Monday, January 26, 2009

Help! I've been furloughed!!

Last week I had dinner in Washington DC with some old cronies from my days as a South Florida journalist. Of the six who attended, two were still in the struggling newspaper business. One worked for Gannett, the world’s largest newspaper publisher, which recently announced that all employees would have to take a weeklong furlough.

In other words, a week of unemployment.

As our country grapples with the worst economic mess since (choose one):

A) The Great Depression
B) The Boston Tea Party
C) The New York Yankees

it’s amazing how the words used to describe unemployment have multiplied exponentially. While companies like Gannett “furlough,” others “tighten their belts” while others “realign” and still others engage in “selective reduction.”

I find the last one to be the most humiliating. Imagine coming into your boss’s office one morning and being told you have been selectively reduced. I’d leave with all the dignity of a chicken embryo.

According to Gannett chairman Craig Debow, the furlough was Gannett’s way of avoiding more layoffs for an industry that is losing customers and advertising dollars faster than Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is losing his sanity.

Note that Debow didn’t say the furlough would avoid layoffs. He said it would help avoid more layoffs. Yet my former co-worker seemed resigned to the probability that his furlough would eventually become permanent.

I tried to make light of an awkward moment.

“Maybe the furlough is just a chance for you to see whether you like being unemployed,” I said. “If not, just go to your bosses and say, ‘this unemployment thing isn’t for me. I’d really like to keep my job.’”

My friend laughed although I don’t think he found it funny. When you’re the one on the chopping block, it’s hard to laugh. More than eight percent of the current workforce can attest to that.

I don’t know what it’s like to be unemployed for I have never been fired. But I also can only vaguely remember what it’s like to have a normal job. In other words, a line of work that begins at 8, ends at 5, and usually involves sitting in traffic, a lame Christmas party and gossip.

For the past 20 years I have been self-employed. When you work for yourself, you constantly hover between having a job and being unemployed. If I perform my stand-up comedy routine for a corporation on a given day then yes, I’m employed. If I go seven days between gigs, then I guess you could say I’m unemployed. If I choose to spend those seven days combing the Internet looking for a company that could use a comedian at its next event, then I guess I’m in the job market.

I am also faced with, for the first time in several years, a work “slowdown.” The calendar is a bit leaner in 2009 than I would like. This puts me in a precarious position: Should I be thankful that at least I have SOME dates on my calendar and operate in a “business as usual” mode? Or should I assume that a work slowdown eventually will lead to a work “stoppage” and start stocking up on canned tuna fish, Hamburger Helper and Ramen Noodles?

I realized I am not even close to answering this question when I compiled a “to do” list of things to occupy my time until the economy gathers steam. I highly recommend everybody make a “to do” list. Heck, President Obama made one. Of course his includes things like “fix the financial crisis,” “end the war” and “keep Kanye West on a short leash” but at least it shows he is motivated.

If you are unemployed, your “to do” list is fairly concrete:

1) Find another job

A furloughed employee’s list is only slightly longer:

1) Realize you will soon be unemployed
2) Start looking NOW for another job

If you were selectively reduced, your list contains an element of revenge:

1) Vow never to be selectively reduced again
2) Start your own business even if that business is raking leaves by hand in a forest preserve
3) Take all the leaves you have raked and dump them on your former boss’ lawn.
4) Ring his doorbell and tell him you will selectively reduce the leaves for a fee – plus health insurance

Here’s my list. Like I said, I’m having trouble defining a theme. Optimism or panic? When in doubt, include both:

1) Start novel that has been kicking around in my head for years
2) Realize that novel will probably remain in head forever
3) Clean out following inboxes: Outlook, Yahoo mail, alternate Yahoo mail account, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace
4) Marvel that one dedicated spammer managed to infiltrate all seven inboxes
5) Google myself repeatedly just to make sure there are plenty of available avenues to locate me.
6) Wonder why I have 23,000 hits at 4:50 p.m. and only 22,000 hits at 4:55 p.m.
7) Become temporarily depressed
8) Cheer up after reading that Google just laid off about 5,000 workers.
9) Send out eblast to every client who ever hired me in the past ten years, letting them know that I have plenty of new material and am therefore ready for a return engagement
10) Wait five minutes
11) Delete 75 percent of eblasts that bounced back because the recipients are now unemployed
12) Wonder if I should have taken that emcee job for the food company where the client wanted me to walk out dressed as a slice of cheese
13) Briefly contemplate that a guy dressed as a cheese slice might be a great central character for a novel
14) Wonder if Jerry Seinfeld is cutting HIS fee for corporate dates.
15) Convince myself that making a list really is a productive use of time
16) Log onto Facebook at 1 p.m. and see that I have five new friend requests.
17) Check out their profiles. Discover that all are unemployed, which explains why they are trolling Facebook at 1 p.m when they could be making to do lists.
18) Make new list of home projects I have been putting off because of my previously hectic schedule
19) Actually go to Home Depot to get supplies. Greet recently laid off neighbor who found another job…at Home Depot
20) Return to office, check email and get tremendously excited that a prospective clients wants to hire me for a show in late October
21) Become less excited when client wants to know if contract can include a 30-day ‘out’ clause
22) Discuss with family whether we can afford to get a dog right now
23) Take family to see “Marley and Me.” Realize that, even though the movie cost 40 bucks, I may have saved thousands of dollars because I will NEVER get a dog unless it is guaranteed not to get sick and die
24) Start writing material for an upcoming date in Vegas
25) Say a prayer and be thankful that I still get to make people laugh for a living. You can’t put a price on that.

