Wednesday, September 25, 2013


I'm back, after a little blogging hiatus--and apparently my computer, or the Blogger site, or something, is punishing me for going so long without posting. It now won't let me post (it won't let me type, even--no cursor!) the normal way. This is in HTML format, so it probably won't look that nice, but at least I can publish a post. I hope.

So, moving on...

I am resistant to change. Like, a lot. Like, when my college roommate wanted to move the furniture around in our dorm room I almost had a panic attack. Like, when my parents decided to have prime rib for Thanksgiving one year instead of turkey, I pretty much threw a temper tantrum (I was 35 at the time.) You get the idea. And, I guess the flip side of that is that when I find something I like, I really like it and tend to not want to stray from it. I read certain books over and over. I watch movies or particular episodes of TV shows again and again. I own the same shoes in multiple colors. I always order fajitas at Mexican restaurants. If it ain't broke don't fix it and all that.

So, given that, you might understand why, when people suggest that if I like Scotland I would also enjoy Ireland or England or Wales, my immediate reaction is to say no, I like SCOTLAND, as though liking Scotland and liking anywhere else are mutually exclusive. I have been on an alternate-year schedule (not originally planned, but it's worked out that way and it seems like a reasonable time period between trips) of going to Scotland, and each time I've gone it's been on Ed Miller's Folksong Tour. Knowing that 2014 was my year, I asked a friend, who's been on the tour twice with me (that's how we met) if she wanted to go too. Her response? "How about going to Ireland instead?" Her thinking was that there's a whole big world out there and so many fantastic places to travel to, so why would you want to keep going to the same place, particularly on the same tour, over and over again? I must admit she has a point. However, I have enjoyed my four previous tours so much that it seems kind of obvious that I'd keep going back for more. Scotland, specifically Ed's tour, is my drug of choice, I guess, and I don't want to muddle things up by trying something new. I thought about the Ireland idea for a while, and came to the conclusion that there were two things stopping me from going--what if I didn't like it as much as Scotland/Ed's tour, and therefore "wasted" my vacation and came home with regrets, or, even worse, what if I DID like it as much as (or more than) my previous tours? Would I somehow be disloyal to Scotland by liking Ireland? And yes, I do realize how insane that sounds.

This is where a monkey wrench gets thrown into things. The itinerary for the 2014 tour is significantly different from previous years. The prior years haven't been identical to each other, but there's been a good amount of overlap. The majority of the 2014 tour will involve the northwest part of Scotland, known as the "highlands and islands." The places I've liked the least on the previous tours were the highlands and islands. This is not to say that I disliked them, but they weren't my favorite parts of the trip. So, I've got the competing thoughts of "I love Scotland and want to go back as often as possible, and this particular tour is always fantastic" and "Maybe I won't get a chance to experience the things I love most about Scotland and the tour, this time, so do I even want to go? What if it's not as good? What if I end up wishing I'd gone to Ireland (or Nova Scotia, where I'd also really like to go someday--phenomenal fiddle music there)?" And in case you're wondering, yes, I do recognize that this is the epitome of "first world problems."

I'm attempting to embrace the concept that change can be a good thing. I had no pre-conceptions the first time I went on the Folksong Tour, and obviously loved it, so I'm looking at the 2014 tour kind of like that--I don't know much about the northwest of Scotland, and I'll get to experience it all through fresh eyes. I'm branching out. I'm getting different shoes. I'm ordering the enchiladas. You get the idea.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The torrential rain didn't surprise me. Getting hit on by a 22 year old was unexpected, though.

There's an interesting grammatical construct that I've only ever heard Scots use.  Instead of saying "he left", for example, they'll say "that's him away."  So, in that spirit: That's the Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games finished.

This year's Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games held a lot of meaning for me.  I mentioned in a previous post that the 2005 Houston Highland Games, as it was called then, was the reason that I got interested in all this Scottish folk music stuff in the first place.  The 2005 festival was the start of it all, then I went to Scotland in 2006, and started going to festivals in earnest in 2007.  But like any first love, the Houston Highland Games (or its "rebranded" incarnation, the Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games) will always be special to me.  I was sad when it took a two year hiatus due to lack of volunteers and lack of funding, and was really excited when it returned this year.  I was even more excited when I learned that the main stage would be in the same location as it was that first year, which is in the only totally enclosed, and, significantly, the only air conditioned part of the venue.

The festival lived up to my expectations--the music was great, and there seemed to be a reasonable number of people attending, especially considering this was the first year back after a two year break.  Unfortunately, one thing I should have expected, based on prior experience with this festival, was that the weather would be horrible for at least part of the weekend, and it was.  We're in a drought.  Prior to the weekend of the festival, we hadn't had any significant rain in at least a couple of months.  So, of course, Saturday afternoon/evening was when we had the most horrendous rain storm we've had in a long time.  Houston, for anyone who might not know, has significant "drainage" (or lack of drainage) issues, which means that if it rains hard for even a short time, various places around town will start to flood.  The parking lot of the venue had about ankle deep water, but the festival itself was mostly under cover and amazingly did not flood.  And, not only did it rain hard for several hours, there was also a lot of lightning.  At one point, they stopped running the sound system, I guess for fear there would be a lighting strike and the whole thing would get fried or blow up or something.  So, we had an acoustic set with various musicians joining in, kind of like a pub session.  The storm actually increased the size of the audience at the main stage, because most of the other activities had to stop because of the rain, so everyone came into this nice comfortable enclosed room for the last few hours of the festival.  That was Saturday.  Sunday was actually gorgeous and sunny, although unfortunately not as well-attended.

Unexpectedly, during one of the sets when Jiggernaut was playing, I was asked out on a date by a nice but extremely young guy.  It was kind of a weird conversation anyway, because for the beginning of it I had earplugs in my ears (where else would you put earplugs?)--think bagpipes in a smallish room, and you'll understand why.  Anyway, even after I took out the earplugs, there was a lot of "what?" and "excuse me?" because, you know, trying to talk over bagpipes (even when both parties actually want to talk, which I didn't especially) doesn't work that well.  He finally cut to the chase and asked me out.  I told him I was a lot older than he probably thought I was (I'm 42; he had mentioned earlier that he was 22) and that while I was flattered, it wouldn't work since I was old enough to be his mother.  He shook my hand, said "Nice to meet you, ma'am", and went on his way.  I've been to a lot of Celtic festivals where strange things have happened, but this was a first.

