Ma And Pa Kettle Visit Gomorrah (or Our Weekend in Atlantic City)

This past weekend, as a birthday present for my wife Laurie, we spent the weekend in Atlantic City. I’m not much of a gambler, mainly because my competitive nature makes repeated losing difficult to endure, but Laurie enjoys it (the games, not losing), and since it was her birthday, off we went. (Bear in mind that my birthday trips take us to battlefields and historic sites, so I guess it all evens out in the end.)

The first part of the adventure was the drive up on Friday morning. All week we had heard that we would likely be driving straight into a massive blizzard; we had even considered renting an SUV to make the trip. Instead, basing my decisions on forecast maps, I decided to stay with our Nissan Rogue, but to leave 95N just after Wilmington, taking 40E across southern New Jersey. My hope was to skirt the heavier snowfall by staying south of Philadelphia.

Luckily, the storm underperformed and the drive was uneventful. By 1PM, we were in Atlantic City, and by 1:30 we were in our room on the 16th floor of the Chelsea Hotel, which was conveniently located next door to the Tropicana. We may have slept at the Chelsea, but we lived at the Tropicana.

The Tropicana is part Las Vegas, part Mall of America. The main floor has thousands of slot machines (mainly video), gaming tables, restaurants and small bars. Branching off of the gambling area, it has a small mall called The Quarter, and a number of nice restaurants, sports bars and rooms for live shows. One restaurant, “Red Square,” sported a 15-foot tall statue of Lenin by its front door.

The Trop also has its own IMAX theatre, which was showing Avatar while we were there (no thanks).

The casino, where we spent most of our time, is a cacophony of sounds and lights. There’s pop/rock music playing from the speakers, the voices of dealers, waitresses and gamblers, plus the din of a million bells, horns, recorded voices, and digital melodies. Every machine and cluster of machines comes with its own light show, like little Christmas trees on amphetamines.

And then there are the people. When I was growing up, what I knew of casinos I learned from James Bond movies, where tuxedoed men and fashionable women played expensive games, and winners and losers each accepted their fates with understated emotions. Notice: This image is nothing like the casino I was in.

At the Tropicana, from what I could tell, there were mostly middle class people from all walks of life, some old, but many young; some well dressed, but just as often not. It was a predominately caucasian crowd, but not exclusively so.

There are two kinds of people at the casino: those who are there for the entertainment, and there are those who are there to make money. It’s easy to tell who’s who by the games that they play. The serious gamblers play “the tables.” These are games of chance such as roulette, blackjack, poker and craps; minimum bets range upwards from $15 per play. We pretended to be serious gamblers for a few minutes on Saturday. Laurie was alone, holding her own betting at a $15 roulette table. Being the only player at the table allowed her to live the fantasy for a few minutes, until other players soon crowded around and began placing bets that put hers to shame, causing us to slink away from the table, back to the safety of our 5¢ video slots. That’s another key to the “high rollers.” They prefer the real slot machines that play for $1 or more and forsake cute animation; the risk/reward is higher on these and there’s no entertainment value to offset the ugly reality of losing. We mostly stayed away from these.

Being the lightweights that we are, we were attracted to glitzy video slots with familiar themes, such as the following:

Indiana Jones (Laurie did OK, but I lost $35)

The Wizard of Oz (I did really well on this one; Laurie not so much) In this image, a "bonus" has been hit, and a flying monkey has appeared on the screen to change certain symbols to "wilds." If you're unsure, this is usually a good thing.

The Wizard of Oz, again. Here, a "bonus" has triggered an onscreen tornado.

Remember "The Match Game" from the 1970s with Gene Rayburn? Well, now this classic piece of television history is immortalized as a slot machine. By the way, "Vicki" is Vicki Lawrence, one of the regulars on the show.

"Wheel of Fortune" comes complete with voiceovers from Pat Sajak and Vanna White. If you hit the "bonus," the big wheel spins and you get the number of "credits" that stops in front of you.

Playing "I Dream Of Jeannie"made me feel like a kid again, watching reruns on Channel 45. Except my parents' old console TV never took $17 dollars from me in 12 minutes. Not that I can remember, anyway.

The "Happy Days" block was almost always filled. We finally got two open seats, but the Fonz just took our money like everybody else.

I loved this machine. When you hit the "bonus," a stick-figure, with Dino's head perched atop, would sing the song "Go Go Go Go" for as long as your bonus held out.

If you want to hear Dean Martin sing “Go Go Go Go” like I did at Atlantic City, click here.

On Saturday night, we witnessed a scene straight out of “Jersey Shore.” On the ground floor of the Tropicana, there are a number of sports bars (and slots, of course). From what we could gather, a group of young men in tight tee shirts had gotten into a fight over one of the young ladies in their group. The ladies were all uniformly dressed in tight miniskirts with heels so high that they could barely walk without falling. We missed the fight, but got to see the twenty minutes of expletive-laden shouting and pointing as security guards herded the knots of combatants toward the exit.

We experienced another eye-opener on Sunday morning. As we were walking across the street to the Trop, we saw a tall young lady dressed in knee high leather boots, fish net stockings and a leather jacket walking ahead of us with a much shorter man. The man was dressed in rumpled, baggy pants and had his gray hoodie pulled over his head, totally hiding his face. The two walked together without acknowledging the other. Laurie and my curiosity was piqued as we tried to figure out this odd couple. As they entered the casino, they drifted apart, still not talking, while keeping the same deliberate pace toward the hotel elevators. That was when we figured it out: what we had been seeing was a “John” escorting his prostitute through the casino toward the elevators (and presumably up to his room). We were amazed; it was like watching reality television come to life, right in front of us.

