Monday, December 26, 2011

Feeling like a king at 30,000 feet


The gentleman seated next to me took a sip of his drink and sighed. "Once you've had it and lost it, you definitely want it back," he said.

I quickly agreed. "It took me years to get it. Now I can't imagine living without it."

We could have been discussing love, fame, money or maybe even a decent golf swing. But in this case we were talking about something far different.

Elite airline status.

Our desire to obtain "it" resulted in our being sandwiched together on American Airlines Flight 889 between Chicago and Los Angeles. Our sole purpose was to turn around and fly back as quickly as possible. That's what "mileage chasers" do.

As the calendar year draws to a close, you see mileage chasers in most major airports. We're the ones whose luggage consists of nothing more than an iPad and a magazine. Why pack clothing? We aren't staying. We are simply doing whatever it takes to hit that magic number - usually 100,000 miles flown in a calendar year - so we can be labeled "Executive Platinum," "Premiere," "Diamond Medallion" or some other equally pretentious term coined by the airline industry. Incidentally, casual travelers have another word for us, but it's not printable in most major news publications.

Admit it, infrequent fliers: You detest us. We're the ones who board first, enter the special lines at crowded security checkpoints, and somehow manage to avoid baggage fees. If, heaven forbid, we are forced to check a bag, it appears in the claim area mere seconds after the carousel begins spinning. While other fliers wonder if they are going to get overhead bin space, we're wondering when the salted nuts will arrive. If the Occupy Wall Street movement turned its wrath on the airline industry, we would be the 1 percent.

Please don't hate us. You should feel sorry for us because we are disturbed individuals. It takes a twisted person to fly SIX legs between Chicago and Los Angeles in a 36-hour period during the Christmas season, pausing only to grab a brief nap at an airport motel before catching the first shuttle back to the terminal. Which is precisely what I did. Each segment accrued 1,745 miles in my American Airlines account. Tack on a special double mileage bonus for flying to a West Coast destination and that meant nearly 21,000 miles in my kitty, allowing me to achieve the remaining one-fifth of my goal in two days, if I added correctly. If nothing else, mileage chasers are very competent at math.

Contrary to popular belief, we are also the most nervous fliers, particularly late in the year. We will completely freak out when we hear that dreaded four-word phrase from the cockpit. No, it's not: "Please assume crash positions." Rather, it's: "Maintenance is on board." If the plane crashes, at least we would be forever free from the rigors of chasing miles. But cancel a flight? That makes us hyperventilate or reach for the air-sickness bag. We need EVERY flight to take off and land, even if one wing falls off somewhere over Denver.

Note to American Airlines executives: Your loyal customers also need you to retain the frequent-flier program, despite your recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Cancel it and we will use one of several free tickets we have earned due to our EXECUTIVE PLATINUM status to hunt down whoever pulled the plug. We will also bring Alec Baldwin with us.

The only way to keep us calm is to talk to us during the flight. We're great conversationalists since we've already seen every in-flight movie and listened to every audio channel - including the Spanish stations. We even have plenty of travel tips that we are happy to share. For example:

That purple yarn you tied to your luggage will not distinguish it from other pieces. Besides, baggage handlers take bets on who can steal the most yarn in an eight-hour shift.

Putting a privacy shield over your laptop screen is pointless. What do you expect your seatmate to do? Steal your secret solitaire strategy?

If you think those body scanners really can see everything, consider taking Greyhound.

I would offer more, but I just checked my mileage status and realized I miscalculated. I'm still 150 miles short.

Grand Rapids, here I come!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Customer Service Never Tasted So Good


Every journalist charged with writing a weekly column yearns for two things:

1. Somebody will actually read the column

2. Somebody will feel strongly enough about the column to respond

Columnists particularly love it when No. 2 occurs, because we immediately think, "Wow, if I respond to the responder, I might just have ANOTHER column and won't have to beat my head against a wall three hours before deadline wondering what I am going to write about!"

This is precisely what happened after I wrote a piece detailing my desire to man the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. I merely wanted to hear the anguished voices of those hapless people thrust into the role of chef on Thanksgiving Day. After years of botching my holiday bird, I needed proof that I wasn't alone.

One day after posting the column on Twitter, an email arrived from Allison McClamroch, senior vice president at Edelman Consumer Marketing, Butterball's PR agency. In part, it read:

"We would love to have you out at the Talk-Line for Turkey 101 - with the experts who take all the calls."

An invitation? A chance to see the inner workings of the Butterball operation? I felt like Santa himself had summoned me to the North Pole on Dec. 23 and said, "Bring a video camera. And your kids!" I immediately accepted and, a few days later, found myself standing in the lobby of a nondescript office building in (dare I divulge the location?) Naperville, Ill.

Allison met me at the fifth-floor reception area and soon I was inside the Turkey Talk-Line nerve center, which consisted of 10 tables , each containing three to four festively dressed women. Yes, all the participants are female, something the Talk-Line's supervisors are aware of but don't seem too concerned about. Then again, would you rather have a male or female voice answering the phone when you're calling about the finer points of stuffing?

Within two hours, I had learned how much time I had wasted over the years worrying about . . . nothing. Registered dietitian and 12-year Talk-Line veteran Sue Smith told me it was perfectly OK to put a slightly frozen turkey in the oven and not necessary to spends hours with my hand inside various body cavities cleaning out turkey innards. Talk-Line supervisor Marty Van Ness suggested various ways of preparing the bird but cringed when I mentioned how my mother used to roast our holiday turkey in a brown paper grocery sack.

"Combustible item in a hot oven with grease. Never a good combination," she said.

Mom had no idea she was putting the entire family at risk every November.

Watching these ladies in action, I wondered, "Why can't all customer support lines work this way?" At Butterball, callers ask a question and receive not only an answer, but assurance that everything will be fine. The Talk-Line definitely does not operate like the cable company for not once did I hear, "Your turkey looks pink? OK, we'll send a technician out sometime between Thursday and Saturday."

It also does not function like a computer support department. If it did, every Talk-Line rep would have been ordered to begin the conversation with, "May I please have the turkey's serial number? (PAUSE) I'm sorry but that is not a Butterball turkey and therefore does not qualify for support. Goodbye."

Or, "Our records show you called last year. Unfortunately, you are only allowed one free Talk-Line call. If you want any more advice, you must upgrade to the Butterball Silver Talk-Line Plan. Do you have your credit card ready?"

Finally, the calls to Naperville stayed in Naperville. Nobody was placed on hold while satellites bounced the caller through space until, 15 minutes later, a monotone voice from a call center in Bangalore, India, droned, "If I'm hearing you right, you're wondering why there are flames shooting from your turkey fryer? Please hold while I transfer you to a higher level of support."

So thanks, Butterball, for assuring me that, should I choose to host Thanksgiving next year, my cooking duties will be infinitely easier. I just have one more question:

Does anybody there know anything about cable TV?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nothing says 'I'm too lazy" like a gift card


For the umpteenth straight year, I missed "Black Friday," the one-day shopping frenzy featuring mature, intelligent adults who set their alarms for 1 a.m., venture to assorted retail outlets and return hours later with bruises, lacerations, eyes stinging from pepper spray and business cards from personal injury attorneys.

Three days later, I neglected to take part in "Cyber Monday," the virtual event featuring mature, intelligent adults who log onto PCs, click on heavily discounted items, and leave the gift-giving season in the hands of the ALWAYS RELIABLE U.S. Postal Service while praying the website they just visited was legitimate as opposed to an exact replica created by high-tech criminals.

By some estimates, this year these two events added $12.4 billion to our struggling economy. As much as I would have liked to contribute, the fact remains that I am simply too lazy to Christmas shop via the normal methods. Instead, I have created another day in which to start and finish my holiday buying.

Gift Card Tuesday.

I'm choosing Tuesday because, let's face it, it's the most boring day of the week. You don't head back to work Tuesday, it's not "Hump Day," and it's never part of an extended weekend. Tuesdays are quiet and Gift Card Tuesday will allow me to check off everybody on my Christmas list -- in about 15 minutes.

I've already got everything planned out. The local drugstore will be the site of my purchases since I have a prescription waiting to be picked up. Afterward, I will saunter over to the gift card rack, which seems to double in size each year. Even the most specialized stores like Bass Pro Shops have jumped on the lazy-shopper bandwagon by churning out those 3 1/4-by-2-inch pieces of plastic, adorned with the establishment's logo and a holiday symbol. All seem to say, "I'D MAKE A GREAT GIFT. SEE? I HAVE A WREATH ON MY CARD!"

This year, I will began with my wife, who pays the bills, car pools the kids and cooks delicious meals every night. She could use a little pampering, right?

Bath & Body Works. Done.

Next is my brother-in-law. Didn't he once say it was his dream to someday finish his basement, complete with a home theater and wet bar? Fifty dollars from The Home Depot should get him started. Next year at this time, I'll be sitting in his sparkling new rec room, drinking his beer and eating his snacks, all the while knowing that I helped make it possible.

Now that NBA players and owners have stopped bickering and agreed to an actual season, I have a reason to purchase an NBA store gift card for my nephew. I think players will get 51.15 percent of my purchase and owners the remaining 48.85. Or is it the other way around?

My cellphone-toting daughter will love the Verizon gift card that gives her extra minutes. When I was her age, I wanted a new bike; today's kids desire the ability to talk longer.

