Sympathy for the bedeviled

People who work at regular jobs often ask us who work at home, "What do you do with yourself all day?"

No offense, but that is an exceedingly stupid question. We're very busy here at home. You folks in 9-to-5 jobs think you have full lives -- running around, talking on cellular phones, making million-dollar deals, keeping the economy pumping. To you, it might seem that we home-office workers have lots of time to lollygag in our pajamas and watch soap operas. This simply is not true.

Here at home, we perform many so-called "invisible" tasks -- such as scraping lime out of toilet bowls -- and those jobs take time. Most days, we barely scratch the surface of all we need to do before, whoops, it's bedtime again.

So, as a public service, to generate understanding between you wage slaves and we pajama-wearing housespouses, we here at The Home Front have drawn up a typical schedule for working at home. As the numbers show, we deserve not only your respect, but your sympathy.

We'll start with a 40-hour workweek and chip away from there. Telecommuters often work on weekends, too, but including Saturdays and Sundays in our formula makes the math too complicated. You wouldn't want us to strain over these numbers and perspire on our pajamas, would you?

First of all, it's not really a 40-hour workweek, is it? Most of us can do our jobs only when the kids are in school. The period between the last bell at school and your standard 5 p.m. quitting time is completely lost to recountings of the school day and the usual threats over homework. So there go 8 1/2 hours a week.

We lose another half-hour (or more) getting the kids to and from school each week. That takes us down to 31 hours.

Running the washer is a task we can do while performing other jobs, but there's still all that folding and fluffing and hanging things up. For a typical family of four, laundry adds up to at least four hours a week. Down to 27 hours.

Keeping the house clean takes a lot more time than you clockwatchers might expect. A conservative estimate: eight hours a week. And that's if we forgo non-essentials such as dusting.

Allow an average of two hours a week for medical emergencies, appointments with the doctor and/or dentist and visits to the vet. This varies from week to week, depending on whether the children insist on climbing trees and the dog insists on eating Legos. Down to 17 hours now.

Many at-home spouses are responsible for keeping the yard mowed, watered, raked and fertilized. Another two hours a week, and another argument in favor of xeriscaping.

Grocery shopping? We'll go conservative and say we can do it in an hour, if we don't tarry in the liquor department. Fourteen hours left.

We lose one hour a week fielding annoying calls from telemarketers and at least another two hours yakking on the phone with clients, family and friends. Down to 11 hours.

Cooking dinner takes at least an hour a day (this includes actually wolfing down the food, which usually takes half as long as the preparation time). Six hours left.

Answering e-mail and playing games on our computers might not seem productive, but it's vital activity that keeps stay-at-home parents sane and in touch with the outside world. An hour a day -- minimum -- goes to keeping our fingers on the electronic pulse of the Internet and to mastering Flight Simulator.

OK, what do we have left? One hour. And during that hour, we must perform all the wage-earning work that's accomplished each week. Is it any wonder we seem so frantic as deadlines near? Is it any surprise that we end up pounding away on our computers at 4 a.m. on Saturdays?

So there you have it. Proof positive that we who work at home are just as harried as the rest of you. Now that you have this information, we hope you think twice before you again ask a stay-at-home parent, "What do you do all day?"

You accomodate us this way, and we won't tell your boss about the hours you waste secretly playing Minesweeper.


Triage for parents

It has come to our attention here at the beehive-like corporate headquarters of The Home Front that you, the unwashed public, know as much about first aid as your average honeydew.

You may feel confident that you could handle any emergency, but how much do you really know? For example, could you adequately perform STP or the Heineken Maneuver if a loved one's life was in danger?

Of course you couldn't. You'd be crying and running around like the proverbial headless poultry. Serious emergencies are nothing to fool around with, and they're the reason we put up with telemarketers calling us 17 times a day. For real emergencies, we have phones. We dial 911 and professional live-saving types come running.

No, first aid is not for amateurs. But then, most household emergencies don't require a professional. Most fall into the category of (and we don't want to get too technical here): "Owies."

Parents by necessity become household doctors, performing triage on burns and bites and scrapes and bruises several times a day. By the time our children are grown, we have spent as much time taking temperatures as your average veterinarian.

But it takes a while for parents to learn how to make the treatment age-appropriate. When ministering to scrapes and other minor wounds, emotional comfort is as important as actual physical pain relief. Some parents overdo it. Others, especially those with older children, sometimes require actual pools of blood to make them get up off the couch.

What parents need are standardized triage procedures, so they'll know how to react when faced with minor injuries among children of all ages. We here at the Home Front propose the following:

Step 1 -- Parent should panic.
Step 2 -- Run around crazily.
Step 3 -- Take deep breaths and get a grip on yourself. Child will be screaming until red in face, so don't try to quiet him yet. Steel yourself and examine wound.
Step 4 -- Feel faint.
Step 5 -- More deep breaths. Tell anyone who'll listen, "It will be all right. It will be all right."
Step 6 -- Get out handy first aid kit. Carefully clean wound while child howls. Apply the following: spray-on sunburn reliever, antiseptic, petroleum jelly, mercurochrome, iodine, aloe vera, ginseng, diaper cream and various ointments.
Step 7 -- Bandage wound.
Step 8 -- Give wound several kisses.
Step 9 -- Comfort child. Bribe with cookies until quietly hiccuping. (The child, not you.)

Step 1 -- Parent should panic.
Step 2 -- Run around crazily.
Step 3 -- Shush child until he stops squirming and screaming and lets you take a look.
Step 4 -- Say, "Aw, that's not so bad."
Step 5 -- Find first aid supplies. Carefully clean wound while child howls.
Step 6 -- Bandage wound.
Step 7 -- Give the wound several kisses.
Step 8 -- Comfort child. Bribe with ice cream until quiet.

Step 1 -- Sigh heavily and say, "Not again."
Step 2 -- Grunt up off the sofa and trot around crazily.
Step 3 -- Chase child until he'll hold still long enough to let you look.
Step 4 -- Examine wound. Say, "Is that what all the caterwauling's about? That's nothing."
Step 5 -- Tell child, "We have bandages somewhere. Go look for them."
Step 6 -- Assuming child returns, give wound a kiss.
Step 7 -- Bribe with Pokemon cards. Return to sofa.

Step 1 -- Parent should wake up.
Step 2 -- Walk around crazily until fully awake.
Step 3 -- Make child limp to where parent is waiting.
Step 4 -- Examine wound. Say, "Aw, I've had worse than that on my eyeball."
Step 5 -- Blow wound a kiss.
Step 6 -- To make child be quiet, bribe with money.

Step 1 -- Parent should open one eye.
Step 2 -- Grunt knowingly. Say, "Walk it off."
Step 3 -- Pucker up, knowing child will respond, "Gross! Haven't you ever heard of germs?"
Step 4 -- Bribe with car keys.
Step 5 -- Close eye.


