Laurie Frankel shares the story of Claude/Poppy and Buddhist wisdom about change

If I’d known what the book was about, I doubt I’d have read it.  The subject makes me uneasy.  But a smart friend recommended it.  The writing was so crisp, the characters so likable, that once I began—I was hooked.

Penn and Rosie Walsh have 4 sons.  Penn’s a writer who keeps working on a novel—Rosie calls it the DN, Damn Novel.  While Rosie devotes long hours as a caring doctor, Penn puts the boys to bed with imaginative bedtime stories. The system works. The Wisconsin couple adore each other and their large brood. Both parents had been only children, though Rosie gained such status through the death of a sister, Poppy. Rosie still longs for a daughter named Poppy.

That’s the set-up for a sensitive and timely novel, This Is How It Always Is.

Rosie and Penn try once more for their Poppy. Out comes Claude, who walks and talks early and, at 3, writes mysteries and bakes a cake. His family is nuts about him. Claude wants to wear a dress to pre-school. His mother talks him out of it, saying the dress is dirty and wrinkled. Claude requests a new dress and carries his lunch in a purse. His schoolmates make fun of him.

As author Laurie Frankel writes, “Penn knew in his heart that Claude should be who he was. But he also knew that Claude would be happier if neither his clothes nor his sandwich nor the bag it came out of attracted anyone’s attention…”

As for Rosie’s response, “…Rosie was gratified that Claude felt so supported at home. Rosie was horrified that Claude felt so precarious outside of it.”

Rosie consults with Mr. Tongo, a social worker at the hospital where she works. He terms Claude’s  condition “gender dysphoria”. Attempting to lighten the atmosphere for Claude’s stricken parents, he picks up a magnifying glass, peers through it and says, “The Case of the Mistaken Genitalia.”

Penn and Rosie want what’s best for Claude. Worried his girly tendencies could make life hard for him, they argue over how to handle the situation.

As a parent of sons who are heterosexual and have rewarded Burton and me with 6 awesome grandchildren, I read the book mixed feelings. Relief that Burton and I (and our sons) never dealt with such an issue. Empathy for those who do.

In a passage any parent can appreciate, Penn reflects, “You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s entire future and happiness is at stake”.

And then the author delivers a note of levity…

Penn:  ”It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.”

Rosie: “Sure there is.”

Penn: “What?”

Rosie: “Birth control.”

Penn:  “I think that ship has sailed.”

The family becomes so traumatized by the community’s response to Claude’s behavior that they  move across country to Seattle. They decide to let Claude be the girl he wants to be and to keep his physical discrepancy a secret. Claude calls himself Poppy and becomes besties with the girl next door and soon with a gaggle of schoolgirls. All goes swimmingly until the secret gets out. Poppy feels so shamed she refuses to leave the house and spirals into depression.

Rosie takes a volunteer position in an understaffed, undersupplied clinic in Thailand and brings Poppy along. Teaching English to several Thai children, Poppy begins to regain self-respect. Rosie becomes friends with K, a compassionate Thai nurse who speaks broken English and proffers helpful Buddhist counsel. K turns out to be transgender.

K tells Rosie, “Buddhist way. Last life one thing, this one another, next another. Whatever happen last life to make me like this not my fault. Everyone know that. Me, my soul, will be lot of bodies before done, some male, some female, some both. So okay. No one care what is under my pants.”

Rosie protests, “At home, there is no middle way. You’re male or you’re female.”

K says, “Not just middle way between male and female. Middle way of being. Middle way of living with what is hard and who do not accept you.”

“How do you do that?”

“You keep remember: all is change.”

Poppy starts noticing Buddha statues often depicted with feminine characteristics. Poppy realizes the Buddha believed that “even things as unalterable as bodies were temporary, and what mattered was if you were good and honest, and forgiveness solved everything. That was how, whatever else they were, Claude and Poppy became Buddhists for life.”

Since reading the book, I’ve learned about a new movie, A Kid Like Jake, starring Claire Danes as the mother of a boy who prefers princesses and tutus—“gender expansive play.” And an in-law told me the boy on her son’s swim team may next year swim as a girl. This issue is one we’ll keep having to deal with, comfortable or not.

Laurie Frankel’s book is about being authentic, refusing to live according to society’s expectations and  learning to accept nonconformity. It rings so true I wasn’t surprised to read the author’s note at the end. Laurie Frankel writes, “It’s true that my child used to be a little boy and is now a little girl. But this isn’t her story. I can’t tell her story; I can only tell my own story and those of the people I make up.”

