Free books!

Bleak House Books is offering free books for the holidays. Over 100 titles, including many of mine, are available, and all you pay is $6 for shipping/handling per book.

Send them an e-mail with snail mail address (either yours or a gift recipient's) and the book goes directly there by mail. Only one book per e-mail, but you can do it over and over. Sweet, huh?

Here's the link to more information. Enjoy!


They call it turkey and dressing because two days later, you can't get dressed. None of your pants will fit.

Or maybe that's just me.

I'm thankful for sweatpants and televised football. Burp.


Quick, to the Crudmobile!

I know it's time to wash my car when the neighborhood kids use their fingers to write in the filth: SANDBLAST ME.

Some guys wash their cars all the time. The sky spits five raindrops or the wind kicks up a little dust or a weekend arises, and they're scrubbing and rinsing and patting dry, as gently and lovingly as they would a baby's backside.

I'm not one of those guys. I feel that a vehicle should be professionally washed once a year, typically in the spring, to get off the winter mudstains and road salt and spattered tar. The rest of the year, to heck with it. I simply don't care.

Some men take great pride in their cars. They motor around in their hot rods or their Hummers, stroking some psychological need by having the coolest ride, the loudest pipes, the biggest gearshift.

I drive a minivan. If my manhood were tied up in my wheels, so to speak, I'd be in big trouble. Once I took the aerodynamic-as-a-stick-of-butter family-vehicle plunge and gave up on ever driving a cool car, keeping the Nerdmobile clean seemed beside the point.

If my minivan starts to look too grubby, I might stop by one of those do-it-yourself car washes, where a pocketful of quarters earns a few minutes' wrestle with a powerful jet sprayer that will recoil and hit you squarely in the face if you're not careful, not that that's ever happened to me.

But those car washes don't really get a vehicle clean. They get it wet. Drive around until the water dries, then examine the exterior. All the road film and fingerprints will still be there. You'll still be able to read "WASH ME" on the back window.

A truly clean car requires scrubbing with a rag or those giant, thundering brushes in a drive-through car wash. Some version of elbow grease, either human or mechanical. I don't care enough to make the effort.

Sure, I could afford to have it done on a regular basis, but the truth is that it never even occurs to me until the van gets so filthy that the neighbors start circulating a petition.

Am I a total slob who can't be bothered to get off the sofa long enough to take care of his possessions? OK, don't answer that. I'll rephrase the question. Why do I (and guys like me, assuming there are any) not care about a sparkling car while, for other men, it's a top priority?

I think it's because I drove crummy cars for so long. Compacts with rusty wheel wells and Jeepettes with dented doors and "pre-owned" sedans with upholstery brocaded by baby spit-up. Washing those cars wouldn't have made much difference. In some cases, the dirt might've been all that was holding them together.

When I went shopping for the minivan, I intentionally got one the color of dust. Trying to hide my sloth from others, I suppose, trying to conceal the fact that I don't consider grime a crime.
But now that I'm thinking about it, maybe I'll troop down to the local car wash and pony up the bucks to get someone to scrub away the crud and chisel the bug guts off the bumpers.

Yeah, I'm going to get right on that, soon as the playoffs are over. I've got to get up off the sofa anyway. Some idiot wrote "WASH ME" on the TV screen.


Give thanks for strange foods

Why do Americans love Thanksgiving? Because it's one holiday that's unequivocally centered on the thing we love best -- eating.

The very roots of Thanksgiving lie in food. The holiday began as a harvest festival for the Pilgrims, who were thankful they'd survived long enough to reap some food before another hard winter descended.

(Which raises the question: If you were a European settler arriving in the New World, would you choose chilly New England as your destination? Wouldn't it be better to stay on the boat one more week and land in, say, Miami Beach? But I digress.)

Today, we Americans mark the holiday by eating enough food, per capita, to keep the average Third World family alive for a month. Then we stagger to the nearest recliner and sleep it off to the sweet drone of televised football. We need to rest and digest, because soon we must tackle our next harvest -- leftovers.

Many Americans don't know that the Thanksgiving meal has its own colorful folklore. Why, for example, do we traditionally eat yams at Thanksgiving? Do you eat yams the rest of the year? Probably not. But Mom throws that orange glop on your plate at Thanksgiving, and you're a grateful American.

We've been conditioned, year in and year out, to eat certain Thanksgiving items, such as "giblets," that we normally wouldn't touch. We happily wolf them down, then trundle off to our recliners, blissfully unaware of the history and tradition behind what we've just consumed.

Here, then, is a primer on traditional Thanksgiving foods, their origins and their significance, and why, one Thursday in November, we gobble them up:


The Thanksgiving turkey has become an annual event, the Super Bowl of eating. Did the Pilgrims eat turkey at their first Thanksgiving? No one knows for sure. But if they did, you can bet the turkeys were wild, scrawny animals, not the pumped-up Schwarzenegger birds of today, which require a forklift to reach the table.

The turkey became the traditional harvest entrée because it's one of only two North American animals that looks better dead than it does alive. (The other is the lobster.)

A live turkey is one ugly mother. Fat and mean, a tom turkey resembles a kid's drawing of an evil alien, assembled from disparate parts. Wrinkly, clawed feet and red wattles and beating wings and a feather-duster up its behind. Yuck.

But strip the turkey of its outer wrappings, roast it slowly, and it becomes a golden-brown mountain of meat, aromatic and tasty.


First, we strip the turkey naked and hollow out its insides, then we "dress" it all over again in a more palatable manner. Interestingly, traditional dressing includes some of the same items that were removed from inside the turkey originally. See "giblets" above.

Some people resort to "oyster dressing," which involves replacing slimy little giblets with slimy little shellfish. Go figure.


You can bet the original Pilgrims didn't have seedless grapes and pineapples and Mandarin oranges to mix up for a cold side dish. You can double that bet when it comes to suspending the mixture in whipped cream. How then has this dish become a Thanksgiving staple in many homes? Motherly guilt. If the family must consume all those thousands of calories, there should be something healthy in there, like fruit.


Not really berries. Not really food. They grow in "bogs," which should tell you something. Currently infiltrating every kind of juice in America.


They come from tropical climates, but resemble astronaut food. Beware any dish that must be disguised with marshmallows.


The Pilgrims had all these pumpkins left over from Halloween. They found that the guts of the pumpkin, when removed and cooked, resembled yams. How to persuade the family to eat this? By adding sugar and a crust and calling it dessert.

Such innovation is truly American. Using traditional "foods" in new and different ways has led to the evolution of the modern Thanksgiving meal.

Give us Americans a turkey, and we make turkey salad.


Thanksgiving truths

Thanksgiving is a holiday drenched in history and tradition and giblet gravy, and Americans mark the importance of that tradition by eating so much they can barely make it to the sofa in time for their naps.

We all know Thanksgiving isn't, of course, just about food. It's also about booze. And tradition. And history. And family. And football.

The origins of Thanksgiving are well-known, taught to every first-grader who ever made a turkey out of orange construction paper. But let's refresh your memories so you'll recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, when you look at the epic history of this great country, it doesn't really matter who's leading at halftime.

Thankgiving began in what is now Massachussetts when a group of English settlers, dubbed the "Pilgrims" by John Wayne, hosted a big feast to celebrate their first successful harvest. Thanksgiving originally was scheduled for a Sunday, but was moved to Thursday so the Pilgrims could get a long weekend out of the deal.

The Pilgrims were joined at their feast by peaceful Indians who'd taught them agricultural techniques that would work in this new land, such as how to use dead fish for fertilizer and how to milk a pig.

The Indians, who hailed from Cleveland, were led by a friendly, English-speaking brave named Squanto, who was a big hit with the tribe because he did a wickedly funny Pilgrim impersonation: "Look at me! I've got a buckle on my hat! And more on my shoes! And yet my pants still are falling down!" He also persuaded the Pilgrims that cranberry sauce was edible. That Squanto, what a stitch.

Over the years, Thanksgiving has changed, naturally. For one thing, most of us don't have Indians over for our annual feasts. No, we're stuck with our own families, most of whom can't be bothered to work up a good Pilgrim bit the way Squanto did. Now, we entertain ourselves by lying in front of televised football, listening to each other snore.

Another change: For most people these days, the harvest season is no more complicated than a trip to the supermarket. But we still show our appreciation for nature's bounty by trying to pack in a year's worth of calories in one sitting. What better way to show our gratitude for all we have than by trying to eat it all at once?

The star of the meal is the turkey, which we traditionally consume only once a year because it's such a butt-ugly bird.

