Posted by: Bob McMichael | May 31, 2012


John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, died here in 1689

Claver’s Stone

Just got back from Scotland, and am working on several projects related to the trip. But I wanted to post this photo that Leslie took of me playing “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee” at the spot he died after leading the first successful Jacobite uprising against the British at the Battle of Killicrankie in July 1689.

Don’t let the blue sky fool you: this was one of three days in more than two weeks that we saw sun.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | December 6, 2011

What’s Going On

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so I thought I’d just jot down a bit of an update on what I’m doing with the old pipes.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Part of the reason I haven’t posted anything is that I’ve been practicing a lot. It all started when I went to bagpipe camp last summer. I’d wanted to go to the Coeur d’Alene Summer School of Piping and Drumming since I heard about it in the first month I started on the practice chanter, back in 2007. Things finally worked out to do it in 2011, and it was incredible. I think this school has been going on for over 40 years, and its location in Coeur d’Alene makes it a spectacular place to be. It was total immersion in piping for a week, culminating in competition at the Spokane Highland Games. In addition to the lengthy daily classes, most evenings feature recitals from the awesome instructors, lectures, and films on piping.

I like to be challenged, and somehow I got placed into the advanced class, taught by the impressive Ann Gray. She gave us a lot of music and pushed us hard, including a big MSR of Southall/Tulloch Castle/Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran. We also did lots of piobaireachd work, with instruction by the legendary Andrew Wright, on Gathering of the MacNabs, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, Sound of the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Proud to Play a Pipe (Dastirum gu seinnim piob). Click Andrew’s photo below to hear a  bit of his piobaireachd instruction in our class.

Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright

On the last day of the school, I performed a complete piobaireachd for the first time, as part of the Macrae Cup Amateur Piobaireachd Competition. I couldn’t have been more nervous, as the judge was Andrew Wright, and the room was filled with other instructors and excellent pipers, many equipped with the Kilberry or Piobaireachd Society collections of tunes so they could follow along (or notice errors!). We had to submit two tunes we knew, and we were told 15 minutes before which one we’d play. I submitted Lament for the Son of King Aro and Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarberts Fancy, and Andrew selected the first. Here’s that performance:

I played it too slowly and made lots of note errors, but got through it and placed third. It was a good experience, but one I’m glad is behind me!

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Later that evening, I really enjoyed the annual Hornpipe/Jig Competition at the local tavern, where the top players played some fantastic tunes for the ever busy Andrew Wright. It was great to relax with a pint and listen to some excellent performances.

The next day I drove to Spokane to compete in the Grade 4 piping events. I completely butchered “Mrs John MacColl” (2/4 march) in front of judge Ann Gray and got 5th; I played “The Highlander” (6/8 march) in front of judge Alan Walters and got first; I played Bruce Gandy’s “Mairi Matheson of Carloway” and “The Rejected Suitor” in the strathspey/reel for judge Andrew Wright and got first in that, which gave me enough points to win the aggregate. I was quite surprised because I felt I could have played better. It was a great way to end the week of intense bagpiping. I can’t wait for next year’s camp.

Lessons, finally!

Bruce Gandy

Bruce Gandy

The most exciting thing for me now is that I’ve finally begun taking lessons on the pipes. After years of working on stuff myself, and feeling like I’d reached a wall I couldn’t get over, I started taking lessons via Skype from Bruce Gandy (who lives in Nova Scotia). I’d been to a clinic he did in Portland a few years ago and really liked his teaching style, and have admired his piping since day one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the remote format and the first lesson were excellent and very motivating. I’ll post more about how the lessons are going after I’ve been doing them for a month, but if you’ve been considering Skype as an instructional medium, I found it much better than expected.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | July 11, 2011

Craft Beer Utopia

Isola di Utopia Moro

The first Utopia

Utopias have, historically, disproved themselves. At best they last only a short while before self-destructing. Yet the idea remains an attractive one, and – despite every conceivable odd being against success – people keep trying. Sometimes, though, utopias – ephemeral as they are doomed to be – occur unintentionally. Craft beer has that power.

Brewer's Dinner: Odell Brewing Company

The Menu

Boise’s Front Door has made a habit of putting on “Brewers Dinners” which highlight a particular craft brewery’s products by pairing ales and lagers with bespoke dishes conceived and prepared by the crack foodies there. On July 7th, 2011, Leslie and I attended our first, featuring Odell Brewing Company from Fort Collins, Colorado.

The intimate Front Door

The intimate Front Door

The Front Door is our favorite joint in town for a lot of reasons, the good food and tremendous selection of craft brews topping the list. The relaxed atmosphere and great service are gravy and groovy, too. When we walked in and saw the unusually tony red tablecloths and white napkins we knew something was up.

Rachel and Cera greeted us with the cheerful recognition we have earned (being die-hard, gluttonous patrons), and seated us at a five-top near the bar. Ian (pronounced EYE-un), a young engineer with a well-trimmed goatee was already seated, awaiting his companion Katie, a second-grade teacher. When she arrived we learned it was their second date. When Chris, another engineer wearing a bright yellow t-shirt ironically championing one of America’s creepiest serial killers, sat down, our temporary utopia was ready to go. Just add good beer.