About Greg Schwem

Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and humorous speaker. He is president of Comedy With a Byte. View clips of Greg by visiting or viewing Greg's YouTube playlist by clicking here

Calling my daughter...Where R U?

I have compiled a mental list of what I consider to be “life changing” moments. So far I have three. I would have had four had the Cubs won the World Series in 2008. But since they choked, as only the Cubs know how, the list stands at three:

1) I got married

2) My first child was born

3) Aforementioned child got her first cell phone

If, for a moment, you care to debate whether number three truly changed my life, I invite you to spend a day at my house and watch my 11-year-old daughter Natalie in action. You will no doubt leave my home only after giving me a supportive pat on the back and perhaps a bottle of vodka to help me get through the rest of my life.

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Natalie is a sixth-grader, which means we are lengthening her leash and allowing her extra freedom. Her friends’ parents are doing the same, which explains why cell phones had become so prevalent among her peers in the past year. The car pool backseats have grown much quieter because most of her friends spend the entire ride to volleyball practice and sleepovers tapping out text messages, often to each other. Such is the case when your cell phone plan comes with UNLIMITED TEXT!!!

One by one, the girls all got phones until Natalie was convinced the only people in the world without this communication necessity was herself and a remote tribe in the Congo. She was left to peer over her friends’ shoulders or worse, use my phone to send text messages. One day I looked at my address book and names like “Lauren,” “Cheyenne,” “Ali” and “Haley” had been added.

At the beginning of the school year, we struck a deal after a lengthy discussion: keep your grades up and wait until Christmas and you will have a phone. Seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, Natalie, already an excellent student, began requesting trips to every Best Buy and Sprint store within a 50-mile radius of our home. Once inside, she pored over the phone selection the same way a gourmet chef looks at onions. Numerous phones were discarded for various reasons including “no slide out keyboard,” “not enough buttons” and “it only comes in red.” The phones all looked the same to me but I’m not eleven and therefore, have no idea what I’m talking about.

Eventually she settled on something called a “Rant” from Sprint. Oh, and she also informed us that it had to be purple. I’m not sure if purple phones get better reception but I could only imagine Alexander Graham Bell doing flip flops in his grave as he realized his history making invention was being judged based on color.

At this point, it was time for lengthy discussion number two: paying for it. We were determined to discuss this subject in detail as we have already heard horror stories from neighbors who didn’t properly explain what is and what is not included on a cell phone plan. As a result, they were greeted with thousand dollar bills for services such as “Hannah Montana’s ringtone of the day.”

We struck another deal: We buy the phone, add it to our family plan and she contributes 15 bucks a month. If she doesn’t have the money, we keep the phone for the entire month and decide whether we want to return text messages such as “WHAT R U DOIN?” HALEY. With just a slight eye roll, she agreed and then retreated to her room to ponder a future career as a baby sitter.

The Fall whizzed by. Her grades kicked butt. She made the Honor Roll. Knowing the phone would soon be hers, she went into cell phone training. By that I meant she began talking about cell phones with her friends the way an engineer talks about widgets. She boldly asked to see her friends’ phones and compare them with the Rant that she still did not have. She even sent my wife text messages from other phones, just to prove she had mastered the technology that will eventually replace verbal communication.

Finally the blessed day arrived. December 25, the birthday of our Lord and the day my daughter became cool again. Sue had decided to prolong the moment by wrapping the fully functioning Rant in eight boxes and calling the number as Natalie began unwrapping them. However, due to our cluelessness, we failed to maximize the volume level on the phone so nobody heard the ringing phone as Natalie tore through box after box. Eventually the phone made its debut, with the same amount of enthusiasm as a newborn passing through a birth canal. Within minutes Natalie was texting her friends and I was growing aware that face-to-face conversation with my daughter would no longer be a given, but a treat.

Unless her battery dies or she can’t scrape up 15 bucks.

About Greg Schwem

Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and humorous speaker. He is president of Comedy With a Byte. View clips of Greg by visiting or visiting his YouTube playlist by clicking here