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Archive for September 2012

RIP: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger

The former publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzbereger, died yesterday. He was married later in life to Allison Cowles of The Spokesman-Review family. When the two got engaged years ago, I was asked by our editors to do the engagement story and met with them for about an hour on the newspaper's sixth floor. They both were reserved but kind and for all their accomplishments, they couldn't hide the giddy feeling that comes with finding love, no matter your age. In his official New York Times obituary today, Sulzberger's personal life is overshadowed by all his professional accomplishments. But I understood in that short meeting with the man long ago that his relationships, with his wife to be, his children and extended family, fueled his spirit most of all.

(S-R archives photo: “Fate brought us together,” said Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, chief executive officer of The New York Times Company, about …Spokane community leader Allison Cowles. 1996 photo.)

The Flying Gidget

The television in the condo where I'm staying doesn't have my usual favorite cable channels, so I am cut off for three months from my usual HBO/Showtime/Starz programs.

It does have many stations that feature reruns from the 1960s and 1970s. And I have been tuning into reruns of two Sally Field shows from way back: Gidget and The Flying Nun.

The plots are corny. The dialogue ridiculous. But somehow, in this sabbatical time, when I'm living in a different city doing a completely different job for three months, it's comforting to watch these oldies but goodies. I'm going to keep looking at this retro channel hoping some of my other favorites will appear, such as Get Smart.

What TV shows from your childhood would comfort you?

(Get Smart photo from S-R archives)

Grief practices: Who taught you?

Experts say the language and practices of grief are best learned at home, when we are little, role-modeled by the adults in our life.

The poem What I Learned from My Mother by Julia Kasdorf is a great explainer of this. Here's an excerpt:

I learned to save jars

large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole

grieving household, to cube home-canned pears

and peaches…

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,

what anyone will remember is that we came.

Who taught you what to do when someone dies or is sick?

(S-R archives photo)

Moon River – crossed in style

Andy Williams, smooth voice of the 1960s and 1970s and…through every Christmas I can remember, has died. Williams was 84 and died last night at his home in Branson, MO.

As a child in wintery Minnesota, I listened to Andy Williams sing Christmas songs on the family hi-fi and still, each December, play the same music, now in CD form, as my backdrop to trimming the tree. His voice takes me back to my childhood, to my family and to a time of innocence.

That innocence was shattered when Sirhan Sirhan gunned down Bobby Kennedy and our nation  watched as the young Robert Kennedy was laid to rest. Williams’ voice sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic and now, no matter who sings that song or what the setting is, I am suddenly 13 again and remembering Robert Kennedy’s funeral.

Music impresses memories and feelings onto our hearts as no other experience can. Williams’ life of class and grace, like his music, speaks of following one’s dreams, after all, there’s such a lot of world to see…Such a blessing, such a loss.

(S-R archives photo: Andy Williams Feb. 23, 1978)

What sound does your heart make?

A recipient of a donor heart has said that it is quieter than his mechanical heart.  

I remember the first artificial heart recipient: In 1982, Seattle dentist Barney Clark became the first human to receive a permanent artificial heart, a device known as the Jarvik 7. It was a really big deal.

 And now, this man, 51-year-old Chris Marshall lived away from the hospital with a mechanical heart while waiting for the human donor heart. He was able to leave because of a device called an “ 'experimental portable heart-driver' he carted around in a backpack.”

What great strides we have made in medicine and what great love one has to offer one’s life, one’s heart, to another as he/she departs this Earthly existence.A heart that beats with sounds of extraordinary generosity and compassion.

(S-R archives photo)

Dying computer languages

During the first week of my Chicago sabbatical, I was trained on a computer system that helps chaplains chart their visits with patients. It was completely new. But some of the “functionality” was similar to programs I've used at the newspaper, mostly in blogging.

I realized that computer languages are starting to resemble each other in some basic ways, and it likely won't be many years from now where there are only two or three major computer languages. Word, for instance, is almost universal (and indeed I work a lot on Word at Rush Medical Center).

I thought of Word Perfect, the first home PC language I learned. I think Word Perfect is pretty much dead now. RIP

Red Rover, Red Rover send…

…peace and calm right over.

 A program pioneered in Seattle’s King County has withstood an appeals court challenge.  The program has specially trained dogs provide comfort for victims in a courthouse setting, helping them to not only relax, but feel safe and secure as they testify to unspeakable and often violent crimes committed against them. 

