Author Archives: Suzy Farbman

Joyce Greenleaf, of NY and LA, enjoys her acting career almost as much as she loved teaching

Joyce Geenleaf at a reunion with some of her PS28 students.

“I’ve always liked the notion of meeting the great figures of history. But then I think, what if it’s like high school and all the really cool dead people don’t want to hang out with me?  Mozart will tell me he’s busy but then later I’ll see him out with Shakespeare and Lincoln.”
Niles Crane, Frasier

At 79, Joyce Greenleaf is the happiest she’s ever been. Retired from teaching, she still plays tennis, swims, walks and rides her bike. And she’s revised some thinking that no longer serves her.

Joyce and I were roommates and sorority sisters (SDT) at the U of M.  50+ years later, we’ve reconnected on FB. Now 79, Joyce had moved to LA, taken up acting and scored some minor roles. But the part of her life of which she’s proudest: her 34-year teaching career.

“I lived my dream,” she says.

Joyce decided on her destiny at age 6. Her parents turned a corner of her bedroom into a classroom with a desk, blackboard and colored chalk. To her “students” (neighborhood friends) she taught what she learned in Miss Libby’s first grade class.

Joyce’s favorite elementary school teacher, Miss McCormack, taught 6th grade. Past students knocked on her door when walking by.  Joyce says, “I wanted to someday be the kind of teacher whose past students knocked on my door.” She also “always wanted” to teach in a low-income neighborhood and was “thrilled” when assigned to PS28, an elementary school just north Harlem. Her students were mostly African American and Dominican.

“I got to teach what I was good at. I loved, loved, loved teaching.”  These days past students  knock on her Facebook door.  She’s celebrated six reunions with her NYC students.

With a master’s degree from Columbia U. Teachers College, Joyce taught the required curriculum.  She also developed a Creative Expressions class and taught “life lessons” through music, drama, poetry, creative writing and film. She took students on field trips and weekend explorations. She felt it was “extremely important” to build kids’ self-esteem. She worked with her kids to stage full length Broadway plays, ran a glee club that performed every year at the Plaza Hotel and a broadcasting team. Her ”Junior Dimensions” newspaper team received national recognition. One class went to Washington D.C. for five days. Students raised the money through bake sales and other efforts. They chartered a bus, stayed in dorms at Howard U, sang songs all the way home.

“I wanted to help my students reach their potential and introduce them to experiences outside their neighborhood. I wanted to make a difference.”  Because her students were mostly African American, Joyce taught poems and stories by Langston Hughes and other important Black writers. In recent years, one of her students wrote on Facebook: “It was a white teacher who introduced me to black history and taught me the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  

There was a show in 1970, The Me Nobody Knows.  One of the earliest rock musicals to play on Broadway, it was also one of the first to express the sentiments of inner-city American youth.  Inspired by the play, Joyce had her students journal about their feelings and share them on stage.  Her parents came to every school performance for 20 years.

Joyce calls her mother, Freddie, “the most important person in my life.” Freddie was also a teacher. Joyce chartered a bus and brought her students to Freddie’s school to perform. Sadly, at 65, Freddie was diagnosed with liver cancer. Six weeks before Freddie died, Joyce moved home. “I could talk to her about anything,” Joyce says. Shortly before Freddie died, Joyce sat on her bed. “It’s okay to cry now, but promise me you won’t cry later,” Freddie said. Joyce crossed her fingers behind her back and nodded. “I cried every day for the next 2½ years. My students were the one thing that saved me.”

Joyce has always been an athlete. When she was 8, her dad, Joe Greenleaf, taught her to smack a softball. She played H.S. Varsity all four years. Joe introduced her to the Brooklyn Dodgers and took her and her brother to games at Ebbets Field. Joe was a Jackie Robinson fan. On April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the second-baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African American player in Major League baseball in modern times.  Since 2004, baseall has honored Robinson’s legacy by celebrating April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day. On that day, players, coaches and managers wear Robinson’s uniform number 42.

Joyce had #42 tattooed on her lunch box and her bedroom lamp and her own Dodgers uniform. When Joyce was teaching, she invited Jackie Robinson to speak to her graduating 6th grade class. She framed the letters Jackie wrote to her—one, accepting the invitation; the second, thanking her for the chance to speak to her students about saying NO to drugs.

At 46, Joyce moved to California to be near her brother and “start a new adventure.”  Still teaching, she “found a new passion” and began taking acting classes.  “I felt I was home.”  Her teacher told her acting was a process; she’d continue to learn and grow. Though she considers herself “impatient,” she accepted her teacher’s wisdom. 33 years later, she still takes classes.  She’s “having a terrific time” playing many smaller roles in sit-coms and dramas and is “excited” about her future.

Joyce is dedicated to her acting ambitions. She had a bit part in How We Roll, a TV show that ran for one season. One of her favorite experiences was working on Ray Donovan with Liev Schreiber.

As much as Joyce loved teaching, as a student she’d hated high school. Recently invited to her high school reunion, her first thought was: NO WAY.

In high school, she says, “I never felt as though I fit  in.” Whenever an email arrived about a high school reunion, she deleted it. A recent email asked classmates to write about their high school memories and what they’d done with their lives. “The more I read, the more interesting I found my old classmates to be.  Many had done so much with their lives. I was surprised to learn a lot of them felt the way I did about their high school years. I was about to send my regrets, say I wished I could come. And then I asked myself if that were true. The next thing I knew I had a flight to New York and a reservation at the hotel.

“Attending that reunion was one of the best decisions I ever made. I decided to create new memories. My old classmates turned out to be nice, bright, friendly people. I was asked to be part of a comedy scene and worked with an outstanding actor/classmate. We collaborated on the script. I had a creative high and loved the attention. I came home with new memories and have already been in touch with my new old friends. The reunion opened up new directions. Life continues to be exciting.  My parents chose the perfect name for their youngest child.  I share my joy with everyone I meet. I may be 79, but I have the spirit of a 10 year old.”

