Out with the old (back)

Yesterday was the day after our holiday company went home, so we put away the Christmas stuff and rearranged all the furniture. I threw my back out pushing a table around, so our sons did most of the heavy lifting. When you need furniture moved, it's nice to have a couple of well-muscled young men hanging around your house. You just have to catch them during the 45 minutes a day when they're both home and awake.

Speaking of back pain, guess who's planning a quiet New Year's Eve?


Notes from Pismo

Nothing takes the go-go-go out of the harried Christmas season like a few days at the beach. Kel and I recently celebrated our 25th anniversary with a second honeymoon at Pismo Beach, and she's got photos here. One day, I too will know how to post photos to my blog, but that day is not today. So go check 'em out at Pink Hollyhock.

I spent a good deal of the trip sitting on our veranda, watching the waves crash against the cliffs, and I had many deep thoughts that I can't remember now. I did, however, make a few notes:

--At the beach, everyone looks sunburned and windswept.

--At sunup, it's a little chilly for sipping coffee on my second-floor veranda, so I wear unlaced sneakers and a leather flight jacket with my pajamas. I look like the pilot on the redeye flight.

--While Kel took a nap, I sneaked in a televised NFL game with the audio off. Sure, it's our 25th anniversary and all, but come on. The playoffs are coming up.


--In the harsh glare of the motel bathroom light, my wiry white whiskers make me look like a sidekick. Gabby Hayes, somebody like that.

--It is not possible to stare long at white seabirds without thinking of the word "wheeling."

--One insistently shrieking seagull can ruin a perfectly good veranda.

A dirty business

I go into the bathroom and my wife's in there, dressed in her flannel pajamas with the cats on them. Plants sit around her. She's at the sink, dunking what looks like a plastic bag full of mud.

Me: Whatcha doing, hon?
Her: Warming this sphagnum moss.
Me: Oh.
Her: Why? What does it look like I'm doing?
Me: Never mind.

Predictions for the new year

As we near the end of another weird and wacky year, many pundits, astrologers and psychics will spew predictions for the new year.

These forecasts of world events and celebrity surprises usually are accompanied by giant headlines such as: "Polar Ice Caps Melting, World to Drown" or "Three-Headed Aliens to Visit Earth" or "Ben Affleck to Wed Parakeet" or "Michael Jackson Invites Three-Headed Alien Children to Spend the Night."

These stories are amusing, but offer little actual help in preparing for the year to come. What follows are common-sense predictions, based on mathematical probabilities and Murphy's Law rather than on the spouting of some wingnut in a turban.

We predict:

--During the course of the year, several individual socks will vanish from your home without explanation.

--At some point during the year, your car will make a "funny" noise. You'll try to ignore it, but eventually will take the vehicle to a garage. The car will then refuse to make the noise for the mechanic. As soon as you drive way, the noise will resume.

--A phone call from a telemarketer and/or a wrong number will come at a crucial time, causing you to miss something vitally important, such as a touchdown on TV.

--If you have a dog or cat, it will eat the wrong item (i.e., important homework) and will yark it up on the carpet.

--No matter how nice the climate where you live, the weather will at some point take a turn so puzzling and abrupt that you will secretly wonder whether it's a sign of the Apocalypse.

--Someone will give you a gift you could never, ever use.

--At work, there will be ups and downs. The ups will always feel temporary. You'll weather the downs by telling yourself, "Ah, well, it beats flipping burgers." (If you flip burgers for a living, this item does not apply to you.)

--The batteries in your smoke alarm will die, causing the alarm to emit intermittent shrieks. This will happen during the dead of night; we guarantee it.

--Sometime in the new year, you'll eat something that "disagrees" with you. This disagreement will escalate into a full-scale argument, one that you will lose. By the next day, you'll feel better.

--At your house, you will experience at least one "plumbing emergency" during the year. You will try to fix the noise/leak/flood yourself, making it worse.

--If you are a parent, there will come a time during the year when your child will do something so inexplicably weird that you'll question why you ever had kids. Also, you'll catch yourself saying something that sounds just like your own parents, and this will make you momentarily miserable.

--Your computer will gobble up at least one important document. Also, you'll waste too much time playing games on the computer. The two may be related.

--Friends, neighbors and coworkers will try to guilt you into helping their children's fund-raising activities by buying "band candy."

--At some point in the year, you'll hear or read about a waste of your taxpayer dollars that's so phenomenal and idiotic, it will give you apoplexy.

--You will worry about your weight.

--You will say something you later regret.

--You will spend money on things you don't really need, such as band candy.

Now that you know what's coming, you can brace yourself for a year full of annoyances, surprises and disappointments. Try to approach the new year with a positive attitude, and don't let the negatives bring you down.

Remember: There's always next year.


The turkey says gobble

Now I know why we have the Full Turkey Dinner only once or twice a year. The leftovers last three months.

The holiday season is one long graze, an endless smorgasbord of cookies and cakes and turkey and dressing and egg nog. Everywhere you turn, there's more food, more booze, more festive calories.

No wonder the average American gains 137 pounds during the period between Halloween and Jan. 1. No wonder most people's New Year's resolutions focus on diet and exercise. We have to work off all that cheery holiday gluttony. Call it The Turkey's Revenge.

A friend remarked the other day that obese people always have food within easy reach. They're in front of the TV and they have chips and beer and candy and pork rinds all around them. All they need is a funnel.

During the holidays, this situation applies to us all. Food is everywhere and you can't avoid it, even if you try. There's too much peer pressure. Fail to partake of holiday fare, and people will think something's wrong with you, that you're sick or depressed.

Try this one at Thanksgiving sometime: "No turkey for me, thanks." Your family will want to feel your forehead for fever. Your host will glare at you, because that's one serving of turkey that will be left over, and your host simply can't fit another thing into the freezer.

There's so much food during the holidays that some folks become desperate to get rid of it. They do this by forcing it down the throats of their friends and co-workers. People bring Halloween candy and Santa cookies to the office to "get them out of the house." You can't stop by a friend's house without being offered a seven-course dessert tray. And you have to lock the car to keep neighbors from stashing Zip-Loc bags of leftover turkey in the glove compartment.

We're guilty within our own homes. We leave plastic-wrapped plates of desserts sitting out, hoping others will consume them before they spoil or before Easter, whichever comes first. Eventually, all these goodies migrate to the nearest TV, where they are within easy reach. Next thing you know, it's February and we're investing in a Stairmaster.

I'd like to say this dire situation is confined to the holidays, but that's not the case at my house. We have two growing boys and they think the entire house is an open-air buffet. Boxes of cereal and bags of chips and granola bars and Popsicles wander about our house, seemingly of their own accord, following our boys wherever they go. Always within easy reach.

We parents don't encourage this behavior. Indeed, we've tried to confine food to the kitchen, where there's no carpet to catch spills. But food is portable and the boys have a full of agenda of running around to accomplish every day. They can't help it if the food chooses to go with them.

The part I find most alarming is that they aren't even stealthy about their disobedience. They leave a trail of candy wrappers and apple cores in their wake.

Imagine this scenario repeated, with variations, oh, 42 times a day:

Son: "Dad, can I have a Popsicle?"
Dad: "Sure. Eat it in the kitchen."
Son: "Okay."
Hours later, I'll find the sticky Popsicle stick on my bedside table.
Dad: "How did that get in here?"
Son, wide-eyed: "I have no idea."
Dad: (Grumble, grumble.)

And it's not just the remains they leave. They also have packages of food stashed all over the house in case of emergency.

One day, I pulled into our driveway. The shades were up in one son's bedroom window and there, sitting on the sill, facing out at the world, was a bright orange jumbo box of Cheese Nips. It looked like a billboard or a political poster, as if our household had decided to come out in favor of Cheese Nips and we wanted the whole world to know it.

I was mortified, of course. I don't even like Cheese Nips. If we're going to endorse a food product, it should be leftover turkey.


A holiday poem

'Twas the week after Christmas, and all through the house
Kids were in trouble for staining Mom's blouse.
They hid in their rooms, as quiet as mice,
While Mom stormed, "We can't have anything NICE."

The kids hid and whispered and hoped for relief,
They knew Mom was ready to give them some grief,
They feared that they faced an untimely doom,
Unless they stayed hidden 'til school could resume.

Dad didn't bother to see what was the matter.
He lounged on the couch, growing ever fatter,
Caught up in the football games on TV,
"Too busy" to take down this year's Christmas tree.

