Saturday, December 13, 2008

I'm off to back in a hour

The ad popped up right in the middle of my PC while I was pleasure surfing: An attractive woman, wearing short shorts and a halter top, was stretched out comfortably on a chaise lounge with a laptop balanced on her mid section.
The accompanying caption read, “Earn your degree from anywhere.”
This woman was attending college?
While tanning?
In a lounge chair?
What in the name of Dale Carnegie is going on?
Since the PC entered our lives, we have learned to do just about everything without leaving our desks. We are shopping on line, paying our bills, finding the perfect Eggs Benedict recipe and quickly finding answers to questions like, “what was the monetary unit of New Guinea in 1842?” if we so desire.
But “distance learning”? Earning a college degree without actually attending college? What gives?.
I graduated from Northwestern University in 1984. I recently drove through the campus. Not much had changed. The library looked exactly the same as did the student union, the fraternities and the residential quads. I have great memories of the school but none were of the academic variety. I wasn’t the greatest student, often employing cliff notes and relying on teaching assistants to help me struggle to maintain a B average.
But one thing I knew I had to do in order to stay in school: I had to SHOW UP to class.
Oh sure, some professors taped their lectures and offered the tapes to students who missed class. But listening to a professor on tape back in 1984 was about as easy as trying to understand a McDonald’s employee through a drive-in speaker. “Distance learning” back in 1984 meant you sat in the back row.
I don’t want to make it sound like I was writing term papers with an inkwell and a fountain pen by glow of kerosene lamp. I’m not that old. There were computers back then but they existed primarily in a strange looking building simply called “Vogelback.” Since Northwestern is a private university, most of its buildings were named after whoever could fork over multi-million dollar donations. If a “Mr. Vogelback” did indeed exist, I’m sure his biography included a stint at Hitler Youth camp.
Vogelback was a non-descript low-rise building that looked like it could easily have housed the entire university’s plumbing system. It was a diabolical place to say the least. I had friends who would walk through Vogelback’s doors on Wednesday and often not come out until the following Monday. They exited carrying lengthy rolled up papers containing the results of whatever “program” they had been trying to run. The key word here is “trying.” Programs NEVER ran on the first try. Running a successful program was a never-ending session of finding “errors,” fixing them, running the program again and discovering new errors. .
One night I encountered a frat buddy sitting in our dining room and poring over his program. He announced that his starting program contained 678 errors but he’d “gotten that down to about 315.” He sounded almost giddy, an amazing feat considering he had not slept in nine days.
Three-hundred fifteen errors? President Bush hasn’t made that many mistakes.
In four years of college, I never once set foot in Vogelback. Instead, I majored in journalism, which required me to bang out papers on an electric Smith-Corona typewriter with the uncanny ability to run out of ribbon ink only between midnight and 7 a.m., while every office supply store in the country was closed.
Furthermore, when exam week rolled around, I slogged across campus regardless of weather to the lecture hall where I was handed a small, multi-page booklet containing approximately 20 sheets of lined paper. It was called simply a “blue book” and it was where I wrote (or often bs’d) answers to the finals. Never once did I do this while sitting in a chaise lounge.
This is precisely why I wanted to reach through my PC the other day and strangle this college “student” who was making the process of earning a degree look easier than making instant coffee.
The ad was sponsored by Monster Learning Network, a division of the popular job site I clicked on the ad and was taken here where I learned that on-line degrees were offered by the University of Phoenix, the Art Institutes and DeVry University. I even saw a list of the most popular on-line degrees:
• M.B.A in e-Business
• RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing
• Master of Education in Adult Education and Distance Learning
• Masters in Computer Information Systems
• Master of Education in Curriculum and Technology

I had to admit, all of these degrees sounded far more impressive than “Bachelor of Science in Journalism, Northwestern University.”
For years, I have received almost weekly emails from the University of Phoenix, encouraging me to EARN MY DEGREE. At first I scoffed at the idea and assumed the University of Phoenix would go the way of and other web sites that flamed out during the dot com bust. But the University of Phoenix is going strong and today is the largest private university of North America, according to numerous sources (read: Wikipedia!) I also learned the average student’s age is between 33 and 36 and most have outside work commitments. This leads me to believe that the on line program is booming.
Yet I still can’t fathom the idea of going to college while sitting in Starbucks. Or McDonald’s. Or on a chaise lounge like the Monster Network beauty queen. What do these students do for fun? Join a virtual fraternity? Attend on line football games? Get drunk at cyber bars?
Even more, I wonder how one takes a test on line? As I sit and write this blog, I can see the Google search bar in the upper right corner of the screen. If I have a question about ANYTHING, it’s there to help me find the answer. All I have to do is type the question in the box.
Which begs the question…what prevents an on line student from seeking help via Google while taking an on line test?
Hmmm, that’s a tough question. I don’t know the answer. But perhaps somebody at might have an idea.
Get my point? I know I’m old school but I question how much “learning” is happening on line. At the very least, students should take tests in a classroom, under the watchful eyes of professors and teaching assistants who are making sure they know the material and aren’t resorting to cheating using tools such as…THE ENTIRE INTERNET!
Obviously the folks at University of Phoenix don’t agree with me. They might read this blog and decide they’ve been defamed or libeled. Maybe they will sue me.
No problem. I’ll represent myself.
Right after I get my law degree.
But first I need a chaise lounge.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The world's greatest salesman

Every year I perform my stand-up comedy routine at dozens of sales awards banquets. They’re usually held in nice resorts, include open bar at some point and are attended by the company’s top producers – the “best of the best” if you will.

The attendees carry themselves well. From the moment they stride into the resort, golf bags slung over their shoulder, they walk with an air of accomplishment. They know they are excellent salespeople. Some may even go so far as to think they are the best salespeople.

They are not. For I know the best salesperson. While we have never met, I know where to find him or her. It’s somewhere in Pennsylvania. But more on that later. First, any talk of the best sales person in the world has to include this joke:

A salesman walks into a sporting goods store to apply for a job. During the interview he tells the manager that he is the world’s best salesman.
“I can sell anything to anybody,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Unconvinced, the manager puts him on the floor immediately and then drifts over to the salesman’s area, hoping to watch the first customer exchange.
A man approaches and chats briefly with the salesman. Together they head to fishing tackle where, within minutes, the customer has purchased $500 worth of fishing poles and tackle.
The awestruck manager creeps closer, anxious to get a whiff of the conversation.
“Now that you got the fishing tackle, aren’t you going to need a boat?” the salesman asks.
The customer agrees and buys a boat on the spot.
“How about a trailer to haul that boat?” asks the salesman. Another sale right there, this time for a top of the line trailer and hitch.
“A trailer like that can only be towed by a large Winnebago,” says the salesman. Let me show you what we’ve got.
The manager is completely blown away as he sees the customer sign the paperwork for a new Winnebago.
But the salesman isn’t done. Not until he has sold the customer a piece of lakefront property where he can fish to his heart’s content.
When the customer had left, the manager came out from behind his hiding place. “I gotta tell you buddy, I was skeptical but I just watched you in action and you truly are the world’s greatest salesman. I mean, that guy just came in to buy fishing tackle and he walks out with a boat, a Winnebago and a piece of property. Unbelievable!
“You don’t know the half of it,” the salesman replies. “That guy came in looking for tampons for his wife and I said, ‘hey, as long as you aren’t doing anything this weekend, why not go fishing?’”


Okay it’s not a laugh out loud joke but it’s funny if you pound the pavement every day, hoping for the next big score that will send you on that trip to Hawaii. And maybe someday you will be as talented as the salesperson in Pennsylvania. Again, I don’t know this person’s name or whether this person is male or female. I only know that he or she sells cell phone service.

Several weeks ago I was performing for PennMed Healthcare, which manages 17 long-term care facilities in Pennsylvania. Each year the company organized a corporate “retreat,” in which the top brass go to a remote location and spend two days discussing how to make PennMed a better operation.

For reasons never quite explained to me, the group chose the St. Francis Center for Renewal, a convent located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was the first show I had ever performed in a convent. Statues and paintings of Jesus were on every wall of the showroom. The Lord truly was watching me from all angles.

But that’s not all. According to Wikipedia, Bethlehem is also home to the largest concentration of Amish people in the world. Indeed, when driving around the area, it’s hard not to see billboards for Amish furniture and other wares.
So there I was at 8:30 a.m. driving a rental car and attempting to find a convent in the middle of Amish country. Upon arrival, I turned on my Blackberry to check email.

My phone worked perfectly. I had all the bars. I had full strength. I had cell phone service. Put more succinctly, I had cell phone service in an area populated by a bunch of women who had given their lives to God and a collection of people who still think we’re living in the early 1800s.

