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Note from the editor, Lesley Jane Seymour
The other day it was finally time to go through the three closets of clothes I have upstairs and accept the fact that I no longer need dozens of designer handbags or suits or coats for my new life as an entrepreneur.
I’m no longer the size or shape I was when I was editor in chief of Marie Claire, where I was given a clothing allowance and expected to spend thousands of dollars a season on the latest trendy clothes so I could show up at the front row of the collections and be photographed. Or so I wouldn’t insult Calvin by showing up at his show — or at a lunch with him — wearing Armani.
I know, I know — you can now take out your smallest violin!
Now, most of my days are spent in jeans or shorts and a T-shirt. I no longer need my shelves of sky-high Louboutin heels. (I actually prefer flats.)
I called the RealReal, made an appointment, and forced myself to dig deep. Out went the gorgeous leather-and-tulle dress from the Bottega Veneta sample sale that I wore to some amazing party I can’t even recall. Goodbye to the lurex-flecked Chanel evening purse I carried all over Paris one season. Into the giant zip bags went plates from Bulgari (a gift) and cachepots from Tiffany (ditto). Out went the expensive bejeweled Prada evening coat I’d purchased in a rush during one trip to Milan. We had a big event that night and after I pulled the coat from the rack, my fashion editor stood behind me chanting “Buy it! Buy it!” And I did.
Back in the day, being an editor in chief of a high-fashion magazine was like being an extra on the set of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Few of us had the big bucks to compete with the real fashionistas, but our jobs required that we look like we did. While some of the dressing up was undoubtedly fun — what civilian gets to borrow $35,000 worth of jewels from Fred Leighton for a red carpet event? — keeping up with the “BIG” editors who had unlimited clothing allowances was impossible. Even in the world of outrageous fashion excess, there was a clear pecking order. I was far from the top.
Luckily Dana (the representative from the RealReal) had been an assistant for a big designer and knew me from those days. She understood the melancholy I felt when putting up for sale that beloved pair of gold brocade Chanel boots that had gotten a lowly copywriter respect — and acceptance — from the fashion editors at Vogue. “I know. Clothes have so many memories,” she said. “But you realize that it’s not your life now. And you’re going to feel so much lighter.”
As she slammed the trunk of her car, which now held 98 pieces of my former crazy life, I felt both sadness and relief. As I watched her drive off, I realized that I was now free to create my own much more purposeful life.
*Kelly Jackson’s hilarious discussion with her deceased mother (“Happy Mother’s Day”)
*Deborah Burns’ meditation on the positive legacy of a self-involved mother (“Coming to Terms with My Narcissistic Mother”)
*Stylist Becky MacCurtain’s answers to the “Top 10 Questions a Stylist Gets from Women 40+”; she worked with me at More
*What to do if you’re diagnosed with osteopenia from Lori Kase
*Susan Purvis’ thoughtful attempt to save her marriage (“Search and Rescue at 30,000 Feet”)
*Dara Pettinelli’s “5 Tips for Buying Real Estate in a Down Market”: it might be the right time to downsize or help your child
*How to reinvent by picking up the threads from a childhood dream by Pamela Grayson (“Reinventing from a Childhood Dream”)
*The find: an amazing story about using technology that comes from healing traumatic war injuries hits the lab in “Hair Repair: New Solutions from the Lab”
*Traveling inside an artist’s studio with Monica Coyne.
In which mom checks in from heaven for a quick holiday catch up
“Which Mother do you want to speak to, hon? We have A LOT of mothers here in Heaven. You’ll have to be more specific, and I don’t have all day. Actually, I do have all day and all of eternity, but I’m really busy, so just give me a name.”
“Sheesh. I didn’t realize there was a switchboard in Heaven. How fantastic! Just look up The Ancient One. Believe me, there’s only one person who fits those parameters.”
“Connecting you now……please hold, and have a nice life. See you when you’re ready…unless the Devil gets you first, nyuck, nyuck, tee hyar hyar.”
“KK? OH…MY…GOD! And, wait until you see HIM! Why, he looks just like the God that adorable Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel. I’m running off to play mahjong, sweetie, what can I do for you?”
“Well, Mother…I wanted to know how you’re doing…catch you up on goings on down here on earth and…maybe just have a nice long chat.”
“Oh, Kelly, my darling. I KNOW everything and see everything and it’s all just marvelous, what you’re doing, how you and Sal are getting along, and the amazing things that are going to come your way. Once they de-veined me of all the judgments I used to have about everything, I have never been happier…EVER! Oh, and that beautiful male cardinal you saw just outside your window not long ago…that was I. Hee, hee…just checking in.”
“I KNEW IT! I knew that was you. So, that was my only visitation? A freaking bird? That was IT!?! Should I go to a medium if I want a really long visitation or call a psychic…set up a séance…WHAT?”
“Hell no! Those are just bells and whistles. We do like choirs though. Just see me in everything you do, say or feel, and I’ll get the message. Listen, I’ve just got to go. I’m so late and don’t want the shuttle to leave without me. Oh, and your Daddy sends his utmost love. Ta Ta!!”
“WHOA, WAIT a minute! Daddy is there? And you’re together again? And, he’s a handsome 38-year-old, just like he was when he died? Don’t hang up! I need more information!!” Mother? MOTHER?
“Miss? Sorry, The Ancient One, being new around here, is just way behind on everything. She’s got a lot to learn about the way we do things up here. We can’t seem to shut her up…all the time laughing and giggling and dancing with your Daddy. She’s a mess, but we’re SO happy to have her.”
“Well………..okay then. Um…Thanks very much. Tell her that we love and miss her! Oh! Did you all let her start smoking again?”
She was a grab-the-spotlight phenom with all the pathological trimmings. And she prepared me for success
My mother may have been a tad narcissistic. Perhaps even more than a tad. There, I said it, right up front and out loud.
I never could have uttered those words when I was young — for one, I hadn’t even realized there was a word for the way things were. And even if I had heard the word, I was too busy dancing around her, chasing and longing for her to figure it out.
But as I wrote a memoir about my mother, Saturday’s Child: A Daughter’s Memoir, that fact finally did dawn on me. And when it did, it would have been easy to focus only on the negative aspects of being the child of a narcissist. There’s an obvious downside to not feeling like a priority or fully loved and I’m not minimizing that. But the experts have the hurt well covered — from the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, to the modern Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life by Peg Streep.
So here, with a full grasp on all of the minuses, I chose to contemplate the pluses for the first time — how my reactions to her tendencies might have actually set me up for success, especially at work.
I had a somewhat impressive magazine career that ultimately crowned me Chief Innovation Officer of a global media company, then led to my own consultancy helping brands reinvent, and then to a more creative life as a writer. And as I looked back, I realized that her narcissism had indeed served me extraordinarily well in life. It shaped me to be:
Dimensional. My mother was otherworldly, drop-dead, room-silencing, movie-star gorgeous. No matter how beautiful a child of such a mother may be, you always know you’re not that, so it doesn’t become your focus. And for anyone, not leading with the superficial is a great thing. Instead, you develop all the other cards in your deck and lead with those inner, genuine qualities that happen to win friends and allies at work — and that last a lifetime.
Intuitive. I spent a lifetime so tuned into my mother that any natural intuitiveness of mine was honed razor sharp at her feet. Later on, that heightened awareness became exponentially valuable at the office. Others could have been smarter, but I realized I had a very high emotional IQ. It seemed that I could always get to the essence of people and situations and ideas. Somehow, I just knew. And that was an enormous asset in the workplace.
