Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lovely dark and deep

Today was the shortest day. It was a bleak, wet and miserable day; the kind of day that this island of Britain is so adept at producing. If miserable days were a commodity to be bought and sold, soggy Albion would be surviving the global economic downturn with aplomb.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, this place is also quite capable of manufacturing days of perfection; days that fill you with life and hope. And most strangely, these days -- the glorious and the miserable -- can often run consecutively. One day, the meteorological stage is set for you to finally win over your One True Love. The next day, the cold, wet and dark hang unrepentant as she dies tragically in your arms.

My arms remained corpse-free, but it was a miserable day nonetheless. The sun never shone. The weak grey mist of morning failed to become anything more. The novelty of sunrise and sunset running so close together was made irrelevant by the absence of sun. It was a day to fit my mood.

As the grey was starting to bleed to dark purple and then black, I decided to go for a walk. Or, Rachel decided for me.

I have been sick all this last week, I think as penance for my failing to stand up for Wales at the Jones wedding last weekend. Amid a 786-hour stretch of wedding speeches, I had decided to sneak out of the room and into the bar of the hotel where the wedding was held. Therein, I came across a member of the Skerries crew, who looked at me wearily and, waving a hand in the direction of the Room Of Perpetual Wedding Speeches, said: "I haven't been to Wales before. Please tell me this isn't representative of a nation."

"Well, actually, it kind of is."

"Make that a double," she said to the bartender.

OK, yes, they have an obsession with reality television and a tendency to never rise above seaside humour (a), but that doesn't mean the Welsh are in any way a less wonderful people to be around. But in the face of the coolness that I have, for some reason, allocated to Irishness I couldn't live up to my affiliation. So, the next day, assisted by the several gallons of Guinness, Carling and Gordon's consumed the night before, the Welsh gods made me deathly ill.

I have been relegated to sleeping on the couch because my all-night coughing fits were preventing Rachel from getting any rest, and she herself recovering from a kind of cold. Indeed, one might suggest the blame for my illness rests on her shoulders and not on the duwiau Cymru. But for the fact that whatever I have is so much worse. This is always the way, isn't it? Women will get sick and then show no sympathy when their partner does the same -- not realising that the man has received some sort of terrible mutated killer version of their paltry cold.

So, my past several days have been spent lying on the couch, wrapped in a duvet, trying to come to terms with the fact that I have contracted incurable tuberculosis. Or lupus. Or luperculosis. The house has become my sickbed.

"If you are waiting for me to listen to your diatribe against American automakers, you are going to be waiting for a very long time," Rachel said today, shortly after I had mentioned my displeasure with the bailout plan and looked at her with that sort of expectant pause that says: "Ask me why!"

When did we become this? When did Rachel and I become a modern version of the mother and father off "A Christmas Story"? Me pontificating into the air and she not paying attention. Or, when she is recovering from a cold, not having any of it.

"Have you got out of the house today?" she asked, eyebrow raising slightly from her romance novel. "Maybe you should go for a walk."

Down Llantrisant Road from the roundabout that leads to our house, the roundabout that, on the misting grey death of a Sunday afternoon, somehow feels like the last roundabout of the civilised world -- I imagine one of those old white mile markers on the northern edge of the roundabout stating: "UNKNOWN 1/8" -- and left onto Greenwood Road. Past the houses that are average by American standard but so large in Britain that I cannot realistically imagine what it would be like to live in one. Down the Highfields Steps and to the River Taff.

I have been so tired lately. Physically, emotionally, mentally. Endings and beginnings and place and belonging. All these things are swirling around in me and I can't figure any of it out. I don't have the energy.

Just beyond the playing fields of Ysgol Glantaf, on a bench, looking out across the weir toward Llandaff Rowing Club, sat a man with the hood of his coat up -- drinking cider and looking very much the physical representation of my mood.

If (and there is great emphasis on "if") I can turn in all my essays and pass my exams in January I will have one semester left of university, a semester that will inevitably speed past. And then? I will have a degree but what will have actually been achieved in these three years? What will have been built? And what next? And why?

Passing by the antiquated "NO FISHING" sign that I am always amazed has yet to be stolen, I suddenly thought of Astrid and when she came to visit last Christmas. On that Christmas morning, after we had opened all our presents, she and I took a walk along the Taff. She in her woefully inappropriate shoes. And it was the first time, I realised, that I had ever really gotten to talk to Astrid. A strange thing, perhaps, for a woman who was staying at my house. But that appears to be the modern way. Things work in reverse. I stay at the home of Chris and Jenny, or Donal and Is, and then I get to know them.

When Astrid stayed at our house she ran around in scandalously sexy underpants, but even without that particular happy memory, the thought of her, the thought of my having a friend on this island, served as a sort of "dust of snow" (b). I felt lightened. Warmed.

But Britain can at times feel a snowless place. Wales especially. And Welsh speakers? Oh, sure, we're all friends, aren't we? But in a way that perhaps an outsider might notice? I won't put a number on it, but less than I would have anticipated after three years. And in terms of friends that I feel are close? Friends that I feel I could really talk to about any of this, if I could be arsed to talk about it? None. One?

Under the Western Avenue bridge and looking at my watch, seeing that total darkness would come before completing my intended route up through Llandaff Fields and past the crossroads where characters sold their souls in the Llwyd Owen novel, turning and walking up to street level. Over the Taff and then back over Western Avenue on the rickety UWIC footbridge. Past Llandaff RFC's clubhouse and along the dark, narrow footpath that leads to Llandaff Cathedral.