Joe Mohrfeld, Head Brewer, Odell Brewing Company

Joe Mohrfeld, Odell's Head Brewer, and lovely Rachel

That we did: our “warm-up” was a pint of Double Pilsner (8.1% ABV) that, partly because it was so delicious and partly because I’d barely eaten anything all day, made me feel really, really good. It seemed to have the same effect on the rest of our group. Before long, we were all acting very well. This was the utopic foundation.

The first layer of bricks added to that foundation was a heavenly prosciutto pinwheel – some filo dough-like puffed pastry marvel filled with smoked gouda, prosciutto, and raspberry jam – paired with Odell’s 90 Shilling, their best-selling brew. I love multi-course meals that start with something sweet, but the savoriness of the smoky cheese and salty prosciutto chased down by the 90 Shilling really got all the taste bud clusters involved, heightening the other senses (whatever few I had left).

When they brought the next course, a sprightly Dijon salad with fennel, orange, pickled red onions and dried cranberries, it was complimented by the St. Lupulin Extra Pale ale (which was my favorite of the evening). That’s when one of the Odell folks came by to chat (I’m sort of but not really ashamed that I can’t remember his name; his beer by then had begun turning my memory into a very fickle thing). I asked him about St. Lupulin’s religious history and he shared the inside story with us, which was very generous of him considering the fact that this knowledge is very strictly regulated by numerous cannabinoid theocracies around the globe. As if by some divine happening, within minutes after his departure our table was bestowed with Odell baseball caps. To make things even better, I began realizing that our glasses were being magically refilled. This happened with each of the brews throughout the evening. Holy hoppiness!

Ian and Katy

Ian and Katie



Without going into a detailed account of each of the next courses I will say that all of the food (just look at the menu) exceeded the deliciousness, freshness, superb preparation, and gustatory delight expected of and always delivered by the Front Door. What made the evening special, or even more special, was the fact that we sat down with strangers and were able to communicate and share like humans in a world that – more and more each day – discourages such communion. Surely the alcohol helped lower inhibitions, and the food stimulated our hypothalami to make us hyper-social. But we – all five of us – took it from there. Ian shared his experiences traveling to China and Singapore. Katie told us about her passion for teaching and how she’s survived a decade in public education in a state that seems hell-bent against it. Chris talked about learning the sitar and considered exchanging lessons with me for bagpipe instruction. Leslie regaled us with tales of things removed from patients’ nether regions (once again dusting off the old but effective snow-globe story). And I, as usual, blabbed way too much (it had to be the beer talking!). We laughed, we cried, we ate, we drank, we all – it was obvious – felt something very positively unusual.

Maybe we need to get out more, all of us. We need to fight against the social compartmentalization encouraged and promoted by “Smart Phones” (crappy pictures herein courtesy of my Blackberry) that make us socially dumber and rude to one another, especially strangers. There are tons of opportunities to get to know strangers and regain hope for civilization, but facebook (ironically) and technology (I’m conflictedly hyperaware of the paradox that the medium I’m using for this message is my named villain) are clearly not the answer. Seeing people in person and listening to what they have to say can be scary. But we must do this to be human. It seems sad and ridiculous to write this, but also necessary because it is too easy to forget or avoid it. The Brewers Dinners at the Front Door are just one (amazing) venue for being a human being. Thanks!

P.S. It seems that the craft brewing “movement” has fostered a lot of this type of thinking: see, for example, Brewvana (get it?)…

Posted by: Bob McMichael | July 1, 2011

9-year Plan to Bagpiping Profit

"The Bagpiper" by Albrecht Durer

"The Bagpiper" by Albrecht Durer

After my last post, I began thinking about numbers. I’ve put a lot of energy lately into my bagpipe “business,” and figured I should do some basic calculations and see just exactly how successful – in a purely economic sense – I am. I also wondered if I am charging too much (I don’t think so), largely because I get a lot of inquiries from my website ( which, after I quote a fee, vanish into the ether.

So here it is; as you can tell, if you have the patience to sort through this mess, I am no financial wizard. But the rough costs below and the conclusion I reached (that it will take nine years to begin making a profit) were kind of surprising. Therefore, being a professional bagpiper is truly a labor of love.

Bagpipe gig (average)

Fee: + $150
Fuel: – $12
Net: + $138

1. Dress: 15 minutes
2. Drive to gig: 30 minutes
3. Performance site: 1 hour
4. Drive home: 30 minutes
5. Undress: 15 minutes

Total time: 2.5 hours (@ $138 net for a gig, this works out to $55/hour)


Kilts (skirts for men)

Horsehair sporrans



Balmoral bonnet

Required equipment:

Bagpipes $2,000
Kilt & flash $1,000 (two kilts required)
Ghillie Brogues (shoes) $ 150
Kilt hose (socks) $ 100 (minimum 3 pairs required)
Sgian dubh (knife in hose) $ 75
Kilt belt & buckle $ 150
Sporrans $ 450 (two required: dress and day)
Prince Charlie jacket & vest $ 300
Argyll jacket $ 300
Jacobite shirt $ 50
• Dress shirts & ties $ 300 (three each required)
Glengarry (military hat) $ 85
Balmoral (casual hat) $ 85
Clan crest badges (for hats) $ 50
Kilt crest pins $ 50
Music books $ 500 (bagpipe music books are very expensive)

Total: $5,645

David Naill DN5 Bagpipes

What I want for Christmas

At $138 net per gig, I would need 41 full-paying gigs to pay off the required equipment. In the first six months of 2011 I’ve had 8 paying gigs. Assuming I average 16 gigs per year, it would take over 2.5 years to pay off the required equipment. Factoring in interest rates and miscellaneous expenses let’s say a 3-year loss of $2000 per year should cover the “one-time” equipment costs. Other annual costs (below) add to the ramp-up schedule and time-to-profit.

