Labor pains

Business advice has become a kabillion-dollar industry with everyone, it seems, in search of the magical secret to management.

When I see folks gobbling up this advice on how to be a better manager or a better employee -- how to succeed in the corporate world -- I always think: Don't you people have children at home?

Most everything you need to know about management, you can learn from the parent-child relationship.

This is not to say that an employee who doesn't get his way should throw a tantrum and hold his breath until he turns blue. (I've tried it, and it doesn't work.) I'm also not advocating paternalistic bosses who micromanage everything, including what their employees wear and whether they clean their plates.

But when it comes to basic management relations -- where one person is in charge and the other must obey or face the consequences -- parents and children have much to teach us about how to get along in the world.

Most of us want from our bosses the same things children want from their parents: Appreciate our gifts and forgive us our foibles. Show us that you care.

Most bosses want employees who'll get the job done in a creative, responsible way without being unreasonably annoying in the process.

When a parent is standing over a kid, forcing him to clean his room, the parent experiences the same emotions that managers feel every day: impatience, bewilderment, exasperation and, finally, the overwhelming sensation best-described as "it would be faster if I'd just do it myself."

The child is being a regular employee, full of resentment over the parent's misplaced priorities and rebellion over wasted time that could be spent more productively, in ways such as "playing" and "setting fire to the dog."

Here are some things that managers can learn from parents:

--Nurture is important, but you can't always overcome nature. Some employees are emotionally immature and will "act out" and there's nothing you can do about it, short of putting them up for adoption.

--Many employees flourish in an atmosphere of "benign neglect." Leave them alone and they'll produce. Stand over them and bark demands, and they'll simply wait until your back is turned, then take a nap.

--Lying will come back and bite you in the butt.

--There are no secrets. You might think you can keep things from your employees, but they (like children) know what's really going on.

--Nobody likes to hear, "I told you so."

--Employees, like your kids, will pick up your own bad habits, so be careful what you do.

--People don't clean up after themselves unless threatened.

--No matter how much you give your underlings, it's never enough.

--"Because I said so" almost never ends the argument.

Here's what employees can learn from children:

--Your boss is not as dumb as you think.

--"We'll see" almost always means "no."

--No matter how well you perform, it's never enough.

--You can only push a boss so far. You should learn the body language and facial expressions that indicate your manager is about to "blow her stack." Choose that time to go play quietly in your cubicle.

--Lying will come back and bite you in the butt.

--Don't buy into the corporate mythology. Sometimes, you must face the realities of the situation. You can believe in the tooth fairy all you like, but don't expect her to provide your health insurance.

--You can always quit your job -- the equivalent to "running away from home" -- but make sure you've got a place to run to first. It's a cold, harsh world out there, and it's best to keep a roof over your head.

--Always wait until your manager's back is turned before making faces at him.

--No one ever got ahead by saying, "You can't make me."

So, whether you're a boss or a worker bee, remember, as you go into dicey management interactions, that parents and children survive such situations all the time. If that doesn't help, you can always hold your breath until you turn blue.


Watching what we eat

These days, we pay way too much attention to food.

You can hardly open a newspaper or watch television without being bombarded with information about food. It's become a national obsession, and some of us are ready to choke on it.

The food wars are fought on two fronts. On one side is the steamroller of news about foods that are bad for you. On the other is the national fascination with fancy meals prepared from exotic ingredients you can't find at the store. Most of those ingredients, it should be noted, fall into the category of "foods that are bad for you."

All this conflicting information results in people wandering supermarket aisles, overwhelmed by uncertainty and misguided ambition. We'd like some eggs, but they're bad for us and must be avoided. We'd like to create an colorful quiche like we saw on TV, but the recipe requires eggs.
Such clashing desires result in a zombie-like paralysis. Night of the Living Hungry.

Complicating matters is the fact that health news changes every few minutes. Scientists say steer clear of red wine and olive oil if you want to live past 50. The next week, they say red wine and olive oil prevent heart attacks and must be consumed immediately. Then a competing herd of scientists warns that red wine and olive oil should only be used for bathing . . .

Is it any wonder we're confused? We’d just like to sit down and eat something without concern over whether it'll kill us. According to the latest obesity statistics, the majority of us are doing just that. In fact, we're apparently eating everything but the family cat.

Americans absorb all the admonitions to watch what we eat, then we watch it go right in our mouths. Even foods with zero nutritional value, snacks so fattening they should be glued directly to our hips, get wolfed down with only the barest inkling of guilt. After all, we tell ourselves, scientists will inform us any minute that Twinkies prevent cancer.

The flip side to all this dithering is food as entertainment. Have there ever been more cooking shows on TV? Celebrity chefs with hilarious names like Emeril and Nigella whip up sizzling dishes composed entirely of ingredients that are -- not to get too technical here -- exceedingly nasty, and we watch with such rapt interest, you'd think it was the Super Bowl.

(That there's such a job description as "celebrity chef" says something's gone very wrong in this country. Chefs shouldn't be seen or heard. They should be hidden away in the kitchen, working their magic with eggs and red wine. It's bad enough that every talkative waiter seemingly wants to be our friend, regaling us with intricate descriptions of food origins. Now we have to be pals with the chef, too?)

There's even a food slang. Cooking shows are known as "food porn." People who stand in line at fancy restaurants or obsess over complicated recipes are called "foodies," just as people who obsess over heroin are dubbed "junkies."

Some foodies spend thousands of dollars on rare truffles. Others eat disgusting fare such as quail eggs or sashimi or oysters (also known as "slime on the half-shell") in an attempt to tickle their ever-more sophisticated palates.

Exotic food has become the latest way of displaying one's wealth and superiority. Tobacco, alcohol, drugs and sex all have been declared health hazards. Food's the only bad habit we have left.

Most of us refuse to take sides in the food wars. We ignore equally the health alerts and the exhortations of the foodies. We waddle into the supermarket and buy the same items every week. We manage to exist from day to day without truffles or quail eggs.

For all the attention paid to food, the bottom line remains that most of us eat what tastes good. Yes, it's too fattening. Yes, it's slowly killing us. And, yes, it shows we're not foodies with refined palates. But we've got to eat something and it might as well be something we enjoy.

So eat up, America. I recommend the free-range Twinkies.


Crunching through reality TV

Is there anything less "real" than the reality shows on TV?

You know the ones I mean -- highly popular shows that feature jerky cameras following vacuous contestants as they're tortured, stranded, set up on blind dates and/or urged to lie, cheat and steal.

Strangers are cast away on a deserted island where the only potential food items are insects and sand. Celebrities are forced to face their fears by dangling from tall buildings while eating insects. Beautiful people do stupid stunts such as eating insects while amongst them is a "mole" who'll tell if they're not actually swallowing.

These reality shows are intended to prove the contestants' mettle. Near as I can tell, they prove two things: 1) Insects are good food, and 2) Some people will do anything, and I mean anything, to get on television.

Viewers seem to enjoy watching people make complete asses of themselves. Apparently, nothing's more fun that witnessing people stabbing others in the back or trying to seduce a "millionaire" who's really a blue-collar, insect-eating shlub.

The fact that all these situations are artificial -- implausible set-ups with the cameras rolling, carefully edited to make the contestants look their absolute worst -- doesn't seem to bother the television-viewing public. In fact, that makes it all the better. There's comfort in the notion that these fools knew the cameras were on them when they gulped down those insects. And they did it anyway.

Our own lives may be the pits, full of stupidity and poor choices, but we can always watch a reality show and smugly say to ourselves, "At least I wouldn't do that. Not in front of 30 million people anyway."

TV producers, pursuing a hot trend like lemmings off a cliff, are going farther afield in search of more "reality" to dump onto our vast cultural wasteland. Before long, we'll see a show in which a group of disgraced former CEOs are stranded on a deserted island with nothing to eat but insects. Each executive must take out the others, armed only with subpoenas, insecticide and an M-1 Abrams tank. Winner gets to be Secretary of the Treasury.

Before it comes to that, TV producers should look closer to home. Regular American neighborhoods are full of fear and danger and intrigue and insects. Take the cameras to average homes, and we can all eagerly watch as families and friendships implode before our very eyes.

Some suggestions:

--"Survivor: Suburbia." Harried parents are trapped in a ranch-style house with three teen-agers. The house is equipped with only one bathroom and one telephone. Chaos results.

--"Chill Factor." He's too hot. She's too cold. Married couples bicker over thermostat settings.

--"The Bachelor." This version of the popular program won't focus on women slavering over some handsome single man. Instead, it'll show the bachelor hanging out with his buddies, all of whom are married. He'll spout long anecdotes about his exciting single lifestyle -- leggy women and late-night discos -- until the married men gang up and beat him to death.

--"Joe Poverty." Eight bachelorettes visit the suburban home of Joe, an unemployed construction worker with a beer gut, poor hygiene, a mountain of debt and sole custody of four surly children. The cameras roll as the women try to persuade themselves that Joe is a "good catch." First one to run screaming from the house loses.

--"The Mole-Rat." This show centers on Chuck, a fat, hairless man with buck teeth, who moves in next door. Chuck refuses to mow his lawn, borrows tools and never returns them, and complains endlessly about the contestants' barking dog. The goal is to see which family holds Chuck down and forces him to eat insects.

--"Fear Factory." What's so scary about dangling off tall buildings? If you want to witness real fear, then videotape parents as they deal with their children. Suggested events: bedtime, eating broccoli, learning to drive, going off to college.

Any of these proposals would draw high ratings as weekly television shows, but don't expect TV producers to offer them anytime soon. They're too close to real life.

Let's face it: Most of us have all the "reality" we can stand.


Auto fixation

The two most chilling words in the English language: Car Trouble.

