Meditation in motion: Reaching out despite the pandemic through art, family and spiritual practice

Our granddaughter Camryn looks out over Jerusalem on the morning of her bat mitzvah.

Sarasota’s a town where many smart people choose to retire.  One of them is David Houle.  He bills himself as a “futurist, speaker, thinker” and writes a monthly column in the Herald Tribune.  I usually skim columns and try to absorb the gist.  Not so Houle’s latest.  I read it word for word, then sat back, took a deep breath and decided to share his insights.

Houle introduced a term we’ve experienced on a gut level this past year: cognitive dissonance.  Houle defines it as “the conflict between what one thinks reality is and what it actually is.”

Whew.  If that doesn’t describe what the world’s been going through.

Houle explains, “…The reality you expected for 2020 was not what actually happened.  Instead, you were in familiar surroundings at home with familiar people, but there was danger outside, your workplace was now at home.  Your vocabulary expanded to include ‘social distancing,’ ‘double-masking,’ ‘vaccines,’ ‘COVID-19,’ ‘quarantines’ and ‘shutdown.’  And, of course, you went out at odd hours to find toilet paper, paper towels and, if you were lucky, antibacterial wipes.  What is this reality?”

Collectively we’ve suffered staggering losses.  The loss of friends and family to an invisible enemy.  The loss of freedom to casually move about, to gather in a restaurant or go on date night to a movie.  The loss of the ability to simply board a plane and alight in L.A. or Paris or Rome.

In last week’s WSJ, Candace Taylor writes poignantly of losing the everyday companionship of a best friend and neighbor.  Due to the pandemic, her friend left Brooklyn for the safety of a summer cottage.  She decided to stay.  Taylor concludes, “The virus took all our plans and assumptions about the world and tossed them into the air like confetti.  It turned leavers into stayers and stayers into leavers.  But mostly, in ways life-shattering or simply just sad, Covid robbed us of our people.”

Burton’s and my personal losses predated the pandemic.  With my husband’s brain surgery in 2018 and resulting stroke and partial paralysis, our reality had already shifted.  Our big and social life of travel, fashion, restaurants and parties shrank overnight.  Talk about cognitive dissonance.  When quarantine became the norm, we’d already faced (“adjusted” would be too generous a word) our new reality.

One of the hardest moments for me predated the pandemic.  Granddaughter Camryn celebrated her bat mitzvah in Israel in 2019.  The rest of Andy and Amy’s family traveled there for the occasion. Burton and I witnessed the celebration on Zoom from our house in Franklin. MI.   Better than nothing.  Still, no comparison to being there in person with hugs and joyful tears, surrounded by the ancient limestone walls and worn pavers of Jerusalem.

But Covid has taught us new ways of coping.  We appreciate each other more than ever.  We treasure what get-togethers we can.  We find new ways to spend our time.

For me, two things have made our looooong quarantine more bearable.

At the start of the pandemic, I began work on a coffee table book about collecting art from Detroit’s first avant-garde art movement.  Recalling experiences I’d had and art friendships I’d made, especially with dealers Jackie Feigenson and Mary Preston, allowed me to travel back in my memory.  Detroit’s Cass Corridor & Beyond; Adventures of an Art Collector will be published this year by Read the Spirit, publishers of my second book, Godsigns, and of this column.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

I also initiated a practice of meditation.  For 15 minutes each morning, I focus on my breathing.  Messy, uninvited thoughts bounce around my brain like kids in a puddle.  But I keep trying.  A meditation instructor said that when distracted, “Simply begin again.”  And so I do.  Over and over.  I’m convinced it’s helped to smooth the rough edges.

Psychologist Emma Seppala, Ph.D, recommends breathing as “the little known secret to peace of mind.”  She recommends a simple exercise she claims slows your heart rate and lowers blood pressure.  Inhale as normal then exhale through mostly closed lips twice as long.

16 years ago, in treatment for stage 4 cancer, I was freaking out over what I perceived as my imminent demise.  At the time, a wise psychologist asked how I was feeling that very minute.  “Okay,” I said.  “Try to stay in the moment,” she advised.  Meditation helps me do so.