Whoever convinced the population of this area that they needed cell phones is the world’s greatest salesman. END OF DISCUSSION. Prepare the plaque, engrave the company pen and book the trip to Cabo. We have a winner.

I still wonder what these people are doing with their cell phones. Are the Mother Superior and Ezekiel texting each other late at night? Are the nuns listening to choir music on their new 3G iPhones? Are the Amish buying and selling oxen on eBay?

Actually, I don’t care and I doubt the world’s greatest sales person does. For right now, that person has probably just convinced the executives at PennMed that the nursing home residents need motorcycles.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

What are YOU doing right now?

I am typing on my laptop in the Lehigh, Pennsylvania Airport

I am taking a sip from the Diet Coke that I purchased at the airport Subway. It is cold and refreshing.

I am checking my Blackberry to see if I have any emails.

I am typing again.

If you don’t care that I’m doing any of this, then you obviously are not a member of Facebook, the wildly popular social networking site that invites its members to announce to the cyberspace community exactly what it is they are doing RIGHT NOW!

Right now I am wondering why I ever joined Facebook. I’m wondering that now as well. And now. Now too!

At last count, Facebook had approximately 75 million members, not counting the five million who are desperately trying to join but are having trouble with their Internet connections. What started as a quirky idea in a college dorm room has snowballed into a phenomenon that, in my opinion, threatens to overtake Fantasy Football as the biggest time waster in modern history. (Read Greg's Facebook profile by clicking here)

Mind you, Facebook is not the first social networking site to hit the Internet. I joined the social networking phenomenon two years ago when a business acquaintance suggested I become part of LinkedIn, a “business-oriented” social networking site. By “business-oriented” it means that the members actually have jobs and, furthermore, actual lives. (Read Greg's LinkedIn profile by clicking here)

Such does not appear to be the case with Facebook.

I took the Facebook plunge only after a marketing executive told me it would increase my on line profile and allow people trolling cyberspace one more way to reach me directly. What did I have to lose?

I went to the site and set up my profile. This took just over 92 hours because Facebook wanted to know EVERYTHING about me. Was I married? Single? Engaged? In an open relationship? Or my favorite choice: “it’s complicated.” Excuse me o Facebook gods but what relationship IS NOT complicated?

Was I interested in men or women? Actually I find both men and women interesting, particularly if they’ve had a few drinks and are in the midst of a lengthy airport delay. But I assumed Facebook wanted to know my sexual preference. I left it blank.

What were my political and religious views? I thought there might be drop down boxes to choose from. Had the choices included “Democrat but Sarah Palin makes me laugh” or “church on Sundays unless my daughter has a gymnastics meet,” I would have made a choice. But I left those blank too, simply because I don’t want to be contacted by any Facebook members with conversion on their minds.

The interrogation continued. What were my favorite movies? TV shows? Musical groups? Quotes?

The quotes box stumped me, as I have never gone through life quoting anybody other than my father who lived by the mantra, “So help me God, I am turning this car around right now!” Somehow that didn’t seem appropriate considering some of my Facebook “friends” were quoting Plato, Sun Tzu and Lee Iacocca.

Ah yes, the “friends” you will meet upon joining Facebook. Once my profile was completed and I had announced every known fact about myself except what I ate for breakfast on June 29, 1981, (Note: Facebook support personnel are working to answer that question right now) it was time to sit back and hear from others in the Facebook community who wanted me to be their friends.

It didn’t take long.

Facebook, you see, crawls into your inner being and just keeps digging deeper, much like a tapeworm. Facebook can scan your email address book and determine which contacts also have Facebook profiles. It can contact them directly if you like. It’s a good thing I don’t know anybody named Bob Smith for Facebook would instantly send a message to approximately 549,000 Bob Smiths, letting all of them know that Greg Schwem wants to be their friend.

Instead, people I had long forgotten about wanted to be MY friend. There was a fraternity brother who graduated shortly after I initiated; a Canadian woman who last hired me 10 years ago; a fellow Chicago comedian whose name and face I could barely place.

And my accountant.

I have no idea why my accountant wants to be my friend. Is he not satisfied with the monthly check I send him? I wanted to email all these people back and say, “Where were you when I was seven, huh?” Nobody wanted me to be friends with me then. There was no “Greg’s a pretty cool kid, so let’s ask him to play baseball with us” message board that I could join. But with Facebook, suddenly I was more popular than I had ever been in my life. So I emailed them all back, acted like they were all still fresh in my memory and asked them to stay in touch by writing on my Facebook “wall”.

That was a HUGE mistake.

Opening up your Facebook wall to your friends is another way of saying, “annoy me whenever you like.” It allows them to, indeed, tell me what they are doing right now. Suddenly I was being bombarded with email alerts letting me know that one “friend” “was thrilled that the Sox pulled it out.” Another “is working on a plan.” Another “got sunburned during the kickball tournament” and still another is “counting the minutes until she sees her boys on Wednesday.”

I don’t know if that’s what these friends were doing “right now” or if it was just something they thought everybody should know about. In any event, it caused me to stop what I was doing and read what they were doing.

Before Facebook launched its new look, it gave users a drop down menu containing “what are you doing right now” choices. So, if a user wasn’t actually sure what he or she was doing right now, Facebook could help. One of the choices was “going to bed.” That’s right, I could let my entire collection of on line friends know that I was “going to bed” with a simple mouseclick. Trust me, if anybody interrupted my life with an email stating they were going to bed, I would tell Facebook to WAKE THEM UP. NOW!

The bottom line? I don’t want to know what people are doing right now. I don’t need social networking sites that will distract me from my primary goal, namely getting something done. Which is why today I am launching the first ever “anti-social networking” site. Simply put, this is a site for people who don’t care to be in the loop anymore.

Interested? Then join me. My site will purge your email address book, ultimately leaving you “friendless.” Your name and personal information will be eliminated from message boards, chat rooms, groups, and lists. Nobody will know your favorite color and you won’t know how anybody is celebrating his or her birthday. In short, you will have nothing left to do with your time other than be productive.

That’s what I’m going to do right now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pomp and Circumstance redux

Every now and then we read about somebody who hatches a scheme so outlandish, so bizarre, so “I can’t believe anybody would actually go through with this,” that we admire the person for his or her tenacity.

I have found that person in Wendy Brown.

Ms. Brown is a 33-year-old Green Bay mom, with an alleged history of identity theft crimes. But her latest attempt to pass herself off as somebody else was, shall we say, “really bitchin.” You see, Brown was recently arrested and charged with posing as her own 15-year-old daughter – a plot she allegedly hatched so she could go back to high school, get a degree and here’s the best part – become a cheerleader.

Brown was actually getting away with this when she was nabbed. She was attending classes and going to cheerleading practice in the morning. Apparently she made the team. I’m not sure if she made it because of her physical dexterity or because she could always drive the other cheerleaders to and from practice.

If the criminal complaint is true, then obviously Brown needs a psychiatrist more than a prom date. But I have to take issue with Wisconsin law enforcement authorities. Why arrest her so early? Why not let her finish out the year and achieve her dream? After all, who was she really hurting? Brown doesn’t sound like the sharpest knife in the drawer so it’s unlikely she was setting the curve on the calculus exams, forcing her fellow classmates to study harder. Also, her daughter was living in Nevada with Brown’s mother and was apparently unaware that Wendy Brown had assumed her identity.

Okay, so the complaint did allege that she bounced a check for her cheerleading uniform but I’m sure she’s not the first cheerleader who has done that. Last Spring I dropped over $150 on a dance costume for my six year old. The outfit was worn exactly once. After the recital it was tossed in the “dress up bin” in our basement.

Personally, I’m rooting for Ms. Brown, whose mugshot is on the right. I want to see her acquitted. And if she is, I may just follow in her footsteps. For there are a few things I’d still like to accomplish at my alma mater.

I think I could pull it off. Sure I’m almost 46 but I still have all my hair. I don’t need to shave every day but even if I came in unshaven for chemistry class, I’d look no less scruffy than the majority of high school kids today. Of course, to blend in, I would also need a few other things. I’d need pants that fell below my waist, revealing my underwear, the latest cell phone and iPod, an energy drink tucked into my backpack and a newfound ability to speak in sentences punctuated repeatedly with “like” and containing at least one profanity. But I refuse to get any body piercings on tattoos. Those look painful.

With my new identity, I would be ready to return to Prospect High School, home of the Knights, in Mt. Prospect, Illinois. The first thing I would do? Take the bus. I never took a bus in high school. I lived about 10 blocks from school and walked every day. No, it wasn’t uphill both ways but the district decided the distance was short enough that there was no need to waste education dollars on my transportation. So I walked. This was okay except in winter when I trudged into school with ice crystals adorning my eyelashes about the same time the bus pulled up and my fellow students took three steps before entering the building.

