Have we all become our own publicists? In praise of shameless self-promotion, today’s column in the Star

Back in the mid-’90s, I produced a Broadway play that was nominated for a Tony Award, scoring me an invitation to the annual Tony-nominee brunch at Sardi’s. It was a giddy time, hobnobbing with my fellow nominees, each of us clutching our ceremonial plaques while watching the Broadway stars and actual celebrities in the room pose for a phalanx of photographers.

Backstage folk being of negligible interest to the paparazzi, we retreated into our own groups and, in the grand tradition of theater parties, spent the afternoon complaining about the diva-like behavior of our more glamorous cohorts and raiding the free buffet. I sat chitchatting with a seasoned female producer — an elegant lady of indeterminable age and patrician demeanor. Unexpectedly, a photographer approached us. “Pardon me,” he said to my colleague, “but would you mind if I took your photograph?” A bit embarrassed, she handed me her plaque, adjusted her flowing scarf and important jewelry, and struck a pose while he snapped away. I was so impressed — imagine a producer famous enough to merit her own photo op! I promptly added “Be Hounded by Paparazzi at Awards Ceremony” to my bucket list.

Flash forward a year or two. Attending the opening of a friend’s play, I milled about while the curtain was delayed, no doubt due to some diva-like behavior by a photogenic movie star–turned–stage actor. I spotted that same photographer and, recalling how we met, jokingly demanded assurance that he would not try to snap my photo this time. “I was so surprised,” I confided, “that you took a theatrical producer’s photograph, Tony nominee or not. Who would want a picture of us?” I asked, sincerely.

The photographer gazed at me with the wistful aspect of a sympathetic parent about to break the long-overdue news to their dimwitted descendant that there is, in fact, no Santa Claus. “The truth is,” he quietly explained, leaning in to whisper in my ear, “she pays me to follow her around at events like that and ask if I can take her picture.”

Of course she does. It brought to mind early career advice provided by a flamboyantly jaded theatrical general manager: “Honey, if you want to be a producer, you’ll have to be a _____” (since this is a family newspaper, let’s just say that Santa would call three of them: Ho Ho Ho).

Flash forward to today. I’ve been noticing lately that, like working girls flogging our wares on the boulevard, we are all “working it” these days — at the grocery store and coffee shop, and on Facebook and Twitter. Everyone seems to be selling something, engaged in a 24/7 promotional campaign for a product that defies precise description, but which has less to do with what we make or do than with who we are.

Perhaps we manufacture an eponymous item, like a wine, an olive oil or an artisanal cheese. Or we run a small local business, where the line between friend and customer is nonexistent. Maybe we are promoting our latest passion: our blogs, our charities or our driftwood art sculptures. We Pinterest our interests, send email blasts, and constantly update our profiles and cover photos across multiple platforms, as the image we seek to project to the world evolves. The Internet and social media have made amateur press agents of us all.

But is shameless self-promotion such a bad thing? My sweet aunt used to always rattle on about not hiding my light under a bushel. I never could understand what I would be doing with this bushel — and a bushel of what, for that matter — and wouldn’t it catch fire if I put my light under it? And without straining the biblical quote on which that saying is based, if we find ourselves inspired, shouldn’t we share the news with the world?

Admittedly, the PR blitz can go over the top — and I say this as someone who has just mentioned three times that she was nominated for a Tony (there’s one more coming in the footer). But mostly it is innocent and enjoyable, as the ability of friends, relations and colleagues to apply their considerable talents to multiple concurrent tasks continues to amaze.

Perhaps we have simply become willing co-conspirators in synergistic cross-promotion. Do we now serve as reciprocal paparazzi and publicists, snapping one another’s digital photos and “Liking” one another’s ideas, and dispatching them all into cyberspace? Regardless, our eyeballs now spend more time fixed on the faces of those we know and care about than on the random celebrities populating tabloid newspapers and People magazine — an undeniable benefit of our expanding lives online.

And as long as we have our Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers, we won’t have to pay people to follow us around and pretend to find us interesting. We can mutually agree to find one another endlessly fascinating — for free. Because the truth is: now and again, we actually are.

