Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A letter home: 13 July 2011

My dearest Emma,

I sat for a long time today trying to think of where you might be right now. Since you're a figment of my imagination, you tend to move around a lot. I suppose you would be in Santa Fe these days or -- more likely -- at a tidy ranch somewhere in the great, strange beauty of West Texas. You are often in the places my heart wants to be, Emma. And I suppose that as my life in Britain develops a greater sense of permanence, as the dust settles, some part of my soul aches to be out in the vast hot expanses.

Admittedly, I have never lived in West Texas, Emma, and the times I have visited that part of my home state could probably be counted on one hand: a few trips out to San Angelo to visit my great-aunt Johnnie, and that time two years ago when I drove to Paint Rock and cried like a maniac because of, well, convolutional reasons I don't really feel like going into at the moment.

Ambiguous past experiences aside, however, those West Texas plains hold good memories. I remember sitting in the air-conditioned cool of a hotel in Big Spring one night, eating Popeye's chicken and watching a dust storm turn the horizon dirty orange-brown, thinking: "This is about as far away from Britain as a person could get."

Think of the mental shift required for a person born and raised of the cozy, cold wet of Britain to sit in a situation like that and feel total normalcy, Emma.

My mind turns images of West Texas into a catch-all for thoughts of America. My new home in Penarth more closely reflects the catch-all mental images I have long had of Britain. I will never experience total normalcy in either place, of course. And the great ache of life is there will always be some part of me longing to be in both. As I settle into one, the other calls.

Last time I wrote to you, Jenn and I were pushing toward a kind of normalcy supported by IKEA chests of drawers and shelving units; I had recently moved in. More and more it is feeling like home. I am reading more and making lazy forays into writing again. I feel I can trust in the existence of tomorrow and so am willing to think about what to do with it. I am stabilising.

And though my deep cynicism fights against admitting such things, I will confess to you, Emma: I am happy. Yes, some part of me rebels with yearning for lonesome wide-open space, and sometimes that little creature in my head still kicks at the walls, but in the bulk of my moments I am wrapped in a kind of content the equal to which I cannot remember. I can't stand the inherent naivety of statements like, "I've never been happier," nor the doom such assertions usually portend. But, well, my "Swiss-cheese memory," as Sara used to call it, struggles to identify a single period in my past when all things seemed to fit together so well.

Look at the above paragraph, Emma: this is what age does to us. I am speaking of love diplomatically, trying to temper its potential sting with carefully worded statements. As if having things go wrong would somehow hurt less because I had thought to labyrinth my feelings in multisyllabic parlance.

Ah, hell, I'll just say it: Jenn is awesome. And, yes, I know that one person's forever can be another person's summer, but great googly moogly Jenn is awesome. And I love her.

And that's really where I'm at these days, Emma: I have an awesome life and am struggling to cope. I find it difficult to come to grips with the fortuitousness of my own situation. Boo-hoo. And I think some part of me feels angry that the only thing to do with all the sadness of the not-so-distant past is to just let it go.

Twelfth of July marked five years of my living in Wales, Emma. I spent most of that day thinking back to 12 July 2006 and all the space in between. I regret most of that time, though I don't suppose I'd change it. It's a bit like going through terribly painful surgery, I suppose. Would you do that again? Hell no. Do you wish to go back and have it all be undone? No, I don't want that either. It happened, I lived through it and now -- though not necessarily because of it -- I am happy. After spending all day trying to come up with some sort of profound summary of that half decade I managed this:

1) I feel betrayed.
2) The experience is past tense.
3) I can't shake the feeling of being upset over all the time wasted.

Sixteen years ago, Emma, I was driving up to Minnesota with my girlfriend of the time and somehow managed to make a colossal navigational error, which saw me head to Topeka, Kansas, instead of Kansas City. Look at a map, Emma; they are hundreds of miles apart. My girlfriend was fast asleep when I made this mistake. She woke up as we neared Topeka, then spent the three hours it took to correct the error yelling at me.

I will let you in on a secret, Emma -- something I have never told anyone else: I drove to Topeka on purpose that day, because I liked the sound of the name. Topeka. There's something pleasing to the ear. I don't know whether there is anything nice in Topeka; I only saw it from the interstate.

The chastisement received for "making a wrong turn" was severe enough I chose not to tell my girlfriend the truth. Even after she and I broke up, and she would still recant this tale to others over the years, I was content to be seen as stupid rather than credulously inquisitive. I think perhaps some part of me sees that as my debt to her for time wasted -- those three hours she will never get back.

When I look at my experiences in the Welsh language, Emma, I feel that sense of immense time wasted and I want, childishly, to be repaid in some way. I feel owed full-time employment or friendship or... I don't know what. Something more than a deep-hollow feeling of regret.

