Everybody panic (or not)

If you pay attention to health news, then you know that most everything is bad for us and we’ll all soon die.

Scientists tell us our air, food, water, clothes and homes are full of germs, viruses, bacteria, pollen, pollution, radiation, industrial toxins, hazardous chemicals, deadly diseases, dust mites, insect parts, cholesterol and cooties.

Selfless medical researchers work around the clock to provide us with fresh scares. Every day, it seems, there’s a new study about some health risk we’d never even considered before. Every week brings word of some newly imported tropical disease. It’s a great time to be a hypochondriac.

Most of us read health news, process the information, then go on about our lives exactly as before. Why? Because we know there’ll be another study along soon that will cancel out the one in the news.

It works like this: One group of researchers will find, say, that coffee causes human spleens to explode. Another group (funded by coffee companies) will quickly release a study that shows that not only does coffee NOT cause exploding spleens, but it builds strong bones, makes you taller and was the original fluid at the Fountain of Youth. Later, a third study will find that neither of the above was correct. These impartial scientists will say coffee is OK, as long as you practice moderation, exercise and keep an eye on your overall spleen health. Then another lab will find a link between coffee and some other ailment, and we’re off and running again.

There’s no way to follow that cycle and maintain your sanity. You’d end up changing all your health and eating habits every few weeks. Better to wait it out, keep a watchful eye, wait for the pendulum to swing the other way.

(I, personally, am waiting for the day they announce that tofu causes cancer. I’m one carnivore with a mean streak.)

If you wait long enough, the tide turns against most everything, even medicines.

Remember the stories about Ambien and Lunesta? Those two prescription sleep aids, the most
heavily advertised drugs in America, were found to cause bizarre behavior in some people. The Food and Drug Administration announced that users walked in their sleep, prepared and ate food in their sleep, even went “sleep-driving.” None had any memory of the activities the next morning.

The entire country has been consumed by obesity and its dire effects on the national health. What if it turned out that we’re getting fat because we’re up every night, sleep-eating?

Another recent study found that obese men are 42 percent less likely to commit suicide than thin men. Scientists analyzed statistics from 45,000 men, and found that suicide rates fell as body-mass indexes rose. The researchers theorized that heavier men might have higher levels of mood-regulating brain chemicals.

So, the findings would seem to indicate, obesity will kill you slowly, but it might keep you from killing yourself. Next week, no doubt, scientists will find that obesity causes exploding spleens.

In the meantime, I’m one fat boy who will revel in some good news for a change, while also protecting myself against suicide. I’m going to lay out a big spread of yummy, fattening food, take an Ambien or a Lunesta, and engage in some serious sleep-eating. Maybe go for a nice drive afterward, burping and snoozing my way across the countryside.

What could go wrong? I’m sure some health researchers are doing a government-funded study to find out.


Finger lickin' dumb

Employees at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Manchester, NH, didn't suspect a thing when a person on the telephone told them he was calling from company headquarters about a test of the restaurant's fire suppression system.

The three employees dutifully set off the fire system, which sprayed chemical powder all over them. When they told the caller they now suffered eye and skin irritation, the caller told them they should remove their clothes. The employees still didn't suspect a hoax.

But the employees got suspicious when the caller then told them to urinate on each other. They called the cops instead. Police arrived to find the disrobed employees standing outdoors. The employees had to be decontaminated at a hospital.

Full story here.


Yuck-a-doo, it's a splut

Do you have spluts at your house?

Bet you do. You might not know it. Or, you might know spluts by another name. But you've got 'em.

Go look in the kitchen. Somewhere on that floor, no matter how recently you've mopped, there'll be a little splash-shaped sticky spot. That's a splut.

A splut begins its life as a simple drop. Juice, maybe. Spaghetti sauce. Some other substance produced by pets and/or teen-agers. Because of that old devil gravity, the substance reaches the floor, where it accumulates passing grime. Eventually, the splut becomes a noticeable smudge, growing ever blacker until somebody scrubs it away.

You won't find "splut" in the dictionary, but that's what we call those sticky spots at our house. Maybe you do, too. Or maybe you have your own word for spluts.

Families tend to accumulate made-up words like "splut" over time. Individual incidents inspire them, as do the peculiar behaviors of friends and relatives. If I said somebody "pulled an Uncle Charlie," many of you would smile and nod. Most of you would be thinking about different Charlies (presumably), but something each Charlie did slipped into the family vernacular, and it's been called an Uncle Charlie ever since.

Some families have secret languages of nonsense words, used to identify everything from favorite toys to favorite body parts. "Booboo" might mean "injury" at your house, but to your neighbors it's a bodily function and to the people across the street, it's their sweet immigrant grandma. Put these families together and say, "I gave their Booboo a booboo while she was taking a booboo," and it could mean most anything.

My family adopted "wobblywad" from a magazine. You know when a table wobbles, and you fold up a napkin or a matchbook cover and you put it under one leg to steady the table? That wadded-up leveling device is a "wobblywad."

Years ago, after a small electrical fire in the condo we rented, the landlord hired a cleaning service to get the smoke smell out of everything. The cleaning service owner took one look at our smoky home, threw his hands in the air and exclaimed, "Yuck-a-doo!"

We've used "yuck-a-doo" to respond to every gross or disgusting thing that's happened around our home since. It's gotten used a lot; we have boys.

The strangest one goes back to before we had kids, to when my wife and I lived in San Francisco. Our apartment's kitchen was small, but it was lined with more ceramic tile than the space shuttle. My wife was in the kitchen. I was around the corner, in my traditional spot, sprawled on the living room sofa.

My wife shouted something. I didn't hear her clearly, so I said, "What?" She repeated it. I still couldn't make it out. "What?"

This went on a few more times before she stalked into the living room and said, "What do you THINK I said?"

"I don't know, hon," I said, carefully. "From in here, it sounded like 'Eep-a-deep.'"

Situation defused. She fell out, laughing.

Ever since, when people yell at each other from opposite ends of the house, with resulting miscommunications, we call that "Eep-a-deep."

Only one problem: Neither of us can remember now what the original phrase was. What was she yelling from the kitchen? "Time to eat?" "Need a treat?" "Eat a beet?" "Beep a beef?"

Who knows? But "eep-a-deep" lives on.

Next week: How to clean up spluts with a "footrag."


What a croc

Wildlife managers in Florida are experimenting with magnets as a way to keep crocodiles out of urban areas.

The endangered crocodiles have splendid navigational systems. Often, when they're moved to wilderness areas, they go right back to where they were, even if it's in the middle of human neighborhoods.

Some scientists believe crocs navigate by tuning in to Earth's gravitational field, and they think strapping magnets on either side of a crocodile's head will confuse it enough that it'll stay where wildlife officials put it.

