House Rules

April 19, 2012

Since I never go anywhere anymore, ever, I don’t have occasion to rent out my house here in the Napa Valley.  But my best friend has done so repeatedly, and I must say:  the post-rental walk-through is best performed under the influence of a bracing cocktail.

Renters who seem like normal human beings do the most abnormal things to other people’s property:  covering a stainless steel refrigerator with permanent stickers, making red wine in an upstairs bathroom and pouring it out the window – creating a red river down the side of the house, and barbecuing on the antique wood dining room table.  My friends with a beach house had all of the furniture from their living room dragged outside, presumably so that their renters could watch television al fresco, and returned to find the sofa stuck in a sand bar.

My own mother always seemed to rent to nice young girls who we would come to suspect were prostitutes, although they were always timely with the rent and never to my knowledge dragged the bed outdoors.  I’m assuming that prostitution is prohibited by our new local vacation rental ordinance, which is the subject of today’s column in the Star.

Legalizing long-banned short-term rentals is the city’s latest attempt to recapture some TOT (transient occupancy tax) revenue, which has been siphoned off by our friendlier neighbors.  But at this point, with city managers laying-off key staff and instituting tough budget cuts, perhaps they wouldn’t mind capturing a bit of TTOT (transient tart occupancy tax) as well.  Anybody ready to rent out their Napa Valley Villa by the hour?

Read House Rules in the Star…

Up The Valley: House Rules

Hello! We wish you a warm welcome to our fully permitted vacation rental here in new, friendlier, easier-to-get-along-with St. Helena. Please do not let anyone know you are here.

We can’t tell you how hard it was to get this permit. It took the head of our planning commission hours of reviewing rentals on the Internet to blow the lid off the whole unregulated guest-unit scandal, days for city staff to draft a proposed ordinance, then under a year for the city council to consider, refer for consideration, consider deciding, defer deciding, and finally agree to consider deciding approval of the ordinance.

Once approved, adopted, made effective and implemented, the council allocated permits on a “first-come-first-served” basis, getting that idea from the local deli and the DMV. This set loose a stampede of would-be hoteliers rushing city hall, anxious to turn their illegal garage rentals into fully taxable enterprises. Picture the great Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893, or a herd of prospectors rushing to stake a claim to the same sporadically-profitable gold mine.

Through patience, determination, and incessant complaining to cause our neighbors’ forfeiture of their vacation rental permits, we were finally able to obtain one of our own. Don’t screw it up for us, or the only “wine country” you’ll be visiting in the future will be outside Lodi.

We are statutorily required to lay down a few House Rules. Please comply with them, or if you cannot, procure the silence of witnesses by invoking Permit Retention Procedure #1: Give them a nice bottle of Cabernet (use the box in the cellar marked “Bribing the Neighbors”) and relay our promise not to complain when their cousin Bob parks his Winnebago in front of our ranch-style Mediterranean villa for the month of July.

Maximum Occupancy: The number of bedrooms is limited to five, and the number of people sharing a bedroom is limited to two, plus two extras, meaning that only two of you in the house can have a three-way at any given time within the residential zoning district.

Parties: The number of allowed guests is two times the two people sharing a bedroom, plus two, with a maximum of 20. That means if you are one dozen single ladies sharing our five bedroom house for the summer, then only eight of you can bring a date to your own party, which is fine, because let’s face it, how many single men are out there anyway?

Noise: Please observe quiet time between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., but if you must be noisy, please broadcast our emergency diversionary sound-CD of children laughing and splashing and singing “Happy Birthday,” because who would be mean enough to call the cops on a bunch of little kids? Absolutely no amplified sound is permitted, and that means you, Plácido Domingo, and don’t try sneaking in the Philharmonic ever again!

Conduct: Do not be drugged or disorderly, but drinking is fine so long as it’s a Napa Valley vintage costing at least $20 per bottle. In the event that your drinking has made you obnoxious to others, please implement Permit Retention Procedure #2: Tell everyone you are in town for “The Wine Auction” (local-speak for Auction Napa Valley).

Parking: You are forbidden to park on the street. You’ll have to hire a driver to circle the neighborhood like everyone else.

