Friday, December 14, 2012

An Incredibly Long Title: Thoughts on Hunter S. Thompson, Literature and Motorcycles

When I was 18 years old I was an actor. I drove a Ford Mustang convertible and went out with a model. She drove a Kawasaki Ninja 500, with which she would swoop into my headlights as we sped from place to place, taunting me to chase after her. John Carroll Lynch bought me beer.

As a standalone tale, I suppose that's impressive. Enough so that I was temporarily able to dupe myself for a moment as I was lying in bed the other night. I phrased my life in just that succinct way and thought: "Man, whatever happened to the rock n' roll me?"

The answer is that particular rock n' roll me never really existed, nor did I want him to exist. My dad had bought the Mustang and it simply had become mine by default. As soon as it was acknowledged as mine, I insisted upon trading it in for a pickup truck. Sitting in the Mustang on a rainy November morning, heading to a car dealership with me, my father took one of his trademark deep-breath sighs and said: "I can't help feeling this is a decision we're going to regret."

I didn't. I don't. Some 18 years have passed and still I class it as one of my better decisions in life.

The motorcycle-riding model had gotten rid of me several weeks before. And I only ever drank half of one of the beers Lynch gave me. The first paragraph of this post marks a very tiny period in my life, which was incongruous with the rest –– a version of me that I don't want and didn't want at the time.

I got started thinking about all this because of an email I got from my friend, Dale.

"I was just having a look at your blog and I saw that you were reading Hell's Angels," he said. "I was just wondering what you thought about it."

Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was Hunter S. Thompson's first published book, about spending roughly a year in the company of the same Hell's Angels who are generally credited with helping to kill off the 1960s hippie era. Eventually his association with the club ended when he was severely beaten after commenting to an Angel: "Only a punk beats his wife." The Angel in question was at that time beating his wife and as such didn't take well to Thompson's admonishment.

I read Thompson's most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, when I was 22 years old and was not terribly impressed. Though I never would have admitted this at the time. A nickname I had given myself was a variant of that which Thompson used for Oscar Zeta Acosta. Like just about every other boy, ever, I was enamoured of the image of Thompson (a). Not so enamoured, though, that I ever picked up another of his books.

My friend, Clint, has an enormous (roughly 3 feet by 5 feet) framed photo hanging on his living room wall of Thompson peering out of a large convertible. Clint can do a good imitation of Thompson and is happy to slip into it whenever possible, such as when his cats are behaving strangely. Not too long ago Clint and I got into a discussion about Thompson and I decided I should try again with his work.

I deliberately chose Hell's Angels because it was Thompson's first book and therefore less likely to be influenced by the sense of self-importance that marks so much of his later work. Shortly before Thompson died, he had a regular internet column for ESPN and it was insufferable. It was so bad that ESPN buried it in the depths of their web maze and no doubt the site editor was quietly relieved when Thompson shot himself.

Thompson rode his 1970s fame and notoriety for two decades and was convinced that only he and certain key members of his generation really understood anything. Until I eventually heard him speak, I long imagined his voice as being exactly that of an old hippie I got stuck standing next to for an hour in the Nevada DMV. Looking as if he had been dragged to the DMV office behind a truck he spoke ceaselessly about how my generation didn't know anything, man, and his generation had done things, had changed the whole world. I simply nodded or made "Hmm" noises. When finally I was called up to the desk and knew I would be free of him, I said: "History will roll over you."

It will roll over all of us.

But back to Thompson. I was keen to see the reporter, the storyteller, the writer, rather than the ego. Of course, the truth is that Thompson always had that ego, way back to his Kentucky childhood. But it is tolerably restrained in Hell's Angels and because of that you are better able to see certain aspects of Thompson's style, which can be seen in every other thing of his that I've read.

The first thing is that Thompson is just a little bit boring, and he has a certain fondness for telling you things three or four times. He'll space it out, and say it in different ways, but as you carry on through a book or long article you find yourself thinking: "Didn't he already say this?"

Additionally, I find his meta-narrative just a bit tiresome.

The term meta-narrative is also just a bit tiresome, so I apologise. I studied creative writing and I still don't feel I totally grasp what "meta-narrative" actually means, but here is my best understanding: the meta-narrative is the world outside the book, the things that we "know" and which create the rules by which the book is playing according to us. For example, the idea that unprovokedly kicking someone in the teeth is wrong. If you put that scene into a novel it is usually understood that the teeth kicker is a bad person (and, indeed, that there are such things as "good" and "bad"). That doesn't have to be written anywhere in the book, the meta-narrative, the narrative of our lives and which we take into the reading experience, says it already.

Authors mold the meta-narrative, of course. As you read a person's work you get a sense of what he or she sees as good or bad, right or wrong, etc. And by the Hunter S. Thompson meta-narrative, the sportscar-driving, model-shagging, getting-my-booze-from-film-stars version of me presented in the first paragraph of this post was a righteous motherhugger.

And that's pretty much Thompson in a nutshell. Over and over and over and over he sets up his vision of the righteous dude. But frustratingly, he gives you nothing more. I find his writing to lack depth. For a man famous for creating a style of journalism that centres on the journalist he gives very little sense of who the hell he is, or what he's about. You get even less sense of the people he's around. What you get are those snapshots –– like the first paragraph of this post –– without any idea of their relevance or accuracy. Collected and put into a book, the snapshots help you guess some of Thompson's meta-narrative, but you're still stuck thinking: "Who are these people? Who is Thompson?"

