Household mysteries

My desk was "Grown in Washington State." The washing machine is a "Producto de Ecuador." And the kitchen counters are really "California Navels."

This, at least, is what it says on the little stickers affixed to them.

You know which stickers I mean. The ones originally attached to fresh fruit. These stickers migrate throughout the house, fastening themselves onto every surface.

I asked my two sons how this keeps happening and they are in agreement: "We don't know."

It's a mystery, one of those unexplained phenomena that occur all the time in homes where there are children. It's enough to make parents think their houses are haunted.

Lights left on in unoccupied rooms. Radios turned on by unseen hands. Toys arranged on tabletops in arcane patterns, as if to spell out some message from the beyond. Furniture moves around the room so I can find it in the dark with my little toe. Sometimes, whole rooms are rearranged into scenes from Dali paintings. Dirty socks creep around the house and hide in unlikely places, such as behind the TV or under sofa cushions.

The most obvious deduction: The children are responsible for these eerie anomalies. But they deny all knowledge of how candy wrappers end up in dresser drawers or how magazines get all wet. When confronted with such household conundrums, they go all wide-eyed and shruggy. It's beyond explanation, they indicate, one of the universe's sly tricks.

If the boys are eliminated as suspects, that only leaves poltergeists. My wife certainly wouldn't go around putting fruit stickers on the furniture. And the dog doesn't have any fingers. He couldn't peel a sticker off an apple if his life depended on it.

Why would ghosts ply such mischief? If they want us out of the house, if we're sitting atop an ancient graveyard or something, they could give me one healthy "boo" and I'd sign over the deed in a flash. I saw "The Amityville Horror." I wouldn't wait around until things got out of hand. But no, these ghosts' evil plot doesn't revolve around fright. They seem bent on annoying me until I falsely accuse my poor innocent children of leaving puddles of warm juice on the floor.

These apparitions apparently are computer-literate. Every time I sit down at my computer, all the settings have been changed. Unfamiliar wallpaper greets me. Icons are rearranged on the desktop. The ghosts leave disks or CD-ROMs in drives, which confuses an awakening computer, forcing reboots. Phantom files appear that can be neither opened nor deleted. My cursor, normally a quick one-dimensional arrow, becomes a staggering drunk of a pointer, leaving little images of itself in its wake.

Grave annoyances, but my children swear they know nothing about them. I curse and fume. Somewhere in the house, the ghosts must be laughing their sheets off.

The other day, I was writing at my computer ("Fresh To You From Sunny Mexico"). The kids were at school. My wife was at work. The dog was asleep. The house was blissfully silent. Without warning, a loud whirring commenced behind me. I surveyed the room's electrical appliances, puzzled that one might've suddenly come to life on its own.

Just as I ascertained that the videocassette recorder was rewinding a tape all by itself, the whirring stopped and the machine spit out the tape. Then the VCR just sat there, the tape protruding like a mocking tongue, its red eyes glowing.

It gave me the creeps. I kept my distance, but the VCR didn't seem to have anything more diabolical on its agenda. After a while, I returned to my work, trying to stifle the notion that the house was possessed. Naturally, I'd lost the thread of whatever I was writing.

After much thought, I concluded the boys must've left the VCR running. It reached the end of the tape, automatically rewound and upchucked the tape. No mystery after all. But the kids denied ever using the VCR. And, if they didn't do it, then we're once again faced with the specter of paranomal activity.

I need help from professional ghostbusters. I'm thinking of calling Mulder and Scully. The truth is out there.


Making faces

My two sons, like most children, have a special sign language they use when they think parents aren't looking.

Talking back gets them in trouble, but they have a better chance of getting away with a nonverbal retort. And if the other brother happens to be watching, all the better. They dissolve into titters, prompting the following transaction:

Dad (wheeling around): "What's so funny?"

Boys (in chorus): "Nothing!"

Dad (suspicious): "OK."

They think we never see them, and mostly we let them think that. Part of the parental strategy at our house is letting the boys unite against us. It gives them a common ground. Brothers should be close.

I remember making faces behind my parents' backs when I was a kid. They were mostly the same grimaces and gestures, coming from the Catalog of Universal Kid Misbehaviors. My kids resemble me enough that, when I catch them pulling faces at me, I can see myself there. It's unsettling.

Here now, for you inexperienced parents or for those with poor peripheral vision, is a primer to the gesticulations that are going on when they think you're not watching. Some have been omitted intentionally. This is a family newspaper.


No, this is not something you get in Asian restaurant. It's that well-practiced optical gesture all children have mastered. It can be used to indicate many emotions, most of which translate to: "My parent is an idiot."


Only works if a sibling is watching. Says, "Who knows what parents are thinking?"


More than the common unhappy expression. This one's exaggerated until the child resembles the sad clown at a circus. Used to express grief over whatever parent has just suggested. Most common reaction to "Go clean your room."


When parents say something particularly square or stupid, children clasp their hands to their throats, stick out their tongues and make gagging noises. This is funny the first time.


Children enjoy repeating whatever insipid command a parent has just issued. They do this without making a sound. They twist their lips around, then patter them together to mimic moronic parent. Think Chevy Chase on the old "Saturday Night Live" news show.


Every defiant child has stuck out his tongue at a retreating parent. It's a primitive challenge, a satisfying flaunt to authority. If busted, child faces mandatory solitude.


Many creative children come up with unique ways of expressing frustration. Creativity should be encouraged.

My older son expresses anger this way: His hands curve into claws beside his hips. His face turns red. He starts huffing and puffing. He looks like the big orange Monster in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Which, come to think of it, is probably where he got it. Laughing at him only makes it worse.

My 8-year-old can roll his eyes back in his head until only the whites show. Add in sunken cheeks and a protruding tongue and it's a particularly gruesome visage. That one can scare me if I suddenly turn around. Flashback to Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." Or KISS.


Parents devise many ways to react to these childish displays.

Some parents make faces right back, but this is not recommended. It only encourages bad behavior, and it can frighten smaller children and result in future psychiatrist fees.

Others ignore it, figuring it's a normal phase of childhood and will remedy itself before the child reaches college and makes faces at the dean.

Some parents clamp down on such misbehavior and remain in constant twitchy vigilance for the next incoming gesture. Some stomp around and yell about "respect," which is what the child was secretly hoping. Some harried parents just take the abuse, the same weary way they do everything else: Better to suffer than to turn it into a time-consuming debate.

