Thursday, July 23, 2015

That time Jenn and I went to the beach

At the beach

When I got my motorcycle license back in 2013, it started to change pretty dramatically my interaction with Britain and my attitude toward living here. I carry some entrenched (and possibly unresolvable) bitterness toward Wales, but owning a motorcycle has helped soften that. Because it means not being stuck in the same place, seeing the same things.

I particularly love when Jenn comes with me somewhere. This doesn't happen too often, because a) it's not terribly interesting to just sit on the back of the bike when I'm riding without any specific destination in mind; b) Jenn seems to get cold easily; c) Jenn is not the sort of person who enjoys sitting still –– even a 100-mile car journey will make her restless.

But when we do go places I always enjoy it.

On 3 August 2013, we were enjoying an unusually hot summer in Britain, so Jenn and I hopped on my Honda and rode to Southerndown, about 20 miles away. We spent the afternoon swimming in the sea, playing in the waves, and it was one of the best summer days I had to that point ever had in the UK.

Southerndown
A selfie from Jenn, showing a view of the road leading to Southerndown beach

Monday, July 13, 2015

Forgotten photos: That time we all went to Dublin

Jenn on our (July*) wedding day
I have a load of photos sitting on my computer that I've never really shared. Lately, I've started trying to put them up on my Flickr account with the backlog of pictures currently being some two years. And when I say "lately" I mean that I came up with the idea of doing this exactly a year ago, uploaded a few and forgot about it for another year.

This is the way my life is now. I go into long sleeps of depression and wake up during summer vacations, filling my head and heart with promises of making changes. Then another year goes by. Make no mistake: I hate living in Wales. I am deeply concerned that it may be killing me.

But I stay because of the lady in that picture above. I love her immensely. Two years ago today, we were married on the hottest day of the year. It also happened to be the best day Wales had experienced in at least 6 years.

A day or so after the wedding my father took the whole family to Dublin, myself having been the only one to have ever been there. Dad paid for the six of us –– himself, my mother, my brother, his girlfriend, Jenn and me –– to stay in a penthouse in the centre of Dublin. We were at the very top floor and had an amazing view of the city.

Dublin skyline
Because I had been to Dublin before and because I am dumb, I didn't take many pictures on this trip. I wish now that I had. I suppose the benefit of uploading photos from two years ago is that it gives you a greater perspective, and I wish now that I had been more "in the moment." But in the moment I think I felt just a little silly about having my whole family come along on Jenn and my honeymoon. 

Though, we didn't really think of it as our honeymoon. Indeed, I'm not sure we've had a real honeymoon yet. Money. But with the benefit of hindsight, this trip to Dublin –– whatever you call it –– was a lot of fun. Thankfully Jenn thought to grab my camera for a few photos.

Mom, Vanessa, Jon, my dad and me on our first day in Dublin.

My brother, Jon, and I at the Jameson distillery.
It's silly that we went here because I hate whiskey.

Obligatory photo of me drinking Guinness.

Donal (left) lives in Dublin and helped make our trip awesome by telling us where to go.
Shawn (right) and I have known each other since we were 12 years old; he served as minister for Jenn and my wedding.



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*Technically Jenn and I have two wedding days, since we got married in November then held the full wedding in July. I generally prefer to celebrate the July date because it was –– as cliché as this sounds –– the best day of my life. The great thing about Jenn, though, is that I think she has since helped create even better days.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Advice for super villains

Interstellar super villains should do their homework and stop trying to stage invasions in the United States, where all the superheroes live.

They should establish a foothold elsewhere, then work toward world domination. Start in Sri Lanka, for example. Ever heard of a Sri Lankan superhero? Neither have I. 

Far better to start out there, rather than opening your Other World portal right in front of Superman and expecting things to turn out well.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Alone on an island

A few months ago I saw this story, which mentions that Cardiff and Vale University Health Board (i.e., the NHS trust to which I belong) is currently being investigated because of its piss-poor mental health services, and it awakened in me a feeling of familiarity and exasperation.

I can personally attest to the woeful inadequacy of the NHS in this respect, having sought help several times over the past few years and having always been left with a feeling that I am being ignored or seen as a burden.

