Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Wednesdays at Michael’s By Diane Clehane

A Conversation With Karen Duffy: Living Life With a Strong ‘Backbone’

Dini von Mueffling, Diane Clehane & Karen Duffy
Click image for full size view

I’m not even sure where to begin in recounting what was a truly extraordinary lunch at Michael’s this week. As I made my way to 55th and Fifth from Grand Central, I felt an eerie stillness in midtown which I attributed to the horrific events that occurred yesterday which left eight people dead and many other injured as the result of a mad man’s actions. As New Yorkers, we have learned to live with an ever-present uneasiness as we go about the business of our daily lives.



When I arrived at Michael’s, I was reassured by the familiarity of the scene in the dining room where, over the course of the past twelve (!) years, I have come to know so many of the city’s most impressive and accomplished citizens who hold court at the favorite tables hatching deals and navigating relationships that define their venerated place among the power set. I was waiting for Karen Duffy, or ‘Duff’ as she prefers to be called, who was joining me to talk about her new book,  Backbone Living With Chronic Pain Without Turning Into One. The book, published by Arcade, goes on sale next week. (There’s also an audio version read by the author.) Our mutual friend, Dini von Mueffling, had arranged for all of us to meet.

In preparation for our interview, I’d gone back and watched video of Duff during her days as a VJ for MTV. I’d forgotten how luminous she was then. Always quick witted, sassy and fun, her radiant beauty jumped out at you from the small screen. Whenever I saw her on MTV, she was usually wearing a black leather jacket. Her short, black hair swooped over her forehead in a heavy fringe just so.

I knew Duff had been through a great deal over many years having read about her various health issues. I had seen her on television talking about her illnesses that forced her to abandon her career as a successful model (She was the face of Revlon’s ‘Charlie Girl’) and actress. In 2000, she detailed her experiences in her first book, the best-seller Model Patient: My Life as an Incurable Wise-Ass. Nearly 113 million Americans -- more than one-third of this country’s population -- live with chronic pain. Duff is one of them. She has a rare form sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that attacks soft tissue. The disease causes the immune system to create lesions that can attack any organ in the body. She has them in her brain. Sarcoidosis has irreparable damage done to her central nervous system. For nearly two decades, as a result of her illness, Duff has endured constant chronic pain throughout her body. (I’m not going to use the words ‘suffers from’ here and you’ll find out why shortly).

As she made her way to our table in the dining room, Duff looked pained for what turned out to be an all-together different reason. She told Dini and I she’d just received notification on her phone that there had just been a shooting at her son Jack’s school and they were on lock down. I said there was no reason for her to stay; we could do this another time. Meanwhile, Dini, who spearheaded the brilliant PR campaign for the Sandy Hook Promise, checked in with her team to see if there was any news on the shooting. “Just let me catch my breath,” said Duff as we sat in stunned silence. A few minutes later, she read us the email from the school which confirmed that Duff’s friend, a long-time school employee and president of the parents’ association, Elizabeth Lee, had been killed. Thankfully, it turned out that Duff’s son was not near the building where the shooting took place. Other than the email from the school, no one could find out anything more. [After lunch, I learned from a New York City blog it was an attempted murder-suicide. As of late this afternoon, there were no other news reports on the shooting.]

I repeated my offer to reschedule our interview. “If I run down there now, it would be a selfish act,” she said. “What I can do now is carry [Elizabeth] in my heart and prayers. We can’t control what happens. The only thing we can control is our response." So, we did what have learned to do so well in the face of unimaginable tragedy, we took a moment to collect ourselves and carried on.

Duff had high marks for Governor Andrew Cuomo for his pitch perfect remarks yesterday and praised the Office of Emergency Management, a city agency where she has served as a volunteer. Duff recounted the evening about six years ago when the final exam for her OEM certification happened to be scheduled for the same time she was expected at the Met Gala. She took the test in her gown and then went uptown to join the social swells and one of the hosts for the evening, her good friend, George Clooney.

