When he was finished speaking, I realized that this man embodied everything I thought a leader needed – including something I didn’t list in the paragraph above – integrity.

Hillary Clinton is a brilliant woman whose talents should neither be denied nor discounted. She strikes me as one of the most competent and effective managers I've ever seen in action, and that's saying a lot. However...

There hasn’t been a time in my life when this country was more in need of a real leader, someone who (in my husband’s words) can present both a literal and figurative face to the people of our country and the rest of the world that the United States is more than just a place where wealthy white men live and prosper. I absolutely believe Barack Obama is that man.

Friday, March 07, 2008

So why the Monster Story, anyway?

It occurred to me that people might think it a wee bit odd that the URL to this blog is TheMonsterStory. What's that about?

Giving credit where it's due, it was a friend in California who used to call the disease The MonSter (get it?) and hoo boy, was she right. This really is a monster of a disease, especially for those of us who want to believe we have even minimal control over our lives. For years, my life was ruled by my calendars. I shlepped a blue leather binder that sported a little brass place with my name etched on it everywhere -- at work, at home. It was ubiquitous. The more appointments and dates I could cram onto each page, the better I felt about myself. I was doing stuff. I was accomplishing stuff. I was competent! I was worth something. That binder represented so much to me, now that I think back on it (and I have no idea where it is these days - I might have tossed it when we moved to Portland). It carried more than physical weight - it represented my success, as surely as my job title or the number of people who clamored for appointments on my crammed schedule at work.

Of course, that was all illusion, sure as I'm sitting here in an old t-shirt and fuzzy slippers. I'm not saying that my efforts at work weren't valuable, or that I wasn't effective. It's just that those jam-packed pages listing meetings and assignments had just about nothing to do with my worth as a human being, even though that was the value I ascribed to them. Unfortunately, at least as far as the rest of the world knows, whatever contributions I was able to make in the past, or those I make today, really can't be represented with numbers or entries on a calendar. If I made a difference, it was with the people with whom I worked, and it's almost impossible to quantify those experiences and interactions.

The MonSter continues to try and teach me that Life Lesson. The first thing I think about every morning as I wake is a 'to-do' list. What do I need to accomplish today? There's the usual morning routine (focused mainly on cat-related tasks). I can add a few more chores like cleaning and re-filling the hummingbird feeders or trying to run the Dyson vacuum without tripping over the cord or losing my balance and tumbling into a chair. Maybe I can manage a half hour on my trusty Theracycle, getting my arms and legs moving and my heart rate up a wee bit. It's pretty certain that I can't add a visit to the supermarket if I've already done the stuff I listed above. That will need to wait 'til tomorrow or the day after - or maybe even the day after that. So I've gone from being a much-sought-after, high-paid corporate manager, one who traveled extensively and worked 24/7 to - what? A sixty-year-old woman with a not-very-interesting life who can barely fit one outside event on her calendar, much less a long list of appointments. Does that mean I'm worth less (or worthless, either will work, I guess)? That I'm a walking waste of oxygen?

Intellectually, I know that's not true. But damn, there are days when the MonSter's impact on my life makes me feel that way.

So it's not all about MS, is it? Isn't it also about the way we - our society - values people?

Whew. This is way too heavy all of a sudden. I think I need to climb on the old Theracycle and watch a light-hearted DVD...

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Watching the seasons change

I've been a little down these past few weeks, thanks in part to The Cold From Hell that's been cutting a swath through Portland. There's a part of me, the self-absorbed crazy part I s'pose, that always thinks something like "Wait a minute! I already have my disease, dammit! What's with this add-on? Enough is already way too much!" But the Universe, in its perverse and unknowable way, has piled a cold that simply won't go away atop my regular list of MS-related physical woes, and that's been enough to eat away at my reserve of positive thinking. I'm not suicidally depressed - nothing dramatic like that. But I'm feeling blue and kinda sorry for myself (and boyohboy do I miss shopping).

