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Thursday, June 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron Judd

Getting in touch with one's roots with an earsplitting set of pipes

Seattle Times staff columnist

FERNDALE, Whatcom County — Somewhere between the Irn-Bru stand and the kilt tent, I happened upon a new way to test the degree of background static on an open cellphone circuit.

Step one: Go to your nearest Scottish Highland Games, immerse yourself in the culture.

Step two: Call a friend, significant other or loved one on your shoe phone. Walking through a veritable sea of full-throttle bagpipes, repeat the following:

"I'm thinking pretty seriously about taking up the pipes."

Step Three: Wait as person on the other end goes through usual thought process: Pipes? As in, PVC? Copper? Sewer?

Keep waiting: Hear the silent scream as "pipe" gets mentally connected to "bag." Drink in the dead air emanating from a person in an extreme state of flabbergastedness.

"Hello? Hell-O?"

That was me Saturday, wandering the Bellingham Scottish Highland Games and talking to Emjay, my friend, spiritual adviser and earsplittingly-bad-hobbies consultant.

I heard shallow breathing on the line. She was still there. I plowed ahead.

"I'm serious. I really think it would be cool to learn how to play the bagpipes."

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I could feel the gears turning in her head. Bagpipes? Good God. Somebody's gotta lock the boy up on weekends. Last week it was the Ski-to-Sea race. If he goes to the Deming Log Show on Saturday, is he going to be shopping for cork boots and suspenders?

But, being the diplomat that she is, all Emjay said, when she finally regained her composure, was this:

"Really?"

"Really," I said. "I dunno if I have any Scottish blood lurking in me somewhere or not. But every time I hear the bagpipes, I start yearning for a good céilidh to dance my way into. Plus, you can't beat the outfit. Can't you just picture me rambling over the local Highlands — or at least through Discovery Park — in a kilt?

More silence. Then some giggling, bordering on a guffaw.

"Oh, come on," I continued, shouting now as one of the pipe bands from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. — which, it turns out, is basically the Michael Jordan of college pipe-and-drum-band programs — started tuning up right behind me.

"I'm tired of being one of those Heinz-57 Americans with no clear cultural identity. It's just not right when you talk about your kin from the 'Old Country,' and you're referring to people from Wapato. I'm thinking strongly about adopting a national heritage. And you could do a lot worse than being Scottish or Irish."

Just how much worse, of course, is cause for great argument. But I was halfway serious about wanting to learn how to tame the Great Highlands Bagpipe.

I'll state the obvious right up front: Bagpipes, like liver, are a taste some listeners simply never acquire. Thanks to their forced-air nature, the pipes can only be played one way — freight-train loud. And given that even a perfectly tuned, expertly played set of pipes can be painful to some, listening to a newbie huff and screech could be considered cruel and unusual.

As the authors of a bagpipe Web site, hotpipes.com, put it: "There's a certain charm in walking past a house and hearing someone awkwardly running scales on a tuba, but blundering into earshot of a neophyte honking away on [bagpipes] might cause nose-bleeds, shattered eyeglasses and could lead to convulsions and death."

The truth is, to learn the finger work, you learn to play on a practice chanter — a quieter, no-pipes-attached version of the instrument. But at some point, you've gotta strap on the bags and let the air flow. And then there's no turning back.

Even accomplished bagpipers have to get used to critics. By necessity, they've adopted a gallows-humor approach to their craft. Consider these oft-cited bagpipe quips:

Q: Why do bagpipers walk as they play?

A: They're trying to get away from the noise.

Or:

Q: How do you get two pipers to play in harmony?

A: Shoot one.

Still, Emjay is wise enough to realize I actually might be serious. By the end of the day, she was softening somewhat, allowing as to how it might be OK — provided I developed a section of the basement into a soundproof booth.

And she was sort of catching on to the whole cultural-adoption deal.

"The funny thing is," she said, "I can almost picture you wearing the kilt and marching around with those things."

She was too polite to say whether it was a nice picture.

Everybody has their own nightmares. Not everybody's involve a bass drone, "Amazing Grace," and a set of translucent-white legs sticking out below a plaid tartan.

All small prices to pay, I figure, for getting in touch with your roots.

Even if they're grafted onto someone else's.

Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday.

To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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