Friday, December 10, 2010

Who are your REAL friends?

The latest argument I'm having with my 13-year-old daughter concerns her friends. Not her real friends, per se, as I'm fine with all of them. I'm confident they will grow up to be perfectly functioning adults in spite of their passion for the word "like."

No, I'm talking about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of friends she will acquire the moment she logs onto Facebook, something her mother and I have still forbidden her to do.

"Why can't I be on Facebook," she asked one evening? "I'm like the only kid in school without a Facebook account."

If you're keeping score, throughout her short life she has also been like the only kid who at one point was without:

- a cell phone
- a Macbook
- pierced ears
- a later curfew

Keep in mind that she texts her friends so often, I fear her thumbs will be worn down to nubs by the time she graduates high school. Her mother and I will be forced to type her college applications while she taps out texts to her friends using her elbows.

"You're on Facebook. Why can't I be?" was one of her desperate questions when she saw she was losing the battle.

I quietly explained that I also pay property taxes and I would be more than happy to charge her for the square footage in her room if she wants to be an adult. I then explained why I enjoy Facebook: namely because it gives me the opportunity to reestablish connections with long lost acquaintances.

You're 13," I said. "Who have you lost touch with?"

She retreated to her room to ponder her next move - and no doubt calculate the square footage just in case.

The day is coming when I relent and let her open a Facebook account. But I think she will be amazed when she realizes how difficult it will be to manage all her newfound "friends." I recently “friended” my 300th person in cyberspace. “Friended” incidentally, is another word that technology created, sort of like “Googling.” “Friend” used to be a noun; now it’s a verb.

I can remember when I only had 100 friends, then 200, and now 300 and climbing. I “friended” four more people today so the official count stands at 304.

Problem is, I don’t know who half of these people are.

Where did I meet the “professional makeup artist from Florida?” Who exactly is the guy who keeps sending me “Get Out of Jail Free” cakes via Facebook? And why exactly did I choose to be friends with the “president of a management company that represents eco-friendly professionals?” There must have been SOME reason because this guy has 4,724 other friends. I’m guessing I won’t be getting a Christmas card from him any time soon.

Speaking of Christmas cards, on the same day that I friended my 300th Facebook user, I sat at my desk addressing holiday greeting cards, complete with personal notes. I recognized every name on the list. In many cases I could instantly recall the names of kids, pets and job titles.

Therein lies the difference between Facebook friends and actual friends: friendship. Your actual friends are there for life. Your Facebook friends are there to clutter your life
When I was 12, I had two friends. John, Gerry and myself were inseparable as we navigated the tricky world of middle school. We hung out together, studied together and learned about girls together.

When I entered high school I expanded my social network by adding about four more friends. At 17, I graduated high school with what I considered to be more than enough friends: nine.

Now I’m 48. If I added nine friends for every 17 years of my life, I should have about 41.7 friends.

Instead I have 300.

Luckily Facebook allows you to “group” your friends by category. I’ve heard a lot of social networking experts say this is the only way to deal with all the information that we are bombarded with every day, be it email messages, blog posts, newsletters or contacts. Sort them into groups and look at those groups at your convenience rather than all at once.

So here are the Facebook groups I have developed. Go ahead and use them if you think your Facebook friends list is getting out of control. Also, feel free to rename each group to suit your personal needs. I have already shared this list with my daughter, just so she is prepared.

1) Friends I actually care about
2) Friends who I can vaguely recall after something in their profile jogged my memory
3) Friends who I friended just to be polite
4) Friends who I plan to “defriend” because they keep sending me links to political sites
5) Friends who really don’t value my friendship because they have more than 5,000 other friends
6) Friends who are fans of the TV show Friends
7) Friends whose names I don’t recognize and aren’t helping matters because their profile pictures are animals
8) Friends who I didn’t need to friend because they are family members. (Shouldn’t that be enough?)
9) Friends who I accidentally friended by clicking on the wrong icon
10) My dog. After all he is man’s best friend

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Life in 3Disappointment

When my wife and I decided to have children, the plan was to produce one, undergo a two year “cooling off” period, have another and call it a career in the baby-making department. But nature had other ideas so our girls are five years apart.

