Life, death and SAT literature

As every high school student knows, passing the SAT examination is absolutely essential to one’s future survival in 21st century America.

Bomb the SAT (which, appropriately enough, stands for ‘SAT’), and you’re doomed to a short life of quiet desperation. No decent university will even look at you. For that matter, most bartending schools are likely to give you the bum’s rush if you show up with a poor SAT score. Your parents will disown you, your fiance will dump you and convicted felons with missing teeth will make rude fun of you as they stroll past the refrigerator crate you call home.

Fail the SAT exam and you’ll probably have to flee to Mexico, where you’ll eventually be arrested as an illegal alien and deported to Florida with a half-dozen University of Arizona frat boys who’ve been celebrating spring break in Cozumel since 1986.

Pretty grim future, eh, amigos?

Fortunately, there’s a lot of help out there in the form of SAT prep texts, online advice and tutorials designed to help you pass the three-letter test of doom.

Most recently, there’s even a growing body of SAT literature to help get students through this established scholastic nightmare.

The literature comes in the form of suspense fiction which, page by page, transports the reader through a thrilling tale of derring-do while exposing him or her to a broad range of vocabulary words likely to be found in SAT exams.

One of the latest books in this genre is “The Mayan Mystery,” succinctly described as “Another mission. Another country. Another action-packed adventure … with 1,000 need-to-know SAT vocabulary words (2006, Wiley Publishing, Hoboken, N.J., $12.99, 326 Pages.)

Written by Karen B. Chapman, this suspenseful tale tells the story of teen adventurers Jose and Alexa who, while visiting the ruins of an ancient Mayan temple, discover a plot to pirate priceless archaeological artifacts.

While dealing with this dilemma, our protagonists also help readers discover hundreds of tricky vocabulary words that could spell SAT disaster for the unprepared.

This is a whole lot more intense than a couple of words tossed casually into every other chapter or so.

Page 150 alone has 10 tough vocabulary words woven into the text of “The Mayan Mission” – words like milieu and ostentious as well as impeccable and hegemony.

I know what you’re thinking: “Impeccable and hegemony on the same page?!”And Page 151 is no slouch, either, peppering readers with such essential words as inveterate, abnegation and mendacious.

Curiously enough, I always thought I knew exactly what mendacious meant. After reading “The Mayan Mission,” I realized, to my great chagrin, that I had been wrong for about 46 years.


Let’s face it, amigos, if you’re roughly 17 years old, about to take an SAT examination and don’t know what the word “inchoate” means, you could do worse than picking up a copy of “The Mayan Mission.”

You might, of course, choose to pick up a dictionary. But the things are damned heavy and they’ve got all that little, bitty print…

Originally published May 14, 2017

An event is an event is an event…

We live in an age of fuzzy euphemisms. The rule of thumb is to never say what something is specifically when you can sort of say what something may be generally without actually saying anything.

It’s just nicer that way.

War, for example, is best termed a conflict, a military operation or, perhaps, a “police action.” Never should a war be referred to as a war, because war is one of those things during which somebody will be trying to blow your head off before you blow his head off because somebody you’ve likely never met strongly disagreed with someone the other guy most likely has never met. Since this is a somewhat uncomfortable situation for all concerned, it’s best to refer to war as a conflict or, perhaps, proactively exercising a strategic military option.

It should also be noted that a military operation should not be confused with a surgical operation. Surgical operations are, by their very nature, frequently bloody, painful and generally icky. That’s why we don’t call them operations anymore. They’re referred to as procedures.

If your physician says he’s going to perform a procedure to remove your infected appendix, that sounds ever so much more gentle then a surgical operation, which implies, like, forcibly removing an internal organ with a sharp, gleaming instrument similar to a scimitar but considerably smaller.

Criminal suspects in these heady days of euphemism are frequently referred to as persons of interest. It doesn’t matter if the person in question was witnessed shooting up the Mr. Steak salad bar with a Thompson submachine gun and was arrested while changing ammunition magazines. He’s not a suspect. He’s a person of interest.

This particular euphemism serves two very important functions. First, it spares the suspect’s feelings. Nobody wants to be known as a criminal, even if they’ve just shot up the Mr. Steak salad bar with a Thompson submachine gun.

Second, if law enforcement officers have somehow managed to arrest the wrong guy amid the bullet-riddled wreckage of the salad bar, they can quickly point out that they never actually named the arrestee as a suspect. No, he was just a person of interest, even if he was found upside down in the blue cheese dressing surrounded by a pile of expended shell casings.

