The Transformers

RELATIONSHIPS

MINA TULCHINSKY
Following a tough divorce, a Greenwich songbird finds joy making an album

As a little girl, Mina Tulchinsky loved to sing. She attended summer music programs, sang in the children’s chorus of a Milwaukee opera company and competed in high school. But when it came time to audition for college, she realized she wasn’t cut out for the cutthroat life of a professional singer. She decided to pursue her love of languages instead, majoring in French at Hamilton College. After graduation  she moved to New York to teach.

Then life happened. She married a successful financier, started a family and moved to Greenwich. “I got further and further away from singing,” she says. Mina spent the next decade as a full-time mom to four children. But following a wrenching divorce in 2013, the forty-three-year-old was at a loss about what to do next. “I wasn’t going to hang out in singles bars or buy a new purse,” she says.

During this time, Mina had been working with Lisa Nkonoki, a life coach who helped her navigate the process of disentangling from her marriage. One day she happened to mention to Lisa that she loved to sing. She pulled a CD out of her pocket and played it. “Lisa said, ‘Something good can come out of all this,’ ” Mina recalls.

With Lisa’s direction, Mina took a leap of faith: She not only found the courage to sing again, she also recorded an album. And not just any album. Working with an A-list team of music industry veterans—vocal coach Ron Anderson, pianist Ben Toth and producer Mark Portmann—Mina put together All Heart, a collection of her favorite songs, from arias to standards (minajoymusic.com). “They were able to pull the best out of me,” she says. “When you surround yourself with the best, that’s what can happen.”

She spent six months working on her vocals, before recording in studios in New York and L.A.; she even traveled to Prague to sing with the FILMHarmonic Orchestra. Calling it a “dream project,” the experience healed her in ways she couldn’t have imagined. “The singing changed me,” she says. “It gave me hope.”

The album was released last summer to positive reviews. In fact, it was included in the first cut of Grammy nominees in a few categories, including Best New Artist. “I didn’t want to be that bitter ex-wife. I wanted to show my kids that it’s never too late to follow your dreams.”


WENDY PETTA-GOLDMAN

With ten children between them, this Westport mother and her second husband faced down the challenges of blending families

Wendy Petta-Goldman had three young children when she initiated divorce proceedings in 2001. “My mother said, ‘You’re never going to find anyone to marry you. Who’s going to take that on?’” recalls Wendy. But the relief she felt after coming out the other side of her divorce far outweighed any concerns she had about finding a man. “I felt like I was free.”

That same year, Wendy went on a date with John Goldman, a friend of a friend. “That was it,” she says. “A year later we were married.” It helped that her new spouse had three young kids of his own. When they exchanged vows in 2002, they had six kids ranging in age from five to thirteen. And then the unexpected happened. Wendy found out she was pregnant. Four kids later, the couple’s original blended family of six has morphed into a brood of ten. “Our home life is less Brady Bunch and more Parenthood,” she says. Though the logistics of managing such a large family might appear daunting, the Petta-Goldmans take it all in stride. “Both John and I have a lot of energy,” she says. “We stay grounded and we work together as partners.” It helped that Wendy’s kids took to John immediately, John’s kids took to Wendy, and all the kids took to each other. “No one ever really got jealous of someone else,” she adds.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for this blended family was dealing with ex-spouses. “You have to be thoughtful about what you say. Kids never pick sides,” Wendy says. “They form their own relationships with their parents and they have no desire to feel like they are stuck in the middle.”

Which is not to say the couple doesn’t face challenges. Wendy says she and John make a conscious effort to carve out alone time with each child and to keep the lines of communication open. “When you are really present for your kids, it helps them feel they are safe with you.” Of course, there are some obstacles that even the most sanguine parent would be hard-pressed to bridge. Wendy’s oldest son D.J. is a senior at the University of Michigan, John’s alma mater. Her son Riley is a freshman at Michigan State. For this football-loving family, a test of loyalty came this past fall when the two rival schools faced off against each other. “I wore a divided T-shirt,” says Wendy. 