On that Sunday morning, we decided to give the nice casino folks a little more of our money before leaving, and because it was relatively empty at the machines, we became emboldened and sat at the “big boy” slot machines. These machines even had pull-arms. We were both making conservative bets, but then Laurie decided to throw caution to the wind, hitting the “Max Bet” button, which bets 180 nickels on a single spin. I watched in horror as she lost her $9 in 2.3 seconds. We looked at each other for a moment, and then resumed our conservative play – except that Laurie forgot that since her last bet was $9, that had become her default bet. Thus, when she reflexively hit the “Repeat The Bet” button, she saw another 180 credits go away. Before she realized what had happened, though, a New Jersey miracle occurred. Laurie hit her big score – $100 (as it paid out, we had no idea how much she had won; we just hoped it would never stop. But this was true all weekend. The rules for winning at slots are so confusing that it’s almost impossible to know how much you’ve won, you just have to trust the machine. I gave up trying early on, but Laurie always dutifully tried to figure it out, in vain.) We laughed as the dinging of the credit counter rolled on and on – it took about ten minutes to stop. Finally, we felt like winners. And that was when I understood slot machines.

Slot machines take all of your money, and then slowly give part of your money back, all the while making a big show of the partial return of funds. Because you’re getting something and the machine’s making such a fuss over it, you feel like you’ve accomplished something, when in fact, the machine still has most of your money. Even after our “big score,” we were down about $500 to the machines. When I brought up unpleasant details such as this, Laurie gently reminded me that we were in Atlantic City to have fun, not to save our retirement. Yes, we had lost money, she would say comfortingly, but we had fun doing it. Yes, of course, I would say, that’s what’s important – but I’m not a very gracious loser, and she knows this, so we tended not to speak of the money so much.

After we had checked out of our hotel on Sunday, we grabbed lunch at White House Subs, a historic landmark in a rather tough neighborhood near the Convention Center. We had been told that we “had to eat there before we left,” and since I appreciate local history and culture (if you could call it that), we parked uncomfortably on the street and walked a block or two to the corner of Arctic & Mississippi (nice dichotomy, eh?), where we saw a line stretching out into the street. Groaning, we took our place at the end, but then a few minutes later, another New Jersey miracle! The counter lady came outside and said that they had two seats at the counter; we jumped at the opportunity and were soon seated amidst the wall-to-wall crush.

As we waited to eat, we took in the “ambiance.” The old, never-remodeled walls were covered with photographs and signed portraits of all the celebrities who had eaten there, from Sinatra to Seinfeld to Donny & Marie. Near us, behind the counter, there was a framed montage of photos showing the Beatles holding a six-foot submarine sandwich; it was later explained to us that the Fab Four had played the Atlantic City Convention Center in 1964, and the owners had sent over the sub and a cameraman – smart guys.

While we were waiting for our food, we watched one guy use a $20 bribe to cut in front of everyone else; no one seemed to mind.

We were served a half sub and a can of soda each. Laurie said that her Philly Cheesesteak was very good; I thought my steak sub (with nothing but hots) was OK, but just that. After we had finished, I bought a souvenir tee-shirt for $10 and we headed home, saturated with local charm and culture.


On Saturday night, we saw a performance by the Beatles tribute act “Yesterday.” They have their own little theatre inside the Tropicana called The Liverpool Club, which is decked out on the outside with huge photos of the Beatles (while the Beatles first British LP, “Please Please Me” plays in a continuous loop in the hall). Inside, it has a Cavern Club look and feel. The theatre is intimate, seating no more than a hundred, and Laurie and I got in early enough to grab center seats in the third row, about ten feet from the stage. It was a full house, so we felt lucky, and there was a nice mix of young and let’s say…older.

As I inspected the stage, I was impressed by the authenticity of the instruments and the equipment, right down to the tiny Vox amplifiers the Beatles had to contend with early in their career. One thing I don’t understand is why “Ringo’s” drum set was behind a plexiglas half-wall. Television monitors on the side walls played old videos of Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Dave Clark Five while we waited for the show to start. At the appointed time, an Ed Sullivan impersonator appeared on the monitor and announced the act.

The cast is Bobby Potter on drums (as Ringo Starr), Jim Lett on lead guitar (George Harrison), Don Bellezzo on rhythm guitar (John Lennon) and Paul Sacco on bass (Paul McCartney).

We had seen the players earlier that evening, as they gave an interview in The Quarter on “Trop Radio,” and the first thing we noticed was that, having been together since 1986, they were easily in their fifties, which was a bit disillusioning. (Fortunately, they have nice wigs and makeup to give the proper look; although Jim Lett’s hair appeared to be his own.) What struck me as I watched from ten feet away was that, had the Beatles all survived, and not been as mythically successful, so that they were forced to relive their act every night in let’s say, Las Vegas, and replaced Ringo with Seymore Skinner from the Simpsons, this is what it probably would have looked like. (Don’t discount Seymore Skinner: remember his experience as a member of the Grammy Award winning vocal group the Be Sharps.) I suddenly became very appreciative of the fact that the Beatles quit in 1969 while they were still on top, choosing to go their separate ways rather than risk sullying perfection.

