Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Busted at a Door Buster Sale

I recently read the late David Foster Wallace’s essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In it Wallace hilariously skewers anything and everything he encountered while sailing aboard a cruise ship.

I wish Wallace had lived long enough to pen his opinions of a post-Thanksgiving Door Buster sale.

The difference between a cruise ship and a Door Buster sale is that cruise ships are at least perceived as enjoyable, even if Wallace discovered otherwise. I don’t believe anybody in Western civilization has ever returned from a Door Buster sale and announced, “That was fun.”

Door Busters, also known as Black Friday sales because they take place the day (I’m sorry, the ungodly early morning) following Thanksgiving, were invented solely because every retail establishment, including those which sell nothing but live bait, decided that sales figures for the entire year should hinge on the single day that follows gluttony, football and tense relations with relatives.

Door Buster sales also exist so television news crews have something to show on a slow news day. Invariably these “packages” (a term from my old TV reporting days) contain only images of fully-grown adults acting like a combination of toddlers and gang bangers as they violently fight over whatever item the offending retailer chose to put on sale for 50 percent off just hours after the Thanksgiving dishes had been cleared away.

Occasionally this YouTube display of news turns into actual news; witness 2008 when security guard Jdimytai Damour was trampled TO DEATH at a Long Island Wal-Mart as customers surged forward to purchase, among other things, a $28 Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum. On that morning, Damour’s first Black Friday job responsibility - and ultimately his last – was to simply open the door.

In spite of Damour’s fate, and similar occurrences with slightly less horrific results (some shoppers merely suffer broken bones in exchange for a DVD player), retailers continue this macabre practice. In the event of mayhem, their savvy marketing departments already have prepared statements that read with all the sincerity of those recited by professional athletes after being caught with steroids, handguns, stolen stereo equipment or all three.

We truly regret this tragic and unfortunate incident. We are cooperating with authorities and are confident that, in time, all the facts will come out. Until then, COME TO OUR EARLY BIRD 4 A.M. SALE! SIXTY-INCH FLAT SCREEN PLASMA TELEVISIONS ONLY $29.99. ONLY THREE IN STOCK!

On the day before Thanksgiving my wife scours the ads – both print and on line – to see if any Door Buster sale items match anything on our daughters’ Christmas lists. Thankfully that has never been the case.

Until this year.

This year my 12-year-old’s Christmas wishes included something known as Wii Fit. I’m still not sure what it is although the Wii homepage promises Wii Fit will improve balance, body mass index and “body control.”

If Door Buster shoppers had an ounce of body control, Mr. Damour might still be alive.

Normally $90, a store called Meijer had priced Wii Fit at $44.99 on Thanksgiving morning. That’s right, Meijer, one of those stores with an identity crisis (groceries to the right, snow tires to the left, thermal underwear and Venetian blinds straight ahead) was having a Black Thursday sale beginning at 6 a.m. Would I wait in line and get one, my wife asked?

Until now the only time I had ever stood in line longer than 30 minutes for anything was 1981 when Bruce Springsteen’s River Tour came through Chicago. I remember cueing up outside a record store four hours before tickets went on sale. Others ahead of me had obviously been there all night, judging by the sleeping bags and body odor. I spent the time chatting with fellow Springsteen fans, listening to his tunes, soaking in stories from Springsteen concert veterans and even sharing cheap wine from a hip flask.

I did score tickets that morning. Not great tickets mind you but tickets nonetheless. And the Boss did not disappoint. Twenty-eight years later, standing in line for something that improved body mass did not seem as appealing, even if I brought my own wine.

Yet I succumbed to my wife’s request with minimal complaining. Truth be known, I was looking forward to it. I’m an early riser by nature so the idea of setting a Thanksgiving alarm didn’t seem that ludicrous. Besides, the store was only ten minutes away from my health club. What better way to begin Turkey Day than by making my daughter happy, saving 50 bucks, and squeezing in a five mile run on the treadmill, thereby burning the calories in one scoop of mashed potatoes?

I awoke at 4:40 a.m. to the sound of rain pelting my bedroom windows. This was no surprise; Murphy’s Law specifically states that if one is going to wait outside a locked store for an inordinate amount of time, it MUST be raining, snowing, hailing or trembling due to an ill-timed earthquake. As I would soon find out, none of these calamities deter a Door Buster shopper.

I grabbed a sweatshirt, my Lands End winter coat, a ski hat and gloves and pulled out of my driveway at 4:50, armed with nothing more than a cup of coffee and my Door Buster game face. As I journeyed toward Meijer, I saw other cars on the road. Suffice it to say that, if you are in your car at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving, it can be for one of two reasons:

· You are heading to a Door Buster Sale
· You need to dispose of a body…QUICKLY!

I live in a fairly safe neighborhood so I naturally assumed everybody who I passed or passed me fell into Category One. I also decided everybody was headed to Meijer in search of a Wii Fit, which made me press down a little more sharply on the gas pedal. I even cut off a few motorists, just to be safe.

At 5:05 a.m. I pulled into the Meijer parking lot, now three-quarters full with cars and one TV news truck. But where was the line? You know, the line of damp, sleepy customers preparing to trample the security guard? It did not exist. Instead, I saw people entering the store.

Did my wife misread the ad? Did Black Thursday actually start earlier than 6 a.m.? Had I failed before I even started?

Turns out, Meijer is open 24 hours so customers are free to come and go any time. But, as the ad promised, Black Thursday sales would not begin before 6 a.m. Customers could wait in line until then.

But which line? I sauntered to the electronics section at the rear of the store to find about 75 people standing in a surprisingly orderly fashion.

“Is this the Wii Fit line?” I asked the woman at the line’s rear.

“No, this is the iPod Nano line,” she replied.

“The Wii Fit line is two aisles over,” said a Meijer employee, gesturing randomly with one hand while pushing a shopping cart full of merchandise with his other.

Immediately I saw one thing about this Meijer place that I liked, namely foresight to split up the lines as opposed to lumping everybody in a single mass. Plus, we were inside! This was going to be a good day!

I took a hard right, counted two aisles, took a left and almost tripped over a patron seated on the floor. I discovered this gentleman was “Wii Fit Door Buster customer number one” and, for all I know, had been there since last Thanksgiving.

I followed the line down the aisle, where it made a gradual turn to the left and spilled over into the next aisle, containing school supplies. Half-heartedly counting in my head, I estimated there to be about 40 shoppers ahead of me. Judging from their body sizes all looked to be buying the Wii Fit for somebody other than themselves. Either that, or Wii Snack was also on sale.

I took a spot behind a woman who appeared to be about 60. A 50-something gentleman got in line behind me and the phalanx of Wii Fit hopefuls continued to grow. Within moments the line had increased by at least 30. As it multiplied, a rough-looking couple trudged to the end. I heard the woman exclaim loudly to her partner, “Baby there’s no way we’re gonna get one of these f*#@%g things.”

I was thinking the same thing but chose not to express it publicly.

At 5:15 a.m. a Meijer manager appeared halfway through the line and announced, to no one in particular, that the store only had 20 Wii Fits.

“You’re welcome to wait but I’m just telling you what we have,” he said, before disappearing.

At this point, my predicament read like a second grade math story problem: You are the 41st person in line for a toy. A grown up says there are only 20 toys available. Will you get a toy? Please show all work.

Common sense dictated that I should get out of line. But, upon hearing the employee’s grim news, exactly ZERO people moved from their places, including Mrs. Potty Mouth well behind me.

“These people must know something I don’t,” I thought. “If they’re not moving, I’m not moving.”

Door Buster shoppers are, if nothing else, eternally optimistic. I could almost hear them rationalizing how a Wii Fit could still be theirs.

“Maybe at least 10 people in front of me will all have fatal heart attacks in the next 45 minutes,” their faces appeared to say.

Or maybe 10 would get trampled once the clock struck six. I decided to wait.

A few minutes later the same Meijer employee appeared and announced that the store actually had 29 Wii Fits available “and some Wii Fit Plusses.” The Wii Fit Plus, by the way, is a slightly more expensive BUT STILL 50 PERCENT OFF ON DOOR BUSTER THURSDAY AT MEIJER model.

This was the first time I had ever heard of a store suddenly discovering MORE merchandise. Whenever I go clothes shopping at the mall and ask if the store contains a particular item in my size, the response invariably is, “That’s all we have.” Nobody has ever said, “You need that in a large? Hang on; I think a truckload of larges just came in. I will go get one for you because I am a dedicated store employee.”

By now I realized that there was no rhyme or reason to a Door Buster sale. Twenty Wii Fits had just become 29. The ever-optimistic shoppers were now even more jovial, assuming that 29 would soon turn into 60, maybe more. Even the guy behind me, who had put on and removed his coat at least three times in 45 minutes, took it off again as if to say, “I’m in it for the long haul as well.” We began to bond as only males who have been sent to Door Buster sales by their wives can do.

“If I get the last one, I promise you can come over and play with it any time,” I said.

He chuckled and said he’d take me up on it.

At 5:59 a.m. the line was filled with the same kind of anticipation that one sees on New Year’s Eve in Times Square as the ball begins its descent. The waiting is nearly over; soon we will all realize why we’ve been standing here for 12 hours in sub-zero temperatures without a bathroom!

At 6:03 a.m. the line began moving. I moved out of the school supplies aisle, around the corner and entered the camping aisle. I noticed a store end cap containing a display of hunting knives. Bad idea, I thought, to let aggressive, over caffeinated Black Thursday shoppers anywhere near weapons.

From down the aisle, out of my line of vision but within earshot, came the first Black Thursday argument. I’m not sure what it was about but a clearly agitated woman kept saying, “I want my receipt and I want it NOW!”

Upon hearing her screams, the TV news crew scrambled into position.

