Do-it-yourself holiday letter

Everyone loves to send cheery annual letters chock-full of family news, but who has time to write one?

Most of us don't have a minute to READ the letters we get (especially the really long ones in a tiny, festive typeface), much less an hour to compose our own. We're too danged busy, talking on the cell phone and driving, to write a letter.

It's not too late. Here's a form letter you can use to update friends and relatives on your family life. Fill in the appropriate names or words where it says (blank), and you can be clogging mailboxes in no time!

Dear (Blank),

Can you believe another year has gone by already? Wow. Seems like only yesterday that we were (blanking) in the (blank) together and now it's (insert correct year here).

It's been an eventful year for the (Blank) family. We had our ups and downs, like all families do, but we've come away stronger and better and closer than ever before. Most of us had a year full of joy and achievement, but there are always a few bad apples who drag down the curve, and, yes, I'm talking about you, (Blank).

But let's not go there! Ha-ha.

We're just happy to have survived another year, without the kind of natural disasters that struck this year in (Blank). We can all be thankful that we live in an area that's not prone to (blank).

The big success story of the year was (Blank), who started his own import/export business, selling (blank) to the (Blanks). Cars are lined up outside his house, night and day, full of customers. We are so proud.

Another high point was when (Blank) finally (blanked) college. What a (blank)!
Let us also brag about (Blank), who is now a fully licensed (blank)!

And of course there's young (Blank), who came in second in the (blanks). Hooray! Better luck next year!

The tragedy? Probably the lowest point was when we lost our beloved (blank or Blank). You don't bounce back from a (blankety-blank) like that. But we're slowly recovering, and we hate to complain.

After all, we've got our health. Well, most of us do. Aunt (Blank) had her (blank) removed, and that was a trial. You know how she can be, bless her heart. Cousin (Blank) hasn't been the same since the shark attack. He can walk OK, but he's kinda flinchy. Granddad had that scare with (blank), but he seems better now, if a little scattered. We found him the other day, wading in a ditch and talking to (Blank), who's been dead for years.

A few (Blanks) had trouble with the law this year, but it's all getting sorted out. Cousin (Blank) paid his debt to society, and is currently getting his mail at (Blank's) house, where he's sleeping on the couch. Uncle (Blank) got accused of (blank), as you probably read in the newspapers, but he assures us it was a big (blank) and his lawyer is on it. And your cousin never, ever had anything to do with (blanks). Trust me on that.

Uncle (Blank) finally stopped drinking and smoking and chasing women. The funeral is scheduled for next week.

On a brighter note, we welcomed little (Blank) into the family this year. The cutest little (blank) you've ever seen. The newborns give us reason to (blank).

Hope you and yours are healthy and happy and rolling in (blank)!

Until next year,

(Your name here)


Merry Christmas!

That's all. Merry Christmas to everyone.

What? Why are you staring like that? What are you waiting for?

Oh. And Happy New Year!


Have a knuckle-cracking Christmas

"Winter break" provides family units with such a prolonged period of intense togetherness, it's a wonder we don't all kill one another.

The kids are home from school for what seems like 17 weeks. Adults who normally would be busy with work get some free days for relaxing and reveling and gaining weight together. Because it's cold outside, the whole family's under the same roof much of the time.

Everything feels a bit off. Routines are disrupted. Social calendars are full. Thoughts are scattered. The kids are antsy. People keep tripping over the dog. The TV is too loud. What's that smell?

Different energy levels bouncing around in the same space create friction. Some of us are slobs; some want to decorate the Kleenex boxes. Some see a vacation and want to go, go, go, while others see it as time for lying perfectly still. We're like cars on a busy street, all going different speeds. Bound to be a few fender benders.

All the togetherness reminds us that even the nicest people have annoying little habits that could wear on anyone, given enough exposure. Repeated sniffing, say. Clearing one's throat 2,309 times per day. If you're stuck in a house all day with a knuckle-cracker or a gum-snapper or a Twitter user, your thoughts might turn to ho-ho-homicide.

Take something as harmless as a Christmas carol. The song gets stuck in a person's mind, like a jumbo thorn, so he goes around singing it all the time. Except he doesn't really know the words, so it sounds like this: "Joy to the WORLD, la-da, la-DAH." Over and over. For two weeks. Until -- snap! -- someone makes a headline.

Minor vices, such as leaving the cap off the toothpaste or the newspaper in disarray, can be ignored for days, but eventually someone will speak up, and the new year is welcomed with fireworks.

(The Murphy's Law winter break guarantee: Whether you prefer the toilet seat up or down, it will always be the wrong way. Mention this to the others at your peril.)

As the winter days of togetherness wear on, we start to see loved ones' quirks as being intentionally annoying. We start perceiving motives.

"She knows she's doing that," he mutters. "She could stop any time. But no, she keeps doing it, because she knows it drives me crazy. She's just getting even because I--"

From the next room: "What's that, dear?"


But it's not nothing. It's the beginning. Pretty soon, the couple is locked in an escalating passive-aggressive loop: If she's going to crack her gum, he thinks, then I can pop my knuckles and sniffle as much as I want. She counters with an impressive symphony of tuneless whistling, trying to drown out his honking nose. Which, naturally, forces him to play Neil Young on the stereo, because she HATES that reedy voice. So she runs the vacuum cleaner. He gets a wrench and removes the toilet seat altogether and--

Whoa, whoa. Take a deep breath there, partner. It's always like this at winter break. It'll be fine once we get out of the house, and we're all exposed to smaller doses of our mutual foibles.

The adults go back to work, where our nervous habits can annoy our colleagues instead of our relatives. The kids go back to school and annoy their teachers. The dog gets some rest.

Soon, we're back in our well-worn ruts. Ready for another year.



Boys will be chefs

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a young boy playing with his new train set, his baseball glove and his toy kitchen.

That’s right. Kitchen. As in junior-sized appliances, where the lad can pretend to cook and do dishes.

According to an article from The Associated Press, boys increasingly are playing “chef” with toy kitchens, even though the thought of it can make uptight fathers dash out into the yard and roll in the flowerbeds.

Many modern dads are OK with their sons playing with toy kitchens, the article said, partly because the dads themselves spend more time in the real kitchen. Boys see their fathers whipping up dinner, or they see male chefs on the many food shows on TV, and they want to emulate those activities. Toy companies are catering (ha!) to that interest by making gender-neutral kitchens for kids, the article said.

“Men are reshaping and rethinking their roles,” said Dr. Michael Kaplan, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center. “They are doing much more (cooking and housework) than they ever have.”

Kaplan said boys shouldn’t be discouraged from playing with toys usually associated with girls because it can lead to self-esteem problems.

That’s where he lost me. I’m a living, breathing example of a man who played with a toy kitchen, over his father’s objections, and, as anyone who knows me will tell you, “self-esteem” is the least of my problems. Just the opposite, in fact.

My toy kitchen was a little turquoise-colored number -- a stove, a sink and a refrigerator with food items and condiments painted on the inside -- where I whiled away many hours making mud pies that I insisted all the grown-ups actually eat.

I was 4 years old at the time, which would’ve made it around 1961. Not an era when men spent much time in the kitchen.

I vaguely recall my dad expressing concern over his firstborn son spending so much time baking mud pies and what that might do to my developing male psyche. At least I think that’s what he was saying as he rolled in the flowerbeds.

Clearly, everything turned out fine, as I grew up to be a housewife. Kidding! I grew up to be a work-at-home dad, who doesn’t mind spending time in the kitchen. Still not much of a chef, but at least I don’t serve up mud pies anymore.

Today’s toymakers can appease all the worried dads and still make a buck off the toy kitchen market. It’s simply a matter of tailoring the appliances to men.

For instance, toy kitchens for boys shouldn’t come in colors like pink or turquoise that might “feminize” them. They should be made of stainless steel. Like a DeLorean.

Manufacturers could make macho dads happy by designing a toy fridge that holds nothing but beer. For the garage.

Microwave ovens didn’t exist when I was a child, but now we can’t get along without them. Every boy’s kitchen should come with a microwave, preferably one that can actually make live cats explode. (Kidding some more! Take it easy, cat-lovers. Sheesh.)

Even the most manly man thinks it’s OK to cook outdoors. Most will, in fact, hip-check their wives away from the barbecue grill so they can char their own steaks.

If toymakers want to make a really authentic barbecue grill, they should rig it up with a 10-foot-tall blaze that will singe off hair and eyebrows. Then Junior can look just like Dad.

To extinguish the flames, they can roll in the flowerbeds together.


An anniversary

Twenty-six years ago today, I married my one true love.


Enjoy holidays -- one halftime at a time

During this season of giving and reflection and renewal, a man's thoughts naturally turn to football.

'Tis the season for men wearing plastic reindeer antlers and a fine dusting of Doritos crumbs to sprawl on sofas, basking in the TV glow while our plucky families celebrate all around us. It's a season of hope and joy, anticipation and disappointment, the thrill of victory and the agony of sweatsock feet. It's the time of year when grown men ask Santa to please, please grant one wish: a first-and-goal on the two with a minute to go.

While others sing carols and make resolutions and gobble leftovers, we men display as much holiday energy as your average potted poinsettia. Lumps of coal we are, as we watch round-the-clock games, sometimes two or three at once, moving nothing but our eyes and our overdeveloped remote control thumbs.

It's not that we're lazy. We're pouring all our available resources into rooting for our favorite teams, occasionally even jumping up from the La-Z-Boy to shout, "Yes!" and grab another egg nog. Our teams can't do it without us. We're the Twelfth Man, pouring spiritual energy into the television sets of America.

Our families, on the other hand, seem able to soldier on with the decorating and the turkey-basting and the party-throwing without us. Or, with the limited participation that we can offer during halftimes.