Lawn jockey

So I was raking leaves in my front yard on a sunny autumn weekday, careful to always face the street when I bent over so the neighbors wouldn't be exposed to plumber's cleavage, when an older gentleman stopped his sports car at the curb and rolled down his window.

He gave me the hard squint, clearly trying to think of a way to say it, and I figured he was just having a man's instinctual difficulty in asking for directions. But what he said was, "Um, do you live around here?"

My first thought: No, buddy, I'm raking somebody else's leaves, just for the fun of it.

Then I realized what he was getting at. Here I am in my swank neighborhood, where most people have trust funds and-or real jobs, raking leaves in the middle of a work day. I'm wearing an old flannel shirt, drug-dealer sunglasses and tattered jeans that I keep hitching up. I don't particularly look like I belong here. This guy thinks I'm the lawn boy.

Now I've got nothing against lawn guys. Most of them probably make more money than I do. It was the gent's assumption that got to me.

I sputtered something like, yeah, this is my house right here. He gave me a dubious smile, then asked his question, and I told him the street he wanted was two blocks over. He waved his thanks and zoomed away, leaving me standing in the yard, frozen in place, pointing like a plaster jockey.

Folks expect a strapping man like myself to be at a job during the week. When they see me doing household business at the bank or the supermarket on a work day, wearing sandals and with my shirttails hanging out, they assume the worst. They think I'm unemployed. Or that I'm a member of the untaxed shadow economy where the main sources of income are petty theft and crack cocaine. Or that there's something wrong with me and any second I might start ranting about government conspiracies and little green men. Or, apparently, that I'm the hired help.

Do other housespouses get this reaction as they go about their daily lives? Do people stare and stammer and avoid the subject of what do you do for a living? Is it just me? Is it my clothes? If I went to the supermarket dressed like Donna Reed, would everyone accept that I worked at home? OK, bad example. A giant, bearded man wearing an apron and heels to the supermarket probably would get a whole different sort of reaction. But you see my point, right? People are conditioned to expect men (and women, for that matter) to work at a regular job on weekdays. They expect suits and ties. They expect to see us in traffic during rush hour, cellular phones pasted to our heads, stress eating us up from the inside.

A househusband, whose performance in the laundry room is as important as the job he does, doesn't fit those expectations. People don't understand that, for us, every day is a chore-filled Saturday.

Of course, one of the main attractions of working at home is not having to wear the suit and tie. But just because I'm in a bathrobe and sweatpants in the middle of the day, does that make me a crazy person? OK, don't answer that. Let me put it another way. Does being a slob automatically equate to lower class citizenship? Is there no room in people's assumptions for househusbandry?

People see a big guy, dressed like Paul Bunyan, walking around in a daze, mumbling to himself about some plot point in a future novel, and they don't think, ah, a literary type, a dreamer. They think: Look, it's the wacko guy who rakes other people's lawns.

Maybe I'm just sending the wrong signals. I guess I could go bohemian, dress in black head-to-toe and sport a beret. But I'm a little too old and fat to play the starving artist and I have a low tolerance for pretense.

I'm planning to make an exception, though. Next time I'm out in the yard, raking leaves, I'm wearing a tuxedo.


Drive me crazy

Whenever I whine about how much I chauffeur my kids from place to place, I always hear from some Older and Wiser Parent who says sagely, "Wait until THEY learn to drive. Then you'll have a whole new set of worries."

That day is still far off (my older son is only 10), but already I break out in hives every time I think about my easily distracted boys behind the wheel of two tons of speeding steel.

I was reminded of this recently when I took the boys to Home Depot.

Usually, I avoid the huge hardware warehouses on Saturdays, when they're overrun with desperate do-it-yourselfers making their third shopping trip of the day because they still don't have the right part. But I decided to brave it because of a household emergency. A kitchen cabinet door had come off in my hand and we were fresh out of cabinet hinges here at the house.

My wife was at work, so I had to take the boys with me.

I told myself this would be a nice father-son opportunity, a chance to expose the boys to the wonders of tools and the aroma of plywood, a playful time of dodging those beeping forklifts that zip around the store. The boys saw it differently. To them, shopping was a dread interruption in a day already packed full of cartoons and play.

As we entered the store, the 10-year-old announced he would push the shopping cart, using that petulant tone that told me: He'll push the cart or he'll be a surly pain in the posterior the whole time. I let him push the cart, but only after numerous warnings about how the store was crowded and how he'd have to be careful not to run down any beefy carpenters.

I'd made a list of items we needed at the store, trying to save myself future trips, and the list included a couple of leaf rakes. Soon, my son was weaving through the throngs of frustrated homeowners with long, wooden rake handles protruding from the cart. I scampered around the cart, apologizing to those who were goosed by the rake handles and urgently cautioning my son against putting somebody's eye out. He doggedly hung on to the shopping cart's controls as it bumped into aisle displays and raked hanging items off into the floor.

At one point, the future flashed before my eyes and I had a vision of myself sitting in the passenger seat of a car, my fair-haired son behind the wheel, that same look of grim determination on his face as he ran other motorists off the road. It was enough to make my heart seize up.

I'd had the same sensation during the summer, when I took my boys to a video arcade. They took turns at an elaborate 3-D machine that let them race speedboats through stone-walled canals and around obstacles of all sorts. Both boys approached the game the same way: Set the throttle on bat-outta-hell and run over anything that gets in the way. Other racing boats, idle fishermen, the occasional water carnival, all were creamed by my sons' boats. When they were done, they boasted about their scores and said to me, "Didn't we do great?"

I replied somberly, "You're never driving a car of mine."

The 10-year-old's confident smile faltered. "What about when I get my driver's license?"

"You can have a license when you're 30," I said. "And you can buy your own car for crashing around in."

He seemed daunted for a second, then the light came back into his eyes. "I want one of those speedboats."

I started to ask him if he planned to live in Venice, but I bit my tongue. Let the youngster dream of driving. Someday he'll be out there on the open road (or canal), whether I like it or not. Let's just hope he doesn't have rake handles sticking out his windows.

For the record, when I went back to the hardware store later that same day, I left the boys at home. And I didn't even use a shopping cart. I only had to buy one small item -- the correct hinge for that cabinet door.

(Editor's note: The kid in this 2000 column is now driving, and it's just as terrifying as I predicted back then. I didn't teach him to drive; I'm too nervous. Mom had to do it.)


Cold war

One of the drawbacks of working at home is you can't call in sick.

First of all, there's no one to call. You're it. Unless you want to inform your family that you're ill and, believe me, they already know. (Especially if you're a guy and tend to whine a lot.)