Other annual costs ($1,500 per year):

The annual costs and equipment amortization for the first 3 years would result in accumulated debt of $3,876 assuming income remains the same. After equipment costs are paid, it would take about 5 more years to amortize the accumulated debt.


Year 1: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Year 2: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Year 3: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Years 4-8: Income ($11,040) – Expenses ($7,500) – Y1-3 debt ($3,876) = -$336
Year 9: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($1500) – $336 from Y8 = $372


Nine years ain’t bad. I won’t even be 60 yet, and might be able to blow another ten to fifteen years after that. With any luck, too, I might get more gigs and collect more income. But the equipment doesn’t last forever, either, and I’ll need another set of pipes soon, and probably another kilt. The bottom line, obviously, is that – even charging what some apparently consider exorbitant fees – I’m not in it for the money. Few, if any, pipers are. For most, it’s the thrill of playing for people who really appreciate it.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | June 26, 2011

Beginnings, Endings, Good Things

Bob McMichael on the bagpipes at a Boise wedding

Piping in the bride

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some special moments of strangers. I played for a small wedding at a lovely home in the Boise foothills. Surrounded by a small group of family and friends, the young bride and groom held hands and never severed their beatific eye contact during the ceremony. Their love for each other was palpable and moving to witness. After returning from her honeymoon, the bride emailed me the photo to the left with the following note:


Thank YOU more like!! It was just so memorable…It was everything I wanted it to be. It truly was the best day of my life and it would not have felt the same without your amazing talent. 🙂

Thank you a million times over…

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

On Friday I played for a military funeral at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Boise. The deceased was an 83-year-old woman, a veteran, probably of WWII. While I feel privileged to play a small part in ceremonies, rarely is my curiosity about those involved satisfied. And I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to inquire. Sometimes the funeral director will offer information about the departed or their family. In this case, the attendees numbered only 12, the smallest funeral I’ve played for or attended. But the visible grief I saw – especially from the woman who received the flag; perhaps the daughter? – moved me to tears as I played “Amazing Grace” while watching them dab at their eyes and cheeks with white handkerchiefs. I usually just play and leave, but after having listened to what might have been the brother deliver a short eulogy in fits and starts of sobbing, and watching the family attend to each other, I wanted to express my condolences. They thanked me profusely. I won’t forget this one.

Bagpiper Municipal Park Boise

Bagpiping in Municipal Park, Boise

The day after the funeral I was hired to play at a one-year-old’s birthday. I’ve played for other birthday parties, but never for someone this young, and didn’t know what to expect. On a gorgeous summer evening, at the Municipal Park in Boise, right along the river, under a canopy of massive silver maples, a group of over 100 people gathered for what turned out to be a rather elaborate luau in honor of this child. It was the most diverse group of people I’ve seen since moving to Boise 11 years ago. The host (grandfather) was Samoan, and was doing a sound check on his PA system with his koa guitar and ukelele as I arrived. I asked him why a bagpiper at a luau, and he explained that they wanted to celebrate all the backgrounds of his grandson: the Polynesian music (he lamented that his relatives in Salt Lake were unable to make it; they were planning to do a Samoan knife dance), some other European influences, and the Scottish side. I played for half an hour as people arrived and the food began appearing (a mouth-watering spread!), and then finished by leading the whole group in “Happy Birthday” while the birthday boy beamed in his beautiful mother’s arms.

Afterward, while walking back to my truck, hearing the Samoan grandfather singing (an excellent musician), someone behind me called out, “Hey piper!” It was one of the child’s grandfathers, the Scottish side. He asked what my tartan clan was (it’s Stewart of Appin), and we chatted a bit. He thanked me for playing. I felt, for the third time in the past couple weeks, while wearing my kilt, very fortunate to witness and contribute to such positive events. You might think that a funeral shouldn’t be included as a good thing, but it is. You can’t live forever. It is good people want to see you off. It’s not having a funeral that is a bad thing.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a better set of music for the boy’s second birthday. If his first was any measure, the second will be huge.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | May 30, 2011

Eurovan Luggage Rack Repair

Eurovan Luggage Rack Repair

Eurovan Luggage Rack Repair

On our recent trip to California the luggage rack on the EVC made so much noise that I finally climbed up there and took a look at it to see what the trouble was. The recessed corners  of the plastic shell had cracked, thus making the rack’s connection to the Eurovan pretty flimsy. Even driving slowly through town, the noise was horrendous, like some roof-mounted troll thought the EVC was a piñata.

Duct-taped Eurovan Luggage Rack

Duct-taped Eurovan Luggage Rack

I duct-taped the rack and ordered the repair kit from GoWesty. Below is an account of my repair, which was as involved, time consuming, and difficult as I dreaded it would be. But now it’s done, and – most importantly – silent and way more resilient than Winnebago, in keeping with the American manufacturing credo of “barely good enough,” designed it to be.