Dad thought a hot pizza would be just super,
The perfect food to prolong his stupor.
But Mom snapped: "No new snacks we'll be heatin'
'Til all these Christmas leftovers are eaten."

'Twas the week after Christmas and no one was jolly.
The tinsel's all tattered, dried-up is the holly.
The stockings that hung by the chimney with care
Now lie in a heap behind Mom's favorite chair.

It's the week when the garbage can overflows,
With gift-wrapping paper, boxes and bows,
Apple cores, pine needles, crumbs from some sweets,
And somewhere, down deep, all-important receipts.

It should be a merry time for all girls and boys,
The week when they're busy with new Christmas toys.
But the words feared most have already been spoken:
"I'm sorry, my child, but this gizmo's broken."

Some toys have survived since they were unwrapped,
But now they won't go 'cause their energy's sapped.
Mom says to Dad, "Would you get up from there, please,
"And go to the store for more batteries?"

Dad agrees, in the interest of peace and quiet,
And the chance to sneak pizza into his diet,
But he'll end up regretting this trip to the store,
For post-Christmas sales have drawn shoppers galore.

While Dad battles traffic, Mom will calm down,
And sit in the kitchen, her face in a frown,
She'll sit and she'll ponder and search for a reason,
Why it's always so tense, the post-holiday season.

Why is Christmas, that joyous season of giving,
Followed by this stressful nightmare we're living?
Why can't we keep the spirit of peace and good cheer,
At least long enough to celebrate the New Year?

She'll get up from the table, give her shoulders a shrug,
Go hunt up the children and give them a hug.
Tell them all's forgiven and allay their fears.
"Kids are more important than blouses, my dears."

Heed Mom's example, as you live through this week,
As the kids drive you crazy with toys that go squeak.
Remember to keep Christmas spirit alive.
(It's weeks 'til the credit-card bills arrive.)


Last column

After some delay, the Record-Searchlight did post my final column for them online. You can read it here.

Thanks for all the comments and private e-mails from readers who'll miss the columns. Keep looking here for more of my stuff.


A day-after-Christmas gift

Congratulations! If you're reading this, you've survived another Christmas. Now let's see if you can endure the aftermath.

The days between Christmas and New Year's Eve are the doldrums of winter. Kids are home from school, but it's usually too cold to banish them to the outdoors. Many grown-ups are off work, loitering around the house, eating too much and watching mindless TV and having our bare feet punctured by fallen Tannenbaum needles.

We're all cooped up together, and the whole family settles into a disappointed funk.

We build up Christmas so much in this country -- starting around Halloween each year -- there's no way the holiday can live up to the hype:

--We didn't get the gifts we secretly wanted most, or the gifts weren't as cool as we thought they'd be.

--Holiday gatherings weren't the Norman-Rockwell-winter-wonderland-sleighbells-ringing scenarios we'd hoped, particularly since Uncle Floyd doesn't know how to behave when he's had a few.

--The children haven't shown near enough appreciation for the tooth-and-nail battles we parents fought to get the sold-out toy they really, really wanted.

By now, at least of one of those expensive Christmas toys has broken, resulting in tears and recriminations and false promises. The batteries in all the other toys have died, and parents everywhere are hurrying to convenience stores to pay three prices for new ones. It's all part of Santa's diabolical plan. Right now, he's on a beach somewhere, maniacally laughing his jingle bells

The house is a wreck, and sighing parents know we'll be plucking stray tinsel out of the carpet for months to come. All those cheerful lights and decorations must be taken down and packed up and put away before they're destroyed. We might've hung our stockings by the chimney with care, but right now one of the kids has them on his feet, using them to stomp the Christmas ornaments to smithereens. We've got dried-out dead trees in our living rooms, just waiting for a passing spark. Gift-wrap paper is strewn through every room, and the dog's discovered that it tastes good. Pretty soon, he'll yark up a colorful display of glitter and gilt.

(Speaking of gift wrap, answer me this: How come some people spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on extravagant Christmas presents, then suddenly become penny-pinchers when it comes to saving wrapping paper and bows "for next year?" You know who you are. Explain yourselves.)

Why do some food items that are special yummy treats at Christmas -- I'm thinking here of egg nog and fruitcake -- suddenly seem disgusting once the holiday has passed? Even the dog won't touch them.

If you've managed to avoid an actual hangover by steering clear of the egg nog, you're still facing the financial hangover that follows each Christmas season. Don't believe me? Wait until you see January's credit-card bills.

The post-holiday doldrums do have an "up" side. Now that Christmas is over, life eventually will get back to normal. You won't have to go to the mall unless you actually NEED something (or to exchange your disappointing gifts). Your Duracell stock holdings just went up. And, pretty soon, that Christmas Muzak will stop going round and round in your head.

So try to enjoy the next few days. Watch some football rather than another rerun of "It's a Wonderful Life." Throw out the leftovers in favor of regular food. Whatever you do, avoid weighing yourself. Tell the kids the Grinch has stolen all the batteries from every store in town. Host a festive tree-burning out in the yard.

You should take this time to relax. Remember: Only 364 shopping days left until next Christmas.

(Editor's note: This little scrooge of a column appeared a few years ago. This year's Dec. 26 is much more mellow. It helps to spend a few days at the beach right before Christmas.)

Unceremoniously dumped

My last Home Front column ran today in the Record-Searchlight. I was told just before Christmas that the newspaper would drop the column for budgetary reasons.

Budget must be really tight at the R-S if they can't afford a weekly freelance column. Earlier, I lost my "in" at Scripps Howard News Service when the Albuquerque Tribune went under. Tough year for newspapers.

While glad to be out of an industry in decline, I'm a little nostalgic about what may be my last byline in a newspaper. I entered the biz in 1975, and journalism has played a big role in my life.

But I'm not really going anywhere. I'm right here online. And bigger things are in the works. Stay tuned.


Merry Christmas

Hope you all have a happy holiday and Santa brings you exactly what you wanted.


Second honeymoon

We're back from a wonderful 25th anniversary trip to sunny Pismo Beach, CA, and environs. Spent several days looking out at the Pacific from our balcony, admiring the seabirds and pondering stuff. Came back rested and relaxed for the usual Christmas craziness. Kel's parents are here, it's raining, and we've got carols on the stereo, but in my head I still hear the surf.

I'll post more later, and Kel will provide more photos at http://www.pinkhollyhock.blogspot.com/.


Or at any time, really . . .

This time of year, big guys with beards really hate to be called "jolly." Trust me.


Keeping the kids busy

Christmas vacation from school now is known in most places by the secular euphemism "winter break," but they ought to call it "winter breakdown."

Parents everywhere already are pushed to the breaking point, harried and hassled by the annual madness of holiday preparation. Just when the schedule couldn't get any busier, our children are sent home to drive us crazy.

For three weeks or so, in the dead of winter, the kids are trapped indoors, making demands and wreaking havoc and tossing the house in search of hidden gifts.

The latter half of winter break isn't so bad because the kids have new Christmas toys to keep them occupied, assuming we've remembered to stock enough batteries. But those days between "school's out" and "Merry Christmas" can be trying. The children are all wound up, excited about the holidays, and before long, we parents have visions of padded cells dancing in our heads.

The trick to surviving winter break is to involve the children in the Christmas preparations. Make them a part of the shopping and cooking and cleaning and gift-wrapping. Let them see just how much work goes into making a happy holiday. Then maybe the little ingrates will be more appreciative and go play quietly somewhere and give your frazzled nerves a rest.

Here are some suggestions for including the kids in the holiday fun:

--Decorations. Children can be very helpful when it comes to decking the halls and stringing the tinsel. Just remember that they can't reach as high as you. And they see nothing wrong with putting all the decorations on the same Christmas tree branch.

--Homemade gifts. Set the kids down with construction paper and crayons and glue and they'll make a really huge mess, just in time for the relatives' visit. No, seriously, kids can produce wonderful keepsakes while experiencing the giving spirit of Christmas. These handmade gifts are particularly appropriate for recipients willing to overlook globs of glue and glitter everywhere. I'm thinking here of grandparents.

--Gift-wrapping. Older children can wield scissors and ribbons and help prepare the holiday gifts. One caution: Kids who help with the wrapping know what everyone will be getting Christmas morning, and will feel compelled to shout it out and ruin the surprise.

