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Archive for November 2012

Quiet cop kindness

I had a migraine headache today…and then I looked at the calendar and remembered: three years ago today the Lakewood police officers were gunned down as they sipped Sunday morning coffee. Sometimes our bodies remember grief when our memories do not actively recall.  

I wrote a column for the Seattle Times after that event because I am married to a police sergeant. The stress of a law enforcement career impacts the entire family. I often think of those widows, children, family members and department friends who are survivors of the deceased officers. I know I could easily be one of them.

Today, a photo of an NYPD officer was all over the news  – he gave a pair of $75 boots and warm socks to a barefoot, homeless man who was sitting in Times Square. Seems viewers think it is a big deal. What they don’t realize is that police officers offer such kindness to citizens every day.    

Problem is: there’s never a journalist around when you really need one.

(S-R photo: This photo provided by Jennifer Foster shows New York City Police Officer Larry DePrimo presenting a barefoot homeless man in New York's Time Square with boots Nov. 14, 2012 .)

Future predictions don’t often predict the future

I'm a huge fan of the book and movie Contact by Carl Sagan. I just reread the book recently. It was written in 1985. And it's amazing to me how Sagan's depiction of a futuristic world never happened in reality.

For instance, one of the main characters has grown famous for inventing a “module that, when a television commercial appeared, automatically muted the sound.” This allowed people to not “hear” commercials. But even Sagan couldn't imagine a world where consumers could simply skip commercials all together, by fast forwarding during them, as we all can do now on shows we record or watch on demand.

Also, newspapers are alive, well and thriving in Contact in a futuristic world (though it isn't set in the future).

The book actually gave me hope that we might not be able to predict a future world based on the present we're living now. So many things can happen in between to change the prediction. 

Things might turn out much worse than predicted. Or much, much better.

Stay tuned!

(S-R archives photo)

World AIDS Day ~ December 1

World AIDS Day, December 1, is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection. World AIDS Day was an idea of two public information officers from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1987.

Each year 50,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States. About 1.2 million Americans are infected - with 20-25% unaware that they are HIV-positive. And the U.S. has the highest rate of new infections of any developed country.

When HIV/AIDS first gained media attention a colleague said, “We will all know someone who has – and dies from - this disease.”

First, my college classmate died – a gentle soul – with friends at his bedside and parents distanced. Distanced because Jim was gay – and they could not love him because of his sexual orientation. Reject a child as he lay dying? Such are the sins of those who refuse to love.

And then Mark. A childhood friend – another gentle soul – whose kindness defined him. I never saw him angry or enraged. He personified thoughtfulness; his easy-going nature made him delightful. And his humor? Drop on the ground hilarious! When he became sick, his already-close family simply stayed closer.

Mark was buried on his 39th (December) birthday. My words were read aloud, words recalling our childhood vacations. He is the face of AIDS for me. Where have you encountered the faces of AIDS?

For Mark, Forever

We romped in innocence during those childhood years when we filled summer days with water slides and pony rides. A clanging bell called us up the hill for peanut butter ‘n jelly on brown bread with extra chips (please) and chocolate milk.

We splashed the afternoons away and belly-flopped ourselves silly; dads played captain at a Bayliner’s helm and we got to wear our real pajamas to a real pajama party – don’t be late.

Our footsteps thundered across the bridge and screen doors slammed as we hurried to the best moments of our youth. And every year we returned, never too grown-up to taste the best of life.

Then, the loss of innocence came crashing into our lives – like a violent, relentless winter storm.

The experts prophesied that every heart will grieve before we find a cure.

Some listened. Most scoffed. But slowly the world took notice as the most unsuspecting among us fell ill. The gentlest and the brightest leaving too soon.

Our nation watched in horror as wounded families – lovers, mothers, brothers, daughters, dads, sons and sisters – unraveled their pain in patchwork panels stitching stories of unfinished lives.The quilt stretches too far, too fast, until we all see a face we love.

Today, I hear the experts’ voices as my own heart grieves in the letting go. But during these difficult days, we send you our love and surround you with joyful memories of childhood adventures.

We remember the gifts you have given:

Your gentleness and humor,

Your generosity and charm,

Your kindness and laughter.

Eternal gifts – always gifts – no virus can touch.

Many more people are living with – and not dying from - HIV/AIDS than ever before. Perhaps one day this disease will be curable. On December 1st, we remember those people we have lost, those who still struggle, and we support the experts who may provide the longed-for cure we seek.