At 6:13 the Meijer employee delivered the worst news I’ve heard since the Cubs signed Milton Bradley: only two Wii Fits remained.

This time I did an exact count of customers in front of me rather than an estimate. There were 11 patrons, none of whom moved in spite of the simple math equation: 11 desperate shoppers – 2 Wii Fits = 9 losers.

It was time to get out of line. My compatriot behind me put on his coat for the umpteenth time and did not take it off. Instead, he followed me down the aisle toward the exit, muttering something about “a perfectly good day wasted.” This was not entirely true, as the sun had not yet risen over the horizon. Technically it was still nighttime.

I exited the store and strode to my car, where my gym bag awaited. On this Thanksgiving morning I was thankful that, in spite of the horrific economy, paying regular price for a Wii Fit wouldn’t break the Schwem bank account.

I turned on the radio. Bruce Springsteen was singing, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Oh, the irony.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Huntin' for some tasty customer service

It’s no secret that we, as a nation, enjoy complaining.

We whine about the slow moving line at Starbucks, moan over the fact that a date at the movies now costs upwards of 50 dollars and bitch because our child was passed over for an athletic scholarship even though we are convinced he or she is EXCEPTIONALLY talented.

Most of the time, however, we complain because we don’t think anybody is listening to us.

For example, we continue to call tech support because our cable keeps going out even though we have done EXACTLY what the CSR ordered us to do (turn off the modem, turn it on and wait for the flashing green light). We hang up and then complain that we’ve already tried that; the entire cable industry is a scam; and why can’t we just go back to the days where television consisted of three channels that only appeared clearly if you held the rabbit ears on your television just so while standing on one foot?

We send our restaurant steak back to the kitchen because we ordered it medium and it arrived on our plate looking as if the cow were blushing with embarrassment. When it returns the second time, the meat is only slightly less bloody because, the waiter informs us, “That is the chef’s definition of ‘medium.’”

Actually, I once went to a “steak house” in Phoenix that averted this problem by requiring the patrons to cook their own steaks, as if this were a privilege and part of the restaurant’s ambience. It worked like this: You ordered a particular cut of meat, a member of the most under utilized wait staff in history served it raw on a plate and you walked over to a flaming hot grill where you actually cooked it yourself. Then you received a bill.

After looking at the bill and realizing I was paying to prepare my own dinner, it became clear that I had already eaten at this restaurant. It was called “My House.”

Suffice it to say that I am always on the lookout for an organization that not only caters to its customers but also makes a noble attempt to avert problems before they arise, thus eliminating complaints. I recently found such a business in Pierre, South Dakota – specifically the Best Western Ramkota Hotel.

On October 27, 2009 the South Dakota Housing and Development Authority invited me to speak to its members. The event, according to my contact, would take place at the Ramkota and a nice room had been reserved for me.

Of course, first I had to actually get to Pierre, South Dakota. For a city that serves as the state capitol, flying to Pierre is about as easy as booking a flight on the space shuttle. I chose to fly American Airlines from Chicago to Denver and then board Great Lakes Airlines for a 90-minute flight to Pierre aboard a plane that did not include a bathroom.

Note that I did not say “non stop” flight to Pierre. Yes, the plane eventually would up there but first we had to land in Alliance, Nebraska, a town that even Google Earth cannot locate. The “layover” time in Alliance is however long it takes to open the plane’s door, remove all the Nebraska passengers, and close the door. Unless of course somebody like me has to use the bathroom in the Alliance terminal. When I requested a pit stop, the pilot looked at me as if I were going to screw up the entire Great Lakes Aviation on time record. But he begrudgingly obliged.

Upon arrival in Pierre, I wondered how this town had earned the distinction of state capitol? During the 20-minute drive to the Ramkota, I noticed nary a government-looking building. Instead we passed gas stations, feed stores, and gas stations that sold feed.

As a professional corporate speaker who logs over 100,000 airline miles a year, I can spot the good hotels from the dregs. When we pulled in, I realized The Best Western Ramkota was clearly the class of Pierre and probably hosted any out of town government dignitaries that needed to appear before the state legislature to discuss important business (like whether to extend feed store hours). I heard Dick Cheney was fond of spending taxpayer money by chartering Air Force Two to Pierre so he could go pheasant hunting. Of course Cheney probably did not have to stop in Alliance, Nebraska to relieve himself.

Once inside, I quickly learned that hunting was a popular pastime in Pierre, as evidenced by the stuffed deer, bear, and aforementioned pheasant that peered down on me as I received my room key. There’s something about stuffed animal heads that freaks me out. Maybe it’s because their eyes are always open, as if they are searching for whomever put them in this predicament. Yet I never relay my fears to hunters, who would probably dismiss me as some lightweight city pansy and continue to make snide comments after I had left the room.

The front desk attendant was cordial, professional and everything one would expect from an employee at a name hotel. He provided good, but not exceptional customer service.

No, the basis for this article occurred upon entering my room – actually a suite according to the attendant. As a frequent hotel guest, I have come to realize that “suite” is a broadly used term. A suite at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas means a marble Jacuzzi tub, a bed featuring four Roman columns and possibly an on-call hooker named “Cleopatra.”

A suite at the Best Western Ramkota Pierre means a bigger closet and a few extra coffee packets. Still, it’s always nice to be treated like a big shot.
So, upon entering my suite, my eyes immediately fell to a coffee table near the bed, specifically the contents on the coffee table. Two small plastic bags held what appeared to be individually wrapped washcloths identical to those hanging in the bathroom. A sign between the bags read: “WELCOME HUNTERS. This year all reports indicate you should have a wonderful hunting season.”

(In other words, Dick Cheney would not be visiting)

The sign continued: “For your convenience we have rags available for your use. We ask that you please do NOT use our good towels, hand towels or washcloths to clean your guns, boots or dogs. For additional rags, please dial 0 and we will deliver them.”

I read the sign at least three times before realizing they were serious. My amazement was soon replaced by fear upon deducing that I could be shot, kicked or mauled if I dared to complain about a noisy guest.

But then it slowly occurred to me that this was customer service at its finest. The Best Western Ramkota knew hunters needed accommodations and did everything it could to appease them, including allowing dogs into the hotel, providing their masters with cleaning supplies and offering to bring more. Who could complain about that?

Plus, the staff has solved its own problem – namely guests using good towels for disgusting purposes – by offering an alternative. Too often, customer service means “our way or the highway.” Cable television not working? Sorry, you still have to pay for the service while you wait all day for a technician to possibly show up. Internet connection down? Get on line and we’ll try and help you. (That’s always been my favorite. How can I get on line without an Internet connection?)

It would be very easy for the Ramkota to hang a sign stating, “Please do not use our good towels for hunting purposes” and leave it at that. (Read: We don’t feel like spending extra money on laundry.) But what would that solve? A dirty hunter would most likely reach for the towels anyway because he has no choice.

I decided right then and there the Best Western Ramkota was true class in terms of customer service. If the “towels for hunters” solution wasn’t proof enough, the point was further driven home when I ordered room service and noticed this message at the menu’s end:

“Our chef will be happy to prepare your kill for you.”

And I thought I was going to have to cook it myself.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Your iPhone or your life! Really, what's the difference?

I recently returned from New York City with my 12-year-old daughter. The highlight of the trip, for her anyway, was a visit to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue.

Actually, calling it a “store” is like calling Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner a “bank teller.” Visitors to this store walk through a massive glass cube bearing the ubiquitous Apple logo and descend an escalator into a single room containing iPhones, iPods, iTouches and thousands of iGeeks. The store is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That’s correct, it’s even open Christmas Eve and Christmas morning just in case Santa’s elves miscounted and their boss is one MacBook short.

After spending two hours in the store touching every iButton on every iShelf, my daughter has already added an iTouch and a Macbook to her Christmas list, even though it is October as I write this. While those may wind up under the tree, I am forbidding her to get an iPhone. Why? Because my daughter has already lost her phone. Losing an iPhone today is worse than losing the keys to your rich and newly deceased Aunt Gladys’ safety deposit box, after years of listening to her at holiday meals tell the entire family that, when she expired, “there’d be a little something for everybody.” But more about that later.

Saying that my daughter lost her phone doesn’t do the story justice. Nine months after receiving a Sprint Rant for Christmas, and using it daily to send approximately 1.3 billion text messages and 400,000 self portraits of her teeth and nostrils to her friends, (thankfully her plan includes unlimited text, otherwise her parents would be living in a cardboard box under a viaduct) the phone failed to appear one morning as she was getting ready for school. This in itself was no cause for alarm as the Schwem household begins each morning with a frantic search for shoes, backpacks, hairbrushes or homework. The phantom item is always located approximately three seconds after the bus pulls away.

The phone, however, had never obtained “milk carton status” until now.

Sue and I began our detective work by asking the question burned into every parent’s vernacular: “Where was the last place you left it?”

The answer was just as common: “I dunno.”

Every time I hear that response, I wonder, “What’s the fuss over waterboarding?”

Eventually we gleaned a little more information from her. She couldn’t remember bringing it in last night. No wait, she remembered having it when she got out of the car. Okay, it’s getting clearer. She remembered putting it down while she retrieved her backup from our SUV’s hatch.

And here’s where she had a “CSI moment;” the case suddenly becoming crystal clear. She remembered placing it on the bumper of the SUV while she retrieved her backpack.

This would have been perfectly okay if the car had remained in the garage between 4 p.m. and 7 the next morning. But our family car is never idle for that long unless the battery is dead. No, our car had made at least three trips since 4 p.m., meaning the purple Sprint Rant had made at least one of them, without a seat belt if you catch my drift.

Natalie ran to the bus, minus her phone. Sue and I began walking the streets, searching for the phone the same way a heartbroken boy searches for a lost dog. It had all the makings of a scene from Marley and Me except we weren’t combing the neighborhood calling, “Here Rant. Come home Rant!”

