Sonoma: How to Slum it Like a Tourist

It?s been observed that our tourists seem to enjoy themselves in our town more than we Sonomans. This perception could be the result of many factors, not least of which being that tourists can afford to enjoy themselves in Sonoma?s wine country, whereas we Sonomans spend all of our money merely trying to live here.

I suppose one could say that, as residents, we?re on some kind of ?Permanent Vacation? in our ?destination location? but unless you?re in a Jim Jarmusch film, an Aerosmith album or your ?boyfriend?s back and you?re gonna get in trouble,? the sentiment rings kind of hollow.

This is why the so-called ?staycation? always rubs some of us like a losing lottery scratcher. Though some Sonoma wineries offer free tastings to townies (Gundlach-Bundschu and Bartholomew Park come are among those with this classy take on local hospitality), there are few other experiences that tourists and locals can both enjoy without dropping a paycheck. This is a fact of life ??tourism is business, Sonoma is a tourist town, ergo Sonoma is in the business of inhaling your wallet and spitting out its empty remains like a tamale husk.

Many Sonomans are slaves to the wine country dream, which is like the American dream but served atop a bed of arugula. The iconic ?white picket fence? is crushed under the weight of zinfandel vines and there?s a church key under the every ?welcome? mat. Other Sonomans just woke up here one day to find a landscape that seems to have shifted beneath their very feet. Ask any local over 40 about what it was like ?before? and their comments are invariably preceded by a slight shake of the head and a quiet sigh. Whatever follows is academic, they?ve already said volumes. Things ain?t as sweet as they used to be ??now they?re tannic, herbaceous and sometimes jammy.

Then there are the newbies. Some come to Sonoma to aspire, others to retire ? yet another demographic comes to expire, which has is admirable in its own grim way. Ironic that science (or the wine lobby) keeps finding links to imbibing and longevity. Perhaps Sonoma?s expirees seek the fountain of youth in the wine that flows freely from the font of fundraisers, say, or perhaps the purple-drench is their exit made glass by glass like foundling footsteps toward their maker.

Of course, as a joke making the rounds goes, ?In Sonoma you drink yourself to death, in the Springs you drink yourself to meth.? Hmm. Couldn?t it have been ?math?? If drinking led to better arithmetic instead of methamphetamine I would have passed algebra the first time (I passed on the meth too, by the way). The Springs would be MIT West given all the ?math.? Instead of graffiti, there would be equations scrawled everywhere. Alas, the only numbers we got are the one?s plummeting from the real estate appraisals.

The devastation of the home market is clearly the result of the greater economic woes affecting the nation-at-large rather than a mere couple of lab busts. Likewise, as any merchant might tell you, there has been a slip in what is usually a robust season for Sonoma?s tourist business. Given the current fiscal climate how does one find the presence of mind to enjoy the wine country?s peak season whilst the recession double-dips our collective aioli?

Slum it like a tourist. Start by strolling to any of a number of our hotel lobbies, take a seat and unfurl a newspaper (this one will do). Read absently while people-watching, until a sense of superiority begins to well in the darker recesses of your soul. When satisfied, loosely fold the paper under your arm and conspicuously adjust yourself. Meander to the Plaza, walk twenty feet, pause and look at a tree you?ve never noticed before. Take a deep breath. Exhale while saying ?Mine.?

Sonoma’s Free Dirt and Other Offerings

“Free dirt.” That’s how the sign reads on Hwy. 12. Gotta love it: Simple, direct and perhaps even effective. I wouldn’t know seeing as I’m dealing with my own dirt at present, so I haven’t called to ask. However, the sign is something of a roadside Zen koan.

Is it intended to read “Free dirt” in the way we think “Free beer?” or is it a plea to release dirt from the clutches of captivity? For that matter do they mean “dirt” as in soiling substance as in mud or earth, or dirt as in gossip and scandal? If the latter is the case, they may be angling to put me out of business since as me and my confederates have moved to a paid-content model. This dirt may be cheap but it ain’t free (somehow “Cheap Dirt” doesn’t have the same ring, thought “Dirt Cheap” kind of does).

