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Archive for February 2014

Sustained notes

The music Alice Herz-Sommer knew and loved sustained her through the suffering of a Nazi death camp. Herz-Sommer, the oldest Holocaust survivor, 110, died last week.

When she was 16, Herz-Sommer attended conservatory studies in Prague and as an older teenager, she was performing concerts throughout Europe.

Her widowed mother was deported to Terezin - part ghetto, part concentration camp - and then a death camp in 1942. In 1943, Herz-Sommer, her husband and their son were dispatched to Terezin.

Herz-Sommer played her music and sustained the prisoners – and saved herself as well as her son from being deported to a death camp. Her captors loved her music and told her she and her son would remain in Terezin. Her husband, however, was sent on and later died at Dachau, a month before troops liberated the camp.

After the war Alice Herz-Sommer and her son returned to Prague and later left for Israel where she taught for many years. In the mid-1980s she moved to London. She continued to play the piano hours each day until shortly before her death.

We fill our lives with whatever brings us joy and meaning. For Alice Herz-Sommer, music brought joy and meaning and literally sustained her life. 

(S-R photo: Alice Herz-Sommer)

Senior shoppers

One of our local grocery stores offers a seven per cent discount on Wednesdays to shoppers who are 55+.  I make an effort to shop there on Wednesdays when I need groceries mid-week.

The best part is watching the poor check-out clerks determine whom to ask if they want the discount or inquire directly to the patron, “Are you over 55? If so, you receive a discount today.” Reactions vary.

I gleefully announce my eligibility when I load the bread, the milk, and the food stuffs on the moving belt. Yesterday, the clerk said, “Really?! I never would have guessed! You look a lot younger than the last woman in this line and she was younger than 55.” I didn’t confess I pay someone to color my irritating gray hair. Helps.

But one patron, so insulted by the inquiry, announced quite loudly, “Asking a woman her age or assuming she is older than 55, is like asking an overweight woman ‘when is your baby due?’ ”

The world is full of real problems – hunger among children, unemployment, catastrophic illness – that age disclosure in exchange for a few dollars saved, seems trite. Yet, the clerks struggle with their responsibility.

If you were the store manager, how would you advise your employees?  

(S-R archive photo)

Lords and ladies of Sunday night

Downton Abbey has become a Sunday night ritual for many television viewers. The program gives a glimpse into England during the last century as well as offering a greater understanding of what class differences brought –living upstairs or serving downstairs. The program’s writing is snappy and its plot lines force us to align with favorite characters.

But only eight episodes this season? Really, Julian Fellowes? Americans are accustomed to 20 episodes for many of our favorite programs. Perhaps we must adopt British ways when it comes to consuming our favorite delights – as with tea, just a few sips at a time. 

(S-R archive photo: Downton Abbey)

Suicide among our elderly and boomers

Boomers worked to have it all – or at least as much of life as we possibly could. But boomers may not be as happy as once thought: And our unhappiness may be reflected in the increase in suicide among this generation (born between 1946-1964). The suicide rate rose among boomers during 2000-2010 according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Today’s stories propose some theories for the increase in boomer suicides: unemployment, ill health, disappointments in dreams unfulfilled.

And while the rate of suicide is on the rise among boomers, our own community’s elderly have the highest suicide rates in the nation and in North Idaho and Spokane County.

The good news: local and national resources are close at hand to help anyone and everyone. Take a moment and learn what can be done to end this mysterious healthcare epidemic.Our friends and families are too important to lose to this tragic ending.

(S-R archive photo)

The shame of mental illness – healed

Evonne Agnello lived through the loss of her dad and brother. Both men took their own lives. She wondered if she would fall to the disease, too.

Then, she started to write.

Writing offered a path to understanding herself and healing her pain. She shares her story in her recent book “Shaking Shame from Mental Illness.”

“I think I wrote to preserve my sanity,” Agnello said. “Writing helps you think. Everyone should write.”

Perhaps everyone should write, maybe not. However, everyone should learn more about mental health. People who do suffer with mental illness are often misunderstood and forced to live on the edges of life without healthcare or compassion. Agnello’s book could be the perfect beginning to greater knowledge and empathy our society desperately needs.

(S-R archive photo)

Medal of Honor

President Barack Obama will honor 24 soldiers when they finally receive the commendation they deserve. Soldiers who willingly put themselves in the middle of exceptionally dangerous situations and acted heroically were overlooked at the time for the military’s highest honor – the Medal of Honor – because of prejudice against their ethnicity.

