Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I finally turned my heat on today. For those of you following my personal narrative, you'll know that I had thus far refused to do so this season. I realise that won't be many of you since I effectively gave up blogging sometime in the summer. It's hard to follow my personal narrative when I'm not publishing it.

The reason for that comes from another part of my personal narrative: the fact that Rachel left. She moved back to the United States in September. I bring this up not because I feel like discussing it at all, or want your feedback, but simply to explain why I tend to go all quiet and look the other way when people refer to me in the plural. And that is generally what I do -- go quiet.

I have grown pretty accustomed to being quiet. Partially out of financial concerns, I rid myself of the television once Rachel left. For those of you playing along at home, owning a television on this island of rain requires a £142 (US$230) license. I'll listen to the radio from time to time -- 6 Music, or Radio Cymru after 10pm -- or watch "Strictly Come Dancing" on my laptop, but for the most part I live in quiet. The sound of my breathing, the rush-ring of silence, the tick-tick-tick of my Winnie the Pooh watch, and occasionally the whine of the fridge as it stirs itself awake to keep cool lager, salsa and sandwich meat.

On a typical day I will wrap myself up in a blanket or two and sit down to read the various materials for my masters degree. In one sort of way it is a very pleasant life. I just sit and read and think and occasionally write. And I suppose it would be far more pleasant if I had a little fireplace to huddle near, where I could listen to the crackle of the fire. In a perfect world, I would be here, with Annie playing peaceful songs on her guitar. But as is, my quaint little life of reading through the day is cold and lonely.

Officially I have been refusing to turn on my heat for financial reasons. Heat costs money, yo. Putting on a scarf costs nothing. But on the weekend after Thanksgiving I was out in London visiting some old friends, and Jeni (a) correctly identified that another part of it is deliberate self-deprivation. The effects of loneliness are both more appropriate and easier to suffer when your hands and feet ache with cold.

Have you ever seen the film What Dreams May Come? In it, hell is a cold and empty house, where you are left with nothing but your own thoughts, your own inescapable awareness of your own failings.

So, anyway, I turned on the heat. In part because I was starting to get ill, in part because I just couldn't stand being so god-damned cold any more, and in part because I haven't been doing as good a job of being miserable these past few weeks. I would not describe myself as joyful by any stretch, but pretty much ever since I went out to visit Llŷr in Oxford I've been less and less inclined to do that Sarah Millican thing of walking about the house thinking: "Is that light fitting really strong? Could it hold a decent weight?"

I have my little routines in my little corner of this little city in this little country on this little island and I take a certain comfort in them. Life is not as exciting as it could be, but for the moment it's...


And I guess that's OK for now.

(a) Yes, Jeni, I know you haven't spelled your name like this since we were in high school.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday night in Fairwater

The early evening air is cold. Huge clouds of breath churn from my body as I run through the city's dirty western fringe. The cold is preserving my legs and I am moving faster than usual, half sprinting through the world of orange and black and swirling white light. Shadows stretch and turn and twist, the uneven pavement disappears into darkness and I am running on faith. My left foot finds only air, misjudging where the pavement should be, but momentum carries me forward. Faith in speed and strength.

Up ahead, fat man and a Staffordshire terrier, a metal barrier between them and the road, the pavement two feet wide. I refuse to slow. On my right shoulder I can feel a car coming, can feel its headlights, can feel its speed -- another Ford KA rushing to get home in time to watch "The Simpsons" or whatever the hell it is that people rush home for. I don't look. I can see the car in my mind. There is still space.

Where the barrier begins I fly into the road in full sprint. Fifty feet of metal fence to keep the man and his dog from stepping out into traffic. Fifty feet of metal fence to keep me from returning to safety. The strength of the car's headlights licks at my heels, starts to consume my legs.

This is where I'm best, I think. This is where I live. In these stupid decisions, in these times when I pick up speed to face challenges. "Headlong into adversity" -- that's what I wish they would say about me. Hornet's nest breaker. Wall kicker. Shit-storm creator. Bridge burner. Romantic and wild. Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs.

A oes heddwch? Nac oes, motherfucker. Nac oes.

My legs strain. In the thighs and calves, muscles pull and push and demand more energy; they claw strength from my gut, set my lungs on fire. Swirling shapes and sounds and colours and the white light growing brighter behind. There is no need to look. Just as I can see the car in my mind, I can hear the driver's thoughts, I can feel him refusing to take his foot off the accelerator.

"I won't speed up," he thinks. "But I won't slow down. He's the one darting out into the road. If he wants to take that risk, it is his to take, but I'm not slowing down. I'm not losing this battle of will."

The spring of the concrete, dust of exhaust swallowed, roar and whine and rattle of engines, legs powering, straining, burning, and ravenous to devour the space. Speed, strength. And in my mind I can feel the heat of the car's engine pushing, taunting, threatening.

Pop step jump back onto the pavement -- the car's engine throttles as if growling: "I could have, you know. I could have had you, easy." -- and into a pack of teenage boys all with their hoods up and jumping in excitement at the act. Laughter and sarcastic cheers as I weave through them: "Go on, runner-man!" "That's it, me ol' son!"

"W'hey!" I shout, fist raised in the air, and still sprinting. Past the car, now stopped in traffic. Turning left, away from the main road, uphill, slowing, laughing. This is where I'm best, I think.

But one day I will be too old and there won't be enough strength in my legs. What then?

Monday, November 9, 2009

9 November 1989

I remember the first time I ever went to the trouble to identify Germany on a map. I was in high school, in AP European History. I remember looking at it and thinking: "Wow, that's really close to England."

In the United States we tend to teach history in terms of good guys and bad guys. Generally, in situations where Americans or the Irish are not involved, England is good. Defeat of the Spanish armada? Good. Defeat of Napoleon? Good. The 1968 Eurovision contest in which Cliff Richard lost due to Francisco Franco's interference? Not so good.

And for some reason I had up to that point assumed that geography worked in a similar vein, that "good" places were sort of looped together. I mean, the United States is good, Canada's pretty good, and Mexico's alright as well. Even in Texas history I always felt that Mexico was not so much "bad" as "misguided but with tasty food." So it was a shock to see Germany so close to good ol' England.

I had assumed it would be over there in the bad part of the world, perhaps nestled in the bosom of the USSR. And yet, even before I knew where it was, and even longer before all the historical importance and connection made any sense, I knew that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a big deal.

Twenty years ago today I was 13 years old, lying on my bed in my little room in the basement of a four-bedroom suburban home in the middle of America, watching television. I had no idea of the world outside of America; I had no interest in it. But one of the few things I did know was that the Berlin Wall was not just bad, but evil. And now all these people were standing there, had been standing there for days, gathering and gathering.

I don't remember understanding why, or what was happening, just that it was big and that I was terrified. I kept thinking: "This whole thing is going to turn. The bad won't tolerate this. Someone somewhere is going to decide they've had enough and all these people are going to be cut to shreds in machine gun fire."

And then the crowd went at the wall with sledgehammers and saws and whatever they had. They started climbing on it and tearing it apart with their bare hands. I didn't fully understand the significance, didn't know the history or the ramifications, but I sat there with tears in my 13-year-old eyes because I knew that somehow the whole world had suddenly changed.

