Jacket racket

A recent school day was chilly and rainy, so I urged my 8-year-old to forgo the usual windbreaker in favor of his heavier, hooded (brand-new) jacket. You'd think I'd asked him to go roll in hornets.

"No way," he said, aghast. "It makes me look too bulky."

Excuse me? It's cold. It's wet. It's windy. A jacket -- bulky or no -- seemed the perfect garment for outdoors. But my son was too concerned about current fashion trends to stay warm. With a heavy sigh, I repeated the autumn mantra used by parents coast to coast:

"Fine. Freeze all day. See if I care."

This, naturally, suited him perfectly. We went to school and he trotted out onto the playground in his sleek, non-bulky windbreaker, no doubt the Fashion Plate of the Third Grade. And, I'll bet, as soon as I was out of sight, he peeled off the windbreaker, too.

We parents worry about our kids staying warm and dry. It's cold-and-flu season after all. (Yeah, yeah, I know colds and flu are caused by viruses, not cold weather, but still...) If we insist, the kids grudgingly go along, but only until our backs are turned. Then the jacket gets removed, to be tied around the waist, stuffed in a backpack or discarded altogether. I see other kids out on the playground, cheerfully running around in T-shirts, their noses running, their skin bright red from cold. Their jackets and hats are strewn on the ground, gathering sand, which later will be deposited at home.

If the jackets make it home at all. Once a jacket has been shucked, it likely will go missing-in-action. My two sons have gone through enough outer garments over the years to outfit the Russian army. A boy wears a jacket to school and it's never seen again. I worried for a while that there was a Jacket Bully at school who swiped the warm clothing of smaller kids. But no, the coats are just lost.

Every year, I spend hours ferreting through giant lost-and-found boxes at school, in search of my sons' missing jackets. I'll find dozens of coats, scores of sweaters, literally hundreds of mismatched mittens and gloves. None of them belong to my sons. Where do theirs go? I don't know. Maybe they eat them.

On that same blustery, bulky-coat school day, my 11-year-old went to school in no coat at all. Just a sweatshirt. I asked him about his missing jacket. He had no idea where it had gone. Here was his story, and he obstinately stuck to it through repeated interrogations:

"I hung it in the hall closet, but now it's not there."

An experienced parent can see several fallacies in that statement:

A. This kid has never hung up a coat in his life.

B. If by chance the jacket HAD been hung up, it would still be there.

C. It didn't just get up and walk away, now did it?

Of course, by the time the jacket was reported missing, it was too late to do anything about it. Hunting the jacket would've meant being late for school. He went to school in his sweatshirt, happily hunkered against the cold and wet.

Grumbling, I went home and did a thorough search of the house. No jacket. Another one gone forever.

I'm sure my sons' teachers frown when the boys arrive without proper cold-weather gear. They probably think my wife and I are bad parents, letting our children go outside underdressed. But it's not our fault. We provide coats for the kids, but they either lose them or refuse to wear them because they're not "cool" enough.

Even when we let them pick out their own coats and they get exactly what they want (read: not warm enough, but at least something), the jackets go missing so quickly, they might as well have been some cheap, bulky, unfashionable models selected by idiot parents.

I don't see any solution unless we buy the boys new jackets on the way to school every morning.
Treat coats as if they're disposable.

Maybe, on rainy days, we should go the disposable route completely: Dress the boys in plastic garbage bags. Then I wouldn't feel so bad when they go missing.

And plastic bags wouldn't be bulky.


Happy holidays

I'm traveling for a few days, seeing relatives for Christmas. New entries after I get back home.

Best wishes,


PS: It's not too late to buy some of my books. They make wonderful gifts. ;-)


Egg noggin

All I want for Christmas is my two frontal lobes.

By this point in the holiday season, many of us feel as if we've had substantial portions of our brains removed. We have way too much to do and too little time to do it and our brains are full. Our minds shut down in order to cope and, before you know it, we're dancing the hokey-pokey at an office party while wearing tinsel in our hair.

It's easy to recognize the victims of the Yuletide Lobotomy. We shuffle through malls like zombies, trying in vain to choose the correct gifts, trying to even remember why we're shopping. We send Christmas cards and forget to sign them. We wander about with glassy eyes and slack jaws and evergreen needles stuck in our sweaters.

We've lost our minds and nobody will even help us look for them. They're all too busy going nuts with their own Christmas plans. Over the river and through the woods, to the loony bin we go.
No matter how well-prepared you thought you were, you'll slip into mental overload by the last few days before Christmas. Even if you're one of those who bought all your Christmas gifts in July (the rest of us, by the way, HATE you people), there'll be some last-minute detail that will push you over the edge. And then your brain will quietly implode.

This seasonal brain death results from too much stimulation. Holiday parties and television specials and toys ads and whining children and tangled Christmas tree lights and chirpy sales clerks and department store Santas and Salvation Army bell-ringers have clamored for our attention since Thanksgiving. All these stimuli conspire to send us scurrying about like lab rats, eager to please everyone we know. But we're too distracted by all the twinkling lights and shiny ornaments to find our way out of the Christmas maze.

As an example of these stimuli, take the omnipresent, mind-numbing Muzak. (Their motto: The world is our elevator.) By this time of December, we've all heard so many Christmas carols, we're humming them in our sleep. Everywhere we go, syrupy string orchestras drip "Silent Night" into our ears. The heaviest earmuffs won't protect us from "O, Tannenbaum." Pretty soon, our brains are leaking out our ears.

Even if we try to escape the Christmas fervor and lock ourselves up inside our houses, the holiday pressures find a way down our chimneys. Menus must be planned. Trees decorated. Halls decked. Stockings hung by the chimney with care. The instant we buy our kids' Christmas gifts, they tell us what they REALLY want. The mail brings holiday cards from people we haven't seen in years and we think, "Oh, we didn't send THEM anything," and we dig through piles of gift wrap and sticky bows in search of any card that doesn't say "Happy Birthday" on it. And, whoops, snap, there go another million brain cells.

Look, I don't mean to sound like The Grinch here. The holidays can be fun, and the reason so many of us lose our minds at Christmas is because we're trying so hard to make a wonderful life for our families.

(But speaking of The Grinch, have you noticed the vacant look in the eyes of the residents of Whoville? Tell me they're all there.)

Perhaps the answer to surviving the holiday season is to surrender to it. Recognize that everyone will be as nutty as fruitcakes until sometime after New Year's. Join in the festivities, run up those credit card bills, become a babbling, carol-singing, wreath-hanging, eggnog-swilling fool. Shut down your brain around Halloween and wait for all it all to be over.

And if it's still all too much to face by yourself, ask your loved ones for that surgical gift that keeps on giving.

All together now: "On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me . . . a frontal lo-bot-o-my . . . "


Noel, and no "AAA," either

'Tis the season of gift-giving, a time of joy and peace and so much warmth that you can roast your chestnuts if you're not careful. Only one phrase adequately sums up the holiday spirit for parents everywhere: "Batteries not included."

That's right, ladies and ye merry gentlemen. No matter how well you've planned, somewhere in that pile of gilt-wrapped gifts is a toy that will sit inert on Christmas morning because it doesn't have batteries. Even if you took special pains to avoid battery-powered toys (and, boy, the folks at Eveready hate to hear that), some relative has sent your children a race car or a laser gun or a virtual pet that needs 47 AAA batteries.

If you look in every drawer in your house, under the seats of your car and in your neighbors' homes, you won't come up with enough batteries to make this gizmo go. You'll think about stealing the batteries out of the TV remote, just to get the kid to stop caterwauling over a toy that is essentially a paperweight. (A word of advice: Don't rob from the remote. Some things are sacrosanct. And there's a lot of televised football coming up.)

When our children were younger, we followed the wisdom of the experts who say simpler toys encourage children to use their imaginations. These experts recommend versatile playthings like Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys and Legos. Noisy, battery-operated toys that only do one thing are strictly verboten because children quickly become bored with them.

This is good advice, but there are two problems the so-called experts don't address:

1. Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys don't pick themselves up when the kids are done with them. They pose hazards to bare feet and eventually become dog kibble.

2. Grandparents.

No matter how well-intentioned the parents, grandparents are the wild card. They'll buy anything, the louder and more annoying, the better. Grandparents know they're not the ones who'll be around when the kids crash the remote-control police car with "real live siren howl" into the walls again and again. No, it'll be the parents who are awake in the middle of the night, stealthily removing the batteries to give their frayed nerves a break.

At our house, it all began with a little pink dog. When our older (and, at that time, only) son was two years old, my parents shipped him a fuzzy pink dog that ran on, as I recall, 83 batteries. The dog would walk forward, rear up on its hind legs, open its mouth and go "yap, yap, yap." Then it would start the process all over again. Our son loved this toy more than any of the educational toys we purchased. He ran it day and night -- "yap, yap, yap" -- until I thought my head would explode.

That one took care of itself. My son decided the pink dog needed a bath, so he dumped it in the toilet. We cleaned the dog and dried it and (against our better judgment) put in new batteries. But after its swirling swim, the dog was mute. It still would walk and rear up and its little mouth would open and close. But the only sound was the grinding of its gears. Its yapper was ruined forever.

I secretly offered up prayers of thanks every time I laid eyes on the dog.

After this adventure, we encouraged my parents to avoid such toys. Their reply? A diabolical "heh-heh-heh."

Every year, they send at least one gift that needs many batteries and makes a variety of whizbang noises you can hear all over the house.

The topper was the Christmas they gave both sons police cars that not only ran around, sirens blaring, but would stop occasionally, raise up on a hidden pedestal, sprout wings and whirl in place, screaming all the while. It was as if your friendly neighborhood patrol car had bred with the Batmobile.

Fortunately, the experts are right. After a week or two, the kids lose interest in these toys and go back to their make-believe world, where they provide their own screaming. Or, the batteries die.

Take my advice: You, too, can "forget" to buy new batteries until these gadgets end up dead and silent in the bottom of the toy box.