They were all musically very good (watching Lett play made me even more appreciative of George Harrison). Vocally, Sacco (Paul) and Potter (Ringo) were pretty good, Lett (George) was OK and Bellezzo (John) was, well, not as good. Bellezzo makes the common John-error. (I’ve seen four different Beatles tribute acts: Beatlemania [twice], 1964, Rain, and now, Yesterday, so I know of what I speak.) John sang with a somewhat nasally voice, and many Lennon impersonators so focus in on this that they become shrill and off-key. Bellezzo was, at times, so nasally as to be difficult to listen to, with lyrics that were impossible to hear clearly. He just about completely wrecked “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” At other times, depending on the song, it was less noticeable. Potter surprised me by doing a very good Ringo imitation on “Matchbox,” although, honestly, Ringo’s lack of range makes him a less challenging task.

The three guitarists were excellent in imitating the mannerisms of the Beatles during the two sets of the show: the first set was circa 1964 and the second was Shea Stadium in 1965. Laurie and I both noticed that the band’s Wells Fargo badges were misplaced, but this is fairly trivial. As a last critique, Sacco (Paul) may have been pushing Paul’s onstage playfulness into caricature at times, but the audience seemed to like the interplay. During the show, the side monitors played videos of the actual Beatles, which I found distracting, and considering the age difference between the then-youthful Beatles and the now-old Yesterday, a persistent and sad reminder that these were definitely not the Beatles.

After the show, and two encore songs, the players appeared in the lobby to sign autographs and to help sell the few pieces of merchandise they had for sale. I bought a black tee-shirt for $20, which they cheerfully signed. Potter (Ringo) put a lot of work into his autograph, which, had there been a crush, would’ve actually become awkward.

Because I’m such a fan, and because I know so much about the Beatles, it’s hard to watch a tribute band without seeing the flaws. Still, it was a good show (especially considering that all seats were $25), and I enjoyed it.

As a bonus, while we were there, we lost no money to the machines. (As far as I know.)

On Doug Fieger And The Knack

The front cover of their debut LP

It was announced today that Doug Fieger, the singer/songwriter behind The Knack, had lost his battle with cancer at age 57. For me, this is another one of those moments when I feel a little bit older; when I feel a little bit closer to a stage of my life that I’d rather not have to think about just yet.

Doug Fieger, like me, was a huge Beatles fan, and that came across in his music, which is probably a major part of why I found the Knack so appealing. He even crafted the band’s image to be a reflection of the Beatles, which ironically was part of The Knack’s undoing. A lot of musicians cite the Beatles as a huge influence on their work, but in the end, Fieger took it just a little too far. Because of this, even as the Knack dominated the charts in 1979, there was already a growing “Nuke the Knack” backlash movement, just waiting for them to fail.

The band’s records were even on 1960’s vintage Capitol labels.

I was five when the Beatles last recorded together, so I had pretty much missed them. As a result, I had been expectantly waiting for “the next Beatles” of my generation to appear (and still naive enough to believe that there would eventually be a “next Beatles”). When The Knack exploded onto the charts in the summer of 1979, I was taken in, not just by the image, but also by their Beatles-esque sound. Don’t be mistaken, The Knack, with Doug Fieger writing and singing their songs, were very good.

That summer, “My Sharona” topped the charts and went on to be the #1 single of the year. “Good Girls Don’t” and “That’s What the Little Girls Do” also climbed the singles chart, and “Get The Knack” shot to the top spot in the album charts. I thought “the next Beatles” had actually arrived. I also liked that Fieger’s lyrics were naughty, which gave them a slightly rebellious feel, even in their black ties.

The Knack’s next album in 1980, “But the Little Girls Understand” was also good, but, I uneasily admitted to myself, not quite as good.

This album’s big single was “Mr. Handleman,” which like the LP, didn’t hit quite as big.

Here’s a couple more from their second LP:

Disappointed, I anxiously waited for their third album, which would sort of be the tie breaker on the “next Beatles” thing. In 1981, they released “Round Trip,” which was utterly forgettable, and for me, officially relegated them to the “what might have been” category. It also made me realize, maybe for the first time, just how difficult it is to be the Beatles, even for two albums.

With that, I moved on, and so did the music industry. The Knack was suddenly passé, a relic of that awkward time between disco and New Wave. The Knack wouldn’t release another album for ten years.

Years later, as a husband and father, I began purchasing CDs to replace my old records, and I made sure that “Get The Knack” was one on my early acquisitions. Listening to it again for the first time in years, I remembered how good that album was; nowadays, a couple of times a year it will occupy one of the six spots in my car CD changer. A few times I heard about Knack reunion tours that I planned on going to, but nothing ever seemed to come of it. In 2005, The Knack was scheduled to appear on the NBC reality show Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, which was supposed to be a chance for old bands to get a fresh chance on TV, but the show was so terrible it got canceled right after A Flock of Seagulls were on it.

A year later, Fieger was diagnosed with cancer, for all intents and purposes closing the books on The Knack. And now, with Fieger gone, the band is literally a part of the past.

As for me, I still have “Get the Knack,” which will console me, and date me somewhat, as I drive to UMBC in the morning. Man but that was a good album.

