Book Review: Palo Alto

Palo Alto: StoriesPalo Alto: Stories by James Franco

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up in vacation off a B&B bookshelf because I’m interested in artists who work in more than one field and because I was born and raised and raised my children near Palo Alto, but a world away.

Writers sometimes write to process their experiences. This appears to be Franco’s motivation for penning this memoir turned short story collection. I found myself having difficulty sorting out the voices of the different disaffected teenagers as they told their stories. It occurred to me that this may be the point. Perhaps disaffection speaks with one voice. Rich or poor, male or female, perhaps dissatisfied and disconnected speaks with one voice.

I also wonder how Franco overcame the soullessness of the aimless existence he portrays to achieve acclaim as an actor and then to enter an MFA program and write a book. That’s the story I’d like to read.

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Assisted Living: Dividing lines

vulturesWhen you move in to give assistance to an aging parent, the dividing lines between parent and child, yours and mine, begin to blur. At the same time, the divide between cultures and generations sharpens.

No matter your situation, whether you are nobly stepping up to your responsibility or bravely wrestling control away from a parent who does not recognize their peril, you are bound to feel like the bad guy at some point.

The role reversal is uncomfortable. You look for ways to respect the dignity of the person whose life you are raiding. You try to involve them in decision making, help them feel a sense of power and control they no longer have, and you run smack into the problem that brought you to this place. Grandma can no longer make a decision. Any decision.

Case in point, it appeared that the neighbors had been using grandma’s closet at their personal recycling center. Her closet was stuffed full of torn, stained size 14 clothes. (She is a size 6.) Before I caught on, I sat her on the bed, whipped one article of clothing after another out of the abyss, and held it up. She had one of two responses.

“I might wear that someday.”

“I don’t remember who gave that to me, so I better keep it.”

I sent her to the kitchen to eat her lunch and began making heartless decisions. Into the trash went the “gift” clothing. I set aside the lovely suits she no longer wears to give to the consignment store, but when time got tight and I pictured someone in town showing up at her church in her clothes, they went in the dumpster. 

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The Adult Orphan

journalBecoming an adult orphan is among the inevitable rites of passage.  The day an adult’s last remaining parent dies is a somber occasion.

In addition to the emotional cocktail of sadness, relief, gratitude, and other feelings, your position in life changes forever:

Your generational cover is blown.
You vie for position as the family matriarch or patriarch.
You become the memory custodian.

How will you record precious memories of the past for future generations to ponder? Stop by Mari’s Journal Writing Power Blog and read more.

To process the drama I had been through I did what many of my boomer generation are doing. I wrote a book.

photo credit: Bob AuBuchon via photopin cc


Assisted Living: Tough conversations

Once you decide that someone you love and feel responsible for requires assisted living, you are in for a tough conversation. All previous conversations have been theoretical. This conversation will be highly emotional.

Even if your relationship is one of love and respect, you will likely encounter resistance in the form of silence, tears, anger, and accusations (not necessarily directed at you, but it is human nature to cast about for someone to blame.)   When she wasn’t feeling confused and scared, grandma felt happy and secure in her apartment, surrounded by friends and neighbors. She looked out her window and saw the church her grandfather helped build, right next to the park where musicians gather every evening to play gospel and bluegrass. “Tell me this,” she asked, “why do I have to move?”

We reminded her that she had had a fall. We pointed out that she was no longer able to get to the store, or the doctor, or the senior center. We expressed our concern that she wasn’t taking her medication and our fears for her safety. We did not use the word “cognitive impairment” or confront her directly with the truth. She was no longer able to manage her life.

Here are some thoughts to help you through the conversation.

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Book Review: the Living Room

The Living RoomThe Living Room by Robert Whitlow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend gave me this book and and said she thought I would like it because I’m a novelist. The process through which Amy received her inspiration did intrigue me, as did her interactions with her agent and the publishers’ perfidy. I do wonder though if it is only authors who find these interactions interesting.

I found Amy’s angst over whether to share information she received intuitively (for lack of a better word) with her co workers to be believable. When people are on different wavelengths it is difficult to communicate. Sometimes it is best to hold back, or at least wait for the right time. She was justified in feeling uncomfortable.

I agree with other reviewers about the teacher/student relationship. That raised a red flag for me immediately. I found myself getting annoyed when the truth didn’t come out until the very end of the book. If the author had spilled the beans earlier, an important issue could have been addressed. Instead, we are left to wonder how much damage was done and to hope and pray that Megan will get therapy.

The best part of this story is coming to realize how likely people are to misread situations. The author was skillful in taking us down a path despite misgivings we may have had about the direction things appeared to be moving.

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Assisted Living: When it’s time

Does any parent ever decide on their own to move into assisted living? I told myself that my mother-in-law made this decision when she purchased long term care insurance. Her brother lost his home and ended up in a trailer on his son’s property, dependent on the care of his overworked children. She did not want that for herself, or for us.

