Micrófono Abierto Bilingüe con Chocolate

I moved from San Francisco to Napa CA in 2009 to take a new job. I wasn’t looking forward to living in what I thought of as a white-bread community. I soon realized how ignorant I was. I chose a working class neighborhood in which to make my home and eventually became active in the writing community.

Early in 2017, I sat in a roomful of well-meaning, mostly gringo artists at the Napa Valley State of the Arts event. I listened as the panelists discussed the fact that our local diverse communities were not in the room. One brave Latino photographer spoke up. “If you want to include them, you need to go to them. They are not going to come to you.” I wondered how to do that. I spoke to Izrael a few times during the next twelve months, and never really felt like I did much to help.

A year later, still wondering, I ran into him at the 2018 State of the Arts. I sat in on a small panel discussion, again, on diversity challenges, with mostly caucasians in the room. One out of three panelists was a young man I’d met earlier in the year. Intelligent, outspoken and passionate, Xulio had moved here as a kid many years ago with his family from Oaxaca, Mexico. He’s a social justice worker and a poet.

I’m the current president of Napa Valley Writers, and we were going to be hosting a first for our Valentine’s Day meeting just weeks later: Open Mic with Chocolate. I sat in front of the panel with an idea brewing, perhaps a way to bring our diverse communities together on one day of love – an Open Mic with Chocolate – Bilingual edition.

I spoke with Xulio at the panel’s conclusion and we met the next day. We were excited with our new plan. He reached out to his wide-spread ties in the local global south and native performing arts communities. We coordinated a bilingual public service announcement on local radio, distributed Spanish-English flyers, and promoted the event to our publicity contacts.

A few minutes before the Valentine’s Day event was to start, the room was practically empty and I worried. Fifteen minutes later, the place was packed with some of the usual crowd and many more people I hadn’t met, or seen, before.

Twenty-five people, forty percent of the attendees, young and old, read or performed their work in poetry, prose, and song from their hearts in many flavors of love – for the land, for the people, for a lover, for change. My collaborator was emcee, and at the opening, Xulio informed the gathering that we chose not to ask that every piece be translated. We wanted to hear with our hearts the understanding that was there for each of us.


Not being a Spanish or native speaker myself, I could occasionally pick out a few words like madre and amore. I thought of how so many others feel every day in the English language world of this America. My heart caught in my throat. We provided something very special that night. Everyone there was filled with compassion, togetherness, and the desire to move this one event forward into something more.


Speakers and listeners both touched their hearts with open hands with a feeling of gratitude and many of us had tears. Of course I’m still aware of our divisions, but at least once, together, we’ve experienced a bit of a bridge. The room pulsed with energy. One of our writers group members commented that it was the highlight of the year.

The Vintage high school girls’ Spanish and English words in poem and performance brought down the house as they spoke of the prejudices and injustices their families live with on a daily basis – and what they are doing to change it. The elder Mexican poet read from his journal to a pin-drop quiet audience, receiving a thunderous applause at the close. Charlie, native woman and elder, spoke and chanted, reminding us of our memories and our spirit that has been lost and is now being found again. Xulio’s performance dazzled. My Latino friend, who advised me that I had to go to them, spoke to me with misty eyes that matched mine.

Change is coming, I felt it that night and I feel it now.


(Thanks to the Napa Valley Register for running a version of this piece as a commentary in the Sunday 3/4/2018 edition)


Headbanger in Paradise, Part 4

CONTINUED FROM  Headbanger in Paradise, Part 3


It was warm where we sat in the day hall, sunlight streaming through the windows onto my assessment sheet.

            “What’s your name?” I asked.


“Where are you?”

He looked out the bank of steel-framed windows holding yhe world outside in a giant picture frame.

“Valley State Hospital.”

“What day is it?” I asked.


“Right. What’s my name?”


I smiled, nodding in agreement. “How are you feeling?”

No answer. His forearms rested atop the wheelchair armrests, fingers dangling. He seemed taken in by the giant tulip tree blooms drifting in the courtyard.

I chatted with Frank, other patients, and staff as they drifted into the day hall. Judge Judy ruled the TV in the far corner.

After awhile, Frank said he was cold and sleepy, a common ECT reaction. I wheeled him to his room. He was a little shaky but able to get himself into bed. I covered him with an extra blanket and watched him roll over to face the wall.

“Thank you,” he muttered.

“You’re welcome, Frank.”

