Monday, December 27, 2010

A letter home: 27 December 2010

My dearest Emma,

Last time I wrote to you it was a few days after Thanksgiving, aboard a First Great Western train speeding westward from Britain's ancient capital. Now, two days after Christmas, I write to you again from a train: carriage G of the 11:15 First Great Western Service from London Paddington to Cardiff Central. I am travelling first class, but seeking to consume enough complimentary tea, croissants, bottled water and biscuits that it effectively reduces the fare to standard class.

And as with the last time I wrote, I have spent the past few days visiting Jen and Dave, my family on this island of rain. I'm sure I've told you ad nauseam, Emma, how much I love them. Listening each morning to Minnesota Public Radio, filling their tiny but lovely flat with the smell of chai tea. On the shelves, books of philosophy and psychology. And tucked among the fiction of David Sedaris, Salman Rushdie and Steinbeck -- perhaps ironically -- is my own volume, Cwrw Am Ddim. That is what family do, isn't it, Emma? Proudly display one's works, even when unread.

I like to imagine Dave and Jen as removed from time. They have that look about them. Jen, especially, possess the classic beauty one sees when digging through yellowed photos of family members never met. Looking at her, one can almost hear a faraway offspring, many years into the future, pointing proudly at her image and saying: "Look at my great-great grandmother! Wasn't she beautiful?" She was, Emma. She is. I can personally attest. And that future child's great-great grandfather, with his indefatigable love of pun, possesses all the warmth and humour such beauty deserves.

Some part of me likes to imagine, then, that Jen and Dave are relatives who were somehow transported from the early decades of the 20th century. A great-great aunt and uncle. Unflappable, they have chosen to simply adopt to their modern surroundings rather than raise a fuss. They aren't these things, of course. Jen is just a girl I knew in high school and Dave a bloke from Canada. That makes them no less close to me, however. And they were good company to have in this season when ghosts of the past sometimes rattle their chains too loudly.

Jen and Dave are so close that I possess a set of keys to their flat. In that way, I have my own little home in London and, as such, can make a weak claim to feeling a sense of belonging in that ancient, unstoppable city. But it is still odd I should feel any strong connection to London, since I have never lived there. If you were to combine all my visits, Emma, I doubt the sum of all days would be even two months. But I have that connection to place that comes from connection to people in that place. Similar to the way I feel at home in Dublin.

I'm always slightly amused when my perceived sense of belonging is confronted by an actual lack of knowledge. I'll be walking along thinking: "I know this city. I am this city. This city is me. We are one. Every corner is... wait. Where the hell am I? Did I already walk down this street? Which way is north? Which way am I facing now? OK, I'll just walk in this direction until I reach a Starbucks, Costa or Pret-a-Manger. I hope it's a Pret..."

I am well-acquainted with the chain coffee shops of Europe's capitals, Emma.

Anyhoo, Christmas was lovely. I was poorly, with a sore throat and headache, through the whole of it but that didn't affect my mood. We ate exceedingly, watched films, talked and laughed and, in my case, cried. Once. I was very tired, Emma.

Adding to the mix was another American refugee, Alice, a sheep rancher from Northern California. She played banjo and told stories in that weird California way of not offering any background information about the players in her narrative. So, "Dan" would appear without any explanation of who or what he is. Instead of "my friend Dan," or "Dan my boss," or "Dan the guy who killed my father and whom I have spent these past 10 years travelling the Earth in search of in order to exact my revenge via the cold justice of a steel blade," it's just "Dan." Through the course of the story one may figure out who Dan is via context clues, but often that is not the case. I found Alice's blatant disregard of oral storytelling tradition to be rather off-putting, Emma. But she was otherwise lovely, and one can't really leverage too much criticism against a girl who plays the banjo.

I am sad to have Christmas come and gone so quickly. The gentle snow-covered hills of England blur past my window and soon -- far too soon -- I will be back in Cardiff. I'm not ready to go back; if not simply because there is not much to go back to. I suppose the biggest news from Cardiff since I last wrote is that there is no news. I am still doing nothing of worth; I am still poor; I am still looking for work; I am still relying on an allowance from my father to get by, as if some Victorian dandy.

Actually, phrasing it that way makes things sound so much more awesome. Perhaps I need not lament that I am unemployed, broke and directionless. I simply need to rethink my branding: European cafes! Living off Father! Keeping the company of burlesque dancers and stage performers! Sharing a house with a gymnast! Give me absinthe and paint me gold! I am a Bright Young Thing!

Yes, now that I think about it, Emma, things are glorious here. Though, I do still wish I could find full-time employment. Sadly, that is far easier desired than achieved in the Old City of New; jobs in Cardiff are few and far between. That is true of the whole of Britain, actually. And the scarcity of available opportunities is compounded by the fact that job postings are so cryptic. Positions are given frustratingly ambiguous names like "coordinator," which offer little insight into what a person would actually do. I generally apply for the position, anyway. So far, I have only heard back from one would-be employer, who offered rejection via form letter.

Regardless of employment status, I find myself eager to make some sort of major life shift in the new year, Emma. I'm not sure what I mean by that, except to say that I am unhappy with the man I am. I am not who I want to be. I am not who I am capable of being -- a reality that even friends are beginning to point out.

I have been in the grips of an apathy-induced writer's block since September, Emma, and I can feel it eating away at my insides. Not creating makes me ill. But I'm not sure what to do. I can't seem to find anything within me -- any desire or reason to connect. At night I will promise myself that tomorrow will be better, but in the morning I fail to see a point in getting out of bed. I am often too indifferent to daydream.

I don't want to be this way, Emma. I want to change. Maybe I will. Tomorrow.

There is at least one change coming in the new year that I have already set into place. I'll be moving out of my house. Primarily I'm doing that because I can't afford to stay. I know I've told you countless times how awesome my neighbours are, Emma, so I'm sure you can imagine how heartbroken I am about it. But there is no real money coming in, nothing with which to pay rent. I try to look at it positively. Perhaps it will kick me out of my malaise. That's hard for me to really believe, but telling myself the truth is just so depressing.

I hope all is well on your end. Say hello to your family for me. Please send nude photos.

I remain your humble servant,

Friday, December 17, 2010

Yr eira mawr

I found myself suddenly thinking of Jenny Alme today; almost every time it snows she crosses my mind. Jenny and I went to high school together. I liked hanging out with her because when she laughed she would pull a face that made her look like the most proper lady in all the Upper Midwest. That's not to say, though, that she would let propriety stand in the way of a good time.

One evening, on our way back from a night out, I suddenly got it into my head to go sledding. That's the way I roll, homies. Sometimes playa's just gotta get his sled on. To that end, in those days I kept two plastic sleds tucked behind the bench seat of my 1969 F250 pickup truck. I can't remember what we had been doing that night. I think perhaps we had been to see the orchestra, because both of us were dressed up. In other words, we weren't exactly wearing sledding-appropriate clothing. This became most obvious when Jenny finished her first run down the hill. Turns out, it is really hard to walk up a snow-covered hill while wearing heels.

"Well, just get in your sled and I'll pull you up," I said, holding out my hand for her to give me her sled's rope.

"Don't be silly," she said.

She pulled off her shoes and trudged up the hill in stockinged feet.

"Whoa," I shouted. "Alme! You are so cool! I guess we'll give up this plan, though.

"Nah. Hand me your keys," she said.

My truck was parked right at the top of the hill (the one just south of 98th and Abbott, for those of you playing along in Bloomington Rock City). I assumed she planned to sit in the truck and allow me one more run. But upon reaching the bottom of the hill I turned to see her barrelling toward me. She had just needed to put her shoes away. The two of us carried on sledding for another half hour.

That night, a new rule was written for the sort of woman I go for. Before then, I had already established the rule that a love interest must be the sort of woman I can push into a creek. In other words, she has to be of good humour and pretty enough that she still looks good without makeup. But thanks to Alme, I added: A love interest must possess a certain hardiness. Be bonnie or be gone.

Platform 4

Today would have been a good day to head out looking for love, because the Snowpocalypse arrived in Cardiff. Unfortunately it was a day that showed a sizeable number of people to be wanting. If infrastructure networks were women, it would be time to move on to greener pastures. Early in the day, it took me an hour and a half to get from Penarth to Danescourt on the train -- usually a 47-minute journey. In the afternoon, Cardiff Bus decided to just stop trying. And most ridiculously, Cardiff's winter carnival was cancelled, because of winter weather.

A number of Cardiff drivers were also scratched from the list of possible sweethearts. Very few people managed to process that pushing the accelerator to the floor doesn't actually further your cause when on ice.

Admittedly, they were not helped by the fact that the British deal with snow on the roads by doing little more than staring at it. They do not plow it. From time to time they will toss about a bit of salt and dirt, but that product costs money; and councils are run by people who understand how to maintain a bureaucracy, not how to respond to variables. Since this snow was not scheduled several months in advance the country is flummoxed. Wales' snow-removal policy is to wait for it to melt.