Knowing this, why was I tossing in bed at 3am, feeling intense pain in my muscles? Why did my heart break and my brain accuse me of callous selfishness? Because my husband and I had to make the call for her, and it felt like we were torturing a puppy.

Many of us will have to make this call for our parents. This is the first is a series of blogs on what to expect when you are expelling grandma from her cherished home.

Our culture does not make this an easy conversation.

“No, grandma, we are not putting you in a nursing home. You are going to an, um…residential care facility. You won’t exactly have an apartment, it’s a, uh, single unit.” I search for words that do not sound like institution.

How did we know it was time? Professionals say that older people stay on a plateau for years and then experience a sudden drop. That triggers the need for a level of care that can only be provided by family or paid staff.

As in so many cases, it was a fall. She injured herself and was slow to recover. It came to her neighbors’ attention and they called us. We flew from California to Arkansas to assess the situation and within hours determined that she could no longer manage on her own. That seems to be the pattern: an incident, a flurry of phone calls, an assessment that clearly shows the family that mom or dad can no longer manage their own care, despite their insistence to the contrary.

Like heartless storm troopers we move in and condemn a living situation they have been content with for years.  How do you make a decision like this? Consider these three factors:

Safety – Someone finally noticed that grandma wasn’t coming out of her apartment and found her in bed because she hurt so badly from the fall. (No, of course she didn’t call us.  She didn’t want us to know.)

State of mind – “She is getting very forgetful,” neighbors called repeatedly to tell us. She was depressed over losing a good friend and neighbor. She stopped fixing her hair and rarely left her apartment. She was often confused.

Can’t manage – Because she was no longer getting to the senior center or the store, we arranged for home health care visits and meals on wheels. She dismissed the visiting nurse and barely touched food piled up in the frig. She hurt her back trying to wrestle an ancient vacuum cleaner through a high pile carpet.

Rocking on the porch at the RCF

Rocking on the porch at the RCF

Clearly she wasn’t safe and needed a level of care she couldn’t get in her apartment. Her doctor, her pastor, her friends and neighbors all confirmed our decision to move her. We had two choices. A rare opening came available at the residential care facility (known by all in town as the RCF). We could move her a few blocks over to a place with a good reputation, surrounded by people she knew. Or we could take her back to California to live with us. Isn’t that what a good son would do? Not necessarily.

We tried that once. The cultural difference between California and the Ozarks is immense. She was brave, but she wasn’t happy. We’d had her in our home at the holidays just two years ago. She wandered around in a state of confusion.

Without giving away details that I will share in future blogs, we are convinced we made the right decision to let her stay in her home town. After a roller coaster of emotions– frustration, anger, and tears–we saw a transformation. She turned into a girl again; a new hair-do, freshly laundered clothes, chatting at the dinner table and eating full meals, choosing to walk down the hall to join the hymn sing or rock on the porch with old friends.

She is well cared for and happy, and we are at peace.

Discombobulated: a word study

confusionDiscombobulated is a word I use when I’m out of sorts and don’t know why. When I am in

a state of frustration,

a stew of perplexity,

a stymie of confusion,

I feel discombobulated.

This tongue tripper, a 19th century Americanism, was coined in the days before Words with Friends, when people amused themselves with the dictionary instead of an iPhone app. They coined cleverisms by altering simpler words, in this case, discompose or discomfort.

Some trivia: Discombobulate has six syllables that contain all five vowels. Although it is considered a humorous word, it’s not all that fun a feeling.

Break the word apart, DIS – COM – BOB – U – LATE, snap it into pieces as if it were a stale saltine and you get a sense for how it feels.

  • Disa negative force; slang for a put down. I tend to be self-critical when I’m feeling discombobulated.
  • Comwith, together, in association; I can associate my feelings with a number of convergent events.
  • Bobquick, short up-and-down movements; I bob around in my head from one disgruntlement to another.
  • U – Self, I’m talking to YOU! Something is going on. People or events may trigger the feeling, but they don’t cause it.
  • Latehappening after the usual, expected or desired time; The feeling builds. Relief is late in coming. I will continue to feel discombobulated until something snaps me out of it.

I pondered all this during a Sunday sermon about the withered fig tree. (Mark 11:12-25). Christ came upon a leafy fig tree with no fruit. It was out of season. He was hungry. He cursed the tree and it withered away. There are a number of theological explanations for Christ’s apparent testiness, but in my discombobulated state I saw a clear personal application.

A fig tree lush with leaves stands before me. Oh the possibilities! I am so hungry for the fruit I don’t consider whether this is fig season. I just keep sticking my hand into that tree, feeling around for the fruit. The more often I come up empty handed, the more discombobulated I feel. Where’s the fruit?

Whatever it is that you are searching for, are you so distracted by the leafy display that you’ve forgotten to consider the timing? What distractions are you dealing with that need to wither and die? What vistas might open up if you looked elsewhere to satisfy your longing?

Self, I’m talking to you.

