That'll show 'em

A man in Egypt cut off his own penis to protest his family's refusal to allow him to marry a woman from a lower class.

The 25-year-old Egyptian man had pleaded for two years to be allowed to marry the woman. After his father's latest refusal, he heated up a knife and sliced off his future generations, as it were. He was rushed to a hospital, but doctors were unable to reattach the removed part.

Full story here.


You're doing it wrong

Advice to aspiring bank robbers: No matter how proud you are after your successful robbery, it's a really bad idea to boast about it on MySpace.

Joseph Wade Northington, 27, of Roanoke, VA, faces seven years to life in prison after being convicted of using a firearm to rob a bank in North Augusta, VA. After getting nearly $4,000 in the robbery, Northington put a post on MySpace saying, "On tha run for robbin a bank. Love all of yall!"

Fortunately for him, there's no prosecution for punctuation abuse.

Full story here.

Hazardous duty

To: All home-based workers
From: The federal Work-at-Home Occupations Administration (WHOA)

It has come to our attention here at WHOA that a growing number of Americans are working at home, partly because high gasoline prices discourage commuting and partly because workers are tired of getting dressed in the morning.

WHOA warns all Americans that home offices have their dangers, same as other workplaces. Hazards often are overlooked because there is no direct management supervision. While this may make workers “happy,” it also means there’s no one to enforce safety regulations or say “put that down before you hurt yourself.”

People who work at home may not practice proper “ergonomics” (from the Latin for “hunchback”). They use desks and/or chairs purchased at rummage sales and slapped together any old which-way rather than government-approved, adjustable office furniture designed to enforce proper posture. This can result in long-term health issues and bad vibes.

Research has shown that these are the Top 10 injuries suffered by at-home workers:

1) Carpal tunnel syndrome is a severe nerve problem in the wrists caused by improper computer “keyboarding” and mouse usage. Make sure your chair and computer are properly aligned so that you maintain a “wide stance.” Repetitive motions, such as those that result from playing Guitar Hero, should be avoided.

2) Eating and drinking at your desk is hazardous, particularly if hot coffee is involved. Not only can injury result, but studies have found that eating chips-and-salsa over your keyboard can result in computer failure.

3) Paper cuts are common and can be quite painful, especially if you get salt and/or salsa in the wounds. Workers should always wear gloves.

4) Bruises result from inadvertently whamming knees and elbows into your desk or into other immovable objects in the home office. Safety tip: Sit still.

5) Many at-home workers fall afoul of fasteners such as staples, paper clips and thumbtacks. These metal objects will pierce the skin, and infection can result. Scotch tape is recommended for all applications.

6) Rubber bands, placed under too much strain, can snap and give the user painful “hickeys.”

7) Beware the paper shredder.

8) Many home-office accidents result from workers standing on swivel chairs or other inappropriate places in attempts to reach high shelves or change light bulbs. This behavior should be avoided. Keep office supplies and other items on the down-low to avoid overreaching.

9) Most home offices are equipped with many electrical gizmos, including, but not limited to: Computers, monitors, scanners, printers, shredders, fans, lamps, phones, coffeemakers, stereos and assorted power tools. Do not plug all of these items into the same outlet, surge protector or power strip. You could start a fire and/or electrocute yourself, which could prevent you from making your production quotas.

10) Madness is a common ailment among those who work at home. Combining your office workload with the many demands of home, spouse and children can push you right over the edge. Most health insurance plans do not cover deadline madness, gibbering insanity or “the jumps.” On the other hand, if you’re at home all day, nobody will witness you talking to yourself or behaving strangely. (Other than family members, and they’re probably used to it by now.)

Many at-home workers are self-employed or freelance, which means they have little or no health insurance and no Washington lobbyists on their payrolls. It’s especially important for these workers to avoid injury and/or death.

Contact our agency for further information. We’re here to help. When you think of working at home, think WHOA.


Pool for sale

I think I’ll sell my swimming pool on eBay.

My wife’s sold a few things on eBay -- mostly books; we have many, many books -- and my first reaction was: “You can sell things on eBay? I thought eBay only existed to deliver things to our home!”

Once we got past that, I cast about for other household items we don’t use anymore, and I came up with a great idea: I’ll sell the pool.

A very nice swimming pool came with this house when we bought it. The pool has decorative rocks cemented around the edge and a functioning waterfall. I dutifully keep it all clean and chemically balanced.

Nobody uses it.

We keep meaning to go swimming, but the sun is too hot and the water’s too cold and we’ve already done our hair and one does hate to go to bed reeking of chlorine. Whimper, whine.

I’ve reached the age of 52, the Chinese Year of the White Grub, when I am much too fat and pale to go around without a shirt, even in the privacy of my fenced back yard. Last time, NASA complained that the glare interfered with satellite reception.

Our sons use friends' pool because they've got diving boards. Or they just go jump in the lake, usually with a cell phone in a pocket.

My wife’s got no time for swimming. She’s busy watering all her plants, keeping them alive in the summertime heat, moving them around the patio like wilting chess pieces.

So we don’t really need our pool this summer. I wonder how much I could get for it on eBay.

Selling it presents certain problems, the main one being that the pool’s made of concrete sunk into the ground behind our house. Don’t know if the customer would have to dig it out in pieces or airlift it or what to get it out of there.

And we’d have to replace the pool with something. That would have to be part of the deal. We can’t just leave a ragged hole there, like somebody pulled a big old tooth out of the yard!

My sons would prefer some sort of concrete bunker where they could play electrified music really loudly without being overheard by the short-sighted world, which doesn’t understand them and their music. Failing that, they’d take a selection of concrete skateboard ramps.

Maybe we could replace the pool with a huge planter, so my wife could have even more flora and weeds and bugs to keep her fussing and hopping all day.

