Restauranteur Keith Famie and author Maria Konnikova share hard earned life lessons

Some of us capitalized on the COVID quarantine to initiate projects we might not otherwise have begun.

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

Keith Famie wrote a book for his grandson on life lessons he’s learned—many the hard way. Papa’s Rules for Life; A grandfather’s desire to share words of wisdom with his grandson features a sweet photo of Keith walking with his grandson Eider as the book aims to walk him into his future.

Over a lifetime of hits and misses, Keith became what he calls his “own personal mentor.”  To his grandson, he writes, “Hopefully you learn from poor decisions and use them as a tool to better yourself.  Sometimes you have to make the same mistake more than once.”

With a first act as a chef and restauranteur, a second as a game show contestant (“Survivor”) and a third as a video producer, Keith’s learned plenty of lessons. As a young chef managing restaurants, he thought being “a loud artistic dictator” was the best approach to leading a team. The error of his thinking “became all too clear” when the staff got together with hotel  management in an effort to get him fired. After a “very tense” meeting, he says, he met with the kitchen staff and “apologized for my poor leadership skills.” Making amends, Keith created the Benchmark Culinary Team with badges for chefs jackets. Lesson learned: “Take care of and care about your team, and they will take care of you.”

With my mind’s tendency to wander, I wandered into the realm of regrets, and how they can hurt or help. Back in the days before Burt’s stroke, when we were more mobile, we saw Paul Anka at Sarasota’s Van Wezel theater. Anka told a story involving the theme of regrets.  Years before, he’d  run into Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas.  Ol’ Blue Eyes complained that Anka had written songs for many others, but not for him.

Vacationing in the south of France in 1968, Anka heard a French ballad, “Comme d’habitude” (“As Usual”).  He bought the rights to the song.  Later, he dined with Sinatra and “a couple of mob guys.”  Sinatra said he was “sick of the business” and going to quit after finishing his next album.  Anka recalls feeling “scared to death,” as he’d been “writing all this teen stuff.”  But he bucked up, adapted the melody of the French song and rewrote the lyrics for Frank.

As Anka relates the story:

At one o’clock in the morning, I sat down at an old IBM electric typewriter and said, “If Frank were writing this, what would he say?  And I started, metaphorically, ‘And now the end is near.’  I read a lot of periodicals, and I noticed everything was ‘my this’ and ‘my that’.  We were in the ‘me generation’ and Frank became the guy for me to use that say that.  I used words I would never use.  ‘I ate it up and spit it out.’  But that’s the way he talked.  I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys—they liked to talk like Mob guys, even though they would have been scared of their own shadows.

Anka finished the song at 5 am.  He called Sinatra at Caesars Palace, said he had “something special” for him. “My Way” soared to the top of the charts.  Anka’s record company was “pissed” he hadn’t kept it for himself.  “’Hey, I can write it,’ he said, ‘but I’m not the guy to sing it.’  It was for Frank.  No one else.”

“My Way” became Frank’s signature song, though his daughter Tina says he came to hate it and consider it self-indulgent.

I, too, once wrote on an IBM Selectric.  Somehow it never turned out anything quite as memorable as “My Way.”

But back to the subject of regrets. Like Frank, I’ve had a few.  Too few to dwell upon. I’ve been listening to the audiobook, The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova, a psych major with degrees  from Harvard and Columbia who’s never even held a deck of cards.  She decides learning to play poker could help improve her ability to strategize.  She convinces 8-time World Series of Poker champion Erik Seidel to teach her.

After months of study and online practice, Maria attends her first in person event in Las Vegas.  Dealt a terrific hand, she goes all in and loses her stake.  She approaches Seidel to share her tale of woe.  He refuses to listen.

View the loss as a lesson, Seidel says, and move on.

The Biggest Bluff is filled with quotes that help its author stay focused.  Listening to one on Audible, I was so struck by the insight that I got off my bike, replayed it, and emailed it to myself.

“Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before.”  W.H. Auden.

WOW!  As a confirmed lexophile, I’m blown away by the insight.  The things we tell ourselves are the things we come to believe.  If we dwell on our mistakes–what a loser we are/were, we become that loser.  When we let go of regrets, we maximize our potential.  I’m gaining on the writer/speaker/thinker/family member/friend/golfer I hope to be.

Name your preferences.  Name them and claim them.

This pandemic has given us the chance to know our own talents, hopes and dreams better.  Forgive yourself.  Improve yourself.  It’s never too late.

A second Maine Coon cat comforts California neuroscientist DC McGuire on the loss of her husband

The late Michael McGuire and Buddy, comforting each other in their final year.

DC’s husband, banker Michael McGuire, had been sick for a year. His struggle with bladder and prostate cancer left him unable to focus on business. The couple, married for 25 years, “lost everything.” That included a lodge mountain home in Idaho and another beautiful home in Santa Barbara. Mike died in October, 2018. DC was devastated.

One family member brought solace during those rough last months.  Buddy, the McGuires’  Maine Coon cat, was “18 pounds of macho and thought he was a dog,” DC says. “He’d greet me at the door when I came home with his tail wagging. He’d snuggle with me and comfort me.” D.C. and Mike had no children together; their stepchildren lived elsewhere.

