Mighty mouse addiction

Among the many new, high-tech words included in recent editions of the New Oxford Dictionary of English is a listing for "mouse potato."

While this sounds like an exotic dish (perhaps one they enjoy in England), this term actually refers to someone who spends too much time sitting zoned in front of a computer, akin to the TV addicts known as "couch potatoes" or "sofa spuds." (Which also sounds like something they'd eat in England.)

It's easy to make light of mouse potatoes, but the levity disguises a serious social ill.

Recent studies show that mouse potatoes -- even if they do not consume British food -- generally are an unhealthy lot, spending too much time sedentary and alone. They suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and poor posture and overlooked hygiene. They tend to be "quiet types, who always keep to themselves," and we all know what that means.

So today, for the safety of yourself and others, let's take an in-depth look at "Mouse Potato Syndrome" or MPS. This diagnosis is so new that many health experts have yet to recognize it, and the general public hasn't been properly informed of the symptoms. You, yourself, may currently be a mouse potato and not even know it.

If you think you might suffer from MPS, answer these questions:

--Do you spend more than 14 hours a day sitting at a computer? On Sundays?

--Do you suffer from sore wrists, headaches, neck pain, numbness, irregularity, back pain, sciatica, insomnia, nausea, trivia or ennui?

--Do you know, off the top of your head, your current winning percentage at "Free Cell?"

--Do you resent sleeping because it cuts into your time online?

--Do your "virtual" friends outnumber your "actual" friends? Do you have "imaginary" friends? What are their names?

--Are there crumbs in your computer keyboard? Enough, taken together, to shape into a coffee cake?

--Do you have trouble remembering your spouse's name?

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, then you might be a mouse potato. Take precautionary measures. Get up, right now, and go outside. Even it's raining or pitch dark. Just go. Fresh air is the only known palliative for Mouse Potato Syndrome. Yes, it's a temporary remedy, but there's no limit on the doses you can take. The more, the better.

Sadly, many Americans know MPS all too well because of the toll it takes on their families. MPS, like any addiction, results in domestic turmoil and alienation of affection. Spouses report they lose all contact with their mouse potato husbands or wives, who are trapped in a "virtual" world of instant stock quotes, pirated music and hourly reports on the love life of Britney Spears. And untold families have felt the shock of losing a child to "Myst."

Many people who aren't computer-addicted become infected by living in the same house as a mouse potato. They're seduced by talk of chatrooms and e-Bay and free downloads. They start to experiment with the Web. Before you know it, the whole family is twitching and sniffling and bickering over who gets the DSL connection next.

Often, the spouses of MPS victims become "enablers," protecting their mouse potatoes from the outside world, "covering" for them, providing for their care and feeding. For some, living with an infestation of mouse potatoes can be cheaper than eradicating it, particularly in cases involving pre-nuptial agreements.

If you're living with a mouse potato, you don't have to suffer in silence. You can stand up. You can force your mouse potato to return blinking to the real world, even if it means taking drastic steps such as cutting electric power to the house.

Remember, you're not alone. If someone you know suffers from Mouse Potato Syndrome, seek help from family, friends, neighbors and medical professionals. (It may take two or three full-grown adults to pry a truly addicted mouse potato away from his computer and drag him outdoors.)

And if you think you may be a mouse potato, know that the condition doesn't have to be permanent. All it takes is will power. You can take back your life.

Just go outside. It helps if you can bring along a laptop.


The war at home

If the conflict in the Middle East sometimes resembles a bickering family, that's because of our frame of reference: Most of us have more experience with bickering families than we do with international diplomacy and suicide bombers.

Every family has its emotional ups and downs, its times of tension or outright war or uneasy détente. Skirmishes flare between siblings. Generational warfare erupts. Relations grow tense between busy spouses, requiring third-party mediation and eventual property settlements.

Even happy families have moments when the stars are crossed or the biorhythms are off or everybody just gets fed up with everybody else. Sharp words are exchanged. Voices rise. Feelings are hurt. The survivors are forced to draw up a new clause for the ongoing treaty negotiation that is Family Life, one more item for the list: "Stuff We Shouldn't Have Said in the First Place and Will Never Bring Up Again."

Resentment over such exchanges can grow with passing years until family members become like international neighbors -- suspicious and fractious and quick to react. Family life can become a "cold war" with long periods of silence interrupted by sudden fighting in which all old wounds are avenged.

It's hard to be analytical during such periods of stress and pain, so why not take a moment now, while presumably you're not in the middle of an argument, to take an objective look at your family's emotional health:

How would you rate the overall happiness of your family? Do you often find yourself blindsided by your spouse's mood swings, especially those that occur during playoff games? Do your neighbors complain about all the screaming at your house? Are there one or more sullen teen-agers on the premises?

If you answered "huh?" to any of the above questions, then you should pay better attention. Your family relations already may be so strained that it's too late to salvage a workable peace.
First, examine the causes of strife. You'll find they resemble the issues that lead nations to square off against each other.

--Territorial encroachment. Part of being the American nuclear family is that we're all stuck under the same roof. We claim certain territory as our own and defend it against all intrusion. Does the phrase "stay out of my room" ring a bell?

--Outside agitators. In-laws. Need we say more?

--History. If they can still fight reruns of the Crusades in the Middle East after nearly a thousand years, then why should you expect everyone to forget the way you acted like a jerk at Uncle Joe's wedding?

--Inattention. As happens with stewing international feuds, Americans can be taken off-guard by flare-ups of emotional upheaval. Family members can get so caught up in domestic issues, such as playoff games, that they ignore the simmering tensions until it is too late for anything but all-out war.

We propose, then, that families adopt a warning system similar to one developed by the Homeland Security Advisory System to alert Americans to terrorist threats. Different colors -- green, blue, yellow, orange, red -- could be posted around the house to indicate the overall mood and the risk of firefights.

(This is not to make light of the terrorism threat or of the important work of the Homeland Security Office, which consists of scaring the bejeebers out of us every few days. But let's face it: Most of us are in far less danger from terrorists than we are from our own spouses, particularly if we can't remember to put the cap back on the toothpaste.)

A color-coded warning system could make sure the whole family is at the same stage of readiness. Say the wife in a particular household posted an orange alert. The kids would know to tiptoe around until the warning lifted, and the husband could say to himself, "I don't know what I've done, but this appears to be a credible threat. Maybe it's time to turn off the TV and go sit at the negotiating table."

This way, evasive action can be taken before the household goes to full red alert. This is an advisable course of action. Those red alerts can scare the bejeebers out of you.


Basketball jones

Can they still call it March Madness when the tournament spills over into April? Will we recover from our madness on Tuesday, before the semifinals, etc? Will we watch the finals in a state of perfect sanity?

I'd answer those questions and more, but I'm busy watching televised games.

Pass the cheese dip.


Washday blues

I'm about to hit an important milestone, and you know how much that can hurt.

Any minute now, by my calculations, I'll mark Laundry Load No. 10,000 of my married life.
Ten-thousand times that I've loaded the washer. Ten-thousand times that I've forgotten to put into the dryer the little fabric-softener sheet that my wife supplies. Ten-thousand times that I've been near-electrocuted by the resulting static electricity. Ten-thousand times that I've fluffed and folded and put away fresh clean clothes, only to have my sons throw them into the same pile with the dirty stuff.

Yes, 10,000 washer loads is a huge milestone, and it's depressing as hell. Why? Because, like most milestones, it's merely a marker on a long journey. I've got thousands more laundry loads in my future, and if that's not worth a ball-and-chain of dread, then I don't know what is.

How did I get locked into Eternal Laundry Hell? I made a deal with my wife.

Early in our marriage, my wife and I agreed: I'd do all the laundry (a job she despises) and she'd handle the bills and all household paperwork.

At the time, this seemed like a sweet deal. Laundry? Pish. It was just the two of us and, even in the years when the job required a trip to a coin-operated laundromat, keeping the clothes clean was easier than keeping track of insurance forms and credit-card receipts.