Snowmaggedon 2010 or 40 Hours Without Power

Having a history degree, it’s always been a dream of mine to experience life in a time before modern conveniences. This weekend, I got to live the dream – sort of.

We all knew that a snowstorm of historic proportions was headed our way, and this one didn’t disappoint. On Friday, as the storm loomed, the only real worry I had was getting home before driving conditions became dangerous. Thankfully, UMBC closed at 1PM, and I and my family were safely ensconced in our home by mid-afternoon. All that was left to do was watch and wait to see how big this snow would really be.

We weren’t concerned about boredom, because there were plenty of things at home to occupy each of us. My wife, the office manager at a large podiatry practice, brought home loads of billing that could be done online; my children had their video games, social networking sites and television to see them through. Me? I was prepared to help monitor the UMBC Help Desk online, and I had brought home textbooks to read for my two graduate courses. And, of course, there would be shoveling to fill the hours.

When we went to bed Friday night, the heavy snow had begun in earnest and was beginning to accumulate. But we were prepared, so there were no worries. At 3:30AM, however, our weekend changed. That was when a tree at the top of our street toppled onto a power line, plunging our neighborhood into darkness. My family and I slept through the moment, not knowing what was ahead.

At around 6:30AM, my wife stirred long enough to see what time it was, but our electronic clock was dark. Soon, I knew it, too. The power was out.

Our neighborhood almost never loses power, and when it does, it’s usually not for long. But when I looked outside from our bedroom window on Saturday morning, I quickly realized that this time might be different. Calling BGE confirmed my suspicions – they had no ETA for our power outage.

The snow was already at least a foot deep, and it continued to snow hard. When we went downstairs to let the dogs out, there was a minor problem:

The snow was already piled up higher than our dogs; I would have to dig out a path for them before I did anything else. This I proceeded to do, while my wife started a fire in our living room fireplace (the temperature in the house had already dropped noticeably). Until Saturday morning, our fireplace existed to provide ambiance or perhaps a romantic evening when the kids were away; for the next 36 hours, it would be the key to our world.

It took me about an hour to finish the dog path, and then I came inside to get warm (in a relative sense). Here’s a picture of my backyard; if you look closely in the middle, you can just about make out the dog path, turning at the left side and crossing toward the bottom right:

Here are some other shots from Saturday:

As we gathered around the only heat source in the house, my wife grumbled about not having a cup of coffee. At that moment, I had a history-inspired moment of inspiration. Not to worry, I told her; we’ll boil water in the fireplace and then use the Folger’s Singles (this is basically coffee in a tea bag). In order to build the rig that would turn our fireplace into a ready-made hearth, I had to retrieve a number of discarded bricks and pieces of bricks from just outside our front door, now covered in over a foot of snow. This took about twenty minutes of stretching over a pile of firewood and digging through snow, but soon we were proudly cooking, just like living historians at Williamsburg.

As you’ll notice in this picture of the first attempt, the pot is uncovered. Tip – uncovered pots in a fireplace attract ashes. Future attempts featured covered pots. Still, it worked. I enjoyed a lunch of Campbell’s Chunky Soup (New England Clam Chowder, seasoned with Old Bay); my son and daughter also had soup, which seemed like the easiest thing to make in the limited space of the Harrison Hearth. My wife focused on lots of hot coffee.

Once we realized that we were going to be without power for a while, we knew that the food in our two refrigerators was in jeopardy of spoilage. Since it was “like an icebox out there,” the snow covered deck became our refrigerator:

As the snow began to wind down toward late afternoon, we decided to start the digging out process. I dug a path from the front door to the street, and my son Zack got to work on the sidewalk.

After that, we focused on clearing off my car and opening the driveway to the street.

We continued shoveling until it was too dark to see (no street lights) and then came into our cold, cold house, now illuminated with a couple of oil lamps. Our lives now revolved completely around the fireplace, and we only left its warmth to recover some needed item and then quickly return to its side. We started to worry about my wife’s 120-gallon saltwater fish tank, which was happily located in the living room, directly across from the fireplace. If the oxygen became depleted in the tank, or if the water temperature dropped too low, her beloved tropical fish, some a number of years old, would die as we watched helplessly. I decided to keep the fire hot and hope for the best.

Outside, our street had been repeatedly plowed, and was clean to the pavement. Beyond my neighborhood, we had only anecdotal reports about road conditions.

As the cold, dark evening wore on, boredom set in, and my preteen daughter, Sarah, began to crack. Before long, she was alternately complaining, arguing with her older brother or begging us to play board games; all we wanted to do was to sit by the fire. Around 9PM, my mother-in-law offered a oasis, however distant. She told us that if we could get her there, she could spend the night with her grandparents. We knew that it probably wasn’t safe to drive yet, but the other option, spending the night with our increasingly frantic twelve-year old, seemed more likely to result in lasting injury. I told Sarah to pack an overnight bag.

Driving slowly, in a circuitous route that took advantage of major roads, we made the two-mile trip to Mom Mom’s in about twenty minutes. On the way home, I stopped at the Giant at Cromwell Field Shopping Center, incredibly open for business, for supplies. There were only a few other cars in the freshly plowed lot.

