Author Archives: Suzy Farbman

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.”

Junia Doan teaches us, ‘We’re the artists of our own lives’

CLICKING ON THIS PHOTO will take you to Junia Doan’s The Spark website, where you can watch some of her videos. But wait!!! First, enjoy Suzy Farbman’s column (below) about this remarkably creative woman and you’ll appreciate visiting The Spark even more.

Junia Doan’s big city/small town background has led to a perspective of gratitude, giving back and trusting her intuition.

Though Junia grew up in New York City, her grandparents lived in Oklahoma.  Three times a year, Junia and her parents traveled by train to visit the Schonwalds.  “I grew up with a contrast between cultures,” Junia says.  “We left a city that was grey, vertical and mostly cement to reach a place of blue skies, horizontal stretches and black oil wells.”  Dave Schonwald was an immigrant from Hungary who’d  moved to America to avoid being drafted in the 1880s, “Christians could buy their way out,” Junia says.  “Jews couldn’t.”

Dave arrived with $50 in his pocket and not a word of English in his head.  He went to work making oil barrels.  When he couldn’t meet his production quota, friends helped.  Dave took accounting courses at night.  At the end of the 1800s, railroads were being built in Oklahoma.  Dave took a job in the hot sun, pumping water to track workers—the “hardest job” he ever had.  In the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, the government sectioned off land plots, describing them with a sheet on a pole.  A gun shot off and settlers raced to capture the best plot they could reach.  Dave came across a widow and three children, crying on a broken wagon, despairing of acquiring a place to settle.  Dave gave them his plot and ran for another.  Decades later, the grandchildren of those settlers visited the Schonwalds to thank them.

Junia remembers those train trips out west.  “I looked out at tiny towns and saw how far apart they were.  I developed a reverence for the land.   And for those lonely workers who pushed forward, making a life.”

Graduating from Barnard in NY at a time when most women became housewives, secretaries or schoolteachers, Junia, too, pushed forward.  In those days, she recalls, women couldn’t get a bank loan if their husband’s name wasn’t on a mortgage; good jobs went to men who wouldn’t get pregnant and quit.  But Junia never lacked for chutzpah.  She decided where she wanted to work, cold called a company and said, “I want to see what you do, where I might fit in.”  Her chutzpah led to jobs in real estate, oil and finance.

Then love struck.

Junia attended a conference on socially conscious investing, the lone female among 40 men.  There she met Ted Doan, from Midland, MI, grandson of Herbert Dow, founder of Dow Chemical. Ted was the fifth president of Dow Chemical.  He was credited with restructuring the company to best function on a global scale, according to his 2006 obit in the Midland Daily News.

Junia recalls Ted’s coming to New York to “court” her.  “This was before the pooper scooper law,” she says.  “Ted asked, ‘How can people live here?’  I said, ‘We never look down.  We only look up.’”

They married and honeymooned in Europe, at one point visiting J. Paul Getty, who insisted houseguests pay for their phone calls.  The Doans lived in Midland where Junia and Ted spent over four years redoing Ted’s house that was designed by Alden Dow, Ted’s relative and one of Michigan’s most significant architects.  Junia worked with famed designer John Saladino on the interiors.

By Manhattan standards, Midland was a small town, then about 37,000 in population  (today about 42,000).  “Quite an adjustment for a big city girl,” Junia says.  But adjust she did.  She volunteered for the Art Council and found herself organizing an exhibit of photography from Nepal and India.  She began working on a state level, joining the Michigan Council for Art and Humanities, the modern art group of the DIA and the board of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

After suffering three miscarriages, Junia became pregnant again. She spent more than four months in bed to ensure the delivery of daughter Alexandra.  She and Ted took Alexandra on long trips abroad to countries including Egypt, China, Israel and beyond.  They documented those trips in holiday cards with photos of their adventures.  “We wanted Alexandra to have a sense of the world—her own 7- and 8-year-old take.  Travel allows the imagination to blossom.”  When Alexandra grew up, Burton and I attended her beautiful wedding.  Alexandra and David Drucker have given Junia a granddaughter and grandson who check in every day.