I've opted for diversion. Now, when I catch my sons cutting up behind my back, I start loudly talking gibberish. They're so puzzled that they stop misbehaving. I tell them I'm quoting Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." So far, they're buying it. It's a tasty little morsel of revenge.


Rocketing to school

For parents, every school day morning presents a mad dash to the bell.

We scramble around the house like Keystone Kops in bathrobes, frenetically trying to get everyone fed, hosed off, dressed, brushed, backpacked and out the door on time.

Here's how it goes at our house:

7 a.m. Mom cheerfully awakens sleepy sons, aged 8 and 10. She departs for work.

7:02 a.m. Dad walks length of the house to kitchen, where he sets out bowls, spoons, napkins, cereal, milk.

7:06 a.m. Dad returns to bedroom, cheerfully reminds boys they should be in a fully locked and upright position.

7:08 a.m. Dad, back in kitchen, pours himself more coffee. Starts singing, in a loud "Oklahoma" basso profundo, "I'm gonna be the first one ready. Oh, yes I AM."

7:11 a.m. Dad returns to bedroom, finds boys have not risen to bait. Not so cheerfully reminds them that breakfast awaits.

7:15 a.m. Dad lets dog outside for fourth time since arising. Sings some more.

7: 20 a.m. Dad rushes into bedroom, tickles boys until they either must get up or wet their pants.

7:22 a.m. Boys run squealing to bathroom.

7:23 a.m. Dad sends boys to kitchen. Reminds them departure is scheduled for 8:30 a.m.

7:25 a.m. Dad steps on scale in his bathroom. Mutters curses. Shaves, showers, stares into mirror remembering lost youth, locates and puts on clean clothes, checks teeth again, takes deep breath and goes in search of sons.

8:06 a.m. Finds them still at table, flicking Froot Loops at each other.

8:07 a.m. Dad suffers minor cardiac arrhythmia. Urges boys to jump into their clothes.

8:08 a.m. Everyone sprints in different directions.

8:11 a.m. Dad pours more coffee, notices hand is shaking.

8:12 a.m. Dad races around, barking orders at boys, who blissfully ignore him.

8:15 a.m. Older son, half-dressed, announces he forgot to do homework the night before. Dad melts into steaming puddle on floor.

8:19 a.m. Having gotten older son seated in front of empty homework page, Dad hurries to other end of house, where he finds barefoot 8-year-old making motorboat noises with his mouth. Dad: "Why do you have a rocket ship in your hand instead of a sock?"

8:20 a.m. Dad, back at table, sees older son has made progress on homework, though it's all unreadable. Dad suggests corrective measures.

8:24 a.m. Dad returns to younger son's room, is informed son's shoes have been stolen.

8:25 a.m. Frantic shoe hunt commences.

8:26 a.m. Older son finishes homework, leaves it on dining room table. Runs off to play.

8:27 a.m. Frantic shoe hunt continues. Dad muttering, "I always know where MY shoes are. How can a person lose his SHOES?"

8:28 a.m. Dad shouts for older son to join hunt. Older son can't be located.

8:29 a.m. Shoes found under parents' bed. Younger son denies allegations he's been jumping on bed again.

8:30 a.m. Dad screams commands. Sons wriggle into sweatshirts. Run off to bathroom to redo mussed hair.

8:31 a.m. Dad grinds teeth.

8:32 a.m. All three sprint to automobile like a pit crew.

8:33 a.m. Dad discovers windshield is covered in frost. A frenzy of scraping ensues. Older son ambles back to house to get homework.

8:35 a.m. Dad proceeds to school, zooming through traffic like Al Unser.

8:45 a.m. Screeches to halt outside school.

8:46 a.m. Boys choose this moment to ask important questions about life. Dad answers calmly, craving cigarette.

8:49 a.m. Dad asks boys to eject from car, but they insist on hearing Spin Doctors song on the radio.

8:54 a.m. Dad pushes boys out of car, bids them farewell with a fond, "Stay out of trouble today!"

8:55 a.m. Bell rings.

9:07 a.m. Dad arrives homes, exhausted and jittery. Finds that friendly elves have not cleaned kitchen in his absence. Kitchen looks like the dining room on the Titanic.

9:08 a.m. Dad sighs wearily and begins cleaning.

9:18 a.m. Dad finishes scraping barnacles of jam off tabletop, pours more coffee, settles into comfy chair at his desk. Turns on computer.

9:25 a.m. After the usual two reboots, Dad is ready for workday to begin.


Safe at home

When you work at home, it's just a short jaunt to agoraphobia.

Agoraphobia -- from the Greek for "there are teen-agers wearing baseball caps backward in my neighborhood" -- is the fear of open spaces. It is a serious psychological condition and not something to be taken lightly. Typically, people with agoraphobia tend to stay indoors rather than risk the panic attacks brought on by exposure to crowds.

People who work in home offices are prime candidates for agoraphobia. We're spoiled to our solitude. We've built cozy nests for ourselves, and we manage to do our work via the comfortable distance of telephone and e-mail. We often go days without face-to-face contact with anyone other than our immediate families.

But sometimes we must leave the house and go outside. Then we are reminded that the world is populated by vast numbers of other humans, most of whom seem intent on getting in our way.
I sometimes find myself sounding like a Jerry Seinfeld routine, "Who ARE these people? Don't they have HOMES? Why are they all bent on sharing the same street/store/school/parking space that I want to use? And why are they so rude?"

As I write this, I'm still stewing about a traffic incident earlier today. A man of apparent foreign extraction pulled out in front of me in a car the approximate size of an Amana side-by-side refrigerator. Apparently, the vehicle was foot-powered, like on The Flintstones, because it took him several blocks to reach a cruising speed of 15 mph. Then, when we reached a green light, he stopped for no apparent reason. After carefully checking both ways, he proceeded on the yellow light, leaving me sitting at the red, sputtering curses.

Minutes later, I entered a supermarket, only to find the same man wandering the aisles. I wanted to tell him off, but he had twitchy eyes and was dressed like a terrorist. I bit my tongue, collected my groceries and moved to the slow-moving checkout line. A woman behind me with wild bottle-blond hair kept screeching about how the store should have more checkers. She was late, she protested. It was the store's fault. And there was the implication that I should just move my overflowing cart and let her get on with her busy, busy life. I paid my tab, avoiding all eye contact, and hurried away.