The football leagues and the TV networks pander to sports junkies by televising the important games during the holiday season, when the biggest audience is likely to be off work and lying in front of a big-screen TV, naked except for boxers decorated with candy canes and evergreens, eating day-old guacamole directly off its fingers.

This year, men will be distracted from their loved ones by an estimated 137 college bowl games. Plus the NFL playoffs, which take us well into the new year, finally culminating in the Super Bowl, which I believe is sometime in July.

While the rest of the world makes merry and bright, we football fans relish tackles and sacks and crackback blocks. We wallow in the violence and the spirited competition and the mud and the blood and the beer. Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like a crushing blindside tackle in the secondary.

Our preoccupation with football is partly a coping mechanism, a way to deal with the bustle and glow of the holiday season. All that danged JOY. Brrr. It's also a primitive urge. It's winter, so we eat lots of big meals and hibernate in our dark dens, waking only when the crowd noise alerts us to a big play, just in time to watch the slow-motion replay.

We know our football fixation sometimes stresses our spouses, who are forced to use food aromas and actual beer to lure us off the couch long enough to, say, open our Christmas gifts. Our lethargy sets a bad example for our children. Our children. You remember the children. The ones who run screaming in front of the TV screen once in a while? Them.

Our families should not despair. Eventually, the football season will end. Spring will arrive, and we men will rise up from our sofas and shake the crumbs from our pelts and emerge from our caves. We'll stop obsessing on point-spreads and statistics and fantasy leagues and and bad calls and boneheaded coaching. We'll once again gather our families in the warm embrace of our full attention.

Until March Madness.


Screwed by the holidays

Grumpy dads everywhere dread the approach of the holidays. To us, the gift-giving season means one thing: "ready-to-assemble."

We'll spend the waning days of the year hunched over a random collection of parts that don't fit together so well, trying to assemble them into something useful. We'll try to decipher instructions written in a secret code by someone with only a rudimentary grasp of English, while we simultaneously keep one eye on televised bowl games.

Things will go wrong.

Nothing terrible. It won't be the end of the world, for Pete's sake. But it will be frustrating, enough to edge us dads one inch closer to our inevitable heart attacks, and to make us say "bad words" in front of the children.

Even if you avoid "ready-to-assemble" your whole life, you'll still face minor repair jobs that will challenge your sanity. Things break. You've got to fix them. It won't always go smoothly.

Here's why: The recalcitrant screw. The screw that won't turn properly, no matter what. The rusted nut. The missing gizmo. The broken whatsit.

It's not the overall job that's so daunting, it's the minor complication. That's the part that drives us nuts. So much so, that we dread these jobs. So much so, that it ruins the experience for us. We can't revel in the fact that we successfully fixed Aunt Mabel's lamp. Instead, every time we pass that lamp, we think: "I remember that (mutter, sputter) stripped bolt. That was a dark day."

I got to thinking about the recalcitrant screw recently while helping my wife with a home repair project. Rather, while watching my wife accomplish a home repair project. My contribution was to hold the flashlight, some distance away.

In our kitchen, a fluorescent light fixture had buzzed and winked for, oh, two years. It was annoying, but we'd all sort of grown accustomed it because we were too lazy or ignorant or unmotivated or scared to try to fix it. Mostly lazy.

I have a good excuse for ignoring the problem. As the man of the house, I am terrified of electric shock. The reasons behind my phobia -- why I can barely stand to walk on carpet and touch a doorknob -- are deep and complicated, but let's cut to the chase: Me big sissy.

My wife fears nothing. She looked up some instructions in a book and took the fixture apart and repaired a shorted wire and put it all back together again with a new bulb, and it works like a new one. I witnessed the whole thing. For this feat, she will always be my hero.

However, there was a moment when it didn't look so rosy. When she reached the recalcitrant screw. It was the final one, of course, that last little business before declaring "mission accomplished." The screw went in crooked and stuck there. She had to work it out of the hole, then try it again. Crooked. She started over.

It went on like this for a while, and she never once lost her patience or shouted curses. She just quietly noodled that recalcitrant screw until it fit where it belonged.

Not the way I would've handled it at all, and she wasn't trying to watch football at the same time, but whatever. I'm happy the buzzing is gone.

I've learned one thing from this experience. Come Christmas, my wife's in charge of assembling everything.

I've got to look after my heart.


Stretching your holiday dollar

Dire economic times make it harder than ever to buy appropriate gifts for friends and relatives, but you can still make Christmas merry for one and all. It just takes a little creativity.

Here are some tips for scrounging up gifts:

“Re-gift” items from previous holidays. You never used that waffle-maker Aunt Marge sent you. Might as well send it to someone who could make use of it (or who has more kitchen cabinet space than you do). But make sure you don’t send it to the Aunt Marge by mistake. She’ll remember. Trust me.

Thrift stores offer potential gifts at a fraction of retail prices. So what if the items have a few dings and scratches? Nothing a can of spray paint won’t fix.

You can’t use spray paint on clothes without a lengthy explanation. If you make gifts of used clothing, you must call them “vintage.”

Really old items can be offered as gifts as long as you specify that they are “collectible.” The items will appear more valuable if they bear a famous celebrity’s autograph, which you can accomplish with an inexpensive Sharpie.

Why not turn to Mother Nature? Live plants make wonderful gifts until they die, and floral arrangements are always welcome. You can make beautiful autumnal centerpieces from the colorful leaves currently littering your yard. Even inert items such as acorns, pine cones and rocks can be offered as unique gifts. Remember to spray-paint them first.

Another do-it-yourself gift is food. People love getting food at the holidays, particularly tons of sweets and baked goods. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a diabetic coma.

If you’re careful handling books, you can offer them as gifts without mentioning that they’ve been used. If the recipient notices turned-down corners, etc., respond that the book has been “pre-read.” Library books are out, however. There’s no explaining away the “Shasta Public Libraries” stamp.

Batteries always make good gifts for the kiddies. Someone (probably a grandparent) will give them noisy toys that need batteries. If the batteries you supply are old and don’t work, you can say, “Gee that toy must be broken.” The parents no doubt will appreciate the peace and quiet.

Or, you can simply give the children cardboard boxes, available for free from supermarkets and liquor stores. We’ve all seen that imaginative kids have more fun with the boxes than with the actual toys. Why not skip a step? If you want to get fancy, you can spray-paint the boxes to cover up the liquor advertisements.

Sometimes, it’s a short hop from creativity to duplicity. With so many retailers going out of business, it’s possible to re-use gift cards that you cashed out long ago. Send the worthless gift card to a relative, then express surprise to learn that the company on the card no longer exists.

Another trick is to mail a broken item to a distant relative. When the recipient reveals that the gift showed up in a hundred pieces, you can blame the beleaguered workers of the U.S. Postal Service. They’re used to it.

“Gag” gifts are always a scream, and they’re easy to come by. Even convenience stores sell last-minute gag gifts. Oh, how fun it will be when Aunt Marge opens her gift and finds dirty magazines and condoms! The whole family will laugh themselves silly!

When all else fails, cheap booze makes a good gift. It’ll help us forget the economy for a while. And the hangovers will prompt our New Year’s resolutions. That’s a gift that keeps on giving!


Crime wave ends in hernia

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you're going to steal a safe, be sure you have some way of lifting it into the trunk of your car.

Police say a 75-year-old robber forgot this important tip, and ended up getting caught in upstate New York. The robber, wearing a snazzy fedora, stole the safe from an office where he had recently been let go. He got the 100-pound safe to his car with a hand truck, but then couldn't lift it into his trunk.

Full story here. Don't miss the photo of his pencil-thin mustache.


Happy -- achoo! -- holidays

Dear friends:

I’d like to thank all of you who recently shared your germs and viruses with me. Nothing says "special friendship" like a dripping nose.

Thanksgiving weekend marks the traditional start of the annual holiday blitz of shopping and parties and cockles-warming. 'Tis the season when we work-at-home types actually leave the house and interact with other humans, and we can count on contracting miserable illnesses while we're out there.

(The word "holidays" comes from the Greek holidakos, which translates to "cold and flu season." People have known since ancient times that holiday gatherings were the best places to pick up rampaging colds.)

Home-office workers are extra-susceptible to these viral onslaughts. We’re not out there in the workaday world, regularly exposed to the latest bugs, so our immunity is suppressed. Viruses take one look at our pasty indoor faces and virgin nasal passages, and you can almost hear their evil little laughs: Heh-heh-heh.

Then, whammo, they attack.

We victims are like small children who haven’t yet been exposed to the world’s germs and viruses. This is why smart parents urge their offspring to roll in the dirt and make mud pies and lick the dog. Children need to collect all the resulting immunities. We adults lose our accumulated immunities if we never go out in the world and get a booster shot of germs.

(When I was growing up in the South, we called such people “shut-ins.” They were too elderly and/or infirm to leave their homes, and they always rated a special place in prayers. I remember, as a child, being very curious about the shut-ins. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t just go to the shut-ins' homes and let them out. Why were they locked up anyway? I was an odd child.)

Most of the year, we shut-ins get our viruses directly from our own children. Every weekday, the kids go to school, where viruses hang out in the hallways like juvenile delinquents, picking their teeth and waiting for a ride. Our children embrace these miscreants and bring them home, where they run amok among the household adults.

Here’s the unfair part: The kids barely get sick, but we parents will be laid low. My teen-age son brings home some dread disease, and he’ll have the sniffles for a day or two, maybe sleep an extra hour, and he’s fine. The same virus hits my puny immune system, and I’m groaning in a bed for a week.

This time of year, though, we hermits acquire our viruses first-hand. We go to holiday parties and family gatherings, and we shake hands and kiss cheeks and dole out big hugs. During these moments of unguarded human contact, the viruses leap over onto us and sprint right up our noses.

If you’re like me, you’ll recover from your Thanksgiving cold just in time to pick up a fresh batch of viruses at Christmas. Colds and flu truly are the "gifts that keep on giving."