Junia’s brother Dick had overseen the Schonwald family investments.  Years ago, when Dick died young of a heart attack, Junia gave up most of her volunteer commitments to fill in for him.  “My brother was increasingly ill, but in those days you didn’t talk about unpleasantness.  Secrecy was the norm.  Today it’s acceptable to talk about failure or illness. We admit things like, ‘It didn’t work out.  Or I learned from the experience.’”  When her brother died, Junia moved in temporarily with her mother to help her recover from grief.

Junia claims to being born with “an incredible amount of curiosity.”  Even today, she says, when walking to a destination in New York, she tries to always take a different route.

“I like surprises.  I’ll start giggling in the morning wondering what will happen to me today that’s fun.  Life is about discovery.  Things pull at us.  What do they mean?  I hope to live to 116 or 117 with full mental faculties.  If I’m fearful about something, I make myself push through it.”

A challenge a few years ago?  Her body was cast in plaster and turned into a bronze sculpture by her friend, renowned New York artist Michele Oka Doner.

Her latest challenge?  A course in self-defense.

Junia’s a doer and a problem solver.  In New York on 9/11, she attended a luncheon of stricken women leaders.  “There are two things we can do right now to help,” she said.  “We can give money and give blood.”

Junia believes in accepting what is.  “Times force us to change.  I try to adapt without losing myself.  In the old days, we wore hats and white gloves. I still wear stockings.  Young women today go bare legged, even in winter.  Cultures shift but our values need to stay steady.  I still believe in courtesy and civility.”

Decades ago, Junia recalls, women gave morning teas or coffees to get to know each other and be home in time to make lunch for their children.  That changed when school lunches became mandatory.   “A lot of moms objected.  They no longer knew until the end of the day who was mean to Johnny.  If Johnny remembered to tell them.”

In another change Junia has observed, she used to belong to a women’s Monday club.  One member was assigned a topic and lectured about it at the next meeting.  Today women’s clubs bring in speakers, she says, and many who once participated now hold down jobs.

During the pandemic, Junia Doan keeps working on The Spark with portable equipment. Here she is interviewing Chef Evan Sumrell, owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Aster in Midland, Michigan.

Junia tries to help others adapt to changing times.  In 2002, she started her own public service talk show on TV in Midland.  Today “Junia Doan’s The Spark” also shows on You Tube.   (She interviewed me for a program that will air soon.)

“We’re the artists of our own lives,” she says.  “But life can dump on us.  So much is beyond our control.  We just have to go with it.  And realize we’re different people at different points in our lives.”

In the 1930s, Junia’s grandmother brought home people who jumped off trains to give them a shower and a meal.  “She was a helper,” Junia says.  Junia inherited her grandmother’s helping trait.  “I’ve had a good life.  You never know what’s going to happen.  You might as well enjoy the surprises.  And hold the light for others.”

As Junia said to Ted that day in New York when he objected to the dog poop on the streets, “We only look up.”  Thanks, my friend, for the wisdom.

Jerry Shulak’s love of golf reached amazing heights, including 1st class with Arnold Palmer

A SNAPSHOT TO REMEMBER! That’s Jerry Shulak at left and his friend and mentor Irwin Fruchtman at right. Between them is the legendary sportsman Frank Stranahan.

Success comes in different forms.  Through talent, hard work and personal charm, Jerry Shulak scored victories as an amateur golfer and encounters with some of the greatest golfers in history.  His parents, too, lived an American success story.