A practicing neuroscience researcher, DC’s also a painter. When Michael died, she felt inspired  to paint a picture of clouds depicting the idea of energy moving heavenward. Soon after Mike died, Buddy became ill. DC had called a pet psychic. (Who knew there was such a profession?  But, hey, this is California.) About Buddy, the pet psychic said, “I see him leaving. He needs to go to be with someone who’s passed. He’s telling me something odd. He’s telling me he’ll be back.”

Realizing how sick Buddy was, DC placed the canvas of clouds on the floor.  Buddy laid down on it, faced the sky and “right away took his last breath.”

Again, DC was heartbroken. “Buddy’s death felt like an extension of Michael leaving. He was my last connection to my husband. I was having a really hard time.”

A few weeks later, an unsubscribed email from Adoptapet.com arrived. DC opened the website, looked under Cats, then under Maine Coons. “They’re a special breed,” DC says, “very rarely available for adoption.” On her laptop screen, a picture appeared. A fluffy cat with unusual white and cinnamon markings, just like Buddy’s, gazed up at her. The cat had belonged to someone who died of a stroke. DC scrolled down.

The cat’s name: Buddy.

DC dissolved into tears. At the time she was living in the guest house of a friend. Her host “had made it absolutely clear she did not want a pet in her cottage. I didn’t have the nerve to ask how she’d feel about a cat in her guest house.” But she showed her friend the photo of what looked like a twin of her departed Buddy—with the same name. Her remarkably gracious friend looked deep into DC’s eyes. “She said, without a moment’s hesitation, ‘You have to have him.’”

DC filled out a three-page, single-spaced questionnaire to determine whether she’d be a responsible pet parent. A series of tests on the featured cat took two more weeks. Finally the shelter staff responded: DC would indeed be a “fit parent.”

The shelter advised that Buddy 2 would be available on April 24—Mike’s birthday. Upon arrival, she says, “Buddy hopped into my arms. He’s sitting here now, listening to our conversation.”

As a scientist, DC’s trained to look for data to confirm or rule out a hypothesis. “In Buddy’s case,” she says, “I’m left without an answer. But who cares? We both have hearts and souls longing for love and connection.”

DC provides “brain coaching” for people suffering from anxiety, stress and PTSD. Her research is based on brain scanning technology, especially FMRI  (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to “rapidly rewire the brain to reduce past and future emotional trauma.”

DC speaks and coaches about developing new brain patterns. Our brains can develop new “muscles,” she says, with repetitive techniques as simple as breathing. “Without prescriptions, trainers, special equipment or a degree in neuroscience, all of us can manage our brains for healthier, happier, more successful outcomes.”

DC’s working on a series of children’s books featuring Dr. Duh and Buddy the Wonder Cat. (Dr. Duh is DC’s avatar.) “Children who use their brains productively develop a sense of empowerment.”

Invited to speak to a medical school in the Republic of Georgia, DC worked with third and fourth graders on the difference between reptilian, animal and human brains. After, she received emails from the teachers of her young students. “The teachers told me those kids have become the peacemakers of the school. If another child is acting inappropriately, they’ve learned to tap them on the shoulder and ask, ‘What do you need?’” The teachers said the work DC did with their youngsters “changed the dynamic” of their classes.

Stress, anxiety and trauma, real or perceived, cause us to breathe rapidly and shallowly, changing oxygen to carbon dioxide, DC says. A brain deprived of oxygen responds as if it’s under assault. It activates the fight, flight or freeze reaction. Blood, oxygen and other essential resources are redirected to bones and muscles. That impairs behavior management, empathy and digestion.

Stress turns off our analytical thinking and turns down our immune systems. DC works to help traumatized individuals recognize that while they may be dealing with a horrible situation, they can redirect their thinking from the amygdala (fight or flight brain) to the hippocampus. Strong emotions get encoded chemically into every cell of our bodies, she says. The amygdala is one of our largest producers of dopamine.

The technique of working with FMRIs was developed by Dr. Fred Schotz, a naturopath who’s helped about 3500 military vets cope with battlefield trauma. Dr. Schotz happens to be DC’s first husband. DC remains “good friends” with him and his second wife.

Ancient Egyptians associated the number nine with their god, Atum-Ra, who took the form of a cat and birthed eight other gods.  After losing two of your best buddies in half a year, DC, I hope your current Buddy has several lives to go.

Thanks for sharing a sweet  story of  what could have been a CAT-astrophe.  (Groan. Couldn’t help myself.)  And for the lesson in compassion.

DC and Michael.

Photographer and adventurer Ruthie Petzold, Detroit’s Amelia Earhart, overcomes setbacks and sees the world

Ruth Petzold swims with a wild green seat turtle off Molasses Reef, NOAA Marine Sanctuary, Key Largo.

Ruthie Petzold, underwater photographer, is one of the most talented and resilient people I know.

Born in Grosse Pointe, MI, in “the last century” (1942), Ruthie received her first camera, a Brownie Hawkeye, at 7.  “Instant love,” she says.  “I spent all my allowance on film and processing.”

Ruthie’s parents instilled in their children “the self-confidence to do whatever we wanted and to be the best at it.”  The  family spent summers in Rye Beach, NH.  Ruthie’s mom insisted Ruthie, her two sisters and brother learn to swim.  At 2½, Ruthie was the youngest child to swim across the pool without water wings.  She earned her Red Fish badge.  When her mom sewed the badge to her bathing suit, that became the only suit she’d wear.  Guided by a “fabulous” swimming coach, Charlie Adams, Ruthie became the New Hampshire state swimming and diving board champion at 12.  She was “fascinated” by the sea stars and snails in Atlantic tidal pools.  She also loved horses and became hunter/jumper club champion.

