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.

Every family has some gelatin-infused, cream of mushroom soup-soaked holiday culinary shame. What was yours? Today’s column in the Star…

I was invited by a favorite friend to join her intimate Thanksgiving dinner this year, which included lively conversation, abundant alcohol and — as is always the case at her house — incredible food.

A casual neighborhood dinner in the Napa Valley often includes cooking that would rival Michelin star restaurants elsewhere, with wine pairings that should make a French sommelier want to emigrate. Even everyday meals are thoughtfully conceived and executed with the finest ingredients. But on Thanksgiving, as we devoured a second helping of terrifically turkey-free dishes, the conversation turned to less lofty culinary offerings.

Hearing my hostess apologize for the plainness of her beautifully balsamic-blessed salad, I explained that Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house always meant green lemon-lime Jell-O salad with Miracle Whip, Pet Milk, pineapple chunks and chopped walnuts.

This resonated at the table and in later discussions; apparently every family has its own version of some gelatin-encased or cream-of-mushroom-soup-smothered secret culinary shame, the memory of which we hold exceedingly dear. The green gelatin salad seems ubiquitous, whether almonds take the place of the walnuts, grapes stand in for the pineapple, or shredded carrots find themselves improbably enshrined in a citrus Jell-O mold.

That orange color would have nicely complimented my grandmother’s autumnally-themed Thanksgiving décor: wicker horn-of-plenty stuffed with gourds and cornstalks, ceramic turkey salt-and-pepper shakers, and a fold-open paper turkey with tissue-paper-cutout body. Our “kids table” always included candles shaped like pilgrim couples which were never actually lit, because they were among her “good” candles.

My grandmother kicked-off holiday meals with a plate of symmetrically-placed celery sticks stuffed with peach-colored pimento cream cheese, which we kids regarded with horror. We preferred to raid the dish containing canned, pitted olives, placing one on each fingertip and slowly devouring all 10 — ignoring admonitions not to spoil our appetites.

A cheese ball with Ritz crackers might appear, accompanied by baby pickles and salted nuts. My uncle worked for Sunsweet, and he would occasionally contribute some exotic prune-themed amuse-bouche, such as his patented “prune chewie:” bacon wrapped around a prune stuffed with a nut; a combination that has been inexplicably overlooked by Martha Stewart.

Although Christmas dessert could include traditional pies and cakes, my favorite was always my late aunt’s persimmon cookies with brandy-flavored frosting. For most of my adult life, Auntie’s cookies arrived by mail, usually in a shoebox lined in foil, covered with Christmas wrap, and shoved inside a reused shipping box. In a post-9/11 world, I suspected that the cookies might have passed through multiple radioactive screening devices and been defiled by packs of bomb-sniffing dogs — their butter-based frosting reaching full toxicity — but I couldn’t stop eating them.

We weren’t fond of fruitcakes in my family (unless you count my crazy cousin), but I once made an authentic Christmas pudding with suet and candied fruit which we soaked in brandy and set on fire — my Great Britain-obsessed grandmother was delighted. She also sometimes made eggnog from scratch, which contained an unthinkable amount of fat, thinned by an unwise amount of alcohol.

I’m particularly particular about potatoes; heaping helpings of heavily buttered and gravied mashers have seen me through many emotional crises, including those precipitated by the aforementioned holiday gatherings. Apparently many families have major fights over side-dishes — a friend didn’t speak to her sister-in-law for years because she brought sweet potatoes when she was specifically assigned mashed potatoes (or was it vice versa?).

And speaking of sweet potatoes versus yams, the question is: to marshmallow or not to marshmallow? And don’t slivered almonds make a delightful garnish for frozen string beans? Or was it green bean casserole with dried onion rings and cream of mushroom soup with your people?

Of course, today’s health-conscious holiday diners would be horrified by such frozen, heavily-processed holiday fixings. But will their children look back with the same nostalgia on grandma’s gluten-free stuffing, low-fat cruelty-free skinless turkey breast and organic Brussels sprouts? Will they ever know the joy of eating snowman-shaped ice cream balls covered with shaved coconut, with plastic holly garnish and a candy-cane-striped birthday candle stuck in the middle? Or will they reach adulthood believing that Jell-O and aspic are the same thing?

