Troubled bridge over waters …

Here in S’lano County, where men are men and women can bench press Honda Civics, we tend to revere our bridges, whether it be the sparkling span that straddles the Carquinez Strait in Vallejo or the quaint, whitewashed Thurber Bridge along strategically ambiguous Pleasants Valley Road north of Vacaville.We partied on the Carquinez Bridge when the new span opened a few years ago, and last month a select group of Solanoans gleefully gathered in a pasture near the recently renamed Thurber span to celebrate the 100th birthday of that two-lane bridge.

Sad as it seems, not all of California’s counties love bridges the way we do here in S’lano County.

Take Butte County, for instance.

Located just a hop, skip and a jump up Highway 99 from Yuba City, Butte County is currently experiencing an orphaned bridge problem. Near the aptly named community of Paradise – home of the renowned Hootch Hut liquor store – there are at least two historic bridges which are neither celebrated, nor even claimed, by any municipality, government agency, private business or citizens’ bridge booster committee.

According to a recent article by Nicole Pothier of the Paradise Post, two old bridges near Magalia, north of Paradise, have fallen on hard times and nobody can figure out who’s supposed to fix them.

The bridges are along old Ponderosa Way, part of a thoroughfare that was built in the 1930s, stretching 700 miles from the Kern River in the south to the Pitt River in the north.

I’m told an eight-lane interstate freeway had been envisioned, but since freeways hadn’t been invented yet, the engineers most likely just wandered off to Oroville to celebrate the end of Prohibition.

The truck route eventually fell out of use, probably due to the aforementioned freeways of the future which became the freeways of the present.

Several government agencies apparently had jurisdiction over the old route as the years passed, but once the bridges were sufficiently deteriorated, it seemed nobody wanted to claim responsibility for them.

(“My bridge? Whaddaya mean MY bridge? That’s your bridge, pal, and you’re welcome to it. I wouldn’t try to walk a butterfly across that thing …”)

Instead of celebrating their historic bridges with bands, donkey races and a judicious amount of alcohol, Butte County wrings its collective hands and looks the other way while wary rural residents cautiously inch over the dilapidated structures and pray that they’ll be able to reach Pitt River before the next big snow.

This is a pretty sorry state of affairs.

I know Butte County. My kids grew up in Paradise, and I can’t begin to count the number of time they’ve phoned me to lament, “Daaaaaad, the bridges up here all suck.”

I think it’s way past time for S’lano County leaders to extend the hand of friendship to their rustic counterparts in the north and offer to show them how to have fun with bridges before all the folks around Magalia are swallowed up by bottomless potholes and rushing waters.

Let’s bridge this gap, amigos. It’s just the right thing to do …

Originally published May 13, 2007

If you build it, they will come

When it comes to family birthday presents, I always try to select a gift that will be treasured for decades, an item that will prove to be both amusing and educational, giving the recipient lasting insight into life, death and the cosmos.That’s why I recently presented my son-in-law with a $6.95 “Build Your Own Stonehenge” kit for his birthday.

Imagine my surprise when he failed to leap across the room, grasp me in a bear hug and shout “Oh, boy! A pocket Stonehenge! Just what I always wanted!”

I guess kids these days just aren’t as demonstrative as we used to be when someone thoughtfully gave us a miniature model of a mysterious megalithic monument from England’s Salisbury Plain.

What really worried me, though, was that my son-in-law didn’t seem to grasp the boundless possibilities embodied in the pocket Stonehenge kit.

“I know it doesn’t look like much from the outside,” I patiently explained after waiting 20 minutes for a demonstration of enthusiasm that never came.

“But, once you’ve built your own miniature Stonehenge, you’ll have all the arcane skills and secret knowledge needed to take Stonehenge to the street.”

Judging by the puzzled look on my son-in-law’s face and the exasperated expression on my daughter’s, it was abundantly clear that I was going to have to spell the whole damned thing out for them.

“Son, America is turning into a Dust Bowl of the imagination. There are no heroes anymore. There are no mysteries anymore. And there are damned few abalone,” I began.

“Now’s your chance to take a stand and change all that – at least the part about the heroes and mysteries. Soon you’ll have the skills to construct your own Stonehenges anywhere you want, anytime you want, and leave people asking themselves, ‘Hey, where’d the mysterious megaliths come from?’ ”

Warming to my subject, I described how my son-in-law could become a mythic figure in his community while gleefully recreating Stonehenge in every corner of town.

“By the dark of the moon, you load up your truck with cinder blocks and quick-drying concrete, then set out on your mission, searching for empty lots and forgotten parklands where your latest Stonehenge will rise to greet the next sunrise,” I explained.

“The exploits of the mysterious Stonehenge Guy will be the talk of the town: ‘Who is he? Why is he? When’s he gonna strike again?’ You’ll be like the Stonehenge Pimpernel or maybe Robin Henge.”

I have to admit that my enthusiasm was catching – at least for me. My description of the Stonehenge Guy seemed so attractive, I was ready to go out and pick up a “Build Your Own Stonehenge” kit for myself.

My son-in-law, however, still appeared somewhat reluctant to embark on the path of glory I had so painstakingly outlined for him.

Sad as it may seem, I think my son-in-law’s lack of interest is a common problem with many young people these days. They just seem to be missing the basic human desire to go out and erect towering stoneworks for no apparent reason …

Originally published April 8, 2007

Gentlemen, start your lizards (and don’t forget to put on the Meatloaf)

Small town America is always being urged “Think big!”

