Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eight things I loved about August

~ 8 ~ Donal and Isobel's wedding: Technically Donal and Isobel were married on the last day of July, but celebrations and goodwill lasted well into the month of August.
Less than a week after returning from the United States I got back on a plane -- a very small one, this time -- and flew to Dublin, where Elisa was so incredibly kind and patient as to allow me to stay in her flat. "Patient" is the key word there: I have a habit of dancing. Especially when there isn't any music. I also have a very bad habit of thinking it is hilarious when my no-music dancing gets on a friend's nerves.
I felt so incredibly honoured to have been invited to Donal and Isobel's wedding. I value them tremendously as friends and being invited to share in that pivotal moment of their life made me feel the sentiment is reciprocated. Yes, I know. Cheesy. It's difficult not to be when talking about weddings, though.
It was a good wedding. The mark of a good wedding, I think, is a lack of crushingly embarrassing moments. We've all been to a wedding like that: where alcohol or inappropriate family behaviour step in to make the occasion one to never speak of again. There was nothing like that at the Murphy-Phillips wedding. It was comfortable, relaxed and honest. It was the sort of wedding you would want for friends. It was one in which you sit back, look at the couple and think: "This is real. All love is a challenge and a gamble, but this has a good chance of surviving for a very long time."
The highlight of the weekend for me, though, came the next day when we went over to Donal's parents' house for a barbecue. It was a collection of a few friends and mostly extended family -- again I delighted in having been invited to share in the occasion. As evening moved in, we all packed into the Murphy family front room. I never thought to do a head count but I would guess there were at least 25 of us squished in there. Close and warm and with beer and wine in hand we started singing. We were expected to sing. In turns, each person was required to sing a song of their choosing: mournful ballads, old standards, pop tunes, self-composed pieces, and so on. We sang them all, going around the room several times. It was, of course, the sort of thing we dream about in America. This was the Ireland we've heard songs about, the Ireland of my imagination. Family and music. Sitting there listening to the singing, joining in on the songs I knew, looking at warm and smiling faces, I kept thinking: "Oh my God! I'm in a movie! I am a character in a heartwarming film about the beautiful and worthwhile ups and downs of life!"
At one point in the evening, Donal's family sang a song composed by his father about the family name, in which it is claimed there are more Murphys than anyone else around. We finally spilled out of the house about 2 a.m. Sitting in the car on the way back to Elisa's flat, I wondered to myself how many people are out there who wish they were Murphys. Count me among them.

~ 8 ~ Being back in Cardiff: I seem to have developed a reputation of late for pissing on ol' Caerdydd. Admittedly, there's a fair amount of evidence to support that claim. A number of people have commented on my ability to take in any Cardiff scene and immediately identify its most negative aspect.
FRIEND: "What a lovely day in the park! The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the river is shimmering. Look at those friends playing games together. Look at those two lovers. Look at that young family..."
ME: "Look at that unwashed drug addict in a Primark hoodie."
I can't help it. In my defence, in a weird way, sometimes those are the things I like about Cardiff: it's oddity. Our drunks, our pregnant whores, our shapers of poo, our feral teenagers, our guys who sit in the DW Sports car park smoking so much pot in their Renault Clio that when they open the door huge clouds of smoke pour out -- these are all parts of the Cardiff character. They mesh with the Muslim kids playing cricket in the street, the old man who finds 2p and immediately seeks to give it to charity, the chav who cheerfully says hello, the chubby fella sitting in the passenger side of a car in Pontcanna with a long-stem yellow rose and card shaped as a heart.
Cardiff is still trying to figure out what it is -- an increasing challenge for cities when chain restaurants leave them all looking the same. But since coming back from the United States I have been trying to get a sense of it. I have been enjoying the parks more and put more effort into hunting down unique places like Thé Pot and Waterloo Gardens Teahouse. I've been putting effort into switching my mindset from that of someone who lives here to someone who wants to live here.

~8~ The showers at DW Sports: They're awesome, yo. What can I say? The shower at my house is that sort of energy-saving device that spits out just enough water to make you not dry. The showers at my gym, however, are amazing. Additionally, they blare music all throughout the gym. So, I get to rock out to that ridiculously infectious Baditude song while standing in a monsoon of cleanliness! Sometimes I work out solely for the purpose of being able to take a shower afterward.

~ 8 ~ Sherlock: How can you not like a programme in which the title character is performed by an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch? Those of you playing along at home may not have heard of the reworking of Sherlock Holmes that came out on the BBC in late July and early August. You are missing out. The programme is witty and quick, but also does that thing of drawing you into the mindset of trying to work things out based on observation. The programme was so addictive that it started worming its way into my daily life.
"Your new job has you interacting with more people," I found myself saying to Elisa.
"Yeah, unfortunately," she said. "Why?"
"I could tell because your Irish accent is a bit stronger. You're talking to more people."
Only three episodes of the programme aired, leaving us with the cliffhanger of Sherlock staring down a Chris Kattan-like Moriarty. It was a brilliant end to the mini-series, ensuring that more episodes will be made. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly when because Steven Moffat is apparently Britain's only talented writer and they need him to write all the other good shows, as well.

~8~ Det. Capt. Jim Brass: Foolishly, I started watching "CSI" as research. Deacon, the main character in the novel I'm working on, is a fan of the programme. But in the same way Heath Ledger ended up dead because he fell too deep into a character, I now find myself irreparably addicted to "CSI." Arguably my vice is far less serious.
Our friends in the Soggy Nations will probably be aware that "CSI" or one of its myriad spawn is to be found on Five or Five USA at almost any time of the day. You may also be aware that "CSI" has had 11 seasons so far. The well is almost bottomless. And over time I have decided my favourite character is Jim Brass, the detective who does most of the ground work for the CSI team in terms of interviewing, interrogating and arresting. The thing I love about the character is his world-weary approach. Nothing ever surprises, amuses or otherwise gets any sort of reaction out of Brass -- he's brilliant. I offer this clip as proof.
My love for both the revived "Sherlock" and Jim Brass have convinced me that a revised "Columbo" would be a good idea. Starring a young, energetic actor, this Columbo would use a number of the disheveled techniques but the show wouldn't be quite so twee. Over time the viewer would come to learn that much of what Columbo does are actually intentional tricks. In fact, he lives alone in an immaculately clean home that almost looks as if no one lives there. The wife he always refers to would, in fact, be dead, having been killed after witnessing some sort of crime. He would still be an intense fan of all the local sport teams but more because he had once been a compulsive gambler. Additionally, before meeting his wife he had been addicted to barbiturates.

