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

Gentlemen, start your lizards (and don’t forget to put on the Meatloaf)

Small town America is always being urged “Think big!”

Sometimes this works.

Other times, however, this chamber-of-commerce-friendly mantra leaves local residents wondering if thinking really, really big can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Take the Dixon Downs proposal. For a little town like Dixon, building a gigantic, 21st-century horse racing center is thinking about as big as you can without blowing lots of perfectly good synapses.

On the surface, Dixon Downs looks like a win-win proposition, bringing jobs, revenue, entertainment and horses to Dixon.

But, as was previously noted, it’s big. Really big. Bigger than, like, Wal-Mart. And that bigness has many residents of the bucolic wool-growing community worried about increased traffic, pollution, crime and the possibility of attracting terrorists from Citrus Heights.

The community’s become divided, animosities are growing and there are some damned suspicious-looking characters from Citrus Heights hanging around.

Before this goes any farther, it’s time for Dixonites to step back, take a deep breath and consider viable but less intensive alternatives.

Fortunately, just such an alternative has been waiting in the wings for nearly a decade, a popular activity that once drew hundreds of enthusiasts from throughout the Bay Area and Sacramento regions to the shores of Lake Berryessa and could once again become a major regional event for the right community.

I can imagine a few of you out there are already grinning in remembrance.

Yes, if Dixon needs a scaled-down event to bring the town back together, it need only look back to a happier time when the Lake Berryessa Lizard Races brought joy to young and old.

For the thousands of lizard-racing aficionados who attended the colorful event at the internationally known Turtle Rock Motel, the competition was unforgettable: Pennants snapping in the wind, hungover bass fishermen snapping at everybody and sleek racing lizards sunning their blue bellies in the summertime sunshine.

Add copious quantities of beer and the sounds of Meatloaf’s Greatest Hits on the stereo and the fun just wouldn’t stop.

The reptilian revels may be gone from Berryessa, but that doesn’t mean Dixon can’t pick up a warm rock or two and bring championship lizard racing to its own little corner of S’lano County.

Think about it. You only need about a twentieth of the space for a lizard track than you do for a horse track. Runoff from lizard waste is negligible. You don’t need to build jockeys’ quarters because you don’t have any jockeys and, to the best of my knowledge, organized crime has never put a finger on lizard racing, not even in Sicily.

Best of all, lizard racing is an everyman’s sport. Purchasing a thoroughbred race horse can set you back tens of thousands of dollars. Getting a thoroughbred racing lizard into your stable is simply a matter of looking under the right rock.

You won’t need a trainer. You won’t need a trailer. You won’t need a ton of hay. You may, however, need a ready supply of fresh flies, ants and grubs.

Lizard racing and Dixon? A winning combination, amigos.

Originally published March 25, 2007

Mighty good eatin’ anytime

In recent years I’ve found that my physician has become increasingly strident in his demands that I consume more green leafy vegetables as part of my daily dietary regimen.

For some reason, he seems to think that my fighting weight of 230 pounds at 5-feet, 10-inches tall is, er, somewhat excessive. Poppycock and, I might add, harrrummmph…

I tried to placate the good doctor by eating an occasional salad or periodically popping a brussels sprout, but I soon discovered that vegetables have become increasingly risky to consume. Unfortunately for me and many of my fuller-figured friends, this whole green, leafy vegetable routine became significantly more difficult to follow during the past year when vegetable after vegetable fell victim to E. coli and salmonella.

True, if you consume foodstuffs contaminated with either of these bacteria, you’re sure to shed pounds. It’s the vomiting, dehydration and death that make them unattractive to most of us wannabe health food fanatics.Thus I was pleased to learn that the federal government recently announced plans to more carefully monitor both commercial fruits and vegetables as well as meat products. Hey, I guess we all know that if the U.S. government gets involved, we’re going to see positive action in a hurry.

Until this health-conscious federal task force actually gets under way, however, a lot of us are going to be feeling a little uneasy about what we place on our dinner plates.

What to do? What to do?

I was thinking about adopting a strict diet of extremely well boiled rice and soda crackers dipped in a diluted Lysol solution when I heard words of hope during a CBS news broadcast when an expert declared that the safest processed meat one could consume was probably smoked canned ham eaten right out of the can immediately after opening.

Now that’s what I call healthy and convenient.

Think about it, amigos. All you need is a can opener and a Buck knife to enjoy the healthy bounty of smoked American pork without a care in the world. Canned ham: Fast, convenient, appetizing and it probably won’t kill you or leave you semi-conscious in some strange restroom.

