Seeing red

A big ream of paper -- around 300 pages -- sits on my desk, awaiting my attention. It's the manuscript of my new mystery novel, recently bounced back to me by my wife and my best friend, the two people who always read my novels before I ship them off to New York.

The manuscript is covered with red and black ink -- squiggles and exclamations, deletions and suggestions, complaints and exhortations. It's about the most daunting thing I can imagine. Famed sportswriter Red Smith once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." This manuscript looks like someone bled all over it.

For a writer, the first read-through by others is the equivalent of an employee's annual review. All the work you've put into the book for the past six months or more is judged at once, every failing boldly noted in red. And, as with those dreaded annual reviews, I can't see the compliments or the unmarked text. I can only see the slights and the "suggestions for improved performance."

I once got an employee review from a boss at a news organization where I worked, and the only thing he marked down was the way I dressed. I still can recall the words: "As he matures, Steve will dress more like a businessman." That chiding followed me around for years. Heck no, I wouldn't dress more like a businessman. That's one of the reasons I went to work in news -- so I wouldn't have to wear a suit. That boss should see me now, working at home in my bathrobe.

So here I sit, in my bathrobe, with 300 pages of performance review staring me in the face. My next task is to go through the manuscript, making changes, adding whole chapters, cutting passages that seemed precious when they were drafted. If I'm diligent and disciplined, I can have the next round of rewrites done in a month, working in the hours around dawn while my sons are still asleep.

And today's the day to begin. So I used the age-old formula followed by at-home workers everywhere when faced with a daunting task. I got up early, poured myself some coffee, sat down at the computer and played Solitaire for an hour.

OK, maybe that wasn't what you expected. I'm usually one of those work-at-home people who stress discipline and determination and time management. At writers' conferences, I often tell aspiring authors that you write with your butt -- keep it in the chair until the words come. But faced with a month of revision, a month of responding to the flaws in my own work, I'm too cowed to start. Even after I erased the game board from my computer screen in disgust, I couldn't begin. I started writing this column instead. Anything -- even writing something fresh -- seemed preferable to delving into all that red ink. So I stall. I carp. I tell you readers about it. And you, without knowing it, become my enablers, allowing me to put off the rewriting when I should be plunging into it.

One of the blessings of working at home is that there's no one watching over your shoulder while you labor. But it's also one of the drawbacks to working at home. Without someone there to monitor my work, to prod and cajole me, it's easy to procrastinate. At times, I find myself wishing that I had a boss, someone who'd crack the whip when I needed it. Instead, I'm stuck searching for motivation, some way to break out of this deep freeze of hesitation and reluctance. It's almost enough to make me want to dress like a businessman.

And now the boys are awake. I hear them scurrying around the other end of the house, giggling and whispering, ready for another fun-filled summer day. They're my most important job, right? They give me a good excuse to put off the rewriting until tomorrow.

Tomorrow's another day. Tomorrow I'll be fresh and well-rested and ready to tackle the big job. And if I'm still not ready? Then I'll play Solitaire some more, berating myself until the kids come to my rescue..

(Editor's note: This column's from 1999, but not much has changed. My latest novel, which will be my 17th, is being read by my best friend right now. It'll come home soon, covered in red ink.)


Toad away

A Sunday morning. Around dawn. I'm the first one awake. I pad into the kitchen to make coffee, my eyes barely open, the light dim. And a huge brown toad hip-hops across the tile floor.

The following thoughts flit through my mind in seconds: Holy Minerva, a RAT! No, a toad. A fat toad loose in the house. Quick Sunday School flashback to a plague of toads. But there's only one here. And it looks familiar. Oh, yes, it's the toad my sons have been carrying around in a jar. They named him Billy. He's escaped. Somewhere, a jar lies open, its grass and dirt spilled on the carpet. There he goes. I should catch him. Drat, he went behind the washing machine. Quick, put the dog outside before he eats the toad and spends the rest of the day yarking on the carpet. Where's the jar? Where are the boys? Where's the toad now?

I caught him, of course, though it took on the proportions of a safari before he was finally back in his jar, hopping and banging his head on the lid. Guess that's how he escaped and he was going with what worked for him before. Not a lot of other options if you're a toad and you have a brain the size of a lentil. It's not like he was going to start tying sheets together to shimmy out a window.

Later, I persuaded the boys to free Billy. They found a nice home for him in the side yard, where the local insects congregate. I'm sure Billy will be very happy there.

We have two boys under the age of 10 at our house, which means we also have a revolving menagerie of animals living in jars and buckets and boxes. Boys are irresistibly drawn to wildlife. Billy's only the latest victim, er, specimen.

The experiences haven't always been pleasant, even if they are educational. A few years ago, the boys nursed along a whole bucketful of tadpoles, watching them sprout legs and slowly grow into tiny toads. Then a horrific thunderstorm pounded most of the little amphibians into the mud. The funerals lasted all day. Only one toad survived the storm -- the boys named him Billy -- and he escaped a few days later, causing tears and worry and grief.

Then my eldest wanted a box turtle. I bought one at a store and built a makeshift pen in a corner of the yard for him. They named him Speedy. Within days, he'd escaped, never to be seen again, though we spent endless hours probing the shrubbery for him. I told the kids they should've named him Houdini. They didn't think that was funny.

A week or so before the new, improved Billy arrived at our house, the boys briefly enjoyed the company of a full-grown horned toad they found near their grandparents' home. They named him Squint. He was a big hit at show-and-tell at school. Then my sons set his bucket outside so Squint could catch some rays. They put a brick in the bucket so he'd have a warm place to recline. Squint used the brick as a ramp and did an Evel Knievel out of the bucket and was gone. Tears, fears, worries that the dog would eat Squint. I found Squint two days later, while mowing the lawn. Fortunately, I got him before the mower did. I returned Squint to the boys with the condition that they free him soon so he could live happily ever after. They gladly complied. It's OK, apparently, to free a beast so he can return to the wild. But if he escapes on his own, it's an insult.

