Engage brain before opening mouth …

It seems like every few weeks one of America’s respected leaders somehow manages to adroitly place foot in mouth and, in the process, annoy, offend or outrage at least a third of the nation.

When our political geniuses realize that they’ve said something that could easily be misconstrued by virtually everybody, they flip their mea culpas to full automatic and spend the next six weeks peppering the country with apologies, explaining to anyone who’ll listen how they were misquoted, misconstrued or misunderstood by their mothers.

This is not good, and it seems to be happening more and more frequently within our nation’s political arena.

What gives?Are these guys:

  • Stupid loudmouths who shoot from the lip?
  • Sniveling weasels who haven’t the courage of their convictions?
  • Stupid loudmouth weasels?

OK, OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh here.

Surely not all of our political orators are craven cowards when it comes to standing up for their beliefs – whatever they may be at any given moment. But a lot of them seem to fold pretty quickly whenever even a hint of controversy is aimed at one of their ill-conceived remarks.

Most recently, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois roundly offended large segments of the public by criticizing the treatment of terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

He, unfortunately, made reference to Nazis, Soviets and Pol Pot, thereby outraging Republicans, Democrats and several retired Siberian prison guards.

Then the senator from Illinois spent the next week or so sedulously apologizing to anyone who’d listen.

He apologized to the military, to the president, to families of the military, to veterans, to Holocaust survivors and, I’d venture to say, dozens of Moose Lodges, bowling leagues and skateboarders.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this situation if we were just talking about Sen. Durbin, but this happens all the time, from the city council level to the White House – say something incredibly stupid, then spend the rest of your term apologizing to anyone you may have inadvertently offended.

This has got to stop.

Our political leaders have to take a good hard look at themselves, square their shoulders and start standing by their statements, no matter how ludicrous. Only then will the electorate know who they’re really dealing with when it comes time to vote.

Sure, we all say stupid things from time to time. I believe that even I may have made a less-than-intelligent observation one time in 1988. And, er, perhaps, 1989. Oh, hell, just ask my ex-wife. I think she still keeps a scorebook…

But most of use aren’t running for jobs in which we may be expected to behave intelligently with things like tactical nuclear weapons and large sums of money.

From now on, reject sniveling apologies and weak-kneed explanations about why our politicans repeatedly say incredibly stupid things. The obvious explanation is that we’ve elected some incredibly stupid – and frequently spineless – politicans.

And we can straighten all that out when November rolls around…

Originally published July 3, 2005

Parental coaching? I could do this…

There’s new hope for harried 21st-century parents struggling to raise children in today’s hectic world of multitasking madness and 26-hour days.

Some parents, overwhelmed by the daily grind of demanding jobs, demanding creditors and demanding offspring have turned to parent coaches for help.

According to a recent New York Times report, these coaches are becoming increasingly popular with busy parents looking for do-it-yourself advice about how to handle difficult situations involving offspring who sometimes become a little too much to handle.

(You know – like your kids. And mine. And George Bush’s…)

According to the NY Times, parent coaches are convenient, inexpensive and usually just a phone call away. Plus, if you make a total botch of things, you can always blame that no-good parent coach who gave you all the crummy advice.

As far as I’m concerned, this is not only a great parenting tool, it’s a future career. Really. I could do this job. I’m a parent. I carefully observed my ex-wife raise our kids, so I’ve got plenty of experience.

In addition, I’ve got a working phone (most of the time) and know how to say “That’ll be $75, Mrs. Smith, and have a great day. Say hi to the kids for me…”.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a whole mess of fancy-pants university degrees to be an effective parent coach. All I’ll need is a cheerful telephone voice and my already well-known problem-solving abilities.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Mrs. Smith (not her real name) calls and says her kids have just driven their go-cart through the dining room and they’re playing “Lord of the Rings” with weapons made from broken furniture. And it smells as if something might be burning…

What to do? What to do?

Fortunately, the wise old parent coach is patiently waiting by his phone and he’s got a ready solution for this pressured parent.”

Well, Mrs. Smith, those sound like some great kids you’ve got there. They just need a way to channel their energies into some kind of constructive endeavor. While they’re trying to set fire to the drapes, take a few minutes and drive down to the nearest auto wrecking yard…”

How many kids did you say you have? Three? OK, then buy three of the cheapest, grungiest carburetors you can find and bring them back home. Tell the kids that you’re having a carburetor-cleaning contest. Kids positively love carburetors. Give those little bundles of misdirected energy some cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol and tell them the child with the cleanest carburetor at the end of the day gets to go to Disneyland.”

No, no, no, Mrs. Smith! Don’t tell them when they’ll get to go to Disneyland. Don’t tell them you’re taking them to Disneyland. Just tell them that they’ll get to go to Disneyland. I’m sure that, sometime during the course of their lives, you’ll be proven correct…”

That’ll be $75, Mrs. Smith, and have a great day. Say hi to the kids for me.”

