Seminar deadline

Just a reminder that the registration fee for my all-day seminar on how to write your mystery novel goes from $90 to $100 on Saturday. The seminar, "Thrillers, Chillers and Killers," is scheduled for March 22 at the Redding, CA, Library. For details, click the link to the left.

Questions? Send an e-mail to ABQBrewer@aol.com, and I'll make up some answers...


Planet of the japes

You want to buy new living-room furniture, but you just can't justify the expense. The old stuff's really not worn out yet. If only there were a way to accelerate the wear-and-tear, so you could bring yourself to get rid of the old furniture faster. . .

Here's the solution: Run right out and rent the videotape of "Planet of the Apes," the PG-13 version with all the scary soldier-apes leaping around like, well, like monkeys. Screen this video for your children. They will respond by becoming monkeys themselves, screeching and scratching themselves and, most importantly, bounding around on the furniture. In no time at all, the old stuff will be trashed and you'll be free to purchase stylish new furnishings for your home.

Kids are rough on furniture because they don't get the whole concept. They look at a sofa, for instance, and they don't see a place to sit and be comfortable and eat Fritos. They see a trampoline. Or a pirate ship. Or the battlements of a castle. It is their duty, as children, to jump on sofas and to fling themselves off the backs of armchairs and to stand on glass-topped coffee tables.

Exposing them to simian behavior only makes these tendencies worse. You wouldn't put a fine leather sofa in a gorilla cage, would you? Take a look at your children. Are they any different from apes? Do they treat the furniture any better than gorillas would? I didn't think so. Then you'd better not invest a lot of money in new furniture, not until the kids go off to college to destroy the furnishings in some dorm.

When I was a kid, my mother constantly exhorted my brother and me to sit properly on the furniture. We responded by doing backflips off the sofa and wrecking kitchen chairs while building "forts." When something inevitably broke, my poor mother would moan, "We can't have anything NICE."

Which, when you have children, is exactly right.

In those idyllic child-free days of our marriage, before my wife and I had two sons, we filled our house with antiques -- 100-year-old tables and carved-wood chairs and frilly sofas much too delicate for a big guy like me to actually sit on. Once the boys came along, that furniture bit the dust, item by item, as seats wore out and upholstery tore and arms broke (the furniture's, not the children's). All that beautiful furniture, which had endured generations of wear, couldn't survive our kids. We began calling our home The Place Antiques Go to Die.

Replacement furniture tends to be of the overstuffed, rugged variety. (You know you're a real parent when the best selling point for a new couch is that the upholstery "won't show dirt.")
A few antiques -- tables and cabinets that don't make good battleships -- still remain, mixed in with the padded, Scotch-Guarded stuff. The resulting style is what home magazines call "eclectic," which comes from the French for "mismatched."

Eventually, I suppose, we'll just get rid of the sofas and chairs altogether in favor of bookshelves and desks and rolling chairs. More and more at our house, room once given over to antiques and decorative items has become workspace. I've got a desk, my wife's got a desk, all God's children got desks.

In their bedrooms, both sons were using old folding tables for computer desks, so we got them new desks for Christmas. Very nice, heavy-duty stuff that came "ready-to-assemble" (ha!) and was guaranteed with full warranty for six years (haHA!). The desks have lots of shelves and pigeonholes to hold the boys' endless supply of "stuff." Their granddad cooperated by building them spacious new bookshelves for Christmas as well.

We got everything installed, computers reconnected, "stuff" stored. My wife and I, weary but happy, stood in the bedroom doorway, admiring our handiwork, which looked awfully well-organized if a little sterile.

A realization hit me and I turned to her and said, "We've built office cubicles for our sons."

She replied grimly, "They might as well get used to it."

This, as you might imagine, took the edge off our Christmas spirit. But it didn't bother the boys. They were too busy climbing on their new desks, scratching and hooting and turning backflips.


Drive me crazy

When you work at home, most interaction with non-family humans comes in three modes: Telephone, e-mail and from behind the wheel of a car.

During most of my at-home career, I spent a couple of hours a day in an Oldsmobile with bench seats that my wife called "the living room on wheels." Our sons went to two different schools, halfway across town, and it was my job to act as their chauffeur. Plus, there are the many errands required by an average family of four, which mean more driving.

All this time among my fellow motorists has led me to this conclusion: Some people turn into chuckleheads the moment they slide behind the steering wheel.

I'm not talking about dangerous drivers, the ones you see on the nightly high-speed chases on TV. Those idiots should be forced to wear spike belts around their heads until they get smarter.

No, I'm talking your average Joe, your run-of-the-mill motorist who inevitably will do something stupid just as you're trying to pass.

Polls show that virtually everyone thinks he's a good driver. It's always "the other guy" who causes accidents. Lest you think I'm one of these hypocrites, let me be the first to say I'm not a perfect driver. I'm usually running late, which means I'm in a hurry, which means I attract slow-moving cars the way a porch light draws moths. Then I curse and fume and act a fool because all these people ARE IN MY WAY. Look in your rear-view mirror. If the motorist behind you is snarling and spitting and spinning in place like the Tasmanian Devil, that's probably me.

That said, my extended time behind the wheel has given me ample opportunity to study the sociology of driving. I've begun to categorize other drivers and to avoid those who fall into one of the following types:

--Old Guy in a Hat. Men used to make jokes about women drivers, until enough of them got run over that they learned to keep their mouths shut. But my careful research has revealed that when you're behind someone who's going 10 mph below the speed limit, in the fast lane, turn signal inexplicably blinking, it's probably not a woman, but an Old Guy wearing a hat. These guys should exchange their hats for crash helmets.

--Granny Under the Dash. You know which ones I mean. Sweet old ladies who can't see over the steering wheel. They're so little, you can't tell if they're wearing hats.

(A note: We housespouses run our errands in the middle of the workday, avoiding the teeth of rush hour, just like retirees do. That means we have lots of time to slowly trail behind Old Guys, admiring their hats. I don't know why senior citizens drive slowly. If I'm lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, I'm driving 80 mph everywhere I go. Once you've beaten the odds, what the hell . . .)

--The Busy Driver. These motorists are much too busy to drive. They're talking on cell phones and adjusting makeup and reading magazines and changing radio stations. Driving just gets in the way of their demanding lives. A word to the Busy Drivers out there: The rest of us want to kill you.

--The Lane-hopper. These drivers -- usually the younger ones -- change lanes two or three times as they approach a red light, trying to guess which one will zoom off fastest when the light turns green. They pass at every opportunity. All this high-speed maneuvering allows them to arrive at their destinations an average of 27 seconds sooner.

--The Scaredy-cat. These people never risk turning right on red. They never pass slower vehicles. They're much more interested in STOPPING than they are in GOING. Despite all this caution, the rear ends of their vehicles often are crunched. Probably by impatient drivers like me.

If you recognize yourself among those categories, you might want to change your driving style. You might want to consider public transportation. But, most of all, you might want to watch your mirrors.

If you see me back there, in the throes of my usual road rage, just pull over to the curb. It'll be safer for all of us that way.


Upgrading your doodads

Occasionally, in the life of a home office, you need to retool.

Machinery breaks or wears out or becomes so outdated that you fall far behind the rest of the corporate universe. Then the home-office worker must go out into the greater world in search of new, tax-deductible gizmos to keep business moving.