If that doesn't work, there's always the toilet.


Puffing and panting

Call me Mr. Between-Jeans.

Even those of us who work alone in the privacy of our own homes -- where every day is Casual Friday -- occasionally must go out into the world and buy new clothes.

I ventured to the dreaded mall recently in search of blue jeans. Autumn (the Official Season of Long Pants) had arrived and my only pair of jeans had become so tattered that they could no longer be seen in public.

Of course, they weren't my ONLY pair of jeans. I have a whole closetful. All of us who grew up in the Era of Blue Denim have stockpiles of jeans because we never, ever throw out a pair no matter their state of disrepair or their laughably outdated sizes. But I was down to one pair that fit comfortably.

When one reaches a "certain age," jeans that once molded sleekly to one's body become way too tight in all the wrong places. Squeeze into a pair and within an hour or two, you'll feel like a magician's assistant, being sawn in half. You know you've got a problem when you remove the jeans and you can still tell what brand they were by the stitching and rivet patterns pocked into your skin.

If you're like me, you wear the most comfortable pair over and over until they're as faded as Grandma's housedress. They get that weird fringe at the ankles where you've walked the hems off underfoot. Seams fray and buttons pop and, eventually, you're essentially wearing a long denim loincloth. Not the preferred look for the successful at-home worker.

So it's out into the world to buy new jeans. The selection these days is mind-boggling. Cargos and carpenters and cowboy cuts. "Classic" fits and "relaxed" fits and "loose." Loose sounds pretty enticing, particularly to someone whose favorite garment is a bathrobe, but I try them on only to find that I'm "sagging" in the wrong places. You can only wear the really baggy jeans if your main form of transportation is a skateboard.

I try some "relaxed" jeans and they're okay, seemingly designed for sitting rather than standing, which should suit my lifestyle fine. But the fit isn't quite right.

I don't know what it's like for women, but men's sizes change after one reaches a "certain size." Waist sizes no longer inch along. Once you get past a 34-inch waist (and I think I passed that in college), the sizes jump up in increments of two inches. Naturally, I fall between two sizes. One's buttonable as long as I hold my breath. The next size up feels like they'll fall off. (Probably not much chance of that happening. There's all that "office muscle" below the waist that'll keep them from actually dropping. But they FEEL wrong.)

And they're too long, which seems impossible for a man who's 6-foot-5, who's typically lucky to find anything his size on regular department store racks. But suddenly I don't wear a 36-inch inseam anymore. I wear a 34. Am I shrinking? Did something happen to my legs when I wasn't looking? Are the jeans just riding that much lower these days?

I finally attribute the length problem to the prewashing all jeans undergo these days. In my youth, we always bought jeans a tad long because we knew they'd shrink. Now, they've already shrunk -- supposedly -- and the result is a different size for me. I like that explanation better than the idea that I'm growing shorter with every passing day.

Once I adjust for length, the waist size still feels wrong. So I try the "classic" fits and then different brands and styles, going in and out of the fitting room so often the salespeople start to eye me suspiciously.

Finally, I realize I'm holding the new jeans to too high a standard. I want them to feel just like my ancient, ratty jeans, which have stretched and strained to my body for years. Even with all the pre-washing and size-shifting, jeans still need a "breaking-in" period. So I buy a pair, trusting that they'll eventually feel just right.

But my shopping adventure reminds me that the best uniform for the work-at-home dad remains a bathrobe. One size fits all.


Time fries

If "time flies when you're having fun," then we must all be having a blast.

We're all so busy -- none more so than we parents who work at home -- that there's never enough time to accomplish all we need to do. Work, meetings, housework, yardwork, school events, doctor's appointments and family obligations all compete for our time.

Time becomes our enemy, our rival in the Great Race. We cut corners wherever we can, trying to get the jump on time. We eat fast food. We drive too fast. We sleep too little. We go around sleep-deprived and punch-drunk, hammered by the passage of time.

Doesn't it feel that the days race by, that months rocket past, that the seasons are elbowing each other out of the way? Maybe it's simply a product of aging, but each year seems shorter than the last. Each calendar page seems more crowded with hastily jotted events and reminders.

I blame my children. Before my wife and I had kids, time seemed to yawn before us. We always had time to plan vacations, then time to take vacations. Our social calendar was a source of fun, not one more time pressure. Working overtime never seemed a problem. We had all the time in the world.

But children speed up your life. They demand attention and supervision, and all of that gobbles up the clock. Their sleepovers and homework and after-school activities crowd our calendars. And, as if we needed reminding of how quickly time passes, they insist on growing. You can never forget how fast time is slipping away because the kids keep getting taller and requiring larger clothes, and you must find time to shop for them.

Other ways of measuring time surround us. I usually don't wear a wristwatch -- a mild rebellion against the tyranny of time -- but clocks are everywhere. In the car, on every wall, on the computer. Clocks wake us, hurry us through our days, then tell us that, once again, we're late getting to bed.

Even when I can't see a clock, I can usually determine what time it is. I sneak peeks at other people's wrists. Sometimes, I even ask "What time is it?" People look at me like I'm crazy, like there's no way they'd go around watch-free. They're all slaves to time, the manacles around their wrists.

The same goes for calendars. Even we who work at home, distanced from the go-go business world, almost always know the date. Sometimes, it seems like the calendar pages are flying away, the way they used to show time passing in old movies.

At our house, we have two main calendars. One sits on my desk, and it's where I jot all my writing and errands and public appearances and chores that I must accomplish. The other hangs on the refrigerator and it's supposedly the place where we record all the family events -- bake sales and Scout meetings and birthday parties and haircut appointments. These two calendars rarely agree on anything. Before I commit to, say, lunch out with a friend, I have to consult both calendars to make sure I'm not painting myself into a corner of Rescheduling Hell.
My wife has another calendar on her desk at work. At least once a week, we're on the phone, flipping calendar pages, trying to coordinate who will do what when. It's a sad state of affairs when spouses are forced to schedule meetings with one another.

The ways to measure time keep getting more advanced. Businesspeople went from carrying around overstuffed Day-Timers to carrying around Palm Pilots on which every appointment is electronically etched. Watches beep at us. Those accursed cellular phones read out the time, along with messages about all the meetings you've got scheduled.

I'm not going there. I've got enough reminders that we're hurtling along through time. I told someone recently that my fingers are simply too big to operate those little pocket organizers. If your hands are large enough to palm a basketball, I said, then they're too big to operate a Palm Pilot.

Besides, I don't need them. I can just lean back in my chair and watch my sons grow some more.


Stuff it

If you want your home to have that much-sought-after "lived-in look," then I suggest you get some more stuff.

That's right. Stuff. Junk. Possessions. Run right out and buy some. Position it carefully on shelves or in boxes or behind furniture. Dust it regularly. Take it out once a year and wonder what the heck you were thinking when you bought it. Then put it back. Dust some more.

You want your house to feel like a home? Then you need lots of dusty stuff sitting around. Toys and books and breadmakers and souvenirs and old posters and photo albums and that vinyl record collection you never listen to. Gizmos and gimcracks and geegaws galore.

Stuff, glorious stuff, accumulates as you age. When I was a bachelor, I could fit all my worldly possessions into a small foreign car. The last time my family moved, we filled an entire moving van with our stuff. When the moving guy got a look at the number of heavy boxes of books we'd packed, I thought he'd weep.

Our last house was half the size of this one. We had so much stuff, we'd reached capacity. Every time we bought something, we had to get rid of something else. There simply wasn't room for one more thing. At our new, bigger house, I felt like I could breathe again, like I had some elbow room. Two years later, we're full up.

It's not that we're such acquisitive people. We don't make an effort to buy things we don't need. But needs change. Something that seemed essential at the mall becomes so much unused stuff when you get it home. Catalogs come unbidden in the mail. Kids demand new toys. Friends and relatives give gifts we can never throw out. The stuff piles up.

Frugality results in stuff being kept forever. You might, one day, find a use for that stuff. You might need it, and wouldn't you feel stupid if you had to go out and buy another one? Sure, it's broken, but you might fix it someday. Sure, those jeans don't fit anymore, but if you ever drop that extra 10 pounds (ha, ha!), you'll be glad you hung onto them.

And the stuff mounts up until teetering stacks cover every horizontal surface. You hide it in corners and in closets, but you always know it's there, threatening to topple over and crush innocent bystanders.

Somewhere along the way, your stuff becomes a burden. It moves into a new category -- "clutter" -- and it slowly drives you crazy.

You can give it away. Charities want your stuff. (Well, some of it anyway. You can probably just discard those salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like kittens.) Friends and relatives sometimes want your stuff. If you can persuade them to take your stuff off your hands, they might even give it back once you finally find a use for it. Or, at least, you can go visit it.

You can sell it. This is why every neighborhood has someone throwing a garage sale every weekend. They want to get rid of their stuff and recoup some of its original cost in the process. I wonder about the people who frequent garage sales. They arise early on weekends to be the first to arrive at other's houses and swoop down on all their valuable stuff. I'm sure there are bargains to be had there. But aren't you just moving stuff that somebody no longer wants into your house, where it will eventually become your own unwanted stuff? And then you're forced to have a garage sale to unload it on some other poor suckers. And the cycle continues, stuff moving from house to house, accumulating dust and nicks and scratches until even the most ardent devotee of used stuff recognizes it for the trash it is and throws it out.

Perhaps that is the ultimate solution. If, as a red-blooded American consumer, you feel you simply must buy more stuff, go ahead and purchase it. Then stop by the dump on the way home and throw it out. You'll save all those storage steps. And a lot of dusting.


Doesn't add up

Like many people who write for a living, I'm not much good at mathematics. If I could do math well, if I enjoyed it, then I might've gone into some other career, something that pays better.

This lack of math skills hasn't been much of a problem in my everyday life. I can do the basics, enough to get by. My wife handles all the household paperwork, including paying the bills and balancing the checkbook, which keeps us out of bankruptcy court. For the other times math is necessary, well, that's what calculators are for, right?