Two days later, Sue found the phone. Check that, she found pieces of the phone along West 123rd Street. There were just enough parts and accompanying tire tracks to ensure the phone wouldn’t be covered under the “drop” section of the warranty.

Natalie took the news hard, knowing that a new phone would come from her bank account. But, as she began to save, she began looking at newer phones and cooler phones. Cell phone manufacturers have a season for introducing cooler phones; it begins mere seconds after a 12 year old has purchased a phone.

Truth be known, Natalie always wanted an iPhone. But the price tag stymied her. Besides Sprint, her parent’s provider, was not compatible with iPhone. Since her phone was being added to our plan, she opted for the Rant.

The iPhone wouldn’t be so cool if its owners used it as simply a phone. My Blackberry contains my address book, calendar and that’s about it. Oh sure, I occasionally use the camera to snap grainy photos of objects that I will delete within 24 hours and yes, occasionally I find myself playing Brickbreaker while waiting for planes. Otherwise, I use it as a phone, meaning I talk on it.

I rarely see iPhone users speaking into their phones. That’s because they are too busy diddling with iPhone applications. At last count the number of “apps” was approaching 100,000, including several that seem to do nothing more than make – ahem – gaseous noises on the iPhone. The user pays for that, by the way.

If I lose my Blackberry, I know that everything is backed up on my PC. Somehow I doubt that the fart app, or any other cool iPhone app, exists anywhere except within the iPhone. So let’s see what would happen if it got lost.

I’ll start with a blank iPhone and download ten random applications from the Apple Store. (Hint: It’s much easier to search the iPhone app store if you actually OWN an iPhone. I don’t so I have to resort to more primitive methods, such as Google searches and recommendations from the on line Apple staff or “Genuises,” as they prefer to be called).

First I'll download iOwn, a $4.99 app that allows the inventorying of everything one has acquired over the years. Think one of those metal self storage sheds on your phone.

Okay, now that I have EVERYTHING I OWN on my iPhone, there is still room for nine more apps. So I’ll add Pennies, a finance app that lets me keep track of my expenses; Grocery iQ for control of my shopping list, and Barista, so I can make my favorite espresso beverages with the skill of a tenured Starbucks employee.

I may be tempted to sweeten that frothy drink so my iPhone better contain BloodSugar, an app that allows me to test my sugar intake. I’ll add FlightTrack to get real time flight updates and Gas Cubby to record my gas mileage in the event that I miss my flight altogether. RedLaser lets me scan UPC codes while DIRECTV allows me to program my DVR from faraway places.

Finally, I’ll add Things which, according to the Apple website, allows one to “manage tasks and get things done.” I assume nobody in Congress has ever downloaded it.

Now I will drive around the neighborhood with my newly loaded iPhone on my car bumper until it falls off and becomes pothole filler. In one instant, I have suffered amnesia of every sort. I no longer have any idea what to buy at the grocery store and without a UPC scanner, wouldn’t know how to buy it anyway. Of course, lacking Pennies, I’m not sure I can afford groceries period. Or gas for that matter.

Since purchasing coffee from a store is out of the question, I’ll just go home and make some. Wait, no I won’t because I lost all the recipes. And I probably couldn’t find the coffee maker anyway since I downloaded its location on iOwn. My next flight came and went (I think) and my DVR is suddenly useless. So I will sit in my house, unsure what to do since Things is not around to guide me.

Wait, I’m feeling light-headed! Could my blood sugar be plunging? How should I know? Quick, dial 911!

Damn, I can’t do that either. Cause of death? Missing iPhone. Bag him and tag him.

Now you see why my daughter will never get an iPhone. There is, however, a nice rotary model on Craigslist.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Put your virtual hands where I can see 'em!

I am virtually getting sick of all things virtual.

Sure, 2009 was the year we cut back on doing “real” stuff and explored the benefits of using our computers to do everything. Virtual meetings became hot in the corporate world; my kids began feeding virtual pets via Webkinz; an agent I deal with even hired a virtual assistant who is not only less helpful than a real assistant but twice as annoying.

But I am officially ready to snap now that I have received my first virtual traffic ticket.

I returned home from a business trip last Friday, weary yet anxious about the upcoming weekend. There would be kids’ soccer and volleyball games as well as my 47th birthday celebration. On my desk lay a stack of mail, many items bearing the shape of birthday cards. In the midst of the pile was a legal-sized envelope with a return address that caught my eye: Village of Willowbrook Red Light Photo Enforcement, Norcross, Georgia.

I tore open the envelope and the words leaped off the paper: CITATION. TRAFFIC SIGNAL VIOLATION.

A series of grainy photos accompanied the text. The first showed a line of cars approaching a traffic light in darkness; the second was an even more blurred image of my license plate and the final image seemed to assemble both photos, showing my BMW x5 allegedly entering the intersection and making a left turn. A red blob that could have either been a traffic signal or a UFO hovered just slightly above and to the right of my vehicle.

The Willowbrook Police Department, which incidentally is located in Willowbrook, Illinois, nearly 1000 miles from Norcross, Georgia, clearly believed I ran a red light. This was stated emphatically next to the photos:

Please take notice that the vehicle described and pictured herein did not stop for the red traffic signal at the place, date and time specified. Therefore, under Title 8-11-13 of the Village of Willowbrook Code of Ordinances, as the registered owner of the vehicle, you are liable for the violation. Unless you elect to request an Administrative Hearing, a civil penalty in the amount of $100.00 must be paid by the due date shown on this notice.

I stared at the photos again with the concentration of a paparazzi who has just spied Jennifer Anniston sunbathing. Yes, I recognized the intersection in the first photo – Route 83 and 63rd Avenue, a quarter mile from my health club. Yes, that was my license plate in the second photo. And yes it appeared my car was in the midst of the intersection in the third photo.

Or was it?

Was the light REALLY red? Or was it yellow when I made my move? Did it turn red only when I had nearly finished the turning maneuver? There appeared to be another car ahead of me in the left turn lane. Was this vehicle in violation as well?

What did Norcross Georgia have to do with this incident?

Was there indeed another gunman on the grassy knoll?

Unfortunately I received answers to exactly ZERO of these questions because I was dealing in the virtual world. A camera had snapped the photos and determined that I was in the wrong. As further proof there were numbers and indecipherable codes at the top of each picture that read something like this:

SPc Time Date Code Amb Red Photo Limit Ln
29.0 05:55:29:57 09/17/2009 300 2:90 0:29 818A 45:00 1

In case I needed MORE proof, the citation was actually signed by an actual, or in this case a virtual, police officer:

I am a duly authorized officer by the Village of Willowbrook Police Department. Based on inspection of the recorded images shown above, the motor vehicle was operated in violation of Title 8-11-13 of the Willowbrook Code of the Ordinances, as evidenced by the above images. Sworn to and affirmed by:

I couldn’t read the hen scratching that passed for an electronic signature at the bottom. All I knew was that “Mark” was the officer’s first name.

It appeared Office Mark had busted me. Using all the skills learned at the police academy, he had examined three grainy photos and determined that the Willowbrook Police Department desperately needed $100.

I had two choices according to the citation. I could pay the one hundred bucks or request a hearing date. Anybody who has ever opted for the “request a hearing” choice knows that really isn’t a choice. Ever tried to contest a ticket? You will have better luck arranging a date between Taylor Swift and Kanye West.

I learned this the hard way several years ago when I opted to challenge a citation (a real once, not a virtual one) for (are you ready?) tailgating a police officer.

The charge was ludicrous. Why would I want to do anything to a police officer? But this particular officer was convinced I was riding his bumper so he pulled into a gas station, allowed me to pass, then immediately put on his lights and tailgated me until I pulled over.

I was determined to go to court and tell anybody who listened that my only crime was being near an officer desperate to make traffic ticket quota.

I showed up at the courthouse armed with nothing other than my story, which I rehearsed over and over in my head, ready to counter attack any argument from whatever legal authority was in charge, even if it was Judge Judy.

Instead I was introduced to a sassy African American female judge who called my name and demanded that I approach the bench.

“What do you want to do?” she glared at me.

“Your honor, I would like to contest the charge,” I replied.

“Allllllll riiiiiiiight,” she sighed as if my legal decision were about as stupid as Rod Blagojevich electing to plead innocent.

“What’s the charge?” she asked the prosecution. Before the assistant district attorney could even answer, she glanced at some paperwork.

“Tailgating!” she said, answering her own question. “I HATE when people tailgate me. Here I am driving and all of a sudden I see their nose right behind my bumper.” To demonstrate she put her own hand approximately a quarter inch from her own nose and moved it even closer.

“Still want to contest the charge?” she asked.

At this point, OJ Simpson’s Dream Team could not have help me. I elected to plead guilty and paid the fine. I would have washed her car for a year if she had requested it.

While arguing in court may not be effective, sometimes it works when the ticket is actually issued, something that is impossible when getting a virtual ticket. My wife has talked her way out of four speeding tickets. I’ve never been with her when this happens so I don’t know exactly what she says to the officer, although she assures me she doesn’t bare any skin. The point is, she whips the car pool around at 85 miles per hour yet still has an impeccable driving record thanks to her gift of gab.

My persuasive skills are not nearly as impressive when it comes to moving violations. But admit it, at least when you get pulled over without the aid of cameras, there is always a chance that you will drive away with a warning.

Such is not the case with a ticket garnered through the use of red-light cameras mounted on traffic signals. I could only imagine what that argument would be like.

Willowbrook Police Department. Do you have an emergency?

Uh, no but I would like to speak to Officer Mark.

He can’t come to the phone now. He’s busy Photoshopping.

The manner in which you receive a virtual ticket is equally humiliating. It comes in the mail, for crying out loud. There is no sense of impending doom, no lights and siren in your rearview mirror, no frantic search for insurance papers as you hear the click of boots on pavement and know the officer is about to stick his head, his flashlight and possibly a loaded .38-caliber revolver inside your open window.

