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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A travesty

The Wales Blog Awards short list was released this week, and I have to say I'm shocked to discover this blog was not included. No doubt you are as well.

I'm sure that those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will agree I am a better writer than you. I am a better writer than anyone you know. I am a better writer than all those guys you had to study in school (a). So, obviously, my not being included in the short list is a case of blatant racism. The judges of this "competition" clearly hate awesome people.

Most of the time I try to keep quiet about this sort of thing. Last time I addressed my own awesomeness, 23 people in Sunderland killed themselves because they realised how utterly insignificant their lives were compared to mine. But I feel now compelled. I must speak out. On behalf of all the awesome men and women of the world, I am tired of having lesser people try to hold us back. Why can't you just accept us for what we are: awesome.

Stop being so jealous because you go home at night and sleep with only one person. I have so many women that I've had to write up a rota, which I keep on the fridge. I am booked up throughout the day. Writing this blog post is cutting into Selena Gomez's three hours. She's very upset.

See what you've done, Wales Blog Awards? You've upset Selena Gomez.

Stop being jealous of my good looks, my muscles, my boyish charm, my intellect, and my writin' skillz. Stop hatin', you lesser people. Your lives are shit, but you don't need to take that out on me. You know the Wales Blog Award for best writing on a blog rightfully belongs to me, unless you change the award's name to: "Best Writing On a Blog That Isn't Chris Cope's Because Otherwise He Would Totally Fucking Win."

This is an outrage. If Katya Virshilas weren't next on my lady rota, I would probably write a letter to President Obama, asking that he do something about this. As someone who has also had to struggle all his life with the fact that he is incredibly awesome, he would understand. He'd probably issue an embargo on Welsh cakes and this country's entire economy would collapse. But I won't write that letter, because I'm too awesome.

Also, Katya has a lot of stamina.

Besides, despite the best efforts of the Wales Blog Awards judges to drag me down to their level, I am still in the competition. My Welsh blog has been shortlisted in the Best Welsh-Language Blog category.

Admittedly, there are only three blogs in that category because a number of bloggers asked to not be considered. They said they didn't want to take part because the idea of a single award for all Welsh-language blogs is condescending, ignoring that blogs of all categories are written in Welsh. Just as they are in English or Spanish or French or Japanese or any of the other hundreds of languages in which blogs are written. But, of course, those Welsh-language bloggers were just saying that. In fact, they dropped out because they knew they were up against me.

So, I will be at the Wales Blog Award ceremony on 14 October, where I will collect my award for best Welsh-language blog. Thus far there has been no talk of what exactly that award will be. Personally, since I already have a house full of trophies, I would prefer to simply be given a check. A giant one, like those given in casino jackpots. I am fine with confetti and balloons, but please do not hire any bikini-clad girls to stand next to me in pictures. Most likely they're already on my lady rota, and they need their sleep.

-----

(a) Except Wilson Rawls, of course. Where the Red Fern Grows is the best book ever written. It is better than the Bible. Just thinking now of Old Dan and Little Ann, my eyes are filled with tears.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I love this quote

"My great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland."
   - Stephen Colbert

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 4

Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
----------------------------------


On Christmas Day, Jacques started his singing far too early in the morning and announced he was moving on to Amiens. He wrote down a few useful phrases with English translations and the name of a wine he was pretty sure Allison would like -- Dujac.

"All women like this wine. You go straight to bed with them."
"Thanks. Joyeux Noël." I said, reading from the list he had given me.
"Hey! Very good! Happy Christmas. That's right. And this one: Bonne Année. It means 'good New Year.' OK. I have to go. Au revoir. You still look like shit."

...

I lay in bed as long as I could stand, then decided that I should do some sightseeing. I showered and shaved away my sad excuse for a beard. I can't grow a proper beard and the scraggly, multi-colored patched mess that comes instead always leaves me scratching away at my face as if I have fleas. After four days without shaving, my face was itching like a sailor on leave in Guam; it was the itchiest itch in all of itchydom; it registered a 9.6 on the Itchter Scale. After shaving, I splashed cold water on my face until my fingers went numb.

I grabbed a croissant from the breakfast area and headed for the Musée Rodin, Auguste Rodin's hotel-turned-museum dedicated to the greatness that is Auguste Rodin, the artist best known for sculpting Le Penseur ("The Thinker"). I shuffled through the garden of sculptures first, about as quickly as my shivering and sickened body could carry me. The sculptures were beaten and worn. Things were carelessly strewn about and left to dissolve in the elements. "Just put that shit anywhere" seemed to be the garden's theme. I half expected to see a 1984 AMC Pacer on cement blocks, as if the whole thing were just someone's front yard in Clute. What wasn't being ruined by the elements struck me as unimpressive. I wandered through the indoor part of the museum only enough to warm from the cold and drink an overpriced cup of hot chocolate. In my Let's Go! guide I made a note next to the Musée Rodin entry: "This guy is all bollocks."

At the Musée d'Orsay I tried to pretend to be very high brow and lost in thought while staring at a picture of a vagina. Something really amused me about the fact that someone could paint a picture of a vagina and that it would be considered a vagina of such quality that they would put it in one of the great art museums of the world. It was a vagina. I had seen a handful of vaginas in my life, and this looked like most of them. I could think of one or two that, arguably, looked better. But this one had been framed and was now garnering the attention of myself and a squad of chatty Asian tourists. I stared at the vagina for about 15 minutes, wondering if perhaps there was more to it than what I was seeing. I don't think so -- it was a vagina.

Because I was a politics student, I felt obliged to stare also at the Palais Bourbon, home to the Assemblée nationale, or French parliament. The French political system is notoriously complicated and staring at the building where part of it is housed failed to assist in my understanding whatsoever. It is a large building with Roman columns that looks like it could stand to be cleaned. Sometimes things are not nearly so great or inspiring as we would like them to be. I almost immediately wished I had spent more time staring at the vagina.

At the Champ de Mars there was a Ferris wheel, and I started to think about my dad. He loves Ferris wheels -- they are just about the only amusement ride you can get him on. My whole family rode an enormous wheel at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. The car was massive, enough room for my family and a young couple who had thought to bring Popeye's fried chicken with them for the ride. My mother was petrified by the height of the wheel and left it to my dad to control my brother and me as we ran around in the car, testing the small metal gate that was supposed to keep us all safely inside. Because, you know, when I think safety, I think Louisiana.

Now, suddenly, staring up at the Champ de Mars Ferris wheel and feeling the cold punch at my ears, I missed my family more than ever before or since. I didn't want to be doing this anymore, living so far away. I felt my face get hot and I wiped away tears. I thought about how much I wanted to be with my family at my grandparents' house in Texas. My grandmother would have the house decorated as she did every Christmas, with garland running up the stairwell, and mistletoe hanging in the front hallway. Lights would run along the outside trim of the house and in each of the windows that faced the street. A few more lights would dangle in the large palmetto and magnolia trees that shade her front yard. And on the door would hang the massive lighted plastic Santa head she has hung there every year for as long as I've been alive, the paint worn now. In the living room she would have set up that old plastic Christmas tree and covered it in dozens of ornaments -- some made for her over the years by us grandchildren, some given to her by students before she retired from teaching, some collected by my grandfather during one of his obsessive trips to garage sales.