Thanks for sharing Claude/Poppy with us, Laurie.  For helping to open our eyes and our minds.

Surviving breast cancer, Jo Kleindienst follows ancient pilgrimage route of Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James

We all respond differently to cancer struggles, but we share the same sense of fear.  When the fight is finished, we share the same relief, tempered with uncertainty.

As a pilgrim, Jo paused to consider her spiritual intentions for the long trek at the church in Torres del Rio, which is between Pamplona and Logroño near the traditional eastern starting point of the Spanish portion of the Way of St. James.

Jo Kleindienst came up with a great way to move forward—literally.

Jo and husband Jesse Duenas live in Sarasota.  Jo’s from Stow, OH.  She worked in the federal government for the Navy and FAA, then consulted for the FAA. At 61, she seemed the essence of health. She worked part time, played USTA tennis, was a runner, “gym rat” and vegan.

In 2013, after an annual mammogram, Jo received the dreaded call back. She returned for another mammogram, then sonogram, then biopsy. Though she proved Stage 1, her type of cancer, invasive lobular carcinoma, tested likely to return.  Jo hung out the NOT WELCOME sign with two surgeries, chemo and radiation.

During treatment, Jo continued to work, exercise and play tennis.  “Cancer took enough things away from me,” she says.  “I wouldn’t let it steal the things I loved.” Since treatment concluded, in May, 2014,  her mammograms have been clear—knock wood.  (A common mannerism among cancer survivors.  I think I’ve worn a dent in my head.)

Jo (right) with her daughter Lizzie in full gear along the journey.

Several years before, Jo had seen the film The Way, starring Martin Sheen.  Sheen plays a father whose estranged son dies while walking the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) in Galicia in northwestern Spain.  Sheen’s character determines to finish the route for his son and scatter his ashes as he goes. (Yes, I recommend the movie.)

For more than 1,000 years, walking the Camino has been an important  spiritual journey, especially for Catholics.  Today over 200,000 pilgrims and other travelers walk the Camino each year.  The entire walk stretches nearly 500 miles. The minimum journey to earn a Compostela (certificate) is 62 miles. The Camino ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where St. James’ remains are believed buried.

Along the way, different villages have albergues or inns where pilgrims spend the night and usually  dine. Each albergue has its own insignia which is stamped on a certificate along the lines of a passport stamp.

Since seeing the film, Jo, an enthusiastic backpacker, wanted to walk the Camino. But the journey can take several days or weeks, depending on the distance. She’d never found the time.

Though Jo was baptized Catholic, she hadn’t practiced her religion for many years. In May, 2013, that changed. “I was staring at my mortality,” she says. “My diagnosis got me back on a spiritual path.”

The trio of pilgrims (Martha is center) near a historic archway.

Jo met with her former priest, who had moved to a different parish. He said, “The Lord has a way of giving you a nudge.” He heard her confession and performed the anointing of the sick.

Jo began to read the daily meditations of Wilfrid Stinissen in This is the Day the Lord Has Made and “loved” it.  The time had come.  “I knew the walk would connect me spiritually.”  She watched the movie again and read books and websites.  In August of 2016, she decided. She’d walk the following May. Daughter Lizzie Hanner, who worked in Amsterdam, and good friend Martha Redmond, who’d accompanied her to chemo, agreed to join her.

Equipped with hiking boots, an edited wardrobe and a backpack, Jo met her fellow pilgrims in Madrid. They took a train to Pamplona and a taxi to SJPDP (St James Pied de Port). The 3 pilgrims (peregrinos) met at the Pilgrim Office to register and pick up their certificates. The walk took them through small towns and big cities, over mountains and across fields. They stayed in numerous albergues—private homes, municipal buildings, convents. They made friends from Australia, New Zealand, Germany.

Pilgrims went out of their way to help each other. “It’s an incredible way to see the best of mankind,” Jo says.  One day they were caught in a deluge. “We were soaked to the bone and freezing.” A man in a Jeep. painting pictures of churches along The Way, drove them to the next town. For one pilgrim who had ankle trouble, Jo wrapped his foot with sports tape. (He made it.)

Jo in Leon, once the heart of a great medieval kingdom in Spain.

