News media ruins America again…

During the past two years, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan’s motives have been challenged, her intelligence has been questioned and her daily existence has come under increasingly close scrutiny. The former Vacaville woman has been called everything from a saint to a seditionist.

More recently, critics have charged that Sheehan is nothing more than a senseless pawn being used by the news media.

(You know, the liberal, left-wing media that wants to overthrow the federal government and turn the nation into a socialist anarchy where we’ll have abortion clinics in every convenience market? Yeah, that news media…)

Man, how did they ever figure it out? I thought we had the Cindy Sheehan Project pretty well covered up. Now I guess it’s all over.

How well I remember those halcyon days when we, the media elite, would get up bright and early each morning to plan what we’d have Cindy Sheehan do on any given day.

“Let’s, like, have her camp out down near the president’s ranch and raise a lot of hell and stuff and embarrass George Bush and disrupt traffic. How about that?” a Southern California wire service chief would suggest.

“And after that, she can stage a one-woman march on Columbus, Ohio. That’s never been done before,” a newspaper editor from North Dakota would chime in.”

Hey, what about one of those protests like they have in Marin, where everybody gets naked and then stretches out to spell ‘Peace’ or ‘Mellow’ or something? Those are always good for plenty of ink,” a bright-eyed paperboy from St. Louis would propose.

Sad as it seems, though, those meetings never happened. As powerful and misguided as it is, the news media has never been able to manipulate Cindy Sheehan.

Think about it, if the White House can’t influence Cindy Sheehan, what chance does the news media have? Cindy Sheehan is a rugged individualist who does what Cindy Sheehan wants to do and stands firmly behind her beliefs, no matter how unpopular they may be with some segments of society.

Persistent rumors that Cindy Sheehan was somehow being used by one or more nebulous socio-political groups used to puzzle me, but I think I know why they crop up from time to time.

We live in a nation where an individual taking a stand, putting everything on the line, is somewhat of an oddity. Most of us are content to sit back, perhaps slap a yellow ribbon magnet on our cars or pin a discreet peace sign on our lapels and be done with it.

Vote? Hey, we’ve got better things to do.

The least motivated young Mormon missionary shows more personal commitment than the great majority of us.

So when a lone woman steps up to take on the powers that be, we desperately look for some reason other than the fact that she might simply have the courage of her convictions.

As for the news media using Cindy Sheehan, we don’t have an ice cube’s chance in hell…

Originally published March 26, 2006

Try flipping bacon with a putty knife

As the years fly by and we stagger randomly down the broken sidewalk of life, we become accustomed to losing things along the way – misplaced keys and pocket knives, socks devoured by the clothes dryer and receipts necessary for the return of defective appliances purchased during moments of retail irresponsibility.

These missing items eventually turn up – or don’t – and their loss is gradually forgotten.

Some essential lifestyle items, however, are not so easily dismissed when they unexpectedly disappear.

The kitchen spatula, for instance. One of the most mundane items to be found in any home, a missing spatula leaves a huge gap in one’s culinary repertoire and frequently prompts shouts of anguish and dismay when it disappears.

I know. I’ve been shouting and anguishing for several days now.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Last Sunday I was industriously frying some bacon when I reached for my trusty spatula – and kept reaching. My longtime kitchen helper was nowhere to be found and I had to do some major maneuvering with a nearby putty knife to turn my bacon before it was transformed into sizzling strips of crunchy carbon.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a very big deal, but when was the last time you actually lost a large stainless steel spatula right in the middle of preparing breakfast?

Probably never.

And I don’t even know where to begin to look for a stray spatula.

After all, I never work on my car with the utensil, never take it to work to scrape overly enthusiastic co-workers off the ceiling, don’t use it to scrub my back in the shower or swat toads down by the creek. My spatula never leaves the kitchen. At least not until now.

I received no sympathy from my Philistine colleagues here at the newspaper.

“Pull yourself together, man,” advised one co-worker. “Go down to Big Lots and buy another one. Hell, get a half-dozen and stash one in every room. You’ll never be without one!”

Sounds like good advice, but we’re not talking about just any spatula here, amigos. No, indeed.

The spatula in question is a 14-inch, heavy-gauge stainless steel workhorse made, I might add, not in China or Sri Lanka, but in Norway, a country famed for its hand-crafted spatulas.

Besides, it’s got sentimental value. My kitchen spatula was purchased one bright spring day 15 years ago as I squired the newspaper’s feature editor and her three comely daughters through a gourmet kitchen shop off Sonoma Square.

That spatula is, alas, the only memory I have of those captivating young women. They haven’t spoken to me ever since I promised to take the youngest of the three to the county fair pig races and then, er, stood her up.

Where do missing spatulas go, anyway? I already checked all the cupboards, the dishwasher, the broiler and the refrigerator – no spatula.

On the plus side, however, I did recover three mismatched blue socks…

Originally published March 12, 2006

So, howsabout we turn the tables?

Restaurant servers are, in general, sadly under-appreciated for the difficult tasks they perform every day.

