Pandemic got you down? Famous sages (and a song & dance duo) offer tips (and taps)

“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”  Nelson Mandela

Of the nearly 300 profiles I’ve written, most are stories of survival.  I started with my own.  If reading about what I survived could help someone else, my struggles had benefit beyond the misery they caused me and the insight I gained.   They had meaning.

After writing books about my marriage and cancer ordeals, I had a talk with God, my editor-in-chief.  Dear God, I prayed, you gave me the gift of words.  Could I take a break from writing about my own suffering?

Sensing a heavenly thumbs up, I was guided to write about other peoples’ survival.  I’ve been gratified and overwhelmed by the stories I’ve heard.  I featured Destry Ramey, a nurse who died recently but lived with spunk and determination for many years despite 7 different battles with cancer.

I wrote about Soon Hagerty, a Vietnamese boat person who came to America, became an entrepreneur and started a restaurant that gives 10%  of every meal to charity.

And Elana Ackerman whose childhood struggles with leukemia inspired her to become a doctor.

About Derek Black, a white nationalist who publicly recanted his biased beliefs.

And Rabbi Danny Syme, whose brother’s suicide caused him to dedicate his life to suicide prevention.  And.  And.  And.

I’ve been honored to share these stories and many more.  Someday eons from now, this colossal wet blanket, Covid-19, will be a footnote in history.  Someone’s great, great grandchild might be curious enough about their heritage to look online and gain inspiration from my words about their ancestors.

The stories I tell are mostly about resilience.  Getting knocked down happens to the best, the brightest, the richest and poorest of us. It’s about getting up again.  A process perfectly captured in that irresistible tune by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields from the 1936 movie “Swing Time.” The lyrics are as relevant more than 80 years later as they were when written, in the middle of the Great Depression.

“…Don’t lose your confidence
If you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip.
And pick yourself up
Dust yourself off
And start all over again.”  

There’s another relevant wisdom that relates to resilience.  A phrase we’ve all quoted dozens of times lately: “This, too, shall pass.”

Thinking the expression came from the Bible, I looked it up to quote chapter and verse.  In fact, it’s not found in the Bible.  It originated in the writings of medieval Persian Sufi poets like Rumi.

In 1859, Abraham Lincoln referenced it in recounting a story…

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent a sentence… which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations.  They presented him the words, ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’  How much it expresses!  How chastening in the hour of pride!  How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it’s how interdependent we are.  We sink or swim together.  The more careless we are about not wearing masks, breaking social distancing rules, touching our faces, the more of us will be jeopardized and lost.

Be consoled in these depths of affliction.  This, too, shall pass.  Please be vigilant.  Let’s not pass with it.

Want to hear it from Astaire and Rogers?

Want to see the whole musical? Amazon rents it for $3.99. Netflix offers it for DVD subscribers, but not for streaming. For the moment, though, we’ve got 2 minutes of the hit song right here …

Meditation, vocab and other productive ways to spend time during a pandemic

WHO CONVINCED ME NOT TO GIVE UP ON MEDITATION? Kenny Loggins.

I’ve seen reenactments of paintings, concerts from living rooms, funny memes and other clever ways  to stay sane and connected in a pandemic.  I’ve found another benefit of these long, lonely days at home.

A practice many discovered sooner, but that’s eluded me ’til now.  Current circumstances render it a lifesaver.

Over the years, I’ve tried to meditate.  I attended Debbie Ford’s program and remained “in silence” for a weekend.  I read Pema Chodron.  I listened to Dan Harris’ podcast on “10% Happier”.  Meditators claim the process makes them calmer, more attentive.  I’ve tried  it sitting in a chair and sitting cross legged on the floor.  I’ve tried it with a bolster pillow and without.  (This sounds like a version of “Green Eggs & Ham.”)

Nada.  I was too fidgety and impatient.

My sister Anne visited us in Sarasota about 10 years ago.  Singer Kenny Loggins, whom she knows from Santa Barbara, was performing that night at the Van Wezel.  We hung out with him in the afternoon and took him to the Ringling Museum.  He was pleasant but reserved.  He spent considerable time admiring and photographing blossoms in the Ringling rose garden.  He insisted on returning to his hotel before the performance for 2 hours of meditation; said he did so before every performance.  That night Loggins blasted onto the stage and rocked it with so much energy I couldn’t believe it was the same person. 