In Case of Emergency: As you know, we live in Palm Beach, Frankfurt and Cape Town, which makes it difficult to respond to neighbor complaints within the legally-mandated 30-minute timeframe. But don’t worry; we’ve hired Frank to be our “property manager.” Frank has no handyman skills, scant personal charm and a serious substance abuse problem. Luckily this renders him both unemployable and awake at all hours — so he can be there on a moment’s notice 24/7. He can’t seem to hang on to cell phones, so we’ve given him a walkie-talkie — your handset is on the wine fridge.

In the event you are cornered by an angry mob of neighbors with the planning department’s phone number on speed dial, please implement Permit Retention Procedure #3: Tell them you are doing a site survey on behalf of the Society for Affordable Housing in Residential Neighborhoods, and you’ve heard (confidentially) that one more complaint will cause the city to pull our permit and allow its conversion into multiple affordable housing units. You will hear no further complaints from our neighbors.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of, a resident of St. Helena, a Tony-nominated producer, author and columnist. Read more at


Kiss The Columnist

April 18, 2012

Today is National Columnists Day, which is a holiday I am celebrating for the first time, having only recently joined the ranks of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.  The holiday is scheduled on April 18 to honor Ernie Pyle, a Stars and Stripes columnist whose writings about World War II were syndicated in hundreds of papers, and who was killed by machine gun fire near Okinawa on April 18, 1945.  I’m grateful that the holiday provides an opportunity to honor a writer who gave his life writing about troops in combat.  I’m also glad to be a columnist in small-town St. Helena, where people rarely shoot at me, although some members of the City Council may have been tempted from time to time.

I am always a bit dubious, I must confess, about holidays scheduled on the anniversary of the date someone died, as opposed to the day of their birth, their induction into the applicable Hall of Fame, or some other significant life achievement.  I was recently visited by a chirpy Jehovah’s Witness who knocked on my door far too early one morning just before Easter.  She managed to maneuver a pamphlet through the tiny crack I opened in the doorway (my dog being particularly suspicious of unsolicited daytime door-knockers), saying brightly:  “Hi!  I’d like to invite you to a party celebrating Jesus’ death!”   Now I understand why she said this, and respect the fact that different religions observe and celebrate different aspects of Good Friday differently, but I personally prefer celebrations of life events, and find them far less challenging than celebrations of death in terms of party decorations and desserts.

That said, Ernie Pyle’s life is surely worth celebrating on any day, although I understand him to have been a bit of a loner in later life with a rumored over-familiarity with alcohol.  Which is awkward, since the natural way to celebrate any holiday honoring writers would be to lay out a spread of free food and columnist-themed cocktails and just wait for the writers to swarm.  So how are we to celebrate National Columnists Day?  There is no Hallmark card for the holiday, no animated e-card cartoon of Andy Rooney and Art Buchwald dancing a jig, and no traditional high-caloric treat or pencil-themed gift section at Target to mark the occasion.

So here are a few suggestions for honoring the columnist in your life:

  1. do not hug the columnist, as this could prove dangerous
  2. give the columnist a brilliant idea for an upcoming column, and agree that the columnist may claim it as his or her own (which he or she will do anyway)
  3. agree to stop mentioning the time the columnist misspelled Michelle Obama’s name, or when the columnist completely missed the point of some event the columnist was covering due to an unscheduled nap taken by the columnist after pulling an all-nighter to meet a long-procrastinated deadline and
  4. call the columnist’s editor and tell him or her that the column is your sole reason for buying and reading the publication, and that your eager anticipation of each week’s column provides your sole reason for living at this point, having become recently depressed after attending celebrations of the death of Jesus and other persons
  5. Oh for Heaven’s sake, just buy the columnist a drink – I gotta think Ernie would approve.

by Laura Rafaty, April 18, 2012

I Won! But What?

April 8, 2012

I won!!! (I just don’t know quite what yet)
My scruffy little column for the Star has taken first, second or third place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest for 2011, in the category of humor in publications with circulation under 50,000 (in my case, way under). I’ll let you know if I win, place or show when the results are announced in May!   Here’s the link if you want to see who and what I’m up against…

Animal Magnetism

April 5, 2012

I recently wished an otherwise affable friend an early “Happy Easter,” and received a chilly response.  “I hate Easter!” she exclaimed.  It seems that Easter is the one holiday where you have to do lots of work — dying and hiding eggs, buying baskets and filling them with candy, cooking the big brunch — yet you have absolutely no idea when the holiday occurs.  Is it March or April this year?  The last Sunday or the first?  “It always seems to sneak up on me!” my friend complained.  In this regard the holiday is much like my sneaky backyard rabbits, which are the subject of this week’s column.  They have invaded my garden just in time for me to wish you a Happy Easter!  It occurs on Sunday, April 8th this year, in case you’re wondering.

