6.30.2009

Yak in the office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.27.2009

Lessons learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Use the right tool for the job.

2) Leave it to the experts.

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

6.26.2009

Double-dipper

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

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

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

Full story here.

6.25.2009

Your party footprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.23.2009

Interruption eruption

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

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

Sorry, I had to take that call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.22.2009

You're doing it wrong

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

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

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

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

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

Full story here.

6.21.2009

Advice for Father's Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.19.2009

Neologicalistics

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

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

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

Ballpointless: An ink-stained shirt pocket.

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

Bickerbacker: One who supports an argument.

Bleeper: Someone who curses whenever he’s paged.

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

Boxscars: Wounds resulting from mishandling of cardboard.

Browbeatle: A haircut with long bangs.

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

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

Daisycheney: Attacking one foreign nation after another.

Dowdownfall: Stock market plunge.

Filenotfoundophobia: The fear of losing your computer data.

Googlelicious: Attractive to Internet search engines.

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

Hellofodder: Words wasted on e-mail greetings.

High-hat-trick: Snubbing someone three times.

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

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

Ipodectomy: Surgical removal of “ear buds.”

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

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

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

Nascarcinoma: Cigarette advertising at auto races.

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

Palindrone: A speech by a vice presidential candidate.

Parashoot: Free fall.

Pavemint: The refreshing taste of asphalt.

Photofinnish: A picture in which everyone looks Scandinavian.

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

Quaranicotine: The practice of isolating cigarette smokers.

Raisinography: The tracing of face wrinkles.

Schedfull: An overbooked calendar.

Shamupoo: Whale soap.

Snickerdoodie: Laughing in public restrooms.

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

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

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

Stewpid: Too dumb to cook from scratch.

Thumbtax: Overwork via text-messaging.

Triscuitdeckophobia: The fear of eating snack crackers outdoors.

Tweeterbeater: Someone who awakes before the early bird.

Waistbasket: A large, round belly.

Wickerpedia: Knowing everything about baskets.

Woodgie: The painful result of sliding down a banister.

Xerorepromoonics: The practice of photocopying one’s backside.

Zapology: The study of remote control usage.

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

6.18.2009

Murphy's Law #413

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

6.17.2009

The Customer Service Two-Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the modem costs--”

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

“Let me go talk to my manager.”

“Okey-doke.”

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

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

“Huh. Let me go talk to my manager.”

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

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

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

“Two to three business days.”

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

“Let me go talk to my manager.”

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

“Free shipping?”

She sighed. “All for free.”

“Perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

All they ask is that we dance with them first.

6.16.2009

'I'm not dead yet'

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

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

No word on whether the morticians were freaked out.

Full story here.

6.14.2009

Pinball lizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.11.2009

Signed, sealed, arrested

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

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

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

Full story here.

Think yourself fat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.10.2009

Now lie in it

Here's a tip: If you're surprising your mother with a new mattress, check the old one before throwing it away. It might contain $1 million.

A woman in Tel Aviv, Israel, has been plowing through dumps in search of the discarded mattress after her upset mother revealed that it contained her life savings.

Full story here.

6.09.2009

Food mortgages

Remember when a trip to the supermarket didn’t require a major investment?

Food prices have climbed so much recently that buying groceries should now come with a mountain of qualifying paperwork, like a second mortgage.

“Sorry, sir,” the cashier would say, “but it appears you don’t have the financial history to take on this much debt. You’d better put back the ice cream.”

Food prices are tied to energy prices -- shipping food to your supermarket requires diesel -- and we all know how that’s gone lately. Truckers are going broke, farmers are barely staying afloat, and the oil barons would be laughing all the way to the bank if weren’t for the strain of carrying all that money.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are standing in the supermarket aisles, trying to decide whether we can afford to invest in dessert.

Maybe this is the latest strategy for curing obesity -- make food so expensive that we Americans have to curtail our eating. Won’t work, of course, because the most fattening foods are the cheapest.

The government tells us we should eat healthy fish and lean meat and fresh fruit and vegetables, then the prices on those items go through the roof. Pretty soon, all we can afford is hyphenated food like mac-and-cheese and Rice-a-Roni and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. Every day, we get a little fatter and a little poorer.

It starts to feel like it would be cheaper to eat dollar-menu fast food all the time -- at least you wouldn’t have to heat up the kitchen -- but who can afford enough gasoline to sit in a drive-thru line? And, if you eat burgers all the time, it eventually will cause your spleen to explode.