The one disappointment related to the festival is that practically since he was born, I have been waiting for my five year old nephew to be old enough to go to a Scottish festival with me, and this would have been the year...and he had no interest whatsoever in going.  Oh well.  I'll keep working on him and maybe I'll break him down by next year's Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games.  I really really really hope there is a next year!

I'm off to the Texas Scottish Festival this weekend.  Given my track record, there's a good likelihood something blog-worthy will happen.  If so, you'll know soon enough.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A simple shopping trip? Not if I'm involved.

In my last post, I mentioned going to a place called Heathergems, which is a jewelry factory/store in Pitlochry, Scotland.  The 2012 visit to Heathergems was a long-awaited return for me.  I had gone in 2006 and had, shall I say, more of an adventure than I counted on--but I loved their jewelry and really wanted to go back at some point under slightly calmer circumstances. 

Here's what happened the first time.  I was on Ed Miller's Folksong Tour, and it was a day that we had a choice of things to do.  It was a Sunday, and some people were going hiking (I know, right?  Exercise on a vacation?  What's that about?) and if you didn't want to hike, the same bus that was dropping the hikers off would take people to the nearby town of Pitlochry, where there were lots of little shops and things.  I decided to go with the shopping group, of course.  We were dropped off in Pitlochry and told, quite firmly, that we had to be back at the bus parking lot at a particular time--since there were two groups of people doing different things in different places, the drop-off and pick-up arrangements were somewhat complicated, but the gist was, if you're not here at 4:00 or whatever it was, we're leaving you and you'll have to find your own way back.  I think our guide even stressed that since it was Sunday, public transportation ran on a reduced schedule and we would have difficulty getting back to Blair Atholl, where our hotel was, if we missed the tour bus.  OK, OK, I got it.  I had no intention of being late.

So Pitlochry on a Sunday is kind of slow.  I suspect that Pitlochry any day of the week is kind of slow.  I had gone off by myself, not with the rest of our sub-group of shoppers, and there wasn't a whole lot to do.  I went to a bookstore and bought a few books, then I had lunch at a tea room, then I just kind of wandered aimlessly, until I completely accidentally stumbled upon Heathergems.  It's a terrific place.  It has beautiful jewelry, and the story of how it's made is really interesting.  It's basically compressed dyed stems of heather (a purple wildflower that is ubiquitous in Scotland, to the extent that it is sort of a national symbol) that are cut and lacquered and then used in pendants and earrings and pins and things.  Anyway, I was in heaven in this place.  I wanted to bring gifts back for people, and this seemed perfect since it was a product that was unique to Scotland, and really pretty to boot.  I also had been tasked by a patient of mine with buying her some jewelry--she had given me money and told me very generally what she wanted, and it seemed like this was the ideal place to find some stuff for her, too.  It was getting kind of late, so I knew I wouldn't be able to browse as much as I would have liked, and I would still have to hustle to make the bus.  But, it would have all been OK--that is, until I got up to the counter. 

Something to know about Scotland (maybe about the entire UK?) is that there is this tax, called VAT.  If you are not a resident of Scotland, when you leave you can claim some of your VAT back, assuming you meet certain criteria.  You have to have spent a certain amount of money at one time in one store, and you have to have a special kind of receipt and form from the merchant.  Then, on your way out of the country, you give this paperwork to a customs officer and you supposedly get the VAT credited back on a credit card.  I say supposedly because of the two times I have tried this, I have gotten money back a total of zero times.  Whatever.  The point is, at the time I was at Heathergems, I didn't know that the system apparently doesn't work.  All I knew was I was spending more than 40 pounds or whatever it had to be, so I wanted to get the receipt and form that I needed.  The form had to be filled out by the merchant, with the details of what I bought, not just the total amount, and, at least at Heathergems, it was done by hand.  So, it was taking forever.  I was getting a little nervous about the bus situation, but I thought, it's OK, I'll just have to jog.  I also wasn't entirely sure how to get to the bus from where I was, but I chose not to think about that yet.  So finally, everything was totaled up and it was time to pay.  There were actually two clerks helping me--one checking me out and the other filling out the VAT forms--and there was a growing line of people behind me, so I was starting to feel a little self-conscious.  Pretty soon I started to feel a lot more self-conscious, because MY FLIPPIN' CREDIT CARD WOULDN'T GO THROUGH.  The credit card terminal was displaying some sort of code that neither of the clerks recognized, so they just kept re-swiping it, and it kept being declined.  Finally on like the third or fourth try, they figured out that the code meant they had to phone someone to get authorization, and they were ultimately told that I had to get on the phone with a Bank of America rep.  So, they handed me the phone (I was completely stunned--and pretty mortified at this point) and I talked to a very nice lady at Bank of America, who asked me the whole series of mother's maiden name questions, and then asked me to confirm my last two transactions.  Remember the bookstore and the tea room?  Yep, paid for them both with my Visa card.  Apparently, the fact that they were in, you know, SCOTLAND, got flagged, and the next transaction, at Heathergems, was therefore declined until they determined that my card had not been stolen.  Something I (obviously) did not know until this incident, but that apparently everyone else in the entire world knows, is that when you're going to be traveling outside the U.S., you're supposed to notify your credit card company (and your bank if you plan to use an ATM card) so that what happened to me doesn't happen.  Lesson learned.

At this point there had to have been fifteen people in line behind me, none of whom were being helped because I was monopolizing both clerks.  Right then is when I knew that I loved Scotland and Scottish people, because while I was standing there feeling terrible about inconveniencing all those people, and feeling stupid because it was my own fault, an older gentleman behind me in line said, "Och, I hope this disnae ruin your trip."  He felt bad for me and wanted to make sure I didn't have a bad impression of Scotland because of the situation!  (And he said it using some Scots dialect, which I totally loved.)  Seriously, some of the nicest people anywhere.