Many at-home workers fall into the techno-wonk trap, becoming so fascinated by the gee-whiz electronics available these days that they spend more time entering data into their pocket organizers than they do getting any work done. These people tend to spend a lot of money on
the newest, the latest, the hottest doodads to hit the market.

Then there are the low-tech types, like me. When it comes to computers and printers and scanners and the like, my kids know more than I do. Sometimes, I have to call on a child to bail me out of electronic trouble. This hurts my pride. And my sons have begun to charge consulting fees.

We low-tech types tend to use computers and other office gear for much longer than the electronics industry would like. Computer chip makers and software manufacturers and His Imperial Majesty Bill Gates all want us to "upgrade" regularly. And, if it takes us weeks to overcome the shock and confusion of working on new equipment, so be it. They're thinking about their bottom lines.

We low-tech types refuse to play that game. I like to use a computer for five or six years before investing time and money in a new one. Computers go out of date so quickly, this is about like saying I want to drive the same car for 30 years. On bald tires.

My home-office computer reached the six-year mark recently, and it was beginning to show signs of wear-and-tear. Its memory was full and it was processing slower all the time. I think its clutch was going out. I tried to ignore these difficulties, to press on with my work rather than getting distracted by my tools, but the computer's balkiness and thrice-daily reboots were starting to annoy.

The clincher was when my wife used my computer to get online. She couldn't believe how long it took to load a page or locate a new site. Her frustration grew. When she finished gnashing her teeth and whirling around the room, she told me to go buy a new computer. Right now.

So I did. And it was relatively painless. Here's why: I didn't take it too seriously. I didn't spend weeks reading computer magazines or seeking advice from friends or test-driving various models. I went into a computer store and I found one that was the same brand and essentially same design as my six-year-old clunker. I pointed at it and made grunting noises and a salesman wrote up the receipt and loaded it into my car.

(This type of sale, naturally, makes my techno-wonk friends crazy. When they learned of my simplistic buying strategy, they looked pained. Why hadn't I consulted them? Gotten a better deal? They shook their heads and went away, muttering about saps like me.)

Luckily, my wife happened to be home the day I returned with my trophy. With her help and the simple, cartoon-like instructions and the color-coded cables, we had the new computer set up in, oh, three hours.

Then it was a matter of learning to use it. Because it was so similar to my old computer, many of the functions worked the same. But of course the word-processor and operating systems had been "improved," so much of the stuff I use now resides somewhere new or looks completely different.

I got my e-mail arranged and transferred files from my old computer and set up the same tired old computer games I've been playing for years. Then I was up and running, just like before, doing my work and performing the few other functions I ever do on a computer. Only faster.

Other than the speed (and the hit to the credit card), very little had changed in my home-office situation. This new computer has many wonderful features and new programs and an assortment of bells-and-whistles. I'm sure someday I'll even use some of them.

Maybe I'll get my kids to explain how they work.


Tall boys

As parents everywhere know, the growth and development of children isn't a smooth, gradual process. It comes in spurts.

A child will go along for a while, essentially the same size as the last time you looked, then -- boom! -- none of his clothes fit anymore. Junior has grown. Again. Which means Mom and Dad get to purchase Junior a new wardrobe.

Parents hate to face up to the cold reality of growth spurts. They like to remember their child as a tiny newborn with perfect little fingers and toes. But the years and the growth spurts rush past, and pretty soon, that beautiful baby is six feet tall and lives in a dorm and has filthy habits.

My two sons -- aged 12 and 9 (when this column first appeared, 2001) -- have suffered growth spurts lately. I suspect the 12-year-old is on the verge of the Big Spurt, the one that will shoot him upward into manhood. And we all know what that means: Adolescence has arrived, and the best thing would be to lock him in a closet and slip food under the door for the next, oh, eight years.

But I digress.

Parents must learn to cope with their offspring's growth spurts. Growing is exhausting and physically painful and can make the child cranky. It also takes an enormous amount of fuel.
With two growing boys at home, I spend all my time at the grocery store. They go through food like a biblical plague of locusts. I've considered just parking them in front of the bulk-food bins at the supermarket and shoveling food directly into them.

You can tell the parents of growth-spurt children at the supermarket. They're the ones pushing caravans of two or more carts, a haunted look on their faces.

My parents also had two sons who grew into big, strapping men. They tell me that when my brother and I left home, they saved so much on groceries, it was like a whole new income.
I was one of those gawky kids who did all his growing at once. I was 5-foot-2 at the beginning of sixth grade, second tallest in my class. (The tallest was a girl.) At the end of seventh grade, I was 6-foot-2.

My 12-year-old son is in the seventh grade now.

He's exhibiting growth-spurt symptoms as well. He's had "dropsy" lately, so many misses and spills, I practically have to follow him around with a mop. He's lost the natural grace of childhood -- he bumps into door jambs and goes wide on corners and knocks over furniture. I did the same during my big spurt, growing too fast to keep up. In fact, I never fully recovered. I almost always bear at least one bruise related to door jambs. They have become the nemeses of my life.

We have empirical evidence of my sons' growth. For one, when I do laundry, I now have trouble telling my sons' jeans from my wife's. They've caught up with her. For another, we've kept careful track of their height over the years.

A lot of families use marks on door jambs for this purpose, but I've already explained I've got a problem with door jambs. At our house, we use a broomstick, painted white. We regularly stand the boys up against it -- checking carefully for tiptoe cheating -- and mark their progress.

We did this the other day and discovered the 12-year-old has outgrown our measuring stick. The stick's only five feet tall and he's surpassed that by an inch or two. We'll have to get a bigger stick. With a teen-ager in the house, that's a good idea for several reasons. . .

My wife has carefully written in the boys' names and the dates of each plateau on the measuring stick. I can run my gaze along this simple broomstick and, in my mind's eye, I can watch my little babies grow up. And it occurred to me, we're not really marking height on that stick, we're marking time.

So I'll keep the stick handy, even after they've both outgrown it. It's a nice reminder of all the times we've had together, a monument to the years that have passed.

Beats standing in front of the mirror, counting gray hairs and bruises.


Trash talk

We Americans produce millions of tons of garbage every year. Disposal has become a great social problem, as more and more acreage is converted to landfills. Experts agree that, at the rate we're going, by the year 2026, we'll all be standing nose-deep in our own trash.

Your federal government is working hard to solve the rubbish "challenge," possibly by shooting all our old Milky Way wrappers into space. But left unaddressed is the problem on the front end, the one that affects every home: Who's responsible for making sure the trash goes into the vast disposal network in the first place?

All across America can be heard the familiar refrain: "Whose turn is it to take out the trash?" And across America, this plea is met by guilty silence. Often followed by muttered curses.

I take out the trash at my house. I have no choice. All the odds are stacked against me: 1) I'm the man. 2) I work at home all day. 3) If I wait for my two sons to do it, removing the trash will require heavy equipment.

Proper trash management requires planning and foresight and lying-awake-at-night scheming. You must allocate resources and budget time and effort. If you insist on involving the children, you'll also have a heavy personnel management load.

On Trash Day, the rolling bins look like robots -- R2-D2's tough older brothers -- lined up along the curb. Snorting, squealing garbage trucks come to empty them. Each bin is grabbed by a giant mechanical claw, lifted up over the truck and emptied, then set back down. It's a beautiful thing to watch. It's like the Mother Ship is gently lifting her babies to her shoulder one by one.
And burping them.

