Monday, December 26, 2011

Play it!--Guitar Solos, pt. I

People who know me know that the guitar is my number one hobby.  I've been playing in earnest for over 25 years, and as I always say, I should be a lot better.  I don't currently play any better than I did on the leads of this song back in 2003

I mean, I do ok; and I have a style which incorporates a variation of hybrid picking that gives me my own sound.  But besides a failure to practice consistently, I have always had the serious weakness of not learning songs.  I have always been impressed by people who can learn songs, and famous guitar solos.  While I would always want to inject my own "thing" into any song, I do wish that I could play some trademark guitar parts "note for note".  Honestly, I should just dedicate a summer (I am a teacher, and I get long vacations) to doing this.  Style differences don't matter: after all, Eddie Van Halen famously claims to have learned Eric Clapton's solos this way, and there is no hint of Slowhand in Mr. 5150's playing.

Thinking about this made me want to come up with a list of solos that I would like to learn.  They are presented below, in no particular order.  Some would not be all that tricky, others might take a lifetime.  But if I could play these solos, I would really consider myself an adept guitarist.  To other musicians out there, what are the solos you want to learn?

Ok, let's start out with the white whale.  This is probably unattainable, even if I live to be 106 years old. This duet, "Mediterranean Sunset", between fusion master Al DiMeola and flamenco genius Paco DeLucia can be found on the album Friday Night In San Francisco (which also features the legendary John McLaughlin).  I bought this my first year in college and literally wore out the vinyl listening to it.  One of my best friends was a very talented heavy metal guitarist, who used to play me the latest from all of the big haired, spandex clad wielders of Floyd Rose equipped shred machines.  I would play this piece to shut him up.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is one of my all-time favorite simple solos.  I actually figured this one out while writing this post!  Anyway, it is a great love song by Paul McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed", off his first solo album.  The guitar solo is by Henry McCullough and it is nearly perfect.  To me, a great guitar solo needs to be hummable, and have a melody that either complements or transcends the song in which it is encased.  This is one of those solos. 


Another solo that has always totally transfixed me is "25 or 6 to 4" by Chicago, off their second album.  The solo is played by Terry Kath, a seriously underrated guitarist of the late 1960's and early 1970's, who died tragically in a Russian Roulette accident at the age of 27.  Jimi Hendrix famously declared Kath one of the best players of the time.  It is a sad cosmic co-incidence that they both died at 27.  Even weirder is that Kath's widow later married guitar playing actor Kiefer Sutherland who starred in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon, making Kath's "Bacon Number" 2 (mine is 3).  Kath's fills throughout the song seem to emphasize the urgency implied by Peter Cetera's vocals and the horn arrangement.  The solo is a masterpiece of wah-wah infused energy and passion.  This is one of those solos that is a song unto itself. I know there are numerous YouTube pages out there teaching this solo, but I feel like I need to teach it to myself.  But I will probably break down and use them to get me started.  And I don't know what I will need to do to capture the emotional energy of the piece.

 "Rock Around The Clock" is one of the earliest songs I can remember noticing the guitar on (it was the theme of the tv show "Happy Days" , a staple of my youth).  This early rock n' roll song (it is more of a Texas swing/rockabilly hybrid to me) legendarily caused riots among youths in England in the 1950's.  The solo (which is almost bebop in its speed running through the song's chord changes) was recorded by Danny Cedrone, who died shortly after recording this at the age of 33, due to falling down a staircase.  The speed and precision of this solo takes my breath away every time I hear it.  Cedrone was replaced in the Comets (and in the video below) by Fran Beecher, who I used to see shopping at a local guitar shop when I was a teenager.


Sticking with the rockabilly theme, I have always been impressed by players who pluck the strings with a combination of pick and fingers (as I do).  The following video comes from Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads guitar festival, and features several legendary guitarists.  The song is "Mystery Train", made popular by Elvis Presley.  The vocals are sung by Vince Gill, who also picks a breathtaking second solo.  The third solo is played by British guitar legend Albert Lee.  But the fills and the first solo come from the amazing James Burton.  Burton made his claim to fame as a teenager playing on Ricky Nelson's songs (and on tv).  He was one of the first players to substitute thin banjo strings for the then heavy guitar strings, which enabled him to bend the strings like a steel guitar player.  He later directed Elvis's band (which is where Gill's Elvis reference comes in) and also played with Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. I love the "chicken pickin" on display from all the players, where they pluck the strings in a rapid, staccato style.  The players also expertly mix open strings with fretted notes.  I would feel like a complete guitarist if I could master the neck of the instrument like these men can.

One of the early giants of rock/rockabilly was Gene Vincent.   Along with his group, the Blue Caps, he made stirring, stunning music that was danceable but also had a dangerous edge.  Vincent had a tough life.  While in the Navy he suffered grievous injuries in a motorcycle accident.  In 1960, while on tour in Britain, Vincent was a passenger in car alongside teen guitar hero Eddie "Summertime Blues" Cochran.  Vincent's leg was injured again, and Cochran perished.  Four years later, again on tour in England,  Vincent stopped at the Air Force hospital where my father was stationed and asked to see a doctor--Gene wanted his leg amputated.   My father turned him away, only to be surprised that the British nurses were all agog at the rock legend limping away.  Vincent died of an ulcer in 1971 at the age of 36.

The guitar on this song is played by the legendary Cliff Gallup.  Gallup played on a number of Vincent's early hit songs before giving up the rock life to settle down in Virginia and play in his church.  Rock legend Jeff Beck (who was turned onto guitar on Vincent's tour of England) has made the study of Gallup's playing his lifelong pursuit, eventually recording a tribute album, and acquiring one of Cliff's guitars. 


Ok, one more hybrid picker.  Probably my all-time favorite musician, if I had to pick, would be British singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard Thompson.  While I could go on and on about Thompson (I have over 28 hours of his music on my computer), I will save that for another blog post.  In addition to his deeply sad and moving songs, he can also write brilliantly funny tunes, like the one here.  "Tear Stained Letter", which contains lyrics like "My head was beating like a song by the Clash/ Writing checks that my body couldn't cash" or "Well I like coffee and I like tea, but I just don't like this fiddle dee dee/ Makes me nervous, gives me the hives/ Waiting for a kiss from a bunch of fives".  He can also blast epic guitar solos like nobody else.  The extended solo in this version from the 1980's is a great example.  Honestly, (an alternate version of) this song is a great "shut up" tune to play to shredders who have a narrow view of the instrument.  This solo makes me begin to understand the way that saxophonists in the 1940's must have felt about Charlie Parker. This is some serious blowing!