I've resigned myself to the idea there will be animals in the house, thumping and scritching and begging to be set free. Since I'm the parent who works at home, it'll sometimes fall to me to feed them or free them or find them running loose. I've only insisted on one rule: No snakes. I'm terrified of snakes, a product of growing up in Arkansas, where there's a poisonous viper every six feet or so.

They bring a snake into the house, and that's the day I'll head for the hills, hopping and banging against the door until I escape.


Caution: Parent on board

For most people, commuting is a daily pain, a harrowing gantlet of freeway snarls and orange barrels and moron motorists. One of the joys of telecommuting, you'd think, would be eliminating the drive from your everyday life.

But we who work at home sneer at such assumptions. Not only do we drive as much as ever, but we're never alone in the car.

When you commute by yourself, you get to pick the radio station, you get lost in your thoughts, you get to curse the other drivers with impunity. But us? We've got children in the back seat, making demands, twitching and squirming, shouting and squealing and, God forbid, touching each other.

As we chauffeur the children around, we're at their mercy. They're free to do whatever they want in the back seat because we have to keep our eyes on the road. I remember when I was growing up, my angry father would warn, "Don't make me pull this car over." And my brother and I would giggle and snort because we knew he'd never stop to discipline us, not unless we started a fire. He was too intent on getting the drive finished. Now, I'm the same way.

I've heard all the advice from parenting experts about keeping kids distracted while they're in the car. We play the Slug Bug game wherever we go. For the uninitiated, the game goes like this: You keep your eyes peeled for a Volkswagen Beetle. When you spot one, you shout out "Slug Bug!" and whack your seatmate on the shoulder. I quickly banned the punching part of the game, but my two sons adapted their own version that includes shouting out the color of the Bug. We also count Slug Vans and Slug Trucks (which includes anything with rounded fenders).
Often, when things get too rowdy, I'll just shout out "Slug Bug" and they'll get so busy trying to outnumber my finds that they'll calm down.

Music also soothes the savage brats, and they're particularly fond of oldies, which includes any song recorded before, oh, yesterday. When they're getting loud, I keep turning up the radio, hoping some tune by James Brown or The Temptations will grab their attention. Unfortunately, they're more likely to seize upon some song I can't stand. I'll punch the radio button with muttered disgust only to hear, "No, Dad! Go back! I like that song!" Do I oblige? You betcha. Better to listen to Neil Sedaka than more bickering.

Their tastes aren't all repellent, though they are diverse. Ask my 10-year-old his favorite band and he'll answer the Beatles. The 7-year-old likes the Beach Boys and the Spin Doctors. They both know all the words to "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night and "Walking on the Sun" by Smashmouth. Go figure.

Having kids in the car restricts the driver in other ways as well. From the back seat, the children can eye the speedometer and compare it to speed limit signs whizzing past. A lecture soon follows.

Worst of all, kids inhibit your freedom of speech. You can't comment out loud upon the obvious mental deficiencies of the other drivers. I've always been the type of driver who keeps up a running commentary on what the other idiots are up to, usually in terms that would make a sailor blush. Parents quickly learn to quell this compulsion. The worst word blurted in the heat of the near-miss moment will be the one surely repeated at the dinner table.

Once, a couple of years ago, I was at a red light, facing one other car. Both of us had our blinkers going to turn left. The light changed and I started making my turn. The other driver, who apparently had decided to go straight after all, stood on his brakes, honked and made obscene gestures at me.

Instantly furious, I yelled, "You had your blinker on, you mo--" And then I caught myself, remembering the 5-year-old in the back seat. As I chewed off my tongue, the 5-year-old said somberly, "Dad, it's not nice to call someone a moron."

I said, "That's right, son. Sorry."

And I longed once again for the solo commute.


Screamers and groaners

Whatever happened to the "paperless office?"

Remember those predictions, how the computer would eliminate paper from our lives? Everything would be handled electronically. No need for millions of trees to surrender their lives so we can pulp them into clean white sheets that we clutter up with ink.

Those forecasts went into the same trash heap as the predictions that we'd all be flying around in hovercars and spending our weekends on Mars. We use more paper now than ever. Paper gives us a permanent record, something to file away, safe from the hazards of hard-drive crashes and unwise decisions to "delete."

(I've always thought the "delete" button should be labeled "oops." Same with the "escape" key. Heck, the way I type some days, they all could be labeled "oops.")

For those of us who work at home, the paper piles up until it threatens to bury everything in the household. We don't have secretaries or file clerks to take it away and stash it somewhere, never to be seen again. We do our own filing, if any, and it can be as haphazard as the rest of our disorganized lives.

The answer, I'm sure, is to embrace the technology and stop generating so much paper. Store everything in the computer, back up every file, keep a log of file names and document folders. But that's all too methodical for a guy who can barely organize a sock drawer.

Even if I wanted to reduce the paper flow from my life, my work wouldn't allow it. Book publishers still do everything on paper. Manuscripts are passed around publishing houses from editor to editor like batons in a slow-motion relay race. Here's how high-tech they get in the book industry: Each editor uses a different color ink to mark corrections, leaving a trail of who-did-what. Take that, Bill Gates.

I do the same thing at home. I print a manuscript, mark it up with a lot of changes, then transfer the changes to the computer copy. Then I print out a new version and start the process all over again. By the time I'm finished, I could stack manuscripts to the ceiling.

Generating all those documents means using the "print" command. That key should be labeled "commit to paper now, only to discover typographical errors once it's printed and then do it all over again." But I guess that wouldn't fit on the keyboard.

Back when we used typewriters, everyone was accustomed to penciled-in changes and flaky little blurs of correcting fluid. But now that computers are ubiquitous, we all expect perfect copy. And that means printing and fixing and reprinting and fixing some more, ad infinitum.