So thanks again, friends, for sharing with me. I hope to recover in time to see you at the New Year’s party.

You might want to skip that midnight kiss.


L.A. comin'

The folks who are putting together the next Left Coast Crime conference ask that all us blogger types remind you to register for Booked in L.A., which is coming up March 11-14 at the Omni Hotel in Los Angeles.

Some of my favorite people are among the honored guests: Jan Burke, Lee Child, Bill Fitzhugh and Janet Rudolph.

I'll be there, too.

For more info, click here: www.leftcoastcrime.org/2010/


Telephone manners

Today's tip for aspiring bank robbers: Once you have the bank manager in handcuffs, you probably shouldn't let him make any phone calls.

Five idiots walked into a bank in Henderson, NV, with a fake federal warrant and demanded to see the manager. Then they demanded all the money in the vault. When the manager refused, they handcuffed him. He told them he'd make a call to get the vault opened. Instead, he called police, who were waiting for the robbers when they came outside.

Full story here.


Sure it's a felony, but for safe sex . . .

Police in Reidsville, NC, say burglars who robbed a convenience store took only condoms and cigarettes.

The thieves broke the store's glass front door and stole $2,700 worth of cigarettes (what is that these days? Four or five cartons?) and $50 worth of condoms, police said.

No word on the party that likely followed.

Full story here.


Not kosher

Everyone knows you don't mix a cheese theft with a steak-knife assault. It's bad table manners.

Somebody forgot to tell Mark Ash of Hartford, CT. Police say Ash was spotted stuffing blocks of cheese into his pants. When accosted by a supermarket manager, Ash allegedly threatened him with a steak knife and fled.

Police caught him a short time later, still carrying the knife and four blocks of Colby Jack.

Full story here.


Not your everyday conversation opener

After finding a volunteer seedling in the yard, I say to my wife: "Where would you like another palm tree?"

Ah, California!


Back to the well

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you hear a teller say, "He's here again," it's probably time to find a new bank to rob.

In Tamarac, FL, the same dreadlock-wearing man has robbed the same bank four times in the past year, most recently on Saturday.

Think he maybe lives nearby?

Story here.


You have been served

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: When robbing a restaurant, always keep an eye on the cook.

A knife-wielding robber in Lincoln, NE, forgot that important rule, and was very surprised when the cook hit him with a sizzling flank steak, fresh off the burner. Police say the stunned robber dropped his knife and fled.

Full story here.


Frightening children for fun and profit

Halloween may be my favorite holiday, but not for the reasons you might guess.

Yes, there’s candy, and I’m all for that. Yes, there’s a sense of community from all the kiddies and their chaperones prowling the chilly night together. And, yes, it’s a lazy man’s holiday, requiring little preparation, perspiration or shopping.

But here’s the reason I enjoy Halloween: I love scaring the bejeebers out of little kids.

Sick, I know, but I can’t help myself. I get caught up in the spirit of the holiday, wolfing down candy and greeting trick-or-treaters, and next thing you know, small children are running AWAY from my house rather than toward it.

I’m not a nut for Halloween like some grown-ups, those who decorate their yards in fake cobwebs and plastic skeletons and flickering jack o’ lanterns. (See “lazy man’s holiday” above.) I don’t host a “haunted house” where children gross each other out, handling “eyeball” grapes or cold spaghetti “guts.” I never wear a costume myself because a) they don’t make them in my size, and b) I’m scary enough in street clothes.

My Halloween enthusiasms are more spur-of-the-moment, fueled by the traditional sugar buzz and a Pavlovian response to the doorbell. Costumed children show up at my door, and I’m compelled to put a little “boo” in their holiday.

Years ago, when our sons were small, we lived on a street that was so popular with trick-or-treaters that some neighbors were forced to take out home equity loans to fund the annual candy giveaway. I was in charge of answering the door and handing out treats. As the night wore on, I found myself itching to do a little tricking myself. Thus was born the Evil Laugh.

Kids would ring the doorbell. I’d open the door slowly, standing behind it so they couldn’t see who was there. Then I’d unleash the Evil Laugh, which goes like this: “BWAH-hah-hah-ha-ha-ha-HAH.”

Most trick-or-treaters weren’t fazed, but some were startled by the Evil Laugh. Occasionally, terrified kids would sprint all the way to the sidewalk where their frowning parents waited. Those poor children got extra candy, if they could work up the nerve to return to the porch.

A few years ago, my wife brought home a Halloween decoration: A giant, fuzzy, orange-and-black spider. You’re supposed to hang the spider on your door or make it a centerpiece, but I hooked it to the back of my shirt.

I’d answer the doorbell, hand out the candy and then, before the kids could head for the street, I’d turn and ask, “Is there a bug on me?” The shrieks still echo in my ears.

The best one ever was when my kids where in grade school. They had several friends over for Halloween, and my older son led them into his darkened room for a “séance.”

I went outside and slipped around to his window. Just as the kids were fairly certain they were on the verge of conjuring up the dead, I used my fingernails to scratch on the window screen.

That’s all it took. No “boo,” no decorations, no costume. Just scritch-scritch on the screen. Screaming kids nearly killed each other, stampeding for the exits. (Most of them don’t twitch anymore, and their parents have since forgiven me.)

I think word has gotten out about my antics. The number of trick-or-treaters has declined in recent years. Maybe parents are warning each other away from that weird guy’s house.

Good. More leftover candy for me. BWAH-hah-hah-ha-ha-ha-HAH


Hobbies? Kidnapping, arson

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: Honesty may be the best policy, but when getting booked in a bank holdup, it's really better if you don't list your occupation as "robbery."

That advice comes too late for 60-year-old Lonnie Pannell, who's facing a four-year stretch for robbing a bank in Rapid City, SD.

Full story here.


That funky 'man cave' smell

Police in New York arrested two janitors who allegedly outfitted a locked room at a state building with couches and a TV, creating a "man cave" where they could hang out and sleep on the job.

As if that's not bad enough, authorities say the men also used the room as a place to smoke and sell marijuana.

Dude. The janitors. No wonder all the snacks kept disappearing from the break room.

Full story here.


Can I get an 'Amen?'

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: After a crime, or even during its commission, you might feel guilt or remorse. But it's really better not to stop everything and pray with the victim for 10 minutes during the course of a holdup. Especially if the security video cameras are running.

Full story here.


Knew I forgot something. . .

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you're going to terrorize a whole neighborhood with break-ins, attempted carjackings and threats, it's usually better to have a real gun.

Police in Aloha, OR, say Billy Ryan, 26, confronted homeowners and tried to carjack vehicles, each time reaching inside his shirt as if going for a gun. But nobody seemed to believe him. Homeowners told him to get out. Motorists drove away unharmed. A shower of 911 calls followed his every move until he was finally arrested.

Maybe Ryan should find a way to be more convincing. Do they offer acting lessons in prison?

Full story here.


Maybe deeper pockets. . .

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: During an armed robbery, try not to drop your wallet. But if you do, don't call the victim and demand that he return it. It's bad form, and the cops will be waiting at the meet. Trust us.

Or, you can check the example of a 23-year-old Little Rock, AR, man who managed to lose his wallet during a failed stickup. While the victim was being interviewed by police, he got a phone call from the robber, demanding that he bring his wallet to a gas station in North Little Rock.

Guess who met the robber at the gas station?

Full story here.



To all my fellow authors: Next time you get to grumbling about your reviews, go read this review, in which the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani holds the latest book by Jonathan Lethem in front of a flame-thrower.




Trying out a bit of dialogue:

"I like my coffee like I like my women -- hot, sweet and in my lap."

What do you think? No? Doesn't work?

I told this one to my wife, just kidding around, and she said, "What do you mean 'women,' plural?'"



Another reason to avoid Florida

Trappers in St. Augustine, FL, say they killed an Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake that was 7 feet, 3 inches long.

The trappers were called after the giant rattlesnake was spotted near a townhome community called Tuscan Village.

Story, complete with chilling photos, here.


Y'all come

A reminder to my friends in the Redding, CA, area: I'm appearing at 1 p.m. this Saturday (10/3) at the Barnes & Noble store on Churn Creek Rd. I'll be signing books and talking about mysteries and the "Lonely Street" movie.

Hope to see you there!


Roll out the flannel

(Editor's note: I'm jumping the gun a little here, but the blustery taste of autumn we're getting in Redding made me think of this ode to flannel.)

That crisp snap in the air marks the arrival of our favorite time of year: Flannel Shirt Season.

During the hot months, we all go around dressed as if we’re on our way to Physical Education class. But in autumn, the flannel shirt replaces (or layers over) the ubiquitous T-shirt, briefly turning the whole nation into lumberjacks. During the seasonal window between cutoffs and heavy coats, the fluffy flannel shirt is the ideal garment.

Unless you live where it’s really cold and/or work outdoors, a flannel shirt is all you need on most days (though pants are a good idea, too). When you go outside, you’re usually only exposed to the elements for those few minutes between indoors and in-the-car and indoors again. Why bother with a jacket?

When it gets colder, a flannel shirt is perfect for layering, especially if you like the “grunge” look or own a skateboard.

Unless it’s a formal occasion, you never really have to tuck in a flannel shirt. This is important to those of us who are equatorially challenged.

Most flannel shirts have two pockets, often with flaps, giving the wearer room to carry around a lot of unnecessary stuff.

Lumberjacks are cool. Ditto Eddie Vedder.

Wearing flannel shirts indoors means you can keep the climate-control settings a little lower, and save on your utility bills. For further information, see “Domestic Harmony and the Treaty of Thermostat,” Lawrence F. Hongenecker, 1989.

Flannel shirts last a long, long time and always look pretty decent, right up to the point where your elbows poke through the worn fabric. And for another two years beyond that, if you wear the sleeves rolled up. You can cut off the sleeves altogether, but only if you’re willing to be mistaken for Larry the Cable Guy.