(Many people will recall that famed inventor, statesman and all-around crank Benjamin Franklin wanted the humble turkey to be our national bird. That's because Ben always served bald eagle at Thanksgiving. And then he wondered why no one ever showed up . . . By the way, Franklin was from Philadelphia, which is how the Philadelphia Eagles got their name. Better than the Philadelphia Turkeys. Or the Squantos.)

In this time of international strife, we Americans need to remember the true spirit of Thanksgiving. We need to pause for a moment (perhaps before the dessert course) to give thanks for all we've been given. This isn't always easy, particularly if your team isn't covering the point spread. But if you'll take a minute, you'll find there are many things in your life for which you should be thankful.

Here are some suggestions. Be thankful that:

--Turkeys don't carry anthrax.
--You don't have to wear a hat with a buckle on it unless you really want to.
--The Pilgrims didn't land at Mitsubishi Rock.
--Thanksgiving dinner means your children will be forced to eat something, at least once a year, that doesn't have a toy inside.
--You're able to gather in the bosom of your family, even if it means an uncomfortable fit.
--God invented Rolaids.
--Someone invented a way to fit a pumpkin into a pie.
--Someone else invented refrigeration. Otherwise, we'd have to eat all our leftovers the same day.
--For long weekends. You'll need Friday, Saturday and Sunday to recover from Thursday's feast.

And, finally, now that we have our priorities in order, let's all be thankful that Thanksgiving gives us an excuse to watch football during the day on a Thursday.

I'll be rooting for the Squantos.


Turkey bash

Here's a heart-warming Thanksgiving week story: A carjacker in North Carolina was attacked by shoppers, including one who clubbed him with a frozen turkey.

Police say Fred Louis Ervin, 30, stole money from a gas station, then ran to the parking lot of a nearby store. He tried to take a woman's car and began beating her. Other shoppers came to her rescue, including the one who hit him with the turkey.

Despite head injuries, Ervin managed to escape with the car. He crashed into several other vehicles before police arrested him a short time later.

Full story here.

Prescription paradox

When you have a cold, the advice always is to get lots of rest and drink lots of liquids. Don't those two things cancel each other out? If I drink lots of liquids, I get no rest because I need the bathroom every hour or two.

Which explains why I'm blogging at 4 a.m.

Cough, wheeze, whine.


Another Kodak blackmail moment

Thanksgiving week kicks off another belt-busting, family-spatting, bank-account-draining holiday season, and I'd urge you to stock up on film.

Nothing captures those special holiday moments like a camera. From the traditional Thanksgiving snapshot of sated men lying around like elephant seals, snoozing in front of the TV with their belts unbuckled, to that final lampshade-wearing table dance to ring in the New Year, the holidays are the right time for photos.

You want to preserve those memories forever, particularly if the idiot in the photo -- pretending to maniacally attack the turkey with two large knives while other diners feign alarm -- is someone other than yourself.

Over a lifetime, you can collect albums full of remembrances that show your family and friends in their true light. The photo, say, of little Junior, naked and happy, licking ice cream off the floor like a dog. Or, the photo of the bridal shower where tipsy Aunt Maude decided her skirt would look better up over her head. The chin-quivering disappointment of the wrong size at Christmas. The two neighbors caught smooching at the New Year's party.

Such holiday moments can live forever in your photo albums, and you can use them as instruments of blackmail and revenge. A supply of such photos can be ammunition in any little skirmish that breaks out in the household, and can even result in a valuable inheritance one day. Best of all, those captured holiday images can be used, again and again, to embarrass the hell out of loved ones.

My wife and I weather the weirdnesses of parenting by giggling over the photographic evidence we've collected against our two sons. We have big plans for these photos. Come Prom Night, we're trotting them out for our sons' special dates. We consider this our little vengeance for the insanity the kids have put us through over the years.

We've got the standard naked-baby pictures to make our sons blush, as well as various photos involving frogs and dogs and grandparents. Some wonderfully humiliating moments.

Our sons helped us out a few years ago, producing a whole roll of "staged" photos showing them up to mischief. They got hold of a disposable camera and went around the house, shooting pictures of each other committing misdemeanors like jumping on the bed and dangling dangerously from furniture and filching Dad's ice cream.

They were delighted with the results, and not the least perturbed by my complaints that they had to physically jump on the bed to get a picture of them jumping on the bed. It didn't count, they argued, because it was staged. The illusion of the cinema.

I stopped arguing when my wife muttered, "Prom Night."

Take a hint from us, and remember to take lots of photographs this holiday season. They could be useful later.

That's my boy!

Me: My son's in your class. You're his favorite lecturer.

Professor: Which one is he? My classes are so large--

Me: Blond dreadlocks.

Professor (thinking): Hmm. Wait, he doesn't wear shoes?

Me: That's the one.


Holiday diet tips

The annual Holiday Eating Season -- which runs from Thanksgiving to Valentine's Day --officially begins this week, and that means trouble for those of us trying to lose weight.

Banquets and booze, potlucks and pastries, desserts and delicacies all gang up on us this time of year. Here a cookie, there a brownie, everywhere a cheese log. This abundance makes it nearly impossible to watch your weight.

(An aside: Isn't "watch your weight" a weird euphemism? I have no trouble watching my weight. It's right here in front of me. The problem is trying to watch anything beyond it -- my feet, for instance. If we need a euphemism for dieting, maybe we should call it "looking for feet.")

You can't escape the annual cornucopia, but you can find ways to manage your diet. Rather than counting every calorie or battling every temptation, use your imagination to set limits. Play little mind games with yourself, so you can pass up certain treats and keep your overall consumption within reason.

For example, some people allow themselves the freedom to indulge in holiday meals with loved ones, but skip desserts. Others eat only desserts, though this is not recommended. A handful go on the "all egg nog, all the time" regimen, a form of liquid diet guaranteed to result not only in weight gain, but probable arrest.

Here are some other creative dieting suggestions:

--The Alphabet Diet. Pick a letter of the alphabet and pledge not to eat any food that contains that letter in its name. Say, for instance, that you choose "R." Then turkey and risotto and cranberries are out for the holiday season. However, you could eat all the blintzes you want. Obese people might want to "up the ante" and select several letters. Caution: A vowel-free diet can result in medical problems.

--The Face Diet. Vegetarians often say, "I don't eat anything that has a face." This could be a good approach for holiday dieters, too. However, you might want to amend the rules to specify that really ugly faces don't count. You could, thereby, still eat turkey.

--The Repulsion Diet. When faced with the usual huge array of holiday foods, most people can identify one or two items that they simply can't stand -- such as gelid cranberry sauce or creamed spinach or oyster dressing. Load up your plate with your least-favorite things. Pretty soon, you'll find that you'd rather go hungry.

--The Rah-Team Diet. Cut down your sports-related noshing by eating only when your favorite team is winning. Warning: This season, fans of the San Francisco 49ers could starve to death.

--The Denture-Free Diet. If you wear false teeth, take them out before holiday meals. This will limit you to mushy stuff, and cut down your caloric intake. This method could help your loved ones lose weight, too, because watching you will turn their stomachs.

--The Battle-Axe Diet. If you can't stand your mother-in-law, be sure to sit directly across from her at every family gathering. That ought to kill your appetite.

--The Hangover Diet. "Tie one on" the night before every big family meal. True, booze is full of empty calories. But you won't want any yams the next day. Trust me.

Using such imaginative approaches, you can find a diet plan that will get you through the Holiday Eating Season.

If nothing works, tell yourself that obesity is the direct result of a happy, abundant life. Count your blessings and give thanks.

Personally, I'm thankful that I no longer need to worry about spilling egg nog on my shoes.


Another dumb list

I read an article recently called "Dumb Money Moves People Make," which listed stupid things you can do to wreck your home finances.

Most of the "dumb moves" centered on being careless with personal identification numbers or other financial information, leaving one susceptible to identity theft. Very good advice, but that wasn't what grabbed me.

As a writer, I was more interested in the way the article was put together. "Dumb Money Moves" is a pretty catchy way to get the reader's attention, and most people love lists. It's a construction you see all the time:

"Top 10 Dieting Mistakes"
"Twelve Ways Smart Women Sabotage Relationships"
"The 15 Worst Mistakes You Can Make on the Job"
"Twenty Errors to Avoid When Invading a Country in the Middle East"
"Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover"
"Eighty-Seven Stupid Things Guys Say in Bars"

Such lists appeal because they allow us to laugh at the foibles of others while secretly checking our own behavior to see whether we've made any "dumb moves" lately.

Never one to pass up an easy format, I decided to write my own list, pegged to my usual territory: housework and home repairs and working from a home office.

Here, then, are the:


1. Try to "do it yourself," particularly if the job involves electric current and/or power tools. Before you know it, you'll have fewer digits than when you started and/or a hairdo like boxing promoter Don King.

