Saturday, May 31, 2008

Neil O'Neill at the Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA, May 2008 (photos)

Neil O'Neill at the Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA, May 2008

Maureen Hurley at the Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA, May 2008

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Badgering the Dog

Neil's fellow clansman Roy has an old badger pelt sporran. A sporran is a kind of man purse placed strategically across the front of a man's kilt to keep things primly Victorian.

At the Livermore Scottish Highland Games, dogs are very much part of the event: Scotties, corgies, Airdales, greyhounds, Irish wolfhounds, border collies, hunting dogs and terriers are on display. They're usually on leashes.

Roy's badger sporran is not just another hairy pouch, it is a complete badger pelt replete with tail, paws, ears, a snout, whiskers and two beady glass eyes. It's a relic of a bygone era.

The badger is the totem sign of a chieftain, prominent in many Celtic mythological tales as the magician's expandable bag, capable of containing entire feasts and even humans.

Some games committees frown upon the wearing of sporrans made of the pelts of endangered species, such as harp seals, leopards and arctic foxes. Not that badgers are endangered, but they do draw attention as most sporrans have long since lost most of their animal characteristics.

Roy was having a quiet smoke at the outdoor pub with a full pint in his hand when a loose dog came up to him and began to point, then he began to bark furiously. Roy was startled and backed up and the dog made as if to lunge, his eyes transfixed on the badger's beady eyes.

Roy quickly covered his groin with his free hand, his attention split between his cigarette, his beer and the dog. Something had to go. One hand over his sporran wasn't enough of a deterrent. The badger was too big. Roy dropped the beer in the dry grass and covered his sporran with both hands before the dog lunged for the kill. The dog backed off.

But the minute Roy dropped his hands from the sporran, the dog went ballistic. By this point Roy was more than a little nervous as the dog clearly had a bead on that badger and was growling and baring the business end of his teeth.

Roy couldn't take his hands away to shoo the dog or the dog would attack, and no man in his right mind wants a dog to latch onto that region with a terrier's grip to kill his prey, even if it is a sporran. At that point, I'm sure Roy was wishing that sporran had some magical properties to swallow the dog whole.

As long as Roy stood there with his hands covering the badger's eyes, he was safe, but the minute he removed them all hell broke out...they were at a stalemate until the dog eventually tired of his quarry and wandered off. Roy's replacement beer was on the house.


As we were all packing up our tents at game's end, an anxious, exposed field mouse skittered across the lawn looking for a hiding place. He'd moved into one of the tents during the weekend and set up a base camp. we were the last to leave. Seeking shelter, he ran over our feet and cowered by our insteps.

We moved out of the way and he made a beeline for the next dark shape which happened to be my car wheel. I could see his little tail hanging out of my hubcap. I'd just loaded up mounds of gear, I was beat and didn't want to unpack it to get to the tyre iron in order to remove the hubcap.

I crawled under the car to flush him out. The more I tried to drive him out, the firmer he entrenched himself in my wheelbase. I tried driving in short spurts on the grass, I even left the car parked beside a dumpster for a half an hour. I gave him ample opportunity to escape but he just wouldn't leave the car wheel.

Where was that damned dog when you needed him?

Mending the Kilt

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Mending the Kilt

Neil's antique 1920s kilt is literally falling apart. Before every Highland Games festival, my job is to inspect it and give it a quick stitch or two. Mending the kilt is an ongoing battle. Why not get a new one? They cost more than a plane ticket to Scotland. There are varying weights and styles of kilts, and that also affects cost.

But the most traditional of kilts is the military kilt, thanks to Queen Victoria who had a prudish fondness for men's well-turned calves. The kilt was more of a mini skirt before it was lengthened to a respectable knee length during the Victorian era. Much of Queen Victoria's influence still governs the style and length of kilts to this day.

The heavier military weight kilt material runs about $60 a yard and at least nine long uninterrupted yards are needed to make a kilt, hence the saying, "the whole nine yards" to cover a man.

A kilt is a lifetime investment. One doesn't simply put a hem or take a kilt in, it's all fitted exactly, so the kilt is literally made to the man. No hems in a kilt, just a straight selvage edge to the knee. Rumor has it that men were expected to kneel before the Queen, and the selvage edge of the kilt had to touch the floor.

