You're doing it wrong

Note to car thieves: If you have to push the vehicle you're trying to steal, it might be a good idea to choose a different vehicle.

Two men in my hometown of Pine Bluff, AR, were arrested for stealing a county truck that was in "non-working condition." Authorities say Jefferson County Sheriff's Department Cpl. Andy Hoots (real name) spotted the county logo on a truck being pushed by three men and steered by another. When he approached, two escaped, but he arrested the other two, who were charged with theft of property.

Extra points: The county was keeping the truck for parts. Estimated value: $500.

Full story here.


The Aging of Aquarius

According to the calendar, I’m getting happier every day.

The mirror tells me I’m well on my way to contentment. If you believe my white whiskers, I’m downright delirious.

I base these conclusions on a study that shows that people tend to be happier as they get older.

The University of Chicago research project, led by a sociologist named Yang Yang (really), involved periodic interviews with 28,000 people between 1972 and 2004. Overall happiness levels tended to go up and down with good and bad economic times, but older Americans always reported being the happiest age group.

“The good news is that with age comes happiness,” Yang told The Associated Press. “Life gets better in one’s perception as one ages.”

Older people typically have learned to be content with what life has given them, Yang said. In general, the study found, the odds of being happy rose 5 percent with every 10 years of age.

Most Americans reported being “very happy” or “pretty happy” at every age. But a third of those aged 88 reported feeling very happy, compared to only 24 percent of 18-year-olds, the study said.

(What’s most amazing is that researchers found any 18-year-olds who admitted they were “very happy.” I assume the respondents were drunk.)

A separate University of Chicago study found that one reason people in their golden years tend to be happier is that they’re more socially active.

That study found that 75 percent of people aged 57 to 85 engage in one or more social activities each week. Such activities include visiting with neighbors, attending religious services, volunteering or going to group meetings, the AP article said.

Those in their 80s were twice as likely as those in their 50s to do at least one of those activities, the study found.

That’s because people in their 50s (like me) are too danged busy to keep up social connections as we should. Between careers, household chores, family responsibilities and Facebook, we find we’re pretty much booked solid.

Yang’s study found that baby boomers were the least happy group. Naturally. Many of us boomers are still in that stressful mid-life period, and we’ve generally been a bunch of whiners since the get-go.

Researchers say baby boomers haven’t learned to lower our expectations as we get older. We still want it all, even in retirement, and we’re not into the whole growing-old-gracefully thing. This attitude explains many boomer foibles, including annual gym memberships, plastic surgery, “working vacations” and Viagra.

Unless we learn to let go of our achievement-oriented mindsets and accept that life will never be perfect, the researchers said, we boomers could end up as sad, lonely senior citizens. There’s a happy thought.

I plan to embrace getting older. I’ll practice being content. I’ll tamp down my ambitions and try to accept life as it comes. I’ll drive slower and go to bed earlier. I’ll stop throwing away those “invitations” to join AARP.

Most of all, I plan to develop some social connections. I’ll have to rearrange my schedule, but I think I can free up an hour on Thursday afternoons.

Look out, happiness, here I come.


Big fun on "Lonely Street"

I've posted a column all about our trip to the Newport Beach Film Festival over at the Corner Booth. Click here to read it.

It was thrilling to see the movie made from my first novel. Saw a lot of friends, too. A wonderful trip.


Lights, camera . . . inaction

We're back from the Newport Beach Film Festival, where we saw a screening of "Lonely Street," the movie based on my first Bubba Mabry novel. Had a great time, but I'm way too tired tonight to send details. Will post more tomorrow.


Cooking for one

Sometimes, selfishness can be delicious.

Unless you live alone, you probably cook for more than one person at a time. You’re forced to take into account the others’ tastes and preferences. Sharing the meal means sharing in the compromise that is communal cooking.

But sometimes, you get to prepare food just for yourself, just the way you like it, and those are the best meals going, aren’t they?

Take, for example, one of my favorites: A breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. This is a traditional whole-family meal, partly because it typically occurs in the morning when everyone’s more likely to be home and partly because it’s an easy meal to serve the masses.

But there’s a lot of compromise built into such a breakfast. Some people like their bacon crisp and their eggs runny, while others want just the opposite. (And you know how difficult it can be to make runny bacon.) There’s over easy vs. scrambled vs. sunny-side up. Whole wheat vs. sourdough. Fresh ground coffee vs. that sludge your father used to make.

You have be a regular short-order cook to meet all these demands. Or, you ignore the demands and cook everything however you like, with the full knowledge that this will result in complaints and upturned noses and walkouts.

The true joy of cooking is cooking for one. No one to please but yourself.

There’s no greater culinary moment than getting your eggs, bacon and toast precisely the way you like them, all on the plate together at the same time, still hot. Yum.

There’s no guilt. No backlash. No catering to the whims of a small child who will only eat “jiggly” eggs and dry toast that are not touching on the plate. No complaints when it’s over. Just one satisfied customer, who maybe even got a quiet moment with the newspaper while eating.

The mere thought of it makes me relax, makes my blood pressure go down (even while my cholesterol’s going up). Makes me hungry.

When preparing food strictly for yourself, you can take liberties that aren’t allowed around the communal pot. You can “taste-test” right off the serving spoon. You can use paper plates, or no plate at all. You can lick your fingers. Everyone knows that drippy foods eaten over the kitchen sink contain no calories.

Eating alone allows you to indulge in favorite foods normally skipped because of complaints from family members. Chili dogs, for instance. Marshmallow Peeps. Lard. You can eat a giant bean burrito without worrying about the repercussions. You can make it as spicy as you like. No one’s around to see you sweat.

This self-indulgent freedom is particularly thrilling to guys. Given the chance to dine solo, guys generally go straight to The Forbidden Zone of the worst possible food choices.

I ran into a friend in my neighborhood supermarket recently. This man’s entire shopping haul consisted of a six-pack and two large bags of pork rinds.

Me: “Wife out of town?”

Him, beaming: “How did you guess?”

Of course, it’s easy to fall into a rut if you’re pleasing only yourself. Another friend told me his wife had been out of town for several weeks and, “I’ve been living on ham-and-cheese sandwiches.” Not the healthiest choice, perhaps, but I’m sure they were made exactly the way he likes them. Runny, with extra lard.

