My Friend Died, and It Sucks

August 4th, 2015 by

Laurie & Peter in SB

Michael and I were living in Florida, about to move to LA, when I got an email from a woman named Laurie Burrows Grad. She said she was chairing a Penn Women Author Event to commemorate 100 years of women at the University of Pennsylvania, where I attended the Annenberg School of Communications. She asked if I’d be willing to participate. I wrote back thanking her for thinking of me but explained that I was overwhelmed with my imminent move to Los Angeles. She wrote back that she lived in LA and that if I needed anything when I got there, I shouldn’t hesitate to call her. “And you’ll come for dinner and meet my husband Peter,” she added.

“How nice is that?” I said to Michael. “They don’t even know us.”

Laurie and I continued to email and we discovered we’d soon be neighbors, that the Beverly Hills duplex Michael and I had rented was only blocks away from her house. She offered yet again to have us over for dinner and we looked forward to it.

On our first night in our Beverly Hills rental, friendless and furniture-less, since our stuff was on a Mayflower van making its way across the country, Michael and I were surprised by a knock on the door. It was Laurie and Peter with shopping bags containing goodies to eat and drink and little battery-operated lights we could put on the floor by our air mattress until our lamps arrived.

“How nice is that?” I repeated to Michael.

Laurie was beautiful inside and out, I discovered, and Peter was hilarious with the ability to mock you in such an endearing way that you didn’t mind being mocked. (The first time he saw me, he nicknamed me “Bones.” Normally, when people joke that I’m skinny or scrawny or bony, it makes me mad, but Peter? I loved that he had a special name for me, just like he had special names for all his close pals, because he said it with such affection.)  Both he and Laurie had huge hearts, and the word “generous” didn’t begin to describe them. (And I’m not just talking about the fact that they’d raised millions of dollars for the Alzheimer’s Association as a result of their “A Night at Sardi’s” benefits.) Oh and one more thing: they adored each other. You could see it in their eyes, in the way they treated each other, in the way they touched each other. When you were around Laurie and Peter, you were thrilled to be in their orbit.

And we were definitely in their orbit. Laurie and I would talk on the phone forever and then email right after. Michael, who doesn’t make friends easily or often, couldn’t get enough of Peter. While Laurie and I would be in her kitchen kibbitzing, he and Peter would be downstairs watching porn channels on TV and laughing like idiot boys waiting for their mothers to scold them. We’d go out for dinner. We’d go to the movies. We’d spend New Year’s Eves together and Oscar night and all the rest. And when they said, “We’re staying at a friend’s on the beach in Santa Barbara for the weekend. Want to come?” we not only said yes but became so enamored of Santa Barbara that we moved there.

I was emailing and texting with Laurie this past weekend while she and Peter were on their annual trip to Vail. She was telling me what a good time they were having and I was telling her the latest about CT, where Michael and I had bought a house in April to spend more time with my mother. I missed the Grads now that I was on the East Coast again, but we’d recently had lunch with them when they came to NYC and we pledged to spend more time together when we flew back to CA over the winter.

Then came a terrible phone call on Sunday morning: Peter had died.

Just like that. While I was sleeping. While I was completely in the dark.

I woke up assuming they were enjoying their last day in Vail and instead Laurie was dealing with the loss of her beloved Petey. How could this be true? How could someone who’d been so alive, so vital, be here one minute and gone the next? I couldn’t fathom it. With one big exception, I’d been remarkably lucky in the friend department when it came to good health. Yes, I had just turned Medicare age, but all my buddies were fine, a few aches, pains and prescription drugs aside.

Not Peter, apparently.

No one didn’t love Peter Grad. No one. He could walk into a room and charm even the crabbiest person. He could play a round a golf with Joe Schmo and the President of the United States and put them both at ease. He could elicit a laugh even on your gloomiest day and then order you a pizza or grill you a steak. (No one made eating as much fun as Peter. With him, food was entertainment.)

Laurie is bereft, naturally, and I feel helpless that I can’t take her pain away. I wish my mother didn’t have dementia so I could ask her what her friends did or said that most comforted her after my father died.