~8~ The Housemartins: Yeah, here's me singing the praises of Hull's fourth best band some 22 years after they split up. And, actually, I'm not sure it's so much them that I like as much as what I associate with them.
Not so many Sundays ago, the pride of Hirwaun and I spent the afternoon on one of the comfy sofas at The Cricketers, in Pontcanna. Formerly known as Y Cadno, the pub has apparently abandoned its previous Welsh theme and swung to the opposite end of the pendulum by associating itself with the most English of games. Nothing much has changed inside, though: there is a relatively nice beer garden outside, a handful of modern dining tables near the bar and then several leather sofas near a fireplace toward the front. In the background you hear the sort of music the owners suspect their targeted middle-class clientèle would enjoy. Music for people with money but no character; music for people who were just as bland in their youth as they are now. On heavy rotation that day was a best of The Housemartins CD mixed in with Elton John, some modern Carly Simon and the like.
We sat on a sofa close to a window. With the breeze blowing in, we enjoyed an afternoon of sharing the newspaper and sipping our drinks. That's it. We just sat next to each other, reading. And it was one of my favourite days of August.

~ 8 ~ The Collection, by James C. Moore: You can't buy this book. It is not yet published. New York Times bestselling author Jim Moore asked me if I'd be willing to take a look at it for him. It's the first time I've been asked for critical feedback on an unpublished book and obviously I felt honoured to do so. In sending it to me, Jim said he was aiming for something "in the same manner as Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum or Michael Crichton" and I think he's more or less succeeded in that. What I find interesting is that there is also something distinctly Texan in his style. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by that, but simply noticed a very faint similarity in style to that of J. Frank Dobie, who I happened to be reading at the same time. My hope is that the book becomes wildly popular and that Jim will then ask me to translate into Welsh for him (because, you know, that's a huge market).

~8~ Finally publishing The Way Forward: More on this Thursday, when I expect to officially launch the book. But, in short, I am finally making available the novel I've been working on since late 2005. And it's in English, bitches.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

At least nine times

A few years ago, I saw Bill Clinton on "The Daily Show" promoting his autobiography. Noting that the book has more than 1,000 pages, Jon Stewart pitched a softball question to the president and asked: "So, this is something you just threw together?"

Clinton laughed, then did that hand motion he is famous for -- a thumb's up early in his presidency, a bent finger later on, and now more of a good ol' boy touch on the arm or leg. But always more or less the same motion, used to emphasise whatever is being said.

"Hey, listen," he said. "Now, I wanna tell ya: every single page in that book has been proofread at least nine times."

He said it as if it was the most difficult thing he had ever done. Getting Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin together was tricky, brokering peace in Northern Ireland was a challenge, but proofreading that book nine times was a motherfucker.

Actually, I can relate. I can't begin to guess how many times I've proofread The Way Forward, the novel I'll be publishing as an e-book later this week. There have been eight versions of the novel over the years, with each of those versions having been drafted, redrafted and proofread, well, at least nine times.

In fact, I think the excessive amount of reading and rereading is one of the primary reasons I shelved the book a few years ago. I had grown tired of it. When the book wasn't able to secure a major publishing deal, I simply allowed it to slip away.

But a few weeks ago, Lisa expressed interest and I read a section to her, which eventually led to her suggestion of making the book available on Kindle.

"Hmm, looks simple enough," I said to myself while watching the video on how to make a book available. "Just upload a .doc file, then sit back and wait for the cash to roll in."

But you know all those negative things that you think about the idea of self-publishing? And that weird feeling that somehow not having a tangible, glossy item produced by the publishing houses of authors you had to read in high school means the work is going to be awful? Some part of me feels those things, too. It doesn't make sense to feel that way -- my own experience tells me that any number of good authors are being ignored by the publishing industry -- but I can't help it. I'm a tool.

So, the first thing I had to do was get my own head around the idea. And as part of that, I wanted to make sure the novel is not shit. Or, at least, as not shit as I am capable of. Which meant rereading the novel. Again.

I printed out a copy, grabbed a pencil and picked through the thing with fresh eyes. I am happy to say there was only one typo -- I had written "you" instead of "your" -- and happier still to say I am actually proud of this work. Some part of me had mentally logged it as a failure. But in looking at it again, I find myself feeling this really is a story I'm happy to put my name to. I pulled some redundant phrases (specifically my excessive use of "sort of") and added approximately 700 words -- a sentence here or there to explain a reference or flush out an emotion. Lisa was kind enough to proofread the thing, as well, circling the odd redundant word and occasionally adding little comments, like, "Love this!" and, "This section is beautiful."

Comfortable in the novel's quality, I went to the Amazon page for authors, uploaded the .doc file, previewed it and...

...it looked like shit.

In translating the .doc file to its HTML format, Kindle had made everything look crazy. Paragraph indents had disappeared; special characters had become gobbledygook. What I ended up having to do was copy the document into an HTML editor (SeaMonkey, for anyone looking for a free, simple editor) and then go through the thing taking out the shitty, worthless code that gets hidden into Word documents.

This is the part where Mr. Phin or an equally tech savvy person says, "Don't you have a MacBook? What you should have done is..." followed by a super-simple process that would have reduced my work time to five minutes. But I didn't know that trick, nor how to find out about that trick, so I went old school, bitches. I picked it apart by hand.

That took two days. Two full days of staring at HTML code. Two full days of reading and rereading the novel that I have read and reread so very many times. At one point I went crazy: I started screaming at kitchen utensils.

No, really. I stood in my kitchen and shouted, "Don't you fucking start with me," at a bread knife.

But it's done now. The book should be available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk by the end of the week. Next Saturday I will begin posting sample chapters on the blog. Hopefully that will encourage people to purchase the whole book -- comfortable in the knowledge it has been proofread at least nine times.

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 Amazon.com'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.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Trying to do a bit more

Lately I've been thinking about reviving this blog to be a little more than a place of infrequent prose. Those with a bit of bloggy-awareness will be looking at that claim and thinking, in Bill Cosby style: "Right."

Yeah, I know. We've all seen those sort of claims before. They are as common as Twitter feeds with only one post: "Still not sure how this thing works. Going to give it a try."

The internet is a bandwagon.

That's an appropriate metaphor. The phrase, "following the bandwagon," or, "jumping on the bandwagon," comes from the late 19th century and early 20th century, when circuses would parade through towns. A large wagon would carry the circus' band, drawing people to join in the parade and to follow it to wherever the circus was set up.

But circuses are old and busted, yo. So, too, is blogging. Neither draw the crowds they once did. Both are too often maintained by people who go at it halfheartedly, never changing the look or feel, trying to hold onto an era that never really existed as it is so lovingly portrayed. Golly, remember 2005, when we all had blogs and we were all important?

For many years, my best friend, Eric, refused to read my blog because he felt such a thing was for losers. He'll read it now because he's about to be a dad -- all of his coolness is gone -- but his original assertion was correct.