On another happy note: in a few days, youngest granddaughter Lindsay will be bat mitzvahed in Glencoe, IL.  A lot closer than Jerusalem. The good Lord and United Airlines willing, I’ll be there.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is credited to social psychologist Leon Festinger.  In 1957 he proposed that inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors creates psychological tension.  Tension causes us to change inconsistent behaviors, reducing dissonance, or add behaviors to restore consonance.  Meditation helps improve consonance– a fancy word for peace of mind.

According to Houle, even before Nasty Nineteen reared its unwanted head, we were in for rough going.  In his new book, The 2020s: A Decade of Cognitive Dissonance, Houle cites the climate crisis, the future of artificial intelligence and global wealth inequality as other issues likely to create disruption.  That’s not counting humanitarian problems at our border, the political divide in this country, astronomical national debt and other unforseen issues.

Namaste, earthlings.  We’re still in for a bumpy ride.

Keep breathing.

Keep reaching out.

Barbara Loren-Snyder, Part 2: Shaping the style in millions of American homes

“MARTHA STEWART NOW IS CATERING TO 10 MILLION KMART CUSTOMERS!” That was the sales pitch in 1997 when the rising star first signed with Kmart to create signature lines of home products. Among the first were sheets and linens. Kmart used this photograph (above) in full-page magazine advertisements.

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(NOTE: This is the second and final part of Barbara Loren-Snyder’s remarkable life story. If you missed Part 1, you can read that right here.)

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When her first marriage ended, Barbara insisted she’d never marry again.  I laughed at her claim. She was young, beautiful and vivacious.

Barbara and Murray.

She discouraged a series of men.  Murray Snyder, a CPA, persisted.  “I hated dating but knew on our first date that Murray was a keeper.” On that date, in 1975, Barbara had laryngitis.  Murray thought her “sweet, demure and quiet.” They married five months later. Murray enjoyed telling friends that after Barbara recovered he “never got a word in edgewise.”

Barbara calls Murray “the love of my life.”

In 1975, Barbara received a call. The president of Detroit-based J.L. Hudson’s, one of the nation’s oldest and largest department store chains, suggested she start her own agency, offered their account.  Barbara figured such a step would require a million-dollar line of credit.  “Timing is everything,” she writes.  “…the best idea or best plan at the wrong time just doesn’t make it, and a woman asking for a $1 million line of credit meant she was nuts!”

Murray stepped in.  Loan granted. The Loren-Snyder agency was born.  “While the agency won many professional awards, it was Peggy and Nick, my teammates, who worked the magic…”  (Personal pat on  the back: I introduced her to my good friend Peggy Daitch.) The small agency created 350 radio and TV commercials a year. The effort was draining.  Barbara decided to sell or merge.  She reviewed offers from four major agencies, merged with Detroit-based D’arcy McManus.

Next Barbara accepted an offer from ABC-TV to start a retail marketing division.  “In those days,” she writes, “the media industry was profitable, young and dynamic.”  As for her colleagues at ABC, “I loved all of them and still do!”

Deciding to cut back on her work for ABC and become a consultant, she was hired by the president of Kmart to be on the President’s Kitchen Cabinet.  She recommended Kmart develop a private-label home department starring someone who’d be “Ralph Lauren for the masses.”

She heard about an east coast caterer who’d come out with a book, Entertaining.  Barbara called ten newspaper columnists around the country who covered food, fashion and style.  If none of them had heard of Martha, she’d scrap the idea.  The first eight hadn’t heard of her.  Nine and ten had.

I was #10.  I said, “Great idea.”  I never imagined just how great it would turn out to be.

Accustomed to a tonier crowd than Kmart, Matha refused to meet.  When Barbara said she was “going to make you a multi-millionaire,”  Martha changed her mind.  Barbara offered $50,000 plus royalties.  “Martha yelled, ‘What?  That’s nothing!’ and “began turning red from anger.”  Barbara asked what she expected.  At least $200,000 a year, she said.  Authorized to go to $250,000, Barbara replied, “I think we can work this out.”

“Martha wasn’t a very pleasant person to work with,” Barbara writes.  “She was very demanding, but she was brilliant when it came to developing a product.  The success of the Martha Stewart line at Kmart was breathtaking.”

Barbara’s idea in 1988 was such a hit that the book’s cover also was featured on a “collectible” plate—and the slogan was even printed on the plastic bags used in the checkout lines.

