Monday, November 5, 2007


Papa's obituary as it ran in his local newspaper:

James C. “Jim” Cope, writer, age 80, of West Columbia, died Oct. 31, 2007, after a lengthy illness.

He was a loving husband who cared for his wife, Joie, during her own lengthy illness.

He was a great father and grandfather, providing guidance when needed and freedom when ready. He had a quick mind and a sharp wit, was a great reader, a lifelong sports fan and a loyal friend.

He came to Brazosport in 1961 to be the public relations director for Dow’s Texas Division, working at Dow until he retired. Born in Paint Rock, Texas, he was quarterback of the high school football team, then joined the Navy and served in the Pacific at the end of WWII. He graduated from Texas Christian University as a journalist. He was a writer and editor at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a sportswriter for the San Antonio Express-News and sports editor and columnist for the San Angelo Standard Times before joining Dow.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Joie, and by his son, Whitney Dirk.

He is survived by his sister, Johnnye Louise Cope of San Angelo; his sons, James Steven (Cece) of Bloomington, MN, and David Shawn (Kelley) of Lake Jackson; grandchildren, Chris of Cardiff, Wales, Jon of Burnsville, MN, Garrett of Carthage, Texas, Josh of Angleton, Shawn Jr. of West Columbia and Christy-Lynn of Lake Jackson; and eight great-grandchildren.

A memorial service celebrating his life will be held at 4 p.m. Monday, November 5, 2007, at Chapelwood Methodist Church in Lake Jackson.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Garden seed

Me and ScruffThis is a picture of Eric and me shortly before I left for Britain. Although it's not the most flattering (we both look like dopes), it is one of my favourite pictures of myself because in it one can see a resemblance between me and a younger version of my Papa.

Papa died Wednesday.

Having spent all my life living relatively large distances from Papa, I find myself now scrambling to collect in my mind every single memory I have of him. Because even though I saw him far less than the other grandchildren, he has strongly influenced the person I've become and that I try to be.

Perhaps that's somewhat by design. I was remembering today the time when he refused to let me take his golf cart out for a drive, and the strangely brilliant logic he used in so doing.

Papa lived in the gated golf resort community of Columbia Lakes, where golf carts are the mode of transport de rigueur. No childhood visit to Papa and Joie's house (a) was complete without forcing one of my grandparents to take me for a ride on the cart. Often the other grandkids would come along, which meant that I got to stand on the back of the cart where the bags were supposed to go. For reasons that now escape me, I always envisioned that we were storm troopers out on patrol. Other kids grow up wanting to be firemen; I wanted to claim East Texas for the Galactic Empire (b).

When I was 12 or 13 years old, my cousin, Shawn Jr., and I were allowed to take the golf cart out by ourselves to go fishing at one of the resort's lakes. When I say that we went fishing, what I mean, of course, is that Shawn fished and I watched. To this day, I have never caught a fish. I am such a bad fisherman that Jesus would lose his patience with me. Shawn drove the golf cart because he is a few months older than me and, more importantly, he can kick my ass. Shawn decided that the best way to the marina was via bumpy fields, where he simply mashed down the accelerator and tore around in circles, treating the golf cart as if it were some kind of off-road sport vehicle. Obviously, my reaction to such blatant mistreatment of my grandfather's property was an immediate and acute desire to do exactly the same thing.

A few months later, I found myself back at Papa and Joie's and with no Shawn around to act as the Responsible Grandchild, so I immediately made my case for being allowed to take the golf cart out on my own.

"Well, hoss, I don't think that's a good idea," Papa told me.

"Why not?" I asked, indignant. "You let Shawn Jr. drive the golf cart. I'm the same age. Almost."

"But I see Shawn Jr. more often, stud. We don't get to see you very often. If you do something stupid with the golf cart, and I get mad at you, that'll be something that just sticks with you. If Shawn Jr. does something stupid, well, I'll see him again in a few days and we'll get over it."

I love that line of thinking. And to his credit, I don't have any negative memories of him.

I also love that he was taking it as a given that I wanted to drive the cart around like a maniac. It's a defining characteristic of Papa that he was so subtly straight-forward. He was honest, but in that veiled manner that comes from a career in public relations.

I remember when Sara and I were down in Texas and went to see him. One of the first things he said to her was: "Well, you look pretty smart. I hope you are smart. We don't need any more babies. I like the things, but we don't need any more of 'em in this family right now."

Actually, he probably said it a little more cleverly than that. My grandfather was good with words and especially good with brevity. When I was in my 20s, I would write to him often and his letters back were like news bulletins. Whole events were put into single sentences.

That brevity, though, and the limited times that I saw him -- especially after I moved to Minnesota -- leave me with little to remember him by. I feel frustrated and upset that I don't know more stories about him.

I know that he grew up in West Texas. When he joined the Navy they sent him to San Diego for training and the journey was hot and he hated it. I know that he spent most of World War II in the Marshall Islands. After the war, he bounced around Florida and ran into Joie, who was, in my dad's words (c), "probably a little too fast for him." Somehow they landed back in Texas. There was Denton, and San Angelo, and then Papa got work doing PR for the company that gave the world napalm, Agent Orange, and faulty breast implants. He retired and rarely left Columbia Lakes. He drank whiskey. He smoked Merit Ultra Light cigarettes. That's a life in a paragraph, and there is so much I don't know and probably won't ever know.

I am left with soundbites -- a collection of cool slang and maxims. And I am trying now desperately to gather them in my faulty brain. I am afraid now of losing these things, wondering how I can hold them in. But at least I know I'm always carrying some part of him.

Once, when I was in high school and my Papa was in a rare chatting mood, he showed me a picture of his football team in college. He pointed to himself and said: "Shawn Jr. saw this picture and said that you look a lot like I did back then. That was a pretty mean thing for him to say."

I took it as a compliment.

--- This post gets its title from a phrase that Papa would use in place of "goddamn it" -- to be said as "Gar-den seed!" ---

(a) Joie was my cantankerous grandmother, who died in 1993. I say "cantankerous" because that's how everyone seems to remember her. I take a certain glee, then, in the fact that she was always sweet as pie with me.

(b) This pro-Empire stance is almost certainly at the root of those really bad years when I was voting Republican.

(c) My dad often displays his father's talent for stating things in amusingly polite terms.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yr hen ddinas

This city is only as old as the stories that are told about it.

I learned recently that Cardiff was established by the Romans 1,952 years ago. Nobody appears to have been keeping records before the Romans showed, so as far as we know Caerdydd (a) is the oldest city (b) in Wales.

You wouldn't really know that from walking around. On the surface, Cardiff often resembles St. Paul, Minn., with its relatively wide and tree-lined streets, architecture that tends not to date back more than 150 years and ample parking. It is a city that Welsh people, Welsh speakers in particular, are often eager to dismiss. This modern, always changing, historyless place; it's not the REAL Wales.

Of course, in fact, it is. Like the real Wales -- whatever the hell that's supposed to mean -- it's history is hidden.

European History courses in the United States would often be better named as courses in "Things The British Have Done," such is their focus. So, the facts and histories of this island are not too unfamiliar. Except when it comes to Wales. We learned nothing of Wales in the United States.

But then I learned the language of this place no one's heard of and it's slowly revealed a vast expanse of literature and history. It's like poking your head into the ground and discovering one of those enormous underground caverns that you could build an A380" in. It's an awareness that leaves me feeling a bit like Nada in "They Live," walking around knowing that all around me, practically coming up from the ground, and unseen to everyone else, is this different culture/history.

Cardiff is like that. Its soul is veiled.

There are former Roman sites dotted all throughout the city, but few are identified as such. The most amusing one for me is the Roman fort that lies opposite the Cardiff Bay Retail Park (FTYPAH: "strip mall"). Turn one way, you see Ford Escorts queuing at the McDonald's drive-through, turn the other way and you see the work of people who laid the foundation of Western civilisation.

Cardiff has the largest concentration of castles of any city in the world. But you'll only find two of them in any tourist literature, with one of those being a castle that was torn down and reconstructed according to Victorian interpretation. The others are crumbling, or paved over by housing estates.

There used to be dozens of canals through the city. Hundreds of miles of railway. Roads have names that reflect a history hardly anyone knows. The original Welsh name for City Road is Heol y Plwca, which refers to the fact that when it marked the boundary of Cardiff it was where heretics were hanged.

In contrast, this city welcomed Britain's first Muslims. It rioted to keep the Irish out. Its history is rich but almost wholly unknown by its inhabitants.

I was thinking about all this last Tuesday as I sat eating my lunch in what used to be a church graveyard but in the last year has been converted into a lovely little square with benches and trees. There is a straight, neat row of old tombstones on one side of the square. Having lived here a year ago, I know that they didn't used to be so perfectly aligned like that. Presumably the subjects of the tombstones are still in their original spots -- beneath the workers and shoppers and tourists eating pasties and pork sandwiches.

There's something about this city. It's a hell of an interesting place if you can find someone who knows about it.

(a) "Caer" means "fort," and "dydd" means "day." Calling the place Day Fort doesn't seem to make sense, so the theory is that "dydd" is a bastardised version of either "Taf" (the river that runs through the heart of Cardiff) or of "Didius" (a Roman bloke who was governor of a nearby province).