--Cooking. Many children enjoy helping in the kitchen, particularly if you're making sweets for the holidays. They love "licking the spoon," sometimes even before you're finished with it. But if you can overlook such unsanitary foibles, you can have a wonderful time cooking together. Let the kids help prepare the cookies and milk that will be set out for Santa's visit on Christmas Eve. Just make sure "Santa" doesn't actually eat them by mistake.

(One advantage to letting kids help in the kitchen: They're less likely to complain about food they cooked themselves. My two sons once made brownies from a mix that didn't turn out right. I said, "Sorry, guys, but this looks like black goo." My younger son immediately replied: "Black goo! I LOVE black goo!")

--Housework. Force the little urchins to help you get the house ready for holiday company. After all, they made the mess, they should help clean it up. Besides, they need to pick up all their toys so they'll have room to strew the new toys they get for Christmas.

Remember, parents: Get some work out of those kids before Christmas. Once they've opened their presents, you can no longer play the "Santa is watching you" card.


Holiday travel lunacy

Over the river and through the woods, to the loony bin we go.

The holiday travel season is in full stride, which means millions of Americans suffer temporary insanity. Why? Because they're trapped in planes, trains and automobiles with their families.

Many of us will travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles so we can be "home for the holidays." We're soon reminded why we live hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. We escaped our relatives: Uncle Floyd with his soup-can spittoon. Grandma Esther, who isn't happy until every forehead bears the imprint of her startling pink lipstick. Drunken cousin Rufus, who thinks a thawed turkey makes one hilarious hand puppet. That one crazy aunt (every family has one) who wears the aluminum-foil hat so the alien rays won't affect her, bless her heart.

Before you ever get to these eccentrics, though, you must travel with your immediate family, the people with whom you choose to spend your everyday life.

Travel is an exercise in too much togetherness. Pecadilloes that, in small doses, seem endearing or amusing -- ice crunching, tuneless whistling, mindless sniffing -- can become the most annoying habits ever when experienced over the course of a three-day car trip.

Add kids to the mix, and travel becomes unbearable. Children get bored and cranky. They're no good at sitting still. The answer to the question, "Are we there yet?" is never the right one.

Irritation and fatigue prompt parents to say things we'd never say if it weren't for the lunacy of traveling together. For example, in the course of everyday life, you'd probably never threaten to abandon your child on the side of the road. But let him misbehave enough during a long trip, and you'll soon hear yourself saying, "Don't make me pull this car over. It's a long walk home."

It's worse when kids act up aboard airplanes. Parents feel the disapproval of fellow passengers crowding them, but they can't threaten the child with "don't make me pull this plane over."

If a child starts shrieking, the mortified parent will do anything short of homicide to shut him up. When the kid does clam up, no one on the plane believes the quiet will last. Passengers faint from holding their breaths, waiting for the next scream.

Once, when our older son was a toddler, he would only stop shrieking if I let him stand on my lap and look out the airplane window. We'd made the mistake of dressing him in cute hiking boots with "waffle-stomper" soles. By the end of the trip, my thighs looked as if they'd been beaten with a waffle iron.

It's easier once the kids get older. Our two sons are now teens, so they're happy as long as they can ignore their parents and/or pretend they don't know us. This is true whether we're in an airport or at home.

My wife made a recent family trip much easier by supplying the four of us with separate headphones and music players so no one had to talk to anybody else. We spent the whole journey bobbing our heads to the sounds of different drummers, which pretty much sums up family relationships.

Aside from headphone isolation, the best survival tactic is to remember that holiday travel is temporary. Once you reach your destination, you'll be in the bosom of your family, gathered around the Christmas tree, laughing and opening gifts and wearing foil hats.

At that happy moment, with gift wrap scattered on the floor and shouts of "Merry Christmas" still echoing off the walls, you can start dreading the trip home.


Just say no more stuff

Yes, Virginia, there is a Sanity Clause.

This time of year, when we're all so full of holiday cheer that we keep finding bits of tinsel trapped in our teeth, some of us (namely, you) tend to go a little crazy.

People become slavering shoppers, hustling breathlessly through malls, snatching up any product with a bow on it. Doesn't matter if anyone can use this item. It matters only that one more gift obligation can be met. And the credit card isn't maxed out yet.

You should spend less this year. Not because of the economy. Not because we're worried about the economy. No, you should spend less this year because you don't need any more stuff. And neither do your relatives. Or your friends.

Most Americans I know are full up with stuff. We've got stuff to the rafters. We can't park in our garages because they're full of overflow stuff. The trunk of the car is full of stuff, and the floorboards are filling up fast.

And yet here we all go trooping off to the mall, grabbing up expensive stuff like it's going out of style, so we can give it to people who already have too much stuff and secretly don't want more.

I recently visited a local mall for my annual Christmas gift safari. Three hours there and my head swam from the cheery Muzak and the dizzying onslaught of sights and sounds. By the time I was done, I was so overwhelmed and tired, I almost fell on my pah-rump-a-pum-pum.

Yet I'd made little progress. Bought a couple of gifts and some new socks for myself. (I know, I know. Someone will give me socks from Christmas. But the need was dire.)

I barely made a dent in my gift list, which means I still have more shopping to do. I don't know if
I can face it.

Here's the problem: I wander the cheery department store aisles, browsing the goods, and nothing much slows me down. If I see something that might make a suitable gift, I pause and think: Does anyone I know really need this gizmo? And if they need it, don't they already have one? Is this an item that will end up stashed in the recipient's dusty garage?

These are reasonable, sane questions, which is, of course, where I'm making my mistake. To get into the true holiday spirit, you must be willing to buy any kind of random stuff willy-nilly, just to beat the Dec. 24 deadline. Which is why so many men end up making their Christmas purchases late at night at convenience stores.

We should be choosy about what we buy. We ought to find out what our loved ones really need rather than giving them stuff that'll end up on a floorboard somewhere. We ought to spend less of our money on the traditional holiday madness.

Talk to your family and friends about this. It's probably too late for this year, but use holiday gatherings to quiz them for next year. See if they really need any more stuff. Maybe you could agree to set some limits, give only what's needed, spend less.

Make a contract: No more useless, unnecessary stuff. Tell them it’s the Sanity Clause.

Dream word

We all know what "butterfingers" means, but what could be the definition of "butterknuckles?" Is that when you slip and punch somebody?


Stunned by electronics

If your Christmas wish centered on the hottest new electronic gizmo, then you may be what marketers call an "early adopter," the type who must have the latest toy available.

Early adopters drive the world electronics market. They're never satisfied with last year's model. They're willing to spend top dollar rather than waiting for prices to fall. They push manufacturers to make products smaller and faster and ever more complex. They have to be first so they can gloat and strut.

They are, in short, a big pain in the neck.

It's because of these gearheads that your new computer is obsolete before you get it out of its box. It's because of them that cell phones now take pictures and play songs and send e-mail. They killed VCRs in favor of DVD players, vinyl in favor of CDs (then CDs in favor of iPods), stereo speakers in favor of "ear buds" (which sounds like a disease).

Guess it's clear that I am not one of those guys. I resist every new electronic development. I was the last guy to surrender his Betamax. My stereo is older than my teen-agers (and just as troublesome). My computer starts with a crank like a Model T.

I'd still be using land lines and listening to a "hi-fi" if weren't for my wife, who happily buys every new widget that comes along, and my kids, who are thoroughly modern, which means they'd rather talk to their friends by "texting" than in person.

Part of my resistance comes from the fact that I tend to rigidly compartmentalize: cameras take pictures, phones make calls, computers send e-mail, orchestras play music. That makes it difficult for me to fathom one gizmo that does all those functions, and is smaller than a filling in your average molar.

The other reason I resist is that I don't want to spend weeks learning to use these products. Reading manuals (which are always written in techno-speak pidgin English), visiting instructional websites or -- God help us all -- calling technical support all seem like forms of torture to me. Just thinking about learning to take photos with a phone gives me a headache.

So I'm a "late adopter." I'm last in line. I embrace the new technology only after it's been loved by every geek in town. And I use a gadget until it either falls apart or my wife sneaks around and replaces it while I'm asleep. Even then, it'll be years before I learn to use the danged thing, and I only learn as much as I absolutely need to know.

I was drinking beer with a couple of friends one time, and they were comparing cell phones. They had the latest in shiny chrome fold-up phones, each smaller than an Oreo, which did every function you could imagine, short of lubing your car.