Descending the Pyrenees, Jo says, her boots were “killing” her. She taxied to Pamplona and purchased trail shoes and unguent at Caminoteca, a sporting goods shop open on Sundays from 8-8—unlikely hours in Spain.

Many people undertake the Camino to leave some burden behind. About half way through the journey, the Cruz de Ferro, or Iron Cross, rises from a mound. Pilgrims bring a stone with something written on it to leave at the foot of the cross.

The day they neared the Iron Cross was foggy. They couldn’t see ahead.  “About half a mile away, I started getting very emotional. When we got there, I walked up to the cross, set my stone against the pole, and just cried. After I left, I felt lifted, like I’d been touched by the Holy Spirit. I’ve continued to feel that way.

One of the shell-shaped symbols that guide pilgrims along the way. This one is in Leon.

“I’d been spending too much time worrying about whether cancer would come back. I realized I had to leave my worries behind. If cancer does recur, it does. I can’t stand back cowering. I need to move forward.”

After 35 days, the trio reached their destination, showed their Credencial (pilgrim passport) and received their Compostellas. They reconnected with friends they’d met along the way. “There was lots of hugging and high fiving.” Jo was “a little let down” to see the old cathedral, which stands above a large plaza. It was covered in scaffolding. But the next day made up for it. She attended a pilgrims’ mass, held every day at noon. She got to see the Botafumeiro, a giant incense burner that expels smoke. Several robed men swung it back and forth—a tradition normally reserved for Holy Days. Jo witnessed it that day.

In all, the 3 pilgrims covered almost 500 miles.

About the Camino, Jo says, “I’ve had many good adventures, but this was probably the most wonderful experience of my life. It showed me how much stuff we don’t need, how simply we can live. It made me kinder, more tolerant, more spiritual.” She can’t wait to go back.

Sitting at lunch 2 years later, I asked Jo what she’d written on the stone she left behind. “Breast cancer.  5.31.13,” she said. She added, “I don’t think I’ve ever told that to anyone.”

Thanks for trusting me to share your story, Jo. Keep walking forward.

Buen Camino.

The trio in the plaza of the cathedral at Santiago.

(Personal note.  I totally buy into the exercise, spiritual and companionship parts of the adventure. But dorm-like sleeping quarters? Another story. I require silence, white noise, a luxe mattress and one companion, max. I’m a nocturnal princess. Jo, you’re a trooper!)

Michael Richker gave up alcohol and drug addictions and dedicates himself to helping others

Losing his business, declaring personal bankruptcy, with two marriages, numerous affairs and 27 years of alcohol and drug addiction behind him, Sarasotan Michael Richker finally hit bottom.  Today he’s sober, committed to a partner, a community leader and volunteer.

It hasn’t been easy.

Michael’s father, who constantly berated him, died when Michael was 16.  Two years later, he came home from his freshman year at college (Texas A&M).  His mother, who was using diet pills, announced she was getting married and moving to Chicago.  “I felt abandoned,” he says.  He married at 21, but due to his drinking, his wife left after 2 years.  He consoled himself with a fifth of Old Forester a day chased with marijuana.

Emotionally, he says, he shut down.  “I decided no one else would ever hurt me.”  He moved to Chicago  and worked for his stepfather’s import business, which he eventually bought.  His marijuana use exploded.  “I like to say I only smoked once—from June of ‘69 to February of ‘81.”  In 1981, at a convention in Atlantic City, he was introduced to a new high.  “I became a raving cocaine addict.”

His family kicked him out when he was 44 and suggested he get help.  He checked himself into a treatment facility but relapsed, “because I was there for my family, not for myself.”  Journalist Carrie Seidman, of the Sarasota Herald Tribune, described Michael’s first experience with detox.  “When they brought his bathrobe from home, he carefully scraped the cocaine remains from his pockets, rolled a page torn from his recovery manual, and snorted a line, lint and all, at the treatment center.”

Three weeks later, Michael landed back in detox.   A counselor said, “You have two choices.  You can go home and die.  Or you can commit to a long program.”

He broke down and cried.  At a loss to do anything else, “I got down on my knees and prayed to a God I didn’t believe in.”  An astonishing thing happened.  “Somehow the obsession was lifted from me.  I physically felt the presence of a Higher Power.”

By the time he came out of treatment, he had lost his import business.  He declared personal bankruptcy.

