This photo is from Dan Harris’s conversation with the Dalai Lama and one of his friends. I’ve got links to watch this video and another one by Dan Harris, below.
At the start of the pandemic, I developed a new hero. He doesn’t see himself as a hero. Most often he refers to himself as a jerk. But a recovering jerk.
My hero, Dan Harris, has been an anchorman with ABC—and a meditator. Now, he’s leaving ABC. (Here’s a Good Housekeeping story about his decision to leave the network.) He’s going to spending more time working on promoting and teaching about forms of meditation.
I welcome that—and I’m pretty sure a lot of his regular listeners will, too.
Dan accompanies me to and from the golf course most non-rainy mornings in Northern Michigan. On his podcast, Dan interviews meditation instructors and practitioners. He’s a good listener with an almost 100% record of tracking well and asking what I want to know.
I’m a late in life meditator. I began the practice at the start of the pandemic. I stink at it. (A less ladylike verb comes to mind.) But I keep trying.
On his podcast, Dan interviews famous meditators like the Dali Lama, less famous meditation instructors like Sharon Salzberg and diverse devotees such as fashion designer Eileen Fisher and celebrity chef Eric Ripert. Dan interviews them about their lives and their practice. Eileen Fisher says she incorporates meditation into the daily running of her company. Ripert, owner of NY’s lauded Le Bernardin, says since becoming a Buddhist, he’s no longer a plate smashing tyrant.
A basic principle of meditation is finding an approach that works for you and committing to it on a regular basis. I decided 15 minutes a day was manageable. I set my iPhone timer and try to focus on my breathing, first thing in the morning, before a million excuses commandeer my attention. Some version of sitting is recommended. It doesn’t work for me. I’m a feet up kind of girl. I prop up two pillows and lean against them in bed.
I silently count to 100, then back again. Sometimes I’m so distracted I don’t get past the counting. As one of Dan’s guests advised, when distracted, “Simply begin again.” I then perform a breathing exercise. Another guest, Emma Seppala, Ph.D,, author of The Happiness Track, says breath work is scientifically shown to benefit your heart rate and blood pressure. Following Emma’s advice, I breathe in for a count of five and breathe out through gently closed lips for ten.
Guided meditations are helpful for most. There are terrific ones available on the internet, including on the 10% Happier app. Our son David’s website, Carbon Media, offers soothing guided meditations for nature lovers on Carbon Unwind.
If directions have more than one step, I glaze over. For me, guided meditations feel contrived. I’m better off doing my own unconventional thing.
As he was typing his manuscript, Dan says, he’d been meditating for nine years. “I am still capable of being neurotic, ambitious, and cranky,” he writes. “Which is why I like my whole 10% shtick; it sets the bar pretty low. That said, I am significantly happier and nicer than I used to be.”
Dan calls himself a meditation skeptic. He doesn’t understand why meditation works. He just knows it does. I’d agree. The stress and uncertainty in Burton’s and my lives following my husband’s stroke can be overwhelming. With my innate talent for catastrophizing, I need all the support I can get. Meditation helps me stay present.
If something’s troubling you, dear reader, (these days, who isn’t troubled?) give meditation a try. It won’t hurt and just might help.
And, Dan? Thanks! I wish you all the best as you move from your desk at ABC into this “whole 10% shtick.”
Simon Wiesenthal, best known for helping to bring former Nazis to justice, including Adolph Eichmann in 1961, survived five concentration camps.
89 of his family members didn’t.
Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.
In his book, The Sunflower, Wiesenthal relates a small but searing interaction he had while in a camp in Poland. The day began with his passing by a cemetery where a sunflower bloomed atop each grave. “Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers,” he writes. “Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower; I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.”
Later, laboring on a project at a military hospital, Wiesenthal is approached by a nurse.
“Are you a Jew?” she asks. She beckons him to follow her and leads him to the bedside of a dying S.S. officer.
Covered in stained bandages with openings for his nose, mouth and ears, the patient whispers, “I know the end is near.”
Wiesenthal writes he was “unmoved. …The way I had been forced to exist in the prison camps had destroyed in me any feeling or fear about death.”
The patient says he was raised Catholic. When the war started, he’d joined the Hitler Youth, hoping “to see the world.” He grips Wiesenthal’s hand as he speaks. When Wiesenthal tries to withdraw his hand, the patient grips tighter. Wiesenthal writes, “I began to ask myself why a Jew must listen to the confession of a dying Nazi Soldier. If he had really rediscovered his faith in Christianity, then a priest should have been sent for…”
Wiesenthal “wanted to get away,” he writes, but “all of a sudden I felt sorry for him.”