Treat yourself to a little selfish pleasure. Whip up a meal for you and you alone. Have it your way.

Caution: Too much self-indulgent food can make you “jiggly.”


Wackos on parade

Do you ever feel you’ve walked into an episode of “The Twilight Zone?” So much weirdness surrounds you that it couldn’t possibly be real?

We who work at home probably get this sensation more than others. We don’t get out much, so we’re less inured to other people’s strange behavior.

The other day, I stopped by a drugstore to shop for sunglasses. When I say “drugstore,” I mean a modern-style drugstore, which is really a department store with a pharmacy in the back. Along with the usual ointments and remedies, my neighborhood drugstore has cosmetics, school supplies, housewares, groceries, a liquor department (my personal favorite), small appliances, DVDs, batteries and a sporting goods aisle, complete with fishing gear.

But that’s not the weird part.

The weirdness came from the customers. While I stooped to a tiny mirror to see how I looked in various sunglasses with large, dangling price tags, I heard so many strange things, I could only assume I’d barged into a “Twilight Zone” set. I kept looking around for Rod Serling.

First came Warren and his mom. Warren was a standard-issue small boy, full of energy and questions and noise. But Warren’s mom was another story. She had the loudest voice I’ve ever heard from a person who wasn’t actively rooting for a sports team.

“Warren! Come over here! Warren! Watch where you’re going! No, Warren, you can’t have that! Warren! Look at this! Warren!”

You could hear her all over the store. She didn’t seem angry or particularly frustrated. Just oh-my-Lord loud. She either had no idea that her voice carries so well, or she was one of those daffy look-at-me types who wanted us all to share in her shopping adventure with Warren.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only customer to wonder about Warren’s future sessions on a psychiatrist’s couch.

Once they left, more yelling distracted me. A middle-aged couple started arguing over a certain product and whether it was cheaper elsewhere. This seemed a minor point to me, but it was enough to set off this happy couple. They screamed and growled and spat like a couple of angry alley cats. The argument went on for several minutes.

I’m sure all married couples have moments of disagreement. Many even get loud. But in public? In a store? Over prices?

Clearly, this was a troubled couple. I could only hope they didn’t have any little maladjusted Warrens at home.

Then a lady walked past me, talking to herself. OK, I know people talk to themselves. I do it all the time at home. But I rarely ask myself questions, then provide the answers. In public.

“Do we need some bread?” this lady muttered. “Yes, I think we do. There’s some bread over there. Hmm. Is this the brand I like? No, it is not. But I guess it’ll do. Now we need some coffee.”

As she wandered off, I thought: Wouldn’t it be easier to make a list?

The sudden lack of distracting conversation allowed me to notice the Muzak, which was playing a song that I hate, hate, hate. The music stopped when an employee came over the speaker to make an announcement. My relief lasted only a moment because, two rows over, a customer took up the tune, loudly whistling. He whistled all the way to the end of the song, including a guitar solo.

That’s when I gave up on buying sunglasses. Better to escape this “Twilight Zone,” even if it meant I’d go around squinting like Rod Serling.

I can always pick up some sunglasses the next time I buy fishing gear.


Can I put you on holdup?

Police in Fayetteville, NC, are searching for a woman who used a handgun to try to rob a bank this week.

The woman got distracted, police say, when she got a cell phone call in the middle of the holdup. She started talking into the phone, then left the bank without any loot.

Extra points: The robber was clearly very pregnant.

Full story here.

Pig in a blanket

Two men in Southern California have pleaded not guilty to grand theft and other charges after being arrested for stealing a bronze statue of a pig from in front of a restaurant.

Police say the men, Oren Hertz and Armando Cesena, were identified from security video taken from a nearby ATM. The video showed a pickup truck ramming the pig, then two men removing it from its base, throwing it in the bed of the pickup and driving away.

Later, an anonymous caller said the pig had been dropped off at the Chula Vista Library and that the theft was a prank. The three-foot-long sculpture, worth an estimated $15,000, was found wrapped in a blanket.

Full story here.


Stress test

I started writing a column about stress, but I got all strung out because it wasn’t going well.

My word processor put my column into the wrong font, which irritated me. When I tried to change it, the computer froze up, and I lost what I’d written. That made me spin in circles, spewing curses. I stubbed my toe on my desk, then the phone rang and distracted me from my cursing. By the time I got off the phone, I’d forgotten what I was going to write (though I’m sure it was extremely funny), and I was left with nothing but a looming deadline and a sore toe.

Just another day in the home office, where I choose to work because it’s a low-stress environment.

A study from Great Britain alleges that people who work at home suffer less stress. Among people who work at least 20 hours a week from home, 43 percent reported feeling a great deal of work-related stress, compared to 65 percent who work full-time in regular offices.

The Durham University survey found that working at home improved the balance between work and family and led to less career burnout. Researchers also found no basis for employers’ fears that at-home workers would be less committed to their jobs and would spend all their working hours gazing at Internet porn. (OK, I made up that last part.)

Of course, that’s a British study and we all know how wonky the Brits can be, with their “cricket” and their “tea.” What about red-blooded Americans who choose to work at home? They’re all stressed out like me, right?

Not according to an extensive review reported recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Two Penn State researchers found that at-home workers experienced less stress, more control over the work environment, better work-family balance, higher productivity and increased job satisfaction.

So I’m the only one who’s stressed out when things don’t go well in the home office? Perhaps I should take a break. Perhaps I’ll go flop in front of the television and watch some ESPN until I’ve calmed down.

Not so fast, says yet another new study. Happiness is not found on TV, but in “engaging” leisure activities such as visiting friends, reading a book, listening to music, fishing, exercising or going to a party, according to a survey of 4,000 Americans.

The survey found that, despite huge improvements in the standard of living over the past four decades, people are no happier now than they were in earlier generations. The researchers say modern Americans should have much more time for happiness-producing leisure activities, but instead we waste those hours on “neutral downtime,” mostly viewing TV. The study found that women now spend 15 percent of their waking hours watching TV, while men devote 17 percent. (Though there’s still nothing good on.)

“I wonder,” one researcher told The Wall Street Journal, “if people would feel better about their lives if they spent their leisure time doing something that was more interactive and more engaging.”

Aha. These studies have shown me a way to avoid stress and be happy. I’ll balance my work frustrations with more “engaging” leisure time.

