Up the Valley: Keepers

April 10, 2014

Is attachment to inanimate objects – and their boxes – an obsession, or a future annuity on Ebay?
Today’s column in the St Helena Star

There are certain aspects of personality that were as evident in us during childhood as they are at middle age. I came to this realization recently, while combing through my outdoor trash bin in the middle of the night.

As a child, my mother gave me an Easter gift of a tin wind-up rabbit with calico-pattern terrycloth overalls, which played the tune: “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” I adored this toy, playing it so many times that the tiny Easter-egg adorned crank finally broke. My mother threw the toy in the trash, and tried to stifle my sobs by buying another. But I had no interest in this replica, longing instead for my broken but best-loved bunny. As soon as my mother’s back was turned, I went out to the garbage and rescued the rejected rabbit, cleverly concealing it as an obvious lump in the middle of my bedroom rug.

Flash forward 50 years. I still have this unshakable emotional attachment to inanimate objects, none more than my small glass microwave rice cooker from Japan. Dating back to my first house, it survived half a dozen moves, several makeshift repairs of its plastic parts, and hundreds of batches of flawless steaming rice. It had a little rubberized lid that popped into the pot with a satisfying “shwoomp” — like the sound of a Mercedes sedan door closing, or of one of those high-end kitchen cabinet drawers gliding smoothly back into position.

During my last house move, my little glass cooker disappeared, sending me down the rabbit hole of replacement shopping. I tried electric rice-makers, BPA-free plastic models, pre-packed boiling bags, and good old-fashioned boiled water on the stove. None brought me the joy of diving into my treasured little glass pot with its plastic paddle. Online research revealed that the Japanese manufacturer once released an identical model — but in pink, with Hello Kitty logos all over it. Pink! Hello Kitty! I want this so badly, it has become my Holy Grail, although its existence may merely be Japanese urban legend, along with safe nuclear plants, heterosexual samurai, and Godzilla.

Recently I was rearranging boxes in storage when I discovered — to my delight — my beloved rice cooker. For one glorious meal, we were blissfully reunited — the plastic paddle dipping once more into the perfectly sized glass receptacle to retrieve no-fuss fluffy rice; it was like dinner for two with a long-lost friend. But while washing the glass container in the sink, I became distracted by the shrill barking of an unruly dog-in-residence, and I dropped it — watching in horrified slow motion as it shattered into pieces.

I blamed myself, blamed the dog, blamed the gods, and threw the lot into the trash (not the box, of course — I might need its markings to find another, the rationalized retention of empty boxes being one of my particular neuroses). But at 2 a.m., contemplating a bleak future without my rice cooker, I hatched a plan. Suppose I could replace the glass receptacle? Why don’t I search for something glass to fit that self-sealing lid, just as Prince Charming combed the kingdom looking for a perfectly proportioned foot to fit his favorite glass slipper? I jumped out of bed and ran outside in my PJ’s to retrieve the non-glass pieces from the bin, like a raccoon raiding the trash under the cover of darkness.

The next day I pulled out a Pyrex measuring cup and — in a moment that must have resembled the day ancient humans discovered the wheel — placed the rice cooker lid on top, pushed down, and heard that familiar “shwoomp.” I set the glass cup on the rice cooker’s base and — incredibly — it fit! I rushed to the phone to inform my best friend of this miracle. Unfortunately she is a therapist, and my discovery did not please her. “This just reinforces your problematic tendency to hold onto material objects that weigh down your life,” she opined, free of charge. It’s true, but honestly — this wasn’t going to change anyway. I’ll always regard the empty box that once held my favorite discontinued eye cream as a historical artifact, and will collect broken pieces of my good china because — you never know — I might want to make a mosaic.

All this madness seemingly started with that damn wind-up wabbit. I wonder how today’s children handle their planned-obsolescence playthings, with the computer chip playing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” set to expire after a predetermined number of repetitions. Do preschoolers simply pop open the back and rewire the circuitry or hack into an alternate power source? Or do today’s toddlers welcome disposability, knowing that yesterday’s broken bunny provides an excuse to upgrade to tomorrow’s iRabbit, which not only plays “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” but downloads similar songs via Wi-Fi, organizes playdate schedules and synchs with the mouth-controlled SmartTeether™ to play ringtones, text fellow tots and change the channel on the television set?

