House broken

When you work at home, your house is your co-worker. And, like co-workers everywhere, sometimes it'll turn on you.

You'll be working along, trying to hit some deadline, when the house will offer some minor distraction or major catastrophe. Next thing you know, the work day's shot. You've accomplished nothing. The house wins again.

Houses apparently are capable of gobbling up possessions. No matter how neat and austere your home, it's full of hiding places. And, inevitably, the thing you need the most will be the one that's gone missing.

A silly example: At our house, we have (conservative estimate) 72 sets of nail clippers. So how come when I get a hangnail, all of them have disappeared? The house has swallowed them, that's why. I stumble around, the offending fingernail held high, searching for the clippers. I swear I can hear the house cackling maniacally while my work hours disappear.

Office supplies should stay put. We keep them in a central location and we use them frequently. But invariably a particular item will disappear the minute we need it. The household has pilfered it, just like those co-workers at regular offices, the ones who are too lazy to round up their own supplies.

This is particularly true in households with children. The children are unwitting accomplices to the house's evil ways. They think nothing of walking off with pens and envelopes and stamps the at-home worker will desperately need the next day. I don't care how many paper clips you buy, you'll have none when you need them, particularly if your children have discovered magnets.

I spend most of my work day at a computer, the house blissfully silent because my two sons are in school. But occasionally the house will emit a funny noise. Water running somewhere.
Creaking floorboards. The sigh of old masonry as it settles.

Next thing I know, I'm wandering around, trying to identify the cause of the noise. And God help me if I find the source. Because that usually means I've got a household repair to do, one that will eat up my day while the work piles up.

Here's an example: I'm at my desk, dutifully writing, when I hear water singing in the pipes. Never a good sign. Up I jump to hustle around the house, checking the faucets, the toilets, the tubs. No water, water anywhere.

I shrug and return to my desk and try to concentrate on my work. But I can still hear water running. Maybe it's coming from outside. I search for my shoes (the house having hidden one of them), get them on and go out in the yard. Check all the sprinkler valves. They're off. Scratching my head, I make a circuit of the house, hunting the outdoor faucets. Sure enough, one has developed a sudden leak. Water is spraying out around the edge of a large nut that holds the faucet together.

OK, this is the source of the noise. But what to do about it? Surely, I just need to tighten that nut. Leak will stop, noise will vanish. Problem solved.

My work completely forgotten now, I go to the garage and rummage through the toolbox until I find my (carefully hidden) crescent wrench. Then it's back outside.

I squat in front of the faucet, adjust the wrench to the nut. One quick half-turn and the problem should be fixed. I barely touch the nut with the wrench when (you guessed it) the faucet explodes apart. Water sprays over me with the same force as a firehose.

I scream and dance backward to avoid the cold stream. Then it's out to the street to shut off the water, into the house to change clothes and off to the hardware store to buy a replacement faucet. By the time the repair is made, the sun is setting. And my work still remains unfinished on my desk.

What's the answer to house-as-evil-co-worker? I don't know. It's not like I can complain to my boss or request a transfer.

Maybe I'll buy some earplugs to block out the house's interference. Several sets. Because you know they'll turn up missing.


This . . . Or this?

You know how your eye doctor has you look through different lenses on that optical machine, trying to narrow down the nature of your problem?

"Which is better? A . . . Or B?"
"One . . . Or two?"
"This . . . Or that?"
"Can you do that one again?"

What if your dentist operated this way?

"Here, chew this. Now chew this. Which is better? Hard . . . or soft?"

Demanding homework

Millions of us work from our homes these days, and plenty would like to try it, but it's not always easy to persuade your boss that you should relocate to your home office.

Many bosses feel more comfortable with their employees all under one roof, where they can keep an eye on them. They fear that work-at-home employees will spend all day doing laundry and watching soap operas rather than actually being productive members of the company. Or, they think subtracting workers from the office will hurt the spirit of creativity and flow that comes from workers bouncing ideas (and other sharp instruments) off each other.

Not that long ago, people could demand to move their operations to the home front, and employers would give in because they knew it would be tough to replace experienced workers. Better to have a veteran employee lollygagging around the house than to have a new recruit whose entire resume reads, "Burger King."

Now, though, with the economy tightening and unemployment lines lengthening, many employers find they have their choice of bright young things who have been laid off by dot-com companies or sent packing by Wall Street. Because of this pool of potential employees, the average worker has less leverage for demanding to work at home.

But that doesn't mean you can't go home again. Given the proper strategy, you can still convince your employer to let you work at home and experience the Joy of Sweatpants. You must be creative in presenting your needs and demonstrating that working at home would solve many problems for you and your boss. Some examples:

--Complain loudly about your commute. Mention the many hours you waste sitting in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic, and how you could be doing something productive with that time if only you didn't have to drive to the office every day. Some bosses may be slow to pick up on this cue, but daily complaining for several months should get their attention.

--Wear the same clothes to work four days in a row. When co-workers run to the boss, holding their noses and whining, explain that you never have time to do laundry because you're too busy working and commuting. If you could only work at home, then you could run the washer while still grinding out those productive man-hours. If your boss still refuses to come around, you could suddenly find that you don't have time to shower, either.

--Spend hours every day on the telephone for personal business. Call your spouse, your children's school, your doctor, the babysitter. Make dinner reservations, call the dry cleaners, query the library. When boss or co-workers object, tell them you'd love to make all those calls from home, but there's only so many hours in the day and since they insist that you keep coming to the office . . .

--Sigh a lot. Repeated heavy sighing eventually will make people say, "What's wrong?" Then you can say, "Oh, nothing." More sighing. They'll say, "No, really, what is it?" And then you say, "I was just thinking how wonderful life would be if I could telecommute." This may take repeated applications.

--Take up smoking. When your boss sees that you're spending all your time outdoors anyway, maybe sending you home will seem like a good solution.

