Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Linguistic Musings

I absolutely love language. To the point where I get distracted from the thesis of an article or textbook--or person in front of me--because of something in their language that catches my cognitive fancy. It's unfortunate; there are times when it has caused problems, and I am definitely not advocating this as a legitimate attention deficiency excuse, but it can be a nice way to pass the time if one has nothing else to do. Oddly enough, I have recently found myself in just such situations with nothing else to do, and I have discovered that it is one of my quirkier habits to consider, ruminate, and meditate on words. I have also had a lot of time to read nearly anything I wish or desire, and have indulged my literacy with pretty much everything I have come across. It has not always been a pleasant journey--some people are freaks, and fewer than I imagined are good writers, even when their points are accurate and valuable.

That said, I have also discovered in my ruminations an irrational like and dislike of certain words apart from their inherent or intrinsic meaning, such as 'colleague' or 'fungus' or 'cigarette' or 'crux.' Some of these I avoid at all costs because I can't say them without cringing, and people tend to get a little confused when you cringe at something in an otherwise innocuous sentence and then are subsequently disturbed when you explain that the reason for it was due to your imagining that the word 'colleague' is somehow anthropomorphically snobbish towards the words 'acquaintance' or 'friend.' Why? I have no idea. It's a perfectly good, specific, useful word in the contexts for which it was created, but I will almost always substitute 'co-worker' instead.

The converse of this irrational dislike is the equally irrational love I have for words, such as 'crux,' which I will throw in a conversation at any opportunity (that actually makes sense) because it gives me an internal thrill to hear it spoken. It's a little more difficult since crux is a fairly uncommon word in everyday usage anymore, but I seize it when the opportunity presents itself, and then move on quickly when the person to which I'm speaking looks at me like a thing never to engage in conversation again. Here, look at this picture of a Corgi pup and keep talking to me:

Ok, I know what you're thinking at this point, and no, I'm not crazy. Most of these inclinations towards or against specific words are just things I think about and keep inside my own head for my own contemplation. Except, of course, when I share it on the internet for the amusement of blog readers. However, this impulse towards words apart from their meanings is not an isolated phenomenon.

It's comparable, if further down the irrationality scaled, to the concept of 'word aversion,' where a speaker avoids the usage of a word based on the feeling of physical shape of that word in the mouth, such as 'moist.' There are so many articles about this phenomenon around the internet, with so many comments from readers about how they thought they were the only ones and please add these words, etc., etc., that I have to wonder: how long has this been going on? and how many different variations on this theme exists?

I wonder if this is how the art of language began--there are cognitive studies being conducted now to determine how we humans glean meaning from language, where that meaning came from in the past development of the species, and why it didn't develop in others, and you know what? Scientists (as yet) have no idea. On page 2 of his book, Louder Than Words, (2012) author Benjamin Bergen uses a scientific observation about the intelligent action of polar bears covering their noses to hunt seals in order to introduce the depth at which we derive meaning, from the recognition of words like 'bear,' 'hunting,' 'seals,' and 'noses' to the understanding that this behavior is incredibly evocative for in terms of cognition studies (are they aware that their noses give them away or is it an accidental evolutionary advantage?) to the point where we "virtually "see" the arctic scene in our mind's eye," and while no mention of color is ever explicitly made, we fill in implied details of color from the implicit description of the whiteness of the Arctic landscape and polar bear's fur in contrast to the blackness of their noses. Why? How do we derive this virtual picture from words on a page? Well, that is "the mystery of meaning," as he says, and is also his way of explaining the point of his book as well as the research that led to it.

He doesn't talk about word aversion, or its variations, but I wonder if it's related. Also, I wonder if it's similar to what makes poetry work. What is it about the organization of words and the way they flow out of the mouth that makes Bernard de Ventadorn and Shakespeare and Taylor Mali so engaging and pleasing to the ear? Is it just the meaning? or rhythm? I don't think so, but I haven't formulated a theory yet...