In wine-savvy Sonoma, however, one could say the marketing genius behind the “Free Dirt” campaign is missing an opportunity. It seems that “Free Terroir,” might move the merchandise a bit quicker, terroir, of course, being the special characteristics geography bestows upon the farming of grapes. In fact, a more entrepreneurial type might ascribe a value a notch or two above “free” to the pile of a 100 percent pure, Sonoma Valley appellation but then anyone rich enough to give away their dirt for free likely finds generosity its own reward.

Of course, the notion of an “Instant Vineyard Kit” has long-intrigued me. Perhaps we could bag the dirt and sell handfuls of Sonoma on the open market. My fear is that Napa would dilute the biz with their own bag o’ dirt scheme, which they would inevitably class up with twigs and “organic vermi-hummus,” otherwise known as “worm poop.” Worse yet would be the French knock-off, “Sac de Terre,” which just sounds inherently classier than our “Sonoma Dirt Bag.”

Dirt isn’t the only object one can acquire free on Sonoma’s west side. There’s a practice in the Springs in which I recently participated while divesting my household of some worldly possessions (I’m not going Buddhist – I don’t have the stomach for it, just the belly).

Drag any used object outside one’s house, tag it “Free” and watch it disappear. It’s like magic or quantum physics. It’s like a wormhole opens and swallows up anything marked “free” and located within a few feet of a curb. A lounge chair, a rug and an Edward Hopper print all disappeared from my curb within minutes. The system isn’t infallible, however – the lounge chair returned a day later. This, I’m assuming was not of its own volition and I couldn’t help but feel some social code had been violated. Then, just as mysteriously, the chair disappeared again.

Now, there’s either a glitch with the laws of the universe or someone waffled on their interior decorating choices and someone else hasn’t – or, at least, hasn’t yet. I’m not convinced that the wayfaring lounge chair won’t be sent on a return trip. If it does reappear, I might come to assume its handlers have misapprehended the concept of “free” as remarked upon above.

Perhaps they think they’re helping the chair enjoy its newfound freedom by touring it around the Sonoma countryside. Maybe it visited the free dirt pile where together they discussed the finer points of the esprit de liberté. Or perhaps the chair and pile are plotting. I wouldn’t put it passed that damn chair to engage in a conspiracy to liberate its brethren of objects. Sort of gives new meaning to the phrase “the grand scheme of things” doesn’t it?

Alas, getting from free dirt to pay dirt is a dirty job but someone has to do it.

Mock Doc Meets Horror

The cross pitch for The Last Exorcism must have gone something like this: The Exorcist meets Rosemary’s Baby in the style of, what the hell, This Is Spinal Tap. (Insert record scratch sound here.) How writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland managed to get a feature film deal rather than a tongue-lashing by development executives is likely the result of a trend that’s risen in the industry of late: the mixing of two genres into a profitable subgenre, the horror mockumentary.

The mockumentary form?that is, a narrative film in the trappings of a nonfictional documentary?traces its roots to the “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest,” an April Fool’s Day hoax perpetrated by BBC news producers in 1957, which depicted pasta farmers plucking spaghetti noodles from trees. Later, Christopher Guest and company would perfect the genre, most famously with the Rob Reiner?directed mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, followed by the Guest-directed Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

Meanwhile, television hybridized the genre with reality shows and birthed franchises such as The Office and newer iterations like Parks and Rec. Clearly, the mock-genre works for comedy, but does it work for horror?

Yes. The forerunner to the recent spate of horror mock-docs is, of course, 1999’s Blair Witch Project, which elevated shaky, camcorder cinematography to an art, or at least an acceptable idiom, and proved that fake horror flicks can be real earners. To date, the indie flick has made $240 million?4,000 times its $60,000 budget. It also spawned a franchise of less successful sequels as well as innumerable knock-offs and parodies such as the Tony Blair Witch Project and The Blair Witch Project with Linda Blair, the star of the proto-exorcism film The Exorcist.

A more recent winner in the subgenre, Paranormal Activity, improved the earnings ratio. Released last year, the film has earned $108 million thus far, which is nearly 10,000 times its budget of $11,000. Of course, high box office receipts doesn’t necessarily equate into high art; however, it does account for the slew of mock-horror-docs coming to a multiplex near you, including The Last Exorcism, in which a charlatan exorcist attempts personal redemption by ridding a Southern school girl of a demon named Abalam.