What did I tell you, amigos? I’m a natural for this job…

Originally published May 8, 2005

Furry, but not funky

Pets – don’t ya just love ’em?

It seems as if everyone I know has an incredibly talented, hard-working and highly intelligent cat, dog or iguana that makes their otherwise dull and dreary lives somehow bright and meaningful.

They rarely miss an opportunity to remind me that I, too, could have a bright and meaningful life if I had a pet instead of two drooping house plants and a big rubber rat.

They persist despite the fact that I frequently remind them my last pet – a surly 100-pound Doberman named Drago – made my life ever so exciting by attacking parked cars, stealing neighbors’ barbecue entrees and barking at hallucinations around 3 o’clock every morning.

Drago also was rather adept at eating socks, intimidating law enforcement officers and driving my ex-wife into a towering rage by stealing freshly made sandwiches.

“Been there, done that,” I respond each time some well-meaning acquaintance shows up with a cute wee kitten or a cuddly little puppy.

Let’s face facts – cats are notoriously treacherous and puppies grow up to be large mammals with teeth who’ll eventually tree your neighbor and her attorney.

Before you know it, you and your dog are both behind bars and your neighbor’s attorney is driving a brand-new Mercedes.Really.

It could happen…

“No pets for me, thanks,” has been my oft-repeated mantra for many years, although I have to admit I once had a large can of tuna that I nicknamed “Charlie” and kept on my desk for several years.

Charlie had to be “put to sleep” in the company Dumpster after he began to bulge in a rather alarming manner.

Then, a few weeks ago while idly thumbing through a colorful toy catalog, I came across the pet that may make my life complete (or at least take up a significant amount of space on my coffee table).

There before my delighted eyes was the “Fur Real Friends Cat,” a lifelike electronic feline with slightly crossed green eyes and a cute little blue grooming brush for only $26.99 (with redeemable discount coupon…).

fur friends

“These pets respond to touch with lifelike movements!” the Toys R Us catalog trumpeted.


Most of my co-workers here at the newspaper don’t even respond to touch with lifelike movements, although our research librarian can throw a mean left hook.

Even better, this easygoing feline isn’t going to be shredding my flesh every time a perceived slight enters her pointy-eared little head.

At last, I’ve found a cat that doesn’t need a litter box – or a dark corner behind the sofa – because the only things this cat’ll leave behind are worn-out C batteries.

And there will be no need to locate a cat-sitter the next time I take an extended holiday in, say, Oildale.

I’ll just toss my new Fur Real Friend in the closet with a cheerful “Be good!” and hit the highway.

Perhaps best of all, if I spill a bowl of corn chowder on my Fur Real Friends Cat, I’ll have that handy little brush with which to clean things up, safe in the knowledge that my little electronic hairball won’t turn me into hamburger during the grooming process.

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

Heeeeere, kitty, kitty, kitty…

Originally published November 16, 2003

Exaggeration? Perish the thought!

As hard as it may be to believe, my normally level-headed ex-wife recently accused me of exaggerating in this very conservative, fact-filled column.

She not only accused me of gross exaggeration but of wholesale embellishment as well.

I’m sure readers are just as shocked as I am by this obviously unfounded accusation.

Trouble started two weeks ago as my ex-wife and I motored back from a vacation trip to the strategically unimportant coastal community of Arcata.

Traveling east along Highway 299 near the Trinity River, I spotted the exit for Big French Creek.

“Big French,” I mused, “Now there’s a remarkable bit of Northern California history that very few people are aware of these days…”

“Stop right there. Don’t even think about starting one of your goofy stories,” my former spouse said firmly.

“Even if you really knew anything about Big French Creek, it would be so exaggerated that it would bear no resemblance to reality,” she explained sweetly.

“But it’s a truly remarkable story,” I continued, undeterred.

“Oldtimers will tell you…”

“Great, blame it on the oldtimers.”

“Oldtimers will tell you that Big French was a local hero, a 325-pound Parisian chef d’ cuisine who fled political upheaval in his homeland to find his fortune in California,” I explained.

“Nobody knew his real name, so…”

“Of course not,” my ex-wife muttered.

“So everybody just called him ‘Big French.’

He originally immigrated to French Camp near Stockton, but found the prevailing political climate there almost as hostile as in France itself.

So he continued north until he settled west of Del Loma, whipping up culinary delights for lumber camps that had previously subsisted on hardtack, sawdust, hardtack made with sawdust and foul-smelling liquor made from discarded turnips,” I recounted.

Meals prepared by Big French were treasured by lumberjacks, gold miners, highwaymen and goat herders from Whiskeytown to Burnt Ranch and beyond, I continued.