John Jeremiah Sullivan is often (wrongly, in my opinion) compared with Thompson but in his work you can see so much of the depth that Thompson lacks. Whereas Thompson gives you black and white photographs, Sullivan gives you a 3D colour panorama.

All this having been said, however, Thompson's book may have had an effect on me.

I have decided that I need to get a motorcycle. Not want. Need.

One of the unmentioned truths of that Mustang-driving 18-year-old is that he had failed to graduate high school on time. All his friends went to college and he hung around for several more months taking night classes. In an attempt to give himself some sense of accomplishment, in late summer 1994 he took some courses and got his motorcycle license.

Unfortunately, he lived in Minnesota, where the weather can be uncooperative for as much as seven months out of the year. Possibly nine months if the motorcyclist in question is particularly averse to wet or cold conditions. In the North Star State a motorcycle is not a terribly practical item, especially not for the sort of person who chooses a heat-and-keys (b) GMC Sonoma over a Ford Mustang.

When that 18-year-old boy turned 19, he went to college in a place that was even colder and snowier for even longer stretches of the year. He bounced around a few years more and eventually found himself in a long-term relationship with a girl who swore she'd leave him if he ever bought a motorcycle, because, she said, he was too stupid and too short tempered to drive one and live. Quietly he agreed with her and never really thought about it again.

Until I met Dale. He and his wife, Ruby, live in Phoenix and I visited them when I was driving across the United States. They stuffed me in the back of their Mustang (there's some kind of weird synergy!) and drove me around town for pizza and beers and being hassled by midgets. On the way back to drop me off at my hotel they took me up to a spot that overlooked Phoenix and Ruby spoke poetically about riding up there on her scooter.

That evening planted a tiny seed in my mind, which lay dormant until two years later when I was back in Minnesota and renewing my driver's license.

"You still want the motorcycle endorsement?" asked the woman at the counter.
"The what?" I said.
"The motorcycle endorsement. You're licensed to drive a motorcycle. You want to keep that on your license, right?"
"Oh, wow. Who knew? Yeah."
"Then it'll be six bucks more."

A year and a half later, and I found myself working part time as a bicycle courrier whilst reading Hell's Angels. Jenn works for a sustainable transportation organisation that offers all kinds of free information –– bus schedules, bicycle routes, and so on –– to people, with the aim of encouraging them to reduce their dependency on cars. That information is put into nifty little reusable cotton bags and distributed via bicycle delivery. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I would bolt a little trailer to the back of my bicycle and spend the morning cycling up and down the eastern neighbourhoods of Cardiff, delivering said packs. For two months I did this, clocking up 70-90 miles a week on my bike.

The rules of cycling on the road in the UK are not terribly different to the rules of driving and not at all different to the rules of motorcycling (but for the fact you cannot ride a motorcycle on a bicycle path, obviously). So, here I was, sharing the road all the time with cars and, prompted by my reading material at the time, I started to think...

It's a pretty nifty way to get around, the bicycle. Especially so in a British city, where the small roads get clogged up with cars. With a bike you can simply zip past all the standstill traffic. There's even a term for it here: "filtering." I don't mind the wet and the cold; the right gear really eliminates any discomfort. Yes, I have to be very attentive to what's going on around me, but I actually kind of enjoy that –– I see all kinds of things I would just ignore in a car.

Really, my only issue with cycling is distance and speed. Neither are greatly achievable on a bicycle. It is not really possible, for example, for me to cycle up to the Brecon Beacons to hike Pen y Fan when the weather's nice.

And that's how a motorcycle showed up in my thought process. On a bicycle I was showing myself that such a thing is practical for year-round use in the UK (c), that I could be confident and alert amid traffic, that I could tolerate the weather, and that such a means of transportation is well-suited to the smaller, slower roads here. Additionally, I am far more even-keeled than I once was. I am less likely to behave aggressively, or respond to a negative situation rashly.

The other argument against a motorcycle has always been cost. In a place like Minnesota, North Dakota or northern Nevada, a motorcycle is an expensive thing because it is something you own in addition to a car –– you cannot drive a motorcycle year-round. But here a motorcycle costs less because you don't necessarily need a car as well. And, it just costs less –– in upfront costs (I can buy a brand new one for as little as £850, or $1,370), upkeep, petrol, tax, MOT and insurance. I got a quote for comprehensive motorcycle insurance that was half what I used to pay for third-party insurance on my Honda Accord. Tax on one of the motorcycles I'm looking at would be just a 10th of what I paid for my car. And that same motorcycle averages 75 mpg.

Getting licensed in the UK is about as simple as it is in the US, but with the added benefit that a person does not need to have a car driver's license. I could be on the road by the weekend (d).

All this information is now swirling in my head, making me not just a little bit crazy. One of the most depressing aspects of my life this past year has been my lack of independent mobility. I cannot just get up and go to places, and if there is no public transportation I can't go at all. Most of the time I can ignore my frustration but all too often it mixes with homesickness and makes me so depressed that I feel like I'm going to stop breathing.

This is a solution, my brain/heart says. This is an actual, viable, attainable solution.