As my children get older, though, homework has become your basic math nightmare. The other day, my third-grader asked me to define "addend." I guessed that it was something you added to the end of something else. I guessed wrong. Fortunately, my older son was nearby and set the record straight. They had a good laugh at my expense.

I fooled them for a while, through the basic arithmetic of early elementary school, but now my sixth-grader is doing "pre-algebra," and I recognize that I'm in trouble. Algebra was where they lost me in school. I was doing fine, making numbers fit together, but then the teacher introduced "A plus B equals C," and I was a goner. Letters form words in my brain, not equations and proofs. "A plus B" can add up to a blood type, maybe, but not a numeral.
When I see a page full of numbers, I know they'll add up to one thing -- a headache.

Even the story problems, the ones where two trains leave the station at different times, going different speeds, leave me cold. You'd think I could master a problem that has a narrative (narrative being my line of work), but I'm forced to just sit back and wait for the train wreck.

The boys have figured out this weakness of mine. They regularly try to snooker me when it comes to math. We play a lot of basketball together -- two on one, since I'm bigger than both of them put together -- and their scorekeeping is, at best, creative. Sometimes it seems they get two points for every basket I hit. I'm pretty sure that's not the way it's supposed to work.

Then there's the weekly allowance. We don't dole out the bucks every week, usually because we forget, sometimes because we don't have the correct denominations handy. My sons keep a running total in their heads, and it suffers from enough inflation to make Alan Greenspan spin on his head. Two dollars a week for five weeks adds up to 16 bucks? I don't think so.

My wife encourages math education here at home. She recently offered the boys this plan: If they would be diligent about turning off the lights, the electric bill would go down. For every dollar we saved on the utility bill, she would boost their allowance by a few cents. This led to furious calculations on the boys' part, trying to see how much electricity they'd have to save to rack up the money for new Game Boy cartridges. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was short-lived. They still leave every light in the house ablaze. But they probably learned some new math skills, which puts them ahead of me.

It's only going to get worse. Both sons show an aptitude for math (their mother's genes, I'm guessing), which means they're headed toward advanced classes. Poor old Dad will be left further behind. I've decided I won't even try to catch up. I'm a word-herder, stringing sentences together, and there just isn't room in my brain for all those numbers, too.

The boys already have learned that you can be creative with numbers as well as with words. Math, they've found, can be put to good use, particularly when it comes time to inflate one's wallet or to put the proper spin on a situation.

Perhaps they've got futures as political pollsters.

(Editor's note: Two dollars a week? Those were the days!)


Buzzing outside the box

America loves business, and business loves buzzwords.

These days, with the Internet economy booming right along, new words buzz their way into the language every day. Even people who have no connection with dot-coms find themselves spewing the geekspeak of computers and corporations. Pretty soon, the buzzwords become so common that people apologize for using them.

For instance, every time lately I've heard someone use the term "thinking outside the box," it's been followed quickly by "forgive the expression." People recognize that "thinking outside the box" has become hackneyed. I won't be surprised if they're soon looking for a way to crawl back into that box, wherever it is.

It's what I call the "bunny ears" phenomenon. Remember, a few years back, when everyone would make those little quote marks in the air with their fingers to indicate that they knew what they were saying had become trite? By using finger quote marks, they were showing they were hip to the triteness and were being ironic. After a while, I got to where any time I saw air quotes, I wanted to form my fingers into a "V" and poke someone in the eyes, a la The Three Stooges.

Those of us who work at home are somewhat insulated from the business world (in particular from the wealth that seems to follow the dot-commers everywhere they go). But this distance means that we're often "out of the loop." We’ll hear a term such as "unwinding the stack" on TV and have no idea what they're talking about. This can be damaging to one's career, particularly if one sometimes comes in contact with the 25-year-old business hipsters who toss these terms around willy-nilly.

Using a little imagination, we can assign meanings to the buzzwords, meanings that apply to the work-at-home world of laundry and lawnwork and looming deadlines. To wit:

-OUTSIDE THE BOX: Anywhere toys are found when they haven't been put away, i.e., everywhere.

--OUT OF THE LOOP: The dog has escaped his leash and is romping around the neighborhood.

--UNWINDING THE STACK: Separating the whites from the colors on laundry day.

--TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL: Carrying the laundry upstairs.

--THE NEW E-CONOMY: Someone has too many hyphens. Apparently, you can put "e-" in front of anything to indicate it has to do with the Internet (which, you’ll notice, doesn’t start with "e"). I recently saw a reference to "e-friends," which I assume means people you've never actually laid eyes on, but have only communicated with via e-mail. We lonely at-home workers should take advantage of this easy way to look modern and business-like. You can put "e-" in front of anything. For example, you could say, "I’m taking my e-car to pick up my e-children from their e-school."

--VIRTUAL: Another computer term, meaning not quite real. Proper usage: "It’s a virtual certainty that I will be late picking up my children."

--MISSION STATEMENT: A credit-card bill you can't afford to pay, but which gives you reason to work harder.

--RE-PURPOSING: Using any product in a way that violates its design intent. Cutting the bottom off an empty bottle of bleach and using it to bail water from a flooded basement, for instance, is "re-purposing." Sounds more business-like than "jury-rigging."

--COMFORT ZONE: Anywhere the children aren't.

--SYSTEM INTEGRATION: Dresser drawers that shut properly.


--PARADIGM SHIFT: The hours that you work between sundown and dawn. Proper usage: "My virtual deadline means I’ve been pulling the paradigm shift all week."

--THE "VISION" THING: What you're missing when you can't find your eyeglasses.


--STREAMING DATA: What the plumber uses to explain the sound of running water under your house.

--NAPSTER: A work-at-home parent in mid-afternoon.

--EMPOWERMENT: What you get when you learn to use buzzwords in your daily life.

(Editor's note: This column originally appeared in 2000. I'm sure all the buzzwords have changed since, but I don't know what they are. None of my business. Heh.)


Hurry blurry

Here's the daily tempo for the typical American worker:

You're late. Hurry. Get settled and get to work. Hurry up. The phones are ringing. You've got way too much to do for all these distractions. Hurry.

Now wait. No, wait. The rest of us aren't ready yet. OK, now go, hurry. Wait. Wait some more. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Wait.

Lunch. Eat quickly. Chewing's overrated.

Back to work and go faster. Hurry. Wait. Hurry. Wait. Hurry. No, wait a second. Nobody will return your calls. There's one. Hurry. Wait. Hurry, now, NOW. Go, go, go. Red light. Wait. Now go as fast as you can, faster than you've ever gone before. Wait. No, not yet. Wait for it. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Wait some more. Check the clock. Hurry, hurry. Wait.
Go home, you're late for dinner. Better hurry.

"Hurry up and wait" used to be something we'd say when we were trying to be funny. Now, with multi-tasking and high-speed communications and national productivity fever, it's become the rhythm of our workdays.

The pressure's on for us to jam as much work into each day as possible. There's always more where that came from. Finish one project and immediately launch into the next. Deadlines loom. The only answer is to go faster.

Even those of us who work alone at home are dependent on others. We need clients to return our calls. We wait on colleagues to finish their part of the project. They're always late, so we have to rush to make up the time. E-mail lets us communicate as fast as we can type, then our day is frozen while we wait for replies.

Speaking of computers, they're the best example of the "hurry up and wait" syndrome afflicting the modern worker. Type up a document as fast you can. Wait for the computer to save it. Hit more buttons. Wait. Run spell-checker. Wait. Read it over as fast as you can. Wait for another save. Wait while the machine dials up another machine so you can ship the document to wherever it needs to go. Go to Internet. Wait. Wait some more. Quickly type a Web address. Wait. Computer (finally) gives you message: "NOT FOUND," then locks up. Wait for the reboot, using the delay to mutter productive curses.

Workers nationwide are busy as bees, producing like never before, making a honey of an economy. We're on the team, ready to go fast. But the team has other members. Some are technological and some are real live human beings, more or less. It's hard to go fast when your teammates can't keep up. When your computer or co-worker or client is the metaphorical equivalent of a slow-witted waterboy with his foot stuck in a bucket, it's hard to keep the whole team moving.

So you wait. And wait some more, feeling the walls closing in. The deadline on one side, the bottleneck on the other. And you know it will all fall to you. You'll be working all night because your teammate's making you wait. Somebody has to make up the lost time.

It's like a relay race, where you're standing on the track, legs flexed, waiting for the baton. You're tensed, ready. If only that moron with his pants around his ankles would hurry up and get it to you.

No matter how organized you may be, "hurry up and wait" is out there lurking, ready to lock you into a holding pattern. You may think you can multi-task your way out of its clutches. Keep other tasks handy, so you can nimbly leap to another when one stalls. Successful people no doubt know how to do this; it's part of the reason for their success. But it's been my experience that if you have several projects going at once, they'll all meet critical meltdown status at the same time. Then you'll be up all night anyway, hurrying.

And then it's back to work, weary and bleary-eyed, as the new workload pours in. And you'll get started on it right away, fast as you can. And then you'll wait.


Crunch time

Here's my definition of Hell-on-Earth: The aftermath of a car wreck.

I don't mean some terrible high-speed accident, the kind that claims lives or maims people. Those are too horrible to consider, even though we take that chance every time we get behind the wheel. No, I'm talking about simple crashes, those little bumper-crunchers that happen all the time to the innocent and the inept and the inattentive.

I've been in three of these mishaps in the past three years (none of them my fault). Every time, my life passes before my eyes at the moment of impact. Not my past life, but my immediate future. Before the tires have even finished squealing, I see myself talking to police and insurance adjustors and claims inspectors and body shop owners and rental car clerks.

It's not the crash that's so bad (any wreck you walk away from being a pretty good wreck), it's what comes next. Untold weeks of paperwork and worry and bother. For those of us who work at home, the aftermath is one more thing we must do, one more straw on that poor old camel's back. For many of us, the schedule already is packed full. Throw in a wild card like car repairs, and our lives quickly become jumbled and out of control.