Then it was on to the bank, where I stood in the velvet-rope maze with a man who had some skin condition that made him scratch himself repeatedly. I got itchy just looking at him. The guy in front of me apparently had never been to a bank before because he questioned every aspect of the transaction. The teller was very patient. I wasn't.

By the time it was all over, I just wanted to go home, unplug the phone and curl up under a blanket for, say, three days. Agoraphobia, here I come.

I wasn't always such a hermit. When I had a 9-to-5 job, I talked to strangers every day. But working alone ruins you on other people. Now, if someone I don't know speaks to me, my first reaction is: "What's wrong with THAT guy? What does he WANT?" I duck my head and mumble and scurry home.

It's no surprise I turned out this way, I suppose. When I was in junior high school, the counselors gave all the students a personality test as part of a careers class. The test was supposed to help us determine what sort of field we should enter as adults. When the counselor scored my test, the results showed that I was best-suited for a job as a forest ranger or as a lookout in a fire tower. In other words, I should be out in the wilds somewhere, far from human contact, working all by myself.

Other folks who work at home may get lonely. They miss the camaraderie of the water cooler. But plenty of us are happy where we are, away from the open spaces, avoiding the unwashed masses.

Maybe it's not too late to take up firespotting.


Boo birds are flighty

My 7-year-old brought home a fill-in-the-blank paper from school the other day that went like this: "For Halloween, I want to wear a costume like a (blank)." My son had written in "ninja."

This made me gnash my teeth.

Not because I have anything against ninjas. I'm sure they're perfectly nice people, once you get past all the kicking and swordplay and screaming "hee-yah!" as they eviscerate each other. No, I've got nothing against ninjas and I hope all you ninjas out there take note of this.

And it's not because I don't want my kids wearing Halloween costumes that portray violent characters. Children -- especially boys -- are violent little creatures by nature and I've given up trying to change that. I made that decision years ago, when one of them was still eating in a high-chair. As I approached, he held up a cracker, perfectly chewed into the shape of an Uzi, and said, "Bang!" I knew then that me and my liberal anti-gun tendencies were whipped.

No, the reason I'm irked by "ninja" as a job description for a 7-year-old trick-or-treater is that I thought we had our Halloween costuming plans all set, and ninjas didn't figure into it this year.
My wife and my 10-year-old son recently picked up these great masks at a flea market. They're whole-head masks, made of rubber, depicting old-man faces, complete with wrinkles and blemishes and various discolorations. Each bald head sports a halo of long, white fake hair.

The first time my kids walked into the room wearing these masks, it startled the bejeebers out of me. I thought we'd been invaded by retired Munchkins.

Once the shock wore off, though, I could see these masks were the basis for perfect Halloween costumes. Wear them with overalls and you're an ancient farmer. Wear them with a bathrobe and you're a wizard. Wear them with pants hitched up to your armpits, and you're somebody's grandpa.

It was a relief, having Halloween all planned, but still leaving room for the all-important last-minute improvisation.

At our house, the kids tend to be capricious about their costumes. They change their minds as frequently as most of us change our socks. In fact, I wish I could get them to change their own socks as often.

It starts around October 1, when Halloween is still a distant Jack-o'-lantern glow on the horizon. The boys plunge into a big box of costumes and old clothes and begin mixing and matching the possibilities. They come into the living room, done up head to toe, and boldly announce that THIS combination is their final selection for Halloween.

We smile and nod, happy in the knowledge that that's been sorted out and pleased with their inventiveness. Then, a day or two later, they appear in completely different outfits. This goes on for the whole month. By the time Halloween actually arrives, they're sick of all of their options and we have to do a mad scramble to get them into some costume, any costume, so the neighbors will fork over the candy.

One year, we painted faces at the last minute. One kid was a werewolf (brown face); the other was a pumpkin (orange face). Under the neighbors' porch lights, both boys looked as if they'd rolled in mud.

Another time, they were vampires, but they couldn't say "Trick or treat" without first removing their plastic fangs. Without the teeth, they looked like butlers.

Another year, they wore uniforms that vaguely suggested Star Trek, along with plastic swords. When people asked what they were supposed to be, they rolled their eyes and said, "Space Ninjas," as if any fool could see that.

This year, I'm determined that they'll wear those little-old-man masks, no matter what. I've worked hard, keeping those masks hidden away so the dog wouldn't shred them. I want all that effort to pay off.

I can see us now, roaming the streets on Halloween night, me watching from the curb as my sons dodder up to a neighbor's door, ring the bell and cry "Trick or treat!" in their best centenarian cackles.

And when the neighbor asks what they're supposed to be, my boys will roll their eyes behind the latex and sigh exasperatedly and reply, "Retirement-home ninjas."


Eating meeting

Child-rearing experts tell us it's important that families share meals.

Dinnertime should be a ritual, they say, a time for gathering together, sharing school news, discussing current events. A time of glowing cheeks and hot food and table settings worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting.

In households where both parents work outside the home, such dinners are difficult to schedule. But because I work at home, we frequently manage to get the entire family around the table at the same time. Here's what the rest of you are missing:

Dad: "Dang, I got all sweaty cooking this. What's the temperature in this kitchen? Eighty? Ninety?"

Mom: "Put your napkins in your laps."

No. 1 Son: "Broccoli? I hate broccoli."

No. 2 Son: "I'm going to miss my favorite TV show."

Mom: "Eat it. It's good for you."

No. 2 Son: "If I eat real fast, can I go watch my show?"

Dad: "Eat the broccoli. You want to get colon cancer?"

Mom: "Let's not discuss colons at the table. Put your napkins in your laps."

Dad: "I'm sweating onto my plate."

No. 1 Son: "If he eats my broccoli for me, can we both go watch TV?"

Dad and Mom: "NO!"

No. 2 Son: Whimpering noises.

Dad: "Enough. How was everyone's day?"

Mom: "Is that your napkin? Why is it on the floor?"

No. 1 Son: "The dog LIKES broccoli."

Dad: "I had a good day. How about the rest of you?"

No. 2 Son: Gargling noises.

Mom: "Don't gargle your juice."

No. 1 Son: "My day sucked."

