How to redeem your rebate

Thank you for purchasing the new Widget 4000. You'll find the Widget 4000 is a super product that meets all your widget needs. Best of all, you save $100 with this simple mail-in rebate!

To redeem, you'll need the original sales receipt, your credit card receipt and the UPC bar code from the product. The UPC code is printed on a label attached to the product box with Super Glue. Cut the label off, cardboard and all, with a razor blade. (For safety reasons, we cannot process rebate requests that have blood on them.)

To fulfill your request, we'll need the following: Your name, address, age, phone number, credit card number, ATM number, driver's license number, Social Security number, vehicle identification number, library card number, computer password, childhood nickname, blood type and the names of any prescription medications you're currently taking.

We'll also need the same information from your spouse, if any. If you have a firstborn male child, we'll need his information, too. If you do not have a firstborn male child, please enclose a written explanation.

Please include the following information as well: Where you purchased your Widget 4000, how much you paid for it, why you chose that store and how much commission the salesman made. This information must be accompanied by a short essay explaining why you chose the Widget 4000 over similar products.

(Rebate requests that do not include the essay will be considered null and void. The Widget 4000 Corp. retains rights to all written material and may use your testimonial in advertisements without seeking your permission first.)

All your information should be hand-printed on an unlined sheet of legal-sized typing paper. (Lined paper, indecipherable handwriting or crooked margins will result in disqualification.)
Accompanying artwork will not be returned.

Use of profane language will make the request null and void. This is to protect our workers.
If you have retained a lawyer to help you seek your rebate, please include the lawyer's name, address and whether s/he is allergic to peanuts. If you are a lawyer yourself, we require that all the above steps be accomplished while performing a handstand.

Since our fulfillment center is in Thessalonika, all requested information should be written in Greek. (If you actually speak Greek, then we meant Malay.)

All items must be placed in a plain white envelope exactly 3.5 by 27 inches. Using the wrong sized envelope will void your request.

The front of the envelope must bear ONLY the address listed below. Write your return address on the back in a simple alphabet-replacement code where A equals 1, B equals 2, etc. Write the numbers upside-down and left-handed.

Correct postage must be attached. Postage should be paid in Algerian dinars. No exceptions will be allowed.

The envelope must be mailed to our fulfillment center by midnight of the date 30 days after your purchase. Make that exactly at midnight. Yeah, we like that better.

Processing takes about 90 days. If you do not hear from our fulfillment center within 120 days, you should stand on your head and hum "Mammy's Lil Baby Loves Shortnin' Bread" until someone slaps you.

Good luck!


Racing the clock

"Greetings, Agent Parent. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to finish a major work project, complete with Power Point presentation, while also driving kids to music lessons and the dog to the vet. Pick up dinner somewhere and have it on the table by the time your weary spouse gets home. Spend three hours overseeing homework, washing dishes and resolving disputes before falling into bed, exhausted. This Palm Pilot will self-destruct in 10 seconds."

(Cue theme music: "Dum-dum. Da-dum. Dum-dum. Da-dum. Dum-dum. Da-dum. Dum-dum. Da-dum. Tweedle-dee. Tweedle-dum. You're late!")

Modern life has become "Mission Impossible." Working parents can't make a move without synchronizing our watches -- or, at least, our calendars -- and most days are filled to the brim.

To meet all our daily appointments, we need organizational skills and coordination and communication. We share responsibilities with our "team," assembled for their special abilities -- spouse, coworkers, carpoolers, cleaning lady, yard guy, babysitter, travel agent, in-laws. We schedule everything down to the exact minute.

And still we find ourselves zooming through traffic at the last possible second, turning a routine trip to the orthodontist into an action-movie driving sequence.

(That maniac you saw in traffic today? The one who nearly mowed you down with a minivan while trying to simultaneously drive, talk on the phone and discipline children in the back seat? Five will get you 10 they were late for soccer practice.)

Most of us have demanding jobs, chock-full of appointments and sales meetings and other time-wasters, and we speed through them so we have time left to do actual work. Quitting time gets pushed back, later and later, until it sometimes seems simpler to set up a cot in the workplace.

Things don't settle down once we finally do shake free; just the opposite. Our children have too many activities, all of which require transportation, typically all the way across town. We need family time and exercise time and laundry time and a few hours' sleep and, please, oh, please, just a few minutes to collect ourselves. Because tomorrow we do it all over again.

Everything must go like clockwork. Throw in a dental appointment or a flat tire or a special homework project or -- gulp! -- an unexpected business trip, and it all goes kablooey. Work goes unfinished. Dinner is forgotten. Children are left waiting at curbs, collecting resentment they can reveal to their psychiatrists years from now.

Families coordinate these impossible missions in different ways. Some use a universal calendar, where everyone in the family gets to note appointments and events. Others do everything electronically, sending e-mails and instant messages with constant updates (this technique has the added benefit of allowing family members to avoid each other). Some skip planning altogether, rushing around willy-nilly, everybody late all the time, until the parents keel over with heart attacks and the children become wards of the state.

At our house, we use a combination of methods. A technophobe, I use an actual paper calendar, where I write cryptic little notes to keep track of everything. My wife tracks everything by computer. Once a week, we synchronize our calendars.

Is our system working? Let's put it this way: If you see my minivan hurtling through traffic, you might want to drive up onto the nearest sidewalk where it's safe. Because here's what playing on my car stereo: "Dum-dum. Da-dum…"


Literary memories

Every time I walk down our home's central hall, I see on top of a low bookshelf a thick Richard Ford novel I still haven't read, "The Lay of the Land."

And every time comes this unbidden thought: I remember her! From high school!

Proof, once again, that I will always be fourteen years old.

Bungler alarm

From my favorite funny news site, FARK.com:

A burglar in Christchurch, New Zealand, may have set some kind of record for errors in commission of a crime.

According to police, Brett Kerr, 28, was hauling a drum set down narrow spiral stairs when he fell, knocking himself out. After coming to, Kerr apparently cut himself while trying to steal a plasma TV and accidentally set the kitchen on fire. Then he went upstairs and passed out again.

The homeowner's son said of Kerr: "when it comes to burglary he's simply not a natural."

Full story here.


Fixing to go crazy

Brewer's First Law of Possessions: The more stuff you own, the more time and money you spend on repairs.

Most purchases -- anything more complicated than, say, food -- eventually will break. Then you're faced with a crash of decision-making and out-of-pocket expenses. Do you replace the item? Do you call a repairman? Do you repair the item yourself? (Hahahaha.)

Cheap goods get thrown out and replaced. But big-ticket items, such as cars, should be fixed, if possible, so you get the most out of your "investment." This makes good financial sense, but it rarely stops there.

Brewer's Second Law of Possessions: If something breaks in your household, several other items will immediately follow suit.

All your stuff is slowly wearing out. It's a long march from the factory to the landfill, and your stuff is trudging along, corroding and eroding and collecting error messages. Your computer sees your toaster fall dead, and decides it can't push on any longer, either. A toilet smells obsolescence in the air, and the plumbing stumbles. Pretty soon, you're up to your neck in repairmen.