Once at school, I’d get my class schedule. I’d be certain to take Spanish since I never took that in high school and it’s a decision I regret. I took four years of German but even then I knew it was a language I would never use once I graduated. Several years later I visited Germany with a college buddy and discovered I had forgotten every lick of German I learned except “zwei bier bitte.” Two beers please. Surprisingly, I was able to stumble through the country quite ably using just that phrase.

I’d sign up for a math class, particularly one that requires a graphing calculator. I’m curious as to why a graphing calculator is so necessary today. I’d never heard of such a device when I went to high school. Yet my SIXTH GRADER needs one today. I took one look at it and guessed it was made in China because all the buttons appeared to contain Chinese characters. A graphing calculator allows its owner to brush up on things like “quadratics” and “hyperbolic trig.” Are these worthwhile skills to have today? I don’t know but I want to find out.

I’d also want to take a bunch of science classes just so I could consistently say, “what’s the point?” every time the teacher gave me an assignment. Mix chemicals together and wait for an explosion? What’s the point? Cut open a frog? What’s the point? If I contacted every member of the Prospect High School class of 1980 and asked if anyone had put their frog-dissecting skills to use following high school, I guarantee the answer would be a unanimous NO!

After a morning of education, it would be time for lunch. The cafeteria always intimidated me in high school. It just seemed to be a mass of people, none of whom knew me and vice versa. I wasn’t the most popular guy in high school by any means, a point that got exacerbated in the cafeteria. But I have a supply of confidence today that I never had in high school and it would show. I’d walk up to any table, containing any high school faction, sit down, introduce myself, eat my bologna and cheese and jump into the conversation.

Hi, I’m Greg. What music do you guys listen to? Lil Wayne? Death Cab for Cutie? Yeah, they’re okay. Anybody here like Styx or REO Speedwagon? Hey, where’s everybody going?

Of course I’d want to attend the Homecoming dance, providing one still existed. According to my high school-aged nieces, kids today don’t necessarily go to dances with dates. Instead, they go in groups, hang out and possibly “hook up” later. Actually that sounds okay by me. I went to two out of four homecomings in high school. Both times I made nervous calls to girls who accepted only after long, uncomfortable pauses on the phone. I dressed in a suit, tied a tie with a massive knot and picked up a girl that I knew would probably avoid me in the halls the following Monday.

This time would be different. I wouldn’t need to pick up my date in my parent’s Ford Torino. No, my lady would be escorted in my black BMW X5 with navigational system and an iPod port. With wheels like that, she might even talk to me until the following Tuesday, especially if I agreed to drive the entire group around after Homecoming.

Like Ms. Brown, I’d need an extracurricular activity or two. Hers was cheerleading. I’d want a few more. I would play for the tennis team, just as I did in high school. I’d only play because I had a horrible loss my senior year that kept me from getting to the Illinois state tennis tournament. I’d work hard, make it to the state tournament and then be forced to default because my 45-year-old body couldn’t handle playing three matches in one day.

I would also join some clubs that didn’t exist when I went to high school. The Computer Animated Design club. The science fiction club. Maybe even the Gay and Lesbian club, which seems to be popping up at every high school. I’m not gay but I’ve always wondered what gay high school students talk about after school? Do they study together? Do you study a different way if you’re gay?

According to authorities, Brown was planning to attend school until she graduated because she never received a high school diploma. I did graduate but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it again, right? And I’d want to give the commencement speech. I’d walk proudly to the podium, mortarboard balanced on my head, gaze out at my fellow students and the parents fanning themselves with programs. And then, I would reveal my ruse:

“Mr Superintendent, faculty members, parents and fellow students, my name is Greg Schwem. You may know me as ‘that new kid who claimed he had a disease which caused some of his hair to turn prematurely gray.’ You may know me as ‘that kid who seemed a bit too knowledgeable when we covered the 1980s in history class.’ You may know me as ‘that kid who occasionally used an American Express card in the cafeteria.’

I am all those people. I also am a 45-year-old father of two girls who aren’t even in high school yet. Thank you for allowing me into your school to see what high school is like today. I have met so many people this past year. And I can honestly say there is hope for all of you providing you stop text messaging and quit spending so much time trying to make your MySpace pages as ugly as possible.

Speaking of which, please try to remember that success does not equate to how many “friends” you have on Facebook. You are not successful just because you can kick butt in an on line poker room. And getting the highest score on Guitar Hero will get you nowhere in the real world. So put down the gadgets, stop interacting with virtual people and start talking with real people. Volunteer at a nursing home, work in a homeless shelter or become a big brother or big sister. Stop relying on your helicopter parents for money and get a job. Think baby-sitting is beneath you? I pay our baby sitter seven bucks an hour – sometimes to watch TV!

Open a savings account, eschew credit cards, keep a journal. Learn how to spell without the aid of a spell checker. Learn to add without Quicken. Do your research in a library and not through Wikipedia. Be nice to everyone and don’t judge people who are different. They may be your boss one day.

That’s all I have to say. Now lets sing the school fight song. Please welcome our head cheerleader…WENDY BROWN!

About Greg Schwem

Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and president of Comedy With a Byte. Please visit his website by clicking here

Saturday, August 30, 2008

All hail the Jonas Brothers!

The Walt Disney Company’s latest cash cow, a trio of siblings called The Jonas Brothers, infiltrated my town last week. Their appearance was the talk of the neighborhood block party.

Two of my neighbors were planning to attend, not because they relished this band but because they had daughters and were therefore required to fork over hundreds of dollars to sit among shrieking prepubescent girls for two hours.

I have daughters as well but, for some reason, they’re not into the Jonas Brothers. A pair of twins named Zach and Cody? Now that’s a different story. They religiously watch this show, which features the brothers living in the penthouse suite of a posh New York hotel. A reality show, it ain’t.

As far as I can tell, Zach and Cody don’t sing or play instruments so it’s unlikely I’ll be attending one of their concerts. Plus, every time I see the show, it appears the twins have had a hard time staying away from junk food. Both seem to be getting a little thick in their pre-teen middles, which no doubt has Disney executives nervous.

What? An overweight Disney kid? The horror!

So even though I would not be attending the Jonas Brothers concert, I decided to read up on them. It wasn’t hard considering they were splashed across the Sunday Chicago Tribune with the kind of coverage usually reserved for papal visits and a Cubs playoff victory.

I’ll admit, these kids intrigued me. They hail from New Jersey, they really ARE brothers and all have lengthy show business backgrounds. But here’s where their story really became interesting for me: the three play their own instruments and even write most of their own songs.

That’s right. Teenagers who play real live instruments! I didn’t think that was possible anymore. Probably because I was recently introduced to a new video game called Guitar Hero.

For those of you who recently awoke from a coma, Guitar Hero is the game that lets kids actually think they are playing an instrument. It comes with a plastic guitar that looks exactly like a regular electric guitar except that it has no strings, no frets, and no tuners. Other than that, you can barely tell the difference.

Instead of strings, the guitar has five different colored buttons. The guitar “player” starts the game by standing in front of the screen that serves as the Guitar Hero monitor. First he or she chooses a song from the Guitar Hero library. I chose “Barracuda” from Heart. From there the song begins and one or several of those colored buttons scroll down from the top of the “fret board.” At the appropriate time, the player presses the “note” with one hand and the “strum bar” with the other hand. If done correctly, lo and behold, it appears that you are playing guitar just as expertly as Nancy Wilson, Heart’s lead guitarist.

Notice how I said appears. That’s why this game troubles me. Kids today actually think they are playing guitar. Maybe I’m just spouting sour grapes because I took lessons on a REAL guitar for six years. I gave it up and it’s a decision I regret to this day for I would love to take a break from time to time in my home office and alleviate writer’s block by strumming a James Taylor or Paul Simon tune.

Today’s software programs basically allow kids to play any instrument they want without actually learning how to play it. I get this image of attending a concert in 10 years with four band members who bound onstage, fire up their Macs and basically do nothing as the computers play music and the audience screams while waving cell phones and lighters in the air.

The younger generation might call this form of music making “creativity.” I prefer to think of it as laziness. Kids today just don’t seem to want to put in the extra work, no matter the reward. Oh sure, there are exceptions to every rule. During the Beijing Olympics we were treated to countless stories of Michael Phelps and his daily four-mile swims, or gymnast Shawn Johnson, who walked into an Iowa gymnastics facility when she was five and never left.

But just once in awhile, I’d like to see a kid do something – ANYTHING! – without the aid of a computer. Last December I was listening to the local news in my car when I heard the announcer say something about Santa’s email address. Apparently kids can now email their wish lists to Santa simply by firing up their PCs, typing in the subject line and telling Santa how good they have been, using whatever font they choose.