Send in the dogs. 

Most dog lovers will tell you that dogs provide unconditional love and attention to their human owners, and also to most anyone else who crosses their paths. And most are smart enough to sense who needs comfort. 

During my own recovery from dramatic cancer treatment, I would languish in bed when I felt pain and unfathomable fear. Our big, black German Shepherd would come to the bedside, look at me, and then quietly go to the other side of the bed where she would carefully jump up. She scooted herself over next to me until her body was snuggled at my side. She stayed for hours. 

We put people through enough humiliation and anguish when they seek to invoke justice against a criminal. A good dose of puppy love will hopefully make the process tolerable.

(S-R archives photo)

They’re back! Sort of

My all-time favorite television show – The West Wing – is back…sort of.

Some cast members have reunited to get us united in our civic duty and profound privilege: voting.

The team has created a public service announcement for Bridget Mary McCormack, the Michigan State Supreme Court candidate whose sister Mary acted on the series.

 Enjoy the education from the Emmy Award winners who remind us to read everything on the ballot – Michigan or not – and vote. Since some of our candidates are non-partisan,  if you vote strictly according to your political party, you may skip some of the candidates.  

President Bartlett was a great leader – at least for one hour each Wednesday night. And I am certain, he votes.

(S-R archives photo: Martin Sheen as President Bartlett in The West Wing)

Afghan surprise

Somehow, she has survived. Abandoned along the side of a road in Afghanistan, a country of land mines and confusion, a newborn infant was found by Polish soldiers.  

I loved reading that the entire group of soldiers took that infant to the hospital, bought formula, bottles and a bib.

In a country mad with war, an unknown infant becomes a symbol of hope.

Finally, good news after days of on-going violence, fear and death.

We never know where we will find hope within the chaos and routine of our lives. Sometimes it is the most vulnerable people among us who offer strength, courage and renewal. Blessings, sweet child.

Sending a message

Earlier this week our EndNotes column addressed the situation of inappropriate cards: “get well” cards sent to a person who may be terminally or chronically ill. A colleague of mine reminded me of a company that does create cards of comfort for situations where the traditional get well card is what you don’t want to send.

Stroke of the Heart is a Minnesota-based company with a variety of cards – including sympathy cards to send when a family pet dies.  The company’s founder, Kevyn Riley, is a nurse and cancer survivor who has worked with seriously ill children.  She has used her experience to create a company that allows us to comfort others in an authentic and compassionate manner.

(S-R archives photo)

Orange offering on the pink line

I commute by “L” train to the loft where I'm living for three months in Chicago. Tuesday when I caught the train from the medical center, a man hopped on the same car at the last minute with his daughter who looked about 7. The train car was packed with professionals and the man stopped in the middle of the car and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, my daughter and I are hungry and broke and anything you could give us would be appreciated. Money or food.”

People looked stunned. I felt like a deer in the headlights. The man then knelt in the aisle and said, “I am on my knees asking.”

His daughter had beautiful brown eyes, a clean face and neatly braided hair. The woman in the seat across from me zipped open her bag and handed the girl an unopened juice. I remembered the orange I hadn't had time to eat that afternoon and opened my bag and handed it to the girl. And that was it. The father looked disappointed that no money had poured forth. But the girl seemed pleased with the juice and orange. #NotinSpokaneanymore.

Taking comfort in familiar strangers

I'm spending three months in Chicago, on sabbatical, studying in the chaplaincy program at Rush University Medical Center.

A new town and lots of new colleagues. But it's eerie how this happens. Several of the people in my program here remind me of newsroom staffers and others I know from Spokane. So there's a lookalike for Mike, a copy editor. And for Mary Pat, wife of a former colleague. And even for Jim Camden, our Washington legislative reporter. And one guy has the exact voice of Andrew, a former beloved staffer now working for the New York Times.

It's comforting to be around these “familiar strangers” and I liked them immediately because I like the people they remind me of.

Has this phenomenon ever happened to you?

Love’s journey

Washington voters have many decisions to make this fall as we decide who and what will get our vote.

 Referendum 74 seeks to affirm the marriage equality law in Washington state. 

Like many of our political beliefs, we are influenced at first by our theories and principles. But, oh, how our minds can change when we know someone, when we love someone who will be impacted by our principles.

