Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Preparing for Doomsday one candle at a time

“Let’s have a family meeting!” I yelled, repeating verbatim what the Salt Lake City father of six bellowed on the television.

“I’m doing homework, Dad,” came the reply from my two daughters.

“NOW!” I said, struggling to keep panic out of my voice. “A biological terror attack is imminent! Forget homework.”

It was the last line that got them downstairs. “What are we doing?” my youngest asked.

“Yeah, what?” my wife said.

“We are prepping for Doomsday,” I said. “I just saw a family on ‘The Today Show’ doing it. I want to drill just like they did. Kids, grab your guns.”

“We don’t have guns,” my wife reminded me. “We have candles.”

“We don’t need candles,” I said. “We need hazmat suits, night-vision goggles, body armor. WE NEED AN UNDERGROUND SHELTER!”

“Sounds cool,” my youngest replied. “Can I watch The Disney Channel down there?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’d rather die.”

“Why the sudden interest in practicing these end-of-the-world scenarios?” my wife asked.

“Haven’t you seen ‘Doomsday Preppers?’” I replied, referring to the National Geographic Channel show now in its second season and featuring normal everyday individuals (by their standards) who routinely train for natural or manmade disasters. After seeing one episode, I realized the heavy-duty flashlight I keep by the bed would not be enough to thwart an avian flu pandemic or ash from an impending volcanic eruption. Preppers are ready for these occurrences and more.

Incidentally, if you ever see an adult holding a Super Soaker squirt gun, stay away. It may be filled with homemade pepper spray. One prepper, drilling for the breakdown of social order following an economic collapse, filled the toy with his own recipe and then demonstrated his ability to unload a few rounds directly into the eyeballs of any neighbors who decide to help themselves to his cache of supplies.

“The Griffiths would never do that,” said my wife, referring to our next-door neighbors. “Then again, Bill might come over for a Doomsday beverage. Better keep a corkscrew tied to your belt.”

“This isn’t funny,” I said. “I just took the Doomsday Prepper survey on the National Geographic website. Guess what our score is?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“We wouldn’t last a week. Not without some fortification, surveillance equipment and at least 1,000 rounds of ammo per family member.”

“Christmas is coming,” my wife replied.

“And don’t even get me started about bartering. The survey says we should have extra alcohol, tobacco and silver on hand so we can trade it with our fellow survivors.”

“That’s great, providing everybody who survives a disaster is a drunk with a hacking cough and a penchant for jewelry.”

“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.”

“Look, honey, I appreciate your intentions. And I agree, we probably aren’t as prepared as we should be. But some of this stuff seems a bit, uh, extreme.”

“Besides, Dad, do you really want to live in a world where everybody goes around assaulting each other with hot sauce?” my daughter asked.

“That sounds yucky,” her sister added.

“So what do YOU think we should do?” I asked my wife, a question I inevitably pose whether we’re choosing wallpaper, disciplining the dog and, now, preparing for the end of civilization.

“I think Hurricane Sandy taught us that, even though we live in the Midwest, it wouldn’t hurt to have a case of bottled water, a full gas can, some nonperishable food items and an envelope full of cash nearby. That ought to be enough to keep this family together.”

“What about an underground, battery-powered bunker?”

“We’re not buying a man cave.”

“OK, but if terrorists ever infiltrate our house, remember, I warned you.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll crack their skulls with a candle.”

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The puck stops here: How to convert your wife to golf

I have a message for National Hockey League owners and players who are currently locked in yet another tussle that threatens to wipe out the entire season:

Take all the time you need. The longer the strike, the more time I have to convert my wife to golf.

I am a hockey husband, married to a woman who clothes herself in pricey Patrick Sharp Chicago Blackhawks jerseys, DVRs every Hawks game including the ones she attends in person, and even tunes her satellite radio to a station that devotes all 24 hours of programming to . . . hockey?

It is almost comical to hear those "hockey jocks" as I call them, discuss a sport that doesn't currently exist. A typical exchange goes like this:

"Jacques, if hockey were being played right now, who do you think would be leading the Western Conference in assists?"

"Pierre, that's hard to say. Had the Canucks played the Wild last night, I'm sure Henrik Sedin would have chalked up at least two."

"Jacques, I couldn't hypothetically agree more! Let's take a break and then we'll have an exclusive interview with an unemployed Zamboni driver!"

I feel up to the golf conversion challenge after seeing an ad for the PGA of America that seemingly aired during every Ryder Cup commercial break.

A 40-ish man sat in front of his television. His equally 40-ish wife implored him to get off the couch by tossing a golf ball in his line of vision, adding that she was ready to learn the game. The husband sprang from the cushions as if struck by a lightning bolt.

Cut to the two suddenly avid golfers taking a group lesson, simultaneously practicing their putting strokes and playfully needling each other as they discovered their new passion for the links.

"Could that be us someday?" I wondered, thinking of the girl who tried the game on our third date but was basically done with it by our fourth. Nearly 20 years later she still rolls her eyes when I "shhhh" any and all family members, dog included, who dare to breathe loudly near the TV while Ian Poulter, Phil Mickelson or any of the game's finest stand over a four-footer.

"They can't hear you. You do know that, right?" she reminds me.

"This is for the outright lead," I say.

"It's golf. IT'S JUST GOLF," is her frustrated reply before leaving the room.

I still harbor dreams that we can be that couple in the commercial, spending our golden years discovering America via the public courses that dot this nation. We'll arrive for an early afternoon tee time, sneak a well-aged pinot noir into our cart and uncork a second bottle as we end our day in an outdoor Jacuzzi overlooking the 18th green.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First I have to convince her that WATCHING golf can be exciting. My opening argument was simple:

"Golf is always on TV somewhere. Ever heard of golfers going on strike?" I asked her.

"They should strike," she countered. "They should demand wardrobe consultants."

Ouch. Two minutes for roughing.

"They look fine, except for Rickie Fowler," I said.

"Why was this Ryder Cup thing so great?" she asked.

Ahhh, the opening I needed. A flicker of interest on her part. "It was the ultimate golf challenge," I said. "Those guys weren't even playing for money."

"So which guy won?"

"No guy won. Europe won. They played as a team," I said. "The U.S. was winning after fourballs and foursomes, but Europecaught up in singles."

"Wait, they hit FOUR balls? The entire hockey season doesn't last that long."

"They only hit one ball each," I replied. Quickly. "They play with partners. Lowest score wins in fourballs. In foursomes they alternate shots. In singles they don't have partners. It's just one against one. Low score wins."

"When you were watching it, all I saw was a guy in an ugly striped shirt picking up his ball."

"You mean the American?"

"I guess. Did he quit? Hockey players don't quit. They pull the goalie!"

"He didn't quit. He picked up his ball because he had already lost the hole."

"When we were dating, you got mad when I picked up my ball."

"As I recall, you did it in the second fairway."

"Why were you weeping when the Ryder Cup ended?" she asked.

"Because Europe came back and won 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

"So you get half a point for quitting?"

"No you get half a point for tying."

"They can tie? There's no tying in hockey. They have shootouts. That's what golf needs."

"What do you suggest? Luke Donald hits a tee shot and Bubba Watson stands in the fairway and tries to catch it?"

"I'd watch that."

"There's still golf on TV through December," I said. Just watch it with me. Please? We'll even drink Pinot."

"OK, hand me the remote."

"That's the spirit honey. Wait, what is this?"

"It's Game Six of the Hawks' Stanley Cup victory in 2010. I never get tired of watching it."

"But, but golf is on. Gimme that!"

Ouch. Five minutes for fighting.

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services



Thou Shalt Not Overlike on Facebook

I have always taught my children to look for the good qualities in everybody. Be nice to people, I say. It’s okay to have lots of friends, I add. If you want others to like you, you need to like them, I conclude.

Facebook, however, disagrees.

Just ask Itheria Hutson-Hollins, a 57-year-old, Dallas-based wedding planner who recently concluded a 30-day Facebook ban for, as she explains it, “over-liking” people.

You can’t find a nicer, more likable person than Hutson-Hollins. Her business, Precious Promises Christian Weddings and Beyond, specializes in “Christ-centered weddings and silk florals.” Her LinkedIn page contains a referral calling her “a talented and creative woman of God.”

A computer novice, Hutson-Hollins has only been using the Internet for five years even though she started her business in 1991. She still uses dial-up Internet access. Yet she was savvy enough to recognize the power of social networking and joined Facebook last spring. After establishing a personal page, she created a business page and asked her church friends to “like” it. Those who obliged, and also had business pages, received a like from her in return.

She expanded her network to include LinkedIn. She joined four LinkedIn discussion groups. Somebody posted a message stating, “Like me on Facebook and I will like you back.” Other group members jumped in with the same offer, as did Hutson-Hollins. She estimates that she “liked” about 60 people.

That’s when Facebook decided Hutson-Hollins was becoming too friendly.