It had changed for the good.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Because 'My little horse must think it queer' didn't seem as cool

"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
- Robert Frost

Every year, my mother takes a squadron of Catholic-school teenagers to the far reaches of Northern Minnesota and attempts to get into their heads the importance and value of such far away places. It's debatable whether that message is received; when you grow up in Minnesota it is hard to imagine the rarity and beauty of somewhere like Minnesota. It is only when you get to live in places like Britain, where it is impossible to stand at any one point and not see signs of civilisation, impossible to go on a hike and not encounter at least one other person, that you start to appreciate that wilderness that my mother drags stroppy suburban teenagers to experience.

Once, when I was a stroppy suburban teenager not too much older than those taught by my mother, I went along on the trip as a chaperone. My memory, especially as pertains to the decade spanning from age 16 to 26, is notoriously poor, so I don't actually remember much of the trip. I can't imagine that I was particularly adept at chaperoning; but since I can't remember either way, I will report to you that I performed my duties marvellously.

But one thing I do remember clearly: Lying in the snow.

Deep into the woods, the naturalist leading my little gaggle of teenagers on a hike had us all lie flat on our backs -- perfectly still, totally quiet. My body crunch-sank into the deep Northern Minnesota snow and suddenly everything in the universe slipped away. There was only my breathing, the chill on my lips and the infinite sky blue sky through arthritic fingers of leafless branches.

I lay there: stunned by it, absorbed by it, lost in it.

After I-don't-know-how-long, the naturalist's face came into view. She smiled at me and extended a hand; it was time to move on and go look at owl poop, or something equally as exciting.

The moment burned into my emotional memory. It became a moment -- a feeling -- that I long to return to in difficult times. And during The Very Bad Times of recent years, that longing became almost constant. I walked around feeling weak in my legs and waiting, yearning, for that moment when I would simply collapse to the ground and the universe would slip away. In the nebulous world of depression, the desire for the cold solace of winter would mesh into an ache for the endless peace of death.

That's the way I interpret Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening." The quiet nothingness appeals to the narrator, it lulls him. Death is singing its love song. There is no life on a snowy winter evening -- only the infinite gentle stillness.

But then his horse, his conscience, his soul, his hope, shakes and says: "This isn't where we belong. We're not there yet." There are promises to keep. The promise of what you can become.

So, for a long while during The Very Bad Times I would wake up each morning and write on my forearm with a Sharpie: "MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP." To remind me, constantly, that I had to keep going.

Roughly three years later, I feel the strength of my legs when I walk. The little horse of my soul is eager to drive forward -- eager to see where I will go and what I will do. But the words of the poem are still relevant. They always will be. So, on Friday, I decided to make them permanent. I got my first tattoo.

Well, it was that, or the John Cena "You Can't See Me" logo...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Stop the car

If you met Paul, you might not immediately put him in the Adventurous category of people you know. That's not really the vibe that he projects.

Stalwart. Person I Can Always Rely On. I have to admit that those are the first descriptors that come to my own mind. But Paul is, in fact, far more adventurous than myself. Or, if not more adventurous, more inquisitive, which is often the same thing. As we wandered about Boston and the Massachusetts coast, Paul would often see something and ask aloud "I wonder what that is," and in the time it took to ask himself the question we would be redirecting to find its answer.

"I'll bet there's a beach over here..."
And suddenly we step out onto a sandy postcard beach, complete with salty leather-skinned New Englander casting into the water, all ours to play football and get sunburned on.

"Did that sign say ice cream?"
And the car is spun round; within minutes we are sitting with massive cones of some of the best ice cream I've ever had.

"Hey look, lobsters for sale."
The car skids to a halt and that night we are eating like kings.

Paul asks questions and pursues their answers. Unlike me, he is not happy to fill in the blanks with pessimistic assumption. This is the way we are supposed to live. I am endeavouring to remind myself of that as I carry on across the country.

Or, as, Bao-Kim simply put it, as I looked suspiciously at the mochi she had bought me: "It's good to try new things, Chris."


Monday, May 25, 2009

The spirit of America

"I'm sorry?"
"Uhm. I'm sorry, what?"
"Clearly long enough that you don't speak English anymore. How. Long. Have. You. Been. Living. Overseas?"
"Oh. Three years."
"Like it?"
"Yeah, it's alright. I'm excited to be back, though."
"Yup. Welcome home."

In a single action, the customs agent flicked my passport back to me and motioned for the next person in queue. I was released into my home country, and into the city where so much of the country began. Boston.

If you grow up in Texas and Minnesota, as I did, you develop a healthy distrust, if not outright distaste for the East Coast. I have long said that a major post-9/11 challenge for many Americans was that of reconciling their long-standing hatred toward New York City with their feelings of patriotism inspired by the tragedy that affected that city. In the last election cycle it was clear that Sarah Palin had gotten over it, returning to the belief that the East Coast as a place full of cold, self-involved elitists who have no understanding of nor desire to understand the majority of the people who make up the United States of America.

I like to think that I'm a wee bit more rational now, but I'll admit that the emotional foundation of that line of thinking is still there in my own self. Like Roman ruins in Barry, Wales. No one ever visits the Roman ruins in Barry. You could easily mistake them for the foundations of a abandoned block of flats. But they are there.

Boston, however. Boston has long been an exception to my anti-East Coast-ism. I love Boston. When I list off the American cities I'd like to live in, Boston always comes first or second (usually switching places with Chicago). I even like the name. Boston. Bahstun. Baaah-stun. Saying the name fires of a flash of indistinguishable image and smell and taste and feeling. I am unable to properly identify exactly what it is that I like about the place, only that I do like it. A lot.

It helps that one of my best friends live here. I first visited Boston in 1995, when Paul was an undergrad at MIT (a). Indeed, that was, until now, the only time I had visited Boston. And yet I am in love with the place. I suppose I have a history of that sort of thing; I had visited Wales only three times before deciding to learn its language.

Have you seen that sketch where Smithy gives a pep talk to the England football team? When he first walks into the team's hotel he shouts: "Hoo-hoo! This'll do!" That's the phrase that kept repeating in my head as I walked around Boston Thursday. Yeah, this'll do. I'd live here. I'd take on this life. I love this city. I love its look, I love its character, I love its people.

I spent my first full day in America walking the Freedom Trail. That sounds like a patriotic sexual innuendo but is, in fact, a large red line drawn into the Boston pavement designed to lead tourists past myriad points of historical interest. A 2.5-mile wander through the foundations of American history. It is tourism genius -- no map is needed, just follow the big red line, dummy. And it struck me as a good way to reintroduce myself to this country; I am starting here, where everything started.

On this tourist-laden path you can also get a feel for some of the Boston mentality. This will come as a shock to peoples of the Real America, but people here (when they're not in there cars) are shockingly friendly. I keep being thrown off by the number of people who will say hello to me, who will strike up little conversations with me, who will offer to help me find my way.

In American terms, Boston is a complicated city to navigate. It curves and zips and offers less signage than most Americans are used to. In other words, it has the feel of a well-planned British city. It was built by British people and retains some of that look and feel. It seems perfectly lovely to me. But here in America, it is god-awful impossible to understand. It hurts the American brain and causes any number of its visitors to simply stop, stare up into the sky and plead with the Lord Our God for the sweet release of eternal sleep rather than having to suffer another moment in this anti-intuitive mess.

True Bostonians, then, take immense pride in knowing their city. They carry their own version of The Knowledge and are keen to show it off whenever possible. So as you walk the Freedom Trail if you stop and look even slightly confused within seconds some old dude will run up and ask if he can help you out -- eager to have his skills put to the test by your query. Since I wasn't really going anywhere, it was impossible for me to be lost, so I would thank them and then we'd have a wee conversation about how hot it was and then bid each other a pleasant farewell. This is not the East Coast that I was raised to despise.