Each household object you accumulate moves you farther along the Time/Money Continuum until you reach the point where the slightest ripple -- a broken coffemaker, say, or a transmission leak -- can result in tsunamis of lost hours and cash.

Which brings us to the Ultimate Theorem of Owning Stuff: Eventually, all your money will go to maintaining the things you already have, which means you can't afford to buy any new stuff. This (along with the size of your garage) proves that the Financial Universe is finite.

All these theories were proved recently at my house as we went through one of those spells where everything seemed to go kerflooey at once.

My minivan, a Ford Lemonstar, needed a new power steering unit (again). The house's water heater sprang a leak. The vacuum in our swimming pool decided that it sucks to be a vacuum, so it stubbornly would only roll backward. A lamp switch in the living room stopped switching. A cell phone got confused and would only talk to itself. Computers lost their minds.

People who believe in astrology tell us that such universal mechanical breakdowns occur when the planet Mercury is in "retrograde." (And wouldn't the "Mercury Retrograde" be a good name for a car?) Others attribute such woeful periods to coincidence or bad luck or Job-like trials of faith. I prefer to think that my stuff is conspiring against me; I'm pretty sure I hear appliances whispering together at night.

I spent a month dealing with plumbers and repairmen and auto mechanics and pool equipment dealers and Technical Assistance people in India. Many hundreds of dollars disappeared in the process, and more of my hair turned gray. The accumulated aggravation no doubt took years off my life.

Some people tackle such everyday problems as if they're no big deal. Some actually enjoy fixing things themselves, and wouldn't dream of hiring a repairman every time something goes wrong. But I'm not the handy type, and I don't want to spend every waking moment of every weekend trying to fix stuff. That would cut into the time I devote to watching football on TV.

(Of all the broken stuff I mentioned above, the one thing I was able to fix was the lamp switch. Expect an electrical fire at any time.)

We spent all our money on repairs, which means we don't have any left for new stuff. And that, friends, is what they mean by the "service economy."


If you love me, you'll read me

Okay, this isn't quite that pathetic, but close. Just a reminder that we're having big fun over at Food for Thought: A News Cafe, where my new column The Corner Booth is updated daily. Today's is pretty funny, I think. Click here to see it.

If you are reading this on the Bloggers section of Food for Thought: A News Cafe, then I'm that distinguished bearded man to your left. (Not the funny-looking cartoonist.)


So I'm in an airport men's room, relieved at being back on the ground where the restroom is larger than a coffin, when a guy steps up to the next urinal and starts talking.

Now I enjoy a chat as much as the next person, but there were several things wrong with this scenario:

1. I didn't know this guy.
2. I didn't know what the heck he was talking about.
3. We're in the MEN'S ROOM, where I prefer to keep to myself, thank you very much.

Just as I was about to answer -- something along the lines of "Hey, buddy, I'm a little busy here" -- I realize he's not talking to me. On the far side of his head, he's got one of those little "Star Trek" headsets attached to his ear. He's on the phone. Conducting business. In the men's room. Which brings a whole new meaning to the term "hands-free calling."

I had to wonder whether the person on the other end of the call knew this. Wouldn't it be obvious? What about the background noises -- flushes, hand dryers, nose blowers, echoing tiles?
But the biggest question: What was so danged important that Mr. Urinal Phone couldn't wait, oh, 60 seconds to make this call? Was this an emergency? Is his business so precarious that he can't take even a minute for himself? Doesn't he know he's irritating everyone else in the men's room, to the point that we'd like to give him a "swirlie?"

I've grown accustomed to people walking around, apparently talking to themselves. I've learned to tune out all but the most annoying yakkers. But I'm still regularly amazed by the stupid and/or rude stuff people will do in the name of talking on the phone:

--I witnessed a young woman emerge from a curbside parking space and pull a slow U-turn across four lanes of rushing traffic. She had a phone to her ear and seemed truly peeved that the resultant chorus of honking interrupted her conversation.

--Several times lately, I've had to alter my shopping pattern at the supermarket to avoid people carrying on long cell-phone conversations. The callers probably saw this doubling-up as an efficient use of their time, but the rest of us didn't care to hear about Aunt Agatha's goiter while trying to decide between Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Puffs. We're trying to read labels and compare prices, and this chatter doesn't help our concentration. Isn't the Muzak annoying enough?

--As a plane taxied to the gate, a passenger turned on his phone, and we were serenaded by his "ring tone," a 200-decibel rendition of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." My ears are still ringing.

--A woman in a doctor's waiting room entertained the rest of us patients with a lengthy, emotional conversation, complete with tears and ululating. I believe she was talking to an estranged lover, but I'm not certain because the whole conversation was in an unfamiliar language, possibly Urdu.

Where will it end? Will all privacy be surrendered to the forces of technology? Will we all be forced to hear everyone else's conversations all the time? Can't we even hide from it in the BATHROOM?

Tell you what: Next guy I see talking on a cell phone in a men's room is in for a big surprise. I plan to snatch the phone right out of his hand, and toss it into the nearest porcelain receptable.
Will the person on the other end hear the flush?


Dain bramage

Last night, I whammed my head so hard that I went reeling, bounced off my van and fell to the pavement. I was stepping up onto a sidewalk at a little shopping center and cracked my head against a thick wooden sign that jutted down from the eaves. Completely dark, of course, so I didn't even know the sign was there and was caught totally unawares.

It was so sudden. I fell backward off the curb onto the hood of my van, clutching my head. Then, because I apparently wasn't hurt enough, I hurled myself to the gritty asphalt so I could collect strawberries on my knees.

I'm okay today, I think, though my wife keeps shining flashlights in my eyes. I've got a knot on my head and a sore neck and that all-over shocky-stiff feeling you get the day after a car wreck.

I'd just been telling my mom earlier in the day how I'd whipped the last of my niggling health complaints (three successive colds, wrenched back, wrenched knee, pulled tooth), and was feeling great for a change. So, naturally, I go out and walk headfirst into some lumber.


Inbox blues

What if you had a coworker who sneaked into your cubicle every time your back was turned and stacked more work on your desk?

You wouldn't stand for it, right? You'd complain to the boss, or have words with the coworker or give him a deserved thrashing.

But that very scenario happens all the time. With e-mail.

Whenever you're not looking (and sometimes right before your very eyes), e-mail slips into your computer and deposits work assignments there. There's no stopping it. There's no arguing with e-mail. You can't even beat it up.

Sure, you can turn off your e-mail, even turn off the whole computer, but many of us can't do our work without a computer. And shutting off e-mail means cutting yourself off from the world. Eventually, you're forced to turn it back on. And guess what? The work will be there waiting for you.

All this came to mind recently after I finished a big project. I was so happy to be done, I met my wife for lunch to celebrate. Finally finished! After months of daily striving. Now I could catch my breath. I could take a few days off. My time was my own. I could take a nap or read a book or go for a stroll.