Oh, sure, more terrible things can happen to you. A sharp stick in the eye comes to mind. But for all-around frustration and gut-wrenching panic, not much comes close to "car trouble."

In America's automobile-oriented culture, we're all dependent on our cars. We're always in a hurry to get someplace, and we need reliable transportation. When faced with a grindingly uncooperative starter or the forbidding silence of a dead battery, we know our lives have -- at least temporarily -- taken a turn for the worse.

Car trouble means we're not getting where we want to go or, at best, we'll be late. Naturally, we don't discover the problem until we need to depart -- right now. The car just sits there, a big hunk of inert steel, as mobile and helpful as a rock.

Beyond the immediate delays, though, is the aftermath. Getting the car towed or taking it to a garage. Making alternate transportation arrangements while some guy named "Butch" takes his sweet time fixing the problem. And the expense: Butch won't even look under the hood for less than $600.

It's a short ride from "repair" to "despair."

I don't know about you, but I always envision the worst: The car's ruined forever. It'll spend the rest of its metallic life "in the shop." All my money will be poured into the worst investment of my life -- a "lemon" -- when I should've known better. I'm stranded, forlorn, doomed.

These flights of imagination result from guilt. If only I hadn't neglected the car, maybe it would never have succumbed to this ailment . . .

Most of us treat our cars the way we do our physical health. We take them for granted, doing only minimal maintenance. We pay no attention until something goes wrong. Even when the car's making a funny noise (or that hacking cough won't go away), we try to ignore it until, whoops, we've got a major problem. And life grinds to a standstill.

Many of us tend to drive cars way beyond their expected lifespans. We keep replacing parts until, eventually, everything under the hood is as good as new, and Butch's kids have earned their doctorate degrees on our dime.

Perhaps that's why we have so many auto accidents -- totaling your car is the only way to justify the purchase of a new vehicle.

But this extended lifespan means lots of "car trouble." Parts wear out. Hoses burst. Gaskets dry out. Telltale oil spots appear on the driveway. Then, one day, you've got a car that's going nowhere fast.

Car trouble is rough on anybody, but it poses special problems for guys. Many guys feel they should have some innate understanding of how to fix cars. It's one of those native skills that real men can intuitively master -- like plumbing or reading road maps or burping the alphabet.

The sad truth is that most men think "internal combustion" is something you get from eating jalapenos. We're not qualified to empty the ashtray, must less replace an alternator.

But we feel compelled to try. We open the hood -- if we can remember how -- and study that serpent's nest of belts and hoses and wires and we don't have the first idea what's wrong.

Of course, we won't admit it, not at first. We'll go find our scattered tools and we'll poke around under the hood, hoping against hope that some part of the engine will scream out: "Me! Me! I'm the problem." We'll check the oil and the water and the windshield-washing fluid. We'll jiggle battery cables. We'll tap things.

Finally, after hours (or even days) of tinkering, we'll sigh and shrug and phone Butch. And he'll tell us to come on down to the garage, and he'll remind us to bring our checkbook.

Because while we may not be going anywhere for a while, Butch is planning his vacation. In Tahiti.


In other news...

Scientists have found evidence that Tyrannosaurus Rex tasted like chicken.

Lasik scare

As someone who's had Lasik, I'm naturally interested in the news stories that suggest that it's more dangerous than we'd all been led to believe. A government panel has urged stronger warnings because a small number of people (reportedly less than 1 percent) who've had the vision-improving surgery report awful problems.

I feel for those people, but I'm not one of them. Lasik has been bery, bery good to me. I wore glasses from the time I was 13 years old until a year ago. My vision is close to 20-20 these days, plus I'm one of the lucky ones who hasn't needed reading glasses (yet). Perhaps that's because my arms are so long...

My only complaint about Lasik is my night vision, which isn't great. I'm still getting some halo effects around lights, particularly if my eyes are dry or tired. Not so bad that I shouldn't be driving, but I limit my night driving, just to be safe.

Otherwise, it's great to go without glasses, though at least one friend thinks my face looks "naked" without them. I can wear cool sunglasses now. I can see when I first open my eyes in the morning (which doesn't stop me from reaching for my glasses; some habits are hard to break).

My eye doctor gave me all the warnings, and every opportunity to back out, but I went ahead and got Lasik. I'm glad I did. I wish it had worked out this well for all Lasik patients.


Fazed by phases

Otherwise sane adults enter parenthood feeling they can manage the child, that they can shape that newborn bundle of protoplasm into a functional adult who will bring good to the world.

Soon, however, sleep-deprived parents recognize that babies are around-the-clock need machines who bring into the world only one thing: dirty diapers. And it just goes downhill from there.

The central problem of parenthood is that the child's needs and expectations often are in direct conflict with the needs and expectations of the parents. For instance, a toddler expects life to be full of fun and freedom and adventure; the parents expect the child to stop sticking his tongue to electrical sockets.

Many such conflicts occur because parents don't understand the Stages of Child Development. As children grow, they go through "phases" in which certain behaviors are exhibited. Parents will find each of these "phases" to be "weird," but wise parents know that, if they just wait the child out, soon the aberrant behavior will be replaced by something even weirder.

Let's look, then, at the Stages of Child Development. For simplicity's sake, we'll break down childhood into the following categories: Infants, Toddlers, those of elementary school age (hereinafter known as "Kids"), and Teens. Each of these general age groups display certain universal behavioral traits, though individual deviations are common. Your mileage may vary.

Question: What do children want most from parents?

Infants: Around-the-clock attention.
Toddlers: A chance to get away with something.
Kids: A ride somewhere.
Teens: Money.

Question: What will interest the child most at various stages?

Infants: Mom's face.
Toddlers: Electrical sockets.
Kids: Armpit noises.
Teens: The opposite sex.

Question: Children tend to insert things in their mouths. What items are most typical?

Infants: Toe.
Toddlers: Everything.
Kids: Candy.
Teens: Foot.

Question: What are children's methods of communicating their needs?

Infants: Crying.
Toddlers: Crying.
Kids: Crying.
Teens: Sullen silence.

Question: What are children's favorite modes of transportation?

Infants: Mom's arms.
Toddlers: Dad's shoulders.
Kids: Anything that has wheels and an element of danger.
Teens: Their own car, dammit.

Question: What's the favorite form of amusement at each stage?

Infants: A mobile over the crib.
Toddlers: Inane television shows.
Kids: Setting small fires.
Teens: Talking on the phone 24 hours a day.

Question: How do children regard normal bodily functions?

Infant: Fascinating.
Toddler: As topics for public conversation.
Kids: Hilarious.
Teens: "God, you're so embarrassing! Can't you just leave me alone?"

Question: What clothing options are suitable for a child at each stage?

Infant: Six billion diapers.
Toddler: Armor.
Kids: Anything the parents didn't pick out.
Teens: The same stupid bellbottoms you wore when you were a teen.

Question: What philosophical questions are indicative of each stage?

Infants: Who am I?
Toddlers: Can I eat it?
Kids: Why not?
Teens: Can't a person get any privacy around here?

Question: What patterns of disturbing behavior can parents expect?

Infants: Shrieking at 2 a.m.
Toddlers: Throwing up at 2 a.m.
Kids: Raiding the fridge at 2 a.m.
Teens: Needing bail at 2 a.m.

Question: What are the typical ambitions of a child at each stage?

Infants: To become toddlers.
Toddlers: To escape their parents' control.
Kids: To someday drive a car.
Teens: To escape their parents' control.

Question: What are the biggest challenges for the parent at each stage of the child's development?

Infants: Sleep deprivation.
Toddlers: Ensuring a safe environment.
Kids: Public embarrassment.
Teens: Controlling homicidal impulses.

Now that you have a firm understanding of the Stages of Child Development, you can be better parents. Remember: Each of these stages is merely a passing phase and, eventually, the children will grow up and move away.

And then, finally, you can get some sleep.


TV or not TV, that is the question

Parents often ask themselves: "Are the children watching too much television?"

The answer is a resounding "Yes!" If there is a TV anywhere in your home, then the children are watching it too much.

I believe this not because I'm one of those hard cases who thinks any television is too much, or even because my own two sons have become TV zombies. No, this opinion is based on what I hear children say.

An example: Recently, my boys were playing with some electronic toy that began emitting a horrific noise. Did they run screaming from the room? No, they did not (though I did). Did they believe the toy was irretrievably broken? No.

Instead, one of them calmly said: "You've activated its 'special feature.'"

Where would they hear such a thing, except on TV? Where, but on TV, would an it-must-be-the-end-of-the-world noise be considered a good thing?

Listen to children on a playground and you'll hear non-stop references to Pokemon and Bart Simpson and Britney Spears and other cartoon characters. Kids act out their favorite episodes of such outlandish fictional fare as "X-Men" and professional wrestling. They sing advertising jingles while swinging on the monkey bars.

My 10-year-old does dead-on impersonations of the voices from a cartoon called "Ed, Edd and Eddy." The fact that this cartoon depicts three morons with bad teeth disturbs me. (Could be worse. At least he's not doing "Beavis and Butthead.")

My 13-year-old is a dedicated viewer of sitcoms aimed at teens, all of which seem to center on who's most popular in school (the cute, shallow kids) and who's a dweeb (dads and other authority figures). He's apparently gleaning important tips on socializing and family life from these programs. (Again, it could be worse. He could be watching "The Osbournes.")

Children's brains are like sponges. They absorb and retain everything they see and hear (except for dutiful parental instructions and admonitions, which seem to go in one ear and out some other orifice). Television, with its flashing images, thunderous volume and catchy advertising slogans, is designed to infiltrate their brains and permanently set up camp there.