When it came my turn, I pulled out my cell phone and thunked it onto the table for their amusement. My phone was nearly as large as a brick. It didn't do anything except make phone calls. It had a belt-clip holster, and looked very much like the "phasers" used on the original "Star Trek."

"My God," one gearhead said, "that's prehistoric!"

"That's right," I said. "And I still don't know how to use the voicemail."

They stared at me as if I were an exhibit at the Luddite museum, with that mixture of awe and head-shaking disbelief that says, "How did people ever live that way?"

I just smiled. And set my phone on "stun."


Happy anniversary to us

Kelly and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary today. We're hoping for (at least) 25 more.

She marveled this morning at how fast the time has gone and I told her, "I blame the children. Everything speeded up once they came along."

The 16-year-old, passing by, said, "Happy to help."

Kel posted a photo from our wedding on her blog. It's kind of grainy, but worth checking out just for the very fashionable eyeglasses I wore at the time.


Rustle up some chicken

The third time was the charm for a Chowchilla, CA, chicken farm that kept getting hit by thieves.

Police say they arrested six people accused of stealing 200 live chickens from the farm. It was the third time in two weeks that the farm had been hit by chicken rustlers. Authorities said the chickens were packed into a van, and a few suffocated from the close quarters before they were recovered by police.

Those arrested are from Bakersfield. There's got to be a country song in here somewhere.

Full story here.

It's Santa's fault

If your children aren't getting the education they deserve, then blame Santa Claus.

That's right, it's because of jolly old St. Nick. And the holiday shopping season. And the Pilgrims. And whoever devised the calendar we currently use.

Educational experts regularly moan about the state of our schools, saying our children are falling behind their competitors in other nations. Such economics-fueled worries have led the federal government to develop many expensive programs to make schools more "accountable" for the fact that our children (and future taxpayers) are idiots.

I haven't followed the development of these programs all that carefully, but I believe the biggest one is called "No Child Left With A Behind," which has something to do with corporal punishment.

Anyway, my point (and I do have one, right here on top of my head) is that all these so-called experts overlook the biggest problem with our public schools, which is that we have a big whopping vacation set squarely in the middle of the school year.

That's right, the Christmas break, though it's called "winter break" in most places now because of assorted lawsuits. Kids get two to three weeks off from school, which is why so many working parents sing the carol: "All I Want for Christmas is Some Inexpensive Child Care."

Even those of us who work in home offices have problems with winter break. We're available to stay home with our kids, but we won't get much work done. And, naturally, here at the end of the year, we're usually facing crashing deadlines.

This leads to conflicts within the home. For instance, it's hard for the work-at-home parent to concentrate on his job during the post-Christmas period, when he has to stop every few minutes to repair cheaply mass-produced toys, or to run to the store for more batteries. Eventually, the parent will explode in frustration, which can take the shine off everyone's holiday spirit.

Parents might be able to manage if it were only two or three weeks of winter break. We could plan for that time. Set aside our work, and really enjoy our time with the children. Let the Christmas spirit warm our cockles and jingle our bells.

But no. As most parents will tell you, there's hardly any schooling going on between Halloween and New Year's. November is a big washout. The kids get long weekends for Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving. Teacher conferences cut many school days in half. And when the kids are in school, they're busy cutting turkeys out of construction paper and re-learning the annual lesson about Squanto and the Pilgrims. And that's in high school. The younger kids are still mastering crayons.

The first half of December is full of plays and recitals and Christmas pageants and basketball pep rallies and letters to Santa, rather than education. Then, faster than you can say "ho-ho-ho," the kids are home from school, with visions of Playstations dancing in their heads, erasing whatever they learned during the fall.

By the time they get back to school in January, they've forgotten everything, including Squanto and algebra and, in many cases, what gifts they received for Christmas.

Teachers are forced to review all that came before, to get the kids up to speed again. Just about the time the children have settled into a routine and are really learning -- spring break!

So next time you hear someone moaning about today's schools, blame all the holidays. And when your boss wants to know why you blew your December deadlines, say, "It's all Santa's fault."


Ta-DA! Part II

A woman in San Antonio, TX, was carrying her 2-year-old grandson across a street when she was hit by a car, police say. The toddler flew out of her arms, rolled up the windshield and through the car's sunroof. He suffered only minor injuries.

Grandma was hurt more seriously, but expected to survive.

No word on how soon the 2-year-old will be cast opposite Jackie Chan.

Full story here.

An audience of one

When you talk to yourself, you're guaranteed an audience that's sympathetic, if not always fully attentive.

You might not realize that you're mumbling all alone at your desk, but some part of your brain is listening. You always seem to pick up the general drift, and you find that you're a person who, by golly, thinks the same way you do. How can a conversation get any better than that?

As more of us work in pods remote from our colleagues and customers, each home office is filled with a Greek chorus of one, exhorting its own efforts and commenting on its every move and posing scintillating questions such as "Where have I put my keys?"

People who talk to themselves are portrayed as being dotty, but a certain amount of self-chat actually aids daily sanity retention. Talking to ourselves helps us navigate and prioritize our days. We are the air traffic controllers of our lives, muttering unruffled instructions into our own ears. A sense of control, no matter how illusory, gives us confidence and the will to go on, and we're perfectly happy to talk about that, too.

Talking to ourselves helps us process incoming information. Some data needs to go through the ears to become clear. Hearing something said out loud, even if you said it yourself, can plant a reminder in your brain.

Talking to yourself helps you regain focus after interruptions. You can talk yourself back on track. This is why the No. 1 question asked aloud by solo workers is, "What the heck was I doing?" followed closely by, "Why did I come in here?" Posing such questions can guide you through your workday, and lead to self-realization, such as that you're spending way too much time in the laundry room.

People often disguise self-talking by pretending they're speaking to inanimate objects, such as dogs. Phrases such as "Where did my coffee go?" and "You stupid toaster!" are symptomatic of this pretense. Modern life has increased the number of inanimate objects in our lives, so this has become a common mode of talking to ourselves.

A computer, for example, is invaluable as a reason to exercise one's vocal cords. Beyond the expected frequent bursts of cursing, a computer gives the user a reason to sound off in positive ways: "Are you sure you want to start a new game?" the computer asks, and I hit the button with conviction as I pronounce, "I'm absolutely certain!" That's a successful interpersonal transaction right there.

In my family, my great-grandfather was famous for talking back to the TV. He was very old at television's debut, and TV caught hold of American culture just as great-grandpa loosened his hold on reality. He'd shake his bony fist at the TV and argue with the news and call Walter Cronkite a "lying SOB." He seemed to truly believe Walter could hear him. Also, he wouldn't change clothes in front of a TV.

Other members of my family also have a history of talking to themselves like lunatics, and I'm doing my part to continue the tradition. I spend all day in running narration, talking my way through work and play, throwing in the occasional color commentary or playful aside.

I'm an appreciative audience. Of that, I'm absolutely certain.


Ad bag

Today, I went outside to pick up the newspapers. The NY Times was there already and, while I was outside, the Record-Searchlight delivery lady tossed her paper into my driveway with a sunny, "Good morning!"

I went into the house, opened the plastic bag and started doing what I do every Sunday -- discarding all the ads. But this time there was a problem: I had two sets of ad inserts, but no actual newspaper. Once I'd thrown out all the ads, all I had left were the funnies and Parade magazine.

The sunny delivery lady had delivered a bag full of advertising. And they wonder why people get their news on-line.


Furniture shopping tips

Move every few years, and you regularly face the need to adapt existing furniture to new spaces. You end up with strange combinations, or matching pieces in different rooms, or stuff stacked in the garage, awaiting use in future homes.

This migratory pattern has given rise to a popular home-furnishing style known as "eclectic." Eclectic (from the French for "mismatched bookshelves") means furniture purchased for previous houses, rearranged to fit current needs.

Furnishings put our personal history on display, and "eclectic" style lets us show just how haphazard our lives have been. This is how you end up with a hula-girl lamp on top of an antique commode, next to a waterbed, all sitting on a colorful rug apparently purchased that drunken night on the Mexican border. You accumulate such items over time. Like tattoos.

Eventually, you land someplace where you'll stay awhile and your thoughts turn to new furniture, maybe some that matches, maybe some that doesn't wobble or have big butt-dents in the cushions.

