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

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.


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

Let there be light…

The dark days are gone from the once dimly lit and vaguely foreboding Suisun City waterfront.

The fabled city-by-the-slough now has a lighthouse, an amenity that Suisun City founder Capt. Josiah Wing could only dream about 150 years ago as he helplessly watched lumbering sorghum barges go off course in the darkness and repeatedly slam into waterfront thirst emporiums and mercantile establishments.

(Hence the former nickname of the downtown channel – “Pinball Slough.”)

Today, thanks to a farsighted city council and several soggy citizens who got tired of walking out of Suisun saloons and waking up in San Pablo, a 52-foot beacon now sweeps the treacherous shore.

Think about it, not even San Jose has its own lighthouse. Ditto for Fresno and Barstow …

Ah, how well I remember peering into the darkness from my old Cedar Street apartment as wind and rain whipped the narrow channel and storm-tossed whaling ships were battered to kindling on the rocks before they could safely tie up at the old Sheldon Oil docks.

Every time a marshland maelstrom would roar across the channel in the dark of night, we’d have to put down our drinks, don our slickers and rush to the shore to save a pitifully few survivors, groping frantically in the dark only to find that we’d actually rescued an ill-tempered sturgeon or, perhaps, a wayward city councilman on a waterlogged jet ski.

(Whaddya mean “That’s ridiculous!”? I was there, amigo, and I can tell you it was hell on earth…)

What we would have given for a towering lighthouse when a really big storm – known by old timers as a Soosooon Typhooon – left us at the mercy of the dark and the wind-whipped waters.The lighthouse also is likely to take big bite out of crime along the once notorious waterfront.

I’d venture to say that Suisun City will have considerably fewer pirate problems now that the powerful beam of its new lighthouse is sweeping the channel.

In the old days, when darkness fell on the waterfront like a curtain, all we’d hear of a lightning-like pirate raid would be a few “Arrrr, mateys…” and then the pitiful screams of our women being carried off to San Pablo.

A few wags may opine that the aforementioned womenfolk were actually cheering the pirates on, but in all that darkness, who could tell?

At any rate, you can bet Suisun City Police Chief Ron Forsythe will be spending a lot less of his time knee-deep in the slough holding off waves of blood-thirsty buccaneers with his trusty Walther and rusty cutlass.

Yes, Suisun City’s new lighthouse is what we in the world of municipal boosterism cheerfully refer to as a win-win situation.

Who knows? Maybe even the whaling ships will be docking there again soon, and it just doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

Originally published July 9, 2006

We live in the Age of Beetles

There are a few essential books in existence without which no true Californian’s library is complete.

One such volume is the all new “Introduction to California Beetles” by Arthur V. Evans and James M. Hogue (2004, University of California Press, Berkeley, $14.95, 299 Pages).


With this easy-to-use guide, you’ll no longer look like a complete doofus when you can’t readily identify the six-legged visitor who’s dropped, unannounced, into your beer at the company picnic. Instead, you’ll wow your companions when you glance into your mug and proclaim “Imagine that – a Spotted Dung Beetle. You hardly ever see them around here, and very few of them are known to drink beer.

“California is beetle country – more than 8,000 species call the Golden State their home – and being unfamiliar with these varied and industrious organisms who share our state is tantamount to not being able to tell a redwood tree from an oleander bush.

California beetles are everywhere, all the time, and their lifestyles are at least as interesting as Michael Jackson’s on any given afternoon.

As Evans and Hogue put it “We live in the Age of Beetles.”

(OK, OK, so the boys got a little carried away. Cut ’em some slack – cataloging 8,000 or so species of beetles is hard work.)

Armed with “Introduction to California Beetles,” you’ll be able to expound endlessly on the habits of the zany but purposeful Whirligig Beetle (Gyrinidae) and thrill to the defensive strategy of the Head-Standing Stink Beetle (Eleodes).

The latter arthropod defends itself by standing on its head and discharging noxious chemical compounds from its behind to drive away potential enemies.

(Beetles aren’t the only creatures who use this defensive strategy. I once knew a biker down in Barstow nicknamed “Thud” who utilized a very similar technique to protect himself. He could clear a barroom in less than three minutes whenever he was feeling particularly threatened.)

Even more remarkable is the Bombardier Beetle. According to Evans and Hogue, these beetles are living chemical warfare factories.