Imaginative. Alongside someone with my mother’s star-power wattage, I was nearly invisible throughout my youth. But that fueled a rich, dreamy interior life beyond anyone’s reach. Adding my only child status to the mix meant I had to rely on — and entertain — myself. It all made me a creative adult who brought innovative ideas to my working life that were recognized and rewarded.
Motivated. Whether driven by something I needed to prove to myself — or to my mother — determination, action, and perseverance were three ever-present characteristics. Anyone can have an idea, but it really comes down to the implementation. So, all those traits that came naturally to me because of her also happened to be necessary for successful outcomes.
Agile, Resilient, and Resourceful. My mother was a temperamental woman of secrets and I had to figure her out, along with everything else. So I became used to navigating things and finding my way around. Her ways trained me to accept that everything is complex with built-in disappointments, to believe that there is always a solution somewhere to be found. And that flexible seeker mentality is just what everyone needs to bring to the office.
Collaborative. Although I’m a nurturing leader, I actually never strove to be number one at work — sometimes it happened anyway, but that wasn’t my goal. I liked the behind-the-scenes better and was always more comfortable being part of a team. Putting my mother on a pedestal in my youth made me a great collaborator as an adult, someone quite skilled at circling other stars to help them shine brighter. A way of being that fosters gratitude and appreciation.
Open. Yearning for something — or in my case, someone — keeps you open to possibility. You’re always anticipating, always thinking of ways to manifest what you crave, always hoping that some new situation will bring what you need. It keeps you open to opportunity and to what’s next — an invaluable office mindset.
Loving. I know just how important it is to feel fully loved. I worshipped my mother, but I needed more in return. So, when I had three children of my own, I became the mother I had longed for. If you injected each of them with truth serum and asked, “Does your mother love you?” they’d just laugh. All parents make mistakes, but since I made my children feel they were my beloved first priorities, that’s not one of mine.
As with the Japanese art of Kintsugi — where broken pottery is repaired with gold to make the cracks visible and beautiful and essential to the piece’s history — having a narcissistic mother is an important part of my backstory. The golden threads of narcissism fill the chips from our combination to create a new whole. And those threads have, in many ways, illuminated, enhanced, and even eased my forward path.
From the best jeans to how to slim your middle: simple answers you’ve been waiting for
I was the former accessories editor for More Magazine and now own my own style company, LBD Style Consulting, which helps accomplished women shop for and curate a wardrobe that shows off their personal style. These are the questions I get asked by all my clients on a regular basis.
1. How long should I hold onto something in my closet that I don’t wear?
I recommend letting go of an item that hasn’t been worn in over one calendar year (two clothing seasons). There are a few exceptions to this rule for items that have sentimental value or if you are undergoing a dramatic weight change such as pregnancy. It can be difficult at the moment to let something go, but you will always feel better after purging. The process is both therapeutic and necessary for maintaining an up-to-date wardrobe.
2. If I want to appear slimmer: what should I look for?
Most women make the mistake of hiding behind their clothes. They think that large, billowy clothing will make them appear smaller and hide what they don’t like about their bodies. The opposite is true. Oversize cardigans (my least favorite item) make women appear larger and frumpy. Stick to tailored styles that show off your figure; you’ll be amazed what a few fitted styles will do for your confidence!
Also, try balancing the proportions by pairing looser silhouettes on top with slimmer styles below. For example, try a longer blouse — but with skinny pants. I coaxed one client into a more tailored style and people immediately started asking her if she had lost weight! She looked and felt like a different person without losing a single pound!
3. What do you recommend for disguising your midsection?
Most women find their midsections get less and less defined with age. Disguising doesn’t always work. But there are certain dress styles that are great at creating waists or the illusion of one. Look for styles with ruching, paneling, and detailing around the waist that can literally suck you in. A dress with a belt or tied-waist, such as a wrap dress, can help define the area as well. I personally like tied-waist dresses like this one from Alice + Olivia. I began wearing them after I was pregnant and they have remained a staple in my wardrobe. A peplumed item is also great for creating and defining a waist.
You can also distract the eye upward by wearing tops with interesting details or necklines. Fun costume jewelry (earrings, necklaces) can also show off your top half.
4. Do you have favorite pieces for business travel? What’s an easy item I can pack that’s appropriate?
Many of my clients are executives and are looking to add items to their wardrobes that can be worn at the office or on the road. I love a jersey blazer like this one from Bailey 44. It’s incredibly comfortable and looks chic over a tee, blouse, or a shift dress. Perfect for the plane, it feels like a sweatshirt but looks like a blazer. The best part is — it won’t wrinkle!
5. My office is getting increasingly more casual. How do I dress for business casual but still look polished?
I get a lot of questions about business casual these days. After years of adhering to strict dress codes, more women are loving the opportunity to dress in a more relaxed manner but are not sure exactly what that means. I also get this question from women who work from home and/or run their own businesses. While they may have more flexibility, they still need to dress appropriately when they go out to meet a client.
My first recommendation is always a dark clean denim jean (if denim is allowed). I also love a twill or sateen fabric in a classic jean like this from AG; it fits like a regular denim jean but is a bit more polished. A cropped jacket is also a great business casual piece to have on hand. Pair it with a nice tee shirt or shell with your black denim pant. It will pull together your look and make you feel more together. I particularly love these styles by Rebecca Taylor.
6. What is the most flattering style for a denim pant?
Most of my clients, especially those looking for control around their midsection, gravitate toward a high-waisted denim pant with a lot of
7. Where can I find the best tee shirt?
Sometimes the simplest pieces are the hardest to find. I am particularly fond of tees that are versatile — ones that can be worn at work under a jacket or out for brunch on weekends. While women have different preferences for the precise thickness or cut, I generally find that the J crew perfect Tee is in fact “perfect” for all occasions.
It’s tight enough to be tucked in for the office. It’s also thicker and less sheer than the popular “burnout” styles out there, making it more appropriate. I also love the Vince Essential Crew Tee and Everlane’s Cotton Crew.
8. Are tights still cool? What color do I wear with what? Do I wear opaque tights or sheer hose? Can I wear tights for all occasions?
Questions about tights come up all the time with my clients and the answer is very simple. One pair of well-made black opaque tights is all you need. I swear by Wolford Velvet De Luxe 66 tights, which come in the perfect level of opaque — and they last forever if properly cared for. If you own one pair of tights for the rest of your life it should be these. You can wear them with everything — in every color — including a cocktail dress. While at $49 per pair, they are definitely an investment.
9. Which items in my wardrobe should I spend big-investment dollars for and which are ok to buy on the cheap?
I work with women who have all levels of budgets and I love digging out the perfect pieces of clothing at every price point for them. There are some items I do recommend investing in, however. Since I believe that less is more in terms of wardrobe, investing in fewer, high-quality items that will last years is better than buying a lot of fast-fashion pieces that may fall apart, pill up, or stretch out after one season.
You should also invest in classic styles that are not trendy. I consider these six items the foundational investments for any wardrobe: a coat, blazer, a classic denim pant, boots, pumps, a shift dress. Classics never go out of style and are worth the splurge. Fill in around your investment items with cheaper, trendier pieces. Go for a blouse in a fun print or color or a piece of costume jewelry. Then if you tire of it, it’s easy to let it go without feeling guilty.