2. Play with fire. Yes, fire is warm and pretty, but one minor slip near the drapes and -- poof! -- you're homeless.

3. Adjust the TV antenna or satellite dish during a lightning storm. Better reception soon will be the least of your worries.

4. Start the wrong kind of home-based business. Some pursuits -- fish storage, fireworks assembly, telemarketing -- are too hazardous for the home, and may violate zoning laws.

5. Any chore involving ladders.

6. Invite over friends who knew you before you were married and who want to regale your spouse with "fun" stories about your wild and crazy dating days. (See "Play with fire" above.)

7. Gullibly believe decorating magazines when they say home improvement projects are "easy" or "fast" or "cheap."

8. Phone sex. Your spouse will find those credit-card bills. Guaranteed.

9. Plant a "cash crop" in your back yard. Your neighbors will rat you out to the proper authorities.

10. Ignore the warnings on powerful cleaning products. Skip the rubber gloves, and your friends soon will call you "Lobster Boy."

11. Allow teen-age boys to live under your roof. The only faster way to bring down property values is to house a randy tomcat.

12. Two words: Indoor trampoline.

13. Carefully file each and every piece of paper in your home office. That's just asking for a tornado.

14. Take out a home equity loan to pay for luxuries or vacations. That little gift to yourself will turn out to be the "gift that keeps on giving" for the next 30 years.

15. Answer the phone when you're in the middle of an argument with your spouse.

16. Answer the door to accept delivery of a subpoena.

17. Answer the door in your underwear.

18. Mow the lawn in your underwear.

19. Run over metal sprinkler heads with the lawn mower. Trust me on this.

20. Start a home business as a "writer."


Keep it simple, stupid

Simplicity's all the rage these days, and many lifestyle gurus urge us to simplify our lives.

We’re told we should get more exercise by walking everywhere like our simple ancestors, the hunters and gatherers. We're told we should maintain the diet of simple Mediterranean goatherds. We're told we should embrace the simplistic, old-fashioned values of South Dakotans and other primitive peoples.

Mostly, we're advised to own less stuff. All our swanky possessions and elaborate electronic gizmos drag us down, the gurus say, leading us to want more, more, more of everything, while denying us the spiritual fulfillment that comes from leading a simple life.

The experts pass along this advice in books and articles in which they try to encapsulate simplicity in catchy ways that make it appear desirable. For these efforts, they are rewarded with tons of money, which they then use to buy more stuff.

In an attempt to tear off a piece of that action, I've come up with the perfect motto for the simple life: Live every day as if you're about to go through airport security.

What better way, in our helter-skelter world, to sum up simplicity? Is there any time when we're more embarrassed and inconvenienced by our possessions? When glowering, latex-gloved security guards fondle us all over, don't we regret that Rolex? Don't we wish we'd left our rodeo belt buckle at home?

At airport security, we're stripped down to nothing but clothes and sock-feet. As our inconvenient stuff goes through the X-ray machine, aren't we given the perfect moment to examine modern life and its complexity?

Ask yourself: Why do I go around with my pockets full and my briefcase bulging and my personal digital assistant surgically grafted to my hand? Why can I not live, even for a few hours, without e-mail or a cell phone? Why do I need so danged many keys?

Use the Airport Security Simplicity model to get back to basics. Limit jewelry and the stuff you carry in your pockets to items that will fit in that little plastic cereal bowl they give you at airport security. Briefcases and other life baggage should be limited to two carry-ons -- one that would fit in an overhead bin and a personal item such as a purse or laptop computer.

(You might want to eliminate shoes altogether. Why hassle with them? Flip-flops, baby, flip-flops.)

I reached this epiphany only recently, when I realized that I'd simplified my life to the point where I can prance right through airport metal detectors. Because I work at home, I've eliminated from my repertoire most of the stuff that regular folks carry around. In my pockets, I'm down to two keys, a wallet and a comb. My wristwatch, with its leather band and fake gold case, doesn't set off alarms. Neither do the cheap plastic ballpoints I favor.

You can't get much more simple than I am. Wait, what I mean to say is: Your life can't get much simpler than mine. I've streamlined and jettisoned and simplified to the point where I go out into the world (or at least into airports) all but naked of material things. Guys entering prison carry more stuff than I do.

This should qualify me as a lifestyle guru, one who has fully embraced the simplicity trend. I plan to sit back now and wait for the riches to come my way.

Then I'm going shopping. I need some stuff.


Madison Ave. meets the New Testament

Irreverent 19-year-old: What would Jesus do for a Klondike bar?

Bad dog, no brakes

A man on Long Island, NY, left his dog, Bentley, in his van with the engine running. Bentley somehow knocked the van into gear and it crashed into the front of a coffee house.

Police said the 60-year-old driver was inside the Cool Beanz coffee shop in St. James when the crash occurred. No one was injured, but a window was broken and some patio furniture was killed.

Full story here.

Sneezing off the pounds

Hello, friends. Today, I bring you great news about an AMAZING NEW DIET plan that could allow you to lose five pounds in a single week!

I know you've heard this sort of thing before. We're all deluged by advertisements touting the latest diet fads and spouting incredible results that only the most gullible and desperate dieters would ever believe. But my diet plan is different because it REALLY WORKS!

In only one week, with virtually no exercise, you can drop unwanted pounds and get back into those jeans that have been too tight for the past six months. You can look trimmer and feel better about yourself. You can amaze your friends and family.

I'm a perfect example of how this new diet plan works. In only one week, I lost five whole pounds. I had to cinch up my favorite belt by an entire hole! And, so far, I've kept it off!

How did I do it? I caught my first cold of the winter. After a week of misery, I got on the scales to find that the pounds had MAGICALLY DISAPPEARED.

That's right, friends. Without even trying, without breaking a sweat (other than those feverish, sheet-soaking night sweats), I dropped some of the excess weight that had been plaguing me for months. Now, whole new worlds (as well as whole sections of my existing wardrobe) have opened up to me. I feel like a new, if slightly weaker, man!

My amazing new Winter Cold Diet is so simple you won't even believe it. It's EASY! All you do is catch a passing virus. Then, for the next seven to 10 days, you'll find that you have NO APPETITE AT ALL! Even your favorite foods will hold no appeal for you. You'll find that everything, even sinfully rich chocolate and fattening holiday sweets, tastes like cardboard.

The Winter Cold Diet can be pursued in the privacy of your own home. No embarrassing weigh-ins in front of other dieters. No puffing at the gym in front of svelte young weightlifters who sneer at your decrepitude. In fact, you can do it without leaving your bed!

With the Winter Cold Diet, there are no special foods or drinks to purchase. All you'll want is water, and lots of it. Maybe some chicken soup. And lots of over-the-counter cold remedies to dry out your runny nose, calm your coughing fits and help you sleep around the clock.

Best of all, the Winter Cold Diet is ABSOLUTELY FREE! Nothing to buy now, nothing to buy later. No salesman will call.

You can pick up the Winter Cold Diet virus most everywhere AT NO CHARGE. There's plenty to go around. Co-workers will willingly share it with you. Perfect strangers in public places will gladly sneeze some of the virus right over to you. Heck, your children have probably brought the virus home from school. It's likely in their rooms RIGHT NOW!

Granted, the Winter Cold Diet does have certain side effects. During the diet, you'll feel really rotten -- headaches, dehydration, body aches, congestion, sore throat, coughing, etc. You'll go through a lot of Kleenex. All your hacking and spewing will disgust your loved ones. You won't accomplish anything, except a lot of excess sleeping, and you'll likely miss work.

But hey, as any of us fatties will be quick to tell you, that all seems a small price to pay to LOSE FIVE POUNDS! In a WEEK! Whoo-hoo!

Try the amazing Winter Cold Diet today! Pick up a virus! As if you have any choice.


Today's special

Me: What's your strong coffee today?

Starbucks barista: Our Thanksgiving blend.

Me: Does it tastes like pumpkin?

Barista (not missing a beat): Mashed potatoes and gravy.

Rollin' straight to prison

Today's crime tip: If you're confined to a wheelchair -- even a motorized wheelchair -- then bank robbery probably isn't for you.

A man in Merritt Island, FL, held up the Space Coast Credit Union by claiming he had a bomb in his motorized wheelchair, police said. Christopher Warren Reed, 45, was arrested by police 10 minutes later.

Extra points: Reed told deputies that he was ordered to pull the holdup by two men who threatened him with a gun.

Double extra points: He hid the loot in his prosthetic leg.

Full story here.


Put it in 'R' for 'ripoff'

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you're going to carjack a vehicle at random, you might want to learn how to drive a stick.

Police say two guys in Kansas City went up to a woman motorist, showed her a gun and forced her out of her car. They got inside, but quickly abandoned the vehicle when they found it had a manual transmission. The idiots were arrested a short time later after robbing someone nearby.

