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.


Today’s column in the Star is more serious than usual: a call for some civility in our public discourse.  Bickering Congressmen and blustering pundits have nothing on small-town editorial writers when it comes to bad-mouthing neighbors who disagree with them. Can’t we all just get along?

Back in the day, when I was a San Francisco attorney at a large law firm, I was asked by an influential corporate partner to handle a personal legal issue for his family. The matter required a simple unopposed petition, but because of the importance of my client, I briefed it as if it were a landmark civil rights case before the Supreme Court.

The partner and his wife sat next to me in court, and when the judge arrived I stood up. After complimenting me on my brief, he granted the petition. I said: “Thank you, Your Honor” and quickly sat down.

My client was peeved. “You didn’t argue anything,” he noted with irritation, muttering sarcastically: “Great job.”

I took the opportunity to repeat to this partner an important lesson from the trial lawyers who originally trained me:

Once you’ve won your argument, shut up.

You’d be amazed at how often this rule is violated. Lawyers and business negotiators and hobbyist-arguers will make their points brilliantly, then proceed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by piling on unhelpful facts, even arguing the other side’s point of view, before finally running out of hot air.

But the best way to blow an argument is to tack on some random nasty personal dig, immediately lowering the level of the debate while erasing all memory of the convincing analysis that preceded it.

I observed this recently during a Planning Commission hearing regarding modification of a winery permit. The debate was long-winded but civil, until one concerned neighbor stood up and proceeded to excoriate the applicant, painting him a slick snake-oil salesman.

The effect on the audience was palpable: A collective “no” was gasped en masse, and even those opposing the application became sympathetic. The commissioners seemingly agreed, even though the neighbor had scored some good points before he went for the jugular.

Many of the letters to the editor I’ve read lately, and the comments thereto, suffer from the same “Why did they have to add that?” problem.

For example, some folks in our town are urging the city to abolish a loud siren signaling the deployment of the local volunteer fire department. Other residents, including many long-timers, feel strongly about keeping it. I had absolutely no opinion on this one, and looked forward to hearing divergent views of the issue.

Several locals wrote to the paper describing the special meaning the siren holds for them, the nostalgia it conjures, its importance as a safety reminder, and its celebration of volunteerism and of the firefighters’ long history of service. Frankly, they had me at “I care.” Just knowing that this meant so much to them was powerfully persuasive — they had won their argument.

But then, after the bell had rung and the heavyweight champion had been crowned, came some pro-siren low-blows: Those who opposed it were not “real citizens” but rather godless, ungrateful arrivistes.

The anti-siren contingent, after making a strong case touting the advance of technology and denouncing disturbing decibel-levels, inflicted its own jabs, labeling the siren a “fetus-frightening” public nuisance and its proponents provincial noise-polluting dinosaurs.

While everyone is entitled to their subjective opinions, I wonder if advocates realize how their expression sends analytic argument off the rails. It’s as if, in a presidential debate, the challenger delivered a withering indictment of the incumbent’s tax policies, reduced his economic platform to rubble, then added “And you’re ugly, too.”

As distressing as it is to read personal attacks on individuals, it is equally distracting to read disparaging generalizations about groups of citizens, reducing their complex views to clichés.

People who seek to limit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers are not spoiled police-state-pushing spendthrifts seeking to ban all vestiges of modern civilization. Those opposing leaf blower limits are not selfish polluters indifferent to the allergies and impending deafness of their neighbors. People against low-cost housing proposals are not cold-hearted discriminatory elitists, any more than proponents are irresponsible water-wasting lefties.

The platform of local candidates cannot be reduced simply to growth versus no growth; the views of the local citizens group for “responsible growth” cannot be boiled down to five letters (NIMBY); and people do not write passionate letters to the editor just because “they have nothing better to do.” We may disagree with some of these groups or individuals, but we can respect the time and thought that went into the positions they take.

I’m looking forward to an election season during which citizens can vigorously debate the issues and really listen to one another, while remembering that decent people may disagree. A re-read of letters to the editor reveals that the most respectful and nuanced are the most persuasive.