I only hope that the outpouring Laurie’s getting from people will ease her grief a little. She did have the good fortune to be married to the love of her life for a very long time. May the gift of that sustain her.

RIP, Petey.


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Following in My Mother’s Footsteps

June 1st, 2015 by

Mom tracksuit

A few years ago, when Mom was still able to fly across the country and visit me in California every January, I bought her a fancy tracksuit at Neiman Marcus for her birthday. It was black velour with little rhinestones on the side front pockets of the zip-up jacket, and she loved it. She not only wore it for lounging around the house, but she wore it on the treadmill for her early evening workouts while watching the news.

Yes, treadmill, the professional-grade machine that had a prominent place in her finished basement and was so big it dwarfed her. The woman was in her mid-90s but utterly disciplined about going on that machine every day and walking for an hour, and she’d been sticking to her exercise routine for years. It kept her trim. It kept her feeling productive. It gave her a sense of control, which became especially important when her memory began to deteriorate and she needed to rely more and more on Sandy, her full-time caregiver, who filled in the blanks when she couldn’t remember where she was going or why. She did her laps on the treadmill when she could no longer contribute to her monthly book group discussion and stopped going. She did her laps on the treadmill when she could no longer tell you who was president. She did her laps on the treadmill when she could no longer drive a car. The treadmill was her touchstone, a way to prove to herself and the rest of us that she was still in charge of her body and mind. She even got a new, more high-tech model not long ago, as if to say, “I’m still here. I’m still me.”

And then she stopped using the treadmill the way she stopped watching the news. At 98, she’s unsteady on her feet, shuffles more than walks, needs help getting up from the sofa.

But did she admit any of that when I broached the subject of my taking the treadmill to my new house in CT so I could walk in inclement weather? Absolutely not. Here’s how the conversation went.

Me: “Mom, how would you feel if I bought the treadmill from you, since you don’t use it anymore and I need to exercise indoors now that I moved here?”

Mom: “What do you mean? I still use the treadmill every day!”

Me: “Uh, no you don’t.”

Mom: “Of course I do! I go downstairs and walk for an hour!”

Me, getting the picture and not wanting to agitate her: “Right. Well then, never mind. You keep it. Absolutely.”

A few minutes later, Thelma, who was covering for Sandy that afternoon and whose kind and gentle manner calms Mom, came into the room, sat down with us and said very diplomatically to my mother, “Jane would really like to have your treadmill. Wouldn’t you like her to have it? You don’t need it anymore.”

Mom: “Of course. Why shouldn’t she have it. It’s not even a question.”

It was as if I hadn’t asked the first time and gotten such a negative reaction, as if this were an entirely new subject. Now I didn’t know how to proceed. The last – and I mean the very last – thing I wanted to do was strip my mother of any vestige of the life she’s enjoyed, the life that has enabled her to live so long and so well, not to mention take advantage of her memory lapses. If she felt the treadmill was still important to her, then that was that and I wouldn’t bring it up again. I’d keep looking for a used one on Craigslist. No biggie. But if she didn’t have a problem with me taking it, that would be great too. Which was her “real” answer? To hang onto her treadmill or relinquish it and, perhaps, her sense of independence?

I went home and resumed my Craigslist search – until Sandy called.

“Your mom wants you to have her treadmill,” she said. “We talked about it. She knows she can’t use it anymore.”

I asked “Are you sure?” over and over again. This was tricky terrain for me, as I said. I wanted to respect my mother’s wishes, but I’d been confused about what they were.

“I’m sure,” said Sandy. “Besides, I’m not letting her use it. It’s not safe for her now.”

Not safe for her now. Sandy’s words made the decision easier. She was the one living in the house with Mom. She was the one who helped her bathe and gave her her medications and held her hand when they crossed the street. She made me understand that taking the treadmill would be an act of care for Mom, not a theft of her identity, as well as an act of care for me, for my health, given my much-too-sedentary lifestyle. And wasn’t that what good caregiving was all about? A balancing act between taking care of loved ones and taking care of ourselves? Hadn’t I written a book on that very subject?