There had to be something to this meditation thing even though it didn’t work for me.

When I was in treatment for cancer, agonizing over my fate, friend and meditation coach Donna Rockwell visited.  She advised regarding thoughts as waves, letting them come and go, observing  how they arise and subside.  The wave image proved helpful over the years as I felt anger or anxiety and told myself: relax; it will pass.  But actually devoting time to meditation on a regular basis?  It was not happening.

One recent morning, I tried it again.  With no tee time, meeting or social reason to get up, I laid on my back and stayed in bed.  I focused on my breathing and let thoughts come and go and kept returning to my breath.  My mind felt like a playground, jumping from the swing to the slide to the monkey bars and back again.  Since it was morning (and my sleeping pill had worked), I was rested.  I managed to meditate for 20 minutes.  When I arose, I felt a little more light hearted.  The next morning, I tried it again.  My thoughts felt heavier, less playful.  The third morning, more peaceful.  Having now meditated for a week, I’ve learned a range of experiences is normal.

Appreciate what arises; don’t judge it.

(What makes this morning indulgence possible is the presence of Fayez, our good natured, strong and capable aide.  Because a side effect of Burton’s brain surgery was to shut down his left side, he needs help getting out of bed.   God bless Fayez—our angel, morning, noon and night.)

Whether or not my prone method is the proscribed approach, I’ll keep trying.  Rather than meditate the way that was recommended, the way I should, I’ll go with what works for me.  I seldom do well with shoulds.  One of the thoughts that came and went this past week was a memory of my prep school days and the note my parents received from head mistress, Miss Goodale.  “Susan would be a good student if she didn’t talk so much in study hall.”  Sounds like a should to me.

During this quarantine, I’ve also started learning new words.  Among them: escarpment: a long, steep slope separating areas of land at different heights.  And arrogate:  to take or claim to oneself something not justified (as in: I was once a champion golfer).

One more activity proved great fun.  Fayez (whom we affectionately call Faisal J) celebrated a birthday on Easter.  He had planned to go home to Detroit for the weekend.  Thanks to C-19, he stayed put.  I surprised him with a parody to the tune “We Ain’t Got Dames.”  I enlisted cousin Judie Koploy (in Detroit) and sister Anne Towbes (in Santa Barbara), both Faisal J fans, as part of my trio.  (Sister Anne can actually sing.)  We engaged in several hilarious  rehearsals.  Sarasota friend Phyllis Keyser, once an elementary school teacher, loaned me a kingly costume for Fayez and video’d the performance.  Fayez’s good friend Monica Wheelock (in Atlanta) facilitated our participation on Zoom.  Our performance was a hit with its audience of one.

Thank God if we had to put up with a pandemic, it happened in an era of Zoom.  (The wine I sipped with some of my Detroit besties last week on Zoom helped, too.)

Hope you’re managing to have fun, stay connected and make the most of this vital shut-in.  If you’ve come up with productive or creative ways to spend time, please share them.  And if you aren’t already doing so, do yourself a favor.

Try meditating.

Thanks.  Be safe.

Namaste.

Will Covid-19 change the way we think, feel and behave?

In times of crisis, prayer is my number one go to.  Number two: booze. These days the order is debatable.  Some clever posts have shown up on social media lately.  One begins: As a result of this crisis, 50% of us will become better cooks. 50% will become alcoholics.

In a recent column, Peggy Noonan wrote about the fact that with so many businesses closed, liquor stores remain open.  “…there isn’t a politician in the country stupid enough to prohibit alcohol in a national crisis.  They may know on some level that no nation in the history of the world has closed both its churches and its liquor stores simultaneously and survived.  Russia after the revolution closed the churches but did its best to keep vodka available because they wanted everyone drunk, which is the only way to get through communism.”

Amen to that.

ONE OF MANY IMAGES OF HOPE! From Left—Granddaughters Lindsay, Camryn and Alexis Farbman visit our lanai to wish us Happy Anniversary at a safe distance. social distance

Friends have been posting gorgeous photos of meals they’ve been making.  I look at them with awe.  Wishing I were at their table.  And I turn back to my crossword puzzle.  Or to whatever I’m reading.

I’m currently reading Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile –perfect for the moment as it deals with another of the worst periods in modern history.  In that case a visible enemy.  It examines 1940-41, years in which France capitulated, Britain suffered constant bombings and Churchill rallied his country (and eventually ours) to face down the Nazis.   After evacuating more than 330,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk on whatever vessels could be had, the P.M. used his epic oratory skills to uplift his nation.  .

