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.