Besides, the thinking went, as a novelist I didn't need the burden of worrying about money; it could hinder my creative juices. Instead, I still worry about money all the time, but with a complete lack of knowledge of our household financial situation.

This has worked out very well so far. Our conversations about household finances tend to go like this:

Me: "How we doing?"

Wife: "OK."

Me: "Good."

Clearly, I have no idea whether the household paperwork has gotten harder over the years, but I'm fully aware that the laundry workload has increased tremendously. This is because we had children.

(Did my wife know kids were in our future when we set up this division of labor? Did she anticipate the approximately 17 jillion little baby shirts with spit-up on them? Hey, wait a minute . . . )

Each child doubles the amount of laundry in a household. How is this mathematically possible? I don't know. And how do families with six or seven kids keep up with it all? I don't know that, either. They must sleep in shifts so they can keep their washer going around the clock.

My laundry workload has fluctuated over the years. I do fewer loads per week now that my sons rarely spit up on their shirts. On the other hand, their clothes keep getting bigger and they insist on wearing the same jeans over and over. So it evens out in the long run.

These days, I do about a dozen loads per week, which comes out to more than 600 per year. It would be more, but many of my wife's clothes are "Dry-Clean Only." This is the only way she's found that will guarantee that I don't ruin her clothes by shrinking, staining, shredding or spindling them. Sure, dry cleaners are expensive, but she'll pay anything to keep her delicate dresses out of my clutches.

Everyday stuff -- jeans and T-shirts and socks -- get tougher to sort all the time because the kids keep growing. Now, they're both about the same size as my wife. (The dog's about that size, too, for that matter. Good thing he doesn't wear clothes.)

I'm forced to go through the laundry in slow-motion, holding up each T-shirt, trying to guess to whom it belongs by the message written on the chest. I often guess wrong, which results in the usual muttered complaints as the clean, misplaced T-shirt is thrown into the same pile with the dirty ones.

Then I come along, sighing, and gather up all the clean and dirty clothes and run them through the washer again.

Here's what I'm thinking: "10,001."


Cutting-edge TV

Now, just in time for summer, comes the latest hot new TV destination aimed at sluicing advertising dollars toward an increasingly narrow market share.

That's right, folks, the same people who brought you the 24-hour Shark Channel and the Poetry Channel and the Expensive-Mansions-You-Could-Never-Afford Channel now present the cable network for Everyman: YW, the Yardwork Channel.

Cable viewers tune in to YW for how-to shows and infomercials and "news" programs that feature the latest cutting-edge technology in lawn mowers and power pruners.

YW's programming is targeted toward middle-class homeowners who have their own dreams of someday redoing their home landscapes -- homeowners just like you. And most of our shows include segments featuring actual work being demonstrated. Shoveling and weeding and mowing and lawn-sprinkler repair, all done before your very eyes.

But wait, you say, could it really be that interesting to watch somebody mow a lawn? Won't YW be boring?

To which we say: Haven't you ever seen the Nielsens for golf on TV? Haha, a little cable humor there. But seriously, you'll quickly find that you love our programs. Watching YW, you get the vicarious thrill of home improvement without actually getting up off the couch.

At the Yardwork Channel, we don't talk about recipes or redecorating or hoity-toity crafts projects accomplished with a hot-glue gun. We feature the most difficult home-improvement jobs of all -- the ones out in the yard.

We found these programs were particularly satisfying among our test audiences. Test results show that male viewers will spend hours in front of yardwork programs, particularly if power tools or heavy machinery present an element of danger. Many viewers find it more thrilling to watch an amateur operate a backhoe, for instance, than to view more established programming, such as professional wrestling.

Most of all, our research shows, viewers prefer yardwork programs that show lots of grueling physical labor. And we give you that at YW, around the clock.

Take a look at a sampling of our outstanding programs:

"This Old Yard"

Our flagship show, in which celebrity do-it-yourselfer Bob Vila branches out by going outdoors. Each week, Bob and his crew help some lawn-hungry family redo an entire property. Bob performs this feat of landscape makeover without ever losing the crease in his khakis. 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


Each week, Mortimer Haskins and his imported team of highly skilled laborers dig a trench across some willing homeowner's property. Close-up camera work keeps this entry exciting; you can practically smell the sweat. 7:30 p.m. Mondays.

"A Man, a Woman, a Yard"

This reality program takes us inside the Beequish household as newlyweds Melvin and Hannah Beequish of Hardpack, Ill., decide to landscape the yard of their new home. The young lovers encounter numerous obstacles -- bank snafus, lazy contractors, dandelions. In the exciting climax, their marriage is pushed to the brink by an argument over a privet hedge. 9 p.m. Fridays.

"The Scourge of Spurge"

Host Elwood Hammermacherschaefer takes us inside the dark, steamy world of those insidious villains -- weeds -- and gives us the latest updates in the war on this vile enemy. 11 p.m. nightly.

"Property Line Court"

Tough-as-nails judge Winifred Shucker wields her gavel with the full weight of the law as feuding neighbors bring her their disputes over overhanging tree branches and cracked patios. Daily at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

"Bay Leaf"

Voluptuous, sweaty, scantily clad lifeguards grow their own herbs. Daily at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight.

And that's just a sampling. The Yardwork Channel also offers such exciting shows as: "Raking Techniques," "The Doug Gilstrap Story: I Dug My Own Swimming Pool by Hand," "Lawn Vs. Dog," "Bug Zapper II: Return of the Blue Light," "Post Holes," and "Blood Work: Beer and Flagstones."

Call your local cable provider today and tell them you want the Yardwork Channel! Soon, you'll be in front of the set with a beer, tuned to YW, watching some poor slob breaking up concrete with a pickaxe.

Remember our motto here at YW: The only thing more personally rewarding than grueling physical labor is watching somebody else do it.


Don't know much about history

It's often said that those who fail history are doomed to repeat it, usually in summer school.

American students -- surprise! -- don't have the grasp of history that they should, according to the results of a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

NAEP (which sounds like a rancher's way of saying "yes") asked 29,600 students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades some very tough questions about the First Continental Congress and the Civil War and other topics not currently featured on prime-time television.

According to the test results, 67 percent of fourth-graders, 64 percent of eighth-graders and 43 percent of seniors showed at least a basic grasp of history. The number of students judged at or above "proficient" were in the teens or worse.

Diane Ravitch, an education adviser to the Bush administration, noted that younger students'
scores were up slightly from previous years, but she called the seniors' numbers "truly abysmal."

"Since the seniors are very close to voting age or already have reached it," she said, "one can only feel alarm that they know so little about their nation's history."

(Government officials worry that ignorant new voters will consider all politicians to be money-grubbing scoundrels, and will make each decision in the voting booth by flipping a dime. A voter with the proper historical perspective knows politicians have always been considered money-grubbing scoundrels, and instead flips a quarter.)

Ravitch's alarm over 12th-graders' test scores overlooks two important points:

1) Seniors can see graduation coming -- the light at the end of the tunnel -- and they're no longer putting their best efforts into taking tests.

2) They were probably drunk.

Ravitch, however, blamed high schools, which she said "are failing to teach U.S. history well and to awaken mature students to the value of history as a study that matters deeply in their own lives and to the life of our nation."

This is precisely the problem, or as George Washington (the inventor of peanut butter) once said, it "hits the thumb on the nail." Many American students disdain history, expressing the sentiment that dead white men in powdered wigs and stockings using feathered quills to sign important documents have no relevance to modern life. They express this sentiment like this: "Aw, ma-a-a-an!"

Students ignore history at their own peril. History can crop up in adult conversations, and those who "don't know much about history" can be embarrassed and socially shunned:

Boss: "How about that game last night? A regular Battle of Hastings!"

Employee who was poor history student: "Huh?"

But an employee who'd paid attention in school would pause intelligently and say, "Ah, yes, the Battle of Hastings. I believe that was in 1967, was it not?"

Which employee do you think will get the big promotion?

So, as we can see, history is important. But it's not just the teachers of our great country who have the responsibility to imbue our children with a knowledge of history. It's also the job of parents to make sure children understand all that has come before.