For Wendy and John, the greatest joy has come from watching the older kids interact with the younger ones. Says Wendy, “We can tell they really love each other.”


EXPERT’S ADVICE

Trevor Mullineaux

Author, talk show host, and licensed marriage and family therapist, Trevor Mullineaux knows about transforming relationships. She’s been married three times and has blended two families.

“To transform in a successful way, it’s necessary to take stock,” says the Stamford-based professional. “It’s important to be able to look at the past not as a failure, but as an opportunity for growth.” Whether you’re navigating a divorce or searching for a new partner, Trevor has tips to help you find your way.

Find the silver lining
Shedding toxic people can lead to greater freedom and awareness. “Sometimes the process is jarring, powerful and awful,” she says. “But you need to find people who will feel joy for you as you develop creative capabilities.”

Face your fears
“Do the stuff that scares you the most,” she says. It can be okay to feel incredibly uncomfortable.”

Know your attachment style
“We create these neurological pathways in our family of origin, and we replicate them as we go through life,” she says. “The people we pick tend to be familiar grooves, but not necessarily that healthy for us.”

Identify red flags
“Be willing to see the part you have played, where you might have made a different choice. Tell yourself, going forward, this is how I would like my life to be.”

Find forgiveness
“This is a general spiritual thing,” she says. “You’ll know you’ve made progress when you can say, ‘I did the best I could at the time.’ ”


CAREER

ARCHIE ELAM
A military officer turned corporate executive turns to nonprofits rather than retirement

As a boy growing up in the projects of Philadelphia, Archie Elam always knew he wanted something more out of life. And he got it. A standout athlete and student, he earned a commission to West Point, where he graduated in 1976. He spent the next twenty years in the army, primarily as a tank commander and paratrooper. During the first war against Iraq, he was head of operations for the 18th Airborne Corps 24th Infantry Division. He counts Colin Powell among his many military mentors. Archie left the army when he was forty-one, after sustaining a severe back injury during a jet exercise. “I said to myself, ‘Dude, it’s time to make a change.’ ”

To prepare for his first professional transformation, Archie got an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and then went on to a successful private sector career as a manager at GE Capital, United Technologies and Accenture. In 2011, he went out on his own as a consultant. Today, at a time of life when many people would be counting down the hours to retirement, the sixty-one-year-old Stamford resident embarks on another career transformation, this time in the nonprofit sector. Last spring he graduated from Encore!Hartford, an intensive training program for corporate professionals who are transitioning into the state’s nonprofit arena.

Like many business executives, Archie held positions on nonprofit boards. But that experience barely scratched the surface of what it takes to run one. “What I knew was only a fraction of what I needed to know,” he says. “The sector is huge and in transformation. A whole generation of founders is rolling off and nobody has figured out succession.” That’s changing, thanks to programs like Encore. Students spend time in the classroom learning basic skills such as development, fundraising and grant writing, followed by hands-on project work for participating organizations. Archie chose to focus on strategy and development for the Connecticut Ballet. “Just because I come across as a G.I. Joe doesn’t mean I don’t like the arts,” he says.

More to the point, he sees this moment as an opportunity to apply his expertise to something he feels passionate about. “I’m a STEM guy, but I have a deep appreciation for the arts. At this stage, I’m all about finding the thing that really feels right for me.”


PHYLLIS KURZER
She never dreamed of owning a business, until she found her artistic and entrepreneurial side

Phyllis Kurzer was a devoted practitioner of yoga when life handed her a curveball eleven years ago: She was diagnosed with a genetic heart disorder. Doctors installed a pacemaker, and the yoga had to go. “I was sad that I had to give it up,” she recalls. But in 2013, Phyllis’s pacemaker was removed. Two months later the Westport resident was back on her yoga mat, “tears of gratitude rolling down my cheeks,” she says. She took advantage of the opportunity to deepen her practice by taking an instructor certification course. During that time, she discovered the meditative benefits of mala beads, which are commonly used by Hindus and Buddhists for keeping count while reciting or chanting. “It helped broaden the spiritual side of my practice,” she says. “But after a little bit of use the mala didn’t look so good. “I knew I could make something better,” she says.