There was one cashier on duty, and one front-end manager. In the aisles, I saw two other customers and plenty of junk food, which I greedily snapped up. As I made my way back home, I noticed a car on a trailer abandoned on the ramp to northbound Route 97. Keeping to main roads as long as possible, I made good progress and arrived without incident. The car’s digital thermometer read 21º.

Our living room had been converted into a bedroom. My wife had used couch cushions and blankets to make a bed for us on the floor in front of the fireplace; our son had opted for a large circular chair that was pulled up just beside. I noticed that it was only slightly warmer in the house than it had been outside, and that our three dogs and two cats had migrated to the living room. The room was dark, but we were cheerful, perhaps because we recognized the historic nature of what we were experiencing. We knew that we’d be sharing stories about this weekend for the rest of our lives, and the novelty of our circumstances provided us with mild amusement. On the other hand, looking uneasily across the room, I knew that time was running out for the tropical fish. (One of the student-staffers I work with at the Help Desk, Andrea Mocko, had once told me about her fish dying under similar circumstances. Every time I recalled her story, a feeling of dread came over me, so I tried not to think about it, but this was impossible.)

One of the things I bought at Giant was Jiffy Pop, which we made in the fire, and that was fun for about fifteen minutes. By ten o’clock, there was nothing to do but settle down in our beds for the night. This was when I realized that the fire, our sole source of heat, would soon die out if left untended. Not only would sleeping become a frosty nightmare, but the fish would certainly freeze to death. Someone had to keep the fire going, and I decided that it would be me. I spent the night dozing, feeling my face grow cold, waking up and then fixing the fire. This cycle was repeated in about 45 minute blocks throughout the night. Sometimes getting the fire going was easy, sometimes hard, but I never let it die. When morning finally came, I was relieved.

It’s hard to sleep late when you’re miserable, so everyone was up and about by 7AM, except the fish, which, while alive, stayed out of sight at the bottom of the tank amidst the rocks. I touched the glass of the tank and wondered how much longer they had left. It was around this time that I looked over at Samson, our collie-shepherd mix, and noticed that I could see his breath.

Once the hearth was reconstructed (it had to be taken apart for the overnight, as the rack restricted how many logs could be put into the fire), coffee was made for my wife, while I had a cup of tea. We called BGE for an update and were told that our power would be restored at 3:30PM. After that, I went outside to resume shoveling. Here’s what I saw:

Our neighbor's house

I started working on my wife’s car, which was in the driveway in front of mine. When that was done, my wife and dug out a space for another car on the curb in the street, so that when my oldest son, Ryan, returned later that night, there would be adequate parking. As we worked, the sun shone brightly and it actually felt a bit balmy (I guess after what we had tried to sleep through, 35º and sunny is a heat wave.) My wife and I shoveled in sweatshirts alone, and I found myself sweating; soon the spot was cleared and we were exhausted. Calling for another update, BGE was now estimating that we would have power at 7PM – not good for the suffering fish.

For dinner, we decided to see if there were any fast food places open. As it turned out, the nearby Wendy’s was, and that became dinner. By the time we were done eating, it was getting dark again, and the oil lamps were relit. Once again we huddled miserably around the fire; by now the charm of living in the nineteenth century had vanished. We just wanted our power back. (I also knew that there was a good chance that I would not only miss the Super Bowl, but more importantly, miss The Who. I sadly began preparing myself mentally for this eventuality.)

At around this time, my wife started to feel nauseous, and I spent about twenty minutes groping around the medicine cabinet by oil lamp, until I found some Tums. Freezing to death, it occurred to me, is probably not a healthy living choice.

Once the Super Bowl was underway, I followed the game on my Droid, via ESPN. The Colts jumped out to a 10-0 lead, and I was not surprised. I called BGE again, but they had no further updates for us; looking over at the black saltwater tank, I didn’t think the fish would last the night. I went back to my 3.7″ digital rendering of the Super Bowl. It was almost halftime, and the Saints were making a game of it.

And then, without warning or fanfare, the 21st century returned. The lights in a few rooms were suddenly on, and most importantly, the fish tank roared to life. I quickly scanned the now illuminated water for floaters, and relieved to find none, turned my attention to the next order of business: getting the Super Bowl on TV before I missed The Who.

So, in the end, we survived, albeit wearily. Monday was spent recovering physically, restoring order in the house (like finding our buried food on the deck) and catching up on missed chores, such as laundry. I also spent a good deal of time cleaning out the fireplace (our new center of the universe) and digging fresh firewood out of the snow, in preparation for tomorrow’s “snow event.”

All that’s left now is to go to the strip mall and find myself a “I Survived The Snowpocalypse” tee shirt to commemorate our weekend adventure. Awesome.

There’s Still The Vikings

Bud Grant

As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I fell in love with the Minnesota Vikings. How did such a strange thing happen? Accidentally, of course.

I first became an NFL fan in 1973 (that was also the year I started playing pee wee football). At that time, my hometown team, the Baltimore Colts, were between two eras: Johnny Unitas & Bert Jones. They were a terrible team, finishing 4-10 in 1973, and then 2-12 in 1974. So, while they were still my number one team, they were difficult to watch.

