Thursday, December 25, 2008

An Unexpected Visit for Christmas


Merry Christmas To All!


The sweet face profiled above is that of an unexpected visitor who showed up at our house last week.

Our Christmas With The Celts schedule was jam-packed.  A Wednesday night rehearsal was followed by two Thursday performances, to be followed by a Friday night performance and, later Friday night, the cast party.  Sandwiched in between was a Friday morning breakfast with my friend Ray, who'd only be visiting in the area that one day.  Since I'd be out on Friday morning anyway, I scheduled a couple of other errands -- a recipe for exhaustion, I know, but somehow you do what you have to do ...

On Friday morning I went out to put my purse in the van when I ran into Candy (Matt's mom); they always park their RV at our house when we're doing performances in the area.  Candy and I wanted to visit for a bit, so we went back into the house for a few minutes, then returned  outside.  We heard a "meow."  Then "Meow, meow."  "Where are you, Kitty?" Candy softly called.  Out from under the van came a small gray cat.  Not shy, as most strays are; this one seemed to crave human company.  Candy scooped the kitty into her arms, and was immediately rewarded with loud purring and contented nuzzling.  This was definitely no feral cat, nor even a stray; it must be recently lost.

But lost from where?  I quickly reviewed the neighboring homes in my mind: one dog owner, one two-dog owner, one who owned no pets, one vacant home ... this cat had not simply wandered over for a visit.  Candy's brief examination of the kitty yielded a clue: the kitty was pregnant.

We were still pondering over the expectant momma cat when Ray came over.  I sent him off to The Bean On 41, saying I'd be along shortly, and then Candy and I began to consider the kitty's options in earnest.  We couldn't simply let her continue to wander: although our home is in a residential neighborhood, the traffic commission is not yet on board with that notion; the speed limit on our street is 40mph (meaning, of course, that people drive even faster).  Candy couldn't take the kitty, because Matt's deathly allergic to cats.  I couldn't take the kitty, either, because Maggie (our dog) isn't used to cats.  What to do?

Then I thought of my friend, Vicki, who's such an animal lover that she's on the board of our local Animal Welfare League.  Vicki would know what to do!  Candy -- still cradling the kitty -- and I piled into the van for the short trip to Vicki's house.  Even when the diesel engine revved up, the kitty continued to purr!  What a cat! -- as most of them hate riding in vehicles.  But this one was so happy to be around humans, that she seemed not to mind, but rather to actually enjoy the trip.  Vicki greeted us thoughtfully, immediately going into rescue mode.  With five dogs, she, too, would be unable to take the kitty, and it was too early in the morning for the shelter to be open yet.  But she lent us a small pet carrier, and the kitty slipped inside, still purring and rubbing against the carrier door to mark her new territory.  Vicki promised to investigate the possibility of a foster home, and, feeling that we'd done the best we could do for the time being, Candy and I returned home.

We set the kitty and her carrier in the main living area under the supervision of Greg, "Uncle" Jerry and Maggie, then I went on to my by now seriously-delayed breakfast with Ray.  Ray and I had a very nice visit, said our goodbyes, then I headed to the supermarket for the rest of my errands -- and to that list was added the purchase of cat food, kitty litter, and a makeshift litter pan.  Greg reported that the entire time I'd been gone, the kitty purred blissfully; Maggie had expressed only brief interest before going off to do her usual "routine."

That was all about to change, however, as I appropriated Maggie's large crate, out in the garage, for kitty's temporary home.  "I have only a few possessions," Maggie seemed to say, "and you're giving my crate away to a cat?  Woof!"  The kitty, however, reacted with only mild surprise before resuming her purring.  She devoured the first bowl of food that was set out for her, poked her nose about in the second bowl, then arched her back and started to rub to mark this newest territory.  What an absolutely sweet personality this cat had!

She was never far from my mind, as we did our concert preparations, the concert itself, and then the party.  It was funny -- during the party, I'd catch one person or another sneaking into the garage to check up on the kitty.  Same thing the next morning; each person, in his or her own time, arose and dressed for the day -- then checked up on the kitty.  And when Vicki called to announce that she'd found a foster home, then later came over to escort the kitty to her new -- albeit again temporary -- home, everyone took time to say goodbye to the furry little creature who'd lived with us for less than 24 hours, yet had so profoundly touched each of us.

I'm grateful to report that kitty is happily exploring her new home.  She sleeps with her "foster" owner every night, and delights him with her sunny disposition.  She's going to make someone a wonderful pet!  