Phyllis spent much of her adult life as an at-home mom. When she was in her mid-forties she became a sculptor and rediscovered her calling as an artist. “It was a complete escape for me,” she says. A decade later, she learned how to apply her creative talents to mala-making. With a little help from YouTube, she was able to fashion two of them for herself. Each mala incorporated hand-crafted pendants from Nepal—one a silver prayer box, the other a copper prayer wheel. She started wearing them around, and the malas generated interest. Phyllis started selling them to friends, eventually branching out to trunk shows and doing custom work. In that way, Karma Mala was born (karmamala.com).

Ironically, Phyllis had never entertained the idea of owning a business. But Karma Mala feeds her creative side and lets her give back. She donates 100 percent of profits to the STOP Girl Trafficking (SGT) project in Nepal. “While wearing my mala with the prayer, I began Googling nonprofits to donate to. Within minutes, The American Himalayan Foundation came up and then SGT. It was meant to be.”

Since launching Karma Mala three years ago, Phyllis has raised more than $52,000 for the SGT program. The money helps fund schools for girls from grades one through twelve. “It only costs about $100 to keep a girl in this program for a year,” she says. Phyllis continues to develop new mala designs, although she has no plans to expand the company in a big way.  “I love the process and knowing what I do can make a meaningful difference.”


LYNNE BOLTON
A former stay-at-home mom realizes her life’s dream in the theater

Lynne Bolton’s story of transformation—from suburban mom to artistic director—can be traced to her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky. “I used to swipe the shower curtain from my parents’ bathroom, hang it between trees in the backyard and put on shows,“ she says. That passion for performing led her to acting. In 1976, she joined the Actor’s Theater of Louisville, earning enough money to pay for college. Her life took a U-turn after graduation when she moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a press secretary in Reagan’s White House. Lynne met and married her husband, Roger, and the couple settled in New Canaan, where they had three children. “I always intended to go back to work, but somehow I never did,” she says. Instead, she threw herself into volunteering. On a whim, she joined the local theater company.

“I directed plays and found I was good at it,” says Lynne. She started dreaming about getting an MFA from Yale and auditioned for a place. Her work captured the attention of Earle Gister, the school’s associate dean. “I wanted to go to grad school, but I had little kids,” Lynne says. Yet Earle was so impressed by her talent and drive he offered to take her on as a student in the master’s program he taught in New York City. Five nights a week for five years, Lynne drove to class in Manhattan after her children returned home from school. During the drive back to New Canaan late in the evening, she’d think about the work of her class peers, including Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco and Dianne Wiest. “It was the greatest time in my life,” she says.

The only thing missing was the performance piece of the puzzle. “At Yale, MFA students do seventy-five performances a year,” Lynne says. Earle’s solution? “He said we needed to start a company.” In 2004, the pair launched the White Heron Theatre Company in New York. Ensemble driven, it specialized in mid-century existentialists, and it flourished. “Earle was transforming me from an actor to a director,” Lynne says. “And then he died.” Heartbroken, she let the company sit. Yet in 2012, a chance meeting with actor Michael Kopko on Nantucket led to White Heron’s rebirth. Together, they raised enough money to build a theater there. White Heron now collaborates with Long Wharf, Edinburgh Fringe and the Sundance Institute. “There’s a lot of serendipity in all of this,” says Lynne. “A lot of God flow and finding the thing you love.”


EXPERT’S ADVICE

Karen Elizaga

Karen Elizaga transformed her own career from corporate lawyer to executive life coach in 2004. “Transformation is not just about landing the next job,” says Karen, who divides her time between Manhattan and Westport. “You need to ask yourself, ‘What is really going to make my heart sing?’ ” To help you figure that out, Karen offers tips from her book, Find Your Sweet Spot: A Guide to Personal and Professional Excellence.