The patient, whose name is Karl, says, “We were told the Jews were the cause of all our misfortunes… They were trying to get on top of us, they were the cause of war, poverty, hunger, unemployment…”
Karl speaks of his battalion’s coming across about 150 Jews, mostly women and children. The soldiers force them to carry cans of petrol into a deserted house, then crowd them in the house and set it on fire.
“I knew how this story would end. My own country had been occupied by the Germans for over a year and we had heard of similar happenings. …The method was always the same. He could spare me the rest of his gruesome account. So I stood up ready to leave, but he pleaded with me. ‘Please stay. I must tell you the rest.’”
Wiesenthal recalls. “He was so shattered by his recollection that he broke into a sweat and I loosened my hand from his grip. But at once he groped for it again and held it tight. He spoke of additional atrocities, then sighed and whispered, “My God, my God.”
Wiesenthal writes, “For this dying man and for his like there could be no God. The Fuhrer had taken His place.”
The soldier says, “The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience. …I am left here with my guilt. In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough. I want to die in peace, and so I need…”
Wiesenthal writes, “I saw that he could not get the words past his lips. But I was in no mood to help him. I kept silent.”
The patient says, “I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death… I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know if there were any Jews left…”
Wiesenthal writes, “Two men who had never known each other had been brought together for a few hours by Fate. One asks the other for help. But the other was himself helpless and able to do nothing for him.
“I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. Between them there seemed to rest a sunflower. At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”
Wiesenthal remains uncomfortable about his interaction with the dying man, unsure if he’d been right or wrong in not expressing forgiveness. Eventually he is sent to a concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria. There he meets Bolek, a Polish man who, before the war, studied for the priesthood.
“Bolek,” Wiesenthal says, “you would have been a priest by now if the Nazis had not attacked Poland. What do you think I ought to have done? Should I have forgiven him? Had I in any case the right to forgive him? What does your religion say? What would you have done in my position?”
Bolek says, “…One thing is certain: you can only forgive a wrong that has been done to yourself. Yet on the other hand: whom had the SS man to turn to?”
“So he asked something from me that was impossible to grant?”
“Probably he turned to you because he regarded Jews as a single, condemned community. For him you were a member of this community and thus his last chance.”
Bolek and Wiesenthal argue the point at length.
Wiesenthal: “Had he come to the right person? I had no power to forgive him in the name of other people. What was he hoping to get from me?”
Bolek: “In our religion, repentance is the most important element in seeking forgiveness. And he certainly repented. You ought to have thought of something. Here was a dying man and you failed to grant his last request.”
Wiesenthal: “That’s what is worrying me. There are requests one simply cannot grant. I admit I had some pity for the fellow.”
They talked for a long time, Wiesenthal writes, but came to no conclusion. “On the contrary,” he adds, “Bolek began to falter in his original opinion that I ought to have forgiven the dying man, and for my part I became less and less certain as to whether I had acted rightly.”
Burton and I received a reprint of The Sunflower from our good friend, businessman and talk show host Jack Krasula. Jack received the print-out from the Trinity Forum, a non-profit faith-based organization that works to “cultivate, curate and disseminate the best of Christian thought.”
The Sunflower tackles a moral dilemma born out of monstrous, immoral behavior. The reprint arrived some weeks ago. The story and the dilemma have stuck with me. Like Wiesenthal, I become less and less certain as to whether he acted rightly.
What do you think, dear reader?
In any case, thanks, Jack, for sharing a powerful but troubling tale.
Kieth Famie and crew finally managed to get Maire Kent’s boat out into the Atlantic.
24-year old Maire Kent, a former U.S. Army PFC, died of cardiac sarcoma, a rare cancer of the heart, in 2013. She touched thousands of hearts of people she never knew.
Keith with Maire
Maire (pronounced Mary), from Milford, MI, had read a book as a child. Paddle to the Sea, by Holling Clancy Holling, tells the story of a Native Canadian boy who creates a small wooden Indian in a canoe. On the boat bottom, the boy carves, “Please put me back in water. I am Paddle-To-The-Sea.” The boat undergoes many trials, but after several years and five Great Lakes makes it to the Atlantic.