Something to ruminate on, I suppose.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On Sean Nos

This past Thursday makes the 3 week mark since I started learning the steps for sean nos (or "old style" Irish) dancing. I have played music for a lot of different types of dancing, and while I have enjoyed almost all of those, I have absolutely loved sean nos since the first time I saw a video of it -- a home video of lady named Emma O'Sullivan tearing it up at a dance festival. It looked a lot like this:

She is still my favorite dancer in this style, and if I ever get to meet her or study with her, I might explode or something, or at least think in all exclamation points. like this: !!!!!! Anyway, since I've started trying to learn this stuff, I realize all over again how isolated we are in mostly small town America--6 hour (drive) from anywhere, and quite a bit further to find a sean nos dance teacher. So, I have been watching all the youtube videos I can find of anyone teaching anything about sean nos. God bless the internet... I've also noticed a few things about dancing and dancers that I find fascinating.

You know, set dancing is all about the geometry of everyone working together, meeting people, socializing, and sean nos is about enjoying life, through the music, with your feet. I love both of them, and as soon as I can last through an entire set, I'll start dancing those too, but sean nos will always have a special place in my heart, probably as number one. One of the reasons is that this dance is what you make it: it can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. It can just as easily be stepping on the beat as it can be adding in whatever fancy footwork a performer comes up with--because it's more about the groove than it is about showing off or doing more and different steps. For example, here's the real thing coming from dancer/musician Tom King (c. 1970s):

He's not using that many steps, but what he's doing with it is simply rocking. and fun. In the short time I've been doing this, I've had someone come up to me--no matter where I'm doing the steps--and want to participate because it looked like so much fun. They also were quite certain they would never be able to do it, but just wanted to be involved. I have taught more people the basic step than I ever thought possible, just because it is what you want it to be, and if it were any more beautiful, I think I'd have to cry.


A lot of this dance is very improvisational, too. Instead of really choreographing something, a dancer learns a kind catalogue of steps and then mixes and matches them to whatever tune the musicians are playing. Because of this, the dance really melds with the music in a way that few other dances do. Check out this video of Aidan Vaughan dancing and the interaction between the feet and the accents in the tune by accordion player Matt Cunningham:

or this one of Michael O'Brien and Sean Leahy playing for an unnamed sean nos dancer:

and another of Emma O'Sullivan:

I see four musicians, but only John Gerard & Marie Walsh are named--sorry! Actually, it's rather hard to sit here and write about it--I want to be up dancing it!

Although, it is at this point, I should point out that is it not advised to go from zero to dancing constantly without adding in some exercises and stretches. I have noticed in the past 3 weeks, my feet have changed shape (in a good way), but they also understandably lack a lot of the muscle that is needed to dance constantly. I've found and implemented a routine of foot exercises, along with yoga for other body muscles and tension, and it has made a huge difference (in the day and half I've been doing it... which should say something.) If anyone experiences the same thing, here are some of the videos I've found that have helped:

I think there were a few more, but these basic ones were the most helpful to start with.

And, one more of Emma to end with, because she's my hero, and I love it:

Sunday, October 30, 2011


I unashamedly adore Patrick Stewart.

When I was a kid, my dad and brother watched Star Trek Next G on a regular basis, and I remember being altogether bored with whatever was going on, mostly because if it didn't tell stories accompanied by a rousing singable melody, I didn't follow it. The exception to this was anything that involved Sir Patrick. I not only loved his voice--the patterns it made as he acted, the timbre, the range, content--but also thought that he was really cute.

Part of this reaction was some crazy movie watching code I strictly held to as a kid, one whole section of which was that you loved the good guy and hated the bad guy. However, I soon out that the voice put me in a difficult position on the love/hate scale, because if an actor had a good voice, I couldn't truly hate them as a bad guy, and I automatically loved them as a good guy. Patrick Stewart obviously falling on the good guy scale at the top--Capt. Picard being the comforting leader character with all the answers delivered in a delightfully dignified way. Alan Rickman in Quigley Down Under falling on the complete bad guy side. I knew I was supposed to hate him according to my code that was totally made up and of mysterious kid-type origins, but because his voice was... his voice, I couldn't hate him, and it gave me no end of identity crises.