--Develop many annoying habits, including any or all of the following: gum-smacking, knuckle-popping, mindless humming, nail-clipping, ear-digging, nose exploration, throat-clearing, repetitive burping, whistling of show tunes, facial tics, St. Vitus dance, toe-cracking, coffee slurping, unexpected shouting, loud praying, hysterical laughter, unprovoked weeping, insistent selling of band candy.

Given enough exposure to your annoying habits, an employer most likely will offer to let you work at home. He might, in fact, even sweeten the deal, offering you a raise or stock options just to get you out of everybody's hair.

Of course, all of these strategies carry a certain amount of risk. They could backfire. Rather than surrendering to your demands, your employer might decide it's better not to have you around at all. In which case, you could join the bushy-tailed dot-commers in the unemployment line.

But you'd get to stay home all day, right?


Slippery when wet

For most grown-ups, a hot bath is a luxury. Sitting and soaking, letting the water wash away our cares. Many of us never have time for such leisurely cleansing.

Most mornings, I'm in and out of the shower so fast, it ought to have a revolving door. Spritz, spritz, shampoo, rinse, repeat, then get the heck out of there so I can get the kids to school on time.

While I'm pulling the Superman-in-a-phone-booth number, my two sons splash and cavort in their baths, playing and singing and laughing. Doing everything, really, except soaping and shampooing. Then I burst into the steamy bathroom, shouting, urging them to hurry, hurry, hurry before we're late. Again.

They respond by draining the tub, towelling off and jumping into their clothes, no less dirty than when they began. They don't get clean. They just get wet.

That's if we can get them into the bathtub at all. I don't know what it's like for you parents who have girls, but boys treat bathtime as if it's some exotic torture. Tell them it's time to bathe, and they howl and cry and carry on so, you'd think the tub was filled with boiling oil.

But we parents insist. The kids must bathe regularly. Otherwise, we end up chipping the dirt off them with a chisel.

Our 11-year-old tries various types of subterfuge to avoid the ordeal of bathing. His speciality is the morning-long stall. He'll putter around, ever so slowly gathering his clothes and a towel, fiddling with the radio, eating his breakfast in slow-motion, all in the hopes that I'll surrender: "OK, OK, it's too late now for a bath. Just wash your face and throw on your clothes. Hurry! We're late!"

Or, I'll find him still in his room, reading, his change of clothes at his feet. No water in the tub. I patiently scream, "What about your bath?" And he'll look up at me, blinking, and say something like, "Oh, you meant TODAY?"

Sometimes, he gets creative with his objections. One day, the little wisenheimer responded to my demands this way: "I'm protesting the American obsession with bathing." In many European countries, he argued, people only bathe once a week.

Fine, I said, now get your little European fanny in the tub. And wash it. He went off grumbling about his provincial American parents.

(You're probably thinking about now: Why doesn't this idiot bathe his sons in the EVENING? Then he wouldn't have this problem on hectic school mornings. We tried that. The boys went to bed with wet hair. The next morning, their hair had dried into fans and spikes all over. They looked like they had porcupines squatting on their heads.)

So I plead and cajole and demand that they take their morning baths. And they do finally, grumbling and weeping and gnashing their teeth. And then I can't get them out of the tub.

Oh, sure, a bath is to be avoided at all costs. Argue with Dad, stall and complain, but once they're in the water, the thinking goes: "Hey, this isn't so bad. We've got spongy toys and sweet-smelling bubbles and tear-free shampoo. We can splash and play. At least until Dad goes ballistic again about how we're running late."

Every bath apparently is a voyage of discovery for my sons. They can't remember, from one day to the next, that bathing is a pleasurable experience. I'm beginning to think they have short-term memory problems. I've even considered taking them to a doctor, having their heads examined. But I'm afraid to let a physician look them over. He might find all the dirt they missed.

My wife's more philosophical about the Bath Wars. On days when no amount of parental encouragement can get the boys in the tub, she shrugs and says we're conserving water, saving up for the days when they become teen-agers, when they start dating. Then, she says, they'll bathe three times a day, and I'll complain about that.

She has a point. We should save water. In fact, I'm thinking about moving toward xeriscaping, changing our domestic landscape into a low-water-use zone of gravel and cacti.

Starting with the bathrooms.


All the news

They must have the interns on weekend duty at AOL News today:

Athlete's Head-butt Causes Crash

Cook Burgers With Your Tailpipe

NFL Kicker Plays With Broken Leg

That last one worries me. Everyone knows: if you pick at it, it won't get well.

Moments likes these are why I remain a subscriber to America Online. Thank you.


Clock watcher

As I write this, the computer tells me it's 9:29 a.m. The clock on the wall says it's 9:32. In the kitchen, it's 9:31. The bedroom alarm clocks say 9:41 and 9:27. The VCR says it's 12:00, over and over.

Time, as every working parent knows, is at a premium. But at my house we can't even agree on what time it is.

I point to the wall clock as I'm herding my two sons out the door every morning, and they both consult their watches and inform me that we really have minutes to spare. We get to the car, only to find that the dashboard clock has made liars of us all.

It's not that we want all these variations on time. I periodically go around the house, setting all the clocks to the same time. But they gain a minute here or lose a minute there, and pretty soon confusion reigns. Fresh batteries seem to make no difference. The clocks all have minds of their own. They are, in that respect, just like people, and we know how danged unpredictable people can be.

The measurement of time is an arbitrary device anyway. The only trustworthy measure is light and dark, day and night. Our ancestors invented time so we'd know when to go to work and when our favorite shows are on TV.

We all have an internal clock, telling us when to hurry and when to slow down (if ever), but immense variations exist. Most people go at their own pace, and you can bet their pace will differ from yours. This is why people in management positions gradually pull out all their hair. You can insist that people speed up, yell and sputter and get ulcers, but most folks will go faster only when you're watching. Then it's right back to their own tempo.

We all think we know the correct speed for everyday living. This is why, as some comedian said, everybody driving slower than you is an idiot and everybody driving faster than you is a maniac. He could've added that we're also irritated by people going the exact same speed as us, especially if they're hitting the green lights and we're not.