 The story in the Seattle Times reflects the journey for many people, including our governor. We listened to a generation of young people who pointed out the nonsense of the status quo, of keeping people from the rights they are legally entitled to have: to love and have their relationships recognized as others are recognized.  

When our lives on Earth end and we move to another reality, I imagine God will simply say, “I tried to make it so easy for you. I told you how to navigate your physical existence. I gave only one easy guidepost: ‘Love one another.’ And you made it so complicated with all these exclusions. All you had to do was love each other..”

 Perhaps the time has come to legally recognize those who follow that mandate.

(S-R archives photo: Gov. Chris Gregoire is embraced by Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, after the House voted to legalize gay marriage )

Sisters of Providence celebrate

Our family spent Saturday honoring many amazing women: Sisters of Providence.  Annually, the sisters celebrate the jubilee years in the community – 25, 50, 60, 70, 75 - of the women and their remarkable accomplishments.  

I listened to their stories of humble beginnings – when their superiors would simply announce their futures: “Pack your trunk, tomorrow morning you will be on a train to Missoula where you will teach classes for the summer.” And they did, with obedience and humility. Today, sisters discern their futures, with prayer and conversation.

These women have visited prisoners, cared for the sick, taught children (60 students to a classroom), built hospitals, managed million-dollar budgets, traveled to remote areas of the world to offer hope, education and healthcare. They are smart, holy and great fun!

Providence employees from yesteryear – and today – as well as the sisters’ families and friends filled the church. We sang songs from all their cultures, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Montreal, and Chile.

And the delightful irony of the day? The Mass was celebrated by the Seattle archbishop, who is charged with continuing the details of the Vatican’s “review” of Catholic sisters from the United States. As I looked at folks in the pew next to me, each wore a pin reading, “I STAND WITH THE SISTERS.”

We stood with them yesterday as they celebrated and we will continue to stand with them for the next 25, 50, 60, 70, 75 years, as long as it takes for the Vatican to understand: these women are the Body of Christ in a hurting world.  

Don’t mess with them.

(S-R archvies photo. Sister Rosalie Locati, director of mission and values for Providence Sacred Heart and Providence Holy Family hospitals. Sister Rosalie celebrates 50 years as a Sister of Providence in 2012)

Living our children’s history


Being the elder in a large, extended family can translate into one of my favorite (and I'm sure sometimes irritating) habits now. I tell my nieces and nephews — and great nieces and nephews — stories about themselves when they were little.

My niece on my husband's side, Nuiko, is a harpist who plays all over the country. She was featured in a solo concert in an art gallery in Chicago Friday evening. I met her in 1984, when she was just 4 years old. She was a shy, beautiful girl who talked in whispers, often in your ear, if she felt too bashful to look you in the eye while chatting.

Now, she is a first-rate performer, exuding poise, as she takes bows, explains to the audience the harp compositions she plays.

After the concert, as I hugged congratulations, I reminded her of the child she once was, so shy she spoke in whispers. And look at you now, I said, playing your music for the world.

She smiled, a gracious smile, didn't roll her eyes. This is the proud part of getting older I really like.

Oldsters: Keep your shoes on

While flying out of Spokane this week, I noticed a sign never seen before at the aiport security line. It showed a big 1937 with these words: “If you are 75 or older, you can keep your shoes and light jacket on.”

It sent the message that 1) if you are older, you don't have the strength to be a terrorist or 2) you take too damn long to take on and off those shoes and we need to keep the lines moving, old man. 3) we respect our elders and removing shoes is kind of disrespectful.

Your vote!

(Spokesman-Review archives photo)

Sew it seams

The lovely story of the pillowcase ladies and their work creating pillowcases for children with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses reminds us how easy it is to use our talents and hobbies to create hope.  The pillowcases add a bit of comfort, cheer and familiarity to the healthcare environment that is often frightening and unfamiliar.

This effort seems to have taken hold within the Providence ministries.  At our Southwest Washington Region, Providence ministries have been offering pillowcases to patients for the last several years. Started by a group of women who love to sew, the pillowcase project was inspired by the million pillowcase challenge.  The website has challenged quilters to sew pillowcases and donate them to people in their communities who are suffering.  The goal? One million pillowcases across America given to our neighbors and friends facing illness.

The million pillowcase challenge is at 431,286 tonight. Plus 1337 from Spokane’s ConKerr Cancer chapter that dedicated quilters have created in Spokane over the last two years.