How do you know when a flannel shirt is too worn to go out in public? When passers-by keep trying to give you nickels. Time for that flannel shirt to take on a new life as a “rag.”

Flannel shirts were embraced early on by those of us who work at home. We don’t have to worry about a dress code, so we gravitate toward the most comfortable clothing. We recognized that there’s a reason why they make pajamas out of soft flannel.

Flannel shirts are legal pajamas. You can answer the door, run to the store, be seen by your children’s teachers, all while wearing your jammies. If people notice you’re rumpled, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. They’ll say to themselves: Maybe he’s a lumberjack.

The danger, of course, is when you start wearing the same shirt around the clock. If you’re already in your comfy pajama shirt, there’s really no reason to change for bed. Then you get up the next morning and, what do you know, you’re dressed already. This can go on for days. Pretty soon, you’re giving a whole new meaning to “grunge.”

Pair your favorite flannel shirt with sweatpants, and you never have to change again. Every day’s a round-the-clock pajama party.

Caution: You can wear that get-up out of the house only if you utilize drive-thru windows. If you see anybody you know, wave and zoom away. But don’t get out of the car. Nobody looks good in sweatpants. Trust me.

Maybe some flannel trousers, though. Loose, comfortable. Something in a nice plaid to match your lumberjack shirt. Wait, that’s pajamas again.

Note to self: Idea for a successful business -- Drive-thru Pajamas. Seasonal sales on flannel shirts. Hmm. Sleep on it.


Everybody awake? How about now?

Regular readers may recall that I like to watch DVDs while walking on the Dreadmill in my garage, but this activity is not without its hazards.

Because I'm trying to hear the movie over the thumping Dreadmill, I keep the volume up high, even though I work out in the cool of the morning. My neighbors have been very understanding.

But this week I plugged in the DVD of a movie called "Surveillance," a strange crime drama directed by Jennifer Lynch. The movie opens with an extremely violent attack on a couple in bed; the woman gets away and runs off down the highway, only to be chased by a pickup. The whole time, this woman screams at the top of her lungs.

I'm sure my neighbors thought someone was being slaughtered at the Brewers' house. Again.

After I fumbled for the remote control and got it pointed the right way and the audio turned down, I could only wonder: What was that movie moment like in a theater, in Dolby SurroundSound? Did viewers flee screaming with their hands over their ears?


Carried away

Today's advice for aspiring criminals: If you work for the U.S. Postal Service and start stealing Netflix DVDs from the mail, practice a little self-restraint.

Authorities say Myles Weathers stole more than $30,000 worth of DVDs from the mail while working in the Springfield, MA, post office for a year. Netflix contacted postal authorities about a large number of complaints about missing DVDs in the area. At one point, officials say, Weathers was stealing 50-100 DVDs per week.

Didn't he think someone would notice?

Full story here.


Things I can't believe I said, Vol. XXII

Me to my wife: You oughta stop jumping around like that. All that exercise is gonna kill your appetite.


And I knew that wasn't right

Me to my wife: Hey, that movie we couldn't remember the name of, the gangster one with Leonardo DiCaprio?

Her: Yeah?

Me: "The Departed."

Her: That's right! God, that's a relief. All I could think of was "The Disabled."


Soon on Inmatebook

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: While burglarizing a house, it's really better not to pause to check your Facebook account on the victim's computer. Also, remember to log out.

Police say 19-year-old Jonathan Parker of Fort Loudon, PA, forgot this important lesson recently while rifling a home and stealing two diamond rings. The victim found his Facebook page open on her computer, which made detectives' work much, much easier.

Jonathan's new "status report" on Facebook: "I'm facing 10 years in prison...."

Full story here.


Pool talk

My 20-year-old son: "I saw what you wrote online about me and my friends using the swimming pool. 'Hippie soup.' Ha-ha. Very funny."

Me: "After you guys left, the pool was like a mud wrestling pit, full of filth and cooties and vermin."

Son: "Yeah, right."

Me: "I had to give it double chlorine! Had to kill off all those youthful hormones!"

Son: "Hormones?"

Me: "You can't leave those untreated. If you do, your swimming pool might rise up during the night and come in the house and hump you."

Son: "You are so weird."


Arrested development

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you simply must steal that giant pepper logo from atop the local Chili's restaurant, you might want to get a battery-powered drill.

Police say four young people in Bennington, VT, succeeded in removing the $8,000 pepper sign, using an electric drill to remove the bolts holding it in place. To power the drill, the youths strung 470 feet of extension cords, including a stretch across a busy street. The cord didn't seem to bother motorists, and it was the restaurant's alarm, not the extension cords, that alerted police.

Full story here.



Two 17-year-olds, slumping past on their way to my son's bedroom:

My son: "We're gonna go play 'Halo.'"
His friend: "I am the lord of all things 'Halo.'"


And a birdbeak stereo . . .

I don't understand why, with all our scientific advancements in cloning, etc., we can't develop animals to do our household chores for us.

For instance, I would happily house an anteater-like creature that would hoover up my carpets. I'm tired of pushing around a loud piece of machinery that breaks if it picks up a crumb. No, don't try to sell me a better vacuum or a Roomba or whatever. I want a critter that feeds on dust.

Haven't these scientists ever seen "The Flintstones?"

PS: Birdbeak Stereo would be a good name for a band.


You're doing it wrong

A former inmate in Florida has been injured on a 12-foot-tall fence when he tried to climb back into the jail.

Sylvester Jiles, 24, had been held on a manslaughter charge, but was released after a plea deal. Later, he showed at the jail, begging corrections officers to let him back inside because the family of the manslaughter victim was gunning for him. The guards couldn't just take him in, so he tried to climb the fence and hurt himself on the barbed wire.

Full story here.



I look out the patio windows and there in our relatively small in-ground pool is our oldest son, the wandering minstrel with the blond dreadlocks, and five of his equally filthy freak-flag-flying friends, swimming and splashing and having the time of their lives.

I turned to my wife and said, "Hippie soup."


Back in the saddle from Seattle

I've been out of town for a few days, visiting my pal Frank in Seattle, playing Scrabble and doing my best to provide some economic stimulus to the city's restaurants.

A very quick trip, driving through beautiful weather. We sure as hell got a lot of scenery out here in the Pacific Northwest.

I posted a new Corner Booth column here.


Driving While Ironic

Police say a man arrested for driving-while-intoxicated is the owner of an Albuquerque, NM, driving school.

The man apparently crashed his car earlier this month in the neighboring city of Rio Rancho. Police said he couldn't perform any of the field sobriety tests. And two breath tests showed him at four times the legal alcohol limit.

Full story here.


Clutter, clutter everywhere

After finishing some projects, I was tidying up today, unearthing my desk. I found birthday cards from three years ago. Earlier, I bustled around, putting away stuff all over the house and garage. It's been that kind of a day. Reminds me of a column I wrote called "Stuff It."

You can read it here.


Crime-fighting nuns

Note to aspiring burglars: You may not be cut out for a life of crime if you can be chased down on foot in a soybean field by a nun.

Two nuns in Missouri were credited with helping to a catch a burglar after one of them chased him on foot and the other led police to the scene. The nuns had questioned the man after seeing him in the field, carrying a rifle, a handsaw and a pair of boxing gloves. To the nuns, this didn't "look right."

The man took off running, and Sister Catarina de Silva, who was wearing an ankle-length habit and plastic flip-flops, chased him for a quarter-mile before he ran into some woods, where he was arrested.

No word on what she might've done if she'd caught him. Whacked him with a ruler?

Full story here.


You're doing it wrong

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: It's really important for bank robbers to conceal their identities during the course of the crime.

Wear a hat, some sunglasses, even a mask. And whatever you do, don't reveal your real name, account number and photo ID to the teller.

Police made quick work of an investigation in Anchorage, AK, after a man held up a credit union. The robber asked the teller to check his account balance, then gave her all of his correct personal information. Apparently, the balance wasn't high enough, because he then slipped the teller a note demanding money and indicating he had a gun in his pocket. He got away with $600.

Extra points: It didn't take long to match the identity information with the surveillance video of the robbery. The police detective on the case recognized the name. He'd arrested the same man in 2004 . . .

Double extra points: . . . for bank robbery.

Full story here.


And your taters got eyes

Me to my wife: "Honey, I was out in the container garden just now? And, um, did you intend to grow a big blue bucket full of swamp?"


'Lonely Street' news and reviews

The movie of my book "Lonely Street" comes out on DVD on Aug. 11, and reviews are starting to pop up around the Internet. The film's getting good initial ratings on the various rental/sales/mailing services.

To read a nice review by our pals over at CrimeSpree Cinema, click here.


Ho-ho-ho, Merry August

Back-to-school shopping always seems like a summertime taste of Christmas.

Such a haul. New clothes, new sneakers, new backpack, new lunchbox. Bright yellow pencils and crisp white paper.

For the kids, it's as if Santa came to visit in his vacation clothes. For the parents, though, it can be a nail-biting, heartburn-inducing exercise in breaking the bank.

Small kids demand that all clothes and school supplies come decorated with trademarked characters from Marvel or Mattel or Disney or Nintendo. No matter which character your child loves best, all the goods bearing that likeness sold out last February.

If parents try to inflict anything else -- plain T-shirts, for example, or a notebook decorated with Barney instead of Pikachu -- the children will roll on the floor and howl and kick their little feet.
It's easy to spot those kids' parents. They're the nomads wandering from store to store, weeping and clutching handfuls of their own hair.

If you're lucky enough to stumble upon a hoard of the correct goods, the sticker shock will make your eyes jump out of your head and roll around the floor. Ten bucks for a binder? Thirty bucks for little bitty jeans? Sixty dollars for sneakers?

Holy slide rule, Batman. Before you know it, you've racked up a credit card debt that won't be paid off until the little beggars are off to college.