This routine went on for a few weeks, one treatment each week, increasing to two treatments, then to three. After four months, Frank was having far fewer instances of violent behavior with only rare episodes of head banging. He slept better. His attitude was much improved. The treatments seemed to be working, with only minor, temporary, memory loss. Some days he would forget having breakfast. A few times, he didn’t remember the ECT treatment at all.

Frank’s parents, far from the norm, came to visit him often. They were amazed at the positive changes in their son’s demeanor. They’d delivered him to us from their foothills home less than six months earlier, after watching his long decline. They were hopeful. I’d seen life changing results in other patients after ECT. It was looking as if Frank really would have a new start in life.

After returning to the unit one day, we were again sitting in the day hall.

“Shea, can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure. Tell me a secret. I may not be able to keep it, though. What is it?”

“During ECT sometimes, I feel really high, like over-the-top stoned. I try to stay there to keep it, but it runs away. I keep trying to get back to it, but I can’t.”

“I haven’t heard that before,” I chuckled.

“Do you think you can get my doctor to give me more drugs to keep it going?”

“Ha, ha. I don’t think so, Frank. It’s just one way you’re responding to the treatment. Do you think, besides the unusual high, you’re improving?”

“When’s the last time I hit someone?”

“A few weeks now.”

“Good,” he said, his blue eyes glistening.

After several more treatments, Frank was showing great progress. No violent outbreaks and no head banging. His depression lifted, he laughed often, and he enjoyed the company of others. His memory loss, though, was becoming serious. In consultation with his doctors and parents, he decided to discontinue ECT.

Just before Christmas, Frank was discharged home. It was a grand gift for him and for all of us who had been part of his success.

He was happy, and I was happy for him.

On a road trip the following summer, I braked for a stoplight while driving through the tiny foothill town of Paradise. I spotted Frank walking in the crosswalk. He was holding hands and laughing with a nice looking woman about his age. He turned his head my way, squinting into the sun behind me.

He couldn’t see through the glare. I’m quite certain he couldn’t make out the big smile on my face.




“Headbanger in Paradise” was originally published in its entirety in Untold Stories: From the Deep Part of the Well. 2016 Redwood Writers Anthology, Roger Lubeck, Editor. September 2016.

If you’d like the entire story in one piece, just ask.

Headbanger in Paradise, Part 1

“Headbanger in Paradise” was originally published in its entirety in Untold Stories: From the Deep Part of the Well. 2016 Redwood Writers Anthology, Roger Lubeck, Editor. September 2016.

I’m choosing to publish it here in four parts. Stay tuned for later segments. KT


Visitors are rare here. On admittance, our patients generally see that their friends and relatives have a way of moving on.

Three-dozen men, twenty-two to sixty-three years of age, live on my unit, a drop in the bucket of over a thousand patients, hospital-wide. They share bedrooms, bathrooms, and just about everything else. They struggle with schizophrenia, depression, and psychosis. Delusions, hallucinations, fear, and paranoia routinely show up.

Our patients often have little or no self-control. When paired with anxiety and anger issues, they act out on a regular basis, assaulting staff or one another. Often confused, they lack motivation to do much to help themselves.

Behind our backs, patients cut themselves with sharpened plastic utensils, broken CDs, pencils, or worse. It’s a tough place to be a patient. It’s a rough place to work.

Breakfast was over and done with. It was quiet on the unit, and I was glad of it.

I heard keys jangling from the other side of the door. Right on time, here he comes.

He walked into the unit, escorted by one of the psych techs from the admission unit.

Frank’s arms hung like flabby sausages. Thirty-three years old, he shuffled like an old man, a side effect of medication to reduce aggressive behavior.

His man-sweat, accompanied by a robust urine aroma, percolated the air as he approached me. Frank had been next door for thirty days now. He’d refused to shower every one of them.

“Morning, Shea,” the escort said.

“Good morning,” I answered. “How is everyone?”

“Not bad. He was at it again last night. Fine this morning, though.”

I noticed the bruises on Frank’s swollen forehead where he’d smashed his head against the wall.

“How do you feel, Frank?”


Head banging was Frank’s unique trademark. One minute, he’d be standing quiet as a doorknob. Next minute, he’d be methodically slamming his forehead against the wall. No wailing, no crying. Just slamming his forehead against the wall.

I started ransacking through the black trash bag, AKA patient’s luggage, which Frank handed to me. I latched onto a pair of hospital-issue sneakers, a denim jacket, a pair of sweat pants, and a San Francisco Giants T-shirt.