Trash to be recycled is picked up by a different truck, one with a nimble driver and no doors on the cab. One day, all we had waiting was one bag of aluminum cans. As my sons and I were leaving for school, we saw the garbage truck zoom past. The driver leaned out and snatched up the bag without slowing down. He pitched the bag over his shoulder, right into the truck's receptable. Another amazing feat. In a previous life, this guy must've been in the Pony Express.

Upon witnessing this, my sons shouted in unison, "Cool! When I grow up, I want to be a garbage man!"

The rolling robots are a good system, but they mean you can only throw out as much as you can cram into one. Any overflow has to wait until the next week. Improper trash management can put you in the hole, so eventually you have weeks' worth of leaking bags waiting their turns. Or, you're tiptoeing down the street late at night, sneaking bags into your neighbors' bins.

The expert trash manager learns to prioritize trash. Stinky stuff goes in first. Bags that contain paper and boxes and lawn refuse and other non-perishables line up on the runway and wait their turn to take off.

In the fall, we generate many heavy bags of fallen leaves. I stack the bags neatly next to the black dumpster, then filter them in as I have room. I see myself as the guy on a military airplane, the one who taps each paratrooper on the shoulder to tell him it's his turn to jump.
(This is not always a speedy process. Sometimes, I have to dust snow off the leaf bags before they finally head off to the dump.)

The root problem, of course, is we all generate too much non-recyclable trash in the first place. We have too much stuff, and we throw way too much of it away. Every product we buy is swathed in layers of cellophane and cardboard and childproof plastic. And it all has to be thrown out.

The perfect example: At Christmas, we wrap each overly packaged gift in another layer of paper and stick bows and ribbons and other potential trash items all over it. Then, on Christmas morning, we merrily generate a big pile of garbage.

I already have a plan for getting rid of mine. Should be finished by spring.


Bedtime for bozos

Here's the scene: It's 9:30 p.m. and our then-grade-school-aged sons are supposed to be in bed in their rooms at opposite ends of our rambling house. "Lights out" was 30 minutes ago. I've walked to their respective rooms at least four times already, ordering the exuberant young'uns to be quiet and go to sleep.

I hear the harump-thump of little feet. Really irritated now, I stalk to the farthest bedroom and shout into the dark: "What's that noise? Who's up out of bed?"

The nine-year-old answers in a tiny voice: "It was just me. I was jumping around because I'm happy."

Dad: "Don't be happy! Go to sleep!"

Son: (Hysterical laughter.)

Dad: (Heavy sigh.)

I don't care how many parenting manuals you read, you're never going to find any advice suggesting you tell your child "don't be happy." Making them happy is a big part of a parent's job. Granted, I'd been (repeatedly) provoked, but I'm pretty sure shouting "don't be happy" at my child means I don't get my Parenting merit badge.

I'm glad my son is happy. Really. I just don't understand why he has to be so danged happy at bedtime.

Bedtime is a battle of wills in most households. Kids don't want to go to bed. Ever. They're afraid they'll miss something. They're busy trying to soak up the entire world and sleep seems a waste of valuable time.

This position runs exactly counter to the way parents feel. You don't often hear a parent say, "No sleep for me, thanks. I want to stay up late." Veteran parents know you get all the sleep you can, whenever you can. Eight p.m. on a Saturday night, when the rest of the world is partying, parents are thinking, "Bed sounds pretty good about now."

But we parents can't go to sleep until the children do. If we nod off while they're still romping around, we'll likely awaken to the shriek of a smoke alarm.

So it's a waiting game. Cranky, yawning parents demanding that children fall asleep. Children clowning around or giggling in the dark or reading by flashlight. More grumbled demands. More giggling. Heavy sighs.

Before you know it, it's morning. And the kids are saying, "Dad, why are you so grumpy? Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed?" And Dad grinds his teeth down to the gums.

The Battle of Bedtime is symptomatic of the whole relationship between parent and child. As parents, we must inflict our will on the offspring. We want them to go to sleep/eat their vegetables/clean their rooms/brush their teeth/feed the dog/grow up to be responsible citizens. We have a full agenda for their lives and we'll cajole and wheedle and threaten and yell and stomp around to get our way.

Problems arise because children have an agenda of their own: They want to play. As far as they are concerned, everything else -- including a good night's sleep -- is an interruption. And all that yelling by the parents? It's background noise. To them, parents' voices are like static on the radio. An annoyance, but you soon learn to tune it out and go about your business.

Kids are into immediate gratification in a big way. Threats of future harm don't faze them. You can say you will take away tomorrow's TV privileges. You can say you'll ground them for a week. You can threaten them with anything, up to and including the withholding of food. They won't care. That's TOMORROW. And they only care about tonight's gratification, which includes trampoline acrobatics on the bed.

I told this same nine-year-old that we'd go to a matinee if he'd clean his room. He whined. I said, "Look, think of it as a carrot, not a stick. I'm not punishing you by making you clean your room. I'm offering you a reward for doing what I asked."

He thought this over, then said, "So it's a bribe!"

I sighed and said, "That's right, son."

He said, "Okay, then."

Once we'd established that, he made a half-hearted effort at cleaning his room. I caved in and took him to the movie.

I think the matinee made him happy, but I'm not sure. I slept through it.


Farewell, Albuquerque Tribune

The Albuquerque Tribune has announced that its last day of publication will be Saturday. We all mourn the passing of a fine newspaper. Read the full story at www.abqtrib.com.

I don't know yet what this means for the newspaper version of The Home Front. This blog will continue, of course.

Weight loss dross

Americans have never been fatter, and things aren't getting any better now that we spend all our time on the sofa, watching election coverage on CNN and wolfing down comforting Oreos.

As Americans, we know that the way to address a thorny problem such as the inability to button one's jeans is to throw money at it. The American Society of Bariatric Physicians reports that we spent $467 million on prescription weight-loss drugs in 1996, as well as an additional $32 million on over-the-counter drugs and an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion on formal weight-loss programs endorsed by former British royalty and has-been actresses.

(The American Society of Bariatric Physicians, whose 2,200 members specialize in weight-loss treatment, planned to provide more up-to-date figures, but a new all-you-can-eat buffet opened down the street, and the doctors haven't been seen since.)

Dieting is a huge industry in this country, which makes the typical American think: How can I tear off a piece of that big chunk of money?

That's the precise reason I've developed new dieting strategies for our overweight citizens. A sampling of these approaches follows free of charge, but I expect to soon develop special medications, foods and exercise plans that should generate, oh, $1 billion a year.

But first, let's discuss qualifications. You're probably saying to yourself: Who does this guy think he is, giving diet advice? I have a wide range of experience in gaining and losing weight, and I have a wide range of sizes of jeans hanging in my closet to prove it. Lately, I've lost a few pounds. Not enough that people keep saying, "Have you lost weight?" No, my loss is more subtle than that. But my clothes fit better and I can hardly wait to get on the scales in the morning.

So now you're saying to yourself: Wowee, what could be this guy's secret? First, let me admit that I was aided in my weight-loss program by a nagging cold that hung around for three weeks, and which made all food taste like mud. Secondly, I've been getting a lot of exercise, doing household projects such as painting and mowing. This unaccustomed physical activity has, on many days, left me too tired to chew.