Dad: "Don't say 'sucked.' It's rude."

No. 2 Son: Choking noises.

No. 1 Son (under his breath): "Sucked, sucked, sucked."

No. 2 Son: "Does anybody care that I'm choking to death?"

Mom and Dad: "No!"

Mom: "Mine went okay. But I was in meetings all day. I'm exhausted."

Dad: "You look tired."

No. 2 Son: "Pikachu! Pikachu!"

Mom: "What do you mean, I look tired?"

No. 1 Son: "A girl tried to kiss me today."

Dad: "Nothing. I mean, you said you're exhausted. Your eyes are droopy."

Mom: "Don't put your face down to the plate. Lift the food on your fork."

Dad: "Kiss you? What did you do?"

Mom: "What do you mean, droopy?"

No. 2 Son: "Do you like seafood?"

Mom and Dad: "No!"

No. 2 Son opens mouth so we can all "see" the "food" inside.

No. 1 Son: "Gross! You're disgusting!"

Mom: "Don't call your brother disgusting."

No. 2 Son: "Droopy eyes! Droopy eyes!"

Mom: "Don't be disgusting."

No. 1 Son: "I kicked her."

Dad: "Who?"

Mom: "What did you do all day?"

No. 1 Son: "The girl. Miss Kissy-face."

Mom: "Don't kick people. It's not nice."

No. 1 Son: "At least it's not disgusting. What is this meat?"

Dad: "The usual. Wrote a column. Laundry. Vacuumed the floors."

No. 1 Son: "I'm not eating this. Here, boy. Here, boy."

Dad: "Don't drop that on my clean floor."

No. 2 Son: "May I be excused?"

Mom: "Get that dog away from the table."

Dad: "Here, boy. Here, boy."

Dog (confused): "Arf! Arf!"

Mom: "You don't want seconds?"

No. 1 Son: "I didn't want firsts. Did Dad cook this?"

Dad (bristling): "Yeah, what about it?"

Mom: "It's very good. Eat it."

No. 1 Son: "Sucks."

Dad: "Where did the other one go?"

Mom: "He excused himself to go watch TV."

Dad: "You think he tastes anything when he eats that fast?"

No. 1 Son: "I hope not, for his sake."

Mom: "You're excused, too."

No. 1 Son departs, grumbling.

Mom: "Alone at last. That seemed to go well."

Dad: "Another successful family dinner. Is it hot in here?"


Wallowing in filth

A friend gave me a pillow embroidered with this message: “My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance.”

I heartily agree with this philosophy. Apparently, I’m not alone.

Sociologists at the University of Maryland have found that nobody’s doing much housework anymore. In a national sample of nearly 15,000 people over 30 years, the researchers found that the average housework load per adult dropped from 17.5 hours per week in 1965 to 13.7 hours in 1995.

For women, the averages have dropped even more. Women averaged 30 hours of household drudgery a week back in 1965, when most worked in the home. By 1995, their workload plummetted to 17.5 hours. Men averaged only 4.9 hours of housework per week in 1965, but that climbed to 10 hours a week by 1995.

Women (even those with full-time jobs) still do the lioness’ share of the housework, the study noted, but Americans generally are just doing less.

“One speculation we have,” one researcher said, “is that perhaps this is not a highly valued activity.”

How’s that for mastery of understatement? More bluntly: Given our busy lifestyles, we choose to live like pigs.

In most families these days, both parents work, just to make ends meet. We work long hours because bosses (and ambitions) require it. We finish the workday dead tired, only to rush off to after-school activities and dinner parties and church functions. Home computers mean we work or answer e-mail after the kids are in bed. For many of us, any spare time is spent flat on our backs, recuperating, while we zap through inane television shows with the remote control.
We’re too beat to worry about housework.

And yet, the housework never goes away. Laundry piles up. Meals must be prepared. Floors get gritty. Cobwebs magically appear.

The only answer is to put it off. Delay the laundry until we’re wearing mismatched socks to work and our colleagues sniff and make faces when we pass in the hall. Hold off on grocery shopping until the kids are eating leftover lasagna and root beer for breakfast. Wear shoes indoors. Teach the children not to write “dust me” on the furniture with their fingers. If the kids complain about cobwebs, we tell them we’re preparing early for Halloween.

We procrastinate as long as we can, trying to make it to the weekend. Then we try to cram 27.5 hours’ worth of housework into Saturday.

This is the way we live in the modern, high-tech society. Like pigs.

At my house, I do perhaps 90 percent of the housework. That was part of the agreement when I bailed out of a regular job to work at home. My wife works long hours. I’m here all day. It should be my job to do the cleaning.

But I put off the housework just like the rest of you, even though I’m surrounded by it all day. I get distracted by pursuits that are more interesting. And let’s face it, anything is more interesting than housework.

All our friends and relatives know I’m in charge of keeping the place clean. Which is why I panic when we get one of those phone calls that says company’s arriving in 15 minutes. I’ve got a reputation to protect. I end up zooming around the house like The Flash, snatching up dirty clothes and wiping crumbs off countertops and slamming bedroom doors. Sometimes, I can fool our guests into thinking the house looks nice. But I watch them carefully. I don’t want them opening a closet door by mistake or -- God forbid -- looking under a bed.

For many two-career couples, housework becomes a waiting game. Whoever can’t stand a dirty house has to do something about it. The reason men still average less housework than women is that we tend to have a higher tolerance for filth.

“Maybe men’s low level of housework will become the norm with both men and women deciding: ‘This is not how I’m going to allocate my time,’” the researcher said. “Maybe women are becoming more like men.”



Supplies, supplies

Marketing Dept.
Megalotta Office Stuff Inc.


As you know, we've made terrific progress in capturing the market of people who work out of their homes. This growing market of suckers, nearly 20 million strong, has shown itself to be vulnerable to various sales approaches when it comes to office supplies. We have succeeded in identifying these approaches, and those inroads have been reflected in booming sales at our
236,405 huge retail warehouses nationwide.

To remain competitive, we must find other ways to persuade America's workers to buy gimcracks and doodads for their home offices. We must convince these workers they NEED our products. This memo will outline some possible strategies. We here in Marketing thought we'd run them up the flagpole and see who bends over. We look forward to your input and further suggestions for capturing this valuable market.