Finally, for me it is impossible to talk about great guitar solos without mentioning Steely Dan.  Not only were their hits staples of Album Oriented Rock stations when I was growing up in the 1970's and 1980's, but their subtly coded (and not so subtly coded) messages of drugs and illicit sex were quite scandalous when I would figure them out.  Steely Dan featured a revolving cast of legendary studio musicians, which helped make each song sound different.  When I was a teenager I got guitar lessons from a local guitar genius who had studied in LA at the Guitar Institute of Technology.  He was deeply into jazz fusion, and turned me on to the deeper coolness of these songs.  

"My Old School", from the album "Countdown to Ecstasy" is a fanciful story about the group's time at Bard College.  Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (now a Defense Dept. contractor) played the lead on this number, featuring great use of pick harmonics.

Elliott Randall  did the amazing lead guitar on "Reelin' In The Years", from 1972's "Can't Buy A Thrill" record.  Randall was a session player who was also the first guitarist in the debut Broadway run of "Jesus Christ Superstar".   The speed and energy of this solo, along with the call and response style make this easy to hum, and the devil to play!  As I've said before, a great guitar solo is like a song in itself, and this solo could definitely stand on its own.

Finally, "Bodhisattva" (also from "Countdown to Ecstasy") and is a warp speed blues featuring solos from Baxter and Denny Dias.  I never get tired of listening to this song.


Well, there they are.  I have more, but I am running out of room.  And my all-time favorite guitar solo ever (David Grissom on Joe Ely's "Letter to LA" off the "Live At Liberty Lunch" record) is impossible to find online in a version I can share with you.  Please write in the comments about songs with your favorite solos!  And keep on pickin'!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mark Lazarus 1953-2012

Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking about how I became the person I am.  We are all the sum of  our experiences, and all of the people we meet in our lives play a role in shaping us.  Having said that, however, some people stand out above all the rest. First of all, it is undeniable that my parents influenced me heavily, especially for my first 18 years .  As a young boy they taught me morals, shaped my outlook on the world, and are largely responsible for the goals that I have set in my life.

For the last two decades it is my wife, Courtney, who has played the biggest role in shaping my personality and character.  I have lived with her since I was 22, and I consider her to be the lodestar of my life.  Her goodness and generosity of spirit have been an inspiration, and give me a lot to live up to.

But to quote Yoda, "there is another". My uncle, Mark Lazarus, has shaped my life in so many ways that, when I tried to count them all, I was amazed.  Just a brief sampling of the things that I do because of him will show the impact he has had on me.  Without Mark, I would not:

  • watch sports
  • play sports
  • research sports history and stats
  • play guitar
  • love classic rock music
  • love Star Trek
there are more, but that should do for going on with.  Mark entered my life when I was very young, and even before marrying my Aunt Lisa he was a fixture (they were college sweethearts who got married in 1977, as soon as Lisa graduated school).  For many years we saw Lisa and Mark nearly every week, even after they moved to Philadelphia and Mark began an arduous commute to Manhattan every day.

 He had season tickets in section 525 behind home plate at Veterans Stadium from the early 1970's until it closed in 2003.  Mark attended virtually every home game every year, and he made a point of bringing me to several games each season as I got older.  Mark kept score at a ballgame using his own, highly detailed system (one that I have tried to teach to others in my turn).  But as much as he hated to miss a single play, he never quibbled about getting up to buy me pizza, hot dogs, and sodas, or to take me to the rest room.  All the while he made a point of teaching me fine points about the game, such as the communication between middle infielders, the positioning of the players, and pitch selection.

Mark took me to my first game when I was four, in what was literally a formative moment for me.  Neither my mother nor my father really cared much for sports, but Mark could tell that I did, and encouraged it all the time.  And since he was my hero, it didn't take much encouragement for me to follow along.  Mark kindly took me to out-of-town parks, including a visit to now-vanished fields such as Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in 1979, Yankee Stadium in 1980, Shea Stadium for the sign day double header in 1982 and Tiger Stadium for my 17th birthday in 1987.  He also took me on overnight trips to Cooperstown during the 1981 strike and to Boston's Fenway Park in 1983, shortly before the birth of his son.  At Boston that weekend, Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski was having the final good series of his career, including a 5-RBI game on Saturday.   As Yaz came to the plate in the fifth, Mark said that if the legend hit a homer, he would name his child "Yaz Lazarus".  Well, #8 hit one to the deepest part of Fenway, missing a homer off the wall of the triangle, and settling for a double.  And that is why my cousin is named Dan.

In 2003, Mark invited me to the final two games at Veterans Stadium.  I have written about this experience elsewhere, but it is safe to say that it was one of the most thrilling and emotional weekends (sports-wise) I've ever experienced.  I am glad that we were able to get some photos to commemorate the experience.  In the picture at right, Mark is wearing his uniform from when he did Phillies "Dream Week", and I am wearing my late father's Phillies cap.  It later got soaked in the rain that fell in buckets that day, and the red color ran all over the P.  So that was the last time that cap was worn.  But I still have it today.

On long drives to ballgames, Mark would often have music playing.  In fact, Mark was the first person I knew with a Sony Walkman ("Take It Easy" by the Eagles was the first song I heard on headphones).  He was a fount of information about progressive rock acts like Yes and Chicago, and of classic rock like Elton John, Billy Joel and most significantly, the Beatles.  I remember being impressed that both Mark AND Lisa had first pressings of the White Album (with the embossed serial number on the front).  I borrowed dozens of his old LP's and they became the cornerstone of my musical appreciation.

As a good child of the late 1960's, Mark had tried to learn how to play guitar, and he gladly loaned me his old instrument when I expressed interest in it in 8th grade.  I played that guitar (with only four strings) for a year before graduating to Lisa's much nicer classical guitar (and lessons) and then to my first real guitar.  And music and guitar are the main hobbies and diversions of my life to this day.  

Mark is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and he often turned his intellect to baseball.  He joined the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), early on, and was published in their journal The National Pastime , as well as in Bill James' Baseball Analyst during the 1980's.  I loved watching Mark do his research (which in that pre-database, pre-computer age, meant reading old issues of The Sporting News and combing the Baseball Encyclopedia), and he could tell.  Mark bought me a book called The Illustrated Book of Baseball Folklore  when I was eight. He inscribed it:

"To Ethan: The best nephew in the world--This is yours to read and enjoy and learn about baseball.  Love Uncle Mark"

Needless to say, I read the book over and over (including once more this past summer).  When Mark's article about HIS boyhood hero, slugger Dick Allen was published in a compilation book by SABR, Mark gave me a copy autographed by himself and Allen.  Mark's inscription read:

"Ethan--To a true baseball historian-- Happy Reading!---Uncle Mark"

By then my path was set.  Mark had given me a membership to SABR when I was 15, and I have maintained it for 27 years.  My first project was to comb the Baseball Encyclopedia for every player born on August 30th (my cousin's birthday).  I went on to write my senior thesis in college, as well as my Master's thesis on baseball related topics.  My favorite moment, however, was  when SABR published an article of mine in The National Pastime and I was able to return to favor and give Mark a copy of the work that he had most certainly inspired.  