These woes are fresh on my mind because my wife and I recently were involved in separate fender-benders within 48 hours of each other. Both of our cars were wounded, but not killed, and we're busily taking turns putting them in the body shop to be mended.

Nothing serves as a better reminder of how dependent we are on the automobile. Without our cars, we're stranded. We can't run our errands, fetch our children, make a quick hop to the store. Suddenly, everything is inconvenient.

Rental cars (especially those paid for by insurance companies) solve part of the problem, but they also add one more chore to the list. You have to go get the rental car and you have to return it when you're done with it. (The rental companies sort of insist on that.) And the smooth, new, ding-free rental car reminds you that your own vehicle will never be quite the same again. It might look the same when the wizards at the body shop are done, but you'll always know which fender isn't original equipment and in which areas the paint doesn't quite match.

So you lose something in a car wreck that you never really get back. Pride and confidence in your familiar auto. It's just not the same once you and the car have survived a wreck together. For months after a crash, you'll listen for any funny noise while driving, any sign that some damage went undiscovered. You won't trust the old warhorse the way you did in the past.

A wreck does something to the drivers, too. Even if we're unscathed physically, a car crash juggles our psyches. We get twitchy behind the wheel, eyeballing our fellow motorists, braced all the time for someone to do something stupid that will cost us another round of insurance claims and pains and repairs.

With my last car, I got rear-ended twice within one week. You can bet I watched my rear-view mirror every time I hit the brakes for months after that, expecting someone with slow reflexes to try to park in my trunk.

In my latest fender-bender, a guy driving the wrong way on a one-way street blew through an intersection (after all, the red lights weren't facing his way!) and creamed my car and one other.

Now, I'll be slowing at every intersection with a one-way street, my head whipping around, making sure everyone is going the right direction.

It'll all wear off eventually. I'll relax behind the wheel once more. My car will be more or less back to normal. I'll zoom along familiar streets, handling the familiar controls, never thinking about whether my fellow motorists are about to plow into me.

And that'll mean I'm due for another collision.


Science? Fair enough

My 11-year-old recently brought me a cup of what appeared to be grapefruit juice.

"Here, Dad," he said. "Drink this."

My response? "No way."

I'm an experienced parent. I know better. One, I didn't like the way he was grinning. Two, I knew he'd been playing with his chemistry set.

His grin faltered. "Aw, come on."

"Forget about it. You want someone to drink it, you do it. I'll stand by to call a doctor."

His crest had fallen by this time, but he gave it one last shot: "I'll just set it here on the table. Maybe you'll drink it later."

As soon as he was out of the room, I poured it down the drain.

Does this make me a bad parent? Or, at least, a poor sport? I don't care. I'm not putting something that's nasty (or, worse, toxic) in my mouth just so he can be a happy Junior Scientist.

Most days, our house resembles a sloppy laboratory. Our two sons always are dreaming up some new concoction that's guaranteed to make a mess. Dishes and beakers full of mystery goop sit around on countertops for weeks at a time. I know better than to throw them out; I'll never hear the end of it. What looked like moldy split-pea soup will turn out to be an important experiment -- a cure for cancer, the secret to cold fusion.

We indulgent parents play along, hoping the boys' interest in science will eventually result in a Science Fair project not hastily assembled the night before it's due. We've provided chemistry sets and microscopes and telescopes and geology kits. The kids have numerous books of experiments, including one called -- and I'm not making this up -- "Icky Sticky Foamy Slimy Ooey Gooey Chemistry."

Our philosophy is that any interest in science should be cultivated. Maybe the kids will become highly paid researchers one day.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. And, for me, the line begins at my lips. I'm not drinking some foul-smelling potion just so my son can see whether it will turn me into a werewolf.

The boys' interest in science crops up at inconvenient times. We were late for school one day because the 11-year-old was busy freezing a bug in a cup of water. On more than one occasion, "volcanoes" made of baking soda and vinegar have overflowed, making huge messes and leaving the entire kitchen smelling like pickles. This usually occurs when we have company coming.

My older son has discovered recently that cooking, particularly baking, is similar to conducting science experiments. Most of his kitchen trials revolve around sugar, as does his entire diet. He's made butterscotch pudding and something called "chocolate pots." By all accounts, they've been delicious. I've given them a pass, part of my continuing effort to avoid acting as guinea pig.

Mom supervises the kitchen experiments, though it usually falls to Dad to clean up. She's better in the kitchen than I am, and more tolerant of the boys' adventures, though I didn't see her sampling the "chocolate pot" either.

She was in charge the day the kids used their chemistry set to make something called "flaming goo," which apparently involved a match and a shooting flame. I wasn't home that day. Just as well.

Then there were the sea monkeys. Anyone who's ever read a comic book has seen the ads for sea monkeys you can grow right in your own home. The boys plunked down their money and got in the mail a small plastic aquarium, dried brine shrimp and shrimp food.

They carefully set up the aquarium -- in the kitchen, naturally -- and added water and shrimp and other supplies. Then, in a what-do-you-mean-read-the-instructions moment, our 8-year-old dumped all the food into the tank at once. The water turned a murky brown. This apparently meant instant death for any sea monkeys that might have survived shipping.

For weeks afterward, a tank of brown glurch sat on the countertop, regularly inspected for any signs of life. Finally, we dumped it out.

You can bet I didn't taste it first.


Weathering winter

Welcome to December, the Official Month of Lost Gloves.

As colder weather settles over the nation, we're all indoors more, getting on each other's nerves. We must wear more clothing to brave the elements. Driving and walking outdoors take on an air of ice-slick danger.

We here at The Home Front want your winter to be safe and happy, so we've developed the following Winter Survival Guide to help you weather the months ahead:


Being shut up in a cozy house seems romantic when portrayed on TV -- flames dancing in the fireplace, frost on the windows, fuzzy slippers and candlelight. But let's face it, unless you're on an all-expenses-paid honeymoon in Aspen, life indoors just isn't that pleasant, especially if children are around. A few days cooped up with kids will make you long for summer, when "Go outside and play" worked as a remedy for frayed nerves.

Even happily married, child-free couples start to annoy each other if they're trapped together indoors. An innocent habit, such as gum-cracking or mindless sniffing, easy to ignore when you're outside a lot, becomes unbearably grating when you're indoors together for days on end. Pretty soon, homicide starts to look like a viable solution.

How to cope with cabin fever? Brandy seems to have medicinal qualities (why do you think those St. Bernards carry it around in the Alps?), and hot cocoa can soothe. But the best treatment remains time alone. You and your spouse should occupy opposite ends of the house as much as possible. And kids can still be forced to go outside if you slather on enough outergarments, which brings us to:


When it gets really cold outside, responsible parents provide their children with the following: long underwear, jeans or ski pants, two pairs of socks, waterproof shoes, T-shirt, sweatshirt, flannel shirt, anorak, heavy coat, gloves or mittens, a woolly scarf and a warm hat. Each of these items will be greeted by objections from the children, who see nothing wrong with dressing like Tarzan when it's snowing. Parents should calmly ignore the complaints and apply each layer as carefully as if it were a coat of paint. By the time you're done, you won't be able to tell whether there's a child inside all those garments. If the child can move freely, he's probably not wearing enough clothes.

The only exception to child clothing complaints: Kids want the biggest, bulkiest ski gloves they can possibly find, because those are the kind that shoot lasers.


Even a quick trip to the convenience store becomes an Arctic expedition during bad weather. If the kids are going with you, allow an extra 30 minutes for preparation and protests. Slick roads slow you down, so allow for that in your daily schedule. And, unexpected storms can bring the whole city to a halt. In fact, if you've got anywhere to go between now and Christmas, you'd better get started now.


If you must spend so much time indoors, at least it can be in an orderly environment. But, naturally, winter presents its own set of problems here, too, the worst being gravity. All those clothes mentioned earlier? They end up on the floor. So you won't need to exercise much during the winter. You'll be doing toe-touches all day long, bending over to pick up mittens and mufflers.

This problem is compounded by the fact that basketball season occurs during winter. Nothing can be put away normally. Every item can be discarded only in the following manner: "He shoots! He scores!" If you, the parent, hear "He shoots!" followed by silence, then you know that's another item you'll be picking up later.

All those clothes must be kept clean. Expect your weekly laundry load to double.

Another problem: All the snow/ice/sludge/dead leaves tracked into the house. Ignore this at your peril. Soon, the footing inside won't be any better than the icy sidewalks outside.


Keep them in the house with you as much as possible. Otherwise, they'll go missing and you'll have a big surprise when the snowdrifts melt.

There you have it. If you follow this advice, you can survive the coming winter and all its hazards. And remember, spring is only 18 months away.

(Editor's note: Though it's officially December, it's still sunny and mild here in Northern California. But this winter column shows we're thinking about you who live in colder climes. And laughing, laughing....)


Plumb crazy

When you work at home, nothing is more terrifying than the tick-tock of a dripping pipe or the squish of wet carpet.

Plumbing problems are every homeowner's nightmare, but they're particularly horrible for work-at-home types because we're expected to fix them. After all, we're here all day. We've got tools. How difficult can a repair be?

A case in point: Recently, one of our toilet tanks developed a drip. I figured I'd put in a new flush valve, seal the fittings tight and -- voila! -- the problem would be solved.

Two hitches with this plan. One, the water line on this particular toilet was made of some inflexible substance -- I'm guessing stone -- so it wouldn't go back where it belonged. And, two, the water line was in a corner, leaving me approximately six microns of space between toilet and wall in which to work.

I did my best, suffering barked knuckles and rug-burned knees and a storm of frustration in the process, but I couldn't make the leak go away. I ended up calling a professional to finish the job.

(An aside: Now, when I order my sons out of the room because I'm watching a video with bad language, they say, "We heard all those words the day you tried to fix the toilet.")