That goes beyond just helping with homework. Parents need to make history a part of everyday life. Some suggestions:

--Parents should comment when current events mirror historical ones, helping their children to
see the connections that occur over time. For example, a parent might say, "Your behavior in church reminded me of the Battle of Hastings."

--Parents should set a good example for their kids by dozing in front of "The History Channel."

--Now that summer vacation's here, parents should consider taking long car trips to view our nation's historical monuments and places of interest. This can make history "come alive" for children in ways that dry textbooks can't and will produce lasting memories, if you don't all kill each other in the car.

--Parents can even read history books to their children in place of the typical "bedtime story." (They'll find that their kids go right to sleep, sometimes within seconds.)

Remember, parents, we're creating the informed citizens of tomorrow and it's a job we must do today. The rest is history.


Time for work

For those of us who work at home, the work can become a guilty secret, something we slip away from our families to do in private, like toe-picking or nose-mining.

During busy times, we're always searching for that few minutes when everyone else in the house is otherwise occupied, so we can sneak around and get a little work done. Our families call our names and demand to know what we're doing in there, and we (having learned from our children) say, "Nuh-u-u-uh-thing."

This constant sneaking to squeeze in more work is part of the balancing act of the home office, which centers on preserving the work time against the demands of the household. It's a teetery arrangement at best.

Some working parents put family and household first. They keep their homes tidy, they chaperone field trips and they bake cookes. They no doubt pull corporate coups on their cell phones while driving their minivans full of well-mannered children to yet another soccer practice.

I'm not one of those working parents. When I'm deep into a project, the housework, field trips and social activities all get overlooked. My kids are lucky if I can remember to pick them up from school.

I jealously guard my designated work hours, then chip away at the time that should be reserved for family/housework/recreation/personal maintenance. Sneaking off to my desk, a few minutes here, a few minutes there, until the household's gone to hell and I resemble Howard Hughes on his deathbed.

I recently completed seven months' work on a new book. (Granted, a novel's the type of work that lends itself to obsession, but the same would apply to any other seven-month-long work project that consumes every waking minute and invades one's dreams.) During the months I was writing, everything else got ignored or, at best, treated as an interruption. Family, chores, school and other responsibilities were given short shrift while I galloped toward "The End."

By the time I got there, I was a wreck and so was the house. The yard looked like the aftermath of some horrible accident at the dandelion farm. I'd ignored my friends and family so long, it was a wonder anyone was still speaking to me.

I emerged from my book, blinking like a bear coming out of hibernation, and turned my attention to hearth and home. It only took a month to get things squared away. I scrubbed and organized and patched up the house and the yard and my relationships. I even cleaned my desk, preparing for the next obsession to come.

Do other work-at-home types function this way? Burrowed deep into projects, coming up for air long enough to get their lives in order, then plunging into the next fanatical undertaking?

Part of my work pattern no doubt is simple insanity, but another part is driven by years of protecting my work time. When you work at home and everyone knows it, you must be prepared to say "no" a lot. People want babysitters or volunteers or chaperones, and they know you're just sitting around the house all day anyway and wouldn't it be nice if you'd help out. Whoops, next thing you know, your workweek's gone and all your deadlines were yesterday.

We must guard our work time, but it's easy to carry such vigilance too far. As the fixation grows, the project inches out other areas of life until everything, at least temporarily, is about the work. Then the project's finished, and we can relax. But no, there's all the housework, yardwork, parenting and shopping that's gone lagging while we sprinted to our latest deadline. So we spend another month or two getting our households and interpersonal relationships in order, making the most of the "down time."

Then we can relax, and we should. Because before long, another project will arise, with its deadlines and obstacles and endless demands. And it will become an obsession, consuming every private moment. Friends and family will be neglected while we sneak off to work. Outside responsibilities will be ignored. The house will be left in the dust.

So I'm teaching my kids, when they see a dusty tabletop, don't use their fingers to write "wash me." That only calls attention to Daddy's problem. Instead, they should write: "Work in progress."


The Carnivores at home

Me: "You know what this vegetarian sandwich needs?"

Wife: "What?"

Me: "Some meat."


Seminar recovery

The how-to-write-a-mystery seminar my wife and I staged in Redding, CA, on Saturday went over very well, and we had a great time doing it. The students were smart and engaged, and we covered a lot of ground in six hours.

My only big mistake was standing throughout all of the lectures. By the end, my feet had swollen into two Goodyear blimps. This condition has required me to spend much of today with my feet propped up in front of televised March Madness games. Sigh. The things I suffer to help other writers . . .

Beats the alternative

We're all getting older -- some of us faster than others -- and older folks are slowly taking over the world.

The United Nations convened an assembly a few years ago to study the world's aging population. The UN discovered that, whoa, you can't turn around without bumping into a senior citizen. Particularly at Wal-Mart.

Today, the UN estimates, one of every 10 people is 60 or older -- a total of 629 million people worldwide. By 2050, the UN projects, one in every five will be 60 or older. By 2150, the ratio will be one in three.

These numbers immediately suggest two things:

1) We should run right out and invest in companies that make walkers, adult diapers and Botox. Also, in any restaurant chain that carries a dish called Sunset Senior Value.

2) Traffic will move much slower in years to come. By 2050, it'll take half a day to drive across town.

Beyond those superficial initial reactions lie more serious considerations: How will we provide medical care and housing and snack food for the growing number of senior citizens? And will all those birthday candles intensify global warming?

The UN assembly found that the world's aging population will place great demands on our international society. After much study and discussion, the assembly voted to buckle down and actively do more research on this important issue.

One question they should ask is: How does aging happen so gradually, yet seem to come upon a person all at once? Perhaps we could make better policies about getting older if we weren't so taken by surprise.

One day, you're in your twenties, a party animal. The next, you're a grizzled veteran, telling today's party animals how much fun everyone used to have in the good old days. Before long, you're in a rocking chair, trying to remember the good old days.

It happens so slowly, yet so all of a sudden, that it's difficult for researchers to track.
The physical transformation should be easy to study. For example: When does a man officially reach middle age? When he has to grunt to get up off the sofa. That's a quantifiable phenomenon that could keep highly paid researchers busy for years.

The mental and emotional shifts are harder to measure. Through our middle years, we're all terribly busy with children and careers and homes and ambitions. We don't notice the years slipping away. We wake up one day and we're old.

I recently turned 51. Well into the "grizzled veteran" stage. I'm out of shape. I'm terribly busy with teen-agers, career, etc. My hair's graying. Clerks call me "sir."

I knew I'd reached "middle age" when I noticed all the people I met in daily life -- doctors, dentists, barbers, mechanics, bank tellers, other people in positions of trust and responsibility -- were younger than me.

When I was young, everyone was older and seemed to command respect. Co-workers seemed ancient and wise. I called waitresses "Ma'am," not "Miss." Our family doctor was a gray-haired gent with rimless glasses and twinkly eyes. (He was probably about the age I am now.)

Now, you see doctors so young, they can't remember "Marcus Welby, M.D." from TV. Do I want such a whippersnapper operating on me? What if I show up at the clinic and the doctor is a young hipster with tattoos and a nose ring? The fact that I worry about such things proves I'm getting old.

This younger generation eventually will grow old like the rest of us and they'll undoubtedly be just as surprised. Before you know it, they'll shed their body jewelry and join our aging throng. We creaking oldsters will have the rest of you outnumbered.

Then just try to drive across town. We dare you.


You dropped your pocket

As warmer weather arrives, many of us find ourselves suffering a severe shortage of pockets.

We're very busy people. Mobile. We need pockets for all our stuff as we hurry from place to place. As the slow strip-tease of spring takes us toward the island-castaway summer outfit of swimsuit and tank top and sandals, we have fewer and fewer pockets to go around.

It's a sign of sophisticated simplicity to go around with free hands. If you're not lugging a briefcase and a laptop and a cell phone everywhere you go, it means you've made some good choices in life. You haven't become a slave to business and its machines.