The next time my well-meaning physician begins to yammer at me about eating healthier, all I’ll have to do is reach into my jacket and produce a gleaming, life-giving can of smoked ham.

Mighty good eatin’ anytime…

And canned ham is so versatile. It can be eaten with the Buck knife alone, or consumed with the assistance of a gourmet gadget called a fork. For a real treat, foodies can turn up the excitement with a splash of Tabasco sauce, or walk on the wild side with a squiggle of bright yellow mustard from one of those handy squeezer bottles.

Light up a can of Sterno, pop a Yanni cassette into your dining room tape deck, drape a Harley-Davidson neckerchief over your shirtfront and you’re ready for a romantic evening at home, content in the knowledge that you probably won’t die from the after-effects of your sumptuous repast.

I know some of you militant vegans may be gnashing your teeth right about now, but as for me, I’ll take my canned ham. You take your chances …

Originally published March 18, 2007

It’s all about recognition in the legal world

Name recognition is a valued commodity for legal practitioners. To be known is to be successful – although it doesn’t hurt to win a case or two occasionally.

Unfortunately for most attorneys, getting one’s name recognized is all too often left to the Yellow Pages or having one’s moniker inscribed on the side of an otherwise unremarkable office building on an otherwise unremarkable boulevard in Anytown, U.S.A.

All this, however, may soon change.

Conniving with a pair of as-yet-unidentified cohorts – also known as accomplices – I think I’ve come up with a reasonably priced solution to the old name recognition problem.

The solution tentatively has been christened Buzz Legal Services, and it soon should be available to any far-sighted attorney with a with a little jingle in his or her jeans and the courage to let us mold his or her reputation through concentrated bursts of carefully orchestrated chatter.

Here’s the game plan:

For a basic annual fee of, say, $750, an attorney who has yet to have his named bandied about the Supreme Court hires Buzz Legal Services to make sure that his name becomes synonymous with truth, justice and a bite like a barnacle-munching barracuda.

Participating attorneys may select three court appearances a year during which our specially trained spectators (crudely referred to as “shills” by the uneducated) will gasp in astonishment when a subscribing attorney enters the courtroom.

For example, when attorney-at-law Michael McWrit strolls confidently into the courtroom, our operatives will turn, gasp and whisper urgently (just loud enough for Oregon to hear):

“Hey, isn’t that Mike McWrit?”

“Whoa! Michael McWrit in person!”

“Mike McWrit …”.

“Mike McWrit …”

“McWrit – didn’t he win the big (unintelligible) case?”

“Yer daaaaamned right.”

“Now we’re gonna see some justice in this county …”

And that’s only the beginning.

For a slight additional fee we’ll be able to have three temporarily unemployed members of the news media trail a subscribing attorney from the courthouse steps to the courtroom, waving notebook and microphones while urgently shouting questions which we guarantee will sound quite compelling but be absolutely unrelated to the lawyer’s actual practice.

“Mr. McWrit! Mr. McWrit! Is it true you’ve decided to file an impediment for transactional immunity? What about the forum rei gestae?”

“Isn’t that a little like nunc pro tuncing the remittitur? The DA says you’re not going to get away with it!”

“Mr. McWrit!”

If the subscribing attorney isn’t used to dealing with the news media, we’ll also provide a handy cue card (three for $10) which he can memorize and use for painless – but compelling – replies, such as:

“Well now, it’s still early days, but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that my client will soon be vindicated and justice will be served. This is still America and the Stars and Stripes are still flying over the courthouse lawn.”

Hey, name recognition doesn’t get any better than that, amigos …

Originally published March 4, 2007

Finding the (im)perfect match for chameleon sports coat

Sometimes I think I’m nothing more than a walking, breathing magnet for weird clothing – not avant-garde, not outrageous, just weird.

My propensity for such apparel was reinforced a few days ago when I found myself in the men’s clothing section of a large department store and was inexorably drawn toward a colorful banner that offered “Sport Coats! 20 Percent Off!”

This appeared to be a great deal not only due to what appeared to be a substantial price reduction, but also because all the aforementioned sport coats appeared to be intact. It seems like every time I purchase an article of clothing that’s advertised at 20 percent off, it means the sleeves or pockets are missing.

These corduroy blazers had not only both sleeves, but were priced under 40 bucks. Even better, they were painstakingly tailored in Vietnam, the recognized fashion capital of, er, Vietnam…

Best of all, they were offered in a conservative charcoal gray color, perfect for lurking about dimly lit courthouse hallways where I ply my journalistic trade.