There also is no chance to think, “Maybe, just maybe, I can outrun this guy.”

Admit it, when a police officer is on your tail in full police officer mode, a really stupid thought flashes through your mind. It begins and ends in about a nanosecond but it existed nonetheless. You actually contemplate a high-speed pursuit, with your car in the lead.

I attribute this thought to the fact that we watch so many movies where the lead character manages to outrun not just one police officer but an entire force. This is made infinitely easier due to the fact that there is always a dirt road up ahead on the left.

We’ve witnessed the scene thousands of times. “TURN LEFT AT THAT DIRT ROAD.”

Amidst a screech of brakes and a cloud of dust, our hero does just that while the unwitting officers continue heading straight. Crisis averted, the driver is now free to unwind by making out with the female in the passenger seat.

Had I been pursued by an actual officer at Route 83 and 63rd Street in Willowbrook, Illinois, I would have immediately pulled over since there was no dirt road on the left. My only choice of escape was a Whole Foods parking lot, which offered limited cover.

I’d still be out 100 bucks but at least I would have driven away knowing that I was in the wrong and determined to be a better driver in the future.

Being flagged by technology only gets my blood boiling. Like everything else these days, it’s just so darn impersonal.

Yet judging from the growing number of municipalities who see red-light cameras as revenue producers, I know that this technology is here to stay. So I will send Norcross, Georgia a check.

Along with a few other items.

As long as photos are being used to determine guilt, I have dug up a few more snapshots from my life that clearly show legal infractions. Might as well come clean, right?

There’s the photo of me playing Little League baseball and rounding the bases during a home run. To this day, I believe I may not have touched second base. With today’s technology, the photo should prove it.

Here are several photos of me drinking at a college frat party. Drinking while underage, I admit.

Here I am in seventh grade. Note that I am wearing a leisure suit. That has to be illegal.

Tell me what I owe. May God have mercy on my soul.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A simple lesson in geometry

I recently returned from an eight-day business trip where I did the tourist thing in between comedy gigs. I investigated architectural landmarks, poked around museums, and sought out the trendiest cafes that I had read about on blogs.

Often I had to wait in line. Others were doing the same thing. Nobody complained, tried to "cut" in front of another patron or formed their own line just outside the actual line.

In case you hadn't figured it out, I was NOT in the United States.

In this cyber age, where we have grown accustomed to booking airline tickets, making restaurant reservations and shopping for everything from ink cartridges to automobiles on line, the idea of forming a line - a single straight line - has eluded everyone in this country.

I thought we had solved this problem after 9/11. Remember the scenes of people from all walks of life waiting patiently to donate blood? They stood in lines that snaked around city blocks, chatting with complete strangers about where they were on that horrible day and what brought them to this line.

Sadly, that behavior has been quickly forgotten, as I noticed this week while waiting to pick up a pre-ordered fruit tray at my local grocery store. I strode to the deli at 8 a.m., happy to find a single patron in front of me. "This won't take long," I thought.

As the worker sliced meat for the other customer, an elderly woman appeared from nowhere and walked straight to the carousel of paper numbers that one is supposed to grab during crowded deli moments, thereby ensuring a rightful place in line.

The key word here is "crowded." Because I didn't feel one other customer constituted a crowd, I neglected to take a number. A simple math equation would read:

First customer's turn
- my turn
= eldery lady 's turn

Not so. The worker, whose back was turned to all three of us, finished filling the order and then, for some inexplicable reason, glanced at the LCD screen displaying "46."

"Forty-seven?" he said

Grandma Haggard immediately stepped forward. "Right here," she said.

"Can I help you?" said the worker, having not a clue that I had been waiting.

Too stunned to say anything, and not having the energy to argue with a senior citizen, I opted to let her demand a quarter pound of pastrami and pepper jack cheese while I waited. However, it was the first time I ever looked at a kielbasa and considered using it as a weapon.

Scenes like this play out endlessly as Americans search for a way - any way - to avoid the simple task of waiting. I stay in a ton of hotels and still marvel at the jockeying for position that occurs at check-in desks. Las Vegas is the only city where the hotel employees appear to have gotten together and found a solution. Velvet ropes are usually found in the lobbies, FORCING guests to form a single file line and wait for the next available receptionist.

Hotels in other cities either can't spring for velvet or relish the idea of a fight breaking out in front of them. Often I approach a desk to see three employees helping guests. My strategy is to wait in front of the center clerk; not DIRECTLY in front but leaving myself about 10 feet of space. It's my way of saying, "I'm in line for whomever is available next."

But invariably another guest saunters up, assumes I have a special affection for the center attendant and parks him or herself directly in front of another clerk. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that clerk is available within seconds, while I wait as the guest in front of me reviews his bill with the concentration of a brain surgeon.

Finally, there is the airport, truly the Mecca of unorganized lines. Despite repeated warnings by airline personnel of "board only when your row is called," "do not congregate in the boarding area," and "I WILL PERSONALLY RAM A SHOE DOWN THE THROAT OF ANYONE WHO SEEMS TO THINK THE PLANE WILL LEAVE WITHOUT THEM IF THEY DON'T GET ON THIS INSTANT," the mess continues.

And that's if the plane is on time!

Ever waited in a line full of people who are being rebooked(the airline industry's word for "we screwed up big time"? You start in a "line." Four minutes later that line has become a "clump" as irate passengers scream into their cell phones trying to get a faster response from the airline's help desk. Upon hanging up they resume their place in what has now turned from a "clump" into an "angry mob."

Is there a solution to this madness? Personally I think everyone in this country should be forced to watch images of starving Third World residents, waiting patiently in broiling sun for hours just to receive food, something far more relevant than an airline seat. Let's hope those scenes never play out here.

I'm off to San Antonio this week. I'll be flying American Airlines and staying at a Hyatt hotel.

Thankfully there will be no deli runs on this trip.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hey, I'm Tiger Woods! Wiiiiii

When I was 11 my parents relented and purchased the hottest game in America at the time. This was a huge step for them as they had never been big believers in following the masses, so to speak. While other kids sported the coolest jeans, I was wearing Sears Tuff Skins. When it came time to buy me a bike, the 10-speed models were off limits, for reasons never explained to me. Instead I pedaled furiously on a turquoise-colored Schwinn with a seat shaped like an enormous banana. My new mode of transportation had a single speed, one that Schwinn engineers deemed suitable for going up AND down hills. If Lance Armstrong ever rode that bike, he would probably dismount after five minutes and say, “I’ve had chemotherapy and I’ve ridden Greg’s bike. Chemo is slightly worse.”

Which is why it was a great surprise when, under our Christmas tree in 1973, was a box labeled “Pong.”

Pong represented America’s foray into the world of video gaming once it was determined that kids would go absolutely bonkers watching two white dots on a TV screen with a smaller white dot bouncing between them. The sticks were supposed to be rackets and the smaller dot was, if you used every inch of your imagination, a ball. Using knobs on a control panel, the players moved the large dots up and down, hoping they would collide with the smaller dot and send it ricocheting to the other side. When the “ball” got past one of the “rackets,” the player scored a point. An annoying “pong” sound accompanied each collision of dot on dot.

My sister and I played pong until our vision was so blurred that everything resembled a white dot. I once spent three hours playing and then walked away from the game, only to feel as if an army of snowballs was headed my way even though it was August. Yes, Pong was truly a hit.

Realizing that American kids were very content to sit inside staring at television screens all day, game developers got to work creating numerous and more addictive games. Pong was followed by Space Invaders, which gave way to Pac Man and Donkey Kong. These games were cute and served their purpose of giving kids carpal tunnel syndrome by the time they hit puberty.

But the gaming industry wanted more. Yes, it was time to actually experience the game rather than simply play it.

Enter the Nintendo Wii.

Launched in 2006, the Wii is to the current generation of kids what Pong was to ‘70s children. The only real difference is that Pong was played for hours while today’s kids play Wii for weeks, sometimes without stopping to use the bathroom or eat.

Because Wii was the hottest, most popular, most HAVE TO HAVE IT OR I’LL DIE game, it naturally was item number one on both kids’ Christmas lists. Santa delivered it the morning of December 25, 2007 and I didn’t see my kids again until New Year’s Eve. Privately I wanted them to continue playing until the ball actually dropped in Times Square just so I could say, “Hey you two, I haven’t seen you in a YEAR!”

Ha ha, that dad guy. He is hilarious!

Video game experts (there’s a job I would love to have) feel Wii promotes hand eye coordination and even passes for exercise among today’s young couch potato set, simply because you can stand up to play it. Hey, getting kids to stand today is a major accomplishment!

Not only did my kids stand but they quickly improved their elbow muscles by swinging the Wii remotes around like maniacs. In no time they were experts at every game on the “Wii Play” disc that Santa also dropped off. I watched in amazement, silently vowing to never pick up a remote and join them in the Wii versions of pool, skeet shooting and ping-pong although Wii ping-pong looked a lot cooler than ‘70s pong.

Of course they never asked me to join them.

Eventually the kids began stockpiling Wii games with the same speed they collect hair scrunchees. I can’t walk five feet in my house without seeing a colored, twisted, discarded ponytail holder on the floor, the steps, or in unexplained places like the front porch. I interpret that to mean they were so disgusted with their hairstyles that they abandoned them before even entering the house.

Wii Play gave way to games with more outrageous instructions and goals. Their current favorite is MarioKart which, as far as I can tell, is something that every parent should destroy once their child begins Driver’s Ed. Players race through different tracks, employing tactics such as “Mega Mushroom,” which allows them to flatten opponents; and POW BLOCK, causing opponents to spin wildly out of control.

Compared to MarioKart, NASCAR is like idling in neutral.