Still, here I am. Blogging. And hoping to do so with more frequency. The days of my posting on a daily basis are long gone: I no longer have a job I hate, using the blog as a way of distracting myself to avoid stabbing co-workers. But I am hoping to update reliably: each Tuesday and Saturday. From that point, slowly, I will enact my plan to take over the world.

One thing that might help the effort: for reasons unknown to me my blog is blocked by a number of workplace filters. The filters claim I'm running some sort of sex-related website. Does anyone know how I can convince those filters I am actually a really lovely fella?

A really lovely fella who will give it to you all night long...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A drive in summer

Ostensibly it was to save money on petrol. Using a car's air conditioner burns extra fuel, so I drove the 1,276 miles from Bloomington, Minnesota, to Lake Jackson, Texas, with windows down.

Our friends in the Soggy Nations will likely not have heard of Click and Clack, hosts of "Car Talk," an automotive-related radio programme broadcast nationally in the United States on NPR. The programme is strangely popular among people who know very little about cars. Perhaps this is because the hosts are so entertaining, or perhaps it is because people who understand cars don't listen to public radio. According to Click and Clack, or, at least, according to a friend of mine who listens to Click and Clack, the savings made from not using a car's air conditioner is negated by the additional aerodynamic drag caused by driving with the windows down. It is a claim echoed by MythBusters, a popular U.S. television programme that generally involves blowing stuff up.

I don't know how Click and Clack came to their conclusion, but the methods used by MythBusters were flawed and failed to mirror actual driving conditions. And regardless of what they say, the simple truth is that in every car I've ever driven if the car had an air conditioner its use had a noticeably negative effect on fuel consumption. I am a starving artist, yo. It's money I don't really have.

Admittedly, had a female been in the car, the additional cost would have been justified. I fear Mrs. Phin may flag me as sexist for the implications in saying such a thing, but I have yet to meet a woman who could honestly tolerate heat. I know plenty of women who could keep from complaining, but deep down inside they would be hating the experience as well as everyone involved in the experience. In that case, use of air conditioner is well-advised; the cost of an additional tank of petrol is far less than what it takes to get back on a woman's good side.

My friend Dani, for example, is a tough cookie and prides herself on being as such. Had she been riding shotgun on my cross-country trip she could easily have gone the whole way without so much as a disgruntled sigh. But quietly in her head, each mile, each foot, each minute, each second she had to sit there being hot and sweaty and uncomfortable would have added exponentially to the list of things she felt I owed her in compensation. By journey's end, I would have nonverbally consigned myself to perpetual dishwashing. I would be expected to do her laundry every day for the rest of my life.

Travelling on my own, though, I came out ahead. It costs roughly $40 (£25) to fill the tank of my father's Honda Accord. I estimate I saved $80 by navigating the great American concrete river sans air-conditioned bliss.

Speeding across the Kansas landscape, I realised there was another reason for keeping the windows open: I wanted to feel America.

Jack Kerouac taught us to love the road trip. Thanks to him and the diligent work of Big Three marketing departments, the road trip is an integral part of the American experience. The boys are thirsty in Atlanta and there's beer in Texarkana. You're not really Yanqui until you get in a car and just go. But as much as Americans profess to love the road and the nation it cuts through, most would prefer to block out the experience. They see their country from a climate-controlled box, separating themselves from the sound and feel of that which they claim to be exploring.

In a way, they know no more about the great and wide of America than a person who has never even been there. How much do you get of a place by only looking at it? If you roll up the windows and crank up the AC as you sail through Arizona desert, how much more do you really know of it than some bloke sitting on a vibrating chair watching the same thing on a high-definition television set? Touching a real woman's breasts is infinitely better than seeing pictures of them on the internet. Swimming in a river helps you understand it better than simply standing on its banks. And watching a landscape unfold before you has greater worth when you breathe it in.


The day before I set out, it had been jungle hot in the Twin Cities. It was like having one of those steam towels they give you at Japanese restaurants shoved down your throat and being set upon by sweaty, amorous sumo wrestlers. It was like being trapped at the bottom of a rugby ruck. The air was too thick to breathe. The heat was inescapable.

Dirt road

That night I drove to Dan and Johanna's place for dinner with them, Anthony and Maggie. In the air-conditioned cool of the house, lounging on spongy new carpet, we debated the wisdom of going outside. But Dan and Johanna live in the sort of place that draws people outdoors. A mile down a dirt road and nestled in several acres of land, the house is really only a place to sleep. You can see that in the way much of it looks unoccupied inside. Outside, Dan and Johanna have planted gardens and set up chicken coops, stacked cords of firewood and cut trails leading out to grassland. It is the sort of place about which country songs are written. And it takes so damn long to get there from Bloomington Rock City I was surprised such a song hadn't been written and released about me en route: the European city boy headin' out to the country.

Jungle hot be damned, we ordered pizza and went outside with cold beer and mosquito repellent because unless there's a risk of being struck down by lightning, no summer day in Minnesota should be wasted. As the sunlight abandoned its fight against sullen grey clouds that had dominated through the day, a soft breeze started to push in and the heat faded away into the night. Flames danced in the fire pit and in the spirit of American ingenuity we made s'mores with Reese's peanut butter cups.

For our friends in the Soggy Nations, a s'more is an American desert made at campfires. Using a stick or straightened wire coat hanger, a marshmallow is toasted over the fire and then placed on a piece of chocolate. That is then sandwiched by two graham crackers (a dry, square biscuit often used as the base for pie crusts). Tradition holds that the chocolate be from a Hershey's bar. I'm not sure why that's the tradition. It just is. Why is it tradition for English rugby fans to sing a negro spiritual? Sometimes things just happen. But we broke the rules by using Reese's, a combination of chocolate and peanut butter that you'll find mimicked on page 25 of Nigella Lawson's Nigella Christmas cookbook.

With the Hershey's culinary wall torn down we went mad with power and added fresh raspberries. Then, displaying the sort of reckless behaviour that not so many years ago would have seen us dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Maggie and Johanna scrapped the chocolate altogether: marshmallow, raspberries and graham crackers. It was a crazy time.

So crazy we didn't really know where to go from there. Night drew on and everyone but me had to work in the morning. I had to drive across the country. There was a sadness in our goodbyes. That's a running theme of my trips home: I see my friends, laugh with them, want to embrace them from joy, and then walk away. If I'm lucky, I'll see them in a year. So much life happens in that time, though: houses are bought, jobs are lost, love is won, marriages fail, children are born, loved ones die, joys and tragedies. And I will miss them.

But I feel pulled away. My personal narrative is one of always yearning to find a place where I can grow roots, getting there and feeling on fire with the need to go elsewhere. As my father's black Honda danced down the dirt road leading away from Dan and Johanna's house, the cool air of summer night mussed my hair through open windows and whispered of open road.


