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.