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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Time to get your Strictly on

It's that time of year again: another season of "Strictly Come Dancing" is set to begin. Longtime followers of this blog may also know this period as "the only time Chris ever writes anything on his blog anymore." I have designs on breathing a bit more life into this old web space but, yes, I admit: over the past few years this site has fallen rather silent during those terrible spaces of time in which British television screens are sans Bruce Forsyth. I would apologise but obviously I'm not all that sorry because I keep doing it.

So, from now until Christmas -- usually on Wednesdays but I can't really promise anything because  procrastination seems to be the only thing I'm good at these days -- I'll be posting a recap of each Strictly weekend. Admittedly, these recaps will be read only by Ashleigh, Helen and, perhaps, my mother. Moms are like that: they support you in everything. My mother used to watch my vlog when it was Welsh-language.

The vlog is English-based now, however, so for those who complain that the Strictly recaps are just a load of unreadable wasted internet space you can head over there for a load of unwatchable wasted internet space, much of which will probably still be Strictly-related.

Because, as I explain every year, I have a madness for "Strictly Come Dancing." I don't fully understand it but I tend to not worry too much since I could be fascinated with far less acceptable things. Heroin, for example. Or alcohol abuse. If Amy Winehouse had been addicted to "Strictly Come Dancing" she'd still be here and probably producing a super-amazing concept album in which each track is in a musical style fitting the dances performed on the show.

Strictly possesses some element of "home" for me. It gives me the sense that somewhere in the world things are OK. I am a deeply cynical person, wracked with persistent feelings I am going to be killed in some terrible way and then shortly forgotten. There is a hell going on inside my head. When I watch Strictly, though, that hell disappears. I am just happy. Stupidly happy. Balls to you should you begrudge me that.

I love it all. It is so incredibly silly, and unapologetically so. I love the music, I love the dancing, I love Bruce and Tess, I am sad about the absence of Claudia Winkleman but willing to give Zoe Ball a try, I love the ridiculous outfits, I love women in skimpy clothing, I love Len and Bruno and Craig and Alesha, I love my traditions of watching the show with a bowl of popcorn and a huge glass of port, I love the emotional warmth of the show contrasted with the increasingly colder weather, and, yes, I even love the "emotional journey" taken by each of the celebrities.

The spangled circus of B-celebrity starts up again this Friday. I can hardly wait. So, with that in mind, here's a look at who will be competing in the show's ninth series:

Apparently Rory Bremner does comedy impressions. I did not know who Rory was because I hate impressionists. Many moons ago, I used to fly into Las Vegas quite frequently and find myself tormented by the visage Danny Gans, a now deceased entertainer who incorporated an impression of George Burns into his act. George Burns, for the love of Pete. He might as well have worked in a Will Rogers impression.

But, see, that's the thing about impressionists: they'll hold on to a character long after he or she is relevant because the impressionist has little to no creative talent of his own. My guess is that Rory Bremner doesn't do any George Burns impressions, which is a mark in his favour, but the fact he does an impression of Brucie makes me squirm in discomfort.

Rory is dancing with Celine Dion look-alike Erin Boag. In terms of partners poor Erin's been in a slump since her run with Austin Healey. I am pessimistic about her chances this year but perhaps an individual's ability to mimic a celebrity could translate to an ability to follow direction.

~
Apparently, Edwina Currie had sex with former prime minister John Major. Why anyone would want to admit to such a thing, I cannot guess. But Edwina does, with relish. In the quick little bio of her in the launch show she made sure to touch on that. Knowing nothing of her beyond the Strictly realm I can't say whether she is like this always, but she seems now keen to have you believe she is a saucy little minx. Who also happened to serve as a Conservative member of parliament. It's as if she is Ann Widdecombe's id.

Perhaps all female Conservative MPs are, in fact, the same woman: derivatives of Margret Thatcher created in some terrible and botched 1970s chemistry experiment.

On a side note, I can't help think Edwina looks a bit like John Major in drag.

The opportunities for incredibly awkward sexuality are abound with Edwina because she will be dancing with pocket-sized lothario Vincent Simone. I'd say their chances of lasting five weeks, however, are less than good.

~
Similar to Edwina, Nancy Dell'Olio's claim to fame seems to be that she had sex with a man more famous than her. In this case, the man was former England football manager Sven-Gorran Eriksson. But unlike Edwina, Nancy doesn't appear to have done anything else. Ever. That includes learning English. She just sort of mutters out a fit of semi-coherent words strung together in an order one might expect from throwing fridge magnet poetry into the air.

I think we're supposed to think of her as sultry. I find this difficult to do, however, considering that in close-up shots she has the skin of a man. I am perfectly willing to accept a 50-year-old woman can be sexy, but not when she has man skin. It's just not my thing. Unintelligible growling is also a turn-off, so Nancy's 0-2 in my book. And contrary to what her erstwhile bed partner might have you believe, that's not a record to be proud of.

(Ha! See what I did there? I made a joke about how crap England were under Eriksson. Blimey, I'm clever!)

Nancy is dancing with the beleaguered clown prince of Strictly, Anton du Beke. I'm trying to remember now whether Anton has ever been allocated a good dance partner. No, I don't believe he has. One thing I have learned because of this fact is that when Anton is annoyed he laughs really loudly, attempting to show he is not annoyed at all. Expect, then, for Anton's microphone to occasionally pop as he lets out ear-shattering guffaws when dancing with Nancy.