For years, I was stuck using a slow dot matrix printer. Each line of type required a moving head to needle the words onto the paper. Apparently it was a painful process because the printer made a high-pitched wail with every line. I called it "The Screamer." Printing out a 300-page manuscript would leave my ears ringing for days.

I now use a faster, quieter laser printer. It's wonderful until something goes wrong with it. Then I'm reminded once again how we work-at-home types are trapped alone with our problems. In a regular office, you call the technical types and they wheel the balky printer away and bring it back when it's repaired. At home, you're on your own.

Recently, I was rushing through a print job -- a 400-page manuscript that needed to be in New York yesterday -- when a gray stripe started appearing down the middle of each page. I discovered this problem, naturally, after 50 or so striped pages were already on their way to the wastebasket. I opened the printer and cleaned it out. I thumbed through the user's manual. I finally hurried to an office supplies store and bought a new toner cartridge, to the tune of $65.

All was well again. Except all my monkeying with the innards of the thing meant the paper no longer fed smoothly. A page would go halfway into the machine, then the printer would emit a groaning noise and everything would lock up. Then I would emit a groaning noise and start all over again.

So "The Screamer" has been replaced by "The Groaner." Typewriters, anyone?


Towering achievements need right tools

You can't tell it from my mug shot, but I'm a big guy.

I stand 6-foot-5 in my sock feet and my weight hovers around 250, depending on what time of day I brave the scales and how many tacos I consumed the night before.

Before you ask, the weather up here is just the same as it is down where you are. And no, I didn't play much basketball. Too many injuries, too little talent, a vertical leap of four inches.

Most people think it's cool to be tall. In this country, we like our heroes to be big strapping fellows. We think of our movie idols as being tall, even if Alan Ladd had to stand on a box to kiss the heroine. We worship the pituitary cases who star in the National Basketball Association, though recent events have shown them to be a bunch of big babies.

There are times when height has its advantages. Seeing over crowds comes to mind. Changing light bulbs. Hiding my candy stash on the top shelf so my kids won't find it.

But nobody thinks of the disadvantages.

America is full of well-dressed guys who stand at the national average of 5-foot-9. The 2 percent of American men who are 6-foot-3 or taller can't buy off the rack. We have to search out the "tall" sizes ironically hidden away on a bottom shelf. Or, we go to "Big and Tall" shops, which are stocked with crawly double-knit pants and shirts in patterns that can be seen from the space shuttle. Apparently, the clothing industry thinks we're so desperate, we'll wear anything to keep from going around large and naked.

I avoid the clothing problem by working at home, where I can throw on the same raggedy jeans and T-shirts for days on end and nobody cares. I've worn a necktie only once in the two years since I left the workaday world. That was for a wedding and there was no avoiding the noose. Even that necktie said "tall" on the label. Bet you never considered that neckties come in sizes, but tall guys know. We wear a regular tie and it comes up short. We get the ends to match up, then go around all day looking like Oliver Hardy.

Working at home means doing the housework and that has its own disadvantages for the oversized. Most center around back pain.

Just as they don't make decent clothes for guys my size, they also forget us when they're designing household tools. I thought of this again the other day when I was vacuuming the house, stooped over, sweat dripping off the end of my nose. Your standard vacuum cleaner is designed for someone who stands maybe 5-foot-2. People that size can vacuum an entire house and the only time they'll bend over is to unplug the thing. (And even that can be avoided if you perfect the method of yanking the plug out of the wall from across the room.) But a person my size has to work bent at a 90-degree angle. Otherwise, the sucking end of the vacuum doesn't touch the floor, which pretty much defeats the purpose.

Brooms and mops come with standard 4-foot-long handles. A tall man spends much time using them, he ends up stooped over like a question mark.

Sinks are at crotch height for us big guys, which makes splashovers even more embarrassing. Dishwashers are practically on the floor. A front-loading clothes dryer requires a touch-your-toes maneuver and the open door is at just the right level to bark our shins.

I know what you're thinking: These tools are designed for women. The manufacturers assume women do all the housework, so they build the various labor-saving gizmos with them in mind. But recent surveys show men are doing more and more of the housework, and only some of the respondents were lying.

Somewhere out there, an entrepeneur is designing king-sized cleaning implements. I predict he or she will make a fortune. But it'll probably come too late for me. I'll be old and stooped by then and the current cleaning instruments will finally be the right size.

In the meantime, if you need a light bulb changed, I'm your man.

(Editor's note: This column is from 1999. The weight numbers have been changed to reflect current, sad realities.)


When "almost" is enough

When my two sons were younger, I taught them to swing a bat at a plastic ball tossed underhand. When they whiffed, which was often, they would call out "Almost!"

Not "oops" or "darn" or "never again," which would have signaled frustration, but "almost."
They almost hit it, and they were ready to try again. If they missed again, so what? As long as they swung the bat, as long as they made an effort, they had almost succeeded.

I remember smiling every time they said it, and reminding myself that this was a good philosophy for any effort. Do your best, and see how it turns out. "Almost" keeps you from giving up or stomping off in anger or blaming the pitcher or the coach.

There's an optimism attached to "almost" that's missing from most other words. "Almost" means not yet, but I'm still trying.

Grown-ups use "almost," though mostly to buy time or to qualify answers when we're uncertain. What do we say when asked if we're done with a task? "Almost." How do we answer when asked if we'll meet a looming deadline? "Almost." What do we think when someone calls the boss a "perfect idiot?" We think "almost" because nobody's perfect.

Most of us know the difference between a job well done and one done well enough. That gray area in between is where "almost" lives. We all want to excel, but let's face it, the closest most of us come is "almost." Why chew your lips off trying to be the very best when "almost" is close enough for jazz?

The "almost" approach takes the pressure off. And it leaves the door open for another attempt. How often have you done all you can, working long hours and giving yourself a big fat headache, only to find that the results weren't quite what your superiors had in mind? There's no sense trying to tell them about "almost," but "almost" can be a cushion to collapse upon when you think you can't take any more.

