Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A definition

Overkill Noun. Braving the mind-bending wilderness of Home Depot to buy a roll of Teflon tape and two rubber corks.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Some Four-Legged Critters

Here's one last round of pictures from Pleasanton. I was having trouble all day with getting the camera to focus, so attempting pictures of the sheepdog trials was a bit of a hit-or-miss. So here are some. . .impressions of the dog trials. Here, the sheep are pretty obvious. The black-and-white splatter in the background is the dog.
Below, the dog is working carefully, trying to coax the four sheep up a ramp.

And here. . .patience is a virtue.

For my money, dog trials are one of the most beautiful events in the world. The herding is mostly done by border collies, who move like sunlight moves in and out of the shadows on a river. They're terribly clever too, and they look like they are enjoying the outfigure-the-sheep bits as much as they are the running. The interaction between the dogs and their handlers is fascinating; it is teamwork, rather than a show of a dog running through a handful of tricks. Though the basic rules of getting a small herd of sheep through an obstacle course are easy to follow, I don't know the finer points of the art--I just love watching those dogs work. You yourself can find out some finer points here. Of the few dogs I watched, most were trained to voice as per the chart in the link, but at least one was trained to a whistle, and that was the most fascinating. It was eerily quiet in the arena; you could just hear the occasional thud of the sheeps' hooves, and floating on top of the silence was the weird, thin warble of the handler's whistle. The dog, in all its grace, was fairly dancing to the sound, turning for one phrase, dropping soundlessly to the ground for another. The whistle might have suggested music, but the careful motion of the dog just plain was music.

Well, did you really think I didn't get any bug pictures at the Pleasanton Games?

Just A Bit of Advice

Do not go to this website, and, if you do, do not push the button that plays samples from the CD. Because if you do, there is a pretty good chance you will feel the price of that CD leaping from your pocket and hurrying itself over to Scotland. (Says I.)

Explanation for those of you who are wise and do not follow the link: it takes you to the website of Julie Fowlis, a Gaelic singer from North Uist in the Hebrides. I heard a mention of her last week and was curious enought to buy a track from her previous CD off of iTunes. Then, of course, I had to just sample her new CD, and at present, the price of that CD has leapt from my pocket and is hurrying itself over to Scotland. At present, I'm most looking forward to hearing "Ille Dhuinn, ’S Toigh Leam Thu" in its entirety (I just liked it. That's why.), but the whole thing sounds like quite a treat. Perhaps it was just a phase, or, more likely, I was just running across the wrong artists, but for a while there, it seemed like Gaelic singing carried with it an obligatory synthesizer humming in the background. The approach on this album may not be traditional in the strictest sense (Chris Thile, a very innovative American mandolinist has been included on a couple of tracks, for example), but it is all. . .well, real music, tasteful and pleasant in every way, and bursting at the seams with more talent than I can get my head around all at once.

Friday, September 26, 2008

More Pleasanton Pictures

The piobaireachd alone would have made the Pleasanton Games worth the drive, but even had there been no piping whatsoever, the drive would have been advisable, due to this group:

This is the Marine Band from San Diego. It would be redundant to say that they are perfect. They played several times during the day in front of the grandstand. Watching them march and countermarch through a piece was impressive enough, but listening to them play was one of the grandest things that has happened to me all year. They nailed all the standards, "Semper Fidelis," an exquisite set of American folk tunes, even "Scotland the Brave," then they added some unexpected icing to the cake: an amalgamation of the themes from "Ben-Hur". Perhaps because they were playing in the middle of the racetrack? Probably just because it sounded good. And it sounded very, very good. Still, there was something about the end, when they went marching off to the Marine's Hymn that might have topped it. That was perfection!
Later, I was able to have a few words with their drum major. I had hoped very much to lay my hands on a CD so I could give the folks back home some inkling of the wonders of the day, but he told me they can't make commercial CD's, something to do with them being run on Department of Defense money. So, for the rest of you, you'll just have to take my word for it. It was grand--and if you get a chance to see them, do!

. . .The band was marching through the tunnel under the racetrack prior to playing.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Bit of Variety

Over Labor Day weekend, I was delighted to have the time off to drive up to Pleasanton (near San Francisco) to see the Highland Games there. My main intention in going was to watch the professional piobaireachd, which was held in a hotel in San Ramon. That was worth every inch of the drive. They had five competitors who had to deal with a very pervasive air-conditioning system, and who all did so. . .well, professionally. I didn't even think of getting pictures there, though to be honest, a picture would have hardly conveyed the music that was eddying about the room.
Therefore, aware that I am presenting you with something a good deal less than the full experience, I offer a few pictures of the Games on Saturday. It was by far the most varied Scottish festival I had ever seen. . .and, yes, I had haggis for lunch.
First of all, the reason I go to Scottish Games (beyond the piobaireachd):

Unless I am much mistaken, this is a Canadian band, Edmonton and District.
Quite a treat to listen to, and I hear they were in the top 2 of both events in the Grade III competition.

