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. MaƱana...

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.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

It was a pretty good year


Shortly before I ran the Dublin Marathon back in October, someone (I can't now remember who) was telling me they had heard that people suffer from depression after such an accomplishment because suddenly there isn't anymore a specific and immediate goal to be always always always pushing toward. I told that person I wasn't worried about that happening to me, then I ran the marathon and promptly fell into a months-long malaise. Not so much a depression, but just a period of time that was mentally equivalent to saying, "blaaaaaaaaahhhh," for 60-odd days.

Which is a shame, because hitherto I was making a good run of it. When I read that last sentence it doesn't quite make sense to me, but I like the sound of it, so let's just move on. Anyhoo, my point is that from July or so I had been doing a decent job of keeping up with regular blogging. And prolificacy makes me feel better about myself. 

So, let's get back into it, shall we chaps? It's a new year, what. New beginnings and all that. (Yes, I have been reading a lot of PG Wodehouse.) And what better way to start the year than to take a quick gander at the one that's just passed?

January:

Things started out slowly in 2014, as exemplified by the fact I didn't even bother to make note of my resolutions/goals. I'm pretty sure, though, that one of them was to visit Scotland. Because I had been making that promise to myself for roughly a decade. I probably also promised myself I would finally take action and find a publisher for my book Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama.

I honestly don't remember anything from the month, which suggests I was probably in a grumpy mood. One of the strange benefits of having swing-uppy-downy broken brain is that after I go through a black period of being miserable, said period gets wiped from my memory. So, when I look back at my life it is really not all that bad because I can't remember anything but first kisses, golden sunsets and swimming in rivers.

February:

I was apparently grumpy in February, too –– obtusely communicating as much in a blog post about yet another of my father's cars that I ruined. Of all my father's cars, probably only one of them hasn't been damaged or totalled by me. 

But, actually, things couldn't have really been that bad in February because that was the month I got a chance to test ride a Triumph Bonneville. I loved that bike so much that I came very, very close to signing my name to a loan agreement that would have inevitably had me by now weeping on a daily basis as I attempted to keep up with payments. At the last minute practicality took over, aided by the fact that the brakes on the Bonneville are awful.

It was also in February that I got a chance to spend a few days in York.

March: 

In March I got it into my head that I was going to somehow will my book into being published and started my short-lived 183 Days idea. Ultimately it was a dumb scheme because it was a goal without a path. It was basically a lazy man's law of attraction and it didn't work. I still haven't come up with an intelligent way of ensuring my book gets published. 

This isn't quite the post for getting into it, but the whole thing is incredibly disheartening. I spent close to a year working on that book, focusing on it so much that at times I would weep as I was writing. Now it just sits on my laptop and to date only one other person has read it (thank you, Jenny Phin).

Also in March, I celebrated my 38th birthday. Jenn took me to Exmoor National Park, where we went hiking, ate really good food, and smooched on a cliffside overlooking the sea. I started attending a really awesome literary event in Bristol called Kill Your Darlings. Because such is the way with all awesome things, it didn't last very long. I find that comforting because it lets me know that even really good artists are shit at being consistent.

April:

April was super-fantastico awesome because I won a competition that saw me getting to ride a top-of-the-line motorcycle around Peak District National Park, stay at Alton Towers resort, and have free new tires installed on my bike. This was probably one of the coolest things to have happened to me in a while and had come about thanks in part to my ridiculous dedication to blogging about motorcycles.

It's a strangely welcoming world, y'all. Who knew?

I know none of my friends or family give a damn about motorcycles, so I try not to burden people with all of it, but I find it amazing that simply riding around on a two-wheeled machine has changed my life so much. From April, thanks to the impetus provided by my Peak District adventure, I started to push myself ever more to explore this country that for so long I had been desperate to live in. And that has helped me start to remember why I wanted to move here.

May:

I went to Scotland. Finally. And I went on my motorcycle, which meant that I got to see large swathes of the country. I got to stand atop Cairngorm mountain and look out on a great expanse of Caledonian forest. Ostensibly, I was there for a conference celebrating John Muir, and that actually turned out to be one of the best parts of the adventure.