I went home to my computer, eager to send an e-mail to my best friend, to crow about finishing my big project and getting some time off.

You guessed it. Waiting in my inbox were three e-mails from people who needed me to do some work or make some decisions. Right away. So much for a nap. I had another hour of work to do.

Remember the days when you could be unavailable? No e-mail, no cell phones, no laptops. You could take the weekend off, even take a vacation, and your employers wouldn't call unless there was a dire emergency. Now, the work never stops coming.

Your boss gets an idea on the golf course on Saturday, zips it to you via e-mail, and you're expected to have a full proposal ready by Monday morning. You spend a quiet evening at home with the family, but make the mistake at looking at your e-mail just before bedtime; whoops, you're working until 2 a.m.

Work delivered by e-mail is impersonal and uncaring. If your boss tries to shovel a big, steaming pile of work onto your desk in person, he might pick up some cues. He might notice that you're already overwhelmed, extremely annoyed, even homicidal. With e-mail, he can zip that work your way without worrying that you might club him with a paperweight.

Just maintaining one's inboxes presents a ton of work. Sorting out the spam and the porn and the greeting cards and the Nigerian money scams can gobble up hours every day. Hiding among all those jokes and gibberish and attachments will be more work, lying in wait, snickering.

I don't know about you, but I'm ready to give my computer a good thrashing. Soon as I answer these e-mails.


Scrabble in Seattle

Back at the helm after a fun few days of Scrabble and dining out with my pal Frank in beautiful Seattle. We even got one day of sunshine while I was there. Not that we were outside much. We played 19 games of Scrabble between Wednesday night and Saturday morning.

I won the majority, humbly remaining Scrabble Champion of the Known World. Because Frank is the loser, feel free to taunt him if you cross paths. Spitting is allowed.


Horseplay U.

"College prep" means something completely different for teen-age boys.

Sure, boys need the same preparation as girls when it comes to academics and ambition. But they also need something more, and they get it from their dads.

This came to mind recently as my wife and I watched our two teen-aged sons chase around the kitchen, popping one another with damp dishtowels. My wife said to me, "You've prepared them well for life in a dorm."

I felt so proud.

The past generation or two have represented a grand social experiment, with dads taking on more of the child-rearing responsibilities. These days, millions of kids (including mine) grow up with dads who work at home. Who knows how these kids will turn out?

Most dads didn't grow up focused on the idea that we'd someday care for rugrats. We didn't necessarily learn the skills to be good parents. We assumed our wives would take care of all that.

Babies arrived, and we found ourselves adrift in an ocean of bottle formula and amoxicillin and dirty diapers. That's enough to send most men screaming back to the nearest traditional workplace, but some of us continued to stay home, only to find that toddlers can effortlessly cause insanity in others.

The school years are pretty much the same for all parents. We work like crazy, trying to keep the little beggars in groceries and clothes, then spend whatever time is left on nurturing and housework and driving to soccer games. The only difference for us stay-at-home types is that it's usually easier for us to structure our workday around orthodontist appointments.

Overall, the Dad Experiment is working. Our houses may be dirtier, our kids may be wilder, and more meals originate in the microwave, but we manage, week to week, to keep the household healthy and intact.

If fathers excel in one area, that's in the horseplay department. When you have a dad who's home all the time, horseplay rules.

When the kids are both boys, as at our house, well, let's just have a moment of silence for poor mom. She's been outnumbered since the get-go. She's forced to act as the one sane person in a loony bin of rambunctious males.

When the kids were little, my wife smiled serenely while they sat on my back and I galloped around the room on all fours. She kept that look frozen on her face as the kids and I wrestled on the hardwood floor. She sighed as we played "monster," chasing through the house, crashing into walls and leaping over furniture.

As they got older, our horseplay grew up, too. Slap fights and tickle torture and insulting patter and armpit noises and water balloons and booby traps. When mom's not around to moderate this testosterone madhouse, we males quickly devolve into The Three Stooges. It's a wonder we don't spend more time at the emergency room.

Other dads teach their kids to fish or fix cars or shoot free throws. I've taught mine how to wield a towel in locker room fights. Our boys both pop a mean towel, and I've got the welts to prove it. The sacrifices we make for our children…

When our sons go off to college, they'll have the skills necessary for dorm life. They can hold their own when towel fights erupt. They know how to use a microwave and a toilet plunger. They know how to play poker (so your kids better hold tight to that tuition money). They can short-sheet a bed. They know more insults than Don Rickles.

I've done my daddy duty. Nyuk-nyuk.


Tattoo phew

Reason No. 237 to be self-employed: You can wear as many tattoos as you like.

Number of tattoos worn by this self-employed writer: Zero.

Number of tattoos planned for the future: What's less than zero?

Tattoos have been on my mind lately, partly because a friend (who's a year older than me) announced he was getting one. He even invited his pals to make suggestions as to what the tattoo should say or depict. My proposal: "I've lost my mind. If you find it, please call (his number)."

I know tattoos are "body art" and a valuable tool for self-expression and completely safe (hah!) and a matter of personal choice and blah, blah, blah. I never would criticize your decision to get a tattoo. But they're not for me.

The popularity of tattoos exploded in the 1990s, and these days it seems they're sported by everybody and his sister. A survey by the "Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology" found that 24 percent of Americans between 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo. That's up from two 2003 surveys that found between 15 and 16 percent tattooed.

Among those aged 18 to 29, a whopping 36 percent had a tattoo, the new survey found.

This, despite the fact that some employers hate them. A recent study by Marketwatch.com found that job interviewers rate tattoos as the fifth biggest turnoff, after poor grooming, inappropriate attire, a weak handshake and piercings. If you get a tattoo that can't easily be hidden by clothing, you're taking the risk of inking yourself out of the job market.

Which brings me back to self-employment. People like me, who work at home and rarely meet customers in person, can decorate themselves from head to toe, if they like. But you won't catch me with a tattooed menagerie or a bone through my nose.

Why? Because I'm a big chicken.

I have many, many fears -- snakes, crowds, prison, public humiliation, teen-agers, guys named Floyd, all things medical -- but no phobia's bigger than my fear of needles. I'm a full grown man, but I must close my eyes and bite my lip to take a shot at the doctor's office. At the movies, I can watch people get blown up all day long, but show a needle injecting skin and I have to put my hands over my eyes.

The ultimate scary movie for me would be: "Snakes on a Plane Full of Teen-Aged Doctors With Hypodermics."

But even we chickens think about tattoos and what ours would say or show, if we could get one while, say, unconscious or dead. So I've got some ideas. Feel free to have these slogans inked on your own body, but if you work outside the home, put them where your employer won't see. (I have suggestions for where, but I'll leave that to your imagination.)