Most importantly, I've been fixing all the meals around here lately, and nothing will put you off your feed faster than your own cooking.

Perhaps such approaches will help you shed unwanted pounds. But if they don't work, then you should try one of these special diet plans:

--The Small Plate Diet. If you use smaller plates at mealtime, you'll eat less. Each plateful will hold less, so when you're on your third helping, you've really only eaten enough for two people. Once you've mastered that, you can move to even smaller plates. Pursued to its proper conclusion, this diet eventually will mean you're eating off a coaster.

--The Over-the-Sink Diet. Everyone knows that food eaten while standing over the kitchen sink has no calories. Therefore, you should try eating all your meals there. And you'll dirty up no plates at all.

--The All-Sugar Diet. Dietitians will tell you too much sugar is a bad thing. But overdoses of sugar give you untold amounts of energy. You'll soon find yourself sprinting madly around the house, burning up those empty calories.

--The Cigarette Diet. Every time you feel like eating, smoke a cigarette instead. Sure, this diet will kill you, but you'll leave behind a svelte, young corpse.

--The Salsa Diet. No, not salsa as in dancing. That would be an exercise program, and we all know how Americans feel about exercise. This diet requires the eater to saturate every meal in the hottest salsa available. Skipping meals soon will seem like a more attractive option than sucking on a fire extinguisher for dessert.

--The George Washington Diet. Instead of spending exorbitant amounts on dieting schemes, skip a step and just eat your paper money. Money is full of fiber and special dyes, but it's low in calories. Eat enough one-dollar bills and, not only will you not want other food, but you'll be unable to tell a lie.

And then you can stop lying to yourself about losing weight.


E-mail stole my life

Remember when e-mail was a novelty? Something you used to send jokes to your friends? Now, e-mail has become an integral part of every business day.

That bastion of in-depth business journalism, USA Today, recently quoted researchers as saying office workers spent an average of 49 minutes a day on e-mail this year (2001), up 30 to 35 percent over a year earlier. Another research company estimates that management-level employees will spend four hours a day on e-mail by 2002.

We who work at home look at those numbers and think: What a bunch of slackers. Forty-nine minutes a day? We home-office types easily can waste 49 minutes per hour on e-mail. And that's before we've had our morning coffee.

For many of us who work on computers, e-mail is our lifeline to the world. I do nearly all my business correspondence by e-mail, and most of my interpersonal relationships are maintained at the Internet level. This means that:

A) E-mail has made my working life speedier and more efficient, and

2) I waste an enormous amount of time using it.

That may seem a paradox, but let's look at a typical home-office scenario:

I want to check my e-mail to see if there's any good news from my publisher, i.e., whether there's any chance I'll get paid soon. I nudge my computer and wait for it to wake up. Then I hit the button to sign onto America Online. Because I recently "upgraded" the AOL on my antique computer, this process now takes, oh, forever. I wander around the house while the computer grinds away.

When I come back, it's time to enter my password. More grinding. Wander around some more.
Return to desk. Little mailbox icon shows I've got mail. Oh, goody. I look through the arrivals and find that most of them are spam -- ads for get-rich-quick schemes and porn come-ons and offers to enlarge/reduce various portions of my anatomy. After those are deleted, I go through various news items and jokes and private missives, reading and deleting and forwarding and replying. Once the personal stuff is out of the way, I'm ready to peruse my important business correspondence. There is none. I sigh and log off and find that I have spent 49 minutes on-line.

I repeat the above process several times a day, usually with the same results. Hours vanish. Where did that time go? Into the ether. Is there any way to get it back? No. When I'm on my deathbed, will I say, "If only I'd spent more time on e-mail . . . " Probably.

That same USA Today article quoted unnamed "experts" as saying, "Unchecked use of e-mail can waste time and interrupt workflow." Gosh, we all hope those experts got paid tons of money to do that research. They show an innate grasp of the obvious. And there's no such word as "workflow."

The article said some companies are fighting back by discouraging e-mail use or conducting classes to teach employees to manage e-mail more efficiently. Best of luck to them, I say. Must be like telling a junkie, "Try managing your heroin more efficiently."

Surely there are ways to overcome this addictive demon in our midst. We must learn to control our unchecked use of e-mail. Here are some suggestions:

--Delete everything unread. This takes only minutes, and soon you'll find that you get much less e-mail from friends.

--To reduce the amount of stuff arriving in your mailbox, "unsubscribe" from distribution services and "remove" your address from mailing lists. Diligently report spam advertisers to your Internet server. This will take 49 minutes a day.

--Don't e-mail animated birthday greetings to all your friends and relatives. Get off your duff and go buy a bleeping card and mail it.

--Download nothing. Ever.

--Don't blindly forward every joke that comes your way. Only pass on the really good ones.

If you follow these suggestions, you can get the e-mail monkey off your back. You'll waste much less time and your "workflow" won't be interrupted and spilled all over everywhere.

You can use the hours you save being a more productive worker or pursuing a new avocation, such as chat rooms. I plan to devote mine to Free Cell.


Stuck in the middle

I once worked with a guy who always responded the same way whenever "middle management" was mentioned. He'd say: "Tyranny from above, mutiny from below."

That's an apt description of the middle management squeeze, where you're constantly crushed between the demands of your superiors and the recalcitrant foot-dragging of the troops. The boss wants everything done yesterday. The workers want everything put off until tomorrow. In between stands the middle manager, pointing in both directions like the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz."

Work-at-home parents like me are the middle managers of the household. When it comes to mutiny, my two sons make the crew of the H.M.S. Bounty look like wanna-bes. And tyranny? Well, it certainly doesn't come from my wife. Nosiree. (I'd like to sleep in my own bed tonight.) It comes from the daily demands of the home front.

Laundry, for instance, is its own little tyranny of repetition, to be ignored at my peril. It never goes away. As soon as I get it finished, I get to do it all over again. And if I fail, it punishes me by making me wear crunchy socks. How's that for a tyrant?

Most housework is just spinning your wheels. Every time you eat, there are more danged dishes to wash. Vacuum the floors and the dog arrives, carrying a fresh load of dirt and dead grass, and rolls on the carpet. Mow the lawn, and it's knee-deep again before you can run back into the house.

The only way to keep a house clean and tidy is to keep it vacant.

Then there's the daily schedule. That's where I most feel the middle manager squeeze. My desk calendar is covered with items every day. Work that must be accomplished on deadline. Dental appointments. Haircuts. Piano lessons. Social engagements. More work.

The schedule is my boss, the real tyrant around here. And it's the cause of much of the mutiny as well.

When my sons are home, I have company as I frantically run around town, trying to hit all my appointments. Assuming we get out the door at all. I spent much of their childhoods standing in the foyer, yelling about how we're going to be late.

The boys respond just as workers everywhere do to the urgent demands of their middle managers. They act confused by my agitation. They begin to move in slow motion. They can't find their shoes. (OK, maybe that one's not a good analogy to the workplace.) Faced with a deadline, they freeze up. And if anything (and I mean anything) doesn't go their way, they go on strike. Then I'm left explaining to the spouse/dentist/barber/piano teacher why we can't ever keep our appointments. Just like a middle manager.