All of my relatives over 16 have driver's licenses. Therefore, any of them could use a Jiffy Lube card, courtesy of yours truly. When my sister pulls her vehicle into stall No. 1 and hears a voice from the ground below scream, "OIL AND LUBE!," she will think of me.

That leaves only my parents. What to get two people in their late 70s? Since they live nearby, the Southwest Airlines gift card is out, as it will make them think I'm trying to get rid of them. The International House of Pancakes is more their speed. Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad. Have a Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity on your son!

Afterward, I will return home with all my purchases in a single bag. If I'm still feeling festive, I will design a Christmas card on my PC and blast it to everybody in my address book via one mouse click.

That should leave more than enough time for a nap.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

It's time to delete the pause button

A time-honored tradition in the Schwem household involves gathering around the television during the closing minutes of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and waving to Santa as he enters Herald Square. Normally this joyous event occurs at approximately noon Chicago time.

This year Santa arrived at 12:38 p.m.

No, this was not due to an oversight by parade organizers. After 85 years of lining up participants, a task that, judging by the parade's length, begins somewhere in Ohio, I'm certain nobody has ever said, "Where's the red-suited guy with the beard?" Mark my words, Santa's whereabouts are ALWAYS known. The folks at Macy's would rather lose an entire high school marching band than have to explain how Santa missed his cue.

Kriss Kringle's delay was entirely the fault of my TV remote, specifically the "pause" feature. As a man living in a house with three women, I have a small request for television manufacturers, cable companies, set top box makers and whomever else is responsible for temporarily suspending the present with the click of a button:


Don't you see what you are doing? The pause button simply gives women a tool to keep men waiting. This is precisely what happened on Thanksgiving Day. Our plan, agreed to by all four family members the night before, was to wave to Santa at noon, load up the car and be on the road shortly thereafter.

"Let's shoot for 12:30," my wife said.

At 11:54 a.m. I was fully dressed and perched in front of the TV, watching the last of the inflatable balloons hover over 34th Street. Also at 11:54 a.m., a half-baked pie was in the oven, one daughter was frantically looking for a shoe, the other's whereabouts were unknown and I heard a shower running in the distance.

"Santa's just about here," I called upstairs.

"PAUSE IT!" yelled three voices in unison.

Outnumbered as always, I gave in to technology and bought my wife and daughters as much time as they darn well pleased. Much like a turkey, I was left to stew, alone, in my own juices. Eventually all three sauntered downstairs in Thanksgiving attire, oblivious to the fact that our departure time had come and gone.

"Ready," one daughter said.

"Santa's probably back at the North Pole by now," I replied testily.

My younger daughter, 9 years old and still a "believer," picked up the remote and hit the hated pause button.

"He's right there, Dad," she gestured at the TV. "Hi, Santa!"

"Hope he brings you everything you want this year," my wife chimed in.

"How about a clock for starters," I mumbled.

"Hush, Scrooge," came the reply.

My greatest fear is that pausing live television is only the beginning. In a few years, it's entirely possible that a cinema full of men will be staring at frozen images of actors on screen while a lone woman remains at home, changing outfits. What about theater? Ladies, just contact a female usher during that Broadway production and ask her to aim her remote at Nathan Lane and hit "pause." That will give you time to adjust your makeup.

Girls, when you attend a live sporting event, ever notice that men only visit restrooms during halftime and timeouts? That's because we know there is no pause button. We have been trained to live in the present, as opposed to altering the present to suit our needs. Please, please, can't you see our ways and at least TRY to be ready on time?

Alas, I'm afraid my request will fall on deaf ears. The pause feature is as commonplace on televisions these days as the on/off button. Television manufacturers have moved on to even cooler features including surround sound and 3-D capability. I'll take odds that, in a few years, one press of a button will cause the entire cast of "Modern Family" to leap from the TV and finish the episode live in my living room.

Of course, I will be the only family member watching. The rest will be upstairs, looking for shoes and yelling, "Pause it, pause it!"

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Sexiest Man Alive is out there somewhere

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

The People magazine lay on the kitchen island along with a stack of bills and Christmas catalogues. I glanced quickly at the cover before pushing it into my wife's pile.

"Well, it's official. Bradley Cooper is the 2011 Sexiest Man Alive," I said with a yawn.

"Go ahead," my wife responded. "Start trashing him the same way you do every man who wins the title. I only hope poor Ryan Reynolds (2010), Johnny Depp (2009) and Hugh Jackman (2008) have recovered from your vicious verbal barbs."

"I'm not trashing them. It's the 'alive' reference that bugs me."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that word doesn't pop up in other rankings. When the Cardinals won the World Series, nobody said they were the 'Best Baseball Team Alive.' Forbes magazine annually ranks the world's wealthiest individuals but the editors stopped short of calling Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helu the 'Richest Guy Alive.' When Dan Shechtman received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year, nobody referred to him as the 'Smartest Man Alive.' "

"Maybe he isn't."

"He discovered quasicrystals. Sounds pretty smart to me."

"So what's your point?"

"My point is that there may be somebody out there who is sexier than Bradley Cooper."

"You obviously didn't see The A-Team. Woof woof." She added, "Look, it's just a figure of speech."

"But People magazine is a national news publication. They owe it to the readers to back up their claims, especially when they're splashed all over the cover. I mean, there are over 3 billion living men on the planet. Did this Cooper specimen really beat out 3 BILLION other guys?"

"Some of those 'guys' are wearing diapers and riding around in car seats."

"Yes but how do we know that there isn't some strapping 28-year-old hunk living in the frozen tundra of Alaska who outranks Bradley Boy? I'll bet there is. His name is Branson."

"There is no hunk named Branson living in the Alaskan tundra."

"You don't know that. Neither does People magazine. Until its crack investigative journalism team can prove otherwise, we have to assume he exists. "

"Whatever. I'm sure he's not as sexy as Bradley Cooper."

"Oh, really? The People article says Cooper is a good cook. Big deal. Branson can kill a caribou with a bow and arrow, roast the meat over an open flame, and stitch a ridiculously warm and stylish floor-length coat with the leftover pelt."

"He can't do that," said my wife, whose breathing was rapidly increasing.

"Oh, yes he can. According to People, Cooper rides a motorcycle. What would you rather do? Put your arms around Cooper as he squires you through smoggy LA on his noisy, gas-spewing Harley or snuggle up with Branson while he navigates a dog sled through unspoiled outdoor terrain?"

My wife's eyes had glazed over. I moved in for the kill.

"Then you'll return to one of the several log cabins that Branson owns, thanks to his phenomenal success in the Alaskan real estate market. He will light a scented candle, illuminating the room in a romantic amber glow as he whispers sweet Italian nothings in your ear."

"He speaks Italian?" my wife said dreamily. "Why?"

"You can ask him while he's rubbing your feet with his thickly callused hands. The same hands, I might add, that swing the ax and chop the firewood for those long, cold Alaskan nights. Of course, you won't even feel the cold. You'll be too busy focusing on the caribou coat that he is slowly unbuttoning, revealing an eight-pack of abs..."


"I'm not trying to win," I said. "I'm just saying that Cooper should be careful before he accepts the World's Sexiest Man Alive trophy, if such a thing exists. Better yet, maybe People magazine should have an actual contest, instead of just anointing some celebrity who clearly doesn't need any more publicity."

"Fine. Go ahead and suggest that," she said before leaving the room.

It may have been my imagination but, from the corner of my eye, I think I saw her pull The A-Team DVD from the cabinet and throw it in the trash.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My daughters WILL become actuaries

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

I crept up behind my daughter as she sat at the kitchen table, slumped over her MacBook.

"What are you doing?" I asked.


I had no idea "Facebook" could be used as a verb. "Why are you on Facebook?"

"Because my homework's finished. That's the rule, right? I can Facebook after homework."

Suddenly "Facebook" had become an action verb. "Well, as long as you're on Facebook, why don't you join the actuarial science newsgroup? And check out the Actuarial Bookstore in Greenland, New Hampshire. It has a Facebook page, too."

"Dad, what are you talking about? What is actuarial science?"

I pulled up The Wall Street Journal on my iPad and thrust it in her face. "Read this article, 'From College Major to Career.'"

"How come?"

"So you won't be sitting around the house Facebooking in seven years."

Using 2010 census data, the world's leading business newspaper explored how various college majors fared in today's frightening job market. Actuarial science, commonly referred to as risk management in insurance and financial circles, received an unemployment rating of zero percent. Still, it was the 150th most popular major. Business management and administration topped the popularity list, in spite of the 6 percent unemployment rate.

The low ranking for the actuarial profession didn't surprise me. I've met, for lack of a better phrase, actual actuaries and there is truth to the joke: How do you tell an introverted actuary from an extroverted actuary? Answer? The extroverted actuary looks at YOUR shoes when he talks to you.

Other majors that assured instant employment included geophysical engineering and astrophysics, according to the article.

"Pick one," I said.

"Dad, I'm 14. Haven't you said that if I work hard enough, I can be whatever I want to be?"

"Yes, as long as it doesn't involve library science or clinical psychology," I said, pointing to the respective 15 and 19.5 percent unemployment rates for those majors. The clinical psychology statistics make no sense. Surely our nation has a demand for experts to counsel recent college grads who spent four years and thousands of dollars preparing for a career in military technologies, only to realize the profession has a 10.9 percent unemployment rating and their first job application may come from Starbucks instead of the State Department.