There is something immensely lovely about the cathedral. It is hidden there, sitting at the bottom of the hill for hundreds and hundreds of years, with its uneven overgrown cemetery of cracked and eroded headstones and tombs. That doesn't sound all that cheery or welcoming, but it is.

Our friends the Germans blew out a number of the cathedral's windows (and a wall) as part of their elaborate scheme to force Britain to build a load of really ugly buildings. The scheme was successful in Portsmouth and Swansea but in Llandaff, at least, aesthetics prevailed and the new part of the building looks more or less like the old part, save the absence of old stained-glass windows. Through the new windows flow a light that is so incredibly warm and welcoming, especially in the dark wet cold misery of the shortest day, it is as if this one place has turned against the Church of Wales' apparent insistence on making Christianity as lifeless, boring and unappealing as possible.

I walked across the churchyard and stood at the cathedral door, considering walking in. The door is seemingly always open, light streaming out. Sometimes I step in and I feel a strange something that I suppose might be connection or perhaps just a respect for whatever it is that has served to console and fortify and rebuild people who have sought and found those things there. Atheists always annoy me in failing to identify that simple fact. Even if it's not true, why do you care? It gives someone purpose and hope and centre. Without it, "X-Factor" becomes their moral core.

I didn't step in. I am always afraid that someone will tell me I don't belong there, which would tarnish the affection I hold for the place. I walked up the Cathedral Steps and along Bridge Street, past the houses I always wish I lived in and then past The Heathcock.

Warm light streamed from the pub and looking in I saw it decorated for the season. A man talking to a woman. Two men playing pool. These quintessential miserable days are in themselves an explanation of Britain's pub culture. Almost every time I pass that pub I want to go in, but rarely do because it is that kind of small that a person cannot walk into without being noticed by everyone else. I don't really like the massive pubs but tend to go there because I don't have any friends in the small pubs I wish I could frequent.

Up Llantrisant Road, past the BBC, the large houses, the petrol station and back into my little neighbourhood with its cats and reasonably priced automobiles and its people who always seem to back away when they see me coming. To my house, with its drapes shut -- looking empty and alone.

(a) FTYPAH: Seaside humour is hard to properly explain. It's a bit like blue-collar comedy in its intellectualism or lack thereof.

(b) The only two poems that I really know are both by Robert Frost, both take place in the snow and both deal with the same subject (by my interpretation). As such, I tend to run them both together -- hence my use of a different poem as this post's title.

Monday, November 10, 2008

'Proclaiming our allegiance, our faith, our love for you'

"When you look out at this, does it look like home?" Rachel asked a few weeks ago as the long dark blue First Great Western train sped across the rolling fields of Somerset toward London.

"What, England?" I asked.

"Britain," she said. "Does it look like home to you? It does to me. I look at it and I just get that excited feeling that I am home."

"Yeah, I guess it looks like home. It doesn't not look like home, " I said, looking out the window and remembering a scene in Geraint V. Jones' Zen, when the main character is being driven through southwestern Wales and he wonders to himself that he has never in his life seen anything like it. But the character is from England and had served in Northern Ireland -- bullshit he hadn't seen anything like it. I suppose it's possible to live in Britain and fail to have seen something exactly like southwest Wales but to not have seen anything like it is to have never opened your eyes. All across south Wales and southern England, at least, the landscape is vaguely similar; those "pleasant pastures seen" that they insist on singing about on the other side of the Severn stretch endless from one's train window -- interspersed by jumble towns doing that strange thing of trying to mimic American sprawl without really having any space for the sprawl to go.

But I'm not sure I feel a real connection to it. Not, at least, to that forgettable stretch between Bristol and Swindon. I feel far greater connection to Cardiff. Sometimes, sitting atop Y Garth and looking down on Wales' capital city, or striding through it with a pint or two in my belly, a feeling will come over me of wanting to shout out: "This is my town, you fuckers!"

I'm not sure who I'd be shouting at. Not my fellow Cardiffians, who are an organic part of it all; the drunks and chavs and wealthy and middle-class and moms and dads and kids who are of this place. They are mine as well. And I am theirs. Or want to be. Perhaps I am shouting at Welsh-language culture, which I feel is often too eager to disavow the capital. Perhaps I am shouting to the swirling thoughts in my head that tell me I will never belong to anything.

But this connection fails me sometimes. I feel lost and unwanted. Or I fear that I am abandoning what I have. I have put myself on a course to live in Wales permanently, to make it my home, to set my roots here, to become officially British. But there is that indoctrinated part of me that fears turning against what I am; what I was.

Many moons ago, I was baptised in the Mormon church in an attempt to placate my mother-in-law. This idea was an unmitigated failure, of course. Putting on an Elvis suit and going for a swim was never going to change her mind about me. And an un-guessed side-effect was an overwhelming sense of remorse and regret on my own part. I went into a full on panic. Even though I adhere to the Sikh philosophy that God does not have religion (and therefore it doesn't really matter what rules you impose on yourself in order to be a good person, just that you are a good person), some part of my soul burned at having "betrayed" my United Methodist (a) upbringing.

I'm not sure it's possible to "betray" a United Methodist upbringing without committing a crime. The United Methodists are a pretty relaxed folk. If you want to throw on some white polyester, jump in a pool and stop drinking tea they'll raise an eyebrow but probably won't condemn you to hell for it.

But this is what I felt. It was possibly the only time in my life I have ever felt any sense of religious fear, of having done something REALLY ETERNALLY WRONG.

I wasn't really fearing God, though, but the severing of that connection to my family and my history and my past. I felt a sick terrible guilt at having erased that Methodist baptism I was given as a wee baby, when my mother and father had held me close and a pastor sprinkled water on my ugly little head. I don't attend Methodist church (or any church), but my mom and dad do and it's especially important to Dad and I felt sick at having cut that connection.

