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/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up the Valley: Keepers

April 10, 2014

Is attachment to inanimate objects – and their boxes – an obsession, or a future annuity on Ebay?
Today’s column in the St Helena Star

There are certain aspects of personality that were as evident in us during childhood as they are at middle age. I came to this realization recently, while combing through my outdoor trash bin in the middle of the night.

As a child, my mother gave me an Easter gift of a tin wind-up rabbit with calico-pattern terrycloth overalls, which played the tune: “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” I adored this toy, playing it so many times that the tiny Easter-egg adorned crank finally broke. My mother threw the toy in the trash, and tried to stifle my sobs by buying another. But I had no interest in this replica, longing instead for my broken but best-loved bunny. As soon as my mother’s back was turned, I went out to the garbage and rescued the rejected rabbit, cleverly concealing it as an obvious lump in the middle of my bedroom rug.

Flash forward 50 years. I still have this unshakable emotional attachment to inanimate objects, none more than my small glass microwave rice cooker from Japan. Dating back to my first house, it survived half a dozen moves, several makeshift repairs of its plastic parts, and hundreds of batches of flawless steaming rice. It had a little rubberized lid that popped into the pot with a satisfying “shwoomp” — like the sound of a Mercedes sedan door closing, or of one of those high-end kitchen cabinet drawers gliding smoothly back into position.

During my last house move, my little glass cooker disappeared, sending me down the rabbit hole of replacement shopping. I tried electric rice-makers, BPA-free plastic models, pre-packed boiling bags, and good old-fashioned boiled water on the stove. None brought me the joy of diving into my treasured little glass pot with its plastic paddle. Online research revealed that the Japanese manufacturer once released an identical model — but in pink, with Hello Kitty logos all over it. Pink! Hello Kitty! I want this so badly, it has become my Holy Grail, although its existence may merely be Japanese urban legend, along with safe nuclear plants, heterosexual samurai, and Godzilla.

Recently I was rearranging boxes in storage when I discovered — to my delight — my beloved rice cooker. For one glorious meal, we were blissfully reunited — the plastic paddle dipping once more into the perfectly sized glass receptacle to retrieve no-fuss fluffy rice; it was like dinner for two with a long-lost friend. But while washing the glass container in the sink, I became distracted by the shrill barking of an unruly dog-in-residence, and I dropped it — watching in horrified slow motion as it shattered into pieces.

I blamed myself, blamed the dog, blamed the gods, and threw the lot into the trash (not the box, of course — I might need its markings to find another, the rationalized retention of empty boxes being one of my particular neuroses). But at 2 a.m., contemplating a bleak future without my rice cooker, I hatched a plan. Suppose I could replace the glass receptacle? Why don’t I search for something glass to fit that self-sealing lid, just as Prince Charming combed the kingdom looking for a perfectly proportioned foot to fit his favorite glass slipper? I jumped out of bed and ran outside in my PJ’s to retrieve the non-glass pieces from the bin, like a raccoon raiding the trash under the cover of darkness.

The next day I pulled out a Pyrex measuring cup and — in a moment that must have resembled the day ancient humans discovered the wheel — placed the rice cooker lid on top, pushed down, and heard that familiar “shwoomp.” I set the glass cup on the rice cooker’s base and — incredibly — it fit! I rushed to the phone to inform my best friend of this miracle. Unfortunately she is a therapist, and my discovery did not please her. “This just reinforces your problematic tendency to hold onto material objects that weigh down your life,” she opined, free of charge. It’s true, but honestly — this wasn’t going to change anyway. I’ll always regard the empty box that once held my favorite discontinued eye cream as a historical artifact, and will collect broken pieces of my good china because — you never know — I might want to make a mosaic.

All this madness seemingly started with that damn wind-up wabbit. I wonder how today’s children handle their planned-obsolescence playthings, with the computer chip playing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” set to expire after a predetermined number of repetitions. Do preschoolers simply pop open the back and rewire the circuitry or hack into an alternate power source? Or do today’s toddlers welcome disposability, knowing that yesterday’s broken bunny provides an excuse to upgrade to tomorrow’s iRabbit, which not only plays “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” but downloads similar songs via Wi-Fi, organizes playdate schedules and synchs with the mouth-controlled SmartTeether™ to play ringtones, text fellow tots and change the channel on the television set?