This is what many people refer to accurately as a "hairy hielan coo," or, in broader English, a Hairy Highland Cow. They had a pair of them there, ingeniously named Bonnie and Clyde. The presence of Scottish animals did not stop there; somebody had also brought a few Scottish Fold cats, and of course there were Clydesdale horses, which are a good deal more pleasant (in my opinion, which nobody asked for) than any cat, Scottish or otherwise.

Even though there were several million pipers (or at least it sounded like it) there were bands of other kinds too. It was certainly a first for me to see so many harpers in one place at once--there were probably a dozen harpers in this circle, playing different parts, as you would expect in any orchestra.

The wonders would not cease. They had soccer matches! It was five-a-side teams, on a field to match, and games limited to half an hour. I spent a very pleasant hour. . .how often do you get a pipe band practicing at the end of a soccer field? (It is hard to see in the picture, but that white pole in the background is supposedly holding up a very high net which would prevent overly ambitious goal kicks from braining pipers. No pipers, that I know of, suffered any injuries, but at least one kick missed the net.)

I had to watch this team--they're from San Jose, but they wear Celtic FC jerseys.

Well, that's a round of pictures. Now to tell you what you missed, as far as a comprehensive presentation goes:
  • They had several shinty matches over the course of the day. I kept trying to make it over to watch, but every time I reached the field, there was a break in progress. I did run into a gentleman who mentioned he was writing this article, however, so you can get an idea of what went on.
  • Highland dancing. I'm sure there was plenty of it, but, like the shinty, I was always somewhere else at the time. It is certainly a beautiful art, and I was sorry to miss it. I did catch a bit of the Scottish Country Dancing competition. (I should know something about Scottish Country Dancing, as I spent a semester with a club at school, but I was kept so busy trying to tell my right foot from my left foot that I missed all the finer points.) The set I saw competing was all children, none of them over twelve, I would guess, and the smallest boy was probably about six. They were being presided over by a judge with the most trim and impressive white beard and the most contagious smile I think I have ever seen. It would be very hard to find a soul anywhere who looked so delighted; the only people who might come close were the children who were doing the dancing.
  • Heavy events. As hard as it is to miss the sight of a man tossing something that resembles a telephone pole, I did somehow manage to miss it here.

More on the Eccentricities of Big Black Ants

Last Sunday there was an odd swarm of black ants in the driveway. There was an anthill near there, but they weren't working in long, orderly lines as they usually do. At first glance, I thought it was two rival hills having a war, as I have seen in the past.

They weren't fighting at all. They were. . .talking. Well, communicating somehow, anyway. It was rather disappointing because all this committee work started just about sundown and,being black on a blacktop driveway, they were difficult to see in the dusk. Furthermore, if you shone a flashlight on them, they would move out of the light and back to their silent campaigning in the dark.

Whatever they were discussing must have been serious because quite a few of them were carrying young ants around the melee. Just a guess--perhaps a part of the hill's citizens were being evicted, but how they were chosen, I could not guess.

I was a little disappointed that the light (or lack of it) made it impossible to watch them properly. I could recall just enough time-misted references to studies which linguists have done on chimpanzees, and even chinchillas, to make me curious as to whether there might be patterns in ant behaviour that could translate into a sort of "language". At the very least, it would be very helpful to know the proper phrasing for, "Please stay off my toe."

These sandals were made for walkin'

"And someone raised the question 'twixt the coffee and the cakes:

'Does the Piper walk to get away from all the noise he makes?'"

--From "The Ballad of How MacPherson Held the Floor" by Robert W. Service

Pipers are noted for their ambulatory habits. Robert Service is not the only one who has commented on it. There is also the old supposition that they walk (or march) because moving targets are harder to hit. Competing pipers in Grade 3 and higher march, even among their own kind, because the judges expect them to.

I did some accidental research on the subject this afternoon and discovered that, even if you do not have a neighbor with a rifle trained on you, moving while you play is very beneficial. It is the time of year when you try to eke the last dregs of summer's benefit and wear sandals. Unfortunately, it is also the time of year when the big, black ants are whispering to each other that the weather is about to change and that they had better store up every edible they possibly can. It would appear that novice pipers are considered edible. I have been disturbed in mid-birl many a time by a very ambitious ant which attaches itself to my toe and will not let go. I have never been dragged by one more than a few feet, but it always pays to be cautious, so I have taken to strolling, even while I tune.