My brother and I would be sitting at my grandmother's kitchen counter eating hot pound cake while my dad attempted to watch college football with my grandfather. My dad only watches about two football games a year, and does so with a sense of obligation; he's from small-town Texas, he is supposed to watch football. My mother would be talking and laughing and laughing and talking with my grandmother. And maybe after a while, I would wander into the front room and lie down on the floor and stare at all the presents under the tree, like when I was a kid, and think about what might be in each of the boxes. I would hear the wandering songs of birds chirping outside and feel the warmth of the sun shining through the window. And I would just melt away -- content and relaxed -- listening to the birds and my breathing and the football game in the other room and my mother's laughing.

It was too cold to stand still for so long at the Champ de Mars. My ears felt like they were bleeding from the cold, my lips and toes and fingers were numb. After determining that the Ferris wheel was not operating and there did not appear to be plans to operate it anytime soon, I took a picture of it and dragged myself across the green to the Eiffel Tower.

I made it to the tower shortly before sunset and paid 12 francs for the privilege of climbing up the steps to the second level. It was high up enough to make me apprehensive, though. From that height, the city looked oddly un-Parisian. Extending out across the smoggy horizon were rows of houses and small buildings, squished together, with old cylindrical chimneys. Here and there I could see a clothesline stretched from a chimney to a wall. It looked like the chimney sweep scene in Mary Poppins.

"I wish Allison were here," I said aloud.

I didn't actually wish that, I just said it because that's the sort of thing a good boyfriend is supposed to say when he's at the Eiffel Tower and staring out over Paris. It wasn't so much that I didn't want her to be there, though, as much as it was that I didn't want to be there. The sky was heavy gray with tints of orange and brown. It was a miserable sunset. The wind ripped through me like a wire saw. I took a few pictures -- one of myself extending my purplish frost-nipped middle finger toward the whole of France -- and hurried back down the stairs as a cold sleeting mist descended on the city. At the foot of the tower I bought a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and put them in my anorak's front pocket to warm my hands.

...

Christmas in Paris was about as lonely and unfriendly as you can imagine. There were only a handful of lighted displays throughout the city. A few shops had scribbled "Joyeux Noël" on a piece of paper or cardboard and hung it on the door. That the shops had closed early was really the only way you could tell it was Christmas Day. Thinking about my family had led to thoughts of Allison and in my loneliness I wanted to buy a porno magazine. I couldn't find an open newsstand, so I settled instead for a pain au chocolat. I'm a simple man that I can swap pornography for pastry. I took it back to the hostel and ate it with hot chocolate while sitting in the lobby and flipping through a copy of the International Herald Tribune. The articles seemed longer than I had the patience to read, and I decided instead to go up to my room and sleep.

A few hours later, I went back out into the miserably cold and dark Paris night to find dinner. I found my choices to be pretty limited: Burger King or a crepe from a street vendor. I had to point and make animal noises to communicate what I wanted put inside the crepe -- ham, eggs, cheese -- and tried to make up for it by stuttering "merci beaucoup" a few thousand times. It was worth the embarrassment. The heat from the crepe warmed my hands and face as I hovered over it. I leaned against a wall to avoid the sleet that was now falling heavier. The crepe was delicious. The cheese was perfectly melted, the eggs and ham fresh, and my stomach felt warm and full from the meal.

I looked up and saw a teenage boy staring at me.

"Américain?"

He said it the same way you might say, "ass cancer?"

"Oui," I said, my mouth full of food.
"I hate Americans. You think you are so fucking great. You think you are better? France made you. Fuck you. You are shit fuck. I hate you. You wish you were France. Stupid shit fuck!"

I chewed my food and looked at him. He was wearing Nike shoes, an Adidas track suit, and a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. Happy at the taunting he had given me, he strutted away, turned with a sense of flair and gave me one final evil look as he walked into the Burger King.

...

When I had finished eating, I decided to call my family. The hostel didn't have phones, but there were proper phone booths just across the street -- cold, but at least sheltered from the weather. Inevitably I ran into trouble. My MCI calling card refused to cooperate with the French pay phones. I couldn't even get hold of an operator. After dialing the number at least a dozen times, I gave up and tried calling my credit card company, hoping they could somehow connect me. They could indeed place a call for me, the operator said, if I was willing to pay far too much money for it.

"It's Christmas," I said.
"I know," the operator said. "And I'm working."
"OK."
And she put me through.

My dad answered the phone.

"Hey," he said in that voice of his that makes you feel like you've accomplished something great simply by figuring out how to call him. "How's France?"
"Very French. And cold. And wet. And I'm sick," I said.
"Gosh. Is Allison sick, too?"
"No. Uhm. No. She's fine."
"Are you two having a good time?"
"Uh, yeah. Pretty good. What are you doing?"
"Oh, just watching football with your granddad."
"Who's winning?"
"I don't know."
"Who's playing?"
"I don't know."  

As my Winnie the Pooh watch clicked past midnight, Christmas Day concluded with my family singing "Here Comes Santa Claus" to me as I shook from cold in a phone booth 5,074 miles away. When I hung up, I cried so hard my lungs hurt.

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Learn more about The Way Forward here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 3

Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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I bought Allison for $37 at a church fundraiser, the white slave trade being a great little money maker for Cleveland Avenue United Methodist.

That's not true at all, but it makes for a better story. What really happened: I bought a blue 3-by-5 card with hand-written self-description of a girl. In the upper right corner of the card, a number corresponded with the card's author. There were about 30 cards in all. The descriptions were read out by a chubby blonde with enormous hair who made a big production of handing each card to its highest bidder.

My $37 went toward restoration of the church's rectory. I still have no idea what a rectory is, or what it is used for, but I can tell you that it is the part of a church that sees the most abuse. Every time you go to a church in Europe, they are asking for money to restore the rectory.

After the auction, the guys were lined up, so the chubby blonde with enormous hair could make a big production of revealing with whom we had bought our dates. I had been dragged to the auction by a friend. As we stood in line, he realized I had managed to purchase the girl with the largest breasts, and gave me $15 to switch cards.

That's how I met Allison. Her number was 17. I still have the card.

Summers belonged to Allison. They gave her a super power. We went to different schools and through most of the year saw each other on a sort of rationed basis, as if we each were chocolate during World War II. Christmas and spring break helped, but it was the power of the summers that kept us together.

There was that first awkward summer, when all I did was stare at her. I couldn't think of what to do or what to say, so I didn't do or say anything. She did her best to draw me into conversation, though, and was very good about smiling at me. Then, at the end of the summer, everything fell together and some part of me couldn't let go.

There is something in every male that is desperate for that ego-boosting joy that comes from having a beautiful woman actually want to be near him. Queen frontman Freddie Mercury noted this fact with the song "Somebody To Love," although, arguably he wasn't singing about a woman.

That something is more consuming for some men than others, obviously. If you have it really bad, you find yourself relating to Queen songs. And it was there for me: the overwhelming desire to make a fool of myself for someone; to want to fall in love and be an idiot about it. Allison was happy to let me.