Our itemized receipts have been very popular with at-home workers who use them for tax purposes and to seek reimbursement from their employers. But we can do more to help our clientele. For now on, all sales of our popular computer games software, such as "Flight Simulator," will read out on cash register receipts as "envelopes."


Here at headquarters we know most offices don't need a paper shredder. What's so secret that these workers need to shred? What are they, the Pentagon? But paper shredders have proven to be hot sales items in recent months. We believe the people buying these shredders are what we here in Marketing call ASUEEs (All Stocked Up on Everything Else). The ASUEEs are a fickle market and soon will move on to something else -- probably DVD drives. Therefore, we must find ways to move these shredders to the more discerning shoppers. We propose an advertising campaign highlighting the benefits of confetti. One can never have too much confetti on hand. What if a party breaks out? And there's always the possibility a tickertape parade might pass by your window. We think this approach will sway those fence-sitters who still haven't purchased a shredder.


Our Technology Department is in the process of developing a new suite of home office programs that will allow the average at-home worker to draft documents, store files, send e-mail, create charts, do illustrations, keep accounting records, send faxes and figure his taxes, all without ever getting out of his chair. We believe the new Deluxe Home Office Suite For Idiots 2001 will be a "must-have" for techno-geeks who work at home. Naturally, the new suite will be incompatible with all existing operating systems. But our Technology Department is working up a new operating system that will retail for only $249.99. Plan for the Christmas rush now!


These items, which clip right onto one's head and leave the hands free, are proving very popular with home-office types, particularly those who like to pretend they're pilots while playing "Flight Simulator." Display them prominently and move 'em out!


We're not forgetting our root market here. We know most people shop Megalotta Office Stuff Inc. for the basics -- paper, pens, clipboards, staplers, file folders. The problem with these items is they last too long. A shopper buys, say, a stapler for his home office and he's set for life! He'll never need another stapler. And one box of 3,000 staples will last him years. This isn't the sort of high turnover we want. We need those customers to walk through the door every week, so they have an opportunity to ogle the latest product offerings, such as paper shredders. Therefore, we have redesigned most of our basic items and are now manufacturing them out of the finest Indonesian plastic. File shelves, staplers, pencil holders, even office furniture will now be constructed of this particularly brittle blend of polymers. The slightest use results in breakage. We'll still carry items made of more durable material, such as metal, but their prices will be quadrupled to encourage customers to go with the plastic. You can bet we'll be seeing those customers again!

That's it for now from Marketing. Next week: The latest in electronic organizers!


Dying for dollars

I'm worth more dead than alive.

We recently received one of those semi-annual pension plan statements that shows how much I can expect to make from Social Security and other funds when I retire. Included in the figures was the amount my family would receive per month if I kick the bucket before retirement.

The amount, based on my salary back in the days when I worked a regular 9-to-5 job, is substantially more than I average per month now. Worse yet, my wife was the one who noticed this while doing the household paperwork. She laughingly called it to my attention, but I didn't like the gleam in her eye. I won't be standing next to her on any subway platforms anytime soon, just in case.

One of the grim realities of the movement toward working at home is often a plunge in income. Telecommuters who move their existing jobs home from the office may not experience this, but the rest of us, those who take a flyer on a whole new career, can expect a certain amount of paycheck shock.

This is particularly tough for men, who've been socialized to base their worth on the size of their incomes. We want to be able to flaunt our large, manly paychecks, to wave them under the noses of lesser men. We're supposed to buy expensive toys, such as Porsches and Rolexes and titanium golf clubs. We want women to see us as desirable mating prospects and we foolishly think the size of our wallets matters.

Let's face it: When a man bails out of the workaday world to start a business or (God forbid) a writing career at home, he essentially has chosen unemployment. And no matter how hard he works or how clean he keeps the house or how well he raises the children, his income suffers, at least in the short term.

It's been three years since I left a newspaper job to work at home. I've published a few books during that time and I write this column and I teach a little, trying to cobble together a living. But the fact is, the money still doesn't roll in regularly as it did when I was working full-time. It comes in spurts, sometimes unexpectedly. I'll go along for weeks with no income, then a check will arrive in the mail and I'll once again feel as if I'm contributing to the household income. But it might be weeks (or months) until the next payday.

No one checks his mailbox more frequently than a freelance writer.

I work as hard as I ever did. I spend hours at the computer every day (between trips to the laundry room), banging on the keyboard, herding words. I've got book deals brewing, networking conferences scheduled, honors coming my way. My career is going fine in every way, except that my family would be better off financially if I went under a bus.

I don't mean to whine. I chose this situation and I'm (mostly) happy with it. But at some point all of us parents who work at home have to face the music: We're on the Daddy/Mommy Track, and our financial rewards won't measure up to those who can pour their every waking hour into a career.

How to cope?

We have to find other rewards. The laughter of children who are growing tall and trustworthy. Finishing the laundry and finding that all the socks match. The aroma of brownies in the oven. Going years without wearing a necktie.

They're not lucrative, these little Kodak Moments. But string enough of them together, and you've got a full life, one brimming with reminders that money isn't the most important thing, that you provide for your family in countless other ways. That everyone's better off with you at home, taking care of things, managing the household, being happy.

Guess I'll keep looking both ways before I cross the street.


Ooh, that smell

For parents who work at home, the household watchword is: "What's that smell?"

We spend much of our time sniffing, searching, trying to find that stinky sweatsock stuffed in the heater vent or that putrid apple core carefully hidden under a bed.

The nose becomes a liability when children are around.

It begins with dirty diapers, Mother Nature's alarm system. If diapers didn't smell awful, parents would never know when Baby's got a load. Baby, happily gurgling, wouldn't mention it. Even attentive parents wouldn't notice until it became apparent that Baby couldn't roll over because his diaper was all whop-sided.

The malodors continue as children grow up. They're regular manufacturers of smells, which explains the origins of the word "olfactory."

For instance, there are all the various permutations of soured milk. Moldy food. Sneakers. Not to mention assorted bathroom smells, most centered around unfamiliar concepts such as "aim" and "flush."

Add a dog into the family equation and the stenches multiply. Dog owners develop highly sensitive noses, able to distinguish "Eau de Dead Bird" from other scents on a canine's breath. If you have a dog, car trips begin like this: Sniff, sniff. "OK, everybody check their shoes!"

