In the early 1970s, there was a quirky song — more talking than singing, really -— called “Desiderata,” which, only now have I come to learn, is Latin for “desired things.” It was the title track from a vinyl LP which won the 1972 Grammy for ‘Best Spoken Word Album.”
It was recorded by a fascinating fellow by the name of Les Crane, who is worthy of a story all by himself. Groundbreaking radio & TV host, jet fighter pilot and he even lived out the fantasy of many a 1960’s boy like myself by marrying “Ginger” (Tina Louise) from “Gilligan’s Island.” Yes, Les had more than most.
Anyway, the words to “Desiderata,” which a college professor introduced me to in the late ‘70s, were penned by American writer Max Ehrmann in 1927, but lay in literary obscurity until Crane popularized it with his ethereal voice. An idealistic manifesto for a happy life, one of its more memorable sentiments goes like this:
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste…And remember what peace there may be, in silence…”
I suspect that was a lot easier to do in 1927. Sure feels that way, anyway.
Considering the chaotic, confrontational cacophony of the last several months, which shows no sign of relenting, I’ve been lately contemplating the ever more elusive concept of peace and quiet.
Think about how often you’re in a truly quiet place these days. I’m talking quiet enough to hear your own heartbeat…to hear the background noise of your own auditory system. The kind of silence that is, in its way, a bit overwhelming to the denizens of a world now known for noise.
When’s the last time you sat in a truly quiet place, contemplating your own mortality? It can be a daunting, but worthwhile experience. Our very lives are something we all take for granted most of the time. No matter your station in life, your wealth, your power and popularity, all of that will last only so long as that fist-sized miracle of design and durability keeps mystically pumping away inside your chest. Humbling.
Max Ehrmann knew what he was talking about. Silent reflection is a healthy, even vital, human experience. Focusing on our tenuous hold on this temporary earthly life, is, in my estimation, crucial to keeping one’s priorities in order and to best enjoying the gift that is your life. Contemplating the seemingly infinite and impossibly complex balance found within us, and all around us, defies any reasonable explanation, save that of God’s handiwork. Sorry, Bill Nye, but minds far greater than yours have tried to explain all of that away to chance and evolution. I personally can’t muster the ridiculous level of faith required to jump into that implausible primordial soup. Maybe he just needs more silent contemplation in his life. I know I do.
I’m not against all noise, mind you. For example, I was recently privileged to hear the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra perform “An American in Paris.” George Gershwin knew how to make some very good noise.
But, by and large, the day-to-day sea of incessant sound in which we swim is an eroding force, washing away our inner peace in thunderous, unrelenting waves of overstimulation.
One has to be much more intentional about seeking the essential solitude of silence, but I maintain that it’s a goal worthy of pursuit.
So remember: The most important button your TV, your radio, your computer and your phone…will always be the “off” button.
Like the sign says….”Quiet. Please.”
It has been with a mix of bemusement and pained resignation that I have watched the sadly predictable torrent of vitriol flood social media since election night revealed its astonishing plot twist. Predictable, since, as I’ve noted before, those who seem to live their lives wrapped in a Teflon banner of 21st century-style “tolerance” are too often among the most intolerant people out there. They’ll tolerate anyone or anything - so long as it in no way conflicts with or falls short of condoning and praising every tenant of their belief set. “My way or the highway,“ to borrow an old-school phrase.
To judge from the venting since The Clinton Coronation went down in the flames of populist revolt, you’d think David Duke was our president-elect, with the inauguration taking place at the warped Westboro Baptist Church. Good grief.
There is, of course, no shortage of opinion over why things played out the way they did, and what lies ahead. I am no exception.
I was surprised, but not stunned, that Trump won. Part of it may simply be cyclical. Typically, it seems, eight years of steering The Good Ship America in one direction leads to an inevitable course correction. Certainly not the first time it’s played out that way, anyway. But deeper than that, I feel this was a clear repudiation of some of what was forced upon us over the last eight years, and the anticipated continuation of those policies during a “Clinton 2.0” administration.
And what to make of this ad-lib revolution? Well, count me among those ‘revolutionaries’ weary of my demographic being branded as no more than a bunch of bigoted, homophobic, Islamophobic, war-mongering, holier-than-thou, outdated relics of unenlightened, uneducated thinking — particularly by people who don’t know me whatsoever on a personal level. As part of the ‘new oppressed minority’ — middle-aged white evangelicals — I’d simply like to be understood…and have my reasoning and beliefs, you know…tolerated.
Judging individuals with an overly broad brush is a slippery slope. Take the anti-Trump protests which erupted after the election. Should I lump every liberal Clinton supporter in with those who burned flags, assaulted passersby and vandalized property? That seems unreasonable to me — every bit as unreasonable as lumping every person who didn’t vote for her in with the racist/misogynist crowd.
I’m blessed with a lot of caring, passionate liberal friends and family members, whose core motives I have no reason to question. Yes, I passionately disagree with them on some key issues, but I do so with the belief that they are motivated by the same genuine care and concern for their fellow citizens that motivates me.
For those who just can’t understand why anyone would vote for Trump over Clinton, allow me to attempt to lend some clarity.
I’m one of what I suspect is a very large group that struggled mightily with this election. Never before have both major parties performed so poorly in presenting a palatable presidential candidate. Egregious flaws which have existed in each party’s selection process were fully exposed, and the result was painful. I remained a staunch independent from age 18 until a few years ago when I finally tired of being shut out of the primary process. I registered conservative, but that didn’t allow me meaningful entry into the primary process, either, so I registered Republican to at least have a voice. And, as noted in a prior blog, that’s the extent of my influence here in the blue State of New York. (Perhaps the angst over the close popular/electoral vote split this time around will at least spur much-overdue reform toward a one person/one vote system…though I have to wonder how vocal the Barbara Boxers of the world would be about this if Clinton had won.)