I plan to invite a bunch of friends over for a home office party. We’ll sit around in our fishing togs, visiting and listening to music while exercising together. If we get the urge to watch ESPN, we’ll read books instead.

Maybe, while they’re here, I can get one of my friends to write the next column. That would do wonders for my stress level.


You're doing it wrong

Note to aspiring bank robbers: If you insist on stuffing the loot into your pants, first make sure that the money doesn't include an exploding dye pack.

Police in Houston say a man robbed a Wachovia Bank last week, telling the teller he had a gun. Once the money was in hand, the robber stuffed it into the front of his pants and fled.

A short time later, police arrested Daniel Duran, who suffered second-degree burns to his "genital area" when the dye pack exploded. Oooch.

Full story here.


Rubik's rube

Erno Rubik’s got nothing on me.

Rubik is the Hungarian sculptor and architect who invented the Rubik’s Cube and other games. It takes a special sort of mind to devise such clever, addictive puzzles.

I have two teen-aged sons, so naturally we have Rubik’s Cubes lying around the house. My sons busily work the puzzles while simultaneously watching TV, texting on their phones, scratching, playing video games, listening to music and eating. Such are the nimble minds of multi-tasking youths.

My experience with Rubik’s Cube has been less casual. I sit down and give the cube my full attention, and after turning the colorful tiles every which way for 24 seconds, I say, “That was fun,” and toss it aside. Because that’s enough for me. It would take me hours of concentrated effort to even sort of figure out how the danged thing works, to get some type of system going, much less solve the puzzle, and it’s not worth it. The payoff’s not big enough for the time wasted. Unlike, say, a crossword puzzle, which only takes me a few minutes to work and the solution of which makes angels sing.

Scientists call the ability to see and manipulate objects in two and three dimensions “spatial visualization.” The term comes from the Latin roots “spatia” (or “shoulder”) and “visuali” (“door jamb”).

Several experiments have found that men tend to be better at spatial visualization. Yay, men! No offense to women, but we men don’t get many wins in our column these days. Along with spatial visualization, scientists have found that men tend to be better at lifting furniture, stealing elections and competitive eating. That’s about it.

Men’s special adaptation for spatial visualization, which may go all the way back to the days of prehistoric hunters, certainly explains teen-aged boys’ affinity for video games. I’m no better at video games than I am at Rubik’s Cube, and my failures led me to doubt my spatial visualization manhood. I felt intimidated. My sons mocked me, saying within my earshot: “Imagine the hefty Hungarian brain of Erno Rubik!”

Just as I was wondering whether there was a cure for my spatial visualization shortcomings, a mental Viagra, if you will, I had a breakthrough. I saw that non-Hungarians such as myself face spatial visualization puzzles all the time in everyday life and manage to solve them just fine.

Take, for example, our laundry room. We have two (usually full) laundry baskets. We have a washer and dryer, the tops of which serve as the work surface. The washer’s a top loader. The dryer’s a front loader. No problem, the baskets sit on the dryer, right? Except the lint trap is on top of the dryer. So I have to move baskets to put clothes in or out of the washer and to start each new load in the dryer. Back and forth, open and close. I’m so accustomed to this routine, I do it without thinking. My movements are polished by repetition. The baskets slide back and forth and lids slam and, ba-da-bing, new loads of laundry are under way.

Take that, Erno.

Don’t even get me started on the proper way to load a dishwasher. Oh baby, we could be here all day. Nothing arouses my manly spatial visualization skills like a sink full of dirty dishes. The geometry of loading the big stuff and filling in with the smaller items. The proper tilt to catch the best spray. The ups and downs of silverware.


Maybe I’ll try that Rubik’s Cube again.


Taxed by life's spills

To: Commissioner B. Gordon Hufshutz
Internal Revenue Service
Washington, D.C.

Dear Sir:

I write seeking an extension on the filing deadline on my family’s personal income taxes. I had every intention of getting our tax return done on time, but Life interfered, and I’m afraid meeting the deadline is now impossible.

I had the best of intentions. I set aside a day, well ahead of April 15, to do the IRS paperwork for my home-based business. I woke early that day, put on my workout togs and prepared to get pumped up for a day of tax preparation. I paused in the kitchen for coffee, and was stricken by a series of calamitous events that distracted me from my taxpayer duties and ruined my whole morning.

It went like this:

I filled my giant thermal cup with coffee, then lifted the sleek Art Deco sugar canister to bring it closer so I could dump in my usual embarrassing amount of sugar. Some idiot (me, I think, after my previous cup) had left the screw-on lid loose, and the glass canister slipped from my hand. I tried to catch it, but the lid had come off in my hand, so my hand was full. Instead of catching the sugar canister, I clubbed it through the air. A plume of sugar flew across the room before the clear canister hit the tile floor and shattered into an estimated 4,703 shards of sugar-frosted glass.

Meanwhile, my elbow was busy knocking over my giant thermal mug.

Coffee cascaded along the countertop and off into the floor, where it mingled with the spilled sugar and instantly formed a slick glaze studded with broken glass.

I am ashamed to say that I screamed curse words at this point in the sequence of events, but a man can only take so much.

My wife came to my rescue. We moved electrical appliances out of harm’s way and began to clean up the coffee and the sugar and the glass. It was a big job. Getting sugar-glaze wet simply spreads it around. The floor gets stickier and stickier, until it’s like flypaper. It took half a roll of paper towels, two sweepings, several swabbings, one domestic dispute and 14 moppings, but after a mere four hours, the extremely clean floor was no longer hazardous to bare feet. Also, you could walk across it without squeaking.

After such a harrowing event, there was no way I could concentrate on tax paperwork. I’d already lost half a workday, and I spent the other half on the sofa, recovering from the trauma with doses of chocolate and Sportscenter.

My work schedule never recovered, and I remain behind on my business and household paperwork to this day. A six-month extension should give me time to locate all my receipts and file my tax return, assuming there isn’t another major spill around here.

Coffee and sugar and broken glass, all at the same time. Surely, Mr. Commissioner, such a “perfect storm” of spillage qualifies as an Act of God and should excuse my family from the April 15 deadline for tax filing.

I blame the sugar canister, which was destroyed in the incident and thereby duly punished. But please do not penalize us.

