"To Sleep, Perchance to Dream..." My Insomnia Story (Struggle)

Hamlet may have wanted permanent sleep—I’d be satisfied with six or seven solid hours! When I was young, during my teenage years, I often wandered around our house in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I’d meet my father reading in his red-brocade chair, an heirloom from his mother. We shared these awakenings, nodding or whispering to each other before we retreated to our respective beds to try, once again, to sleep. There was never any warning when I might have disrupted sleep: Did I have an important test the next day? Did I have to wake early to catch a flight and not trust my alarm clock? Had I had a bad day, misunderstanding a friend’s comment, feeling awkward about my body, or being anxious about a project? No matter the cause, falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking at a reasonable hour eluded me.

Over the ensuing years, my sleeping (or non-sleeping) pattern remained inconsistent but gradually worsened. I didn’t discuss it with any health providers. I didn’t take any medications for it. I didn’t try meditation or cognitive behavior therapies. I hid the panic of not being able to fall asleep for five or ten nights in a row. I endured the whole-body tiredness and the foggy brain of those nights without good sleep. I’d be exhausted but still not able to fall asleep or stay asleep. I cried, quietly, some nights, wondering why I was singled out for those endless nights. I had too much to do, two sons, an intense career, other commitments. I didn’t have time to lose sleep, clearly affecting my ability to function well and likely, based on current studies, impairing my overall health.

We understand much better, today, why good sleep matters, the benefits of sleep, and the consequences of inadequate sleep. Sleep institutes abound around the country; longitudinal studies of sleep habits are on-going; the links between chronic diseases and poor sleep, the benefits of good sleep, and the inability of the body to restore both physiologically and psychologically without sufficient sleep are becoming better understood; adequate sleep is important, no matter what our age. It’s reported that approximately 40% of American adults experience either chronic or short-term insomnia.

“In the short term, a lack of adequate sleep can affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality.” http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/

Almost twenty-five years ago, I was at one of my lowest lows, working twelve-hour days, raising two boys ages four and eleven, my husband traveling for work almost every week. I could not sleep. I wandered the house. I took hour-long hot showers at two in the morning. I drank warm milk. I kept a note pad by my bed to write down all those errant thoughts swirling through my mind, keeping me awake and anxious. Usually early afternoons, I’d slip away from work and drive my car to a shady spot (it was a HOT summer) and take a nap, maybe forty-five minutes, enough to help me through the rest of the day. But nothing allowed me a decent night’s sleep. in the middle of a three-week insomnia bout, I scheduled an emergency visit with my family practitioner. Alas (oh, Shakespeare would be proud), my physician prescribed a popular sleep medication, which helped me sleep a few hours but left me drowsy and feeling hung-over. This was not the answer. I stopped the medication after four nights.

In desperation, I mentioned my situation to a physician friend, who listened to my symptoms and immediately referred me to a sleep disorder clinic. I didn’t realize there were such things, specialists (neurologists, primarily) studying chronic and short-term insomnia; focusing on different types of insomnia, whether the problem is “falling asleep,” “staying asleep,” or “waking throughout the night,” or a combination of these; pursuing links between chronic (primarily inflammatory, e.g., hypertension, heart disease, obesity/diabetes) illnesses and lack of sleep; discovering some of the root causes of sleeplessness, both psychological and physiological (although there is still so much unknown about sleeping); and learning, ever so slowly, the long-term effects on health of poor sleep.

The neurologist, head of the local sleep disorder clinic, was a life-saver. She asked me pertinent questions, understood my imprecise answers, recognized the inconsistency in my sleep habits and patterns, and ultimately suggested a diagnosis as to what might be the underlying cause of my insomnia. I finally had an ally in my night-time battle with this monster. The physician surmised that something in my brain didn’t “turn-off,” enabling me to power down and sleep. We discussed at length my options, with the initial goal to get me to sleep consistently, to reduce my panic, to find some tools that might help me daily/nightly. She prescribed Clonozapem, a medication used for people prone to seizures or panic attacks. It works by calming the brain and the nerves. For a number of years, this drug was my savior. Let me very honest, for someone who doesn’t like to take drugs, I appreciate the contradiction. However, I stopped my nightly struggle with sleep and the built-in negativity associated with it. My energy level increased, my moodiness lifted, the brain fog disappeared.

My physician warned me, though, that the efficacy of the medication could diminish over time. I checked in with her on an annual basis, making sure the dosage was working, discussing options (not many since I refused the “sleep aid” medications because of my prior poor experience with them), making sure I wasn’t having any adverse side effects. I had perhaps ten good years on this protocol. I slept generally well most of the time, but if days had added stress or my high anxiety or worry kicked in, nothing overpowered those emotions. Slowly, though, even in non-stressful times I started having trouble either falling asleep or waking middle of the night (2:00 or 3:00 in the morning) and not being able to fall back to sleep. Napping generally wasn’t an option, so my panic started again, not full-blown, but enough to have a snowball effect: no sleep, worry about no sleep, and then, of course, no sleep.

We tweaked my routine by adding Melatonin to the prescribed dosage of Clonozapem. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the body’s pineal gland, at night, when it’s dark. Many people use Melatonin when traveling for jet lag or for shift work, where it’s effectiveness seems clear. It’s not so certain whether Melatonin is effective for insomnia, what an appropriate dosage might be, or whether any particular product is made properly (no FDA approval required). Some studies show only a placebo effect.

“Some studies show promise for the use of melatonin in shortening the time it takes to fall asleep and reducing the number of awakenings, but not necessarily total sleep time. Other studies show no benefit at all with melatonin.” https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/melatonin-and

I tried the combination for a number of years, still experiencing sleepless nights. And then, we moved to Austin, living in a high-rise condo downtown, next to a train track with a sharp right angle next to our building. The screech of 100-car freight trains sometimes several times an hour all-night long ensured that no matter what I did, I wasn’t getting consistent sleep (some of our neighbors insisted one got used to the noise: I never did). I was frantic and so tired!

We finally moved to Boulder several years ago. My sleep disruption got worse, with many consecutive nights of waking at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., staying awake, finally getting up about 6:00 a.m., and having a rush of sleepiness overwhelm me. I might go back to bed for twenty minutes, where I physically felt my brain sink through several layers of relaxation, not totally asleep (my mind was still processing that I wasn’t sleeping, hearing house sounds), but enough of something to give me energy for the next few hours. Clearly this was not ideal: how could I plan my day? Wasn’t it weird to go back to sleep right after one got up? I still needed a thirty-minute nap during the day to refresh myself for the afternoon and evening, only to have this night-time wakening solidify into a nightly occurrence.

I needed to find a new sleep specialist. In the intervening years since the mid-1990s (it’d been over twenty years since my first foray into this nether world of trying to sleep well), new protocols of sleep behavior mechanics had been introduced, new medications seemed promising, maybe my body had changed. The new physician took my sleep/non-sleep history. She noted that my airways were narrow and explained that when we lay down, the muscles loosen, which can narrow the passageway even more, thus making it more difficult to breathe, which may cause sleep disruptions. She immediately recommended a “home sleep test.” I’d wear a monitoring device from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., measuring when I slept, how deeply I slept, how many times I awoke during the night, my oxygen saturation level, etc. The device was uncomfortable, requiring I lay on my back all night so I wouldn’t knock it off. I always sleep on my side so already a change in patterns. How could that not affect the test? Not to worry, the first time the connection to the physician’s office didn’t work so there was no read-out. Try again! This time, the test showed that my breathing stopped a number of times during the night, symptoms of mild sleep apnea! I wasn’t the typical body type (usually middle-aged men, often overweight, heavy snorers) but I was learning that this type of sleep interruption isn’t unusual.

More than 22 million Americans currently suffer from sleep apnea, many moderate to severe undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). A common remedy is to wear a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask. The mask (which goes over the nose) is attached to a machine via a hose for continuous air pressure to keep the air passage open during sleep. Without the constant wakening caused by the brain (think “flight or fight,” adrenaline) because of insufficient oxygen, more constant sleep results. https://www.sleepresolutions.com/blog/what-is-a-sleep-apnea-mask-cpap-mask

I did not want to wear this device. It is uncomfortable. It is noisy. We travel a lot so wearing it would be inconsistent. And besides, my “numbers” indicated mild sleep apnea. Surely many of us with this level of oxygen desaturation do not wear CPAP masks. I resisted, finally wondering if living at altitude (approximately 5400’ here in Boulder) caused or contributed to my insomnia. I’d had insomnia for many years. Was the sleep apnea (which also causes inability to sleep) a result of living here? I asked the doctor and received a very inconclusive answer. I did a home sleep study test in San Diego, definitely sea level. My sleep apnea results were slightly better (i.e., not as low oxygen desaturation), but probably not enough better to consider moving to lower elevation (with the hope that my sleep would get qualitatively better).

I decided to try an oral appliance, which looks like a huge retainer. The appliance pushes one’s jar slightly forward while sleeping, in an attempt to keep the airway more open. It has side effects, e.g., potential jar misalignment that affects one’s bite, possible damage to crowns or fillings from jar movement, soreness in the mornings after the device is removed. Still I tried it, but I saw no positive results after four weeks use other than heavier breathing (not pleasant for my spouse). This was not going to be a viable solution to me.

Acupuncture is used for the treatment of insomnia in China. In several trials in western countries, clinical studies have shown that acupuncture may have better results than traditional medications in combatting insomnia. I experienced mixed results, several times finding sound sleep, other times not seeing much difference from my normal patterns. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156618/

Back at the sleep disorder institute, I was referred to a behavioral sleep specialist (her practice is considered “cognitive behavioral therapy” or CBT). There is an entire body of literature related to sleep behavior, e.g., do not look at electronic screens before bed, sleep in a very dark and cool room, meditate, wear blue-light glasses for 90 minutes before bed to block out UV rays, do NOT stay in bed if you wake (tough one because the natural inclination is to try to go back to sleep and one can’t do that by getting up and reading a boring book). The therapist assured me that I needed to give my body time to adapt to these changes. This meant, perhaps, more weeks without decent sleep with the chance that these behavioral changes would in fact help me sleep better. And be positive about going to bed: “Yay, I’m going to bed. I get to sleep. This is great.” Much harder to do than one thinks, after years and years of each night wondering how my sleep might be.

I implemented most of these changes. The most difficult is to get out of bed, go to another room, read a book until sleepy, and then return to bed when I wake during the night and know that sleep is not coming. I diligently try this but it is so counter-intuitive that I find my mind cannot grasp its potential benefits. I purchased special blue-light glasses; I do not read my computer, iPad or iPhone before bed; our bedroom has black-out curtains (and yes, I stumble and bump into things when I get up); the room’s temperature is cooler than I’d like (so I use more blankets); I signed up for a meditation app (Headspace) but am inconsistent in using it (seriously, I forget). After a number of months, I didn’t experience much benefit.

Is my insomnia the result of too active brain waves or nerves as diagnosed almost twenty-five years ago? Is the mild sleep apnea contributing to the insomnia or a red herring? If my problems are physical, how can behavioral changes really help alleviate them?

I shared my story a few weeks ago with a dear friend. She, too, has had insomnia for years, hers related to anxiety. We empathized over the panic and sheer exhaustion of not sleeping. We shared different remedies that we’ve tried. She suggested magnesium, which has helped her to relax and sleep. I did some research on magnesium and was surprised at what I found:

“Supplementation of magnesium appears to improve subjective measures of insomnia such as ISI score, sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, early morning awakening, and likewise, insomnia objective measures such as concentration of serum renin, melatonin, and serum cortisol, in elderly people.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23853635

My friend also recommended a local doctor who focuses on insomnia and hormonal issues (another area that no one has really tested for me, just prescribing standard hormone replacement therapy over the years post-menopause) using only natural remedies. She’s popular so I wasn’t able to set an appointment for almost two months. I’m optimistic that a more holistic approach might be what I need. In the meantime, the magnesium supplement seems to be helping in combination with a low dose of my old stand-by, Clonazapem. I’m also continuing some of the recommended behavioral modifications, especially the dark/cool bedroom and no electronics before bedtime (which is also important so I don’t read an email that causes my brain to go into overdrive just when I’m trying to relax).

I hope to have more news after my visit to the new doctor in August. I don’t want to “shop” physicians, but a second opinion seems sound, given my long, long history with this beast. I try to be more optimistic about sleeping. If I got to the point that I only had one poor night a week, I'd be happy, a reasonable price to pay for insomnia…more than that, though, I will start panicking again, seeking new solutions, trying to figure out, once again, a new path to restful nights.

 

A Trio: Sanitas Valley Trail, The Goat Trail, Wonderland Lake Trail

 Flatirons from east Sanitas Valley Trail.

Flatirons from east Sanitas Valley Trail.

A quiet, cloudy, slightly cooler Sunday morning today. Tired legs tired from Saturday's long run. Cancelled bicycle ride due to threatening rains and thunderstorms. A hike around our neighborhood loop seemed reasonable (and meditative) substitute. 

A quick hike up the connector trail to Dakota Ridge and down to Sanitas Valley Trail opened the expansive view to my lodestar, the Flatirons.

I continued up Sanitas Valley Trail, reflecting back to the Flatirons to the south, Mt. Sanitas to the immediate west and Dakota Ridge to the east. I joined walkers with dogs, with strollers, young and old. The hills are turning lightly brown but many wildflowers and flowering weeds still perky and bright.

 White poppies with blue Batchelor buttons.

White poppies with blue Batchelor buttons.

Before the Trail turns left up to Mt. Sanitas, I turned right and down The Goat Trail. Views of Boulder to the east spread out, the neighborhoods distinct, the brick buildings of CU Boulder marking their pride of place, and the gathering dark clouds passing shadows over the entire landscape.