My daughter grabbed the iPad and began scrolling. "I guess Miscellaneous Fine Arts (16.2 percent) is out?"

"Absolutely. Who is going to hire somebody that walks into an interview and says, 'I'm really good at doing miscellaneous stuff, particularly if it's art-related.'"

"Didn't you want to be an astronomer when you grew up?"

"Yes and I should have gone with my gut. Look here. Zero percent of astronomers are unemployed."

"Where does stand-up comedian fall on this list?" she said, referring to the vocation I have held for the past 22 years.

"Comedians are self-employed. If you choose a career on this list, you'll be working for somebody."

"So maybe I should start my own business. Then we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Great idea! You could be a self-employed actuary. The best of both worlds!"

"Dad, isn't it a little early for you to be steering me towards a particular career? I mean, mom just had 'The Talk' with me two years ago."

"How did that go?"

"She got most of it right."

"Honey, I just don't want you to major in something that isn't going to bear fruit once you're out of college. You don't want to be like that kid down the street who graduated last year and still can't find a job. What was his major?"

"Medieval history."

"Right. Who's going to hire him? Harry Potter?"

"Here's one with a zero percent unemployment rate. School student counseling."

"Now that's perfect! You'd be good at that. Think how rewarding it would be to give advice to students. What's the first thing you would tell them?"

"When your Dad approaches you with an iPad, run."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I desperately need to talk turkey

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

Now that the Halloween decorations are back in storage and my Kit Kat hangover has subsided, I can turn my attention to a fantasy that has been swirling in my brain and won't go away.

I want to man the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line.

Why, you ask, would I want to spend Thanksgiving Day fielding phone calls from perplexed chefs thrust into the role of preparing this . . . thing that sits, half frozen, in a lukewarm, reddening pool of sink water? The answer is simple: I'm not cooking the turkey this year.

Yes, after years of struggling with obstinate birds (Question for Butterball: How can something dead be so uncooperative?), other relatives are taking on the challenge. This Thanksgiving, my wife and I will show up with the obligatory green bean/crunchy onion concoction. While our kids eat too much dip, we will sip chardonnay and listen to screams, tears and threats emanating from the kitchen. Glass in hand, I will wander in and say, "Can I help?" about 30 minutes after that question should have been asked.

Just thinking about this makes me happy. But I want to be REALLY happy. That's why I want to become a turkey hotline temp. According to the Butterball website, the line is staffed by "more than 50 professionally-trained, college-educated home economists and nutritionists." I don't have a background in nutrition or home economics, but I am college educated. And I have plenty of advice to give, gleaned from years of relatives such as Aunt Trudy (not her real name since she's still alive) hovering over me and offering "tips" such as "it looks a tad pink to me," "next year, tie the legs tighter" and "you're out of vodka." Mind you, all of these conversations occurred while I was holding a monstrous carving knife. Such is the beauty of Thanksgiving.

I just need to answer one phone call. When I hang up, I'm confident I will be laughing hysterically and eternally filled with joy, even if it's at the expense of some poor, first-time caller. Butterball, please consider the following dialogue my audition:

"Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. This is Greg. May I help you?"

"Hi, this is Emily from Seattle...

"Is it raining right now in Seattle?"

"Yes, but that's not why I'm calling. My turkey. . ."

"So it's raining and you botched up your turkey? Wow, I thought I was depressed."

"I didn't botch it up. At least I don't think I did. But it's been roasting for eight hours and it still doesn't look done."

"Eight hours? Hmm, let me check the manual. (LOUD RUSTLING OF PAGES) Oh, my God, Emily, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE NOW! AND GET YOUR AFFAIRS IN ORDER!!!

"Excuse me?"

"Just kidding. That makes everybody laugh around here. Marge in the next cubicle almost did a spit-take. Hey, can you check the football score for me? Butterball doesn't have TVs in this room."

"Um, it's 17-14, Cowboys."

"Excellent. Romo's on my fantasy team."

"Who cares? I need help. My relatives are starving and I don't know what to do."

"That's why you have side dishes, Emily. Want me to transfer you to the Green Bean/Crunchy Onion Hotline? Or the closest Domino's?"

"No, no, no! Look, the thermometer says 165. Is that sufficient?"

"Depends. Are we talking Fahrenheit or Celsius?"

"Fahrenheit! Why would I use a Celsius thermometer?"

"Maybe you have European relatives. The turkey's done, Emily. Take it out."

"OK, but now I need help carving. What kind of knife should I use?"

"Knife? Who uses knives? A simple karate chop should do. I once saw a guy on 'America's Got Talent' break three bricks with his head."

"Karate chop the turkey? You can't be serious."

"Of course I'm serious, Emily. I have a degree."

"All right. Hold on." (LOUD THUMP FOLLOWED BY SHRIEK OF PAIN) "That didn't work."

"You must have hit the stuffing."

"Can I speak to your supervisor?"

"Hold on. (PAUSE) Trudy, pick up on line two."

Thursday, November 03, 2011

More towels sir? We already knew that!

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

The headline caught my eye as I sat in my Orlando hotel room, futilely struggling to open the complimentary coffee packet: "HOTEL STAFF 'READS' GUESTS' NEEDS."

The article was from a major national newspaper. Curiosity piqued, I elected to forgo morning java. Instead, I began reading and discovered that Affinia, an upscale hotel chain with properties in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., recently hired a "body-language expert." This announcement only strengthened my theory that if you are unemployed, simply invent a title for yourself and corporate America will hire you. At a recent company cocktail party, I met a "Director of Continuous Improvement," "Specialty Organics Manager" and "Social Network Evangelist." Not having the slightest clue what any of these people did, I greeted each with my standard opening line: "How 'bout them Bears?"

The Affinia body-language guru is responsible for training employees to spot guests' needs or wants simply by looking at them. A guest who constantly touches his face at the reception desk, the article states, could be anxious after a long day of meetings and require extra pampering.

Or a skin doctor. Or a psychiatrist.

I regularly travel more than 100,000 business miles per year. In the process, I have stayed everywhere from five star oceanfront resorts to fleabag motels that offer hourly rates and free high-speed Internet. Somebody needs to tell the fleabag motel desk clerks that any guest paying by the hour is not interested in surfing the Web, despite the 100 percent discount.

I have pulled back bedspreads to find cockroaches, checked into rooms with unflushed toilets, and discovered black, muddy substances seeping from my room's bathtub drain. The last incident occurred in a swank New York City hotel with a French name. When I contacted the front desk, the manager apologized and said he would send up a fruit plate for my inconvenience.

I told him that unless the dining staff could produce a banana shaped like a drain snake, he could keep the fruit.

According to Smith Travel Research, hotel-occupancy rates are on the rise and, in some destinations, even approaching pre-recession levels. The American public is traveling again, in spite of hotels' determination to mimic the airline industry with those extra, sometimes-exorbitant fees. Seriously, $5 for a can of minibar Diet Coke? I paid less for a case of the same stuff at Costco. Then again, how can I watch a $13.99 in-room movie without some liquid libation?

So, bravo to any hotel chain that offsets this price gouging by anticipating its guests' thoughts and desires. But there's no need to hire experts to scrutinize us. Just look for the following characteristics and know the meanings behind them:

Slurred speech and slight odor of Scotch - Guest prefers a room near the ice machine.

Carrying no suitcases - Guest just had lengthy argument with airline's lost-luggage personnel.

Carrying more than three suitcases - Guest just had lengthy argument with wife.

Accompanied by multiple children - Guest could be Brad Pitt. You never know.

Wearing bell-bottoms or other 1970s attire - Guest was recently released from prison.

Trouble keeping balance while walking - Guest is hiding at least three hotel towels in carry-on garment bag.

Angry tone and finger pointing - Guest insists he did not rent Debbie Does Dallas at 2:30 a.m.

Profuse sweating coupled with guilt-ridden expression - Guest eventually admits he did rent aforementioned movie and needs assurance that the charge will not appear on his company expense report. (That won't sit well with the Director of Continuous Improvement.)

Clad only in underwear - Guest stepped into hallway to retrieve complimentary newspaper without room key.

Gnarled fingers and bloody knuckles - Guest still can't open the #@$%* coffee packet.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Little League Rules for Big League Debates

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

I have two daughters, both of whom play organized softball. Every year about this time, I volunteer to manage one of their teams. I sign my name in the box, pay the registration fees and hear not a peep from the PONY Baseball/Softball higher-ups until the following spring when my roster arrives. I also receive a hefty PONY rulebook, containing a litany of regulations and a code of conduct, which I promise to abide by during the season.

While I don't necessarily agree with all the rules, and find some of the conduct specifications to be ludicrous (What? I can't gamble on my Blueberry Muffins team?), the PONY laws succeed at speeding up games, encouraging teamwork and avoiding conflict.

That's why, after watching the 2,407th Republican presidential candidate debate, this one LIVE FROM LAS VEGAS, I feel it's time to incorporate youth softball rules into the contests. Something needs to be done before Mitt Romney places his hand on Rick Perry's shoulder and balls it into a fist. Perry should also be penalized for calling any candidate "brother," a remark that had Vegas odds makers scurrying to establish a line on whether he would refer to Michele Bachmann as "sister."

Does anybody really think these contests will determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential election? Most studies show the American public uses other means to make their choices. They weigh each candidate's position on the most important issues facing this country, carefully read profiles from several well respected national publications, and then choose whomever has the best hair and nicest smile. Google "Jimmy Carter" for proof.