Jerry’s dad Harry immigrated to Detroit from Russia as a child.  Harry arrived “penniless”, Jerry says, in the early 1930s.  Starting at age 6, Harry sold newspapers until he quit school in the 9th grade to help support his family.  Harry recalled hunger pangs from the scent of horn of plenty pastries from a nearby bakery.  Resisting temptation, he brought every penny home.   Harry met wife Becky, also from Russia, in 1934.  Becky had spent several years In a Russian orphanage as her other was too ill to care for her and her siblings.   Becky remembered the terror of Russian pogroms and hiding from soldiers on horseback.

In Detroit, Harry worked as a salesman in a fur salon.  Hoping to open a salon of his own, Harry moved with Becky and 2 year old Jerry to Toledo in 1938.  He approached the Toledo Trust Bank for a loan.  Rejected.  Harry insisted on seeing the president, waited for hours.   His persistence paid off.  “You have no collateral but you seem like a smart man,” the president said.  $10,000 loan granted.  In time, Harry ran four fur salons in Toledo, gave both his brothers partnerships and put one of them through med school.  Brother Irving Shulak became a well-known Detroit psychiatrist.

Jerry inherited his father’s determination.  At 5, Jerry was fascinated by golf.  He loved watching golfers hit practice balls at Glengarry CC where his dad belonged.   Jerry approached a member  on the range, asked to borrow a club.  Bill March, the club pro, noticed him.  “You’ve got a natural swing,” he said.  March cut down an iron from his stock and gave it to Jerry.   Jerry practiced for hours and read every book he could find on golf.

At 11, Jerry walked some 15 miles from his house to Inverness CC to spectate at tournaments.  Sometimes he got a ride home.  At about 14, Jerry asked his dad to buy him a used set of golf clubs for $130.  Harry balked, saying, “Let’s see what happens next year.”

When Jerry managed to acquire clubs, Harry came upon him cleaning them, preparing for a junior tournament the next day.  “Golf is for rich people,” Harry railed.  “You’re lazy.  You need to go to work.”

Tears in his eyes, Jerry walked slowly to his car, placed his clubs in the trunk, and drove to Highland Meadows CC the day before the 4-day Toledo District Junior Golf Tournament.  He slept that night in the locker room.   Against golfers who were older and better trained, Jerry won the tournament.

Jerry also won three Glengarry Junior Club Championships, beating a guy who was “older and a better golfer.”

Jerry says, “I never drank or did drugs.  Sports were my whole life.”  He also played varsity football and basketball in high school and captained his basketball team.

Jerry became friends with body builder, amateur and pro golfer and “icon,” Frank Stranahan, from a wealthy Toledo family that developed the spark plug.  Jerry and Frank were the only two to ever win both the Toledo District Amateur and the Toledo Junior Amateur tournaments.  Jerry deems Stranahan “the second best golf amateur ever.”  The first?  “Bobby Jones.”

At the U. of Miami, Jerry made the varsity golf team and lettered for four years.  He had to learn to hit on thicker Florida grass. He played second or third on the team.  In Florida, he met pro golfer Doug Sanders who was dating the same girl.  They became good friends.  Sanders realized Jerry was a student of the game.  At one point, having some trouble with his swing, Sanders invited Jerry to fly to Greensboro to help advise him.  For the next week’s Tournament of Champions, Sanders invited Jerry to accompany him to Las Vegas.  Jerry joined Sanders, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus—all on the same flight, in first class.

“Golf was hard for me,” Jerry admits.  “I practiced and practiced.”  He’d hit 300 to 400 balls a day.   In all he won 14 club championships.  “I loved the idea that my name would be on a club plaque, and that after I got older and passed away, members would remember me.  But the club burned down in a fire and the plaques went with it.”

At 17, Jerry happened to be paired with Jack Nicklaus in the Ohio Junior Tournament.  “Jack was 14 and already great.  Long and straight off the tee, a marvelous putter and friendly.  He couldn’t wait to finish because he had a basketball game to play that night.  His father galleried all 36 holes.”  Many years later, Jerry took a friend to a PGA tournament at Inverness.  Jack Nicklaus was playing.  Jerry was standing with his friend near a tee when Nicklaus walked up to him and said, “Jerry, how ya doin?”   Jerry’s stunned star-struck friend asked, “Did I just hear the greatest golfer in the world say hi to you?”