I’d been somewhat insulated from the latest surge of food price inflation because I hadn’t been doing the grocery shopping. For years, my wife was the breadwinner, and I did the actual shopping for bread. But once she joined me in working at home, she took over the hunting and gathering.

My wife’s a more canny shopper than I am. She’ll go to three different discount grocery stores to get the best deals and come home with loads of food for less money than I might spend on, say, beer.

Bargain-shopping makes for strange combinations sometimes and some unfamiliar labels in the pantry, but she knows how to whip these items into delicious meals that might not even involve the microwave, so it turns out fine.

Recently, though, she was busy and I went to the store. I did it my usual way -- no coupons, no comparison shopping, same supermarket I always use because I know where everything is.
Holy mackerel! No, wait, mackerel’s too expensive. Let’s say: Holy ramen noodles! I couldn’t believe how much prices have soared.

I started paying attention to prices, hunting the cheapest brands, putting stuff back, and I still spent $200 on a not-quite-full cart of groceries. At the checkout stand, I swiped the “club card” that entitles me to special prices, then played Bob Barker -- “Come on down!” -- while I watched the total on the register readout diminish only slightly.

I sheepishly brought the groceries home. Our two teen-aged sons had it all eaten within, oh, three days. Then they wanted to know why we were out of ice cream.

“Because,” I told them, “I’m waiting for the paperwork to clear on the home-equity loan.”

6.08.2009

Calling Dr. Poolman

Nothing says "summer" like the sting of chlorinated water in your eyes.

Swimming seems a great way to "beat the heat," which is why so many people make the mistake of putting swimming pools right in their own yards.

Pools have become commonplace in warmer climes. Fly over any Sun Belt city, and you'll be astounded by the number of pools you see in the yards below. It's as if our cities have broken out in bright blue freckles.

But those freckles are not the pristine bodies of water that they seem. Instead, they're vats of chemical soup, a mix of chlorine and pH balancer and algacide and clarifier and -- my personal favorite -- "flocculant." Oh, and some water, if there's any room left.

Who do we put in charge of such hazardous chemicals? The local fire department's "hazmat" team? The Environmental Protection Agency? No, we leave it to the homeowners. We give them little kits with test tubes and dyes and potions, and easy access to all the chemicals needed to purify their pools. (Available right in the supermarket! Near the food!) As for training, pool owners are given a hearty, "You're on your own." Then they're qualified to play Dr. Poolman the Chemist.

It's a wonder we haven't all bleached ourselves to death.

This is not what homeowners have in mind when they decide to take the plunge (har!) into pool ownership. They picture themselves blissfully floating on an air mattress, holding a drink with an umbrella in it, while grateful children paddle around, shouting hosannas about parents who know how to have "fun."

Hahaha on that. I've been a pool owner for years now (since we moved into a home that came with one already in place), and I can tell you that idyllic summer moment happens, um, never.

Yes, the pool's right outside. Yes, it looks enticing. And, OK, yeah, the children do seem to enjoy jumping into it over and over, a jillion times, until all the water has splashed out and killed the lawn. But then there are the negatives:

1) The water is co-o-o-old.

2) The children are never grateful. They don't think we're "fun" parents because we supply an oversized bathtub out back. To them, parents have one role where the pool is concerned: We are targets for "cannonballs."

3) Swimming seems like good exercise until you try it in your average residential pool. You can't swim in a pool that size. All you can do is turn around. Stroke, stroke, TURN. Stroke, stroke, TURN. You'll get dizzy before you burn any calories.

4) There's all that maintenance, including the cleaning of filters and the monitoring of electronic equipment (Water and electricity together. Shocking!) and the handling of chemicals labeled with more warnings than your standard package of bubonic plague virus.

It's so easy to make a mistake.

Not enough chemicals and cleaning, and your pool quickly turns into a green breeding ground for the Swamp Thing. Too much, and the children run round red-eyed and squawling while their hair falls out. Such alarm can make a parent spill his drink.

Let the chemistry get far enough out of balance, and the toxic stew can eat the concrete and leave a headline-grabbing sinkhole.

Then, next time you're on a plane, you can point with pride: "My house? Why, it's right there. The one with the big brown freckle."

6.06.2009

Pork it over

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: Trading a slaughtered pig for crack cocaine, right on the street, might be a tad obvious.

Police in Syracuse, NY, arrested two men on drug charges after they were caught doing the deal on a street corner. One man was trading half of a slaughtered pig and $10 for a $50 bag of crack.

Extra points: The pig was for a party for a relative who was getting out a jail.

