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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In today’s column in the Star, I explain how America’s single women can teach voters a thing or two about settling for less…

Out here in the untelevised world, where presidential voters lack the blissful certainty of lockstep party unity, things are looking grim. My friends shake their heads, sigh deeply, and decry the absence of an exhilarating choice for the highest job in the land. “Of all the people in the country,” they ask, “is this really the best we can do?”

Welcome, I say, to the world straight single women inhabit every day.

Imagine that a lovelorn single female friend said to you: “I’m waiting to meet the perfect man; one who is handsome, rich, funny, attentive, sensitive, loving, single and straight.” Your response would be: “No wonder you are a 47-year-old spinster.”

In other words, waiting for a presidential candidate who is capable of soaring rhetoric, brilliant thinking and decisive action; one who shares all of your beliefs, embodies your hopes and dreams for America, and possesses the leadership and political skills necessary to forge consensus, is like waiting for George Clooney to ring your doorbell offering an engagement ring.

And while dating and marriage can be delayed or rebuffed, we must cast our presidential votes every four years, so how to decide?

Frustrated voters should consider the straight single woman’s solution: strategic settling. Likely developed as part of some survival-of-the-species evolutionary scheme, this skill enables women to tick off long mental lists of things they can’t live without and things they can’t live with, then swiftly process, calculate and commit — sometimes for life.

I know women who can make this evaluation in under five minutes, usually settling for someone fairly uninspiring but “good on paper.” I imagine the Democrats went through a similar process before landing on John Kerry.

Optimal strategic settling requires keeping your list of deal-killers as short as possible. We all start out saying that we could never vote for someone who does not share our views on environmental protection, reproductive rights, tax policy, national security, immigration, the death penalty or gun control. But just as many straight single women have whittled down their lists of dating deal-killers to “married, gay or certifiably insane,” voters might have to reduce their short lists of non-starters to things like: conspicuously corrupt, too dumb to read, and highly likely to provoke global thermonuclear war.

I used to be a one-issue voter, choosing based on a candidate’s likelihood to appoint an agenda-pushing extremist to the Supreme Court. But I’ve since learned that predicting how any one justice may vote on a particular issue is as difficult as predicting which man will pick up the dinner check on a particular evening.

Assuming neither candidate is deal-killer-disqualified, strategic settling then compels you to determine what’s most important to you.

Are you seriously worried about fiscal stability? Then the candidate touting entitlement reform, spending cuts and tax reduction, or that newly divorced estate planner who owns his own practice but is often seen sleeping at public concerts, might be your man. Are social issues your focus? Then by all means vote for the pro-choice, pro–immigration reform, pro-gay-marriage candidate. And let me introduce you to a nice never-married artist from Berkeley who is a brilliant liberal thinker, although he can get a bit gamey and will want to sleep in your car.

Kingmakers and husband-seekers occasionally rebel against the idea of settling — choosing instead the Hail Mary pass to a wild-card candidate — then close their eyes and hope for the best. The cronies who took a flier propelling Harry Truman to national office must have been pleased, and perhaps surprised, that it turned out so well. And this approach was successful for Rosalynn Carter, who married a peanut farmer and ended up sleeping with the president of the United States. But such stories are rare.

One thing is certain: The pool of available candidates would be much better if there were more women in it. Few female contenders seem to rise to the top of anything except the deal-killer list, and those who succeed often occupy one uncomfortably extreme end of the political spectrum or another.

This is perplexing, both politically and mathematically, because there is no shortage of exceptional women. Every straight single woman knows a hundred other women who are single, attractive, rich, funny, attentive, sensitive and loving, and would gladly marry them if they did not share the heavy burden of female heterosexuality. Since we can’t date these superwomen, it would be satisfying to at least vote for them on occasion.

If strategic settling is not for you, there is another option: Focus on the future. I’ve heard wise women say that you shouldn’t leave your existing husband until you’ve lined up the next. So let this less-than-perfect lot have their day, while you start scoping out more attractive options to embrace four years from now. Surely there is someone, somewhere, better out there in this vast great country of ours.

