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.