Family members all seem to have their own timetables, based on temperament and time pressures and how much has to get done before bedtime arrives again. Spouses who work outside the home usually are in the biggest hurry, by necessity. They have too much to do and too little time to do it, plus they lose minutes or hours every day to commuting. Those of us who work at home can move along at a steadier rate, plugging away at our projects and our housework, sure in the knowledge that it'll all get done eventually. Unless we're facing a deadline, then we're the ones who are all harried and weird.

Then there's kid time. Children live at a different speed than us so-called adults. It's not a parallel universe. In their world, EVERYTHING can wait until the last minute. Procrastination is their byword, even if they can't pronounce it. No matter how well you plan and how much you urge and prod, they will move at their own speed (which is to say at a snail's pace) until even all the mismatched clocks in the house will agree that you're late.

At my house, we have to leave for school at 8 a.m. I start nagging at 7:15, saying "we're gonna be late" so many times that even I get sick of hearing it. At 7:59, as I'm ready to walk out the door, one son will discover that -- oops! -- he's still not wearing shoes. The other needs lunch money or can't find his homework. Or, they're both missing their wristwatches and we have to scramble around madly in search of them. Then it's up to Dad to race through traffic -- weaving between the idiots and the maniacs -- to make up that lost time. The fact that we reach school before the bell is a daily miracle.

I'd like to fix this situation. I'd like to teach my sons to plan ahead, to set a schedule, to make certain they can meet life's deadlines. But frankly, I can't find the time.


Weather or not

I don't care how long I live in California, I'll never get used to the sight of snow on a palm tree.

Bliss quiz

We who labor on the home front often get so busy with deadlines and child care and computer crashes that we neglect the care and feeding of the ones who make our stay-at-home lifestyle possible -- our working spouses.

Our mates come home from a hard day at the office, and we greet them with complaints and teeth-gnashing instead of caresses and kisses. We carp about overflowing toilets and Science Fair projects and stubborn children and dog-chewed shoes.

This is not what the working partner needs. The home may be our workplace, but to them it's sanctuary, a safe harbor after being tossed about the stormy seas of office politics and ringing phones. We homebodies need to make the house a warm, welcoming place so our hard-working spouses will keep returning there after their long days of toil. Otherwise, they might dump us and we'll have to go out and get real jobs.

Here then is a self-scoring quiz aimed at making sure you're doing your best to keep your working spouse happy. There are no right answers, but perhaps these questions will make you stop and think whether you're doing your best for domestic bliss. Remember: The household income and health insurance and that 401(k) may depend on whether you're succeeding.

Question: After a hard day at the office, the thing your spouse needs most is:

A. Warm greetings and a hot meal.
B. A massage.
C. A shot of bourbon.
D. Valium.

Q. When you meet your spouse at the door, you're wearing:

A. Nice clothes and a fresh hairdo.
B. Sweatpants and three days' growth of whiskers.
C. Threadbare pajamas.
D. Saran Wrap.

Q. Your favorite pet name for your working spouse is:

A. Darling.
B. Sweetheart.
C. Hey, stupid.
D. Sugar booger.

Q. The first question out of your mouth when your spouse arrives home from work is:

A. "How was your day?"
B. "What's wrong?"
C. "Where have you been for the past three hours?"
D. "Is that lipstick on your collar?"

Q. When your spouse complains about his/her boss, you respond with:

A. "You poor thing!"
B. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
C. "You think you've got it bad? Today, I had to drive to two soccer practices. Then I had to call the plumber, and you know how much he charges. I don't know where we'll get the money. Then the dog . . . "
D. "Let's kill your boss."

Q. Working spouses are often hungry when they get home. What kind of meal can your spouse

A. Roast venison with shallots and an expensive bottle of wine.
B. Chinese takeout.
C. TV dinners.
D. Cold Spaghetti-O's.

Q. The first sound your mate hears upon entering the house is:

A. "Welcome home, sweetheart!"
B. Screaming children.
C. Weeping.
D. Repeated flushing.

Q. Your children usually greet your spouse with:

A. Hugs and kisses.
B. A litany of the latest playground injuries.
C. Demands for money.
D. Derision.

Q. On special occasions, your spouse can expect:

A. Flowers delivered to the office.
B. A babysitter and a night out on the town.
C. A night out on the town WITH the babysitter.
D. What's a special occasion?

Q. Most evenings, your mate can expect several hours of:

A. Television.
B. More work brought home from the office.
C. Complaining and bickering.
D. Sex.

Q. Overall, the best thing you can give your working spouse is:

A. Comforting words and a shoulder to cry on.
B. A clean house and a hot meal.
C. Sex.
D. A divorce.


Seeing stars

Horoscopes are silly. Our fates are not shaped by the stars. The zodiac was dreamed up by primitive peoples to explain planetary movements and other celestial phenomena. No right-thinking person truly believes in such superstitious claptrap.

So how come I devour three horoscopes a day? I might be too busy to read beyond the headlines when it comes to world events, but I've always got time to see whether it's a good day for us Aquarians to embark on new careers or to invest in Beanie Babies. I confess that I get a little thrill when my horoscope predicts I'll come into money or finally succeed in my endeavors. On an intellectual level, I know it's all nonsense. But on some emotional level, we all hope for magic.

The problem is that newspaper horoscopes are too general. They're aimed at a wide-ranging audience, and the astrologers must try to tap us all on the shoulders to keep us coming back for more. So I read forecasts about new love (I've been happily married for 24 years) or playing the stock market (with whose money?), and I'm disappointed, knowing the stars aren't really aiming those influences at me.

We working parents need horoscopes of our very own. So much in our lives is unpredictable, it would be a comfort if we could get a bead on the future.

Here then, just for you working parents out there, are some astrological predictions for the rest of the year:

ARIES: This year will seem like one long juggling act. You'll have many projects up in the air, and you must concentrate to keep them all aloft. Try to ignore the screaming child clinging to your leg. Expect conflicts at home during any month that includes the letter "R."

TAURUS: A great year for you bullish ones. The stock market will rebound, and you will prosper. So throw everything you have into the market. And (in case we're wrong) make sure your office is on the ground floor.

