Tuesday, March 27, 2012

An ad campaign with no end in sight


My cursor hovers over the "cancel" button. A simple click and I will save anywhere between $200 and $300 per month. If fingers could talk, they would be screaming, "Do it. Do it NOW."

But my brain won't send the downward movement to the fingers. The brain is saying, "Beware. There will be consequences."

The brain is overly cautious because I am considering canceling my monthly payment to Google. And, quite frankly, the idea of crossing Google scares the heck out of the brain, and every other part of my being.

For the past few months, I've been experimenting with Google AdWords. The concept is simple: I create a two- or three-line business ad that appears to the right of Google search results. When somebody searches for something related to my business, hopefully my ad appears and the inquisitive user clicks on it. Somebody at Google (I assume an intern) actually keeps track of the clicks and charges me for each one. I can see the results via a series of indecipherable pie charts and spreadsheets that a senior Google employee dreamed up.

This is the problem with doing business in cyberspace. Sometimes one must make assumptions as in, "I ASSUME nobody is royally screwing me." I'm not accusing Google of any financial hanky-panky, mind you. It's just that after a few months of this "pay per click" marketing campaign, the only thing I can say with certainty is that Google is making a monthly profit off me. An actual customer has yet to step forward and admit that yes, they found me by clicking on my puny Google ad.

So now I'm faced with the frightening dilemma of whether to cancel my AdWords account or, to put it more bluntly, fire Google. Normally I would not give this a second thought. Over the years I've fired accountants, stock brokers, building subcontractors and mechanics. All were let go for the same reason: I wasn't satisfied with the service they were providing.

Unfortunately, my bricklayer does not wield the same power as Google, a company that more or less controls the human race due to the vast amount of knowledge it has accumulated and seems to have no trouble sharing. Want to see somebody's backyard? Google Earth at the ready. Who knows? Maybe Google's satellites can catch the homeowner when she is sunbathing topless.

Any desire to build a weapon out of Christmas lights and a kitchen sponge? Chances are Google has a recipe and can even point you to the closest hardware store in case you are missing a few ingredients. Purchase them with the handy Google wallet and share your creation with foreign bad guys using Google Translate.

This is precisely why I do not want to upset anybody at Google. For if I hit "cancel," I can only imagine what might happen:

An alarm bell will sound in Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Immediately my photo will appear on all employee screens as well as in the Google cafeteria. From there, Google will commence the drill it practices daily. One employee will find my credit card numbers and "accidentally" purchase $250,000 worth of non-returnable lumber from Oregon. Certainly Google knows my address so the delivery truck will have no trouble finding my house and dumping the contents on my front lawn.

When I step outside to complain, Google cameras will stop photographing the topless sunbather and instead videotape my screams, rants and uncontrollable crying. The video will immediately be uploaded to YouTube (conveniently owned by Google) and placed on the home page with the title, "WATCH THIS VIDEO AND THE SCREAMING GUY WILL SEND YOU A FREE IPAD!" My cellphone number will scroll across the screen throughout.

Once I realize Google workers are behind this, I will contact them, most likely from a pay phone. After a lengthy hold time, featuring a recorded message that repeatedly says, "Thanks for contacting Google. We already know why you're calling," a Google operator will inform me that all of this shenanigans will stop if I extend my AdWords account for another month. Or, better yet, sign up for the "five year, direct withdrawal from your back account" plan.

Now my cursor is moving away from the "cancel" button. Instead it goes to the "search" box. I type my own name.

Do I hear a sinister laugh coming from my computer speakers?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Age is nothing more than an intricate equation


The child sat in the grocery cart, happily eating breakfast cereal as his mother transferred items onto the belt. I stood behind them, waiting to scan my purchases: a 12-pack of Diet Coke, coffee filters and a bottle of salad dressing.

"How old is he?" I asked.

"Twenty-two months."

"Nice." I replied. "Don't believe everything you read about the 'terrible twos.' They aren't so bad."

"But he's not two. He's 22 months."

"Sure. Whatever."

Grocery mom didn't realize it but she had just risen a notch on my personal annoyance meter. She was now somewhere between idiots who press already lit elevator buttons and morons who yammer on cellphones in rest room stalls. A simple age inquiry should not require long division. Once a baby turns 1, he or she is ONE. When said baby is 22 months, the age is still one or "almost two."