The latest musty mystery at our house emanated from my 10-year-old son's school backpack. The backpack is the standard elementary school model, which is to say it has 30 zippers and 20 pockets and weighs about 75 pounds. It developed a peculiar aroma, which is to say it stank. It smelled so bad we could barely stand to share the car with it for the 10 minutes it takes to drive to school.

Now we all knew that said son has been known to leave the remains of sack lunches in that backpack for extended periods of time. More than once, I had removed a soaked-through sack from the backpack and, holding my breath, hurried with it to the trash as if it were on fire. But the smell somehow had penetrated the vinyl lining of the backpack, we believed, until the backpack itself stank. Time to wash it.

This was no simple matter. Many treasures and toys and pages of old homework hide in the recesses of a school backpack. Everything must be removed before it can go into the washer.
I put my son in charge of emptying all the pockets and went about my business. A few minutes later I heard this: "Aaaaaagh!"

Being a calm, experienced parent, I sprinted into his room to find him holding up a Ziploc bag filled with an unidentifiable glurch. The liquescent substance inside was a kaleidoscope of colors, dominated by orange and white. It looked like an astronaut's lunch. And there was no doubt it was the producer of the vile smell.

I hustled the bag of reek to the outside trash bin, buried it under other refuse and slammed the lid. Then I counted the days until the garbage truck would take it away. My calculations were sound. The offending item was removed to the landfill before neighbors could complain to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

We washed the backpack anyway. And someday, we hope, it won't smell bad anymore.

My, you're thinking, that's about the worst stink story I've ever heard. Well, steel yourselves. I can top that one, but I've got to go back about 30 years.

One summer, my parents' Thunderbird developed a terrible odor. It just kept getting worse. Drove my father nuts. He looked under the hood. He crawled around under the car, checking the fender wells for dead cats. Nothing. The smell got so bad that you practically could see it rising off the car like heat waves. Finally, after weeks of searching, the source of the aroma was located. My younger brother had stuffed an Easter egg in the never-used, back-seat ash tray.
Since months had passed since Easter, the egg had plenty of time to develop toxic properties. My parents traded the car off a short time later, and I think they took a loss.

The point of all this? Our government has overlooked a societal ill, one that could be remedied if gas masks were issued to all new parents. I'm planning a letter-writing campaign. Starting with the EPA.


Take a break

Throughout the 20th Century, prognosticators predicted that Americans would enjoy more leisure time. Technological advances would mean shorter workweeks, they said, leaving laborers free to frolic and muse.

Those forecasts turned out to be dead wrong, just like the ones that said we'd be flying around in Jetson cars by now and controlling our weather. High-demand, high-stress jobs mean we're working more than ever. Leisure time remains as elusive as world peace.

Brace yourself. I'm going to throw some numbers at you now.

--Americans labor more hours than workers in any other industrialized country. We clocked an average of 1,966 hours in 1997, up nearly 4 percent from 1,883 hours in 1980, according to a study by the International Labor Organization. That's nearly two full weeks more than workers in Japan, where average hours on the job dropped from 2,121 hours in 1980 to 1,889 in 1995. The French logged 1,656 hours in 1997 and the Germans worked 1,560. Those dynamos of productivity, the Norwegians and the Swedes, worked 1,399 hours and 1,552 hours, respectively.

--A recent Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. poll of 2,000 Americans found that leisure hours have declined from 38.2 per week in 1993 to 35.3 in 1998.

--In that poll, commissioned by Hearst Magazines, respondents were asked what they would do with an extra hour or two per day. The No. 1 response was sleep, followed by spending time on a hobby, reading, exercising, doing nothing, watching TV and making love. (How's that for priorities?)

For the 10 percent of Americans who work in home offices, the situation is even more severe. Many of us feel a moral imperative to work, work, work, partly because our spouses are the ones bringing home the real dough and partly because our work surrounds us all day. Along with the profit-making work, there's the housework and the yardwork and laundry and cooking. Throw a couple of kids into the equation, and it adds up to maybe 10,000 hours a year. (Let's see the Japanese top that.)

Since a year has only 8,766 hours, at-home workers soon learn there's not enough time to do all the jobs and do them right. The only way to include any sort of leisure activity is to let some things fall by the wayside. Mopping, for instance.

To find time for leisure, you have to prioritize. I suggest making a list of the jobs you must accomplish each week. Rank them in order of importance. Then lose the list. That way, maybe you'll get lucky and forget some of the chores you'd planned to do.

Or, you can squeeze leisure time into your workday. Use your lunch hour to exercise or pursue a hobby. Use all those minutes spent on hold to read a favorite novel. Peruse the newspaper while your computer reboots. Sleeping at your desk, I'm sorry to say, doesn't count.

However you do it, you must make time for yourself. For example, I skip out one night a week (while my wife bravely ferries our sons to Cub Scouts) to visit my best buddy. We play Scrabble and drink Cokes and eat M&Ms -- a couple of wild and crazy guys -- and try very hard not to think about the work we should be doing. It's true leisure time. And it's one activity that helps me keep my precarious grasp on sanity.

Follow my lead, you at-home workers. Get out of the house, get away from the piles of paperwork and dirty laundry. Find some activity that takes your mind off work. Plunge into doing nothing productive, at least for a few hours a week.

It'll keep you from going crazy. It might even make you a better worker and a better parent. But most importantly, it'll make you a better poll respondent. When the pollsters come calling, tell them your leisure hours are on the rise, that you're working less, that you've never been happier.

If we all pull together, we can at least make it LOOK as if we're not working all the time. Otherwise, Americans eventually will say they've had enough. We'll see a brain drain as we lose productive workers to other countries.

I'm considering Norway myself.

(Editor's note: The data in this column are old, but the situation, alas, is unchanged. I didn't move to Norway, but I moved to California, which is sort of the same thing.)


Mother of inventions

During the recent turn-of-the-millenium binge, we heard a lot about the greatest inventions of the millenium (the printing press) and the greatest person of the century (Andy Kaufman), but it seems to me folks were looking too far afield. The most crucial technological advances are the ones we enjoy right in our own homes. Their creators should be our heroes.

I'm writing this on a computer, which will later deliver it to the newspaper without me leaving my chair. Simultaneously, machines are washing my clothes and my dishes and drying them. A machine that would suck the dirt off my floors would be operating, too, but the kid who was running it went off to play basketball. Thanks to the marvels of telecommunications, I could any second talk with anyone around the world, though it'll most likely be a chat with the doctor after my son takes the basketball in the kisser again.