My question is this: If one of the magnets comes off, will the croc swim in circles?

Full story here.


Your extended warranty

Thank you for buying your new Appliance or Other Product from Nameless Store That Sells Appliances and Other Products! We’re sure your life will be much improved by this purchase.

This product comes with full warranties from its manufacturer, and that should be good enough, but you never know. We’re not saying it’s going to break or anything, but you might want an Extended Warranty from Nameless Store. Just in case.

For only (a shockingly high sum of money) per year, our Extended Warranty protects your Appliance or Other Product against all malfunction, damage or negligence. If it breaks, we’ll fix it. Guaranteed!

The following restrictions apply:

You must bring your Appliance or Other Product to us for repair. We can’t be driving all over the state, picking up appliances and other products all day. We’ve got a Nameless Store to run here! Ha-ha! But no, really, you’d better rent a truck.

This contract does not cover the costs of labor or parts, beyond certain levels to be determined later by Nameless Store. Haul it in here. Then we’ll tell you what it’ll really cost.

When we say “fix it,” we mean we’ll TRY to fix it. Some things can’t be repaired. Throw your plugged-in Appliance or Other Product into the shower (not that we’d ever recommend that!), and we probably can’t bring it back to life. Or, you, either.

Our repairs follow a certain protocol:

You wait your turn. Yes, you do. We’ll get to you between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Or is that a week from Tuesday? I forget.

Your Appliance or Other Product is examined in our Triage Center by an experienced technician named Earl, who’s had the same toothpick in the corner of his mouth for 23 years. Earl will shake his head and pronounce the Appliance or Other Product “fried.”

Sighing and shrugging, he’ll pass it on to Level Two of our Extended Warranty Service Center, where qualified technician Doyle will drink coffee and talk about fishing while his apprentice Skippy screws around with the insides of your Appliance or Other Product, making the problem much, much worse.

A period of four to six weeks will pass. During this period, we will forget you ever existed. Guaranteed!

Eventually, you’ll call and complain. This will snap us to attention, and your Appliance or Other Product will be located and transferred to Level Three, which is over there in the corner with those other losers.

Another period passes. Usually only two to three weeks this time. We’ll await your call.

Once you simmer down a little, sir, we will repair your Appliance or Other Product. Or we will sell you another piece of junk with its own Extended Warranty.

Your repaired/replacement Appliance or Other Product will be delivered to your home and installed by Certified Installation Team members Itchy Bob and Ralph the Recent Parolee.

We guarantee that this repaired/replaced Appliance or Other Product will then work for a short time. Hopefully, for the life of this Agreement. We’ll see.

If the Appliance or Other Product continues to give you trouble, you should contact us immediately, and we’ll send Earl over to look at it. Guaranteed!

Escape clause: Nameless Store is not responsible for anything, ever. Not your broken whats-it. Not for any injury or illness that might result from its use or misuse. Nor small fires, nor anything like that. Nada. We didn’t do it. You can’t prove it. Don’t even think about suing us. Ralph the Recent Parolee remembers where you live.



Accidentally heard on the radio today "A Sean Hannity Minute." It was exactly 59 seconds too long.

Every time I run across that smirking numbskull, I have the same thought: Nothing wrong with that guy that a baseball bat wouldn't fix.


Wanted: Viagra for my trees

Homeowners don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. We have trees.

Trees are nature’s own neighborhood amenity, and I like having lots of them around for shade and beauty and visual diversity. I don’t even mind raking leaves in the fall, which is easy for me to say considering that all my current trees aren’t much taller than I am.

In previous houses, my family enjoyed the company of big old elms and towering cottonwoods and one fruitless mulberry that always dropped its yellow leaves all at once. Ka-whump.

We now live in a newish hilltop subdivision (though we don’t look newish) and the trees are undersized. While there are green belts around the edges of the neighborhood, the “street trees” (which sounds like a gang) and regular “yard trees” are young.

My yard trees are palm trees, and they came with the house. We’ve got a couple of fan palms, the type used to decorate public spaces, and they’re hardy as they can be. Practically maintenance-free. But these other ones, I think they’re called queen palms, with long feathery fronds? They are a large pain in my subtropical region. They’re puny and they’re ragtag and they whine and they lean over as if fatigued. (OK, they don’t actually whine. But they would if they could.)

These trees have become the botanical focus of my life. We pay a service to do the lawn. My wife fills the house with beautiful potted plants. My only plant-related job is to keep the palm trees upright. I usually fail.

The problem is that our soil is thick, rocky clay and the palm trees’ shallow root systems can’t penetrate. The palms are like eight-foot-tall celeries, standing on end, their little roots gripping the surface layer.

Poorly anchored and top-heavy, the palms regularly blow over. If left that way, they’ll croak. Pulled upright, they’ll keep right on living, but they can’t support themselves. (Much like teen-agers.)

I’ve used stakes and wire and ropes and staples and you-name-it to keep these trees pointed skyward. I’ll get them arranged, and the wind will change direction, and they all start leaning the other way. Then I’ll put stakes on the other side and tie them up, and get everything so snug, you could pluck that wire like a guitar. The next day, the wind will snap the wires or yank them loose, and all the trees will fall over on their bushy heads.

During storms, I stand at the patio windows, monitoring my wind-whipped trees. I’ve been known to run outside during lulls in rain to quickly adjust a tree. Or add another wire.

Eventually, the trees have so many wires and stakes, they resemble a tribe of tied-down Gullivers. My neighbors think I’m practicing tree bondage. I have to remove everything (while a bored teen-ager holds the tree up), and start over.

Saving the trees has become my strange hobby, and it raises certain questions: Am I crazy? Why don’t I replace the palms with something sturdier? Why not get a professional to stake the palms the right way or replant them? Doesn’t Thick Rocky Clay sound like a boxing movie?

All legitimate questions, but I can’t answer them now. I’ve got to go see which way the wind’s blowing.


Feed me

Google apparently has gobbled up FeedBurner, along with the rest of the known universe, so if your Home Front feed suddenly doesn't appear as usual, you might need to renew it. Click on one of the orange feed buttons in the lefthand column. Only takes a second.



Murphy's Law only scratches surface

Timing is everything, and that's never clearer than when problems arise.

That's why one version of Murphy's Law says: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong at the worst possible time.

I was reminded of this when the smoke alarms at our home announced they needed new batteries. Wait, "announced" is too polite a term. When our smoke alarms need batteries, they emit a chirp loud enough to wake everyone in a cemetery across town. The startling chirp repeats, ever more frequent and persistent, until somebody by golly replaces those batteries. Or else.