I've had many projects due recently, and the resulting tight schedule (tyranny) has meant that I've left the boys to their own devices for hours at a time (mutiny). Thumps and shouts from the far reaches of the house call for my attention, but the tyrant wants the work done, and I refuse to rise to the mutiny unless there are actual screams of pain. I'm torn because I'd like to go play with them, but the work must be done. Besides, if I tried to join their reindeer games, they'd suspect that I really wanted them to do something (like housework) and the whole transaction would take on the testiness of a labor negotiation.

Middle managers often feel that way, wanting to be one of the gang, but always set apart by their shaky authority. The workers would rather play. The middle manager must make them do the responsible thing so the tyrant will stop chewing on his neck.

There's one other way work-at-home parents resemble middle managers: We often have to "run it upstairs." The little mutineers make demands for improved living conditions ("Buy me a new computer") and we homebound middle managers do the same as our peers in real jobs. We explain about budget constraints and say we'll check with our superiors to see if such expenditures can be warranted.

Only at home, we say it this way: "Ask your mother."


Happy birthday, Mom

My mother celebrates her 70th birthday today. She and my dad are both retired, and they live in the small town of Sheridan, Ark.

On the phone, she keeps saying, "I never dreamed I'd ever be 70 years old!" I don't know what she expected instead. If you hang around long enough, 70 is bound to happen. And that's fine. Isn't 70 the new 40?

I look at 70 and calculate how many books I can write between now and then. Not that I'm driven or anything.


Non, nein, nyet

I'm sick of hearing "no" all the time, and I'm the one who keeps saying it.

"No" has fallen from my lips so often, the floor seems littered with the word. Every few minutes, a child pops up in my field of vision and asks for something. I say, "No." The child insists. I say "no" until he goes away. A few minutes later, he's back with a new topic and we do it all over again.

My two sons are flaming optimists. No matter how many times I say, "No, you can't jump on the bed," they keep asking, hoping to catch me in a weak moment. Maybe this time, they'll persuade me their future Olympic gymnastics careers require them to do backflips on my bed. You never know. Ask.

We parents bring this on ourselves because we set the rules. We spell out specific parameters of expected behavior and make it clear the kids must ask permission before crossing those lines. Since it's children's Darwinian duty to push the boundaries at all times, they must ask permission for everything short of breathing.

At our house, the boys are supposed to ask first before they watch TV, use my computer, get online, eat sweets, drink my Cokes, roam the neighborhood, set fires, etc. Naturally, these are the only activities they ever want to do, so they're constantly up in my face, asking.

Plus, my boys have slipped into a strange acquisitive phase. I don't know if it's because they're watching more TV commercials or because their grandparents recently showered them with gifts, but something has set my sons on a shopping frenzy. Every toy, candy, movie, computer game, electronic gizmo and expensive vacation available in the Free World has been requested and/or demanded. If they're not asking me to buy it, they're asking me to take them to the mall so they can waste their own money.

And I keep saying "no."

It's not like we deny them much. Our kids have so much stuff, you can barely walk through their rooms. A million toys, but they don't want to play with any of them. They only want new toys, which they'll enjoy for three days before tossing them into the midden. Their lives brim with activities, but they can always think of other things to request.

My 12-year-old understands that he and his brother are driving me crazy. He thinks it's funny.
He's started getting cute with it:

Son: "Dad, can we take drugs and go around vandalizing houses?"

Dad (wearily): "No."

Son (trying not to grin): "You never let us have any fun."

Sometimes, under this constant barrage, I say "yes" to something, just to throw them off. Or because I'm too dog-gone weary to put up a fight.

But giving in doesn't earn me a reprieve. They've barely finished savoring the "yes" before they're coming up with something new that will earn them a "no." They're like those lab rats who randomly get food when they press a button in their cages. The treats only come once in a while, but they keep madly pushing that danged button, their hopes high.

When I hold my ground, when my "no" is firm, the boys try to get the decision overturned by appealing to a higher court -- their mother. Sometimes this works, especially if I'm not around to defend myself.

Mom and I have developed an entire nonverbal language -- shrugs, eyebrow arches, questioning squints, subtle hand gestures -- to deal with those moments when she says "yes" and I say "no." We want to create the illusion of a united front, but it probably looks like we're telling each other to steal third base.

The boys sense these moments the way horses sense fear. The tiniest conflict in parental inclination is a chink in the armor. No matter the outcome, this issue will be raised again.

And I'll probably say, "no."


Happy Naked Cherubs Day

Hope you get to spend special time with a loved one today.

My wife and I are avoiding the crush and dining in tonight -- steaks and a special wine given to us by a friend. Mmmm, steak.

It feels like the weekend to me. I just finished the first draft of my latest novel, and I always take a little break at this point and let the manuscript "cool." I usually do the first draft in a creative sprint (six weeks in this case), then spend months rewriting and tearing out my hair.


Shop 'til you flop

It's always dangerous to speak in generalities, but here's one now: As a rule, men don't like to go shopping.

Sure, there are exceptions to this rule. Gadgets, for instance. Put a man in a pro shop or a hardware store or a computer store, and he'll happily shop for hours, comparing prices and capabilities and shooting the breeze with sales clerks. Discussing the intricacies of titanium ball washers and electric screwdrivers and who has the biggest gigabyte. But these men's interests are usually pretty narrow, and they're uncomfortable drifting through the endless variety found in malls.

Women recognize that men will never truly enjoy shopping, but they expect us to play along. They expect men to relate to the thrill of the hunt, the adventure of seeing what's out there. But men don't get it. We no longer have those pioneer genes. We already know what's out there; we saw it on TV. Now we'd rather be home on the sofa.

Most men cave in from time to time and go shopping with their wives. You can recognize these men in the stores by a certain dimming of their eyes, a foot-dragging listlessness. Plus, they're usually holding their wives' purses while the wives try on new dresses. When freed of purse duty, these men wander over to the TV department, where they watch whatever's on the many screens, while sighing and sharing sympathetic glances with other browbeaten men.

Out at the malls, you sometimes see herds of young men who seem to be aimlessly shopping. But they're not shopping. They're trolling for women. Trust me on this. If it weren't for their youthful hormones working overtime, they'd be home on the sofa, watching TV.

Guys shop on the basis of need. When they really need something, when they can no longer put it off, then they go. But they don't call it shopping. They call it "going to the store." And they treat the event like a raiding foray into enemy territory.

These men march directly to the department they're seeking, looking neither left nor right. They locate the items they need, try them on if necessary, buy them and hurry out of the store, mission accomplished. And they don't go to the mall again until something else wears out.

This is particularly true of clothing, which is why some men have underwear older than their children.

A man buys a new white shirt and he wears it until it's the color of spilled coffee and his elbows are poking through the sleeves. Throw it out? Wouldn't dream of it. Because once he admits the shirt is a goner, he validates his need for a replacement, which means he'll have to go shopping for another one.

Some men develop an entire hierarchy of clothing. Shirts and pants that go up and down the scale of stains and disrepair. For these men, the closet is a barometer, measuring how soon they'll feel pressured to shop.

Take that new white shirt, for example. It's so pristine, the guy doesn't even want to wear it for fear of ruining it somehow. He keeps it set aside as a Special Occasion shirt.

