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Archive for August 2012

When do we park - for good?

Do we ever reach an age when we are too old to drive? Too slow in our reflexes? Tragedy can result.

An elderly friend of mine made decisions for herself when she thought she may pose a bit of a threat: she reduced the radius of her travel from home, drove only in daylight and (my favorite) stopped making left turns on any busy street.

She drove until the month before she died (at 91) and she volunteered at the hospital two days each week. She said she never wanted to be the cause of an accident; she would rather limit her own freedom. Yet, she was active and busy.  

How do we know when we might be a danger on the road?

(S-R archives photo)

Picture perfect sadness

As our family reunion winds up, we spent last night gathered around looking through a suitcase of photos my widowed sister brought with her when she moved to the Inland Northwest several months ago. There were many shots of my now deceased brother-in-law, a challenging but sometimes charming Sicilian. We had more good times than we remember, someone commented. There were a lot of photos taken at wonderful Italian feasts around the table. Lots of cigarettes in the days when everyone smoked. Lots of wine. My sister commented that we only seemed to get the cameras out in the good times. Maybe that is best. We ended the night a bit sad at the lost family members, the lost youth, the times we likely didn't appreciate enough when they were happening. And then it was 10 p.m. and people were hungry and my sister made pork sandwiches, Italian style, in honor of our now deceased Sicilian who was famous for his cooking.

Love affair…over

Some relationships end due to drifting while others come to a crashing halt. Ours ended due to both…

I had to stop abruptly and sighed. Then I glanced into my rearview mirror and saw the F-150 truck coming at me. . I had a death grip on the steering wheel and squeezed my eyes closed. Never good to witness one’s own destruction.  The driver behind me “drifted” in his concentration and then really crashed into me..well, into my car with me in it 

On impact, my seatbelt held me in place, while my glasses came off and landed in the crevasse between the windshield and the dashboard. My cell phone came out of my purse pocket and landed on the floor, calling the most recent number (sorry, Kathryn). Oh, and the F-150 pushed my car into the car ahead of me. Nice.

A little whiplash and a lot of trembling later, my hero husband showed up and took over the details of information to the investigating cop and other drivers. My car was drivable – to the body shop. And while I was basically okay, my car was not.

And I LOVE my car. It was a post-cancer, splurge purchase. “Make it a really nice car, in case I die from this cancer, your next wife will enjoy a fancy car,” I said eight years ago. My husband did not laugh.

Our cars take us places and provide independence, needed solitude and security. In a culture that has not accepted public transportation, a car is almost a necessity. And my car was a symbol of renewed good health and hope for my future.

When the insurance company said the car would be deemed “totaled,” I cried. I cried because I not only lost the car, but all that it brought me – security on the road and a gift of kindness from my husband for the future. When I went to clean out my belongings at the body shop, I felt like we were at the bedside of a dying friend, soon to be organ donor.  I said, “Thank you for protecting me and giving me great joy.” Silly? Perhaps.

We make plans; we live with a thin veneer of security as we move through our lives and yet, in a moment of drifting all of it can come to a crashing halt. This experience has been a profound reminder of life’s fragility, of how an instant of inattention can transform our lives. So, once again: say it now, do it now, pay attention, enjoy each moment. Love one another …So quickly we can come to a crashing halt.

Sabbatical and reunions

I am taking a four-month sabbatical from my newspaper job for an adventure I will likely blog here as it gets going. The day I left the newsroom I was asked to clean off my fairly messy desk because another writer will sit in the primo spot (in a fun pod) while I am gone. I pouted a bit about the request but did it. This week about 50 members of my family are gathering for a reunion and last night two great-nephews from New York remet same-age great-nephews from Spokane. When I was12 our Spokane family traveled to Syracuse and I hung out with same-age cousins, too. I just can't believe how fast time goes and how my siblings and are the elders now in a big, crazy family. Both incidents this week made me understand you have to be gracious in transitions, clean your desk without pouting, and you have responsibilities as family elders to make sure experiences happen for younger family members no matter how much work it is.

Another reason I’m glad not to have a tattoo

Some tattoo-less 50-something friends and I were chatting recently that we were happy the tattoo craze bypassed boomer women of our generation, because we'd be worried how saggy the tattoos might look as we got older.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, released today, gave me another reason to be grateful. Seems that fairly nasty “nontuberculous mycobacterial skin infections” have been traced to “nationally distributed, prediluted gray ink.”

