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Miss America

The whole strutting one’s body in a swimsuit in hopes of “winning,” goes against all my sensibilities. Have to say.

Still, I smile when I think of the Miss America pageant. As a little girl, I watched the annual cattle call-like festivities with my grandmother and she would ask, “Cathy Ann, who should we root for?” We kept score and wrote down our favorites. I loved the event because grandma and I hissed and clapped through the two-hour program. And I got to stay up late.

Some traditions have little inherent value, except for the memories. And that means everything.

(S-R photo: Miss Montana Victoria Valentine displays her shoe during the Miss America Shoe Parade at the Atlantic City boardwalk .)


Mental health crisis

We walk the streets of our communities and at any time we see them: persons who have mental illness.

When one of these persons commits a crime – or is it a crime if they have limited awareness? – they are arrested and put in jail. While waiting for appropriate care, psychiatric care at a hospital, many of these people spend months in jail. And their mental health status deteriorates.

“Mental-health advocates are seeking class-action status in a federal lawsuit arguing that holding these patients in jail violates right to due process and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Many hope the Legislature will intervene with more funding,” writes Andy Mannix in a Seattle Times story.  

Our society has lost its way in caring for people who cannot find their way.

(S-R archive photo)

September 11: we remember

We remember where we were, the images on television, the accounting for friends and family who live in New York City. My sisters and I frantically called each other to learn about my brother-in-law. He was in Lower Manhattan on business.  After sixty minutes, he called home from a post office where cops had ushered pedestrians inside as the sky rained debris.  He witnessed the second plane hitting the tower.

Thousands of families lost loved ones to the reigning terror of hate.  People who worked hard to provide a life for their families, for themselves, were suddenly lost to madness. Cops, fire fighters, investment professionals, service workers, a priest who rushed in to help - his lifeless body carried out by first responders. Lovely people, gone.

In the months following, victims’ families found each other, sharing anguish, telling stories. The families gathered in a room with a view, in a spartan office space at a 54-story tower: 1 Liberty Plaza, twenty stories above Ground Zero.  While cleanup workers and tourists moved frantically below, the unnoticed Family Room evolved into sacred space. People brought their unfathomable pain, artifacts representing loved ones and their stories. The unplanned space became a sanctuary of grief and hope.

This summer the Family Room was replaced with a new private gathering space in the National September 11 Memorial Museum. The artifacts from the original room were offered back to families. Some people reclaimed the items while others donated their holy objects to the New York State Museum in Albany.

The exhibit – honoring 1,000 victims – is the most singular collection of the faces of those who died that day. One item, a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, has an accompanying note: “So you can see in heaven.”

September 11. A day we can see on Earth that love transcends all evil, love cannot be destroyed.    

(S-R photo: A woman places a hand on the names engraved along the South reflecting pool at the Ground Zero memorial site. )

Cleaning up and letting go

My husband and I cleaned out the storage area above the garage – without marital discord. He likes to toss, while I like to “consider” how an item may be useful, still. Add in the his/hers factor: as comedian George Carlin said, “Please move your crap so I have room for my stuff!”

After we sifted through the home repair remnants of paint cans, wood trim and unidentifiable weird stuff, we found collections of our younger years: camping gear, cross-country skis and lots and lots of baby items.  We know we will never camp again (his back issues); I insisted we keep the skis; the baby items are a time capsule for our son.   Soon I will open the plastic bins and show him how his mom dressed him in his infancy and toddler days. Then the little clothes will go off to someone else’s little person.

My husband discovered several boxes of notebooks from work.  Now retired, he happily tossed notebook after notebook from the upper level of the storage area down into the trash can below. “The final letting go,” he declared.

I felt sadness in my throat – and a bit of relief - as I watched artifacts of our younger years hit the ground. The cleaning out was a letting go of stuff and an era, recognizing we are entering a new stage of life: only the essentials, just practical tools needed for our senior years. 