Secondly, there's no such thing as a day off to be sick when you're the parent-housekeeper-chauffeur-cook-gardener-and-chief-bottle-washer.

Sick days are a luxury reserved for you who have regular jobs. Come down with a cold or worse, and it means you get to go home and rest. Climb in bed with a fat novel, the TV remote, lots of fluids and snacks, your favorite over-the-counter medications. Pull the covers up to your chin and sleep all day if you want. No one will expect anything of you. You'll have the sympathy of everyone who hears you're ill. Your family will believe you really are sick because staying home from work is such a rare occurrence. And, most likely, you'll still get paid.

You might worry about the work that's piling up in your absence, but there's nothing you can do about it. The work is at the office. You're at home. Case closed.

We who work at home can pursue days of rest and recuperation (though, most likely, nobody will pay us), but our work remains all around us. The kids still have to be commanded to get ready for school. Meals still must be prepared. Laundry grows into dirty dunes. We lie in bed and watch the work pile up. Every stack of paperwork, every unwashed dish, every dust bunny mocks us, reminding us they'll still be there when we feel like moving around again. In fact, the workload will be worse -- paperwork, like dust bunnies, tends to multiply when left unguarded.
Somehow, this takes all the fun out of slumping off to bed to tend your fever.

I was reminded of all this recently when I had one of those miserable, nagging colds, the persistent kind that hangs around the respiratory system like juvenile delinquents around a pool hall.

Now I'm no stranger to these colds. Once school resumes, we all can count on our children to bring home the latest viruses. The colds soon follow. I get two or three a year, and I try to work through them, doping myself with cold medicines and aspirin, waiting them out.

But this particular strain was accompanied by some sort of tropical sleeping sickness. I'd work at my desk for an hour, hacking and spewing, and then I'd have to nap for three hours. Anything physical, such as vacuuming the floor, required a full day of bed rest.

Meanwhile, the work mounted up. Deadlines loomed. Dust and dead grass and dog hair swirled around my bare feet when I padded into the kitchen for more fluids. Dishes overflowed the sink and began staking their claim to the countertops. Toys and comic books and stray homework buried all horizontal surfaces.

I was helpless in the face of this onslaught. I was too busy sleeping. Between naps, I'd putter around a bit, picking things up, hiding the worst of it, but soon I'd be exhausted and forced to lie very still until I recovered.

The kids were no help. They barely noticed that I was going through a box of tissues a day. They were too busy galloping around the house, strewing toys and filth. My wife made sympathetic noises, but by the fifth or sixth day, I could see it in her eyes when she got home from work: "You're STILL sick?"

So I had no choice but to get well. I arose from my sickbed and took a hot shower and breathed the steam. I choked down food I couldn't taste so I'd have some energy. I poured down coffee with my Dayquil so I could stay awake long enough to load the dishwasher and round up the dust bunnies.

And you know what? It worked. Soon, I was sleeping only slightly more than a normal person. Order was restored to the house. Deadlines were met. Super Dad was back on track.

All is well. Until the next virus comes home from school.


Kid zoo

At a back yard birthday party recently, the entertainment was a menagerie of snakes and other creatures the kids could handle. The kids were on Cloud Nine. I fidgeted a lot, guzzling beer and trying to hide my discomfort. To me, a snake in the yard means go get the hoe.

In the midst of this merriment, a beaming stay-at-home mom turned to me and said, "Don't you miss them now that they're back in school?"

"Who, the kids?" I replied, taking it as a joke. "Hahahahaha."

"No, really," she said. "I get lonely at home all day."

That was enough to make me forget the snakes for a while.

Lonely? At home? With the kids in school where they belong? It never even occurs to me. I love having the house to myself, wallowing in the peace and quiet. I work and clean and snack and play computer games, and no one interferes. Nobody demands my attention or pulls crazy stunts that prompt me to make sure our medical insurance is up to date. Nobody brings snakes into the house.

No, I don't get lonely. In fact, I have just the opposite problem. Now that the kids are back in school, I'm testy on the weekends when everyone's home. So much noise and confusion, so much anxiety and conflict resolution and food preparation. I secretly look forward to Monday morning, when the place becomes all mine again.

It doesn't help that my two sons try to pack a week's worth of adventures and mayhem into Saturday and Sunday. I spend an inordinate amount of time on weekends sprawled in my comfy chair in front of televised football games, the sound down low so I can hear what the boys are up to. Occasionally, I'll shout, "No!" and they'll abandon their latest feat of derring-do in favor of something less likely to result in stitches or broken teeth.

A case in point: The other day the boys were playing with our crocodilian dog in the next room and I hear one tell the other, "Stick your hand in his mouth." No!

The day before: I'm walking past a kid's bedroom and hear this, "Let's make a springboard!" I stick my head through the door and say calmly, "No way. And put those mattresses back on the bunk beds."

Then there was this: I was sitting in my comfy chair, minding my own business, trying to ignore the noisy frolicking in the next room. My 10-year-old bounces into the room where I'm hiding and hurls a paper airplane at me. It hits me squarely between the eyes.

Come on, you say, it was just a paper airplane. Couldn't have hurt much. True, but I wasn't even looking when it zoomed my way. The surprise was worse than the contact. For an instant, it was like getting beaned by a fastball. I nearly had a heart attack.

Nothing like this happens when I'm home alone. I almost never fall out of trees or walk on fences or swat at power lines with broom handles. It's pretty easy to keep an eye on myself.

Aside from the chaos, there's also the housework problem. All week, I keep the house reasonably presentable because I'm home alone. I breeze through the house, putting away laundry and picking up toys and occasionally doing something really strenuous like dusting.

Every night, the kids do their best to undo that work, but they only have a few hours between school and bedtime, and they can't entirely wreck the place.

But on weekends, they've got all day to strew and scatter and soil. Snack wrappers and dirty socks and solitary shoes and baseball cards and crayons and books appear everywhere as if by magic. I follow the boys around a while, policing the area, but always end up retreating to my comfy chair. There's no keeping up with them; it's two against one. But I surrender with the knowledge that I'll live to clean again, even if it takes until Wednesday to recover from the weekend.

And I can recover in blissful solitude, a lone creature tending his den, quietly surviving, hidden away from the hustle-bustle of the outside world. Hmm. Kind of like a snake.


Dog days

You always hear people say their pet is "one of the family." At our house, the question is which one?

We have three boys at our house. The biggest one -- around 70 pounds now -- is a year-old puppy.

All three have more or less human names. The dog's name is Elvis.

How come, when I go to shout for a boy, I call the dog's name? I've even caught myself calling Elvis by the boy's names occasionally. Am I slipping?

I think it's because the three of them act about the same -- rambunctious, loud, needy and prone to spurts of intense energy. And they're all roughly the same size, though Elvis has a lot more hair. When I address them, my tone of voice is often the same -- a weary, scolding, I-caught-you-and-I-can't-believe-you-did-that baritone. It's the principal's voice. It works on dogs. Not so well on boys.