~
Is it fair for Jason Donovan to be in Strictly? He says he can't dance but has spent several years performing in West End musicals. To that end, you'd expect him to be a favourite to win. He seems to be aware of this and is already showing more feeling of strain than any of the other contestants. I fear our Jason wants too much to do well, which is often the kiss of death on Strictly. Much of Jason Donavan annoys me, but I find myself hoping (and kind of expecting) to see him do well. How could I not? He's made out with Kylie Mynogue.

I also want Jason to do well because he is dancing with the delightfully synthetic Kristina Rihanoff. From the look of her, it's rather likely Kristina's had a certain amount of work done, which is generally the sort of thing that puts me off. Especially when the person who's had work done is Russian. She reminds me too much of one of those scary, humourless former gymnasts. But via her Twitter and such, Kristina seems likeable and I've always had a soft spot for her. Besides, after being saddled in recent years with the likes of John Sargeant, Joe Calzaghe and Goldie, Kristina deserves a chance to make it past week four.

~
Anita Dobson: Who?

Whoever she is, she'll be dancing with everyone's favourite big gay monkey, Robin Windsor. I doubt very much Robin will ever surpass the television gold he produced with Patsy Kensit. They were incredible.

~
In truth I feel Russell Grant would have made a better dance partner for Robin, both being particularly camp individuals. Doing such a thing would likely have been seen as far too progressive a move for family viewing, but, honestly, would it actually have upset anyone other than Ann Widdecombe? As a matter of fact, if a Russell-Robin pairing would keep Ann from ever returning, I would lobby the BBC to make it happen.

As is, the astrology-touting old queen is being paired with a lady. When I first read about Russell being part of the show I felt a cringe building up from the well of my soul. How many times will we be subjected to Russell working astrology into his little interviews?

"Oh, Craig is a such-and-such sign, that's why he's cranky."
"Well, since I'm a such-and-such sign, I think I'll be really suited to this dance."

And on and on and on until you find yourself trying to knock yourself into blissful unconsciousness with sofa cushions. But on the launch show I decided I actually like him because he is ridiculous. I especially loved his interaction with Audley Harrison. Indeed, I feel those two should be kept on as a pair even after they are both eventually voted out.

Russell is dancing with Flavia Cacace, which is unfortunate because I feel she has no sense of humour. Flavia has abs. Incredible abs. And for these she has had to give up a lot of things, like ice cream and chocolate cake and having a personality. As I say, this is unfortunate. It's a pretty good bet Russell won't be able to shake his groove thing to the necessary standard but if the two were to sell themselves in that sort of "Up Pompeii" or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum sort of way, it would be amazing.

~
Man mountain Audley Harrison probably isn't going to be turning out the most sprightly of Charlestons. But it's a good bet he will be a favourite of Len and Brucie and, possibly, me. I'm inclined to believe boxers don't have the right mindset for Strictly; they're not able to allow themselves to be as silly as they need to be to do well. But seeing Audley camp it up with Russell Grant in the launch show makes me think maybe, just maybe, Audley could do it. He won't win, of course, but I feel I have reason to hope his dances won't simply become two minutes of my looking away from the television.

Audley is dancing with fitness machine Natalie Lowe. I have a crush on Natalie, one based on equal parts fear and respect. She could break a man with those thighs. Audley is 6-foot-6 and has beaten dozens of men unconscious, but still I pity (and envy) him.

~
I have mentioned before my feeling that professional dancer Katya Virshilas has the look of a girl who would be forced to embarrassing pornography should her Strictly boat ever sink. "Waterloo Road" star Chelsee Healey, however, looks the sort who would choose such a career as a first option. I can't help feeling she turned to light drama only to fill time whilst producers of her next film run sexual history checks on the 143 men and women she will "entertain" in a movie called Midnight in Chelsee.

Her thick Mancunian accent, meanwhile, makes her insufferable to listen to. When she speaks it sounds as if she has participated in one too many throat gagging scenes. I dislike her in almost every way. I dislike her voice. I dislike her face. I dislike her hair. I dislike her strange munchkin frame. Even her enormous boobs annoy me slightly. Sure, I will enjoy watching her run up the stairs to Tess' area but the wantonness of Chelsee means the naughty thrill is gone. Chelsee would happily run up steps topless for a £5 note.

Chelsee is dancing with newcomer Pasha Kovalev, of whom I know absolutely nothing.

~
I think it's fair to say Alex Jones is the best thing to ever come out of Ammanford, Wales. Indeed, I think it's fair to say Alex Jones is the only good thing to ever come out of Ammanford, Wales. My friend, Chris, is from a village just north of Ammanford and when he goes back home for visits does so via a circuitous route designed to avoid Ammanford. On a recent trip that took me through the town I noticed there is, very strangely, an American-themed bar there. I was intrigued but later decided that any American who would call Ammanford home is likely not an American with whom I would choose to keep company.

But now, of course, Ammanford is my favourite place in the world. Because Alex Jones is from there. And Alex Jones recently responded to something I said on Twitter. Last year, Kara Tointon responded to me on Twitter and I decided I was in love with her. You'll note she then went on to win the show. My love is that powerful, bitches.