Full story here.

Teen terrors trigger toothlessness

Several months ago, I was at the dentist, complaining about pain in my jaw, and my dentist asked, "Do you grind your teeth?"

"Of course I do," I said. "I have teen-agers at home."

Oh, he and his assistant had a good laugh about that, until they realized I was serious.

Parenting teens is an exercise in jaw-grinding, tongue-biting, hair-pulling, brain-busting frustration. Even if you have the most responsible, scholarly, polite kids in the world, they'll still drive you crazy. It's nature's way of preparing the parents for the children's departure from the nest; by the time they're out of high school, we can't wait for them to leave home.

The dynamics of the parent-child relationship center on the struggle for autonomy. The child wants the freedom to do whatever he wants whenever he wants with whomever he wants. The parent, on the other hand, wants the child to stay in his room, quietly doing his homework, until he's 40.

The most difficult task for parents is "letting go." If teens are to learn about life, they must be free to make their own mistakes, but we parents know it's a dangerous world out there, full of hazards and stupidity, and it's hard for us to let the kids out of our sight. We've invested all these years in keeping our children safe and healthy. Now that they've reached adolescence, we balk at letting them spend the evening "just riding around" in a bald-tired van with someone named Crazy Jake. Call us paranoid.

We parents try to build safeguards into our teens' behavior. We say "no" a lot. We set curfews. We require adult supervision. We ask for references. We use cell phones like leashes, maintaining contact. We wait up. We constantly worry.

Why? Because we remember what we were up to when we were that age. The trouble we got into (or narrowly avoided), the near-misses and the almost-wrecks and the passing scrapes with The Law. We'd like to believe that our children are smarter than we were at that age. We'd like to believe that we've taught them so well that they'll avoid the pitfalls of youth. But hahaha on that.

Each generation must get into the same trouble all over again. Adolescence is about experimenting and taking risks and acting a fool. Some behaviors (and I'm thinking here of sex or wild driving or mouthing off to authority figures) are just too tantalizing to avoid, no matter how well-trained the child may be. We parents know this, and that's why we stress out over our kids.

Once children reach high school (and certainly once they start driving), they're determined to do things on their own. Nine kinds of parental rules and restraints won't keep them from going out into the world and screwing up. We can wheedle and lecture and preach, and they'll ignore all that and do what they want. We can absolutely forbid certain behaviors, and they'll sneak around and do them anyway. We can lock the kids in their rooms, and they'll climb out the windows.

Just like we did when we were their age.

Teens see it as their job to drive their parents nuts by staying out half the night doing who-knows-what and coming home disheveled and suspiciously bleary. And it's the parents' job to fret and stew and grind our teeth.

This tension between parents and teens has always existed. It's the way of the world. It's the natural order.

And it's why your parents wear dentures.


A how-to guide?

This just in from BusinessWeek: Netflix rentals of "The Grapes of Wrath," the film based on John Steinbeck's great Depression-era saga, rose 10 percent from September to October of this year.

Hope no one's monitoring Netflix rentals for other ways to deal with the stumbling economy. Nearly everything I've watched lately is about crime.


Today's tip for drunken crime sprees: You can't keep the police at bay by threatening to shoot yourself if you don't have a gun.

That was the end game for Robert Lee Baker of Anderson, CA, after police descended on a neighborhood here in Redding on Sunday. Police said the 18-year-old crashed a stolen car into a minivan and a light pole, then fled on foot. When police located him, he was lying in a residential street, threatening to shoot himself.

Police said he failed a field sobriety test (surprise!) and was arrested on numerous charges.

Full story here (last item).


Brain sweat

Like many of my fellow bloated Americans, I exercise daily in an attempt to shed pounds and to keep my stressed heart from one day popping like a balloon.

Many people pay for memberships to gyms, where they at least have the distraction of other members, including some in leotards. But those of us who work out at home are constantly reminded that exercise is boring.

Our minds wander all over, getting as big a workout as our bodies. I've got my treadmill set up in the garage with all kinds of distractions handy -- a small TV, reading material, music. But my brain bounces from topic to topic like a pinball, always coming back to the fact that I could keel over from exertion any minute, resulting in the big "Game Over."

Random thoughts from a typical workout on the Dreadmill:

Remember when exercise was all about having fun? When did it become drudgery? Here I am, bored out of my skull, walking to nowhere. Let's not think about how that's a metaphor for Life.

God, my legs are going to fall off. If they did, could I get new ones grafted on? Ones that already had muscles? Then I could skip the workouts and still look better in shorts.

These days, doctors can transplant most anything, including faces, from one human to another. Too bad they haven't mastered personality transplants. I can think of some people who'd benefit from that.

What is that huffing sound? Oh, it's me.

If Americans keep living longer and longer, will huffing and puffing eventually become the background music of life?

You know you're older when "getting lucky" refers to the last piece of cake.

How come we have angel's food cake and devil's food cake and who decided which is which? Do they serve those in heaven and hell? If so, I'll go with the chocolate, even if it means eternal fire.

Mmm, cake.

What the heck is manna? You always hear about "manna from heaven." Does it come in chocolate?

How come Death's always pictured as a specter in a hooded cloak, carrying a scythe? At new year's time, the long-bearded Old Year carries a scythe, too. Is he related to Death? How do you use a scythe anyway?

What's that awful smell? Oh, that's me, too.

The bravest person who ever lived was the one who first ate a lobster. Here's this creature, looks like a big bug, comes armed with clacking claws. Drop it into boiling water and it turns bright red -- a sure warning sign. And yet, somebody was the first to say, hey, let's eat this thing.

Mmm, lobster.

Is that the phone? Probably another telemarketer. Here's the perfect thing to say to get rid of telemarketers: "So. What are you wearing?"

Is that a chest pain? Nah. But what if it was? I'm all alone here. Could I get to a phone and call for help before it's too late? Would my family find me here, hours later, facedown on the treadmill? Would I have big black rubber burns on my face? I'd better start keeping my cell phone nearby.

I could use my workout time to talk on the phone, if people didn't mind the puffing. They'd probably hang up, thinking it was an obscene call. "It's that breather again…."

Mmm, breathing.

Time's almost up. Just a few more minutes of agony, then I can get off this machine and get on with my day. Assuming I don't pass out first.

Wonder how much liposuction costs?


Am I retired yet?

Count on the Baby Boom generation to blur the lines between "work" and "retirement."

Previous generations knew what "retired" meant. You hit 65, and you stopped going to work every day and you stayed home and pruned the roses and drove your spouse crazy. Occasionally, you went on cruises where you overate and got sunburned and drove your spouse crazy.

What you didn't do, as a retiree, was work. It was really the only requirement for membership.

But, no, the Baby Boomers can't have that. Our overworked generation can't just slip the bit and go off to pasture. Surveys find that the majority of Boomers expect to work after they retire.

Sure, that's partly about financial necessity and the fact that many of us invest our retirement savings in undergraduate tuition for ingrates who change their majors four times, but money's only part of the story. Many Boomers say they want to work in retirement, so they can stay "active" and in touch with their community, two things I personally try to avoid.

If you keep working, how can you tell when you retired? Maybe you just changed jobs.

Boomers want to retire from their current hated career, whatever it might be, and take up something altogether different and more wonderful, a vocation that allows flexibility and a home office and plenty of free time to be "active" and stuff. They want to set their own schedules, and not have somebody breathing down their collective necks. It's not the work they want to retire from. It's the boss.

Boomers aren't thinking six-hour stretches on their feet as Wal-Mart greeters, displaying their dentures all day. No, they want a second career that's arty and cool. Something they can do over the Internet, or by turning a beloved hobby into a moneymaker. Maybe something exciting and risky, like online poker or day trading or writing novels.

(Here's what we're all secretly thinking: I'll probably spend my retirement sitting at a computer in my pajamas anyway, playing games and reading blogs, why not find a way to get paid?)

We self-employed types with home offices have pioneered this lifestyle. Sure, we work hard, but only when we must, and the rest of the time we behave like retirees. We take advantage of nice weather and avoid rush hour traffic and futz around the yard. We don't sweat deadlines so much. If we run out of time, we can always work during the hours when any sane person is asleep.

We putter around the house, or go out with friends for long lunches or the flogging of innocent golf balls. We run errands during the workday, when retirees own the roads, and it's a good thing we're in no hurry. Like retirees, we tend to eat at strange hours -- at brunch, for instance, or during the Sunset Special. And, like retirees, we wait anxiously by the mailbox when we're expecting a paycheck.

If you want to know more about starting a "retirement career" in your golden years, just ask us, your experienced home-office professionals. We're here to help.