By the time everything was finished, it was like a minute or two before I was supposed to be at the bus, which I still didn't know how to get to.  Oh, and it was raining.  I figured at that point there was no possible way I was going to make it, so there was no point in running.  Once I figured out how to get to the bus lot, I decided I would go there anyway, and maybe I'd be able to get a public bus that left from the same lot, or close to it.  So, I was strolling along in the rain, when it occurred to me that if the bus hadn't already left, that it might leave in the time it was taking me to leisurely stroll to the bus lot, and if it didn't, it wouldn't look good for my fellow tour members to see me just casually walking and looking like I didn't care that I was making them wait for me.  So, I broke into a full-out run.  And of course, the bus was still there, and no one was upset with me (the fact that I was all wet and out of breath probably helped), and I had fodder for the talent show that I knew would take place at the end of the tour.** 

Of the jewelry I bought, I kept one necklace for myself.  It is my absolute favorite piece of jewelry, even more than the diamond drop necklace that my parents gave me for my thirtieth birthday (don't tell them that.)  I always think of that story when I wear it and when anyone asks me about it or compliments me on it.  Of course, I think one of the reasons that it is my favorite is because of that story!

A nice cherry on the sundae of that day is that when we got back to the hotel and got off the bus, I heard bagpipes (because, hello, it was Scotland.)  I went looking for the source, and found a pipe and drum band rehearsing outside (and fundraising--I had to borrow a pound to put in their container, because I somehow had only 10 and 20 pound notes, and don't get me wrong, I'm all for supporting musicians, but I wasn't going to give them 10 pounds!  Actually, I think I still owe one of the other tour members a pound...oops.)

This past June when I went to Heathergems I took a public bus to Pitlochry (because there wasn't an option to go as part of the tour, but we had a free afternoon.)  There was no drama.  I browsed, chose what I wanted, paid for it, got the VAT form (because I'm a slow learner and I still believed it would work), and that was that.  Somehow, even though I got some lovely pieces of jewelry, it wasn't nearly as much fun.

Have I mentioned how much I love Scotland?

**The song I wrote and performed for our end-of-tour talent show is called "Ode to Tablet."  Tablet is a type of Scottish candy that we had a lot of on that first tour.  One of the verses, sung to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands", goes:
If your credit card's been declined, have some tablet
If in Pitlochry you're almost left behind, have some tablet
If the lamb you saw at play could be your dinner later today
Please don't fret, it's all OK, have some tablet

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I probably won't be writing a travel guide any time soon

When I was in Scotland last summer, I kept a journal.  I've never done that on previous trips, but it occurred to me the first evening I was there (at Sandy Bell's) that there were things I really wanted to post on Facebook, but I didn't want to pay outrageous data roaming fees for accessing Facebook from my cell phone, so writing stuff down seemed a reasonable alternative.  I was re-reading the journal this weekend, and a lot of it really does sound more like a series of Facebook status updates than serious travel diary entries.  Here are some excerpts.

There was a guy at the end of the bar who looked like death personified.  He asked me if I had a kitchen sink in my gigantic purse.

So there's a Legionnaire's outbreak in Edinburgh.  Lovely.

Went to Scottish National Gallery (big art museum.)  Pretty much stayed in their Scottish section, because I didn't come to Edinburgh to see paintings by 15th century Italian artists.

At the cafe in the National Gallery.  Hot chocolate is literally that--like liquid hershey bar!  Could only tolerate a few sips.

I don't know exactly what clotted cream is but I am a fan.  It's like butter that you can eat with a spoon.

People wear tights here more than at home.  Maybe because it's cold, so if you're going to wear some sort of leg covering, instead of wearing hose you might as well wear tights.

Went to Surgeons Hall museum.  Mostly looked at the history stuff; only had a few minutes at the end to look at things like musket balls in people's skulls--those things are huge!

At Surgeons Hall, they have a display about Alexander Wood, who was President of the Royal College of Surgeons of the City of Edinburgh.  One of the things it says is that he was "often accompanied on his professional rounds by a tame raven and a sheep, and was the first person in Edinburgh to carry an umbrella."

On the way back to the hotel, there was a sign on a lamppost looking for a lost 20 year old panda.

Note to self: more mushrooms (and nutella) at breakfast!

Random thought: the Brits (not just Scots, because it was on BBC News too) use the term "funnily enough" a lot.

Had an extremely strange dream involving various members of the royal family and Ted Kennedy.  They and I were at someone's house, and they were helping around the house, like clearing the table and fixing a leak.

Poached eggs at breakfast--significantly underdone.  I think I should quit playing poached egg roulette and just get scrambled.

"Robert Burns: born in Alloway, died in Dumfries, but LIVED in Mauchline!"

Friday night I had a terrible, but luckily relatively short-lived, bout of vertigo.  Margaret Bennett ended the evening with a funny (but politically incorrect) joke that ended with "when you get home, I hope Snow White skelps your arse!" and I threw my head back and laughed, and then the world started spinning.  I think the head-throwing did it.

Petted a black lab outside of Heathergems.  Have waited 6 years to go back to Heathergems--it went much smoother this time.  (The first trip to Heathergems is an entire other blog post in and of itself.  Stay tuned.)

I'll never understand why, in all the hotels we've been in, the servers only count the number of things ordered, but don't record who ordered what.  Because then it's this ridiculous thing of them standing there saying, "Salmon?  Anyone at this table have the salmon?"  Oh well.  As our guide Charles said when I made that comment, that would be too logical.

Well, now it's Thursday 6/21/12--got home last night.  Not sure how, or if, to end this journal.  Maybe I won't.  Maybe it will be for my thoughts about Scotland and music and whatever.  NOPE--THAT'S WHAT THIS BLOG IS FOR!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oh, so that explains it...

When people first hear about my obsession with all things Scottish, especially Scottish folk music, the questions they usually ask are, "Is your ancestry Scottish?" or "Do you have friends/family in Scotland?", and "Do you play an instrument/sing?"  My answers are "No" and "No, I'm just a very enthusiastic audience member."  Depending on how strangely they look at me, I either move on, or tell them some variation of the following story.