Neil found his Farquharson kilt, in Inverness in 1981, for 35 quid on a wee back street tartan shop off the main drag.

Last winter we looked at used kilts for 75 quid at the jumble sales in the mean streets of the Barras (Barrowland—named after the street merchants' wheelbarrows during the 1890s) and in the Gorbals past the Gallowgate in Glasgow's rough southside, once Europe's worst slum. Some say Paddy's Market under the viaducts near the River Clyde is the oldest flea market in Europe.

Some say, the locals would just as soon slit your throat as to give you the time of day. The name alone (Paddy) should give you a clue as to who al lived in the Gorbals. But not one of those kilts would fit him for love or money.

In the Highlands, the whole family traditionally chips in on a chap's 21st birthday to buy him a kilt, and each year, he got another piece of the outfit. By the time he reached the ages of 27 to 30 he was supposed to be kitted out in full Highland dress.

Neil's family is Irish-Scots, so no Scottish tartan is associated with O'Neill. MacNeill, yes. So Neil had to kit himself out in highland dress.

Neil chose the Farquharson tartan because the kilt reminded him of his scout uniform colors. A favorite tartan of Scottish boy scout troops, Farquharson is a Jacobite sept of Clan MacKintosh and Clan Chattan that fought at Culloden Mor, also associated with the Gordons. The Gae Gordons were also our hosts at the Las Vegas Highland Games.

Everything about the kilt is imbued with mystery and meaning. The Farquharson moto is is Fide et Fortitudine (fidelity and fortitude).

The kilt, held up by two buckles and a lot of faith, is a mathematical challenge in plaid. The pleating is either done “to the sett”, repeating the tartan pattern, or regimental, “to the line or stripe." Neil's kilt is sewn to the stripe. All stripes need to match up exactly on the grain. There are 23 to 45 pleats on a kilt, depending on the sett.

Neil's kilt has 48 or 50 "hand deep" 4" pleats, depending on how you count the deeper first pleats on the front and the under apron pleats. It takes six pleats on Neil's kilt to repeat the tartan pattern which is a black watch military pattern with yellow and red stripes—for the colors of the royal rampant lion flag of Scotland?

There are two types of pleats: knife pleats and the more complex box pleats. Luckily Neil's kilt has the simple knife pleat. What you see of the tartan is like the edges of a deck of cards fanned out on the casino table by an expert blackjack dealer.

In other words, most of the kilt is hidden in the folds of the pleats. When the thread begins to rot on a kilt, you don't send it out to the draper or dressmaker, it has to be remade by a specialized kiltmaker, and the repair cost can run more than buying a new kilt at £5-600.

No matter how you cut it, miles and miles of thread and a lot of hand stitching goes into making a kilt. A simple overcast seamless stitch won't do, it has to be the invisible stitch, double-knotted every few stitches so it won't unravel under the pendulous weight of the pleats.

Now I know it's some sort of a hellacious Calvinist sin to use a sewing machine on a kilt but it's stronger than my hand stitching. You're not supposed to pierce the yarn, but sew between the yarns. And the buckle leather does need a sewing machine's special touch.

The old 1929 Singer of mine had the gumption to sew through most of the triple thickness of the tartan. But the motor strained and moaned like a constipated caber tosser.

No matter how hard I held onto the pinned kilt, the material shifted when the pressure foot gripped the wool, throwing off the stripe so it was no longer on the grain, so I still had to massage it back into place by hand. So much for modern shortcuts.

Not much holds the kilt up to begin with, so every stitch counts. Safety pins help too. We were running late for our plane when Neil announced his kilt was falling apart.

Enroute to the airport, he hastily pulled on a pair of shorts, and stripped off the kilt, while I hurriedly massaged his kilt together with a few crucial stitches and some well-placed safety pins. At the airport, he rolled it up and stuffed it into his suitcase and we were on our way to the Las Vegas Games.

My quick handiwork held up and got us through a hectic weekend of Highland Games without a single mishap.

But not through airport security on the way home. Again, we were running late. To save time, he decided not to change and to wear the kilt to the airport. We left directly from a performance and there was little time to spare before our flight took off for Oakland.

