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."