Up The Valley: Animal magnetism

Have you ever noticed how people in particular occupations tend to look alike? No matter where you go, they populate professions as if members of the same tribe, bearing strikingly similar features. If you find one such tribesman to your liking, it’s comforting to know that there will always be another one down the road who looks just like him.

Take people who run self-storage facilities. These outposts for the hoarder, the downsized, and the divorced always seem to be run by salt-of-the-earth women maintaining homes and makeshift gardens among the cement and asphalt. But there’s always the guy who wanders around the facility in his bathrobe and barbecues next to the dumpster. And the business is invariably absentee-owned, leaving day-to-day decisions to the live-in staffers who nonetheless always pick the hottest day of the year to repave the parking lot.

This homogeneity is evident in those whose vocation is caring for animals. Veterinarians and their helpers tend to be of solid-build and no-nonsense stripe. My own uber-competent female vet owns a winery and looks lovely at social events, yet still exudes the sturdy confidence of one who can shove her arm up a cow in order to extract a calf.

By contrast, those who work in animal adoption shelters, far from unflappable, always seem about ready to snap. Their cheerful smiles and cute pet names barely hide an aspect of deep despair and disappointment, undoubtedly the result of over-familiarity with humanity’s mistreatment of animals. They are salesmen by necessity but deeply distrust the customer and fear parting with the goods.

I recently encountered a rarefied subspecies of the genus animal-rescuem, after opening my front door to discover a baby jackrabbit nestled on the front porch. It huddled by the doorway, occupying the precise spot where the postman tosses packages and in direct sight-line of the neighbor’s cat. Even my noisy dog couldn’t discourage its squatting. Afraid to leave it, and not knowing where to move it, I summoned the experts from the Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County (

After determining that the species was not endangered and I was not a notorious bunny-boiler, a volunteer was dispatched to my garden. God bless those who drop everything to help jackrabbits, not to mention the hawks, owls, bats, deer, fox and pheasant their brochure lists as within their purview. My rescuer tenderly collected the critter for relocation to an undisclosed location, but not before performing the two essential duties of any rescue worker: chastising me for wrongdoing, and hitting me up for donations. Holding the caged creature in one hand while thrusting a brochure at me with the other, she explained the financial needs of her organization in detail. Meanwhile, my dog barked and scratched wildly at the window, ignored by the rescuer but not by the bunny.

“Don’t worry, baby, it will be OK,” I told the trembling creature. “Never speak to rabbits!!!” the rescuer warned, directed at me but well within rabbit earshot. “They can drop dead from fright!!!” The bunny and I exchanged sympathetic glances, and she was off. The next morning I opened my front door, and there in the same spot was a baby rabbit. Was this an Easter prank? Did yesterday’s bunny make a break for it? Or was my porch now listed in the rabbit rolodex as the portal through which all bunnies must pass for transport to a better world? I called the rescuer, and she swiftly returned to retrieve rabbit number two.

A few hours later, word came from Rescue HQ’s in-house rabbit expert: the bunnies were unhappy, they were stressed, they were not eating. They were likely left on my porch by a mother exhibiting “poor mothering choices” who would return for them at dusk, summoning them with a high-pitched screech. In other words, I was unwitting bunny daycare. It reminded me of my retail store, where customers would occasionally drop their children and wander off, summoning them later by name in a high-pitched screech.

And so the rabbits returned. “What if I have to relocate one myself?” I asked the expert “Be careful handling rabbits!” she exclaimed. “They can break their own backs trying to get away from you!” The rabbit wranglers handed me a donation envelope and departed. The baby bunnies hopped off in search of Mom, who was probably in a bunny bar somewhere making more poor choices. I retired to my backyard-facing office, seeking respite from all this rabbit-rescuing. Staring back at me through the window was, naturally, another baby jackrabbit. I decided to let the bunny be. He would hop away, but it was comforting to know that there would always be another one popping onto my porch that looks just like him.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of, a resident of St. Helena, an attorney and former theatrical producer, and an author and columnist. Read more at If you’d like to help the group during its annual campaign, send checks to Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County, P.O. Box 2571, Napa, CA 94558 or call 224-4295.)