Most recently, that was last month. After waiting four weeks for an appointment, I went to see my local GP on 16 March. Jenn came with me because I had told her how ineffective the NHS is at dealing with mental health and she hoped that two people asking for help might have greater effect. It didn't. The doctor offhandedly suggested my standards are too high –– I'm expecting too much out of life. Those weren't his exact words, admittedly, but that's more or less what I heard.

Beyond that, I was told there wasn't much that could be done for me apart from putting my name on a waiting list.

"Yeah, I've been on that waiting list before," I said. "It'll be 6 to 8 months before I get to see anyone, and then it will only be for five sessions. After which, I will not be allowed to request more counselling for at least 6 more months."

"The waiting list is shorter than it used to be," my doctor said.

"How long?"

"Shorter than it used to be."

The other stuff remains as true as it has always been. You get five sessions with a counsellor, each lasting just 50 minutes. It is barely enough time to properly introduce yourself let alone begin to identify and/or address any real issues.

At the end of those five sessions, those 250 minutes, those four hours and a bit (for fuck's sake, Gone With the Wind is 221 minutes long –– watch it with adverts and you will have invested more time in Scarlett O'Hara than the NHS is willing to invest in me), at the end of that they usually give you a pamphlet.

A pamphlet.

Good grief, man, I've told you that I've been struggling off and on for more than two decades; do you really think that can be remedied with a pamphlet? Do you think that no one before has ever thought to hand me a fucking pamphlet?

You know who does a better job than the NHS? The Mormons. Their answer –– pray –– is oversimplified, but at least they will listen and take you seriously. And they've got pamphlets.

I'm not even kidding: I have often thought about just calling up my local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward and asking they send some missionaries round to try (again) to convert me. Just for the sake of having someone to talk to.

They'll send a nice, clean-cut kid from Montana and a big dude from Tuvalu who will give me a free book and all the pamphlets I could want and who will listen to me babble for as long as I please even though they don't really understand my point, and then the dude from Tuvalu will put his hand on my shoulder and say: "Brother, I just want us to pray on this."

None of it will actually help, but it will feel a lot more helpful than the great big pile of nothing-poop you get otherwise. Because let's think about it, y'all: one of the most common aspects of depression is what? A feeling of being sickly alone, of being irrelevant, of being unwanted, of being ignored. 

What, then, is the worst way to address that feeling? To make a person wait a month to have a 5-minute conversation with an overworked GP, then dismiss him or her with the fallow promise of being placed on a waiting list that is months or years long.

"Don't call us; we'll call you. Try not to fling yourself off the M48 bridge in the meantime because fishing your body out of the Severn is a waste of resources for our already cash-strapped councils."

And that's an aspect of the process that isn't mentioned in the BBC story. You have to plead to be put on these waiting lists. The implicit message you will get from many GPs is that you should really just suck it up and join a flower arranging course or some such thing because these mental health resources cost a lot of money. They are for people who are really hurting, and the fact that you've managed to comb your hair and show up for your appointment on time is evidence that things aren't that bad for you. That incessant pain you feel is made up. You're being overly dramatic. Why don't you just choose to be happy?

And I only just realised this today: in all those short counselling sessions I've had, the counsellors have said things like, "I don't really think it's right to use labels," and avoided using terms like "depression" or "bi-polar disorder." It only just occurs to me this is not because they were being progressive in their therapy but because to use those words comes close to diagnosis, which might make me eligible for actual psychiatric care. And that's money they sure as hell don't want to spend. The BBC story I linked to above says the current waiting list for psychotherapy in Wales is 2 years. TWO FUCKING YEARS. That's 730 days of desperately fighting the urge to cause yourself harm; 17,520 hours of hell.

Ever seen one of those films where a character steps off a bus in the dusty middle of nowhere? The camera shows her suitcase (it's usually a "her" and she's usually wearing cowboy boots) being set down in the dirt, then you see the bus pull away –– you hear its whine of acceleration –– then there is silence. You see the character standing there, alone on the outskirts of the middle of nowhere, with a look on her face that says: "Uhm, OK. Dang. What do I do now?"