To me, the best thing about the pool is the view. I enjoy looking out at the patio and pool from my traditional spot on the sofa under the air-conditioning vent. The “picture” is so lovely and serene, it could be a screensaver. The sight of palm trees always make me feel like I’m on vacation. A few weeds in the foreground, but never mind.

So I’d vote that we put in a low-maintenance mural of a swimming pool. A nice blue David Hockney painting. I could still have my California view, I could turn a buck on the deal and some lucky eBay shopper gets the swimming pool of his dreams.

Extra shipping charges apply.


What an eyehole

Advice to aspiring robbers: When making your mask, don't make the eyeholes so big that you're easily recognizable, especially if you're robbing the fried chicken restaurant where you were fired the day before.

Alas, this advice comes too late for Ezedrick Jones, 18, of Memphis, who was arrested within hours of his failed robbery attempt. Police said Jones struggled with the manager of the KFC he was trying to rob at knifepoint, but freaked out and fled when she called him by name.

Full story here.


B.T. phone home


“Hi, it’s me. I’m at the airport in (insert city here). Thought I’d call and see how things are around the house.”

“Oh, everybody’s fine. Just the usual around here.”

“Yeah? No major disasters? Haha.”

“Oh, you know, the usual. A small grease fire when (insert teen-ager’s name here) was cooking, but everything’s fine now. A little smoke damage.”


“We needed to paint the kitchen anyway.”

“Was (teen’s name) traumatized by the fire?”

“Nah. (S/he) seemed to think the whole thing was funny.”

“We’ll see how funny (s/he) thinks it is when (s/he) gets to paint the kitchen.”

“I’m just glad no one was hurt. Although the fire did affect the dog.”

“How so?”

“He yarked up all over the carpet. I guess it was the smoke. Might’ve been something he ate. One of my rubber gloves is missing.”

“Better keep an eye on him.”

“I will.”

“I’m afraid to ask about the cat.”

“Missing for three days now.”

“But the kids are OK?”

“Well, we did hear from the school.”


“Hate to bother you with this when you’re traveling. I’ll take care of it.”

“No, go ahead and tell me.”

“Well, (insert student’s name here) got detention. We have to meet with the principal.”

“What did (s/he) do this time?”

“It’s no big deal. Just the usual. (His/her) hair.”

“Now what?”

“It’s (purple/pink/magenta/green/some other color not found in nature).”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake--”

“And it’s shaved off on one side of (his/her) head.”

“Are you kid--”

“And the other side is dreadlocks.”


“Well, that’s different.”

“The usual teen-aged attempt to get attention, but the principal says it’s distracting the other students.”

“Oh, well. It’s only hair. It can be (fixed/shorn/burned).”

“Also, the principal said (his/her) clothes are inappropriate.”

“What kind of puritanical operation are they running--”

“I think it was the fuzzy chaps that did it.”


“Another fashion statement. The usual.”

“What about (insert older child’s name here)?”

“Some progress there. (S/he) called the other day and (s/he) is not riding with those bikers anymore. Had a little dustup in (insert city name), but I sent bail money and it’s all fine now.”

“Sounds like you’ve got everything under control.”

“Oh, sure. But hey, I was going to ask you: Have you noticed a funny noise in the bathroom?”

“What kind of a noise?”

“Kind of a rumbling? After flushing?”


“The plumber said it was a sewer line problem.”

“Oh, no.”

“It’s OK. He fixed it. Only a thousand bucks. And the sinkhole isn’t even that big.”


“You’ll see, when you get home from your trip. I think we can fix it ourselves. Rent a dump truck. Buy some sod. How hard can it be?”

“Right. How about you? Have you been able to work amidst all this mayhem?”

“Oh, sure. Though I did have to redo a bunch of stuff after the computer died.”

“The computer?”

“And my boss wants a meeting. Something about our ‘place in the community.’”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know exactly. But he does play golf with the high school principal. No telling what he’s heard.”


“Don’t worry about it. Just have a good trip. It’ll all be waiting for you when you get home.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. Maybe I’ll go to Vermont instead.”


“That’s where my luggage went.”

“Oh, my.”

“That’s business travel for you.”

“The usual.”



Hot fun in the summertime

Memorial Day weekend traditionally marks the beginning of summer, the season for sweaty outdoor activities such as camping, boating and picnicking.

Brace yourself, ladies. Outdoor fun makes your men randy.

Maybe it’s all that fresh air or an animal instinct, but an “overwhelming majority” of men report that being outdoors boosts their sexual desire, according to a new study by the Kinsey Institute.

Scientists set up six focus groups in which 50 men between the ages of 18 and 70 were asked about sexuality and arousal. The answers revealed a wide range of variety and nuance.

“This study’s challenging the idea that men are simple,” Dr. Erick Janssen, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters news service.

“There’s huge variability among men in how easily they’re turned on or turned off, how easily they experience sexual desire and arousal,” he said. “The differences among men and the differences among women are much larger than the average difference between the sexes.”

Not surprisingly, the men reported being turned on by a nice body and a pretty face (preferably on the same woman). But they also said looks aren’t everything.

Men find intelligence to be “really attractive,” and a self-confident partner to be more desirable than one who doesn’t feel good about herself, the study said.

Their own confidence was important to the men as well, with many reporting that feeling good about themselves often led to feeling sexually aroused, while “feeling scruffy” had the opposite effect. (“Scruffy” sounds like a dog. Maybe it belongs to the aforementioned Randy.)

The outdoors component concerns us today, as we launch into steamy temperatures and open-air activities.

Summer is chock-full of sexually loaded elements such as suntans, sweat, bare skin, bikinis and beer. A day at the beach can cause whiplash.

But it’s not all about gawking. What’s arousing is the very act of being in the Great Outdoors, where wild animals howl and sunshine throbs and hot breezes whisper through the trees.