All around me, though, our gardens are shaking off the last of winter's dormancy and coming back to life. I first noticed a sprinkling of crocuses in the beds around the driveway in front of the house. Light and dark purple (my favorite color) suddenly appeared among the dead leaves and brown branches - the first harbinger of spring. In the past week, the daffodils have come to life, and there are banks of bright yellow blossoms just about everywhere I look, turning what was a typical dull and unhappy-looking winter landscape into something bright and optimistic (yeah, I know, I'm projecting just a wee bit here, but - what the hell - it's my blog, right?).

This morning I noticed that the pear tree outside our dining room window is covered with pale green buds. And the camellia bushes are beginning to flower, as well.

The cycle of life continues around me, despite my blue interior. This is a Good Thing. It helps pull me out of my self-absorbed self and focus back on all of the beauty that surround me every day. As the two or three people who read this blog know by now, I spend a lot of my time clambering out of emotional rat-holes - dark, dank, unpleasant places where things always look grim and impossible. Thankfully (cheap date that I am), something as simple as a bank of daffodils swaying in the breeze can help me refocus on the good stuff in life.

So even though I still feel lousy, and keep sniffling and coughing and sneezing and keeping the Kleenex people in business, I'm not down in the rat-hole this morning.

But I am saddened at some news that arrived in an email from my son's dad this morning. One of my son's uncles, a very kind and loving man, passed away this morning after a long battle with brain cancer. I haven't seen Bruce in almost fifteen years, but I remember him very clearly, and with affection. Once again, the wheel of life turns. The daffodils spring back into life, and one human being passes away. Forgive me if this sounds maudlin - that isn't my intent at all. But these two polar opposite events hit me this morning, and reminded me that change - good change, bad change, neutral change - is as integral a part of our lives as breathing.

Whether you're out there actively working as an agent of change, or simply watching the seasons change from inside your home, it's gonna happen.

Condolences to Bruce's family, and a peaceful passing for him. And for you three or four friends who read this blog - remember that spring will come again this year!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine's Day 2008

These are the roses David gave me for Valentine's Day
We celebrated Valentine's Day in Portland in 2005, when we came here to check things out and see if we were ready to commit to a move from the Bay Area. David made reservations at a funky little restaurant called "Wild Abandon" (he liked the name) on Belmont Street. We sat in a booth, way in the back of the restaurant, and we both loved the venue as well as the meal. Since our reservation was on the early side, we decided to go to a movie after dinner. We ended up at the Moreland, an old, neighborhood theater that turned out to be the second oldest, continuously running movie theater in the country (the first oldest is also in Portland!). We saw Sideways, which was a first-run movie at the time, and paid $4.50 each for admission. Movies in the Bay Area had just hit $9.00, and parking was always an issue unless we opted to go to a suburban movie complex instead of one of the smaller theaters in Berkeley or Oakland. We anticipated having to drive around looking for parking, but we ended up parking in front of the theater (well, not in front, exactly, but in the first available parking space next to the entrance). Amazing!, we thought (and still do). We get to see a movie for half of what it would cost in the Bay Area and manage to find a free parking spot within spitting distance of the front door! It was a very cool way to spend Valentine's Day.
Last night was much more quiet, but equally as lovely. I made dinner (lamb chops glazed with honey, cumin and coriander and curried couscous with dried cranberries, saute'd onions and cilantro. We opened our last bottle of a beautiful Rosenblum Zinfandel, toasted our third Valentine's Day in Portland (and each other, of course). The venue this year was much more familiar (and had a lot more cat hair wafting all over the place!), but the feelings were as strong as ever.
I am one lucky woman.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Year Without Shopping

This started as a way to deal with the cost of Avonex, once I've fallen into the Medicare Abyss, but it's turned into a much more interesting - and potentially richer - process.

I decided to stop buying stuff, stuff like shoes (I ask you, how many pairs of black shoes does someone who walks barefoot in the house and doesn't go out much really 'need'?), or ceramic bowls, or computer games, or even books. We have one of the best library systems in the country here in Multnomah County, OR. If I want to read something, I can go online, put in my request, and it ends up waiting for me at the local branch of the library. We have more ceramic bowls (and glass bowls and stainless steels bowls and wood bowls) than any two people can use in a month. Why add anything more to our collection? My closets are stuffed with blouses and coats, jackets and slacks (and, of course, shoes). I have more sweaters, tunics, turtlenecks and other assorted tops than I care to count. Do I really need another purple one?