At first this seemed like a better result than our original intent. At five years old my oldest had become “self sufficient,” a term many parents use if they don’t feel like actually playing with their kids if there is something good on ESPN.

Just put Disney Channel on in the other room and plop him down on the couch. He’s self sufficient.

In our case, “self sufficient” meant that the oldest could dress herself, use silverware, drink from a cup and generally get through the day without a 911 call, leaving us free to tend to the younger daughter’s every need.

But, as kids grow, you realize that siblings five years apart aren’t that much easier to please than children 55 years apart when it comes to providing activities that appeal to everybody. Nowhere is this more evident than when choosing a movie.

A few Fridays ago, my wife Sue was in the midst of her annual Vegas girlfriend trip. She has been going to Sin City at least once a year, sans me, since we’ve been married and I function quite well without her. But somehow word gets out that I’m home alone with the kids, causing relatives and neighbors I never knew existed to offer me dinner invitations, school pickups and activity drop offs. Sue is both amazed and exceedingly jealous when I casually mention that others have stepped up to assist me during her absence, as well she should be. I spend at least 50 nights a year away from home yet she is still awaiting the offer of a simple casserole.

So there we were one Friday, scanning the movie start times and trying to figure out what flick would appeal to a 13-year old soon-to-be eighth grader, her eight-year-old sister and their 47-year-old father. After rejecting Toy Story 3 (“we’ve already seen it”), Step Up 3 (“the first one was good but the second one was dumb”), and Cats and Dogs (“Dad, we don’t like cats”), we settled on Despicable Me. A quick check of the listings revealed that it was showing on two screens at the nearby multiplex.

Why two? Because one theatre was showing the movie in 3D. Not just 3D, mind you, but “EYE POPPING 3D,” the term being bantered around for seemingly every movie these days.

Naturally the start times for the “non eye popping 3D” version did not agree with the Schwem’s busy schedule. In other words, Dad couldn’t get dinner on the table fast enough. So we showed up at the multiplex a mere 10 minutes before the 3D version began. Immediately I noticed one thing about the movie that truly was eye popping: the price. Tickets for Despicable Me in 3D were $15 each as opposed to $9 for the regular and apparently boring version. Now I was out $45 and we hadn’t even reached the concession stand. An additional $20 later, we entered the theatre, dipped our now buttery hands into the barrel of used 3D glasses, and settled in.

First we had to endure the mandatory 25 minutes of “coming attractions.” Not surprisingly, five soon-to-be-released movies were promised in “eye popping 3D.” Most also starred “the voice of Tina Fey.” I made a mental note to start conserving funds in case my daughters wanted to attend any more movies in the next six months.

Eventually the attractions were over and Despicable Me began. With my glasses firmly, and uncomfortably, perched on my nose, I waited for the “eye popping” 3D effects that cost an extra six bucks per ticket.

I am still waiting.

Oh sure, at one point a Despicable Me character looked as if it was suspended right in front of me and I could reach out and squish its little animated head if the mood struck me. But that effect came and went in about ten seconds. For the remaining 89 minutes and 50 seconds of the movie, I saw absolutely nothing that merited cheap glasses and 15 bucks.

What exactly has changed about 3D movies since the 1950s? I pulled the accompanying photo off Google Images and it appears this audience had the same technology, except that the glasses were cardboard as opposed to plastic. The audience also had shorter hair and fewer tattoos than the moviegoers watching Despicable Me. But the technology itself? Heck, my mother, now in her mid-70s, told me stories of going to see 3D movies and literally jumping out of her seat at the effects.

I jumped from my seat exactly once during Despicable Me. It was just after I said to my kids, “Time to go.”

In 1974 I went to see Earthquake with some junior high school buddies. What lured us to the theatre was not the chance to see buildings falling over. It was the tagline that accompanied the ads: “In Sensurround.”