“Is this all you’ve got, Frank?”

He didn’t answer.

His escort did.

“That’s it, Shea. Here’s his chart. Have fun now.”

He fist-tapped Frank’s shoulder as he turned back to the admission unit.

I’d met Frank a week earlier on a help call to his unit. One patient had cornered another in a bedroom. They were pounding each other with fists, their obscenities scouring the room. They each weighed close to a couple hundred pounds. It was all we could do to separate them. The hospital police arrived in time to catch a young nurse being thrown to the wall.

Frank watched the action from across the hall. Leaving the room, I didn’t realize he’d quickened his step behind me until I felt him punching the back of my head.

He was sedated then, but my neck was stiff for a week. The real injury was to my psyche; a potent reminder to keep those eyes in the back of my head wide open.

He couldn’t help it, really. The voices crawling in his head screamed danger. It sent him straight into attack mode. A variety of meds helped only sometimes.

“Come on, Frank. Your bedroom is up the hall,” I said. He flinched when I placed my hand behind his elbow.

“Okay,” I said, pulling back. “It’s okay.”

I carried his meager belongings to his room.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m an RN. My name is Shea. We met next door. I work this unit most of the time.”

He slowly nodded yes. “I hit you, didn’t I?”

“Yep,” I said, smiling. “It’s okay, Frank, I’m fine.”


…and the Cubs Win!

I was over at my daughter and son-in-law’s house this morning, keeping an ear out for my 4-year-old grandson playing in the next room. My fingers paused on the laptop keys as I waited for the creative juices to kick in. Please kick in. I wanted something fresh and funny for the upcoming open mic.

Problem was, I wasn’t feeling fresh and funny. I was feeling worn, torn, and battle fatigued with the overwhelming election coverage this year. The Cubs’ World Series win brought me much needed relief and excitement — even if it was drawn out over and over again. That high didn’t last near long enough. I was missing that consummate Cubs fan who killed himself ten years ago. The big win was just one more in a string of life events he’s missed out on.

An hour later, I was still looking at a white screen without one string of words to be seen.


You know why?

Well. My friend had some studying to do, so I suggested she bring her 4-year-old daughter
over to play. The more, the merrier is my motto. She dropped off her daughter along with the best of offerings — doughnuts, coffee, and hot chocolate. Woo Hoo!


Twenty minutes later, it was time to wash and dry those cute little hands and faces. Time
to chase the dog back out after she knocked one of them onto the floor. Time to put that laundry in the dryer. I checked my email. Ah hah! A personal note from the Clinton campaign. Please, would you donate just one dollar? Sure, here’s 5. Would you like to double that? Sure, make it ten. Get out the credit card and load up the webpage with all the necessary information. Thanks – want to give more? No. Not today.

Then I checked Facebook. I peeked at a bit of online campaign news. I clicked around youtube and listened to a couple of tunes. First there was Bob Dylan, then John Lennon. I felt better. Kids were playing nicely. They were chattering away and giggling in their own little world.

So, anyway, I got back to business. It was a sunny day outside and I glanced into the living room. My eyes landed on Mollie’s memorial corner. Three framed portraits hang over the aging upright piano.

Lowell: strong and courageous father of three sons, dressed in his lifelong beard and glasses. Mollie’s husband’s father, he died just last year, after a tough battle with aggressive metastatic melanoma. He was such a wonderful man, full of love and passion… a man who would do anything for his family.

Katie, my beautiful grand-daughter, gone from us much too soon. I look at her smiling, in her pensive way; I wonder what she was thinking when that picture was taken. Our hearts broke the day she died, leaving behind her baby boy Jack. Her laughter had filled our world. We miss her so much.

And Matt, my former husband, father of three, baseball fan extraordinaire, former Stratamatic player and political junkie, a voracious reader who died before Mollie even knew she’d be marrying Matt, her new boyfriend.

Each of them gone now from this world for widely different reasons, each one of them leaving a big hole in my heart. There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t imagine Katie or Matt or Lowell standing with us in the sunshine, laughing at a birthday party, playing with the kids, or repairing something or other.

Cheering the Cubs.

Damn. Pass me that doughnut.










Write On!

We writers, all of us, and our readers, sometimes take our words for granted. If I know one thing, I know how much our words matter. Each and every word, whether it’s surrounded by thousands of others in a book, or part of 140 characters in a tweet. Our words have the power to show our love and air our disdain. Our words can touch the hearts of strangers everywhere. They can bring loved ones closer. The words we choose to put on paper can drive a wedge, dig a hole, or take us to the moon.