Men feel more manly when they’re hiking in the woods or bobbing on the lake. Being surrounded by nature takes them back to their primitive roots, and makes them feel protective of their partners. They’re ready to face bears or bad weather or balky barbecue grills. They want to kill their own food, make their own shelter, live by their wits. It’s all about survival, baby, and what could be more arousing than that?

Well, I can think of a few things. A soft bed comes to mind. Air-conditioning. A bottle of chardonnay fresh from the fridge. A candlelit dinner in an air-conditioned restaurant.

I’m afraid I don’t fall into the overwhelming majority who get turned on by the scent of Off! I’m no outdoorsman. I’m an indoorsman. My idea of “roughing it” involves room service and a nice view.

To me, a “romp in the woods” means a brief stroll in pleasant surroundings, followed by a hot shower and a few hours’ rest under a cool vent. At home.

I like a big, juicy steak off the grill as much as the next guy, but I like to eat it indoors, where there are no bugs. Lakes and rivers leave me cold. Camping is sexy only if you have a fetish for mosquito bites.

But that’s just me.

I wish all you woodsy types a happy, rousing Memorial Day weekend. Enjoy your outdoor “activities.”

Give my regards to Randy and Scruffy.


Shaky business

Apartment dwellers in Berlin, Germany, have asked an administrative court to put their neighbor, a prostitute, out of business.

The woman weighs 252 pounds, and her lovemaking sessions shake neighboring apartments. One neighbor claims to have lost a pair of Baccarat crystal glasses when they fell off a shelf.

"I don't know if the earth moved for her customers, but it did for us," one neighbor said. "She's a one-woman demolition job."

Full story here.


Primp my bride

A comic cliché that goes back at least to the early days of Dagwood and Blondie: The husband pacing impatiently while his wife takes her good sweet time getting ready for a night on the town.

As with so many clichés, this one’s got some basis in fact. Women have much more to do to get ready, which means men end up with more time to watch the clock and get ulcers.

Proof comes from Great Britain, where a survey finds that women spend three times longer getting ready for a night out. On average, the study found, women spend an hour and a half preparing for a night out, including taking a shower, doing their hair, applying makeup and polishing nails.

Over a lifetime, this adds up to 3,276 hours (or 136 DAYS) spent on primping and preening.

“The figures come as no surprise considering the pressure that today’s women are under just to make themselves look good,” said Heather Boden of the body wash brand Skinbliss, which commissioned the research.

Women are bombarded with images from advertising and media, telling them what constitutes beauty and what products they must buy right now to reach that pinnacle. They’re made to feel that they must invest time and effort into looking their best.

Men, on the other hand, assume they look fine, even when they are covered in actual soil.

If you don’t believe this double-standard exists, try this experiment. Put any woman in front of a large mirror in a well-lit room. She immediately will examine her reflection for flaws. She will get depressed over every bump and wrinkle. She will sigh. She will decide her clothes are hopelessly out of fashion. She will decide to go shopping.

Put a man in front of the same mirror, and he’ll start flexing his biceps, saying to himself, “Looking good.” This is true whether the man is a fit young Adonis or a middle-aged bald guy with the physique of a toad.

(The British survey didn’t differentiate between single vs. married, but I’m guessing the answers were quite different. People who are “on the market” invest more time in looking and smelling their best, just in case they meet that special someone, whereas a married person can feel fully primped as long as he or she is not wearing fresh baby spit-up.)

A typical man can get ready for any occasion in the length of time it takes a woman to decide “does this purse go with these shoes?” Then the man is forced to sit around in his uncomfortable dress-up clothes, getting increasingly anxious, while the woman does her hair and her makeup and changes outfits seven times. By the time she is finally ready, the man has rumpled his clothes, consumed too many pre-party drinks and is fast asleep in front of the TV. He then must spring awake and tuck in his shirttail and smooth down the dagwoods in his hair and drive like a bat out of hell so they can reach the special occasion before all the food is gone.

Plus, the reeling, half-awake man must remember to tell the woman how beautiful she looks. If he knows what’s good for him.

Otherwise, he may find himself asking: Does this purse look good upside my head?


You're doing it wrong

Advice to aspiring bank robbers: When you flee with the loot, make sure a bank employee isn't following you to see the getaway vehicle and write down its license plate number.

Thomas Feeney, 47, was arrested 11 minutes after he allegedly robbed a Roslyn Savings Bank on Long Island, NY, because the bank employee telephoned the auto info back to the bank, where officers had just arrived. Feeney had left his getaway car in a nearby parking lot, but apparently didn't look back to see he was being followed.

Extra points: Feeney is a retired sergeant in the New York Police Department.

Full story here.


Grumpy, jumpy and jangled

I’ve got nerves that jingle, jangle, jingle.

Too much daily coffee and a tightly wound nervous system make me jumpy, particularly if I’m in a bad mood or trying to concentrate.

(Funny how often those two things go together. Do bad moods make concentration more difficult? Does concentration put me in a bad mood? Is that why my head hurts? What’s it to you? Grrr.)

Anyway, I’m frequently on edge, and that means a certain amount of wear-and-tear on my family, who must put up with having in their midst a person with the emotional constitution of Don Knotts.

My nerves apparently lie near the surface because it’s so easy to get on them, and my startle response is strong. I often react to everyday events like a skittish kitten. Surprises send me straight up in the air. Bad news can leave me reeling. Even an unexpected phone call can make me grouchy and tense.

Sudden loud noises occur in any household. But in our house, they result in even louder noises as I curse and spume and clutch at my heart. Normal people react to sudden noises with a brief start, perhaps followed by a chuckle. But for us uptight types, the clatter of a dropped pan is a perfectly good excuse for cardiac arrest and/or a phone call to Homeland Security.