Author Caroline Knapp illuminates the lure of alcohol in her insightful memoir, Drinking: A Love Story.  Drinking turned her from an introvert to an extrovert, she writes, and offered her protection.   ‘And then, tragically, the protection stops working.  The mathematics of transformation change.  This is inevitable.  You drink long and hard enough and your life gets messy.  Your relationships (with nondrinkers, with yourself) become strained.  Your work suffers.  You run into financial trouble, or legal trouble, or trouble with the police.”

For the first three years of his recovery, Michael attended a meeting every single day.  He became active in the group, starting with pouring coffee, working his way up to finance chair and statewide positions.  He retired in 1998 and 2005.  He continues to attend 12 Step meetings.

“The disease never stops,” he says.  “It’s incurable and it’s progressive.”

Michael’s 12 Step program advocates getting down on your knees in the morning and at night.  Michael continues to pray daily.   The energy he once put into destroying himself he now dedicates to helping others.  He joined the board of a local services organization.  He volunteers at Resurrection House, a daytime shelter where homeless people can shower, wash clothes, receive food and help.  Once a month he brings a 12 step program to a jail and detox center.  He became president of his synagogue, a position he held for 4 years, and remains active.

Michael and Joyce Richker

When the temple hosted an event honoring him, he said, “125 of you paid $180 to honor me.  But I didn’t put myself here.  God did.”

With sobriety, his relationships improved.  He met and married Joyce, a non-drinker who supported his recovery.  Joyce, “the love of my life,” died in 2012 of breast cancer.

Michael and Joan, his current partner

Three months later, In grief counseling, he met Joan.  They’ve been together for 6 years.  Between them, they have 11 children, 17 grandchildren and one great grandchild.  Michael has restored his relationship with his own 2 grown kids.

“Sobriety is the most important thing in my life,” he says.  “It has to be.  When addiction is in charge, you can do anything without shame or remorse.  Every day the disease tells me to do something wrong.  Instead I make the choice to share my experience, strength and hope.”

Thanks for sharing your story, Michael.  For choosing to make this world a better place.  Hopefully you’ll inspire others to follow your lead.

What are your favorite words of wit and wisdom?

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Some expressions, however overused, can help us get through tough times and appreciate the good ones.  I love finding aphorisms even more than spotting shooting stars.

My girlfriend Pat Barnett shares messages and photos that often cause me to nod and whisper: Yeah.  Pat’s recent email introduced Jeanne Louise Calmet, who lived to be 122.  Calmet’s profile concludes with some wise and witty statements.  “Being young is a state of mind.  It doesn’t depend on one’s body.  I’m actually still a young girl; it’s just that I haven’t looked so good for the past 70 years.”  And this: “I’ve been forgotten by our good Lord.”  And this: “If you can’t change something, don’t worry about it.”

The email inspired me to start my own list of hard won wisdom.  I’ve just begun.  I hope to have dozens of entries before long…

  1. Extend the benefit of a doubt. Rose colored glasses may go in and out of fashion, but they’ll always brighten your attitude.
  2. We have two hands for a reason. There are two sides to every story.  On the one hand.  On the other.  Consider both.
  3. Take advantage of every opportunity. And every bathroom.  My motto:  Carpe Pee-em.  Seize the Toilet.
  4. Be prepared. See #4.   The road not taken can be full of potholes… or barren of bathrooms.
  5. Practice moderation. Especially if you never want to have to give up alcohol.
  6. Forgiveness may not change the past, but it does improve the future.*
  7. Acknowledge a courteous driver. A grateful wave takes a millisecond.
  8. If someone ignores you or acts rude, he or she’s probably having a bad day.  It’s not about you.
  9. Healthy bodies aren’t just a matter of luck. Drink water.  Work out.
  10. Don’t do something you may regret in 10 minutes or 10 years. I don’t like gilt on my chandeliers or my conscience.

Years ago someone recommended jotting down meaningful things I read or hear in a notebook called “Keepers.”  I’ve done so, though not with as much discipline as I wish I had.  Here are a couple from my Keepers book:

“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”  Oscar Wilde

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”  Buckminster Fuller

“The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”  William James

I also record Keepers expressed by friends or family.  Lindsay, our gregarious granddaughter, can talk on the phone for hours.  One night as Burton and I tried to conclude a long conversation, our then 5 year old said,  “Let’s chat about your lifestyle.”

My recommendation: start your own words of wit and wisdom list.   Your offspring will appreciate it.  And while you’re at it, please share your list with me.   I can’t wait to hear from you.