I have a couple in my practice--the wife is Scottish and the husband is English but lived in Scotland for many years.  In 2005, I happened to see them a few times in the early spring, and they mentioned that a festival they were involved with, the Houston Highland Games, was coming up in May.  I put the date in the back of my mind, but didn't have any firm plans to attend.  Then, coincidentally, my father was given tickets to an event put on by St. Thomas Episcopal School, an evening of bagpipes and Highland dancing.  He couldn't go, so he gave the tickets to me.  I went, and as I was leaving after the show, who did I see but my patient, in a kilt, handing out fliers advertising the Houston Highland Games.  It seemed that the universe really wanted me to go to this festival.  So, on a Saturday in May, my mother and I went to the festival. I sampled canned haggis (I don't recommend it), watched a demonstration of Scottish Country Dancing (and thought, incorrectly, that I would enjoy it--I wound up taking lessons that fall and did not like it at all), and listened to a few musical groups.  It was late May in Houston, so of course it was really hot, and as it happened the stage where many of the performers were playing was the only air-conditioned part of the venue.  So, my mom and I figured we'd just stay there for a while.  One of the singers was Ed Miller, who is a Scottish folk singer originally from Edinburgh, now living in Austin.  He does a funny song called Cholesterol (here's a version, although not Ed's), about the terrible Scottish diet.  My patients were in the audience, and requested the song for me (doctor, cholesterol, get it?)  After the set, I said hi to Ed, bought his Lowlander CD (which has Cholesterol, as well as another fantastic song, Prince of Darkness, on it), and took a brochure about a Folksong Tour of Scotland that he does every summer.  Over the next day or two, I could not stop thinking about the tour.  And, despite knowing pretty much nothing about Scotland and even less than that about Scottish folk music, I decided I wanted to go the following summer.  After checking with my patients to make sure Ed wasn't an ax murderer (he's not), and emailing Ed himself to ask for references from prior tour participants (he told me later I was the only person, at least up to that point, who had ever asked him for references), I sent in my deposit, and eventually my entire payment, and started looking forward to my vacation, which was to be in June 2006.

And then, in March 2006, my dog was diagnosed with cancer.

I couldn't let myself be excited about the trip anymore, because I didn't know if I was going.  I didn't know what was going to happen to Richard (the most wonderful chocolate lab in the world)--whether he would be well enough for me to go on vacation, or whether he would even still be alive in June.  I was quite stressed about Richard's illness, obviously, but I was also really stressed about the trip--was I going or was I not going, and when did I have to decide?  At some point during this period my sister said something that I thought was quite brilliant.  She said that I didn't have to decide not to go; if the day of the trip came and I didn't want to go, then I just wouldn't go.  That sounds pretty straightforward but it actually took a huge weight off my shoulders, because suddenly I realized I didn't need to stress over the decision, because there wasn't a decision that needed to be made.  So I settled in to the routine of taking my dog to the vet and giving him a regimen of medications, and, since he was actually doing pretty well, I allowed myself to start looking forward to the trip again.  I made plans for him to stay with my parents while I was away, and wrote out an extensive schedule of vet appointments and medication times.  Then I packed.

And then, two days before I was supposed to leave, my grandmother died.

She was almost 98, so it wasn't terribly unexpected, but it did sort of throw a monkey wrench into things.  She lived in Montreal, which was where her funeral was going to be.  So I had two problems. First, I really wanted to go on my trip, which meant missing my grandmother's funeral, and I felt guilty about that.  Second, if I did go on the trip (or even if I went to the funeral), I'd have to figure out something to do with Richard for a few days, because I had planned for him to stay with my parents and I didn't have a back-up plan for if they weren't available (I couldn't in good conscience board a sick dog, who needed special attention and medication and a weekly trip to the vet, at just a regular kennel.)  Anyway, that all got worked out, rather speedily, and on a Saturday morning in June, I jetted off to Glasgow.

The tour was PHENOMENAL.  I have never been entirely sure if it was the music or the people or the place, or the combination, but on about the second or third day, I had this very distinct feeling of "this is where I'm meant to be", which was odd, because up to that point it wasn't like I had felt that anything was missing in my life or that I was longing for something.  But I knew even then, early in that first trip, that I would go back to Scotland, and that it would be on Ed's tour again--and I have been back, four times, all on the same tour (the itinerary does change somewhat.)

Fast forward several months, and I went to a house concert where Ed was performing, and then a festival where he was performing, and then other festivals.  I started out specifically going to see Ed, and just filled in the time when he wasn't performing by going to other acts, but I gradually realized that the other performers were really good too, and soon I started looking forward to seeing other groups almost as much as going to Ed's sets.  I also bought a large number of Scottish folk CDs (from time to time I had to force myself to go on a CD-buying hiatus, because it was getting really expensive), and found a Scottish folk music radio show (which gave me a tiny bit of international celebrity!)  And, almost eight years after that first fateful trip to the Houston Highland Games (which will be April 27th and 28th this year), here I am, an obsessed but fairly harmless fan of Scotland, Scottish folk music, and recently, by extension, some Irish folk and traditional music as well.  I have found my passion.

At the end of Ed's tours, there is always a little talent show, where the tour members can perform a song or a skit or whatever.  Each year, I've written a song and performed it.  The second time I went on the tour, I wrote and performed the following song, to the tune of The Wild Geese.  I think it pretty much says everything I've just said in this blog post, but in fewer words and with a pretty melody.

The first time I went on Ed's tour was mostly on a whim
A highland games, a cool brochure, big check made out to him
And though I have no Scottish blood, I felt like I'd come home
And knew that I'd be back again as soon as I could come

And back home in the Lone Star State conversations seemed to start
With something I did on my trip, or a song I knew by heart
I know I bugged family and friends, but they kindly indulged me
And sometimes even listened when I played them Ed's CDs

And over time I came to know of Scottish fests and games
Bought CDs there and online too, and spent a chunk of change
And any lingering doubts I had about my obsession
Disappeared when I woke at 3 AM to drive to Arlington

So now I've come full circle and I'm back here once again
A different trip in many ways, but some things are the same
The songs and stories from this place will be with me quite a while
For it took three decades, but at last, I am a Scotophile

Monday, March 4, 2013

My Fifteen(ish) Minutes of Fame

Until about five years ago, the closest I'd come to being famous was being interviewed by a local TV news reporter during a community health fair.  I think she asked me about the importance of childhood vaccinations.  Not terribly exciting.  So what happened five years ago, you ask?  Scottish folk music happened.  Obviously.