And for what? Clothes the children will ruin or outgrow by winter break. School supplies that will be lost or destroyed. (Has any kid, anywhere, ever made it through the school year with an intact protractor?) A backpack that produces an odd, musty smell you can't eradicate. And, of course, after a month or two, the kids will decide Pokemon is passe (or so all the parents pray).

By the time Christmas does roll around, it's time to replace everything. And it's hard to fit a new NASCAR lunchbox in a stocking.

I'd like to say it gets easier as kids get older, but that would be lying. Fashions change, but the demands are much the same. Instead of screaming for a pink Barbie lunchbox, your daughter will insist on a pink Paris Hilton crop top. Your son will object to any pants that aren't large enough to house a family of six.

And the sneakers just keep getting pricier.

Some parents of teens simply hand over a credit card and lie down in a dimly lit room until it's over. Others participate in the shopping, but must budget for stress remedies such as bourbon.

There is hope. Eventually, the kids' growth slows, so they might wear a garment more than, say, twice. The household fills up with so many backpacks and lunchboxes and binders, a child might actually re-use one, assuming it doesn't smell too funky.

Our two teen-age sons show little interest in back-to-school shopping. The older one, who's in the seventh year of his ratty rock-and-roller phase, refuses to wear clothes unless they have more holes than a screen door. The younger one never throws anything out, so his closet is overflowing. They both own relatively new, stink-free backpacks.

So I left the boys at home when I did the back-to-school shopping. I returned with a sackful of composition books and pens and said, "Here you go. You're all set."

I know it's not over. Teachers will demand specialized goods. Backpacks will be lost. Tattered clothing will turn to dust.

But I'm hoping we can hold out until Christmas.


Truth in advertising

Here's what it should say on the vacuum-sealed, tightly packed foil pouch that encases my LavAzza coffee:

"To Open: Please consult surgeon, welder or other professional. Do not attempt to open while sleepy or caffeine-deprived."

Extra points: Doesn't "LavAzza" look like Italian for "wash one's hindquarters?"


I'd like to see more bikini crime

A woman in Mississippi has been arrested for carjacking another woman's vehicle and driving to a nearby RV dealership and trying to rob it, all while wearing a bikini.

Police in Southaven say the 24-year-old suspect was arrested after employees at the RV dealership didn't believe her claim that she had a gun (where would she be hiding it?) and refused to cooperate in the stickup.

Extra points: Police say the young suspect "appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol." Ya thaink?

Full story here.



Today's crime prevention tip: If you're carrying a bag holding $120,000 in jewels, don't set it down, even "momentarily," during rush hour in Grand Central Station in New York City.

Some con men might have an identical bag, and they'll switch them and make away with the loot.

Extra points: The con men distracted the two jewelry store employees with a $10 bill dropped on the floor.

Full story here.


Surf Gator, USA

Folks in Topsail Beach, NC, have been warned to be careful after an alligator was spotted riding the waves. The alligator was spotted swimming in the ocean and clambering up onto the beach.

Authorities blocked access to the beach, and tried to catch the gator with ropes and nets, but it got away.

Police said the ocean-going gator was four to five feet long.

Full story here.


Headline of the day

From MercuryNews.com:

Authorities look at dead man in Northern California killings

Bwainz! Zombies eeet bwainz!

Full story here.


Jupiter's big hole

As I write at today's Corner Booth on http://www.anewscafe.com/, astronomers are excited about a giant hole the size of the Earth appearing in the swirling clouds of Jupiter.

Yikes! My house needs a sturdier roof.


King of Popcorn

NEWS ALERT: The Iowa State Fair has canceled its planned butter sculpture of the late Michael Jackson.

Sixty-five percent of respondents in an online poll opposed casting the King of Pop in buttery goodness, so fair officials popped fans' bubble and called off the sculpture.

The August fair will continue to have its traditional cow sculpture crafted from sweet, creamy butter. Also, this year, they're adding a butter moon with astronaut to celebrate the 40th anniversary of some other moonwalkers.

Full story here.


Giant weiner penetrates house

Okay, so you're sitting in your lovely Racine, WI, home, swatting mosquitos and watching "Oprah," when -- blam! -- something crashes into your house. OMG, it's a vehicle and it's plunged halfway into that room downstairs. Huh. It's the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.

Honey, call the TV stations!

Full story, with delightful photos, here.


Naked truth

Today's tip: If you get caught walking around a park in the nude, making up a story about a robber stealing your clothes will only make things worse.

Police in Lincoln, NE, say a 19-year-old man removed his clothes because he was hot, and went for a stroll in Wilderness Park. An hour later, he couldn't find where he'd left his clothes. When approached by police, he told them an armed gunman had forced him to strip and taken his clothes.

The overheated hiker now is in the cooler, facing charges of indecent exposure and making false statements to the police.

Full story here.


Try new Drunken Burglar beer

A man in Bar Harbor, ME, awoke to find an intoxicated intruder in his bedroom. What to do? Offer him a beer, of course.

It worked. The intruder accepted the beer and went on his merry way. Police arrested him nearby a short time later after he was caught breaking into cars.

Extra points: He apparently didn't realize that the homeowner had given him a non-alcoholic beer.

When you can't tell the difference, it's time to quit drinking.

Full story here.


That's not cricket

Today's tip for aspiring armed robbers: If you must use a toy gun to knock over a gas station, you might want to first remove the orange plastic tip from the gun.

A robber in Pine Grove, AL, failed to take that step, and the clerk noticed that the gun was not real. Police say the clerk then picked up a cricket bat and chased the robber away.

Officers subsequently arrested a 22-year-old moron and charged him with first-degree robbery.

No word on the what the hell a cricket bat was doing in a gas station in Alabama.

Full story here.


Road rash

Today's tip for skateboarders: If you insist on boarding down a steep hill, running a red light and zooming into traffic on a busy four-lane boulevard, try not to run into the police car.

Police say Manuel Griego, 24, suffered a serious ankle injury when he careened into the police car in Pueblo, CO. He also put a big dent in the side of the car. The skateboard was a total loss.

Extra points: Police say Griego may have been drunk at the time. Surprise!

Double extra points: The officer driving the patrol car is named Dennis Furbush.

Full story here.


Up, up and arrested

New York police arrested Superman. Batman was handcuffed temporarily, but then allowed to go free.

Two men dressed as the superheroes were approached by cops in Times Square and quizzed about whether they had permits to perform in costume. Batman had no ID on him, and the cops cuffed him. Then Superman went wild and punched a female officer.

Superman, secret identity Maksim Katsnelson, 23, put up a heckuva fight, but finally was subdued by seven officers, who fortunately were armed with kryptonite.

Full story here.


Crime headline of the day

From the New York Times: Officer Shoots Man in Bronx After Robbery Attempt With Fake Gun

If you're ever been shot in the bronx, you know it's really painful.


Jittery with a java jones

In summer, when temperatures are as sultry as a debutante full of sloe gin, nothing’s more refreshing than a hot cup of coffee.

You heard me. Coffee. Give me coffee, no matter what the weather. First thing out of bed every morning, rain or shine, steamy or snowy. Coffee. I gotta have it.

I’ve got a caffeine addiction that won’t quit, and I’m not the only one. The whole country’s got the coffee jitters. How else to explain the sprouting of drive-thru coffee joints on every vacant corner in North America? No wonder all the bad drivers are on the phone, talking really fast. They’re all juked on java.

In some places, you don’t even have to cross the street to get coffee. Winter before last, I found myself in midtown Manhattan on a Sunday morning, the one quiet time of the week. Everyone was still in bed, but not me, because I don’t sleep in hotels anymore, especially in New York, where honking is acceptable behavior at 3 a.m. So I’m up, and I visit the Starbucks in the hotel lobby and I go out for a walk. It’s cold, but dry, and I walk briskly and I’ve got my paper coffee cup to warm my hands. Most all the businesses are closed, but up on the corner, there’s another Starbucks, all lit up and warm. Across the street and down the block, another Starbucks. I walked around Grand Central Station before I ended up back at the hotel. In those 12 blocks, nine Starbucks.

At its current rate of growth (and allowing for recent closures), Starbucks will, by 2032, have crowded an outlet into every home in America. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to having my own barista.

My java jones is so bad, I select hotels on the basis of whether they have coffeemakers in the rooms, so I can get an initial fix before dressing in the morning. Those little machines never make coffee exactly how you want it, which is intravenously, at bedside.

At our house, we’ve got the fastest coffeemaker on the market; I can barely finish yawning and scratching before it’s ready.

I start downing coffee at dawn, and I drink it right through lunchtime, or until I get so jittery that I burst into flames, whichever comes first.

Worse yet, I use an embarrassing amount of sugar and/or artificial sweetener, so the coffee has the overall sweetness and slightly chewy texture of molasses.

No cream, though. That’s for sissies.

And none of those fancy coffees for me, those lattes and cappuccinos and mochachokas and frappagrappas. I’m sure they’re very tasty, but I freeze up, trying to decipher the menu, where many of the words appeared to be Italian and nothing is “small” or “medium.” I mutter, “Coffee,” and take whatever they give me and pour in an embarrassing amount of sugar, and I’m out of there.

It’s probably not healthy to consume six to eight cups of coffee per day, or maybe it is, depending upon which study came out last. Coffee either prevented colon cancer or caused heavy users to grow antlers. I forget.

It doesn’t matter what the doctors say. I’m sticking with coffee. I’ve given up nearly all my other bad habits. I’ve got to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

They can have my thermal mug when they pry it out of my cold, lifeless hand. Which could be any minute now.




An 18-year-old in New Zealand was told to clean out the garage and get rid of unwanted items. Among the items he found: Nude photos of his mother.

Does he:

A) discard the photos to save her embarrassment
B) show her the photos and lord her past over her
C) attempt to sell them on New Zealand's version of Ebay with the headline: "five naked photos of my Mum."