Don't believe me? Then try, right now, to sing the theme song to "Gilligan's Island." You can, can't you? Even if it's been years since you've heard it, that song is still with you. And, you can probably recall specific episodes as well. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

For three or four generations now, parenting experts have warned that too much television will make children fat and stupid. If you're a Baby Boomer, you probably can recall how your concerned parents tried everything to keep you away from the TV. Were they successful? Sing it with me now: "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip... "

The harsh truth is that parenting is such a demanding, 24-hour-a-day job that most parents simply give up at some point and resort to the "one-eyed babysitter." We know TV's not healthy for the children. We know they're exposed to things they should not see. We know kids should be doing something creative and intellectually stimulating instead. But we're busy, we're tired and, besides, we're trying to find a quiet moment to watch our own favorite show.

But parents should keep trying to limit TV's effects on their kids. Pull the plug occasionally. Set specific boundaries on how much they can watch and which programs are age-appropriate. Tell your kids too much TV will give them "square eyes." Engage them in family activities that last longer than a "commercial interruption."

Your children will ignore this advice and sneak around and watch shows that are bad for them, just as you did when you were young. But maybe, if you parents exert enough effort and demonstrate enough patience and perseverance, you can steer them away from reruns of "Gilligan's Island."

(Editor's note: Now that my sons are all grown up, TV viewing is no longer a problem. They're too busy watching YouTube.)


Scams and frauds and cons, oh my

If you believe the advertising, work-at-home opportunities are everywhere.

E-mail boxes fill up daily with "spam" ads for home-based careers. Classified ads for "business opportunities" often boast that the businesses can be run from home. Nearly every utility pole on every street, it seems, sports an ad: "Earn $100's Every Week, Working at Home!"

Many of these pitches, sad to say, are simply fraud. They prey on working parents who'd like to stay home all day with the kids, but still make something approaching an income. These scams, experts say, often require the victim to lay out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars as an "initial investment" or for "equipment costs," and then provide no way to recover that money.

Take, for example, one of the oldest swindles -- stuffing envelopes. The only way to "Earn $100's Every Week" stuffing envelopes is if you stuff them with heroin.

It's a shame that so many people fall for these con games, though it's hard to see what the victims expect from any industry where the primary form of advertising is flyers pasted on telephone poles.

However, for people who are creative and industrious, there are "legitimate" ways to make money at home. Let's look at some of these careers, and the special skills and talents they require:

--Telemarketing. Sick of sales pitches during the dinner hour? Then you should look into telemarketing. In this field, you can be the one interrupting other people's dinner! Special skill required: Access to a phone.

--E-bay and other online auction houses. You can make money by selling the junk out of your garage! Once you run out of junk, you can start "borrowing" stuff from your neighbors' garages. Removing garage clutter can be considered a public service! Special talent required: Stealth.

--Selling vitamins and other health products. Americans, particularly Baby Boomers, are obsessed with their health, so this is a hot sales arena. Special requirement for this career: A healthy glow. Customers won't trust your claims if you look sickly.

--Selling beauty products. Not for the naturally ugly. See above.

--Retirement consultant. Guide customers through the tricky thickets of the thrill-ride stock market, slumping 401(k)'s and other investments. Win or lose, you get your commission! Special talent required: Boundless optimism.

--Computer consultant. With a computer on every desk in America, this is a field that just keeps growing! Many people still are not comfortable working with computers, and you can use this discomfort by constantly warning them of viruses, worms and other electronic plagues. If that doesn't work, you can always develop a virus that only you can fix. Talk about a captive audience! Some actual computer skills required.

--Market research and political polling. See "Telemarketing" above.

--Phone sex. Fleece the twisted and lonely! Necessary talent: Must be capable of keeping boredom out of your voice as you say, "Ooh, baby, baby," 179 times a day.

--Psychic hotlines. Thousands of people pay good money every day to consult by phone with seers who can describe the future. No skills required, beyond a healthy imagination. Anyone gullible enough to trust in psychics will believe whatever you tell them.

--Writing books and articles. Forget this one. There's no money in it. Special talent required: Masochism.

--Spam-oriented businesses. Someone, somewhere, is making money from all those e-mail ads offering to refinance your mortgage, shrink/enlarge particular portions of your anatomy or show you the "hottest porn on the Internet." Why shouldn't that someone be you? Special skills: Basic computer skills and the surgical removal of your conscience.

--Brokering business opportunities. You can help others "Earn $100's Every Week" from home-based businesses. They do the work, and you make money from their "initial investments!" Special requirement: Must have a flexible schedule that allows for jail time.


With a song in my head

As I sit down to write this, I have only one thought on my mind -- the country-and-western song, "Stand by Your Man."

The song's been playing in my brain all day. Is this my favorite song? No, it is not. Yeah, yeah, it's a classic, but I'm not that fond of country music. I'm a fan of the blues and what my kids like to call "dinosaur" rock. Does "Stand by Your Man" have some special meaning for me? No. Have I even heard it recently? No, it's been months, at least, since I last encountered it.

Why, then, is that song going round and round in my head like Muzak from Hell? I don't know. If I did, maybe I could find a way to make it stop, because it's driving me crazy.

It's one of the great unsolved mysteries of psychology why one part of our brains always seems to be playing music. If you pause right now and let your mind drift, some song will pop to the forefront of your brain. Go ahead, try it. I'll wait.

Aha, you've got it now, don't you? Some song you probably don't even like, some song you perhaps haven't heard in years. But now it's stuck in your head like a 10-penny nail, and it'll probably be there for hours. Sorry.

Our brains have some sort of default mechanism for music. If they're not fully engaged with work or parenting or television or some other travail, our brains burst into song. Next thing you know, you're wandering around the house, humming the chorus of "Love Will Keep Us Together" or something equally nauseating.

Even people who have no strong connection to music report this problem. My best friend, who describes himself as "amusical," says his mind regularly slips into repeated replays of "Camptown Races," the song that gave us "Doo-dah, doo-dah." My mother, who admits she can't carry a tune in a washtub, hears "O, Tannenbaum" all the time, even when Christmas is months away. (Of course, she also concedes that, to her musically-challenged ears, every song sounds like "O, Tannenbaum.")

Imagine what it must be like for people who actually play music. Musicians, for instance. They must have a whole repertoire going in their heads all the time, probably in four-part harmony, distracting the heck out of them. How do they ever get anything done?

This mental soundtrack can cause problems in the workplace. If you go around humming or whistling or singing in your office, your co-workers eventually will snap and beat you senseless. Why? Because you're planting that song in their heads. And, unless you work for Seven Dwarves Inc., not everyone in the workplace wants to go around whistling the same tune.

Those of us who work alone have no such restraints. We can sing along all day if we wish, which means there's no getting rid of "Stand by Your Man," no matter how much we'd like it to go away.

Where do these songs come from? I blame car radios. If you listen to the radio as you're driving around, it becomes an exercise in punching buttons to escape familiar "oldies." Because it's usually the bad songs, the ones you really despise, that snag on your brain's antenna. Even if you hear only three notes of "Mandy" before you hit the button, you'll likely find yourself, days later, crooning like Barry Manilow, at least internally, and therein lies madness.

At our house, we've recognized this mental phenomenon and are learning to live with it. My wife regularly turns to me and says, "I need a new song in my head." This impels me to think up the catchiest song to inject into her brain, one that'll really make her crazy, something like "Bennie and the Jets" or "Copacabana" or "Up on Cripple Creek." She does the same to me.

This game tends to escalate, with each of us trying to top the other, until we're in an arms race of dreaded songs, a form of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Try it on your friends. Hum a few bars of some song, and you can feel confident that it'll drive them nuts for days. I recommend "Camptown Races."



Well, dog my cats

(Editor's note: Here's one of those funnies that float around the Internet. No idea of its origin, but it was passed along by my pal Brian Thornton. Thanks, Brian!)


8:00 am - Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am - A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00pm - Lunch! My favorite thing!
1:00pm - Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
3:00pm - Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
5:00pm - Milk Bones! My favorite thing!
7:00pm - Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
8:00pm - Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00pm - Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!


Day 983 of my captivity.

My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets. Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength. The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet.

Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates what I am capable of. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a 'good little hunter' I am. Bastards!

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event. However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my confinement was due to the power of 'allergies.' I must learn what this means, and how to use it to my advantage.

Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try this again tomorrow -- but at the top of the stairs.
I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and snitches. The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released and seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded.


Broken news

"Good evening, and welcome to Eyewitness On-the-Spot First Live Late-Breaking News. I'm Tony Wardrobe. Jana Divot has the night off because she's having a bad hair day.

"We'll get to our Big Exclusive Story in a minute, but first this Breaking News you'll see only here on Channel 5. Bob Gocup reports live, right now, from high in the sky in our exclusive helicopter. Bob?"

"That's right, Tony. Chopper 5 was first on the scene at this fender-bender on a gravel road approximately 37 miles from downtown. No one was injured, but you can see from this shaky aerial shot that police cars are on the scene."

"I guess this will tie up the evening commute, Bob."

"Not really, Tony. This is a dead-end road that's rarely used. But, as you can see in our exclusive shot, the police cars are flashing their pretty red lights and that makes darned good video."

"Thanks, Bob. Now for tonight's Big Exclusive Story. Crime. It's everywhere, all the time. There's probably a criminal lurking outside your bedroom window right now. You should hide behind your sofa until the police get there. Stay with Channel 5 for the latest updated Crime News.

"Now let's go to Wilbur Forehead for our First Look at the weather. Wilbur?"

"Thanks, Tony. It's been a pleasant day so far, but I can see through our exclusive studio window that there's one small cloud near the western horizon. Anything could happen. You viewers shouldn't go out of the house without first taking proper precautions. Keep it tuned here for further weather reports."

