Up the Valley: Love Hangover

February 19, 2014

Some tips for Singles on the care and feeding of their friends who are Couples: today’s column in the Star...

As I write this, I am recovering from a slight overindulgence in strong spirits during the previous night’s Valentine’s Day Swing Dance Celebration at the theater where I serve as producing director. That’s my title at the moment — this being The Theatah and the 21st Century, I may have been ousted or replaced by a programming algorithm by the time this column goes to press.

I appear to have a perverse need for self-torture around all holidays. Having become a complete Scrooge at Christmas, it made total sense that I would spend years owning a retail store guaranteed to extend my Holiday Hell to 12 months per annum. Caught in an endless cycle of selling ho-ho-haute décor, then going in on Christmas Day to mark it all down, my holidays during The Lost Retail Years boiled down to: Unpack, Display, Discount, Repack and Repeat — all to an endless soundtrack of “The Christmas Song” by Alvin & the Chipmunks.

And so — being the accomplished spinster that I am — it was inevitable that I would someday produce a romantic Valentine’s Day holiday love-fest at the theater. I must admit: It was a fun night. I rented a dance floor, booked a San Francisco swing band called the Martini Brothers, and took unexpected pleasure in watching the couples twirling and canoodling on the dance floor.

There is something so endearing about couples when they are dancing: the big guys who are surprisingly graceful, the pairs wordlessly performing synchronized dance routines they’ve polished over decades, and the carefree, youthful aspect adorning women as they are spun, flipped and dipped by a strong partner.

The dance floor, however, is one of the few places I find couple-dom particularly adorable. Although most of my closest friends occupy this mysterious, and for me unattainable, state-of-being, hanging out with couples can test a sensitized single person’s patience. It’s not that I don’t love them wholeheartedly — both collectively and individually. It’s when they start WE-ing all over me that fondness turns to frustration.

Consternating couple behavior often results from a shared email address. I will be in the middle of an extended online conversation with one spouse, when the other suddenly chimes in unannounced. Rarely do they identify which of them is typing, so I have to undertake an operation to break their secret codes and ciphers that would have baffled the Enigma-busting cryptologists of World War II.

The only reliable way to communicate via joint-custody email is to carefully restrict communications to each spouse’s areas of sole responsibility. If, for example, the wife has authority over calendars and bookings (which is the case 99.9 percent of the time), I know that regardless of which spouse reads my message proposing a date, the husband wouldn’t dare enter into a commitment on their behalf, and therefore any definitive response on the topic must have emanated from the wife.

The reverse is generally true when the topic is tools or technology, as in: Do I need to upgrade the software on my iPhone, should I choose Mac or PC, or what is a socket wrench? But trouble arises when it’s a subject on which both spouses share jurisdiction — like cooking, politics and the personal lives of their single friends.

Some socially active singletons tell me that they frequently feel they exist solely for the amusement of their married friends. Sharing the agony of the single person’s dating experience must serve the essential societal function of confirming a couple’s decision to remain married. Even I, with a social life that a Trappist Monk would find confining, sometimes feel like Carrie Bradshaw swilling Cosmos at the dinner table of Ward and June Cleaver. I imagine perplexed post-departure conversations with the kids during which the Beaver turns to his brother and asks: “Gee Wally, why doesn’t Laura just find some swell guy and get married like Mom did?”

But I find couples to be at their most intolerable when ordering food in restaurants. Yes — we get it — there are two of you, and so you can split and share everything on Life’s Menu. Not for you the sad, lonely, pitiable need to order an individual Caesar salad before your entree or — worse — having to make the heartbreaking choice between a salad OR an entree. Yes, you have — by virtue of having coupled-up — earned the right to enjoy both meat and pasta, but civility demands that you take both from your own plate and fork. Feeding each other by hand after the first 30 days of marriage should provide grounds for the rest of us to compel you two to live apart for a while.

My next production at the theater includes a musical performance by Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges and his band the Abiders. His gorgeous wife of 36 years is coming with him, and his talented daughter is his opening act. I can’t imagine what movie star/musician/ proud parent/couple behavior looks like, but if Mr. & Mrs. Bridges start feeding each other by hand during the VIP party, well — I for one cannot promise to abide.

