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).

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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).

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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

They have a language all their own …

The English language is a virtual wonderland of specialized words and phrases, with almost every geographical region, socio-political aggregation and professional organization having its very own way of communicating, in written or spoken form, otherwise simple concepts like “cat” or “beer.”

America’s law enforcement community is not exempt from this practice of personalizing the English language to suit its day-to-day needs.

At the newspaper, we’ve become used to police dialect, a very specialized language partially composed of verbiage from the California Penal Code, radio communications and the occasional “Drop the weapon now!”

Law enforcement press releases routinely contain a varying amount of “cop talk” which can usually be translated into simple English by anyone who can, er, speak simple English.

Every now and then, though, a police press release arrives via FAX or e-mail that leaves us shaking our heads in bewilderment.

One such missive arrived a few weeks ago and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it meant.

Trouble started (as it so frequently does around here) as our police reporter wandered aimlessly across the newsroom muttering to herself as she read, over and over again, a press release from a regional law enforcement agency which, to protect the innocent, shall remain nameless.

The press release dealt with one of Interstate 80’s almost daily incidents of senseless road rage, but the verbiage used to describe the incident left our law enforcement reporter at a loss for words.

“Hey, whaddya think this means?” she asked, smacking me one upside the head to get my attention.”

It says ‘One party made a verbal gesture to the other.’ I don’t get it. What’s a ‘verbal gesture’ supposed to be?” she asked.

Not wanting to get swatted again, I opined that it was “probably a gesture you make with your lips as if you’re saying something you’d like to do if you could get your hands on the other party.

“Needless to say, I almost got swatted again.

“OK, genius. Here’s another one – it says the drivers were not only making ‘verbal gestures,’ but that they were involved in ‘an apparent visual altercation.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, the crumpled press release clenched in one fist.

“Ahhhhh, I think that’s where you look at each other while making verbal gestures and don’t like what you see,” I responded gamely.

My answer, apparently, wasn’t good enough, so my colleague began calling law enforcement agencies at random, hoping one of them might have a reasonable translation.

The best response she got was “Hell if I know.”

Well, I thought with a self-satisfied grin, at least people who work here at the newspaper know how to communicate without using a lot of silly buzz words. No cop talk for us, no siree. We tell it like it is.

And then one of the newspaper’s executives bustled by my desk and tossed me an invitation to a writing seminar the paper was hosting. Except it didn’t say “writing seminar” or “news workshop.” No, it said the newspaper was hosting an “Engagement & Proportionality Module.”

Like I said, no silly, er … I mean, we don’t use a lot of, ah…

Oh, maaaaannnnnn…

Originally published April 25, 2004

This was real newspapering

When the Vacaville Museum contacted me a few months ago and asked for my memories of Solano County journalism for their current exhibit “Read All About It,” I noticed a few of my newspaper cronies wincing.

It wasn’t hard to guess what was going through their fevered minds:

“Uh-oh, he’s not going to write about the, er, firetruck, is he? Or the palm tree in Judge Weir’s hot tub?”

I, of course, took the high road while reminiscing for the museum exhibit and wrote of neither of these incidents.

(Besides, I’m not all that sure about whether the statute of limitations has run out…)

The aforementioned occurrences, however, were but two small events in the celebrated history of weirdness that has traditionally permeated S’lano County journalism.

Twenty-five years ago we were all enthusiastic, idealistic and periodically rational young news dogs, ready for anything and always looking for ways to beat the competition.

The Reporter published three days a week from a 19th century Main Street office where the ceiling always leaked, the phones occasionally worked and we were frequently entertained by the antics of passing bats fluttering through the newsroom late at night.

We were a rather fluid group, living in a motley assortment of apartments, rented rooms and the occasional converted garage, most of which cannot be adequately described in the kind of language one finds in a family newspaper.

One of our temporary dwellings, however, stood out from all the rest. Located in south Vacaville, it was an outwardly unremarkable single-family dwelling that soon was dubbed “Animal House” by civilized members of our staff.

The home was occupied by a police reporter, chief photographer, news editor and sports editor, none of whom will be herein named. Suffice it to say that there are many good reasons not to name them, so we won’t.

Ah, but those were grand days. We had beer, chili and a state-of-the art fire and police scanner on the kitchen counter so that at any time of the day or night we could thunder off to cover breaking news.