My own holiday meal memories are not so much of the food itself, but of the struggles to get it on the table. I recall my grandmother cursing the stubborn tin molds restraining her gelatin salad, bathing them in warm water to coax the quivering green masses onto waiting leaves of iceberg lettuce. I recall my aunt’s annual tradition of clogging the garbage disposal with potato peelings, the endless arguments about whether the turkey was done and when to put the dinner rolls in the toaster oven. And of course, the fight to get the family to leave the television and come to the table.

My much-missed grandmother and aunt each left me some of their favorite recipes, including the persimmon cookies and the green Jell-O salad. But I would hesitate to make them for myself. Without the anger, joy, panic, laughter and affection whipped into the mix, they just wouldn’t taste the same.

Up the Valley: On the Prowl

November 6, 2013

The State of California’s advice to those encountering dangerous animals in state parks?: “You’re on your own!” Today’s column in the Star newspaper

A Napa park was briefly closed one early morning last month, after a city worker spotted a mountain lion roaming there.

The spotter was a public works employee. The spotee was nowhere to be found, having wisely skulked off before the Napa County Sheriff’s Office — which apparently fingers four-legged criminals when not shadowing Wal-Mart shoplifters — arrived on the scene.

But the scary part of the story was what happened when the city’s Parks, Trees and Facilities Manager called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for help. As reported by the Napa Valley Register:

“Fish and Wildlife did not respond to the incident because mountain lion sightings are common and do not typically signify a public threat, said department information officer Janice Mackey.”

“Also, reported mountain lions often turn out to be golden retrievers or large cats, she said.”

To be clear: this was not a sighting by an intoxicated teenager or nearsighted vagrant. It was reported by a city public works employee, communicating up the chain of command to park management. Presumably, if it was just some crazy guy from the maintenance department who regularly spots dangerous imaginary creatures while picking up trash in the park at 6 a.m., his superiors would not have reported the matter to state officials.

Which raises the question: when did it become discretionary for state wildlife authorities to respond to emergency calls? Should public officials feel free to ignore any claims of impending catastrophe they find implausible? Nature-loving citizens prefer to believe that if, while traversing some remote and darkened path, they are confronted by a coiled rattling snake, their panicked pleas for help will not be greeted with the response: “It’s probably just a shoelace.” Perhaps there should be a website where terrified citizens cornered by wild animals can Instagram photos of the beast, as documentary proof of their imminent risk of becoming said animal’s next meal.

This incident perhaps unfairly portrays the State Department of Fish and Wildlife as another useless expenditure of state tax dollars, not unlike the Office of Lieutenant Governor, or the California State Legislature. At least state legislators respond to constituent calls with the recorded message: “Given the Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, control of every statewide office including the Governor’s, and dominance of our U.S. congressional delegation, we no longer see the point in debating anything. We’ve gone fishing with our buddies at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

But fear not; the Department is available to dispense potentially life-saving advice. According to the Register’s reporting:

“If a person does encounter a mountain lion, the Department of Fish and Wildlife advises not running from the animal. Instead, people should face the lion, make noise, wave arms to look bigger, throw rocks or other objects at the lion and pick up small children. If attacked, the department says to fight back.”

Good to know. Although this type of confusing, multi-part instruction could be misapplied in a panic situation, leading frightened citizens to first throw their children at the lion and then pick up a pile of rocks. Or they might try throwing their cell phones at the animal, since the gadget’s effectiveness as a rescuer-summoning device is suspect. Still, the Department’s direction to fight back is well-taken, unless the victim is a Republican in the State Legislature, in which case they should probably just turn and run.

Clearly the Department is playing the odds. The Register reports that the Sheriff’s Office receives three to four calls per year regarding mountain lions in that part of town; one call per year in that particular park. And Ms. Mackey reassures us that “mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare, particularly given the number of sightings” — only 16 in California in the past 100 years; six of them fatal.

If you or a loved one are among the unlucky 16, it’s a statistically significant number. And for all we know, the actual incidence of fatal mauling may be much higher, with death by mountain lion often misclassified by county coroners’ offices as “a nasty slip-and-fall after being startled by a large cat or golden retriever.”

Here in hyper-aware St. Helena, however, all reports of potential attackers are taken seriously, whether they pertain to menacing predators prowling popular city parks, chain store advance teams scouting Main Street locations, or low-income housing developers cruising residential neighborhoods.

