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Archive for April 2013

The last Endnotes column

Cathy and I pulled the plug (pun intended — kind of) on our Endnotes columns today. We'll keep this blog, hoewever.

I've been a journalist for 34 years, and I believe it's important to recognize that everything has a lifespan, including columns.

When I was a parks department “park lady” in the 1970s, our supervisors said to always stop children's activities while they were still interested in them.

We hope people still liked the column, but it was time to let it go. Questions were dwindling down and we noticed that issues of illness and death and dying appear now in every advice column. We knew the topic was trendy early on.

So thanks for reading the column. Please stay with the blog. And Cathy, thanks for all your hard work.

Here's the last column. Thanks for reading it.

I scream, you scream…

…we all scream for gelato? Oh, yeah. As anyone who has tasted the treat will tell you: “It’s sooo much better than ice cream!”   

And it is another gift a Florentine (Bernardo Buontalenti credited for inventing gelato) has shared with the rest of the world. While clicking here will not allow you taste this satisfying concoction, you will read about its success – and then perhaps make a quick trip to the store. Buon Appetito!

(S-R archives photo: Gelato Joe's offers many flavors of Italian gelato. The Smiths fell in love with the dessert during a trip to Italy)

Iwo Jima flag

We have seen the image often: the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima.  The man who was responsible for that flag raising has died.  

The images of historical moments are part of our American story and become even more meaningful when we know the whole story.

(S-R archive photo:Joe Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for this image of six World War II servicemen raising an American flag over battle-scarred Iwo Jima, taken on Feb. 23, 1945. )

Baskets of kindness and reality

My friend Chris, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, is now in the radiation phase of the treatments. She goes five days a week for six weeks.

In the waiting room yesterday we spotted a basket filled with hats and scarves, and they mostly looked handmade — either knitted or sewn.

No note explaining, just a basket of kindness left there by people who cared enough to donate them.

It was another sign of the quiet community of people connected by an illness that, despite its pink symbol, is not pretty at all. Chris said yesterday that she finds helpful the more honest writing about cancer done by writer Barbara Ehrenreich who calls the pink stuff the “brightsiding” of cancer.

Ehrenreich wrote during her 2001 illness: The effect of this relentless brightsiding is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage — not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against, but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or graying hair. Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalize the disease: the diagnosis may be disastrous, but there are those cunning pink rhinestone angel pins to buy and races to train for.”

Kindness and reality — you find them both everywhere as you journey with a friend with cancer.

What would you say to a flasher?

Washington State University has a flasher on the loose. See story.  Police think he's been involved in at least six incidents.

My EndNotes co-author and I — Hi Cathy — were flashed by a guy years ago during our GU in Florence days. A guy drove by on a bike flashing away. On a bike. Don't try that at home!

When you're young, it's difficult to react with any amount of sarcasm or cool. It's so creepy. But we need to encourage older women like us to rehearse some witty retorts.

Perhaps start singing “Is that all there is?”

Because this should be a G-rated blog, I will offer no more suggestions on how mature women could respond.

But your suggestions are welcome.

(Sketch courtesy of WSU police)

At the end…what will you do?

If we have advance notice of our approximate time of death (“Mr. Jones, you have stage four cancer…you have perhaps four months left”), how will we choose to spend the time?

A colleague of mine died of cancer and she worked that last year, after diagnosis, until in one day she went from her office to her hospital bed to a few days in that bed where she died.

Many of us watched as she came to work each day, sighing, “If that were me, I’d have my office cleaned out within two hours after the doc delivered the news and spend my savings on…” We each had our own plan.

But many people, like Nora Ephron, choose to continue working as long as they can. Even when I was in the middle of my own cancer treatment, I co-authored a book with Becky and Dan Kendall, a Jesuit priest. It was at that computer where I lost my sense of the looming decisions, the icky consequences of each choice and the physical pain from surgery. When I write, I leave “kronos” time and enter a different place. A nice place where inspiration comes from outside of my own consciousness.

So, perhaps, if one’s death is preceded with advance notice, one can choose to take that precious time and “work” – when work is a place of contentment, satisfaction and joy.

Back in the day with Al Neuharth

I worked for USA Today in 1983 and 1984, when it was brand spanking new and revolutionary in its short stories, big photos and trend alerts. It was kind of a blog before blogs existed.