 The Goat Trail looking west to Boulder.

The Goat Trail looking west to Boulder.

I continued to the connector north from The Goat Trail to Linden Road, where meadows of wild sweet pea, more Batchelor Buttons and grasses spread in front of me. Paragliders were floating off the Front Range west of Wonderland Lake while birds glided in the lower currents.

 Sweet pea meadow.

Sweet pea meadow.

A doe and fawn leaped across Linden Road then stopped to watch me pass.

 Mother watches fawn who is watching me.

Mother watches fawn who is watching me.

I made my way around Wonderland Lake, watching the ducks dip for food, a few men fishing, and more walkers with dogs.

 Wonderland Lake, east side.

Wonderland Lake, east side.

Finally, the view back to the Flatirons from north side of Wonderland Lake, one of my favorites, before I walked through the neighborhood for coffee and the Sunday paper.

 Flatirons and Cottonwood trees, view from Wonderland Lake.

Flatirons and Cottonwood trees, view from Wonderland Lake.

Wedding Reflections: Thirty-two Years Later

Thirty-two years ago Doug and I got married on the East Coast; he'd moved to New York
City in January 1986 where not-quite-five-year-old Christopher and I joined him in June. Since all our family was ob the West Coast and our jobs were all-consuming, we decided on a small affair on Martha's Vineyard, close enough for a few days escape. I envisioned us standing on a windswept hill with an historic lighthouse at the top of a hill overlooking the sound, Doug and I reciting simple vows before the local justice of the peace, Christopher standing between us holding our hands.

The day didn't go as planned. We woke to pouring rain and heavy winds. The justice of the peace wasn't willing to trudge up a steep hill in the pouring rain to satisfy my romantic notions of our ocean-view wedding. Christopher only wanted to play, digging sand castles, swinging on the wooden swing near our condo, picking up squishy sea creatures strewn along the sandy beaches. I was frantic until the justice offered his quaint Victorian house in the small town of West Tisbury for the ceremony. Given we had no guests or other plans to re-arrange, it worked. I suppose that simple ceremony with the last minute changes presaged much of the past over thirty years as we've savored adventures, grabbed opportunities, included our boys in most everything we've done, and continued forward together.

Several people asked Doug what we were going to do to celebrate this milestone. We reflected on the question, as we don't plan big celebrations for ourselves. So it was not unusual that nothing special was planned for today; we did what we often do on early summer mornings. We hiked about 6 1/2 miles roundtrip from our house to 8100' elevation at the Green Mountain summit, with spectacular views of Boulder to the east and the snow-covered Rockies to the west. The hike, amidst a deluge of wildflowers, tumbling streams, and pine-filled scent, was tough but rewarding.

Being able to walk out the door and immediately be immersed in nature, to contemplate and reflect on what is going on in the world, to remember friends and family, to share in our sons' lives, to contemplate our "encore" lives post-retirement, to think about how we can give back to this community, this world that has given us so much, this is what we celebrated on the anniversary of that small wedding ceremony. It's also what we cherish and celebrate every day of our lives. We are indeed fortunate.

 Photo by five-year-old Christopher in our condo before the brief ceremony.

Photo by five-year-old Christopher in our condo before the brief ceremony.

Sunday Morning Walk in Pictures

 A neighbor's yard awakening.

A neighbor's yard awakening.

My body moved very slowly this morning, the effects of Saturday's run work-out, 1k and 2k tempo pace efforts. The almost immediate hill at the beginning of Red Rocks Trail was more work than normal, but the clearing mist promised a warm Spring day, welcome after high winds earlier in the week of up to 81 mph, a day of "wintry mix" (i.e., snow and rain), and temperatures still in the high twenties in the early mornings. We had an hour or so before Doug headed off to New York for a two-day work session, so a shortened hike fit us both well.

 Red Rocks in early morning light.

Red Rocks in early morning light.

The burgeoning blossoms on the trees complemented the stately tulips, daffodils, and pansies. Some views afforded a multitude of blossoms, deep pink (Hawthorne trees), white (apple and pear), and every shade of green (the many deciduous trees that show their true colors here in Boulder in the fall).

 Lower Vista Overview trail (Flagstaff Mountain near Fifth).

Lower Vista Overview trail (Flagstaff Mountain near Fifth).

We can see the effects of the winter snow and rains and now spring warmth daily as our favorite trees and neighbors' yards explode with unexpected flowers and colors. We're in a new neighborhood (to us) this spring so the changes are especially joyful to see.

 Hawthorne Tree at height of pink blossoms.

Hawthorne Tree at height of pink blossoms.

 

The grasses on the hills look like green velvet; the clover and dandelions cover them with light purple and white and bright yellow; the boulders are more defined now that the surrounding browns and greys are turning to glowing colors.

 Silver Lake Ditch at bottom of Vista Overlook Trail.

Silver Lake Ditch at bottom of Vista Overlook Trail.

I loved the incredible fall colors last year but spring plantings renew my spirit and soul after too many months of sameness. Truly glorious days for walks and hikes, to savor nature as the plants reach to the sun, to hear birdsong once again outside open windows.

 Tulips, daffodils, and other early flowers at pocket park near Spruce and Fifth.

Tulips, daffodils, and other early flowers at pocket park near Spruce and Fifth.

From Broken Arm to NYC Half Marathon in Nine Months!

Big Summer Plans: 2017

 About two hours post-break, the on-call orthopedic surgeon is about to reduce my fracture!

About two hours post-break, the on-call orthopedic surgeon is about to reduce my fracture!

The summer of 2017 was full: family time (a trip to Pennsylvania to take care of our grandson, Solomon, for a few days while Kate was in China/ Vietnam and Christopher was in Armenia/ Georgia; 10 days in Boulder/Aspen with Alex (to train for an August trail run in Aspen, work on his Monstrous Me book, and prepare to launch his Kickstarter campaign) and Glory; a four-day visit with my sister, Janet, her son and grandson at our house; and an end-of-summer two-day visit with my youngest sibling, Robert); a two-week trip exploring Kenya (including a half marathon trail race in the Massai region of the Rift Valley to benefit secondary education for Kenyan girls); hiking several Colorado 14ers; and immersing myself in my new role as President of the Board of Voices for Children CASA, Boulder County. Intentions quickly became regrets when I broke my arm, badly, in early July in Pennsylvania. Summer plans quickly morphed into surgery, a heavy blue cast on my right arm, cancelled trips, and becoming (temporarily) left-handed. The journey continues.

The Fall

We arrived in State College on Saturday evening, July 1. Kate was to fly to Chicago to meet her tour group (she was academic guide for a group of high school history teachers traveling to China and Vietnam) the next morning. We woke early on Sunday so she could have a few hours with Solomon before being gone for three weeks. I walked Laska, their dog, in the nearby fields where he chased a squirrel, smelled lots of grass and bushes, and got in his morning exercise before hanging out in the cool basement for the rest of the day. I trotted a bit with him, not realizing I wouldn’t be running for quite some time after that morning.

After the dog and I returned, Doug and I decided to go for a short run before driving Kate to the airport. I walked down the steep stairs to the basement to get my running watch and in less than a blink of my eyes, I was on the slippery concrete floor landing. No warning, no sensation of falling, no feeling of impact. But instantly I knew something was terribly wrong. I glanced at my right arm, which caught the brunt of my fall. It was bent and twisted in an unnatural shape, ugly, unreal (later the doctor told me the radius broke and pushed through toward the top of my hand). I don’t remember any pain, only crying out “Oh, no! Oh, no!” Thoughts of needing to get to the hospital, Kate’s intended departure in less than an hour, and our departure for Kenya scheduled for the next week, screamed through my mind. Kate yelled to Doug while she held Solomon so he couldn’t see his Gaga in pain. We covered my right arm and hand in a big towel, more to hide the weird shape than to shield me from pain.

Kate directed us to the hospital, only a mile away. The triage nurse asked whether my arm was deformed (an indicator of a bad break). I could barely mouth the words, “Yes,” the remembrance of that brief look at my arm enough to make me ill.  After triage, x-rays (the first of many), and a call to the on-call orthopedic surgeon, we waited. Finally, after what seems like too many hours, the doctor arrived, looked at the x-rays and confirmed our suspicions: a bad break that needed to be “reduced.” He put my fingers in tight holders and hung a weight to help straighten my arm, administered nerve block from elbow to fingers, and reduced the fracture, i.e., he re-aligned the bone—in other words, he twisted it back into some semblance of straight! My stomach cringed at the loud cracking sound.

The doctor advised that I’d probably need surgery and a metal plate with screws to stabilize everything in place while healing occurred. He offered to perform it in State College but said there wasn’t a rush. We decided to wait until returning home to Boulder, given the required follow-up treatment. We also reasoned that with all the elite, professional and recreational runners, bikers, hikers, triathletes, etc., orthopedic surgeons in our home town would have seen most every kind of sports injury. Unfortunately, the hand surgeon to whom I was referred wasn’t available until a week and a half post-break, so time spent in the first above-elbow cast didn’t count toward estimated recovery time of six weeks hard cast, then soft cast or removable brace, and physical therapy. My heart sunk: a lost summer.

 Two days post-initial cast before we returned home to Colorado, a light brunch with Christopher and Solomon. The bench is one of many hand-designed and painted ones around State College.

Two days post-initial cast before we returned home to Colorado, a light brunch with Christopher and Solomon. The bench is one of many hand-designed and painted ones around State College.

Doug made arrangements for us to return home mid-week, four days sooner than we’d planned; Kate was able to delay her flight to China for a day; and Christopher returned a day early on the Fourth of July from the Middle East. That left us with only one day, instead of three, as the grandparents solely in charge of our two-year-old grandson. I was SO disappointed: I wasn’t able to lift Solomon, change his diapers, help with meals, hug him, or chase after him on his Strider. We did color (well, I turned the pages of his coloring book while agreeing on which crayons he should use) on the summer porch, while he brought out most all of his trucks and cars to share with me. Doug had lots of practice being the grandfather, handling bath time, reading at bed time, and changing messy diapers!

Back home and Initial orthopedist visit

We saw the hand specialist orthopedic surgeon on July 6, five-days post-break. After additional x-rays, he confirmed a right arm radius fracture with bone fragments and possible protrusion of bone. Treatment would be open reduction surgery and insertion of a stainless-steel plate along the radius, likely with general anesthesia, scheduled for July 12, the day we were to leave for Kenya. We can do that itinerary or some variation of it another time, but unpacking before we even left was so sad and disappointing.

Doug had finished his last job (based in Arizona), so was home full-time to help me with simple things like filling out forms, doing the laundry, buttoning blouses, unscrewing bottle lids, opening packages, parking the car in tight spaces, even hooking my bra! For someone who is very independent and active, I am sure there will be lessons to learn during the next few months.

One-week post-surgery

A fairly large metal plate with seven screws is becoming part of my right arm. The break shattered arm bone near the wrist but fortunately the wrist joint wasn't damaged; the doctor anticipates good mobility post-recovery. I have another week before stitches are removed at which time I hope we learn about recovery time and rehab (PLEASE, when can I start running and swimming?). I wasn't able to tolerate the heavy-duty pain medications post-surgery (seriously how could one get addicted to stuff that makes you so nauseous and dehydrated with constant vomiting?), so relied on Tylenol and willpower (along with ice and an elevated arm), and some tears to get through this first week. I turned the first of many corners about day seven post-surgery; the swelling and bruising are lessening and throbbing is dissipating.

 The beginning of Alex's almost three-week visit: wearing shoes he painted and while smiling, sad that I can't yet play the piano, do much hiking, or any cooking for our guests.

The beginning of Alex's almost three-week visit: wearing shoes he painted and while smiling, sad that I can't yet play the piano, do much hiking, or any cooking for our guests.

I do not like being inactive. I do not like being dependent. A physician acquaintance told me that "recovery is a respectful endeavor." I am trying to embrace this concept. Hard to do!

Being One-Handed: Things I cannot do with only one hand (and non-dominant one at that): open jars or bottles or anything in sealed bags; wrap my cast in plastic bag before shower (although I can shower and wash my hair, but drying my back is awkward); cut/chop vegetables (actually any food); button or zip clothes (thank goodness for running shirts and shorts); tie/untie shoelaces (Doug tied one pair, for my still too-short walks, loosely so basically slip-ons); cut fingernails; plug-in electronic device chargers; fold clothes or blankets or towels; ride my indoor bike (cannot get on by myself and cast gets too hot); hold book open (new Kindle reader mysteriously showed up two days ago, that can be held in, and "pages" swiped by, one hand); take notes while talking on the phone; sign credit card receipts and checks (my signature during the best of times is almost illegible, but left-handed, even worse); cook; sleep comfortably (this is a function of cast more than one working and one non-working arm); you get the picture!

Two weeks’ post-surgery: Seeing my right forearm for the first time in three and a half weeks was slightly stomach churning. It's skinny but still swollen without definition. Stitches removed, x-rays taken, and a new blue cast was plastered onto my body (although it’s no longer plaster but some type of high-tech tape). The doctor was pleased with progress and says I can hike (although likely not steep trails) but no running or swimming or biking. I’m to wear this cast for three weeks and then return for another set of x-rays to determine how healing is progressing.

I am trying to be patient, to ask for help, and to allow my body heal at its natural pace. Still, some days I am teary for no particular reason. Recovery is indeed a respectful endeavor, challenging me daily. I am becoming so appreciative of those who manage this process well.