GEMINI: Family will be your focus this year. Anticipate many joyful family gatherings and reunions, during which you will grind your teeth down to the gums. Expect your no-account brother-in-law to spend several months on your sofa, watching ESPN and eating Chee-tos.

CANCER: Stop dallying and get busy climbing the career ladder! Neglect your family, your household and your hobbies. Work, work, work all the time. Then, by the end of the year, you'll realize you've been on the wrong ladder all along.

LEO: With Venus in your seventh house, this will be your year for love. Many exciting romantic adventures await you, and it'll be even more exciting when your spouse finds out. A good time to invest in life insurance.

VIRGO: With Mercury in your garage, you'll encounter difficulties with technology and machines of all sorts. Car trouble. Computer failures. Exploding cell phones. We recommend that you avoid machines during the whole year. In fact, you might want to stay in bed.

LIBRA: This year will be another balancing act for you Libras. Try to keep your career afloat while also tending to your children and the needs of your spouse. Run yourself ragged, trying to be everything to everyone. Don't worry, next year you'll get a nice, long rest -- in an asylum.

SCORPIO: A year for fashion consciousness. Avoid wearing suspenders; they'll only let you down. Show your individuality by wearing creative ensembles that look as if you dressed in the dark. This will give you an air of mystery.

SAGITTARIUS: Business partnerships come to the fore in the latter half of the year. That tingly feeling along your spine marks the spot where your partner plans to sink his knife. Beware. Take comfort in your children, while you can still afford them.

CAPRICORN: One word -- minivan.

AQUARIUS: Use your creativity and sense of humor to amuse others. There's no money in it, but it can keep you from weeping all the time. Expect an alien abduction in October.

PISCES: Yes, there's definitely something fishy going on around your house. FBI agents poking through your trash. Tabloid photographers in the shrubbery. This might be a good time to consider relocating. Look for a sunny clime with lax extradition laws.


Horn sputter

So I sent e-mails to friends, linking to info about my March 22 seminar (see below). Just getting the word out, you know, while blowing my own horn.

Right back comes this e-mail from Redding's own Charlie Price, author of Dead Connection and Lizard People:

"I think I'm on 'Oprah' that day."


See Steve sing and dance!

Readers who live in or near Northern California: Once-in-a-so-far opportunity to spend the day with moi on March 22, also very nicely publicized by my good friends at donigreenberg.com. (Thanks!)

Thrillers, Chillers, Killers: Writing Your Mystery Novel
A seminar with nationally known mystery author Steve Brewer

Saturday, March 22
10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Redding Library Community Room

Nuts and bolts

  • Outlining
  • Pacing
  • Plotting
  • Colorful settings
  • Believable characters
  • Telling details
  • Structural arcs
  • Convincing dialogue
  • Narrative voice

Course fee: $100
Earlybirds take a 10% discount!
Only $90 before March 1.

Steve regularly speaks at national mystery conventions, universities and writing workshops. ... His most recent appearances were at the Midwest Writers Workshop and the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference. ... He is the author of 16 books, including the Bubba Mabry private eye series and the recent thriller CUTTHROAT. ... He also writes a nationally syndicated humor column for newspapers. ... LONELY STREET, his first novel, is currently in post-production in Hollywood.

For registration information, leave a comment below, call 530.355.5093 or write to kjbrewer@sbcglobal.net. Checks are payable to Steve Brewer, P.O. Box 992951, Redding, CA 96099-2951.


This idea could take off

I have a modest proposal for the leaders of all the countries in the world: Let's pull together and repeal the law of gravity.

What's gravity's attraction? Gravity is holding us down. Think how much easier life would be without it. People would be happier if they could float freely, without gravity in their lives. And it would be heaps easier to get up off the sofa.

Much of housework consists of battling the effects of gravity. Everything ends up on the floor. I spend hours each week picking up the big stuff and vacuuming up the small stuff.

I started paying attention to gravity after I became a father. When you have kids, gravity works overtime at your house. Every time a kid lets go of something, it becomes another victim of gravity. The kid sees nothing wrong with this. Children actually prefer all their worldly possessions spread out on the floor, easy to see, handy for whatever whim whams them next.

When they were younger, my sons were The Spillage People. So much food and drink ended up on the floor, we had to get a dog.

These days, the gravity at our house appears to be strongest just inside their bedroom doors. My sons stagger in under the weight of their backpacks and jackets until they're just inches inside their rooms, then everything falls. I call this area of rich gravity the Drop Zone.

Naturally, we couldn't repeal gravity altogether. If we did, all of us would go spinning away into space, and I don't think we want to go that far, even if it means no more housework. But perhaps we could get gravity to ease up somehow.

For instance, toys would be a lot easier to gather if they were all floating waist-high. I could dance lightly through the room, plucking them from the air as if they were flowers, and stuffing them into a laundry basket.

There would be kinks to work out. What if all the dust bunnies floated in the air at nose height? That's no good. We'd all be too busy sneezing to enjoy our own new sense of lightness. Or, what if gravity relaxed just enough that our shirts always floated around us loose? Some of us aren't intended to expose our midriffs.

What we need, I suppose, is selective gravity. Gravity that we could control. Then we could get toys to float into the toy box while the dust bunnies stayed in the corners where they belong. We'd be lighter on our feet, but not so light as to bump against the ceiling like helium balloons.

This would be ideal. My sons and I were talking about gravity recently in the car. (We spend many hours in the car. They think I'm their chauffeur.) We decided that the perfect situation would be if you were surrounded by a "bubble" of gravity that you could control with your mind. By slightly shifting the gravitational pull within your bubble of influence, you'd be able to move at will, even fly.

This, naturally, would make you one heckuva superhero. The boys decided we'd name such a hero Gravitron. He'd soar through the air, battling bad guys, knocking them over with his gravity bubble or flattening them to the ground by increasing gravity's pull on them. He'd wear purple tights because that's what superheroes wear and also so he wouldn't have to worry about his shirt floating up and exposing his belly.