When I was young, Mark played in basketball and softball leagues after work.  For reasons not wholly clear to me, the games were played closer to where I lived in Warminster, PA, than they were to his home.  Anyway, I used to love watching Mark get dressed for his games.  There was a ritualistic aspect to his preparations that hinted at a "right way" to do things, and to respect the game.  
Once, when I was 12, I went to one of Mark's softball games.  His team was short players, and faced a forfeit.  I told Mark that I could play, and he trusted me enough to run it past the coach.  The coach, umpire and other team were reluctant to agree, but they relented and I played right field.  I also reached on a walk and a fielder's choice.  After the game, Mark took me to dinner and told me how proud he was when I took the first pitch, stepped out of the box, and got back in for the next pitch.  He said I "looked like a real ballplayer", which meant the world to me.  For years I used to imagine telling this story to Baseball Digest as "The Game I'll Never Forget".

Mark had played baseball for the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (now Philadelphia University), and regaled me of tales of his hippie teammates, running the bases with long flowing locks coming out of their caps.  Years later, when I helped found the Hampshire College Baseball Collective, I took similar pride in my team of hirsute, unconventional-looking men (and women) who respected the game and tried to play it right.   

My family is not very big, and Mark has always been a key part of it.  My father was sick for most of my life, and Mark definitely bridged the gap between uncle/older brother and father figure.  And after my father died, Mark has been the last "older man" left in my life.   I remember when my father had his lung removed when I was in college, Mark had to be out of town on business.  Mark called the hospital for an update, telling the Intensive Care nurse that he was asking about his "brother".  For my whole life my father was estranged from his actual brother, and when he heard about this act of Mark's, my father was moved deeply.  I'll never forget this.  And while Mark is "only" a relative by marriage, I can't imagine my life without him. Even as I have moved into my 40's, I still look up to him. 

When I think about how eagerly I soaked up everything Mark had to give, whether it was baseball (real or Strat-o-Matic), music, or what have you, I sometimes get embarrassed.  It must have felt strange for Mark to see the hero-worship--I know it would for me.  

But he never made me feel odd or uncomfortable.  I never knew the Mark Lazarus who  was "the only white would-be Black Panther" at a "Free Bobby Seale" rally.  I never knew the 18-year old who made the trip to Chicago to stalk Dick Allen during his 1972 MVP season, while wearing his homemade "Dick Allen Superstar" t-shirt.  And the Mark Lazarus who for two decades was on the cutting edge of performance fabric technology and marketing was only a rumor to me. But the Mark Lazarus I have known, the Mark Lazarus who was the best man at my wedding, who taught me a lot about patience, love and devotion, the person who can send me text messages about the Phillies and Eagles while suffering from a particularly awful cancer will always be a huge part of who I am.   

Happy birthday, Uncle Mark!

UPDATE:  On March 28, 2012, Mark Lazarus finally lost his 15-month long battle with cancer.  He was the model of courage and optimism during the entire time.  When I last saw him 10 days before he died, the disease had almost completely taken hold.  But Mark's sense of humor was still there, he still wanted to talk about the Iggles and Phillies, and most of all his concern and love for his family was still front and foremost with him.  58 years was not nearly enough, but Mark made sure to make the most of his time on Earth. I will never stop missing him.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Playlist Posts #1: Songs About The Radio

This is the first in a series of posts that include songs that I would put in a themed playlist.  Consider this an "annotated playlist".  Feel free to include your suggestions in the comments!

Not long ago I was teaching my high school course on American popular culture post-WWII.  The class mainly focuses on popular music, with digressions about television, computers and other technological advances.  One day, while talking about radio, it came out that pretty much NONE of the students listen to terrestrial radio anymore.  They either listen to satellite stations or they listen to streaming music websites or they download music to their iPods.   This was shocking to me.  When I was their age, I listened to the radio every day, and even now I stream my favorite radio station (WXPN out of the University of Pennsylvania) on my computer on a daily basis.

The following songs (in no particular order) are songs about the radio that evoke my memories of listening to the radio all day long when I was young.  I definitely owe my encyclopedic knowledge of "classic rock" to my years listening to  WIOQ, WMMR and WYSP (which sadly just transitioned to the dreaded "sports talk" format).  And the two years when I listed to WRTI (which in the 1980's was America's most powerful jazz station, watts wise) gave me a very thorough familiarity with jazz.  While my listening chops are not sharp anymore, there was a time when I could recognize drummers, bassists, horn players and others without identification.  Why?  Obsessive radio listening!

Al Stewart-- Song on the Radio: I've always loved Scottish folk-rocker Al Stewart.  His songs take an unusual interest in history, which appeals to me as a history teacher. In fact, the essay I wrote to get into college compared his song about the Siege of Leningrad (Roads to Moscow) with a photograph from WWII.  Anyway, this song with the catchy refrain "you're on my mind like a song on the radio" has always struck me as very "true" somehow.  I guess today's generation will miss out on the experience of a station (especially a Top 40 station) playing popular songs over and over again.  I mean, they can CHOOSE to repeat songs whenever they want, but the random nature of a "song on the radio" seems subtly different to me.


Marshall Crenshaw-- Radio Girl: This song is the first of a couple that focus on the listener's relationship with the deejay.  Besides having a beautiful, almost Hawaiian melody featuring slide guitar genius Sonny Landreth, the lyrics focus on the singer's imaginary relationship with a woman disc jockey.   As the song says:

Well I don't know what she looks like
I've never seen her face before.
But I hear her on my radio
From 1 AM til 4.
She's playing all my favorite records
She's telling me the latest news
I take her into my bed each night
And she rocks away my blues
'Cause she's my girl,
My radio girl

I had TWO radio girls.  When I was in high school, circa 1986-1988, I had a total crush on WYSP DJ Debbi Calton that only barely eclipsed my affection for Helen Leicht (then of WIOQ, I listen to her now on WXPN).  Debbi had a great love of rock and roll, a voice that thrilled me, and she did the 10 PM to 2 AM shift, so I listened to her as I fell asleep.  Helen hosted the weekend show "Breakfast with the Beatles", which helped school me on the Fab Four.  One of the things that was especially significant about these crushes was that (pre WWW) it was impossible to know what they looked like.  And while both are attractive women, neither looks at all like my mental image.  Oh well....


