Let ’em know how you feel

Expressing displeasure with a commercial dining establishment has never been a simple task, and one’s never really sure if one’s complaint is taken seriously by the management.

When you have a problem with the food or service at the restaurant you’re patronizing, it’s not even easy to determine the best possible time to voice your complaint.

If you gripe about service before your meal arrives, don’t be surprised if it’s accidentally served in your lap – with lots of gravy. If you complain after your meal, who cares? You’ve paid the tab and you’re on your own. The restaurant staff will give you a hearty “Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure…” and guide you to the nearest exit before you upset any other patrons or attract unwanted attention from the health department.

What to do? What to do? What to do?

One of my colleagues recently alerted me to what she referred to as “The Cedar Rapids Solution.”

According to published reports, employees of a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, fast food restaurant were understandably startled one evening when a car pulled up to the drive-through window of the establishment and a dead cat was promptly pitched through the service portal.

Investigators later determined that this was not an Adopt-A-Pet scheme gone awry, but a case of roadkill terrorism.

Somebody was clearly unhappy with their last order of Bungle Burgers and ‘Tater Chunks.

Normally, I wouldn’t think too much of this blatant display of gustatory grumpiness, but you have to remember that this took place in Cedar Rapids, the gourmet capital of, er, Iowa.

Trends are set in places like Cedar Rapids and this might just mark the beginning of a unpleasant diner rebellion. Hell, it might even lead to a bold new restaurant rating system.

For example, your waiter is surly and shakes bread crumbs onto your vest. This could be viewed as a one-dead-cat offense.

If the server manages to spill ground pepper onto your head and then delivers someone else’s trout-on-a-stick to your table, that merits a two-dead-cat response.

If your minestrone has either a small rodent, severed body part or small picture of Dick Cheney floating in it, the restaurant should expect a fusillade of three dead cats.

And if the eatery has the temerity to charge you for the above dining disaster, four dead cats would be recommended.

Not only would this let the offending restaurateur know that you were more than a little dissatisfied with your meal, but it could actually serve to warn other potential patrons of trouble ahead.

Let’s face it, amigos, if you pull up to a strange restaurant and find a pile of aging roadkill out front, you’re going to think twice about strolling inside and ordering the specialty of the house.

The biggest drawback, of course, is spending two or three hours before dinner scouring nearby highways and byways for these pungent restaurant-rating icons.

(Gourmet dining hint: If you’re unable to find a dead cat, experts agree that a deceased ‘possum will usually get the job done …).

Originally published April 27, 2007

Because the people need to know…

Harried newspaper analysts across the nation spend a goodly amount of their time each and every day trying to determine exactly what their readers really want and how to deliver in it such a way that it will smack average subscribers right between the eyes and leave them begging for more.

Do readers want more political news, more sports, more sudoku or, perhaps, more Sideways TV listings?

It’s a tough and frequently debated subject, but I think I’ve got the answer for the nation’s frustrated news executives in two words:

Giant squid.

Hey, that caught your eye, didn’t it?

I came to this somewhat unorthodox conclusion while listlessly thumbing through a recent copy of Newsweek magazine. Sadly, it contained all the same old stuff in a fresh wrapper.

Rudy Giuliani? Ho-hum.

Barbi Bandits busted? Yawn.

Final essays of Susan Sontag? Sigh.

Colossal 990-pound squid captured in Antarctic waters?

Whoa! Don’t turn that page.

If it’s one thing we know about colossal squid stories, it’s that nobody ever passes one up. Gigantic squid are just naturally riveting.

Stories about giant squid have captured readers’ imaginations since the late 18th century, when unconfirmed reports of a giant squid wrapping its massive tentacles around a small whaling vessel burned through the maritime community like black powder floated on flaming bacon grease.

You want readers? Give ’em giant squid.

Nobody passes up an opportunity to read about the zany undersea ramblings of these 10-armed cephalopods. Best of all – unlike Bigfoot and the Swamp Thing – giant squid have credibility. We know they’re out there. We’ve seen ’em.

And these tentacled wonders fit comfortably into virtually any newspaper section you’d care to name.

Sports: “Use Your Fly Rod to Land the Giant Squid!”

Public Safety: “Giant Squid – Threat or Menace?”

Politics: “Is Obama the Next Big Squid?”

Food: “Calamari for 350 Easy as 1, 2, 3!”

Health: “Giant Squid: High Adventure, Low Cholesterol.”

Home Improvement: “Indoor Squidquarium – Colorful and Educational.”

Newspapers could draw in even more readers with “Name Our Giant Squid” contests or by sponsoring a seasonal “Adopt-A-Squid” program at regional schools and aquariums.

Actually, any newspaper promotional campaign that begins with “Hey, Kids!” and ends with “Giant Squid” is bound to be a subscription builder.

On the other hand, any newspaper promotion that begins with “Hey, Kids!” and ends with “Dick Cheney” is simply going to traumatize a lot of children.

Some newspapers may even want to change their mottos to reflect the trend: “All the Squid that’s Fit to Print” or, perhaps, “Well Squid, Well Read.”

No question about it, amigos, when it comes to putting America’s once indispensable newspapers on the comeback trail, it just doesn’t get any better than giant squid …

Originally published April 1, 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

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

Get ready, dudes it’s time to party!