If you picked "C," then you clearly know something about teen-agers.

Extra points: The 44-year-old Mum called her son a "cheeky little git" for posting the photos, but approved a subsequent posting of other "glamour shots," including one of her in lingerie.

Double extra points: The Trade Me website pulled both sets of "inappropriate" photos out of auction. A spokesman said, "We don't really want to be the place where people list photos of their mums in their underwear."

Full story here.


Litterbugs and housewreckers

Ever notice how dirty dishes multiply? Or the way one wayward sock on the floor soon results in a room’s total disarray?

Dutch scientists have proven the civic equivalent. A messy neighborhood, they found, led to an overall decline in behavior.

Lead author Kees Keizer of the University of Groningen reported in the journal “Science” that most people act appropriately to the circumstances, but some act lazy or selfish. When their actions are allowed to stand, others soon follow suit.

This is related to what law enforcement officials have long called the “broken window theory,” which says that signs of urban decay -- broken windows, graffiti, litter -- encourage petty crime.
Keizer told The Associated Press that while the researchers weren’t surprised that the theory held up, “we were, however, surprised by the size of the effect.”

For example, the scientists found an alley in a Dutch shopping area where people parked their bicycles. A “no littering” sign was on the wall. The researchers attached store flyers to the handlebars of the bikes, then watched to see what happened.

They found that 33 percent of the riders littered the alley with the flyers. But after the researchers sprayed the alley wall with graffiti, the number who littered jumped to 69 percent.

While such tests no doubt provided special insight into human behavior, the Dutch scientists could’ve skipped all that work. They could’ve simply asked those of us who are responsible for housework. We’re quite familiar with the broken window syndrome.

Take your kitchen, for example. If it’s clean and tidy, most people who use it are more likely to keep it that way. They’ll pick up after themselves, put their dishes in the dishwasher and mop up spluts on the countertops.

But leave your coffee spoon sitting out on the counter and see what happens. Within minutes, dishes and greasy utensils litter every surface, the sink is full and the floor’s freckled with sticky spots.

Say you move into the living room for some televised sports viewing. It’s lovely in there. The furniture gleams and the carpet is clean. But maybe it’s a little warm. So you remove your socks and set them in a tidy pile by your bare feet. Aah, that’s better.

By halftime, every horizontal surface is covered by open bags of pork rinds and pretzels, spilled salsa, random peanuts. The coffee table has more rings on it than the Olympic Games symbol. The carpet bears a fine coating of orange Cheetos dust. Perfect strangers have wandered into the room and are drinking your beer.

One little slip leads to a little mess, which results in ever-bigger messes until finally someone calls the Health Department and you have to move.

The slippery slope is steeper if there are children or teen-agers in the household. They go from “broken window” to complete slum faster than you can say “Pick that up!” One toy hits the floor, and the house soon looks like Santa’s sleigh blew up. Allow one stray sneaker and you’ll come back to a room that looks as if it’s been ransacked by looters.

Next thing you know, the children are engaged in petty crime. Then they’ll really be in Dutch.


Building distractions

I was still on my first cup of coffee when I heard men shouting and the grumble of machinery outside.

I went to the front window, and found that the street was lined by trucks and other equipment. Not one, but two backhoes were being unloaded from trailers. Through sheer deductive reasoning (and the company logo on the nearest truck), I surmised that my neighbor across the way was getting a swimming pool.

Which meant my workday here in the old home office had just been shot to hell.

Neighborhood construction brings all work to a halt for office rats like me. It's not just the noise; we've got headphones and "ear buds" to block that out. It's the overall commotion. Things are happening out there, men are doing things and machines are growling and beeping. The very earth itself is being shoveled up and hauled away. How can I focus on my computer screen when real men are doing real work right over there? Shouldn't I go watch?

Yes, I should. And there go the next several hours.

A lot of us guys never got over the sandbox. Give us some Tonka toys and a pile of dirt and pretty soon we're crawling around, sputtering vroom-vroom noises. Show us a construction site, and we’re set for hours, just watching.

The construction process is the magic of something from nothing. A concrete result, so different from the ephemera that most of us generate all day. It's simply fascinating to guys, which is why they cut peepholes in fences around big-city building sites.

Most of the time, I can withstand the siren song of the Caterpillar. But when construction comes right to my own neighborhood, it's too compelling to ignore. Workmen swoop in like the team from "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," bringing bulldozers and dump trucks and concrete pumps. Churning up dust and noise.

And I'm there at the window, staring at the bustle like it was ESPN.

There's the obvious allure of heavy machinery. But there's another dirty little truth at work here, too: Nothing is more satisfying than watching honest, hard, sweaty work being performed by someone else.

At the last house we owned, we paid some guys to build a large covered patio in our back yard. The floor of the patio was brick, and the bricklayers spent days on their knees, under a brutal sun. I felt sympathy for the poor devils, sure, maybe even a little guilt because I was indoors in the air-conditioning while they suffered. But I couldn’t tear myself away from that window.

Then there was the day I looked up from my desk to find a man dangling on ropes in my neighbor's towering elm trees. He swung like Tarzan from limb to limb, lopping off branches with a screaming half-sized chainsaw. Guys on the ground gathered up the fallen limbs and fed them into a big yellow -- grrrzzzzzt! -- shredder. Oh, my.

Grrrzzzzzt! There went my productivity.

Eventually, I was forced to ask: What kind of man was I, sitting all day at a keyboard, peck-peck-peck, while real men were out doing manly jobs like bricklaying and chainsaw trapeze?

What kind of man was I? The air-conditioned kind, that's what. The kind who'd rather remain seated indoors, thanks very much. I'll take cool and safe. Nobody ever cut his arm off, typing.

But I'm always happy to watch the Construction Channel when it happens by. Forget about lost man-hours. Make popcorn.


This is a robb-- Oof! Ow!

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you're planning to break into a house, choose one that's not occupied by a retired boxer.

A 23-year-old British man learned this lesson the hard way. Authorities in Oxford, England, say Gregory McCalium was armed with a knife when he entered the house of 72-year-old Frank Corti and his wife Margaret.

Corti dodged the knife and punched McCalium twice in the face, knocking him down, then held him until the police arrived.

The judge who sentenced McCalium to more than four years in prison said he got what he deserved for trying to prey on the elderly.

Full story here.


Yak in the office

For the past two years, my wife and I have shared a home office, and I’m pretty sure she’s heard enough.

I’ve always been something of a blabbermouth, but I spent much of the previous decade working in solitude and silence. Well, not exactly silence. I’d talk all day long, even though there was no one home but me and the dog. Mostly, this steady spiel consisted of cussing at the computer and the various vicissitudes of daily life.

I didn’t recognize that I’d fallen into this habit because there were no humans around to clear their throats and give me disapproving looks. The dog didn’t mind because he was asleep the whole time.

Since my wife started working at home, I've had to tone down the chatter. She kept thinking something was wrong because of all the cussing and muttering, when in fact it was just the usual stuff. (She has the same problem with my reaction to traffic, which is why we often arrive in separate vehicles.)

I’d forgotten what it’s like to have co-workers. People who are trying to get some work done don’t want you nattering at them all the time, even if they are your beloved spouse of 25 years. No, they’d really rather that you shut up and let them concentrate.

In our home office, we sit facing opposite directions. This is the perfect position for tossing wisecracks over one’s shoulder like spilled salt, but it’s not the best position for listening to the other person. Much of our conversation goes like this:

He: Wisecrack.
She: What?
He: Repeated wisecrack.
She: I still can’t hear you.
He turns all the way around, repeats the phrase again, but now it’s lost its verve.
She: Oh. Ha-ha.
He: Never mind.
She: Now what’s wrong?
He: Mumble.
She: What?

It goes on like that until one of us decides it’s time to go to the far end of the house for more coffee or something.

It’s also been more than a decade since I’ve had a boss looking over my shoulder. My wife assures me she doesn’t wish to play that role, yet I feel compelled to report my whereabouts at all times. I tell her when I’m going to the kitchen/shower/garage/yard/store/out to lunch/to take a nap. She keeps saying she doesn’t need to know, but I tell her anyway. This information could come in handy if she found herself in sudden need of a mumbled wisecrack.

Sometimes, my wife leaves our home office to give her ears a rest. She takes her laptop computer to the dining room. That doesn’t deter me, of course. I yell things the length of the house, so she can say “what?” some more.

With the mobility afforded by the laptop, she can leave the house altogether and still get her work done. Sometimes, she even tells me that she’s leaving so I don’t sit around like an idiot, yakking and expecting answers.

You might see her around town, sitting at a coffee shop, pounding away on her tiny keyboard. If you do, please send her home. I’ve got some things I need to tell her.


Lessons learned

The used SUV we bought for our sons came with a lugnut-style lock on the rear-mounted spare tire. But no key.

A special type of star-shaped key was needed to unscrew the lock. We couldn't find a matching one anywhere. I tried auto parts stores, hardware stores, tire shops. Nobody could help. The advice I universally got was to hammer a socket onto the chrome lugnut lock, then ratchet them both off. I tried this several times, buying expensive jumbo sockets each time, and could never get it to work. I showed the lock to friends with power tools. I hit it with a hammer. I tried anything to avoid an expensive trip to the locksmith.

This went on for months and months. Always, somewhere in the back of my mind, was my losing battle with this lock. If I forgot about it, the car promptly got a flat, which required a full emergency rescue and served as a reminder that the spare was useless as long as that lock was in the way.

Finally, I broke down. Yesterday, teeth clenched against the expected expense, we took the car to a locksmith. The locksmith used an expansion socket, which is tapered inside, and had the lock off of there in minutes. The cost? Eight bucks.

I'd spent three times that much on sockets that I subsequently ruined with a hammer. Not to mention the hundreds of dollars spent on antacids and headache remedies and booze. All trying to avoid that expensive trip to the locksmith. Duh.