Jerry and Sandi

Jerry went on to sell steel for his good friend and mentor, Detroit steel magnate Irwin Fruchtman.  He also opened a clothing store and ran four restaurants.  He became a dear  friend of Burton’s and mine when he married our friend Sandi Alpert.  They have two children.  In 1977, Jerry and son Brad won the Toledo father/son city championship.

In later years, a cousin invited the Shulaks to visit in Phoenix, AZ.  “I saw water glistening in the pool as the sun came up over a mountain,” Jerry says.  “That was it.”  He and Sandy packed up and moved.  Jerry no longer plays golf.  At 84, he has spinal stenosis.  He works as a trader and financial adviser.  And like Doug Sanders, Burton and I realize he gives good advice.

“A golfer can have the greatest swing, but it’s what in his gut that matters,” Jerry says.  “Golf is a very hard game to play at a high level.”  (Personal aside from a frustrated hacker: it’s a hard game to play at ANY level.)

Jerry says, “Golf has taught me most of what I know about life.  It’s taught me perseverance and patience.  It taught me not to dwell on the past.  I can’t change what happened yesterday; I can only go forward.”

Was it worth it?

“I had a tough father.  But I became a champion anyway and was looked up to for the first time in my life.  Golf got me in to see heads of companies I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  It let me fly on private planes.  It gave me respect and self-respect.

“So yes, it was worth it.”

 

Wonderment and Hope: Writing a weekly column about inspiring people taps into joy. 

Suzy Farbman, third from left, enjoying friends from Detroit’s vibrant arts community.

Writing a weekly column about inspiring people taps into joy.

When I first thought about doing a column, I met with old chum David Crumm.  (“Colleague” would be the more accurate term, but I can’t resist the rhyme.)  David ran an online website, Read the Spirit, focused on matters involving spirituality and health care.  With my interest in both, David encouraged me to publish with him.   I’ve been doing so for five years now.  Happily.

Only once has David turned down a column I wrote.  It was political in nature, he said, and if he ran my point of view, he’d have to run the opposing view.  Other than that, David gives me the freedom to write what I want, when and how I want.   His few edits are (mostly!) appreciated. Writers may come off as confident, but down deep we’re as insecure as anyone else.  When I turn in a column, David, a writer himself, always has something nice to say.

I seek out people and stories that inspire me.  When my heart beats a little faster, I know I’m on to something.  I’ll wait patiently in a conversation for that nugget, that angle that stirs me.  The stories are out there.  It’s my job to find them.

I’m reading a memoir by Alan Zweibel, an original writer for Saturday Night Live, a BFF of Gilda Radner, humorist author and playwright.  (He collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play 700 Sundays.)

In Laugh Lines, Zweibel recalls working with Eric Clapton (“Layla,” etc.) to score a movie Zweibel co-wrote.  In the recording studio, Clapton sat watching a scene play and replay, each time plucking a few more notes on his guitar.  After several repetitions,  Clapton’s song was complete.

“WTF was that?” Zweibel asked Clapton.

“Was what?” he said, laughing.

“You just wrote a song right in front of me.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“But I saw you…”

“Those songs are out there,” he said, gesturing skyward.  “The tunes, the melodies.  All I do is channel them.” 

That’s how I feel about the columns I write.  I just need to tune in.  The stories are out there.

Having finished my pandemic project, writing a book about the Detroit’s first avant garde art movement,  I was happy to  be back with my first column in about a year, on classic race car driver David Porter.  I got a special kick out of David Crumm’s welcome back message.

Several years ago, Burton and I attended a Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.  Before Burton’s recent health challenge, he was a fine photographer.  In Elko, we attended a workshop with a renowned Western photographer.  A young man in the audience raised his hand.  He was starting out as a professional photographer, he said, and wanted some advice.