The treadmill is now in my basement. The first time I turned on the TV news, stepped onto the machine and began to walk, I teared up. I pictured Mom on that thing, watching the news, hardly breaking a sweat, and I felt sad that I’d lost the mom she used to be. And then I quickly rethought my visualization. Instead, I imagined her standing off to the side cheering me on. “The treadmill was a big part of my life and now I’m passing it on to you, dear,” I heard her say. And then, because my mother has a sense of humor, I also heard her say, “Just don’t be a slacker and stop using it.”



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No More Caregiving from 3,000 Miles Away

May 22nd, 2015 by

Mom and me birthday

I haven’t spent my May 2nd birthday with my mother in many years. I’ve been living in California and only visited her in Mt. Kisco, in New York’s northern Westchester County, in the summers. After Mom turned 98 on her birthday in January and her cognitive abilities deteriorated further, it became very clear that talking to her on the phone and getting reports from my New York-based sister Susan and from Sandy, Mom’s live-in caregiver and majordomo, that I wanted to be close by; that I needed to be close by. There were other good reasons to move back to CT but Mom was the primary one. Celebrating my birthday with her, as I did in the photo above. was a treat.

What I’ve discovered spending time with her is that she’s holding her own in many ways. She still has an amazing vocabulary, still has her sense of humor, still remembers plenty. But she doesn’t remember plenty too. Gone are the anecdotes about my childhood. Gone are the anecdotes about her two husbands, my father and stepfather. Gone are the anecdotes about her friends, most of whom she has outlived.

But just when the sadness of all this creeps into my head, I remind myself to find the silver linings in Mom’s dementia. My book, You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, was all about finding the silver linings in caring for a loved one with a chronic or progressive illness. I not only wrote about the humorous side of being married to a man with Crohn’s disease, but I encouraged the other caregivers I interviewed (a mother whose son is autistic, a wife whose husband has MS, a son whose two parents had Alzheimer’s, etc.) to find humor in their situations too. Being able to find the positives in even the darkest times – and laughing about them – keeps us sane.

So….what are the silver linings with my mother?

For one thing, she’s no longer estranged from her older sister. As I wrote in The Huffington Post a while back, she forgot she was mad at my aunt after ten years of their not speaking to each other, picked up the phone one day and called her. The conversation was friendly and cheerful as if there’d never been an angry word between them. (My aunt, who’s 100 now, has the same level of dementia as Mom.) They’ve been good buddies ever since. How that’s for an upside of dementia.

For another, every time I come to the house to visit Mom now, it’s a pleasant surprise to her. “Nobody told me you were coming!” she exclaims as soon as I walk in the door, even though I’ve spoken to her only minutes before on the phone to let her know I’m on my way. “This is such a wonderful, wonderful surprise! I can’t get over it!” See? Another upside: my mother is always really, really happy to see me.

But the most personal upside by far has been the fact that my mother’s dementia has changed the way she feels about my writing career. Let me back up and explain.

During a recent phone call, she said, “What’s new, dear?”

“Just taking a break from writing to say hi,” I told her.

“Writing?” she said.

“I’m working on a new novel,” I said.

“You write novels?” She sounded flabbergasted. “Nobody told me that!”

I thought I’d misheard her. A former college professor of Greek and Latin, she values words and had never forgotten that I earned my living through words. It was as if she’d suddenly forgotten who I was.

“Why don’t you walk over to the bookshelves across from your bed,” I suggested trying not to show how shaken I was. “You’ll see a lot of books with my name on them.”

She put down the phone, went to look, and came back on the line. “Oh my goodness! I can’t believe my daughter writes novels! I’m so impressed, dear, and so proud. I bet they’re the best novels ever written.”

Well, now she had done a complete one-eighty. I write romantic comedies – novels that have hit bestseller lists, been translated all over the world, and sold to Hollywood. Most mothers would be thrilled to have a daughter who was a successful author, and Mom was thrilled. She called me her “little celebrity,” woke up early to watch me on the “Today” show, and planted herself in the front row at my bookstore signings where she bought multiple copies and had me autograph them. Naturally, I’d assumed she read the books too. I was wrong. She didn’t read them, certainly not all the way through. And the fact that she didn’t – I discovered this after I’d just given her the galley proofs of a forthcoming novel and minutes later found her combing my library for “something good to read” – was like a stab in the heart.