“All of a sudden, Facebook knocked me off,” Hutson-Hollins wrote me in an email. “I actually thought it was my computer acting up. I logged back on. This time they asked me ‘Answer Security’ questions. (I had to answer several including identify(ing) my personal friends. Yes, they flashed photos of my friends. Good thing they were my church members!!!) So, they let me back in.”

Upon returning to Facebook, Hutson-Hollins posted comments on the business pages of those she wished to like. Then things got really ugly.

“As soon as I wrote my comment, and hit the ‘Like’ button, they knocked me off. This time when I logged in, they told me that I was on a 30-day ban for liking too much, and if I continued they would ban me for life.”

A LIFETIME Facebook ban? Seems a bit harsh for a 42-year member of the Westmont Horeb Missionary Baptist Church.

After chatting with Hutson-Hollins, I began scouring the Internet, attempting to find clarification on the “like” rule. Calling Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., is no help as the company does not offer phone assistance. Ironically it does invite callers to “press one for customer support,” before a recorded voice says, in effect, “we’re just kidding.” It’s like placing an order at the McDonald’s drive thru, pulling around to the window and then being told there are no more fries.

“If you can’t find your answers in a forum, you are out of luck,” Hutson-Hollins said.

Facebook does limit the number of business page “likes” to 5,000, a far cry from the 60 that received Hutson- Hollins’ approval. Facebook may also temporarily block users from sending friend requests if too many go unanswered or are considered unwelcome. It’s all part of the social network’s attempts to cut down on spam. But Hutson-Hollins wasn’t begging for friends. Furthermore, anyone with a dial-up Internet connection is probably not interested in spamming. She was simply being the nice Christian person she is by liking other people’s businesses, a gesture that could generate more business for them.

“I don’t want to like anybody I don’t know,” she said.

Now that her ban has been lifted, Hutson-Hollins is back on Facebook but sparingly. She’s currently channeling all her social network energies into Google Plus, Facebook’s chief rival.

“I will leave the page there because it is a business page and I do want business,” she said of her Facebook involvement. “But I’m no longer liking. Now I just write comments.”

Finally, should anyone at Facebook ever pick up the phone, Hutson-Hollins has a message for them:

“If you want to ban me from your Facebook world, fine. You can’t ban me from Jesus.”


Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

Learning to say good-bye to Honey Boo Boo

Ahhhh, another day is complete. Time to flop down in my easy chair and exercise my mind a bit before going to sleep. What materials should I use tonight? My local newspaper? A magazine specializing in international affairs? A whitepaper written by a prominent scholar and downloaded directly to my iPad?

No, tonight I’m going to make it easy on my eyes, allowing my brain to work harder. Picking up the remote, I scroll through the cable offerings until I arrive at The Learning Channel, also known as TLC. Certainly a TV network with “learning” in the title should provide content that expands my intellect, right? Maybe I’ll be treated to a documentary that explores Italian Renaissance paintings and the artists who created them. Or a professionally staged re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg and a debate between two Civil War historians discussing what might have happened had the South prevailed.

Instead, horrified, I discover The LEARNING Channel delivers Southern culture courtesy of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

Suddenly I’ve lost my desire to learn. All I want to do is shield my eyes from everything I see unfolding in front of me. This . . . this . . . thing that passes for a television program, seemingly occupies at least a quarter of The LEARNING Channel’s schedule. Missed Honey Boo Boo at 8 p.m.? Don’t worry, she’s on again at 8:30. And 9. And 9:30. A 6-year old from Georgia and her family have rendered DVRs unnecessary.

“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” which debuted this summer and, on Aug. 30, garnered more viewers than an insignificant little program called “The Republican National Convention,” follows the exploits of Alana, aka Honey Boo Boo, and her family, headed by “Mama” June as they perform educational (remember, it’s the LEARNING Channel) tasks such as participating in a thrift-store auction and celebrating an anniversary at a cafeteria. During one episode — the only one I could stomach — I learned how to spit tobacco courtesy of June’s significant other, Sugar Bear, and how to toilet-paper a house. That was more than I could take. I switched off the TV for fear that continued viewing would eventually cause me to become too stupid to balance my checkbook, operate a computer or dress myself correctly.

Still, like a bad car accident, I couldn’t avert my eyes. I scrolled to The LEARNING Channel On Demand to find another studious offering entitled “Toddlers & Tiaras,” the show where Alana was discovered. I had heard about “T&T” but, like a colonoscopy, kept avoiding actually partaking in it. Until now.

“Toddlers & Tiaras” focuses on parents who enter their kids in beauty pageants and take credit for their success. It is educational if you have always wanted to learn how to apply spray tan to your child using an air compressor, as one father dutifully did with his wife’s blessing. All the kids in the pageants are referred to as “Miss” or “Mister” and apparently every contest includes at least one kid named Chloe.

I watched long enough to see 6-year-old Miss Jayla crowned “Ultimate Grand Supreme,” which sounds more like a breakfast entree at Denny’s. That was enough. I switched off the TV, grabbed a notepad and began my own educational exercise, namely to sketch out programming for a new network called “The Un-Learning Channel.” Its sole purpose is to make everybody forget what they just watched on The Learning Channel, sort of like the neuralyzer contraption in the “Men in Black” movies.

The first program? “There Goes Honey Boo Boo.” The pilot episode features little Alana being sent off to boarding school and not returning until she is 17. Occasionally the cameras will film her doing schoolwork and receiving instruction on the proper use of toilet paper. An added bonus lets viewers vote on what courses Alana should take each year. Except for English, which is always required. Watch one episode of Miss Boo Boo’s current show and you will see why.

Next up? “Toddlers & Their Tiaras Turn The Tables.” Each week focuses on former pageant kids who enter their parents in a contest designed to reveal which participant has the lowest self-esteem. A panel of psychiatrists act as judges, running the moms and dads through a series of challenges, highlighted by the “How Do YOU Like Being In a Swimsuit?” competition. The children, incidentally, are nowhere to be found. While the parents compete, they go to a secluded playground and learn how to act like normal kids.

Anybody have any other programming ideas? Feel free to email me suggestions. I promise to answer all of them.

Right after I watch “Strange Sex” on, you guessed it, The Learning Channel.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Coping with the ravages of SNOT


I dialed the number with my free hand. Unfortunately, the call didn't kick to voicemail.


"Hello, boss. It's Greg Schwem. I can't come in to work today."

"What's the problem this time, Schwem?"

"I have SNOT."

"We have Kleenex in the office. I'll put a box on your desk. See you at 8."

"No, not snot. SNOT. Social Network Overload Trauma. The doctor says I have all the classic symptoms."

"Such as . . . ?"

"Such as the inability to resist joining any new social network that comes down the pike. I feel like social networks have replaced my gym routine."

"Schwem, what are you saying?"

"Today I did 10 sets of three tweets each without a break."

"Very impressive."

"But I wasn't done. While tweeting with one hand, I was using the other hand to let everybody on Foursquare know that I had just checked in at my home office. Then I sent birthday requests to 37 Facebook friends, wished 29 others a happy birthday, wrote in my Tumblr blog and tweeted some more. Then somebody Klouted me."

"Did you report it to human resources? We have very strict policies about violence in the workplace."

"Nobody hit me, boss. I was invited to join Klout. It keeps track of all my social network feeds. So the more active I am, the higher my Klout score."

"And that's where the trauma part comes in?"

"You're catching on, boss. If I avoid all these new social networks, I'll be a nobody in cyberspace. It's not fair!"

"What do you mean, 'SNOT fair'?"

"I didn't say 'SNOT fair.' I said, 'it's not fair.' Hey, boss, can you hold on a second? My Instagram screen just froze."


"Instagram, boss. It's currently the hottest photo sharing website out there. Facebook bought it for $1 billion. So now, in addition to writing updates on all the networks I just mentioned, I have to constantly take photos and upload them to Instagram so people will like me based on the photos they see. Hold it, HOLD IT, my dog is barking at the mirror."

"Tell him to shut up."

"I will. Right after I snap a quick pic."


"Oh, this one is soooooo cute. I'm sharing it now."

"Why are you doing that?

"So others can post it on their social networks. And everybody will see it came from me."

"Let me guess . . . and then your Klout score goes up?"


"Schwem, turn off your computer, take the batteries out of your camera, disconnect your cellphone and get your butt in here now. We have work to do."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, boss. I'm too far gone. Like I said, it's SNOT."

"It's not what?"


"You just said, 'it's not. . .' What isn't it?"

"No, I said, 'SNOT.' The disease. Remember?"

"I don't even know what we're talking about anymore. Schwem, have you considered therapy?"

"I'm trying, boss. I had my first session last week."

"How did that go?"

"Not well. The doctor asked me to lie on the couch and all I wanted to do was photograph it and upload it to the Home Decor Pinterest board."

"That doesn't sound good. Then what happened?"

"He wanted me to open up about my childhood. So I started telling him about all the years I spent playing Little League. But then I suddenly remembered I didn't include 'baseball' as a skill on my LinkedIn profile. He had to restrain me from grabbing his laptop."