Then there’s the term “event,” which has somehow been substituted in recent years for every disaster known to man. This terminology is currently very big with broadcasters and emergency management personnel.

Flood, fire, hurricane, tsunami, earthquake? Please, please, please, those are very harsh terms. Let’s just think of them as events.The next time a wall of water rushes through your garage, deluges your living room and flows back through the your kitchen, don’t think of it as a flood.

We all know a flood is a bad thing. It’s depressing. And it smells funny.

Think of it instead as an event.

See how much better you feel?I knew you would…

Originally published May 7, 2006

Sonogram cookies and much more!

Scrolling haphazardly through some recent e-mails, I came across a unique new retail item that’s guaranteed to be bigger than Rubik’s Cube and Tickle Me Elmo combined – the sonogram cookie.

According to an urgent missive from Kristin Burley of Orca Communications, sonogram cookies are going to be the biggest thing since the last biggest thing – and maybe even bigger!

Picture This Sonogram Cookies by Good Fortunes, Kristin explains, allow soon-to-be mothers to uniquely personalize bite-sized baked goods with an edible sonogram image of their soon-to-be-born baby.

“These gorgeous edible cookies are the perfect way to display a sonogram in a unique and special way,” Kristin enthuses in her e-mail press release.

“Simply send Good Fortunes the picture and they will print it on edible paper with edible ink to create the Sonogram Cookie!”

The delectable white chocolate-enrobed Graham crackers are sprinkled with colorful edible confetti or non-parielles to frame the sonogram. Then the cookie is tied with a gorgeous ribbon to match. It’s picture perfect!” Kristin adds.


This is clearly an idea whose time has come, but I think Kristin and the gang at the Good Fortunes cookie company are selling themselves short on this one. Sure, baby sonograms are cuter than a squirrel with ping pong ball – particularly to cookie-loving moms everywhere – but there’s a lot out there to celebrate and sonograms aren’t just for family fetus photographs.

Not by a long shot, amigos.

Sonograms are a recognized and commonplace medical tool for identifying and tracking a variety of medical conditions, including tumors, prostate problems and liver disorders.

Why not celebrate your healthy prostate with a sonogram cookie featuring the lively little fella in all his prostatious glory? You can bet you’ll get lots of knowing nods of approval when you pass your healthy prostate sonogram cookies around the breakroom at work or during the church picnic.

Plus, this logical expansion of the concept gives us guys an opportunity to get in on the edible sonogram cookie phenomenon since we rarely, if ever, carry unborn children around in our non-existent wombs…

A sound prostate, of course, is only the beginning when it comes time to celebrate health and happiness with a heaping plate of sonogram cookies.

Several years ago, after a four-year drunk, my doctor suggested that I have a sonogram done on my liver to see if there was anything even vaguely functional about it anymore. As luck would have it, there was, and I was overjoyed.

Unfortunately, sonogram cookies had not yet been invented and I could celebrate only by bounding up and down the street and through my workplace shouting “Hey, check it out – I still got a liver!”

Oh, well, I’d guess that those sonograms are still somewhere in my medical records. Maybe I can mark the 20th anniversary of my liver’s survival with a bodacious sonogram-cookie-and-tea party next year.

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

Originally published April 30, 2006


Another icon is fading away…

Sad as it may seem, the pay phone – that great American symbol of convenient and economical communication – is slowly but surely disappearing from our landscape.Once a vital part of daily life from Wenatchee to Wapello, the old phones are being phased out by multinational telephone companies faced with costly pay-phone maintenance while just about everybody is packing inexpensive little cell phones that work pretty good most of the time in some places.

How I’m going to miss those venerable old phone booths and wall-mounted cubicles that at one time seemed to dot every street corner, public building and saloon in the nation.

As a young reporter (shortly after the Spanish-American War), I quickly learned that all I needed to keep the news moving was a pocketful of dimes – later quarters – and a handy pay phone.

In those days, hardworking news dogs all relied on pay phones to file stories, browbeat sources and order Chicken Delight.

We always knew where to find the best pay phones for the job, too. One of my favorites – this is on the level, amigos – was located in a grove of eucalyptus trees beside an abandoned rock quarry about 20 feet off Parrish Road near Cordelia. Apparently long forgotten, the dusty phone booth was always ready for service whenever I had to phone in a story about an overturned poultry truck or wrong-way driver ruining everyone’s daily commute along Interstate 680.