Let them eat cake

World leaders are meeting in Washington, D.C., to try to solve the worldwide economic crisis. Here's what they're eating at tonight's White House dinner: smoked quail, rack of lamb, an endive salad with baked brie and walnuts, quinoa risotto and a pear torte. One of the wines goes for $300 a bottle.

Think of them tonight as you're enjoying your Top Ramen and Kool-Aid.

Full menu, er, story here.

Spillage, people

When you work alone at home, something as trifling as a spill can derail your whole day.

I was having one of those bumbling days recently, where I spill and drop things and walk into door jambs. Sometimes the gravity field feels screwed up around here. Not my fault that we live on the Cul de Sac of Gravitation Variation.

While mopping up a small lake of coffee, I felt the fizzle of my morning ambition. Another workday shot. A long comatose afternoon of ceiling-staring and CNN opened before me.

I know I'm crying over spilled milk here, and that many of you would give your eyeteeth to work at home all day and spill stuff on your pajamas. But this work-at-home lifestyle has its hazards: It's easy to get sidetracked when nobody's watching. Whole days can vanish. You spill a little coffee after breakfast; next thing you know, the family's home, wanting dinner. Poof.

When you work alone, a spill is an event. It bites half an hour out of the meat of your day. More if the spill results in emergency laundry. Much more if you manage to soak a deskful of invoices ready to go into the mail. (Allow bonus time for cursing and dancing in place.)

Because you can't just leave it there, can you? A spill must be remedied immediately. You must swab it up and get every little speck so it doesn't leave sticky freckles on the floor. Then you discard the paper towels and/or rinse and wring out the mop. Put everything away. Deep breathing to calm yourself, then back to your desk, where you were working on what, again? Plus, you still don't have any coffee. Which means another trip to the spill zone in the kitchen--

If you work in a regular office, with colleagues, a spill becomes a group event. But, generally, it's over quickly and everybody can have a nice chuckle and, whew, catch our breaths and go back to work.

In a small office, your workmates may help you clean up the mess or, at least, offer their sympathy -- "Oh, (insert your name here), you poor, clumsy thing!"

At a bigger company, you make a token effort to throw paper towels on the spill, then call the janitor.

Higher up the food chain, you have your secretary call the janitor. Then you square your shoulders and stand staring out the window until the mess is removed.

After a spill at a big corporation, you pick up the phone and have all the carpet replaced on the fourteenth floor immediately. Then you claim a tax write-off for hurricane damage.

When you work alone, there's no way to turn a spill into a moneymaker for the company. Just the opposite. You lose man-hours, productivity, concentration, the flow.

You may curse the interruption, but it's important to keep a spill in perspective. Don't give yourself a heart attack. After all, it's not the Exxon Valdez. It's a minor spill, a blip on the radar of your day. No big deal.

Even if you spilled the coffee in your lap, how hot was it, really? It had been cooling on your desk for minutes. You'll survive. A bigger cleanup, maybe a dry cleaning bill, but hey these things happen. Hardly worth mentioning to your spouse at the end of the day.

But if you spilled on those invoices . . .

Oh, you poor, clumsy thing!

Beet it

The more I learn about Barack Obama, the more I like him. Today, the Associated Press reports that the one food Obama hates is beets.

I'm with you, Mr. President-elect. No beets for me, thanks.

While it may seem frivolous, the traditional transition story about the first family's favorite foods always is a hit with readers. The AP says the Obamas are "foodies" who enjoy eating out and have wide-ranging tastes.

Still-President Bush likes anything as long as it's meat.

Read the full story here.


Headline of the week

In Newsday: "Anne Hathaway's ex-boyfriend not enjoying prison."

Attorneys for convicted scam artist Raffaello Follieri say the federal lockup in Brooklyn is "unbearably harsh" with no windows, bad food, odors, etc...

Awww. Poor guy misses the $37,000-a-month apartment he had in Manhattan, paid for with the millions he scammed off people by claiming he had financial connections inside the Vatican.

Full story here.

All thumbs and out of control

If you want to know whether you're out of shape, take this simple test: Count the remote controls you have lying around your house.

If the number exceeds, say, four, then you're probably not getting enough exercise. If it exceeds six, you don't need a mirror to tell you that your jeans are too tight. Ten or more remotes mean you're lucky your heart still beats.

The remote control is one labor-saving device that does its job all too well. It's possible to keep ourselves entertained in countless ways without ever moving from the sofa. The only muscles many of us work with any regularity are the ones that move our thumbs.

Not that jumping up to switch channels was such great exercise. I remember those pre-remote days, when TVs had dials on the front of them, and it wasn't much of a workout to take those few strides over to the channel changer. But even then people found ways to avoid hoisting themselves off the couch. The only reason families had children was so the parents could order them over to the TV to switch from "Ozzie and Harriet" to "Gunsmoke."

Back then, we only had three or four channels. Now, we have hundreds of channels, and there's still never anything good on TV. But we idealistically hope we'll find something worth watching, and the remote control makes the channel-flipping search possible.

Here's the way most people (or, at least, most men) watch TV: Flip, flip, flip, flip, pause for show that might be interesting, nah, flip, flip, flip, brief nudity, flip, flip, flip, flip, check the score, flip, flip, flip, oh, look, sharks, flip, flip, flip, flip, funny commercial we've seen 200 times, flip, flip…

We have Dish Network at our house, and all I watch anymore is the on-screen guide that tells what's on the many, many channels. I scroll up and down, scanning titles and times, searching for something, anything, that might keep my eyeballs busy for an hour. I could spend that same amount of time and brainpower reading a book or puzzling over life's mysteries or planning my financial future, but no, I'm busy hunting for basketball highlights.

Our newest remote arrived when we recently replaced our 20-year-old "hi-fi." Naturally, the new stereo came with a remote control. Now I can play hours of music without jumping up to change CDs or adjust the volume. I can even skip that one lousy song that's federally mandated to be included on every album.

The stereo remote brings the number of remote controls in our living room up to four. (Household-wide, we have eight, I think, but I might've missed one.)

Since I insist on being in charge of all the remotes, my place on the sofa looks like Captain Kirk's command chair on the bridge of the Enterprise. I've got complete control of all electronics, and I'm steering us right into the Obesity Nebula.

I know there are "universal remotes" out there that combine all the functions of all the electronic gizmos onto one skateboard-sized device, but I'd never be able to program one. My VCR said the time was "12:00" for years, until my kids got old enough to fix it.

So, I'm stuck with my many remote controls, exercising control over my electronics, but little else, only getting up from the sofa to fetch more snacks. (If they ever design a remote control for the fridge, I'm doomed.)

But my thumbs are in great shape.


No exit

Today's crime tips: When knocking over a betting establishment, make sure you're tougher than the two women working there. And have your getaway planned in advance.

A 28-year-old man in Leeds, Great Britain, found out the hard way that he wasn't cut out to be a strongarm robber. He burst into the betting shop and wrestled with the woman behind the counter, as money spilled everywhere. Another employee pounced on him, and he soon realized he was losing the battle. He tried to sprint out the front door, but it had locked automatically. He bashed a stool against the door, but the door wouldn't break.

Then he tried the fire exit, but it was locked. The key was in the lock, but he was in too big a hurry to notice as the women still pursued him. He tried another door, and found himself in a storeroom. The women locked him inside.

Extra points: The robber tried to escape the storeroom by kicking a hole in the roof.

Double extra points: One of the clerks realized what he was doing, climbed up onto the roof and clobbered him with a baseball bat when he poked his head through.

Full story here.

Group grope

Greetings, class. Today's lesson is on group dynamics.

No matter what your field, you'll sometimes find yourself in a group of people trying to accomplish something. Even those of us who work alone at home eventually must go reeling into the world to meet with employers or colleagues or creditors.

At those times, you need a working knowledge of group dynamics. Without it, you can make blunders and upset your fellow humans and risk embarrassment, financial ruin or, in extreme cases, a swift and painful death.

Group dynamics arise in all arenas, from the traditional business meeting to charity board proceedings to team sports to five guys leaning on shovels, staring at a pothole.

Group dynamics lie at the core of decision-making. Someone must lead and someone must follow. Agreements must be reached. Ideas must be hashed out, thrown out and resurrected. The wheel must be reinvented.

To understand group dynamics, let's first look at the roots. "Dynamics" comes from the Latin -- dynamo for "power" and ics for "in the hands of idiots." The larger term, group dynamics, was coined by psychobabblists as a way to address the behavior of the human herd.

As with herds in the animal kingdom, human behavior follows a pattern of dominance and submission. Most people, placed in a group, are submissive. They're called "listeners" or "followers" or "sheep." Others are assertive and demand to be heard. Depending upon the setting, these types are known as "leaders" or "alpha males" or "jerks."