Joyce exudes the same warmth and pep she showed in college.  She wrote and self-published a book, Curtains for My Mirror: A Humorous Approach to Coping with Aging.  Her goal was to prepare women for physical changes that occur.  “It shares life lessons I’ve learned over 79 years.” One lesson: give lots of compliments. Another: wear a towel at the swimming pool.

Rabbi Jonathan R. Katz says, “A benefit of age is the acquisition of greater perspective. We shouldn’t lament that if we’d known before what we know now we’d ‘have drunk more champagne.’ Rather, since we are fully cognizant of what we endured  to arrive where we are, we should drink much more of the bubbly now.”

While Joyce has had several serious relationships, she “never found Mr. Right.”  Ever the optimist, she still hopes to find a long-term companion. “I know it’s improbable, but it’s not impossible,” she says. “In any case, I’m happy. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Thanks, Joyce, for sharing your wonderful life. May you inspire all Godsigns readers to remain forever young.

Shelley Golden was a rock star to the multitudes who knew and loved her

Shelley and Richard Golden stand at right with their family at Gabriella’s bat mitzvah. (Photo courtesy of the family.) You will find a gallery of photos to enjoy, below.

Our friend Shelley was so full of wit, grit, dazzle and spunk, I can’t come close to describing the supernova she was.  But I owe it to her to try.

With apologies to A.E. Housman, I paraphrase a verse from his classic poem “To an Athlete Dying Young.”  For Shelley, we’ll call it: “To an Aesthete Dying Young.”

Smart lass, to slip betimes away/ From fields where glory does not stay./ And early though the laurel grows/ It withers quicker than the rose.

Shelley slipped away from life and glory much too soon.  She adored art and beauty and was mad for roses.  Especially Golden ones.  On excursions to antiques fairs and shops in NoMI, I witnessed Shelley’s delight in discovering hand towels, china and anything else adorned with yellow roses.  When we returned to her charming home overlooking the harbor in Charlevoix, MI (which I featured in design magazines), she insisted I consult on the placement of her latest yellow rose acquisition.  She loved flowers outside as well.  In front of her home, she planted a charming heart shaped garden.

Shelley and I were strolling down Dixon (her street) some 15 years ago when she said something that made my heart plummet.  Her gynecologist had spotted a cyst on her ovaries. They’d “watch” it.

My friend Ginger Curtis, diagnosed with MS at 35, had created a healing labyrinth in her Petoskey, MI, backyard.  (Mythology Scholar Ginger Curtis Gets Her Sign; Godsigns, 2015/09/13)  Shelley and I walked Ginger’s labyrinth, praying for Shelley’s recovery.  Sadly, it wasn’t to be.  After years of debilitating chemo treatments and countless visits to medical centers for ovarian cancer, Shelley died last week.  She was 75.   She leaves behind her dynamic husband Richard with whom she conceived and built SEE, a successful eyewear company.  Son Seth, who followed in his father’s footsteps taking over SEE.  Daughter Jessica, a professional comedian/TV writer in LA.  And four grandchildren, one of whom—a girl—is on the Little Caesars competitive AAA travel hockey team.

Shelley and Richard’s offspring spoke at her funeral in Michigan on Dec. 18.  Seth recalled, “Fifteen years ago to this month my mom was diagnosed.  It was a long shot she’d be at Hillary’s and my wedding.  But not only was she there, she danced all night.  Mom never let her difficult challenge stop her from showing up 100%.”

Daughter Jessica said, “My beautiful momma was my absolute hero, the funniest person I ever knew, and I work with a lot of comedians.  She never flinched about being my star subject.”

Case in point: Jessica’s routine about Jewish mothers ordering dinner.  “My momma called herself a Rock ‘n Roll Grandma.  She was 100% authentic and 1000% lovable.”

Deeming Shelley “all sunlight and optimism,” Rabbi Harold Loss said Shelley was once asked how many languages she spoke.  “Only English,” she said, “but a lot of it.”  Shelley and Richard met at a party, Rabbi Loss said.  Richard was 16; Shelley, 15.  In a contest for the then popular dance the Twist, Richard won for the boys; Shelley, for the girls. Rabbi Loss said Richard wrote on Shelley’s high school senior yearbook photo, “To the woman most likely to become the mother of my children.”

With a Masters degree in Social Work from Oakland U., Shelley was known and loved for her big heart.  Rabbi Loss said Shelley walked by a homeless man, asked his name and returned bringing him something to eat.  At one point, the man asked her, “What’s tonight’s cuisine?”

Richard and his brother Randal bought Detroit-based DOC optical company from their father, local celeb Donald L. Golden, and took it to another level. Around 1998, Richard and Shelley created a hipper brand of eyewear and launched SEE.  Shelley came up with the name. Featuring “hip without the rip” high-fashion eyewear, SEE has won “Best Optical” 81 times in newspapers and magazines around the nation.  At annual company-wide meetings, Shelley could be counted on for words of motivation and humor.

After Shelley’s funeral, I got together on ZOOM with some of her BFFs.  Peggy Daitch spoke of Shelley’s “megawatt smile” saying Shelley “wasn’t just warm; she was hot.  She always leaned in.”  Brenda Rosenberg recalled how Shelley “literally” saved her life.  The morning of Yom Kippur eve, in 2019, Brenda and Shelley were together for coffee.  Brenda dropped her cellphone.  She bent down but was unable to pick it up.  “Shelley said, ‘Don’t move, Brenda. You’re having a stroke.’  She said it as calmly as if I were ordering a bagel for breakfast.”  Shelley called 911 and Brenda’s husband Howard.  Brenda was rushed to the hospital and is fully recovered.  Zina Kramer observed “in the process of healing herself, Shelley learned a lot about medicine.”  Sandy Seligman talked about playing Canasta with Shelley.  “She’d show up at the last minute and seem clueless about her cards,” Sandy said.  “Somehow she always won.”