 Boulder to Aspen: Alex and Doug ran a grueling trail half marathon. I walked with them to the start at a park in Aspen and met them at the finish line. 

Boulder to Aspen: Alex and Doug ran a grueling trail half marathon. I walked with them to the start at a park in Aspen and met them at the finish line. 

August 3, 2017

I can now tie my own shoes and wriggle my fingers, although piano lessons are on hold (my teacher, Rose Lachman, assures me that she could work with me on some left-handed pieces—maybe when this cast is off). Alex is here, fondly calling these almost two weeks “Camp Boulder.” His goals are three-fold: to train here for the Aspen Backcountry trail half marathon in Aspen on August 12 (he lives in Los Angeles so has been running at sea level. Although our elevation is still some 2,500’ below Aspen he should still get some good workouts). He’s also working on Monstrous Me, an illustrated book about the monsters within us. He and his illustrator are collaborating well on the monsters, he’s had several rounds of edits, and now he’s working on final touches. He is also preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for printing the first 250 copies (so far, he’s funded the art work himself).

August 25, 2017

This week featured three "As" as part of my return-to-running with arm still in a brace program: acupuncture, aqua jogging, and Anti-Gravity (Alt-G) treadmill. I need to limit the jarring while the arm heals, rebuild muscle in the right arm, and re-ignite my legs (which haven't been running for almost seven weeks). A slow process but each of the "As" had its place: the acupuncturist helped reduce swelling in my arm and gave me supplements to encourage bone healing; being in the swimming pool to aqua jog allowed me to both get some supported arm movement while also helping reduce swelling with the cool water, and running on the Alt-G gave me the opportunity to put a little speed on my legs while keeping some of the weight off of them. Lots more to do but glad I found these tools.

September 2, 2017

Walks and runs (I hesitate to call my shuffling running) are shorter these days than I'd like but the scenery does not disappoint (I probably see more going slower anyway). End of summer thistles, the always awe-inspiring Flatirons and still warm temperatures remind me of how vital nature is to my soul. Next week the doctor will take another x-ray to see how the arm bone is healing. I'm anxious to start rehabilitation as arm is so stiff, bruised and swollen. I do at least recognize it as part of my body, which is an improvement from a few weeks ago, but it is still pretty useless.

September 4, 2017

Today I was fearless: I ran the Fort Collins, Colorado "Fortitude 10k" in the early morning smoky air with bright orange ball of sun to the east. My right arm is still in removable brace (9 weeks now being in a cast, 7 1/2 weeks post-surgery where stainless steel metal brace was inserted along my inner right radius). I only started running again two weeks ago (a few Alt-G treadmill sessions, aqua jogging, and some VERY SLOW and SHORT trail runs). I truly anticipated walking most of the course, enjoying the neighborhoods, and seeing the new CSU football stadium. I told my husband I really had no idea of how long it would take me...I carried a phone for the first time during a run so we could find each other. I started slowly, still so concerned about my arm and worried that my legs, that haven't run even five miles consecutively in over two months, would do all sorts of funny things. Well, I did run slowly but the whole way except for one stop to catch a deep breath (Fort Collins is about 5,000') and two water stops (the smoky air). I surprisingly finished 2/32 in my age year (they award 15 places deep by individual year ,not five-year segments, which is fun)! My overall time was the slowest 10k I've ever run, my pace was slower than recent half marathons, but mentally this run was such a winner for me, to realize that I might get back to running "for real," once rehabilitation on my arm helps with mobility, strength, and flexibility, my legs get more mileage under them, and I'm able to resume core/strength exercises! The race photos, though, show too clearly how my triceps and biceps in right arm have atrophied, the skin seems to be flying loose, no anchor to arm or bone. Ugh!

September 7, 2018: Back to Scene of the Accident

I seems appropriate that this update report is posted from Pennsylvania, nine and a half weeks after I broke my arm here while visiting my son and his family. On Tuesday I had my sixth set of x-rays (12 altogether!). The doctor seemed pleased with healing progress and said I only need to use the brace where I might be jostled (or might be more likely to fall, which I interpreted as returning to running and more vigorous hiking), and to start "aggressive" physical therapy. The lower arm and wrist are very stiff, especially any rotational (supination and pronation) movement and wrist flexibility. It's unlikely I'll return to 100% normalcy (e.g., maybe no push-ups, which I've never been able to do even with functioning wrists), but with working diligently with a hand physical therapy specialist, I hope to get most of my arm function back.

 We can hike even though I can't run!

We can hike even though I can't run!

Today I was able to color with Solomon, play with trucks, read and cuddle, join in his original songs, and walk with him to school. We're planning some hikes this weekend, maybe ice cream at the Penn State dairy after school, and the myriad things that not quite 2 1/2 year old energetic boys do. Gaga isn't as good as new yet, but my heart is full of joy as I resume our July time together that was cut short by my fall.

Thanksgiving Broomfield 10k Turkey Day Run

More people run on Thanksgiving Day in the US than any other day during the year. Our family has a long, although somewhat spotted tradition, of running together to raise awareness and food for those in need. Yesterday we ran the Broomfield (CO) Turkey Day 10k: Christopher pushed Solomon, our grandson in stroller, and came in 14th! They had such a good time weaving in and out of the runners and walkers with fantastic views on two loops of the Colorado Front Range and Rockies (the "white mountains behind the green mountains" as Solomon calls them).

Although billed as a fun run, with upset stomach the night before and only three hours sleep, and accidentally leaving my running watch at home, I decided NOT to race (my other experiences here with pushing the pace clearly showed the impact of altitude on breathing and leg power, even though many say 5400' doesn't really affect us). I started mid-pack, pushing and tripping over five-abreast walkers and dog leashes, opening up a little, breathing decently, wondering what my time would be (remember, trying to run by feel) as there were no time markers and only one mile marker on the two-loop course. I felt decent despite my handicaps until the last 1 1/2 mile and then, unusual for me, I stopped and walked three times (but only a 100' feet or so each time, trying to push the mental game), until the last 3/4 mile when two other women and I helped each other, sort of leap frogging one another, and then seeing the finish line in the near distance where I found some reservoir strength to surge (but no Shalane "F**K yes") and surprise, beat my other Colorado 10k times and, while still slower than sea level 10k's, I felt good!

 Boulder Creek Trail in late fall/early winter. A familiar running trail once I started my slow recovery.

Boulder Creek Trail in late fall/early winter. A familiar running trail once I started my slow recovery.

January 2018: Prognosis

In September, I started physical therapy twice/week. At that point, I could not bend my wrist at all, my fingers were very swollen, and the upper right arm looked half the diameter of my left arm. The good news: my left hand and arm had to become more mobile and usable! My piano teacher was excited (I mean, if I had to break an arm, better the dominant right hand as we could work on left-hand only music).

In December my physical therapist, while pleased with rotation of wrist and flexion (bending wrist down toward floor), said extension ability (bending wrist up toward sky) was only about 70% normal. Any further progress would be slow so we completed the sessions and I've continued exercises on my own. Fortunately my Gyrotonic BODHI instructors (thank you so much Lindsay Thompson and Paula Elaine Kirkland) have continued massaging my wrist/arm to help loosen it while focusing on arm strength/flexibility as well as expanding chest and shoulder muscles to help with shoulder rotation.

 Gyrotonics sessions were/are a life saver, helping loosen shoulder, flex arm, any type of movement!

Gyrotonics sessions were/are a life saver, helping loosen shoulder, flex arm, any type of movement!

I visited my orthopedic surgeon yesterday to see where things stand as I've been frustrated with progress. New x-rays confirm bone healing is good and metal plate/screws look solid. He didn't think removing plate would speed progress or outcome (yikes, thank goodness). As for prognosis, I MIGHT get to 80% normal for wrist extension (meaning things like push-ups where one's hands are flat on ground and arms straight are not likely to happen--I couldn't do them before arm break anyway!) by twelve months’ post-surgery. My shoulder rotation should slowly improve with on-going exercises (perhaps I'll be able to bend elbow and place hand behind my back or put on shirt without squiggling and turning in awkward fashion).

It's amazing how something as minor as a broken bone can change our daily lives. I am fortunate that this is not a long-term chronic condition (although perhaps long-term inability to do some heavy lifting or more fluid movements), but oh, I kick myself for not being a little more careful on those stairs that I'd climbed so many times without incident.

My take-away: keep moving, always, as much as you can, until you can't. My father's words echo in my mind, from summers playing tennis during my college years: "Move, move, stay light on your feet!" We are creatures for whom physical activity is vital to our health and without it we atrophy in so many ways (end of preaching). Stay safe!

March 18, 2018: NYC Half Marathon

On Sunday I ran the United NYC Half Marathon, my first 13.1 miler since I broke my arm last summer. The course is new, starting at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, crossing the East River on the Manhattan Bridge, looping around lower Manhattan (Canal to Houston to FDR drive), then west on 42nd Street to Times Square, north on Seventh Avenue to Central Park, up the Park’s east side with its rolling hills (yes!), then across the park at 102nd Street, and south to the finish at 75th and Central Park West. The “old” course circled the park before heading south through Times Square and along the Westside Highway—runners raved about the fast downhill to the bottom of the island. I wanted that course!

The new course gave us the opportunity to run in two boroughs, BUT for me, it was more difficult than I’d anticipated, having hills over the bridge, on FDR ramp, up Seventh Avenue and through the park. You may say, but you must run hills all the time in Colorado. I do, but somehow, during races they are not as much fun.

The weather was sunny and clear, with bright morning light reflecting off the East River, the play of shadows from the skyscrapers, the brilliant clarity in the park, all perfect. But the temperatures and wind were almost unbearable. My iPhone weather app said it “feels like 19 degrees”, we encountered at least 10 mph headwinds most of the way with gusts up to 15-20 mph at times (and in the canyons of the city, it was cold). My feet didn’t unthaw until about mile five, my toes barely feeling the road for a good distance. I rarely buy race logo gear but needed a windbreaker, hence the yellow jacket you see in the picture. I was so anxious about the weather, even thinking hand and feet warmers would be a good idea (maybe a little uncomfortable for running). I’d vowed to race no matter what, since last year we did bail due to ice/snow, low temperatures and high wind. It was now or never.

Because this was my first significant race in over a year, I ran conservatively. I didn't race and decided from the start that my goal time wasn't going to be in the cards. I wasn’t certain my training would fully support an all-out effort and I wanted to finish even if that meant a slower time (my PR) than last year’s Phoenix Pride Half Marathon in late March 2017. Although truth-be-told, I am so competitive with myself I really wanted to run as well as last year, but that wasn’t to be.

Early Sunday morning, we left our hotel at 5:15 a.m. near the Museum of Natural History and took the A and Q trains to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I was easily reminded of commuting to work on the subways during the late 1980s from our Upper East Side high rise apartment to Wall Street where every inch of our bodies was squeezed against other travelers. Yesterday morning, though, we were warm and most everyone was going to the run so there was built in camaraderie.

The crowd gathering at the lower end of Prospect Park (ultimately more than 22,000 runners) was positive and friendly as we waited while early morning dark turned to dawn. The singing of “America the Beautiful” and the national anthem tugged my heart. Then the wheelchair racers, the elite women, and Corral A (the elite men and other very fast runners) of Wave 1 were off.

My corral started about 12 minutes after the official beginning of the race. I felt comfortable at my chosen (sort of) pace. I didn’t focus on scenery until we started the climb over the East River when I remembered to check the river view; I then turned my eyes to the West, to the seaport and the financial district where I had worked during the early years of our marriage. Soon we runners were in Manhattan, the steady beat of thousands of feet on pavement, being careful not to trip in potholes when the rising sun glared too brightly in our eyes, almost blinding us. Again another first for foot traffic, being able to run on FDR drive as it curves slightly east from its northern path, cars on the south bound lines wheezing by in the early morning.

 One World Trade Center: iconic NYC site.

One World Trade Center: iconic NYC site.

I was very focused, feeling good but never quite warming up, until we entered Central Park. Sometimes during longer runs my mind wanders and I struggle with continuing, convincing myself that there are only three miles left, then two, then hey, it’s all downhill to the finish (which it wasn’t). I didn’t have that urge on Sunday but somehow lost track of the last four miles, thinking I was closer to the finish than I was. My hamstrings started biting and the wind picked up, especially near the backside of the Metropolitan Museum as we climbed the hill near the Reservoir.

I’d dreamed of doing a final “kick” the last mile or two, thinking if I was off-pace I’d be able to make up for it. Magical thinking! I remained steady, up and down the hills (although the photos show me struggling during the last several hills), but clearly had no big push in me to make up for lost time. By then, the 800 meter and then 400-meter signs to the finish came into view. I was relieved and excited! I’d done it. In hindsight, I think about how I might have planned differently, trained harder, focused more on nutrition, but in the end, I’d finished with almost a smile on my face!

The statistics are interesting: my time was seven minutes off last year’s half marathon time (maybe the course, maybe the weather, maybe my training, but I noted that the elites’ times were slower than the old course by about five minutes, so I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt); I placed 4th out of 56 women in my age group (my unspoken goal of placing in top five met, although I really had hoped for top three!), and in the top 20% of all women in the event. NYRR includes more statistics, including an “age-graded” calculation, i.e., based on your results, what you would have run in your “prime” (in my case, 1:20, so maybe I’d had a shot at being a decent runner if I hadn’t been an attorney, and I might have realized I was athletic and not just one of the nerdy kids when I was young). It’s only a number but it gives me food for thought as I recover and think about what I might be able to do in the future.

 The finish line for NYC Half Marathon, March 18, 2018.

The finish line for NYC Half Marathon, March 18, 2018.