(The previous paragraph does not apply if you are a "guy." Guys don't care about butt-dents. Guys have two thoughts about furniture: 1) Is it arranged so that I can get to bed in the dark, drunk, without falling over something and breaking an elbow? And 2) Is my chair lined up directly in front of the TV?)

The problem with furniture shopping, as with most shopping, is sifting through too many choices. Too many weird products and funny brand names and unfamiliar terms like "eclectic."

We're here to help. Clip the following Furniture Glossary and take it with you when you hit the stores.

Furniture Styles and What They Mean:

Early American -- Spindly.

Primitive -- Splintery.

Santa Fe style -- Primitive, but brightly painted.

Country style -- Primitive, with gingham touches.

Mission style -- Nothing to do with the missionary position, so stop smirking. Square, wooden, uncomfortable.

Colonial -- Uncomfortable furniture designed by people who had the fashion sense to wear large buckles on their hats.

Contemporary -- Uncomfortable.

Modern -- Uncomfortable, with sharp edges.

Art Deco -- Uncomfortable, but shiny.

Shaker -- Uncomfortable, but in a penitential way.

Adirondack -- Uncomfortable, made of planks.

Mediterranean -- Wrought-iron.

Scandinavian -- Blond.

French Provincial -- Furniture with fancy epaulets.

Bombe -- Furniture with goiters.

Chippendale -- Elaborate furniture designed by male strippers.

Other Handy Terms:

Overstuffed -- Designed for fat people.

"Pottery Barn" style -- Designed for skinny people who live in apartments.

"Pier One" style -- Designed for Margaritaville.

Retro -- Old.

Antique -- Really old.

Rustic -- Really old and badly constructed.

Refurbished -- Old and broken.

Floor model -- New and broken.

Distressed -- Broken on purpose.

Ready-to-Assemble -- So broken that it comes as a box of loose parts, some of which are missing.

Now that you know the terms, you're all set to go shopping! Furnish your house exactly the way you want!

Just in time to move again.



We link to a lot of dumb crook stories here at the Home Front, but this one has it all:

A man in Anchorage, AK, has been arrested and charged with several felonies after his spree of robberies and carjackings went woefully wrong. Police said Benjamin Wallace Rucker, 34, had already committed a number of crimes when he robbed a gas station. The car he was using got stuck in the snow, so he forced a driver out of a Ford Explorer and escaped in that. He wasn't very good at driving a stick shift, however, and the vehicle kept stalling. Finally, he abandoned the Explorer and fled on foot, skillfully leaving a trail of footprints in the snow. To top it off, he also dropped his wallet (complete with ID), and police found it.

Said a police lieutenant: "We would have caught him one way or the other, but (the wallet) just made it so easy."
Full story here

Paying Mom what she's worth

Once, at a matinee of "Mission Impossible XXVI," we were agog as a swoopy drone aircraft fired missiles, blowing up a whole smoking causeway full of vehicles, trying to hit tiny Tom Cruise.

(They're CRUISE missiles! Get it? Huh? Here, America, let us hit you over the head with our collective wit.)

One of those strange hiccups of silence breached the Dolby SurroundSound just as an older lady behind us wearily said: "Right, and who's going to clean up that mess?"

Spoken like a veteran mom. One who's mopped up too many spills for one lifetime. One who's scolded so many sloppy teen-agers, she's tired of the sound of her own voice. A frazzled woman just happy to sit-still-for-a-change in an air-conditioned theater.

She couldn't quite relax into the moment. Actions still have consequences. Somebody's still got to clean up every mess. And, like many of us, she's worn out by the real world. One telecast disaster after another, all the bombings and tsunamis and hurricanes. And you just know, her tone said, that our tax dollars will be wasted, rebuilding the causeway that Tom Cruise blew up.

Which brings us to the cost of things.

Salary.com added up the top 10 jobs that make a mom's job description (janitor, cook, psychologist), put value to them and came up with this: Stay-at-home moms are worth $134,121 a year. Working moms would earn $85,876 for the "mom job" portion of their work, in addition to their actual salaries.

(OK, whoa, that's enough. If you are a mother, you need to stop waving this article in the faces of your loved ones. Right now. Yes, you've been telling them, all these years, how hard you work, but they're not going to start listening now. Someone could get a paper cut.)

And that's just the work that can be calculated. No one can measure all the sleepless nights and harried days of the average mom. The level of everyday worry that could take a woman to a place where she experiences automatic thoughts about the clean-up costs of computer-generated special effects at the movies.

The study didn't say anything about working dads' housework contributions or work-at-home dads or stay-at-home dads. We'll assume we dads would make a lot less if our at-home contributions were calculated. Some men do absolutely nothing (and you know who you are), and blow the curve for the rest. Even those of us who do the lion's share of the housework don't put the same amount of time and care into it that your average mom does. We tend to compact all our efforts into those frantic few moments before our wives get home.

Still, we'd be worth something. We could pro-rate it to hours spent per week on household chores (minus time spent on burrito breaks, wandering off and scratching), and come up with a pretend salary for all of us, too.

The comparisons might be embarrassing for the men. Mom's worth $85,876, on top of what she's drawing down at the rendering plant? And Dad's annual housework contribution is worth how much? Seventeen dollars?

Isn't mom in danger of pricing herself out of the imaginary market here? I mean, come on, $134,121? Who does she think she is, Halliburton?

One thing's for certain: At those prices, we can't afford to hire moms for the job of picking up after Tom Cruise. No matter how much they volunteer.


My name? Um, got a mirror?

Today's criminal mastermind: A man in St. Paul, MN, nearly put one over on the police by giving them a fake name, but he apparently forgot that his real name was tattooed on his neck.

Police stopped two men to warn them about jaywalking, but one of the men became evasive and said he had no photo ID. He told the cops his name was "Darnell Lewis." The cops couldn't help but notice the large "Frazier" tattooed on the side of his neck. A computer check found that five warrants were pending for Darnell Louis Frazier, who will have such a funny, funny story to tell his cellmates.

Full story (with photo) here.

Last-minute shopping tips

With two weeks to go until Christmas, many of us are mired in the traditional holiday panic about what gifts to buy for our loved ones.

We wander shopping malls, examining merchandise and muttering and shaking our heads. Nothing seems to fit with our loved ones' wants and needs. Or, we find the perfect gift, but it's too expensive. Or, it's the wrong size or color or voltage.

With each passing day, the joyful deadline presses closer, until the last few shopping days arrive and we desperately grab up anything and wrap it in brightly colored paper and hope for the best. This is how bald Uncle Fred ends up with hair curlers on Christmas morning and Grandma gets a new monkey wrench.

Why does this happen, year after year? Because our loved ones already have all the stuff they need. In our credit-driven society, deferred gratification is a forgotten value. If we want something, we run right out and buy it. And everyone else we know acts the same way.

The result? If you think of an item that would make the perfect gift for your loved one, it will turn out that the loved one already has one. Each year, we're forced to go farther afield in search of gifts they might possibly need, but don't already own. And this, my friends, is how the Salad Shooter came to be born.

The solution to this perennial problem is to "think outside the (gift) box." Your family doesn't need more stuff. What your loved ones will appreciate most are gifts that show you've given some consideration to their lifestyles and their happiness.

Gifts you've made with you own hands demonstrate your love and thoughtfulness, though people will whisper later that you are a tightwad. Gag gifts show whimsy, but you'd better hope your loved ones share your sense of humor. Money or gift certificates let the recipients decide for themselves what useless crap will clutter up their homes.

Here are some other creative gift suggestions:


Christmas really is for kids, and nothing ruins the holiday faster than the crestfallen look of a child who opens an inappropriate gift and declares that Santa is an idiot.

When buying toys, you should consider durability as well as the latest hot trends. Ideally, you want toys that will not be destroyed before the credit-card bills come due. Also, avoid toys that need batteries unless you're prepared to buy new batteries every week for the rest of your life, which explains the origin of the phrase "a gift that keeps on giving."

You can be forward-looking with kids' gifts -- giving money to their college funds or donating to a good cause in their names. But be warned: The children will hate you forever.

Whatever you opt to buy for a child, make sure it comes in a large cardboard box. That's the only thing the kid will play with, anyway.


This is difficult because Christmas gifts for spouses require a knowledge of what your spouse needs, plus a touch of romance. No spouse really wants new pots and pans for Christmas. His-and-her TV remotes will not be considered romantic. Major appliances are out, too, unless your spouse enjoys playing in large cardboard boxes.


