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Archive for January 2013

Patty Andrews…RIP

If you ever listened to your grandparents’ music, chances are you heard the Andrews Sisters. Their music marks the World War II era with songs like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B).  They performed with Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller and traveled overseas to entertain our troops.

The last remaining sister, Patty Andrews, 94, has died in Los Angeles, but  the women's musical legacy remains.

(S-R archives photo: This 1947 publicity photo shows the pop vocal trio, The Andrews Sisters, from left, Maxine Andrews, Patty Andrews, and LaVerne Andrews.)

Pneumonia shot: Yay or nay?

In our family, infections and viruses seem to like our lungs, and we've had more than most cases of pneumonia, from the littlest ones to the oldest ones. (An 8-month-old in my extended family is now recovering from pneumonia.) So I didn't hesitate getting a pneumonia shot when it was offered during a flu shot clinic at the newspaper several years ago.

I was a bit on the youngish side when I had it (early 50s) but it looks like more people are opting for them now, especially those 65 and older, according to a report out today by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

The percentage of adults aged 65 years (and older) who had ever received a pneumococcal vaccination increased from 56.8 percent in 2000 to 66.5 percent in 2011 among non-Hispanic whites, from 30.5 percent in 2000 to 47.6 percent in 2011 among non-Hispanic blacks, and from 30.4 percent in 2000 to 43.1 percent in 2011 among Hispanics.

Have you had a pneumonia shot?

(S-R file photo)

Is it just me?

Right now in my life, I am worried about several people. My close friend, Chris, is going through chemotherapy. Another family friend, in her 80s, is now in Hospice care and will pass soon. Another friend had sudden, unexpected abdominal surgery and is recovering.

These are the folks in town. Out of town, I have in my prayers a niece through marriage, in her 50s, who was sitting at home reading the newspaper when an aneurysm burst in her brain. She is doing well, but it's a long road ahead. Another friend is recovering from a brain injury following a fall. 

In my water aerobics class, aquaintances I know there — people in their 50s, 60s and 70s — have survived many forms of cancer, strokes, knee and hip replacements.

Today I wondered why almost every one I know is facing chronic or temporary health concerns or has faced them recently. And of course it finally dawned on me. It's my age.

A 20-something friend who I studied with in chaplain school said it's difficult to explain her calling to friends her own age because they don't know many people who are sick or dying. I thought back to my 20s. I didn't know many sick or dying people then either.

A woman I admire in Spokane is in her early 90s. She told me a few years ago that she attends between two and five funerals a week now.

The future?

(AP photo)

Community of chemotherapy, part II

Last Monday in a blog post about the conversations that come up during chemotherapy (my friend Chris faces a year's worth for breast cancer) I mentioned how quilts made by Methodists make their way around the country, church by church.

We knew this because a man named Lewis, accompanying his friend to chemotherapy, stopped by Chris' chair to comment on her blanket. He received a similar on when he underwent heart surgery several years ago.

Today, Lewis was back with his friend. He stopped by again and talked with Chris, and he told us that after his heart surgery, he took early retirement rather than go back full-time to his hospital job. He was in his late 50s and knew he still had much to offer.

So he helped start a program in Clearwater, Florida that sends backpacks filled with food home with at-risk kids, so that the children don't get too hungry over the weekend in homes where the adults might not be able to provide some basic needs, such as food. It's called Pack-A-Sack 4 Kids. His heart surgery changed Lewis' life in dramatic ways, and it led to this great work in the world.

Serious illness can kill us, make us bitter. And it can change the trajectory of our lives for the better. As it did for Lewis.

Lewis is visiting Spokane only a short while, to show support for his friend here, but we were glad to get to know him a bit in the community of chemotherapy.

Last call…”the usual?”

As I left work last week, my friend sent me a text: “Sorry to read your grocery store is closing.”  


She knows that store is where we meet (Starbucks at the entrance), where I shop, where we run in to get cheap treats before a movie, where I stop at the deli counter and buy “plastic dinner” (all food is in plastic containers from the deli) and where I grab a veggie sandwich for my vegetarian son and…

I went to the store that day and found employees tearful in conversation with “suits” offering options to stunned employees. One employee asked me, “Want the usual sandwich grilled for here?” Yes, please. 