"Thanks, Wilbur. We'll get back to you for the Full Forecast in a few minutes. But first, a follow-up to a Big Story you first saw here three days ago. Channel 5 was first with the exclusive story about a tragic incident that forever changed the lives of one local family. Death, property damage, bad vibes. All because someone used a hair dryer in the shower.

"We'll be back to hold the victim up to ridicule after these words from our sponsors. Coming up: Will we go to war with Iran? Did the local basketball team win? Are you about to have a heart attack? All that and more when we return."

(Insert six minutes of moronic commercials here.)

"Welcome back. Tonight, we'll bring you disturbing video of a high-speed chase by police in a distant state, the latest congressional scandal, a new terrorism alert and your full seven-day forecast. But first these messages."

(Six more minutes of inanity.)

"We're back with the latest crime news. Robbery. Murder. Arson. Assault. These crimes and more could happen any minute. Quick, run out and buy yourself a gun and some body armor.

"If you know anything about these crimes or if your neighbor's dog won't stop barking, you should call Crime Stoppers and rat somebody out."

(More commercials.)

"Now for an investigative story you'll only see here on Eyewitness On-the-Spot First Live Late-Breaking News. Are M&Ms hazardous to your health? What about the green ones? For the latest on this troubling investigative story, we go to Juanita Botox, 'live' in the newsroom, which means she's maybe six feet from where I'm sitting. Juanita?"

"Thanks, Tony. So far, the makers of M&Ms aren't returning our phone calls. And we all know what that means."

"Thank you for that exclusive report, Juanita. It certainly does look suspicious. We turn now to international news in this 'World Minute' that I taped during my lunch break.

"Crises in the following countries: Iraq. Iran. North Korea. Israel. Venezuela. Could these international developments affect you? Will gasoline prices rise? Could this be the end of the world? Tune in at ten, when we'll give you the full details.

"We'll be back in a few minutes with more news, weather and sports. But first, the really Big Story of the day. Our ratings are up! Thanks to viewers like you, who demand nothing more, we can spend all our time on self-promotion, meaningless crime scares, long-winded weather reports and cute video of little doggies, and we're the No. 1 station in our time slot! Now, for more exclusive commercials. . . "


Deal 'em, HAL

We were having the carpets cleaned at our house, and I was sitting at my desk in my home office. No chance of doing anything productive with carpet-cleaning machinery roaring all around, so I was plunking away at computer Solitaire.

The carpet guy noticed and said, "Solitaire, huh? It's funny, with all the high-tech games out there, the one I see people playing most is good old Solitaire."

"It's my downfall," I said without looking away from the screen, too busy losing another game. "Keeps me from getting any work done."

"You're in good company," he said. "Everywhere I go, doctors and lawyers, everyone's playing Solitaire."

That brought me up short. Here's a guy who spends all day in other folks' offices and homes and, everywhere he goes, people are wasting time playing cards with their computers? Don't they have anything better to do?

I recently saw a good movie called "The Man from Elysian Fields." In the film, Andy Garcia plays an unsuccessful novelist (a role for which I felt a special empathy). During one tough period in the novelist's life, he's suffering from writer's block. How did the filmmakers illustrate this? They zoomed in close to his computer to show he was playing Solitaire instead of working.

A guilty titter arose from the audience, one that said, "Been there. Done that."

And all this time I thought I was the only one who wasted hours of every workday playing computer Solitaire and its evil cousin, Free Cell. Apparently, the problem is more widespread.

You might expect that people like me, those without regular jobs, would be especially susceptible to this addiction. We're in our home offices all day with no bosses looking over our shoulders.
But "doctors and lawyers?" Are attorneys spending their billable hours diddling their keyboards rather than seeking truth and justice and headline-grabbing tobacco settlements? Are doctors taking time away from patients to have "consultations" with their computers?

These days, most American workers have computers on their desks. Are they all squeezing in a few hands of Solitaire between clients? Is this why you can never get anyone to answer a business phone?

The United States has the most productive workforce on the planet. Could we be even more productive if we weren't wasting huge amounts of time playing cards? If everyone stopped playing Solitaire, maybe we could pull the economy out of its slump.

Then again, perhaps Solitaire is the cause of the slump. Maybe, after 9/11 and Enron and Iraq and the deluge of other bad news, American workers said to themselves, "Whew, I can't take it anymore. Maybe a few quiet games of Solitaire will lift my spirits . . . "

Next thing you know, the economy's in the toilet.

You don't have to be completely paranoid to take this even further, though it helps. Computer Solitaire could be a terrorist plot to wreck our productivity. Or, it could be Bill Gates' secret plan to take over the world economy.

That "irrational exuberance" Alan Greenspan's always going on about? That's when someone wins a game.

Because what could be more irrational than devoting large blocks of time to a game that's so hard to win? No matter how much you practice (and, believe me, I've tested this theory), Solitaire remains very difficult. Lots of luck involved. Make one wrong move and -- pfft! -- it's time to start over.

And you will start a new game. You might plan to just dip in, play one little game, and get out again before anyone notices that you're wasting company time. But you're an American; you want to win. Next thing you know, the only people left in the office are you and the janitors.

How can we stop this evil influence? By swearing off Solitaire. We can become more productive workers and stop wasting our lives.

Follow my lead, America. No more Solitaire. Find a better way to use your workday.

I, personally, intend to spend more time playing Tetris.


How many light bulbs does it take to change clothes?

Sometimes, illumination isn't such a good thing.

I recently changed a light bulb (insert joke here), and it's going to end up costing me money.

That's because the light bulb was in my walk-in closet. When I replaced it, I discovered that the dead bulb dated from before we moved into this house, four years ago.

The previous homeowner had used a dim bulb -- 40 watts, something like that. I installed a new 100-watt bulb and the closet suddenly was filled with bright light.

Here's what I discovered in this newly illuminated space: None of my clothes match. And many of them bear the faint traces of old food stains.

I also found the closet was covered in dust and pocket lint and other litter that had accumulated there in the half-light. Much of this detritus was on my clothes.

How did this occur? Well, for one thing, I've essentially been dressing in the dark for the past four years -- who knew? For another, I work at home, which means my clothes don't get trotted out into the daylight very often.

Those of us who work at home tend to wear the same items over and over. A bathrobe, for instance. A favorite pair of ratty jeans. Ancient T-shirts announcing tours by long-dead rock stars. Sweats. If no one is going to see us all day, what difference does it make? Why not be comfortable?

On occasion, we work-at-home types must go out into the greater world, and this requires decent clothing. Then we have to sort through our closets for shirts and slacks and dress shoes. Preferably, these garments will have no major holes or stains or depictions of beer. But that's not easy to detect in a tight space lit only by a dusty 40-watt bulb.

Now that I've gotten a 100-watt look at my wardrobe, I find I must buy new clothes. This raises a fresh problem -- shopping.

I hate to shop for two reasons. One, I am a guy, and everyone knows guys have a genetic disposition against any kind of mall-trolling. Two, I'm a very large guy and my sizes are hard to find.

A typical clothes-buying excursion for me consists of frantically rifling through folded garments, trying to find something, anything, in size extra-large/tall, or XLT. (Doesn't XLT sounds like a racy car of some sort? Never mind.)

Stores don't carry that size. Oh, they might have a few items, but all the other XLT guys out there -- the ones who buy clothes more than once every five years -- have already snapped them up. As an XLT, I'm too large for your standard rack of clothes and not big enough for the Big-and-Tall men's stores, where you're required to have at least two XX's to even enter the wide door.

Shopping -- for an XLT guy who really wants to wear only rags anyway -- can be a frustrating, time-consuming experience that often results in the ingestion of large quantities of consoling beer.

My wife suggested I shop on-line, but I've had bad experiences there, too. Last winter, I splurged on a sweater on-line because it was on sale for half off. The color I selected was called something like "harvest gold." When the sweater arrived at my house, it turned out to be more like "autumn sneeze." Under fluorescent lights, it becomes "ultraviolet phlegm." It's not a garment I wear much, at least not anywhere that might have electric lights.

Since XLT clothes that aren't in funny colors tend to be expensive, changing that light bulb means I'll have to spend hundreds of dollars on new clothes if I ever expect to go out in public again.

But I've come up with a cheaper plan. I'm buying some 40-watt bulbs. Better to curse the darkness than to go shopping.

In fact, I think I'll put low-wattage bulbs throughout the house. Perhaps, in the resultant gloom, visitors won't be able to see the dust.


Brand-new day

You often hear busy adults say there "just aren't enough days in the week" to get everything done.

The solution, clearly, is to add more days.

I'd suggest that we squeeze another day into our weekends. It could be a day for family members to go their separate ways, pursuing their individual hobbies, sports, etc. We'd call it Scatterday.

Got a better idea? Post your proposed calendar additions in the comments.


Utility player

Before you call to inquire: Yes, my refrigerator is running.

So is my deep-freeze and my dishwasher and the washer-and-dryer. The furnace roars. The computer fan whirs. Somewhere, a toilet is mysteriously running. That infernal fluorescent light in the kitchen is buzzing again. And I can't get any work done.

With the kids safely imprisoned in school, the home office should be quiet as a tomb. But no, the child-free home turns out to be a lively place, a regular disco full of sounds and smells and lights left on in empty rooms.

I carefully schedule my home-office time to coincide with the hours when my two sons are safely in school. I need absolute quiet when I'm working, and there's no chance of that happening if my children are anywhere within three city blocks of my desk.

In the sudden silence, background noise steps boldly to the foreground.

An example: Various heaters in our house are going around the clock, preserving that greenhouse effect that keeps my wife's plants thriving and the rest of us in "tropical wear." The constant growl of the burners becomes like static over a phone line. We talk over it. We turn up the TV a notch. Pretty soon, we don't even notice the heaters.