Whether I will back Alex to win is yet to be determined because I haven't really seen her dance yet, but she's certainly off to a good start. The "One Show" presenter began her career in Welsh-language television, where she presented all manner of less-than-good programmes, most of which I would watch solely for the purpose of thinking dirty thoughts about Alex. I watched "Tocyn" for the love of Pete. It was a show that statistically had zero viewers. Over the past two years or so, Welsh-language channel S4C has been in upheaval due to the fact it has been woefully mismanaged and is now losing a good deal of funding. When critics speak of S4C they almost always point to "Tocyn" as an example of the channel's failings. But I watched that show. Because Alex Jones was on it.

Alex is dancing with cougar bait James Jordan, which could be awesome. In past series, James has had his best moments when teamed with the more mature ladies. He has a certain power to get them to dig deep and find their inner harlot. Remember him and Cherie Lunghi? Naughty. Whether James can get the same from someone his own age (he is 33, Alex is 34) remains to be seen. For the sake of myself and all the rest of the male population in Wales, I really hope he does.

~
I have long found pop-rock boy band McFly difficult to dislike. Something in my core tells me I should hate them but then I end up singing along to their songs. And by "singing along" what I mean, of course, is "singing the first two words of a chorus and then saying 'dubba-doo-doo' in tune to the rest of it." The band's drummer, Harry Judd, is a big reason for my McFly tolerance. In the 2004 video for "5 Colours in Her Hair" he inexplicably wears a Minnesota Twins T-shirt. For that alone, I hope he makes it to the final three.

And there's reason to believe he will. Harry has already been through the Strictly experience on a minor level, having performed with Ola Jordan in a "Children in Need" special. Also, he is a member of a once wildly popular boy band. Many of those teenage girls who loved him half a decade ago will now vote him through even the most awkward of rumbas.

Harry is dancing with the unexpectedly likeable Aliona Vilani. At the start of last year's series I had only bad things to say about the flame-haired Russian. But watching her and Matt Baker changed my mind. If Brucie's writers don't come up with a gag combining Aliona's fondness for cartoonish hair dye and the fact McFly's first single was "5 Colours in Her Hair," I am going to feel very let down.

~
For some reason I keep confusing ITV presenter Dan Lobb with BBC presenter Dan Snow. The fact it is the former and not the latter dancing on Strictly is something I find disappointing. Dan Snow could dance and inform us about great Royal Navy battles or some such thing. Dan Lobb, however, will just sort of... well, I don't know what Dan Lobb does. According to his bio page, he went to university at the University of Tennessee, also known as "the school that totally stole its look from University of Texas."

Dan is also a presenter on ITV's "Daybreak," the show that has produced two of the memorably worst contestants in Strictly history.

Dan is dancing with taskmaster Katya Virshilas. When not weighing her pornstar options Katya has a tendency to experience mood swings with her partners, so if Dan is anything like his ITV colleagues he can expect to suffer a few tantrums.

~
Lulu is a diva. This is the way she is being sold by Strictly, at least. I had thought, however, that one of the prerequisites to being a diva is having people actually know who the hell you are. Her claim to fame is having sung an obnoxious version of that song from Animal House roughly five decades ago. She sang an even more obnoxious song in 1969 and won Eurovision. She's sung a handful of other obnoxious songs over the years and somehow picked up an American accent despite having been born in Glasgow.

Lulu is dancing with self-important Kiwi Brendan Cole, with whom I was recently embroiled in a Twitter battle. No, really. Brendan made a stupid remark about the Welsh language, I called him a name and Alex Jones got dragged into it. I explain the whole thing in my vlog post from that day.

Even before that whole brouhaha, however, I had long disliked Brendan. He is my least favourite of the professional dancers. I respect that he is very much responsible for one of the show's betters aspects -- the fact celebrities are pushed to actually try (when the series first started it was envisioned as a sort of jokey thing but Brendan was too hyper-competitive to simply go out and clown around) -- but that's not enough to make me like him. One of the things I enjoy most is seeing Brendan fail. One of the things I enjoy least is listening to him blame failure on anything and everything other than the simple reality he is an egotistical douchebag.

~
Speaking of egotistical douchebags, Robbie Savage is another Strictly celeb who has expressed his displeasure with me via Twitter. I have disliked Robbie for as long as I've known he exists, so when I learned of his being on Strictly a part of me died. This means putting up with him in regular doses. And worse yet, it means football cliche's from the judges and uncomfortable attempts at football banter from Brucie. I may choose Robbie's dances as an opportunity to go to the toilet.

The former Wales international footballer fancies himself a cheeky chappy, which is a British term for someone with a playful and impudent sense of humour. But people who think of themselves as a cheeky chappy rarely ever actually are. They are just annoying. That "Ooh, I'm a maverick, me" stuff wears thin almost instantly.

Robbie takes a certain pride in the fact he was frequently carded when playing football. What sort of thing is that to take pride in? "Hey, hey! I was crap at what I did and put my team at a disadvantage as a result! Ho, ho! Such a cheeky chappy!"

Fortunately, Strictly history shows footballers -- guys who made a living working with their feet -- aren't particularly good dancers. And the Welsh aren't really a big enough voting bloc to carry Robbie very far (especially when actually likeable Welsh-speaker Alex Jones is in the mix), so one can only hope he won't be around too long.