Lazily leafing through the newspaper a few afternoons ago, I ran across an ad for an enterprising entertainment agency that offered, among other things, “party motivators.”

Birthday clowns and Halloween mimes are one thing, but party motivators have to be the elite of the regional entertainment scene. I mean, is this a great job or what?

Party motivators have to be like the super heroes of good times gone bad, prowling the dark streets of sullen suburbs, searching for the party that somehow hasn’t quite gotten off the ground. You know what I mean – there’s plenty of bean dip and beer, but for some reason, otherwise zany celebrants are sitting around listening to polka classics and telling Dick Cheney knock-knock jokes.

That’s when the party motivator steps in.

Just imagine the action – sporting more gadgets than James Bond after a Sharper Image shopping spree, the beaded and bewigged party motivator takes charge. Maybe it’ll only take a few blasts on a marine air horn, or perhaps the activation of a portable karaoke machine, but you know the party motivator will save the day.

Of course, there must be more to being a party motivator than a few noisemakers and two dozen minibottles of Jagermeister.

I’d guess that canny party motivators have to instinctively know what’s needed for every stalled soiree. There’s nothing worse than employing hula hoops when little exploding bottles of confetti are really what one needs to shift the celebration into high gear.

When confronted by the aforementioned polka music and Dick Cheney knock-knock jokes, it’s pretty obvious that the successful party motivator will have to move quickly and decisively before the entire room sinks hopelessly into terminal ennui. And he should be fully aware of local practices and customs when launching his onslaught of fun.

If, for example, the guys trading the Dick Cheney jokes are dues-paying members of al-Qaida, it’s always better to forget the balloon animals and try to handle the celebration with a little more finesse.

(Probably a good idea not to distribute a lot of kazoos, either…)

The best party motivators also know that a team approach sometimes works better than trying to juggle all the mirrored disco balls alone.

Like the wily strategist he is, the skilled party motivator stays in control and carefully dispatches his specially trained minions to where they’ll do the most good.

Boring wedding reception? It can happen to anybody, particularly when the champagne fountain somehow gets clogged with congealed barbecue sauce from discarded Buffalo wings.

What to do? What to do?

The quick-thinking party motivator will refrain from organizing a spirited round of pin-the-tail-on-the-drunk-guy. Ditto for an impromptu accordion concert. No, the inspired party motivator will assemble a trio of fat naked guys and have them streak gleefully through the reception singing “My Sharona.”

Wheeeeee!

Throw in several containers of Silly String and you’ve got enough party motivation to keep that reception rockin’ past dawn…

Originally published March 5, 2006

You want a box for that?

Somebody in China wants to sell me a box – specifically a wooden packing box.

I’m not exactly sure why.

I’m not even sure if I’m the right person for the box.

I mean, I’m pretty sure who I’m supposed to be most of the time, but I’m not sure I’m the guy to whom somebody in China wants to export one wooden packing box.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Trouble started last week when the newspaper’s librarian scuttled out of her shadowy lair and dropped an e-mail message on my desk.

“This doesn’t make any sense – it must be for you,” she muttered darkly before spinning on her heel and returning to her dim, cobweb enshrouded alcove.

Since there was no one else in the newsroom upon whom I could foist the mysterious missive, I nodded confidently, adjusted my bifocals and took command of the situation – for about five seconds.

I suppose the message could have been for me. Then again, it could have been for Ozzy Osbourne or Dick Cheney.

“It’s our utmost pleasure to know on the Web that you are inclined to import packing box. So we are glad to introduce ourselves as a manufacturer of wooden packing box in Guangdong, China. And we would like to build up business relations with you in this line.”

Uh-huh.

“Our product is available for export at present. This product has been widely sold to various markets abroad and we believe that there is also a demand for your end…”

(This is getting a little dicey. I never imagined there was an international demand for my end. Worse, I’m not sure to which end the writer is referring – are we talking about my demise or my, er, posterior? Curiousier and curiousier…)

“We look forward to your early reply. We believe that our business with you will develop as time goes on.”

Well, that’s a fairly reasonable assumption. We could, perhaps, start off with one introductory wooden packing box now and then maybe a couple in the fall for realistic Halloween coffin decorations. Then a half-dozen wooden packing boxes filled with fruitcakes and mistletoe for king-sized Christmas gifts, a tasteful Chinese packing box for my ex-wife’s birthday in January and two for my kids’ birthdays in February.

I can almost hear their joyous cries of childlike delight and wonder: “Wow, Dad, thanks – imported wooden packing boxes from Guangdong! Just what we’ve always wanted. You’re the greatest Dad ever!”

Yes, I had to agree that there were myriad possibilities for Chinese wooden packing boxes. On the other hand, I had to be realistic. You can only deliver so many gaily wrapped wooden packing boxes to weddings and baby showers before people begin to think you’re a few boxes short of a warehouse.

Fortunately, the folks in Guangdong gave me an easy out:

“I sincerely apologize if this message annoyed you, but I’ll be very grateful if you’ll recommend it to your friends!”

OK, friends, here’s where to find out more about some of the most packable packing boxes in China:

http:/www.wroad.nit/wensheng/

Go for it, amigos, and tell ’em I sent you…

Originally published July 15, 2001