But when I sit at my desk and try to wrap myself in silent concentration, the heaters boom like endless thunder. I notice one is making a ticking noise, and I start to worry. I jump up and go examine the heater for any sign of flame or smoke or other malfunction. (It's a given that I know absolutely nothing about how heaters work, but I'm compelled to go check.)

This is how I spend my work-day -- playing "What's That Noise?" Jumping up and running around the house, then returning to my desk with no idea what I was doing originally.

Partly, this is because we've made so many plumbing/furnace/flood repairs to our old house over the years. I always expect the worst when the place makes an unfamiliar creak. Partly, it's because I'm so focused on the quiet, that every noise-- no matter how inobtrusive -- feels like a jolt to my brain.

We recently added to the household din by purchasing a half-size deep-freeze, mostly to store the annual harvest of roasted green chile.

(I'd love to tell you how my wife saved the delivery fee by driving the new freezer home herself -- the huge box jutting from the back seat of her top-down convertible -- but there isn't room here, and you wouldn't believe it anyway.)

The deep-freeze runs just as quiet as any other modern major appliance, which is to say just loud enough to penetrate your subconscious, even when you're at the far end of the house.

My problem: The new freezer has a nervous, high-pitched motor, which sounds like water singing in the pipes. Since it's parked near a bathroom, I trek to that end of the house, oh, 37 times a day to see if someone left the water running or if that long-balky toilet has finally run amok. What I find is the freezer, whining along, doing its job.

The freezer shares a room with the washer and dryer. Our regular refrigerator is right around the corner. When they all get going at once, it's a regular symphony of hissing water and tumbling jeans and humming compressors and the ka-chunk of the icemaker. Listen closely, and you can practically hear the electricity being sucked from the grid by those huddled appliances, a portent of whopping electric bills to come. And that, folks, is why they call it the "utility room."

The music of the appliances eventually starts sounding like the ringing of a cash register at the power company. All that money constantly flowing out of the house, so the house in turn can make enough noise to drive me crazy.

The sounds should be an impetus for me to get busy and make some new money. And I will, just as soon as I can get some quiet around here.


Bugged by baggage

I recently flew on commercial aircraft for the first time in a year, and I'm deeply concerned about the state of airport security during these troubled times.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, one of the nation's busiest, I noticed several signs that said: "Passengers Must Control Their Baggage."

Apparently, during my travel hiatus, baggage has been running amok in our nation's airports. It's one thing when weary air travelers can't control their children in congested airport concourses, but when their luggage starts misbehaving, look out.

I didn't see any baggage do anything suspicious during my recent flights, but I kept a close lookout because those signs were everywhere.

Perhaps I misread the situation (the signs included a lot of fine print that I couldn't make out without removing my bifocals and holding them three feet from my face like a doofus).
But if the signs didn't mean we had reason to fear our own baggage, what could they mean? Keep your baggage on a leash? Don't let your carry-ons whisper among themselves? Watch out for rolling suitcases popping little wheelies in the corridors?

Was "Passengers Must Control Their Baggage" a crude suggestion referring to foundation garments? This was in Texas, after all.

Finally, it dawned that these signs had been erected, as it were, to replace those questions airline clerks used to ask -- Has anyone else had possession of your luggage, etc.

I'd read that government officials no longer required airlines to ask those questions, but I didn't even notice during check-in that I wasn't quizzed with the hilarious old stand-bys.

(I always loved, "Did you pack your own bag?" As if I could get anyone else to pack it for me. I always wanted to answer, "My butler tidied everything up," but I never worked up the nerve.
I suppose my kids would pack my bags if I asked, but they'd probably put in a lot of action figures and none of the clothes would match. I'd arrive at my business meeting dressed like Bozo on Yardwork Day.)

I was distracted at check-in because, as I stood in line, I saw one passenger after another get "selected" for the now-customary "dump search," in which an extremely bored airport security worker paws through all the passengers' belongings, including their foundation garments. By the time I reached the counter, I'd spent ten minutes running repeated mental inventories of anything embarrassing they might find in my bags. I worked up an anxious sweat, then was allowed to sail through without a formal body-cavity search. This, naturally, made my day.

It wasn't a busy travel weekend, but I followed the rules and arrived at the airport exactly two hours early for all my flights, so I'd have plenty of time to get through security checkpoints. Each time, it took about ten minutes. Which left me with approximately three days to sit around the airport. I spent more time sitting in airports than I did sitting on airplanes.

I used all this newfound spare time in productive ways -- watching for out-of-control baggage and eating.

People-watching's fun, but pretty soon you start noticing how other passengers aren't keeping their baggage under control and you feel compelled to say something, though you know it will make a scene . . .

Better to keep your head down, eating at the franchise-food bazaars that have turned all airports in America into bright, plastic hog-troughs. The airlines won't feed us anymore (mini-pretzels don't count, dammit), so we air travelers scarf down tacos and waffle cones and burgers and pizza and double-latte mocha-chokas while we're waiting on our planes.

Most of this food is deadly, fattening stuff, and one must search long and far to find something nutritious, like beer. Sometimes, on airplanes, if you listen carefully, you can hear your seatmates' arteries hardening.

If terrorists were smart, they would do nothing to interfere with our national air travel system. The body-cavity-search anxiety and the waiting and the lousy carbohydrates take a bigger toll on the security of frazzled travelers than any terrorists' puny efforts.

Plus, now our baggage is out of control.

(Editor's note: This column first appeared in newspapers in 2002. I'm happy to report that the airlines have solved all these problems since then.)


Room to grow

The latest "hot trend' in home design reflects perfectly our modern, pell-mell, multi-tasking, cell-phone-gabbing way of life.

Look at home magazines and real estate ads and you'll see how designers now construct every room with three or four uses in mind. For example, a kitchen will also be a laundry and an office and a hobby center and a conversation pit built around a fireplace. And there'll be a TV hidden in the cabinetry.

These ingenious designs make use of every square foot of space in the house by using the latest technology: stoves that are also refrigerators, washing machines that are also dryers, microwave ovens that are also X-ray machines, beds that fold into walls, desks with built-in bars. Every nook and cranny of every floor plan these days is crammed with a computer station and a telephone.

Such designs allow us to do many things at once, which is the way we live. We work in bed and eat in the den and phone from the kitchen and sleep in the office. And everyone else in the family is running around like crazy, trying to do everything at once, too. This is why, when you call your friends, you can always hear in the background a TV yapping and a toilet flushing and something sizzling on the stove.

Most of us don't live in houses specially designed with multiple uses in mind. Older homes have your standard arrangement of rooms and cabinets and electrical sockets, so we have to furnish and shape these rooms to fit our needs. This is how reclining chairs end up in breakfast nooks and toy boxes get tucked into bathroom corners. It's why the accent piece in every room is a tangle of gray computer cables.

Traffic patterns, comfort preferences and time conflicts dictate where people congregate and where we put our stuff and where we find quiet nooks where we can avoid the rest of the family. And that requires using rooms in ways that weren't intended.

Hasn't the kitchen always doubled as meeting hall? Whenever you host a party, doesn't everyone gather in the kitchen, noshing and yakking and leaning on counters and resting their elbows in sticky, days-old spills?

At our house, the laundry room doubles as an entrance, the living room has a desk in one end and a piano in the other, the foyer acts as closet space. The master bedroom is essentially a book-jammed library with a bed in it. The kids' rooms are toy storage facilities/disaster areas.
Then there's the "great room." This oversized room combines dining room, den, my home office, sunroom, gym and entertainment district into one cluttered, multi-use, feng-shui-free zone.
The room has big windows with a southern exposure, which means that this time of year, it also becomes a greenhouse. My wife likes houseplants, so there's always several flowering on the window sills. But this summer we fixed up our patio -- another Southwestern necessity -- and she went a little overboard at the nursery, until you couldn't see the patio for the trees.

When nights started getting cold, many of these plants needed to come indoors, so naturally she put them all in the sunniest room. My office/den/dining room now overflows with flora. The room currently has 29 plants, ranging from three inches to eight feet tall.

I'm not complaining. The plants are beautiful and she's arranged them nicely and they're pumping oxygen into our cooped-up indoor air. But they're crowding me a little.

My wife may have a green thumb, but I don't. I'm afraid to get near houseplants. Past experience has taught that if I water, move, touch or breathe on them, they'll expire within minutes. If I look at one too hard, it's the kiss of death.

With so many plants and potted trees around, I must skirt them when I walk and avoid them when I choose a place to sit and avert my eyes if one of them notices me. Because of this constant evasion, I move around the room like a nervous geek trying to do the samba.

And why shouldn't I be nervous? It's a jungle in here.

(Editor's note: In our current home, we have an actual office, separate from every other use. It's full of plants.)


Springtime for hardware

Spring is a time of renewal, a time of reawakening after the long, dark winter. And we all know what that means. It's time to tackle those home-repair projects we are not qualified to do.

We're not talking spring-cleaning here. That's a given. As warm weather arrives, many of us (mostly female) feel the urge to refresh and renew, to scrub off the grime, the muddy bootprints, the road salt and dessicated leaves. The rest of us (mostly male) play along, sweeping and scouring, getting the house ready for the onslaught of our children's summer vacation.

Our topic today goes beyond simple cleaning. We're talking about all those home maintenance projects that we put off because it was too cold. We burrowed in through the winter, hibernating like bears, but now warm weather has arrived and it's time to throw open the windows, assemble our tools and hurt ourselves in new and inventive ways.

For instance, my wife and I stripped some horrendous wallpaper in our bedroom and then painted the entire room. The results are splendid and we feel virtuous because we did the job ourselves rather than hiring professionals. And, we'll no longer have nightmares because of that hallucinatory wallpaper.