Another great phone was to be found in a smoky corner of the old Peanut Patch Saloon in downtown Fairfield. When the nearby newspaper office for which I worked was undergoing a major – and noisy – renovation, I simply moved my 80-pound manual typewriter to a battered cocktail table conveniently located beneath the tavern’s pay phone and set up my own news bureau. Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

During tense, breaking news situations, even the greenest rookies knew that he who controls the pay phone controls the news. Slower-moving competitors could send smoke signals if they didn’t like it.

This, unfortunately, led some of us to step over the line of journalistic cordiality by removing the speaker diaphragm from the receiver of first pay phone we located at a news scene. Pocketing that little speaker, we could then secure the scoop and stroll masterfully back to “our phone” to file whatever story we’d been chasing, leaving our frustrated competitors in the dust. (“Hey, dis phone’s all screwy. I can hear, but when I talk at the people what is listenin’ to me not say any’ting, the can’t hear. What gives, huh?”)

Those old pay phones were tough, too. If, for example, another reporter took offense at your monopolization of the only pay phone in six blocks, you could firmly smack the offending fellow one upside the head with the receiver and incur virtually no damage to the phone.

Try that with one of today’s flyweight cell phones. You’ll wind up with a handful of shattered plastic and some red-faced Chronicle reporter named Spud choking the life out of you…

Originally published April 23, 2006

This Just Ain’t Right…

I’m all for free trade and a robust international economy, but I’ve begun to see a rather alarming trend in American industry of late. We can’t seem to do anything for ourselves anymore.Try purchasing an American-made shirt, frying pan, ballpoint pen or ball peen hammer. Or an American-grown bell pepper. Chances are you’re going to have a tough time. It seems as if every other product to be found in your local hardware store, supermarket, auto parts outlet or electronics emporium these days is made in China – with an occasional contribution from India, Sri Lanka or Chile.

Has America forgotten how to sew a pair of boxer shorts or cobble a decent pair of shoes?

If China quit exporting goods to the United States for as little as one week, we’d undoubtedly find ourselves in the midst of a national panic not seen since the Great Depression. People would be wearing potato sacks (made in Guatemala) for shirts and muskrat skins (imported from Canada) for shoes.

I was reminded of this alarming trend just last week after wandering through the side streets of strategically ambiguous Sonoma and discovering a small shop that sold, among other arcane items, “Grow Your Own Redneck” kits.

“Whoa!” I thought. “I don’t have any of those. Better get a half dozen…”

(This is an example of good ol’ American impulse buying. It makes life better for all of us).

For those of you unfamiliar with the “Grow Your Own” phenomenon, it involves little bitty plastic dinosaurs and lobsters and body parts that you can drop into a bowl of water and have big old honkin’ plastic dinosaurs, lobsters and body parts in 24 to 48 hours.

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

At only $3.49 apiece, my “Grow Your Own Redneck” kits were a solid bargain and, best of all, they had to be American-made because they were, like, rednecks. What could be more American than rednecks?

Sad as it may seem, I was wrong. The “Grow Your Own Redneck” kits in question were, in fact, made in China.

Is nothing sacred?

Admittedly, China manufactures some fine products, but rednecks?

I thought America’s southernmost states and portions of San Joaquin County had an inviolable patent on the manufacture and distribution of rednecks – even little bitty ones that swell up in water.

I’m no xenophobe, but this has got to stop right here and now.

The United States has few enough of its own icons left and one of them is the American redneck, whether he swells up in water or swells up in beer.

Join me in writing the White House, the Secretary of Commerce and state legislatures from Texas to West Virginia to protest this infuriating international encroachment upon a fine American tradition.

“Rednecks and America: They’re a beautiful team!”

Say it loud and say it proud, amigos…

(Originally published May 16, 2006)

The mob and much more…

Walk into any big box bookstore these days and, chances are, you’ll be able to put your hands on a dozen or so organized crime novels in less than 10 minutes. Life with the mob is the newest darling of popular fiction in America.

If you like your mob fiction with a healthy dose of weirdness, though, you’re going to have to head for the paperback aisle of the nearest supermarket. With any luck, you’ll find a copy of Tom Piccirilli’s “Headstone City” (2006, Bantam Dell, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 302 Pages).


Piccirilli’s tale of mob violence, loyalty and persistent dead people revolves around ex-con Brooklyn cabdriver Johnny Danetello, who grew up with the once-powerful Monticelli crime family. Unfortunately, the Monti gang has taken out a contract on his life because teenage mob princess Angelina Monticelli died from a drug overdose in his cab while he was rushing her to a hospital.