Anyway, for me and many others, this vote came down to a few key core issues — foreign policy, such as the chance to rescind the absolutely disastrous Iran nuclear treaty, and the implications of anticipated SCOTUS appointments being two of them — and which party most closely aligned with my beliefs. It didn’t come down as much to the candidates themselves, since I found them equally unsavory. Am I concerned about Donald Trump’s credentials and core beliefs? You bet I am. Ironically, some of my concerns about him as a person come down to the fact that, in prior decades, he leaned decidedly more liberal that he portrayed himself during his campaign. He really does seem to be an enigma, and I doubt anyone outside of his inner circle has that much of a clue yet how his administration will truly play out. Clinton, by contrast, would’ve been as predictable as sunset.
So, to borrow an old George Bush line: “Read my lips.” I, albeit reluctantly, voted for Donald Trump, and it was a reasoned decision made by a college graduate. I’m not a racist, I’m not a misogynist. I harbor no inherent bias against a woman being president; Golda Meir convinced me a woman can effectively lead a long time ago. I care about all people, I care deeply about our country, which is in more trouble right now than it’s ever been in. But also, please know this: I care even more deeply about my faith, and I don’t see my love of country and that faith as somehow mutually exclusive. Rather, I see them as inseparable. The forced divorce of America from its foundational Judeo-Christian beliefs and ethics is now many decades old, and I don’t think it’s going very well. I’d say it’s time for a course correction there as well, and if holding my nose and coloring in the circle next to “Trump” is ultimately a step in that direction, then it will prove to be the right move.
Right off the bat, I confess that I approach this nearly farcical presidential election with a great deal of resignation, owing to the reality that, as a non-Democrat in the State of New York, my individual vote will almost certainly mean absolutely nothing on election night. The white elephant that is the Electoral College system will once again see to that. I will cast my vote knowing that I might as well be casting it into an bottomless abyss. I pray that ‘one person, one vote’ electoral reform will one day gain the traction required to rid our nation of this tremendous flaw in our system. If you want to learn more about that reform effort, I commend to you www.nationalpopularvote.com
That said, I, along with many Christian voters, have struggled mightily this year to discern for whom it is I should cast my symbolic vote. My heart tells me that ours is a nation under supreme judgement. I certainly seem to have some company in that view.
Russell Moore, public policy point man for the Southern Baptist Convention, recently told The Washington Post: “What I expect the primary question from evangelicals is: ‘What do we do in terms of voting in November?’ That hasn’t been it. It’s been: ‘Does this mean America is under the judgement of God?’” Added Moore: “There’s a kind of person for whom every year seems like an End Times novel. This year has even sober-minded people feeling they are in an End Times novel.”
Amen to that.
Once upon a time, in a famous Harvard commencement speech, Soviet dissident
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: “There are meaningful warnings which history gives a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, the decadence of art, or a lack of great statesmen.”
Check…and check. And yet, futile or not...symbolic or not...I, like every other voter, must make a choice.
I guess this is just a side-effect of being 56, but my difficulty in reaching a Clinton vs. Trump decision is most definitely not due to lack of information about them. The body of work on both of them stretches back for decades. Both have clearly shown their true colors over the years, and it’s not a pretty picture they’ve painted in either case. I heavily discount what they - or anyone actively campaigning for office - says in the days running up to the election. What they say & do before they’re running for office speaks much louder to me.
The first time I was allowed to vote for president, it was Carter vs Reagan in 1980. I’m pretty sure I voted for Carter, who lost in a landslide. In 20-20 hindsight, that may have been the last time - or at least the clearest time - that we were at least offered two qualified candidates of high moral character from which to choose.
That sure as shootin’ isn’t the case this time around.
The more I’ve studied this sorry situation - particularly through the lens of scripture - it has become, for me, not so much battle of those two unsavory individuals, but rather a choice between fundamentally opposed ideologies.
I think that underlying reality has been a significant source of the unprecedented vitriol we’ve witnessed this time around. All of their polarizing personalities aside for a moment, I think it’s fair to say, no matter which side you come down on, that Clinton and Trump present almost mutually exclusive choices on the direction of this nation. From foreign policy philosophy to the crucial role the U.S. Supreme Court will play in decades to come, this election, for me, anyway, comes down even more to that that it does to the unfortunate choices each major party made to bear their respective banners.
So upon that basis I will cast my symbolic vote. And then I will go home, and take a badly-needed shower.
But come Wednesday morning, whatever the news may bring, I will take palpable solace in the reality that God is still in control.
Christian commentator John Stonestreet summed it up so well:
"First and foremost, the ultimate reality is this: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead...This is not just a spiritual truth, it is the singular truth of the universe. The entire story of human history centers on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Yes, we have two horrible candidates for the presidency. Yes, Supreme Court seats are at stake. Yes, the Church is coming under enormous and fiendish pressure from all sides.
But none of that, not an iota, changes the fact that Christ is risen. To be a Christian in this world means to place our ultimate hope in that incontrovertible fact, not in the electoral process, in our nation, or in anything else."
So last year, I turned 51. That's generally a pretty nondescript year…having had time to settle into the reality that one is now more than a half-century old and likely am (un)comfortably into the back stretch of earthly life.
Some guys in that situation buy a Harley…run off with their secretary…sometimes even drive off with their secretary on their new Harley.
Don't have a secretary...or a Harley.
So I joined the fire department instead.
Age was one factor; 51 felt like a 'put up or shut up' age for me. I've been on a non-specific plan the last few years to try certain things that probably couldn't wait much longer. I've taken my first hot air balloon ride, gone hang-gliding - things I had to concede I was unlikely to give a first try if I waited much longer.