But -- there's always a "but," isn't there? -- I made a few mistakes. I didn't wear a respiratory mask while scraping and sanding the walls and I paid the price over the next week as I tried to chisel hardened plaster from my sinuses. All the repetitive stretching and bending served as a harsh reminder that I'm aging. And, naturally, I had to make many trips to the hardware store for items I'd overlooked, such as mineral spirits. (I still don't know what mineral spirits are, but we have plenty now.)

Before tackling your springtime home improvements, you should remember some basic rules. These will help simplify your projects and you'll be better prepared. And, if you follow these rules carefully, you'll soon see that you're better off watching TV.

1. Ignore home-decorating and handyman magazines.

Those beautiful remodeling projects pictured in magazines can inspire you to attempt ambitious projects better left unimagined. Refinishing those hardwood floors sounds great, until the power sander leaps out of your hands and climbs the nearest wall. A new deck seems like a good idea until the ninth time you hit your thumb with a hammer.

2. There's a correct tool for every job.

You will not own this tool. Make another trip to the hardware store.

3. Paint can cover up many errors.

It can also cover your carpet when it spills.

4. Wallpaper is the work of the devil. Avoid it at all costs.

5. The use of basic tools can result in injury. But if you really want to spend some time in the hospital, step up to power tools.

6. Solvents, pesticides, herbicides, cleaning solutions, paints, root killers, roofing tar and many other home-improvement compounds are toxic and should be handled with extreme care.
Might as well just kill yourself and get it over with.

7. Avoid ladders.

Falling is scary, and that sudden stop can hurt. Plus, getting 10 or 12 feet off the ground gives you a new perspective on your house. You'll spot more chores to do.

8. Wear gloves.

Those of us who usually sit at computers all day do not have the proper buildup of calluses to protect us from blisters and splinters. Of course, gloves won't help if you insist on hitting your thumb with the hammer.

9. Fasteners -- nails, screws, bolts, etc... -- must be the proper size to do the job.

Make another trip to the hardware store.

10. If something is supposed to move and it won't, spray it liberally with WD-40.

11. If something is not supposed to move and it does, secure it with duct tape.

Those last two rules come from my in-laws -- hardy, self-reliant ranch folk who live 100 miles from the nearest home-improvement superstore. They're forced to do it themselves, and they know the simplest solutions usually are best. Here's one more from them, which has become the byword for all home repair projects in our family:

12. Get a bigger hammer.


Got money?

Many of us who work at home find ourselves separated from the mainstream of the stumbling American economy.

While regular workers spend increasing amounts of time worrying about their money, we freelance types say in resentful, guttural tones: "What is this 'money' and how do we get some?"

But say you have some of this so-called "money." Do you know what to do with it? Are you saving for retirement? College? A rainy day?

Whether you work at home or in the usual slave labor, how you handle your money can determine whether you weather the current tidal wave of economic crises or become more welfare flotsam.

Money management is not for amateurs. Make a mistake, and you can regret it for a lifetime or beyond. Yet studies show that most Americans know more about football than they do about financial planning.

To see whether you're knowledgeable enough to handle your own finances, take the following quiz:

Question: To "invest" means to:

A. Plant your money in a place where it will grow.
B. Hide your money in the pocket of your vest.
C. Buy a new truck.
D. Wave bye-bye to your money.

Q. "Consumer debt" is:

A. Money you owe to MasterCard.
B. The fuel in the engine of the American economy.
C. Something we all have in common.
D. A lifelong pursuit.

Q: A "pension" is a:

A. Retirement fund.
B. Small hotel in France.
C. Pipe dream.
D. CEO's slush fund.

Q. The term "interest" means:

A. To hold one's attention.
B. Your share in a successful enterprise.
C. Money you earn on your savings.
D. Money you pay to a loan shark.

Q. "Mortgage interest" can be deducted from:

A. Your taxes.
B. Your landlord's taxes.
C. Your wallet.
D. The national debt.

Q. A 401(k) is a retirement fund that allows you to invest your pre-tax earnings now and collect the gains when you retire. What does the (k) stand for?

A. Karma.
B. Klutz.
C. Kick yourself.
D. Kill yourself.

Q. An "IRA" is:

A. A tax shelter.
B. A method of earning 2 percent interest on your retirement savings.
C. One of the Gershwin brothers.
D. The Irish Republican Army.

Q. The stock market is a way to:

A. Secure your future.
B. Diversify your portfolio.
C. Lose your assets.
D. Justify suicide.

Q. When considering a particular investment, you should:

A. Research it carefully.
B. Consult a professional.
C. Ask your Uncle Morty for a "hot tip."
D. Flip a coin.

Q. "Mutual fund" means:

A. A collection of investments managed by a professional.
B. A shared risk.
C. Read the fine print.
D. Community property.

Q. "Taxes" are:

A. Every American's responsibility.
B. To be avoided.
C. An albatross around the neck of the working man.
D. The largest state in the contiguous U.S.

Q. If you find ways to reduce your "tax burden," you could end up:

A. With more money to invest.
B. With more money to spend on a new truck.
C. In an IRS auditor's office.
D. In prison.

Q. "Wealth" is:

A. The measure of all your collected assets.
B. Relative.
C. Something your relatives have.
D. A pipe dream.

Q. The safest place to keep your money is in:

A. Mutual funds.
B. An interest-bearing savings account.
C. The stock market.
D. A cookie jar.

Q. To "diversify your portfolio" means:

A. To spread your money around among several different types of investments.
B. To carefully balance risk investments against "sure things."
C. To change the color of your briefcase.
D. To put your money in several different cookie jars.

Q. It's often said that "money can't buy happiness," but it can buy:

A. Financial security.
B. The illusion of happiness.
C. Politicians.
D. A new truck.


Don't touch that desk

I once worked with a persnickety bachelor who began each shift by hosing down his entire desk with Lysol and briskly scrubbing away all the unseen viruses and germs there.

We co-workers secretly made fun of him, cracking jokes about Felix Unger and the biological warfare of intentionally sneezing on his phone, but a recent news item shows he was right -- your desk is a veritable laboratory of sneaky bacteria.

A study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that the standard office desk has 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat.

The study said the worst places for bacteria were telephones, desktops and keyboards, which are the only parts of the standard office desk that get much use. Apparently, the only relatively safe place is the inside of your desk drawers, and it's hard to get any work done in there because the lighting is inadequate.

This study raises a number of questions:

1) Where did I put the Lysol?

2) Would it be safer to work in the bathroom?

3) Does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration know about this?

4) Which toilet seat was used as the benchmark for the study? And did that household include young boys who have difficulty with the concept of "aiming?"

5) What kind of scientist spends his time measuring bacteria on desks and toilets? And was the study federally funded?

6) Is there some way to blame the bacteria on Saddam Hussein?

I have no answers to these questions because I learned of the study in in a magazine called "Fast Company," and the one-paragraph article was short on details. "Fast Company," for those of you who've never seen it, is a hip business magazine for people who are too busy to read. It's aimed at those striving executives who have cell phones permanently glued to their ears and who take their laptops to church. Articles in the magazines tend to rely heavily on quotes from millionaire CEOs. The design is so splashy it's difficult to tell the articles from the advertisements.

Why, you may ask yourself, was a housebound writer type like me, someone whose idea of a hectic business day includes liberal doses of computer Solitaire, reading "Fast Company?" Well, it was in the bathroom at our house.

Magazines tend to congregate in bathrooms, and at our house the bathrooms are regular periodical libraries, where there's always something to read, no matter how brief the stay. In the bathroom -- where, let's face it, I'm a captive audience -- I'll read most anything, including the "Old Farmer's Almanac" and the kids' "Mad" magazines. No doubt all these magazines are infested with bacteria.

Anyway, occasionally I see something in these accumulated magazines that applies to our workaday world, and this bacteria study sure made me sit up (as it were) and take notice. A desk has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat? It's a wonder we don't all keel over dead every time we check our e-mail.

The results of the study should come as no surprise, I suppose. Even the worst housekeepers must clean the toilet every week or two, or the place starts to smell like the restroom at the bus station. Desks, on the other hand, can be cleaned less frequently, such as, oh, never.

Most desks are buried under files and calendars and power cords and reference works and Post-It notes and "Dilbert" cartoons. This clutter makes an ideal habitat for bacteria, who take to it like snakes to a woodpile. To clean your desk properly, you'd have to move all that stuff and scrub everything down and then put all the stuff back. And who has time for that?

Even if you're a neat freak who keeps all clutter hidden away, the type who can actually see your desktop, I'll bet you don't regularly police the area for bacteria. And, if you did, how could you tell when you'd successfully rid your desk of this invisible menace? You'd need a researcher in a hazmat suit to stop by and measure.

While he's there, have him check the toilet seats. And all the magazines.


Hello? Hello? Aw, hell

If you read business news, then you know phone response centers are one of today's growth industries. Every time you turn around, there's another article about a new phone center opening, providing jobs for hundreds of people who'll take customers' calls.

So here's the question: How come, when you call a computer company or a governmental agency or an insurance claims office, there's no one to answer your call right away? Instead, you're subjected to Voicemail Hell, where you must "press 'one'" to get through complicated menus of choices before -- someday -- a human being comes on the line.

My theory long has been that voice mail is simply a stalling tactic, something to keep you busy while the phone workers finish their doughnuts. It doesn't really matter which buttons you push, as long as you're willing to stay on the line. Eventually, some operator will tire of that blinking light and answer your call.

But lately I've found that Voicemail Hell has become truly eternal. If you don't press a button, then the recorded message repeats until you do. And repeats. And repeats.