Shelley’s home was spotless.  In the powder room, corners of toilet paper were turned back in a V; paper towels, neatly stacked.  At a Golden party, Brenda and the Goldens’ old friend Alan Sussman decided to prank Shelley by tearing off the folded T.P. and riffling the paper towels.  Though they never observed Shelley in the act, order was always promptly restored.

Shelley’s girlfriends were well represented in the framed photos she displayed.  She was proud of the shelf in her bookcase filled with with books by her friends.

Shelley dressed beautifully and wore (but claimed to be embarrassed by) a big diamond ring Richard gave her.  Putting laundry into a washing machine one day in Miami, Shelley snagged the ring and noticed the stone was missing. Ever resourceful, she called her brother-in-law, who lived near the restaurant where she’d eaten lunch.  He checked under the chair in which Shelley had sat.  Stone found.  Crisis averted.

Like the ring she wore, Shelley was a gem.

Her stature was petite, but her spirit was huge.

For the legion of fans and friends she  made wherever she went, the world has lost some of its sparkle.

Care to see more?

First, here’s a video of Jessica:

A much younger Richard and Shelley.

Celebrating together, from top left: Suzy Farbman, Brenda Rosenberg, Florine Mark. Bottom: Peggy Daitch and Shelley Golden.

Shelley’s heart-shaped flower bed. (Photo courtesy of Brenda Rosenberg.)


Michigander William Dash refuses to let cerebral palsy and autism defeat him

William and his Mom enjoyed lunch recently at Zingerman’s Deli.

I’ll bet you’ve heard the wonderful poem, “The Dash,” by Linda Ellis.  She writes about a eulogy a man gives for a friend, about how his friend spent the years between birth and death, years .  represented by a tiny bit of punctuation.

“…it matters not, how much we own, The cars…the house…the cash. What matters is how we live and love, And how we spend our dash.” 

I’ve run into a young man who’s determined the spend his dash as well as he can despite a considerable setback.  His name happens to be Dash: William Dash.

While I’m not the most dedicated of worshippers, I’ve found a compelling reason to attend Temple Beth El on Yom Kippur.  The Bloomfield Hills, MI, temple invites members to share their survival stories on the Jewish Day of Atonement.  This year a courageous young man spoke about the challenges of living with autism.  Backed up by his mother, Christa, William shared some insights into the accommodations he makes every day.

All I could think was: WHEW!

William at his bar mitzvah in 2006.

William’s determined to live as well, and as normally, as possible.  That included getting through high school and Macomb, MI, Community College.  Unable to drive, he had to take a bus to school.  He needed to check bus schedules daily and take two busses, ”even if that meant being an hour early.” Sometimes it meant having to race to class and apologize to professors if a bus ran late.  That same determination saw  him through Oakland U. where he graduated with honors.

Challenges present every day.  Because sensory sounds distract him, William brought letters to professors, requesting to take tests in a separate, quiet area where he could concentrate.  Apparel can be problematic.  Because sensory issues are exacerbated, “An itchy sweater feels like sandpaper.”  But William’s ‘main issue” relates to hearing.  At a Passover Seder at Temple, for example, William heard all the sounds around him and had trouble isolating one voice that was speaking to him.

William went through behavior therapy to learn how to cope with stress in a positive way.    When upset, “Instead of yelling or getting angry or getting mom angry,” he’s learned to  retreat to his room and calm down.

William, 28, has held jobs as a Package Handler at UPS and a Defined Contribution Benefit Associate at Prudential.  Currently his “biggest challenge” is finding a full time job.  He hopes to work as a writer, editor, proofreader or artist.

“Like cerebral palsy, autism doesn’t go away,” William says.  “But with health and guidance, it can improve.  Neuro-atypical people may be unable to do certain things, but sometimes we surprise ourselves.   A long time ago I’d never have believed I’d be able to get up on the bima and read from the Torah.”

William credits Temple staff for helping him.  “Temple  Beth El has been there for me.  I felt very supported through religious school and my Bar Mitzvah.”  Temple provided his first job as a substitute teacher.

One woman sat by herself in the second row.  From the loving way she gazed at William, and the number of tissues she used, I guessed she was William’s mother.  I could feel her beaming pride.  I could only imagine how challenging her life, and her son’s, had been.

After William’s remarks, Rabbi Mark Miller invited Christa to speak.  She said, “Regardless of the challenges our family has faced, God has given me so much.  From this young man standing beside me to my sister who lets me call at 2am, I’m blessed to have a family that supports me and work that gives me time off if I need it.”  Christa’s held jobs at a Montessori school; she’s currently Office Administrator.

“I’m a person who sees the glass as half-empty.  I’d hope for the best but fear the worst.  William’s diagnosis was dire.  He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was born.  He was also born with ptosis of the left eye, which could have left him blind in that eye.  At 18 months, William had his first seizure and stopped talking.  He’d stare off into space and get upset often.  I’d have to hold him during a meltdown so he wouldn’t hurt himself.  Not only was this tiring physically; it was emotionally exhausting.

‘’It does take a village.  I spent countless hours in advocacy courses.”  These included Parent Leadership Program Training and the Macomb County Autism Society (as a board member), writing letters to senators and President Obama, pushing for funding for autism and special ed millages.

“For four years William was non-verbal and self-abusive.  He had seizures.  I remember the first time William had a horrible seizure while I was holding him.  His eyes rolled back in his head.

“I was William’s voice. In time, I realized I had to help my son become his own voice.  When he’d  tell me some slight that happened to him, it would break my heart.  Any parent who has a child with a disability wants the best for them.  As William grew older, I knew I needed to step back, let him fight his own challenges.”

Christa and William came up with a contract.  They taped it to the fridge.  “If I disagree with a decision my son makes, such as what job to apply for, I’ll explain my thinking.  But it’s his decision. I hope people will reach out to him.  There’s a loneliness I feel for him.  I just want people to feel comfortable asking questions and give him a chance.