I spent my summers getting lost in her. I was especially fond of the trips we took to her family's cabin in Montana. I still can't disassociate her from sunflowers; there were endless fields of them in South Dakota, as we drove to the cabin. I made her drive through these stretches so I could just sit and gawk at her from the passenger seat. The car window made an obtuse frame for a moving portrait of her with endless yellow and green and blue in the background. I used up whole rolls of film taking pictures of her like this. Sometimes I would beg her to pull to the side of the road and stand in the fields, so I could take more pictures.

The long drives and days alone in the cabin were like drug binges. Lost weekends of breathing in her smell, feeling her skin, and tasting her kiss. But erratic highs bring erratic lows. We fought. Most of the time it was about stupid stuff. If I were on one of those TV shows where boneheaded people suddenly get in touch with themselves because they're in front of a studio audience, I might claim we were fighting because I was afraid she wasn't as crazy for me as I was for her. But that could very easily be bullshit, and I sure as hell wouldn't have thought of it at the time. All I knew is that we had fought a lot in the summer before going to Europe.

...

I made my way to Notre Dame Cathedral, where I was to meet Allison. In a demonstration that the French have no more taste than your average Arkansas resident, the walkway along the Seine River, leading to the cathedral, was decorated with happy pictures of Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Captain Phoebus from the Disney version of Hunchback of Notre Dame. In a demonstration that I am a dork, I thought I was being witty as I limped my way to the famous church muttering "sanctuary, sanctuary."

I would later learn that particular December was the coldest in Europe in more than 500 years. I would not have been surprised to hear it at the time. I was miserable. My face was throbbing. My body was twisted in pain from what I had decided was definitely the flu, or possibly Ebola. The cold tore into my joints as if I were being dismantled by a pair of pliers. And did I mention the asthma? Yeah, my asthma was acting up. I was a stinking hideous freak who had not slept properly or bathed in a day and a half, my left eye was swollen shut, my face was bruised and bandaged, I had a fever, my body was racked with pain, and I couldn't breathe. If Claire's motherly sex goddess instinct had been triggered by just some blood and a few stitches, Allison would not be able to keep her hands off the wheezing, pathetic wretch that awaited her.

But she never came.

I sat on an uncomfortable wooden chair in the cathedral, shivering uncontrollably, my teeth chattering, doing some on-and-off praying (not because I felt the need to commune with God, really, just that I was in a church and it seemed foolish to pass up the opportunity to pray). I stared at the old stone floor and listened to the hum of voices all around me. My head bobbed as I rolled back and forth from the edge of consciousness. I worried about Allison, that something might have happened to her on her way to Paris. But the pain and cold and exhaustion numbed my brain, and deep within me I somehow knew she was OK. And somehow I knew she wouldn't show up.

I wanted her to be there, though, to wrap her arms around me and make me warm. So, I just sat there, my blinking eyes slowing down life to a frame-by-frame slide show. I was staring at my shoes in a kind of fever-induced trance. Occasionally I would stare at the lines in my palms. I ran my fingertips lightly over my bandages then across my forehead, over my crooked nose, along my rough and patchy two-day stubble, along my chin and along the softness of my lips. My forehead felt hot; my skin was oily. I stared at my hands; my fingernails were dirty. I looked at my shoes; the tops were scuffed and gray. My shoes and hands looked older than I thought they should be, and I felt so much older than both.

After a few hours, a priest tapped me on the shoulder and was able to communicate through unintelligible rapid-fire French and hand signals that I didn't have to go home, but I couldn't stay there. He may have also asked if I would be willing to donate money to restore the church rectory.

"Yeah, she's fine, isn't she?" I said to the priest, who clearly did not understand a word. "She's just not coming."

...

Perhaps anticipating that I might be doing a bit of praying, some divine force had guided me to pack my Let's Go! travel guide for the trip, and with it I was able to find a youth hostel nearby -- the Hotel Baudelaire Bastille. I picked it just because it had the word "Bastille." If you're going to be in France, you might as well stay at the most Frenchy-sounding place you can find. For a handful of francs, I got a clean bed and breakfast in the morning -- if you call a croissant and hot chocolate breakfast, which, apparently, the French do.

My roommate was an enormous man who reminded me of a bison. He had a massive, Volkswagen-sized chest and long face. He looked a little old to be staying at a youth hostel -- his hair was starting to gray -- but I suspected no one would be willing to argue with him about age limits. When I entered the room, he grabbed my forearm and pulled me in to give me a kiss on the cheek. He flashed a warm grin filled with utilitarian teeth then whacked my shoulder and spoke to me in 1,000-mph French.

"Oh. I, uhm… I don't speak French," I said, wondering how to say the same thing in French.
"You speak English," the man boomed. "Perfect!"

He seemed genuinely delighted to be rooming with an English-speaking person, despite the fact that it was clearly not his native language. His English was jumpy, stuttering, and excited, like a 4-year-old trying to tell a joke. Except this 4-year-old was built like a military vehicle and had a voice that could be heard from a kilometer away. His name was Jacques. Of course. He was very proudly from Quebec. He wore blue jeans, a worn but neatly pressed red flannel shirt, and heavy leather boots. His appearance made me ask him if he was a lumberjack.

"No. But I like pancakes," he said.

He also liked France -- a lot. Jacques had been saving money to take a trip to France since his 17th birthday. I didn't want to ask how long that meant he had been saving his money, but he had set aside enough to spend eight months simply traveling around the country. He was giddy with plans, his dog-eared guidebook filled with highlighted pages and sections circled in red ink.

It was his first week in the country, and his first time to ever leave Quebec. He would spend more time in Paris in the spring, he said. Right now, though, the plan was to travel north and learn about his family history, an idea that had delighted his mother. He would dig up all the information he could find in Amiens, where his grandmother said the family came from, and send it back to his mother to be sorted out. Once spring came, he would spend a few weeks in Paris, then slowly work his way down to the southern beaches for summer. If he was lucky, he said, perhaps he would meet a nice woman along the way and they would get married and maybe have children and live in the French countryside.

"You've got it worked out pretty good," I said.
"OK. Not all. And some not so good," he said. "The women here try to speak English at me. They are too cold."

Just about everyone in Paris knows a little English. It is a required course in the schools. As a result -- perhaps because they think they are being helpful or perhaps because they are arrogant bastards who don't want you fouling their blessed tongue -- Parisians will insist upon speaking English to anyone who speaks French with a "foreign" accent. Obviously, uncultured American buffoons like me don't mind at all that Parisians speak English. I love it. But I had heard it listed among the major complaints of fluent speakers. Friends had told me stories of playing a strange game in which they spoke French, the Parisian spoke English back, they responded in French, and the two sides carried on like this indefinitely -- both refusing to give in to the other's language of choice.

"Do you speak French with an accent?" I asked Jacques. "I assume your French sounds different than the way it is spoken here?"
"My French? Yes, of course. There are some different words, phrases, too."
"Then when you meet a girl, tell her right away that you are Quebecer, and not English or an American."
"Why?"
"Do you like America?"

He tried not to make eye contact.

"See?" I said.

...

Jacques had some bottles of wine in his bag. He and I went through two of them, drinking from coffee mugs he found in the breakfast area. We sat in our room for a while and Jacques told me a joke that made me laugh so hard I went into a coughing fit. The wine was smooth and fruity and warmed me, but I got melancholy thinking about Allison. After hearing the story of my woeful journey and being stood up at Notre Dame, Jacques insisted upon hunting down some soup for me and then -- pointing out that he knew considerably more French than my "Je parler à Allison, si vous plais?" and "Je voudrais aller à la gare" -- offered to call down to Nantes, where Allison was attending university, to determine whether something had gone wrong.