The offices outside Washington D.C. were huge and state-of-the-art. The company was spending a lot of money. I was one of many young reporters there at the time. We were cheap, eager and in awe of being part of this grand (and often mocked) journalism experience.

I don't believe I ever spoke to Al Neuharth, but I saw him on a half dozen occasions. I especially remember him at the national conventions in 1984 in San Francisco and Dallas. He was always with a woman and seemed to like beautiful blondes who wore beautiful, expensive clothes.

We gossiped about him a lot, too, and one rumor was that he had all the Gannett newspapers listed on his bed sheets. Very romantic.

He did truly stress diversity and he promoted women. But it was early in women's empowerment in the workplace in our culture. And I still feel sad remembering one woman editor who had a 2-year-old daughter who visited her at dinnertime each day, in the lobby of the newspaper building, never in the newsroom, because it would make the woman manager look weak.

She saw her daughter in the very early morning and then again at dinnertime and that was it. I trust things have gotten more sane for USA Today women now.

I credit USA Today with my ability, 30 years later, to write shorter stories and not lament that they should be longer. And I love blogging.

Neuharth was a visionary, for sure. Just wish now I'd had the courage to talk to him as a 25-year-old reporter.

(S-R archive photo)

RIP: Etter Milla

In this week of chaos and deep sorrow, and the reminders from Boston that no one is truly safe from acts of violence, it's good to pause and remember the good people among us.

Etter Milla, buried today, was one of the good ones.

The son of Italian immigrants, Milla grew up an Italian neighborhood in Spokane, served in World War II and returned to Spokane where he married Patricia Lyonnais and  raised a family that eventually grew to include seven children, 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He worked in several of Spokane's mainstay institutions, including Kaiser Trentwood and  Washington Water Power (now Avista).

He was humble and kind and remained active to the end of his life, giving back to the community. His body had weakened in recent years and last time I saw him, at the montly Lunch Bunch group he organized, he was complimentary about the paper. His voice had weakened to a whisper.

Later he sent me a history of the club with this last line:

Rebecca: “As you can see my letter writing is not so good. If you have any questions call me.”

He died surrounded by his children and grandchildren. His services were well-attended.

We must remember, as the bad guys who blow up things get all the attention, that there are more men like Etter Milla who was always grateful for America, proud to be both Italian and American, a man who felt he owed his community and country his time and enthusiasm. He gave both to the end of his life.

Godspeed, Etter.

(Dan Pelle/S-R photo)

So much to pray about…

Last night was chaotic and confusing in Massachusetts: One police officer was shot and killed near MIT; scores of law enforcement responded to gun shots, explosions? in Watertown, Mass. Media reported scattered details leading to uncertain conclusions. One detained man was ordered to remove all his clothing before he was put into the police car – in case he had strapped explosives to himself.

 We send soldiers overseas when the war has arrived on our own soil.

 So much to pray for in a country that feels like it is losing its sense of decency, safety and trust.

(S-R photo: An official stands guard at Massachusetts Institute of Technology following reports of a shooting, Thursday, April 18, 2013, in Boston. State police say a campus police officer at the school has died from injuries in a shooting on the campus outside Boston. )

Senate decision, President’s disgust

A man of compassion expressing his disgust and disappointment yesterday, President Obama spoke in a press conference about the Senate’s failure to pass a sensible law that would require background checks for all people who buy guns. 

The grief of the families who have lost loved ones to gun violence was palpable through the television.  The resolve and commitment of all those who worked for greater, sensible laws continue.  Hopefully, in the future, our leaders will make decisions that actually represent their constituents’ views, and protect innocent citizens, instead of decisions they believe will  protect their own jobs.

(S-R photo: Neil Heslin, father of six-year-old Newtown victim Jesse Lewis, left, and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., stands by President Barack Obama as he gestures while speaking during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House.)

The day after

Often other people say it best…But I will say, our hearts are broken, we pray without ceasing and our American resolve of compassion and generosity will aid Boston in the days to come. Peace.