The noise doesn’t even have to be sudden to be debilitating. Regular sounds can move from normal to annoying in the twitch of an eye.

Let’s say I’m writing something (which would be, oh, any given day of my life). Now let’s say someone is talking nearby. On the phone, in person, it doesn’t matter. Harmless casual chitchat. To me, the sound might as well be the scream of a power drill against my skull. Pretty soon, I’m typing gibberish. Or, shall I say, even more gibberish-y than usual. (Hah, beat you to it.)

I should be able to tune out noise. For years, I worked in newspaper newsrooms which, in those days, were noisy, smoky, rowdy places, full of practical jokes, clanging phones, loud arguments and the occasional small fire.

(Since computers and political correctness came around, newsrooms tend to be about as rowdy as banks, but that’s a complaint for another day.)

I was still a testy type, and a few newsrooms have dented file cabinets to prove it, but I learned to work through the hubbub. Once, I was on a roll and kept writing after the fire alarms went off. I only left my desk because my superiors demanded that I go outside.

But I got spoiled. Twelve years ago, I left newsrooms behind and started working all by myself. Working at home, I was able to control my environment. If there was a loud noise during the day, it was one I made myself and I usually knew it was coming.

After school hours, I still had the thrill of noisy young men, with their electric guitars and minor emergencies, in my home, but for several hours a day, it was just me and our sleepy dog.
That changed when my wife started working at home, too. She’s much busier than I am, and the phone rings constantly, and people come and go, and pans clatter in the kitchen. She can’t understand why I’m so jumpy and grumpy all the time.

It’s not me, I tell her, it’s my jangled nerves. They’re scaredy-cats.


Or are you just happy to rob me?

Police in Winston-Salem, NC, say a 17-year-old tried to rob a store using a banana instead of a gun.

John Szwalla allegedly entered the store with the banana under his shirt, said he had a gun and demanded money. Instead of handing over the loot, the store owner and a customer pounced on him and held him until police arrived.

Extra points: While they were waiting for deputies to arrive, Szwalla ate the banana.

Double extra points: Police photographed the peel and might charge him with destroying evidence as well as armed robbery.

Full story here.


Cutting costs

To: Members of the Household
From: Chief Financial Officer

Nationwide, the economy’s in real trouble, and that’s reflected here at local headquarters. Costs are rising and income isn’t keeping up. High gasoline and food prices have taken their toll, and inflation is now spreading to other areas, such as tires and waistlines. It’s time to tighten our collective belts so we can survive these hard times without resorting to layoffs that could affect the whole family.

The following cost-cutting measures will be in force until further notice:

1) Out-of-control inflation at the supermarket means we must rely on simpler foods, such as those purchased at discount stores for less than a dollar. Think ramen noodles. Yum.

We’ll be looking for foods we can make from scratch. Yes, this is more time-consuming, but we’ll have plenty of time to cook now that we’ve canceled all fun activities. (See item 5).

We’ll also keep a lower inventory of food on hand. If you get hungry enough, maybe you’ll finally consume those canned goods that have sat in the back of the pantry since 1993.

2) Utility costs are on the rise, and we can all do our part by keeping lights turned off and using less air-conditioning. Sweating is good for you. And reading in low light builds up your eye muscles.

3) We’ll cut spending on extravagances such as new school clothes. You kids only want to wear your old, ratty clothes anyway, and now you’ll get that opportunity. If colors are faded or you’re tired of the patterns, we’ll dye all your clothes black and tell everyone you’re “Goth” or "emo.” You’ll have to act angry and/or sad all the time, but that shouldn’t be difficult now that we’re poor.

4) School supplies will be provided by household members who have access to corporate office-supply closets and who can exercise the venerated “five-finger discount.” Students should pay special attention to the combinations of nearby lockers.

5) Entertainment costs must be contained. Why pay full price for “The Dark Knight” when you can watch perfectly fine old movies such as “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” on TV for free? Better yet, curl up with a book from the library.

Dining out is verboten, effective immediately. Public liquor consumption should be confined to “happy hour.” Private alcohol consumption may increase during these hard economic times, resulting in deferred costs, such as detox and/or rehab.

6) Houseplants cost water and time and provide little in return. The ingrates. Starting now, houseplants will gradually be replaced by herbs and other edible plants, such as wheat.

7) Lawn and garbage services will be suspended, replaced by the newest member of our household team, Sweetums the goat. I hope you all will join me in welcoming Sweetums aboard, but keep your distance because she bites.

8) Other so-called “pets” are put on notice that they need to start pulling their weight around here. Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming “lunch.”

9) Transportation costs simply must come down. Car trips will be restricted to those that are absolutely necessary. Household members who need additional travel should undertake it at their own expense. Or use alternative methods such as hitchhiking. This is why God gave you thumbs, people.

That is all for now. If the recession deepens, additional cutbacks may be required. But if we all pitch in and help contain costs, perhaps we won’t have to sell the children to a passing carnival.

Thank you.


Cussing at computers

My wife and I are in the home office we share and she says, “Sure is a lot of muttering in here.”

She was right, though I hadn’t noticed until she mentioned it. We weren’t muttering at each other or even talking to ourselves. We both were grumbling at our computers.

Like many people who work at home, we spend all day every day sitting at computers. Much of that time is spent in one-sided conversations with the machines.

The computers rarely talk back, so we don’t get into that creepy “2001: A Space Odyssey” thing: “Sorry, but I can’t do that. Dave.” In fact, I keep the volume on my computer turned off, so it says nothing at all. I find those cheery “You’ve got mail!” announcements unnerving.

But my wife and I have lots to say to our computers, mostly along the lines of “Hurry up, you dirty $*@&#!”

Computers never go fast enough. Get the most powerful machine available, hook it up to the fastest DSL line, operate it expertly, and still the whole process seems too slow. Oh, it might seem fast at first, but as soon as you get accustomed to the new speed, you’re back to, “Come on! I haven’t got all MINUTE!”

