This is the week when it starts getting rough. The holidays are over and all but the laziest of us have taken down the Christmas trees, lights and decorations. Clerks in stores no longer feel the need to wish their customers happy holidays. The weather is about to get ugly. This is the week when the first credit card bills come due. It’s the week when the kids have successfully destroyed their Christmas toys. It’s the week that the last of the holiday food has been eaten and consumed. You’re on your own now, at least until the spring thaw. Don’t expect things to get much better until then. Britney Spears has gone from being an international sex symbol to just another hillbilly’s Vegas wife. The Crocodile Hunter has been chased from the airwaves for offering his baby as an appetizer to a croc. Yep, the shitstorm gets heavy this time of year and your best bet is to just try and ride it out. Fighting it only makes it worse. There are some things you can do to have a little fun while all of this is going on. The best free entertainment in town is still helping cause a wave of panic shopping at Kroger when the weather gets bad. On the night before a heavy snowstorm is predicted, all you have to do is push a cart through the store and fill it with as many random items as you can grab: sardines, cat litter and olives are good. Walk through the bread section with an accomplice, muttering about the 3 feet of snow that’s going to arrive. Mention stories of people starving to death because they didn’t have enough milk when a winter storm hit. Talk about the upcoming Kleenex shortage. Create a false demand for items that will never be in short supply, like gum or Pine-Sol. Back in my younger days as a prankster, my friends and I would call in fake closings to the TV stations for entertainment. We knew it was no use trying to get our own school cancelled — there supposedly was a secret code given only to school superintendents for that — but there were other opportunities for fun. One of us still has a video with three or four of our phony closings crawling across the bottom of the screen. Anyone watching would have puzzled over the Spiro Agnew Society delaying its meeting for two hours or the Southport NAMBLA gathering being called off. I assume the TV stations of today are more discerning in what they air. I would never encourage anyone to attempt to defraud a news media outlet by calling in a false report of an organization cancelling its meeting. But I blame the news media for creating a false sense of panic every time the weather changes. Through their wall-to-wall reports and forecasts, they create a sense of fear among people just to hype their ratings. Instead, they should be doing stories about getting ready for winter. Check your antifreeze levels. Keep half a tank of gas in your car at all times. Don’t drive like a moron when the streets get icy. TV stations spend more time reporting on the pregnancies of their own news anchors than they do on preparing for winter. So don’t feel bad about causing a panic at the grocery store; think of it as the home version of the TV news game. Yeah, it’s grim fun, scamming TV stations or causing a wave of panic shopping, but it’s about as good as you’re going to get in the second week of January. The lesson of January is: Forget about trying to thrive right now; just hold on for a while until things get better. There is hope on the horizon, though. A few positive news items made it through the conservative media’s filters last week. Willie Nelson showed great courage and integrity by writing a new antiwar song and playing it at a political rally. When he was asked if the song would start a backlash among the country-music establishment, he said, “I sure hope so.” My man for president, Gen. Wesley Clark, has been outlining his views on economic and military policy and giving me great encouragement about the future. He promises to end union-busting, has an awesome health care plan and will fully enact President Clinton’s plan to guarantee a college education to anyone willing to work hard enough to earn a degree. That’s a reason to be optimistic, the fact that democracy will be restored in America just over a year from now when Mr. Bush retires to Crawford, Texas. And another reason to be patriotic and optimistic is the fact that in two weeks we celebrate the birth of perhaps the greatest American leader ever, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Whenever times get really rough in America, I turn to his words, which still resonate today because they were based on eternal and spiritual ideas. I’ll give you just one paragraph to help get you through the hard times ahead: “Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.” Good luck making it through the month.