(S-R archive photo)

Retirement home cuisine? Five-star delight

The baby-boom generation is moving into their elder years and bringing their great expectations – like fabulous food. And many senior living facilities are seeking to meet that expectation.

In the Chicago area, the Mather, a senior living community, the chef creates duck breasts and pork chops worthy of a five-star restaurant menu. Catholic retired sisters across town at Mercy Circle drink fruit-enhanced water and enjoy whipped butter on house-baked rolls.

And why not? Senior housing seeks to accommodate the needs of its residents. Fresh, healthy food provides a therapeutic advantage over tapioca from a blender as well as a reason to gather in community and break bread together – really good bread, that is.

(S-R photo)


Cancer drug success

The FDA has approved a new class of drugs to fight cancer. The first drug – Keytruda - was approved for patients with advanced melanoma, patients for whom other treatments have failed. Other drugs in trials have been successful against kidney and lung cancers.

The drugs allow one’s own immune system to attack the cancer. As success continues with this new group of drugs, we may see fewer cancer patients prescribed chemotherapy, so toxic and debilitating.   For all cancer patients comes a message of hope.

(S-R archive photo: In the movie “50/50,” the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt undergoes chemotherapy, sees a therapist and ultimately survives.)

Joan Rivers

America’s funniest funny woman has died. Joan Rivers, 81, died one week after she suffered cardiac arrest during a medical procedure.

She leaves a daughter, Melissa, and a grandson, Cooper, and a nation who couldn’t help but laugh at her quick wit, her outrageous comments.  She never stopped - until today.

Heaven welcomes home another star. Joan Rivers joins Robin Williams – what a reunion.

(S-R photo: Melissa and Joan Rivers)

Kick-off to fall

Fall is really here now. School busses lumber through our neighborhoods, the cool morning air heralds change. And tonight the Seahawks kick off the professional football season against the Green Bay Packers.

Enjoy the melancholy of autumn, when crisp leaves skitter across cement, marching bands with their drummers beat out cadence; a new rhythm arrives in September. The chaos of summer wanes. Our journey continues.

(S-R photo: Russell Wilson, Seattle quarterback)

Off the menu

Tracking and living by the “experts’ findings” on food choices can make one’s head – and perhaps stomach – hurt.  Low carb? Low fat?  Vegan? A new major study claims that people who avoid carbohydrates and eat fat – even the saturated kinds of fat – will lose weight and have fewer cardiovascular problems. Trans fat is the exception.

Somewhere in the midst of seeking the magic equation for good health, we may benefit from following our ancestors’ habits: eat a variety of unprocessed foods, then go outside and burn off the calories – harvesting the farmland or hitting tennis balls. 

(S-R archive photo)

Retired and restless?

With 10,000 baby boomers retiring each day, the question emerges: “What are all those people doing now?”

Many boomers are selling their homes, shedding possessions and hitting the road – or check-in gate. Last year 360,000 Americans received their Social Security benefits at foreign addresses. Seems travel and travel and travel is a retirement activity.

With limited funds, seniors are having  great times – far away from home. Instead of sleeping at the Ritz-Carlton, seniors are snoozing at short-term vacation rentals or even couch surfing; yes, there is a couch-surfing website for those over 50.

Decades ago many boomers hitched rides across Europe with only a backpack and their youthful fitness; even at 60 or 70-something, it is not too late to see the world. Just don’t leave home without your AARP identification.

(S-R archive photo)

School blues?

When the first day of school started each September my mom put out the American flag. She was delighted, okay, ecstatic, watching her four daughters return to class; she welcomed routine.

But no one ever wondered about the family dog’s response. Seems our canine creatures may suffer separation anxiety when children leave for the school bus. If your puppy barks, howls - or worse - destroys furniture, shoes, toys, he may just be anxious and lonely.