This has occurred three times in the years we've lived in this house. Each time, it's happened in the middle of the night.

Each time, I’ve had to get up, go to an all-night market, buy batteries and replace them before anyone could get back to sleep and/or my wife killed me.

Have I mentioned that our house came with six of these smoke alarms? That they're all wired together somehow, so if only one has a low battery, the others chirp in sympathy? That two of the alarms can only be reached with a ladder? That if you furiously rip one off the wall because you can't stand the noise another second, the others will chirp more?

Anyway, there I was, at 2 a.m., teetering half-asleep on a ladder, replacing batteries and pushing buttons and praying the noise would stop. And I noted once again how things always go screwy at the worst possible time.

You could argue that we bring this problem on ourselves. Clearly, we don't change the batteries frequently enough (like, say, every week). Clearly, I need to study how the smoke alarms work, at a time when I'm not also trying to sleep. At minimum, we should always keep spare batteries on hand.

But such preparation would be tempting fate. If the smoke alarms weren’t going haywire in the middle of the night, it would be something else going wrong, maybe something worse. Like a fire.

Murphy's Law doesn’t begin to cover all the possible variations of inconvenient timing. Here are some suggestions:

Bell's Law: The more important the telephone call, the more likely you'll be unable to answer it in time.

Montezuma's Law: The longer you are on vacation, the greater the chances that one of you will get sick.

Babel's Law: The farther you are from proper health care facilities, the more serious the symptoms will be.

Gates' Law: The worse your boss' mood, the more likely he'll walk up behind you while you're playing solitaire on your computer.

Eveready's Law: Your flashlight will work fine right up to the moment a storm knocks out electrical power to your house.

Heloise's Law: Surprise guests arrive only when your home is at its messiest.

Goodyear's Law: The harder it's raining, the greater your chances of getting a flat tire.

Caterpillar's Law: If you're in a hurry to get somewhere, you will encounter street construction detours. Every time.

Macy's Law: The more you want a product, the greater the odds that the store sold the last one five minutes ago.

Ditka's Law: The more your wife wants you to take her out -- right now -- the better the chances your game will go into overtime.

Brewer's Law: The later the hour, the louder the chirp.


Conquering a mountain of stuff

Somewhere in your home -- spare bedroom, attic, basement, garage -- lives the Repository of Stuff We Don’t Use Anymore.

It’s a mystical place of letter sweaters and souvenir ashtrays, baby clothes and broken crockery, Magic Eight Balls and eight-track tapes, outgrown toys and outmoded phones and old jeans that’ll fit again after we drop 20 pounds (yeah, right).

Once in a blue moon, someone in your household will feel compelled to clean out this accumulated detritus. We could make better use of that space, the thinking goes, and we’ll never, ever need this stuff again. Why not get rid of it?

This is an admirable ambition, but, as with so many things, it’s easier said than done. Parting with your old stuff is a hard, dirty job that requires elbow grease and grit and resolve. Not to mention backache medication and frequent hot showers and, quite possibly, an expensive divorce.

At our house, the Repository of Unused Stuff was in our three-car garage. I don’t want to say how much dusty stuff we had piled up, but there was barely room for two vehicles. You do the math.

This heap of random stuff didn’t bother me. Sure, we’d moved it all a couple of times. Sure, some of the boxes weren’t even labeled. But I figured, as long as I could get my minivan door open and squeeze inside, everything was fine. The stuff wasn’t hurting anything. We’d sort it out eventually. Maybe a small fire would solve the problem for us …

My wife had other ideas. The stacks of sacks and boxes and assorted belongings bugged her. She’d put up with this stuff for years, and it was high time we did something about it.
Of course, she’s got no time herself. She’s busy having a career. So it fell to me to tackle the garage. She urged me to leap into action, in a sort of X-Treme Spring-Cleaning Challenge, and conquer Mt. Stuff with speed and muscle and brainpower.

I’m not a leap-into-action sort of guy. I’m more of a sit-and-ponder-and-sigh type. When I do finally take action, it’s almost imperceptible.

I oozed out into the garage and started opening boxes and sorting through sacks. I hauled off stuff. I threw some away. I gave a lot to charity. Gradually, the mound of stuff grew smaller.

The goal was to make that third garage useable. Our older son has a car now, and if we could lose enough stuff, he could park indoors. Not that he’s ever home. Not that we care if his filthy car sits out in the weather. But you’ve got to set goals to take on a job like this.

After I got rid of a lot of stuff, I ran into a true dilemma. What remained -- extra furniture, an old microwave, a portable TV -- would be perfect for a dorm room or a first apartment. If I kept it, with an eye toward my son moving out soon, then he couldn’t park in the garage. If I got rid of it, he’d have another excuse to never leave home.

So I took all that stuff and put it in his car.

Kidding! It wouldn’t fit in his car. And he wouldn’t take the hint anyway.

No, I’m still stacking and sorting and throwing stuff out. Slowly making progress. Someday, I’ll be finished. That old stuff will be out of our lives, once and for all.

Then it’ll be time to get some new stuff.

(Editor's note: After this column appeared, I found a way to stack all the future apartment furniture around the walls so our son could park in the garage. It's still there. He still hasn't moved out. Maybe I could just furnish the garage and he could live out there. . .)


Hold the ketchup

Restaurants in Chicago (and no doubt elsewhere) are trying to save money by limiting the condiments they give away.

News reports say Chili's and McDonalds are either restricting the number ketchup packets and other condiments for takeout orders or are asking customers whether they need them rather than automatically including them. Chili's also is eliminating cardboard coasters to save money.

What's next? Will restaurants save money on plates by throwing the food directly into our mouths?

Full story here.

Getaway got away

A man in Bellevue, WA, turned the tables on burglars who had broken into his house -- he stole their getaway vehicle.

Patrick Rosario, 32, was in his basement when he heard people moving around upstairs. He peeked under the basement door and saw unfamilar feet as the burglars were moving his TV. He called 911, then looked outside and saw the burglars' white van, the engine running.

Over the objections of the 911 operator, Rosario took the van and drove away. Police arrived to find that the burglars had fled on foot, leaving the loot behind.

Full story here.


Get it on with your mini-bar

Doesn’t it seem at times that life is a hotel room mini-bar? It rarely provides exactly what you want, the portions are too small and everything costs way too much. Plus, you must fetch your own ice.

When I travel, I almost never resort to the mini-bar. I can’t bring myself to spend $6 for a single cookie or $8 on a bottle so small that the liquor evaporates before I can get it to my lips. Besides, by the time I get to my room at night, I’m usually already well-oiled from the maxi-bar off the hotel lobby. At that point, consuming a miniature bottle of booze would be like spitting in a river.