Although most waiters and waitresses treat their customers better than those customers would be treated in their own homes, servers are frequently stiffed on tips, chastised over chefs’ blunders, hassled over menu misprints and groped by pickled patrons.

It’s a sorry state of affairs, but not hopeless.

I think there’s a way we can take a positive step toward turning the tables on ungrateful restaurant patrons while, at the same time, making this nation a more polite and considerate place in which to consume lobster tails and Buffalo wings.

Here’s how it works:

Once a year, America will celebrate Servers’ Surprise Day, a 24-hour period during which diners will be judged on their attitudes and served accordingly.

Customers who are polite and respectful will promptly and cheerfully be presented with their orders, no matter how complex, on Servers’ Surprise Day. Even people who request rare liver with a side of pickled okra will be entitled to receive their orders in a expeditious and friendly manner if they remember to treat their servers at least as well as they would expect to be treated themselves.

This is a simple concept, yes?

On this special day, however, those diners who are demanding, rude, pig-headed, drunker-than-a-Cossack-at-a-Palm-Beach-wedding or generally unpleasant, will be treated accordingly by their normally attentive waitpersons – hence the “Servers’ Surprise.”

For example, let’s just say you show up at your favorite restaurant after eight martinis, demand in a loud, imperious voice to see an menu, tell your waitress you want the broiled sea bass “chop-chop” and then treat her to a resounding slap on her left buttock.

Because this is “Servers’ Surprise Day,” you receive – three to four hours later – a blackened goldfish served on a crispy bed of shredded cocktail napkins and garnished with chunks of reduced-for-quick-sale cactus.

Depending on your level of obnoxiousness, your waitress (on this special day only) will have the option of serving your seafood surprise on the table or on your shirtfront.

Particularly egregious behavior might even lead to the old yank-the-tablecloth-out-from-under-meal-and-leave-it-in-the-customers’-lap trick.

Surprise!

Of course, Servers’ Surprise Day would have to be backed by state – and possibly federal – law and be well-publicized so discourteous diners have adequate warning to plan their mealtimes and behavior accordingly.

This may, at first, result in some disgruntled diners, but chances are they were disgruntled to start with or they wouldn’t have shown up for dinner in a crummy mood.

Eventually, I’m sure Servers’ Surprise Day will result in both happier servers and happier diners.

And that’s a win-win situation for everyone, amigos…

Originally published on July 17, 2005

The mustache knows all…

Wandering aimlessly through the dimly lit corridors of the old Solano County Hall of Justice not too long ago, I ran into a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen for several months.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed that his once-aggressively black mustache had turned snow white – particularly odd since the fellow is considerably younger than I am.

I managed to mutter some inane pleasantries (I’m adept with those) and staggered back down the hallway, still shaken by my friend’s unexpected mustache mutation. Visions of my mortality were catching up to me.

My own mustache, the bristling remnant of a tequila-induced whim in 1970, has gradually been moving from brown to salt-and-pepper to more-salt-than-pepper. The next step, I realized, could only be an elderly shade of white.

No, shaving off the ‘stache or judiciously applying a periodic coat of walnut stain are not options. The mustache stays for better or worse with no additives or coloring.

It took awhile, but I eventually came around to the idea that this mustache metamorphosis might not be all bad.

As my old ’60s sidekick Sapper used to say, “When life gives ya lemons, shaddup!”

Sure, a snowy white mustache is an obvious sign of aging – or a catastrophic collision between one’s upper lip and a bottle of bleach – but it does have its good points.

Once your mustache turns white, people begin to look at you as a kind of elder statesman, a gentleman who’s been around and knows what’s what. Suddenly, you command respect, regardless of whether you deserve it.

Noticing that distinguished white mustache proudly perched on your upper lip, people will invariably turn to you for advice – usually about subjects of which you have absolutely no knowledge.

When you were younger, you might have begged off and admitted your ignorance.

With your snowy mustache riding shotgun, though, you can shoot from the lip about virtually anything and get a hearty nod of approval from others.

Thanks to your mustache, you have become the World’s Foremost Authority.

Quantum physics? No problem.

Microbiology? Piece of cake.

Mesopotamia in the Third Century B.C.?

(“Harrrruuummmph! Old Mesopotamia, eh? Hell, the place was full of Mesopotamians. You couldn’t walk 3 feet without bumping into one of them, and not a one of ’em spoke decent English. Can ya believe it? Lousy poker players, too, I can tell you…”)

And, with that authoritative white mustache, you can liberally quote wise men from history without ever being challenged on the accuracy of your quotation.

It’s easy:

“As Mark Twain used to say, you can take a riverboat downstream, but you can’t turn it into a silk purse.”

Who’s going to argue with you about that?

Best of all, that snowy mustache means nobody will ever dare card you when you demand your senior citizen discount.

And it just doesn’t get better than that, amigos viejos…

Originally published July 10, 2005

Cooking up some chaos …

June has arrived and it’s time we got serious about barbecuing again here in S’lano County, where men are men and women are remarkably adept with the family chainsaw.