That is unfortunate only because Robbie is dancing with sex kitten Ola Jordan, who each year seems to be hellbent on wearing as little fabric as possible in her routines.

~
I know nothing of Holly Valance but I think I like her. Maybe. I can't decide. Is she a former sex symbol who decided that perhaps eating might be an OK thing and now takes the piss out of her status fall, or is she a former sex symbol who has yet to figure out she is a former sex symbol? I suspect, though, that if she performs anything along the lines of the raunchy routines that Artem put together last year for Kara Tointon, I will develop a crush on her and not really care either way.

As mentioned, Holly is dancing with inveterate bad speller Artem Chigvinstev. He won last year with Kara, so it feels a little unfair for him to be paired with yet another attractive girl who might be able to win. But, again, if he works raunch and crazy tricks into his routines, I won't really give a damn.

Predictions:
Having seen all the dancers basically do little more than step forward and step back in the launch show, it is difficult to guess who will make it to Blackpool, which is kind of when Strictly starts to really click. I'm guessing Robbie, Anita, Nancy, Edwina and Lulu won't be there. I suspect Jason Donovan may fall at an early hurdle and I have a suspicion Alex Jones' talent won't really surpass the Eisteddfod standard (Ooh, a catty slight at the low quality of Eisteddfod performances. That was totally unnecessary). Beyond that, however, it's hard to guess who will be in the final three, let alone raising the glitter-ball trophy in December.

Along the way there will be utter failures of the voting public, high-school-level scandals and Zoë Ball awkwardly attempting to console losing couples on the Monday edition of "It Takes Two." It will be camp, it will be ridiculous and it will be amazing. I can't wait.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Eight things I loved about August

More and more I find my monthly Eight Things post is something of a Best Bits of the Vlog summary, which is probably a little tedious but also perhaps just a little bit helpful. During my recent visit to the United States I frequently found myself listening to friends apologise in a roundabout way for never watching the vlog -- which is actually OK. Just because a friend of yours churns something out on a daily basis doesn't mean you have to watch each and every bit of that something. Indeed, I've half thought of trying to think up some sort of a code to identify the vlog "episodes" that are relevant. You know, the ones that will come up in conversation when I see next see people.

"Yeah, you really should have watched the one when Jenn fought a giraffe. That was amazing."

So far, I haven't thought of that code and, as it happens, this post doesn't even totally serve that purpose because I reference a few things not captured for YouTube posterity. Any hoosiers, here's the list (in no particular order) of eight things I loved about the eighth month of 2011: 

~ 8 ~ Visiting Minnesota: I had last visited Minnesota in July 2010, when I swore up and down to anyone and everyone I would not allow another year to pass before my return. I turned out to be wrong, of course. Visa and financial issues kept me sound on the Island of Rain for 13 months. So, getting back spun me into a sort of rapturous love with my adopted home state; absence makes the heart grow fonder. I found myself swooning over minute details of American life -- wide roads, country music, seemingly limitless supplies of junk food, ESPN, etc. -- many of them being things I hadn't been all that keen on when actually living there. But such is the madness of going home. The thousands of pieces of life not present in the Soggy Nations spark memories of greater things in which they played an insignificant role. For example, listening to country music reminds me of driving the width and length of America, through the stretches where often there is no other radio to choose from. Watching ESPN reminds me of running on a treadmill in the workout room of the downtown La Quinta in Austin, Texas, where my brother and I stayed for a few days whilst exploring the city in 2009. I don't so much care for country music or ESPN but the memories these things induce are intoxicating and so I love them by association. There's almost certainly a psychological term for this but I am too lazy to go on a Google expedition for it. In addition to tenuous subconscious links, however, Minnesota holds actual and real things that I love and pine for all the time I am living 5,000 miles away. Specifically, my friends. I got to see my best friend Eric, and his wife Kristin, and their 8-month-old daughter Annalise, several times during my fortnight in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. All the videos from my time in Minnesota can be found here (a), with Eric showing up on: 18 August, 21 August, 26 August and 30 August. On the the 30 August video you also see another old friend, Shawn. Minnesota provides something no other place can (b): friends I have known for more than two decades. On the night Shawn and Eric and I hung out at the Town Hall Tap we reflected on an observation made by another old friend of ours, Paul, who once said: "I find it harder and harder to make new friends, and impossible to make new old friends." But Minnesota provides the latter, as well. OK, newish. I have known Dan and Johanna, and Anthony and Maggie for eight years. That kind of pushes them a certain distance out of the "new" category, I suppose. Like seemingly all of my friends these days, both couples are parents to newborns. Dan and Johanna's son, Liam, is about four months old; Anthony and Maggie's daughter, Olivia, is roughly half that age. I got to visit them all one evening when I took the ridiculously long drive out to Dan and Johanna's house in rural Minnesota. They have a few acres of land that butt against several dozen more acres of farmland, found at the end of a 2-mile stretch of dirt road. We cooked hot dogs and bratwurst on the grill then sat around the fire into the night. Eventually babies drew everyone else away but myself and Dan. We sat until midnight, watching the fire die away and listening to coyotes yip and howl nearby. Coyotes, bitches. Dan has coyotes wandering around near his house. They are rural life's version of the chav, perhaps, but far less annoying because you can get away with shooting them. Minnesota had all these things and made me long to return to them. Additionally there were the streets of my beloved Saint Paul, long runs in the heat, meandering walks in sprawling grassland and wilderness, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (absence of the latter is why Britain lost the empire, I'd suggest). There were so many things to love that this Eight Things post could easily become Eighty Things, all dedicated to the home state of Prince and Hüsker Dü. But I'll limit myself to just four more experiences from the trip: 