One of five children and the daughter of a New York City Police officer and a homemaker, Duff told me the message of service and volunteerism was one that was always stressed within her family. Her parents took in a refugee family after the Vietnam War. “That was the way it was in our house.” Describing herself as “a proud daughter of the Empire State,” Duff has clearly taken message very much to heart.

I know it sounds like a cliché but in the face of incredible adversity, Duff has embraced a mantra of gratitude that is downright awe-inspiring. “So much of life is not what you get, it’s what you give,” she said.

Having trained with the Red Cross, she volunteered as grief counselor after 9/11 at the Family Assistance Center on Pier 57. Duff was there every day until the Center closed the following January. She’s also a certified hospital chaplain having served as such at St. Vincent’s and Beth Israel hospitals. “Every day we have a choice,” she told me between bites of chicken paillard. “We can be useful or useless.”

“I can’t work as an actor because I can’t pass a physical,” she explained when I asked her why she had decided to take on the role of activist and advocate for people with chronic pain. “I had to mourn my old life and find a new life. I’ve only got one, so I have to make the best of it.” And so, she has.

As an author, Duff lends her unique voice to a subject that isn’t one that usually elicits a lot of laughs but, she said, it should. “Laughter is medicine. This book is good if you’re sick or if you have a sick sense of humor.” Be that as it may, Backbone is also a thoughtful, comprehensive look into the world of chronic pain suffers and a guide for other people on what – and what not – to do.

Duff told me she found writing Backbone, which she did over the course of several years, very rewarding and gave high marks to her editor and publisher Jeanette Seaver for her support and enthusiasm for the book.  “I wanted to write this book for friends and family [of people who battle chronic pain],” she told me. Duff writes with honesty and characteristic good humor and includes many illustrations including the “Bill Murray Pain Scale” – a much funnier and more accurate indication of pain levels than those dopey emojis employed by most doctors’ offices and hospitals. (She and the beloved actor are dear friends) There’s also templates of plenty of handy sanity-saving tools including game cards for Platitude Bingo that are filled with the trite and wholly inappropriate remarks chronic pain suffers most often hear, a Bite the Bullet Badge and an all-purpose permission slip perfect for giving patients the green light to do whatever the hell they want. I was particularly taken by the chapter entitled “How Not to Be a Jackass” which should be required reading for anyone who has a chronic pain sufferer in their lives.

We discussed what the herculean task of writing a book entails and I wondered how Duff coped with the stress and strain the intense work can put on body and soul.  Despite having to regularly go the hospital a few times a week, she said, “There are days when I can’t leave my house, but when I’m up, I’m up that’s why writing suits me so well. I love the process and I love the research. I find it inspiring.”

Backbone will be the subject of a feature in O the Oprah Magazine’s December’s issue and Duff will be making appearances in New York (including a reading in Coney Island – “I’m a former Miss Coney Island!”), Los Angeles, Washington, DC and South Carolina.

By the time we said our good-byes, I’d stayed well past the usual ninety-minutes I allot for my weekly interviews. In two and half hours, we’d somehow managed to move from some of the most intense topics I’d ever discussed over a Michael’s lunch to trading style secrets and scrolling through Dini’s phone looking at websites that appeal to our mutual love of high style, low priced fashion.

I marveled at how a stranger who’d come to the table and rendered me speechless had turned into someone whose strength, positivity and grace I will never forget. When we left, her parting words echoed in my mind. “It’s like that quote from Mother Theresa. “Not all of us can do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” Duff just happens to be one of those rare people that does both.


Scene & Heard Around the Room

Julian Niccolini and pals celebrating something on Table Three… Here’s an interesting duo: Andrew Stein and casting director Bonnie Timmerman on Table Six … Mickey Ateyeh and Rikki Klieman on Table Two … William Lauder on Four … Uber agent Boaty Boatwright on Five … Michael’s very talented wife, artist Kim McCarty on Seven … Peter Price on Eight … Bungalow Media’s Bob Friedman on Nine … Financier Martin Gruss on Fourteen … And MSNBC’s Ari Melber deep in conversation with Richard E. Farley on Table Twenty-one.

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1 comment:

  1. Diane, I am speechless. Thank you for being a bright light of a tough day.xxx

    ReplyDelete