“…Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.  If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward onto broad, sunlit uplands.

“But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.  Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and to bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Even before this pandemic I teared up upon hearing that speech.  As we stay home day after day, witnessing the toll this disease takes, it feels as though we’ve fallen into another abyss.  Hopefully we’ll be saved by an inspired and uplifting science.  By remarkably selfless and brave medical professionals.  And by the fight in which we’re all engaged—staying home, saying prayers, sewing masks, delivering food, donating money.

I wonder about the long-term effects of this pandemic.  What will it do to our values?  Our social consciousness?  To my favorite city in the world: Manhattan?  I read about a stunning new high- rise residential tower in New York.  Deposits were put down months ago on multi-million dollar condos.  A clause lets buyers walk away if the building isn’t finished by a certain date.  That date fast approaches.  Will more and more such buildings stand empty?

Shopping with girlfriends has been one of my favorite sports.  I worry about retail stores and malls, already challenged by Amazon.  Will in-person shopping decline?

Will the current ethos of stay home/stay safe/save money carry over?  Will it change our thinking and spending decisions?  And will that be bad or good?  Will religion and/or spirituality play a bigger role in our lives?   Will we become more altruistic and less self-centered?  Or revert to spending excess and monetary displays?

The free world roared back from the brink after WWII.  But I’m guessing we’ll emerge from this pandemic somehow changed.  More sober.  Less demonstrative—physically and financially.  Less flashy.  I’m a hugger.  My sister, Anne’s, an even bigger hugger.  She hugs strangers on first meeting them.  I hate to think of a hug free world, but casual embraces may be gestures of the past.   Even shaking hands is up for question.

I’d love to hear your thinking.  Will you go on a spending spree post-pandemic or will you rein in?  Will your behavior change?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog.  Thanks.

Meanwhile, stay safe.  And may we once more move forward unto broad, sunlit uplands.

Beloved choir director Judy Stafford, though no longer on this earth, brings hope to sister-in-law and knitting pro Candy Watson and others

THOSE RED CHOIR ROBES: From left—Jenn Stafford, Judy Stafford, Candy Watson, Wendy Amuso (Judy’s sister) and Amy Bloomer (Wendy’s daughter).

At a time when so many of us are suffering losses, the late Judy Stafford manages to bring comfort.

Judy was “larger than life,” says sister-in-law Candy Watson.  “Caring, funny, irreverent.”

Judy died 6 months ago.  Way too soon for the family, church members and community who adored her.   Judy was choir director of Williamsville United Methodist Church outside Buffalo, NY, and “the backbone of our family,” Candy says.

3 generations of family, including 12 grandchildren, lived within a few blocks of each other. Judy’s  packed schedule included hosting frequent family dinners for 25.  Judy and her sister Wendy were superb pianists.  Their church started the 2 Sisters Foundation to honor the sisters’ over 30 years of service.   Judy was Candy’s best friend.

Judy and Dave dancing in 2009.

Every summer, Judy and husband Dave threw a pool party for 80 family and friends.  Judy entertained guests playing the piano and singing songs with lyrics she revised.  Such as a spoof about church donations “… Each time we turn around they’re asking for more.  We throw it in the plate/ And it evaporates…”

Judy was working on a memoir she hoped might someday interest her grandchildren.  She wrote about her 6 year on-and-off relationship with Dave.  She and her date and Dave and his date saw a movie and returned to Dave’s apartment.  She went into the kitchen to help Dave fix drinks.  Dave said he’d heard she was engaged.  Was she happy?  “I suddenly burst into tears and said, ‘No, I still love you.’”  She broke off the engagement; gave back “a very impressive solitaire.”

Judy’s unfinished memoir ends with her sitting in her and Dave’s first house—a “fixer upper” Cape Cod.  She’s holding baby Marc on her shoulder “…looking out the picture window at our lovely street.  I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world! Then Marc threw up down the back of my shirt…”

Despite her talent, humor and spunk, Judy was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic adenocarcinoma last year.  Roswell Cancer Center told her chemo might buy her 2 more months.  Judy said: Bring it on.  She lost her hair, her stomach swelled up.  But she stayed alive to care for Dave who died of COPD.  Judy died 2 weeks later.  She was 70.

