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

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

Better silent than sorry…

I’ve observed a lot of strange behavior while writing about criminal justice in S’lano County during the past 30 years, but there’s one recurring peccadillo among folks hereabouts that I’ve never been able to fully understand.

This involves otherwise sapient human beings, who readily admit that they have little or no knowledge of firearms, arbitrarily deciding that the gun barrel they’re looking down during a crime in progress isn’t a “real” gun barrel.

Hey, everybody’s entitled to an opinion, but these folks frequently turn a simple criminal encounter into a disaster by sharing their opinion of the gunman’s weapon with the twitchy guy who’s holding it.

Not good.

Here’s a guy threatening to blow your head off if you don’t hand over your wallet or stop broadcasting microwaves into his meth lab and you decide to disrespect the guy’s choice of firearms.

“Har-de-har-har-har, buddy! You can’t fool me – that ain’t a real gun!”

Now we have a guy who’s already nervous, possibly coming down from a weekend of drugs, alcohol and bad country music, and you decide to disparage him and his weapon.

Hell, why not go for the triple crown and poke rude fun at his mother, too?

The logical response from any self-respecting felon whose firearm has been disrespected is painfully obvious – pull the trigger. This action provides positive reinforcement for any gunman whose motives have been questioned and it proves that the firearm in question actually is real.

Unfortunately, the same action can have an immediate and deleterious effect on your well-being if you’re standing in front of the firearm.

This whole scenario wouldn’t really trouble me if I’d only heard about it once or twice, but it happens with alarming frequency and sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Do yourself a favor – if you don’t think some crook’s firearm is real, keep your opinion to yourself. You’ll thereby avoid unnecessarily hurting the gunman’s feelings and possibly escape an unpleasant encounter with a bullet.

Police officers – professionally familiar with a variety of firearms – rarely make this blunder. If someone charges up to a law enforcement officer brandishing what appears to be a firearm, the officer is not going to debate the weapon’s reality. He – or she – will immediately react to disarm, disable or dispatch the gunman. Unless the weapon in question has a bright orange barrel or is made of clear plastic with water sloshing around inside, the lawman is going to behave as if he is facing a deadly weapon.

Many replica firearms look real and many genuine firearms – particularly those offered in designer colors or with goofy-looking stocks – don’t look particularly authentic. But, as unfair as it may seem, a gun doesn’t have to look particularly genuine to kill you.

When facing a felon with a firearm, it’s always best to assume that you’re looking down the barrel of a real gun. Gently surrender your wallet and report the encounter to police at your earliest opportunity.

Better safe than sorry, amigos…

Originally published November 5, 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

Read this and shriek

Just about any supermarket paperback can provide you with an adequate amount of apocalyptic terror, bloodthirsty devil cults and the kind of monsters that Stephen King keeps under his bed for a rainy day.

Great supermarket paperbacks, however, give you all these things and much, much more.

Take, for example,¬†Brian¬†Keene’s recent novel of flood, famine and giant earthworms, “The Conqueror Worms” (2006, Dorchester Publishing, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 326 Pages).

51ULc-isGNL

Keene’s tale is narrated by 80-year-old World War II veteran Teddy Garnett, a crusty, self-reliant fellow who finds himself stranded in his West Virginia mountain home after rain storms of epic proportions have swept the earth for weeks, inundating metropolitan centers, destroying communications, obliterating small towns and giving birth to a strange white fungus that attaches itself to wildlife.

Weathermen have begun to commit on-air suicide and more radical elements of their audiences have gone so far as to bomb television studios to voice their frustration with weather forecasts that predict only rain followed by showers and some more rain.

San Francisco is gone. New York City is under water. Hawaii, the Philippines and Diego Garcia are history.

I know what you’re thinking: “No way, man. Not Diego Garcia!”

Sorry, amigos. Even Diego Garcia…

Teddy Garnett is fortunate to live on high ground in the mountains near the small community of Punkin’ Center, but he’s far from happy. He’s out of chewing tobacco, out of patience with the weather and, perhaps worst of all, something’s moving around underneath his land. Something big.

And that’s only the beginning. Garnett has plenty of other problems to deal with, not the least of which is his shotgun-wielding neighbor Crazy Earl Harper, colorfully described as “crazier than a copperhead in a mulberry bush on a hot day in July.’

Earl lives up to his reputation when he triumphantly shoots down a helicopter carrying flood refugees from Baltimore, apparently mistaking them for a sinister United Nations invasion force.

Then giant worms start exploding out of the saturated soil. Some are the size of a German shepherd – although somewhat longer. Others are as big as a bus.

Garnett thinks things can’t get any worse, but the surviving refugees from the helicopter tell him Baltimore is plagued with even stranger creatures. Under the waters that have flooded the city live all manner of nameless horrors, including man-eating mermaids.

Rampaging worms? Man-eating mermaids? Fungus? What we have here is a supermarket paperback tour de force. Every page is packed with weirdness and every chapter promises more.

Here’s a typical beginning to a typical chapter: “The Satanists were surfing down Pratt Street when I found Jimmy’s head floating outside the fifteenth floor of the Chesapeake Apartments…”.

Need I say more?

Originally published July 23, 2006

‘These three guys’ going nationwide

Wandering aimlessly through a Web site devoted to the reminiscences of medical professionals, I was surprised to see that three longtime Solano County minions of mayhem have somehow gone nationwide.

Doctors reported that a remarkable number of their emergency patients – all of them upstanding members of the community who undoubtedly were minding their own business – had been victimized by a trio of troublemakers known collectively as “these three guys.”

You’re standing on the street corner without a care in the world, perhaps listening to the cheerful warbling of a bright-eyed blue bird when, out of nowhere, “these three guys” appear, kick you in the knees, smack you over the head with a garbage can lid, steal all your drugs (prescription, of course!), cash and jewelry, then back over you with their unregistered ’78 Firebird.

“These three guys” apparently have been sighted everywhere from Coos Bay to Chippewa Falls, wreaking wholesale havoc amid gales of maniacal laughter and occasional gunfire.

Truly amazing, amigos.

After more than 30 years of reporting on Solano County crime and punishment – with a brief stint as the newspaper’s ballet editor – I was convinced that “these three guys” were devoting their full attention to raising hell right here at home.

Now I discover they’ve taken their act on the road.

Wheeeeee!

How many times have I sat in a Solano County courtroom and listened to some falsely accused felon describe how he was minding his own business when “these three guys” came up, threatened him (or her) with a knife, gun or railroad tie, and then stuffed his backpack full of cocaine, heroin or hallucinogenic toads.

“Swear to God, I was just standing there and these three guys come up and tried to sell me some drugs. I don’t even do drugs. Swear to God,” our innocent bystander will tell the court. “And then they got all crazy and hit me over the head with a dead cat, swear to God! And took my wallet and, like, stuffed my backpack full of drugs, which, swear to God, I don’t use. And they got away just before the cops showed up…”

Over the years, I’ve learned, this trio of evildoers always gets away. Cops have never laid a finger on them. And they’re masters of disguise – they’ve been variously described as white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Greek and “these three, like, Hungarian guys.”

They only prey on virtuous pillars of the community, frequently leaving the innocent with black eyes and a variety of illicit merchandise – sawed-off shotguns, stolen stereos and heroic quantities of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines – for no apparent reason.

(“I don’t know where that meth came from, officer. These three guys must have dropped it in my jacket when they jumped me on the way to church!”).

Now, it appears, “these three guys” are no longer just S’lano County’s problem. Beware, Mr. and Mrs. America, “these three guys” soon may be coming to a dim alley or abandoned liquor store near you…

Originally published June 25, 2006