“Though I have no control over the outcome, I place my faith in God.  I know God will be there for me, no matter what.”

Thanks, William and Christa, for sharing your story.  You’re both heroes in my book.  I’m proud to belong to a Temple that shows such compassion.

Jim and Karin Billings’ true story of ‘Planes, Trains and—a Wheelchair, too.’

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, fun or exciting, right?  For Karin and Jim Billings, this year’s annual trip to Europe proved a little too exciting.  Their European holiday turned into a European nightmare.

Karin invited friends to wear a hat to her 80th birthday celebration. I created a hat with a brown papier-mâché pony on top, reflecting Karin’s love of horses.

Readers of this column met Karin in March, 2020.  I featured a story on the gay Jewish cat wedding Karin, who loves cats, once hosted.

Karin, 82, is German by birth.  She and Jim travel abroad every year.  This past summer, Karin, a painter and retired equestrienne, decided to take a special painting for each of her seven great grandchildren. She also wanted to gift them much of her formal silverware and some expensive Meissen pottery. The couple agreed to hand-carry the pottery and check everything else in four suitcases.

When their plane from Sarasota to LaGuardia was delayed, Jim got them rebooked on a flight to Atlanta. He knew there were regular flights from Atlanta to LaGuardia. Arriving in Atlanta, the couple rushed to the Delta gate to learn their flight was canceled. Delta couldn’t book them on any other direct flight. What seemed a better option: an American Airlines flight to DC, connecting to LGA with a midnight arrival. That meant racing to the Delta baggage claim office and having their four checked bags off-loaded.Though the Delta manager advised against it, Jim insisted.

The couple opted for a flight through Miami where they arrived at 2:15 am. In the mostly empty airport, they met a fellow traveler. They joined him in the Turkish lounge for breakfast at 5am when the lounge opened. Meantime, they attempted to snooze in massage chairs.

Their flight from Miami made it to LaGuardia. The bags were another story.

With five hours before they needed to take a taxi to the ship, they weren’t overly concerned.  The first Delta flight arrived. No bags. They hustled to the Delta baggage claim office at LGA, which called the baggage claim office in ATL. No answer. The second Delta flight arrived. No bags. If the third flight arrived on time, they might still be able to claim the bags, take a taxi and board on time.

No such luck.

Karin Billings with with her painting of Dior, an Andalusian that belongs to her dear friend Eva in Wellington, FL. Eva just went through a rough chemotherapy treatment. Karin did the painting as a Get Well gift.

Jim and Karin boarded the Queen Mary 2 with the clothes on their backs, the Meissen porcelain and a few garments they bought in the ship’s store.

“We decided to keep smiling,” Jim said. To retain their senses of humor, Jim says, they kept telling themselves “how lucky we were not to be bothered by all the unpacking endured by our fellow passengers.”

Arriving in Hamburg, Karin’s hometown, they were greeted and hosted by family members and Karin’s old friends. One friend, Christian von Humboldt, introduced them to a journalist for “Horse” magazine. She wrote a feature on Karin’s silver medal win in the Munich Olympics 50 years ago.

Their two-week stay in Karin’s “beloved” hometown proved “delightful,” Jim says. It was time for a flight to Paris, a train to Le Havre, a two-week cruise back to NYC, a flight to Tampa and a drive home. Any frequent traveler knows the travel experience can be challenging. Self-proclaimed “seasoned traveler” Jim misread the itinerary for the flight to Paris, confusing check-in and boarding times. Missing the flight, the couple hustled to the train station to catch a fast train to Paris. No luck. It was a Friday; no room on the train. Next best option: a train to Kassel with a two hour wait for a train to Frankfurt, then Paris. They needed to race to catch the first train.

“That’s when the trouble began,” Jim says.

The couple each had two carry-on bags. Running, Karin tripped over a bag. She picked herself up and though in pain, Jim says, “in typical Karin fashion, she toughed it out.”

In Kassel, they had a long walk to the main station. In Frankfurt, another long walk to catch the last train to Paris. That train stopped some 40 kilometers short of Frankfurt while rocks were removed  from the tracks. In Frankfurt, another long walk. The couple arrived in Paris just after midnight. “Karin was really hurting,” Jim says. After a night in a hotel, the next morning they caught a train to Le Havre.  By now unable to walk, Karin needed a wheelchair. When they finally arrived at the ship, the ship’s doctor deemed it “too dangerous” for Karin to travel. After “much discussion,” he agreed to let Karin stay on board if a local doctor approved. They found a clinic; X-rays appeared negative. All aboard.

The first port of call was St. Milo, France. Karin stayed in bed. The next stop: Ferrol, Spain. There “out of desperation,” Jim arranged for an MRI at a local hospital. It, too, appeared negative.

Though Jim calls Karin “one of the toughest people I’ve ever known,” her pain became “unbearable.” In Lisbon, an ambulance sped the couple to a hospital. Karin’s oxygen was low; her heart showed signs of A-fib; she had a fever.  A CT scan revealed a broken rib and a crack in her D-12 vertebra.

Karin spent two weeks at Hospital Da Luz in Lisbon. A tube in her right lung drained excess fluid from pneumonia. Strong antibiotics stabilized her condition. Though the couple wanted to return home, Karin would need continuous oxygen, regular injections of antibiotics, and the ability to lie flat. Two options: air evacuation on a private jet with a doctor and paramedic for $250,000. Or a lay flat first-class seat on a commercial jet accompanied by a paramedic for $50,000. They chose the latter.

Arnold, the paramedic, told the purser Karin might need supplementary oxygen during the flight. Had he arranged for it? No. The purser ordered the threesome off the plane. Arnold promised oxygen wouldn’t be necessary after all. After much more discussion, they were allowed to stay on board. At cruising altitude, Jim noticed Karin’s oxygen was dropping. Luckily, a doctor on board was a cardiologist. He ordered the purser to provide an extra oxygen bottle.  During the nine-hour flight, Karin’s oxygen bottle was replaced three times. 40 minutes from Miami, Karin needed another bottle. The purser refused, saying the plane was descending and Karin’s oxygen concentrator was “adequate.”

