Sticky-Fingered Cat 

Inventor of iconic Garfield toy finds old friends aren't so warm and fuzzy; Health issues? So, have you heard the one about the rogue macaque?

Cat Burglary: Apparently, the plush toy industry is a lot more cutthroat than one might imagine. Just ask Harold Nizamian, the "father of Garfield." In 1980, Nizamian was an executive in charge of product development at the plush toy company Dakin, when the company contracted with comic strip author Jim Davis to manufacture a line of cuddly Garfields with suction cups affixed to their feet. Nizamian flew out to Davis' home with a prototype, and when Davis requested that the eyes bulge out of the cat's head, he sliced a ping-pong ball in half, glued them on, and the rest is history. You couldn't drive down the street without the little buggers staring at you from someone's car window, and Nizamian helped Dakin make millions in profit.

But business is business, and when Nizamian threw his support behind a plan to sell the company to Hallmark, Dakin's major investor forced him out. After a few years as a consultant, he got back in the plush toy business in 1998, operating Timeless Toys out of Hayward. He brought in his longtime friend and business associate Lawrence Teodoro as chief financial officer — and that's when things really went south. A Bank of America official notified Nizamian that one of the company's accounts, which he thought had been closed two years earlier, was overdrawn. Nizamian began checking into the company receipts and concluded that his buddy had quietly squirreled away $1 million over the course of four years.

According to Nizamian, his former friend's troubles started when he married out of his tax bracket. "He was living beyond his means," Nizamian said. "He was married to a wealthy Palo Alto girl, and tried to be something he wasn't, tried to prove he was a wealthy international playboy. He bought Armani suits; he took her to Hawaii three times a year." Nizamian reported the case to the FBI, which charged Teodoro with five counts of wire fraud. "Teodoro used company funds to fund a lavish lifestyle for himself," the US attorney's office declared in a recent press release, "including purchases from high-end jewelers and clothiers, fancy hotels and spas, boutique wine shops, Hawaiian vacations, and escort services." Eventually, Teodoro cut a deal and pleaded guilty to one count of fraud. On June 27, he was sentenced to 34 months in prison and ordered to pay Timeless Toys $1 million in restitution.

Once upon a time, Nizamian was at the top of his game, and even when he was a consultant, he pulled in quite a load of cash. But he gambled it all on another stab at selling teddy bears and cuddly toys, and thanks to his friend of nineteen years, almost went bust in the process. "He was a longtime employee, was in a position of trust, and he systematically embezzled over four and a half years," he says. "And we're still here. It's a miracle." — Chris Thompson

Mirthful Medicine: Chris Tang tried it for the first time last week. Friends Edith Iwata and Taka Brennan have done it together twice now. And Tom Hsu has been a diehard since February. "I feel younger, healthier, and better," Hsu explained, his cheeks still flushed ten minutes after we'd all stopped. "It makes me smile all the time."

He's talking about laughter. And if you've never tittered for 25 minutes straight with a group of strangers, you're missing out. Laughter clubs have popped up all over the world since 1996, when Mumbai doctor Dr. Madan Kataria decided that a daily dose of mirth was a fantastic form of medicine. He christened the movement "laugh yoga."

When Danville realtor Fred Turner read Kataria's book, Laughter for No Reason, he realized he'd found a calling of sorts. For six years he'd been sending postcards six days a week to his 93-year-old grandmother, each containing a single joke culled from the Internet. Yet Turner wasn't laughing much himself. So early this year he founded the East Bay's only laugh club, joining thirteen others in California.

Seven chucklers and one bemused reporter attended a recent meeting at the San Ramon Senior Center. At first, bellowing "ha ha Ha Ha HA HA!" (followed by the biggest belly laugh we could muster) while raising our arms incrementally higher, or while sculpting and hurling an imaginary snowball across the room, felt fake. Awkward. But I remembered Turner's coaching, "Fake it until you make it!" and pushed on. Then I made eye contact with an enthusiastic middle-aged woman in a bright green sari across the room, and my first real guffaw tumbled out unexpectedly. That was the trick: Once you start examining people's faces, and listening for their particular strain of laughter, it's hard to stop giggling.

Or panting, in some cases. "You didn't tell me we'd be working out!" cried Val Compton, a perky sixtysomething woman in a Hawaiian print shirt and cropped pants, after the fourth cachinnation drill. Then, a few minutes later: "Do you know how many calories we're burning?" (Turner didn't.) Finally, "This is the easiest exercise I've ever done!"

While canceling the gym membership seemed premature, my heart was indeed thumping. And research does show that chortling delivers a cardiovascular kick similar to a workout. A good snigger boosts your immune system, lowers blood pressure, and takes your resting heart rate down a notch. In fact, even anticipating a crackup raises a person's endorphin levels, according to a recently published study, and they stay elevated for hours after the outburst.

But for Turner, who sprinkles brief breathing exercises and G-rated jokes throughout the class, group hysteria is just one way to feel more optimistic about life. "The whole freaking messed-up world looks a little better," he says. "The way I see it, none of us is getting out of here alive, so let's have some fun and enjoy each other while we're here." — Lauren Gard


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