That's what it feels like after you've been handed a pamphlet and sent on your (not-so) merry way. Even in Britain, where the buildings crowd you, where the cars never stop, where people literally bump into you on the crumbling sidewalks, where you are always –– always –– within view of some security camera, the world seems suddenly desolate. You feel alone. You've got your pamphlet and not a lot else. And you think: "Alright, well that didn't go as I'd hoped. I don't feel any better at all. If anything, I feel a little worse."

If it happens to be sunny on this particular day you might be able to work up a bit of good ol' fashioned self-delusion and think: "Right. Fine. Looks like I'm going to have to Bear Grylls my way out of this and fix things myself."

But you can't. And deep down inside, you know you can't. Because depression makes you stupid. It staggers your memory (especially short-term memory) and robs your ability to think around corners. It feels as if your cerebrospinal fluid has leaked out and been replaced with Mrs. Butterworth's.

If you're lucky, have an incredibly supportive wife and are blessed with the quirk of being easily addicted to ideas (Welsh, Strictly Come Dancing, motorcycles, etc.) rather than chemical substances, you may be able to muddle through. You'll come up with a new This Fixes Everything scheme every fortnight or so then forget about it just as quickly. You'll have some good days, have some bad days, have some terrible days, and eventually find yourself back to the point of feeling desperate and no longer in control of what goes on in your head, nor what it makes you do.

And each time you come back to that point, a single truth will grow ever larger and undeniable: no one fucking cares.

In 2013 in the UK, 1,713 people were killed in road accidents. In that same year, some 6,233 suicides were recorded. They've got safety cameras anywhere you look in this country, and traffic laws up the wazoo. But if you're struggling with the simple act of finding the will to get out of bed in the morning all they've got for you is a pamphlet.

You're alone on this island, son.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

15 reasons to be cheerful in 2015


One of my most consistent New Year's resolutions is a promise to be a more positive person. This is challenging for me because I naturally err toward cynicism. When life presents an opportunity to look at things in more than one way, I will most often opt for the view most bleak.  

But I can't help noticing this has thus far failed to make me a millionaire. If anything, it's prevented me from taking enough risks, and has resulted in my being very boring to talk to at parties.

Meanwhile, I've long been a fan of people like Shay Carl and Colt Cabana, both of whom frequently stress the importance of choosing to be happy.

Cynical Chris jumps all over the flaw in idea that happiness is a choice (and as such, so, too, is sadness). That simplistic mindset is insulting to the millions upon millions of people who suffer -- in the truest sense of the word -- with mental illness. But Shay Carl and Colt Cabana make me happy, and I admire their positivity, and that they have been able to make successes of themselves outside of the traditional success machine. I want to be like them.

So, let's give it a try. Below, I've phrased my resolutions, goals and plans for 2015 in a law-of-attraction-style series of statements, as if all these wishes and wants are foregone conclusions. Because, yeah, life is that easy. We just say the stuff we want and that stuff comes to us. The poor, the unhappy and the dying are just dull-minded poor communicators.

Sorry, Cynical Chris is hard to suppress. Anyhoo, here are 15 reasons to be cheerful about the coming year:

1. Lo vado in Italia
I think that says, "I'm going to Italy;" that's the phrase I put into Google Translate, at least. Jenn and I have been invited to stay in a villa in Volterra, Italy, this summer. The folks doing the inviting are the same lovely crew with whom we spent this past Christmas.

Because the number of times I've previously been invited to stay in Italian villas can be counted on zero fingers, I feel inclined to not fully believe we are actually doing this. Maybe it was just something said in kindness under the influence of seasonal bonhomie and wine. If it does happen, however, I have already been given permission by Jenn to get to Italy via motorcycle.

That means a road trip of roughly 2,500 miles (combined), with my tentative route taking in seven countries: the UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. That's the sort of trip that would leave me wanting to attend more high school reunions, just for the opportunity to work in conversation starters like: "I remember when I was motorcycling through the Alps and stopped at this lovely little cafe..."