In a fit of guilt-driven madness I drove up to Mt. Rose, and climbed to an area that I perceived to be the top where I had a very long mea culpa conversation with God. Effectively, I asked if he could, you know, not file the paper work on that most recent baptism. It was probably the most mad (i.e., insane, not angry) I have ever been. Which is a pretty big statement.

Anyway, you'll be happy to know that after a great deal of weeping at the sky and begging and pleading I walked away feeling that God was willing to let me off. Love makes you do very silly things sometimes. I had desperately wanted to make things easier on my future wife and hadn't considered my own feelings. It was agreed between me and The Creator Of The Universe that all would be forgiven and I would still be allowed to mark "Methodist" on the demographics survey that everyone has to fill out in the afterlife.

All of this loops back to a First Great Western train in southern England because it was there that I got thinking about that eventual day when I will promise to "be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law" (b). Will I suddenly wake up that night in panic, feeling that I have betrayed the United States of America?

I worry about this. Stupidly. I feel an untraceable guilt at the idea of not being American. More specifically, at not being Texan.

"Texas is a state of mind," wrote John Steinbeck. "Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word."

It is my nation. I am of Texas. Its air and water and soil are in me; they were used to form me. That water trickled on my little baby head came from Texas taps. When I lived in Minnesota I was still Texan; it says so on my dark blue U.S. passport. But I am worried about what, if anything, I will feel in that future I am working toward, hoping for, in which I get to carry around a maroon-coloured passport.

(a) I'm kind of picking up that the Methodists in Britain are different than the Methodists I grew up surrounded by, hence the use of "United Methodist." But I don't actually know if there's a difference. Shawn or Dad, if you are reading please clue me in.

(b) Actually, one is allowed to do the citizenship ceremony in Welsh, so my actual words will be something along the lines of: "Yr wyf i'n tyngu i Dduw Hollalluog y byddaf i, ar ôl dod yn ddinesydd Prydeinig, yn ffyddlon ac yn wir deyrngar i'w Mawrhydi y Frenhines Elisabeth yr Ail, ei Hetifeddion a'i Holynwyr, yn unol âr gyfraith."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Remember where you were today; your grandchildren will ask

As I write this, polling stations in the United States' east coast are opening and millions of people are queuing to take part in what feels to be the most important election of my lifetime.

There is the historical element, of course. If the polls are right, the United States will elect its first black leader and we can say once again that the American dream is fulfilled. Few histories are more tragic and painful than that of blacks in America. As a white middle-class kid from the suburbs I won't be so condescending as to pretend to be able to fully comprehend that history or how it feels to carry it around. I also won't suggest that the election of a skinny mixed-race fella from Illinois ties it all up in a neat bow.

I can remember from my own childhood seeing the "whites only" water fountains. The pipes ripped out and rusted, the fountains broken and crumbling, but the sign still there as a reminder that things were really shitty not so long ago. And that's a stench that still hangs in the air in some places. But this election is a chance to leap forward, a chance to show that thundering overwhelming all-consuming promise that lies at the heart of "the unlikely story that is America." (a) It is a chance for us to wave our middle fingers in the air and declare that we will not be chained by the sins of our grandfathers (b).

But the racial element has become a footnote. To me, this election is more important than that. The United States has reached a crossroads in its history. In the last several years we have set ourselves on a path to irrelevance. We have acted as crumbling empires are wont to do and the more cynical of us have declared that the end is nigh and scarpered off to other countries. To me this election has become very simple and very clear: a choice between the end or a new beginning to America. Not America the state, the boundaries, the government, the economy, but America the philosophy; America the shit they sing about. America "the nation built upon the lives and dreams of the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who left," in the words of Donal.

I'll be honest that either way, I will probably stay right here in Wales. I will probably stay on my course to become a British citizen. But this Welsh experience has taught me that I will never truly cease to be American. I carry it in me; I am of its earth and water and air. And I don't ever want to lose that. I hope to give it to my children: America the philosophy.

I am hoping, I am praying that this election will signal one of those shifts, one of those revolutions that Thomas Jefferson felt were so necessary, in the American mindset. Electing Barack Obama won't put a pretty bow on that story either, but it could write the first chapter. And maybe America can lead for another 100 years.

We'll see.

(b) Full Obama quote is: "In the unlikely story that is America there has never been anything false about hope."

(b) I say that generically. Despite my grandfather's unfortunate occasional use of racially inappropriate language I have never thought of him as racist.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

They're giving him a PhD because he's smart, yo

Brilliant quote from my friend Paul:

"I find it harder and harder to make new (friends); and impossible to make new old friends."

Monday, May 26, 2008

You don't like chat?

Have I ever told you about my utterly strange job interview in which the interviewer walked out on me? I was applying to work for an internet company that would go belly-up about a month later.

This was in the final throes of the internet boom, when people were still being paid to do fuck all. Indeed, the job I would eventually land paid me to do so very little that I started learning Welsh just to keep my mind active. And we all know how that turned out.

The internet company in question was one of those that believed in the catch-all website concept and was trying to build one targeted at college students.

There persists to this day the ridiculous idea of the portal website, a site from which a user embarks on his or her internet journey, or which encompasses the whole of his or her experience. Are you smelling the bullshit yet? The idea is to build a website that a user would never really need to leave, which translates to audience numbers more appealing to advertisers. How long a person stays on site can often be more important than the actual number of people visiting. But the very nature of the internet makes portal websites a bit foolish. In the same time it takes to come across the dating section in you can just find a website that focuses solely on dating. I think attempting broadcasting via the web is silly.