Melvin Morris served in the Vietnam War, volunteering for two tours of duty. His courage was recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross at the time. After a ten-year congressionally mandated review of  minorities’ military records, Melvin and 23 other soldiers will be awarded the Medal of Honor; an honor that should have been bestowed on them at the time of their service. Many of the medals will be awarded posthumously since some of the soldiers served in World War II and the Korean War as well as in Vietnam.

Thank you, Melvin Morris, your courage inspires us. Enjoy the recognition you earned so long ago.

(S-R archive photo)

Thanks, Jesuits

A Gonzaga University student called the other night asking for a contribution to the university. I always say “yes.”  I donate money not because I am wealthy - I am not - but because I am grateful. A college education should be the right of anyone who wants it, but it is a privilege.

I asked that my modest contribution go into the scholarship fund for students who wish to attend the Gonzaga-in-Florence program, but need financial assistance. That amazing year of my education taught me to look at the world and at myself with new perceptions.

This week the Ukraine is blowing up and suspicion was a guest at the Sochi Olympics. Venezuela has its own drama, but that drama is underplayed by the media. Having seen a bit of the world beyond my own country, I feel international news is always news from home. And whatever our gifts, we must use them to bring healing and hope to the world.

Thanks, Gonzaga, for the education. I am grateful. Keep the calls coming.

(S-R archive photo: Gonzaga University)

Puppy love

Yes, Americans are nuts for their dogs; even crazy for dogs wherever they travel – to Sochi, for example.

Olympian and U.S. silver medalist Gus Kenworthy has been adopted by several puppies and their mama. Yes, seems they have adopted him – that’s how dogs work: they make their way into our hearts and we have no choice but to love and protect them. They return our affection with a loyalty no human seems to match.

The Sochi dogs lived under a security tent in the mountains where Kenworthy visited them each day. He is now making plans to bring them to their new home – America.

An estimated 2,000 stray dogs roam the Sochi area, but the Olympians are seeking to reduce that number with their efforts to find homes abroad for the puppies.

Sometimes the reward for one’s best performance does not hang around one’s neck – it snuggles across your lap.

(S-R photo: Gus Kenworthy (8), Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper (1) made Olympic history.)

What’s the Diff?

An unusual remedy is performing miracles for people who suffer with a potentially fatal infection called Clostridium difficile or “C. diff” as it is known in health care settings. The gastrointestinal infection kills 14,000 people each year and is caused by anti-biotics that kill off other present and needed bacteria. The result: toxins are produced causing persistent diarrhea. And the toxic bacteria are becoming resistant to conventional treatments.

The unconventional remedy? A donor’s stool is treated and placed in the intestine or colon of a sick patient. The healthy bacteria from the donor are “transplanted” via an enema, colonoscopy or nasogastric tube. The healthy bacteria from the donor help to normalize the bacteria in the stomach and fight the C. diff evil one.

While the remedy sounds disgusting, the results are impressive. People get well, almost immediately. Once again, the cures for our illnesses may be found within ourselves more often than in the complexity of synthetic chemical combinations. 

(S-R archive photo)

Listen to me!

The foster children in our state are not being heard when it comes to the courtroom. No court-appointed attorney for our foster kids. An advocacy group rates Washington state 48th - that is right: 48th  - when it comes to giving our vulnerable foster children a legal voice.  

Senate Bill 6126 would change this practice and help children understand their rights when deciding where and with whom they live. These children deserve a voice.

With so much rhetoric about creating a future for our children, should we not demonstrate concern too, about creating a safe present for them? Offering appropriate care means giving foster children a voice in the courtroom, helping them understand possibilities and legal choices. When a child lives in a safe and stable environment, they have much more time to enjoy their childhood and dream about their futures.

(S-R photo)

Charmed to death

The preacher who claimed his faith would keep him safe from snake bites has died – from a snake bite. Jamie Coots of Middlesboro, Kentucky, died hours after the rattlesnake he was handling at a church service bit him. He declined medical treatment – going home instead, where he died.

Coots took the Gospel of Mark passage literally which talks of handling serpents. However, some biblical scholars believe the section was added, not “inspired,”  as often happened with early scripture texts. Lots of tinkering of documents for various reasons; we see that phenomena when comparing various early texts of scripture.