Members of the Buffalo Philharmonic played at the memorial service.  Judy’s choir was so respected that the associate director of the Buffalo Philharmonic belonged and had accompanied her on organ or piano many times.   Judy’s brother Ron gave her eulogy.  Speaking of Judy’s devotion to Dave despite her weakened condition, Ron said, “I don’t know, on Judgment Day, if there will be long lines of people waiting to get into Heaven.  But if there are, Judy was in the TSA Precheck Express line and didn’t have to wait at all.”

Days later, the Godsigns began…

In October, a week after Judy’s service, Candy and Ron took time off from the heartbreak at their condo on Siesta Key in Sarasota.  Candy was sitting on the sofa, knitting.  She heard a knocking on the window.  She looked up.  A striped woodpecker perched on the ledge.  She walked to the window and took a photo.  “Judy?” she asked.   She later learned black and white stripes are a symbol for neuro-endocrine cancers.  (Candy feels great but has recently been treated for neuro-endocrine pancreatic cancer.)

Candy mentioned the bird visit to her girlfriend Diane Falso.  Diane told her to look for pennies and/or flickering lights as signs from Judy.  “I didn’t listen,” Candy says.  “I didn’t believe in that malarkey.”

Soon she changed her mind.

A talented knitter, Candy designs patterns she sells on her own website www.candylou.com.  And on Instagram (@candyloucreations).  She creates photo shoots promoting her designs.  3 weeks after Judy died, Candy set up a display of her knitting on a patio table she styled with candles and shells.  She posted a shot to Instagram.   Minutes later, she returned to the patio.  A shiny penny sat on the tabletop.  She asked husband Ron if he’d put it there.  He shook his head.  He hadn’t been outside.

Candy said, “We never carry around coins.”

Ron: “It must be Judy.”

Candy studied her photos.  No penny in any of them.

Ron had gone to work.  The Watsons’ border collie, Abby, tracked in mud.  Candy vacuumed and washed the floor, then went out for groceries.  When she returned, a penny lay on the floor of the back hall.  Candy told Diane about the pennies.  Diane advised, “You need to be receptive.”

Days later, Candy vacuumed her closet.  When she returned, a penny sat on the closet floor.  She told Diane about the episodes.  Diane said, “When someone you love dies, they exist as pure energy.  They look for ways to let you know they’re still here.”

Dining at their local club with the family, Candy said to Wendy, “The idea of life after death is part of our religion.  I guess I shouldn’t be so skeptical.”   Minutes later, lights above the table started flickering.  They flickered for about 5 minutes.   Over the next few days, lights in the Watsons’ family room flickered periodically.  “Ron and I would say, ‘Hi, Judy.’”

The weekend after Thanksgiving, Candy and Ron set up their Christmas tree.  After, as they watched TV, the lights on the tree “flickered like crazy.”  Candy says they were “too lazy” to jiggle the cord.

“Maybe it’s Judy,” Candy said.

“Maybe it is,” Ron said.

Just then the lights stopped flickering.

Judy had always hosted the family Christmas dinner.  Everyone looked forward to her baked ham, cheesy potatoes and deviled eggs.  Candy deemed Judy “a great cook” who’d written cookbooks for different charities.

After Judy died, her daughter Jenn posted a message on Facebook.  “When my glorious mother was given a short time left, she didn’t crumple up like she could have.  No, she got out a yellow pad and started making her to do list.”  That list included organizing her 7th cookbook.  Jenn’s post concludes:   “She got most of it done and Wendy valiantly finished the rest.  We are selling them for $10 as mom had wanted.”  Judy’s latest and last cookbook benefits the Two Sisters Foundation.

Back Row: Wendy, Amy (Wendy’s daughter), Candy, Judy, Lisa (Candy’s daughter), Heather (Candy’s daughter-in-law), Amy Jo (Judy’s daughter-in-law). Front Row: Jenn (Judy’s daughter), Laurie (Candy’s daughter), Christina (Wendy’s daughter-in-law).

Last Christmas, Candy and Ron hosted the family Christmas dinner.  The dining room of their house overlooks the front porch.  Ron had hung icicle lights on the porch and bushes.  “We’re known for the worst lights on the street,” Candy says.  “We’re a neighborhood joke.”   Sitting around the table, Candy was telling the family about the pennies and flickering lights she’d experienced.