10. What should I wear during transitional weather?
A long-sleeve dress! I love dresses because they are so easy to throw on and you don’t have to worry about matching up separates. Dresses are especially great to wear in between seasons because they can be layered. If it’s cold, add tights, boots, and a blazer or a vest. If it’s warm, wear your dress with bare legs and sandals. If you are shy about your arms or feel cold at the office, find a terrific long-sleeve or ¾-sleeve dress. I love a printed or floral dress in chiffon or silk for this type of look, like this one from Equipment.
Women are often surprised by this diagnosis. Here are the facts, the preventive moves, the solutions
The last thing I expected when my doctor sent me for a bone density scan after a too-easily sustained foot fracture last year was to receive a diagnosis of osteopenia.
I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, as many as half of women over 50 are afflicted with osteopenia or lower-than-normal bone mass. Yet I expected to be in the other half. I eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly — and passed a bone density test in my mid-40s with flying colors. How could I have weak bones now?
“I hear this at least five times a week,” says Pamela Taxel, MD, of the UConn Center for Osteoporosis. “‘I’ve been doing all these good things for all these years – how could I have bone loss?’” Unfortunately, says Dr. Taxel, professor of medicine and clinical director of endocrinology and metabolism at UConn Health, not only do genetics play a significant role in how our bones fare as we approach menopause (thanks, Mom), but bone loss is a natural part of aging.
When Bone Mass Decline Begins
Women reach peak bone density by age 30. After that, there is a slow, steady decline until about two years before menopause, when estrogen levels, which have also been on their way down, fall more rapidly. Estrogen is essential to bone metabolism; in fact, women can lose between 2 and 5 percent of bone per year during the last few years before menopause until about five years after. At that time, bone loss resumes a more gradual decline.
Yet not all women end up with osteoporosis — or even with osteopenia. So who’s at risk? “If you smoked cigarettes before age 30, you may have never reached peak bone mass, because tobacco is toxic to osteoblasts, the cells that make bone,” says Linda Russell, MD, director of the Osteoporosis and Metabolic Bone Health Center at The Hospital of Special Surgery in NYC. “If you were anorexic in your teens or twenties and didn’t get adequate nutrition, you also might not have the bone mass expected of you.”
The average Caucasian woman in the US becomes osteoporotic by age 70, according to Dr. Russell. Think of osteopenia as a precursor to osteoporosis: women with osteopenia are more likely to sustain a fracture than someone with strong, healthy bones, but women with osteoporosis have even less dense bones and thus an even higher risk of fractures. In fact, experts estimate that one in three women over the age of 50 will experience an osteoporotic-induced fracture.
Women with a family history — particularly those with mothers who have had fractures and osteoporosis; as well as those taking long-term medications that are detrimental to bone (like steroids for asthma or autoimmune diseases), aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer, or proton-pump inhibitors for reflux — are also more likely to have low bone density.
“Then there are the lifestyle factors,” notes Dr. Taxel. “Have you had enough calcium, vitamin D, and exercise in your earlier years — and throughout your life cycle — to maintain adequate bone?” It is the lifestyle choices we make that either accelerate or slow down the natural bone loss process — and that can perhaps help prevent osteopenia from progressing to osteoporosis.
The Numbers You Need to Know
Bone mineral density is measured by a special kind of imaging test called dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). Your T-score will determine if you have healthy bone mass, osteopenia, or osteoporosis. A score of 0 reflects the average bone density found in a healthy 25- to 30-year-old; a score of 0 to -1.0 is considered normal. A score of -1.1 to -2.4 represents osteopenia, and -2.5 or lower, osteoporosis.
What You Can do Now
So what do you do if you have osteopenia? “Nutrition and exercise are key,” says Dr. Taxel. Calcium is needed for the bone-building process (if you aren’t getting enough, the body pulls calcium from the bones to maintain adequate blood levels of the mineral), and Vitamin D facilitates absorption of calcium in the stomach or gastrointestinal tract. “I tell my patients that D is the door that you need to open to let the calcium in,” she explains.
Dr. Taxel recommends about 1200 mg of calcium per day in divided doses (adults only absorb about 500-600 mg of calcium at once), and says it’s best to get your calcium through food, as calcium supplementation can increase the risk of kidney stones in those susceptible, and some studies suggest excess calcium may contribute to a build-up of plaques in the coronary arteries and increased risk of cardiac events.
Foods rich in calcium include leafy green vegetables like collard greens and kale; nuts and seeds, including almonds, chia seeds, and sesame seeds; fish with bones, such as sardines and canned salmon; and dairy products like cheese and yogurt. For the lactose intolerant, many dairy alternatives, like almond or cashew milk, are fortified with calcium.
Mind Your Vitamin D
Ensuring that you get adequate vitamin D is equally important. “Most people are deficient in D because they wear sunblock, and not a lot of food has Vitamin D,” notes Dr. Russell. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 400 IU daily for women 50 and under, and 800-1000 IU for women over 50, though Dr. Russell says doctors often check vitamin D levels and will supplement the amount needed to get women into the normal range. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are natural sources of vitamin D, and some dairy products are also D-fortified.
Do Weight-Bearing Exercise
Weight-bearing exercises — that is, activities where both feet are on the ground and your body is working against gravity — are also critical for maintaining strong bones. The National Osteoporosis Foundation advises that women do 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise most days of the week. Running, brisk walking, dancing, and hill-climbing are all weight-bearing (though high impact activities like running might not be safe for women with osteoporosis or a history of fractures). Weight-training is also a boon to bone health.
Other lifestyle choices that protect bone: Limit alcohol, which can upset the calcium balance in the body and weaken bones. (Women should not have more than one glass per day, says Russell.) Ditto soda-drinking and eating overly salty foods — both habits have been linked to reduced bone density because they increase calcium excretion in urine. Avoid processed meats, as they contain a double whammy of both nitrates, which can remove calcium from the bones, and excessive salt. And soak your beans and grains for several hours before cooking to reduce their phytate content — phytates can interfere with calcium absorption.
Can Bone Loss Be Reversed?
What those of us with low bone mass most want to know, of course, is whether we can turn back the clock. Once you’ve lost bone density, can the damage be undone?
“If you exercise and get sufficient calcium and vitamin D, you can perhaps stabilize and slow bone loss — and may be able to prevent the progression of osteopenia to osteoporosis,” says Dr. Russell, “But without medication, it is extremely difficult to reverse bone loss.”
The most commonly prescribed medications for strengthening bones are the bisphosphonates, which include medications such as Fosamax, Boniva, and Reclast. “Every day we resorb damaged bone cells and old bone and make new bones – this is happening all the time,” explains Dr. Russell. Bisphosphonates slow bone resorption, allowing bone formation to catch up and bone density to increase. These drugs are approved for both osteoporosis and osteopenia but are commonly reserved for patients with osteoporosis because they are associated with potential long-term side effects, like rare fractures of the femur, and gastrointestinal distress.
The exception, according to Dr. Russell, is women with significant osteopenia (closer to a t-score of -2.5) who have an elevated risk of fractures. This is determined by the FRAX (fracture risk assessment) score, also calculated during a DEXA scan. “If a patient’s risk of breaking any bone in the next ten years is 20 percent or higher — or 3 percent or higher of sustaining a hip fracture — we offer the patient medical treatment to strengthen their bones,” she says. Because these medications can’t be used for extended periods of time, she adds, doctors are increasingly offering women in their 50s with osteoporosis or significant osteopenia hormone replacement therapy, which also preserves bone density, reserving the medical therapies for later in life.