Thank you for understanding.



Sniff test

Is there any sense memory more vivid than smell?

Consider Easter, which we celebrated last Sunday. The mere word “Easter” conjures up remembered aromas of baked ham and yeasty bread and fresh-cut lilies. The pungent sulfur of dyed eggs. The heavenly scent of chocolate.

When I was growing up in Arkansas, Easter was one of the dress-up holidays. We boys squirmed through church in our creaky leather shoes and mothball suits while all around us the adults looked and smelled their very best. The air was so thick with White Shoulders and Evening in Paris, you could practically chew it. The crinkled old ladies who ran everything at church always smelled of baby powder. The pastor was an Aqua Velva man.

By the time the final “amen” rolled around, we kids couldn’t wait to burst out into the fresh air. We practically rolled in the grass, like dogs spritzed with perfume.

I don’t know if the close, mingling scents of those early Easters are responsible, but I’ve never been much for after-shave (see photo) or cologne of any kind. Soap and “fresh talc” deodorant do the job for me. My preferred shampoo smells like flea dip, but I rinse it out and it doesn’t linger. Why would I get out of the shower, all fresh and clean, then put on a cloying artificial scent?

If a man splashes on Brut in the morning, he’s pretty much stuck with it all day. And so are all the folks who get near him. Such fragrances cover up some possible unpleasantness, sure, but they can be overpowering. If your lunch tastes like Brut, you’re probably overdoing it.

I was traveling lately, and encountered one miasma of aroma after another. Racing along an airport concourse, you’re hit in the nose by fragrance after wafting fragrance. It’s nearly as bad as those department store perfume counters where heavily made-up animatronic robot girls spray passers-by with Poison and Passion and Paris.

What’s that? Excuse me one moment. Sorry.

OK, I’m back. I’ve been informed that those are not animatronic robot girls in the department stores, but actual humans. I regret the error.

The only time I experiment with scent is when I’m on the road. Hotel bathrooms come with the strangest products.

I was in an expensive joint in Portland where the soap was labeled (and I’m not making this up): “Warm Vanilla Sugar Moisture-Rich Cleansing Bar, Infused With Real Vanilla Extract.” The shampoo and conditioner were both “Coconut Lime Verbena.”

By the time I’d showered up, I smelled like an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. Plump children followed me around all day, drooling.

Maybe they thought I was the Easter bunny.


Not-so-great room

Like many modern suburban homes, our house centers on a “great room” where the family does most of its living.

It’s an OK room, sure, but doesn’t “great room” sound pretentious? Seems like a real estate gimmick to me, though I suppose it would be hard to sell a house by advertising its not-so-great room or so-so room.

A great room performs the functions previously accomplished by a formal living room, family room, library/den/study and dining room. Today, we mush them all together, preferably open to the kitchen, which in newer homes is the size of a cruise ship.

The great room is a throwback to the “great hall” of the Middle Ages, the huge central room in a castle or manor house, with its feasts and fireplaces and animals underfoot. As homes got more complicated, the great hall gave way to collections of rooms with specialized functions: parlors, salons, drawing rooms, morning rooms, music rooms. This specialization continued until eventually, during Victorian times, there were rooms reserved strictly for fainting.

Today’s one-big-room model is great for entertaining, with easy kitchen access, open sightlines and high ceilings for the escape of noise and hot air, but the rest of the time, it presents problems.

For one thing, you’ve got to keep it clean. A visitor who walks in our front door can see at a glance everything from the living area to the patio to the kitchen. It’s readily apparent if we’ve left dishes sitting out or socks on the sofa. Ours has that “lived-in” look, with shoes and soft drinks sitting among scattered newspapers in the living room, and an array of battered pans on the stove. If we had a reception room or formal living room, we’d never use it and could keep it clean enough for visitors. Maybe.

The high ceiling lends a certain airiness, but all the heat goes up there instead of down by the furniture where we are shivering. And the whole area shares the same mingling aromas, which is fine until someone cooks cabbage.

It’s difficult to arrange furniture properly in an open room. Where do you put the reading lamps? How do you keep from snaking extension cords across the floor? Can you reach the end tables? Homeowners must rely on furniture “groupings,” which is a French term that means “take the long way around the sofa.”

Another problem with such floor plans is that kitchens tend to be too handy. Every time I look up from the TV, I see the kitchen. Look, food sitting right on the counter, just asking to be eaten! No wonder this country has an obesity epidemic. I, myself, currently weigh 723 pounds. At this point, I need a great room. A great big room.

Moms love the proximity of the kitchen because there’s a slim chance they might get help with the dishes if the rest of the family is nearby. At minimum, while Mom’s cooking supper, she can watch TV over her family’s collected heads.

A great room does give the family a wonderful place to congregate, if you like that sort of thing. Family members can multi-task -- cooking, eating, reading, watching TV, doing homework, clicking computers, sniffling, scratching, personal grooming, arguing, drinking, calling the police -- all in the same room at the same time. Until they drive one another crazy.

You can’t beat that kind of togetherness. It’s great.


Mysterious meetings

Though I've been off the circuit lately, I love mystery conventions, where fans and authors come together for serious discussions of the genre, networking and booze.

The calendar is chock-full of such events, all over the globe, so it’s possible, if you attend enough of them, to maintain a year-round hangover.

The fans at mystery conventions use up their vacation leave and spend their own money to travel to distant hotel bars in search of their favorite authors. They’re not as wacky as science fiction fans -- no plastic pointy ears or speaking in Klingon -- but they’re just as fervent, and they really know mysteries. A fixture at these conferences is a mystery trivia contest, and the readers always beat the writers.

For us authors, who spend so much time working alone, it’s a special treat to meet people who’ve read our books, especially if they liked them or at least show the common courtesy to keep their opinions to themselves. But it’s always a little embarrassing when you meet a fan who knows more about your books than you do.

Fan: I just read your novel, and really liked it.

Author: Thanks. That’s so nice to hear.

Fan: I had a question about one thing in the plot. Do you mind?

Author (chuckling): Bring it on.

Fan: In the beginning of that book, you have the killer escape through the bathroom window, but later when the detective is investigating Hubert’s death, he determines the window was too small for a human to climb through--

Author (behind frozen smile): I wrote a book about someone named Hubert?