I nearly drove into a snow bank.

Emailing Santa? Does this mean that kids will no longer line up at the mall to see Santa? That’s a holiday tradition as old as the ugly tie that Aunt Clara knits every year. You know, the one that smells like cigarette smoke when you open the box?

Hey kids, you want to see Santa? Then do it the way it’s supposed to be done. Go to the mall, find the line that stretches from Macy’s to Nordstrom’s, and stand in the back. Two hours later you’ll be sitting on Santa’s lap for 30 seconds. You’ll walk away with a lollipop from Christmas 2003 while remarking to your Mom that Santa smelled a little like Daddy when he drinks that “icky” stuff after a hard day at work. THAT’S how you see Santa.

Sound too difficult? Okay, go ahead and use that computer. Go ahead and email your wish list. But remember, technology is a two-way street so be prepared for Santa to email back – sometime in February.

Dear Billy: I’m sorry I didn’t visit your house this year. I hadn’t heard from you. But today I was cleaning out my Spam folder and, great green gumdrops, what do you think I found? Your list! Oh well, stuff happens. See you next year at the mall.

P.S. If you still want Guitar Hero, I’ve had one wrapped up and waiting since last Christmas.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Take the long way please

In my last post, I blogged about the lack of conversation aboard planes . I wrote that I’m a “plane talker” and wondered why so many others didn’t engage in chat at 30,000 feet, particularly on flights lasting more than two hours. Thanks for the responses. It seems some of you agree with my sentiments while others relish the chance for a little solitude.

Now I can see why for, as I write this, I’m on an American Airlines jet bound for Chicago from Orlando. Yes, I’m in first-class but I wish I were anywhere but here.

No sooner had I sat down and buckled in than my seatmate, an attractive woman with blonde hair and a killer smile, casually said, “I hope you don’t mind sitting with two babies.

”Babies?” I replied, looking at her puzzled as she did not have any kids on her lap.Then I glanced down and saw the “kitty carrier” she was cradling. Inside were two gray and white kittens which looked as if they had been born in the terminal just prior to boarding.

“They’ve got great lungs. Especially when it’s time to eat,” she said.

She was right. About 30 minutes into the flight her ”babies” started mewing and did not stop until she fed them milk from a bottle that looked suspiciously like it had been stolen from a six year old’s doll house. When the flight attendant came by seeking drink orders, she handed him the bottle and asked if he could “heat this for about eight seconds.

Not 10 seconds, not five seconds but EIGHT seconds.

The flight attendant looked at the bottle as if she had handed him a live rat. He scurried away but returned about 12 seconds later. She thanked him profusely.

I sat there, unsure of what to do or say. I’m not a cat hater by any means but this was borderline ridiculous. She was cradling the kittens with more care than the presidential advisor who carries the “football” that holds our nation’s nuclear launch codes. Even if I had wanted to make conversation, what was I supposed to say to this woman?“

Pardon the smell,” she said and then I realized that one of her babies had just pooped. Luckily she had brought aboard a product called “Kitty Wipes” to clean up the mess.

It was at this point that I realized two things: One, I had nothing to say to this person since I have no knowledge of kitty toys, kitty breeds or kitty litter for that matter, and two, she desperately needed an “animal free” night on the town, preferably with a Chippendale's dancer.

Then there are times I just feel too tired to talk but wonder if I let an opportunity slip away by remaining silent. Case in point – a five-hour flight from Los Angeles to Orlando two days earlier. When I boarded, I just wanted to listen to my iPod and watch episodes of my new favorite show, Mad Men, on DVD. And that’s what I did in spite of the fact my seat mate was a large, African-American gentlemen who talked non-stop (but quietly) on his cell phone during the inevitable 90-minute “mechanical issue” that preceded the flight. I overheard a few snippets including “we’ll need to take a meeting with him when I get back” and “it’s time they know that I’m not a one-hit wonder.”

Okay, on one hand this is typical “LA cell phone conversation.” Walk down an LA street or sit in a cafĂ© and listen to people yak on their cell phones. You will swear that everyone is talking to Martin Scorsese. Once I was walking along Venice Beach and saw a guy stretched out on the grass, cell phone in hand, saying, “and I’ll just have to go to William Morris if ICM or CAA won’t give me the money that this is worth.” I’m not really a betting man but I’d be willing to wager that there was nobody on the other end of the phone.

Maybe that was the case with the man seated to my left. But what if he was a rising star in the entertainment field? Or an established star who I would know by name, if not by sight? Did I miss something by opting not to initiate a conversation? We’ll never know. He closed his eyes shortly after takeoff and didn’t wake up until we were circling Disney World.

The truth is, I’m always on the lookout for interesting stories from strangers. That’s why I’ve become so chatty during my travels. Everybody has a story to tell if you just let him or her get started. And if you want a guaranteed intriguing story, look no further than Las Vegas cabdrivers. I often wish the Strip were farther away from McCarran International Airport as it would give me more time in the cab with these people, who are unlike cab drivers in any other American city. Number one, they speak English. Number two; they don’t talk on the phone while driving. I recently hailed a cab in Chicago and the foreign cabbie spent the entire ride repeating what sounded to me like “chocolate taco” into the phone. Perhaps it’s a greeting in some African country. But it was annoying. Worse, it was making me hungry.

When these drivers FINALLY hang up and I ask who was on the line, they typically tell me it was a family member. “My brother in El Salvador” and “my uncle in Bangladesh” are responses I’ve received recently.

How cab drivers can afford their cell phone bills is a question I will never be able answer.

Vegas cab drivers are different. Like everybody else in Vegas, they came from somewhere else. They weren’t planning to stay long but they’re still here. And ALL of them have some hiccup in their life story that landed them in Vegas driving tourists to hotels, strip clubs and convention centers. Talk to them long enough and that life-altering detour will come out in conversation.

So, how long you been in Vegas?

About 12 years.

What did you do before that?

I lived in San Jose. I was an IT consultant for Sun Microsystems.

What was that like?

It was great man, particularly the international travel.

So did you move your family out here?

No, my wife – my ex-wife - and kids are still there. (PAUSE) Man, that cocaine will mess you up. Stay away from it pal. (PAUSE) Did you say the Bellagio or the Venetian?

There it was right there. No need to press; just sit back, listen and the truth always comes out.Once I had a cabbie who spent the first part of the ride berating gamblers.

“So you don’t gamble?” I asked.

“Nah, it’s for suckers. It does nothing for me. Of course when friends come to visit, I might take ‘em to the Strip for the night. Maybe I’ll throw a few bucks in a machine here and there. But that’s just to kill time.

"But that’s it?”

“Yeah, nothing else. Course I might make a sports bet every now and then, especially during football season. Makes the games more fun, right?”


“Baseball can be fun too. I mean, I’m no Pete Rose or nothin’ but I do okay. ‘Specially if I parlay. I did a six-team parlay last season that paid me about three grand. Course it’s Vegas baby. It all goes back eventually. Hey, who do you like in the fifth at Belmont?”

By the time the cab pulled up to the hotel, I was convinced that I was this guy’s last fare before his Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

Every now and then my Vegas cabbie is a retired guy who’s driving a cab because he “missed being around people.” That may be true but I can think of about 1,000 jobs in Vegas that allow you to meet people and DON’T require shuttling drunks between strip clubs at 3:30 a.m. Pushing a change cart through a smoky casino seems more appealing. For that matter, so does putting on a full suit of armor in August and standing outside Caesar’s Palace.

My dad, a retired salesman, is 76 and devotes his sunset years to volunteering as a marshal at a nearby public golf course. He drives a cart around and gently reminds foursomes to “keep up the pace.” It’s easy work and allows him to get his “people fix.” Plus it gets him out of the house twice a week. Were it not for his limited vision and arthritic knees, he’d probably be a great cab driver. Or a great knight at Caesar’s Palace.

The need for stimulating conversation is something that I long for, particularly in this age of earbuds, Blackberries, home theatres and other toys that allow us to retreat into our own private worlds. Maybe that’s why I’m lucky to have chosen stand-up comedy as a career. It’s a guaranteed conversation starter; just tell a stranger that’s your occupation and you’ll get a response. NOBODY has ever said, “hmmmm, interesting” and resumed reading a business document. Insurance salesmen, on the other hand, probably get that response on a daily basis.

So if you’re seated next to me on a plane, or you’re driving me around town in a taxi, or you happen to sit next to me in a hotel bar, be prepared. I’m going to pick your brain and find out what makes you the person you are. But don’t worry, I can take a hint. I’ll leave you alone if your nose is buried in your PDA or your ears in your iPod.