Mom and I had always shared a very close bond. She was my anchor after my father died when I was six. I followed in her footsteps in college and majored in Greek and Latin. I graduated Summa Cum Laude, as did she. I earned a Phi Beta Kappa key that she wore on her charm bracelet. We were smarty-pants women together, rolling our eyes when grammatically challenged people said, “Between you and I.” So imagine my hurt to learn that my novels weren’t up to her intellectual standards, that my work was the sort of facile, mass entertainment she dismissed. The knowledge of her disapproval created a breach in our otherwise loving relationship that was always lurking beneath the surface, unspoken.

And yet now, during our phone call, Mom had just validated the work I had spent my adult life laboring over. In her cognitively impaired state, she had uttered the magic words at last: “I bet they’re the best books ever written.”

So yes, caring for aging parents with dementia can be a struggle and there are times when you long for your parent the way he or she used to be, but when there are silver linings, we have to grab them with both hands. I grabbed my mother’s compliment about my books and will never let them go.





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Eating (and More Eating) in My New ‘Hood

May 15th, 2015 by


I didn’t actually order the above menu item at @ the corner (yes, that’s the name of the restaurant, since it’s right on the corner of the charming town of Litchfield). I ordered the “salmon fricassee,” which was an absolutely heavenly entree consisting of a bowl of perfectly cooked salmon surrounded by a simmered sauce of artichoke hearts, olives, white beans and super ripe cherry tomatoes. I loved this place – the food, the ambiance, the fact that they give you a healthy pour of wine – and am grateful to our friends for introducing us to it.

In between all the house stuff (yesterday we had another visit from the electrician and a delivery of our patio furniture – oh, and our lawn got mowed for the first time – and today will bring the guy who, hopefully, will fix our garage door openers that suddenly don’t work), we’ve been revisiting the area’s restaurants we’ve liked and trying new ones. My waistline is expanding accordingly as is my credit card bill. I must stop the madness or I’ll be forced to eat this.

friskiesSunday night brings the finale of “Mad Men” and there’s no way I’ll be at a restaurant during that. I’ll be in my living room, glued to the TV, probably crying, probably second guessing the ending, probably expecting Matthew Weiner, the show’s creative genius, to tell us it’s all a joke and “Mad Men” is coming back for another season after all. Yeah, like that’s happening. Sigh.

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And Look What Else Surprised Us

May 8th, 2015 by

cherry tree

As I’ve said, I’m not a garden person so I don’t know what plants, trees and shrubs will turn out to be until they reveal themselves in the spring. This cherry tree at the front of our property was a happy surprise. It’s so pink and joyful that it makes me smile every time I look at it.

And the house itself is coming along. Yesterday the mason came to repair the brick patio. The day before that the plumber came to repair the outdoor shower. On and on it goes, but we took a break from all the headache-inducing stuff and had our first dinner guest last night. Michael broke in the new BBQ with a terrific chicken with pesto and I made a ton of roasted vegetables (Yukon gold potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and carrots – very colorful) and a salad with mixed greens, endive, tomatoes, cucumbers and walnuts in a mustard vinaigrette. Yum, if I do say so myself. Our guest brought us a wonderful house present: a large wooden bowl he’d made himself. He’s a very talented woodworker so I’m thrilled to have one of his signed creations and can’t wait to make a big salad in the bowl.

On the book front, my agent and I decided to change the title of my novel before the manuscript went to editors for submissions this week. Instead of going out as Farm Fatales, the spinoff to Princess Charming is now called Three Blonde Mice, which is also the name of the planned series the book will kick off. I just hope editors love it as much as I do. We shall see……….

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I Saw These in My Yard Today!

April 29th, 2015 by

Spring daffodils

Before the daffodils appeared, the property was pretty barren. No, it was sadder than barren. Thanks to the brutal winter in New Preston, CT, there were tree branches, dead leaves and all sorts of debris covering what I hope will be flower beds. Having just moved into this house, I don’t know what will bloom until it actually does.

Today’s excitement after yesterday’s visit from the electrician is the power washing of the front and back brick walkways and patio, the hanging of bathroom towel bars, the paint touch-ups of gouges in the walls caused by the movers and the unpacking of still more boxes. I don’t remember being so immersed in minutia.