Mini-bars are much on my mind since I saw a newspaper item about a hotel in Miami’s South Beach that offers “themed” mini-bar packages. For $50 and up, the Catalina Hotel and Beach Club will tailor mini-bar stock to fit guests’ special needs or moods.

The “Get It On” package, for example, includes champagne, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, strawberries, scented candles, edible body paint and -- this is my favorite part -- a Barry White CD. Oh, baby, baby.

(If I consumed whipped cream, maraschino cherries and strawberries, on top of champagne, I wouldn’t be considering whether to “Get It On.” I’d be worrying about “Diabetic Coma.”)

I don’t know what other mini-bar packages the hotel staff has dreamed up, but here are some suggestions:

“Bang a Gong” -- Champagne, beer, vodka, strawberries, peanuts, beer, a bong, a gong, Wild Turkey, beer and a T-Rex CD.

“Get It Done” -- Coffee, caffeine tablets, beef jerky, strawberries, a wireless Internet hookup and a recording of your boss screaming about an impending deadline.

“Get Her Drunk” -- Champagne, maraschino cherries, champagne, a bottle of Southern Comfort, strawberries, more champagne, and a Pink Floyd CD. This package is also known as the “Prom Night Special.”

“Get Some Sleep” -- A carton of milk, some chilled turkey, sleeping pills, a jug of cheap wine and a Barry Manilow CD.

“Get a Job” -- Champagne, strawberries, resumes, a phone book, want ads and a CD by The Silhouettes.

“Lose Some Weight” -- Diet Pepsi, Miller Lite, rice cakes, carrots, celery, a Richard Simmons DVD and six gallons of edible body paint.

“I’m Sorry” -- Champagne, red roses, shiny baubles, strawberries, a form letter of apology, kneepads and a Brenda Lee CD.

“The Romeo” -- Fresh flowers, scented candles, strawberries, a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, a book of sonnets and a Julio Iglesias CD.

“The Bubba” -- A six-pack of Bud, a pint of Jack Daniels, a bag of pork rinds, two EZ-Open cans of chili and a DVD of the Daytona 500.

“The Flight Attendant” -- A variety of miniature booze bottles, flimsy plastic cups with too much ice, and 47 tiny bags of pretzels.

“Weary Business Traveler” -- One large bottle of hooch and some ice. Maybe some peanuts or something.

“Family Vacation” -- Mai Tai mix, rum, sunscreen, aspirin, antacids, a hat with Mickey Mouse ears, stain remover, a Wiggles CD, earplugs and edible body paint (for the kids).

Perhaps none of these mini-bar packages will work for you. Perhaps you’d still resent paying so much for so little. Maybe cramming a small refrigerator with tiny goodies will never come close to what we all want, which is to stay home with our loved ones and our familiar surroundings and our Barry White CDs.

That’s life. Pass the strawberries.


Headline of the Day

From Bloomberg.com: Japanese Finance Chief Nakagawa Resigns in Blow to Aso

Helpful hint: The prime minister of Japan is named Taro Aso. Isn't "taro" a root?


Take it from me

Just because you feel moved to give advice doesn’t mean anyone will want to take it.

We all love to dole out advice. We feel we’ve learned a lot during our lifetimes, and others should benefit from our accumulated knowledge. Clearly, our friends and relatives need the help. Just look at the way they’re messing up their lives. If they’d only listen to us, things would be better.

We tell ourselves we have only the best of intentions, but darker motives sometimes are at work. By offering advice, we can be saying: “I’m smarter than you. I’ve got better taste. Only I can tell you how to fix your many, many problems, you shlub.”

Not surprisingly, this primal urge to instruct often is not met with enthusiasm by people on the receiving end. Some simply ignore advice. Some resent the very implication that they need advice, which is why, all across this great country of ours, in-laws aren’t speaking to one another. Others feel compelled to do the exact opposite of whatever was recommended, which is how women end up marrying members of motorcycle gangs.

Yes, giving advice is fraught with danger. Perhaps the quickest way to lose a friend or alienate a relative is to say, “You know what your problem is?”

Some topics are particularly perilous:


No woman wants to hear that her new love is, in reality, a felonious scoundrel. You might think you’re saving her from herself by mentioning it, but it works just the opposite. She will run as fast as she can, right into his hairy, tattooed arms. If it doesn’t work out, anything you say will seem like, “I told you so.” And if it does last, she and her new husband will hate you. Forever.


It’s safe to give others career advice because you’re not the one who’ll get fired if it goes kerflooey. It’s easy to say, “Tell your boss to take this job and shove it.” But there should be a rule: If you advise someone to quit a job, you must let that person move in with you and live off your income for a minimum of six months.


Rearing children is hard enough without some self-proclaimed expert telling us that we’re doing it wrong. If you don’t live under the same roof and see daily just what a pain little Johnny can be, then you should keep your mouth shut. Assume his parents are doing the best they can, and smile brightly as a naked little Johnny smears boysenberry jam on the cat.


If you tell a friend how to eat better, here is what they will hear: “You are a fat slob.” We all know we sometimes eat things that aren’t healthy. We eat them because they taste good.

I was recently in a Mexican restaurant where a woman in the next booth complained to everyone who’d listen, including the summoned manager, because the refried beans were made with lard. Excuse me? You ordered refried beans, then had a problem with lard? By the time she was finished proclaiming how unhealthy lard is, I was ready to say, “Can I have her lard? I want extra lard! Could you pump lard directly into my arteries? Muchas gracias.”


You can pick your friends, and you can pick your clothes, but you can’t pick your friends’ clothes.

In summary, only give advice when asked. Even then, use caution in expressing your opinions. Hey, I’m talking to you. Are you even listening? You know, that’s your problem right there--


Exemplary work

All parents worry about setting a good example for their children, and it isn't always easy.

Children are watchful little rascals, and they have impeccable timing. Do something you've cautioned them against -- drinking directly from the milk carton, for instance -- and they will walk in on you in mid-guzzle. Guaranteed. If you drop a brick on your foot, and unleash a string of curses, you can bet your child will be within earshot. If you're drunkenly watching porn late at night, long after they should be asleep -- well, you get the idea.

Being a parent is more than not getting caught engaging in bad habits, however. It's also teaching good behavior to the kids. Personal hygiene, for instance. Good study habits. Using one's blinker. Avoiding a life of crime.

One important area is teaching them how to work. We want our kids to become responsible, job-holding adults, so they can afford high-quality elder care for us in years to come.

We teach our kids to work by showing them how we work hard ourselves, and that’s where I’ve got a problem.