One NFL Sunday around this time, the living room console television in my parents’ house was tuned to the NFC game, and what I saw were players dressed in awesome purple uniforms, with horns on their helmets. The dirt field was a mess, it was snowing and they didn’t seem to even notice. Their coach stared impassively out at the field while these purple machines consumed their opponents and spit out the remains on the snow-covered ground. On the sidelines, standing next to players who refused to cover up against the cold, was a guy dressed as a Viking, with a shield and a sword and he was screaming in a sort of blind rage. This, I thought, is how professional football ought to look. And at that moment, I fell in love.

The Vikings defense at that time was called “The Purple People Eaters,” and that they did. As I followed their exploits through the playoffs, I watched as they mugged and beat down one team after another on their march to the Super Bowl.

The Purple People Eaters

Their offense was really good, too. Quarterback Fran Tarkenton was famous for scrambling in the pocket, buying time until a receiver came open. It seemed like one always did.

They also had a great running back, Chuck Foreman, who rushed for a thousand yards in three straight seasons (this was in a fourteen game schedule when rushing for a thousand yards meant something).

In the 1970s, the Vikings finished 1st in their division almost every year, and went to three Super Bowls, losing to each of the era’s AFC powerhouses (Dolphins, Steelers, Raiders) once. No matter, I was hooked on the purple, and as any adult will tell you, childhood addictions tend to stay with you forever.

When the Colts abandoned Baltimore in 1984, I was lucky to have the Vikings as an easy fallback team. They continued to have success, reaching the playoffs seven times between 1987-1996, but they never made it back to the Super Bowl. Still, I was a fan, and was even crazy enough to wear Vikings gear to the Vet in November of 1989 for a game against the Eagles (Herschel Walker returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, but they still managed to lose 10-9).

When the Ravens came to town, I immediately elevated them to my number one team, but my passion for the Vikings remained. (I was thrilled when the team ditched the “Browns” with their hideous color scheme and adopted purple.) I have since seen the Vikings and Ravens play twice in Baltimore, which is always a treat. I still wear Vikings gear, but now it’s on a platoon basis with my Ravens stuff. Every Christmas, one of my football traditions is intertwined purple & gold garland, which remains on display until both the Ravens and Vikings are eliminated. Which brings me to today.

Sadly, midnight came for the Ravens Saturday night, but on the bright side, the Vikings looked great in smashing the super-hyped Cowboys yesterday. So, for now, the purple garland remains, and I get to look forward to the 8th appearance for the Vikings in an NFC Championship game.

In all of this is a lesson: it’s always good to have a fallback option.

Ravens Traditions: The Flag Flies Again!

My Ravens Playoff Flag

Because I’m a bit OCD, I tend to accumulate a lot of what I call “traditions.” These are things that must be done at certain times, in certain ways, every time. My holiday routine is a prime example. Another example are my Ravens routines.

We have one of those decorative seasonal banner posts in front of our house, on which we rotate appropriate displays. During the summer months, from it hangs a rustic American flag-type banner. At the start of each Ravens season, I hang the Ravens banner, which will remain until the team takes its first loss, after which time it will be replaced by our generic autumn banner. This banner returns in January should the Ravens make the playoffs, and stays until they are eliminated.

Similarly, the 3′ x 5′ Ravens flag is hoisted on the day the Ravens qualify for the postseason, and remains until they get knocked out, when it is immediately removed. When I come and go from my house, seeing that the big Ravens flag still flies can be a misty moment.

Inside the house there are traditions, too. As a part of my Christmas decorations, I use intertwined purple and gold garland around the living rooms windows to reflect my allegiance not just to the Ravens, but also to my secondary team, the Minnesota Vikings. (I became a Vikings fan at age 7, back when Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters ruled the NFC. They were a good backup to the Colts during some lean years, and then, when the Colts left, the Vikings filled in quite nicely until the Ravens arrived.) This garland will be in place until neither the Ravens nor the Vikings are alive in the playoffs.

Some items exist without regulation, such as the inexpensive vinyl tablecloth, which is in use for much of the football season, but is removed occasionally for cleaning:

And then there are other items that get added haphazardly, and, because they are small, end up in place year-round. Falling into this category is a beaded necklace with a paper message that was given to us sometime last year, and now permanently resides on a curio cabinet in the living room.

Of course, there are apparel traditions to uphold as well. While the Ravens still play, I observe Purple Fridays at work, sometimes adding my gold UMBC necktie. My wife, who works in the medical field, wears Ravens scrubs to work on the Monday following a game. On game days in warm weather, I wear my Ray Lewis jersey, switching over to one particular long-sleeve jersey/sweater once the weather shifts. My wife usually wears her Joe Flacco jersey, but she’s not neurotic about it like I am.

So, now that the Ravens are in the playoffs, the flag flies once more. Let’s just hope it has a chance to get a bit weathered before I’m forced to haul it down again.

Top Ten Things I Like About New Year’s Day

1. (Technically, this happens just before midnight, but still…) That the last song played in Times Square before the ball drops is “Imagine” by John Lennon.

2. Removing the Christmas decorations – I know I really enjoyed putting them up, but that was five weeks ago. I’m ready to have my living room back now.

3. The NHL Winter Classic – Hockey played outdoors in an open-air stadium (with snow if we’re lucky), and usually between two good teams.

4. College bowl games that don’t make me want to throw up. Instead of the Meineke Car Care Bowl, we get the Rose Bowl. Finally.

