Up The Valley: Eat your feelings

October 25, 2012 12:00 am  •  Laura Rafaty

Two of my closest friends in town are, respectively, a psychotherapist and a personal trainer which — given my propensity for craziness and rotundity — proves the adage that those who can teach, can’t teach their friends.

And while they’ve both given up on my personal redemption, they are, respectively, founts of late-breaking knowledge concerning mental health and physical fitness — neither of which I have any hope of ever attaining. But I do find it all interesting in an abstract, don’t-take-away-my-mashed-potatoes-or-make-me-discuss-my-dreams, kind of way. And I’m ever-watchful for those occasions when something they say can be misinterpreted, twisted or otherwise hijacked to support my own version of a healthy lifestyle, such as: “ butter is healthier than margarine” or “sugar is healthier than artificial sweetener” or “decking somebody is healthier than turning your anger inward.”

So my ears perked up recently when my therapist friend first mentioned a mental disorder called orthorexia. It’s not every day that new personality disorders or mental diseases come to my attention, although I’ve started worrying that Jesse Duarte, a talented and ubiquitous young reporter for this newspaper, could be suffering from whatever emerging mental malady might cause an otherwise employable person of his iGeneration to pursue a career in print journalism. But I digress . . .

Orthorexia is an unhealthy fixation on healthy food. It can be a serious problem and an all-consuming obsession — sometimes leading to anorexia, malnutrition and other scary things. Since my friend would never condone a frivolous discussion of mental disorders, I did some research on my own, using venerable sources from Wikipedia to those medical websites that sell herbs, supplements and restorative teas. I learned that orthorexia isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, but it is becoming more frequently diagnosed.

Apparently, plain old hyper-healthy eating becomes a disorder when the behavior causes the victim distress and negatively impacts their life. If anyone reading this article suspects they might have the condition, I encourage them to seek out a smart and caring professional who can help. This column, on the other hand, is aimed at obsessive eaters on this side of the orthorexial line — those who are not suffering from a mental disorder, but who cause their friends and relations to suffer their insufferable gastronomic Puritanism. In other words, not orthorexia — let’s call it ortho-obnoxia.

Ortho-obnoxics lecture me about chlorine traces in Splenda and demand my switch to Stevia with the urgency of human rights activists petitioning the United Nations for military intervention. They suggest meeting me for lunch at Mexican or Italian restaurants, then order only a green salad. They concoct their own unsalted butters out of inedible nuts and insist that my crunchy salted peanut butter is laced with salmonella. They disparage the lactobacillus levels in my insufficiently probiotic yoghurt. And they have not a kind word to say about sugar, fat or fries — three of my favorite food groups.

If you ask me, today’s über-fussy parents are causing ortho-obnoxia to reach epidemic proportions among our nation’s youth. Here in the Napa Valley, impressionable school children toil in lush organic schoolyard gardens and learn sustainably-sourced gourmet cooking techniques from a local 3-Star Michelin chef (seriously — if you don’t live here — this is Napa Valley normal). Is it any wonder that I have been admonished by 6-year-olds for polluting the planet with incorrect seafood choices or for poisoning myself by eating meat? I anticipate a Halloween when local tricksters rebuff my high fructose corn syrup treats and demand unsalted endamame pods instead.

But much as I’m tempted to smack these unfortunates upside the head with the nearest foot-long salami, I recognize that it’s not their fault. Their brains simply lack the chemical balance gained through prolonged childhood consumption of Twinkies, Ho Hos, and whatever those bright pink coconut covered marshmallow balls were called. It’s a sad truth that many children in America today grow up without ever learning the proper way to eat an Oreo. And while I’m sure that a bowl full of granola and almond milk is a nutritionally superior breakfast choice, its consumption fails to evoke the sportsmanlike spirit once stirred by fishing stars, moons and clovers from one’s cowmilked bowl of Lucky Charms.

The best way to combat ortho-obnoxia, if you suspect you might have a raging case of it, is to admit your own weakness. While you are spooning Tofutti onto a gluten-free birthday cake before a roomful of disappointed revelers, it’s a good time to confess that you keep a stash of M&M’s in the glove compartment to stave off episodes of road rage. Develop your Peaceful Happy Face of Tolerance to don while watching friends consume cheesy pepperoni pizza, and cease speculating on the sausage’s traumatic origins.