And heaven help you if you punch the wrong button. Might as well hang up and start over.

Those of us who run home businesses spend large portions of each day in Voice Mail Hell. For those of you who manage to avoid it, here's a sampling of what you're missing (with commentary):

"Thank you for calling Endless Delay Incorporated, a division of Satanic Industries. Your call is important to us--"

(Not important enough for someone to answer the phone.)

"--so please stay on the line."


"All operators are busy now. Your call will be answered in the order it was received."

(And you're No. 6,429 on the list.)

"Endless Delay Incorporated offers a variety of special services for our call-in customers. Please listen carefully to the following menu."


"To hear this menu in English, press 'one' now. For Spanish, press 'two.' For Mandarin, press 'three.' For Lithuanian, press 'four'--

"You have pressed 'one' for English. To hear these messages in standard American English, press 'one.' For British English, press 'two.' If you're calling from Alabama, y'all press 'three'--"

"If you know your party's extension, please dial it now."

(If I knew that, I wouldn't be listening to this blankety-blank recording!)

"To speak to someone in Customer Service, press 'one' now. If you have a Technical Support question, press 'two.' If you have a problem with one of our products, press 'three.' If you are responding to a product recall, press 'four.' If you are placing an obscene call, press 'five'…"

(I've forgotten why I was calling. Maybe if I just stay on the line, someone will remind me.)

"You have pressed an invalid number."

(But I didn't press a number!)

"To speak to someone in Customer Service--"

(Here, I'll press 'one.' OK? Happy now?)

"Someone with Customer Service will be with you shortly. Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line."

(Perfect. I can't just hang up now. Too much time has been invested.)

"Your call may be monitored for quality control."

(That's creepy. Who's monitoring it? The FBI? And if this company cared about quality control, wouldn't they just answer the phone in the first place?)

"All operators are busy now."

(Doing what? Having a Tupperware party? If they're not answering the phone, what else have they got to do all day?)

"Your call is important to us."

(So you said.)

"Please stay on the line."


Finally, finally, a real live human comes on the line, saying, "Customer Service. This is (insert unpronounceable foreign name here). How may I help you today?"

I explain what I need. And the operator says I've reached the wrong department. I need Tech Services, not Customer Service. And the operator offers to transfer me.

Then I'm back in Voicemail Hell, on permanent hold, listening to how important my call is and how everyone's too busy to take it.

I know I've reached the true depths of eternal misery when I find myself longing for Muzak.


Tell us something we didn't know

So former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan goes on TV and says the nation's definitely "in the throes of a recession." The stock market responds by immediately plunging into negative territory.

Could someone please tell Mr. Greenspan to shut the hell up?

Thank you.

Open wide. No, I meant your wallet

I've been thinking a lot recently about the similarities between plumbing and dentistry:

--They're both high-paying jobs with regular hours.

--Outside those regular hours -- in times of emergency -- both professions can charge extra.

--Insurance (homeowners or medical) rarely covers the really expensive jobs.

--Both professions use specialized tools for diagnosis and repair.

--Dentists and plumbers mostly work in dark, wet holes.

--Customers are almost never happy to see them. Except in times of emergency.

These comparisons come to mind because I've had both professions dabbling in my wallet lately. You know your life has gone awry when it's suddenly populated by plumbers and dentists.

(I said this to my wife, who responded, "Better a dentist than an oncologist." Her subtle way of saying: "Stop whining, you big baby." She's right, of course. Plumbing and dental problems are nothing compared to life-threatening illness or other disasters. But given a choice, you'd avoid both plumbers and dentists, wouldn't you?)

And yet, in the aforementioned times of emergency, we owners of plumbing and/or teeth feel like getting down on our knees and thanking the gods of dark, wet holes that someone, somewhere, has the devotion to take up these mystical, lucrative crafts. If you've got a toothache or a major indoor flood, you're willing to pay any price to get an expert on the job.

I've been lucky when it comes to dentists. My regular dentist and the various specialists I've seen have been dedicated professionals who make the procedures as painless as possible. (And, if they're reading this, I'd like that trend to continue. Thank you.)

Most plumbers I've retained have been knowledgable and competent, too. They've maintained a professional image by keeping their shirt tails tucked in, and by explaining in great detail the source of my plumbing woes.

These explanations bring up another similarity between the two professions: There's always the implication that the problem is somehow the owners' fault. With teeth, it's failure to floss or to perform other proper maintenance. With plumbing, it's neglect or ignorance or having children who flush entire rolls of toilet paper at one, er, sitting.

What these professionals fail to remember is that we customers know nothing, and our problems usually are invisible until it's an emergency. Much of our plumbing is underground or otherwise hidden and we never give it a thought until the drains start backing up. The same, more or less, goes for our teeth. Until there's a problem, we choose to assume everything's fine.

Which brings us to the biggest difference between plumbing and dentistry. Most of us -- unless motivated by extreme poverty -- would never attempt to fix our own teeth. But many homeowners attempt to tackle plumbing problems, often making things worse. After all, we've heard all those explanations from plumbers in the past. We own tools. How hard could it be to do a repair ourselves?

An example: I had a bathroom sink with a drain that had been partially clogged for, oh, years. The sink emptied slowly, and refused to respond to all store-bought remedies. I kept thinking, if only I had a snake small enough, I could reach down that drain and break up that clog and life would be good. So I straightened out a wire clothes hanger and slid it down to the U-shaped trap and, sure enough, cleared the drain. I felt like a hero.

A week or two later, another sink began exhibiting the same symptoms. Aha, I thought, I can fix this. I got my straightened coat-hanger, pushed it down to the trap and deftly punched a hole in the rotted pipe below. The pipe responded by bleeding on the carpet.

Now I was faced with an emergency. I studied the situation for a good hour before doing what I should've done in the first place -- I called my dentist.

Kidding! I called a plumber, who came to the house and replaced the leaking pipe in a matter of minutes. He had the tools, he had the know-how and he had the proper parts.

Me? I had a checkbook. And a grateful smile.


In your dreams

Dream interpretation has become a popular and lucrative business, so today The Home Front -- in a blatant attempt to tear off a piece of that action -- features "Ask Dr. Dreamweaver," an informative guide to your dreams, nightmares and other nocturnal admissions.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I often have vivid nightmares in which spooky wraiths appear out of rain clouds and offer me Starbucks coffee. I'm concerned because these dreams keep me awake at night. Signed, Sleepless in Seattle.

Dear Sleepless: Your subconscious is telling you it's time to move to a drier climate. And, you should lay off the caffeine.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I'm a mother of three small children. Recently, I dreamed they all were sitting around the kitchen table, chewing on my purse. Please explain. Signed, Nervous in Nantucket.

Dear Nervous: Your signature is apt because this is what we professionals call an "anxiety dream." You're anxious about how much it costs to raise your children, and that manifests in this dream in which they're gobbling up your purse. These dreams are nothing to worry about, though they do tend to recur. As your children get older, particularly as they approach college age, you may find they're chewing up your 401(k) as well.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I work in a large office. Recently, I've had several dreams where the walls of my cubicle are closing in on me. These dreams are very frightening, and I wake up in a sweat. Is my subconscious trying to tell me something? Signed, Claustrophobic in Columbus.

Dear Claustrophobic: Dreams often illuminate stresses from our daily lives. Your cubicle dream indicates you feel pressured and alone in your job. The company may be growing, and you fear you'll be squeezed out by new employees who are younger, more ambitious and better-looking than you. Your subconscious is telling you it's time to update your resume.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I recently dreamed I was in a Chinese restaurant, ordering pork dumplings, when I got into an argument with the knife-wielding chef because I insisted on paying him in Oreos. Does this mean I'm crazy? Signed, Alarmed in Albuquerque.

Dear Alarmed: Yes.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I often have wonderful dreams in which I'm no longer a computer nerd. Instead, I'm a rock star, surrounded by beautiful, adoring women. Could this mean I should take up the guitar? Signed, Lonely in Los Angeles.

Dear Lonely: In your dreams.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I often dream that I'm taking the final exam in a college class. Usually, it's a class I've forgotten to attend the entire semester, and I know none of the answers on the quiz. This seems unusual to me, since I never attended college. Signed, Stumped in St. Louis.

Dear Stumped: These dreams are very common, indicating anxiety in your waking life. There's nothing to be done for them. Just be glad that you, unlike so many who have this dream, aren't taking the test in the nude.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I often dream that I'm falling. I know that's not unusual, but in my dreams, I'm naked and plunging toward a large vat of creamed corn. What could this mean? Signed, Plummeting in Poughkeepsie.

Dear Plummeting: Dreams of falling often indicate a life that's unfulfilled or out of control. In your case, these dreams indicate you need to change careers. Look for something in professional wrestling or the adult entertainment industry.

Dear Dr. Dreamweaver: I have a recurring nightmare in which I'm surrounded by snakes. Snakes, snakes, everywhere. In the distance, there's a tall white monolith with a pointed top. What could this mean? Signed, Disturbed in D.C.

Dear Disturbed: A strict Freudian analysis of these dreams would uncover sexual connotations of various stripes, but the explanation is actually quite simple. Dr. Dreamweaver sees from your postmark that you live in Washington, where Congress is back in session. 'Nuff said.


Freedom to assemble

Want to chill the typical American male to his very toes? Then utter these three simple words: "Some assembly required."

Furniture and bicycles, toys and stereos, computers and exercise equipment all arrive at our homes these days requiring final assembly. And the average male gets out his tools and muddles through the "instructions" and proceeds to break whatever item he's supposed to be assembling.

This average male is thinking the whole time: "Don't they have someone more qualified to do this? Isn't there someone at the factory who knows how to do the final assembly?" Sure, the furniture (or other item) needs to fold flat for shipping, but wouldn't we all be happy to pay higher shipping costs to get the item in its finished form?