Dar Williams--Are You Out There: When I attended Hampshire College in the late 80's and early 90's I managed to broaden my horizons by gluing myself to WRSI out of Greenfield, Ma., one of the first "alternative" rock stations.  I would stay up every night until they signed off at 2 AM to make sure that I didn't miss anything.  Two of the disc jockeys I especially liked were Johnny Memphis and Jimmy Olsen.  It turns out that young folk singer (and resident of nearby Northampton) was listening too.  This song has a slightly more ethereal vibe.  The music is more disturbing, and echoes the words that seem to perfectly capture (to me) the feeling that I had as an awkward, isolated teenager who only cared about music.  To quote the song:

Perhaps I am a miscreation

No one knows the truth there is no future here

And you're the DJ speaks to my insomnia

And laughs at all I have to fear

Laughs at all I have to fear

You always play the madmen poets

Vinyl vision grungy bands

You never know who's still awake

You never know who understands and

Are you out there, can you hear this?

Jimmy Olson, Johnny Memphis,

I was out here listening all the time

And though the static walls surround me

You were out there and you found me

I was out here listening all the time

Last night we drank in parking lots

And why do we drink?
I guess we do it cause

And when I turned your station on 

You sounded more familiar than that party was

You were more familiar than that party

It's the first time I stayed up all night

It's getting light I hear the birds

I'm driving home on empty streets

I think I put my shirt on backwards

Are you out there, can you hear this 

Jimmy Olson , Johnny Memphis

I was out here listening all the time

And though the static walls surround me 

You were out there and you found me

I was out here listening all the time

I know that there were lots of times when "I turned your station on just so I'd be understood
", and I hope that kids today can find someone (not just a music database) to trust--preferably in their real life, but if not, a radio host would do.  It did for me.


Rush-- Spirit of Radio: This song by the mighty Canadian power trio Rush (off their 1980 release "Permanent Waves") is another one that seems to synopsize how radio can come to mean so much to listeners.  Besides having an undeniably rocking syncopated rhthym, the lyrics are very perceptive: 

Begin the day with a friendly voice,
A companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that's so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning mood.

Off on your way, hit the open road,
There is magic at your fingers
For the spirit ever lingers,
Undemanding contact in your happy solitude. 

Anyone who has listened to the radio on a long car drive, or had a bad morning made tolerable thanks to hearing your favorite song can relate to this song.

Another noteworthy part of this song is the cautionary aspect of Neil Peart's lyric.  He seems to worry that the commercial aspects of the music business may put radio in danger.  I absolutely love the line:

One likes to believe in the freedom of music,
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity. 

and not just because of the emphatic "Yeah" singer Geddy Lee adds at the end. 


Bruce Springsteen-- Radio Nowhere: The first single off Springsteen's 2009 release "Magic", this song seems to respond to the previous one by Rush.  The singer is driving through the night, and there is nothing worth listening to on the dial.  The song is one of his all-time best rockers, in my opinion which is suitable considering lyrics like:

I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues

This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?

I was driving through the misty rain
Searchin' for a mystery train
Boppin' through the wild blue
Tryin' to make a connection to you

This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?

I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm


Queen--Radio Gaga: Decades before Bruce's lament, Queen's Roger Taylor wrote this tribute to radio.  Fearing that it would fade away in the face of the superficially more attractive television, Taylor's ode to radio is more focused on radio shows from the pre-tv era, but still resonates with me. 

I'd sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio
The performance of this song at Live Aid was breathtaking to me, as over 100,000 people at London's Wembley Stadium, in an ironic tribute to the power of television, not radio, mimiced the behavior of the actors in the song's video by clapping their hands over their heads during the refrain.


R.E.M.--Radio Song: This last song, from Athens, Georgia's 1980's alt-rockers R.E.M came from their 1991 album "Out of Time".  It daringly combined the new genre of rap, featuring the rapper KRS-ONE (whose acronymic name stands for "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone").  The song is funny, and would seem to criticize people who listen to the radio too much:

Check it out
What are you saying
What are you playing
Who are you obeying
Day out day in?
Baby, baby, baby, baby
That stuff is driving me crazy
DJs communicate to the masses
Sex and violent classes
Now our children grow up prisoners
All their lives radio listeners

Supposedly songwriter Michael Stipe was trying to make fun of people's relationship with radio.  While this song is the most dated sounding of all the ones on this list, I thought it was a humorous way to end this playlist, and to remember not to take things so seriously!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

9/11, 10 Years On

I have nothing meaningful to add to the plethora of efforts to commemorate (or exploit) the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  I was not in the vicinity of New York, Washington or Shanksville, and none of my family or friends were harmed in the attacks.  But like all Americans (and people all over the world) who were aware of the events of the day, I have not been able to forget what happened.  And considering the way that our country has changed since then, I think it is important to look back at that "happening ten years time ago" and, perhaps, see how things could have been different.

In 2001 I was a faculty member at Groton School, about 40 miles west of Boston.   As I walked from my on-campus house toward Chapel that Tuesday morning, I was struck by the absolutely perfect beauty of the sky.  People who know me are aware that when it comes to the scenery surrounding me, I am usually barely sentient.  But the purity of the cloudless blue sky, and the coolness of the air, have stayed with me all these years.  Little did I know that planes leaving Boston's Logan Airport had already been hijacked, and were being diverted through that perfect sky toward their targets.

During the first period of the day I left my office (I was the Academic Technology Manager, which gave me the chance to work with teachers to incorporate technology into their curricula) and went to ask a question of our network administrator.  While we were talking, the head of the math department came into the server room and urged that we turn the tv to CNN.  "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center", he said.  Since his son is an airline pilot, it makes sense that he was particularly attuned to the topic of plane crashes (his sister had called him to deliver the message).  As we were watching, in shock and dumbfounded surprise, we watched the second plane crash into tower 2.  Obviously this has been reshown on television and in movies countless times since then, but I will never forget my first sighting of it.  Watching the fire from the first plane, we naturally assumed that the crash had been an accident, but the second plane crash made all of us jump to the truth of the matter--the crashes were the result of terrorism.