The response was profound.  The well-known photographer said, “You have to fall in love with your subject.”

Sometime later, I realized that advice applies to me.  I fall a little bit in love with every subject about whom I write.  My capacity for love is as boundless as my curiosity.

So I was delighted with David Crumm’s Welcome Back message in which he described my columns as “stories of wonderment and hope.”  David observes I’ve published 273 stories for 1,000s of readers and says, “An All-time Favorite Returns.”

Stories of wonderment and hope.  I never thought to describe my columns that way.  But that’s just what I seek to convey.

With bad news dominating the media these days, Read the Spirit consistently offers a more optimistic, humane, connected point of view.  I’m honored to be part of that, to share a weekly jolt of joy.  Thanks, David and Co. at RTS.  And thanks to my subjects and readers for the opportunity.

Driver David Porter’s joy revs up racing classic cars

If you’re born in Detroit, you’re born with a reverence for cars.  As the grandniece of Albert Kahn, who designed all the factories for all the car companies in the early 20th C., I have extra reverence.  But I’ve had zero exposure to the world of car racing.

Until now.

Race car driver David Porter is a new neighbor, fresh from winning classic car races out of more than 250 cars at Daytona and Sebring.  Of course I had to meet him.

David was born in 1955 in Berwick on Tweed, a town that’s been part of Scotland and England over time.  When he was 6, his dad and dad’s friend took him to Charterhall, a racing track on the Scottish border (formerly a Royal Air Force airfield, significant in WWI and II).

“That day I saw my first Formula 3 car,” David says.  “In my mind, I still see it.  It made an indelible impression.”

As David grew older, he and his mom fought over his future.  She was “determined” he’d become a teacher.  David wanted to be a banker like his dad.  Instead of going to college, he joined the British Linen Bank.  In those days, he says, Scottish banks wouldn’t take college grads because they weren’t willing to do the grunt work.  David was.  He served as a clerk and a teller and enjoyed dealing with customers.  But in that pre-computer era, every transaction had to be posted manually in a ledger.  “Staggeringly tedious,” he says.

His boss moved to the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1976.  His boss was “a clean desk guy who managed to be so with people like me doing the work.”  One of the bank’s biggest customers was Glencore, founded by Marc Rich.

Sound familiar?  Marc Rich was an international commodities trader indicted for tax evasion and making deals with Iran during the hostage crisis.  Rich fled to Switzerland and was pardoned by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2001 on Clinton’s last day in office.

A month after his boss left to join Glencore, with papers piling up on his desk, David’s ex-boss  called.  ‘Three days later, David was working for Glencore as an expert on letters of credit.  In 1989 the company moved to the US.  David and his then wife came, too.  The company grew from a staff of about 20 to 250 in two years.  David rose to become head of finance.  He retired in 2012.

As for racing, in his late 20s David “took the plunge.”  His Lotus road car was stolen.  The insurance company gave him “a very nice check.”  He asked himself, “If not now, when?”

A week later, David bought a Formula Ford.  (A single seat, open wheel race car like the one featured in Rush, the biographical sports film about the Hunt-Lauda rivalry between two Formula One drivers.)  Two weeks later, David entered his first race.  He finished 21st out of 104.   He entered three more races that season, finishing 8th in one of them.  “I realized if I worked at it, I could have some success.”

That would prove an understatement.

During the next few years, while married with two kids and a demanding job, David also did his own work on his cars.  Looking back, he says, “I’m not sure when I slept.”  At 19, he’d built his own car from scratch.  To teach himself, he dismantled and cleaned another car and put it back together.  Racing cars at that level are simpler than road cars, he says.  Among other things, there are no heaters, lights or indicators.

In 1983, David scored his first win at Brands Hatch, a beloved British track in Kent, UK, where the British Grand Prix used to be held.  “I still have a vivid memory of crossing the finish line a few tenths ahead of the pack and the great satisfaction I felt.”