Still, there are at least 12 more debates tentatively scheduled. The next one takes place Nov. 9 in Rochester, Mich. That is more than enough time for PONY officials to restore sanity to the debate process by scouring their rulebook and rewriting the format. Here are a few suggestions:

A continuous batting order will be used -- Specifically, each candidate gets 60 seconds to state his or her position on a topic, starting at the far left podium and moving down the line. This will eliminate candidates interrupting each other, as well. It also means Anderson Cooper can stay home.

No player will be omitted from the starting lineup in consecutive games -- Breathe easier Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman.

Players must rotate positions -- Midway through the debate, all candidates will move to different podiums. This ensures that Romney and Perry will have only a limited time to touch each other. Once separated, contact will be limited to both candidates hurling ballpoint pens at one another.

The dropped third strike rule does not apply -- Simply put, no candidate gets the chance to "clarify" a position, even after a horrendous foot-in-mouth gaffe. This rule should help Bachmann and Ron Paul choose their words more carefully.

The game is over after one hour and 45 minutes -- Anybody have a problem with that?

A player who has been removed from the game may re-enter the game -- Just in case Tim Pawlenty happens to be in Michigan on Nov. 9.

Pitchers are required to wear a defensive facemask -- Whichever candidate is speaking is deemed "the pitcher" and will wear the mask. The exception is Herman Cain. After the verbal bashing he took in the Vegas debate, he will wear one from the moment he walks on stage.

No warm up swings are permitted during the game -- This rule keeps candidates from flip-flopping on topics during the debate.

Finally, two rules that are not specifically written in the official PONY handbook but which are used by most managers, myself included.

Each candidate must have a "team mom" -- Sarah Palin is available.

At the conclusion of every game, all players go out for ice cream -- Candidates will use this time to argue over who will pay and where the money will come from.

One more thing: Everyone gets a trophy.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Daughter's Brain: A Work in Progress

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

As the orthodontist put braces on my 14-year-old daughter, I sat in the waiting room, casually flipping through National Geographic.

Halfway through October's cover story, I realized I could never let her see this issue. Even if it means hunting down all of the magazine's 8.5 million subscribers and stealing their copies, it's worth it. I may have to hack into the National Geographic website and furiously hit "delete," as well. The penalties will be severe but, as I linger in my jail cell awaiting a bond hearing, I will breathe easier knowing I kept her from reading an article entitled, "Beautiful Teenage Brains." If she finds it, I will never win an argument with her again.

Until I read David Dobbs' piece, I was of the firm belief that teenagers don't have brains, period. Sure, there is a mass in their heads that allows them to pepper every sentence with "huh," "what" and "like." It's the same organ that creates the ability to simultaneously text, update one's social network status and download Pitbull's latest musical masterpiece while studying for final exams. But it doesn't actually produce intelligent thoughts.

The article's accompanying photos certainly supported my theory. There was the girl who showed off her newly pierced tongue and said she tried to hide it from her parents by "not talking." Or maybe it was the image of a teen appearing to launch himself, face first, into a brick wall. Turns out he was simply practicing a sport called parkour, which involves leaping from walls and in between buildings to get where you're going. I thought only Spider-Man could do this.

Or it could have been the picture of the "Fight Club," where one teenage youth gripped another boy in what looked to be a rather painful headlock. Two other lads stood by and, instead of helping their struggling friend, recorded the action with their cellphones and prepared to upload the footage to Facebook.

Dobbs says questionable decision-making, coupled with a desire to seek new thrills, is perfectly normal because teenagers' brains are not fully developed. The corpus callosum, which connects the brain's left and right hemispheres, is thickening. The hippocampus is strengthening. And let's not forget that the teen's synapses are learning to work with their axons and dendrites.

Parents, are you up to speed now?

I'm not sure my daughter's corpus callosum could process the complexities of Dobbs' article. But I can't take that chance. Even if she just skims it (much like she skims her homework assignments), it will provide her with verbal ammunition beyond her wildest dreams.

"Chill, Dad. I know I missed curfew by two hours but that's because my dendrites weren't functioning properly."

"Don't blame me for the unloaded dishwasher, Dad. Blame my still-developing cortex."

"Dad, I can't find my volleyball bag. Or my math book. Or my cellphone. But what did you expect? It's because my axons are not yet insulated with myelin. Like, duh!"

See what I mean?

Dobbs concludes that I'm just going to have to ride out the storm with my daughter. With a few exceptions, she is going to choose her friends, instead of her parents, as her source for learning new things. Her occasional tendency to do something that I would scientifically call "stupid" is just a means of learning to adapt to new situations, a trait that will help her later in life. She's going to be in her mid-20s before those frontal brain areas mature but the results will be wonderful. She will, according to Dobbs, have an easier time moving out of the house. She will learn when risks outweigh rewards and vice versa. I just want to give her a hug and congratulate her on the progress she is making.

I will do that right after I scream at her for chewing ice with her new braces.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Good Putting Stroke Is All In The Wallet

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

As a Chicago resident and die-hard Cubs fan, I'm used to living through springs that begin with so much promise, only to turn into summers full of zero improvement and wasted opportunities, followed by September cries of "wait till next year."

My golf game plays out in identical fashion.

But I have a new reason to be hopeful. Peer inside my bag and feast your eyes on that gleaming putter. DON'T TOUCH IT! You see, that putter was designed EXCLUSIVELY for me.

Now I've never been a huge believer in the theory that technology improves one's golf game. I've shunned pricey balls that supposedly fly higher, truer and farther thanks to their "unconventional dimple design" and "dual core" centers. They all sink equally well in water. Give me a ball that bobs to the surface, floats quickly to the bank and waits for my cart to arrive and I'll purchase six dozen.

Ditto for drivers with adjustable screws that allow the owner to fade or draw the ball. I've been playing golf for more than 40 years and nobody has ever stood on the tee and said, "Whatever you do, don't hit it STRAIGHT."

Putting, however, is a different story. Like most weekend players, I spend precious little time practicing putting. It's more fun to pound driver after driver, wallowing in my own testosterone as I try to reach the 275-yard flag on the range. Putting just seems so . . . wimpy by nature.

Nevertheless, the soft spongy putting surface is where my game goes to die. That's why I was so intrigued with the concept of a custom-designed putter. I interpreted that to mean I would now own a putter that would be more than a club; it would be my best friend. I would take it into bars after rounds and sit it on an adjoining stool, while recounting to other golfers how I made three 40-footers simply because "my putter knows what to do." In short, it would be the sword of Excalibur.

I happily met Mike, my custom putter fitter, in an unremarkable office park where remarkable putters are allegedly born. While I attempted to sink several 8-foot putts, Mike videotaped my stroke. I watched in horror and immediately updated a mental list entitled, "Things I NEVER Want to See on a Big Screen." My golf swing became No. 1. "Me Having Sex" dropped to No. 2.

Mike went into another room, most likely to convulse in laughter. He returned with several putters and twice as much putting terminology. I nodded silently as he described my "toe drag," and "forward press."

The only term I understood was "wristy," as in, "You're way too wristy."

Over the next hour, Mike tried everything to reduce my wrist, short of breaking it. I putted with my head against a wall, with a ball wedged between the shaft and my right forearm, with my left hand only, my right hand only and with my eyes closed. Remarkably that one went in; at least it sounded like it did.

He then took the putter from my hands, placed it in some contraption that may very well have come from a CIA interrogation room, made some noisy adjustments and returned it to me.

"You're good to go," he said.

I handed him a large amount of money and he handed me the putter and his card. "If you make any changes to your stroke, bring it back." I interpreted that to mean he would make more adjustments, courtesy of the mystery machine.

I headed out convinced that the machine and the putter will cure me of my putting woes because I now have technology on my side. It's like having a GPS in your vehicle. Voila! Suddenly you are good at directions.

I don't plan to miss any more putts inside 10 feet. But in case I do, I have one question.

What do custom-designed wrists cost?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It Takes Very Little Effort to be a Man

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

I avoid reading medical studies since they are contradictory by nature. Stay away from red wine because the alcohol could raise my blood pressure or inhale two glasses a day and combat prostate cancer? Control my cholesterol by shunning beef or strengthen my immune system by waltzing into Ruth's Chris once a week and nodding when the waitress says, "The usual, Mr. Schwem?"

But something lead me to read, beginning to end, a recent study by Northwestern University anthropologists. Apparently, testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, drops when men become dads. Even more alarming? The study suggests levels plummet further when guys take active roles in child rearing. In short: The more involved a man is with his kids, the less "manly energy" he has.

I recently turned 49 and, while I don't feel the need to star in a Cialis commercial, I occasionally struggle to remain awake through the late-night news. Now I know why. It was because I spent this past spring managing my 9-year-old daughter's softball team. I specifically remember one game when I stood near third base, frantically waving my arm in a circular motion and extolling our runner to sprint home. How was I to know that testosterone was oozing out of my body? Those dads in the bleachers who spent the whole game tapping away on their BlackBerrys no doubt left feeling more like men.

Then there was that snowy Sunday a few years ago when I went bowling with her Brownie troop. While other dads were home on the couch eating Doritos and watching the playoffs, I was tying little bowling shoes and searching the lanes for pink balls. When the facility closed for the evening, the staff likely squeegeed my testosterone off alley No. 7.