Of course, there were a few preliminaries to get out of the way before we did so. First, we had to determine who was sober enough to drive. Then we had to figure out whose car would start. And find an unbroken camera. And a road map..

It was a place where anything could happen. I have vague memories of a state correctional officer, in full uniform, riding a motorcycle through the living room on Super Bowl Sunday 1982. I’m still not too clear on the particulars because somebody had had the audacity to roll me up in the living room carpet…

Then there was the dark and stormy night when the sports editor’s treacherous waterbed turned on him, pinning him to the wall until the terrified fellow could be rescued by his roommates.

On another evening, an elaborate salt water aquarium, complete with fish, mysteriously appeared by the sofa. A few days later, it just as mysteriously disappeared.

Nobody knows why.

Chaotic?

You bet.

But as we proclaimed one foggy night while pursuing a runaway beer keg through Elmira, “This, my friends, is journalism.”

Originally published April 4 2004

New homes for rubber rodents

Oh, ye of little faith…

Three months ago when I proposed humanely winnowing down The Reporter’s newsroom herd of leftover rubber rats from past Halloweens, several of my cynical colleagues – and not a few members of the public – opined that my efforts to find adoptive homes for our decorative rodents would be in vain.

“Dude, nobody’s going to want to take home an ol’ beat up rubber rat that some sportswriter’s spilled cheap bourbon on,” declared one decidedly skeptical newsroom denizen. “Face it, we’re stuck with ’em.”

Admittedly, many of our older rubber rodents – gathered during seasonal Halloween rat consumer-testing forays – were clearly the worse for wear. Some were downright, er, ratty…

And at least two of the hardy Halloween icons had been batted about the newsroom with rackets during an impromptu game of ratminton several years ago.

(No, this sport never caught on at the Olympics. A pity…)

rubber_rat

Considering the amount of joy even the most ragged rubber rat can bring into an otherwise dull and lifeless household, though, I decided to press forward in my effort to share the beady-eyed, pointy-tailed surplus with our readers.

I was not disappointed. The sometimes quirky but lovable community of Vacaville came through again and the rubber rats that were overrunning our newsroom in mid-October are now down to a manageable number.

Thanks to several big-hearted Vacans – and one entire kindergarten class – no fewer than nine of our resident rats have new homes and we have room to walk around without stepping on one of the pesky critters which, unlike real, live rats, do not get out of the way when you’re rushing out to cover a drive-by shooting or pick up a pizza.

Among the adoptive Vacans who answered the call were Harry Coburn, Kathy Domenech and Katelin Whipple.

Perhaps the most notable rubber rat adoption, however, was made by Linda Patrick’s kindergarten class at Sierra Vista School.

Shortly after our adoption notice was published, the class wrote to us requesting a classroom rat:

“We are kindergarten kids.

We cannot have live critters.

We want to adopt a rat.

We will love him

And not get the jitters.”

The kindergartners eventually adopted one of our larger, “museum quality” rats and promptly renamed him “Sponge Bob Ratso” because of two strikingly yellow front teeth that reminded them of one of their favorite cartoon characters.

Mrs. Patrick’s 20-member class also presented the newsroom with its own “Sponge Bob Ratso” coloring book featuring a series of striking rodent portraits suitable for, er, inclusion in a rubber rat coloring book…

Gratifying? You bet! After all, how many other daily newspapers in the United States can boast of receiving their very own celebrity rubber rodent coloring book?

Eat your heart out, Los Angeles Times…

Originally published January 25, 2015

Scampering through the newspaper…

A newsroom colleague leaned back in his chair a few days ago, scratched his stomach indulgently and slowly drawled “Scamper. You ever notice how seldom you see that word in the newspaper anymore? Scaaaamperrrr. It’s a positively dee-lightful word, but it’s scarcer than a possum at a Rotary convention these days.”

I rather expected that comment would be an end to the unexpected diatribe, but my officemate was locked on target and he wasn’t about to let the two-syllable word get away without a thorough discussion.

“It’s like one of those words that says it all about everything. It’s got life. It’s got action. It’s got joie de vivre – kind of makes you all tingly like when you were a kid waiting for the Easter bunny to scamper out of the woods, or Big Eddie to scamper out onto the playground and pound you into the dirt,” he rhapsodized.

“Look, there goes the publisher scampering down to his office. See what I mean? Whenever you apply the word scamper to someone, they just start to seem like a big, lovable squirrel. I bet he’s got a whole mess o’ acorns stuffed in his desk drawer gettin’ ready for next winter…”

My buddy’s observations were beginning to verge on the obsessive, but he’s from South Carolina, so there’s not much you can do with him except let him wind down or try to sedate him with a fifth of Jack Daniels.