*Paul Boese owned and ran a Dairy Queen in Newton, KS and wrote inspirational quotes.  The “Forgiveness” quote was first published in Quote magazine.

Decorating handbags, Patty Elzinga makes lemonade out of lung cancer

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books. I would add: “Oh, the people you’ll meet.”  Such as Patty Elzinga, my latest discovery. I was taken with her upbeat outlook and the parallels in our lives.

Patty with her husband Bob.

The Sarasota Art Center Fabulous Arts Boutique, several weeks ago, produced 2 bonuses. At a jewelry display, I pawed through a basket and found and bought new favorite earrings—brass, hand cut, bent and etched with turquoise. That night we dined with Linda and Bob Salisbury. Linda’s an artist friend with whom I attend boot camp. She influences me to execute deeper lunges. She must influence me  aesthetically as well. She’d visited the SAC boutique before I did and also looked at thousands of pieces. She showed up at dinner wearing a new pendant—the match to my new earrings.

But I digress.

The main bonus came from a booklet on artists included in the boutique. I noticed  Patty’s bio.  She owned and ran hair salons and spas in mid-Michigan but stopped working the day she was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She turned the business over to 3 of her grown children who were already working there. To keep busy during chemo, Patty started embellishing handbags.

I shot Patty an email. Turns out she and husband Bob live in Lowell, MI, a small town near Grand Rapids. They spend winters in Venice, just south of Sarasota. Patty and I met for lunch at Sarasota’s Phillipi Creek. As good as my blackened grouper sandwich was, Patty was better.  She’s my wise, wacky, creative new pal.

Coincidence #1: We were diagnosed the same week in July, 2004.

One of Patty’s embellished handbags.

Coincidence #2:  I advise cancer patients to find a project to occupy them during chemo.  Patty taught herself to bead and began embellishing purses.  The practice has turned into a business.  She creates custom bags for others.

My chemo project was skimming my old handwritten journals and typing entries about our sons into separate files. Along with invaluable Denise Tietze, our then exec assistant, I created separate journals for our sons: their youth through their mom’s eyes. The project had an unexpected benefit. I saw how much needless time I spent worrying. 90% of what I anguished over never came to pass.

Coincidence #3.  Our farm in Charlevoix, MI, is near Friske’s Farm Market, formerly Elzinga Farm Market. Over the years, we stopped at Elzinga’s to buy cherries or cider—whatever was in season. The Elzingas named a beach on Lake Michigan where we enjoyed summer picnics, including watermelon seed spitting contests. (Watermelon seeds? This was a looong time ago.)  Bob’s a distant relative of the NoMI Elzingas.

Coincidence #4:  Patty once worked in fashion. I worked for 3 Saks stores and was a journalist with Women’s Wear Daily.  Early on, Patty owned a ladies’ fashion shop. Returning from a buying trip, she visited a new discount mall.  “I saw the writing on the wall,” she says.  “I couldn’t begin to compete with the prices.”  She put everything in her shop on sale and converted the space to a nail salon.

After staying home to jumpstart 4 kids, Patty and oldest daughter Heidi Christine opened Heidi Christines, a hair salon in 1987.  Their original 2 chairs have turned into a thriving business of 2 salon/spas with 16 chairs in one, 12 in the other, in the affluent towns of Ada and Caledonia, near Grand Rapids, MI.

One of Patty’s favorite photos with her husband Bob.

Coincidence #5:  Patty was so terrified by her diagnosis (lung cancer, 2B, with lymph involvement) she asked her husband Bob to take over her case. I was so terrified by mine (uterine cancer, stage 4, pelvic spread), I asked Burton to take over mine. In both cases, our husbands were diligent and devoted. Almost 14 years later, Patty and I are still grateful. And still around.

Coincidence #6:  Patty and Bob and Burton and I bought places in Florida after we were diagnosed.  Burton and I, in Sarasota.  Patty and Bob, in Venice.  The plan for  their Florida villa: “Bob and I would enjoy each other until I died.  I didn’t die, so we bought a bigger villa.”

Coincidence #7:  We both sought out and were strengthened by survival stories from others.

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

Coincidence #8:  We both wrote books about our experience.  Hers, Over My Dead Body, is more of an informal thank you to those who supported her and a remembrance for family and friends.