(a) He is now Doctor Paul -- his dissertation and defence having taken place last week. Congratulations Paul!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Well, that's next year sorted, at least

Just got this e-mail today:

Cardiff University is pleased to offer you admission to the programme detailed below:
School: Ysgol y Gymraeg, Prifysgol Caerdydd
Programme: MA YN Y GYMRAEG
Commencing: 21 September 2009
Attendance: Full-Time

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


"I don't fancy you anymore."
"I'm sorry? What?"
"I don't fancy you. I don't mean to sound cruel; I can't think of a gentler way to say it."
"OK. Uhh... Do I know you?"
"Oh, sorry. I'm Ellen."
"Right. Nice to meet you, Ellen. Dave."
"No, let's not shake hands. It's best that we keep things... not physical. Although, God knows it's not about that. I'm sure the sex would have been incredible."
"The sex. It probably would have been intense. Amazing. Really, really amazing."
"Really, really?"
"Yes, Dave?"
"Can I ask you something?"
"Of course, darling. I've always tried to be honest with you."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about us, David -- you and me. I'm talking about what we are, what we need. And right now I think we need time apart. We need to go our separate ways."
"It's time for us to follow our separate paths, Dave."
"Wait. Are you breaking up with me?"
"Ah, if you must be so crass -- yes. Dave, I'm breaking up with you."
"But we're not in a relationship."
"I know, I'm breaking up with you pre-emptively."
"Yes. I saw you and I thought: 'Oh, there's something about him. Maybe.' You know? But relationships are so fragile, so complicated, so much work."
"So, you've decided to go straight to the break-up?"
"That's kind of unfair."
"How so?"
"I don't know. I mean, I don't even get a chance? Why are you breaking up with me? What did I do?"
"Dave, I don't want to get into who did what and who said what. I don't want to have a cloud of blame hanging over us. But I will say this: It's impossible for me to be with you when all I'm doing is thinking about her."
"Your wife, Dave! My God, maybe you can forget about her, but I can't!"
"How do you know I'm married?"
"The wedding ring."
"Oh. Very observant, Ellen."
"I'm much smarter than you've ever given me credit for."
"Hey, don't be like that."
"Don't tell me how to feel."
"But, Ellen, surely it must be something more than that. I mean, if it's only about Lisa..."
"My wife. Her name is Lisa."
"Oh. Right. Poor Lisa. It breaks my heart to think of her."
"Yeah. Anyway, if it were only about Lisa, you wouldn't have chosen me to break up with. You would have taken your coffee and sat over there. But you sat down here and you're breaking up with me. There's something more here. Are you afraid of what might have happened?"
"Don't try to think for me, Dave. And it doesn't matter. You are married."
"If I wasn't?"
"I... I don't know. We're so different, Dave. Maybe in another place... in some other time... I don't know. Why are you making this so hard?"
"You're the one breaking up with me, Ellen."
"Oh, that's right. Turn it back on me. It's what you always do."
"What do you mean, what I always do? You don't even know who I am."
"Exactly, Dave. Exactly. I don't know who you are. Not anymore. And you don't know me. How could we carry on a lie like that? And poor Lisa!"
"Yes, David?"
"You're insane."
"Let's not get into name-calling, Dave. Please. Let's not end things in anger. I want to remember the happy times. Please don't be angry, Dave. Please."
"I'm not angry."
"You say that. You make it seem like you're not. You've always been so good at that. But I can't be that way; I can't bottle up my feelings. I can't lock away my heart. It's no way to live. I only hope, Dave, that someday you'll find happiness. It won't be easy, I know. But maybe someday, you'll be able to move on. Maybe, someday, you'll find the someone who's right for you."
"Yeah. Well. I'll do my best."
"So strong, Dave. My big strong man; you never let yourself cry. Farewell, Dave."
"Back at ya, Ellen."
"Goodbye, Dave. Oh, uhm, just one thing. Can I get your phone number? I want to call you at 2 a.m., crying. Also, I'm going to add you as a Facebook friend so that I can add snarky insults to every one of your status messages..."

Monday, March 2, 2009

The third month

March is under way; I find it interesting how important the month is to me. Monday is/was (depending on when you're reading this) Texas Independence Day, a day that seems to mean more to me as I get older. It is that thing of needing and wanting roots, I suppose. If we find ourselves 5,000 miles away from family and friends, in a country where we're not 100-percent sure that anyone likes us or ever will, we hold tight to those things we know. Or think we know.

Barbecue and the heavy moist smell of Gulf Coast air and the consistent texture of my grandmother's food. I don't have any complaints with my grandmother's cooking but it all strangely has the same consistency – it all feels similar in the mouth. I think of her cooking when Star Trek characters reference meals from a replicator.

In my elementary school, Texas Independence Day was celebrated by teaching the children how to perform various cowboy tasks like lassoing things and tanning cowhide. I was living in Houston at the time, a metro area of some 9 million residents. How these skills were ever supposed to come in handy in such a sprawling fit of urbanity, I do not know. We also had to square dance. In explaining square dancing to Gemma, a girl n my course, I found myself shocked and amazed to discover that I still remember certain moves.

Monday, the child bride (who was conceived in Texas) and I celebrated by frying chicken and dipping it in Stubb's barbecue sauce while listening to Willie Nelson. It's difficult to do much more than that because no one over here – the child bride included – gives a damn about the Lone Star State. In addition to barbecue and Willie, I took part in my annual theorising on what my life would have been like had I never left.

But I did leave Texas. Nigh 20 years ago. Meanwhile, in the place where I am, we celebrated St. David's Day on Sunday. St. David is the patron saint of Wales. He didn't do anything really fancy like chase the snakes out of the country, but we love him just the same. He ate a lot of vegetables and, if I remember correctly, managed to split a rock with his mind.

The child bride and I went down to Cardiff Bay to watch the St. David's Day parade make its way toward the Senedd, home of Wales' comedy government. This was only the sixth year of the parade but it is fast growing to something that meets the American standard. There were bands and blokes on horses and dance troupes and random weird people who didn't seem to fit the theme and so on – all marching in front of no one. They're still working on that last bit. In general, anyone with interest in the thing is a part of it and there's no one left to serve as spectator.

It was a shining and brilliant day to be marching, regardless of who was or was not watching.
In general, one would not choose first of March for a major outdoor event in Wales but the Lord Our God seemed willing to cooperate. Now that I think of it, though, the same was true of last year's parade. And, more or less, of the parade the year before (which I marched in, strangely as a member of the Plaid Cymru contingent). Luck of the Welsh, I suppose.

At the Senedd, everyone gathered to listen to a load of tedious speeches from low-level politicians no one has ever heard of. Few people are less important than Welsh politicians. St. David's Day, however, allows them the chance to pretend they are legitimate. It is sort of the American Idol Experience for politicos. Sadly, due to their utter lack of public-speaking practice, they tend to drop the ball, delivering monotone babble that would be out-flanked by a 12-year-old's book report and failing to adequately master the concept of a microphone.

That makes me think of a good band name: Wedding Speeches For The Listless.

The child bride and I chose instead to go eat lunch, a task to which Rachel was so dedicated that in rushing to keep up with her I didn't get a chance to stop and chat with Mared, whom I passed in the crowd. At lunch Rachel and I talked about Wales and our connection to it. Despite being the most populous city in Wales, Cardiff feels a little too small at times. We often talk about moving somewhere else. London perhaps. I don't know how realistic that is. Probably no more or less realistic than my desire to move to Ireland.