But we all have our stuff. Money. Sunglasses. Certain necessities like car keys that we need handy, yet in a safe place where the dog can't swallow them. And for these items we need pockets.

I travel light, but as I write this, I have the following in my pockets: wallet, comb, keyring, loose change, grocery list, checks and deposit slip for pending trip to the bank, blank paper (in case inspiration strikes), pen and business cards. And that's while I'm sitting here at my desk, phone and coffee cup within easy reach. Imagine if I needed to go outside.

I used to carry a Swiss Army knife, so I always had ready access to a corkscrew. Now there's no room in my pockets for it, so I've had to resign from the Swiss Army. Better not to be packing a knife these days anyway. Never know when you might get patted down.

What about people who carry more stuff? They've got it hanging all over them. Key chains jingling on belts and pagers clipped onto pockets and cell phones holstered on their hips. We're all starting to look like cops, the tools of our trade weighing down our belts.

(I saw a guy in a coffee shop the other day. He had the usual battery of high-tech toys on his belt, threatening to "pants" him, plus he wore a telephone headset and talked loudly as he weaved between tables. I'm thinking: Yeah, yeah, we're all impressed by what an important little businessman you are. But we'd be more impressed if you were so successful, you could afford to take a leisurely, phone-free coffee break.)

Once you pass the dangle limit, you must graduate to a purse or a book bag or a briefcase or a backpack or a llama. And life's responsibilities begin to weigh you down.

A note: Avoid the "fanny pack." Any item that includes the word "fanny" in its name is a bad fashion choice.

Some people try to solve the overflow of stuff by adding pockets. That's how "cargo pants" were born. They're very popular with boys, especially if at least one of the pockets is big enough to hold a live frog. But these pants are not for us middle-aged men. The big side pockets tend to emphasize the hips, which call enough attention to themselves already. (See "fanny pack" above.)

Now that it's warm, we'll soon go around in our cargo SHORTS, with ever more stuff crammed into fewer pockets, bulging out so much it looks like we're wearing bustles.

Have you seen the TV commercial for the stealth trousers that have cargo pockets hidden inside the legs? In the ad, a woman peers through X-ray glasses and can see the male model's cell phone and pager and other junk all zippered away in there alongside his thighs. She's VERY impressed by this, which is surprising when you consider what else she might be espying through his pants. Maybe Mr. Headset in the coffee shop knows something I don't.

It's time for a solution to the pocket shortage. It's time for America's technological and business geniuses to get together and design something that fits all our needs so we can continue to race headlong through life unencumbered.

I suggest utility belts, like Batman wears. All our little tools of life encapsulated in one snug package, everything miniaturized and computerized and labeled with cool bat logos. Strap that baby on with your swimsuit and you're ready for summer.

If someone can figure a way to include a cup holder, we'll pay extra.


Spring has sprung

Now that we're officially in the throes of spring, it's time to take up spring cleaning, whether we like it or not.

Unshackled from winter's dreary confines, we throw open our window treatments to let in that warm spring sunshine and, for the first time in months, we notice our beloved homes are disgustingly filthy. The normal human reaction would be to close those drapes in a hurry, but most people instead gird up their loins and tackle the Big Cleanup.

Often overlooked in this process is the home office. The public areas of the house may get a thorough cleaning, but the average private workspace continues to have all the neatness and allure of a warthog wallow. Paper piled to the ceiling. Dust thick on every surface. Drawers crammed full of outdated documents and loose paperclips and last year's calendars.

No wonder we can't get any work done. An untidy office indicates a disorganized mind. And a mess eats up man-hours. How can we concentrate on setting priorities and accomplishing great things when we spend all of our time searching for lost invoices?

Extending the spring-cleaning frenzy to the home office means sorting through folders and emptying file cabinets and throwing out mountains of paper. It can be a daunting job if approached in your usual helter-skelter manner. That's how you got into this mess to start with.
To do spring cleaning in an organized way, break your office down into its component parts, then clean each one. Tackle them in this order:


The most important part of any home office, the desk often takes on the attributes of a landfill. Optimally, the top of your desk should hold only a computer, a phone and your calendar. Maybe a folder containing your current assignment and a cup full of pens that don't work. But that's it. Everything else on your desktop should be considered a distraction.

Spring cleaning is a good time to rid your desk of toys and stray garments and "Dilbert" cartoons. Strip it down to the bare essentials. All the folders and papers and Post-It reminders that currently litter your desk should be carefully filed away.

Desk drawers also should be cleaned. Empty them, vacuum out the dust and grime and fingernail clippings, then refile everything in an orderly fashion.


Just as the automatic dishwasher mostly is a cabinet for hiding dirty dishes, file drawers are repositories for unfinished projects, out-of-date memos, gizmos that don't work anymore and other disappointments. A thorough cleaning requires that you go through each drawer, throwing out non-essentials and reorganizing what remains. Here's a good rule-of-thumb: If you haven't used an item for a year, it's probably safe to move it to a "dead" file. If you can't remember what the item was for to begin with, it should be discarded. If you're undecided, err toward elimination. When in doubt, throw it out.

When you're finished, you'll be amazed by how much space you suddenly have in your file cabinets. They'll become functioning work spaces rather than tombs full of disorganized data. They'll be helpful to you, rather than a source of secret guilt. And, they'll be ready to collect a whole new year's worth of office detritus.


Don't overlook a "virtual" cleanup while you're at it. Spring is a good time to scan your hard drive for errors, defragment your disk and analyze your data files for items that can be erased, such as distracting space-alien games. Go into your browser and eliminate "cookies" and unused bookmarks and virus alerts and stale jokes.

You want to give your computer a complete physical. You want to make it turn its head and cough. When you're done, you'll find that the computer runs faster and crashes less often. You'll also find that you've erased important projects, but sacrifices must be made in the name of tidiness.

Sure, cleaning your home office is a big job, but it's one filled with its own rewards. When you're done, you'll feel organized, competent, ready to work. And you'll know exactly what became of those lost invoices -- they'll be in the trash with the rest of your important paperwork.


Reader feeder

Thanks to my wife and something called FeedBurner, you can now subscribe to the Home Front blog by e-mail or by a "reader." Beats me. Click on the orange thingies at top left and follow the directions.

Good luck,


Forget about it

I once called my wife at work, pulled her out of some important meeting, and said two words when she came on the line: "Annette Bening."

She thanked me, hung up, went back to her job.

No, we were not speaking secret-agent code. The night before, we'd seen a few minutes of some TV costume drama and couldn't identify "the actress in the turban." We both recognized her, but no amount of free-association brainstorming could turn up her name. We'd gone to bed stumped.

"Annette Bening" came to me fourteen hours later while I was cleaning the kitchen. I wasn't even thinking about the TV show. But some part of my brain had scanned the memory banks all that time and suddenly coughed up, "Annette Bening." Go figure.

Immediately upon recalling the name "Annette Bening," I phoned my wife. Two reasons: 1) We all love to be first with the correct "Jeopardy" answer, and 2) I knew I'd forget again any minute.

That my wife immediately understood what I was talking about and that she was grateful for the information shows her memory banks had been whirring the whole time, too. Now she could devote that brain space to something else, such as work.

This, my friends, is the current fate of the Baby Boomer. We're reaching "that certain age" where we're starting to forget things. A lot. And it worries us.

Most middle-aged people I know moan about memory loss. In the past week, I've heard the same complaint from two separate people: "It's not that I can't remember things. I can't remember the names of things." This condition inhibits their conversation and makes them fret.
Others find themselves constantly apologizing for missed appointments and broken dates. Many resort to palm-sized computers to keep track of their busy lives, then forget where they left their palm-sized computers.

My problem seems navigational. I'll get up from my desk and go to the kitchen on some errand. When I get to the kitchen, I pause, recognize I have no idea what I was planning to do. I wander back to my desk, then remember the task in the kitchen. I must hurry back to the kitchen to accomplish the task before it flits from my mind again. Then the process repeats.