No way. I may want another purple blahblahblah, but I sure as hell don't need another purple blahblahblah.

And therein lies the real richness and learning opportunity in this self-imposed denial of retail adventure. Whenever I find myself thinking "Boy, I really need a purple blahblahblah" (which happens, sadly, a lot more frequently than I'd wish) I ask myself "Do I really need that purple thing, or do I want that purple thing? And if I want that purple thing, what is it I really want?"

Believe me, that last question isn't an easy one to answer. Often, I can't figure it out, and have to put it away. But once in a while, I'll realize what I really want is my health, or my work, or to be fifteen pounds thinner or fifteen years younger - none of which happens if I buy a purple blahblahblah (hell, none of which will happen again, at least in this lifetime). So instead of buying something, I spend a little time thinking about the real thing I'm missing, not finding answers, but learning in the process.

We find mindfulness wherever we can, if we try.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Out with the old year...

...and in with the new.

Except I neglected to write about a couple of cool things that happened last month, so please forgive me for a quick look back?

David, my wonderful husband, managed to orchestrate a surprise birthday party for me on the evening of the Day Itself. I wasn't much into celebrating the day, since I'm still not quite believing that I'm actually sixty years old, and since he hadn't suggested anything to me by Friday afternoon, I asked if we could call my son Zack and his sweetie Emily, and invite them over for Pizza And A Movie. David, looking a wee bit uncomfortable, answered that he'd made reservations at JoPa, a terrific restaurant just a quarter mile from our house, figuring that it was a safe venue even if I ended up being tired in the early evening. Since this interchange occurred just before I crashed for a 3-plus hour nap, I completely spaced on the fact that JoPa doesn't take reservations for parties under six.

Later that afternoon, the phone rang and someone asked to speak with David. I asked who was calling (all those years of working in offices has made it impossible for me to answer the phone and just hand it over to someone!) and the guy on the other end of the line said "I'm calling from JoPa to confirm tonight's reservation". David took the phone and walked out of the room to continue the conversation (another clue) and I realized that something beyond dinner for the two of us was afoot.

When we got to the restaurant, David asked if we could 'check out the upstairs room' (okay, that's VERY odd, I thought, we've been here dozens of times, and he's never even glanced towards that space) but I slowly climbed up the steep staircase, expecting maybe a small party of six people to greet me when I finally made it up there.

Nope. The room was filled with almost everyone we know in Portland - a real party! There's something special about being in a space like that, surrounded by folks you love and who love you, and I can't imagine a better way to celebrate my sixtieth turn around the sun. Thank you, dearest David, for pulling it together so beautifully!

There are photos from the party on some digital camera or other, and I'm hoping to share a few of them if/when I'm able.

On a completely different note, let's go back to the letter I posted here a week or so ago. I sent a copy to the Oregonian newspaper as a letter to the Editor, and it was published last week. An interesting thing happened yesterday - maybe a little hint that it's worth taking the time to voice my opinions and share my experiences.

The phone rang in the late morning, and a voice I didn't recognize asked if I was Libbi Lepow. Assuming it was a telemarketer, I answered in the affirmative (but warily) and the man proceeded to tell me that he'd read my letter to the Editor in last Friday's _Oregonian_, and wanted to let me know about a prescription assistance program in Oregon that might help me with the exorbitant 'donut-hole' costs for medication. Turns out that he's a retired dermatologist, and knows the program's director quite well; he gave me their toll-free number and her name, and encouraged me to call them. As he said "You've got nothing to lose - even the phone call is free!"

I'm still a wee bit amazed that someone would take the time to track me down and share that information. It was a ray of light in a year that will live in my memory as pretty damned dark overall. It's little acts of generosity and kindness like the phone call that keep my trust in humanity from disappearing completely

So, on that note, I wish everyone who takes the time to read these rambling, stream-of-consciousness missives the best possible new year. I hope it brings you light and love, abundance and joy (and for all of us, regime change at home and a return to the core values upon which this country was founded).