And if you wish to continue to receive social invitations here in the Napa Valley, refrain from detailing the environmental risks of CO2 emissions from wine production, and never question studies extolling the heart-health benefits of steady wine consumption. Such statements will only lead those with ortho-obnoxia to find themselves ortho-ostracized for good.

Up The Valley: Semi-pro

March 01, 2012 12:00 am  •  Laura Rafaty

I am reliably informed that serious journalists, as opposed to we humor columnists, are distinguished by a deep knowledge of their subject matter and exhaustive verification of their facts. And while I never let a lack of knowledge stand in the way of my opinions, I try to harvest as many low-hanging facts as 20 minutes spent randomly surfing the Internet can produce. Enter Wikipedia, a collaborative online encyclopedia apparently founded on the principle that if millions of volunteers toss in information they read elsewhere, and this information is consumed and regurgitated to suggest a consensus, then Truth might accidentally emerge. I always assume that the bulk of any Wikipedia entry was lifted from the term-paper of the grad student who sat next to the contributor 30 years ago, that contributor now being a 50-year-old flabby former barista living with his parents and writing under the pseudonym Cindy4u. Still, Wikipedia’s definitions are much pithier than those of the fuddy-duddy dictionaries and far less likely to include the sort of complexity and nuance that might cloud the subject and cause my articles to exceed their 750-word limit.

To further bolster my journalistic bonafides, I attended last week’s annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood. This confluence of world-class wine journalists, bloggers, website floggers, magazine editors, former magazine editors, cookbook authors, book publishers, writing coaches, and new media gurus is co-sponsored by Meadowood Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Vintners. The best local events often involve the NVV, which is to wine enthusiasts what Steve Rubell and Studio 54 were to disco queens, although passage past their velvet rope must be based more upon pocketbook and palate than glamour, judging from some of its scruffy-whiskered winemaker members. Far from highfalutin, our hosts created an atmosphere of conviviality in which even the biggest stars were accessible and forthcoming, if occasionally formidable. Picture baseball camp for wine scribes, except that instead of practice pitching a curve ball with Goose Gossage, you practiced pitching a feature story to Decanter, Wine & Spirits and Uncorked.

Like most events where strangers gather, it resembled high school. The cool people immediately congealed, separating themselves from the rest of us like gourmet balsamic from off-brand olive oil. The usual types emerged: the ultra-driven strivers shoehorning themselves into conversations with editors, the popular darlings flitting about swapping business cards, the true believers burying their noses deep in spit cups to avoid eye contact, and the starstruck who couldn’t believe they were in the same room with both Eric Asimov and the Shafer 2003 Hillside Select Cabernet (and other rarities). Overall the group was enthusiastic, friendly and kind, and we soon relaxed into an easy camaraderie, remaining hopeful even as Symposium founder and nurturer-in-chief Toni Allegra reminded us that the average writer earns $9K per year.

It made me wonder: who becomes a wine writer, anyway? Were they born picky, their first words being: “Mother, I find this chocolate milk smooth on the palate, soft, full-bodied and rich, yet lacking maturity”? Were they finicky in high school, attending keg parties wearing smoking jackets and swilling Champagne? It appears they were always articulate observers, a tad on the sensitive side. These were not the bullies who shoved you into your locker and stole your lunch money — those guys became venture capitalists and bought wineries. These were good kids, super-smart achievers, with a bit of rebellion at the finish. They edited the yearbook or ran student government, but also drummed in rock bands or smoked pot behind the gym — until they discovered wine. One writer admitted that she had been in the color guard: “you know … not quite a cheerleader.” And while many had grown up to become respected and widely-published, few were able to support themselves through writing alone. Does this mean they are: “you know … not quite wine writers”?