Fan (confused): Your first novel? The one about the hitman? The guy who--

Author: A hitman?

Fan, really confused now, checks author’s name tag to make sure he’s got the right one. Begins to suspect author may be an impostor.

Author: Oh, look! A bartender!

How is it possible that the fan’s more familiar with the book than the author is? For one thing, the fan read it more recently. It might be a book written years ago, and lots of authors (including me) rarely go back and read our old stuff because it’s too painful. The characters in those books are like distant friends whose names we can barely remember. Plot points and telling details are long-forgotten.

(Some authors seem better at remembering their plotlines than others. Perhaps a heightened capacity for forgetfulness would explain why some write the same book over and over. Not that I'm naming any names.)

Usually, authors are caught up in the throes of a new tale. The current cast of characters fills our heads, which is why it’s a good thing everyone wears name tags at these conferences.

There’s more to the conferences than fans and authors jawing over drinks, of course. Informative panels, inspiring speakers, book promotion, industry gossip and after-hours poker make these excursions educational and tax-deductible. (OK, the poker’s not tax-deductible, but it’s often educational.)

The “face time” contributes to a sense of community, and that makes it worth enduring the occasional awkward encounter.

I’ve found a new way to handle questions about things in my own books that I can’t remember. I answer in Klingon.


Monkeying around

Ever notice how households seize upon crazes? Everybody gets the same mania at the same time, a shared insanity, an inside joke.

These family fads can go on for years before something else distracts us, or the kids go off to college, or the family dynamic is fractured by some other tragedy, such as certain people becoming aloof teen-agers.

One goofy fad at our house concerned a Christmas gag gift called the Monkey Toy. It’s the simplest of dime-store toys. A round plastic box with a picture of a monkey on it, connected by a wire to a large push-button. When you push the button, the box makes a high-pitched monkey sound: “Oo-oo-ooh-ah-hah!” One of those silly, do-nothing toys that makes you laugh the first 30 times you hear it, even while driving you crazy.

The joy of the Monkey Toy comes from triggering it at inopportune moments, such as during serious discussions of, say, curfews.

Dad: “And that’s the last time I’ll tell you--”
Monkey: “Oo-oo-ooh-ah-hah!”
Everyone: Helpless laughter.

My younger son thinks it’s extremely humorous to hide the Monkey Toy in furniture, with the trigger button under the seat cushion. When a perfectly innocent person sits, it goes, “Oo-oo-ooh-ah-hah!” This is even better than a whoopee cushion, when you consider the possible whereabouts of that monkey.

Just the sort of nonsense that can overtake a family. Pretty soon, everywhere you turn, you’re stepping/sitting/lying/bumping into that button. “Oo-oo-ooh-ah-hah!”

My brother and I spent a large portion of our teen years jumping into my dad’s big reclining chair whenever he left the room. We had a hierarchy of chairs. Dad’s was best, then Mom’s, then the couch. Beyond that, you might as well go upstairs. Every time Dad returned to the living room and demanded his usual chair-that-he-paid-for, it would cause hilarious shock waves in the pecking order.

Sometimes, whole families get captivated by a particular TV show or computer game, so that everyone’s on the same page for a while, hooked on “The Simpsons” or “The Sims” or Yahtzee.
When our sons were small, we lost years of our lives to Pokemon. Once in a while, I still stumble across a card or a plastic figurine, and I’ll remember fondly the way the folks at Nintendo milked us all.

Sometimes, family quirks stick around long enough to become traditions. In my wife’s family, it’s required that you surprise other family members on Christmas Eve, preferably before they’ve had time to wake up properly, by shouting “Christmas Eve gift!” The original idea was that by doing this, you’d entitle yourself to open a gift one day early. Nobody actually opens gifts early, of course. It’s all about saying it, getting the jump on your siblings. Counting coup.

The best family craze I’ve heard lately came from a friend who returned from visiting his grandkids in Texas. They had these popguns that fired miniature marshmallows. Intended for the children, of course, but soon full-grown adults were laughing and running around the house, shooting marshmallows.

With repeated use, he reported, the marshmallows would get gummy, and once in a while, you could make one stick to your opponent’s cheek or forehead. I believe this was extra points.

The visit soon came to an end, so the Marshmallow Wars were settled by treaty and the weapons will end up retired in a toy box.

But something else will come along to jazz the family and bring it closer together. I recommend the Monkey Toy.


Curve balls in my pajamas

Because my “beat” is life in the home office, I keep my Internet search-crawler thingies set to hunt for news on the-ever-more-popular option of working in one’s pajamas.

This sometimes turns up Web sites that aren’t what I intended, but lingerie is always fascinating, too.

Recently, an item called “Marshall Loeb’s Daily Money Tip” from Marketwatch.com popped up on my computer screen. The article by magazine big-shot Marshall Loeb is headlined: “Stay on Track Working From Home.” It warns that “the ease of working from home can throw a curve ball in the career path,” then gives five tips for succeeding in a home office, all aimed at taking the job more seriously and striking a “healthy balance” between work and home life.

After 11 years toiling in a home office, linked to the world by computer cable, I feel I am eminently qualified to say: Hahaha on that, Mr. Loeb.

First of all, sir, working at home is not a career “curve ball.” It’s a slider. People often make that mistake.

Secondly, people who work in regular offices in our crappy economy can’t seem to strike a “healthy balance” between work and home, either. Why should anyone expect that of us at-home types? Just because we don’t waste time commuting doesn’t mean we manage our time any better than anybody else. I’m still late, everywhere I go, there’s more work to do all the time, and my children think my name is “Gimme Money.” I’m just like you.

Thirdly, you urge at-home workers to take their jobs more seriously, to treat them like regular jobs. You are clearly missing the whole point, sir. Rules and dress codes and pinhead bosses are the reasons we left the regular workplace and went home. We don’t need to inflict those restraints on ourselves.

Still, some might benefit from seeing Mr. Loeb’s ideas for success, so I’ll pass them along. With comment.

“1. Separate your work space from the rest of your home and spend time in it only when you are working.”
This is wonderful advice for those who have spare rooms and padlocks, but I disagree with your next assertion that “kids and spouses do not belong there.” What if spouses share an office? What if children insist on running around the house, making noise and messes? That’s why God invented headphones.

