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.
(Laura Rafaty is a national award-winning columnist, a Tony-nominated theatrical producer, Producing Director at Lincoln Theater, and attorney at NapaValleyImmigrationLaw. Read more at laurarafaty.com.)