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

Our recipe for disaster

I don’t often get overly agitated about the things I read in the newspaper’s food section.

Although I was once the most exacting of food editors – until I was permanently sidelined during an unfortunate incident involving catfish chili – I tend to take a live-and-let-live attitude when it comes to the culinary suggestions offered up in The Reporter’s food pages these days.

And then, two weeks ago, a meal suggestion on the front page of the newspaper’s food section sent me staggering back in abject horror. Some geniuses – who were smart enough to remain nameless – had printed a fine and frolicsome recipe for “Shish kebabs the lazy way.”

Great.

What in the wide world of skewered foodstuffs were they thinking? Shish kebabs are, by their very nature, among the laziest of dishes one can prepare without losing consciousness. You take whatever old vegetables and reduced-for-quick-sale meat you might have at hand, cram them onto a skewer and leave them in close proximity to some heat source until they appear cooked.

This is, like, easy. If you’re barbecuing, you can manage this even after consuming the obligatory seven beers required by the California Barbecue Code. If you get any more laid-back, you’ll burn your face while snoozing on the grill.

So, of course, our food consultants suggest taking one lethargic step backward and simply eliminating those complicated and difficult-to-operate skewers.

“Just toss the fixings loose on the grill!” they recommend.

Yeah, that’s going to work just swell.

Now, instead of simply picking up your convenient skewer of incinerated leftovers, you have to fight with a half-dozen brew-fueled barbecue guests as they try to grab at bits of meat and vegetables rolling merrily back and forth across a red hot grill.

I should point out that this only applies to the meat and vegetables that remain within reach, since the smaller pieces are likely to have slipped through the grill and into the glowing coals.

The latter problem, our newsprint gourmets report, can be solved simply by putting your non-kebabs on a lightly oiled grilling grid or aluminum foil.

Wonderful. Now your “lazy” meal requires you to find or fabricate a grill for your grill before you can begin grilling.

Equally distressing is the fact that our food experts have clearly forgotten the best part of shish kebabing – skewers are fun.

You can use them to pop party balloons or make dramatic gestures while recounting your days in the Seventh Cavalry. Afterwards, your kids will delight in staging sword fights with the amusing, pointed instruments. Let’s face it, used barbecue skewers are one of the few remaining childhood joys of summer since lawn darts and bottle rockets were banned by a bunch of humorless Washington bureaucrats several years ago.

Shish kebabs without skewers? Not on my watch, amigos…

Originally published September 10, 2006

Back in those weird old days

There are all kinds of benefits associated with working in a modern, 21st-century newspaper office equipped with the almost-latest computer and telephone systems, tasteful lighting and an assortment of decorative plants.

Every now and then, though, I have to admit that I miss the regular doses of weirdness that used to wander into The Reporter’s cobwebbed old offices on Main Street in strategically ambiguous downtown Vacaville.

We don’t get a lot of foot traffic out here in the Cotting Lane hinterlands, but weird traffic seemed to be the order of the day when we published from a century-old building on Main Street.

Way back in the good old days (like 1990…) we didn’t worry too much about workplace security and just about anybody could wander into the newspaper office through any one of three or four seldom-locked doors to voice their opinion.

Not that we didn’t want to lock the doors, but it seemed like we lost every usable key to the place every six months or so and we’d have to start over – which could take another three to four months.

I’ll never forget the irate woman wrestler who stormed into our front office one afternoon to protest how we’d written up the arrest of a rural gunman.

Our newspaper story said the man had surrendered to police without resistance.

The muscular reader said she’d witnessed the arrest and we hadn’t gotten it right.

“Police jumped on him LIKE THIS! And they grabbed his neck LIKE THIS! And they banged his head down on the ground LIKE THIS!” she explained as she spun me around, put me in a headlock and slammed my head down on the front counter of the newspaper office.

Like an idiot, I tried to explain that although the police may have restrained the man, their actions didn’t necessarily mean he offered any resistance.

Smart move. I was promptly treated to another demonstration of energetic neck bending and head banging.

Before she could begin round three, I promised to look into the matter and limped back to my desk.

The old newspaper office used to attract a large number of unusual street vendors, too.

I particularly remember one diminutive woman who wandered into the newspaper’s creative services department – I think we called it “paste-up” in those less-sophisticated days – and launched a dozen or so flying wind-up toys into our office air space.

“Fly away! Fly away!” she trilled.”Three dollars! Three dollars!” she added.I should point out there seemed to be some sort of language barrier beyond the phrases “Fly away!” and “Three dollars!”, and repeated suggestions that she vacate the premises were met by uncomprehending grins and more waves of flying toys.

I think we finally got the plucky peddler to leave for just a tad under $75.

Believe me, amigos, it would have been a bargain at twice the price…

Originally published February 5, 2006

Random box of rocks defies explanation

Newspapers are, by their very nature, responsible for explaining day-to-day life in these United States, whether the phenomenon in question has to do with runaway brides in Georgia or runaway governors in California.

(Yes, there is correlation between the two. We just haven’t figured out exactly what it is yet…).