Remembering the book she once loved, Maire had a dying wish. She wanted her ashes placed in a wooden sailboat that would travel to the ocean so she could “see the world.” With much effort, her friend Keith Famie made her wish come true.
Personal note. In the late 1980s, chef Keith Famie started Les Auteurs, a popular restaurant in Royal Oak, MI, where Burton and I often dined. Among other awards, Esquire named Les Auteurs one of the “Best New Restaurants of 1988.”
Keith became a contestant on the TV show Survivor: The Australian Outback in year 2000. After 42 days, he was voted out. He turned his talents to producing videos of foods around the world and made specials for the Food Network from locations as exotic as Bora Bora to the fish markets of Seattle. He formed his own video production company.
Some years later, chest pains took Keith to an onco-cardiologist, Dr. Monika Leja, at the U of M. Keith mentioned he was working on a video about end-of-life issues, an 8-part series for PBS. Monika introduced him to another patient, Maire Kent, then 23, as a possible subject for his film. With a daughter the same age, Keith was apprehensive. But the ringtone of Maire’s cellphone turned out to be the theme song from Clint Eastwood’s 1960 epic, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” A ringtone, Keith says, “you have to search for.” It was Keith’s ringtone as well.
In his memoir, Living Through the Lens, Keith says he felt the ringtone coincidence meant “something beyond our control had brought us together.” That, my friends, is what we call a GodSign. Keith was even more convinced when that night, for the first time in weeks, the thumping sensation didn’t return to his chest.
Keith became friends with Maire, driving her to appointments and visiting her nursing home. When he filmed Maire for his series, she said of her diagnosis, “At first, I was scared and terrified. I wasn’t sure how to accept it. I’ve stayed awake at night and thought about what would happen to me. How much longer would I have? What was my bucket list?”
Maire’s dying wish was to be cremated and have her ashes put in a small boat which sailed from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic so she could “see the world.”
George Wurtzel with Maire’s boat.
Keith had produced a video on and become friends with a blind carpenter, George Wurtzel, who years before attended the School for the Blind in Flint, MI, with Stevie Wonder. As a child, George lost his sight from retinitis pigmentosa. But nothing stopped him. He’d become director of Camp Tuhsmeheta, a western Michigan camp that has a program for the visually impaired.
George told Keith, “When a new kid comes to Camp T… and we’d announce we’re going canoeing, sometimes the child would say, ’I can’t canoe—I’m blind.’ I’d tell him or her, ‘The reason you can’t canoe is not because you’re blind. It’s because someone told you you can’t canoe.’” Keith introduced Maire to George, who began crafting a three-and-a-half-foot sailboat.
In August, 2013, Maire was in hospice. In his memoir, Keith writes, “The story of a young woman fighting a deadly cancer had become the story of a young woman preparing to die.”
Maire’s last days brought a sense of urgency to finish the sailboat that would carry her ashes to the sea. George and Keith asked Maire to write a message to be printed on the sail and—in case the sail should break during the journey—on the body of the boat. Shortly before she died, Maire penned her message:
“My name is Maire. I died of sarcoma cancer. My ashes are enclosed in this boat and I am on my way to the ocean. If you find me, please set me back on my path. I will bless you from Heaven.”
Maire died on September 27, 2013, among friends and family. Keith was there filming and “bore witness to the value of hospice and how loved ones cared for Maire as she departed from our world.”
Keith scrambled to raise the funds to complete his video and fulfill Maire’s last wish. He sold “anything I could think of” including his 25th anniversary Ironman racing bike from the triathlon he did in Kona. “As any documentary filmmaker will tell you, the vision and passion for a story are necessities. But without the cold, hard cash, the story may be just that and nothing more—a great idea.”
Keith reconnected with John Feist from L.A. who’d produced and directed Survivor: Australian Outback. Feist became co-director of Maire’s story. Previous backer and friend Tom Rau also chipped in. Keith lined up people to help on Maire’s voyage.
On July 12, 2014, Maire’s boat launched from the beach at Cross Village, MI, north of Harbor Springs, on Lake Michigan.
Maire’s journey took her from water to cars, trains and planes.
A troop of girl scouts from Alpena, MI, found Maire’s boat floating in weeds and released her.
Maire’s boat with the Girl Scouts in Alpena.
Her boat rode through the streets of Detroit in the side car of a motorcycle procession of four Vietnam Vets.
The four Vietnam veterans who carried Maire’s boat through Detroit.