I spent more than twenty years toiling at newspapers, but our two sons barely remember those days. What they know is that Dad has survived the past decade by pecking away at a home computer, doing household chores and sponging off their hard-working Mom. Sure, Dad has written a whole shelf full of books, and he travels a lot and gives lectures and his columns have appeared in newspapers all over, but the boys don't register all that. What they see is a grown man who has no job.

To them, that's a role model to emulate.

Our younger son came home from school to find me pounding the keyboard, trying to meet a deadline. He didn't notice the frantic nature of the work. What he noted was that I was still in my pajamas.

"You never got dressed today?" he asked.

I muttered something about how I hadn't showered, either.

"That's a good day right there!" he crowed, and he sounded exactly like me.


Just the FAQs

Need help? Perhaps the information you seek is in the Frequently Asked Questions below:

Question: How widespread is the term FAQ?
Answer: FAQs are everywhere these days. A Google search for “FAQ” found more than 1.2 BILLION “hits.” Apparently, we’re an inquisitive bunch.

Q: What’s a “hit?”
A: It’s an Internet reference located by a search engine. Also, a Mob killing.

Q: What’s a “search engine?”
A: A method for making jillions of dollars.

Q: What is the “technical services department?”
A: Tech services is the place you call when you want to listen to Muzak for hours.

Q: Do actual humans work there?
A: No.

Q: Those “function keys” across the top of my keyboard -- F1, F2, F3, etc. -- what are they for?
A: Nobody knows.

Q: Then why do we still have them on keyboards?
A: Nobody knows that, either.

Q: What should I do if my computer gives me an “error message?”
A: Run screaming from the room.

Q: Will that help?
A: Couldn’t hurt. At least it will distract you from the misery to come.

Q: What’s a “nanosecond?”
A: The amount of time that passes between an awful song coming on the car radio and your finger hitting the button to escape it.

Q: Can the awful song stick your head in that brief nanosecond?
A: Every time.

Q: Can I put you on hold?
A: Sure, as long as you don’t expect me to be here when you get back.

Q: Would you like to order now?
A: No, I come to fast food joints for the cheerful d├ęcor.

Q: Do you want fries with that?
A: Nicely said. You must be a theater major.

Q: Do these pants make my butt look big?
A: Only when you wear them. The rest of the time, your butt manages all by itself.

Q: Are you asleep?
A: Not anymore.

Q: Why is the sky blue?
A: Light rays scatter off molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, and this scattering is more effective at short wavelengths -- the blue end of the visible spectrum. Also, blue is God’s favorite color.

Q: Why is grass green?
A: Envy.

Q: How many roads must a man walk down, before we call him a man?
A: Four.

Q: Are all parents arbitrary and capricious?
A: Yes.

Q: Why?
A: Because I said so.

Q: Can one answer a question with a question?
A: Why not?

Q: Why don’t we ever talk anymore?
A: Can this wait until halftime?

Q: Red or white?
A: Make it a beer.

Q: Who do you think you are?
A: Zorro.

Q: What’s so funny?
A: An auctioneer with the hiccups.

Q: If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
A: Easy for you to say.

Q: Can’t we all just get along?
A: Bite me.

Q: What’s that smell?
A: Your upper lip.

Q: What time is it?
A: Time for you to stop asking questions.

Q: Are you always such a smart-aleck, Mr. FAQ Man?
A: Not always. But frequently.


Criminal mastermind

Today's crime tip: When committing armed robbery, make sure you have enough gas in your getaway vehicle.

David Eric Hampton, 23, found this out the hard way in Cape Haze, FL. He allegedly used a 12-inch Bowie knife to rob a business, then drove away in a white Mercury Cougar. Police later found the vehicle abandoned and out of gas, and Hampton hiding behind a house nearby.

Extra points: The business Hampton robbed was a gas station.

Full story here.


Matinee getaway

One of the best things about being my own boss is that I can occasionally take the afternoon off and go to the movies.

Sure, people who have regular jobs can sneak away for matinees, too, but there’s always the risk they’ll get caught and reprimanded. Those of us who are self-employed can skip all that anxiety, as long as we recognize that we’re blowing deadlines in favor of "Spider-Man: The Sequel Redux VI." I’m usually fine with that.

The joy of a weekday matinee is the sensation that it’s a private screening. Most people are at work or in school, so I sometimes have the theater all to myself. At worst, there’ll be only a few of us unemployed idlers scattered around the dark theater, losing ourselves in the big-screen experience.

Going to the matinee alone is a deliciously selfish indulgence:

--No compromising with the spouse about which movie to see. I don’t have to suffer through a "chick flick" with lavish costumes and good acting and a plot and stuff. I can go to a "guy movie," which means all explosions, all the time.

--No dragging the kids along. As delightful as it might be to share the experience of watching "Shrek XXII" with enthusiastic children, it’s even better to go without them. And you don’t have to worry about getting "gummy worms" stuck to your clothing.

--No catering to others’ seating needs. When I go alone, I can sit squarely in the middle if I like, or on the end of a row, so I don’t have to step over people when I go for seconds on popcorn. I can even change seats, without worrying that I’ve lost my children in the dark.

--No sharing the popcorn. Concessions are where movie theaters make their money, so I always feel compelled to help out by buying the "Gigantic Buick-Sized Bucket O’ Corn." But that still doesn’t mean there’s enough to go around.

(An aside: Try this experiment. When the pimply kid behind the counter asks if you want "butter flavoring" on your popcorn, tell him "just a tiny bit," and see what you get. Eight squirts of the mysterious yellow oil. On another trip, say, "A lot." Eight squirts. Say "none at all," and he’ll sneak in eight squirts when you’re not looking.)

Solo movie-going means ultimate flexibility. You don’t need a plan. You don’t even need to know what’s playing. You can show up at a workday matinee at the very last minute and still have your choice of seats. You can enter the theater after the previews are under way and not worry about walking up your spouse’s back in the dark.

Regular movie-goers know that home DVD viewing has ruined theater behavior. Some morons sit in the theater and talk out loud, as if they’re in their own living rooms. When you’re at the movies alone, in an uncrowded theater, you can simply heft your popcorn and move away from the gabbers. This can help you avoid those pesky manslaughter charges.

I know some people have given up on the movie theater experience altogether, turned off by the expense and the sticky floors and the bad manners of the public. It’s easier and certainly cheaper to watch DVDs at home. But it’s not the same. Watching a movie at home when you’re supposed to be working just feels lazy. Escaping to a matinee feels like playing hooky.

And that’s worth the price of admission.


Keeping up with the upkeep

Having recently “celebrated” the passing of another birthday, I’ve given much thought lately to aging.

I’ve decided it’s not impending mortality that makes getting older so hard to take. It’s not the decline in vitality and possibility. The worst part of aging is all the damn maintenance.