It is easier for an American to live in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe (well, Western Europe, at least). In Ireland, the Yanqui need only show up and promise not to bother anyone, and he can stay for as long as he likes. As such, I have developed a hare-brained backup plan should visa issues become insurmountable in Britain: I will move to Ireland, carry on writing my little Welsh books – occasionally popping over to Wales when the weather is nice – and eventually become an Irish citizen. Brilliant.

If I were to actually do such a thing, I think it would rank as the greatest achievement of my life. I would insist on going to all my high school reunions solely for the purpose of bragging about it.

"So, what are you doing these days, Chris?"

"I'm Irish, motherfucker. See my passport? Go ahead, try and top that."

I will never really understand my deep-rooted love of all things Irish. Like everyone in America, my family has Irish connections, but it was never really emphasised by my parents. Somehow, though, I knew that the Irish were Important; I knew that St. Patrick's Day was Important. Rivers and beer and hair were dyed green, in school we were physically punished by our peers for failing to show respect to Éire – we would pinch the kids who weren't wearing green.

The first time in my life (and, indeed, one of the few times) I actually found myself wanting to be an adult was on St. Patrick's Day. My family and I were on the Galveston-Bolivar ferry and I spotted a load of guys drinking green beer. College dudes in a backwater spot of Texas getting sloppy on cheap lager and food colouring – that was my picture of adulthood and coolness. I was an odd child.

Further proof of that oddness is the fact that we were on the ferry celebrating my birthday, which comes three days after St. Patrick's Day. Throughout my childhood, a number of my birthdays were held on modes of public transportation. At least twice I insisted upon spending my birthday going back and forth on the ferry. One year was spent going round and round and round on the tram at Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

St. David's Day, Texas Independence Day, St. Patrick's Day, and my birthday. I am defined by the month of March.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Into the wind

Her mother is Irish; an Irishwoman of the American mythology. We see the world in caricature sometimes and in those peoples that we love we impose those traits that we most like to see in ourselves, so in the Irishwoman we see a tenderness wrapped in the indefatigably of sharp wit and fighting spirit. Her mother had sworn off talking to me early on because I'm "too intellectual," but in the early hours of morning, sitting in the cold rain, protected only by a scarf, wearing a nicotine patch, lighting one cigarette off the other and drinking straight whisky, she leaned forward and confided in me.

"She's a bitch," nodding her head toward her daughter. "But, I love her more than anything."

This is the Irishwoman, I thought; the kind who will give her daughter all kinds of hell, but woe upon the idiot soul who should cross that daughter.

The daughter herself, Annie, is harder to stereotype. Although her Welsh loops perfectly in the northern tones, her English is international, with little hints of the places she's been. Asking where Annie's from is an irrelevant question; for the answer you would get it is better to ask: "Can you give me a summary of your life in about 30 seconds?"

But my storyteller brain insists that it is that Irish heritage that comes out most in her. There is the red hair, of course. But there is also her steady swagger of a walk, that way of holding her head as if always into the wind. Something about her physical movement that says: "I know exactly where I'm going. If you're smart, you'll follow. If you don't, I won't care."

She can knock back toxic/sweet cocktails all night and never misstep. Her dancing is not graceful but strangely of that kind that draws you in and makes you want to join. A sway on one foot and then stomp-thud with the heel of her boot. She sings with the full of her. It is a sound that comes not just from the lungs but from the gut, the heart, her toes and her fingertips. A feminine, unbreaking, bellow of the Big Mama Thornton school that could knock most girls (and a fair number of boys) flat on their asses.

Annie was the reason Chris and Pumpkins and I drove up to Dolwyddelan this past weekend. Pumpkins, aka Dan, aka Sud, is Chris' flatmate. His family crest is tattooed on his right bicep and the nickname comes from a drunken girl's misreading of his body art.

"Does that say 'Pumpkins'?" she asked.

"Yes," he said. "My family motto is, 'Always ready for pumpkins.'"

None of us had ever met Annie in the flesh. Chris and I have known her for several years, though, through our respective blogging and Twittering and Google Talking and Facebooking. With her soon to ship off to Ghent, this weekend of celebrating her and her mother's birthdays seemed like the best opportunity to finally meet her face to face.

The trip started on Friday night, with Chris and Pumpkins and I driving out to stay with Chris' family in a village near Llandeilo.

"Just one thing," Chris said as we neared his village. "No talk of my blog or my girlfriend. My parents don't know about either and I don't want them to."

"Your poor parents," Pumpkins said. "They probably think you're gay."

"Taking home two fellas isn't going to help," I said.

After being heartily fed by Chris' parents -- his dad frequently asking if I had had enough to eat and then at one point deciding that he didn't care if I thought I was full, I needed another serving of stew -- the three of us headed down the road to this pub, and got to work laying the foundations for the next morning's hangovers. We were drinking a beer called Cwrw, which is a horrible name because it simply means "beer" in Welsh.

"Uh-oh," I said. "A really hoppy beer. This stuff is dangerous. Usually gives me a pretty bad hangover."

And then I had another sip. And then another. And then another. And then another. And so on. A little past 1:30 a.m. we trudged back up the road and slipped all into instant beery sleep.

In the morning Chris fried up bacon and eggs and slipped them between thick slices of homemade bread, all to be washed down with mugs of hot tea. Pumpkins, not bothering to wear trousers, was the last to wander into the kitchen. We and the family sat around the table chatting.

In my hungover contemplation, I found myself admiring Chris' family. When his younger sister came down, sleepy-eyed and shuffling through the kitchen in pyjamas and robe and slippers, her first action was to walk over and give her big brother a hug. How do you build that kind of thing? So many families are trainwrecks; what did Chris' parents do right? Building a family is one of those things that it is terrifying to me. I get sick thinking about what an utterly awful father I could turn out to be. What's the trick to having children who will walk up and give each other hugs?

The three of us set out in mid-morning. Up the B4302 and then off through a winding fit of country lane that runs past Llyn Brianne. For those of you playing along at home, any road in the UK starting with "B" is usually so small that Americans would think they were one-way; we would assume country lanes are bike paths -- not to be driven on with anything larger than a golf cart.

Within a few minutes of setting on this route I was hating Chris for having chosen it. Through the country lane there was not one point -- not one fucking point -- where the road was straight for more than 25 yards. Slow, fast, slow, turn, turn, turn for mile after mile after mile. The truth of my bad hangover prediction became painfully undeniable. My head spun and I started bargaining with God:

"Lord, I know I brought this on myself, so I'm not asking you to make it go away. But if you could just ease things up a bit. Turn it down from 11. I'm not really sure what I could do or say in return. Maybe if I were to recycle more or..."

"Isn't this amazing!" Chris boomed as the car sailed over a hill, the mountain and green of Wales stretching out as far as the eye can see. "I love this country!"

"Mmmm" I muttered, my brain seeping from my eyes.

We hit Aberystwyth for lunch, which allowed me a chance to grab a quick pint with Rhodri. There is a phrase in Welsh, "rhoi'r byd yn ei le," which means, "to put the world in its place," that is used to describe a friendly, directionless, and long conversation. This is what Rhodri and I did, working out How To Save The Welsh Language and What's Wrong With Plaid Cymru and Why Wales Needs More Trains while Chris and Pumpkins just stared at us.

We eventually got back on the road. The sun set against a postcard mountain backdrop, and we shot through darkness toward Dolwyddelan, stopping only once -- to allow Pumpkins to make a cocktail.

