Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eight things I loved about October

~8~ Completing my MA: I have to admit to having mixed feelings about finishing my MA. Obviously, I am pleased at having done so. Not so long ago, when I was living in St. Paul, a part of me felt I would never actually earn even a bachelors degree. So, I am quite self-pleased at having completed a masters. But ever since noon on 21 October, when I handed in my project, I have felt a frustrating lack of direction. What do I do now?

~8~ Skype: Obviously I've joined the Skype party quite late; the free VoIP service has been around for several years. Indeed, I was already using it to keep in touch with friends and family in various faraway locales. But up until getting rid of my iPhone I was simply using the Skype for iPhone application, which didn't have video.
When I switched to my new phone I discovered there is no official application for Android phones (a), so I downloaded Skype onto my laptop. And suddenly I was able to video conference.
Up to that point I had thought the video feature to be unnecessary; why would I want to stare at a grainy image of someone staring at a grainy image of me?
Because they are thousands of miles, away, yo, and seeing someone -- even in bad light -- makes the homesickness hurt a little less.
The award for Best Use of Skype easily goes to my friends Paul and BK. In a recent conversation, Paul set his laptop on a table and then went about the usual Sunday afternoon routines of cooking dinner with BK and occasionally ensuring their daughter, Sophie, was not consuming whatever object she had managed to get her little hands on. The effect was one of my being in the house with them, the laptop placed more or less where I might have sat were I there visiting. And I started feeling, in a way, I really was there. At one point, my arm half moved because I was instinctively reaching out to poke Sophie in her little baby belly.
As silly as I thought video conferencing would be, I now find it vital. I like chatting with Siân and feeling I am there in her poorly lit Parisian apartment, or talking to my parents in their study, or sitting at the dinner table with Paul and BK on a Sunday afternoon.

~8~ Having parents who are awesome: Money has been anything but readily available lately. The fact is, if I can't find a steady source of income by 21 January (when my current visa expires), I will have to move back to the United States. If it weren't for my parents helping to prop me up, I wouldn't even have that long. I sometimes wonder whether perhaps I would be a better writer if I had a distant and overbearing father, or an aloof and alcoholic mother, or whatever other cliché it is you so often see in the personal histories of great artists. But for the most part, I am quite happy to have been cursed with parents who support me and do so much to help me achieve all the ridiculous things I dream.

~8~ Visiting Westonbirt Arboretum: In light of the above items -- feeling directionless and without footing, and missing friends and family -- homesickness has been a major theme in my personal narrative lately. One of the things I've been missing most has been the autumn colours. In October in the Twin Cities (b), the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys are awash with the red and orange and gold of autumn leaves. And it doesn't matter how many times you sit and look at it, nor how long you do so, the experience is always one of intensity. It is one of those things that helps you understand why people would think there is a God and why they would believe him to be kind and good.
The climate and incredibly populous nature of Britain mean that such displays can be difficult to find. Or, at least, they can be difficult to find within driving distance of Cardiff. I have seen some incredible pictures of Perthshire, but getting there presently exceeds my budget.
But thanks to the Twitter collective I was directed to check out Westonbirt Arboretum, only an hour or so drive from Cardiff and deep into the kind of English countryside that makes you understand why the WWII generation fought so tooth and nail to keep this island as their own.
I managed to take a handful of pictures at Westonbirt but soon got lost in just the simple contentedness of wandering amongst trees. I felt slightly reconnected to the universe, as stupid as that sounds. Cardiff feels at times like a city that is not real, a city of my imagination -- incongruous and jumbled. And whereas some part of me grows increasingly attached to the old city of change, I find that escaping her from time to time helps to keep me sane.
The biggest drawback to Westonbirt was that it cost me £9 to go there. For those of you playing along at home, that's $15 to look at trees. There's a cautionary tale there for Minnesotans, I think. We too often don't realise the value of something because of its incredible abundance. Keep voting for Republicans and allowing them to zone forest for commercial use, and soon you, too, will have to pay to see what God created.