Our public officials may not always be able to tell a potential affordable housing site from a hole in the ground, but they can darn well distinguish between a large cat, a golden retriever, and a mountain lion.

As if Yountville doesn’t look enough like a theme park already, its latest winery will be staffed by dwarves. Really. Today’s column in the Star newspaper.

When I am not stoking my schadenfreude by deconstructing wedding announcements in the Sunday New York Times, or sharpening my math skills by tallying factual errors in the Napa Register, I often expand my social horizons by reading Paul Franson’s NapaLife, a newsletter describing the full spectrum of happenings in the Napa Valley.

In a recent issue, NapaLife confirmed a story that had been rumored for months:

The Del Dotto Family is opening a new winery called Ca’Nani, meaning “house of the dwarves.” Franson quotes Desirée del Dotto as saying: “We do plan on having some little people working there,” and describes the project as “an Italian country-style winery with caves, being built across from Mustards in the Yountville Hills” featuring “a fairy-tale theme with various characters for each wine produced.”

The Ca’Nani Facebook Page displays a dwarf carrying an outsize bunch of grapes, and a winery design that looks like a fantasy Italian stone castle courtyard, but without the gritty realism of Castello di Amorosa. The owners explain: “We chose this theme for our new label because dwarves are jovial and light hearted, and perhaps magical.”

This project raises several obvious questions, including: Doesn’t Yountville look enough like a theme park already? Who are these jovial dwarves (the few I’ve met were decidedly cranky)? Will there be a “Dwarf Wanted” posting on WineJobs.com? And doesn’t this give delightful new meaning to the phrase “short pour”?

This story should become a Napa Valley epic fantasy novel:

Once upon a time, there was a brave planning director and disciple of Saint Helena, who ventured into the forbidden village of Yountville to observe its legendary wonders: wide pothole-free streets, clean branded awnings, and certain mythic buildings kept for the use of “visitors” who are reputed to “check in” and “stay the night.”

An enchanted place where faux-Italy and faux-France peacefully co-exist, there is supposedly no school system in Yountville; just a fairy princess who reads fables to young children before stuffing them into the oven at Bouchon Bakery. Overwhelmed by its beauty, the planner wanders into Hurley’s for a restorative lager, and accidentally leaves behind his precious Golden Drafting Compass.

This Golden Compass, essential for making planning decisions on Saint Helena’s behalf, is placed in a box behind Hurley’s bar and lost for what feels like 1,000 years. Without it, no one can assess the square footage of a hotel site, or calculate the city’s water needs, or determine the number of staff required to run a municipal department. Thus the Upper Kingdom of Saint Helena, unable to pass even the most General of Plans, cedes its dominance to the Middle Kingdom.

Fortunately, the People’s Prince, Lord Dario of Sattui, during a late-night rendezvous at Hurley’s, retrieves the Compass and conveys it to his Upper Kingdom Castello for safekeeping. There it is locked in a dungeon guarded by an irascible Croatian gargoyle answering to the nickname of “Mike.” Access to the treasure requires enthusiastically chanting the word “Cheers” 50 times to a troll at the gate.

Meanwhile, the Lords of the Middle Kingdom plot to recapture Saint Helena’s Golden Compass and usurp her town’s exhaustively-market-researched-and-branded position as “Napa Valley’s Main Street.” And so they erect a fantasy kingdom of their own deep in the Yountville hills, and cunningly lie in wait for the day when they might deploy an army of dwarves to seize the talismanic Compass.

The epic battle unfolds as the diminutive warriors commandeer the Wine Train, venture Upvalley, and storm the Castello. But wily Prince Dario, who maintains a second, less-lofty castle on the side, summons its army to advance from the south, and routs the would-be usurpers. The small-stature survivors scatter to hide in the Petrified Forest, followed by a long and perilous journey to the Safari West wildlife preserve. There they will mount flying unicorns and journey back to the Middle Kingdom. (How do you know there aren’t unicorns at Safari West? You haven’t been there.)

A peace conference is convened by the Lower Kingdom’s Tax Assessor and Registrar of Voters, but he betrays both parties and steals the Golden Compass for himself. Lacking any compass of his own, he has been unable to certify election results for what feels like 1,000 years.