"Did he recommend anything?"

"He suggested an intervention."

"How does that work?"

"It's not going to be pretty. It starts with a bunch of friends getting me in a room and telling me I'm not as popular as I think I am."

"Let me know when that's going to take place. I want in."

"I'll tweet you. It may be one of my last tweets."

"Because . . . ?"

"The doc is going to start me on a steady regimen of de-friending, un-following and dis-liking."

"And then you're cured?"

"There is no cure for SNOT, boss. The best I can hope for is remission. SNOT can reappear at any time. Millions thought they had been cured last year. Then Google Plus showed up."

"Schwem, are you ever coming back to work?"

"I have to boss. I absolutely have to!"

"That's the spirit!"

"If I don't, you'll fire me. And then I will have to change all of my business contact information on Plaxo. As well as Ecademy, Upspring, Focus, Biznik, PartnerUp and Ryze."

"Whatever. How will I know when you're coming back?"

"I dunno. Text? Email? Ping?"

"Tell you what, Schwem. Just come over to my house and knock on my door."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Life Isn't Fair When The Ball Goes Foul


The ball towered off White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez's bat. As it began its descent, the occupant of lower box 123, row 11, seat 6 had only one thought:

"That's headed right at me."

Instead of assuming an outfielder's position -- centering myself under the target, left foot slightly forward and gloved hand outstretched -- I began to inch away. I have long ceased bringing a mitt to baseball games and the idea of bare handing a rock-hard baseball has little appeal when you are a writer and earn a living with your fingers.

Luckily, row 11 was empty, save for myself and my buddy Tom, who had scattered left while I went right. It proved to be a good, if slightly wimpy move on my part. The ball bounced directly where my lap and my nachos had just been, caromed backward through a few outstretched hands and somehow rolled back down under two rows of seats, coming to rest directly in front of me. I snatched it and hoisted it aloft, not because I hoped the TV cameras would give me five seconds of fame, but because I had never actually held a baseball that, just moments ago, was being bandied around by the game's finest.

Then I heard the first voice:

"Give it to the kid!"

Another voice, four rows forward, uttered the same words. And then another, from somewhere behind me. The longer I held the ball, the more selfish I was appearing to strangers who, beers in hand, were quickly forming a jury. What would happen if I ignored them and pocketed the ball? My mind raced back to Sept. 19, 2002, when a goon named William Ligue and his 15-year-old, equally goonish son charged onto U.S. Cellular Field and beat up Kansas City first-base coach Tom Gamboa. Was there another Ligue-like fan in my midst?

I looked at Tom, whose eyes said, "Do something. Fast."

I thought about yelling, "Hey, I have kids at home. Maybe they would like this ball." After all, my 10-year-old daughter sleeps next to a puck flipped her way by Blackhawks star Patrick Kane. But would the fans believe me? Would I have to fish into my wallet and produce snapshots or worse, open the photo app on my Smart Phone, wave it around and say, "See? Here they are." Unfortunately there was no time; the demands had become a chant.


I looked further right and saw "the kid," a boy no more than 3 seated between his parents. I hadn't noticed them earlier, most likely because they had improved their seats in the game's later stages. Haven't we all done that at a sporting event?

The kid looked to be in the middle of a serious sugar coma, clutching a licorice rope in one hand and a kelly green squishy baseball in the other. I walked over, tousled his hair and handed him the ball. The crowd cheered. They were happy.

I was not.

"Shouldn't I get to decide what to do with the ball?" I asked Tom. "After all, I caught it."

"Well to be fair, you didn't exactly catch it," Tom replied. "It sort of rolled to you. Besides, what would you have done with it?"

"What's he going to do with it?" I countered. "He'll leave it on his bedroom floor and the dog will be chewing on it the next morning."

"Forget it," Tom said.

"I can't forget it. What kind of message are we sending to kids when we just hand them gifts? He needs to know life isn't that easy."

"So you're saying he should have run over and caught the ball himself? Assuming he took his thumb out of his mouth first."

"All I'm saying is that a baseball game shouldn't come with peer pressure, particularly when the peers are on their fifth Miller Lites," I said.

"You're right," Tom said. "Tell everybody you want the ball back. Walk over to the kid and demand it. I'll film the conversation and we'll split the money when I sell the footage to CNN. You can use your half for medical bills."

"He can have the ball. But mark my words, he's going to turn into another one of those kids who think they are entitled to everything. His parents should have declined my offer. They could have taught him a lesson. I know I've learned one tonight."

"What's that?" Tom said.

"When I win the lottery, I'll never show the winning ticket anywhere near a playground."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Parents: Have your kids had the photo talk?


Recent news events have made it necessary for me to have yet another Big Talk with my daughters.

Both have had the Sex Talk (my wife thankfully handled that one) and the Stranger Danger Talk (I took that one). But now that my 10-year-old is showing an interest in photography, meaning she has discovered the camera on her iTouch, I am forced to sit her down and have the Photo Talk. And it won't hurt her 15-year-old sister to get a refresher course.

Growing up, I never had the Photo Talk. I received a Kodak Pocket Instamatic for Christmas in 1973 and spent the rest of the day snapping pictures of my relatives when they least expected it. I would creep up behind them clutching the flat, rectangular piece of plastic, shout "HEY!" and snap when they turned around. The flashcube, vital unless you wanted to pay for 24 prints of sheer blackness, exploded in their faces. Yet they never demanded I relinquish the film or the developed prints. Back then, incriminating photos were met with gales of laughter, not lawsuits and cash offers. I never thought to take any of my pictures to school and say, "Here's my Aunt Sophie right after she put on her face cream. Let's start the bidding at 50 bucks."

Today the Photo Talk is vital because, next to a driver's license, cameras are a parent's worst nightmare. Tiny lenses seem to be omnipresent. Got an iPad? You have a camera! Got a cellphone? Congratulations! You have two cameras! Got a new washing machine? I'm certain some manufacturer is currently drawing up plans to insert a lens right above the "rinse" button so we can photograph ourselves while applying stain remover.

Since being introduced to the concept of "point, shoot, upload and share," both my daughters have taken thousands of pictures, including self-portraits of their nostrils, molars, elbows and ear canals. Ironically, these are the same girls who threaten to lock themselves in their rooms for three days if my wife and I dare send out the "dorky" holiday card photo we take each year.

Both girls considered their photographic talents to be harmless -- yet until we had the Photo Talk, neither had heard about the exploits of Alexa Dell and Prince Harry.

Alexa is the 18-year-old daughter of billionaire Michael Dell, who pioneered the idea of selling computers over the Internet and also is credited with inventing exorbitant hold times while technical support calls are rerouted to India. I keep trying to add the latter to Dell's Wikipedia page but so far have yet to succeed.

Reports paint Dell as an intensely private man (never mind that his name is on three PCs and two printers in my house) who spends millions on his family's security detail. Unfortunately for Alexa, her allowance may soon be contributing to the security kitty after she allegedly posted photos on her Twitter account, unaware that the sneaky people who run the social networking behemoth have made sure every picture uploaded to Twitter contains other information. The photographer's exact location, for example. It's called geotagging and although it can be turned off, Alexa apparently never figured out how. Neither did her dad's security team; instead they skipped ahead and disabled Alexa's Twitter account.

The Prince, as everyone knows, was photographed in a Las Vegas hotel suite with his hands placed over jewels one won't see in the Tower of London. The grainy image was taken with a camera phone and within days was on display everywhere except milk cartons. I began the Photo Talk by recounting both episodes and then plowed deeper ahead.

"You know that pictures on the Internet are there forever, right?"

"We know, Dad."

"And you know if you're doing something illegal or just plain stupid, somebody could be photographing you, right?"

"We know that, too."

"And you know that if someone else in the picture is doing something stupid, you're going to be guilty by association."

"We know, Dad."

"And never get into a car with someone who offers you candy."

"Dad, you're mixing up your Big Talks."


Finally, I posed a question.

"Why do you need to take and share so many photos?"

"Because it's fun," my eldest responded. "Don't you wish you had Facebook or Instagram when you were in school?"

No, but probably because I wore glasses and braces until I was 17. I would have uploaded all photos of myself to my orthodontist and optometrist along with a message: "ARE WE ALMOST DONE?"

Meeting dismissed, my girls left the room. Like the other Big Talks, I can only hope my words remain in their heads forever. Just as I can't stop them from texting while driving, neither can I stop them from taking part in today's Photography Revolution or other dangers that technology hath wrought.

I just wish today's cameras still needed a flashcube to function.

And I wish each cube cost $250.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

One husband's plan to cut grocery bills in half


I spent the last two weeks faithfully watching both political conventions and, like previous election years, came away with the same three questions:

Exactly who ARE these people in the audience?

What purpose do they serve other than to hoot and holler every time a speaker says, "transformation"?

Why are they wearing funny hats?