Groton has a lot of students from New York, and I was never prouder of the school than I was that day.  An emergency school assembly was convened, New York area students were approached by advisors, deans, chaplain and headmaster, and we in the technology department tried to find ways to get messages to families in New York, which was difficult as phone lines were jammed.  In the days that followed, as the world tried to come to terms with what had occurred, I remember having conversations with colleagues, family and students in which we all recognized that things would never be the same.  I remember feeling like I finally knew what my grandparents had felt on December 7, 1941 and what my parents had felt on November 22, 1963; and wishing that I still didn't.

I was on dorm duty the next week, and the girls were diligently studying and completing their homework, when I decided to try to put my thoughts down.  Re-reading it now (it is on my website), I can't help but notice the debt I owed to Bob Cringely, and his extremely prescient writing the previous month that "I wonder whether the end of the Cold War may have accelerated this law enforcement trend as intelligence agencies try to stay in business by re-targeting their efforts on terrorism, the new bogeyman." I also can't help but notice the debt (stylistically, if not in content) owed to my rereading of the political essays of Gore Vidal.  Most importantly, I was encouraged to follow the lead of my friend Sascha Fruedenheim, whose invaluable blog often clarifies difficult ideas for me.

This week I was teaching history at Wyoming Seminary, where I have worked since 2003. And I realized that my 15-year old sophomores were about the same age 10 years ago as I was when Richard Nixon resigned, days before my fourth birthday.  Growing up I always heard about "Watergate", and it was clear that post-Watergate America (my America) was different from what came before, but I never knew how.  In fact, the desire to solve this mystery is one of the reasons I became a historian.  So for anyone who reads this, and especially for younger people, I hope it helps show that there was a "road not taken" in the fall of 2001.  At that time I urged travel on the road not taken, and, sadly, that has made no difference at all.

The following is my original post from 2001. Some of the references are dated (such as reminders about the 2000 Presidential election), and some have since turned out to be wrong (such as the reference to Moammar Gaddafi's daughter).  But I still think the world would be a better place if we could all "work to arrive at peaceful solutions based on laws, empathy and compassion".  America will never forget 9/11.  But here's hoping that the next 10 years will enable our country to move away from a perpetual fear and constant war to a more sustainable existence.

Reflections on the Terrorism of September 11th, 2001

by Ethan M. Lewis

Groton, Massachusetts
September 17, 2001

On this, the birthday of the United States Constitution, I find myself reflecting a great deal on the recent terrorism which so calamitously befell America. While the human tragedy is, obviously, the most poignant aspect of this incident, I have been spending most of my time thinking about the choices that our Nation now faces.

To me, the biggest threat these acts of terrorism pose to the United States lay in the dilemma of choosing an appropriate response. It seems to me that such a response could fall along a wide continuum, but that essentially it boils down to two options: revenge, or redress. America has always prided itself as a nation governed by the rule of law. During the past hundred years or so, this has been honored more in the breach than in fact, but it is a conceit that pleases most Americans to believe. Recent Presidents have responded to acts of terrorism with violent retribution (the attack on Tripoli that killed Gaddafi’s daughter [Reagan], the missile attacks on Afghanistan [Clinton], and let’s not forget Bush pere’s war against Iraq, which has yet to abate after 10 years, and has kept the United States on a permanent war footing, almost invisibly to most of the citizens of what we like to think of as our republic.

Although the Constitution clearly gives to the Congress the sole right to declare war, Congress has equally clearly relinquished this right over the last 50 years. President Truman sent us into Korea (another front in a never ceasing war) on the pretext of supporting the UN (a concept that grows more laughable the longer we go without paying our dues to that noble organization). We fought (and lost) a major war in Vietnam on the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which ultimately led to the War Powers Act (which should be unnecessary, but in the end is just pointless, since it is never observed by President or Congress). We invaded the island of Grenada to kill some Cuban engineers, invaded Panama to illegally arrest its head of state (our former favorite drug dealer), and have maintained the war in Iraq on the strength of a resolution (that barely passed the Senate) authorizing the first President Bush to take any action he deemed necessary in protecting our oil vendors.

On September 11 , Mr. Bush’s son stated that an act of war had been committed against America. Obviously forgetting that only nations can commit acts of war (and ignoring the fact that no nation is claiming responsibility for this attack) Bush promised, and has continued to promise, to fight this war wherever it leads us, for however long it takes, just as soon as they can find someone to smack. Resident Bush (I will omit the "P" until he can Persuade at least a Plurality of the Public that he should be the President) seems eager to respond to this act of extraordinary violence in a similarly violent way.

This predilection for violence is almost surprising, considering that the Resident told us, before the Iowa caucus, that the most influential person in his life was "the Lord, Jesus Christ". Bush professes to devout Christianity, but seems unwilling to turn the other cheek, as the Bible urges us. After Pan Am flight 103 was exploded in Scotland, the countries whose citizens were killed worked assiduously to find the people responsible for planting the bombs, strove to extradite them, and tried them in a Scottish court. This is civilized. This shows the primacy of law in our society. On Tuesday, Bush promised to "hunt down" the "folks responsible" for the attacks. Obviously, the people directly responsible are dead, killed in the airplane crashes. Who is left to find? If there are ringleaders still at large, it seems to me that the right thing for a peace-loving, law abiding country to do is find them, and try them for conspiracy to commit murder (and the lesser charges of hijacking, piracy, etc.). Instead, Bush and the Congress have committed America to a long term course of "war" against person or persons unknown. This weekend, Congress passed a joint resolution granting the Resident the right to take any action he felt appropriate to get some revenge. They also passed a resolution granting $40 billion to address the terrorism. While the Office of Management and Budget needs to spell out what they want the money for before they get it, only half is statutorily required to go to relief and reconstruction. Where will the other $20 billion go?

Probably to the erosion of our civil liberties. Much of the money will go to buy mysterious boxes like the "Carnivore" which the FBI wants to put in the office of every Internet Service Provider to eavesdrop on Internet transmissions; or to other means of harassing people. The so called "intelligence" services will probably also gain more resources to increase surveillance on Americans. It is inevitable that domestic travel will be subject to new restrictions and difficulties as a result of the hijackings, and already people who appear to be of Middle Eastern origin, or who worship Allah instead of Jesus have been subject to persecution and it’s slightly more benign twin, "profiling". At his most Fordian, Mr. Bush has promised to "whip terrorism" now. But how is this to be done? How does a society with open borders, paperless domestic travel, and a free press stop an invisible enemy?