Although my tin toy rabbit is now a high-priced collectible on eBay, it’s probably best to teach your youngsters to recycle their treasures. Otherwise they may be doing some moonlight dumpster diving 50 years from now.

Is watching the game on tv, while simultaneously kissing the girl, efficient or rude? And does my cat have a monkey-mind? Today’s column in the St. Helena Star:

You know that scene in a movie where the guy is making out with his girlfriend on the couch, while surreptitiously watching a televised football game at the same time? My cat Briscoe does that.

He has become inclined to awaken me with kisses — seriously — pressing his mouth on mine, depositing a nice cold layer of drool — and I don’t want to know what else — on my face in the process. Not exactly like being lulled from restful dreaming by gentle kisses from George Clooney, but I hesitate to traumatize the male of any species who attempts to express affection. So I try not to recoil too visibly, and wipe away the drool when he’s not looking.

But lately he has started kissing me awake while surreptitiously glancing wide-eyed and twitchy-whiskered out the window at the birds and squirrels playing outside; the feline equivalent of watching the game while kissing the girl. I find this behavior mildly insulting, if not downright rude. You’d think that I could command the rapt attention of a creature that is completely dependent upon me for his gourmet wet and dry food, his filtered water, and his frequently changed unscented-clumping-litter-filled box, located in the special annex I had built onto the house for his sole and exclusive use. But being a cat and male and all, he doesn’t quite look at it that way.

And to be fair, this may be less a matter of strategic multitasking by a caddish cat, but rather evidence of his decreasing ability to focus on the task at hand. If so, I must admit to being equally afflicted. For although I am perfectly capable of attention to detail in my work and writing, I find my mind wandering at many other times, such that a significant portion of any stroll from Point A to Point B includes trying to remember not to step out into the street and into the path of a UPS truck.

I think the Buddhists call this a monkey mind — random thoughts swinging from branch to branch in a haphazard fashion. It was not always thus. I was once an English major, which explains the vast fortune I have amassed, and which required the ability to read a book — or at least a short story — straight through at a sitting. As the recipient of a liberal-arts Jesuit college education, I plowed through the misogynistic ham-fisted Hemmingways and the joyless Joycean journeys to nowhere, not to mention consuming the classics from cover to cover, without my mind wandering too far afield.

Now I’m hard-pressed to read one page of the New Yorker, or even to flip through Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party celebrity photos, without taking a long, leisurely mental detour to la-la-land. I noticed this again the other day while listening to the audiobook version of “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh, as narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons (unabridged). I settled in to hear Jeremy fill up his lungs and start up about first-floor rooms at Oxford, dove-grey flannel with white crepe-de-chine, and plover eggs from Mummy’s hens. Then suddenly it seemed I must have missed a chunk of the story, because Jeremy was on about some character I vaguely remembered from the television version, but who surely wasn’t due to put in an appearance for another 20 minutes.

So I hit rewind to fill in the blanks, but no sooner did I hit play than I would be off again — composing my grocery list or compiling my workplace grievances or wondering whether that thing I said earlier to that person sounded stupid — until Jeremy piped in to remind me that things really hadn’t been the same in England since the start of the war in 1914. I started to panic — was this early-ish evidence of dementia? Or was I always this addled, unable to complete a chapter’s reading, but never noticing because I could absentmindedly turn back the page on a physical book?

Having identified yet another opportunity for personal improvement, what to do? Should I take a page from the cat’s manual and practice paying equal enthusiastic attention to multiple tasks: playing with a spongy ball while terrorizing a trapped housefly while energetically grooming myself from head-to-toe? Or better to focus laser-like on one thing at a time; being there now, as it were, assuming I can remember where “there” is? Or is nothingness the ticket — the ability to stay silent and empty-headed for extended periods — which signifies the highest achievement in harnessing the human brain?

Multi-tasking may be most efficient, but I don’t recall Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder ever surreptitiously watching a cricket match while picnicking on oysters and champagne with Sebastian Flyte. Perhaps Briscoe’s boorish behavior could best be chalked up to the inevitable conflict between an animal’s natural killer instincts and his environmentally-influenced desire for affection. Perhaps the same can be said for the guy watching the game while groping his girl. But being a human and female and all, I don’t quite look at it that way.