Now that he's been around a while, the boys can't remember Life Without Elvis. I remember, and they're fond memories. I remember a day when I never worried about someone eating my sprinkler heads. I remember being able to walk around barefoot. I remember when dust bunnies weren't fed by dog hair until they were the size of tumbleweeds.

But I admit Elvis has become part of the family, just as everyone predicted. And I spoil him as bad as the others do. Because I work at home, I spend more time with him than with anyone else. No wonder his name is the first to come to my lips.

I'm also responsible for much of the day-to-day training for him and the boys. Sometimes it feels as if I'm talking, talking, talking all the time, trying to teach the three of them, trying to make them understand how the world works, trying to get them to stop spilling everywhere.

The instruction of Elvis is going well. A lot of the hardships -- disappearing sprinkler heads, for instance -- was puppy misbehavior. Elvis is outgrowing them now, just in time to save himself from finding "a good home." He's gotten smarter as he's aged, something you can't always say for humans.

He's learned all the basic tricks (except "roll over," which makes him laugh) and shows an amazing grasp of English. Ask him what he wants, and he'll make you follow him to the back door or to an empty water dish. Give him a complex command -- "Go get your bone and bring it in the house" -- and he'll figure it out. It's like having Lassie around. I spend a lot of time saying, "What is it? What is it, boy?" I fully expect him to inform me that little Timmy has fallen down the well.

My wife has even taught him to do a chore. It was about time he started pulling his weight around here. He can't spend all his time sleeping, sniffing and licking, can he?

She taught him to fetch the newspaper from the yard. Now this was a bold concept because it involved the potential freedom of the unfenced front yard. There was a good chance Elvis would zoom out the door and never come back, too busy sniffing other dogs and licking joggers. But within a couple of days, she had him fetching like a champ.

My wife usually handles Elvis' wake-up call because she's the first one out of bed. My own experiences in the milky dawn have been mixed. The first time I tried it, the fat Sunday paper was in one of those slippery condoms to keep it dry. Elvis grabbed the plastic bag in his teeth and sprinted back to the front door. Unfortunately, he had the bag by the wrong end. Inserts and travel sections and Parade magazine were strewn behind him all the way across the yard.

The other day, I sent him on his mission again. The newspaper wasn't immediately visible (a car was in the way), so Elvis dashed across the street and brought me the neighbor's paper.

Inventive, but larceny nonetheless. I had to tiptoe across the street in my pajamas and put it back.

Just the kind of thing I'd expect my boys to do, if I'd ever taught them to fetch.

(Editor's note: This column first appeared in 2000. Elvis is now eight years old, and still just the best dog ever. My sons are bigger than him now, and their hair is longer. They still don't fetch worth a damn.)


Bringing home the bacon

Among TV commercials, one rings the most true: Two slacker dudes are in a store with limited money, trying to decide between beer and toilet paper. They choose the beer, then respond in unison to the question, "Paper or plastic?"

We laugh not just at the follies of youth or because we've been in similar straits ourselves. We laugh because they're guys. Buying groceries. And we all know what a hoot that can be.

Supermarkets don't cater to men. The logic of the layout escapes us. The competing brands and colorful labels and computer pricing are confusing. We don't care about comparison shopping. In fact, we don't like shopping at all. We like buying. And we want it all to be finished quickly.

If supermarkets were designed for guys, they'd offer one type of each product, labeled generically in black-and-white. "Beer." "Chips." "Cereal." We wouldn't even care what was inside the boxes, so long as we could just grab one, throw it in the cart and move on to the next. If we got home with a box marked "Cereal" and it turned out to corn flakes rather than organic, honey-nut Prune-de-Ohs, that would be fine. If it turned out that all the boxes contained beer, that would be even better.

I took a course in college called "Industrial Psychology." One of the marketing strategies we studied was supermarket layout. Store designers intentionally put the things you need most often -- milk, meat, coffee, beer -- in the far corners, so you must pass all those loudly labeled products to buy the staples. They're hoping you'll buy things you don't really need at inflated prices. Guys fall victim to this syndrome, which is why pork rinds and canned chili are now considered food.

This knowledge has come in handy. I took over the grocery shopping for our family after I left the 9-to-5 world to work at home. It wasn't a smooth transition, but I feel I've got it mastered now. My secret is that I always go to the same store, even though it's miles away from my home. It's a smaller market, and I've learned where everything is kept. I can do a week's shopping there in less than an hour, zooming up and down the aisles like a contestant on "Supermarket Sweep."

Here are some other tips to help guys who are doing the family foraging:

--Don't waste time selecting the best shopping cart. They all have one wheel that goes waga-waga-waga. Just take one and go.

--Buy whatever's cheapest. Forget brand loyalty or family favorites or what might make a lovely dinner a week from Tuesday. Buy lots of cheap stuff. Fill the cart with it. Later, in the kitchen, you can piece together the different products into something resembling a nutritious meal.

Some supermarkets recognize the "buy cheap" philosophy and cater to it. Those are the markets that sell those tiny boxes of detergent only good for one or two loads. Guys -- especially bachelors -- buy those little boxes, even though they cost only pennies less than a big box. This means much of the laundry will be done soapless, of course. Eventually, all the clothes will be a uniform gray and you can eliminate detergent from your shopping list altogether.

--Make excuses. Guys famously refuse to ask directions, which means they can wander up and down supermarket aisles for days, holding their tattered lists, searching for the one item their wives insisted that they buy. You can avoid this problem with a simple answer when you get home: "I forgot." This will lead to a certain amount of eye-rolling and an even lower opinion of guys in general and you in particular, but it will save time.

--Get the eggs last. No matter where the supermarket Easter bunnies hide the eggs, make that your final stop. Then you can set the eggs on top of everything else and they won't get crushed. Until the bag boys get hold of them. They'll put them in the sack with the beer and the motor oil and you can have an omelet as soon as you get home.

Don't be too hard on the bag boys when this happens. They're guys.


Up on the roof

In the spirit of those handy homeowner stories you see in magazines, we'll entitle this entry: "How I Saved $250 on Roof Maintenance, or Sitting Around In My Underwear While Black Gunk Eats Off My Skin."

You flat-roof veterans probably know this syndrome, but it's new to me. Last winter, I moved into my first flat-roofed house, not giving much thought to the maintenance involved. After part of August's torrential rains wound up in my son's bedroom, I decided it was time to get more interested in what's happening up on the roof.

A friendly roofing contractor agreed to fix the leak and gave me simple instructions for maintenance I could do myself, saving $250 now and untold headaches in the future.