(S-R archives photo: Indian school children make a formation in the shape of the red ribbon, the universal symbol of awareness and support for those living with HIV.)

What five words describe old people?

Be careful how you refer to older people. Your words may become your destiny when you are older.

According to a recent HealthDayNews article: Seniors who tend to think of other older people as spry instead of decrepit are far more likely to bounce back after a serious disability than people with a more negative outlook, according to a new study. Older people who had positive age stereotypes were 44 percent more likely to recover completely from a severe disability. They also were 23 percent more likely to progress from a severe disability to a mild disability.

Interesting stuff first published as a research letter in the Nov. 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

What five words would you use to describe older people?

(S-R archive photo of Betty White)

Black (bag) Friday

I have shopped only once on the day after Thanksgiving – at nine in the morning I ventured out and bought my husband an electric razor, a nice, expensive, razor. He loved it and I vowed “never again” to the shopping day. Instead, I wander around the house with a big, black garbage bag and gather things that can be donated and sometimes (in another black bag) thrown away. I did shop today, though, in my pajamas at the computer. I like to give gifts that benefit the recipient as well as the organization that is the source of the gift. That plan doesn’t always work, but I continue to enjoy this match-making challenge.

I love the saying: “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on another part of the world.” This quote inspired by Mary Anne Rademacher is on ornaments. The profits from the sales benefit a group that supports international adoption. And since our son arrived in our family through that magical path, I buy their ornaments as gifts for friends.

The women’s bean project in Denver sells packages of beans – just add water and a few other ingredients like canned tomatoes and presto! Soup. The profits support women seeking to climb out of poverty, as they learn skills and claim their place in the entrepreneurial world. Mom will receive beans this year.

Some Catholic monks in Oregon make yummy treats to support their monastic community. I think a dose of fudge makes life sweeter and supports a religious community who seeks peace through prayer and simplicity. Their secret is better than Victoria’s.

Today, in many retail locations others were seeking “peace,” too: a piece of a bargain at major stores that opened in the dark, but limited sweet deals. People trampled and punched and screamed and bit and a man in Massachusetts left his car-seated child in the parking lot at 1:30 he could buy a television. He will have lots of time to watch the television now that his child is in protective custody.

Many children have no idea about television and simply seek to survive. One of my favorite organizations is Heifer International. I once gave the gift of a goat to a child…not a child I knew but to a child in a developing country so that a family could sustain itself. And the person in whose honor I gave the gift was delighted.

 Making a difference in people’s lives through opportunities means bringing light into darkness. No discounted touch screen gadget offers us a better deal. Happy holy-days.

Lobsters, seals and swans, oh, my!

It wasn’t all just talking turkey – or eating only turkey at the first Thanksgiving.

 Did you know?

  • The first Thanksgiving was a three-day harvest feast
  • Governor William Bradford sent four men to hunt birds for the feast while the Wampanoag contributed five deer
  • The only foods from the original feast that we eat are turkey, corn and stuffing
  • President Lincoln made Thanksgiving “official”     
  • Today, 46 million turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving
  • Americans eat an average of 13.3 pounds of turkey each year
  • The Macy’s parade started in 1924 with live animals, replaced with helium balloons three years later

 What are your Thanksgiving traditions? What food do you eat? Who cooks? Anyone offer thanks? Anyone leave early to shop?

(S-R photo)

Listen to this beautiful thank you

And so on this day of thanks, if you are looking for inspiration for words to say around the table, to one another, please consider the magnificent poem “Listen” by W.S. Merwin.

It's not sentimental. It's not sweet. It's not Hallmarky. Rather, he expresses gratitude, despite all the pain, suffering and ugliness in the world.

Read the entire poem here to see for yourself.

Here's a sampling:

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

(S-R file photo)



M-I-C…see ya real soon!- K-E-Y

We remember those MICKEY MOUSE CLUB shows where cool kids sang and danced in dizzying Disney style.

Bonita Lynn Fields Elder, mouseketeer, who went on to sing and act, has died at the age of 68.

Somehow, I have those teens frozen in time; their music and innocence are woven into our collective memories. Why? Because we liked them.

 Elder’s gift of offering joy through entertainment remains with us always.