Or maybe I lost that all important maleness when I transported a bunch of girls to a weekend cheerleading tournament 75 miles from my house. Actually, that's not true; any man forced to sit through a cheerleading tournament ceases being a man on the spot. That includes you, Tom Brady. I knew it was over when my wife sent me to the drugstore because my daughter didn't have the correct shade of eyeliner that apparently is VITAL when competing in cheerleading competitions.

Luckily, there is a solution to every problem. Starting today, I plan to replenish that lost testosterone -- by becoming as uninvolved as possible.

From now on, when my daughter requests help with her science report, I will quickly wave my hand in the direction of the home PC and say, "Just Google it." When it comes time to sort her Girl Scout cookie order, I will give her a look that says, "You sold 'em, you bag 'em." So what if the kindly old lady down the street gets three boxes of Peanut Butter Patties instead of the Thin Mints she requested? As long as she doesn't have a serious peanut allergy, who cares?

Citing my plunging testosterone levels, I will contact my daughter's principal and renege on my promise to volunteer in the school's computer lab. (That should be an interesting phone call.) As an alternative, I will offer to teach fourth-graders the intricacies of Skype by conducting a video chat from my couch while doing something manly like updating my Fantasy Football stats. My hormone levels will soar.

I will cede all car pool duties to my wife. Oh sure, she will blow a gasket upon realizing that she has to be in four places at once, but I will firmly remind her that my lack of mobility is doing wonders for my virility. End of conversation.

Just when she threatens divorce, I will whisk her off to a secluded Caribbean island and spend three days proving what laziness can do for a man, if you catch my drift. When we return, our children will warmly greet us at the door and beg for attention.

I hope I can remember their names.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Congress Needs a Three-Martini Lunch

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

As Congress continues to bumble its way through existence, I feel it's finally time to step in and offer a solution that will solve our nation's ills.

The Three Martini Lunch.

Whatever happened to that sacred ritual of negotiation, so popular in the 1960s and '70s? The guys on Mad Men close multimillion-dollar deals every week over martinis. My dad, a retired salesman, paid for my college tuition with the help of a few vodka soaked olives and a veal shank with soup, salad and baked potato. Liquid libation, he argued, could loosen up the tightest customer. And right now, Congress is tighter than the faces on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Blame stricter drunk-driving laws for the drinking lunch's demise. Blame company wellness programs. Blame image-conscious individuals, wary of ordering alcohol before 5 p.m. Those three reasons are precisely why Washington has nothing to lose by airing its beefs with a little Beefeater. One, our nation's Capitol teems with chauffeurs and private car services. Two, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Camel Light, isn't exactly on a health kick. Furthermore, former Rep. Anthony Weiner proved that the congressional gym is not necessarily used for fitness. Three, Congress' image ranks just below navel lint.

So, before our nation runs out of money, defaults on its national debt and slides deeper into recession, somebody please make a noon reservation at a Washington power eatery where Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner can loosen their ties and their viewpoints. A waitress is at the ready.

"Hello, Gentlemen. Can I start you off with some drinks? Mr. Reid?"

"I'll get the first round. Four vodka martinis. Straight up."

"Make mine an appletini."

"Cantor, this is a negotiation, not a frat party."

"OK, straight up. With a cherry."

"Whatever. Tim, where are we at?

"It's pretty obvious. We're down to a couple billion and some change in the coffers. The clock is ticking."

"That's because Harry here won't budge on disaster relief spending."

"Excuse me, John, for wanting to help the residents of Joplin."

"Harry, you're getting on my nerves."

"Pardon me, gentlemen. Another round?"

"Don't mind if we do. And an order of calamari."

"Right away, Mr. Geithner. But we can't take a check from the Treasury. Remember what happened last time?"

"I'll pay cash."

"Guys, we have to cut more social service programs. Isn't that obvious?"

"Not as obvious as the Redskins' play-calling. Eric, did you see that game yesterday?"

"Here's some food for thought. If we cut $2 billion from the budget, we could buy the team. How cool would that be?"

"Your drinks, gentlemen. And the special today is prime rib. Are you ready to order?"

"Can you give us a few minutes? We're trying to keep the government running."

"C'mon Tim! I'm starving.

"Agree on spending cuts and I'll get her back here."

"Fine. Cut the alternative energy loan program."

"And tell the victims of Irene they don't have to worry. FEMA will be there."

"Great. That went pretty smoothly, didn't it?"

"Not as smooth as this Grey Goose. Yowza!"

"So, John, how's your golf game?"

"Thanks for asking Harry. It's decent. We should get out some time. I'll call the president. He's always up for 18."

"Need a fourth?"

"We've got your cell, Eric."

"Boys, we probably have time for one more before the food arrives. Can we agree that we're not going to put the American people through another debt ceiling debacle?"

"Yeah, we did look pretty stupid on that one. (HICCUP) I'd be willing to forego my pension for a few years."

"I'll go you one better. (BURP) I'll give up my Social Security. Tim, figure out my monthly benefits for the next 10 years and just give the money to a laid off worker with a family. "

"I love you guys. Waitress, four more."

"Coming right up, gentlemen. Will you be needing cabs after lunch?"

"Don't worry. We've got a designated driver."

"Yeah, Mrs. Pelosi is waiting outside."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mark Zuckerberg Needs Some Kids!

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

The last time I Googled Mark Zuckerberg, he was a 27-year-old billionaire who invented Facebook.

Prior to that he was a 26-year-old billionaire who invented Facebook.

The only thing changing in Zuckerberg's life these days is the amount of money he accumulates with his creation. Oh, sure, he pops up in the occasional news story such as the one involving a Northern Ireland dad who is suing Facebook because his 12-year-old daughter posted sexually explicit photos of herself on the site. Facebook, the dad contends, doesn't enforce its policy of forbidding users to establish accounts until they reach the ripe old age of . . . 13. That policy was actually the result of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Zuckerberg has hinted that he might try to challenge the rule. Younger children, he argued, should be allowed to use Facebook for "educational purposes."

It's easy to see why Zuckerberg made that statement: He doesn't have children of his own. At least, I don't think he does. Hard to believe, but he hasn't updated his Facebook page since January. I'm pretty certain that siring an offspring would at least merit a post. And a photo.

I think I speak for all parents when I say Zuckerberg needs to experience firsthand why we agonize over when to let our own children explore Facebook. Which is exactly why I'm going to launch a campaign: MARK ZUCKERBERG NEEDS SOME KIDS. And I'm going to use Facebook.

I will create a simple Facebook page and ask my 357 friends to "like" it. Then I will invite them all to an event, created via Facebook, entitled, "Drop Your Kids Off at Mark Zuckerberg's House For a Week." Most billionaires have at least a couple spare bedrooms, don't they?

I will get the ball rolling by letting my daughters stay with Zuckerberg. One is 14 and a legal Facebook member. Before letting her join, her mother and I warned her that we would be closely monitoring her activity. We friended her, memorized her password, turned off her instant personalization feature and disabled apps such as AreYouInterested? -- which, according to Facebook, "makes it virtually effortless to meet potential dates instantly." So far, she has behaved responsibly. Still, we can't always control the posts from her 600-plus friends, some of whom freely drop f-bombs, question their classmates' sexual orientation online and wonder if anyone will be bringing alcohol to the party. Maybe Zuckerberg has some suggestions.

He will have a bigger problem dealing with my 9 year old. She's too young for Facebook, but somehow, a few of her 9-year-old friends have established accounts. One even tried to friend me. Isn't that cute? A 9-year-old girl wants to be friends with a 49-year-old man! It's only a matter of time before my daughter begins pestering me for an account. I'll let Zuckerberg deal with that when he tucks her in at night and brushes her pigtails the next morning.

Once a few kids get dropped off at Mr. Z's home, others will certainly follow. I know this because the Facebook Places app helps users broadcast exactly where they are. Word travels fast via social networks; just ask shopkeepers in England.

My wife and I weren't worried about British looters when we agreed to host a graduation party for our daughter. However, we did tell her that, under no circumstances, could she promote the event via Facebook. As a result, we had a nice quiet gathering of about 40 kids, all of whom we recognized. Other parents weren't so lucky; one party we attended contained over 100 eighth-grade grads, thanks primarily to Facebook. At one point, the homeowner gazed out at his backyard, sighed and said, "Who ARE these kids?"

Eventually my Facebook friends and I will descend on Zuckerberg's home, collect our children and restore sanity to his life. Maybe he will use the subsequent quiet time to rethink Facebook's age policy. If he needs additional input, there's a dad in Northern Ireland who may have some ideas.

Zuckerberg should send him a friend request first.

(Greg Schwem is a stand-up comedian and author of "Text Me If You're Breathing: Observations, Frustrations and Life Lessons From a Low-Tech Dad," available at

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Thankfully, Nevin Shapiro Never had Children

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

There is football on my TV, the greens of my backyard leaves are slowly giving way to fiery reds and my kids have resumed both school and youth sports programs.

As long as Nevin Shapiro stays in jail, it's going to be a great fall.

Shapiro is the Miami "businessman" currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for orchestrating a $930 million Ponzi scheme. But it was his dealings with University of Miami football players that really put him on the map. Shapiro admitted to a Yahoo sports reporter that he lavished cash and gifts on Miami players and recruits, threw outrageous parties featuring strippers and hookers, paid players for vicious hits and did it all over an eight-year period while nobody thought to question him, including Miami coaches who allegedly also benefitted from Shapiro's largesse.