So, with a can of plastic roof cement in hand, I ventured up a borrowed ladder in search of cracks around the seal between roofing material and parapet. These cracks occur naturally, the roofer told me, a result of heat and cold. Occasionally, you need to go up on your roof and patch them, just to make sure water doesn't find its insidious way inside.

At first glance, the seal seemed riddled with cracks. But closer inspection found that most of the grooves weren't cracks at all; they were unsightly stretch marks. I decided to cement over all of them. An ounce of prevention and all that.

If we had stronger truth-in-advertising laws, plastic roof cement would be labeled "Sticky Black Gunk." It's the type of product that makes you say "yuck" when you open the can. Like Play-Doh. Or Spam.

I troweled the gunk onto the seal and it went on easily. In fact, it was sort of pleasurable. It was a quiet, cool Saturday morning and I was up among the trees and the chirping birds. I wondered how many other homeowners around the city were up on their roofs, doing the same job. I felt a kinship with them. We should all be up here, I thought, smearing gunk and waving to each other.

The longer I worked, the hotter it got and the less neighborly I felt. After two hours, all the cracks were dutifully smeared over, I was pouring sweat and my hands were covered with black gunk. Which presented a problem: How to get down off the roof without getting gunk on the borrowed ladder and everything else I encountered?

I'd worn ancient jeans with the intention of throwing them out when I was done, so I wiped some of the excess gunk on them and made my way to the ground, trying not to touch anything with my hands. In the garage, I kicked off my shoes and stripped off my filthy jeans and padded into the house in my sock feet to clean up.

Uh-oh. Turns out you can't wash black gunk off your hands. Even with cleanser, which I promptly ran out of anyway. I returned to the garage and (finally) read the instructions on the can. "Clean hands with waterless hand cleaner." Huh? "Caution! Combustible!" Yipes. "Do not take internally!" No problem. "Use protective measures to avoid contact with skin." Big problem.

My wife was out, but expected to return soon. I couldn't go to the store for waterless cleaner with my hands covered with gunk. I couldn't even put on fresh pants. All I could do was sit and wait, holding my sticky hands aloft like a surgeon who's freshly washed.

Twenty minutes later, my wife arrived. She calmly sized up the situation and hurried to the store to get waterless hand cleaner. I sat and waited some more, itching all over and unable to scratch, certain I could feel the black gunk burning my skin. I pictured my hands red and bubbling underneath the evil gunk.

As soon as she returned, I scrubbed off the gunk -- which took half an hour -- to find that my hands were unmarred. I hadn't combusted. I hadn't even gotten the gunk on the furniture or in my hair. Overall, the experience was a success, if you discount the part where I looked like an illiterate dork in front of my wife.

The upshot? I'd survived another homeowner's ordeal. I saved $250. And I get to do it all again next year.


Put it in ink

With so many people using computers these days, you'd think ink pens would've gone the way of kerosene lamps and steamboats and sweaters on dogs.

Anything you might scribble with a pen, you can do neater and probably quicker with a computer, depending on how many times you have to reboot. But no, pens are as popular as ever. We may send greeting cards and condolences by e-mail, but we still need to jot things down. Grocery lists and calendar notations and sudden inspirations.

I'm so spoiled by the computer that I don't write much with a pen anymore, but I recently worked on a project that required me to write eight legal-sized pages in longhand. By the time I was done, my hand had drawn up into a knobby claw. It was a relief to get back to the computer, though it was tough at first, trying to type with my claw.

At our house, nearly every horizontal surface has a pen floating around on it somewhere. The sudden need to jot is followed by a scramble through accumulated newspapers and crashed paper airplanes and dirty socks in search of the pen that must be there somewhere. If the pen can't be found, it's with a heavy sigh that we arise and shamble over to the next-nearest horizontal surface to locate one.

For two decades, I worked for news organizations and I can honestly say I bought fewer than a half-dozen pens in that entire time. Newspapers supply pens to their scribblers, and every reporter in America has a large stockpile of company pens at home. The pens ride home in your pocket, then get dumped on the dresser with the spare change and the gum wrappers and other pocket detritus. Pretty soon, the dresser is buried in pens, which migrate around the house to all the horizontal surfaces.

When I left the newspaper world, I figured I'd accumulated enough pens to get me to old age. But they didn't last nearly as long as I'd thought. A steady diet of crossword puzzles and to-do lists burned up ink like it was gasoline. Pens died and were discarded. Others went through the laundry process and expressed their displeasure by refusing to write anymore. An untold number went off to school with my sons. Eventually, our house was pen-free. Unless I wanted to start pricking my finger every time I had an idea, I had to go buy pens.

Have you seen the pen racks at your typical office goods warehouse? I estimate they have 47 million different models. Fountain pens and rollerballs and ballpoints and felt-tips and razor tips. Fine, medium and thick points. Black ink, red, blue, green, purple. The selection is so large that it produces a crisis of confidence in the consumer. What will my pen choice say about me? Will it change me somehow? If I buy a pen that produces a fat, green line, will I start dotting my "I's" with little hearts or smiley faces?

For some people, pens become status symbols. They spend as much on their writing instruments as they do on their watches and cell phones. We get a monthly catalog at our house from a company called Levenger. It's chock-full of lacquered fountain pens and high-tech ballpoints, all with eye-bulging price tags. At office supply stores, they keep the pricey pens in glass cases, like jewelry.

These are not for me. I'd be afraid to use them, scared I'd lose them or mindlessly gnaw them or otherwise ruin them.

What I wanted was a basic pen, one I could use or lose without feeling bad about it. One fine enough to use addressing envelopes (that first impression is important, and I still haven't learned to run envelopes through my computer printer), but sturdy enough for everyday use on frustrating crossword puzzles.

I settled on a basic pen with a pocket clip and a clicker button on the top. Matte black. Medium point. Retails for 75 cents each. Inconspicuous, sturdy, manly. Perfect for me, really, in every way. Except for the name. Bic Soft-Feel sounds kind of wimpy, doesn't it? I plan to write the folks at Bic and complain. As soon as my claw relaxes.


Don't bug me

My 10-year-old son came to me on a recent morning and somberly announced, "We've got to move."

This came as a shock, considering that we moved into this house only eight months ago.

"We can't move," I sputtered. "We just got here. Why do you want to move?"

"I was brushing my teeth and I looked in the mirror and there was a spider in my hair."

The spider didn't bite him or harm him in any way, but the alarm of finding a spider in such close proximity was enough for him to surrender the house.

Our new house is in the river valley and the lush greenery means we have lots of insect life we rarely saw at our former home, including mosquitoes that swarm at dusk, bumblebees in the shrubbery and fat houseflies that buzz loops around the porch, waiting for someone to open the door so they can come inside. Grasshoppers and praying mantises and invisible aphids scurry around our flowerbeds, eating our plants and each other. Has anyone else noticed the bumper crop of June bugs this year? And we must have a lot of cobs, too, because I keep finding cobwebs everywhere.