Sort of.

"I'm not against it," Jenn said the other day. "It's just that a motorbike is a luxury in our current financial situation."

She's kind of right. It would be less a luxury than a car, but still something of a challenge for two people trying to plan a wedding. Which is why I've decided to stop drinking (e). I'm pretty sure I spend at least £10 a week on beer and almost certainly quite a bit more. Rather than buying beer, however, I've decided that I will start putting that money in savings. Slowly, slowly, I can work toward making this a reality.

My hope is to be on a motorcycle by July 2013. In the longer term, I've decided, I want to get a Triumph America or, maybe, a Victory Judge, but really that's just because Victory is a Minnesota company (f). But both of those bikes are too big and too expensive for my dumb-ass self when I'm trying to get the hang of simply riding on a regular basis. I am inclined toward getting something ultra gentle, like a Yamaha YBR 125 Custom. Some needy little part of me wants so much to test my luck with a Lexmoto Ranger because I could get a new one for so cheap. But reviews on that bike are so hard to find that it makes me suspicious –– especially as the general mood toward Chinese bikes is anything but positive. The few Lexmoto reviews I have found all too cheerfully suggest that it's a brand that will make me a better mechanic, for all the attention I'll have to give the bike.

So, to answer Dale's question, I thought Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels was a bit dull and self-indulgent. But if an author's success is measured by his or her effect on readers, Thompson was a hell of a writer.


(a) Siân Melangell Dafydd once pointed out that Thompson is a requisite part of the American writer-boy canon. Every Yankee male that calls himself a writer must, she says, list Thompson, Hemingway, Kerouac and Vonnegut among their influences. In terms of the latter three I am guilty as charged.

(b) "Heat and keys" is a common term used in classified ads for budget cars. It means "no frills." The car has a steering wheel, heat and keys, and not a whole lot else.

(c) True, it does snow in Cardiff every once in a while but it is such a rare event that no one here knows how to handle it. Cars become just as useless as motorcycles.

(d) For any UK motorcyclists, I'm referring to the CBT. I realise that getting my full license via Direct Access will take a bit longer, but the point is that I could be on the road very quickly.

(e) Unless someone buys me a drink.

(f) I would totally ride a Harley Sportster if given one, but would probably scratch the name off the tank. Harley owners are usually dick heads.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The death of a language

To save the Welsh language speakers may need to look critically at themselves.

This week saw the release of the unhappy but not at all surprising news that the number of Welsh speakers is again on the decline. According to 2011 census figures, only 19 percent of Wales' population –– or 562,000 people –– claim to be able to speak Welsh. This is a drop of 2 percent –– or 14,000 speakers –– from the 2001 census. 

The news is especially heartbreaking for Welsh language proponents because the previous census, in 2001, had seen an increase of speakers after centuries of steady decline. That was the first census taken after Welsh had become a compulsory subject in schools and, indeed, much of the increase in speakers at that time was amongst school-age children. The feeling at the time time was that young speakers meant longevity for the language, but 10 years on that doesn't appear to have panned out.

Parents are generally the ones filling out census surveys and they often have an overly rosy view of their children's abilities. As such, the Welsh Language Board estimated not too long ago that only about half of those speakers listed on the 2001 census were actually proficient (i.e., people who could actually hold a conversation, rather than simply being able to regurgitate answers for a quiz).

For the 2011 census it doesn't appear the situation has changed much: 30 percent of Wales' claimed Welsh speakers are under the age of 15 (Welsh is a compulsory subject to age 16). In trying to soften the blow a little, Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones pointed to the fact that there had been an increase of speakers amongst 3-4 year olds. Toddlers are again being held up as this nation's best hope. At the same time, however, the Welsh-speaking first minister admitted that even he and his Welsh-speaking family default to using English in the home.

The fact is: there are more people in Wales than 10 years ago but fewer of them, in both percentage and numerical terms, claim to speak Welsh. And of those left, half are not really able to speak Welsh, and even fewer are speaking it on a regular/day-to-day basis (I'm fluent in Welsh and have not held a Welsh-language conversation in seven months). Things do not look good for the language.

In the BBC story I linked to above there is an instant analysis side bar from Welsh-speaking reporter Vaughan Roderick, and one can already see who the Welsh-language community will be blaming for all this: those damned dirty foreigners. People like myself and Tony Bianchi and Jerry Hunter have come and driven out the native tongue with our irresistible and unforgiving English patter.

As long as I have been aware of the Welsh-language community it has been locked in a fortress mentality and the early signs I'm seeing from my Twitter feed suggest the response to the 2011 census will be another round of building up the ramparts. Blame the English. Blame modern culture. Demand more legislation. Get Steffan Cravos to chain himself to something in protest. Maybe write a few poems.

One of the things the Welsh-language world will not do, because it is very hard to do, is acknowledge and address the fact that it is itself part of the problem. The Welsh language is struggling because its speakers too often alienate the Welsh.

D.J. Williams, one of the founders of Wales nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said there is no such thing as a Welshman without the Welsh language. Some 2 million people listed their identity as "Welsh" on the 2011 census, which means there are at least 1.5 million people who would seriously disagree with Williams' claim. Unfortunately, Williams' attitude seems to be quietly prevalent amongst Welsh speakers. 