Unless O.J. Simpson gets transferred to the same correctional facility, Shapiro is now far away from sports figures. This is a good thing because, had Shapiro's misdeeds continued to go unnoticed, he may have tired of his hard-partying bachelor ways, gotten married, had children and settled into a life of suburbia. Like me, maybe he would have a daughter. Like me, maybe his daughter would play soccer. What if our kids ended up on the same team? Any adult who has ever experienced youth soccer knows that some parents can be overly vocal at best and downright nuts at worst. The last thing my daughter's team needs is a guy rolling up to the field in a tricked out minivan.

"Hey, Ned, who's the guy wearing the extra large Strawberry Shortcake team jersey?"

"Greg, that's Nevin Shapiro. His daughter's the starting midfielder. Of course, what did you expect? He threw that all-night party at Chuck E. Cheese last weekend."

"Is that the guy the other kids call, 'The dad with the tokens?'"

"That's him. And he's got more than tokens. Have you seen his house?"

"Is it the one with the 100-foot inflatable jumper in the backyard? My daughter was there for eight hours yesterday. OOOOH, did you see that? One of our kids just kneed another player in the stomach. Poor kid. She's crying. They're going to have to take her out of the game. Looks like our player is going to get a red card."

"And a Dairy Queen coupon."

"A what?"

"Haven't you heard? Shapiro gives free ice cream to any kid who incapacitates an opposing player. Sure, our player's done for the day, but in an hour she's going to be eating a Peanut Buster Parfait."

"No wonder my daughter wants to take kick boxing lessons. By the way, Ned, are we home or away next weekend?"

"We're home. Eleven a.m. at Shapiro Field."

"Excuse me?"

"Didn't you get the email? They named our field after this guy. In return he's buying new warm-up jackets for all the girls. The coaches made the decision last night at Buffalo Wild Wings."

"Let me guess. Shapiro paid."

"You got it."

"Hey, Ned, do you recognize the three 7-year-olds on the sideline? Are they from around here?"

"No, Greg. They're from Mexico. Potential recruits."

"Recruits? From Mexico?"

"Shapiro flew them up here. Thinks they'll be great additions to the team."

"Don't you have to live in our town to play youth soccer for this team?"

"Hey, I don't ask questions. Apparently these kids have some serious moves."

So, let me get this straight: We're using illegal recruits, encouraging our kids to hurt opposing players, bribing them with pizza parties and fancy clothes and nobody thinks this is wrong?"

"Greg, we're 7-0. Zip it."

"How much time is left in this game, anyway?"

"That was the whistle. Looks like we're 8-0 now."

"Here comes my daughter. Nice game honey!"

"Thanks, Dad."

"Hey, since your grandparents drove all the way here to watch you, how about we all go to McDonald's and celebrate?"

"Maybe another time. Mr. Shapiro is taking the whole team to the Apple Store."

"Oh. Uh, do you need any money?"

"Very funny, Daddy."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Back to $chool

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

Last week, millions of Americans stood helplessly by as significant portions of their net worth were wiped out. And no, I'm not talking about the stock market.

I'm talking about something far more horrifying: The moment they saw their child's back-to-school supply list.

When it comes to my children's education, I feel I've been a very responsible parent. Shortly after both daughters were born, I established 529 college savings plans and faithfully contribute to them each month. Oh, sure, the wild market fluctuations mean that those plans contain enough money for an Ivy League degree on Tuesday and not enough for a single online course on Wednesday, but that may be a moot point. Based on the increasingly puzzling list of necessary school supplies, not to mention the quantity, I'm starting to wonder if I should establish another 529 plan to cover primary school.

My soon-to-be fourth-grader proudly displayed her list this week. When I attended fourth grade, my school supplies fit quite easily into a shoebox, thank you very much. Eventually, we even used the shoebox in art class to make a "diorama," loosely defined as "something built inside a shoebox." On the first day of class, that box contained a couple of No. 2 pencils, an eraser, a bottle of glue, a pair of scissors, a ruler and a compass. The latter could either be used to draw respectable looking circles or as a weapon. With the shoebox tucked under one arm and a spiral notebook under the other, I was locked and loaded until June.

From my perspective as a volunteer parent, the primary school curriculum has changed little in the past 40 years. My 9-year-old is still learning the basic subjects along with cursive writing, a skill that will disappear once she gets her first cellphone and begins texting.

What has changed considerably are school budgets. In short, they are a mess and my daughter's school is no exception. That's why it's obvious that school officials drastically slash school supply budgets simply by transferring the expenses to the parents. How else to explain the need for every fourth-grader to lumber off the bus on Day One with SIX glue sticks, TWO dispensers of invisible tape, THREE packs of Post-it notes and TWO boxes of Kleenex?

At least she's not in eighth grade. Those kids need 64 No. 2 pencils! Parents have already been warned that class sizes will increase this year to an average of 33 students. Now we're finding out that each class will also contain 2,112 pencils.

How is anybody supposed to move, much less learn?

The glue stick quantity riled me. Six sticks? For each student? When I attended school, a lone bottle of Elmer's lasted the entire year, usually because any art projects required a mere dollop for every item that became part of the diorama. The dollop flowed easily the first time the bottle was opened; afterward, the leftover residue on the tip became a glue dam, stopping any fresh glue from passing by unless the owner pierced it with a sharp object. Hence the need for the compass.

Now, with more than 180 glue sticks readily available, the fourth grade should be able to tackle more serious projects, such as replacing any bricks that come loose from the school's foundation.

Finally, the most puzzling (and most expensive) item of all: A pair of digital stereo headphones, "with ear bud and cushion." Upon seeing this, I quickly scanned the remainder of the list, wondering if I had to spring for an iPod and a $100 iTunes card. Thankfully those items were absent, so I'm left to wonder how my daughter is supposed to hear her teacher when she is wearing ear buds? I'm also wondering if I should get the $14.99 pair I found at Sears or whether she will get a better education if I spring for the $240 model from

Headphones aside, fulfilling this list is going to set the Schwem budget back at least $200. It's enough to make you want to stick a compass in your eye.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The best-kept secrets are left in bars

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

I'm currently writing a one-man show. I haven't finished it, but I know it's going to be awesome. Critics will rave, theaters will sell out and tickets will go for three times face value on StubHub.

How do I know all of this? Because I'm going to leave the unfinished script in a bar. Hey, if it worked for Apple, it should work for me.

Much has been made recently of an incident involving an Apple employee, an unreleased Apple product and a San Francisco drinking establishment. According to technology website CNET, the employee left some cool Apple gadget (and aren't they ALL cool?) on the bar, where somebody else scooped it up, sold it and, in the process, let Apple's secrets out of the bag. Police are reportedly involved even though nobody is saying exactly what is being sought.

Speculation is that the gadget in question is the iPhone 5, scheduled to be released just as soon as everybody waiting in line for an iPhone 4 has purchased one. (At a Chicago Apple store, the line ended somewhere around Peoria).

If this incident of absent-mindedness sounds familiar, it is. Last year, another Apple employee left the iPhone 4 prototype in a Redwood City, Calif., bar. That device ended up at the offices of Gizmodo, another technology website, which reviewed it before it hit the market.

Once the iPhone 4 actually DID hit the market, it promptly became the best selling single mobile device since somebody started keeping records of mobile device sales. Which begs the question: Did the second Apple employee conveniently forget his device on purpose in hopes of duplicating the iPhone 4's success?

I'd bet my house that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs encouraged this sort of thing. Before stepping down last month, he probably emailed his workers with helpful advice nuggets as, "think out of the box," "look at an old product in a new way" and "never be afraid to leave a tip and an unreleased product on the bar at the same time." Apple employees, who would no doubt swallow an entire hard drive if Jobs suggested it, seem to be complying.

Perhaps this is why the support section in an Apple store is called the Genius Bar. It also makes you wonder if some of the biggest flops in history would have met different fates if they had been left in between the pretzels and the cocktail napkins. For example:

A half-eaten McDonald's Arch Deluxe

A can of New Coke

The "Sex and the City 2" draft

Terrell Owens' career

I refuse to let my script end up in some theatrical trash heap. I just need to find the right bar and the right person to discover it. I live in Chicago, a city that certainly has no shortage of watering holes. Website Yelp found 68 bars within a four-block radius of Wrigley Field alone. I've frequented several and, while the bars vary in personality, all seem to contain at least one autographed photo of a Chicago Cubs player who stopped in at some point. (Based on the Cubs' record, these visits most likely occurred before the game.)

My bar will contain an abundance of foreign brews. Who knows? Maybe a deep-pocketed European investor will find the script. It will also have one of those trivia machines perched in the corner. Anybody who feels the need to exercise his mind while drinking could do wonders with my show.

If you frequent karaoke bars, do not look for it. I refuse to let it fall into the hands of anybody who might read it and think that Act Two would improve if a bunch of college-age women started singing Summer Nights from Grease.

Finally, the bar will allow dogs. Anybody who brings a dog into a bar is cool. And the dogs I've met in bars are supercool.

So if you are in Wrigleyville one evening and happen to see a stack of pages containing a mild chicken wing stain sitting unattended, do not toss them out. Make copies and send them to every theatrical agent you know. Google "theatrical agents" if you must.