Or if I see you with a cat.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hello? Anybody out there?

I am sitting in seat 4F on an American Airlines plane bound for Chicago from Boston. The small number means I’m in first class, which means it’s unlikely there will be conversation for the next two hours.

It’s not that I have never spoken to anyone in first class; quite the contrary. On a flight last month I had a very pleasant conversation with an elderly woman on her way to Moscow for an opera function. She was from Miami and in the short time we conversed, I determined that she was a hot shot in opera circles. I know of exactly two opera singers – Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti – and they are both dead. So I didn’t have a lot to contribute to the conversation. However, the woman seemed so pleasant that I just nodded in agreement when she said things like, “and no doubt, you’ve seen La Boehme?”

My frequent flier status with American allows me to fly first-class more often than not. Yes, I get a bigger seat, a little more legroom, free drinks and occasionally a meal that looks as if it were about to be served to a Barbie doll. But I don’t usually get the one thing that I feel makes flights feel faster: conversation.

It’s certainly not going to happen on this flight. My seatmate is a 30-something Asian woman who has been poring over a document since the seatbelt sign went on. I stole a glance at the title: “ACUTE DERMAL IRRITATION.” It was written in bold capital letters suggesting that it was quite serious.

I know more about opera than I know about anything containing the word “dermal.” It has something to do with skin, right? So I ascertained that this woman was reading page after page about skin that would not stop itching. Not exactly what I wanted to discuss as we waited for the in-flight meal somewhere over Kentucky.

To make matters worse, the woman caught me glancing at the document and turned her body slightly outward toward the aisle, so any attempt by me to learn more about acute dermal irritation would become more difficult. Did this woman think I was a spy? Perhaps sent to Boston by some foreign government, charged with learning about how Americans deal with itchy skin?

It’s not the first time I have been subliminally accused of “copying.” Several months ago some guy sitting next to me whipped out his laptop, glanced at me and then put one of those privacy shields over his screen. I’ve seen employees at large companies like Cisco and Motorola use them while sending emails. If it makes them feel better or more important, so be it. But I’ve always thought attaching a privacy screen in front of a stranger implies you don’t trust this person. I had been branded a criminal when my only crime had been getting stuck next to this guy, who seemed to think he was Jason Bourne.

Sitting in first-class always comes with it the opportunity that there will be a celebrity in your midst. It’s happened to me on several occasions. I’ve shared the big comfy seats with the likes of Mike Ditka, Beyonce, Duke basketball coach Mike Kzyshiewski and members of the rock band Styx. Once I was seated in first class while the actor William Devane sat behind me in coach. That was kind of cool in a strange way. But forget trying to talk with a celebrity during a flight. All the ones seated in first class with me spent the entire flight sleeping. Apparently being famous makes you tired.

First class may be more comfortable but, for me, coach class is more fun. Don’t believe me? Look at what’s on the passenger’s laptops. Movies, video games and slide shows of a family trip. A first class passenger, on the other hand, opens his laptop and immediately immerses himself in an Excel spreadsheet containing updated figures of everyone suffering from acute dermal irritation.

Coach class passengers appreciate things while first-class people demand them. True, there is not much to appreciate about air travel, given the state of the airlines today. When I fly coach, I appreciate a seat that doesn’t have a broken air blower directly above it. But first-class passengers stomp on board first, throw their sport jackets at the flight attendant as if she had a coat hook sprouting from her nose and wonder why they can’t get a drink IMMEDIATELY! BEFORE THEY OPEN THEIR LAPTOPS!

It was just seven years ago that Americans waited in line for hours to donate blood for the victims of 9/11. I saw such a line outside City Hall in Chicago, where a blood bank had been set up. Nobody was yakking on cell phones, listening to headphones or appearing disinterested with their surroundings. Instead people talked…to each other.

What happened? When did we lose the art of conversation? I’m certainly not advocating another terrorist attack but is that what it takes to get people talking with each other again?

Okay, my meal is here. Time to put away my laptop and attempt conversation with my seatmate. I’m going to do my best even if it makes my skin itch.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen...START YOUR REALITY CHECKS

I have friends who live and breathe Fantasy sports. Every spring they congregate at somebody’s house for something called the “fantasy baseball draft.” This is followed in late summer by the “fantasy football draft.” And during the “season,” they follow their respective “players” with the gusto of George Steinbrenner.

I’ve never understood the concept of fantasy anything when it comes to sports. I know I’ll get an argument from fantasy groupies around the country but my feeling is clear: why indulge in a fantasy sport when you can spend your time watching, or even participating in, the real thing?

That was until last Memorial Day weekend when witnessed a sports event that is clearly turning into a giant fantasy.

It’s called the Indianapolis 500.

I’ve never been a big fan of racing, be it NASCAR, Indy cars, dragsters or even the Cub Scout-sponsored Pinebox Derby. I know NASCAR fans gravitate to tracks on Saturdays like a baby takes to a breast but I still don’t get the appeal. My comedian friend Dobie Maxwell has the best line about NASCAR: “a bunch of hillbillies turning left for four hours.”

However, my father-in-law LOVES racing and, sometime around last Christmas approached me with the idea of attending this year’s Indy 500. Considering Indianapolis is only three hours from my house, this didn’t seem like a major inconvenience. Get up early, shoot down I-65, watch the race, get back in the car and be home in time to catch the highlights on SportsCenter.

A month later, we secured tickets in that most popular of ticket forums – eBay- and awaited race day with varying degrees of enthusiasm. My father-in-law was like a kid awaiting Christmas morning.

“You bringing a stopwatch?” he said to me about a week before the race?

”What for?” I thought. “So I can time how long it takes me to get a beer once we
get inside?”

Or maybe gauge how long it would take to reach the Port-a-Potty?”

I had already read enough on the Indy 500 to know that, at 300,000 plus spectators, it is the LARGEST single-day sporting event in the world.

No, I wasn’t planning to bring a stopwatch. Just a smile, a positive attitude and the knowledge that I would be spending some quality time with an in-law.

But, as race day grew closer, my excitement grew. I read about Danica Patrick’s quest to become the first female winner in history; I wondered aloud if Helio Castroneuves could win the 500 and Dancing with the Stars in the same year; and I wondered if I would see David Letterman at the race, since he actually OWNS an Indy race team. Heck, maybe I’d even go invest in a stopwatch!

A glorious race day dawned and we made our way to Indianapolis armed with sunscreen, binoculars, earplugs and Egg McMuffins. About five miles out of Indianapolis, we joined a traffic jam, the likes of which I had never seen on ANY interstate. If two semis had flipped over and OJ Simpson was being chased in the remaining open lane, it still would not have created the traffic tie-ups that race day generates. Cars, trucks, SUVs, Winnebagos and AirStreams clogged the exit ramp off I-465, all headed to the same destination. Somewhere amidst the throng, I imagined a car containing an elderly couple who were just trying to get to their son or daughter’s house for a quiet holiday weekend. They’ll probably arrive by the Fourth of July.

Eventually we found the track, used our eBay-purchased parking passes to park in somebody’s backyard and approached the gate. Here was my first indication that the Indy 500 is a fantasy event. Track officials check your ticket, and that’s all. Bring anything you want inside the track. Nobody cares. Guys were wheeling coolers of beer, sandwiches, pies and, for all I know, homemade grenade launchers into the grounds. Nobody peeked inside anything.

I nearly got strip searched one time connecting between Dallas and St. Louis.

We made our way to our seats in the Paddock. Mind you, the Paddock contains some of the best seats at Indy, directly across from Pit Row and bordering the straightaway that also contains the starting and finish line. Even though the track is two and a half miles around, I truly thought I could see everything. I even saw David Letterman, standing on Pit Row in the midst of his team, wearing a white shirt and trying hard to remain inconspicuous.

This was America, this was sports, this was reality.
Then the race started – and fantasy reared its head.

The last time I checked, gas hovered at about $4.25 a gallon. Yet here was driver after driver, cruising down Pit Row and filling the tank without worry. No credit card, no driving to other pits to see if gas was a few pennies cheaper and nobody’s tank got capped at $75.

Furthermore, I don’t know how many miles per gallon the average race car gets but, judging by how often the drivers were pitting for more gas, I have to believe they are on par with Hummers in terms of fuel economy.

Once the car loaded up on free unleaded premium, or whatever it is that makes a racecar go, it was back to the track for a leisurely drive at 200 plus miles per hour. No police lurking in a hidden section of the infield with radar guns, no senior citizens in the left hand lane of Turn Two and no drivers making obscene gestures when another car cut them off. Furthermore, one car even hit a wall and was back in the race 15 minutes later.

I once backed into a mailbox and my Dad took away the keys for a month.