Removing the Luggage Rack

This was the easiest part. GoWesty’s instructions are simple and worked just fine: unbolt everything and remove the rack.

Original brackets

Original brackets

What I saw after the rack was off was disgusting. Filth, slime, cracking silicone, and rusted, twisted metal brackets. I cleaned everything, let it dry completely, and then drilled the rivet heads off the original brackets so I could remove and replace them. Winnebago only riveted the outside of each bracket; the inside was “glued” onto the roof and the glue job on every bracket had long ago failed.

Eurovan luggage rack silicone block

Eurovan luggage rack silicone block

Winnebago filled the channel on each side of the Eurovan roof with a block of plastic which they siliconed or glued in place. I’ve read about this being a major leak-point for the campers, and sure enough big cracks were opening up around the edges of the plastic blocks. I scrubbed the cracks and filled them with clear silicone.

Repairing the Luggage Rack Shell

Cracked Eurovan Luggage Rack

Cracked Eurovan Luggage Rack

Since I’d had good luck with JB Weld on other plastic repairs (e.g., the battery cover under the hood) I decided to use it on the luggage rack. I cleaned the plastic, sanded the areas around the cracks, and cleaned it all with acetone.

Bottom of EVC Luggage Rack

JB Weld repair

I applied generous amounts of JB Weld to both the top and the bottom of each crack (waiting about 12 hours for the bottom to dry before turning it over and doing the top), making sure that I covered the long crack extensions at each corner. After the top had dried completely (24 hours), I painted the dark gray JB Weld with touch-up paint that I got from an auto paint store (paint code: R902, Arctic White). They mixed the paint while I waited; the dealer wanted twice the amount ($25) and two weeks to order it!

New Eurovan Luggage Rack Seal

New Eurovan Luggage Rack Seal

After repairing the cracks, I removed the old seal, which had rusted extensively on the inside, since there were bare metal clips holding the seal in place. I sanded and acetoned the edge of the plastic to remove the rust stains, and then installed the GoWesty replacement seal. This seal has a rubber bulb on one side, and the instructions didn’t indicate whether the bulb went on the inside or outside, so I called GoWesty and they got back to me quickly, indicating that the bulb goes on the inside. After installing it, I could easily see why: it forms an actual seal (unlike the original) that keeps the air from getting under the rack and buffeting it. The original seal and the shoddy material and installation of the original brackets allowed the rack over time to get buffeted to the point of cracking at the corners. UV damage also contributed, as the plastic is pretty brittle now.

Installing the New Brackets

Drilling out old rivets

Drilling out old rivets

This is the part I dreaded most because (a) it required drilling holes in the roof and (b) I had never used a rivet gun. GoWesty’s instructions were clear and simple as usual, and worked fine. What they don’t explain are the finer points of installing rivets, which is not their responsibility. As with installing the Fiamma awning, drilling holes in the Eurovan makes me nervous. With the luggage rack, there was the added difficulty of not drilling all the way through the headliner. [UPDATE: A  nice person sent me a comment saying that “Drill Stops” (about $4 at Home Depot) can prevent you from drilling through the headliner – GoWesty should update their instructions and recommend people use those to save their headliners.]

Siliconed new brackets

New brackets with silicone

To install the brackets, first I siliconed the bottom of all four holes, then placed the bracket over the existing two holes. I installed the first rivet too loosely, which meant drilling it out and redoing it; luckily I had purchased an extra box of 3/16” rivets as GoWesty supplies only the exact number of rivets required (20). I learned from my mistake that to get a tight rivet you need to squeeze the rivet gun incrementally to get the full pull on the rivet. It took me two or three incremental pulls (squeeze, open the rivet gun handle, “swallow” the rivet back down to the head, squeeze again, “swallow” and squeeze until it breaks off the disposable rivet shaft).

After riveting the bracket into the two existing holes, I drilled (3/16” bit) the two inside holes. On the first one I went clean through the headliner. There is very little space between the roof metal and the headliner, which made drilling the other 9 holes quite nerve-wracking. Despite being extremely careful and drilling very slowly, I still made four holes in the headliner. Not much you can do there (anyone have a suggestion to prevent and/or repair the holes in the headliner?).

Center bracket installed backwards

Center bracket installed backwards

Center bracket correctly installed

Center bracket correctly installed

Once all brackets were riveted in place I siliconed over all the rivets and leading edges of the brackets to keep water from getting into the holes and leaking through the headliner. To my horror, after looking at the photos I’d just taken of the newly installed brackets, I realized I’d installed the front bracket backwards! I had to drill out all four rivets and re-install that bracket, which didn’t take me long since I’d improved my skill level with the rivet gun.

Re-installation of the Luggage Rack

After dismantling the rack, I sanded and repainted the rusted top brackets that secure the plactic shell to the roof-riveted brackets. Re-installing the entire rack was pretty straightforward, but required some elbow grease to get the holes in the plastic lined up with the threaded holes in the brackets. I bolted one side down loosely, then had to pull pretty hard on the other side to get those bolts threaded.