But no one ever listens to me. If they did, there would be a fucking bullet train running from Reno to Las Vegas, and North Dakota would be a penal colony.

Anyhoo, I went into this interview and cottoned that the guy interviewing me was certain he was onto a winner. He was immensely proud of his clunky no-central-theme website and genuinely excited in talking about it. This probably should have been a clue to me that honest criticism of the product wasn't going to score me any points. So when he asked, "What do you think of the chat feature?" I should not have said: "Actually, I'm not such a big fan of chat. I tend to think of it as a waste of time."

Chat rooms were frustrating experiences of redundancy and flame wars. Nothing of worth was ever said and they were almost inevitably dominated by a minority of flamers (a) who made the experience unpleasant and unproductive

"You. Don't. Like. Chat?!" the interviewer spat in disgust. "OK, uhm..."

Then he got up and walked out. He never came back. After about 10 minutes of sitting there, I stole half a dozen donuts and left.

Almost a decade on, chat rooms are thankfully a thing of the past for everyone other than child predators, but the desire to somehow incorporate users' opinions/feelings into content persists. One method is discussion boards but those are equally clumsy and flame-ridden and require too much effort to maintain.

Recently I heard about Slantly which is a mildly diverting cross of discussion boards and Twitter that I think is supposed to integrate with content, but I'm not 100% sure how. I still don't quite get it, but that hasn't stopped me from joining for the sake of being able to state my opinion in yet another place on the internet (because, you know, four blogs just isn't enough).

My favourite Slantly opinion at the moment: "Professional athletes should be paid in marijuana and iced-out bling."



Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The WAG needs Carl

I've never been to Merthyr Tydfil. I've only heard about it, and nothing good. When people here say "Merthyr," they say it with a tone of defeat -- as if they are remembering the pain and frustration of being punched really hard in the stomach.

In my head, Merthyr is associated mostly with its name. Welsh for "martyr," I envision life there as a process of slow and constant suffering. The once heart of Wales gouged by the deception of industrial promise; and a moral tale of what happens when you refuse to let go of the past. Merthyr, in my head is what Wales was. Or, rather, it is what What Wales Was has become. It is that unhappy cocktail of failed dreams, and ambition deficiency. In my head, the sun never shines in Merthyr.

That's almost certainly not true. I know a girl from Merthyr and she is, in fact, an incredibly warm and genuine person; the quintessential big-chested friendly Welsh woman who complains about the price of bread.

But, even she will lilt her voice just so slightly when speaking of her hometown -- as if speaking of a relative who was fortunate enough to pass away before the police could press charges over his collection of child porn.

Then, on the train tannoy (FTYPAH: "public-address system") this morning came the cheerful song of a proper Welsh valleys accent:

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! Welcome aboard the Arriva Trains Wales service to Merthyr Tydfil! Our next stop will be Cathays; please alight here for Cardiff University. Please have your tickets ready for the automatic ticket barriers. Those of you staying on past Cathays, again, welcome aboard! My name is Carl; I'll be taking care of you this morning, all the way up through Pontypridd and up to Merthyr! I'll be passing through the train shortly, so please have your tickets ready. OK, see you in a bit!"

Carl made Merthyr sound like a magical place. Pontypridd and Merthyr! Wow! He made them sound like places you'd want to go to. More than that, places you'd be a fool not to go to. What's that? You've never been to Merthyr? My dear boy, do you but hate life? Do you detest puppies and pretty girls and freedom? What man with even the weakest grasp on sanity would refute Merthyr Tydfil?

I wanted to stay on. I wanted to have a chat with Carl. Who can concentrate on learning Irish when Merthyr awaits? Just the enthusiasm that Carl put into saying the name was enough to make me think: "I am going to take a day trip to Merthyr in the summer. I will read up on it and go see this place with all its history. It will be great!"

Imagine how the Merthyr-bound passenger must have felt: "Hey! I'm going there! Carl's talking about me!"

Clearly, Carl needs to be employed by the Welsh Assembly Government. His happy voice should be piped into all the trains in Wales, making us all feel that the places we are going are special and important; making us eager to visit those places that are just down the road.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Birthday AC!

This is my old friend AC. Her favourite hobby is stealing babies. I'm not entirely comfortable with this behaviour, I'll admit; but, really, who am I to judge? I can no more disown her than I can my white grandmother.

When I refer to AC as an "old friend," I mean that I have known her for a long time -- not that she is actually old. We knew each other in high school, which, for our friends in the Home Nations, is something different than what you call high school. High school in the United States generally encompasses those terrible wonderful years from age 14 to 18. Terrible in a wonderful way; wonderful in a terrible way. Like the strange ecstasy that comes from diarrhoea.

AC's locker was next to mine for those four years. Shoulder to shoulder for four years, on average seeing each other 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Roughly, that works out to 300 hours spent in close contact over the course of our high school experience -- 12.5 days. Easily longer than any number of romantic relationships I've had.

Anyway, today -- March 20 -- is her birthday. AC is 32 years young.

I am able to recall AC's birthday, despite my shockingly poor memory, because she and I were born on exactly the same day.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cardiff is for lovers

There is more to the story of English Major.

I finished my overpriced tea and walked over to the library for a bit of tedious Welsh-language post-modernism. It is a genre that annoys me in the Welsh medium. I think that is because it didn't arrive until the late 80s, which is about when most people elsewhere were starting to think that postmodernism was dead. Welsh-language culture has a bad habit of jumping on the band wagon only after the wagon has actually stopped and been abandoned. Grunge is scheduled to take the Welsh music scene by storm next year.