No matter where you fall in that spectrum, it's vital that you remember some basic tenets of group dynamics, such as:

Density is Variable
Some people have quick minds. Others must mull and mumble to reach a decision. In dealing with groups, you must allow for variations in brain power and reaction speed and skull thickness. The same goes for driving in traffic.

Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings
Whether we like it or not, humans have emotions. They get their feelings hurt. They're quick to anger or slow to forgive. They let these emotions seep into the decision-making process, resulting in misunderstandings and grudges and wars. Parliamentary procedure was designed to remove emotion from decision-making, and that really steams some people.

Please Do Not Leave Baggage Unattended
Humans are not blank slates when they arrive in a group setting. They bring along their own histories and hang-ups and biases. You must allow for this baggage and work around it, or be prepared to shoot the person hauling it.

Everyone Wants to Sing Before the Fat Lady
It's a democratic ideal that everyone has a voice and everyone should have a say in decisions. Meetings often involve going around the table, giving everyone an opportunity to address each issue. Unfortunately, some people are in love with the sound of their own voices. These divas want to sing an aria when a few notes (or silent assent) would do. A strong leader knows when to cut off debate, even if it requires stuffing a sock in the diva's mouth.

Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die
People in groups tend to address the "big picture." They want to describe a "vision" for the future. But when it comes time to pass out the hands-on labor, they sit quietly, hoping that others will do the dirty work. "Vision" is great, but it won't fill that pothole.

Keep these rules of human interaction in mind the next time you enter a group setting. Allow for the feelings and egos of others. Work toward that common goal.

If all else fails, keep your shovel handy.


Home makeover extremes

You can dress up your home, but you can't take it anywhere.

No matter how much you redecorate and refurbish, underneath you're stuck with the same old house, on its same flood-prone lot, next to those neighbors with the filthy habits. It's like that old saying: You can dress a pig in a silk gown, but you can't exchange that gown later, even if you've kept the receipt.

The remodeling business is booming -- $233 billion a year, up more than 50 percent from 1993 -- and innumerable magazines and websites are devoted to "home fashion."

The problem with fashion is that trends go "out" just as quickly as they came "in." What's hot today might be cold, cold, cold tomorrow (think "harvest gold"), and home fashion mistakes can be expensive to remedy.

It's much easier to fix a fashion faux pas when it comes to clothing. Take, for example, those ridiculous low-slung bell-bottoms you wore in the 1970s. Wait, that's a bad example. Then take those laughable platform shoes. Um, that's no good, either. Forget it.

My point is this: Make a mistake remodeling your home -- such as that south-facing sunroom that's the same temperature as Hades -- and you can't just stuff it in a bottom drawer and wait for styles to come around again.

A recent article on RealEstateJournal.com said some popular design trends may be on the way out already. Expensive matte stone countertops, those bowl-like sinks that sit on top of the bathroom vanity and kitchen cabinets with glass fronts all soon may be passe, the article said.

Those of you who adopted those styles are gnashing your teeth about now. But why stop there? Other home fashions undoubtedly are on the way out, too. For example:

--Appliance colors. No matter which color you choose for your kitchen -- white, black, "almond," stainless steel -- that will be the color that goes out of fashion. That's why we recommend transparent appliances. You can see what's in the fridge without opening the door. Fingerprint smudges can be a problem with clear appliances. And birds tend to fly into them. But, hey, you can't complain they're the wrong color.

--Carpet is out. So is hardwood. So is tile. Packed mud is the only safe choice when it comes to flooring. Can't go wrong with Mother Earth.

--Open kitchen shelves are out. So are cabinets with solid doors. The next hot look? Simply stack your canned goods in pyramids in the corners. Next to your dishes.

--White paint? Out. Wood paneling? Out. The next trend in wall coverings is orange shag. If it was good enough for that van you drove in college, then it's good enough for your home.

--Spa tubs are out. Japanese soaking tubs are out. Showers with multiple spray heads are out. What's in? Firehoses.

--Roofs are so last year. The home of the future will be open to the Great Outdoors. Think patio. Think park. Think parka.

Which "home fashion" will pay for itself at resale? The safest route may be to not remodel or redecorate at all. Keep your house just the way it was when you bought it. When it comes time to sell, you'll find some sucker who'll like it that way.

The previous owner did.


Creepy crawly crime

Two middle-school students in China were arrested in the theft of 3,760 centipedes.

Authorities said the two students stole the centipedes from a businessman. Another person sold the centipedes for $351, but it was unclear if the students got any of the money.

Charges against the youngsters were dropped because of their tender ages. Good thing, too. Their defense didn't have a leg to stand on.

Full story here.

The housework diet

Trying to lose weight? Now we know you can scour away those excess pounds.

That's right, cleaning your house counts as exercise. Depending on how hard you work, standard chores like laundry and mopping can burn up to 250 calories an hour, according to a recent article I read somewhere.

(It doesn't matter which article. These days, every magazine and newspaper and website is glutted with advice about diet and exercise. Everywhere you look, ominous ads and articles blare that we're being killed by our own waistlines.)

Whether you buy into the obesity panic or not, 250 calories an hour is nothing to sneeze at. I know from my expensive Dreadmill, which has more electronic readouts than the space shuttle, that it takes me about 40 minutes to burn that many calories if I keep a steady pace, walking to nowhere. Turns out, I could've saved my money and simply scrubbed stuff for exercise. I'd be just as fat, I mean fit, as I am now, and my house would be cleaner besides.

The article encouraged readers to find ways to squeeze more exercise into their housework. For instance, use time while you're waiting for the microwave or the coffeemaker to do stretches. If you have a two-story home, alternate activities between upstairs and downstairs so you get a free Stairmaster routine between chores. Sweep instead of vacuuming. Chop veggies with a knife rather than using a food processor, the article said, or do dishes by hand rather than in the dishwasher.

Those last suggestions made me say, "Whoa." The only way chopping veggies will help you lose weight is if you cut off a few fingers. And I'll do dishes in the sink when they pry my dishwasher from my cold, dead hands.

But, mostly, I like the idea of house-cleaning as workout routine, and I've dreamed up more exercises you can use to shed those unwanted pounds:

--Grout Stretch. Try scrubbing the bathroom grout after you've dressed for the day. You'll be forced to s-t-r-e-t-c-h across tubs and shower stalls so your clothes won't get wet and gunky. Keeping yourself suspended on toes and fingertips, while one free hand scrubs like crazy, burns more calories than Marine push-ups.

--Kitchen Race. If you have teen-agers in the house, try to supply food faster than they can eat it. You can cook, serve and load the dishwasher all at the same time, trying to keep up, but their appetites still will win.

--Toilet Bowl Bulimia. The more disgusting the toilet bowl you're cleaning, the more likely that you'll lose your lunch. Works best in households where boys reside.

--Television Scavenger Hunt. You can walk for miles, trying to find the remote control, all while bending and stooping and getting that heart rate up, up, up. Cursing can be aerobic, too.

--Rearranging Furniture. Moving heavy sofas and chairs is a good workout, and can help your home attain a "new look." Also, you'll be forced to clean the floor where the furniture formerly sat because it's covered with dust bunnies, loose change and escaped M&M's. Caution: Eating the old M&M's negates the calorie-burning effect.

--Stubbed-Toe Dance. A night-time event that frequently follows Rearranging Furniture.

--Climbing the Walls. Another exercise most common in homes equipped with teen-agers. Remove cobwebs while you're up there.

So, get cleaning and get fit, America. A sparkling home and a slimmer you awaits.

If that's not incentive enough, try rewarding your efforts with M&M's. Look under the couch.

Not too Swifty

A man in Aurora, IN, successfully robbed a Swifty gas station, then forgot to take the loot with him.

Police say the robber tied up the clerk, cleaned out the register and put the money in a bag. He then selected a carton of cigarettes and ran out the door. Once outside, he realized he'd left the bag of money behind, but he couldn't get back in because the door had an automatic lock.

Police said the robber was "no brain surgeon."

Full story here.


Another blow against my tribe

Air France has announced that it will start charging a supplemental fee for the exit row seats preferred by tall people like me. An airline official calls it a small price to pay for extra legroom.

Frog legs continue to fly for the regular price.

Full story here.

Useful new words

(Editor's note: There's some problem with getting Friday's column on redding.com, so I'm posting it here for those of you who don't see the actual paper. This one cracks me up.)

Now, from the people who brought you “splut” and “wobblywad,” come more new words that should be added to the dictionary:

Allergenetics: Breaking out in hives whenever exposed to extended family.

Ascut: Getting one’s necktie caught in the paper shredder.

Ballpointless: An ink-stained shirt pocket.

