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

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

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.

Cool.

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