But accidents happen, particularly at special occasions with free booze, and pretty soon the Special Occasion shirt starts to show some wear and tear. Then it becomes an Everyday Shirt, one still suitable for business occasions, but the guy has stopped worrying about spills.

Once the shirt is frayed and worn and no longer fit for public inspection, it becomes the one his wife hates: His Favorite Shirt. Perfect for Saturdays on the sofa.

Eventually, after duty as a Yardwork Shirt, the shirt has so many holes you can see through it, and it becomes a Retired Shirt, relegated to the back of the closet.

These shirts sometimes are called out of retirement (usually by his wife) and they find second careers as Dust Cloths.

And, the final stop, the end of the line, is when that shirt becomes a Garage Rag. The man will be using it to clean grease off a wrench and he'll recognize that old favorite shirt and he'll get a little misty.

Because he knows it's time to go shopping for a new one.


Keeping one's balls in the air

Sometimes, the business community embraces a new concept and promotes it so fiercely that it becomes accepted practice nationwide.

Take, for example, the cellular phone. Before everyone had phones in their pockets, there were times when employees actually "couldn't be reached." Bosses, who like to keep tabs on you at all times, loved the cell phone. Employees went along. Suddenly, you're nobody if you're not yakking on the danged thing all the ding-dong day.

These days, the darling of the business community is "multi-tasking." A boss hears the term "multi-tasking" and he clutches his bosom and big, happy tears well up in his eyes. He loves "multi-tasking" because he thinks it means more work is getting done.

Before "multi-tasking" came along, bosses expected you to do every job they dumped on your desk. Now, they expect to you to do all those jobs at the same time.

Every employee now is supposed to be like a street entertainer, a One-Man Band, the guy with the bass drum on his back and the cymbals between his knees. Employees manage all the projects and production and publicity all at once, playing the music, keeping time to a beat in their heads: "Hurry, hurry, hurry."

Employees -- with their Palm Pilots and their miniature phones and their go-go attitudes -- adopted "multi-tasking" as a way to get ahead. It soon became a competition, everybody rushing headlong into doing everything at once. Phoning and PowerPointing and prognosticating and whanging away at those cymbals with their knees. Before long, you'd become a second-rate employee if you couldn't dial a phone with your toes.

But is this the best way to get high-quality work? Aren't employees all scattered and confused? Shouldn't they concentrate on one thing at a time? Shouldn't there be some time during the week when they "couldn't be reached?"

For answers, bosses should look to those who are the ultimate "multi-taskers," people who work at home offices. Not only do we do our work and manage our careers here at home, we also do the housework and the yardwork and tend to children, all at the same time.

We're the pioneers in "multi-tasking," the white lab rats in a great business experiment. And we're never "off the clock." A kid throws up in the middle of the night, he doesn't need a cell phone to contact Daddy.

The other day, I had a light workday scheduled. My only big job was to print a 350-word manuscript and mail it off. The rest was just housework, hanging out with my two sons, and a few errands in the car.

Before my sons were awake, I started printing the manuscript. My printer needs to be fed more paper about every ten minutes, so I'm forced to hang around, waiting for it to make that groaning noise that means it's hungry. I could've used those hours for some quiet meditation, some navel-gazing about my career, but I chose instead to "multi-task." Here's how it went:

Feed the printer. Wander around the house gathering up laundry. Get the washer started. Feed the printer. Get more coffee. Take out the trash. Feed the printer. Check freezer, see whether there's anything that can be disguised as a nutritious dinner. Start grocery list. Feed the printer. Straighten kitchen and hurriedly wipe off countertops. Feed the printer. Move laundry from washer to dryer and start a new load. Feed the printer. Make two work-related telephone calls. Feed the printer. Wake children. Issue breakfast instructions. Feed the printer. Feed the dog. Feed the printer. Collapse into chair to catch breath. Feed the printer.

By the time the manuscript was done, I'd accomplished much, but I was scattered and confused and required a nap in early afternoon.

So, bosses everywhere, take it from us busy housespouses: "multi-tasking" may not be the best solution. It wears people out, and an exhausted, frazzled worker is an accident waiting to happen. You might be better off treating each employee less like a One-Man Band and more like a member of an orchestra. Let each play the lead sometimes, but let them rest sometimes, too.

Otherwise, you'll find your employees dialing phones in their sleep. With their toes.


Ol' Whatsisname

Sometimes, we work-at-home hermits must go out into the greater world, where we run into old friends and strike up conversations and generally act like we haven't become total social misfits.

And we're reminded that other people have lives, too, even if we're too caught up in our own domestic melodramas to keep in touch. Not only that, but they have names, and they expect us to remember them.

Seems like everywhere I go, I run into familiar faces. The swimming pool, the supermarket, the bank. All my old acquaintances are out and about, ready with a handshake and a smile. And I have no idea who these people are.

I know I should know them. I recognize their faces. Sometimes, I can even put them into context -- I know this person from my kid's school or from some party or from a story I covered back when I had a regular newspaper job. But their names? Gone. Forgotten. Erased from the memory banks.

If people were computers, I could just display an "Insufficient memory at this time" message and go on my merry way. Users understand that when it comes from machines. But they expect me -- a fellow human -- to remember their names, which leads to some awkward conversations:

"Hi there. You look so familiar. I know that face, but your name escapes me. Yes, yes, of course. I remember you. You just were out of context. I’m not used to seeing you all dressed up like that. Heh, heh. That's right, we went to school together. And then there was college. Right. Roomed together, you say? Uh-huh. Then there were those ten years we worked together at the newspaper. Sure. Oh, yeah, I DID see you last weekend at that cookout. Of course. Sorry. I’m terrible with names. "

How did this happen? I'd hate to blame creeping age. I prefer not to think about that, though the mirror tells the cruel truth. And I don't want to blame the excesses of my youth, when millions of brain cells gave up their lives to the cause of tequila.

Instead, I'll blame my children.

I trace my memory loss to the moment I chose to become a stay-at-home-dad. I isolated myself from the world, working at home and spending most of my time with two young boys. And without regular contact with other adults, I began to forget about them. In particular, their names.

My social circle shrank to the number of guys who can fit around a poker table. One close friend I see regularly, the occasional lunch out with others, but that's it. The rest of the time, I'm home with the boys, forgetting everyone else.

Meanwhile, my sons' social circle keeps growing. As they get older, they make more friends and I'm expected to remember the friends' names. And those friends have parents. And they all have names, too. Most of the parents I know have just given up. Now we greet each other with, "Hi, you're So-and-so's Dad." And we nod, knowing that's enough.

(That brings me to Today's Parenting Theory: The section of the human brain that holds other people's names is erased by high-pitched squeals, such as those frequently emitted by children. Enough yowling around the house, and our brains are washed clean.)

There's one more factor here: I write fiction as well as this column (which isn't exactly the same thing), so I spend a lot of time with my imaginary friends. More time, actually, than I spend with real, breathing adults. All day long I'm in the company of characters like Bubba Mabry and Felicia Quattlebaum and Otis Edgewater and Benjamin Dover. (Get it? Ben Dover? Har.) Those names are easy to remember because I made them up.

Maybe that's the answer in the real world, too. I'll invent new names for the people I meet. Give them some moniker I'll be more likely to remember.