Barrump-barrumps: Those little raised lane dividers on highways.

Bickerbacker: One who supports an argument.

Bleeper: Someone who curses whenever he’s paged.

Boopster: One who speaks in a high, girlish voice. (See also: “Giggletwitter.”)

Boxscars: Wounds resulting from mishandling of cardboard.

Browbeatle: A haircut with long bangs.

Chakrakhan: Doing yoga to musical accompaniment. (See also: “Manilotus“)

Clickerspeed: The measurement of how fast you can change the TV channel when a “Girls Gone Wild” commercial appears in a room where there are children.

Daisycheney: Attacking one foreign nation after another.

Dowdownfall: Stock market plunge.

Filenotfoundophobia: The fear of losing your computer data.

Googlelicious: Attractive to Internet search engines.

Heelmoons: The marks left when you put your feet up on the coffee table.

Hellofodder: Words wasted on e-mail greetings.

High-hat trick: Snubbing someone three times.

Holidazement: Zombie-like state brought on by shopping and Christmas carols.

Injurypool: People who lose wages while serving in a courtroom.

Ipodectomy: Surgical removal of “ear buds.”

Kneebang: Injury resulting from sudden movement while seated at a desk.

Maddenmouth: The impulse to use onomatopoeic words like “bang!” and “pow!”

Mooger: The crusty residue found on a squeeze-bottle of mustard.

Nascarcinoma: Cigarette advertising at auto races.

Noprob: An ill-mannered way of saying “You’re welcome.”

Palindrone: A speech by a vice presidential candidate.

Parashoot: Free fall.

Pavemint: The refreshing taste of asphalt.

Photofinnish: A picture in which everyone looks Scandinavian.

PINsive: That edgy feeling when you make errors while trying to use an automatic teller machine.

Quaranicotine: The practice of isolating cigarette smokers.

Raisinography: The tracing of face wrinkles.

Schedfull: An overbooked calendar.

Shamupoo: Whale soap.

Snickerdoodie: Laughing in public restrooms.

Spatterpatter: The string of curse words unleashed when you’re burned by flying grease.

Splatula: The greasy mark left on a countertop by a kitchen implement.

Stereotypist: One who can work on a computer and listen to music at the same time.

Stewpid: Too dumb to cook from scratch.

Thumbtax: Overwork via text-messaging.

Triscuitdeckophobia: The fear of eating snack crackers outdoors.

Tweeterbeater: Someone who awakes before the early bird.

Waistbasket: A large, round belly.

Wickerpedia: Knowing everything about baskets.

Woodgie: The painful result of sliding down a banister.

Xerorepromoonics: The practice of photocopying one’s backside.

Zapology: The study of remote control usage.

Zeroneologist: One who has nothing better to do than to come up with silly new words.


How to pay your bills

With the economy in the toilet, paying the bills has never been more challenging or alarming.

In our current economy, money "trickles down" to each household, then pours out again in a torrent. Keeping up with the flow can be frustrating, and experts believe the associated hair-tearing is a major cause of baldness in America.

But bill-paying doesn't have to be unpleasant. Take stock of your bill-paying habits and find ways to make writing those checks more palatable.

Here are some tips:

1. Create a pleasant space where you can do household paperwork. Give yourself a wide, flat work surface and a comfy chair. You want a quiet spot, maybe some soft music, a warm drink. Perhaps several drinks, depending upon the state of your bank account.

2. Make sure you have all the supplies you need: A calculator, a calendar, pencils, scratch paper, stamps, envelopes, bourbon, tranquilizers, a sturdy noose.

3. Get organized. Use a filing system to help you keep your bills in order, so you don't overlook any. A filing cabinet or even a simple cardboard box will help you keep all your bills together, and that makes it much easier to throw them out a window when you get fed up.

4. Don't try to pay your bills while watching television. It's too distracting and could lead to mistakes. You might send a check to Oprah, for instance, and she doesn't need the money. Or, you might write out a check for the amount of "31-28, in overtime."

5. Prioritize. Sometimes, it's not possible to pay everyone every month. It's important to set priorities so your electricity stays connected, food's on the table, etc. If you rotate your many debts, you can pay everyone occasionally, so no company's kept waiting so long that they send over a beefy guy named Cheech for a little talk.

There are many ways to set priorities. One is simple gravity -- whichever bill falls off the desk loses out that month. Some people prefer dartboards. I like the "Wheel of Fortune" model: Put all your bills on a Lazy Susan and give it a spin. Whoever hangs on gets paid.

6. Pay bills online. It's no less painful, but it's quicker than writing out checks. If you're the type who prefers to yank a bandage off rather than remove it slowly, then online payments are for you.

7. A positive attitude can help you weather even the worst financial landslide. Don't let that monthly mountain of debt overwhelm you. Chip away at it until you're done. If you keep a smile on your face the whole time, family members will assume you're crazy and keep their distance.

8. When faced with a pile of paperwork, remember: a bonfire can be a welcome source of heat.

9. Regularly balance your checkbook. It takes practice, but as you get better at this, you'll learn to balance the checkbook on your chin, on the tip on your nose, etc.

10. Create a budget and stick to it. Hahahahaha.

One final tip: If you simply can't face the monthly bill-paying chore, then do what I do. Get your spouse to handle it. Then you can live in blissful ignorance of the household financial situation, right up to the moment when the repo men arrive.

Tell Cheech I said hello. And the check's in the mail.


A reminder

I'm spending all day Saturday at the Writers Forum Authors Fair at the Mt. Shasta Mall in Redding, selling my (cut-rate!) books. Stop by and see me.

The event goes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Center Court. Look for a big, bearded fellow.

Holy scramboli, it's dinnertime

Parenting experts universally praise the traditional "family dinner" -- everyone gathered around the table to share the evening meal and news of the day.

Such dinners help families stay close despite their busy lives, the experts say, and help parents keep tabs on their children's day-to-day travails without the direct intervention of the authorities.

Unlike much parenting advice, which at our house is met with hooting derision and thoughts of "they've never met our kids," we've always embraced the family dinner concept.

Throughout our two sons' lives, one thing they could count on was that at dinnertime, the whole family would gather around the table to share food and fellowship.

It was at the family dinner that the boys learned some semblance of table manners. Dinner was where they told us of the Shakespearean conspiring and backbiting of the playground. It was where they saw that adults could gossip and carp, too. It was at dinner where plans were made and plots were hatched and the beans were spilled.

We kept up the family dinner tradition against great odds. Work schedules sometimes threatened to tear it apart. When ours sons were very small, they tended to throw and spill so much food, we parents wanted to be nowhere nearby. (We eventually had to get a dog to do clean-up duty.) Even dining styles conspired against us: one son eats so fast, he's done before the rest of us are finished passing the salt; the other ate so slowly that we all ended up drumming our fingers and forcing smiles while he finished. Still, we stuck with it because we recognized the value of that time with our kids.

Those days, I'm sad to say, are over. Our sons are teen-agers now, and they're constantly on the go. Now, we're lucky to dine together a couple of times a week.

The main culprit is something all modern families can understand -- the microwave oven. Why wait around for the whole family to share the traditional meat-and-potatoes meal when a pizza can be had in mere minutes? Why make something fresh when you can reheat leftovers? Surely, warmed-up Chinese food will taste better than whatever Dad has planned.

Now, at our house, most dinners are a sort of kitchen dance, with each of us taking our turn at the zapper, hovering and crinkling and beeping, then wolfing our food and hurrying away to our respective destinations.

We've even coined a name for such haphazard evening meals. We call it "scramboli," as in, "Are we all sitting down to the dinner tonight, or is it scramboli?"

"Scramboli" means "eat whatever you can scavenge." One person will reheat leftover spaghetti, another will nuke a pot pie, and yet another (usually Dad) will settle for a hot sandwich with melted cheese.

We parents rationalize that "scramboli" will, in the long run, be as beneficial as the family dinner. We're teaching the boys to fend for themselves. We're teaching them how to heat and eat. When they go off on their own, the one thing that won't worry us is whether they're starving.

As long as they have microwaves.


Stick it

Behold the humble stick. What did children use for playtime before they discovered the stick? Where did they get their swords? How did they poke each others' eyes out?

The stick was one of three playthings inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame this week. The others were Baby Doll and the skateboard. Previous inductees include the bicycle, Mr. Potato Head and the cardboard box.

The induction committee praised the stick's versatility, saying it can represent most anything from magic wand to fishing rod. We always used them for -- ka-chow! -- guns. Or eye-pokers.

Full story here.

Close game

Police in Orchard Park, NY, responded to reports of a disturbance in a stadium bathroom during last Sunday's NFL game between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills. They found a couple having sex in one of the stalls.