But, at least it's over. It is past-tense. It is not happening now. And there are other adventures ahead.

My parents are coming over for a two-week visit this Sunday. In a fit of stupidity, Jenn and I offered to let them stay with us. In our one-bedroom flat. The more I think about it, Emma, the less I like it. I have not seen my parents in a year, so I will be happy to have them around but having them be inescapable for a fortnight seems like an error in judgement.

I'm sure it won't be too bad. And there will be immediate repayment of whatever inconvenience is accrued. A few weeks after my parents head home I'll be following them to Minnesota, where I'll hopefully get a chance to catch up with all those friends I've spent the past year missing. Several of my friends have had children since I saw them last. We are getting old, Emma.

Perhaps I will see you when I'm out there. You and I are always moving, Emma -- and you so often in the places my heart wants to be -- but maybe we can intersect, if only briefly. Meet me in Topeka.

I remain your faithful friend,

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Elbow del Muerte

I don't tend to use my blog to promote the vlog that Jenn and I do (that's what the Tumblr is for) but I love this one so much I wanted to draw special attention to it.

The best bit starts at 03:33 and in a roundabout way explains why Jenn is so awesome.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Eight things I loved about June

~ 8 ~ Open windows: Summer is more a concept than reality in Britain. We have heard about it, have taken package holiday trips to places where this season actually occurs, and have written the word "summer" on the calendar in hopes that tourists won't put in much research before coming to see the queen. What we call summer is what other people would call "early spring." Unless those people live in Antarctica.
Summer in Britain is filled with days that are either rainy and cold or threatening to go rainy and cold. But every once in a while it does actually get hot. And by "hot" I mean "not cloudy." When the sun shines, Britons assume it to be hot, even if it isn't. In South Wales, hot weather means dressing like an idiot. If you are male, you should wear a ridiculous pair of shorts that went out of style at least six years ago and either a pink polo shirt or no shirt at all. If you are a woman you should dig into that pile of clothes that looked good in the store but somehow became a terrible idea by the time you got them home, and give them all a second chance.
Though it turns a walk through city centre into a visual assault course, summer is welcomed here because it means being able to open the windows, letting in the fresh smell-taste of something other than laundry on an indoor rack.
As the sea gull flies, our little flat in Penarth lies roughly 800 metres from the Bristol Channel, which means we get sea breezes when the wind is right. With the windows pushed open wide there are few better places to be on a lazy afternoon than in our living room, sipping wine and talking nonsense with friends.

~ 8 ~ Finally getting my residence permit: Thanks to myriad episodes of silliness on part of the United Kingdom Border Agency, it took almost exactly six months for my visa to be renewed. First there was the rejection, then an appeal hearing, then an utterly baffling request for passport-sized photos that were promptly returned without explanation. By the time the visa finally arrived on 14 June, more than a month of its two-year lifespan had already passed.
In her majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, visas are issued in the form of residence permits: easy-to-lose little cards resembling a U.S. driver's license. For the most part, an immigrant in the United Kingdom will find he or she has absolutely no need for this card whatsoever, except when seeking to visit friends and family in his or her home country. In that instance, the visa is needed for the sake of being allowed back into the UK. In other words, unless one has no plans of returning, a visa applicant is trapped on the Island of Rain whilst his or her application is dealt with. In most situations, the UKBA also takes possession of the applicant's passport. So, my plans to visit friends and family last Christmas were scuppered, hopes to see them for my birthday were dashed and intentions to see them in May had to be abandoned.
In the back of my head there is concern over the slings and arrows I will face once this new visa expires in May 2013, but for now I am enjoying being legal again and hoping to visit the United States, finally, in August.

~ 8 ~ Jenn and I dressing like pirates: I had never met Jenn's brother, Andrew, before we were invited to come along to the birthday party of his girlfriend's young son. Callum was turning 6 years old and having a pirate party.
"Are the adults dressing up?" Jenn asked her brother.
I have a brother. Never trust your brother for information about things organised by his girlfriend.
"Yeah," Jenn's brother said. "I think so. We're dressing up."
In fairness, Andrew and his girlfriend did dress up as pirates. As did all the kids. Other adults, however, had apparently not received the "I think so" memo regarding fancy dress. So, Jenn and I arrived in full pirate regalia and felt just a little bit silly.
If you watch the vlog from that day you'll see we looked pretty cool as pirates. But the thing I loved about the day was not simply the act of dressing up but that this is the sort of thing that happens with Jenn. She maintains a kind of enthusiasm and joy for living that I had allowed to ebb away at some point, and I adore her for it. I don't want to go all sickening sweet on you but the past several months have been all about falling for Jenn over and over. That is what I loved about dressing as a pirate: it reminded me, again, how awesome is my girlfriend.