The lessons learned: I probably needed more speed work and longer practice runs before race day. Pick a race where the weather might be a bit warmer. Most of all, enjoy the event, meet new people, and be challenged in mind and body. Doug said he was proud of me, for all my self-doubt and anxiety, so I’ll take that as a complement! Some good rest and recovery, time next week with our grandson, and then maybe spring!

April 19, 2018: Running Again

 Spring: A time to renew, appreciate what I can do, still strive for those elusive goals.

Spring: A time to renew, appreciate what I can do, still strive for those elusive goals.

As I watch an incredible elite field of women run this year’s Boston Marathon amidst heavy rain and 25+ miles per hour winds, having planned to be a spectator (my husband was to run Boston Marathon followed by Big Sur Marathon two weeks later but an injury and broken toe has put him on the sidelines for now), hoping to meet some Facebook/Salty Running friends before the start, I think once again about this sport of running and why it is still so important to me.

I’ve been running on and off for over forty years, sometimes seriously, other times to connect with friends, still many times to give to myself, alone, fighting to recover from serious hamstring and related injuries. I probably do not ever run without some aches or pains, whether residual or current. Running in Boulder has been more difficult, the altitude certainly takes its toll on breathing and faster pacing (trying not to think about my faster times only two years ago in California probably isn’t useful), the ice and cold in winter affect my desire and ability to run outside (yes, I have a trusty treadmill, which is fine for shorter runs, especially speed work or Fartleks, but it mostly feels like work), and fitting running in with other obligations. My night-times are not as restful in Boulder with low oxygenation saturation that likely affects my athletic performance during the day. But excuses aside, to be able to run on the trails and paths and to catch glimpses or full-on views of the Flatirons in their sun-lit glory, with patches of snow, or partly covered with low clouds, cannot be replicated anywhere else I've run. So I run, still, to soak up nature, to keep moving, to remember my family and friends, to revel in the priceless beauty of this place we currently call home. I hope I never to have to stop.

NYC Half Marathon 2018: Race Report

NYC_Trinity Church and World Trade Center.jpg

[Warning: some of this will be boring if you’re not a runner!] On Sunday I ran the United NYC Half Marathon, my first 13.1 miler since I broke my arm last summer. The course is new, starting at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, crossing the East River on the Manhattan Bridge, looping around lower Manhattan (Canal to Houston to FDR drive), then west on 42nd Street to Times Square, north on Seventh Avenue to Central Park, up the Park’s east side hills (yes!), then across the park at 102nd Street, and south with the finish at 75th and Central Park West. The “old” course circled the park before heading south through Times Square and along the Westside Highway—runners raved about the fast downhill to the bottom of the island.

The new course gave us the opportunity to run in two boroughs, BUT for me, it was more difficult than I’d anticipated, having hills over the bridge, on FDR ramp, up Seventh Avenue and in the park. You may say, but you must run hills all the time in Colorado. I do, but somehow, during races they are not as much fun.

The weather was sunny and clear, with bright morning light reflecting off the East River, the play of shadows from the skyscrapers, the brilliant clarity in the park, all perfect. But the temperatures and wind were almost unbearable. My iPhone weather app said it “feels like 19 degrees”, we encountered at least 10 mph headwinds most of the way with gusts up to 15-20 mph at times (and in the canyons of the city, it was cold). My feet didn’t unthaw until about mile five, my toes barely feeling the road for a good distance. I rarely buy race logo gear but needed a windbreaker, hence the yellow jacket you see in the picture. I was so anxious about the weather, even thinking hand and feet warmers would be a good idea (maybe a little uncomfortable for running). I’d vowed to race no matter what, since last year we did bail due to ice/snow, low temperatures and high wind.

Because this was my first significant race in over a year, I ran conservatively. I wasn’t certain my training would fully support an all-out effort and I wanted to finish even if that meant a slower time than last year’s Phoenix Pride Half Marathon in late March 2017. Although truth-be-told, I am so competitive with myself that I really wanted to run as well as last year, but that wasn’t to be.

Early Sunday morning, we took the A and Q trains to Prospect Park. I was easily reminded of commuting to work during the late 1980s from the Upper East Side to Wall Street where every inch of our bodies was squeezed against other travelers. But we were warm!

The crowd gathering at the lower end of Prospect Park (ultimately more than 22,000 runners) was positive and friendly as we waited as early morning dark turned to dawn. The singing of “America the Beautiful” and the national anthem tugged my heart. Then the wheelchair racers, the elite women, then Corral A of Wave 1 were off.

My corral started about 12 minutes after the official beginning of the race. I felt comfortable at my chosen (sort of) pace. I didn’t focus on scenery until we started the climb over the East River and I remembered to check the river view; I then turned my eyes to the West, to the seaport and the financial district where I worked at a securities law firm for two years. Soon we were in Manhattan, the steady beat of thousands of feet on pavement, being careful not to trip in potholes when the rising sun glared too brightly in our eyes, almost blinding us. Again another first, being able to run on FDR drive as it curved slightly east from its northern path, cars on the south bound lines wheezing by in the early morning.

I was very focused, feeling good but never quite warming up, until we entered Central Park. Sometimes during longer runs my mind wanders and I struggle with continuing, convincing myself that there are only three miles left, then two, then hey, it’s all downhill to the finish (which it wasn’t). I didn’t have that urge on Sunday but somehow lost track of the last four miles, thinking I was closer to the finish than I was. My hamstrings started biting and the wind picked up, especially near the backside of the Metropolitan Museum as we climbed the hill near the Reservoir.

I’d dreamed of doing a final “kick” the last mile or two, thinking if I was off-pace I’d be able to make up for it. Well, that was magical thinking! I remained steady, up and down the hills (although the photos show me struggling during the last several hills), but clearly had no big push to make up lost time. By then, the 800 meter and then 400 meter signs to the finish came into view. I was relieved and excited! I’d done it. In hindsight, I think about how I might have planned differently, trained harder, focused more on nutrition, but in the end, I’d finished and almost a smile on my face! In the photo, you see the torso (on my right) of Tiki Barber, a fun fact.

NYC Half Marathon 2018.jpg

The statistics are interesting: my time was seven minutes off last year’s half marathon time (maybe the course, maybe the weather, maybe my training, but I noted that the elites’ times were off from the old course by about five minutes so I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt); I placed 4th out of 56 women in my age group (my unspoken goal of placing in top five met, although I really had hoped for top three!), and in the top 20% of all women in the event. NYRR includes more statistics, including an “age-graded” calculation, i.e., based on your results, what you would have run in your “prime” (in my case, 1:20, so maybe I’d had a shot at being a decent runner if I hadn’t been an attorney, and I might have realized I was athletic and not just one of the nerdy kids when I was young). It’s only a number but it gives me food for thought as I recover and think about what I might be able to do in the future.

The lessons learned: I probably needed more speed work and longer practice runs before race day. Pick a race where the weather might be a bit warmer. Most of all, enjoy the event, meet new people, and be challenged in mind and body. Doug said he was proud of me, for all my self-doubt and anxiety, so I’ll take that as a complement! Some good rest and recovery, time next week with our grandson, and then maybe spring!

Another Year, Another Birthday

My family quietly celebrates the passing of each year, with touching cards or messages from my sisters and brothers, telephone calls from the boys, and now a grandson wishing his Gaga a happy birthday on FaceTime (the rare time my son lets his son use an electronic device). You, my friends, have showered me with warm wishes as we share remembrances of times together over the years here on Facebook.

 Happy birthday, Gaga!

Happy birthday, Gaga!

As I was reading the posts yesterday, I could almost create a timeline of my life based on friends I've made throughout the years. From my home in Walla Walla (such a wonder to reconnect with friends I met in kindergarten and now engage with as unique, fascinating adults), remembering high school angst and antics, to college at Washington State University (including a year at Durham University in England and a 21st birthday celebration in Bruges, Belgium), law school in San Francisco, my first years as a lawyer in northern California, the birth of Christopher and new running friends (those 'First Friends,' of my memoir), our move to Sacramento, meeting Doug, marrying and living/working in New York City, back to the San Francisco Bay Area where Alex was born, return to the Sacramento area and the Foundation Health years, then almost a round-trip for work (San Diego, Piedmont and back to Granite Bay), the boys growing, embracing college and leaving home, Doug commuting back to the Bay Area so he could engage in his passion (CFO for technology companies), a fast two years in Austin, Texas (and meeting the Impact Austin women as well as a short tenure with CASA of Travis County), a grandson, back to California with a brief stay in Sonoma, and now, settling (a foreign concept to us) in Boulder and making new Colorado friends through Voices for Children CASA, Social Venture Partners Boulder County, and running (for a while, even a "Salty," and a 261 Fearless Ambassador) and book clubs.

 Alex enjoying wine for my birthday!

Alex enjoying wine for my birthday!

Whew! Sometimes it's exhausting even thinking about our journey through life, measured by days and years certainly, but more meaningfully by friendships made and rekindled. I wish I could see more of you in person, more frequently, but these annual touch points warm my heart and soul. Thank you.

 Doug and me at Boulder Creek c. 2016

Doug and me at Boulder Creek c. 2016

My Year in Books: 2017

 Christopher perusing the "Philosophie" section of a used book store in Berlin.

Christopher perusing the "Philosophie" section of a used book store in Berlin.

Reading is such an integral part of my days that it often surprises me when I look back and review the list of books read in any particular year. Sometimes, my focus is intentional, informed by current interests; other times, recommendations from friends and colleagues steer the direction of my reading; still again, I chose deliberatively from well-respected authors or subjects in a particular period. 2017 was no exception; although the break-down between fiction and non-fiction books was similar to 2016, the focus was slightly different.

Women: Well-researched, these hidden histories of mathematicians, measurers of stars, and workers in radium factories formed a cornerstone underpinning what it means to be a female working in America during the past century and a half: "The Glass Universe, How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars", Dava Sobel (if you haven't read some of her other works, like "Galileo's Daughter" and "Longitude, you should); "Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race," Margot Lee Shetterly; and "The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women,"by Kate Moore. Women have traditionally been the keepers of our homes, but this book might persuade you to think more broadly about what “home” means, "Home: A Short History of an Idea," Witold Rybczynski.

One of my favorite Latin writers, Isabel Allende, writes of a mother’s love for her daughter, poignant and protective, during a time of crisis. Her memoirs expand the definition of family to the concept of one’s “tribe,” something I miss with my small nuclear family scattered across the United States: "Paula" and a memoir of the years after Paula's death, "The Sum of Our Days." Expanding the family theme and what it means in a time of terror with so many unknowns, "Avenue of Spies, a True Story of Terror, Espionage and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris", by Alex Kershaw, takes us back to World War II in France. Although fiction, this book, too, hails women heroes in France during that same time period: "Lilac Girls," by Martha Hall Kelly.

Another strong woman, Tricia Downing overcame a horrific accident to show us courage and perseverance: "Cycle of Hope, A Journey from Paralysis to Possibility." Anne Lamott discusses alcoholism and faith once again in her latest book, "Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy."

Science and Health: My list always includes books related to science, nature, and health. Even in their diversity I find knowledge and information to guide me in my daily life. My favorites: "The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World," The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu; "First Bite, How We Learn to Eat," Bee Wilson; "The Case Against Sugar," Gary Taubes; "The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks," Terry Tempest Williams (exquisite essays about Ms. Williams' personal connection to a number of our national parks and an homage to their beauty and uniqueness); "The Gene: An Intimate History," Siddhartha Mukherjee; "The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature," David George Haskell; and "Savannah Diaries," Brian Jackman (read in anticipation of our trip to Kenya, cancelled unfortunately, but a vivid description of Africa thirty years ago).

Other Non-Fiction: Several other books caught my attention, whether because I attended a local concert or author presentation or on my book club’s reading list, these formed the remaining non-fiction books I read in 2017: "Grieving Dad, Surviving and Healing the Loss of Your Child," Mark Seidman; "Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets," Edward Dusinberre; "A Long Way Home," Saroo Brierley; "Books for Living," Will Schwalbe (also author of "The End of your Life Book Club," which I thoroughly enjoyed (and which helped form my reading list) ; and "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America," Nancy Isenberg.

 Grandson Solomon at the library, starting young!

Grandson Solomon at the library, starting young!

Fiction: Fiction covered a broad swath of topics, from a project for well-known authors to “re-write” a Shakespeare play (here, in "Hag-seed," Margaret Atwood re-imagined "The Tempest"); to follow-on books by favorite authors, e.g., "The Plague of Doves," by Louise Erdrich; "Swing Time," by Jadie Smith; "The Abundance: Narrative Essays, Old and New," Annie Dillard; "The Farming of Bones," by Edwidge Danticat; "Song of Solomon," by Toni Morrison; "The Cat’s Table," Michael Ondaatje; "A Gentleman in Moscow," by Amor Towles; and "Fresh Complaint," by Jeffrey Eugenides; and “must-reads” or sometimes “re-reads” of important books of our time (or to try to explain these times), including "1984," by George Orwell (which, upon re-reading, one finds it is much richer and more evil than merely the concept turned reality that “Big Brother” is watching us); "The Love in the Time of Cholera," Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a focus in 2017 on magical realism it seems!); and two very different books about the mid-nineteenth century, "The Underground Railroad," by Colson Whitehead; and "Lincoln in the Bardo," by George Saunders.