The library and the humanities building are within a stone's throw of each other, separated by a small green area with trees and shrubs and a wee hill that seems to be the exclusive domain of cute girls when the weather is nice. In the library, I found a study area near a window and was able to look down and see that English Major was still out there with his Chinese yo-yo: swinging it around his leg, popping it into the air, dropping it and having to chase after it into packs of passing students.

Eventually he grew tired of really only being able to do two tricks, packed the yo-yo into his bag (if you guessed olive green over-the-shoulder bag, you guessed correctly!) and started to head off. But a group of girls called down to him from the first floor (FTYPAH: "second floor") and clearly asked him to perform for them. Man of my own heart, he set down his bag and started at it again, this time trying to pop the yo-yo up as high as the girls' window.

Appropriate to my earning-a-Welsh-degree nature, I felt a twinge of jealousy toward English Major. I wished I had some kind of talent that would cause girls to lean out a window and call to me. Damn it, why did I never learn how to Chinese yo-yo, or play harmonica, or do anything impressive? The closest thing I have to a talent is my ability to (poorly) imitate James Hetfield.

Pop into the air, around the leg, around the leg, pop, pop, around the other leg. The girls clapped and then closed the window, turning their attention to the class inside.

They had stopped English Major directly in front of a bench, the occupant of which was a red-haired girl who had been poring over a book that looked overly large and boring even from 50 feet away. She smiled at him and laughed at some little joke and he decided to keep at it with his Chinese yo-yo.

I went back to my reading. Occasionally I would look out the window and see that English Major and the red-haired girl were still there. She tilted her head and smiled at him.

If you look out for it, you see this sort of thing a lot on a university campus. All the stages of love play out in front of you in looks and glances and smiles and hands held and hugs and kisses. A university campus is filled with that, and so many of its occupants bumbling madly foolishly through it. Love is so desperately fragile, and yet so often we run at it with lumbering intensity, as if we are riding a piano down a flight of stairs: Love me! Crash! Thud!

Here, though was the gentle stupid beginning wrapped in the golden late-winter sun. It was like watching a film.

English Major and the red-haired girl talked for about 50 minutes. She laughed. She played with her hair. She held up her boring book and said with body language, at least, that she would much rather be talking to him. He kept at his Chinese yo-yo. The greatest challenge of talking to a girl is knowing what to do with your hands.

Eventually it was time to move on. He put the yo-yo back in his bag, gave that silly floppy-hand wave that is more an excited and nervous "thank you" than "goodbye," then turned and walked away at high speed, trying not to look back. Looking back would be uncool. He walked in the wrong direction -- opposite of where he had been headed before talking to the red-haired girl.

She put her book in her bag, got up, looked back in the direction English Major had gone, and then started walking toward the library. As she passed under my little library window vantage point I could see her face clearly. She was grinning.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

OK, that's more like it...

As if to make up for the intelligent kids of last week, standing outside the humanities building Tuesday was a bloke with one of those Chinese yo-yos that are the staple of a music festival, renaissance faire, cannabis legalization rally, or any other event where long hair and a goatee are the look de riguer.

This bloke was relatively clean cut, though, wearing the internationally recognised uniform of the English major. I'm not really sure what an English major is called in the UK; they don't tend to use the word "major" when referring to university courses of study. But you probably know the look: sport coat or velvet jacket, T-shirt or untucked frumpy dress shirt, corduroy trousers and trainers (FTYPAH: "sneakers"). Often the look is accentuated with an oversized scarf worn in such a way as to not actually be all that warm.

This is video of a bloke doing Chinese yo-yo tricks. English Major wasn't nearly that good, although he had mastered the around-the-leg trick seen 14 seconds in. Perhaps the chap in the video is an English grad student.

English Major was stood just outside the main entrance of the humanities building, sort of half-performing for the steady stream of students moving to and from their late-afternoon classes. His being there struck as a statement on what a degree in English is actually worth. Doing a bit of Chinese yo-yo was a CV-enhancing activity.

As someone earning a degree in Welsh, I appropriately stood just to his right, quietly sipping my tea and wearing a look of disdain as I thought: "Typical arrogant bastard -- showin' off like tha'."

Monday, January 28, 2008

I can only sing short phrases

Primrose Hill is not in Greenwich.

For those of you who playing along at home, Primrose Hill is, shockingly, in Primrose Hill -- in Regent's Park, specifically, a fair walk north of the river and on London's western end. Greenwich is east of London's East End, hugging the southern bank of the Thames.

I have no idea how I screwed up these locations so badly. But it was to Greenwich that I dragged Jen Rodvold in my pursuit to stand where Iolo "Reality Spoils A Good Tale" Morgannwg stood in 1792 and held the first Gorsedd. Fortunately, the adventure turned out to be worthwhile.

Jen is a friend of mine from high school. It seems the older I get, the more friends I have from high school. Thank you, Facebook. Thank you, maddening nature of aging. As we get older and spin further and further away, we find that we really appreciate the people who were there 15 years ago.

Anyway, 14 years and 4,032 miles from the Mall of America Hooters where I had seen her last, Jen is now living with a bloke named Dave in a closet in London's east end and earning an MBA. This past weekend I travelled out for a visit.

There is something about me and London. In past visits to the Big Smoke, the people I've stayed with have found themselves distracted from my witty banter and enjoyable company by a particularly vicious stomach bug. The first time I stayed with friends in London Jenny was hit; Chris was the victim the next time I was in town. This time, Dave was on the receiving end. He was up early and often on Saturday morning and not particularly in the mood to go tracking down the origins of historical events that mean nothing to him. So Jen and I set out on our own.

