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

Jingle mice, jingle mice rodents all the way!

I was planning on penning a holly-jolly Christmas column sometime prior to Christmas this year, but since Christmas is like, today, I thought it best to simply move along to a topic that’s certainly going to affect all of us in the very near future – musical mice.

According to a recent Associated Press report, University of Washington researchers have determined that male lab mice are capable of “complex and interesting sounds” in the presence of female mice. The sounds, they determined, are not simply random high-pitched squeakings, but patterned sounds similar to bird songs.”

If the analysis by the researchers is confirmed, mice can be added to the short list of creatures that sing in the presence of the opposite sex, including songbirds, humpback whales, porpoises, insects and, possibly, bats,” the AP reported.

(The news agency neglected to mention that human males also have been known to burst into spontaneous song in the presence of females, particularly after ingesting large quantities of alcoholic beverages, but I think we can forgive them this small omission…)

No matter how you look at it, musical mice are bound to have a staggering influence on how we perceive music in the days to come.

The late 20th century gave us punk rock, alternative rock and country rock, but the 21st century has the potential to bring us an entirely new musical form – rodent rock.

Let’s face it, pop musicians probably have known about the likelihood of musical mice for years. They haven’t said much about them – rather closed-mouth bunch when they’re not singing, you know? – but the names of some bands give it all away: Modest Mouse, Boomtown Rats, Mouse on Mars…I have it on good authority from a recognized music critic who once had a job that the Rolling Stones had originally planned on calling themselves the Rodent Stones but opted for the current band name after an unfavorable tarot reading from John Lennon.

(Hey, it coulda happened that way…)

The potential is unlimited. Since hardworking researchers successfully isolated singing mice this year, it’s only a matter of time until they unlock the musical code of rats, beavers, gophers, possums and porcupines.

No doubt about it, amigos, the aforementioned porcupines are sure to lead the new wave of punk rockers for this century.

And finally Alvin and the Chipmunks will be more than just another bunch of goofy cartoon characters. Once we develop the technology to listen in on the vocalizing of real, live chipmunks, Alvin and company will be headed for the unemployment line.

The only possible drawback to this remarkable musical discovery is that it’s going to be considerably more difficult to exterminate pesky rodents when they invade our cupboards and pilfer our pantries.

After all, who could bear to smack a little bitty mouse upside the head with a ball-peen hammer once the tiny fellow spins around and begins crooning “Moon River”?

Originally published December 25, 2005



Hurry! It’s only five days after Christmas…

We live in a decidedly busy world and, I’m sure, many of us found ourselves working on Christmas Day this year.

Admittedly, this is not an ideal situation for dedicated holiday celebrants who would prefer to observe the holiday amid the comforts of home, cheerfully roasting sugar plums over a crackling martini.

There are, however, some advantages to this arrangement – for example, it gives you lots more time to shop for beyond-last-minute Christmas gifts for friends and relatives who won’t ever know the difference.

(Hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?)

After all, there are no crowds and no frenzy right now – just you, your credit card and a whole bunch of really burned out shopkeepers who’ll probably be glad to simply give you their merchandise rather than hassle with even one more receipt.

No need to worry about damaging merchandise during your somewhat late shopping spree, either. Most everything that’s still left on the shelves will already be broken.

Best of all, there won’t be any desperately pushy sales people to annoy you as you root through the stacks of cracked coffee carafes, one-armed Barbies and potpourri that smells like damp reindeer.

How well I remember my own post-Christmas shopping sprees of yesteryear, seeking just the right gifts for my ex-wife and slavishly grateful kids in the far away mountain community of Paradise.

How could I ever forget the year that my little girl told me that fish sticks were delectable? Such big words for a little girl, I thought proudly.

So, when Dec. 29 rolled around, I made sure to include a jumbo, 24-pack of fish sticks among her Christmas gifts.

Boy, was she surprised – I could tell by her shriek of abject horror as she opened the gaily wrapped, insulated package of tiny, compacted fish logs.

Apparently, I’d misheard her earlier description of fish sticks. She’d said they were “detestable,” not “delectable.”

Like I said, such big words for a little girl…

Fortunately, I’d also brought her a swell glow-in-the-dark Slinky toy, a like-new three-legged horse and some aftershave lotion.

Subsequent post-Christmas gifts were equally enchanting. Lawn darts, for instance.

“But Daaaaaad,” my plucky kids pointed out, “we don’t have a lawn…”

“No problem,” I explained. “You can play with lawn darts anywhere – just set up a target range and loft one of those puppies into the air.”

(And, er, blithely smash the neighbor’s hummingbird feeder to smithereens…)

Then there were the Sound Gizmos. Snatched from the post-holiday chaos of a Fairfield department store, these little electronic beauties were capable of reproducing something like 300 eerie sounds not heard in nature (or in Scranton, for that matter).

My ex-wife positively loved ’em.

“I’m going to kill you – very, very soon and very, very slowly,” she’d intone fondly after each charming, 90-decibel blast from my son’s Sound Gizmo resounded through the house.

Hey, it doesn’t get any more holly jolly than that, amigos…

Originally published December 30, 2001

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

I admit it – I’ve been known, on occasion, to poke rude fun at my Vacaville neighbors. When it comes to rolling their cars with alarming regularity, consuming large quantities of alcohol or vehemently protesting such community menaces as apartment dwellers or house cats, it’s hard to beat your average Vacan.

We’ve got our very own style – what some snooty outsiders might describe as goofiness chic.

Once a year, though, I’ve had an opportunity to see the real spirit of the community and it shines like the North Star on a chill December night.

Every winter for the past 12 years the newspaper has sent me and a grumbling photographer to find local homeowners’ best and brightest Christmas decorations for an annual feature story in the newspaper’s Billboard section.

This might sound like great fun but the process is usually more like an exercise in basic winter survival.

No matter how much planning we put into the project, it usually rains – hard. Torrential downpours have plagued us nine out of the 12 years we’ve done the story. Of our three rainless sorties, one was blanketed in thick, blinding fog. Another night hit us with winds that were gusting to 40 mph and blowing Christmas decorations past us faster than we could photograph them.

Have you ever seen whitecaps on Alamo Drive? We have…

But it was also during these cold, windy and decidedly damp assignments that we found out just how warmly hospitable Vacaville residents can be.

It’s important to note that we don’t usually have an opportunity to call ahead and make appointments with likely homeowners. We drive around in the rain and, when we observe a festively lit home shining through the December gloom, we pull over and ring the doorbell. We frequently arrive about the time the family is sitting down to dinner after a long workday.

Residents look out into the fog and rain and see a big, soggy stranger standing on their doorstep and another guy lurking in the shadows.

Yet no matter how bad the weather, no matter how disreputable we may look, the people we encounter invariably invite us in out of the rain, inquire about our sanity and try to help us dry off.

They’ve graciously allowed us to track mud and leaves across pristine white carpeting, brought out towels to dry our heads, offered us everything from tea to bourbon and seated us before their fireplaces while introducing us to their children, grandchildren, dogs, cats, favorite Christmas ornaments and, in one case, a frisky pet rat.

They’ve spoken with simple eloquence about old friends, Christmas past and the only correct way to make Irish coffee (heavy on the Irish, light on the coffee).

One family wouldn’t let us leave until they’d packed up two dozen piping hot lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) for us to take along on our travels. We feasted for the rest of that long, cold night and warmly recalled their largess for years afterward.

Yes, I may sometimes comment on local follies and foibles, but I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t also point out that Vacaville residents are among the most generous and hospitable souls you’re ever likely to encounter anywhere.

Originally published December 23, 2001