~ 8 ~ Watching the Twins beat the Yankees: I fell out of love with baseball in 2002, when MLB players came terribly close to striking. Baseball, of course, heralds itself as America's pastime and although you are now more likely to find kids playing soccer (and rugby) in neighbourhood parks, the game retains a unique and special place in the American identity. Nothing is so American as going to the ballpark. In light of that, and in light of the 9-11 attacks that had occurred just a few months before, I felt baseball players had a moral obligation to shut their millionaire cry-baby cake holes for at least one season and entertain people by swinging sticks around, spitting, staring at their gloves, adjusting their junk and occasionally displaying a modicum of athletic ability. In the end, the season went forward but my disdain for Major League Baseball would not recede for another seven years. The team that eventually helped me warm again to the game was the same team that had first introduced me to baseball as a kid: the Houston Astros. My grandfather's favourite team. In 2009, my brother and I went to a game at Minute Maid Park with my uncle and had a great time. The Astros lost but I didn't care. A few weeks later, Eric, Paul and I watched the Red Sox beat the Athletics at Fenway Park and I almost cried with joy. Catching a baseball game has now become a required element of summer visits home. This year it was my father, my brother and me at Target Field, watching the Minnesota Twins take on the New York Yankees. In games the nights previous, the Twins had been soundly defeated by the most over-hyped sports club on the planet but, suddenly, on this night the Twins remembered how to play baseball and beat New York 9-4. And it was perfect. The summer evening was perfect. My brother's banter was perfect. The hot dogs and beer were perfect. Baseball is in many ways a metaphor for America: it pays far too much regard to the wealthy, it has an overinflated sense of importance, but when it gets things right it does so in a way that is heartbreakingly wonderful. 

~ 8 ~ Minnesota State Fair: Additionally wonderful is the 157-year-old tradition commonly known as "the great Minnesota get-together," aka, the Minnesota State Fair. An institution older, in fact, than the state itself, the Minnesota State Fair draws shy of 2 million visitors each year over its 12-day run. It is 320 acres of agriculture, education, commerce, music, food and fairground rides. I have never met a Minnesotan, regardless of socio-economic background, who didn't like the Minnesota State Fair at least a little bit. Quite honestly, if you were to go to the fair and tell me you had found nothing enjoyable about the experience I would assume you to be suffering from deep psychological issues. It is awesome covered in awesome, dipped into a tasty batter of awesome and then deep fried in awesome. Eric, Kristin and I went to the fair on a Friday night, which was the first time I had been in the evening. I am one of those city kids who likes to see all the animals that the rural kids moved to the city to avoid, so I've usually preferred to go to the fair in the morning, when animal are more active. But it turns out that going at night is even better. We were able to get in free thanks to a family connection who works at the fair and drove us in on a golf cart -- making me feel as if we were all somehow important, as if we were rock stars being shuttled around at Reading Festival or some such thing. Although, in that scenario we were rock stars required to wear high-visibility vests who were then dropped inconspicuously into the middle of the International Bazaar. On arrival, beer and Pronto Pups and cheese curds were procured and I had one of the best fair experiences of my life. One of the biggest highlights was seeing Eric get invited up onstage to play with the Belfast Cowboys. He had gigged with the band a few times in the past, so he knew the parts, but it was still cool to see my best friend walk up and suddenly start performing. Again, it made me feel as if we were all somehow important. Though, perhaps some of us a little less so. "It's like he's Ferris Bueller," Kristin said. "I guess that makes me Sloane and you're Cameron." I'm not sure how I feel about that. After a few songs, Eric hopped off stage, we got more beers, went on fairground rides and enthusiastically shouted our conversations into the Minnesota summer evening, thousands of others swarming around us in a fit of lights and sound and laughter. And as we left the fairgrounds, that evening's fireworks illuminated the night sky.