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Up The Valley: Love on Sale

February 7, 2013

Can you put a price on love? Some people try. Today’s column in the Star newspaper…

In 1930, composer Cole Porter introduced a cynical song about certain shady aspects of romance entitled “Love for Sale.” From my experience owning a retail store, I’ve concluded that today’s paramour — particularly on Valentine’s Day — is looking for love on sale.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that money doesn’t equal love; the best things in life are free, etc. and so forth. I know sweethearts who celebrate without spending a dime, lavishing upon one another the kind of thoughtful affection that makes us single girls sigh with envy. The words “I love you” can be sincerely scrawled on a 50-cent box of conversation hearts.

And yes, it can be a day for splurging, with creditworthy courtiers springing for sumptuous feasts and serious bling. Yet Valentine’s Day also brings out the very cheapest of skates seeking to wring the maximum result from the barest minimum of expense and effort.

Not surprisingly, my shop’s Valentine bestseller was the greeting card, and if I had a dollar for every husband who told me “my wife only wants a card,” I’d be a rich woman with a devoted pool boy. Yet men seem perfectly happy to receive greeting cards, presumably confident that their real gifts will be forthcoming later that evening. A woman telling a man she doesn’t really want a gift is akin to her asking for his honest assessment of her physical appearance — a honeyed trap for those who would spend Valentine’s Night sleeping on the sofa.

Mushy mothers sometimes bought Valentines for their kids, which is sweet — within limits. A “Mommy Loves You” card or plush “Pucker Up” frog making kissing noises is perfect for your 6-year-old; an adult child will interpret it as your judgment that they are unlikely to receive a Valentine from anyone else.

One memorable customer was a local low-budget loverboy — to protect his identity (and wife), I’ll call him Cheap Throat. He would spring for a card, usually on sale, and then spend an hour digging through a bowl of tiny metal heart tokens ($1.50 plus tax, gift-wrap complimentary). He purchased two tokens in six years; usually concluding that his wife would be happier with just a card. He wanted the card gift-wrapped.

Why does Valentine’s Day, of all days, draw the discount-Don-Juans in droves? It’s the only holiday where gift-giving holds the promise of sexual reciprocation, which should lure male shoppers out of their man-caves earlier than 5 p.m. on Feb. 14. Perhaps it’s because gifting is that rare arena in which men lack natural self-confidence. They fear any failure, and shopping is a subject in which they have repeatedly received a failing grade; sometimes even a public reprimand. Since there is no “little blue pill” guaranteeing purchasing performance, they turn to the tried-and-true, procrastinate, or panic.

Women bear some responsibility for this. One regular customer selected a beautiful bracelet for his wife, extolling the virtues of her slender wrists and anticipating how the sea-colored stones would compliment her like-tinted eyes. He left carrying an artfully festooned box, beaming. Two days later, his wife returned it — her eyes red with rage. “How could he buy me a bracelet?” she screamed at me. “He knows that I don’t need a bracelet — why doesn’t he ever listen to me?” What she needed was a crash course in gratitude in my opinion, but what did I know — the next Valentine’s Day he tried to buy her another bracelet (I sent him to Woodhouse Chocolates instead — the better to plump up her adorably scrawny little wrists).

Of course, one bustling business on Valentine’s Day is Safeway, where the lines are express, the chocolates cheap, and the roses guaranteed to last as long as the bubbles in the bulk-priced sparkling wine. Speaking of which: why are flowers considered a traditional romantic gift, anyway? A diamond is forever — a dozen roses merely demonstrate the inevitability of wilting, and the last thing a woman wants to encounter during a romantic rendezvous is a limp stem.

Valentine’s Day is not a “day-off-work” holiday, but I think Feb. 15 should be. On “Morning After Day,” lucky lovers could languish in bed till noon, recovering revelers could nurse their hangovers, and the lovelorn could work off calories from chips and ice cream consumed while watching “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Titanic,” or the all-day “Lovers Who Kill” marathon on the Lifetime television network.

Incidentally, during my brick-and-mortar-going-out-of-business sale, Cheap Throat came in and bought fistfuls of deeply-discounted Valentine’s Day cards. On the day his stockpile runs out, I predict that the marriage will be over.

 

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.