The conversation ended there. She returned to the belt while I gazed at the latest Whitney Houston conspiracy theory screaming from the supermarket tabloids. The 20-whatever-month-old boy switched from Cheerios to Goldfish.

When I returned home, my wife was in the kitchen. "Did you get the lettuce?"

"The what?"

"I asked you to get a head of lettuce right before you left."

"I didn't hear 'lettuce.' I heard 'salad dressing.'"

"Well it's not surprising, "she said, half-jokingly." After all you're almost 50."

"So what?"

"So that's a half century. Turning 50 is a big deal."

Apparently so, as the subtle reminders are already trickling in. My insurance agent calls more often and sounds almost giddy as he casually tosses out phrases like "long term care insurance." Ditto for the lawyer who prepared my will. My doctor discusses uncomfortable procedures more frequently and more graphically.

I'm sorry, but I'm not in the "big deal birthday" camp. On Sept. 26, I want to awake to nothing more than a few birthday greetings from my Facebook friends. I want to avoid flying that day so a TSA official won't glance at my license, amusingly cock an eyebrow and say, "Please put your laptop in a separate bin. And by the way, happy birthday!" I don't want the entire staff at T.G.I. Friday's to break into song as they parade my fajitas to the table. Yes, I'm 50. Nothing to see here. Can't we move on?

We can, but only if I can make my age as uninteresting and complex as possible. So, as annoying as it is, I'm going to become grocery mom. When somebody asks my age, I will answer in months, not years. Want to know how long I have been on this Earth? Be prepared to have a calculator, an eraser or the latest accounting software nearby.

I've already begun testing my theory that a person's age becomes trivial when math is involved. The other day I took my 79-year-old father to breakfast at Denny's. Upon receiving the bill, I summoned the waitress.

"I think there's been a mistake," I said and then pointed to Dad. "He should get 20 percent off because he's 948 months old."

"Excuse me?"

"Happens all the time. 'Dad, just the other day didn't somebody say you didn't look a day over 828?'"

"Yep," said my father, only too happy to be part of this experiment. "And since I quit smoking, some days I feel like a 420-month-old trapped in the body of somebody who's at least 984."

"Who knows? You might be the first one in this family to reach 1260!" I said.

"I'll get the manager," the waitress replied and scurried away.

Next, I called my dentist to schedule an appointment.

"How long has it been since your last checkup?" the receptionist asked.

"I don't know. I've slacked off a little. I think it's been about 28 months."

"Pardon me?"

"I'm sorry. Twenty-nine. But I haven't had a cavity since I was about 156."

"Why don't you just call us when something hurts?"

"Sounds good to me."

Finally I called my insurance agent.

"Hey Mike, refresh my memory. Does my term life policy expire when I turn 660 or 672?

"When you're 660," he replied instantly. "That would make you 55."

Okay, so it doesn't work on everybody. But I'm still not buying long term care insurance. Even if I live to be 1800.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Owe My Sanity to Google


Whenever I fly, I always scan the passengers boarding the plane and wonder if there is an air marshal in my midst. Is it the gray-haired gentleman carrying the briefcase and texting incessantly on his smartphone? Or is it the twentysomething female watching "Eat Pray Love" on her iPad? Maybe it's the teenager bobbing his skull to whatever is emanating from his headphones. I don't know what the age qualifications are to be an air marshal these days.

Once the plane takes off, I lose interest in my personal game of "Who's Packing Heat?," preferring instead to take advantage of Wi-Fi, should the plane offer it. I now can honestly say that an Internet-equipped airplane saved me from a possible encounter with an air marshal.

The incident occurred shortly after I boarded a flight to San Francisco. Somewhere over Iowa, my seat began vibrating. Gently at first and then more violently until I was forced to hold onto my half empty Diet Coke can to keep it from tumbling on to the floor.

I felt the shaking in my back, then my rear end. Finally my whole body seemed to be one giant tremor. During my first visit to Southern California, I had the dubious distinction of experiencing a minor earthquake. The shaking lasted less than five seconds and I quickly dozed back to sleep but not before thinking, "Californians are such wimps. I can't believe they whine about these things."