(You’re following all of this, right?)

The tale seems pretty mundane as far as organized crime, vengeance and dead mob princesses go, but it’s anything but ordinary when you consider the fact that Danetello has the ability to communicate with the dead – his parents, the aforementioned Angelina, deceased mobster JoJo Tormino and tormented neighborhood grocer Aaron Fielding – whether he wants to or not.

Johnny developed this talent in his youth shortly after he and mob scion Vinny Monticelli tried to crash a stolen car through a police barricade and both were thrown through the windshield of the auto.

Vinny, too, picked up some unusual skills as a result of the crash. He can predict the future – sometimes – and has the ability to periodically slip between three different planes of reality.

Vinny now seems to be part of the mob family’s dedicated efforts to exterminate Johnny, but the two-fisted cabdriver proves difficult to kill, even when he regularly strolls into the mob’s favorite clubs and the mansion of once-powerful Don Pietro Monticelli.

Complicating Johnny’s threatened life are a cast of characters worthy of a Federico Fellini epic. There’s lovable Uncle Phil Guerra, a retired cop who probably killed Johnny’s father. And Grandma Lucia, a 78-year-old bingo fanatic with pink hair who delights in cleaning Johnny’s trusty .38 revolver and is no slouch when it comes to matter-of-factly clearing a room of troublemakers with a pump shotgun.

The cast of characters also includes Glory Bishop, a B-movie actress who achieved temporary stardom as the terrorist-baiting heroine of the action flick “Under Heaven’s Canopy”; and slow-talking Daniel Ezekiel Cogan, an FBI agent with a hee-haw smile and a cousin named Cooter.

Toss in a half-dozen steely-eyed hitmen and Johnny finds himself with an increasingly complicated social calendar – one that could get him killed.

Will our star-crossed cabdriver live to talk with the dead again? You can find the answer for less than six bucks in the paperback book aisle of your favorite supermarket. Pick up some cannoli while you’re at it…

Originally published April 9, 2006

Rat-faced squirrel makes a comeback

There’s something gratifying about discovering that a species heretofore thought to be extinct for, say, 11 million years, is actually still hanging around.

If nothing else, it gives hope to the Republican Party.

(Sorry. This has nothing to do with politics, but I couldn’t resist and I’m easily distracted…).

The latest extinct species to make a comeback is none other that the seldom- seen, rat-faced squirrel of Laos.

According to the Associated Press, the whiskery rodent – once mistakenly nicknamed the Laotian rock rat – is actually part of a family of animals similar to tree shrews thought to have disappeared roughly 11 million years ago.

Scientists were overjoyed to find that the discovery heralded not a new species, but a really cool, really old species known as Diatomyidae. And although researchers have yet to capture a example of the prehistoric rat-faced squirrel alive, they’ve found plenty of dead ones in Laos, where hunters bag them for sale to meat markets.

Meat markets? Rat-faced-squirrel-on-a-stick, perhaps…

Best of all, Associated Press reports, nobody knows if these reclusive rodents are an endangered species or not.

And that means, amigos, they’re up for grabs until some tree-hugger decides they should be protected.

Does an 11-million-year-old species really need protection? I think not. They can obviously take care of themselves. And if they can take care of themselves in the Laotian jungle, they ought to do great right here in the good old U.S. of A.

Think about it – all we need to do is import a couple of healthy breeding pairs and America can have a new non-native species to liven up the continental United States.

This could be bigger than Sea Monkeys, fellow future importers of rat-faced rodents, and a helluva lot more profitable for everyone.

Remember all those LA fashion models who were striding around Hollywood a decade or so ago sporting cute little chameleon lizards as jewelry?

That was sooooo ’90s.

Ditto for morons who went staggering about with screeching cockatoos perched on their shoulders.

No, it’s the 21st century, amigos, and the discerning American pet fancier needs to find a new companion with which to make a statement.

The less affluent among us may be able to make do with a cuddly Norwegian wharf rat poking out of our jacket pockets, but those with a little disposable cash are sure to want a prehistoric rat-faced squirrel among their coterie of hairy traveling companions.

Super models will treasure them, jewelers will cash in on little diamond-studded leashes and kids will love ’em.

Rat-faced squirrels – they’re cute, they’re cuddly, they’re 11 million years old and, when you get tired of them, there’s always the aforementioned rat-faced-squirrel-on-a-stick.

Get ’em before they’re extinct again…

Originally published April 2, 2006