(b) I'm using "city" in the philosophical sense here, obviously. As a city, Cardiff is only 102 years old. FTYPAH, the British are anal in their use of words like "city" and "village" and "town." The words are not as interchangeable as they are in the United States; you're only what the Queen says you are.

Monday, October 22, 2007


I don't really have a nifty segue into this, but I was amused by this video, which was brought to my attention by Gin.

Life's been like that lately -- I don't have the mental energy/time for segues. I'm not really able to craft anything, which is why the blog has gone a bit dead. Any writing energy I have at the moment is going into my column for bARN, because they pay me, or my column for IB, because they give me a large audience. Well, a potentially large audience. In truth, the audience is probably no larger than that of this blog, which has yet to deliver those big advertising dollars (a).

But with life swirling around me, I am doing my best to still take notice of it. I'm not sure whether it's my notoriously poor memory or climatologic fact, but this autumn seems more autumnal than last year's. I don't remember golden sunsets and changing leaves and crisp nights.

Autumn is my favourite season, if not simply because it means I can start wearing long sleeves again. I have always preferred to wear long-sleeve shirts because they helped to hide the bruises from when Daddy would push me down the stairs.

No, I'm lying. My dad reads this blog and he's a very nice fellow who won't appreciate that joke at all. I like wearing long sleeves because I am a wiry chap and additional clothing gives me a bit of girth.

I think that last year I was wearing long sleeves by this point but feeling uncomfortable in them. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin last year -- that is my predominant memory of the period. Around this time last year, my large but shockingly unstable ego had crumbled to dust amid the challenge of what I had thrown myself into. I was so out of my league. With the BBC cameras following me around, I felt as if I was in some sort of ridiculous reality show -- a crueller, unending version of "Faking It."

It is fair and perhaps bordering on too kind to say that I was drowning last year. I kept waiting, and, in a way, almost hoping, for the day that I would get called into my advisor's office and he would say: "OK, look, let's be honest. This was all a bit of a mistake, wasn't it? Perhaps we didn't assess you correctly, perhaps you sold yourself a little too well, but I think we can agree now that you simply don't belong here. This is a university, and, really, you should be... well, somewhere else."

Things felt very claustrophobic. To carry on with the water analogy, it was like when Landeros and I would go to the beach on rough days (b). The waves would crest over our heads and pull us into them as they broke, spinning us, tossing us around and slamming us against the sandy grit of ocean floor. Amid that experience, one loses perspective. You focus only on getting your head above water and trying to turn and face the next wave. All other things disappear. I would be standing just a few feet away from Landeros and he would be shouting something at me, and I would be completely unaware.

My memories of last year are rarely of things that existed more than a foot away from me. I remember feeling that I looked stupid, I felt I sounded stupid when I spoke, I worried that I smelled bad, I lived in paralyzing fear that people could just look at me and see how ignorant I was.

But somehow I stumbled through and I'm back in it. Remember that episode of "Scrubs" when J.D.'s conscience manifested itself as an opera tenor who bellowed: "MISTAAAAKE"?

Occasionally that guy will still show up in my world and announce: "YOU'RE AN AAAASS," but, on the whole, things are improved from last year. My ignorance is still immense (c), but I feel slightly better able to deal with it.

So, I am occasionally able to look up and think: "Wow. Were the sunsets this pleasant, this life-affirming last year? Were the female students this pretty? Did the weather feel like this? Was all this happening around me?"

It probably was, to a large extent, and I just wasn't seeing it.

(a)Since I sold my soul and put advertising on this blog back in December 2006, the blog has pulled in a whopping $74, which, when converted to a currency that isn't plummeting, is just about enough for a packet of shortbread at Somerfield.

(b) Jim "Landeros" Landrith and I worked together on the morning shift at KUSI in San Diego. After work, we would grab several cans of Fosters and go to the beach.

(c) I'm not being charmingly self-effacing here; there are shit loads of things that I simply do not know -- the history of Wales, Welsh literature, Welsh culture, etc. Just about everything is new to me. Add to this the fact that I tend to struggle when it comes to interpreting poetry and my university experience is almost unbearably humbling.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

It was better than Cats

It would appear that a major part of the writing process for me is spending several months telling people that I am going to write something, but not actually writing said thing.

Before I wrote The Way Forward (formerly known as Drinking Stories but still unpublished by any name), I spent about five months claiming that I was going to write it. In the case of my second book, that shit-talking interval has been reduced to four months and I am now in the process of very slowly crafting yet another story that no one will read.

I acknowledge the futility of such an act, but I still post myself in front of the computer every day, because that's my mental picture of what a writer should do. Much of the way I approach writing is wrapped in what I think I should do. That's a clear sign of a poseur, I know, but since that is indeed what I am I don't really know any other way to be. It's one of those logic puzzles: how does a poseur pretend to not be a poseur without looking like a poseur posing as a non-poseur?

So, I sit there in front of my laptop trying to look like a writer. If you were to set up a web camera in my study, perhaps I would indeed look like one. At almost any time of day you would see me sitting at the computer and you might think, "Gosh, there's a fellow who's dedicated to his craft," but on closer inspection you would see that I am more often than not checking Facebook.

"Do I have any new friends yet? No. How about now? Nope. OK, how about now?"

Yes, you can get e-mail alerts for such things, but what if there's a glitch? It's better to keep checking. Because, you know, the number of people I have listed on my Facebook is a direct indicator of my character. Your number of Facebook friends is directly related to how much Jesus loves you. Presently Jesus loves Al Franken a whole lot more than me, which is kind of unfair since Franken is Jewish. But Jews stick together, I guess.

Yesterday, though, I was actually writing my actual book and feeling quite pleased with myself, when I heard a little "tink-tink" noise just behind me. I turned around and saw a small orange and black cat just sitting there on the floor, staring at me.

"Hello, cat," I said. "What are you doing here?"

In typical cat fashion, it refused to answer. But I was able to guess that it had come in from the back garden. In these summer days I like to keep the door open to let the air in.

"I don't think Rachel would want you in the house," I told the cat, pointing to the stairs.

The cat acknowledged this and headed downstairs with me, where -- in true 1940s housewife style -- I put some cream in a bowl and set it outside in the garden. I'm sure proper cat owners will tell me that cats do not actually like cream, or that it is, in fact, bad for them. But this cat humoured me by licking it up and allowing me to pet it for a while.

"You're one of those damn cat diplomats," I realised.

Delegates from the cat community will occasionally try to persuade me to change my anti-cat stance. This tabby was very clearly trying to strike right to my core by showing up in my study.

Over the years, I have noticed that almost every author I like, and several that I at least respect, are cat people. Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Kate Roberts -- all of them had cats and their appreciation of the fiendish creatures was often worked into their art. In Islands in the Stream, Hemingway spends a good five pages yammering on about his cat.

Since I am more a person who wishes to be seen as a writer than an actual writer, I have long worried that I would need to adopt a cat to fit the caricature of who I am trying to be. I have also long lamented that I am doing very little, if anything, toward developing lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver.

Indeed, if that cat shows up again with a pack of Camels and a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, I will see right through its feline trickery.

But that's the thing, see. I haven't seen that cat since. After no more than two minutes of hanging out with me, the cat scampered off. That's the thing about cats -- they leave you. Which is at the heart of why I don't like them.

The purpose of having a pet, in my mind, is to have something around that will make you feel less lonely but doesn't have the ability to commandeer the TV remote. The purpose of a pet is right there in the name; it should sit there and be warm and pay attention to me and allow me to pet it. To that extent, I have never understood the point of keeping fish or birds. Pets should be mammals -- dogs, cats, bison, etc.

But a cat is a heart-breaker. It shows up and gives you a token amount of attention and then disappears to rub its fur all over your black shirts and make your house smell of its wee. Cats are bastards, dealing a kind of emotional crack to the weakest souls.

Here I am, wannabe writer, feeling a bit lonely in this faraway country where I still haven't mastered the language, and this cat shows up and makes me feel better. And then it pisses off, never to be seen again, making me feel even worse. Fucker. Little four-legged heart-wrenching demon.

Man, I hate cats.

*How many people get that headline?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Whatever happened to that one guy?

One of the seminal novels of Welsh-language literature is Traed Mewn Cyffion, by Kate Roberts. The title literally translates to "Feet in Chains," but the book could just as easily be called "101 Things to Be Miserable About."

It is that kind of novel that so often appears on lists of classics, in that it is about miserably poor people living their miserably poor lives. These novels always annoy me and cause me to react like some sort of 1920s Tory, growling at the book: "What's wrong with you, man? Pull yourself together and make something of yourself, why don't you. What?"

To her credit, Kate Roberts tries to answer that question in the title and in a dialogue late in the book that was probably put there for stupid people like me that need things spelled out. In life we are bound to all kinds of things, we are chained to family and poverty and place and station and on and on. More often than not these bonds are mental, and more often than not the mental bonds are the hardest to break.

Oh, and World War I was a shit war.