Although my tin toy rabbit is now a high-priced collectible on eBay, it’s probably best to teach your youngsters to recycle their treasures. Otherwise they may be doing some moonlight dumpster diving 50 years from now.

Is watching the game on tv, while simultaneously kissing the girl, efficient or rude? And does my cat have a monkey-mind? Today’s column in the St. Helena Star:

You know that scene in a movie where the guy is making out with his girlfriend on the couch, while surreptitiously watching a televised football game at the same time? My cat Briscoe does that.

He has become inclined to awaken me with kisses — seriously — pressing his mouth on mine, depositing a nice cold layer of drool — and I don’t want to know what else — on my face in the process. Not exactly like being lulled from restful dreaming by gentle kisses from George Clooney, but I hesitate to traumatize the male of any species who attempts to express affection. So I try not to recoil too visibly, and wipe away the drool when he’s not looking.

But lately he has started kissing me awake while surreptitiously glancing wide-eyed and twitchy-whiskered out the window at the birds and squirrels playing outside; the feline equivalent of watching the game while kissing the girl. I find this behavior mildly insulting, if not downright rude. You’d think that I could command the rapt attention of a creature that is completely dependent upon me for his gourmet wet and dry food, his filtered water, and his frequently changed unscented-clumping-litter-filled box, located in the special annex I had built onto the house for his sole and exclusive use. But being a cat and male and all, he doesn’t quite look at it that way.

And to be fair, this may be less a matter of strategic multitasking by a caddish cat, but rather evidence of his decreasing ability to focus on the task at hand. If so, I must admit to being equally afflicted. For although I am perfectly capable of attention to detail in my work and writing, I find my mind wandering at many other times, such that a significant portion of any stroll from Point A to Point B includes trying to remember not to step out into the street and into the path of a UPS truck.

I think the Buddhists call this a monkey mind — random thoughts swinging from branch to branch in a haphazard fashion. It was not always thus. I was once an English major, which explains the vast fortune I have amassed, and which required the ability to read a book — or at least a short story — straight through at a sitting. As the recipient of a liberal-arts Jesuit college education, I plowed through the misogynistic ham-fisted Hemmingways and the joyless Joycean journeys to nowhere, not to mention consuming the classics from cover to cover, without my mind wandering too far afield.

Now I’m hard-pressed to read one page of the New Yorker, or even to flip through Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party celebrity photos, without taking a long, leisurely mental detour to la-la-land. I noticed this again the other day while listening to the audiobook version of “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh, as narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons (unabridged). I settled in to hear Jeremy fill up his lungs and start up about first-floor rooms at Oxford, dove-grey flannel with white crepe-de-chine, and plover eggs from Mummy’s hens. Then suddenly it seemed I must have missed a chunk of the story, because Jeremy was on about some character I vaguely remembered from the television version, but who surely wasn’t due to put in an appearance for another 20 minutes.

So I hit rewind to fill in the blanks, but no sooner did I hit play than I would be off again — composing my grocery list or compiling my workplace grievances or wondering whether that thing I said earlier to that person sounded stupid — until Jeremy piped in to remind me that things really hadn’t been the same in England since the start of the war in 1914. I started to panic — was this early-ish evidence of dementia? Or was I always this addled, unable to complete a chapter’s reading, but never noticing because I could absentmindedly turn back the page on a physical book?

Having identified yet another opportunity for personal improvement, what to do? Should I take a page from the cat’s manual and practice paying equal enthusiastic attention to multiple tasks: playing with a spongy ball while terrorizing a trapped housefly while energetically grooming myself from head-to-toe? Or better to focus laser-like on one thing at a time; being there now, as it were, assuming I can remember where “there” is? Or is nothingness the ticket — the ability to stay silent and empty-headed for extended periods — which signifies the highest achievement in harnessing the human brain?

Multi-tasking may be most efficient, but I don’t recall Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder ever surreptitiously watching a cricket match while picnicking on oysters and champagne with Sebastian Flyte. Perhaps Briscoe’s boorish behavior could best be chalked up to the inevitable conflict between an animal’s natural killer instincts and his environmentally-influenced desire for affection. Perhaps the same can be said for the guy watching the game while groping his girl. But being a human and female and all, I don’t quite look at it that way.

Up the Valley: Love Hangover

February 19, 2014

Some tips for Singles on the care and feeding of their friends who are Couples: today’s column in the Star...