The race continued. Numerous caution flags slowed the drivers down to a paltry 100 miles per hour. Suddenly, the moment that would be replayed endlessly on ESPN occurred: Danica Patrick pulled away from Pit Row and was promptly clipped by Ryan Briscoe – a MALE driver. The crowd groaned. But what was this? Something even the most seasoned Indy spectators had never seen before. A WOMAN driver, stalking toward Briscoe’s car. The entire crowd knew it wasn’t to exchange licenses and insurance information. Track security intervened before she got to Briscoe but I would have paid at least an extra hundred bucks to watch Patrick vs. Briscoe in Ultimate Fighting.

Everyone was so consumed with the confrontation (that never amounted to anything, by the way) that nobody noticed Scott Dixon racing toward the checkered flag, which he won with ease. No sooner had he crossed the line than my brother in law grabbed my arm and said, “let’s go.”

We raced to the car and beat about 200,000 people to the interstate. Home in plenty of time to watch the replay on TV, just as I had imagined.

Yes, it was a great day but I think it’s time to make auto racing a little more realistic. Next year, to show that Indy is an “eco friendly” event, make the drivers cruise the track in Hybrids. Halfway through the race, all must pull over for an emissions test and wait while a state-employed “technician” with the brain power of a gnat hooks numerous hoses to their vehicles and fills out a myriad of paperwork. The winner, instead of chugging milk upon completion of the race, has to drink an entire Venti Starbucks, since that’s what most drivers drink in their cars these days.

Finally, all cars must contain a four-year-old child in the backseat, who screams to watch a DVD during the race.

Now we’re talking reality.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I feel like a m-o-r-o-n

So I missed one of my favorite sporting events on television this past weekend. I can’t believe Tivo did not notify me that it was time once again for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
I can’t explain it but I am fascinated by this event. Maybe it’s because ESPN considers it a “sport.” Maybe it’s because I was the spelling champ at Windsor Elementary School in the second grade.
Maybe it’s because Americans suck at spelling and it’s nice to see a bunch of kids spelling complex words without the aid of a Microsoft spell checker.
I first became hooked on the Scripps spelling bee several years ago while channel surfing and stopping on one of the 87 ESPN channels. I’ve decided that ESPN has more channels than actual sports, which probably explains why I can see such raw athletic pursuits as keg tossing, women’s bodybuilding and horseshoe pitching all from the privacy of my couch.
On this particular evening, none of those events interested me so I kept clicking until I came upon a bunch of junior-high aged children, most with glasses, some with peach fuzz under their noses and all with pained expressions on their faces as they struggled to spell words that were never on any SAT test that I took. I never used any of them while writing for The Palm Beach Post newspaper. As far as I could tell, none of these words even existed. And yet these kids plowed through them as if they were taken from a first-grade reading book.
I was transfixed. I marveled at the competitive nature and the pressure. Yes, the Scripps spelling bee is pressure packed, as evidenced by one contestant who fainted onstage one year yet recovered, returned immediately to the stage and still spelled his word correctly.
Of course my favorite part of the Bee is the fact that it has announcers. Since this event is broadcast on ESPN, the network has to hire commentators to describe every scintillating SPELL-binding moment. I’m not sure if the guys they hire were new to the network and working their way up, or if they had committed some grievous violation and were demoted. Whatever the reason, they are always determined to make the Scripps spelling bee every bit as tingling as a sudden death playoff at the Masters.
Well, it's a beautiful day in Washington D.C. Chip.
That’s right Jack, The air is thick with the smell of nouns, verbs and dangling participles.
We've got a top-notch bunch of kids who are going to stand on a stage with numbers around their necks and do nothing for most of the time. And we'll cover every step of the action.
You know Jack, a lot's been said that American kids are too lazy to spell.
I disagree Chip. I think Americans are excellent spellers, myself included.
Okay Jack, spell finite.
That's easy...F-I-N-E-K-N-I-G-H-T.
Let's go to a commercial Jack.
According to my favorite information source, Wikipedia, the Scripps National Spelling Bee began in 1925, and was won by Frank Neuhauser, who spelled gladiolus, which is either the center part of the sternum or a flowering plant having sword-shaped leaves. Upon reading that I hope I never have to visit a hospital with gladiolus problems, as I don’t want the doctor pulling plants from my backyard and saying, “they look okay to me!”
Through the years, some of the winning contestants seemed to get off easy. In 1934 Sarah Wilson won by spelling deteriorating. The following year Clara Moller correctly spelled intelligible to achieve Spelling Bee glory. Other winning words included therapy, initials, vignette and condominium. Melody Sachko spelled condominium in 1956, perhaps becoming the only spelling bee champ to spell something that many people own at least once in their lives.
The guy who got off the easiest had to be 1984 champion Daniel Greenblatt who won by spelling (are you ready?) luge! The winning word had four letters? That’s like Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl by walking 100 yards through the defense.
Obviously the organizers of the spelling bee had egg on their faces following Mr. Greenblatt’s victory for the winning words got infinitely harder afterwards. In 1985, Balu Natarajan won for spelling milieu. It should also be noted that Balu Natarajan correctly spelled his own name, which I’m sure earned him extra points. In fact, having a nearly unintelligible name seems to be a prerequisite to winning the bee, as Pratyush Buddiga (2002), Sai R. Gunturi (2003), and Anurag Kashyap (2005) can attest.
In keeping with that theme, 12-year-old Sameer Mishra from Lafayette, Indiana won this year’s contest. The young Mishra lad’s fallen competitors included Sidharth Chand, Samia Nawaz and Kavya Shivashankar. According to the national spelling bee website, Mishra plays the violin, enjoys computer games, likes math and science and aspires to be a neurologist.
When I was 12 I aspired to spell “aspire.”
Mishra blitzed the competition by spelling such commonly used words as sinicize, hyphaeresis, taleggio, nacarat, and numnah. Let me point out that the Microsoft spell checker has ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what any of those words mean as evidenced by the squiggly red line that appeared under each word when I typed it into a Word document. I had to go to Encarta (the smarter Microsoft application) to learn that “sinicize” means “to acquire a Chinese idiom, form or cultural trait.” Hyphaeresis is “the omission of a sound, letter, or syllable from a word.” If you want a semi-soft cheese made from whole cow’s milk, ask for some “taleggio.” If you wake up and your skin is a pale red color with a cast of orange, it may appear “nacarat.” Finally, the next time you ride a horse, make sure it has a “numnah,” which is a thick felt pad that prevents the saddle from moving.
Which leads to my beef with the National Spelling Bee. Why spell words that you’re never going to use in regular conversation? Want to crown a spelling bee champ? Make him or her wake up the day following the victory, walk down the streets of Washington DC where the contest is held, engage passing strangers in conversation and use every one of the words spelled in the competition.
Hello my name is Sameer. Can you please direct me to Chinatown? I’d like to sinicize before I leave town.
I don’t know what would be weirder: the look the kid would get or the fact that ESPN would broadcast the whole thing live.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Still the happiest place on earth