“Bombardier Beetles store the components of their arsenal in separate chambers. When attacked, the hydroquinoners, hydrogen peroxide, peroxidases and catalases are injected into a third chamber. The resultant synergistic reaction explodes out of the body with an audible pop, producing a small yet potent cloud of acrid spray that is literally at the boiling point,” write Evans and Hogue.

(Kind of makes the old California mountain lion seem sort of benign, doesn’t it?).

And Bombardier Beetles are only a small part of this remarkable volume. You’ll also get to know everything you ever wanted to know about the Confused Flour Beetle, the Red-Legged Ham Beetle and the Enigmatic Scarab Beetle.

Ever wondered exactly what differentiates the Pleasing Fungus Beetle from the Handsome Fungus Beetle? Wonder no more, amigos, all the answers are waiting for you in “Introduction to California Beetles.”

Originally published May 16, 2004

The ants appear to be winning…

Somewhere, somehow, I must have offended the ant gods – you know, the vengeful insect deities rumored to hold court behind a shimmering gold Dumpster just south of Barstow?

Perhaps I should explain…

Trouble started last week when I climbed into my car, sleepily flicked on the defroster and promptly got a face full of ants.

Hey, I’ve battled ants in the kitchen and ants in the bathroom and ants on the dining room floor, but never have I had to do battle with ants in my car.

Overcoming my initial shock, I quickly inspected the rest of my auto and found that the entire passenger compartment was infested with industrious hordes of the tiny black insects, marching purposefully back and forth across the dashboard, down the center console and along the doors.I eventually removed some of the tiny troublemakers from my steering wheel and drove to work, hoping that my better-informed colleagues might offer a solution to the problem.


Never expect useful advice at work.

One genius recommended blasting the entire interior of the car with a high pressure hose. Yes, this might get rid of the ants but I suspect it would also play hell with the car’s electronics.

“Just spray ’em with a big ol’ shot o’ Raid,” another colleague suggested.

Oh, yeah. That’s a good idea. Then the next time I hit the defroster I get a face full of dead ants and enough insecticide to kill a trophy lobster.

One can, of course, try to eliminate the problem by vigorously smacking the six-legged pests, but that extermination technique presents its own set of unique challenges.

Think about it – you’re cruising down the interstate when you observe a high-kicking chorus line of ants dancing across your dashboard, just daring you to take a swipe at them. This is, of course, impossible to resist, so you begin enthusiastically smacking them.

Bad move, amigo.

You’re now straddling two lanes of the interstate and going for three, drifting dangerously close to the road shoulder at somewhere between 45 and 75 mph as you escalate hostilities against your diminutive antagonists.

California Highway Patrol officers simply love watching bizarre maneuvers like this because it gives them lots of, er, options to weigh…

“Hmmmmm. Lookit that. Hmmmmm – pull him over or just shoot him?

“If you somehow survive driving with 12,000 or so of these rowdy little passengers on board, you’ll soon find out that ants will enthusiastically infest a lot more than your automobile.

They’ll climb into your coat, slip into your shirt and penetrate your pants before you’ve driven around the block, effectively annihilating whatever’s left of your rapidly deteriorating driving skills.

I hate to admit it, but in my case it appears that the ants are rapidly gaining the upper hand.

If you’re driving down Interstate 80 any time soon and see a dusty Mustang on the shoulder with a bleached skeleton slumped over the steering wheel, you’ll know the ants won…

Originally published December 28, 2003

Dumpster phones: Threat or menace?

A day seldom goes by that some curious soul doesn’t buttonhole me and ask “Hey, how’s your old buddy Sapper? I love that guy, man – what’s he up to?”

I usually have some kind of answer, since my old ’60s sidekick calls regularly from the pay phone outside the bait shop in Coos Bay to tell me exactly what he’s been up to – endlessly and in great detail.

Forever lost in the Age of Aquarius after ingesting some unidentified herbs near Bolinas in 1968, Sapper usually gets chatty about 3 a.m. and begins calling acquaintances from Barstow to Boston to let everybody know how his pet scorpion got stuck in the waffle maker. Or why George W. Bush’s middle initial proves he’s a renegade Belgian pole vaulter on the run from Interpol.

Unfortunately, Sapper entered 21st-century communications three weeks ago when he abandoned the bourbon-marinated pay phone outside the bait shop for a state-of-the-art cell phone he found in a nearby Dumpster.

Dumpster phones – don’t ya just love ’em?

Now the phone rings at 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m treated to 30 seconds of free-range Oregon static followed by “How-dee, bo! Whad-ya ‘ink o’ my nuuuuh shell phode? Pret-ty snarp, hah?”