"She says something very important is with the university, but she will see you on New Year's Eve," Jacques said, after coming back from the phone.
"Important? It's Christmas, Jacques. Does she know that I'm sick?"
"Yes, I tell her this. I tell her about your face and the coughing and all this snot. And she says it is the best that she does not come here to Paris. She might get sick, too," he said. "If I were a woman, I would not want to be with you. You look like shit."

I showered, put on as many articles of clothing as I could stand, and buried myself under the covers; no sweet, loving, motherly sex goddess by my side -- just a lumberjack, singing to himself as he got ready for a night out. I was exhausted and miserable (did I mention my eye? And the flu? And the asthma? OK, just checking), and I slept one of the deepest sleeps of my life.

...

The next day was Christmas Eve. I woke up around noon to Jacques' singing. The song was in French and seemed to have the perfect rhythm for cutting down trees.

"Hello. You still look like shit," he boomed. "I bring you a sandwich. Then I have to go. You are right about the girls -- I am not American; they are happy."

I went back to sleep, woke a few hours later, ate the sandwich with some hot chocolate, and went back to sleep.

----------------------------------


Buy The Way Forward on Amazon.com
Buy The Way Forward on Amazon.co.uk

Learn more about The Way Forward here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Hunan-glodfori

Dancing the Polka with Miss El Cajon is hardly anything other than me-focused. Yet strangely I feel uncomfortable stepping into that "Hooray me!" territory of blatantly self-promoting on this, the great lumbering self-promotion tool that is a blog. That said, there are two things I wanted to mention:

1) I will be a guest this Sunday, 19 September, on Radio Wales' "Something Else" programme, which airs at 13:30. It's an hour of me and a few other people talking about things we found in the newspapers. It's like having lunch with a load of opinionated in-laws, but with the quiet comfort of knowing we will eventually stop. And if you yell at us, it won't come back to haunt you every Christmas for the rest of your life.
Hmm. Almost certainly I'm not selling this as well as the show's producer might hope. Tune in anyway. Also on the programme will be musician and broadcaster Huw Williams, and actress Siriol Jenkins.

2) Both this and my Welsh blog have been longlisted for the Wales Blog Awards. Yes, everywhere else in the world people have forgotten blogs. Here in the Ancient Mire (a), however, we are having our first-ever awards ceremony: 14 October. Winners will receive prizes. Prizes! If someone gives me a prize for keeping this collection of melancholy and lust, my life will be complete.
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(a) Have you spotted lately that I'm trying to find a nickname for Wales? I've also tried "Nation of Rain" and "Unhappy Country." Other possible contenders are: "Jonesland," "KA Territory," and "The Green and Grey." Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A letter home: 15 September 2010

My dearest Emma,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dad didn't agree, though.

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

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

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

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

I remain your humble servant,
Chris

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Strictly: The pain begins

I think we can look upon this season of Strictly as similar to being laid up in hospital with gastrointestinal illness: things are going to get better but we're going to have to suffer through a lot of painful shit first.

For those of you new to the blog, I have an unhealthy obsession with "Strictly Come Dancing," the BBC 1 programme featuring low-level celebrities dressing up like something from a Rudy Galindo mindfuck and dancing competitively. There are localised versions of this programme in seemingly every country on the planet. Indeed, the fact that there is no Welsh-language version is in and of itself a sign that S4C is failing in its responsibilities as a broadcaster.

This week marked the beginning of the long and sparkly Strictly road. On Saturday we were introduced to the celebrities and they to their dance partners in a one-hour harbinger (a) special. The couples have since retreated to their Dick Cheney-style bunkers for training, only to occasionally emerge for BBC Breakfast interviews. In three weeks, the actual programme will begin. That's three weeks of hoping Ann Widdecombe will be hit by a bus before any of us have to watch her jiggling about.

In the meantime, here are the dancing couples we have to look forward to:

Ann Widdecombe & Anton du Beke:
Ann Widdecombe makes me hurt. She makes Britain hurt. She is a strange, squawking little troll of a woman. Shockingly, she is only 63 years old, but waddles about like someone twice that age. I thoroughly dislike her.
I have long seen similarities between certain aspects of Strictly and professional wrestling. To me, the inclusion of Widdecombe in this year's series is akin to handing the title belt to a heel. The "heel" is the bad guy, for those of you with social lives. Often he will be made champion simply for the sake of drawing "heat," or crowd reaction. Even though fans hate the heel, they will tune in or show up at the arena in droves because they want to see him fail. Strictly has brought in Widdecombe because they know people will tune in to watch a strange, squawking little troll hobble around in dresses that make her look like the fairy godmother in Cinderella.
Bibbidi bobbidi boo, Ann Widdecombe.
The bastard child of Bruce Forsyth, Anton Du Beke, has a long history of being matched with dud partners. Perhaps it is because he possesses that old-school British affability that we attribute to World War II RAF pilots -- the sort who would refer to being shot down and taken prisoner as "a spot of bother." Our Anton knows how to handle a spot of bother, how to go down in flames with a smile on his face, how to turn Dunkirk into a pleasure cruise. These are almost certainly requisite attributes for dancing with Ann Widdecombe. And perhaps that is the sole reason he is now doomed to go out early: he has the strength of character to suffer such a fate. But I can't help feeling that there is at least a tiny bit of punishment involved, as well. Anton drew a good deal of negative press last year with that "paki" comment. Perhaps this is justice according to Strictly law.
One could support that theory by looking at the pairing itself. Anton and Ann are considerably different in height, His Royal Cheekiness towering above the virginal troll. It would have made more sense to pair Ann with wee Vincent Simone.

Felicity Kendal & Vincent Simone:
And, indeed, it would have made more sense to pair Felicity Kendal with Anton. Felicity is apparently famous for being in one of those awful 70s sitcoms so beloved by British media. For those of you playing along at home, the 1970s were a very bad time for mainstream comedy in Britain, and countless programmes possessing all the hilarity of a dining room table were churned out and forced upon a hapless viewing public. Ask anyone who lived through these awful times and they will wince and frown at you for having brought up memory of something they had worked so hard to repress. Bafflingly, however, British media types will speak of these programmes with the same tone of voice and faraway look usually reserved for soft wool blankets and hot cocoa in front of a fireplace.
The only thing I know of Felicity Kendal, however, is that she played Agatha Christie in that "Doctor Who" episode in which a giant wasp went around killing everyone. And that Felicity Kendall, at least, would have made a very good match for Anton. But instead, she has been paired with Vincent, who will refer to her as "picolina" and eventually do what he always does: accidentally sabotaging his partner with overly difficult choreography. I suspect they will be gone by week 5.