Hey, Norway: y'all always do quite well at biathlon in the Olympic Winter Games. Now's your chance to invade Wales. Actually, please do that. I'm pretty sure y'all could run S4C more effectively than the buffoons we've got at the moment.

But whereas the weather caused all kinds of headaches for people with jobs, for the genially unemployed, such as myself, it was an opportunity to head outside and reminisce about snow forts, the kings and queens of St. Paul, and the awesome girls we once knew. I took a few pictures while out and about. My favourites are below, but you can find a few more on my Flickr page.

The River Taff, near Llandaff Rowing Club.

River through the trees
Looking at the Llandaff weir through trees.

Private fishing
How one can claim private fishing in an area where the River Taff runs through public land, I do not know. I have long wanted to buy a fishing reel solely for the purpose of seeing if these signs are enforced.

Blackweir bridge
Bridge crossing over Blackweir to Pontcanna Fields
(For those of you playing along at home, a "weir" is a small dam)

The cemetery at Llandaff Cathedral.

Why I love Llandaf
Llandaff Cathedral hides at the bottom of a hill.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A letter home: 29 November 2010

My dearest Emma,

I miss you.

I suppose that's an odd thing to say to a figment of my imagination. You exist only in my head, Emma, and so you could not be any closer. But, strangely, the part of my brain that builds your narrative places you in the United States. Strange because I sometimes imagine you have an Irish accent. My picture of you is less than complete. You have a surname that simply comes from a town in Scotland. I have yet to solidly decide on your middle name -- Jayne, perhaps. Emma Jayne Carrbridge, breaker of men's hearts. You are a brunette. You smell wonderful. You wear long wool coats in winter. Why you would be in America, though, I'm not sure. Maybe the free cheese in Ireland just wasn't enough.

I'm not sure exactly where in America you are, either. In St. Paul, living in an old house on Cathedral Hill, maybe. Or perhaps you are living in the Sierra Nevada mountains, or the stunning great space of Utah. The exact where is unknown, but I'm relatively sure you're in America. And lately I have been missing all the real friends and family of my home country, so, by extension, I'm missing you, too.

As you know, Emma, Thanksgiving was last Thursday. I'm happy to say that although thousands of miles away from the life-affirming cold of Minnesota, I celebrated the day with an old friend who understood what it means to miss that chilly, flat place. Jen and I went to high school together, back when she was known as Jeni. We were in marching band. As cool as cool can be. Sixteen years later, we have somehow both landed on this island of rain -- she in London with her husband, Dave, and I in Cardiff with my endless thoughts.

I travelled out to London on Thursday and stayed to Sunday, so it felt like the true Thanksgiving experience of bundling and trundling to be with loved ones. In Britain, Thanksgiving is simply known as "a Thursday" and so the trains and buses were no more full than usual. But it felt authentic. I'll admit to suffering one short bout of terrible sadness and ache during the trip, walking through Camden markets, but I suppose I am fortunate to have been raised by parents for whom tradition is not all that important.

My parents went to a seafood restaurant for Thanksgiving. While millions upon millions of Americans carved up turkeys and passed around heaping plates of mashed potatoes and green beans and so on, my mother was eating haddock. I know I've told you before, Emma, of how Thanksgiving dinners of my teenage years were always prepared by myself. Rather than turkey I would make barbecue ribs. It would often be snowing as I stood outside by the grill, heaping more sauce onto the meat. Then I would run back inside to make sure the macaroni and cheese wasn't boiling over.

So, my heart didn't ache this Thanksgiving with the pain that broken traditions can bring. There was no terrible disconnect between what "always" was and what now is. And in the company of Jen and Dave I often feel more at peace than at any other time on this island of rain. My head is so full of stories, Emma, that I have actually been known to once or twice lose track of that which is real and that which is created by myself. I fear this affliction will only intensify as I age. So, for the record, Jen and I are not related. I am certain that with time, however, I will claim otherwise. Jen and Dave are family.

This letter was written to you in carriage H of the 10:37 First Great Western service from London Paddington to Swansea -- the distance between myself and my London family growing ever wider with each word. Though the feelings of hiraeth were already upon me before.

I think they have been since 21 October, when I turned in my masters degree project. It was almost 10 years to the day after I first discovered Welsh lessons on the BBC's website. Rarely does life tie itself into such neat little bows. I turned in the project at 11:57. Four minutes later, I was standing outside the Humanities building trying to absorb the sense of completion. The universe had not shifted. My Winnie the Pooh wristwatch -- the one that's outlasted at least a dozen girlfriends, a marriage and a journalism career -- kept ticking away. A bleached-blonde girl in expensive clothing designed to make her look poor almost bumped into me. I was not great; I was not unique; I was another of thousands; my name is writ on water.

What I felt more than anything was the incredible sense of being wholly un-incredible. As if I had stuck my head into that machine in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy that shows people their place in the universe. I suppose it's natural, then, for a little voice in one's soul to whimper: "I want to go home." Even if one doesn't know where or what "home" is.

In the academic department that was my home for four years, in a stall in the men's toilet, tucked behind the toilet roll holder and as such invisible to any cleaner, is a small bit of graffiti that has been there through the full of my Cardiff years: "Life is what you love, not what loves you."

There are better dispensers of wisdom than toilets stalls. But, as needs must, Emma.

My father says that home for him is wherever my mother is. He loves her, and all those things one describes in explaining "home" he feels in his love her. Whatever he feels for my mother beyond those domestic attachments, I prefer not to consider; he is, after all, my father. I used to feel the same toward Rachel. But then home moved to the desert and stopped replying to my e-mails.

So, I have been thinking a lot about the wise toilet stall of Cardiff University's School of Welsh: Life is what you love, not what loves you. I have been trying to think, Emma, about what I truly love. The Spanish refer to loved ones as mi vida -- "my life." What is it that I love so rudimentarily that it is my life?

I love writing, of course. I should hope that in my final years I will be as Papa was. The nurses will wake me from my confused sleep and ask me questions that I find difficult to answer, but when they ask: "And what do you do, Mr. Cope?" I will always reply: "I write. I'm a writer."

I love creeks and rivers and lakes, and all the scenery one would expect to see in connection with those things. I prefer to live in the city, Emma, where art, groceries and medical care are within easy reach. But if I go too long without wading into fresh water, or breathing in the smell of trees, I start to come undone. The city and everything in it start to feel like all the stories in my head. "Real" becomes blurred, and it's difficult to find interest in living in a world I'm not sure exists. In the outdoors I feel reconnected.

And I love women. That sounds superficial, perhaps. But it is a confession to the fact that I do not want to live forever on my own and without the feeling of being deeply, romantically loved. I am very lucky, Emma, to have friends on multiple continents who care about me. But few of them -- save Eric, perhaps -- want to have sex with me. I love being loved; I love having a "home" in my father's sense of the word.

Having spent a ridiculous amount of time working that out, Emma, I am now mired in the challenge of trying to figure out what it means. OK, I love these things; how do I apply that to my existence? How do I live a life that speaks to my loves?

Obviously, the first one is the easiest. I should be writing. Annie recently told me she feels I'm not pursuing that love with enough diligence: I should not just be writing, but writing professionally. She is right. My fear stands in the way. I get locked up attempting to do anything other than throw several thousand words down the bloggery memory hole.

"You have a talent, Chris," she said. "And you're not putting it to its best use."

I agree with her, Emma. But I am uncertain; I don't know where to begin. How does one get work writing articles for newspapers and magazines and so on? How does one come up with ideas for such articles? And what if one is no good? What if one loves being a writer so dearly that he is afraid of having reality negate his claims?

But the universe doesn't wait for people to get their shit together. Do or do not, says the universe, there is no sit and drink tea until someone shows up at the door with a book deal. With the masters work completed, the universe has put me into a situation where Action Must Be Taken. If I don't have a job by 21 January I will have no choice but to leave Wales. I need to be able to sustain myself. If I am unable to do so, I won't be able to renew my visa. I don't know what I would do back in the United States; I have no prospects or opportunities there. I would only be returning because I know they won't kick me out.

It's a possibility that fills me with sick panic. I miss you, Emma Jayne Carrbridge, but something in my heart says I should be here. I get angry and frustrated with its every facet, but I want to stay on this island of rain. I am applying for jobs all over, but there is not a great deal available. I'm worried. I have put so much into being here -- given up or missed out on more than I had ever imagined -- and it would break me to have it all come to a sudden, inglorious end.

So, that is life at the moment, Emma. I feel directionless and fear I am a failure, I miss the United States but am trying desperately not to return. Some time this week I will set up a Christmas tree and begin my annual tradition of intensely wondering where I'll be next next year. Your guess is as good as mine.

I hope you are well. Say hello to your family for me. Please send nude photos.

I remain your humble servant,
~ Chris ~

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The fall

Thursday marks the first day of autumn. Summer is dead. And now begins the quiet-slow approach of the Long Dark.

Here on the Island of Rain, where cape-wearing neo-druid loonies use Thursday to commemorate a Welsh bloke, the weather has been autumnal for most of September. As early as the month's first week, conditions were ripe for sitting outside and getting lost in thought. That's what autumn does to me: sends my mind spinning through the golden and melancholy.