While "almost" may lead to better mental health, it's a philosophy you're better off keeping to yourself.

Bosses don't want to hear that you "almost" did a good job. They want it all done and they want it done right, which means they want it done the way they would've done it themselves. The fact they didn't do it themselves probably means it was a dirty job to start with, but that doesn't let you off the hook.

I'm not endorsing goldbricking or lollygagging. I think you should try your best. But striving for perfection comes with a high price: Ulcers, migraines, depression, anger, impatience, spoiled relationships, the various escape hatches seemingly offered by drugs or drink or other bad habits. All because you weren't perfect, even if you "almost" made it.

We should embrace "almost." Let it soothe us. Let it ease that impatient hustle-bustle that plagues our lives. We all know we can't be perfect at every task, all the time. But if we almost make it, if we've done the best we can under the circumstances, then "almost" is probably good enough.

It's a hard lesson to learn. Americans are competitive strivers. Society demands that we go full tilt all the time, trying to get ahead, to make a buck, to outdo our co-workers. Outside of work, we struggle to have the cleanest house, the slimmest thighs, the funniest jokes, the lowest golf score.

The pressure builds as we push for perfection. The result? All the fun goes out of the tasks. It's possible to enjoy the most mundane chore if you slow down and pay attention. But we all go too fast, trying to get it over with so we can move on to the next thing. If we don't stop to smell the roses, the only odors we get are sweat and fertilizer.

I spent many years working for newspapers, where the daily grind consists of going as fast as you can without making a single mistake. These days, I'm trying to slow down, to savor the work, to stay optimistic about how it will all turn out.

Am I succeeding?



Book? No? How about a cookie?

No matter how much we stay-at-home workers enjoy the hermit lifestyle, there comes a time when we have to go see other humans.

For many telecommuters, it's a trip to the main office to meet with bosses and seldom-seen co-workers. For others, it's seeing clients. For an author, it's that great annual outing, the book tour.

Most of you, when you leave the house, have some idea who you're going to see. But authors travel to bookstores not knowing who -- if anyone -- will show up. We go with the uneasy knowledge that success or failure hinges on the whim of the marketplace, and we all know what a crap shoot that can be.

Sometimes, it goes well and nobody is more surprised than me. When people buy my books and ask for my autograph, it's the sweetest feeling in the world. It's automatic validation, better than any performance evaluation a boss could cook up.

But past experience has taught me to go to every book-signing expecting the worst: Two hours of solitude, a frozen smile pasted on my face, while customers hurry past, trying not to make eye contact. You'd think I was asking for spare change (which in a way I am, but never mind).
For those of you who haven't written a book and gone on tour (and I'm assured there still are such people, Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding), think of it this way: It's exactly like being a captive at the city dog pound. You try to look perky and ingratiating, hoping someone will notice and take you home. But on the inside, you're panicking, thinking: "Help, help, I'm dying here!"

Sometimes, bookstore owners have two or three or even four authors signing books at the same time. This adds an element of quiet, desperate competition to the mix. Nothing's more uncomfortable than sitting next to an author who has a line of happy readers going around the block.

My best friend attends most of my local book-signings, just in case. If no one shows up, he sits with me and we chat and tell jokes and I feel less like a pariah. If a customer shows any interest, my pal melts away, prowling the stacks until he's needed again. Every author should have such a friend.

Local signings usually go best because relatives and acquaintances, moved by charity or guilt, show up. Of course, they all expect me to remember their names, which presents another set of problems. A writer works alone for months at a time, then suddenly is thrown into an ersatz cocktail party, expected to recognize everybody and make sure everyone has a good time. It's like being the host of a high school reunion, and nobody's wearing a name tag.

Out on the road, an author can get as lonely as a Maytag repairman. And there's the added bonus of knowing it costs plenty to travel from city to city. Soon, the author's thinking: Why am I doing this? I could stay home and be ignored for free.

If the author gets bold and starts flagging down customers, they come up with creative ways to say, "No thanks." I've had some tell me they only read non-fiction. Some only read books written by women. Some wouldn't touch a mystery novel with a redwood tree.

Once, a lady asked me to move out of the way so she could get to the cookbooks displayed behind me. Another time, I had a customer ask whether I knew a famous author and whether I could get him to sign a book. Then there was the time the bookstore set out a tray of cookies as a bribe for people who'd stop and talk with me. The cookies went like, um, hotcakes. The books just sat there.

Such snubs are painful to the writer's fragile ego, but they serve a purpose. They make it easier to return to the isolated life of writing the next book. After a few weeks on the road, solitude starts looking pretty inviting. And it doesn't require smiling.


Where the toys are

I have chattering teeth on my desk.

Not just your standard plastic chattering teeth. These have big, pink bare feet attached. The whole thing hops around while the teeth chatter. Worth a smile the first 30 times you see it.
After that, you try to ignore the little gizmo, which sends you telepathic signals all day: "Wind me up. C'mon, it'll be fun."

Where did this laugh riot come from? I have no idea. I assume one of my sons set the teeth here, then forgot them.

Desks collect toys and gimcracks and gewgaws and freebie calendars, whether they're sitting with their mates in some big office or all alone at home. Such is their nature. If zoologists traced it back far enough, I'm sure they'd find an evolutionary branch where four-legged desks split from the same primitive species that spawned the packrat.

In large offices, workers decorate their desks to liven up their personal spaces and to show off their toys or photographs of their families. You can tell a lot about people by the artwork and cartoons and accessories they keep on their desks

For instance, a person who uses a ballpoint with a large pink plume attached tends to be the fun-loving sort. A man whose desk is covered with photos of dogs, but no people, might seem shy at first, but he'll be loyal and friendly and will respond well to praise. A bowling trophy may indicate a heightened appreciation for healthy activity and beer.

Desk decoration can also be a warning flag. I've never gotten a satisfactory answer from a secretary who had Garfield prominently displayed. Never enter into a conversation with a man who keeps on his desk a photo of his boat.