As of this writing, there are no kittens yet.  But I've thought of a name for her: I'd name her after another expectant mother of 2000 years ago, who had no place to have her baby, yet displayed the same calm and serene trust that all of her needs would be met.


In my mind, she will always be -- Mary.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas With The Celts


Pictured above is the setting for one of our Christmas With The Celts concerts.  The series was abbreviated, due to Matt (our fiddler)'s college schedule.  But it was power-packed, nonetheless, and full of memorable moments!  We just finished the series yesterday -- here's a synopsis:

Matt, Robin (the piper) and I kicked off the season by playing for the Punta Gorda Kiwanis luncheon last Thursday.  What fun -- the Kiwanians love to sing, and what a terrific meal they served!  We then headed over to Arcadia and met up with Don (vocalist), Ann and Cal (dancers) for a performance at First Presbyterian Church.  This one's special to me, as I'm performing for my home town; and despite a couple of "flies in the ointment" -- I forgot to bring Santa (the official mascot of Christmas With The Celts) and we had to make a change in one of the dance numbers because the piano was locked! -- it was an energetic and fun evening.  Matt made his first-ever guitar performance, accompanying Don (on flute) and me (on dulcimer) in a medley of I Saw Three Ships and the Sussex Carol.  Ann and Cal also debuted a new strathspey that they'd choreographed; it was flowing and very beautiful.  Robin cracked us all up with a silly bit of schtick in his rendering of O Come All Ye Faithful, as he told one section of the audience that they had to sing along -- in Latin.  "Yeah, right!" they seemed to say, though I heard a few voices gamely playing along.

The next night we returned to the Congregational United Church of Christ, Punta Gorda, the birthplace of Christmas With The Celts.  The church was absolutely packed to capacity; we knew, from the number of ticket orders we'd taken over the phone, that response was very strong, but I was still surprised to learn that every available chair was taken -- the only chair left was Pastor Bill Klossner's chair from his study, and I'm pretty sure that if one more person had shown up needing a seat, they'd have been given that chair!

Elly Gilmore made a cameo appearance at this performance, delighting the audience with her set-ups of the Wassail Song and Auld Lang Syne, and singing of Auld Lang Syne

We were able to perform our dance number using the piano, as rehearsed: an Irish reel played "Cape Breton" style.  As to Santa ... well ... I did manage to remember to bring him, and set him up in his usual place on stage, but he suffered a minor accident: as Ann was making a sweeping dance move, her dress caught Santa and flung him to the dance floor.  Ann and Cal tried to avoid Santa while continuing their dance, but alas, they weren't quite successful; poor Santa was kicked and subsequently trampled.  At one point Cal bent down to retrieve Santa and set him into place again, but realizing that he'd bent over with his back to the audience -- while wearing a kilt -- Cal hastily stood up before properly securing Santa; Santa toppled again, to be kicked and trampled again.  Matt finally stopped fiddling and picked Santa up, taking time to place him so that he'd fall no more.  Don and I kept the music playing the whole time.  I'd like for you to think that I was applying the "show must go on" philosophy, but the truth is, I was too helpless with a mixture of horror and laughter to be of much service to the unfortunate Santa.  He stood looking rather disheveled and forlorn the rest of the evening.

Robin's charge to the audience to sing in Latin was put right back at him, as a significant number of this evening's crowd actually knew, correctly pronounced, and loudly sang the entire verse in that ancient language!  Another funny incident occurred during the set-up of the Ballad Of St. Anne's Reel (a song about a magical evening on Prince Edward Island (PEI)), when Don asked, as is his habit, if anyone in the audience was from PEI.  This night, a couple actually raised their hands and Don was rather taken aback, completely psyching himself out, as he wondered if the couple knew the song or ... actually, I'm not sure what was going through his mind, but I am pretty sure that the words to the song weren't going through his mind, because he fumbled around for a few short but agonizing seconds, then regained his composure and appealed for a "do-over."  It was one of the most professional and graceful responses to an obvious "flub" that I've ever seen -- and far more graceful than my own goof later in the evening, when I completely forgot how to play the Swallowtail Jig.  Matt, grinning fiendishly all the while, "pulled my fat out of the fire" on that one, keeping the tune going while I desperately tried to pull the correct notes out of the chord progression that, miraculously, I somehow correctly played.  Greg did his part from the sound board, "fading" the amplification of the dulcimer to near zero.  But I know for a fact that a few people left the concert that night, scratching their heads over the strangest rendition of an Irish jig they'd ever heard!