Admittedly, I am given to that sort of thing year-round. A smell, or image, or feeling, or sound, or action, or atmospheric condition will spark a forgotten thing to flash through my mind and then lock me into that place. Sometimes the memory is good, sometimes bad, and for a brief moment I am reliving it -- feeling a condensed version of all I felt when it was real.

In autumn, the cycle of those memories seems to accelerate and I spend my days in constant emotional rise and fall. My head heaves with memories, which then grab hold of my thoughts and spin wildly in an exhausting, never-ending dance.

Autumn induces terrible homesickness for Minnesota, where the Minnesota and Mississippi valleys will soon be great corridors of colour -- yellow, orange and red lining the banks of wide, slow rivers. On Saturdays and Sundays friends are now packing into each others' houses to watch football. In Jordan they are picking apples. In northeast Minneapolis they're dancing the polka. In St. Paul they are driving even slower, windows down, savouring their afternoon commute. And at schools and universities all across the state, new boys are falling for new girls and feeling that this is the year when they finally get things right.

Those are memories. In the uncertain present, I am here in Jonesland questioning my uncertain future. At night, I'm awoken by anxiety and loneliness. I lie in bed and listen to the silence, occasionally broken by my neighbour's wind chimes or a car accelerating toward Llantrisant. Sometimes I cry, but mostly I stare at the ceiling, afraid of what's coming: the Long Dark. Another winter.

Emotionally, last winter began exactly 365 days ago Thursday, when this happened, and carried on until early April. It was a terrible winter. Some nights I would think (and quietly hope) the pain was going to kill me, that I would collapse in on myself from all the hollowness inside. I didn't really notice until May it had gone away.

Now summer and its joys have left me too quickly. Autumn is here -- a beautiful season, but one leading to winter. And I am so afraid of another terrible winter I can't sleep. At times I feel sick.

In the autumn 14 years ago I travelled out to Brittany to visit my girlfriend at the time. She lived in a hundreds-of-years-old home with a family that enjoyed staring suspiciously at her visiting boyfriend. She had been provided with a smallish white-painted room with high ceilings and a large French window that looked out over a tree-lined pedestrian mall, where startlingly attractive French mothers would sit on park benches with immaculately well-dressed French children. Actually, they were probably startlingly attractive Welsh au pairs with immaculately well-dressed French children; I know of a number of pretty Welsh girls currently helping to rear another country's future citizens.

I was 20 years old at the time and therefore not given to expressing appreciation for things like French windows. I expressed appreciation for my girlfriend's breasts. That was the beauty that was relevant to me. But the windows somehow worked their way into my memory and I have long wished for a home of my own solely for the purpose of being able to install French windows similar to those in a house where a girlfriend once lived.

The doors were wooden framed and heavy with several years' coats of paint, so they were difficult to force shut. Once that was achieved, they were held closed by a simple cabin-hook latch. Within the windows' frame was a system of curtaining: thin white voile to allow in sun but help keep out insects and casual prying eyes; long curtains to block out the light; and heavy old drapes to be drawn across the windows against autumnal evening chill. In the winter, all three were deployed and thick-painted-white wooden shutter doors were closed over them, held tight by a falling crossbar latch.

I remember lying in bed with her in December -- the duvet pulled up to our chins -- and looking over at the shuttered windows, feeling safe and content to be barricaded in against the icy cold. That's what I wish I could do now. I want to batten heavy doors over each of my windows and defend myself against the approaching attritional British winter and all its misery. I don't want to feel it. I don't want to suffer it. I don't want to be alone and cold.

But perhaps this is not the soggy hill for my last stand. Perhaps, rather than digging in, I should be running. Off to a place where the winters are so much more vicious but there are friends to embrace and to laugh with, so the cold makes one feel alive. It's part of what keeps me up at night; I am paralysed with indecision. Meanwhile, the Long Dark lumbers forward. It is coming either way. It won't wait for me to make up my mind.

I am sure reading this sort of thing grows tiresome. Imagine how exhausting it is to live it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A letter home: 15 September 2010

My dearest Emma,

Greetings from across the Atlantic Ocean. Or, perhaps, from across the room. Since you are a figment of my imagination I don't suppose there are any geographical restrictions on where exactly you are not.

In light of the fact you don't exist, I don't suppose I can be too upset at you for not having written in some time. But, honestly, Emma, I'm not sure it's all that great an excuse. Nonetheless, I thought I'd get in touch and let you know what's been going on in my life over the past month or so.

I suppose the biggest news of late is that Lisa broke up with me. She couldn't handle the awesomeness. That's been the downfall of many a young lady: I am simply too awesome.

In truth, though, I think it was an issue of timing. Sometimes you meet a lovely person at the wrong time.

Either way, it is a big ball of suck. I am living the cliché life of the mid-30s man I never wanted to be. And in light of this, I find it suddenly so easy to identify negatives. It's as if the bleakness of my life is displayed via Cover Flow, the iTunes feature that organises music by placing it in a kind of picture wheel. All the bad things have been pushed forward, highlighted and enlarged.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of Rachel's leaving. I can still remember very clearly standing on platform 1 of Cardiff Central station, watching her train pull away and thinking I should run after it or something -- run and jump on, or take the next train and catch up with her before she left for America. Instead, I went home and cried until exhaustion.

Being again single I can confess to you, Emma, that I do still miss her. When I was in Lake Jackson this past July I couldn't help but notice pictures of me and Rachel are still up throughout my grandparents' house. My grandmother loves Rachel -- thinks the world of her. Note use of the present tense. One day she caught my eye wandering over to one of the pictures and asked: "Chris, don't you miss her?"

"Oh, yeah," I said. "Every day."

I'm not sure what missing amounts to, though. And not sure it matters. One of the things that always tickled me about Rachel was her practicality. The first time I asked her out, she refused on grounds that she had no intention of marrying me and there is no point in going out with someone you don't intend to marry. She has moved on by now, and there is probably no point in her missing someone she doesn't want to be with.

Meanwhile, back in ol' Caerdydd, financial strain is turning to panic. If you remove the money I need in order to pay October's rent, I have £90 to my name. I start teaching in less than a fortnight but I am concerned about the interim between now and getting paid, and whether teaching will actually be enough.

It spurs thoughts of returning to the United States. Every town has its ups and downs, sang the rooster in the Disney version of Robin Hood. Sometimes the ups outnumber the downs. But not in Nottingham. Nor in Caerdydd, or so it sometimes feels. In measuring the past four years I have a fancy education, a book no one will read and a book no one can read -- those are the ups. I also have insurmountable debt, homesickness, loneliness and a broken heart.

But we both know, Emma, that it's easy for me to say I want to go back home and much harder for me to say how it would work. What exactly would I do with my bachelors and masters degrees in Welsh? How would I overcome all the things that made me so angry with the United States in the first place? Hell, I left before the Tea Party movement existed. Going home would be a bit like Stanislav returning to Russia at the end of William Owen Roberts' Petrograd.

There's a Welsh literature reference for you, Emma. I know how much you love those.

Thomas Aquinas said bad exists to help highlight the good. That's a pessimistic view, I think, but it stresses there are no situations that are entirely bad. For example, the lumbering great wheels of the "Strictly Come Dancing" circus wagon have begun to turn again. I love that show, Emma. Honestly, this morning as I was thinking about leaving Britain I thought: "Well, maybe I'll wait until after the 'Strictly' final."

My love for the programme is almost certainly indicative of mental disease. But artists are disturbed people, Emma. Many drink themselves to death or destroy their bodies and minds with drugs. I like to think of myself as an artist and if I can get by on being addicted to low-level celebrities doing the rhumba, it's probably best to just leave me chasing that dragon.

Publishing The Way Forward has been another positive. Welsh novelist Ifan Morgan Jones recently appeared to suggest that authors should be more forthcoming about the number of books they sell. The logic, I think, being that if you know how many books are sold you can make a determination on whether the author is any good. Because as we all learned from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", the audience is always right. I'm inclined to believe Jones said this in part because he won the Daniel Owen prize, which resulted in his selling a lot of books. Though, it's worth noting he didn't give a specific number, simply stating he had sold in the "thousands."

I won't tell you how many copies of The Way Forward I've sold thus far, Emma. Part of the reason I published via Kindle was reaction against the "sales = good" equation. And by putting chapters on my blog I am hoping people will see the book is good regardless of who else is or isn't buying. I will say, though, that sales are meeting my expectations. I will also say that my expectations were low.

I think I have a strong enough portfolio to call myself a writer, Emma -- something I have strived toward since I was a little boy writing stories about kung-fu parrots and underground houses with roller-coasters. What I struggle with now is getting the word "professional" to stick before that title.

But it's what I want to be. It's what I need to be. As frustrating as that is to everyone involved.

You might remember my telling you last month I had deleted all of my masters work. I wasn't happy with it. I didn't feel it represented what I was capable of and didn't want to attach my name to it.

I think I also have a naturally self-destructive streak, Emma -- something a number of friends have identified over the years. One of the beauties of being a writer is that I can destroy imaginary worlds rather than my own. The delete key is my nuclear button and some evil part of my soul likes to keep a finger hovering above it. It is perhaps not wise to delete one's masters project just a few months before it is due, but it was my work, my little world, and my right to destroy it.

My dad didn't agree, though.

"Just because it's your tree, on your property, do you really have a moral right to cut it down?" he asked.

I'm not sure the analogy is sound, but I understood he was upset because I had seemingly abandoned the thing that he had emotionally and financially invested in helping me obtain. Perhaps you felt something similar, Emma.

You and he will be happy to know, then, that I have been given an extension on the project's due date. I've started over and am happier with the depth and voice I'm giving the novel. I wonder, however, whether it will be my last big-scale Welsh-language effort. I find writing in Welsh to be not all that satisfying or profitable. It's hard to be sure, though. Things said in bleakness's glow often prove later to be inaccurate.

Well, that's all the news from the Island of Rain. I hope you are well. Please send pictures of yourself naked.

I remain your humble servant,

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Documenting my mental decline

There was something about the day -- the weather, the way the sun hit -- that set my mind spinning off to another place. Leaning up against my garden shed last week, I found myself thinking about early October in Minnesota. I remembered sitting in my truck at the U of M campus. I remembered the breeze moving along the Mississippi River valley and pushing newly planted trees in the parking lot.

Now, several years later and thousands of miles away, I felt the weather-beaten rough of the shed against my back and picked apart my orange. Above my head I heard a scratching noise. A small orange and black cat had crawled onto the shed's roof.


It was one of the pair of cats that used to hang out down the road. In the spring, they would escort me and Lisa when we walked up to the petrol station or bus stop. When I came back from the United States I noticed that a particularly chavvy family had moved out and that the cats were no longer ensuring safe passage through Radyr Way. I assumed the cats had belonged to the family and had been bundled up and taken elsewhere.

But here was one of them, looking skinny and timid.

"What? You want some of my orange? I doubt it. Here: there's a piece of orange. Want it?"

The cat sniffed at the slice of fruit in my hand and backed away slightly.

"Yeah, see? I thought so. But an orange is what I'm having, dude. If you don't want that, you're just S.O.L."
"Yeah, well. Don't know what to tell ya."

The cat moved to the other side of the shed, balanced on the fence and dropped down to the ground. It did that cat thing of somehow walking directly at me in an indirect way.

"An orange, dude. That's what I've got. Take it or leave it."

The cat stood close to my leg, then pressed against it. He made a few passes, circling my legs and pressing up against them. Looking down, I could see the thinness of his stomach and haunches.

"Oh, I see. You're trying to play at my emotions. Piss off. That won't work."
"Look, I don't have anything a cat would want, OK?"
"No, really. I don't. Surely you have a better sense of smell than me -- can you not tell that the people down the road are having a barbecue? I can. I can smell sausages. Go ask them for some food."

The cat continued to press against my leg. Something about how thin it was, how small it was, made me hurt inside. It mixed with the sadness of lost golden autumn days and pushed at my ribs.

"I really don't, though. I haven't gone shopping this week. I can't even think of what you would want. I don't even have milk and I'm pretty the whole cats-love-milk thing is more a cliché than reality."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm thinking. Hold on."

I thought back to my birthday, when my parents had sent a strange hamper of gifts. It was more the sort of thing you would send to an old lady than a man in his 30s. What had amused me most, however, was the canned ham. I couldn't imagine who would want to eat that: even the picture on the tin made it look awful. I had eventually decided to use it as an ironic bookend.

"OK, I think I've got something."

I now walked into the house and grabbed the tin of ham, brought it outside and knelt down as I opened the tin. It had a 1950s-style key that slots into a strip of metal which then peels away. I had only ever seen that sort of thing in cartoons and struggled to get it to open properly. The cat moved in close and pawed at my arm.

"Yeah, I know. Calm down."
"Do you have opposable thumbs? No. This shit isn't going to open itself, so I'm all you've got. I'm working on it.

I managed to open a section of the tin, then pried it the rest of the way open. The ham plopped out onto the pavement like a slimy, rejected alien baby. The cat looked at it.

"What? What do you want? It's a fucking ham. Don't be picky with me, man. My dad probably paid good money for that."

The cat looked at the ham again. He turned his head, sniffed at it, pawed at it.

"Oh, right. It's probably a bit big for you. OK, I'll go get a fork and knife and cut it into smaller chunks. Stay there."

I came back out with knife and fork, knelt down again and started pulling it into smaller, manageable pieces. The cat took immediate interest, gulping down the meat as I continued to cut more chunks. I cut up about half of the ham and then tossed the rest into a shrub, figuring a fox or raven would be able to take care of it later. Then I stood up and watched the cat eat. I stood motionless and quiet. He was making what I can only describe as happy sounds -- meowing and purring between gobbled pieces.

"Yeah. OK. Well, no one likes to be watched while they eat, do they? I'm going to leave you be."

I walked back into the house and leaned against the kitchen counter, arms folded. I looked out through the window and watched the cat eat. And inside of myself I felt a sort of thing that I can't really describe: a kind of simple but immense joy that I can't quite remember ever feeling before. It was silly. I had managed to feed a stray cat, but his happiness in that act welled up in my chest. The simplicity of it, his gratitude, that sunny September day. I felt my face go hot and found myself crying.

"Ah, hell. What is wrong with me? And next weekend I'll be watching 'Strictly Come Dancing.' I need help."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Minnesota in a picture

My brother, Jon, and his girlfriend, Vanessa, at the Minnesota State Fair. I love this picture.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We are names on jetty railing

I've been feeling the panic lately. About all sorts of things.

I am down to my last £1,000 with no idea of when I'll next see a paycheck. I start a job in September, but I don't actually know when they will pay me. My novel, The Way Forward, is soon to be available on Amazon but I'll personally be surprised if it earns enough money to buy me a nice dinner.

I generally try not to worry too much about money. Some of the unhappiest periods of my life have been wasted in its pursuit. I don't spend a lot, but as the money slips away without replenishment I can't help but start in on worst-case scenarios, most of which end with my being deported. Pretty much every bad thing ends that way in my head: "Oh, no. I don't have enough money. I'm going to end up being deported." "Oh, I slept late. I'm going to end up being deported."

Meanwhile, my masters project is due in less than four weeks. This used to not be a problem. I had completed the bulk of the project a while ago. But then, in a fit of frustration, I deleted everything.

"I can do better than this," I thought.

And poof, it was gone.

"Holy shit," the literary genius said when I told her. "Never delete. Never ever ever."

But that's the way I roll, yo. Siân argues that you can always pull something good out of work you're not happy with, even if it's just a sentence or concept. But I struggle with that. It feels I am thinking of myself too highly. I mean, if I'm not willing to wipe things clean, aren't I suggesting that what I write is somehow too good to throw away? Why is it too good? Because I am so awesome I'm incapable of writing poorly?

There may have been one or two good lines in all that was lost but I don't want to go on salvaging expeditions in deep wells of shit. That consumes time and energy and, I worry, deadens my sense of what's good. If I were to try to fix it all I would start out OK, lose focus, and soon be in the state of thinking: "Well, it's not that bad. That'll do... It's acceptable."

I would rather start all over again. I don't regret the decision, simply the timing of the decision. I now have zero words and less than four weeks.

So, the panic slips into my room at night, wraps its arms around me and whispers: "The end is closing in on you. You won't make things right this time. Soon they'll be coming to deport you."

But, in truth: this, too, shall pass.

During my recent visit to the United States I found myself thinking a lot about the consolation of impermanence -- the gentle heartbreaking joy of knowing everything changes, whether I want it to or not.


Above is a picture of the jetty at Quintana Beach, in Texas.

A sign on the outskirts of the town (population 38) claims Quintana was founded in 1528. How in the hell they justify that claim, I can't imagine. No manmade thing could survive so long under the constant attack of hurricanes and storms and wind and tide and heat and humidity. Even the landscape holds no claim to immutability.

One assumes that the 1528 date refers to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who was shipwrecked in the region that year. He referred to the area as Malhado (misfortune). He shipwrecked because he had no maps of the place. He called it Malhado because he ended up being taken as a slave by Karankawa indians. It is unlikely that at any point during that time, he drove a flag into the ground and said: "I hereby charter a town in this spot, thus forth to be known as: 'Quintana.'"

After several years, he managed to escape and walked, naked, all the way to Culiacán, roughly 900 miles away, as the crow flies. He eventually died penniless in Spain, disgraced because of his reputation as being too kind toward Native American peoples. No doubt Cabeza de Vaca understood better than most the idea that God hates plans.

By nature, human beings desire structure. We seek to identify patterns, to understand them and to establish them. It is how we grasp the universe around us. We put our hopes into the promise of cause and effect, and we find solace in the concept of permanence. So, we build castles and erect monuments and make ridiculously unverifiable claims as to when our towns were founded. We set out shockingly detailed plans for our lives and think everything's going to run smoothly.