And, the most serious question, though it will not be asked by our unelected leaders (by which I refer to the corporate media, as well as Mr. Bush) is, why do we have enemies? On Tuesday, Mr. Bush said, "freedom was attacked", by the terrorists. Such a rhetorical device does not attempt to deal honestly with the fact that America and its bullying foreign policy is hated by the greater part of the world’s people. America isn’t hated because it is free; it is hated because it is the most prominent rogue state in the world. The "sanctions" we inflict on Iraq have been attributed to the deaths of over one million Iraqi children in the past decade. Mr. Bush has threatened Afghanistan for harboring the Bin Laden terrorists; but America is the largest backer of the State of Israel, whose brutal subjugation of the native population of its territory has been censured by the world. (Many are unaware that the United States’ permanent veto has saved Israel numerous times from serious UN sanctions). Americans claim to honor the rule of law, but Mr. Bush is single-handedly reneging on international treaties, our country hasn’t paid it’s dues (over a billion dollars) to the United Nations, and we have backed out of the international war crimes agreement, because the Pentagon doesn’t want to see its future Lt. Calley’s on trial in the Hague.

What is to be done? I wish that the leaders of America would act in keeping with the values that they claim motivate the country. I wish that instead of abrogating treaties (and using the Supreme Court to steal elections) they would work to add strength to a World Court that could mete out appropriate sanctions to international lawbreakers. I wish that the self-professed Christians who run our country would respond to acts of violence not with more violence, but with love. Most of all, I wish that Americans would see this abhorrent act not as a random act of hate by fanatics, but as a response to aggressive acts undertaken by our country. This can be a hard perspective to take, but I think it is necessary. In 1991, I was in Berlin, Germany staying with friends on the night that the allied bombing of Baghdad started. My hostess was very upset (like many Europeans, she was against the war for oil, and like most Germans, she knew enough history to reject the facile comparison of Hussein to Hitler). I came in for the night, and saw her watching television. When I asked what was happening, she said "You’re bombing Iraq". My initial reaction was to deny any complicity, after all, I was against the war, too. But I realized that as an American, the world held us collectively responsible. 

Americans should try to pay more attention to the deeds that are carried out in their name, and participate in the political process that results in the decisions that so enrage our neighbors. To my way of thinking, nothing justifies violence, but it is important that we begin to see these acts of terrorism as reactions to our foreign policy, not random acts by lunatics who are enraged by "freedom". Most of all, I wish that my fellow citizens would see that violent reactions to violence do not solve problems, but merely beget more violence. Making "war" on terrorism will not make airliners or skyscrapers safer. For everyone's safety, we should work to arrive at peaceful solutions based on laws, empathy and compassion.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From Pro Wrestling (Pt. 2--Cage Matches)

As I've already noted in this space, I have been a fan of professional wrestling for over thirty years.  One of the things I appreciate about wrestling is the storyline aspect of a good match.  When things are done right, two grapplers will battle over and over again, sometimes exchanging victories, until there is a final showdown.  This showdown (known as the "blow-off" in wrestling vernacular) is often timed to take place at a major event; which in the case of large national promotions like the WWE,  would be a Pay Per View (PPV) event.

Of course, it isn't always cut and dried.  Many times the rivalry is between a good guy (a "babyface") and a bad guy (a "heel").  In these cases, you can never expect the heel to play by the rules.  Chances are, at some point in the build up he will have won by cheating, perhaps using one of the following methods:
  • using a foreign object, like a chair
  • getting assistance from a partner, a manager, or a valet
  • distracting the referee so that he misses an obvious violation of the rules
Regardless of how it happens, if enough tension has built up between the two wrestlers, the blow-off needs to be something that guarantees a final victory for one of the contestants.  For decades, the best way to ensure this is to have the match take place "inside a steel cage". In a cage match, the wrestling ring is enclosed in a cage, and the victory can only be had by pinfall, submission or escaping the cage.  In many cases the referee is actually OUTSIDE the cage, so inside the walls, anything goes.  

Recently the Sassy Librarian and I got a treadmill for our house. I have come to enjoy using it in conjunction with Netflix on my iPad.  I just set up a video to stream, and the miles go by in a snap.  Today I traversed my 4+ miles while watching WWE: The Greatest Cage Matches of All Time.  I hadn't previously watched any of the WWE sets on Netflix, but I was quite impressed with this one.  It contained a half dozen matches covering the mid-1970's through 2009 (the actual DVD set has many more matches, but this is 2 hours of fun for free).  I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get into the matches, since I wasn't party to the build up of the rivalries, but I was quite wrong.  Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross provided so much plot exposition that I quickly caught on to the excitement. Two matches stood out in particular:

  1.  Lex Luger v. Ric Flair (1990) for the WCW Heavyweight Championship
  2. The Rock v. Triple H (1999) for the WWF World Title

In the first match,  the challenger Lex Luger came down to the ring first, followed by WCW champ Ric Flair.  Parenthetically, I was on an airplane with Flair the previous year, and it was amazing to see him maintain his persona in the airport and during the flight.  He was "stylin' and profilin'" with the flight attendants--it was a sight to see! 

For this match, Flair was accompanied by his valet, "Woman".  Woman later went on to marry wrestler Chris Benoit, who tragically murdered her and their son before taking his own life.  Before the match went on, the referee frisked both wrestlers, looking for foreign objects.  Luger demanded that the ref check Woman, which caused Flair to erupt in anger.  But when a blade was found in Woman's glove, it proved to have been a wise move.  

The cage used in this match was not like the one pictured above--it also had a roof.  There was no way out of this cage--a final victory by pinfall or submission was the only way to win.  As the match began, Ross told us that Luger had only just got out of the hospital, where a knee infection had kept him for the past two weeks.  The announcers wondered whether this would restrict his legendary strength, but when Luger slammed Flair twice with military presses, it seemed that his knee was fine.  This was important, of course, because Flair's most famous move, the "figure four leg lock" was known to target weak knees. 

Luger dominated the match early on, with Flair showing his craven cowardice (like all heels) by trying vainly to escape the steel structure.  During one of these attempts, Luger slammed his head repeatedly ("like a tennis ball" as we were told) into the cage, busting Flair's head open, and making him wear the crimson mask. Eventually Flair turned the tide while working over Luger's knee, illegally using the ropes for leverage while the ref's back was turned.  Then suddenly all Hell broke loose!  Flair's posse, the Four Horsemen ran down to the ring and tried to get into the cage.  And they succeeded!  As the cage rose, they ran into the ring to attack Luger.  Then Luger's fellow "Dude With Attitude", Sting (in real life, business partners in a well known bodybuilding gym in Atlanta) came down with the late "El Gigante" to make the save.  Flair was disqualified, but you can't lose a title by DQ, so he was able to leave with the belt, while making a frightening spectacle (something like the one above) in the post match interview.