Needless to say, when we went through security, bells and whistles and alarms went off everywhere.

Neil stepped into the plexiglas booth and took off every bit of metal he could find. he took off his sporran, the kilt brooch from the apron and every safety pin he could find. Even his sock flashers. Still, the kilt triggered the electronic sensors.

It was a real showstopper. Passengers stood transfixed, waiting to see what would happen next. It began to look like the kilt would have to stay in Vegas.

By this point, Neil was so frustrated that he began to unbuckle the kilt to hand the damned thing over to the guard. The guard stopped him, saying, "Sir, please do not remove it. Do NOT remove it." Neil had on plaid knickers but the TSA airport security guard didn't even want to go there. He even threatened arrest if Neil did disrobe.

The guard frowned and waved his wand. He frowned some more. Adjusted the setting. Waved and frowned for what seemed an eternity. More TSA guards joined him, observing his technique. The final boarding call had just been announced and there wasn't another plane til the next day.

Now, Neil has tiny metal plates in his face from an old car accident. So the wand beeped crazily around his head too. The TSA guard shook his head in double consternation but eventually he let Neil go. Good think Neil didn't have on his skian dubh.

Neil had to run the entire length of the Las Vegas airport concourse with all nine yards of his kilt flapping dangerously behind like a laden scald crow on a battlefield.

I was yelling, "Run, Forrest, run!"

Passengers sniggered and parted as he chugged down the ramps. He got an ovation when he boarded the plane, all wild-eyed and out of breath. He was the only man in a kilt on that flight. Everyone else was already dressed down in their skivvies. The flight attendants loved it and gave him a drink.

Airport security was not amused by a Scotsman in national dress nor did they want to find out what is worn under the kilt. And that's another whole story.


I found out later that another kilted Highland warrior clansman, dressed in traditional garb also attempted to fly home on an earlier flight. Understand that a traditional kilt is not the same as the rather prudish Victorian kilt we all know and love. The traditional kilt is comprised of a looooong bolt of cloth, and a belt. Nothing more.

You lay your yardage on the ground and pleat it. Then you roll yourself up into it, and cinch it around your waist with a belt, the excess end piece creates a mantle, a shirt and a pouch. And then you hope and pray that everything stays in place.

At various Highland games I've watched full grown men thrashing about on the ground like strange flailing narwhals—getting dressed is tricky at the best of times, and apparently even more so when you're hung over.

Watching the guys from Albannach get dressed the next morning after the night before—was hysterical. I also got a glimpse at a whole lot more than what I bargained for so early on a Sunday morning. Talk about flashing.

OK, back to Las Vegas Airport: the TSA agent insisted that the Living History re-enactor—who also happens to be a genuine Scottish Laird, to remove his belt. That's what the manual says to do. Right? The laird tried to explain what would happen if he did so, but the guard would have none of it.

So the laird removed the belt. As the kilt fell to the ground, he rotated in the glass booth with arms spread wide—to show the entire airport what was worn under the kilt. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

No wonder the TSA guard wouldn't let Neil remove his kilt. He'd already been flashed.

Badgering the Dog

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Stitching Together Memory

My old Singer sewing machine pulley belt is in tatters and shreds and no longer adequately drives the wheel. The canvas belt is separating from the rubber and has shredded so as to interfere with the wheel pulley. I trimmed the belt with a nail scissors and got a little more life out of it but now the old belt's literally hanging by a thread.

I haven't been able to properly use my Singer for years. Last time I used it was five years ago to mend Neil's 1920s military kilt. It's literally falling apart again and the polyester thread I used to hand-stitch its myriad pleats back into place, doesn't hold up to the considerable weight of the fabric. The kilt must weigh 7-10 pounds so that's a lot of strain on the thread and the buckle fastenings.

Hard to find the old Coates and Clarke thread these days. "The best thread in the world," my grandmother always said. "Good sturdy stuff," she'd say, pulling on the thread, making it taut until it twanged and sang like a harp string. "Made in Scotland too." Little did I know that my domestic destiny would be caught up in that bobbin of thread manufactured in the cotton factories along the Clydebank.

I haven't been able to use my old Singer for years. The little motor spins and moans when the belt slips and I have to coax it along by hand.  At this point, I'd be better off with a treadle sewing machine. I really need a replacement belt. But when I look for belts, I can't seem to find one for that model.

