May 25, 2012

I know that people often say that brick-and-mortar retail stores are in danger because of the economy, but I really think it has more to do with people being in the mood for divestiture as opposed to acquisition.  I know that we humans are supposed to be hardwired hunter gatherers, but that trait traces back to the days of cavemen, who rarely maintained stockpiles of storage boxes in adjacent caves.

When I go shopping now, I not only dread the idea of adding more items to my collection of detritus, but also the shopping bags and packaging in which the items were sold.  I have often thought that the US Dollar should be replaced by the fancy paper handle bag as our form of currency, as this would stimulate the economy, and I would have amassed a depository rivaling Fort Knox.  When I moved last year from my home of many years, my friends stood in slack-jawed wonder at my need to retain countless empty glossy boxes that once held cosmetics and perfumes, piles of plastic cd cases, and stacks of empty electronics boxes, retained in case I needed to return  items I had long ago discarded.

In Today’s Column in the Star, I discuss the collection of “stuff” and the need to endlessly move it from Point A to Point B and back again.   Can you relate?  What is it that you can’t throw away that you wish you could?

Up The Valley: Overstuffed

St. Helena society enjoys certain rituals that are certainly repeated elsewhere. One of those is the school-day wave.

Being a childless spinster, I first heard about this from a friend with kids in school. Here’s how it goes: Parents (and by this I mean one parent, because the other one is busy) have a narrow window of 30 minutes to drop off their multiple children in front of multiple schools in multiple locations around town. The streets are clogged with parents making the identical rounds, waving at one another as they go.

Running this circuit confers membership in the wave brigade, a tightly knit society in which outsiders are conspicuous and scrutinized. If you buy a new car, it will take some time before you are recognized and acknowledged with your wave. If you are a man using your girlfriend’s car, call your lawyer because the brigadiers have already run her license plate number and know who she is and what you’ve been up to.

For practical parents, this ritual is uncharacteristically inefficient. Any McKinsey or Bain Capital consultant running for president will tell you that multiple parents dropping off multiple children at multiple locations is a waste of time, effort and fuel. After lengthy and expensive study, the consultant’s recommendation would be to simply swap children, so that all of the elementary-schoolers are in the same households, the high-schoolers in others, and so on.

Of course, you people are attached to your children and may object. This is the kind of emotional decision-making that holds America back and prevents us from taking our rightful place among heartless nations with stable currencies. Still, the plan is probably flawed anyway, since no household would be willing to take just the middle-schoolers.

While I am not in the wave brigade, I sympathize with the effort required to deposit one’s offspring and collect them on school days, not to mention on weekends for sporting and social events. I myself participate in a similar ritual almost every weekend, and some weekdays too, pertaining to the repeated relocation of my personal effects, priceless belongings and the detritus of my existence, or what the late George Carlin would call my “stuff.”

Here’s how it goes: I take my stuff, wrap it, box it, strap it to a cart, and move it from point A to point B. Then the following weekend I move it to point C, followed soon thereafter by the inevitable retreat to point A. When I am not moving my own stuff from points A through C and back to A again, I am moving my store’s stuff, or my customers’ stuff, or my friends’ stuff. I even move my pets’ stuff.

How did I get all this stuff? And why is it so hard to get rid of?

You parents are lucky; your kids will eventually move to Point B and on to Point C without your active participation. My stuff, on the other hand, will never move anywhere on its own.

There are several reasons why I am doomed to move stuff for all eternity.

First, I once had money to buy a second home, and the real estate market allowed me to sell that second home and purchase another, and so on. All those homes required their own stuff, including the basic stuff, like silverware, and the other stuff, like bobble-head dolls.

Second, I no longer have money, as a result of which my second homes were sold, sending all that stuff back to commingle with my other stuff.

Third, I moved my St. Helena home twice and then downsized, so there is less room for stuff.

Fourth, I moved my retail store and then closed it, moving the same stuff inside the store, between stores, and back and forth to storage. Plus I sold stuff and delivered it so that it could become my customers’ stuff.

Fifth, I am emotionally attached to every bit of this stuff.

An example: Producing a play in San Francisco, I furnished the actors’ apartments with stuff, including a glass salad bowl purchased for $6 at Target in Burlingame. When the show closed, the bowl moved to my first New York apartment on 47th Street, then to my second apartment on 83rd Street, and then — stay with me — to my beach house in California. Then it moved to my last New York apartment on 72nd Street, and back to my storage unit in St. Helena, finally landing in my current St. Helena home. At this point, I have spent $1,000 on this $6 bowl, easy.

All of this moving requires help from friends, which means that I have to help them, and so on. Which is why I will rarely have a weekend free for the rest of my life.

I sometimes think it would have been easier to have kids. Except that they would move out eventually, leaving all of their stuff behind.

(Laura Rafaty is a national award–winning columnist, a resident of St. Helena, a Tony-nominated producer, author, attorney, and retailer as PennalunaNapaValley.com. Read more at LauraRafaty.com.)


Fashionably Late

May 10, 2012

Every once in a while I inadvertently write something that actually has relevance for my readers.  I never quite know what’s going to resonate.  Last year I wrote a column called New in Town about newcomers feeling shut out of our little town by old timers claiming prior title to the place.  I was greeted by masses of locals who felt the same way — some came in tears expressing their frustration and loneliness, and one slightly confused but sweet man brought me a loaf of bread and asked me to help him buy a pair of sneakers.