Sometimes this works.

Other times, however, this chamber-of-commerce-friendly mantra leaves local residents wondering if thinking really, really big can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Take the Dixon Downs proposal. For a little town like Dixon, building a gigantic, 21st-century horse racing center is thinking about as big as you can without blowing lots of perfectly good synapses.

On the surface, Dixon Downs looks like a win-win proposition, bringing jobs, revenue, entertainment and horses to Dixon.

But, as was previously noted, it’s big. Really big. Bigger than, like, Wal-Mart. And that bigness has many residents of the bucolic wool-growing community worried about increased traffic, pollution, crime and the possibility of attracting terrorists from Citrus Heights.

The community’s become divided, animosities are growing and there are some damned suspicious-looking characters from Citrus Heights hanging around.

Before this goes any farther, it’s time for Dixonites to step back, take a deep breath and consider viable but less intensive alternatives.

Fortunately, just such an alternative has been waiting in the wings for nearly a decade, a popular activity that once drew hundreds of enthusiasts from throughout the Bay Area and Sacramento regions to the shores of Lake Berryessa and could once again become a major regional event for the right community.

I can imagine a few of you out there are already grinning in remembrance.

Yes, if Dixon needs a scaled-down event to bring the town back together, it need only look back to a happier time when the Lake Berryessa Lizard Races brought joy to young and old.

For the thousands of lizard-racing aficionados who attended the colorful event at the internationally known Turtle Rock Motel, the competition was unforgettable: Pennants snapping in the wind, hungover bass fishermen snapping at everybody and sleek racing lizards sunning their blue bellies in the summertime sunshine.

Add copious quantities of beer and the sounds of Meatloaf’s Greatest Hits on the stereo and the fun just wouldn’t stop.

The reptilian revels may be gone from Berryessa, but that doesn’t mean Dixon can’t pick up a warm rock or two and bring championship lizard racing to its own little corner of S’lano County.

Think about it. You only need about a twentieth of the space for a lizard track than you do for a horse track. Runoff from lizard waste is negligible. You don’t need to build jockeys’ quarters because you don’t have any jockeys and, to the best of my knowledge, organized crime has never put a finger on lizard racing, not even in Sicily.

Best of all, lizard racing is an everyman’s sport. Purchasing a thoroughbred race horse can set you back tens of thousands of dollars. Getting a thoroughbred racing lizard into your stable is simply a matter of looking under the right rock.

You won’t need a trainer. You won’t need a trailer. You won’t need a ton of hay. You may, however, need a ready supply of fresh flies, ants and grubs.

Lizard racing and Dixon? A winning combination, amigos.

Originally published March 25, 2007

Another sinister conspiracy…

My bedside telephone was ringing shortly after 2 o’clock one dark morning last week and I didn’t even have to use my psychic powers to determine that the caller undoubtedly was my old ’60s sidekick Sapper.

Forever lost in the Age of Aquarius after ingesting some unidentifiable herbs in Bolinas in 1968, Sapper is subject to periodic brainstorms and likes to share them with the world between midnight and sunrise.

“Lissen up, bro – I’m about to unveil to you, and you alone, one of the most fiendish conspiracies ever foisted upon the American people,” Sapper intoned ominously.

“It’s all about Perky the Duck.”

“Uh…” I responded.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about Perky the Duck, Mister Pulsebeat-of-the-Nation journalist?” Sapper asked impatiently.

I initially drew a blank, but then sleepily remembered the tale of a duck who was shot by a hunter and tossed into his refrigerator, only to be found alive by the hunter’s wife two days later and rushed to a veterinary clinic, where it actually died on the operating table but later was revived.

“Yeah, yeah. Nice story. G’night …” I responded less-than-enthusiastically.

“Oh, maaaaaan. You really don’t get it, do you? Put your thinking cap on, brainiac. This isn’t about the duck, it’s about Vice President Dick Cheney running roughshod over the American people again,” Sapper said, enunciating each syllable as if talking to a backward third- grader.

“It took me awhile to put it all together, bro, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming,” Sapper explained. “Sometime in mid-January, Dick Cheney managed to elude his Secret Service keepers to do a little duck hunting. As is his habit, I’m pretty sure Dick managed to wing three lawyers, a bus driver and O.J. Simpson before he grazed a passing duck.

“Uh-huh…”

Another hunter mistakenly picked up Cheney’s duck and took it home, leaving Cheney with no proof that he’d actually been hunting ducks and not the entire defensive line of the Miami Dolphins, two exotic dancers and an ice cream vendor,” Sapper continued.

“The bird in question, I tell you, is Perky the Duck, and the heroic life-saving measures had nothing to do with saving a wounded duck and everything to do with saving Dick Cheney’s reputation as a skilled hunter.”

I probably should have thrown in the towel and hung up, but I couldn’t resist asking Sapper what kind of evidence he had.

“It’s called dee-ductive reasoning, pal. When you examine all the elements of this mystery, the diabolical machinations of Dick Cheney hold the only possible explanation. It’s like Sherlock Holmes said, ‘When you’ve eliminated the unlikely, the impossible is probable,’ ” Sapper replied.

“Now it’s up to you, bro. Take that ball and run with it. Put it on the front page and tell America what’s really going on,” Sapper concluded, for the first time in years hanging up before I tossed the phone across the room.

Much as I’d like to put this on the front page and the Associated Press wire, I really don’t think I can measure up to the magnitude of the story. Maybe I’ll just e-mail it to Katie Couric …

Originally published February 18, 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

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