If he wanted to work as a house cleaner, Gravitron would be on the gravy train.

But it would be even better if flexible gravity was universal. What if we all could control our immediate gravitational fields? Wouldn't the world be a better place? We wouldn't need fossil fuels anymore. We could just zip around freely, our gravity bubbles like bumper cars, without gravity's friction and oppression.

I hope you scientists and politicians out there will get right on this. We need anti-gravity if we're going to keep getting up off the sofa.

And since I've mentioned it first, I'd like to coin a trademark for this wonder and claim a share of all future royalties. Here's what we call the opposite of gravity: Hilarity.


Gray Thursday

I was just looking at my hair and beard in the mirror, and I'm getting more distinguished by the hour.


Economics for the self-employed

This time of year, with utility bills sky-high and April 15 on the horizon, the small businessperson's thoughts turn to money.

The thoughts go like this: What money? We used to have money. Then those Christmas excesses came to call. Now we have no money. The checks arrive at the usual snail's pace while expenses come faster and faster. Money gets to our house, then rockets out the door, never to be seen again.

The economy's been good to many of us who've gone out our own, establishing businesses or (God forbid) writing careers, working from home through the wonders of telecommunications. Now that's all come to a grinding halt, and it's time to retrench, rethink, have garage sales.

We're all subject to the vagaries of the economy, the ups and downs, the windfalls and the slow bleeds. And the New Internet Economy (now known as the New What-the-Heck-Was-I-Thinking Economy) is more volatile than the Old Economy, which centered on oxen. Now, one guy in Silicon Valley trips over an extension cord and your net worth gets cut in half.

The financial pages have never been more exciting reading. Politicians running around, screaming about tax cuts. Alan Greenspan, wearing a long wizard's cloak and pointy hat, giggling maniacally. A stock market that resolved to diet in the new year.

But unless you're a poor computer geek who's been shown the door.com, the national economic stumble probably concerns you less than the more immediate problem of whether to get a larger mailbox to hold all the bills.

Every household has a little economy of its own. Up cycles (check arrives!) and catastrophic setbacks (new water heater!). Inflation (your natural gas bill) and recessions (hairline, gums). All these factors can result in a Great Depression, the type that makes you hide under the covers and softly weep.

It's hard enough to budget when you get a regular paycheck. Add the fits and starts of a home-based business to the usual financial roller-coaster, and you have a wild ride of confusion and paperwork and dismay. Freelancers can get so desperate for income that they tackle the postman and rifle through his bag in search of checks.

But it doesn't have to be that way. With the right financial planning, it's possible for cottage industries to enjoy the same level of success as large, established companies such as Montgomery Ward.

Here are some Handy Tips for getting your financial house in order before the IRS man shows up with his scythe:

--Get a good accountant
Accountants cost less than you'd expect, and can be godsends when it comes to executing a budget plan. Accountants have an unfair reputation as being dull. They're actually friendly and playful. They don't eat much and can be kept in the garage or a large closet.

--Get bullish with your bills
Pay off credit cards and loans promptly rather than letting interest and late fees nibble away at your money. Find ways to rid yourself of monthly payments and quarterly surprises. Establishing a new identity in another state may be necessary, but you were ready for a change of scenery, right?

--Cut spending
Look for ways to simplify your life and reduce your expenses. "Do it yourself" whenever possible, up to and including orthodontia. Recycle. Tell the kids that Santa already delivered their birthday gifts, back in December.

--Find new sources of income
Lot of loose change under those sofa cushions. And there's always Powerball. Better, though, to find ways to expand your business with minimum risk, while making use of the inevitable downtime. Shoveling sidewalks for pay, for instance. Or, branching out into that ever-profitable stand-by -- macrame. Let your kids set up a sidewalk lemonade stand, then take most of the money for overhead. It'll be a good lesson in capitalism.

--Make a long-term financial plan
College tuition, retirement and a million unforeseen expenses all lie ahead. You must plan for the future. Put something in savings every week. Give yourself a cushion in case you need to jump off a ledge.

Once you've mastered your finances, you'll feel confident that you can ride out the coming economic storms. So take action today. Go feed your accountant.

(Editor's note: This column ran in newspapers in 2001. Amazing how things come full circle, eh?)


Dream on

Sleep deprivation is a serious societal ill, and I'd like to write an informed, persuasive column about it, but frankly I'm too tired to do the research.

I know I've read articles about sleep deprivation, how it causes traffic accidents and irritability and low productivity. The articles are here somewhere, in this landfill I call my office, but I'm too drowsy to hunt for them.

Let's just say it's a given: Most of us get too little sleep.

We work long hours. We have many worries. Our kids get sick (always, always in the middle of the night). We cut back on sleep to squeeze in leisure activities or visit the gym or start a second career. And we shuffle around all day like zombies, our eyelids heavy, our bodies weary, our brains filled with pudding.

It's become a point of pride in our culture to keep going on little sleep. People brag about giving up sleep so they can be more successful. They're getting ahead because they're busily toiling while their competitors snooze.

Profiles of business and political leaders always mention how the dynamos work 18 hours a day and sleep only three hours a night. (Which explains a lot about the bad decisions those business and political leaders make.)

The message is: They're too busy pursuing their dreams to waste time on actual dreaming.

For those of us with home offices, the temptation to work instead of sleep is particularly keen. The work's right there, handy, calling to us. We lie in bed, our thoughts unreeling toward sleep, and we get an idea. Or, at least, an inkling that might be a good idea in the light of day. We drag ourselves out of bed and tiptoe to the computer, just to write it down, so we'll remember to pursue it later. Next thing you know, it's sunrise.

I've been a lousy sleeper my whole life. I was one of those kids who read with the flashlight under the covers. For years, through my teens and twenties, I had trouble nodding off at night, so I filled those sleepless hours with more productive activities, such as partying.

Now that I'm middle-aged, I don't have any trouble falling asleep. In fact, I often have trouble staying awake. Most nights, the 10 p.m. newscasters are wasting their breaths. By then, I'm slumped on the sofa with my mouth hanging open.

