What time is it? Call corporate…

One of the dubious challenges of working at a community newspaper is taking the pulsebeat of local businesses during seasonal flurries of activity when business is anything but business as usual. The Thanskgiving-Christmas season is a good example. So is the topsy-turvy period of retail wackiness surrounding the Presidents’ Day holiday.

These are the times that try ink-stained wretches’ souls, because these are the times that, for the 3,457th time, an editor will blearily raise his or her head from a mustard-stained desk and declare, “Hey, call around to local businesses and see how the (Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s-Presidents’ Day) sales are going. What are the hot gifts? Who are they shipping with? What’s the last day I can feed my hamster?”

Twenty or 30 years ago, this was a relatively easy task in communities like Fairfield or Vacaville. The designated reporter could simply pick up the phone and ask the folks at Vacaville Book Company or Fairfield Office Supply how business was going and get a reasonably cordial, and printable, response.

These stories are neither rocket science nor major investigative efforts.

(Major investigative efforts invariably require at least two hours to put together).

No, these stories are the local equivalent of bumping into Joe the Haberdasher on the sidewalk and asking “Hey, how’s it going, Joe?”

But that was then and this is now. Many local businesses are now part of multinational corporations based anywhere but here. The corporations employ local folks, they sell to local customers, but when it comes to asking the local guy “Hey, how’s it going, Mr. Manager-of-a-Nationwide-Franchise-Store?” the sky darkens, thunder rumbles and the timid fellow who answered the phone gets reticent.

“Uh, er, is this for the newspaper? I, ah, can’t talk about that. You’ll have to contact corporate. I can’t talk to the press. I can’t even talk. In fact, I’m not here at all. You must be calling somebody else, ’cause if you were calling me, I wouldn’t have answered. OK? Good-bye. Have a nice day…”

Corporate paranoia – don’t ya just love it?

The biggest problem with this kind of approach to the dreaded news media – at least on a local basis – is that “corporate” is invariably based in Dallas, Chicago, New York or New Delhi. Those folks can tell the hometown newspaper about national sales figures and new products, but they’re rarely in touch with what’s happening with the franchise store on Harbison Drive or North Texas Street.

Worse, many of the locals who timidly refer the hometown newspaper bum to “corporate” have absolutely no idea of how to reach “corporate.”

What happens at this point? One of two things: The reporter either spends the rest of the day trying to get someone at corporate to speak 10 words that might loosely apply to their Vacaville outlet, or the reporter gets thoroughly frustrated with the whole process after four or five hours and simply gives up.

I realize, of course, that some of you out there may not agree with my assessment of this rather complex situation.

Hey, no problem. Call corporate…

Originally published January 7, 2007

Will the curse be lifted?

A new year is nearly upon us and, like hopeful folks from Barstow to Brattleboro, those of us here at the newspaper are hoping for better times, lost weight and the unexpected arrival of fat wads of cash from unlikely sources.

Perhaps most of all, however, many of us here hope the new year will somehow lift the mysterious curse of Harper & Row’s ‘Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife.’

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Our cavernous newsroom library contains many volumes of quaint and curious lore – five or six 2001 Almanacs, a 1997 Humboldt County phone book and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War,’ among others.

One of our most frequently sought-after volumes, however, is the aforementioned Harper & Row’s ‘Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife.’ Notice I said “sought after,” not “utilized.”

For reasons perhaps best explored by dedicated students of the supernatural, this bright red reference volume disappears each time it’s needed to answer a tough question from one of our readers.

It’s always quite visible whenever one strolls by the library shelves in search of the 1997 Humboldt County phone book, but disappears the moment a reader calls to ask if the monkey-face eel is a native species or if the walleye surfperch is good for sushi.

Let’s face it, we live in a county where wildlife is far from extinct. We receive a lot of calls from people who just moved here from Silicon Valley, who want to know what kind of snake is coiled around the base of their birdbath:

“It’s got, like, two eyes and some spots that are kind of brownish-grayish and it hisses if you tug on its tail. Is that a good snake or a bad snake?”

When you’re a grizzled veteran of life in S’lano County, the first response that springs to mind is “Just keep yanking on its tail – you’ll find out,” but we try to curb our sarcasm when we receive such inquiries and put the caller on hold until we can check our Harper & Row’s ‘Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife.’

Some of those callers are probably still on hold, because the moment one of us goes to get the elusive wildlife guide it seems to bleep itself right into another dimension. And it always reappears within two days. And always in the same place, right next to Herb Caen’s ‘Guide to San Francisco.’