My son and the store arrived in 1994. And one day, as a toddler, he looked at me and said, “I want to zeee the way-dee.” As a mother fluent in her child’s language, I asked, “Lady?? What lady?”  We toured our house and I looked for images of women. Not what he wanted. Turns out, on our next trip to the store, he looked up and squealed, “Wayyy-deee!”  He was pointing to the Starbucks logo – the mermaid. We often, okay always, started our grocery shopping with a sip of something from Starbucks – which is also closing because they need access to a bathroom and to garbage. “A port-a-potty and a dumpster won’t satisfy the health department?” I asked Pat, one of my favorite baristas. Seems not.  

Our communities offer us touch points of stability as we transition through life’s stages: children growing, job transitions, health crises, parents dying. We can rely on specific places and familiar faces for continuity. I know where to find EVERYTHING in that store and I LOVE the employees.  

Now, I face a new learning curve in a new store – somewhere - and new people who will never say, “Gosh, I remember when your son was just a baby!” And sadly, the TOP Foods family who shared the rhythm of our lives, will be gone.

(S-R archives photo)

Alarming lesson: read the fine print

Earlier this week our family was awakened when the hallway smoke detector went off at 2:34 a.m.

My husband and I jumped up, stumbled around, our son came into our room with his hands over his ears yelling our names, I tripped over Bella, our black German Shepherd as she came into the bedroom and then my tall husband grabbed the detector from the ceiling and ripped the battery out of it. We turned on the lights, looked around, sniffed for smoke, shrugged –and returned to bed.

I replaced the battery the next day and put the detector back in its place. It went off at 3:34 a.m. the next morning. After taking the battery out AGAIN, I fumbled for my reading glasses and read the fine print on the back of the detector: “Unit should be replaced by 2006.”

Yesterday I bought two new smoke detectors and a new CO detector, too. Each summer and winter equinox the batteries will be replaced and I will review all the fine print. Sweet dreams.

(S-R archives photo)

Will snow be the new sun?

In our society now, we idolize the sun. Good days for weathercasters are sunny days. Bad days are filled with snow. We escape from Spokane in the winter in search of sun.

With climate change, however, will we someday idolize snow the way we now do the sun? Because it will be so scarce? Will snow destinations become hot? Excuse the pun.

Snow's worth is always underrated. It collects on the mountains in the winter and when it melts, it feeds our streams, rivers and lakes. And in the Inland Northwest, it nourishes our amazing aquifer, source of our drinking water.

So here's a blog post in praise of snow. Bring it on.

(Tony Wadden photo)

Power through: Hillary’s example

As baby boomers glide into their 60s and remain in their jobs a lot longer than their parents did, I predict a fairly macho attitude toward sick days. Older workers are more prone to the ailments that can afflict older people in general. Back troubles, heart issues, cancers that inconvenience you but don't kill you.

Hillary, 65, looked pretty darn good this morning testifying in front of Congress. Less than a month ago, they were shrinking a clot from her brain.

She's tough. This we know. But again, I predict aging boomers in the workplace will be more like Hillary than like the stereotype of older people complaining all the time about their ailments. And Hillary likely discovered long ago what my 50-something friends and I often talk about.

Your aches and pains disappear (for the most part) when you are totally absorbed in a work project. It's a health  treatment, without side effects, that you don't even pay for.

(AP photo)

The Holy Spirit and Frank Bach

Today at noon, rich and poor alike will gather near downtown Spokane to dedicate a housing complex for the chronically homeless, named after Father Frank Bach. I wrote a profile of him Sunday.

I've known Father Bach about 15 years, and I had no idea how much he has accomplished, especially in his work among the poor. The 82-year-old priest hates attention, deflects praise and changes the subject when too much praise comes his way.

In this era of relentless social media neediness (Read our blog! Read our Tweet! Take our survey!) it's so refreshing to know a person who hates all that fuss. I had to really talk him into doing the story.

The fruits (or fruit) of the Holy Spirit are said to “show up” in people in these ways: In joy, in peace, in goodness, in generosity and in modesty, among other attributes.

The Holy Spirit is active in the life of Bach, for sure. Just don't tell him you think so. He'll likely deny it.

(Photo by Colin Mulvany/Spokesman-Review)

The community of chemotherapy


Yesterday, while sitting with my friend Chris at her chemotherapy treatment, she wrapped herself in a prayer quilt made by her sorority sister Kass and Kass' Marysville United Methodist Church group. The quilt has pieces of thread throughout, representing prayers said for the person snuggled beneath the quilt.