(S-R archives photo)

November grief work: Beards and abstinence

During a recent discussion of our favorite hard liquor, the Irish priest in my chaplaincy internship program mentioned that he gives up all alcohol in November, in honor of the dead. It's an Irish tradition, he said, though it's dying out there.

In the US, in some faith traditions, the deceased are remembered Nov. 1 (All Saints Day) and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day). But in Ireland, the whole month is dedicated to remembering the dead.

I'd heard of giving up alcohol for Lent (which arrives in late winter) but November? News to me.

It made me think of Novembeard, the more recent phenomenon of men growing their beards all month. It's caught fire in the US recently, thanks to Facebook. Beard growing is a grief tradition, too, though most men growing Novembeards aren't in grief.

Men in some faith traditions, (most notably in some expressions of faith in the Jewish traditon)  will not shave following a family member's death.

Fasting, beard growing. November is a more interesting month than I ever knew. Cheers. 

(AP file photo)

But no red convertible…

Our primate friends may also feel that dip in delight in midlife, according to recent studies. “Researchers from Scotland, Japan, Germany and America studied 336 chimpanzees and 172 orang-utans in zoos.” Seems the creatures exhibit a bit of disinterest in life around mid-life and jockey for status – just like we sometimes do. As the creatures reach old age, they seem to return to their youthful happy outlook. Interesting to compare…

(S-R archives photo: Monkeys cuddle together to keep warm on a cold morning Wednesday at the Dhaka zoo, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.)


RIP: High school football?

The end of Twinkies has been big news for several days (see Cathy's great post below). Even the priest Sunday at Mass in my temporary Chicago parish mentioned it. He also mentioned the end of Kodak (the camera company filed for bankruptcy last January). He wondered if future generations would understand the term “Kodak Moment” which describes great pictures captured at gatherings.

He then added one more cultural phenomenon that could die out — high school football! If concerns about concussions in young brains continue to escalate parents might not let their boys play football in high school, let alone middle school.

If high school football ends, doesn't that mean college football would lack players to recruit and if college football ended wouldn't that spell the end of professional football?

A culture without football? Are the healthy brains of our little ones worth it? My vote: Yes.


(S-R file photo of Texas high school football)

Last bite

Many of us ate them in our school lunches: Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes…the list goes on. But soon, those confections made of…well, some real food and a lot of junk… may live only in our memories. And perhaps on our hips, too.  

RIP (retire in plastic?).  

May we eagerly enjoy fresh food that will prolong our longevity, instead of gobbling up the well-preserved confections of yesteryear.

(S-R archives photo)

National Adoption Day

Later today my son and I will slip away to the local courthouse and witness the creating of new families as judges finalize adoptions for local families. My son always wants to attend the annual event. He claimed it was for the teddy bears years ago, now he says, “The food is good!”

Our son came to us through the magic of adoption and I know in every fiber of my soul he was meant to be in our family.  I do not believe in “one true romantic love” – a fairy tale for sure – but I believe that somehow our children are destined to be ours.

We flew thousands of miles to meet him and bring him home and answered almost as many questions for the “Oh, Lord, am I worthy?” home study in the year before. We laughed a lot as we made our way through the process of people asking almost every question imaginable of our lives. “We don’t smoke…we do pay our taxes…have jobs…pay the mortgage… we are not HIV+… have no criminal history…have friends…yes, we occasionally fight, and we do resolve our differences…” The inquisition was endless.

And then that baby was placed in my arms.

Adoptive parents know the truth:  the journey provides magic that is unmatched. And when people say our son is lucky, we immediately correct them: we are profoundly blessed to be his parents. We know a kind of magic that few ever experience.

Random luck? Hardly…As writer Anne Lamott claims: “God can be such a show-off!”

Love to you, Alex…and all families celebrating our special day. xoxox

(S-R archives photo: Randy and Trish King wait in the hallway of the Spokane County Courthouse to finalize the adoption of 2-year-old Connor on Friday, Nov. 19, 2010.)

Tests from heaven — or hell?

Last night, as I waited for the “L” in Chicago, I called my husband in Spokane on his cell. No answer, but I got back an immediate text that read: I”m in a meeting.”

My husband, happily retired since 2005, is never really in meetings anymore. So I texted right back: “Meeting? What???”

I got back a cryptic text that read: “985.”

Later, when we finally talked, Tony said he had no idea what the texts were about. He didn't send them, though he found the record of them in his sent mail. HIs cellphone was never out of his range. The mystery might remain unsolved.