Like everybody I have goals in life. Retire at 55, own a piece of property on water, and put my kids through college without having to rely on student loans, just to name a few.
Then there are things I’d like to do just because they sound fun. For example, I’ve always wanted to heckle a motivational speaker. You know, those guys who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year speaking to corporate audiences and telling them, in no uncertain terms, that YOU CAN BE BETTER THAN YOU WERE YESTERDAY IF YOU WOULD ONLY BUY MY NEW BOOK AND FIVE CD PACKAGE AFTER THE SHOW FOR THE LOW PRICE OF $89.95. VISA AND MASTERCARD ACCEPTED.”
Seriously, wouldn’t you like to sit in the front row and keep repeating, “YOU DON’T KNOW ME. WHO ARE YOU TO TELL ME HOW TO LIVE MY LIFE!”
Okay, that would be a bit sick. But it would still be fun to force the speaker off
Another sick dream of mine is to get a Disney employee to break character. I’ve been to Disney World, I’ve stayed in Disney hotels and I’ve been to Disney Stores countless times. And I keep running into the happiest workers I have ever seen. If someone went into a Disney store intent on robbing it, I think the employee behind the counter would say, “may I help the next guest? You with the gun sir. Besides the cash from our register, is there anything else you would like today?”
I was determined to achieve my dream recently when I went to Disney World with my family. I figured it would be easy, given the sorry state of the economy. Disney employees should be as cranky as the rest of us, right?
First, let me say that, even in good economic times, I have never been a huge fan of Disney World. Maybe it’s the crowds, maybe it’s the expense, maybe it’s the incessant Disney music that sticks in my head for weeks after coming home. I once set a wakeup call at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim and, six hours later, the phone rang and DISNEY MUSIC was coming through the earpiece. That was the day I learned to use the alarm clock feature on my cell phone.
When I was growing up I visited Disney World exactly zero times. Even though I had relatives who lived only two hours from Orlando, my parents never took us on that “magical Disney vacation.” Instead we spent our summers visiting places like Cheyenne, Wyoming and Mackinaw Island, Michigan. Cheyenne is famous for its rodeos and Mackinaw visitors get around by horses. I guess my Dad just liked being around the smell of horse poop on vacation.
We also visited Yellowstone Park one year, Yellowstone is famous for its geyser, Old Faithful, which erupts about every half hour or so. The reason it blows its top so frequently has little to do with nature; it’s because there is NOTHING ELSE to do at Yellowstone. Personally I think the whole thing is operated by a couple of retired park rangers who push a button once a sufficient crowd has been assembled. When the spectacle is over, everybody looks at their watches and starts talking about when it will occur again. It’s like my Dad after he finishes lunch.
No, DisneyWorld was never a vacation destination for the Schwems in the 1970s. My wife, however, went there plenty of times as a kid. Heck, she even marched in one of the parades as a high school band member. And when our first child came along, she bought lifetime Disney passes, or something to that effect. They were good for multiple visits, so we kept going back. True, some of the visits were coupled with business trips (corporate comedians such as myself perform lots of shows in Orlando since it rivals Vegas for the most popular convention destination). We piggybacked another trip onto a friend’s wedding at the Grand Floridian Hotel on Disney property. Probably the weirdest wedding I have ever attended. The bride and groom got married in a gazebo with a picturesque view of Cinderella’s castle in the background. Thankfully the wedding processional did not include Disney music although I was expecting a chorus of “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s down the aisle we go” to erupt at any moment. I should also mention that the ceremony lasted almost as long as the marriage.
I’ve lost count of how many times my eleven year old has been to Disney World but I think it’s about seven or eight. My other daughter is catching up. So when my wife decided earlier this year that it would be wonderful to take my youngest to Disney World to celebrate her sixth birthday, I put my foot down as only the man of the household should do.
“Why don’t you three go?” I said meekly. “Make it a girl’s trip.”
“Come on,” Sue said. “Your girls are the perfect age.”
I reminded her that she’s been calling them “the perfect age” for Disney World since they were sleeping in incubators in the maternity ward.
“No,” I repeated. “I’ve had enough of Disney World.”
My wife and daughters begged and pleaded. For about 15 seconds. Then they forgot I even existed and started packing.
But as the trip got closer, I began to suffer guilt. My little girl would be turning six at Disney World and I would be home. True, my work schedule didn’t allow me to spend the four days that they had planned there. But I could probably fly down for a day or two, right?
So the decision was made. I would drop my girls at the airport, kiss them all goodbye, pull away, park the car in the airport garage and meet the plane prior to take off.
The plan went smoothly and when I showed up at the gate, my little girl beamed as only a six year old could. A six year old with a large “IT’S MY BIRTHDAY TODAY” sticker affixed to her chest.
I’m seriously thinking of having “It’s my birthday today” stitched into every article of clothing I own. The Pope didn’t get as much attention during his recent visit as my daughter got on April 29th. The flight attendant on Southwest announced her birthday over the loudspeaker and lead THE ENTIRE PLANE in singing Happy Birthday. When she got off the plane, they handed her a bag full of snacks, games and a poster signed by the entire crew.
I got six peanuts and a thimble full of Diet Coke.
When we got to the hotel, the royal treatment continued. The front desk clerk handed her a picture; a gift shop employee gave her a Rice Krispie treat shaped like mouse ears. Just walked up and GAVE it to her. I quickly checked our bill to see if a three dollar charge had been subtly added. It had not.
We ate dinner that night at something called “Mickey’s Magical Buffet” in the Contemporary Hotel. I never considered chicken nuggets magical but I don’t name the restaurants at Disney World. All I know is that the ENTIRE RESTAURANT sang “Happy Birthday” to my daughter and Donald Duck came to our table and danced with her.
It took me four trips to Disney World before I even saw Donald Duck.
The next morning we made our first visit to the Magic Kingdom. I say “first” because a Schwem trip to Disney World always involves multiple visits to the Magic Kingdom. It’s like a math problem: You’re at Disney World and you plan to spend the entire day at Epcot, which closes at 7 p.m. However, the Magic Kingdom closes at nine. Calculate how fast the monorail must travel to get you over to the Magic Kingdom in time to ride Space Mountain at least five more times.
We strolled through the gates at 9:30 a.m. I had four hours before I had to catch a taxi to the airport. Four hours to get just one Disney employee visibly annoyed.
The first group we encountered were performers on Main Street, singing “Clang Clang Went The Trolley”
“What’s a trolley?” my youngest asked as we stopped to view the show.
No, these people were having the time of their lives, dressed in wool costumes on an 80 degree day. No way could I upset them.
We journeyed over to ride “It’s a Small World.” In my book, this ride takes the top three spots on the list of most annoying Disney music. Surely the employees there would be surly, right?
Wrong! Upon getting in line, a perky 50 something woman named Barb
approached us. “Where are you from?” she asked merrily.
“Chicago,” I replied just as merrily.
“Well you’re in luck,” she said. How would you four like to be my cruise
directors for the ride?”
“Sure,” I replied even though I had no idea what she was talking about.
We were immediately whisked up a flight of stairs where another employee was
operating the ride. As cruise directors we got to stand next to the controls and wave to everybody as their boats passed under us. What fun! Certainly not the time to say something like, “Can’t we at least be guest conductors on Space Mountain? This ride sucks!”
It occurred to me that my dream was not going to happen. It just didn’t seem right to try and be a pest at the vacation destination dubbed “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Compounding matters further was the fact that Disney World was about as uncrowded as I had ever seen it. We literally walked on every attraction. I’ve been to Disney World where it took an hour just to get on the monorail.
It was nearly time for me to leave. My wife spied Snow White and Dopey taking pictures with guests. She wanted a family shot. We got in line and I thought, “now here is a challenge. Maybe I can get Snow White to break character. That would be a story to tell!
When it was our turn, Snow White, to her credit, stayed true to form. She instructed us to say “gooseberry” when the cameraman clicked his shutter, she told us the prince would be arriving shortly and she warned us not to eat any poison apples on the way out.
I wanted to grab her by her yellow dress, shake her and say, “I realize you live in a castle but DO YOU KNOW WHAT A GALLON OF GAS COSTS RIGHT NOW?”
But I kept my mouth shut. Face it, our screwed up world needs a fantasy land like Disney World where people can escape their troubles, pretend that princesses are real and believe that a boy named Peter Pan really can fly.
I’m still not a big fan of Disney World as a vacation destination but I’ll tag along if it means spending quality time with my family.
But I think they’d like the rodeo too!