As I write this, I am recovering from a slight overindulgence in strong spirits during the previous night’s Valentine’s Day Swing Dance Celebration at the theater where I serve as producing director. That’s my title at the moment — this being The Theatah and the 21st Century, I may have been ousted or replaced by a programming algorithm by the time this column goes to press.

I appear to have a perverse need for self-torture around all holidays. Having become a complete Scrooge at Christmas, it made total sense that I would spend years owning a retail store guaranteed to extend my Holiday Hell to 12 months per annum. Caught in an endless cycle of selling ho-ho-haute décor, then going in on Christmas Day to mark it all down, my holidays during The Lost Retail Years boiled down to: Unpack, Display, Discount, Repack and Repeat — all to an endless soundtrack of “The Christmas Song” by Alvin & the Chipmunks.

And so — being the accomplished spinster that I am — it was inevitable that I would someday produce a romantic Valentine’s Day holiday love-fest at the theater. I must admit: It was a fun night. I rented a dance floor, booked a San Francisco swing band called the Martini Brothers, and took unexpected pleasure in watching the couples twirling and canoodling on the dance floor.

There is something so endearing about couples when they are dancing: the big guys who are surprisingly graceful, the pairs wordlessly performing synchronized dance routines they’ve polished over decades, and the carefree, youthful aspect adorning women as they are spun, flipped and dipped by a strong partner.

The dance floor, however, is one of the few places I find couple-dom particularly adorable. Although most of my closest friends occupy this mysterious, and for me unattainable, state-of-being, hanging out with couples can test a sensitized single person’s patience. It’s not that I don’t love them wholeheartedly — both collectively and individually. It’s when they start WE-ing all over me that fondness turns to frustration.

Consternating couple behavior often results from a shared email address. I will be in the middle of an extended online conversation with one spouse, when the other suddenly chimes in unannounced. Rarely do they identify which of them is typing, so I have to undertake an operation to break their secret codes and ciphers that would have baffled the Enigma-busting cryptologists of World War II.

The only reliable way to communicate via joint-custody email is to carefully restrict communications to each spouse’s areas of sole responsibility. If, for example, the wife has authority over calendars and bookings (which is the case 99.9 percent of the time), I know that regardless of which spouse reads my message proposing a date, the husband wouldn’t dare enter into a commitment on their behalf, and therefore any definitive response on the topic must have emanated from the wife.

The reverse is generally true when the topic is tools or technology, as in: Do I need to upgrade the software on my iPhone, should I choose Mac or PC, or what is a socket wrench? But trouble arises when it’s a subject on which both spouses share jurisdiction — like cooking, politics and the personal lives of their single friends.

Some socially active singletons tell me that they frequently feel they exist solely for the amusement of their married friends. Sharing the agony of the single person’s dating experience must serve the essential societal function of confirming a couple’s decision to remain married. Even I, with a social life that a Trappist Monk would find confining, sometimes feel like Carrie Bradshaw swilling Cosmos at the dinner table of Ward and June Cleaver. I imagine perplexed post-departure conversations with the kids during which the Beaver turns to his brother and asks: “Gee Wally, why doesn’t Laura just find some swell guy and get married like Mom did?”

But I find couples to be at their most intolerable when ordering food in restaurants. Yes — we get it — there are two of you, and so you can split and share everything on Life’s Menu. Not for you the sad, lonely, pitiable need to order an individual Caesar salad before your entree or — worse — having to make the heartbreaking choice between a salad OR an entree. Yes, you have — by virtue of having coupled-up — earned the right to enjoy both meat and pasta, but civility demands that you take both from your own plate and fork. Feeding each other by hand after the first 30 days of marriage should provide grounds for the rest of us to compel you two to live apart for a while.

My next production at the theater includes a musical performance by Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges and his band the Abiders. His gorgeous wife of 36 years is coming with him, and his talented daughter is his opening act. I can’t imagine what movie star/musician/ proud parent/couple behavior looks like, but if Mr. & Mrs. Bridges start feeding each other by hand during the VIP party, well — I for one cannot promise to abide.

Our local leaders make an unusual proposal to protect a local eyesore:  My latest column in the Star….

It is remarkable how one neighbor’s eyesore can be another’s architectural treasure.

In the decorous neighborhood where I grew up, one house on our street featured a lawn display adorned by plastic deer and the associated flora and fauna of an enchanted forest. For years neighbors plotted — and sometimes accomplished — the kidnapping or mutilation of Bambi & Family, but replacement creatures always magically appeared in their places.