I often come to in a different room with no notion of what propelled me there. Invariably, I've left my coffee cup elsewhere. So now I'm stranded in the wrong end of the house, nothing to drink, no idea what I was doing or where I should go next.

Worse yet, I do this same routine when I'm driving.

I gave up remembering people's names years ago. I just smile and nod and hope they don't notice. But now we can't remember the names of things? If we can't remember the word "fork," how long before we forget what one is used for?

This is our present, Baby Boomers, and we can only imagine what our doddering, fork-free future will be like.

The cause of this malaise? Brain cells die off as we age, and they take some of our memories and capabilities with them. Many of us accelerated this process in our youths, usually in activities that involved kegs.

But the main reason we can't remember anything is that we have too much to remember. We get too much input -- TV, books, advertising, computers, relatives, strangers all blaring messages at us all day long. We get too little quiet time and way too little sleep, so the messages come faster than our brains can process them. Under this constant barrage, our brains get full and the new stuff starts to push out the old.

To put this in computer terms: The hard-drive is at capacity. All incoming data erases existing data. Do you want to continue?

If the hard-drive is full now, what will we be like in twenty or thirty years?

A 75-year-old woman told me recently that when she can't remember something, she just waits. "It comes eventually."

And when it doesn't?

"Then you call friends. Ask them."

Ah. Regis, keep those lifelines open. I may need them, especially if the answer is anything other than "Annette Bening."


Incorporation station

Now that the annual Tax Scare season is here, perhaps it's time to take a hard look at the corporate identity of our home-based businesses.

How you classify your business makes a big difference when you file your returns with the Internal Revenue Service. For instance, if you write "freelance" anything on the "occupation" line, you can expect IRS auditors to read it as "Dedicated Hobbyist" and come hunting you. If you can identify yourself as "Petroleum Magnate," however, it's probably smooth-sailing at tax time.

Taxes are only one consideration. For financial and legal reasons too complicated to go into here, it may be to your advantage to have official business documents which classify your business as freelance, limited partnership, corporation, hopeless time sink, etc.

Setting up your business properly can affect your personal identity and improve your slacker behavior. If you start a corporation, you might work harder because you'll take it more seriously. Other people might take you seriously. Is it worth the time and expense to find out? What price self-esteem?

Let's look at these categories, and see which one best fits your personal perception of yourself and your business:


--You, for financial and legal reasons too complicated to go into here, need to remain unfettered by official documentation and corporate flapdoodle. An example: If you frequently change your name to duck creditors, "freelance" probably describes you perfectly.

--You check your mailbox nine times a day, hoping for a paycheck.

--You check your e-mail twelve times a day, hoping for any inkling of good news.

--You're on a first-name basis with the clerks at Kinko's and the post office.

--Your net worth is so minuscule, it makes your accountant roll on the floor, snorting and giggling, until he gets uncontrollable hiccups.


--You, for financial and legal reasons too complicated to go into here, choose to team up with another anti-corporate soul to form a joint venture.

--You want to "limit' your involvement in the venture, such as providing encouraging words from the sidelines rather than sinking the whole nest egg into some harebrained scheme.

--You have a partner who has, ahem, limitations.

--You want to protect yourself and future generations from your partner.

--Your partner feels the same way about you.


--You, for financial and legal reasons too complicated to go into here, need to distance yourself from your business. Say you're facing lawsuits from creditors. If the business is a corporation, the creditors will sue the company and your personal obligation may be limited. In other words, you might get to keep the house.

--You want clients to believe you have actual employees.

--You're getting too big for your britches.

--You believe "Inc." on your business card will make people think you're taller.

--You "want a piece of that Enron action."


--You, for financial and legal reasons too complicated to go into here, see that there's No Way Out.

--You've been entertaining fantasies about running away to Belize.

--You get more calls from telemarketers than from clients.

--You pick up any book and immediately turn to Chapter 11.

--You recognize that all your struggle to succeed has been a hopeless time sink, and you would've been better off working as a cubicle drone the whole time. At least you would've had benefits.

Bankruptcy isn't the end of the world, though it can be the end of your credit rating. And it can have a stifling effect on your ambitions.

What do you write in the "occupation" slot after it's all blown up in your face? We suggest "Dedicated Hobbyist."


Seminar reminder

Those of you in Northern California: A reminder that my day-long seminar on how to write a mystery novel is next Saturday, March 22. It's not too late to sign up, but we need to hear from you as soon as possible.

For more information, click on the link at top left. Or send e-mail to ABQBrewer@aol.com.

Hello, boss? I gotta code in my node . . .

Now that the cold/flu season is giving way to the pollen/allergy season, it's time to re-evaluate our use of employee sick days through a new feature: Ask Dr. Bedhead.

Not sure whether you're ill enough to call in sick? Feeling guilty because others are working while you're home under a blanket, watching soap operas and sucking on cough drops? Dr. Bedhead is here to assuage your fears, diagnose your ailments and offer you just the right excuse to give your boss.

Dear Dr. Bedhead: I suffer from severe allergies which cause repeated sneezing fits. This is embarrassing in the workplace, and my co-workers shun me. Should I call in sick when I'm having an allergy attack?

Dear Sneezy: Of course you should! You're entitled to sick days. If your boss complains about your absenteeism, try sneezing directly on his shirt. Sure, this is unsanitary, but it will quickly change his tune.

Dear Dr. Bedhead: I sometimes call in sick when, in reality, I'm suffering from a severe hangover. Should I feel guilty?

Dear Rummy: Of course not! If you're sick, you're sick, no matter the cause. A hangover is a self-inflicted wound, but it hurts nevertheless. Better that you should stay home, nursing yourself back to health with steady doses of Bloody Marys, than exposing your co-workers to your pasty skin, pounding head and steady nausea. If they see you in that condition, they could develop a superiority complex.

Dear Dr. Bedhead: I can never remember -- is it feed a cold and starve a fever, or the other way around?

Dear Hungry: Haha, you're such a simpleton. These old homilies have nothing to do with modern medicine. One of the great joys of the "sick day" is that you get to stay home all day -- eating. Preferably sweets. Nothing makes you feel better than, say, a pan of brownies on a sniffly day. You should "feed" all your ailments unless you are actively throwing up.

Dear Dr. Bedhead: When I'm ill, I just want to sleep all day. This seems to take all the fun out of a sick day. Am I missing something?

Dear Sleepy: Not at all! A good 12-hour nap is often just what the body needs to recover. Unfortunately, most jobs don’t allow such rest periods at the desk, so a sick day is required. As for what you're missing by sleeping all day, just tune in to daytime TV sometime. You'll see you're not missing anything at all.

Dear Dr. Bedhead: Sometimes, I just don't feel like working. Maybe I stayed up too late, watching old movies, or I'm in a bad mood or it's Monday. I'm running out of excuses, and I think my boss suspects that I'm faking. What should I do?

Dear Lazy: The miracle of modern medicine is that we have an endless supply of illnesses you can cite when calling in sick. But, in fact, you don't need to get specific when phoning your boss. Simply blame an ailment that's so personal that your manager is afraid to ask questions. If you're a woman, just say it's "female trouble." The boss will hang up so fast, he'll bark his knuckles on the phone. If you're male, start to explain that you have a "persistent itch." Believe me, your boss won't want to hear the rest.

Dear Dr. Bedhead: I am a very healthy person and take pride in my physical fitness. My slothful co-workers, who have bad habits, often call in sick, which means I'm required to do their work as well as my own. I think this is unfair. What do you think?

Dear Surly: I think you're a petty person who puts his own needs before those of the infirm. In fact, there's probably something wrong with you, an undiagnosed psychological instability of some kind. You should take a "mental health day" right away. Stay home under a blanket, eat some brownies, watch TV. I'll bet you'll be back to your old pleasant self in no time! Your co-workers will thank you!


I'll gladly do it on Tuesday

Every workweek has its ebbs and flows, its slow days and hectic hours. Learning to balance busy periods with appropriate measures of dawdling is the key to being a productive, sane worker.