“After an array of encounters and some close calls with nature, Maire reached New York City and eventually found herself being towed out to sea at sunset, south of the Statue of Liberty.” Keith filmed the conclusion of Maire’s voyage from a big sailboat trailed by two chase boats. “With our cameras rolling, Maire’s ashes were released into the ocean, just as she had hoped.”
Keith’s documentary, Maire’s Journey, showed at several film festivals. Thanks to the support of Drs. Kim Eagle and Monika Leja, Maire’s boat is now on permanent display at the U of M Frankel Cardiovascular Center. During the Covid pandemic, Keith rewrote the script he authored in 2014 and is currently shopping it in L.A. With any luck, the world may come to know Maire’s story.
Thanks, Keith, for all you did to fulfill one special young woman’s last wish. And for sharing the good, the bad and the ugly of a beautiful story.
Care to read (and see) more?
Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.
THIS JOURNEY really started in Chicago before World War II with the passion of Holling Clancy Holling to get children interested in the natural world. Holling was born in Michigan, but studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then worked at the Field Museum of Natural History. Outside work, his vocation was to produce colorful children’s books that would draw families toward the wonders of the natural world—and the first peoples to live in North America.
Paddle to the Sea appeared in 1941 just before World War II, which was auspicious because an interest in colorful children’s books boomed during the war years when the materials used in many children’s toys were rationed. The book was honored with a prestigious Caledcott Honor.
If you are intrigued by Holling’s work, many of his delightful books are still available. You may also want to look at Minn of the Mississippi, which follows a turtle down the big river, and Pagooabout a crab in a tide pool.
This year, 2021, is the 80th anniversary of the original Paddle to the Sea, which has taken on a whole life far larger than the original hardback, including locations along the fictional boat’s journey that are marked today in locations around the Great Lakes.
Click the cover to visit the Criterion DVD’s Amazon page.
The next huge leap in Paddle’s journey was the commitment of the famed Canadian naturalist, author and filmmaker Bill Mason to create a movie version of the little canoe’s journey. While largely unknown in the U.S., Mason is revered in his homeland, including a Canadian postage stamp honoring him in 1998, a decade after his death.
Mason’s approach to retelling the story on film is now a legendary story of a low-budget filmmaker strategically planning each step. Mason even spent time training to become an expert wood carver so he could personally make all the versions of the boat needed for the filming. In some cases, Mason and friends even defied posted limits along the waterways and risked their safety more than once to achieve some of the most dramatic shots.
In 2008, the 20th anniversary of Mason’s death, the prestigious Criterion Collection released a fully restored version of his film on DVD.
Perhaps in the future, we will see Keith Famie’s next chapter in the Paddle journey.
Our friends Bob and Conita Bihler stand on either side of Burton and me at our farm-themed anniversary party.
In a recent column, I shared the motto of actor Andre DeShields: Keep Climbing. Burton and I live by a similar motto: Keep Paddling. We turned our motto into the theme of our 25th wedding anniversary celebration.
In 1992, we hosted a big anniversary party at our farm in northern Michigan. Several dozen guests drove up from Detroit. Though the weather had been dubious for weeks, that day Mother Nature strutted her stuff.
The sun shone warm and bright in what felt like a celestial celebration of our milestone.
During the day, guests enjoyed trail rides on horseback and hay wagon rides through the countryside. That night, in a big tent near the old red barn, we inhaled the smoky scent wafting from grills and savored barbeque. Tables were topped with checkered cloths, silverware wrapped in red kerchiefs elevated to napkins. A Country Western band played in the open doors of the barn, with stacked hay bales as a backdrop. So many guests drove from Detroit that the event reportedly boosted the economy of West Branch, MI, home to dozens of discount shops on the route north.
Kerchief napkins were printed with the date of the party and the motto: Keep Paddling. That motto continued to motivate us through our subsequent marriage issues and my bout with cancer. With Burton’s current challenge of CNS lymphoma, it motivates us still.
My sister, Anne Towbes, and David Singer play guitars for a campfire singalong.
Taking the mic that night, I told the story behind the motto. “People ask how we’ve managed to stay married for 25 years,” I said. “The answer is printed on your kerchiefs. Lots of you have tied them around your necks. They read: Keep Paddling.” I told the story behind that motto. The story takes place on a farm, so it was especially appropriate that night.