Patty did one thing I wish I’d thought of.  She adored her internist, Dr. Joan Medima, who first diagnosed her. Before her treatment began, Patty wrote her internist  a letter. In part, she said:

I have loved being your patient and having you as a part of my life. I am a better person because of it.  Thank you for being you! I’m sorry you had to bring me the news you did. I know what you had to go through to do so. Wherever I go from here, it will be easier knowing that you are on my team.

I, too, appreciate my internist, Dr. Gordon Moss, who first diagnosed my problem. Also, my oncologist, Dr. John Malone at Detroit’s Karmanos Cancer Institute. I dedicated GodSigns, my memoir about my recovery, to him. He never got to read it. He died from a staph infection before publication.

Coincidence #9:  Patty and I were supported through our ordeals by our faith. Patty writes, “It’s good to be carried by God.  All my life I have had to be in control, and it often didn’t work well.  Giving up and letting God’s will be done is much easier.  Why didn’t I think of this before?”

Aside from creating bags and jewelry, Patty paints.  She’s taking a class to learn to paint portraits and has done images of all of her grandchildren. She downplays her ability. “I’m not good but I’m close.”  She’s most actively creative while dealing with health issues. A reformed smoker, she’s now in and out of the hospital with COPD and emphysema. She keeps her beading supplies organized in plastic bags. They’re ready to go if and when she requires hospitalization.

In her book, Patty provides a bullet list of advice for her grandchildren. One entry sums up her attitude. “If you wait for your ship to come in, it will sink in the harbor. Swim out and get it!”

Thanks for sharing your story, Patty.  Keep swimming.

Patty’s grandchildren displaying the portraits she painted of each one.

Keith O’Neil helps the Indiana Colts win a Super Bowl, then tackles an even bigger challenge: his bi-polar disorder

Keith and Jill O’Neil on the field celebrating the Indiana Colts’ victory in Super Bowl XLI.

Keith was a tough kid and mediocre student.  He was raised in a family of athletes, including his dad, Ed, who played for the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots.  His brother and brother-in-law were football stars, too.  Keith gave football everything he had, even at practice.

While others might sometimes slack off, he says, “I went 110 percent on every snap, every practice.”

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

Keith’s frank and compelling memoir, Under My Helmet, focuses on his football career and subsequent bipolar diagnosis.  He shares fascinating insights about the process of going pro.

I knew that no one hustled more than I did. I had to: I played linebacker in college at 6-foot, 225 pounds, significantly undersized for a linebacker in the NFL. I compensated with speed and instincts.” And this:  “Rookie camp is really a tryout but no one calls it that.  ‘Camp’ sounds less threatening, though if you don’t do well, you won’t get asked to attend the main camp.”

Keith became a special teams member and sometime linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and Indiana Colts, the latter winning a Super Bowl Championship. He played for top NFL coaches Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy.

Though my son Andy once co-captained Cranbrook’s football team, I was his mostly clueless best fan. Who was actually carrying the ball? Why was one play flagged and another not? For clueless spectators like me, Keith’s book sheds light.

Overcome with anxiety after 4 years in the big leagues, Keith quit. In past years, he’d  had acute insomnia and unpredictable outbursts. “At times, I knew something was up with me mentally… I never got to the root of it.  At least in my family, we didn’t talk about mental issues.”

He writes about his close knit Catholic family and his admiration for his father, who after retiring as a player became a coach for college and high school teams.  He writes about unexpected breaks in his own career.

“You never know,” my father had told me, when he encouraged me to stick it out the beginning of junior year of college, when I was all set to transfer because I had been passed over for a starting slot.  And then the guy in front of me breaks his leg.

“You never know,” The Dallas Cowboys scout told me after he spotted me at a game, … even though he was there to scout a player on the other team. And that’s how I ended up in the league. 

“Your beautiful, amazing wife gives birth to a beautiful, amazing boy—a miracle to begin with, even more so when you consider the miscarriage she went through, followed by a year of not getting pregnant—and you figure it’s got to be the best thing that ever happened to you, right?

“You never know.”

Keith’s mood spirals down.  He attempts suicide and lands in a psychiatric hospital. He writes about  years of ineffective or harmful meds, about finally finding a psychiatrist to whom he relates and a cocktail of drugs that works for him.

“Almost everyone in the bipolar community has medication stories to share.  Each individual must go through the grueling process of finding a combination of drugs that works for him or her.”