Soon, a man, who was waiting with a friend during his chemotherapy treatment, approached Chris and asked if the quilt was indeed a prayer quilt and who made it for her? She explained. He said that when he underwent heart surgery five years ago in Florida, his church made him a similar quilt.

If you've never been with a person undergoing chemotherapy as an outpatient, the setting may seem odd at first. There is a line of comfortable recliners in a large room and IV poles and drip lines set up next to those chairs. There is really no privacy between the people receiving chemotherapy, no curtains, no rooms (except when you meet with the doctor or nurse practitioner.)

But the no privacy thing works well, I believe. It allows people to not feel so alone. And it allows for these kinds of conversations — prayer quilts being made around the world. Healing. Helping.


We do it so well…and peacefully

Yes, it was simply a second inauguration for President Obama. And still, remarkable. Remarkable because our country transfers – or in this case sustains – power peacefully.

No violence, no uncertainty.  

Today was a festive and poignant day with President Obama sworn in on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a holiday that didn’t even exist when I was born.  Our president placed his hand upon two bibles, one belonging to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other to Abraham Lincoln. The flags, the music, the parade, the watching of the First Lady’s wardrobe choices – even the comments about her new haircut – made for a day when we can be proud of how we select our leaders, how we celebrate their leadership.

A nice day in these United States – our America.

(S-R photo)

Plan B? What’s yours?

As Boomers age, employment challenges increase. Many of us are losing jobs, or are being replaced by young, eager – and more inexpensive – employees.

Our magical thinking may have taken us to a place where we believed we would live out our first or second career until our (we decide it) retirement day.  

 If not, got a “Plan B”?

(S-R archives photo: Trader Thomas Donato looks at a screen as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.)

The secret to not lying

Some “big fat liars” (to use a term we did in childhood) have been exposed this week.

First, the Notre Dame scandal where many people likely are lying, not just footballl player Manti Te'o.

And now Lance Armstrong finally admitting to what everyone knew. He lied and lied and lied and lied and lied.

Why does it happen?

How can you spot it?

Well, those are questions for others, but I do have the simple formula for stopping lies within yourself. (Most all of us have done it, after all, small stretchings of the truth to look better, feel better or spare another's feelings.)

Ask yourself: Does the outside story I'm telling the world match the inside story of who I really am and what I know to be true about my life?

So the football player likely knew (at some point) the dead girlfriend only lived in his fantasy.

And Lance knew that he was injecting himself with crap before every long bike ride.

If yes, your outside story matches the inside story, you're not lying.

If no, you are.

Simple but sometimes more difficult than it seems.

(S-R archives photo)

Thank you, Governor Gregoire!

On election night, 2004, my young son went to bed saying, “Wake me up when Chris wins!” referring to Chris Gregoire. As friends of Mike Gregoire’s family, my son felt connected to her given our paths had crossed a few times at weddings, funerals and birthday parties. She did not, however, gain his attention and support on these experiences alone.

 “Mom, does Chris like kids?” he asked. This has been my son’s assessment question for all adults since he could perceive the power difference between “grown-ups” and kids.

I told him about Gregoire’s record as attorney general and her passion for doing what is right, even if that meant doing something difficult or controversial. I told him I believed as our governor she would continue to work hard for all people, especially people who did not have much power over their own lives, like children.

Not hours or days later, but several weeks and 128 votes later, Chris Gregoire was elected governor. And my son insisted she “needed” a gift from him.  He insisted I make a December 24th trip to Wal-Mart because only there could he get what he wanted for her. He would not tell me what that was. And so because I like kids, especially my own, I followed his request. 

He went straight to the toy area and I became suspicious. For whom was this gift? But he knew exactly what he wanted and he found it: a CareBear whose message was “Do your best every day.” The bear was delivered to the governor-elect and a thank you note was soon sent to our home. 

Over the last eight years, Governor Gregoire did her best every day for all of us in Washington state. Listening to her final speech I found a theme: she opened doors. She opened doors to healthcare for those who struggled to receive basic, essential care; she opened doors to education for early learners, K-12 and college students who had the skills, but maybe not the means, to get the education needed for their dreams to become reality. 