Double extra points: While police were busy arresting the suspects, someone stole the pig.

Full story here.

6.05.2009

Caught in the act

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: When stealing 225 feet of copper wire, it's better not to do it next to a police station.

Police in Yaphank, NY, say two men were arrested when officers spotted them loading the utility wire into the trunk of their car on property next to the Long Island community's police station.

"They were pretty much caught red-handed," a police spokesman said.

Extra points: The two suspects are brothers, which means there may be a genetic component at work here.

Full story here.

6.04.2009

School's out

The end of the school year can be a tough time for parents.

In the summer months, we parents no longer have a taxpayer-funded place to store our children for seven hours a day. We must find ways to keep the kids safe, fed and amused while we work. We must transport them from place to place in oven-like minivans. We pay more for summer camp than we might pay for tuition at Yale. We must plan a (gulp!) vacation trip with the kids.

But let’s not focus on the complaints. Let’s take a moment to look at the benefits of school-free summers.

No more pencils, notebooks or other school supplies are necessary in summer. Children (especially boys) tend to lose those items repeatedly during the school year, along with their jackets, gloves and random shoes. Replacement costs go way down until fall, when we must completely outfit the students all over again.

No more books other than those of the children’s choosing. I recommend that kids spend as much time as possible in a nice, air-conditioned library.

No more teachers’ dirty looks. Parents suffer just as much as the kids when misbehavior, failing grades or other bad news require teacher meetings throughout the school year. Sure, the kids might still be little vandals during the summer, but your neighbors can’t force a face-to-face meeting the way teachers can. Just don’t answer the doorbell.

No more calls from the principal. (See above paragraph.) Plus, no more of those automated calls where the principal’s disembodied voice informs parents of minimum days, STAR testing, truancies, emergency lockdowns, etc.

No school means no homework which may mean fewer arguments around the house. Instead of standing over the offspring, forcing them to do their homework, we parents can force them to do yard work.

Summer means lots less laundry. Youngsters need to wear fresh clothes to school every day (whether they like it or not), but in summer they can go around in the same swimsuit, T-shirt and flip-flops for days on end. Swimming puts more towels in the mix, but at least those are easy to fold. Since the kids are home for the summer, maybe you can even get them to do the laundry. (Hahaha. Just kidding.)

School-related fundraising comes to a halt in summer. For three months, parents won’t have to foist band candy, bake sales or raffle tickets on their co-workers, neighbors and former friends.

Summer gives children more free time to climb trees, ride bicycles and skateboards, wrestle the family dog and engage in other dangerous activities. This gives parents the opportunity to get re-acquainted with the family doctor, insurance providers and the staffs at local emergency rooms.

(A parenting tip: Remind your children that “Look, Ma, no hands!” is a boast, not a medical condition.)

Most of all, summer vacation means parents can spend more “quality time” with their kids, aside from the hours spent in emergency rooms.

Take the children on a picnic, take them fishing, go to a ballgame, play games together or spend hot afternoons in air-conditioned matinees. Family activities are where memories are made, and summer is the best time for them. The kids will thank you (someday) for devoting your summer months to their welfare and amusement.

One final benefit: The more time the family spends together, the more eager the children will be to return to school next fall.

6.03.2009

That'll show 'em

A man in Sterling Heights, MI, has been arrested after shooting a rifle at a door-to-door solicitor who rang his doorbell.

Police said the 20-year-old man, who apparently was intoxicated, fired twice, but missed the fleeing solicitor. Instead, he managed to put a bullet into his own car.

Full story here.

6.02.2009

Checking the traps

I’m going to sit down at my computer and get right to work. I’ve got a lot to do and no time for lollygagging.

I’ll just check my e-mail and make sure there’s nothing urgent there, then I’m busy. Count on it.

OK, nothing in the old in-box that can’t wait. I should get off the Internet and get to work. But first I should check my blog. Maybe somebody’s made a comment. I might need to respond. Hmm. Nothing so far.

While I’m at it, I’ll check the Google Analytics and see if anyone’s reading the blog. Hmm. The numbers remain the same. I’ve got a loyal readership, but they appear to be the same handful of people, over and over. Don’t know why I bother--

Wait. Don’t get caught up in those negative thoughts. Too much work to do. Get off the Internet and--

Just a quick check of Facebook. See what all my "friends" are up to. Hmm. Not much new there. Nobody commented on my latest missive.

Oh, look. Someone e-mailed me a joke. Haha. That’s a good one.

Enough. Time to get to work.