Miscellaneous Fiction: I read a variety of other fiction works, whether based on friends and family members’ recommendations, Boulder Book Store staff recommendations, or books prominent on displays at airport shops: they range from books about the West to science fiction to historical fiction: "Before the Fall," Noah Hawley; "Call Me by Your Name," Andre Aciman; "News of the World," Paulette Jiles; "Arrival (Stories of Your Life)," Ted Chiang; "The Story of Lucy Gault," William Trevor; "We Were Liars," E. Lockhart; "Station Eleven: A Novel,"" Emily St. John Mandel; "Homegoing," Yaa Gyasi; "Night Prayers," Santiago Gamboa; "The Garden of Evening Mists," Tan Twan Eng; "The Sympathizer," Viet Thanh Nguyen; "The Blackwater Lightship," Colm Toibin; and "The Pope’s Daughter," Dario Fo.

 Alex's "Monstrous Me" in full color!

Alex's "Monstrous Me" in full color!

The year’s book list would not be complete without mentioning the two books written by my son, Alex Jeffries: "Monstrous Me: An Illustrated Guide to the Monsters Inside Us," the result of his successful (first) Kickstarter campaign, a book billed for young adults and children but which contains lessons to be learned about many of our own quirks and qualities: and "Solomon the Very Tall Boy," a book written with love to our grandson, his nephew, about a little boy who dreams to be big.

I started 2018 re-reading "Americanah," by Chimamanda Ngozi Abichie (which, by the way, is even more compelling the second time), for a new book club. This year promises to be rich in words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Skies, Ice, and Snow: Lost Lake Hike

Logs on lake.jpg

There is a theme to my hiking, taking to the trails when the sky is blue, the clouds puffy and white, the air mostly crisp (except for those summer afternoon hikes when the weather turns or stays warm and I can no longer endure not being out and about). We've been surprised by the inconsistent fall weather here in Boulder this year, high 70s one day, then low 20s and snow the next. This past week was no exception, walking around capturing photographs of colorful autumn leaves and then walking and kicking up the fallen, brown leaves on the sidewalks, the victims of chilly nights and high winds.

Today was forecast to be warm with cold on its tail by tomorrow morning. We decided to take advantage of a break in schedules, the perfect fall day, and a hike within 45 minutes of our house  to hit the mountain trails.

Lost Lake near Hessie Trail is located about five miles west of Nederland, itself about 18 miles west of Boulder. It's not quite in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, but past the tiny, old mining town of Eldora, accessible part way by vehicle, then by foot. We'd heard it was very crowded and popular, particularly in the summer months so it was probably good we hadn't explored it until today. The lower parts of the trail had loose rocks, especially the initial steep grade after we passed over the wood planks placed over marshy areas of the lower trail. We were in for a treat!

Bridge.jpg

We crossed a stream over a fairly new bridge, surprised to see ice along the edge of the water, portending snow higher up and colder weather than we'd anticipated (and we didn't think to bring our crampons or wear water proof shoes). We hiked among stunted Aspen trees, their luminescent golden leaves already past. We passed several old, leaning cabins, evidence of earlier years when this area was mined. We noticed the still-dry ski runs of Eldora Ski Resort to the south of Hessie Trail. We soon came to a fork in the road, taking the left trail across another bridge, this one slippery and icy, no railings to protect us.

Aspen trail.jpg

The trail was steeper than we imagined it would be (altogether almost 1,000' elevation gain from 8,954' where we parked along the unpaved road to 9,504' on the trail above the lake). I felt a little light-headed, unusual for me at this elevation, but I was also slightly dehydrated so maybe the combination caused some discomfort. We continued upward nevertheless.

Doug on snowy trail.jpg

Soon we were deep among the pine trees, the path covered with snow and ice: no sun or warmth was reaching it these days. I walked carefully and gingerly, afraid I'd slip and re-injure my recently healed broken arm. I had forgotten my walking sticks (really we were not very prepared today!), which added to my concerns. But no falls, no true slips: maybe going slowly helped me absorb the sights and sounds of this mountain hike: wind rushing through the trees, crashing waterfalls, and the distant voices of other hikers.

Ice and stream.jpg

We hiked around boulders, fallen trees, and icy rock steps before emerging to bright sunlight and deep blue skies! The lake was shimmering with sunlight reflecting off the ice and yellowish-brown, almost translucent grasses surrounding the edges. We continued around the lake, again among trees and icy trails, then back out into the blinding sunlight.

Lake view between trees.jpg

We saw one tent, intrepid campers at this time of year. We encountered silence with only an occasional comment breaking the air. The lake was exquisite from every direction, the views, the light, the trees, the logs caught in the ice, each perspective giving us a new appreciation of this tiny spot.

Pat with mountains.jpg

We didn't stay long, just enough to get a taste of the area with plans to return to other trails breaking off from Lost Lake next year when the trails are more stable. Always refreshed, always reminded of how fortunate we are to live in this area, I can't wait for our next adventure.

Camp Boulder (Running and Writing Retreat): 2017

Maybe you remember summer camp in the mountains as a child or cross-country camp with your high school teammates or attending running or writing retreat as an adult (I've done one of each). Here's one such story of ten days in August with our now-adult younger son, Alex.

 Twin Lakes between Leadville and Aspen (Sunday return from Aspen to Boulder)

Twin Lakes between Leadville and Aspen (Sunday return from Aspen to Boulder)

Camp Boulder’s first (hopefully annual) summer running and writing retreat grew somewhat organically. Alex wanted to run a summer trail marathon or half marathon; he was also working on an illustrated children’s book project. He had almost two and a half months hiatus from his job as senior producer on a daily television talk show and inquired whether he could spend some time with us. “Of course! August is completely open. We’ll look for some Colorado-area runs. When can you come?” We may have been a little too exuberant; it’d been years since we’d had extended time with him at home with us.

As his wont, Doug did lots of research on August trail races. The Aspen Backcountry trail marathon and half marathon, with a limit of 250 marathon entrants and 250 half marathon entrants, seemed right. At high elevation (7900’ start to just over 10,000’ at top), its technical, steep and rocky course could be the goal race component of his Alex’s visit.

 Concentrating on art work for "Monstrous Me."

Concentrating on art work for "Monstrous Me."

We have office space, kitchen and dining room tables and lots of chairs for a budding author to move around to do his work. Alex wanted quiet, focused time to work with his illustrator and finalize the planned Kickstarter campaign (to fund printing and publication costs) for “Monstrous Me.” This would comprise the creative part of camp week (actually, ten days). We chose restaurants, trails and coffee shops to augment his days.

Dates were set, Southwest Airline tickets were purchased, race registrations completed, and schedules synchonized. Camp Boulder would soon be live!             

 Alex's Boulder training plan!

Alex's Boulder training plan!

Alex studied acclimatization practices of the problem of living at sea level and racing at over 8,000' elevation. He wasn’t comfortable attempting the elevation immediately after arriving in Colorado (advocated by some endurance athletes). He didn’t have the time or money to stay in Aspen or similarly high elevation for the three to four weeks to acclimatize advocated by other runners and bicyclists. He compromised, deciding to train at our home in Boulder (5420') before going to Aspen two days before race day. He drew up a training program, aptly designated #gasping4Aspen.

 Alex's Strava report and map recording his run.

Alex's Strava report and map recording his run.

Doug and Alex have scheduled several trail marathons or ultra-marathons over the past two years, only to have to cancel due to injuries to one or the other of them or work conflicts. I planned on being a spectator, not wanting to attempt this run only weeks after our "The Amazing Maasai half marathon" the third weekend in July as part of our Kenya trip. This reason became moot: I broke my right arm a week before our departure for Kenya, that adventure disappointedly cancelled. Glory and I became spectators together, me with arm in cast and sling.

 Pat with arm in new blue cast and wearing shoes that Alex created about 10 years ago.

Pat with arm in new blue cast and wearing shoes that Alex created about 10 years ago.

Alex arrived as scheduled on August 2. He was making good progress on “Monstrous Me.” He’d gone through several iterations of edits from early readers. He’d received about a quarter of the completed illustrations from his art collaborator; they were stunning and delightful. He wanted to launch his Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for printing and publishing by the second week in August. He came to Camp Boulder with warnings that he had lots of work to do and couldn’t be distracted. But we could help with final edits and the video for the campaign. A bonus for us to see, up close and personal, the evolution of his first picture book project.

Boulder has been lovely this summer, warm days, cool nights, maybe not enough rain. Our backyard landscaping project, finished in late May, was in full bloom. The view from the guest bedroom was serene, lots of birds splashing in the bubbling fountain, perky roses, lavender and black-eyed Susan for the bees, and an occasional bear sighting in the back alley. After Alex arrived, we had some cool and rainy days, even an occasional thunder storm, a treat for our Los Angeles-based son. Running in the rain was nirvana for him. I made my standard chocolate chip coffees, bought lots of fruit from the Farmer’s Market, and increased our coffee supplies.

 A respite from all the running and writing, watching Game of Thrones!

A respite from all the running and writing, watching Game of Thrones!

The initial week passed too quickly, lots of walks and talks (reminding me of my father), trail running (Doug and Alex as I was limited to walking, trying to obey doctor’s orders), editing his Kickstarter campaign message (me), and lots of eating at local restaurants (too much). Alex was disciplined about running and writing. In addition to “Monstrous Me,” he was working on a short picture book, attending a weekly online picture book critique group, and participating in a children’s book writing group.

 Cyclops Near+Far, two of the monsters, created by Elizabeth Winters for "Monstrous Me".

Cyclops Near+Far, two of the monsters, created by Elizabeth Winters for "Monstrous Me".

And then it was two days before the race. The Kickstarter campaign was approved to go live on August 14, the day after he and Glory would return to California. Training was as complete as it could be. Alex was nervous about the run, not certain how breathing would be and how his legs would do on the steep ascents (15% grade in places), rock-strewn trail, and sharp descent (my quads ached just thinking about it). But no turning back: he and Doug would do it, race together (well, be in the same race but not necessarily the same pace), while Glory and I would wait at the park for the grand finish.

 The day before the race on Hunter Creek Trail, always behind Doug!

The day before the race on Hunter Creek Trail, always behind Doug!

I walked the Rio Grande Trail during the race, capturing my “men” at the early turn from the paved trail to Hunter Creek Trail, the beginning of the ascent. Two and a half hours later, Glory and I cheered as the first runners began to cross the finish line and then, we saw Alex. In full stride with a big smile (and as we noticed later, a scratch on his head where he’d stumbled and rolled, and several other cuts), he crossed the finish line—in third place for his age group! This was his first podium finish in eleven years (the others being the local triathlons at Folsom Lake near Granite Bay, California, during high school). Doug arrived a bit later, blood dripping from his left arm and knee, but pleased, too, with his race.

 Park in Aspen, start of race.

Park in Aspen, start of race.

We had a celebratory dinner Saturday, with lots of recounting of the day’s run. I was envious not to have been able to be run with them but also knew it was probably too difficult/scary for me even if we'd hadn't planned to be in Kenya or I hadn't broken my arm. Alex has had bad luck with races, often being injured after months of training and not being able to compete, so we were ecstatic for him not only finishing but doing well!

 Alex on course, a quarter mile into the 13.1 mile race.

Alex on course, a quarter mile into the 13.1 mile race.

I think Camp Boulder was a success by many measures. Maybe we’ll sponsor another one next summer for both sons/grandson/daughters-in-law. We’ll have to create more activities for the different age groups, but the natural landscape and scenery of Boulder and the Rockies are perfect backdrops for most any event. 

 Alex and Glory at Independence Pass, glad to be out of the car after the tight switchbacks on the narrow road to Aspen.

Alex and Glory at Independence Pass, glad to be out of the car after the tight switchbacks on the narrow road to Aspen.

Bess (1951-2012)

My dear sweet friend, Bess Harter, died five years ago this week. She’d endured years of breast cancer and its morph into metastatic brain cancer, etc., standard and experimental treatments, and hope and sometimes despair, exhaustion and rebirth.

Bess was kind, smart, and loving, a dedicated mother and wife, loyal friend, gardener extraordinaire, collector of heart-shaped rocks, an original. When I met her in seventh grade, she was already surrounded by friends; nevertheless she brought me into her fold: I was shy, one of the nerdy girls, uncomfortable in my own body. Bess, however, found some silliness in me, bringing me out of my shell (we giggled during algebra class, almost: Horrors: being kicked out; we hid in closets during an high school ski trip in northern Idaho; we coincidentally wore virtually identical “mother made” dresses to our eighth grade dinner dance; she named me, along with other girls, for fruit and vegetables (I recall being “Prune”); we talked late into the night in her alcove bedroom at her family’s farm, delving into the mysteries of life as experienced by sixteen year-old girls; we drove to and from the local cherry packing plant in summers, where we stood for 12-14 hours/day culling cherries on the conveyor belts, realizing how fortunate we were not to have this job for longer than the summer months; we passed in the night at times during college and as we made our way from our home-town, sometimes years going by when we didn’t see one another; she comforted me when I became a single mother only a few weeks after my first son was born; we would meet at diners part-way between our two houses, she in Oregon and me in California).

Our stories are endless, not any one in particular but the culmination of them during our lifetimes. Bess likely had more frequent friends than me, especially those close to her home in Oregon. Maybe she teased out the hidden characters of many of these people. She probably didn’t know how important she was to me and how much I loved her. I last visited with Bess a year before she died; we drank tea and talked; we walked through her prolific garden; she shared stories of her rocks. At her memorial service, we softly dropped those same rocks onto her coffin, each of us in attendance with our own special “Bess” stories. I still miss her.

Ocean, wildflowers, and a little race

 Point Lobos: Saturday hike

Point Lobos: Saturday hike

My husband ran the Big Sur International Marathon on Sunday, his fourth. I've now done four of the weekend's distances: the 21-mile run (called the Power Walk when I walked the distance in 2001); the 9-mile loop around Point Lobos, and the 10.6 miler (twice), which starts (usually) at a restaurant 10.6 miles south of the marathon’s finish line in Carmel. This weekend the 10.6 miler start was slightly south, at an historic farm, making the actual course 11 miles.