A car crash changed the life of this athletic whirlwind.

In 1958, Ruthie was a student at Sacred Heart boarding school in Conn.  Family friends picked her up for a ski weekend in Vermont.  In a blinding snowstorm, the car in which Ruthie rode  crashed into a snowplow.  Ruthie was thrown from the back seat into the front window.  Due to the storm, the doctor who was called couldn’t drive.  He hiked five miles to the accident scene.  Ruthie’s sister, Anna, also injured, recalled an attendant with Elvis sideburns saying of herself, “No point in rushing.  She’s lost so much blood she won’t make it.”

Both sisters survived.  Ruthie suffered compound fractures of her tibia and fibula.  She spent the next year in a full leg cast, with a plate and screws holding her leg together.  A doctor told her father she’d never walk again.  Ruthie was determined to prove him wrong.  She’d seen a film in which an injured horse, slated to be put down, was instead run in sand to strengthen his broken leg.  Though Ruthie’s ankle was destroyed, she walked in sand every chance she could.

Did she ever lament: Why me?

“Never.  Everybody deals with something. I just decided to keep doing what I loved.”  That included skiing, tennis and biking.  Eight years later, a skiing accident in VT resulted in a comminuted, compound ankle fracture.  Viewing her Xray, the doctor at Sugarbush stopped counting breaks at 20. Ruthie was wheeled into a phone booth to call her mom, person to person, long distance. “I have a little problem,” she said.

Ruthie being Ruthie, she was back to playing tennis as soon as she could.  In 1968, a screw came loose in her ankle and “felt like a knife in my foot.”  Heading into surgery, she asked her doctor to save the plate in her leg.  Years later, she had an artist sculpt that plate into a decorative palm tree.

“I’ve had a leg issue since I was 16,” she says.  “I’ve tried not to let it stop me.”  Sipping  her second glass of Chardonnay, she says, “I have a hollow leg now.”

Unable to ski any longer, Ruthie became certified in scuba diving.  Whenever she visited her parents in Palm Beach, she dove “all day long” with garage mechanics and Navy frog men.  There were few other women diving at the time.  She planned to run her own chartered trip, but the boat sank.

Meanwhile, family friends had begun hiring her to photograph weddings for Detroit brand name (i.e. automotive) families.  She became a successful portrait, event and fine art  photographer.

Earning her pilot’s license, Ruthie teamed up with friend Elaine Harrison.  In 1978, the twosome boarded Elaine’s single engine Cessna 206 for a madcap adventure of 10,000 miles through Central  and South America.

On their first stop in Mexico, they buzzed a grass landing strip “to alert the dude with goggles and an ascot who was jogging down the runway.” They landed only be surrounded by Mexicans holding machine guns.” A white-haired gentleman greeted them, promising that his men would protect their plane.  The men stood on each other’s shoulders to refuel the plane, bucket by bucket.

In Saiche, Guatemala, the site of old carved stone ruins, they stayed in a “falling down” inn along with a French spelunking team.  When power was turned off at 9pm, they drank warm beer with the spelunkers.

In Nicaragua they were weathered in above a Chinese restaurant and brothel.

In Venezuela they hooked up with gold panners.  They met a pilot who flew them to Angel Falls and banked the wing tip under a cascade of water.  “My wildest ride ever,” she says.  The pilot’s girlfriend, who came along, was so terrified she passed out.

Ruthie in the Solomon Islands.

Ruthie’s adventures had only begun.

The 1980s were “a whirlwind of diving.”  In 1985, she visited Indonesia on a live-aboard dive trip and met Greg MacGillivray, then filming for Imax.  (The American cinematographer would go on to receive two Academy Award nominations.)  MacGillivray recommended Ruthie visit New Guinea. So off she went “totally unprepared” to meet members of the Dani people who wore nothing but gourds in strategic places.

In 1987, Ruthie circled the world twice.  “It was easier to keep going around than to keep coming back.”  Trips included whale watching and diving and research exploration.  She visited the Asmat region of southwestern New Guinea, near the area where Michael Rockefeller had disappeared.  When Ruthie arrived along with two guides, children ran and hid, but soon people warmed to their arrival and they enlisted six local rowers. The group trekked through the jungle and rode in dugout canoes for almost two weeks. Ruthie’s thermometer broke at 140 degrees. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, she notes. Iceland’s the largest.

Ruthie took over 50 diving trips with “the Shark Lady,” famed underwater researcher Dr. Eugenie Clark.  Eugenie was the founding director of Mote Marine, now a world class marine research center in Sarasota.  Ruthie and Eugenie dove four to six times a day.

In 1990, a torn Achilles tendon prevented Ruthie from joining Eugenie’s trip.  Three months later, despite a stiff ankle, Ruthie visited the Solomon Islands aboard the Billikiki.  The dive boat held 12-14 guests and offered photography seminars.  At the time, Ruthie took 300 rolls of film.  She eventually switched to digital.  Ruthie “fell in love” with the Solomon islands and has visited 11 times.  .

