Dear Readers,

I will be back and writing very soon — I’ve been on a short hiatus while I re-think these columns, looking for ways to distill maximum silliness into bite-size pieces. Thankfully, recent encounters with Garrison Keillor, pistol-packing drag queens and Proust-reading tourists have inspired a new wave of creativity about to make a splash — or at least little puddles – on this blog.

Meanwhile, I am proud and grateful to announce that for the third year in a row, my “Up the Valley” column in the St. Helena Star was a winner of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists award in the category of humor, under 50,000 circulation. Judge Tom Walsh reviewed 160 humor columns submitted, and made these comments:

Ms. Rafaty’s work is consistently very intelligent and well-written, offering her readers insights into the quirky aspects of what passes for culture. I’m still chuckling over her line in the column “The Skinny” in which the reader is asked to “Picture Popeye’s Olive Oyl in a D-cup.” Great stuff, column to column.

The column won first place in its division the last two years, and second place this year. My last regular column for the Star appeared on April 23, 2014.

Awards were granted in six categories, and went to distinguished journalists from the New York Times and The Washington Post as well as to regional publications. A posthumous award was given to Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, while two-time Pulitzer winner Gene Weingarten received the 2014 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

For more about the NSNC and my fellow columnists, see: http://www.columnists.com/2014/06/nsnc-column-contest-winners-2014/

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Two-Timer!

June 30, 2013

Dear Readers,

It’s official – my “Up the Valley” column in the St. Helena Star won first place last night from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, in the category of humor. The ceremony took place in Hartford, Connecticut, and awarded prizes in six categories. Fellow winners included the late Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who won for his online column, and Pulitzer Prize winning-humorist Dave Barry, who was awarded the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

The specific Up the Valley columns submitted were: “Dumb and Dumber” “Eat Your Feelings” and “Semi-Pro.” This is the second consecutive year that the column has been awarded first prize.

The judge said some nice things:

First Place – Laura Rafaty, St. Helena (Calif.) Star. Judge’s comment: I thought the best of the bunch (first place) was Laura Rafaty, one of the columnists whose work actually produced multiple laugh-out-loud moments. Very conversational style, with a wide mix of subject matter (not just kids and insufferable spouses, as is the case with many of these entries). Her writing allows readers to sail along on a sea of mirth, a skill I saw lacking in many other entries. Like all good writers, she takes readers from the first to last sentences without them being aware they have just made the trip. Good journalistic writing is invisible.

Thanks to all my readers for your support of this column over the past year. Lots more silliness to come!

-Laura

When getting hammered with the neighbors is not a good thing…today’s column in the Star!

One of my neighbors is a candidate for sainthood; specifically, as the patron saint of unemployed contractors. I call her: Our Lady of Perpetual Construction.

No further need have I for the sound-soother alarm clock, which used to gently wrest me from slumber each morning to the artificially-engineered chirping of birds and chiming of church bells from some faraway land. For the better part of the past three years, I have been reliably snapped into consciousness at 7:59:59 a.m. (or a tad earlier if the coast is clear) by teams of roofers and electricians and carpenters and handypersons revving up the jackhammers and firing up the electric saws.

Occupying the lower decibel levels are the landscapers who scratch-scratch-scratch at the soil and heave heavy bags of mulch with loud grunts, all while conducting constant, energetic conversations in Spanish. This band of botherers tends the land just over my fence all day, most every day, as if it were a sprawling multi-acre estate instead of a modest ranch house with detached structures in a seemingly constant state of evolution.

There have been periods of respite, particularly in winter, and so each morning I awake in anticipation of the first noise and wonder — is today the day when silence will be the only sound? Has she run out of money or ideas or permits yet? And what’s her secret for getting these contractors to show up, when I still can’t get my gate fixed by the guy who built it three years ago?

Last summer, Our Lady’s industry apparently inspired the adjacent school to undertake companion construction, the two teams hammering out a symphonic summer duet of daily blasting, grinding and sawing. The projects became so aurally intertwined that it’s certain Our Lady unfairly took the blame for sounds emanating from projects not her own — but then martyrdom is all part of the being-a-saint package.

On frequent summer evenings, Our Lady celebrates her construction achievements with a lively well-attended pool party. They feature an amplified stereo system blaring techno music with a throbbing bass beat that makes my windows vibrate as my eardrums expand and contract — the kind of boom-boom-boom you hear for hours after the music actually ends.

Still, while I would ban the bass, I have come to enjoy these parties vicariously. Our Lady hangs lovely strings of light in the trees alongside whimsical windsocks that catch the breeze; possibly to summons the spirits of ghostly contractors past. It’s quite sweet to hear the sound of children swimming and splashing and shouting over the music (although I do wonder how their little eardrums hold up). The festivities usually end at a decent hour, and there is a palpable ebb and flow as the party winds down, the sound of child’s play replaced by the comforting murmur of slightly-groggy grown-up conversation and camaraderie.