If you toil in a regular workplace, with a boss breathing down your neck, it's a lesson you learn quickly. But for the millions of us who work in home offices, the ebbs and flows often are of our own making, and it can be difficult to balance the need to work harder with the imperative of the nap.

A recent survey by the temporary staffing firm Accountemps found that Tuesday is the most productive day of the week in most offices. Tuesdays were picked by 48 percent of the executives surveyed, followed by 26 percent who said Mondays were most productive.

Those numbers fit with past studies that show that Mondays are filled with meetings that keep employees from getting much done. By Tuesday, workers know what's required for the week, and they get busy. But things tail off from there.

Only 9 percent of the respondents said Wednesday, the traditional "hump day," was most productive. Thursdays were named by 5 percent and a mere 1 percent of executives selected Fridays. It is believed that those executives misunderstood the question.

(Eleven percent of the executives weren't sure because they spend every day at the golf course.)

Efficiency experts say workers and their bosses should pay attention to these variations in productivity because it will help them manage the flow of work. If you know, for instance, that Tuesday is your most productive day, you might want to schedule actual work for Tuesdays, setting aside meetings, golf and other distractions for later in the week.

For those of us who work at home, the equation can be more complicated. The tempo of our workweek varies greatly and often is upset by extraneous forces, such as children.

Our schedules are flexible, of course. That's one of the reasons we choose to work at home. But too much flexibility and, the next thing you know, you're hammering away at 3 a.m. Sunday to meet a deadline.

The secret to keeping the work flowing lies in scheduling. For instance, I keep a weekly planner on my desk. Everything I need to do, from important meetings to vacuuming, goes on the planner. As each item is accomplished, I scratch it off. This gives me the satisfaction of accomplishment, and guarantees that SOMETHING gets done around here before the week trickles away.

Looking back over my planner, I see that Tuesdays are my most productive day, too. At least that's the day with the most scratches. I can't read them anymore, but we'll assume all those black marks denote actual achievements.

At home, Mondays are shot because they're gobbled up by housework. The kids are home on the weekends and, by Monday, the house resembles a supermarket after an earthquake.

Wednesdays are no good because one of my sons gets out of school at 1:45 p.m. on Wednesdays. Poof, the afternoon vanishes.

Thursdays are the only days I work outside the home -- teaching a university course -- so nothing gets done at home on those days.

Fridays? Well, Fridays are as useless for me as they are for regular office workers and executives. And I don't even play golf.

With our flexible schedules, we stay-at-home types can always work on Saturdays and Sundays, but only in the wee hours when everyone else is asleep. There's no concentrating when the kids are around. It's like trying to work inside an automatic car wash.

Distractions are plentiful during the workweek, as well. Certain chores -- laundry, housework, buying groceries -- must get done, and they all take us away from our desks. Then there are the unexpected disruptions -- illness, car trouble, plumbing problems -- that can eat up entire days.

Looking back over the weeks in my calendar, I can see the wax-and-wane of work, the distractions and the emergencies, the lost Fridays. And I marvel at how busy I stay throughout every week.

It's a wonder I ever get any time to nap.

(Editor's note: The schedule is different these days, but the result is pretty much the same. Still not nearly enough nap time.)


My wife's funnier than yours

If you want to see one reason it's so fun to live with my wife, go look at today's rant on her blog, http://pinkhollyhock.blogspot.com/

She cracks me up.


Let's do lunch

For those of us who work at home, the occasional business lunch can be an opportunity to network with new contacts and develop strong, long-term business relationships. It's also an opportunity to fall flat on our faces into our oyster bisque.

At-home workers get out of practice when it comes to dining with others. We often spend the day in our pajamas, noshing on whatever's handy, washing it down with copious amounts of coffee. When you work all by yourself, no one's there to disapprove as you graze all day. If you want to eat Ding-Dongs for breakfast, so be it. Olives out of the jar make a dandy lunch you can eat right at the computer. And who needs a napkin when you're wearing absorbent flannel pajamas?

But when a boss or business contact summons us to a lunch out, we must mind our manners. Remember, a business lunch isn't about food. It's about making an impression. No matter how light and lively the conversation, it can be ruined if you have spinach wedged between your teeth and ketchup on your shirtfront.

Here, then, are some rules to follow when attending a business lunch:

--A bathrobe is not proper business attire. Dining out means you're required to wear actual clothes. This can be a problem for the at-home worker, especially if a steady diet of Ding-Dongs means none of your pants fit anymore.

--Dark, solid colors work best because they don't show spills or sweat. Beyond that, you want spills and drips to blend in with whatever you're wearing. For instance, if you're wearing a white shirt, it's better to order a white pasta sauce than a red one. If you're a real pig at the table, you might want to stick with wild patterns, such as Hawaiian shirts. These aren't particularly business-like, but they'll hide a multitude of sins. And remember: Neckties are for dipping.

--Bibs are out, unless you're eating lobster. Keep your napkin spread across your lap and trust gravity to take care of the rest.

--Avoid messy foods such as soup, spaghetti, sloppy joes, tacos, chili dogs, spare ribs, buffalo wings, cheeseburgers, mashed potatoes with gravy, eggs benedict. A good rule of thumb: If it looks good, you can't have it, it's too messy. Try ordering plain lettuce. Careful not to get it wedged between your teeth.

--Follow your host's lead when it comes to ordering. If your host orders something light and inexpensive, better not to order the rack of lamb yourself. When you're paying, order something in the right price range so your guest can follow your example. Again, plain lettuce works.

--Order the same number of courses as your host. That way, you won't still be scarfing dessert while he's looking at his watch.

--Skip the booze, even if your host consumes the traditional three martinis. Somebody's got to drive him back to his office.

--Don't flirt with the waitress. It's unseemly, even if she started it.

--Don’t ask a lot of questions of the waiter. This makes you appear picky and weird. If you don't recognize a particular sauce or entrée listed on the menu, then order something else. There's always lettuce.

--Don't ridicule the waiter when he offers "fresh ground pepper with that." Sure, there's pepper right there on the table, but the waiter has to ask. It's his job.

--Don't talk with your mouth full. Yes, you're excited about your ideas and you want to squeeze every topic you can into this business lunch. But clients are turned off by the sight of chewed food. Trust us.

--Toothpicks are to be used in private places, such as in your car. Ditto for dental floss.

--When the meal is over, stand up from the table and brush the crumbs from your lap. Confidently shake hands and give your lunch partner a big smile. That way, he can see for himself that you have gravy on your sleeve and lettuce between your teeth.

--Don't loiter. Drive straight home, picking your teeth along the way. Change into your pajamas, all the while congratulating yourself on another successful business lunch.

To celebrate, break out the Ding-Dongs.


King of the castle

We've all heard that old saw, "A man's home is his castle," meant to convey independence and safety and the sanctity of private property.

The adage no doubt dates from the days when a man's home really was a castle, and anyone who dared interfere risked a moat and vats of boiling oil. Men were kings of their domains, as long as they "kept the home fires burning" under the oil vats.

Over the years, some men have taken the castle allegory further, using it to convince themselves they're the rulers of the household.

(Back in the "Ozzie and Harriett" days when I was a kid, my brother and I sometimes would try to put unpopular parental decisions to a vote. This was met with derision from my father, who would always say, "This isn't a democracy. It's a monarchy. And I'm the king." We children would shuffle away, muttering and plotting an overthrow that never came.)

These days, equality is the coin of the realm, and men who try to pretend they're kings are fooling themselves. Those emperors have no clothes, no matter how much they may rail about "wearing the pants in this family." Wives smile to themselves, knowing who's really in charge, and the kids can't even hear the king's commands because they're wearing headphones full of thumping rap music.

It's time to modify the old saying. Here's my suggestion: "A man's GARAGE is his castle."
In the house, Dad may be an impotent potentate, his blustery decrees overriden by calm females, his kids screaming for his head like an angry mob. But when Dad goes to the garage, he's still the king.

Drive around any suburban neighborhood on any Sunday afternoon and peer in the garage doors that are standing open. You'll find men in there. Building stuff. Tinkering with cars. Or just lounging in lawn chairs, sipping Buds and watching sports on portable TVs, sometimes in the company of other monarchs from neighboring realms.