Ankle replacement in 1999 left Ruthie depending on crutches for almost three years.  Her left ankle became infected with Mersa.  In 2000, nine different doctors recommended amputation below the knee.  Ruthie’s mother was turning 90 that year.  Ruthie finally agreed to the surgery.  Her goal was to dance at her mother’s birthday.  Two months and nine days later she reached her goal and danced.

Since then Ruthie has needed several prosthetics.  “Flip,” her stump, keeps shrinking. Ruthie’s  prosthetics come from the Arthur Finnieston Clinic which makes limbs for Para Olympians and where Ted Kennedy’s son, Ed Jr., was treated.  After an earthquake in Haiti, the  Finnieston clinic volunteered their services and fitted 50 patients a day.  So many military vets are returning with lost limbs, Ruthie says, that prosthetics technology keeps improving.

Ruthie’s close to her cousin, renowned broadcast journalist Miles O’Brien, who lost an arm above the elbow from an injury.  “When we’re together,” she says, “we’re quite the pair.”  Ruthie recently met up with “OB” in Paris.  OB’s friend, an ex-French Navy Seal whose uncle  lives in a barge on the Seine, toured them through locks and under the Bastille.  “Dark, exciting and unique,” Ruthie recalls.

Since 2004, Ruthie has been “incredibly lucky” to attend the Laulupidu in Estonia four times.  The national songfest features over 30,000 voices under one director.  “It’s like the skies have opened and angel choirs are singing.”  She was introduced to the experience by her dear friend, Estonia-born Ivi Kimmel.

Ruthie’s praying her problems with Flip can be resolved.  Having just turned 80 on Jan. 12, Ruthie wants to keep going, full speed ahead. The Solomon Islands still beckon.

“I’ve been lucky to see God’s creations most people never see.  From microscopic organisms important to the food chain to endangered leafy seadragons in southern Australia to polar bears in Norway and Manitoba.  My life’s been great, and it ain’t over yet.

“Life is for living—no matter what’s thrown at you.  You can’t just make lemonade from lemons; you can make margaritas.”

Thanks, Ruthie, for sharing your escapades, your art and your indomitable spirit.  Travel safely, girlfriend.  Send postcards.  Bottoms up!

Care to see much more?

Visit Ruthie’s own website, where you can see galleries of her wildlife photography from around the world.

Pandemic woes dampen the New Years spirit, but great art can console

At heart, I’m a romantic.  I write about people going through tough times and coming out if not on top, at least older and wiser.  Most of my columns have happy or happier endings.

This one: who knows?

A flock of white pelicans landed in the lake behind our home in Florida. Seeing them, I felt a jolt of much needed joy.  The pelicans brought to mind a poem about a different bird.  The best poems capture and synthesize universal experiences.  Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written more than 200 years ago, is especially relevant today.  The poem, which many of us studied in high school and fumed over its interminable length, seems to symbolize what we mortals have been through the past two years.

The poem’s about a crusty old sailor who tells the story of a voyage that was long, lonely and harrowing—much as these pandemic days have been.  The sailor’s ship was stuck on an ice jam when an albatross appeared.  Believed to be good luck, the bird was fed and appreciated by the ship’s crew.  Nevertheless, the mariner shot the bird.  Anger from his crew, draught and bad weather ensued.  The poem contains the verse most of us know—whether or not we remember its origin.

“Water, water everywhere.  And all the boards did shrink.  Water, water everywhere.  Nor any drop to drink.”

The poem seems apt these seemingly endless days of worldwide isolation. Days of suspicion—is he sick?  Is she vaccinated?  Days of alienation and lack of simple human connection from wearing masks and following arrows down supermarket aisles.  Heaven forbid you forget the roasted almonds and proceed the wrong way to grab them. Days and months on end of flights canceled and the inability to see no less hug friends and loved ones in person.

We were delighted to have the whole family together at Christmas.  Because we’re Jewish, we haven’t had a Christmas tree.  Son David made the independent decision to change that.  He procured a fake tree and gold and silver balls and set up the decoration in our family room.  Blasphemous though it might have been, we all loved it.  The whole family showed up for Christmas morning, exchanged gifts and had great fun. We were overjoyed to be together again.

We were going to take a family photo that evening, after we’d had a chance to primp.  I’d purchased big letters spelling out 2022.  I’m incapable of prevarication, however.  I returned to the party store and purchased blow up letters that spelled out: ALMOST.  The store was completely out of the letter S, but some number 8s kind of resembled an S, so I bought an 8 instead.  Problem solved.

Or so I thought.

The afternoon of Christmas, David felt tired and achy.  He and brother Andy drove to Walgreens for test kits. Result: positive. Twice.  Andy and Amy and the girls tore out of the house to return to Illinois.  Nadine and the boys raced away and fled back to Michigan.  David went to bed in our beach apartment and remained there for the next few days.

So much for the best laid plans.

Writing about a crisis—be it a marital or a health problem—somehow brings me solace, gives meaning to the suffering.  So here I find myself reflecting again.  A house that’s way too quiet.  A Christmas tree that needs breaking down.  And spirits that need propping up.

Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet and novelist known for his contributions to German literature.  For a while he was secretary to the sculptor Rodin.  Traumatized by his service in WWI, beset by health and marriage troubles, Rilke produced some searing writings.  One of his poems, from the Book of Hours, is especially meaningful during these prolonged pandemic days.  In Go to the Limits of Your Longing, Rilke writes of God’s urging him to keep on keepin’ on, no matter what:

“…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final.”