Nobody explained what Sensurround was. It was just supposed to make the earthquake experience more real to the moviegoer. In 2010, as our country continues to slog through a recession, I’m not sure I want movies to be more real. I’m looking forward to seeing Wall Street 2 this Fall but not if I’m going to come home and find my IRA has been mysteriously liquidated.

But in 1974 I sat in my seat and awaited the Sensurround effects. Less than 30 minutes into the movie, a “rat a tat tat” sound shook the theater at ear splitting decibels. It was if a machine gun battle was taking place in the theatre’s rear.

I DID jump from my seat and so did my buddies. Meanwhile, Charlton Heston barely escaped being buried under a toppling bridge.

Sensurround never really took off but isn’t it strange that, nearly 40 years later, I remembered that word and the effects it produced without having to consult either Wikipedia or Google?

Now I’m raising my kids in a world containing text messaging, mobile apps, on line everything and new technologies that truly are eye popping.

Yet it’s been a week since I saw Despicable Me and I’ve already forgotten what the movie was about. I certainly don’t remember any 3D effects.

Maybe “jaw dropping 4D” will be different.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Like, what are you saying?

transitive verb
1 – to be suitable or agreeable to
2 – to feel attraction toward or take pleasure in
3 – every other word out of my daughter’s mouth

I love my kids. I truly do. I encourage communication with them. But despite the fact that they are my world and I heap affection on them at every moment, I hesitate to say that I “like” them. For, if I hear that word one more time, I’m like going to scream.

I am a stand-up comedian by trade. My profession relies on audience approval. Every time I walk on stage, I hope the audience will like me. But I don’t want them to “like, like me.”

Seriously, when did the word “like,” which has multiple meanings as evidenced by the above definitions taken directly from Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary, become the most overused and grating word in the English language?

Does anybody know? Perhaps I should ask country music superstar Carrie Underwood who, during a recent Today Show appearance, talked about like her marriage and like her upcoming tour and like her charity work and like the changes on American Idol. I have always liked Carrie Underwood, believing her music and her personality suitable for my kids. My oldest, now thirteen, even met her backstage before a concert and Carrie was exceptionally gracious and accommodating. But she also seemed in a bit of a hurry. Note to Carrie: If you eliminate “like” from your vocabulary, think of the extra time you’ll have!

At some point in history, “like” burst onto the scene and refused to leave, much like karaoke. The difference is that karaoke eventually ENDS. A rendition of "Summer Nights" from Grease, sung by two fully-intoxicated women at a bar, is mercifully over after three minutes. Stories peppered with “like” seem to go on forever. If you don’t believe me, come to one of my daughter’s sleepovers, where you will be treated to dialogue like this:

“So I’m like sitting there and then she comes over and she’s like, ‘Emily, like are you going to ask him?’ And I’m like, ‘No way.’ So she’s like, ‘Oh, just do it. Like, maybe he’ll say yes.’ And I’m like, ‘You are so weird. Why would I like do that?’ And she’s like, ‘Because you’re like so that person.’ And I’m like, ‘I am not.’ And she’s like, ‘Okay, maybe you’re not like that person. But you’re definitely like THAT person.’”

The story resulted in gales of laughter and squeals from the girls. Moments after typing it on my PC, my spelling and punctuation tool exploded in frustration.

Being a history buff, I looked at some famous quotes and speeches over the years, hoping to see when "like" began popping up. I immediately eliminated the Revolutionary War era because nowhere did I ever read Patrick Henry boldly stating, “Like give me liberty or give me like death.”

Even during the Civil War, when our country split in two and couldn’t agree on ANYTHING, both sides were apparently united in their belief that “like” was not “liked” when it came to speech. Abraham Lincoln used the word exactly ZERO times in his Gettysburg Address, a fact quickly verified by the “find and replace” tool on my web browser. Frankly, I was surprised. After all, wasn’t the message of that speech about creating a unified nation? In other words, get along and LIKE each other! But Lincoln chose to use more eloquent prose and that’s probably a good thing. Somehow, the phrase, “Like four score and seven years ago, like our fathers brought forth on this continent, like a new nation, conceived in like Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are like created equal” doesn’t move me.