Anyway, in the book, the character that stood out for me is one whose name I can't even remember at the moment. The eldest of the Gruffydd children, he basically gets written out of the story about halfway through. He is a sort of incidental character who spends all his time working or sleeping, thus demonstrating the exhausting monotony of working at a slate quarry. Then his character gets frustrated with life and demonstrates how hard it was to get people to join the union. Then he demonstrates that trying to get people to join the union was likely to get you the sack. Then he demonstrates that a lot of people moved down to South Wales to find work. Then he pretty much disappears. A few years later he is married and doing alright in the south and no more than a paragraph is spent on him.

The book carries on and everyone else is miserable and poor and can't ever seem to get a leg up and Sioned's a slag and Twm dies in the war and Owen spends several pages telling us how much life sucks and if we have anything in life we only have our family and war sucks the biggest suck that ever sucked because it kills your little brother and now you've got nothing and no one. So you might as well just sit there and smoke your pipe. And the book ends.

So the thing I found myself growling at the end was: "What about your older brother? Ay? He's still alive, what?"

But the older brother is out of sight, out of mind. Which is, I suppose, testament to Roberts' famed ability to capture real life. If you live far away from family, you quickly fade from the family picture. You become peripheral -- a family member by title only.

It's like this that the child bride has been feeling lately. She comes from a big family that revels in being a big family. When she calls to see how they are, she gets the sense that they are just fine. Without her. Not thinking about her. Not wondering how she is doing. Almost certainly they are wondering these things but they are difficult to convey over distance and phone calls that must conform to seven-hour time differences.

Meanwhile, I've been feeling lost in my own way. And I think a lot about George Berkeley who said that reality is simply God's perception. That's troubling since reportedly I am made in God's image and I have a shit memory. If God's memory is at all like mine, I am in woeful danger of ceasing to exist. I feel a terrible sense of needing to do something so as to be memorable, to make a mark, but not really feeling that I can or ever will. I feel fading.

Much like this post, the child bride and I feel as if we have lost the plot a little bit. There is homesickness and more and we're not really sure how to shake it. This is the drawback of setting off on far-away adventures, I suppose; sometimes you feel far away.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Aesthetically pleasing, or, in other words, fly

If opium dreams lasted for 200 years...If, like me, you feel obligated to watch every television programme featuring a poncy British guy yammering on about whatever subject it is that he thinks is so delightfully interesting it deserves an hour of your attention, you know that the modern Olympics aren't quite the Olympics as they used to be. In the good ol' days, of course, the chaps ran around naked and killed each other. Ah, good times.

Somewhat similarly, the Eisteddfod dreamed up by Iolo "Forgery is Fun" Morgannwg isn't exactly the same sort of thing that was going on back in the 12th century. It is an opium-induced Edwardian romantic vision of Welsh culture. That's an element that I wish they would play up a little more: "Welcome to Eisteddfod: kooky pseudo-druidism from the mind of a nutjob."

Of course, dreamed-up cultural traditions are perfectly fine with me. Made-up stuff provides the foundation of American culture. Thanksgiving was dreamed up to sell cookbooks. I simply bring it up because romanticism is the thing that struck me most about my second Eisteddfod experience.

For those of you playing along at home, an eisteddfod (roughly pronounced: "ay-STETH-vode") is a cultural event/series of competitions that encompasses pretty much anything you've got time for: singing, literature, dancing, arts, crafts, etc. It's a bit like a county fair, minus the baking competition and those kitschy endearing elements that British filmmakers like to feature when trying to demonstrate that all Americans are slack-jawed yokels. There is no eisteddfod leek-eating contest (and more's the pity for that, I say).

The eisteddfodau (more than one eisteddfod) are based on a tradition of poets strutting their stuff for one another, which took place as late as the 12th century and as early as some time that I failed to note when I had a lecture on Eisteddfod several months ago. These events are held all throughout Wales, all throughout the year and they are generally about as exciting as you would expect a bunch of people gathered in a church hall reading poetry to be. Actually, it's more fun than that, thanks to sock-rocking elements like cerdd dant and côr llefaru.

Cerdd dant is a competition that in its essence involves singing to harp accompaniment. But for wacky fun, every competitor has to sing the same song. Or, at least, the same words. I think they are allowed to make up a different tune if they are so inclined, but to be honest I've never been able to sit through a cerdd dant competition long enough to say one way or the other. Here's a clip of a bloke who won £150 for his performance.

The utterly baffling côr llefaru, meanwhile is something that our man Iolo almost certainly would have seen in his opium fits. Like some kind of low-tech Lydia Lunch spoken word performance*, it involves several people reciting poetry in dramatic unison. You should probably be sitting down to watch this clip (although, it's worth it for the hottie flutist).

Easily the most hilarious competitions, though, are those for dancing. They are funny in a surreal way -- the whole thing of performing what should be life-affirming folk dance on a vast, empty stage before an utterly silent audience. It's like attempting to do Def Comedy Jam on Sunday morning at an old folk's home.

The big pink tent and those goddamn rocks againOnce a year, there is a national Eisteddfod (note the big "E"), the big-money eisteddfod. This is the thing that all the Welsh Bob Dylan wannabes** sing about. Last week's Eisteddfod events pulled just shy of 155,000 visitors, which is about half of what St. Paul's Grand Old Day pulls in a single day, or 1.5 million people short of Minnesota State Fair attendance. But don't let the numbers fool you; Eisteddfod is televised live across the country and the focus of all conversation for the week before, during and after the actual affair.

Well, the focus of conversation in Welsh-speaking circles, at least. The bus driver who took me from Chester to Mold (where Eisteddfod was held this year) had no idea it was going on.

People attending Eisteddfod are probably happy to have it that way. It plays more into the sense of isolation that Welsh people often seek to create for themselves. And minimal numbers of English speakers assist in the romanticism of the event. It meant that in the instant village that was the caravan park one heard only Welsh. Hundreds of people, across acres of land, yammering away in y Gymraeg. It was Welshie utopia.

FTYPAH: "caravan" here means "camping trailer." Imagine my disappointment when I first figured that out. In all the times I had heard about people going caravanning, I had envisioned them bouncing about the British countryside like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."

In that vein, I had bundled my tent along with me to Mold and set up with a few friends on the periphery of the rows of caravans. Camping at festivals is an established British summer tradition -- pitching a tent in the mud and stomping around on two hours' sleep is part of the experience. Or, at least, that is the way that it is portrayed. In fact, what I found was that everyone had a tent that was at least three times the size of mine. Mari had a six-man tent all to herself. Rhodri and Elin's tent was so large and equipped with so many guy wires that it reminded me of the tent used by Hawkeye, Hunnicutt and Winchester in M*A*S*H. I kept asking them when they were going to set up the still (a reference that I think was lost on them).

People came equipped with full-size air mattresses, camping stoves, radios, televisions and countless other amenities. The field itself was equipped with proper working toilets, showers, a chippy (FTYPAH: "burger stand"), a convenience store and a bar. This is what I mean by "instant village;" it wasn't camping at all.

At dusk, smoke from barbecues would lift up against the sunset and hills, and from every corner you could hear the constant patter of Radio Cymru or families and friends all speaking in this ancient language. It reminded me of my first impression of Cymru Gymraeg (Welsh-speaking Wales) more than 10 years ago: that I had somehow stumbled into a different country within a different country. That's the romantic vision, the romantic hope of many Welsh speakers, I suppose. It's the thing that makes Eisteddfod worthwhile, which is also what makes it hard to appreciate.

Welsh-language culture is wrapped almost entirely in the language. It has traditional dance and music, but for whatever reason these elements are seemingly shunned within the culture. Its modern music is awful more often than not, and almost all other modern cultural aspects are indistinguishable from those found in England. This results in a culture that doesn't really have an entry level for appreciation. There is no bodhrán or tartan to Welsh culture.

On the most recent episode of "Mountain," Griff Rhys Jones was talking about a British attempt to wipe out Highland sentiment by killing a load of people. He noted that tartan (FTYPAH: "plaid") was at one time banned and people were cleared off their land and killed, and yet in modern times all these Highlandy things can be found pretty much anywhere on the British islands and they are easily recognized worldwide. He suggested that these things have become more widespread than they ever would have been if the British had simply left the Highlanders alone. He then darkly quipped: "Perhaps if there had been a few massacres in Wales, people would know who we are."

There's a certain truth to that. Whatever the reason, it's difficult for outsiders to really grasp the differentness of Welsh culture. If you are an English speaker or person from outside the British islands, there is little to pique your interest because the language is so tightly woven into the culture -- if you don't know the language, you are not likely to see what's so fucking special about this place.

All of this is at the heart of why I was so disappointed by my first Eisteddfod experience. Last year, when the child bride and I went to Eisteddfod in Swansea, I was hoping for a sort of cultural event/celebration that would in some way vindicate all the time and money and trouble of moving here. I wanted to be able to say to my wife: "Yes, I know that I have failed you as a husband by dragging you on some ridiculous dream, but look at what we get in return."

I had long had difficulty answering the question that I am so often asked -- "Why Welsh?" -- and hoped that Eisteddfod would finally provide that answer.

It didn't. Cripes almighty, it didn't. It was a bunch of rocks and white information booths. A third-rate county fair trying to win legitimacy by mimicking the "Ode to a Grecian Urn" scene in "Music Man"***.