If pressed, I doubt a great number of Welsh speakers would outright say that a person cannot legitimately claim Welshness if he or she does not speak Welsh, though I can certainly think of a few who have. And I can think of even more who are willing to say as much through catchy turns of phrase like the one I heard from a fellow Welsh tutor last year: "Does dim hunaniaeth heb yr iaith" (a).

True, the fault does not rest solely on the shoulders of Welsh speakers, but in the flurry of handwringing, finger pointing and pondering that will come as a result of these census results I feel at least some time should be spent discussing the incredibly poor relationship between Welsh speakers and their fellow Welshmen. There is no Welsh Taliban or any other such nonsense, but it is true that a large number of Welsh men and women feel alienated by and terrible animosity toward their Welsh-speaking countrymen.

I realised this last week when I found myself strangely defending the language against the vitriol of four Welsh people. My frustrations with the Welsh-language community are well documented and not worth rehashing, however suffice to say I'm probably not going to be hired to do PR for language campaign group Cymdeithas. But in the face of my dinner companions' deep emotional frustration and anger toward the language I was by comparison Welsh's most stalwart devotee.

I feel it's worth mentioning that the people levying these complaints were all university-educated people who were Welsh born and raised. In three cases they are people who have lived elsewhere in the UK and the world, and have come back home because their love of Wales is so great. The reason I feel it's worth mentioning is that criticisms of the Welsh language are nothing new. Welsh speakers will have heard them dozens of times. But usually the only people with the audacity to express such things are chav blokes in Super Dry T-shirts who are four to five pints ahead of you in the drinking stakes, or insufferable cocks who write for sensationalist newspapers. And as such, I've never really listened to the people making criticisms.

Here, though, was a group of intelligent, educated, affluent and, in some cases, influential Welsh men and women who felt deeply angry toward the Welsh language and the bulk of its speakers. They felt that Welsh speakers had placed themselves on a sort of pedestal and were treating the country's majority with arrogant disdain. They felt alienated, pushed out, and condescended to. The latter are all aspects of my own experience in the Welsh community but I at least have the solace of knowing that the "You're Not One Of Us" attitude I've faced is true. I'm not Welsh (b). I'm a fluent Welsh speaker but if both sides of the D.J. Williams argument are conditionally dependent upon one another (i.e., one cannot be truly Welsh without speaking Welsh, but, also, one cannot truly be a Welsh speaker without being Welsh), then I can at least understand the "logic" of why I've failed to gain acceptance within Welsh-language circles. And, hey, I have my own massively larger, more influential and more diverse culture to fall back on.

But for the non Welsh-speaking sons and daughters of Wales it is an alienation that breeds a deeper bitterness than even I possess. As I ran through the standard responses to criticisms (c) one of the people I was speaking to grew so upset that she was shaking. She had spent two years in Welsh courses as an adult, she said, and had eventually given up because she felt she was being talked down to and patronised.

The other three all had their own stories of unpleasant interactions with overly aggressive Welsh speakers (sometimes campaigners' zeal for the language hurts their cause more than it helps) and the deep emotional frustration they carried as a result. I've heard similar stories over the years, and have had my own embittering experiences. Many Welsh speakers would be keen to do so, but I don't feel these negative attitudes should be wholesale ignored.

Welsh speakers' insular, alienating temperament is not the only reason the language is suffering. There is also the simple truth of living on a planet for which English is ever more the lingua franca –– especially in commercial terms. Wales, too, is an area with an infrastructure that is in some cases nonexistent and in most cases decades behind the curve. It lacks entrepreneurship and sufficient support –– both governmental and public –– for enterprise. Its folk traditions have been all but abandoned by even the most dedicated patriots, and it is part of an island that at certain times can feel very much like it is on the verge of becoming the 51st U.S. state. All that lack of uniqueness or self sustainability makes it hard to argue for learning a language that, with only insubstantial exception, is not spoken anywhere else.

There are a lot of pressures facing the Welsh language, but when its speakers make enemies of their own countrymen I can't help but fear it is heading incorrectably toward total novelty.

Welsh will never really die. Britain is too full of quirky enthusiasts and academics to let such a thing slip away completely. But at the moment, as things are, I don't see how it will survive as a legitimate language for too many more generations. Already it is estimated that only 3-5 percent of Wales' children come from a home where Welsh is the primary language spoken. How long before that percentage becomes zero? How long before no one ever really feels things through the medium of Welsh? How long before Welsh becomes only the purview of academics?

(a) There is no identity without the language.

(b) Indeed, lately, independent of any feelings toward Wales, I have found myself strangely and unintentionally resurrecting my Texas accent.

(c) Interestingly, the strongest defense I have found is one that no "true" Welsh speaker would ever use: that Welsh should be protected and nurtured because it is an intrinsically British thing.

Monday, November 19, 2012

It's still not a bad idea

Let's pretend that climate change is a lie. Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose the whole climate change business to be complete and utter nonsense orchestrated by a liberal elite who want to somehow use it to kick God out of schools, allow gays to recruit, and usher in a Marxist regime that will do terrible things like make sure every old lady has a flu shot. Or whatever it is that the crazies believe. It's the Jews. The Masons. The Bilderburg group. The Illuminati. Whatever.