Fast forward nearly 100 years and still no sign of the word in our culture. When the Japanese rained bombs down on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt did not deliver the news by stating, “December 7, 1941. A day that will, like, live in infamy.”

I would have thought that "like" would have made its appearance in the late 1960s. After all, most of the country was high and unaware of what was coming out of their mouths, never mind what was going into same mouths. Yet I listened over and over to the audio feed of Neil Armstrong’s historic moon landing. Not once did I hear him say, “That’s like one small step for man, one like giant leap for mankind.”

Eventually I gave up, unable to find any historical quotes of significance peppered with “like.” Now I can’t even open a magazine without seeing the hated word in print numerous times. Journalists, in their attempts to quote subjects accurately and avoid being sued for libel, have apparently decided it’s best to include the word. A recent Rolling Stone interview with Leonardo DiCaprio netted the following quote:

“My mom always says I’m exaggerating and I’m like, ‘Mom, you are sorely mistaken.”

During a recent movie outing with my girls, we were treated to a trailer from Disney’s upcoming Tangled. Suddenly the following text flashed across the screen:

She’s been grounded like…forever.”

When I log onto Facebook, I'm immediately asked if I want to "like" everything from Chipotle’s restaurant to a sketch comedy revue called Pop Vulture. I LIKED it better when Facebook wanted to know if I was a “fan” of a particular page. Of course my daugher’s friends would have announced that they were “like fans of Justin Bieber.”

Is it possible to get away from "like?" Do the deaf use it in sign language? If so, I hope the sign is very simple – and painful. If there is indeed no sign for "like," might I suggest sticking an index finger into one’s eyeball? Perhaps that would keep deaf teenagers from using the word ad nauseum.

How can we stop the "like" epidemic? Whom do we ask? Certainly not our children, who would most likely reply, “Like huh?”

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In college I used to watch old Bob Newhart episodes with fraternity brothers and play a drinking game called “Hi Bob.” The rules were simple: Watch the show with a full beer in hand. Every time a character said, “Hi Bob,” or some form thereof, take a drink. It’s amazing how looped one can get during a 30-minute sitcom.

Maybe utterances of the word “like” should have similar consequences. Note I said similar since the prime offenders of “like overload” are not of legal drinking age, Carrie Underwood notwithstanding. But they could still face penalties. For every utterance of "like" that did not pertain to agreement or attraction, no iPod or iTunes for a week.

Somebody like alert Steve Jobs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So many friends, so little time

The boxes stood side by side on my computer screen as I sipped my morning coffee. My mouse hovered between them.

Confirm Ignore

Clicking the first box would mean my Facebook friend count would rise to 240, a paltry number by Facebook standards considering that others in my Facebook network had thousands of “friends” in their accounts. Still, it was far more than I had acquired in my real life.

I had seven friends in common with Linda, the requestee. All were comedians like myself. Linda was a part time comedian, according to her profile. Still, I had no idea who she was.

I continued staring at the boxes, pondering Linda’s fate. I asked myself, what would be the harm in friending her? I still don’t know what happens when a friend request gets denied on Facebook. For all I know, the lonely jilted person gets an email or text message stating, “Greg doesn’t want to be your friend. Here’s his cell phone number and home address in case you want to discuss it further. Oh, and here’s the name of an attorney in case you want to sue Greg for pain, suffering and mental anguish.”

I was willing to take that chance. I clicked “ignore.” Linda would not become part of my Facebook contingent and my friend count thus remains at 239.

I hope her feelings aren’t hurt. Maybe Linda was somebody I actually knew yet just couldn’t place. Her profile photo didn’t exactly help matters as it featured a very grainy image of a woman kissing a man. At least I think it was a man. The photo was really grainy.

Yet I am sensing a mood shift in the Facebook community. I keep reading that, if Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s fourth largest. I’m not sure how residents of Indonesia, currently the world’s fourth largest country, feel about this but chances are they are discussing it on their Facebook walls.