But seat 21F felt like being stuck in the middle of a magnitude 9.0 catastrophe. Eventually I realized the source; a foot from the passenger behind me. I hadn't seen that much twitching since Herman Cain was asked a foreign policy question. I am a fairly tolerant flier, but this was too much. I raised up slightly, a necessary maneuver when turning around in an airplane seat. Peering over my headrest, I saw a balding man in his early 30s. He was clearly expecting the confrontation and had his response at the ready.

"Sorry dude. I have restless leg syndrome."

And with that, he returned to his Kindle and his happy foot. Meanwhile, it took all my willpower to avoid replying, "That's weird. I have 'Punch a Guy in the Face Syndrome,'" which surely would have gotten an air marshal's attention.

Restless leg syndrome? What is that exactly? With 250 passengers packed like sardines in a tin can for four hours, who isn't restless? Why is this guy the only one demonstrating?

In situations like this, it pays to have Google at your disposal. I quickly typed "restless leg syndrome" into the search box and discovered that, yes, there is such a malady. It has its own website and even a foundation although both sites refer to it as "restless legs syndrome." Plural. Thankfully, this guy seemed to have the singular version.

Reading further, I discover that RLS is a lifelong condition, runs in families, affects women more than men and makes sleeping and traveling difficult.

For whom, exactly?

Realizing there were three more hours to go, I Googled, "What to do when sitting near somebody with restless leg syndrome?" I received 10.7 million hits and was prepared to read all of them if it would make the shaking stop. But I couldn't find any suggestions for me. Instead, all the articles focused on the restless leg's owner.

I donned headphones and began watching a YouTube video, entitled "How To Cope With Restless Leg Syndrome." Maybe there was something I could suggest to him. The narrator said to try, among other things, magnesium supplements, warm baths, knitting and massages.

So much for that idea. I'm happy to talk to strangers on planes, but massages are out of the question. I glanced at my watch again. Only two hours and 57 minutes to go.

I continued watching and was heartened to hear the narrator say the shaking would probably go away. Miraculously it did, just moments later. I glanced back and discovered the passenger had fallen asleep. I was now free to resume my flight in peace, thanks to a little patience and a thirst for knowledge as opposed to confrontation. If he woke up and started twitching again, I vowed not to go ballistic on him, as I now know that RLS is something that cannot be controlled easily.

Besides, who knows? The guy might be an air marshal.

Birthday wishes for the hard of hearing


I have recently been made aware of how loud certain sounds can be, right down to the exact decibel.

For example, I now know that normal speaking volume is between 60 and 70 decibels while whispers hover between 20 and 30 decibels. I know this because a recent USA Today article detailed how Virgin Atlantic Airways hired a "whispering coach" to instruct crew members in the fine art of softly waking first-class passengers on flights between New York and London. Note to coach passengers: The article stated you will not be receiving similar courtesy, so be prepared for a Virgin Atlantic flight attendant to scream "RISE AND SHINE!" in your ear should you ever doze off over the ocean.

I also know that the average rock concert emits noise volumes somewhere between 110 and 140 decibels. I obtained that information while researching my soon-to-be-15-year-old daughter's sole birthday desire: a pair of hip, trendy and, oh yes, very expensive headphones. When I was her age, I too listened to music via headphones. Of course this was only because I got tired of the inevitable knock on my bedroom door and the command that followed. Both came from my father.

"(Naughty Dad word) TURN IT DOWN!!!"

I rarely heard him as I was too busy listening to my steadily growing collection of vinyl albums. Anything by Journey or Styx really seemed to amplify his blood pressure. Eventually I saved enough cash to purchase a pair of oversized headphones with a black, coiled cord that stretched from my bed across the room to my Radio Shack all-in-one AM/FM stereo with cassette recorder/player. The stereo cost $250; the headphones were 20 bucks.

My daughter's headphones were priced around $300, stereo not included. But who needs a stereo today when you can cram an entire record collection into an MP3 player the size of a matchbook? Gone are the 4-foot speakers that could double as loveseats if flipped on their sides. Today it's all about the headphones. With the proper set, headphone manufacturers insist the listener can clearly make out the triangle AND the piccolo in any of Mozart's symphonies. Don't believe them? Just ask the music celebrity hired to appear in the ads.

And, of course, the last thing I want is for my precious teenage daughter to be deprived of listening to music in the exact vein as internationally renowned rap moguls and rock stars. I was ready to pull out my Visa card.

