Why consult a therapist when you can address your particular neuroses with a trip to the local movie theater? Today’s column in the St. Helena Star Newspaper…

One benefit of living longer is being able to clearly identify patterns revealed by my behavior over time, and to diagnose my own personality disorders along the DSM/Lifetime Movie Mental-Disease-of-the-Week Scale. This allows me to rearrange my life and relationships to accommodate these compulsions and quirks because, let’s face it: At this point nothing is likely to change except my dress size and pharmaceutical regimen.

For example, although I enjoy time with friends and colleagues, I’ve spent much of my life living and often working alone, never feeling the slightest hesitation to venture out on my own. I would regularly fly across the country to my New York apartment, often attending the theater and dining singly. It has just never bothered me — I enjoy observing life as performance art, discovering new places and people.

There are generally only three times when I mind being alone. One is when I have to take out the garbage. Don’t ask me why, but while I rarely regret my failure to secure a husband to support me financially and emotionally, I curse the gods on a weekly basis for depriving me of a man to wheel the cans to the curb.

I also hate arriving at airports after flying solo. One big benefit of Homeland Security measures has been the relocation of the tear-streamed, banner-waving, flower-carrying welcome party that used to greet arrivers on all sides of me, not to mention the limo drivers holding the name signs I couldn’t help but longingly scan — even while knowing that my car was in fact two long walks and a bus ride away in a lonely airport parking lot.

But probably the oddest time I get freaked out by my solitary status is at the movies. For some reason, halfway through the film, I get a panicked feeling that I’m supposed to be somewhere else. Arriving in daylight and leaving after dark is particularly upsetting.

I occasionally flee films for this reason, so if you are the director and see me rushing for the exit midmovie, it’s not necessarily a reflection of your artistry (unless you are peddling Shallow Stunt-Cast Shakespeare, and that means you, Kenneth Branagh, costing me $9 to watch Alicia Silverstone’s vapid Valley Girl version, so Ken, please send me $9 c/o this newspaper, as there is no statute of limitations on this particular crime, and no number of Thor-type movies you might direct starring strapping blonde musclemen in codpieces and capes that could compensate for the damages incurred).

Luckily, I have found a local movie theater able to accommodate this particular neurosis: the Cameo Cinema. The Cameo creates the perfect environment for people like me: Transporting state-of-the-art sound and video, generously buttered popcorn, and a just-the-right-size theater filled with friends and neighbors; more like a block party than a place of business.

Plus the theater’s proprietress Cathy Buck seems very much like family in that she is ever-present, lavishes kindness and attention to every detail of your comfort, and is not above using the powerful one-two punch of guilt and love to get you to show up when and where she wants.

The Cameo elicits a level of loyalty from its fervent band of regular customers more frequently found among street gangs, crime families and Teamsters Locals. The scene at this year’s free New Year’s Day Community Film was illustrative:

Upon arrival, I was greeted by one friend, handed a complimentary flute of Champagne by another, and seated where surrounded by familiar-faced audience members. Settling in to watch “Mary Poppins,” Cathy announced that a related film, “Saving Mr. Banks,” would be opening soon. “If you’ve already seen ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ then don’t tell me, because you didn’t see it here,” she scolded with a smile, unleashing shame spirals among scores of us.

“I’m guilty!” I wanted to confess. “I did see ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ at that large, overpriced, soulless Cineplex on Christmas Day” (an act that made me feel as much a betrayer as Brad must have felt leaving Jennifer for Angelina). “You see, I wanted to go to a movie matinee on Christmas,” I longed to explain, “but I didn’t want to sit in a theater full of families watching the animated movie showing here.” Instead I sank silently into my seat.

Still, I know that Cathy will forgive — if not forget — just the way any loving family member might overlook your spending Christmas dinner at someone else’s table, while subtly reminding you that they very much wished you’d spent it with them instead, and you’d better show up next year.

This combination of attention and affection; of knowing that your presence or absence really does matter to someone; that you belong to a family that values your membership and is invested in the quality of your experience, is why the Cameo will always be my movie theater home. And it’s why I am able to sit through almost anything there, even alone (unless Kenneth Branagh tries to makes me watch Keanu Reeves slurring Shakespeare again. That’s another $9 you owe me, Ken).