Then there are the cicadas that leave their empty husks clinging to every surface. Our dog, Elvis, eats the cicada shells. He'll be loping along and he'll spot one on the wall and he'll come to a screeching halt. He'll snatch it off with his teeth and crunch-crunch-crunch, it's gone. We've theorized that he thinks they're pork rinds.

My wife and sons made an art project out of cicada husks. They collected a dozen of them and spray-painted them bright blue. I wish they'd warned me first. I discovered the blue bugs clumped together in a Nambe tray and nearly had a heart attack.

Most of the time, we try to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward the insect world, but occasionally they get to be too much of a nuisance. Spiders in one's hair, for instance. That's just going too far.

I was sitting at my desk recently, talking to my wife on the phone, when a housefly decided the Garden of Eden resided inside my mouth. He flew right at my face, aiming for my flapping lips. I waved him away and kept talking. He dive-bombed me again. By the fifth time he'd attempted to land in my mouth, I was screaming and cursing and waving both arms around madly. My wife, on the other end of the phone line, must've thought I was on fire. I tried to explain the seriousness of the situation, but she was laughing too hard to listen. It probably would've been simpler (and more manly) to just eat the fly and get it over with.

In most households, it's the man's job to kill and dispose of insects and arachnids who've taken up residence. I try to fulfill this duty, but I'm not as quick as I used to be. Houseflies seem to have radar when I approach with a swatter. They take off before I ever get within reach. I've learned you can throw out your shoulder trying to whack them when they're in mid-flight. I even have trouble catching up with spiders. When they make their speedy escapes, I remind myself they have four times as many legs as I do, which helps me feel a little better.

I've been waging war on an anthill in the back yard all summer. I don't mind a few ants running busily around, but this anthill is home to those big red suckers, nearly an inch long. They bite, so they have to go. I'll drown the anthill in Black Flag, getting a secret little thrill at the way they go twitchy and curl up and die. I puff out my chest like a Great White Hunter and march back into the house and wash my hands thoroughly so I don't go twitchy, too.

Two days later, the ants have excavated a new exit six inches away from the old one and they're back in business. I'm sure if I looked at them through a magnifying glass, their little faces would be smirking at me.

I'm about ready to give up and let the ants take over. We could always move.

(Editor's note: This column originally was published in 2000. We're in a different house now, but I'm still at war with ants.)


Job description blues

Most working people have simple job descriptions. Presented with a form that has a blank for "employer," they write in a name and address and go away satisfied that they've done their duty.

For people who work at home, it's not so straightforward. When it comes time to fill out a form, the blank spaces become paralyzing philosophical queries into what we do and where we're going with our lives.

I've fallen into such black holes of self-analysis more than once. Usually, by the time I'm done, I'm ready to go back to a regular job, any regular job, rather than ponder further how I became a househusband and what it all means. I sit at my desk, repeating a mantra over and over, until the bleak depression passes. The mantra goes like this: "Would you like fries with that?"

Sometimes, even the mantra is not enough. When it gets really bad, I go to my bedroom closet and look at the dusty neckties hanging there, leftovers from the days when I worked in an office. That's usually enough to snap me out of it, to remind me why I chose to stay home and eke out a living rather than enjoy the comforts of a regular salary and benefits package. But it's an uneasy peace. All it takes to send me into a mental sputter is to have someone ask, "And what do you do for a living?"

The latest fit of navel-gazing was sparked by an alumni questionnaire sent out by the journalism department at my alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The department regularly asks its alumni to update their personal data so it can send us semi-annual newsletters that let us check out our old classmates and see how they've become more successful than us. I suspect the school also uses the database to hit us up for money, which is laughable, considering that most of the alumni are journalists or worse, people so poor that their idea of a charitable donation is giving a bum a nickel.

The form poses these questions, all followed by ominous blanks: Business address and phone number, Current position, City where you work, Employer, City where employer is located (if different). It also has spaces that say "Check below if applicable: New employer. Promotion with same employer."

All fine and dandy if the alumnus has a regular job. But those categories don't measure the accomplishments of those of us who work at home. You'll notice that nowhere among the questions is "Loads of laundry done per week" or "Number of months raising children without a visit to the emergency room."

Sure, I have a job, of sorts. Under Current Position, I can write "author and newspaper columnist." That sounds pretty good, though they'll catch onto me once I list the same addresses and phone numbers for Home and Business. And what do I list under Employer? Myself? The honest answer probably would be my two sons. They boss me around more than anyone else.

When I get into these self-absorbed funks, my career as a writer starts to look like a financial sinkhole and I get to the point where I can't even consider it a Real Job. Instead, I focus on the man-hours I put into the household and the rewards involved -- reasonably well-adjusted children, a happy wife, a sometimes-clean house, a business wardrobe built around sandals and gym shorts.

If I want to be truthful on the questionnaire, I should answer "househusband" under Current Position. I can imagine my old classmates snorting at that. But you can bet the school wouldn't ask me for money anymore.

I can't bring myself to do it. "Househusband" just doesn't sound glamorous or interesting or fulfilling. It doesn't reflect how hard I work or how well my job status fits with my wife's career and our household demands. It doesn't say: Here's a guy who's striving, one who's making a splash. Here's a guy whose wife is proud of him.

So I've come up with a different job title. It may leave my classmates scratching their heads, but it'll make me feel better when I receive the newsletter in the mail.

Current position? Trophy husband.


Naked truth

Before we go any further, let me say I am fully clothed while I write this. Just for the record.

Once word of a recent survey gets around, such intimate information may be required before any business transaction. For instance, when answering the phone: "Hello, this is Joe Beeblefitz at Kumquat Industries. I am not naked. Now how may I help you?"

It seems that the folks at Ikea, the international furniture dealer, did a survey of men and one of the questions the snoops asked was whether the men had any desire to work naked. Three percent of men who work in traditional offices admitted they'd like to toil in the buff.

Look around your workplace. If you've got 100 people there, three of them harbor a secret desire to strip off their clothes and get busy in their cubicles. They're probably the ones who smile to themselves a lot.

You have to wonder what they're thinking. Maybe they long for the feeling of freedom that would come with going around in the nude. Perhaps they have a philosophical antagonism toward fashion. Maybe they feel that clothing not only doesn't make the man, but it hides us from our true selves. Or, maybe they just have a problem with their shorts binding.
Whatever the reason, I'd avoid them if I were you.

The survey asked the same question of men who worked at home and none of them expressed a desire to shuck their clothes while working, even though 12 percent said their home offices are in their bedrooms, where nakedness might well be expected.