~ 8 ~ Minnesota Renaissance Festival: Mention of the Renaissance Festival induces a fair amount of eye rolling in certain circles. It is, admittedly, a gigantic party seemingly put on by all those kids you knew in high school who were in theatre not because they had the ability to tell a story through acting but because they liked being loud and they liked people paying attention to them and they thought they were witty. You know, the guy whose favourite word was "erstwhile" because it sounded clever. In other words: me. But that makes it no less enjoyable. Ren Fest, as it is often referred to, is kind of a state fair of the absurd, based very loosely on the idea of re-creating the renaissance. Very loosely. Cheese curds are involved, the costumes people wear run the gambit from the early Middle Ages to looks sported by pirates of the Barbary Coast. At this year's Renaissance I saw a kid dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi. In many ways, Ren Fest is what you want it to be. It occurs to me that many American events are centred around the opportunity to shout "woo" at the top of your lungs. We are a people who like to shout "woo." It's fun, yo. By the very nature of the activity, it is impossible to be bored whilst shouting "woo." Go on, try it now; take a deep breath and let out a vocal-chord rattling "woo!" Your heart skipped a little, didn't it? Shouting "woo" is fun. Shouting "woo" is why America is better. Ren Fest is an event where this simple truth is understood. If you watch the video of my brother, Jon, his girlfriend, Vanessa, and I at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, you'll notice that most things are communicated via the medium of shout. I enjoyed it immensely. How could I not? Shouting was involved. And jousting. And lots of women in bodices.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Nine Mile Creek: I grew up running around and swimming in Nine Mile Creek -- the little strip of water that runs through Bloomington, MN, before spilling into the Minnesota River -- as well as the wooded area that surrounds it. In the video of the day I went to visit Nine Mile Creek I talk about my first visit to the area and why it means so much to me. Totally by coincidence, on that same day (and therefore, in that same video) Jenn visited the Gower Peninsula, back here in Wales, which holds a lot of importance to her from her childhood.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Jen and Dave: The pro-Minnesota theme of August started even before I set foot on the plane, because the month began with a quick visit to see our friends Jen and Dave, in London. Jen, or as she used to prefer to be called, Jeni, and I have known each other for nigh 20 years, stretching back to when the two of us went to high school together. I generally refer to Jen and Dave as my family on this island of rain, they are so special to me. So, when they asked if Jenn (that's Jenn with two letters "n," i.e., Jenn my girlfriend) and I would like to come for a weekend visit we jumped at the chance. It was a relatively quiet weekend: on Saturday we simply went for a walk and hung out at the pub; on Sunday we ate some more delicious food and spent more time at the pub. It's not exactly action-movie stuff. I suppose if we all had various neuroses it could have been converted into one of those tedious Woody Allen films, but really it was just a weekend of visiting with friends, which is something I seem to do far too infrequently.

~ 8 ~ 5 p.m. Pen y Fan: One of the myriad things I love about Jenn is her tendency to run with whatever silly idea I come up with. In most cases, I have spent my life saying things like, "Know what we should do right now? Road trip to Winnipeg!" and having that idea shot down by a more sensible person. Jenn, however, would simply grab her coat. And that more or less explains how we came up with the impromptu idea of having dinner atop a mountain. Which sounds quite romantic but for the fact that the particular mountain we chose was in Wales, which means it was rainy and cold and we were hammered by gale-force winds. But, still, we had fun.

~ 8 ~ Watsky: George Watsky is one of those anomalous artists who is so eclectic he doesn't fit particularly well into boxes. Your best bet is to refer to him as a hip-hop artist, and a particularly good one based on his ability to rap really, really fast. But his fondness for pun, literary allusions and Jewish white-boy look don't drop him into your typical vision of a hip-hop artist. Because of that, it appears that mainstream music companies have decided to give him a pass. Yes, he's good, but he's hard to market. As we all know, things that are easy to market are better than things that are good. That is the whole philosophy behind One Direction. But for people like Watsky there is the beauty of YouTube, where idiosyncrasy is seemingly encouraged and a number of talented people who will never get major-label contracts find success. People like Watsky are what make YouTube good. That said, Watsky can be enjoyed via that old-school method of mp3 and on his website he has a number of free downloads, all of which I am listening to constantly on my iPod these days.

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(a) On a side note, I was really happy with all the vlogs from my time in Minnesota. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology I was able to access video Jenn was recording on a daily basis in Wales and mesh it together. I think it worked out well.
(b) OK, that's sort of not wholly true.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I remember

Khalid al-Midhar was dead even before I woke up that morning. Not that I knew who he was, or knew anyone who did know who he was. The only connection is that he and I were both registered as students at Mesa College, in San Diego, California. Though, by all accounts, he never attended a class there.

On the morning of 11 September 2001, I fell out of bed just before 6 a.m., showered, dressed and jumped into my car to head to a 7 a.m. philosophy of logic class at Mesa. It was a typical beautiful San Diego morning: the sun shining so brightly it bounced off my rearview mirrors and into my eyes as I drove west through the sparse early-morning traffic on Friars Road. With a Starbucks white chocolate mocha in my car's cup holder and a cranberry orange muffin in my lap, I started to learn what Khalid, his room-mate Nawaf al-Hazmi, and 17 others, had done.

I have never been a fan of morning radio. I don't understand why people would want to listen to incessant talking at that time of morning. Surely you would want to rock -- get your heart pumping in anticipation to take on another day -- rather than listen to yet another cookie-cutter wax-voiced DJ tell yet another cookie-cutter dumb-girl DJ what he thinks about that show you don't watch that was on last night. Apparently I am in the minority; such programmes are inescapable on both sides of the Atlantic. Generally I choose not to listen at all but the only CDs in the car that morning were all from a Barry Manilow box set. My ex-wife loved Barry Manilow, and not in an ironic way. Add that to the list of reasons things eventually fell apart.

So, I found myself skipping across the radio dial. I let the radio scan three circuits, each time allocating 101.5 to be the start/stop point, hoping the "morning zoo" of Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw would shut up for a bit and simply play some Blackfoot. "Train, Train," by Blackfoot, is one of the all-time best songs to gear yourself up to go to school/work/rob a bank. No such luck, however. Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw were obsessed with something they were watching on TV in the studio.