We eventually found ourselves standing on the hill that houses the Royal Observatory, looking out across London and beyond to northern hills on one of those stunningly clear late afternoons that always seem to settle the soul. Dusk started in and turned the whole thing into a sort of moving painting. Silver/blue sky sharpened the shining lines of the Docklands buildings and then to the west lit up with yellow/pink/orange/red sunset that burned to an intense all-sky red as Jen and I walked through the park a bit more.

Atop a hill we had pretty much to ourselves, Jen stopped to call Dave and I stood and looked out and felt for the second time in a month this strong strange feeling that I struggle to put a name to. Connection? A root? The last time I felt it was when the child bride and one of the Claires and I sang out into the Irish night on New Year's Day. It is a feeling of no longer yearning to be elsewhere. It is a feeling, slight and surreal, of being at home.

It punched at my heart and I thought of that scene in "The Gathering Storm" when Churchill looks out across the English countryside and becomes resolved in never giving up. The place, the land is a natural physical representation of his soul. Its spirit reaches up through his feet and connects him to every soul that ever worked or fought or loved in that place. I imagine that for him, the connection he felt ribboned across England, the posh places in particular.

What I feel isn't as strong. It is a single strand, and one that wraps a larger area. It is a feeling that doesn't make a damned bit of sense. Ireland and Wales and London -- these places can't collectively be called "home" unless you are a Victorian imperialist. It is a connection that is absolutely ridiculous. For me especially.

But there it was, kicking at me and making me think that I am finally taking tiny steps toward feeling that this place, whatever "this place" means, can be my home. That is a terrifying possibility in a way. I am here on visa. Pieces of paper can take it all away from me.

The sky had turned infinite dark cobalt, fast becoming night, and Jen and I walked down toward the shops and pubs and restaurants of Greenwich. We crossed under the laser light that marks the Prime Meridian. A tiny green line that tears out over the park and across the night. A tiny invisible strand that connects all of us and how we live our lives.

I turned to Jen, attempted to say something profound and failed completely. Much as I've done here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

'In hindsight, James -- Not the best course of action'

One of the things that always made me a bad journalist was my admiration for police officers. I think they're cool. Yes, I realise the football cards they gave me as a child were just a propaganda ploy, but it was a propaganda ploy that worked.

For our friends in the Home Nations, when I was a boy, in both Houston and Bloomington, if you went up and talked to a police officer they would give you baseball cards or (NFL) football cards. I still have a few of those cards stored away, including Kirby Puckett and Nolan Ryan cards that could now probably get me enough cash for a nice dinner.

These days I tend to like police officers for all sorts of reasons: because they are underpaid and deal with all the people that I don't want to have to deal with, and because they have an understated sort of wit that always makes me smile.

The headline to this post comes from a conversation I had today with a police constable from Fairwater station. The quote was his response to my telling him that I had not run away from the woman who was waving a 3-foot katana sword at me.

In journalism, we call that "burying the lede." Not till the fourth paragraph have I gotten around to the fact that a crazy woman came at me with a sword today. See, most people would have started this post with something like: "As I was coming home this afternoon, a woman walking down the road with an axe and a sword started screaming at me. She then took several swipes at me with said sword, before wandering off down the street, complaining about Jews."

I didn't write it that way because members of my family read this blog and I don't want them going into a full-on panic. They are already sceptical of my picking up and relocating to this din of socialism.

Anyway, the crazy lady:

First off, why is it that crazy people always have a hang up about Jews? It's so cliché. Just once, I want to see a crazy person ranting about the Bago-bago people of Papua New Guinea. This woman wasn't, though. She was walking down the middle of the road, waving her Samurai sword in the air, a Lord-of-the-Rings-style double-headed axe slung over her shoulder.

"You Jew boys think you can terrorise children and innocent animals but we'll see how you like it when someone's got a sword in their hand," she was screaming.

Not being Jewish, or having terrorised any children or innocent animals recently, I looked around to see who she was screaming at.

"Wha?" I said.

Now this is where that whole thing of first appearances sometimes being deceptive comes into play. The woman, probably in her early- to mid-40s, didn't look all that threatening to me. Save the sword and axe, of course. She looked to me like someone's mom, and in my head I instantly built a scenario in which a few of the local chavs had bullied her child and she had decided to overreact.

"You need to put those down, love," I said to her. "You're only going to get yourself into trouble."

"Fuck off!" she screamed, walking toward me and waving the sword. "Go on! Go into your house! Go hide!"

"And you backed off, did you?" the police constable asked later as I told the story to him.

"No. I stood my ground," I said.

And that's when he came out with the line about my failing to choose the best course of action.

"I realise you don't have police trainin', and all, but, really... When that sort of thing happens, James, you want to give a person a bit of space," he said.

But, as I told him, I thought the sword was fake. Who just walks down the road with a sword and an axe? At 3 o'clock in the afternoon? In Cardiff?

Then she swung the blade within about a foot of my head and I saw the glint of metal. She swung it back up along my right side and the internal is-it-real-or-fake debate was settled with a second good look at the blade.

"What about that axe?" asked a member of the crisis management team inside my head.

I noted that it was in her left hand and slack at her side, not in a position to strike, so decided to table that question and refocus on the sword. Due to my lack of police trainin' I had allowed her to get within arm's length of me. The internal crisis management team decided at this point that turning and running was no longer a good option. It would have meant taking my eyes off her and opening myself up for unseen attack.

"OK. Establish dominance," I thought.