Gavin Henson & Katya Virshilas (aka Team Gatya):
Oh, Gavin. For those of you playing along at home, or anywhere beyond the borders of the Unhappy Country, Gavin Henson is a huge celebrity. He plays rugby -- the most popular sport in Wales, despite the grumpy efforts of some North Walians to turn their country into a Liverpudlian suburb. I have seen giant murals of Gavin making a rugby tackle on an England player. An enormous poster of him covers the height of Millennium Stadium here in Caerdydd. There is no denying his celebrity in these parts.
His celebrity extends well beyond our borders thanks to the fact that he's had sex with Charlotte Church, the chavy operatic singer turned chavy mum and occasional chat show host, who will almost always show up in a Welsh person's list of top five greatest Welsh people ever: e.g., Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dylan Thomas and Charlotte Church. Gavin has two children by her. The couple were supposed to have married but split because of their renown ability to have spectacular fights with one another.
Just about everyone in Wales claims to have met Gavin at some point or another. My favourite story is that told by Garmon Ceiro, who had fallen down drunk one evening in Caerdydd's city centre. As a girl knelt to help Garmon to his feet, a passing Gavin Henson commented: "Just leave him there, love. He's not worth it."
Garmon Ceiro looked up, squinted his eyes, somehow managed to recognise the rugby star despite booze-drubbed thought process, and shouted: "You deserve all your injuries, you twat!"
Gavin is also famous for getting injured. He will perform outstandingly, then get banged up and spend the rest of the season on the bench.
All these factors, and the Welsh penchant for attacking those who rise above their station, result in Gavin being the target for a fair amount of derision in his home country. Those stories of meeting him usually paint the man in a negative light. I wonder how many of the stories are true. I suspect some people create them simply to connect themselves to place, to Wales. Or, perhaps the stories are true. Perhaps he really is an insufferable prick. That would make us all feel better about ourselves, wouldn't it? If the good-looking and talented guy were a dickweed it would make us feel so much better about being bumbling and homely. By "us," of course, I mean "me." Nonetheless, I can't help but feel Gavin carries a certain amount of pathos.
The heated arguments with Charlotte, his documented erratic behaviour, his injuries to joints and tendons and the fact that he has lost 3 stone (42 pounds) of mostly muscle mass since last playing rugby all suggest to me that Gavin has used steroids. Almost certainly he did this because of pressure to be better, to be the best. I admittedly know absolutely nothing about him personally, but I sense he is a man who has reached a serious burnout point. He suffers the weight of both the derision and expectations of his notoriously difficult-to-please countrymen. And he probably lives with a frustration of feeling his body has let him down time and time again. Everything he has worked to be, that he knows how to be, that he is expected to be, is wrapped in physical pain, frustration and the quiet knowledge that even if healthy he'll likely only be able to keep going for six or seven more years.
"I've got a lot of stressful things going on in my life at the moment," Gavin said on Saturday's show. "So, I just thought maybe learning a new skill would take my mind off things."
It will also earn him a few hundred thousand pounds in appearance fees. But, less cynically, I find myself very much hoping for him the positive and transformative effects of Strictly. Remember Jade Johnson? I do, I still softly whisper her name while kissing my pillow each night. When the Olympic athlete first started Strictly she was laddish and awkward. Over the weeks, you saw her discover a greater sense of femininity (b).
In Saturday's launch show, Gavin seemed surprisingly shy and uncomfortable. I fear he will suffer the same problems as Joe Calzaghe last year, who could never fully allow himself to play the role of dancer. With every step, it was always as if he were turning to a friend and saying: "Don't worry, mate. I'm just taking the piss, see? I'm not gay or anything; I'm not in to what's going on here; I'm not really a part of it."
Past rugby players have found the ability to throw themselves into the campness of the show, and I'd hope that Gavin can, too. And I'd hope that in the process he is able to develop a greater sense of self worth, not as dependent on whatever those negatives are that seem to run much of his life.
Worst case scenario, however, he gets to rub up against Katya. You might remember my describing her last year as looking like the girl next door who ends up in low-budget porn. She's not the kind of gal who gets soft lighting and a bear skin rug to work on, but the one who ends up on a tile floor covered in lubricant, sweat, saliva and male produce. A vote for Gavin and Katya is a vote to keep the poor girl out of that world.
It is also a vote for another happy week in Gavin's life. In Saturday's show he said: "All these dancers are beautiful. They're there in your face and looking at your eyes (c) and they're touching you and stuff. Wuh. It's blowing my mind, to be honest. I just don't know how I'm going to cope with it all."
If you remember Katya dancing last year, you know Gavin's got a wonderful challenge ahead of him. Like all the other men of Wales, I hate him because I am jealous of him.

Goldie & Kristina Rihanoff:
As best I can tell, Goldie is most famous for being difficult to look at. He's not really an example of God's best work. He was in a forgettably bad Bond film and presumably he's done some other things. Apparently he was or is a DJ. I am generally unimpressed by people who become famous for playing other people's songs. Effectively you are lauding them for having good taste in music. I have good taste in music, as well: pay me to press "play" on my iPod.
To add a special challenge to those of us who perv out whilst watching Strictly, Goldie has been paired with Kristina Rihanoff, one fifth of my fantasy Strictly lady blanket. I like to dream of having Strictly female stars keep me warm at night by lying on top of me: Kristina, Katya, Ola Jordan, Natalie Lowe and Tess Daly. Claudia Winkleman would be my pillow. Although, I have to admit that Kristina would be at the foot of my lady blanket; close-up shots of her often disappoint.

Jimi Mistry & Flavia Cacace:
Strictly would have you believe that Jimi is a huge Hollywood star. Nevermind that you don't know who he is, he's big-time! He was in that one film as that one guy. It was big. Not necessarily because of him, mind you, but he was in it. In the same way that John Carroll Lynch was in Fargo, Jimi was in that one film that some people said was good. He was also in "Eastenders" at one point, which is a well-established route to Strictly.
Similar to Anton's regularly getting stuck with women who struggle to stay balanced whilst standing, Flavia has the misfortune of frequently being paired with cartoonish goofballs. Just the look of Jimi screams: "It will take a major shift in the space-time continuum before I can rhumba."
What always happens with these guys is that they basically fall in love with Flavia, forgetting that she is getting paid to press up against them. They go on "It Takes Two" and gush about how lovely she is and it all gets a bit uncomfortable until Flavia does the same thing as her professional partner, Vincent, and sabotages the celebrity with tricky choreography. I'm not so sure Flavia does it by accident.

Kara Tointon & Artem Chigvintsev:
Who and who? Oh, right, Dawn Swan off "Eastenders" and the creepy Russian dude. Great. I fear Kara's getting the short end of the stick here. She is my second-favourite piece of celebrity eye candy in this year's series and she's been paired with a guy whose biggest accomplishments include being a contestant on the first U.S. season of "So You Think You Can Dance." Oh, and he used to shag one of the judges from the U.S. version of Strictly, "Dancing with the Stars." That's a hell of a pedigree, son. Although, perhaps it works in this format -- the kid understands dancing on television for a popular audience. I only hope that equates to a considerable amount of writhing on Kara's part. Writhing Kara = votes from Chris. I want to see that girl in tight outfits, crawling across the floor, drinking milk from a bowl like a cat.
Artem certainly seemed pleased with his luck. When he was teamed with Kara, it was as if he was in a comedy Soviet Russia of 1980s American imagination, on some kind of game show where he was being introduced to his state-sponsored breeding partner: "Comrade Chigvinstev your love lady will be... stupid, pretty one from popular soap opera! Celebrate now."
And as they walked off, you could see in Artem's grin something that said: "See? This is why I reported Father to the KGB. This is my reward."