Isn’t there?

Flashback: Far Out

June 26, 2012

The following column is one of the national and state award winners, and I have to admit it’s one of my favorites. Things have changed since it first appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper  on March 31, 2011. Gas prices have risen even higher, threatening to make Napa Valley women even less geographically desirable than last year!

One of the downsides for single women moving to the Napa Valley is that it renders them suddenly geographically undesirable as potential dates for the majority of available single men living in the Bay Area (of which there are currently two dozen or so).

Women here wishing to date men in, say, San Francisco, must cope with a Geographic Undesirability Index (GUI) rating of at least 6, spiking to 8 in the summer (when there’s traffic). This compares favorably to Sacramento and Santa Cruz women, who have a GUI closer to 10, which is the highest number there is, because any farther and why bother.

Other than Christopher Reeve, who used a time machine to travel back 60 years to date Jane Seymour in a movie, men as a rule are unwilling to drive more than 50 miles to date any woman, 25 if there’s a toll bridge involved.

Whenever I hear about gas prices rising, I worry first about the impact on tourism as it impacts my shop, and then quickly shift my sympathies to those who would seek to lure a man up for a quiet home-cooked dinner when the guy has to pay $3.80 a gallon. I truly believe that many men will choose celibacy, or switch teams entirely, rather than pay $4 a gallon to drive to a woman’s house.

This is why you often observe summer dates involving bicycling. I always wonder how much fun a woman is having as she pedals exhausted 25 feet behind her man in the 100-degree heat, knowing that she’s going to have to pull off that helmet in the near future and let him see her hair. Men, of course, look great all sweaty with their hair sticking to their heads, and if they don’t they simply shave it off so that the sweat literally beads off their domes like waxed apples in the rain.

But to reach the Sweaty Bicycle Date stage, or even the Dutch Treat at Tra Vigne stage with the hope of eventually reaching the mythic Dinner at the French Laundry Where He Pays stage, a man has to be lured up to the Napa Valley in the first place.

Of course, local women could date local available single men, but I know him and he’s pretty booked up these days. So the GUI issue must be tackled head on, and the only way for a woman to overcome a negative GUI rating is to be exceptionally rich or hot, preferably both, with a cellar full of fine wine, access to ungettable restaurant reservations, and a set of balloons that would be the envy of Yountville’s Adventures Aloft.

Incidentally, there is no corresponding GUI index for Napa Valley men, because it is a proven fact that women will travel any distance to date. Incarcerated for life, conjoined to a Siamese twin, still living with mother in Antioch, it’s all workable if the guy is unmarried, mostly straight and not a certifiable lunatic (this last one is negotiable).

And if you’re a single woman living in the Napa Valley, you should prepare yourself to be rejected by the lunatic, conjoined, jailbird whose mother lives in Antioch on the grounds that you are just too darn far from San Quentin for a quick one should he temporarily escape, at least until gas prices go down closer to $3.

It makes me wonder whether St. Helena isn’t having the same problem. As opposed to conveniently-located, reconstructed, unconstrained, open-after-8 p.m. Napa; and lotioned-up, aromatherapied, way-to-a-man’s-heart-is-through-his-stomach Yountville; is St. Helena looking at a GUI rating of 6, spiking to 8 in the summer (due to traffic)?

Could the City overcome this GUI rating by demonstrating that it is already both hot and rich? Perhaps it’s time for our City to tart itself up a bit, show a little leg, and pass out gas coupons. The Chamber could market St. Helena and its single women simultaneously, publishing a Hot Women Winemakers Pinup Calendar, or the St. Helena Hospital Guide to Women Who’ve Recently Undergone Successful Augmentation Surgery.

Meanwhile we can hope that the first female president makes it tax deductible to buy gas for dates in excess of 100 miles from one’s principal residence, and urge President Obama to implement his gas tax holiday to promote local tourism and to encourage treating a girl to dinner and a movie once in a while.

And that’s a stimulus package guaranteed to make the single ladies of St. Helena smile.