In retrospect, I have to agree with him about the need for more scamperliness in the newspaper.

It is, after all, a feel-good word that probably should be used with giddy abandon not only in newspaper stories, but in newspaper headlines and even in stuffy editorials.

Think about it. You slither out of bed Monday morning with one eye barely propped open, pour yourself a cup of rancid butter and trip over the dog on your way to the front porch. And you don’t even own a dog…

The day is not off to a good start.

Then you pick up your newspaper and read the first headline that catches your eye (the one that’s open):

“Senate scampers┬áto sink tax plan”

Sure, that soon-to-be-scuttled tax plan might have saved your asparagus farm from ruin and you may detest senators in general, but the mental picture of all those windbags scampering anywhere to do anything is guaranteed to put a big, goofy grin on your face for the rest of the morning.

Even a rather mundane wartime dispatch can be brightened with this all-purpose verb:

“Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein and a familiar public face of the ousted regime, scampered into the custody of U.S. forces Thursday.”

That rascal!

Yes, anytime you can insert the word scamper into a newspaper story about SWAT teams, bulldozers, volcanoes, venture capitalists, federal grand jury indictments or municipal general plans, you’re going to have a much more enjoyable newspaper story.

In coming weeks, we hope to increase the overall use of the word scamper in the newspaper by roughly 38.65 percent. Let us know if you’re feeling more cheerful by, say, July 1.

Later, amigos – gotta scamper!

Originally published May 25, 2003

Tiny packages of beady-eyed chaos

There was a time when I thought that about the worst thing that could happen to the newspaper was a major press breakdown. Then it was a computer crash. Or, perhaps, a regional power failure.

That was before the mice…

Located on the edge of what was once wide open pastureland, the newspaper building has attracted a variety of transient wildlife over the years, everything from lethargic rattlesnakes to bustling bats and the occasional bluejay looking for a handout in our breakroom.

For the most part they’ve been nothing more than passing, and relatively benevolent, curiosities.

That was before the mice…

Trouble started a few years ago when a droopy-eyed copy editor spotted one of the lively rodents hopping across the newsroom shortly before midnight one dreary evening.

Being a happy idiot, he thought the compact package of beady-eyed chaos was cute. Then another genius named the furry nocturnal troublemaker “Ed.”

No big deal, right? Just a mouse.

But where there’s one mouse, there are usually two, and where there are two, there’s a potential population explosion. So then there was Edwina, Ed Jr., Ed II, Edelvardia, Eddie and Edlizabeth – to name a few.

Before long (about three weeks, I think) Ed was a great-great grandfather and his offspring were popping up between desks, inside drawers, behind telephones and in our precious newsroom junk food supply.

And that was the final straw – no more Mr. Nice Guy. You can skip across our keyboards, dance across our desktops and hop from the sports desk to the darkroom, but nibble our Chee-tos and you’ve gone way too far, no matter how cute you and your 456 grandchildren may be.

Unfortunately, by the time we realized we had a mouse problem, they outnumbered us roughly 90-to-1.

Worse, your average mouse views the whole world as his restroom and our snack bowl wasn’t exempt.

Uh-oh…

We tried yelling at Ed and his whiskery cohorts. We tried throwing dictionaries at them. We purchased “humane” traps. We purchased less-than-humane “Squish the Lil’ Feller” traps. We considered shotguns, but the newspaper’s human resources department discourages gunfire in the workplace.

And the mice played on…

At one point a single mouse had three of us stymied. Trying to corner the tiny troublemaker, one woman was lying on her stomach under a desk while two gentlemen crouched over her, voicing encouragement. Then the business editor strolled by, saw the minuscule malefactor and proceeded to go airborne, vaulting over all three of her co-workers with an ear-piercing shriek.

As luck would have it, the newspaper’s owner was passing by at that precise moment. He kept going, repeating a mantra he’d learned long ago: “I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t want to know. I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t…”

So far, we’ve managed to repatriate six of the rascally rodents to the wild, carrying them gently across the road to a nearby field and wishing them good luck.

Apparently our good wishes are being heeded by some benevolent cosmic power, because the mice are usually back in our newsroom snack bowl within 48 hours…

Originally published February 17, 2002