So, as a service to all you who work at home, we now offer an Idiot's Guide to Plumbing. With these basic instructions, you, too, will be able to tackle any plumbing job. And if you fail, you, too, can call in an expert. Just make sure they don't charge extra for laughing at your attempt.


Maybe it's simple wear-and-tear, but toilets seem to be the leading cause of plumbing headaches. Toilets are simple. Water comes in through a pipe, stores in the tank and, when you push the lever, flows into the bowl to push what's already there into the sewer pipes. But if any one of those steps develops a leak or ceases to function, you've got big trouble.

Take a moment right now, while the toilet is working fine, to familiarize yourself with how it works. Lift off the top of the toilet tank and look inside. The first thing you'll notice is that it is exceedingly nasty in there. But don't replace the lid yet. Study the various gizmos inside. Flush the toilet so you can see how it operates.

The tall device where the water enters is called the flush valve. The rubber doodad at the bottom of the tank is called the flapper, and it is connected to the gatsby. When you push the flush handle, the gatsby lifts the flapper and -- faster than you can say F. Scott Fitzgerald -- water flows into the bowl. See how simple?

Attached to the flush valve is the float, a large, bladder-like device on a stick. The float keeps the tank from overflowing. You can adjust the water level by bending the stick. When the stick snaps in two, it's time to make your ninth visit to the hardware store.


Sinks are even simpler than toilets, until you try to fix one. Inside the faucet handles are tiny parts called seats and springs. These keep the water from spraying out around the handles. If the faucet develops a leak, replace them. If the faucet still leaks, replace them again. Once you've said enough bad words, call a plumber.


Many homeowners save on their water bills by replacing their showers heads with more efficient models. Shower heads supposedly screw on and off with ease, but here's a guarantee -- they'll leak when you're done. Better to stick with your existing shower head until the flow is reduced to a trickle. It might take hours to get a decent shower, but better that than a nervous breakdown.


Sewer problems are not for amateurs. If you've developed a severe clog in your sewer line or a sudden sinkhole in your yard, the best step would be to sell the house immediately.

Now that you've been fully briefed, you're ready to tackle any emergency. But keep the plumber's phone number handy, just in case. It helps if you can find one who doesn't laugh much.


Talking dirty

(A note: The following column contains repeated references to sex, and you might want to keep it out of the reach of children and other non-believers. We don't want to offend any readers, so we have substituted EUPHEMISMS for certain words throughout. You who are in the know will understand. Wink, wink.)

Working parents have trouble finding time for WRESTLING.

We're harried all day, surrounded by ringing telephones and other distractions. We come home to shrieking children, then rush around for hours, feeding and watering and bedding down the herd. Somewhere in there, we must find time to kvetch about our workday and to listen to our spouses' tales of woe. By bedtime, we're too weary and frazzled to attempt any NOODLING, even though it's the most relaxing thing we could do and we'd probably sleep better.

Regular "alone time" is hard to come by in a household with children. But couples need that closeness, that recurrent FISCAL contact, to make sure their relationship comes first. Couples who want to keep the whole household happy must make time to TANGO.

In the harum-scarum of everyday life, you can forget to keep your WOK life on the front burner. You can even lose the urge to STIR-FRY. One answer is to keep your CUISINE interesting by being creative and imaginative and even a little KUMQUAT.

First, some basic advice for each gender:


--Nothing is more important to a man than his FIREPLUG.

--Men are visual creatures -- we like to look -- which is why self-help books recommend greeting your man at the door with your POODLE wrapped in Saran Wrap.

--Men are never too tired. We'll say we're too tired. We may not be in the mood at first. But we'll come around.


--Be gentle, especially when touching your mate's PETUNIAS.

--Never, ever wrap any part of yourself in Saran Wrap, especially if you are the hairy sort.

--Sometimes, women are not in the mood for TOMFOOLERY. Live with it. This is why you must be ever-vigilant. Repeat after me: We men are never too tired. Who knows when you'll next get a moment with your wife? Strike while the IRON is hot.

Now, let's talk about how you can be creative and keep the spark in your IGNITION. Spontaneity is important, so you'll need to plan ahead. Think of times when you and your spouse might be in the same room without children or dogs present. Think of ways you could turn these brief rendezvous into moments of fiery COMBUSTION. You can't always wait until bedtime. Everybody will be tired and CRANKSHAFT by then. Look for other times throughout the day when you can squeeze in a little STP.

One way to keep your CIRCUMNAVIGATION exciting is to change your location. Try GALLOPING on the sofa or on a desk or in a steamy bathroom. Remember when you were a teen, and you did all your heavy RESPIRATING in the back seat of a car? Or how about that movie "Bull Durham," where the characters KNEADED DOUGH right on the kitchen table? SKEWERING somewhere other than the same old bed might be just the thing to put the zing back in your FRISBEE.

Take turns being in charge. Sometimes the man makes the first move, sometimes the woman INITIATES CONTACT. Urge your partner to LAMINATE you, and eagerly take the lead when it's your turn to PLAY THE KAZOO. Keep it playful and SWAGGART and fun.

Experiment! Try different techniques and positions when you're REWINDING. For example, if the man usually JIGSAWS on top, then you could try it with the woman in a FULLY LOCKED AND UPRIGHT POSITION. Try it with the man on his CYPRESSES and the woman hanging her FEET off the TRANSOM. For quick rendezvous while the kids are watching TV, you can even WALK THE DOG while leaning against the LIGHTPOLE in the LOO. The man can caress his partner's TAMALES while INTRODUCING his STETHOSCOPE to her DUSTBUSTER. Or the woman can MASTICATE her man with gentle TURBULENCE while ACHIEVING ALTITUDE herself by using her HOWITZER to MATRICULATE an ORGANISM.


So there's some sex advice for working couples. Was it good for you? It was over so quickly . . .


Do-it-yourself feedback

One problem with working at home is that you don't get enough feedback.

But wait, you say, isn't that the whole reason to work at home? LESS feedback? For most people who work in regular jobs, a little less feedback from their bosses would seem like a gift from heaven.

Sure, many of us who work at home made the move to escape bosses breathing down our necks. But now that our necks are largely boss-free, we find that we struggle without some response, some validation that we're doing a good job.

Working alone means never having to say you're sorry. It means no one cares whether you goof off all day, as long as you get the work done eventually. It means you don't have co-workers giving you nonverbal cues, rolling their eyes when you do something stupid or impatiently clearing their throats when you spend too much time on the phone, gabbing with your friends.

Without feedback, it's sometimes hard to get motivated. Why bust your hump meeting a deadline when no one will notice? Why waste time with filing when a nice big heap of paperwork does the job just as well and nobody will see it anyway? Why bother to clean the house when the kids will just mess it up again anyway?

Such goldbricking can lead you to worry all the time, though. When you're your own boss, you keep wondering whether you should be breathing down your own neck. And is that even physically possible?

We at-home workers have to supply our own feedback, just like we have to do everything else around the home office. We give ourselves motivational speeches. We develop tools that will make us stay busy, that will validate the choices we've made.

There are ways to tell whether you're doing a good job, ways to pump yourself up for the next task. Here are a few you can try:

--Make to-do lists. Nothing is quite as satisfying as scratching a line through a chore, relegating it to the category of "finished." Naturally, there's a temptation to pad such lists. If you find yourself checking off "getting out of bed" and "lunch," you might want to re-examine your goals.

--Try the Stuart Smalley approach. Look in a mirror and tell yourself that you're good enough, smart enough, etc... Warning: Prolonged staring into a mirror can quickly degenerate into a search for wrinkles, zits and nose hairs. And I don't think you want those activities on your to-do list.

--Every time you complete a task, do high-fives with imaginary co-workers. Or, you can train your dog to give you a low-five whenever you need a boost.

--Try the methodology used by behavioral psychologists: punishments and rewards. When you do a good job, reward yourself in some way. I recommend ice cream. When you waste the whole day, berate yourself and withhold ice cream. Bet you do better tomorrow!

--Clothing choices can also be good motivators. Go look in your closet. If you're a man, check out the neckties you no longer have to wear now that you work at home. For women, the same goes for panty hose. Want to continue to wear sweatpants every day? Then you'd better get to work.

--When you're really in desperate need of feedback, call on your family. Your children will be only too happy to give you reasons to perform better. Most of these reasons center around the need for expensive new sneakers. If you ask your spouse for assistance, make sure your to-do list is hidden out of sight. Otherwise, count on it getting a lot longer.

--Saving the best for last, I've got one sure cure for the motivational blues. If you think your career is going nowhere, that you're suffering from a lack of feedback from appreciative co-workers, then go look at the place where you keep incoming mail. There will no doubt be a stack of bills there. If that doesn't get you up and moving, then maybe working at home isn't for you. Maybe you really do need a boss breathing down your neck. But bill collectors seem to provide all the feedback most of us will ever need.


Flying fidgets

It may seem like a paradox, but air travel is an exercise in sitting still.

You sit and wait at the airport. You sit in a cramped seat on the jet, trying not to goose others with your elbows or disturb the general tranquility (ha, ha!) of the flight. You sit some more in whatever form of ground transportation awaits your arrival.

As parents everywhere know, children are no good at sitting still. They've got too much energy. They're too easily distracted. They need to squirm and fidget and kick the backs of the seats in front of them.

I was reminded of all this recently when my wife and I took our two sons on an aviation vacation. A series of short hops, four flights in all, with the requisite confusion and scrambling for gates between each one. By the time it was over, I was a nervous wreck. I needed a whole 'nother vacation to recover from the first one.

It's not that my sons misbehaved. Actually, they were pretty good, considering that we required them to sit still for hours at a time. But every twitch and fidget set off my alarms. I spent the flights shushing and scolding and squirming until, eventually, I was the problem instead of them.

It's my own fault. I worry too much whether my sons are making a scene, whether they're disturbing others, whether I should be wearing a disguise. I keep watch over my kids the whole time, demanding silence, ordering them to sit still, telling them to stop making hand puppets out of the barf bags.