Our impatience with computers is particularly acute when we’re roaming the Internet.

I click on a Web address and it starts to open on my screen. The little color bar creeps from left to right, showing that the computer is working on calling up the site. I start getting itchy. I watch that color bar so closely, you’d think it was my electrocardiogram. After, oh, 15 seconds, I give up.

“Never mind,” I mutter. “I didn’t want to look at it that bad.”

As if another 10 seconds would make a difference. As if my time is so valuable that I can’t wait.

(On the other hand, how many of us will say on our deathbeds, “I wish I’d spent more time waiting for YouTube nonsense to buffer.”)

Not all the mumbling and grumbling is impatience. Some centers on rhetorical questions -- “Why won’t the computer let me do this?” “Where did my file go?” “Why did I ever choose to work with machines?” These are philosophical ponderings for which there are no answers.

Sometimes, our computer carping is aimed at particular aggravations, such as pop-up ads or spam or unwanted “updates” or our own typos. These verbalizations involve words that we’d never inflict on other humans, especially if children are present, but we feel free to bleat at our computers.

Some of the muttering is actual communication. Pleas for help, usually, and therein lies a certain danger. If your officemate asks for assistance and you ignore her because you think she’s just griping at her screen again -- well, let’s say misunderstandings can occur.

At times like these, the best answer might be: "Sorry, but I can't do that. Dave."


The noise of summer

Now that warm weather is upon us, we can annoy our neighbors much more than we did in winter.

We spend more time outside. We work in the yard. We throw open our windows to summer breezes. And we share with our neighbors all the ballgame-cheering, door-slamming, music-playing, loud burping and intrahousehold shouting that we'd normally keep to ourselves.

In many neighborhoods, houses are built so close together that residents can reach out their windows and shake hands with people next door. When those windows are open, neighbors hear conversations and spats and other interactions they'd really, really rather not hear.

In such places, you must be careful when you call your children inside for dinner. You can end up feeding every kid on the block.

In my current suburb, there are fences between houses and the facing windows mostly aren't the kind that open. But I remember once, a couple of houses ago, when I thought a neighbor was shouting for help, when she really was hollering at her daughter. Fortunately, I realized my mistake before I dialed 911.

Years ago, when I lived in an apartment, a concerned neighbor knocked on the door while I had friends over.

"Is everything all right over here?" he asked. "I heard screaming."

My answer: "Dude. It's the playoffs."

In such close quarters, you learn which TV shows your neighbors enjoy, what music they like, which teams they root for. Almost always, these tastes will be the direct opposite of your own. If you're considering a relocation, you should ask potential neighbors: "Do you like bagpipe music?" If the answer is yes, immediately look elsewhere.

Those of us who work at home are especially susceptible to these warm-weather disturbances. We're trying to concentrate, trying to conduct business, and all we can hear are the kids down the street shrieking in a swimming pool. Yes, those kids are cute and, yes, that water's cold, but dang, we're trying to work here.

In my neighborhood, many people use lawn services. These services naturally operate during business hours, which is perfect for the residents who go to regular jobs. They never even see their lawn people. They come home from work, and, shazam, their grass is magically shorter and well-groomed.

But we work-at-home types get to hear all the mowers and blowers and weed-whackers. As those old TV commercials used to say, "That's not helping my headache."

Once, I was trying to write when a construction crew showed up down the street to install a swimming pool. The workers spent the day heaving large rocks into the back of a dump truck. Boom, boom, bang. As if that weren't bad enough, one burly worker entertained his colleagues by singing at the top of his lungs all day, and let's just say you won't see him on "American Idol" anytime soon. It was one of those times when I was glad I don't own a gun.

Not that we're guilt-free at my house. My sons crank up the volume when they're playing guitars, and their, um, performances probably aren't to the taste of the neighbors, if you get my drift. We've been known to throw noisy patio parties. And we have the loudest air conditioner in the neighborhood; it apparently wants to be a 747 when it grows up. Fortunately, our neighbors are tolerant types.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go back out to the patio. I'm barbecuing a bagpipe.


Back talk

One of my grandfather’s favorite expressions, blurted whenever anything caused dismay, disbelief or aggravation, was: “Oh, my aching back!”

Growing up, I heard him say that approximately one million times. I always suspected the phrase was used in lieu of cursing, his way of keeping it clean around the kids.

Then I reached middle age, and found out why “Oh, my aching back!” applied so well to all forms of heartbreak. Nothing’s more aggravating than a backache. (Well, maybe a toothache. But, “Oh, my aching tooth!” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

We ask a lot of our backs. Sitting and standing and bending over and lifting heavy objects all put a strain on them. Our backs keep us upright, provide a nice flat area for reclining, and give other people a safe place behind which they can talk trash about us.

Our backs shoulder the load without complaint, most of the time. All they ask in return is a good night’s sleep, a regular scrubbing, the occasional massage and please remember to lift with your legs.

Once in a while, though, our backs turn on us. They ache. They seize up. They spasm. They remind us that they’re the largest area of our bodies (with the possible exception of the potbelly) and when they hurt, they’re taking us down with them.

I was reminded of all this recently when I “threw my back out.” I apparently threw it a long way, so far that I had to ask for help searching for it. We finally found it out in the yard.

For a few days, I was a victim of irregular muscle spasms that made me gasp and squeal like a startled piglet. I walked as stiffly as the Tin Man in an oil-free Oz. I couldn’t turn my head, which made backing up the car more interesting than usual, and downright exciting for a few scampering pedestrians.

How did I hurt myself? I have no idea. Believe me, I spent many hours wondering about it. Nothing else to do while I sat around immobile, popping ibuprofen tablets like they were Tic-Tacs.

