Our recipe for disaster

I don’t often get overly agitated about the things I read in the newspaper’s food section.

Although I was once the most exacting of food editors – until I was permanently sidelined during an unfortunate incident involving catfish chili – I tend to take a live-and-let-live attitude when it comes to the culinary suggestions offered up in The Reporter’s food pages these days.

And then, two weeks ago, a meal suggestion on the front page of the newspaper’s food section sent me staggering back in abject horror. Some geniuses – who were smart enough to remain nameless – had printed a fine and frolicsome recipe for “Shish kebabs the lazy way.”

Great.

What in the wide world of skewered foodstuffs were they thinking? Shish kebabs are, by their very nature, among the laziest of dishes one can prepare without losing consciousness. You take whatever old vegetables and reduced-for-quick-sale meat you might have at hand, cram them onto a skewer and leave them in close proximity to some heat source until they appear cooked.

This is, like, easy. If you’re barbecuing, you can manage this even after consuming the obligatory seven beers required by the California Barbecue Code. If you get any more laid-back, you’ll burn your face while snoozing on the grill.

So, of course, our food consultants suggest taking one lethargic step backward and simply eliminating those complicated and difficult-to-operate skewers.

“Just toss the fixings loose on the grill!” they recommend.

Yeah, that’s going to work just swell.

Now, instead of simply picking up your convenient skewer of incinerated leftovers, you have to fight with a half-dozen brew-fueled barbecue guests as they try to grab at bits of meat and vegetables rolling merrily back and forth across a red hot grill.

I should point out that this only applies to the meat and vegetables that remain within reach, since the smaller pieces are likely to have slipped through the grill and into the glowing coals.

The latter problem, our newsprint gourmets report, can be solved simply by putting your non-kebabs on a lightly oiled grilling grid or aluminum foil.

Wonderful. Now your “lazy” meal requires you to find or fabricate a grill for your grill before you can begin grilling.

Equally distressing is the fact that our food experts have clearly forgotten the best part of shish kebabing – skewers are fun.

You can use them to pop party balloons or make dramatic gestures while recounting your days in the Seventh Cavalry. Afterwards, your kids will delight in staging sword fights with the amusing, pointed instruments. Let’s face it, used barbecue skewers are one of the few remaining childhood joys of summer since lawn darts and bottle rockets were banned by a bunch of humorless Washington bureaucrats several years ago.

Shish kebabs without skewers? Not on my watch, amigos…

Originally published September 10, 2006

Here’s another great idea…

Technology – don’tcha just love it?

According to a recent Associated Press report, scientists have taken another giant step to better understand the intricacies of air pollution in fabled Silicon Valley. Venturing where no air pollution monitors have ventured before, they strapped backpacks on pigeons, equipped them with cell phones and sent them aloft to gather air quality information.

(Rumor has it researchers tried a similar experiment with German shepherds and cell phones several years ago but couldn’t get the gravity-challenged canines to fly very far.)

During the August experiment, pigeons launched over Silicon Valley reportedly carried miniature backpacks containing a global positioning system, pollution sensors and cell phones.

“Investigators at the University of California hope the winged researchers will fill in gaps in knowledge about the air we breathe, and bring nonscientists into the debate on air quality,” the Associated Press wrote.

Uh-huh…

For at least the past 50 years, a growing haze of air pollution has been blanketing what was once known as The Valley of the Heart’s Delight. To track the spreading cloud, one needed only to open one’s reddened eyes or take a deep breath.

We all know where much of that air pollution comes from – automobiles, industry, idiots equipped with gasoline-powered leaf blowers and the occasional flatulent cow. And we all know where the pollution goes – into our increasingly taxed lungs.

Santa Clara Valley’s movers and shakers were aware of the problem, too, and all agreed “We’ve to do something about that one of these days, no question about it…’

And there things stood until the advent of the pigeon-phone-pollution-monitoring program.

Admittedly, the idea came from researchers in Irvine, but I’m sure Santa Clara Valley’s own brain trust would have come up with a similar stroke of genius one of these days.

Perhaps the best thing about this bold stroke against air pollution is that it will undoubtedly lead to new and better ways to monitor other forms of pollution in our increasingly threatened ecosphere.