My problem is that I can't STAY asleep. I'll saw those logs for a few hours, but then something -- the dog, a dreaming child, a distant siren, my own insanity -- will awaken me.
It'll be, say, 3 a.m., the most absolutely wrong time a person can be awake, coming at it from either direction. And I'm lying there, feeling like the only guy in America who's wide awake. I burrow back into the covers, desperate to squeeze in a few more hours. I toss, I turn. I'm too hot, but my feet are cold. I can't stop thinking about that stupid thing I said the other day. Toss, turn. I've got to get busy tomorrow and make that deadline. And the kids are going to the dentist. Can't forget that. Toss, turn. Is the furnace making a funny noise?

My brain has started its day, whether my body likes it or not. And there's always work I could be doing. I might as well get up.

So I arise and get busy. And I go around sleepy and grumpy and dopey all day, making mistakes and bumping into furniture and saying something stupid that can become my new obsession the next time I'm lying awake.

So far, this pattern hasn't made me a dynamo.

If anything, I'm so sleepy all the time that my waking and dream worlds collide. I dream about work. I fall asleep at my desk. I get mixed up about whether somebody actually told me something or I just dreamed it. Whole days seem like nightmares.

I fully expect to wake up someday and find myself faced with the final exam in a college course I've never attended. Naked.

Then all my dreams will have come true. And maybe I can get some sleep.


Management maze

Managing a household is a lot like running a business, one in which the chief executive officer does all the work.

Like a business, the household has its income and outgo, which never seem to match up. It has its chain of command, which is roundly ignored. It has stress and timetables, though the schedule often revolves around soccer practices, which means the customers are right there in the car with you, whining.

One of the nicer ways that household and business management are alike is that both have a learning curve. Get through a task the first time and, even if you fall on your face in the process, you're better prepared the next time.

I'm not talking about simple household tasks, such as grout-scrubbing, which never really gets easier or more fun, no matter how much your technique improves. I mean the business of the household: dealing with city employees and lawyers and banks and insurance companies. The first time we encounter some aspect of that service world, we feel stressed and anxious that it's all going to cost too much. But when we face a similar problem again, we're ready because we've learned. We can meet the challenge with confidence and calm and the certain knowledge that it will cost too much.

Take, for example, buying a house. The first time you sign your name to a mortgage, you pore over every deed and document, trying to understand it all, trying to make sure you're not getting screwed in some way. (You are, of course. Trust me.)

By the time we're on our second or third house, we blithely scrawl our names on any piece of paper the loan officers thrust in front of us. We know we can't make heads or tails of the documents anyway, so why not get it done in a hurry? Just for laughs, mortgage bankers could start slipping in paperwork requiring homeowners to hand over our children. We'd all blissfully sign, none the wiser. Until, of course, the bankers tried to give the children back.

My car got dinged recently while parked, which I knew from experience would send me on a two-week trip through the police report/insurance/body shop/rental car maze. Upon discovering the damage, I didn't even bother with the requisite cursing and stomping around. I just sighed, comfortable in the knowledge that I'd done this all before and knew the ropes.

I've had more than my share of body shop adventures in the past couple of years. I'm starting to think my car is magnetic. Any vehicle that gets near mine is irresistibly drawn into a collision. This makes for some nervous driving, and a lot of time on the phone with the insurance company.

But it's all a familiar routine now. File the reports, make the calls, get the estimates, set an appointment. I zip through it like an experienced businessman whipping up contracts. The body shop owner even recognizes me and calls me by name. (Of course, his name is Steve, too, which makes it easier.)

And, before you know it, I've got my car back dent-free and everything's back to normal. Until the next time somebody rams into me.

Dealing with such everyday disasters is the main job of household managers. Our main tool is the telephone. One of the most important lessons (and hardest to learn) is to call for professional help when things go wrong.

Businesspeople know this. They call in experts to fix their computers or do the landscaping or rewire their offices. They don't try to do everything themselves. But household managers often forget this lesson. Faced with a plumbing problem or a faulty light fixture or a computer meltdown, we'll first try to fix it ourselves, which means we call in experts later to repair a worse problem. After the flood. Or the fire.

But we can learn to manage the busywork of life -- the bills and the phone calls and the paperwork. I, for instance, have learned a foolproof way of making sure bills get paid on time and all the household paperwork stays organized: My wife takes care of it.

Some things you leave to the CEO.


House hunting

For parents, life is one long search-and-rescue mission.

We spend an inordinate amount of time looking for stuff. Much of that time, we have children trailing behind us, weeping because they know the lost toy/book/pet/garment will never, ever be found.

This is not a happy situation. Most parents are only good for one or two of these rescue missions a day. More, and the parent becomes spent and angry and prone to profane muttering.

As one of these muttering parents, I've drawn some conclusions about operating a lost-and-found service:

--Stuff will go missing at the most inopportune times. Now, this is sort of like saying, "It was in the last place I looked," because usually you don't know stuff is missing until you or your kids need it. But parents typically don't discover the loss until a minute or two before its use is imperative. Duct tape emergencies, for instance. Birthday gifts as you're on your way out the door to the party. Overdue library books. Science Fair projects on deadline.

--Missing stuff becomes the most important stuff in the world. Your kids may own nine gazillion toys, but the one they really, really want -- right now -- will be missing. Rather than shrugging it off and playing with other toys, the children whine and insist until the parent grunts to his feet and starts searching.

--Your house contains a million hiding places. No matter how spare your decor, no matter how well you keep things picked up, your house is a black hole when it comes to your children's possessions, sucking them into a cosmic emptiness from which there is no escape. Searching all the nooks and crannies is like doing calisthenics. Up, down, now bend and stretch. Here's a Handy Tip: Check that tight space between the bed and the wall. It's as good a place to start as any.