Another neighbor’s front yard contained a tranquil Japanese garden complete with bonsai-style trees, cement pagodas and cherry blossoms that, while lovely, were in distinct disharmony with the wagon wheel-adorned ranch house next door. In otherwise restrained neighborhoods, I’ve seen homeowners display a lifetime’s accumulation of hubcaps, beer bottles and faded, burnt-bulb lawn figures re-creating Santa’s Workshop year-round.

Here in St. Helena, where the town’s residents rarely reach a consensus on anything, there is a building located on a busy corner of town that is so incongruous, so dilapidated and so deleterious to the landscape, its pending demolition has inspired a resounding chorus of: “It’s about time.”

Chiming in with dissenting voices, strangely enough, are The People’s representatives at City Hall.

By way of background, let me explain that the blemish in question consists of the unsightly remains of a gas station built in the 1940s. It is a battered white metal box with a small service window, connected via tattered overhang to a platform that once supported gasoline pumps, harkening back to a time when motorists had their gas pumped and windows washed by live humans. In its day, it undoubtedly displayed a distinctly Edward Hopperesque Deco design. But today it is downright shabby, held together by peeling paint, decades of congealed grease, and plastic signs advertising smogging services.

The owners of the local hardware store — a respected and community-spirited family — purchased this old gas station property, which is adjacent to their store. They planned to replace it with a well-designed two-story commercial building, welcomed by many residents as a long-overdue overhaul of the downtown streetscape. Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, their developmental dreams were dashed when city officials deemed the rickety relic a “character-defining element” of the downtown historic district, triggering further delays and pricey environmental impact studies.

Rather than demolishing this architectural anachronism, City Hall’s planning experts are demanding that the owners relocate it to a public park several blocks away, where it can be shored-up and repurposed as (wait for it) a restroom.

Ah yes, what greater tribute could be paid to the architect’s vision than to have his work permanently enshrined as a public toilet, where transients, escapees from police custody and local canines frequenting the adjacent dog park may forever seek refuge in its historically insignificant embrace.

Ironically, City Hall is itself such a ramshackle teardown that city leaders tried last year to offload it to some unwitting buyer looking to invest millions of dollars to replace it with a hotel, hoping guests would taste enough Napa Valley cabernet to sleep through the eardrum-splitting sirens of the Fire Department downstairs. City officials seemed desperate to dispose of the premises before someone discovered ancient relics buried in the basement or spotted owls nesting in the eves, or before some do-gooder came along and had the thing declared a “character-defining element” of historic downtown.

Still, this irony may present the perfect solution. Since the current occupants of City Hall seem so sentimental about this former service station, I would propose a swap. The hardware store owners should be permitted to build their new commercial building on the current site of City Hall, while city government should be relocated to the old corner gas station.

This would prove extremely convenient for everyone involved. Residents and prospective business owners could utilize this “Drive-thru City Hall” to have their permits denied without the bother of having to get out of their cars. Land-rich-but-cash-strapped locals could drop off sacks of gold, livestock or other tributes to pay their ever-rising water bills. And routine municipal services could be outsourced to overseas workers, at considerable cost savings to the city.

Imagine driving up to the window, but instead of an attendant, you encounter a giant menu and tiny speaker, just like Jack in the Box. You might select No. 1: Business License, No. 2: Building Permit, No. 3: Use Permit, and so on. A courteous Indian-accented voice streams through the speaker, saying: “We will be exceedingly pleased to help you. It is our great happiness to serve your profoundly important needs. If you will kindly give us your most excellent order and your telephone number, we will be contacting you very shortly, or never, as the case may be. Thank you for doing business with the Best Exotic City of St. Helena.”

If only you could order fries with that, it would be perfect.

Why consult a therapist when you can address your particular neuroses with a trip to the local movie theater? Today’s column in the St. Helena Star Newspaper…

One benefit of living longer is being able to clearly identify patterns revealed by my behavior over time, and to diagnose my own personality disorders along the DSM/Lifetime Movie Mental-Disease-of-the-Week Scale. This allows me to rearrange my life and relationships to accommodate these compulsions and quirks because, let’s face it: At this point nothing is likely to change except my dress size and pharmaceutical regimen.