Talk about a paradox. We have less life ahead of us with every passing day, but more and more of our dwindling time is spent on caring for our faces and our bodies and our overall health. By the time we take our final breaths, we’re ready to die, just so we can stop fussing with our hair.

It’s so much easier for the young. I watch my sons get ready for school in the morning and marvel at how little effort is required. They roll out of bed, throw on some clothes from the array on the floor, shovel in some breakfast, and they’re ready to go. They barely give the mirror a glance. They’re teens, they’re male, they assume they look fine.

If pressed, I can still do the quick shower and dress and out-the-door in fifteen minutes. (What we call around here “sliding down the Batpole.”) But most mornings require that more attention be paid to the mirror.

We aging men have skin spots to study, wrinkles to sigh over, gray whiskers to shave. The hair on our heads may get thinner, but stray hair pops up in strange places -- our eyebrows, our ears, our shoulders. Fallen hair apparently migrates while we sleep until it finds new and more interesting places to attach. These migratory hairs must be addressed. Throw in a beard, like I wear, and you can easily snip, snip away the entire morning.

(An aside to those men who sport bushy, spidery eyebrows: Dudes, buy some scissors. Really. It’s not funny anymore.)

When I was young, I gave no thought to working out. I got enough exercise shooting hoops and chasing women. I couldn’t gain weight if I tried. Now, I work out every day, and I’ve never been plumper. You’d think the fat would smooth out the wrinkles, but no . . .

Age weakens our eyes, loosens our teeth, flattens our arches, broadens our backsides. Remedial action is required at every turn, and it‘s all so time-consuming.

If personal upkeep is a hassle for men, it’s a hundred times worse for women. Society puts more pressure on women to look their youthful best, but every wrinkle and sag is a reminder of futility. No wonder they spend so much on cosmetics and hair dye and magnifying mirrors and Botox. No wonder it takes them longer to get ready in the morning. No wonder they resent their hairy, slovenly husbands.

As the years pile on, the physical maintenance becomes too much for us to handle alone. We seek professional help -- doctors and dentists and cosmetologists and manicurists and plastic surgeons and personal trainers. We spend our golden years wandering from one waiting room to another, trying to maintain our health and our teeth and what little looks we’ve got left.

Having an aging body is like owning an old car. Lots of dents and dings and strange noises. A little leakage now and then. Too much time in the shop, and we can’t rely on the old clunker the way we once did. But as long as it keeps running, we’ll keep on driving.

We’ve still got many miles to go.


Not fare

A wounded man hijacked a cab in a Boston suburb and used it to run down the man who'd allegedly shot him, police say.

Authorities say Marcel Laurol, 32, yanked the driver out of the cab, climbed behind the wheel and drove down the sidewalk to run over the 25-year-old man who'd shot him.

Extra points: Both men were expected to survive their injuries.

Double extra points: The two passengers in the taxi were unharmed.

Full story, including the long list of charges, here.

Break the ice with small talk

If you want to succeed in business or most any other endeavor, you must master the art of small talk.

Most pursuits involve interaction with other human beings, whether they be employers or coworkers or customers, and those humans will judge you on your ability to keep up a conversation about, um, nothing.

Some people think you should only speak when you have something important to say. We call these quiet types “the unemployed.” Others are shy, and it truly pains them to speak up. But they must overcome their reticence unless they intend to work their whole lives as “mimes.”

Speaking of the French, the term “small talk” originated in France, where it’s known as “un petit palaver.” The French are famous for their ability to talk endlessly about nothing at all, but we should remember that they are drunk on red wine, which tends to make people talk too much and wear berets.

You don’t have to be French to become a “maestro” of small talk. Anyone can do it, given practice and the right mental outlook. (Red wine doesn’t hurt, though take care not to overdo it. It’s a fine line between scintillating chat and drunken blather. Ask any waitress.)

The secret to small talk is to ask questions. People love to talk about themselves, and as long as you can stay awake during their answers, they’ll come away thinking you’re a charismatic, intelligent person who sincerely cares about others. As we all know, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.

How to get started? Small talk usually begins with “icebreaker” questions that are simple, direct and innocent of underlying intent. Questions as easy as “What’s your name?“ or “Where are you from?” open avenues for small talk. As you become comfortable with those, you can move up to more involved questions, such as “What can I do for you today?” or “How about this weather?” or “Where did you get that nifty beret?”

Once the ice is broken, follow the other person’s lead. This requires “listening.” If you pay attention to what the other person says, it’ll naturally lead to other questions that help maintain the conversation. Questions such as “Anything else?” or “Hot enough for you?” or “Are you French?”

Advanced small-talkers pick up cues from the environment. In an office setting, look for family photos, framed diplomas or evidence of hobbies to find common ground. These cues can lead to questions such as “Are those your children?” or “Oh, so you graduated from technical school?” or “Do you enjoy fishing?” (Caution: Be prepared for hours of tedium if you ask, “Is that a picture of your car?”)

You want to get personal, but not too personal. Inappropriate questions can lead to embarrassment, demotion, even unemployment. Some examples:

“What happened to your hair?”
“How come your children don’t look like you?”
“How about them Cowboys?”
“Can’t you have that removed?”
“What’s that smell? Is that you?”
“Did you vote for that idiot?”
“Is that red wine in your coffee cup? At this hour?”
“How’d you like a kick in the butt, frog-face?”

Remember to keep it simple. Not too deep. You’re not jumping into the conversational ocean here. Small talk is like a spring-swollen stream -- shallow and swift. Steer clear of inappropriate questions and really listen to what others say, and you’ll do fine.

If you find yourself stuck in a conversational corner, try this: “Parlez vous Francais?”


If it had been doughnuts . . .

Guess it depends on your definition of "emergency."

A man in Boynton Beach, FL, was cited Saturday for misuse of emergency services after he called 911 to complain that a Burger King had run out of lemonade.

Jean Fortune, 66, called 911 after a clerk in the drive-up window failed to respond to his threat that he'd call the police.

Full story here.


Laundry quandary

Here's a typical load of laundry at my house: 17 black T-shirts, all approximately the same size.

My sons wear black T-shirts all the time. My wife wears oversized T-shirts around the house or under sweaters. And me? I work at home. My whole life's built around T-shirts.

I do the laundry around here, and I follow the rules on the detergent box: Wash like colors together. But that inevitably results in one load that's all black cotton T-shirts.

Even under the best conditions (strong light, perfect vision), it's difficult to sort black T-shirts. I do it in the dim laundry room. Because I love a mystery.

Tags might give a clue, except that we mostly shop at the same stores, and a label that says "Old Navy" won't narrow the field much.