Some Possible Tattoos:

--This Side Up
--Born to be Mild
--Live Fast, Die Young and Leave a Decorated Corpse
--If you can read this, you're too close.
--I'm With Stupid (with arrow)
--No Lawn Mowers (with hula girl)
--Paid in Full
--My parents went to Europe, and all I got was this lousy tattoo.
--Open Other End
--No Riders
--Out of Order
--Wet Paint
--Please Attend Your Baggage
--Continued on Other Side
--Death to the Infidel!
--Mission Accomplished!
--Read It and Weep
--I'd Rather Be Flinching
--Insert Hepatitis Virus Here
--Kiss me, I'm Boorish.
--Please ignore this tattoo and hire me. Please.


Bloody hell

A new survey finds that the average Briton uses 14 swear words per day, and 87 percent admit to swearing daily. Ninety-eight percent said they swear when angry.

A study by Nulon UK found that only 8 percent of the 2,139 respondents found cursing offensive in adult contexts like movies and workplaces.

Fookin' Brits. Full story here.


Practicing self-amuse at work

Every job, no matter how challenging, has its ho-hum moments.

One sign of personal growth is successfully finding ways to deal with the everyday ennui, the humdrum, the rut.

Some people focus on life outside the workplace. Others burrow through boredom by remembering the bottom line. But the happiest workers are those who find ways to turn the tables on tedium and amuse themselves on the job.

Some Fun Tips for Beating Boredom at Work

1. Take frequent breaks. Lunch breaks, coffee breaks, bathroom breaks, smoke breaks, they all add up. Play your cards right, and you can spend your whole shift on break.

2. Get some exercise. Just because you're at work doesn't mean you can't keep fit. Try taking long walks around your workplace. As long as you look purposeful and carry a clipboard, your boss will think you're busy.

3. Develop a hobby. You've got all those paper clips right there. Why not build something? Doodling can be great fun. You've always wanted to learn to whistle an entire opera.

4. Set records for your personal bests. How many times can you clear your throat before you're threatened by a coworker? How many trips to the water cooler can you squeeze into a single day? Be creative. This is how people make it into the Guinness Book of Records.

5. Yak on the phone. Everyone loves an employee with good phone manners. Practice on your friends and relatives!

6. Staredowns with customers.

7. "Gaslight" your boss -- do things that'll make him think he's losing his mind. Every time he leaves his office, sneak in and rearrange his desktop items. Leave fake phone messages. Repeat everything he says. Ask him frequently if he feels ill.

8. Two words: Elevator races.

9. Trespass into your coworkers' cubicle space. See how far you can encroach before they complain.

10. Make xerographic copies of your body parts. An oldie, but always entertaining, especially if you're the simple-minded sort.

11. Hoard office supplies. Why do you think your desk has drawers?

12. Follow customers or colleagues around, mimicking their every movement. Always a hoot.

13. Chatting with coworkers can be entertaining, especially if you make a practice of interrupting them at every opportunity.

14. Flirting can be fun, right up to the moment you're called in for sexual harassment. But hey, even that's a variation in the routine, right?

15. Liquid lunch. Afternoons breeze by when you're boozy.

16. The Internet contains a million distractions, not all of which have to do with pornography. There's also gambling!

17. Gossip makes a great escape from boredom. You can get colleagues going for each others' throats while you sit back and smirk. It's like creating your own soap opera!

18. Going on job interviews. If you practice the above techniques enough, you'll almost certainly get out of that boring job and into the lines at the unemployment office.

Have fun!


The big picture

I love looking at photos of Earth shot from outer space. Sometimes, we can find intricate patterns among sand dunes, icebergs and cloud formations. You can see a bunch of cool satellite and astronaut photos here.

Things I used to do

This time of year, many folks feel bad because they're "falling off the wagon" of their New Year's resolutions.

They pledged to swear off certain vices, but soon found temptation too strong. Or, they promised themselves they'd attain certain goals, such as daily exercise, only to find that televised playoffs restricted them to the sofa.

Here's the problem: They set their sights too high. It's better to set realistic goals. Swear off things you don't really like anyway. Or, vow to establish a habit you already have.

Remember when President George Bush the First announced he would no longer eat broccoli? He didn't like it, and no one could make him eat it. There followed a huge uproar, mostly from dietitians and broccoli farmers, who said no one should rule out a healthy vegetable just because he didn't like the taste.

That argument is a load of, well, steamed broccoli. Why else would you rule out eating something, if not for taste? We eat certain foods because we like them and for no other reason -- certainly not because they're healthy, and I'm thinking here of bacon cheeseburgers. We absolutely should be allowed to ban particular foods from our diets because they taste and/or smell bad.

As I've gotten older, I've followed the former president's example, and now have an entire list of foods I've sworn off. I happen to like broccoli, and I'll even eat cauliflower in small doses, but if you're serving snails, liver, rhubarb, beets, mussels or tripe, please cross me off your guest list.

My sworn-off list isn't limited to food. I've reached the advanced age where I consider many other behaviors too risky, disgusting or annoying to pursue.

For example, I refuse to participate in any activity that requires me to attach objects to my feet. (Other than shoes, and I'm not crazy about shoes.) Skis, skates, snowboards, skateboards, surfboards, snowshoes -- all of those are out. I can hurt myself just trying to walk around in a normal fashion. I don't need the added risk of strapping wheels or six-foot-long slats of wood to my feet.

The same goes for bicycles. Yes, yes, cycling is a very healthy activity. Until you go flying over the handlebars. Or get mowed down by a truck. I'd rather be the one driving the truck. Just in case.

I swore off neckties 11 years ago after quitting a regular job at a newspaper -- the Daily Noose. Once in a while, some occasion arises where I'm supposed to dress up, but I'm never tempted to break my necktie rule. That's why God created black turtlenecks.

The list of Things I Don't Do Anymore remains fluid, depending on my age and changing tastes. A recent addition is TV shows with annoying laugh tracks. I just can't stand them. If my sons are watching "That 70's Show," I have to go to a different room.

However, my long-time ban on dancing apparently has been lifted. My wife and I and several glasses of wine danced the night away at a holiday party a few years ago. So dancing's no longer on the sworn-off list, though I'm still no good at it. I'm a large, clumsy man, and I always felt people on the dance floor were staring at me. Now I know they were just frightened. Turns out they learn quickly to get out of my way.

So, dancing's no longer a forbidden activity. As long as there's nothing more challenging than shoes on my feet.

Roller disco remains out.


Need an idea? Get a mop

The one question writers are always asked: Where do you get your ideas?

There are plenty of smart-alecky answers -- from other writers, from yo mama, the "idea store," China, secret government files, outer space, LSD trips, Satan. But, for me, the one that's most truthful probably is: From cleaning toilets.

Some of my best ideas have come while scrubbing stuff or raking leaves or vacuuming or doing other repetitive, mindless tasks, such as snacking.

One, the physical effort doesn't require much brainpower, so my mind can think about other things. Two, my subconscious sees an idle brain and feels it must yark up some ideas to keep me from dying of boredom. Three, sweaty, hard work reminds me that I don't want to do manual labor for a living, so I'd better come up with some ideas pretty darn quick.