I mean, I had gone to the conference primarily because it was a means of getting my employer to pay for me to visit Scotland. But the people I met and ideas discussed ended up affecting me quite a bit. It left me with a much more solid feeling about the incredible importance of natural areas. Ever since then, I've been trying to figure out how I can play more of a role in protecting and possibly even extending Britain's natural landscapes.

On the same trip I also got to spend a few days in Lake District National Park, which was also awesome even though I almost died of hypothermia atop Scafell Pike. All told, I travelled more than 1,000 miles of British road and lane on my bike over a space of a week. In that week, I managed to see more of Britain than I ever had before in almost 8 years of living here.

June:

When summer hit, Jenn and I travelled to the United States, first to celebrate my grandfather's 90th birthday in Texas, then to spend the 4th of July with friends in Minnesota. I miss my friends and family so much that at times it's crippling. So, it goes without saying that this visit was the highlight of my year. My only complaint is that we didn't have more time to spend. My trips home are too few and far between.

July:

I came back to the UK slightly reinvigorated and started putting more effort into keeping up with writing. Jenn and I also celebrated the 1-year anniversary of our wedding. The weather was good through most of the month and probably the best single moment came when we rode out to the Gower campsite that Jenn's grandparents have visited every year for more than three decades, and swam in the sea with them.

That was especially moving to Jenn. Her grandparents had a rough spell in terms of health not too long ago and had thought they would never again be robust enough to handle the cold waters off Wales' coast. Seeing them splash around (and last longer in the sea than myself) meant a lot.

August:

My 20-year high school reunion came and went without my being there. For a handful of minutes I felt a little melancholy about not being back in Minnesota to see all the old faces –– especially those I'd not had a chance to meet up with during my recent visit –– but then I got a chance to go test ride some motorcycles and I forgot about it.

Robin Williams died and, well, I'm still upset about it.

September:

In the waning days of summer I rode my motorcycle to Northern England and spent some time visiting Yorkshire Dales National Park. It is almost certainly against the rules of my job to pick favourites but suffice to say that I really loved the opportunity to visit this national park. 

A random highlight from the trip came when I was en route and stopped at a motorway services. Some guy came up to me and asked if I'd bring my motorcycle over to show it off to his elderly father. It turned out said father had been a motorcycle dispatch rider during WWII. Upon seeing me he lit up and told me the sort of true-life tales of derring-do that leave you incredibly thankful that you never had to find the courage to do the same things.

In the same month, Jenn and I also got to spend a week housesitting in an enormous house in West Sussex. We ate well, went for walks in South Downs National Park, and were kept company by three lovably dumb golden retrievers, an insouciant cat, and several chickens.

We are blessed by the people we know.

October:

There was that marathon thing, of course. But also my motorcycle blog continued to pay dividends when it resulted in my being offered some freelance work. I write about motorbikes professionally, y'all. That is ridiculous and wonderful.

November:

As I said, I sort of dropped into a constant malaise in the 11th month. There were still some high points, though. Jenn and I celebrated two years of marriage (remember that we were married in November 2012 but didn't have our proper wedding until July 2013, so we celebrate twice a year). And there were a number of motorcycle-related things I won't bore you with.

December:

The final of this year's "Strictly Come Dancing" was amaze-balls, yo. I realise I don't blog about that show anymore but I still watch it religiously.

For Christmas, Jenn and I were again in West Sussex, visiting with the family in whose house we had stayed in September –– the mother of Jenn's best friend. There were nine of us in total, which included two young children who made Christmas a whole lot of fun. Sure, it's nice to get presents and eat great food and drink good wine, but it's all so much more enjoyable when you've got a 3-year-old girl on the scene going out of her mind for Frozen dolls. 

There are countless other great moments –– camping on Sully Island, visiting Portsmouth for the first time in 14 years, trips to London, trips to Exeter, managing to see 10 of the 15 UK national parks, getting a chance to ride 11 different motorcycles, and on and on –– but what's important is that I can look back and say honestly: it was a pretty good year.