Once he’d tasted victory, David racked up many more wins.  In 1987, he won a national championship in the BRSCC (British Racing and Sports Car Club).  The organization holds events for cars built before 1974.

In 1987, there was a “season long fight” of 18 races between 4 drivers.  Heading into the last race, David’s main opponent was Paul Wallace whose brother had won the Le Mans in France, who had “lots of help,” and who was “slightly quicker than me.”  In the last race, David was two points behind.  To prevail he had to not only win the race but also score the fastest lap.  The twosome passed and repassed each other.  On the last corner, David overtook Wallace.  He won by 1/10th of a second and set a class record that lasted about 20 years.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” he says.  The trophy was filled with beer and passed around among drivers and spectators, all of whom took a sip.  (Ah, for the carefree pre-COVID days of sharing and slurping.)  In the process, the trophy received a dent.  David still has that dented trophy and prizes it.

That success spurred a 1988 call from a London oil broker who was starting a team of Formula 3 drivers. Formula 3 cars have about 50% more horsepower, better grip and brakes, plus wings and slick tires.   All expenses would be paid.  “It was a logical next step,” David says.  But Fate intervened.  The oil market dropped.  The team owner pulled out.

The Porter family moved to Stamford, CN, though he admits, “There was a notion in England that American drivers were wussies.”  David soon learned otherwise.  Accustomed to qualifying first or second in a race, he qualified ninth.  But he “got to know” American tracks and won often in ‘90-‘93.

With two kids in college and a divorce in the works, David had neither time nor money to devote to racing.  He quit for 11 years.  About 2005, then married to Patricia, who’d also worked at Glencore, “The bug started to bite again.”  He and Patricia spectated at a historic car race at Mont-Tremblant in Quebec.

After, he made a deal with Patricia.  He’d sell his motorcycle and buy a historic racing car.  Since then, he’s won hundreds of times.  “I’ve lost count,” he admits. “It’s tremendous fun.”   Historic car races don’t allow sponsorships.  “It’s supposed to be about gentlemen having fun with friends.”  In 2012, he bought a Le Mans prototype and started racing on tracks around the eastern US.  A five-man crew now works on his cars.

David bought a Pescarolo, named for French racing driver Henri Pescarolo.  The car has “always been my passion.”  He raced it, 2012-2018, setting an outright lap record at Watkins Glen.  (The fastest lap by anyone, ever, in any type of car, at that track.)  He came in first in a classic twelve-hour race at Sebring in 2017 and in a 24-hour race at Daytona in 2018.

Say what? I asked.  You drove around and around for 24 hours?  No, he explained.  He drove for an hour, four times in 24 hours.

How does David overcome fear of driving at dangerous speeds?  “My desire to race is so strong that I essentially compartmentalize fear.  Steve McQueen said, ‘Racing is life; everything else is just waiting.’  Not sure I’d go that far, but through racing you experience the highs of elation when things go right and the depths of disappointment when they don’t.”

In 2018, David bought his current car, a Peugeot 908 with a V-12 turbodiesel engine and 885 ft. pounds of torque.  (Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about!)  “The car is a piece of history, what kids  would call the Killer App.”  With it, he’s won at Daytona and Sebring.

Congratulations, David.  Thanks for sharing the memories.  Laurel Oak abounds with interesting people.  We welcome our new track star.

Having finished my new art book on Detroit’s Cass Corridor, I’m returning to my GodSigns column

It’s good to be writing to you again—even if these times haven’t been good for so many. For my husband Burton and me—as past readers of this column will remember—the tough times started well before COVID.

We’d had a rough 2019. Burton’s brain surgery in late 2018 caused a stroke that shut down his left (dominant) side.  He was hospitalized for many weeks, then home in a hospital bed.  His middle initial is D for David.  D also stands for Determination.  Though physically and mentally challenged, Burt simply says, “You do the best you can with what you’ve got.”  He’s worked his way to an electric wheelchair, outdoor rides, visits from friends, a recliner, a dedicated PT practice.