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Up the Valley: Male Men

April 18, 2013

In today’s column in the Star, I dive headlong into the murky waters of the male mind…

Take, for example, my male pets: Briscoe the cat, and Winston the dog. The two have lived together in an uneasy harmony, the former barely tolerating the latter, for over two years. On a good day, the dog will vigorously scrub the insides of the cat’s ears with his tongue. More often mild horseplay erupts into fierce battle, my stunned cat eventually staggering out of a headlock, his fur spiked with dog spit, while the dog sits gleefully panting and drooling nearby.

But suddenly it seems that the balance of power has shifted. A recent wrestling match ended abruptly with a high-pitched yelp from the dog, who limped away as the cat sauntered off wearing a self-satisfied smirk across his face. I’ve even observed my dog streaking past me at a full gallop, followed closely by the cat in hot pursuit, in a role reversal I had only seen previously in Warner Bros. cartoons.

And most surprisingly, Winston and Briscoe — who have never occupied the same room without giving chase — have started sleeping together. Sharing an oversized round sherpa-lined pouf, they slumber peacefully side by side in a perfect yin-and-yang formation. I gather that, having had his butt kicked in battle, my male dog has become what in prison and kennel lingo would be called my cat’s “bitch.” Which leads me to conclude, once again, that I find male-to-male relationship dynamics unfathomable.

I came to a similar conclusion a few years ago, when a buddy was suffering from multiple concurrent crises. His marriage, his health, his business, all seemed to be in serious simultaneous meltdown. I tried to cheer him up, taking him out, drawing him out, and encouraging the full expression of his feelings. I listened patiently, even to the self-pitying protestations, delivered some good solid advice, but still never seemed to make much of an impact. Then one day, miraculously, my friend reported that he was feeling much better. It seems that he had spent the prior weekend with his male best friend, the proximity to whom had benefited him enormously.

“What did he say to you?” I asked, anxious to learn — for future reference — what wise counsel would be most beneficial to male friends in need.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“He said nothing to you?”

“That’s right.”

“What did you two do all weekend?”

“Nothing. We hung out, grabbed some beers, and watched a couple of games.”

“Did you tell him about your problems at all?” I asked.

“I mentioned what was going on, and he just sort of shrugged his shoulders and let me know that he understood.”

“And this made you feel better?”

“Absolutely. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk.”

Now I’m no sociologist, psychotherapist or communications expert, but the only conclusion I could draw from this was that men are really strange. We women rely on constant conversation as talk therapy, endlessly replaying and dissecting our every painful interaction until the sting of it subsides. Men, on the contrary, appear to communicate their feelings to one another via (a) the shared observation of other men engaged in sweaty pursuits, accompanied by (b) the shared consumption of alcoholic beverages, followed by (c) some reassuring exchange of manly grunts and guttural sounds which are inaudible to the female ear.

A group of my male co-workers at a law firm would, in their 20s and 30s, engage in male bonding by randomly picking drunken fights with similar groups of men, emerging slightly bloodied but immensely buoyed. As they became older and out of condition, these same men would take their aggressions out on the baseball field and basketball court, their spirits barely dampened by the fact that one of them turned up with a broken bone or busted head nearly every weekend. And although, like other males, they spent scant time discussing serious feelings, they would spend hours sharing anecdotes illustrating irritation with the women in their lives. By the time I moved to an in-house law job, I was grateful to be barred from the executive, male-only, washroom. I can only imagine what anatomically aggressive forms of competition-as-communication went on in there.

My dog similarly hates to hear about my feelings, particularly when he’s trying to sleep. The other day, as he curled up on the opposite end of the couch, I reached over to pat his rump and whispered “I love you, Winston.” The irritated pooch lifted up his head and glared at me, then exhaled a deep, exaggerated sigh as if to say: “Leave me alone, woman.” Not surprisingly, neither the cat nor the dog has any interest in sleeping anywhere near me anymore. Still, I don’t think — as some friends have suggested — that my pets have gone all “Brokeback Mountain” on me. It’s just a guy thing.