A true artist can create a poem or a painting (think: Munch’s “The Scream,”) a book or film that captures the zeitgeist.  A flock of white pelicans may not seem like anything to get excited about.  But, hey, these days I’ll take what I can get.

Just keep going.  And, God willing, have a happier and healthier New Year!

.

Need Your Own Jolt of Joy?

Here’s Suzy’s photo of the pelicans—

After working to help South Sudan refugees, Wendi Dwyer advocates for people with sight loss

Wendy and her companion Lily.

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Ableism:
Discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities
and/or people who are perceived to be disabled.

Wendi Dwyer has a heart as big as Africa. She puts everything she has into everything she does.

And by the way, she’s going blind.

Wendi, 57, who spends winters in Sarasota, says her compassion for others was honed in high school in Madison, WI.  There were two new girls in her class from Laos. “They looked frightened,” Wendi says.  She moved her chair between them and helped tutor them in ESL and literacy.  As the girls learned English, they shared their background.  “Cam and Ping made me understand what it means to lose everything,” Wendi says.  “Their parents sold all they owned to get their daughters on a boat that saved them from the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Laos.  Their parents were killed soon after.”  Years later, Wendi and her mom visited a restaurant where Cam and Ping worked.  They told Wendi’s mother they wouldn’t have come to school if Wendi hadn’t welcomed them every day with a smile.

“That made me realize I could make a difference.  I didn’t want to be a me-ist.”

That’s an understatement.

In her 30s, Wendi and her husband at the time were asked to foster and then adopt Grace. They already had three biological sons, ages 5, 8 and 16. Today, 21 years later, daughter Grace is an accomplished jazz vocalist.  Riley, the youngest son, is a photographer and skateboarder in LA.  Teigan is an epidemiologist in Brooklyn; Tyler, a successful businessman in Tampa.

Wendi raised her children as a “tough but loving mother.”  As her children grew older, Wendi became freer to focus on the world.  She continued to help refugees.  An art teacher, she directed a community art project to introduce newly arrived refugees into the community.

At church Wendi met the director of a Kenya Children’s Fund.  She asked for Wendi’s help with the kids she served in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya.  Wendi created a lesson plan.  To Wendi’s surprise, the director said she was hoping Wendi would lead the community art project at the school.  So off Wendi went to Nairobi.  Since the school was located in what was deemed a garbage dump, the government provided no funding.

“I fell in love with the students and teachers at the school,” she says.

When Wendi got home to Chicago, her friend happened to be picking up a refugee family from South Sudan.  Two families showed up at the airport.  The friend called Wendi.  What to do with the second family?

“Just bring them to our house,” Wendi said.

A mom and dad and two “frightened” kids arrived at Wendi’s suburban home.  The boys, around 4 and 6, wore men’s shoes that were falling off their feet.  The boys’ names: Bill Clinton Kwandi and Nelson Mandela Kwandi.

Wendi’s then husband Tim, who was out golfing, called home.

“Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela are running around barefoot in our yard,” Wendi said.

Wendi took the boys to Walmart.  The security guard said they couldn’t enter without shoes.  Wendi explained.  The guard walked them over to the shoe department and delighted in helping them pick out their first pair of shoes.

Bill Clinton’s and Nelson Mandela’s mom Lucy became a close friend.  Lucy and her husband Bulus were regulars at the Dwyers’ dinner table.  One Sunday evening they brought along their friend Arkangelo.  After dinner, Arkangelo left a tattered bill of Ethiopian money on the table.  Wendi returned the money.  “You’re a guest,” she said.  Arkangelo asked if he could be part of Wendi’s family like the Wandis.

Arkangelo, then 23, was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of 20,000 children who were displaced or orphaned during the genocide carried out by the government in Khartoum after oil was discovered in the southern region of Sudan.  Boys ages 5-11 walked 1000 miles to safety in Ethiopia.  Some were resettled through programs in the U.S.   Arkelango became another informal part of Wendi’s family.  He and Wendi spoke to dozens of high schools about the conflict and how education helps promote peace.

South Sudan is the “most dangerous place on earth,” Wendi says.  Fighting among rival tribes continues to this day.  In most of South Sudan, there’s no running water or electricity and only one doctor for every 100,000 people.

At the urging of Arkangelo and other Lost Boys, Wendi helped raise money to build a school.  In 2009, when the school was almost finished, Wendi visited to check the construction progress.  She observed South Sudanese women carrying empty cans, having walked three miles to fill them with water.  They waited in line at the well for up to three hours, then walked three miles home lugging 40 lb. jugs on their heads.  Discovering only ten percent of South Sudanese women could read or write, Wendi asked the women if they’d like to learn while waiting at the well.  Through an interpreter, Wendi found they were eager to do so.  Returning to the US, Wendi began raising money to pay for teacher training and salaries and started Literacy at the Well.  The program still continues.  Wendi now speaks at universities, in Washington, D.C., at the UN in NY and UNESCO in Paris to raise awareness and support for the female learners in South Sudan.

“I was an unlikely candidate to connect so strongly with South Sudan,” Wendi says.  “I was someone who skied at Tahoe every winter and lived in a big suburban home.  You never know what will take hold of your heart.”

Wendi has a real sense of humor! For Halloween, she designed a costume. She says, “All these things have happened, except the pageant sash, so I thought I may as well put them all in one Halloween costume.”