The Surprise Benefits of Yoga
Some encouraging news: Preliminary studies suggest there may be other ways to reverse bone loss without medication. Researchers at Harvard, Columbia, Rockefeller, and New York Universities found that a 12-minute daily yoga regimen, in which subjects held 12 different poses for one minute each, reversed osteoporotic bone loss. Though the 2016 study had limitations — subjects were self-selected and there was no control group — one of the researchers, Loren M. Fishman, MD, assistant clinical professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Columbia University Medical School, claims he has seen similar results in his own practice. “Not only does yoga prevent osteopenia from progressing, it reverses it and turns it to normal — and it takes osteoporosis and reverses it and turns it into osteopenia,” he says.
Yoga is a unique exercise, according to Dr. Fishman, because yoga opposes one set of muscles against the other, generating forces many times stronger than gravity. This creates enough tension on bones to stimulate the osteoblasts — the cells that produce bone — without creating undue stress on joints. During the more than 100,000 hours of practice by subjects in his studies, there were no yoga-related injuries, but he advises women with osteoporosis, who are more susceptible to vertebral fractures, to avoid poses requiring forward flexion while practicing yoga.
In another study, published last year, German researchers found that postmenopausal women who took daily doses of collagen peptide powder significantly increased bone mineral density in both spine and hip, though the authors acknowledged that more — and bigger — human studies are needed.
When Should You Get Tested?
Most practicing physicians feel that women should have a baseline bone density test at menopause, or earlier if they have risk factors or a low-impact fracture while in their 40s. But experts worry that fears about side effects of osteoporosis medications are deterring women from getting bone density tests in the first place.
“It’s a real crisis in our field that many women with weak bones are not even getting considered for treatment because they aren’t getting diagnosed,” says Dr. Taxel. Osteoarthritis can falsely elevate a bone density reading; a special type of CT scan known as a QCT (Quantitative Computerized Tomography) can help diagnose osteoporosis in people with osteoarthritis.
For me, getting tested — and diagnosed with osteopenia — was a wake-up call. I’m more conscientious about making sure I’m getting adequate calcium and Vitamin D, and I’m trying to add more weight-bearing activity to my usual Pilates and weight-training regimen. I, for one, have started adding collagen peptides to my morning coffee (if it doesn’t make my bones stronger, at least my skin, joints, hair, and nails will benefit), and I plan to incorporate 12 minutes of yoga into my daily schedule. Even if it doesn’t reverse my osteopenia, as Dr. Fishman puts it, “the side effects of yoga are better balance, a better range of motion, better posture, increased strength, better coordination, and lower anxiety, all of which help to prevent falls and fractures.”
If you want to try Dr. Fishman’s bone-building yoga poses — or join his latest study on yoga and bone health — go to sciatica.org.
Truths & Lies
She pulls dead bodies out of avalanches for a living. But can she save a dying relationship with her husband?
“How come it’s easier for me to jump out of the side of a helicopter at 13,000 feet with my avalanche dog to look for a dead guy than it is to talk to my husband about our relationship?”
I’m over two gin and tonics into my flight when I confess those words to a middle-aged Latino man sitting next to me inside the dimly lit cabin of the 747. I didn’t know him from Adam. Three-quarters of the way across the ocean from Miami to the Dominican Republic, my subconscious starts to bubble out like froth from a shaken bottle of champagne.
The conversation begins when the man leans into my shoulder as I doze off and asks with a charming accent, “Why would a pretty blonde be flying to Santo Domingo all alone on a Sunday night?” He shows his palms, an open inviting gesture.
I rock away from him, rattling the ice cubes in my glass, stalling while I think how to answer, or even whether to answer.
“It’s none of your fucking business, you douche bag pervert. Leave me alone,” I want to scream.
But I don’t.
I am accustomed to Latino men whistling and shouting crude comments at me. I’ve learned to ignore their cackles.
Just like I’ve learned to ignore the relationship issues with my husband Doug. I’ve recently been making excuses not to join Doug in the Dominican Republic, to which I’ve been commuting from Colorado for the past 15 years. My husband and I are exploration geologists and we get hired by international mining companies to search for gold. But over the past eight years, Doug has gotten used to me working from our home in Colorado. I have too. I started my own wilderness medical business teaching students how to save lives by rescuing people from dangerous situations. I have trained my puppy, Tasha, to do search and rescue, too.
Is it my husband or the Dominican job I’m avoiding?
I grit my teeth, thinking about how much I hate commuting to this god-awful place and leaving Tasha behind. Tasha and I have been partners for ten years now and, increasingly, I feel like she’s the only one who really gets me.
Tasha’s my true love.
This morning, I’ve dumped Tasha on the stairs of my friend’s house. Her dark-brown eyes watch me leave, telling me how abandoned and betrayed she feels. When I say goodbye, she lies there, doesn’t even lift her head from her paws or thump her tail.
Is that how my husband feels when I leave him to pursue my search and rescue work at home in Colorado?
Tasha knows my routine; the blouse, the roller bag, the briefcase, the clackity-clack of my dress shoes, her bed placed in the corner of some friend’s house.
I’ve dumped her 25 times or so. Now, I won’t see Tasha for a month. My chest tightens as I remember her pouting eyes and then the faces of the recent victims she found.
I should be elated about our successes the past few days, the successful completion of our two most important search missions. Everyone called us heroes.
One involved a boat ride to look for a kid who’d drowned in a lake and the other, a helicopter transport to a 13,000-foot Colorado mountain to search for an avalanche victim. When I told my husband about the helicopter ride to 13,000 feet, he said, “Over my dead body. It’s too dangerous. Do not risk your lives for a dead guy.”
Tasha and I went anyway.
My husband is pissed, and I dread tomorrow for so many reasons. He and I are partners, but our inability to communicate is buried so deep, I’m afraid to look at our relationship for fear of what other dead things I might find.
I drain the last of my cocktail and gesture to the flight attendant for another as I ponder my role as wife and/or search-and-rescue partner.
I crack open the new bottle of gin and pour it over the ice. I try to dismiss from my mind’s eye the images of the kid’s lifeless body stuffed face down in a body bag and the dead man’s distended, red belly frozen in avalanche debris. My tears don’t relieve the weight pressing on my chest.
As I drink, the cubes clink over the top of the glass and slide down the front of my shirt. My seatmate and I watch the ice slip down my blouse and onto my pants.
The man reaches toward me with his right hand, brushing his fingertips down my bare arm. “I still think you’re an agent,” he says lowering his voice.
This guy with his piercing stare, romantic Spanish accent, and dark-brown eyes momentarily melts me in my seat. I’m dropping the search-and-rescue warrior shell, the protective armor that makes me invincible. Is it the gin?
I smirk, resting my weary head on the backrest. I avoid his seductive eyes and squint at the seat in front of me and tease. “Like, what kind of agent?”
“A Secret Service agent.”
“Really?” My lips quiver. “Good guess.” I shake my head. “But, no.”
“You are nothing like the women in Santo Domingo, Nuev-o York, or Me-am-e.” The words roll off his tongue, making my heart speed up. “You seem mysterious to me, that’s all.”
“Funny, I’ve heard that before.” I cock my head to the side. “I’ve trained Secret Service agents, the FBI, and the ATF. I’ve even trained the men who protect George W’s family, but I don’t carry a badge.” My eyebrows arch high. “You’re pretty good. So there, I’ve answered all your questions.” He flicks his wrist at my glass. “Chica. Tell me what you really do?” His accent on the word do lingers, encouraging me to reveal something, anything.
I wish he’d ask me how I feel. I can’t answer the question clearly for myself.