Few things are less interesting than listening to a group of people watch television, especially when that group are too engrossed to properly explain what they are seeing. As best I could figure out, a plane had crashed into a building in New York City. Their inadequate powers of description did nothing to contradict the vision I had of a single-engine Cessna smacking against a skyscraper, breaking a few windows and -- at the very worst -- possibly killing four people. That sort of thing had happened from time to time in San Diego. No one had run into a building, admittedly, but plenty of tragically inexperienced pilots had managed to put their planes into the side of a mountain. And I could not see why it was drawing so much of Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw's attention.

In those days I was an active member of the Global Media Conspiracy, working at one of the local television stations. You may have guessed this, but within the newsroom mind there exists a kind of equation for tragic events: a ÷ b = c. Where a is the number of people dead, b is the distance of the event from the news market and c is the event's level of newsworthiness. By this equation, a maximum of four people being killed in a novelty accident roughly 4,000 miles away does not warrant taking time from local traffic and weather, talk of that bitchy one on "The Bachelor," or the possibility of rocking out to Blackfoot. Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw were wasting my time. And I was starting to eye the Barry Manilow box set when I heard them all gasp.

"Oh, fuck," said one of the male presenters.

As I say, I was a member of the Global Media Conspiracy in those days. I knew full well the implications of profanity on the airwaves. I had seen coworkers instantly fired, their careers ended, because they had used tamer words on air. My ears perked up and I devilishly prepared to listen to the torrent of mea culpa that was almost certain to follow. They would all awkwardly apologise, possibly go to commercial, and maybe when the show eventually came back it would be one presenter short. But that didn't happen.

"Oh, God," Shelly said. "That building just fell down. Oh, God. Oh, my God."

In the background I heard others using profanity. Someone screamed. And I realised something was happening.

This was only ten years ago, so it's hard to remember there were no smart phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, etc. -- nothing to spread information quite so instantly as we have today. Even blogs had not yet hit the mainstream. I worked on my television station's website and it was still occasionally a challenge to convince management such a technology was more than a fad. Instant information was hard to come by. So, when I arrived at my class at Mesa College I still only knew something was happening, but I had no idea what. Searching the AM and FM radio stations en route had provided little additional knowledge.

In the classroom, a handful of other people had heard of the something that had happened but were equally in the dark. One guy had thought to tune a pocket radio to Howard Stern, reasoning that since this event was taking place "back east" Stern would surely comment on it -- but not realising Stern's show was on time delay. Whatever Stern was saying at that moment would not be broadcast in the West Coast for three more hours.

The course instructor eventually arrived, confirmed he was aware something was happening and announced that in light of that something our class was cancelled.

"Before I let you go, however," he said. "I think it's appropriate, this being a course on logic and reason, that we remember not to rush to judgment about who is responsible for whatever this is. And when we find out who is responsible, it's even more important to remember not to stereotype, not to group an entire race or religion or culture into a box just because of the actions of a minority. OK, go home and be with your families. I'm not sure when classes will resume."


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I called my news manager as soon I got back to the apartment.

"Want me to come in now?"

I was scheduled to come into work that afternoon, but when something happens a part of the journalist's soul aches to be in the newsroom. There is a need to be there, to be acting, to be doing something. It is a kind of coping mechanism, I think. For me it always was, at least. It was my way of firing into the air, I suppose.

When Custer's men were being slaughtered at Little Bighorn many of them simply fired randomly into the air, the innate frantic desire to act overpowering the rational ability to pick a target. They couldn't really think of what to do but knew they had to do something, so they shot wildly and screamed at nothing in particular.

A journalist knows he can do nothing about the people in burning and collapsing buildings, but he still feels the need to scream and to shoot into the air, so he talks and talks or writes and writes until the shock of the thing starts to wear off. My news manager told me to wait to come in.

"You're definitely going to be here late," she said. "You should try to get some sleep."

I would not sleep for another 36 hours. I managed 45 minutes of lying on the couch, watching Peter Jennings try to make sense of it all, before I decided to go in early. I went straight to work churning out story after story -- this event cancelled, that Navy ship on stand-by, this official claiming such and such, that official warning so and so, these people raising money, those people collecting blankets. It went on and on. And the whole world felt confused. Over and over I wrote stories from all corners of the San Diego viewing area for which the underlying theme was: "What the hell is happening?"

People brought in pizza, then Mexican food, then breakfast, then pizza again. Occasionally I would get up, go to the toilet and walk slow back to my desk, but for the most part I just worked -- pushing the assignment desk and reporters to give me anything, so I could write it and publish it and feel like I was doing something. So I could keep firing into the air.

Early in the evening of 12 September 2001, one of the guys from the assignment desk came up to me with a box of Krispy Kremes.

"Hey, man," he said. "You're wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Did you go home?"

"No."

"Have a donut, man. Take a second. People are starting to burn out."

He sat and talked to me about nothing. I can't remember the conversation now. In the back of my head I realised he had made it his job to distract people in the newsroom for the sake of their sanity. I think there must have been long pauses in the conversation, points where I'd say, "Yeah," and trail off into silence. On my desk a television ran the ABC satellite feed, and suddenly there were the Coldstream Guard outside Buckingham Palace. The Queen had directed them to play the Star Spangled Banner. And they did so brilliantly. Staccato. Defiant. Unapologetic.