Some parents don't seem to have this problem. They blissfully flip through magazines and munch their complimentary peanuts while their children cry and caterwaul and do the twist-n-shout in the aisle. Apparently, their thinking goes like this: I'm forced to listen to this misbehavior all the time; the rest of you can put up with it for a few hours.

These parents seem impervious to the angry looks and impatient throat-clearings of others. But not me. When I'm not staring down my kids, I'm glancing around at the other passengers, awaiting their disapproval.

I've boiled this phenomenon down to a simple mathematical formula: T divided by (A times F) equals G.

"T" represents the time the child is required to sit still. "A" equals the age of the child. "F" is the Fidget Factor. And the result, "G," is the amount of glaring by other passengers the parents must survive.

If you actually work out that formula, you'll probably find it results in a negative number. But this is no time for negativity! No, this is a time for positive solutions. Here are some recommendations for parents flying with children:


Smuggle many snacks onto the plane with you. Children -- most of them anyway -- make less noise when their mouths are full.


Older children can be kept occupied with the telephones furnished by many airlines these days. Calling their friends to say "guess where I am?" can run into some money, but what price peace of mind?


Flight attendants and the folks in the cockpit can be enlisted to help keep your kids distracted. Pilots often hand out those little pin-on wings. Flight attendants provide peanuts and blankets and patient smiles. Cozy up to the flight crew as soon as you get on board. That way, your children may believe you have some leverage when you say, "Don't make me stop this plane!"


It would be irresponsible to recommend that you slip your children alcoholic beverages. But a Bloody Mary or six might make YOU care less whether your children are threatening a hijack.


I assuaged some of my in-flight anxiety by sitting across the aisle from my sons. My wife -- who's much more patient -- sat with the boys. You should always pay attention to the seating arrangement when flying with children. Sitting between two bickering kids may result in bruises, but it will keep them from touching each other.

Sitting in a seat several rows away from your children also is an option. When they create a disturbance, you can pretend you've never seen them before. Turn with the other passengers and glare.


You can tuna piano . . .

Here's a Handy Tip for those of you trapped at home with your children: Teach 'em to cook.

Kids love all the measuring and pouring and stirring and sampling involved in food preparation. Most of all, they love the big messes that result. I believe they consider them to be works of art. That's the only explanation for why they want to keep the messes spread around the kitchen until the milk has curdled and spoons are adhered to the countertops. They think of it as a permanent installation. "Mixed media."

You might believe that teaching children to cook isn't worth the mess. But look at it this way -- you've saved a step. If you prepare all their meals, you still have to clean up the messes you make, plus you must do all the cooking. Better that they handle at least part of the process.

I've been busy writing a new book, so my two sons have been on the following diet: Make it yourself or starve.

We stocked the kitchen with simple foods they can prepare in the toaster or microwave. Occasionally, I even let them boil water for something more exotic, like ramen noodles. I figure this is good preparation for dorm life.

Our boys long ago mastered the breakfast routine -- milk, cereal, bowls, spoons. Eat it up and leave a big mess. But now they're doing lunches, too. Before long, I'll sic them on dinner and then I can skip cooking altogether. Of course, we'll all be living on ramen noodles, but every solution has its trade-offs.

Sometimes, the boys wish to try something new, to test their wings, and that's when I do what any right-thinking dad would do: I tell them to ask their mother. She's a lot more tolerant of their experiments into, say, the molecular structure of butterscotch pudding. Plus, she's a much better chef than me. If they need someone to oversee their culinary adventures, it should be someone who really knows her way around the kitchen. Someone who knows where we keep the measuring cups.

That wouldn't be me. I don't measure when I cook. I eyeball everything. I don't want to get too technical here, but I use estimations such as "pinch" and "some" and "glop." I've got a good feel for the same old dishes I whip up every week and I rarely try anything new. The only recipes I ever use are the ones printed on the box of whatever it is I'm cooking. I consider a meal a success if I manage not to dump into boiling water the foil cheese packet that comes in a box of macaroni-and-cheese.

Years ago, when I was a bachelor, I got a yen for a tuna hot dish my mother used to make. It's the kind where tuna, peas and carrots are mixed up in a white sauce with biscuits on top. Yum.

My mom was 900 miles away and I didn't think the dish would ship well, so I called her up and she gave me the recipe over the phone. It seemed simple: three tablespoons of butter, three tablespoons of flour, a third of a cup of milk. Stir all that into a sauce, add the other ingredients and, before you know it, you're ready for a church potluck.

I purchased the ingredients and set out to make the casserole. One problem: I lost the recipe. So I worked from memory, making only one mistake. Instead of three tablespoons of flour, I put in three CUPS of flour. The result seemed a little gummy, but I slapped it in the oven, hoping for the best. When it came out, I could see I had a problem. The texture was less like a pot pie and more like bread pudding.

I'd made a tuna cake.

Since then, I've been a little flinchy when it comes to recipes. Better to fry up some burgers and call that good.

But I encourage my boys' experiments in the kitchen. Maybe they'll learn from their mistakes and become great chefs one day. Maybe they'll master measuring and recipes and high-altitude baking.

I can always show them how to make a tuna cake.


Big questions

I was driving somewhere with my two sons when the younger one asked, "Dad, how does the blinker know which way you want to go?"

I chuckled. My older son smirked. The little one just stared at us. His question was sincere and he wanted an answer. So I explained how the turn signal lever worked -- up for right, down for left -- and my questioner went "Aaah," and everybody went away happy.

That one was easy. A softball question. But parents know that children never stop asking questions, and some are much tougher. We feel we must answer, partly because we want our children to grow up into educated adults who can support us in our old age, and partly because we don't want to give them further reason to believe we're stupid.

The down side is that we don't always know the answers. We slept through class that day. Or college drinking binges killed the brain cells that stored that data. Or our parents fed us bad information when we were kids.

As a public service to parents, we here at The Home Front have compiled a primer with answers to the questions most commonly asked by children. If you'll take a few minutes to memorize this information, you'll be better prepared when your child unleashes some poser such as, "Why is the sky blue?"

--The sky is blue because there's so much water vapor in the air. This is the same reason the ocean is blue.

--Thunder is the sound of God bowling. Yes, He always makes strikes; He's infallible. And He doesn't have to rent His shoes.

--There's no such place as Hell, unless you broke Mom's favorite vase.

--Heaven does exist and all your dead pets will be waiting for you there. Somebody else has to feed them, just like Dad does here on Earth.

--There are no monsters under the bed. Those are dust bunnies and they're harmless.

--Ditto for monsters in the closet. All the monsters came out of the closet years ago and now they have an annual Monster Pride parade.

--The answer to all questions involving math is "4."

--We have to sleep every night so our bodies will get the rest we need and we will grow tall and strong. Also, it's the only time we get any quiet around here.

--Dogs lick themselves there because they can.

--Yes, it hurts to get a tattoo, and I'll hurt you worse if I ever catch you near a tattoo parlor. Ditto for piercings.

--Solar eclipses occur because we have incurred the wrath of the gods. Lunar eclipses are caused by a giant hairball passing between the moon and the Earth. If you stare directly at either type of eclipse, you'll go blind. I said the gods are wrathful, didn't I?

--We must bathe regularly because our bodies constantly shed skin cells and they must be scrubbed away. Plus, we want to keep our friends.

--Computers contain a little man who sorts the various programs, keeps them organized and hands them over when asked. A computer "crash" occurs when the little man is sleeping. His name is Intel, and that's why the machine has a sticker on it that says "Intel Inside."

--No, your favorite cartoon characters do not "live" inside the television. TV shows us images beamed from far away. Cartoon characters all reside in Toonville. They're very happy there, even though many are enslaved by an evil genius named Michael Eisner.

--Yes, disco ruined popular music. My generation regrets the error.

--Superman's X-ray vision does allow him to see through everybody's clothes. No, you can't master that yourself.

--Adults kiss because they like each other. The longer they kiss, the more they like each other. If you see a kiss that lasts longer than 10 seconds, you should change channels.

--Grass feels no pain when it is mowed. It's just like a haircut.

--It's OK to stomp bugs. There are plenty more where those came from.

--Swallowing watermelon seeds will indeed make watermelon vines grow out of your ears. That's why you have to keep your ears clean.

--Children who ask too many questions grow bigger ears. And then everybody will see those watermelons in there.


Bad luck and trouble

Sometimes, it seems, the world is out to get us.

The stars line up a certain way, or our biorhythms are off, or our luck simply runs out. Then one minor catastrophe after another descends, hammering us with problems and expenses, pushing us to our emotional limits.

After a while, we're able to look back upon these travails and laugh. But when we're caught in the midst of them, laughter is out of the question. We're too busy trying not to weep.

A case in point: A day affectionately known at our house as the Day from Hell. (This was years ago. But, as I said, some time needs to pass before we can discuss these things with anything approaching mirth.)

The day started normally enough. The usual bustle to get ready for school, work, another day of living. I was taking out the trash in bare feet when I hooked my pinkie toe on a concrete step, breaking it with an audible pop. I went back inside, whimpering, telling my family that I'd broken my toe. They paid no attention. They were busy getting ready for the day and they know I'm prone to dramatics in time of injury.

Wife dashed off to work. I hobbled out the door to take the kids to school. I then spent the day at home, coaxing my computer through one crash after another and applying ice to my toe, still unaware that the forces of the universe were out to get us.

That evening, I limped off to a friendly poker game, where I drew the second-best hands all night and managed to lose twice as much as I ever had before.

I got home at midnight, wondering how I'd soft-pedal my financial loss, only to find that I was locked out of my house. The front door was fastened shut with a thumb latch that doesn't respond to keys. I slunk around back, worrying that neighbors were calling the cops about a prowler, only to find that the back door was locked with a deadbolt for which I had no key.

Just as I resigned myself to the idea that I must ring the doorbell and awaken the whole house, I noticed through a window that the TV was flickering. Then I saw my wife was still awake. I was puzzled, but didn't snap to the notion that something must be terribly wrong.

