Thursday, January 30, 2014

Because I Need More Piping in My Life

Numbered among my numerous shortcomings is this: I play the bagpipes. I did mention this about a year ago so those of you who have been paying attention may already be aware of this. What I did not stress enough in my previous mention, however, is that I am not very good.

I am not ashamed of this (though I’m not particularly proud of it, either) because, as my erstwhile bagpipe teacher once told me, “bagpipes are an instrument that too many people are happy to play badly.” And I freely admit to being one of those people.

The reason is, despite the apparent simplicity of the bagpipes (it’s basically a flute with only nine notes) the reality is alarmingly more complex. For starters, you are doing several unrelated things at once—blowing frantically into a pipe to keep the bag inflated, squeezing said bag with your left arm and trying to keep it from falling to the floor as you simultaneously balance several large and unwieldy sticks on your shoulder—and none of them in time to the music. The bagpipes are not, to put it mildly, an instrument for people who are poor at multi-tasking.  Then, assuming you have enough brain reserves left to even realize you are clutching a flute in your hands (we pipers call that a chanter) you have to play a tune. And unlike a normal flute, you are not actually blowing into it, which gives you a measure of control, but are trying to tame a continually flowing torrent of air and wrestle it into a tune.

This is why anyone who can get any sound out of it more melodious than the shriek of a startled cat is doing better than average. So, for someone of my meager talents, playing the bagpipes is akin to watching dogs dance: it’s not that they do it well, but that they can do it at all.

To be fair, I used to be pretty good. I took lessons for years in the US and when I moved to the UK I joined a pipe band. I didn’t stick out as a really crap played but I struggled to keep up and—knowing I was the weak link—I voluntarily quit to avoid putting them in the awkward position of having to drum me out. After that, I packed the pipes away because, face it, if you are not actually in a band then there is no reason to annoy your neighbors by playing the pipes all afternoon.

No one has ever said to me, “You play the pipes? Get them and do a few tunes for us.” Nor are they ever likely to. In fact, threatening to play the pipes is an outstanding way of encouraging unwanted guests to become suddenly cognizant of the hour: “Is that the time? Holy smokes, we need to go home. Now!”

But two things happened recently that enticed me to pull the pipes out of metaphorical mothballs: our long over-due double-glazed windows were finally put in and, in a moment of drunken optimism, I volunteered to play for a Scottish-themed day at one of the centers my wife manages. (It is worth noting that my wife is not the one who asked me to volunteer; we were at her team Christmas party and one of her colleagues happened to mention that she wished she knew someone who played the pipes so they could talk them into playing for their Scottish Day and—this would be just after I finished my rum-infused Christmas pudding—I gleefully allowed myself to be conscripted.)

And so, every day since I have been tuning up the pipes, flexing my arm muscles, exercising my lung capacity and testing the resilience of the double-glazed windows. (Incidentally, the new windows work a treat; no one I have seen walking outside during my practice sessions has yet looked around with that “What? Is someone strangling a pig?” look on their face. Previously, you could hear the din all the way out in the car park.)

It has not been an easy month. There were many steep challenges to overcome—both physical and mental—before getting to the point where I can now squeeze out Amazing Grace in a more-or-less tuneful fashion. (We’re talking bagpipes here; ‘tune’ is a relatively abstract concept.) And, having climbed to even this low rung of the ladder, I think it would be a shame to slide back down, which I surely would if I packed the pipes away and forgot about them. So perhaps I will keep them out, where I can pick them up periodically and play a tune for my own amusement (assuming the double-glazing holds up).

First, however, I need to get through Scottish-Day. I just hope they appreciate dancing dogs.

Now here's a REAL piper!

Saturday, January 25, 2014


Oh my! The previous post (or the current one as I write this) is from December. What’s worse is, it ends with a “Happy New Year” message, and here it is the end of January. I suspect that having a post about New Year’s Eve still on your blog as you stare Burn’s Night in the face is some sort of Cyberland faux pas; the virtual equivalent of wearing corduroy after Memorial Day, perhaps. Rest assured, if this is the case (and, indeed, even if it is not), I feel properly chagrined.

The problem isn’t that I’m hibernating but that I am working from home and—as I am sure you need no reminding of—it is winter; a combination that makes me, to be honest, boring.

My commute involves walking from the bedroom to the “office” (the second bedroom) with a stop at the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Then I work, write and/or tinker with any number of side projects until I realize I’m hungry and it is nearly one o’clock.

After lunch I look out the window to check the weather and decide if there is any compelling reason to leave the flat; being January, there seldom is.

All of this is conducted in complete isolation and total silence (unless you count my conversations with the silverware which, I hasten to add, remain thankfully one-sided). It is, in short, not a life-style brimming with comic possibilities (although my decision to have one piece of toast with peanut butter and the other with butter and jam—instead of slathering both with the same topping—caused a flutter of excitement this morning).

And so, (and sadly) for the sole purpose of having something to write about, I did something a little bit out of the ordinary: I uploaded my hit single, “The Marsha Song,” to YouTube. Here’s the story:

Back in the day (never mind how long ago those days were) I used to be a pub singer known for mixing humorous songs—such as “Dead Puppies”—in with my usual repertoire. And, typically, I couldn’t resist writing some of my own.

“The It’s Late and I’m Lonely and I’m Picking Up an Ugly Girl in the Bar Blues” was an okay song and enjoyed mild popularity, but “The Marsha Song” became my signature tune. It’s just a bit of whimsy, but it’s also kinda dark, so allow me to say a few words about how and why it was written before you notify the authorities about me.

Marsha was one of a group of co-workers who attended The Old Post Road Saloon on a regular basis. We would arrive about twenty minutes after midnight (we worked second shift), hoot and holler and have a generally grand, alcohol-infused time, and then wend our ways home in the early hours. We were such regular customers that, when one of our number was unable to make it due to a head cold, she phoned the bartender to tell him. “I’ve never had a customer call in sick before,” he told us when we arrived. “I told her to be here earlier tomorrow to make up the lost time.”

Anyway, a young man from our office was smitten with Marsha, and used to follow her around making goo-goo eyes at her. We, naturally, kidded her about him having a room in his basement papered with photos he took of her through his telescope, and speculated about how he might be planning to win her over. (Hint: not voluntarily on her part.)

It was all in good fun and one day, in a flurry of creative frivolity, I wrote a song about it. I sang it at my next gig and it became an instant hit. By the time Marsha, herself, heard it, the song was already part of my standard routine. (Aside: After she heard it, she didn’t speak to me for three days.)

Not content with local notoriety, I went to a recording studio and recorded “The Marsha Song” (with “The Ugly Girl Blues” on the B-side) and sent it off to radio stations. This was not as asinine as it sounds; radio shows like Dr. Demento were quite popular at the time. Even so, no one gave it air time.

And that’s a shame because it’s quite a trippy little song that is as relevant today as when it was written:


What’s New

What’s new is, I moved What’s New out of the sidebar, where it has resided since 1989, and placed it at the end of the post. Several reasons prompted this decision, none of which will be the least bit interesting to you.

What’s new at this time is, I am finally writing the first draft of The Magic Cloak II: The Druids of Sarum. I made it three chapters in, then threw out two of them, which may indicate that the writing of this segment is not destined to go as smoothly as the original.

This may take longer than I planned.