“Big French became the region’s number one celebrity. There were Big French hoedowns, Big French festivals, Big French Road, Big French Creek and Big French Flat. Unfortunately, this put the region’s former top celebrity – Big Foot – in the shadows. And the big bipedal hairball didn’t like that one bit.”

One night, Big Foot had had enough and he lumbered over to Big French’s cook shack to have it out.

“Oldtimers will tell you…”

“Oh, please…”

“Oldtimers will tell you that it was a long and hard-fought battle, but when the dust and confectioner’s sugar cleared, Big French was nowhere to be seen,” I explained patiently.

“Today, of course, Big Foot and his offspring remain the region’s most popular personalities, celebrated from Garberville to Happy Camp.

All that remains of Big French, though, is that lonely little road sign.”

My ex-wife was having none of it.

“See what I mean? The next thing you’ll do is put your mythical hero Big French in that goofy newspaper column of yours. You’re incorrigible!”

Big French in a newspaper column? Certainement, mon petit lapin…

Originally published September 7, 2003


Mayonnaise sets – the saga continues

Little did I guess last month that my search for antique, three-piece mayonnaise sets would create such a stir among, er, three-piece mayonnaise set aficionados from California to Colorado.

The quest, strangely enough, began in a rambling, three-story antique mall in the strategically unimportant Butte County community of Paradise.

It was in a dim corner of that forgotten roadside antique mart in early March that I saw a large cardboard sign proclaiming the presence of a “THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!”

Having never heard of even a one-piece mayonnaise set, I was understandably intrigued – but not intrigued enough to actually peek behind the sign to see what an antique THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET! actually looks like.

I was, however, interested enough in the tableware oddity to mention it to my ex-wife and full-time kids, who had accompanied me to the antique emporium in search of what my daughter generally classifies as “weird old stuff.”

Sad as it seems, my family accused me of making up the THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!

“Daaaaad, there’s no such thing,” my daughter protested.

“Stop it – you’re traumatizing your little girl,” warned my ex-wife.

“Yeah,” explained my son-in-law.

My family was so adamant that even I began to doubt that I’d actually seen a sign for a THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!

Fortunately, readers came to the rescue last week, recalling their favorite mayonnaise set stories and even mailing me photos.

Americans, it seems, were absolutely head-over-heels about their mayonnaise from the 1900s through the 1950s. Mayonnaise sets – usually made from elaborately cut glass or crystal – included a base plate, a large serving bowl and a handy ladle for scooping out healthy portions of mayo for the whole family.

Some of these look to be about the size of a soup bowl, but a few of the photos I’ve been sent show a container that appears to be larger than a punch bowl.

(The latter was probably filled by one of those old neighborhood mayonnaise tankers that once rumbled down America’s suburban roadways at 5 a.m. every Wednesday morning…)

The pre-1950 ham sandwich, it would seem, needed at least a pint of freshly-ladled mayonnaise on it to qualify as a respectable American repast.

Napa antique dealer Jewel Ryan said she’d only seen one THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET! in her career.

“I had it in the store for a couple of years and I thought I was stuck with it forever, but somebody finally bought it,” she recalled.

Nobody, it would seem, still manufactures THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SETS! and the ones that are still around are considered collectors’ items, fetching prices from $40 to more than $200 from mayonnaise lovers and people who make really, really big sandwiches.

So explore your attic, look in the barn, fall down the stairs and check out the basement – you may have a valuable THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET! in your home and not even know it…

Originally published April 13, 2003

Fine American mayonnaise sets

I have a slight but annoying credibility problem with my ex-wife and no-longer-quite-so-gullible kids – they don’t believe in antique three-piece mayonnaise sets.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

During a recent trip to the strategically unimportant Butte County community of Paradise, I joined my ex-wife, daughter and son-in-law during one of my daughter’s favorite weekend pastimes – looking for “weird old stuff” in antique malls.

“C’mon, Dad, maybe they’ve got some crystal flamingos or those little buckets from the old days when people used to milk pigs,” she enthused, dragging me toward a rambling roadside antique labyrinth housing something like 50 tiny shops.

Meandering through the maze, we discovered relics from the 1981 Magalia Donkey Derby, chicken-shaped decanters, chicken-shaped baking dishes and chicken-shaped chicken sculptures that looked surprisingly like, er, chickens…

And, yes, there was the aforementioned and much sought-after crystal flamingo (now part of my daughter’s three-room flamingo collection).

There also were frying pans, several pieces of costume jewelry, horseshoes and a chair which another customer insisted on dragging from room to room for no apparent reason.

The item that caught my eye (which, I should point out, I never actually saw), was located behind a large cardboard sign which proudly proclaimed “THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!”