Failed JB Weld repair

Failed JB Weld repair

I’m sad to report that my time-consuming JB Weld job on the cracks failed at the two front corners, which were the biggest cracks in the rack. The back corner repairs held, and the top brackets have enough surface space to hold the plastic securely in place. After tightening the top brackets I siliconed the cracks in the front corners and can only hope they’ll last and keep from getting bigger. Since the rack isn’t vibrating and getting buffeted like it did originally, I’m optimistic. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes out for a flawless replacement plastic shell (haven’t had any luck finding one yet; any suggestions are welcomed!).

Road Test

Repaired Eurovan Luggage Rack

Repaired Eurovan Luggage Rack

The impetus for getting this job done was an impending trip to the Olympic Peninsula. I’m happy to report that the damned thing was silent the whole trip, even during near-hurricane force winds in a couple spots. The cracks don’t seem to have grown, and I’m relieved to have this one behind me. Whether I’ll actually use the rack is another matter!

Posted by: Bob McMichael | May 7, 2011

Tick Trouble

American Dog Tick

American Dog Tick

After a trail run today, Leslie and I picked 19 American Dog Ticks (dermacentor variabilis) off of Angus. We found some crawling on us, which we assumed came from Angus, and are included in that number, which is one shy of the record 20 I pulled off of Glenna after a hike a few years ago. I assume that anyone hiking with a dog in the spring knows the drill: caress the fur with heightened fingertip sensitivity, feel for little flat bumps on the skin, and then quickly extract the little nuisances and flush them down the toilet. At least that’s what we do with them. Then we spend a couple hours imagining they’re crawling around in our shorts or on our scalps or in our armpits.

I went googling for info on ticks because I couldn’t imagine any good their existence provided the world. Even worse than mosquitoes, which I know at least provide a food source for trout, ticks just seem like pure badness. They’re creepy, they’re parasitic, and they spread some really horrible diseases, not unlike investment bankers, politicians, lawyers, and crooked CEOs.

The Good

If it’s permissible to put a value judgment on an insect (debatable), ticks are good because they help control the rodent population. That’s about it. The bad things they do are more interesting.

The Bad

Ticks spread Lyme Disease. You can read about it on wikipedia, but I found a post on a forum that paints a clearer picture. This person chimed in on a thread that was being dominated by more scientific types who took the time to explain in biological terms the position of ticks in the greater ecosystem; some even qualified their remarks with the good-science move distinguishing science from morality or judgment (i.e., “ticks are what they are”). Some of the posters, however, couldn’t refrain from saying that because of the “good” ticks provided their habitat, they were better than humans. Enter this poor soul:

When a tick pays for my medicine, doctor and emergency room bills, I’ll think about “save the ticks.” I have Lyme Disease. I know what a Neurologist is. I know what an epileptic seizure is. I know more medications than I should. I sometimes have a hard time walking to get my morning newspaper. I haven’t run in 4 years. I can’t SCUBA, Frisbee, sail alone, ski, walk on boulder jetties, drive (without a lawyer), I golf like a loser, can’t throw a (base, foot, snow)ball without falling. I have vertigo, I can’t climb a ladder; I used to climb a mast on a sailboat underway to change a lightbulb. I lost my “sea-legs.” I lost my Captain’s License, driver’s license is in perpetual limbo. Have a “spaz” lose a license. Sometimes I use a cane. Part of running around is risk. I got whacked… I’ll be an adult and NOT sue someone. I’ve been beaten, stabbed, robbed, left-for-dead, shot at… Lyme scares me the most. There is nothing I can do now.

Ticks spread other diseases, too, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis, tularemia, and – my personal favorite – 364D Rickettsiosis. None of these are any fun. The key is removing the tick before they have a chance to get deep into their feeding cycle, which sometimes takes over 24 hours. I read that as many as 50% of the ticks out there carry one of these diseases, some of which are species specific.

The Tick

The Tick, from a 1994 TV cartoon series

The Weird

American popular culture has a fascination with strange and gross things. Ticks pop up here and there. There’s a cartoon I watched on Saturday mornings back in my thirties. It’s called The Tick, of all things, and was based on a comic book character and spawned an even weirder TV series starring the guy who played David Puddy on Seinfeld (Patrick Warburton). Then there is the 1993 horror film Ticks, which marketed itself with the line, “It’s not nice to mess with mother nature.” Do me a favor and don’t see it. Do me a favor and do listen to “The Ticks” girl band if you want to run screaming from your computer. And do your dog a favor and get those ticks off of him or her before they do some serious damage.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | May 1, 2011

Love: Grete Waitz (RIP)

Grete Waitz

Grete Waitz, 1953-2011

Grete Waitz died a week ago last Tuesday, April 19th, the day after the Boston Marathon. As a distance runner in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I admired her immensely but knew little about her. I mistakenly assumed she was German.

I’ve been trying to get back into running, and have even gotten my wife – a long-time cyclist – interested. Recently we watched a film called “Run For Your Life,” about the founder of the New York Marathon, Fred Lebow. In 1978 he got Waitz to run her first marathon. She won and broke the world record by two minutes. She won the race nine times and broke the world record three consecutive years.

In 1992, she ran her last marathon, running with Fred Lebow in his first and only run of the legendary marathon he created, three years after he got brain cancer. The bond between them had grown very dense over the years because of the synergy they shared through running. She helped make the NYC Marathon the massive success it’s become, and he helped her realize her superiority at the event, which essentially made her career.