~8~ Reading at Bay Lit: A big highlight of the month came in my being asked to do a reading as part of a literary festival held in Cardiff Bay. Getting to stand in front of a crowd and read one's work is the sort of thing writers put into their writerly fantasies.
One of the most brilliant quotes I've ever heard about writers came from Donal, who once said: "I can't help thinking I'd have written a novel by now if only I had a large oak desk and a jacket with elbow patches."
Basically he was observing the fact that writers are terribly guilty of idealising and fantasising their lives. We want to carry around Moleskine notebooks in our worn leather book bags, occasionally taking notes whilst sitting in the coffee shop at midday, then returning to our old house with creaking wooden floors and wall-to-wall books where we sit at an old oak desk wearing a scarf and jacket with elbow patches, tapping out a novel on the same old typewriter our grandfather used during the war. Conveniently overlooking the months and months of isolation and self-hatred that is the writing process, we envision our novels completed, our editor fawning over us and then our begrudgingly appearing at launch parties where turtlenecked fools tell us how great we are and women half our age swoon. We dream that the day after the launch party, bleary-eyed, hungover, and with the taste of an 18-year-old girl's perfume still in our mouths, we embark -- via train -- on a worldwide tour of lecture halls and book shops where people cram to hear us read the great things what we wrote.
I've published two books but so far none of that has happened (hope springs eternal). Occasionally, though, I get asked to write a piece for a literary magazine. And even less occasionally I get asked to read some of my work.
I wrote an all-new piece for Bay Lit and put the whole of myself into its performance. At one point in the reading, acting out a character, I twice threw myself to the hardwood floor. I had bruises on my hip and and arms for a week afterward. But an attractive blonde told me I had made her laugh, so I felt justified.

~8~ The return of 'Strictly Come Dancing': In case you hadn't picked this up from my rather lengthy Strictly updates, I'm delighted to be sitting through another season of low-level celebrities dancing. There are versions of Strictly in 75 countries around the world but I wonder whether any of them quite capture the camp panto feel of the original.
Admittedly, though, our version doesn't have Sarah Palin's daughter. Also, the U.S. version adds all kinds of wacky things like theme music weeks and ridiculous additional challenges. If I understand correctly, this dance was performed only 45 minutes after Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough heard the music for the first time.

~8~ Penarth: Officially not part of Cardiff but so obviously just one of its neighbourhoods, the village of Penarth is located on the western edge of Cardiff Bay. It's got two train stations, old houses with a sense of character, a particularly posh-looking tea rooms, a Victorian pier and far fewer chavs than any other Cardiff neighbourhood I'm aware of. I've found myself heading down there a lot lately, and thinking quite seriously about moving there.
Assuming I find a job and am able stay in the country.

~8~ Thoughts of doing something different: With the masters degree completed, I don't really know what to do with myself but seemingly each day I think of something new. Some different direction I might like to take, some different part of Cardiff or Britain where I might like to live. Sometimes, especially when frustrated by fruitless job searches, I like to sit in the kitchen drinking tea and daydreaming about what I could do.


(a) Correction: There was no official Skype application for Android phones. One was released in October.

(b) For our friends in the Soggy Nations, the Twin Cities refers to the metropolitan area of Minnesota's two largest cities: Minneapolis and St. Paul. It is a misleading term because it is one that, in fact, encompasses roughly 190 cities and townships.


Wierdo said...

That idea for skype is a wonderful idea; really nice.

Anonymous said...

Wow..........Bloggy fame for Hamptons in Penarth at last ( my home town). There and the town Library on a Saturday morning is fab. Cuppa on the pier with the kids is good too.

Enjoy it's Victorian ambience mate.


Wannabe Beatnik said...

I think I read that you're not into the Valleys, but if you want to gaze at orange leaves you could do worse than Cwmaman, only 40 mins away from Cardiff and free. Some pics on my blog but I'm no photographer..

Chris Cope said...

Oops - Is that Maerdy park? I've been there once. Lovely but I don't remember a great deal of deciduous forest.

Annie said...

Three things:

1. When you told me you were ina rush handing your paper in that day, I didn't realise it was the actual paper for the actual MA and that finishing it meant you were actually finished. So, well done and congratulations.

2. *

3. Did you think anymore about coming to Ireland?

* I deleted number 2

Wannabe Beatnik said...

Nope not a park at all, just a couple of mountainsides which my house happens to be sandwiched in between.

If you walk far enough though you'd pop out over the top in Maerdy.