But then this year, I was sitting around a barbecue with friends -- beer in hand, smoke rising into the summer sunset -- and it hit me. It hit me again the next day, when I was chatting with people who were spread out on the grass near a beer stand, listening to the caterwauling of yet another Dylan wannabe. The language stupid.

So often in Welsh-speaking situations there is an element of something -- defiance, academia, back-room dealing -- that runs through the experience. But in Eisteddfod, with everyone speaking the language simply because it is a language and language is how you tell your friends about funny things, the simple act of talking rubbish in the sun feels slightly otherworldly. It's romanticism, of course. In this world there is only one radio station, one TV station, no newspaper and the 1990s have yet to occur musically. But with the language clicking in my brain, I was finally able to see the appeal of Eisteddfod.

I don't like saying this, but I actually enjoyed it.

*Whoa, in the great game of obscurity baseball, I have just knocked one out of the park with that reference.

**For some inexplicable reason, one of the most-respected Welsh-language pop artists is a dude who blatantly stole his style from Bob Dylan ( here's proof). Even more confusing is that there are legions of younger performers who are blatantly stealing their style from him.

***I couldn't find that scene on You Tube, but I did find my favourite scene from the musical. His producing a marshmallow (7:25) is one of the greatest bits of random comedy ever. I also wish that I had had the guts to use "It's alright, I know everything and it doesn't make any difference," as an opening line when meeting a girl.

Monday, August 6, 2007


I'm trying to post to my blog from my phone.

Great googly moogly, it works. Of course, the likelihood of my ever actually posting from my phone is relatively low, seeing as how the above sentence took me several minutes to write (this bit was obviously written later, on my laptop). I am shit at texting. I am shit at all things phone.

Those of you who have known me a while are thinking: "Whoa, go back a bit. You got a phone?"

Yes. I've finally given in.

For years I have resisted owning a mobile phone because they strike me as pretentious and annoying little things. It just seems pompous to walk around thinking that you are so fucking important that people need to be able to get in touch with you no matter where you are.

Recently when I went to Nant Gwrtheyrn, several members of the group I was with spent the vast majority of their time lamenting the area's inadequate phone signal. They would stand out in the rain and bend in funny angles, desperate to get enough bars to be able to send texts or make calls to their friends, family and boyfriends. I couldn't help but think that they were completely missing the point of being there.

One morning, I asked one of them: "Why is it so important that everyone know exactly where you are and what you are doing? Surely you're not that important. Surely people can survive without hearing from you for a day or two."

She just looked at me funny and didn't really speak to me again for the remaining week and a half of the course.

I realise that phones can be useful and important. In Minnesota and in Wales I've encouraged the child bride to carry one, should she find herself stuck in some snowy/rainy/mountainous wasteland. If, like the child bride, much of your job involves driving over hill and dale, then perhaps a phone is an intelligent accessory. But everyone else, not so much.

My feeling has long been that people own phones because they are status symbols, not because they are needed. People make excuses for needing phones much in the same way that they make excuses for needing 4x4 vehicles. For years I have carried my non-phoneness like a badge of pride.

"And if I ever actually need to use a phone," I would proclaim, "I will turn to the person next to me and politely ask to use theirs."

But now I've given in. My will has been broken.

My technique of using other people's phones was working just fine. I haven't suddenly become more important, popular or employable. I'm still using public transportation to travel within the same five-mile radius. Nothing has changed. I have no good excuses. I don't need a phone. Nonetheless, I now own one.

I suppose it's worth noting that when I lived in Minnesota, I drove a 4x4 pickup truck*.

My phone is loaded with ridiculous features. I have enough media tools to set up my own entertainment network. The thing that appealed to me most, though, was the idea that I could blog from my phone. I could be in Eisteddfod (I'm heading up there tomorrow) and tell you about things almost in real-time. Oooh. Because that's important, see.

But as Sara indicated in the comments, I'm not exactly breaking new ground here. Everyone else was using their phones for e-mail back when I was learning how to strike through things in HTML. And, as I say, I've got a long way to go before mobile blogging would be practical. I write texts only slightly faster than it would take me to etch things in stone.

Odds are pretty good that in a short while, my phone will find a place in the bottom of my book bag, turned off and almost never used. I suppose I am my mother's son in that way. Despite the fact that she carries a phone, my mother is no easier to get a hold of now than she was in 1987.

It's unfortunate, because my phone appears to have all kinds of cool features that will likely go unused. One feature that fascinates me is vocal command. Apparently I can yell at my phone and it will do things for me. It's unlikely, though, that it would do things that would actually be useful: "Phone, call my wife. Don't let her know that I'm drunk, but tell her that she needs to come pick me up -- make up a good excuse. And you're going to have to give her directions because I don't know where I am."

If further developed, this vocal command thing could be quite handy. Imagine if I were still single, I could just yell: "Phone, I'm drunk and lonely," and it would dial one of my ex-girlfriends at random.

"Phone, I need money," and it would call my parents.

*Well, in fairness I drove a Delta 88 and my wife drove the 4x4 pickup. But I had originally bought the pickup for myself.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

One year

As of today, the child bride and I have lived in Britain for one full year. I'm expecting Prime Minister Gordon Brown to drop by the house to offer congratulatory tea and shortbread.

To be honest, our first year is still very much a blur. I'm hoping that some greater sense of perspective will come as time carries forward. At the moment, I remember the year like this:
- It was hot (summer 2006 was the hottest on record)
- John Barrowman was on "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?"
- It got rainy and cold and windy.
- John Barrowman was on "Never Mind The Buzzcocks."
- I consumed a lot of alcohol (around Christmas time, practically every drink and foodstuff in this country has booze in it).
- John Barrowman was on "Torchwood."
- The weather was really nice for a while.
- John Barrowman was on "Any Dream Will Do."
- It rained some more.
- John Barrowman was on "Dr. Who."
- Now it's July and I'm suffering from John Barrowman withdrawal.

John Barrowman, FTYPAH, is an actor who is on television every 12 minutes over here. I find myself using him as a marker in my personal timeline: "Oh, gee, I should probably throw out this milk because it was bought back when John Barrowman was on 'Would I Lie To You?'"

So, at the moment at least, this year hasn't felt too much different from all those lived in the United States. The past 365 days are a haze of weather patterns and media images. That's a bit surprising to me.

I'm not really sure what I was expecting or hoping for out of my first year; something a little more sexy, I guess. Sure, I can score meaningless better-than-you points against ex-girlfriends with the statement: "I live in Europe." But several if not all of those points are lost if I follow the statement with a detailed list of media appearances by a guy who plays an immortal time-traveling bisexual.

Somewhere in America, a person has just read those four words -- "immortal time-traveling bisexual" -- and decided that whoever John Barrowman is, they don't like him. And they probably don't like me for writing about him.

That's just the way America is, I suppose -- immortal bisexuals don't go over well. Here, though, they are turned into action figurines. Therein is the quiet underlying fact of my first year in Britain: my wife and I live in a place that is very much but not at all like the place we used to live.

At first glance (and increasingly so), Britain can feel quite a lot like the United States. Every main street has a Burger King and KFC, giant box stores and their parking lots consume what were once perfectly good places for trees to grow, and everything on TV and radio looks and sounds familiar. But then you turn around and see that everyone -- I mean everyone -- is good at soccer, people are mystified by the mere idea of root beer, and it's OK to say naughty words on television, and you realize: "Hey, I live in a different country."

It's like having everything in your world shift just slightly. A year on, and my wife and I have acclimatized to most of the differences, so what stand out are the things that didn't change. Of course, the most important unchanging thing was us.

This life has swirled all around us and it's given us highs and lows, but at the center of it we've still woken up next to each other each morning. I still have my wife to occasionally laugh at my bad jokes, she still has me to occasionally clean the bathroom, and we both have each other to pull, push, and encourage the other to carry on forward.

We're both eager to see what this next year will bring (John Barrowman's autobiography's coming out in 2008! Yes!), but there's joy in knowing that some things will stay the same.

Friday, June 29, 2007


PapaI don't remember which Christmas it was. We were still living in Texas at the time, but I was old enough to have been questioning the veracity of Santa Claus for a few years. We had come over to Papa and Joie's house on Christmas afternoon to open presents and run about and pester Papa to take us on rides in his golf cart.

The Christmases of childhood seem to have such established patterns: we did this and this and this for 700 years. For my family, the 700 years was spent going down to Lake Jackson. We stayed at my mother's parents' house and had a big Christmas in the morning, then went over to Papa and Joie's for another Christmas and lunch.

I can't remember if my father imposed this rule or if I imposed it upon myself, having developed his sense of propriety from an early age, but the Christmas spoils of the morning were never taken to the second Christmas at Papa and Joie's for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident with the other grandkids. The policy had positives and negatives. I never got in a fight with Shawn Jr. over whose Christmas presents were better (thank goodness -- he would have kicked my ass), but I spent the time at Papa and Joie's wishing I could get back to my new toys.

That sense of propriety stems from Joie, my father's mother, who gave each of the grandkids the exact same gift. This was the Christmas that she gave us all little AM radios that looked like Sunkist oranges. These were items collected at the local Texaco, where they had been offered for 99 cents with the purchase of a full tank of gas. At the end of the day, my brother and I were piling into the minivan when Papa came out with a secreted additional Christmas gift just for me.