Matt Baker & Aliona Vilani:
Last year Aliona shot her partner, Rav, in the foot by failing to recognise that a guy who can't dance can't be choreographed like a guy who can dance. She was really grumpy when voted off and struck me as the sort of person who would displace blame rather than accepting she was largely responsible for her and Rav's farewell. There is something about her I dislike on the whole. When she's in professional dances she tends to throw herself about a little too much, trying too hard to make sure you see her and her dyed red hair.
Pairing her with "Countryfile" presenter Matt Baker is a good idea because it increases the possibility of Aliona at some point finding herself elbow deep in a cow's ass. That's the sort of thing they always do on television when introducing a person to "country life." It gives us city folk the impression that all farmers ever do is fist cattle. Maybe that is all they do. Regardless, it's what I feel Aliona deserves. You just sit there, young lady, with your arm anchored in that cow's ass and think about what you've done. When you're ready to choreograph realistically, in a style that highlights your celebrity rather than yourself, then you can come out and join the rest of us.

Michelle Williams & Brendan Cole:
Perhaps best known as "the one from Destiny's Child that no one remembers," I think Michelle has the best chance of making it to the final. Assuming Brendan doesn't fuck it up. One of the facets of Strictly that makes it good is that celebrities actually try. Famously, the reason for that boils down to Brendan's ego. In the first series he decided to be competitive, which then sparked competition amongst the other dancers. Had he not done that, it would be more of an exhibition of dance. But his competitiveness means he will cheat if he thinks it will earn him votes with the viewing audience, putting in lifts where he shouldn't and so on. It's a tactic that has worked -- if you can get enough public vote, the scores given by judges are made irrelevant -- but a tricky one because it relies on the British viewing public. Few things are stranger, more duplicitous and faster changing than British public opinion.
But, as I say, if Brendan can keep his shit together Michelle has confidence of playing to big audiences, past experience in moving to music (pop group choreography isn't really dancing), and a likeable personality that will play in her favour. Or, at least, I find her to be likeable. Michelle has that sassy, quick-witted, confident black woman thing going on. It's the sort of thing goes over really well in the United States. It goes over really, really well in Chris Cope World; I want her to tell me what to do. I want her to cuddle up next to me under my Strictly lady blanket.
However, I think perhaps British viewers have a problem with strong women, especially strong women of colour. I often think that whatever negativity is aimed at Alesha Dixon's role on the show comes greatly from the fact that she is black. Perhaps, though, British viewers will make that weird mental disconnect of somehow viewing a person differently simply because they have an American accent. If that's the case, then all Michelle need do is avoid proselytising before or after a dance. Americans do that all the time; but it makes British people really uncomfortable. Michelle has released two gospel albums, so it certainly wouldn't be out of her character to make a comment like: "Well, I just thank the Lord Jesus Christ my saviour for giving me the strength to go out there and do my best."
That would be fine on U.S. television. In my home country -- so filled with people who fear Islam and its way of existing in all facets of a person's life -- it is not at all odd to hear someone reference Jesus on a light-entertainment programme. Here, though, it makes people look away nervously and vote for someone else.

Pamela Stephenson & James Jordan
Perhaps best known as "the one from 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' that no one remembers," Pamela has large, fake breasts and a scary, wide face bought on discount. That's apparently the sort of thing Billy Connolly is into; the Scottish comic icon has been married to her for roughly 20 years. Billy was there in the audience Saturday, supporting his wife. I doubt we'll ever hear a word from him, though. No television producer in his/her right mind would stick a microphone on Billy Connolly for a live family-oriented programme.
Apart from being Billy Connolly's wife and the least-memorable cast member of a programme I never saw, I'm not really sure who Pamela Stephenson is. She's a psychiatrist, apparently. Or psychologist. I can never remember the difference between the two. One is legitimately trained, the other is basically just someone who sits and listens to you for $100 an hour. Actually, that's what it cost when I would be sent to one in my teenage years. They probably cost more now. For all the good they did me, I am certain we could have given that money to some random person at a bus stop: "Excuse me, sir, would you be willing to listen to this kid complain for an hour? There's $100 in it for you."
Perhaps if my psychiatrist/psychologist had big fake breasts I would have gotten more out of the experience.
Nonetheless, I am looking forward to this pairing because it involves an older woman and James Jordan. James has a magical power to get older women to be NAUGHTY. Somehow he is able to find the whorish cougar that lies in the soul of every older woman and set it lose. It is almost always a beautiful thing to watch.

Patsy Kensit & Robin Windsor:
Speaking of whores, Patsy Kensit is on the show. Meh.
She has a dance partner who looks like Zane Lowe. Meh to him, too.

Paul Daniels & Ola Jordan:
Magician Paul Daniels is 72 years old, but, like Bruce Forsyth, appears to be at least 50 years younger than Ann Widdecombe. I had never actually seen Paul Daniels on television before Saturday. In looking at a picture of him on the Strictly website some days before the launch show, he struck me as looking a bit like Paul Whitehouse and I decided I hated him. Paul Whitehouse is supposedly a comic, but he is funny like stepping on a jagged beer can at the beach. Paul Daniels, then, turned out to be a far more likeable fellow than I expected. He's one of those people from the old guard of British entertainment, so Brucie will dote over him. And as a member of the old guard, he has a catchphrase: "You'll like this. Not a lot. But you'll like it."
Expect to hear that, or a variation of it, at least twice a week.
Ola's claim to fame is wearing as little of an outfit as she can get away with. So, no matter what happens, we know Paul will be happy. I dream that my retirement years would go so well.

Peter Shilton & Erin Boag:
Céline Dion lookalike Erin has again been paired with a soccer goalie named Peter. Remember Peter Schmeichel? He danced like Frankenstein's monster. Every time I saw him, I thought: "Grrr. Fire bad!"
That's not necessarily what will happen with this goalie named Peter, but you kind of suspect that it is. Peter Shilton holds the record for the most-capped player for England. For those of you playing along at home, being "capped" means he was selected to play for his national team. It refers to the old days when players were given silly little caps to wear in photos. So, England managers decided to put him at goal 125 times. One of those times was when he famously got beat by Maradona's "hand of God" move. That's right, Peter Shilton's greatest claim to fame is getting beat on a (dubious) header by a midget. Sometimes a player's being capped shitloads of times is less a sign of ability and moreso an indication his team didn't have a lot of options.
Strangely, soccer players have a bad history on Strictly. You would think that people who made a living doing things with their feet would have an advantage on a programme that involves doing things with one's feet. Apparently not. Perhaps because thinking is involved, and falling down will accomplish nothing.
If you've ever seen a close-up of Erin, you'll have noticed she has the wiry hair of a woman with an eating disorder. I hope she realises, then, that if Peter does poorly it is all down to the fact that she's not thin enough.