Some items are silent protests against the powers that be. Is there any cubicle in America that doesn't sport a "Dilbert" cartoon? Once, when I didn't like my supervisor, I placed a portrait of the Marx Brothers on my desk as mute comment on the way we were being managed. In the photo, the brothers were choking each other.

I worked with an unhappy woman who kept a plastic lamp on her desk. The lamp was shaped like a mushroom cloud and had a red bulb inside. When her superiors walked past, she'd flick on the light and say under her breath: "Boom. Heh-heh-heh." We were all secretly glad when she moved away.

In a home office, a desk is like a big stationary goathead. Everything that travels past sticks to it.

In the past week or two, along with the chattering teeth and the usual mail, I've found the following on my desk: a round plastic rock, a stuffed Roswell alien (twice), several Transformer beasts in various stages of mutation and undress, six shoes, two yo-yos, four Super Balls, a chocolate heart left over from Valentine's Day (how did I miss that?), seven Hot Wheels cars, a toy dump truck, two Koosh balls (don't ask), a dead flower, nine coffee cups, a dozen action figures, three Beanie Babies and 37 dirty socks.

I didn't want any of these things on my desk. I prefer a clean, organized work space. But detritus moves through, and the desk picks it up.

The problem is worse at our house these days because of our shaggy dog, Elvis. He's learned to pick up toys and other items around the house and chew them. He's trained us to take the item away, praise him for handing it over and then put the item on a horizontal surface out of his reach, such as my desk. Then Elvis goes to get another item and we do it all over again. As the numbers show, he's particularly keen on dirty socks.

I think Elvis sees it as his way of cleaning the house. He finds stuff on the floor, brings it to me and I eventually put it away. He's just trying to help. And I'll keep doing my part, cleaning off the desk for the next inevitable accumulation. But I'm keeping the chattering teeth.


Sweeping and swinging

I'm heading to my desk to work when I detour by the stereo and put on a CD. Why not a little musical accompaniment to the work day? One of the joys of working at home is being able to listen to music, as loud as you want, while you tickle the ivories of the computer keyboard.

I choose Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, one of the new swing bands, and set it to play. Then it's off to my desk to focus, crank out some words, meet some deadlines.

About the time Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is swinging into "You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight," I find myself in the far end of the house, gathering dirty laundry, dancing about in my sock feet like an idiot. The computer screen sits blank. The laundry is getting done, sure, but how did this happen? I'm in the wrong room, doing the wrong job.

You could blame this on a genetic lack of concentration, and you might be right, but I fault the music. Wrong tempo for writing. Too lively, with all those stuttering saxophones and jumping horns. I had to get up and move, bounce around. Getting distracted by the music led me away from my desk to the laundry room and, before you know it, all over the house, searching up dirty socks.

John Milton wrote, "Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie." I don't think he was referring to housework, but the shoe fits. Certain rhythms move us. Whether it's a drumbeat stirring something primitive within us or weeping strings welling up within our chests, music affects our brains and nervous systems. This is fine if we're talking tapping your toe to the rhythm, it's something else if you're doing the conga by yourself.

The right music can actually help you focus. Studies show that studying math while listening to certain classical music improves test scores. Teens love to study with the radio blaring, though it's more likely to be Marilyn Manson than Mozart. Look around your standard office, and you'll find lots of people wearing headphones, both to give a rhythm to their day and to seal them off from ringing telephones and yammering workmates. I went to a dentist one time who let me listen to Bruce Springsteen on headphones while pumping me full of laughing gas. This was in San Francisco. Say no more.

Working alone at home, you can give your whole day a soundtrack. The trick is to match the music with the task at hand. You want something with the right tempo for your day, something not too distracting, something familiar so you can sing along when you're idle, but can tune it out when you need to concentrate.

I'm partial to the blues, and find it appropriate to many household tasks. What could be a better accompaniment to sweeping, for instance, than Muddy Waters singing "Dust My Broom?" What could make you want to bustle about the house more than the lively "Juke" by Little Walter?
But the blues are not for everybody, including my wife. She prefers country music, and I've learned to bustle to Alan Jackson or Brooks and Dunn when she's around. "King of the Road" has got some line about brooms in it, and the characters in country songs tend to make you feel good about yourself. No matter what kind of drudgery you're facing, at least your Mama hasn't been hit by a train.

Boogie woogie and rockabilly are great for rhythmic work like chopping or dusting. Slightly more up-tempo than the rate you might want to work, but why not get it over with in a hurry? Just watch your fingers with that knife.

Instrumental music seems to be good for writing. No words to distract you but your own. But CDs work better than the radio. Those classical disc jockeys with their somnolent voices can sink you right into a depression.

Here's when you know the music's just right: when the CD hisses to a stop and you realize you haven't heard it. It was playing the whole time, but your concentration was so intense, the music wasn't registering with your conscious thoughts. That's the flow, that inner stream of creativity and motivation, and it's the sweetest music of all.

Mom's away

If you think you've got the whole working-at-home thing down, if you think you can do it all -- work, field trips, meals, cleaning, laundry, haircuts, doctor's appointments -- then send your mate out of town for a week.

I had this humbling experience recently and found that standards fall when no one is around to watch. The house gradually becomes a pigsty. The kids wear holey jeans to school because Dad was too late and too exasperated to make them change. Phone calls go unreturned. Macaroni-and-cheese suddenly seems like a mighty fine supper. Competitive belching is acceptable after-dinner behavior.

Naturally, by the time my wife got back to town, everything was shipshape. I've got to keep up the illusion that I know what I'm doing around here. But I was forced to cast aside all writing assignments and work on the house for hours the day before she returned. She got home, marveled at how well things had been kept up, aned I beamed with pride. Then she went out of town again, and everything degenerated, according to pattern.