The other main factor was availability. I'd toyed with the concept of joining a local volunteer department over the years, but my work schedule was always a ready excuse to put it off to a 'some day' which never seemed to arrive. But a couple of years ago, I dropped out of the rat race in favor of a home-based freelance business, so suddenly, that old work excuse was up in flames…though, in retrospect, it never really was a truly valid excuse to begin with.
Throw in some wonderful folk in my circle of friends who have served, in one capacity or another, in emergency medicine and as first responders and…well, it all came together one impulsive day into an email to our local volunteer fire company, inquiring as to whether they would even consider a 51-year-old rookie. After all, generally only the AARP and handbell choirs have 51-year-old rookies.
Strangely enough, they wanted me. And thus began a learning process which continues to this day. First off, no one is guaranteed admittance into this unique fraternity; every would-be member is voted on by the rank-and-file. Thankfully, I apparently hadn't sufficiently annoyed enough people in town over 20+ years to be rejected, though I don't know the margin of the vote and it's probably better if it stays that way. Then the department sends you a membership packet and off you go for a basic physical.
Preliminaries taken care off, one day - afternoon of June 4th, it was - I met one of the chiefs in his office to be duly sworn into service - a surprisingly quick and undramatic two-man event - and was shortly thereafter issued the requisite tools of the trade: turnout gear (helmet, coat, pants, gloves & boots), radio, pager…and lastly, in a nod to modern life, had my cell phone number entered into their emergency call texting system.
And with that, I was told, much to my surprise, to immediately begin responding to calls. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised by that; While there are a lot of things you can be trained on in a classroom, it is pretty much a hands-on type of job. Learn by watching…learn by doing.
And so I am. Oddly, I don't really recall my first call, save for feeling rather awkward as I jogged nervously into Station 2 to be greeted by stares that said 'Who the ^%$# is this guy?" First day of school, all over again.
Slowly, but surely, I started to learn my way around. And as is often the case, the more I learn, the more that I realize I don't know. I suspect I may always feel that way to some extent, but my goal isn't to know it all…rather, just to be competent and useful…and to never stop learning.
And that learning has taken place on many different levels. Just adapting to life as a first responder has been a class in and of itself.
Take my pager - please! Amazing how having a fire department radio and pager on your hip can transform your life. Before, I might've spent most of my morning in jammies, but now, I tend to get dressed pretty quick… just in case. When it snows, I keep clearing the driveway and my van…just in case. If I'm on the fence as to whether to have a beer or not, I more often don't…just in case. Fair to say it means different things to different folks, but to me, perhaps the biggest change has been a positive one: A reminder that my life and time isn't really about me. I suppose it's similar to what a doctor or other on-call professional faces, with this one big caveat: They HAVE to respond. A volunteer has to make a conscious decision to answer that bell (except when it's 2:30am and you're not particularly conscious…) It's an interesting dilemma which I'm sure every volunteer approaches in a little differently. For me, the general rule is that if i CAN go, I do go. General exceptions are if one of our kids has a commitment to be somewhere, and me responding to a call will impact that, they I may put my kid's commitment first, though it doesn't always work out that way. Case in point: My son missed his scheduled drum lesson recently because of what turned out to be a lengthy MA for an MVA (That's a mutual aid call for a motor vehicle accident. First responders' worlds revolve around acronyms.)
Truth is, you rarely know for sure how a call is going to pan out. What comes over the radio as a possibly intoxicated person might actually be a diabetic suffering from hypoglycemia. Just don't know until you know, you know?
Another thing you slowly get to know, as in any organization, are the people. I suspect our department is typical in this regard; a diverse and somewhat motley crew of men and women — gung-ho twenty-somethings, folks who seem to have been around longer than fire itself and a bunch of us somewhere in the middle. As many personalities as there are people, tied together by a loose, but unbreakable common thread. Ask any one of us why we joined and do what we do, and no two answers would be quite the same.
But beneath the bravado, feigned callousness and all other firehouse rhetoric, the bottom line is: We care. And that's a great feeling…even at 2:30 in the morning.
Part 2: EMT CLASS.
Most of us have a list — be it the kind that sloshes around in our minds or exists on actual paper — of things we’ve always wanted to try, always wanted to dare to do, but, for reasons as plentiful as “Snovember” snowflakes, have never quite gotten around to trying or daring. Sometimes the excuses are legit, sometimes we just plain ol’ chicken out, but the bottom line is that it’s still on the list, seemingly condemned to stay there for all time.
Mine includes a wide variety of items — from the likely unattainable, such as finding the money & time to get my private pilot’s license or go on a legit second honeymoon— to the “doable” category, such as skydiving or shoot a Buffalo Bills Super Bowl, though I’m not sure if that one belongs in the “doable” category.
It’s a big deal if we manage to check something off of that elusive list, so please join me in a quick “yahoo!” as I scrawl a happy line through “Try out at Buffalo Bisons national anthem auditions.” Been there, done that, as of March 28th, 2015.
That particular entry had been on the list for a handful of years, and most of the time, when the early spring audition date came around, something would inevitably pop up on my schedule to force the anthem singing fantasy back onto the shelf for another year. So I’d shrug my shoulders, mutter “maybe next year” and go on doing what I do, which is sing in my car. Haven’t been doing it as much in recent times, but I have a selection of karaoke tunes on my phone that, when the mood strikes and my voice is in good form, I’ll belt out while driving around. Don’t really care if anyone sees or hears me, either. At age 54, I just don’t worry about things like that much anymore, which is actually quite liberating. I think this means I’ll be mowing the lawn with Bermuda shorts & tall white socks this summer.