“’Adequate’ wasn’t good enough,” Jim says.  He sought out the cardiologist who ordered the purser to provide another bottle.

At last, the couple landed in Miami. Jim refused to get off the plane until a wheelchair and more oxygen were available. Wheelchair: no problem. Oxygen? The purser insisted they’d find a medical office “somewhere in the terminal” to supply it. In “a rather tense moment,” Jim—whom we all know is a consummate gentleman—refused to leave the plane without oxygen. The purser was “livid,” Jim says. She called the captain. He insisted the plane had a quick turn-around. Passengers were ready to board.

“Are you willing to risk the health of my wife?” Jim demanded.

30 minutes later, oxygen arrived.  The Billings left the plane.  But Karin’s ordeal wasn’t over yet.

Back in SRQ, Karen says she “suffered” through two and one-half weeks at Sarasota Memorial Hospital undergoing various tests and receiving IV antibiotics through a PICC line.  Finally released to go home, she continued receiving antibiotics for a total of eight weeks.

The couple had both looked forward to “returning to our house, friends, community and cats,” Jim says.  They were grateful to sleep in their own beds and “sneak into the kitchen for a snack.”  Their view through the lanai had been altered.  Hurricane Ian had demolished their pool cage.  Half ended up in the pool; the rest was spread around the yard—some on the front lawn.

For Karin, coming home was “unsettling.”  Though happy to be home, she felt insecure.  Having been in a hospital for over four weeks, she’d become “comfortable” knowing she was cared for.  “She was even beginning to like the food,” Jim says.

There are two heroes to this story.  Jim sent friends a write up of what the couple endured.  His advocacy for Karin was nothing short of heroic.

I was honored to be among the first friends Karin allowed to visit.  I’d survived Stage 4 cancer, a crisis I described in my 2012 memoir, GodSigns.  Prayer played a significant part in my healing.  Karin requested I pray for her. I was glad to do what I could to bring her comfort.

Though Karin’s not sure she’ll play golf again, I’m confident she will.

Meet you on the first tee, girlfriend.  Thanks for the inspiration.  You’re a rock star of recovery.

Shanda Sullivan fulfills sister Penny James’ dying wish to publish her memoir about the cost of her once glamorous modeling life, addiction and health issues

Shanda, her husband Patrick and friends.

Shanda Sullivan knows the joy of having a sister.

And the pain of losing her.

Click the cover to visit the book’s page on Amazon.

When Shanda’s sister Penny James died at 77, in 2019, Shanda was bereft.  She was also determined to fulfill Penny’s dying wish—to finish and publish her memoir, How Nature Healed a Broken Soul. No small feat considering that both sisters dealt with serious health issues, Shanda isn’t a writer—and Penny was brutally honest in telling her story.

Shanda has suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for 35 years. Penny faced challenges as well, contracting Raynaud syndrome, a painful disease associated in her case with scleroderma.

Beautiful and outgoing, Penny led a high powered young life.  She was Miss Colorado, 1962, and a runner up to Miss USA.  A fashion model during the Twiggy era, Penny was represented by top NY agencies Wilhelmina and Eileen Ford. She appeared on five Playboy covers but refused to do a centerfold. Her life wasn’t as enviable as it appeared. During what Shanda calls her sister’s “difficult” 20-year marriage, Penny suffered “dangerous alcohol addiction and self-esteem challenges.”

In her memoir, Penny writes of rubbing elbows with Cher, Jackie O and Ali McGraw in New York in the 1960s and 70s, and of the glamorous life she led. “Having a keen fashion sense can attract royalty. Crossing legs at the right angle while sitting and sensually using body curves to full advantage while wearing an Yves St. Laurent garment could be far more effective than a college degree in ‘getting a man.’ A marriage proposal from a rich, powerful gentleman promised the peace of mind that comes with financial security and… an exciting lifestyle. Knowing how to dress was a free ticket into the newly opened Studio 54…”   

Penny’s husband had a fling with fame as well. A plastic surgeon, he briefly starred in a syndicated tv series “Today’s Health.” Penny spent many hours teaching him how to appear comfortable and convincing on camera.

Regarding her Jet Set younger years, Penny recalls a trip to Greece with her husband and his nurse/mistress. They dined at the home of an Onassis cousin on whom her husband performed a rhinoplasty. She mentions another evening at the home of Golden Globe nominated actress Carlin Glynn. Robert and Lola Redford and Dustin Hoffman were there, dressed in jeans. About the evening, Penny writes, “My flowing gown and leg placement at a flattering angle didn’t cut it with this group…. I came home and knew my world was crumbling.”

After 20 years of marriage, Penny and her husband divorced. In her memoir she examines the price she paid for her so-called glamorous life. “…as youth faded, that sense of security was lost.  Was I afraid of being tossed out with the trash? Drugs propped up my self-esteem, then turned on me, bringing desperation and insecurity I hadn’t known before.”

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

After 11 years in the spotlight, Penny gave up her modeling career and the pressures of the ‘60s and ‘70s party scenes in Chicago and New York. In the 1980s, she moved to a 100-year old farmhouse in northeastern Pennsylvania. There she found the peace of mind that had eluded her. An  attentive neighbor was a bear she named Sophia. In Muffin: A True Story, a charming children’s book Penny published about the experience, Penny writes, “I heard an odd sound, a delicate tap… tap… tap.”  She looked out the window to see a black bear peering in at her.

“She seemed polite and good natured,” Penny writes. To entice the bear to stay, Penny tossed out a donut. “The bear had such good manners. She picked it up, ate it carefully, then wanted another.” Many more donuts followed. Tapping occurred daily. Before long, Sophia clicked her teeth together, signaling to three cubs it was safe to descend from the tree where they hid.

Even the Muffin story was part of the roller coaster in Penny’s life.