With high-flying pigeons taking the lead, it’ll only be a matter of time until gophers with cell phones will be burrowing their way through the Silicon Valley soil to monitor groundwater pollution. Once the bane of hard-working farmers and golfers in Santa Clara County, the big-toothed, big-hearted rodents will be celebrated warriors in the ongoing war against pollution.

Slap a cell phone and some miniaturized monitoring equipment on the back of an otherwise ordinary crayfish and you’ve got the latest eight-legged research tool for analyzing pollution in fresh water ponds, streams and lakes.

Who knows, someday we may be able to invest in one or more of these high-tech critters for home use to measure levels of selenium, arsenic and mercury in our bath tubs and swimming pools.

Better safe than sorry, amigos …

Originally published September 3, 2006

Fairfield may be new ‘Dodge City’

Politicians, police officers and professional bowlers have long debated the cause of Fairfield’s growing crime problem.

As everyone knows, there was no serious crime in Fairfield 25 or so years ago. Former City Manager B. Gale Wilson said so and he shoulda known, right?

There were no drugs and no gangs, just the occasional pair of energetic high school girls vigorously slapping each other silly in front of the roller rink….

When drugs and gangs finally did rear their ugly heads, they were promptly labeled a regional problem. Thugs from places like Lafayette and Hillsborough, police told fearful Fairfidlians, were behind it all. There was no telling when a cocaine-crazed investment banker from Point Reyes would roar into Fairfield and wreak havoc on the otherwise peaceful beer-brewing community. And that, of course, couldn’t really be thought of as a local problem.

People in Fairfield, though, eventually began asking themselves if there might actually be some local source for the criminal activity that seemed to be sweeping the community.

Supervisor-elect Jim Spering recently suggested that the city’s regional shopping mall might be the locus of such activity. Others have blamed an unexpected influx of godless liberals with funny hats for the flood of Fairfield felonies.

Last month, however, the Fairfield Police Department uncovered the awful truth: Gun-wielding automobiles were riding the crest of the community’s latest crime wave.

I’m sure this isn’t the kind of news that Fairfield’s leaders want widely disseminated, but police let the cat out of the bag with a seemingly mundane press release about a drive-by shooting.

According to police, a Fairfield resident was sitting on his car near his apartment one night when he was shot in the foot:”The resident said a late model Dodge Intrepid drove by and, without warning, began firing a handgun at him.”

Our police reporter took one look at the press release and gasped.”This is bad – really bad. Maybe worse…” she muttered, shaking her head and reaching for her bulletproof vest.

Indeed. Everybody knows guns don’t shoot people – Dodge Intrepids with guns shoot people.

We really should have figured this out a long time ago.

Think about it – where do most drive-by shootings occur? On streets and in parking lots.

Where do most Dodge Intrepids hang out? On streets and in parking lots.

This also explains why so many drive-by shooters in Fairfield seem to simply vanish. If you’re a Dodge Intrepid, all you have to do is crank off a few rounds, toss the gun and then pull to the curb. Now you’re just another parked car.

Devilishly clever.

In the news business, we refer to one such incident as a “trend.” Two indicate a “growing threat.” We call three such events an “epidemic.”

We can only hope Fairfield hasn’t discovered this startling trend too late…

Originally published August 27, 2006

Marshmallows: Threat or menace?

Do you sometimes find yourself deep in thought, pondering the imponderables of leprechauns and marshmallows?

I know I’ve spent a lot sleepless nights tossing and turning over myriad unanswered leprechaun-marshmallow questions. Once this subject comes up, it’s hard to let go, even as dawn draws nigh.

Fortunately, there’s now a place to go for all the answers about this mysterious combination of myth and marshmallow. Enlightenment is just a few clicks away if you log on to www.luckycharms.com.

I know what you’re thinking: “Waydaminnit, waydaminnit, waydaminnit – that’s just a Web site to get kids to eat more cereal!”

On the surface it may appear so, but if you delve into the depths of this multifaceted Web site, you’ll discover that it’s much, much more (sort of like an old Volvo carburetor).

If you grew up some time during the past 40 years, chances are you’ve consumed at least one bowl of Lucky Charms, the General Mills cereal based on the unlikely adventures of a wise-cracking leprechaun and his pot of marshmallow bits.