On any given day, newspaper people ask tough questions, crunch numbers (not one of our strong points), and demand explanations from people who’d rather not explain anything without first receiving a grand jury subpoena.

Shady politicos? We eat ’em up. Questionable business practices? We’re all over them. Scandalous celebrity antics? You read it here first – and probably second, third, fourth and fifth, too.

When it comes to solving mysteries in our own back yards, however, we members of the Fourth Estate are sometimes baffled.

Take, for example, the Curious Case of the Box of Rocks.

Events began to unfold two weeks ago when one of our editors woozily returned from a vacation in the Sierra and noticed a medium-sized cardboard box filled with rocks on the sidewalk in front of the newspaper office.”Hmmmmmmm, box of rocks…” he observed.

That was about as far as our initial inquiry went. It had been a long weekend and the editor felt no immediate threat emanating from the stationary box of grayish stones.”

On the sidewalk…” he added before trundling into the newsroom and once again assuming command of his office cubicle.

Although the editor later admitted to some generalized curiosity about the box, his interest faded as morning slipped away.

And the box of rocks, being a box of rocks, simply sat there.

But as the days passed, the questions mounted. As trained observers, we noted the location – and persistence – of the 13-by-11-by-12 cardboard box and its half-dozen quite unremarkable gray rocks.

Answers, however, were remarkably scarce.

“Box of rocks is still out there. Been there about a week,” one observer observed observantly.

“Looks like that box of rocks is still out on the sidewalk. Wonder why…” pointed out another sharp-eyed staff writer.

“Yup,” explained a third.

Seven days went by and the box remained. Some staffers became rather apprehensive about the puzzling package.

“Wonder what that box of rocks is still doing out there. Those rocks aren’t from around here. They’re from somewhere else. I know the rocks around here and those aren’t natural,” another editor remarked with ill-concealed dread.

“They’re quiet – too quiet.”

Hard to believe, but it became clear after a week of speculation that one of the most efficient news gathering organizations in Solano County had been thoroughly stumped by an itinerant box of rocks.

And then, just as mysteriously as it had arrived, our puzzling parcel disappeared. One minute it was there, the next minute – poof! Curiouser and curiouser…

Needless to say, we’ve put our best minds to work on the puzzle and it won’t be long before we have all the answers. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I’ve already identified the mastermind behind the mystery box.

Now, if I can just get Arnold Schwarzenegger to admit it…

Originally published June 12, 2005

Some things never change…

The newspaper business is, by its very nature, a place where change is the norm. Nothing ever stays the same. If it did, we’d all just fade away like yellowed headlines from the Crimean War.

Here at The Reporter, though, one thing keeps happening over and over and over again.

Whenever I’m engaged in something uncharacteristically stupid, of questionable legality or in remarkably bad taste, my corporate conscience appears as if by magic and clears his throat. Which might not seem too unusual, except that my corporate conscience is Italian and isn’t even corporate anymore.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

During the 24 years that I was employed here by the old John Rico Publishing Company I might have, on occasion, committed the occasional office faux pas. Perhaps it was heaving a brimming wastebasket at the sports editor after he’d annoyed me by existing. Or maybe it was the time I was test-driving a remote-controlled rubber rat that took off on its own and wreaked havoc on the peace and quiet of the sleepy newsroom. The firecrackers, I have to admit, also may have been inappropriate for the office – although they were a relatively short-lived amusement…

Strangely enough, whenever I was engaged in one of these singular activities, I could almost always expect that a tall, impeccably dressed chap who was directly responsible for my employment would magically appear behind me and discreetly clear his throat while arching one eyebrow.

Editor-publisher Richard Rico seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly when I was about to do something stupid and would then appear in my immediate vicinity.

“How does he do that?!” I inquired one afternoon after our then-publisher had materialized out of thin air while I was quite innocently helping a female colleague with a stuck zipper.

Co-workers simply shook their heads.

Then one day, my nemesis walked purposefully out the door en route to a new career, possibly as a Navy fighter pilot or some such similar employment.

“You won’t have Richard Rico to kick around anymore!” he declared on his way to the parking lot.

I observed Richard’s departure with a mixture of regret and relief. We’d had a lot of good times together, but no longer would somebody be looking over my shoulder every time I decided to distribute a gross of inflatable lobsters throughout the building.

Or so I thought.

Just last week I was taking a break from my hectic day of newsgathering to examine an electronic Nazi submarine search-and-destroy game on my desktop computer. Let me emphasize that this is a very, very unusual occurrence. It was, like, research. Yeah, that’s it. Research…

I’d just sent another U-boat to a watery grave when someone stepped up behind me and cleared his throat.

I was thoroughly astounded.

“This is not fair. Not. You can’t clear your throat. You don’t even work here anymore and besides I was just researching stuff. Investigative journalism…” I explained like a fourth-grader caught with a spitwad arsenal.

The retired publisher replied by raising one eyebrow and then walked slowly across the newsroom.

Some things never change…

Originally published April 3, 2005

It doesn’t get any weirder than this

One of the newspaper’s former editors was frequently heard to cry “Let the weird come to me!”