“2. Sit at your desk at the same time every day and keep normal business hours.”
Some of my best ideas come at 3 a.m. I get up and I write them down right away. I can always nap later.

“3. Dress in a way that will help you feel professional.”
Mr. Loeb adds, “it helps to get out of your pj’s and put on a crisp shirt.”

No, it does not. Physical comfort frees the mind. I do all my best work in pajamas. I’m wearing pajamas right now. Mwah-ha-ha-hah.

“4. Disregard house chores until the end of the business day.”
Okey-doke. How about if I disregard them until Saturday?

“5. If your work does not require constant access to e-mail, turn off your e-mail program and check messages only at scheduled times.”
Turn off my e-mail? But I require constant access. I need nonstop incoming stimuli while I sit at the computer all day. Also, jokes from friends.

I need my computer sifting through all the information in the entire world and delivering to me items like “Marshall Loeb’s Daily Money Tip.”

Such informational articles are very helpful. They help me disregard my house chores.


Comedy of manners

It says something about the state of our nation when an airline has to tell us how to behave, but apparently that’s what it’s come to.

Delta Air Lines Inc. (corporate motto: “What luggage?”) now offers humorous videos instructing passengers how to act during flights. The animated videos, posted online and on flights, show passengers who behave badly, hogging armrests or bumping into others or letting their children shriek.

“We understand what you go through as a traveler,” Delta vice president of marketing Tim Mapes told The Associated Press. “These videos can reinforce, ‘Hey, you don’t want to be that guy.’”

The 25 videos are called “Planeguage: The Language of Traveling by Plane,” and include titles such as “Lav Dance,” about a passenger who bumps everyone along the aisle while returning from the bathroom, “Shady Lady,” which shows a woman who raises or closes her window shade without regard for others, and “Kidtastrophe,” which depicts unruly brats on a plane.

Experts say such basic instruction is necessary because more people are flying now than ever before, including thousands of first-timers who don’t know you’re not supposed to bring live chickens onto the plane.

Instructing these neophytes is more constructive than the reactions of veteran air travelers such as myself: Sighing and eye-rolling when the old lady in line at security says, “We have to take off our SHOES?” or the cowboy insists that his rodeo buckle always gets through metal detectors “Jes’ fine.”

Delta may be onto something here. Maybe we need humorous videos to teach people good manners in other aspects of life. Some suggestions:

“Dysfunction Junction” -- A video about maintaining proper boundaries while discussing family issues. Yeah, yeah, your childhood was terrible. Get over it.

“Hair Scare” -- In this video, women and young men with long hair are taught to pull it back into a ponytail at mealtimes rather than dip it in their soup.

“Hang Up” -- This humorous video shows a motorist chattering into a cell phone while mowing down pedestrians. Funny stuff.

“Shut Up and Eat Your Popcorn” -- This video could star Robert DeNiro in full “Taxi Driver” mode: “You talkin’ to me? You must be talkin’ to me, ‘cause you wouldn’t talk during the movie, right?”

“Queue” -- An animated video of stick figures standing in line, committing violations such as cutting, dallying or coughing on the necks of the persons in front of them. One stick figure corrects this behavior and enforces good manners -- with an ax. Hilarious.

“After You” -- A video about the proper etiquette of the four-way stop.

“Colonel Mustard in the Library” -- No one wants to find mystery stains or inked marginalia in a library book. Get a clue.

“Cracking Up” -- Keep your mouth closed while chewing gum. If you must crack your knuckles, go off someplace by yourself. And, while you’re at it, pull up your pants.

“Face Forward” -- An interactive video in which you get to twist around the heads of NFL quarterbacks who wear their sidelines caps backward.

“Thumpers” -- Rap music, big speakers, too much bass. Need I say more?

“Just Desserts” -- No one wants to hear about your new diet or how much you’ve lost.

“Spam I Am” -- Explores e-mail etiquette, and how users don’t want to hear from you, even if you really are Nigerian royalty.

“That’s Aroma!” -- If I can smell your perfume/after shave, you’re either wearing too much or standing too close.


Tips for young criminals

Okay, for the hundredth time: Don't do the crime, then put a video record of it on YouTube.

Seven youths and young adults in Maine were arrested after they apparently broke into a Boys and Girls Club, assembled Molotov cocktails and threw them around the building, spraying flames up to 20 feet high.

Extra points: While they were still in the building.

Double extra points: Then they put it all on YouTube.

Triple extra points: Though their faces were clear on the YouTube video, the culprits also thoughtfully added text to include their names.

Full story here.


For sale: My memorabilia

News Item I Can’t Get Out of My Mind: A lock of John Lennon’s hair sold for $48,000 in a London auction of Beatles memorabilia.

An anonymous telephone bidder purchased the hair, which had been saved by Betty Glasow, the Beatles’ hairdresser during their heyday. The auction house, Gorringes, had estimated the hair would go for $4,000 to $6,000. After it sold for much more, a Gorringes spokeswoman said, “the sale goes to prove that John Lennon is still an icon.”

It also proves that somebody’s got much more money than they’ve got good sense. I like the Beatles as much as the next guy, but $48,000 for a snippet of hair? Clearly, there are still rich collectors out there who are willing to be clipped. (Har.)

For that much money, I’d cut off all my hair, including my beard, and hand it over. I’d gladly embrace the cueball look for a while if it meant $48,000 in the bank. For $48,000, I’d sell the only existing locks of my sons’ baby hair. Heck, for $48,000, I’d track YOU down and cut off all your hair and sell it.

I’ve been thinking of ways to take advantage of the collectible market. I’m no icon like John Lennon, but I have a lot of stuff I’d be willing to sell, if only I could connect with the anonymous bidders who have tons of money. Maybe I can convince one of the fancy auction houses to sell off my memorabilia.

Here are some samples:

--T-shirt from a 1981 Rolling Stones concert at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Size: Medium. Color: Flesh-tone with strange race-car logo on the front and slight discoloration at armpits. Suggested opening bid: $5,000.

--Copies of my high school yearbook, The Zebra, from years 1973 through 1975. Yearbooks include numerous photos of me engaged in school activities, as well as scrawled dedications and notes from friends recalling my most embarrassing moments. Suggested opening bid: $4,000 each.

--Even more rare: A copy of a junior high yearbook, which includes a picture of me, in uniform, as the World’s Scrawniest Football Player. Suggested opening bid: $4,500.