The Big Sur races are classic, the only day all year that part of Highway 1 is closed except to runners and walkers. It's a destination race, certainly, with runners from 49 states and many countries. You will not break records on this course but you might see whales and cows, hear early morning song birds, and break into a smile (or even dance) at the musicians and performers along the route. The community of Monterey County is engaged and involved, with the proceeds of the runs supporting many non-profit organizations. You'll see the Boston 2 Big Sur runners (yes, two marathons in 12 days, on opposite coasts), some elite runners (Michael Wardian was the men's winner), and hundreds of locals walking the course instead of their daily jaunts around the neighborhoods of Carmel and Monterey.

 Monterey Bay: Friday morning walk complete with mother and baby Harbor seals

Monterey Bay: Friday morning walk complete with mother and baby Harbor seals

I loaded one of the school buses at 5:45 a.m. for the drive to the start. The logistics of the various races are complex, as all runners (except for the 5k and 12k) are bussed to the start before the 6:45 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. starting times. Within minutes of unloading from the bus (I was on one of the last ones, so only time for a quick bathroom break before the singing of the national anthem), the race began. Within the first five feet, we started up our first hill, with 12 more to come after it! The weather was cool with a slight breeze, a perfect day for a run on the "ragged edge of the world.” The sun peeked over the hills to the south of us, finally hitting the road about mile 5. Along with 13 hills, the camber of the road wreaked havoc on my left hip, as all the running was north toward Carmel on the ocean side of the road. There was never any purely flat road to give my legs and lungs/heart a rest, only up (756' gain) and down (839'). The numbers seem small in hindsight, but as I clicked mile after mile they were constant reminders of powering my way through this morning run.

 Carmel beach: barefoot walking in the sand before the race

Carmel beach: barefoot walking in the sand before the race

I'd hoped to best my half marathon time (yes, crazy, but sea level course, training at some altitude, a slightly shorter distance made this seem a possibility) until I came to my senses when walking around Carmel on Saturday...the Big Sur International Marathon and its ancillary races are billed as destination events; I couldn't treat the 10.6 miler as a typical race. I needed to enjoy the course, run by feel, listen to the sounds of the early morning, smell the trees and flowers, and figure out the hills. Hard for me to do, I vowed to savor the morning, not beat myself up, emotionally or physically.

I finished with almost a smile on my face. I successfully absorbed the blue of the ocean, the music, the stillness, the birds, and the soft sound of my feet hitting the pavement. I didn’t push myself harder than what I could do with the terrain, remembering my vow of the day before. Again, lessons learned about approaching and, sometimes changing goals mid-stream during, these events continue to challenge me.

 Finish line!

Finish line!

Doug’s marathon run was successful, perhaps not as well as he’d liked, but wonderful stories to tell of other participants, the various countries and states from which they come, their running history, their stories. We are so fortunate in the ability to do these things together, but separately, and reminiscing about almost 31 years of visiting this slice of California in all its glorious beauty.

Existential Thoughts on a Tough Morning Run

 Pride Run Half Marathon (Phoenix) 3/25/2017

Pride Run Half Marathon (Phoenix) 3/25/2017

The existential question: Does a PR count if the effort was so tough that at each mile marker I wanted never to run (or at least race) again? My husband says the outcome or results (1:47:52 or 8:13 min/mile pace), my best half marathon time, ever, justify the pain and agony of running--hard--through 13.1 miles. My younger son said I was amazing. My older son said not to make any decision based on the outcome of one run. We all have good and bad days, and there are so many factors that determine how we'll do, whether it was waking up at 2:30 a.m. (two hours before the alarm), walking too much around town the day before, having guests for the weekend, not drinking enough in the days before and day of race, my general nutrition habits, general race anxiety (goodness, I get anxious when I have a long training run planned), etc., that an outlier race (I hope) shouldn't dictate the rest of my running life.

I used every ounce of energy I could muster, dug deeply to find some spring in my legs, lamented how slowly each mile marker seems to come. I have residual biting glutes/hamstrings, a twinge in my right knee, and entire body tiredness. I spent almost two hours debating with myself on an early Saturday morning, knowing I could do the miles but wanting to do them well. The result, yes a PR, first place (only place actually) in my age group, and included within top 10% women overall. I'll keep track of this new record, but I don't feel deserving of it. 

The comments from running friends: (1)  tough runs make us better; (2) if it isn't hard then you probably aren't running to your full potential; (3) in my opinion, personal records (PRs) should  only come from an all-out run; (4) you gave it everything, you deserve it; (5) you should be proud of your efforts; (6) getting to the finish line is a win; the PR the frosting on the cake; and (7) amazing job!

 Post-run walk through Paradise, Arizona neighborhood

Post-run walk through Paradise, Arizona neighborhood

My First Fourteener--Mt. Whitney (August 2009)

Pitch black, 1:30 a.m. I park the car, making sure there are no candy wrappers or lipstick or lotions whose smells might entice bears to break in a window. We cross the darkened road and walk the hundred yards to the sign, “Mt. Whitney Portal”. We weigh our packs on the grocer-scale hanging below the sign. Barb and Robin each carry almost twenty pounds, most of it water. Mine, at ten pounds, will likely feel heavy by the end of the day. We attach our miner’s headlights to our caps and begin the steep incline. It is dark but for the tiny spots of light shining a few feet in front of us like fireflies greeting us in the summer night.

Mt Whitney Hike 022.jpg

It is cool but not cold. I do not need my gloves or heavy jacket. I feel groggy and off-balance, the result of the Tylenol PM I took trying to catch a few hours of sleep before the midnight wake-up call. I walk unsteadily across the log walkways placed over some soggy bogs. I slip on rocks poking above the gurgling water of the still-dark stream crossings. I will myself to concentrate, not wanting to let a tiny pill spoil months of hard labor and expectations.

The five of us track the trail in the darkness, comforted by twinkling lights of hikers ahead of us. We briefly chat with those on their way down the trail, seeking confirmation in what we are doing. Some summited the day before. Others are turning back, the altitude or the steepness too much. We silently entreat the gods of the mountain that we will not be one of those groups later.

My legs slowly become steady, my euphoria controlled, my stride even. We are quiet, in our own cocoons, hiking together. We do not want to lose a companion or be selfish of our desired pace. We share beams across uneven boulders, steps carved in the granite, and unexpected hairpin turns. As the sky lightens, we pause and watch the multi-colored sunrise from various angles as we bend and weave our way up the mountain.

At base camp, the brightly colored tents of those with two-day passes dot the landscape. I am reminded of the bright flags of hikers from many nations together in the rarified air of Mt. Everest base camp. I eat an English muffin with peanut butter, fuel for the next stage of the hike. I absorb the kaleidoscope of pink, orange, red and finally burnt yellow color of the “needles”, the sheer granite rock formations in front of us. I refill my water bottles, enough for almost six hours on the trail, wondering how tiny iodine tablets can rid the water of dangerous bacteria.

Anxious to continue, we slowly separate, each in her own rhythm tackling the soft ground between the bulky rocks of the increasingly steep grade, the unmarked entrance to the infamous switchbacks, our nemesis. The switchbacks are deceptive; the ninety-seven turns with almost 1600’ elevation gain will take us almost two hours. The three men ahead of Barb and me, visible at every other turn, are counting; finally with relief, they yell out switchback number seventy-five, almost there.

The extreme physicality of the day hits me—this is arduous. My body is working, the goal is ahead, but the pure joy of being in the stark beauty of the Inyo Forest is fading. Finally, Trail Crest, the final marker before the two and a half mile push to the summit, greets us. Barb and I nod silently to one another. Our relief is evident. We drop our backpacks alongside others, easing the load for the final ascent. We will retrieve them on the return trip.

Unencumbered by the dead weight, I feel free of the earth, light in stride and spirit. I do not think about the trail ahead or the descent back to the portal. I am present here and now, no before or after.

The ridge to the summit leaves us totally exposed to the beating sun, the thin air, and the rocky almost hidden trail. The steady stream of hikers gives some security to our mission. Yet, each step gingerly tests the stability of the rocks; a fall would be deadly. Up and down, over and over, the exhaustion wears on us.

We pause to catch our breath and soak in the spectacular vista. The town of Lone Pine is two miles below, Sequoia National Park is to the west, the John Muir Wilderness with its imposing peaks is to the east, and miles below, and we see Consolation Guitar Lakes. The yards tick away when suddenly Barb stops.

Mt Whitney Hike 058.jpg

“I can’t do it. My legs hurt. I can’t take a deep breath.”

We step off the trail, allowing other hikers to pass us on the narrow ledge. The rocks are uneven and bulky, the incline steep. A precarious place to stop, I need a moment before responding.

“You’re being silly. We only have a mile to go.”

Barb is strong. She kayaks as soon as the rapids are navigable in the spring. She bicycles over logs and boulders. She chops her own wood for heat. She is mentally determined, indefatigable and forthright.

“We’ll summit by ten o’clock, take pictures and have a snack. Your kids will be so proud of you. We’ll be back off the mountain well before any chance of bad weather.”

“What if I can’t?”
                  “Barb, we’ll just take one step at a time.” 

“I don’t know.”

“We’ll do it together. Okay?”

We start again and continue slowly but steadily, one foot in front of the other. Another thirty minutes pass as we slog through stone fields when we round yet another edge of the backside of the ridge and catch sight of a gently sloping plateau covered with gigantic granite boulders. Brightly clad hikers, resplendent in fire-engine red, sunshine yellow, and emerald green, dot an area the size of several football fields. Barb and I look at one another, somewhat perplexed and then, joyous. Although I had imagined a peak where only two or three hikers can stand at a time, we’re at the summit. The 1909 Smithsonian stone hut is in the near horizon. Hikers laughing and posing for photographs are on the ledge near the southeast ledge.

Barb and I hug one another, tightly, and continue to the precipice. A white-and green-lettered National Park Service sign heralds us to 14,496.811 feet. The marker, installed in the mid-1930s, marks the trail as the highest in the United States. We laugh, lamenting the granting of statehood to Alaska in 1959 with its Mt. McKinley taking over the landmark honor.

The vastness of this perspective on the world, the varying shades of blue, the clarity of the air, and the sting of the wind, makes me smile. I sit for a moment away from the crowd, drinking in the enormity of this place, not fully comprehending that I’ve made it to my own mountain top.

Strangers take photographs of us with the empty sky as our backdrop. We sign the guest book at the tiny stone cabin. I eat my once-frozen Snickers candy bar, still firm and delicious. Our stay here is short, only twenty minutes or so. With a last glance, Barb and I begin the descent to the portal.

Our euphoria does not last long. The descent is difficult. My knees and thighs rebel. My left baby toe sports a huge blister that is rubbed with every other step, the pain excruciating. My heart beats rapidly as I slip a few times on the switchbacks. The free-fall is unimaginable.

Is this how an astronaut feels tethered to his space station? Totally free and absolutely frightened? The snaking trail among the rocks and boulders is endless in front of me, the summit too far back to remember the triumph.

The trail in daylight is a wonder, though. Crystalline lakes nestle at the foot of magnificent granite peaks. Soggy bogs and ponds are laden with brilliant green lily pads. Spectacular panoramas of craggy peaks and deep valleys shaped by glacial and river erosion meet us at every turn. The shimmering green of the trees in the distance stand in stately contrast to the monochromatic granite rock beneath my feet. I wish I were a painter able to capture the evolving colors and lights. I am afraid my memory will not hold all that I am seeing and feeling and sensing.

I lean heavily on my poles to deflect the pressure off my knees, perking up with the congratulations of hikers still ascending. I focus on each step, deliberately, judiciously, and tenderly. I stop more frequently for water and snacks. I lose Barb in the distance as she gathers strength, like a homing pigeon fixed on its shelter.

One final bend, the portal is just ahead. Fourteen hours ago I stood here with butterflies in my stomach. I am exhausted, spent, yet exalting in the sweetness of having reached the sky. Maybe, just maybe, I even hear my father’s voice whisper in the breeze, “You did it. You only had to have faith in yourself.”

A Brief Retrospective: Books Read in 2016

 Books about Nature

Books about Nature

My intended focus during 2016 was to read about nature (as a precursor to writing about nature) while learning from non-fiction works and seeking enjoyment and perspective from fiction writing. In retrospect, my list of books read reveals some surprises: my non-fiction reading was centered around four areas: nature, health/sports/nutrition, autobiography/biography, and history. My fiction reading included several of my favorite authors (Ian McEwan, Per Petterson, and Colm Toibin), a trilogy (“The Last Hundred Years” by Jane Smiley) and a quartet (“The Neapolitan Novels” by Elena Ferrante), several works of short-stories, and a play. Sprinkled among my chosen books were book club choices, spur-of-the-moment reads, and recommendations from friends and family.

My non-fiction works were varied, but several nature books stand-out as brilliant writing combined with fascinating subjects (“H Is for Hawk,” by Helen MacDonald; “A Natural History of the Senses,” by Diane Ackerman; “The Best American Nature and Science Writing 2015); several autobiographies were less about the person writing the book than about universal themes that forced me to think more deeply about the issues presented (“When Breath Becomes Air,” by Paul Kalanithi; “One Hundred Names for Love,” by Diane Ackerman; “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel (my first graphic memoir)); and two history books delved into subjects with intense historical but also current application (“Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin,” by Timothy Snyder; “Five Days at Memorial,” by Sheri Fink).