--Kids don't know how to look for stuff. Sure, they'll tell you they looked. They'll insist they've looked everywhere and the missing stuff is just inexplicably gone. You can tell them to look again and they'll perform the task the same way they did the first time: Listlessly wandering about, their heads lolling on their necks, barely able to put one foot in front of the other as they peruse the ceiling, apparently in search of inspiration. This causes the parent to grunt to his feet and show them how to REALLY hunt for stuff, which is what the kid was after in the first place.

--Stuff that belongs to other people is the hardest to find. Other people's possessions are tasty morsels for your hungry house. Let your kid borrow a toy from another kid and you'd better keep it on a chain, like a bank pen. Otherwise, it's gone forever and you'll be ponying up the replacement cost. At our house, books that belong to the public library apparently can crawl away under their own power, go out to my car, open the door and hide under the seats. That's where we usually find them after the overdue notices arrive in the mail.

--The more important the garment, the more likely it's missing. It's wintertime, so coats are the first things to go. Then shoes. Then socks. Pants and shirts usually can be located, though they will be in a large pile in the bottom of a closet and none of them will be the one the child really, really wants to wear. Look under this pile when searching for shoes. I don't know how they get there. They just do.

--Looking for stuff often results in inadvertent housework. Start peeking under furniture and behind drapes, and you'll see how dirty your house really is. Oh, you may think it's clean, but dust bunnies and cobwebs and stray popcorn lie in wait. You start out looking for a Digimon, and end up vacuuming the whole place.

--Finding stuff makes it all worthwhile. The reward for parents is a beaming child's face when the lost, never-to-be-found-again toy is located. The warm glow of success usually lasts 15 minutes or so, until something else goes missing.


Up your career

As a busy work-at-home parent, I enjoy reading the "careers" section of newspapers and fondly remembering the days back when I had one.

We who work alone often feel out of touch with the modern corporate scene, and it's always a comfort to read an attitude survey or a trends article and learn that not much has changed out there. Workers still hate their bosses. Everyone is underpaid and underappreciated. Office romances continue (though I gather they're mostly done these days by e-mail). And goldbricks are more creative than their peers.

Here are some news factoids gleaned from recent articles about the workplace, and how they apply differently to those of us on the home front:

--Only half of American workers are satisfied with their jobs, and more are unhappy with their bosses and working conditions than they were five years earlier, according to a survey of 5,000 households by The Conference Board's Consumer Research Center.

The numbers are slightly different for those who work at home: each of us is dissatisfied half of the time. Fifty percent of the time, we're giddy at the notion that our bosses are far away, and can't see us working in our bathrobes. The other half, we're surrounded by barking children and screaming dogs. Periods of dissatisfaction tend to clump around paydays.
Homebodies hate our bosses, too. The self-employed are into self-loathing.

--Baby boomers are the most dissatisfied.

Surprise! We boomers always have been a surly lot, haven't we?

--"It may be that the fast-paced, 24/7 working climate is triggering more workplace malaise than we've imagined," said Lynn Franco, director of the Consumer Research Center.

You said it, bubba.

--Getting the best numbers in the worker survey were respondents' colleagues, with 59 percent reporting they were satisfied with their co-workers.

But, see, we who work at home don't have any colleagues, or at best we rarely see them. My main co-worker is a dog. I'm satisfied with him, I guess. Most of the time.

--Nearly 24 million people are regularly employed telecommuters, according to the International Telework Association & Council.

That's why I keep seeing other people in the neighborhood out and about in their bathrobes.

--About 73 percent of American workers aspire to work at home, says a report by consulting firm International Data Corp.

Pretty soon, everyone will be working out of their homes, all strung together by fiber optic networks. Memo to self: Invest in bathrobe stock.

--Some business pundits predict the work-at-home phenomenon will stall as the economy slows. Bosses will want to keep a closer eye on employees, and will be more likely to scale back workforces.

Yikes. Here comes trouble.

--A survey by Nielsen/NetRatings finds that 46 percent of online holiday shopping was done at the office.

Now here's an example of worker creativity. Back when I toiled in a regular office, we had to sneak out to do any Christmas shopping during the weekday. Now, people do it right from their desks, when they're not busy playing Free Cell or forwarding jokes by e-mail.

--Even during the rest of the year, workers do 40 percent of their online shopping on the job, according to Vault.com, a job search and research Website.

I've tried to avoid online shopping, mostly because I figured it would eat up all my work time. Solo workers have to think about such things, and practice some discipline. It's not like the boss will stop by and interrupt your shopping. Try to take a quick peek at E-Bay, and, whoops, your work day is gone.

--Vault.com says workers spend 23 hours online per month at work and only 10 hours online per month at home.

Naturally, since us work-at-home folks tend to do all of our online stuff on the same computer, one would combine the two figures and come up with, er, 187 hours per month. Wait a minute . . .

--Many companies haven't established firm policies about telecommuting and on-the-job Net surfing.

Shh. If we keep this quiet, maybe more of us can sneak home and set up our offices there, before the personnel types set restrictive policies. Eventually, the majority of us can work where no one looks over our shoulders.

Workers of the world: go home.


Actively insane

If you're one of those working parents who thrives on pressure, if you just don't have enough stress in your life, then I'd suggest you run right out and enroll your children in some extracurricular activities.

Scouts and sports, science fairs and spelling bees, music lessons and dance lessons and children's theater all can broaden your children's horizons, give them life skills and refine their special talents. And these events can turn you, the parent, into a gibbering idiot.

Careful analysis finds that the strain of extracurricular activities can be divided into three major categories: transportation, practice and stage fright.


Once your children become involved in after-school activities, you'll soon recognize the origins of the phrase "drive me crazy." The parents' main role in these activities is to chauffeur the little hellions, er, geniuses, from one rehearsal/soccer game/club meeting to another until we see city streets in our sleep.

No matter where you live, these events will take place halfway across town. This is so you can't actually go home and get anything done while the kids are attending their activities. You might have enough time to run a quick errand or grab a cup of coffee nearby, but you'd better be back to retrieve your kids at the precise time the activity ends. Otherwise, you'll hear about it, believe you me.

