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My computer crashed, my TiVo broke, and strangers have invaded my home.

The universe must be sending me a message.

First, my trusty laptop bit the dust after an untimely three-foot fall on concrete. My hard drive was fried, and my address book and e-mails vaporized faster than I could say, "What's backup?" So I shipped it off for repair and found myself computerless for the first time in seven years.

Six hours later, lightning zapped my TiVo. Just as I was about to discover who was getting booted off "American Idol" -- flash, crack, boom -- it was gone. I not only missed the dramatic moment of pop star tension, now I've got to wait a week for a new machine.

No Web to surf. No e-mails to answer. No digitally recorded "must see TV" at my beck and call.

With no gadgets buffering me from the happenings in my own home, I looked around and began to wonder: Who are these people?

They act like they live here, but I don't remember anybody in my house being so old. Last time I looked up, I had two cute little kids and was married to a dashingly handsome man barely out of his 30s.

Who is this middle-aged guy? And who are the two blondes in hip huggers always asking me for a ride? Could I have been so distracted by my constant stream of electronic stimulation that my family grew up while I wasn't looking?

Freed from electronic distractions I have rediscovered my family, and they are a grand crew indeed. But after a few rounds of roasting marshmallows and talking about our feelings, we found ourselves back on the couch wondering what was on TV.

And that's when the real weirdos began showing up.

This second crew of strangers isn't made of long-lost family members. They are bizarre, insidious creatures with only one goal: They want to enslave the family I just reconnected with.

They'd been lurking in the background, and the second our digital video recorder went down, they pounced.

My TiVo-trained family -- who once zipped through commercials so fast the Barbies, breakfast cereals and burritos blurred into blobs of color that would make a brand manager weep -- is now transfixed by ads. And the cast of characters hawking everything from cell phones to cellulite cream is beginning to work its marketing magic on our minds.

The strangers are coming forth by the thousands, wiggling and jiggling, doing the Dance of Consumerism for all to see.

When my children didn't ask for much last Christmas, I assumed it was because my anti- materialistic message finally had sunk in. One evening of "family-friendly" programming proved me dead wrong.

Kids who were once happy with chalk and a jump rope are suddenly begging for so much molded plastic junk you'd think God himself had told them it was the secret to eternal bliss. And my frugal husband, who previously thought the perfect car was one that was paid for, now feels the overwhelming urge to purchase what appear to be $40,000 leather recliners that go from zero to 60 in three seconds flat.

I'd like to say I'm immune to the marketers' messages, but those women with the new sparkly hardwood floors look so happy. Who knew domestic joy was just a phone call away?

You know, that's the funny thing about electronics. The people coming into your home via coax cable can change the dynamics of your entire family. The good-looking ones in the ads can make you want stuff you never knew existed. And "you've got mail" often feels like an urgent message, no matter who sent it.

Strangers come into your home every day. It's a shame when they distract from the people you really want to know.