Jacket racket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An experienced parent can see several fallacies in that statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And plastic bags wouldn't be bulky.


Happy holidays

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

Best wishes,


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


Egg noggin

All I want for Christmas is my two frontal lobes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Noel, and no "AAA," either

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Grandparents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Puffing and panting

Call me Mr. Between-Jeans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Time fries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stuff it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Doesn't add up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps they've got futures as political pollsters.

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


Buzzing outside the box

America loves business, and business loves buzzwords.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--SYSTEM INTEGRATION: Dresser drawers that shut properly.


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

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


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

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

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

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


Hurry blurry

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

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

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

Lunch. Eat quickly. Chewing's overrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crunch time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Science? Fair enough

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

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

My response? "No way."

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

His grin faltered. "Aw, come on."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can bet I didn't taste it first.


Weathering winter

Welcome to December, the Official Month of Lost Gloves.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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