I prefer fictional works that convey intriguing stories with excellent writing and thoughtful and unique perspectives, often selecting works from Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker, and Orange Prize award finalists. This year I was disappointed in some of my readings, either not well-written (in my opinion), trite, or not compelling, reminding me that I need to keep these goals in mind. A few of the highlights, though, were “The Secret Lives of People in Love,” by Simon Van Booy; “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara; “The Book of Salt,” by Monique Truong; “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki; and Smiley’s trilogy and Ferrante’s quartet. Anthony Doerr’s “The Shell Collector: Stories” and Lorrie Moore’s “Bark, Stories” were both substantive and satisfying short story collections.

 Non-fiction (mostly) Works

Non-fiction (mostly) Works

The complete list, compiled by genre but within each genre in no particular order, follows:

NON-FICTION

Nature:

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

The Best American Nature and Science Writing 2015

Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx

This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing, Thomas J. Lyon

A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman

The Hidden Half of Nature, David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle

The Soul of an Octopus, A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, Sy Montgomery

Health/Sports/Nutrition:

The Obesity Code, Unlocking the Secret of Weight Loss, Jason Fung, MD

My Marathon, Reflections on a Gold Medal Life, Frank Shorter

How Bad Do You Want it? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle, Matt Fitzgerald

The Way of the Runner, A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running, Adharanand Finn

 Autobiography; Biography

The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius, Fritjog Capra

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

One Hundred Names for Love, Diane Ackerman

Life in Motion, Misty Copeland

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

Diane Arbus, Portrait of a Photographer, Arthur Lubow

History:

Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer

Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder

Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

Dirty Old London, The Victorian Fight against Filth, Lee Jackson

FICTION

A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel, Anne Tyler

Miller’s Valley: A Novel, Anna Quindlen

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Brooklyn: A Novel, Colm Toibin

Nora Webster, Colm Toibin

The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Toibin

Last Bus to Wisdom: A Novel, Ivan Doig

Fates and Furies: A Novel, Lauren Groff

The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith [Carol, movie]

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel, Mohsin Hamid

I Refuse, Per Petterson

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

The Secret Lives of People in Love, Simon Van Booy

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

The Door, Magda Szabo

Circling the Sun, Paula McLain

The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman

Black Box, Amos Oz

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett

Nutshell, Ian McEwan

A Slant of Light, Jeffrey Lent

The Book of Salt, Monique Truong

The Piano Lesson, August Wilson [play]

Short Stories/Essays

Bad Feminist: Essays, Roxane Gay

The Shell Collector: Stories, Anthony Doerr

Bark, Stories, Laurie Moore

Trilogies/Etc.

My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, 3 of 4), Elena Ferrante

Early Warnings: A Novel; Some Luck: A Novel; Golden Age: A Novel (Last Hundred Years Trilogy), Jane Smiley

 

 

 

Surfer's Point Half Marathon Race Report: November 13, 2016

 Sunrise at Ventura Beach

Sunrise at Ventura Beach

I was awake at midnight and at 3:00 a.m., mesmerized by the super moon sparkling on the Pacific Ocean outside our motel window and the high waves crashing against the sandy beach. The alarm sounded at 5:00 a.m., the sky pitch black after the orange orb slipped beneath the water. Two hours and fifteen minutes until race time, my first half marathon since the Portland last fall (which itself was my first half marathon in five and a half years).

That early morning, I was surprisingly calm after weeks of anxiety, questioning my readiness and fitness level; most of all, I suppose, wondering whether I’d be pushing my legs beyond what I should or could do. The several 10k races I’d run earlier in the summer had been difficult, legs sluggish, breathing labored, the miles too slowly passing. Earlier in the spring I’d reworked my running form, starting with one coach and ending with another. I’d followed religiously his prescribed training program but I still had doubts. Was I too old for this sport? Should I lower my expectations of running a decent pace? Could I run 13.1 miles without being competitive, with myself mainly? So many questions; disappointments; temporary recoveries; perhaps too much time and attention to this thing that I love? I knew, however, that I had to run this race for myself, to gauge my running fitness, to understand what I still can and cannot do with this body. I had to shake the monkey off my back.

I ate my whole wheat energy bar with almond butter, drank a large coffee (decaffeinated), and gobbled a few peanut butter M&Ms. I’d tried to fuel better the past few weeks, difficult for me to purposely eat more than what I normally do, but I’d been admonished (and knew) about bonking and its relationship to adequate food and hydration intake the days and weeks before a race. I didn’t need my long-standing love/hate relationship with eating to upend all my training, so I tried not to count calories, but to think about protein, good fats (yikes!), and healthy carbs.

 Doug, Pat and Alex: Ojai, California

Doug, Pat and Alex: Ojai, California

Doug and I chose the Surfer’s Point Half Marathon only because we’d seized the opportunity to visit Alex and Glory in California; the weekend coincided with Alex’s fall marathon plans. Since we’d cancelled The Other Half in Moab, Utah, a few weeks before due to work conflicts (and my concern about trying to run a good race at altitude with several crucial hills), this race also seemed a good fit. The course was a figure-eight loop, run entirely along the Pacific Ocean at Ventura Beach. Billed as “flat and fast,” in fact there were a few hills at the northern part of the course. The well-documented ocean breeze was missing, portending a potentially slower race due to heat. I rarely wear short-sleeved shirts in November but the almost 60 degrees at the start and likely 75 degrees two hours (or less, I hoped) later at the finish made the decision for me.

 Ventura Beach and Pier

Ventura Beach and Pier

I’d inquired about pacers, having difficulty knowing exactly what my pace would be at sea level, since all my running except for the few weeks in Berlin has been at 5500’ altitude. I’d been assured that there’d be plenty of pace times from which to choose. As we lined up at the start, though, there was a gap between the 1:45 and 2:00 hour pacers, my hoped-for 1:50 pacer non-existent. I’d have to rely on myself.

 Pre-race day stroll around Ventura Harbor.

Pre-race day stroll around Ventura Harbor.

My coach had given me the race day plan: run first five miles at a controlled pace, 8:50-9:00 min/mile, then slowly increase pace, if I felt good, perhaps 5-10 seconds faster each mile. With those paces, though, I wouldn’t hit my “A” goal (to equal last year’s half marathon PR), but I also knew the principles were sound: negative splits, get the feel of the course, let my legs loosen up, hydrate well with the warm weather, focus on the present. And then, if all is going well, pick up the pace the back half of the race.

I started with another woman whose goal times were slightly slower than mine, but given the small number of runners at the front of the pack (in larger races, we’d be at the middle), it made sense to run together. I didn’t push the first miles, reminding myself that I’d have to report to Darren how his strategy worked, and I didn’t want to blow up the race, reminding myself that I’d started too fast on the 10k's this summer and had to stop several times mid-race to catch my breath. I needed to run smarter.

The flat course surprised me with some hills, but the view was exquisite: along the ocean the entire course, watching surfers catching and riding big, long waves, the sun continuing to rise higher above the Palm trees. The participants quickly spread out, a disadvantage to a small race, but I kept a few runners in my sight line, trying to pace myself with them. I kept in mind my family, how fortunate to be running the same race as Doug while Alex attempted the marathon (unfortunately thwarted yet again by a sore ankle). 

I ran more by effort and feel than by the time on my watch, steadily, carefully, not gasping for air, feeling strong. Clearly, training at altitude even if only 5500’ has advantages when racing at sea level! Stopping at every other water stop to down a little water or Gatorade, I tried to stay hydrated. I focused on the key mileage markers, the first turn-around at 5.13 miles, past the start/finish at eleven miles, and the final turn-around at twelve miles. I looked at my watch with just a little over a mile to go and realized that I could make my secret A+ goal (to PR) so I kicked up the pace, swerving between walkers, strollers, roller-skaters, and other runners (the start/finish was at the promenade at Ventura beach so lots of people besides us runners were taking in the sunshine and unusually high surf), and crossed the finish line with Doug, Alex, Glory and her mother cheering me on. The clock read 1:48:37, a PR by almost a minute.

 1st F(60-69): Did I say there wasn't much competition at the AG?

1st F(60-69): Did I say there wasn't much competition at the AG?

That Sunday morning everything worked: my mantra throughout the 13.1 miles to be strong, to stay at a comfortable pace, to enjoy the beautiful scenery, to watch the spectacle of being on a California board walk and bike trail on a sunny day in November, to reap the benefits of all the training, and to appreciate that I WAS running despite the starts and stops of the past almost seven years. That day, I rediscovered the joy in running that the months of training and false starts had diminished. I am so excited to be able to do this sport that I've loved since the first time I started running many, many years ago.

 Big smiles! And not too sore!

Big smiles! And not too sore!

 

Our Father's Gift to Us; Our Promise to Him

On March 7, 2006, my father died. Only weeks before, amidst the deep throbbing pain of colorectal cancer, his mind wracked with morphine-induced hallucinations, and his voice raspy, Dad dictated a note to my next older sister, Janet.

The message was eloquent in its simplicity: “We promise to take care of Mom in the manner in which Dad would have done.” Following the brief sentence was space for each of us to sign: Anne, Janet, Patricia, Bruce, Robert, the order only significant when one considered our chronological age or when our parents wanted our attention. Then, it was a mish-mash of run-together words, “annejanetpattybrucerobbie.”

This was the mantle that our father wanted, frantically, to pass on to us. We each solemnly signed the note, yet did Dad realize what he was asking of us? Or was the pain medication taking him back to the childhood days of three towheaded girls, giggling, dancing, and twirling, in close synchronicity; and later the boys, fraternal twins who abhorred the assumption of oneness, running, jumping, and grabbing toys? We definitely hadn’t shared that closeness for many, many years.

We five might go for months, even years, without seeing one another. We relied on our parents to make the connections, to soothe the perceived slights, to pass along news. Like the children’s game where one person whispers in the ear of another, around the circle, until the last person says aloud what she heard, often a gross distortion of the initial whisper, our stories changed in the telling. The alterations may have been intentional: “I got you” moments; hurt childhood feelings spilling over into adulthood; tests of who remembered best the details of some long ago adventure. Maybe the misunderstandings were normal, nothing sinister or ill-toward intended, inadvertent. The key was appreciating the nuances, which we didn’t necessarily do well.

I thought about the differences that now disconnected us from the intimacy of childhood. I could argue nature versus nurture, epigenetics, birth order (the oldest, the middle girl among three girls, the true middle child, the youngest child, who was also a twin), or individual choices made. Although I struggled to find the similarities among the five of us, I could see the reflections of our parents: my father’s love of teaching, even the tenor of his voice, in Bruce, the pragmatic one; my mother’s organization skills in Janet, the one in charge; Dad’s humbleness and kindness in Robert, the widower; Mom’s insecurities, even for all her accomplishments, in Anne, the oldest; and my father’s strong belief that women could achieve as much or more than men, no matter the difficulty, in me, the “smart one.”

Ultimately, I put aside this line of questioning to focus on Dad’s needs. I joined my sisters and brothers in assuring Dad that we could do this; after all, there were five of us, only one mother. We would lovingly care for Mom, despite knowing that independent, opinionated, and strong, she would not heed our advice or tolerate our hovering easily when the time came.

For the next eight years, Mom bicycled and played bridge, attended concerts and plays at the local college, volunteered at church, traveled to the northernmost Norwegian Islands, attended grandchildren’s college graduations. She was indefatigable, smart, admired, always planning her next journey.

We each spent alone time with Mom, no family reunions for us. The activities matched our personalities, our closeness to her, our ability to withstand her sometimes-harsh opinions without a quick, but hurtful retort, and our sense of adventure. And then in May 2014, a change in Mom’s health, slow at first but soon precipitous, affected how we sisters and brothers related to one another and to our mother.

Mom fell off her chair while watching her nightly dose of Jeopardy! She waited two days to call Janet, by then desperate with pain. My sister quickly threw clothes into a bag, drove the five hours to Mom’s house, and accompanied her to the hospital’s emergency room. The physician on duty noted cracked ribs and, from the x-ray, a large lump on Mom’s lung. Oh, no, had her several-years-in-remission colon cancer returned, perhaps spread to her lungs, metastasized?

Janet instantly took charge, trying to understand Mom’s medical conditions, her daily needs, how she would manage in her condo, alone. Our mother was certain that her setback was temporary: she didn’t want to be coddled; she didn’t want a stranger coming into her home; her nurse friend could take her to the doctor. None of us lived in town. Keeping watch over Mom would not be easy. How would we manage her needs from afar?

My sister started the daily emails about this time, easier to reach all of us without the heart-wrenching oral repetition of reporting on Mom’s health and prognosis (let alone her actual diagnosis). The subject line wasn’t so much intentional as practical: “Team Mom Update.”

June 9, 2014, 7:00 a.m. (Janet):

Today we wait for confirmation of appt. with pulmonologist and the next procedure, hoping for some relief in breathing. I’ll renew her pain meds later today, get balls to put on the bottom of the walker so it doesn’t scrape (Bruce, I could of [sic] used some old racquet balls but none handy) and a couple dowels so we can safely open windows at night.

 Do encourage the kids, and friends to send cheery notes or cards. She doesn’t have much stamina to talk on the phone right now, and tires easily but her mind is sharp. Her eyes are giving her fits but that’s for another day.

June 16, 2014: 6:00 a.m. (Patricia):

[Janet and I] had conversations with [Mom] about a myriad of topics, including the assisted living apartments, having the home health care assessment on Monday (Robert, you'll be here but Janet is willing to help with plan), staying in condo with assistance, all sorts of things.