How well I remember the time I tried to get my cherubic, 4-year-old daughter to consume a bowl of healthy 1970s-style cereal – you know, a tasty combination of wheat chaff, cracked corn and pine nuts?

She took one look at my back-to-the-earth breakfast offering and growled “Lucky Charms and nobody gets hurt.”

(Strangely enough, she’s, like, 36 years old now and she still growls those very same words from time to time.)

“How remarkable…” I thought, but in those days there was no Web site devoted to the intricacies of Lucky Charms. There were, in fact, no Web sites at all.

Today, www.luckycharms.com provides everything you ever wanted to know about the cereal and its leprechaun mascot, Lucky.

Not only does it contain a broad range of activities and animated tales, it invites users to create their own Lucky Charms-themed stories of adventure.

Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos.

Ever wondered exactly what magical powers are attributed to each of the eight charms scattered through your cereal?

Gotcha covered, pardner. The horseshoe, for example, signifies speed, while the moon-shaped marshmallow bit confers invisibility. The clover shape brings luck.

(No, I don’t know how many moon-shaped marshmallow bits you have to consume to achieve invisibility.)

You also may encounter a variety of challenging games on the site. And like everything else associated with the Internet, the older you are, the more challenging they’ll be.

My favorite is the “Hidden Key Invasion” which has something do with invasive marshmallow bits.”

Can you sling milk and melt them before time runs out?” the game asks.

Not if you’re a 56-year-old newspaper columnist. Hell, I haven’t slung milk since I was a sophomore in high school and tried to bean Tibor Koss with a pint of milk in the cafeteria…

Originally published August 22, 2006

Legal advice only 99 cents

Having wandered through Solano County’s courts for more than 30 years in my role as a newspaper reporter, my legal advice is frequently sought by others who periodically wander the same county courts – usually with decidedly puzzled expressions upon their faces.

Although I do not have a law degree, I do have a wealth of arcane knowledge that some people find useful when they become embroiled in a court matter. Myriad legal issues come my way on a daily basis, and although I have yet to open a nonlaw office, I feel it’s time to respond to some of the more pressing questions that come my way as I doze on the comfortably upholstered bench down the hall from Judge Smith’s Fairfield courtroom.

Here are the definitive answers to the most frequently asked legal questions I encounter:

A. There are no courts in the Solano County Courthouse. Although the Texas Street building was originally designed as a courthouse, it soon became dangerously overrun with county bureaucrats and legal matters needed to be moved to the nearby Solano County Hall of Justice and, later, to the Law and Justice Center.

B. The amusing but not particularly effective explanation, “But I went to the courthouse and, like, there was nobody there,” is not accepted as an excuse for not appearing in court.

C. Traffic court is on the second floor at the south end of the Hall of Justice. That’s where you go for legal matters having to do with your driving (or, in some cases, your walking). If you’re charged with murder, kidnapping, bank robbery or train-wrecking, you probably need to go to some other courtroom – or state…

D. Restrooms are on each floor of the Solano County Hall of Justice – at the south end of the first and second floors, and at both the north and south ends of the third floor. There are no restrooms on the fourth floor. Really. If you find yourself on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice, you’re most likely somewhere else. There’s also a restroom on the second floor of the nearby Law and Justice Center, which also doesn’t have a fourth floor.

E. This brings up another important legal question – the north wing of the Hall of Justice versus the south wing of the Hall of Justice and the south-south wing thereof.

The old, old Hall of Justice’s north wing faces Texas Street (across from the County Non-Courthouse). The south wing of the newer section of the old Hall of Justice faces the Law and Justice Center which, at least technically, is the south-south wing of the Hall of Justice because they’re actually connected by a secret hallway where deputy district attorneys and deputy public defenders sometimes become hopelessly lost and have to be rescued from large, carnivorous rodents.

F. There is no south-south-south wing of the Hall of Justice. If you somehow find yourself in what you believe to be the south-south-south wing of the Hall of Justice, you’re probably in the Solano County Jail.County Jail? In my considered legal opinion, it’s time for you to call a lawyer. Tell ’em I sent you…

Originally published August 13, 2006

Right words are elusive

The great majority of professional journalists – also known as newspaper bums – spend their entire careers unsuccessfully searching for just the right words to begin their stories.

