Sunday, August 31, 2014

Here at 60

This past week I hit the big 60. Starting from last weekend, it has been a whole week of celebrations. Last weekend my children met us at a beach house near Santa Cruz for several days of fun, good food, good music, and lots of laughs. I saw dolphins swimming, collected sand dollars, walked for miles on the sand with Ron, and listened to the waves lull me to sleep at night. My children are luminous and exceptional and I can barely believe I raised these people and that we have been blessed to have Akili’s fiancĂ©e Tina join our family. These children of mine, my family life, is more than I ever imagined for myself as a girl. Spending time with my children always makes me feel grateful, blessed, and accomplished. 

The festivities continued beyond the weekend with the children. On my actual birthday, Ron and I took the money sent to us by a friend as a birthday gift and went out to eat at my favorite restaurant. Yesterday a group of about 20 close friends came over for a potluck dinner. A few special friends even drove up from the Bay Area. I felt completely loved and extremely fortunate. Such terrific people have populated the narrative of my life for all of my 60 years. Where did all these folks come from to share this wondrous existence with me?

While we were at the beach, my daughter asked me if I feel 60. I told her it amazes me that many things that I experienced as a child are a matter of historical record. They happened 50 years ago, for goodness sake. I remember having baked goods delivered to our front door by a guy in a horse-drawn carriage. We got bottled milk with the cream on top left in a metal box on the porch. There are many times when I forget what I look like, that I look like a 60-year-old lady, more especially so since my hair went prematurely gray and I don’t dye it. At times I feel on the inside the way I felt at 30 or 40 or even 50, forgetting how much I have aged in appearance. Then I step back and consider how I look to strangers. What assumptions do they make about me?

At times I feel disappointed that so few of my books have come to fruition through publication. I suppose that is the big regret of my life. I continue to submit query letters to publishers when I can eke out the time to do so. The rejections still flow back to me. I will keep at it. For the past year I have not written any fiction. I used all my spare time to work on my nutrition studies and I have now completed all the course work. I just have to take the final exam and do my internship to get my certification. The other day I read through the first section of a novel I started writing before my writing hiatus began a year ago. A year is a long time to stay away from creative writing. I once again feel incomplete without writing fiction. I need to get back to it as soon as possible, whether or not anyone ever reads my words.

Ironically, after investing a year in training to become a nutritionist so that I could have a stable retirement profession, my grants work has exploded. This will be a banner year for me. It’s hard to consider backing off the grants work when it’s so lucrative and forthcoming. In the meantime, I have developed a passion for nutrition and am eager to use what I have learned to help people improve their health. Consequently, I now have a variety of interesting directions to choose from in my journey. Which direction I head in is still hidden in the mists. I’ll figure it out eventually. 

One of the birthday cards I received said that 60 is a good time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors over a lifetime and to reap the benefits of all that one has built for oneself over the years. Perhaps that’s the norm. But I have ever functioned outside the norm. I can’t merely sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labors when I have so many labors ahead of me still in the works. I can do it to some extent, but I don’t thrive on limited productivity. I have things to do. I have reached 60, folks, but don’t be fooled:  I am just getting started.

Here's a photo of me at Pajaro Dunes on the Pacific Coast last weekend. 
I'm a little windblown but content in the company of my children, my husband, and the ocean.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


On Friday, Ron retired. Pass the sedatives. Never mind, tonight we’ll go dancing.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. I mean, he actually managed to keep working this long with the challenge of his health issues and he actually chose his retirement date and left on his own terms. We’ll be pinching our pennies, but we can make our finances work if we’re careful. He will get social security and a modest pension. Plus we (and Sudi, thank you Obama) can stay on our medical plan (we have to pay for it ourselves now, but the cost is reasonable). We are among the fortunate.

I’m thinking today about my former Berkeley neighbor Eula. In 1989, Eula was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 63 years old. She and her husband had operated a childcare center in Berkeley for about 30 years and our two older children attended. She died within a few months of being diagnosed. Eula was about the most exceptional preschool teacher ever and her loss was catastrophic to us families who sent our children to her center. When she died, she was two years shy of retiring after a full career. Eula’s death changed my life:  it was one of the biggest reasons I moved to rural Mendocino County. Ron and I had been talking about living in the country. I imagined it would be a great thing to do when we retired. Out of curiosity, I had started to look in the newspaper to see how much country property cost and I had started to research rural communities in northern Cali. When Eula died, I realized that it was entirely possible that I could put off living in the country until I retired and I could die before reaching retirement age. So we subscribed to Mendocino County newspapers in order to read the real estate section and we enlisted the services of an excellent realtor in Potter Valley. The rest is family history.

