Friday, March 16, 2012

You Lonely Travelers All

As you can tell from the name, I'm an Irish American. My mother's parents were both straight-off-the-boat Irish, and my dad's family only a generation further than that. So, Ireland and its history and culture still play a significant role in my family's life. And since it's St. Patrick's Day, what better time to discuss the Old Country?

When England colonized northwestern Ireland in the 1600's, the native Irish were chased up into the rocky hills while the colonials took over the fertile lowlands. There, the English built plantations,  constructed dams and ponds, and turned the place into an agricultural engine. One of my grandmother's earliest memories (back during the Colonial period) was being chased by a British landlord's dogs while poaching fish to eat out of a stock pond.

My mom's parents left Ireland for several significant reasons - - not the least of which was that their homes in County Mayo suffered some of the worst violence during both the 1916 revolution and the years that followed. It was really bad stuff - - stuff I've typed and erased three or four times because it's difficult to even think about. Let me give you an idea about how bad things were: my cousin Agnes volunteered to be a nurse in London during World War II because she wanted to be able to watch British soldiers die. Like I said: bad, bad stuff.

Wars end. Things calm down. Today, the stock pond where my grandmother was chased is now owned by my cousins, her great-nephews and great-nieces.  They raise cattle and sheep to sell to the French and the Belgians. There are statues and memorials to family members who perished during The Troubles, but that strife has evaporated over the decades. It's a happy place once again.

I think the turmoil, the anguish, the suffering, and the struggle is what shaped Irish creative endeavors, most notably in Irish ballads and songs. Most of my ancestors were musicians: my grandfathers played the fiddle and the button-box accordion, my dad and my aunts and uncles played the piano, harp and bagpipes. Growing up, I didn't know that there were families who didn't play instruments, and whose houses didn't have live music in them every week. I'm not sure if this is just an "Irish thing," but it always seemed to be so as I grew up. Being able to play a tune or sing a song seems to be as much a part of family life as making a cup of tea or cooking eggs. Music, to me, is what made a house a home, and made people who lived in that home a family.

Hearing live music in the house growing up, I think, made me appreciate the musical talents of others, especially those who can convey emotion in songs. It's not the mastery of an instrument that impresses me - - I've heard clumsy fiddle players who can still bring me to tears by instilling passion in a tune. Sharing music in a home is personal, emotional, and seems to draw people closer together. If you're in a house with someone playing a song on a piano, you'll never feel lonely.

I've meandered about here quite a bit, but let me tie it all up with an example of how music can bind you with others. About three years ago, I had an opportunity to play the fiddle with composer Jay Ungar (he of "Ashokan Farewell" fame). When you play with someone, you get a chance to read their cadences and their playing style, and you attune your own playing to the song they play with you. In playing with Jay Ungar, I learned his bowing style and subdued, easy movements on the strings. So, when I see him playing ensemble in other venues, I can see Jay Ungar playing the same style with other musicians in much the same way he played with our group. It's an odd connection, but if you've played music with someone else, you'll know what I'm talking about. They're links between people that stay with you for a long time. Maybe that's why the Irish play so much music together - - they've scattered across the world, but they keep their connections.

Here's Jay Ungar, his wife Molly, fiddle legend Aly Bain, and Irish singer Mary Black sharing a beautiful song called Farewell, Farewell. Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Department of Worms

Back before the magnificent Internet, we had two methods of finding out something we didn't know: we either went to a public library to look things up, or we telephoned people who might have the right answer. I believe the TV show Ca$h Cab defines these methods as the "Street Shout-Out" and the "Phone a Friend" options.

Springtime in the Eastern US is traditionally a rainy season, so many science questions about rain and biology arise during this time of year. A question my son brought up on a rainy spring morning highlighted an overlooked science topic: why, he asked, were there so many soggy, dead earthworms on our asphalt driveway, but none on our lawn?

At the time, we lived in Northern Virginia, not too far from one of the greatest repositories of science knowledge in the pre-Internet world: The Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. Experts from every branch of science were a mere phone call away.

I called the Natural History Museum and asked to speak to someone about earthworms. "One moment," said the Smithsonian operator. She transferred the call.

"Invertebrates," said a new voice on the line.

"I'd like to ask a question about earthworms..." I began.

"Just a second, let me transfer you," he replied. Another couple of clicks later, and a new voice answered the phone.

"Worms," said a tired-sounding fellow at the Smithsonian.

"I was going to ask a question about earthworms," I said, "but I have to ask: how did you wind up with a career where you get to answer the phone with the word 'Worms?' "

"I studied," he replied.

The head of the Department of Worms then explained all about why there were dead earthworms on my driveway. He said that worms mostly live underground and breathe through their skin. When it rained, the worms would work their way to the surface and get on top of the grass to avoid drowning. Worms that wound up on the asphalt couldn't climb up on any grass, and, even though it doesn't look like that much water, most driveways have a layer of water on them during rain storms that's about one worm's depth. And that's all the water you need to drown a worm.

I do enjoy the ease of Google-ing information nowadays, but I miss the chance to talk about careers -- and worms -- with researchers on the telephone.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Take Two

Thirty years ago, I was a Radio-TV-Film student at the University of Texas. I thought I was going to be involved in the film industry, and I studied editing, lighting, and cinematography.

Life intervened, and my career took a different path. While I watched the industry from afar, I saw the techniques I learned in college become obsolete or outdated.

Three decades later, I have an opportunity (through the good graces of the Rhode Island School of Design) to catch up on some of the widgetry that's replaced the old kinescopes and editing benches of my undergraduate days. I'm taking a course in Adobe After Effects techniques that seems to marry what I used to know with what I don't know now.

My first homework assignment for After Effects was an open-ended project: I could choose any opening credits sequence from a film or television show, and "re-imagine" the sequence in whatever way I'd like. The only restriction was that I needed to use three of the After Effects techniques I had learned in class dealing with opacity, scale, and position of image layers.

I chose to remake the title sequence of what is undoubtedly my favorite film: director William Wyler's 1946 classic, The Best Years of Our Lives. Although the movie was beautifully filmed by cinematographer Gregg Toland, the opening credits were dull, static title cards dissolving into each other.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a story about soldiers, sailors, and airmen returning to civilian life after their struggle for survival through World War II. Audiences of 1946 knew that struggle intimately in their own lives, so there was no need at the time to portray that struggle on screen. Seventy years have put a lot of distance between us and that incredible time, so I thought I would try to show a few moments of that global battle as the credits appeared. Here's my attempt at condensing years of history into a minute and seventeen seconds:

(Apparently Youtube isn't going to let me upload this video correctly, so you'll just have to click the link. Sorry!)