Barbara’s  breakthroughs continued.  She came up with popular Christmas promotions including a gift guide for Hudson’s, one year starring actress Jennifer O’Neill, the next starring former Miss America and CBS journalist Phyllis George.

For Christmas 1988, Barbra developed a book, Kmart Celebrates Christmas in America.  It became the fifth highest selling Christmas book on the NYT bestseller list that year.  In 1989 she recruited Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton to help create an NBC -TV special.  “Most exciting for me was that the United States Armed Forces chose it for showing on Christmas Day on every base worldwide.”

In 1994, this creative whirlwind and the husband she called “the wind beneath my wings” bought a condo in Boca Raton, FL. Two years later, they moved there permanently.  Barbara’s first grandchild, Amanda, was born.  “I never had a grandmother,” Barbara says, “so being one was the greatest joy I could have.”  Barbara applied her talents and energy to non-profits including Hugs for Kids and JCC Family Services.  She joined the executive board of The Pap Corps for Cancer Research, named for Dr. Papanicolaou who invented the pap smear test.

Barbara ends her book at this point.  But we’ve stayed in touch.  I remain blown away by her spunk and determination. Her book doesn’t touch upon some of the personal challenges she’s faced, including a lump in one breast that led to a mastectomy in her 50s.

In recent years, Murray developed Alzheimers but remained brave, sociable and loving.  He died in 2019.  The couple was married for 44 years.

“We’ve all survived so much and are lucky to still be here.” Barbara says.  (Testify, sister!)

“Life is fascinating.  There’s such joy in being able to make lemonade out of lemons.”   I hear that, girlfriend.

Thanks for being a booster, friend and lemonade maker-in-chief.

The great ballet impressario  Sergei Diaghilev once said to poet and set designer Jean Cocteau, “Etonne moi!”  Dazzle me.  Thanks for sharing you story, Barbara Loren-Snyder.  You continue to dazzle me.

Despite a lonely childhood, Barbara Loren-Snyder succeeded by understanding what Americans want—next!

How many of you remember the Wendy Ward charm schools in the 1960s? Thousands of girls attended these programs in the “proper poise and etiquette” of that era.

“Chance favors only the prepared mind.”
Louis Pasteur

“It took a lot of preparation to be so lucky.”
Barbara Loren-Snyder

 

By the early 1990s, a magazine profile of Barbara was headlined “The Marketing Maven.” The profile said, “From her first job at age 14, she has developed an almost uncanny ability to interpret and predict the buying public’s moods and needs.”

Barbara Loren-Snyder has amazed me for 50+ years as an etiquette coach, businesswoman and survivor. In an era when most women were homemakers, schoolteachers or nurses, Barbara starred in a retail and advertising career. During the pandemic, now in her mid-80s, my good friend assembled a book, Lucky Me!

Learning about her upbringing, I’m even more amazed.

Her Russian grandparents came to the US in the late 1800s. At the time, poverty and persecution caused hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews to migrate. In 1919, after Barbara’s grandmother died, her grandfather dropped their children off at the Hebrew Orphanage Asylum of NYC.  Barbara writes, “none left the home unscarred.”

At the home, Barbara’s mother Shirley Levitsky, from Minsk, Russia, met NY-born Maxwell Lewis. They later married. Barbara was born In Brooklyn, in April, 1935. Shirley had to be rushed to the hospital. Barbara writes, “Nothing would stop me then, or as life has shown, nothing would stop me from navigating through life, largely on my own.”  

Trained as a draftsman, in the middle of the Great Depression, her father worked for the WPA in Washington, DC, on specifications for machinery and buildings. As housing was scarce, the Lewises dropped off their children, Barbara, 4, and Michael, 2, at a Virginia farm that fostered children of working parents. Barbara’s mother admonished her to “be good” and take care of her brother. Shirley promised to return in days. Days stretched into a year.

The family was reunited in 1940. Soon after, Maxwell was sent to Detroit to work on the B29 bomber. The family joined him. After the war, Maxwell became an architect. He worked for Detroit firm Charles Agree before establishing his own company, King and Lewis. The firm designed Detroit’s Pontchartrain Hotel and Dexter Chevrolet but eventually went bankrupt.

Barbara married at 20, gave birth to Robert at 22 and Randy at 24. She relished being a mom. Welcoming her sons’ friends into their home, “I was able to transform my lonely childhood.”