Then there are some bird calls and stuff.

Try as I might, I can’t convince Sapper that a cell phone found in a Dumpster beside a bait shop might not be the most effective form of Oregon-to-California communication.

(Not that he can actually hear me when I try to convince him of this.)

Sapper, you see, is an incorrigible optimist. His glass is never half-empty, it’s always half-full. The Dumpster phone, he’s told me, has got to be the find of the century. He’s never seen one like it, so it’s got to be unique – probably an ultra-high-tech cell phone developed by a secret government agency and then abandoned when relentless Albanian spies began to close in on the old bait shop.

“Why else would it be there?” he asked quite reasonably over the sound of someone strangling a weasel.

So what’s Sapper been up to?

Well, judging by his last communication, it has something to do with eating nautical hardware en route to a place called Sam Damenagego…

“Wake up, ya knucklehead, I’m on my way over Fushtopfffff to Wizzzjester Bay to get a bloke I fussed up. Ate the hatch covers and muzzled the scuppers. Got a non sequitur, too. We’re ready to sail, buddha boy!”

(Buddha boy?)

Sapper, it seemed, was on his way to board a sailing craft to go somewhere. Or not.

“I’m shrewing down as far as San Damenagego an’ I’ll pro bono back round the Quart of October. If we stop in Sank Frankisko, I’ll call you an’ we’ll get a clutter.”


“Hakkadah-hakkadah, OK?”

Sure, why not?

This whole scenario might fit nicely into one of those vaguely amusing Sprint PCS phone commercials, but somehow I kind of doubt that Sprint has a lot of competition from the Oregon Dumpster phone industry.

As far as finding out exactly what Sapper’s been up to, I guess we’ll all have to wait until the Quart of October…

Originally published September 22, 2002

The whole truth about Seattle Seahawks fans

It seems like only yesterday when my somewhat bewildered son turned to me after a particularly disastrous Seattle Seahawks’ football game and asked “Uh, Dad, could you tell me again why we’re Seahawks fans?”

Doling out a paternal slap upside the head with a hearty chuckle, I gave the trusting lad all the usual explanations for Seahawks fandom.

“Remember, son, no other team in the National Football League plays quite like the Seahawks. How many other quarterbacks do you know who routinely spike the football into the center’s helmet, or hand off that old pigskin to the opposing team’s head cheerleader? No, son, you’re never going to get bored watching the Seahawks as they, er, dominate the field,” I explained.

Respected football commentator and former coach John Madden, I pointed out, once described the Seahawks as the greatest mystery in American football.

“Hey, everybody loves a good mystery…” I enthused.

My son, however, is considerably older now (if anybody who’s 25 years of age can be ‘considerably older’ than anything), and I fear that sooner or later I’m going to have to tell him the truth about being a Seattle Seahawks fan. After all, I was the one who convinced him that the soaring Seahawks were going to win the 1988 Super Bowl.

Sad as it seems, I’m going to have to tell him that he’ll never have an opportunity to be anything but a Seahawks fan.

You see, those of us who follow the Seahawks aren’t exactly like other football fans. We’re universally perceived as somewhat deranged harbingers of bad luck. The term “nut squad” is bandied about when more than two of us show up anywhere at the same time. So is “Call 911…”

Our reputation has become so grotesque that no other team in the NFL will accept us as fans. Each of us is like a landlocked Flying Dutchman, blown from stadium to stadium with no hope of ever finding a safe harbor.

(See what I mean? This is not going to be easy to explain.)

According to secret documents I’ve obtained from a mole deep within the NFL, there are exactly six Seattle Seahawks fans residing within the state of California. That includes me, my son, three guys here at the newspaper and a chemically-challenged bicycle thief in Barstow.

Our identities have been noted throughout the league and any attempted defection to another team is invariably met with strong opposition.

For example, if I decided to become a Baltimore Ravens fan, I would probably receive a stiff form letter from a Maryland law firm explaining in no uncertain terms that there are no current fan vacancies within the Ravens’ organization.

On the other hand, trying to become an Oakland Raiders fan could easily land me in San Pablo Bay with an engine block tied around my neck.

I suppose I could advise my son to change his name, dye his hair, obtain a Belgian passport and follow the Canadian Football league for a few years before trying to insinuate himself into the ranks of Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns fans.

Failing that, I suppose there’s always…

“Hey, Son, c’mon – they got a monster truck rally down to the fairgrounds!”

Originally published September 17, 2000