I hadn’t overexerted myself, because that is against my religion, and I couldn’t remember any sudden moves or tricky bending that might’ve caused my back to seize. I finally settled on a particularly vigorous sneeze, and blamed that for my plight.

However it happened, the injury settled into the muscles around my shoulder blades, which caused me to keep my neck angled to starboard or risk another breathtaking spasm. This can cause a person to walk in circles.

The strange posture also resulted in a related pain in the neck that had absolutely nothing to do with my wife saying, repeatedly, “Why don’t you go see a doctor?”

Of course, I didn’t go see a doctor. I don’t see a doctor unless major body parts are actually falling off and dragging along behind me on the ground. I took some painkillers and sat quietly for a few days until those wacky muscle spasms settled down and the pain went away on its own.

I’m fine now, and I expect my back to do its many jobs perfectly well in the foreseeable future, so long as I don’t do anything strenuous, such as sneezing. Or cursing.

My grandfather would be proud.


Another criminal mastermind

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you're going to buy a bunch of cell phones with bogus checks, it's really better not to have them delivered to an office of the FBI.

Authorities say Clifton Wright, 44, gave the Louisiana FBI office as the delivery address. He allegedly paid more than $2,300 for the phones with a bogus cashier's check.

Extra points: The tipoff came because the word "cashier's" on the check was misspelled.

Full story here.


Tykes on a plane

The skies are less friendly when you’re flying with children.

Air travel these days is tough enough, what with all the canceled flights and baggage charges and people who insist on barbecuing goats for their in-flight meals. Throw a few screaming children into the mix, and you can soon find your brains leaking out your ears.

Or, you could get thrown off the plane altogether.

That happened to a Seattle family last year. A woman and her four children (including two with disabilities) were flying Southwest Airlines from Detroit to Seattle, changing planes in Phoenix. The mom admitted her children had been unruly on the Detroit-to-Phoenix leg, but she was shocked when Phoenix police told her the family wouldn’t be allowed on the Southwest flight to Seattle.

Wendy Slaughter and her kids were stranded in Phoenix until the children’s grandmother ponied up $2,000 to get them last-minute tickets on Alaska Airlines. After the news media got hold of the story, Southwest Airlines contacted the family and said it would refund the entire cost of their one-way tickets.

Several things about that story reflect the troubling state of air travel:

--The family said they were warned twice about the disruptive children, but were never told they could get booted from their next flight.

--The police were called because of unruly children?

--These people were flying from Detroit to Seattle via Phoenix. That’s approximately 42,000 miles out of the way. No wonder the kids got antsy.

--The airline offered a refund only after the family was safely back home.

Though it probably was no joy to be sitting near them, my sympathies are with the family. I’ve traveled with small children and it’s no picnic even when the kids are on their best behavior.

In fact, air travel presents one of the few occasions where I concede that it’s much easier to be the parents of teens than of smaller children. At least teens can put on their I-Pods and tune everybody out and be their usual inert, surly selves for the duration of the flight.

With little kids, everything about flying goes against the grain:

--They have to sit still.

--They’re supposed to be quiet.

--Pressurized cabins make their ears hurt, resulting in shrieking.

--They’re surrounded by strangers.

--Their parents act weird because they’re worried about the children disturbing others. Kids sense that discomfort, the same way horses sense fear, and react accordingly.

When I fly these days, I usually jam foam noise-suppressors into my ears so the shrieking kids (and chattering adults) don’t bother me. But I’m still reminded occasionally how much easier it is to travel without the little beggars along.

Recently, I was sitting in an airport across from a dad and his five-year-old son. Dad, sensing that something was wrong, patted the kid’s back, asking him if he felt okay. The boy responded by throwing up. A lot.

Dad suddenly had several problems to solve. His day had taken a difficult turn.

Since I was traveling alone, I performed the Business Traveler’s Special: I offered a sympathetic look, then picked up my briefcase and relocated to a different part of the terminal, pausing only to thank my lucky stars that my kids have grown up.


Tied up on the phone

What follows is a recent conversation at our house.

Teen-aged son: “It’s not like you have to keep me on a leash!”
Mom: “What do you think that cell phone is?”
Dad (on the inside): “Oh, SNAP!”

While I have many misgivings about the proliferation of cell phones, I recognize that we parents have come to rely on them as electronic child monitors. Want to know what your teen is up to? Give him a call. The kid might lie or evade, but at least you’ll know he is still alive, probably safe, and at least sober enough to answer the phone. Also, you can listen for party noises in the background.

Thanks to a law that took effect last year, teens in California aren't allowed to use phones while driving. Older motorists can talk on cell phones only if they use hands-free devices. Instead of juggling a phone, a cup of coffee, a McBreakfast and a bottle of nail polish, motorists now juggle all those things and a wired-up earphone, too. Or, they use one of those Bluetooth devices that screw directly into the ear, which always remind me of The Borg, that humanoid/robotic species on “Star Trek: The Next Generation on Babylon 5 After Kirk Got So Fat.”

It would be safer if everyone simply stopped talking on the phone behind the wheel. Driving is tricky enough all by itself (especially in Redding, where the city motto should be: “We Will Pull Out Right in Front of You”). Phoning while driving is too complicated, especially for those of us who aren’t comfortable with new technology and mostly use our cells as pocket watches.

My wife got me one of the hands-free devices, but I haven’t learned how to use it yet. When my phone rings, I either let voicemail handle it or I pull over.

Better that I miss an important call than become one of those motorists who weave all over the road, randomly speeding up and slowing down, while trying to dial and talk and thumb-type text messages. I hate those drivers so much that I’ll endure all kinds of inconvenience to avoid joining their ranks.

With the new law in place, those motorists now have a degree of anonymity. Before, if I saw someone driving stupidly, I always got smug satisfaction in confirming that he had a phone to his ear.