There used to be a program on BBC Radio Scotland called The Reel Blend (get it--reel, as in jigs and reels?), which was a two hour show on Sundays that featured Scottish folk and traditional music, as well as some Scottish dance music.  The host was a guy named Robbie Shepherd.  I listened to it on the internet, usually after it had already aired, because it was on at 7:00 AM or something here (early in the afternoon in Scotland, WAY too early in the morning in Houston) and it was available on the web site for a week after it had aired.  I forget how I originally found it--I know for a while, before I had internet at home and when we still had dial-up at my office (yeah, I know), I would go to the office to listen to it, and it would buffer, and buffer, and buffer...Dial-up sucks.  But I digress.  Anyway, I somehow knew about it, and I listened to it most weeks.  From time to time they would have "theme" shows, about a certain topic or a particular artist, and they'd ask for suggestions--"send us an email with your favorite songs about animals" or something like that.  Anyway, I would periodically write in with suggestions or requests. 

So, in January of 2009, they were doing a special show about Robert Burns, in honor of the 250th anniversary of his birth, which was January 25th.  (If you can't remember the date, there is, of course, a song that will tell you--"Rantin' Rovin' Robin", which has the line "Our monarch's hindmost year but ane, was five and twenty days begun...", which I suppose really only helps with the January 25th part, and not the 1759 part, unless you know, and can remember, what year "our monarch's hindmost year" is [and then subtract a year, I guess???])  Anyway, they asked for suggestions for Burns songs.  At that time my favorite Burns song was, and probably still is, A Man's A Man for A' That, and my favorite version of it is this one, by Jim Malcolm.  So, I sent an email to The Reel Blend suggesting it.  They replied, and asked if I'd like to be on the radio with Robbie Shepherd, talking about my request.  Uh, YEAH.  They were pre-recording that show on a weekday, so they phoned me at 5:00 AM and I had a brief conversation with Robbie about why I liked the song ("it has a great message") and why I specifically liked Jim's version ("it's a more upbeat version, and I really like the harmonica") and whether there were any Burns Night celebrations in my neck of the woods ("there was a big one last night, which I'm told is the biggest in Texas, but I didn't go to it.")  It was super cool (because I am super geeky), so I put the link on Facebook and figured that was that.

Over the next nine months or so, I continued to request songs from time to time, usually by Jim Malcolm and sometimes by Ed Miller.  For my nephew's first birthday, I wrote in and requested a song I used to sing to him (Coulter's Candy, which up to that point I had only ever heard sung by Ed), and Robbie read my email on the air, wished Andrew happy birthday, and then played the song.  It was really neat, for me at least--I don't think Andrew especially cared.  Then, one time Jim Malcolm was being interviewed on the show, and Robbie said something like, "You know you have a really big fan in Houston", and at the same time he was saying my name, Jim was saying someone else's name.  Then there was an awkward pause, while Jim tried unsuccessfully to figure out who the hell I was.  (I'd like to think it wouldn't be quite as long a pause now, because I've seen the guy in concert in intimate venues ten or twelve times in two different countries, and have had several conversations with him, but you never know.)

Then, the following fall, The Reel Blend did another theme show, about seasons.  This time, I sent in three choices--The First Cold Day (Jim Malcolm), Yellow on the Broom (I like Ed Miller's version best but this one is performed by the songwriter, Adam McNaughtan--he's the guy without the crazy eyebrows), and Festival Lights (this last one is because I mistakenly thought it was called Autumn in Edinburgh.)  And, lo and behold, they invited me on the show again.  I decided I must have been their token American.  They chose The First Cold Day, and Robbie chatted with me for a couple of minutes about how I got interested in Scotland and Scottish music.  This time it was live, and when I listened to it later, I realized I was talking ridiculously fast, about kind of irrelevant things--such as, Robbie said something like, "Well, you're American, so how did you get interested in Scotland?" and I felt the need to explain that I was born in Canada but am a naturalized American.  Why I thought anyone needed to know that, I couldn't tell you. 

A few months after that show, The Reel Blend went off the air, thus ending my budding career as a professional Robbie Shepherd guest.  He still does another show, called Take the Floor, which is almost completely Scottish dance music, but I never really got into it.

I guess that was my fifteen minutes of fame--although, while looking at the stats for my blog (like how many pageviews and from what countries), I discovered that at least one person in Australia has seen my blog, so I figure that pretty much makes me an international celebrity.  I'm sure the paparazzi will be coming after me any day now.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When I hear (Clydesdale) hoofbeats, I think Scotland not beer

I think I was one of the 17 people in the United States who didn't watch the Superbowl.  In fact, I had to memorize who was playing (and then, who won) so I wouldn't seem like a complete idiot if I was having a conversation with, oh, I don't know, ANYBODY on the Monday after the game.  I'm not a football fan.  Don't judge me.  Anyway, I kept hearing about the Budweiser ad with the baby Clydesdale, and yes, when I watched it, I totally teared up.  Don't judge me, again.  If you haven't seen it, or if you'd like to see it again, here it is:
Budweiser Superbowl 2013 ad

So you probably realize by now that I view life through Scottish-colored glasses.  The Clydesdales, well before becoming iconic Budweiser mascots (and mascot isn't really the word I'm looking for, but you get the idea), were a prominent part of the Scottish farming scene.  And, of course, there are lots of folk songs about these gorgeous horses.  Many of the songs are sad and poignant, lamenting the end of an era when these "gentle giants" were an integral part of Scottish farming life.  There is an entire CD dedicated to "a celebration of the Clydesdale horse in song."  I haven't listened to it in a while, because so many of the tracks make me cry.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's hard to drive when your vision is blurred from tears, so I consider it more of a safety issue. 