We have many theories as to what’s happening, including otherworldly manipulation by the late Herb Caen, miffed over having his guide to San Francisco being placed next to a guide to pygmy nuthatches and longjaw mudsuckers.

Our online editor, who is rarely seen outside the dim confines of his cave-like office, blames the phenomena on “Wormholes! Bwahaha! Wormholes!”

Others theorize that the book is simply cursed, or the plaything of poltergeists.

Perhaps with the coming new year, we’ll find a solution to this somewhat nettlesome problem. Until we do, though, it would probably be best for readers to direct their questions about the giant spotted whiptail or marbled murrelet to the reference desk at the public library.

Really. I wouldn’t kid you on this, amigos…

Originally published December 31, 2006

Sea lions are fed up

Christmas Eve has arrived. Sugar plums are dancing through your heads, tiny tots’ eyes are all aglow and I’m not feeling too good myself.

Yes, the holiday season is well under way. It’s a time when one’s fancy turns gently to thoughts of bloodthirsty pinnipeds with bad attitudes and worse breath.

I wouldn’t kid you on this, amigos.

In recent weeks we’ve been bombarded by near hysterical news reports of ill-tempered sea lions going on the attack, biting swimmers and chasing off wide-eyed tourists.

Suddenly, the San Francisco Bay’s flippered, honking clowns of the sea have turned into the Sea Lions of the Apocalypse.

They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Last month, The Associated Press reported, one particularly irate sea lion was credited with biting no fewer than 14 swimmers and is reputed to have run another 10 out of the water at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park.

Last year, the news service reported, a gang of the big, unexpectedly short-tempered mammals claimed a Newport Beach marina and proceeded to sink a 50-foot yacht.

And for some reason, people are surprised by these antisocial antics.

(Repeat after me: “Gol…”).

Some experts believe that the grumpy behavior may be the result of sea lions ingesting fish who have eaten hallucinogenic algae. Others say an ocean food shortage may be to blame.

Sorry. If anything’s to blame, it’s intrusive human beings who insist on getting closer and closer to the sea lions because the half-ton animals remind them of a Disney cartoon they saw when they were children (or adults). We’re talking a big cuddliness perception here.

Let’s face it, sea lions in San Francisco Bay are simply fed up with 290-pound tourists from Iowa pelting them with soggy pretzels and half-eaten Polish dogs.

(“Here, Sammy, here! Sit up and clap your flippers – I got a treat for you!”).

And just about the time our increasingly annoyed sea lion manages to shake the rancid mustard out of his whiskers, some grinning lunatics decide they want to swim with him.

Wheeee!

Swimming with the sea lions. That’s really special.

Have you ever seen the water around Fisherman’s Wharf? It would be healthier to go swimming in your local water treatment plant with a half-dozen frolicsome pit bulls.

You can bet what that weary sea lion’s thinking as you merrily splash into his living room:

“Awwwwww, no – not another one of those. Who needs ’em? They’re pink, they’re noisy and they keep yelling ‘Save the manatees!’ What’s that all about? Think I’ll bite ’em…”.

To make matters worse, a significant percentage of California’s population seems to think that the sea lion is irresistibly cute.

Yeah, sure.

Many of them weigh in at nearly 1,000 pounds, have teeth that could take a good chunk out of a Lincoln Town Car and they smell like a dead perch.

You want cute? Go swim with the muskrats. Now they’re cute…

Originally published December 24, 2006

Another research breakthrough…

The 20th century was filled with more than its share of astounding scientific breakthroughs – so many of them, in fact, that many of us simply got used to a new wonder every week or two.

The last century brought us everything from nuclear fission to heart transplants, corn dogs to microwave ovens. Jet propulsion revolutionized air travel and Mr. Potato Head revolutionized, er, potatoes.

So far, the current century is looking a little lackluster when compared to the weekly wonders we grew to expect in the good old days.

We recently leaped out of the doldrums, though, when researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna announced that they’d successfully isolated a gene that caused male fruit flies to fight like girls and female fruit flies to fight like boys.

According to the Reuters news service, a so-called “fruitless” gene in fruit flies can lead to gender-bending aggression traits.

Female fruit flies, researchers determined, normally vent their aggressions by shoving and head-butting a foe’s body, whereas the male of the species utilizes “lunging, boxing and rearing up on their back legs and snapping down their forelegs to flatten an adversary.”

(A similar technique, I should point out, was frequently used by a 280-pound guy known as ‘Dub’ who used to hang out at the old Leaky Tiki tavern in Lake County.)