I listened as President Obama and Mitt Romney laid out their plans to cut the deficit, put people back to work and find a nice retirement community for Clint Eastwood. Yet once again, neither candidate unveiled a simple solution that would allow the average American family to save more money by cutting their food bills in half. I have the solution and am happy to share it with either man but so far, my phone remains silent.

I'm not asking Americans to skip meals or eat instant oatmeal three times a day. My plan is far simpler. Ready?

Ladies, stop sending your husbands to the grocery store. The reason? Guys always come home with two of everything.

I am guilty of this reckless spending each time my wife pushes me out the door with a list. Mind you, a wife's grocery list is never specific; there are no numbers anywhere on the paper. My wife never writes that she needs "four tomatoes." Instead, she just scrawls "tomatoes."

And this is where the problems begin.

What husband hasn't returned with bags full of groceries and his nose proudly in the air because, yes, he found every single item -- only to see a disgusted look on his wife's face as she unpacks the goods. The inevitable inquisition follows.

"You bought ONE box of tortellini?"

"Yes, the list said 'tortellini.' There it is."

"How am I supposed to make a tortellini salad with one box? Should I just put a note on the bowl that says, 'No more than three noodles please?'"

"I'm sorry, I did not have average tortellini consumption figures at my disposal."

And with that, the husband sighs heavily, grabs his car keys and returns to the store to buy another box, along with a case of beer since we can NEVER have too much of that item in the house.

Recently we hosted a party for 11 adults and five children. The menu -- and the list -- consisted of hamburgers and Italian sausage. Again, no specific numbers, just the items. Armed with those requests, I ventured to the local grocery store determined to get the most and spend the least.

Once inside, I was confounded by questions that invariably pop into my head when seeing the different numerical packaging of each item. Italian sausage comes in packages of eight, while the sausage rolls I selected are six to a bag. A pound of ground beef should make four hamburgers, but what would I do with the remaining buns in the six-bun package? To make things equal, I'd need 3 pounds of ground beef and two packages of buns.

Then I tried to anticipate each guest's culinary preferences. If they all opted for sausage, would I have enough? If they were burger people, would I have to say, "Get in line first if you want one?" If two trains leave Boston traveling opposite directions at 40 miles per hour . . . OK, stop it!

Besides the ground beef, I returned with 24 sausages and rolls. When the party ended, we were left with enough food to invite everybody back the next morning and have a delicious burger and sausage breakfast. But no tortellini salads; we ran out of that.

Maybe I should have gone to Costco. The "purchase two of everything just to be safe" rule never applies there because that would mean buying 6 pounds of salted cashews as opposed to a 3-pound container. Costco items weigh more than some newborns. I recently bought what passes for a "can" of Costco coffee and am confident I will not live to see its bottom.

Whichever candidate wins in November, I'm calling on him to appoint a grocery czar. Sex, race and ethnic heritage are immaterial; he or she simply needs to school the nation's wives in the finer arts of food demands and their other halves into not needlessly emptying the shelves of hot dogs. The savings will be astronomical.

Good thing. Some of those convention hats look awfully expensive.

Monday, September 17, 2012

For all school needs, visit the third house on the left


The first of many knocks occurred last week. I opened the door to see a neighborhood boy wearing a high school football jersey.

"Mr. Schwem, would you like to buy a coupon book to support the Indians? They're only $20."

I dug into my wallet and produced a bill before I even bothered perusing the book's contents. It didn't matter for I knew what was in it: Coupons for restaurants I'd never frequent offering discounts on appetizers I probably shouldn't eat; 50 percent savings on laser hair removal, body waxings, salon appointments and other beauty treatments designed to make me look younger and smoother just in time for the winter heavy coat season; and complimentary admissions to assorted theme parks and arcades that can easily afford to let patrons in for free since they charge double-digit prices for hot dogs.

Ah, yes, the season of school fundraising has returned. It begins the moment the first bus fires up its engine in August and doesn't end until the last notes of Pomp and Circumstance fade from everyone's eardrums. My front foyer is once again a holding area for kids selling not only coupon books but jumbo-size M&M's, thick, lengthy chocolate bars, raffle tickets, scented candles, popcorn tins, cheesecakes and sausage logs. And all of this occurs BEFORE the first Girl Scout, cookie form in hand, finds my house.

In return for my inability to say "no" to any salesperson under 16, I am helping purchase new soccer uniforms, upgrade drama facilities, offer kids the chance to march in the Tournament of Roses parade, and fund myriad other school needs that my taxes apparently don't cover.

This year, I vow not to be such a pushover. No matter how cute the kid is, no matter how well I know his or her parents, and no matter how worthwhile the cause, every budding school-age entrepreneur who approaches my house is going to learn that sales isn't always so easy. Wait, I just heard the doorbell ring.

"Hello, may I help you?"

"Hi, Mr. Schwem, I'm Tim. I'm selling worthless pieces of junk for $100, with all the proceeds going toward speakers for my new car. By the way, my Dad says hi. He's your accountant."

"Here you go Tim. I'll take two!"

OK, bad example. Let's try another one.


"Hello, may I help you?"

"Hi, Mr. Schwem, I'm Emily."

"Do I know you?"

"Um yes. I came to your daughter's birthday party last week."

"Did you bring her a gift?"

"Of course I did."

"How much did it cost?"

"Uh, I don't know. My mom bought it. Probably about 30 dollars."

"So, Mom sent you here to recoup her money, right?"

"No, I'm selling raffle tickets for the school Spanish Club. We're trying to raise enough funds to go to South America next summer and provide several villages with running water. You can also donate a raffle prize if you like."

"Hang on, Emily. I have an old TV in the basement. I was going to sell it at a garage sale but I'm happy to let you have it. It only gets three channels and it has rabbit ears on the top, but it still works, providing you don't mind watching in black and white."

"I don't think we need that. Last year you bought 10 tickets, Mr. Schwem. Remember? You just handed me a blank check and said, 'Fill in the amount. I trust you.'"

"And where did that money go?"

"It helped us build a Habitat for Humanity home in an area devastated by hurricanes in Mexico."

"Can I use the home? Maybe for a week over New Year's?"

"Uh, no, somebody is living in it."

"That doesn't seem fair. By the way, shouldn't you be addressing me in Spanish? The Girl Scouts wear their uniforms when they come to the door."

Se está haciendo de noche y tengo cincuenta casas más para ir.

"What does that mean?"

"It means, 'It's getting dark and I have 50 more houses to go.'"

"OK, Emily, what's the raffle grand prize?"

"Chicago Bears season tickets. And a skybox."

"The Bears stunk last year. What else you got?"

"Second prize is a round of golf at . . ."

"My golf game stinks this year. Next?"

"Every other prize is the satisfaction that comes with knowing you are helping Third World areas have access to basic necessities."

"Does that satisfaction come with a sausage log?"

"Mr. Schwem, do you want to buy a ticket or not?"

"OK, I'll take one. Bend the corner so I'll be sure to win."

"Thanks Mr. Schwem. By the way, I'm also selling magazine subscriptions so the archery team can --"

"Don't push it, Emily."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Is it too late to reconsider Chicago's Olympic Bid?

Now that the Olympic flame has been extinguished and the Royal Family has gone back to doing whatever it is the Royal Family does, Chicagoans such as myself can only ask, "What if?"

What if Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had strutted across the stage at the closing ceremonies and taken the Olympic flag, symbolizing our city as the next host? We wanted it so badly, you know. We thought we had everything -- the venues, the ideal late summer weather, the under-the-table payments -- and yet we lost it faster than you can say, "Usain Bolt." We will never forget watching CNN on Oct. 2, 2009, and hearing the anchor incredulously exclaim, "Chicago? Is out?" For an added kick in the gut, the announcement can be seen forever on YouTube.

From that moment on, we couldn't have cared less. Most Chicagoans still don't know that Rio de Janeiro was awarded the 2016 games; we only know they went to a city "somewhere south of Soldier Field." But now that we've witnessed the London games from our armchairs, we have begun re-thumbing our noses at the Olympic committee and mentally reminding them what they missed by passing us by. For example:

THE OPENING CEREMONY. British film director Danny Boyle did, to use English terms, an "absolutely splendid" job recreating his country's history via the four-hour spectacle that preceded the torch lighting. Chicago could have done the same. But because our bid was ignored, a worldwide television audience will never see how Chicagoans have existed over the years. The live shootout depicting what it was like when Al Capone and other mobsters ran the town would have been awesome. Ditto for the massive amounts of snow we planned to dump on spectators to show what a typical winter is like. Of course the ceremony would have been halted for 45 minutes while politicians argued about who should clean up the white mess but, hey, that's reality in Chicago.

THE BADMINTON VENUE. We learned during the London games that teams were trying to lose. OK, maybe they weren't but they sure looked like they were trying. For that reason, Wrigley Field would have been the perfect badminton arena. We're used to seeing a team losing there -- even when they are trying to win.