A year went by and I stuck to my goal of avoiding Wii. It’s not that I thought the game was stupid; I shunned Wii for the same reason I passed on cocaine in college.

I was afraid I might actually like it.

When Pac-man and its daughter, Ms. Pac-Man, hit the arcades in the early ‘80s, I pumped a year’s worth of tuition into the coin slot. I just couldn’t get enough of a large yellow-mouthed dot racing through a maze eating smaller yellow dots and, occasionally, moving fruit. Pac-man was my addiction and I only stopped upon graduating and going to work at a newspaper, which fortunately did not have Pac-Man anywhere on premises. That would have made for some interesting conversations with my editor.

Hey Schwem, the cops just found a body in a forest preserve. Get moving.
Hang on, I’m on level nine!

Now I work from home, my office being exactly one level above the Wii console. Often as I attempt to mine humor from a blank PC screen, I hear the Wii from beneath the floor, making mind-numbing “Wii sounds.” Yet my annoyance usually gives way to a smile as I hear my daughters shrieking with delight and playing happily together, without the arguments that invariably accompany sibling activities.

I decided to investigate the Wii phenomenon further, productivity and potential addiction be damned!

One evening, while accompanying my daughters to rent a movie at a local video store – an event that ALWAYS results in an argument – I passed a lengthy row of Wii games that could be rented for the steep price of $8.99. On the lower shelf, smiling up at me with a club in his hands, was none other than Tiger Woods.

I bent down to examine Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 All Play, a game that promised the feeling of playing golf like Tiger Woods. After glancing around the store to make sure none of my neighbors had entered, I snatched the game and made my way to the checkout counter, determined to improve my game with the help of Tiger.

Now I have never been a huge fan of Tiger Woods. Maybe it’s because he makes a frustrating game look so easy; maybe it’s because he has a hot wife or maybe it’s just because he’s named “Tiger.” Woods’ dad Earl definitely knew what he was doing when he nicknamed his son. No other ferocious jungle animal sounds as cool when applied to a human. “Lion” Mickelson and “Jaguar” Els just don’t have the same ring as “Tiger” Woods.

On a muggy summer morning, while alone in my basement I entered the Wii revolution, hoping to play 18 holes at Pebble Beach, courtesy of the Wii.

I was fortunate to play the real Pebble Beach in 2005, presenting a round to my dad as a Father’s Day gift. Getting a tee time meant making numerous phone calls and finally securing a slot four months in advance. It also meant forking over $850 for five hours of enjoyment (and pain, considering I decided to play some of my worst golf that day).

Five seconds after launching Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 All Play, I realized this was going to be more difficult, more time consuming and quite possibly more expensive than playing the actual course. I say more expensive because I figured I would have to rent the game at least 80 times before mastering its intricacies.

First I was required to stare at the screen and learn WHAT’S NEW in this game. In other words, what did the ‘09 version have that the ‘08 version didn’t have other than probably a higher price. Of the many features, the most intriguing to me was the addition of Hank Haney, Tiger’s real life coach. The on-screen graphics promised that Haney “will help improve your skills with the new Club Tuner features which will allow you to fine tune your swing with each type of club.”

Keep in mind that this is Wii golf I was about to play as opposed to actual golf.

Nevertheless, a free lesson from Haney seemed like a bargain for $8.99. I had just played an actual round of golf the day before. Although I hit the ball decently, my putting was horrible and my short irons weren’t that accurate. Perhaps Haney could correct these flaws.

Upon entering “tutorial mode,” Haney told me I needed to “master the control.” By that, he meant I needed to learn how to take a full swing. This seemed impossible considering I was “swinging” the Wii remote, a skinny piece of white plastic slightly larger than a candy bar.

I was told I would only complete the lesson if I hit the ball 280 yards into the fairway – with a three wood.

I have never done this in my life, even when playing high-altitude courses and landing tee shots on cart paths heading downhill.

My first shot traveled 215 yards into a ravine, proving that Wii was nothing if not realistic. The Wii said, “Good try but you can do better.” Undaunted, I split the fairway with my next shot, which traveled exactly 280 yards. I was done with lesson one.

Lesson two from Haney covered (are you ready?) actually aiming the ball. I would have thought this might have been covered in lesson one but obviously Haney gets paid by the hour. The pop-up text on the screen instructed me to “zoom, press the A button. Tap the A button twice to jump directly to the target circle. Move the target circle by holding the B button and dragging it to the desired location. You may also aim by pressing the Control pad up, down, left or right.”

Up until now, my only golf instruction had been, “head down, knees bent.”

As I were reading the on-screen tome, a silhouetted figure of Woods himself hovered behind the text. I saw Wood address the ball and then step away as if he were about to scream profanities at a photographer or overzealous fan. Again, Nintendo succeeded at making Wii Tiger as life-like as real Tiger, who has been known to emit “F” bombs after poor shots and berate fans that dare to photograph the world’s most famous athlete as he works.

The text continued: “Press the A button to zoom to the target circle. Move the target circle to the green and aim for the flag.”

I swung and hit the ball straight but over the flag, over the green and probably over the parking lot behind the green. “Try again,” the Wii said.

My next dozen shots were carbon copies. And here is where I realized how annoying this Haney guy was. I was not going to be allowed to move on until I had mastered a straight, accurate lob wedge shot to the green. In vain I looked for the “skip this section,” “move on” “advance” or “forward” buttons but to no avail. I pushed A. I pushed B. I pushed A and B together. Nothing. My only options were to keep trying or rip the Wii wires out of the wall.

I concentrated with intensity that would have made Woods and Haney proud. I also pressed the B button and somehow dragged the target circle. This proved to be excellent strategy as my 13th shot hit the green.

“Great shot,” said Haney

Lesson three involved hitting a manual draw/fade. In golfer’s terms, a draw makes the ball go slightly left while a fade sends it slightly right. Notice the term slightly. Unfortunately, your average golfer doesn’t do anything slightly; he hits the ball far left – a hook – or sends it careening wildly right, also known as a slice. But Haney seemed to think I could make my ball dance with the grace of a Michael Jackson moonwalk if I just followed the simple instructions:

“Press the A button to zoom to the target circle. Point to a colored Draw or Fade handle and hold the B button. Move the target circle left or right for desired draw or fade.”

My target to complete the lesson was the fairway beyond the trees. In other words, I was supposed to draw (hook) the ball around the trees and land it in the fairway.

I swung the Wii candy bar and watched in horror as my ball passed through one, then two, then three patches of trees. An all-too-familiar rustling sound accompanied each collision.

“Try again,” Wii stated.

I dunked two balls in the Wii creek before landing in the elusive fairway. Only then was I told that I could avoid the entire “press A, hold B, drag circle” approach and draw and fade the ball simply by twisting the Wii remote to the right or left after I swung.

I glanced at my watch. I had been under Haney’s expert tutelage for slightly more than an hour. The lesson was far from over.

In the next few minutes I learned to put spin on the ball for more distance. I learned how to hit a shot with partial power, which meant not swinging the Wii with all my might.

Finally I moved to the final lesson…putting. I knew this was going to be the most complex Wii movement because there were six tutorial screens. My TV showed a putting green. A grid draped the green and green, blue, yellow and red dots danced across it, moving at different speeds and rolling in different directions. It felt like I was about to launch a missile onto enemy soil in Afghanistan.

Alas, I was just learning to putt.

Haney translated the grid: Green meant the putting surface was flat. Blue meant a downhill slope. Yellow an uphill slope and red an EXTREMELY uphill slope.

I could “preview” the putt by pressing the “minus” button on the remote or simply clicking the on-screen “Putt Preview” button but was sternly informed that I’d get only one preview per putt. If I requested another preview, I assumed Tiger would appear and swear at me.

Haney’s instruction continued: “Point the Wii remote down and follow the natural putting motion. (Haney has obviously never seen me putt). Using the recommended percentage on the HUD, try to match that to the percentage on the Putt Power Meter.”

I searched the screen in vain for the meaning of “HUD” but never found it. I assumed it was the thermometer-shaped thing that hovered on the left side of the screen. A bar rose and fell depending on how far back I drew the remote. Haney instructed me to “make the putt and begin your golfing career.” I was overjoyed knowing that my lesson with this golf tyrant was about to come to an end.

And it did end, but not before I hit a five-foot put 3.2, 2.9, 1.4 and 4.7 feet before holing it on the next try. At long last I was ready to play Pebble Beach.

I selected “one golfer” mode seeing that there was nobody else in the basement. I also chose “stroke play” since I had no idea what “Rings” or “Stableford” meant. I just know I have never turned to my golf buddies on the first tee and said, “Guys, let’s shake it up and play Stableford today.”

I also could choose from a litany of pro golfers with names I recognized: DiMarco, Furyk, Goosen, Parnevik or the great Woods himself.

I opted for the world’s most entertaining golfer, John Daly, he of the massive drives, numerous divorces, multiple addictions and skyrocketing weight. I couldn’t wait to see how life-like Nintendo made him.

Nintendo, it turned out, was very kind. A slimmer-than-I-have-ever-seen Daly strolled to the first tee. As he did, the Wii announcers made their audio debuts.

“Good afternoon. Kelly Tilman here for EA Sports,” came the voice of a woman I assumed was Kelly Tilman. Moments later she was joined by a British chap named Sam Torrance.

I would soon grow to despise these two more than Haney.

My loathing of them did not start immediately as I (or should I say Daly?) addressed my first tee shot and swung mightily. Even Torrance was impressed.

“This should work out good. Down the right side of the fairway.”

The Wii crowd roared. Actually roared! Haney’s lessons were paying off.

I had 110 yards to the pin. While I pondered my options, a “caddy tip” popped onscreen:

Use your spin to help the ball towards the target on the green. While your ball is in flight, choose a direction on the control panel and shake the Wii Remote to generate spin.