No matter what your area of endeavor, when you're stuck for ideas, it pays to go find some physical activity to do. In my case, that's long-overdue housework, but you aspiring geniuses out there can pick whatever works for you. As long as the task doesn't take much concentration, that "work zone" can be an ideal place for generating ideas.

For example, I'll be vacuuming and think, why, I could do a column about . . . vacuuming! And, voila, before you know it, I've churned out 600 words of pure drivel. Moments like these make a writer proud.

Or, I'll be working on a novel and get stuck on a plot point, some niggling little impossibility in the storyline, and I'll wander off from my desk to sweep or something. When I return, I will have solved the problem, often without realizing I was working on it! Usually, the solution involves erasing page after page of gibberish, but, hey, that's part of the creative process, too.

If you try this method, not only are you likely to have some mental breakthrough (as opposed to the mental breakdown that can occur while sitting at a desk, staring into a blank computer screen for hours), but you will have accomplished something else simultaneously. Your ideas still might be terrible, but at least the toilets will be clean.

Remember to keep a pen and paper handy so you're ready when you're struck by a bolt of inspiration. I often get terrific ideas in the shower, the one place in the house where I can’t jot them down. A finger on steamy glass is only a temporary solution. By the time I get dried off, the ideas have evaporated.

The manual labor method of creative thinking does have its hazards. You can wander away from your desk and never come back. And some chores present their own temptations. Go to make the beds, for instance, and, next thing you know, you find yourself curled up under the covers, napping. Kitchen work often involves consumption of so many calories that your brain can slip into a sluggish stupor.

Bouncing between your desk and physical labor works best if you have a home office. If you are in a regular workplace and are stuck for ideas, you can take a walk or do some stretches or do something else physical, but your bosses will start to wonder about you if they find you scrubbing the toilets.

The janitorial staff, on the other hand, will think it's a great idea.


You're doing it wrong

A criminal mastermind broke into a radiator repair shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and stole . . . the guard dog.

Police say a 23-year-old man later was arrested and the Rottweiler guard dog, Ripper, was returned to its owner.

The man was charged with numerous felonies as the result of a crime spree that police say began Dec. 27 when he took a truck for a test-drive and never returned it. Police recovered the truck, too.

Extra points: The suspect had a marijuana farm in his home.

Full story here.


The pain of the upgrade

If you want to feel like Maxwell Not-so-Smart, get a new cellular phone.

The new generation of phones comes with more gizmos and bells and whistles than Inspector Gadget: digital cameras, video cameras, pagers, music players, electronic games, calculators, alarm clocks, date books, e-mail delivery systems, voicemail, news tickers, download devices, text messengers.

You can even make telephone calls. Fancy that.

But first you have to figure out how to use the phone.

I got one of these new-fangled phones, and I hope to master it real soon, perhaps by the time it's obsolete. So far, I can make phone calls and hear my voicemail. I managed to set a simple ringtone that doesn't involve a full electronic orchestra and 14 rap stars I've never heard of. I've even snapped a few photographs, mostly of my own finger, though I don't know what to do with the pictures now that I've stored them.

Beyond that, I can't make heads or tails of the danged thing.

The phone came with an instruction manual. It's divided into two 80-page sections, one in English and one in Spanish. I might as well read the Spanish section, for all the good the directions do me.

I run across entries like this: "A phone theme is a group of image and sound files that you can apply to your phone. Most themes include a wallpaper image, a screen image, and ring tone. Your phone may come with some themes, and you can download more."

No matter how many times I read that paragraph (and I'm up to 237 times now), it still makes no sense to me. The only "theme" that comes to mind when I use my phone is the ominous one from the movie "Jaws," as the shark of updated technology swims my direction.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. I'd asked for a simple phone, but my wife couldn't find anybody to sell her one. Apparently, all the phones come with all the features now, whether we like it or not. You can say, "I don't need a video camera," but har-har, you've got one, right there in your phone.

The only reason I submitted to an upgrade at all was so I could get a phone that fit in my pocket. My friends had these folding "flip phones," and I saw the convenience of not having to wear your phone holstered like a revolver.

My old phone didn't fold. It didn't do much of anything. It was just a phone, the size and shape of a stick of butter, only heavier. It came in handy on those occasions when I was out of the house and my kids were scattered all over town and calling me for transportation. Otherwise, it sat on the kitchen counter, waiting for me to remember to take it somewhere.

The new phone's a big improvement, though it, too, spends most of its time on the kitchen counter. When I do remember to take it with me, it fits in my pants pocket, which is more convenient despite the unsightly "thigh bulge." I don't have to wear a belt to pack a phone.

When the new phone starts ringing and vibrating, I twist and shout and dig in my pants until I extract the phone, usually just as the screen says "1 Call Missed." If I push the right combination of buttons, it might tell me who called or whether they left a message.

Or, I'll take a picture of my thumb.


Losing my grip

How come when I'm having back problems, and it hurts to bend over, I spend all day dropping stuff? Seems like all I do is creak over and pick up whatever gravity has snatched from my grasp. Is it just a matter of me noticing it more? Do I go around picking up stuff all day long when my back isn't hurting? No wonder I have back problems.


On the down low

Today's tip for criminals: If you're setting up a meth lab, perhaps the basement of a funeral home is not the best place. Especially if the funeral home is next door to the sheriff's department.

Okay, if you insist on setting up a meth lab in the basement of a funeral home next door to the sheriff's department, could you at least lock the doors when you leave? And, um, could you not leave on all the lights in the basement? See, a deputy might get bored and go poking around to see why the lights are on and stumble over the meth lab.

Then where would you be? In jail, that's where. Just like Robert Lee Lewis, 43, of Walnut Ridge, AR. Full story here.


The filthy truth

Do you know why, in war movies, soldiers smear mud on their faces before engaging the enemy? Because it makes them invisible.

Dirt has magical properties. We can't see it. It can be right in front of us, and we look past it or around it or right through it without registering the thought, "Hey, it's dirty in here."

Oh, we can see filth when it's layered on really thick, such as in a service station restroom. Then we get all prissy about it, tiptoeing and making faces and acting like our bathroom at home is always, always spotless. It's easy to get on your high horse when the cleanup is someone else's problem.

But most of us have dirt right in our own homes. Tons of it. Grit and grime and dust bunnies. Windborne sand dunes and tracked-in mud and a fine powder of pollen over everything. It's no wonder so many of us suffer from allergies.

Right now, you're probably thinking: This guy's way off base. My house is perfectly clean. To which I reply: Hahaha on that. Even the best-kept homes have dust bunnies hiding in out-of-the-way corners.

If you don't believe me, conduct this simple experiment. Go to the heaviest piece of furniture in your house -- the piano, say, or that stuffed-full dresser in your bedroom -- and move it out from the wall. Once you recover from the strain, check out the floor where the furniture stood.
Disgusting, right? Doesn't it make you want to rearrange all the furniture and clean under it immediately? OK, maybe not, but it does give you an inkling of what kind of filth you're harboring in your home.