5. Knowing that the NFL playoffs are only days away – No more “49ers vs. Chiefs on this week’s Monday Night Football!”

6. Changing the calendars in the house. As cool as I thought that calendar was last January, I want it gone now.

7. Back to single digit months – Starting today, I can write 1/1/10, rather than 12/31/09.

8. It’s ridiculous, but now that we’ve turned the corner, so to speak, it seems like spring is much closer than it was yesterday. It also helps that the next big holiday is Valentine’s Day, which is in mid-February, by which time it could be 65° (or 20°).

9. The illogical, yet undeniable optimism that coincides with an arbitrary change in the numbering system that we use to mark the passage of time. For no real reason, everything seems new, and anything seems possible.

10. The satisfaction of having pulled off one more successful holiday season. (“Put Christmas 2009 in the can, that’s a wrap!”)

Remastered Beatles CDs Totally Worth It

So, here I am, almost 40 years into my obsession with the Fab Four, getting to know the band as if it were for the first time – and loving it.

For Christmas this year, I received the Beatles Remastered Stereo Box Set. The set includes 13 remastered Beatles’ CDs, plus Past Masters, a collection of Beatles’ singles and other recordings that were never included on their LPs. It also contains a DVD documentary on the making of each Beatles’ album.

Listening to the remastered discs is somewhat like discovering the Beatles all over again. The new clarity of these recordings peels back the layers of each track and allows the listener to hear each instrument and vocal part individually. I’m hearing instruments that I never knew were there, because on previous releases everything just blended together.

For example, Paul doesn’t use his bass guitar on “I Will,” he sings each note instead. For all these years, I had no idea, but with the use of earphones, I heard it distinctly (and then did internet research to confirm my discovery). Crazy.

Having gone through the discs once, here are some things this experienced Beatles connoisseur discovered:

In Glass Onion, John sings “here’s another place you can go – where everything froze.” I had always thought it was grows.

During a rest in Don’t Pass Me By, Ringo gives himself an audible eight count.

Another lyrical correction from Happiness Is A Warm Gun: “…lying with his eyes while his hands were busy working overtime.” I had it as flying.

Also in Happiness Is A Warm Gun, in the line “…down to the bitch that I left uptown,” I thought it was just John double-tracked, but now I hear someone else singing backing vocal, too.

Paul shouting “wooo…” and “come on…” in the background of Birthday is much more noticeable.

In Yer Blues, “…girl you know the reason why” is not just John double-tracked, someone echoes John in the background. Other unidentifiable background shouting. There’s also a overlaying of two different lead guitar solos in this song.

The background laughter, talk & shouting is much clearer on “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter.”

The end of “Long, Long, Long” is really eerie.

There are strange sounds on bass side early in “Cry Baby Cry.”

The voices and sounds in “Revolution 9” are much more easily distinguished.

The use of echo on Sgt. Pepper is much more obvious.

Ringo plays maracas on a lot of Beatles songs.

I became aware of the use of drumsticks as a percussion instrument on “Do You Want To Know A Secret?”

Ringo’s overdubbed Arabian drum accents are easily noticed on “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.”

McCartney’s walking bass on “Honey Don’t” really comes through.

I’m sorry, John, but it sounds even more like “I Buried Paul” on Strawberry Fields Forever now.

“Baby You’re A Rich Man” is a lot of fun to listen to.

Someone says something at :22 of “All You Need Is Love.” I could make out the word “change.”

Listening to George Martin’s film score from Yellow Submarine really brought back memories. I had forgotten how beautiful “Pepperland” is.

Everything about the “Let It Be” album sounds better remastered. The ever-present studio chatter is much clearer – for example, after “Dig A Pony” (one of the rooftop numbers), Lennon can be easily heard saying “My hand’s getting hurt…too cold to play a chord.”

When I was copying the Past Masters CD to iTunes, for some reasons, the titles of disc 2 were imported in Japanese. Strange.

A final note: the DVD documentary is only about 40 minutes long, but it’s very well done. It covers the making of each Beatles album and includes the recollections of John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin. It’s stylishly produced, and interesting to watch.

So, now I’m heading back for more doses of Fab Four. You should, too. After all, a splendid time is guaranteed for all. And on this promise, the Beatles always deliver.

What It’s Like To Graduate – Winter Commencement 2009

I Came, I Saw, I Walked.

Yesterday was Winter Commencement at UMBC; in a bit, I’ll give you a window into my experiences there. But first, I want to back up a little bit, because I need to make mention of one of the neat perks of graduating: people are very happy for you, and glad to show it. For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing congratulations from many family and friends, and getting nice surprises, such as what was waiting for me Tuesday inside my office:

Here’s a close up of the greeting card and treats that Anna and Barb lavished me with:

I also want to thank my good friends and co-workers at the Department of Information Technology who so readily took up my cause when I was in search of an extra ticket for my mother-in-law. Sandy Campbell at Institutional Advancement told me that I must have a lot of friends at IT, because she received many calls on my behalf. In the end, everyone was able to see me graduate in person, and I feel fortunate and grateful to be able to work with such good friends.

With the extra seat having been secured, all that was left to do was graduate.

On Wednesday, the first thing I noticed when I got to UMBC were the many very visible traffic control stations.

The second thing I noticed was lots of signage – everywhere.

If you couldn't land tickets to get inside the RAC, you could watch Commencement on television in a Lecture Hall. I've been assured that this is a great experience, but I can't help but feel that it must be a bit surreal.