The teens' shirts often have insults or rock band logos or both displayed on the front, but the shirts are always inside-out in the laundry. I either have to turn them right, or peek inside to read the logo upside-down and backward. And then remember which kid likes which band.

I end up guessing. Various black T-shirts end up in various wrong drawers, only to cycled through the laundry again later. ("Hey, this isn't mine…")

In this manner, the T-shirts migrate around the house, from dresser to floor to washer to dryer and back again. Our shirts get around more than we do.

This might seem a minor annoyance, and it is. So, naturally, I've arrived at a grandiose solution that requires government funding:

Families should become color-coded. Each person would have a color that's strictly his or hers, and each family member would wear a different one.

Newborns would be assigned a color, and that would be their color forever. If they draw "green," then it's all green for them. Green clothes, green linens, green toothbrush, green everything. You name it. Green.

They don't like green? Tough. That's their color. They're green until further notice. They're green and that's it. They're green until they turn 18, and move out of the house and wear only black like the rest of the college students. But for now, one color per person. No givesy-backsies.

Color-coding would solve many household problems. No more sibling accusations of "stealing my favorite sweater." No more fighting over which toothbrush belongs to which child. No more trying to recall which sheets fit on which bed.

Laundry could be sorted in no time. Anyone (except the colorblind) could do it, and it would be easier to shanghai children into doing their own: "That's your pile there, Greeny. Get busy."

Imagine how cheery family dinners would be, with each person dressed in one bright color head to toe, and using the same color plate and cutlery and place mat. We'd look like the Teletubbies.

The government funding? We'd need a national publicity campaign to "raise awareness" of the simple Family Color Coordination solution. Then government should butt out. No need to take it farther than that. Congress shouldn't dictate that all moms wear blue, or every fourth child must wear yellow or whatever. That would be overreaching. Families should decide for themselves how to best approach color assignments, if any.

I call dibs on black.


Egging 'em on

Across America, the "morning scramble" is not a breakfast dish. It's the mad dash to get the kids out the door to school.

In a fit of blind optimism, parents start each day with the notion that everyone in the family will be on schedule, and we won't have to race around crazily at the last minute. Each school day, we hopeful parents watch those expectations dashed.

As is the case with so many things, the children hold an opposing viewpoint. The children do not care if they are late. They're not thrilled about spending the day in school anyway. They maintain that they would happily live forever as uneducated goatherds if they could be allowed to sleep for only five more minutes. Thus it begins. Every day.

Once they're up, younger children tend to wander off. Teens are too busy text-messaging their friends to actually get ready for school. Sleepy kids of any age seem to have difficulty with the question, "Where are your shoes?"

When our two sons were small, the culprit was distraction. They'd forget they were supposed to be, say, rounding up socks that weren't crunchy. Instead, I would find them watching cartoons, or barefoot in the yard with the dog. Or dressing in a ninja costume, "just to try it out," five minutes before departure to school.

And there was always a last-second disaster of some sort. I spilled my milk. I can't find my homework. The dog won't give me my shoe. We'd scramble about, solving crises, until the last possible moment, then zoom out the door, trying to reach school before the final bell, weaving through traffic like an ambulance on Saturday night.

Now that they're older, our boys require only minimal overseeing. The struggle is at the front end -- getting them out of bed -- rather than forcing breakfast down their gullets or locating their missing science project. It goes like this:

5:45 a.m.
Mom: "Good morning! Time to get up. Here comes the light! Get up!"
5:55 a.m.
Dad: "Good morning! Rise and shine there, boys!"
6 a.m.
Mom: "You guys must get up now. You're going to be late."
6:10 a.m.
Dad: "Hey, come on. What's the matter with you? Did you stay up all night?"
6:15 a.m.
Dad: "Get. Up. Now."
6:20 a.m.
Mom: "I'm coming back here in two minutes with a pitcher of ice water. Whoever's still in bed gets it."
6:30 a.m.
Boys reel around house, yawning and sniffling, wolfing food and throwing on the rags that pass for their clothes. Mom and Dad nervously hound them with questions -- "Did you brush your teeth?" or "You call that breakfast?" or "Is that the way you WANT your hair to look?" -- all the way out the door.

One day, as younger son sprinted to his room to fetch something he'd forgotten, the older one waited by the front door. A veteran of years of racing off to school, he gave his parents a wry smile and said, "We were almost on time today."

As a hopeful parent, I thought: There's always tomorrow.

Slick move

Say you're in rural Kentucky or northern Arkansas, one of the areas hit hard by recent ice storms. Travel is impossible, you can't get to the store, you've still got no electricity. Things couldn't get any worse, right?

Wrong. Turns out that your packaged meal from the Federal Emergency Management Agency contains peanut butter possibly contaminated with deadly salmonella.

Heckuva job, FEMA!

Full story here.


Boom bird

They say that comedy is tragedy plus time, but some things take longer than others to fall into the category of "funny story."

Maybe enough time has passed that we can finally view with humor the Day the Turkey Exploded.

On Thanksgiving a few years ago, we stayed home, just our nuclear family of four. My wife was in the mood to whip up a traditional Turkey Day feast, which was perfect because our teen-aged sons and I were in the mood to eat one. The timing couldn't have been better.

We had turkey with all the trimmings, and the meal was splendid and everyone behaved, more or less. We groaningly cleaned up the kitchen and repaired to the comfy chairs in our sock feet.

As usual, my wife put the remains of the turkey carcass into the pressure cooker to make stock. At our house, this is as much a tradition as cranberry sauce.

The pressure cooker cheerfully sputtered and hissed in the background while we watched televised football and purred to ourselves and massaged our distended bellies, as if they were pet bowling balls.

A bang sent us all leaping to our feet, followed by enormously loud hissing. Sounded like a boiler blowing up, or an explosion at the steam plant. We spun around in wide wonder, and found that a geyser of steam had erupted from the little vent hole in the lid of the pressure cooker, spreading into a wide "V" before reaching the 12-foot ceiling.

Yikes, stand back! It's gonna blow, mama! Don't touch it!

We ran around in circles, screaming warnings, the dog barking, until somebody ventured close enough to turn off the burner. The geyser died away. We got the pot off the heat. We stopped yelling. All was well, except that half the kitchen was covered in greasy residue and little bits of exploded turkey.

It changed the complexion of our Thanksgiving Day. Once we stopped shaking, it became Cleanup Day. We threw out the damaged pressure cooker. We mopped and scrubbed the kitchen. We moaned and shook our heads and got snippy with one another over the best techniques for dealing with this disaster. We discussed calling FEMA.

I made a special run to the store for a clean sponge mop for the white walls and ceiling. Probably the only guy in town who bought a mop on Thanksgiving Day. The supermarket's sales-tracking computer is still trying to figure that one out.

