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Sunday, November 30, 2008

A book you should have bought a long time ago

Sunday was St. Andrew's Day in Scotland. According to my Scottish friends it's a day that means nothing up there but I tend to remember it because it was late on 30 November 2004 that I finished the first draft of my first novel. Four years later, still no one has ever read that novel but the date has sentimental value.

There are a handful of people in the wide world who at least have copies of that great never-read novel. Among them is Catrin Dafydd, who very strangely asked me to send her a copy a while back. I say strangely because Catrin appears to be the busiest person in Wales. The day after just about anything happens in this country, pictures of the event will make their way to random Facebook pages and there's Catrin in the midst of it all.

I'm not sure it's actually possible for her to be attending all these things. Perhaps she has employed someone to hack Facebook and Photoshop her into events.

Anyhoo, I mention Catrin because her novel, Random Deaths and Custard,is among the 50 listed as Books To Talk About according to Spread The Word. If you're the sort of person who loves registering for websites, you can do so here and then vote for hers as The Book To Talk About in 2009.

Or, you could just read her book anyway. Not being born and raised in the South Wales Valleys, I won't be so lame as to claim that is an authentic glimpse of life growing up in this area. Because I don't know. But it does a good job of grasping that strange swirl of stupid hope and constant defeat that exists not only here in Wales but everywhere.

As I am fond of saying of myself: I dream big and achieve little. It is a common affliction. Perhaps moreso in the age of reality television (or perhaps I am identifying an easy scapegoat). It can feel at times that overwhelming success is just right there, waiting for us. And as each consecutive unsuccessful day closes one is slowly overwhelmed by the weight of not being magnificent.

There is a certain skill in being able to address a topic while not really pointing a big spotlight at it and effectively saying: "See? See? See what I'm doing here?"

It's a skill I have yet to really develop (along with the makers of most American dramas). But Catrin manages it pretty well in her book -- in an entertaining and sometimes funny way. And to the extent that, if you're like me, you would read the whole thing in one day -- failing to attend her book launch in the process -- and really only get around to actually thinking about the thing quite a while after the fact.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Stepping into Christmas

Step Into Christmas - Elton John

According to my Google analytics thingy, readership of this blog has dropped nigh 11% recently. Damn this credit crunch! Damn it all to heck! It's ruining everything.

Of course, the fact that I haven't blogged in a coon's age could also be to blame. Indeed, the only thing keeping me afloat these days are those false-return searches for farm-animal-loving Asian teens. Ah well, someone's got to click the ads for mail-order brides (true fact: this site was advertised on my Welsh blog this morning).

As apology for my blogging dearth, I direct your attention to this video, which is the most beautiful thing I've seen this week.

It's not that I've necessarily been too busy to write (although, I should be -- the end of the semester speeds near), but that I've been too lazy. Or melancholy. Or both. Or something in between. Whatever that is that causes you to fail to send a REALLY important e-mail for five weeks simply because you can't be arsed to turn on the computer when you're actually thinking of said needs-to-sent e-mail.

I have at least now reached the stage of telling myself that I am going to do some work. However, that evil awareness that I have previously put off things until far later and still got them done just before deadline keeps me from displaying any actual signs of productivity. Especially now that I have switched into Christmas mode. As I write this, Johnny Mathis is pontificating on the state of our marshmallow world.

Since Christmas means not trudging to campus each day to fake alacrity for middle ages Welsh poetry, I find myself embracing the Yuletide with far greater readiness than usual. And with Thanksgiving now past, I can do so with clear conscience.

Every year I encounter at least a few of you playing along at home who are surprised to hear that Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Britain. It isn't. This Thursday is just Thursday. So, the child bride and I, the Joneses and the Phins gathered Saturday evening to eat the flesh of some poor stupid animal and take pictures of ourselves making faces for Señor Phin's undoubtedly expensive camera.

It was a good Thanksgiving, as far as I'm concerned. Although it was short a few people that I had hoped would be there. I say that not as a taunt to those absent but to convey that they were missed and will be invited again next year. Well, except for Mared (a).

For our friends in the Home Nations, Thanksgiving serves as a kind of festive levee against which the waves of Christmas batter. Traditionally, we don't really start our Christmas shopping until the day after Thanksgiving. Although Christmas music has slowly been working its way into the hip mixes with which we are bombarded in Borders and Starbucks and Chipotle (b), it is only after we have been worn down by tryptophan that the musical onslaught really begins.

So, with my Thanksgiving done and dusted, I have brought back to life the almost 90 Christmas-related songs dwelling on my iTunes and am wholly looking forward to the long port-and-brandy-confused afternoons that Christmas has come to mean for me. And in the time between I have plenty to keep me busy.

This Wednesday I am going to the launching of Owen's latest book (if you'd like to come along, let me know). I'm going to the Wales-Australia match on Friday; next week I'll be in Historic Bath on both Friday and Saturday, with the latter being dedicated to celebrating the birth of Jenny; the weekend after that we're going to a wedding. In between there are a handful of concerts and gigs to attend. This is the most socially active I've been since coming to Wales. I am dizzied and frightened. Thank the sweet baby Jesus there will be brandy-infused holiday treats to steady my nerves.
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(a) That's a joke. Apparently my attempt to compliment Mared in this year's Thanksgiving invite was misinterpreted as a cheeky insult, so I now feel a desire to play on her insecurity.

(b) To my knowledge there are not yet any Chipotles in Britain. As soon as there are, I think we can officially state that the take-over is complete and slap a 51st star on Old Glory (c).

(c) Some part of me cruelly looks forward to that day, because it will mean we can replace Noddy Holder's warbling with A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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.

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(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."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

You suck, Huw

Flash fiction or nicely conceptualised truth, I do not know, but Huw has a post up at the moment that is really well written. It is that kind of well written that makes me jealous. Some time in the future I will probably steal this post, translate it into Welsh and use it in a book.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We are and always will be the United States

Exhaustion is the predominant feeling. There is the physical exhaustion of not really having slept for two days. I was up well into Tuesday night/Wednesday morning and then up at 6 a.m. on Wednesday to take part in its "American Breakfast" -- an hour and a half of drinking tea with a fellow American and a Welsh historian, occasionally breaking to tell Garry Owen that this is pretty awesome.

But there is also the emotional exhaustion of having had my head swimming in this and fretting in this for too long. And the emotional exhaustion of knowing that this is actually the easy part. The United States needs root change; Obama and the Democrats will have limited time to enact that change and will need to work outside party lines to achieve it.

I pointed out on radio today that the last time the Democrats had the presidency and a majority in the House and Senate was during the Carter years. Not even Carter would try to suggest that those were particularly good times.

History is history and that's nice but there is also the need to realign, reinvigorate, refocus; to rediscover America the shit they sing about. One of the beautiful-frustrating things about America, which in part led to Obama becoming president-elect, is Americans' willingness not to be tied to their past. What's important is now. I think Obama understands that and I am hopeful.

Right now, though, I just want to get some sleep.

Meanwhile the senate race in Minnesota may face recount, Ashwin Madia lost, and the fucktard wingnut who called for an investigation of people with anti-American views has held onto her seat. Minnesota, Minnesota -- why do you hurt me so?

There are big mountains to climb.

"This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time -- to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth -- that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes we can."

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.

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(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, November 2, 2008

Happy birthday Rachel!

Today is the child bride's birthday. She is...

Well, how about if I let you guess her age. Here's a recent picture of Rachel, how old do you think she looks?

(Hint: She's younger than me -- hence the nickname)