There is a possibility, though, our old pals at the UK Border Agency could spoil things. I'll soon be sending off the paperwork to renew my visa, a process that includes handing over my passport and being unable to travel. Last time I did this, the turnaround was pretty quick; if all goes well, I'll have my visa by mid-March. But it is not unheard of for British bureaucracy to move very slowly. 

2. I'll be seeing a lot more of Wales
Being sans passport won't stop me from continuing the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure, however. That's an idea I thought up for my motorcycle blog, giving me an excuse to go lots of places. I have a tea towel with a map of Wales on it; I've set myself the task of visiting all the places listed on it, even though some (e.g., Port Talbot) are places no one in their right mind would choose to visit for leisure. So far, I've visited Newport, Caerleon, Monmouth and Kidwelly, and already I'd say my ostensible goal of improving my personal attitude toward Wales is being achieved. My phone is littered with beauty shots of enviable Welsh road;

3. I'm going to visit at least eight UK national parks
Amongst the highlights of 2014 for me was the fact I managed to visit 10 of the UK's 15 national parks: Brecon Beacons, Cairngorms, Exmoor, Lake District, New Forest, Northumberland, Peak District, Pembrokeshire Coast, South Downs, and the Yorkshire Dales. I'm not entirely sure that time and finance will allow me to repeat such a trick this year, but I'm setting my sights on visiting at least eight. So far, I've already managed one: the Brecon Beacons (which is where the picture above was taken).

4. Northern Ireland, here I come
Also in 2014 I finally fulfilled a resolution I'd been making since moving to the UK:  I made a trip to Scotland. That means that the only UK nation I still haven't been to is Northern Ireland. Since this post is all about positivity, why not just state outright that I will be riding to Northern Ireland in 2015?

Even though I'm not entirely sure I'll get a chance to. The aforementioned Italian adventure will no doubt sap a great deal of my holiday time and financial resources. As will the next item on this list. So, I struggle to imagine exactly how a trip to "Norn Iron" is feasible. But hope springs eternal, and I have some very good friends in Dublin (apparently only 2 hours' drive/ride from Belfast) who I have pledged I will visit more often, so we'll see.

5. Jenn and I are running in the Twin Cities Marathon
Because it's not good enough to run a ridiculously long distance just once, Jenn and I have decided we want to run another marathon. It is possible that we will opt to run Dublin again, because that was awesome and provides a good excuse to see my Dublin friends, but we have our hopes pinned on being able to take part in the Twin Cities Marathon in October. Finances and the availability of vacation time may throw a wrench into the works, however.

6. I'll be seeing a lot more of Wales (pt. II)
In addition to zipping my motorcycle up and down the country's myriad twisting roads, I'll also be seeing a lot of Wales' footpaths, coastal cliffs and hilltops. Jenn has a collection of 30 walks set in southern and western Wales, and we have given ourselves the general goal of tackling all of them in 2015. That's a pretty ambitious goal, admittedly, because it effectively assumes 30 weekends in which there is good weather. That's a pretty bold assumption where Wales is concerned, not to mention those times we might be elsewhere or doing something else during agreeable weather.

7. Bang! I'm going to be doing so much DDP Yoga
Health is a requisite part of any set of New Years resolutions. Last year, I found myself strangely enjoying DDP Yoga -- a DVD-based yoga-like workout hosted by erstwhile professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. If nothing else, it was beneficial to my marathon training. But as the marathon neared and I found myself running as much as 30 miles in a week, I suffered a kind of emotional/physical burnout and dropped the DDP Yoga from my routine. I intended that action to be temporary but have struggled to get back into the swing of things. Mañana...

8. I'm finally publishing Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama
I've no idea how I'll manage to do so, but I have promised myself that I will not let another year go by without publishing my third book.

On a side note: Publishers, how hard is it to email a form-letter rejection? I understand that you're busy, I understand that you get a shedload of submissions every day, but if you get a submission you're not interested in, how hard is it to at least put that poor writer's mind at ease -- give him/her a feeling of closure with you -- by firing off a simple cut-and-paste message along the lines of: "Thank you for your submission to Too Good For Your Literary Ventures. After careful evaluation of your submission, we have decided to give it a pass. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours."

It's not hard, y'all. And it makes the act of being rejected hurt just a little less.