Following a refreshing Saturday off, during which time Santa received plenty of TLC, we headed to Orlando on Sunday, for a pair of performances at Westminster Towers (WT).  WT is a graduated-care facility for seniors, with accommodations ranging from apartment-style living for those able to live independently, to complete nursing care.  We played for the "Health Care Center" residents first.  Here, Robin was at his absolute finest and most charming, as he passed out a variety of hand percussion instruments to members of the audience, encouraging them to keep time to the music, make lots of noise and have lots of fun, and they certainly did.  We then went down to the main floor to play for the "Independent Living" residents.  It's that venue that you see pictured, above.  (You also see Santa perched atop the piano, looking his old self again and safely out of harm's way.)  The stage was set for an old-fashioned, Dickens sort of Christmas, a perfect and cozy setting for our show.  I think we're always at our most relaxed at WT -- this gig usually occurs near the end of the run, so everyone's really in a groove; plus, the venue's smaller and more intimate, so there's less probability of crowd-size-induced jitters.  The audience couldn't be any more receptive or appreciative, and it seems that our entire cast lingers just a few extra minutes after each WT performance, to visit and swap stories with the residents.

The final night of our Christmas With The Celts run was in the Church On The Square, in The Villages.  For the past few years, this has been an SRO crowd, but I do believe that I saw more people standing than ever before -- the church "officially" holds about 800 people, more or less, but an "unofficial" count reported to me a few minutes prior to the concert had the tally at 850, and I did notice even more people coming in after we were already under way.  Quite a setting in which to introduce the newest member of "Marcille Wallis & Friends," Dallas Albritton.  Dallas will play fiddle during our St. Paddy's run, so we thought it would be a good idea to initiate him, and introduce him to The Villages, via a "fiddle duel" with Matt.  In Robin's words, "That fiddle duel was epic!" as Matt opened with a lively bluegrass tune, to be answered by Dallas on a contemporary Celtic reel.  Matt came back with an inspired, and inspiring, interpretation of Bill Monroe's Big Mon; Dallas responded with a blistering version of Paddy On The Landfill.  They then traded back and forth on parts of the Red Haired Boy, before joining together to make that Boy's hair a little Redder -- and more electrifying -- than ever before.  The audience responded with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.


Matt received two other "standing O's" that evening: one for his Teetotaler medley; the other, for his wicked improvisation on the Orange Blossom Special -- which even included the opening measures of Freebird!  On that last night, Matt's fiddling was just a touch more masterful ... Don's singing, particularly on Wild Mountain Thyme, just a touch more beautiful ... Robin's piping just a touch more majestic ... Ann & Cal's dancing just a touch more elegant ... what a way to end the season!  

Thursday, December 11, 2008

From March Madness to Matlacha

Those who know me well know that while music is my passion, as well as my livelihood, it's far from my only interest.  I'm also keenly interested in sports: baseball, at any level; football, both college and professional; and basketball -- college hoops.  Those who know me extremely well know that our household gets viciously competitive with the approach of "March Madness" (for the uninitiated, that's the playoffs for the NCAA Men's Division I title).

On a Sunday evening in mid-March, as the tournament selection committee starts seeding the brackets, we are glued to the television.  Once the seeding's completed, we hover near the computer, waiting for the official tournament brackets to be posted to the various websites, such as ESPN.com.  We then print out the brackets: one for each member of the household.  The next two days are spent in study, as we make our picks for the tournament's 64 games; the days are also spent trying to secure our picks from the prying eyes of others in the household.  Though no one would dream of trying to cheat -- mainly because each of us is too convinced of his/her superior knowledge and winning strategy! -- we still eye each other suspiciously as we go about our business.

At the appointed hour, all picks are turned in -- and then the needling begins.  "You picked that team for the Final 4?  You're goin' down!"  The prize at stake is dinner at the winner's choice of restaurant, paid for by the losers, so other trash talk may include, "Yeah, while you were studying the ratings index, I was studying menus."

This last year, the banter was conducted mostly over the phone or via Internet, since Greg and I were in Dollywood; "Uncle" Jerry was at home in Port Charlotte, while Greg's sister and brother-in-law were at home in Belleair Beach.  And though, for the whatevereth straight year in a row, I did not win the bracket competition, I still got to eat at my chosen restaurant, because my brother-in-law's choice of restaurant was the same as mine.  (The only catch was, I had to pay for my meal, as well as pay for a share of John's.)