Sure, I could get a new sewing machine. Lord knows they're cheap enough new. I could even get one for nothing on Freecycle. But I have a fierce loyalty to my old outdated Singer sewing machine. Sure it'd be lovely to be able to zig-zag or embroider or make button holes, or even have a reverse option.

My grandmother had a similar model Singer bought used from a peddler during the Depression in San Francisco. She gave him five bucks a week until it was paid off. She sewed all the clothes for 8 of her own children (4 boys and 4 girls), and also for my brother and me (she raised us) on that old Singer.

She also sewed generations of curtains and bedsheets on that Singer. When the sheets got worn out down the middle, she ripped them apart and sewed the relatively unworn outside ends together. I even had a set of summer sheets pieced together from old flour sacks. I loved their fresh laundered line dried stiff scratchy feel. It heralded summer.

My brother and I, we both learned how to sew on that old Singer. He became an auto upholsterer. During the hippie era, I even sewed leather skirts, vests and purses on it—not to mention rather, er, inventive dressed and tops! My mom once sewed up a multicolored red and blue canvas panel tepee on that Singer.

My brother and I, we both accidentally sewed up the tips of our fingers on that Singer. We sang and howled with pain but it made us much more careful sewers.

Apparently it was a family right of passage. My mom also sewed up the tip of her finger several times over on that old Singer. She later did a lot of theatre and costume designing on it. One costuming stint at the Cal Neva casino for Sinatra's fan dancing show girls—not a whole lot of material involved on that job—mostly feathers and beads.

I remember another sewing stint of hers with the famous Hollywood designer Ruben Panis (she married him so he could get his Green Card; he was later brutally murdered by a jealous lover) making Miss World costumes—I did the seed pearl beading on Miss Korea's pageant gown. The point is, that old Singer was running 12-16 hours a day under deadline and it never once faltered.

My cousin Kate has my grandmother's Singer now and it's still working fine (it's on its 2nd or 3rd motor), but she needs a belt as well. (BTW, she too has sewed up the tip of her finger. A good thing we have fingernails. It usually stops the needle from traveling up to the tip of the metatarsal finger bone.)

When I moved away from home, I bought my Singer in 1972 for a whopping $40 on 2nd Street between C and D Streets in San Rafael, CA. A neighbor had given me a gorgeous similar vintage White model but it didn't work as well as the Singer. After about 6 months using it, I was ready for a better sewing machine. So one morning when I was driving down 2nd street saw this old black and gold Singer exactly like my grannie's in the window, I slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car and ran into the used appliance store.

The owner tried to dissuade me from buying that old Singer, saying, "what-aya want that old thing for? I got some real nice Kenmores here. How 'bout a White? They're better than that old Singer. More features. It's old. Won't last long. Won't be able to find parts for it. You'll want the newer features" He really wanted to sell me a more modern 1960s sewing machine. But I had my heart set on that Singer.

Besides, the old White, though it was truly magnificent to behold, with its plethora of dizzying gold foil and colored enamel scroll work to admire, it was a real Jezebel. Despite its fancy inlaid walnut cabinet and painted beauty, it was really a lousy machine. The spindle bobbin was always jamming and balling up into a tight knot of thread (I. M. Singer improved the old bobbin and tension assembly) and I never got used to using the pressure foot pedal. There were gas and brake pedals more accurate than that pedal. I missed the much more accurate and precise knee pressure pedal on my grannie's Singer.

I wanted that old Singer. I wanted the best. You might say I was destined to own that old Singer. I emptied my wallet on the counter, but I was about a dollar short of $20 so I ran out to my car and scrounged for lost coins in the ash tray but I was still a few cents short, so I looked under the car seat: a nickel, a penny a dime. I had the down payment! I had an old hand-me-down '58 Volvo panel van from my uncle John—are you ready for this?—originally imported as a Singer delivery van, and thanks to its coin swallowing crevices managed to scrape up the $20 down on it.

Unbeknownst to me, I had entered into the original innovative Singer Hire-Purchase process—put a little money down, pay in installments—precursor to the credit card. It took me a few months to earn the rest of the money for the Singer. When I finally came to claim it, the shopkeeper, shaking his head doubtfully at my folly, he thought the Singer was a more modern 1939 model than my Grannie's.