Here’s the sad epilogue to this story: While Penny relished her relationship with Sophia and her offspring Muffin, the National Park Service advises against befriending wild animals. Attacks, though rare, most likely occur when bears are “protecting food, cubs or their space,” the park service says. Bears that are too comfortable around humans run the risk of encountering other less friendly humans. Such was the case with Muffin and three of her cubs. All four animals were shot and killed by a hunter.

Penny developed achalasia, a rare digestive disease that impedes digestion. She handled her  complications with grace, writing, “I am a patient with achalasia, scleroderma, pulmonary hypertension, AFib and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Yet I’m still alive and look healthy.”

Shanda says joining AA allowed her sister “to develop a relationship with God and begin her healing journey.” Penny reached out to others. As a volunteer, she shared her story with female inmates at Riker’s Island, reading to them and collaborating on a sculpture garden featuring a totem of branches and twigs.

“Penny believed we’re all connected on God’s earth with zero degrees of separation,” Shanda says. Zero degrees describes Shanda and Penny’s relationship. In her memoir, Penny credits her sister for tireless medical advocacy and moral support. “Shanda has always been the one beside me when I’ve really needed help.”

I met Shanda, who lives in Virginia, several years ago at a Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada. Our dear friend Richard Webb convinced us to fly from Florida across country and then drive for about three hours to this small but lively western town. A bonus of attending, including the high voltage poetry of Paul Zarzyski and music of Texan Tom Russell, was meeting Shanda.  Her husband Patrick served on the board of the Elko-based Folklife Center, which organizes the annual event. Poets and singer songwriters perform around town on stages including the high school gymnasium.

Though more low key than her sister, Shanda shares Penny’s determination. Developing MS at 37, Shanda more recently had breast cancer—twice. For now, her MS symptoms are “relatively mild.” She theorizes the disease may have been slowed by chemo she took for breast cancer.  Shanda was born and raised in Colorado. She was a flight attendant for United Airlines until MS ended her 20-year career in the air. With a close friend, she then started what became a successful interior design business.

Shanda’s husband Patrick is a retired navy pilot, aeronautical engineer and professor (aka “rocket scientist”).  A “super duty” pilot in Vietnam, Patrick flew a MEDEVAC to pick up wounded brothers—something he did on alternate days off after flying Navy helicopter gunships and SEAL ops.  Aboard USS Enterprise, the first nuclear aircraft carrier, Patrick took charge of on-board filming, arranging the opening scenes in the original “Top Gun” movie with Tom Cruise.  When Shanda and I first spoke, Patrick was away, escorting his friend, legendary  cowboy and blues singer 91-year old Ramblin’ Jack, on tour of Nashville and the South.

As maternal and caring as Shanda is, she and Patrick didn’t have children, lest pregnancy worsen her MS. She’s as devoted to her other two sisters, Bobbie and Sheila, as she was to Penny. During the four months Penny underwent chemo, Shanda convinced her sister to live with her and Patrick. She accompanied Penny to appointments. As challenging as those months were, the sisters still managed to “be silly and laugh.” They especially delighted in composing a tray full of beautiful but inedible foraged mushrooms.

Penny, sober for 34 years, called Shanda every Sunday to go over a Bible passage. Joining AA helped Penny recover a sense of sanity. She believed her story might help others through difficult times. “She wanted others to know they could learn from her mistakes and come through them, as she did,” Shanda says.  When ill health prevented Penny from finishing her memoir, she asked Shanda to complete it—a seemingly impossible request considering that on top of her existing health issues, Shanda had lately been diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“I stared out the window thinking I might never be able to garden again, no less complete Penny’s book and publish it,” Shanda says. “But it was a deathbed promise, and in our family we were taught to be tenacious. So I did my best. I learned how hard it is to turn a rough manuscript into a finished, edited, and finally published book. Especially when it covers such painful moments in the life of someone I dearly loved.” The experience, she admits, “took a toll.”

Thanks, Shanda, for sharing your resilient sister and equally resilient self. On Nov. 8, you’ll turn 72. Happy and HEALTHY, well-earned birthday wishes.


A Penny James Gallery from her heyday in media







For Maureen Kaiser, age is no barrier to chasing her dreams as a singer/songwriter

That’s Maureen in the broad-brimmed hat. This is the cover of her 2020 album. Click on this album cover and you’ll visit the Amazon page where you can listen to the songs and purchase her music, if you like it.

Some lucky people can sing.  Some join choirs.  Others enjoy karaoke.  Some merely dream of life behind a microphone.  It takes a rare, brave person to become a singer/songwriter when she’s pushing 50. That takes chutzpah!

I met Maureen Kaiser when she owned and operated an American Speedy print shop in Bloomfield Hills, MI.  25 years ago, she married Joe Kaiser, a friend Burton and I knew through a business-related organization.

Married to Joe, Maureen opened an event planning business.  At a conference, Maureen participated in a team building exercise.  She suggested writing a theme song for the conference.  What seemed like a good idea was “stalling out,” Maureen says.  A line “just popped into my head and out of my mouth,” Maureen says.  “Make a right hand turn on Mayhem Lane.”

Spending about an hour on the exercise, Maureen contributed most of the lines for the song.  Enjoying the exercise, that night at the resort she sat in the bathroom and wrote four songs—melody and lyrics.  The next day she sang her theme song for fellow conference members, who applauded her efforts.

When Maureen returned home to Scottsdale, AZ, she registered Mayhem Lane as an LLC.  Her next thought: “What to do with my newfound lust to write?”

Maureen decided to take her newfound hobby seriously.  She participated in several songwriting boot camps in Nashville.  These were “deep dives,” she says, into songwriting, recording and the logistics of the music industry.

Needing an accompaniment, Maureen bought a guitar.  She signed up for private lessons in her home, five days a week for six months.  She practiced every day and most nights, she says, “Until it clicked and my right hand was talking to my left hand.  I wasn’t great, but I was good enough to show a real musician what I wanted.”