For example, although I enjoy time with friends and colleagues, I’ve spent much of my life living and often working alone, never feeling the slightest hesitation to venture out on my own. I would regularly fly across the country to my New York apartment, often attending the theater and dining singly. It has just never bothered me — I enjoy observing life as performance art, discovering new places and people.

There are generally only three times when I mind being alone. One is when I have to take out the garbage. Don’t ask me why, but while I rarely regret my failure to secure a husband to support me financially and emotionally, I curse the gods on a weekly basis for depriving me of a man to wheel the cans to the curb.

I also hate arriving at airports after flying solo. One big benefit of Homeland Security measures has been the relocation of the tear-streamed, banner-waving, flower-carrying welcome party that used to greet arrivers on all sides of me, not to mention the limo drivers holding the name signs I couldn’t help but longingly scan — even while knowing that my car was in fact two long walks and a bus ride away in a lonely airport parking lot.

But probably the oddest time I get freaked out by my solitary status is at the movies. For some reason, halfway through the film, I get a panicked feeling that I’m supposed to be somewhere else. Arriving in daylight and leaving after dark is particularly upsetting.

I occasionally flee films for this reason, so if you are the director and see me rushing for the exit midmovie, it’s not necessarily a reflection of your artistry (unless you are peddling Shallow Stunt-Cast Shakespeare, and that means you, Kenneth Branagh, costing me $9 to watch Alicia Silverstone’s vapid Valley Girl version, so Ken, please send me $9 c/o this newspaper, as there is no statute of limitations on this particular crime, and no number of Thor-type movies you might direct starring strapping blonde musclemen in codpieces and capes that could compensate for the damages incurred).

Luckily, I have found a local movie theater able to accommodate this particular neurosis: the Cameo Cinema. The Cameo creates the perfect environment for people like me: Transporting state-of-the-art sound and video, generously buttered popcorn, and a just-the-right-size theater filled with friends and neighbors; more like a block party than a place of business.

Plus the theater’s proprietress Cathy Buck seems very much like family in that she is ever-present, lavishes kindness and attention to every detail of your comfort, and is not above using the powerful one-two punch of guilt and love to get you to show up when and where she wants.

The Cameo elicits a level of loyalty from its fervent band of regular customers more frequently found among street gangs, crime families and Teamsters Locals. The scene at this year’s free New Year’s Day Community Film was illustrative:

Upon arrival, I was greeted by one friend, handed a complimentary flute of Champagne by another, and seated where surrounded by familiar-faced audience members. Settling in to watch “Mary Poppins,” Cathy announced that a related film, “Saving Mr. Banks,” would be opening soon. “If you’ve already seen ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ then don’t tell me, because you didn’t see it here,” she scolded with a smile, unleashing shame spirals among scores of us.

“I’m guilty!” I wanted to confess. “I did see ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ at that large, overpriced, soulless Cineplex on Christmas Day” (an act that made me feel as much a betrayer as Brad must have felt leaving Jennifer for Angelina). “You see, I wanted to go to a movie matinee on Christmas,” I longed to explain, “but I didn’t want to sit in a theater full of families watching the animated movie showing here.” Instead I sank silently into my seat.

Still, I know that Cathy will forgive — if not forget — just the way any loving family member might overlook your spending Christmas dinner at someone else’s table, while subtly reminding you that they very much wished you’d spent it with them instead, and you’d better show up next year.

This combination of attention and affection; of knowing that your presence or absence really does matter to someone; that you belong to a family that values your membership and is invested in the quality of your experience, is why the Cameo will always be my movie theater home. And it’s why I am able to sit through almost anything there, even alone (unless Kenneth Branagh tries to makes me watch Keanu Reeves slurring Shakespeare again. That’s another $9 you owe me, Ken).

Members of the neighborhood’s animal kingdom have become my dependents. Does this make birdseed tax deductible? Is pet acupuncture covered by ObamaCare? My latest column in the Star.

Each New Year brings renewed opportunity for sober reflection and frank self-assessment. And one particularly problematic personal shortcoming stood out during this year’s mirror-gazing: I’ve made far too many of God’s creatures dependent upon my efforts.

The problem is most pronounced in my dealings with the animal kingdom. Regular readers of these scribblings may recall my beloved but brain damaged Tibetan Spaniel, my uncontrollably hyperactive mini-Aussie, and my criminal mastermind of a cat.