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Flashback: Black Thursday

November 14, 2012

This column originally ran in the St. Helena Star newspaper on November 23, 2011. Unfortunately, it’s even worse this year — stores are opening earlier Thursday than ever.

Ah, the relaxing, heartwarming holiday that is Thanksgiving. Friends and family having polished off a big breakfast, there are dishes to be washed, parades to be watched, and games to be cheered. Soon starts the ceremonial sacrifice of the big bird, and the stuffing, trussing and basting will begin in earnest. With all the breathing bodies, the oven continuously baking and the furnace cranked up (because great-grandma is always cold), the house takes on a sauna-like atmosphere. Children dash through the house with pitted olives on their fingertips to shouts of “You’ll spoil your dinner!” Potatoes are peeled, green beans steamed, cranberries sauced and gravy thickened. And eventually, finally, it’s time to attend the well-set table, where the slightly stained tablecloth is covered with strategically placed serving pieces. Candles are lit, wines and ciders are poured, grace is said, and a lovely leisurely meal unfolds, followed by pumpkin pie and perhaps an after-dinner drink or two. Then there are more dishes to be done, leftovers to be divided and stored, and place settings, platters and chairs to be returned to their original positions. And eventually, finally, the cooks and their well-sated friends and relations come to rest, enjoying a relaxing evening of comfort and companionship, for which we all give thanks.

But not for too long, because now it’s time to go shopping! Yes, you heard me correctly: for those Thanksgiving revelers who like a little greed with their gravy, Big Retail’s holiday sales start on Thursday this year. This hyped-up shopping frenzy was formerly held on “Black Friday,” referring to the date when major retailers were profitably “in the black” each year (as a small-town retailer, I’m still waiting). Now in a derby of the disgraceful, Toys R Us is leading the pack, opening Thanksgiving at 9 p.m., followed by Walmart at 10, and Target, Macy’s and Best Buy at midnight. Eager to squeeze every last shopping dollar out of the season, Big Retail is co-opting Thanksgiving with too-good-to-be-missed deals on items essential to the survival of the species, like HDTVs, Playstations and stand mixers. Shoppers often line up for hours before the doors open, so by the time you read this paper, you should already be in the queue.

This Thanksgiving Thursday creep has led to a Black Friday backlash, with many consumers, competitors and retail employees crying, “Enough!” But will shoppers stand on principle and risk missing 60 percent off on a Tommy Hilfiger quarter-zip sweater? Big Retail has tried to deflect criticism, claiming that customer feedback demanded earlier shopping on Thanksgiving. I, for one, am sick of all these dubious anonymous messages, whether from unidentified “guests” telling Target to carve up Thanksgiving, or from whichever deity told Herman Cain to run for president. A mysterious message from above to the head of programming at E! Television is the only plausible explanation for the Kardashians. In any event, one suspects that something is getting lost in translation. Because if you know a consumer who has just spent the day waiting hand-and-foot on their family preparing a fabulous holiday feast, who afterward wants to put on shoes and go Christmas shopping until dawn, please send them to Main Street (on Friday). Imagine the triumphant moment when you finally get everyone out of your kitchen, sink into your chair, grab a glass of wine and prepare to receive the collected affections of a grateful clan, only to glimpse their collective backsides as they sprint toward the mall. Seriously? This can’t wait until dawn Friday?

Retail employees bear the brunt of it, grateful to be working but unable to spend holidays with their families; parents with small kids who must forego cooking and celebrating for sleep in order to pull the 10 p.m. or 4 a.m. shift at minimum wage for some Big Box bozo. But perhaps their bosses really are just giving a desperate-for-doorbusters public what it wants. The National Retail Federation reports 22.3 million people shopped either in stores or online during Thanksgiving Day in 2010; nearly double the number from five years ago. And brick-and-mortar stores are pressured: 33.6 percent of Thanksgiving weekend customers shopped online last year. But is luring carb-loaded, gravy-soaked, slightly buzzed bargain hunters out into the freezing cold on Thanksgiving the answer? And how many shoppers have shortened their holidays and stood shivering in line, only to be denied discounts due to bait-and-switch tactics, fine print and inventory shortages? Bargains are great, and retailers deserve to make a buck. But luring cash-strapped consumers and job-strapped employees away from home on Thanksgiving constitutes avarice that would make a Big Banker blush. If you ask me, these Big Retail turkeys are just asking to be plucked.