John's choice was Bert's Bar & Grill, in Matlacha, Florida.  As they say on the back of their menu, "Most of Florida's tiny fishing towns are disappearing and giving way to McDonald's, high rises and hotel chains.  But not Matlacha.  Here you still find cozy cottages, bed & breakfasts, fishermen tending their nets, bait shops and shrimp boats."

The five of us finally got around to paying off the "bet" last Tuesday.  It was a fun day!  We sat out on the deck, enjoying the view of Matlacha Pass and San Carlos Bay.  Crows and other feathered friends squawked and begged for a handout.  Seated next to a long dock as we were, there was the occasional whiff of marine fuel, but the gentle breeze quickly dissipated it.  We enjoyed fish dip on flatbread crackers, "beach bread," and fish and chips ... and one of us enjoyed the "best bar pizza" to be found in the area.


The NCAA men's basketball season is just now getting into full swing.  When I win -- finally win -- the 2009 pool, we'll be going back to Bert's!         

Friday, November 28, 2008

Singleton's

I'm still going through magazines and catalogs that accumulated here at home while we were on the road for so many months!  Today, I was looking at an issue of the official AAA magazine, and ran across an article about Florida's beaches.  I began to reminisce about some of my favorite coastal haunts and thought of Mayport, and Singleton's Seafood Shack -- whoa!  Did I really forget to include Singleton's on my list of favorite places to eat?

Let me correct that oversight right now.  Singleton's is not just a favorite; it is the favorite seafood place.  We first heard of it several years ago, when playing at an art fair in Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville.  My high school friend Jay, an officer in the U.S. Navy, had discovered Singleton's while stationed at the huge base in Mayport, also near Jacksonville.  Jay suggested that we'd love the seafood, and revel in the down-to-earth atmosphere: "It's easy to find," he said with a grin, "just follow A1A north to Mayport, then look for the dumpster with all the cats."


After the art show closed for the day, Greg and I headed north ... away from ritzy Ponte Vedra and its golf courses ... past Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, with their surf shops and souvenir stands ... pointed toward the Naval station, passing pawn shops and strip clubs along the way ... finally ending in the sleepy little village of Mayport, an area that, like nearby St. Augustine, had settlers well before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.  Mayport's sort of the end of the road; the only way to travel north out of town is via the ferry which crosses the St. John's River.  That's probably helped to keep it a quiet place -- that and the fact that it seems mostly to be populated by folks whose families have been involved in the fishing industry for generations -- though one of the big casino cruise ships docks there, and its directors would like to see more nearby attractions.

Singleton's itself was attraction enough for me.  With its creaking, listing floor and oddly mismatched furnishings (including hard benches!), it probably doesn't appeal to the "fern bar" crowd, but it certainly has developed a loyal clientele.  That evening, our fellow diners included uniformed Navy personnel, a few families, several couples and groups of friends, the obligatory grizzled old fisherman just off the boat for the day.  The hardier among them were out on the deck, enjoying the "million dollar view" of the St. John's River.  Since we'd been out-of-doors all day long on that somewhat blustery day, we elected to sit at the bar.

Just studying the menu was a delight!  All of the predictable offerings were there: the shrimp, oysters, and grouper.  But overhead there was a chalkboard with selections that vary from day to day, depending on what's come in on that day's catch.  On that particular evening, I chose sheephead, a local fish.  In subsequent visits, I've decided not to decide, and have chosen a combo.  Shrimp's probably the most popular item, and why shouldn't it be, since the local waters boast some of the finest, sweetest shrimp to be found anywhere in the world?


Another popular item is the Minorcan Clam Chowder -- Minorcan, you say?  Yeah, adding to the endless squabbles over whether Manhattan or New England clam chowder is best, there's a third, much less known contender: cousin to Manhattan chowder because of its tomato base, Minorcan Clam Chowder has the potent, and not widely-available, datil pepper for its signature ingredient.  What a kick!


If you ever find yourself in the Jacksonville area, I highly recommend a visit to Singleton's.  Jacksonville is not an easy city to navigate, so don't think that you'll be able to pop over to Mayport for a quick lunch as you're traveling down I-95.  But if you're staying in the area, or if you're aimlessly and leisurely traveling and can afford a detour of a few hours, you can treat yourself to not only a great regional meal, but to a little slice of "old Florida." 

 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving only a few hours away, we have plenty for which to be thankful this season!  Phone calls continue to come in: ticket orders for Christmas With The Celts concerts that are almost a month away.  The Toe River Arts Council, a North-Carolina-based organization of which we are members, just placed a big CD order: they sell our CDs in their two galleries, and several of the titles were completely sold out, or stock was perilously low.  Sales of digital downloads, through companies like iTunes and Rhapsody, are up almost 40%.  

