Checking in: A conversation with Martha Bennett
As part of a new series called "Checking In," the Review talked with City Manager Martha Bennett about her observations on how the city is handling the COVID-19 pandemic, how she's occupied her time during the governor's stay-at-home orders and her largest takeaway during these tough times.
Parts of this conversation have been edited for clarity.
So, I know it's a busy time right now but I'm curious how things are going for you?
It's going well. For me, I've been in public service my whole career because I want to help make lives better for people and I do believe that this moment has brought clarity in terms of what the role of the city is in making sure we're protecting health and safety as much as we possibly can.
The hardest part is there are — well there's three hard parts. First of all, the fact that the pace of the current situation is controlled by a virus. That's hard for people in my line of work who like to be systematic and planful. The second is, we know a lot of people in our community are hurting and we can't help them because they've lost their jobs or their business has been affected or they're just very anxious because they might be someone who is really susceptible to the disease. It's hard when you know there's need that you can't meet. And then the other thing about it is it's hard to think, especially in my line of work, it's hard to think long-term right now. It feels like the situation that we're dealing with, it's just not capable of thinking beyond a 6-week time horizon and that's pretty hard.
The upside is my family's home and the downside is my family's home. I just got a photo from my son who's a senior in high school and he's made muffins and bread today.
Do you feel like the city is doing a good job addressing economic and other issues related to the health crisis?
We're doing what we can. The fact that we did the small business assistance program as quickly and efficiently as we did, I think we recognized that a lot of our businesses just have a very immediate problem of "How do I pay the rent next month or how do I meet some of my other financial obligations?" So I think that was well-conceived by city staff and council, and really well executed by staff. I wish we had more resources but we're pretty constrained as to how much resources we can throw at it. The other thing I think we have done well is we've recognized how we can contribute to individuals — so the council doubling the donation to Hunger Fighters back in early March because we know that some people are hungry. What we are doing around trying to work with folks who might struggle paying their utility bills. I think we're on the right track. The real limitation for the city is we're financially not enormous and we do have to balance our budgets, so we can't meet all of the community's needs.
One of the things the mayor and a couple of council members have started working on this week that's pretty cool is just sort of reaching out to make sure we have a more complete inventory of all the nonprofits that are working in Lake Oswego and what they're able to do. Just a level of coordination so that we can have a better handle on the resources that are available.
What has your news consumption been like during the pandemic?
I'm already a news junkie, but I will say I have not watched any television news at all. I just can't handle it. Partially because of the way the television news cycle works — it's so short. But I'll read almost anything in print I can get my hands on. I've become sort of a aficionado of modeling and forecasting, like there are about eight different organizations out there that seem to do really credible modelling and I try to understand how they are gathering data, what's in their model, how they're forecasting the progression of the disease, so that we can just get a better handle on where are we in our country, in our state and in our community on this cycle of what looks like the first wave.
What have you done to stay busy at home during the pandemic?
I'm going to the office every day, which has been important because there's three people in my home who are working out of the home. So if there were four of us, it might just be one too many. I've been cooking. I will say that we are trying hard to clear the freezer. We decided that all that food that we wondered what we could do with that's been stuck in the freezer, it's time to figure out what to cook.
And in fact, we have a goal of one new recipe every week right now. We're doing pretty well on that. Actually, I was doing a citywide email every Wednesday and the good news is many of my employees have sent recipes that are worth trying. So that's been fun.
I mean, we've done a lot of yard work. I mean, the good news is the weather's been nice. Our garden looks a lot spiffier. When I go around Lake Oswego right now I noticed that we're not the only ones who spiffed up our yards.
I'm also riding my bike every day, even in the rain.
Is this just during the pandemic or were you doing that before?
I'm an avid recreational bike rider and so I try to ride to work on days when I don't have offsite meetings. Of course right now, I don't have any offsite meetings at all so I'm able to ride to work because I don't have to go anywhere during the day.