The mop got some of the greasy steam residue off, but it quickly became clear the whole kitchen would need repainting. The damaging steam left weird white-on-white streaks, and the whole house smelled like turkey drippings.

We lived with the aroma for a while. It was winter, after all. Couldn't open the windows while painting was done. Better to have a house that smelled vaguely of turkey than one that reeked of paint. When warm weather arrived, we had the whole house painted. Now, there's no evidence that this was the site of the Big Bird Blast of 2005.

Maybe we should put up a plaque.


Shoe love

Sometimes, in the vast Sidewalk Sale of our lives as consumers, we hit upon exactly the right purchase. Just what we needed. The ideal fit. The handiest little gizmo. Don't know how we ever got along without one.

These products enrich our lives, each one a bright spot in the gloomy accumulation of items that disappoint or break or never fit quite right.

Often, these perfect products come from the clothing aisles. People get downright fetishistic about certain garments or shoes. (Like one woman, who found the ideal high heel, then went out and bought two more pairs of the exact same shoe because the model had been discontinued, not that I'm naming any names.)

Even fashion-free guys -- slobs who always look like they just rolled out of bed, on fire -- have favorite T-shirts or old sneakers they can't bear to throw away.

My latest favorite is a simple black shoe, plain to the point of invisibility. It's the perfect shoe for me, and I'm delighted that I stumbled onto it, so to speak.

Oh, I've had favorites before. Sneakers, mostly, the occasional boat shoe. Casual, you know? Maybe a dressy loafer for a night on the town. But I never fell in love. Kept my shoes at a distance. Easy come, easy go.

I told myself I didn't even care about shoes anymore. My middle-aged feet are wide at the front and narrow at the heel, like the feet of a large duck. Nothing fits right. I'd quit looking. Wear the ones that pinch, what's a little more suffering?

Then I met this shoe. The new pair that's got me all aflutter. Comfortable as sneakers, but I can wear 'em with anything. Take 'em anywhere, walk for miles in perfect comfort. Every time I wear these shoes, I'm the happiest guy on two feet.

We're not talking simple brand loyalty here. It's true love. Shoe love. I'd run into a burning building to rescue these shoes.

And they were on sale when I bought them.

No, I won't identify the brand. For one thing, they wouldn't work for you, unless you also have duck feet. For another, I'm not in the business of endorsing products. Unless a shoe company wants to pay me millions for the endorsement, like they do pro athletes. I could be bought. They could even put my likeness on the shoes, like they do with the Air Jordan logo, that great flying-dunk silhouette. What would be a good logo for a writer? Guy hunkered over a keyboard. Cursing.

Anyway, the brand doesn't matter. I'm talking about the way the perfect fit makes you feel.

Some product out there -- a socket wrench, a kitchen implement, a sports car, pants -- makes you, too, happy to be alive. Cherish this favorite. Always keep it in the same place. Don't lend it to others. Don't let anything happen to it. Who knows when you'd be able to find a replacement? They probably don't even make those anymore. In fact, you'd better go buy a couple more, while you're thinking about it. Put 'em away someplace safe. Just in case.

If you can't think of something that makes you feel this good, some brand that's earned your lifelong devotion, then I only hope that one day you find this level of happiness and contentment for yourself. Don't give up. Get out there and shop.

I'd recommend the shoe department.


Today's tip: If you're driving drunk and hit a car, try to make sure it's not a police car. At police headquarters. In the parking lot.

Over the weekend, an Anderson, CA, woman was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving after police heard a crash and went outside to find that an unmarked police car in the parking lot had been hit. They spotted the white Toyota sedan that caused the crash down the street and arrested the driver, 45-year-old Kathy Daniels.

Full story here.


That's a laugh

Of all the things I find annoying -- and, boy, there's a list that just keeps getting longer -- laugh tracks are near the top.

I've all but given up watching TV situation comedies because of the canned laughter that erupts every time a character so much as exhales. Sometimes, the laughs come from a "live studio audience" of morons, but usually the laughter and applause are generated by a machine.

One of the worst offenders is a sitcom that is, naturally, a favorite of my teen-age sons. "That '70s Show" can be pretty funny at times, especially for those of us who can remember the actual '70s and the stupid clothes we wore, but the sitcom is ruined by the loud laughter that spews after virtually every spoken line. I can recognize the show by its waves of fake laughter, even when I'm in the other end of the house, and I'm sometimes forced to hide in the bathroom until it's over.

What rankles is the feeling that sitcom producers believe that we, the television audience, are too stupid to "get" the jokes unless we hear other people laughing, too. Plus, they apparently feel they can get away with weak material if they "sweeten" the laughs with machine-made hahas.

The rest of us don't get off so easy. If we tell a joke to our coworkers and it flops, that's just too bad for us. If we try to be witty at the dinner table and we bomb, nobody's going to "sweeten" the moment. We're left struggling through a red-faced explanation of what we meant, or awkwardly identifying the "funny part" for an audience that's uninterested, impatient or outright hostile.

Perhaps we should all have our own laugh tracks and applause machines. Then we could get away with lame jokes, too, and we'd feel a lot better about ourselves. A typical office exchange could go something like this:

Bill: "Hey, Bob, are you working hard or hardly working?"


Bob: "Keeping my nose to the grindstone, Bill. How about you? Still having an affair with your secretary?"

(Chorus of laughter and knowing "Oho's.")

Bill: "Very funny, Bob. I told you not to mention that again. Guess I'm going to have to fire you now."

(Groans, sporadic laughter.)

Bob: "Don't be hasty, Bill! I've got photos to show your wife."


Bill: "Haha! You got me there, Bob. Guess I'll have to run over you in the parking lot later."

(Sustained laughter. Applause.)

Cut to the parking lot, end of the workday. Bob's bent over, petting a stray kitten.

(A chorus of "Awww's.")

A pickup truck bears down on Bob. An irate Bill is behind the wheel. Fade to black just before the collision.

(Wild laughter. Applause. Roll credits.)

See? Life could be improved immeasurably with laugh tracks and applause machines (unless you're the freshly deceased Bob). You'd always have a willing, appreciative audience. Every gag would get a laugh. Every snippet of dialogue would get a reaction. Every time you accomplished anything, you could take a bow.

Would it change the way we do things? Would we ignore our family members, who just don't "get" us, in favor of canned laughter? Would we become applause junkies, doing things twice so we could trumpet each "encore performance?" Would we run over coworkers in the parking lot for a cheap laugh?

Sure we would. And then we'd be ready for prime time.

And that's the end of this column. Ta-DA! Thank you. Thank you very much.