Finding the perfect lead – that first paragraph that inexorably draws even the most jaded reader into a newspaper story – is frequently a disappointing quest.

Even more elusive is the fabled universal lead, a magical combination of words and commas that can be placed at the beginning of any news, sports or feature story and always work.

This paragraph is to journalists what the philosopher’s stone was to medieval alchemists.

Some news dogs have declared that no such lead exists.

(They usually follow their declarations with “Harrrrrumph!”).

Such leads, however, do exist – although they’re as rare as Romanian leprechauns – and I’ve been fortunate enough to discover not one, but two, of these sought-after gems.

The first was penned by Northern California automotive columnist Al Auger, who several years ago unconsciously created a universal lead when he wrote “I’ve been told sharks never sleep. Perhaps that’s why they’re so grumpy.”

If you take these words and slap them on top of any newspaper story, you’ll find they work remarkably well.

I thought I’d found my philosopher’s stone and that would be an end to my personal quest for the universal lead, but I recently discovered that lightning sometimes strikes twice in the same place.

Reading former Reporter publisher Richard Rico’s newspaper column a few Sundays ago, I discovered the second universal lead of my long and chaotic career:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out.”

Like many great newspapermen from Ben Franklin to Ernest Hemingway, Rico had buried his lead around the fourth paragraph, but the words gleamed like bits of gold in a clear Sierra stream.

These words could clearly improve just about any newspaper story going (with the possible exception of obituaries).

Take, for example, another everyday crime story from Fairfield:

“Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”

Ho-hum.

Now add the universal lead:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”

See what I mean?

The same goes for humdrum political stories:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. The House voted 349-74 Wednesday to acquire a monumental cross and the park around it from the city of San Diego.”

And, let’s face it, baseball stories positively beg for these words, particularly those dealing with that gadabout Barry Bonds:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and Barry Bonds flies out.”

Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

Originally published August 6, 2006

This has gotta stop

What in Sam Hill has happened to American law enforcement?

I had to ask myself this question just a few days ago as I cruised by a designer coffee shop and observed a half-dozen police vehicles in the immediate vicinity.

Had a prison inmate escaped and taken all the baristas hostage?

Sadly, no. The situation was much, much worse. Apparently several officers had stopped for coffee.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sworn peace officers pausing for a cup of coffee. In fact, enthusiastic consumption of coffee is commendable. The best police departments are caffeinated police departments.

No, the problem was in the kind of coffee the officers were consuming – designer coffee.

Real cops don’t drink lattes.

Real cops snack on carpet tacks washed down with three-day-old coffee from a dirty cup.

Real cop coffee is best brewed in an unwashed squad room percolator and reheated a dozen times. The good stuff is brewed with three times the amount of ground coffee recommended by the coffee-maker manufacturer and should be measured by the fistful rather than the tablespoon.

Steamed milk, whipped cream and (shudder!) sprinkles have no place in this coffee.

Sugar may be used sparingly if it were purchased from an Army surplus store sometime in the mid-1990s or has been allowed to sit in a forgotten bowl until it resembles quartz crystal and has to be freed with a chisel.

I recall a particularly memorable cup of coffee I consumed nearly three decades ago when I joined some county sheriff’s detectives for a cup of their famous brew one rainy November morning. The sheriff’s investigations division at that time was located in the old 1907 county jail in downtown Fairfield and the coffee was prepared by inmates in the jail kitchen.

We had barely begun to enjoy the sturdy beverage when a panicked-looking correctional officer ran up the stairs to warn us that one of the inmates had somehow mistaken the coffee urn for a urinal.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this whole unsavory experience was that none of us could taste the difference between that morning’s coffee and the coffee to be found at any Solano County law enforcement agency on any given morning.

Weird…

Today’s lawmen also should remember that a grimy cardboard cup of genuine squad room coffee can be a very effective defensive weapon when the chips are down.

Your sidearm’s jammed and your baton is tangled with the seat belt, but you’ve still got a cup of three-day-old coffee festering on the console of your patrol car. Wave that puppy around a few times and even hardcore felons will quickly surrender.

Hook ’em and book ’em, amigos…

Originally published July 30, 2006