Most of us reach a sort of uneasy peace with hidden dirt: We can't see it, so it must not exist. Better to think that way than to spend every spare moment scrubbing stuff. We've got important TV to watch.

But once in a while, harsh reality rears its ugly head. We move a piece of furniture or investigate a strange smell or look under a bed and we see that, omigod, we live like pigs.

This happened at our house when we hired a crew to paint our home's interior while we were away on vacation. This seemed like the perfect scenario. We'd come home from a week away, and our house would be dazzlingly clean and fresh.

Not so much. The paint looked great, and the painters had been careful to cover all of our stuff so they didn't get paint on it. But in the process of painting, they'd moved all the furniture around, freeing the hidden filth.

Holy dust mites, Batman. It took the whole family a full day of vacuuming and dusting and wiping stuff before we could, once again, persuade ourselves that it was clean around here. Clean enough, anyway. The dirt had slipped back into its invisible form, waiting for the next time someone moves a sofa to reveal grime and stray popcorn and loose change.

Once again, we'd reached a standoff in the war on dirt. At least we didn't have to smear it on our faces.

No-joy ride

Two teens in Woonsocket, RI, were worried they'd be late to school, so they stole a car to get there on time.

Police said the boys, 15 and 16, were arrested at the school. One still had the stolen car keys in his pocket.

I'm glad these young men take education so seriously, 'cause they both need some schooling.

Full story here.


When laundry goes bad

Every family needs a balanced division of labor.

Each household has many tasks that must be done regularly, and it's only fair that spouses divvy them up, according to time and ability and personal preference. Once kids reach a certain age, many chores can be dumped on them, but it still should be equitable. That's the democratic ideal.

A pivotal moment in my marriage came early on, when my wife and I made the following pact: She would pay the bills and do the household paperwork, and I would do all the laundry.

This was an ideal division of labor, pegged to ability (she's a whiz at organization; I can't do math) as well as personal preference (she hates laundry). I quickly found that laundry was something I could accomplish while watching sports on TV. Like I said, it was ideal.

Things change, of course. Once we had babies, I started wondering if I was getting a raw deal. The amount of laundry quadrupled and I found myself trying to fold, oh, 700 of those little "onesies" every week.

But household paperwork got more complicated, too. Mortgages and escrow accounts and insurance premiums and stock options and credit card statements and other math-related stuff I don't even pretend to understand.

The laundry load got somewhat easier after our sons passed the diapers-and-urp stage of their development. When they hit their teens. (Kidding!)

As the boys got older, I required them to round up their own dirty clothes. I wasn't about to prowl their filthy rooms in search of crunchy socks and moldy towels. If they wanted their clothes washed, they had to bring them to the laundry room.

The flaw in that plan: They didn't care if their laundry got done. They'd happily wear the same pair of jeans day in and day out, until the pants could stand up on their own and they could just leap into them every morning. In fact, they'd think that was "cool."

It became an exercise in nagging. Eventually, the clothes would appear and I'd wash them, along with whatever crayons, loose change, gravel and live frogs happened to be in the pockets.

I was griping about this situation, and my wife asked why didn't the boys do their own laundry. I raised several objections, including a dramatic rendition of a washer overflowing with suds, right out of an episode of "I Love Lucy," but my wife persisted, and we gave the boys the bad news.

Mostly, it's worked out okay. I still nag them when it becomes abundantly clear that their clothes need washing. They, so far, have not filled the house with suds.

But I know they're cutting corners, which brings me to the Hideous Shirt.

Years ago, in preparation for an Ugly Hawaiian Shirt contest, I made a thrift-store purchase of a brown-green-and-gold psychedelic number I thought was a sure winner, but it didn't even place. Who knew how ugly those shirts could get? Whew.

My younger son rescued the Hideous Shirt from the trash, pronounced it "cool" and took it to his room. He never wears it, but it regularly shows up in the laundry.

I know how this happens. After the requisite nagging, he does a clean sweep, picking up all clothes, dirty or clean, and throwing them in the washer. I watch the never-worn Hideous Shirt cycle through the laundry, and I chew my lips over the inefficiency and waste.

At least the boys aren't trying to balance the checkbook. Imagine how hideous that would be.


Cure for the wintertime blues

Job burnout can attack office workers at anytime, but it's a special hazard this time of year.

The post-holiday doldrums of January give a whole new meaning to "the winter of our discontent." We no longer look forward to the merry-making of Christmas and New Year's, and it's a long, long time until our next vacation. Colds and dreaded flu strike us down. It's dark when we go to work and it's dark when we come home. Business staggers along, but productivity lags as workers move in slow motion. Even indoors, it feels as if we should be wearing rubber boots.

During these gray days, it's easy to question the value and promise of your career. You may ask yourself: Does this job have any future? Are the salary and benefits worth the everyday hassle? Can I possibly march on this way, bored out of my skull, until retirement? How much time would I have to serve if I killed a few idiot customers?

To these questions, we say: Perk up, little buckaroos. Perhaps you're not really burned out. Maybe you've just got the winter blahs.

Fortunately, the remedy for the blahs and true burnout are the same. You must find ways to inject excitement into your workplace. Find ways to regain the hope and idealism you had when you first began your career. Find ways to liven up your workdays that do not involve manslaughter charges.

Here are some suggestions for giving a lifeless job a good goosing of renewal:

--Create new challenges. Maybe your job is too much of the same-old, same-old. Find creative ways to do familiar tasks. For example, try working with one hand tied behind your back. Or, see if you can get through an entire shift without speaking to anyone except in grunts and whistles. These techniques can jazz up a winter workday.

--Find a hobby. Just because you're at work doesn't mean you can't pursue an outside interest. Why do you think computers come pre-equipped with Solitaire? You can work on your stamp collection or do day-trading right at your desk, as long as you don't get caught. Amassing filched office supplies is an old favorite. If all else fails, there's always office gossip to keep things lively.

--Exercise. Blahs and burnout are closely linked to being cooped up indoors and not getting any exercise. Try taking walks through your office building. Keep up a brisk pace, so you look busy. It helps if you carry some important-looking papers. You can also do stretching exercises right at your desk, as long as you're quiet about it. A squeaky chair is considered grounds for justifiable homicide.

--Plan a vacation. Even if it's months away, a vacation gives you something to anticipate. Fantasizing about a sunny beach can keep winter from overwhelming you. You might even tape colorful brochures around your cubicle, so that your co-workers will envy and hate you.

--Two words: Funny hats.

--Socializing. Winter's the perfect time to touch base with friends old and new. You've got a phone right there on your desk. Just be prepared to pretend you're talking to a client if your boss suddenly appears. Your friends will understand. They're doing the same thing on their end.

--Go outside. A few minutes in the sleet will remind you that it's a blessing to work in a nice, warm office, no matter how bummed you might be about your job.

Better to burned out than frozen solid.


The Corner Booth

I'm the new local columnist at www.anewscafe.com, joining Kelly, Doni, Bruce and our other pals in producing far Northern California's best webzine. After three decades in the newspaper business, where every year we were told the ship was sinking, it's nice to be somewhere with a future.