Have you picked up any new hobbies on the weekend?
I am an amateur musician. I'm trying to be more deliberate about my instrument practice. I tell people all the time, it's like, I don't play the cool kinds of instruments. I play band instruments. I don't mean rock band, I mean high school concert band.
I've been trying to be disciplined with my clarinet practice. I'm a very lousy piano player, so I've been trying to practice at least one musical instrument every night.
It's cool in sort of a completely uncool way.
My son also plays in the woodwind family and I talked him into playing duets with me out in our driveway and I didn't get any complaints. I did get a couple compliments but I do hope my neighbors aren't mad about that.
Are you a reader? How many books have you read?
I'm a serious reader. The one thing I have not done, we were talking internally about this, is we've all had these things — like I have not watched any TV. I know other people in the universe are binge-watching "Tiger King" or other things. I just don't want to be anywhere near a screen because I'm doing almost all my meetings by screen. So by the time I go home, the last thing I want is the television.
I should do a shout out to our librarians. They have this service called — I can't remember what it's called. I filled out the form that the Lake Oswego Public Library has about, "what are my favorite books? What do I love to read? What do I dislike reading?" And then they sent me recommendations for 10 titles I probably hadn't heard of before. I'm on my third one and it's been delightful because they are all books in genres I like but not necessarily authors or titles that I'd heard of before. I highly recommend it. And then I was able to order from Powell's, which is an institution I adore. I felt good about spending my money with a Portland-based bookstore, not with Amazon.
In the last month since the stay at home order, have you completed any books?
Oh, yeah. I finished the book called "The Priory of the Orange Tree," which our librarian Chris Myers recommended to me. It's an epic fantasy novel. It's like 800 pages long.
In fact, the night I finished that book, I stayed up a little late. I felt like a kid. Maybe you weren't this kid but I was the kid who used to read under the covers with a flashlight.
I'm reading a book right now called "Slow Horses," which is a detective novel
by an author named Mick Herron. It's about British spies who flunk out of the main British spy service and they're sort of second-rate spies and something that they do. It's hysterical and quite well-written, and very British.
What is something that you miss doing that you did before the governor's stay-at-home order?
Going out to drink a beer on the back deck of Stickmen on a sunny day. I miss seeing my parents. Some friends and I have a regular Thursday night dinner tradition once or sometimes twice a month. I miss that. Mostly I miss other people.
What is the biggest change you've had to adjust to during the current health crisis?
It's the 6-foot dance I think. You'd be on the stairwell and somebody is coming the other direction and you have to sort of figure out who's going to go back up or down so that we can pass at a 6-foot distance. Like you'd be out walking in the neighborhood and see a neighbor and want to talk to them and realize "Well, I can't get too close."
Also, Sunday night, realizing we didn't have enough lettuce to make a salad, but we didn't really want to go to the store for one thing. It's kind of just like how much more present you have to be in your physical life.
I probably haven't been more than 10 miles from my house since the 28th of February and even 10 miles feels like a long way right now.
What do you think one of your biggest takeaways during the health crisis has been?
I guess the first one is that you have to make sure you're making time every day to be grateful for the things that are going well. If you don't, it's easy to think about ways that your work or your life have been constrained. If you start with the things that are awesome, then it's easier to tackle the things that are stressful or difficult or hard.
I guess the second thing I'd say is you never know when you see somebody or talk to somebody, what else they might be dealing with. There've been a few things that have come up here at the city, where I felt like I was getting a really angry person. If I can stop and just think, "Well, I don't know what might be happening in their life. They might have lost a job, they might have a friend who's ill, they might not be able to see their parents, there might be something else happening." So if you can pause long enough, then you can be kind to other people. That may be the most important thing that any one of us can do right now is just be kind to one another.
I have a high school senior in my house. I will say that for the high school kids, this really sucks — although they will all have a shared experience.
They will never go to a party in their entire life with other people who also graduated from high school this year and not have something in common with those people.
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