Plumb crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


Talking dirty

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

Working parents have trouble finding time for WRESTLING.

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

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

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

First, some basic advice for each gender:


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Do-it-yourself feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flying fidgets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


You can tuna piano . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'd made a tuna cake.

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

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

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


Big questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Dogs lick themselves there because they can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bad luck and trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Smell mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The bitter truth

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

To: CEO Whittlebrain
From: Marketing
Subject: New beverage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Playing chicken

I was nearly killed by a rubber chicken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Parental prattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that caution in mind, here then, are:

The Top 50 Things That Only Parents Say:

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

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


Grizzly beard

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

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

In short, it's like bonsai.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Social conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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