According to Wikipedia: “a semi-professional athlete is one who is paid to play and thus is not an amateur, but for whom sport is not a full-time occupation, generally because the level of pay is too low to make a reasonable living based solely upon that source.” Broadly applying that definition, many of us would be considered semi-pro nowadays. Still the wine writers maintain a high level of professionalism, even if they seem a bit obsessive, fretting about botrytis and blithering on about tannins and acids and bouquets when any normal person would just say “yum.” Some don’t actually drink the wine, yet all are compelled to taste, evaluate and report, even if they can’t be entirely certain anyone is reading. In a world where everyone’s a critic, there is nothing amateur about them. And that’s a fact.

Up The Valley: Dumb and dumber

January 19, 2012 12:00 am  •  Laura Rafaty

I’ve always known that you don’t know what you don’t know, but now I’m learning that I don’t even know what I thought I knew. For example, I was listening to classical radio the other day, when the theme from “Peter and the Wolf” started playing. “Tchaikovsky!” I exclaimed confidently, congratulating myself on my encyclopedic knowledge of the arts, until the announcer patiently explained that it was Prokofiev. Of course it was; I’ve heard symphonies perform that work for as long as I can remember, but my knowledge of the composer was obviously contained in a part of the brain that was erased to make room for knowledge of the subclass code required to ring a $2 greeting card into the cash register.

A similar thing happened to me after law school, when I noticed that the part of my brain that once empowered me to make interesting conversation with promising new acquaintances of the opposite gender had been erased to make room for statutes of limitation, the rule against perpetuities and the formulae for calculating bonuses earned by Bay Area law firm associates. I guess it’s true what they say: “Use it or lose it.” It seems that regular reliance on computer spell-checking has reduced my spelling to a fifth-grade level, daily use of the cash register has left me unable to make change for a dollar without the written assistance of a receipt, and practical use of a calculator has been compromised by my inability to remember what needs to be divided into which to equal whatever.

And to think that I once handled multimillion-dollar legal contracts. It’s as if parts of my mind have become as flabby as my midsection, in need of some sort of mental corset or brain trainer or, like presidential candidates, constant use of a teleprompter. On the other hand, I retain an incredible amount of useless minutiae. Want to know who starred in the television series “H.R. Pufnstuf” in 1969? Wondering what the lyrics are to the Super Chicken fight song (I can perform this for you if you’re buying)? Curious as to the mother’s maiden name of that guy I dated 30 years ago? I’m a steel trap where these details are concerned, so why worry if I sometimes forget my own zip code and can never find my sunglasses?

Of course, my intermittent mental meltdowns are fodder for the technology industries, which exist mainly to make us all feel like doddering ancients. Nothing sounds sillier than people over 50 tossing around terms like “tweeting” and “Facebooking” and “Skyping.” I think a good rule of thumb should be that if you are of a certain age and you have heard of any device or application, or of anything at all of any kind whatsoever for that matter, you should just assume that if you know about it then it must already be tragically passé.

I particularly dread texting, and believe that there is a conspiracy among young engineers to transform what I typed into incoherent gibberish just to make me feel stupid. What laughs they must share,

sitting there in Cupertino by the server in the middle of the night, drinking Pepsi and eating Fritos, changing the word “nana” to “anus” in my messages for their own amusement. And they never tire of requiring me to update my passwords and PINs, just to confirm that dementia is looming. Apparently identity thieves have discovered my cat’s middle name, and so my passwords must be replaced with some constantly-revised combination of upper- and lower-case letters and numbers and colors and hand-signals to prevent penetration. I suppose I could write my passwords down and put them in a secure location, if only I could remember where that was.

On the bright side, my friends and I are mostly in the same boat. We sit around for hours patiently hacking away at conversational exchanges such as: “Did you see that movie last night? It starred the guy who was in that thing we saw in the theatre next to that restaurant we didn’t like.”

“The one near that place we used to go?”

“No, not that guy … the other one.”

Luckily, the theories of six degrees of separation, and of six degrees of Kevin Bacon (Google this, if people still do that), really do work, and we eventually remember whatever we were discussing, or forget that we were trying. After all, the secret to feeling smart is to surround yourself with people who are just as clueless as you are, and — as Gladys Knight, etc. recorded in 1989 on the Arista label — “that’s what friends are for.”


One Response to “Award-winning Star Columns from 2012”

  1. Gary Says:

    Now I remember why I loved your columns so much! I miss them.

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