“All of a sudden all the outside lights turned off.  Every 4 or 5 seconds, they’d turn on or off.  The little kids were all screaming: On!  Off!  On!  Off!  It lasted about 10 minutes.  We were all crying and laughing and saying ‘Judy’s here’.   And we were all there to see it.”

Candy’s friend Diane sent her a book called Signs.  Author Laura Lynne Jackson discusses the notion of “crossing over” and how to connect with a lost loved one.  Jackson  advises the reader to pick something unusual and ask the deceased to somehow show it to her.

Judy loved coming home and putting on her red robe to watch TV.  And Judy’s choir robe was  red.  Candy asked Judy to show her a red robe.

A few days passed without a sign.  Ron and Candy spent a weekend at their cottage.  The TV was on, but Candy, busy knitting, paid no attention.  Ron and brother-in-law Paul were watching “Patton.”   The cabin lights started flickering.

Candy and Ron said, “Hi, Judy.”

Just after, Ron turned up the volume on the TV, causing Candy, who’s hard of hearing, to look up.   Patton (George C. Scott) said he’d been re-reading Caesar’s Commentaries.  To distinguish himself from his men in battle, Patton said, Caesar had worn a red robe.

David Kessler, an expert on hospice and palliative care, was a colleague of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.  (She wrote about the 5 Stages of Grief:  denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance.)  Kessler, who lost a young son, believes there’s a 6th stage: meaning.  Gratitude for the meaningful moments we’ve shared with a loved one and for what we’ve learned from them.  In Judy Stafford’s case, I’d guess the meaning she brought to so many others is the joy in life she felt and shared.

Thanks, Candy, for introducing us to your joyful, red-robed sister-in-law.  Thanks, Judy, for the idea of writing down your memories.  It’s something we might all consider doing during these long days at home.  Thanks, too, for the pennies from heaven and the light you bring.  We can all use a little more hope.

Judy with her grandchildren.

Seeking divine intervention in a time of crisis

It is not given to human beings—happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable—to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.
Winston Churchill, eulogy for Neville Chamberlain

Click this cover photo to visit the book’s Amazon page.

With a book and a column called Godsigns, you know where I stand on theology.  A listing service I’d never heard of but now revere ranked my book Godsigns #7 on their list of best books to learn about God.  Given the current crisis the world faces, having a higher power seems more urgent.

A few thoughts…

For the past 2 years our family has been dealing with a different ordeal—my husband Burt’s brain cancer.  His left side was paralyzed due to a stroke he suffered during brain surgery.  We’ve been self-quarantined for several days.  Burton, Fayez our caregiver and I are all considered “high risk.”  Prayer helps me to cope and be compassionate (most of the time).

In recent years, among the intelligentsia (whoever they are), belief in God seems to have gone out of fashion.  Case in point: a smart and sensitive friend, going through a cancer crisis, sent out an email about his condition.  Acknowledging his disbelief in God, he asked friends for positive thoughts.  I responded that while he may not believe in God, I do.  And I would pray for him.

This past week on TV, Cardinal Dolan was talking about the COVID-19 health crisis and the need for God in this perilous time.  He mentioned the word “Emmanuel” and explained its meaning: “God is with us.”  To hear an esteemed Catholic priest quote a Hebrew word was somehow comforting.  An acknowledgement that we’re all in this together; we all need reassurance; and God is looking out for us.

Months ago I was talking to girlfriend Pat about our friend Peggy’s husband.  Bill had been an ace pilot and a general, but at that point lay dying.  My voice broke as I said to Pat, “I choose to believe in God.  At times when I feel so helpless, it’s a comfort to believe in something other than frail, fallible human beings.”

I feel that way, too, about international leaders who make decisions that affect all of us.  I don’t want them considering themselves ultimate authorities.  The definition of hubris is “excessive pride or self-confidence.”  In Greek tragedy it means defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis, or downfall.  I prefer leaders, who might otherwise be tempted toward self-interest, to consider themselves accountable to a higher authority.

A belief in God given possibility, in something bigger than my limited self, has helped me through serious problems.  Problems that could have taken me or my marriage down.  Bolstered by prayer, I wrote books that helped me and and others get through such problems.

In 2004, I was treated for stage 4 cancer.  The first diagnosis of my health crisis occurred on July 26th.  During that frightening time, the number 26 kept coming up.   Wondering why, I turned to the Kabbalah, the tradition of Jewish mysticism, dating  back to the first century A.D.  In the Torah (the beginning of the Old Testament) the name of God is mentioned 72 different ways. According to a system called Gematria, each name has a numerical equivalent.  Each number, a meaning.  If we’re guided to a certain number, we should pay attention to its meaning.  (For more about this, turn to Godsigns, the book.)