As it happened, a Buffalo News reporter was doing a story on this year’s auditions and chatted with me briefly. He asked why I was there, and I told him that, after years of car singing, I decided it was high time I gave this a whirl in public to see if my versions of “Oh Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” were as credible as I imagined them to be. I had no delusions I was going to be stealing gigs from Doug Allen or have the Bills come calling, but I thought I had them down to a point where I could sing them out loud without folks cringing and maybe even liking parts. And as any actual singer can tell you, that’s no small accomplishment when it comes to singing America’s national anthem. Requiring a range of more than 1-and-a-half octaves, those without sufficient range need not apply. If only Roseanne Barr had heeded that advice before turning in one of the all-time worst anthem renditions before a San Diego Padres game in 1992. I was never a fan of hers to begin with, but that cinched it for life. Beyond being woefully off key, she repeatedly butchered the lyrics. As country singer Lyle Lovett aptly noted: “If you forget the words to your own song, you can always claim artistic license. Forget the words to the national anthem, and you’re screwed.”
Thanks to countless hours of watching hockey over the years, I know both anthems quite well, musically and lyrically, but I’ve also been around long enough to know that auditioning in front of a crowd can bring instant-onset amnesia. As a precaution, I brought the words on 3 X 5 cards, just in case, though I wound up just keeping them in my pocket. Only later did I read about the wrath incurred by Michael Bolton at a 2003 Yankees/Red Sox game when he was caught peeking at the lyrics scribbled on his palm. I guess he had other issues that night, but I can’t really hold the emergency palm notes against him. Beats actually singing the wrong words.
However, what I found more disconcerting standing there in line for 90 minutes was hearing the songs sung over and over in keys different from the one I sing them in, making me fear that, when my turn came, I’d forget the right note to start on, which would be an instant disaster. I learned this lesson the hard way at my first public karaoke experience. One of the first songs I ever felt confident enough to try in public was Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” but when the karaoke DJ hit ‘play,’ his version was in an entirely different key and range than the real song is in. Turned into “Crocodile Wreck.” Mindful of that history, I quickly jotted my starting anthem notes down: “G” for Oh Canada and “E” for The Star-Spangled Banner. Phew.
The Bisons auditions are also a cappella, which adds another degree of difficulty. There were singers in line before me who bombed - folks whom I have a strong suspicion would’ve done much better if allowed any sort of accompaniment to keep them on track. Blessed with perfect pitch, I was optimistic I could at least keep things on track musically in my head.
As the count-up ticked closer to my #72, my immediate line mates and I formed a brief bond. In front of me were a 14-year-old girl and her parents, though from where, I know not. To her credit, the teen seemed much less nervous than her mom. The four of us mused back and forth as we critiqued those singing before us. “Eww…forgot the words.” “Wow, she was really good.” “Awww, what a cute little girl.” And so on. We tended not to be too harsh, knowing full well it would be us, center stage, soon enough.
And suddenly, we were at the front of the line. As I stood in the musical on-deck circle, the 14-year-old stepped up to the plate and did a really solid job. Wouldn’t be at all surprised if she gets an invite to sing at a game. As she sang, I stuck my foam earplugs in place, hoping to dampen any chance that the stadium reverb would throw me off, glanced at my starting notes one last time and then, it was time for fantasy to meet reality. A nice kid who may or may not have been old enough to have a beer at the ballpark handed me the wireless mic, told me to stare out into center field and start by saying my number, then sing when I was ready & he’d tap me when he wanted me to stop. Most folks got interrupted part-way though each song, presumably a time and sanity savings for the poor Bisons folks who understandably must dread this annual ritual.
“Number 72,” I announced with the confidence of someone who’s spoken into a microphone once or twice over the years. My internal pitch pulled up a “G” and off I went. As Oh Canada tumbled out of my mouth, it came with a reasonable amount of confidence. There were definitely some leftover butterflies fluttering around inside of me, but, well, like I told the reporter: At age 54, I just don’t get as nervous about things like this as I once did. And that’s very cool. For all of its aches, pains & other disappointments, getting older should come with a few perks, too.
PS: If you want to hear how it sounded, click the photo above or here.
In an effort to do some overdue and meaningful cost-cutting, Team Webster recently took aim at one of the most obvious targets on our ledger sheet: Verizon. Between four cell phones, a landline, Internet access and TV, we were shelling out about $400 a month (including the ubiquitous taxes & fees) to the entity formerly known as Bell Atlantic/GTE, NYNEX, et al.
The ballpark breakdown was $200 for wireless, $85 for TV, $70 for Internet and $45 for landline phone - all based on expired “two-year bundle” pricing.
Despite the majority chunk going to our cell phones, the other three services were easier targets. Confusingly, Verizon is not the same entity to deal with as Verizon Wireless, even though the whole package was a “Verizon” bundle. So that’s a separate story for another time.
Most things in 21st-century life are easier on paper that they are in reality, and this was, unsurprisingly, no exception. I mean, yeah, we could’ve truly lept off the communications grid, which would’ve worked fine for, oh, the first five minutes or so, but the ramifications of a complete unplugging were daunting enough to never warrant true consideration. What we were truly seeking was a survivable, practical and meaningful reduction of some kind. And therein lay the devil & his details.
Least scary, at least for us, was the TV part of the equation. My wife, Cheryl, watches very little & would be fine living in Retroville with rabbit ears and channels you could count on two hands. I’m no power watcher, either, though losing sports sources such as ESPN - and even MSG, home of the hapless Sabres - was of admitted concern as I researched alternatives. Our kids are thankfully not TV-addicted teens, but were none too thrilled about any part of this rebellion. Oh well. Pay your own bill, watch what you want.