She let me inside and informed me that she and the boys had only recently returned from four hours at the hospital emergency room. Our older son had done a special maneuver off a curb with his in-line skates, one that ended with a splat and a broken collarbone.

She assured me our son would be fine. I showed her my purple foot, prompting this diagnosis: "That toe's broken." I bit my tongue about her earlier lack of concern and went off to bed, hitching like Walter Brennan.

I didn't get much sleep that night. I was too busy fretting about what the universe would serve up next.

It was quiet for a couple of weeks, lulling me into complacency. I began to think that day of infamy was just a fluke.

Then, all in one weekend, the following occurred: The water heater developed a severe leak. The alternator on my car gave up the ghost. The swamp cooler conked out -- on, naturally, one of the hottest days of the year.

All were dutifully repaired or replaced. The only lasting damage was to the bank balance and to whatever bodily fluids were lost to sweat and tears.

Pretty soon, the household was running smoothly again. We had hot water and cool air. The collarbone mended. My toe only hurt when the dog stepped on it, which happened two or three times a day.

Eventually, I relaxed. I gave up the idea that the stars have it in for us. I stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. But when it does, it's a sure bet it'll land on my toe.


Smell mail

In the pantheon of Bad Applications of New Technologies, here's one that really stinks: Several companies reportedly are perfecting ways to transmit aromas over your e-mail.

That's right, folks. Smell-mail. Just when you thought the Internet couldn't possibly get any more intrusive, they've found a way to download odors.

The technology varies from company to company, but essentially it works like this: You'd have a device hooked to your computer that would contain an array of aromatic chemicals. When someone e-mailed you a picture of, say, a strawberry, you would slide a piece of adhesive paper through the device. The paper would pick up the appropriate chemicals and, once spit out by the machine, the paper would carry the scent of a strawberry.

Other companies are working on versions that would mix chemicals stored on a cartridge and actually waft the aroma into your room with a small fan.

So it isn't exactly like transmitting actual odors over the Internet. It's more like a digitized simulation. But it's still an exceedingly bad idea.

We all know these things tend to get out of hand. Already, people e-mail goofy animated greeting cards for every holiday. Websites have soundtracks of obnoxious music. Every time you visit a site, your computer is fed "cookies" that result in a deluge of advertising spam. Now, we're going to make it possible for people to send their favorite aromas along, too?

Virtual flower bouquets undoubtedly will be one of the first uses. That annual holiday letter -- already a pain because you're forced to read how some distant relative is doing much better than you -- could include the evergreen scent of the family Christmas tree.

It's bad enough that some chirpy friend can send you a cute photo of the family dog. What happens when they can send along his smell, too? That's what you need: Essence de Wet Dog spilling out into your house. If you wanted that smell around, you could hose down your own dog and save the hundreds of dollars the digital scent generators cost.

The developers of these new devices say the applications are endless. You could have smells accompanying your favorite movies, they say. Or you could sample a perfume before purchasing it over the Internet. Cookie and candy companies have expressed interest in using the technology for samples. (There goes the diet.) They're even perfecting "new car" smell to accompany auto ads.

This technology could easily fall into the wrong hands. If your friends send you sweet little fragrances and your computer smells like fresh-baked cookies, how long before one of your enemies gets hold of your smell-mail address? Pretty soon, you've got the stink of sweat socks filling your home office.

I don't even want to think what the purveyors of Internet porn might do with this.

And won't hackers have a field day? Already, they can send viruses and worms and other terroristic programs to computers all over the globe. What happens when they decide the virtual world needs a sniff of stockyard stench? Or, when they decide to protest government policies by sending federal offices a fetid whiff of body odor?

Worse yet, some of the same companies that are working up virtual aromas also are working on taste transmittal. That strawberry mentioned earlier? You can lick the paper and taste the berry, or a chemical facsimile. Do we need this? Couldn't we just stop at a supermarket and buy actual strawberries?

Already, many of the e-mails we receive every day are in bad taste (particularly jokes sent by friends -- you know who you are). What happens when actual bad tastes can arrive unbidden over your computer? Are you willing to take a chance on licking a piece of paper that purports to be chocolate? Could be garlic or broccoli or worse.

Not me, buddy. The day that virtual food and fragrance start arriving on my computer is the day I dust off the typewriter. The scent of correction fluid I can handle. The rest you can keep to yourself.


The bitter truth

Imagine that our corporation is on the verge of introducing a new product, a beverage that could take the world by storm. Then, as so often happens to good ideas, the Marketing Department gets hold of it. The response probably would be something like this:

To: CEO Whittlebrain
From: Marketing
Subject: New beverage

We here in Marketing regret to report that this proposed product is dead-on-arrival. Research shows there's simply no market for it. The product has so many problems, we're not even sure where to begin. But here's a sampling of what's wrong:

--This drink is served hot. Market research shows that customers prefer cold drinks.

--We sampled the product here in Marketing, and found it to be bitter and caustic. We had to add cream and sugar to make it at all palatable. This is not a good sign.

--The proposed price would put this product in the "expensive" range, yet it's mostly water that must be added by the customers themselves. We don't often credit the American buying public with much sense here in Marketing, but surely they'd see through this.

--Research and Development has predicted that this beverage will be popular in restaurants, but it already costs a lot and eateries must add their own profit margin. Do we really think people will pay $4 for a cup at a restaurant?

--The beverage is produced from beans grown in tropical climes, and we all know how iffy that can be. First, supply will be subject to the vagaries of the weather. Second, tropical countries aren't known for the stability of their governments or economies. Do we really need another coup interrupting delivery? We suppose we could push the drink as "all-natural," but it doesn't seem to fit that market niche, which we here in Marketing call the "Birkenstocks." Hasn't R&D ever heard the phrase "artificial color and flavorings?"

--Finally, the product seems to have a number of "lifestyle" drawbacks. We found that a single serving made us feel jittery. And multiple servings resulted in frequent need for bathroom breaks. This isn't what the American public seeks in a quick refreshment.

Our conclusion? Dump this product immediately and focus our R&D efforts on something Americans want and need, such as fruit-flavored malt liquor.

OK, you've guessed it by now. The beverage is coffee, an old stand-by that's taken the country by storm. Coffee is the Model T of drinks, basic and black and low-brow. You can dress it up however you want -- add froth and flavors and call it something like Mocha-Choka and sell it for six bucks at Starbucks -- but underneath it's still coffee, the lifeblood of the American worker.

Remember your first taste of coffee? It seemed exotic, something adults slurped from heavy ceramic mugs, the perfect balance to their unfiltered cigarettes and rye toast. When they finally let us try a sip, our reaction was something along the lines of the mythical marketers above.

But as with so many things -- that first cigarette, that first tipple of Scotch -- initial disgust soon gave way to pure enjoyment. And enjoyment became an addiction. Now, most of us can't face getting out of bed without a soothing jolt of caffeine.

We start the coffee pot first thing in the morning, even before we brush our teeth. Even -- and this is saying a lot -- before we check our e-mail. And many of us swill it down all day long.
Coffee becomes particularly important to those of us who work at home. It loses much of its social aspect (what's the point of enjoying a coffee break if you're all alone?), but fetching more java gives us an opportunity to walk away from the computer for a few minutes. And that caffeine high keeps us going through the day. Without coffee, we'd never get any work done.

Is it a coincidence that coffee consumption is up at the same time that American productivity is at an all-time high? I don't think so.

So let's all sing praises for coffee, the natural stimulant. It may be bitter and costly and it may stain your clothes, but we desperately need it to keep going every day.

And it's bound to be better than fruit-flavored malt liquor.


Playing chicken

I was nearly killed by a rubber chicken.

My 11-year-old son needed a rubber chicken for a skit he was performing with his classmates. The novelty shop was fresh out, so my wife special-ordered it from wherever they make rubber chickens (rubber plantations?). It was my job to fetch the chicken.

We had a full day's notice that the chicken had arrived, but I put off picking it up. The store was near my sons' school, so I figured we could get it on the way home. But just as I was leaving the house, I realized that my plan involved turning two boys loose in a novelty shop. I decided to swing by the store -- alone -- before I picked up the boys from school.

I drove quickly, one eye on the dashboard clock, measuring whether I could round up the chicken and still make it to school on time. I hurried into the store, plunked down $10 (ten bucks for a chicken you can't even EAT?) and raced back to the car, bird in hand.

I was cutting it close, and hurriedly weaved through a mile or so of city of traffic. I was so intent on watching the clock, I almost didn't see a truck barreling toward me until it was too late. Screeching brakes. A quick twist of the steering wheel. Shouted prayers and curses. A near-miss. All because of a rubber chicken.

But wait, you say, it's not the chicken's fault. I was nearly run down by a truck because of my own procrastination. If I hadn't waited until the last minute, I wouldn't have been speeding through traffic.

You're right, of course. And that brings us to the point of today's column. (What? You couldn't tell there was a point? You thought I was just looking for an excuse to print the words "rubber chicken" again and again?)

Ahem. The point is that I and, no doubt, millions of other American adults who work at home are constantly rushing from place to place. We have dozens of errands to do and we're always running late.

How does this happen? One reason we choose to work at home is that it allows us to make our own schedules. The day is entirely flexible. We should be able to plan ahead so that our trips out-of-doors are leisurely cruises along our appointed rounds. But we wait until the last possible second, too busy with e-mail and phone calls and other chores to pull ourselves away. Then we race through traffic, risking our own lives and those of untold numbers of rubber chickens.

Our days are spent rocketing through time and space, trying to get from the dry cleaners to the office supply store to the supermarket and back home again. At every turn, it seems, are slow-moving tourists and road construction and other obstacles, all conspiring to make us late. If we survive the traffic, we arrive at our destinations harried and breathless, our mouths gaping, our eyes wide. We look, in fact, like rubber chickens.

Repeatedly, I resolve to get an earlier start. Every time, I'm distracted by the clothes dryer buzzing or the phone ringing or a near-victory at Free Cell. And then I look at the clock and realize that I have five minutes to make a ten-minute trip. Late again.