So, if you run into me somewhere and I call you "Gertrude Beeblefitz," I'm sure you'll understand. You can call me "So-and-so's Dad."


Wearing my Freudian slip

Good afternoon, Doctor. Should I just lie down over here?

Forgive me if I'm a little nervous. I've never been in psychoanalysis before, but I understand how it works. I've seen all of Woody Allen's movies, so I feel like a veteran of the couch.

My problem? Getting right to the point, eh? Not interested in hearing about my childhood first? My fear of snakes?

OK, OK, the reason I'm here is, well, I'm starting to worry about my masculinity. There, I've said it. Now, I'll just be going . . .

All right already, don't get your goatee in a knot. I'm back on the couch.

Yes, my masculinity. You heard me right. I don't stutter, Sigmund.

What? Am I angry? Yeah, I'm . . . No. I'm not angry. Just uncomfortable. This is a tough subject to discuss.

It all began when I became a househusband. I'm a writer and my job, such as it is, can be done at home. My wife and I have two sons, and it only made sense that one of us stay home to handle school transportation and summer vacations and housework. I gladly took on the role--

Yeah, the housework. Why are you giggling? Men can do housework, if pressed. It's not that hard to keep a clean house, as long as no one looks behind the furniture. But we're getting off the topic here. As I was saying--

What? No, I don't wear an apron. What kind of crack is that? All my clothes are dotted with grease stains because I refuse to wear an apron.

No, I don't have an "issue" with aprons. Do you want to hear my problem or not?

OK, so I've been a househusband for years now and overall it's going fine. But my career still isn't as lucrative as it should be. And housework gets to be a repetitive drudge. And my kids drive me crazy and . . .

No, I can't just go back to work. First of all, I don't want a regular job. Working at home is great. My schedule is my own and I never have to wear a necktie. Secondly, we've arranged our lives around having one spouse at home, tending the children and the house and the lawn. Even if I wanted to go back to a regular office, it wouldn't be possible.

But I worry about whether I'm still a Real Man. I'm not the main breadwinner in the household, and that makes me feel inadequate. I feel guilty because my wife works so hard while I'm hanging out at the swimming pool with my sons.

OK, those may be normal responses, but other things really bother me. For instance, I find myself taking an aberrant interest in home decorating. I never used to care about that stuff. I find myself thinking about supper first thing in the morning -- what should I thaw, what vegetables go with what entree. I'm troubled by dust bunnies and cobwebs. These aren't manly obsessions.

Hobbies? I have a few, but they're not the type Ernest Hemingway would pursue. It's not like I could take up hunting or something. Can you imagine my kids' reactions if I came home with Bambi strapped to the bumper? And physical activity of any kind seems redundant after a day spent mowing and vacuuming.

Mm-hm. Yeah. Sure.

That's your advice? Remember that a man's worth isn't determined by his paycheck? Why don't you just have that done up as a needlepoint sampler and hang it outside your door? Save me $100 an hour.

No, I don't do needlepoint, you jackass. One more crack like that, and I'm going to exercise my masculinity on your head.

Sorry, sorry. I guess I've got a lot of pent-up aggression.

Yeah, I could treat my stay-at-home career more like a real job. Maybe that would help. Maybe it would distract me from the demands of the household and help me focus on the work that actually earns some money. Then I'd feel more fulfilled.

What's that? I might even want to wear a necktie? In my own home? Are you kidding?
I'd rather wear an apron.


Choosing (to have a) life

Thanks to the medical miracle of birth control, couples today can decide whether to populate their homes with screaming rugrats.

Having children no longer is a matter of chance (except for those who maybe had too much to drink). It's a conscious decision, one that should be weighed carefully. Becoming a parent changes your life in irretrievable ways, and modern couples can consider those changes and decide whether it's all worth it.

I was on an airplane recently with a harried couple who were shepherding three boys under the age of six. My thoughts: Haven't you two figured out what's causing all those pregnancies? Did you do this to yourselves on purpose? And, given the opportunity, would you do it again?
Perhaps they would. Perhaps they are the type of adults who can't picture a life devoid of kids. But that day on the plane, as the boys howled in unison, they seemed to be having second thoughts.

I love my two sons more than life itself, but not a week goes by that I don't look at them and consider this question: "What the heck were we thinking?"

My wife and I spent six years together before our first son was born. Maybe I romanticize those years now, but I remember them being full of movie dates and candlelit dinners and spur-of-the-moment weekend trips. Quiet evenings together at home. Privacy.

We gave all that up to have children. We made the sacrifice in return for those golden moments that only children can supply: Two o'clock feedings. Biohazard diapers. Report cards. The proud, beaming face of a small boy who's created a masterful Crayola artwork on a freshly painted wall.

We don't regret the decision, not exactly. Our sons have lit up our lives in ways we never expected, particularly when they play with matches. Like most parents, we're happy that these youngsters have brought so much unconditional love to our household. But second thoughts? You betcha.

Most parents don't like to admit such doubts. We want others to believe we're wonderful people who are in love with our kids and everything they do. But occasionally you run into parents who'll confess that it's a tough job, one they wouldn't tackle again, given the option.

My father is one of these honest parents. His standard line over the years: "I wouldn't take a million dollars for either of my sons, but I wouldn't give you 15 cents for another one."

Somewhere out there are couples who are deciding whether to have children. What follows are some of the harsh realities that should be considered before you take the plunge:

--Children do not come with an owner's manual.

You're on your own when it comes to parenting. People will give you advice (that's what grandparents are for), but each parent-child relationship is unique and it'll be up to you to figure out how to survive it.

--Children do not come with an "mute" button.

But, lordy, how you'll wish they did.

--Having children is similar to taking a vow of poverty.

I read somewhere that it costs $180,000 to raise a child from birth to age 18. Beyond that age, there's college tuition, loans to be co-signed, and various other expenses, such as bail. Sure, you get a tax credit each year for each child, but overall it's a financial sinkhole.

--Children do things that would be considered insane behavior in adults.

Take "play," for instance. My boys play by pacing around, talking to themselves and making shooting noises. If you walked down the street doing the same, someone would summon the boys with the butterfly nets. But parents know we must encourage such behavior because it shows imagination. And we don't even get to wear earplugs.

--Children eventually become teen-agers.

'Nuff said.

--Parenting never ends.

You may enjoy being a parent. It may fulfill you in every way possible. But there will come a day when you'll wish you could retire from the job, and you can't. There's no gold watch at the end. Even when your kids are all grown up, educated and successful in their own lives, you'll still worry about them all the time. And they won't visit often enough.

And you'll miss them.


A pox upon me

If you're considering becoming a work-at-home parent, then I'd suggest you run right out and get your shots.

Yes, shots. Vaccinations. You'll need such medical protection because children are little germ magnets. They go out into the world, gathering viruses like so much lint, then bring them home, where the sniggering viruses lie in wait for the approach of unwitting adults.

We parents expect our children to deliver a certain number of colds and the occasional flu to our homes, but it can be much worse. Standard childhood diseases -- measles, mumps, chicken pox -
- can wreak havoc on grown-ups who have no immunity against them.

If you are vague about whether you ever had chicken pox, for instance, you'd better trot over to a doctor's office and request a shot. Parents who are cavalier about such things -- such as, well, ME -- can tell you, these diseases are excruciating for grown-ups. And you won't get much sympathy from your peers, who'll be too busy laughing.