She wondered why her childhood was so different, but finding answers about her origins proved to be a challenge. The Hebrew Orphanage Asylum where Barbara’s parents met shuttered in 1986. Records went to Brandeis University. In the late 1980s, to learn about her history, Barbara gained approval to review her parents’ records. After three days at Brandeis studying and copying records, she returned home laden with documents. Those documents sat on her shelves for decades waiting until she found time “to review the obstacles my parents overcame so they could survive a difficult childhood.”

The pandemic provided that time. Barbara came to recognize the long-term effect abandonment had on her parents, who were orphaned in childhood. She gained “greater understanding of how my parents’ lack of ability to show affection and love, and putting up walls around their emotions, affected me. As a child I built my own walls for protection without understanding why.” She also realized the benefit of her spartan upbringing. “Having grown up with less gave greater value to everything I did or had.”

From age 14, Barbara worked as a salesperson. Attending Detroit’s Wayne State U., she worked full time at a fashion boutique. Reading every book she could on self-help and contemporary women achievers, she developed an idea.

In 1963, she phoned a manager of a local suburban Montgomery Ward with an idea she said  would increase his business and create a unique image for his store.

“I was scared to make the call, but by taking that step I was beginning a journey into uncharted waters. My self-confidence, which was always lacking, was getting a boost. ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ became my motto.”

Barbara recruited a neighbor; together they started a charm school. The program blossomed into Wendy Ward and was soon adopted by nine Montgomery Ward stores nationwide. In 1962 Barbara  appeared on TV’s To Tell the Truth.

Four years later, Barbara joined Detroit-based Federal’s Inc. She developed a junior department for 57 regional department stores. Among her creative promotions: a Teen Bash DJ’d by singer and teen idol Frankie Avalon, attended by 3,000.

At Federal’s, Barbara won recognition. She was invited to speak at events and earned enough money to take her sons on vacation. Grey Advertising hired her to run accounts for ABC-TV, Hudson’s and the Taubman company. Professional awards ensued. “Developing self-confidence and self-awareness… can’t be taught. You have to believe in yourself. …We all have gifts we didn’t know we had. Believing in yourself helps you find them.”

Next she took over the Detroit Shopping News. She changed the format and got friends to write columns. The president of GM presented her with the Detroit’s Ad Woman of the Year award.  “I knew then and I know now that nobody does anything alone.  I may be the orchestra leader but the musicians make the music.”

Here is the second and final part of this series.

Bob Zielsdorf’s appreciation for industrial designer Brooks Stevens leads to a new car

Bob Zielsdorf with his Excalibur.

My recent column about classic race car driver David Porter prompted our friend Bob Zielsdorf to send a photo of his newest 4-wheeled acquisition, an Excalibur.  As a native Detroiter, I know something about boys and their enthusiasm for toys.  But why an Excalibur?

Bob’s answer opened up a new vein of knowledge for yours truly.  I’m nuts about design, from architecture to furnishings to home goods and fashion.  But I have little knowledge of industrial design.  Thanks to Bob, I now have a bit more.

Since childhood, Bob’s been a fan of industrial designer Brooks Stevens.  Bob’s father ran a company that made portable air compressors and jackhammers for breaking up cement.  He hired Stevens to redesign and modernize the products of his Milwaukee-based company.  In the late 1950s, then in high school, Bob was assigned to write a paper on a profession and to interview someone in that profession.

“I was stuck,” Bob says.  “I couldn’t come up with an idea.”

His dad suggested he talk to Brooks Stevens about industrial design.  Bob called.  “He was happy to meet with me,” Bob says.  “I rode my bike to his office in a beautiful setting with glass walls overlooking the woods.  I remember what a gentleman he was, and full of information.”

In 1963, Stevens went on to design a prototype of the Excalibur.  Styled after the 1928 Mercedes-Benz SSK, Stevens’ design was fitted on a Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk chassis.  When Studebaker stopped producing engines, Stevens procured them through his friends, GM execs Ed Cole and Bunkie Knudsen.

(I got a kick out of the later sourcing.  In the late ‘60s, I was a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily.  I became friendly with Dollie Cole and Florence Knudsen, wives of Ed and Bunkie and both lovely gals.  Burton was just starting out in real estate; we were broke but needed a car.   Dollie hooked us up with a Chevy and an executive discount.)