I exhale, blowing a curly blonde hair out of my eyes. My heels bounce up and down on the floor.
The alcohol suppresses my exhaustion and urge to cry. Still, I feel like a wilted flower, even though I’m only 43.
“You really want to know what I do?” I exhale fumes of gin.
Another confession tumbles out. “I’m scared shitless. My husband is working in the middle of the country. He’s waiting for me. My husband. Did you hear me? But, he treats me more like an employee than his soul mate. We rarely kiss.” I stumble for words. “Not the lovers we use to be.” I throw back my drink. “And tomorrow, in the sizzling heat, probably 120, I’ll look at rocks drilled from deep underground with a hand lens for itty-bitty specs of gold. I have a mile of core stacked up under a tarp that I have to look through.”
“I’m so over this job. The heat. The lack of purpose. I’m just doing it so I can support my search-and-rescue habit and placate my husband. I don’t even know who he is, we are, anymore.” The last words stick in my throat, choking me.
The man interrupts, “You look for gold?” His eyes widen. “There’s gold in my country?”
“Yes, I work with my husband. That’s how we make money. But, I’ve been on the road teaching and rescuing more than I’ve been down here. That’s what I really love to do.”
I eye the gold chain around his neck. “And, yesterday. Do you really want to know what I did yesterday?” It’s too late to stop. I don’t even think I can.
“Yesterday, Tasha and I jumped out of a helicopter to find a missing father buried under an avalanche. Their little plane got caught in an updraft and had its wings ripped off at 20,000 feet. This guy, his four-year-old son, and his parents literally fell out of the sky on top of a mountain.” I stare directly into my seatmate’s eyes, expecting him to have empathy and solve my marital problems.
He tips away in disbelief. “Noo-o-oh.”
“The father had been missing for 39 days. Everybody else was found weeks before and my dog Tasha, she found him in one hour. Search crews couldn’t.”
My seatmate doesn’t answer.
“Twenty hours before that, my dog and I loaded onto a boat and searched for a kid. He fell out of a canoe at midnight and couldn’t swim. His friends couldn’t save him. He sank. Tasha sniffed him out even though he was lying on the bottom of the lake. The divers recovered him, but it was Tasha who found him.”
I smack my drink on the tray table before me. “That’s what I do.” I wipe my lips with my hand and stare him in the face. My lips stiffen. Like a shaken champagne bottle, the last of my emotional bubbles spill.
“And I love my dog more than my husband.”
Silence sets in as the man searches my eyes.
There. It’s finally out, the shameful secret I’ve been carrying for the last few years, the thing I’ve never let myself say out loud.
“You look for gold in my country?”
“GOLD? Is that all you want to know about?” My body convulses.
I’m torn between strangling the guy or throwing my drink in his face. Instead, I close my eyes, turn away and sob myself to sleep.
I awaken upon landing. The gin’s fog has cleared and I can finally see just how far off the path I’ve strayed. Doug and I are hanging onto a life, a marriage, that lacks the passion Tasha and I share. Doug needs to end our marriage. I can’t.
Doug and I exist in our intimate-less marriage for three more years before he realizes what I’ve known but couldn’t admit. He leaves me for another woman and we go our separate ways, abandoning a marriage that never fulfilled its potential.
Tasha dies from a brain tumor at age 13, after teaching me the essentials of partnership and fulfillment.
And the search for Dominican gold?
I found it in conversation with a complete stranger sitting next to me at 30,000 feet.
Whether you’re looking to rightsize or help your child invest, here are some key things to consider
Is this the right time to buy or sell? That’s always the question when thinking about purchasing a new property or downsizing.
The answer is: it depends.
Nationally speaking, it’s a down market, meaning housing inventory is low. This benefits sellers because there are fewer single-family homes available. There is also an increase in buyers who are entering the market.
But housing is not cheap. Prices have increased at more than twice the rate of income growth, mortgage rates have increased, and tax changes have lowered write-offs for many investors.
According to a recent report by Arch Mortgage Insurance and covered by Forbes, the size of the monthly mortgage payment needed to buy a home rose nearly 5 percent over the last three months of 2018, and projections have affordability possibly decreasing an additional 10-15 percent. (Housing prices for 2019 are up again.)
This means not only do your kids have fewer options for their first
But the unique thing about real estate is that it’s hyperlocal — some markets end up favoring sellers and some favor buyers. And they can reverse rapidly.
Despite local volatility, there are some general tips you should consider, whether you’re thinking of downsizing or helping your children invest in their first home.
Don’t Ditch the Broker!
“People think that by using these apps like Trulia that they have all the listing information they need,” says Ann Cutbill Lenane, an agent at Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, “but you need a broker.” Especially if you’re buying in a city like Manhattan where the co-op boards have myriad stipulations and rules about everything from your ability to renovate to owning a dog or even making a purchase for your child. “It’s not just a matter of picking a place you like,” she says. A broker will know the best building for your needs and how to get you approved by the board so that you don’t waste your time and energy.
Think About Where You’ll Be in 5-10 Years
The turnaround time on your real estate investment is typically five years, but nowadays Carroll advises: “If you’re not going to be in the property for at least eight years, you’re better off renting — you have to be careful in a down market.”
Buyers and sellers can be extremely picky when the market is in their favor and it can be much harder to reach a deal. Dan Downey of Berkshire Hathaway in Vero Beach, Florida, warns that in a seller’s market like he sees in Florida, you should be prepared to put more money toward a down payment, up to 10 percent of the sale price, during the escrow and home inspection period. And when you’re in a hot seller’s market like San Francisco, chances are good that homes will sell for 2-5 percent above the original asking price.
“I still believe in buying the least expensive house in the most expensive neighborhood,” says Chris Meyers, president of Houlihan Lawrence in Rye Brook, NY. “Buyers today want everything to be brand new, they don’t want to have to do anything, but if you’re willing to do a little work to a house in a great neighborhood, you’re making a good investment.” He also says that in today’s market, when you find something you like be prepared to act quickly.
There are a few things that will give you a competitive edge as a buyer. One is removing contingencies. The second is paying in cash. (A personal note from the buyer to the seller about how much they love the house can also help seal the deal.) Prepare ahead of time.
If you’re helping your kid buy their first home or secure
Small Chic Is the New McMansion
Both Carroll and Downey see many customers who no longer want to be burdened by big homes and the required maintenance. This can go for overall property size too — all many people want today is an outdoor patio and space to throw a ball around or put in a playset.
Carroll also believes the concept of the “starter home” is outdated. Most people in her market are buying their first homes in their 40s; they’re investing a lot later because they’re not making as much money and housing prices are high. “People tell me they’re buying a house and they’re not moving until their kids go to college,” says Carroll. “They’re buying small homes because they have to, not because it’s a ‘starter home’.” Clients would rather add on to a small house than buy a new one and deal with refinancing and increasing mortgage rates, not to mention paying commissions, which eats away at their equity.
Pay Heed to the Things that Won’t Change
Outside of purchasing in
When you’re thinking of purchasing a place for your children, however, Cutbill says it’s crucial to think about the potential long-term value of the property based on whether or not you see a future for your family there. “A sketchy location can change and become cool,” says Cutbill, “but if there are buildings nearby that are never going to look good or you don’t feel any sense of security in the area then you don’t want to buy there.” And if you’re buying an apartment, it’s critical to have extensive inside knowledge about the building. Working with a good real-estate attorney is critical. Cutbill says they’ll help you ensure that a building is in good financial shape and that there won’t be any surprise increases in your maintenance fees. You also want to make sure the building’s super, manager, and management company are friendly and easy to work with. Cutbill recommends doing a “drive-by”: just drop in and visit them. “You’re making an investment in a bunch of people,” she says.