Is it the same for wives who work at home? At my sons' school, I see the stay-at-home moms in their J. Crew ensembles and their Buddhist calm, and I wonder what it's like for them when dad's out of town. Is it any different? Do things fall apart? Do they resort to giving their children spit-baths at red lights on the way to school? Do they dig deep into closets rather than do laundry, until they end up padding around the house in plaid shirts and jam-stained sweatpants and crunchy socks? Does an inordinate amount of their time become devoted to computer games and ESPN? I think not.

But you send mom out of town, and even the most organized dad soon will be ready to check "all of the above."

Without women around to impress, we men quickly lose the battle against sloth. It's a lot of work, keeping up the house and cooking and chauffeuring the kids, and there's almost always an easier alternative. Ignore the dirt (it'll still be there when I get around to it). Get drive-through fast food (the clerks don't care whether I'm wearing shoes). Skip Cub Scouts this week (I can't let the other parents see me like this).

Slothful Dad falls into a television stupor while it all piles up. He's slugging beer and flipping channels, alternating between three different basketball games and "Baywatch." Meanwhile, the unwashed kids are running around the house naked, eating cat food out of the can and setting fire to the dog. It's "Lord of the Flies" in suburbia.

Heaven forbid that the whole family go out of town and leave Dad home alone. That's happened to me a few times, and the devolution is rapid and severe. Within hours of the family's departure, I've become a cave dweller. All the window blinds are closed so I get no glare on the TV. I'm wearing rags. I'm scratching myself without checking to see whether anyone watches. I'm burping at will. There's filth beneath my bare feet and a dog lying nearby, gnawing a bone. It's a wonder I don't start playing with fire and painting primitive hunting scenes on the walls.

It all comes to a halt, of course. No matter how much of a Neanderthal the man becomes, he knows that eventually he'll have to return to the present. Clean the house. Stock the cupboards. Bathe the children, the dog, himself. The fact that this all will occur within hours of the wife's return is a given. What's the point of procrastination if you don't wait until the last possible minute? Then it's a frenzy, a whirlwind, a slam-bang race to the finish. Clean everything. Cook a meal. Pass out fresh clothes and bandages and toothbrushes to the troops, along with a final debriefing of "things we won't tell Mom."

And then Mom breezes in, flushed with happiness, and finds the place just as she left it. And she congratulates Dad on keeping everything so orderly. And Dad beams with pride, all the while wondering what's on ESPN.


Big house blues

I remember, as a boy, hearing my mother's friends dish about an acquaintance's new, much bigger home. "It's a nice place," they said, "but I wouldn't want to clean it."

I now know what they meant. We moved to a bigger place a few months ago, and it's doubled my workload. Plus, I had to learn how to clean a house all over again.

All the routines change. Everything is in a new place. You spend so much time looking for, say, the mop that by the time you find it, you've forgotten where you spilled.

Some things are learned quickly. When is trash day? Where did we put the scissors? What's that noise?

Others take longer. It takes a few weeks to master the light switches, for example. How come, in a new place, all the light switches seem to be on the wrong walls? More than once, I've trekked to that one light that was left on at night, only to pitch myself into darkness. Then I'm stuck, trying to remember how to illuminate a path back to my bed. I end up fumbling for the light I just extinguished, then turning on seven more to backtrack. The electricity bill would be lower if I'd just left that one burning.

Learning to clean a house is the slowest lesson of all. The day is filled with inefficiencies. I carry clean laundry to the far end of the house and put it in a bedroom, only to return to the laundry room and find something else that belongs in that bedroom. I can walk miles every day without going outdoors.

I tend to wander when I clean anyway. I'll be working in the kitchen and see a toy that's been left on the counter and I'll take the toy to a kid's room and then notice the kid's room needs picking up and I'll do that until I run out of coffee. Then I'm back in the kitchen and I resume the dishes until something else distracts me and I'm off again.

This method results in most rooms in the house being almost-clean at any one time. Almost-clean's not so bad, actually. If the doorbell rings, a quick slamming of doors to shut off the worst of it can make a house look as tidy as Martha Stewart's.

The doorbell rings a lot after you move into a new place. All your friends and relatives want to come by and see it. Of course, they want to see behind all the closed doors, too. More than once, I've warned a visitor approaching my son's closet: "Don't open that! Avalanche!"

Everyone who visits knows I'm responsible for the housework in our family, so I'm embarrassed if they find damp towels on the floor or dust bunnies in the foyer. I walk ahead of my visitors, subtly kicking things under furniture.

No matter how much I vacuum, the floors always are covered with bits of dead yellow grass. Our fuzzy dog rolls around in the yard, then carries a bale of hay into the house. A quick shake and a roll on the carpet and the dead grass is deposited right where he wants it. I've never seen an animal with a coat so perfectly designed for things to stick in it. We should've named him Velcro.

I'm learning to ignore the thatched floor, but keep everything else more-or-less clean. I now plan my journeys from one end of the house to the other. And we've found new tools to help. We got a big square bucket for carrying all the cleaning products and implements from room to room and two laundry baskets for ferrying clothes back and forth to the washer.

I've discovered a new appreciation for labor-saving devices that had been shunned in the past. I now love the vacuum cleaner, for instance, and the sweet geometry of rearranging the dishwasher load to squeeze in that one last bowl.

The light switches still stymie me occasionally, but I've learned to find my way in the dark.

(Editor's note: This column originally appeared in 1999. We're in a smaller, almost-clean house now.)


Duckwalking through emergency rooms

The other day, I sliced my finger while opening a jar of pickles. You might have trouble picturing anything less sharp than a jar of pickles, but this one had some little rough spot and it snagged my middle finger as it twisted past and gave me a bright inch-long gash.

No big deal, right? Didn't even hurt much, though it bled as if I'd run it through a jigsaw. It was, however, a reminder of the dangers of working around the house.

They don't tell you this when you sign on to do the housework. You think, sure, there'll be a lot more to do if I work at home -- carpools and cooking and cleaning and laundry -- but "bleeding" isn't part of the job description. You don't expect that your new fashion accessory will be the Band-Aid.