Brooks Stevens and his sons started a company in Milwaukee, WI, hand-building Excaliburs.  They made over 3500 cars.  Comedian Phyllis Diller owned four of them.  Production continued until 1990.  Stevens also designed the Jeep Wagoneer, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Skytop Lounge observation train cars, outboard motors, kitchen appliances and much more.

Fast forward to 2020.  Compliments of Covid, Bob Zielsdorf had time on his hands.  Time to look back.  He reminisced about his youth and his admiration for Brooks Stevens.

“When I met Brooks Stevens, the Excalibur didn’t exist,” Bob says.  “But now it did.  The idea of owning one got stuck in my brain.  The Excalibur is a dream car for kids who like the look of antique cars.  Plus I felt nostalgia for the creator.”

Bob spent the summer in South Bend, IN, researching Excaliburs.  When he got back to Vero Beach, FL, where he and wife Fran spend winters, Bob discovered a candy apple red Excalibur was up for auction in Kissimmee, FL.  A friend drove Bob there; he checked out the car and offered a winning bid.  Unable to properly install the side curtains, with temps in the 60s, by the end of the two-hour drive home Bob was chilled but still thrilled.

Back in Vero Beach, Bob tried to remove the canvas top and heavy folding steel frame.  The operation required some neighborly help.  Bob and wife Fran drove their new wheels  to nearby Publix.  “Strangers honked and leaned out of their windows to comment,” Bob says.  They’ve since driven their new convertible conquest often.  They plan to exhibit it at an antique car and boat show in April.

Bob and Fran will celebrate their 56th anniversary in June.   We became friends through an international couples forum, part of a business group to which we belonged.  Now retired, Bob ran a company that made industrial bakery machines.  He and Fran were high school and college pen pals.  In 2014, Bob published their correspondence in a charming, historically informative book Sealed with a Kiss; An American Love Story in Letters.   Interested in genealogy, Bob hired a researcher to trace his family history and discovered roots reaching back to the mid-1700s.  That family story was published as Finding Our Roots: the Zuhlsdorff Family History.

Fran has suffered health setbacks in recent years, including a serious spinal cord injury, but their challenges have not kept this irrepressible couple down.  Bob sums up their philosophy: “Enjoy the life you have and share the gifts you’re given.”

Thanks, Bob and Fran, for sharing your latest love story, the love of a candy apple red Excalibur.  In the legend of Camelot, only young Arthur was able to pull the Excalibur sword out of a rock and thus become king.  Enjoy your new wheels.  And may you be kings of the road.

While helping others fight cancer, Doc Werlin finds romance and an ally in business coach Andrea Nierenberg

We all know, are or have been someone who’s been hit by cancer.  Sarasota financial columnist Doc Werlin has faced more than his share.  Doc’s wife, brother and brother’s wife all died of the disease; Doc has faced two bouts with different cancers.  He decided to do something about it.

Before Covid, Doc organized two events, Coming Together Against Cancer (CTAC).  He brought leading cancer physicians to Sarasota to speak.  He invited the public to attend and to donate whatever they could to the cancer organization they preferred.  Doc also supports Team Tony, a Sarasota facility that matches cancer patients with survivors of the same or similar disease.  Team Tony was begun by Doc’s friend Tony McEachern, who has survived five surgeries for brain cancer, and Tony’s friend Lori Keyser.

Doc was born in Houston to Joseph Werlin, a founding professor of the U. of Houston, and Rosella Werlin, a well-known journalist. In the 1920s, Rosella interviewed Al Capone for the Chicago Sun Times.  “He wasn’t the friendliest person,” she later recalled.  She interviewed Goldie Myerson, a schoolteacher who’d just returned from eight years on a kibbutz in Palestine and became Golda Meir, the 4th prime minister of Israel.  Rosella’s chutzpah was written up in a column by motivational speaker Dale Carnegie.

Doc’s real name is Ernest, after WWII broadcaster Ernie Pyle, one of the first to speak up for the common foot soldier.  Doc earned an MA and an MBA from the U. of Michigan, attended Oxford on a Rotary scholarship, was a partner at Morgan Stanley.