When it comes to buying a house in the suburbs, Downey and Carroll agree that aside from being in a good school district, a location on a quiet street that’s walking distance to a village and public transportation will always be a big selling point. Whether they’re buying their first home or downsizing, people want to be able to walk to amenities like shopping and restaurants, says Downey. A short walking distance to schools and medical centers offers a tremendous advantage.
Try to Take Your Emotion Out of the Equation
Most empty nesters have probably owned their homes for a long time so they’re bound to make some sort of profit, explains, Meyers — just not as much as they would have if they’d put their house on the market last year. “It’s just like the stock market,” explains Carroll. “You can’t demand a certain amount because you paid a certain amount.” Furthermore, when it comes to making an investment for your kids, you have to be realistic about how much both of you can really afford. “It’s easy to get carried away with your kid,” she says, “but you need to set a budget … [as a parent] you can’t feel like you’re going to lose money.”
What about passing your home onto your kids? Carroll says do your loved ones a favor and don’t assume they will want the property or even be able to handle the tax burden. “Don’t get sucked into nostalgia,” she says.
She Was Fine with an Empty Nest. Until a Storm Moved In. (TheCovey, July 2018 issue)
How to Declutter in the Digital Age (TheCovey, May 2018 issue)
“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”
She abandoned her childhood passion of singing as a teen. Then midlife brought her back to it.
My five-decade “love affair” with musical theater is like one of those love stories in which the timing never seems right. Two people who like each other when they are young, lose touch as each goes his/her own way, marry other people, until they eventually find each other again later in life.
When I was a high-octane child growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s, my dream was to be a musical theater performer. My friends and I sang and danced around our living rooms, belting out show tunes and putting on skits for our parents and our pets. My father, a passionate lover of musicals, introduced me to Broadway cast albums and took me to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.
I landed leading roles in shows at school and camp. I wrote songs on both guitar and piano. When I was 13, I begged my parents to let me audition for the Broadway production of Annie. I had a huge, belting voice and naturally curly red hair. But they refused: they were afraid I would actually get cast as Annie and drop out of school. My consolation prize was playing Annie in a cribbed-together camp production.
I never let my parents forget that they ruined my chance to be a child star.
During my college years, I continued performing, took voice and dance lessons, acted in professional summer stock, and joined an all-girls a cappella group. After graduation, I hit the musical theater center of the world: Broadway.
But Broadway hit back. Hard. It was nine months of soul-crushing auditions and spending more hours commuting by subway than performing. I knew I had talent, but I also knew I needed outsized ambition and drive, persistence, and patience (something I sorely lacked). I also had difficulty because I felt like I had so little agency over my life. I had no agent and realized that as an actor I would always be waiting for someone to “give me a break.”
Worse, I missed my biggest champion.
My father had died when I was 17. Without his daily support, his constant encouragement about my talent, and his own passion for theater, I let myself get defeated. I bowed out and spent the next few years working in entry- and mid-level jobs at television networks while occasionally singing songs (particularly ones I devised original parody lyrics to), at parties. I moved in with my future husband at age 25 but still felt like a drifter, feeling like I lacked both a creative outlet and financial stability.
To solve both problems I decided I needed a graduate degree from the “liberal arts choice of last resort” — law school. My father had been a lawyer. I liked to argue. It seemed like an obvious choice.
But it was a terrible choice. Though I got to perform again — at the New York City Bar Association annual roast of legal heavy hitters! — my litigation firm barely paid enough for the 60-hour weeks I was putting in. After five years, I had two children and broke the barrier as the first attorney at the firm to be allowed to work a four-day week. But the stress of balancing family with a professional life became overwhelming, so I left.
My mother, who had always worked, made no effort to hide her concern (and disappointment) that I was stepping off the track that she, an original working mom (teacher), had laid down for me and expected me to follow in my own hard-charging career.
Once again I was floundering. Looking around, I realized I’d always envied a college acquaintance who worked as a freelance writer. Could I somehow parlay the “Features Editor and writer of my high school newspaper” line on my resume into a job? I decided to pitch magazines and newspapers what I knew best: parenting. At the birth of the Internet, I became one of the original mommy bloggers. My first published piece was about how after my boobs shrunk post-kids, my male gynecologist assured me they would “grow back.” (I’m still waiting for that to happen!)
My essays were eventually published in The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Harper’s Bazaar. My pay never matched the hours I put in, but for nine pleasant years I felt I’d found the exact right balance between creativity and professionalism. I was totally satisfied.
Until the morning of “The Shower Epiphany.”
On that day, instead of singing Broadway standards from my shower songbook, an original — both words and music — bubbled out of me. I sang about what I knew: motherhood.
As the bathroom mirrors fogged up, my mind cleared and I was in the midst of a “eureka” moment. For the first time in decades, I knew that I had found my path: I might not be able to perform songs on stage, but I could write them!
Wrapped in nothing but my towel, I ran to my tape recorder. I pressed “record” and sang with a joy I hadn’t felt since I was ten. I sat down at my desk and wrote a few more songs.
My husband encouraged me to find a professional arranger who would turn my songs into sheet music. “What you have here is musical theater,” he said.
And that was it! After over twenty years in the diaspora, I was back in showbiz!
Over the next few months I added scenes to my songs and, with the help of a friend, connected with Alice Jankell, who would become my partner in musical theater.
Our musical about motherhood dug into the “dark places” that mothers are afraid, or ashamed, to talk about — such as wanting time away from our kids or that, even though we love them, we may not always like our kids very much. A few months later I was accepted into the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, a competitive, fully-funded, two-year program in musical theater songwriting. At the same time, Alice and I crafted our first actual show, Urban Momfare, about the friendship among three moms dealing with the over-competitiveness of other mothers on New York’s Upper East Side. Urban Momfare went on to win a Best Musical award in the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival.
We later wrote a second show called “Cicadas, the Musical,” about women in midlife, for Episode 4 (All the Young Dudes) of the digital series The Other F Word. Our latest project is Hillside, a musical located in an assisted living facility that examines the disparities between how the elderly are seen from the outside and how they see themselves. We laugh, that given how long it takes for shows to be developed, by the time Hillside gets produced we may be in assisted living ourselves.
Since giving up professional performing in my twenties, there had always been a gaping hole inside of me that nothing else could fill. Musical theater, which had occupied so much of my life as a child, began to seem like some kind of “Brigadoon” dream, but one that I might never find a way back to. I thought I would have to be content with singing at parties and going to see Broadway shows. I never envisioned that I could actually loop back to my “first love” at midlife.
Since reentering the theatrical sphere, I’ve heard stories of other people who have managed to reclaim a childhood passion in their forties. One is a doctor who became a stand-up comedienne, another is a judge, another is a physicist who is now a composer and a writer (he’s also still a physicist, which is actually kind of annoying!). These people are not just reinventing, but re-reinventing, because they are bushwhacking a path back to their truest and purest selves.
Many times I feel like I’m digging through a concrete wall to get into a room that is already filled with the fresh, eager young faces of newbies ready to do whatever it takes to make it big. But love, age, and a sense of time propel me forward. You can indeed go home again — but it may be through the back door, the window, or by squeezing down the chimney. We may enter that room sooty and soiled, wrinkled and carrying some belly fat, but we are always more than ready to put on that show.