If you have more than one child, you can count on their activities starting at the same time, miles away from each other. This is why you see so many hysterical "soccer moms" roaring wild-eyed through traffic in their minivans. The kids are in the back seat, repeating in a singsong manner, "We're gonna be laa-a-ate."

Most activities require special gear -- toe shoes, scripts, sneakers, Scout uniforms. The Murphy's Law of extracurricular activities is that these items will be "lost" every time your children need them, a condition that won't be discovered until you're halfway there. Your best bet is to keep everything in your vehicle at all times. Sure, your car may look and smell like a gym locker, but at least the search will be localized.


Everyone knows that old joke: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? By refusing to practice until your parents go insane."

Yes, practice goes against the grain of most children, who saunter around with the innate assurance that they can ace that spelling bee/recital/playoff game without any preparation.

Trying to get kids to practice regularly is a major source of ulcers and baldness in parents. You can nag. You can stand over them. You can recite their lines along with them until you know their parts better than they do. You can pull out all your hair and scream and double over and grasp your abdomen. None of it will do any good.

And if you do succeed in getting them to practice, say, the saxophone, then you'll be trapped in the house with them while they squawk and honk like scalded geese.

The solution? Make them practice in the car. All their stuff's out there anyway.


No matter how well you drill your children, when it comes time to actually perform, expect opening-night jitters. Nervous pacing, rumbling guts, nail-biting, uncontrollable twitching. All on the part of the parents. The kids will be fine, either too confident or too obtuse to recognize the opportunity for humiliation that lies ahead.

Both of my sons have participated in spelling bees lately. One is active in Cub Scouts. The other was in a play (Shakespeare, no less). At these events, the parents were much more anxious than their children. They mouthed lines along with their kids and muttered curses and recrossed their legs repeatedly, as if they needed to go to the bathroom.

The kids' main reaction? Yawning. Right up there on stage. My wife says this is a nervous reaction, caused by the child's need for extra oxygen. I think it's because they were up too late the night before, cramming with their parents.

Parents can be forgiven all their symptoms of stress. They want their children to perform well, to not be embarrassed. They want home-video moments of successful recitals and sports championships.

But mostly they want to make all that driving pay off.


Storm report

We've gotten hammered here in Northern California by a powerful Pacific storm -- heavy rains, 70 mph wind gusts, etc. -- but the only damage at my house was one uprooted palm tree that looks like a goner and a board fence flapping like a gossip's tongue. The wind blew so hard that it blew over my propane barbecue grill, which weighs nearly a hundred pounds. Sheesh.

As I write this, we're in a lull. But they're saying snow may hit the foothills tonight or tomorrow. Most of the time, the weather here in Redding falls into two categories -- hot or wet. Apparently, once every five years or so, we get all our bad weather at once.

Back to hunkering in the bunker,



Feng shui and youi

Proper arrangement of the home office can be critical to productivity, so many people who work at home turn to the ancient art of feng shui.

Feng shui (pronounced "fung shway," from the Chinese for "I tripped over my wastebasket") is based on the notion that proper arrangement of furniture, mirrors, fountains and other geegaws for sale at exorbitant prices can channel the life force, or "chi," that flows through us and our homes.

According to feng shui principles, improper arrangement can stifle creativity, impede productivity, dampen your chances of success and generally make you feel like a heel by surrounding you with negative energy. Good placement of furnishings can attract success to you, place your work life in its proper context and give you long, lustrous hair.

So, right away, even the uninitiated can see that feng shui offers unlimited potential for ripping off gullible consumers such as yourself by providing a pseudo-religious solution to your messy office. This principle is known as "hoo-ey."

Not all feng shui practitioners are full of "hoo-ey." Many are dedicated to improving the lives of others at a lucrative hourly rate. A feng shui consultant typically will examine your workspace and make suggestions for removing clutter and placing particular objects in ways that will bring the most cosmic benefit. By hiring a consultant and carefully following the recommendations, you can improve your own well-being while also contributing to the growing New Age economy, known as "ka-chiing."

Of course, not all of us have "moo-lah" lying around to invest in feng shui consultants. For those at-home workers on a budget, we recommend the following do-it-yourself approach:

--Clutter is the enemy of the smooth flow of "chi." Allowing clutter to proliferate in your office can result in confusion and misplaced invoices and poor self-esteem, a condition known as "moo goo gai pan." Your first step toward a balanced life should be to throw out all the papers that clutter your filing cabinets and to get rid of any toys, sports equipment, nail clippers, dishes and dirty socks that have found their way to your desk. Once all clutter is removed, you can go on to the second step, which is to dig through the trash in search of those really important papers you threw out. This step is known as "fung me."

--The next step is to determine your various compass points. For this, we recommend that you use, well, a compass. Different directions carry different forces. For example, northwest is your travel site and west is your creativity site and southeast governs wealth. Then, using an octagonal map called a "bagua chart," easily obtainable off the Internet, you can determine how to align elements (wood, water, fire, uranium) and colors to direct the flow of positive energy through your home office. Sure, this might require you to relocate everything in your office, but won't it be worth it if your "chi" is properly aligned? You'll feel better almost immediately, though you won't be able to find anything.

--You may need to add some decorator items to your home office. For instance, feng shui often uses round mirrors to deflect bad energy and direct good energy. Some items, such as bamboo flutes, crystals, seashells, goldfish bowls, indoor fountains (collectively known as "junk"), can be purchased from Internet feng shui sites for only twice what they'd cost at Wal-Mart.

--Desks should never face a wall, as mine does, because it blocks the flow of energy and makes you feel "lo mein." If space is too tight to set your desk facing out, then place a mirror above your computer so you can see anyone sneaking in the door behind you. That way, you can see them and clear erotic e-mail off the screen faster than they can say "bruce lee."

--The color red can stimulate you and your fame, while green, properly placed, signals health and growth. This is why many feng shui experts recommend leaving your Christmas tree up year-round.

These are just basics, of course. If you want to really improve your "chi," then you should seek expert assistance. Look in the Yellow Pages under "bilk me."


Happy new year

May your 2008 be full of happiness and hilarity.