“I was so surprised when I saw The Last Exorcism, because I’ve been watching horror films all my life,” says the film’s star, Ashley Bell, 24, who plays 16-year-old Nell, a Louisiana girl who may or may not be possessed. She first saw her film’s antecedent, The Exorcist, when she was 10; at director Daniel Stamm’s behest, she watched its less popular sequels and then heeded his instruction: “Don’t do that.”

“Daniel would hint as to where to look at the camera and for how long, what to tell, what to lie about, what not to tell,” says Bell, whose performance as a wide-eyed innocent is the film’s greatest asset. “The camera was really another character, and it was fun to kind of use it to manipulate the audience and play with it and against it.”

Bell’s sensitivity to the form added to her character’s on-camera verisimilitude. When “Nell” appears nervous during an on-camera interview, she easily endears herself to the audience, which makes it all the more creepy when she’s in a satanic trance.

“As you’re watching it, it’s as if you’re in a 360 degree arena and don’t know where the next attack is going to come from,” Bell observes. “You always feel so vulnerable and so exposed, and I really like that.”

Audiences apparently like it, too. The film, which offers little in the way of special effects, rudimentary costumes and only a handful of locations occupied by relatively new (read: cheap) faces onscreen, has made its $1.8 million budget back ten times over, earning $20 million in its first week of release. Though some critics have grumbled that the film isn’t scary enough, it’s likely scaring the shit out of Hollywood, which is used to padding salaries with outsized film budgets. Mock-doc or not, no one can mock the math, which will likely lead to the rolling of executive heads. For Hollywood, the real horror show is just beginning.

Check out the Wifi @ Sonoma’s Library

Free Wi-Fi is like finding a lucky penny to people like me, those of us inflicted with a constant, insatiable need to track datum, capture it and stow it in our change purses. A small dose of dopamine is released in our brains whenever we spy a wireless hotspot icon, which, is really just a hipper, svelte version of clip art radio waves lest we forget that orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing is just gussied up radio signal that let’s one tap into an Internet connection. The stronger the signal, the better. Often times, this means sitting close to the source – like boozehounds, belly to the bar – so that every moment of connectivity is a peek experience.

Among the best free signals in town is the one bouncing invisibly off the walls of the Sonoma Valley Branch of the Sonoma County Library. I’ve long crowed that the library is key among Sonoma’s arsenal of secret weapons and the free Wi-Fi makes it all the more formidable.

It’s only apropos, really, that such a vast repository of knowledge and information, democratized access and Free Speech would have a portal our local library. Beyond being the analog version of all the above, every library comes stocked with stewards of such data and ours is no exception. Of course, it’s more than mere data that they’re both mining and minding – the continuum seems to go “information,” “knowledge,” “wisdom,” “Yoda.” I added that last one, seeing as the pragmatism of being Jedi seems more in line with library science than, say, Nirvana.

Since the 90s, there’s been jabber that libraries would eventually prove irrelevant in the Digital Age, serving as little more than places for homeless people to read newspapers. Untrue. Homeless people also check their email, but more to the point, libraries remain a cornerstone to our democracy and a good reference librarian has more instruments of access and expression in their intellectual toolkits than can be enumerated with ones and zeroes.

And what of Google, you ask? Consider this: a librarian armed with Google and the other means of mining data at his or her fingertips is functionally omniscient. Be nice to them – they know what you’re thinking. Fortunately, they won’t talk, not even if your requested items include “How to Build an Atomic Bomb” and “World Domination for Dummies.”  Remember, it was librarians who stood up to the Bush administration to preserve your privacy in the face of an overreaching Patriot Act. Of course, it’s only the library’s staffers who have pledged to honor your confidentiality – patrons, passersby and the occasional columnist can and will look over your shoulder, so no sites that are NSFW (is it a double negative if it’s an acronym? Ask a librarian – Google didn’t know).

If you’re traveling light, that is, sans laptop, smart-phone, tablet or other web-enabled device, take heed – the library offers plenty of computers with Internet-access at the ready. Theoretically, a savvy entrepreneur could launch a business empire using a clever mix of cloud-computing, a distributed workforce and the sundry resources made available by our public library. The only hiccup is that the librarians would probably shush your board meetings, though you could probably reserve the more-private Delong room for a few thousand shares of your start-up.

Mind you, we’re already all shareholders in our public library. Everyday an IPO of opportunity makes us all richer than we probably realize and the free Wi-Fi just helps as we’re laughing all the way to the data-bank.

Visit the library!