Then I saw the "safety tips" link on one manufacturer's website.

A pair of headphones shouldn't come with a word of caution, I thought. Warnings are reserved for other products. Extendable ladders, power tools and semiautomatic weapons come to mind.

But headphones?

I clicked on the link and discovered that listening to anything over 85 decibels can cause gradual hearing loss. A handy chart detailing various noise levels accompanied the warning. According to the chart, a food blender's noise level is between 85 and 90 dB.

Now I began getting nervous, knowing full well that most folks probably don't listen to music at margarita mixing levels. Furthermore, does anybody consider a blender to be loud? My dad never stormed into the kitchen and screamed, "(Naughty Dad word) STOP PUREEING!" Surely today's headphones are capable of more.

But how much more? Even though the site listed the noise levels of a garbage truck (100 dB) and jackhammer (110 dB) nowhere did it mention the potential eardrum-splitting capabilities of its product. Imagine that? Instead, it reminded visitors that the headphones currently come in "new limited edition colors" including purple.

I nixed that idea immediately. "I don't want her looking like a bruise," I told my wife.

I found my answer at headphoneinfo.com, proving once again that there truly is a website for every subject in the universe. According to the staff, the headphones in question topped out at more than 110 decibels.

That meant they were not only more costly than the price of a live rock concert, but could be louder. Unless of course your idea of "rock concert" is Neil Diamond.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I asked my wife.

"We'll just tell her to turn them down if we think they are too loud," she replied.

"Wouldn't she rather have a blender?"

"Very funny."

So now I'm preparing for the inevitable: screaming at my daughter from three feet away and warning her that her 15-year-old ears will soon function like 85-year-old ears if she isn't careful.

I already know what her response will be.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thou Shalt Play Nice When Playing Words with Friends


I have recently begun playing Words With Friends, the online letter game that is addictive, infuriating and biblical, all at the same time.

The latter is true because success in the game seems to be driven via Matthew 7:12: "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Words With Friends is nothing more than Scrabble played against an unseen opponent. Or opponents, which is part of its appeal. You can play as many games as you like simultaneously and there is no time limit to each one. Form a word, sail around the globe, return, do some laundry and make your next move. No problem. Better yet, no Uncle Vernon drumming his fingers on the game table and saying, "For cripes sake, I ain't getting any younger here. Play a tile!"

Words With Friends received a recent notoriety boost when Alec Baldwin was kicked off an American Airlines flight for refusing to turn off his cellphone. Reports circulated he was playing Words With Friends, even going into the plane's lavatory to make his next move. I don't blame him; I often do some of my most creative thinking in the bathroom.

On a recent Friday night. I was alone in a San Antonio hotel room playing four games at once. Suffice it to say that I'm not the world's most exciting guy when traveling on business. Sometimes I think Apple should disable all apps on weekends, thereby encouraging its millions of iPhone and iPad users to actually venture outside. Who knows? Maybe we will learn new words in the process. For example, "ennui," defined as "a feeling of utter boredom, weariness and discontent."

My first game was with Andrew, a fellow college alumnus. Four moves into the game, he played "trope," acquiring 28 points due to the triple letter/double word placement on the board.

Words With Friends does not allow players to score points with profanity. Swear words are reserved for its chat feature.

"What the (naughty word) is a trope?" I typed.

"Dunno. Heard it in some discussion section in college," came the reply.

According to Wikipedia, "trope" can mean "a literary technique, plot device, or stock character, or more generally a stereotype."

Armed with that knowledge, I immediately negated his lead with a new word of my own: "tropes."

"Take that (another naughty word)," I typed.

As Andrew pondered his next move, I navigated over to a game with business acquaintance Linda, who had just put the match out of reach with "qi" for 68 points. I assumed Linda suffered from dyslexia.

"I've heard of IQ but not in reverse," I typed exasperated.

"It's a word. Somebody played it on me once," she typed.

For the record, "qi" has two meanings. The first is "the circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things." The second is "a great word for vengeful Words With Friends players."

This is where the Book of Matthew entered my game with Andrew. I returned and saw it was my move. Since Linda was nice enough to introduce me to qi, I decided to polish my halo and do the same to my college buddy. Seeing a "q" in my bevy (good word, eh?) of letters. I quickly played "qi" and fired off a message.