(S-R archives photo)

We need 24 hours of ellipses

I have been searching just now to find a poem I remember studying in college. It was about the horror and destruction of war, and the line I remember is this: Ten years is a long time to fight a war…

In class, I remember we discussed the significance of the ellipses at the end of the line. The three dots. They symbolized the lack of words to describe or explain the horror. They represented silence, a falling into sadness and the void.

I searched for the poem, using the line I remember, and I cannot find it.

My memory must be misremembering the line, though I repeat it often. I thought of the line, and the ellipses today as I watched the commentary on the Boston Marathon bombings.

Some tried hard to explain it. Others said we won't let the bombers take away our events. So many words. I wish, after tragic events, we could have a 24-hour period of ellipses. Silences. A wordless falling into the sadness, the void.

Impossible, I know. And I have used almost 200 words here to express this point.

Crossing the street to communicate

In my Boomer U stories today, I wrote a sort of manifesto for aging boomers and seniors to connect using modern technology and social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and texting.

As we age we have to “cross the street” to the younger folks part of society's block. The pros far outweigh the cons, in my opinion.

As an example of an adapter, I wrote:

“This week on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe,” host Mika Brzezinski announced that her father, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, now has a Twitter account. He’s 85.”

For older folks not familiar — or intimidated by Twitter — I recommend it for this reason alone: It can function as a modern-day news service, with just the headlines only. People don't tend to tweet their daily items, such as what they had for lunch. People usually tweet links to stories they've read. And if you follow a lot of journalism tweeters, it can help you stay informed.

So tweet if you can. You might be surprised at what's in this modern “birdsong.”

P/S: This is a cleverly done photo of Dan Carney, a super texter at 66. Read about him, and an 82-year-old Skyper, here.

Laughter, charm and grace

He made my parents laugh…and laugh…and laugh. He died and will be remembered by the audiences he entertained as well as the comedians he mentored.

Jonathan Winters was 87 years old when he died Thursday evening at his Montecito, Calif., home of natural causes.

 I love Jim Carrey’s comment best: “Jonathan Winters was the worthy custodian of a sparkling and childish comedic genius. He did God's work.”

May his legacy continue to inspire us.

(S-R photo)

To live longer: skip the second and third drink

The Preventing Chronic Disease online journal sent out a report today on how excessive alcohol use causes approximately 80,000 deaths in the United States each year.

Before you say yes to that third (or even second) drink, consider:

Excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking (defined as 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women on 1 or more occasions), heavy drinking (more than 1 drink per day on average for women or more than 2 for men), and any drinking among underage youth or women who are pregnant.

Excessive alcohol use is the nation’s third-leading cause of preventable death, causing approximately 80,000 deaths per year in the United States and contributing to a range of health and social problems, including automobile crashes and drowning, heart disease, hypertension, cancers such as breast and oral-pharyngeal, interpersonal violence, HIV infection, unplanned pregnancy, alcohol poisoning, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. These negative consequences for individuals, families, communities, and society at large cost the United States approximately $223.5 billion in 2006.

(S-R photo by Colin Mulvany)

Annette Funicello: American-Italian role model

When I was growing up, diverse America remained pretty hidden. The beauty standard for little girls my age in the late 1950s seemed to be blond hair, blue eyes. Not a hint of ethnicity.

Look at a photo of the original Mickey Mouse Club cast, and Annette Funicello stands out because her hair was dark, her eyebrows bushy, her skin olive. She was the only girl in popular culture who looked like me and my sisters and my cousins, all 100 percent Italian.

And she had an Italian name. Not shortened, not Americanized.

Thanks Annette, for showing a little girl that those of us who looked different could fit in on TV too, could find a place in this world, surrounded by the very American looking Karen and Darlene and Cheryl.

Godspeed, Annette.

(S-R archive photo of Funicello with actresses who portrayed her in movie about her.)

Tax return Monday: death to procrastination

Monday is the last day to file your 2012 tax returns, unless you've gotten an extension.

As a person who turned term papers in early in college, I have never understood the last-minute filers. But I know some.

A 2010 Psychology Today analysis said people who file their tax returns at the last moment (year after year) likely suffer from chronic procrastination. It's not easy being a procrastinator in a deadline-ruled country like ours.

Procrastination may start in childhood. Children of harsh, controlling parents use procrastination as a quiet rebellion, according to Psychology Today. Email and social media sites, such as Facebook, allow modern-day procrastinators many distractions.