Our local leaders make an unusual proposal to protect a local eyesore:  My latest column in the Star….

It is remarkable how one neighbor’s eyesore can be another’s architectural treasure.

In the decorous neighborhood where I grew up, one house on our street featured a lawn display adorned by plastic deer and the associated flora and fauna of an enchanted forest. For years neighbors plotted — and sometimes accomplished — the kidnapping or mutilation of Bambi & Family, but replacement creatures always magically appeared in their places.

Another neighbor’s front yard contained a tranquil Japanese garden complete with bonsai-style trees, cement pagodas and cherry blossoms that, while lovely, were in distinct disharmony with the wagon wheel-adorned ranch house next door. In otherwise restrained neighborhoods, I’ve seen homeowners display a lifetime’s accumulation of hubcaps, beer bottles and faded, burnt-bulb lawn figures re-creating Santa’s Workshop year-round.

Here in St. Helena, where the town’s residents rarely reach a consensus on anything, there is a building located on a busy corner of town that is so incongruous, so dilapidated and so deleterious to the landscape, its pending demolition has inspired a resounding chorus of: “It’s about time.”

Chiming in with dissenting voices, strangely enough, are The People’s representatives at City Hall.

By way of background, let me explain that the blemish in question consists of the unsightly remains of a gas station built in the 1940s. It is a battered white metal box with a small service window, connected via tattered overhang to a platform that once supported gasoline pumps, harkening back to a time when motorists had their gas pumped and windows washed by live humans. In its day, it undoubtedly displayed a distinctly Edward Hopperesque Deco design. But today it is downright shabby, held together by peeling paint, decades of congealed grease, and plastic signs advertising smogging services.

The owners of the local hardware store — a respected and community-spirited family — purchased this old gas station property, which is adjacent to their store. They planned to replace it with a well-designed two-story commercial building, welcomed by many residents as a long-overdue overhaul of the downtown streetscape. Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, their developmental dreams were dashed when city officials deemed the rickety relic a “character-defining element” of the downtown historic district, triggering further delays and pricey environmental impact studies.

Rather than demolishing this architectural anachronism, City Hall’s planning experts are demanding that the owners relocate it to a public park several blocks away, where it can be shored-up and repurposed as (wait for it) a restroom.

Ah yes, what greater tribute could be paid to the architect’s vision than to have his work permanently enshrined as a public toilet, where transients, escapees from police custody and local canines frequenting the adjacent dog park may forever seek refuge in its historically insignificant embrace.

Ironically, City Hall is itself such a ramshackle teardown that city leaders tried last year to offload it to some unwitting buyer looking to invest millions of dollars to replace it with a hotel, hoping guests would taste enough Napa Valley cabernet to sleep through the eardrum-splitting sirens of the Fire Department downstairs. City officials seemed desperate to dispose of the premises before someone discovered ancient relics buried in the basement or spotted owls nesting in the eves, or before some do-gooder came along and had the thing declared a “character-defining element” of historic downtown.

Still, this irony may present the perfect solution. Since the current occupants of City Hall seem so sentimental about this former service station, I would propose a swap. The hardware store owners should be permitted to build their new commercial building on the current site of City Hall, while city government should be relocated to the old corner gas station.

This would prove extremely convenient for everyone involved. Residents and prospective business owners could utilize this “Drive-thru City Hall” to have their permits denied without the bother of having to get out of their cars. Land-rich-but-cash-strapped locals could drop off sacks of gold, livestock or other tributes to pay their ever-rising water bills. And routine municipal services could be outsourced to overseas workers, at considerable cost savings to the city.

Imagine driving up to the window, but instead of an attendant, you encounter a giant menu and tiny speaker, just like Jack in the Box. You might select No. 1: Business License, No. 2: Building Permit, No. 3: Use Permit, and so on. A courteous Indian-accented voice streams through the speaker, saying: “We will be exceedingly pleased to help you. It is our great happiness to serve your profoundly important needs. If you will kindly give us your most excellent order and your telephone number, we will be contacting you very shortly, or never, as the case may be. Thank you for doing business with the Best Exotic City of St. Helena.”

If only you could order fries with that, it would be perfect.

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).

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.