The newspaper item that exposed these survey results said, "You'd think it would be the other way around." Clearly, the poor misguided person who wrote the article doesn't work at home.
It's much too dangerous at home to go around naked all the time. The home office is full of sharp corners and electrical cords and whirring machinery. A naked man should think twice before leaning over an operating fax machine. He might end up sending the wrong message.

And how can a naked person get the house cleaned and the meals prepared? Besides the obvious questions about sanitary conditions, housework is fraught with peril. Spattering grease while cooking. Hot water splashing out of the sink. Spilled coffee. Power tools. Ginzu knives. Weed-whackers. Romping pets with their sharp claws and snapping teeth. That potted cactus over in the corner.

These dangers exist in the era of modern conveniences. Imagine if you had to cook over an open flame or sweep with a broom made from twigs or gather your own blackberries. And remember wringer washers? They were so dangerous to various dangling portions of the anatomy that it became a cliche to mention something caught in a wringer.

I find that a thick bathrobe is the absolute minimum protection required to insulate me from the dangers of my own home. Sure, my robe is covered with cigarette burns and scratches and stains, but I figure it's better to sacrifice the terry-cloth than my own bare skin. I can always get a new robe. A new hide is harder to come by.

The more I ponder the hazards around me, the more I think it would be a good idea to do the housework in one of those armored suits like the bomb squad guys wear. It might restrict my mobility, might be a little warm in the summer, but it would sure be safer than jiggling around naked.

Even if nudity was so important to me that I was willing to brave these dangers, there are other people to consider. Salespeople ring the doorbell occasionally. I have to go outside to pick up the newspaper and would undoubtedly bump into the neighbors. My own children would point and snicker. Who needs the aggravation?

But the No. 1 reason you won't catch this work-at-home dad laboring in the nude is that I spend most of my workday in a high-backed swivel chair made of black leather. Can you imagine what that would be like in the good ole summertime?


Taking the plunge

So maybe you've been reading this column for a while and you're thinking: Boy, this jerk's got a sweet deal. Putter around the house, watch over a couple of kids, contemplate his navel, all while his wife's bringing home the family bacon.

You're right, of course. It is a sweet deal. But it took years of mental and financial preparation before I could quit the 9-to-5 world and become a full-time writer and househusband. Only the strong of mind and spirit (and wallet) can withstand the daily onslaught of housework and home repairs, kids and pets, computer crashes and culinary catastrophes.

If you've been thinking of starting an at-home business, you should first check your mental readiness. Can you work productively without adult supervision? Do you panic when faced with unstructured time? Are you too attached to your necktie, your co-workers, your salary to leave it all behind?

We have formulated a handy quiz to test your mental preparedness. Think of it as a checklist of your coping resources. Sort of like those inventories of supplies kept in bomb shelters.

The test is self-scoring. There are no wrong answers. If you're honest with yourself, however, you'll soon realize you're crazy as a loon for even considering quitting your day job.

Q. The thing I fear most about working at home is:

a) Solitude.

b) Loneliness.

c) Forgetting the niceties of social interaction, such as table manners.

d) All of the above.

Q. The thing I would most enjoy about working at home would be:

a) Solitude.

b) Setting my own schedule.

c) Being allowed to smoke at my desk.

d) "Oprah."

Q. When I'm working, I like to wear:

a) Stylish clothes that catch the eye.

b) Conservative business attire.

c) Sweatpants.

d) Nothing.

Q. When the doorbell rings, I know it will be someone trying to sell me:

a) Avon.

b) Fresh fruit.

c) Salvation.

d) All of the above.

Q. When working on a computer, the error message I fear most is:

a) "Insufficient memory at this time."

b) "A fatal exception has occurred."

c) "General failure."

d) What's an error message?

Q. My child is stuck up a tree, screaming for help. I would:

a) Call the fire department.

b) Climb up the tree and help him down.

c) Stand below, ready to catch him, while I gently coax him down.

d) Hide in the house until he figures it out on his own.

Q. When the phone rings, I expect it to be:

a) An important client.

b) A telemarketer.

c) My spouse, wondering whether I've accomplished anything today.

d) The state Children, Youth and Families Department.

Q. Faced with two inches of water on the laundry room floor, I would:

a) Unplug all the electrical appliances, clean up the mess and try to find the problem.

b) Call a plumber.

c) Call my spouse and whimper into the phone.

d) Tell the kids we're having a pool party.

Q. To make my home the perfect place to work, I need:

a) A supportive family.

b) A loyal dog.

c) E-mail.

d) A straitjacket.


Phone at your own risk

I was talking to a bookseller the other day -- long-distance, on my dime -- when I suddenly realized our chat had strayed far from business. And I was the one doing all the talking.

That's one of the dangers of working at home all day, without colleagues to harangue and complain and share gossip. The telephone becomes your only shot at adult conversation during the workday. Business calls soon turn to chitchat, which turns into big phone bills.

Now you could argue that it's all business, that talking about fishing or cigars or cars with a client is as important as getting to the point. You could say: Let them see our human side, so they'll feel loyalty toward us and our products.

You would be wrong. People in regular offices don't have time for such idle yammering. Their other phones are ringing, their workmates are trying to get their attention, their deadlines loom. They're searching their desks for Maalox while we yak away, telling them about our day at home. Believe me, they don't care how many loads of laundry you did or that the dog ate your sneakers. They're busy.

I know this, yet it's nearly impossible to restrain myself. After a minute or two on the phone, I find myself warming to the conversation. I'm a naturally gregarious person. I love to talk, even when I know the person on the other end of the phone has other, more urgent, things to do.

This talkiness doesn't fit with the other parts of my personality. I'm generally a misanthrope, and I enjoy working all by myself. I remember taking one of those tests they give you in middle school, the ones aimed at helping you settle on a career, and the test found that my personality was best-suited for jobs as a forest ranger or a fire watcher. In other words, I should be working in the forest, all alone, like Bigfoot.

But put me in a group of people, and I'm Mr. Chatty, telling jokes and windy anecdotes, relating the latest news and gossip, dishing out the bon mots like they were bonbons. And since I'm home all day and such opportunities are rare, telephone conversations become my outlet.

Anyone who phones my house is in danger of being tied up for a long time. It's a short hop from "hello" to "did I ever tell you about that time I was in Mexico and we were running out of gas in the desert--" Next thing you know, an hour has passed, and neither of us has gotten any work done.

Sometimes, I get so starved for adult conversation, I even listen to the telemarketers' spiels. Normally, they get two lines into their pitches, and I give them the quick "no thanks" and slam down the phone. But the other day I listened to some woman in North Carolina tell all about the wonderful prizes I would receive if I'd only order some magazines. I still told her "no thanks," but at least I'd heard an adult voice for a while. I wonder if she knew she'd been used.

