Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Eight things I'm loving in April

(This is my monthly attempt to fight my natural tendency toward gloom by identifying eight things that are making me happy)

/8/ A new season of Doctor Who is set to begin Sunday, this time under the helm of someone other than Russell T. Davies. There is a woman at Cardiff University who is presently doing a PhD on Celtic storytelling methods within the Doctor Who canon. She argued to me recently that the inconsistency I complain about endlessly in Davies' story lines is, in fact, very consistent with Celtic storytelling. In Celtic mythology a character is often a sort of pendulum which swings wildly across the lines between god and mortal. I personally think Davies simply has a lazy attitude toward consistency.
That said, though, I am a mark for the show and looking forward to 13 new episodes of a chap in a suit who saves the universe by running about with a torch (a) that makes a whirring noise. Plus, it's filmed in Cardiff -- at least one episode filmed just down the road from my house.

/8/ Dispara Margot, Dispara is a radio programme out of Mexico City, the daily podcast of which I listen to in an all-but-fruitless attempt to improve my Spanish. Generally, I only comprehend about 20 percent of what is being said, but I really enjoy those parts because they offer an interesting new perspective on a culture that I thought I understood pretty well. I grew up in Texas and lived in California, both with a great deal of Mexican influence, so, much of it is familiar. But even this little segment of the culture -- a radio programme that chats about pop culture and films on an "alternative" radio station -- helps me to realise that Mexico is far more dynamic and cosmopolitan than I had previously considered it to be. Yes, I know: that's an incredibly gringo mindset. Lo siento.
Living in the naturally limited cultural experience that is the Welsh language (700,000 people can only generate so much diversity) makes me really appreciate the expansiveness of Latino culture. There is so much there. And yet, still they demonstrate a fondness for ska and rockabilly sound. Go figure.

/8/ The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a book I wasn't sure I would like because it is written by a woman. I can't decide if I have some sort of sexist hang up, but I find that I am less likely to thoroughly enjoy a book written by a female.
My evidence of its not being rooted in sexism comes from Welsh-language novels. When I first started reading in Welsh, before I moved to Wales, I often couldn't guess the gender of an author based on their name. If I am perfectly honest, I still have trouble guessing the sex of a Welsh name that I haven't heard before. Take the name Delyth, for example. Without any previous knowledge, that looked masculine to me. It's not. So, I've read a number of books that I really hated, only to discover later that the authors were female.
Obviously, there are male authors I can't stand, and there are female authors I enjoy. But generally speaking, I seem not to be as keen on books written by women. If this means I am being sexist, I feel awful about it. Either way, I anticipate that Mrs. Phin will take issue with me on the subject and it will now be that much longer before I am again welcomed in Historic Bath.
The point is, though, the Don't Like Lady Writers rule doesn't apply to Kingsolver. I got about 30 pages into The Lacuna and started thinking: "I need to stop referring to myself as a writer, because this woman Kicks. My. Ass."
The book takes place in Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s, when the country was a communist hotbed, and centres on a character who finds himself serving as a secretary to Leon Trotsky. With full apologies to my friends who are authors, this is the best book I've read in years.

/8/ My next novel is unlikely to win that sort of praise from anyone, but I am nonetheless enjoying being in the throes of finally properly putting it together. It has been swimming in my head for several months now, with bits and pieces written down in various files. But recently I've been actually plotting everything out. That process began with my confining the thing to a single-page diagram. That way I have the whole of the novel in front of me, available in a single glimpse. And now I'm in the process of expanding that into a rundown, or detailed explanation, of all that happens. At the moment, I am about one-fourth of the way through the rundown and already it is 18 pages long. My rundown for Cwrw Am Ddim was 40 pages long. Once the rundown is finished the writing of the novel is more or less paint by numbers.
Each author has their own method, I suppose. Jack Kerouac just sat at a typewriter and consumed cigarettes and coffee; James Joyce drew maps of where the characters lived; William Wordsworth went on long walks and then came home to dictate everything to his sister.

/8/ I have been able to hang clothes outside again recently, after the long winter of drying them on racks hung on the radiator. For those of you playing along at home, the concept of tumble dryers, like space exploration, remains in its infancy in Britain. Technically my washing machine has the ability to dry clothes but does so about as effectively as if I were to place them in the microwave. Plus, the cost of using a dryer is painfully noticeable on one's power bill. Hanging clothes, then, is the way forward. The weather remains pretty unsettled but there have been a few days warm enough and dry enough for me set my clothes outside, leaving them smelling clean and fresh. Drying clothes outside remains one of my favourite aspects of British life.

/8/ My new pair of jeans are the first article of clothing I have bought without female supervision in roughly 12 years. As you might possibly already be aware, my general rule with clothing is that I want it to make me look sexy or threatening. I would prefer the former; I want to wear clothes that make women want to remove said clothes. To that end, I have long been happy to let women dress me. But there isn't anyone around at the moment who can take that role, so I found myself Wednesday wondering around the Gap. Primarily because it is one of the last few clothing stores that doesn't blare music like a dance club (What the fuck is up with that, by the way? I don't want to boogie, I want to try on clothes). I can only hope I did OK.

/8/ Pictures from my former sister-in-law's wedding. Apparently the groom's men originally were wearing the kilts backward, thinking it made sense to have the pleats at the front.

/8/ This picture of myself and some of my friends in Dublin, on my birthday, earlier this month. In terms of the actual picture, I am amused by the idea of a group photo in which only one person is looking at the camera. But, really, I like the picture because of its content -- the fact that I had friends with which to celebrate my birthday.
Donal and Isobel put me up for the weekend in their flat on the outskirts of the Pale, where we camped out to watch the rugby and I found myself subversively supporting Scotland against Ireland. I would like to stress that I would have supported Ireland if the match had meant anything. But as it stood, France had pretty much locked up the Six Nations by that point. In the picture, Donal and Isobel are the ones standing behind the couch. To my left is Elisa, who had had the terrible misfortune of being stuck talking to me for several hours at Neary's on the day I flew into Dublin. To my right is the enigmatic Linus, and Arianna who would sit there quietly and then suddenly come out with a brilliantly funny line. Not pictured is Annie, whom I got to see the day before at the bar with no name (b).
As happens every time I visit Dublin, I found myself again wondering why I don't live there. I realise it's a big dirty city with all the drawbacks of every big dirty city, but there is always something about it that appeals to me. In part, it is the culture of the place and the mythology that it and the whole of Ireland hold in the American mind. I told Donal that I wouldn't mind eventually becoming an Irish citizen if not simply for the ability to brag about it when I went to high school reunions. I'd be sitting there listening to someone explain their life doing one of those jobs that has a long title that doesn't actually mean anything, like chief supervising consultant manager, and their dogs and the new deck they built at their house and the deal they got on their mortgage and on and on, and eventually they would ask what I've been doing, to which I would simply open up my Republic of Ireland passport and say: "I'm Irish." And they would know that I had won.
I'll be doing something similar this summer when I visit the U.S., bragging about getting to go to Donal and Isobel's wedding in July. I may get a T-shirt printed that says, "I'm going to a wedding in IRELAND," to save myself the trouble of having to say it over and over again.

(a) FTYPAH: a flashlight

(b) Which meant I really shouldn't have been there. If a bar is so hip that it can be full of people despite not even having a name (thus making it impossible to tell people where you're going), it is obviously far too hip for me.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I'm brilliant, me

Today I happened to be flipping through the March issue of Barn, the Welsh-language magazine I write for and was skimming my column. It had been a while since I had last looked at the piece, so I had forgotten writing this line: "Rhywle, ar y foment hon, ar blaned arall, mae mwnci'n ysgrifennu'r golofn yma, ac rydw i'n cael rhyw gyda'r actores Reese Witherspoon."

"Somewhere, at this exact moment, on another planet, a monkey is writing this column and I am having sex with Reese Witherspoon."

See the things you miss out on by not speaking Welsh?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Random moment from my life

(Phone call to estate agent)

ME: "Hi, I'm calling because my shower stopped working."
WOMAN ON PHONE: "OK. And we manage the property, do we?"
ME: "No, I'm just calling around to let people know. A public service sort of thing."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Overheard in the Cork ferry port

Two Americans, eating crisps and watching the RTÉ sports report on a waiting area television.

USA-1: "Hey, is that hurling there?"
USA-2: "Nah, that's polo. Or field polo, rather."


"If [Britain] is to regain the self-confidence, tolerance and humor that marked it as a great nation long after its influence declined, it needs to rediscover a faith in human nature."
- Catherine Mayer, Time 29 March 2010 (Vol. 175, No. 12)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Vishnu dances on a football pitch

My regular commute takes me past the erstwhile home of Cardiff City Football Club, Ninian Park Stadium. Use of the word "stadium" is misleading, I think. It brings to mind the image of a place you would actually want to be, which was always the exact opposite of what I felt toward Ninian Park. It was a sport facility that appeared to have been built by the same people who throw together barbecue shacks in Texas -- four pieces of wood, a few sheets of corrugated tin and a hand-painted sign telling you where you are.

But Ninian Park offered no barbecue. Only Cardiffian thugs. Ninian Park looked like a great place to get my ass kicked, picking up a bit of tetanus in the process.

You'll notice, though, I'm using the past tense. Last year, Cardiff City FC moved to a fancy new stadium just across the road that looks to have been built in a joint operation by IKEA and Lego and whoever it is that designs all the mega-churches in the United States. It has a permanent sense of the impermanent - no matter how long it sits there it will never look like it belongs; it will never look like it will be around for too much longer.

The old Ninian Park Stadium, meanwhile, is being ripped apart and houses are being put up in its place.

Cardiff City FC has the woeful misfortune of having Peter Ridsdale as its chairman, who has a grand history of financially ass-raping football clubs until they get relegated. So, Cardiff City is on the brink of collapse and desperate for cash. It's for that reason, I suspect, the houses are being built in a hurry; the club is eager to sell off the land and pay off its staggering debt.

But the result of this is strangely beautiful. On one end of the old pitch you have smoking metal-beaked machines tearing through the stands and snapping old metal beams. On the other side of the pitch there are already a handful of houses, with the foundations being laid and scaffolding raised for dozens more. It is possible for a Cardiff City fan to sit in his new kitchen and watch his club's old stadium fall in his back garden.

It is destruction and creation in an instant. The dance of Vishnu on a football pitch.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I bought my plane ticket to Dublin last week. Yes, I'm going by plane. As pants as that is.

I tend to think it's a bit over the top to fly from Cardiff to Dublin considering the relatively small distance between. That's the ingrained Yanqui mindset, I suppose. I have trouble justifying flights of less than 500 miles -- a distance which could be covered in eight hours or less on American interstate. Admittedly, there is no U.S.-style motorway to be had in these parts, and there's the small matter of a choppy, cold sea lying between this island of rain and the one I'm planning to visit. But still. A plane seems arrogant and environmentally unfriendly. I would prefer to take a ferry.

But, you see, we here in Wales are quite expert at subtly drawing a line between saying and doing. So whereas Cynulliad politicians speak endlessly about improving the country's transportation network, they remain happy doing absolutely nothing to pull the country out of 1972. So, it takes six hours to travel the 150 miles between Cardiff and Holyhead, where the ferry to Dublin sets sail. Six fucking hours. That's an average of 25 mph. If I were Chris Hoy, I could get there faster on my bike.

It's a pity Mr. Hoy isn't available for hire; I could just strap a rickshaw to the back of his cycle. I'd get to Holyhead in style, on time, and not have to deal with all the people that show up on the train between Wrexham and Rhyl.

And, of course, once I get to Holyhead I then would have to actually take the ferry. Not an awful experience because ferries have pubs and plenty of space to walk around. But the pleasure of being on one is diminished greatly if you've spent all fucking day in a bouncy tube full of chavs and their feral children.

So I'm taking the plane. It will cost £30 more, but I've decided it's worth it.

I'm heading to Ireland for my birthday, because "I spent my birthday in Cardiff" is a phrase that impresses no one. Indeed it will draw you looks of pity from those in the know.

I'll be in Dublin from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, when I'll be hopping on a train and heading down to Cork to wander about until late Tuesday. So if you are in either of those places and keen to take part in the grand Irish tradition of buying me a bottle of Miller, let me know.

Even if no one thrusts an American beer into my hand (or, indeed, any other part of me) I am really looking forward to this trip. I am in need of a change of scenery. Wales is the Cleveland bus station of life -- not nearly as shit as you might think and full of interesting characters, but still not a place you should spend every moment of your life.

Actually, that could probably be said of most places. Sometimes leaving a place makes it worth returning to.

I'll be returning via ferry from Cork to Swansea, in part to ease my guilt over having taken a plane and in part because the ferry is overnight and cabins on the thing are relatively cheap. I'm going to sleep on a boat, yo.

Although, secretly I know it won't be nearly as cool as I am hoping it to be. Nothing ever is.

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.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Unimpressively true facts about Wales #4

If all the people in Wales were to jump into the air at exactly the same time, the organiser of such an event would likely be congratulated on its success!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Eight things I'm loving:

*1: Danielle, from whom I've more or less stolen the idea for this post. She has a habit of writing posts with the title "I Dig This..." in which she lists off little things in her life that bring her some amount of joy: T-shirts, knitted goods, Hot Tamales, porch swings and so on.

It would negate the point of this particular post to expound on this too much, but in short and simple terms my life is utter shit these days, and the fact that I live on a rainy cold island populated by millions of grumpy pessimists doesn't help. Especially considering my little corner of the Pessimism Empire. The English, at least, are able to package their pessimism in a clever way. The Welsh, however, rub salt in the wound by putting Max Boyce on television.

So, in an effort to keep the knives in the kitchen drawer and away from my wrists, I've decided to try to force optimism on a regular basis. My present goal is to write an "Eight things I'm loving" post at least once a month. I chose eight things because there are eight letters in my favourite person's name (a).

*2: Learning guitar, even though I am utterly rubbish at it. I suffer from a strange dichotomy of both enjoying learning new things and being shockingly slow in doing so. I often think the reason I did so poorly in school was the aspect of time constraint. All my educational experiences in the United States were heavily task-oriented and limited to short time frames: Do this by this day. I was never able to master that. Of course, another problem with my education years was that I preferred to focus my attention on girls. Perhaps I could argue that without restriction of time frame I was more compelled to learn about the opposite sex than the Peace of Westphalia.

If that's the case, here is what I learned: women are hornets' nests. And apparently I love hornets.

And perhaps it is with a modicum of leftover desperate teenage hope that I am now trying to teach myself guitar. Thus far I have managed to learn some 15 different chords. My challenge, though, has been putting them together. I find it shocking the amount of skill required to play songs that I previously thought to be overly simple.

*3: Rediscovering my love of the Spanish language. Obviously I've got a soft spot for Welsh, but come on, let's be honest: Spanish is so much sexier. It is my favourite language. I love the natural rhythm and flow and how it seems to be built for emotional expression. It has a boldness that is unafraid of flair.

For example: "Cuando dijiste que no quieres a mi, en mi pecho cuchillo sentí." That is bad ass. But if you said it in English it wouldn't sound beautiful; if you said it in Welsh it would either be too clunky or criticised as too formal.

Lately I have returned to attempts to become fluent in Spanish. I can't decide whether I'm being cliché; I fear it's all a bit too "I've just gotten divorced so now I feel obligated to do interesting things to somehow justify my existence." But I'm loving it either way. I download various podcasts as part of my little learning regime, which means I now find myself listening to a lot of Mexican radio. The knock-on effect of which being that I had a sudden urge to move to Mexico City this week. I'm sure that would work out.

*4: Katezenjammer (pronounced "Kahtzen-yah-mer") are a band from Norway who are probably best described as a bag full of crazy encased in awesomeness and lemon icing. I randomly came across them earlier this year -- though, at the moment, I can't remember how -- and fell in love straight away. How can you not be in love with a band that describes itself as "the brushstrokes on the night sky where you dance your wildest dance in your fanciest clothes"? I'm not sure what that means, but it's undoubtedly appealing.

I've heard them described as a sort of cross between Gogol Bordello and Dixie Chicks, but I tend to think that description falls short. When I first heard them, I envisioned a strange, good version of Sugarland that has talent, being thrown down a ravine full of chocolate éclairs which have been dressed as Cossacks. And that's probably not a good description either. Basically they are a beautiful kind of crazy that you really want to be around, with melodies and lyrics that get stuck in your head: "Your ass can stay in prison, I ain't gonna bail. I put your house on fire, and your truck is for sale."

I am so enamoured with them that I have set myself the goal of learning how to play "Tea With Cinnamon" by the end of the year (my guitar skills are so poor that this is a particularly ambitious goal). Go on, watch the video for that song. How fantastic are they? I think Anne Marit is my favourite -- she strikes me as batshit crazy.

*5: A new season of NCIS started on Five a few weeks ago and I have found myself at the end of each episode shouting out loud: "Damn, I love this show!" I love the fact that the whole thing is so ridiculously formulaic but still well-written. I wish I had friends, just so I could follow them around and say "On your six, boss."

*6: Sainsbury's online delivery is the bomb-diggity, yo. A few weeks ago, in a fit of rage, I swore that I would never again shop at Tesco. This was initiated by my observation that no matter which Tesco I would go to, I was always treated as an obligation or burden.

Imagine the response you might get if you were to come across a Chilean earthquake survivor, his leg trapped beneath a concrete slab and himself dehydrated and without food for several days, and your method of "helping" were to take a swig of your water (not sharing) and then make a balloon animal, handing it to the survivor and saying: "Hey, mister! Turn that frown upside down!"The look of total exhaustion and disdain you would get from that earthquake victim is the same you will get from Tesco employees when you dare set foot in their store.

And I got to a point where my weekly shopping trip was something I would dread, having to build myself up for the experience of being treated so poorly. And then, one day, I was in queue and the cashier chap was being a bitch and I just leaned in toward him and said: "You know what, fuck you." Then walked out, leaving all the groceries there unpaid for.

Notably, there was not a sound from the fella as I walked away. No effort was made to remedy things. I later went so far as to send an e-mail to Tesco explaining that I would never bother them again and -- shocker -- I've not received a response. So, I decided to turn to Sainsbury's, even though it's slightly more expensive and on the other side of town. But on the day I made this decision it was snowing and I didn't feel like driving, so I ordered my stuff online.

The next day my groceries arrived on time and the bloke delivering them was properly cheerful and friendly. And much to my surprise, that was not a fluke. I've had several different delivery people since then and each time they are friendly and crazy polite. Now I find myself wanting to order groceries more often, just because I know it means someone's going to show up at my house and be nice to me.

*7: Tortilla chips with butter is a magical flavour combination, bitches. I know you think it sounds awful, but that's because you haven't tried it. You will both thank me and curse me because it is an incredibly addictive thing. Also, tortilla chips and butter remind me of when I first came up with the idea as a child because I was a picky eater and the multiple-ingredient nature of salsa freaked me out. So, each time I have one, some joyful part of me thinks of Matt's Famous El Rancho in Austin, Texas -- my favourite city on the planet Earth.

*8: Rowing machines are, conveniently, a pretty good way of counteracting the effects of eating loads of tortilla chips with butter. As part of my cliché response to divorce, in addition to learning guitar and Spanish, I am going to the gym three times a week and running on the other days. I am hoping that repetitively picking up heavy things and putting them back down again will somehow make me sexy enough to compensate for my personality defects.

Through happenstance I started using the rowing machines in my workout and now find it to be my favourite part. Henry Rollins once wrote a poem about his rowing machine and suddenly I can understand why. You use every part of your body and then afterward, when you have your shirt off, you catch yourself in the mirror and think: "Hey, nifty. Look at that. Shame there's no one around to see this."

(a) So, not you, Viggo Mortensen.

Unimpressively true facts about Wales #1

If you were to flatten all its mountains, Wales would be slightly less small!