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.