"It's a Chinese philosophy word."

Andrew immediately used my "q" to form "qat." Then came the reply.

"It's some sort of drug."

He was right. "Qat," often spelled "kat," is apparently an East African shrub chewed if your goal is to get high in East Africa.

This time I didn't type a profanity. Instead, I yelled one, loud enough to be heard by tourists visiting the Alamo.

I went zero for four that evening, humiliated by combinations of two- and three-letter words that I could neither pronounce or even recognize. I'm seriously considering storming into my university's admissions office and demanding a refund for my journalism degree. Surely one of my distinguished professors should have mentioned that words such as "zu," "zax," "qis" and "waqf" do exist.

But first I had better stop at church. I need forgiveness.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Unsolved Case of the Missing Lids


The other day a famous Jerry Seinfeld comedy bit popped into my head as I was cleaning my kitchen. It concerned the mysterious disappearance of socks.

"How many times have you done a big (load of) laundry?" Seinfeld asks the audience. "Go to the dryer, take out your socks, count 'em up . . . one of 'em got out."

I would like to extend an invitation to Seinfeld to come to my house, barefoot if he wants, and explain what's been happening to my food storage lids.

These days there is no such thing as a properly packaged leftover in the Schwem household and that's not because our family licks our plates clean, demands seconds, devours those and gives the crumbs to the dog lurking underfoot. We clear the table every night, scrape what wasn't eaten into plastic containers of various shapes and prepare to neatly stack them in the fridge, smug in our belief that we will have a full, easily microwaveable dinner on one of those upcoming evenings when the kids have to be in five places at once.

Unfortunately, that's where this "Leave it to Beaver" scene ends. Whoever is on cleanup duty spends the next 30 minutes loudly rummaging through every drawer in the kitchen, trying to assemble a food storage jigsaw puzzle. Why won't Lid A fit on Container B and what the heck happened to Lid B in the first place? Eventually we give up and cover each container with sorry substitutes such as plastic wrap or tin foil.

Lids are sort of like computers: You have to get new ones every few years. The difference is, my computers don't randomly disappear. Is it due to carelessness, or am I a victim of lid piracy? Should I begin frisking my houseguests before they leave or simply ask them to empty their pockets to prove they are not about to abscond with the round lid that fits a 16-ounce container, the rectangular lid that seals the 8-ounce container or worse, the square interchangeable lid that fits multiple sizes! That one vanished mere days after we purchased it and my father in law has been acting extremely guilty as of late.

Unexplainable lid departure is apparently not a problem that is exclusive to me. Just for the heck of it, I searched "food storage containers" on Amazon and quickly found a 104-piece set from the Imperial Co. Amazon even offered gift wrapping, in case I decide to surprise my wife on our anniversary.

I wasn't concerned with decorative packaging; instead, my eye went immediately to the words on the box: "Storage containers. 104 piece set. Including lids."

The "including lids" phrase was all the evidence I needed. Imperial chose to make lids an actual selling point, proving that food covers are hot commodities. A set of lids should be a given, not an upgrade. You don't purchase a "2012 Honda Accord. Including tires." Know why? Because nobody ever goes into their garage and says, "What happened to my tire? I'm sure it was here last night."

I remember those wonderful days when we, too, had a complete set comprising 15 containers and lids. Now we have 13 containers and two lids.

"Just buy a new set," my wife said.

"No way," I replied. "That wouldn't be fair to the existing containers. Their feelings will be hurt."

And with that, I logged onto eBay and searched "lids for food storage."

I was in luck! Somebody in Russellville, Tenn., was selling single lids for six and eight quart containers. Furthermore, the seller had five available. This person was a lid celebrity.

The price for one lid? $11.66 plus shipping.

The 104-piece set cost $14.99.

Chagrined, I logged off eBay, returned to Amazon and donated $14.99 to the Imperial Co. I should be receiving 104 lids in two to four days. Leftovers will be fresh again, at least for the near future.

Coincidentally, Jerry Seinfeld will be performing in my town next month. Jerry, if you're reading this, come on by and I'll help you write a new bit about this missing lid phenomenon. You can even have dinner with us.

Just don't expect to leave with any leftovers. For your troubles, I'll give you a sock.