You see my point, though, right? Say what you like about the printing press, it won't warm up cold coffee. You need a microwave for that. Self-cleaning ovens are a boon to all mankind. And where would we be today without the TV remote? Jumping up to change the channels, that's where.

Considering these marvels of modern ingenuity inevitably brings us to other concepts and inventions that won't fare so well in the History of the Household. We also have a millennium full of goofs. File them under the category Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.
You undoubtedly can come up with many of these on your own, but we'll get you started:

--CALL WAITING. I say, let 'em wait. I got through first, I get to conduct my conversation uninterrupted. I knew this had gone too far when my own mother put me on hold.

--SQUEEZABLE MAYONNAISE. I bought this before fully pondering its ramifications. Any mayonnaise worth having isn't "squeezable." And it looks like toothpaste when you squirt it on bread.

--READY-TO-ASSEMBLE. What's the point of buying a new piece of furniture if you have to put it together yourself? Isn't that the furniture-maker's job? Do I ask furniture-makers to come to my house and write stuff?

Ready-to-assemble means we parents have countless stray parts to toys and basketball goals and bicycles lying around the house. We still don't know what they're for.

--GARBAGE DISPOSALS. I know many of you swear by these, but what could possibly be smart about sending food sludge down your drainpipes? It's just a disaster waiting to happen. One day you wash the English peas down the drain; the next day, your front lawn is swallowed by a sinkhole.

You can always tell the homes that have garbage disposals. All the spoons have been chewed up around the edges.

--TOFU. It tastes like nothing, therefore it tastes like whatever you mix with it. That's what people say. But if it tastes like nothing, why put it in your mouth? Why not just eat the stuff you were going to mix it with and call that good?

Sure, tofu's supposedly good for you, but there are folks in the South who say the same thing about clay.

--SALAD SHOOTERS. Need I say more?

--CELLULAR PHONES. Yeah, yeah, they're convenient. But do you really want to be available 24 hours a day? Is anything more annoying than the sound of someone else's phone ringing in a crowded movie theater? Don't you find yourself shouting at weaving motorists: "Hang up and drive!"

--COMPUTERS. They make many things possible. Scientific advances (coming soon: the Nuclear Salad Shooter) and medical breakthroughs (ditto). The world is a smaller place because of the Internet. But do we want a smaller place? Wasn't the world a perfectly fine size before?
With computers, the focus of a job often is the tool, not the end result. They often mean half the productivity in twice the time. And we entrust our work, investments, addresses, shopping and record-keeping to machines that don't function when the power fails or when they get sick with a virus.

If that's not a boondoggle, I don't know what is. But at least I don't have to get on a horse and carry my column across town to the newspaper.


Marching orders from General Dad

Here's a comforting message for all of you who have children under the age of 6: It gets easier.

As children get older, parents move from the trenches to the rear guard, in charge of logistics rather than patrolling the sleepless front lines of the home front. So it's like a promotion. And, in many ways, there's less incoming flak.

When they're toddlers, kids seem to be in constant danger -- teetering on stacked boxes to reach stuff, experimenting with matches and electrical sockets, teething on the dog. With experience, children learn which things to put in their mouths and where not to stick their fingers. They discover that you'll reach high shelves for them if they whine enough.

As children learn to solve their own problems, parents can relax a little. They can get a full night's sleep occasionally. Most importantly, parents can bend over a lot less, which becomes crucial with age.

A case in point: We bought these bean bag chairs so our two sons could drag them around and flop into them in front of various television sets strategically placed around the house. The bean bags look like big old prunes lying on the floor, and you can trip over them in the dark, but they keep the kids off the good furniture, which is important, particularly when they're noshing Pringles.

One bean bag sprung a leak -- thanks to the dog -- and my 7-year-old recognized the leak as a problem he could solve. He went to the junk drawer in the kitchen and got out scissors and duct tape (that's my boy!). He crouched over the bean bag, cut tape to the right length with the scissors and -- voila! -- the repair was made. And he didn't approach me for help.

How did I even know he'd accomplished this on his own? Well, the junk drawer was hanging open, for one thing. Duct tape and scissors sat out on the counter. He hadn't put anything away when he was done.

If this seems like shoddy workmanship to you, then you're missing the point. He'd done part of the job himself. And it was the part that involved bending over.

When I was a kid growing up in the South, my parents considered my brother and me to be their own personal remote controls. We could be out in the yard playing, and they'd call us inside to change the channel or fetch some more tea. My parents believed it was easier to shout a kid down from upstairs than to get up and cross the room and turn on a lamp.

From a tender age, I hated this. I didn't see why I needed to interrupt my important activities -- which usually centered on slaying imaginary Nazis -- just because a parent didn't want to dislodge from the La-Z-Boy.

Now that I'm a middle-aged parent of two strapping boys, I do the same thing. I'm General Dad. I sit in my comfy chair, a newspaper spread across my lap, my coffee within arm's reach, and I invariably spy something that needs doing. Time to summon the troops. Yo, boys! Come here and hand me that/pick that up/clean that up/put that down/turn that off.

They mutter and drag their feet, but they do it. And I don't have to wrestle my way up out of my chair.

I see now why my parents used my brother and me as their servants. Parents are tired all the time. We never really catch up on our rest from those 2 a.m. feedings. And bending over and picking things up off the floor becomes increasingly difficult for aging spines. Better to let the kids do it. They need the exercise. They're limber. They're shorter than us so they're already closer to the floor.

I know this won't last. Before long, my boys will be teen-agers, and I'll be lucky if I can find them, much less get them to help out. And shouting the length of the house for assistance does no good when the kids always wear headphones spewing rap music.

But until then I've got helpers, my own little chain gang. Now all I need is a La-Z-Boy.


'Fessing up at Gamers Anonymous

Hi, my name is Steve, and I'm a computer game junkie.

(All together now: "Hi, Steve!")

I'm a little nervous. This my first time to come forward. I've been in denial for a long time. But I was sitting in the back there, swilling coffee, and I thought: Stand up and say it. Admit it to these strangers and maybe you can finally admit it to yourself. So that's what I'm doing. I'm confessing my sins. Who knows? Maybe it'll help.