So if you haven't finished or mailed your taxes yet, stop reading this blog and get working. Uncle Sam, and your family, will thank you.

(S-R archive photo)

Korea ~ Leaving a legacy of kind memories

North Korea continues to flex its supposed-nuclear muscle and threaten its neighbor to the south. Whenever I read about such political or social unrest, I ponder the reasons. But when I have traveled to the destination where trouble brews – my heart aches.

 In 1978, I traveled to South Korea as an ambassador with Friendship Force.  Started by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, Friendship Force seeks to promote understanding among various cultures around the world through exchange programs of ordinary people.

I was 23 years old and applied with a group from the town where I lived at the time.  Ambassadors are chosen to represent a variety of ages and professions. As the youngest person and the only person who worked in a Catholic Church as an educator, I was selected. We paid our fee ($250) for the adventure before we knew where we were going. This sequence encourages people to participate with goodwill in mind, not dream vacation destination plans.

 Once accepted we met a delegation from Korea at a hotel in Olympia where our destination was announced and we learned a bit about the culture.  A few months later we boarded a plane and landed in Seoul. A young woman greeted me, she would be my host for 5 of the 10 days. She was lovely and curious about me and worked as an artist (metallurgist) creating jewelry.  She lived with her grandmother and – quite unusual – was divorced. Her husband was granted unquestioned custody of their son. We spent our days working to communicate and traveling around the city. I bathed at a community bath house, walked through a university campus and rode a bus with a zillion people packed on board. I loved it. My hosts laughed when I took a bite of kim chi and my eyes watered with endless tears… I spent the remaining five days with Maryknoll sisters who lived and worked out in the country. They had a clinic. We walked through the heat one day, following a tiny little girl across the rice fields; she took us to her grandmother’s home (a small hut). The grandmother suffered from debilitating arthritis and was unable to get off the floor.  The sisters were angels of care and compassion and the only Caucasian people in the community. So when I arrived, I was a huge novelty.  I played soccer with the kids in the dirt road and they wanted to caress my forearm – so taken with its light color.   I learned some phrases and they giggled endlessly. (I later learned that I was using the formal expression, reserved only for adults, not children.)  I hold tender memories from the kindness of these people.

 And so, today, my heart aches and I wonder about Young Ja and her now-adult son and the Maryknoll Sisters who continue to care for the ill of that small community – a land described as “The Land of the Morning Calm.” I pray it is so.

(S-R archives photo)

Can you hear me, honey?

My husband did a terrific job of writing about his hearing loss today. He's a retired English professor, and I loved best this scene he wrote about from Great Expectations.

Mr. Wemmick is a character from Dickens’ “Great Expectations” who has a seriously hearing-impaired father he calls The Aged Parent or Aged P. Wemmick expresses his affection for the Aged P by giving him a sound he can hear. He enacts a “great nightly ceremony” with his father by firing off a cannon that’s loud enough to blow him out of his armchair. “He’s fired. I heerd him,” shouts the Aged P “exultingly.”

I wrote about Tony's hearing loss from a wife's point of view. Read here.

We started out thinking these essays would have more humor in them, but we realized it has been a bigger loss not being able to talk with one another without Tony wearing hearing aids and me facing him.

(S-R staff illustration by Molly Quinn)

A week to remember

The week has been filled with anniversaries of historic events:  the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the last episode of M*A*S*H.

 We often ask each other: “Where were you when this important event happened?”  

When Martin Luther King, Jr was killed, I sat practicing piano in anticipation of my June recital; the recital went on that June night when Bobby Kennedy rested in a Los Angeles hospital fighting for his life.  

When M*A*S*H aired its final episode, I skipped out early on a church meeting, saying I had “family concerns at home.”  Married, living in an upstairs apartment, my husband and I watched Alan Alda and his team fold up their tents, head for home and say “GOOD-BYE,” in rock-solid fashion. Best kiss of television aired that night between Hawkeye and Hot Lips.  

Our lives are punctuated with real-life tragedy and dramatic story-telling that demonstrate truth while entertaining;  these memories continue to inspire, entertain, teach and bless.

Where were you when your life-defining events happened?