Unfortunately, all too many of our once-proud, hands-on, take-no-prisoners charcoal chefs have, over the years, become entirely too sissified for their own good.

Stop by any department store, hardware outlet or home improvement center and you’ll see dozens of sophisticated barbecue grills selling for $400 to $600 – and plenty of fancy-pants wannabe grillmasters buying them up.

These high-tech barbecue centers have electronic ignition, pneumatic tires, multiple burners and options like sinks and double-walled stainless steel hoods.

Hell, you might as well barbecue in your Lexus.

Where’s the challenge? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the fire department?

Sad as it seems, today’s faux barbecuers seem to have considerably more money and considerably less dedication than our backyard grillers of old (you know, like way back in the ’80s…).

Whatever happened to the time-honored practice of yanking the grill out of your kitchen stove, putting it on a couple of bricks over a pile of moldy charcoal and then dousing the whole thing with a quart or two of flammable liquid?

(Historical hazardous materials note: Charcoal lighter was best, although kerosene was a workable alternative. Transmission fluid was frowned upon because the meal would wind up tasting like a refinery explosion. Gasoline was to be avoided, too, because the chef would wind up looking like a refinery explosion. Really. I wouldn’t kid you on this.)

Yeah, that was barbecuin’ at its finest – and cheapest.

Once the flames had died down to below two feet or so, you could throw just about any reduced-for-quick-sale supermarket meat on the grill and you’d have a feast within minutes. For the gourmet touch, you could periodically spill Budweiser on the grill. This both added flavor to the meat and helped control the flames that were leaping skyward.

Plus, the beer could be used to temporarily ameliorate the pain of second-degree burns…Brings back some great memories, doesn’t it?

You can almost smell the hot links igniting and hear your nitwit brother-in-law Ralph’s boombox playing “Welcome to the Jungle” in harmony with the approaching fire sirens.

It’s not too late to do it again, amigos.

Drag the grill out of your kitchen stove, find some flammable materials and celebrate the America we used to know every summer.

And remember, no la-di-da gourmet marinades. The best barbecue sauce is made by enthusiastically mixing two cups of leftover catsup with a half cup of old Worcestershire sauce, a half cup of cheap red wine, two tablespoons of alleged garlic powder, a tablespoon of coarse ground pepper and two tablespoons of stale sugar.

Mighty good eatin’ anytime…

Murder? Mayhem? Gotcha covered …

When it comes to the best and brightest in deftly crafted supermarket literature, it’s hard to beat “What Rough Beast” by H.R. Knight (2005, Dorchester Publishing, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 374 pages).

what_rough_beast

This latest addition to the decidedly quirky world of supermarket paperbacks has everything one could ever wish for when it comes to fast-moving fiction from the neighborhood grocery store.

Set in Victorian England, “What Rough Beast” is an enticing blend of murder, mayhem, mystery and mythology.

Perhaps best of all, the novel stars the improbable but intriguing crimefighting team of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – creator of Sherlock Holmes – and American escape artist Harry Houdini.

This has got to be one of the best supermarket paperback pairings to come along since the mid-1990s, when another author – his identity now hopelessly lost in the recesses of my somewhat fallible memory – teamed Edgar Allan Poe with Davy Crockett to solve a grisly murder in 19th-century America…

As our tale unfolds, Sir Arthur and his newfound friend, Houdini, are embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with a questionable character named Maximillian Cairo (not to be confused with Joel Cairo, who’s somebody else’s villain).

Cairo is a shady spiritualist and pornographic poet who, Conan Doyle and Houdini believe, is using seances to bilk the grieving and gullible out of their money by contacting spirits of dead loved ones.

When the pair reveal some of Cairo’s shoddy tricks, the troublesome fellow offers to show them the true scope of his occult powers.

This is where things get more than a little dicey for our heroes.Conan Doyle and Houdini impetuously take Cairo up on his offer and, joined by some of their fellow seancegoers, meet the occultist in a dank stone cellar.

Cairo proceeds to draw a protective septagram on the floor, then gets naked and summons a shape-changing horror from the darkness. Sometimes it’s a goat-man, sometimes it’s an alluring young woman and sometimes it looks like a bulging, heaving glob of animated mucous.

Unfortunately, Houdini decides to intervene, breaks the protective septagram, temporarily kills Cairo and sets the bulging, heaving glob loose.

When Cairo is revived from death – he’s a tough little critter – he warns the gathering that Houdini’s bungling may have set free none other than the spirit of the ancient deity Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, inspiration, excess, debauchery and violence.

Worse, Cairo warns, the god may already have taken possession of one of their bodies so he can better attend to debauchery and violence.

Conan Doyle and company are at first skeptical, but soon the evidence begins to pile up in the form of – you guessed it! – inspiration, violence and debauchery.

And the madness is spreading from their small group to all of London, which is being swept by drunken orgies and violent confrontations.

How will Conan Doyle and Houdini save Victorian London from the ravages of Dionysus?You can pick up the answer for just $6.99 in the paperback aisle of your favorite supermarket. You might first, however, want to learn how to draw a protective septagram…

Originally published May 15, 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