It’s a good thing we moved to our 40 acres at the Ranch when we did. We had a super fantastic run up there, loved every minute of it (not so much the skunks or rattlesnakes, but it was all part of the package), and raised our children in paradise. As it turned out, Ron’s health problems necessitated our move off the Ranch and into town before he reached retirement age. If we had waited to move to the country, we never would have done it. A dream up in smoke. Yes, this is a seize-the-day lesson.

How lucky we are to have any retirement income. That’s something. Not so long ago, people worked into old age, until they dropped dead in their tracks. Old folks moved in with their children or other family members if they couldn’t work anymore (still happens, of course). Otherwise, if they had no one to take them in, they pretty much curled up and died (this still happens too). The Social Security Act was signed into law by FDR on August 14, 1935. (Is that an interesting coincidence or what? Ron retired one day after the anniversary of the signing of the Act.) I looked it up. Taxes were collected to pay for social security starting in January 1937 and the first (one-time, lump-sum payments) were made that month. The first person to receive a payment was Ernest Ackerman. He received a whopping 17 cents. Seriously. Regular ongoing monthly benefits started in 1940.

I will always believe that Ron needed to retire to save his life. Taking care of his health is a fulltime job. He has put in a heroic effort to remain a productive member of his team on-the-job over the past couple of years. (For instance, it’s hard to get up for work on time in the morning and to function when you have spent two hours awake in the middle of the night trying to get your blood sugar to stabilize.) Figuring out the paperwork and how to leave gracefully, properly, and in the best possible financial situation was a whole other hurdle. I can hardly believe we arrived at Friday. Actually, I can hardly believe we are this old. How can I possibly have a retired spouse? I suppose if I try to do a jumping jack it will all become clear.

I am coping as well as can be expected. It comforts me to periodically shout at Ron (as if I have Tourette’s), “Get a job, ya bum!” Which is actually probably what he’ll do eventually. But now he has the option to work part-time or as an independent contractor doing something fun whether it pays anything much or not.

I’m not sure it will ever be financially feasible for me to retire completely. Ron is the one whose life depends on his ability to have the time to manage his health conditions so right now I’m feeling like we made it to home base “safe.” I feel grateful to FDR for setting up social security and I feel grateful to the Union (we’re stickin’ with it, alright) for securing Ron’s pension from his many years of service so that he could get out while he’s still alive. I have started the honey-do list. It’s getting long, but I know I can count on Ron to totally ignore it.

Someone took this photo with Ron's cell phone at a bar on Friday evening 
where some of his co-workers took him out for a drink to celebrate. 
I think the plan was to get him drunk, but he didn't oblige. Great folks. Lots of fun.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

In a Minute

Yesterday I was at the annual picnic to remember my friend Elena who died seven years ago in a freak traffic accident while biking to work. Every year, when this date rolls around, I am reminded of how fragile and tenuous our lives are. I think about how everything can change, for better or for worse, in a heartbeat.

At times, I feel frustrated about the manuscripts dormant in my closet, unpublished. All those words written, labored over, sitting unread, unnoticed. I think, Why did I bother? The answer to that of course is that I couldn’t help myself. But then I remember the moment when I received that phone call about Memories from Cherry Harvest, the call that informed me that a publisher wanted to publish my book. In a hot minute, everything changed for that manuscript. And it could change like that for another one. I recently read a story about a book that came out ten years ago and sold modestly at the time, then a few weeks ago some successful businessman (can’t remember who) with high media visibility mentioned that it was the best book about business he had ever read. This book is now selling like hotcakes and went into a new printing. I remain hopeful that a story like that awaits around the corner for me too.

In a swift turn of a different sort, I have a friend who was diagnosed with cancer (out of the blue) a few weeks ago and is preparing to face the torture of chemotherapy. As my heart bleeds for this friend, I am reminded that in a minute the charmed life that I lead could be yanked from beneath me and so I must always remember to remain grateful and to fully live and deeply enjoy this bounty I have so fortunately received. Drink to the bottom of the glass and savor the flavor.