Grete Waitz and Fred Lebow finishing the 1992 New York Marathon

Waitz & Lebow at the finish

The video footage of Waitz running with Lebow in 1992 shows – for me – the most profound expression of love I’ve ever seen. You must watch to understand what I mean. Accustomed to running the distance in under 2:30, Waitz protected the frail Lebow for five-and-a-half hours that day. You can see her during the run acting as the supreme guardian for a cherished friend, scanning the road with every step to make sure he would be safe and make it to the end. When they crossed the finish line, the expression on her face before they embraced shows a care so rare and moving that it’s hardly comprehensible. Their embrace afterward – you must watch this closely – is only more intense. To me, it represents the kind of compassion and humanity that needs to be put at the top of the endangered emotions list. It’s really an example of the almost unattainable ideal of true friendship. Lebow died two years later, outliving by a large margin his oncologists’ predictions.

When I saw the news that she died my heart sunk. I hadn’t known of her battle with cancer for the past six years. She was only 57. There’s something very tough about having one’s perception of a childhood athletic idol transform into the superlative expression of love and compassion and then, suddenly, to discover she died too young.  It is hard on the world to lose people like that.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | April 27, 2011

Amazing Grace

I played a funeral yesterday. I took Angus out to the small town where he was born, Emmett, Idaho, and played “Amazing Grace” after the Navy officers concluded the flag-folding ceremony. The departed lived a decently long life, “packed  a lot into it,” as his son told me.

Funerals are an otherwise unemployed bagpiper’s best friend. They pay well for the amount of effort, despite the dressing up and down and getting to and from, and plenty of standing around and waiting. Modern humans are used to that, but doing this in a cemetery puts a different taste on it. Even the least introverted among us will find themselves contemplating their demise and, perhaps, the stuff that came before it.

The day was nearly the nicest we’ve had all year, but peppered with thunderstorms and big wind gusts. This cemetery sits just outside of the small town, perched on a rise above the river, giving a clear view down the valley to the west, where the weather comes from, and a sharp perspective of the cherry orchards – all now abloom – skirting the bluffs to the south. Big cumulus clouds periodically cast shadows across the flat graveyard, and blasts of the cold storm-wind knifed eastward. But then there would be calm, and sun, and time to change thoughts.

Angus in the driver's seat

Angus in the driver's seat

I’ve played a number of funerals now, and might have become a little jaded on the existential thinking that comes from hanging out among the memorialized. Since I could see Angus sitting in the driver’s seat of my truck I wondered what he was making of all this. He lost his sister six months ago. Was his proximity to buried souls eliciting memories of Glenna? He was born almost four years ago about a mile from the cemetery, where his mother and father probably still live. Was he sensing anything like “home”?

When playing a funeral, you get there early and tune your pipes, which takes a good ten minutes. Then you put the pipes in your car and wait for the people to arrive, which is the cue to take position not too close but not too far from the casket – you want people to hear you without making their ears bleed. Then you stand at attention and solemnly wait for the time to play. It could be just a couple minutes, or it could be half an hour. Depending on the weather, your pipes will definitely be out of tune. It’s just a matter of how badly. I guessed how much sharper (higher pitched) my chanter reed (the one that makes the melody) would be, and adjusted my three drones accordingly while I waited. Then, when I fired up the drones to play “Amazing Grace,” I took two seconds to see how well I’d guessed on the tuning and made a very quick minor adjustment of my outside tenor drone, and started the melody.

Bob McMichael

Grave-side at my grandmother's funeral

When you play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes – it doesn’t really matter the occasion, but a funeral is ground zero for the effect – most people really listen. As a piper, you want to play it well, and that means, partly, playing in tune. This day, my tuning was as close as I’ve gotten it in a long time but while playing I could hear what sound scientists call “sympathetic vibrations” on certain notes. These register as physical and sonic vibrations which you can eliminate by adjusting the tuning of the drones. But you can’t do this while playing a tune, especially “Amazing Grace” at a funeral. It wasn’t bad, and I doubt anyone could tell. In fact as I played through both verses I began rather enjoying the slight whirring of those sympathetic vibrations on certain notes. It gave me something new to listen to in a song, perhaps my favorite song, that I’ve played thousands of times. And when I finished playing and stopped the sound, I saw several people, their eyeglasses in hand, wiping away tears.

Posted by: Bob McMichael | March 8, 2011

Report on California

San Simeon State Park

San Simeon State Park

Just returned from a ten-day, 2,750 mile road trip from Boise to California. Where to begin…

First, we vowed never to take another winter road trip that required crossing a mountain range. Second, we vowed never to drive in Southern California again. Next to our wedding vows, these are probably the most serious ones my wife and I have made.

Despite the “never-ness” of the vows, it was a pretty good trip, although – as usual – dominated by excessive driving time.

The Eurovan

We had hoped to take the quickest route from Boise to the Bay Area, which takes you over Donner Pass on I-80. The forecast for that area predicted at least two feet of snow and 95-mph winds for our travel day. I knew they would close the road, and they did. Our only other option added over 200 miles to the first day, but we decided to leave extra early so we could meet our friends that evening for dinner and a concert in San Francisco.

We woke up to several inches of fresh snow in our driveway, but hit the road by 5:30 anyway. Thirteen tense hours and dozens of twisty mountain passes later, we’d managed about 600 miles, 118 miles shy of our goal. The Eurovan didn’t even blink at the conditions, which were among the worst I’ve experienced. Howling winds, blinding snow flurries, uneven packed ice, black ice, drifting snow, slush ruts and more.