TABLE TENNIS. I've been to at least a half-dozen awesome Chicago bars that have ping-pong tables. That's the same as table tennis, right? Any of these could have hosted the world's top athletes. And we would have added a twist by letting all losers compete in the consolation "beer pong" tournament.

BMX. For my money, this was the most entertaining event in the entire Olympics, consisting of eight bicyclists who started a race, only to have two, three and, in one race I witnessed, seven crash into a tangled heap midway through the course. This occurs daily on all of Chicago's major expressways; adding a few cyclists to the mix would have been incredibly easy and cheap.

A BETTER BOB COSTAS. I think NBC's main man was in London too long. Every time I saw him, he was sitting rigidly behind his desk, engaging athletes in stiff, boring banter. In other words, he was acting like a typical Englishman. Holding the Olympics in Chicago would have given our city a chance to rub off on Costas. By game's end, he would have been eating a chili dog and using his sleeve as a napkin while interviewing Missy Franklin. Instead he's headed to Rio, where the only way to improve his demeanor will be to leap from his chair and dance the flamenco.

NO RYAN SEACREST. Chicago residents are tolerant, but we can reach a breaking point. That point would occur the moment we saw Seacrest doing anything other than being escorted to O'Hare by a convoy of Chicago cops.

THE WHITE SOX THEME SONG. When a Sox victory is at hand, Chicagoans have been known to serenade losers at U.S. Cellular Field with the chorus to "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." We would have been only too happy to sing this refrain whenever we sensed defeat, even when a weightlifter is about to lose a battle with a 500-pound barbell.

OPRAH. And finally, even though she's sort of retired and doesn't spend much time in our city, we still could have trotted out Oprah whenever we pleased. Her presence would liven up even the most boring events. Are you listening, rhythmic gymnastics organizers?

Unfortunately, none of this will come to pass. So, good luck to the city that's a few thousand miles southwest of The Billy Goat Tavern. We'll watch, but we will do so begrudgingly. And don't expect boffo television ratings from us. We may have better things to do.

Beer pong, for instance.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

The only word you need to remember is 'Apple.'

I recently purchased an iPad and, like most users, now spend every waking moment perusing the online App Store, randomly purchasing applications that I will use religiously for about 30 minutes, roughly the shelf life of an app before an upgrade becomes available.

The good people at Apple have helped me navigate the half-million apps by grouping them into categories. If I'm feeling out of shape, I can search "Health and Fitness." If my entrepreneurial spirit kicks in, there are thousands of business apps available. Lazy? Just tap "Productivity" apps.

They also have created something called "push notifications." That's the technical term. The nontechnical term is "alerts." The even more nontechnical term is "too lazy to lift a finger to actually open the app." Which is why, when I turn on my iPad, the home screen shows my flight status courtesy of the United Airlines app, while the USA Today app posts Olympics results before I've even had a chance to set my DVR. Thankfully, push notifications can be disabled.

Other companies have jumped on the alerts bandwagon, as well. We can tell our bank to alert us, via email, when mortgage and car payments are due. Or we can just use the automatic withdrawal feature and let the bank remove funds from our accounts once a month in case we forget to read our email.

My wife, an avid jogger, recently purchased a Nike sport watch that tracks every tedious step of her daily journeys. That's a useful feature, but the watch also alerts her that she hasn't run in awhile, even taunting her with messages like, "Ready for another run?" and "Are we running today?"

Nike wisely chose not to include a keyboard on this watch, thereby eliminating the user's desire to type a truthful reply like, "Yes! Running to hardware store to purchase sledgehammer for u."

Personally, I don't need new technology to tell me I'm neglecting exercise. My 20-year-old bathroom scale does that just fine, thank you. But developers hoping to create the next great app for the Apple's App Store seem to think we need alerts to help us remember even the most basic tasks. A great example is Basic Baby Feedings, containing a feature called "Feeding Reminder."

I ask you, who is FORGETTING to feed their baby?

My wife and I have two children, both of whom were born PIP ("pre-iPad" or "pre-iPhone" . . . you choose). Still, we had an app that told us when it was time to feed the baby. It was called THE BABY!!! Our infant offspring faithfully told us when they were hungry, via their lungs. This feature never failed. And the best part? Our kids didn't need to be hooked to the Internet for the alert to function.

Even more strange is that Basic Baby Feedings allows the user to send baby information to Twitter or Facebook. How nice to be able to tell the entire social networking community that yes, you remembered to feed your baby. I can only imagine the responses.

"Congratulations! You are truly an amazing parent!"

Speaking of parents, for couples who are struggling to conceive a child, there's hope thanks to numerous apps that actually alert you when a woman's body is right for conception. However, it might be wise to turn off any sound feature associated with these apps. How embarrassing to have your iPhone ding loudly at a dinner party and then have to explain why the two of you must leave immediately.

Apple customers also quickly learn that being informed often comes with a price. iEarthquake alerts you that an earthquake, tsunami, flood, tornado, cyclone or other cataclysmic event may be bearing down on your area. The app costs $2.99. Or, for free, you could download iEarthquake Lite, which does everything mentioned above with one minor modification: no alerts.

That leaves users with a choice: spend three bucks or get the free version and wonder why everybody in the neighborhood is boarding up their windows and fleeing to higher ground.

As I age, I know I will have to rely on these push notifications more than I care to admit. Just recently I needed the calendar app to alert me to a radio interview that had completely slipped my mind.

Yet even if my memory fails completely, I can say one thing with absolute certainty:

I will NEVER, EVER download Bowel Mover Pro.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Repair My Cell Phone, Repair My Life

I used to think the Department of Motor Vehicles was the best place to find a collection of individuals in catatonic states that cannot be broken, even when an employee says, "it will just be a few more minutes."

Then I visited a cellphone repair store.

The latter occurred while on a business trip to Las Vegas. My loyal Blackberry Bold suddenly turned into the Blackberry Timid. Calls dropped, keys became stuck and the Trackpad was neither tracking or padding. Eventually the Bold froze completely, prompting me to use my lonely in-room phone at the Bellagio to make a 90-second call to a local Sprint store and set up an appointment. Bellagio personnel termed that a "long distance call" and charged me $12.98 even though the store was two miles away. The next time you see the breathtaking and gloriously expensive dancing fountain show at the Bellagio, please silently thank me for my financial contribution.

Once inside a repair store, it's very apparent that all the customers have two things in common: NOBODY dropped their phone and ABSOLUTELY NOBODY had their phone near water. Even if a technician removes the battery and a smallmouth bass swims out, the phone's owner will insist that somebody must have stolen the phone during the night, tossed it in a lake, retrieved it and set it back on the nightstand before morning.

I handed my faulty Bold to an employee, explained the problem and was told to wait a few minutes while a Sprint technician did a "quick diagnosis." That means, "Find out if the customer is lying." I passed that test, as the employee returned shortly and confirmed that no, my phone did not come in contact with water.

But we already knew that, didn't we?

Now it was time to do nothing but wait as the employee said the phone would be fixed within 90 minutes. I took a seat with other customers, some of whom looked like they had been sitting there since Bugsy Siegel ran Vegas. Like Department of Motor Vehicle patrons, nobody leaves because we are all waiting for something we SIMPLY CANNOT DO WITHOUT! In the case of the DMV, it's a driver's license; at a phone repair store it's the ability to play Angry Birds and update our Facebook status from anywhere.

I spent the time eavesdropping as other customers explained their problems. I quickly realized that cellphone owners can be divided into three groups when they enter a repair store.

Group One is the phone "experts" who feel they should be working at an Apple Genius Bar and have the vocabulary to prove it. They recount how they tried to fix their balky phones themselves, dazzling the repair staff with phrases like, "hard reset" and "removed the microSD card." Their problems are almost always fixed when the technician turns the phone off and turns it back on, something the owners neglected to do when they were "upgrading the firmware."

Group Two is the perplexed individuals, almost all senior citizens, who inadvertently opened some program that caused the phone to go haywire. They are still using their cellphones for their original intended purpose -- making phone call s-- and have no idea who Siri is and why she keeps asking questions. Their "broken" phones work fine; what they need is a four-hour class called "Welcome to the Magnificent Age of Technology!"

Group Three is the furious customers, who arrive muttering semiaudible profanities and vowing never to purchase another product from their current carrier. All have made multiple repair store visits and all are demanding to terminate their contracts early. Ironically, all spend their wait time tinkering with the latest and greatest phones in the display area, eventually summoning a sales rep and inquiring about price and activation fees. Most leave with a new phone and a new three-year agreement.

True to Sprint's word, a technician appeared from the mysterious room behind the counter 90 minutes later and proclaimed my phone fixed, without telling me what ailed it in the first place. I eagerly snatched the device and began scrolling via the now-functioning Trackpad, opening 87 emails that had accumulated in the past 15 hours. True, most were touting performance enhancing drugs and stock tips, but it was nice to have the power to delete them.

I left despondent knowing that a cellphone controlled my life, yet relieved that I was once again free to email, text, social network and surf the Internet whenever and wherever.