--Thirty-five years’ worth of accumulated eyeglasses, including some oversized Elton John-ish ones from the 1980s, all collected in a stylish Hush Puppies box. Suggested opening bid: $3,000.

--Early manuscripts of my books and other writings. Suggested opening bid: $100 per pound.

--A collection of vinyl records by artists ranging from Muddy Waters to Willie Nelson to Foghat. Suggested opening bid: Whatever the market will bear.

--Performance evaluations from various jobs, all collected into a crumpled manila folder. Suggested opening bid: 2 cents, which is what they were worth at the time, too.

--Desk calendars from the past five years, including my scribbled appointments, plans and aspirations, most of them scratched out. Suggested opening bid: $400 each.

--Several pairs of denim jeans in sizes much smaller than will currently fit. Suggested opening bid: $200 each.

--A fist-sized chunk of black lava rock that I stole from a national park. Suggested opening bid: $100.

--Assorted whiskers and beard trimmings, collected from bathroom sink. Suggested opening bid: $10.

--Fingernail clippings from last week. Suggested opening bid: $5.

Looking back over these items, I can see how it might be tough to interest Gorringes or Sotheby’s in conducting an auction, unless I can somehow become an icon sometime soon. I’ll work on that.

In the meantime, there’s always e-Bay.


Guitar Heroes and tin ears

Here’s what the future of music sounds like: Clackity-clackity-clack. Clack-clack. Clackclackclackclackclack.

That’s the sound of Guitar Hero, a video game that lets any nimrod pretend to be a rock star. Guitar Hero and its many evolutions and variations have taken the nation by storm.

For those of you blessed enough to be unfamiliar with Guitar Hero, here’s how it works: The player uses a “controller” shaped like an electric guitar to “play” along with a cartoon band on the video screen. The screen shows different colors for different notes. The colors match five colored buttons up in the fret area of the controller guitar. At the other end of the guitar is a little plastic lever that must be clacked up and down, as if it were the pick used by the player to pluck the strings.

See, there aren’t any actual strings. “Playing” the “guitar” is a matter of pushing the correct buttons with one hand and clacking that lever with the other, as fast as the rock song blaring from the game requires.

Guitar Hero is huge at our house. Our teen-age sons both enjoy the game, and their friends come over to our house to “jam.”

Our sons know to keep the volume turned down on the songs, especially if Crazy Dad is trying to “work,” but there’s no volume control for that clacking noise. What I get -- through closed doors, through walls -- is the merest mumble of some familiar rock song and the clackity-clack-clack-clack of teen-age frenzy. Around the clacking clock.

It reminds me of those laboratory tests where mice or chimps repeatedly push a lever to get a treat. A teen-age boy apparently will clack a lever for hours on end, even if the only treat is being able to call his best friend “loser.”

The irony at our house is that both our sons actually play musical instruments. They can read music and pick out songs by ear and all that jazz. But, for amusement, they’d rather clack away at Guitar Hero.

I’m sure it takes skill and determination to succeed at the games, but clacking that lever is not the same as playing the song on a real guitar. I fear we’re creating an entire generation of youngsters who think they’re musicians because they can play Guitar Hero.

Eye-hand coordination is not the same as musical talent. I can type fast as a fiend, but that doesn’t mean I can play the piano.

Given the speed of technological advance, how long before real guitars come with buttons and clackers rather than strings? You’ll no longer need talent to be a rock musician; all you’ll need are fingers.

Virtual music by virtual musicians, virtually all the time until parents virtually tear off their own ears. That’s the future of rock ‘n’ roll.

Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky to clack.


Washtub abs

Most of us like to believe that we’re physically fit, or at least fit enough to get through our everyday lives without serious injury.

It’s easy to maintain that belief when everyday life involves nothing more strenuous than oozing off the sofa and going to the kitchen for more pork rinds. But once in a while, we’re required to actually do something physical -- such as lifting luggage into an overhead bin or tying our shoes -- and the resulting aches and pains prove that we’re kidding ourselves.

I exercise almost every day, walking miles on our Dreadmill and lifting tiny dumbbells (by their ears). But if I try something physically demanding, such as yardwork, I quickly find that I’m not fit at all.

My wife and I moved a seven-foot-tall palm tree from one area of our property to another. It took a couple of hours of surprisingly hard work, including a lot of shoveling and squatting and cursing. I expected to be fine after recovering from the initial heatstroke and mud bath, but hahaha on that. The next morning, every muscle between knees and chest, including some I didn’t know I had, rose up in revolt. For days after, I shuffled around the house like a geriatric German shepherd with bad hips. Even my fat hurt.

Clearly, my time on the Dreadmill hadn’t prepared me for actual physical labor. I might be fit enough to walk a couple of miles without keeling over, but I was unprepared for digging and crouching and yanking on stubborn tree roots.

Which brings us to a recent study by the American Council on Exercise. The ACE study encourages older folks to do “functional” exercise that emphasizes moving muscles and joints together in ways that mimic real-life needs, rather than just lifting weights or walking, which use the same isolated muscles over and over.

(Anybody else think it’s more than a coincidence that ACE is also the name of a brand of bandages? Maybe that’s just me.)

The study, done at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, used 48 volunteers between the ages of 58 and 78. All already participated in a fitness program because of various health problems related to cheese consumption. (Note to Wisconsin readers: Just kidding about the cheese!)

The researchers randomly assigned participants to a group doing functional exercises or to a control group that stuck with “a traditional exercise program of walking and aerobic dance,” according to an ACE press release. The 12 functional exercises, performed three times a week, included moves such as “wall push-ups, lunge and chop, and squat with diagonal reach.”

At the end of the month-long study, the researchers found that those who went through the functional fitness program showed greater improvements in lower-body strength, upper-body strength, cardio-respiratory endurance, agility, balance and shoulder flexibility than the control group.

Participants in the functional exercise group celebrated their gains by beating up the aerobic dancers. (Kidding again!)

ACE said it was hoped that the study would encourage people to incorporate functional strength training into their workout programs so they can “safely and effectively perform their various activities of daily living.”

Good advice. I plan to try some of these functional exercises to see if they help strengthen my muscles and increase my flexibility. Perhaps they’ll even prepare me to do physical labor, assuming the occasion ever arises again.