While Wendi was working to help women in South Sudan, her eyesight started to diminish.  She was going blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa.

Receiving such a tough diagnosis, she decided to take the family Airstream and go camping on her own for a week.  “I didn’t want to fall apart in front of my kids.”  She went to Bridgeman, MI, and camped on the sand dunes.  She made a list of everything she’d miss, including the chance to someday see her grandkids’ faces.  The concession building on the beach happened to have a Lions Club brochure featuring a “really cute” guide dog from Leader Dogs for the Blind.  “I’d never have guessed that seven years later that organization would make a profound difference in my life.”

She didn’t fall apart.

“I thanked God for saving me from a nervous breakdown.  I just decided not to give up.  The inspiration I got from my refugee friends gave me the strength to go on. I’m a storyteller and a fundraiser who’s committed to positive change.  I could still be that person.  My life’s work now has become decreasing the stigma of blindness and other disabilities caused by ableist attitudes.”

Wendi says currently only 10% of legally blind people use a white cane or a sight dog to go places on their own.  When you use these aids, she says, you gain independence but you make your blindness known to others.  “For me, coming out with my blindness gave me my life back.”  At first Wendi was “embarrassed” to be going blind.  “Not anymore,” she says.  “My goal now is to help others with low or no vision remain independent.”  She’s dedicated to combatting ableism and to improving the safety and accessibility of environments.  She notes the two busiest intersections in Sarasota lack audible crosswalks (which announce when it’s safe to cross).

As baby boomers mature, Wendi says, age-related blindness is a growing concern.  “I’m sounding the alarm.  We’re reaching a crisis point.  We need many more resources to help people with sight loss  stay independent.”

Wendi was a director of corporate sponsorships with PBS Wisconsin when Leader Dogs for the Blind recruited her.  “I already had a guide dog, and I knew how that changed my life.”  Though unable to drive for the past 13 years, Wendi still leads a “vibrant” life.  She lives downtown, close to shops and services.  Her guide dog, Lily, is small and fast—too fast for most people which almost got her removed from the program.  But Wendi’s a girl on the move and fast is how she rolls.  Lily’s pace is perfect.  Many years before, when Wendi welcomed the Wandi family from South Sudan into her home, they honored her months later by having her name their baby.  Wendi chose the name Lily.  Wendi’s yellow lab guide dog came with the name Lily—a Godsign Wendi sees as bashert (Yiddish for meant to be).

Meanwhile, Wendi works, writes, hangs out with family and friends and dates “as a hobby.”  She says she’s “studying manthropology.”

There are very few Orientation & Mobility ability (white cane) trainers in the US, Wendi says.  Leader Dogs is 100% supported by philanthropy.  Guide dogs are provided to clients at no cost.  However, the cost for Leader Dogs to breed, raise and train each guide dog and train the client is $50k.

“I’m so grateful to the donors, trainers and volunteers who helped bring Lily into my life.  She reduces the 4 Ds of my sight loss: danger, dependency, discouragement and depression.  She’s  given me my life back.”

As part of her quest to combat ableism, Wendi’s trying to start a “Random Tandem” bike program.  She’s working with like-minded advocates in Sarasota including Beaver Shriver  who  owns Rise & Nye’s coffee and ice cream shop in downtown Sarasota.  Rise & Nye’s provides meaningful employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

Wendi misses riding her bike.  She wants tandem bikes to become readily available so sighted people can ride tandem with riders who can no longer bike independently.

Social psychologist Carol Tavris writes, “…resilient individuals have a ‘flexibility mindset,’ consisting of optimism, confidence in their ability to cope, and a ‘challenge orientation’– the conviction that they will be able to treat the traumatic event as a challenge to be overcome rather than a disaster that will defeat them.”

Courageous in the face of challenge, Wendi chooses to remain grateful.  Grateful for her “super family and wonderful friends.”  And for her Christian faith.

When she began losing her sight, she says, “I asked God to be my handrail.  I believed then and still do that God is with me in the struggle.”

Thanks, Wendi, for all you’re doing for low sighted people, for Sarasota, and for humanity.  And for sharing your courage, determination and faith with Godsigns readers.  May God remain your handrail, now and always.

(Thanks, Linda Schlesinger Wagner, for suggesting I hear Wendi’s extraordinary story.)

Indianapolis restauranteur Steve Huse and wife Lila learn lessons from a tough battle with Covid 19

Steve Huse celebrating with caregivers as he began the huge challenge of learning to walk again.

Steve Huse is renowned in Indianapolis, IN.  He chairs Huse Culinary, Inc., which owns several restaurants including St. Elmo Steak House, founded in 1902 as a tavern but converted to a steak house during Prohibition.  Many millions of dollars and two more adjacent historic buildings later, St. Elmo’s seats 500. Volume-wise It ranks among the top 25 U.S. restaurants.  Hoosiers drive for miles to treat themselves to St. Elmo’s medium-rare prime rib.  Steve has also taken two companies public.

As envied as Steve can be, this year he underwent an experience not another soul would envy.  A grueling case of Covid 19.  In the process, Steve and wife Lila learned valuable lessons.