What made this match so cool, of course was the swerve. We had been conditioned to believe that the cage was impregnable, and that a final verdict would have to come (and, of course, that justice would be served with a Flair loss), but it didn't happen.   Despite this match being over 20 years old, from a promotion that doesn't exist anymore, I was totally gripped by this match.  The wrestlers (with the help of the announcers and referee) told a great story.

The second match took place in the WWF (now WWE, after complaints from the World Wildlife Fund), during a PPV from Manchester, England in 1999.  This match pitted two "young" (according to JR) superstars against each other, the emerging face hero "The Rock", versus the villianous Triple H.  HHH was affiliated at the time with his real-life girlfriend Chyna, a very muscular female bodybuilder who now does X-rated movies. HHH's name comes from his initials, which stand for "Hunter Hearst Helmsley".  Back in the '90's this was supposed to symbolize his wealth (like Leona Helmsley).  What is ironic about this is that in 2003 he married Stephanie McMahon, whose father owns the WWE.  This marriage was for real, unlike the storyline marriage they had in the 90's.  Now in 2011, HHH is in senior management of the company, and even campaigned heavily for his mother-in-law when she ran for the Senate. During this match, the announcers went back and forth between calling him Triple H and "Helmsley".  Nowadays, while some wrestlers call him "Hunter", the other two H's are forgotten.

Anyway, back to the match.  It was a back and forth affair for quite a long time, with several false-finishes where each man NEARLY, but not quite, escaped over the top of the cage.  At one point, HHH had his head and arms out the door, with The Rock hanging on to his feet.  While the door was open, HHH "accidentally" punched the referee, Earl Hebner, knocking him unconscious.  While the ref lay prone, The Rock managed to escape, earning him the victory.  But the official did not see it!  When Rocky realized what had happened, he and HHH took the match outside the ring, beating each other into the crowd and over to the announcer's table.  Then The Rock grabbed a microphone, and treated us all to a little "Attitude Era" dialogue:  

ROCK: Now The Rock obviously had the match won, but that jabroni, rooty-toot candy-ass obviously didn't see The Rock win.  So before The Rock whips your monkey-ass some more, in front of all of his fans, The People's Champ's got a little gift, compliments of The Rock and the fans of Birmingham...

FANS: (cheer)

HHH: (rolls around barely conscious)

ROCK: (picks up a chair, and beats HHH over the head)

JIM ROSS: Oh my God!  Great God Almighty! The Rock just hit HHH with a steel chair!

ROCK: (putting on announcer's headphones conveniently waiting for him): You're damn right that's what The Rock did.  That's exactly what The Rock does best: lays the smack down on his candy ass! Look at his ass!  There's the blood---the blood of HHH.  It's not the People's blood; it's monkey piss!  Monkey piss is oozing out of his head! Come here jabroni!  Have some more you sonofabitch (slamming HHH into the tv monitor). What do you think of that?

And then, after setting HHH ("deeply lacerated") onto the announce table, The Rock climbed onto the ring apron and leaped onto HHH, shattering the table.

At this point, The Rock  (to loud "Rocky Rocky") chants dragged his opponent back into the ring, while Hebner slowly regained his consciousness.  Then, just as The Rock had nearly climbed out of the cage, out of the back came England's own British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith! The Bulldog was a heel at this time, and he began fighting with The Rock. And then Shane McMahon (now HHH's real life brother-in-law) came down and assaulted the Bulldog, until he was viciously bodyslammed onto the concrete floor.  Then the British Bulldog went into the ring to keep fighting the Rock, while Chyna came down to help.  At one point she slammed the door into The Rock's face so hard that the whole cage shuddered--pretty sick!  While The Rock was being assaulted by the Bulldog, HHH escaped the cage over the top.  

Then, to cap things off, while a bloody HHH was celebrating with Chyna, a pissed-off looking Vince McMahon (who at that time was a regular character on the show, as well as real-life boss) stalked to the ring, and padlocked the door while The Rock and the Bulldog were inside!  At that point The Rock proceeded to beat Davey Boy senseless, ending the match with his trademark raised eyebrow.

What made this match so engaging was that it was kind of like two matches in one.  As Jim Ross noted, "The Rock had this match won twice", but to no avail.  We were treated to two (at least) cage matches AND the brawl outside.  And while The Rock and his fans got satisfaction from his pummeling HHH, the heel still left with the gold.  While contemporary viewers were ensured further storyline development for the coming weeks, this match is great on its own.  With excitement, brutality and two wrestlers fully exploiting their characters, this was a lot of fun to watch.


This video was very enjoyable (the multi-DVD set might be better) to watch, and you'll get to see some fine matches.  One of the great things about professional wrestling is that the more often you watch, the more conditioned you are to certain tropes of dialogue, movements and match outcomes.  But skillful wrestlers will always find a way to surprise viewers and confound their expectations.  That's why I'll never stop watching.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I, Robot?

 I've always loved science fiction.  Full disclosure time here: I just spent hours trying to make my iPad look like a PADD from Star Trek!  Anyway, as a young person I spent a lot of time watching Star Trek and Jetsons reruns.   To the point that I found it very depressing that we didn't have rocket jet packs by the year 2000.  Another feature of sci- fi that always interested me was the idea of a future where robots would be our servants and humans would be freed from the mundane aspects of life.

Of course, everyone shared this belief.  I mean, Ringo even wanted Gort to become the fifth Beatle, if the album cover at left tells us anything.  And who can blame him?  Everyone wants a piece of famous robots.  To people growing up in the 1970's, the most compelling characters of the Star Wars movies were R2D2 and C3P0.  You can buy a replica R2 unit for yourself from high-end retailers, and women can even purchase the most un-sexy bathing suits of all time, if they so choose.

But let's be honest: to be able to delegate mundane tasks to a robot just makes so much sense.  This, of course, is why modern industrial robots (and there are over 8 million of them) have increased manufacturing efficiency (at the cost of jobs for real humans, of course). 

I've been particularly interested in this since my first visit to the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana in the early '90's. First of all, if you have the chance to go to a car factory, you really should.  They are massive places, and you can actually watch a car go from random pieces of metal to driving out the door.  And besides the overhead conveyor belts carrying automobile carcasses through the facility, there are lots of really cool robots doing painting, assembly, welding and other tasks.  Ever since, I wondered when smaller robots would come to our aid around the home.

And then, a couple of years later, they proliferated!  The first one I heard of was the robotic swimming pool cleaner. These little chaps walk along the bottom of your pool (under water) and clean it for you.   Then came the robot vacuum cleaner, which can be programmed to sweep your floors, and even moves around your furniture.  Considering that vacuuming has always been one of my household chores, this seems very intriguing.  Plus, it could give the cats some amusement...