Years later, the motto still applies. We’ve all come through a grueling pandemic that stole millions of lives and countless moments of remembrance and celebration. We’ve experienced more solitude than we’ve ever known and called on an endurance we didn’t know we had. To boost your spirits, here’s the story I told the night of our 25th anniversary party and the motto that still applies…
Two frogs on a dairy farm jumped into a bucket of cream. They slurped and slurped but soon realized they couldn’t get out of the bucket. They paddled for hours. Eventually, an exhausted frog said to his buddy, “This is hopeless. We’re doomed.”
“Keep paddling,” his companion urged. “We’ll think of something. Just keep paddling.”
The next morning, the dairy farmer peered into the bucket. One frog had sunk to the bottom. The other was sitting on a pad of butter he’d churned up all by himself, licking the flies that swarmed from all directions.
“So the moral of the story,” I said, “and the way you stay married for 25 years: you keep paddling.”
Burton and I have continued to paddle for 53 years. Due to the stroke that paralyzed his left (dominant) arm, he paddles only with his right arm now. But he paddles the best he can and remains remarkably upbeat.
If something is getting you down, dear reader, hang in there. A swarm of flies may not be your heart’s desire, but the Universe has other surprises in store.
Three years ago, I wrote a column on a big-hearted Sarasota lady with a dream. (“Graci McGillicuddy envisions kinder, gentler foster care”) A former teacher, Graci was dismayed by child abuse cases occurring in Florida. She dreamt of creating a better approach to foster care. She and husband Dennis have made that dream come true with the All-Star Children’s Foundation. To see for myself, I visited the campus. What Graci and Dennis have accomplished is remarkable.
Graci McGillicuddy is in the center with a scarf. Left of her is Steve; right of her is her husband Dennis. Around them are some of the center’s staff members.
According to its website, All-Star “provides children victimized by abuse with a very special place—a place designed to soothe, empower and inspire.” All-Star lives up to its promise. Children receive “trauma-informed” treatment in a 5-acre site ringed by bright and stylish residences (designed by Graci) and a club house.
The McGillicuddys found four dedicated professionals to oversee All-Star. One is multi-talented Chief Development Officer Stephen Fancher. Steve’s a pianist trained at Trinity College of Music, SUNY Purchase, with a masters in piano performance, and a conductor. At All-Star, he also conducts fun and games. During my visit, he taught residents aged 3-20 to play ukuleles and mesmerized them with piano refrains from Beethoven and the Beatles.
Two good friends, Jackie Blanchard and Phyllis Keyser, both former educators, joined me on my visit to All-Star. Within five minutes of meeting Steve, Jackie murmured, “Little does he know he’s your next column.” Right she was.
From central Connecticut, Steve graduated from the U. of Conn., attended renowned Trinity College of Music in London and earned a masters in piano performance from SUNY Purchase, NY. He became certified and taught music in elementary school. His first daughter was born in 2010. At the time, he was a full time conductor and music educator in the Tri-State area working in Stamford, CT, and Chappaqua, NY.
Realizing his job had led to his missing the first 2 and ½ months of his daughter’s life, Steve decided to change directions. He studied for and received a stockbroker’s license and started a financial services business with his brother-in-law. In September, 2012, he moved to Sarasota. He joined Merrill Lynch as a financial advisor—a position he held for 4½ years.
“I wasn’t satisfied by the financial services industry,” he says. “I wasn’t committed at a deep level.” He decided to combine his business and musical backgrounds and seek a position in arts administration. A mutual friend (past Laurel Oak resident), Andrea Bilan, was then in development with JFCS. The agency needed a major gifts officer. Steve took the position.
18 months later he toured All-Star. He decided, “this is where I want to be.”
Musical talent often runs in families. My grandmother played the piano well. My sister Anne inherited her ability and still takes lessons. Plus she can sing. Sadly, my destiny included neither strength. After five childhood years of tortuous piano lessons, my repertoire consists of Chopsticks. And no one aside from yours truly appreciates my 5-note singing range.
Steve’s dad Richard, a sales rep for aeronautical engine company Pratt & Whitney, played the organ at Christ Episcopal Church in Middle Haddam, Conn. and sang with the New England Chamber Choir. Steve’s brother, a supermarket manager, is a self-taught guitarist who plays with top local bands.
Steve says, “I didn’t realize not every family could sing Happy Birthday in 4-part harmony. I had as much musical education as possible. My brother can’t read music past a basic level but he can play anything. That’s always annoyed me.
“Piano’s a big part of who I am. I see myself as a teacher. I love conducting and teaching singers and players how to make music together.” Steve says he “tried” to take some time off from the piano when he was in financial services. “I couldn’t do it.” He joined the Sarasota Key Chorale as a tenor. The Chorale is a chorus of about 100 musicians who sing with the orchestra. Music director Joseph Caulkins is one of Steve’s best friends.
Steve’s loved piano ever since he can remember. His mother has a photo of him sitting at a piano at 3. As a boy, when not playing baseball or soccer, Steve practiced piano. He played Beethoven and Bach by age 10. When he was “tall enough to reach the pedals,” he played the pipe organ in church. “ It was useful for making good side money.”
At 12 or 13 Steve recalls his brother’s earning $4.95 an hour working at a grocery store. Steve made $22 an hour teaching high school students. By the time he reached high school, Steve says, he “never had a real job.”
At SUNY Purchase, Steve studied with organ and music theorist Anthony Newman who’s collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Perlman and many more legends. Steve says, “To be a good classic pianist requires a ton of practice. From the time I was a teen through my mid- 20s I averaged 6-8 hours a day. To play a Beethoven sonata requires hundreds of hours. I never walk by a piano without playing it. I’m very improvisational. Give me a request—”Let It Be,” “Rocky Raccoon”—you name it, I’ll play it. It’s a cool party trick.
“My mindset about a piano is: this is only alive when I’m playing it. Music is a combination of soul and artistry.”
Steve’s wife, Michelle, teaches third grade. Their children, Piper, 10, and Sophie, 6, have taken music classes since they were babies and “understand music is a natural part of their lives.”
Steve, 44, has the same enthusiasm for his work at All-Star. He deems the McGillicuddys “two of the most dedicated people on the planet.” About their approach to developing trauma informed foster care, Steve says, “I feel as though we’re on the path to something transformative. Graci and Dennis are aware this is more than the fulfillment of their dream. It will grow into something bigger than both of them. The seeds have been planted.”
While in most foster families, biological siblings are separated, at All-Star they stay together. The agency educates, supports and empowers the adults around a child to promote “safe, trusting relationships.” Programs are implemented and researched with the aim of creating intervention models that can be replicated around the country.
“All-Star transforms the role of the clinician not only by relating to children but by working with foster parents, tracking outcomes and producing data to back up their approach.”
A Clinical Support Coordinator works with the child welfare system to “break down silos and collaborate” on occupational therapy. All-Star doesn’t wait months for Medicaid approval. The Clinical Support Coordinator works promptly and directly with school and court systems “to make sure kids get what they need.”
In playing the piano and in fundraising, Steve taps into both sides of his brain. He enjoys working with many talented people who’ve made Sarasota their home. “We’re lucky to have people who were CEOs and giants of industry now participating to make our community a better place.”
Thanks, Steve, for sharing your story. And for making beautiful music—literally and figuratively—in Sarasota.
In 2004, Burton and I needed a break from my stage 4 cancer treeatment. We flew to Florida for a doctor-approved getaway. We happened to have season tickets to Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theater. The regional theater was staging a production of “Metamorphoses,” about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Two years before, the play had won 3 Tony award nominations.
To recap: Orpheus, the mortal son of Apollo, adores and marries Eurydice. She’s bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus, a musician, plays his lyre to express his grief. He plays so beautifully the gods are moved to let him travel to the underworld to bring Eurydice back. Hades, god of the underworld, agrees to let Eurydice follow Orpheus out. One condition: Orpheus must trust that Eurydice is behind him. If he turns around, Eurydice will fall back and be lost to him forever. Orpheus walks and walks, looking straight ahead. At the last second—he’s out of the tunnel; she’s not—Orpheus turns around. Eurydice tumbles back, gone forever.
In great art, we often see ourselves. In recent months, I’d survived chemo and was still undergoing radiation. I’d been trudging through a medical process with no certain outcome. I related to the doubts that beset Orpheus. As the lights turned on, I was drenched in tears.
Recalling that experience, I was thrilled when Anne and I got to see “Hadestown,” a musical version of the myth, on our sisters’ trip to NY in 2019. I was blown away by the staging, the New Orleans jazz/blues-like music, and the talent of the Broadway cast. Andre De Shields, in his 70s, killed it in the role of Hermes. A showstopping actor, singer and dancer, De Shields previously starred in “The Wiz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.”
I was as moved by the story that night as I’d been more than 15 years before at “Metamorphoses.” I remembered my response to the earlier show—how uncertain I’d been, how moved by the message. I felt joy in recognizing how hard it had been to trust my doctors and believe in my chances. Joy in knowing—despite the severity of my case—I’d made it out of that tunnel. I’d been cancer free long enough to see our oldest son David teach his oldest son Hunter to fire a baseball, to witness the bris of our youngest grandchild, Beau. Long enough to say a blessing at our youngest granddaughter Lindsay’s bat mitzvah.
Andre De Shields won the Tony award for Best Actor in a musical in 2019. He was 73 at the time, just four years younger than I am now, which leaves both of us miles past the spring chicken freeway ramp. De Shields had wowed me in “Hadestown,” and I’d rooted for him. He accepted the Antoinette Perry (Tony) medallion with remarks he’d had a lifetime to consider. His thoughts are worth remembering. I share them here with you in hopes you’ll appreciate his wisdom as much as I do:
“One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two, slowly is the fastest way to get where you want to be. And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next. So keep climbing.”
One of the joys of being involved in the arts is the people I meet. Elana Eda Rubinfeld’s a recent Sarasota art friend who told me a story so entertaining I included it in my upcoming book and share it here with you.
In 2002, Elana collaborated with Vietnamese artist Trong Gia Nguyen on a project that was as clever as it was outrageous. Trained as a painter, Elana often included subversive elements in her paintings, such as a soldier in full military gear wearing pink lipstick. (That would have seemed considerably more outrageous in 2002.)
Elana and Trong came up with a subversive gambit, their Art Hijack project. They recreated paintings stolen from museums, private collections and even Saudi yachts in the past 40 years, claiming the paintings belonged to fictitious Hungarian collector Rick Haatj. (The name’s an anagram of Art Hijack.) They deemed Haatj “the world’s most passionate collector.” Elana says, “The paintings weren’t that well done, but all together they made a pretty convincing performance art piece.”
The duo convinced a once ritzy hotel in midtown Manhattan to loan them a penthouse suite decked out with draperies and a piano. They sent invitations for the premiere of the Rick Haatj collection to friends, collectors and critics. Having done P.R. for art galleries, Elana knew how to write a press release and where to send it. The release claimed, “This is the world premiere of an important collection you need to know about.”
A new winery from Hungary donated wine; a pianist from Juilliard played the piano for free. About 100 guests showed up, including stringers for the NYT and Artnews. The event was “kinda cheesy but really funny,” Elana says. “Everybody stayed for hours. And said things like, ‘It’s cool that you’re showing a Picasso.’”
Elana and Trong met a man who was starting an art fair in LA in 2005. He offered Art Hijack a booth for free to remount the Private Collection of Rick Haatj. All the other booths at the fair had stark white walls. Elana and Trong covered their walls with red velvet panels and hung them with fake works attributed to Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse. They convinced an antiques dealer to loan them a desk and chairs.
“When people stopped by the booth, we’d say, ‘Of course you’ve heard of Rick Haatj. It was a performance about what’s real, what’s hype, what’s passion, what’s connoisseurship. All issues central to art collecting,” Elana, currently an art adviser, says.
A large man with a woman on each arm stopped by the booth. “You’re telling me I’m buying an actual Picasso?” he demanded.
Elana tried to explain.
He yelled, “You’re a liar, and I think this is bull#!*t.” He ended up buying two paintings. Most of the others—fakes painted by real artists—sold as well for $5,000 apiece.
Elana and Trong tried some other projects, but none succeeded like the Rick Haatj Collection. Eventually, Elana says, “I got a real job.” She went to work at both P.S.1 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Creating spoofs on the art world continues. Maurizio Cattelan is famous for challenging social norms and hierarchies. “America,” 2017, was a solid gold toilet installed in a restroom at The Guggenheim. It traveled to Cattelan’s solo show at The Blenheim Palace where it was—Surprise!—stolen. Last December the contemporary Italian artist presented “Comedian” at the Art Basel art fair in Miami. Two editions of a banana duct taped to a wall were sold for $120,000 each. A third was eaten by the performance artist David Datuna as part of his performance “Hungry Artist.”
While I’m an art aficionado, I sometimes shake my head in wonderment. My grandmother observed, “Money doesn’t care where it goes.” A contemporary response from the urban dictionary: true dat.
Trong Gia Nguyen and Elana Eda Rubinfeld with one of their Picassos.