Outbreaks of the infection occurred in several states, including in Washington state. “Seattle & King County identified five confirmed and 26 possible cases.”


(Spokesman-Review archives photo of Maria Jose Cristerna at a tattoo shop in Bogota, Colombia)





Trend alert: “Friends with Benefits”

No, it's not the friends with benefits trend I'm taking about here. That's so 20s and 30s (as in people in that generation.)

The trend I'm talking about is the father character in the 2011 movie of the same name which I watched this weekend on cable. The father of the main character has early Alzheimer's. And though movie reviewer Roger Ebert calls it “movie Alzheimer's” which he describes as: “the form of the disease where the victim has perfectly timed lucid moments to deliver crucial speeches, and then relapses.”

But I found the depiction pretty true to life. (My dad had Alzheimer's for seven years). And so this is the trend I'll be tracking: more characters in movies and plays with Alzheimer's as more playwrights and screenwriters experience it with their older family members.

We’re dying at home more and more

The National Institutes of Health sent out a report yesterday that detailed some snapshots of life of older Americans. The one that caught my eye, of course, was this announcement:

The percentage of older people who received hospice care in the last 30 days of life increased from 19 percent in 1999 to 43 percent in 2009. The percentage of older Americans who died in hospitals dropped from 49 percent in 1999 to 32 percent in 2009. The percentage who died at home increased from 15 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2009.

My prediction: In 10 years, up to 75 percent of people will die at home. And Hospices will boom in communities, both for profit and nonprofit.

(Dan Pelle/S-R photo of 2012 reunion of founders of Hospice of Spokane, left to right, Barb Savage, Marj Humphrey, Barb Cox and Johnny Cox)

Hepatitis C: Will you get the test?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent out this notice today:

“CDC now recommends that all U.S. baby boomers get a one-time test for the hepatitis C virus. Data show that 1 in 30 baby boomers has been infected with hepatitis C and this population is five times more likely than other adult Americans to be infected with the virus. In addition, more than 15,000 Americans, most of them baby boomers, die of hepatitis C-related illness each year.


According to the CDC: “More than 15,000 Americans, most of them baby boomers, die each year from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer….one-time hepatitis C testing of baby boomers could identify more than 800,000 additional people with the virus.”

Will you get the test?

(S-R archive photo of Naomi Judd who survived Hepatitis C)

Spokane welcomes weather refugees


Been wondering if the dry, wildfire, tornado weather of the past few months in other places in the United States (though some wildfires are mighty close to us this week) will prompt people in say, Oklahoma or Texas, to relocate to Spokane or Coeur d'Alene where there are fewer “natural” threats, such as tornadoes and earthquakes and tsunamis.

This weather pitch has been around a long time. Today, I found in the newspaper’s King Collection a Spokane Chamber of Commerce publication from 1905. It features photographs of buildings, grand homes and scenes around the area. On one page, surrounded by photos of the Spokane Falls, is written this “pitch:”

Not once, since the opening of the U.S. Weather Bureau Office (over 24 years ago) in this place has there been an instance of loss of life or property at Spokane, caused by extreme meteorological conditions, such as occur yearly in other parts of the country.

(S-R archives photo)

The Susie Forest now grows in Afghanistan

The Susie Forest, a Spokane-based initiative, has taken root in Afghanistan.

Nancy MacKerrow is the Spokane woman whose daughter, Susie Stephens, was killed in 2002 when she was hit by a bus in St. Louis. Susie was an activist for the rights of pedestrians and bicyclists. Nancy has been planting trees in Spokane, and around the world, in an initiative known as the Susie Forest.

Recently I got this email from Matt McCain. He wrote:

I'm a former Americorps intern at Spokane Urban Forestry currently deployed with the Washington Air National Guard in Afghanistan.  At urban forestry I had the opportunity to help Nancy MacKerrow of Spokane, founder of the Susie Forest in memory of her daughter, plant and dedicate several trees.  Nancy asked me to try to dedicate a tree to the Susie Forest while I'm deployed.  I finally managed to do it.