Fortunately, this aficionado of the arcane didn’t have to look too far for her daily dose of weirdness. She did, after all, work in a newsroom fully equipped with sportswriters, rubber rats and unidentifiable foodstuffs of dubious provenance.

Of course, not every fancier of freakishness is fortunate enough to work in a newspaper office, but there’s hope for the rest of you with the recent publication of “Weird U.S. – Your Travel Guide to America’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets (2004 Barnes & Noble Publishing, New York, N.Y., $19.95, 349 Pages).

weird.jpg

Written and edited by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman with a host of co-authors and contributors from across the nation, “Weird U.S.” is more than a simple compendium of tired old Bigfoot and Chupacabra sightings.

No, this is a step-by-step, state-by-state, dimension-by-dimension guide to everything weird ever whispered about around a guttering candle or dying campfire from San Diego to Sarasota.

Within this volume’s slightly musty pages you’ll have an opportunity to meet Mercy Brown, the Rhode Island Vampire or, perhaps, strike up an acquaintance with the Goat Man of Prince Georges County.

(What, you didn’t know they had vampires on Rhode Island?)

Most of the creatures you’ll encounter in “Weird U.S.” make your everyday Bigfoot seem rather mundane.

Take, for example, the Bardin Booger Beast.

Described as “something big and hairy,” the malodorous Bardin Booger Beast is rumored to have been wandering on the outskirts of Bardin, Fla., for years.

“Locals claim this bear-sized beast has a pig’s nose, a long, red tongue dangling out of its mouth and a stride longer than humanly possible,” Moran and Sceurman report.

And unlike some small, backward communities, Bardin doesn’t fear its local monstrosity. No, sir. The plucky Floridians have embraced their hometown creature. Residents sport Bardin Booger Beast hats, T-shirts and mugs, while local restaurants feature Booger Burgers on their menus.

Hey, it doesn’t get any weirder than that, amigos.

Or does it?

While Florida seems to have the only confirmed Booger Beast, three states have laid claim to roaming Lizard Men. Sightings of the scaly horror have been reported in New Jersey, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

The Lizard Man in Wisconsin – a historic hotbed of weirdness – is not only green and scaly, but has the ability to sprout wings and leap over motor vehicles.

And “Weird U.S.” isn’t just about Bigfeet and Boogers. It’s also chock full of weird places, from Josie Arlington’s glowing grave (Louisiana) to Devil’s Road and Cult House (Pennsylvania).

Pick up a copy of “Weird U.S.” and you also can get acquainted with the cannibal albinos of Ghost Mountain (Pennsylvania) and learn more than you’ve ever wanted to know about the homicidal maniac who haunts Bunnyman Bridge (Virginia).

Weird?

You betcha …

Originally published January 2, 2005

The workplace needn’t be boring

Got those old 21st-century, corporate-office blues?

Is life in your workplace suddenly dull and meaningless? Do your co-workers seem like two-dimensional cardboard cutouts?

Don’t despair.

Office ennui can strike just about anywhere other than a carnival funhouse and the condition is rarely permanent. Fortunately, there are a variety of efficacious cures which may be undertaken by employees to breathe life back into their offices and cubicles.

(Did I hear somebody say “water balloons?”).

Yes, whether you decide to juggle a half-dozen rubber alligators in the middle of your office or fax everyone in the place copies of the Portuguese national anthem for no apparent reason, you’ll be helping to chase away the dullness that has invaded your work space.

One of my favorite office revival techniques (in my spare time, of course) is to cruise purposely through the building like a restless hammerhead shark, traveling from desk to desk, telling the same barely comprehensible joke again and again to create an atmosphere of benevolent befuddlement among my hapless colleagues.

Here’s how it works: Find a relatively new joke or amusing anecdote, revise it so it sounds like a true story about a fellow employee and then recount it in the presence of the aforementioned fellow employee and at least one other co-worker (the more gullible, the better).

modern_drunkard

I recently used an anecdote from Denver’s popular Modern Drunkard Magazine to get the ball rolling. The story dealt with an obnoxious tavern patron who got so out of control that the bartender politely asked him to leave.

“You wanna get the hell out of here?” asked the barkeep.

The overbeveraged patron didn’t exactly understand what was being asked and responded with a cheerful “Sure! What’s in it?”

To wake up your workplace, simply approach two dull, lifeless colleagues and begin to tell the story as if it had happened to one of them just the weekend before.

Keep doing this until you’ve hit everybody in your office at least twice. Before long, at least a third of your co-workers will believe that this really happened to one or more of their number.

Another third will be trying to figure out the punchline and a final third or so will be forcibly escorting you to the door suggesting you take a couple of “mental health” days.

However this shakes out where you work, your office will no longer be dull and lifeless. There will be bright eyes, witty repartee and, perhaps, just a smidgen of maniacal laughter.

(Note: If some of your colleagues begin arming themselves with scissors, broken bottles and pieces of furniture, you may want to consider a return to rubber alligator juggling or “knock-knock” jokes until you’ve got a more sophisticated audience.)

Enjoy, amigos…

Originally published May 9, 2004