On March 14, 2020, Steve and Lila, snowbirds in Sarasota, FL, were driving to a friend’s party.  They’d been taking precautions to avoid Covid 19, which had begun infecting people around the globe.  They wore masks in public, washed their hands often and well, stocked up on toilet paper and sanitizer.  But seeing old friends at the party, Steve returned to his teddy bear self and dropped his cautionary behavior.  “I’m a hugger, not an elbow bumper,” he says.

Twelve days later, Steve ran a low-grade fever, was coughing and short of breath.  An oral test proved positive. Preferring to keep Steve out of the hospital, his doc prescribed the antimalarial drug Plaquenil and a Z-pak.  Lila monitored Steve’s temperature and blood oxygen level.  As Steve had increasing trouble catching his breath, he was given an oxygen concentrator.  If Steve’s pulse oximeter dropped to 88 while he was on supplemental oxygen, Lila was told to call 911, then their doctor.

On March 30, Steve seemed to be improving.  “He finally had an appetite and wanted some spicy Mexican food,” Lila says.  “I thought: Hurray!  I called the family and sent photos of Steve eating and smiling.”

Within hours, Steve became disoriented. His oxygen level plunged.  Lila called 911.

EMTs arrived in hazmat suits.  As they wheeled Steve on a gurney into the ambulance, he said to Lila, “Well, this is a surprise.” The couple had made a pact not to send Steve to the hospital, “no matter what.”  Lila says, “I felt like I was betraying his trust.” She feared his comment would be the last words she’d hear him say.

“Every day we read about the death toll from this disease,” Lila says.  “People were dying alone, without their loved ones by their side, holding their hand.  That was my nightmare.”

An ICU doc they knew called to say he was sorry to see Steve on his ward.  They’d intubate him, he said, and keep him on a ventilator for a few days.  Hopefully, Steve would be home in a week.

That week turned into 102 days.  Steve came home on July 9, in a wheelchair, unable to walk.  He had a wound vac to help heal a bedsore almost deep enough to reach his tailbone.  He’d been unconscious for most of his hospital stay.  “Though Steve was the one in the hospital fighting for his life,” Lila says, “it was the hardest time of my life as well.”

Lila spoke to a group to which we both belong.  She shared some valuable lessons she’d learned during their health crisis.  Lessons worth knowing.

Lesson 1.  “Make sure you have great doctors.”  Their personal docs stayed on top of the ICU and infectious disease docs and briefed Lila every day.

Lesson 2.  “Don’t be too quick to provide a living will.”  Asked if Steve had one, Lila said she couldn’t find it, though she knew just where it was.  “No one wants to be kept alive on ventilators, feeding tubes, dialysis and full life support.”  Steve received all those treatments, but Lila didn’t want the hospital to have anything official to justify unplugging him.  “Maybe they were short on ventilators or hospital beds or just exhausted from the onslaught of Covid patients.  I didn’t want them deciding someone else had a better chance of survival.”

Lesson 3.  “You don’t have to follow a doctor’s advice.”   At one point, an infectious disease doc phoned Lila, asked her to consider taking Steve off life support.  Think about how Steve would like to live his life, he advised.  They were trying to wean Steve off paralytic drugs and heavy sedation.  He wasn’t responding or following simple commands.  He was fighting serial infections, including a fungus that can hide in the aortic valve and brain. He might never be the same mentally.  “NO,” Lila responsed.  “Steve was 78.  They couldn’t prove his mental capacity was deficient.  There’d be time to pull the plug.  He needed the chance to get well.”

Lesson 4.  “Make time for yourself.”  For the first two weeks, Lila stayed in bed, awaiting the daily update.  If she didn’t hear before 10:30, she’d start praying.  After the call, she texted or emailed family.  She binge-watched TV, excluding news channels.  “Anything to keep my brain from going to a dark place.”  She began walking “til I could walk no longer,” then back to bed.  All their children offered to come and stay with her.  Eventually she said yes to her daughter, Heather Gaalaas, and husband Kevin.  They could work from the Huses’ home while Lila watched 5-year-old Alice and Cecily.  A former ballet dancer and teacher, Lila taught the twins to read, write and do math.  She watched them learn to swim without floaties, to ride bikes without training wheels.  Lila cooked for everyone and “finally started to eat normally myself.”

The long journey toward recovery involved family and friends supporting and encouraging Steve along the way. In this photo, taken not long after he returned home in July 2020, Steve enjoys time with his son Craig and daughter Kim.

Lesson 5.  “Be good to those who are caring for your loved one.”  Steve’s son Craig and the culinary staff of their restaurants were sending food to first responders and health care workers in Indianapolis.  Once a week, Lila called the charge nurse on Steve’s hospital unit, asked how many staff were working that day, and sent lunch from a local deli.  “I hoped it showed how much I appreciated their efforts during the pandemic.”

Lesson 6.  “Educate yourself on your health insurance benefits.”  Under Medicare, Lila says, we all have 90 paid in-patient care days (hospital, skilled nursing, inpatient rehab).  Those days renew when we’ve been out of the hospital for 60 days.  Steve was in the hospital for 102 days, out for 30, and back for another 8.  Lila had the choice to pay his expenses for the additional days (over 90) or agree to use some of his non-renewable “Lifetime Days” (of which there are 60).  Medicare paid Sarasota Memorial Hospital $1.7 million for Steve’s care.  Steve used 20 of his 60 lifetime, non-renewable days.