I swung. I shook. I hit the ball 120 yards; just on the green’s back edge. Daly looked dejected but chose not to show it by chugging a beer or firing up a cigarette.

Now it was time to chip. The bizarre looking series of balls slithered across the green, moving at alternate speeds and direction. I studied them intently, for reasons I could not explain.

“Please just swing,” said Sam.

No kidding. Apparently I was irritating Mr. Torrance. Flustered, I swung, rolling to about six feet. Time to putt.

I gauged the putt, checked the still unknown HUD thingy and stroked.

“That’s going nowhere,” said Tilman. “This is for bogey.”

I putted again, moving the ball approximately eight inches.

“I’ve seen many poor putts in my day and this ranks right up there.” Tilman droned.

I vowed then and there to someday track down Kelly Tilman and ask why, if she was such an expert, wasn’t she on tour as opposed to whoring herself by doing stupid Wii commentary?

Torrance will also become a stalking target, a decision I made once he said, “He’s just trying to get out of here with a double.”

I putted three more times, never moving the ball more than one foot. Even Tilman appeared to turn sympathetic.

“This to finally end a terrible hole,” she whispered as I stood over my eighth putt. That one failed as well and I was told my shot limit had been exceeded. The Wii scorecard showed 11 as Daly trudged to the second hole although I expected him to make a detour to the nearest Hooters.

I decided to end my round there. I’m not sure if it was because of the 11, the barrage of insults from Tilman and Torrance or the fact that I had spent just under two hours playing one hole.

I did know that I now possessed the knowledge to submit my own game idea to Nintendo. Once it’s approved and available at the video store, I will invite my kids to join me but I doubt they will have any interest in playing…WEEKEND HACKER GOLF 2009.

Instead, I will invite three friends over to give them the experience of playing real golf. We will meet in my basement some time in February, when actual courses in my town are buried under mountains of snow and changing a furnace filter counts as a recreational activity.

From the moment I fire up Weekend Hacker, players will see obvious differences. For starters, there is no tutorial from Haney or any golf professional for that matter. The reason? Weekend hackers don’t take lessons, have never taken lessons and will never take a lesson until the day they die. Lessons cost money and that means less bucks to spend on beer.

Instead, we will move right to choosing a course. In fact, we can choose from a litany of public golf courses. We scroll through the list, eventually agreeing on “Broken Eagle.” The on-screen graphics gives us a tour of the first hole, a 380-yard par four featuring burned out fairways the color of straw, a creek with no water and a green littered with ball marks and several randomly placed cigarette butts.

We choose our players: I opt for “Sal”, a 20-year plumbing veteran whose golf wardrobe consists of a yellow tank top, frayed jean shorts and golf spikes worn without socks. My next-door neighbor chooses “Frank”, a retired police officer who has played every day since leaving the force yet still can’t break 100. Perhaps it’s the cigarette dangling from his mouth that is interfering with his swing.

My golfing buddy from across town selects “Shanks.” His bag consists of two drivers, 13 irons, four putters and a hybrid 6 wood that he recently purchased from eBay. Shanks also plays exclusively with outrageously expensive balls designed to “fly longer, truer and straighter” than other balls. Unfortunately they still sink in water.

Finally, my neighbor down the block prefers “Wes the Press.” His pockets contain tees, coins, ball marks and a roll of hundred dollar bills. Game on!

Our foursome ambles to the first tee. Before anybody takes a swing, the “gambling assistant” window pops onscreen. “Do you want to play a five dollar Nassau with a press? Click A for yes.”

Wes clicks A. Another screen appears.

“Do you want to play sandies, barkies, greenies and Arnies?”

Shanks clicks A. Game officially on!

Sal steps to the first tee, addressing the ball with utmost concentration. As he takes the club back, Frank’s cell phone erupts. Sal’s shot is a towering slice that hits three trees and comes to rest near the refinery that borders Broken Eagle’s first fairway.

Frank is next. Cigarette firmly in mouth he stares at the ball on the tee for what seems like an eternity.

“Today,” Wes yells.

Frank swings. The Weekend Hacker distance meter measures his shot at 45 yards with a tailwind.

Shanks chooses his new Taylor Made R9 driver and unleashes a blast that appears straight yet takes a hard left 90 yards in flight and ends up in a church parking lot where Mass is just letting out.

Luckily one new feature of Weekend Hacker 2009 is the MOT, short for “Mulligan Off Tee.” Each player can use it once. Shanks chooses a mulligan and uncorks precisely the same shot.

Finally it is Wes’ turn. His drive is pure and straight yet bounces off an exposed sprinkler head and caroms into the trees. We don’t hear Tilman or Torrance providing commentary. Instead, we hear a lone word coming from the television.


As our foursome scatters to play our second (or in Shanks’ case, his third) shot, another new feature appears. It’s JESSICA THE CART BABE! Appearing out of nowhere in a golf cart, and wearing short shorts and a white halter top sans bra, she dispenses Budweisers, Bloody Marys, sunflower seeds and cigars for our group and promises to return by the third hole.

Eventually we make our way to the green. As Frank stands over a 12-foot putt, the gambling assistant appears again. “Would anybody like to press?”

Wes clicks A.

Frank puts down his cigarette, and slightly rearranges his line, aiming for the spike mark six inches outside the hole. He strokes the putt and nails it! His triple bogey seven wins the hole. Sal and Wes had snowmans and Shanks “picked up” on the advice of the “slow play wizard,” another new feature.

The second hole is the number one handicap hole, due in part to the construction crane from the soon-to-be-completed condominium development that runs along the fairway on the right. The crane comes into play on a slice.

The foursome has plenty of time to ponder their options. For the slow play wizard pops onscreen again:

“There is a 45-minute backup on the second tee. Please be patient.”

Where the heck is Jessica?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

We are all sick

It’s been just over two weeks since we last heard about Alexa Longuiera and, unless you had fallen down a manhole during that time, you probably know about her.

Actually, if you had fallen down a manhole, chances are you are Alexa Longuiera.

The 15 year old from Staten Island was behaving like a typical teenager on July 11, meaning she was walking down the sidewalk and preparing to send a text message because that's all teenagers do these days. The text was not coming from her phone but from a phone that a friend had just handed her.

That’s right, she was with a friend, making the ensuing incident even more unbelievable (and hilarious if you are a comedian who has devoted the last 15 years to writing jokes about technology)

As Ms. Longuiera continued to tap away at her phone, and her friend exhibited all the awareness of a hibernating bear, neither noticed an open manhole on the sidewalk. Suddenly Ms. Longuiera was gone, albeit temporarily. After plunging into the hole, she climbed out via a ladder that, up until July 11, had only been used by sewer workers.

Thankfully she suffered only minor injuries yet that didn’t stop her parents from announcing to all media outlets that they planned to sue the city for not properly marking the manhole with a sign that, in all likelihood, should have said, "STOP TEXTING AND LOOK DOWN!" I have been unable to find any information on whether a lawsuit has actually been filed but it sounds like a dispute that could easily be handled by Judge Judy.

We all know that text messaging is a distraction. Texting while someone is speaking with you is downright rude. Texting while driving can lead to accidents. Too much texting can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. In short, texting is a disease.

But as far as I’m concerned, texting is just one of the litany of afflictions that has been created as a result of our infatuation with technology. Behold, let me introduce many other illnesses that are sweeping the world, much like swine flu. The only difference is that wearing a mask can prevent swine flu. These “cyber-diseases” can only be avoided by eliminating technology in your life. In other words, they are here to stay.

Friend overloadus – Sudden memory loss that comes from having too many Facebook friends and being unable to remember who they are, what connection they have to you and why you even befriended them in the first place.

Twitosterone – A chemical that oozes through your body, causing you to actually feel as if you are tweeting something of interest, even though your last three Twitter posts were, “Just ordered large latte” immediately followed by “latte arrived” and “drinking latte now. Mmmm good.”

Skype-i-sode – The horrible feeling that occurs when the Internet connection you are using to make a free international call using Skype goes down. Symptoms include loudly repeating profanities, smashing of keyboard with fist and the horrible realization that your “free” call is about to get VERY expensive.

Over-endorse – Similar to a drug overdose except the “user” has succumbed to the temptations of asking too many LinkedIn contacts to endorse his or her work. Treatable via an intervention program in which all the contacts confront the user in a locked room and confess they cannot remember him.

Accountus Interruptus – Being notified that an email account has been cancelled due to lack of use. Primarily occurs when the victim has set up accounts via Yahoo, Google, AOL, MSN and Hotmail yet has suddenly neglected all of them in favor of Facebook.

EBay Dysfunction – When an item the victim posted on eBay expires with no bids, no questions and no “watchers.” Also known as “shooting blanks.”

Match.con – Posting an on line dating service photo that bears absolutely no resemblance to your real life appearance.

ISomnia – Suffered by anyone who stays up late downloading needless applications for their iPhone

YouTubeaphobia – The fear that the boss will enter while you and your fellow employees are watching YouTube videos

World Wide Webisode – A hallucinatory incident where the victim is convinced he is being watched by the team that created Google Earth.

And finally…

Longuiera-itis – Running, crashing or falling into anything while text messaging.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Twitter, I have a reque

Sometimes I go for weeks, even months, without blogging. The reason is that I simply can’t think of anything funny to blog about.

Witness the news recently: another market downturn, leading to speculation that the recent run-up in stocks was simply a tease; the death of Ed McMahon, a Chicago police officer getting probation even after a YouTube video of him BEATING a helpless female bartender went viral; the political unrest in Iran, beamed around the world via the microblogging site Twitter.

Wait a minute! Did I just read that Twitter was being used to get information out of Iran?

That’s brilliant! It’s historical. And, if you’re a comedian, it’s also slightly amusing, particularly when there are some who feel the creators of Twitter deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for their application.