The couple was arrested and charged with a variety of offenses for their "inappropriate behavior in public," police said.

Come on, people. Wait until halftime like everyone else.

Full story here.

Authors Fair on Saturday

Attention readers in Redding, CA: I'm selling books this Saturday at the Writers Forum Authors Fair at the Mt. Shasta Mall, and I hope to see many of you there.

The event, which runs from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., features a number of Northern California authors who will give talks and answer questions at tables around the mall's center court. I'm bringing a ton of my books, including some that aren't readily available elsewhere, and they'll be priced below retail.

Signed books make nice Christmas gifts, and I'll be happy to print holiday greetings with my usual illegible signature.

Y'all come!



This just in from New Orleans: A truck loaded with vodka overturned on an Interstate 10 exit ramp, spilling vodka everywhere.

Authorities were forced to close the off-ramp for several hours while attempting the cleanup. Apparently, they were in search of an olive truck that could be overturned at the site.

Full story here.

Bonkers over honkers

When I was growing up in the South, we were taught that the lowest depth of rudeness was to pull up outside a date's home and honk the horn to summon her.

A gentleman went to the door, rang the bell and waited. Someone would invite him inside so the parents could give him a thorough inspection before handing over their daughter for the evening.

(Sometimes, it didn't get that far. My great-grandfather, who lived with his three granddaughters, was famous for looking each suitor up and down, then slamming the door in his face.)

The young lady's role in this little drama was to never, ever be ready on time. This allowed her parents a few minutes to chew over the poor, sweating boy, to determine whether he had a job or a future, what kind of family his "people" were, whether he'd washed behind his ears, etc…

Once, I showed up to take out a young lady for the first time, and was ushered into her father's study. What followed was a scene out of Tennessee Williams.

The father sat behind his desk with a fat cigar and a tumbler of bourbon. He wore a silk brocade robe (and apparently little else). He intoned, in his finest Southern manner, "Boy, what are your intentions with my daughter?"

I gulped and stuttered and mumbled something about dinner and a movie. He looked me up and down, and summed up his disappointment in a single grunt. Fortunately, my date rescued me about then, but dad's work had been done. I was jumpy and distant all evening, wondering whether my intentions were showing.

The "no honking" rule applied to friends as well. If a friend of mine rolled up in the driveway and honked, the next person he'd see would be my mother, out on the porch, crooking a finger to order him into the house. My folks always wanted to check out my pals. I think they were sniffing for booze, a reasonable precaution.

I share these fond reminiscences not out of nostalgia, but to talk about today's youth. When friends arrive to spirit away our teen-age son, they don't honk (we have rules, too) or knock or ring the bell.

They phone.

Our son, having already secured permission for the outing, will say, in passing, as he heads for the door, "OK, they’re here. See you later."

My first reaction always is: How does he know? I didn't hear a car. I peer out the window and, sure enough, a carload of rowdy teens waits at the curb. All of them brandishing cell phones.

Are they so lazy, I wonder, that they can't take the fifteen steps from the curb to the front door? Are they so intimidated by us parents? (Fat chance.) Is it really easier to dial up our son?

Then I remind myself that no dialing was required because he and his friends are already on the phone. All the time. Sixteen-way calling and voicemail and call-waiting and text messaging. They're in constant contact. They know each other's movements at all times. Air-traffic controllers pay less attention than these kids.

I'm left peeking out the window and wondering. But I've figured a way around the problem. If his friends avoid inspection by phoning ahead, I'll give them a dose of their own medicine. Imagine their surprise when their cell phones ring and it's me on the line, asking about their "intentions."

A brand new day

Congratulations to America on its election of Barack Obama.

Growing up in the South in the 1960s and 70s, I never dreamed that we'd one day leap the racial divide in such dramatic fashion. We can only hope that this presidency will help people give up all those old ideas about our differences and embrace the ways that we're all alike.

Obama's election also is a reaction to the past eight years of mismanagement and greed. It's time we take back our country from the corporate overlords who have cynically played off people's fears and biases as they've lined their own pockets. It's time that we lead the world by example rather than by military muscle. It's time for government to once again put the people first.

Tuesday's election was a good start.


Doing my part for the campoon

I'm proud to say that I not only voted today, but I acted like a red-blooded American maverick and wrote in a candidate for Redding City Council.

Food for Thought cartoonist and all-around wiseguy Phil Fountain got my vote. As his bumper stickers say, he is "Not Insane," unlike so many politicians, and he promises not to show up for the council meetings. That can only be an improvement.

Read Phil's latest plea for votes here and his always-entertaining blog here.

Doing the floorboard stomp

Parenting holds many thrills, chills and worries, but none as spectacularly terrifying as teaching a teen-ager to drive.

Our older son is driving now, and it's a regular carnival ride every time we take the minivan out of the garage. Abrupt starts and stops and sweeping turns, breath-taking braking and heart-pounding near-misses, and concrete curbs that seem to leap right out in front of us. And that's all before we leave our cul-de-sac.

I'm kidding. He's doing fine. My anxiety has nothing to do with reality. It's a pre-existing condition. I've always been a nervous passenger. Other drivers don't go quickly enough, they don't stop soon enough, and I'm pretty sure they're not paying enough attention. If I'm riding in your car, you'd better pray that the floorboards are solid, because I will be stomping that invisible brake. I can't help myself.

When in a moving vehicle, I prefer to be at the helm. Even on public transportation in unfamiliar cities, I'm always a little itchy about the driver. The airlines are lucky I don't know how to fly.

Giving the steering wheel to another driver causes me the same anxiety as handing over the TV remote control. Only worse, because misuse of the remote control isn't likely to result in death by fiery crash.

For all these reasons, I wasn't the one who taught our son to drive. I half-heartedly volunteered, but that made the rest of the family laugh until beverages spurted out their noses.

My wife taught him. She's patient and considerate and level-headed and calm, all the things I'm not. She's the one who took our son to parking lots and endured the gear-grinding and the whiplash accelerations and the shrieking stops. I stayed at home, watching sports on TV and chewing my fingernails down to the knuckles.

Our son also went through driver's ed in school and attended a six-hour driving course taught by a professional with nerves of steel.

By the time the boy and I started driving together, he already had his learner's permit and many hours of experience.

And he still scares the bejeebers out of me. I ride in the passenger seat, fingers dug into the upholstery, feet dancing, a frozen smile on my face, while we miss other cars by inches or drift too close to the shoulder or stop, stop, I said stop, right now. Whew.

I try not to distract him with too much coaching, try not to criticize unnecessarily, try not to imagine what it will be like to plunge across the median into that oncoming semi.

Just a few constructive comments, I tell myself. Only when absolutely needed. Only when it will help. After all, we're preparing him for the big driving test, the one where he'll get his full license and be allowed to drive all by himself.

I try to picture him driving without me in the car. He'll probably be better off.

(Editor's note: This column ran a few years ago. Our older son now zooms around town in his own car, and our younger son has his learner's permit and is practicing for his final test. My wife tells me he's doing well.)


Gassing up

I'm not one for conspiracy theories. Oh, no. I would never argue that falling gasoline prices in recent weeks are the result of Big Oil trying to help Republicans stay in office in Tuesday's election. And I won't predict that the prices will shoot back up after the voting's all done.

But I plan to top off my tank on Tuesday. And I suggest you do the same. Just in case.

Vote for love

Just noticed that Google Ads is putting a "Vote Yes on Proposition 8" ad on this blog. This ad does not represent my opinion. Please vote NO on Proposition 8 in tomorrow's election.

Gay people should have the same right to marry as the rest of us. Nuff said.

Autumn chill

Here's how I know it's time to go on a diet: While putting on my belt, I think, "Ooh, that buckle's cold."

I'm laying off the chocolate, immediately. Winter's coming, and I don't want icicles on my overhang. Brr.


Dog gone

Elvis has left the building.

Our beloved dog Elvis died Saturday of cancer. He'd been a part of our family for nine years, and was just the best damn dog ever. Always polite, always friendly, always happy.

Elvis starred in many of my newspaper columns over the years, and lots of readers felt that they knew him. He'll be missed.

On a happier note, the Food for Thought party last night was a huge success. I was awfully proud of Kelly and our two sons as we soldiered through, wearing our party faces on what had been a rough emotional day. Our thanks to everyone who attended and to all the volunteers whose hard work made it such a great bash.


Good rockin' tonight

All you readers in the Redding area: Don't forget that tonight is the big birthday party for Food For Thought: A News Cafe.

Kelly and Doni have cooked up some neat treats. The Jim Dyar Band will provide the entertainment. We'll have cartoonists and columnists and creative types of all stripes. Plus, go-go dancers!

Details are here.

Okay, I made up the part about the go-go dancers. But it still should be one helluva party.