Two lessons here that we've all heard before, but bear repeating:

1) Use the right tool for the job.

2) Leave it to the experts.

It's much easier to write a check than to jury-rig a solution that probably won't work and may result in personal injury. Often, the experts don't cost as much as we fear. Besides, you can make up the cost with savings on booze.



Today's tip for aspiring criminals: Burglarizing the same office twice in less than six hours probably, oh, let's say doubles the chances that you'll get caught.

Police in Lawrence, NY, say 46-year-old Lester McDonald forced his way into a second-floor office around 1:30 a.m. Sunday and stole a laptop computer. Around 7 a.m., he returned to the same office and stole another laptop and a television.

Unfortunately for him, he didn't also steal the surveillance camera that captured him on video. Police say that led to his arrest.

Full story here.


Your party footprint

All the talk these days centers on carbon footprints -- how much pollution we generate and energy we consume. But party footprints are important, too, and more immediate. You might have trouble calculating your carbon footprint, but your party footprint can easily be tallied by counting the number of food stains on your shirt.

My personal party footprint is huge. I’m a big guy, so I take up a lot of space. I eat and drink more than my share. I spill. I tend to get effusive (especially when I’ve had a few) and talk with my hands. Anyone crowded too close is in real danger of losing an eye.

I suspect that the size of my party footprint inhibits our social life. When people make party plans, they say: “We can’t invite the Brewers. She’s OK, but we simply don’t have room for HIM.”

Men typically have bigger party footprints than women. We’re louder, larger, hairier, hungrier, thirstier. We tend to forget social niceties, especially as the evening wears on (see “thirstier”). Women at holiday parties are like bright birds, twittering demurely and picking at the food. Men, as we’re frequently reminded, are pigs from Mars.

(Yes, I’m speaking in generalities, but that is my native language.)

Let’s look at the different ways the genders approach parties:

Women enjoy parties for the conversation and companionship. Men like that stuff, too, but it’s difficult to keep a scintillating conversation going while eating with both hands.

When hosting a party, women want to make sure that all the guests feel good. Men want to make themselves feel good. Yes, this is similar to sex. (Hah, beat you to it.)

Women enjoy planning a party and getting everything ready. You can count on men to buy ice.

For women, fancy parties offer an opportunity to dress up. For men, parties are a reason to wear pants, at least at first.

Parties give women a chance to be artistic (décor, fancy food). Men are more interested in the mechanical (BBQ grills, proper keg flow).

At dinner parties, women compliment the chef by oohing over the food and asking for recipes. Men compliment the chef by groaning and asking for more.

Women politely offer to help the hosts serve food and drink. Men sometimes clean up their own spills.

Some parties include dancing, which many women enjoy. Men prefer a challenging game of drunken Twister.

Holiday gatherings let women bask in the warm glow of family and friends. Men prefer the warm glow of televised football.

At family events, women think of the children and the fond memories that are being made. Men say to the kids, “Don’t stand in front of the TV.”

Women like to make an entrance. Men prefer to make a memorable exit.

Women always remember to thank the hosts. Men often remember to apologize to the hosts.

Women like to engage in post-party analysis. Men are happy if they can find the car.

These differences don’t necessarily mean that women are superior to men, but it does mean women have smaller party footprints and often make better hosts/guests. Lucky for us guys, the women have to drag us along or face a lot of embarrassing questions.

Ladies, don’t feel you must apologize for your men’s enormous party footprints. Just say, “I’m with Sasquatch.” Everyone will understand.


Interruption eruption

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled Internet browsing to bring you this important message about interruptions.

We’re interrupted all the time, aren’t we? In the name of multi-tasking and efficiency, we try to do too much in too little time and--

Sorry, I had to take that call.

Recent studies have found that modern communication technology adds to the stress of daily living. Because we can be plugged in all the time, we feel that we must keep up. So we check our e-mail every few minutes and send text messages while we’re eating and answer calls in the middle of the night--

OK, I’m back. Sorry about that. News from the stock market. Had to do some deep breathing exercises.

Constant contact should make us more productive, but a recent study found that we’re actually less productive because we’re interrupted so much.

Researchers found that people work faster when they’re often interrupted, but they produce less, said study co-author Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California-Irvine.
The study found that only 20 minutes of interrupted work resulted in higher stress and frustration. Worse yet, the study found that people were as likely to interrupt themselves as they were to be interrupted by others.

Mark told The New York Times that observers found that “after every 12 minutes or so, for no apparent reason, someone working on a document will turn and call someone or e-mail.”

She said more research needs to be done to learn why people work in this pattern, but it might have something to do with increasingly short attention spans.

Wait. What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. Attention spans. Whatever.

Because of frequent interruption, self-inflicted or otherwise, Mark said, workers don’t spend time thinking in-depth about, um, their, uh, work.

OK, back again. I had to go play a game of pinball with my computer. Sometimes, I need to blow off a little steam, you know? Too much stress from interruptions. I’m sure that interjecting some fun makes me a more productive worker in the long run.

Except now I don’t remember where I was. I had something I wanted to say--

Hey, new e-mail! Just some spam and a joke (that old favorite about the proctologist and the llama), but I like to keep my inbox emptied out so I’m ready when important messages arrive.

Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Interruptions. And stress. And, and productivity. That stuff. Right.
Sorry, another call. I swear, it’s a wonder I ever get anything done. If it’s not one interruption, it’s another--

I’m back. Had to hurry to the other end of the house to see what made that funny noise. Haha, it was the icemaker. Not really a funny noise at all. Just the usual grrr-grrr ka-chunk. We sure go through a lot of ice around here. Odd, when you think about it, because I mostly drink coffee (no ice!) or diet colas that are already cold in the can, and the rest of the family--

There I go again, interrupting myself. It’s hard to stay on track when I go off in another direction every 12 minutes or so.

Anyway, to sum up, I’d like to say you can overcome this addiction to interruption. Turn off your cell phone and limit checks on your e-mail. Manage the flow of information before it manages you.

I’ll be back with more great tips, right after I take this call--


You're doing it wrong

A druggie on a four-day amphetamine binge walked into a service station in Australia and yelled, "I want the money."

The clerk, unfazed, demanded to see the robber's weapon.

"You need a weapon," he said. "I have to fear for my life. You can't just have the money."

The would-be robber, identified as John Newall, 27, grabbed $400 from the cash drawer when the clerk opened the register for a customer. He fled on foot. He was arrested the next day after police identified him from surveillance video.

Extra points: Police say Newall spent some of his loot on food from McDonalds. The rest he lost in poker machines at a casino.

Full story here.


Advice for Father's Day

This Father’s Day, let’s remember the best of all parental admonitions: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Sure, that sounds hypocritical (especially to smart-aleck kids who think they know everything), but it’s really the only way for dads to approach parenting.

Fathers are deluged with advice about setting good examples for our children. We’re told that we’re role models, that we should have no bad habits, or at least should keep them carefully concealed. Otherwise, the children will grow up to be just as messed up as we are.

This puts a lot of pressure on guys. Good behavior goes against our nature. If you don’t believe me, check out any group of guys watching the Super Bowl together. Men quickly devolve into hooting primitives when they’re not observed by those who might disapprove, particularly if violent sports, beer and/or cheerleaders are involved.

This bad behavior can be overlooked when men are young, single and free-spirited. The very word “bachelor” comes from the Latin root for “keg party.” Which explains the origin of the “bachelor’s degree” on college campuses.

But once we become dads, we’re expected to chuck all our bad habits and behave. Especially if the kids are watching. And they’re ALWAYS watching, even when you think they’re asleep.

Let’s say, for example, that you smoke cigarettes. Your children will hold this against you. They will nag you to stop, complain about the smell and leave you newspaper clippings about the health hazards. Even if you only smoke outside when the children are asleep in a location miles away, they’ll still nail you. They will wear you down until you quit smoking, even if it takes years.

As soon as you’ve adjusted to the idea that you’re no longer a smoker, the kids will take up the habit. Guaranteed.

Why? Because you were their role model and you misbehaved. Plus, they know it’ll drive you crazy.

No matter that you told them all along that they shouldn’t smoke. No matter that you said all the right things. They’ll do as you do, not as you say, because it’s the shortest route to the Asylum for Insane Parents.

The whole say/do conundrum is even worse for fathers like me, who work at home. For more than a decade, I was the one who spent the most time with our two sons, ferrying them to school and overseeing homework, while my wife brought home the bacon. If our sons had a role model, I was it, which explains a lot about how they turned out.

No matter what I say to our teens, they call my bluff because they’ve seen how I’ve behaved over the years.

I’ve told them they should get jobs and dress nicer and think about careers. But how can I expect them to take me seriously when, for most of their lives, they’ve seen me working at home in my pajamas?

Why should they have a regular job, the argument goes, when dad doesn’t have one? Why should they go the suit-and-tie route when their barefoot father takes great pride in the fact he hasn’t worn a necktie in a dozen years? And a boss, what’s that about?

I’ve set a bad example. If only the boys had listened to me instead of watching me. As it is, they’re in danger of becoming work-at-home types themselves. Which translates to “poor.” Who will look after me in my old age?

On the other hand, no one will give me a necktie for Father’s Day. How can I be sure? Because I said so.



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

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

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

Ballpointless: An ink-stained shirt pocket.

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

Bickerbacker: One who supports an argument.

Bleeper: Someone who curses whenever he’s paged.

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

Boxscars: Wounds resulting from mishandling of cardboard.

Browbeatle: A haircut with long bangs.

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

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

Daisycheney: Attacking one foreign nation after another.

Dowdownfall: Stock market plunge.

Filenotfoundophobia: The fear of losing your computer data.

Googlelicious: Attractive to Internet search engines.

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

Hellofodder: Words wasted on e-mail greetings.

High-hat-trick: Snubbing someone three times.