But God surprises us with babies and cancer, true love and earthquakes. He likes to mess with our plans, he likes to tear down our permanent structures. Quintana always reminds me of that.

The houses don't last long in Quintana -- storms tear them down and drag them out to sea.

There used to be a wooden railing along the jetty. It was put in during my teenage years. My uncles and cousins carved my paternal grandmother's name into it after she died. My maternal grandmother took me out to show me: "RIP Joie Cope." But within a decade, every last bit of the railing was gone. All that's left now are the twisted, rusting anchoring pieces the wood had been bolted to.

When I was visiting this past July, my grandmother and I walked to the end of the jetty, roughly 1.5 miles out into the sea. As you walk back toward shore, the ominous glistening of chemical plants dominate your view. After Cabeza de Vaca left, no one really took interest in the area until Dow Chemical Co. decided to build one of the largest chemical manufacturing sites in the world there in 1940. Or so I had always thought.

"There used to be hotels all up and down here in the early 1900s," my grandmother said, sweeping a hand across the horizon. "Wealthy English people would come and stay here. Then a hurricane came along and took it all out."

There is nothing to suggest they were ever there. Nothing. God hates plans. Change will always come. The structures and patterns we lock ourselves into will eventually be wiped away and no one will know they were ever there. I find that strangely comforting: everything goes away.

The panic comes at night and whispers in my ear: "The end is closing in on you."

And on my good nights I whisper back: "It's closing in on you, too."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A letter home: 21 August 2010

My dearest Emma,

I suppose I should begin with an apology for not having written sooner. Actually, this is the first time I have ever written to you. I'm sorry.

I justify my lack of correspondence with the fact you don't actually exist. You are a figment of my imagination, created simply as a way of writing a letter to my friends and family without having to go to the trouble of writing them individually. I'm sorry to break it to you this way; I'm using you.

Many moons ago, Emma -- when bison still roamed the plain and White Man had not yet stolen our land -- I would sit in my miserably cold room in Ballard Hall, on the campus of what was then known as Moorhead State University, churning out handwritten letters to friends and family members. The university is now known as Minnesota State University Moorhead (nothing says "quality learning institution" like the need for rebranding) and I haven't handwritten a letter in such a long time I can't even guess at the timeframe.

When I write to people now it is always by e-mail. Well, if I write to them. Back in those Arcadian days at Moorhead, I would write two or three letters a day. Now, I have unanswered e-mails in my inbox dating back to more than a year ago, when Jessica Town was telling me she wished she could live in San Antonio. I don't think she was referring to the Chilean port city, but instead the Texan metropolis that's an hour or so down the road from Austin. I don't know, though, Emma, because I never wrote her back. I am a shit friend.

So, my darling fictitious inamorata, I am writing to you and posting this letter to my blog. I'm hoping my friends and family in the United States will see it, and it will be good enough correspondence that they will continue to put beer in my hand and food in my belly on the rare occasions I get to see them face to face.

The weather here on this island of rain has been good as of late. August is not so bad in Britain. It is almost never hot but very rarely cold. The trees are still lush and green. In those afternoons when the sun can be seen, it shines golden and turns beautiful a place that in just a few months will become the embodiment of misery. I try not to think of the winter.

That is especially true this year, because almost certainly winter will be the time when I have run completely out of money and am living solely on the leftover food storage items collected by my ex-wife. Her religion tells her the end is nigh, so she used to prepare by putting bags and bags of rice in the attic. She's been gone a year now, Emma, but the food has not yet run out.

I am thankful. This past week was filled with warnings that food prices are set to rise roughly 3 percent overall by Christmas. According to Big Issue, the cost of wheat could go up as much as 15 percent. We're doomed, Emma. This is the Europe we were warned about as kids, remember? Concrete rainy inflation-strangled misery. Soon I will be standing in queue for bread and selling my used American bluejeans on the black market. Please send Pepsi.

My method of suffering the impending economic misery is piecemeal. In a few weeks I start work teaching Welsh to adults. At the same time I will be taking a course to earn full accreditation as a Welsh tutor. By this time next year I will have a bachelors degree in Welsh, a masters degree in Welsh and a Level 5 certification for teaching Welsh. I will be insanely well-qualified to do fuck all in the United States. But hopefully here it will earn me enough to pay rent.

I feel an obligation to be cheeky and self-effacing about the whole thing, but in honesty, Emma, I am looking forward to it. By teaching Welsh I'll be helping to bring new speakers into the Welsh-language world and that is something it desperately needs. Sometimes the Welsh-language world feels like a late-night bus out of city centre: the assholes are all too easy to find.

All languages and cultures need people to survive. What is a language without people to read or speak it? It is simply a pattern of squiggles, most likely incomprehensible to other species. To a dog, how are the patterns of words in The Sun Also Rises all that different to the patterns of tree bark? Most likely they are not; they are both just things to chew up or piss on.

Cultures are extensions of language. Strong languages and cultures are marked by size and diversity. In those things, Welsh language and its culture are lacking; it is the same small group of people doing the same things. The culture is so limited it alienates.

In teaching Welsh I'll be helping to add voices to the mix. It's true the majority of people I'll teach won't carry on to fluency and even fewer still will use their Welsh for anything more than conversations about their grandchildren. But it's still more voices, Emma. Only a few, but more. That can only be good.

With the rest of my time, I am writing. I have two books under way: one in Welsh and one in English. I am hoping to have both completed by the end of January. That may be a bit ambitious. I find that any time I write a book I must first spend several months saying I'm going to write a book.

More immediately, within the next fortnight, I intend to publish my first novel, The Way Forward.

You may remember it by its previous title, Drinking Stories. I've decided -- thanks to encouragement from the pride of Hirwaun -- to publish it electronically, for Kindle and the like.

Yes, I know what you're thinking, Emma. Stop rolling your eyes.

I have no doubt convincing people to buy it will be an uphill battle, especially in electronic form. But at the same time, I find the prospect exciting. And with the cost of Kindle having dropped recently, I think the medium is increasingly less prohibitive. I read recently Kindle books outsell physical books two to one on's U.S. site. Meanwhile, its UK site has temporarily sold out of the devices. It is not the fringe technology I'm sure a person on "Taro'r Post" would insist it is ("Taro'r Post" is a radio call-in programme on Radio Cymru, in which people seem to piss and moan about all kinds of new-fangled things, like light bulbs and voting rights for women).

The challenge will be the one I faced when I released a physical book last year: getting it noticed. I'll admit I'm not sure how to do that, Emma.

But, as I say, it's still a week or so away. I'll fill you in on details once I'm ready to publish.

And that's about all the news from this end of the pond. Please give my best to your mother.

I remain your humble servant,

PS - Have you ever heard of Timber Timbre, Emma? I think you would like them. Or him. I'm not sure I understand the trend of individual artists giving themselves band names. I suppose it's what Prince was trying to achieve with his squiggly design -- a separation between the person and the art. We are not what we create.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The responsibility of youth

I'll admit I've never been a fan of the Valleys. The mythology of them I've never bought, the reality of them I've wanted little to do with.

For those of you playing along at home, several long and narrow valleys run just to the north of Cardiff and across a large stretch of southeast Wales. They are rich with coal: that black, deadly, flammable rock that defines the nation and its people to this day. There were a few coal mines north of the Brecon Beacons mountain range (in south-central Wales), but outside its borders, if Wales -- the whole of Wales -- is known for anything at all beyond its dead anorexic princess, it is known for its coal.

People from north Wales hate this fact. North Walians want so much for you to know they are different. They can barely get through saying their name in introduction before they alert you to the fact they don't like rugby, and the south -- Caerdydd, in particular -- is dirty, crowded and crime-ridden. They write tedious novels about slate quarries in an attempt to stress how different they were and are; they are aching and desperate for you to know they are far more miserable than anyone else ever has been or ever will be. But no one listens.

Throughout the 19th century especially, Wales' valleys of coal were aerobic with activity. Workers poured in and resources poured out. Within it all grew the culture and accent and mindset that came to represent Welshness. The industrial and spiritual soul, the reason Welsh influence is so minimal in the United States and elsewhere as compared to Ireland and Scotland (people in Wales were able to find work without emigrating), it is why we refer to the area via proper noun: the South Wales Valleys. Too many important things happened here to not use capital letters.

It was all starting to die out, though, as far back as the early 20th century. Just before WWII, the British government was drawing up plans to level the town of Merthyr Tydfil and transplant its few residents elsewhere -- a plan that was scrapped simply because post-WWII, no one had the money to make it happen. In the Thatcher years, the decline was accelerated; the cancer was cured with a shotgun. The heart and soul was ripped out of Wales. In the present day, not one deep-pit coal mine exists in the country.

The mines, of course, were far more than income. They were the centre of everything. Without them, many people fell apart. They have not recovered. They have lived on welfare ever since. They raised children to live on welfare. Who are now raising children of their own who will almost certainly grow up to do the same.

And therein you have the source of the negativity I've long felt toward the area. It is just another place with an industrial past, something that really isn't all that impressive. We dream of art and culture. Who the hell pines for industry? When you play that game of stating where you would go if you could visit any place at any time period, no one ever says: "Ooh, I'd like to visit Cleveland when industry was so intense the Cuyahoga River would occasionally catch fire."

And in the present, with its industrial vibrance long gone, the Valleys seem like a parable, a cautionary tale of what not to do and how not to do it.

I was thinking about all this several Saturday mornings ago, as I sat outside the pride of Hirwaun's house, propped on her window ledge with a plate of toast and mug of tea, taking a break from helping her father and brother-in-law load a van full of her things to move to her new flat in Caerdydd.

Caerdydd: the city that punches above its weight, the city that is expanding, the city where art and culture are starting to properly blossom. How could this be anything other than good? Leaving a broken, forgotten Valleys village and moving to a city with present and a future. That's progress. Hooray progress. Hooray for her, I thought.

Her family, though, don't exactly see it that way. Even though the village and Wales' capital city are separated by only 30 miles of easily traversable highway, Hirwaun and Caerdydd are infinitely far apart in the Valleys mind. In an emotional sense, she might as well be moving to Tokyo. They support her, but what family is going to be totally happy about that move? What father is going to be clicking his heels at the thought of his daughter moving into a less-than-upscale neighbourhood at the very centre of a city of hundreds of thousands of people?

Sitting there drinking tea while said father was continuing to pack was certainly not the best way to get on his good side. I looked lazy. And I've always found it intelligent policy to try to be on a girl's father's good side. Especially when he is taller than me. And a police officer. So, I decided my laid-back attitude wasn't really appropriate to the situation; I gulped down the remainder of my tea and pretended I didn't want the second piece of toast. I quickly went at it to simply grab whatever thing I could find in the house and pack it into the van, and then into Lisa's car, and then into my car. My eagerness to avoid appearing a slacker is the reason a manky duvet she had planned to throw away ended up following her all the way to her new home.

Packing things into her car's boot (FTYPAH: "trunk"), I happened to look up and see Mynydd Cefn-y-gyngon -- a 510-metre promontory looming just outside the village.

"Can't fault the view," I thought.

And some part of me felt very sad for Lisa that she would no longer be able to wake up every day and see that mountain right outside her door. Instead she will see Millennium Stadium. And instead of mountain air she will breathe in the smell of hops from the Brains Brewery. Arguably she ends up with more interesting neighbours. The Valleys are a place of Superdry T-shirts, Next jeans and badly done tattoos; her new neighbourhood is a cultural diversity pop quiz with its burqas and sarees and lehangas, taqiyahs and salwar kameez and jodhpuri.

The people of Lisa's new neighbourhood seem friendly. If you stand still long enough the children will introduce themselves to you, rattling off names of all their brothers and sisters. There is constant noise and life. But possibly she will not experience the same warmth of person as in the Valleys. At least not in the same way. I suspect it unlikely she will be invited in for a cup of tea, that the women will offer the same sympathetic hum of understanding/listening as she speaks, that the men will laugh as heartily at their own jokes.

Shuffling around trying to look busy, I found myself listening to the song of Lisa and her family, as well as the gas man and electrician who had come to take care of final bits and bobs. Not the words, but the loop and pop of the words. The way emphasis comes at odd places: "You takin' thAT DOwn are yOU?"

As if the rhythm and content were separate things, the latter simply placed on top of the former. There is a quaintness and comfort and honesty. I have once heard South Wales compared with the American South, and there is some veracity in the observation. The accents of both places have the capacity to represent such different things depending on the listener's opinion of the place the accents come from: insufferable ignorance or uplifting warmth.

When I feel homesick, even when thinking about Minnesota, my old Texas accent affects its way into my speech. It is the sound of "home," regardless of where I deem home to be that week. A South Wales accent is considerably less difficult to find in South Wales than a Texan one, obviously. And to the untrained ear, Cardiffian patter is indistinguishable from that of the Cynon Valley. It is difficult for someone from outside the area to comprehend feeling any sort of longing for something not so far away. But almost certainly a need to hear that specific sound, the distinct thrum of her mother and father and sister and best friend, will be what spurs Lisa up the A470 from time to time.

And in the morning sun, looking up at Mynydd Cefn-y-gyngon, I felt I could totally understand that. Would I live in such a place? Probably not. Not even if you paid me. But I could completely get why someone would, and why leaving might be a Very Big Thing to everyone involved.

"Hey, did your dad leave already?" I asked Lisa, noticing the moving van had disappeared somewhere in the midst of my contemplation.

"Yeah. He and Gavin went down to start unloading things."

"Ah, I suspect they are eager to get everything done in time to watch the match," I said, trying to come up with some sort of reason as to why her father and brother-in-law wouldn't be as lazy as I am.

Clearly they should be drinking tea and getting lost in esoteric philosophising on the issues of identity and place rather than, you know, working.

For no real reason other than that I could, I pushed my old red Peugeot to 100 mph as I sailed down toward Caerdydd (for those of you playing along at home, Peugeot makes cars). I rationalised driving so fast for the sake of catching up with the moving van. Lisa's father and brother-in-law had left without telling me, which is a quiet sign they felt I wasn't needed. I was eager to redeem myself through manly acts of Lifting Heavy Things and Not Complaining. But really, I was just driving fast because driving fast is fun. Because I wanted the speed to match the feeling in my heart. The A470 corridor is lined with trees that were soft leafy green in the late-May sunshine and the weather the warmest it had been since the August before. I was wearing short sleeves, my sunglasses were on, the windows were down and the radio was blaring. In some small way it reminded me of almost exactly a year earlier, when I had set out from Boston on my two-month road trip across the United States.

"The only thing ahead of me is possibility," I would shout to myself on that trip.

The same spirit of energy and eagerness for the future was there as I powered to Caerdydd. I felt unharnessed, pardoned of the misery that defined a winter lasting from September until late March. I don't want to describe it, don't want to remind myself of it in depth, but those months were hell. A hell I haven't yet completely escaped. I still adhere to my rule of not drinking more than three beers in an evening, because any more than that is likely to result in my starting to cry. I work out every day of the week to keep it all at bay. I lock myself into schedules. But I feel myself lifting out of it. Slowly.

I put 21 March as the start. Me and Dónal and Isobel were sitting in a restaurant in Dublin; I was talking about my life in Britain and made the comment: "It occurs to me I may just not be a very likeable person."

"We like you, Chris," said Isobel, putting her hand on my arm.

For narrative purposes that is where recovery began. But obviously that was built on the foundation of the day before with everyone at Donal and Isobel's watching rugby, and the day before that, spent at the pub with Elisa, and then all of us meeting up with Annie that night.

I love you, Ireland. You saved my life.

On that Saturday morning in May, I felt love for Wales, too, and my heart soared. Shaking free of the evil long winter, done with the academic semester, a summer ahead of me with time to write a book, a job lined up to start in September, trips to the United States and Ireland to look forward to, beautiful warm weather, and, well, a certain girl.

Whose father and brother-in-law had thankfully not yet started unloading the moving van when I arrived. And so we all went to it, seemingly trying to race against ourselves to see how fast we could move all of the things up three flights of stairs on the hottest day of the year so far. Tables, chairs, chests-of-drawers, dresser, bed, sofas, boxes, bags -- all up and in the flat before noon. The pride of Hirwaun's mother and sister arrived with a few more odds and ends. Amongst them bottles of Corona that were distributed to all as we waited for the flat's new occupant to arrive.

I sat in the window well, catching the breeze. Lisa's mother insisted on tidying things, which spurred everyone else to start arranging furniture. What is wrong with these people? Don't they know how to do nothing? I often say I like Wales because it is so laid back, because nothing gets done in less than a fortnight, but perhaps, in fact, that is just me. But Man Code No. 29 is: "No beer should be rushed." So, I just sat happily, lazily, in my little corner. Outside I heard the neighbourhood kids singing in two-part harmony. Seagulls shouted at each other. A man on a mobile phone held a loud conversation about the price of something. Two punjabi women gossiped in a doorway. In the distance, engines growled on dusty city street and trains squealed on hot tracks as they rolled to Cardiff Central station.


Lisa and I walked upriver to the Mochyn Du, where we sat outside in the shade of old trees, eating our lunch. Her family had sped back to Hirwaun shortly upon her arrival. Inside the Mochyn Du, people packed in eager to watch Cardiff City FC take on Blackpool for a chance to play in the Premier League. For those of you playing along at home, I would explain what this means but it makes me sleepy. Suffice to say it was a Very Important Game. I was happy not watching it. One of the few positive side-effects of the evil long winter has been that I am now more honest with myself. I have come to terms with the fact that soccer is on-the-whole boring and of very little interest to me. I'm European enough in my socialist tendencies; I don't need to pretend to be enthralled by 22 stupid men chasing a ball and faking injury.

Cheering inside the pub indicated that Cardiff City had done something well, outside we drained our pint glasses and set out down the Taff Trail in search of ice cream. The newly opened Baskin Robbins was full of people but its fucktarded manager had apparently only scheduled one person to work that day. A Saturday. In Summer.

We headed elsewhere.

People were spilling out of the Old Arcade pub, all eyes on the televisions. We cut through Cardiff Market, where the stall owners were buzzing with excitement, relaying details of the match to one another, shouting out their analysis of the two teams, dreaming of the strange sort of civic pride that comes from having a Premier League team.

"It's exciting," I said.

"Did you want to watch it?" Lisa asked.

"No," I said. "Definitely not."

There was almost no wait at Cadwaladers, thanks to the fact that its manager understands the concept of consumer demand. A rare win for a local business against an American chain. Hooray Wales. Hooray Kendal Mint Cake ice cream. We took our cones outside to sit on the benches and people-watch.

When the people on this island of rain see the sun it causes a sort of madness. Suddenly they don't know how to act or how to dress. For some it means that they should behave as if they are going out clubbing, which means slapping on fake tan and dressing like a whore. But in the light of day fake tan makes you look like an Oompa Loompa, and dressing like a whore means only that you look like a whore. An Oompa Loompa whore. For others the weather is an opportunity for them to do their best impression of an American -- wearing baseball caps and T-shirts with brand names -- with all the authenticity of Tim Westwood. And others just abandon all fashion hope, wearing the warm-weather clothes they bought in 1993 for a trip to Orlando, not having invested in sumer clothing since.

Our ice cream disappeared and suddenly I became aware of my own lack of fashion, wearing worn out running shoes and a pair of cheap jeans. Clothes for helping someone move, not for sitting around being catty about other people's looks. My self-confidence eroded, I suggested we head back to her flat and tackle the task of transforming the mess of things dumped in her flat into a place where someone actually lives.

"Yes, and me looking as if I've just come out of a hedge," she said.

"What were you doing in that hedge?" I asked.

"You don't want to know."

Walking past the Queen's Vaults pub, the misery on people's faces told the result of the match. Cardiff City were labelled "fucking useless" by a man who had drunk so much Carling he couldn't properly raise his eyes to the person he was speaking to, the person he was holding on to. Another man, in a Cardiff City shirt, hands jammed in pockets, kicked at nothing. We walked through it, their misery not ours.


When I first came to this island of rain four years ago, one of my first purchases was a barbecue grill. I reckoned it was an absolute necessity not only because use of a grill had been so central to my culinary technique back in the United States, but also because I had pictured my house as becoming a Welsh-language hot spot. I dreamed of hosting soirées galore, mixing Welsh and American culture, and making this tiny house a kind of conduit. A look through my cupboards will reveal far more plates and bowls and glasses and mugs and forks and knives and spoons and so on than you would expect for the number of occupants in the house. People were supposed to come here. And central to that, in the summers, at least, was to be the barbecue grill.

The people never came. Not that it mattered. After that first hot summer the weather was rarely conducive to barbecues -- rarely cooperative enough that you could invite someone over on anything other than a moment's notice. But most frustrating was the actual charcoal. There appear to be no name brands of charcoal in Britain, as there are in the United States. No Kingsford. No Royal Oak. Just store brand. So, in my idiot days of shopping at Tesco, that was the brand I bought. But Tesco charcoal is clearly designed to be fire-resistant, burning only slightly better than granite. After a handful of utterly unsuccessful attempts it was concluded that Britain's weather is shit and the only use for the grill was burning of papers with personal data on them.

On that Saturday, though, my confidence was at a staggering high. The pride of Hirwaun had come to my house to shower -- the hot water not yet turned on in her new place -- and I went mad with ambition. Looking out at the garden I suddenly got cocky and decided this was the day to try the Sainsburys coals I had bought for one final outdoor cooking attempt.

And in a shocking turn of events, it was successful. Not just successful in the sense that the food was cooked through and we didn't die of salmonella poisoning, but in the sense that the food actually tasted good. A totally impromptu marinade had resulted in my cooking chicken that actually, really tasted good. Wow. It was as if I had known what I was doing. Hooray Team Me! I did my best to play this off as the sort of thing that always happens when I cook -- "Yeah, this awesomeness? All the time and every time when the double C is involved" (If I were a trucker, I would insist people refer to me as: "The Double C") -- but wasn't able to adequately hide my glee. This was turning out to be one of those days: the days I will always remember.

I have long hoped it is true that your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. I hope and pray that all the wonderful moments will rush back to me in that instant. I hope that they will overwhelm me, so I die not of cancer or cattle stampede, but of joy. There will be memories of going with my grandmother to get rootbeer floats, of swimming in lakes and creeks and rivers and oceans, of perfect sunsets, of tender moments and hugs and kisses, of blizzards, of thunderstorms, of mariachi bands, of blues guitarists, of that time I almost (almost!) scored a try in rugby, and of this Saturday in late May.

With happy full bellies we went for a walk in the late-spring warm, eventually finding ourselves in the churchyard of Llandaff Cathedral. The two of us lay in the grass, looking up at the stars and listening to the call of an owl in a nearby tree. Cardiff melted away. There was me and her and the confidence that that was enough -- no need for my usual endless filling of the air with words. We sat quiet. I could hear her breathing.

For those of you playing along at home, the dead are much more closely linked to their earthly places of worship here than in the United States. In the U.S. you worship in one place and they put your body somewhere across town when you die. But here -- especially with those places of worship that have been around for a while -- the two experiences are closer. If you visit Llandaff Cathedral, where Christian worship has taken place for more than 1,000 years, you walk past graves. If you lie in the churchyard grass, you lie in the ashes of people's loved ones. It's a perhaps morbid image to think of us lying there, but I don't really see it that way.

Life is about hope. That is the very essence of living, it is why living always wins out over dying. As long as your heart beats, there is hope. There is a chance. There is a possibility. I hope that when we die our souls carry on; and our bodies melt away, no longer needed, to eventually be recycled into some other carbon-based material -- a plant or animal or whatever. But I imagine that many of the hopes we carry work themselves into the body's very molecular structure and continue to emanate, softly, after death. So, in a strange sort of way, I could feel the hopes and dreams of Caerdydd's faithful pushing up from the ground trying to find someone new to carry them onward. As if thousands of souls were gently saying: "Everything is alright for me now. But here, take this bit of hope off me, mix it with your own and fulfil it. Push. Go. Do. Become."

I wasn't alone.

"I think, in a way, I have an obligation to follow my heart and my passions. I should be making the most of all my energy; I feel a kind of responsibility to do that. I have a responsibility to pursue my dreams. That's what I want to come from this move to Cardiff: I am going to try to fulfil the responsibility of youth," said Lisa.

The pride of Hirwaun. The blue-eyed beauty of Cwm Cynon. Now the big-hearted girl of Riverside. The only thing ahead of her is possibility.

And the old city of Caerdydd sang, because another soul had come to her full of hopes and dreams.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Quite possibly the most patriotic thing I've ever done

At some point in this last horrible winter I decided to come to terms with certain truths about myself, one of them being that I don't like soccer. I have tried, because that is the British thing to do -- the European thing to do -- but after four years of living abroad I decided it was time to stop lying to myself. On the whole, soccer bores the great holy fuck out of me.

I have played soccer and enjoyed it quite a bit. I also enjoy running long distances, and swimming, and eating chocolate cake, and watching NCIS; there are myriad things I enjoy but which I have no interest in watching other people do. Watching professional soccer in Europe is just 90 minutes of guys struggling to compensate for their male insecurities by chasing a ball, getting angry at nothing and faking injury.

I'll make exceptions from time to time, to watch particularly significant matches. But I think perhaps more so for the sake of being able to say I watched the match than out of any actual interest. Either way, I found myself at the Gwdihŵ Saturday sitting down to watch the USA take on England as part of the World Cup.

Surprisingly, considering the fact that Gwdihŵ is in the centre of Cardiff, Wales, the bar filled up with England fans. I'll admit to feeling disappointed. In the weeks running up to this match people were suggesting I would find nothing but love and support in pubs up and down the country. Which would have been nice. One of the simple facts of life to being an American in Britain is that every new conversation starts with a criticism of where I'm from. I was looking forward to having people cheer with me, being on my side.

But the Welsh say more than they do. There were plenty in Gwdihŵ, but they chose to remain silent. So when the national anthems were sung at the start of the match, "God Save the Queen" rang out strong and true, without opposition. And when "The Star-Spangled Banner" started up, I was the only one singing.

The only one.

With dozens of guys wearing England flags turning to stare at me.

"Well, shit," I thought, squeaking out the first words of an anthem that has never really meant all that much to me. "I might as well go for it."

And in the space of those first five words -- "Oh, say can you see..." -- I snapped. Something welled up inside of me and shook. I don't know if it was pride in where I'm from, anger at this island of rain, or a mixture of both. But suddenly I was singing from the full of me. More than that, actually. I was singing with more than my lungs, my heart and my soul. It was as if something outside of me was pushing through, as well.

"Wow," I thought. "I'm surprisingly loud. I didn't know I could produce this much noise. I wonder if I could push it more."

I could. I did. The volume cranked up but I was still holding all the notes. My body was giving everything to this song. I am certain I looked insane. I am sure I was wild-eyed, face red, the veins popping from my face. The whole place went quiet. I could hear my voice echoing off the walls. Everyone had turned to stare.

In my heart all the irony died. I wasn't jokingly singing in a pub. I was singing as an act of self-declaration, an act of defiance. The final words -- "Land of the free and the home of the brave" -- were belted out with both middle fingers raised in the air.

The England fans looked away. People clapped. The match started.

"I think you scared them," Bridget said. "They probably think you're some crazy guy who knows kung-fu."

Two days later, my throat still hurts.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why I just deleted my Welsh-language blog

Being an author is about connecting. There is nothing here for me to connect to.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Farewell the child bride

Rachel filed for divorce Tuesday. The great state of Utah (where she lives now) is allowing us to waive a 90-day waiting period, which means all that is required is my signature. I'm not sure why we get to waive the waiting period; I would have thought that the traditionally conservative Beehive State would be keen on imposing that sort of thing. Perhaps Rachel told them I have socialist sympathies, so they've decided to rush it through. Tomorrow Gov. Gary Richard Herbert will himself show up at the front door: "Hey, remember that scene in Bourne Supremacy when homey uses a magazine to kick a dude's ass? I got a copy of the Ensign right here, yo, and I'm 'bout to fuck your shit up if you don't put your name on the dotted line."

Actually, I'm quietly hoping that the divorce papers will be served as in films and television: some creepy bloke in a cheap suit will more or less ambush me and shove the papers in my face.

"Mr. Cope?"
"Consider yourself served," he'll say, pressing the papers to my chest and then clicking shut his briefcase with snooty aplomb.

I am going to keep my video camera by the door in hopes of filming the moment. I may first make the solicitor chase me down the street a bit, me running in comedy Big Ten style, holding my hands to my ears and shouting: "La, la, la! I'm not listening! La, la, la!"

If my life were a Coen Brothers film, we would encounter crazy sword lady mid-chase and the whole episode would then lead to my getting entangled with a small-time criminal gang from Splott, who would bury the solicitor's body at Millennium Stadium. There, it would be dug up amid a critical scrum in next week's Wales vs. Scotland rugby match and Lee Byrne would again face a ban because there would be too many men on the field.

But in real life, I'll just sign the papers, put them in the post, and gone will be the dreams of that young man who stood more than a decade ago amid the painted rocks of Southern Utah and held the hand of his fiancée, bringing it to his lips, kissing the fingers, and said: "Isn't it amazing? There'll be a wedding ring on this finger soon. You're going be my wife; I'm going be your husband. I'm so happy."

Change is the only constant.

I am heartbroken over it. My brain doesn't work. I just sit and stare. If you want to see me cry, all you need do is give me the hug I so desperately need and I will fall apart.

It's not that this was unexpected; it's just that it's happening. It's kind of like crying at a funeral. If you show up at a funeral, there's no surprise. You know someone's dead -- that's why you're at a funeral. But the formality of it seems to intensify the grief.

Rachel left in September, and when she did I cried so hard I felt my lungs would burst. But over time I developed the brilliant technique of just sort of shrugging my shoulders and making that teenager "I dunno" sound when people would ask me what was going on. Rachel did not make that sound, and when I would hear from her I could tell that this was coming. Becoming a statistic, as J. Scott Wilson once phrased it, became inevitable. So, when Rachel told me Sunday that she would be filing, I wasn't surprised.

"Yeah, I know," I thought in my head, and quickly attempted to change the subject by telling her about rugby.

She steered things back to reality. There were long pauses. And I felt as if I were in a space capsule where the airlock had been opened and the ambitions of ten years were escaping, dissipating, into the great emptiness. Those dreams we dreamed, those plans we made, those things we said -- gone. And the loneliness of this house wrapped around me and squeezed. There are some kind souls in Cardiff, but in a practical sense there is no one here for me to lean on. My very best friends, my pillars, are thousands of miles away.

And I'm here. The fridge whines, the silence sings.

Rachel sent an e-mail Wednesday to let me know about certain details of the divorce -- what I need to do, by when, etc. But she also said this, which she agreed to let me post on my site:

"I don't regret the past 10 years. It seems like it would be easy to do... But I am the person I am today because of the past 10 years. And I like who I am. And I would not have become this person without you. Thank you for all you have given me. You have made me stronger and more tolerant and more well-rounded and well-travelled and more knowledgeable about many things. I'm thankful for the good times and for all the things you have given me and for the love we shared."

And I'd like to return that sentiment. I don't plan to write anything more about the divorce or Rachel because they are not things of entertainment. When I write about people they become sort of characters in the narrative of my world and I fear that Rachel's having left would somehow make her seem like the bad guy. She's not. So, that part of my life will go back to being hidden. But I would like to say this:

I have never met a person who is so completely wonderful as Rachel. If she has a fault it is only that she will give the whole of herself. She is beautiful, brilliant, caring, patient, funny, industrious, a hell of a cook and one of the most genuine souls I've ever known. And I can say honestly that I quite possibly would not even be alive if it weren't for her. I don't regret the past 10 years -- they were some of the best of my life.

Farewell, the child bride. I love you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It's a bit like one of those Kilgore Trout novels

There once was a man who found himself atop the world's tallest building, listening to Thin Lizzy's "Still in Love With You" off the "Live And Dangerous" album. You know, the version that carries on for roughly eight minutes and has that beautiful-simple bass line where you can just imagine Phil Lynott lost in his druggy haze with four strings being his only reality. And right where the second guitar solo kicks in (a) -- right after Lynott moans, "Help me see it through, I'm still in love with yooooo" -- the man set himself on fire and jumped from the top of the building.

With music blaring and the whole great world stretched out below him, here are some of the things the man thought as his flame-engulfed body sped toward the ground:
- "This is so beautiful, so amazing, so incredible! My soul is overflowing. My heart is singing."
- "This hurts so much. The pain is excruciating. I can't take this."
- "I'm lost. I've got nothing to hold onto but this feeling. There is nothing solid, nothing real."
- "I'm going to die. Oh, God, I'm going to die. This is going to kill me and it already hurts so much. I just wish it would end."
- "How did I get like this? Why did I do this to myself?"
- "I just can't ever fully get into my head that Phil Lynott was Irish. It just messes with the mind a little bit."
- "Why does it have to end?"

Meanwhile, a woman sitting at a cafe at the foot of the world's tallest building, sipping a white chocolate mocha, heard a noise and looked up. The noise she heard was screaming. Or perhaps laughing. Or perhaps both. Singing, too. All emitting from a ball of flame plummeting toward her from half a mile above. Calmly dropping her mobile phone into her purse (she had been texting her friend), she picked up her mocha and stepped back about three feet just as the screaming, laughing, singing ball of flame tore through her table and extinguished itself in the inexorable sudden unmovingness of pavement. So sudden was the stop that the sound it had been making continued to echo down, its last words being: "Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait!"

The woman walked over to the smoking lump of a thing and nudged it with her foot. She emptied the contents of her coffee cup to extinguish the last little flame and walked away.

"Wait... wait... wait... wait..." breathed the man, too quiet to hear.

He coughed to get back the breath that had been knocked from him. The dull ringing ache of his head kept him from moving right away, but after a moment or two he straightened out his legs, sat up and rubbed his neck.

"My clothes are ruined," he thought. "But no broken bones..."

He pulled his iPod from his jacket pocket and, using the back of the personal stereo, checked his reflection. Hair's a mess. But no scars. No, wait, there's one. A pretty good one, actually. In a weird sort of way it made him look a little more dignified, more mature -- like he had lived a little.

As he did this, with his head still muddled, the iPod quietly whirred back to life and started playing "Tupelo Honey" by Van Morrison.

"Ooh, this is a great song," the man said to himsef.

He got up, made a half-hearted effort to fix his hair and then walked over to a little patch of manicured green lawn, where he sat and looked at the world's tallest building and thought: "You know, I probably -- probably -- wouldn't do that again. Or, at least, not do it exactly that way. But I don't regret it."

After a few more moments, he realised that the iPod was stuck on repeat; "Tupelo Honey" was playing over and over and over. But the player was banjaxed, and he couldn't get it to play any other song. All he could do was adjust the volume. So, unwilling to go without music, he sat there listening to the song for almost a fortnight -- sometimes turning it up, sometimes singing along, sometimes nodding his head to the rhythym, sometimes feeling warm and content in the song's layers, and sometimes getting quite bored with it and turning it down in order to try to think of his own songs to sing.

One day, cold and tired from sitting still for so long, the man got up, turned the sound on his iPod down so low that it was almost unnoticeable, and went to see the Gourds perform live in concert.

"Holy shit!" he screamed into the noise of the evening. "Holy shit! I love this!"

All around him was warmth and dancing and laughing and singing. And the band took the crowd everywhere -- up and down, fast and slow. Everyone wailed at "Port Arthur," they whooped and howled to "Burn the Honey Suckle." And the joy swelled in the man's heart and filled his lungs.

But when the concert ended he fell into inconsolable tears because the Gourds' albums aren't available through the UK version of iTunes.

(a) No truly great song has just one guitar solo.