(Lest you feel that my fear of impending invasion rings false, remember that the Town of Yountville recently announced plans to annex Domaine Chandon, which is much like the time Henry V decided to annex France, except that instead of resulting in the acquisition of another country, it will result in the acquisition of another Michelin star.)

Meanwhile, back in the Middle Kingdom, will the Lords of Kellerville and Chiarelloland, and Sir Richard of Reddington, sit idly by, or will their publicists force them into the fray? Will Ca’Nani’s promised fairy-tale characters include dwarves named Swirly, Sippy and Spitty? And will the ultimate victors be the lawyers of would-be winery workers over 4 feet 10 inches in height? You’ll have to read another chapter in the “Lord of the Wrongs” cycle to find out.

Up the Valley: Tarted-Up

October 10, 2013

Since the grocery store has become the new town square, I have to put on makeup to buy a carton of milk. Today’s column in the Star.

According to an unscientific poll conducted on another continent, one in three women never leaves the house without makeup. This research was conducted in the UK, where such indigenous beauties as Camilla Parker Bowles decorate magazine covers, so you can imagine how many more American women must get tarted-up before stepping out the door.

Contrary to what I suspect is the popular opinion, I do wear makeup — indulging in a daily application of mineral powder foundation as I dab, tap and swirl my way to a flawless complexion. And I can in fact operate an eyelash curler, although it’s probably time to reevaluate my black versus black-brown versus black-noir mascara choices. But time spent beautifying is time spent wasted, because I am so perpetually exhausted, the makeup just slides right off my face — no doubt in search of a fresher face to decorate.

I sometimes find myself rubbing my finger along my cheek before leaving the house, unable to visually confirm that I already applied makeup. This is clearly the latest step in my slow steady decline; soon I will start breathing onto the mirror each morning to verify whether or not I am still alive.

And while I do own nice clothing, very little of it fits when push comes to shoving myself into its strictly-structured contours. I have a few stalwarts for social occasions, but if I’m going to sit, write, or phone — or indeed bend in any direction — a tight waistband is not a sustainable option. I therefore leave the house most days sporting speculative facial adornment and dressed as a clean but comfortable female hobo.

So imagine my shame when confronted daily with the indigenous population of St. Helena, where the women are often flawlessly coiffed and smartly clothed — even if their outfits involve counter-intuitive combinations like Burberry quilted vests with flip flops. It’s as if they stepped off the pages of some fantasy Wine Country Lifestyle Magazine, which omits articles about hours spent sitting in tourist traffic, long lines at the bank on Fridays behind paycheck-cashing farmworkers, and 2 a.m. vineyard-wind-turbine wakeup calls.

Many of these women are as fit as retired Olympians — well-burnished and bronzed — with glistening streaks of blonde highlighting their bouncy hair. They are frequently accessorized by a slightly sun-damaged and weathered husband — or perhaps it’s just that he is 30 years older than his spouse — but they do look gorgeous grabbing groceries at Sunshine Foods.

Naturally, the sloppier I look the more of them I run into at the grocery store, which has become the Town Square of our little hamlet. It used to be that Main Street was the gathering point of any small town — a bustling thoroughfare where all the business of a community — social and economic — could be conducted. If you wanted to run into a neighbor or a friend or a colleague, that’s where you’d go.

But in our town, a stroll down Main Street has become an irregular occurrence — which is a shame, because so many of our neighbors, friends and colleagues own businesses there. They are the ones who buy advertising in the paper that pays for printing the high school sports scores, who donate auction lots, pay property taxes and even hose down the sidewalk when one of us gets excessively liquored-up.

As a former member of their ranks, I lament the fact that I have so few occasions to transact the business of my day for their benefit. The reasons for this are as complicated as the number of years it has taken to devolve to this point, but my feeling is that even if I can’t necessarily afford to shop with them regularly (due in large part to my former role as recession-era retailer), at least I can support them on those rare occasions when they ask for help.

A group of them did, recently, when a high-end San Francisco jeweler proposed to open a large store on Main Street. This is a market that is clearly well-served by our existing retailers, who have battled through Caltrans construction and economic catastrophe to emerge semi-scathed but still alive — at least until Safeway opens a diamond department. They seemingly recognize that the problem presented by another luxury jewelry store is not the competition for customers, but rather the continued erosion of Main Street as a diverse shopping destination.