Check out my new column, The Corner Booth, here.

The Home Front blog continues, of course. I'm addicted to it, and spend way too much time snickering over old columns and new wisecracks.

My wife got me this local columnist job so I'd get out of the house more. Look for me at a cafe near you.

PS: They were right about the ship.



Say what you will, it’s never a compliment when someone calls you “Seabiscuit.”

Lesson learned

If you need more variety and excitement in your life, you should rearrange the furniture in your home. For even more excitement, try walking around in the dark after you've rearranged the furniture.


Another year, another beer

The start of a new year is the perfect time to organize your home office (or even your cubicle in a regular office).

It's time to discard old calendars, and replace them with shiny new ones filled with blank pages. Time to "strip" old files. Time to clean off your desk, down to the naked wood. Yes, it's truly a time of "out with the old and in with the nude."

Many workers let this opportunity slip by because they're too daunted by their messy offices to even attempt such a clean-up. These same people find themselves pawing through garbage bags in search of receipts on April 15.

How to tackle such a big job? It's a matter of sorting files and arranging folders and stacking up those unfinished projects you lost six months ago. Here's what you need to get started:

--Boxes. Use those left over from Christmas. They're probably in the garage.
--File folders. Get nice, new folders. They're cheap.
--Large envelopes. Ditto.
--Extra-large trash bags. Preferably clear ones. You may be hunting something in the bottom of one later.
--Stapler, paper clips, rubber bands, etc.

Assemble these items in your office, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

(If your office has a door that locks, you should lock yourself inside. This will prevent those inevitable interruptions and provide a barrier to distractions, such as the fridge and ESPN. Also, you don't want your family or co-workers to see you like this -- sweaty, frantic and confused.)

Label the boxes and envelopes in a way that makes sense to you. For example, you might have envelopes labeled "IRS" or "Receipts." You can label file folders by the names of your clients, or by date, or alphabetically. If you're in a home office, you might have extra folders labeled "Bills" or "Lost Stuff" or "Kids' Homework???"

Once you get everything labeled, you should brace yourself with several beers, because it's time to start sorting.

Begin with your desktop. Desks are junk magnets, and the top of your desk is buried in stuff you don't need. Yes, it is.

Go through these items and sort them into envelopes, boxes, trash bags, etc. A good rule of thumb: If you haven't referred to a piece of paper in six months, then it's time to throw it out.

If you don't recognize an item, then it's also a good candidate for the trash. It probably belongs to somebody else in your office/household, and tough luck to them.

As you put items away, the landfill level will lower and you'll unearth other items that you didn't even know were there, such as your phone. File these away, too. (Though you might want to keep the phone in plain sight.)

After you've cleaned off your desktop, pause to reconsider your sorting plan. Do you need other categories, such as "Overdue Work" or "Overdue Bills" or "Whoops!" or "Mystery Folders"? Create these new categories and make sure you have plenty of room in the existing envelopes/folders/boxes, because your desk drawers and file cabinets come next. Drink several more beers.

Go through each drawer, throwing out old papers and arranging ones you need to retain. Be merciless. Don't keep anything you don't absolutely need. Otherwise, you'll be looking at these same papers next year, and they'll make even less sense then.

Drink more beer.

By the time you're done, you should be drunk and sweaty and perhaps naked. But there's still one more job to do: Cart off the boxes and garbage bags. Put them in the garage or basement or other storage area.

Make sure it's someplace convenient because you'll be looking through them again. On April 15.

Up and around

I mentioned a few days ago that I threw my back out. It came home, and we're getting along better, but I'm still spending a lot of time on the sofa. Good thing there's all that football on TV.

I did get out of the house yesterday. Went to see my pal Charlie Price's very fine talk at Writers Forum on the vicissitudes of a modern publishing career.

Vicissitudes is one of those words where I get stuck, typing the same letters over and over. Others: Mississippi and bananananana.


A world too small for such a man

My mantra for middle age: Every day, in every way, I am getting fatter and fatter.

I diet (sort of). I exercise (a lot). Every day, I step onto the bathroom scales and groan.

I am not what doctors call "morbidly obese." More like pathetically obese. It's just sad the way fat accumulates on the body of a middle-aged man who gave up smoking a few years ago and took up Oreos instead.

One look in the mirror raises a number of questions: When did my hips become wider than my shoulders? When did my waist measurement leave my inseam in the dust? Where did my belt go? Oh, there it is, hiding under my paunch. Sneaky devil.

I know I'm not alone. News reports regularly scream that America's the fattest country on earth, that we're killing ourselves with our own mouths. We're all so concerned about obesity and health, we can find solace only in another snack.

"Middle age" apparently refers to body location rather than simple chronology. You pass 40, and your middle shows its age by ballooning up as it never has before. This so-called "spread" is the curse of adulthood.

("Middle-Age Spread" sounds like a ranch, one that extends from Armpit Valley to Bad Knee Junction, passing the mustard-stained slopes of Mount Belly and Lardbutt Heights along the way. Yee-haw. Git along, lil hoagies!)

I was already a large man before I became a large, pear-shaped man. I'm six-foot-five, and rarely a day goes by that I don't hit my head on something, which may explain my many mental "issues."

Because of my height, I already bought my clothes at "Big-and-Tall" shops. I used to shop in the "Tall" section. Now, in middle age, I need the "Big" part, too.

With this widening has come more frequent painful encounters with the door jambs and sharp edges of my everyday world. A few years ago, I only worried about hitting my head. Now, I worry about snagging a hip on a cabinet corner. I tuck my elbows against my sides when I go through doors. I'm usually sporting a bruise somewhere.

The world isn't designed for the big and tall. Countertops and light switches and sinks always are the wrong height. Beds are too short. Doorways are too narrow. Bucket seats? Don't make me laugh.

Worst, of course, are airplanes, which are designed by elfin workers at Boeing who get their revenge on the world by torturing us big guys. (You might not know this, but "Economy" comes from the Latin words for "pinch my fat with your armrest.")

Recently, I rode in one of those small, turboprop planes formally known as "puddle-jumpers," and was forced by dire need to squeeze my very large self into its very small bathroom.

I got in there all right, facing the correct direction, etc., but when it came time to emerge, I had a problem. I was wedged so tightly, I couldn't move my arms. Which meant I couldn’t release the door latch. Which raised the very real possibility that I would remain in that fiberglass coffin until someone got me out with a blowtorch. By exhaling and pivoting just right, I managed to get free, but there were a few panicky seconds when a headline flashed before my eyes:

Middle-Aged Fatty Trapped in Airplane Loo

God, the humiliation. Only one way to beat that rap -- blame someone else. So I pictured this headline instead:

Trapped Fatty Sues Airline; Nabisco Named as Co-Defendant

Ah, that's better. Let's eat!


Read this resolution

New Year's resolutions are the triumph of optimism over memory.

We forget how long we stuck to last year's resolutions (average: 3.6 days), and instead look to the future with a positive outlook and the absolute belief that we can change for the better.