Scott Maslen & Natalie Lowe:
True fact: the protagonist's brother in 'Sgidiau Caerdydd, the novel I'm working on at the moment, is named Jack because Scott Maslen's "Eastenders" character, Jack Branning, seemed really cool to me when I was plotting out the novel. I don't watch that programme, though, so I have no idea whether he is as cool as he looks. He probably isn't. All the Brannings, save Jim, have been a disappointment. Still, that's not necessarily a reflection on Scott, nor his ability to move around. Before joining "Eastenders" Scott was apparently a model, which means he's good at holding poses. If he can do that in time to music, he may stand a chance. Especially considering he is with a dancer who made it to last year's final. His weak point appears to be a certain lack of personality.
For Natalie's sake, though, I hope he does well. I am in love with Natalie. I wish I had terminal cancer just so I could meet Natalie as my dying wish.

Tina O'Brien & Jared Murillo:
In Strictly promotional material, Tina O'Brien looks a teency-weency bit like Paloma Faith. The fact that she is nothing like Paloma Faith is a crushing disappointment. Similar to fellow soap actor Scott Maslen, the "Coronation Street" actress seems to lack a personality. So much so that I remember nothing about her.
I remember young Jared Murillo doing a heel slide across the floor when he was introduced to her. Expect to see that move again. Like Michael Weiss and his fucking Freedom Blades (d), he'll be dropping it into every possible routine. Additionally, expect to hear him reference over and over that he is American. This is something all the Yanks do: when we first come to this country we think our nationality somehow makes us special, as if people will want to be our friends simply because we sound like all the guys on CSI. After more than four years of living on the Island of Rain, Jared, I can tell you that people aren't all that impressed. Least of all your fellow Americans. Please try not to embarrass me.

Elsewhere in the show:
- Obviously a highlight of the programme was having Flavia and Vincent descend, Blue Blazer-style, from the ceiling as they danced the Argentine tango in a professional dance routine. The production team should keep that wire gear handy in case there comes a point when Anton needs to lift Ann Widdecombe.
- On the whole, though, I didn't like the basic concept behind the launch show -- pairing the couples before a studio audience. It felt uncomfortable.
- The special show dancers led by Ian Waite and Darren Bennett seemed particularly rough, didn't they? Thy were out of time and sometimes seemed a bit lost. My hope is that they had been scheduled into the show at the very last minute, because the routine looked as if it had been put together that morning. I have been watching Strictly long enough to spot that the choreography had some classic Ian Waite touches (e.g., mouthing along to the words of a song). I am so pathetic.

Who's going to win:
This week I'm supporting Michelle and Brendon to win, in a final with Team Gatya.

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(a) Yeah, that's right: I just used the word "harbinger," a thing that signals the approach of another. Hooray me.

(b) I mean that as a positive. Often women are tricked into feeling that in order to be on a level playing field as men in terms of respect and opportunity they must effectively imitate masculine behaviour. Inevitably this line of thinking actually favours the male, because he is already masculine.

(c) Ah, bless. Gavin crumbles when a girl looks him in the eyes.

(d) Yes, I just referenced men's figure skating. Help me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 2

Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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The plan was to meet Allison in Paris. The two of us would spend Christmas together and then, for reasons not entirely clear (something to do with her university work), I was to return to Portsmouth for a few days afterward. Then we would again meet up in Paris for New Year's Eve.

Christmas and New Year's in Paris with the woman I loved; the woman I had convinced myself I was going to marry. It was romantic -- like a film starring Julia Roberts and one of those charming actors with wavy hair whose names I never know. I would be the latter, of course. Allison and I would both wear nice Irish-style wool sweaters and wool coats and long, colorful scarves and Allison would have a charmingly silly hat. Every smiling sexy woman in a film must own at least one charmingly silly hat; perhaps Allison's would have previously served as a woolen multi-colored tea cozy.

"I saw it atop a teapot at a bed and breakfast and decided I should wear it," she would explain, smiling and pulling the hat/cozy down over her eyes in coy embarrassment.

This would endear her to the audience. I and the film-going public would know her thievery was charming and had been the right thing to do.

She would be a brilliant scientist, in Paris to present research for a cure to some disease that affects only cute little children. And I would be an artist type or former Navy SEAL, maybe both -- able to kill with a No. 8 Filbert brush. Allison, her red hair poking from stolen B&B property, would hold tightly to my arm and laugh and smile with her shining white teeth at all the charming and witty things I had to say. The two of us would walk though cobbled Parisian streets, occasionally stopping at quaint coffee shops to stare into each other's eyes and then duck into a corner to make out while the soundtrack swelled and a smoky-voiced woman sang "La Vie En Rose."   

I envisioned my Christmas with Allison as being like this, maybe better. But perhaps in the film version of my life, the charming actor with wavy hair whose name I do not know would not have 11 stitches, bandages, a swollen-shut eye and bruises all over his face. And the film would also gloss over the fact that at the time I only owned two sweaters, neither of them very nice or at all Irishy. I'm not even sure they were 100-percent wool.

Still, it was the kind of thing they had raised us to dream about in the Midwest -- if you could have called me a Midwesterner. Technically, I'm from Clute, Texas, but Clute is not the sort of place you want to admit being from. They have a nice municipal pool and an annual mosquito festival and more chemical plants nearby than can possibly be safe, and not much else. My family moved up to St. Paul, Minnesota, when I was 15 and eventually I found myself fitting in better there than I had back in Clute. I was Midwestern enough, I suppose.

A key element to being a Midwesterner is hating the Midwest. Midwesterners fill their heads with visions from books and songs and films and television programs about leaving for someplace else. "Someplace else" is our Mecca. Usually that someplace is California or New York or Europe (read: Western Europe). These places are appealing, but not so exciting that they will overwhelm one's Midwestern sensibilities. Most Midwesterners settle for regular visits to Las Vegas. Allison had gone to California, and now the both of us were in Europe. I was pretty sure they were writing folk songs about us back home.

...

The nurse at the trauma unit told me my stitches would need to stay in for at least two weeks.

"But I'm going to Paris in 10 days," I pleaded, as if she could somehow make my face heal faster.
"Hmm, well, you'll definitely not want to deal with a French doctor. They have no idea what they're doing," she said. "The scars might not ever go away, but lads like that sort of thing, don't they? It will probably be alright to get the stitches removed just before you leave for France."

Ten days later, I brought my bag with me to the GP's office. My stitches were snipped, I was handed a pamphlet on how to avoid infection, and I walked directly to the ferry port.

You may need a map for this. It would have been faster to take the train from Portsmouth to London, then another train from London to Paris; or even take the train from Portsmouth to Dover, the ferry from Dover to Calais, then the train from Calais to Paris; but it was dramatically cheaper to take the ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre, then the train from Le Havre to Paris. A return pedestrian ferry ticket cost just £6. Calling it a ferry is misleading; it was actually massive cruise ship.

Still persisting in my cinematic mindset, I stood outside on the ferry's deck and stared back at Portsmouth as the ship slipped out of the harbor and into the darkness of night crossing. It would have made a good scene in that Julia Roberts movie -- Allison and I would have shared a bottle of Champagne and then had sex in a lifeboat. But it was late December, and by the time the colored lights of the Southsea Promenade flickered out of sight I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. I made my way to the ship's bar and warmed myself with half a dozen pints of Tetley's ale. Had I bothered to read my little pamphlet on avoiding infection, I doubt any of this would have been advised.