These folks are particularly hard to buy for because they've had entire lifetimes to accumulate stuff. Food items work, as long as you're cognizant of the recipients' special dietary needs. But the best thing you can do for a senior citizen these days is help them pay for their prescription drugs. Or get them a nice big cardboard box as a "retirement home."


Tricky, because you can end up paying more in postage than the gift items are worth. The best way to handle distant loved ones is to perfect this phrase: "Darn, it must've gotten lost in the mail."

If Dec. 24 arrives and you still haven't finished your shopping, go to a store and buy dozens of the same item and give one to each person on your Christmas list. We recommend the monkey wrench as the perfect universal gift. If you don't believe us, go ask Grandma.


Finger lickin' good

To no one's big surprise, the company that owns the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Anderson, CA, announced today that it had fired the three employees who took a bath in its kitchen sink and then posted the event on MySpace.

How long before some other idiot replicates the prank? That's why, whenever you go to KFC, you should order Extra Sanitary.

Full story here.

Showing off their smarts

We were sitting around the dinner table as our two teen-aged sons discussed their annual federally mandated math tests, and up jumped the subject of quadratic equations.

One son says to the other, "You don't know that formula? That's an easy one. It's--" And he proceeded to spew a series of letters and numbers that, to my untrained ears, sounded like "booga-booga-booga-googly-moogly."

Yes, my sons were showing off. Yes, they know Dad barely passed algebra in high school and that was more than 30 years ago. And, yes, they like to rub his nose in it occasionally.

Being a mature adult, I threw food on them.

Kidding! Instead, I subtly cocked an eyebrow at my wife, in the international parenting signal for: "They're doing it again." She gave me her usual saintly smile, and we went back to chewing while the boys vigorously debated coefficients.

This incident illustrates one of the Basic Facts of Parenting. Children learn things their parents a) don't know, b) have forgotten, or c) never wanted to know in the first place, and the kids can't keep this knowledge to themselves. When they realize they know something we adults don't, they're compelled to share it, so we'll feel a) stupid, b) annoyed or c) homicidal, depending upon how much smirking is involved.

With our sons (and maybe with all kids), it started at an early age. When they were mere toddlers, they were enthralled by an inane TV show called "The Power Rangers," and they lorded it over me that I couldn't remember which Ranger wore which color Lycra costume.

"No, Dad!" they'd say, shaking their heads in disgust. "Jason was the green Ranger. Then he morphed into the white Ranger. Everybody knows that."

Once, when our younger son was around four, he raised his tiny fists at the breakfast table and loudly declared, "I am made of unstable molecules!" This, apparently, was a line from a superhero cartoon, but I didn't recognize it and couldn't hear the explanation over the hacking that followed ejecting coffee out my nose. The kids rolled their eyes at the idiot in their midst.

These days, their knowledge tends to be more esoteric (algebra) or picayune (rock band trivia) or absolutely useless (computer game cheats), but they still enjoy showing it off, especially if dumb old Dad will be left in the dark.

We were driving home from music lessons (one son plays guitar, the other plays the bass; Dad plays the radio), and I overheard a conversation that centered around "pickups" and "humbuckers." Had my sons acquired a sudden interest in rodeo? Monster trucks? Prostitutes? No, those terms refer to parts of the electric guitar, as the boys were delighted to inform me after I calmly interjected, "Say what?"

The trick for parents is to channel the children's interests into areas that might do the family some good, such as computer repair.

When I'm having computer problems, I summon our older son. He knows more about computers than I do, and he's only too happy to stand around, making suggestions and spouting jargon.
I gladly pretend to listen, smiling blankly, while in my head, I'm hearing, "Boogity-boogity-boo." He might as well be talking algebra or unstable molecules.

Whatever. If he can save my hard drive, the little humbucker can show off all he wants.


Car theft 101

Today's tip for beginning criminals: When you select a car to steal, make sure it's not occupied by undercover cops.

Police in Tampa, FL, said two undercover officers were sitting in a parked car when three youths approached. One punk shined a flashlight in the window and said, "Hey, how about we get this car?"

Just as one youth was about to smash the window with a chunk of concrete, the cops jumped out and arrested the would-be thieves.

Full story here.

Or are you just happy to see me?

A South African zoology student has been sentenced to a year in jail for trying to smuggle hundreds of live reptiles and amphibians onto a plane in his clothes and hand luggage.

Jo van Niekirk, 29, was trying to smuggle the rare chameleons, snakes and frogs out of Madagascar. He was caught at the airport in November.

Insert your own "Snakes on a Plane" joke in the comments section. Why should I have to do everything?

Full story here.


Plan the perfect party

Now that the holiday season is here, perhaps you're considering hosting a party for your friends and co-workers.

Our advice: Sit with your head between your knees and take deep breaths until the urge passes.

If that doesn't work, if you still think a holiday party is a good idea, then you need to get cracking. Ideally, holiday party planning should begin in April. Since you've lollygagged until now, you'll need to rush through the process.

(Good luck trying to find a caterer this late in the game. When you call their number in December, all you get is a prerecorded message: "Ho, ho, ho." Over and over.)

Here are some helpful hints for making the most of your seasonal shindig:


--A thorough house-cleaning is essential. You don't want the office drunk arising from his traditional prone position on the floor with his reindeer sweater covered in dust bunnies.

--Hide all personal items. Guests will snoop through your medicine cabinets, closets, bedside tables, etc. It can dampen your holiday spirits if that weird guy from the mailroom starts showing around your collection of porn.

--Holiday decorations are a nice touch, but it's easy to overdo it. And be sure they're safe. A big, dry Christmas tree is a hazard in a room full of candles and cigar smokers.

--Speaking of smokers, be sure to designate a smoking area outdoors. If you're planning to serve booze, a yarking area is a good idea, too.


--When people recall your holiday party in years to come, what they'll remember is the food. Spare no expense in providing a broad selection of sweets, meats and other eats. Most people will not buy the argument that it's traditional in your family to salute the holidays with Chinese takeout.

--Potluck dinners are a nice way to spread around the trouble and expense, but they take coordination. If every guest brings a dessert, you can laugh about the error and have a memorable night of sugar consumption. However, if every guest brings macaroni salad . . .

--Remember that people will be eating while standing and yakking and drinking. Serve easy-to-handle appetizers. If you must serve something messy, make sure it's the same color as your carpet.

--Fruitcakes make great fireplace fuel.

--Paper plates are tacky, but think twice before breaking out the "good china." It's the first thing to go when the food fight erupts. Which brings us to:


--When people try to recall your holiday party in years to come, what will prevent them from remembering is the booze.

--In the high spirits of the season, it's easy to get carried away. This tendency is exacerbated by booze; as they say, "liquor is quicker." If you have a sudden urge to tell your boss what you really think of him, then you've had too much to drink and you should call a cab immediately. Even if the party is at your house. Just get out of there before it's too late.

--Beware the mistletoe. Booze makes some people inordinately amorous. A drunken holiday revel is no place to start an office romance. Particularly if your spouse is watching.


--If gifts will be exchanged, set guidelines in advance. For example, are gag gifts permissible? If your boss gives you a gold pen-and-pencil set, he won't appreciate a whoopee cushion in return.

Finally, remember to have fun. When you're the host, you can get so busy making everything perfect, you lose sight of the real meaning of the season.

Throw another fruitcake on the fire, hoist the old egg nog and dance the night away. Nothing says "happy holidays" like waking up covered in dust bunnies.


A good day

Here's the definition of a good day for a football fan: Both of my favorite NFL teams won, I've eaten barbecue, chocolate and popcorn (so far), and I'm still in my pajamas as dinnertime approaches.

My AFC team, the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, beat the Dallas Cowboys with a last-minute interception, causing me to scream and bounce on the couch. My NFC team, the resurgent San Francisco 49ers, upset the NY Jets.

It's funny how little it takes to make a grown man happy.

Getting lit

We went to our first Redding Lighted Christmas Parade last night, and were stunned, both by the work that people put into the colorful floats and by the huge turnout. Well over 100 floats, marching bands and groups participated in the parade and it was quite a show.

We parked near the intersection where the parade route begins, and the crowd was so thick that it was difficult for the shorter people to see everything. Fortunately, that intersection was only a couple of blocks away from the terrific new restaurant Tapas Downtown, and we merrily trotted over there. We were well into our meal (and a bottle of Argentine merlot) by the time the parade ended.