Needless to say, determining male and female fruit fly-fighting characteristics alone must have taken hundreds of hours of grueling research, and many scientists – weary of watching irritated fruit flies squaring off at each other week after week – would have simply called it a day and published their initial findings to the praise and wonder of the rest of the international scientific community.

Our tireless researchers, however, decided to take one precious step further and began switching the male and female “fruitless” genes, only to discover that the ensuing change could make male fruit flies fight like sissies and turn female fruit flies into serious thugs.

Thanks to these scientific investigators’ selfless dedication, you’ll no longer toss and turn through sleepless nights, wondering just how tough lady fruit flies really are.

Perhaps more importantly, you’re now aware of just what you may be getting into the next time you take on an irate fruit fly.

Forewarned is forearmed, so you’ll be a lot less likely to get seriously head-butted by one of these dainty, winged brawlers the next time you inadvertently disturb one of them while reaching for an overripe apricot.

Of course, this whole fruit fly gene-switching thing will, sooner or later, be picked up on by the defense industry.

I’d venture to guess that biological warfare researchers will soon be gathered in a dim, forgotten corner of the Pentagon, feverishly poring over insect gene data in an attempt to find a genetic weapon that will induce members of al-Qaida to fight like female fruit flies.

And that’s a win-win situation any way you look at it, amigos…

Originally published December 10, 2006

Demon hunter or soccer mom?

Finding the very best in supermarket paperbacks can sometimes be a daunting task. After all, every one of them claims to be a New York Times bestseller.

And not all of the book covers immediately clue you in to the wonders to be found within. Sad as it may seem to supermarket literati, fewer and fewer paperback covers seem to spotlight grinning werewolves or scantily clad vampire girls with glowing red eyes.

Fortunately for all of us, though, there are still a few paperbacks that tell it all right in the title – books like “Carpe Demon: Adventures of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom” (2006, Julie Kenner, Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, N.Y., $7.99, 307 pages).

carpe demon

With a title like that, even the most cautious of supermarket paperback purchasers can be reasonably certain of hitting the jackpot.

And “Carpe Demon” pays off big time, amigos.

It’s the story of Kate Connor, a typical suburban housewife with a typically troublesome – but lovable – teenage daughter, a toddler son and a clueless, but politically ambitious, husband who springs surprise dinner parties on her with alarming regularity.

She worries about diapers and car pools and Gymboree play dates.

Although Kate’s life seems exhaustingly commonplace nowadays, she used to be a Level Four Demon Hunter for a secret, Vatican-based organization known as Forza Scura. At one time, Kate could finish off a troublesome demon while armed with nothing more than a plastic swizzle stick from Trader Vic’s.

She’s been retired for more than 14 years, though, and she rather likes her new soccer mom persona. Her past is a secret and she wants to keep it that way.

Unfortunately, the forces of evil see things differently (don’t they always?).

As Kate prepares a last-minute dinner party for her husband and some of his cronies, a bloodthirsty demon in the guise of an elderly Wal-Mart patron unexpectedly crashes through her kitchen window and tries to strangle her.

Kate’s a little out of practice, but she manages to dispatch the demon by shoving a broken wine glass into his eye. One problem solved, but many others loom ominously on the horizon. Now she’s got the body of a recently deceased demon on her kitchen floor, appetizers to be removed from the oven and dinner guests due in less than an hour.

Kate handles the manifold problems in her kitchen, but her orderly suburban world is crashing down around her ears. Suddenly there are murderous demons and slavering devil dogs everywhere in her once-peaceful community of San Diablo, Calif. Worse, she learns, a high-ranking demon named Goramesh has come to town and he’s looking for something.

Kate, of course, has to get to what Goramesh is looking for before he does. Problem is, nobody knows exactly what Goramesh is looking for or why he’s come to San Diablo to find it.

Bit of sticky wicket there…

Will Kate be able to counter Goramesh and still have time to prepare cheese puffs and brie for her husband’s next cocktail party? Get thee to a supermarket and find out.

Originally published December 17, 2006

 

 

 

 

 

The best gift ever…

It’s never easy to predict what will prove to be the most popular Christmas gift for any given holiday season.

Whoever would have imagined that Cabbage Patch Kids would be the hottest thing since refried beans con queso? Or that Tickle Me Elmo would capture the nation’s imagination in a way that the talking George Bush action figure never would?

Picking the gift that will pick the pockets of holiday shoppers from Barstow to Brattleboro has never been easy, but this year I’ve got a bona fide front-runner that can’t – and won’t – be ignored.