One of my favorite songs about Clydesdales is "The Last Trip Home", by Davy Steele.  The line "but progress runs its driven course, and tractors hae replaced the horse" gets me every time.  (Davy Steele's lyrics often make me cry, as I discussed in the last paragraph of this post.)

However, not all songs about Clydesdales are tear-provoking.  There is at least one funny Clydesdale song--well, if you consider making an ashtray out of the hoof of your dead horse funny.  Judge for yourself:
"David and Goliath", written by Robin Laing, performed by Ed Miller
(The people performing with him are Jil Chambless on back-up vocals and flute, and Scooter Muse on guitar.  They're great in their own right.)

One interesting tidbit about that video, which came as a complete surprise when I googled "David and Goliath Ed Miller YouTube" or something like that and found the clip, is that the girl in the pink shirt in the front  It was shot at the Austin Celtic Festival, and if the date it was posted to YouTube is any indication, it was the 2009 Austin Celtic Festival, which means that on the way home that night, I took, shall we say, the scenic route.  Ah, memories...

You know the expression "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras"? It's an oft-repeated adage in medicine, although I don't think it's specific to medicine.  Well, from now on, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, and specifically Clydesdales, and when you think Clydesdales, think of Scottish folk music!

Until next time...

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Festival

I realized recently that when I go to Scottish (or Irish) festivals, things tend to happen. Like, things of biblical proportion--floods, plagues of locusts, that kind of stuff.  Here, in no particular order, are the things that have happened to me on the way to, during, or on the way home from various festivals.

Austin Celtic Festival: I drove an hour and a half in the wrong direction (and didn't notice.)  On the way out of Austin heading back to Houston, what you are supposed to do is get on 71 going east.  That's pretty logical, given that Houston is east of Austin.  Well, with me, logic is rarely part of the story.  When I came to the fork in the road where I could take 71 east or 71 west, I actively, consciously chose to go west.  I'm not entirely sure why, but it seemed right at the time.  It was dark (first night after the time change in the fall, if I remember correctly) and drizzly and foggy and I was just trying to keep from driving off the road or hitting someone, so I didn't really pay attention to landmarks or road signs.  So, after about 90 minutes, the fog had finally lifted and it had stopped raining, which allowed me to relax my death grip on the steering wheel and, I guess, pay attention to my surroundings.  When I saw the sign saying Marble Falls (a town in the Hill Country), it still didn't quite register, but when I very shortly thereafter saw a sign saying 71W, it was like one of those smack-upside-the-head, I-could've-had-a-V8 moments...there might have been screaming and cursing involved, also.  I will condense the next half-hour, which basically consisted of me continuing to drive west at 70 miles an hour looking for somewhere to turn around, and repeated phone calls from my father (after I had called my parents to let them know what was going on) to ask if I had turned around yet.  It was sort of comical, except for the part where I was crying (and cursing and screaming.)  Anyway, I finally found somewhere where I had room to turn around and drove back to Austin.  Precisely three hours after I had left, I was back in the same spot I started from.  (You should know that from Austin to my house is less than a three hour drive, so I should have already been home by that point.)  I got a hotel room and gave up for the night.  Oh, and possibly the funniest part of the whole thing is that when I told my parents I was staying in Austin for the night, my very practical father said, totally seriously, that I should talk to the front desk agent about a discount, since I only needed the room for about six hours.  Given that I didn't want to be mistaken for a hooker, I decided against it.

Texas Scottish Festival:  The very first time I went to this festival in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, instead of driving up on Friday night, I got up incredibly early on Saturday morning to go.  It was somewhat foggy off and on, which wasn't fun to drive in but was certainly manageable.  However, about an hour into the trip I hit this unbelievably dense fog and truly could not see my own hood, let alone the road or anything in front of me.  You know how you hear about inexperienced pilots who don't realize they're upside down and then crash into a mountain or something?  It was like that.  I couldn't pull over, because I couldn't see what was next to me, and I was afraid to slow down and have the person behind me hit me.  So I kept driving at the exact same speed and hoped everyone else was doing the same.  The whole thing probably lasted 30 seconds, if that, but it was terrifying.  When I drove out of it and stopped hyperventilating, I realized how ridiculous it would have been if I died--it's one thing if you die running into a burning building to save a small child or something, but it's something else entirely if you die because of Scottish folk music.  (On the bright side, when I told this story to the lady at the admission gate at the festival, she gave me a program for free!  I think normally they're a dollar, so yay me for saving a buck.)

Texas Scottish Festival, again--a different year:  My hotel room was infested with roaches.  Crawling on the ceiling, on the bed, on the walls--so not exactly plagues of locusts, but I think the modern-day equivalent.  It took me about three minutes to notice all this, and call the front desk to see about changing rooms.  The lady said she'd see what she could do and would call me back.  This is about midnight, mind you, because I didn't check in until the festival finished for the night.  When a huge roach flew at me, I grabbed my stuff and high-tailed it out of there.  I figured if the clerk couldn't do anything about a new room, I'd sleep on the couch in the lobby!  Luckily, she found me a room, which seemed to be roach-free, at least for the duration of my stay.  For some reason, I didn't even think about asking to be comped.  I mentioned the incident when I was checking out, but that was all, and they certainly didn't volunteer to comp anything.

Multiple rainy festivals, but the Denton Celtic Festival was the most memorable: It was a little rainy driving up, and during the festival itself, but coming home there was torrential rain.  The highway was starting to "pond" as they say;  in other words the highway itself had some standing water.  I had to pull off the highway not once, but twice, because it was raining so hard I couldn't see.  The first time, I couldn't even make it to an exit (or I didn't think I could do it safely), so I literally just pulled onto the shoulder.  When I realized that that probably wasn't the safest place to be, it had let up a tiny bit, so I was able to actually get to a real exit and get off and wait for 30 or 40 minutes until it was reasonable to drive again.