A pen set.

Who gives a kid a pen set? What the hell kind of gift is that? A pen set would be no match against my friends' invasion-force-sized G.I. Joe haul. I muttered a thank you and got in the car. On the way home, my dad told me that I shouldn't mention getting an extra gift to the other grandkids. Yeah, Dad. As if I would.

We moved to Minnesota and Christmas tradition became me barbecuing a rack of ribs in sub-zero temperatures. I started writing. My journal; insufferable poetry aimed at getting girls to make out with me or feel really bad about not doing so; short stories. I wore a pen around my neck. I went to college.

In my first attempt at college -- in Moorhead, Minn., some 12 years ago -- I was particularly fond of writing letters and so managed to stay in contact with Papa better than I ever had or have since. In one of his letters back to me, he told me that he thought I was a pretty good writer and that he hoped I'd do something with it some day.

And I thought back to that pen set.

For the past several months, Papa has been in hospital -- unresponsive and in an existence that arguably goes against the wishes of his living will. On Wednesday, the family were all gathered in his hospital room, discussing with doctors the possibility of taking him off life support, of finally letting him go.

Then, click. Papa was there. He was slow. He was groggy. But he was there, suddenly talking for the first time in four months. The doctor started asking him questions to check alertness: name, date of birth, etc. Then he asked: what do you do for a living?


He's been retired for years, and hasn't been a sports writer for even longer, but the answer resonates with me. If he had been at his most lucid, I like to think that he wouldn't have answered differently. It's what he is.

These days I go around calling myself a writer (it's catchier than "Z-list foreign celebrity"). And much of what I am, and how I approach writing is inspired by him:
- Most notably, my policy on using profanity comes from him: "Sometimes it just fits."
- From him I get an admiration of (if not necessarily adherence to) athleticism in writing: removing cliché, unnecessary adjectives, etc.
- And from him I get the life lesson that the dumb option isn't always the wrong one.

The only person with a copy of my novel is my Papa. And the greatest compliment I've ever received about my writing came from that:

"I had to put it down," he told me. "It was so real, man. Really real."

The family gathered in Papa's hospital room sat and chatted with him for two hours, exhausting him with any questions they could think to ask, almost fighting with him to not go gentle. Everyone but my brother and I was there -- Jon and I tied to our worlds hundreds or thousands of miles away -- and they all got to tell him that they love him. It tears me up that I wasn't there, too. To shout: "I love you, Papa. I steal all your ideas!"

If you call yourself a writer, it's one of those things you feel is imprinted on your soul. You hope that if there is a heaven, you will spend eternity wearing a little name badge with just that word on it: "writer." And if you give someone the tools of your trade, what you are trying to give them is the ironically indescribable something that means so much to you.

I don't know where that pen set is now. I think it may be in a box, inside a box, somewhere in my parents' storage area. It doesn't matter. I've got what my Papa was trying to give me.

Monday, June 18, 2007

9 foot tall when you're 4-foot-5

"Gossamer" is an all-too-underutilised word in the modern English lexicon.

On the train this morning, I found myself listening to "Just One of Those Things," by Nat "King" Cole, in which he suggests taking "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings."

Personally, I would prefer some good, sturdy wings for a trip to the moon, along with a not-so-gossamer space suit. But I suppose "a trip to the moon in a quality-assured spacecraft with a few extra tanks of air, just in case," would have been a bit clunky in the verse scheme. And, of course, then he would have been forced to leave out the word "gossamer."

I have decided that I want to work "gossamer" into my lexicon, similar to the way I have been trying to work in "stud duck." The problem is, these aren't words and phrases that are likely to fit perfectly in my normal stream of conversation. I have to create places for them and then it feels weird and forced. Like when I try to wink.

Cool guys wink. It's got a sort of old-word charm, does winking*. But when I make an attempt, it comes off as really creepy (case in point the last six seconds of this video).

I think about these things because I feel the need to create my personality. I suppose we all do that to some extent, but I tend to want to mimic people whom I am nothing like. I am caught between wanting to be a less-buffoonish version of Bertie Wooster and a skinnier hybrid version of my both grandfathers.

Both my grandfathers are from West Texas, but are unique characters in and of themselves (Microsoft Word tells me "in and of themselves" is bad grammar, but I can't think of how else to write this). If Papa, my paternal grandfather, were a fictional character, a literary agent would make me rewrite him because of his strange mix of West Texas and World War II/hipster slang. He'll call people "hoss," "stud," 'stud duck," "cat," "man," and "Jackson."

Well, I'm pretty sure I've heard him say "Jackson." It's possible that I am confusing him for Phil Harris, the jazz musician who most famously voiced Baloo the Bear in "Jungle Book." Before "Jungle Book," Harris was band director for Jack Benny's radio show (Jack Benny?! Cripes, there's an ancient reference. Perhaps in my next post I'll yammer on about the Nicholas Brothers**). On the show, Harris would often greet Benny by shouting "Hiya, Jackson!"

Papa has a similar voice to Harris. And when I was a boy, I had a dream that Papa and I were laughing and dancing in his living room to "The Bare Necessities." The dream was so vivid and had such a profound effect on me that it rests precariously on the verge of being remembered as an actual event. The only thing keeping that memory out of the "things that actually happened" memories box is the fact that I have at no other time in my life seen Papa move that much.

Perhaps my dad (who occasionally reads this blog) can confirm whether Papa calls people "Jackson." Of course, my dad's memory is just as bad as mine, so if he disagrees with me I won't believe him. If my brother and I were to suddenly stop calling him "dad," my father would soon be confused by these two young men who are always asking him for money.

Other things I'm certain I have heard Papa say are "love a duck," and "I'm just Jake." There are a few other phrases that aren't coming to me at the moment, all of which I have unsuccessfully tried to work into my lexicon at one point. The only identifiable character traits that I have from Papa are that we are both unnecessarily moody and keen to stubbornly ignore good advice.

Grumpiness seems to be the key character trait I inherited from my maternal grandfather, as well. Breezy, as he is known, is not above character creating. There's a great picture of him as a young man smoking a pipe, and he readily admits that he only smoked because he thought it looked cool. He has since modelled himself somewhat after John Wayne, but, unlike me, he is successful in character creating.

If you go to Hollywood and look at all the celebrities' names and footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, you will see that John Wayne had shockingly tiny feet. He was probably, in fact, a rather smallish man, and my grandfather could have kicked his ass. Instead, I like to think of my grandfather as a sort of Stone Cold Steve Austin who doesn't drink or swear and who's really good at math (and this is the point where Anthony gives me shit for my man crush on Stone Cold).

One of my favourite books is Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," which I like for the same reason that a lot of people dislike it, in that it is a bit ridiculous in its machismo -- this good-looking roguish make-it-up-as-you-go, one-of-the-guys soldier who escapes death, is loved by women, plays billiards with counts and always gets it right. Whatever, bitches. It was Hemingway's book and if he wanted to write it that way, it was damn well his prerogative and it made him so great that they put his face on coffee mugs. Either way, when I read that book, I always put Breezy in as the main character.

I mimic Breezy most in my storytelling. If I tell a story to you in person, I physically hold myself like my grandfather. As my writing style develops, I find myself trying to mimic his use of detail.

Here's an audio clip of Breezy telling a story. If you can understand his Texas accent, you'll note that he provides a certain attention to detail in his storytelling. He gives the names of towns and people, tells whether a person is right- or left-handed, describes landscapes, gives the prices of various items and on and on. This particular story doesn't show it, but what's great about Breezy's style is what he leaves out.

For example, he will tell you a story about a car breaking down. He will tell you the make and model of the car, provide a summary of the car's overall performance, explain the exact circumstances under which the car broke down, what the day was like when it happened, where he was and why he had chosen that particular route, what exactly was wrong with the car, how long it took to get it to a garage, and on and on. Then, suddenly, the story will become streamlined:

"...and this old boy says to me, 'Mr. Cox, that's gonna be $10.'
And I say, 'Nah. That's too much.'
Well, we had a little talk about it and he decided he was only goin' to charge me $5."

Eh? Something really important is missing in there. This is Texas. The mechanic's got my grandfather over a barrel because he's the only garage for 100 miles. They have "a little talk." Suddenly the mechanic drops the price. What happened?

The omission of detail amid so much detail makes it a brilliant story, because it forces the listener to create their own explanation of what "a little talk" means. Maybe the two sat and haggled for 45 minutes; maybe the mechanic simply felt like being a nice guy; maybe my grandfather kicked that mechanic's ass (my preferred version). Either way, my grandfather has brilliantly told a story by forcing me to tell the story for him.

"Gossamer," though, is not a word that would show up in that story. It wouldn't even really fit my Papa's style, who I think is influenced by his years working in newspapers and public relations. Newsmen of the generation before mine are hardwired to treat adjectives as weight -- a story moves best when it doesn't carry them. On the rare occasion that Papa feels like telling a story, it can usually fit comfortably on a 3x5 card in 12-point font.

So, I am left to try to create space for "gossamer" in places where it doesn't quite fit. This seems to be my style -- a stumbling, incongruous amalgam of every little thing I know laid out in story form.