Matt sent photos of the tree and this explainer:

The dedication of three trees took place on August 7 at German-run airbase outside of Mazar-E-Sharif, Afghanistan's 4th largest city.  Two of the trees will be replanted at Mazar-E-Sharifs most important site—the Blue Mosque in the center of the city.  Unfortunately, the species of the tree got lost in translation between me and the German caretaker.

Thanks Matt! Stay safe out there.

(The photo, courtesy of Matt McCain shows, from left to right: Master Sgt Kevin Borden, Senior Airman Matt McCain, Major Scott Eklund and Master Sgt Thomas Siegel)

Gifts that remain

We loved her in Seattle. She was friendly, kind and interviewed anyone with ease and grace – the same virtues that carried her through her endless battle with benign brain tumors.

 Kathi Goertzen died today. And her absence will leave the broadcast community awash in grief. Her co-anchors gave us regular updates at the end of their news casts and even those men who could tell us the most painful news without flinching, choked back tears, sobs when they told us about Kathi.  

She leaves a loving family, a faith community, devoted colleagues and countless viewers.  

Her courage and grace remain.

(S-R archives photo)

At the movies

We went to the movies the other night – “Hope Springs” – and noticed the security measures now in place (post-Colorado movie massacre):  cops patrolling the parking lot as the evening sky grew dark and the “may I see the inside of your purse, ma’am, for a safety check?”  question by the ticket taker are new measures.  The guy was a young adult with a  sweet smile and so I answered, “Yes, of course! How thoughtful that you want my purse to be safe.” He glanced in at the usual purse contents (wallet, comb, lipstick, too many pens, lost paper clip, grocery list, list of family/friends’ addresses, napkin from Starbucks…) and said, “OK.  

Last time I was inspected at a movie theatre was in Jerusalem in 1975. Women in one line, men in another and then the full pat down. And the ushers walked the aisles, carrying flashlights, admonishing anyone chatting while the film (Pink Panther) played.

 Hope Springs was poignant and entertaining. Meryl Streep and Tommie Lee Jones make for an interesting chemistry - as did the new security measures mixed with the usual expensive popcorn.

(S-R photo: Meryl Streep as Kay Soames, left, and Tommy Lee Jones as Arnold Soames in a scene from “Hope Springs.”)

Saying goodbye to a place

My friend Leah sent me a link to a blog called The Grey Tree. The blogger and her family will leave their community to relocate to another community, an event that happens a lot in August as people settle in to their new home before the kids start school.

The blog post, titled Last Things,captured beautifully all the feelings of saying goodbye to familiar touchstones in a community. Here's an excerpt:

We spent the week or so prior doing a lot of “last things.” Well, really we were doing them all summer. And we’re still doing them. Last time we go to the regional farmers’ market together. Last time we have breakfast at that restaurant, have dinner at this one. Last ice cream at our favorite local spot. Last time I am on the campus of the university I just graduated from, last time I am on campus of the school where I have been teaching. Last time Gretchen is at her old office. Last visit to Isaac’s favorite parks. Last trip to the local library (which ended in Isaac crying in the parking lot about how sad he was to be leaving). The last time this and that and the other thing. Every day is full of them. Goodbyes and never-agains, the life we’ve created here almost over.

The Way He Was…Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch, died suddenly on Monday in Los Angeles. His music provided the backdrop for Boomers’ - and others’ - lives over the last four decades.  

Accepted to Juilliard School at age 7, he was a music genius as well as an engaging personality. Barbra Streisand said “it was his ‘his brilliantly quick mind, his generosity and delicious sense of humor that made him a delight to be around.’ ”

 He won every award possible for creativity: Oscar, Grammy, Tony, Pulitzer Prize, Emmy. His music was diverse as his awards: from Leslie Gore’s 1965 hit “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” to “A Chorus Line” - Broadway’s long-running musical.

He once said that performing was what he loved most in life, the thrill of the music – and the appreciative applause.

And while he needed to convince Ms. Streisand to sing “The Way We Were,” (she thought it was too simple), the world soon recognized it as the ultimate musical expression of painful angst when a passionate love affair ends. At least I did.

Hamlisch’s playful genius – immortalized in his music - remains a gift to us. His recent advocacy for arts education sends the message that music is integral to our humanity.

“I don’t think they (the government) understand it’s as important as math and science. It rounds you out as a person. I think it gives you a love of certain things.”