Maureen worked with eight studio musicians on her first batch of studio recordings.  She “kept joking” they should form and band.  They rehearsed for over a year.  Three albums later, after the group had learned most of Maureen’s catalog, “We made it official and became Mayhem Lane.”  Last year, Maureen and her band performed at six gigs.  They have six more on the books for the next year.  As if that weren’t enough, this gutsy gal has started teaching songwriting workshops at corporate events.

By the time a conference is over, Maureen says, the groups she’s engaged with will have written a theme song and learned the lingo and etiquette of songwriting.  She says her workshops “are designed to engage and enlighten the participants while they enjoy a creative experience.”

During COVID, Maureen says, “I realized Keith Urban or Miranda Lambert weren’t going to call.”  She decided to do what she could to increase the chance that some professional singer would like her creations.

She put together a band of professional musicians she found from Nashville studios and in her home town of Scottsdale.  They’ve recorded dozens of Maureen’s songs that are professionally produced and released on most streaming platforms.  She hopes some of her tunes will be picked up for commercial use.

Maureen’s songs have a country vibe and usually convey a message.  One of her favorites is “Fly Like Amelia,” about Amelia Earhart.  Maureen cut it with a male vocalist, Jacob Morris from Nashville, and 14 year old Evie Clair, a female singer from Season 12 of “America’s Got Talent.”  One line from the song, “Be firm like Rosa,” references Rosa Parks, an African American Detroiter who refused to sit in back of a bus.  Maureen wrote the song with her granddaughter in mind.  “I don’t want anyone bringing her down.”

Maureen has produced 3 and ½ minute homemade videos of a few songs. Another personal fave: “Brothers Together,” a song she dedicated to fire fighters and first responders.

All Maureen’s songs are on her website,, and many streaming platforms including Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music.

Maureen keeps coming up with “cowboy one-liners” and makes notes whenever they strike.

Maureen’s husband Joe is “100% on board” with her new career.  She calls him her “biggest cheerleader.”  As a thank you, Maureen wrote “I Dreamed of You” as a birthday gift for Joe and gave him the song rights.  She starts every set with the song, she says,  “It fills my heart with gratitude.”

Maureen has partnered with Detroit-based Taja Sevelle, a singer/songwriter who co-wrote with Prince and has her own private label.  Taja’s best known for her 1987 single “Love is Contagious” and for the non-profit organization, Urban Farming, she founded in 2005. Maureen says Taja’s and her “personal styles of writing blend together, and we’re creating a new vibe.”

Maureen finds people in the industry “kind and willing to help.”  Lately, she holds songwriting meetings on Zoom. One songwriting partner, Nashville-based Sherrie Austin, co-wrote “Bad for Me,” the title track to a Blake Shelton album, and songs for George Strait, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.  Another partner, Will Rambeaux, has had songs recorded by Faith Hill, Dolly Parton and more.

Maureen was thrilled when 17-year old barrel racer and up and coming country singer Abigayle Holt included two of her songs on her EP.  Maureen was first drawn to Abigayle when she viewed film of her singing the National Anthem at a rodeo. Maureen calls Abigayle “the poster child of the person I dreamed would want to do my music.”

Maureen continues to take voice lessons, though she’s “most comfortable” singing background vocals.

About her later in life career, Maureen says, “I wish I’d started sooner.  But If I had and it didn’t work out, I might have given up.”  She continues to stay up late writing songs and to take voice lessons.  She believes “everyone has a song in them.”  She’s doing her best to bring all of hers to life.

You go, girlfriend. Thanks for the inspiration.  And the gift of knowing it’s never too late to be what we might have been.

Click on this photo of Maureen and you’ll visit here website, featuring a 3-minute introductory video about her musical career.

Sarah discovers that 12 Steps are part of a life-long journey

My friend Sarah, appropriately protecting her identity as she shares her story with us this week.

Sarah was one of the funniest girls in my high school class. Hence, one of my favorites.

What I did not know at the time was that she was also one of the most conflicted. With two “highly functioning” alcoholic parents, Sarah grew up immersed in addiction issues. Unlike her parents, she eventually mustered the courage to do something about them, which is why Sarah agreed to let me share her story with all of you—but, of course, not her full name, which you will understand as you read.

Sarah’s parents had experienced their own traumas. She was born just two weeks after her parents were devastated by the death of their 2-year-old son to TB. Sarah’s aunts and grandmother pitched in and doted on her. As a toddler, Sarah felt “adored.” She loved going to her grandmother’s house where she “was treated properly—like a princess.”

But at home? Her parents both were very talented and “movie star gorgeous.” Her father had served in the medical corps in World War II and saw the carnage that came with the Allied landings in Europe. He returned to the U.S. believing he could have saved more soldiers’ limbs—so, he went back to school and became a surgeon. Her mother was a professional artist, although she never got over the death of a child to TB.

Both parents turned to alcohol every day.

Sarah also faced a number of other challenges in her family. “I wasn’t as pretty as my mother or sisters. So I worked at being funny and fun.” Around 9th grade, Sarah realized that alcohol was a serious problem in her family. “So I fixed the problem. I poured out all the liquor in the house.”

Her parents “went batshit.”

That’s partly why Sarah was sent to board at Kingswood School Cranbrook, a prep school in Bloomfield Hills, MI. After six weeks of boarding school, Sarah was frustrated. “Nobody realized how special I was. And school was really hard.” Home for Thanksgiving, she cried to her parents, “Don’t make me go back.”

Sarah has never forgotten her father’s response: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  But your mother and I are spending thousands of dollars trying.”

Sarah snapped, “Just remember who the boar and the sow are.”

Back at boarding school, Sarah decided the food wasn’t bad. She competed with a friend to see how many dishes of apple crisp they could eat. She put on weight and tried, but failed, to run off the extra pounds playing field hockey. “My classmates all seemed slim and gorgeous. A couple tried to teach me to put my finger down my throat, but I couldn’t do it.” She spent 10th, 11th and 12th grade “still trying” to lose weight.