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

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

Ipodectomy: Surgical removal of “ear buds.”

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

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

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

Nascarcinoma: Cigarette advertising at auto races.

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

Palindrone: A speech by a vice presidential candidate.

Parashoot: Free fall.

Pavemint: The refreshing taste of asphalt.

Photofinnish: A picture in which everyone looks Scandinavian.

PINsive: The anxiety of making errors while trying to use an automatic teller

Quaranicotine: The practice of isolating cigarette smokers.

Raisinography: The tracing of face wrinkles.

Schedfull: An overbooked calendar.

Shamupoo: Whale soap.

Snickerdoodie: Laughing in public restrooms.

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

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

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

Stewpid: Too dumb to cook from scratch.

Thumbtax: Overwork via text-messaging.

Triscuitdeckophobia: The fear of eating snack crackers outdoors.

Tweeterbeater: Someone who awakes before the early bird.

Waistbasket: A large, round belly.

Wickerpedia: Knowing everything about baskets.

Woodgie: The painful result of sliding down a banister.

Xerorepromoonics: The practice of photocopying one’s backside.

Zapology: The study of remote control usage.

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


Murphy's Law #413

No matter how many ballpoint pens there are to choose from, the first one you pick up will have no ink. Every time.


The Customer Service Two-Step

The router/modem thingy that connects our house to DSL and the greater Interwebs was deader than vaudeville, so I had time on my hands. I called Customer Service.

First, I sat through a lot of recorded messages, occasionally pressing “1” to keep things moving along. The helpful recordings suggested I should plug it in and check the cables, but I’d already tried all that, so I just waited.

A live human eventually came on the line. She was very nice, very helpful. Though we had certain communications difficulties -- I kept referring to the router/modem thingy as “that box on my desk” -- we managed to sort it out.

She asked me the same questions about whether it’s plugged in, but I’d already tried all that. When she heard that even the “power” light wouldn’t come on, she ruled that I need a new box, which I thought was the whole point of this conversation.

Then she said, “Your modem is no longer under warranty. So a new one will be $69.”

“I don’t want to pay $69,” I said. “I already pay you people every month. Without a box, I can’t get your expensive service, which I already pay you for.”

“But the modem costs--”

“I didn’t break the box. I shouldn‘t have to pay for it..”

“Let me go talk to my manager.”


Several helpful recorded messages later, she came back on: “Okay, my manager says we can give you the modem for free, but you’ll need to extend your service contract by one year.”

“No, I’m not allowed to do that. My wife handles all that stuff. She’s not here.”

“Huh. Let me go talk to my manager.”

A couple of minutes of recorded messages followed, but I wasn't listening. I was playing Spider Solitaire. That part of my computer still worked.

“Okay," she said when she returned. " My manager says we can give you the modem for free and with no contract extension.”

“Free? Great. How soon will it get here?”

“Two to three business days.”

“That won’t do. I need it sooner. This is my home office. My whole business runs through that box. My wife’s business, too.”

“Let me go talk to my manager.”

A few Spider Solitaire games later, she returned: “Okay. We’ll send it overnight delivery.”

“Free shipping?”

She sighed. “All for free.”


I report this triumph of everyday life not simply to crow about it, but to remind you that you don’t have to settle for the first answer. With a little mulishness, you often can get exactly what you want.

My wife taught me that. Over the years, I’ve watched her wear down a lot of salespeople and helplines. Her favorite expression: “Can you make an exception for me?”

All it takes is patience. Dealing with Customer Service has developed into a little telephone two-step, and you have to let it run its course. I’m sure the “manager” my helpful operator consulted each time was the next line on a page of sales protocol. In between her ever-improving offers, she was probably doing her nails. Or playing Spider Solitaire.

It’s her job to go down her list and drag her feet and maybe squeeze some money or a contract extension out of the hapless, panicky customer. It’s the good consumer’s job to wait her out.

These companies know they have a lot of competition out there, and to keep customers they must let us have our way with them. Eventually.

All they ask is that we dance with them first.


'I'm not dead yet'

An 84-year-old woman in Poland was declared dead after collapsing in a park, but woke up in the morgue as she was being prepared for her funeral.

Doctors were called after morticians noticed her moving. She was hospitalized in serious condition. A police investigation of the incident has been launched.

No word on whether the morticians were freaked out.

Full story here.


Pinball lizard

As if I didn’t have enough to distract me from my work, I’ve learned that my computer has a pinball game.

Over the years, I’ve tried to limit computer game-playing because it takes so much time away from productive work. I can kid myself about roaming the Internet and reading e-mail and amusing myself with YouTube idiocies -- those might serve some business purpose or spark some creative impulse -- but games? Not so much.

Not that I’ve been immune. I’m a long-time addict to Solitaire and its evil cousin, Spider Solitaire, and probably could’ve doubled my work output over the years if I would’ve simply eliminated those games from my computer. And there was that long flirtation with Tetris that nearly cost me my career.

But I don’t download games or upload games or generally seek out games that will result in even more wasted time. And I’ve completely avoided the more complicated role-playing games and war games. I’ve seen what those have done to my teen-aged sons. I can’t stand to lose that many brain cells.

But one day recently, I discovered that my computer came pre-loaded with “Space Cadet 3-D Pinball.” Oh, my.

I had to try it, right? I mean it was right there, taking up space, as it were, begging me to check it out and decide whether to eliminate it from my computer’s overloaded memory.

Well. I quickly found that it’s remarkably realistic, if scaled a little small for aged eyes. It sounds just like a real pinball game, with all the bumpers and bells and flippers. Plus, because it’s a space-themed game, it’s flush with laser noises and wormholes and black holes and relaunches and weapons upgrades. All the things that make an old pinball veteran lose his mind.

I’m a member of the last generation that came of age with pinball games. Yes, arcades still feature pinball, but I was a teen when all the games were mechanical, before video games took over. Oh, sure, I remember Pac-Man and Frogger and Pong and some of those other early games, but they were new to arcades back then, and we old pinball hands didn’t think they’d catch on.

I spent many, many hours in the game room of my college’s student union, where it was all about billiards and pinball. I think there was an Asteroids game off in a corner, but the real men were pinball wizards, wasting our lives a quarter at a time.

For years, I rarely engaged in pinball. When my sons were small, I’d occasionally take them to a local arcade. They’d play video games while I’d be off in a corner, whamming away at a pinball game.

If anyone had asked, I would’ve said I finally outgrew pinball. Much too busy and important to sit around, fondling my flippers, pursuing a high score and cussing when I lose.

Then I stumbled across the computer pinball game and became a Space Cadet, playing until my hands cramp. I’m twitchy all the time. I hear bells and lasers in my sleep. My whole life has gone “tilt.”

At least, this time around, my pinball addiction is free. If I’m going to get no work done, I can’t spare the quarters.


Signed, sealed, arrested

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you hide your fake gun behind a sheet of paper, make sure it's not a paper with your home address on it.

A 42-year-old robber in Michigan forgot that important advice when he knocked over a gas station in Kentwood, police say. He dropped the paper and fled when the clerk made a move toward him.

Police went to the address on the paper, where the suspect showed up an hour later.

Full story here.

Think yourself fat

It’s not chocolate and booze that are making me fat, it’s all the thinking.

A study in Canada has found that the more you work your brain, the more you want to eat. This is extremely bad news for a large segment of the New Internet Economy -- people who sit at computers all day, thinking about stuff. It’s not bad enough that we lead such a sedentary lifestyle. Now it turns out that the stress of mental work makes us want more food.

Researchers at Laval University reported the study in a recent issue of “Psychosomatic Medicine Journal.” (Don’t you love that there’s a publication called “Psychosomatic Medicine Journal?” I used to subscribe to it, but I thought it was making me sick.)

The researchers measured food consumption after subjects did reading/writing tasks or performed computerized tests. The study was done on 14 students (the white lab rats of humanity), who were turned loose on an all-you-can-eat buffet after performing the 45-minute tests.

Students who read a document and wrote a summary of it ate 24 percent more than students who simply rested in a sitting position during the test period. Students who did the computer test activity ate 29 percent more than those who rested.

“Those who had a more demanding mental task were more stressed and ate more,” said researcher Angelo Tremblay and, yes, that’s his real name.

Tremblay and his fellow researchers found that stress from mental work increased the hormone cortisol and also affected glucose levels, both of which can stimulate appetite.

Unfortunately, other studies have found that brainwork does nothing to burn calories. That seems unfair. Sure, our brains will spur us to visit the buffet again and again, but when it comes time to get rid of those accumulated calories, the brain can’t be bothered. It’s too busy pondering the infield fly rule or trying to remember the name of that cross-eyed kid we knew in third grade.

So what’s to be done? You already know the answer: physical exercise. Most of us don’t do enough manual labor to burn up the calories we consume; we’re too busy sitting at computers, playing Spider Solitaire. Since our brains won’t help burn calories, the only solution is to make our bodies do it through regular workouts, the researchers said.

They did find one glimmer of hope for the exercise-phobic, though that wasn’t their intention.
Because brain chemistry apparently can make us overeat, “mental work is a worse activity than simply doing nothing,” Tremblay said.

So there’s your answer. Stop using your brain so much, and maybe you’ll eat less. If you can stand to sit and stare into space without fidgeting or thinking, you’re all set.

This doesn’t explain why you run into so many stupid people who are also fat. But perhaps even a little bit of thinking is harder work for such mouth-breathers and therefore more stressful.

You’ll notice one important omission in the Canadian study: Television. Sitting and staring at TV is completely passive, but it clearly stimulates those same brain chemicals because nothing makes us want snacks more than televised sporting events. If sitting at a computer and thinking about stuff makes us fat, then sitting in front of a TV should make us HUGE. I know it’s working for me.

Anyway, that’s my theory about this new obesity study. I put a lot of thought into it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go eat. I’m starving.