Uhm, was there a point to this post?

*I can't work "gossamer" or "stud duck" into my vocabulary, but strangely I have no trouble structuring a sentence like Jim Ross.

**They were fucking brilliant, by the way. That clip also features the ultra-brilliant Cab Calloway. It really speaks to the chasmic evil of racism that these guys weren't just overlooked but aggressively refused the audience they deserved -- 64 years later, that sequence retains a "holy shit" quality (extending from the ECW days; when a wrestler performs a particularly amazing feat, the audience chant: "Holy shit! Holy shit!").

Sunday, April 29, 2007


I'm not really a science-fiction guy. The only science fiction I've ever read has been Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and William Gibson and none of it solely for the purpose of reading science fiction. I watch Dr. Who and spot the enormous plot holes (seriously, my bitches, when the pig slaves were attacking Hooverville, Solomon -- who had fought in World War I -- took up the weakest defensive position I've ever seen), and the episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in which Picard learns to play a flute* made me cry, but beyond that I don't really watch a lot of science fiction, either.

Yet, I find myself constantly thinking up lame science-fiction ideas. Case in point, the TV series in my head. And this morning I thought up something new:

Shortly after New York City is completely destroyed by a category 5 hurricane, the United States government finally decides to respond to climate change. Typical of American extremist mentality, it outright bans the use of oil and coal (except for its own military necessity). This move sparks a boom in the use of solar panels and soon the whole of America has an environmentally-friendly dark silver sheen. Western Europe is happy to follow along, as are a number of South American, Asian and African nations. Although it has yet to happen, it is implied that those slow to convert to solar energy will find a U.N. military contingent knocking at the door.

So, the world is becoming a better place but in a slightly uncomfortable way. Amid this, one of the main side-effects is that the cost of silicon jumps rather dramatically. The cost can be offset by using less-efficient, easier-to-produce silicon for the solar panels but the cost of the quality silicon needed for computers bumps up by 900 percent.

At about this same time, an MIT biochemist hooks a special processor to a live chicken's brain and is able to create a shockingly powerful computer, one with vastly more memory than most existing technology. The discovery goes over incredibly well: Chickens are cheap to feed and maintain, they don't require deadly chemicals to create, they are considerably easier to dispose of, and the only power needed is that for the access box (the processor device attached to the chicken's head connects via a simple cable to an "access box" that feeds to a monitor, keyboard and mouse). And, much to everyone's surprise, this bio-computer is impervious to computer viruses. Within a short time, "PC" comes to stand for "personal chicken."

The only drawbacks are this:
1) The chicken has to be alive.
2) Using the computer knocks the chicken unconscious. This has no lasting negative effects, but it does mean you have to shut the computer off so that the chicken will wake up and eat and continue to live.
3) Chickens have a short lifespan.
4) Chickens are difficult to interface.
5) Chickens are troublesome to transport.

These issues lead to further experimentation and eventually Apple develops a hip mouse-based bio-computer that is easier (and cuter) to carry around and, due to the way its brain works, easier to interface. The drawback is that the lifespan is shorter and your computer runs risk of being eaten by the family cat.

At this point, as almost always happens in science fiction, someone works out that human brains are the best suited to this whole bio-computer thing. The size and power of our brains mean that the bio-computers are, in effect, infinitely powerful, we interface brilliantly, and we take direction better than mice and chickens.

But there remains the issue of knocking the "computer" unconscious when it's being used. For the average user then, a person-based bio-computer is unrealistic. Getting a person to carry around your unwritten novel and Frank Sinatra albums in their head is tricky because you run the risk of them deciding they don't really like you anymore. Imagine asking for an extension on your master's degree thesis because your girlfriend is mad and won't let you access your files. So, most people stick to mice and chickens.

But corporations, as they are wont to do, are perfectly happy to use people as computers. People are hired on to basically spend eight hours a day sleeping. Corporations choose candidates who are intelligent, relatively well-adjusted, live healthy lives, and inclined to be loyal to the corporation; a lot of Mormons get jobs as computers**.

And so we arrive at the protagonist, Milo, whose enviable life involves being paid to sleep, eat well, and live healthfully. It's a pretty good life. The corporation puts him and his wife, also a bio-computer, up in a great home and treats them both quite well. Thanks to advanced interfacing technology, they are even able to take vacations, albeit only to corporation-sanctioned locales.

This bio-computer technology is different than William Gibson's microsofts technology which allows a person to input information into their brain and use it. For example, with microsofts you can put a chip in your head and suddenly speak Spanish. With the bio-computer technology, the information is not accessible to the person carrying it. It's just there in their head and they know nothing of it. Occasionally, though, and for unknown reasons, the people serving as bio-computers will experience a "mental burp," in which some bit of data suddenly reaches their consciousness. For the most part, these are short, irrelevant bits of binary. For example, in the way that a smell can suddenly flash a memory of a girl you dated in high school, unspecified situations can suddenly cause the bio-computer to see a stream of binary in his or her head (the headline to this post is "Milo" written in binary). But sometimes, mysteriously, these mental burps will actually produce snippets of intelligible information: "...Davis and I contacted..." "...activates 29 August..." and on.

Milo has been experiencing several of these as of late, all coming from what seem to be the same document. His guess is that it is being accessed and updated frequently, but it's none of his business to bother about what they put in his head and he doesn't pay much attention to it until he wakes up one afternoon and five of his fellow bio-computers are dead, including his wife.

A weak explanation is given and Milo is given a few weeks off to mourn. In that time, he is tormented by the mental burps. He suddenly realises that the document he keeps seeing contains the true explanation of what killed his wife and co-workers, and that something important, something big is set to occur on 29 August. But all these things are totally unclear.

The novel, then, follows Milo as he goes on the run and tries to figure out the mystery of what happened. To access the information, he needs to find someone he can trust -- since he has to be asleep and defenceless when the information is accessed -- someone who can hack the corporation's security codes, and some way to access the information without it being immediately obvious to the corporation (the computers are so well integrated that as soon as the information is accessed, the corporation would know exactly where to find him).

This leads him to hunt down an old work colleague who lives in one of the remaining "carbon nations." Suspiciously, at exactly the same time, a war kicks off against the carbon nation and Milo finds himself pursued by the corporation, government agents from both the carbon nation and the United States, and possibly some other nefarious entity.

And that's what I was dreaming up this morning as I lie in bed staring at the ceiling. My only challenge now is, uhm, thinking up what the hell the big secret is and how Milo could save the world. You know, the plot. I've got an amusing premise and absolutely no substance. Typical.

*You know which episode I'm talking about. If watching that didn't make you weep like big baby, you have no soul.

**A nod to my favourite nutjob theory, that Mormons are behind an elaborate conspiracy to take control of the United States.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I say spider, you say monkey

3 Minute HeroSometimes the world is not fair. We all know that, but sometimes it is more glaringly obvious. Sometimes the unfairness of this life looks you square in the eye and doesn't even flinch when it stabs you in the gut.

Such is the case that 3 Minute Hero never became famous.

They were good. I mean really, really good. Originally formed as yet another ska band, their horn section was just too powerful for such staid musical confines. In its prime (1997-2000), the horn section was fronted by two trombones -- instruments that, when played right, produce a brutal sound; a sound that punches and leaves you standing dumb like Peter Manfredo Jr. against Joe Calzaghe. This was supported by trumpet and sax and keys that swirled around the jabs and pulled you in. The whole thing fell together so perfectly that you found yourself not really hearing the different instruments, just this immense, immense sound. It was a sound that you could feel in your chest, a sound that felt too large for your head.

Fuelling the immensity was the sort of if-Animal-were-real-and-angry-and-100-feet-tall drumming you would expect from a guy who taught himself to play by listening to Kiss records. Atop it all was a larger-than-life frontman who stood as ringmaster, wailing and bellowing through the songs.

Obviously, with such a dynamic sound they were difficult to categorize. They were sort of a cross between stadium rock, Barenaked Ladies, Mighty Mighty Bosstones (circa Let's Face It), Parliament, and the first time a girl let you put your hand up her shirt. The lyrics were rapid-fire funny and brilliant, the music was incredible, and their shows were explosive in energy. They remain my favourite band of all time.

OK, true, I went to high school with three of the band members, one of whom has been my best friend for 19 years*, and I wrote the lyrics to one of their songs. I am biased. Even in the face of this they were good. In my mind, they had everything they needed to be big and I very seriously believed that one day everything would drop into gear and they would be touring around the world.

That never happened, of course. They played in bars in forgettable towns in forgettable states, bounded across North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin in an old school bus that they had won in a battle of the bands competition, until growing up became inevitable. The band split in 2000 and the members became husbands, fathers, home owners, teachers. A few of them joined other bands and achieved equal levels of success (most notably Jack Brass Band, where the two-trombones-kicking-your-ass-with-sound format was again used), but the 3MH experience remains wholly unique in my eyes.

The story of 3 Minute Hero is an almost bittersweet tale; evidence that incredible talent can exist and go unnoticed. It forces you to realise that there are authors more brilliant than Shakespeare who will never be published, songs being sung that would fill your soul but that you will never hear. It's unfair.

But there is hope: They're back, bitches!