I'm sure some guys love the challenge of "ready-to-assemble" furniture and color-coded computer cables and toys in which the battery compartment is hermetically sealed, but I'm not one of them. And I think most guys fall into my category: Irredeemable klutzes who have no business assembling anything.

We klutzes know who we are. We'd never attempt to, say, create a piece of furniture from scratch. We know we're not gifted with the innate ability to handle tools properly. We stay away from power saws because we don't want the nickname "Stumpy."

But give us a piece of furniture compacted into a three-inch-thick box, and we're gung-ho. After all, the parts are all there, right? The holes are pre-drilled. The box contains instructions written in some semblance of English. Why, any fool could put it together!

Soon, though, we find that we're not just any fool. We're the fools who can't do anything right, the ones for whom "some assembly required" might as well read, "Forget about it, you idiot."

To be fair, it's not entirely our fault. Ready-to-assemble items rarely are truly ready to assemble. If there were truth in advertising, they'd be labeled: "Random assortment of parts that may or may not fit together. You're on your own."

Murphy's Law is hardly adequate to describe the pain and suffering faced by a guy who's trying to "insert tab 'A' into slot 'B' at a 45-degree angle." Here, then, are Brewer's Laws for Ready-to-Assemble Items:

--Tab "A" never fits into slot "B." There's always a ragged piece of plastic that prevents them from sliding together smoothly. Remove that excess plastic, and the tab will wiggle loosely in its slot. Forever.

--Instructions are written in pidgin English by someone from a foreign land, even if the item is labeled "Made in the USA." The foreign land that produces such writers is "Venus."

--Illustrations in the instructions will be so tiny, you won't be able to tell which part goes where without a microscope.

--No matter how carefully you handle the plastic bag full of nuts, bolts, screws and washers, you'll lose at least one of them. The missing hardware will be the one piece of that holds everything else together.

--Missing screws, etc., will be some oddball size they don't carry at American hardware stores.

--Yes, ready-to-assemble furniture comes with pre-drilled holes to make it easier to line up the pieces, but one of the holes will be in the wrong place. It won't be off by much; just enough to make you slowly go insane.

--If tools such as Allen wrenches are included with the hardware, they'll be made of flimsy metal that just begs to be broken. And, they'll be too small to use with your actual hands. If you try to use real tools in their place, the tools will not fit. The next sound you hear will be the stripping of a bolt.

--When pieces don't fit, you'll eventually get mad and try to force them. This will result in permanent damage, both to the item and to your fingers.

--If you succeed in assembling the item, there always will be a few screws, etc., left over. These parts should be discarded immediately before your wife sees them.

Remember these rules when faced with "some assembly required." They won't make it any easier, but they'll remind you that someone, somewhere, is getting a good laugh at your expense.
My money's on those Venusians.


Musical cares

Here's a parental axiom: Whatever music you, the parent, despise the most will be your child's absolute favorite.

Music plays a key role in the parent-child relationship. Children need a medium for rebellion, and popular music gives them the perfect way to drive parents crazy. This, of course, is one of the child's main life goals.

(Other life goals, in order, include 1) eating as much snack food as humanly possible, 2) wrecking the house, 3) sitting too close to the TV and 4) sending the parents into bankruptcy.)

To accomplish the music rebellion goal, children must discover which form of music is most abhorrent to parents. This is why parents should never, ever, let on that they consider a particular song to be an abomination. If they do, the children immediately will buy all available CDs by that particular artist and play them at top volume until the parents' ears bleed.

Say, for instance, that you consider "rap music" to be an oxymoron, and nothing annoys you more than the thump of bass and the angry ranting of misguided street youth. If your child discovers you feel this way, he will become a lifelong rap fan. And nothing short of round-the-clock earplugs will save you.

This is not a new phenomenon. Parents have railed against popular music since the advent of radio. Frank Sinatra, when he was young and skinny, sent girls into such swoons that parents wanted him banned as a health risk. Then there was Elvis Presley, whose hips were too lascivious for television and whose sex appeal turned the nation on its head, eventually leading to today's music videos, which are essentially soft porn. Next came the Beatles, who, according to parents, were less about musicianship than they were about hair.

In each of these cases, parental disapproval fanned the flames of the musicians' popularity. If Mom and Dad hate it, then it's gotta be good, right?

Each generation must up the ante. Parents who cut their teeth on rock-n-roll tend to be more accepting of the foibles of youth. Their children must find new ways to irritate, which has resulted in the "progression" of modern music through heavy metal, glam rock, disco and Britney Spears.

Baby Boomers have altered the equation. Because we refuse to grow up, many of us still listen to rock, sometimes on the same radio stations our children enjoy. This forces the children to search farther afield for rebellious music. I'm sure that, somewhere, there's a parent, an Ozzy Osbourne fan, who's slowly being driven nuts because his kids insist on listening to Chopin.

At our house, our two sons -- ages 10 and 13 (when this column first appeared) -- have gotten seriously into pop music in the past year or so. They watch MTV and VH1. They sing along with the car radio, showing that their brains -- like mine -- are storing lyrics where more important data should go. Their bedroom radios whisper all night long.

Some of their favorites make my teeth grind together, but this has been true since they were toddlers and listening to Barney the Dinosaur or Alvin and the Chipmunks. I'm careful not to show my dismay at their musical choices -- children are like horses; they can smell fear. My tastes tend to be eclectic, and I can embrace almost any format with enthusiasm (or at least a straight face) for short periods of time.

This leaves my sons confused. How can they find music that I hate, when I seemingly like (at least some of) everything?

Oh, they've managed. I let it slip once that I cannot abide a guy named "Weird" Al Yankovic, who plays the accordion and does parodies of popular songs. I'm all for parody, but this guy's voice gives me the same chills that most people get from fingernails on a chalkboard.

Letting my sons know this was a grave parental error. My 13-year-old now loves Weird Al. He knows that, if he plays the CD long enough, Dad will be forced to go outside. This fills him with rebellious glee.

So they've got me. But it could be worse. I'll take Weird Al over Alvin and the Chipmunks any day.

(Editor's note: As our sons have gotten older and become musicians themselves, they've developed an interest in older rock. Now, our house reverberates with Led Zep, Pink Floyd, The Doors, etc. I consider this Daddy's Revenge.)


Amazon does it again

I don't know what's going on at Amazon.com, but the trade paperback price on my thriller "Cutthroat" is listed at below wholesale again. Clearly a mistake, but the $14.95 book's for sale at $4.37 each, for now anyway.

Do your Christmas shopping early. . .

It's the economy that's stupid

Now that the phrase "The New Economy" must always be accompanied by a loud flushing noise, you might be asking yourself: Does it still make sense to work in a home office?

The answer is a resounding "You betcha!"

Sure, the economy's on the skids. Yes, the stock market's bouncing up and down like a beach ball at a Jimmy Buffett concert. And, of course, the current economic crisis makes managers edgy and cold. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't barge into the boss' office and demand to be allowed to work at home.

Your boss no doubt is distracted by the falling stocks ticking inside his head. Your boss is fumbling for the ripcord on his golden parachute. Your boss has big worries, such as whether to buy silence from his accountant before the Feds close in.

Your boss does not have time to deal with puny problems such as whether you, loyal worker, perform your duties from the corner office or from a corner of your den.

(For that matter, you could file your reports from the corner bar, and your harried boss probably wouldn't notice.)

So now, while the Big Guy is preoccupied with big issues such as tax evasion, might be the perfect time to ask: Can I work from home?

In The New Economy (flush!), working at home makes more sense than ever. Communications technology makes it possible to keep in touch all the time, and most high-tech, information-oriented work can be done from a home computer.

The 20 million-plus of us who already work at home know it's cheaper, simpler and more efficient than commuting to a job. Working at home makes for a flexible lifestyle, which is important if you have school-age children who always need to be driven somewhere. Plus, a home office comes with such intangible benefits as being able to eat Twinkies at your desk while working in your underwear.

Despite these benefits, many nervous employers resist the home office trend. They don't trust New Economy (flush!) workers to put in a full 60-hour week unless someone keeps an eye on them. Employers prefer "all hands on deck" so they have a large number of scapegoats to blame when things go terribly wrong.

The trick to persuading bosses to allow you to work at home is to show them that it's to their benefit to not have you underfoot.

Here are some facts to help you make your pitch:

--Studies have shown companies save money when they don't have to provide office space for all their employees, particularly the fat ones.

--Research has found that at-home workers are just as productive as ones kept under surveillance, and they're happier and more likely to stay in a particular job.

--Time currently spent commuting could be used more productively. And you'd conserve fossil fuels, unless you count the Twinkies.

--At-home workers are less likely to testify against their employers.

--Fewer documents to shred.

Working at home does have it hazards, particularly if you have school-age children who always need to be driven somewhere. Some people find they lose their foothold on the Ladder of Success when they work at home in their underwear. You can find yourself "out of the loop," missing important watercooler gossip about who's getting promoted and who's getting fired and who's going to prison.

(On the other hand, you get to be absent when SEC investigators raid the place.)

If working at home sounds right for you, go spring the question on your boss. What have you got to lose? Well, your job, for one thing. Your request might be the straw that breaks the proverbial CEO's back. He might say something like, "You want to stay home all day? Go ahead. You're fired."

But is that any worse than sitting around the office, biting your nails and watching the stock market, anxiously awaiting news that the pension fund's gone or the company's going belly-up or the Big Guy's going to Club Fed?

The New Economy (flush!) is steeped in worry and uncertainty, but you can be worried and uncertain anywhere.

Wouldn't you rather sit it out at home?