#26: Order from Chaos.  Recognizing that order could someday ensue helped me to cope with the chaos into which cancer had thrown my life

In this era of COVID-19, a crisis of biblical proportions, I looked up #19.  In the Bible, #19 represents a symbol of faith.  It proposes that people who have faith in the divine will lead more peaceful lives.

I heard a quip that seems relevant: They say God doesn’t give me more than I can handle.  I just wish He didn’t think so highly of me.

I’m praying for a cure and a vaccine, STAT.  Meanwhile, God helps those who stay quarantined.  With a worldwide pandemic depleting populations and decimating social interactions, with science and medicine only able to move so fast, I’d welcome some more divine intervention.  How about you?

God bless us all.

Multi-talented animal lover Karin Billings hosted a gay Jewish cat wedding

Gypsy and her portrait painted by Karin.

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While many women of a certain age were agog at JLo’s Super Bowl half time performance, I’m impressed by a wunderkind who remains a wunderkind at 80.

Jim and Karin Billings

Karin Billings has been a member of 2 Olympic equestrian teams (‘72 in Munich, ‘76 in Montreal); has a silver medal; scored her favorite trophy “Liberty Bell” with Liostro, a Hanoverian that won the ’76 Derby in PA.  She’s a Cordon Bleu trained chef.  She also paints.  And, Karin and husband Jim are  this year’s mixed golf senior champions at Laurel Oak CC in Sarasota, FL.

But this column’s about Karin and her cats.

Having spent years around horses, Karin was used to cats that controlled the rat population in stables.

Gatsby was about 6 months old when he adopted Karin in 2010 by staging a sit in at her back door.  Karin then lived on Golden Gate Point near downtown Sarasota.  She “tried hard” calling animal shelters to locate his owner.

Nobody claimed him.

“I was happy,” she admits.  “I loved him.”

Now a neighbor in Laurel Oak (the golf course community where Burton and I live), Karin’s from Germany.   Karin took Gatsby back and forth on her flights to Dusseldorf.  He sat on her lap under a blanket, quietly undiscovered.  He loved flying, she says.

Karin’s friend Cindy Kahn had rescued a cat she named Parker. When Cindy was busy, she often left Parker with Karin.  And vice versa.  Parker and Gatsby became enamored of each other.  When Cindy arrived to pick up her cat, Parker hid from her.

Cindy and Karin agreed their cats belonged together.  They decided to formalize the feline friendship.

Karin owned a ring Cindy had admired.  Karin says, “Gatsby asked Cindy for the paw of her son with the ring Cindy loved.”

Karin published programs for the ceremony, one of which she shared with me.

Caution: Readers lacking a sense of humor about religion should skip the next few lines.  Otherwise, I share with you a brief interaction from a longer text in the printed program.  The exchange occurs between Jim (Gatsby’s father) and Dr. Lou Siegel, Cindy’s friend.  Dr. Lou had agreed to act as the “rabbi” for what Karin called “the gay Jewish cat ceremony.”

Rabbi Lou: We are gathered here to witness the marriage of Gatsby Billings and Parker Kahn.  I am privileged to be here today not only to officiate at your wedding but to celebrate your courage to marry given the social stigma today regarding the marriage of cats, not to mention gay cats, and the fact that this is a Jewish gay cat wedding.

Rabbi Lou to Jim: Has Gatsby been circumcised as required by Jewish law?

Jim Billings: Hell, no.

Rabbi Lou: In Jewish law the father of the groom may substitute.

Jim: Over my dead body.

Concluding the ceremony, Rabbi Lou says, “Your marriage will not be purrrrrfect, but your love and erection for each other will prevail.  I now pronounced you groom and groom.”

Considering that this ceremony took place in 2013 and gay marriage wasn’t legalized in the US until 2015, Gatsby and Parker were well ahead of the curve.

The two cats lived happily together until Parker died late last year.  After, Karin says, “Gatsby was in mourning, so sad he wouldn’t eat.”

Gypsy, at left, and Gatsby.

Karin brought home a young rescue female cat, Gypsy.  “Gypsy tried so hard to be feminine.  She’d go up to Gatsby and turn around as if to say ‘I’m here for you.’ Gatsby ignored her at first but has since succumbed to Gypsy’s charms.”