She opened doors to the Pacific Rim where we could trade our goods – food and products – with developing countries. She opened doors and boarded helicopters to survey flooded landscapes and she very quietly opened doors to board a military plane so she could visit our Washington troops serving in Iraq. She and First Mike opened doors and welcomed home our veterans who served our country. She courageously opened doors to pain and walked in when she represented all of us at funerals for fallen law enforcement officers, her compassion and empathy visible in the sorrow on her face. And perhaps most telling of her commitment to opening doors was the signing of the Marriage Equality Bill, allowing same-gender couples to marry. She credited her daughters for educating her and encouraging her to understand that separate-but-equal is not equal.  I am certain they knew she would listen to them, because as her daughters, they have always known she not only likes kids, she listens to them and takes their ideas seriously.

As they move out of the mansion and back to our community, may Governor Gregoire and First Mike know of our gratitude for their commitment to serve our state with wisdom, courage, kindness, relentless energy and a willingness to do their best every day.  Welcome home.

(S-R photo)

Who will be your voice?

Who would you trust to make end-of-life decisions for you if you could no longer speak? A family member might not be best, as we discussed in our EndNotes column today. Here's an excerpt:

The person you choose to be your agent doesn’t need to be your favorite person. Instead, Chaplain Zac Willette of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago said: “It’s the person you know is strong enough in the middle of a complex and emotional situation to honor your wishes and serve as your voice. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s a grace-under-pressure contest. And when we choose agents that are clear-headed and will honor what we’ve told them our wishes are, everybody wins.”

Another question to ponder: When you've picked the person to be your “voice” what will you tell him/her about your wishes? Do you want to come back to life, no matter how debilitated you'll be? Or like me, do you want to come back only if you're 99 percent the same?

Bumper sticker wisdom

Sometimes wisdom is all around us, in unlikely placed. I spotted a wisdom bit this morning on the license plate frame on a care in front of me on Francis Avenue.

Get in. Sit down. Shut up. Hold on.

(S-R archives photo)

Aaron Swartz

I have never heard of him, but his death feels profoundly sad: Aaron Swartz, 26, who co-founded Reddit – a social news website - was also an activist who fought to make online content free to the public, has hanged himself in his Brooklyn home.  

Swartz was to go on trial for allegedly stealing millions of journal articles from an electronic archive at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Some legal experts believe that the charges are unfounded since MIT allows guests access to the documents – and Swartz was a guest.  

A tragic ending to a very bright young man’s life.

(S-R archives photo)

Missing the river

When I lived in Chicago for three months this fall, I often took walks from the loft where I lived toward the river, toward downtown. The scenery was tall Chicago buildings, stunning at night. The river is wide and fast moving but you have to make an effort to look at it when you cross the bridges. The scenery is definitely the cityscape.

The Spokesman-Review building is about 10 minutes from Riverfront Park and the rushing river. Several times a week, I take breaks from writing and stroll there, say hi to the river and stroll back. So this week, my first full week back in the newsroom, I visited. It felt like reuniting with an old friend.

“You're beautiful!” I said, as I snapped this photo on my cellphone.

At the end of our lives, I understand now, we will miss the landscapes and cityscapes in which we lived out our days. Hi Spokane River, old friend, your old friend is back in town.

Feel sick? Stay home!

In the workplace we often find martyrs: “I feel so crappy, but – sneeze, sneeze, cough, cough – I have so much to do, I just came in anyway…”  With the flu season almost epidemic in our country, many hospital emergency departments exceed their capacity and are placing patients on gurneys in the waiting areas or outside in tents.

Hospital employees learn early in their employment that keeping one’s hands clean can reduce the risk of illness. And we get our flu shot, stay at least six feet away from sneezers and coughers, use an embarrassing amount of hand sanitizer (at home, too).

Learn the difference between the flu and a cold, but if you are uncertain about your health diagnosis: stay home. So far, no prizes for workplace martyrs have been awarded.

(S-R archives photo)

RIP: Sister Mary Garvin

Mary Garvin, Holy Names sister and Gonzaga University religious studies professor, died Saturday.

When I worked on my master's degree in pastoral ministry in the early 2000s, Mary was my advisor and mentor. I loved her style of firm-but-kind. When I would wring my hands over a scheduling issue for school, and go on wringing them too long, she would basically say: Quit whining and get going. Except she didn't say it that bluntly, but the message was clear. Just get it done and skip the drama.

I visited her in September, during her cancer struggle, and she was fine-tuning her popular presentation on the very few women allowed to attend Vatican II in the 1960s. An advocate for women, and their role and their voice, especially in the church, she encouraged her students to find and better understand the voices and stories of women in Scripture.

