Calls reporters shouldn’t answer

Inhabitants of today’s high-tech, 21st-century offices should remember that, even though they may have e-mail, faxes and a dozen telephones each, they may still not be able to communicate.

We learned that lesson here in our dimly lit newsroom a short time ago when several of us attempted to answer the telephone and several others of us tried to transfer the call that the others had tried to pick up.

Things began to go weird when our office manager selfishly decided to take 10 minutes off one afternoon and left us to fend for ourselves.

Since we frequently receive friendly reminders about how and when to answer our newsroom telephones in an efficient and amicable manner, most of us thought we’d be up to the task when the absent manager’s phone began to ring insistently one otherwise unremarkable afternoon.

Hey, most of us are college graduates and the newspaper business has taught us to think on our feet under all sorts of conditions, so how difficult could it be for one of us to answer a simple phone call?

Answer: Very, very difficult …

Trouble started – as it so frequently does here – when the city editor picked up the incoming call.

To her credit, she completed the task and was helpfully trying to transfer the call to the newsroom manager’s voice mail, but because the phone rings three or four times even when one transfers a call to voice mail, others of us decided it would be a good idea to pick up what we thought was a new incoming call.

Of course, the first of our team of geniuses to pick up the call politely apologized to the caller and promised to transfer her to the manager’s voice mail post haste.

Except, er, that caused the phone to ring again and another staffer efficiently picked up the call.

Eventually, the city editor got her hands on the call again, transferred it to the appropriate voice mail and daintily bellowed “DON’T ANSWER THAT!”

At least one of us, however, heard only “… ANSWER THAT!” and promptly did so.

By then, the oft-transferred caller was trying to hold back hysterical laughter but managed once again to ask for the newsroom manager’s voice mail.

An elderly, mustachioed staffer (who shall remain very nameless), then took charge of the situation and promptly transferred the caller for the fifth time.

As luck would have it, the newspaper’s education reporter had just become aware of the telephonic chaos swirling around her and decided to put a stop to it by answering the phone.

At that point, the entire staff was bellowing “DON’T ANSWER THAT!” while the education writer stared at her red-faced colleagues in abject bewilderment.

“You guys are mean!” she eventually declared. “And crazy!”

I’m fairly sure our long-suffering caller finally got the newsroom manager’s voice mail, but now we seem to have yet another communication problem looming ominously on the horizon, because I don’t think the education reporter has answered her phone for a week …

Originally published May 20, 2007

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

Sea lions are fed up

Christmas Eve has arrived. Sugar plums are dancing through your heads, tiny tots’ eyes are all aglow and I’m not feeling too good myself.

Yes, the holiday season is well under way. It’s a time when one’s fancy turns gently to thoughts of bloodthirsty pinnipeds with bad attitudes and worse breath.

I wouldn’t kid you on this, amigos.

In recent weeks we’ve been bombarded by near hysterical news reports of ill-tempered sea lions going on the attack, biting swimmers and chasing off wide-eyed tourists.

Suddenly, the San Francisco Bay’s flippered, honking clowns of the sea have turned into the Sea Lions of the Apocalypse.

They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Last month, The Associated Press reported, one particularly irate sea lion was credited with biting no fewer than 14 swimmers and is reputed to have run another 10 out of the water at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park.

Last year, the news service reported, a gang of the big, unexpectedly short-tempered mammals claimed a Newport Beach marina and proceeded to sink a 50-foot yacht.

And for some reason, people are surprised by these antisocial antics.

(Repeat after me: “Gol…”).

Some experts believe that the grumpy behavior may be the result of sea lions ingesting fish who have eaten hallucinogenic algae. Others say an ocean food shortage may be to blame.

Sorry. If anything’s to blame, it’s intrusive human beings who insist on getting closer and closer to the sea lions because the half-ton animals remind them of a Disney cartoon they saw when they were children (or adults). We’re talking a big cuddliness perception here.

Let’s face it, sea lions in San Francisco Bay are simply fed up with 290-pound tourists from Iowa pelting them with soggy pretzels and half-eaten Polish dogs.

(“Here, Sammy, here! Sit up and clap your flippers – I got a treat for you!”).

And just about the time our increasingly annoyed sea lion manages to shake the rancid mustard out of his whiskers, some grinning lunatics decide they want to swim with him.

Wheeee!

Swimming with the sea lions. That’s really special.

Have you ever seen the water around Fisherman’s Wharf? It would be healthier to go swimming in your local water treatment plant with a half-dozen frolicsome pit bulls.

You can bet what that weary sea lion’s thinking as you merrily splash into his living room:

“Awwwwww, no – not another one of those. Who needs ’em? They’re pink, they’re noisy and they keep yelling ‘Save the manatees!’ What’s that all about? Think I’ll bite ’em…”.

To make matters worse, a significant percentage of California’s population seems to think that the sea lion is irresistibly cute.

Yeah, sure.

Many of them weigh in at nearly 1,000 pounds, have teeth that could take a good chunk out of a Lincoln Town Car and they smell like a dead perch.

You want cute? Go swim with the muskrats. Now they’re cute…

Originally published December 24, 2006

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