But the house is coming together. It doesn’t feel as alien as it did last week. I’m not waking up in the morning with that “Where am I” feeling. I’m learning the house’s creeks and groans. (It’s an old house or, as our building inspector called it, “an experienced house.”) By this weekend, I predict we’ll be hanging artwork, and once that’s done we can turn our attention to the landscaping. The grass needs TLC and there are trees and shrubs to plant. We don’t have any outdoor furniture but we’re going to look at some used Adirondack chairs owned by a client of our contractor (she’s got a big house by the lake and she’s downsizing). And a neighbor invited us over for tea later (she’s British).

What about writing? I admire authors who can write with workmen around. I’m not one of them. I’m not good at chaos. I need order and organization and a fixed schedule. I need the certainty that someone won’t be knocking on the door any minute with a set of tools and an invoice. I need peace – a few hours of it anyway. The good news is I finished Farm Fatales, the spinoff of Princess Charming, before I left California. So once my head clears, I’ll figure out the next book. And the one after that. I will not let this move or this house or this pervasive sense of disorientation sidetrack me….unless, of course, I end up writing about that.

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Settling into My New House

April 22nd, 2015 by


It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post for Mainly Jane. Just too much going on, including the move across the country into our house in New Preston, CT. But after a wild ten days during which the moving truck arrived and we were boxed in by a gazillion boxes and kept saying, “I can’t find the scissors” and “I think that lamp in the living room is missing” and assorted other cries and moans, we’re making progress. We still have boxes – too many – but I can see daylight now. And the rooms are coming together. I even had a manicure yesterday. The nail lady had to use glue on three of my nails because they were split down the middle from opening – you guessed it – boxes, but I felt semi-human.

We picked a good time to come. The snow is gone and though everyone has stories about “the worst winter ever,” we dodged it.

Here’s what we didn’t dodge. A bathroom toilet leaked. The washer and dryer wouldn’t wash or dry. Some of our furniture didn’t fit in their allotted spaces. We spent too much money at Home Depot buying unglamorous things like light bulbs, a medicine cabinet, a hose, a broom, a barbecue.

What I’m dreading the most is our trip to the CT DMV to get our licenses and register our cars. We’ve already been there once, but we didn’t have the right paperwork so we failed and were told to try again. I understand that there’s a lot of red tape with all this, but what I don’t get is why every single person who works at the DMV – the one in Danbury, CT anyway – has to be so grumpy? Not a smile anywhere. Not a “Welcome to Connecticut.” Not even a “Sorry we can’t help you today.” Just one surly person after another. Not a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, our contractor has been a joy to work with. Talk about doing it all. Frank Montelone and his crew at FJM Construction have made the move as painless as possible. No matter how big or small the job, they’ve been willing to take it on or know someone who will. Eric Popilowski is their office manager and we literally couldn’t have functioned without him. He waited at the house for the cable company while we were in California. He waited here for the TV installers from Best Buy. He measured. He answered questions. He reassured. He even said Frank would fix the antique chair that came off the moving truck broken. He’s the answer man.

Do I feel like an East Coaster yet? No. I’m still disoriented. I still operate on Pacific Standard Time, turning on the TV to watch shows that have already aired here. And the other day I walked over to our nearby sandwich shop, a terrific place in New Preston village called Nine Main Bakery & Deli. I was waiting at the counter for my sandwiches when a woman showed up to place her order. She started talking to me about her son, the doctor, and how proud she was of him. “I’m even more proud of him than I am of my screenwriter son-in-law.” Well, since I’m still in a California state of mind, I said, “Has the screenwriter son-in-law had any movies produced?” She laughed and said, “Of course! His name is Kevin Barnett and he writes for the Farrelly brothers. You know. ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ and ‘Hall Pass.'” She gave me his phone number and said, “Call him. Maybe he’ll turn one of your books into a movie.” The moral of the story is that I came all the way across the country, but Hollywood is never far away. It always beckons.