Doc met his late wife, Dr. Eloise Werlin, at the U. of M.  She became a clinical and developmental psychologist.  She died in 2011 of breast cancer.  In 2014, Doc endowed a park overlooking the bay in Sarasota in Eloise’s name.  The site was the location for CTAC public lectures.

Having been a widower for several years, Doc decided to try Match.com.  Coincidentally, so did author, speaker and business coach Andrea Nierenberg, a dynamo like Doc’s mother.  Andrea had a long career in consulting.  She worked for Avon, Saks Fifth Avenue and Amway, among others, in advertising and media, teaching relationship skills “that impact the bottom line,” she says.  A promotional magazine publisher, she was a Dale Carnegie instructor at night.

31 years ago, a car accident and resulting collapsed lung changed Andrea’s focus.  She began walking five miles a day and became a vegan.  She took up ballroom dancing.  She became more trusting of her intuition.  Moving to Sarasota in 2014, she continues some corporate consulting and Amway distribution.  She also became an intuitive reader/psychic for the New Age book and gift shop Elysian Fields.

Like Rosella, Andrea excels at creating opportunities.  She was developing a skit for Sarasota’s Lifelong Learning Center.  To include a bit about internet dating, she decided to try it.  She went on Match.com, saying to a friend, “The worst that can happen is I’ll meet a creep.  It’ll be good material.”

She got lucky.  On her second Match.com date, a year ago at the start of Covid, Andrea met Doc.  They’ve been a couple ever since.

Andrea’s a big believer in hand-written personal notes.  She contends the practice has resulted in jobs and positions she might not otherwise have gotten.  She’s kept a log of the hand-written notes she’s sent out over the years.  At last count: over 22,000.  After our lunch at the Sarasota Yacht Club she proved her point, sending me two hand-written notes.  I was impressed not only with the speed of her response but also seeing her note cards have her email and website printed on the back.

I can personally attest to the power of the hand-written note.  As a teen in the 1960s, I applied for a job as an elite salesperson on the Detroit Saks Fifth Avenue College Board.  Saks then had a beautiful branch store on the first two levels of the Albert Kahn Building (formerly New Center Building) caddie-corner from the Fisher Building.   This was in the days when girls’ college wardrobes included blouses and skirts and intact sweaters, well before torn jeans and t-shirts became de rigueur.  Although I didn’t get the job, I sent a thank you note to the person who interviewed me.  The girl who got the job turned out to be unable to take it.  My note had impressed my interviewer, and she called.  I enjoyed a fun summer with my photo and school affiliation (U of M) featured on a poster displayed in the Junior department and a similar position in Saks flagship New York store the summer after.

Thanks, Doc and Andrea, for all you both do to make the world a better place.  Thanks, Andrea, for the notes.  I’m sure you’re right about your cursive commitment.  But I confess: these days it’s email for me.

Granddaughter Alexis writes about her love for her grandpa and the power of story telling

The whole family gathered around Burton.

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Grandparents don’t always know the impact they have on grandchildren.  My husband, Burt is lucky to get that chance.  Our oldest grandchild, Alexis, 16, attends Lake Forest Academy in IL.  She received an  assignment for an English class.  The prompt: What is the power of a story in your life?  Her essay brought Burton and me to tears.

In summers, our whole family gets together in northern Michigan.  Burton loved piling multiple grandchildren in his truck and driving them on “mystery trips.”  Their journeys generally ended up at Meijers Thrifty Acres or Costco.  Each kid received a few dollars to spend and usually pled for more.  On the way, to deter the inevitable skirmishes among 3 girls and 3 boys (now 4), Burton told stories.  His major protagonist, Squeaky the Squirrel, was played by his index finger, bouncing up and down on the steering wheel.

Alexis’s “Just Another Day in the Truck” begins:

“My grandpa Burt is the best storyteller I know… He tells stories in such detail that I see the characters in front of me and can almost touch them.  I listen to him speak and forget everything.  I forget the fight I got in with my sister that morning…  I forget about my summer reading and my sunburn.  … My brain turns into the projector and I see myself living in the scene.

“We would spend our summers driving around in my grandpa’s beat-up black Chevy High Country Silverado truck in northern Michigan and listening.  In the truck, everyone would scream, fight and make loud noises.  The only thing that quieted the group was a riveting story from my grandpa.  Once he began, I felt safe.  My grandpa’s storyland protected me, made me comfortable, and was an escape from the noise in my life.”