It’s far from the retirement Burton envisioned, burning up the golf course.  But he’s still able to hear about Andy’s latest paddle ball triumph or David’s progress with his health care company.  Still able to field nightly phone calls from granddaughter Lindsay.  Still able to join me for a 5 o’clock cocktail or hold my hand watching TV.  But still, a rough year.

So I’d looked forward to 2020.  Numerical symmetry.  Perfect vision.  A new decade.  Matters had to improve.  Then this creepy spiked red ball started flashing on TV and a fellow named Fauci commandeered our screens.  Soon Burton and I weren’t the only ones confined to quarters; the whole world was, too.  So much for numerical symmetry.

But Life has taught me to look for silver linings.  Good friends are sterling silver.  In 2018, the year before the excrement hit the fan, I’d joined three BFFs—Brenda Rosenberg, Peggy Daitch and Sandy Seligman—on a birthday trip to Paris.  We’d visited the Louvre and shopped on the Left Bank.  We’d dined on the Champs-Élysées, sipped champagne and nibbled foie gras.

A year later, joie had turned to blah.  On a Zoom call, my BFFs—aka my personal angels—sensed my downhearted condition.  They conferred.  The next morning, Brenda (who also publishes via ReadTheSpirit) called.  “I dreamt you wrote a coffee table book about your art collecting and your focus on Detroit’s Cass Corridor,” she said.  “I want that book.  I have a place for it on my coffee table.  Frame it as your gift to the Detroit art world.”

Detroit’s Cass Corridor near Wayne State U. was the setting for Detroit’s first avant-garde art movement.  Nearly two dozen talented artists worked in the area in the 1970s and 80s.  I’d collected the work of this scrappy band of creatives.  They were represented by two top notch gallerists, Jackie Feigenson and later Mary Preston.  In 1980, the DIA mounted a show of their work, “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor 1963-1977.”  Burton and I had loaned pieces we owned by Brenda Goodman and Ellen Phelan.

Click this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page. Suzy’s book also is available from Barnes & Noble, Walmart and other online bookstores including the Front Edge Publishing store..

My girlfriends know writing is my lifeline.  I’d crafted memoirs about our earlier marriage problems and my later cancer crisis. That latter book is called GodSigns, which also became the title of this online column.  Both books proved therapy for me and support for thousands of readers.  Writing about what I’d been through helped give meaning to the suffering.

Brenda was right, I thought.  I had a happier story to tell.  With no end to the pandemic in sight, I had time to tell it.  If Brenda had a place for such a book, and Peggy and Sandy were vying for the book launch party, who was I to deny them?

I hung up the phone and turned on my laptop.  My latest book, Detroit’s Cass Corridor and Beyond; Adventures of an Art Collector is the result.  It features photos of art I collected and displayed in a home we built in Franklin, MI.  Our home was photographed by another personal angel, renowned architecture and design photographer Beth Singer.  Beth and I were partners in the 1990s, finding, styling and shooting beautiful homes for Better Homes & Gardens and several Special Interest Publications.  Burton’s and my home was among those we featured.  Beth shot the professional photos included in my new book.  And tech challenged as I am, Farbman Group’s capable marketing director, Lauren Holder, was my tech angel.

Bottom line: to paraphrase Joe Cocker, I get by with a lot of help from my friends.

How can you get a copy of the new Cass book? Keep watching this column in ReadTheSpirit.com magazine. We’ll have news soon about its availability. When it finally is released for sale, I hope you’ll enjoy reading it and learning more about some fascinating and talented Detroiters.

With my Cass Corridor story ready for prime time, I’m glad to be back in the weekly issues of ReadTheSpirit magazine.  I’m blessed to know and introduce you to people who inspire me.

Classic race car driver David Porter is one of them.  His story follows…