Look Inward
“Take a breath and look at what you’re good at, what you love to do and where your weaknesses are,” says Karen. The biggest error people make is to only look outward, at the jobs that are available.”

Break It Up
“Moving careers is a gargantuan task. Take it slowly,” she says. “Dip a toe in the water and see how you can make things happen. Once you wade in, make a bolder move.”

Find Support
“Whether it’s friends, a former colleague, a networking group or a coach, link arms with someone else to bolster your courage,” Karen adds.

Be Accountable
“Come up with tangible goals, write them down and share them with someone else. If you have to report your progress to this person, you might be more motivated to take action.”


HEALTH & NUTRITION

TRACY YOST
A cancer diagnosis forces a Westport woman to focus on what she really wants

Tracy Yost was raised on the East Coast, but when her husband was transferred to Santa Cruz in 2013, she discovered her inner surfer girl. Tracy thrived on the laid-back, outdoorsy lifestyle. “It was heaven on earth,” she says. But two years later, her husband was transferred back East. The first few months nearly did her in. “My husband had a new job and he was never home. I was an empty-nester sending out résumés and no one was calling me back,” she says. “The competitive East Coast behavior was killing me.” And then the forty-seven-year-old learned she had breast cancer. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I realized everything was bigger than me.”

Tracy made a conscious decision to connect with her authentic self.  She knew about—and believed in—the potential health benefits of the Alkaline Diet, so the day after her diagnosis, she bought a juicer. She’s used it every day since. She also consulted a naturopath who advised her to start meditating “immediately.” Tracy downloaded the app Insight Timer and began using it several times a day. “I had a lot of fear. Anytime fear took over, I would meditate,” she says. “The most important thing you can do is establish a routine. I created a rhythm for my life so the space I was in wouldn’t feel so overwhelming.”

Tracy had read a book in her twenties—Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want—that made a big impression on her. “The premise is that people can create the life they want if they think differently,” she says. For Tracy that meant finding a way to hold onto the life she had lived in California. While she was recovering from radiation, she thought about a long-held dream of creating a women’s retreat. It was a daunting idea, but instead of casting it aside, she focused on the thing that appealed to her most—the outdoors. Tracy researched different ideas—canoeing, kayaking—but the one that grabbed her attention was bicyling.  Last summer, she launched Westport Bike Rentals (westportbikerentals.com) with twenty bikes, two drop-off points, maps and route suggestions. “It’s about reminding people to slow down, enjoy Westport and be in the moment,” she says. “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, things get very clear. These days, I’m starting to feel like it’s in my rearview mirror.”


TED MUFTIC

Heeding a midlife wake-up call, this Stamford professional makes drastic changes to his diet and lifestyle

Two years ago, when Ted Muftic walked into a gym in Stamford, he didn’t know he was about to embark on a life-changing journey. He just knew it was time for a change. “I didn’t call. I didn’t make an appointment. It was completely the luck of the draw,” he says. “Somehow, the decision fit well with my mindset at the time.”

The cofounder and CFO of Woodbine & Co., a real estate development firm in Stamford, Ted spent most of his professional career on Wall Street. Like a lot of people who work behind a desk all day, he started putting on weight. It was a gradual thing—a pound here, a pound there—but over time it added up. Eventually the one-time competitive ski racer had ballooned to 330 pounds. He tried various ways to take the weight off—crash diets, protein shakes—but none were effective.

Then Ted had a wake-up call. “It was a culmination of a number of things,” he says. “Personal and professional setbacks, a health scare involving my dad. I looked in the mirror and said ‘You have to try something different.’”

To initiate his transformation, Ted realized he needed a team of experts who would hold him accountable. He focused on exercise first, working with a trainer four days a week on strength, interval and circuit training. It wasn’t easy. “They were intense workouts. At times I felt like I couldn’t do it. But that’s when you have to be persistent and push through.”