Perhaps Coots would have been better served by literally following Matthew’s mandate to feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked – as long as he didn’t try to clothe them in snakeskin.

(S-R archive photo)

First love ~ last love

They met as young adults, fell in love, but then he, Marty, left to serve his country. She, Kay, was a single mom who didn’t want a relationship. Eventually, each married someone else – and divorced.

Decades later Kay started an online business and one day decided to enter Marty’s name on Facebook - and found him.

After she sent him a message, they reunited. Today, they are married and work together promoting Kay’s business.

Sometimes first love is the real deal. Do you know anyone whose first love is also their last love?

(S-R photo)

The name game ~ Wooly Mammoth who?

Last week Bertha excavated her way through downtown Seattle and into history when the tunnel-drilling machine struck ancient gold…ummm…ivory.  

The find: an ancient mammoth's tusk that measures 8.5 feet in length and will be carbon dated to determine its age, estimated between 22,000 and 66,000 years. For now, the tusk will dry out naturally at Seattle’s Burke Museum – a process taking a year, maybe two.

Curators talk about naming the creature who left us part of itself.  Freeway Franny? Alaskan Way Wilma?  Bertha’s Babe?

The drilling of the tunnel has become more mystery than science with machine breakdowns and uncertain roadblocks. The process planned for easier traffic flow in the future. Who would have guessed we would, instead, travel so far back in time?

(S-R: In this handout photo provided by the Rafn Company, a mammoth tusk is fully exposed after being excavated. )

Lessons from the trek: Kilimanjaro

My sister is in her fifth day of trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro. I read succinct summaries of her journey from the sponsoring group’s website. Here is what I have learned:

Day 1: Immediately the group had to take a three-hour detour due to muddy roads and difficult conditions.   The transmitter allowing us to follow their journey did not work.  Lesson: even when we have made perfect plans, adventures must allow for change and accommodations – even from the start. Do not be discouraged. Sometimes the extra time and effort needed will get you exactly where you need to be – even when you cannot communicate that achievement to others.

Day 2: A perfect day of walking and arrival at the destination. No rain clouds, instead a glimpse of glaciers in the distance for all trekkers. A message to one mom: “Your daughter did not fall off the mountain.” Lesson: Detours can be closely followed by rewards and perspective. Don’t despair – and no matter the distance between loved ones – messages of love and status are always welcome.

Day 3: Awakening to snow, the group trekked through a day of acclimatizing to the high, changing altitude. Lesson: Surprises arrive as we sleep – we take on the challenges and adapt.  We surprise even ourselves with what we can not only tolerate and become accustomed to, but even enjoy.

Day 4: Reports says the trekkers are a few hours away from their destination where dinner awaits. Queasy stomachs reported, but everyone is feeling happy. Cell reception available upon arrival where messages can be received. Lesson: Our bodies, not just our minds and hearts, react to changes. Acknowledging that reaction can assist in coping with it. And no matter the distance or adventure, family connections mean everything. Communicating love – even when someone cannot hear it – is always the right message to send.

Day 5: Stay tuned.

(S-R archive photo: Unusual trees, found nowhere else on Earth, rise from the fog as climbers scale Kilimanjaro.)

A true Minnesota man - Mondale

Former Vice-President Walter Mondale has undergone successful heart surgery and is expected to recover fully. His wife, Joan, died February 4 after a long illness. A tough month for this man of gracious ways and soft-spoken humor.

He is from my home state – Minnesota – and our lives intersected once at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. We were on a plane together and met at the luggage carousel. I was about to start a conversation when a group of people shrieked, “There’s Walter Mondale!”  He smiled kindly and said, “Why, I think it is!” And added, “It’s always good to come home to Minnesota, don’t you think?” The groupies descended and he graciously answered their questions. Mostly, he spoke about his plan for the immediate future: ice fishing

Mondale was at another airport where one of my sisters - for some unknown reason – was sobbing. He approached her and asked if he could do anything to help her. She was so surprised at his offer – she stopped crying.

Politicians make calculated speeches with well-scripted lines, seek election and ponder the impact of their decisions. But I have been impressed with this Minnesota man in his small acts of gracious kindness. May his recovery be swift – and offer enough time to get up north and drop a favorite line: through the ice.

(S-R archive photo: 2011)

Death by Prada?

A polar bear has died at a Stuttgart, Germany zoo from ingesting a purse – and a coat. Anton, a 25-year-old beloved polar bear, presented strange behavior and started spitting out pieces of fabric, alerting zookeepers that perhaps something was wrong. Heroic attempts to save the bear failed.