As it turned out, step one was rabbit ears - or at least the HDTV equivalent. As an old broadcaster at heart and former owner of a hefty rooftop antenna (until the wicked WNY wind kept taking it down), I relished studying off-air options as part of the solution, and was pleasantly surprised. The digital era has changed the antenna game. No more fuzzy reception of stations you can’t even identify. Now, you either get it in crystal clear, or you don’t get it at all. Antennae have changed with the times as the broadcast spectrum and technology shifted. My study led me to a well-reviewed model called the HD Frequency Cable Cutter (catchy!) - a one-pound metal grid that looks like it fell off of a B-2 stealth bomber. (http://hdfrequency.com/best_indoor_hdtv_antennas.html) Cost about $100 with a length of cable - the first of what we knew would be a handful of up-front costs in a ‘spend now to save later’ strategy. Throw in another $20 for a sturdy 10-foot mast I found on sale at Radio Shack, because, when it comes to OTR (over the air) TV, height is huge, with overall geographical location a close second. We’re blessed with a perch close to the Lake Erie shoreline, so Canadian TV comes into play. End result? A wind-resistant antenna, 40’ above the ground, with close to 30 distinct, legit local & Canadian HDTV stations flowing free into our living room. And our family room, though that cost me another $50 for more cable and a crucial signal amplifier for getting those weaker signals to both TVs. When all was said & done, we’d covered all of the network bases, plus a few quirky offerings…but I’m quirky, so that goes in the ‘plus’ ledger. Overall, “Project Antenna” seemed an unqualified success. Footnote: One surprise to me was that the picture quality of the stuff coming via antenna seemed to be even better than that piped in by FiOS.
But for practical purposes, it wasn’t enough. So before calling Verizon with the bad news, it was time for parts 2A & 2B in the plan of attack: Redefining our Internet access and then seeing what TV streaming option might work best. Our current FiOS gave us a serviceable 35mbps download speed, but was no longer an option. The available downgrade was to 20mbps, while the next upgrade was to 50 mbps. We also looked at Time Warner, and their offerings seemed similar, but no better. Since I do use the Web for uploading large photo files at times, and since we would likely begin using streaming video, slower didn’t feel like a practical option. So it was resolved, prior to calling Verizon, that 50mbps would be the viable speed.
On to 2B. Streaming options are many, with the big players including Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu and, more recently, SlingTV. Netflix offers a month-long free sample, so that got the first Team Webster evaluation, and overall, I was impressed. Their library is vast, but no one in our family is a big-time movie watcher, and their non-cinematic offerings weren’t generally our cup of TV tea. Most of these services are big on popular current TV series, but, well, we aren’t, so not a selling point for us. Checked out some free Hulu Plus as well, and was favorably impressed, particularly with their more nostalgic TV offerings. Unlike the others, Vudu is a pay-as-you-go, and also has some credible movie & TV offerings. But in the final analysis, we signed up for a year of Amazon Prime, which we got on a special one-day sale for $79/year. Beyond an Amazonian-sized library of offerings, one other perk that the others don’t have is that a subscription buys you other, more practical things, such as free two-day Amazon shipping. (“Free” being an admittedly relative term here.) But practically speaking, as long as you know you’re going to order from Amazon now & then, it seems fair to view it as a bit of return on investment.
Unfortunately, it couldn’t solve my fundamental sports channel issue. But then, fading into view just in the nick of time, came SlingTV. For $20, you get a handful of mainstream cable channels, including ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Adult Swim, Disney Channel, Food Network, HGTV, Cartoon Network, and others. Part of the sports dilemma solved! And for $5 more/month, they add yet more sports offerings, including ESPNU, ESPNEWS and the SEC Network. Still no Sabres, though…or hockey in general, which is a big deal for us. Enter NHL Game Center. As we undertook this endeavor, the hockey season was already about half gone, and the NHL’s streaming channel (not to be confused with NHL Network) keeps dropping its full-season subscription price accordingly - down to $50 when we bought it in mid-February. It has become far and away the favorite channel of me and my son - particularly in a season where local hockey fans have just as much reason to watch Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers games as they do the locals. One BIG asterisk, though: NHL Game Center’s official policy is to black out your “local market,” a conclusion they base on your IP address. As you might expect, there are workarounds offered by third parties, the morality/legality of which seems to truly be a few shades of gray, (though not 50 shades worth.) I’ll just say that it would be helpful, should you go that route, to be versed in at least the basics of computer networking. IN any event, just be advised that you can’t necessarily count on your local team showing up on a consistent basis. But even so, for a hockey fan, Game Center seems well worthwhile.
I’ll revisit the TV situation after this word from our sponsors, but first, it was clear from the beginning that the $40/month we were shelling out for a landline that most often serves as a telemarketer express lane into our kitchen could most definitely be improved upon. VoIP offerings are numerous and generally pretty similar. After ruminating over the possibilities, we went with NetTalk. After buying the $40 dongle that hooks your house landline system to your modem, they throw in they first year of service for free. We did pay another $30 or so to port our existing number, but that’s not mandatory. And the monthly cost after that is under $10. So, initial costs absorbed, a solid savings with no discernible change in level of service. Technically, it was easy enough. Just had to pull two phone wires out of their sockets in the Verizon box in our basement to disengage Verizon and then hook the NetTalk dongle into an existing phone line, which thus distributes it throughout the house. One caveat to the whole VoIP option: In a power outage, you are likely to lose phone service, unless you have a battery backup plan in place. Some modems offer one, others don’t. So if that’s a potential deal breaker, research your options first.