As I was working on this column, the sports section of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran this headline: “Former QB Rypien struggled with depression.” The AP article, from Spokane, WA, reports the former Super Bowl MVP’s suicide attempt. Rypien suspects his destructive behaviors stem from brain damage from the sport. Like Keith O’Neil, Rypien says, “My story is impactful because people see me in a different light.  I want them to see me in an accurate light.”

I turned to my Online Bible, Wickipedia.  The first paragraph of the first citation: “Professional footballers suffer more from symptoms of depression and anxiety than the general public.”

I met Keith at a fundraiser for Compeer, an international organization which teams mentally challenged persons with mentally sound ones.  This buddy system helps the more challenged partner feel less isolated and provides rewards to his or her partner as well. My dear friend Lynn Buehler directs  Compeer’s Sarasota office. Another friend, Bunny Skirboll, founded Compeer. Keith serves on the Compeer Board.

In his keynote address, Keith mentioned his gratitude to his “beautiful wife Jill.”  After, I sought Jill out  and agreed with his assessment. Caregivers can be the unsung heroes of health crises.  Unlike a physical problem, usually openly acknowledged, a mental health crisis is often kept secret.  Considering the potential for shame and stigma, mental health problems might be even harder for the caregiver. Jill, too, went through a period of depression.

What kept Jill going, she says, was Keith’s desire to get help. Jill’s a nurse, empathetic by nature.  But she knew nothing about mental illness. “I went through a steep learning curve,” she says.  “Keith was scared to death.  I was, too.”  Plus, they were both still grieving the loss of their first pregnancy.  Jill credits “faith and family” for getting them through those first months.

Keith, Jill and their sons.

Two successful pregnancies followed, as did two healthy boys, now 5 and 2.  But Jill says being a new mom as well as coping with her husband’s diagnosis was a challenge.

“We’d come off such a high—Keith’s football career, getting jobs, settling down.  I had to learn about and manage Keith’s illness AND take care of a new baby.  I’m a perfectionist, very detail oriented.  I had high expectations for myself as a mom.  The chaos in our lives was tough.  Not knowing what our lives would look like.  For me, it’s still raw,”

At the end of Keith’s book, he mentions an upcoming 10th reunion of the Colts’ Super Bowl victory.  He’s “not sure” if he’ll attend because “I don’t want to be seen as the sick one.”

I ask: Did you or didn’t you attend the reunion?  I high-five Keith when he says they did.  Jill encouraged it.    “What they accomplished should be celebrated,” she says.  “I told him if we went and it was stupid, we wouldn’t have to go to the 20th.”  They both had a fine time.

Keith has come to accept the way he is.  He writes, “Knowledge is power.  When I think back to the undiagnosed me, I see not only a very anxious, troubled person but a very confused one.  I had no idea what was going on.  That makes the terrible feeling so much worse, like you’re in a dark room, only you can’t feel the floor or the walls and you’re not sure if there’s a ceiling or any way out.  Now, at least, I understand why I am the way I am.  That brings me peace.

“At the same time, the label of being bipolar– having bipolar—and knowing I always will be can bring me down.  It’s not all gone.  It never will be.”

Keith began his talk at the Compeer luncheon with some startling statistics.  1 in 5 Americans has a mental health disorder.  1 in 5 people who are bipolar takes his or her own life.

Click the logo to visit Keith’s website.

Keith started the 4th and Forever Foundation to bring awareness to mental health and fund research for mental illness.

Thanks, Keith, for the courage you’ve shown in sharing your story.  For the hope you bring to others.  Thanks, Jill, for your remarkable support.  May you both continue to see, and shed, the light.

A retired Marine, deputy sheriff Ray Pendleton takes a spiritual journey into Judaism

Ray Pendleton at the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem during his recent visit.

I don’t know too many Marines who become sheriffs who become Jewish. Okay—I don’t know any. 

When I heard about Ray, I had to meet him.  Thus I found myself at Starbucks, sipping a frappuccino with a mild-mannered guy who can be tough when need be—and a recent landsman (Yiddish for fellow Jew).

For 20 years in the Marines, Ray was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and at camps in CA and NC.  He was a small arms and drill instructor and assistant game warden. In ’96, he left the military, enrolled at the U of NC and earned a degree in criminal justice. From childhood in Sarasota, Ray also had a sensitive side and enjoyed the Ringling Museum. Later in college he got a special kick out of his art appreciation class. His teacher, who’d been with Sarasota’s Ringling College,  showed slides of artworks Ray recognized.