When we arrived at Annie's house she was sitting in her garden, an almost iconic version of herself: wearing the fur-lined coat she bought in Austin, playing guitar and sipping a Moscow Mule.

There is always a slight window of discomfort when meeting face-to-face for the first time someone you've known for several years. The majority of my friends these days are people I know from blogging or other various Web 2.0-type activity, and I never really know how to handle that first actual meeting. Do you greet them as the old friend they are, or as someone you've never met? How to act? How to hold yourself? When we got out of the car, Annie was strutting toward us with arms half open and it was suddenly obvious that the only way to greet Annie was with an enormous pick-her-up-into-the-air bear hug. Who would do less? This was Annie.

Chris and I set up tents in the garden. Pumpkins' course of action was simply to drink so much that he wouldn't really care where he eventually slept. And within an hour or so he and pretty much the whole of Dolyweddelan were taking to the task in earnest. There was food and there was booze and there was music and people spilled out of the house into the starry night. I quietly decided that I would not drink through the evening. Not for any high-and-mighty reason but simply because: 1) I didn't want to have to suffer another terrible hangover on the drive back to Cardiff; 2) I wanted to remember things.

There are some things that people would perhaps prefer were not remembered: Pumpkin's interaction with Pablo, the woman who was coming on to Chris and suggesting that he would be too cold in his tent all alone, and on.

Annie flowed through the party, rarely staying in one place. I imagined her to have a kind of magic awareness of when a lull in conversation was near; she would leave just before it. So you found yourself always wishing that Annie were around, sometimes wandering through the house to find her, to find where the fun was.

Pumpkins fell into a slightly similar pattern, but instead managing to show up right in the middle of a conversation and derail it with a drunken comment.

"These two are gay lovers," he shouted into the ear of a guy talking to me and Chris.

"Are you?" the guy asked uncomfortably.

We shook our heads, "no."

"Don't listen to them," Pumpkins blared. "They're gay. Why don't you kiss? Come on, it's OK. You're among friends. Stop denying it. You're so gay -- just kiss."

The night dragged on. It got colder, a light rain moved in. News filtered through that Annie's blog had won an award; I felt slightly jealous that my blog never wins awards. Chris and I sat outside in our rain coats. Slowly the house and garden drained of people. Pumpkins threw his socks at an annoying English guy who was passed out on the couch. Out of nowhere, Annie grabbed me by the arm and led me upstairs and into her bedroom.

"Come on," she said. "On the bed."

I am being deliberately misleading there. I would love for anyone to believe, even for the tiniest of moments, that she was keen to have her way with me. I would love for you to think that we made wild, crazy artist love like characters from a beat novel -- that I journeyed to her mountaintop, that I am adulterous cad. Unfortunately for my reputation, that's not at all the case. Over the previous few months I had consistently expressed a wish that she would take a picture of me which I could use on the back of one of my books. Annie had simply remembered. She was keen to get a picture of me looking relaxed, like someone who wasn't getting his picture taken, and chose to shoot me lying down.

After a few minutes of Annie trying to take my picture but me screwing things up by making her laugh, there was a light knock on the door from Chris.

"Uhm, Cope? Annie?" he said tentatively.

"Oh, I really hope he thinks we're shagging," I thought.

I tried to read his face when he walked into the room -- me and Annie on the bed. But, nothing. Damn; he's met the child bride and he knows that I'm crazy for her. People who know me know that she is integral to me. So, me next to any other woman is simply not convincing.

Annie called Chris in and took pictures of the two of us. Then, when Ursula -- a friend of Annie's -- came in, pictures of the three of us. In the picture on the left, note again how unconvincing I am next to another woman. Ursula is supposed to be cuddled up with me but see how I'm keeping my hands to myself? One hand behind my head, the other in my pocket. Of course, the presence of Chris makes it a little less sexy, anyway. For me, at least. A popular thing in porn is the two-guys-one-girl combo, but I've never understood that -- why would I want to see two guys? I've got a penis; I don't want to see more penises. I can't get behind that.

In short succession came Pumpkins and then another of Annie's friends, Ann. We all sat on the bed and Annie took pictures until the batteries on her camera went dead. Then she brought in a bottle of champagne and her guitar. She taught me an "A" chord, the first in Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt," which she over-ambitiously thought she could teach me. But we never got past the first chord. My heart sank upon discovering that I was not instantly awesome.

My love for Julia Nunes has inspired me to learn how to play guitar so I can make YouTube videos of me singing quirky songs like Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" and be loved by people around the world. I had asked the child bride to get me a guitar for my birthday (20 March, mark your calendars), but -- perhaps thinking that this was just another of my sudden whims -- she suggested that I should instead wait until my trip to the United States and just pick up the guitar I had bought for her several years ago when she had off-handedly stated a similar interest in learning.

The anticipation of getting said guitar has been driving me nuts lately. Every day I listen to Jason Mraz or Glen Hansard or Jack Johnson or whatever guitar-playing fella comes to my head and I air-strum along to all the songs. I concentrate on how I will move with the guitar, the face I will need to show that I am really into what I'm playing, the witty repartee that I will use between songs when performing for friends, etcetera.

Now, in North Wales, Annie was going to teach me my first chord.

"I'll be sure to thank her on my first album," I thought.

"Just put your fingers here, here and here," she said, guiding my hand. "No, a little closer to the frets. OK..."


It was an awful, stupid sound. I readjusted my fingers and asked her to show me again and tried holding my hand a different way but each time got only that sound -- never the singing chord that she was able to produce. My soft writer's fingers stung from the strings. I felt stupid and dumb. No wonder my lying on a bed with Annie isn't convincing -- there's no way she would get it on with some muckety-muck who can't manage an "A" chord.

The guitar was handed over to Chris, who started strumming away like one of those guys you see sitting on a beach with all his pals in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. I know you can't actually hear that guy playing -- odds are he can't actually play a damn thing because all he ever does is keep his body in shape so that people can take pictures of him with guitars -- but I can hear it in my imagination. He's playing something awesome and his friends are all thinking, "Whoa. Chad's pretty awesome with that guitar, dude," and the girls are hoping that no one can sense how totally turned on they are.

Chris doesn't look like one of those guys, but he's got his deep voice and affable laugh and friendly demeanour and he can pick up a guitar and play the damn thing, which would be more than enough for any number of girls I've known. Bastard.

Chris doesn't know any songs, though. So we started making some up -- he and I alternating verses, or me just rambling in surreal streams of consciousness that didn't rhyme. At one point, we produced a beautiful ballad entitled "Disabilities Aren't Funny" that lasted some 20 minutes. Unfortunately for you, we didn't record that one.

However, we did record a considerably shorter song called "A is for Annie." If you don't love it, you will make the baby Jesus cry.

I am actually thoroughly delighted with this song. If Eric is reading this he should send me an MP3 of "Julie Loves a Blender" -- the only other song I've ever written -- so I can post it to allow people to do a sort of side-by-side comparison, but I think this song is better in a number of ways. It is certainly more lyrically complex. Any song that works in the word "emasculated" can't be all that bad, and Annie was so taken with it that she insisted we start a band. We decided to call ourselves B.A.N.D., with the meaning of the acronym to be determined at a later date.

With this happy thought in our heads we all went to bed. Chris and I in our tents in the garden, Pumpkins on the living room floor. It was 5:20 a.m.