Good thing. My driver's license is up for renewal.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

'None of your business' makes for good business


I strode into my local dry cleaner and awaited Gary, the proprietor. After a minute or so, he emerged from behind a rack of neatly pressed suits, covered in plastic bags. He was sweating profusely, just one of the downsides of working 12-hour shifts in a summer chock-full of triple-digit afternoons.

"Are you picking up today, Mr. Schwem?" Gary asked. There was no need for me to produce a ticket; after years of service, he knows my name.

"Not today, Gary," I replied. "I just came in to ask your views on the designated hitter rule."

"Excuse me?"

"The designated hitter." I repeated. "In baseball. Are you for it or against it?"

"Well, uh, nobody's ever asked me. Most customers ask if I do alterations."

"Don't change the subject, Gary," I said impatiently. I need to know now. In favor of it or against it?"

"Uh, in favor of it?"


"Wait, where are you going, Mr. Schwem? You've been coming here since 1993."

"True, but I'm not sure I can continue doing business with somebody who doesn't believe the DH cuts down on strategy and managerial decision-making."

"Why are we having this conversation?" Gary asked as nervous perspiration began mixing with the work-related sweat on his forehead.

"Relax, Gary, I was kidding," I said, breaking into a grin. "But I'd be careful about letting your customers know your personal beliefs on hot-button issues from now on. You're aware of the brouhaha at Chick-fil-A, right?"

"Can't say I am," Gary said. "When you run a small business and work 70-hour weeks, you don't always have time to watch the news."

"I'll fill you in," I said. "Dan Cathy, the company CEO and the founder's son, recently stated his opposition to gay marriage. Now gay marriage advocates are demanding boycotts. Social networks are ablaze over his comments. Celebrities are tweeting about it."

"Like who?"

"That guy from 'The Hangover' movie, for one. Ed Helms. He tweeted, and I quote, 'Chick-fil-A doesn't like gay people? So lame. Hate to think what they do to the gay chickens. Lost a loyal fan."'

"I'm confused," Gary said. "Mr. Cathy never said he didn't like gay people. He just opposes gay marriage. I'm opposed to cigarettes, but I'm still friends with people who smoke. And what the heck do Mr. Cathy's political beliefs have to do with his ability to cook a chicken sandwich, wrap it in paper and hand it through a drive-thru window with fries and a Diet Coke?"

"Beats me," I said. "Gary, you're the best dry cleaner in town. I'll keep coming to you even if you favor lowering the drinking age to 12 and support mandatory texting while driving. Nobody gets coffee stains off my ties like you do."

"I appreciate that," Gary replied. "Man, I was nervous for a minute. If it meant keeping you as a customer, I was ready to change my view and say, 'I oppose the designated hitter.'"

"Hey, Gary, did I just hear what I thought I heard?" said another voice.

"Mr. Sullivan. I didn't even see you come in," Gary said. "I have your suits ready."

"Don't play nice with me, buddy. I just heard you say you were against the designated hitter. Apparently you LIKE watching a game featuring pitchers who look like they are defending themselves against imaginary muggers when they swing a bat. I can't believe I've been letting you starch my shirts since 1981. Does the Facebook community know about this?"

"I'm not on Facebook."

"Well I'm going home and creating a Facebook page right now urging everybody not to set foot in this place anymore. Excuse me while I step outside and photograph your establishment."

"You're messing with me, right?" Gary asked, not entirely sure what the answer would be.

"Yeah, I'm messing with you," Sullivan said. "I was outside and heard you talking with Schwem. I feel your pain, Gary. I run a restaurant and I'm afraid to talk with customers about anything other than the daily specials."

"I pride myself on being friendly with my customers," Gary said. "I know their interests, their kids' names, their favorite vacation places. That's why I'm successful. Am I just going to have to say, 'no comment' now whenever somebody comes in and asks me anything non-laundry related?"

"It seems we're heading in that direction." I said.

"Everybody just needs to chill out," Gary said.

"I agree," Sullivan said. "Gary, when you close for the night, why don't you come over to my place for a beer? And a meal. It's on me. Greg, you can come, too."

"That depends," I said.

"Depends on what?" Sullivan asked.

"Artificial turf. For it or against it?"

"Shut up, Greg."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Hershey's Diet: Love, Support and 20 Extra Pounds


I have always fervently supported my children in their extracurricular endeavors. My only rule is that my personal health and safety not be in danger.

With my eldest, now 15, this was never an issue. I felt perfectly safe sitting in the audience watching, listening and occasionally cringing as she labored through piano recitals. Ditto for her various sporting events although often I had to restrain myself from confronting over caffeinated Little League parents. The two years that she spent in competitive cheerleading were a test; several times I was convinced I had suffered permanent hearing loss after spending entire afternoons in gymnasiums pulsating with a combination of hip-hop music and shrieks from mothers whose little darlings had just executed a "round off flip-flop combination," whatever that means.

But my 10-year-old has discovered a new passion, one that I fear will take years off my life if I don't intervene immediately.

She loves to bake. Specifically, she loves to bake desserts.

It started innocently enough. A tin of blueberry muffins here, a batch of chocolate chip cookies there. She looked oh so cute in her little apron while greasing baking sheets. The results tasted delicious, for it's pretty difficult to screw up cookies made from pre-mixed dough. All you need is an adult who knows how to turn on an oven and a timer.

But a recent birthday party netted her a cookbook authored by the Hershey Company. Yes, THAT Hershey. It was actually three separate cookbooks bound into one and it became immediately clear that none of the recipes contained lettuce. Granted, there were a few main-course items sprinkled throughout, but nothing that trainers from "The Biggest Loser" would recommend. Spicy Cocoa Sloppy Joes anyone?

I failed to see the distinction between each book title. "Sweet Treats" was followed by "Decadent Delights," which gave way to "Timeless Treasures." Naturally every recipe contained at least one Hershey's ingredient, easily identified since all were written in capital letters.

Take, for instance, the SPECIAL DARK Truffle Brownie Cheesecake she recently whipped up. Say the name aloud and you can almost feel your belt straining. Even worse, she baked it on a Sunday, when my exercise ritual consists of a two-hour nap in my hammock. Not exactly the proper warm-up for consuming a delicacy that, if you add up the calories, resembles our country's national debt.

As my little girl worked the electric mixer, I glanced over her shoulder and silently read the ingredients: 6 tablespoons of melted butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 2 eggs and 1/2 cup of HERSHEY'S COCOA.

That was just the brownie layer. She hadn't even started on the truffle cheesecake part. Skipping ahead, I saw it contained 3 (!) packages of cream cheese, more sugar, more eggs and more vanilla extract. Add 1/4 cup heavy cream and 2 cups of HERSHEY'S SPECIAL DARK chocolate chips. Then toss in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes and make sure a cardiologist is on speed dial.

I laughed at the last sentence: "Cover and refrigerate leftover cheesecake."

Leftover? Did Hershey really think something like this would go temporarily uneaten? Not when its creator is 10. I ate three pieces because, as I previously mentioned, I am a supportive parent. What choice did I have?

"Daddy, did you really like it?" she asked after I had weakly pushed myself away from the table.

"Like it? I LOVED it," I mumbled, as it's difficult to talk when a layer of cream cheese coats your tongue. "What else is in that book?"

It was like asking Mitt Romney what else he would change about the Obama presidency. Suddenly the floodgates opened as she showed me all the recipes she had marked for future meals. How soon before Thick and Fudgy Brownies with HERSHEY'S Mini KISSES Milk Chocolates graces our table? Or Rich Chocolate Chip Toffee Bars? If I live until Christmas, Holiday Double Peanut Butter Fudge Cookies await.

Realizing that I may have co-created a future five-star pastry chef, I have no choice but to increase my exercise regimen. Twenty minutes on the treadmill has become 30, the spin-class instructor knows me by name and I recently completed a personal-training session with a dude who looks like he's never even heard of the Hershey company.

"Drink lots of water, get plenty of rest and above all, watch your diet," he said.

I'm planning to invite him over for dinner very soon. I dare him to pass on the Fudge Bottomed Chocolate Layer Pie.

The sad,pathetic personality of a computer hacker


My 79-year-old father looked at me through tears of frustration as we sat side by side, staring at his PC. In just 24 hours, he had been shunned by dozens of people who, up until now, he thought were his friends.

"They want me to delete their contact information. They say I'm sending them strange messages," he wailed. "I haven't done anything. I've known some of these guys since we were in the Army!"

"It's OK, Dad," I said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "They'll be back. You just have to politely explain that your email account was compromised."

"It was what?"

"Compromised. Probably by a professional spammer. Maybe you clicked on a link from somebody you thought was your friend and that link was infected with malware. Or maybe a worm infiltrated your system. Or a Trojan horse. Of course it could have been a blended threat..."

"Speak English, boy! "


"Why don't I just call this professional spammer and give him a piece of my mind? What's his number? Who's his supervisor? Should we get the cops involved?"

