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).

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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.