I first noticed the heat in Des Moines, Iowa. I had stopped there for lunch, unable to resist the call of Buffalo Wild Wings. Returning to my car with a belly full of chicken-wing goodness I was struck by the sting of the sun as I walked across the restaurant's treeless car park. I will never understand why developers of cities, businesses and housing have such a deep hatred of trees. With nothing to stop it, the sun came at me from all corners, even bouncing off the white of new concrete. I squinted against the glare, felt the burn of the car's door handle on my fingertips, opened the door and was pushed back by an oven-like heat.

I was back on the interstate soon enough, though, and by the time I was able to find a radio station broadcasting something other than advertisements, Iowa was perfectly tolerable. Soon I was gliding across the Missouri state line.

I have long struggled to understand why anyone would want to live in Missouri. It gets bitterly cold in the winter, but not so often that you really get enough snow to reliably enjoy the season. In the summer it gets miserably hot but swimmable lakes and rivers are few and far between; the ocean is hundreds upon hundreds of miles away. Its major cities of St. Louis and Kansas City fall into that category of American towns -- like Cleveland, Detroit and Albany -- that were once important in one way or another and are now to be avoided. Last summer I had considered visiting St. Louis on my trip across the United States but was consistently advised against it by everyone I spoke to.

"Have you been there before?" they would ask.
"No," I'd say. "But I'd like to see the Arch."
"It's not all that impressive," they'd say. "And then, once you've seen it, there's nothing else to do. You're stuck driving hundreds of miles back to anything interesting."

But the thing about any place -- any place in the world -- is that there will always be at least one person who loves it. If you drive any great distance, in any country, you will inevitably pass through towns and cities that hold no appeal to you whatsoever: towns you will forget even before you are beyond their boundaries. But somewhere in each of those places are people for whom it is the whole world. Somewhere in those places are people who wouldn't want to be anywhere else, people who would ache and die inside if you dragged them away. I try to think about that when I go new places. I try to imagine not only what it would be like to live there, but what it would be like to love living there. Some places are more of a challenge for me than others. Gary, Indiana, for example.

Buffalo (not really)

Anywhere in Missouri is also a challenge. But at a rest area in Eagleville, I got out and walked in the surrounding plains grassland. Mysteriously, a series of giant iron silhouette statues of bison had been set up across a field, with a giant silhouette Native American overlooking the scene. I walked up close to the statues and saw a hawk sitting on the shoulder of the Native American. Around me darted little prairie birds moving so fast and at such tight angles they were hard to glimpse. It reminded me of North Dakota, reminded me of a girl from long ago, and I thought perhaps I could see why someone might at least like that little corner of the state.

I hit Kansas City at rush hour. Slowness of traffic and urban landscape poured heat into the car. The roads to and through the metropolis seemed to have been designed by someone who hated Kansas City. With erratic, nonsensical turns the interstate winds underneath soot-laden bridges and past walls of concrete misery, only occasionally offering you a glimpse of a downtown that wears the look of a prostitute who's just realised she's going to have to drop her asking price. Again.

I crawled into the state of Kansas, picked up speed and coughed up car exhaust for 20 miles. Moving deeper into the Sunflower State, the heat wrapped around me even at 80 mph. There's a scene in the James Bond film Goldfinger in which the villain threatens to launch a nuclear missile at Kansas but then decides against it, reasoning "no one would notice." There's not a great deal to see and do in Superman's adopted home state. But perhaps because of that, it is one of the best places I know to be at sunset.

Once again free of urban landscape, Interstate 35 floats through a sea of seemingly endless lush green hills generally populated by little more than tranquil, bemused-looking cows. Occasionally the road dips down into a little island of trees and creek or river, then dances back up another ridge. At sunset I found myself gliding through Flint Hills, the last great expanse of tall-grass prairie in the United States. The fading golden sun was warm on my face as it sank just behind my right shoulder. The sky went bright orange, then pink and red with strips of salmon cloud stretched thin across the horizon.

Already by that point I had heard "Free" by Zac Brown Band enough times to know the words by memory. I turned off the radio and sang to myself. Then I went quiet and listened to the roar of wind and road. I tasted the warm freshness of the air. This Kansas summer evening was as warm as a Cardiff summer day. As the car shot onward into the night, the headlights reaching into nothingness, I heard crickets singing in the grass. When the road dipped into an area of trees I could hear the whining song of cicada.

Cicadas. The choir of my childhood summers.

Dinner was two cans of Red Bull and several packets of Fig Newtons. I had timed things poorly and not thought about how the only food available on the Kansas Turnpike would be McDonald's or petrol station snack fare. By the time I reached Oklahoma it was too late for any restaurants to be open.


Rest areas are an all-too-often under-appreciated facet of American life. Dotted along the country's interstates and highways are a collection of buildings where a person can stop, make use of a clean restroom and usually purchase soda and snacks from a vending machine. Rest areas are maintained by the states they are in, so number and quality vary considerably from place to place. Some states use their rest areas as tourist centres, staffing it with a person who happily hands out pamphlets and will circle points of interest for you on a complimentary map. Many rest areas have designated spots to exercise your pets. Some have little paths where a person can walk off the effects of being cramped in a car. Often there are picnic benches; sometimes there are barbecue grills. Free wi-fi is increasingly common; free coffee is increasingly rare. In Minnesota there are rest areas roughly every 40 miles. In Oklahoma there are none.

At least, there are none on Interstate 35 that are still open. Anti-government sentiment of the past decade or so has contributed to the closure of many rest areas in the United States. Americans seem to hate the idea of paying taxes for something that anyone other than themselves might use. They don't like trains and buses, they don't like maintaining roads and bridges, they don't like public schools, they don't like universal health care, and they don't like providing no-cost areas for fellow drivers to avoid shitting themselves or becoming so tired they drive off the road and die. This is especially true in the not-so-great state of Oklahoma.

In addition to forgoing air conditioning on this trip, I had chosen to abstain from motel use. Depending on your stamina, the drive from Bloomington to Lake Jackson takes two to three days, generally being broken up by overnights at motels en route. My plan, though, was to simply stop at a rest area and sleep in the car. Crossing into Oklahoma, the Red Bull was beginning to wear off and I started to look forward to finding a place to stop and get some sleep. But that place never came.

Exhaustion sank its fangs into me. Oklahoma became nothing more than road and darkness. Somewhere in God Knows Where, I stopped at a petrol station/casino where frightening Native Americans smoked cigarettes and watched me purchase an exorbitantly expensive can of Red Bull and a dusty bottle of water. I drove and drove: 236 miles wanting sleep. I remember nothing of Oklahoma City, saw the sign for J.R.'s in Norman and wondered if I will ever time things right that I'll actually get to eat there, and pushed on and on and on.