(S-R photo: James “Plunky” Branch plays his soprano saxophone near the new Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington)

Read your newspaper and smile

Recently, I reported on an AARP study that showed the happiest people watch less than an hour of TV a day. Now, another study links newspaper reading with happiness.

University of Maryland researchers concluded, after analyzing 30 years of data, that, “very happy people” read the newspaper. Prevention magazine recently cited newspaper reading as one of the “weird” things you can do to be happy.

News of the research is spreading on newspaper websites faster than you can say “tweet, tweet” and, sure, it might sound like shameless self-promotion to write about the study here, but maybe reading a newspaper makes people happier because they're often reading about lives much sadder and more chaotic than their own lives. Especially lately with our hometown shootings, stabbings and brazen home break-ins.

Your theory? 

Losing your bounce

I spent late yesterday afternoon with some of my great-nieces and nephews. They were gathered for a spring break fun day at one cousin house where a trampoline is a fun activity.

I have not jumped on a trampoline since I was a teen. You don't get many chances as you get older.

But I assumed, like bike riding, it would come back.

So I crawled on the trampoline with Sam, 11, and Mia, 7, and Rocco, 3. It was hard to get in a standing position as they all bounced. I asked for a moment of non-bounce as I stood and then, I froze.

“How do I do this?”

“Just jump!” Sam said, as he did back flips.

I did and screamed. It was so unnerving. It didn't come back. It felt a little dangerous (and not the worry of flying off and cracking my head open, as was the worry in the 1960s trampolines; new ones are safer.) So I bounced for just a few minutes and then I worried. Would I wreck my back? My knees? My niece and nephew couldn't believe my inability and my worry.

I kept saying: “I should be able to do this. I work out everyday!”

They looked at me like sure you do, Aunt Becky. I really do. But trampoline jumping, like some other younger year activities, do not remain an option for most of us. It's another loss, but it's not one I will miss too much.

Finally, I convinced the kids to lie back on the trampoline and look for faces in the clouds, which I also loved to do as a kid. We did this for a half hour. No knees required.

(S-R archive photo)

Hospice: 10 facts you may not know

Press release from The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization today:

Last year, 1.65 million dying Americans were cared for by hospice. Yet, there are some important facts about hospice that people don’t know. And this may be keeping people from getting the best care possible, when they need it most.

  1. Hospice is not a place—it’s high-quality care that focuses on comfort and quality of life.
  2. Hospice is paid for by Medicare, Medicaid, and most insurance plans. Fear of costs should never prevent a person from accessing hospice care.
  3. Hospice serves anyone with a life-limiting illness, regardless of age or type of illness.
  4. Hospice provides expert medical care as well as spiritual and emotional support to patients and families.
  5. Research has shown that the majority of Americans would prefer to be at home at the end of life—hospice makes this possible for most people.
  6. Hospice serves people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
  7. Hospice patients and families can receive care for six months or longer.
  8. A person may keep his or her referring physician involved while receiving hospice care.
  9. Hospice offers grief and bereavement services to family members to help them adjust to the loss in their lives.
  10. Research has shown people receiving hospice care can live longer than similar patients who do not opt for hospice.

For more information, visit NHPCO’s Caring Connections at www.caringinfo.orgor call the HelpLine at 800-658-8898.

(S-R file photo)

Still seeking

 Families and friends have wondered and agonized and prayed for the remains of their loved ones to be found within the debris, the pieces, of the September 11 attack.

 Some may still receive the physical evidence, the pieces of bones, of life, that once were part of a body, a life, as workers once again sift through material from the site.

 Our determination as a country and as individuals to honor and care for each other and our sacred bodies - even after death – may  offer comfort and solace to those left in grief.

(S-R archives photo)

The end of kneeling

At Easter Mass yesterday, the crowd filled the pews. Catholics kneel a lot during Mass ( though not as much as we used to) and I noted how many older people didn't kneel entirely. They rested their behind on the pew and their knees on the “kneeler.” I know that kneeling can be very uncomfortable when you've had knee surgeries, especially knee replacements. But we need a new name for this church position. Sneeling? Snitting? A friend said the half-kneel-half-sit stance is called the “Episcopalian squat” but I think he was just joking. Any suggestions to name this new church stance?

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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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