If you get your picture taken with True Grit early, there are no crowds to fight.

Graduates were directed to the basement of Sondheim Hall, a foreboding place to which I had never before been.

Once I got down there, I noticed that each major was posted on the wall of the hallway, and we were directed to gather in front of ours.

Slowly, the hallway began to fill up, and we were directed to arrange ourselves alphabetically within our major, as this is the way we would enter the RAC.

Helpful UMBC staffers walked up and down the hallways, shouting instructions.

Those students with names that might cause a reader to stumble had their names written phonetically on their yellow cards. We were told to hold onto our yellow cards as if our lives depended on it, and then give it to someone on stage just before we walked.


At about 9:45, we began moving, and I expected that we would have to go outside. Not so! I had no idea that there was a tunnel connecting the basement of Sondheim Hall with the RAC, but there it was. I felt like I had been granted some secret knowledge because of my status as a graduate.

We processed in to the “Prince of Denmark March,” by Jeremiah Clarke. I was expecting “Pomp and Circumstance,” of course. When we got to our seats, we found this program waiting for us:

That's me on page 21!

The first thing all of us did upon entering the RAC was to scan the crowd wildly trying to figure out where our family and friends were seated. For the longest time, I couldn’t find mine, and then I saw why – they had somehow secured seats in the first row on the floor, in a place where I would literally walk right next to them as I went to the stage. From my angle, they had been screened by the graduates in front of me, but I was happy to see that they had gotten such good seats.

A large black curtain had been raised at the end of the basketball court as a backdrop to the stage; it was wide enough to fill in the area between the basketball championship banners and as tall. In front of it was the UMBC lettered logo. On the stage itself were banners representing each of the university’s colleges, and there were chairs from one side to the other to accommodate the many dignitaries. In the center of the stage was the main podium, with two smaller flanking podiums on either side. On the second floor, at the railing next to the track, an announcer acted as Master of Ceremonies during the processional.

After we were at our places, the faculty and administration processed in. The regalia worn by many of them seemed straight out of Tudor England, or at least Harry Potter.  UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski was his usual chatty, upbeat self as he entered the arena. Almost as soon as we had been seated we had to rise and remove our very carefully placed caps for the National Anthem, performed by Casey Hively, the sole graduate on hand from the Music Department. After this, there were various greetings from dignitaries, and then a fairly short address by President Hrabowski, which mainly focused on the diverse stories of those graduating. I continued to clutch my yellow card tightly, remembering the admonishments of the staff back in the basement of Sondheim Hall.

Soon the graduates were being called to the stage, by individual colleges (i.e. College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) and then by majors within those colleges. Staffers acting as ushers told each row when to rise and go forward, and wouldn’t you know it? Some unlucky Jonah two rows in front of me lost his precious yellow card! Staffers frantically tore through programs looking for the card, but to no avail. Regardless, he went to the stage, had his name called and got his handshakes like everyone else. Yes, that’s right, there’s no diploma given on stage, or even rolled up piece of paper – just a handshake from Dr. Hrabowski (which is still pretty cool).

That's me, almost to the stage.

This is me almost to the stage. Note the magical yellow card in my right hand.

Collecting my well-earned handshakes.

After handing in the yellow card and getting your hand shaken repeatedly, you’re done and it’s back to your seat. As we returned, we were given these lovely parting gifts form the Alumni Association:

How to live in the Grown-Up World manual. Over 180 pages of helpful tips for young graduates. Most of these principles I have already violated countless times.

Inside the envelope on the left was the brochure on the right.

The inside of the brochure.

After getting back to our seats, all that was left to do was to listen to the other graduates’ names being called, taking note of the occasionally wild outbursts from some particularly exuberant families. One group in the bleachers was waving an Angolan flag.

After everyone had been called, Dr. Hrabowski spoke for just a few more minutes, admonishing us to savor these moments, as it “doesn’t get any better than this.” After this, we stood and sang the Alma Mater and then the administration, faculty and finally we, processed out, in our case back through the tunnel to Sondheim.

Moving back through the tunnel.

Breaking out of Sondheim Hall into the cold air and bright sunshine.

Once outside, the challenge became finding one's family amidst the crush of people.

True Grit was a convenient place to tell your people to meet you.

After my family finally fought their way through to me, I posed for my UMBC portrait:

True Grit & Me

After getting my picture taken, we gathered for a celebratory lunch. By the time I got home, I already had an email from the professional photographer, offering to sell me a package of photos for $80 or perhaps $150; I could also purchase a DVD for $45. I expect to soon receive my first fundraising letter; that’s when I’ll know for sure that I’ve graduated.

The Christmas Blizzard of 2009 at UMBC – A Pictorial

This weekend’s major snow event buried UMBC – but not so much as to keep campus from opening. Here are some images from this morning:

This is what I woke up to Sunday morning:

It’s Christmastime at UMBC! (A Pictorial Essay)

And you thought it was the Christmas season!

Outside of the Math Psychology Building

In the lobby of the RAC

At the Commons

Outside the University Center

Seen all over campus

The UMBC Bookstore:

The Yum Shoppe

The College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences - 1st Floor UC

Through the window of the ELC

A successful 2009 Maryland Charity Campaign

At the Skylight Lounge:

The OIT Help Desk Christmas Party: