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.


Huw said...

Erm... no mention of Strictly? What sort of review of your year is this!?

Chris Cope said...

True dat. Equally I failed to catalogue my increasing devotion to NCIS.

Unknown said...

this is by the by, but can I just say well done on the whole Welsh thing? I've been learning it for ages and am still hopeless (can sometimes, gruntingly string a sentence together) - desipte lessons and a Welsh husband!

Just as you described happiness being written in white, so too are achievements in things we're good at - we disregard them because they seem easy

Enjoying the blog. Book sounds good, hope you're bringing out an English edition for the likes of me (or at least some kind of learner version). Happy new year.

Pearl said...

I enjoy your writing very much and harbor a secret desire to buy you a beer.
A good beer.

Anonymous said...

Or Dr.Who.........