Ice-caked EVC

Ice-caked EVC

I stopped to pee at one point before leaving the snowy roads and was amazed at the amount of ice caked and clinging on the van. I had chains with me, but never needed them. The Eurovan handled the roads better than my 4WD Tacoma would have. Still, with the frigid temperatures and our tattered nerves we wimped out and got a motel room and a 2-pound burrito in Williams, California. We missed our friends, a good meal and a great jazz gig but got a good, digestion-enhanced sleep in this cute town in the heart of California’s central valley.

The Bay Area

Angus on the Fire Trail

Berkeley's Fire Trail

I lived in Berkeley from 1982 to 2000. Leaving it was hard, and the way it showed itself to us made my wife ask me why I ever left this place. It couldn’t have been prettier. After stopping for caffeine at the original Peet’s Coffee store, we drove up into the hills and took Angus for a walk in the only place we found in California that allows dogs to run off-leash (more later on this). The “Fire Trail” high in the hills winds through dense stands of eucalyptus and pine, and offers breathtaking views of San Francisco. I ran on this trail with a good friend almost every day while writing my dissertation in 1996. Where does the time go?

We met up with some dear old friends for lunch at Zachary’s Pizza on College Avenue in Oakland, just across the Berkeley border, then headed to the North Face Outlet where I’ve gotten great deals on outdoor gear since my college days in the ’80s. Only tiny or huge sizes, and not so much gear anymore, so we saved our dough for dinner.

$100 Bill Jerk

$100 Bill Jerk

Crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge provided a shock since the toll was $5 instead of the $2 it’s been since 1982. We had a long time to take in the sights when the guy in front of us paid with a $100 bill; the attendant had to make some phone calls, get out his microscope to examine the fibers in the bill, and fingerprint the customer, who spent his waiting time picking broken glass out of his car and throwing it on the ground in front of us. This was our first glimpse of some of the downsides of civilization. Finally on our way again we saw the possible reason for the toll increase: the new bridge they’re building, a lower, gleaming, curvy thing that promises to last longer and not pancake when The Big One hits.

Marina Motel, San Francisco

Marina Motel

We had a reservation at the Marina Motel because it looked cool on the Internet and accepted dogs and because it wasn’t far from Fisherman’s Wharf where my 10K race was early the next morning. A relic from the stylish late 1930s, this motor-court  was nice but small. I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the Eurovan in one of the numerous one-car garages; not much of a margin, it fit like a bread loaf in its cellophane sack.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

After settling in and recovering from the 15-minute parking job we headed over the Golden Gate Bridge to have dinner with another dear old friend in Mill Valley whom I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. We had a great time catching up, reminiscing, and eating good food.

We live in a strange time: the pace and stress of contemporary life seems to separate us from friends when it’s not convenient – because of geography or time or both – but the plethora of technology – Facebook, texting, Skype, google – aims or claims to connect us. In pre-Internet days, I most likely would have lost track forever of most of the friends I saw on this trip, but with the help of these tools was able to find or be found and re-connect. This is the topic of another blog altogether, but it’s interesting to think about the forces that separate us and bring us together. The important thing is how we manage those forces and stay human in the face of them.

Embarcadero 10K

It's gotta be the shoes

Sunday morning I ran my first 10K in 15 years, and actually set a PR. I can only attribute this to living and training at 3,000 feet, and maybe the excitement of running through Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero. Or maybe it was my super-blowout-sale fluorescent orange Haile Gebrselassie model Adidas Adizero Adios shoes. It seemed odd to me that, coming from the silly town of Boise, Idaho, I would get so many comments on my flashy shoes in one of the most stylish cities on the planet. I think I might have been shamed into running as fast as I could.

After the race we met another “lost” friend for breakfast, then headed south along the coast and camped at San Simeon State Park just north of Cambria, near Hearst Castle.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

On the way, we saw two spectacular sights: hordes of elephant seals basking in the setting sun, and a customized Mercedes-Benz Unimog from Germany on a trip around the globe. Each sight was equally striking and strange. Germans really seem to go for adventure travel; see my post about the Real Long Way Round.

The Unimog

The Unimog

The next morning we continued south along the central coast – to me, the only remaining livable place in California: it’s gorgeous, has a very temperate climate, and relatively few people. The reason it is that way is because of its lack of jobs and industry, and it’s far enough from the Bay Area and LA to stay desirably un-populated. Which reminds me of another vow my wife and I made: to start playing the Lottery.



Welcome to LA

Welcome to LA

After a harrowing drive through LA at the beginning of rush hour, we got to my home town of Laguna Beach in time to run Angus at the local fenced-in dog park. Our little guy is a great traveler, never complains, and rolls with the punches, taking what limited off-leash time he can get, which – in California – was, with the exceptions of Laguna’s dog park and the Fire Trail in Berkeley, illegal. Yet another vow: if we lived in California we would not have a dog.

Junipero Serra with Indian Boy

Junipero Serra with Indian Boy

We visited the Mission San Juan Capistrano, which I hadn’t seen since grade school. I was surprised by the complete absence of any information at this important historical site of the horrendous treatment of Native Americans by the missionaries. Instead, the “historical” video they offer is a thinly-veiled plea for donations and a shameful puff-piece on early California history and the missions’ terrible role in it.