Tips to help: keep departure time happy with treats or toys; create a comfy place of repose for your dog; start the new routine with a few practice days. If the house continues to receive the wrath of Fido, consult a veterinarian.

Our dogs give us unconditional love and acceptance and we reward them with our attention. No wonder they react when we withdraw and head for the classroom. Happy September.

(S-R archive photo) 

Diane Sawyer

Last night Diane Sawyer, anchor for ABC World News, ended her five-year stint. She says she looks forward to the future of possibilities. Sawyer, 68, is not retiring; instead she is moving her office down the hall and upstairs where she will work on investigative projects for ABC.

The object lesson?  Our lives are filled with possibilities – never too late to pursue.

(S-R archive photo: Diane Sawyer)


When cops shoot

With a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the last few weeks have brought great conversation, protests and violence. The attention on police shootings has been from the perspective of citizens, not police officials.

Writer Sean Robinson of the Tacoma News Tribune examines the history of police shootings in Pierce County (Tacoma area) and details the process law enforcement must implement following an officer-involved shooting. While citizens often believe eye witness accounts,  those accounts are not always accurate.  Instead, science can provide accurate evidence regarding a use-of-force event.  

Cancer - again

The doctor winced as she looked at me and said, “You don’t have many wrinkles.”

“And that is bad?” I asked.

“Well, not bad, but wrinkles make it easier to hide the incision.”

It started as a little red dot on my face that would not go away. I asked an esthetician to look at it. “If it doesn’t resolve in two weeks, get an appointment with a dermatologist,” she said.

I did. And learned the little red dot on my face is skin cancer. The pathology report said basal cell carcinoma, as suspected, and surprise! Some squamous cell cancer is here, too. The squamous cell cancer had “roots” and can metastasize.

Now, 11 days after the cancer was totally removed - “You caught it early,” the doc said - the earthworm-looking lumpy line on my face is no longer bright red, the dissolvable stitches are dissolving and my hysteria has (almost) subsided.

Ten years ago I had breast cancer; I was not looking for another version of this insidious affliction. But even as a great indoors person, I was vulnerable.

“We all ran around in the sun as children and sunscreen did not become perfected until about 15 years ago. And we live where there is a high rate of skin cancer,” my dermatologist said.

Yes, in the dreary, rainy, cloudy Pacific Northwest. Our temperate climate invites us to wear shorts all year and who would think to apply sunscreen when walking in 50-degree cloudy weather?  Yes, harmful rays get through the fog.

My doc told me genetics factor in. Hmmm. My dad had exactly the same skin cancer in exactly the same spot on his face.

So learn the risks and take precautions. The world offers enough trouble without worshipping it on the beach. 

(S-R photo: City Beach in Coeur d’Alene )

August: A time of thin lines

The last few weeks have plagued us with thin lines: the line for Robin Williams between hope and despair. He fell across that line into despair and left us.

We don’t know yet what lines were crossed in Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer shot and killed another person. We have crossed the line from known facts to speculation to conclusion to violence. We wait for the lines of evidence to be made clear, for due process to be afforded. For now, confusion has crossed the line of civility into chaos.

Riot police and soldiers in Liberia, under orders, used scrap wood and barbed wire to seal off 50,000 people inside their Liberian slum in an attempt to contain the Ebola outbreak. One 15-year-old boy was injured as he tried to cross the line of barbed wire.

August angst: a time when life hangs in the balance with thin lines that contain, taunt and sometimes break.

(S-R photo: Attorney General Eric Holder shakes hands with Bri Ehsan, 25, right, following his meeting with students at St. Louis Community College Florissant Valley in Ferguson, Mo.)


Boomer graduation? never too late

When Sandra Lantz was four months away from her 1963 high school graduation, she was also six-months pregnant. The Bothell High School principal and vice principal quietly took her aside and told her she must leave school – and not graduate. That day she left through a back door and walked five miles to her home.