This is the kind of ridiculous shit that goes through my head. There is a Henry Rollins monologue in which he talks about how Los Angeles police are taught to stand and speak in such a way that subliminally communicates to people the officer is dominant. Rollins spends about 30 minutes taking the piss out of the LAPD for doing this, but I forgot that bit. I straightened up, trying to draw attention to my height/size advantage over the woman.

I stepped in toward her, reasoning that the closer I was, the harder it would be to get a good swing. I positioned my body so that if she did swing at me, I could take the blade in my ribs, step in, grab the handle and kick her away. Brilliant. I've seen shit like that in a thousand action films. No problem. Chuck Norris is ages older than me and he could pull it off easy.

"Put that down and sort yourself out," I said. "I'm calling the police."

Anyone who has ever seen me do anything physical knows that had I been required to act, I would have completely fucked up my planned Chris Mighty Protector of Radyr Way move. But the crazy lady bought it. She backed off, waving the sword at me more as if it were a wet stick than a deadly weapon.

"Call the police! Call the prime minister! Jew boy!" she screamed and started off down the road.

I had never before called the police for anything. The emergency number in the UK is 999 and if you dial it on my mobile phone big red letters flash on the screen: "YOU ARE DIALLING EMERGENCY!"

It's as if it is saying: "You are so fucked if this isn't serious."

I felt nervous and terrified when I heard the dispatcher answer. Speaking to an actual police-type person -- making an actual 999 call -- made me more jumpy than the sword-and-axe wielding nutjob I was now following through my neighbourhood.

"Hi, there's a woman walking down the middle of the road screaming and waving a sword. She also has an axe. But I don't know if the axe is real," I said.

"A sword?" the dispatcher said, a little more calmly than I was expecting.

"Yeah. Like a ninja sword."

"A real sword?"

"Yeah, she swung at me. I got a good look at it. I'm pretty sure it's real. Like I say, I'm not sure about the axe, though."

"Do you know this woman?"


"Why was she swingin' a sword at you?"

"I forgot to ask."

I followed the crazy lady to her house, then stepped out of sight and ended my call with the dispatcher. I walked to my house and then back, not really knowing the correct procedure for dealing with mêlée-weapon-laden neighbours. Standing again at the intersection to the close ("cul-de-sac," for those of you playing along at home) where the woman lives, a police car came tearing up and I pointed out the house.

In the United States police would have come with sirens a-blarin' and probably shoved me out of the way. In this case it was two affable blokes in an SUV ("jeep" for our friends in the Home Nations).

"Which house is it, mate?"

"That one there, with the dog in front."

"Right. From the States are you?"


"What part?"


"Hmm, never been there. She's got a sword, has she? A real sword?"

"Yeah she swung it at me. She's got an axe, too. Not sure if that's real."

"Do you know her?"


"Why's she swingin' a sword at you?"

The officers stepped out and suddenly seemed a little less approachable. They were the type of solid blokes they build in these parts -- not huge, but clearly not the sort whose mother you'd want to insult.

Police officers in this country have to deal with a lot of shit without the benefit of the tools U.S. officers would use, so they learn to carry themselves with an admirable confidence. It's all they've got in some cases. These two chaps had it, but they also had side arms. I instinctively decided to move across the road from them.

"I'll just head home, shall I?" I asked.

"Na, mate. Hang on there a bit. We'll probably need to talk to you."

From the back of the SUV, one of the officers produced an MP5 and dropped in a clip. The other officer loaded an MP7, strapped it to his side and then picked up what appeared to be a tear gas launcher or baton round gun.

"Jesus Joseph and Mary," I thought. "This poor woman is fucked."

Another SUV came tearing up and out popped two more dudes, geared up and wearing helmets. They tossed a helmet to the bloke with the tear gas launcher thing. I love that he hadn't been all that arsed about the helmet. Something about that action stood out and drew attention to how differently things were being handled than they would be in the United States. Still no one was yelling at me to get away. They weren't acting in a military manner. Even though they were armed to the teeth, you got a real sense that they had absolutely no interest in actually using the weapons.

Then another police car, and then another -- this with a dog in the back that sounded to have been one of Cerbrus' litter. Thankfully it was never produced. Then another police car and another and another. And soon the police constable that would eventually speak to me had set up an "inner cordon" and an "outer cordon."

"It's the police, love," I heard an armed officer shout. He was standing directly in front of the house, in the street, the MP5 held steady. Next to him, three other armed officers and, strangely, the dog handler who had no weapon but one of those dog-catcher lasso-on-a-pole things.

"Come on out. We don't want to hurt you" the MP5 officer shouted. Hearing him say it, you really felt he meant it.

"Is it an American thing, not getting out of the way of swords?" the PC was asking. "Do you know her? Why was she swingin' a sword at you?"

"She's crazy is my guess."

The PC looked at me with a slight frown, suggesting he didn't approve of my judgmental tone. Who was I to be calling people crazy?

"Yeah, well. Might have in infection. That happens sometimes. They go toxic. It unsettles them somehow. Not 'them' women,' you know, but 'them,' people. What's this sword look like?"

"Well... it looks like that sword, actually," I said, pointing to the tear gas officer, who was now carrying to his SUV the sword and the axe. The axe was real.

"Ah, that's good. Probably means we've sorted things out," the PC said. "Or at least got them stable."

"I didn't hear any shots fired. That's a good thing," I said.

"Yeah. We generally try to avoid that in this country."

As it turned out, the woman is crazy. Her neighbours have phoned the police on her before. She is receiving mental help, but it is on a voluntary basis. After threatening an officer with the sword she was Tasered and arrested under the Mental Health Act.