And now, back to the exciting conclusion of The Webster TV.Revolt, already in progress. As we were finalizing our selection of streaming offerings prior to finally cluing Verizon into this rebellion, I decided to take the extra step of stringing some newer CAT6 ethernet cable between the two TV rooms - one of which hosts our Verizon modem/router as well. While our TVs are both WiFI capable, WiFI can never a solid beat hard-wired connection. So I splurged maybe $50 for the cable, some modular plugs & a decent crimper. (Hey - any project that calls for buying a new tool is cool in my book.) Took a little practice, but I learned the correct order of the color-coded wires and it seems to work just as it should. None of that was truly necessary, but I figured that, while I’m in upgrading mode, might as well go a little extra & do a little future-proofing - the thought being that if Verizon and/or Time Warner finally eliminate the data bottleneck running into the house, the CAT6 cable will be handy to already have in place.
Yet another tier to the video streaming equation is what your TV is capable of showing you on its own. Enter the likes of Roku, Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, etc. Each, in their own way, opens up a host of other free and subscription TV offerings, literally numbering in the thousands and growing. As mentioned, my TV tastes can be fairly eclectic, so receiving offerings as obscure as one devoted to live camera feeds from U.S. highways and landmarks somehow appeals to me. Not that I actually watch something like that, but it’s somehow fun just knowing it’s there. And there are actually some very interesting & useful channels in the mix, such as a free math channel that offers how-to videos for stuff our kids are working on in school. So we bought a Roku Stick, which includes a small remote control, for $50, for each TV - yet another one-time expense. My, they do add up, don’t they? But It’s via the Roku that we’re able to view channels such as NHL Game Center and SlingTV. More modern TVs offer such options built in.
So then - finally! - armed with new hardware and enough technical knowledge overload to fry an engineer’s brain - it was time to call Verizon and say “Hasta la vista, Ba-by!”
Only, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Like a old girlfriend desperate to somehow postpone an inevitible breakup, Miss Verizon threw herself at me, in the form of an offer I couldn’t refuse - at least for now. After explaining how I really didn’t need their landline or TV anymore and really just wanted 50mbps Internet, which seemed to cost about $60/month, Verizon countered with a package of the 50mbps Internet, plus all local & some basic cable channels, plus HBO, for just over $50/month. To revisit the math, that side of the Verizon equation was costing Team Webster about $200/month. I was looking to pare down to Verizon Internet only for about $60/month & make up the difference with all of the new offerings listed above.
I couldn’t really see any good reason to say “no,” so I said “OK.”
Go & figure. Didn’t see that one coming. Those terms are good for a year, and then I have to call again and renegotiate.
Of course, that unexpected plot twist rendered my antenna project at least temporarily moot, and also brought back into the fold some - though not all - of the channels I’d been replacing with the $20-$25/month with Sling TV. Thankfully, Sling is also on a month-to-month basis, so no biggie to cancel.
So, by itself, our Verizon monthly bill still dropped about $150/month. But add in the $79/year Amazon subscription. Add in $50 for a couple of months of NHL Game Center. Then there were those pesky one-time expenses. Antenna + accessories: $170. NetTalk dongle & number porting: $70. Etheret cable & tools: $50.
I’m better at wiring my house than I am at massaging those numbers into a final savings figure, but overall, it feels like we came out enough ahead to call it a win, even if we did - for now - wind up nicking the cable more than cutting it.
OK, New Jersey’s playing Arizona right now. Must-See TV…
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Some weeks ago, our church — All Saints Lutheran Church in Hamburg, NY — was looking for a couple of members to fill in for our pastor as he took some well-deserved vacation. I had always been curious about what it’s like to step into a pulpit and deliver a sermon? On Sunday, November 9th, 2014, I found out. Here’s what I said, based on the following scripture:
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (MATTHEW 25:1-13)
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4. but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9. But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10. And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12. But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
(open with prayer)
Please be seated.
Hmmm. So THAT’s what it looks like from up here. Nice view…
Before I begin, special thanks to those who knew it would be me standing before you this morning, and, inexplicably, came to church anyway. I will reward your faith: I have to leave in about 10 minutes for Noah’s hockey practice so, if nothing else, I will be brief.
Someone once said - and I don’t know who - “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.” Every now & then, I’ve wondered what it would be like to stand in a pulpit and deliver a sermon.
Serves me right…
The lesson behind our scripture reading boils down to two words which are near & dear to any Boy Scout: “Be prepared.” For a Scout, that ideally means a way of life, always expecting the unexpected. On a camping trip, that means being ready to deal with come what may; a bee sting, a broken ankle, a heavy rainstorm - bears trying to steal your Hershey Bars - anything that might conceivably pop up out there in the wilderness, without a Walmart in sight. When I became a firefighter and EMT, being prepared took on a new seriousness. My lofty new life motto became this: “Pee when you can.” Because you never know when this little black box (show pager) is going to go off…and once it does, you don’t know when you may next see a rest room. My basic EMT tools travel with me in the family minivan, never far away in case I need them - and that has paid dividends more than once. And if, for some reason, I find myself without those tools, I feel naked - like a teenager who lost their cellphone. Survival itself is suddenly called into question. Ah yes, our smart phones, without which we apparently can no longer be smart…Without which we cannot possibly let all of our electronic friends know the crucial details of our day - like where we went for lunch…what we had for lunch…show everyone a picture of our lunch…whether we liked our lunch…and whether we liked those with whom we ate that lunch…why, it’s enough to make you lose your lunch. Lose your phone these days and you might as well just curl up under the dining room table and wait for the official end of the world, because, for all intents and purposes, yours has ended.