Meanwhile, Michael and I went out to one of our favorite haunts for dinner last night, the White Horse Tavern here in New Preston. It’s an English pub, so Michael indulged himself with Shepherd’s pie. He was in heaven.

White Horse

Note all those mashed potatoes on top. They were a thing of beauty.

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My book is “eye candy!”

February 2nd, 2015 by


Chronicle Books, publisher of my caregiver survival guide, You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, just gave me the heads up that the book has been selected for their special, month-long “Eye Candy” ebook sale! What does that mean? Special savings, that’s what! For the entire month of February, caregivers and the people who care about them, will be able to go to any ebook retailer and purchase the ebook edition at a substantial savings. I’m talking about a book that’s been priced as high as $14.99 selling for $2.99 and less in February – no small deal, right?

I came up with the idea for You’d Better Not Die after spending 20 years as the caregiver to my husband Michael, who has Crohn’s disease and who sent us both on a journey that involved multiple hospitalizations and surgeries and home health nurses and many, many doctors. I wanted to write about my experience with a humorous spin – not as a Debbie Downer, in other words, but as someone who could stare the dark days in the face and still find silver linings in them. I also sought out caregivers with stories about caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, a husband with M.S., a daughter with anorexia, a son with autism and much more. And finally I went to the experts – lots of them: therapists (how do we cope when we’re so stressed we can’t see straight?), a dietician (what the heck do we eat that’s healthy when we’re stuck with hospital cafeterias?),  fitness coaches (how are we supposed to exercise when we’re sitting in a hospital room all day?), a bestselling cookbook author (who has time to cook a nutritious meal with flavor?), meditation teachers (how do we quiet the mind when it’s racing to check off all the items on our “To Do” list?), nurses (how should we deal with the cranky ones who won’t answer our questions?), and much more.

Since the book was published, my perspective as a caregiver has broadened. I did write about my mother’s increasing dementia in You’d Better Not Die, but I have a whole new appreciation for what caring for an elderly parent is all about. Mom recently turned 98 (her older sister just turned 100, so longevity runs on that side of the family) and while still very sharp at times, she’s more and more dependent on her full-time caregiver to fill in the blanks. She’s especially disoriented in the late afternoons and evenings when the infamous “sundowners” set in, and her confusion is a source of great frustration to her. Over the past few years I’ve been her long-distance caregiver since I’ve lived in California and she’s in New York, but I’m moving back east this spring and one of the main reasons is to be there for and with her in whatever ways she needs me – from interacting with her doctors to help with paying her bills to spending time with her and trying to brighten her days. She lives at home – at one point she wanted to move to an assisted living community and then changed her mind – and is isolated to a certain degree, and I hope my presence will mitigate that.

Meanwhile, I’m very heartened by the wonderful reader responses to You’d Better Not Die, along with the critics’ reviews. I write romantic comedies for the most part, so a caregiver book was new territory for me. But take a look at some of the words of praise on Goodreads. Wow.

“Our sweet daughter gave me this book for Christmas – and I took my time reading and thinking about every chapter. ‘A family caregiver is caring for somebody who has something that can’t be fixed-i.e., it doesn’t have a cure at this point in time. That requires a totally different medical approach.’ (page 284) This definition of a caregiver includes most of my family and friends…who don’t really see themselves as caregivers, but who, like me, struggle with all of the issues associated with this role as we care for a parent, spouse, child, or friend. This book is filled with simple, useful, needed advice based on the experiences of Jane, and her friends, family, and health care professionals that are helping her make sense of this complicated issue. Their insights and comments have helped me change how I see my own role as a caregiver and how I see and serve others filling this critical role.”

“I’ve been reading Jane Heller’s You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, and it’s exceptional. Two hours later (with lots of laughs and tears), I finished it from cover to cover. Honestly, after doing home health with a 87 year old , with her declining health and increasing dementia, I believe this book will be a godsend to so many. It’s unique in its scope – anecdotal, voices from a cadre of health care professionals as well as peeps like us, and very personal. I’ve experienced all of it – working nurses, asking questions, keeping records, doing follow-ups, arranging ambulances and rehab and homecare and wading through the Medicare stuff….and the author has put ALL OF IT down to help and to use….and ultimately, to speak of love and how it is tested….well, nicely done.”