And Divine Providence seems to have had a hand in a dicey situation we very recently faced.  Due to booking difficulties, one of the bands that was scheduled to perform at the Caloosahatchee Celtic Festival had to cancel their appearance.  With barely two months until the festival, finding a replacement "headliner" seemed a daunting task -- yet both Greg and I were strangely calm; we decided that we would enjoy our weekend at the Sarasota Medieval Fair, and begin worrying about Caloosahatchee on Monday.

Lo and behold, on Monday morning -- before we'd even had a chance to begin worrying -- we received a phone call from a promoter representing the Scottish band Albannach.  You see where this is going, don't you? ... the band had an open weekend in their schedule -- would we be able to book them? ... and a few phone calls and e-mails later, I'm pleased to announce that Albannach will be bringing their unique and exciting form of Celtic music to Southwest Florida!  


Check them out on YouTube -- you won't be able to sit still!


As I reflect on all that's happened over the last year or so, I find the timing of this mini-crisis and its swift solution to be very significant.  God's been very good to us, and this episode is a strong reminder that, as long as we are following the path that He's laid out for us, He's going to light the way.  The rollercoaster that is the current global economy is a scary ride, and our brief troubles in booking a festival pale in comparison to the troubles faced by persons who are losing their jobs or the very roofs over their heads, yet the lesson gives me a real peace about what may lay ahead.  I'm thankful for that peace ... thankful for the gift of music ... thankful for people who love music and who support musicians ... thankful for the legions of friends we've made over the years ... thankful for the talented people who are part of Marcille Wallis & Friends ... thankful for family and for friends who've become like family ...


God bless each and every one of you this Thanksgiving, and always.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What Does Fall Mean To You?

Not long ago, a Michigan friend had written to me about her recent doings -- a combination of actively enjoying autumn's beauty with doing chores which must be completed before the onset of winter.  That's what fall is to her: a period of specific activities tailored to the season.

For a kid who grows up in Florida, fall is merely academic: pretty much just a designation on the calendar.  "Fall" means that school is in full swing; "fall" is the time of year when Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving occur; "fall" happens to mean football season (in Florida, we also have spring football).  When I was growing up, most of my friends were also native Floridians; I can't think of more than a tiny minority of kids who'd been born in a place other than Florida.  If they had been, they'd probably moved to Florida before "fall" had made much of an impression.  When we started getting interested in fashion, we noticed that "fall colors" were rust and gold and orange and brown, though we had no idea why.  I remember being a little confused by the old song "Autumn Leaves," and being unsure as to what crayons to use when coloring pictures designated as autumn scenes.  Most of the trees in our town were palm and pine and oak, and we knew only from books that there were trees that changed colors and actually shed their leaves.

The very first time I experienced "fall" was after I'd already graduated from college and started my teaching career.  A friend (another native Floridian) and I took a long weekend in October to visit the North Georgia mountains.  We could hardly get enough of the cool, crisp air and the riot of color which could made even the most mundane highway into a scenic drive.  I took dozens of pictures and reviewed the photos over and over again, reliving the magic of those few days.  We took another trip the next fall, venturing into North Carolina.  Several years later, I would experience my first New England autumn, and it was more beautiful than I could've expected it would be.


My experience with fall is, however, a week here, a couple of weeks there; I've never been in one place long enough to experience fall's full progression of summer-into-winter.  The photo above depicts what I'd have considered a "classic" fall scene: a tree ablaze with orange coloring, and a front porch decorated with pumpkins.  The scene below took me by surprise: only two doors up from the previous house, a single yellow rose makes its last bid for attention before succumbing to the cold of winter.    

 

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Top 10 Questions, Hammer Dulcimer Edition

Playing at an art show or a state fair is a lot different than playing in a concert. When I first started playing in concert, I remarked that my years of teaching experience would come in handy: you have to know your audience (your class) you should know in advance what you're going to play (your lesson plan) and you should be able to pick up cues that your audience is responding properly, and be able to adjust accordingly.