This is Karin’s 3rd marriage; Jim’s 2nd—which all goes to show:  Love can be lovelier, furrier and purrier the second (and third) time around.

Thanks, Karin, for the smiles.

 

When the going gets tough, friendship means everything

Burton with his buddies, left to right: Tom Barnett, Jeff Blanchard, Michael Klein, Burton, Barry Shapiro

Burt Farbman’s the guy who makes the call. When a friend is sick or down on his luck, or scores a deal or wins an award, Burton makes the call.  Having lost his father when he was 11, Burton has antennae that cue him with the right thing to say. 

Others may lament: “I wish I had” or “I probably should.” Burton never needs those words.  He doesn’t shy away from the tough or tender conversation.  

Now Burton’s taken on a new role. This legendary businessman-developer-philanthropist-farmer-equestrian-golfer-fisherman-hunter-father-grandfather-brother-husband-friend has been sidelined by brain cancer and the after-effects of surgery. This is a hero who didn’t flinch (well, maybe a little) when I published a memoir about our marital struggles; who even went on national TV with me and owned up on Oprah.  A hero whose contrition influenced thousands of viewers and readers to give their relationships another try.  This is a partner who oversaw and championed my recovery from stage 4 cancer.  A fun maker who creates full-sized trophies for family championships from ping pong to Boggle. 

Burton’s Forum friends visit for his birthday: Greg Smith, Bill Baer, Richard Aginian, John Broad, Doug Blatt, Jim Nicholson (holding cake), John Piceu

This all-around good guy is now on the receiving end. Because Burt extended friendship to so many others—they now are strengthening him through those relationships.

Barry Shapiro, one of his besties, drove from his condo on the Sarasota bay to our house in the boonies to watch every football game last fall.  Michael Kramer and Curt Slotkin, 2 more Burt besties, drove across state from Palm Beach to hang out with my man while I was in the D. 

Recently, 8 more FOB came to visit: Richard Aginian, Bill Baer, Doug Blatt, John Broad, Jim Nicholson, Ron Palmer, John Piceu and Greg Smith.  They belong to a forum formed more than 30 years ago through YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization).  They flew to Sarasota to join Burton for dinner.  (Richard, already in SRQ, drove.)  Forum member David Fischer, now overseas as a US Ambassador, called from Morocco.  The next morning, the group came to our house to share birthday cake with their buddy. 

Burt’s cousin Judie Koploy joined us for dinner most nights in the D and flew to Florida to facilitate our move.  We often dine on rotisserie “fenceless” chicken.  Years ago Judie was making dinner.  Son Edward, then about 4, asked what she was cooking.  Judie showed him Cornish game hens.  He said, “We’re eating those poor little fenceless chickens?” 

Support of many friends has boosted our morale. Sue Hokamp invited us to her house to celebrate Burton’s birthday.   Lee and Patty Chaplin invited us for a bird ballet. Thousands of winged creatures swooped down on the island below. Our adored aide Fayez (aka Faisal J, the in-house rapper) facilitates our outings.  Roger Kasle played checkers with Burton most days in the D.  Artie Greenstone brought over a nurse consultant.  In SRQ, Jim Billings, Bob Fritsch, Stephen Proctor and others drop by to keep Burton company.  Our family provides off-the-charts comfort.  And many girlfriends check in or make plans with me.      

It’s easy to be a friend during the good times.  In 52 years of marriage, there’ve been loads of good times.  But as for friendship, when the chips are down—that’s the true measure.   

Recently, Richard Francis, a Florida friend from Montreal, and his wife Maureen visited.  In October, 1991, Richard was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  His doctors didn’t think he’d make it to Christmas.  

Richard kept fighting.  In 1993, Dick Rebolledo, Richard’s friend from New York, called him.  Dick, then 80, said, “Sydney, Australia, was just selected as the site of the 2000 Olympics.  Let’s buy tickets.”

Richard says, “We laughed and joked about which events we’d attend. The call really touched me.  Dick’s message was clear.  Never stop making plans.  Never give up.  Friendship is everything.”

Dick died of a heart attack soon after.  Richard’s still alive and kicking and telling good stories. 

Thanks, Richard, for the reminder.  Thanks, pals near and far, for being there.  For keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.  Your friendship makes all the difference.