Best line of the night, as a speedboat club towed their decorated boats down the street, revving the super-loud engines: "Nothing says Merry Christmas like the internal combustion engine."


How to get what you want at hotels

I travel a great deal for business and book tours, so I spend an awful lot of sleepless nights in hotels and motels.

(What's the difference between a hotel and a motel? A hundred bucks a night.)

I'm rarely happy with the experience. Noises keep me awake. The temperature's wrong and the room smells like feet. Your average motel mattress feels like a bag of hammers. The dark bathroom's unfamiliar and there's often a towel rack placed at just the right height to bruise my shoulder.

Do I complain? No. I expect my stay to be lousy. When I check out and the front desk clerk asks if everything was okay, I stoically mumble and nod and slump off to the airport. What's the point of complaining after the fact? No way to get that sleepless night back.

Turns out I've been doing it all wrong. The way to ensure a pleasant stay is to make demands in advance. Before you arrive, send a list of your desires so the hotel staff can scurry around and make the place feel like home.

Rock stars have known this for years. That's why their contracts carry riders that spell out, in excruciating detail, what foods and beverages will be available backstage and what they'll need in terms of accommodations, including the correct number of groupies.

We can't all be rock stars, but an online revelation shows that savvy business travelers can make precious demands, too, particularly if they're the vice president of the United States.

A website got hold of an official document called "Vice Presidential Downtime Requirements," which listed more than a dozen demands for VP Dick Cheney's hotel suites. Among them: All lights turned on, temperature set to 68 degrees, decaf coffee brewed prior to arrival, bottled water, "Diet Caffeine Free Sprite, 4 cans" and -- get this -- all televisions tuned to FOX News.

Now there's a business traveler who knows how to get what he wants. Taking a page from the Veep's book, I've created my own list of demands:

--Nonsmoking room that has been a nonsmoking room for longer than three days of airing out.

--King-sized bed. Mattress must contain no actual elbows.

--Room must be cleaned of all evidence of previous occupants, including stray hairs and toenail clippings.

--Bottled water that's not secretly $6 per swallow.

--A minibar stocked with pints rather than those tiny bottles.

--Coffeemaker and real coffee that hasn't been freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed, flash-roasted, recycled or stored in Juan Valdez's pants.

--No sirens, garbage trucks, construction vehicles, honking taxis or thundering hot rods anywhere within four square blocks of the hotel during traditional sleeping hours.

--That maid who hammers on the door and shrieks "Housekeeping!" approximately 17 times? She can't arrive before 11 a.m.

--Soft towels, not the starchy ones that peel off the first layer of skin. If I want a loofah, I'll ask for one.

--Basic toiletries, including shampoo that doesn't make one's hair staticky and standing on end all day long.

--Drunken conventioneers laughing loudly in the hallway at 2 a.m. will be shot. Unless I'm one of them.

--If a smoke alarm sounds in the night, there had better, by god, be a fire in the building. If the alarms wakes me from a sound sleep and there is no fire, I get to set one.

--Four cans of Diet Caffeine Free Sprite. Hey, if it's good enough for Dick Cheney …

--All televisions tuned to any channel except FOX News. Preferably ESPN or Comedy Central.

Groupies are optional.



A walrus at a new zoo in Istanbul, Turkey, has been trained to hold a saxophone between its flippers and blow a note or two.

Sara the walrus also is known for playing a train whistle while dressed up as a conductor, and doing various tricks with balls and hoops, zoo officials say.

No word on whether she can play anything by The Beatles.

Full story here.

How can we miss them if they won't go away?

I know it seems that the news media are in the business of alarming statistics, but no set of numbers has alarmed me more than this tidbit from the U.S. Census Bureau: One-third of all American men between the ages of 22 and 34 live with their parents, an increase of 100 percent in the last two decades.

Chilling, no?

Just when you think you've survived parenthood, the kids come back home. The whistle has blown, but your shift isn't over. You've completed the marathon, only to find they've moved the finish line. The light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a locomotive.

You thought you'd finally have your house all to yourself only to discover, living in your basement, an unshaven, unkempt, unmarried, Nintendo-playing, beer-swilling troglodyte who smells of Fritos.

It's simply not fair. There's a progression to parenting that's being violated here. You have the baby, you nurture the adorable toddler, you support the brave first-grader, you oversee homework and moral development through the formative years, you argue with the smart-aleck, rebellious teen, then -- poof! -- the kid is gone, off to college or marriage or some other institution.

The nest is empty. Our golden years arrive and we slow down and putter at our hobbies and enjoy visits from our grandchildren and smile our way into the grave.

That's the way it's supposed to work, dammit. That's the natural order. You don't kick the baby bird out the nest only to have him fly in a circle and land right behind you.

But apparently that's what's happening these days, at least with one-third of the young men out there. They flap their wings in the real world for a while, and find they like it better in the nest. Or, they never leave at all. They sit on their feathered rumps, waiting for Mama Bird to rustle up another batch of home-cooked worms.

Social scientists studying this phenomenon find many reasons behind it. Entry-level jobs don't pay enough to cover the cost of housing. More students live at home while they go to college. People are waiting longer to get married. The social stigma of "living with my folks" has decreased.

(Here's one they rarely mention: Spare bedrooms. We tend to live in houses that are bigger than truly necessary these days, so there's plenty of room for the kids. Why should they move away when they have all the space and privacy they need?)

We've got two teen-aged boys at our house, and I love them very much. But they've been told since they were small how much I look forward to the day they can live on their own. I've made a special point of teaching them simple cooking and basic laundry and other life skills so they can survive out there. Times may be hard, but children of privilege should suffer a little poverty, working their way through school. It makes them appreciate subsequent success.

I tell my sons that, as soon as they leave, Mom and I will downsize to a condo with no extra bedrooms, just to thwart any notions about "boomeranging" back home. They laugh. Haha, Dad's such a joker. Only Dad's not kidding.

If they're lucky, I might give them our forwarding address.


Gold genes

I saw an America Online headline that said: "Olympic Gold Medalist Pregnant." I thought, man, that Michael Phelps can do anything.

But no, the pregnant superstar is beach volleyball champ Kerri Walsh. She announced that she's expecting her first child, and that the baby likely was conceived at the Beijing Olympics. Walsh's husband of three years, Casey Jennings, is also a beach volleyball player.

I'm already getting money together to bet on this kid in the 2024 Olympics.

Full story here.

Action hero

Coming soon to a theater near you:

A man in Tulsa, OK, left his truck running while he went into a convenience store. He looked up in time to see a woman climbing behind the wheel and driving away. He sprinted out the door, chased the truck on foot and jumped into the bed of the moving truck. He then kicked out the rear window of the cab and tried to nab the thief.

The woman stopped the truck, jumped out and ran to a nearby car where her boyfriend was waiting. Driving now, the truck owner chased after the car until police intervened and arrested the thief.


Full story here.


How would Jesus drive?

A man in San Antonio, TX, has been arrested for ramming his vehicle into another car because the other motorist wasn't "driving like a Christian."

Police said Michael Schwab, 52, told them that he crashed into a woman's car at more than 100 mph because it was "Jesus' will" that she be punished for bad driving.

Amazingly, both drivers walked away from the crash with only minor injuries. But one of them walked right into jail.

Full story here.

The perfect gift for your wife

The holiday gift-buying season has arrived, which means that, across this great country of ours, malls are filled with men who are wailing and gnashing their teeth.

Why? Because the only thing that most guys hate more than shopping is shopping for somebody else.

When it comes to gifts, most men are morons. No matter how well we know the recipients, we aren't sure what they'll like. We don't know if they have the item already. We don't know sizes. We don't know how stores are arranged or how to ask for assistance or how much to spend.

(Yes, these are generalizations. I'm sure there are men who enjoy shopping. I'm sure there are men who love nothing more than to select gifts for their loved ones. I don't know any of these men. And I'd better not meet any, if they know what's good for them.)

At our house, my wife does nearly all the gift shopping. She loves to shop, particularly on-line, and she always knows exactly what will make people happy. When it comes to the household division of labor, we believe in playing to our strengths: My wife is in charge of gifts and paying bills; I do laundry and scrub stuff. She doesn't wreck her manicure scouring grout, and I don't buy gifts that make people burst into tears.

However, like most men in this enviable situation, I must buy at least one gift -- my wife's. This is dangerous ground, as so many men know. The gifts we buy our spouses are the most important ones, with the biggest potential for future residence in the doghouse.

