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:



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!


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.

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.

Flashback: Gadget Envy

June 19, 2012

This silly thing was published in the St. Helena Star on February 11, 2011.  Still posting the oldies  to get them up on the ol’ inter-web, so hang in there!  If you want something newer, scroll down to Wine Open below…

We in St. Helena generally consider our city vastly superior to Napa in most respects, yet in one area Napa can claim a distinct advantage: cool crime-fighting tools. You may recall last year, when the Napa PD chased a suspected Walmart shoplifter (of $70) by helicopter, eventually plucking him out of the Napa River assisted by flashy fire department speedboats, in a scene right out of the movie “The Fugitive.”

And last summer, when an explosive device was reported downtown, the Napa PD bomb squad deployed a highly trained expert in an elaborate 80-pound beekeeper’s costume, who gingerly attached a rope to the thing, dragged it across a bumpy street into a pile of sandbags, and blew it up. The bomb-defeating hero later explained that he was forced to handle the incident in this decidedly old-school fashion because Napa’s robot was “down for maintenance.”

So this has left me wondering ever since: Why doesn’t St. Helena have its own robot?

It is difficult to fathom how we have survived as a municipality without one for so long, since we are completely gadget-crazy here. The minute Apple dreams up a new wireless device it seems half the town is carrying one, despite the fact that it is useful primarily as a doorstop due to the unfortunate placement of AT&T’s antenna in a secret, lead-lined bunker. And when a local restaurant unveiled a gizmo adding bubbles to still water, its competitors had bubbly-water-makers within days.

It is rumored that researchers at NapaStyle are working round-the-clock to develop an animatronic Michael Chiarello for photo ops with celebrity-chef-seeking tourists at Bottega. Plus, as I’ve mentioned: Napa already has one. Clearly we need our own shiny, obedient and discriminately lethal robot, for the following possible uses:

• It can run for Mayor.

It must be lonely for His Honor, running unopposed for high office. Nothing takes the fizz out of the champagne at the victory party like an inability to brag about beating the brains out of your opponent. Wouldn’t it be great if we could spice up the Mayor’s campaign with bumper stickers saying: “At Least He’s Human” or “My Candidate Doesn’t Run on Batteries.” The pre-election debate alone would be worth the price of the contraption, although we’ll have to remember to set the robot’s weapon to stun.

• It can welcome visitors.

Since the city is threatening to remove all funding from the Chamber of Commerce, and downtown business owners spend approximately 68 percent of their time directing tourists to the bathroom, the robot could serve as a Goodwill Ambassador, roaming the streets dispensing coupons, restaurant recommendations, wet wipes and local wine. It could even be programmed to dispense useful misinformation (which we’ll blame on a software glitch) such as driving directions to Yountville that involve traveling west until you hit the ocean, or a geologic history of Calistoga attributing the bubbling sulfur hot springs to decomposing vegetarian dinosaurs passing gas.

• It can fight crime.

There’s a new sheriff in town, as our ever-vigilant robot walks the beat and perhaps rips the head off a shoplifter or two, just as a warning to the others. Watch out, Cheers! revelers, as you’d better be sporting a tightly attached wristband or risk losing a wrist.

• It might even be called into high-risk situations, like maintaining order at school board meetings and announcing local water department rate increases (Note to manufacturer: Please make sure to include the double-strength combat-grade bullet-proof grenade-repelling armor).

Obviously, the St. Helena Robot will be invaluable. Yet how, you might ask, can we possibly pay for it? I’m not generally in favor of displacing human workers with robots, so let’s replace bomb-detonating robots with humans. I personally know at least a dozen thrill-seeking boys between the ages of 8 and 68 who would gladly blow things up at a moment’s notice, many of whom would pay for the privilege. We could auction off the opportunity to blow up the next suspicious object found in town; even lend the high bidders out to blow things up in Napa for a fee (plus we don’t have to clean up afterward).

Not only would this raise funds to pay for essential services, but it would set the entire population of conscientious boys ages 8 to 68 into action seeking out suspicious packages wherever they may be inadvertently set down for a moment or two in the Safeway parking lot while searching for the car keys. And that’s Homeland Security we can live with.