Since the Sassy Librarian and I bought to our dream house, I have come to love the process of mowing the lawn--something I had never done before we moved here.  I love riding around on my lawn tractor and I look forward all week to getting some "seat time".  But what if---I mean, you don't think--oh my!  They make robot lawnmowers now, too!  They wouldn't work on our property (too much land) but for a typical suburban house, this would be unbelievably awesome. I'm sure it won't be long before a professional sports team fires their head groundskeeper and replaces him with one of these babies.  I can hear the announcers talking now: "The umpires just consulted with the Robot Lawnmower to see what the rain forecast is."  The future is right around the corner.

So just as I had begun to think that there were very few jobs left that were safe from robots, I almost drove my car off the road when I saw a billboard promoting the local hospital's new service: Robotic Hysterectomies.  At first I scoffed, in my typical Phil Donahue feminist style, "I bet you won't find them doing robot vasectomies." But apparently the hospital uses robots for lots of other procedures, too, including some that only apply to men.  The surgeries actually employ a human doctor to operate the robot, but still, it just sounds so unpleasant.  I mean, if I was going to go have a major organ removed, I would prefer that a person was responsible, not a machine.  And what if you got a robot with problems, like Marvin, the Paranoid Android? I would hate to have my robot surgeon whining "brain the size of a planet, and all they ask me to do is remove this guy's enlarged prostate."  And who do you sue when they screw up?  I mean, medical malpractice is as close as most of us will ever come to winning the lottery.  And I bet Marvin has a brilliant team of lawyers, too...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pulling the Plug on Cable TV

In the fall of 1981, just as I was beginning 6th grade, my father surprised us by hooking the house up for cable tv.  I think that we were only the second house on our block to get cable, and it was wonderful.  Suddenly we didn't have to get up and adjust the large, steerable antenna on the rooftop, and we had access to channels (does anyone remember PRISM?)
that showed Phillies games, professional wrestling and feature films--without commercials!  Then there were other channels, such as MTV (which had begun airing the previous August), which gave me access to music videos, concert films, and interviews with musicians.

It is definitely true that for me (and many of my friends), cable provided the same shared cultural references that were supplied to previous generations by literature, theatre or the Bible.  It isn't going to far to say that the person I became was highly influenced by the large amounts of television I watched on cable in the 1980's. And since then I have always had cable--in college dorms, in summer housing, in numerous rented apartments, through thick and thin I always paid for cable television. 

But over the past twelve months or more, I have begun to question my cable purchase.  Since we moved to our dream house two years ago, the Sassy Librarian and I have been customers of Comcast (we get high speed internet from them, as well as tv).  The picture has been good, but the price is rather high--to be able to get Comcast SportsNet in HD, we have to buy no less than three different tiers of service, paying over $85 just for the tv part of the bill.  Over the years our tv watching has become more refined, to the point where pretty much all that we ever have on is sports and professional wrestling.  Lately it has been harder and harder for me to justify paying so much money to watch Phillies games and Monday Night Raw.  So I tried an experiment.

After doing some research at, I became convinced that with an indoor tv antenna I could probably get some channels in HD (I can definitely do it with a roof antenna, but we aren't prepared to install one at this time).  I went to the local BuyMore, and picked up a reasonably priced amplified antenna, and was pleased to see that I can get about a dozen channels, with super reception (including ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW, WB, ION and 3 PBS channels)! And the major networks are all in beautiful High Definition!

So I called Comcast first thing Monday morning and cancelled the tv coverage. Initially I had a bad case of television withdrawal, but a few days later, I have to say that I feel pretty good!  A major reason is that it isn't as hard as I had feared to find the stuff I want to watch.  Within a day of the tv show, the WWE posts their Raw and Smackdown shows on YouTube in HD. I can watch those shows on my computer, or my iPad, or (by plugging an HDMI cable to the iPad) on my actual television set.  On the down side I have to wait for the clips to load, but on the upside there are no commercials and I don't have to watch matches that don't interest me.  I simply read the summary of RAW and Smackdown on the Lords of Pain website, and look at the sections that seem like they'll be compelling.

For watching Phillies games, I have a slight dilemma. Even though we live 130 miles from Philadelphia, we are still technically in their blackout zone (also the blackout zone for both New York teams and the Pittsburgh Pirates).  This means that even if we purchased MLB.TV, we couldn't watch live web telecasts of games for the Phillies, Pirates, Mets or Yankees.  This has been the gating factor keeping me from dropping cable for quite some time.

But lately I've begun to listen to the Phillies radio broadcast using MLB At Bat (we get terrible radio reception at the house), and I realize that I like listening to the games on the radio.    While former Phillie Gary "Sarge" Matthews provides excellent color coverage on tv, he's only on for the middle three innings.  Otherwise, the play by play duties are handled by the very bland and boring Tom McCarthy and color is done by Chris Wheeler. Wheeler has been with the Phils my whole life, and while he is a great fan and has a great memory for old players, his style on the mic is not felicitous.  On the other hand, the Phils radio duo of Scott Franzke and Larry Anderson is quite good--they have a wonderful rapport with each other, and they don't let their boring stories get in the way of the game, like McCarthy does.  Listening on the radio, I find that I can go an entire game without saying "God, what a bad announcer"--which hasn't happened since I moved away from Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy's Red Sox games in 2003.

This week I've listened to the Phils on the "radio" (actually my iPad), and it has been a fun experience.  Besides better announcing, I also found that it was easier to read while listening on the radio than watching on tv.  Also, instead of being chained to the television, I was able to consume the game in my office, on my porch watching the sunset, in bed, and on the treadmill doing a brisk two miles.  I even signed up for a one month trial of MLB.TV.  Last night we watched the "archived" version of yesterday's day game from Colorado (the games are available to watch 90 minutes after the final pitch).  It was pretty cool!

I'm sure that the adjustment will continue to take time, but this first week has been much easier than I expected.  A quick perusal of the NFL schedule shows me that the Iggles should be on a channel that I get in HD 15 of 16 games, so I shouldn't miss much there, though I did always like watching Comcast's post game show starring "V-Heb" (Vaughn Hebron), "R-Diddy" (Ray Didinger) and "The Gov" (Ed Rendell).

It seems that this concept of dropping cable tv is growing in popularity.  Maybe it's the terrible economy, or the "57 channels and nothing on" phenomenon, but I definitely feel good about having made this decision (and saving over $800 per year sounds pretty good right now).  At least so far, Comcast seems to be doing ok, so I guess you could call this one Win-Win-Win.