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"