But the Facebook population explosion appears to have slowed. Like me, people are no longer randomly clicking “confirm” to every Facebook friend request that appears onscreen. Those that do are starting to regret it, as evidenced by some of the recent wall posts I’ve read:

Is it just me or does everyone get too many event invites? Time to delete some names.

To all my FB friends: I friended you because I care about you and your thoughts, NOT Farmville or Mafia or other third party apps

The previous post was written by a friend who is a member of the following Facebook “groups”:

50,000 Against Healthcare Bill in the next 72 Hours

I Bet We Can Find 1,000,000+ people who Disapprove of the Health Care Bill

304,059,724 Against Obama’s Healthcare Takeover

Repeal Obamacare

My friend is nothing if not optimistic.

When I entered Northwestern University in 1980, I attended fraterntity Rush Week, a five day drinking binge where seemingly EVERYBODY in EVERY HOUSE I entered wanted to be my friend. Thirty seconds after opening a door adorned with Greek letters, members wearing shirts with those same letters approached me from all sides and offered me red plastic cups filled to the rim with keg beer or a sweet-tasting punch, made with a combination of grain alcohol and moonshine whiskey, and bearing the name of the frat somewhere in the title.

Here Greg, try some Fiji Fire.
Careful. This is Delta Devil
Want a Sigma Slam?

With drink in hand, they let me steer the conversation any direction I pleased. Even if I chose to talk about the chemical composition of cement, they appeared interested.

Eventually I chose Phi Kappa Sigma, known around campus as “The Skull House” and creators of “Skull Juice,” a drink so toxic, it could have passed as paint thinner. Becoming a Phi Kap was a decision I never regretted even though I soon realized that not all the Phi Kap upperclassmen found me as interesting as they did during Rush Week. Factions formed, members occasionally allied over pertinent fraternity issues, (like whether the women of Delta Gamma would be more impressed if we served Strawberry Daiquiris or Pina Coladas at the mixer. Turns out the answer was, “neither”) and every member, myself included, had at least one “what did I see in these guys and what did they see in me?” moment.

Facebook, I’m realizing, is nothing more than the world’s largest fraternity. The only difference is that you can remove people at any time, something we couldn’t do at Phi Kappa Sigma unless their dues checks continually bounced.

I have yet to defriend any Facebook friends although I am starting to profile them, much the same way that federal agencies profile suspected terrorists. So far I have identified several:

The Meteorologist: This person apparently joined Facebook solely so he could provide weather updates to the entire Facebook community. My meteorological friend has posted the following in the last week alone:

The sun is out and the snow is melting
Yesterday temps in the 60s. Today, 2 inches of snow on the ground
Loving this brief warm spell we are having
Loving the warm weather. Melt snow…MELT

The Godfather - Someone who spends waaaaay too much time playing the aforementioned Mafia Wars, an exceptionally popular Facebook game that I refuse to become part of because I don’t want the following posts to clutter up other friends’ walls:

___ is working hard to finish the Loot the Police Impound Lot job and is in need of a whole lot of Armored Trucks from their Mafia!

_____ needs help to take on local motorcycle thugs in Mafia Wars.

The Crop Duster – The same person except that their life revolves around Farmville, another third party app that has something to do with cute little animals and, unlike Mafia Wars is void of violence. I have yet to receive a post stating that 500 cows were slaughtered in Farmville.

The Joiner - That friend who encourages you to hug your son (even if you are childless or, like me, produced only daughters), applaud the accomplishments of someone with Down Syndrome, forward a political message about global warming or change your profile picture to your favorite Mad Men character - just for a day. These people apparently never heard the “If-your-friend-jumped-off-a-bridge-would-you-do-it too?” speech.

Top Chef – The friend who shares about-to-be-consumed meals with everybody – usually with photos. Two of my friends have, in the past week, prepared and/or eaten buttermilk marinated chicken, salmon ber blanc with capers and blackened fish over coastal salsa and Belgian endive. While these recipes all sound delicious, reading about and viewing the finished product simply wants to make me get up and head to the refrigerator.