He enlisted the help of trainer/nutritionist Suzanne Palazzo, now co-owner of Upper Deck Fitness in Stamford, to reboot his diet. “I like food, so I had to find a diet I could accept,” he says. She introduced Ted to the Paleo Diet, which was easy for him to understand. “If you can pick it, kill it or cook it over an open flame, you can eat it,” he says. In the process he learned about portion control. He learned how to eat consistently three times a day. He learned about the importance of staying hydrated. “It’s critical,” he says. “Water helps flush the system and your muscles recover more quickly.” Most important, he learned that it was okay to cheat occasionally. “Suzanne would say, go ahead and have that glass of wine or margarita. Just get back to your routine the next day.”

Since adopting his new healthy lifestyle, the fifty-one-year-old has dropped upwards of eighty pounds. “If I can do another twenty, I will have achieved my goal,” he says. The payoff has been tremendous. His blood pressure is lower than it’s ever been, he has more energy and he needs less sleep. Today, Ted is spending more time outdoors and he recently took up boxing. “I feel like I’m heading into my middle years in the best shape I’ve ever been.”


ALISON VITOLO

A former addict fuels her recovery with a fierce passion for fitness

The day Alison Vitolo hit rock bottom started out like countless others: She woke up with a searing hangover, a profound sense of remorse and a promise that today would be different. Despite her intentions, she would be out partying later that night. But in April 1999, the then twenty-four-year-old had a moment of clarity and instead of dismissing it, she held on tight. Alison packed herself off to a local hospital detox program, where she stayed for five days. On day six, she drank. On day seven, she picked herself up and went to a twelve-step meeting. That was more than seventeen years ago. She’s been clean and sober ever since.

It can take years to climb out of the wreckage of addiction and step into a new life. For Alison, a divorced mother of two boys, four rescue dogs, a cat and a bunny, the journey began with an “attitude of gratitude,” and a passion for fitness.

As a child, she was a gifted dancer who wanted to be a choreographer, but that dream was sidelined by her addiction. In addition to attending meetings every day, she started working out at a gym. “It was a safe place to dump all these new feelings, a way to work on my body from the inside out,” she says. Despite a busy schedule, this working mom devoted three hours a day to fitness. Four years ago, she discovered JoyRide. “The gates opened when I walked in,” she recalls. “It was like, ahhhh, I need to do this for a living.”

Since then, Alison has become one of JoyRide’s most popular instructors, teaching classes in Westport, Darien and Stamford. “I’m known for my energy,” she says. “It’s contagious.” Alison chalks that up to her desire to give back to her community in whatever way she can. “I just want to help people,” she says. “I’m a magnet for recovery. The same is true with fitness.”

She participates in local fundraisers as part of the JoyRide team. Last summer, she rappelled off a building in Stamford to help raise money for the Shatterproof foundation; its mission is to break the stigma of addiction. It was the second year for Alison. “Let me tell you, stepping over the edge of that roof does not get easier,” she says. “It’s like getting sober. The first step is the scariest thing. After that, you’re good.”


EXPERT’S ADVICE

Ilyse Schapiro

Nutritionist Ilyse Schapiro’s wellness philosophy stems from the belief that healthy living starts with healthy eating. “If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t think of it as being on a diet,” she says. “Diets are not permanent and can set you up to fail. Make small changes and set simple goals.” To jump-start a new healthy lifestyle, the Greenwich-based practitioner recommends
adopting these five tips.

Keep a food log
“It can be tedious, but it does help,” says Ilyse. Research shows people who record their food intake lose twice as much weight as those who don’t. Most people will cut their calories and be smarter about what they eat when they see it in writing.

Get enough sleep
“When you’re lacking sleep, your body overproduces the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin but under-produces leptin, which tells you when you are full.”

Stock up on healthy food
“If it’s in the house, you’ll be more likely to eat the healthy stuff. Think high-fiber fruits and veggies, fresh or frozen, to fill you up, plus lean protein to keep you satisfied.”

Set goals
“This will help you see that you are making progress. Strive for slow and steady.”

Beware of labels
“Just because something is labeled natural, smart, popped, baked, organic or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier.”

 

 

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