Speaking of the end of the world…let’s talk about that, because our Gospel reading today touches on nothing less. Overly dramatic? Let’s take a look. If we take the Holy Bible at its word, then, even if we don’t like to ponder it, we know it’s going to come to that. For my generation, an apocalyptic finale feels old hat. Cuban Missile Crisis at age 3, duck and cover drills in kindergarten…and decades of living with the Cold War which, now and then, actually got pretty hot. True story: My dad worked at a company designing military aircraft simulators. He carried a company-issued ax in his car. If the Rooskies invaded, he was to rush to work and destroy sensitive hardware. You could call him the original ‘computer hacker.’ Anyway, it’s hard to argue these days against the reality that our world is teetering on the brink of an unprecedented abyss.
And I believe Satan doesn’t want us to focus on prophecy for one big reason: It tells of his loss, and Jesus’ victory. The battle is already won, even though it has yet to completely play out before our eyes. But God sure seems to want us to pay close attention; after all, an estimated 1/4 of the entire Bible is devoted to prophecy. It’s THAT important to God, so it should be that important to us.
When the topic of Bible prophecy comes up, many understandably wonder: Just where are we on the prophetic timeline? Over the years, some - who I would call ‘for profit prophets’ - have claimed special insight as to the timing and particulars of major prophetic events…this despite the fact that Matthew 25:13 clearly warns; “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Must’ve missed that little tidbit during all of their alleged Bible study.
But we do know this much: Most prophetic scholars agree that nothing else needs to happen prior to the sequence of events leading to Christ’s return. Theologically, I’ll tread carefully here, since the ECLA has its own ideas on topics such as The Rapture of the Church, The Tribulation and Christ’s Return. But from my own study over the years, it sure seems as if we’re there…that the general end-times sequence of events could be upon us without further warning. In Matthew 24, Jesus carefully outlines what to look for when the time is near: False prophets coming in his name. No shortage of those over the years, including the recent rapid rise of mainstream false religions - I’ll let you fill in the names. Wars and rumors of wars? Can anyone remember a time more full of those than right now? The Lord says “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Russia is sabre-rattling again, and don’t forget Iran, China and North Korea, ISIS, etcetera, etcetera. Continuing with Matthew: “And there will be famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places.” Is that the case now? You bet it is. According to the UN’s World Food Program, 842 million people are going hungry to one degree or another. That’s roughly 1 in 8 people on Earth going to bed hungry every night. Current world epidemics? Of course, ebola is the big headline grabber, but there’s also MERSA, Avian Influenza, malaria, dengue fever and others, each killing thousands. You want increasing Earthquakes? If it seems like there are more, that’s because there are. The US Geological Survey says there were 12 magnitude 7 or higher quakes globally from 1863 to 1900 - a period of 38 years. From 1977 to now, another 38-year period, the number of such powerful quakes is at 164…an increase of more than 13 fold. Be prepared.
But don’t obsess over timing. Have faith that God’s timing is perfect. He knows when it’s time for events to unfold and prophecy to be fulfilled. I believe He’d like to intervene sooner than later, but in His compassion, is holding off as long as possible to allow all who can be saved to be saved.
So, with good reason to believe that Christ’s return could literally happen at any time, the question for the here & now is: What do we, as believers, do with that knowledge? Some days, it’s tempting to just ride it out; coast to the Big Day. But scripture warns against that. In Matthew 24:46, Jesus says: “Blessed is that servant whom, when his master comes, will be found faithful.” Think of a farmer with a storm approaching and a lot of hay still to be harvested. That’s not a time of rest; it’s a time to hustle and harvest all you can before the storm hits and it’s too late. Knowledge of Bible prophecy and the world’s coming storms should serve as a powerful motivator to us all.
Prophecy should also serve as a great comfort. Now wait a minute…Take comfort in the coming end of the world as we know it? Strangely enough, yes! As long as we’re secure in our salvation, what do we have we to fear? And we could all use a dose of comfort and courage, because it’s easy to get discouraged in this world. Anti-depression medicine is being consumed at a record rate. 1 in 10 Americans take one now…and for women in their 40s and 50s, that number is 1 in 4. While antidepressant meds are sometimes a good and necessary thing, truth is they’re usually a short-term fix for the long-term root problem of anxiety. Proverbs 12:25 says “Anxiety in the heart of a man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” I’m only an EMT, but the best prescription would seem to be Less mediCATION, and more mediTATION, because ultimately, there IS no other answer to our problems but God’s Son and God’s Word.
Make no mistake: Between current events and prophetic events yet to come, there are some mighty scary items on the agenda. You may have noticed: It’s not getting any easier to be a Christian in this world, or this country that was once ‘One Nation, Under God.’ Care to guess how many Christians are being martyred annually these days? 170,000. That’s roughly 3 times the entire population of the Town of Hamburg. And that number will almost certainly rise.
The world may seem out of control. But we know better, don’t we? No matter how bleak, it’s NEVER out of God’s control. When we trust Him with our lives through the saving grace of Christ, we become part of that future plan…and The Good News is we already know how it turns out in the end. (Pssst: Jesus wins!) Feels good, doesn’t it?
So let’s watch and listen…and, even as we see the storm coming, let’s be comforted in knowing we have shelter, and let’s have concern, compassion and a sense of urgency for those who do not yet know the safe haven we have in Jesus.
Work hard. Be prepared. The Bridegroom is coming. When we truly buy into that, it changes how we live our lives - for the better. Everything happening in the world today is heading somewhere, and it’s not a good place. Even so, the Lord God is in charge now, too, not just later.
One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Be prepared. There are no second chances here. NOW is the time.
1st John 3:2-3 urges us to live pure lives in light of prophecy. We don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed at what we were doing when He comes back.
No matter how down you feel, look up and take heart, for your redemption draws near.
Jesus said “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last…”
That’s A to Z….and we’re running out of letters.
“Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
And all God’s people said…’Amen.’