See you at the Tonys.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Your good health...for 50 percent off

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

Certain things in life should be kept separate. Cheese fries and cholesterol screenings. Fourth-graders and Bachelor Pad episodes. Coupons and medical procedures.

I started thinking about the latter recently when an offer for two one-hour acupuncture sessions graced my inbox. "Try a new tack for beating pain with today's deal: $39 (regularly $145)," the email stated. "Grab this 73-percent-off deal, and stop waiting on pins and needles for your aches to disappear."

I've been getting these "deal-of-the-day" offers since I began subscribing to Groupon, the crazy popular website whose motto apparently is, "You don't need this but hey, it's cheap!"

Since joining Groupon I've purchased a large pizza from a nearby restaurant ($10 off $20) and Sunday brunch from a not so nearby pancake house ($15 off $30). Feeling guilty, I then bought a 30-day Fit Body Boot Camp membership ($187 off $227). I went to exactly three boot camp sessions before realizing that I would eventually need a Groupon for two artificial knees if I kept attending. I called the facility, told the receptionist to keep the 40 bucks and apologized for leaving large amounts of drool on the gym floor. Incidentally, there is now a Fit Body boot camp spot open for anyone who wants to work out to the sounds of an over-caffeinated Bulgarian trainer shouting, "Zat ees not a poooosh up!"

The acupuncture offer did not come from Groupon, but rather from AmazonLocal, an offshoot of whose motto is, "We want a piece of the action!" Seriously, is there any business Amazon does NOT compete with? It's only a matter of time before the site begins selling ballistic missiles to the Defense Department. Twenty percent off plus free shipping! Gift cards accepted!

Even my wife, the consummate queen of bargaining, seemed disturbed that a medical procedure would be marked down. Once on a cruise vacation, I watched her haggle with a 90-year-old Bahamian woman over the price of a straw hat. Out of sheer exhaustion the woman relented, parting with the hat for $8 instead of $10. Triumphantly, my wife returned to the ship and bought a $12 strawberry daiquiri without batting an eye.

But even she pays the asking price for prescriptions, doctor's visits and anything else that involves improved health. Sure, offering occasional blowout sales for surgeries, drugs and the like might curb this nation's health-care crisis but it would also lead to patients defiantly sitting in emergency rooms saying, "They told me it's going to cost $1,000 to close this head wound but I'm sure I can talk them down to $500. Can I get some more paper towels please?"

Lowering the price of anything medical also arouses suspicion that somebody is cutting corners. Fifteen years ago, I heard a radio spot featuring Tiger Woods touting an eye-care center that performed his Lasik surgery and gave him 20/20 vision. I called the center and was told Lasik cost $5,000. I swallowed hard but made the appointment anyway. While I don't have Tiger Woods' bank account, I wanted his eyesight. Unfortunately, years later Woods would realize that even 20/20 vision wouldn't allow him to see everything. A tree, for instance.

Several months after the surgery I saw an ad (much more clearly, thank you) from a competing center touting Lasik for the LOW LOW PRICE OF $99 PER EYE! And another one that screamed, "BUY ONE EYE. GET THE SECOND EYE FREE!" How, I wondered, could a technical procedure such as Lasik come with such a low price tag?

Good question Mr. Schwem. We don't numb your eyes with medically-approved eye drops. Hot sauce works just as well!

Get the point? That's why I just deleted the acupuncture deal. Even though my back is hurting as I hunch over my PC finishing this column, I'm not willing to cure it with somebody who is willing to knock 73 percent off his asking price. I'll find another way to control the pain.

Come to think of it, Sunday brunch always makes me feel better.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Imagining the first Papal tweet

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services


Pope Benedict XVI recently sent his first tweet. Using an iPad.

Before this monumental event, the leader of the Catholic Church had been interacting with his followers via speeches, written by hand and sometimes composed entirely in Latin. But apparently the Information Superhighway now goes directly through the Vatican, as evidenced by a video that showed Benedict seated at a table and tapping out his message while a few other religious higher-ups stood by and nodded in approval.

I couldn't help but note that all appeared to be about the same age as the pope. Certainly these men had not taught Benedict the nuances of tweeting and downloading. No, that task fell to 24-year-old Father Kyle, the youngest, hippest priest in Rome and the only one with a tattoo. The following is an excerpt from Benedict's introductory lesson:

"This is an iPad, Your Holiness. It's password protected, so you need to create a password. Something that's easy for you to remember."


"Unfortunately, Holy Father, it has to be at least six characters."

"Lord Almighty."

"And it also needs a number."


"OK: LordAlmighty1. Can you remember that? I suggest you write it down somewhere. Now you're on your home screen."

"What is Netflix?"

"That's not important, Your Holiness. Well, actually, it is kind of cool. Let's say you want to watch 'The Ten Commandments.' Ever seen it? Awesome flick! With Netflix, you can watch it whenever. Isn't that chill? No more late fees! No more disappointment when you pull up to the Redbox and it's not there!"

"What is 'Angry Birds'?"

"Don't touch that. You have a blessing in two hours and trust me, if you start playing 'Angry Birds,' you will never make it. Cardinal Luke, am I right?"

"Absolutely, Father Kyle!"

"Your Holiness, let me explain Twitter. In simple terms, Twitter is a social network and microblogging service that lets you follow public streams of information."

"I am confused, Father Kyle."

"I can't make it any simpler than that, PB."

"Can I spread the Word of the Lord?"

"You can. In 140 characters or less."

"That does not seem like a lot. Did you attend my last Mass? It lasted at least 45 minutes."

"Well, God created the world in seven days, so really it's all relative. Go ahead and launch the virtual keyboard. Turn the iPad sideways. That's good. Now you see your Twitter feed. Just type what you want to say in the box."

"'Dear Brothers and Sisters. . .'"

"OK, can I stop you there? You're already at 25 characters. Let's shorten it. First, remove the 'Dear.' Now make it 'Brths' and 'Strs.'"

"Don't forget hashtags."

"I was getting to that, Cardinal Matthew. Your Holiness, if you include hashtags, your tweet may become a trending topic. And it will make it easier for people to find you."

"Find me? I'm at the Vatican. I've always been at the Vatican. I'm the only one clothed entirely in white. I carry a cross. Who in the world is having trouble locating me?"

"All I'm saying is that we typed 'Pope' into the Twitter search engine and you weren't even in the top five. But once you start tweeting, you'll be above New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope. And The Pope Family."

"I don't think I like this Twitter stuff."

"Give it a chance, Your Holiness. Imagine tweeting your Easter message. Go ahead. Try it."

"OK. 'He is risen, he is not here. Life and death were locked in combat and Life was victorious forever. All is again orientated to Eternal Life!'"

"That's good...but it won't fit if you include 'Brths and Strs.' Let's make that your second tweet. If we put hashtags before 'Eternal' and 'Life' and the 'at' sign prior to 'death,' you've still got characters left. Anything else you would like to add?

"I do not know. Any suggestions?"

"How about 'OMG'?"

Friday, May 20, 2011

Five Questions for the Tiger Mom

Originally posted in the parenting blog AimingLow

Dear Amy Chua:

I recently purchased your book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother on my Kindle, or as my father-in-law calls it, “my electric book.” At the 32 percent mark, (Kindles don’t use page numbers; instead of saying the book gets good about page 150, Kindle users say, “Hang in there until 41 percent because then it really takes off!) I was blown away to discover that I too was born in the Year of the Tiger, 1962. Furthermore, you said comedian, writer and actor are suitable careers for Tigers. I have in fact been a professional stand-up comedian for over 20 years, dabbled in acting and written a book. Guess that makes me a SUPER TIGER, correct?

Which is why I feel I should at least try this Tiger parenting depicted in your book. The kind that includes no sleepovers, play dates, TV-watching, computer game playing, school play participation and absolutely no grade less than an ‘A.’ The kind that includes making your children practice unpronounceable violin and piano pieces until they have mastered both the music and the pronunciations.

Sure bloggers have called you dysfunctional, and psycho. But I don’t care. We Tigers have to stick together, right?

Like you, I have two daughters. Natalie is fourteen and Amy is eight. Just last night I told them that, starting next week, I was going to become a Tiger father. My wife Sue was born in 1965, the year of the Snake, so God only knows what she’s planning. Amy eyed me suspiciously, wondering if I was going to actually become a Tiger before her innocent eyes. I assured her I was not. If anything, years of bad airport food and idle time in hotels have given me a more “ox-like” appearance.

Natalie was equally clueless as to what exactly a “Tiger parent” was but she was old enough to know it was going to mean something unpleasant. Her fingernails went to her mouth and she began drumming her foot on the floor, two habits borne out of nervousness. I immediately put a stop to the drumming. You would have been so proud of me because, at Kindle location five percent, you said playing drums leads to drugs. Ridiculous, I thought when I first read that. Just ask — uh, wait a minute — uh, just ask Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. Okay, bad example. How about Keith Moon from The Who? Equally bad. What about all the drummers from Spinal Tap? Guess you are on to something, ma’am.

I just have a few questions. Please indulge me:

1) Is it okay to Tiger parent without a nanny? You had Grace, who once calmed your child’s colic fits with “a silken tofu braised in a light abalone and shitake sauce with a cilantro garnish.” My wife Sue and I have neither a nanny nor a Trader Joe’s at our disposal.