Based on my 20-plus years of experience, I offer you men out there these helpful hints:

--Listen. Your wife will tip you off, sometime in these last weeks before Christmas, about what she really wants. There'll be a passing reference to some product, a corner turned down on a catalog page, a gush over something another woman owns. As soon as you register this desire, race into another room and write it down. Otherwise, you'll later find yourself in the mall, wandering aimlessly because you can't remember what she said.

--Do some research. If you're buying, say, perfume, go look at her perfume collection and see which one is her favorite. It's the one that's emptiest, stupid.

--Forget gift certificates. They're gifts that say, "I haven't got a clue."

--Avoid clothing. If you get the wrong size, you're an idiot. If you get her something that’s too small, she'll feel fat. If you get something that's way too big, she'll think YOU think she's fat. If you must buy clothing, then go for one-size-fits-all. A scarf. Maybe some socks.

--Jewelry is always good. But only "real" jewelry. Buy the cheap stuff, and you'll never hear the end of it.

--Small appliances hold no romance. You should never buy your sweetie a vacuum cleaner unless she specifically requests it. Even then, you'd better sweeten the deal with chocolate or some other gift (see Jewelry).

--Pay an outrageous amount to have the gift professionally wrapped. Just as most men are missing the shopping gene, we also are genetically incapable of wrapping a present properly. Most gifts I wrap look like they were done by a drunken chimp. A nice shiny package with trim corners and a proper bow says, "I care enough to stand in the gift-wrap line."

Remember, men: All your wife wants for Christmas is the perfect gift, one that shows exquisite taste and a deep, loving knowledge of her innermost desires. It should be a perfect fit, perfectly wrapped, and a big surprise.

Happy holidays!


Bad Santas

A bartender in Australia was robbed at knifepoint by two men wearing Santa hats and long white beards.

Police in Townsville on the northern coast of Queensland said the woman bartender was alone at the Cutheringa Bowls Club when the Santas approached. One produced a hunting knife and ordered her to fill a shopping bag with money from the till.

After she complied, the bartender escaped out a back door.

No word on whether she heard the clatter of tiny hooves on the roof.

Full story here.

Sacre bleu

How come nearly all my spam these days (or at least what gets caught in my America Online spam filter) is in French? Are you seeing this too, or is just moi?

I can't read French, and know only a handful of words in that language. But I'm pretty sure the French word for "spam" is merde.

Call me crazy

Modern life drives us all a little crazy, often in unexpected ways, which means perpetual job security for the psychiatrists who give new names to mental malfunctions.

For shrinks, the bible is a book called the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV," or "DSM-IV," which details the assorted ways people can go loony. The latest edition is -- no joke -- 943 pages long.

As you can tell from that "IV," the "DSM" is updated every few years to include more of our delusions and dementias. In between updates, people in the mental health field write long papers about illnesses they've discovered and argue over which should be included in the next edition.

You don't have to be a psychiatrist to play that game. Any observer of the big ice-cream sundae that is American life can readily identify the nuts.

Here are some suggestions for "DSM V: The Sequel:"

Parentanoia -- the fear, often justified, that your teen-agers are conspiring against you.

Ipodosis -- the need to shut out the real world with earphones.

Desktopathy -- the delusion that someone keeps rearranging the junk on your desk and that's why you can never find your stapler.

Baublehead -- one who's obsessed with jewelry. For related conditions, see "Manolomania" and "Pantaloon."

Sighchosis -- the notion that you can alter the behavior of others with loud, weary exhalations.

Orangefingerphobia -- the fear of eating Chee-tos.

Decompression depression -- the lingering sadness that follows a vacation.

Neatfreakitis -- unreasonable irritation at messiness. Scientific name: "Disorder disorder."

Iraqophobia -- the fear of expensive entanglements.

Commitmentophobia -- the fear of expensive entanglements. See "Baublehead."

Telemarketopathy -- the compulsion to call strangers at dinnertime.

Starbuckomania -- an obsession with fancy coffees. For related conditions, see "Chocoholism" and "Cola Nut."

Bratophobia -- the fear of other people's children.

Stetsonpsychosis -- the strong desire to dress like a cowboy. See also: "Lunatic Fringe."

Remotomania -- the unconscious drive to constantly see whether something better is on a different TV channel.

Subpoenas Envy -- an overpowering desire to become an attorney so you can sue anyone, anytime.

Rainbrain -- an obsession with the weather.

Hotenoughforumania -- an obsession with talking about the weather.

Cellumania -- the compulsion to talk on a cell phone at all times, even when such behavior seems rude and/or stupid. Related conditions, see: "Disturbopaths" and "Lowbattophobia."

Distracted Driver Syndrome -- the inability to focus on the act of driving, no matter how dangerous the conditions. Often related to "Cellumania." See also: "Rearview Narcissism."

Relaxedfitophobia -- the fear that you're being followed closely by a large backside. Sufferers often whirl around to find that no one's there. Related conditions: "Overlap disease" and "Airlineseatanoia."

Clackclackamania -- the compulsion to use rolling luggage.

Cluckamania -- the delusion that everything "tastes like chicken."

Rebootosis -- persistent anxiety over expected computer crashes.

Thumpamania -- the unbridled need to irritate others with loud car stereo speakers. See also: "Backward Baseball Cap Disorder."

Odoreaterphobia -- the fear that something horrible is growing in your kids' sneakers.

Schizorestaurantbillia -- the powerful need to demand separate checks, even when dining alone.

Comedo-Diagnosis Psychosis -- the delusion that one can be funny, coming up with new names for the "DSM."


Today's market news

You know it's a bad day on the stock market when the closing bell makes a sound like the whistle of a falling bomb.

The Dow dropped 679 points today, which coincidentally is exactly how many stockbrokers leaped off tall buildings in New York.

I sure am glad we spent that trillion dollars in taxpayer money to save the national economy.

Deck the halls

With the leaf-whump arrival of autumn, it's time to snuggle indoors in front of a hearty fire and notice that you've never really liked the way the living room is arranged.

That's right, it's Home Decorating Season. The season of thumbing through catalogs and designating a place for the Christmas tree and locating "just the right thing" to dress up that naked corner before relatives arrive to visit.

It's too cold to plant anything else in the yard, so the women of America move indoors and start rearranging the furniture. Just in time for football season.

Across the nation, men are sacked out on sofas, watching ESPN and trying to avoid raking leaves, and their wives stand in front of the TVs with fevered eyes, saying, "Put down those Chee-tos, and help me nail these pine boughs to the mantel."

Sorry, ladies, but guys are blissful idiots when it comes to making the house look nice for the holidays. It's all up to you. As long as you don't stand a lamp in front of the TV, we're OK with whatever you want to do. Just don't expect us to know anything, to have any opinions or, frankly, to care about slipcovers or potpourri or tinsel. Not with the playoffs coming up.

To understand how little the subspecies "guy" thinks about interior decorating, look at the basic bachelor pad, the nest of the undomesticated male. There are three rules for home design in bachelor living:

1) The sofa shall be parked squarely in front of the TV. No matter what.
2) The fewer the steps from sofa to fridge, the better.
3) A bed is nice, but not absolutely necessary.

Beyond those precepts, guys simply don't care. We could live in a cave as long we get cable TV. Or, we can live in a room where all the rickety antiques are draped in matching frilly chintz and every square inch of every wall is covered in holiday finery. It doesn't matter to us.

Men who settle down soon learn to pretend to care about how the home looks. We learn to murmur appreciatively over new purchases and to have the right opinions about "window treatments." We learn to go into hiding if we see our wives cooing over "Sunset" magazine.

Most of all, we learn to notice when our wives place little decorative touches around the house. If we know what's good for us.

This busy time of year, guys should make a cursory reconnaissance of the home every night, in search of new stuff that has been hung by the chimney with care.

First of all, you can mention how nice it looks (be specific!) and score much-needed Home Decorating Season points. Secondly, you can keep track of how much is spent spiffing up the place and consider working some overtime. Most importantly, a quick nightly check of the home's current status might prevent you from later falling over a table in the dark.

Beyond simple "noticing," guys should try to get into the spirit of the season. Grunt up off the sofa and help nail some stuff to the walls. Move some furniture. Bring some leaves in from the yard and arrange them into a colorful centerpiece.

You can get a lot accomplished during halftime.