Most likely the items were dropped by a visitor; the loss is a reminder that even when living in controlled captivity, wild animals are subject to humans’ behavior.

Anton's demise is another reminder that we never know our time, place – or cause – of departing the planet. 

(S-R archive photo)

Shirley Temple dies

She sang and tap danced her way into the hearts of anyone who watched her perform. She was adorable and talented. Shirley Temple became America’s first and most famous child star.

Temple, 85, died Monday at her home near San Francisco with loved ones near.

Temple retired from show business at age 21 and went on to marry, raise her children and then serve her country as a diplomat under Republican administrations. In the 1970s, she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana and later U.S. chief of protocol. She served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

Her legacy to America cannot be overstated – even as a child she was beloved around the world. When she turned 9 (intentionally publicized as 8 by the studio) she received 135,000 gifts from admirers around the world – including a baby kangaroo from Australia and a Jersey calf from children in Oregon. She once reported that when she went to visit Santa, he asked her for her autograph.

While Shirley Temple will be remembered for her entertainment during times of struggle, war and uncertainty, Temple says her greatest achievements are that of being a wife, mother and grandmother.

In a world of celebrities gone mad with excess, today seems a time to toast  - with a Shirley Temple drink, of course – a woman who shared her gifts of entertaining, diplomacy and love for her family. Lessons we can all take to heart.

(S-R photo)

Big steps

One of my three sisters left today to trek Mt. Kilimanjaro – and I can follow her journey from the comfort of my computer. She is the athletic and adventurous one of us. Her life has been filled with big transitions in the last year so big steps up a mountain may feel like a logical adventure for her. I am awestruck.

As we move through middle age and the dreams of our youth end, disappear or never arrive, we create new dreams in directions our youthful selves could not possibly imagine - like second careers, new loves or big steps to our inner selves.

My sister has traveled deeply inward over the last 12 months – her trek up Kilimanjaro makes perfect sense.

Where have your new dreams taken you? 

(S-R archive photo: Dawn's first light illuminates Barafu, the base camp. From here, at 14,950 feet, climbers begin their final push to Kilimanjaro's summit.)

Meet Anne Heyman

Obituaries offer a glimpse into a person's life. Often we learn of remarkable accomplishments through these brief summaries. Anne Heyman is a woman who transformed lives, offering life-saving hope.She is a woman whose legacy we should know.

In 2005, when Anne Heyman learned of the 1.2 million orphans left behind from the genocide in Rwanda, she decided to make a difference in their futures. She determined that villages for the children – like the ones in Israel for young Holocaust survivors – could offer hope.

Heyman, a New York attorney turned philanthropist, raised $12 million, acquired 144 acres in eastern Rwanda and built 32 houses. The village was named Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village – “Agahozo” means “a place where tears are dried.” The village opened in 2008 welcoming children orphaned from the 1994 genocide, next children whose parents had died of AIDS came to the village, and now other vulnerable children are welcomed, too.

Heyman’s village houses about 500 children who attend school, farm the land, learn trades, record music and perhaps most importantly, belong to a family who loves and cares for them.

Anne Heyman, 52, died on January 31 after falling from a horse. She sustained head injuries followed by cardiac arrest.

Anne Heyman, inspired by the tragedy of the Holocaust, spent her education, money and passion to save orphaned children. May her remarkable legacy of healing and compassion continue.

(S-R archive illustration)

What if…?

What if each of us went into our local school and paid for the lunch of just one child – for the whole year? What difference would that make?

One Texas man paid off the lunchroom debt of all 60 students who could not afford their lunch - many on the subsidized lunch program costing 40 cents per day. The gesture cost him $465 – and the reward? “The best money I ever spent,” says Kenny Thompson.  

A great investment. I know adults who remember their childhood of poverty and hunger; they recall the embarrassment suffered and their longing to have someone care. They remember the kindnesses shown, too.

One lunch, one child, one huge difference. 

(S-R archive photo: Spokane Public Schools nutrition services worker Julia Rowe places slices of pizza into the display area for Ferris High School students’ lunch)

Family matters

The Catholic sisters lost their beloved dog to lymphoma; an elderly dog languishing in a nearby shelter needs a home. Together they form a new family. 