Lila concluded her talk with some anecdotes which surely seem funnier now.  When Steve was recovering and the hospital began allowing Lila to visit, they Facetimed the family.  Steve assured daughter Kim that he and Lila had “made up and were back together again.”  At one point, Steve thought most of his family had joined a cult and were leaving to go to the Middle East.  (Lila reminded him she was Jewish and wasn’t welcome in much of the Middle East.)  When Lila entered Steve’s room one day, he was on the phone with their good friend Johnny Kittle asking him to come and rescue him from the hospital.  “And bring Annie,” he said, referring to Johnny Kittle’s wife.  “I know she’s not very strong but we might need her help.”

Steve owns a Ferrari and belongs to the Sarasota Ferrari Club and the Café Racers (car guys who lunch).  The members wanted to surprise Steve by escorting him home from the hospital in their exotic cars.  Both clubs sent emails to their group to coordinate the plans.  One club forgot to delete Steve from the email chain.  Lila came to visit a few days before his release.  Steve demanded, “You’ve got to stop the escort from happening.”

Lila: “That’s an honor.  Why don’t you want it?”

Steve: “I was looking forward to going to Culvers’ drive-through.  After all this hospital food, I want a burger and fries.”

25-30 exotic cars escorted Steve home.  He’s since eaten plenty of burgers and fries.

Ending her remarks, Lila said, “The good news is he’s doing great with no lingering effects.  And we’re definitely back together again.”

Thanks, Lila, for sharing this harrowing and heroic story.   We’re all glad Steve’s back on the road again.  And glad you’re back in the passenger seat.

Celebrating Steve’s recovery with a toast are Steve and his wife Lila.

A biblical fruit, pomegranates help my troubled tummy– thanks to fashion designer Diane vonFurstenberg

Godsigns readers know I like to mix it up.  My last column on Patty Runquist and Stevie Schaefer was my first mother/son subject.  This week’s ode to the pomegranate marks my first culinary column.  Hope you eat it up.  (Couldn’t resist.)

Last winter the WSJ ran a profile on Diane von Furstenberg.  As a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily and a fashion editor early in my career, I’ve followed Diane for decades.  I’ve worn her wrap dresses and been a fan through her marriage and divorce from Prince Egon von Furstenberg.  (His father, a German prince, and mother, a member of Italian nobility and an heir to the Fiat Automotive fortune, were less than thrilled with Diane’s Jewish heritage.)

Diane later married American media mogul Barry Diller.   They’ been very philanthropic, including pledging $20 million to the New York High Line.  This elevated park and path installed on a discontinued railroad spur is one of my sister’s and my favorite walks on our sisters’ trips to New York City.  But that’s just one reason for my DVF appreciation.

My stomach appreciates her, too.

Several months ago, I read a feature on DVF in the WSJ magazine.  ICYMI (I love acronyms, as if you hadn’t guessed), Diane mentioned that for breakfast she eats yogurt and pomegranate seeds.

Sounds interesting, I thought.  I was already eating yogurt and berries for breakfast.

A pomegranate tree in an illustration for the Tacuinum Sanitatis, an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad.

I hustled over to Publix and bought some pomegranate seeds.  They were sweet/sour and crunchy and—like Mikey–  I liked them.   I continued to buy them—out of the shell or in.  You Tube showed me how to extricate the seeds.

I have IBS.  (Yay! I snuck in another acronym!)  Irritable Bowel Syndrome is what docs call stomach distress when they can’t figure out what else to call it.  I’ve had IBS for years—maybe a result of chemo 17 years back.  Who knows?

After three or four months, it occurred to me that my IBS had significantly lessened.  Only one thing in my diet had changed: pomegranate seeds.

Hmm.  I Googled pomegranate seeds.  The first benefit claimed: improved digestion.  Whoa!  Exactly what I’d stumbled across.

Friends of a certain age may have noticed: as we—ahem– mature, our organs become less cooperative.  My sister, Anne, has several friends in California who get together often.  They start their conversations by limiting themselves to what they call “a 10-minute organ recital.”

What inspired me to share my new tummy treatment (I love alliteration, too) was a recent article in the Detroit Jewish News.  According to contributing writer Keri Guten Cohen, “Pomegranates have a long Judaic history—from Jewish ritual objects to ancient Jewish coins, to Jewish cuisine, and Jewish art, architecture and jewelry.”

Keri writes that pomegranates likely originated in Iran and have grown in the Mediterranean region since ancient times.  King Solomon used pomegranates as capitals for the columns of the First Temple, later destroyed by the Babylonians.  Solomon saw pomegranates as symbols of love and fertility and used a pomegranate metaphor to describe a lovely young woman in Song of Songs 4:3.

Pomegranates are significant during Rosh Hashanah, the recent Jewish holiday.  The symbolism stems from the belief that the fruit contains 613 seeds (arils), the same number as the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah.

Pomegranate season is upon us: October through January.  Give this noble fruit a try.  Only leave some for me, SVP!

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NOTES ON PHOTOGRAPHS: The top photograph today is an award-winning photograph shared via Wikimedia Commons by Ivar Leidus, which means you are free to share that beautiful photograph with friends in celebration of November’s National Pomegranate Month. The illustration of a pomegranate tree comes from a later Italian copy of Ibn Butlan’s original guide to home medicine. He was a physician and a member of a small Arab-Christian minority, the Nestorians. His guide to hygiene, diet (including his recommendation of eating pomegranates) and exercise was widely used around the Middle East.