She so wants to stay here, so we are being informative and gentle, no pushing, as she internally processes so much stuff. It's her decision and financially she is able to stay here, just need to make sure the services are appropriate and comfortable for her.”

A pattern emerged to the messages, each taking on the personality and focus of the sibling at our mother’s side, bathing her, cooking her meals, reading her letters, driving her to one of her numerous doctors’ appointments, sleeping on the tiny couch in her office, organizing appointments and medications, sitting quietly with her in the late afternoon sun on her small porch, just being with her as she became more internal, shutting off communication with friends and extended family.

June 28, 2014, 9:07 p.m. (Robert):

My heart aches, because Mom, I’m sure, feels like a bouncing ball being passed from one player to another. But still, we’re a team, and without player support, Mom will never make it to the end gracefully.”

 July 1, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (Anne):

 “She had her breakfast - took a shower - then her short morning nap - I got the kitchen floor washed (J-if mom is adamant about not having a housecleaner - she has got to invest in a regular mop-I did the floor on hands and knees) - got all of the rooms vacuumed - then I got cleaned up and just did little things - she got up at 10 and had an instant breakfast but not excited about any nourishment…

By early July, Mom’s condition had deteriorated significantly. She slept most of the day. She stopped going outside. She couldn’t see with her left eye, the good one. We agonized over an arrangement for her until Robert agreed to take a leave of absence to be with Mom until she stabilized and could be on her own. This was magical thinking on all our parts.

July 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (Bruce)

"We went to Mr. Ed's for dinner. I had tacos and Mom had pork ribs cutlets, those were so meaty and she had about six, she really liked them and eats them all, she also had a salad. We went out to Klickers and picked up some strawberries. We drove around for a little while and saw the park, Pioneer, then just around for about 15 minutes and she was getting tired.

July 9, 2014, 3:55 p.m. (Janet): 

Mom is very low today, has been in bed or sleeping on the couch 90% of the day. The eye news has really gotten to her, and her aches throughout the body (shoulder, back, neck, tummy) make her feel this last journey is too slow and making life miserable.  

Besides medicine and hating how things are just now, she was/is not wanting visitors. That was instigated when she saw all the various plans we are making to add ourselves onto the calendar… She said if anyone comes to visit, she prefers one day, period. That’s enough.”  

July 24, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (Robert):  

It was an all-day elbow day with mom (needed to be steadied all day as she walked to and fro)… Oh, that little lady makes me chuckle! She pushes forward each day and you have to admire that.”           

July 27, 2014, 8:08 a.m. (Robert):

Mom only wants family members (A, J, P, B and F) in the cottage, not spouses.  If you're thinking, he/she (Spouse) just wants to be polite and say "Hi Eleanor," DON'T!  It's about what Mom wants, not about want we want.

August 5, 2014, late afternoon (Robert via SMS):

Mom died a few minutes ago. She gave one last sigh, then was quiet.”

***

The rest of that day was silent: no telephone calls, no emails, no text messages. During the next two weeks, we divided up various activities and chores as if Mom (although now it was Janet) were directing her quintet: Anne worked with the church to find needy families for most of our mother’s furniture; Janet planned a celebration of life dinner for her children, grandchildren and best friends; Robert cleared away Mom’s most personal items, keenly sensing her need for privacy even after her death; Bruce packed the remaining items from the condo and loaded them onto a U-Haul truck to take back to Colorado; and I met with Mom’s accountant, trustee, and attorney to settle her affairs. And then we dispersed to our own homes and families, resuming life without our mother or father as backstop and facilitators.

I didn’t appreciate the connections among the five of us that might have portended how we rallied together during the last months of our mother’s life. But our father must have instinctively known, even in the moments of his greatest pain, that we five could work together. We could be a team. After all, he’d been a coach; his basketball and tennis teams still fondly recall so many stories of him. He would have relished the symmetry: his five children becoming a team for his beloved Eleanor. It struck me one day then, shortly before Mom died: our promise to our father, in the form of a simple sentence signed eight years before, was his gift to us, not our promise to him.

Today, we five no longer share the intense closeness, the daily communications or the worries about Mom. We do, though, have the bonds nurtured over decades of being siblings, rediscovered during those three months during the summer of 2014 when we realized—and acted upon—how dearly we love one another.

 

Open-Air Contemporary Art in Medieval City

 House originally built in 1555, updated mid-nineteenth century.

House originally built in 1555, updated mid-nineteenth century.

We scheduled a weekend visit to Görlitz, the easternmost town in Germany located on the Lusatian Neisse River along the border of Germany and Poland, to see its architectural heritage. With a rich history of being conquered and held by various kingdoms, emperors, and states, the village was first founded in 1002, becoming a town in the thirteenth century, along an ancient and medieval trade route.

Over the next almost one thousand years, the government of Görlitz changed many times; the town prospered with its rich farm lands; the Protestant Reformation was responsible for most of the population becoming Lutheran; later and in succession, the Thirty Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World War I impacted the town's government. Görlitz, the city, survived relatively intact during World War II, although manufacturing was converted to munitions factories. The eastern boundary of the city, along the Oder-Neisse Line, divided the town after the end of the war. Görlitz, on the left bank, became part of East German. Zgorzelec, on the right bank, became part of Poland.

 Pedestrian bridge to Poland from Görlitz, Germany.

Pedestrian bridge to Poland from Görlitz, Germany.

Our interest was in the historical buildings, undamaged physically by the various wars but often decayed and in disrepair until a campaign to restore many to their colorful magnificence started in the 1960s. The site of numerous films (think of the inside of the hotel in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), the city takes one back in time to what many other towns and cities in Europe would have been like without several wars and hundreds of years of weather and other environmental issues.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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  Görlitz train station.

Görlitz train station.

Immediately upon disembarking from the train from Berlin, we became enmeshed in the historical feel of this town. The various town squares (or markets), the narrow streets, the pastel-colored houses, the medieval wall still partially surrounding the city, the numerous churches and monastery, the winding river dividing the city, commanded our attention and awe.

 Typical city street.

Typical city street.

But then, we unexpected saw a huge metal sculpture, looking to us like a woman with horse legs. Upon closer examination, we'd stumbled upon "Görlitzer Art," a ten-piece, year-long, contemporary art installation around and about the city. The pieces, conceived, created, and installed as a project by the Capital of Culture 2016/Wroclaw and Breslau, were unique, evocative, and distinct. While we saw all ten installations, I was only able to capture eight of them on my camera. My comments or impressions of each named installation are my own, perhaps not exactly what the artist(s) intended.

 "Maske," depicting the effects on humans and animals alike of the changes in environment.

"Maske," depicting the effects on humans and animals alike of the changes in environment.

 "Pulse of the City," showing the connection between nature and manmade elements of the city.

"Pulse of the City," showing the connection between nature and manmade elements of the city.

 "Border," asymmetrical blocks of flat black and white paint on several sides and reflecting mirrors on others. Borders can signify limits or permit infinite possibilities. 

"Border," asymmetrical blocks of flat black and white paint on several sides and reflecting mirrors on others. Borders can signify limits or permit infinite possibilities. 

 "Clock," electronic time-keeper attached to abandoned factory building, technology continues to change the world around us.

"Clock," electronic time-keeper attached to abandoned factory building, technology continues to change the world around us.

 "Cloud Swing," a playful image that permits children and adult to interact physically with the art, exploring their imagination.

"Cloud Swing," a playful image that permits children and adult to interact physically with the art, exploring their imagination.

 "Herd," conceptual images of horses, perhaps, once a primary mode of transportation, sport, and work, now conceived as old-time remembrances.

"Herd," conceptual images of horses, perhaps, once a primary mode of transportation, sport, and work, now conceived as old-time remembrances.

 "&" the world continues apace.

"&" the world continues apace.

 "Tower," a contemporary expression juxtaposed against numerous towers used for defense, storage of grains, and hiding throughout Europe.

"Tower," a contemporary expression juxtaposed against numerous towers used for defense, storage of grains, and hiding throughout Europe.

The two remaining installations comprised several life-sized crystal boxes and a yellow-blue-grey colored cobbled street. I found messages of the present and future tied to the past; the evolution of the city due to profound changes in our environment; and hope as we move forward toward the unknown. I am so glad one of my searches for "places to visit outside Berlin" highlighted this area.

 

Playing in Berlin: Parks Galore

I knew that being outside and finding parks were key to my duties as "grandma/nanny" (aka "PB") while taking care of sixteen-month-old Solomon in Berlin for three weeks this August. I'd read the travel guides about child-friendly activities in the area and a recent article about the 1800 parks in Berlin, and saw some of the innovative and creative play spaces spread throughout the city.

Solomon and I quickly found a rhythm to our days while his parents worked. We often started with a short walk either before or after breakfast to the nearest park with duck pond and slide before returning to the apartment to plan the longer stroller walks to bigger and better play structures.

Soon enough, Solomon would grab an assortment of shoes in the closet and put on his hat, signaling to me that it was time to get going! Christopher or Kate would prepare the diaper bag, containing a few treats in case he got thirsty or hungry, and then we were off. Solomon discovered his favorite activity, sitting (although always a little hesitantly) on the big blue net swings; climbing up and sliding down slides and playing in the sand with his new bucket and shovels were close seconds. 

I was amazed at the variety of play structures, situated every few blocks, with plenty of variety to spark the imaginations of different ages of children. Most of them were made of natural materials, tree trunks, ropes, wooden cars, sand boxes (one had a water spigot so the children could make sand castles as if at the ocean or lake), towers, pulleys, zip lines, etc.

I loved watching the kids play with one another, often strangers, often speaking to us in German and not caring that we responded in English, sharing or playing side by side. There was an independence, an openness to their play that is not so prevalent at parks in the U.S.

The kids got dirty, sometimes fell, maybe squabbled over whose shovel was being used to fill a sand bucket, but left to their own devices, they worked things out. Sometimes, however, the play structures were a little intimating to our young one!

Solomon contemplating Thiel Park ropes.jpg

Here are some of my favorite pictures of some of the parks we visited and Solomon doing what little boys do--play!

This park was closest to the apartment and the duck pond. As the days passed, Solomon eventually also wanted to swing on the "hands' free" swing, watching two brothers fly ever higher before jumping off!

We couldn't figure out this blue rubberized circle but it seemed to work well for hiding and shoveling sand.

Several highlights of our stay were trips to the Berlin Zoo (where he would jump into my arms when he saw the bigger animals like the elephants and giraffes, whereas he was content to watch the chickens, roosters, and big birds without my help) and Aquarium (very child-friendly, letting kids even touch the carp). We could sit almost against the glass aquariums, which was fine until a hammer-head shark (or something as ugly) swam up close to us. Baby quickly jumped up and grabbed me for protection, turning over the stroller in the process. Some kind young men helped put us back together...and we were off for more exploring.

Thiel Park near the Institute was probably our most-frequented venue. The block structure was perfect for a little boy to practice his "high steps" while also letting him explore with bark. Another small backyard park with a car with moveable steering wheel and gear shift gave him more minutes of pure joy.

We visited Domane Dahlem Farm, a working farm in our neighborhood. The multi-generational play structures, e.g., elliptical machine, old tractors, swing sets, were fascinating. We didn't stay long enough for the carousel to start but we were intrigued by the very old animals.

The park in Spandau along the river where the bigger kids used these logs for their forts.

Rope courses were all around us. Baby tried several times to figure out how he might play on them, but the rungs were too far apart...until Dad came along (below).

On my last day with Solomon and his parents, we visited Spandau, where he climbed (with our help) ALL the stairs to the top of Julius Tower AND convinced his father that he could play on the spider ropes, usually meant for the older kids. 

I didn't see many museums this trip but learning about this city through a toddler's eyes was pure delight. Even water fountains around the various cities (here, Gorlitz, a medieval town in southeast Germany that crosses over into Poland) could be the subject of much amusement. Dogs, one of his first words, were a hit whether bronze or real!

Gorlitz fountain with dog.jpg

A Surprise: Friends and Family Together

 Glory and Alex ready for the fruits of their several months' labor.

Glory and Alex ready for the fruits of their several months' labor.

My son and daughter-in-law planned an utterly surprising (to me), belated birthday (cum retirement) gathering for me in San Francisco with long-time friends on Saturday July 23. I was overwhelmed to say the least by their thoughtfulness and love.

Molly (we're in almost matching dresses), who I've known since my first year in law school, flew in from New York City. We've shared so many wonderful and sad times but like all my friends, we have always been available for one another wherever we may live.

 Molly and me channeling forty years of friendship.

Molly and me channeling forty years of friendship.

Eileen, Panda (who couldn't attend the actual event but stopped by with some wine), Mara and Dennis, Ted and Marlene, Linda and Claude, Karen and Brian, invitees from other times in my life, were also welcome guests. I so enjoyed my different friends meeting one another.

Alex and Glory planned this night amidst their crazy schedules, wedding, new jobs, honeymoon, etc. looking up my friends, coordinating with each one, inviting each personally. Linda and Claude graciously hosted us at their lovely SF Victorian house in lower Pacific Heights. Doug kept the secret as we "just" happened to make this weekend work in the Bay Area.

Thank you to my beautiful friends who came to share this time with me and those who sent their regrets. You cannot imagine how special that evening was and will remain in my memory.

 The day after the event, we showed Alex and Glory the wonders of Rodin at the Legion of Honor.

The day after the event, we showed Alex and Glory the wonders of Rodin at the Legion of Honor.

This birthday year has been tough at times (one of those calendar stepping stones that chronicle your age but belie your self-worth and perceptions) and emotional, with various life changes (retirement, moving, making a new community) but my friends and family have made, and continue to make, this year meaningful and so hopeful.