I was sitting at my backyard table trying to entertain my own guests one evening, when a friend commented on the over-the-fence festivities. “This sounds just like your New York apartment,” she screamed, so that she might be heard over the din. And she was right; my Upper West Side garden apartment was always surrounded by a cacophony of sound: Salsa music, honking horns, heavily-accented voices shouting, punctuated by impromptu singing and sporadic laughter coming from busy Columbus Avenue and Broadway nearby. This was a major improvement over the sounds streaming from the air vents in my prior Hell’s Kitchen apartment: constant police sirens, and screaming fights between hookers and drug dealers, all set to the gentle clip-clop of exhausted carriage horses returning to their stables for the evening.

There is something comforting about hearing other people happily residing nearby; a reminder that you are alive on a populated planet, not alone out in the country where you might be devoured by mountain lions or by zombies with no one to hear your screams.

But after a few years of construction, the ear becomes over-sensitized and the nerves hair-triggered, such that even moderate noises disturb to a degree totally out of proportion to their decibel level. There is some reason for hope — although not that the construction will ever end — Our Lady’s neighbors have abandoned that dream. I find in general that the more I know and like the source of noise, the less I hear it. I am determined to get to know Our Lady better, and find that the more I do, the less I hear “noise” and the more I hear “neighbor.”

We all have our particular sound peeves: leaf blowers, barking dogs, fire alarm sirens, audible chewing, crying babies on airplanes and fancy restaurants, cell phone conversations in closed spaces, or even the tone of a particular Vice Presidential candidate’s voice. I used to loathe the loud, rhythmic rumbling of my older dog snoring, so reminiscent of a revving-up racecar. But now that it’s the only sound the little guy can make, I find it comforting to hear.

Which proves, I suppose, that annoying noise is entirely in the ear of the beholder.

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.

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.

Stepping in Brown

June 28, 2012

Here is today’s column in the Star newspaper, wherein I discuss my community’s obsession with all things legal…

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss practicing law for a living. I miss the money and the intellectual stimulation and seeing middle-aged men in business suits, rather than in board shorts and flip-flops. And did I mention the money?

Still, I don’t miss dinner parties where all the invitees are lawyers, with conversation devolving into war stories about difficult clients, impossible opposing counsel and the time they got that continuance and really stuck it to the other side.

It’s the same in any industry, I suppose; I’ve suffered through several prolonged dinner party conversations about the water table here in the Napa Valley. But even the wine industry’s most boring exchanges about malolactic fermentation and “punching down the cap” beat extended discussions of ERISA law and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.

Which is why it’s a bit off-putting to be hearing so much law-talk in town these days. It suddenly seems like everybody is a legal analyst preparing for their guest shot on Court TV. I blame “Law & Order,” “CSI” and the latest sensational televised trial for making every man a would-be Matlock. And I marvel at how people having only a sketchy familiarity with the Constitution can explain, in subparts, the unconstitutionality of the health care mandate.

I frequently encounter amateur employment lawyers outlining the repercussions of City Hall layoffs, and hobbyist land-use experts opining on zoning restrictions affecting the latest hotel/office wannabuild. But most off-putting are those dabblers engaged in mind-numbingly dull discussions of the Byzantine Brown Act.

The Ralph M. Brown Act, aka the “Sunshine Law,” aka the “Full Employment for Government Attorneys Act,” aka the “Last Gasp of Relevance for Newspaper Editors Law,” is an undeniably important protection, guaranteeing citizens proper access to their leaders’ deliberative process. Certainly our representatives should not be permitted to conduct business in secret or render decisions without public input and scrutiny. But the act is also hopelessly complex, easy to trip over, and potentially dire in consequences.

Ever wonder why we don’t have more people willing to step forward as candidates for local office? The Brown Act squelches volunteerism, threatening criminal prosecution of hapless councilfolk who violate its terms. Luckily, our local leaders and their constituencies can now add “Brown Act Expert” to their legal resumes, simply by viewing the Planning Commission’s recent “Brown Act for Dummies” presentation via streaming video.

Its former chairman having been accused of Brown Act violations, the Planning Commission was sent to the principal’s office for a stern hygiene lecture intended to clean up its act. City attorneys (we have several, apparently), armed with a battery of PowerPoint slides, led planners and a rapt television audience on a two-hour slog through the law’s statutory framework in theory and practice. The commissioners were well behaved and took their medicine without sugar, cognizant surely that none of them wished to end up in the clink.

Yet despite the educational merits of the evening, I found its entertainment value waning after the first hour and a half. The highlight came when chairman-elect Matthew Heil, always a source of sensible questions, inquired whether the Brown Act applied in the case of emergencies. What, he wondered, would happen if the city were threatened with major flooding — could it really be that City Council members couldn’t confer to save the town?

