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…