Monday, April 21, 2008

I can't do anything right

These days I feel that, whatever I do, it’s just not good enough.
Chalk it up to technology, change or the fact that we, as a country, are never satisfied. The point is, I’m sick of always feeling inferior.
Take for example, my recent iPod acquisition. I resisted the urge to hop on the iPod bandwagon the minute the gadget was released back in 2001. “Let’s wait and see,” I told myself. “Maybe this thing will disappear faster than Pepsi with lemon.”
About 3 billion iPod shipments later, I finally took the plunge. I purchased a 80GB video iPod capable of holding every photo I’d ever taken, video clips of my kids doing the types of things that make their Dad smile, and up to 20,000 songs.
“I’m set,” I thought. “With 20,000 songs, I could take a trip to Venus and still never hear the same song twice.”
I hadn’t even figured out how to download iTunes when Steve Jobs announced that the iPhone was now ready to be shipped. It would include all the features of my iPod but allow users to make calls, surf the Internet, open their garage doors and probably cook a well balanced meal all at the same time.
Suddenly my 80GB iPod was about as relevant as my collection of VHS movies.
This seems to happen to me all the time. For Christmas my wife and I bought a recordable DVD player. Not only could we record stuff onto DVDs but, since we recently bought a high definition television as well, we could record and watch movies in “high-def,” as we like to call it just because we think it makes us sound cool.
At the time of the purchase, neither of us had ever heard the phrase, “Blu-ray.” Of course now we know that Blu-ray”, which sounds like a menu item at an upscale seafood restaurant, is actually a technology that competes with high-definition DVDs. I no longer competes. I had barely gotten our DVD player out of the box when I heard the news that Toshiba, the company that pioneered HD DVD technology, was going to stop making HD DVD players or discs. The reason? It ceded the market to Blu-ray. That’s would be like John McCain taking his name off the ballot the night before the general election. But that’s basically what Toshiba did. Now I’m stuck with a recordable DVD player that will only work until my high-def TV craps out.
See what I mean? No matter what I do, somebody is always doing it better. And it got even worse this past weekend.
My wife celebrated her 43rd birthday on April 17. As a professional comedian I pride myself on being able to come up with original birthday gifts and ideas. Sure, it would be easy to make her breakfast in bed, have flowers delivered to our house or give her a day off from all her mom-related responsibilities. I’ll admit, I’ve done all that but I’ve also surprised her with some pretty impressive gifts if I do say so myself. Three years ago, when she turned the big 4-0, I scored Oprah tickets. If you live in Chicago, you know that getting tickets to the Oprah Winfrey show is about as easy as picking the winning Powerball numbers two weeks in a row. Oprah’s website makes it sound like getting tickets is a walk in the park. “Just keep checking back for updates,” the site claims. The last time I checked, there were no tickets available until 2055. I got them only because a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend knew somebody who knew a guy who was related to some other guy who used to work on the show.
This year I decided to go the “Pretty Woman” birthday route. I was invited to a black-tie event in Washington DC and the invitation included Sue. Two days prior to the event, I presented her with three boxes. One contained a black cocktail dress (picked out by me, thank you very much). The other two featured a necklace and matching earrings (also picked out by me under the watchful guidance of the jewelry store employee.)
When I presented them to Sue, she squealed with delight. Let’s face it, when you’re a Mom, your wardrobe consists of sweatpants with accessible pockets to hold the mini-van keys. She put the ensemble on and she looked fantastic. We were ready to hit the party in style. What a gift! What a gentlemen I am! What a…wait, what’s this I hear about Prince William?
In case you haven’t heard, his Royal Highness did something for his girlfriend that made my shopping excursion look like a trip to Wal-Mart. Mr. “second in line to the throne” decided to pay her a visit earlier this month by landing a royal helicopter in her backyard. According to news reports, the helicopter was only on the ground for 20 seconds and nobody got on or off. So what was the point exactly?
I’ll tell you the point. It was to make myself and every other guy on this earth feel inferior. Right now there are millions of guys around the world cluelessly standing in Victoria’s Secret determined to pick out something that makes our ladies feel special. We get perfume squirted on our wrists in the mall just because we want to make sure it smells like our girls. We get talked into buying the one-hour seaweed wrap at the salon because the employee convinced us that our women would love us for it.
But we can’t commandeer an armed forces chopper and casually drop in her. Only Prince High and Mighty can do that.
I just hope Prince William never needs Oprah tickets.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Confessions of a married man

Almost every married comedian I’ve seen eventually comes to the portion of his act where he tells the audience he’s married.

Then he does a series of jokes about how different marriage is from his single days - jokes that give him an excuse to complain about his wife in front of total strangers.

It might go something like this: So I’ve been married four years. (PAUSE JUST IN CASE AN AUDIENCE MEMBER DECIDES TO CLAP FOR REASONS UNBEKNOWNST TO ME) Yeah, four long, happy years. (PAUSE FOR SNICKER FROM AUDIENCE, WHICH ISN’T SURE WHERE THIS BIT IS GOING) Know what’s different about marriage? The bathroom. Guys, you ever notice just how much stuff your wife has in the bathroom?

What the heck is exfoliating cream anyway? I don’t remember her foliating anything in the first place. And now she has to EX-foliate it? But don’t get me wrong, I love her. Even when she goes in there and says she’ll just be a sec and I’ve watched the whole Super Bowl game from 2006 on Tivo and she’s STILL in there! Guys, has that ever happened to you? What’s she doing in there? Exfoliating the entire bathtub? Finally, she comes out and I’m like, ‘honey, what took you so long? She’s like, “I wasn’t in there that long.” And I’m like, “you were in there longer than OJ was in prison.” But she’s a sweetheart, really. Just don’t get me started on her driving.

Okay dude, we get it. You’ll be divorced in two years.

I’ve always shied away from the “what’s different about marriage” jokes just because I think there are more interesting things to laugh about than my relationship with my wife. Plus, I’ve been married 14 years and I’m perfectly happy. I’ve never noticed a difference that might make good comedic material.

Until last weekend.

Something happened last weekend that had nothing to do with my wife yet made me realize that one of my favorite hobbies was gone forever.

It involved beer.

My wife and kids left Friday morning, bound for the Wisconsin Dells and a cheerleading/tumbling tournament featuring my five-year-old daughter.
Hey guys. Know what’s different about marriage? You gotta go to cheerleading/tumbling tournaments!
Okay, that’s not what I’m writing about. But the cheer/tumbling environment is definitely the subject of a future blog.

I stayed behind because I had to catch a flight early the following morning for a corporate show in Mexico. I spent the better part of the day at the computer, writing material, cleaning out my inbox, editing some MP3 clips and doing it all in silence.

Around 4:30 p.m., the phone rang. It was Sue, calling to say she had safely arrived at the Wilderness Resort, one of approximately 574 indoor water parks in the Wisconsin Dells. I’ve never been a huge fan of water parks just because I think there should be federally-imposed limits on the number of people who can congregate publicly in bathing suits. I think the limit should be three.

So while I wasn’t too disappointed that I missed the water park trip, I mentioned to Sue that I was bored. Maybe a little lonely too but I didn’t tell her that. Bored sounds more manly.

“Why don’t you call one of the guys from the neighborhood and go out for a beer?” she replied. “Call Mark. Or Tom. Maybe Ray’s around.”

“I dunno.”

“You should. How often do you get to just hang out with the guys?”
She had a point. My time away from the family is basically spent in airports and hotel rooms.

“You’re right,” I finally said. Maybe I will. How’s the water park?”

“It’s great! There’s hardly anybody here.”
I attributed that to mean there were less than 1,000 people crammed inside.

“Okay, I’ll call you later tonight. Love you,” I said before hanging up.

I stared at the phone. Who should I call? I live in a great neighborhood – actually a vanishing breed of neighborhoods. There are no fences or eight-foot hedges separating the lots; the adults socialize while the kids engage in weekend sleepovers and, so far, nobody’s in the process of divorcing. I know that will change but I’m enjoying the sanctity for now.

Who should I call? More importantly, what should I say?

And here is when I started to realize what’s so different about being married. To wit: the possible repercussions of asking another married guy to go out for a spontaneous beer.

When you’re single and you call another single guy for such a beer, the conversation goes like this:
Hey Ed. It’s Greg. Want to head out in about an hour and have a beer?“I’m getting my coat.”
But if a married guy calls another married guy, the conversation most likely goes like this:
Hey Ed. It’s Greg. Want to head out in about an hour and have a beer? Is everything okay?
Married guys just can’t do anything with other married guys spontaneously. It implies trouble. Worse, because the married guy must first ask permission from his wife, it means she is now part of the story. Ed would have to push the ‘mute’ button on his phone and discuss my strange request with his wife.

ED’S WIFE: Who is it?
ED: It’s Greg Schwem.
ED’S WIFE: What does he want?
ED: He wants to go out for a beer.
ED’S WIFE: Right now?
ED: I guess so.
ED’S WIFE: Where’s Sue?
ED: She’s gone for the weekend with the kids. At least that’s what he said.
ED’S WIFE: Why does he want to go out with you? Is it just you and him? Why did he ask just you? That seems kind of weird, doesn’t it?
ED: Maybe. A little, I guess. You’re friends with Sue. They’re not having any problems, are they? I mean, has she said anything to you?
ED’S WIFE: No, nothing. They seemed perfectly normal at the Christmas party. And the block party. And the progressive dinner.
ED: So what should I say?
ED’S WIFE: Why does he want to go to a bar? Why does alcohol have to be involved? If he’s calling around, it sounds like he’s pretty desperate to have a drink. He doesn’t have a problem, does he?
ED: Not that I know of. So what SHOULD I say?
ED’S WIFE: Tell him you’ll take a rain check.
ED: But we’re not doing anything tonight. What if he REALLY needs somebody to talk to? Should I just leave him at his house alone? What if there IS something going on between him and Sue?
ED’S WIFE: If there is, I’d like to know about it.
ED: Then I probably shouldn’t go. Because if I tell you, you’ll tell everybody.
ED’S WIFE: I will not. Why can’t you give me a little credit for once?
ED: (PUSHING MUTE BUTTON AGAIN) Greg, I’m gonna take a rain check. Maybe next time.

I put the phone down, the imaginary conversation ringing in my head. I punched the OnDemand button on the remote. The Bourne Ultimatum had just been added. I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, settled into my recliner and hit “buy.” The movie would be over about 9:30. That would mean I’d have time to watch the evening news. In my pajamas. In bed.
Guys, has that ever happened to you? Maybe we should all go out after the show and have a beer. Just get it out of our systems. You’ve been a great crowd. Don’t forget to tip your waitresses!