This has been Chicken Pox Spring at our house. First, our third-grader broke out in pox. He had maybe 30 of the itchy spots. He felt bad for a few days, the pox went away and he went back to school. No problem.

Then our sixth-grader contracted the disease. Since he got it from his brother, his case was worse. More than 200 spots. Out of school for more than a week. Miserable.

(Yes, yes, there's been a chicken pox vaccine available since 1995. But our sons already had all their other shots by then and we somehow missed this new development and, oh, never mind, we're terrible parents. Come and take our children away. Please.)

Since I'm the parent who works at home, I did most of the Florence Nightmare routine for our sons. Making them comfortable. Taking their temperatures. Preparing their soup.

But, you ask, hadn't Dad ever had chicken pox himself? Well, no. But I'd been around kids with the illness numerous times, so I gambled that I'd gotten immunity somewhere during my 44 years on this virus-ridden planet.

Bad gamble. A week or so after Sick Son No. 2 was all better, Dad suddenly didn't feel so good. High fever. Nausea. And then the first few pinpricks of developing pox. Consulted doctor, was warned that these diseases are much more serious for adults. Got a prescription. Settled in for a week of deliberate non-scratching.

Oh, but all the warnings were true. When chicken pox comes to your house, you don't want to be last in line. I stopped counting when my pox totaled more than 500. The worst ones were (naturally) on my face. I looked like a photo from a medical textbook: "Worst Case of Acne Ever Recorded." I couldn't shave, bathe, dress. Matted hair, unruly beard and pox, pox everywhere.
And I was contagious, which meant I couldn't leave the house. Which was fine, really, because I was too hideous to be seen in public. I made Quasimodo look like Brad Pitt.

Quarantine is an unnatural state for working parents. We're always on the go, out and about in the car, zipping from one extracurricular event to another. I couldn't even run to the store. I couldn't go out in the yard for fear of bumping into my neighbors. The bank? The supermarket? All my usual stops? Forget it. Out. I was Typhoid Harry. I had to stay home, laid up on the sofa, watching bad, bad daytime TV and trying not to scratch.

Now you'd think that someone who works at home, someone who deliberately stays home every day of his life, would be fine with two weeks of quarantine. All my work's right there at the house anyway. I'm accustomed to being home alone. But I'm also accustomed to being able to come and go as I please. Being trapped in the house gave me an entirely different kind of itch, one of wanderlust. I wanted to go out and shuffle around shopping malls, wearing a sack over my head like the Elephant Man.

But, of course, I didn't. I stayed home, carefully not scratching, until my condition cleared up. Which gave me lots of time to think about this: Sure wish I'd gotten that vaccination.

(Editor's note: This column is from 2001. My pox were all healed by the time I turned 50. If I were you, I'd still get that shot....)


More acronyms? WTF?

We who work at home can become distanced from the rhetoric of business, the everyday shorthand that infects most offices.

At-home workers who fail to recognize the hot terms or sprinkle them into office communications will be marked as incompetent outsiders, employees who are OOTL, or "Out Of The Loop."

I use that real-life business expression to demonstrate the most important part of speech in the corporate world -- the acronym.

Yes, acronyms are all the rage. From NIMBY to BYOB, and all points in between, acronyms adorn the conversations of those who are ITK, or "In The Know." Newspaper financial pages are more elaborate and detailed than ever before, and they're chock-full of acronyms. Everybody's paying attention to the economy because we all invested our retirement funds in IPOs, or "Idiots Purchasing Obsolescence."

CEOs ("Can't Explain Overruns") want employees and freelancers who know the lingo. If you want to stay current in your field or, more importantly, want to keep working at home, you must prove you know your ASAP from a hole in the ground.

But, you whine, how can I find time to learn all my acronyms? I'm too busy doing actual work to waste hours cramming my head full of alphabet soup.

Fear not. The Home Front is here to serve. What follows is a dictionary of acronyms, carefully gleaned from e-mail, business correspondence, financial magazines, newspapers and various other documents found here on my desk. You may have seen such lists before, but we can all use a refresher. Current jargon is always changing, and sometimes acronyms have come to mean something new. You want to be up to date.

ASAP: Act Stupid And Procrastinate.

SASE: Scan and Snub Expeditiously.

FAX: Fetch And Xerox.

TELEX: Troglodytes Employing Lost Era's Xerox.

HWHAP: Houston, We Have A Problem.

NASA: No Assigned Space for Amateurs.

NYSE: New York. Suckers Enticed.

S&P: Staggered & Poorer.

NASDAQ: Need A Second DAiQuiri.

DOW: Death Out Window.

WTC: Whew, Trouble Coming.

SBA: Sorry, Bub. Attrition.

GNP: Gosh, No Payroll.

MBO: Mumbling 'Bout Opportunity.

INC: Investors Need Cash.

LTD: Limo To Debt. A luxury car manufactured by FORD (Fix Or Recall Daily).

GM: Gradual Misery.

PG&E: Pure Greed & Exit.

IBM: I've Been Moody.

ATT: Atomized To Telebabies.

MS: See ATT.

NYUK: Not Your Usual Kackle. (Said three times in a row.)

ALAN (Greenspan): Ambivalence Lends Anxiety Nationwide.

UN: Unlikely Notions.

CFO: Can't Find Overruns.

DOT-COM: Dang, Orphan Time. Career Opportunist on Market.

RSVP: Reassigned. Send Vintage Pinot.

BYOB: Bad Year. Out of Booze.

NIMBY: No, I Mean Bleep You.

TV: Terrible Violence.

T&A: Titilliate & Assail.

CSPAN: Congress Snoozes Peacefully At Naptime.

CNN: Controlled News Narcotic.

ESPN: Exceedingly Stupid Playoff Nattering.

AM: Airheads Muttering.

FM: Foghat Mucho.

MSG: Might Sneeze Gallons.

FDIC: Funds? Duck Into Casinos.

OSHA: Ouch, Sure Hurts. Actionable.

USDA: Unsick Steers. Deny Anxiety.

USFS: Un-Safe Fire-Starters.

IRS: Intentionally Relaxed Stance.

INS: Inciting Neighbors to Sneak.

FAA: Forget About Arrival.

CTS: Can't Type. Suing.

DOS: Dummies' Option -- Suicide.

SPAM: Sex Pitches And Misrepresentations.

BTW: Bored To Writhing.

IMHO: I May Have to Orate.

LOL: Losing Our Lunches.

ALT: Alas, Locked Terminal.

DEL: Despair, Entry Lost.

ESC: End Silly Column.


They say it's my birthday

I turned 51 years old today, or so they tell me. I haven't been paying attention. I'm deep into the first draft of a new novel, lost in my own imagination, and I don't know what day it is. I go around dopey and goofy all the time. Not to mention Porky.

Reaching 50 was a big deal, and I celebrated by going to a banquet in Seattle where I was up for an award. A good friend won instead. This is what they call bittersweet. I walked back to my hotel drunk and alone, very late, in the rain. Seattle noir.

What am I doing for 51? I have no idea. My wife's got something cooking, some surprise outing. I feel sure it doesn't involve walking in the rain.

Otherwise, I'll probably be sitting right here. Cranking out more pages on the new book.

Ever the party animal.