Well at least for two performances. One will be in St. Peter, Minn., which became a sort of spiritual home for the band, and the other will be at Minneapolis' Fine Line. Their meteoric rise to fame will still probably never occur but at least a few more people will get a chance to finally hear the greatest band they never knew existed.

3 Minute Hero's Fine Line show is June 9, so you can expect to see me going on about this for a while. I am very serious that when I got the e-mail from Eric today I spent about half an hour trying to figure out if it would be at all possible for me to fly back to the U.S. to see the show (sadly, ignoring the $1,500 cost of a flight, I still have exams at that time).

There are a goodly number of Upper Midwesterners who read this blog, though, and I would encourage them to make the trip. No, really. This is a band worth driving several hours to see. Tickets are only $11, so you should have some extra money to buy Eric a beer.

*19 years, Eric. We are old.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Why I downloaded the Doors' 'L.A. Woman' this afternoon

(Eric Johnson, your challenge is to explain this blog entry's title)

My favourite lesser-known Greek philosopher is Zeno, who believed that nothing ever moved. I remember this much about him because in my teenage years I was prescribed an antidepressant called "zenophylline," the main side-effect being that I had little desire to do anything more than stare at the wall. I suspect that the link to his name was inadvertent, but you never know. One of my best friends is doing a bio-chemical-related PhD and he has the sort of dry sense of humour that I'm sure could result in his naming things after obscure philosophers. In a perfect world, Paul will one day invent something really amazing and ridiculously necessary and he'll work into its name an in-joke between himself and Eric and me.

I can't now remember how Zeno explained our perception of movement, but I think it was similar to the Hindu concept of Shiva. Shiva is a god who creates and destroys our world at such a rapid rate that it appears things are moving. Life, then is basically a filmstrip -- a rapid series of static frames. Our soul/memory/consciousness is the intangible story that runs through each frame.

If Zeno and the Hindus are right, it means one never really ages. We are simply one age and then another age, like different versions of software. So, it being nine days after my birthday, I am presently version 31.009 in age. As Shiva creates and destroys the world in what my soul knows as "today" I remain version 31.009. Tomorrow, I will be version 31.010; Saturday I will be version 31.011; and on and on.

One assumes that all outdated versions are discarded, but imagine if some sort of universe software glitch caused previous versions of you to accidentally pop up in other time and space. If this were to happen, it would explain why I saw Danielle Hallmark circa 1991 walking across campus today.

There she was, my first proper girlfriend*, striding in front of me down Park Lane, looking exactly as she had 16 years ago -- complete with blue-jean dungarees (FTYPAAH: "overalls"). Indeed, it was her clothing that first drew my attention.

"How quintessentially 'Dexys Midnight Runners,'" I thought. "Who wears those anymore? Outside of Fargo, the last time I saw someone sporting dungarees was... Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus, it's her."

I followed her for a good quarter mile, trying to kick my notoriously worthless memory into producing a usable image of her to compare with the girl in front of me, but 16 years is 15.360 versions more than I am realistically capable of recovering. Unable to work up the courage (or "adequately loose grasp on reality," take your pick) to shout, "Hey, Dani," at her, I decided to head off and have a cup of tea -- probably never to see 1991 Danielle Hallmark again.

I wonder if there are any versions of me out there right now. And if so, what are they doing? Probably getting arrested for stalking people who have a passing resemblance to people I once knew.

*Hmm, I think Tami Hill would take issue with that statement.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dydd Mercher

Thanks to everyone for the encouragement, in relation to my whinging post from Monday. I am always making vows to myself that I am going to stop complaining, but I'm apparently not very good at keeping promises.

It was a brilliant day here in Europe's youngest capital city* -- the sun was shining and I threw open the windows as soon as I got home -- so my mood was a little better than it has been over the past few weeks. I remain in over my head in university and my feelings about that manifest themselves in numerous ways. But today felt alright.

My Spanish courses are usually an ego boost because I have that inherent understanding of the language that comes from so many years of thinking all kinds of naughty things about Daisy Fuentes. My translation teacher inadvertently provided me with a good name for a band: The False Friends. Alternately, of course, one could go with Los Amigos Falsos.

Without any Welsh courses to cripple my good spirits, I was free for the day by 1 p.m. I walked from campus down Museum Avenue along Cathays Park and past City Hall on my way to City Centre. I decided I will probably take my parents down the same route when they come to visit in early April. It runs past some of Cardiff's nicer buildings and then takes the most posh route possible into City Centre -- the one that goes past the Cardiff Hilton and Slug and Lettuce pub (that's right, bitches -- we've got a Hilton and a Slug and Lettuce).

I bought a pasty from Cornish Bakehouse (the pasties there are so good that they're almost worth the trip to Cardiff in and of themselves [depending on where you're coming from, obviously]) and walked down to the temporary location of the Central Library to return a Mihangel Morgan novel that I had only managed to read 22 pages of.

As I was walking, I thought about what I had expected of Cardiff before coming here. For some reason, I had expected it would be a lot like Dublin, which is a city that is also not what I had expected.

In another classic example of my sheltered American upbringing causing me to have hilarious misconceptions about places, subconsciously some part of me was expecting Dublin to be a gritty Hogarthian London where all the blokes wore leather jackets, like Brad Pitt in "The Devil's Own," and I would run the risk of getting punched in the face for being a Methodist.

Dublin is gritty; the River Liffey, which runs through the city, is charcoal black. Along its banks there are several posts with life preservers that one could toss to a poor soul that has fallen in; I think those life preservers should be replaced with sniper rifles. Because if someone's fallen into the Liffey, the best thing you can do for them is just put them out of their misery. But the feel of the city is actually very European and cosmopolitan.

It's got its fair share of chavs ("skangers" in Dublin terminology, I think), but it's got some really nice bits, as well. On the night that the child bride and I met up with Donal, Elisa, Isobel, Linus, and others, I was struck by the fact that as we walked through the city centre there were loads of buskers ("street musicians" for those of you playing along at home) about. There were enough people wandering around at 11 p.m., and enough of them weren't drunken assclowns, that it was actually viable for people to sit there and sing James Morrison tunes to passers-by.

Some part of me decided then that Cardiff, Europe's Youngest Capital City, would be similar. But not so much. It's a little cleaner and brighter than Dublin, but unless fully intoxicated chavs from Pontypridd are your idea of European culture, it lacks somewhat. That doesn't stop it from trying, though. It's got its Cafe Quarter and Bay, and all throughout City Centre there are statues reminiscent of those in Dublin. But whereas Dublin gets a statue of a woman with an amazing rack, we get a bloke with fucking huge fists**.

A new Cardiff Central Library is being built at the moment, so it temporarily exists in a load of white worksite buildings. Never having gone to the old Central Library, I can't say for sure, but this temporary site seems to only contain a "best of" from the library's collection. As a result, I was unable to find any history or criticism of Académie française, which I need to form the crux of a paper I'm writing in Welsh -- the outline of which is due on Monday. Sadly, the university libraries are just as useless (or, perhaps there search engines are just as useless). After paying 48p for the pleasure of having held on to Morgan's Dirgel Ddyn for too long, I headed to Cardiff Central train station.

Platform 7 faces the afternoon sun, so I took a certain joy in having to wait 20 minutes for the train to Danescourt. I just sat on a bench and stared out across the Brains brewery and tried to forget about all the things that are frustrating me these days. I thought about summer and how Platform 7 is packed on hot days -- full of charming British youth heading off to Barry Island to drink cider and swear unnecessarily and serve as the living defeat of any argument that Britons are more cultured than anyone. Summer seems like it will be a long time; almost four months of my not being required to do anything. I am planning to write a book in that time, but I may just spend four months weeping -- this semester is challenging and I know things are only going to get more difficult.

Of course, I do myself no favours by taking a several hours to write really long blog posts...

*Like Americans, the Welsh enjoy coming up with ridiculous phrases that are supposed to sound impressive, but aren't really. The way that Minnesota is "the Land of 10,000 Lakes," Cardiff is "Europe's Youngest Capital City." In both cases, the statements are blatantly untrue. Minnesota has more than 10,000 lakes and Cardiff's becoming a capital city in 1955 easily predates the capital cities created by the break up of the Soviet Union.

**We love fists.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I've been thinking a lot today about roots. In hyper-regionalist Wales, the questions of where you come from, where you belong, and what you are, are ever-present and all important. These are questions that are underlined for me by the fact that I am married to someone whose religion emphasises family connections. These things expose the weakness in my composition.

I was born in Texas, my parents were born in Texas, and my grandparents were born in Texas -- that is what I know. That is about all I know. I know history that can be collected from living memory. If you were to ask me or my brother where our family comes from, we would tell you Ireland not necessarily because it's true (although, I know that at least one family member came from Northern Ireland) but because it sounds cool to us and there isn't a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

I was born in Texas; I was raised in four cities: Austin, Irving, Houston, and Bloomington. That resulted in five different homes and six different schools before I reached 18 years old. And in adulthood, I have yet to live in the same home for more than two years. I bounce. I have always bounced. There are positives and negatives.

My dad and I are both the sort of people who enjoy hearing ourselves say things that we think are philosophical, so we talked a lot in the months that he and I would drive to work together, before Rachel and I left for Wales. We talked on several occasions about these questions of who and what and where.