This morning, I imagined a movie based on people getting texts from the Great Beyond — from heaven or hell. (Perhaps it's already part of some movie). Maybe the texter from the Great Beyond helps solve his or her own murder or texts the secret code to the bank account where he or she hid money and now the money can be used on Earth — for good or evil. 985.

What text would you like to receive from the Great Beyond? On a more mundane level, have you ever received mysterious texts?

(S-R file photo)

The Marathoner: Life at 92

My mom turns 92 today. I just called her from Chicago to wish her a Happy Birthday. She was out to lunch with my sisters and a cousin, celebrating.

She has outlived my dad and her older age companion, Hollis, all her siblings and in-laws. Mom had a lot of illnesses in her life, survived cancer, two strokes and a heart attack, and she is still pretty with it.

After nearly three months working in a hospital as part of a chaplaincy internship, I realize that life is really like a marathon, after all. And it's nearly impossible to predict who will make it the long distance.

Every “runner” starts out hoping for a long, good race. But some quit early. Some are forced to quit. And others, despite many odds, keep on running to the end.

My mom is a marathoner in this race of  life. 92 years. Wow.

The stories we need to tell oursevles

Yesterday, Lance Armstrong tweeted a photo of himself reclining on his sofa surrounded by his yellow jerseys from The Tour De France. The journalist in me says: What arrogance, what denial. And I will still say this here. But what I've been learning in “chaplain school” these past three months is that people (especially as they are dying) cling tightly to the stories they have told about themselves. They need to write the narrative of their life their way. It may have a lot of mistruth in it. It may have a lot of denial. (Armstrong's photo sure hints at both.)

But people tell their stories, their way. As chaplains, we listen and don't correct. That's what we are taught to do for people. We honor their stories. Armstrong someday (maybe at the end of his life!) might finally come clean about his unclean drugging in his champion days. But if he never does, perhaps a chaplain will listen to his reality.

Different ways of listening, for sure.

(S-R archive photo of Armstrong jersey)

The stuff we leave behind

I realize now, with less than a month to go in Chicago, that I brought way too many clothes. Even if I wear a different outfit every day until I return home, I won't wear all the stuff I packed.

So I've had “stuff” on the brain these past few days. I appreciated reading the words of Fr. James Stephen Behrens, a writer for Living Faith, a Catholic daily devotion booklet.

In a Nov. 10 entry, he wrote: “When our Father Edmund moved on from this life to the next, several monks went to his cell to gather his belongings. Edmund was a tiny man. He glided through this life very lightly…Indeed, when the monks gathered the things he left behind, they fit into a paper bag. And there was still plenty of room in the bag.”

How many paper bags will it take to fill your stuff when you die?

(S-R archive photo)

Diane Sawyer: Simply exhausted?

There's been some buzz about Diane Sawyer seeming drunk on election night. Conan O'Brien did a terrific compilation of others who have appeared drunk on air.

My spin: She was simply exhausted. It does weird things to your brain, especially the older you are.

I know this firsthand. In my sabbatical fall at Rush University Medical Center in the chaplaincy program, we are oncall for 24 hours every seven to nine days. Often, we get just about an hour's sleep, depending on the need during the night. The next day, we usually are in class until noon. The folks coming off call, me included, are often a little loopy.

So Diane, get some sleep! You deserve it.

(S-R file photo of Sawyer in less sleep-deprived days)

In my lifetime, I wonder if I’ll see

The older I get, the more I say: “In my lifetime, I wonder if I'll see.”

I often focus on the things that seem impossible, such as women priests in the Roman Catholic faith tradition.In 1982, when I was a journalism fellow working in Congress through the American Political Science Association, I wondered if I'd ever see very many women in Congress, especially the U.S. Senate, where there were just two in 1982 — Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Paula Hawkins of Florida.

And so it was with wonder and gratitude I learned election day that as of January, 20 women will serve in the U.S. Senate.

Wow. And now I wonder, in my lifetime, will I ever see a woman president?

Stay tuned.

(S-R file photo of Washington state's two long-time U.S. Senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell)

RIP: Voting at the polls

I felt stirring of sadness and grief today walking by two polling places in Chicago where I am living for three months on sabbatical. There were lines of people waiting to vote. The sun was out, though it was chilly, and people were chatting each other up. They looked happy.