Watching movies is serious business in our family. But I digress.

The other reason for the adoration of Patrick Stewart as a kid is that he was so cute. I remember thinking that if this is what men look like as they grow older, why on Earth do they complain about going bald? Seriously. It wasn't flattery, and I was confused for a number of years about it until I confronted my dad about it, who took it all in stride and gave a straight answer. God bless him. I have no conscious memory of this, but as a gangly 10-11ish year old looking around at equally gangly 10-11 year old, it doesn't seem that surprising to me that I thought Patrick Stewart so much cuter than boys my age.

Enough memory lane. I have recently been looking up Mr. Stewart, the internet being particularly handy for this, and I am even more impressed with him than I was as a kid. It's kind of fascinating, because seriously, who or what else can you say that you liked as a kid that is equally cool and impressive as an adult? And, yes, I still think he's really cute. In fact, that part's a little creepy, because, (it's not just me on this one), he looks almost unchanged since Next G. Check it out:

c. 1990


Weird, right? Anyway, as an adult that can separate such things, I actually am more impressed with him as an actor than I was with him as a character. In every interview I see him in, or quote that I find of him, in every way he embodies dignity, grace, humility, and all those potentially ingratiating terms until you see him give it. Here's what he has to say about playing Picard:

"[I had a letter] from a Las Vegas police sergeant. He wasn't asking for anything, he just wrote and said how much the show meant to him, and that he loved his work but there were many times when it made him very low and very despairing about society. When that happens, I go home and watch The Next Generation and it restores my belief that the world will get better."*

also, unbelievably:
"When it first started, I didn't think that I would survive beyond the pilot. I did not unpack; I didn't see the point. I thought the producers would come to their senses and realize they'd made a grave error in casting me. I was certain that I'd be on my way back to London...Eventually, it became clear to me that not only wasn't I going to go away, the series wasn't going to go away. I stayed, and have relished every moment."*

Similar to this, in the "Star Trek: Captain's Summit," Stewart tells both these stories and explains how little he understood the Star Trek following when he took the role, but has been grateful for his inclusion in the club since then. Here's a clip:

Also, look at his list of movies he's been involved with:

On that list? just in the last few years: Family Guy, Lego Universe, Gnomio and Juliet for crying out loud, TNMT, X-men, Bambi (a sequel, no less), Chicken Little--I mean, that an actor of this quality would agree to take roles like this at his age and fame, and even with his preference for theater, I can't help but be more impressed.

Ok, I will leave you on one last quote about having taken roles of both Star Trek's Picard and X-Men's Prof. Xavier:

"Having played many roles of scientific intellect I do have an empathy for that world. It's been hard on me because flying the Enterprise for seven years in Star Trek and sitting in Cerebro in X-men has led people to believe that I know what I'm talking about. But I'm still trying to work out how to operate the air conditioning unit on my car."*

How could you not love that?
(By the way, I'm watching Star Trek as I'm writing this. My inner geek is very happy.)

*all quotes from

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Remembrance: Love and Grief

A very good friend of mine died this weekend. A great man, husband, father, grandfather, and friend. I was not there, and I will not be able to go to the funeral to say goodbye, or to give the family my support. For me, there is no heavier loss than that. This is grief.

You know, I've noticed that this country does not allow for mourning anymore. To cry, to grieve, to mourn are seen as indecent behavior in our society. In fact, we almost don't even know what it is anymore to grieve, or how important it is. I noticed it when my grandparents died. When I mentioned it, people were embarrassed and hastened to change subjects away from people I loved and lost. Or worse, they would act as though death was an instantaneous act of letting go: "I'm sorry for your loss. Let them go, now, and move on."