A product that heals burns and regrows tissue is applied to hair care
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is hardly a hotbed for the beauty industry.
But this former tobacco town is an emerging biotech center, and this field helped launch Virtue Labs, a new and effective hair care collection that is making waves — well, frizz-free waves. Virtue uses a form of human protein, dubbed Alpha Keratin 60ku, which is derived from ethically sourced human hair. It is obtained through an extraction technique pioneered by regenerative medicine specialist Dr.Luke Burnett, a retired army colonel whose lab developed the methodology working with the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine at that university’s School of Medicine.
His lab in Winston-Salem is devoted to treating traumatic war injuries and uses this form of keratin to help heal burn wounds and regrow tissue. By accident, members of his team discovered that this keratin can repair hair, and Virtue was born (thanks to a serendipitous meeting between beauty industry veteran Melisse Shaban and the scientist).
This human protein in Virtue is the ingredient that sets this hair care line apart from the rest of the industry, says Shaban. When other brands list keratin as an ingredient, it is generally a hydrolyzed form sourced from animals. Virtue Labs claims that because Alpha Keratin 60ku is human protein, our bodies recognize it as our own. As such, the brand explains on its website, it can bind “directly to the areas of damage and fill them in.” Virtue says that after four uses people can expect a 67 percent reduction in frizz and after five applications, a 95 percent reduction in split-ends.
This writer — with coarse wavy hair that is damaged from color, keratin straightening treatments, and general blow drying — has been using Virtue for five months. The differences noted include a smoother, softer texture when hair is not styled; shorter blow-drying-styling time; and the ability for hair to stay smooth after styling with or without hair spray. Virtue is not cheap, with prices such as $38 for an 8 oz. bottle of the Recovery Shampoo and $40 for a 6.7 oz tube of Recovery Conditioner. But one needs to use very little per shampoo because a little dollop of the product suds up generously. As one North Carolinian convert said: “A game-changer.”
Shaban, 58, started her career at Revlon, which she considers almost a family company since her father, Greg Shaban, worked there in sales for 30 years. After Revlon, she held top executive roles at entrepreneurial beauty companies The Body Shop and Aveda. Shaban joined L Catterton (the largest private equity firm devoted to consumer products) and worked on the acquisition of Fekkai, the hair care line from renowned French stylist Frédéric Fekkai. Shaban was named CEO and formed a management team to grow Fekkai’s business.
She then established Chrysallis, a management company and vehicle to keep that management team together and leverage their skills as additional businesses were acquired. Chrysallis, independent from L Catterton, allowed this management team to co-invest in brands including StriVectin and Niadyne, which she also ran, alongside Catterton.
Shaban and her team at Chrysallis have worked together for nearly 20 years. Virtue Labs is the first company and brand the group has created. The actual lab is in Winton-Salem, NC, and Shaban runs the business from Raleigh, NC, where she lives with her partner, Jane Phillips, a top IBM executive, and their two young kids. Here, Shaban discusses her career and how she went from employee to manager-investor to entrepreneur.
TheCovey: You’ve spent your entire career in beauty and skin care, with a little science thrown in. What drew you to these industries?
Melisse Shaban: My dad worked for Revlon for 30 years and I grew up in the business. I loved my dad and his work. I remember being five or six years old and going to the Revlon offices of the General Motors building and being gobsmacked — they had the top four floors and Estée Lauder was there, too.
I grew up around product, sat at the dining table with my parents and my father’s coworkers. He intermingled his personal life and business life.
I didn’t have a fondness for a particular [beauty] category. I was, and still am, curious about why people consume what they consume. At a young age I was interested in what we now consider “data.”
I started my career behind the counter at Revlon in Macy’s Herald Square. I would go in and out of the office with my dad, drive to the city from Greenwich [CT]. We’d have coffee in the morning and occasionally a scotch at the Sherry Netherland at night. It was a great experience.
TheCovey: You ran the Revlon business at Macy’s and then you were an account executive. What was your take away?
Melisse Shaban: There is no better interface than actually physically having to stand in front of someone and make your case. The business in Macy’s required me to think about stock and sales plans. That’s the part that [fascinated me]: What is selling? How is it merchandised? The relationship between the sale and consumer.
Back then cosmetics and beauty companies were groundbreakers. Many cosmetics businesses, often where women had senior roles, were catalysts in dragging women out of the 50s and into the 70s and the workforce. This shaped my perspective.
TheCovey: After working at Revlon, a large corporation, you worked for two beauty entrepreneurs — Horst Rechelbacher who founded Aveda and Anita Roddick, creator of The Body Shop. How did they influence you?
Melisse Shaban: Years ago, I was running [Aveda] at the time, we were doing a stand for a trade show at the Javits center. We worked on it for a year and it was spectacular. We were finishing up and at 3 am in the morning, I saw Horst come up the escalator with a look on his face as if he’s looking for something. He asked if I saw that the carpet behind the counter didn’t marry to the wall. I said: “Nobody can see that.” He told me: “You didn’t see it.” And as silly as that was, it stuck with me. The point
At The Body Shop, I ran North America. At a young age, the opportunity to work for a strong woman was so interesting and exciting to me. [Roddick] doesn’t get the credit for what she deserves. She was a pioneer in cause marketing and that came from her guts; it was not a marketing ploy or play.
Via the franchise model, she created wealth for people around the [world] who would buy into a franchise and build their business. She was one of the first people to do branded freestanding retail. She also knocked the [beauty] industry for creating images of women that were unachievable and told consumers that they were paying for misleading advertising, and [goods] where the outside of the product was more important than its ingredients.
But I probably knew what was happening to that business sooner than [Anita and her husband] were willing to accept. I was very close to franchise networks and Les Wexner, who launched [competitor] Bath & Body Works, was eating their lunch. Try telling someone who built a billion-dollar business that the barn was on fire and that they have to get out of the franchises because margins were not sustainable. It’s like telling someone that their child is bad.
My lesson is I could have done a better, more thoughtful job working with her to frame problems and solutions. You need to really use data and put yourself in someone’s shoes before you deliver messaging that isn’t what they want to hear.
TheCovey: What was the impetus to found Chrysallis?
Melisse Shaban: When I was at L Catterton, the largest consumer product private equity group, a few executive employees and I wanted a vehicle in which we could invest alongside [the fund] and stay together. The challenge in private equity is that you buy and sell companies and when a company sells, the team splits up. Half the battle in [business] is to keep your management team together. And Chrysallis gave me a mechanism post the sale of Fekkai or StriVectin to keep the team together and acquire other companies.
There are 20 of us who have been working together for 20 years. We collectively can be dropped into an organization and be valuable, whether we are helping somebody or running something.
We have been working on Virtue Labs for eight years. We are solicited by other entities but we are 100% focused on Virtue and platform technology.
TheCovey: How did you meet Dr. Burnett?
Melisse Shaban: I have a good friend in banking business Shawn Westfall. He’s an investor of mine. He called me for a favor [asking me to meet] a client that has game-changing technology for skin and hair care developed in Winston-Salem by scientists at Wake Forest. I’ve heard this a million times but was like ‘OK’.
After some digging, it turns out that this guy, Bill Hawkins, the former CEO of Medtronics, is my nextdoor neighbor at the beach. We connect. I realize he’s not a yahoo and I met Dr. Burnett who is a joy and inspiration. Their novel invention stems from the basic premise [that] if they could mirror human keratin, they would have that protein work to enhance and advance regenerative medicine, tissue and nerve regeneration.