Obviously there is nothing humorous about election fraud, brutal government crackdowns and women such as Neda Soltan dying from gunshot wounds simply after having the courage to express their opinions.

Iranians living under the cloak of repression and dictatorship are finally taking a stand by using technology, in this case Twitter, to tell the world what is REALLY going on in their country. Problem is, Twitter limits their thoughts, expressions, beliefs, etc. to 140 characters or less.

Note: Prior to this paragraph, I had typed 1,162 characters. I could have shortened it to 969 if I had omitted spaces (which Twitter counts as characters) but that would be difficult to read. I’m sure Iranians are frustrated by the “one space equals one character” rule as well. Face it, tweeting “presidentahmandinejadgottwothousandvotestinmyvillageeventhoughonly27peoplelivehere” would be incredibly time consuming to decipher.

I guess limited free speech is better than no free speech at all. But when an application limits freedom of speech to 140 characters, is that really free speech?

I don’t want quick blasts of information coming from Iran; I want lengthy diatribes. When, as President Obama says, “the world is watching” the Iranian situation, I want details. I want essays from the Iranian people. I want blogs. I’ll take emails even if they contain the subject line “SPEAK SOFTLY BUT ALWAYS CARRY A BIG STICK!”

Twitter is being praised for rescheduling maintenance so Iranian people could continue tweeting. Bravo! Now how about temporarily lifting the 140 character rule as well?

I have already debated this with friends who feel Twitter is the greatest computer application since Tetris. They also feel 140 characters is more than enough to express whatever thoughts are rolling around in their minds.

I invite anybody with a similar friend to send that person an anonymous, incomplete message via Twitter. Here are a few messages that top out at exactly 140 characters. Feel free to copy and paste them into your next tweet.

Ewwwww gross. Found live rat in kitchen today. Chased him away but not sure if he's still in house. Whatever you do, don't open the main

Greetings from the lottery office! We have traced the winning ticket to you and it may be redeemed today only between nine and five at 12375

Hi! It's Meghan. I have a suite at the Ritz and a bottle of chardonnay chilling. PLEASE come visit me. Just knock three times on room #

May God bless the Iranian people. And may they continue to have the courage to state their beliefs, without counting letters.

About Greg Schwem

Greg Schwem is a nationally known corporate stand-up comedian and business speaker. Please visit his website by clicking here. Contact him via Twitter by clicking here

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Adventures of an overseas traveler

Almost any parent will tell you that it is tough traveling on business. I say “almost” because I have met parents who, I am sure, count the days until they can get away from the little delinquents that they unfortunately spawned.

While I enjoy the travel that comes with my job, I prefer it in small time increments. Usually I am gone for slightly more than 24 hours, enough time to blow into a hotel that morning or the previous evening, perform stand-up comedy at some point, and then hop a plane back to Chicago.

So naturally I was hesitant when I was invited to join a Sarasota, Florida-based insurance company on a trip through Europe.

For eight days.

For the insurance folks, this was an incentive trip, the kind that is currently being slammed by watchdog groups and stockholders as excessive. However, this company (which shall remain nameless simply because I liked its employees) was privately owned, did not accept TARP bailout funds and therefore operated on a “we will do as we please and we will have fun doing it” principle.

They would be socializing, drinking and enjoying the fruits of their efforts. They would start in Amsterdam, end near Frankfurt and stop along the way in towns I’ve never heard of including Xanten, Cochem and Treer.

Note: The Microsoft spell check has apparently never heard of those towns either because all come with a squiggly red line underneath when typed into a Word document. The red line is Microsoft’s way of saying, “huh?”

I would perform stand-up comedy, assist with the company’s awards program (not an easy task aboard a moving ship, as I found out later) and, in general, keep these top salespeople and their spouses laughing and entertained for five days.

Tack on three days for travel and you’ve got eight days.


On business.

I took an eight-day trip in 2004 sans kids. But my wife was with me and this trip was entirely pleasure. We left the kids with my in-laws, who possess the best baby-sitting item ever invented. Better than a nanny.
An in-ground pool.

Trust me, when your kids are small, they can spend an entire summer wearing two articles of clothing: diapers and bathing suits.

Now they are 12 and 7, with schedules that would astound some CEOs. They go to SCHOOL, then they have ACTIVITIES and then they have MORE ACTIVITIES. And don’t forget HOMEWORK!

I don’t care if your kids have the disposition of a Golden Retriever and your relatives the patience of Job, eight days of playing “who needs to be where and when” and “I need help with this math problem” can have lasting consequences. Wills are often revised around Day Six.

So, even though the insurance people graciously invited my wife, we decided I would go to Europe solo while she stayed home in her office, which is another way of saying, “the car.” It would be the longest I have ever been away from my family and, as I found out, a true test of communication skills.

We would correspond via overseas phone calls. A quick call to Sprint revealed that my ever-present Blackberry, which plays music, takes photos, surfs the Web and can connect to YouTube in an instant, would NOT work in Europe. The Sprint salesperson suggested I purchase a cheap international phone.

“Have you ever heard of a website called eBay?” he semi-whispered, as if eBay were a secretive, CIA interrogation camp.

Eventually I rented an international phone – over the phone - from a company called CellHire. Helpful salesperson Mike informed me that the phone would come with two SIM cards, one for the Netherlands and one for Germany. All I had to do was swap out the cards, depending on what country I was in, and I could easily dial home – for 80 cents a minute.

Note: I have no idea what a SIM card is and it always amuses me when technology salespeople assume you are versed in their jargon. Sometimes I feel like I am talking with Doc, the Christopher Lloyd character in “Back to the Future,” who was always ranting about the “1.21 jigowatts” needed to power the “flux capacitor.”

When I’m on the road, calls home can often last upwards of 30 minutes, by the time I have talked to all three family members. And that’s if everybody had a good day. Bad day calls can last twice as long. The current recession has forced the Schwems, like most families, to make sacrifices when possible. We eat out less, drive less, and now it appeared we would talk less. We agreed that I would call home every other day.

That would be four calls over eight days.

I suggest that nobody ever use this formula. Instead, call whenever the mood strikes, costs be damned. Cancel HBO, take a second job or refinance the house if you have to.

Family communication, as I found out, is not something that should be scheduled. Establishing a time table ensures the risk of calling on days when there is nothing to say and being out of touch on days when the sound of a family member’s voice could lift your spirits exponentially.

To demonstrate, I will divide an eight day business trip into days zero to eight, using the “every other day” calling pattern, and will try and explain what occurs on each day:

An overseas trip doesn’t begin on day one; it actually starts on day zero. This is your first phone call, known simply as the “I am here,” call. This is the briefest call, because you’re calling the family when it’s your morning and their night, or vice versa, and that’s totally weird to both parties at this point.
So the call last about three minutes: “I’m here, how are you, how are the kids, I miss you already.”

You don’t talk to the kids on this call unless they answer. You talk to your wife. Before hanging up, you remind her that you both agreed beforehand to skip Day One. This doesn’t seem like a good idea because it means you’re not going to give her your first impressions of the trip until Day Two. But you think, “we need to stick to the plan,” so you say, “I’m probably going to just take tomorrow and catch up, get on their time zone, you know?”

This doesn’t seem to satisfy your wife even though she tries hard not to let it show.

“Uh, okay. We’re pretty busy tomorrow anyway.”

You hang up exhausted from jet lag, yet content that your first phone call only cost about $4 US.

On Day One you want to call but you can’t break the agreement that early, can you? No, that would be a sign of weakness. Sure, your wife and kids have your number so let them call if they must. Let them be the weak link. But of course they don’t because they are out to prove they’re as tough as you are. Therefore, there is zero communication on Day One and it kills everybody, although nobody will admit it.

The Day Two call is the best of all the calls. Everything is just as you hoped it would be. Your children, anticipating your call, eagerly wait by the phone and pick it up on the first ring.

“Hi Dad…we’re okay…I played softball and Amy played soccer…where are you?...what TIME is it there?...is it fun?... Okay Dad, we have to go. I’m going to a friend’s house and Amy has to practice piano. Want to talk to Mom?”

Now that’s a great call! Not only are your children coping with your absence, they‘re not really even sure you’re gone. Whatever were you worried about?

Your children are your most important concern on Day Two. You wife should be able to tough it out until Day Four. Sure, you talk with her but it’s small, pleasant talk: “How was your day?…anything interesting in the mail?… wish you were here.” It’s all very cordial.

Then you make one slight mistake.

You introduce cost into the communication process.

“Well, this call’s probably getting expensive so why don’t we call it a night, or in my case a next day,” you say.

You tried to broach this subject in a joking manner but it doesn’t work and the damage is done. Your wife says nothing but files it away about halfway back in her head where it’s easily accessible during a later conversation.

You hang up. In spite of the cost faux pas, you feel so good that you don’t even regret skipping Day Three. Ah, Day Three, the most stress free day on your trip. You know the wife and kids are fine because you talked to them yesterday. And you will talk to them tomorrow. On Day Three your phone stays holstered because you’ve vowed to make Day Three YOUR day. From the moment you get up, it’s all about YOU!

On Day Three, things just go your way. You always seem to have some unexpected free time. You pass a scenic European park while you’re wearing your jogging shoes. You weren’t planning to jog but you just can’t resist. So you begin a leisurely jog but stop mid-run because you happen upon a commercial shoot for a French perfume. And this commercial stars two equally hot French models.

You exit the park feeling healthy in every way. Even better, you didn’t get lost. You know exactly where you are and you continue on your journey armed with the French model story, one that you will be telling your neighbors for years.

You get lunch on the street and have the exact amount of foreign currency in your pocket to pay for it. At dinner you use your company credit card and order whatever looks good, since you aren’t paying for it. You eat at a bar and it just so happens that the guy next to you is foreign yet speaks excellent English so you have an animated two hours of conversation, discussing topics that you’d never talk about at home, like why every kid in the United States plays in four soccer leagues, six days a week yet we still, as a nation, kind of suck in soccer.