The fact they are referred to as "lost" was always confusing to me: they aren't lost; I know exactly where they are, and the problem is that it's not here. Grieving is part of loving. It's not indecent and shouldn't be treated as such. The more you capacity you have to love, the more grief it produces in letting go. Someone I loved is referred to in past tense, and it rips my heart in pieces. You don't stop loving, but it's part of the process, and to shortchange it is disrespectful to those who now exist in memory.

My friend Bill was one of the most amazing people I ever had the honor to meet. I actually knew him better than I knew his sons that are my age. We talked, joked, laughed, attended the same church, participated in all sorts of town events, and I think of his family as an extension of my own. He was one of the few that embodied what it means to follow my religion, and only in knowing him better did I learn what it meant for me. I grieve for the inevitable heartache left behind in his absence; we are very selfish about death, you know. If I could have changed places with him, I would in a heartbeat. Then I wouldn't hurt this much. But it doesn't work like that, and he is not hurting anymore. What a relief that must be to experience. I know there is really nothing one can say or do to make the process easier, but at least to his family: know that you are not alone and many, many hearts/minds/prayers are with you today and forever.

"Goodnight, Mr. Bueermann--wherever you are."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"Crooked Sensibilities;" The First

The first tune I ever wrote I heard one night and after digging it out of my ears, gave to my friend and teacher for his birthday--which is today as well, oddly enough. Weird. Anyway, I had thought to let him title it (since he's really good at it, and I'm terrible at it), but on his insistence, I started working out something that might hint at wit or at least not embarrass him...

Ahem, anyhow, what we landed on was "Richard's Ride," and it has a back story. It refers to the legend of an ancestor that was granted all the land he cross in a day while on the back of a bull. I'll save the crux of the story for himself, since he tells it better, but you get you get the idea. It seemed to fit since I was already giggling at the "crookedness" of the tune that I tried so hard to write squarely and evenly.

To my teacher on his birthday, and hopefully so he can get a kick out of it while en route to far away places:

Friday, December 24, 2010

Crochetin' A Storm, and Thinking of Beloved People

So I went to my aunt's for Thanksgiving, and we did what we love to do: talk about crafts, play games, tease each other, have a grand 'ole time. One of the things all we women are really into is crocheting/knitting, of which I am really the least of the family, so when we get together it is always great fun to see what everyone is working on, and with, who they're going to give it or what they're making it for, etc., etc. I love it! This year my aunt sent us home with (or shipped because it ended up being too much for airplanes) a box of fun odds n' ends yarn. It's been like Christmas early, only we think of her every time we get it out and plan projects.

I've been making hats, because it's pretty, and there's just enough of most different types to make a hat and be done! It is such fun. I planned out everyone I thought might want one and still have extra! Which is a new thing for me. So I said what do I do with 'em if I don't have anybody to give it to? What's the fun in that? Half the fun of making something is the thought of them using/wearing it once you're done.

However, I was reminded this week as I wrapped my presents how many people go without in this world and realized what I had been missing: there are infinite people to make things for. I have spent the last few days looking for charities that give homemade things to people that need them, and it is so exciting--I want to just crochet forever now! Anyway, I'm including some of the sites I found:

Hats for the Homeless
Knit for Charities
Afghans for Afghans

and the metasites:

Daily Crocheter
Crochet and More

I'll include some pictures as soon as I've finished a few more of the hats.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Crooked Sensibilities"

So I'm going try something I've never done here before. This past Monday we hosted a ceili at our session pub (bar), and I, for the second time in my life, played one of my tunes that I've written. I feel silly (and more than a little embarrassed) doing it, but I've started sharing them with people because I think it gives them a laugh as well.

This is the second of about six that I tried very hard to put in perfect 4/4 time signature. You can tell how well it worked... By the way, I have given up trying to accomplish this. Anyhow, I wrote this one in memory of the ruined Connemara farms never repopulated from the famine era exodus. It remains one of the most moving images to me, and this tune was a first attempt to represent that in music. I don't know if it really worked, but here it is.

Unbidden Memory.mp3

below is one of the few images I took of the place itself (I couldn't photograph the farms; it seemed disrespectful):