That information was provided to me by the PC, who called me an hour or so after the incident. It's another positive about the way things are done here. He didn't give names or unnecessary specifics, but showed the courtesy of letting me know what was going on in my neighbourhood. He told me that if I wanted, I could see the woman brought up on charges of assault, but suggested that it might not go far "'cause she's unfit, you see."

Later in the evening I also received a phone call from a superintendent, who asked if I had any questions about what had happened and thanked me for calling the police.

"You did the right thing calling us," he said. "That is exactly what you should have done. We really appreciate when members of the community cooperate with us like this."

I felt a little sad that he had to make that phone call. People in Britain seem to dislike the police force to such an extent that they often won't call to report things, simply because they themselves don't want to have to deal with police.

After the whole thing was done, I happened to be checking the internet to make sure that a katana was indeed the kind of blade I was threatened with. It turns out the swords have been used in some 80 attacks and five killings in recent years; they will be banned this April. Anyone breaching the ban will face six months in jail and a £5,000 fine.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Doin' it Celtic cool

Remember those old Mountain Dew country cool ads? These were the ads that came before the days when Mountain Dew was target-marketed to morons. In the 80s, Mountain Dew ads were almost indistinguishable from ads for Busch beer. They generally involved a group of buddies gettin' together and throwin' themselves into lakes and rivers while hooting and slammin' back a few cans of the Dew. For our friends in the Home Nations, this is the sort of thing we do in America. Every day.

It's from these commercials that I got the idea of Mountain Dew Moments. Well, it's from these commercials that Jim Moore got the idea of Mountain Dew Moments.

Moore is an old friend of my dad's. When I was 11 years old, I was allowed on a rafting/camping trip down the Guadalupe River with my dad, Moore, Phil Archer and several other quick-witted beer-drinking Texas journalists. One of them a cameraman named Austin (which is the coolest name ever [a]), who had a certain fondness for flinging himself into perilous situations. When one of the rafts overturned and got stuck in the churning of a section of falls, Austin tied a rope around his waist, the other bit to a tree, and went in after the raft. How's that for macho? He risked his life to save an unmanned raft!

One day, when the group was stopped for lunch, Austin climbed up a tree and positioned himself to jump in the river.

"Is it deep enough for you to jump from there?" Archer asked.

"Hope so," Austin said, and he flung himself into the water.

It was deep enough. Over his head, And instantly I was scrambling up the tree to mimic the act. Moore spotted this and, recognizing that an 11-year-old shouldn't jump into a fast-moving river without supervision, shouted to Austin: "Stay in there for a second. The Cope spawn wants to re-enact your Mountain Dew Moment."

A Mountain Dew Moment is one that is particularly memorable. Not necessarily life-changing or at all important, it will probably still end up on the end-of-life video montage.

Mountain Dew Moments don't necessarily have to be action-based. For me, they are often surreal swells of emotion. The time the child bride and I went to a mariachi festival, and a massive 30-piece band performed a mariachi version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and something about the performance ignited the crowd to a standing ovation and I looked behind me and saw 20,000 people on the Coors Amphitheatre lawn seemingly stretching up into the Chula Vista night sky, all of them going completely mad and the applause was so loud that all I could do was howl -- that was a Mountain Dew Moment.

I tell you all of this to try to underline the strangely magical, stars-perfectly-aligned moment that occurred at 2 a.m. on New Year's Day in a pub in Skerries, Ireland.

The child bride and I were visiting our friend, Claire. Through her we found ourselves in a gathering of the old Skerries crew. Everyone knew each other, had grown up with one another. For those of you playing along at home, it was a bit like being at someone else's high school reunion, but a high school reunion where the people actually know each other. At my high school reunion, people kept shouting my name at me and I had no idea who they were.

On New Year's Eve we bundled into the upper floor of the Joe Mays pub, where some idiot had thought it a good idea to set up a karaoke machine. As you can almost certainly guess, it was a shambles. The last thing one wants as they close the book on a year is a squad of screeching drunkards belting out "Like a Virgin" and "Sweet Caroline." Phrases like "the wheels have come off" and "it's gone horribly pear-shaped" were created for evenings like this. By midnight there was no karaoke, just background music to the amplified screeching of intoxicated women. It was like some ridiculous neo-Dadaist performance art.

But then came that blessed moment, the Mountain Dew Moment when we all clicked into one another amid the opening strains of the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York." Some groaned, some cheered. But then we all sang. Every single person in the pub was there in that moment. All of us singing so loud, so full that we couldn't even hear our own insufferable voices. For 4 minutes and 35 seconds we just didn't care. We reached a state of Zen. We were one.

It was so perfect, so exquisite, that the karaoke machine was shut off immediately afterward. There were no protests -- even through the gallons of Guinness and Miller (b), we collectively knew we had reached our peak. There was no possible greater moment. We could do no more. It was absurd. It was beautiful.

And that's how 2008 began for me. We spilled out into the cool Irish night singing whatever came to our heads, staggering arm-in-arm, ready for this life. Whatever the hell it's got for us.

(a)Reportedly, my parents originally planned to name me Austin, after the city of my birth, but my grandfather -- who everyone knows as Breezy -- thought it sounded stupid. In my early 20s, I seriously considered legally changing my name to James Austin Cope, but there are already plenty of reasons for my friends to make fun of me. I didn't need to add changing my name to that list.

(b)I don't know who was buying my drinks -- it wasn't me -- but somewhere along the line it was decided that because I am American I should be drinking American beer. As I say, since I wasn't buying (big up the Skerries crew) I had no recourse to complaint.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Overheard in Skerries, Ireland

CLAIRE 1: "Sinead's got the lovliest laugh. You should hear her laugh. Someone say something funny."
CLAIRE 2: "Madeleine McCann"