About six hours later, Chris and I were up and wandering a nearby cwm (also known as a cirque). After two hours of walking we found our way back into the village and spotted Annie and Pumpkins sitting outside the pub. It was lunch and then back to the house to collect our stuff and say goodbyes.

There was a kind of sadness in the air. Annie stood quiet and looked at the mountain that extends up from her back garden. We took pictures. We gave big hugs. I can't even guess when I will see her again. Then the three of us into the car and shooting down to Cardiff in just over three hours. As we rolled past Brecon the clouds slipped away, and sunset glowed on Pen-y-Fan.

All photos by Annie

Monday, January 19, 2009

Rainbow connection

One of my best friends, Paul, is going to be a dad. I tried to get a rise out of him by asking: "What if your kid is gay?"

"Yeah, I thought about that," he said. "Gay people ski. I don't care."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Then, now and later

My grandmother complains that it is impossible to actually know what is going on in my life by reading my blog. That's probably because I told her that this is my blog. Nonetheless, I thought it might be a good idea to post a quick update not clouded by mercurial and enigmatic retelling of walks through Wales' capital city.

For better or worse, my penultimate semester has well and truly passed. "Penultimate" is a word that they use quite a lot in Britain -- sometimes I think it is used solely for the purpose of being able to use the word. A bit like "fortnight," or "echdoe" in Welsh (meaning "the day before yesterday").

If I am honest, I'm not immensely happy with how things turned out. As you might guess from a person who posts 4,000-word wander-babble on his blog, my disposition over the last months hasn't been the sort that is usually classed as "sunny." The knock-on effect has been a tendency to not at all care about the long-dead and unheard-of-just-15-miles-to-the-east (a) writers and poets and traditions to which I have unwittingly dedicated my life. So, it was only at the last minute that I really put forth effort in order to write essays and prepare for examinations. The preparation was so last-minute that I very seriously feared it would not come together. Perhaps the poor soul who eventually ends up reading my mad diagram-enhanced missive on DJ Williams would suggest that things did not, in fact, really ever come together.

But as my grandmother would almost certainly point out, there is little point in lamenting the past because it has passed. In a week, my final semester of university will start up and I am intent on making it worthwhile. I am so very, very close to having an utterly useless degree I can almost taste it. The joy is palpable.

In the meantime I have begun working with my editor on cleaning up Cwrw Am Ddim, my Welsh-language book. Assuming that all goes well, the book is slotted for publishing in late April or early May.

Also this week I plan to apply to do an MA at Cardiff University. I am hoping to be accepted into the School of Welsh's somewhat clandestine Welsh-language creative-writing programme. The fact that it is so furtive (I challenge you to find information about it on the school's website) is part of what appeals to me, I think. That and the fact that there is possibility of the school digging up several thousand pounds to assist me in attending.

"Serious" isn't really the word I'd like to use, but I am getting more and more (word goes here) about being a proper author. I always have been serious about wanting to be an author but there are a lot of little things that I find myself now doing, such as plotting how, when and why exactly I want to do things.

I am working on a second Welsh-language book at the moment that I would like ideally to enter to be judged in the much-maligned-by-me Eisteddfod. Is it hypocritical to knock something and then cosy up to it in hopes of winning £5,000? Perhaps. I don't care.

But if I were to follow through on such a plan, it wouldn't see the light of day until summer 2010. More immediately I am writing a collection of micro fiction pieces for this summer's Eisteddfod, an event which, ideally, I won't even be at. Currently the plan is for me and Llŷr (still keen, old chap?) to be travelling the United States at that time. Recently Curly has also expressed interest in coming along. Hitherto I have extended open invitations to Curly, Annie and Owen to join us on all or some of this little adventure, each time without bothering to clear it with Llŷr first. I'm not really setting myself out as the ideal travel companion, am I? But I think it would be horrible/wonderful if somehow I find myself amid a travelling Welsh circus, each of us madly trying to connect to some unspoken American thing.

It probably won't be at all that exciting. I'll be lucky if even one person ends up coming along. All I really know is that I do plan to be in the U.S. next summer and that I will at some point insist on Eric and Kristin treating me to long beer-filled nights and heart-clogging breakfasts at the cabin.

Suddenly a song belongs here...
'Shhh' - Atmosphere

Tying up all of the above is something I've been thinking about a lot lately -- something Eric commented in November.

"I always imagine the point where you say, 'I've had enough of this Welsh business, now that I finished university I'm moving back to Minnesota,'" he wrote. "You've left but I've always assumed you were going to come back some day."

I'll admit to feeling that myself. I am driving everything toward rooting in Wales but a part of me gets sick and miserable in admitting any kind of permanence to my detachment from friends and family back in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But then Rachel last week came up with the why-didn't-I-think-of-that brilliant idea of buying a cabin in Minnesota and my splitting some time between the two places. I could spend a month or two in Minnesota, pestering friends and family but still writing, and then returning to Cardiff once I've worn out my recent batch of stories as to why Britain is better.

It's more than a little idealistic. But what's life without the pursuit of ridiculous dreams? Isn't that what landed me here in the first place?

(a) That would be 15 miles due east, across the Severn.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Everyone on the Isle of Man will have to move when I gain omnipotent power

It has been cold these last few days; overnight temperatures have been dipping as low as -4C (a). Balmy in Minnesota terms, but Ungodly Cold for the Britain.

There are those on this blessed isle who would try to manufacture the sort of pseudoscience bullshit that would get them klaxoned on "QI" (b) in claiming that the cold here is somehow actually worse despite its not actually being cold. They insist it is a damp cold that seeps into your very soul and chills your will to live in such a way that no polar fleece can defend against. There may be a modicum of truth to the "different kind of cold" theory but for the most part the simple reality is that (many of) the British are pussies who are either too stupid or too stubborn to dress properly.

They are also too stupid or too stubborn to build their houses properly. British homes are built to be cosy and warm in the summer, and nice and cool in the winter. When I lived in Minnesota, we had radiators we were careful not to put anything within three feet of, lest that thing melt or catch fire. My radiators here would not threaten crayons. In these days of actual cold their effectiveness is located just off the intersection of Totally and Useless.

I have lived in Wales for nigh three years now, so my Minnesota hardiness has worn off somewhat but at least I can dress properly. Decked out in sweater, heavy wool coat, scarf and gloves I set out for a walk in the unbreaking grey of New Year's Day.

I have been doing a lot of walking in these past few weeks -- down along the River Taff to Llandaff Fields and then back up past Llandaff Cathedral. Some part of me is trying to grasp something, trying to come across epiphany amid these constitutions. I'm not sure what I mean by that, just that I spend a lot of time thinking on these walks, and thinking that I should be thinking, and thinking that I am approaching resolution or at least comprehension of some massive complex thing swirling within me that is so massive complex I don't even know it exists. These thoughts most often manifest themselves in the form of thinking about sex, house ownership, and how exactly I would order my life if I had the powers of Q off "Star Trek" (which usually then brings me back to the first thought).

The first day of the year was as good a time as any to be contemplating all this stuff. It is prime opportunity to look back and forward and try to make sense of it, or pretend (or hope) that sense can be made of the clicking, popping and buzzing that is life. We (and by "we" I mean "I") want life to have some sort of order or purpose or whatever; I want this bit to fit with that one. And even though I know calendars are arbitrary things (indeed, wouldn't it make more sense to have the new year start the day after the winter solstice?), I find myself categorizing by them and wanting what happens within spaces of time to have some sort of common theme or purpose or direction.