That fall Sandra attended technical school to earn her remaining two credits, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, worked as a social worker; she wrote a book; she also married and had more children.

Over the weekend, Sandra officially graduated from Bothell High School. After lawyers and school officials reviewed the needed process and documents, Sandra was able to become an official graduate of the BHS Class of 1963.

Her commencement comment? “Now I belong.”

Anne Lamott speaks

Anne Lamott writes about faith, recovery from addiction, and the profound presence of God in the ordinariness of life. She is not pious or pretentious – she has lived through too much pain and suffering for that nonsense.

Robin Williams was her neighbor when she was growing up in the Bay area. Anne writes of his life, mental health and our common search for meaning in the raw pain of life.  

(S-R archive photo: Anne Lamott)

Beds for mental health patients

With Robin Williams’ death this week, Americans – for the moment anyway – seek a greater understanding of mental health and the need for appropriate care for that patient population.

On August 27 Washington state hospitals will no longer serve as boarding facilities for people needing mental health care. The Washington State Supreme Court has declared it so.

Gov. Inslee announced 50 beds - split among Eastern State Hospital, private hospitals in Kirkland and Tukwila and community boarding homes - will be added in the next two weeks for those needing mental health care. The need is profoundly greater, but 50 beds is a beginning.

Next, we need to mandate that jails – like hospitals – are grossly inappropriate settings for mentally ill people. They languish in jails without care or access to health assessments, medication or time with loved ones, waiting months for an available bed. To place psychiatric patients in jail is like sending a cancer patient to a Greyhound Bus station waiting room. Totally absurd.

(S-R archive photo: Sunlight filters through the clouds, illuminating the Apurimac river in Pichari, Peru. )

Just hit “Return”

My son was reading a book a few years ago and paused to ask me, “Mom, what does a typewriter look like?” I went to the storage area above the garage and hauled out my extremely heavy electric typewriter. I could never let it go.

“This is what a typewriter looks like!” I said as I extracted it from its case. Decades later, it still smells like graduate school to me.  

Bob Montgomery, 92, repairs typewriters. Really.  He works every weekday, taking the bus to his downtown Bremerton, Wash. office. The drawers and plastic boxes in his office house little tiny parts that only Bob knows how and where to install, often on IBM Selectric machines from the 1961-1986 era.

Montgomery was drafted during World War II and trained as an infantryman.  But once his typewriter repair skills were known, that became his duty.

Now Montgomery serves nostalgic writers and others who abhor computers;  and he may soon welcome an S-R blogger at his office door, dragging her ancient writing machine behind her.

(S-R archive photo: In this Oct. 5, 1960 AP file photo, Jacqueline Kennedy poses at her typewriter where she writes her weekly “Candidate's Wife” column in her Georgetown home in Washington.)


Robin Williams ~ RIP

He was outrageously hilarious – and quietly kind. Robin Williams, 63, was found dead on Monday around noon at his Marin County home, north of San Francisco. The cause of death is apparently suicide.

He won an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting;” he played a cross-dresser – trying to win back his children – in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” He arrived from a different planet in “Mork ‘n Mindy.” He entertained troops in “Good Morning, Viet Nam.”

His role in real life was one of father, husband, friend and dedicated American. He entertained troops on tour and then left the stage to find the soldiers who could not attend the big show – the cooks in the mess hall, those standing guard, those caring for wounded.

While his wit rivaled lightning speed, his demons could not be held back by wit or willpower. Williams suffered with depression and addiction. He once told Diane Sawyer nothing causes those urgings to “use.” It is just a little voice that suggests one drink, one use, is okay.

When a friend takes his/her own life, we often ask how we  missed the signs. But mental illness, such as depression, is a demon that dresses up well, an actor unto itself. Easy to miss its presence.

Our grief cannot will Robin Williams back among us. But we can seek greater understanding of mental illness, addiction, and remember the man who brought us laughter in a life filled, especially today, with sadness and pain.

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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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