No, came the emphatic expert advice — there are no exceptions, although a scheduled meeting could be adjourned if the building was underwater. In that case, presumably, the meeting could continue with a quorum of commissioners in a rowboat, so long as interested citizens were issued comparable flotation devices.

It left me wishing that Matt, normally so thorough, had asked the obvious follow-up questions:

• What if a giant meteor is headed for Earth? Can commissioners yell “Duck!” even if Armageddon is not on the published agenda?

• What if Martians invade St. Helena? Are they entitled to the same notice of hearings as local citizens? Same question re: people who only live here during the summer.

• What if an enormous sinkhole caused while planting the Carnegie Building’s outsized palm trees suddenly swallows up half the council? Can the Public Works Department privately debate ways to publicly blame the Tree Committee?

• What if a councilmember is tarred and feathered by locals for violating the Brown Act? Can fellow members hose him down without being charged as accessories-after-the-fact? and

• What if a tsunami sweeps away the city’s legal advisers and their flowcharts? Do the survivors still need to follow their advice?

These and other questions will have to await the next properly noticed special session. In the meantime, if you require advice about this or any other pressing legal issue affecting our city, please consult the many local experts readily available at the street corner, coffee shop or grocery line near you.

The following column appeared in the St.  Helena Star newspaper on March 10, 2011.  My Napa Valley retail store has since closed, although it exists as an online store, and I still carry the scars — and sweet memories — of my days as a shopgirl.

People often ask me why I decided to buy a retail store. These questions usually begin with phrases like: “Whatever possessed you…” or “Why in heaven’s name would you even think of…” uttered in concerned tones. My friends from my lawyer days assume I’ve had some sort of brain episode, or that I’m doing community service pursuant to a parole agreement. My theater pals are in awe of my continued ability to find creative ways to lose money. My girlfriends suspect that I’m trying to snag a rich husband by positioning myself as a walking tax loss in heels. The truth is more sinister.

I never wanted to be a retailer;  I wanted to own an art gallery. I was introduced to IWolk Gallery owner Ira Wolk, and we spent some months dancing around the possibility of my buying his gallery. We lunched. We talked. We drank wine. But eventually I discovered that there was one impediment to my plan to buy the gallery from Ira: He didn’t want to sell it.

The truth was that Ira really loved having the gallery. He loved working with artists, he loved his clients, he loved his staff; he complained about all of them but couldn’t let them go. I finally concluded that getting him to give up the gallery would be like asking Oprah or Larry King to give up their talk shows. And so we parted as friends, and I moved on to purchase what Ira liked to call, “That little shop where I could buy a gingerbread-scented candle if I ever wanted one.”

He often stopped by the shop just to rib me, once selecting a greeting card then refusing to buy it, complaining loudly that he considered the sticker price simply outrageous.

Ira understood that my dreams of art gallery ownership and its glittering clientele, which I imagined would run the gamut from visiting royalty to George Clooney’s decorator, would be denied because of a local prohibition against the further proliferation of these dens of artsy-ness.

“We don’t want to become Carmel,” sang the Planning Commission and City Council in harmony, ignoring the fact that we lack both Clint Eastwood and a proper golf course (I am informed that nine holes don’t constitute a quorum), nor can we boast an atmosphere tinged with the pungent aroma of saltwater (except at the Go Fish sushi bar).

So I plotted to buy a retail store that already included a fair amount of art, and then gallery it up. But before long, my visions of art-world glamour were dashed as I developed a full-blown case of the Tchotchke Syndrome. I surrounded myself with stuff that made people say, “Oooh … cute.”

I ordered patchouli-scented candles that smelled like the back of my high school boyfriend’s VW bus. I stocked gold-lame purses shaped like Chihuahuas, and argued with the prior owners about who ordered the ceramic chickens with hats. I split my pants loading a giant metal rooster made from recycled oil drums into a customer’s trunk. I suspected another store of spy-versus-spy chicanery when its window featured the same stuffed corduroy dachshund we carried.

Eventually I gained the perspective that only comes from losing large amounts of money while having large amounts of fun. I discovered that for all its ridiculousness, owning a shop provided one undeniable benefit that even the art gallery might not have: I got to meet The People, up close.

Let me just say this about The People: They are not uniformly attractive. They can be demanding, fickle and downright rude, particularly when drunk. As children, they tend to be sticky, grabby and unsupervised. Parents often employ bizarre methods to corral their kids in retail stores, my favorite of which was the lady who told her children to observe “the one-finger rule,” which meant that the kids could do anything in the store so long as they did it with one finger. I don’t need to tell you which finger I longed to use as her darlings toppled breakables with the flick of a digit.

On the other hand, The People can be incredibly kind, charming and fiercely loyal. On vacation, they can be relaxed, silly and downright generous, particularly when drunk. In other words, The People may not be the perfectly polished specimens one might find in a Carmel art gallery, but I suspect they are infinitely more enjoyable. I’d still like to meet George Clooney’s decorator, though.