So did I—until today when I stumbled upon the Singer website. Looking up specs on another machine being offered for free on Freecycle, I was shocked to discover that AC515997 was a 1929 model. I don't know how many motors it had from 1929 to 1972, but I've only had the one motor for nearly 35 years. I have used it for 30 years... until the belt shredded about 5 years ago.....

Well, suffice to say, nearly 35 years later, I still don't need any parts for my Singer but I do need a new pulley belt. My machine was never quite  as robust as my grandmother's Singer, it can't sew through thick material like a tepee with French seams, or leather without a lot of coaxing, but it usually did the job. I miss it. I really don't want a new machine.

ADDENDUM 9/6/08: After hauling my Singer into several sewing stores in Oakland and after calling almost every quilting store in Alameda County during the 3-digit heat heat wave in June, I resorted to trial and error, trying every sewing machine and vacuum cleaner belt I could find that was around 13 inches long. Nothing worked. Most belts are far too short.

Women stopped to admire my black and gold Singer strapped to the wheelie luggage rack like a lovely child in a pram, they, with their modern sewing machines, couldn't believe their eyes. A mirage. I felt like I'd stepped out of a living history museum time warp. We swapped stories on the longivity and sheer sewing power of the old Singers that could sew through most anything.

One rather toney sewing store owner on Piedmont Avenue (my last hope), haughtily rendered a suburban sniff at my machine as if it was something dragged in from the gutter, wanted to know when's the last time I got it serviced. I said never, I did it myself. She looked at me as if I was deranged. "But you can't do that," she said. Of course I can. I replied. Dead simple to lube and tune it. Like a Volkswagon Bug. An idiot could do it. I resorted to special ordering a motor pulley belt that never arrived.

After three months of waiting for the Singer pulley belt, when Costco had a special sale on Singers, I broke down and bought a newfangled machine for $150 that makes buttonholes, embroiders & zizzags too. But though it has 51 stitches, and it even self threads, it's more cumbersome and bothersome to use than my old Singer. it's claketty as a train, sounds like it needs a valve job and a lube. Too many levers in the way. Little plastic knobs come off at the slightest touch.

I can't see what I'm doing without hunching down for fear of sewing up my nose. I hate the micro LED light. No pulley belt in sight. Everything's locked away behind a bulky white plastic case. Even the thread guys. The thread spool now lays sideways, you need a toy wheel to keep it on. A piece guaranteed to get lost sooner rather than later around kids. How hard would it have been to put a hinge on the spool holder rod and let gravity keep it in place? Like the old days? No room for oversized industrial spools here. Just the weenie expensive spools of thread with exotic names. No Coates and Clarks. Alas, I've entered into the realm where one gets one's machine annually "serviced" for the price I originally paid for it.

I miss the knee pedal. I wound up dragging the foot pedal onto the bed and sitting cross-legged, I could lean on it and approximate the knee pedal action by using the foot pedal as a knee pedal. One woman said it's easy to use the foot pedal, like driving a car. I'm from the four-on-the-floor, pedal-to-the-metal driving school. Not easy to switch when you've learned to sew with your knee for 45 years! Programming's utterly different. Like comparing dressage to drag racing. The slow stitch finger button makes up for it. Maybe I'll adjust to it in time. Meanwhile, an mountain of sewing repairs, in some cases, dating back five years, awaits.

This summer, I did stand at the falls on the River Cart in Paisley, Scotland, and took photos of the old Coates & Clarkes building, now renovated into fancy loft offices. All the cotton mills and thread factories are being torn down for condos in Johnstone, Elderslie, and the other industrial towns that sprung into being during the 1800s. I couldn't even find a sewing machine belt there either, for love or money.


I loved the story of how the modern sewing machine was invented and perfected via a dream. Whether or not it's true, it was a flash of inspiration. I can't find the reference, but I.M. Singer couldn't resolve the thread breaking, he dreamed of two swordsmen fighting with needles with eyes on the tips...and that's how the solution to create a needle tension mechanism came to him.