Alexis’s essay also references Burton’s love for black licorice.  His truck contained an ample supply which he doled out as needed.

Squeaky the squirrel, Alexis notes, had super-powers.  She writes, “This squirrel was no ordinary squirrel.  Squeaky could fly.”  When the family wasn’t together up north, Squeaky’s main destinations were our grandkids’ homes in Chicago and Michigan.

About ten years ago, Alexis was back in Illinois.  Burton conspired with Alexis’s dad Andy to hide several pieces of licorice in a desk drawer.  He told Alexis he’d sent Squeaky on a licorice delivery mission; instructed Alexis to look for the candy.  She searched and searched.  No luck.  Had she checked everywhere? Burton asked.  Even the desk drawer?

“I found it!” she exclaimed.

The popular truck rides continued for several years, Alexis writes.  Then, during the summer of 2018, she noticed “My grandpa was tired all the time.  He would take us out on ‘adventures’ but had to end the day early to nap.  Before this summer, never in my life had I seen my grandpa take a nap.  Something was not right.”

That August, Alexis and family headed back to Chicago.  “As a new freshman, life was super hectic, so when I had a free second I called my grandpa.  I was getting older and Squeaky was coming to visit less and less.   I still adored calling my grandpa and describing my day to him.  On the phone, he seemed normal.  I did not notice any red flags.  What I did not know when I was talking to him was that a mass had been found in his head.

“After surgery, the mass was declared brain cancer.  This was the worst news that I could have received.  My grandpa was my rock and best friend.  He was the person I felt most comfortable with.  I knew things were going to change.  I knew that he had a treacherous road of recovery ahead of him.”

Burton’s illness rendered us unable to spend summer of 2019 in northern Michigan; rather Burton was in the hospital downstate, or home in a hospital bed.  Our grandkids, Alexis writes, were “bored and looking for things to do.”  They started telling each other stories.  Her cousin Hunter began talking about a day he remembered from the summer before.

“All of a sudden I was back in the black Chevy High Country Silverado cruising down the highways of northern Michigan.  Hunter was imitating my grandpa.  He said, ‘Last night Squeaky was flying around and he ran into his old friend Tutti the Tortoise.’  In his girly voice he said, ‘Squeaky, introduce us to your new friend.’  I forgot I was sitting in a grass field with sweat dripping down my cheek and it became just another day in the truck.

“I looked over and saw my grandpa driving.  He was healthy and telling us a story.  Kid Rock’s ‘All Summer Long’ was playing in the background and life was back to normal.  The windows were rolled down and the wind was blowing my hair in every direction.  We were on our normal venture to Costco to get some groceries we really did not need.

“Then the story stopped and my life flipped back to the grass field.  I realized that my grandpa was not driving me and I was not in a truck at all, rather Hunter had brought me back to that world.  He had a gift my grandpa clearly passed on to him.  The next day, my sister Camryn told a story of a different day we had spent with my grandpa.  This became an everyday ritual we all looked forward to.  …It was evident that all of us grandkids were marvelous raconteurs, just like my grandpa.

“My whole life I had used my grandpa’s stories to find tranquility.  Once my grandpa got sick and could not regularly tell me stories, I lost that feeling.  But as my cousins, sisters and I began becoming the tellers of the tales and were able to relive days with my grandpa, I found warmth there instead.  …I recognized it was the stories themselves that were providing me the comfort all along.

“For me, stories ended up being a safe place.  They comforted me as a child and they brought me out of my worries and stresses as I got older.  They also got me through my grandpa’s cancer diagnosis and through the summer of 2019.

“Now, as I write this, I hold the power of storytelling inside of me.  I know I can tell a good story and I cannot wait to tell stories to future generations.  I cannot wait to pass along true stories about my grandpa Burt and the summer of 2019.  I cannot wait to use this power to create a place of comfort for Farbmans to come… and to pass on the ability to tell a good story.”

Leonard Cohen and Arlene Epstein show us the power of music and memories

LEONARD COHEN’S huge influence was visible in this impromptu memorial that sprang up in front of his former Montreal residence after his death in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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During the seclusion brought on by this pandemic, we’ve all had time to look back.  I’d guess you’re as grateful as I am for the family, the friendships, the travel, the adventures, the accomplishments and even the missteps that taught us so much.  They’re all part of the unique soundtrack that makes up a life.