Around 2 a.m., I crossed the Red River into my home state. There, the road suddenly veers to the left across the bridge and if you aren't careful you'll drive full speed into an enormous 24-hour pornography store. Welcome to Texas. Just a few miles further on, I found a huge rest area where I parked beneath an enormous state flag waving in the warm summer night. I folded down the back seats and crawled in so my head was in the car's boot (ftypah: "trunk"). I sent a text to the pride of Hirwaun and fell asleep with the phone still in my hand.

A few hours later, I woke up confused. I don't remember what the dream was but it had been about the pride of Hirwaun. Then suddenly I was in north Texas and it was 5:30 a.m. I fell out of the car gracelessly and weaved toward the restrooms. Some part of me was lost, trying to figure out where Lisa had gone. I stuck my face in a sink basin and ran water over my head. When I looked up I saw another man had come into the restroom, stripped down to his shorts and was washing himself at one of the other sinks. He had set out soap and toothpaste and a toothbrush and a towel on a window sill. Probably a few years younger than me, dark-tanned and sun-bleached messy hair, he whistled as he scrubbed the back of his neck with a rag.

"Mornin', bud," he said in an easy Southern accent.
"Mornin'," I said.

I washed all the sleep from my eyes and went back outside into the weak grey light of morning. Crickets climbed on a broken water fountain. There were a dozen or more cars in the parking lot, my father's sleek, black Honda easily the best looking of the bunch. A child slept on the dashboard of an old Ford Econoline. Two overweight men slept open-mouthed in a 1980s Pontiac Grand Am missing its front bumper. A woman in dirty brown dreadlocks and tattered skirt undid the rope that had been holding shut the tailgate of an old Plymouth minivan, propped it open with a broomstick and dug through a backpack. The man from the restroom came out, wearing dirty khakis and an A&M T-shirt. He patted the woman on the back and handed her the soap and toothpaste. I had not been the only one to use the rest area as a place to sleep that night. But I was probably the only one doing so out of choice.


I looked up at the giant Texas flag waving overhead and thought about the drive ahead of me. I was tired, but decided I wanted to get through Dallas before the rush hour. The people of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area are some of the worst drivers I've ever encountered. Imagine if a dog could drive; that's how the people of Dallas drive. They speed up, suddenly slow down, drift from lane to lane and otherwise behave as if they have recently refused treatment for a concussion. Unless you enjoy the white-hot burn of total rage, it's generally best to avoid being stuck in traffic with them.

Concrete jumble

Three hours of sleep hadn't really been enough. But I found a kind of commiseration in listening to a radio morning show that had started earlier that week. The host, Russ Martin, and his crew were still coming to terms with their new early shifts and suffering from sleep deprivation. It now being Friday, the show had devolved into little more than a room full of guys trying to keep one another from falling asleep on air. At one point, after about 20 seconds of silence, Martin moaned: "Oh, Lord. I haven't been this tired since I was born."

Once I was safely beyond the DFW traffic madness I stopped at a Waffle House in Ennis for breakfast. I sat at the counter and was served by a woman named Brandie. I'm sure every guy who walks in there knows her name because it's on her name tag, which you spot incidentally when staring at her enormous stripper boobs.

"Whatcha want, babe?" Brandie asked as I sat down.
"Uhm. Tea," I said, quickly trying to scan the menu that had just been handed to me. "May I have a hot tea, please?"
"Two eggs, scrambled. Sausage. And hashbrowns, please."
"White or wheat toast?"
"Wheat, please."
"That it for ya?"
"Yeah. Think so. Oh, can I have an ice water, as well, please?"

Brandie wore a fashion Dr. Pepper baseball cap, holding up bleached-blond hair and helping to hide dark, weary eyes. Her makeup was done in the heavy style of north Texas women: thick enough to stop a low-calibre bullet. And ineffectively hidden by a tent of a uniform, were a large pair fake breasts. In my head I made up a story that she is a stripper in the evenings, that she has two kids and an insufferably no-good Vicodin-addicted ex-husband who occasionally shows up and borrows money. I tried to think up a lie about being a reporter or something that would allow me to ask her what the hell she was doing working at Waffle House, but it was too early in the morning for me to be that inventive. I ate my breakfast with a sense of purpose, gulped down my tea and got back to the road.

In Madisonville, I stopped at a Buc-ee's to buy a 12-pack of water bottles. Effectively just a petrol station, Buc-ee's is the sort that has developed a die-hard following -- in part because of the things sold there, like leather gun-style holsters for mobile phones. The Buc-ee's slogan is: "Everything you ever needed. You just didn't know it." I spent five minutes seriously contemplating the purchase of a cowboy hat but eventually decided against it. Not a day has gone by since in which I haven't regretted that decision. The road to hell is paved with unbought cowboy hats.

Cool hand Huntsville

The heat was becoming undeniable as I sped toward Houston. I gulped down water and used a Wendy's napkin to wipe away the sweat. It was hot, that kind of heat where adjectives and cognitive thinking slip away. All one can process is: "It is hot."

In a field to my right, I spotted several people in white jumpsuits, lined up in formation. Several yards away and at all sides sat men on horseback, looking like the Native American silhouette in Missouri overlooking his herd of silhouette bison. But these were real men, sitting tall in the saddle and wearing white cowboy hats, whom I realised were holding real rifles. They were guards, and the men in white jumpsuits were a prison work crew.

I was passing Huntsville, home to Texas' execution chamber. Home to the Texas Prison Museum and formerly home to one of the more brutal prison rodeos in the United States.

Arriving Huntsville is like sitting on top of a hill. Not that there any actual hills to be had in the area. But when I was a boy it meant we were almost home. Houston was not so far away. Indeed, with each passing year, Houston stretches her concrete fingers ever closer. Huntsville feels like the start of a tumbling, accelerating fall into the heat and humidity and smell and madness of Houston.

I cannot imagine two people falling in love in Houston. I can imagine two lovers from elsewhere making a bad career move and ending up in Houston; I can imagine any number of teenage backseat romances; I can imagine two people slipping into a pattern with one another, having kids and finding themselves in an endless cycle of mortgages and parent meetings and home improvement and keeping up appearances. But I can't imagine two souls -- a Houston boy and a Houston girl -- meeting and truly falling in love.

When I was a boy, we used to play a game called Smear the Queer. In more culturally sensitive areas the game is known as: Kill the Guy With the Ball. In a group of boys, an American football is thrown to one and the rest chase him down and tackle him. The ball is picked up by another boy and the process repeats itself. There is no win or lose, no strategy, no end: just boys beating the shit out of one another until they get bored. Often we would leave the ball out and instead call a person's name: "OK, now Grant is 'it.' Everyone get him!"

We played Slaps. We played Spread Eagle, a game that involved having a kid stand against a wall and throwing a tennis ball at him. In Hide and Seek we had to run and touch a tree without the person playing "it" hitting us with a stick. The game Bombers was simply standing on opposite sides of a ditch and trying to hit one another with rocks. And sometimes we would just sit and punch each other in the arms and legs and chest and back, to see who could hit hardest.

I cannot imagine two people falling in love in Houston.

The city is a human throng. It has no sense of purpose or direction or commonality. It has no heart. It does, however, have nearly 6 million people in its metro area: a metro area that extends dozens upon dozens of miles beyond its ghost-like downtown. Great rivers of dusty white concrete, perpetually under construction, spider across 10 counties. Houston is big. And it is hot. It is a hot you can't comprehend -- burning, humid, unforgiving. Evil. In 1866, sent there to protect against possible Mexican/French invasion, Gen. Phillip Sheridan said of the area: "If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell."

Despite being stretched out across five lanes in each direction, traffic slowed to a crawl about 35 miles north of downtown. I reached behind my seat to grab a bottle of water from the 12-pack I had bought in Madisonville, drank it down in one gulp and tossed it to the passenger-side floorboard to roll around with the other empties. I reached behind me and grabbed another bottle. Sweat was pouring out. My arm no longer stuck to the armrest, it now slid -- leaving a trail of sweat.

My father would later claim that "no one in their right mind" would drive across Houston without air conditioning. He is probably right. And although I may not be of sound mind, I am at least of sound body. I am a healthy person; I could handle the physical strain of the heat and humidity. I'm certain, however, that a large number of people would be physically incapable of doing such a thing -- it would literally kill them. Especially considering the city has the highest rate of obesity in the country. Houston has sprawled so terribly, so unnaturally, it is a very serious threat to one's health to drive across town. It is a city that defies God. It is a city of madness. And it grows ever larger.


Eventually I fell onto Highway 288, the road to Lake Jackson. Getting out of Houston is like fighting against a planet's gravitational pull, but once beyond the turnoff for Alvin I felt the city's grip loosening. The car returned to its 80-mph cruising speed. On the radio, Miranda Lambert sang "The House That Built Me."

The highway has changed over the years. I can remember when stoplights would sway above the road in Gulf Coast storms, when vans would be parked roadside selling everything from shrimp to velvet paintings, when my grandparents' house was far away. Now the 288 is a motorway, a shining, white express route with nothing to slow you or draw your attention. In almost no time I was turning onto the familiar curving, buckled roads of old Lake Jackson. And then up the two-strips-of-concrete driveway of my grandparents' house, past the towering live oak and parking in front of their weathered old garage.

I took a big gulp of water, stepped out of the car. The next-door neighbour's air conditioner hummed, a dog barked. I opened the squeaking screen door at the back of the house, then pushed open the other door. Years ago, my grandfather had rigged it so a music box plays "Eyes of Texas" when you step inside. The first few notes announced my arrival, I let the closing screen door push me inside.

"Hey! There he is!" my grandmother said, coming to hug me -- then pausing. "What on earth?!"
"Oh, yeah. I'm a bit sweaty," I said. "I drove with the windows down."
"All the way?" she laughed.
"Yeah. Houston was really hot."
"Well, OK," she said, her voice arcing to let me know her opinion. "I'll fix us some hot dogs."

"Hey. Chris," my grandfather announced from his chair.

Breezy doesn't say anything. He announces. It comes from his years as a football coach, I suppose. He has always been able to hold a certain authority with his his deep-voiced West Texas accent. One of my favourite stories of him comes from when he was a high school vice-principal. He prevented a school shooting by walking right up to the gun-toting teenager and saying: "Give me that shotgun, or I'm gonna have to tell your daddy."

Of course, in those days he was also a physical presence. Now 86 years old and recovering from stroke, he was thinner than in my memory. I walked across the room to him. That's what you do; Breezy waits for people to come to him.

"Hello, sir," I said, sticking out my right hand. "How are you feeling?"

He looked at my hand, frowned at it and waved it away with a quick brushing motion. He then lifted up his left hand to me. I switched hands, extended my left, and he crushed it in his grip. The stroke had affected my grandfather's right side, which is slightly fortunate because he's naturally left-handed. Of course he had taught himself to shake hands with his right, to conform to societal norms, but now preferred to risk awkwardness rather than a weak handshake.

There is importance in a good handshake. That's something my grandfather taught me. You are conveying things with a handshake -- things about yourself and about how you feel toward the other person. I'm sure some people would accuse me of being outdated for holding that view, for judging people by the way they shake my hand. I don't care. My artistic side would like to care, feels I should care, but I don't. A handshake is important; I'm unapologetic about that. It is the first step in showing your worth. Swimming in a river helps you understand it better. Driving across your country with the windows down helps you feel a part of it. Shaking a man's hand helps you know who he is.

My grandmother set out chilli dogs and glasses of ice tea. After lunch, she brought bowls of vanilla Blue Bell ice cream for me and my grandfather.

"Chris. They have Blue Bell over in Wales?" asked Breezy playfully.
"No, sir. They don't."
"Hmm. They got any pretty girls?"
"Yes, sir. I can think of a few."
"Pretty girls but no Blue Bell ice cream?"
"Yes, sir."
"Well. I don't think I'll go to Wales. We got both here."

Gulf coast sky

I brought in my things. A chocolate bar my mother had sent along for my grandmother had completely liquified in the heat. I trudged upstairs, set my bags in my mother's old room, then went to take a shower.

I had only had 3.5 hours of sleep in the last 30-odd hours. Clean, with food in my belly and in the cool of the air-conditioned house, I lay down on my bed and looked up at the ceiling. I thought of when I was a kid and my grandmother would take me to the beach or down to the pool. I would splash and play to the point of collapse -- until I was dehydrated, worn out and sunburned. Then, in my exhausted kid delirium I would lie on my bed and listen to the world around me: my grandfather watching sports, the ceiling fan, cicadas.

I thought of the summers and Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays and Easters. I thought of climbing in trees, jumping off the railing, sliding down the stairs, crawling through the laundry chute, hiding behind the couch and going on long evening walks with my grandmother. Thus far in my life I've called at least 16 different places "home." I've lived in 12 cities, in five states, in three countries. My grandparents' house has remained the only constant. More so than anywhere else, it is the house I grew up in.

As I drifted off to sleep, I listened to the soft "click-click" of the ceiling fan. Outside, cicadas were singing in the live oaks. Downstairs, my grandfather was watching baseball.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Eight things I loved about July

Since the eight things post is actually retrospective, looking back on that which has happened rather than looking ahead to things that will happen, I've decided to change the wording of the post's title. I am sure you really, really care a lot. I read recently that far too many Americans think themselves to be important, which was taken as indicative of some other bad thing about the Yanqui character. Though I don't remember what that bad thing was. Perhaps it is that we don't pay proper attention to newspaper articles that fail to mention us by name. But no doubt my worrying about verb tense in blog titles is a sign of thinking I'm too important. As is having a blog.

Anyway, here, in no particular order, are eight things that made me happy last month. Caution, this post may contain patriotism:

The taste of freedom~8~ Visiting the United States of America: Going home occupied pretty much the whole of July for me. Use of that word, "home," is always a troublesome one: the majority of my life seems to be defined by search for belonging. I can remember questioning what "home" meant even when I was a boy. I'm no more sure now what it means than I was then. Home may just be where I lay my head, because my heart is in too many places.
In July, Minnesota and Texas were where I could be found. And I felt at home -- that sense of belonging -- in at least a dozen spots in and in between those two states. Sometimes I was amid friends, sometimes I was on my own.
More often than not, I was happy to be there. I'm not yet sure whether that means it's time to move back, but I've come to realise I can't live without it. I don't know where home is -- or if it is possible for me to even have a home -- but I know I can't be away too long from the country where I was born.

~8~ Old friends: There are all manner of geographical wonders in the United States. I have no doubt, however, much can be rivalled if not surpassed by other things in other places. What actually pulls me back are the people. But it's difficult to talk about one's friends without falling into the sentimentality traps usually reserved for talks at church and Welsh societies. So, I find myself remembering scenery over the actual thing:
- On the 4th of July, Eric, his cousin-in-law Jimmy, and I stood chest-deep in Clear Lake, where his in-laws have a cabin, skipping a Frisbee across the water at each other. Talking about football and nothing in particular, we developed a game of keeping the Frisbee away from their dogs: Labrador retrievers teaching a lesson in patience and faith by constantly swimming after a little green disc being deliberately kept from them. The lake took on the calm of early evening. Jimmy and one of the dogs got bored. I found myself standing there with the man who has been my best friend for 22 years as the sky went dark orange and red, the light purple of night creeping in on the periphery. The light reflected off the water and into our skin.
Old friends- There is a restaurant in Austin called Shady Grove, where tall, old live oak trees keep out the cutting dry heat of Texas Hill Country. Big oscillating fans mounted on the trees helped to push heat away as Dani and I sat eating lunch on a mid-July afternoon. We sipped from sweating bottles of Shiner and oversized glasses of ice tea for several hours, watching a patch of glowing bright sunlight crawl across our table.
- In Forest Lake, Minnesota, about a mile down a dirt road and in the middle of nowhere, Anthony, Maggie, Dan, Johanna and I sat around a fire pit behind Dan and Johanna's house. They moved in almost a year ago but still haven't really managed to unpack. It is the sort of property that pulls you outside, out into the Minnesota -- the state's weather being unique enough that it is its own thing. The day had been sweltering hot -- a choking, jungle heat -- but as night set in, a soft breeze had cleared it all away. We made s'mores of marshmallows, Reese's peanut butter cups and freshly picked raspberries, washing it down with Old Milwaukee and Miller High Life.
"I wish we didn't have to work tomorrow," Dan said. "Then we could spend all night out here. We could sleep under the stars."
"We live here. We can do that on a weekend," Johanna said.
"Yeah. But Chris won't be here then."

~8~ Family: My grandfather celebrated his 86th birthday in June. If he were a building in Europe he wouldn't really be old enough to consider preserving, but in people terms I suppose he is a Georgian home. Practical, sturdy and with a fair bit of character. Breezy -- so named because of quickness in his football days -- suffered a stroke about a year ago, so I was expecting to meet a different person to the one I grew up with. He was a bit thinner, and his right hand not so strong, but the strength of a vicelike handshake is there in his left. He still whistles wandering tunes without melody. He can still remember every game of golf he's ever played. He can still somehow recount that day's Astros game despite having slept through at least four innings. He's had setbacks since his stroke but looks forward to one day picking up his wheelchair and throwing it in a ditch.
My grandmother, meanwhile, does not age; she may not be physically capable of such a thing. We went for a walk along the jetty at Quintana in the sweltering Gulf Coast heat and she walked at a pace faster than my usual stride. Under my shirt I could feel sweat running down my rib cage, my mouth went dry in need of water. But my grandmother was completely unfazed, calmly telling me a story of how there had once been a large contingent of English people in the area with fancy hotels and posh homes -- all of it washed away by the hurricane of 1900.
While in the United States I also got a chance to see my uncle Steve, aunt Elaine and cousin Mollie, as well as my dad, mom and brother. I think one of the highlights was getting to spend some time with my mom. I have said before that I get my sense of humour from my mother, whereas I get my desire to display that sense of humour from my father. Mom is the sort of person you have to listen to in order to catch her witticisms. She won't set them out with pauses or emphasis. There is no "here comes the punchline" delivery. If you're not paying attention, brilliant things are lost amid talk of science projects, the practicality of chocolate and the importance of doing absolutely nothing until after you've had a good sleep.

Lady in the lake~8~ Introducing the pride of Hirwaun to the Land of 10,000 Lakes: Put two beers in me and inevitably I will start telling you how awesome Texas and Minnesota are. Especially if it is a typically rainy and cold day in Wales. Somehow this braggadocio turned into an invitation, and so Lisa ended up spending 10 days being introduced to some of the people, places and things that make L'Étoile du Nord so incredibly wonderful. Highlights include canoeing Lake of the Isles, taking pictures of Lisa with Eric's shotgun, sitting in Coffee News Cafe and chatting, Lisa declaring Grand Ole Creamery ice cream so good that she would never eat any other, and Kristin's father deciding Lisa was pretty much his favourite person ever (Duane's never given me a pat on the head). But I think my favourite day was the one we spent in Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior.
We ate fresh fish at Angry Trout Cafe, then spent most of the afternoon sitting on the beach. The water was serenely calm and eventually the pride of Hirwaun decided to go for a swim, having been brilliant enough to wear her swimsuit underneath her dress. She swam with her head above water, still wearing her sunglasses, her hair styled up and staying dry. She looked otherwordly swimming out. Lake Superior is so big it is not like a lake at all; Grand Marais looks and feels as if it is by the sea. This sensory experience matched with the geographic reality of it being smack dab in the middle of a continent, hundreds of miles from the nearest sea, causes a sort of confusion. The whole thing disconnects in your mind.
"It doesn't really feel like America," Lisa had said.
Look in any direction -- at the countless American flags, the big American cars carrying big Americans to restaurants serving heavy rich food -- and it is quintessentially Americana, but she's right. Grand Marais on a beautiful summer day feels like somewhere else, yet not like anywhere else.
She swam out to the middle of Grand Marais' little harbour. When she turned back to shore I saw she was wearing a huge grin.