I've come to realize that a concert setting is more like giving a lecture at a large university, where due to the sheer size of the class, questions are not taken during the course of the lecture. Playing at an art show or state fair -- that's more like the public school classroom I'm used to! All of the above-named skills are still important, but fair-goers (your students) can interrupt at any time to ask clarifying questions, adding a whole new dimension to the mix. They can come up with some doozies! But, for the most part, you hear the same questions again and again. The challenge is to realize that, no matter how many times you may have heard a particular question, this individual has thought of that question for the very first time, and accordingly deserves a thoughtful answer. Sometimes, when it does seem as if I've answered the same question over and over, I fantasize about making a FAQs poster -- then I stop myself, realizing that, that is precisely the time when you shouldn't make a poster, as your responses to the questions might be a little less civil!

Still, I thought it might be fun, a la David Letterman, to prepare a

Top 10 Questions Asked During The Fair

#10 Have you recorded any CDs? Do any of the CDs have music on them?

The first question's a puzzler. I always wonder if perhaps the questioner hasn't taken notice that we're offering CDs at all. If, however, they're looking at the CDs while asking the question, I wonder, "Why in the world would I be playing this instrument all day long, if I am just selling a bunch of generic CDs?"

The second question I have come to understand: translated, it means, "I don't want to buy a CD with any singing on it!" Singing's music, too, isn't it? I don't really mind too much when I'm asked this question ... except when I'm in the presence of a vocalist who's just sang his/her heart out in one of our concerts. Sigh ... that's gotta hurt ... 

#9 How do you do that?

This one comes from kids aged about four to eight or nine years old. It's another puzzler, and I've never been able to come up with a completely satisfactory answer. I mean, they can see me tapping the strings, so to me it's obvious how the music's being made. But I've heard the question often enough to realize it's not obvious to the kid who's asking. Maybe they're too young to understand the concept of a stringed instrument? So I lamely say, "Well, I'm just gently tapping the strings." I put special emphasis on the word gently, just in case the next question is, Hey, can I try that?  

#8 Do you take credit cards?

Greg can't help himself when he hears this one; he often says, "Yes, we do, and we also give them back." This is usually received with a puzzled pause, then a grin.

One time, though, Greg -- prankster that he sometimes is -- went a bit further. He said, "Yes, we take credit cards, and after we've done a bit of shopping, we return them." The sweet elderly woman who'd offered her card locked his eyes with a horrified stare as she slowly withdrew her card. "Oh, ma'am, I'm sorry, I was only kidding!" Greg hastily said.

The woman's eyes twinkled as she broke into a broad smile. "Gotcha!" she cried.  

#7 How are the notes laid out?

There's no easy answer to this one. "Notes are laid out diatonically, though the instrument is chromatic," is the truth, but even music scholars, if they're unfamiliar with the dulcimer, can't envision the truth of its simple layout. I usually show them a scale or two, then hope that they're not going to try to press me into giving them a quick lesson -- though that's happened before.

#6 Where do you live?

Greg often answers this with, "In an Airstream trailer, goin' across the country." He laughs, then follows up with the answer that they're really seeking, which is "Port Charlotte, Florida."

It's funny how many people seem to think that we operate out of Port Charlotte -- that we return to Port Charlotte after each gig. Wow!  What an incredible amount of travel that would entail! Just think of it: since August 1, we would've gone from Burnsville, NC back to Port Charlotte (PC) ... up to Columbiana, OH, then back to PC -- twice ... up to Rhinebeck, NY, then back to PC ... to Stone Mountain, GA and back to PC ... man, I'm getting tired just writing about  it! We'll be back in PC on November 3 ... and, until then, living in an Airstream trailer, goin' across the country.  

#5 How old is it?  Where did it originate?

The first question may refer to the hammer dulcimer in general, or it may refer to my own instrument. I have to be really careful in clarifying what the questioner is looking for before answering; can you imagine the confusion if the person had been referring to my own instrument but received the answer, "Oh hundreds, if not thousands, of years old." For the record, no one really knows for sure when/where the dulcimer originated.  Some say 9th Century Persia ... others Medieval France ... still others think there's archaeological evidence to support the notion that some form of hammered, stringed instrument existed in Old Testament times! My own instrument was built for me by Sam Rizzetta, in 1993. (And he built another for me in 2004.)

Greg seems to like this question, too, because he loves to answer, "Oh, it's thousands of years old -- that's the instrument, not the woman!" Ha, Ha.

#4 How long does it take to learn?

"Minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master," is my stock answer. Why no one really seems to believe me, I cannot fathom.

#3 Which one is your favorite CD?

This one's a toughie, because it's somewhat akin to asking a mother who's her favorite child. Like a mother, I love them all, each for a different reason. Like a mother, the newest one is always just a little more special for a period of time. But you still want to know, don't you? I'll consider that for another blog, another day.