She was angry about her cancer, though she didn't want to talk about her cancer much. She respected her own privacy on it, and others took their lead from her.

Instead, she talked about the projects she was focusing on, despite her dire prognosis. And she asked me a ton of questions.

I loved that she was a kind but firm person to the end. Thanks, Mary Garvin, for all your mentoring.

What I learned in chaplain school

My story ran today about my three-month sabbatical in Chicago at Rush University Medical Center in its chaplaincy internship program.

Here's what I'd like to highlight here. The importance of understanding your vocation (or vocations) in life. From the article:

People are not their roles

I left Spokane a journalist. The next week, I was Chaplain Becky. Moving from journalist to chaplain to journalist once again feels disconcerting, but I am heartened by the wisdom of Clayton Thomason, the chairman of the religion, health and human values department at Rush. He spoke eloquently in class one day about the difference between roles and vocations.

“The theologian Frederick Buechner defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,’ ” Thomason summarized in a recent email. “A vocation is that path in life which calls us out of ourselves, to that place where our gladness meets the world’s need.”

Some people express their vocations in their careers. Others through roles they play in people’s lives as family members and friends. Speaking of family and friends, keep in touch with yours. You’ll need them when you’re sick or dying. Patient rooms were often crowded with loved ones and close friends, but I rarely saw their coworkers or bosses.

Where does your deep gladness meet the world's deep need?

(Tony Wadden photo)

Basket of knitted grace

This morning I accompanied my friend Chris to her chemotherapy appointment, and we noticed a basket of knitted hats and scarves. They are free for patients undergoing chemo. They were beautiful, handmade items. They filled their corner of the room with color.

At least some of the items were donated by the “Kickin' the crap out of cancer organization.” A tag on one of the hats explained that a woman, a cancer survivor since 2007, started the “ktcooc toque troop — a growing group of family and friends who want to help in the battle against cancer, even if this means learning to knit.”

It was a small, simple thing in many ways, but big in gesture. So thank you KTCOOC. You made a gray snowy day bright with spring.

At home on the hill

ABC’s Diane Sawyer recently sat with the 20 women elected to the US Senate. She asked them what advice they have for children. People of any age can benefit from their wisdom: “Read, read, read” advises Senator Kay Hagan from North Carolina and “Once you’ve gone 100 miles, you can always go 10 more,” says Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, wisdom she learned on her long-distance bike trip with her dad.

These women have traveled more than 100 miles in their metaphorical journeys to the hill. They have taken risks, followed dreams, ignored the naysayers and arrived…and they continue to work hard on behalf of the citizens who voted them all the way to Washington.

(S-R archives photo:U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks at a field hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which she chairs, on April 4 in Tacoma.)

Obits are hot news

Jim Romenesko, author of a popular media matters blog, reported yesterday that “there were 30 front page New York Times obituaries in 2012 versus 14 the year before. Why? One reason is that managing editor Dean Baquet believes that a well-written obituary belongs on Page One.”

Meanwhile, Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times looked at obits spanning three decades and discovered that “the longest was for Pope John Paul II at 13, 870 words.” Former presidents Nixon and Reagan garnered long obits, too.

It pays to be on the email list with Society of Professional Obituary Writers. Thanks for the news!

(S-R archive photo of Pope John Paul II)

10 items a day for 1,000 days

I have a New Year's resolution that I started in December and have had no trouble sticking to. I am throwing away — or giving away — 10 items each day from my house. Last summer, I did a story on a woman who helps people declutter, and she said the average household in the United States has 100,000 items. Way too many things.

So far, nearly a month into this, it's been pretty easy. I started with my bathroom drawers (old eye shadow, lipstick) and the other day, we pruned our cookbook collection and will donate the books to the library. In 1,000 days, I will be decluttered by 10,000 items. And if I then start over…

It has never been too hard for me to get rid of things, except for books and paperwork, but after more than 20 years in our home, we have too many items. It feels great to shed. And it's kind of addicting.

Any other shedding tips out there?

The season continues..our work begins

While we put away the decorations and resume our routines, we take time to pause on what all that holiday celebration can mean for us…and for the world. 

The Work of Christmas

by Howard Thurman


When the star in the sky is gone,

When the Kings and Princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins.

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry

To release the prisoner,

To teach the nations,

To bring Christ to all,

To make music in the heart.

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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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