Watching people watch birds at the Newport Back Bay

Watching people watch birds at the Newport Back Bay

After the trip to the mission, we shifted to birding mode and went to Doheny State Beach to view the huge seagull congregation and then the Newport Back Bay, where my mom brought my brother and me to watch birds when we were little. We watched marbled godwits, black-necked stilts, cinnamon teal, coots, sandpipers, egrets (both snowy and great), American widgeon, grebes, and lots of other birds doing their things in the bay. This felt as much like being “home” as anything on the trip.

It was good to see my mom and step-dad, and to enjoy Laguna, even though I kept saying, “This isn’t the town I grew up in.” The difference? Money, money, money. Way too many cars parked on residential streets, no doubt because the postage-stamp sized lots have been filled to the edges with remodeled bungalows whose square footage is maxed out with living space. The $100K Mercedes can sit in the street.

Laguna Beach High School Track

LBHS Track

I wanted to run a track workout at my high school alma mater, Laguna Beach High School. When I attended (1976-1980), our mascot was a goateed artist holding a brush and palette (still the name of the school newpaper; Laguna Beach originated as an artist colony in the early 20th Century). A few years ago – perhaps in an attempt to protect the children from the homophobic taunts I received while competing at opposing schools when I was an “Artist” (Laguna Beach, historically, has has had a vibrant and large gay community, although I’m not sure if that still holds) – they changed the mascot to a wave, and now go by The Breakers. The track, which is now a state-of-the-art rubberized beauty surrounding an Astro-Turf football field, is recently closed to the public. There’s an ongoing debate over the track closure; apparently the new principal has convinced the school board that allowing the public to use the track is an invitation to child molesters, while justifiably annoyed locals who pay taxes supporting the public school can’t use it. I had a good run along the beach instead. The times they are still a-changin’.

Gamble House entry

Gamble House entry

Next was a lovely visit with my dad and step-mom in Long Beach. Angus got to meet Maggie (his aunt?) the Sheltie, who quickly became enamored of the little guy, who could not have seemed less interested. What can you do? My dad took us to my parents’ home town of Pasadena so Leslie could see for the first time the gorgeous grounds at the Huntington Library and the magnificent Gamble House, the premier Greene & Greene creation, where we got a tour of the home from a wonderful docent. It was nice to have a break from driving, and my dad took us past all three of his childhood homes in Pasadena, as well as my mom’s old house there where I spent lots of time as a kid visiting grandparents.

Faux Bois

Faux Bois

Faux Bois artist

Faux Bois artist

Oh, at the Huntington, we watched a masterful artist at work restoring the “faux bois” (fake wood, made of sculpted, steel-reinforced cement) arbors, and learned a lot about the nearly extinct craft from him. Fascinating stuff.

The Return

1350 miles down, and we began the trek home a week after leaving. Because of a miscommunication (Leslie and I each thought the other wanted to return along the Northern California coast, when we both actually wanted to take the shortest route home), we bit off nearly more than we could chew. Blasting through LA’s terrifying traffic, in which we very nearly died in a horrific fireball that was almost caused by a “totally agro” teenaged girl, was like nothing I’ve ever seen at 6:15 a.m. It was a jam-packed parking lot where everyone was going 80. California’s budget crisis is nowhere more apparent than its crumbling roads peppered with potholes big enough for an armoir. The dilapidated state of California’s massive network of freeways would embarrass any Third World country. It’s true for the whole state, but Southern California is particularly bad, and – since SoCal is most prominently defined by The Car – the pitifully dangerous shape of its arterial roadways is quite ironic.

Angus greeting mallard

Angus greeting mallard

Avenue of the Giants

Avenue of the Giants

We took the 405 to the 5 to the 580 to the 680 to the 780 to the 37 to the 29 to the 101 to the 1 and made it to McKerricher State Park just north of Ft. Bragg in about 13 hours. $35 to camp there, and the showers required numerous quarters. Spectacular scenery, though, if you can see past the deteriorating infrastructure of the state. Which, on that morning, was no problem. We got up and did it again, going up 101 except for a detour through the Avenue of the Giants, a gorgeous roadway (except for the horrendous condition of the asphalt) through massive redwoods lining the Eel River. We passed the Trees of Mystery, lots of Bigfoot souvenir stands, Humboldt State College, broke the law again at Trinidad by letting Angus run free on the beach, and made it to Bend, Oregon 13 hours later. We’d hoped to camp, but it was below freezing and I was wiped and – worst of all – Deschutes Brewery and Pub had a wait of over an hour for dinner – so we checked into another Motel 6.

Burns Hilanders

Burns Hilanders

Our final day of driving only took about 7 hours, bringing us back through Burns, Home of the Hilanders [sic]. You would think they could spend the extra money to spell it right, since it’s something you live with forever. The town’s namesake, Scotland’s most well-known poet Robert Burns, must constantly roll in his grave.

That’s it. A great trip with lots of incredible things, nothing terrible (except for the amount spent on gasoline – the Eurovan takes premium fuel). A few lessons learned, some vows made, and a couple of new mods coming for the EVC in advance of the real car-camping season that can’t get here soon enough.

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