#2 What is that thing?

This would seem to be a fairly easy question to answer, and you, of course, already know: "It's a hammer dulcimer." But you may be surprised to learn that it's the one question that can only be answered if I completely halt my playing. You see, after all these years I'm not half bad at being able to talk while playing. But for the life of me, people cannot understand me when I say the word "dulcimer"! Maybe it's my Southern accent; more likely, it's their complete unfamiliarity with the word. We've had a sign made up that always hangs in close proximity to where I'm playing so that I can stop playing, point to the sign, and say, "It's a hammer dulcimer."

#1 Where's the bathroom?

Made you laugh, didn't it? Seriously, this isn't the most frequently asked question; Question #2 has that distinction, hands down. But we were pretty unprepared for the frequency with which this question is asked of us -- of any vendor in a show, actually. And we have learned to prepare a simple -- and mercifully quick -- answer for it. I may not yet have a completely satisfactory answer worked out for Question #9, and I may still have difficulty giving an easy-to-understand answer to Question #7, but by golly, I can give swift and accurate directions to the nearest rest room!

And just in case you're wondering, I do completely halt my playing for this one, as well.  Being able to physically point a person in the correct direction can be critical!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Maggie Muggins on the AT


Labor Day -- unofficially the last day of summer and officially the last day of our vacation.  Tomorrow we set out for Stone Mountain, Georgia and the Yellow Daisy Festival; from there it's on to The Big E, in Massachusetts.

But today was Girls' Day Out for Maggie and me, and we chose to spend it on the Appalachian Trail.  We entered the Skyline Drive via Thornton Gap, drove south to park at Beahms Gap, and walked a few paces back to the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).  (I realize that few who read this will recognize -- or even care much to know -- the place names, but I just like the sounds of those names!)

First order of business -- whether to head north or south.  We chose north, because it promised to take us to a spring that would become the headwaters of Pass Run, which flows near our campground.  After examining this completely unremarkable body of water for mere seconds, we turned back to the trail and continued north.  We could hear cars as they cruised along Skyline Drive, but after a while, the sound of cars became more and more faint, until we didn't hear them at all.

This is the point at which I became a little spooked.  Though I enjoy backwoods stuff, I don't frequently get to do much of it; I'm not used to it at all.  The A.T.'s "through-hikers" would be hundreds of miles ahead of us by this time of year, and it occurred to me that on a day that was just a little too hot for hiking, we may be all alone on this stretch of trail.

And then I realized:  "Hey, I have protection: I have a chow-chow!"  The chow-chow (Maggie, of course) didn't seem anxious or afraid.  So why should I be?  Actually, now that I reflect back on it, if I'd had a human companion, we'd probably have been talking for much of the way and I would've missed some pretty cool sounds -- like the sound of a hawk's wings beating as it flew overhead.  Man!  I'd be willing to bet that, pound for pound, the hawk moves as much -- or more! -- air as a helicopter!

A lot of the next section of trail was pretty narrow and rocky.  Not steep, but not easy, either.  I had to really watch my footing.  My almost-11-year-old dog, however, nimbly skipped along.  Thanks to an old knee injury, inclines are much easier for me than declines, and I was grateful that the first portion of our hike was mostly uphill -- I was figuring that Maggie would be tired on the return portion, so there'd be less chance of her yanking the leash and making me stumble going downhill.

I'm not sure how far we hiked; it really couldn't have been all that far, but both of us were getting a bit overheated.  So at some point, I stopped and we enjoyed some cool bottled water and a short rest.  I was able, faintly, to hear cars once again, but the sound was coming from well below us.  During our rest, a young couple also heading north came up and briefly spoke to us, the young man even offering water for Maggie.  Then they took a little spur off the trail toward one of the shelters, while we headed back south.  We passed another north-bound couple; the young man offered his hand to Maggie, but she was only briefly interested, as she apparently thought that there was more urgent business down the trail.

Remember how Maggie was going to be so tired on the return portion?  Nah!  At certain times she was going so fast that she made me look as if I were staggering drunk, trying to keep up with her.  But she was very cooperative; when I'd had enough and said, sharply, "Slow down!" she did -- thank goodness!  Remember when I was spooked?  It happened again, in the same section of trail.  I guess maybe there really was something -- big -- just out of sight.  They say that you should be a little noisy when you're hiking in the backcountry, so that bears, who are normally very shy, can hear you coming and avoid you.  Well, if that something "big" was a bear, that bear would have had no trouble hearing us as we approached, me clumping over rocks in my hiking boots, trying to keep up with the dog.  And the loud panting!  ... and Maggie was panting a little bit, too.