~ 8 ~ Getting spotted by people who watch the vlog: This vlogging thing is ridiculous; I admit it. I have come to accept it is usurping creative energies that would otherwise be spent on writing but I haven't come to a decision yet as to whether I am upset about that. I can't claim vlogging to be an art form (I don't think) but I enjoy it and find it fulfilling, nonetheless. There is a simple challenge in finding roughly seven minutes of each day to broadcast to the world.
And it is that aspect of reaching out beyond my physical boundaries that appeals to me about vlogging. It was the same thing that attracted me to blogging more than a half decade ago. The medium is different, but that hope of connecting on a greater scale remains the same.
I try to tell myself I am vlogging partially for myself and partially so I can still share my life with old friends back in the United States. But YouTube allows its users all manner of detailed statistics, which suggest the same thing as the detailed statistics for this blog: my old friends from the United States don't really care about what I'm doing. So, I will admit taking a certain delight when these newer methods of communication allow me new connections. And I take special delight when those connections occasionally cross into my actual life. Twice in the month of June I was spotted by people I had never met but who watch the daily nonsense Jenn and I churn out for the vlog. My favourite was the red-haired girl who ran up to my train window holding up a notebook in which she had written: "I REALLY LIKE YOUR VLOG."
I have no idea where I am going with vlogging -- if it has a purpose or aim -- but I enjoy it immensely for the time being, so perhaps I need not worry about anything beyond that.

~ 8 ~ Finishing my first year of teaching: At the moment, roughly 47 people subscribe to my YouTube page, which I'm guessing is roughly 99,953 subscribers shy of the numbers one would need to make money from vlogging. So, for a while, at least, I'm stuck doing this teaching thing. Thankfully, I have a handful of courses lined up for the autumn and some masochistic part of me is looking forward to climbing those mountains. But I am also delighted to have seen the end of the courses I had been teaching over the past few months. I'm not sure I fully grasp the sense of accomplishment I feel from having completed a year of teaching. It's that sense of a thing done, I suppose; in most jobs there is not so clear a start and end.

~ 8 ~ Hanson: Yes, that Hanson -- the dudes who sang "Mmm Bop." Don't judge me, yo; Hanson's "Shout It Out" album is good. Not groundbreaking by any means, it was my favourite thing to listen to in the month of June. Their "Mmm Bop" days now long behind them, Hanson are still producing music, releasing albums through their own label. "Shout It Out" was released last year in the United States but not available on the Island of Rain until recently. I bought it simply out of my fondness for the video for "Thinkin' Bout Somethin'" and found myself pleasantly surprised by an album full of solid tunes suitable for cleaning the flat and wishing summer would finally arrive.

~ 8 ~ A Hole In Texas, by Herman Wouk: I started reading again in June. I'm really not sure what happened to me/has happened to me/ is happening to me but after some pretty severe depression in December I lost a number of those things that define me, i.e., reading and writing a lot. In the first six months of 2011, I managed to complete one book and half read another. In June, though, I managed two novels. Yes, I know, you are better than me and burn through two novels a week. Good on you. But baby steps, yo. The first novel I read was A Hole in Texas, which had been given to me last year by someone who thought I'd like it simply because it has the name of my home state in the title. It's a wandering story of political tedium that focuses on the clusterfuck that was the Superconducting Super Collider project in Ellis County, Texas. This was a multi-billion-dollar science project that was killed without particularly good reason in 1993. The assertion from Wouk is that it was killed because other states really do dislike Texas so much they are willing to make the United States look like a gaggle incompetent fools just for the sake of ensuring that Texas doesn't get any more awesome things.
The other main themes of the book were: 1) Jews are great; 2) if you do something kind of stupid, just tell your wife about it from the get-go, because it wasn't actually all that stupid and trying to cover it up makes you look a lot worse. The book was strangely readable in that sense you burn through it and then reach the end thinking: "Hmm, did that ever actually go anywhere?"
But the point is: I read it. Reading something is better than reading nothing.

~ 8 ~ Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver: Toward the end of the month I started Barbara Kingsolver's Pigs in Heaven, which is a something I'm finding very much worth reading. This is the second Kingsolver novel I have read and with it she is moving into the list of my top five favourite authors. Her novel The Lacuna kicked my ass. It first made me feel I should give up writing because I could never match it, then it inspired me to want to push myself to write because I knew how high the bar could go. Pigs in Heaven is not so strong as that but still a good book. Kingsolver has a talent for set phrases, things you want to post to Twitter because they seem like beautiful truisms. She also has the capacity for writing textured stories that carry you along, making you wish the train home would take just a little bit longer or that your girlfriend would be stuck late at work so you'll be able to keep reading.