Even if you do that, even if you remove the issue of climate change entirely, wind power is still a good idea. And each time I see another intolerable idiot complaining about wind farms it makes feel sad for the whole human race.

If you are reading this, you are implicitly, through that simple act, agreeing upon a need for energy. These words exist in the great, amorphous electronic space, and all around the world energy must be created in order for them to exist and for you to see them. So the issue of energy creation is not up for debate; we need energy, or, at least, we want it so basely that it is effectively a need.

One of the least unpleasant ways of satiating that need is through wind energy.

But it's not efficient, say opponents. True. At the moment, wind farms can be less efficient than coal, natural gas and, especially, nuclear power plants. But with that lessened efficiency comes increased peace of mind. Windmills don't explode. In an absolute worst-case scenario the base or blades can snap, which can litter debris for several hundred yards. But that's debris that doesn't require special skills to pick up. No one has to put on an anti-contamination suit. Ground water doesn't get destroyed. Eco systems are not ruined. The lives of people in surrounding towns are not put at risk.

But a more efficient means of power generation will eventually come along, say opponents. And almost certainly they are right. One day, perhaps, as Michio Kaku suggests, man may be able to create energy by bending space and time. But we need energy now. Populations are increasing and more simply, power plants, like all things (knees, bicycles, one's interest in "X Factor," etc.), wear out and will need to be replaced. The benefit of wind power in this situation I've already touched upon: they don't contaminate an area. 

When we eventually come up with that super-efficient, not-at-all-bad-in-any-way method of power generation, we can tear down the wind farms. And what will be left? Fields. Not brown fields, as would be the case with a power plant. Not a contaminated site that millions upon millions of dollars must be spent cleaning up. Not a space unfit for human or animal use. Just a load of fields. All the metal could be sold for scrap, the concrete bases ground down, and within the time it takes grass to grow, evidence of the wind farms would completely disappear.

Which kind of answers the biggest complaint from opponents: that wind farms are ugly. I don't even really agree with that, personally. I think they look cool and they don't necessarily spoil the scenery they are in. But they certainly don't spoil it any more than a power plant would. For example, here's a picture of Carno wind farm in mid Wales. And here's a picture of Didcot Power Station in southwest England. Which would you rather wake up to in the morning? Which place would you rather call home? Didcot uses natural gas, coal and oil. Ignoring those environmental loonies who consistently lambaste it as one the most-polluting sites in Britain, where would you rather take a deep breath? Where would you rather raise children? Where would you rather to have been raised as a child? 

I have passed through Didcot many times on the train, en route to or from London, and each time I see its chimneys and cooling towers I am filled with a deep sense of unhappiness, as if the whole world is conspiring against me. I can only imagine the deep hatred I would possess toward myself and all other things had I grown up in its shadow. Meanwhile, I often go out of my way to go hiking in the hills and mountains where wind farms are present.

Additionally, it is quite often the case that wind farms are built offshore, becoming nothing but white sticks in the distance. White sticks you cannot see if the visibility is less than perfect. White sticks that create habitats for sea creatures. White sticks that in no way pollute the water you're swimming in.

It baffles me that people could get themselves so worked up against wind farms. I am convinced that there is something deeply wrong with them, that they have transmogrified the issue of wind power into some other thing in their mind. And like Don Quixote, they are making utter fools of themselves as they continue to tilt at windmills.

Friday, September 14, 2012

What I want to be

When I was a boy –– probably about 7 or 8 years old, I don't remember exactly –– one of my teachers at Bunker Hill Elementary assigned to us the task of writing an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. 

In addendum to this essay we were to draw a picture of our future selves in action, on the job. These essays and pictures, we were told, would be displayed in the hallway on parent-teacher night, so we should really try to put some effort into it.

This was my first experience with writer's block. I cracked under the pressure and stared dumbly at the blank paper on my desk. I didn't know what I wanted to be. I had never really thought about it. Not in practical terms. I knew I wanted to be strong enough to beat anyone up. I knew I wanted to be tall. I knew I wanted to own the General Lee. I knew I wanted lots of people to like me. What job was that?

"Maybe you could be an actor," my teacher suggested.

No. No, that wasn't it at all. Acting was pretending; I didn't want to pretend. Besides, how was one supposed to show himself acting in a drawing? Especially a drawing that was going to be hung in the hallway and seen by all the other kids and their parents?

And don't say, "Draw a person on a stage," because that is totally wrong. Stage actors don't make any money. That's why no one knows who they are. And a stage is just a straight line. That's a very boring picture. No one is going to look at a drawing of a kid just standing there and think: "Wow! That kid has ambition! I wish this boy were my own son! He's so amazing that I'm going to make my child be his friend and he can come over and play in our pool and eat all the hot dogs he wants!"

I had in those days perfected the art of drawing a pretty good helicopter. With a ruler and a steady hand, I could craft an Apache with fire-shooting jets on the side. I decided to build my essay around the visual. I claimed to want to be a helicopter pilot, so I could help save people's lives. I threw that last bit of information in there because it sounded good. People like it when a kid says he wants to save lives, or that he loves Jesus. I knew that. I understood how the world worked. I had written a letter to President Reagan, pointing out that I was pretty cute and likeably precocious and it would probably look good for him to invite me to the White House to discuss how we could save the environment (he never replied).

In truth, I had no interest in being a helicopter pilot, nor did I care all that much about saving people. I just wanted to be taller than them. And able to beat them up. And driving a car with a horn that played "Dixie."

A few years later, in 5th grade, the teachers wrote a little story for the kids "graduating" Bunker Hill Elementary and moving on to the rough and tumble world of middle school. In it, they predicted the future for each child. The essay proclaimed I would be host of the "Tonight Show."

I decided to roll with it. For years afterward, if anyone asked what I wanted to be I'd say with certainty: a stand-up comic. I liked the idea of being a stand-up comic. Growing up in Houston –– home to NASA –– any number of geniuses had come to my elementary school, telling us kids of their exciting jobs involving explosions and robots. But always they would stress the importance of math and science for these things.

"Well, to hell with being an astronaut," I would think.

I hated school. I was a poor student with a weak attention span. Any career that involved first correcting these already entrenched bad academic habits was definitely not for me. Being a stand-up comic, however, was a profession for which a good education wasn't an explicit requirement.

Jumping ahead quite a bit, I have known a few stand-up comics in my life and am these days pretty good friends with one. And what I have realised from this exposure is that the comics without educations are awful. But I never had to confront that issue because at age 17 I went to an open mic night and bombed.

It wasn't that I was booed or heckled, but that the room full of people echoed with silence. My best joke (rhetorically asking why vacuum cleaners have headlights) was mistimed and received only a polite chuckle from a woman I think may have been feeling very sorry for me.

People who still know me from those days claim it's not surprising that I have taken to writing books, and I think I remember walking around proclaiming myself to be a writer in my late teens. But the truth is, I wrote very little. Some bad poetry and letters to people. That was about it. And I hardly ever read.

In the years from ages 18 to 25 I probably read fewer books than I have this year: Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, all of Carl Hiaasen's books, most of Bill Bryson's and a few of Dave Barry's. That was it. I don't remember tackling anything else unless it was required reading for a college course.

Also, I hated the idea of authors. I bought into the cliché visions of writers offered by the sort of films that invariably feature a "storming the country club and making the rich people party" scene. I embarrass me with my erstwhile anti-intellectualism. I honestly think it was not until I reached my 30s that I started to really read and think and pay attention to the craft of storytelling.

I think now almost constantly about the question of how to be a good writer. Having recently finished work on my third book, I am consumed with thoughts and worries about my abilities as a writer. Or lack thereof. I feel that I have come to this too late, that I don't get it, and that I never will. And, more importantly, I don't see how it's ever going to lead to my being able to beat people up or drive the General Lee.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I'm moving to London.

This is what I tell myself each time I visit, at least. London really is the best city on the planet. This is not an arguable point. It may not be the best for you -- it's entirely fair to question whether the UK's capital would be the right fit for an individual. But in all the ways one can objectively measure a city, London is the best. And every time I'm there I get this worried feeling in my gut, thinking: "Isn't this where I should be? Am I hurting myself -- creatively, career-wise -- by failing to move here?"

It is false to claim that Wales has not one single writer of note, but certainly it's true that London has more. Not just numerically but per capita -- it's not simply a matter of more people producing more stuff. Creatively, London produces a hell of a lot more, and of considerably better quality. That's not surprising. Ideas beget ideas; that's long been a happy side-effect of major metropolitan areas. And since I dream (perhaps naively) of being a great writer (whatever the hell that means), I often worry that I am damaging myself by not throwing myself into that great, swirling city.

I suspect I would last two years -- maybe three -- before London started to burn me up. Cities' energy come from their inhabitants, even those who have little energy to give. Cities take and take and take. They are great nuclear furnaces fuelled by people's ambitions/hopes/capabilities/etc. Some people thrive and can live their whole lives in such a place. Indeed, some people could live no other way. I think it is realistic to assume I would suffer a mental breakdown if I stayed too long. But I would like to have that short time before it all got too much. I feel like being there would somehow propel me to that greatness of which I am always dreaming.

But one does not simply walk into Mordor London. It costs money to live in the Big Smoke. I estimate my annual income would need to increase roughly 500 percent for me to even have a chance of surviving those hypothetical two years. So, for the timebeing I'll have to stick with visiting whenever I can.

Jenn and I went to London over the weekend, hoping to get a sense of the Olympic atmosphere. We were not disappointed. In every Tube train at least one of the volunteers could be spotted on his or her way to or from a shift at the various Olympics venues around town. Televisions in every pub were airing the BBC's ass-kicking coverage (I feel sorry for those of you back home, stuck watching NBC's substandard coverage). Union Jacks were fluttering everywhere. Team GB paraphernalia was surprisingly commonplace. And to everyone's absolute amazement, the transportation network was coping just fine. Indeed, I can remember no point in my life when London's Underground has run more efficiently. In your face, Mitt Romney.

We got into the city a little after 8, with me still buzzing over the fact we had watched some of Rebecca Adlington's bronze-medal swim on Jenn's phone. Watching the Olympics on a phone! Yes, I knew you could watch video on a phone -- waiting an exhaustingly long time for it to buffer so that whatever relevant point you were trying to make in turning to YouTube has long since slipped into the ether. And yes, I know that Joe Dunthorne tweeted about watching Wimbeldon on his phone. But since I am saddled with an insufferably shit HTC Desire (a) and live in the coverage hinterland that is Wales, I had never even thought to attempt livestreaming something on it. But there Jenn and I were, watching live swimming on her iPhone. The future is now!