Why the garage?

--All our stuff is there. Family men can't just leave oily rags and random tools lying around the kitchen. Not if we ever want to see them again. That stuff belongs in the garage, preferably on pegboards. Wrenches and hammers and mowers and drills and old saws, all carefully organized. We men can spend hour upon hour just arranging our tools. It's a harmless activity, akin to collecting baseball cards, and it keeps us occupied. And, when we need a particular tool, there's always the long-shot chance that we can actually find it.

--Men need time alone with their thoughts. These aren't necessarily deep thoughts, often no deeper than "where did I put that wrench," but the garage is the only quiet place where we can ponder them. We all need "down time" so we can sit among our sharpened lawn tools and fantasize about the demise of our bosses and other enemies.

--Garages are, by their very nature, dirty. Men may be afraid to set a beer on the coffee table without a coaster, but in the garage we can spill oil and paint and grease. Nobody cares. We're in our little fiefdoms, and we can make them as filthy as we like.

--The garage is the only place where we men might actually fix something. Most men, when attenpting a tricky car repair or reassembling toilet innards, need solitude so we can concentrate. Also, alone in the garage, we can curse with impunity when we're injured or the repair job goes wrong.

--We get a break from that raucous "quality time" with our families. Our wives and children know to leave us alone when we're in the garage. They know, if they interrupt whatever manly endeavors we're attempting out there, they're likely to be put to work. Plus, they don't want to hear all that cursing.

So, men of America, go to the garage. Consider it your hideout, your clubhouse. Heck, call it your castle, if you so desire. Fashion yourself a crown and wear it while you tinker. Be the King of Greater Pegboardia.

You'll get comfort and peace. You'll finally get some solitude. You can even spit on the floor if you want.

But don't try boiling oil. It spatters, and those burns will only set you to cursing.


Executive privilege

N. Ron Andersen
President and CEO
Upuhrs Industries, Inc.

Dear trusted employees:

It has come to our attention here at headquarters that some of you are dissatisfied with recent developments in the company's economic condition.

Let me be honest. Yes, our great ship of industry has hit the rocks. Yes, our stock, which topped out at nearly $100 a share, now is so worthless that even panhandlers won't take it. And yes, all of your retirement benefits were tied up in that same stock.

But this is no time to despair. You should look at this financial cataclysm as a learning opportunity. As our government officials have declared, the falling fortunes of Upuhrs Industries prove a valuable lesson in the vagaries of capitalism, the economic system that made this country great.

Capitalism, a word derived from the ancient Greek for "every man for himself," gives every American the opportunity to ascend the corporate ladder and amass immense riches. Sure, it helps if you're a white male with friends in powerful places. But the very founders of this country were white males with powerful friends, and where would we be today if it hadn't been for those slave-owning white males? To question our great corporate culture is simply unpatriotic.

(To those churlish employees who spray-painted "Eat the Rich" on our $300 million corporate headquarters, I can only say: You are un-American. By the way, we know who the culprits are, and they can expect a late-night knock on the door of the cheap motel room where they've been staying since the company's fortunes went kablooey.)

As I was saying, capitalism allows every American the chance at great wealth. Need proof? Then look at the corporate board of Upuhrs Industries. Each of the suits who sits on our board made hundreds of millions of dollars by selling off his Upuhrs stock before the "crash." They remain what's commonly known as "filthy rich," even though our company has tanked and all the employees are now broke. If that's not filthy, I don't know what is.

But to resent the good fortune of our corporate leaders is to take the short-sighted view. We worked hard to reach the top of the ladder, climbing and striving and pushing competitors off the rungs. Sure, we had the advantages of Ivy League educations and inherited fortunes and friends in the White House. But, otherwise, we're no different from you lowly employees. We struggled, believe you me. I myself still bear the scars from injuries suffered in a college lacrosse match. And I know each of our board members has, at some time in his life, suffered a wicked hangover.

But why, you might ask, has this suffering made us wealthy, while you regular employees are off to the poorhouse? It's for the greater good of society.

Republicans have argued for years that we at the top should get all the juicy tax cuts because we'll use our money to benefit mankind, and that same philosophy applies here. What would you employees do if you still had money? You'd use it to retire, send your kids to college, buy a new boat, make mortgage payments. These are all selfish reasons. We, on the other hand, will use our vast gains for the greater good, such as buying a new yacht. By doing so, we'll keep this country's yacht builders at full employment. And that benefits the American economy.

To those who believe we lied, stole and "cooked" the books to get rich while you got nothing, I can only feel pity. I would gladly dispute those contentions, but our corporate attorney, H.R. "Stonewall" Jaxon, has advised that I should not go into specifics here.

Instead, I would ask you to look at the bigger picture. You've all worked hard for years to make Upuhrs Industries a great company. We at the top appreciate those efforts, and we've profited greatly from them. Thanks to you, we can afford congressmen and teams of lawyers that will keep us from being prosecuted for our alleged misdeeds. While you're pacing the floor all night, worrying, we will enjoy untroubled sleep as the waves gently lap at our yachts.

And that, my friends, is the true meaning of "executive privilege."


Home again, drunkenly

I'm back home from four days of debauchery, I mean networking.

The Left Coast Crime Conference in Denver was tons of fun, and I got to see a lot of my favorite people. Special thanks to Twist Phelan, who put together the panel I was on: "Writers on the hot seat." We got lots of laughs, and I expect my seat to cool off within another day or two.

As always, the after-hours poker game was the highlight for me. Some of the funniest people I've ever known sat around that table: Bill Fitzhugh, Parnell Hall, Donna Moore, Steve Stillwell, John Billheimer, Troy Cook, etc.

Chris Goff and all the other volunteers in Denver threw a great party.


Messed up

We who work at home face one ongoing struggle day in and day out -- getting organized.

If only we could get organized, we say, we could find things when we need them. Our offices would be tidy, streamlined spaces where actual work could be accomplished. Our homes would be so clean, you not only could eat off the floors, you could eat the floors themselves. For dessert.

In truth, of course, most of us are woefully disorganized. Our home offices are rabbit warrens of piled paperwork and moldy coffee cups and misplaced invoices and random socks. Our houses are so covered in clutter and dust and cobwebs, people think we're The Munsters.

We have good intentions. It's not like we WANT to live this way. It's just that we're very busy, and getting organized falls way down on our "Things to Do" list, right after "toenail maintenance" and "napping."

We make occasional attempts at getting organized, but they usually fall short and they never last. If we ever get all our stuff exactly where we want it, we immediately receive a whole bunch more stuff to pile up on our desks. Or, we don't put a few things away when we're done with them and, whoops, before you know it, the place is a wreck again. Or, the kids come home from school and race shrieking through the house like a tornado, disorganizing everything in sight.

Many home-office workers buy books on getting organized, which immediately vanish into the packrat middens of their offices, never to be seen again. Some even go so far as to hire experts, organization "consultants" who come to the home and declare that everything should be thrown out or at least put away. For this advice, the consultants are paid big bucks. (Note: Many people get their Moms to do this service for free.)

The problem with all these approaches is that they ignore the central issue: We are lazy.
We don't want to admit it, of course. We want to blame the disorganization for our lack of productivity, but it's really the other way around. The mess is a symptom of our larger disease -- sloth.

Once we accept our own laziness, we find there are many shortcuts, ways to give our offices and our homes the appearance of tidiness. And for a lazy person, that's enough.

Here, then, is:


--Hide stuff. What do you think closets are for? People who urge you to "organize" your closets are missing the point. We have closets so we can stow stuff out of sight. The same goes for garages. And desk drawers. However, this technique requires that you be prepared to tackle any guest who mistakenly tries to open a closet door.

--Some home furnishings help the lazy person camouflage the general disorder and filth. Patterned countertops, for instance, will hide an abundance of spills. Desks with many pigeonholes can make it appear there's a place for everything, even if you just cram in stuff haphazardly. Someone could make a fortune if he invented a carpet the color and texture of dust bunnies.