In exchange for the low pedestrian fares that ferry companies offer, one has to give up certain comforts, like, say, a place to sleep. People with money are able to spend their journeys in cabins, which I have always imagined to be cavernous areas of luxury with servants and a hot tub. But at the very least, they have a place to sit and to sleep. Pedestrian cheapskates such as me are left to wander aimlessly between the gift shop, the café, and the bar. It's a bit like being trapped in a moving small-town airport. They tend to leave that part out in all the films they show Midwesterners -- a tedious nine-hour journey is usually shortened into a musical montage with a lot of staring out of windows.

I am relatively skilled at killing time. Especially if there is a bar. Time wasting is an art form, and a bar is where I am best able to paint a Michelangelo-like mural of low productivity. Night crossings on a ferry, however, see the gift shop, café and bar closed by midnight and cabinless scum must fight it out for the limited couches and comfy chairs available.

The Tetley's not only warmed me, but put me in the sort of state in which I was able to sleep on the only couch I could find -- just outside the bar. Although alcohol was no longer being served, the bar's (completely empty) dance floor remained open until 2 a.m., and I slept fitfully through dreams filled with a bad soundtrack. I'm pretty sure they played the B-52s' "Love Shack" continuously for an hour, followed by two hours of Elton John's "Step into Christmas." Sir Elton's voice swirled in my drunken head and in my erratic sleep a set of false lyrics got stuck on repeat in my brain:

"Banana milk for Christmas
Japanese love Shinto
Gonna ride my bike forever and ever
…"

...

The morning air was painfully cold and dry. It slapped at my face as I walked from the Le Havre ferry port to the train station, where I relieved my churning stomach of its Tetley's in every way possible into the station's Turkish toilet. I was bruised, bandaged, exhausted, stank of alcohol and had not bathed in 24 hours. And as I settled into my spot on an unheated train car (the only non-smoking car of the lot), I was starting to feel much, much worse.

When the train arrived in Paris, I could tell I was running a fever. I guessed my temperature to be about 176 degrees Fahrenheit. I've been accused of being melodramatic at times, so it was probably only around 118. I had emptied my bag of warm clothes and was wearing two pairs of trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a short-sleeved T-shirt, both my sweaters and an anorak. I was shivering. Every part of my body ached. Add to this my swollen-shut eye and stench, and I was descending into an exciting new world of misery. It was the only time I've been to Paris in which I was not harassed by street people. They thought I was one of them. Some of them actually looked better than me.

As I walked across the open area of Gare Saint-Lazare toward the Metro station, I saw a man wearing neatly pressed trousers and a green jacket; he would walk alongside people and ask for money in a high-pitched squeak. If they refused, he would stop and unleash a torrent of squeaking insult (I assume it was insult, at least -- I don't speak French). We made eye contact as I passed and he simply nodded his head in collegial fashion. That's another thing they leave out of the guidebooks and films about Paris, it's full of crazy people.

On the Metro, a young woman with spiked green hair appeared at a stop wearing a combination of all the silly clothes she had been able to find that day: bright red vinyl shoes, green trousers, a tattered pink tutu, a 1980s muscle T-shirt over a top that appeared to be made from the pelt of a Muppet, and an army jacket. Hanging from her neck, albatross-style, was a record player. Once the train got under way, she dropped the needle on a record and it faintly warbled out a French-language children's song, the record skipping as the train bounced along the track. I waited for her to do something else, but she just stood there, staring blankly, occasionally putting the needle back into its groove. After several painful minutes of this, she produced a cup and began walking down the aisle signaling that she was expecting to be paid.

People dropped coins in her cup and I wondered if perhaps I could pick up some extra cash by doing a little dance for them. I could finally put to good use all the square dancing we had to learn in school. I can do a mean do-si-do, baby. Maybe the woman and I could put together a little performance-art act: Punky No-Fashion-Sense Girl and Two-Steppin' Beat-Up Homeless Guy! Coming soon to a subway train near you!

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Documenting my mental decline

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

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

"Mrawr."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 6, 2010

Minnesota in a picture

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

DSCN1731

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 1

Below is a section from my novel The Way Forward.
Buy it now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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It made an interesting sound, my brain slamming around in my skull. If I had to re-create the sound, I would take a two-by-four, encase it in Jell-O, and bang it against a pipe while dropping a piano down an elevator shaft lined with old mattresses. I'd probably also do something unpleasant to a cat.

My eyes partially focused and I was on the floor, staring up at a group of Chinese girls peeking out at me from behind their doors. The group melted into four girls, then three, then two, then one and a half.

"Hello," I said, offering a weak smile.

The 1.5 Chinese girls looked at me in horror. Her heads darted back behind the door, and I heard the lock turn.

Before running head first into a door jamb, I had been trying to escape Claire's friend, Emma, who had been chasing me through the second floor corridor of Harry Law Residence Hall with a spoonful of Nutella, threatening to smear it on my favorite T-shirt. I heard her voice again and lurched forward onto my shoulder in an attempt to start running, but my legs had yet to re-establish contact with my dancing brain. I flopped back to the floor, rocking from shoulder to shoulder.

"Give me a second," I pleaded.
"Oh God. Ben, you're bleeding. Don't move."

Thirty minutes later, Claire and I were at Queen Alexandria Hospital, Portsmouth, England, pressing to my face a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a blood-soaked beer towel. My favorite T-shirt, spared of Nutella, was caked in drying blood. A large, generally-unhappy-to-be-there African doctor was called in to fix me up: eight stitches over my left eye, two on the bridge of my nose, and two over my right eye.

"This happen in a fight?" he asked before putting in the stitches.
"No, I ran into a door," I said.
"Ran into a door?"
"Yes."
"Because you are drunk?"
"No. I just ran into a door, I was being chased."
"By someone who wanted to fight?"
"No. We were just being stupid."
"I won't put in stitches if you were fighting or drunk. Fighting or drunk, you deserve infection and a big scar."
"I wasn't fighting or drinking."
"OK. Don't move."

He was as gentle as an enormous man can be while running needle and thread through someone's face. His fingers pressed into my eyes. He seemed to want to pull my head off to get a better angle for his work. At one point, he pushed my left eye open and I saw a 20-foot needle being guided toward me. I yelped and pulled back instinctively, but his massive left hand caught the back of my head and pulled me forward.

"I tell you, 'don't move,'" he said, jabbing his thumb into my open wound, "Don't move!"

By the end of it, my left eye was completely swollen shut and my right eye inclined to imitate its counterpart. Claire and I made it home by midnight and she insisted upon sleeping next to me, on the pretext that she had to watch out for signs of concussion. A nurse had given her a pamphlet and she had spent the cab ride home studying it with bookish diligence.

Women are wonderfully attentive and strangely sexually attracted to an injured male. It makes one want to charge recklessly through life in hopes of incurring severe pain and distress for the purposes of being nursed back to health by a motherly sex goddess. Claire brought me tea with some toast and jam, made sure that my bed was as comfortable as possible, and then ran through a series of questions listed in the pamphlet: Was I feeling dizzy or nauseous? Did I have a headache? Was I having trouble concentrating? How many fingers was she holding up? Then she settled down next to me on my student bed. Soft and warm and sweet smelling, she ran her hands across my chest, and kissed me softly -- I'm not sure that bit was in the pamphlet.

"Better not do that," I said, lightly pushing away her lips.

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Learn more about The Way Forward here.