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)


Berries, Brownies and Sunshine Daydreams

I met Karen in Yosemite last fall, both of us traveling solo, both about the same age. We hit it off right away. She totally cracked me up with this tale of a younger Karen and her best friend Jana.

In 1978, Karen and Jana lived in Santa Cruz. Karen was divorced, raising two little boys; Jana was single. They lived near each other, close to the Safeway store they were both employed and where they first met. Jana ran the office, Karen ran the produce department. Occasionally they worked the checkout lines. They shared a birthday and Karen remembered those years as some of the best.

They grew their own pot back then. Karen’s plants thrived, hidden in the berry bushes in her vegetable/fruit garden. The harvest dried in the tool shed. She laughed as she told me her ex-husband would have blown a gasket if he knew about it; he lived just across town.

Along with a couple of other friends, they’d bought tickets to the upcoming Grateful Dead concert that fall, up in San Francisco.

Karen says she made a tasty batch of pot brownies and they started cruising up the Coast Highway in her Blue Ford Econoline van. She’d had one too many brownies, so she wasn’t even driving her own vehicle that day. Jason was. She thinks that’s who it was.

Instead, she was lounging in the back with Jana, relaxing, excited, and keeping time to the music in the cassette deck.

Arriving in the City, they pulled into a gas station to check the wall map for their location and best route to the concert. She and Jana scanned the map, smiling.

“Karen, we’re clear across town from where we ought to be.”

Karen answered with her thumb and forefinger.

“We’re only this far away…”

Laughing, suddenly, Karen lost her bearings, and fell onto the cold hard pavement, passed out. Her friends couldn’t rouse her. They called an ambulance. They all them ended up in the ER. Karen smiled at me, telling me this part of the story had to be filled in for her.

The ER staff grilled her friends repeatedly.

“What’s she on? What’s she taken? Coke? LSD? What?”

Again and again, Jana and the guys answered, “It’s just pot brownies, it’s just pot, that’s all.”

Four hours later, she woke with a screaming headache of a concussion. The hospital released them. After missing the concert, it was a quiet trip back home. They were totally despondent. Karen pined that no amount of brownies would have helped them feel better.

She brooded for a few days before deciding to write a letter to the concert promoter. She related the entire story of why they had missed the concert. She placed the four unused tickets into the envelope, mailed it off, hoping for a refund.

A week or so later, she heard the mail as it dropped through the door slot. Return address, Bill Graham. She ripped it open.

No refund.

Instead, she found a small flyer poster and a one page handwritten note ‘Enjoy the show’, signed by Bill Graham (which she still has), with four tickets to the upcoming Grateful Dead All Night New Year’s Eve concert.

Grateful Dead

The upcoming New Year’s Eve show was set to be the closing night at Winterland. Supposedly, there’d been 500,000 ticket requests. By this time, Winterland was pretty much a dump of a concert hall. Everyone in the bay area knew the last show absolutely had to be the Grateful Dead.

The opening act was a groovy set by the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Up next, Blues Brothers live – the place was rocking. At the time, to the rest of the world, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi were bigger stars than the Dead. The vocals, the dancing, the mouth-harp, and the horns blew the place out.

Just about midnight, the lights went down. The room tingled with energy. A burning light lit up in the back of the hall, high in the balcony. Jumping and turning, everyone looked to see what seemed to be a giant marijuana cigarette, flaring from one end, like a rocket.

The crowd screamed with delight as Bill Graham coasted along a wire to the stage up front. Just as he landed, fireworks lit up the room, the place erupted and Sugar Magnolia roared from the Dead – the rest of the night was a magical spectacle, indeed, a Happy New Year! All night long. And then, the famous Grateful Dead Concert Breakfast was served.

All I could say to Karen, sitting in the Yosemite trees at the end of her story was, “Wow.”

It was a sweet remembrance of hers that I could totally relate to. We made a plan to meet up again this summer. Her son answered the phone recently when I called to make arrangements. He told me Karen died a month earlier. Cancer.

That’s when I knew I had to share her story with you. It was too good not to.

Rehearsing this reading, I mentioned to my own son and his friends that I was going to use a little prop for the story. Thinking I might pass around a joint, he said, “Mom, they’re going to love your reading!”

I was actually thinking of the poster. He also said, “Oh, now I get it – that’s why we were always having berry crepes!”

Addendum: A half hour before I was set to read this live at a Writer’s Open Mic, I was walking and relaxing along the Napa River. I got the munchies (yeah). I walked around the corner to the local Ben & Jerry’s to have myself a nice Cherry Garcia ice cream cone. Perfect, huh?

I walked in to the Napa Bookmine, where the reading was to be held. Looking through the shelves, I picked up Bill Kreutzmann’s book, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead in which he talks a bit about this last concert at Winterland. http://www.wsj.com/articles/grateful-deads-drummer-pens-a-memoir-1430236048

That’s the kind of day it’s been. Sunshine daydream; walking through the tall trees…