We stayed with our friends, Dave and Jen (henceforth to be known as American Jen, to avoid confusion with my fiancee, Devonshire Jenn), in north London. There was tacos and talking and booze and Olympics and we didn't get to bed until 2 in the morning. This is the way with trips to London. Conversations carry on into the night, and ambitious plans for early-morning activities get dropped.

We got up around 11, made a big breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, and set out for Hyde Park to take part in the fun of BT London Live. My understanding of the (sometimes) free event was that it had gigantic TV screens upon which one could watch the Olympics, and stages and food, similar to what was set up in Hyde Park when Jenn and I went to see the royal wedding. And it was like that. Sort of. But, unfortunately, it had a big fence around it, which resulted in people having to stand in queues for at least half an hour. And we weren't allowed to bring any food or drink into the fenced-off area.

Due to the fact we had come equipped for a picnic and were therefore unwilling to dump all our food and water for the sake of then paying for it again on the other side of some hoarding, we decided to skip the event and instead find a nearby pub with televisions. We watched cycling with a load of Dutch fans until we got hungry, then wandered over to Regents Park for a late lunch/early dinner picnic. Sandwiches, all kinds of cous-cousy things I won't eat, crisps, fruit, pie and booze were spread out on a blanket. The sun shone in our faces, the sky stretched wide and pale blue in that amazing way it does on a nice day in London, and we sat chatting and laughing until about half an hour before Jessica Ennis was set to run the 800.

Time to find another pub with a TV. But the booze had affected our sense of direction slightly, which is to say that it affected everyone's ability to listen to me when I suggested we were charging off the wrong way. Eventually we made it out of the park and into Camden. The first pub was too busy. The next pub was too busy. Panic was starting to set in and American Jen declared we should all take a taxi back to the flat and watch it there.

There were six of us now, too many for a single taxi.
We'll go in two taxis, announced American Jen.
No one wanted to pay for two taxis. Far better to spend that money on beer. Besides, the race was on in 12 minutes. There wouldn't be enough time to get home.

But off American Jen went, speedwalking down the street in pursuit of I don't know what, with Devonshire Jenn hot on her heels, shouting "Wooo!" and waving a Union Jack.

"Go, babe!" I shouted at Devonshire Jenn, and the rest of us quietly decided to derail the go-home plan by walking slow.

We landed in a pub called the Spread Eagle, a nice enough place but for the fact that its women's toilets were reportedly atrocious. Jessica Ennis won gold and the pub seemed to come alive. When Mo Farah won gold in the 10,000m the whole pub was filled up with the sound of shouting. You could imagine the jubilation as a solid thing, testing the strength of the pub walls and threatening to smash the windows and spill out into the street. Devonshire Jenn attempted to lead the pub in a sing-along of Spandau Ballet's "Gold." No one took up the song with her.

"Come on!" she shouted, nudging me.
"I have never heard that song in my life," I said. "I don't think anyone knows it."

She looked at me as if I had claimed to not know the lyrics of "Happy Birthday." We stayed on at the pub a while longer. Team GB lost in football and only a handful of people in the pub even pretended to care. Soccer is old and busted, yo. Then we fell out into the Camden night.

Restaurants were still buzzing with diners. This was not the Hogarthian terror one would expect from Cardiff on a Saturday night. There was revelry, certainly, but not the feeling of menace that pervades Wales' capital. You can walk down the street and feel reasonably safe; you can imagine sitting at a restaurant with someone and being able to have a conversation. What is it about the 150 miles between Cardiff and London that so vastly affects people's abilities to behave themselves? London can be a rough place, I know. People get mugged and beaten and stabbed and, sometimes, shot. But when you compare the high-traffic areas of both places, London wins every time. It is so superior as to feel unfair.

Once home we were quick to bed, the day's booze and sunshine and walking and excitement having taken its toll. When Devonshire Jenn has had an interesting day she talks in her sleep. She curled up next to me and talked all through the night.

In the morning it was more pancakes, eggs, Mexican beans, salsa, fruit. More conversation and idly watching the women's marathon before heading to catch our train. Enough time to get cans of gin and tonic, and rum and cola from the M&S at Paddington Station, then we were on the 14:37 to Cardiff Central and slipping quickly from the city.
(a) Never ever ever buy an HTC phone, bitches. I was a damned fool to leave the Apple Cult and plan to return as soon as the new iPhone is released in September (rumoured).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A letter home: 25 July 2012

My dearest Emma,

Greetings from the sunny-for-once Island of Rain. Up until Saturday I don't think we had experienced a precipitation-free day since May. Often that precipitation would come in the form of constant, heavy rain that found its way into every tiny space of our ancient roof, and down through our ceiling and walls.

But these things are quickly forgotten when the sun shines, Emma. With genuine summer weather, barbecue grills are churning smoke almost nonstop; people are wearing as little as possible, and sometimes far less than acceptable. Windows are open. On trains and buses, the people not wearing deodorant are all too obvious. And suddenly one finds the energy to take on all those projects that had somehow gone ignored when the sky was permanent grey.