The Exercise Freak – This friend wouldn’t be caught dead eating buttermilk marinated chicken because he or she is too busy posting exercise updates. To all those people who tell me about their recently completed 20-mile run through the hills of some town with an Indian name, remember that running enthusiast Jim Fixx bragged about his hobby in a best selling book - and died after jogging.

If you’re reading this and find yourself in one of these categories, don’t worry. I don’t plan to defriend anybody as I truly enjoy Facebook’s ability to help me reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. Heck, I’ve probably been guilty of many “who cares” posts myself. So, Farmville and Mafia Wars participants aside, keep sending me weather updates, menu schedules, exercise regimens and political rants.

Just not every hour.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I can't get no...satisfaction

Several months ago, I blogged about the Kindle, the digital book reader and brainchild of At the time I was melancholy that yet another electronic gadget was replacing an age-old institution, in this case “the book.”

Suddenly, however, I am feeling sorry for this device because, with the recent announcement of the Apple iPad, the Kindle is being derided by bloggers and technology experts alike because of its singular function – it only holds books.

My wife bought me a Kindle for Christmas and, I have to admit, I flip-flopped over its benefits. The idea that a book had to be recharged bothered me. Leave it to Amazon to give teenagers one more excuse for failing to complete their homework.

My book died. What was I SUPPOSED to do?

The Kindle came with a 30-day money back guarantee and, as the 29th day approached, I was still wavering. Meanwhile I had already downloaded and completed two books and four Sunday New York Times, while taking advantage of countless free sample chapters. The “sample chapter” feature is kind of cool as it eliminates the need to stand in bookstores for hours, reading portions of every title on the shelves while staff members wonder if you are ever going to actually buy something. Blockbuster needs to do the same with movies.

I decided to keep the Kindle. I’m a voracious reader by nature, preferring books over movies and music while traveling so it seemed like a viable purchase. I was satisfied with my decision for exactly 72 hours. That’s when Apple CEO Steve Jobs strode onto a San Francisco stage in his trademark black turtleneck and jeans (seriously, why do these tech billionaires feel compelled to wear a single ensemble each time they appear in public? I have yet to see Bill Gates in anything other than a blue button down shirt and navy sweater. He must own close to 1,000 of each), and unveiled the iPad. As far as I could tell, it was perfect for users who wanted either a bigger iPhone or a smaller Macbook but couldn’t decide.

The iPad, Jobs giddily explained, could read books and newspapers but could do so much more! It could play music, surf the Web, send email, schedule appointments and store contacts. The invited guests (how does one get an iPad invitation incidentally?) oohed and aahed as Jobs himself played with the device onstage while silently praying that nothing malfunctioned. (Anyone remember Gates’ Windows 98 demonstration?) Suddenly Kindle users like me were being viewed alongside the segment of our society that still adjusts television reception with rabbit ears.

The iPad’s accolades continued until the launch ended, at which time those lucky enough to get their hands on a working iPad really had a chance to digest the device’s features. Naturally, the criticisms started seconds later, most notably that the iPad did not contain a camera.


When did it become a requirement for everybody to have photographic capability at all times? Americans spend an average of nine hours a day working and seven hours a day sleeping. We’re not exactly walking photo opps.

The iPad also was unable to play Flash video. How could Apple have neglected such an obvious feature, the critics wondered? Suddenly Jobs’ innovation was headed to the scrap heap before it was even available for purchase.

I always thought it would be cool to invent something. Now, I feel all fledgling Ben Franklins who are spending countless hours in basements, labs or garages creating the next great whatever, are simply setting themselves up for criticism from our never satisfied society. If Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb today, a blogger would write, “What? No dimmer? How does TE expect to set the proper mood without this obvious feature?”

I’m going to keep my Kindle and marvel at the face that it can download War and Peace in under a minute. I’m going to read it on the plane and not bemoan the fact that it can’t take a photo of another passenger mid-flight. In short I’m going to be satisfied.

Of course, I don’t own a Toyota, which we are now finding out, was most likely manufactured without brakes. That would be something to complain about.