Most of us make the same resolutions every year. Eat less, exercise more, earn more, save more, be a nicer person, kick a bad habit, pay better attention to our, you know, whatayacallem, uh, families.

Worthy aspirations all, but the sad fact is that these become our annual resolutions because we fail at them. Again and again.

That's why, this year, I've come up with a new resolution, one that hasn't been tried and abandoned over and over. I'd suggest that Americans everywhere attempt the same. Pick something new and give it a try.

Here's mine: Read the instructions.

I know it doesn't seem like much of a goal. But for me to read the instructions every time requires me to overcome many personal shortcomings:

A) I am a guy.
B) I am a know-it-all.
C) I have no patience.

Why am I this way? I refer you to "A" above.

We guys hate to read instructions, the same way we famously hate to ask directions when we're lost. To do so proves there's something we don't already know.

Better to go through life by dead reckoning than to show any sign of weakness. Better to ignore a problem, in hopes that it will go away on its own, than to consult the instructions and fix it properly.

Here's an example: Recently, our garage door was giving us fits. It has one of those automatic openers, which means we never have to get out in the weather. Punch a button and -- vrr-rrr-rr-rr! -- the door opens or closes, as needed.

One of the great inventions really, right up there with the TV remote control. Until it stops working.

Then, when you try to close it, you get this instead: Punch the button. Vrr-rr. Door stops halfway down. Punch button again. Vrr. Door lowers another foot, then stops. Punch button. Vrr-rr. Door starts going UP. No, no, DOWN, you rotten $*%@! Punch button repeatedly. Vrr. Vrr. Vrr. Door, terribly confused now, moves inches at a time. Up, down, up, down. Finally, catch the door going down and HOLD the button until the door rattles all the way to the ground.

This went on at our house for weeks, until my wife finally got fed up and ordered that I get the garage door fixed. The implication being that if it wasn't fixed when she got home, I would be sleeping out there with the cars.

I went into the house, grumbling, and looked in our household files and found the instructions for the garage door opener. A quick perusal uncovered these facts:

1) This is common problem.
2) It can be easily fixed by two tweaks with a screwdriver.

Five minutes later, the door was working like a new one. All that frustration vanished. And I got to be a hero to my wife. Because I finally bothered to read the instructions.

This solution has arisen repeatedly. The dishwasher. The DVD player. My cell phone. All of these electronic gizmos that drive me crazy can actually enhance my life if I'll learn to operate them by reading the instructions.

So that's my resolution for the new year, and I plan to stick to it. Now I must go. I've got a ton of reading to do in the next 3.6 days.


Donald E. Westlake dies

Word comes from the NY Times and others that genius mystery writer Donald E. Westlake has died at age 75. He was one of my very favorite authors, a true hero of mine. I love the Dortmunder books and other comic novels he wrote under his own name, and I really love the Parker novels he wrote as Richard Stark. Both have been a huge influence on my writing.

One of the highlights of my career so far was sitting on a panel at Bouchercon in Monterey between Westlake and Lawrence Block. I'd published two or three books at that point, and was definitely the newbie on the panel, but the others (the panel also included Lawrence Shames and the late George Chesbro) were gracious and kind to me. It was enough for me to breathe the same air as Westlake, much less speak with him.

Another time, I made a point of finding him at the Edgars and chatting him up like the sweaty fanboy that I was. A little guy with a goatee joined us, saying, "Hi, Don." It was Ira Levin. I slipped away quietly and left the two great ones to talk among themselves.

Westlake will be missed, not least of all by me.

DIY holiday letter

With the holiday season wrapping up and a new year dawning, many Americans feel compelled to write "holiday letters" full of family news.

These missives, often sent instead of Christmas cards, allow the sender to update everyone on the mailing list with tantalizing tidbits from the past year without drafting individual, personalized letters or e-mails. They are the holiday equivalent of "spam."

Perhaps you, too, would like to wipe out all your correspondence debts by sending a holiday letter, but you don't know where to begin. Maybe the act of writing is too daunting, or you feel you have nothing to say, or you're too jaded to master the required "folksy" tone.

We're here to help. All you need to complete an interesting holiday letter is a template, a fill-in-the-blanks format that will get you started. Once you get rolling, you'll find you have plenty to say, and you'll probably end up telling all your family's failings and funny foibles. Then, next year, you can write the "please forgive me" letter.


Season's greetings from the (your last name here) family! Hope this letter finds you all doing well, enjoying the holidays with your (choose one: many/few/dreaded/drunken) friends and relatives!

It's been a busy year in the (your name) household! We've been (blessed/cursed) in many ways, and we're (thankful/disillusioned/insulted) that (your deity here) has seen fit to let us welcome another year.

By now, many of you have already heard that we've moved. Please note our new address, but don't spread it around to the (stalkers/bill collectors/legbreakers) we've left behind. Our new (home/trailer/tent) is delightful, and we're really looking forward to (decorating/furnishing/being evicted from) it.

This past year has been a big one for (letter writer's name here), a time of (change/renewal/misery). As you might've heard, I now have a new (job/drug habit/lover), and this naturally has put a certain strain on all of us around here. Haha. I'm adjusting (fine/poorly/slowly) to these new conditions, and hope to soon be (promoted/divorced/paroled).

As for (spouse's name here), this has truly been a year of miracles. The (doctor/lawyer/psychiatrist) says incredible progress has been made, and soon (spouse) will be able to (walk/talk/drink/drive/eat/work) just as (he/she) did before! We feel truly blessed by this news.

The kids are doing great, too. (Child's name) will (graduate/be released from) (high school/college/juvenile hall/rehab) this spring, and we hope (child) soon will select a (field of study/career path/part-time job/hobby) that will reflect (his/her) true (talents/abilities/ridiculous lifestyle).

Our other child, (name here), suffers from typical teen-age (acne/ennui/depression/pyromania), but we're hoping that will clear up real soon. Haha. (Child) is looking forward to the new year when (he/she) will be (driving/going to prom/flunking school/running away from home).

Modern life is always a challenge, isn't it? This year, our (car/computer/TV/plumbing/iron lung/pet) gave up the ghost and we had to (replace it/have it fixed/steal a new one/go without). That's the way it goes!

Some sad news came our way this year when we (learned of/witnessed/caused) the death of favorite (grandparent/aunt/uncle) (dead person's name here). The holidays just weren't the same without (dead person) among us, (laughing/singing/whining/boozing/lifting her skirt over her head) the way (he/she) always did at Christmastime. We're sure (dead person) is looking down on us right now, (smiling/weeping/criticizing/spitting).

I could go on and on about our (successes/failures/health problems/legal woes/bad habits), but I've said (enough/too much) already.

Drop us a line! We'd love to hear about your (family/career/health/bankruptcy), especially if you're (poorer/unhappier/sicker/crazier) than we are. We can always use some good news!

Happy New Year! And many happy (returns/birthdays/tax audits/colonoscopies/holiday letters)!