--You can incorporate your mess into your home decorating scheme. A jumble of pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers, arranged properly, qualifies as Art. A two-foot stack of unread paperwork makes a dandy, absorbent end table.

--Shelves are an often-overlooked organizational tool. Have shelves installed everywhere in your home and garage. Cover every wall with shelves. Put your stuff on the shelves. You still won't be able to find anything, but at least you'll be able to walk around without tripping over stuff all the time. Sturdy shelves also make it easier to climb the walls when you can't stand the mess anymore.

--Live neat or die. Once you've surrendered, once you've decided you'll never get your stuff organized, you can simply start over. Pretend you died. Put up signs that say, "Estate Sale." Unload all your material possessions on unwitting passers-by. After you've emptied the place, you can slowly, meticulously refurnish, putting everything where it belongs. And when you're done, you'll have the same old mess stacked to the ceiling.

--You can always change your name to Munster.


Traveling shoes

Postings to the blog will slow over the next few days while I attend Left Coast Crime Conference in Denver. Left Coast is my favorite mystery conference -- just the right size, fairly close to home and attended by all my favorite people. Hope to see some of you there!

My wife and I travel separately a lot, taking turns staying home with the teen-agers. My petite wife never worries about burglars while I'm gone. Why? Look here.


Be prepared

In this time of global heebie-jeebies, loyal Americans find themselves worrying about all sorts of potential disasters: terrorist attacks, anthrax letters, plane crashes, power grid failures, fire, flood, famine and/or car trouble.

That's why it's important to be prepared for any and all emergencies. Home preparedness not only can be key to your survival, it can also provide that elusive quality known as "peace of mind."

The main component in such preparation is the Emergency Survival Kit, and no home should be without one. But how, you might ask, can one assemble such a kit? What does every home need in times of calamity?

Ah, that's where we can help. We here at Home Front headquarters have spent literally minutes on Internet research and have consolidated that vast array of information into the following list of emergency supplies.

You should run right out and buy all this gear and carefully store it in a cool, dry place, such as a bomb shelter or root cellar. Doing so assures that you'll never need any of it. Just assembling an Emergency Survival Kit virtually guarantees that you'll never have an actual emergency. It's a matter of karmic talisman, and it's the reason we always carry jumper cables.

However, while creating your Emergency Survival Kit, you should pretend that you'll actually need this stuff someday. Remember: In the case of an actual emergency, you'll be cooped up with your family for days or weeks. You'd better have enough food/water/medicine/batteries/Game Boys to keep your family safe, happy and amused until the "all clear" signal sounds.

In other words, it'll be exactly like a long car trip with the kids, except without the scenery.


--Canned or dried food

How much? It depends on how many family members will be tapping the supply, and how long they would prefer such food to, say, fleeing into the nuclear fallout. In the case of canned goods, you should stockpile enough for a week or two. With dried food, maybe three days' worth.

--Can opener



Our Internet sources say you should have three liters of bottled water per person per day. But since we don't know how much a "liter" is, we'd simply recommend that you store "a lot" of water. Water's not just for drinking. You'll also need it for washing, which becomes increasingly important in the close quarters of a bomb shelter.

--A grill or hibachi

You'll need some way to heat that canned food. Dried food makes good fuel.

--First aid kit

This should include all the usual first aid items. Go heavy on the headache remedies, especially if there are children in the family.


--Extra batteries

--Candles and matches

In case a "romantic evening" breaks out in the old bomb shelter.


--More batteries

--Toilet paper

Lots. In case things go really wrong, toilet paper makes a dandy turban.

--Pet supplies

Don't forget about Rover or Fifi. They won't eat dried food, either, and they'll want their usual chow. Remember, if times become desperate enough, a well-fed pet can become "lunch."

--Toys, books, handheld video games and portable stereos

It's tough to stay amused when you're waiting out nuclear winter. Stock enough of these gizmos so that every family member can stay busy singing along with their favorite songs or playing their favorite games.

--Way more batteries


So you don't have to listen to your family members sing along.

--Basic tools

Can't ever tell when you might need a hammer. For example, if your relatives refuse to stop
singing . . .

--Blankets or sleeping bags

--Copies of important documents and medical records

When the government starts going door-to-door, searching for terrorists, you'll want some ID handy.

--Personal hygiene items, such as toothbrushes and deodorant

Trust us.

--Emergency clothing

This includes rain gear, sturdy shoes and warm clothes you can wear in layers under your "hazmat" suits.

--Did we mention batteries?

Once you've assembled all these items, you'll find that they fill your designated shelter to the brim. There'll be no room in there for actual people. But, given enough warning, you can quickly construct a shelter out of whatever's handy. We suggest using dead batteries.


Blog o' my heart

I'm the guest blogger today on Murderati, the excellent crime fiction blog run by some pals of mine. My little essay is about finding the "funny part" in my writing. You can read it here: http://www.murderati.typepad.com/


Dog droppings

Elvis is everywhere.

At our house, Elvis is the family hound dog. This time of year, when he's indoors much of the time, cooped up with the rest of us, his impact on the household becomes extreme. Traces of
Elvis litter every room.

This is because Elvis is wearing his "winter coat." Elvis is a long-legged, bobtailed mutt whose natural coat is a tangled, wiry, black-and-gray mess. Picture the hair of boxing impresario Don King. You get the idea.

Because of its natural tendency toward natty dreadlocks, we have the coat trimmed by a local groomer every few months. She clips him short all over, except around his face, which is left in a boxy beard. When he's freshly groomed, Elvis doesn't look like Bob Marley anymore. He looks like me.

In the winter, we let his coat grow a little longer because it's cold outside. Not that the dog is outside much. He spends, oh, 23 hours a day indoors, lying on the rug, sleeping.

But every couple of hours, he needs to go outside to attend to business and to make sure the neighborhood birds aren't scarfing his dog food.

He's not out long because it's winter and the cold might keep him awake. But during these brief expeditions, he manages to get covered in leaves and dead grass and other items that cling to the Amazing Velcro Dog. I open the door, he runs into the house, finds a nice clean spot somewhere and, shake-shake-shake, rids his coat of its detritus.

One day recently, I finished vacuuming the house. Elvis was outside, choosing the cold over the roar of the vacuum cleaner. As soon as the noise ended, he wanted back inside. I let him in, then gasped when I saw he was covered in brittle bits of yellow grass from the lawn.

Shake-shake-shake. My floor was no longer clean. Instead, it looked like somebody had dropped a bale of hay.

I started to scold the dog, but it was too late. He was already asleep again. Grumbling, I went off to get the vacuum cleaner.

The winter coat also produces more shedding, somehow. You'd think the dog would want to hold onto all his fur in the winter. But Elvis' coat works overtime, producing piles of spilled hairs.
These hairs migrate around the house, uniting with their kinsmen into gray dust bunnies that gradually grow larger, picking up dead grass and Christmas tinsel as they travel from room to room. By the time I find them hiding behind the drapes, they're the size of tumbleweeds.

I can vacuum with a vengeance, around and under all the furniture and behind the drapes and even (oh, my God!) under the kids' beds, and the moment I put away the vacuum cleaner and wipe the sweat from my brow, a half-dozen dust bunnies will dance out to the center of the room. Mocking me.

Did I mention we have beige carpet? Or, at least, as I recall, it once was beige. In the winter, it's more often a mottled brown, decorated with fallen leaves and muddy paw prints and a thatch of gray fur. I tell guests we're going for a "more natural look," one I call "Forest Floor."

At least I can stop raking leaves in the back yard. Elvis eventually will bring them all into the house, and I'll vacuum them up. It's a slow means of leaf disposal, but, heck, we've got all winter.

Elvis is worth the trouble, of course. For all the cleaning up after him we have to do (and all the money we spend on groomers and vet visits and dog/bird food), we get a family friend, one who's loyal and trustworthy and well-loved. Any time of the day or night, if we feel lonely or depressed, we can watch him sleep.