Ray Pendleton ready for his day job in his sheriff’s department uniform.

In 2003, Ray joined the Sarasota Co. Sheriff’s office patrol south desk in Venice, FL. He fields calls on assaults, theft, threats, burglaries and scams.  He especially enjoys helping elderly fraud victims recover money stolen from them. One hysterical woman came in and said she’d just wired $4,000 to a scammer. Ray got the receipt, called Western Union’s fraud line and canceled the transaction.

His success that time was rare, Ray says. “Most victims wait too long to ask for help. Many elderly victims of sweepstakes scams are so convinced they’re winners they keep sending money even after I warn them everything the scammer told them was a lie.”

Ray’s parents and grandparents practiced Christianity. As an adult In Sarasota, Ray attended an evangelical Christian church. His daughter, Rhea, thought her father should broaden himself. For one birthday, she gave him a Tanakh, which he recognized as books from the Christian Old Testament he had known. Reading it, Ray decided to attend nearby Temple Emanu-El.

“I really enjoyed that,” he says.  “Especially the music.”

Ray’s first Jewish service was on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. He went to church as well that weekend and was surprised there was no mention of the Holocaust. Ray continued to attend Sabbath (Friday night) services. “I sat in back so if I made a mistake, I wouldn’t embarrass myself.”  He stayed after for the Oneg Shabbat, or social hour.  Renee Gold, past president, Michael Richker and other temple members befriended him.

Rabbi Brenner Glickman suggested Ray attend conversion classes. In 2015, Ray and 2 others dunked under water 3 times as part of the conversion ceremony. Siesta Key’s Gulf of Mexico was  the mikvah, or ritual bath. The service was attended by Ray’s daughter Rhea, whose gift inspired the moment, and many friends. Maggie Mandell and Anthony Koliday converted as well. Maggie and husband Brad welcomed everyone back to their Siesta Key home to celebrate.

Ray’s colleagues are supportive. They’ve volunteered to cover his shift so he can attend Friday night services. One fellow deputy is Jewish.

Traditionally, the Jewish religion doesn’t proselytize. For centuries, antisemitism was so prevalent that Jews in many parts of the world had to practice in secret if at all. In some places, conversion was illegal. Even today, most conversions derive from  interfaith marriage.  Hence my surprise at Ray’s story.

Ray describes his wife Lee, also raised Christian, as “agnostic.  A great person though not religious.”  Lee works in custom cabinetry as a designer/estimator. Lee neither encouraged or discouraged his conversion. “Her attitude was I should do what I want:”

Ray has helped develop a security program for the temple. He researched online what other institutions were doing came up with a plan for dealing with an active shooter incident. He joined the security committee at the temple. “Houses of worship are different than other places groups gather. Synagogues and churches are supposed to be open and welcoming, places you go to forget the craziness in the outside world.”

Rather than metal detectors and wands, the temple uses “reasonable precautions.” They contract with a private security company and off-duty sheriff deputies. During services, a guard is on duty in a marked car with lights flashing. Fourteen temple members, men and women, are Shomers (watchful eyes), responsible for noticing anything suspicious.  Ray oversees them.

Ray getting into his special uniform as a volunteer with the Israeli army, helping out at a base in the Negev Desert.

Ray is just back from 3 weeks in Israel.  He volunteered with Sar-El (Volunteers for Israel) on an IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) supply base, helping to inventory equipment for reservists.  He also volunteered to raise the flag in the morning.

“It was an honor to raise and salute the Israeli flag, the symbol of an amazing country and people. The flag represents not just a 70 year history, but the struggle of a people to be free and secure.”  Each morning after the flag raising, the 12 volunteers in his group were led by their two IDF group leaders in singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.  (Hatikvah is Hebrew for “The Hope.”)

Ray spent a 3rd week touring Israel. A favorite visit was the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He toured both the Jewish and Arab sides with a Palestinian guide, ate falafel from a street vendor and drank “the best coffee in Israel.”

 

Ray doesn’t find his conversion as remarkable as I do.  Seeking some deeper meaning, I ask: Why did you start attending Jewish services in the first place?   He shrugs and says, “I really don’t have a coherent answer.  It’s just how it worked out.”

Glad it did, Ray.  Thanks for your service.  And for attending ours.