Say “Merry Christmas!” to the life-sized, electronic chimpanzee head.

chimp

In a retail world grown weary of radio-controlled Humvees and ho-hum Bratz dolls, the severed chimpanzee head is like a breath of fresh air at a Republican fundraiser.

Recently advertised by Wal-Mart, the life-sized chimp head is touted as “multi-sensored, highly communicative and fully interactive with four distinct moods…”

Four distinct moods? Hell, half the people I work with here in the newsroom don’t have four distinct moods.

And it comes with a remote, so you can interact with your remarkably lifelike chimp head from across the room.

Best of all, it’s only $139.97.

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

Oh, sure, it might seem a little expensive at first glance, but remember what we’re talking about here – a life-sized, interactive chimpanzee head with four distinct moods.

And, if you buy in bulk, you can pretty much wrap up all your Christmas shopping with one triumphant march through the chimp department at Wal-Mart.

For example, if you have 10 people on your holiday gift list, you can get each of them a lovable chimp head this Christmas and take care of the whole bunch for less than $1,500.

Overall, not a bad deal.

After all, if you’re a typical resident of S’lano County, you probably spent more than that on gin and Vienna sausages last month.

Your friends and relatives may quickly forget the oversized candy canes and jingle bell socks you normally hand out at this time of year, but they’ll never forget opening up a colorfully wrapped Christmas present and discovering a lifelike severed chimp’s head inside.

(Really. I wouldn’t kid you on this.)

And life-sized chimp heads are so versatile. You might want to keep your own chimpanzee head on the living room mantel, on your desk at work or, perhaps, impressively riding shotgun in your Hyundai.

Having a jolly Christmas dinner with the family? Slyly bring your life-sized electronic chimpanzee head to the table on a covered platter, then lift the lid with a dramatic flourish.

You can bet you’ll be the envy of the celebration.

Remember to shop early, amigos – these chimp champs are sure to sell faster than you can say bonobo.

Originally published December 3, 2006

Ho, Ho, Ho! Indeed…

December is nearly here and one question hangs heavy over the heads of knowledgeable Christmas celebrants from Bolinas to Bulongo – where will Santarchy strike next?

For those unfamiliar with this international cabal of white-bearded, alcohol-challenged revelers, Santarchy can mean the difference between “Season’s greetings!” and “Whoa! Lookout! Aieeeee!”

Never venture to ask what Santarchy really stands for. Depending on who you talk to or which Website you visit, you may be told in no uncertain terms that Santarchy is an international movement to protest the ever-increasing commercialization of Christmas.

Or you may be told there’s no such movement because real anarchists don’t have organized movements for, against or about anything.

Some will tell you that it’s all about how many reindeer can dance on the head of a pin and others will tell you it has something to do with how many reindeer you can herd down the aisle of your corner convenience market.

Last year, Santarchy paid a particularly splashy visit to Auckland, New Zealand, and left many stunned New Zealots ringing their hands and asking “Why? Why?” following a drunken Santa rampage.

(Please note, children, there is only one real Santa Claus, so 99.9 percent of these other guys had to be impostors.)

According to an Associated Press report from Dec. 16 last year, “A group of 40 people dressed in Santa Claus costumes, many of them drunk, rampaged through New Zealand’s largest city, robbing stores and assaulting security guards.

“The red-suited troublemakers reportedly threw beer bottles at passing cars, urinated off overpasses, overturned trash containers and raided a convenience market, shouting “Merry Christmas!” as they made their Santarchistic way back into the once peaceful night with beery booty.

Ho, Ho, Ho! Indeed…I know what some of you are thinking – “Hey, that’s New Zealand. The place is full of Tasmanian devils and, like, vampire sheep. What were you expecting – tea and crumpets at high noon?”

Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’ve got a wrinkled red suit and a case of beer), the Santarchy phenomena is by no means limited to the fun-loving country of New Zealand.

Not at all, amigos.

If you do a little research, you’ll discover that chaotic celebrations purportedly linked to the Santarchy nonmovement have been observed in such far-flung locations as St. Louis, Bangkok, San Francisco (OK, OK, that was a given), and Ypsilanti.

There have been reports of dancing Santarchists, drunken Santarchists and even zombie Santarchists.

Singing Santarchists in St. Louis reportedly even tried a little caroling one year by attempting to perform the ever-popular “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” but only managed to alarm the citizenry by repeatedly bellowing “You better watch out! You better watch out! You better watch out! You better watch out!”

That, however, was then and this is now. Is Santarchy coming to your town this December?

You better watch out!

Originally published November 26, 2006