After graduation, Sarah went to Finch College in New York City. Then, in her sophomore year, she got pregnant and eloped with her boyfriend Tom. Both of his parents and her mother were “horrified.” Her father was resigned.

There was a bright period when Sarah and Tom settled into a home in a lovely Ohio suburb. “I was hitting my stride,” Sarah says. “I got contact lenses, played tennis, joined the Junior League, had a social network. We had three beautiful, smart children. Tom’s father was a big sponsor of our symphony.

“But at cocktail parties, I was drinking and eating too much. Everything tasted so delicious. To control my weight, I started taking diet pills. They just made me drunk faster. I mixed alcohol with diet sodas.”

In her mid-30s, Sarah realized her husband was having an affair. She and Tom attended marriage counseling. The counselor asked Tom, “Why are you here?” Nodding toward Sarah,  he said, “To get her fixed.” Later, Tom told Sarah, “This marriage would have worked if you weren’t so damn dumb.” They divorced.

Sarah internalized Tom’s criticism. “I went into a sad spiral.”  She started dating, but “it was going badly.” Then, her parents both died between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1982.

Worrying Tom had been right about her being “dumb,” Sarah took a Stanford-Binet IQ test. With nervous fingers, she opened the envelope for her results. “It was a big, fat number. Oh, I said, so that’s not why the marriage ended.”

Sarah’s parents had left her “a little money,” and she decided to go back to school. She “crammed two years of classes into eight months.” When she realized she’d made the Dean’s List, she says, “I burst into tears.”

Over the next ten years, Sarah held a variety of jobs in Cincinnati, including working in a dress shop and an ad agency—but Sarah still was drinking and gaining weight.

“My rear end would have stopped a freight train. But shoulder pads were in. They helped balance the bottom.” By age 50, Sarah was running out of money. She could no longer afford her “pretty little townhouse.” She binged on self-help books. She was unemployed. One night she “fixed a fabulous meal for four and ate every bite.” She filled three tall glasses with ice and bourbon and a splash of water, downed them and fell asleep in her wing-back chair watching Jeopardy. She awoke “wedged” into the chair and had trouble getting up.

It’s often said no one can cure an addiction problem until they’ve hit bottom. Sarah hit bottom—literally. She realized, “no matter how big your earrings are, they won’t stop anyone from noticing your ass is stuck in a chair.”

That’s when she resolved to take action and called a friend who was a member of Overeaters Anonymous. The organization was founded in 1960 by Rozanne S and two other women, following the 12-step pattern of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935.

At first, Sarah was hesitant to attend the group, telling her friend that she would be embarrassed.

“Sarah,” her friend replied, “they already know you’re fat.”

In fact, Overeaters Anonymous’s thousands of local groups welcome anyone “recovering from unhealthy relationships with food and body image.” Many come because they are overweight; others come to the group because their “unhealthy” relationship to food amounts to anorexia or bulimia. Unlike various nationally known dieting organizations, however, Overeaters Anonymous does not prescribe any specific plans or diets. Instead, participants encourage each other through the 12 Steps to take control of their lives and find their own paths toward healthier living.

Sarah was impressed by the group’s approach. She chose a sponsor. “I chose someone who said she’d prayed I wouldn’t want her because I’m so confrontational.”

“Everybody has a sobriety date,” Sarah says. Hers is January 21, 1995, the date of her first meeting. As Sarah talked with her sponsor and others in the group, she developed a plan that “with God, one day at a time” would control her compulsive eating.

Sarah recalls writing out answers to questions about what triggered her eating. She realized that for her food meant comfort. “But the comfort didn’t last. I realized it still could, as long as I stuck to a food plan.”

Eventually, Sarah lost 113 pounds.

“Now I understand how much I can eat,” she says. After a small lapse—gaining 10 pounds in her early 70s—Sarah says, “I finally leveled out. She’s been following the plan, and helping others do so, for 28 years.

Sarah has been attending both Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings since 1995. She says, “I got to the point of admitting I was powerless over food and alcohol. My life had become unmanageable. That admission is the First Step. I realized I’d also been coming on strong in relationships. What I really needed was to be quiet and calm. I have no control over other people, places or things. Myself—maybe. With God’s help.”

She says, “I realized I’d been beating myself up with thoughts like I wasn’t smart enough; I wasn’t pretty enough like my sister. Whatever my first thought is, I’ve learned to pause.”

And the past? Well, Sarah says, “We all start out as a cucumber. Once we’re pickled, we remain a pickle. We can’t go back to being a cucumber. I take responsibility for my life.”

A stronger, wiser Sarah has held a series of jobs, including as a parish administrator and as a staff assistant, now, at Northern Kentucky University. She was delighted to receive a Student Support Award for faculty and staff members who most help support students.

Sarah no longer internalizes others’ criticism of her. “I realize I just married the wrong guy,” she says. Introspection, sobriety, weight control and self-help work have led her to shed her earlier insecurity. Today, she says, “I actually like myself. I have gifts to give and am happy for the opportunity to serve.”

To keep herself centered, Sarah repeats lessons and positive messages she’s gleaned from AA.  One is making amends. When you’re wrong, promptly admit it. She apologized to her children for being hard to get along with for so long. Another: The three Cs. When dealing with someone else’s addiction, realize you didn’t cause it, you can’t change it; you can’t cure it.

Certain slogans continue to resonate.

“Let go and let God.”

“Are you trusting God or are you playing God?”

“ Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go there alone.”

“A 12 step program is not for people who need it; it’s for people who want it.”

Sarah says, “12 Step programs are simple, but not easy.” She has forgiven her parents for slights that occurred in the past. She says, “I’ve come to understand we all do the best we can.”

Amen to that, girlfriend. Thanks for sharing your journey. And for inspiring others to live their best, and healthiest, lives.

Care to learn more?

To find an Overeaters Anonymous meeting near you, visit the group’s website.

To find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting near you, visit the group’s website.