For sure, the next time my wife suggests that we transplant a tree, I’m doing the “lunge and chop.”


Give me rewrite

When I was an enthusiastic young journalist in the post-Watergate 1970s, a T-shirt was popular with us ink-stained wretches. It showed an old-time reporter -- sleeves rolled up, press card in the band of his fedora -- shouting into a phone: “Hello, sweetheart, give me rewrite!”

That was the way it worked, kids, back in the days before cell phones and laptops. A reporter on deadline called a “rewrite man,” typically a grizzled, cigar-chomping veteran who could type faster than the wind. The reporter “fed” the rewrite desk all the information on the hot story, and the rewrite man fashioned it into a proper newspaper article, on the fly.

Filing a story through rewrite was a sort of magic, and I fear it’s lost forever. These days, reporters can write their own stories, wherever they are, and zip them into the mothership electronically. But some of us remember when a rewrite man could make a reporter look great, recasting excited gibberish into cool prose.

Yes, I am a dinosaur. Thank you for noticing.

Wouldn’t it be great if life had a rewrite man? Someone who could smooth over rough spots, remove awkward moments and recast our everyday babbling into concise, intelligent language. It would be the ultimate do-over, the end to regret. If we filtered our lives through a rewrite desk, we’d always hit our deadlines, make the right choices, impress our friends.

An example: You’re in traffic and another motorist does something exceedingly stupid right in front of you. You lean on your horn, shout curses and make an obscene gesture. Then you recognize the other driver. Worse, he recognizes you. Ouch.

Wouldn’t you love a rewrite man about then? He could change “curses” to “warnings” and “obscene gesture” to “friendly wave.” A potentially dangerous road rage incident becomes a neighborly encounter. And you wouldn’t feel so bad when you bump into that other motorist at church.

A rewrite man could fix a lot of things in the workplace. Let’s say you’re standing around the watercooler with your coworkers, talking about your boss, and you use the term “sniveling jerk” just as said boss comes around the corner. Hello, rewrite? Can you change that to “model citizen?” Or, um, “an inspiration to us all?” Thanks.

Certainly, a rewrite man could help one’s financial situation. Your life story could say you were always careful with your money as you amassed a fortune that you later gave to charity. That sounds so much better than “gambled on the stock market” or “wasted every nickel on liquor and lotteries.”

I could use a rewrite when it comes to parenting. I’d like to be known as “stern but fair” rather than “overprotective lunatic.” But I guess that’s a story that’ll be written by my kids.

A rewrite man could portray me as a “handy do-it-yourselfer type.” Just once I’d like someone to believe I could fix something around the house. Even if the statement required a correction later.

I want my friends to remember me as a witty raconteur who was always “the life of the party.” Think I can get that past the rewrite desk? That would be better than “last time I saw him, he was yarking into a flowerbed.” Friends’ memories can be so selective and cruel.


Writing coach available

Attn: Home Front readers in the Redding area.

Instead of the local writing seminars I've done in the past, I've worked lately with a few writing students, doing one-on-one Coffee Shop Coaching, helping them get fiction or screenplay projects ready for publishers/producers. It's going well, and I'm enjoying it.

I've got time to take on one, maybe two, more students, and still meet my own writing deadlines. It's not cheap -- I charge $50 per session -- but if you've got a manuscript that needs polish, you could benefit from my three decades of publishing experience. Contact me at this e-mail address: abqbrewer@aol.com. Put "Coaching" in the subject line. Thanks!

Up your rhubarb

(Editor’s note: To stay within the confines of language permissible in a family newspaper -- and spam filters -- all profanities in the column below were replaced with the word “rhubarb.”)

Profanity has become as common as rhubarb in workplaces and throughout society, and I’ve recently been informed that it proliferates in the home office as well.

For a decade, I worked alone at home, my only coworker our dog Elvis (who didn’t give a good rhubarb what people said as long as he regularly got scratched behind the ears). In the past two years, however, my wife has worked at home with me, and I now have an audience for my bad habits.

Turns out that I mutter curses all day long. Who knew?

Apparently, I cuss like a rhubarb when things go wrong, which, as any writer will tell you, is most of the rhubarbing time. I swear after hanging up the phone. I curse my computer. I say “rhubarb” when the words don’t fit together right. And I bray “rhubarb” in amazement when things go well.

I recognize this is a bad habit. Many people, especially those in the older generations, feel that profanity is only for rhubarbs who don’t know any better. I rarely use such language in public, if you don’t count the time I spend behind the wheel of a car. But at home, at my desk, I spew rhubarbs all day long.

(Driving time doesn’t count. I feel it is my duty to advise those rhubarbing motorists who don’t know how to drive any better than rhubarb. Plus, it contains my road rage to the spoken word, which is better than ramming every rhubarbing one of them with my minivan.)

A new study has found swearing in the workplace can actually boost morale. I know, I know. It sounded like rhubarb to me, too, at first, but the researchers found bad language creates a sort of solidarity among coworkers.

The study, reported in the British publication “Leadership and Organizational Development Journal” and at Marketwatch.com, found that men used cursing to jokingly insult each other, while women used it to assert themselves. But overdoing it can create an unpleasant work environment, the study warned. You know what a bunch of priggish rhubarbs those Brits can be.

Here in the United States, 44 percent of those polled reported hearing profanity “often” in daily life, according to a 2002 study by the research group Public Agenda. No doubt it’s only gotten worse in the past five years. Television taboos have been loosened, so we now hear words on TV that would’ve made earlier generations rhubarb all over themselves. Today’s youth seems unable to communicate without sprinkling every sentence with rhubarbs. And rap music? Holy rhubarb.

I, personally, am trying to clean up my act. My wife (who’s been known to unleash the occasional rhubarb herself) doesn’t buy the whole “coworker solidarity” rhubarb.

She’s sick of listening to me mutter rhubarbs all day. When she gets like that, you’d better cover your rhubarb, if you know what’s good for you.

I’m sure I will be a better, happier person if I eliminate profanity from my home workplace. And if you don’t believe me, you can go rhubarb yourself.

Whoops, there I go again. Sorry. I get so rhubarbing mad at myself when I slip. Whoops. Aw, rhubarb.

This may be more difficult that I anticipated. I may need help. Anyone know the address of a Rhubarbers Anonymous meeting?