9. I'm moving a step closer to becoming the next John Burns
One of the reasons Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama remains unpublished is that over the last year my creative writing endeavours have taken a back seat to my writing constantly about motorcycles. Primarily, this writing has been for my motorcycle-focused blog, but in the last few months of 2014 a few freelance opportunities started popping up. In 2015 I'm hoping to expand upon that, with the hazy faraway goal of perhaps turning it into a profession. Some day. If being a novelist doesn't quite pan out.

John Burns is a writer for Motorcycle.com, and one of my favourite moto-journalists because he writes often about the emotional side of biking and its redemptive qualities on the soul. Equally good, if not better (though not as prolific, it seems) is Jamie Elvidge. This piece about how she spent her Thanksgiving in 2012 is the sort of thing I wish I could be writing. Perhaps one day I will.

10. You'll be hearing from me more often
Part of being a good writer is writing a lot. The other parts are: reading a lot, and not being Nicholas Sparks. And as I said last week, prolificacy makes me feel better about myself. I'm hoping to return to my late-2014 habit of posting to this site at least once a week.

11. I am totally going to be on top of Christmas
And by that, I mean last Christmas. I still haven't sent out Christmas cards for 2014. I will, though.  I will, damn it, I will! Who cares that people will likely be receiving cards in early spring? Beyond that, I'm pledging to send my 2015 Christmas cards on time. No, really...

12. I'll be reading a lot more
As I say above, one of the keys to being a good writer is reading a lot. I let myself down in 2014, only managing to read about 5 books. I can't now remember exactly which ones they were, but one of them was about professional wrestling. So, effectively that one doesn't count. I have long fantasised about being the sort of person who could read a book a week, but the truth is that I am an incredibly slow reader. Even back in the days when I was teaching in Ebbw Vale and had a 2.5-hour commute I didn't manage to read that much. Truthfully, a book a month will be a challenge. But that's the goal I'm setting for myself.

13. My Spanish will improve
I distinctly remember promising myself at the start of last year that I would put in the effort to achieve Spanish fluency. Then I looked at the cost of courses at Cardiff University and sort of lost my momentum. Good lord, thems classes is pricey. I used to teach Welsh at Cardiff University; if we were charging anything on par with the Spanish department I was definitely underpaid.

For all intents and purposes, my financial situation hasn't changed over the last year, so I still can't imagine being able to free up £300 for courses, even though I know they are good-quality. But, hey, remember how I taught myself Welsh to the point of fluency using only internet tools? I'm pretty sure it's possible to do the same thing with Spanish. The incentive is that learning the language will give me excuse to go to a country that is warm and has really good motorcycling roads. If anyone knows of any good Spanish learning podcasts, let me know.

14. We're getting a new kitchen
Remember a few months ago when Jenn and I decided to sell our flat and move to glorious rented accommodation? Yeah, we changed our minds on that one. Thanks to a facet of the law that extends to the times of Edward I, our flat is really hard to sell. While we figure out what the hell to do about our situation (Current plan: keep it until we die, thereafter willing it to the National Trust. -- Back-up plan: Establish close friendship with Prince William, ask him to give us our lease back when he becomes king), we have decided we should try to make it a little more desirable, i.e., more the sort of place we had hoped to move to after selling.

Stage 1 of that process for Jenn is getting a new kitchen. Jenn's plans for said renovation are ambitious to say the least, however (she wants to have one of the walls knocked out), so whether it actually happens remains to be seen. Perhaps this will just be the year that we finally manage to buy a  wardrobe -- an item of furniture we've been wanting for more than 4 years.

15. Some super awesome fun stuff will happen that I can't even predict
A year ago I wouldn't have predicted my getting free motorcycle tires and a trip to the Peak District; I wouldn't have predicted getting to spend a week house-sitting in a large country home in the South Downs; I wouldn't have predicted that people would want to pay me to write about motorcycles; I wouldn't have predicted getting to visit as many national parks; I wouldn't have predicted any number of the good and wonderful things that happened in my life.

And as such I suppose that's the great prize of life, the whole reason for carrying on: something's going to happen, and you want to find out what.