Homes, our cozy nests, are dangerous places. They're full of knives and power tools and wet tiles and electric wires. Plus, they're designed for people of a certain size. I'm about 20 percent larger than that size in every direction, so I bump into all the sharp corners.

Working around the house, it's possible for a klutz to get hurt most every day. The day after I started sporting a Band-Aid for the pickle slice, I pinched my pinkie in a TV antenna, peeling back a sweet little butterfly of epidermis. Another Band-Aid, same hand. I was starting to look like an offensive lineman -- tape on every finger.

The wrist of the same hand is nearly healed from an incident a few days earlier. I was teaching our giant puppy to play fetch and he forgot the whole "throwing the ball" portion of the program and tried to snatch it out of my hand with his teeth. Maybe he didn't want to be the only one in the family without an opposable thumb.

So that's the story on one hand up to the wrist. Usually, the rest of the body bears a similar spattering of cuts and scrapes and bruises, proving that life is perilous, even for house hermits.

I should've known it would be this way. My past performance in any sort of household labor has shown a predilection toward injury.

Years ago, when I was a bachelor, I was cleaning up the aftermath of a party, my hand down a garbage disposal to fish out a beer bottle cap, when my then-girlfriend flipped on the "light" to help me see. The disposal didn't actually cut off any of my fingers, but it sure made them wish they'd been elsewhere. The relationship with the girlfriend went south soon after. And I've been flinchy about garbage disposals ever since.

Every plumbing job I've ever attempted has resulted in barked knuckles or worse. I can't handle a hot skillet without touching it somewhere. "Some assembly required" should be the slogan scrolled on the door of the emergency room.

Even something as fluffy as laundry can hurt. Inside the door of the dryer? There's that sharp little latch . . .

And these are just the external injuries. Inside the body, all those muscles and tendons and ligaments are just begging to be stretched, strained, severed, spindled and mutilated. I once walked like Quasimodo for a week because I bent over awkwardly to pick up a book off the floor. Recently, I squatted over a broken sprinkler head so long that my legs seized up. I thought for a moment I'd have to do the Chuck Berry duckwalk everywhere I went.

OK, now you're thinking: Quit your quacking, you big Baby Huey. Most working stiffs would gladly risk the injuries to stay home all day. You're right, of course. Working at home -- without several layers of bosses lining up to breathe down my neck -- is worth the hazards. I wear my Band-Aids with pride.

At least now that my kids are older, the Band-Aids are the "flesh-tone" variety. It was hard to impress the fellas down at the hardware store, to show them I'm a man's man who troubleshoots his own household repairs, when I wore Barney the Dinosaur on every finger.


Fidget your way to health

Scientists recently reported that people who fidget gain weight at a slower pace than those who know how to sit still. Apparently, repeated small movements like toe-tapping and knee-bouncing burn up calories faster than accepted forms of exercise like running or cycling.

These scientists deserve a big sloppy kiss from those of us who spend long hours sitting at desks. We now have scientific proof that swivel chairs are just as good for working out as expensive exercise equipment. It also gives us a handy excuse when our spouses or children wonder why we're so tired in the evening when, after all, the entire day was spent sitting down: "Not tonight, hon, I've spent a long day fidgeting!"

Many of you may not understand the complexities of fidgeting as exercise. So I thought I'd prescribe a series of exercises aimed at toning and fat-burning. If you follow this exercise plan faithfully, and eat a balanced diet, you are guaranteed to feel better, look better and smell better. You'll soon be the envy of those misguided souls who believe sweating is a good thing.


This exercise, while seemingly simple, can be difficult to master. But it's important that you learn it well so it comes naturally. You don't want to strain something. You'll find, once you master the basic fidget, that you'll be able to do it without even thinking about it.

The secret to the fidget is to keep one part of your body in motion at all times. This can be as simple as tapping the floor lightly with your foot, or as complex as typing, chewing gum and jiggling your knees all at the same time. Again, remember to start slowly. You don't want to injure yourself. It's easy to become discouraged when your exercise program is interrupted by a painful tendon or spleen.

Once you've mastered the Basic Fidget, it's time to move on to more strenuous exercises, such as:


This exercise will build your arm muscles, but it does include an element of danger. How many of us have had our workouts (not to mention our workdays) ruined by hot coffee spilled in the lap? Unless the coffee is from a fast food joint and you stand to make millions off a lawsuit, it's better to keep the coffee in the cup.

Lift the coffee mug slowly to your lips and sip from it. Then set it down on a nearby horizontol surface, preferably one at some distance from expensive computer equipment. Once you have the basic coffee-drinking movement down pat, you can increase the resistance by using bigger mugs. Some of us more experienced desk jockeys have worked up to mugs that hold 10 or 12 ounces. But be warned, this is not for the novice.

Important: Remember to switch hands occasionally. You don't want one arm to become more developed than the other. This looks odd and can prove embarrassing when attempting to button your cuffs in public.


Gently rocking back and forth in your chair exercises the leg muscles as well as toning the torso and back muscles. Make sure the chair is well-oiled so that it does not squeak. A squeaking chair can result in injury, particularly if you work with others who are sensitive to the noise.


This is a tricky maneuver that actually requires standing up. Rise to your feet, taking care to maintain your balance. Lift both arms over your head and stretch your entire body. Pretend you're reaching for the ceiling or doing something else that requires great height, such as kissing a giraffe. Once you've gotten out all the kinks, carefully return to your seat and relax all over. Repeat as necessary.


This generally overlooked exercise can combat the localized weight gain known scientifically as "chair spread." I find this exercise is particularly effective while playing video games that involve shooting monsters. It also occurs naturally when your boss catches you playing video games.

Practice these exercises daily and the inches will melt away. And soon, you'll find that you've developed enough muscle tone that you're ready for more strenuous maneuvers, such as Preparing Lunch or Going Outside.