"The police can't help Dad," I replied. "They can't catch a hacker."

How do you explain to a senior citizen just entering the Digital Age that his life could be turned upside down in seconds by unseen, nameless forces that wreak havoc on computer novices? You know who you are. Some of you are so proud of your useless skills that you post YouTube tutorials detailing how to create a virus. The videos contain your voice but not your face. But even though you hide behind a cloak of secrecy, you are not entirely anonymous. I know things about you. In fact, I know your movements from the moment you wake up. Does any of this sound familiar?

You roll off your floor mattress whenever you feel like it. You have no alarm clock because you are unemployed and have no desire to change your work status. Having a job requires both motivation and people skills. You have neither.

With the touch of a button, you simultaneously fire up all of the computers in your parent's basement, which is where you are living. No need to log onto Facebook because, let's be honest, you have no friends. Your only interaction with humanity comes when dealing with customer service reps from companies selling computer hardware. You need the latest and greatest equipment to continue your evil ways, don't you? Can I ask how you were able to establish credit? Are your parents paying for all of your toys? Or do you live off a trust fund?

Are you going to shower today? Sorry, dumb question. You showered last week. But you can't create fictitious websites without proper nourishment. So head upstairs to the kitchen wearing only your boxer shorts and grab a Red Bull from the fridge. Take a handful of cookies, too. When your mommy asks what you are doing down there, give her the same response you've been using since 1993. You are "doing graphic design."

That's not really a lie, is it? Malicious ads placed on legitimate websites look better if you add a little Flash or Java. Don't overdo it, though. Just make it simple enough so that widow in Ohio will be duped into thinking she's ordering a bouquet of flowers for her granddaughter when, in reality, she's about to begin receiving hundreds of emails from various porn sites. I'm sure you frequent all of them.

Is it 3 p.m. already? Time for a two-hour video game break. I hope you beat your high score on whatever game you are playing all by your lonesome. That adrenaline rush will give you extra energy to finish writing the code for the worm you're creating. Maybe it will make its way to the Pentagon servers. Just think, you and you alone might be responsible for compromising our national security. What if your worm caused us to launch missiles at one of our allies? Neato!

Hold on, you're getting ahead of yourself. Better keep practicing your hacking skills on nice, unsuspecting people who never harmed you and would probably look for positive qualities if they ever met you at a party. But that will never happen, will it? So head over to that gardening newsgroup and upload a document containing the virus that you concocted. Encourage people to open it by attaching it to a link entitled "This article really helped me!"

Time to shut down for the night. Don't get too smug as you close your eyes. Remember that Jacksonville, Fla., resident Christopher Chaney is looking at six years in prison for hacking into the email accounts of Scarlett Johansson and other celebrities. He got caught and so could you. Prison would be horrible, but there are worse alternatives.

Like experiencing a military chokehold administered by a ticked off senior citizen and his war buddies.

Friday, July 20, 2012

To my child, I bequeath the blade


I am a nervous wreck as I write this column. Several hours ago, I heard the garage door open and the engine start. My teenage daughter rolled down the driveway piloting a piece of machinery that I warned could cause serious injury to herself or even innocent bystanders if she isn't careful.

True, she's nearly 16, but she still seems so young to take on this much responsibility. Was she really listening when I explained, in the simplest terms possible, how the engine operates? When I showed her how to read an oil dipstick, she kept rolling her eyes and repeating, "I know, I know."

She had better not be texting while the apparatus is in motion. Listening to music is also forbidden until I am convinced she is a safe navigator. She knows the rules. Still . . .

Where is she? What if she ran out of gas? What if there were a far worse mechanical failure and she's stranded? She knows I'm just a phone call away. Wait, I just heard the garage door open again. There she is, safe and sound. But something's amiss. I can see it on her face.

"What's wrong?"

"I had an accident, Dad."


"I ran over the stupid flowers."


"I'm sorry, OK?"

"Sorry isn't going to bring the geraniums back to life, young lady. Perhaps you just aren't ready to mow the lawn."

Wait, did you think my anxieties had something to do with her motor vehicle skills? Puh-leeze! As soon as she gets her license, I'll let her borrow the family car at will for it's high time somebody besides my wife and I shuttled all her teammates to volleyball practice. But the mower? That's a different story. I am a suburban dad and, by law, cutting the grass is a sacred ritual. Most dads will eventually bestow the blade to our children, but it's not something we easily relinquish. I remember the day my father walked nervously behind me as I navigated row after row of our backyard for the first time. I was 12. Occasionally he yelled encouragement. Sort of.

"Keep it straight, KEEP IT STRAIGHT. You look like you're failing a sobriety test. Never mind. I'll do it!"

And he did. Until I was 13. A year later, I was known as "the neighborhood kid who mows lawns," a title I reluctantly surrendered when I graduated high school. After college, I lived in apartments and mowing duties were handled by various landlords. I was responsible only for maintaining my domicile's interior appearance, which meant I vacuumed once every other month .

But the minute I became a homeowner, I bought a shiny red Toro Recycler Walk Power mower and instantly all those fond lawn-care memories became reality once again. A sun-drenched day, fountains of sweat cascading down my back, and the knowledge that I was shedding a few pounds. Not only is lawn mowing great exercise, but any married guy will admit that it gives us a tremendous excuse to do nothing the rest of the weekend. Ever wonder why you hear so many mowers running early on Saturday mornings?

"Sorry honey, I can't watch the kids, shop for groceries or do anything else that constitutes physical labor this weekend. Why? I just MOWED THE LAWN. Now please keep it down and hand me the remote. Pro wrestling is about to start. Where's my pillow?"

There is also an immense feeling of pride that comes with walking barefoot through the finished product and thinking, "Wow, I did this." I long for my daughter to have similar feelings although I'm certain the only thought that will churn through her brain as she maneuvers the Toro back and forth will be, "At least I'm getting paid."

Yes, mowing the empty lot next to our house, which I recently purchased as a real estate investment, constitutes her initial foray into summer employment. It's a big property -- nearly half an acre- and she's cutting it with a (GASP) push mower as I refuse to purchase a riding model. I have no place to store it during the cold winter months and besides, the "I just mowed the lawn" excuse doesn't work on wives who glance outside and see their spouses doing nothing more than driving a small tractor in circles while drinking a cold beer. It's like saying you're exhausted from playing golf when a caddy sprinted ahead of you, raked the sand traps and picked your ball out of all 18 cups while you drove the cart.

I may never officially retire from lawn mowing. For now it is a shared duty; I mow the established lawn surrounding our home while my daughter mows the empty lot and learns what manual labor feels like. It's grueling yet satisfying.

Come to think of it, so is replanting geraniums.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Please let Lindsay Lohan sleep


Leave it to Lindsay Lohan to give naps a bad reputation.

As a dedicated nap taker, I now fear that my slumber will be violently interrupted by a "concerned" party who jumps to the conclusion that because my eyes are shut in the early afternoon and I am not responding to extraneous noises, then I must be dead or very close to it.

Perhaps I shouldn't be blaming the troubled actress, who lately seems to be responsible for every traffic mishap, nightclub fracas and shoplifting incident in Los Angeles. Instead, I'll channel my anger toward the producers of her latest film. Their anxiety over Lohan's sleep habits recently made the CNN newscrawl. There it was, running right to left under Wolf Blitzer's torso:

"Lindsay Lohan's nap scares producers."

According to various news reports, Lohan was working all night filming scenes from Liz & Dick, a Lifetime movie starring the actress as Elizabeth Taylor. She left the set at 8 a.m. to get some shuteye and didn't answer when film personnel knocked on her Ritz-Carlton hotel room door several hours later. Note the phrase, "several hours later." Normally, several DAYS later would be cause for alarm. But if you are Lindsay Lohan, your handlers fear the worst if you spend more than five minutes in the bathroom. So they decided to rouse her from her nap by summoning paramedics. If I chose this tactic every time I thought my teenage daughter had overslept, paramedics would live in our house.

Lohan was fine; she was suffering from nothing more than temporary hearing loss, deep sleep or an affliction known as "too lazy to answer the hotel room door," which affects millions, me included. Everybody with a stake in Lohan's career was relieved -- with the possible exception of employees at website TMZ, who become positively giddy any time a celebrity is at death's door and probably rewrite Lohan's obituary daily.

The producers of Liz & Dick should be taken to task on two fronts: I'm no actor but I'm sure one needs proper rest to portray a film icon who suffered from, among other things, a benign brain tumor, skin cancer, congestive heart failure, dysentery and phlebitis. More important, a nap should never be construed as dangerous and NEVER should be interrupted. Ask any man.

I am a religious power napper. Almost daily at approximately 1 p.m., I turn off my cellphone, exit my email program, recline my chair, prop my feet on the desk and enter Dreamland. In case you're wondering, I work from home. Power napping in an office cubicle or behind a reception desk is not recommended.

