In my final column for the St. Helena Star, I discuss freebies and freeloaders and what the future holds….
But I’ll be posting my future columns on a regular basis on this site — so you’ve come to the right place!

This will be my last “Up the Valley” column for the St. Helena Star.

After writing this column since 2010, I realize that I can no longer support this labor of love. I’m not complaining — I chose to write this column for free at first, and chose to continue writing despite the publisher’s unwillingness to pay for it later. But now I must choose to stop.

I’m continually amazed at the number of hours so many of us spend providing products, services and expertise for free. This widespread phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the Napa Valley where “Will Work for Wine” could be the regional motto. Perhaps we feel that we must pay the piper for the privilege of living in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Maybe it’s a cultural inheritance from the noblesse oblige generosity of the Valley’s founding families. Or do local beneficiaries simply assume we are all retired Silicon Valley moguls leveraging our Internet-startup stockpiles to underwrite new lives as passionate unpaid laborers?

Not to go all “Gloria Steinem” on you, but we women seem to have a particularly tough time demanding payment; Sheryl Sandberg’s sequel should be titled “Lean In and Leave an Invoice.” Plenty of guys work gratis too. I aspire to establish the “Hairdresser’s Rule,” based on the principle that you wouldn’t ask your stylist to do your highlights for free, so why would you ask other highly-skilled professionals for freebies? (This will probably prompt a flood of complaints from pro bono barbers, but I won’t be here to hear them.)

Whatever the reason, between the pittance paid by nonprofit theaters, and the clients who offer to pay me in eggs or cabernet, I am personally feeling the pinch. When a friend recently introduced me as “St. Helena’s resident lawyer specializing in pro bono work,” I knew something had to change.

Perhaps I should start my own recovery center, perfectly sited here among the multiple drug and alcohol rehab facilities and only a short hop from the state mental hospital. I could call it: Pro Bono Anonymous: A 12 Step Program to stop giving away all your time and talent for free.

I suppose my own 12 Steps will include admitting powerlessness over this reluctance to charge for my time, and the belief that only a greater power — namely a bookkeeper — can restore me to sanity. Next comes a searching and fearless inventory of all the times I refused payment on the grounds that “No, I couldn’t possibly …,” when I really could have used the money for little luxuries like my mortgage, food, and the ability to buy a round of martinis once in a while.

And speaking of picking up the check, this newspaper’s dedicated editor Dave Stoneberg tried valiantly to keep me writing this column, inviting me for coffees, plying me with pastries and press passes, while pressing my case with his bosses. But alas, small local newspapers are remote-controlled by bigger businesses elsewhere.

I thought I’d be scribbling this little column about our small town forever. And now that it’s come to an end, I’ve started thinking — what should I write next? I’ll keep posting articles on my website, compile my columns into a book, and who knows — “Up the Valley, the All-Munchkin Musical?” or “Up the Valley of the Dolls,” my sex and drugs-soaked memoir (the latter being as fictional as the former).

While I hope to expand my horizons, I will never stop writing about the endlessly fascinating, sometimes cantankerous contradiction that is my home town of St. Helena. I have a stockpile of ideas, as the local humorist has only to attend Council meetings or read the fractured factual reporting of the Napa Valley Register to find inspiration. Perhaps I’ll run for office or — given the departure or retirement of almost the entire City staff — operate an outsourced City Hall out of my garage. Government workers seemingly rank second only to Silicon Valley Internet-startup moguls in retirement benefits.

If you’ve enjoyed these columns, I really hope you’ll go to laurarafaty.com, and click the “follow” button under my heavily-airbrushed photo to receive future articles via email or Twitter. If enough of you do that, I might gain sufficient followers that someone somewhere will want to pay me someday to write something. Or maybe they’ll finally re-post my writings (for free) on the Huffington Post. I can’t thank you enough for your reactions, anecdotes and suggestions, whether whispered in the grocery store aisle or shouted from speeding cars. You’ve followed my sentences through every tortured malapropism, made-up word, and structural twist-and-turn, and for that I’ll follow you forever.

One downside to being a newspaper humor columnist, as opposed to, say, a television comedienne, is the lack of a farewell theme song. So I’ll just fracture one of my favorites to say that I’m so glad we had this time together, just to share some laughs and fight some wrongs. Seems we just got started but before you know it, comes the time we have to say “So Long.”

So Long, St. Helena Star readers, it’s been bliss.

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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.