This was my very first column for the St. Helena Star, published December 23, 2010.  I wonder whether other small towns are similar.  While lips have loosened a bit, it’s still tough to get elected if you admit to liking these things — which may explain why we have so few local citizens challenging incumbents for office. 

I was talking with a group of locals the other day, when one of them expressed a strong opinion on a topic of current interest, blanched, and then immediately cautioned: “but don’t quote me.” I hear this a lot in St. Helena, even from people who seem pretty brave and powerful, and I’m coming to realize that there are certain things you can’t say in this town without ending up in the soup.

So, as a public service, I compiled a list of a few things you shouldn’t say out loud in St. Helena:

1. Wine Train

Referring aloud to this train-that-must-not-be-named is akin to saying the name Voldemort in a Harry Potter novel. A fearful silence is likely to result. I’ve never been on the Wine Train, so I can only assume that Mephistopheles himself is the engineer, and that it makes periodic stops in local towns to distribute cigarettes to small children. Locals tell ghost stories — in hushed tones — about elected officials who mysteriously vanish after mentioning you-know-what in favorable terms, while assuring me that “the problem is not the Wine Train per se, but what it represents.” Apparently the WT provokes the same reaction in the locals as the Indian tribes once felt when they saw the smoke and tracks of the Union Pacific edging closer. But maybe we’d be more trusting of touristy transport if we were living in …

2. Yountville

Speak our neighbor’s name, and be prepared for some schizophrenia to take hold. Apparently there are two Yountvilles: the one that is better than us and the one that is much, much worse. The better one has branded itself the “fine dining capital of the world,” its benefactors investing unlimited amounts of money, with no zoning restrictions whatsoever, to refashion Yountville into a food-and-wine lover’s paradise with streets paved in gold, giant Taj Mahal-like spa/hotels, and an invisible magnetic shield at the end of town to prevent tourists from venturing north. The inferior Yountville of lore has no “real there there” and few neighborhoods, fewer schools and lesser wineries. What both Yountvilles can agree on, however, is that we in St. Helena are too darn snooty. In fact, I’ve heard it suggested that St. Helena is distinguished throughout the Napa Valley as being the snootiest most difficult-to-deal-with city around; sort of a gorgeous, high-maintenance girlfriend from a good family. If so, perhaps we should brand ourselves around it. Let’s all visit Yountville, Sonoma and Healdsburg wearing T-shirts that say: St. Helena: Don’t Hate Us Because We’re Better. One thing Yountville doesn’t have, though, is …

3. Cheers!

Love it or hate it, everyone seems to have strong, often conflicting opinions about this organization and the Friday night wine tasting and shopping event it sponsors. Is it a heroic effort to fill the breach left by local leaders who couldn’t save our town on their own; a great opportunity for neighbors to get together in a social setting; a boost for local shops, food and wine; or a drunken bacchanal with gangs of shoplifting youths gone wild chasing fearful residents back into their homes? It’s clear that Cheers! does a lot of good in the community, for which it does not always get credit, and that the Friday socials will continue to evolve. But it is also clear that it will be a lighting rod for an inconvenienced public unable to make a left turn onto Adams Street, and for those who think the music is just too darn loud. At least at Cheers! they pour lots of wine but don’t use much …

4. Water

Evidently everything in St. Helena can be separated into two categories: things that deserve water and things that don’t. The deserving apparently includes: vineyards, any front lawn (on odd or even days) and attached residence previously constructed, well located public parks, and palm trees at city buildings. The undeserving includes golf courses, swimming pools, businesses who can afford their own, and anything to be built tomorrow. Locals seem to agree, however, that St. Helena water is a bit smelly, tastes strange, is incredibly expensive, and plays havoc with the porcelain. In short, it is terrible and we wish we had more of it.

Perhaps we’d be happier if we shipped the water in from Yountville in giant tankers attached to the Wine Train.

Come to think of it, those seeking peaceful discourse should generally refrain from mentioning the School Board, the City Council, the Planning Commission, that other bocce league, tree removal, soccer fields, screwtops, taxes, flood control, weddings at wineries, pumpkin patches at wineries, anything besides wine at wineries, eco-villages, low-income housing, stream setbacks, protected species, nine-hole golf courses and the location of the nearest Taco Bell.