Until the Planning Commission is empowered by the City Council to foster a creative mix of experiences on Main Street, restoring its natural place as the hub of our town, residents will continue to shop, socialize, withdraw cash and rent their evening’s entertainment at Safeway. Main Street will attract more high-end seasonal stores, imperiling the local businesses operated for years — and year-round — by our friends and neighbors. Still, there is one attractive side to this steady march toward the Stepfordization of Main Street. You can bet that the women who shop there will put on plenty of makeup before leaving their hotels.

Up the Valley: Cop Talk

September 26, 2013

The local police department finally cracks down on criminals (me). Today’s column in the Star…

Do not read this column on your cellphone while driving. And while we’re at it: Remove the plastic wrapper from the fish sticks before placing them in the oven, don’t place the shower cap over your nose and mouth, and for heaven’s sake refrain from knocking back NyQuil while operating a chain saw.

These are all solid safety tips, but the first one — the bit about driving while cellphoning — also constitutes my well-researched legal advice (no charge). Because I have it on good authority that the local Police Department has undertaken a zero-tolerance crackdown on prohibited activities that are simultaneously vehicular and cellular — and the authority in question is the cop who recently found me foolishly engaging in both.

As I explained to the officer, I am not a serial cellphoner on wheels; phoning while driving is something I rarely do. The echo chamber of my car’s interior represents the ideal sanctuary where I can calmly reflect upon the events of the day without the interruption of ringtones and message alerts. It’s also the place where I sing badly but loudly to Broadway musical soundtracks, CDs by female vocalists who are loud enough to drown out my caterwauling (bless you, Ann Wilson of Heart), and where I mentally choreograph elaborate dance numbers that I would almost certainly perform if only I were younger, thinner and talented — or Miley Cyrus.

When you live in a small town, you get to know the public officials, and as a former Main Street business owner and lawyer, I have had varied interactions with local police. Some individual officers are consistently reasonable and helpful; a few can seem bad-tempered or arrogant. But on balance I will admit that there was a time — now emphatically consigned to the past — when I didn’t think much of their overall performance.

I vividly recall the time when I summoned police to my store to rescue two children who had been abandoned there by irresponsible parents. Giving the local dispatcher my address — spelling my store name three times — I wondered why they couldn’t identify downtown shops, when New York City officers can learn the names, addresses and even the owners of the public businesses on their beats. And I’ll never forget the sight of the responding officer walking up and down the street — on the opposite side — apparently unaware that the odd numbers were on one side and the evens were on another.

I also remember the time — several years ago — when a drunken driver plowed into the front yard of a friend’s house, demolishing several trees, his car floor littered with empty beer cans. When the police arrived, they took a firm position — pro-perpetrator — urging my friend to refrain from pressing charges because the offender was “a nice guy” who would make full restitution (he didn’t).

But my favorite cop moment was when I called to report an open window in a closed real estate office next door to the store, which was entered by multiple officers swarming SWAT-like with guns drawn. I feared that if the fax machine suddenly beeped it would be cut down in a hail of bullets. Oh, and there was that prolonged period when they seemed incapable of solving major crimes, leading a prominent local resident to dub our town “Cold Case USA.”

But that’s all in the past, because the local police now impress me as diligent, respectful and competent. Where they once might have refused to release a serial suspect’s description for fear of “compromising the investigation,” they now release detailed information about both appearance and modus operandi. Last summer, this enabled my sharp-eyed neighbor to help them bust a notorious neighborhood burglary ring, and has led many locals to feel an increased sense of confidence and security.

My conversations with the police chief — a no-nonsense female of considerable experience — have always been positive, and I am grateful that these dedicated public servants put their lives on the line for our citizens and businesses. Which leads me back to the recently stepped-up enforcement of our vehicular safety laws. Of course this is right — distracted driving, whether due to cellphoning or texting, or fumbling in the glove compartment for that Miley Cyrus CD, is ill-advised on all counts.

I do, however, think that cellphone conversations conducted at a standstill, while caught in Caltrans construction, should be an exception to the rule under a new theory of defense to be called: “distracted driving due to having been driven to distraction by daily delays.” But that’s just one citizen’s cry for common sense, and categorically does not represent well-researched legal advice.