Up the Valley: Dry Idea

November 8, 2012

The silent suffering of Napa Valley non-drinkers: today’s Column in the Star

I read an article in the Napa paper about a group of heretics in our midst; nonbelievers living among us disguised as normal Napa Valley dwellers but hiding a dark secret: They hate wine.

It’s not that they can’t drink because of alcoholism or allergies or fear of ending up face-down in the mashed potatoes every holiday like Uncle Lou. Nor are they the conscientious who eschew alcohol on religious grounds, some of whom are obliged to fork over a hefty percentage of their incomes to their organizations — a promise I would have thought more easily extracted from believers under the influence of alcohol.

No, these folks just don’t like the taste of wine, or hate the feeling of being blotto. Apparently 49 percent of Americans share their view and drink little to nothing at all. Few of them are my neighbors. This is largely a one-industry town, and the neighborhood is crowded with those who make, market, or pour wine for a living. Instead of stopping next door for a cup of sugar, you can pop by for a quick glass of wine and find yourself sitting in the kitchen sipping a winemaker’s own vintage — insider access to some of the best wines in the world.

Wine is such an integral part of the culture here that school and hospital fundraisers regularly include barrel auctions, and religious and charitable organizations keep their coffers overflowing by filling funders’ goblets with copious amounts of liquid grape (and not of the sacramental variety). A teetotaler in these parts must feel about as popular as a Sonoma vintner, a glassy-winged sharpshooter or a Republican.

Our wine-weary fellow citizens complain of feeling left out — the perpetual third wheel, the girl left holding the purses at a high school dance. It must be a downer to be forever destined the designated driver, surrounded by sloshed friends and family all slurrily repeating the same only-hilarious-if-you’re-drunk anecdote. The only openly appreciated non-inebriates around here are those mythic available men attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, often suggested as the last best hope of single women in the Napa Valley.

I sympathize with the abstinent because, much as I enjoy wines and strong spirits, I find myself increasingly unable to partake of them in large quantities. Of all of Mother Nature’s cruel jokes as the body ages (weight gain, sagging flesh and male pattern ankle baldness, to name a few), a decrease in the ability to hold one’s liquor is surely the most buzz-killing.

Still, age alone may not be the culprit — I have observed several members of the local senior set knocking back repeated snootfuls, although I am beginning to suspect that they have had hollow legs installed along with their artificial joints.

But back to the temperance league, one interviewee in the Napa article mentioned that he hates wine but enjoys a daiquiri or mai tai from time to time. Toward him we can only feel superior, and ask: Would it help if we stuck a paper umbrella in your merlot? I also suspect that those who find wine distasteful have never tasted the good stuff, limiting themselves to jugs, boxes and other dispensary systems involving a spigot. For them we can only feel sympathy, and ask: Would it help if we brought you something with a cork?

I confess, however, to feeling less sympathetic toward those who complain of being improperly rejected for jobs at winery tasting rooms because they had never, and would never, drink wine. It seems a bit like pressing a suit for employment discrimination if you were a lifelong eunuch seeking the position of head of sales and marketing at a brothel.

Of course, one perfectly reasonable excuse not to drink is the expense. Abstinence may not make the heart grow fonder, but it will surely make the wallet grow fatter. And speaking of fat, lots of friends swear off alcohol (briefly) on the grounds that it promotes weight gain, not only due to the wine’s caloric content but for its propensity to encourage polishing off platefuls of french fries with Béarnaise sauce on the side.

Another powerful incentive to limit drinking is the need to avoid driving under the influence. We recall the short drive home from a nearby dinner party, gripping the wheel with trepidation while ticking off a mental checklist of the evening’s wine consumption — what did we drink, when did we drink it, and what was that wine-to-body-weight ratio again?

When I’m serving, I always try to have something for nondrinkers to enjoy, like sparkling cider, gourmet grape juice or flavored sparkling waters. I do not, however, advocate drinking alcohol-free wines. In my opinion, they are just as disheartening as fat-free chips, sugar-free chocolates or adult movies that have had their raciness erased for television. If you can’t — or don’t — enjoy the real thing, why torture yourself with an imitation?