And it got me. It still gets me.

Because here's the thing about being an American: the rest of the world loves to see you fail. Yes, sometimes American arrogance seems to deserve the karmic repayment of failure. But as an American you can't help but notice the glee other nationalities take in seeing that failure, urging it on at times, baying for it. Each American deals with this in his or her own way. Some Americans try to turn from the rest of the world, some of us try to accept the criticism with a grain of salt. It is not so horrible, but it can be annoying. And amid the immediate blur of 9/11 I felt that around the world people were probably tutting judgmentally and impishly declaring we had brought this on ourselves.

But here was the British monarchy, the institution we had rebelled against to form our very beginning, rushing forward to show unwavering support. Still amid the confusion, Britain seemed to be saying: "We don't know what's going on, but we know we are beside you."

It got me. It still gets me. That display of support is one of the reasons I love Britain so fiercely to this day. And it was the reason I fell apart crying on that early evening the day after the attacks. I cried so hard my lungs shook. I have only once in my life cried harder.


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I got an email from Radio Cymru the other day asking if I'd be interested in coming on air to discuss the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. As one of only a few Welsh-speaking Americans I frequently get the call to comment on whatever big news item is taking place at the moment. Over the years I've provided Yanqui analysis of presidential campaigns, political dealings, tornadoes, financial woes and the significance of Thanksgiving dinner. I had suspected I might get a call about the 10-year anniversary, as well.

In the email, a producer posited a few of the questions that have and will be asked ad nauseam in connection to 9/11: Are there any lessons to learn? Could this all have been avoided had the West behaved better?

Those are the producer's words: "pe bai'r Gorllewin wedi ymddwyn yn well" -- if the West were to have behaved better. To me this smacks of the sentiment that America had it coming, that somehow 9/11 was deserved. I didn't respond to the email for a full day because I found it difficult to avoid abusive language. Once I calmed, I said I would be happy to discuss the 10-year anniversary but that phrasing of that particular question was exceedingly poor. How exactly was the United States supposed to have "behaved better?" What is "better" in the eyes of the Islamic extremist who seeks only the total eradication of Western culture? When your critic wants you dead it's impossible to find common ground.

As we look back 10 years, I think it is foolish, revisionist and naïve to suggest the United States, or any of the myriad other countries attacked by al-Qaida, somehow were responsible for the tragedies directed at them. The people who died in 9/11 were simply living their lives. I'm willing to bet, based on the law of averages, that some of those people were dickheads. But none of them deserved to die. None of them had it coming to be struck down by a group of extremist zealots who felt they had a right to kill in Allah's name. And none of them could have or should have "behaved better" to avoid being killed.

The United States could perhaps have prevented 9/11 from happening had various security services not been so keen on being proprietary with information. But there is nothing, save not existing, it could have ever done to spare itself being the target of extremist Islamist ire. The extremists are crazy; there is no negotiability in their standpoint; they are wrong.

The assertion that America has no culpability in the causes of 9/11 may sound like arrogant patriotism to some people from the Soggy Nations. In Britain, one seemingly must assume at least a portion of guilt for every bad thing in order to be properly cultured. I don't buy that in this case. And although I am unrepentantly pro-American (strangely more so since moving to the UK), I don't think that makes me a blind patriot.

This 11 September, as they do every year, a number of my friends back home will commemorate the day by posting to their Facebook/Twitter/whatever messages like, "I haven't forgotten," or "I still remember," or some equally inane statement of the same sentiment. This is ridiculous. It is simply a declaration of memory. I haven't forgotten 9/11, but additionally I haven't forgotten the birthday cake Jenn made for me in March. I haven't forgotten my high school locker combination. I haven't forgotten what I had for lunch yesterday. There are any number of things my memory is capable of recalling. But that isn't a declaration of patriotism, it's a taunt of Alzheimer's sufferers.

For the purveyors of these functioning memory claims I think the assertion is that America somehow changed as a result of 9/11 and they remain resolved to uphold that change. I suppose this is similar to the attitude conveyed in Johnny Mathis' "Secret of Christmas:" It's not the things you do at Christmas, but the Christmas things you do all year through. But what, exactly, are these people remembering? I would argue their memories are, in fact, a bit fuzzy. Because in fundamental terms the United States did not change. We have different technologies, we are paying attention to different surgically enhanced celebrities and we are simultaneously lamenting and upholding different politicians, but at its core America has not changed. It remains the brash, friendly, right-of-centre, wonderful, ridiculous country it has long, long been.

Eliminating political specifics, technological advances and pop culture, the United States is the same place it was a decade ago. So, what was the effect of 9/11? Nothing. All those people died and, essentially, nothing happened as a result.

That sounds cruel but, to me, it is a good thing. It shows the resiliency of the human spirit and also draws a huge, blood-stained line under the biggest lesson of 9/11: Terrorism Does Not Work. As a means of change it is woefully ineffective. It accomplishes nothing toward the terrorist's stated aims.

The attacks of 11 September broke my heart but they didn't change me. On this ten-year anniversary I may go to Starbucks, I may rock out to Blackfoot, I may cry. But I will still be American. Unapologetically so.