Cowtown Celtic Festival: I naively assumed that my GPS would know the general route I wanted to take to get home from Fort Worth, and direct me onto I-45.  Instead, it took me on another highway down to Waco and then on Highway 6, which seemingly goes through every little town in Texas.  I did attempt, early on, to get directions back to I-45, but that only succeeded in wasting half an hour, and I ended up only about three quarters of a mile further south than when I started, still on the highway I didn't want to be on.  I got home, but it took an extra hour and a half or so.

Pleasanton Highland Games:  I knew when I booked my ticket that a thirty minute layover in Denver was cutting it pretty close, but I figured if the stars were aligned and I ran through the terminal, I'd be able to make it.  The fact that the first leg of my flight left about three hours late dashed any hope of getting to Sacramento that night (which is where I was going; my friend and I were then going to drive down to Pleasanton, in the bay area, the next morning.)  I got put up in a hotel by the airline and booked on the first flight out the next morning, so it certainly could have been worse, but it was still kind of a bummer.  At least we got to go to most of the festival, if not all of it.

I think the reason these things seem to happen in relation to Celtic festivals is that I don't really go anywhere else.  If I took a lot of road trips or just traveled a lot in general, maybe stuff like this would happen more "randomly"--but since I mostly go to festivals, this stuff happens at festivals.  But, the thing is, despite floods and killer fog and roaches and getting stuck in Denver and driving 100+ miles out of my way, it was all totally worth it, and I'd do it all again.  In fact, I will be doing it all again pretty soon, since the North Texas Irish Festival is coming up soon.  I don't think anything too crazy has happened at that one...but never say never!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Best Laid Plans*

Yesterday I spent some time on the North Texas Irish Festival website, looking at the schedule of performances and trying to decide who I was going to see when.  This is something that I really enjoy doing before I go to a Scottish/Irish/Celtic festival, and I sometimes get a bit aggravated if it's close to the time of the festival and they haven't yet published the schedule.  NTIF did it well; the schedule was up a little over a month before the festival (March 1-3, 2013; if you're interested.)  Now, my personal schedule is certainly subject to change if I happen to walk by a stage where someone I hadn't planned on hearing is playing and they sound fantastic, or if someone I had intended to see only once is really good and I decide to go to more than one of their sets, etc., but the point is that I find the process of going through the schedule, looking at videos of groups I'm not familiar with on YouTube, and coming up with at least a rough plan is enjoyable.  Whether I actually follow my plan to the letter is less important than the planning itself.

I've realized over the last several years that this is true not just for festivals, but for trips.  I have been to Scotland four times, all of which were on Ed Miller's Folksong Tour of Scotland (, but the last two times, instead of just going on the tour, I arrived a few days early and spent time in Glasgow and/or Edinburgh before the tour started.  Many months before each of these trips, I spent lots of time surfing the net, looking for fun things to do and interesting places to go in each of these cities.  For the 2010 trip, I was meeting a friend in Glasgow, so we kept emailing back and forth with our respective lists of things we wanted to do there and in Edinburgh (for the portion of a day we had there before the tour.)  Even though we ended up not doing a lot of it, it was still great fun to anticipate the trip.  For the 2012 trip, I had a few days in Edinburgh by myself (part of which I discussed in this post.)  Starting more than six months before the trip, I spent hours and hours on the internet looking at not only what there was to do, but where everything was in relation to my hotel and in relation to everything else, and planning the order in which I would do things.  I had a minor crisis a month or two before the trip, when I discovered that a few of the places on my itinerary (including the hotel itself!) were not where I thought they were--but then I got to revamp the order of things on my itinerary, and that was fun too, almost like planning the trip all over again.  And, happily, both the 2010 and the 2012 "pre-tour" vacation days lived up to my expectations.

I suppose you can apply this to life in general.  It's about the journey, not the destination.  Or something like that.

*The title is a misquoted (by a lot of people, not just me) version of a line from Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse."  The actual quote is "the best laid schemes [emphasis mine] o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley" but I thought "plans" made more sense, given the topic of this post.  But it's Robert Burns...even misquoted, you can't get much more Scottish than Burns!

If you're interested in the acts I'm planning to see at NTIF, here are links to some of their performances.
The Barra MacNeils
Sliabh Notes
Brian McNeill (the whole thing is great, but if you prefer more "upbeat" fiddle music, start at the 3 minute mark; if you prefer insanely fast fiddle music, start at about the 5 minute mark)
There are more, but this is at least a brief sampling to give you an idea.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What a Bunch of ”Phoneys”

This topic has no relation whatsoever to Scottish folk music. However, I do have an uncanny ability to incorporate Scottish folk music (or sometimes just Scotland, sans music) into any conversation, no matter what it was originally about, so don't be surprised if that happens to this post as well.

There are a lot of things about my job that bug me--dealing with insurance companies and dealing with pharmacies are two of the ones that stand out--but more and more, I find myself being annoyed by cell phones. And no, it's probably not what you're thinking. Yes, people talking loudly on their phones in my waiting room, as well as people whose cell phones ring (and they then answer them!) when they are in the exam room with me, both irritate me. But that's more of an etiquette thing. No, what REALLY aggravates me are a) people who have a cell with a long-distance phone number, b) people who don't listen to their messages and instead simply call the phone number that shows up as a missed call, and c) people who don't have a personalized voice mail message, and instead just have a generic female voice saying the phone number.

In order to understand A and B, you should know that in my office, we only have one line that can call long-distance, and that happens to be a shared voice/fax line. We have several other lines, but they are only local lines. So, for the (unfortunately more and more common) scenario in which someone calls us and we have to call them back at a long-distance number, usually I have my staff return the call using MY cell phone, which like practically every other cell phone on the planet has free long-distance. So, that's a bit of an inconvenience. What makes it even worse is if they don't answer, despite the fact that I specifically have my office staff say ”please don't call back on the number that shows up on your caller ID; instead call the office number which is...”, probably half to two-thirds of the time they DON'T EVEN LISTEN TO THE MESSAGE and therefore call my cell. It then takes another call (or more) to finally make contact with the patient. It's a lot of wasted time.