2) Your kids played stuff on the piano like "Viotti’s Concerto no. 23 in G Major” and “a toccata by Khachaturian,” whatever that means. We don’t own a piano but we do have an electric keyboard that not only plays musical notes but also make sounds that simulate glass crashing, fireworks, thunder claps and chirping birds. Is it okay if my kids’ concertos include these sounds? Personally, I think a thunder clap in the middle of a Mozart piece would keep the audience awake.

3) What would be a good day to shame our children? I was just 23 percent into your book before discovering “the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.” Their schedules are pretty light on Thursdays. Is that okay?

4) Are my wife and I ever going to get any time alone? Since sleepovers are now verboten, we’re not sure what to do with the kids. Would it be okay if we dropped them off at a symphony or something and checked into a motel for a few hours?

5) Finally, you mentioned that your children had to be number one. You recounted how you rejected birthday cards from your kids because they were lacking in effort. You even talked about how your father said, “Never, never disgrace me like that again,” when you invited him to a ceremony and received a second place award.

So tell me, aren’t you absolutely mortified that your book peaked at number two on the New York Times bestseller list?

I look forward to your answers. Right now I have to drive my daughters to a sleepover. But first we have to find their iTouches.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson, come quick! I need you!

I have just witnessed what is either an enormous advance in medicine, a colossal waste of electricity or the greatest free publicity campaign ever.

And it all took place in under an hour.

I'm referring to the recent Jeopardy match that pitted "Watson," a computer consisting of ten IBM Power 750 servers and cooled by two large refrigerator units, against two past human champions, who sweated profusely under television lights and looked like they would have trouble answering the first question on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

After four years of research by a crack team of IBM geeks, the "very special event," as Jeopardy host Alex Trebek called it, took place at The Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. The phrase, "very special event" should have been my first warning that this was going to be a disappointment. Anybody who has ever heard a sitcom episode promoted with that phrase knows that it involves the show's goofiest character catching a deadly disease but miraculously recovering in 22 minutes.

I tuned in out of curiosity, and because I had recently performed stand-up comedy for the IBM Power Server division. I found the employees to be typical IBMers —hard working and very passionate about what they do. IBMers are extremely dedicated even if they are perfecting, according to a recent ad I saw during a football game, a system that allows carrots to tell truck drivers how fresh they are. In a country where the unemployment rate hovers close to double digits, I'm not sure talking carrots is what we need right now.

Nor was I sure that proving a computer was smarter than Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter was a big deal either. A few years ago IBM proved that a computer named Big Blue could whup chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov but nobody, save maybe Kasparov, seemed effected by that. Would Watson's knowledge of anagrams, Italian Renaissance Architecture, or Famous 18th-century Poets alter history? I was about to find out.

Prior to the match, Trebek re-introduced us to the show's most famous contestants. Jennings, a mild-mannered Seattle family guy won 74 straight games and $2.5 million in the process. Rutter racked up $3.2 million, winning not nearly as many games as Jennings but triumphing in three Jeopardy tournaments. Rutter has since moved to Los Angeles and is trying to make it as actor, something that is much easier when you have $3 million in the bank. That will buy a lot of headshots.

Then we met Watson or, as Trebek pointed out, an avatar of Watson since it was impossible to squeeze ten IBM servers behind a lectern. Together, those servers formed a "deep analytic system that is the equivalent of 2,800 powerful computers tied together in a super high speed network" with a memory capacity of over 15 trillion bytes.


Flashing lights and colored lines danced around the circular-shaped Avatar, giving Watson the appearance of either a ball of twine or air traffic patterns at Los Angeles International Airport. Then Watson actually spoke and explained he was a "deep question answering system." A sunny-voiced female narrator interrupted, saying that the circle was an IBM smarter planet icon and the lines were actually "thought rays" that change color and speed depending on what is happening during a game. When Watson felt confident about an answer, the rays turned green. They turned orange should Watson get an answer wrong, something Jennings and Rutter could only hope for.

The rays moved faster when Watson was working hard to answer a clue. It was, the narrator said with great drama, "the equivalent of watching a computer sweat."

Finally, she explained the answer panel. While Jennings and Rutter would struggle to come up with one answer, know-it-all Watson could search every piece of information fed into it since the Paleozoic era, and narrow it down to a possible three. The choices would be displayed on the panel, along with a percentage representing a "buzz threshold." Where in the world IBM came up with phrases such as "buzz threshold," I will never know. I'll ask Watson should I ever meet it.

Watson, by the way, is neither male or female. Its creators always refer to it as "it."

The narrator ended her explanation by stating the buzz threshold meant Watson "knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn't know."


Now it was time to play Jeopardy. Rutter chose the first answer, Alternate Meanings for $200.

"Four letter word for a vantage point or a belief," said Trebek.

"What is a view?" replied Rutter correctly.

The next answer came from the same category: A four-letter word for the iron fitting on the hoof of a horse or a card-dealing box in a casino."

"What is a shoe?" I yelled from the couch.

"What is a shoe? " said Watson, although its computer animated voice said "shoe" very softly, leading me to believe it was extremely nervous.

I glanced at the rays for signs of sweat but they seemed to be moving normally.

Now Watson controlled the board. What do you know? Watson, on its very first choice, uncovered the Daily Double! Watson wagered $1,000, the maximum allowed. The thought rays danced while Trebek read the answer from Literary Characters APB: "Wanted for killing Sir Danier' Carew: Appearance - pale and dwarfish, seems to have a split personality."

"Who is Sybil?" I yelled.

Watson was not stumped. "What is Hyde?"

"Correct," replied Trebek. The camera cut to a studio audience shot of smug looking suits, smiling and nodding in agreement. I assumed they were IBMers who had something to do with Watson's abilities. Jennings meanwhile looked like he would rather be back in Seattle, undergoing a root canal.

just a few minutes into the game, Watson had $3,200; Rutter and Jennings languished behind with $200 each.

A normal game — consisting of Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy—takes 30 minutes counting commercials. However, the Watson game took two days so IBMers could interrupt and explain their creation more thoroughly. These employees have a few things in common: all are referred to as "doctor" and all have job titles that would probably never appear on a board. Just ask Dr. David Gondek, head of Watson Game Strategy for IBM Research.

Dr. David Ferrucci, Watson Principal Investigator, got the most screen time. "What we've done has the potential to advance science in ways you've never imagined," he proudly stated.

Perhaps but right now it looked like Watson's main intent was to humiliate humans. I found myself rooting for it to make a mistake or, even better, crash! That would prompt a phone call to technical support and force Trebek to ad-lib for three hours as IBM executives waited on hold while the call was re-routed to India.

Watson's first hiccup came mid-way through the first round after choosing Final Frontiers for $400.

"From the Latin for 'end,' this is where trains can also originate," said Trebek.

"What is finis?" said Watson.

"Nooooo," replied Trebek in the condescending tone that he has mastered over 30 years. The camera did not pan to the IBMers in the audience, who were no doubt arguing over who would receive a pink slip the next morning.

"What is a terminus?" corrected Jennings.

We also learned that Watson is not a great listener. After Jennings incorrectly answered, "The 1920s" to a question, Watson rang in and gave the same answer.

"Nooooo. Ken said that," replied Trebek.

By the end of the first round, Rutter was actually tied with Watson, which is like the Washington Generals leading the Harlem Globetrotters by double digits. Jennings was huffing and puffing in third place with $2,000.

The next day it was time for Double Jeopardy and it was here that Watson exerted its superiority. Perhaps the IBM team snuck into the studio in the middle of the night and fed it another trillion bytes of information. Something definitely happened because Watson was unstoppable. It rattled off six straight answers; it uncovered and correctly answered BOTH Daily Doubles. It got the crowd laughing by wagering the strange amount of $6,435. It even began one response by saying, "I'll take a guess."

Who at IBM programmed Watson to say, "I'll take a guess?"

The IBM team eventually explained what Watson was really capable of, particularly in the healthcare field. Watson could help medical professionals extract information to support a hypothesis. In seconds, it would tell doctors the best treatments and outcomes for a patient.

But first Watson had to get past Final Jeopardy. The category was U.S. Cities. However, by this time Watson's lead was insurmountable: $36,681 compared to $5,400 for Rutter and $2,400 for Jennings. As long as Watson was not greedy or incredibly stupid at math, victory would be it's.

"It's largest airport is named for a World War II hero; it's second largest for a World War II battle," read Trebek.

Even I knew this one, perhaps because I live less than an hour from both. "What is Chicago?" I yelled.

Jennings and Rutter knew it too and both doubled their meager scores. Then it was Watson's turn.

"What is Toronto???"

Not only did Watson fail to realize that Toronto is not a U.S. city, but it even wrote numerous question marks after its response, suggesting that it had many doubts. The crowd groaned.

Thankfully Watson only wagered $947, assuring itself of victory. IBM employees and stockholders rejoiced simultaneously.

The three contestants played a second game the following day, this one void of IBM infomercials and explanations of Watson's inner workings. While Jennings and Rutter performed admirably, Watson still came out on top, even answering the Final Jeopardy question correctly.

Now it's time for Watson's victory tour to begin. It is off to Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to determine whether it can in fact, correctly diagnose a patient. I'm 48, in reasonably good health and hopefully won't need Watson's skills for quite awhile. When I am wheeled into the ER, I'm confident that Watson will improve my chances of survival.

As long as it doesn't say "I'll take a guess."