Notice I keep saying "adult" conversation. This being summertime, I have my two sons at home with me most of the time. They have plenty to say, but the bulk of it centers on Pokemon and X-Men and who-hit-whom-first, and I can only listen to so much of it before my ears start bleeding.

Naturally, a lot of their conversation with me occurs while I'm on the phone with somebody else. Nothing is more magnetic to children than a parent talking on the phone. To them, the ringing of the telephone is like the bell in a boxing ring. It sends them rocketing into action, surrounding Dad, tugging at his sleeve, trying to show him the latest Game Boy victory or missing tooth.

Clients aren't impressed by all the noise in the background. You can only cup your hand over the receiver to say "not now" so many times before the client says "no thanks" and slams down the phone.

So call me up sometime. It'll be a treat. But the conversation could take a while. You've been warned.


Holidays for the housebound

Now that the holiday weekend has drawn to a close, many of us who work at home can take a deep breath and say: What holiday weekend?

Holidays don't mean much to work-at-home spouses. Neither do weekends. No matter how special the time off may be for you regular workaday types, for us they're just more of the same. Deadlines still must be met, laundry must be done, meals must be cooked, trash must be bagged, kids must be rounded up and hosed off.

Sometimes, the workload even increases on weekends. Spouse and children go into a sloppy who-cares-it's-the-weekend mode, and the spouse-in-charge becomes ever more harried,
trying to keep the household together.

Weekends and holidays are the times when people come to visit. Those people know which spouse is in charge of keeping up the house, so we become hyperaware of the dust bunnies and the dirty socks and the strewn toys. We bustle around, trying to pick up the candy wrappers and newspapers and individual shoes that the other family members shed around the house like dandruff. And there's no way we can keep up because we're outnumbered.

All this, plus we try to pack in recreational activities, so our spouses won't discover we've become total drudges who've forgotten how to have fun.

By the time Monday rolls around, we almost welcome it. Sure, the work has piled up over the weekend, but at least fewer people are underfoot and we can clean and scrape and put away and replenish. This can take several days, particularly if a non-housework project deadline looms, but eventually order is restored to the household. By then it's Friday, and the weekend bedlam hits again.

This nonstop, seven-day-a-week workload is one reason it's so important for at-home workers to occasionally treat themselves to a real day off. Pack the kids off to Grandma's and let them wreck her house for a change. Ignore the clutter and dust and dirty socks. Avoid the computer and the telephone and the fax machine. Take some time just for yourself, luxuriate in the lack of demands, get a massage, go to a movie, read undisturbed. Or just sit quietly, shell-shocked, not quite believing that you have a day to yourself.

How best to spend a day alone? We here at The Home Front have taken an informal poll of housespouses and have ranked the popularity of their suggestions. We offer them to you, as a public service, so you can make the most of those rare days of solitude:

1. Sleep.
2. Nap.
3. Drink beer.
4. Doze.
5. Sit in quiet repose, plotting how to get more days off.
6. Gardening (although this comes dangerously close to working).
7. Lounge by the pool.
8. Sleep by the pool.
9. Treat sunburn.
10. Go to the movies and pig out on popcorn.
11. Watch rented videos and pig out on microwave popcorn.
12. Purge.
13. Indulge in a bubble bath and hours of personal grooming.
14. Stare longingly into the mirror, wishing that grooming made a difference.
15. Go to a park, lie on your back in the soft grass and count clouds. Awaken hours later to treat sunburn and insect bites.
16. Sit in the cool indoors and meditate. Try to ignore squeaky sound the air conditioner suddenly is making.
17. Read good books.
18. Read trashy books.
19. Thumb through magazines.
20. Thumb a ride to the next town so your family can't find you when they get back. .


Repairmen to the rescue

A recent TV ad shows a woman desperately phoning locksmiths because her husband accidentally locked himself in the bathroom. As with most clever advertising, I have no idea what they were selling. I only remember chuckling the first time I saw it because the guy was killing time by putting some kind of green cosmetic gunk on his face.

Advertising and the media in general portray the American male as being inept. We can't fix anything around the house without causing a minor explosion. We're embarrassed to talk to our kids about sex. We wear stupid "Kiss the Cook" aprons while charring burgers on smoky backyard grills. We think Air Guitar is a spectator sport.

This stereotype omits a huge chunk of the male population, those savvy types who know how to fix things. Handymen, plumbers, locksmiths, carpenters, boxing promoters. Some men are never more comfortable than when presented with a knotty problem to solve.

I'm not one of those men. Faced with an emergency repair around the house, I curse and mutter and fume. I make feeble attempts that usually result in skinned knuckles and a worse problem, maybe even a minor explosion. I've learned that the best tool to use in times of crisis is a ballpoint pen -- for writing the check to the real repairman who rides to our rescue.

A case in point: We recently needed a locksmith because a bathroom door was locked and we had no key. Unlike the TV commercial, no one was locked in the bathroom. We were all locked out. One of my sons slammed the door behind him as he exited, the latch caught and we were stuck. Might not seem like much of a crisis, especially since other bathrooms were available for the most urgent reasons people need a bathroom. But this was the master bathroom, which contains all the cosmetics and hair dryers and razors and magazines. We needed in there.

I write crime novels in which people are always picking locks. They insert a couple of little metal doodads, give them a twist and -- voila! -- the door opens. The real world doesn't work that way. After twenty minutes of scratching up the doorknob with Allen wrenches and straightened paper clips, I called the locksmith. He arrived at our house, went directly to the door and, using a gizmo that looked like a pistol with a nail jutting from the barrel, had the door open in one minute flat. I wrote him a check for $42.

An hour later, our idiot dog Elvis mistook a large plate-glass window for an exit. The window shattered, surprising Elvis and everyone else in the house. The dog was unharmed, but jagged shards went everywhere. After the initial shock, I was pretty calm. Here was a repair job I knew I shouldn't even attempt. Phone calls were made. Repairmen arrived. We wrote a check for $200 and the window soon was good as new. The dog forgot all about the trauma. We put a potted plant in front of the window as a preventive measure. Next time, when Elvis excitedly heads that way, maybe he'll stop to smell the flowers before lunging through the glass.

We were so grateful for the quick repair that the cost didn't even matter (much). That's the way it always is when repairmen are summoned. We're just happy that someone, somewhere, has the know-how to fix the sudden leaks and the plumbing disasters and the nights without heat.
And we're not alone. The country is full of homeowners tensely awaiting the next major repair, checkbooks in hand, ready to do our part to support the service economy.

So the next time you see the media depicting American males as incompetent boobs, remember that there are those who greet every catastrophe as a challenge, those who are well-paid to fix the problems we can't conquer on our own. Maybe I should even mount my own media campaign, one in praise of repairmen everywhere. But not right now. I'm too busy. I've got to put on my apron and smear green gunk on my face.