In other words, you can convince others you’re right, without saying something wrong.

Flashback: New in Town?

June 11, 2012

The following Up the Valley column appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper on January 13, 2011.  I’m posting my oldies here over the next few weeks so that they can be search engine optimized, tagged, and categorized.  Ain’t literature fun?  A new one comes out this Thursday, in which I blow the lid off the White House!  Stay tuned…

 I read recently that the City of St. Helena was intervening in a lawsuit by Indian tribes, who maintained that their prior claims to parts of the Napa Valley bestowed upon them the inalienable right to land. Public officials are afraid the suit could lead to casinos in our small town.

I have to admit that I was baffled. Not that I don’t understand why we would turn our municipal noses up at the concept of gambling establishments in St. Helena, although owning a winery would appear to bear some similarities to owning a casino, except that with casinos the house always wins.

Nor does my surprise relate to our rebuffing of the Indians despite our apparent insatiable need for Native American jewelry stores, of which we now have 12.

No, I was surprised at our objection to the Indians’ claims because it upends everything I’ve come to understand about St. Helena society. I thought the whole idea was that the longer you’ve lived here, the more rights you have.

Certainly people are considered newcomers here who’ve lived for what would be considered a lifetime elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I think we should all pick a date — let’s say 1960 (just so we can make certain long-standing local columnists happy), and agree that any family that has arrived before that date is deemed an old-timer and should just shut up about it. But that still leaves a number of us defined as wet-behind-the-ears St. Helena arrivistes, so for our benefit, I thought I’d go a bit Jeffersonian and propose a Bill of Gradually Acquired Rights.

These rights start to attach from the day you turn 21, unless you are a member of certain Founding Families, in which case they start to run from birth (you know who you are, and if you have to ask, you aren’t.) This being an Official Government Document, it will have to be at least 100 pages, but here are some highlights among the vesting periods:

• Years One to Ten: Congratulations, you may drink local wine, vote and pay taxes. Keep your head down and your opinions to yourself. You may attend council meetings and sit in the audience and look pretty, unless you have the utter misfortune to be applying for a permit, in which case you should hire someone with Greater Acquired Rights than yourself to represent you. You may volunteer for things no one else wants to do, like Park Garbage Cleanup Committee, Defective Jungle Gym Security Detail, or Bocce League Ombudsman.

• Years Ten to Twenty: You may now have limited opinions expressed at dinner parties. If you are a single woman, don’t plan on getting invited to many dinner parties unless you bring your “steady boyfriend” with you, and don’t worry — no one will figure out that he’s gay. You may request appointment to commissions and serve on committees, and even run for elected office, particularly if you can secure the coveted endorsement of the ex-hippy radical environmental fringe group and bridge club at the senior center.

• Years Thirty to Forty: It’s time to start complaining about how much better things used to be. Hone your skills in this regard with reactionary letters to the editor about recent and disturbing trends unearthed via your careful reading of the Police Log. You will be a fixture at all upscale restaurants offering the Early Bird Special, Locals Discounts and Half Price Bar Menus, and then accompany your meal with a bottle of wine costing more than my car, because one has to have standards.

• Years Fifty to Sixty: Feel free to have opinions without any basis whatsoever in fact. Your truth meter should be set on News Network Media Commentator and stay there. If you haven’t already done so, you should learn to play poker so that former-mayor Greta Ericson doesn’t clean you out at senior center events. You might consider writing a column about the good old days before there were streetlights or cars or electricity, when the local folks all knew each other because they were always running into one another in the dark.

• Years Seventy to Eighty: At this point, your primary focus will be on disabling the Safeway cart theft-proofing mechanism so you can wheel your groceries to your house. You will have wonderful stories that we will all want to hear again and again, which is good because you won’t remember who we are or what you’ve told us already. You will attend the public library events where students read to pets and demand the same treatment as a Goldendoodle. You will have survived everything, embraced change and linked us to the past. You will be irreplaceable.