And so this year is (hoped to be) The Year Of Renewal. I want 2009 to be a year of new things, a year of change, but change that leads to a greater established self. What the fuck am I talking about? I'm not really sure. In the past few weeks/months I have been dissecting every aspect of my life -- what I believe, what I know, what I think, how I perceive myself, how I perceive others, my friendships, my marriage, my finances, where I want to be, what I want to do, what's important to me, my goals, my hopes, my purpose -- and trying to make some sense of it. I want it all to have some sort of point, everything leading to something. But exactly what it should lead to, whether life really should or can lead to something, and whether I have the capacity to make it do so are questions that throw me off. And soon I am back to thinking about Q, and wondering where exactly I would house my army of naked Reese Witherspoon clones.

I imagined the cold of New Year's Day to be a sort of cutting tool, helping to shear away that picked up in the year previous. This is the thing I always think in the cold, that it is a kind of exfoliation of the soul. But at the very least it is a good way to clear away the blear of the night previous if not year.

Passing over the Taff on Bridge Street I saw a group of rowers cutting through the tranquil blue-green and noted that one of them was wearing shorts. Stupid or stubborn.

"That is why America exists," I thought, thinking back to last week's episode of "John Adams" which left me with the feeling that if the British had simply shown the ability to adapt to reality and done simple things like providing parliamentary representation to the colonies, the American Revolution never would have been.

Last year I cleared the New Year's bleariness with a walk along the coast of Skerries, Ireland. For lunch I ate Buffalo wings at a trendy pub that looked out toward the water and told myself that 2008 was going to be awesome: The Year Of The Man I Can Be. I have developed a habit of telling myself that the coming year will be awesome and then usually within the month I find myself nigh suicidally depressed. Fortunately for me that terrible mood hit right before I went to visit Jen and Dave in London. The mood was obliterated in their company and I found myself feeling a greater sense of place and belonging than ever before.

Walking past the weir (c) near Llandaff Rowing Club I spotted a young couple coming toward me. The woman in a long grey wool coat and white wool hat with long auburn hair spilling out and down past her shoulder blades. She danced around her bloke until she drew him into chase. As they skipped closer I saw her grin, mischievous, and she broke into full sprint.

"People will think I'm proper chasing you," the man said as he shot past me. "This is not a good look."

Getting to see Jen in January and feeling more connected both to this island and to myself and my history left me sort of happily introspective through the month after. Annie once pointed out that happiness writes in white, i.e., we tend not to record when all is well, so February 2008 doesn't really stand out in my mind. But looking back I remember that there were strangely warm days and I took pleasure in simply taking in the world around me and imagining its stories.

The subway (d) running under Western Avenue seemed especially dark and foreboding, more so than usual. The day itself was grey and cold and cutting but I think the sense of unease came mostly from the fact that I had to pee. The night before had been one of wine and beer and food and song, and that usually means some unreliability in the internal works the next day. Western Avenue made me indecisive. It is a possible turning point in my route. I could either carry on to Llandaff Fields or turn back toward home.

Happiness may write in white, but sometimes a person doesn't write because he doesn't want to see all the shit in his head written down. Such was the month of March for me. I remember the month specifically for how little I wish to recollect of it. The ever-present sadness that dwells inside was relentless. I spent my 32nd birthday totally alone but for a bottle of gin and slipped into a particularly rough depression. And once again it was beaten back by the presence of good friends. A trip to see Donal and Is in Dublin seemed to bolster/reset/reaffirm. It's strange that a walk in the Wicklow mountains and long conversations about house prices could have such a positive effect, but there you are.

In some wood where the Taff Trail curves past Tesco I climbed over a berm and peed behind a tree. I then sort of hid there, checking to see that the trail was clear of people. Any regular Taff Trail user will have encountered individuals suddenly emerging from the wood, and although they are almost certainly just returning from the same activity I had taken part in you always find yourself imagining something more sinister. If I were a man of no taste, I would have waited specifically for a couple to pass by before coming out of the wood and then loudly stating: "I tell you what, I've been stood there for the better part of a bloody hour with my cock out waiting for gay sex and gotten nothing but frostbite. The tourism books are full of lies. I'm going back to Bristol."

The month of April was mostly lost to academics -- the pursuit or avoidance thereof. The trip to Dublin had reignited my sense of place and my desire to make Wales my place, to belong. The easiest way to continue toward that end, I decided, would be to carry on in schooling and earn a master's degree. The foundation of such a thing, of course, is a bachelor's degree and in tiny flashes -- for the first time in my life -- I found myself trying to do well in courses.

I wish I could rediscover that desire now.

Bouncing across the Blackweir footbridge I spotted several people gathered at the banks of the river, staring down with fascination at... ice. The river was lined with a six-inch strip of the stuff, which hadn't really registered as all that odd to me up to that point. In Minnesota, rivers completely freeze over and it is more odd to spot the strangely unfrozen patches that dot the Mississippi as it twists through the Twin Cities. But here oddity of ice was drawing crowds. At least I assume it is because ice is out of the ordinary that people were staring. Perhaps Cardiffians just like to look at stationary things. The busker who draws the biggest crowd on Queen Street is that silver-painted bloke who stands perfectly still, looking like a shining statue of Thomas Jefferson.

Anthony and Maggie flew out from Minnesota in May but I never really got around to blogging the thing because I had so much fun in their company. Anthony is about the size of a Smart car so going to pubs with him is awesome. Even though he's totally nonthreatening you have this feeling that you've strut into the place with Iorek Byrnison by your side, which goes a long way toward easing my usual feeling of being uncomfortable everywhere I go. I enjoyed so much showing Maggie and Anthony around I felt inspired after they left to continue seeking out the things that drew me to this country in the first place. Curly has pointed out on several occasions the challenge of recording for posterity the act of fully living because it means taking time out of said living to make note of it. That was May for me. Mixed with a barrage of exams and essays. I trudged up Y Garth almost daily and in my head I was planning weekly trips to the various corners of Wales, promising myself that I was finally going to take in this place, absorb every part of it.

Walking across Pontcanna Fields I was struck again by my mixed feelings toward Eisteddfod. It was in the aforementioned green space that the national Eisteddfod was held in 2008. Owen once (drunkenly) told me that my critique of Eisteddfod was the most concise he had seen since 1991, but I will still admit to seeing value in the event. Or, at least, I hope that there is value in the thing and that I simply do not see it. My personal experience and observation suggests otherwise but I want to believe regardless that Eisteddfod is a brilliant tool for the promulgation and preservation of the Welsh language. I want to believe that it is something good and not just a massive waste of time and resources.

The first time I walked across Pontcanna Fields was in October 2005, after I had been informally accepted into Cardiff University and was feeling that every good thing was being laid out at my feet. And it is perhaps because of that happy memory that the place is so dear to me; I would hold it up as a defence of Wales' capital city if God were to place me in the Abrahamic position of arguing in its favour.

For our Godless English friends, Abraham is a bloke from the Bible. At one point, God confides in Abraham that He plans to destroy the city of Sodom. Abraham argues against the idea and gets God to agree not to destroy the city if 50 righteous men can be found. He then manages to bargain God down to just 10 righteous men. Unfortunately for Sodom only one righteous man can be found and, as soon as said righteous man (Lot) is allowed to leave the city, God smites the shit out of it.