I know other work-at-home parents face the same problem. I see them in traffic, teeth clenched, both hands clutching the steering wheel, committing one moving violation after another in an attempt to make up lost time.

The rest of you can help us poor harried parents. Watch for us in traffic. Get out of our way. We're late again, and you don't want to be a victim of our procrastination.

And if you see a rubber chicken on the seat next to a stressed-out driver, you might want to just drive up onto the sidewalk and wait for the car to pass. It'll be safer for all of us that way.


Parental prattle

Parents are easy to spot, and not just because they usually look frazzled and sleep-deprived. Their speech patterns give them away.

Even when their children aren't around, parents talk like parents. They say things that childless adults never utter.

Parentspeak is largely a product of fatigue and distraction. For parents, life is one big conversation, a constant barrage of prodding and permission-seeking and Pokemon. It wears us down. We resort to spouting parental cliches because it's easier than being creative. Pretty soon, we're channeling our own parents, singing old standards like: "Well, it didn't just get up and walk away, now did it?"

Being around children all the time is hazardous in another way, too. Their incessant prattle plants seeds in our minds, which later come blooming from our lips as inappropriate adult conversation.

If, for example, a business contact answers your every "did not" with a "did, too," you can bet she's a parent. If a deskmate asks you to catch his phone while he goes to "poop," there's no question that he's got small children at home. If a colleague uses the phrase "I'm rubber and you're glue" . . . well, you get the idea.

We here at The Home Front have collected examples of parental cliches for your reading pleasure. Be warned, however. None of these phrases should be used in the company of other adults. Never say any of the following in a business setting.

With that caution in mind, here then, are:

The Top 50 Things That Only Parents Say:

50. Use soap.
49. Don't kiss the dog.
48. Where are your shoes?
47. If I were a shoe, where would I be?
46. Hay is for horses.
45. What part of "no" do you not understand?
44. Tickle, tickle, tickle.
43. Tie your shoes.
42. All right, look sloppy. See if I care.
41. Don't sit so close. You'll ruin your eyes.
40. Your socks don't match.
39. It's on your left. No, your other left.
38. Why is the remote control all sticky?
37. When I was a boy, we didn't even have remote controls . . .
36. Turn that down. You'll wake the dead.
35. Hush. (Try that one on a co-worker sometime.)
34. Zip it. (Ditto.)
33. Blow on it. (Don't go there.)
32. Use your napkin.
31. Don't shovel your food.
30. Because it builds strong bones.
29. Three more bites.
28. Clean your room.
27. You call this clean?
26. Why do I have to do everything around here?
25. If I hear "Pikachu" one more time . . .
24. Stop talking and go to sleep.
23. If your brother jumped off a cliff . . .
22. Aw, get up. That didn't hurt.
21. I'll kiss it and make it better.
20. When I was your age . . .
19. I don't know. I haven't been wearing your shoes, now have I?
18. Close the door. Were you raised in a barn?
17. In or out, in or out. Make up your mind.
16. When you start paying the utility bills around here . . .
15. Stop slamming that door!
14. Money doesn't grow on trees.
13. By the time I count to three . . .
12. Walk faster.
11. Stop running!
10. Don't you run from me!
9. Don't put that in your mouth. You don't know where it's been.
8. Did you go?
7. Get down from there!
6. Somebody's gonna get hurt!
5. Put that down. You'll put your eye out.
4. This is my final warning . . .
3. What's that smell?
2. We'll see.

And, the Number One Thing That Only Parents Say is: "Because I said so."


Grizzly beard

Next time I'm faced with a questionnaire that asks my hobbies, I plan to write: "Unruly beard."

What is a hobby, after all, but a way to pass the time, usually in intense concentration? Beard wearers spend an inordinate number of man-hours in front of the mirror, clipping and snipping and shaping. We could pursue more productive endeavors, but we find serenity in the care and feeding of a neat beard.

In short, it's like bonsai.

If you've ever tried to keep bonsai trees alive, you know it's not as easy as it looks. And unlike a potted dwarf tree, you can't just stick your beard in the garage if you ruin it. You either shave it off or go around looking lop-sided for a week.

Men always say they wear beards because they hate to shave. They make it sound like they've removed one obstacle in their daily dash out into the dog-eat-dog world. But the dirty little secret is that most spend way more time on their beards than they ever would on a clean-shaven face.

A bearded man can waste most of the morning in front of the mirror, combing and trimming, getting everything just right, then -- sproing! -- a whisker stands out from its peers, three inches tall, begging for a haircut. Often, this whisker will be gray. After the man recovers from the initial shock, he gets the scissors out again. Snip, snip. Then he needs to trim the other side for balance. Snip. Now that side's too short. Snip, snip. Pretty soon, he's got sideburns.

Some men get professionals to trim their beards, but where's the challenge in that? And electric trimmers don't leave enough room for error. Scissors are the weapon of choice. Better to snip a few whiskers wrong than to mow an entire stripe by mistake.

(I'm excluding from this discussion those men who never prune their facial hair. The ones with long, woolly whiskers a la Gabby Hayes. Those men have no vanity and I admire them greatly, though I find they tend to be bachelors.)

A lot of men who work at home sport beards. It's part of our rebellious attitude, thumbing our noses at the suit-and-tie world.

Having a beard at home presents two disparate dangers. One, a stay-at-home worker's hobby can go out of control, and his work-in-progress can eat up all his time. Or, two, he can forget to trim it at all, the same way he forgets to change out of his pajamas. He never looks in the mirror, doesn't realize he's walking around all day with toothpaste on his chin. These men are in imminent danger of becoming bachelors again. Or hermits like Howard Hughes.

I first grew a scraggly beard when I was fresh out of college -- 20 years ago -- and I've had one ever since, except for one drunken weekend in San Francisco when my wife thought it would be fun to see my real face. I shaved it off, giggling. The face in the mirror sobered me right up. My narrow chin was pale from years without sun and I'd undergone a certain thickening in the neck and jowl areas. I looked like a cross between that guy in the "Where's Waldo?" puzzles and my own father. I started growing it back the next day. My wife had no objections.

Most of my friends and both of my children have never seen me without a beard. It's become part of my persona. If you asked my sons to draw a picture of Dad, here's what it would be: bushy hair, bushy beard, round eyeglasses. "Where's Waldo?" with a beard.

I occasionally muse about shaving it off, but in truth I expect to take a beard to the grave. By then, I trust, it'll be white and woolly and weird. I hope, by that time, I will have developed real hobbies.

In the meantime, a beard is a pretty good disguise. If I ever had to, say, go underground, I could look like a different man in a matter of minutes. All I'd need is a razor and a red-and-white cap. Then I could hide in any crowd.

(Editor's note: I don't wear glasses anymore, but the beard stays.)


Social conventions

Eventually, we who work at home must emerge blinking into the sunlight and go out among our own kind.

Lonely workers need the occasional people bath. We need to renew acquaintance with the human race. We need interaction with strangers, the ritual exchange of business cards, the subtle rush of quick flirtation. We need an excuse to gab and drink and smoke and repeat bad jokes and make exotic wagers.

To meet these needs, the American business community has invented the convention.
Traditional weekend conventions give people an opportunity to get away from their humdrum jobs for a while. Out of the cubicle and into the larger world, where friends are made and new careers are found and hearts are broken. Occasionally, some work even gets done. And it's all tax-deductible.

Now, with 20 million people working at home, conventions have become even more essential to the health of your career. Everyone has to get out there and shake hands and make eye contact and hope for the best. If you work at home, you need to network so you're not forgotten in your field. If you compete with us who work at home, you'd better attend your industry's conventions because you can bet we'll be there in force. Conventions let us get away from the kids for a couple of days.

A strange tranformation occurs when people who work solo attend conventions. Normally, we spend whole days alone, speaking to no one but the dog. We nibble bagels and sip coffee and tap away at keyboards, comfortable in monkish silence. But throw us into a crowd of friends and we become back-slapping degenerates -- pouring down liquor, staying up way too late, laughing too loud and talking, always talking. We sit in silence for months, stowing up words, so we can spill them in the hotel bar.

During the convention day, we doze through lectures and panel discussions, making the occasional note, which we'll later use as a coaster. We trudge past exhibits and booths. We conduct formal, muttered conversations in hallways with people who'd probably like to have our jobs. All in all, it's like a day at the office.

Everyone becomes more animated as happy hour approaches. Cash bars and evening clothes add an aura of glamor. Hospitality suites beckon. By midnight, we're wearing party hats and leading conga lines around the parking lot.

I recently attended a meeting of mystery writers and fans. It had been six months since my last convention, and I was pumped up, ready to chatter through a weekend of fun and commerce. I even bought new clothes, so I'd look more like a Professional Writer and less like Grizzly Addams.

My hotel room wasn't ready when I arrived because, under federal law, hotels must keep a maid in every vacant room until 5 p.m. With no place to unpack, I had no choice really but to adjourn to the hotel bar.

The next nine hours or so were a whirlwind of hand-shaking and book-signing and conversation and alcohol consumption. That regimen was followed by two more days of the same, interrupted only by fitful sleep and doses of aspirin and trying to take my pants off over my head.

Before I knew it, I was back on a plane, nursing an H-bomb of a hangover.

When I got home, I found my pockets were full of business cards from people I barely remembered and rumpled notes on things I'd drunkenly promised to do -- phone calls, interviews, more conventions, whole books -- that will take months to deliver, at considerable expense and exertion. And I had a bag full of convention freebies that I woozily gave to my family in lieu of real gifts.

The older I get, the harder it is to bounce back from these weekends of debauchery. I needed extra sleep for three days. My jaws ached from so much unaccustomed yakking. I haven't touched hard liquor since I got home.

Now, I'm back at my desk, back in the hair shirt of silence, until the next convention draws me out of the house.

I hope to fully recovered by then. The next one's in March.