AUDIO VERSION BELOW
Maybe I should change that to the 52-year-old rookie. My, how the time flies...
But back when I first signed on with the Lake View Volunteer Fire Company, at age 51, one of my primary goals was to become an EMT - Emergency Medical Technician. That desire goes all the way back to my childhood, watching TV shows such as "Emergency!", "Medical Center" and the like. In fact, I was thrilled when a local station recently began showing "Emergency!" reruns. Good ol' Gage & DeSoto. Man, those guys did a lot, and without most of the modern tools of the trade.
Anyway, as I started responding to calls, it became apparent that our department - like most volunteer squads - was in need of more EMTs. The rules say that our ambulance can't respond to an EMS call unless an EMT is on board or on scene, and there are times when we've been forced to sit around or even miss a call entirely, just because an EMT wasn't available. So that strengthened my resolve to try to help fill the gap. I thought I had a couple of things to bring to the table: Working from home, I'm available at times when others are not. I also like medical stuff and don't get grossed out very easily. These are handy attributes which will hopefully make up for my biggest deficit - namely a lack of any prior medical training. So in September, it was back to school for a two-night/eight hours per week course to try to win the right to call myself an EMT. Just learning to be a student again took some doing, although in some ways, it was an advantage being older; age, if nothing else, teaches you to appreciate time, and the time spent on learning was valuable not only to me, but my family, which endured hardships as a result of my quest. This was also, by far, the most serious I've ever been as a student. Like the saying goes: If I knew then what I know now. And perhaps looming largest of all was the stark realization that if I didn't pay attention and learn this stuff well, someone could die. Now that's motivation.
While some of it was challenging rote memory (something that does not come easier with age,) most of it I found genuinely interesting. I've learned a lot about the human body and its remarkable systems, its limitations and what I can and cannot do to help it out of trouble. And relatively speaking, an EMT can't really do all that much in the way of fancy medical maneuvering. For us, it comes down to the ABCs: Airway, Breathing and Circulation. EMTs are skilled at keeping those three critical things going long enough to get a patient into more skilled hands. Our instructor, Greg Gill of Mercy Flight, owns a pair of those more skilled hands. A seasoned paramedic who works professionally and as a volunteer, he's seen more in his decades of service than he'd probably care to remember, but from a student point of view, what a resource that experience has been. If you're really, really sick or badly hurt, thisis the guy you want to show up. He and the other paramedics of WNY have each spent literally thousands of hours perfecting advanced life-saving skills that I will probably never learn. A seasoned medic can recognize trouble while there's still time to do something about it, and then used some pretty advanced methods to give you a fighting chance. But EMTs play an important role as well, and I aim to play it as well as I can.
Beyond the required classroom instruction centered on our 1,284-page textbook - the largest book I think I've ever owned - our training included field trips. Most notable were two five-hour stints in local emergency departments. My stay at Erie County Medical Center was particularly interesting. As the top local trauma center, ECMC's ED is a busy, fascinating place. About an hour in, Mercy Flight dropped off a 60-year-old pedestrian who had several major bones broken by a speeding car. Remarkably, the victim was not only alive, but conscious and talking, despite the fact that part of his right tibia (lower leg bone) was sticking out of his bloodied pants leg. My first in-person compound fracture. Guess I can cross that one off the ol' bucket list. Mostly, I just observed the proceedings, but what was most remarkable was how more than a dozen ED staffers descended on this man in an organized chaos, each one doing his/her job calmly and quickly. A good ambulance crew does the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale.
Generally, the ED is the end of the line for an EMT. We drop patients off there, straighten out our paperwork and, sometimes hours later, head back to the station. But it was good to see what happens later, since it can influence what we do at the other end in pre-hospital care.
Finally, six months after we started, it came down to written and practical exams. The practicals figured to be the scarier part; each of the seven we were required to go through had several mandatory points you had to cover; miss just one and you've failed. So I studied. And I prayed. And I studied. Studied & prayed like I hadn't since I made up for years of goofing off by cramming for my SATs. A nerve-wracking couple of evenings, but the studying/praying paid off with a near-perfect run.
Feeling a bit cocky after acing a practice written final, I walked into the final exam feeling pretty darned good about myself, and breezed through the first 30 or so questions…only to find out that many of the remaining 80 weren't so easy. Unlike the practicals, which are graded the night of the tests, the written is sent off to the NYS Department of Health in Albany, which will get back to you in a month or so, if you're lucky. So I was forced to sweat it out. Once I go to near to the three-week mark, I started a daily trip to the mailbox, reminiscent of Charlie Brown on Valentine's Day. Opening the box felt like pulling a slot machine handle after using my last quarter. Would today finally bring a winner? Hope springs eternal, but 'Nope' was how each mail box trip ended.
Finally, like Popeye, I'd had all I could stands and I could stands no more. Got in touch with our well-connected instructor and he placed a call to Albany.
(Drum roll, please…….)
Passed! While there was an option for one re-take of the written, it was an option I sure didn't want to take. Oh, what a relief it was!
So now I can say I'm an EMT. Sort of. While it's now technically true, I look at the little card the Great State of New York will send me as a learner's permit. Truly becoming an EMT will take experience…a lot of experience. From memorizing where all of the stuff is in our ambulance and our medical kits…to recognizing signs & symptoms without having to consult anything but my memory, much lies ahead.
And what's the payoff for a volunteer EMT? Every time I can go out there and use that knowledge to render real assistance to someone, from a kid with a sprained pinky finger to someone in full cardiac arrest, the thrill of being able to actually make a difference in that situation, whether it's just a reassuring touch, or the singular experience of prolong someone's life…well, how do you put a price on that? Of course, you don't.
I just hope and pray I'm up to the task.