 Pillowcases:  a kind gesture that speaks of compassion and hope, and yields sweet dreams.  

(Photo: S-R archives photo)

Monkee bites: one more damn thing to worry about

My nephew recently deployed to Afganistan. So this is one more thing to worry about while he's there. Fresh from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “If you were to list all the dangers faced by U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan, your list would be long, but would it include monkey bites? It should. The U.S. Army recently examined this risk and found that in just four months, 10 service members were bitten by monkeys. And there may have been more, unreported, bites. Most monkeys were pets owned by Afghan National Security Forces and Afghan civilians, so the risk of being bitten could increase as U.S. forces work more closely with these Afghan people. Monkey bites can spread rabies, tetanus or other bacterial infections, or B-virus infection to humans. Bites can be minimized by enforcing military policies that prohibit pet adoption and animal contact, and secondary infections can be reduced by providing better training to military health care providers on how to treat animal bites.”

Life afloat

How did they survive? It is a miracle. The will to live and the ability to stay calm – and sing – may have helped one young Alaskan fisherman stay alive for 26 hours after his fishing boat capsized and dumped him and his friend into the frigid waters off the Alaskan coast.  

Ryan Harris sang and gave himself pep talks, saying for four hours, “I'm Ryan Hunter Harris and I'm not going to die here.”  

He worried about his friend, Stonie “Mac” Huffman, who managed to find and put on a survival suit that was floating amid the wreckage. Once Huffman “washed” up onto shore, he notified rescuers. Two hours later Harris was found – alive.

 What do you do to cope when the “seas” of your life get rough?

(S-R archives photo: Off the coast of Sitka, Alaska)

Sept. 11 musings

My nephew, Nicholas, was deployed to Afghanistan two weeks ago for six months. The Marine officer is a career military guy, and his Facebook posts have been breezy from Afghanistan, describing uber workouts in the heat.

The other night, he posted on Facebook within seconds of my posting and I realized that we were on Facebook at the exact same time. It was comforting to know he was safe and to know we were sharing this Earth from very different places but we could look up into the same sky.

When my sister was 13, our family took a trip to the East and her boyfriend that summer told Janice to climb a tree in Syracuse one designated evening at the exact same time he would climb a tree in Spokane and they could look at the same moonlit night together. I don't know if it happened. Likely not. But it's a romantic idea, staring at the same heavens as your loved one.

Afghanistan. Spokane. The view connects us. Stay safe, Nicholas.

(Spokesman-Review archives photo)

We vowed to remember, so we do

We said we would always remember…and so we do.  We pause to acknowledge this anniversary of sorrow and loss, of confusion and grief, of private mourning and public outcry.

“Tragedy can teach us many lessons. From pain, we can learn compassion. From division, we can learn solidarity. And when our world is shattered, as it was on September 11, 2001, we can learn to seek understanding. On that violent day which shook us silent, America fractured. The lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ grew thicker, darker, and harsher, muddying our shared humanity. We have since inhabited the shadows they cast, shouting at one another from across divides. On this, the anniversary of that heartbreaking day, we mourn and remember those we lost and all who were affected. But we are also given an opportunity: to overcome the lie of ‘them’ and ’I’ and learn to live together. The terrorists of 9/11 were guided by a narrative of intercultural incompatibility. But as people of diverse religious and secular identities, we can prove them wrong in our unity. By building bridges of understanding, we can emerge from the shadows and learn — from one another — how to be our best selves.”  ~Chris Stedman

“Dear God, how do we pray for what was lost? We cannot pray for deliverance or a miracle, for the tragedy has already burned itself into our souls. Children have grown fatherless. Families are long since bereaved. We know there is no prayer to change the past. So we pray to live with memory, with constant love, with the promise both to combat evil and to cherish goodness. Do not let our pain cloud our hopes or crush our hearts. Help us grow through this tragedy, keep faith with its victims, and sustain our trust in You.” ~Rabbi David Wolpe

“It is not those who say, ‘Lord, Lord!’ who will enter the reign of God, but those who do God’s will.” (Matthew 7:21) God of all races, nations, and religions, You know that we cannot change others, Nor can we change the past. But we can change ourselves. We can join You in changing our only and common future where you ‘reign’ the same over all. Help us not to say, “Lord, Lord” to any tribal gods, but to hear the One God of all the earth, And to do God’s good thing for this One World.” ~ Rev Richard Rohr