I was able to vote when I was home in October for a week. By mail. I loved the convenience, of course. But the tug toward the old way was strong this morning, plus seeing all the “I voted” stickers on people's lapels.

The Irish priest in my chaplaincy program at Rush University Medical Center had a variation on that “I voted” theme. He wore his Gandalf for President pin this morning.

Wouldn't that be grand?

(Becky Nappi photo)

Many voices, one leader

Election Day, finally!

When I woke up this morning I remembered the election days of my youth. My parents would host or attend a party – on a school night! They would wear those silly straw hats trimmed in red, white and blue, and wear big buttons sporting their presidential candidate’s name. The women wore dresses, the men loosened their ties, ties since the husbands had arrived straight from work. These friends would eat snacks and huddle around the television. Occasionally I would hear someone holler, “Pennsylvania is in!”

I learned a lot from watching them. Not how to vote, not which party to claim, but  I learned the importance of voting, of knowing the issues, listening to the candidates and their views. When we educate ourselves and reflect on how we want our country and our local communities shaped, when we study the men and women who want our votes, we participate in the democratic process.

When I was in Latin America, I heard the stories about the former dictators and the soldiers on the streets who would shoot anyone who came near the dictator’s residence. People simply survived, somehow, in that chaos and tyranny.

In the United States of America, we have slung mud, shouted opinions, debated until our voices end up hoarse. And today, we pull the lever, drop off the ballot, and watch as our choices form one decision.  

We have been heard – and that privilege is worth a party, straw hats and all.

(S-R archives photo)

Beware the third day

My friend Chris who had breast cancer surgery last week had a bit of a rocky day yesterday, the third day following surgery. She had heard from several people that the “third day” is often the hardest following surgery.

Third days. That's also when houseguests are starting to wear thin, according to conventional wisdom.

Third day in Genesis 1? “Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning-the third day.”

Any third day theories you'd like to share?

S-R file photo

Baby boomer relief

I watched the NBC Sandy Relief Concert Friday night and noted pretty quickly how many baby boomer age folks participated, including Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, Jon Bon Jovi, Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Danny DeVito, Brian Williams, Matt Lauer. The event raised $23 million for relief efforts for the Red Cross, a record amount raised in an event of this kind. I am always happy when aging baby boomers step forward in selfless ways. It reinforces my prediction that baby boomers, as feared by generations above and below them, won't bankrupt the country as they age. Rather, they'll come up with creative ways to help the country, financially and otherwise. And P.S. Not many younger stars were in evidence at the relief concert. Mmmm.

(S-R photo via NBC)

When “stuff” loses its original purpose

I got an email recently from Steve Becker, a former newscaster and media expert, who has been around in media ways forever. He's leaving Spokane for new opportunities in Vancouver.

Steve and I crossed paths many times during my 27 years at The Spokesman-Review, and we often had profound and insightful conversations. So I'll miss running into him.

True to form, his good-bye email was filled with wisdom.

Here's an excerpt:

In the process of our moving I became aware of a friend's daughter buying her first home and contrary to past practice just decided to give her and her husband most of the day to day household tools we wouldn't need in a new home in Vancouver: the lawn mower, shovels & rakes, hoses, the gas grill, shelving, patio furniture. Everything I could think they might be able to use was loaded and given away to new owners. And then I wondered why? We could have had a yard sale or sold it on Craigslist.

A couple of things happened this year that reshaped the way i view material objects, especially the day to day things we use around the house: both my father in law and stepfather passed away and I was asked to dispose of most of their belongings. I was struck by how things lose their purpose and much of their apparent value when they are separated from their owners. They're just things, lifeless things that need to go somewhere. And if they aren't being used, they need a new home.

Good luck in your new adventure, Becker family!

(S-R archive photo)

Steady hands: Pre-surgery prayers

Chaplains are often asked by patients in hospitals to pray with them right before surgery.

During this chaplaincy internship during my sabbatical from the newspaper, it has been great to learn prayers from other faith traditions. Some I'm learning from other chaplains, but most from patients and their families who add prayers to mine during visits.

The African American families I've listened to pray often ask for very specific blessings during surgery.

So this morning, as my friend Chris in Spokane awaits breast cancer surgery, I texted her a prayer borrowing the sentiment from black families here:

“Dear God, you give the surgeons steady hands today and get inside the medicine and get the medicine inside the cells and you cure this girlfriend!”

Amen. And blessings, Chris.

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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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