My naps last between 10 and 15 minutes, which means I'm always awake before anyone calls 911 or starts looking for a battering ram. Yet, like Lohan, I have also been known to "nap" for several hours, particularly after a grueling evening. When this happens, everyone in my family is given strict instructions. No running through the house, no yelling outside the bedroom, and no barking, whimpering or scratching at the door. Yes, even the dog knows the rules. I awake when I am darn good and ready and I always feel ready to seize the rest of the day. Isn't that the purpose of a nap for everyone, Lohan included?

Lohan could have avoided all this panic surrounding her sleep schedule had she set an alarm or requested a wakeup call. Granted, hotel bedside clocks can be crazy confusing, with alarm choices that include "radio," "CD," "iPod" and "ocean waves," a selection that plunges me deeper into sleep. A phone call to hotel staff is far easier particularly when you bed down in a Ritz-Carlton, a chain known for basically doing whatever its guest desire. A Ritz employee in Denver once told me that the staff made a snowman for Kobe Bryant just so he could take photos of it for his child. If Lohan had asked the Ritz staff to tiptoe into her room and tickle her feet with an ostrich feather, the general manager would have asked what type of ostrich she preferred.

Clearly, Lohan must be handled delicately right now. Get her a designated driver, show her how to shop online and tout the merits of staying home at night. But please let her nap uninterrupted. Naps are refreshing, therapeutic and perfectly harmless.

They are also legal and of absolutely no interest to TMZ.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Caesar salad will be $10,000


If you dine out regularly in large metropolitan areas, odds are excellent you will eventually encounter a famous person sitting nearby. My recent celebrity sightings include Chris Noth from "The Good Wife" and "Sex and the City" in a Manhattan tavern, Jay Leno in a Las Vegas California Pizza Kitchen and British funnyman John Cleese in a Chicago Pan-Asian establishment.

Embarrassing as it is, I often find myself staring at the celeb, wishing I could pull up a chair and join both the meal and the conversation. And because celebrities are usually quite wealthy, I'm confident I won't have to extend my arm when the check arrives.

Unless of course that celebrity is running for the nation's highest office. With the election season in high gear, be prepared to get stuck with a bill that includes one, and possibly two commas, if your meal companion is named "Romney" or "Obama." Worse, you may still walk away hungry.

Case in point? Mitt Romney supporters recently paid $2,500 each to nosh on teensy hamburgers, aka "sliders," at a Chicago fundraiser.

Sliders? Seriously? I have consumed about 500 sliders in my life, most between 3 and 4 a.m., courtesy of the White Castle hamburger chain. Are they delicious? Absolutely. Nutritious? Highly doubtful. Filling? I would need to eat 20. And if I did, I would pay $13.60, as the price of a slider at my neighborhood White Castle is 68 cents. Cheese is an extra 16 cents. Note to Romney: Should you win, please don't raise the price of sliders to $2,500 even though some are willing to pay it. Most Americans are still trying to stomach $4 gas.

President Obama knows a thing or two about raising bucks through burgers. If he's not collecting $40,000 a plate from Hollywood's elite for a dinner at George Clooney's house, he's willing to dine with ordinary citizens if that's what it takes to pad his campaign coffers.

For the past several months, my web browser has been tempting me to click on a "Dinner With Barack" ad. Finally, curiosity got the best of me and, upon clicking, my PC magically transported me to the Obama campaign website. Yes, it was true. I could actually have dinner with the president if my entry was deemed worthy by the president's reelection team. I could even invite "a guest of my choice." There would also be "four other grassroots supporters" in attendance, according to the site. In other words, no Republicans or fans of Fox News.

The ad featured a photo of the president, shirtsleeves rolled up and tie loosened, sitting at a table with Judy and Mitch Glassman, a Cambridge, Mass., couple who were among the winners of the previous contest, held in March. Either the waitress hadn't arrived with menus or nobody was hungry because there was nary a morsel of food on the table. Not even a slider. Instead all three were having water. The Glassmans also had small glasses of what could have been soda or a nice Chianti.

The president's next dinner contest ends June 30, so time is critical. Those wishing to include a contribution with their entry can choose from amounts ranging from $5 to $500. They can also put an amount of their choice in a very large, prominently displayed box marked "other." Yet the website clearly states that donating to the Obama campaign will not improve your chances of winning. Riiiighhht! And throwing bloody fish guts into the ocean won't necessarily improve your chances of catching a shark.

The mother of all meal invitations -- and meal checks -- occurred recently when an unknown individual ponied up $3 million to join billionaire investor Warren Buffett for lunch at a Manhattan steakhouse. The price was actually $3.46 million; I assume the $46,000 is the waitress' tip.

Buffett has been doing this for 13 years, with all the proceeds going to the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco-based charity he supports. The winning bidder gets to invite up to seven friends, but I doubt they will get a word in edgewise. If I had just shelled out $3 million for a meal, I'd take control of the conversation before the breadbasket arrived. First question? "Mr. Buffett, I'm a little short on cash right now. Do you know of any investments with a return of 300,000 percent?"

So why do people pay exorbitant amounts to dine with the rich and famous? Money manager Ted Weschler might know. He was Buffett's winning lunch bidder in 2010 AND 2011, paying a combined $5.3 million for two meals. Weschsler now works for Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's company.

So if you see somebody hovering near the sliders at another Romney fundraiser, take a good look. It might be his running mate.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Do-It-Yourself Guide To Not Doing It At All


On Father's Day, all dads need to be keenly aware of a very ominous phrase:

Do It Yourself or "DIY" if you are texting.

I'm warning fathers everywhere because many of us, instead of choosing to spend the day playing golf or taking the easy road and WATCHING golf, may opt to tackle that home improvement project we have been putting off since 1987. Maybe it's something as simple as trimming the bushes or painting the porch railing.

Or maybe it is something a little more expansive, a project that will cement our status as the coolest guy on the block because we did it all by our lonesome, saving hundreds of dollars in the process. Neighborhood wives will look at our handiwork, glare at their husbands and say, "Why can't YOU do something like that?"

The DIY label is dangerous because it lulls us into thinking we can actually accomplish something on our own. Usually it is something we have no business attempting. Over the years, I have gone to hardware stores and seen DIY slapped on brochures telling us how easy it is to build a backyard deck. I've seen it on satellite-dish installation kits. Several of my neighbors have dishes, allowing them to receive whatever sporting event is currently occurring on the planet, including senior citizen cricket matches. I thought installing my own dish would be relatively simple until I Googled the subject and realized I could not proceed until I first calculated my azimuth and elevation coordinates, both of which were necessary for aiming the dish toward a satellite floating somewhere in space.

Last September, a 6-ton satellite fell into the Pacific Ocean. At least that's where NASA thinks it fell. No evidence has actually been found. If the space industry's brightest minds can't locate a satellite, how am I supposed to find one? That's why I chose cable instead. The toughest thing to locate when you are a cable customer is the repairman.

When I purchased a swing set for my kids, the salesman said I could hire a three-person crew to install it or I could do it myself. Choosing the latter meant that a truck would dump a large load of lumber and some screws on my driveway and then speed away before I could ask, "Is this the top beam or the bottom?" I wisely employed the crew. Looking back it was probably the best 300 bucks I have ever spent. Defending myself in a lawsuit from an irate parent whose kid was unlucky enough to be on the slide when it collapsed due to my swing set installation ineptitude would have been significantly more expensive.

I found the ultimate DIY project last week while doing some online shopping. Dads, if you wake up on Father's Day and decide this would be a perfect day to become more eco-friendly, then fire up eBay and search, "Wind Turbine Installation Kit."

There, for just $649, a seller will provide you with everything you need to erect one of those oversize windmills in your backyard. According to the American Wind Energy Association, wind currently provides 2 percent of the United States' electricity. But that number could swell to 2.0000001 if a few of us dads put down our Budweisers and exercise a little initiative. Say goodbye to those skyrocketing electric bills, gentlemen; all we'll need keep our beer cold will be a nice steady breeze.

The kit included the following: reinforced fiberglass wind turbine blades, some quadruple layer neodymium magnets, 11-pound magnet wire, a heavy-duty bridge rectifier, some crimp-on ring terminals and a few splice connectors.

Any questions so far?

Oh, sure, we might encounter a few hiccups along the way. But that's what neighbors are for, right? Just walk across the street, find another dad and say, "Jim, can you spare a few minutes to help me align my wind tower?"

Don't count on it. I once asked my neighbor to help me install a ceiling fan and I could almost see the gears spinning in his brain as he struggled to concoct a reason to say no. He relented and helped but it took five hours and I still have yet to experience two of the speeds on my alleged three-speed ceiling fan. Suffice it to say that neither of us have decent wiring skills.

So, dads, before you embark on some technical mission that could result in, at best, a steady stream of profanity and, at worst, paramedics being summoned, remember that some things can be accomplished in solitude more easier than others.

Speaking from experience, I know it takes very little effort to lie in a hammock all day.