Actually, I think parents in the US want to have that conversation but they are afraid to because they are so busy plunking down thousands of dollars for their kids to play soccer.

So there you are, enjoying YOUR day, totally unaware that SOMETHING is happening at home on Day Three. That SOMETHING is never a good SOMETHING. It definitely involves at least two of these subjects:

1) Stitches
2) The transmission
3) A possible fracture
4) A totally unexplainable, out of the blue “F”
5) Your mother
6) The phrase, “I haven’t had time to even THINK about dinner

THAT’S what is going on in your house on Day Three.

Day Four…TIME TO CALL. Remember, you have no idea what went on at home during Day Three. No, you’re still feeling great from that massage you had on the same day. So you call. Your oldest answers the phone, the one who, for some reason, is suddenly ticked off at you.

“Hi honey, it’s Dad.”
“What are you doing?”
“Getting ready for school.”
“So you’re probably rushing.”
“You being nice to your sister?”
“Mmmm.” Then, “want to talk to Amy?”
“Uh sure. Have a great day at school.”

You’ve had more meaningful conversations via Twitter.

Now your second child, the youngest, gets on the phone and instantly makes you want to hail a taxi bound for the airport.

“Hi Daddy. You sound far away.”
“Well I am honey. Remember when we looked at the map and I showed you…”
“When are you coming home?”
You crank the volume on your rented phone but it’s no use. It’s not the connection; you realize your daughter is talking in a whisper, while trying to stifle sobs.
“Not for another four days princess. We talked about that too, remember? But Daddy’s already been gone four days. In four MORE days I’ll be home. That’s not that long, right?
“It seems like a long time.”
“I’ll be home before you know it. I miss your hugs and kisses. Can I talk to Mom?”
“Okay. I wish you didn’t have to go away. Ever. Ever ever again. I’ll get Mom.”

In the waiting silence that follows, you realize you are zero for two. One child hates you and one thinks you are orbiting the earth in the space shuttle. Then your wife picks up the phone. Her greeting is not warm and fuzzy but direct, as if your child had handed her the phone and said, “there’s a man on the phone who wants to speak to the lady of the house.”

HER: Hello?
YOU: Hi honey.
YOU: Uh, talking to you. What are you doing?
HER: A little of everything. Actually a lot of everything.
YOU: I missed talking to you yesterday. What did you do then? (Remember, this was Day 3. YOUR day)
HER: (LONG SIGH) Well Natalie had gymnastics but had to leave early. She said her foot is hurting. Her coach said something might be fractured (#3). We drove home. By the way, the car doesn’t sound good (#2). Then I looked at her homework. Do you know she got an F (#4) for not turning in an assignment?
Note: Day Four is the day your wife forgets you have been gone for four days and therefore would have no idea about the “F.”
“Anyway, we didn’t get home until 8. I was just trying to get the kids to bed when your mother called…” (#5)
Then, “What did you do yesterday?”
YOU: (THINKING QUICKLY, KNOWING YOU HAVE TO LIE) Nothing much. I’m still pretty tired from the flight.
HER: Well, at least you’re by yourself. I haven’t even thought about dinner tonight. (#6)
YOU: Yeah, um okay. So what happened with the missed assignment?
HER: It’s a long story. It would be too expensive to talk about now.

BOOM! The cost factor has leaped from the middle of her forehead, lasered directly through the phone line and lodged quite painfully in your ear. How could you have been so stupid?

But as you are mentally slapping your brain with your fist, she rescues you from having to continue the conversation.

I’ll tell you about it when you’re home.
YOU: That’s only four days from now.
HER: Uh huh. Seems like it’s going fast, I guess. Do you think it’s going fast?
YOU: Yeah. I suppose.
HER: Okay, I’ve gotta run. When you will be around tomorrow? Can I call you?
YOU: You mean the next day? Tomorrow would be every day, not every other day.
HER: (LARGE, DRAWN OUT SIGH) Okay, whatever. Call me.
YOU: I’ll do that. Love you.
HER: I love you. Bye.

The “bye” is what you remember; not the “I love you.”

Day Five is the hardest day to stick to the “call every other day” calling plan. Day Four’s call went so horribly that you want another chance. You don’t call but you have a miserable day anyway because every sight, sound, and decision comes with guilty overtones. You don’t stroll the cobblestone streets in the evening, poking your head into assorted pubs and engaging in conversation. Those activities came and went in Day Three. Instead, you eat dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, without attempting conversation. Whatever you ordered tastes bad and the wait staff seems so indifferent to your mere presence that, if a flaky European croissant lodged in your throat, you would have to perform your own Heimlich maneuver.

Day Five is the first day you turn on European TV in your room (or in my case, my cruise “stateroom.”)

You discover quickly that it is the same as American TV in that it has happy looking (for Europe) news anchors, a home shopping network selling European crap, sports that you don’t care about and a few American movies (dubbed in whatever language they speak in this country) that you recognize but never bothered to watch at home.
It differs only in that at least one channel – and possibly more depending on the time of day and your location –is showing porn.

Free porn.

Free hardcore porn.

The channels come up randomly as you click the remote; there is no rhyme or reason why the couple having sex is sandwiched (for lack of a better phrase) between CNN and futbol highlights. Or why another couple, this time both female, occupy the channel right past the cooking show. You tell yourself you don’t feel like watching but you can’t stop. Two hours go by and you’re still awake.

You wake up groggy on Day Six and decide you are ready to go home. Unfortunately, you have two days left and it’s brutal. Everything you see reminds you of home. The 1000-year-old castle perched high on the bluff looks inviting but not as homey as your back patio. You’re drinking heavy German beer from a massive stein but it’s not Bud Light (and never will be if you’re German). You miss your family, the life you know and the comforts that go with it. You can’t wait to make that phone call just so you can hear those chipper, sweet-sounding voices (from Day Two) that have crept into your head and refuse to leave.

Day Six is the day your long awaited call home kicks to voicemail.

“Hi, we can’t make it to the phone now. Leave your name and number and we’ll call you back.”

“Hi, it’s Dad. Was hoping to catch you guys. You have my number so call me when you get a chance. I miss you.”

You hang up, convinced your loving family has decided you are taking up permanent residence in Europe and have thus, moved on. The only thing comforting about this is realizing that, if you ever get a terminal disease, at least you know your family can exist without you.

Between tears, you will say, “It’s gonna be okay. Daddy will be in heaven. He won’t be with you but that’s not so bad, is it? Remember when Daddy went to Europe?”

Eventually your rented phone rings but you’re the only one that seems to have time to talk. Your family has scheduled the phone call right between assorted practices, car pools and dinner on the run because, well, that’s the only time they were all actually home together.

Like Day Four, the conversation is short. But at least there is a hint of anticipation in everyone’s tone. Your oldest no longer seems to despise you and your youngest is less pouty but still pouty enough that you buy both kids another present each to stick in your carry-on luggage.

Whatever crisis occurred on Day Three seems a thing of the past. Your wife never brings it up during the Day Six conversation. She tells you about plans she’s made for the next few days, plans that sweetly include the phrase, “if you’re not too tired.” Even though you are coming home in two days, the Day Six call is lengthy. You forget that you are spending 80 cents a minute. It doesn’t bother you in the least that your youngest “put the phone down” to find Mom and you were on hold for at least five minutes.

Note: I’ve always wondered why our house seems to quadruple in size when I am away. Our house is two stories and 4,000 square feet but I feel there must be secret passages, tunnels and hidden rooms that I don’t know about because, when I ask one of our kids if they can “get Mom,” they do just that and then I am waiting for an eternity before Mom is actually found. In the meantime, I’m treated to muffled sounds of, “mom….mom…MOOOOOOOMMMMMM…” over the phone.

Day Seven is the day you break the rule.

You weren’t planning to but it couldn’t hurt, right? You’ve already packed, taking extra care with the gifts you purchased abroad. You head out for one final European meal and you see something along the way that makes you reach for the phone. This time, your wife answers.

(SURPRISED) “Hey! I didn’t expect to hear from you. This is the off day, right?”
“I know but I was walking down a street and saw this little cafĂ© and thought about how nice it would be to sit there and sip wine with you. Next time, you’re coming with me.”
“That sounds so nice. I’d LOVE to be there now.”
“No more eight day trips. I PROMISE.”
”It wasn’t so bad. And besides, it’s part of your job honey.”

Again, your spouse says just the right thing at just the right time. How sweet. Not only are you forgiven for anything that may have occurred while you were gone, (not that you could control anything that did in fact occur at home while you were 5,000 miles away) but if another eight-day business trip should ever arise, you might be going again. Call the masseuse!

You keep talking. You don’t care what the call is costing or that you will be home in 24 hours and could easily have this conversation face to face. For free. Tomorrow, when you open the door to your house, you want to make sure that EVERYTHING is totally cool and that you are up to speed on the events in everyone’s lives. Trust me, even if your last business trip was a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq, it’s still awkward, when your spouse says, “are you planning to come to school next Friday?” to respond, “what’s next Friday?”

So you talk. More than 45 minutes goes by and you are still talking. Remember, this was the day you weren’t supposed to call but who cares? The Day Seven call is horrifically expensive; you didn’t stick to the plan and, when you hang up, you feel like someone who returned to a bad habit one second after Lent ended.

But you take solace in the fact that the Day Seven call will be the last you make with your rented, international, 80 cents a minute, needs to be mailed back IMMEDIATELY or God only know what you will be charged, phone. Your next call occurs on Day Eight. You make it in your country, with your phone and it doesn’t matter who picks up the other end when you dial. It’s the shortest call you’ve made in over a week.

It starts with two words.

“Daddy’s home.”