Well, I thought, that’s quite a find – not just a mayonnaise set, but an antique three-piece mayonnaise set.

Yessir, I bet our forefathers were mighty proud of their household mayonnaise sets. And the family that had a three-piece mayonnaise set was probably the talk of the town.

I continued wandering through the twisting aisles of the antique emporium until I came upon my family eyeing several hand-painted teacups featuring village scenes from Chipping Ongar, England.

“Hey, did you guys see the antique three-piece mayonnaise set?” I asked innocently.

Three sets of decidedly skeptical eyes turned toward me.

“Daaaad, there’s no such thing as a three-piece mayonnaise set,” my daughter proclaimed.

“Quit telling mayonnaise stories,” my ex-wife added tartly. “Nobody in this family is ever going to fall for one of your goofy stories again. We’ve all heard your tales of vampire ducks and talking Dobermans.”

Despite my protestations of truthfulness, all three shook their heads in disbelief.

I offered to lead them right to the “THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!” sign, but I must have taken a wrong turn in the convoluted collection of walkways and I was unable to find my way back.

“Some things never change,” sighed my exasperated ex-wife as she led my daughter and son-in-law back outside.

Hey, I know I saw that sign, so if any readers know exactly what a “THREE-PIECE MAYONNAISE SET!” is, feel free to drop me a line, give me a call or send an e-mail.

Help me to regain the trust of my family – and thereby allow me to heap scorn upon them for never having heard of a three-piece mayonnaise set…

Originally published March 16, 2003

Trouble in Paradise

“Teenage Vampires from Paradise.”

Sounds like a great title for a B-grade movie, doesn’t it?

But they’re real.  I seen ’em.

Paradise is a little town in the mountains of Butte County where my ex-wife and ex-kids make their home.  Sometimes, when the madcap life of Solano County grows too frantic, I migrate there and they let me sleep in the dumpster out front.

Nothing much seems to happen in Paradise.

In fact, the most exciting thing that happens in town occurs when somebody manages to spill the salsa at La Comida, a Mexican restaurant of no little repute.  Actually, of no repute at all. (“Look, Zeb, Hank put his godarned elbow in the salsa and spilled it all over the floor.  Somebody better get the sheriff…and the po-lice, too, We don’t know what kinda situation we got developin’ here…”)

At least that’s how it was before the vampires.

I was sitting on the back porch of my ex-wife’s modest home (all homes in Paradise are “modest”) when the vampires arrived, drifting across the back lawn while my ex and I quaffed a pair of Lone Star beers in the 104 degree heat.

One vampire had purple hair, the other a Mohawk.  Both were dressed in black with flowing, red-lined capes and metal-shod boots, each carried a single blood red carnation.

(The carnations, I later learned, had been liberated from a nearby cemetery).

“Hey, uh, whaa…” I asked intelligently.

My former wife, as usual, had the situation well under control and calmly informed me that they were a pair of my daughter’s friends from school.

“They’re into vampires,” she stated casually.

Into vampires…uh-huh.

I remember when high school kids were into surf boards and day-glo posters and black lights and Beatles haircuts and, from earlier generations, Elvis Presley and Hula Hoops – but vampires?

I turned to the two children of the night and, trying to appear casual, asked “Isn’t ait a little bright out here for you, sunlight and all?”

Everybody knows vampires shrivel up and blow away in the presence of sunlight.

“Yeah,” one apprentice vampirette replied, flopping onto the porch.  “I’m dying.  You got a Coke or 7UP?”

Her companion giggled and I knew we were in for trouble.  Vampires who giggle are absolutely the worst kind.  Any vampire can manage an evil smile, a sinister sneer or a sardonic laugh, but the giggling ones are rare.

Things got a little more complicated when my ex-wife told me that one of the future neck biters was moving in with them for the summer.

Great, even I know the only way a vampire can enter one’s domicile is by invitation.  Good going, wife.  Have another Lone Star…

She’s going to have a great time when the Butte County Animal Control officers show up on her doorstep in response to a flurry of neighborhood complaints about bats.

Or when the police come by to ask if she knows anything about an 18th-century coach and four coal black horses rolling recklessly through Paradise’s streets after dark.

And how does she expect to handle the peasants with the torches and stakes and garlands of garlic storming the house just before sunset every night?

What if they run out of silver bullets at the hardware store, I asked her in exasperation.

“That’s for werewolves,” she informed me matter of factly.

The weekend passed without incident, nobody woke up with a sore throat and the peasants didn’t show.

In fact, things began looking up shortly before I left when I offered to fix the vampire-to-be a salami sandwich.

“Are you kidding? I’m a vegetarian,” she responded.

A vegetarian vampire?  There’s hope after all.

Originally published 1987-ish