While we are waiting to sell our house and move to something smaller and more manageable financially and physically, I grow impatient. The transition is not happening fast enough. But here is my in-a-minute experience for the week. On Wednesday I was sitting at my desk and I saw a car drive slowly by. I bolted out of my chair and ran out of the house in time to intercept the car on its way back past for the folks to have another look. I invited the couple in the car to come inside. They were absolutely charming. We chatted. They took a tour of the house. We chatted some more. They said they are very interested. Who knows if I will ever see them again? But the experience reminded me that we could sell and move, we could buy and settle somewhere wonderful, it could all happen (and probably will) in a minute.

I remember the minute I heard that my son was engaged to his lovely girlfriend of many years (wedding is now just around the corner); the minute that I heard that my friend Edwin had died suddenly of a heart attack leaving behind his wife (one of my best friends) and two beautiful teenaged daughters – eleven years ago this week and how they still grieve for him; the minute I realized that my mother was dying; the minute I realized I was pregnant with Sudi; the minute we arrived at the Ranch to begin our seventeen years living in paradise. I reflect on what it felt like in those minutes of change.

That is all.

Tonight's "super moon" -- full moon close to the earth, large and especially beautiful. 
I am glad to be here in another August to see it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Gammy: The Price of a Life

I have a story for you that almost defies belief. There are lessons in it on so many levels that I just wouldn’t know where to start. But then I don’t need to start because you will find these lessons yourself when you hear this story. It was originally released by a Bangkok newspaper and has since been picked up by many media outlets in the West.

Gammy is a six-month-old baby boy born in Thailand. His mother, Pattaramon Chanuba (21 years old), cut a deal with a surrogacy agency to serve as a surrogate for an Australian couple. She was offered nearly $12,000 to carry a baby for them. Pattaramon says that she and her husband agreed to do this because they are deeply in debt. The $12,000  was a huge sum for them. She says it will allow for her to pay off the family debt and to educate her children. She has never met the Australian couple.

When Pattaramon was three months pregnant, her doctor discovered that she was carrying twins, a boy and a girl. The surrogacy agency informed her that they would pay her an extra $1,600 and that the Australians would take both babies. But when she was four months pregnant, the doctor determined that the boy had Down Syndrome. Pattaramon informed the surrogacy agency. The Australians said they didn’t want the boy and the surrogacy agency told Pattaramon to have an abortion. Seriously. Can you believe this?

Pattaramon, a Buddhist, said that abortion was against her religion and she would keep the boy herself. The Australians said they would take the girl but not the boy. When the children were born, the doctors discovered that the boy, named Gammy, also has a congenital heart defect. The cost of the medical care required to keep him alive is beyond the reach of Pattaramon, even with the money she made by being a surrogate. She has two children already. The surrogacy agency took the girl at birth and the Australians, who have remained carefully unidentified by the surrogate agency, returned to Australia with her, abandoning Gammy, separating the twins, and apparently washing their hands of the whole situation.   

This is where the story takes a turn for the miraculous. Pattaramon says that she has fallen in love with the boy and she will raise him herself, in the embrace of her family. In order to pay for Gammy’s medical costs, an online fundraising site has been established through Hands Across the Water. The news about Gammy has spread in the online media like wildfire. Outraged people, not only Australians and Thais, but people from all over the world, have been donating to pay for Gammy’s medical care. All money raised is being held in trust to be used exclusively for Gammy’s care and wellbeing. “Hope for Gammy” has raised over $200,000 so far and money keeps pouring in.

In the wake of this incident. The Thai government has cracked down on the surrogacy business, declaring that the only legal surrogacy cases will be those between a married couple unable to conceive and a blood relative. Paid surrogacy is now illegal. And foreign couples taking a child from its birth mother to another country will require permission from Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Without permission the transport will be considered a violation of human trafficking laws and the culprits will be prosecuted.

This story strikes home for me in a very personal way. I have a dear childhood friend who is blessed with twin daughters who were born in 1974. One of the twins has Down Syndrome and the other does not. My friend and his wife have cherished both girls from the day they were born. Now in their forties, these two women remain as close as ever twins can be. The twin with Down has a rich life with many friends. She plays piano and belongs to a bowling league. She lives in an independent living community where she has her own apartment and her own life. Nine years ago, when my mother passed away, this woman with Down gave me great comfort in the simple words that she said to me at the funeral. While I have forgotten nearly everything said on that difficult day, I remember what she said.

Gammy getting some loving (from his now-brother, I presume).