Each time I return home, I am accosted by all three in the cramped entryway even before I can slip my body through the door. They lunge with paws outstretched and mouths open, demanding instantaneous feeding and rapt attention. Well, the Tibetan doesn’t really demand, and he couldn’t quite muster a lunge. He just bumps around randomly in all directions like one of those robotic vacuum cleaners, hoping he’ll run into me, then wedges himself against the door so I can’t open it without clunking his head — earning himself the fond nickname among my visitors of “Doggie Doorstop.”

Neighborhood pets not my own nonetheless seek my patronage, frequently presenting themselves at my doorstep requesting assistance in locating their owners. Even some baby bunnies converge on my front porch each spring, requiring temporary daycare while waiting for their irresponsible mothers to collect them at dusk.

Other representatives of the local wildlife community have declared themselves my dependents, from the songbirds and the squirrels to the homeless cats who chase them. Unfortunately, the following expenses are not tax-deductible on Form 1040 Schedule A: wild bird food, Nyjer seed, hummingbird nectar, the latest anti-ant and squirrel-resistant birdfeeders, nuts for the squirrels, “natural” repellent for the ants, microwave pads to keep a feral cat warm on a freezing night, and sterile gauze and disinfectant to treat a bite sustained while placing a feral cat on a heated pad.

And where is my tax credit for the following: dog food, cat food, the new cat food because the cat woke up today and decided to stop eating the old food, heartworm medicine, de-worming formulas, flea and tick protection, MRI’s, X-rays, anal gland clearings, and newfangled fur removal products? If corporations can deduct employee training and health insurance, why can’t I deduct dog training classes, cat psychologists, pet acupuncturists, and anxiety-taming Thundershirt purchases?

A creature needn’t be in-residence to demand that I snap-to. One red breasted hummingbird travels from the west side of the house to the north whenever the feeder is empty, buzzing my kitchen window and staring me down until I refill it. I recognize that noted hummingbirdologists and representatives of the Nature Channel might doubt whether a birdbrain is capable of this level of thoughtful planning and execution, but as my grandmother used to say: “I know what I know.”

Her tendency toward firmly-held knowledge without regard to actual fact is a genetic trait I seem to have inherited. I know, for example, that God sends me insane pets because I am a spinster with the time and inclination to care for them, while couples busily raising actual human children might regretfully consign such four-legged unfortunates to the pound or the afterlife. I also know that animal shelters use the same system, entrusting the crazed, drooling, sensitive-skinned, barking biters with irritable bowel syndrome to us singletons, while gifting the even-tempered, un-finicky, trainable, non-shedders to families with children.

I hold other unsupported but unshakable beliefs. I believe that my friend Joan can cause it to rain. I believe that by washing my car, I can cause it to rain. I believe that God sometimes makes it rain on my birthday just to mess with me. And I firmly believe that God is not going to finish me off until I’m happy, rich, thin, in love, or some combination of all four.

I also, apparently, hold the unconscious but equally baseless belief that if I take care of nature’s creatures in need, the universe will take care of me. Time will tell, but so far, the universe has greeted my efforts with a resounding silence, accompanied by a plethora of bills payable and Petco rewards points.

Still, what can you do when a critter comes calling with soulful eyes, a growling tummy and a Ph.D. in the exploitation of human weakness? A recent study suggested that a cat’s cry was genetically engineered to sound like a human baby’s in order to trigger our protective instincts. I believe that the cat’s personality has been genetically engineered to make us feel inferior, like math prodigies, swimsuit models, and members of the British royal family.

I’ll doubtless end up spending my fortune maintaining my own little eco-system, living out my dotage escorting squirrels across the street, broadcasting predator warnings to baby quail, and transporting spiders, flying bugs and rainfall-stranded worms to safer territory.

And I will always believe that God recognizes and appreciates human kindness toward innocent animals, and that He or She maintains a particularly unpleasant place in Hell for animal abusers, despite a total lack of evidence to support such a theory. Because I know what I know.

Every family has some gelatin-infused, cream of mushroom soup-soaked holiday culinary shame. What was yours? Today’s column in the Star…

I was invited by a favorite friend to join her intimate Thanksgiving dinner this year, which included lively conversation, abundant alcohol and — as is always the case at her house — incredible food.

A casual neighborhood dinner in the Napa Valley often includes cooking that would rival Michelin star restaurants elsewhere, with wine pairings that should make a French sommelier want to emigrate. Even everyday meals are thoughtfully conceived and executed with the finest ingredients. But on Thanksgiving, as we devoured a second helping of terrifically turkey-free dishes, the conversation turned to less lofty culinary offerings.