Find the Joy

© Andrew Kazmierski | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Andrew Kazmierski | Dreamstime Stock Photos


Some days you have to look hard to find the joy. The El Portal fire is blowing smoke our way from the community of Foresta that houses Yosemite Park employees. An eye-stinging reminder of what we suffered in the Rim fire last year, we say prayers for our neighboring communities.

Ash seasons our already muggy air as if some heavy handed chef dumped too much slurry in the soup, and I begin to lose my taste for this day.


Joy is an emotion, a feeling of great delight or happiness triggered by some exceptionally good or satisfying event. I felt it yesterday when I saw two postings on Facebook: a video of my granddaughter playing my mother’s piano and belting out a song, and a photo of my son’s Telly award for his contribution to a music video.

Strangely, I think I take more joy in the accomplishments of my family and friends than I do my own. The joys of reaching a publishing milestone are surprisingly short-lived, whereas I bask longer in the glory of my children’s joy. Could it be that sustained joy requires connection?

 Yesterday I ran up and down stairs with a big grin on my face thinking about several moments of joy others had shared with me that day. The intensity of their feelings of delight resonated along a delicate web of connections that reached my heart.

I sometimes let my joy get beaten down by the environment. It only takes a few minutes on Facebook scrolling through posts that scream in my face for me to lose my joy.

Look at THIS! You won’t believe what happens next!

Seriously cute ALERT! Seriously, you have to see this!

A trip to Macy*s Department Store can do it. All those sad clothes in bad colors, reeking of chemicals, clinging to each other on carousal racks, marked down from $75 to $5.99.

What to do when joy takes a coffee break and decides to bag it for the rest of the day?


There is a trick that writers use when they need to infuse new energy into a scene. Change the focus. Lift a character’s eyes to a new horizon, or fix their attention on something close, closer, even closer.

I can’t see the horizon today for the smoke, but I can train my mind’s eye on the shore of Bainbridge Island, where I will arrive tomorrow for a ten-day visit with my daughter dedicated to restoring health giving joy.

I focus my eyes on a silent cluster of oak leaves on the still branch just outside my office window. The branch begins to dance, and a tiny seed whirls out of the foliage and helicopters past my view. Whee!


True joy can’t be manufactured, it has to be discovered, noticed, appreciated, and perhaps shared. How do you restore joy?

Tending our forest

This year, our scraggly apricot tree bore fruit for the first time in 15 years

This year, our scraggly apricot tree bore fruit for the first time in 15 years

We forest dwellers have a dilemma tending our forest.  The Rim Fire taught us that proper forest management can save our property and our lives. We may disagree about how to manage the forest, but most of us are diligently whacking our weeds and limbing our trees.

The forest is stressed from drought. Trees are conserving what resources they have at their roots, letting their leaves turn brown. Despite the assault of fire and no water on the forest, the wildlife seems to be thriving. The humming birds and finches are back, and my scraggly apricot tree that hasn’t born fruit in fifteen years is full of apricots this year!

Jays are in a pecking fury; deer rip the bounty off branches and chomp noisily; red fox, a family of five, bounce around under the tree, and  frightened Clyde has relocated to the La-Z-Boy recliner downstairs.

The fox are a bit too close for comfort. Fun to watch, I wonder why they are suddenly scampering around in the daytime and what we are going to do about the cat. Clearly Clyde feels threatened, but we hired him to keep the mouse population on our property at bay, not to be a permanent indoor guest.

We live in the forest, without fences. We work at maintaining defensible space around our house to discourage fire. Cute as they are, we are going to have to figure out a way to discourage the fox before they make a meal of our mouser.

The Lyre and the Lambs cover reveal

LyreLambsFront_smallToday is the day; the Lyre and the Lambs cover reveal!

 Approving a book cover is a highly emotional event for an author. So much is involved; images, fonts, colors. When all is said and done, the cover has to appeal to an audience of varied ages, tastes, and experiences. It has to engage book browsers’ curiosity long enough so they will take the next step; pick up the book and flip it over or click to read the blurb. 

Since much of the drama in The Lyre and The Lambs centers on the young people  I think this cover fits, and I love the colors and the stylish font.

The sequel to The Sheep Walker s Daughter, this book explores the passions that draw people together and the faith it takes to overcome trauma.

 A mother and a daughter, both newlyweds, decide to set up housekeeping together. Dee and Valerie move with their husbands into a modern glass house Valerie built in a proudly rural Los Altos, California neighborhood. When their relatives start showing up and moving in, the neighbors get suspicious. Then a body is found in the backyard and the life they are trying to build comes undone.

Father Mike is back to guide Dee through a difficult time with humor and grace, even as his own life is unraveling. Now he’s going to have to take some of his own advice about love. 

The Lyre and the Lambs will be released on September 3, 2014. What happens before and shortly after release day largely determines how many people will be exposed to the title and have the opportunity to choose whether to read it or not. Pre-orders and early reviews are a big determinant. 

  1. Pre-order The Lyre and the Lambs Your copy will ship on September 3, 2014.
  2. Mark as a To Read on Goodreads


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