“Loving God of Peace: On this anniversary of unbelievable sorrow, comfort those who mourn, and guide our hearts toward healing and hope. Remind us of the love of Christ, love which leapt over cultural and ethnic boundaries to feed the hungry, seek the lost and care for the least. Make of Your children, no matter how we name You, one human family, bound together in the work of justice and peacemaking. Make us one with the Light that shines in the darkness and illumines a path toward understanding and reconciliation. Let love be our genuine call. Amen.”    Dr. Jacqueline Lewis

(Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Nappi and Tony Wadden)

Death photos: A sacred tradition

People in modern times are sometimes astonished to learn that it was traditional to once take photos of deceased loved ones in repose after they died. That's why in family photo albums from 100 years ago, you find photos of people in caskets. It's done still, but rarely.

A friend named Kathleen gave me permission to post this photo of her aunt, Cecile Michaud, who died Nov. 11, 1924 at Sacred Heart Hospital. She was 4 years, 8 months old. It's the only photo she has of the aunt she never knew, of course, and it was taken by Libby Photo Studio in Spokane.

She died of mononucleosis with whooping cough listed as a secondary cause on her death certificate, which Kathleen also has in her possession.

I'm not sure our modern culture would handle a tradition such as this very well now. The Internet makes it possible to use these photos in not respectful ways.

But I invite your thoughts on this.

Conveyances and other marriage traditions

My husband and I celebrated 32 years of marriage last week. I have no idea where the time has gone, but when I tally up the milestones, we have traveled through some interesting places, experiences. Some lovely, some not…

He is more prone than I am to the sentimental remembrances of “This anniversary is symbolized by paper, china, silver, platinum…”

And – I had no clue – the 32ndyear of marriage is symbolized by conveyances.  Huh? Yup. GOOGLE says so, therefore it must be true…

With my major conveyance, a car, recently replaced – my practical self said, “No gift for me this year.” But on our anniversary my husband sat me down, told me to close my eyes and then placed the controller for a remote control car in my hands.

“Open your eyes and push the lever up,” he instructed.

Around the corner and into the kitchen came a remote control police car with its lights on – and a little box strapped to the top.

The jewelry is lovely, but the conveyance a surprise,  a creative unique touch. Even after 32 years…

Marriage is a journey – requiring a variety of conveyances through the years. Mostly, the conveyance of love, commitment, forgiveness, humor, compromise -  sprinkled with a dose of that magic ingredient: pure luck.

What has been your most unique celebration of a wedding anniversary?

(S-R archives photo)

Seasonal shift

The summer has crawled then sprinted. Never cared for August – too hot, no routine.

When I was waxing poetic about September and its lovely relief from the heat of August, my friend told me that he always feels melancholy in the fall – the season of his dad’s death.  

It is one thing to lose a parent when you are in your 50s or 60s, but quite another when you are a child, an almost-teenager and your dad slips away.

 My friend immerses himself in football and friends…but the season remembers his loss, as a little boy – and the little boy – now a 50- something man -  still grieves the dad who left too soon.

Do you have a season of grief? How do you cope?

(S-R archives photo)

Missing the mother hens

In last night's convention speech, vice president Joe Biden mentioned that his mom was at the convention four years ago. He looked sad that she wasn't at the 2012 convention.

 I remember her well from the 2008 convention, because my mother and her friends were about her same age, and as she came up on stage, she reminded me of them. All dolled up for the big night, looking a tad confused but then figuring it out and having a blast.

Biden's mom, Jean, died two years ago, at 92. Yesterday, my sisters and I had lunch with my mom, now 91 and in pretty darn good health. We were rushing her at one point and she said: “You treat me like I'm a spring chicken when I'm just an old mother hen.”

Those old mother hens, they leave a void on stage when they finally exit.

(Spokesman-Review archives photo)

When sickness spreads

We have what appears to be a norovirus running through our extended family. Most of the afflicted got it last weekend, within 12 hours of our family reunion. But one sister just got it this weekend, and the fear of it, and worry of coming down with it but wanting to help the others with it, made me think of times in history when horrible illnesses raced through families and communities. Black plague. Spanish flu in 1917. 

It strikes without warning, those who have gotten it in our family, say. And you feel like dying for about 12 hours. Within 48 hours, all is well again. The only prevention? Avoid those with it. Wash your hands.

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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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