Before my family left Austin, when I was 4 years old, my father discussed the move with his pastor, who offered a gardening analogy: Sometimes you can move a tree and it will take root and flourish; sometimes, though, it just won't root. My dad sometimes feels that he might have made one move too many, that Minnesota holds no strong claim to his soul other than the fact that it is where he and his wife happen to have jobs and where his youngest son still lives and where his oldest son keeps coming back to.

His hope for me, and my belief and hope for myself, back in those days of darting along the 494, was that Wales would become my place -- this would be the place where I would take root and flourish, where I would feel solidity and belonging.

A lifetime of bouncing, though, makes me impatient. As I understand more subtleties, I feel more isolated. These people, so firmly rooted in this place, struggle to comprehend and I struggle to convey. When I say something, people hear it through a sort of filter created by their impressions of what an American is, what an American means when he or she says something, how an American thinks, and what an American doesn't know. It's a problem made acute by my inability to communicate dynamically in this language I've chosen to throw so much money and time at. I stutter things out and people guess at what I'm trying to say, using the American filter as a guide.

Maybe I'm one of those trees that just won't root. Maybe this isn't the right soil. Maybe I just need to give it time. How long does it take roots to grow? I can't remember ever feeling more frustrated. People will say this is all just homesickness, but where is home?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

My Right Ear Produces A Lot Of Wax

In light of this recent talk of poetry, I've decided to post one of the only two readable poems I've written in my lifetime. Note that I do not say it is good. In truth, it is below the standard set by the limericks read by Terry Wogan on Radio 2. But I'm pretty sure it won't cause you to drive pencils into your eyes. If it does, I'm sorry.

This poem was written on a train 10 years ago; I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was in mid- to late-January 1997.

My right ear produces a lot of wax.
I'm not being boastful,
Just telling the facts:
My right ear produces a lot of wax.

Some women have their talents
And some men have theirs;
Some people juggle balls,
Some people cut hairs.

Some can paint houses,
Some can sew a lovely pair of slacks.
But my right ear produces a lot of wax.

Some stand on their tippy-toes,
Or fight wild bears when it snows,
Or put things up their nose
(But for me that's not how it goes).

Some can balance 10 pianos on their backs,
Or stay calm while the enemy attacks.
I've known blokes who could do a thousand jumping jacks.
All the while, my right ear produces a lot of wax.

As for the rest of me,
Well, it's just too hard to say.
I don't know what I'll be
When my hair turns all grey.

I might have an enormous mansion,
Or live in a box.
I might be insane,
Or sly like a fox.

Maybe I'll have a great job
With lots of good friends,
Or be a lonely old yob
Who's wearing Depends.

Will I have a wife who will love me?
And a dog who will, too?
Or when I walk into stores
Will people shout: "Boo?"

Will I live in London,
Or Boston?
New Ulm?
Or Halifax?

All I can say for certain is:
My right ear produces a lot of wax.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

2: They like poetry. No, really.

It's rare that I say this, but I think I feel a haiku* coming on...

Another strange thing:
Welsh people like poetry.
This confuses me.

For a very short while in high school, I decided I was going to be a poet. I decided this based on my ability to produce reams and reams and reams of grumpy non-rhyming free-form poetry dedicated to this or that girl who had broken up with me after two weeks.

"Time with you was perfect --
Never boring,
Never wasted."

That was my favourite line. Sadly, it was stolen from Henry Rollins. I'm digressing a bit here, but for a guy who writes a lot about love and relationships and has in his head at least three novels that would explore these subjects, my romantic foundation is a bit odd; it consists almost entirely of Rollins-sentimentalism and Van Morrison.

Needless to say, my poetic ambitions were abandoned when I realised that no one actually likes poetry. No one, that is, but the Welsh.

There's a bloke here named Twm Morys. He's got a massive head and a boozer's nose and when he speaks he sounds as if he's suffering a cold. He's a poet. Partially for reasons already explained**, I'm having trouble finding a good page to link to that would provide information about Twm (pronounced "Tomb" -- how bad-ass is that?), but trust me, he is popular.

He is popular like Soul Coughing were popular in Minnesota. That's a good analogy, actually, because Soul Coughing weren't really popular anywhere else. Similarly, I have never been among any other group of people who actually liked poetry. I've met plenty of people who understood poetry (I can't even put myself in that group), and plenty of people who claimed to like poetry because it made them seem deep; but people who really did "ooh" and "ahh" over verse? Nope.

In Eisteddfod, which is THE MOST IMPORTANT CULTURAL EVENT ON THE PLANET, poets are prized above and beyond novelist scum.

There is a long-running radio programme here that basically consists of two groups of poets competing against one another. Then some terrifyingly old man who sounds like he's breathing through a hole in his neck offers a bit of opinion and the live studio audience clap politely or chuckle knowingly. This is one of Radio Cymru's most popular programmes.

Click about five minutes into this clip and you can hear what I'm talking about. If you listen to the programme long enough, you might notice that all the poets speak in a style that is very similar to the up-and-down "my-words-have-meaning" technique that is so popular among Methodist pastors (If you don't know what that sounds like, here's my best impression of it [I'm reading from the United Methodist church website]. The quality of the recording isn't all that great -- I sound like I'm recording in a moving car -- but you get the idea). This is THE way to read poetry, apparently. People in my course dropped into it when called upon to read bits in class.

One of the reasons I don't have any friends in university is perhaps my sustained shock at the whole love-of-poetry thing. When we were studying barddoniaeth, as it is known, I would turn to the poor girls stuck doing group work with me and ask: "You don't really like this stuff do you?"

For the sour-faced response I got, I could have just as well asked, "So, when are y'all gonna get naked and make out?"

Here, poetry means something. In cultural feeling, it is at the heart of why Wales is so much better than where you're from. They've been reciting poetry in these parts since before your language even existed, son.

*Eric, if you are reading this, I will leave it to you to share the greatest haiku of all time.

**And, yes, it's partially because Twm is a Welsh-language poet. So, any internet links referring to him would be in Welsh. If you read Welsh and somehow don't know who Twm Morys is, here's a page about him from the BBC.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

1: They fear the internet

Does anyone remember PINE? It was the e-mail system universities were using back when bison still roamed the plains and my friends and I had just graduated high school. At that point in history, very few of us really knew what to do with e-mail. At the start of the semester we'd bang out a tedious, misspelled tome to our friend in Boston or our girlfriend in New York and then we'd forget all about e-mail for multi-week stretches.

Twelve years later, all civilised peoples have moved to using e-mail on a daily basis. All civilised peoples but the Welsh. One of the best ways to hide from a Welsh person is to send him or her an e-mail telling them where you are.

On the whole, Welsh people seem to approach the internet like a complicated Christmas present they didn't ask for, as if the world has given them a Bowflex. They're appreciative, and a handful of them have taken to it and developed killer abs, but for the most part they would have preferred that Voices of the Valley CD and perhaps a gift certificate to NEXT.

I would suspect that all of this country's regular internet users would fit comfortably into the available seating at a Bangor City FC home game. And most of them would work for the BBC.

For those of us blogging in Welsh -- less than 80 at my last count -- we find it is very difficult to get past the "What is a blog?" question. And with the exception of Dogfael, who seems to blog every 12 minutes, Welshies tend not to be the most dedicated of bloggers. With English blogs, I will assume they've gone dead if they go without updates for a month. With Welsh blogs, I find the window needs to be about six months.

It's not that the Welsh are mentally slow or any such crap*, it's just that they tend not to trust the whole thing. Before moving here, I had never been asked whether I was concerned about the possible negative effects of keeping a blog. I get asked that question all the time over here, referring to my English blog, my Welsh blog or both. And the tone of the question implies not just that I should be concerned but that I shouldn't be doing it in the first place -- the tone one would perhaps use if asking: "I'm sure it's invigorating, but aren't you concerned that bathing naked in the Taff will get you arrested?"

Last semester, people in my course were instructed to form groups for a project that will become the bane of my existence in the coming semester. As always happens when classmates are forced to do group projects, we immediately discovered that none of us could be arsed to adjust our schedules so as to meet with one another. To counter this, I decided to create a Google Group that would allow us to stay in e-mail contact and set up a basic running structure. This worked slightly less effectively than if I had tried to recruit for Promise Keepers. A week later, we still had failed to come up with a name for the group (a goofy requirement of the course). When I pressed on this, I discovered that the majority of my group members had not checked their e-mail. In a week.

In a way, it is very endearing. Having previously worked in a web-based company, I'll be the first to admit that the internet is not the World-Peace-Making Magic Box that people sold it as in the 1990s. It doesn't bother me that I am unlikely to hear a conversation about "hi-def compression and the emerging rival optical disc formats" in the Mochyn Du. Taking technology with a grain of salt is a good thing. But, come on, answer my freakin' e-mails, will you?

*I have actually had one or two people try to tell me that Welsh people aren't all that bright. OK, fuckers, then why don't you tell me who developed the equals sign? And the word "zenzizenzizenzic?" And the Jolly Roger? And the sleeping bag? That's right, bitches, the sleeping bag. Your ass would be freezing on camping trips if it weren't for the Welsh.