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The pickup artist 

When I was young and foolish, an older and wiser person than myself posited a conundrum, which I have been considering for, lo, these many years.

Actually, this person wasn't that much older than me -- he is my brother, in fact, and only predates me by two springs. But that he was wiser in those days there could be no doubt. After all, when we were kids, it was he who convinced me to trade my big wad of grubby old dollar bills for a small roll of shiny new dimes, persuading me that I was getting the better of the deal!

"Bro'," he said to me, "there are only two questions which mankind always asks and always has to answer, so listen closely: One: Where are we going to put it?" He paused to watch the query sink into my still malleable 8-year-old brain, while pocketing the faded but now neatly folded bills, "and, two -- who's going to clean it up? Think about it, and, oh yeah, keep the change!"

I have pondered this mystery endlessly, oh big brother of mine, and now that I have lived just short of a half-century, I believe I have finally figured out the solution to your puzzle. The answer to the first riddle is: Everywhere! And the answer to the second appears to be ... well, me!

That is to say, it has become increasingly clear from my perspective that everyone else in the world is more than willing to leave their garbage, mistakes, inept work, unattended-to tasks and/or shoddy performances almost anywhere they can, only so that I will be forced to spend an inordinate amount of my time cleaning, picking up after, correcting, amending, fixing and/or holding the metaphorical bag for the inefficiency and incompetence of others.

The first glimmer that my real role in life was that of universal janitor appeared just after my children were born and moved in with us to trash thoroughly my heretofore neat and well-ordered environment. By my last reckoning, I have bent down nearly 14 million times over the last nine years to pick up something that was never mine in the first place and, if it was, would not have found itself in the middle of the floor, ready to trip and permanently cripple any human inhabitant of what used to be a nice home but now seems more and more like a garage sale.

Then, of course, there was the two-month-long horror show a few years back, starring the unaffectionately remembered "contractor from hell" who was hired to remodel our house. For the amount of his handiwork I have had to redo, I might as well have built the whole edifice myself, from scratch.

But the real confirmation of my role as Mr. Fixit began when I recently took over my mother's affairs because of her declining health. I never imagined that I would have to spend so much of my time and energy jury-rigging other people's mistakes or trying to get them to do the jobs they are ostensibly being paid to do.

It required over five months, for instance, to convince her long-term health insurance company to pay her the benefits to which she was legally entitled and for which she paid premiums for years. It took scores of phone calls and several threats of a lawsuit finally to persuade someone in the firm that doing one's job is not, in fact, a crime against nature. Ironically, I retain in my files some 17 letters from the company telling me how happy it is to serve her and asking me for forms I already had submitted three times.

And don't get me started on all the mistakes I have had to doctor regarding her health and nursing care. Just be assured that after seeing her through four visits to the hospital in recent months, I can honestly say it's the last place you would ever want to find yourself in -- especially if you're sick.

Truly, there are more cracks in the health-care system than there is system, and every hour I spend away from her bedside is just another opportunity to let her slip into one of them, because of inattention or bureaucratic bumbling.

Last week, President Bush asked for more responsibility from heads of American corporations. I applaud that request. It's a good start, but it can't end there. There really needs to be more responsibility from everyone, everywhere, and a quick end to all the shoddy, ineffectual, confused and error-prone work turned in by our country's inattentive population on any given day.

Folks, I'm begging you. I don't have time to do all your tasks. And, kids, it's especially rough on daddy's back! So please, everybody, start picking up your own socks, huh? There's a roll of old but still shiny dimes waiting for you.

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