Today’s column: “Fashionably Late” seems to be eliciting a similarly strong reaction.  I am receiving messages, by phone and email, from women unable to dress themselves in the morning due to the unfortunate inclusion in their boudoir of a full-length mirror.  Some even confess to turning around and looking at themselves from behind prior to leaving the house — something I find ill-advised and likely to lead to a shut-in existence in which one’s sole human contact consists of paying the pizza delivery man.

So please check out today’s column, which deals with crawling motorists and creeping middle-aged spread, and how they conspire to make me late for my next appointment.  If you like it, won’t you come back here after reading and leave a comment or a “like”?   That way I’ll know what’s resonating.

Up The Valley: Fashionably late

One thing I can’t abide is being late for an appointment. Just knowing that I have to be somewhere starts me worrying about potential tardiness hours in advance of the event.

I frequently arrive early, which forces me to sit in the car and contemplate those immutable character flaws that led me to spend hours in self-imposed vehicular limbo. I sometimes run rushed errands to fill the time, but am so distracted that I end up buying hideous or wholly inappropriate items that I have to return the next time I am early for an appointment nearby.

But lately I’ve been running late as a result of my inability, at age 54, to dress myself. I’ve put on a few extra pounds — not enough to qualify for “The Biggest Loser,” but enough to make contemplation of my closet an invitation to journey deep into the abyss and its many layers of self-loathing.

The garment-selection process must now account for back fat, side rolls and muffin tops, while taking precautions against spontaneous unbuttoned-bosom explosions. Picking pants poses the eternal questions: “Is breathing necessary?” and “If I bend over, will everyone see my big-girl underpants?”

All this is manageable in winter, through strategic application of gut-sucking jeans and fat-camouflaging black sweaters. But spring brings lighter colors and wispy fabrics, plus the sensation of just how much tighter my shorts are now than when I wore them last year.

Why, you might ask, don’t I simply purchase a new wardrobe?

First, I am trying to write for a living while my retail website gains traction, which tells you all you need to know about the state of my finances.

Second, this would mean admitting that I will remain at this weight for some time, while I prefer to remain in denial.

And third, shopping for clothing when you feel fat is akin to watching an all-day Lifetime-movie marathon in terms of potential for inducing suicidal thoughts.

So assume for the moment that I’ve found a buttonable big shirt, under which I’m wearing a tank top equipped with what is known as a shelf-bra: a primitive chest-binding apparatus designed to restrain and flatten the breasts while simultaneously shoving them sideways so they point in opposite directions. And pretend that I’m dressed from the waist down and appropriately shod, and have flung myself behind the wheel of my vehicle and am now rushing to some imminent engagement.

I will shortly be reminded that: Oh yes, I live in the Napa Valley, land of slow-moving vehicles operated by slightly intoxicated drivers hell-bent on impeding progress. Visitors here not only want to drink wine, they want to drink in the sights as well, and they sip and savor each one, often pausing mid-lane to photograph as many vineyards, wineries and mustard fields as their digital camera memory cards can muster. And in the off-season, I’m often stranded behind some local’s glacially paced obstruction, like a tractor, an enormous sedan steered by a tiny senior, or a fleet of farmworkers who hope that by driving supernaturally slowly they might actually be rendered invisible.

Taking 30 minutes to travel 2 miles, I’ve had time to develop some theories. For example: The more liberal the bumper stickers, the slower the driver. Find yourself marooned behind a Nader for President–, Free Tibet–, No Nuke–stickered Volkswagen, and you’d better call your next two appointments and cancel. And it’s not like these tofu-loving lollygaggers are model Zen-motorists. If you honk or try to pass them on the road, many vegan-eating, Stevia-sweetened-soy-shake-sipping, gluten-free carob-cake eaters are seriously snappish, no doubt the result of deficient levels of calming chemicals in their diets.

I have been forced off the road several times by Hummers, but figure that anyone who drives a tank in a residential neighborhood must be troubled by deep feelings of inadequacy; they deserve my pity, not scorn. I’ve heard that Mercedes drivers are considered the worst, but haven’t noticed it, possibly because I drive a Mercedes SUV myself. In my defense, I’ve owned the gas-guzzler since 2003, during which time I’ve racked up a total of 30,000 miles, so I figure it’s environmentally sound policy for me to keep this fuel-inefficient vehicle out of the hands of others who might actually have somewhere to go.

But I had a point … what was it? Ah yes, running late is a bummer. Because it’s not only rude to the folks waiting for you, it also serves as a reminder that you can’t control everything. Try as you might, it’s hard to guard against dim-witted motorists, slow-moving tourists and fast-spreading thighs. And that’s a realization to which I am coming unfashionably late.

(Laura Rafaty is a national award–winning columnist, a resident of St. Helena, a Tony-nominated producer, author, attorney, and retailer as PennalunaNapaValley.com. She will be appearing biweekly on KVON Radio 1440AM during Jeff Schechtman’s afternoon show to discuss the columns and other random thoughts. Read more at LauraRafaty.com.)

Last Saturday night in Macon, GA, I won (in absentia) First Place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists column contest for my St. Helena Star Columns, in the category of humor (circulation under 50,000).  The same day, I won first place in the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association awards for my columns.

I seem to be on a winning streak, so I am considering entering the Olympics and the Miss Universe Pageant.  I should be a shoo-in for both, because I was born both genetically and chromosomally female.

I am grateful to the Star and to the NSNC and CNPA but most of all to those of you who actually read my silly scribblings.