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!