Just one more Internet stop. I’ll see whether anyone’s bought one of my books on Amazon.com. Hmm. Those sales numbers don’t show any improvement.

Well, off to a rollicking start this morning! Lots of encouraging numbers out there. Really makes a fellow want to get busy and write something.

While I’m at Amazon, I might as well see when my latest shipment will arrive. Hmm. Looks like it’ll be a while. Amazing how you can track your shipments these days. With pinpoint accuracy, you can tell when the Postal Service has delivered your package to Guam.

What did people do before the Internet? They just sat around, wondering when their purchases would arrive. That seems better, somehow. Internet tracking takes all the suspense out of the transaction.

Remember how exciting it was, when you were a little kid, waiting for something to come in the mail? You sent in your cereal box tops to get a Magic Decoder Ring and, for the next four to six weeks, you were the first one to the mailbox every day, heart pounding, awaiting your package. Then the Magic Decoder Ring showed up, and it was cheap plastic junk and--

Whoa. Gotten way off track there. Need to focus. Lots of work to do. Right after a quick check of my e-mail.

Oh, look. There’s a news update. Better read that. Got to stay informed.

Wow, where does the time go? I swear, I go to look at one little article and, next thing you know, I’ve scanned five different newspapers and read a dozen blogs and laughed at Fark.com and consulted Wikipedia and checked my blog analytics six more times (still no readers).

Now I’m hungry. Guess I should break for lunch. But I haven’t accomplished anything. I don’t deserve to eat. I’m a goldbrick, a time-waster, a lollygagger.

True, but I’m a hungry lollygagger, so the work will have to wait. If nothing else, going to kitchen will get me away from the Internet.

Then I’ll return to my desk and buckle down and really hammer out some work. Right after I check my e-mail.

6.01.2009

Stay-cation

With gasoline prices still steep, many folks must skip the traditional summer driving vacation to some faraway marvel such as the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore or Grandma’s house.

There’s always plenty to do closer to home, of course. All areas of the country have their natural wonders and hidden waterholes and Giant Balls of Twine.

But let’s talk really close to home. You can take a mini-vacation without ever getting in your car. A stroll around the neighborhood can feel like a real get-away-from-it-all if you’re in the right frame of mind. Relax and take your time and find a new way to look at the world. If you can think on a smaller scale, your typical suburb becomes a Japanese bonsai garden, carefully designed to please the eye. It helps if you’ve been taking cold medicine.

Here, then, is a little pamphlet I made up:

GUIDE TO HIKING TRAILS AND RECREATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES AROUND MY YARD

Trails are easy unless otherwise indicated. All water is potable except that slimy bucket by the patio. Hikers are warned that a large, floppy dog inhabits the premises; all food should be kept in sealed containers. Also, a big bearded guy sometimes comes out and yells at trespassers, but he’s harmless.

Fig Tree Outlook Trail: An easy hike, but not to be attempted in bare feet because of an expanse of hot concrete driveway. The reward at the end of this walk is a weedy pocket garden with a shredded bark floor. At its center stands a symbol of hope, a small fig tree that’s been in the process of dying for one year. Spectacular.

Transverse Trail: This short stroll can be challenging because of a stretch of thick, sodden lawn. Uphill a few steps, then a slippery downslope the rest of the way, past the Impenetrable Lantana Jungle and the Tangled Trees of Lower Front Yard to the safety of the sidewalk.

Around Back Trail: This strenuous hike involves a couple of squeaky gates and a variety of tricky surfaces, so it’s not for the faint of heart or the bare of foot. For those intrepid enough to tackle it, many mysteries are revealed along the way, including the bloodlike Drips of Red Paint that accidentally got on the sidewalk that time. Past the looming Basketball Hoop stretch the Inexplicable Plains of Sharp Gravel, which cannot be traversed without shoes. Beyond another squeaky gate lies the real prize, a burbling waterfall and scenic pool. (Swimming not recommended -- Department of Health)

“Up Your Berm” Trail: The most strenuous hike on the property, this risky path goes up a steep berm covered in landscaping bark and the occasional decorative boulder. Not to be attempted in sandals. If you can manage it, however, it’s only a few strides before you reach the magnificent Great Wall of Suburbia, a gray concrete marvel that only the tallest of men can see over without a ladder. Beyond that wall, a majestic view of the next subdivision.

As you can see, the world is filled with many wonders, if you set your sights low enough. I urge my fellow armchair travelers and computer addicts to get up and go outside once in a while. Take a fond look at the world around you.

Plan your hikes carefully, and you can be back under the air conditioning before you break a sweat.