Burnett has done two tours in Iraq. He came back from those experiences to improve the quality of life for those suffering from post-traumatic injury. War has changed dramatically: most injuries were by-products of bullet wounds but now it’s explosive injuries. People are horribly burned and this medicine is helping.
A young woman working on her PhD in [Burnett’s] lab had a mother who is a hairdresser. Her hunch was that this keratin should help hair, skin, and nails the same way it can help muscle and bone because the body sees it at like a real substance. And it does naturally bind to the hair. The lab, however, saw this as a distraction from their competencies and that’s where we came in. This product has a 10-year innovation pipeline. We’ve licensed out the rights to make skin care. It’s powerful and can do so many things.
TheCovey: Ownership in companies you work for is something you value, and you’ve brought that to the employees of Virtue. Why is ownership important?
Melisse Shaban: There’s no one in the company that doesn’t have equity, including the people at the plant. It doesn’t cost you much to be inclusive. We sold Fekkai for a lot and it was terrific to give someone a check for $100,000 who never thought they would see that [kind of] money in their lives.
Start-ups are hard, and there is inherently more risk than security. Part of the risk-reward equation is equity. In the case of Virtue, I can tell you, there is not one member of the team, no matter how “junior,” that at some point has not been absolutely critical to the brand’s success, and that contribution should be acknowledged and rewarded.
TheCovey: How is being an entrepreneur who launched a company and a brand different from being an employee or manager-stakeholder?
Melisse Shaban: I would say the emotional attachment is something that is born out of you and the team. The challenge is to moderate your own vision of possibility with reality. You’re not always objective; you see what you want [your brand] to become.
It’s not hard to build a business. It’s hard to build a brand in this business that has lasting power. We believe so deeply in Virtue but we have to get in a helicopter and see it from above the trees.
One popular figure comes from a Strategy & Analysis from 2012, which suggested that the United States could increase the size of its economy by 5 percent if women’s labor force participation rose to match men’s.
Woman of Passion & Purpose
Hand-forged art and furniture made with completely renewable energy.
Metal sculptor Monica Coyne is inspired by the rain forest surrounding her forge shop, a 40-minute drive from the nearest town in Humboldt County, California. Every day she opens two roll-up doors, onto a view of mature madrones and towering firs. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining — this area averages 80 inches of rain in winter — or hot (in summer temperatures climb to 105 degrees): “The rain, the fog and the crisp crackling leaves at the height of the dry summer fill my brain with thoughts about our connection to everything,” says Coyne. “Transferring these thoughts to cold, black, industrially manufactured steel creates a fascinating dichotomy. This drives my work.”
She works in a 30- by 40-foot steel building a hundred yards from her house. Ten years ago, she and her husband hired a crew to install the prefabricated building on a
When people first visit her shop, they hesitate before entering, daunted by multiple machines, as well as Coyne in her thick pigskin apron, stained black with coal dust, rust, and oil. Her apron shields her from hot metal, scale, and flying wire brush fragments, leaving behind burned lines and shapes. She finds incredible beauty in forging, as it turns the shop into pixels of metal dust. “The smoke of a freshly-lit fire curls up into ghosts and dragons that then get sucked up the flue,” she says.
Coyne and her husband generate all their own electricity — the nearest public utility is two miles away. During the summer, their electricity comes from solar power, and in the winter, hydropower. They depend on a 25-kilowatt-diesel generator for backup between seasons or when she uses a welder or plasma cutter. The generator runs less than 150 hours annually. She uses batteries to store excess solar and hydropower that she taps during times with no sun or rain. “All of my fans, blowers, forgers, lights and small power tools run without the generator,” she says. “Most of the time, my shop is run with renewable power.”
Being off the grid doesn’t change how she and her husband do things. They have typical household appliances and a well-stocked metal shop. Nevertheless, they are aware of how much electricity they consume, and they never leave a light on. “You would be surprised at how normal we live,” she says.
Blacksmithing requires heating materials to extremely high temperatures, with either a small propane forge, coal forge, or an oxygen/propane torch. To reach high temperatures, pure oxygen is needed. Since oxygen tanks are expensive and hard to come by — the nearest place to buy one is a two-hour drive away — Coyne makes oxygen using excess power from her solar and hydro systems.
Her work space is big enough to handle creating big installations, and she built herself a gantry crane to move heavy, large pieces around her shop. Though she has worked with bronze and copper, her favorite materials are steel and wrought iron, which she gets from steel and scrap yards. Wrought iron has the advantage of being relatively soft: “A found piece of wrought iron can have very different properties. It can offer an incredibly varied grain pattern, which can add an interesting texture to the piece.”
Coyne has focused most of her career on making commissioned pieces. Almost every project involves making a new tool, from hammer and tongs to chisels, fullers, bolsters, swages, and drifts. “Tools are your fingers when you are forging. Forging steel is like forming clay, but the medium is 2,000 degrees and incredibly tough.”
Her workshop boasts a solid, flat anvil, a layout table, and a small pneumatic power hammer called a Big Blu, which moves material quickly and acts as a mechanical striker. Two fly presses use no power, but increase her physical strength to eight tons. “They are amazing antique tools.”
She arrives at her forge shop between 7 and 8 am, takes a lunch break, and works until 5 or 6 pm. She focuses on one project at a time, methodically plotting on a calendar its needs and timing. A project progresses through the following phases: design/drawing, tooling, process, assembly, and finish. She allows time for research and development when creating with a new form. She spends five full days in her shop. If her day gets cut short by other business needs such as preparing or traveling for demonstrations, she makes up the time on weekends. “Forging steel is highly labor intensive,” she says. “I am not a big person or a young one. I take advantage through time well spent.”
Coyne sees unlimited options when teaming up with other skilled blacksmiths. She herself has collaborated with blacksmiths on making two benches and giving demonstrations. “Working with others gives you exposure to how other people think,” she says. “This is helpful when returning to my shop. It opens my eyes to other options for completing tasks.”
In the blacksmithing community, Coyne made a name for herself by forging forms that contradict the material’s weight and the craft’s prudential practice. Steel’s strength allows her to experiment with balance and symmetry and its versatility, to create surprising forms. She uses “parent stock,” a manufactured bar from the steel mill. “Living in this natural environment, I became obsessed with the question of how we relate to this parent stock. I began to research how humans got from smelting iron ore to industrial steelmaking. These connections, these questions have pushed me to make sculpture.”
After winning the 2018 Victor Thomas Jacoby Award, Coyne can now focus more on sculpture. “I am using traditional blacksmithing technique and tooling to create a form that tricks your brain into seeing a person,” she says. “A person born from this parent stock.”
This article was reprinted from The Woven Tale Press.
Susan Purvis is an explorer, educator and storyteller. She is the owner of Crested Butte Outdoors International, has taught wilderness medicine to everyone from the Secret Service to Sherpa guides in Nepal. Purvis and her search-and-rescue dog, Tasha, whom she trained to save lives on the most avalanche-prone slopes in Colorado, launched dozens of rescue missions and received Congressional Recognition for their role in avalanche search and rescue. Purvis’ work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, the BBC, and on Discovery. She lives in Whitefish, Montana. Go Find is her first book and winner of the Nautilus award for Memoir, Large Publisher.
Pam’s musical, Urban Momfare (composer/lyricist/co-book writer), won a Best Musical award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was a Critics Pick from Time Out. Pam’s songs and plays have been performed and developed in New York City and regionally, and she’s a graduate of Brown University, Fordham Law School, and The BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Visit her website here.
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