My story is a familiar one. I started out small, just a little Solitaire when no one was else was around. Maybe do a little shareware at parties. I told myself I was just experimenting. A taste of computer poker never hurt anybody, right? I still functioned in my everyday life, though sometimes I'd have a virtual hangover the next morning from staying up too late, zapping aliens.

Pretty soon, I was no longer just joy-popping. I moved up to the harder stuff -- advanced games like Tetris that eat up your time and lead to debilitating physical problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

My addiction started to crop up during the workday. I'd be itching to play when I should be doing something productive. I began to ignore my chores in favor of computer chess. I'd get irritated when the ringing phone interrupted a game that couldn't be paused. I skipped bathing and eating and other everyday activities that might take me away from the computer screen. I'd bark at my children when they broke my concentration, pestering me with some minor problem, like a house fire.

I was blind to all these signals, of course. I thought I had my habit under control.
The first recognition that I had a problem came when I started attributing human motives to my computer, which is just a machine after all. The computer seemed out to defeat me at any cost, and I began to treat it like a real live human enemy. I'd curse at it and pound the keyboard and choke the mouse and generally act like an idiot.

Some of you are nodding. Guess you've been there, too, huh? But I went even further. I started believing the computer was toying with me.

Here's an example: One of my obsessions is a simple little game called Evolve. You fly around in a spaceship, shooting kamikaze aliens that are trying to crash into you. A silly game, really. It's called Evolve because the aliens change if you don't shoot them soon enough. They go from green to yellow to red with an increase in speed and agility in each incarnation. At first, I just played the game, win or lose, it didn't matter. But then I began to notice a pattern. Just when I'd killed nearly all the aliens and was relaxing a bit, bracing to move up to the next level, one of the few remaining aliens would evolve suddenly and run right at my ship at twice the normal speed.

How else to explain it? The evil computer was out to get me.

Another game involves moving virtual marbles around a board. I started to believe the computer was counting ahead two or three plays, so it could be sure to trap me. It took all the joy out of the game. Now, I get so caught up in trying to read the machine's motives that, boom, I lose all my marbles.

It's insanity to play a counting game against a computer anyway; counting is what they do best. But I kept playing. I was hooked.

And now I've admitted it. I know I have a problem. I'm planning to get with the program and kick the habit.

Withdrawal will be rough. My hands will itch to play again. My brain will desire the strategy, the competition, the occasional victory. I'll hear the beeping and blooping of the games in my sleep. But I think I'm ready. I just hope it's not too late.

I know you're supposed to stop cold turkey, but I was wondering, could I do just a little more Tetris before I get on the wagon? I'm ready to quit. Really. But first I want to teach that computer a lesson.


Bad case of call-itis

Here's a tip for you who work at home: You're calling your spouse at the office too often if the receptionist recognizes your voice before you get past "Hello."

With no co-workers to natter at all day, we stay-at-home parents tend to snatch up the phone with the least provocation. We speed-dial our spouses to consult, to complain, to comiserate. Every scraped knee, every development with a client, every household "emergency" such as minor flooding merits a quick call.

What, you might ask, is wrong with that? It's part of the marriage contract that we share everything, right? Wrong. Your spouse is busy earning a living. He/she is in meetings, making decisions, pumping out paperwork. If you call frequently, your spouse will get very little done and become as unproductive as you. This is not the best approach to job security.

But how much is too much? Is one call a day permissible? Three a day? Once an hour? As a rule, if you answer the phone saying, "Hi, it's me again," you're calling too often. If you spend more time on hold with your spouse's workplace than you do with your children, it may be time to unplug the phone. If you sing along with the Muzak, you may need professional help.

A typical case of Spousal Call-itis:

9:03 a.m.
Housespouse: "Oh, good, you're there already. Do you know what Johnny did with his homework? No, I haven't looked under his bed. Why would it be under his bed? Hold on a second."

(Working Spouse casts longing look at coffee urn, where co-workers are gossiping.)

Housespouse: "You were right. It was under his bed. Go figure. OK, have a great day. I'll talk to you later."

(WS hangs up, fighting off sense of foreboding.)

10:27 a.m.
HS: "Hi, it's me again. Your mother called and . . . "

(WS tunes out, busy with incoming e-mail.)

HS (several minutes later): "So it's all right with you if I tell her we'll come over for dinner on Sunday?"

WS: "Yes."

HS: "OK. I'll call her back. Hope the rest of your day goes well."

10:33 a.m.
HS: "Me again. Your mother now says Sunday's no good. How about Saturday?"

WS (balancing a teetering stack of paperwork that rivals most landfills): "Yes."

10:45 a.m.
HS: "I'm back. She now says Sunday would be better after all. I swear, I don't know what's wrong with that woman . . . "

(WS loses focus, busy making placating hand gestures to red-faced supervisor, who's pointing at wristwatch.)

1:02 p.m.
HS: "Oh, good, you're back from lunch. The refrigerator is making a funny noise."

WS (sighing heavily): "What kind of noise?"

HS: "Sort of whish-whish, then a clunk."

WS: "That's the icemaker."

HS: "Really? How come I've never noticed that before? I swear, I'm going goofy, working here all by myself. Listen, while I've got you on the phone . . ."

(WS closes eyes and clenches jaw.)

2:17 p.m.
HS: "Me again. I was wondering, do we need new drapes in the living room? I've got a catalog here that has some that might do nicely . . . "

(WS feels drops of blood popping out on forehead.)

3:23 p.m.
HS: "I know you're busy, but how about meat loaf for supper?"

WS: "Yes, yes, yes. Meat loaf would be wonderful. I've got to go now."

HS: "You want the meat loaf with gravy or with that gooey ketchup all over the top?"

WS: "If I don't get back into that meeting, I'm going to be meat loaf myself."

HS (hurt): "OK, sorry. Bye."

3:46 p.m.
WS: "Hi, it's me. Sorry I was abrupt before. But I was in this meeting and my boss . . . "

HS: "Hmph. If I'm bothering you at work, you can just say so. Am I calling too often?"

WS (seeing life flash before eyes): "Not at all, sweetheart. I know it's important that we stay in touch throughout the day. You call whenever you want."

HS (somewhat mollified): "All right then. Only one more question for the busy, big-shot decision-maker. Mashed potatoes or fries?"