“Aha,” I’d think. “Talking on his cell. I knew it!”

Now, I can’t tell unless I pass the motorist and see his lips moving. Even then, maybe he’s singing along with the radio. Maybe he’s talking to himself. Maybe I don’t want to honk at a person who’s ranting to himself like a madman, no matter how badly he’s driving. Maybe he’s packing a bazooka.

Whenever I’m in traffic with cell chatterers, I always wish my own phone had another feature: A “Star Trek”-style ray gun that could disable other vehicles. Not permanently. Just long enough to get those motorists off the road so they could finish their conversations and pay attention to their driving.

“Gentlemen,” I could say in my best Capt. Kirk voice, “set your phones on ‘stun.’”

Zap! More yakkers stranded beside the road. Bwahahahaha!

They’d have to call for tow trucks. Hands-free, of course.


They call me Mr. Look-at-that

I was born to be a tour guide. Whenever we leave the house, I spend the whole trip pointing out the sights.

Sometimes, it’s informative.

“Look at that,” I’ll say. “Those black rocks originally came from that volcano way over there. Wow, what an explosion, huh?”

Sometimes, it’s sublime.

“Look at that. The way the sunlight plays on the water. Beautiful.”

Other times, it’s ridiculous.

“Look at that. Another chain-saw grizzly bear sculpture!”

And sometimes, sad to say, it’s downright mean.

“Look at the ears on that guy! If he could flap ’em, he could fly.”

It’s not as if other people can’t see these passing sights for themselves. It’s not as if they’re breathlessly waiting for me to show them the next point of interest. In fact, there’s evidence that it gets downright annoying.

“I see it,” my wife says, once she’s had enough. “We can all see it. It’s right there in front of us. We are not blind.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t sure you were looking over there,” I’ll say. “I didn’t want you to miss that particular cloud and -- Hey! Look at THAT!”

Heavy sighs all around.

My look-at-that compulsion may stem from my decades as a journalist. Newspaper folks are professional observers, relating what others don’t have the time or inclination to go see for themselves. When I see something interesting, I feel I must report back, even if the people receiving the reports are standing right next to me.

The compulsion may go even farther back, to the classroom, where I was one of those kids who always had his hand up, eager to share the (possibly) correct answer with my fellow students. They found it annoying, too, which resulted in bathroom-related hazing and the nickname “Swirly Steve.” (OK, I made up that last part.)

I can’t help it that I’m full of trivia. My brain collects factoids the way pants pockets collect lint. Acting as tour guide gives me a chance to inflict that knowledge on others.

My family doesn’t even bother to do any research before a vacation. They know Mr. Look-at-that will study the travel guides and websites so he can make pronouncements about when a particular monument was erected, the differences between bald eagles and ospreys, or why the native rock is that color. They just go along for the ride, relaxing and taking in the scenery while secretly hoping I’ll run out of steam.

I stand ready for any visitors we get this summer. I’ve got some stuff to show them. Whether they want to look at it or not.



Today's tip for criminals: If you vandalize your former roommate's home by throwing paint all over the interior, it's a really bad idea to brag about it on MySpace or YouTube.

Portlyn Lauren Miller, 21, of St. Paul, MN, is doing a 30-day stretch in jail after being convicted of vandalism. Authorities say she paint-bombed her former roommate's house and possessions (including his cat), then posed next to the paint-splattered door for her MySpace performance.

Full story here.



We parents wear many hats and dutifully accept the chores assigned to each, but the one I enjoy least is labeled “jailer.”

Sometimes, the only way to get a child’s attention is to place him/her under house arrest. Grounded. All privileges suspended. Cut off from the world.

Grounding is an onerous punishment, particularly for teen-agers, whose whole world revolves around social scenes and questionable friends. But it’s also pretty onerous for the parents because we’re required to enforce it. Which means we’re stuck in jail, too.

Usually, I have no problem with hanging around the house. It’s where I work, as well as where I do all my important lifestyle activities, such as reading and eating chocolate. But when staying at home is required, I get as itchy as the grounded offspring.

Last year, my wife and I played jailer for two full months, following several school transgressions by our then-16-year-old son. To make sure he understood the gravity of the situation, we went to full-scale house arrest. No social contacts, no leaving the property, no fun. We took away his cell phone. We disconnected his Internet. We found many, many work projects to keep him busy.

To his credit, he was a model prisoner, doing chores without complaint and only occasionally trying to wheedle out of his long sentence. But there were antsy periods, when being cooped up was nearly more than he could bear. (Three oblique animal references in one sentence; I believe that is a trifecta.)

I could tell when confinement was getting to him because he would play a mournful harmonica and drag his metal cup on the bars. (Kidding!) Instead, he’d start pestering me, joking around, poking and prodding, until I’d hit him with my nightstick. (Kidding again!) Usually, I’d play along, in our traditional Three Stooges-slapfight-dishtowel-popping mode, because I was going stir-crazy, too.

Unlike him, I could get away occasionally. Run some errands. Go to the library. Catch a matinee. But one or the other parent had to stay close, so our inmate wouldn’t start hatching escape plans or tunneling under the yard.

The one exception to his confinement was driving lessons. I don’t even try to wear the hat that says “driving instructor.” My wife is in charge of teaching the kids to drive. I’m too nervous. Even with an experienced driver, I’m a terrible passenger, gasping and stomping the floorboard until I’m ordered out of the car on the side of the road.

Ours son’s transgressions also required me to spend many hours in my “senior lecturer” hat, one I’m particularly well-equipped to wear. No one can outtalk me. I gab on and on, slowly wearing down the children, until they can hear my voice in their sleep. If that’s not a deterrent, I don’t know what is.

I’ve retired my “chef” hat during the warm weather, but there are still plenty of parental hats to wear: chauffeur, repairman, laundryman, nurse, pool boy, sunscreen enforcer and TV remote operator.