Cooking for guys

With more of us guys working at home, it's becoming more common for us to be put in charge of cooking meals. This is a grave mistake in most cases, one that could lead to outbreaks of nutrition-related ailments like rickets and scurvy.

I speak in generalities here and the usual exceptions apply. I know at least two couples in which the guy is a gourmet chef and does most of the cooking. But in general, guys seem to be missing the cooking-nutritious-meals gene. Apparently, it's in the same DNA strand as the stopping-to-ask-for-directions gene.

The problem isn't that cooking is so hard or that guys are too lazy to do it right. It's just guys are like dogs: To us, pretty much everything is food. If you can eat it, it must be good for you. And the easier it is to get, the better.

This was built into our genetic code during the caveman days, when men went around foraging for things to eat. Men would wander the wilderness, picking up things and sticking them in their mouths to see if they tasted good. It was mostly a matter of trial-and-error. If a rock broke out Trog's teeth, then Trog wouldn't eat any more rocks. If Trog found a dead animal, he'd gnaw on it and take it back to the family because it was good.

It was just a short step up to Trog going around killing animals for the family to eat. I suspect he got tired of waiting for roaming animals to fall over dead from old age. He had to take matters into his own hands.

But it was the woman in this scenario, I believe, who discovered that meat held over a flame got even tastier and was less likely to give the Trog family a screaming case of trichinosis. Mrs. Trog was left back at the cave, whittling new teeth for her husband, and she had time to experiment with the food he brought home. It was Mrs. Trog who learned which foods tasted best together and which ones kept the family healthy. It wasn't long, I suspect, before she was demanding a spice rack and a kitchen island.

Trog, meanwhile, was still out there hunting and gathering. Being a guy, Trog would eat almost anything while he was on the road. This mentality, which eventually would lead to the proliferation of fast food joints along our nation's highways, allowed Trog to eat new and different foods, including those forbidden by Mrs. Trog. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how pork rinds came to be.

A modern guy still carries around those Trog genes. Left to his own devices, he will forage for food rather than plan a well-balanced meal and prepare it. Why cook when Taco Bell has a drive-thru window?

When a guy is forced into cooking or (God forbid) grocery shopping, he still will produce odd combinations, many of them involving beer. And he still wants an element of danger in the process, which is why barbecue grills are so popular.

If you doubt these generalities, check with most any bachelor. When I was a single guy, I started thinking about dinner the moment I got off work. No advance planning, no thawing something ahead of time. I got in the car, picked up fast food and zoomed home to eat it before it got cold. My refrigerator was stocked with condiments and Pepto-Bismol and a few mystery leftovers that would stay safely wrapped in foil until a biohazard team happened by.

Now that cooking is part of my job description, I've learned to prepare simple meals and -- most importantly -- make good use of the microwave. "Heat and eat" is my middle name.

But foraging still is in my genes. My best cooking tool is a car.


Rent-a-writer to the rescue

I usually avoid clothing with messages, but my wife got me one T-shirt that I wear with pride.
It says, "Will Write For Food."

That's a pretty apt description of what I've been doing since I was 18 years old. It's not the most lucrative occupation, but it has its rewards. And it's almost always met my main criteria for a career: Indoor work, no heavy lifting.

For most of the past 23 years, I worked at newspapers, where I had business cards and fairly regular hours and a daily necktie (what a writer friend calls the "yoke of servitude"). When I met people, I had a corporate identity and they could quickly categorize me.

But in the past two years, since I turned full-time to writing fiction (and this column, which isn't exactly the same thing), I suffer the same fate as other people who work at home. People don't take me seriously because I have no corporate structure to pigeonhole me.

Now, at introductions, I mutter, "I'm a writer." But see, it doesn't stop there. People are interested in writing because they think it's something they could do if they just set their minds to it. Many people harbor a desire to write a book and share their wisdom with the rest of us knuckleheads, and they want to tell me all about it. Or, they want to tell me their life story because it would make great material for a writer, not understanding that 1) writing it up is the hard part and 2) I've got my own stories to write, thank you very much. Or, they want to tell me how much fun they had with the Christmas epistle or that hilarious letter to Cousin Ruth.

Other people want to ask a hundred questions, most of them aimed at finding out if I'm some kind of famous writer and, if so, then how come they've never heard of me?

And some people are just flat suspicious of anybody who gets to sit around in his bathrobe all day, tickling the keyboard, while they're out slaving away at a Real Job.

We could write that off to envy, but I think it's more deep-seated than that. Writers produce a transitory art, one you typically consume once. You read a book or a newspaper article and then it's tossed aside in favor of the next distraction. Why should something so fleeting be somebody's full-time job? As my friend, Canadian novelist Alison Gordon, says, authors are the only grown-ups who "get to stay home all day in their pajamas and play with their imaginary friends." People resent that.

Since I'm the one home all day, I deal with all the repairmen and handymen and delivery people who come to our house. These guys, who get to see me at home in my rumpled element, tend to snort and squint when I answer their questions about being a writer. A real man works with tools, their attitude says, not with words. A real man sure as heck doesn't do all the laundry and keep the house straightened up and tend children.

Some of them just don't get it at all. When I moved recently, one of the three-man moving crew was a recent immigrant named Carlos, who registered my occupation with a grunt and a nod. But before he left, while we were chatting about the dozens of book boxes he'd unloaded, he said, "If I need something written sometime, I'll call you." Carlos apparently thought I was running some sort of storefront operation. Rent-a-Writer.

I smile and shucks my way through these encounters because I know what they don't: Writing is a cool gig. Not only do you get to work at home, but you produce something that matters to you. It's a great feeling, knowing somebody is reading what you've written, at least until you hear what they thought of it. This is why I avoided newspaper readers in coffee shops when I was a full-time reporter. Overheard criticism is the hardest to take.

You don't have to worry about that when you're a writer, working all alone. Your imaginary friends almost never criticize.