We can't wait to do it all again!






Postscript:  Just when you think, gosh what an exhilarating day!  It doesn't get any better than this!  ... and then it does.  The sky is cloudless tonight, and, far from bright city lights, we can perfectly see the innumerable stars of the summer sky -- we can even see the Milky Way!  It really doesn't get any better than this ... God is good ...

Monday, August 4, 2008

It's About Time!

"Use it up; Wear it out; Make it do ... Or do without"  (WWII era -- or earlier? -- slogan)

This was the prevailing philosophy all through my childhood.  I grew up in rural central Florida, where some goods and services were not always easily available, although I suspect that even "city kids" who grew up pre-1970's or 1980's had to apply this thinking to some extent.  Surely none of us could have envisioned the myriad choices that consumers can make today -- or dreamed of a time when it might actually be cheaper to throw something away than have it fixed!

Now, of course, thanks in part to the "Green" movement, things are starting to come full circle.  Though our culture has allowed us -- even encouraged us -- to take pride in having the luxury to toss aside even "gently used" items for something more stylish, nowadays it isn't always so cool to carelessly discard an item that may still have life.  When my watch recently quit keeping time, I initially had the sense of dread that usually precedes "major" shopping trips (yes, there are some of us for whom too many choices is, in fact, a curse).  Then, I remembered -- did memory serve me correctly? -- hadn't I passed by a watch repair store in downtown Black Mountain?

Yes!  Pellom's Time Shop, and the cardboard sign in the window read, simply, "We carry watch batteries."  I pushed open the door of the narrow storefront, and was immediately transported into yesteryear: old wooden display cases and counters filled with clocks of all shapes and sizes and vintages.  Clocks and old cigar boxes piled into this corner, clocks covering the counter, clocks hanging on that wall.  And a little hanging display case that had quite an array of watches.

I handed my useless watch to the quietly smiling, soft-spoken, man behind the counter (who I presume to have been Mr. Pellom, himself) and asked him if he'd be able to tell me whether it could be fixed or if it'd be cheaper to just buy a new one.  "Whether it's more expensive to you dead or alive, in other words?" he quipped.  He disappeared behind a partition at the back of the shop, and I turned my attention to the watches in that hanging display case, should I need to buy a new one.  It was an odd assortment, to be sure, but I saw a couple of timepieces that would serve me nicely.  In practically no time at all, Mr. Pellom returned with my good-as-new watch, having replaced the battery and given its running parts "a bit of oil."  The price for this service?  $3

Couldn't have bought a new watch for anywhere near that low sum.

I was glad, because that watch (a Timex) and I have been through a lot together.  For example, because I can't play guitar while wearing the watch (on the wrist of my strumming hand) I usually remove the watch just prior to a performance.  However, there have been times on stage when I've found myself picking up the guitar, only to discover that -- Yikes! -- I'm still wearing my watch.  I've quickly stripped it off and tossed it aside -- more times than is probably good for it -- and it always "Takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'" just like the old TV ads claimed.

Before I left, and because there was one pretty and unusual watch that had caught my eye, I asked Mr. Pellom about those watches in the hanging display case.  "Oh, they're not for sale," he murmured, and then as an afterthought, "but if their owners don't come to claim 'em pretty soon, they might be."  

"Times are tough;" he said, "folks who've found themselves out of work need to buy food and clothes more than they need to pay for their fixed watches."  Without a trace of bitterness or self-pity, he added, "Don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep this up."  What could I say to that?  He wasn't one to commiserate, so I thanked him and turned toward the door.  My heart leapt a little to see an older couple entering the shop; Pellom's Time Shop was still in business.

Sandwiched as it is between two of Black Mountain's gift boutiques, Pellom's probably does get notice from a fair number of tourists -- after all, that's how I came to know of it.  But modern society has less and less need for the neighborhood "Mr. Fix-It": these days it's truly cheaper to buy a new TV, for example, than to have your old one repaired.  The kid who loved to tinker on cars back in high school can't manage his own auto repair shop, because vehicles these days have fancy -- and costly -- computer systems that only a dealer can afford to maintain.


But as our growing concern for the environment gives more and more power to the phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," perhaps those who enable us to more fully practice the "Three R's of Environmentalism" will regain their once-critical place in our society.  I'm pulling for you, Mr. Pellom!