The problem with C is that, in a busy practice, I can't personally talk to every patient who calls, and certainly not at the moment they call. So, either I will call patients back, or my receptionist will call them back with my response to their question or problem. I don't know about other people, but I don't like to leave private information about someone's health in a voice mail in the first place, and especially if I'm not sure it's really that person's voice mail. How do I know my receptionist didn't accidentally transpose two digits in the phone number or something? A lot of my phone messages in that situation are kind of cryptic, and usually end with ”if this isn't John Smith, I'd appreciate if you could call back and let me know I've got the wrong number.”

Anyway, end of diatribe. Sorry that was so boring. To take your mind off it, here's Jim Malcolm. See what I did there?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I walk into Sandy Bell's

I went to Scotland this past summer.  I was going on a tour (Ed Miller's Folksong Tour of Scotland, which is fabulous--I've been four times), but before it started, I had three days in Edinburgh by myself.  By the way, if you've never taken a vacation completely by yourself, I highly recommend it, at least for a few days.  Ed's tour is fantastic, but there's not that much totally unscheduled time, so I was really looking forward to being in Edinburgh alone and being able to do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it.  I had it all planned out--I was going to go to several museums, go to a comedy club, go to a play, and have afternoon tea.  One of the things I really hoped to do, if I wasn't dead from jet lag, was to go to Sandy Bell's pub.  Sandy Bell's was sort of the epicenter of the Scottish folk music revival.  It's this little hole-in-the-wall place, but apparently anybody who was anybody in the folk music scene (or who was destined to become somebody in the folk music scene) played there in the late 60s, 70s, and 80s.  I wanted to go to say I'd been there, and also to hear some live music--there are still sessions every night, I think.

So, I arrived in Edinburgh on a Thursday morning.  I dropped my luggage off at my hotel mid-morning, but wasn't able to actually check in and get into my room until after 3:00, so I wandered around Edinburgh for a few hours.  Due to a combination of jet lag and the fact that I'd only had about a combined total of 6 or 8 hours of sleep in the two days prior to leaving, I literally could barely stand up because I was so tired.  I finally got into my room and fell into bed--I honestly don't think I even took my shoes off.  I wanted to go to Sandy Bell's that night, so I set an alarm and figured I'd play it by ear.  If my nap rejuvenated me enough, I'd go; if not, I would just go back to sleep.  Luckily, a three-ish hour nap did wonders, and I set out towards the mecca of Scottish folk music. 

I have a notoriously terrible sense of direction, so despite looking at a map and asking a couple of people for directions, I realized pretty early into this adventure that I had no idea how to get there.  One of the people I asked for directions was a cab driver, so I ultimately decided to just have him take me, which was probably a good idea, since it seemed to be a little farther than I had originally thought.  Anyway, I finally got there.  I felt, walking in, the way I imagine die-hard Elvis fans feel when they visit Graceland or something.  However, unlike Graceland, Sandy Bell's is tiny.  It seriously could not have been much bigger than my living room.  I took a seat at the bar and ordered a coke (I had not yet discovered the wonder that is Appletiser--it's just carbonated apple juice but it's really surprisingly good) and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps (doesn't "a packet of crisps" sound much nicer than "a bag of chips"?) and just sort of wallowed in the fact that I was actually sitting in Sandy Bell's.  I chatted with a couple of people, and not too long after I got there the music started.  It was a trio, I think, two fiddlers and someone else.  One of the guys at the bar seemed to be a regular and knew them.  They were quite good, but honestly even if they hadn't been I was so excited to be in Sandy Bell's that it probably wouldn't have mattered.  One of the great disappointments of my life (OK, that's being of the relatively minor disappointments in my life) is that it didn't occur to me to take a picture or have someone take a picture of me.  Oh well.  A picture is worth a thousand words but a blog entry's got to be worth something, right?

Anyway, I stayed for a couple of hours, then caught a cab back to the hotel.  And seriously, had I not done any of the other stuff on my list, the trip to Edinburgh would have been worth it just for the Sandy Bell's excursion.  But I did do everything else I had planned, and had a tremendous time, and I saw a play about a bear who joined the Polish army, and...what's that?  Could I explain the bear in the Polish army thing?  Well, not now, but stay tuned...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Beaches of St. Valery

For my first post of the new year (and the second post ever for this blog), we're going to learn some history, boys and girls.  As an aside, I hated history classes in junior high and high school, and remember practically nothing of what I was supposed to have learned in them.  In college, I actually audited a couple of history courses just because I thought they were interesting (nobody audited classes at Rice, so they weren't too sure what to do with me), and took one pass-fail for the same reason--I was interested in the subject, but didn't want to have to learn all the dates and things.  Anyway, my knowledge of history in general is pretty lacking.  But, as you have perhaps guessed from my blog's name, Scottish folk music is a wealth of information about all sorts of things, history included, and I find things tend to stick in my mind better when I know a song about the subject.  So, transport yourselves back to the time of World War II, and let Davy Steele teach today's lesson.

The Beaches of St. Valery, written and performed by Davy Steele with the Battlefield Band

(I assume since that was on YouTube I'm not going to be arrested for sharing copyrighted music in this blog.  However, if I'm wrong and if you come visit me in jail, please bring lots of Scottish folk CDs!)

For the larger story and to put the song in context, here are some other resources.

Summary of the Dunkirk evacuation

An organization dedicated to the small boats that were involved in the evacuation

Actual recordings about the event in the BBC archives

Anyway, there's lots of others.  Good ol' Google will be helpful if you're interested.

Some personal reflections about the song: the first time I heard it was at the North Texas Irish Festival, being performed by Loescher and Kenneth.  I burst into tears (unexpectedly and rather embarrassingly) in the middle of it.  Then I did the same thing when they played it again in their next set.  It took me a very long time before I could tell anyone what the song was about without getting choked up.  I'm not really sure why it got/gets to me so much, but I guess that's the power of music.  Incidentally, I ran into Wolf Loescher last night at a Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) party, and mentioned that story to him (the context is too complicated to explain, but trust me that it made sense that I went up to pretty much a total stranger and told him he made me cry a few years ago.)  He said thank you, and that me telling him that meant a lot to him.  Which is how I know that this whole Scottish folk music obsession is so right.