And let’s not forget “probation officer.” That hat's still hanging around, in case somebody decides to try on “repeat offender.”


Arr, ye are doing it wrong

Eleven pirates off the coast of Kenya got a surprise this weekend when they charged a ship that turned out to be a French navy vessel.

Before the armed pirates' two boats reached the ship, they were intercepted by a helicopter, which fired warning shots. French military authorities arrested the pirates.

Full story here.

Go Google yourself

If you’re going to Google yourself, you first should make sure no one is watching.

It can be embarrassing if you’re caught running your own name through Google’s search engines. Others might think it egotistical that you keep track of how often you’re mentioned out there on the Greater Interwebs. What if the searches don’t turn up much? Worse yet, what if there are more mentions of people with the same name as you?

Such searches can feel like a measure of popularity, similar to the number of times you were pictured in your high school yearbook. A low number of search “hits” might make you feel unpopular and unloved. You might be tempted to put your name on more websites to get your numbers up, sort of like the graffiti “artists” who proclaim their existence on public buildings and railroad cars. That’s just sad.

I confess that I Google myself regularly. I have solid, business-related reasons for doing so. I’m searching for reviews of my books and I’m checking on websites where my column turns up. I’ve got this blog (which sounds like a medical condition), and I’m frequently named on other authors’ blogs. Every mention might result in more book sales, so I’ve got to keep track. Or so I tell myself.

The truth, I fear, is closer to the yearbook analogy. I’m the nerdy kids who’s flipping through pages, hoping to see himself in the Chess Club photo or in the background of crowd shots.

When I search for “Steve Brewer” on Google, it turns up more than 28,000 “hits.” It’s a more common name than I ever would’ve thought.

Probably the most famous Steve Brewer is a foul-mouthed comedian from Detroit who performs at nightclubs around the country and has appeared on Showtime. There’s also a Steve Brewer in San Diego who’s a “one-man concert band.” I hope to see him perform someday.

Other Steve Brewers include a boxer in Idaho; a minister in East Wenatchee, WA; a chef from Fort Lauderdale, FL; a biology professor at the University of Mississipppi; a high school football coach in Tennessee; a county official in North Carolina, and a state senator in Massachusetts. All of them get regular mentions on the Internet.

Steve Brewers run a landscape company in Atlanta, an engineering firm in New Hampshire, a home-building company in Alabama and an investment banking firm in Texas. I’m sure all those Steve Brewers are richer than me, but I’ve got more hits on Google.

Two different towns in Texas -- La Feria and Mexia -- have or had mayors named Steve Brewer. They pop up regularly in news stories online.

There are Steve Brewers in Great Britain who are quoted regularly in news articles: a police inspector in Stanway and (my personal favorite) a watch manager at the Dorking fire station.

I’ve never met another Steve Brewer in person, but I’ve communicated with a few by e-mail. They always respond with something like: “Oh, you’re THAT Steve Brewer. The one who’s all over the Internet.” Which tells me they’ve Googled our mutual name. I get a smug satisfaction out of knowing they must sort through all my hits to get to their own.

Not that I’m counting.


Sedentary Man gets a hobby

I often josh about being hobby-free, which leads people to think I am uninteresting and lazy.

Allow me to rebut: I am not uninteresting.

But I don’t do much in the way of traditional hobbies. I don’t fish or bowl or knit or play a musical instrument or collect stuff.

I watch a lot of sports on TV. I spend way too much time on the computer. I read newspapers, magazines and books, books, books. These are all “pastimes,” in that time passes while I do them, but they’re not real hobbies.

This raises two problems. One, because I am Sedentary Man, my physique is becoming more and more like a bowling pin. Two, I don’t have a ready answer when asked, “What are your hobbies?”

Until now.

I’ve decided that watching movies can be a hobby. Yes, it’s more sedentary activity, but it keeps me fascinated and it costs money and time. I believe those are the official requirements for a “hobby.”

I love the movies. Always have. I love getting lost in the story on the screen. I love the shared experience of laughing along with my fellow viewers, thrilling to the action, secretly choking up over the weepy parts. I really, really love popcorn.

I can remember my very first big-screen movie. When I was 6 years old, my family went to see “How the West Was Won” at the Pines Drive-In in Pine Bluff, AR. (Guess what kind of tree grows in that area.) I was blown away, particularly by the moment when a fleeing pioneer catches a flying ax in the back. Nightmares for a week, but I was hooked on movies.

My mother regularly dropped me off at the Saturday matinee at the Sanger Theater, where several hundred children squealed so loud that it’s a wonder any of our eardrums survived.

I took my first date to a movie. Unfortunately, it was a horrendous horror film called “Last House on the Left” (the first one) that left us both shaken rather than stirred. That’s when I learned to check out reviews BEFORE seeing a movie.

My senior prom included a middle-of-the-night movie (that romantic classic “Young Frankenstein”), so we all had a chance to sit still for a couple of hours and sober up.

I took film classes in college, and have even taught some at the university level. Any excuse to watch movies.

Movie-going changed over the years. Drive-ins mostly vanished and indoor theaters went multi-screen. After the advent of the VCR, people started watching movies in their living rooms and many forgot how to behave in a theater.

Mostly, I watch DVDs at home like everyone else. We subscribe to one of those services that deliver DVDs by mail, and I watch the movies on the sofa with a big bowl of popcorn, or while sweating on a treadmill in the garage so I can stay in shape (“bowling pin” being a shape).

I spend many hours arranging and rearranging my “queue” of hundreds of upcoming films so I get the right blend of serious films and comedies and action movies I’ll be able to hear over the whirring treadmill. Monitoring this flow of movies has become my obsession.

I’m collecting a lifetime of movie experiences. And that qualifies as a hobby.

Pass the popcorn.