Many shelters across America house abandoned or lost pets. According to The Humane Society of the United States each year about 2.7 million healthy dogs and cats (about one every 11 seconds) are put down;  perfectly adoptable animals are sentenced to death.

Often families want the perfect pet so they purchase a purebred puppy.  However, most families who claim shelter pets will tell you: these affectionate creatures seem grateful for their rescue. And that makes them perfect pets.

Just ask the sisters, whose rescued dog came into their lives and rescued them.

(S-R archive photo)

Smokin’ hot decision

Retail pharmacy CVS will no longer sell tobacco. The company will lose an estimated $2 billion in sales, but CVS Pharmacy president Helen Foulkes believes it is a move that makes sense. CVS is the first large retail pharmacy chain to eliminate tobacco from its shelves.

First Lady Michelle Obama agrees that the decision sends a message about healthcare choices in our country where 42 million people still smoke and 480,000 deaths are smoking related. Smoking is highest among people with less income and less education. 

(S-R archive photo)

A lovely endnote

The Seattle Seahawks will ride down 4th Avenue this morning in celebration of their Super Bowl win. Friends set their alarm clocks for before sunrise to bundle up and commute into the big city seeking a good spot along the parade route.

Amid all the seriousness of life, a community celebration of sports may seem trivial, but for all the rallying we have done around tragic events, a joyful gathering seems a perfect place to touch down one’s heart.                                            

Congratulations to a team of fine athletes, good men and a coach who leads with grace – all the way into the end zone.

(S-R photo: Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson laughs with head coach Pete Carroll.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman

He was an Oscar-winning actor, Screen Actors Guild winner, too; he was esteemed, wealthy, talented, a drug addict. The face of drug addiction seems to always surprise us – as though the addiction could be canceled out by an Oscar acceptance speech or a winning role or a happy marriage or just the right life. It can’t.

If the answer were easy, we would have it. We don’t. And while we postulate and ponder, another talented person in the public world succumbs to the evil of addiction. 

(S-R archive photo: Philip Seymour Hoffman won best actor honors in 2006 at the Screen Actors Guild awards in Los Angeles.)

Birthday wishes

I am 59 years old today. I wrote a reflection when I turned 49 about all the birthdays I had ending in “9” and how good they were.  A happy childhood at 9 –skating on those Minnesota ponds in winter; birthday cake and hot cocoa.  College dorm celebration at 19, finishing graduate school at 29, my child placed in my arms when I was 39. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 49.

But at 59? I am here. And that was what I longed for at 49 – just more years to be with my beloved child and raise him. Thank God…for the amazing doctors and supportive friends and fearless husband and scared, relieved child. I look forward to 69, but life is so very unpredictable and unfair. No guarantees. I know this is true from standing at memorial services for beloved people who left too soon.

Time. Our best birthday gift. I hope to use it wisely,

(S-R archive photo)

Phil says…

Six more weeks of winter. I think even I could have predicted that one. Bundle up!

(S-R archive photo: Punxsutawney Phil, the weather predicting groundhog, stands on the shoulder of one of his handlers )

Super Bowl!

Let the game begin! So fun to have the home team in the big game.

That said, I have little hope. Not because the Seahawks lack ability to win; no, I just don’t want to be disappointed again. And again. And again.

I grew up in Minnesota where the Minnesota Vikings reign as the home team. My dad had tickets on the 50-yard line and we would bundle up in ridiculous, but warm clothing, arm ourselves with thermoses of hot cocoa and watch those guys run the field at Met Stadium, a stadium with wind, snow, sleet - no roof.  But the Vikings made it to the Super Bowl four times – and lost four times. They tie with Buffalo for that distinction.

Today, I will watch for the guys who have won football games and made a difference in the lives of others. Russell Wilson, sweet man, who visits children each week at the hospital. And Derrick Coleman, who inspires those with hearing loss: as the first legally deaf player in the NFL, he tells people “don’t let a disability stand in the way of your dreams.” And he reaches out to children who share his hearing challenges.

Big dreams. Good men.  Kind hearts. A winning team.

(S-R archive photo)

Pete Seeger ~ singer, activist, regular guy

Pete Seeger died last week at 94 years old. He sang at labor rallies and an inaugural celebration. He performed on stage and staged protests. His music played in the background of more than one generation as we grew up, fell in love, defined ourselves and defied government decisions.

As one friend said, “He lived so long because he had so much to do.” 

(S-R archive photo: Pete Seeger, 2004)

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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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