I hope this week you’ll choose to write something to make a difference. It’s your choice, and mine. We can write in a journal, we can write a letter, yes, a real letter to someone. We could send a birthday card with our own words of life inscribed with our signature. We could post a new blog, follow our friends, like them, and make our own comments on Facebook.

We have the power. We have the heart. Honor that writer inside you. Don’t let your muse hide out any longer.

As the master once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  Look at what he did. Listen to Bob Dylan, our newest Nobel Laureate. Go ahead, write a song.

Pen to paper, fingertips to screen, or clickety clack on your keyboard.

Do it today, do it this week. Write again next week. And the one after.

If you’re really serious — and courageous — you’ll share those words inside your heart.

I bet you’ll be glad you did.

Where I live in Napa, California, we are celebrating Napa Writers Week. In the rest of the state, it’s California Writers week. The state’s yearly commemoration came about many years ago through the efforts of a few eager California Writers Club folks and their contacts in the CA state legislature.

This week is Napa’s first Napa Writers Week, thanks to the commitment of our County Board of Supervisors. On behalf of our Napa Valley Writers and all the writers in the community, I took the idea to my district supervisor. He was all for it. And there we go. Napa Writers Week. You could do the same where you live. It’s a fabulous way to honor the writers in your community, including yourself. This coming Saturday, our indie bookstore is hosting a local celebration of local authors at Napa Bookmine.




Every once in a while, when I’m out somewhere, I look up to see somebody – someone I love and miss – walking across the park or a parking lot or a street somewhere.

My heart skips a beat, or three.

I take a second look, knowing that person can’t possibly be in front of me. B

ut that moment… it stays with me.


Does it happen to you, too?


No Means Everything. Parts 1 & 2

A story in 4 parts.

Part One

It was 1967. Iris lived with her mom and brothers on the California side of South Lake Tahoe. If you were standing in her room, you’d have heard any combination of rock and roll blasting the airwaves, including, but not limited to the Beatles, Paul Anka, Connie Francis, and the Rolling Stones.

She’d graduated high school the previous summer (’66) with her class, known officially and forever as the ‘Rebels’. After a wild and crazy senior year, full of class cutting, skiing, and hot springs soaking over the Markleeville ridge, she was delighted to be finished with South Tahoe High.

Iris got a work permit and a busgirl job in one of the casinos. Soon enough, before she knew it, she was 19, pregnant – and married. She hadn’t planned on being pregnant. She hadn’t planned on being married. But all those noes of hers, in the still quiet of a dark room, fell silent on Alan’s ears.

Six years older than she was, Alan drove a shiny black Mustang. He had striking blue eyes. He was her neighbor. Their moms were best friends. He worked with Iris’s brother. Iris was in love.

There were times, though, when she worried. She and Alan spent quite a bit of time in the house Alan shared with his mom and brother. It was during those family visits that Iris witnessed the man she loved being extremely cruel. He criticized, belittled, and blamed his mother for everything. His behavior, his words, his rage, gave Iris the shivers. She found no pleasure in recalling her own abusive household as a young girl. Iris did what most irresponsible young women did. She swept it to the back of her head. She kept quiet.

Alan told Iris he didn’t want a big wedding. She said that was fine, though secretly, she was disappointed. Alan arranged for a few days off work. He and Iris eloped to the Nevada ghost town of Virginia City, where the Justice of the Peace married them. The courthouse cleaning lady and the bar owner next door were the witnesses. Surreal, Iris thought. In the mirror behind the judge’s desk, she observed Alan, his arm wrapped tightly around her. Iris was in her favorite pale blue blouse and mini skirt. Alan was dressed in his typical every day black slacks, white short sleeve shirt, black shoes, white socks. No friends, no smiling moms wishing Iris congratulations from the mirror.

They recited their vows. Alan smiled with Iris’s grin as he paired the wedding band to her engagement ring. They kissed. Man and wife. They were married. They hopped back in the Mustang. They drove over the mountains, down to the ocean, to spend their honeymoon on Monterey Bay.

Iris ended up sick most every day. The fog was wet. She was cold. She just wanted to go home. Awake sometimes in the dark night, she worried over a conversation with Alan’s mother in which Iris had been warned to be very careful of Alan’s terrible temper.


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