Speaking of soundtracks, music evokes memories.  Memories of time, place and people.  I thought about this recently when our friend Art Greenstone posted a video of Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah” on FB.  The video took me back to the first time I heard the song and the circumstances around that moment.

Arlene Epstein with her daughter Jolie Kapelus

Backstory.  In the early 2000s, Burton and I sat awaiting a movie at the Sarasota Film Festival.  Arlene Epstein, the drama critic for Long Island’s South Shore Record, sat behind us.  Arlene was as chatty as I am, and we began gabbing.  I sent her a copy of Back from Betrayal, my first book; she wrote a positive review.  Impressed by her obviously sound literary judgment, I decided we should be friends. Arlene proved vibrant, smart and resilient.  She played golf with me in Sarasota; her swing was as wicked as her wit.

On Anne’s and my next sisters’ trip to NY, we had dinner with Arlene.  It was a Sunday.  Theaters were dark.  Arlene suggested a small nightclub where a friend of hers was singing.  I don’t remember the name of that young man.  I only remember his mellow, soulful voice.  The atmosphere in the club was informal.  Arlene spoke up, said she loved the way the singer sang “Hallelujah.”  He launched into a song that had been around since 1984 but I’d never heard.  His voice soared and dropped and soared and dropped in something between a lament and an homage. The melody was beyond stirring.  I didn’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, but my heart swelled enough to blur my eyes.

In Psychology Today, Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. explains that pleasurable music leads to the release of neurotransmitters associated with reward, such as dopamine.  Hence, my tears,  though I still don’t understand the lyrics.   Research reveals Cohen wrote about 80 draft verses.  The final version includes biblical references to Samson and Delilah (“she cut your hair”) and King David and Bathsheba (“you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you”).  I’ve heard and gotten goosebumps from the song many times since.  It’s been sung by legendary professionals including Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang.  But as a writer, I’m most moved by authors and poets reading or singing their own work.  Though  Arlene’s friend had a far better voice than Cohen’s gravelly delivery, I’ll take the latter.

Leonard Cohen with Kyozan Joshu Sasaki

A practicing Jew, Cohen was a deep thinker.  He spent time with Buddhist monk and roshi (venerable teacher) Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, serving as his personal assistant during a reclusive period in a monastery in the 1990s.  Cohen, who died at 82 in 2016, had open-minded religious views.  About Jesus Christ, he said, “A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless… It is a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion.”

Anne and I continued to see Arlene on our sisters’ trips.  She lost her husband Harvey but soldiered on.   We’d meet at Orso in the theater district, enjoy a quick dinner—Arlene loved the pizza, though she always arrived late—and see a show.  She took us to offbeat plays we’d never have found on our own, such as “Buyer & Cellar,” a clever one-person comedy about the antique mall in Barbara Streisand’s basement.

In more recent years, Arlene faced health challenges.   Anne and I were always relieved when she turned up to meet us.  She still bragged about her son and daughter and shared her delight in being able to take her grandkids to the theater.  One night at Orso, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg sat at the table behind us with several friends.  I begged Arlene to take a picture on my cell phone of Anne and me with Caroline in the background.  Arlene was mortified at my insistence but eventually complied.  Sadly, Caroline wasn’t visible in the photo.

And then, a few years back, I couldn’t reach Arlene by phone or email.  The maître d’ at Orso said he hadn’t heard from her in a long time.  I didn’t remember her kids’ names to check on her.  I wish I’d tried harder to find her.  Arlene vanished from our lives.

Researching this column, I found on the internet a reference to the newspaper Arlene worked for and from that located her obituary.  Arlene died in 2019 at 82.  In her obit, Arlene’s son Adam said, “She now has the title she always wanted, ‘the late Arlene Epstein’ as she was never on time for anything.”

New York abounds with interesting characters.  Arlene was an original.  It was a joy to spend time with our own personal drama critic.  Arlene would be devastated to see her beloved Broadway has been dark for a year.  I just hope the lights shine as brightly as Arlene did for us–wherever our friend is.  And that she’s enjoying angelic choruses of “Hallelujah.”