“I cried at many points in this book because I recognized so much of my own experiences in the stories in this book. Lots of good advice, even though as a caregiver, you’re probably just too exhausted, frustrated, busy to take it. Excellent book that should offer solace to those of us who often feel alone in their challenges.”

I love hearing from readers and talking to other caregivers, so feel free to send me an email and let me know how you’re doing on your caregiving journey. If you haven’t read the book or you have a friend or family member for whom you’d like to buy it, February is the month. For the bookseller links to the Eye Candy Special Savings Promo, go to my home page on this site.

Take care!



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Movie Night: “Selma”

January 13th, 2015 by


We braved the rain the other night (yes, it actually rained in Santa Barbara – for two days, in fact – and hopefully the percip helped the drought conditions) and went to the Arlington Theater to see “Selma.” The night before on his MSNBC show, Lawrence O’Donnell had gone into such a state of rhapsody over the movie that, in addition to many other glowing reviews as well as the timeliness of the subject and my own interest in the civil rights movement, I was eager to see “Selma” – particularly on the eve of the Golden Globes awards.

The good news: David Oyelowo, yet another Brit playing an American icon (lots of them these days), gets Martin Luther King Jr.’s vocal cadences amazingly well. The bad news: I wish there’d been more fiery speeches to show off his talent. “Selma” is a more ruminative movie than one that gets you up on your feet shouting “Amen.” It shows King in quiet, contemplative moments – too many of them for me. We see him strategizing with his close group of advisers. We see him trying to make his point with LBJ (Tim Wilkinson, another Brit playing a legendary American). We see him navigating strained marital waters with his wife Coretta. And all of these contemplative moments move at a very slow pace, many in darkly lit spaces.

It’s when “Selma” opened up and showed us the people of Selma and the consequences of their fight for their right to vote that the movie came alive for me. Their courage, their persistence even in the face of formidable opposition, even in the face of unyielding Alabama Governor George Wallace (another Brit, Tim Roth), was inspirational and riveting. But as for King himself? Let’s put it this way. As I was coming out of the ladies’ room after the movie, I heard several women echo my own thought, which was: “How can a story about such a magnetic man make him seem so un-magnetic?” The film was emotionally flat in places where it needed to soar. I was disappointed.


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Movie Day: “Inherent Vice”

December 21st, 2014 by

Inherent Vice poster
Well, that was an interesting – or should I say “groovy” – screening at Cinema Society today. I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous movies (“There Will Be Blood, “The Master”) and, while I’ve never been equally enthusiastic about the novels of Thomas Pynchon, I loved the idea of an LA noir tale with an A+ cast (Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Benecio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Eric Roberts). What could be bad?

The length of “Inherent Vice,” for one thing. Must I keep ranting about films that take over two-and-a-half hours to tell a story? Apparently so. Scenes could have been tightened up and they weren’t. On the other hand, the top critics who’ve put the movie on their Best of 2014 list praised Anderson’s ability to condense Pynchon’s novel, so what do I know?

Set in 1970, the movie begins as private eye Doc Sportello, a stoner in Santa Monica who hasn’t fully grasped that the sixties have come to an end post-Manson family, gets a visit from his ex-girlfriend who’s worried about her current boyfriend who’s gone missing. The boyfriend is a billionaire real estate developer whose wife and her stud have plotted to commit him to a looney bin and steal his money. Doc is intrigued and investigates. One trail of clues leads to another and another, and along the way we meet a recovering heroin addict-sax player (Wilson), a drug-dealing, sex-crazed dentist (Short), an LAPD detective with TV aspirations (Brolin) and many more. It’s a wild, psychedelic ride and I alternated between liking the movie and being bored by it. It didn’t help that Santa Barbara’s historic Riviera Theatre has terrible acoustics and much of the dialogue was hard to decipher.

Phoenix is wonderful as always, but Brolin stole the movie for me. He’s hilarious, truly. The movie looks great too; if Anderson doesn’t know how to shoot a film set in LA, no one does. Michael loved “Inherent Vice” and said if it hadn’t been so long it would have been his Best Film of the year. He certainly laughed a lot. Maybe he was stoned?


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