Hearing my hostess apologize for the plainness of her beautifully balsamic-blessed salad, I explained that Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house always meant green lemon-lime Jell-O salad with Miracle Whip, Pet Milk, pineapple chunks and chopped walnuts.

This resonated at the table and in later discussions; apparently every family has its own version of some gelatin-encased or cream-of-mushroom-soup-smothered secret culinary shame, the memory of which we hold exceedingly dear. The green gelatin salad seems ubiquitous, whether almonds take the place of the walnuts, grapes stand in for the pineapple, or shredded carrots find themselves improbably enshrined in a citrus Jell-O mold.

That orange color would have nicely complimented my grandmother’s autumnally-themed Thanksgiving décor: wicker horn-of-plenty stuffed with gourds and cornstalks, ceramic turkey salt-and-pepper shakers, and a fold-open paper turkey with tissue-paper-cutout body. Our “kids table” always included candles shaped like pilgrim couples which were never actually lit, because they were among her “good” candles.

My grandmother kicked-off holiday meals with a plate of symmetrically-placed celery sticks stuffed with peach-colored pimento cream cheese, which we kids regarded with horror. We preferred to raid the dish containing canned, pitted olives, placing one on each fingertip and slowly devouring all 10 — ignoring admonitions not to spoil our appetites.

A cheese ball with Ritz crackers might appear, accompanied by baby pickles and salted nuts. My uncle worked for Sunsweet, and he would occasionally contribute some exotic prune-themed amuse-bouche, such as his patented “prune chewie:” bacon wrapped around a prune stuffed with a nut; a combination that has been inexplicably overlooked by Martha Stewart.

Although Christmas dessert could include traditional pies and cakes, my favorite was always my late aunt’s persimmon cookies with brandy-flavored frosting. For most of my adult life, Auntie’s cookies arrived by mail, usually in a shoebox lined in foil, covered with Christmas wrap, and shoved inside a reused shipping box. In a post-9/11 world, I suspected that the cookies might have passed through multiple radioactive screening devices and been defiled by packs of bomb-sniffing dogs — their butter-based frosting reaching full toxicity — but I couldn’t stop eating them.

We weren’t fond of fruitcakes in my family (unless you count my crazy cousin), but I once made an authentic Christmas pudding with suet and candied fruit which we soaked in brandy and set on fire — my Great Britain-obsessed grandmother was delighted. She also sometimes made eggnog from scratch, which contained an unthinkable amount of fat, thinned by an unwise amount of alcohol.

I’m particularly particular about potatoes; heaping helpings of heavily buttered and gravied mashers have seen me through many emotional crises, including those precipitated by the aforementioned holiday gatherings. Apparently many families have major fights over side-dishes — a friend didn’t speak to her sister-in-law for years because she brought sweet potatoes when she was specifically assigned mashed potatoes (or was it vice versa?).

And speaking of sweet potatoes versus yams, the question is: to marshmallow or not to marshmallow? And don’t slivered almonds make a delightful garnish for frozen string beans? Or was it green bean casserole with dried onion rings and cream of mushroom soup with your people?

Of course, today’s health-conscious holiday diners would be horrified by such frozen, heavily-processed holiday fixings. But will their children look back with the same nostalgia on grandma’s gluten-free stuffing, low-fat cruelty-free skinless turkey breast and organic Brussels sprouts? Will they ever know the joy of eating snowman-shaped ice cream balls covered with shaved coconut, with plastic holly garnish and a candy-cane-striped birthday candle stuck in the middle? Or will they reach adulthood believing that Jell-O and aspic are the same thing?

My own holiday meal memories are not so much of the food itself, but of the struggles to get it on the table. I recall my grandmother cursing the stubborn tin molds restraining her gelatin salad, bathing them in warm water to coax the quivering green masses onto waiting leaves of iceberg lettuce. I recall my aunt’s annual tradition of clogging the garbage disposal with potato peelings, the endless arguments about whether the turkey was done and when to put the dinner rolls in the toaster oven. And of course, the fight to get the family to leave the television and come to the table.

My much-missed grandmother and aunt each left me some of their favorite recipes, including the persimmon cookies and the green Jell-O salad. But I would hesitate to make them for myself. Without the anger, joy, panic, laughter and affection whipped into the mix, they just wouldn’t taste the same.

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