~8~ Barbecue: For our friends in the Soggy Nations, you may not be aware that barbecue is: a) a style of food; b) a way of cooking food, and; c) an event. For example, Eric and Kristin had the pride of Hirwaun and me over for a barbecue one evening, in which Eric made barbecue ribs on his barbecue grill. We cook meat with fire. This is what America is all about. It is why we win wars (assuming the wars are against Germans). In Texas, however, barbecue has a fourth definition: it is a way of life.
There is absolutely no reason for anyone in their right mind to visit Clute, Texas. But if fate, in its mysterious and sometimes sadistic manner lands you there some day, you have to eat at Bryan's Bar-B-Q. It is a simple building, the least-rundown in a string of weather-beaten structures leading out to the endless metal tubes and lights and concrete of the myriad chemical plants that are the area's reason for being. Inside, the wall is plastered with local memorabilia, my personal favourite being a large poster of the Clute Police Department featuring its one SWAT van and three tactical officers, a K-9, two patrol officers stepping out of their cars with shotguns and Chief Mark Whicker emerging from a cloud of smoke. Most likely taken in the early 90s, it is one of the most hilarious police promotion posters you'll ever see, especially when you realise that it's not meant to be ironic.
It goes without saying that country music is piped into Bryan's. There are countless local stations to choose from, but Bryan's seems to be hooked into an internet or satellite feed that broadcasts particularly ridiculous pro-Americana country pop: it was there I heard Darryl Worley's "Keep the Change" for the first and hopefully last time. Behind the counter, high schoolers break from their flirting just long enough to throw your food on a paper plate, hand you a large plastic cup and point at the ice tea dispenser. You don't go to barbecue restaurants for atmosphere or customer service; the food is all that matters.
Barbecue (aka Bar-B-Q, or BBQ) is often looped in with soul food, a cuisine that doesn't really exist in the Soggy Nations. Perhaps if Britain had food that good it wouldn't have lost the empire. No one is totally sure where the term "soul" originated in defining the cuisine. I like to think it is because the food is good for your soul, if not necessarily your heart or waist-line. When you sit down to a plate of brisket and smoked sausage, some little voice inside you says: "OK, I'm willing to live another day."

~8~ American breakfasts: And when you wake up the next day, the best way to ensure willingness to trudge forward is with a proper American breakfast. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the breakfasts found in the Soggy Nations, each nation having its own variation on the theme. An English breakfast is fried egg ("sunny side up" for those of you playing along at home), two sausage, two rashers of bacon, baked beans, half a fried tomato and sometimes fried mushrooms and/or fried bread; an Irish breakfast is the same thing but generally without the beans and with black and white pudding (sausages made of animal blood, for those of you playing along at home); a Welsh breakfast appears to be an English breakfast with more meat, and sometimes laverbread (seaweed) if served in the west. All good and wonderful stuff, happily washed down with steaming sugary mugs of tea. But in abundance and flavour an American breakfast is hard to beat.
DinerAdditionally it is hard to define. What exactly is an American breakfast? For me it is scrambled eggs, sausage patties (sausage in the U.S. has considerably more flavour than its European counterparts), bacon ("streaky bacon" for our friends in the Soggy Nations) and an enormous helping of hash browns. Hash browns are the key. They are not those strange fried potato cakes of the same name that you get at McDonald's, they are not the tater-tot-like cubes of potato like those of the same name served in cafeterias. Hashbrowns are potatoes that have been grated in a cheese grater and then fried crisp in a pan. It is the crispy, starchy, salty taste of freedom.

~8~ "Free" by the Zac Brown Band: One of the challenges of my visit to the United States was an exhausting 1,276-mile drive from Minnesota to Texas, followed by the same drive in reverse less than a week later. This meant spending roughly 48 hours in a car by myself. Had I properly thought things out, I could have borrowed my brother's Rosetta Stone Spanish CDs and would now be looking for a place to live in Madrid. But, as it happened, I only had the radio to keep me company.
For our friends in the Soggy Nations, the United States has no broadcasting service similar to the BBC or RTÉ. There is state-funded radio but it exists on a sort of loose network of stations, which syndicate a handful of NPR programmes and fill the rest of the broadcasting day with a hodgepodge of stuff from other public stations (usually those in Boston or Minnesota) or programming from BBC World. If I were driving from Cardiff to Edinburgh, I could listen to Radio 1 the whole way. No such thing is possible in the United States, so you find yourself searching the dial every 40-60 miles for something new to listen to.
Through some terrible, inexplicable misfortune, the radio stations in the United States with the most powerful signals tend to be those broadcasting either classic rock or country music. In driving the country's length, then, you are for the most part left to choose between Bob Seger or Brad Paisley, Rolling Stones or Rascal Flatts, the Eagles or the Eagles.
The thing about classic rock is that it doesn't change. If you've been alive more than a year, you have heard it all -- nothing new is going to come out. It's George Thorogood today, it's George Thorogood tomorrow, it's George Thorogood until the revolution comes. So, I generally chose to listen to the country stations simply because they were playing things I had not heard before.
Concrete jumbleBut, as I say, there is no one station that broadcasts across the whole country. As you move you get different playlists and inevitably you will hear the same songs several times over. The one featuring the lyrics, "Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey. Whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky." seemed to be particularly popular at the time. There was also an amusing song in which the singer says that he will pray for his ex-girlfriend: "I pray your brakes go out running down a hill. I pray a flower pot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I'd like to. I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls. I pray you're flying high and your engine stalls. I pray all your dreams never come true."
I remember those lyrics from memory, such was the frequency of my hearing them.
But there were actually one or two songs I genuinely liked, songs I have since downloaded, songs I have paid actual money for. Chief among them was "Free" by the Zac Brown Band. It's a song about living in a van, something that has been appealing to me more and more of late.

~8~ Pomplamoose: In Austin, Dani gave me a handful of CDs to pass along to the pride of Hirwaun because the two of them have similar tastes in music. Keen to break up the musical monopoly held in my car by hot new country, I decided to listen to the CDs myself. I liked Beuhlah , but hated the Mountain Goats. The dude in Mountain Goats has all these songs about getting beat up by his dad when he was younger; dude's voice is so annoying I found myself wishing the dad had hit harder. But such is the risk when listening to new music: sometimes you find things you really don't like.
And sometimes you find things you really do. Like Pomplamoose. From the same musical circle that brought you Julia Nunes, Lauren O'Connell and Molly Lewis comes the duo of Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn that is Pomplamoose. Admittedly there is something about their style that makes you think it is music made for the purpose of being used in quirky adverts for hip economy cars, but I really like it. My favourite song from them is: "If You Think You Need Some Lovin'." It reminds me in some way of Kirsty MacColl's "In These Shoes," which may or may not be a compliment.


The runner-up for my favourite country song: "Lover, Lover" by Jerrod Nieman.