Personally, I enjoy visiting art galleries (and don’t share the town’s deep fear of “becoming Carmel”), but don’t quote me.

Flashback: I Like Mike

June 15, 2012

The following column ran in the St. Helena Star on May 12, 2011.  It is one of the three national award winners.  As long as I’m bashing the Administration in this week’s column, I thought I might as well post this one too.  Hope I don’t end up on a terrorist watch list…

It’s amazing how a person’s appearance can cause a visceral reaction. Take Timothy Geithner, secretary of the Treasury. He seems calm and tidy, and certainly lots of people like him, and by people I mean large multinational corporations and global financial institutions. But for me, he will always suffer from being a dead ringer for a namesake boy who sat behind me in elementary school.

Timmy always smelled like sour milk, was an accomplished nose-picker, and whined incessantly. So even if Timothy Geithner did not ignore small business, negotiate sweetheart deals for financial institutions, and fail to pay his own taxes, I would still feel an almost irrepressible urge to take him out behind the auditorium and smack him around.

Many Americans who share my feelings toward Mr. Geithner are now looking for a presidential candidate who can not only run the country, but who can also outrun a Wall Street coup d’état. Desperate Americans seek a leader who combines Warren Buffet’s strategic savvy and Tony Soprano’s crime boss bravado with hair every bit as high as Ronald Reagan’s. Quite naturally, they have turned to Donald Trump.

Much as I relish the image of The Donald sitting across the desk from Geithner, pointing his finger and saying: “You’re Fired,” I’m not quite prepared to see the White House columns plated in gold and the Capital Rotunda repurposed as the new home of the Miss Universe Pageant (unless he decides to put that global event in the hands of Hillary Clinton, who would allow chunky contestants with glasses, add pop quizzes about the Treaty of Versailles, and employ Bill as an enthusiastic judge.)

But honestly, haven’t we had enough of financial insiders in government for a while? Is there any difference, other than stylistic, between the Wall Street Bulls and the Trump Tower Toucan? I’m sure we could come up with a leader to challenge a Trump presidency with less East Coast flatulence and more West Coast flair.

So who can we get to challenge a world-famous, competitive, ambitious, self-promoting, media-savvy, empire-building, TV-hosting, bestselling book–writing, ornate taste–leaning, winery, vineyard and landmark restaurant–owning entrepreneur from New York? How about our own world-famous, competitive, ambitious, self-promoting, media-savvy, empire-building, TV-hosting, bestselling book–writing, ornate taste–leaning, winery, vineyard and landmark restaurant–owning, entrepreneur from Napa Valley? That’s right, let’s dump The Donald and vote for The Michael — Chiarello, that is.

The Michael has a leg up on The Donald in a number of respects: First, The Michael is more attractive than The Donald, and I say this having seen The Michael not only in person, but from behind while he was wearing bicycle shorts. Between Fifth Avenue, Yountville and my mailbox, I have observed countless photos of them both, not to mention the live specimens, and I can categorically state that we must avoid a Trump visage on Mount Rushmore at all costs.

The Michael’s photos are not only less frightening for the children, they almost always include some kind of food — a subliminal message that a vote for The Michael means the Bolognese will be flowing across America.

And The Michael is not going to have a “birther” problem, as I understand him to hail from Turlock, which I am informed is a city somewhere in California and not, as I originally thought, a device The Michael sells in his NapaStyle catalog to keep rival chefs from boosting the best Thanksgiving turkeys from the freezer.

His election would be historic, as it would make him the first Italian-American to occupy the White House, since Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to achieve that distinction fell short when he declared himself a candidate in 2008 then forgot to actually run for office.

The Michael would prove a formidable adversary for foreign leaders, as he could manipulate their blood sugar levels during negotiations, achieving peace in the Middle East through strategic application of cannoli. And to ensure America’s world domination, he could appoint Padma Lakshmi as Ambassador to the U.N., since she can get any man, and probably many women, to do whatever she wants.

And he comes equipped with his own body doubles just like Saddam Hussein (he cannot possibly be in New York, Hollywood, Positano and Yountville simultaneously).

Best of all, the Oval Office would boast the first presidential desk made entirely out of wine barrel staves, lovingly made to Nonna’s specifications and available for purchase at

And that’s capitalism Americans can believe in.