I was also once tight friends with Sonoma County poet Pam Singer Raphael, distantly related to Isaac Merritt Singer. God only knows what branch she descends from, there are many. I never asked. She was a real New Jersey girl, talked kinda funny, with a heart of gold and in those halcyon daze we had a strong taste for Humboldt Heaven, Acapulco Gold and Maui Wowie.

Pam was a real waterdog, she was once a champion water skater back in Jersey. We spent many a summer day swimming hidden pools along the Russian River and the Gualala River. Back in 1979, we apprenticed together under Lee Perron and trained to become poet-teachers for California Poets in the Schools, teaching poetry (and art ) to kids—a job which became my lifelong calling. I never thought to ask if Pam was also related to Isaac Bashievs Singer, I think she was... I'd met his literary agent Sylvia Tota on a Hungarian train one summer. (See blog: Budapest Nights).

Pam's father was a chemist who invented Sensodyne and Qwell! After the Summer of Love, Pam said a lot of her hippie friends used to profusely thank her father for inventing Quell when they met him. her boyfriend Michael Yesbik said he shook Pam's father's hand for inventing Quell.

Having read a bit of Pam's paternal ancestor's somewhat philanderous ways (I. M. Singer had several simultaneous wives and more than a Baker's dozen of children), it's an aptly fitting invention! Singer, escaping a matrimonial scandal in New York, fled to Glasgow with his new bride, set up a Singer factory and built a residence on Clydebank.

One time she told her father how much I liked Sensodyne but it was so hard to find in Sonoma County. He sent me a care package, a whole box full of Sensodyne toothpaste. I didn't dare mention to her that I was i also intimate with Qwell as I picked up lice that summer while trying on clothes in Waikiki stores. I was completely hysterical when I found out, but that's another story...


My partner Neil's hard working chain smoking aunties and mum were all employed by Clydebank Singer (Coates and Clarke) factories. The old brick and glass walled factories still stand along the River Cart in Paisley, Scotland. Their myriad window panes glint in the sunlight. In the afternoon, the sun shines right through the building so the vast banks of windows light up like vast cathedrals of prisms. Now the buildings have been converted into modern malls.

My grandmother would tell me that the thread was made in Scotland. I still have some old Scottish Coates & Clarke wooden thread spools, once a prime toy find. It rolled, it made a fine a building block and it even made for a crude yo-yo or necklace of sorts. I even made a flute out of several thread spools. It didn't work. I didn't know about reeds.

Little did I know I would actually wind up with a man whose family worked in those same factories. Now his auntie Cathie, the woman who delivered him, is dead. The funeral was held day before yesterday. She was a grand old lady nicknamed Lazarus because she had been at death's door so many times and defied his debt. She gave up her ciggies (coffin fags) at 70. Her grave site overlooks the old mill factories on the River Cart. Come midsummer, we'll be visiting her grave. I have a half a mind to bring along a necklace made of those old Coates and Clarke thread spools and lay them at her grave. Fitting afterlife booty for the barrow.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


      —After Amergin

I am the water upon the sea
i was the one who challenged the wind
to sing to the sea
I ran from the moon's shadow
that crept across the deserted plain
i dreamt of twilight's sadness
Who but I made all these things?

An in-class CPITS ditty that goes nowhere in particular, ca May 2008.


I met a man named Montana
with eyes like open skies.
Pity, those Raybans
obscured that shining horizon
of his wide blue eyes.

No date: from my Writers' Group notes ca. May 2008. I'm holistically dating it by what's around it in my slush pile. One of those silly lines that comes to you out of nowhere, then, won't let you go.

Butterfly paintings (in class demos) (art)

I have a lot of big drawings I do to demonstrate to kids. Most are vaporware, drawn on chalk or whiteboard. Tempera and water base black marking pen (Eberhart Faber) 12x18" each. Bilateral symmetry is really tough for little kids to master, so I often fold the paper into quadrants. They later cut them out and put them in the classroom. Huge butterflies adorn the walls.

Tempera and water base black marking pen (Eberhart Faber) 12x18" each. I also give kids a slideshow to demonstrate the wide variety of moths and butterflies. Then they invent their own. I also use this demo time to teach insect anatomy. Art and science are one thing. Does it have a thorax, check, antennae? Check. Proboscis? Check!