So, if God came to me and said "Chris, mae Caerdydd yn ffyced oni bai fod ti'n meddwl am reswm imi bedio ei chwalu" (of course, God speaks Welsh -- many of you are going to have to spend your first years in the afterlife taking remedial language courses), I would direct Him to Pontcanna Fields on a warm day. Hundreds of people gather on the endless green with barbecues and blankets and radios and so on. Delicious smoke wafts across the fields and dances with children and lovers and friends. In the distance there is Y Garth, and to the other end are the spires of Millennium Stadium -- South Wales' great cathedral to its true religion, rugby. But now, four months after the travelling Welsh culture circus left town, the fields are scarred dead yellow muddy. The lush green torn up and lost. It has all been fenced off to allow it a chance to grow back and one wonders how long this will take.

I knew Pontcanna Fields to be good and was dubious of Eisteddfod. The fact that the latter has fucked up the former makes it that much more difficult for me to shake my bias against it.

June, July and August were lost to my writing of Cwrw Am Ddim, a rhesymau eraill i ddysgu'r iaith, my book about discovering the Welsh language, teaching myself to speak it, moving here and falling on my face in trying to become a part of its community. Some time was taken out for the purpose of watching the Olympics in a half-drunken chili-cheese-dip-induced coma. The trips to various Wales locales were abandoned for the sake of finishing the book before my personal deadline of the start of the autumn semester. In the end, I just barely made it. But spending 14-hour days locked in my study had induced a latent feeling of bitterness and exhaustion that would persist for the next few months.

Sections of Pontcanna Fields and Llandaff Fields run parallel to one another, separated only by a tired old wall. I do not understand the point of the wall, nor why there is only one break in it to allow people to pass from one to another. Both were at one time the property of the Marquess of Bute. I presume the wall indicates that one became city property before the other. In the playground near the wall, a tiny girl in pink stood confused atop a multi-slide structure, unable to choose which slide to descend upon.

"Oh dear, what's it gonna be?" her mother laughed.

"Decisions, my dear," her father said. "It only grows more challenging as you age."

In late September, I began the autumn semester very much as I would when younger, telling myself that this academic year would be the most productive I had ever seen and that everything was going to be amazing and great -- whilst knowing that I meant none of it. Within the first fortnight I had fallen into a pattern of being impressed with myself when I could be arsed to show up for lectures. The exhaustion of having worked so hard on the book through the months previous made it difficult to find any energy for university work. The only course that I cared about was creative writing.

From the playground, I followed the arc of pavement that leads to the crossroads of walking paths where people would sell their souls to the devil in Llwyd Owen's novel Ffawd Cywilydd a Chelwyddau. There is a structure at the crossroads that appears to be a disabled old water fountain. I envision its being in use back in the days when Saunders Lewis' Monica (e) was learning that if you follow a man into darkened parkland he kind of expects some sweet, sweet lovin'. These days it is just an old piece of stone. Passing by it, I found myself trying to envision a glorious future when the fountain would be turned back on -- a day in which you could trust people not to vandalise such a thing, and public toilets would make a comeback. Societies move in ebbs and flows and one hopes that in some shining future day Britons will reinvest in the public utilities and services that originally so charmed people like me and caused us to want to move here.

October blended with September. The only notable occurrence within the month being that I decided to stop writing my column for Internet Broadcasting Systems, Inc., my former benevolent employer. I had written the column since shortly after George W. Bush was elected in 2000, with my first column confessing to the fact that I had voted for the man; many years later I would go back and remove that line. I wasn't being paid for the column and felt that I had run out of ideas for the thing several years ago.

My hands were cold and my face numb as I made toward Western Avenue. CBAC has built a monstrosity of a building where Llandaff Fields meet Western Avenue and every time I see it I like it less. It is a building designed according to the "I'm Trying To Challenge Your Sense Of Aesthetics" school of architecture. It seems designed for the sole purpose of having people look at it and think: "Who the fuck thought that was a good idea? No, seriously. What ignorant fucktard made this and said to himself, 'Now this is the kind of building to raise the status of an institution that is bordered by the River Taff, precious and treasured parkland, and a holy site that extends to Celtic times -- all within Wales' capital city. This is a building of prestige and value and worth.' Who thought that? I want him brought before me so I can kick him in the fucking teeth."

November was good. Strangely, the thing that first stands out in my mind is the night that Fflur and I went to Owen's book launch. I can't quite put my finger on why some quiet book launch in some dirty corner of Cardiff would be so cool to me but it was. This laughable world of people who straightfacedly compare the process of taking a picture to a religious act is one that I have stupidly wanted to be part of for years -- since Heidi Arlene took me to someone's dorm in Neumaier Hall where we drank strange flavours of tea and listened to Barenaked Ladies and everyone but me was too hip to laugh at the lyrics.

But there were a lot of other things in November. I helped to elect Barack Obama as president of the United States of America and got free breakfast from the BBC for talking about it. I wrote a few things that I thought were at least interesting if not great. I watched Wales defeat Australia in rugby. And Thanksgiving came together at the last minute after my fears of having to cancel the thing due to a lack of attendees.

Approaching the cathedral, I passed two not particularly attractive French-speaking young women who were quite obviously twins. To emphasise this fact, they had chosen to dress exactly the same -- same multi-coloured tea cosy woollen hats, same long curly brown hair down on the shoulders, same silver puffy jackets, same black trousers, same boots, even going so far as to both wear identical bags at the same angle. They were shuffling toward the ancient churchyard cemetery with the sort of excited grins normally reserved for rollercoasters or daytrips to Reese Witherspoon Island. Some part of me tried to draw symbolism from this, as if my life were an art film where the surreal is an allusion. But sometimes homely graveyard-bound foreign doublets are nothing more than that.

December was spent in introspection. And alcohol-induced stupor. In mid-December I went to the Jones wedding and found myself drinking till 3 a.m. with the same Skerries crew with whom I had rung in 2008. Again we sang. And I talked until I lost my voice and developed a severe cold that would cripple me for the rest of the year.

On Christmas Eve Rachel and I went for a walk along the coast near Llanilltud Fawr and a man was playing bagpipes on the hill while surfers positioned for the one available wave. On Boxing Day we went up Y Garth and found ourselves amid several dozen others who had the same idea. With the sun shining so brightly that you almost couldn't see the ground and everyone walking quietly toward the top, it had a feeling of pilgrimage. I pictured the sun and cold cutting away all our sins and tribulations to be left on the mountain and absolved.

Each time I pass the cathedral it seems warmer and more welcoming. I have debated going to a service but fear that someone would try to talk to me. My relationship with God is tenuous enough, when other people get involved things only go pear-shaped. And I can't imagine that the Church of Wales could come anywhere near to aligning with my befuddlingly amalgous personal philosophy. But I'd like to sit there hearing words echo against the walls, and stare up toward the dizzyingly high ceiling while listening to a choir. Some part of me likes the idea of being able to count myself among the congregation, being able to list myself among the tangible living pieces of its ancient history.

With January now well under way, 2009 undeniable, I am hoping that this will be a year of growing in both directions. If I use that cliché of comparing myself to a tree I am hoping that my roots will sink deeper into the earth but also that I will stretch further toward the sun, that I will become a more established and more formidable person. I am hoping for worth, meaning and hope.

(a) Mid 20s Fahrenheit

(b) FTYPAH: "QI" is a fake game show hosted by Stephen Fry that features celebrities talking about various "quite interesting" things. When someone states a commonly held belief that is, in fact, false, lights flash and a klaxon is heard.

(c) FTYPAH: Dam

(d) FTYPAH: Underpass

(e) In the Saunders Lewis novel Monica, the title character receives her first kiss and a little more in Llandaff Fields.