Love of time and place and relationships, a love of the way we were.

Work for the ages

In my story today, I wrote about the memory care unit at Aegis of Bellevue which has incorporated cutting edge innovations to help its Alzheimer's residents.

The unit features several work stations where residents can “return” to the work they once did.

People with dementia often retain long-term memories of the work that organized their younger years, whether the work was inside or outside the home. A fake but realistic looking washer and dryer – baby onesies hanging on the line – evoke laundry day for some of the women. The unit is also home to two eerily real-looking baby dolls. They cost $700 each and are often bottle fed by both male and female residents. Military uniforms, suit jackets and a rack of ties allow men to dress again for work, calling forth memories of their career years.

Personally, I can't imagine being hunched over a computer all day if I end up in a memory care unit, but maybe I'll walk around with a tape recorder, interviewing.

What work would you likely recreate?

(Tony Wadden photo)

Hospice: The survivors

The Hospice movement has radically changed the way we help dying people. Until my interview a week ago with the founders of Hospice of Spokane, I didn't realize how new the movement really is in the United States.

Hospice of Spokane was among the first dozen Hospice programs in the country. It accepted its first patients in 1977. Thank you, Hospice pioneers.

Here's my story about it that ran Saturday.

(Dan Pelle S-R photo of Barb Savage, Marj Humphrey, along with Barb and Johnny Cox.)

Never can say good-bye

Sometimes all it takes to reclaim an old hobby is an obvious sign from the universe. Don Arndt of Spokane had exactly that on Friday when his old motorcycle – 37 years old – returned to his life.  Arndt reported the bike stolen in 1975. Then the trail of recovery went cold.

Recently, a new owner of the bike went to WSP seeking the bike’s title when an inspector ran the VIN (vehicle identification number) and discovered the bike was stolen.

And while Arndt hasn’t owned a motorcycle since 1975, he has maintained his motorcycle endorsement to ride – just in time to take to the open road during the dog-days of August on this fun remnant from his youth.

Have you ever reclaimed a hobby or activity from your youth?

(S-R archives photo)

The death of meaning

Our friend Dave Killen, a lifelong teacher, has this saying at the end of his emails:


If every day is a great day, is any day a good day?

Language inflation is the death of meaning, understanding and community. 




(AP file photo of illustrator Harvey Ball, of Worcester, Mass., who created the smiley face, the bright yellow happy face that has become a worldwide symbol of good cheer, He posed for this photo July 6, 1998. He was  upset that French entrepreneur Franklin Loufrani registered the trademark in 1971 and now holds the trademark in much of the world. Ball, 76, created the symbol in 1963 as part of an in-house happiness campaign for an insurance company. Ball died in 2001)


Apocalypse Now?

Two days ago, while driving home from work and listening to an NPR report on starvation in Africa, I realized that if we were living in a horror movie — one where the world falls apart in a short period of time — July 31 might have been the day it dawned on folks that something sinister was going on.

1) The  blackout in India, due to massive power failures, meant 600 million people were without power.

2) Crop circles found near Wilbur, Wash. Crop circles, though likely the work of merry (human) pranksters are thought in some circles to be the work of aliens.

If there is ever an end-of-the-world event, do you think it will unfold like the movies? In a matter of just days or weeks? Or will it be a long process we understand only at the last moment?

Bang or whimper? (To paraphrase T.S. Eliot)

You decide.

(Wilbur Register photo)

Gore Vidal…dies at age 86

Perhaps no one else of our time lived a more “did it my way” existence than Gore Vidal.

Vidal was an author, playwright, activist and celebrity who died in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

 “His works included hundreds of essays, the best-selling novels “Lincoln” and “Myra Breckenridge” and the Tony-nominated play “The Best Man,” a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway in 2012. Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire's decline or the destruction of the environment. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word, for “the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action,” cites his extensive obituary.

His friendships included people from politicians to rock stars like Mick Jagger – to reported lover Amelia Earhart. With Jackie Kennedy, he shared a stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss.

He lived a life full of diverse relationship and pursuits. He believed in no life beyond this one, saying, “…“all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. “Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”

(S-R archives photo)

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About this blog

Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

Ask a question: Catherine welcomes questions about aging issues and grief. Email her at

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