Alas, it was that conservative gray color that eventually proved to be my undoing, because the coat wasn’t always gray.

When I stepped out from under the department store’s fluorescent lights and into the bright sunlight, the coat appeared to turn black. When I later stepped into incandescent light, the coat turned a distinctive brown. In my car it looked to be a brownish-maroon.

At first, I thought I might be suffering from some rare ocular malady. When I glanced around my office, however, I realized the only thing that was changing color was my coat. My chair remained a goofy aquamarine color, my desk stayed an uninspiring gray and the county reporter’s hair was still dark brown.

“Hey, what color is my coat?” I asked passing co-workers.

“Gray,” said one decisively.

“Brown,” said another, just as decisively.

A third then weighed in with a cheerful “Peat moss – definitely peat moss. But not that stuff like in a peat bog. More like, you know, a coastal mountain range with a lot of rotting oak trees. You know, earthy but dependable …”.

She later summed the whole thing up with “That’s really kind of weird …” and sauntered off to calculate retail sales tax revenues.

Not only is it weird, it’s a potential workday apparel disaster.

Hey, I’m no fashion model – you figured that out, right? – but I do try, every so often, to coordinate my business wear.

So exactly how do I coordinate an earthy peat moss coat with shirt, shoes and trousers when the aforementioned color may change to brown or charcoal gray in the blink of an eye?

Sure, I could simply give up and deliver the reality-challenged sport coat to the Salvation Army, but 40 bucks is 40 bucks and I’d only worn the damned thing twice.

On the other hand, I now run the risk of showing up in court and being greeted by an impeccably dressed attorney or judge who’ll cheerfully observe “Nice outfit – planning on joining the carnival?”

It’s a complicated world, amigos …

Originally published February 25, 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.


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

Vacationing with a rooftop cavalry on the charge

Depending upon one’s personal preferences, vacations offer a broad and ever-changing variety of exciting possibilities – travel, sports, visiting long-lost relatives or, perhaps, studiously avoiding long-lost relatives.

For many of us, an important part of any vacation is enjoying the luxury of tossing one’s bedside alarm clock into a drawer and blissfully sleeping in for an extra hour or two each morning.

At least that’s what I was looking forward to a few weeks ago when I decided to take some time off and get reacquainted with the long, lazy mornings I remember from my last vacation in, er, 1996.

Alas, it was not to be. On the first morning of my vacation, the Mad Cossack Roofing Company arrived on top of my apartment shortly before 7 a.m. and immediately began practicing cavalry charges back and forth across the roof.


I can’t imagine how they got a horse up there, but that’s what it sounded like as the ceiling shook and the hooves, er, hammers, pounded roughly 8 feet above my bed.

Sure, my apartment manager had notified residents weeks before that roofers would be working in our apartment complex – the beginning of the rainy season is always a good time to do roofing – but I’d stored the information away in a small compartment of my brain labeled “Don’t Worry – Be Happy!”

How the hardy troop of Russian cavalry managed to land on my roof at precisely 6:55 a.m. on the very first day of my vacation still remains a mystery to me, but there they were.

Sleeping after their arrival was an impossibility and, I reasoned quite reasonably, the roof had to be repaired someday and that day apparently had come.

“I’ll just have a cup of coffee and get on with my vacation,” I thought. “Maybe I can catch a nap at the bus station…”

Silly me.

No sooner had I sat down with a reheated cup of yesterday’s coffee than the roofing cavalry launched a particularly enthusiastic offensive overhead. Moments later, I noted that there was an inordinately large amount of coffee creamer in my mug.

Strangely enough, I don’t use creamer in my coffee.

“Hmmmmm,” I wondered as yet another dollop of white powder rained down on my dining-room table.

Yes, the exuberant roofers had somehow managed to send a large chunk of debris crashing through the crawl space directly above me and had broken the plasterboard over the dining room.

(Did I already say “Wheeeee”?)

The pounding continued for another day, but after that the Mad Cossack Roofing Company moved its theater of operations to another portion of the apartment complex and only periodic pounding could be heard from my bedroom.

With nearly two weeks of vacation still ahead of me, I trundled off to bed the following night prepared for a leisurely wake-up time well into mid-January.

That’s when the scrub jays flew in to serenade me shortly before dawn. They were ahead of their usual springtime arrival, but they were in fine voice.


Thank God none of them had hammers …

Originally published February 11, 2007