In the past few days, Jenn has painted the bathroom, rearranged our storage area, and magically found more space in the kitchen. And both of us have discovered a new joie de vivre toward planning next summer's wedding.

Wedding planning, Emma. This is what I do now. After spending most of June looking at various potential venues, Jenn and I are finally settled on a date and location. We're getting married in a 145-year-old church that isn't a church, on the shores of a bay that is not a bay. It's amusing that we spent so much time looking at other places, because Jenn was hinting at the Norwegian Church as a venue even before I had proposed. 

I suppose my initial reason for hesitation was the fact that it is not very Britishy, what with the Norwegian flag flying out front and a quaintly outdated-looking picture of King Harald V hanging in the room where we'll have the ceremony. But, the more I think about it, the more I like it. The white clapboard building is reminiscent of the churches seen in small Upper Midwestern towns. With the flag of Norway, especially, it reminds me of Minnesota, and in that tenuous way I will feel connected to home on my wedding day.

Hopefully friends from Minnesota will come to strengthen that connection. And hopefully, for their sakes, the weather will cooperate. The odds are not very good of any single chosen day in Britain being sunny, of course, but that doesn't stop me from wishing for it. I'll be asking my American friends to invest a lot of time and money to come here, and I want so much for it to be worthwhile. I want them to get a chance to see the best possible side of Cardiff/Wales/Britain. I want them to be able to sit on the deck next to the church, sipping their beer or wine or Pimms, looking out across the water of Cardiff Bay, and think: "Damn. I'm really glad I came."

If it does rain, the church has a sturdy roof, and plenty of booze will be stocked, so we'll make the best of it. But, oh, how I hope for good weather, Emma. 

I also hope to win the lottery, because weddings are crazy expensive, yo. Jenn and I will have to take out a loan to pay for the thing. 

Or maybe my book will become a massive hit. I am close to finishing a rough draft; I think that by 10 August I will have a "complete" book. Then I will spend one to two months revising and editing before shipping the thing off to an agent. Who knows what will happen after that. Maybe success, maybe failure. I feel exhausted by the idea of the latter.

It exhausts me to know down in my soul that even if I never get anywhere, I will insist on always writing. I can picture myself at the end of my life with a dozen or so mostly unread books to my name, can feel the sense of having all that time and effort having amounted to so little and yet being grumpily resigned to the fact that I would not have done things differently. I can't imagine myself as something other than a storyteller, Emma.

Though, having said that, I find this letter difficult to write. I find that my capacity for writing things extraneous to my book has diminished lately. I'll sit down to send an email to a friend, or compose a blog post, and the words don't seem to form as I want them to. I start a sentence, change my mind, start a new sentence, change my mind. This letter to you, for example, has thus far taken three hours. I too easily lose my concentration and that makes me afraid that my writer's block might come back.

I spent most of 2011 doing nothing, and I think the experience has spooked me. I fear the creative version of Steve Blass Disease. I am afraid of losing that intangible thing that somehow orders the words just so. You can have all the mechanics -- grammar and spelling and structure and so on -- but in writing something well there is also this magic something that happens in your brain. The words flow together and it feels like a drug. And that's the thing I struggle to get these days. And when I struggle, I worry the magic thing is gone and that I should stop writing. Because the world has already too many bad writers. But then I think: "What the hell would I be? What the hell else am I if I don't write?"

There are questions that lurk, like memories of terrible headaches, in the back of my mind. I can't really get a handle on what the questions are to be able to make any attempt to answer them. But, for the time being, at least, I am writing. Perhaps it is just that I have been writing so long without feedback that the doubt is starting to win. Such is the nature of writing a book, Emma. I have so far spent roughly nine months working on a project that no other person has seen a word of. The only critic is myself at the moment and that sets up a situation where self-doubt runs rampant.

"Is this any good?" I'll think. "Well, yes, I think it is good. But, of course, I would think that -- I'm the one writing it. But what if it is, in fact, not good? What if I'm sitting here churning out crap day after day?"

So, in summary, I am churning out crap and planning a wedding. And the weather is nice. That's about it. How are things on your end?

I remain your faithful friend,

PS - Please send nude photos.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Keeping an eye out for Ernest

In the summer of 1994, Beth and I worked together at the Sam's Club in Burnsville, Minnesota. Sam's Club, for our friends in the Soggy Nations, is a chain of wholesale stores that are part of the Walmart family of gigantic, soulless retail outlets. It is like a Costco. Or, at least, I assume it to be; I've never been to Costco. Partially that is because of some strange allegiance to Sam's Club, but more so because I have no need to buy things wholesale. I have enough trouble consuming a litre of milk before its expiration date.

The Sam's Club that Beth and I worked at is no longer there, which is no great loss. The huge, grey brick of a building was torn down at some indeterminable time in the past and replaced with a handful of other buildings that will also not be missed when they, too, are eventually torn down. At some point in history we in the Western world stopped building things with any sense of wanting them to stick around. In the United States, and more and more here in Her Majesty's United Kingdom, most things seem to be on a 20-year cycle.

What's interesting is that we not only tear down and replace the buildings every two decades or so, but often completely redesign the roads around that space. So, it is possible for a person to find himself completely lost in a place that was once more or less the centre of his little life. Some part of him thinks: "Did that summer even happen?" 

But I still get Christmas and birthday cards from Beth, so, I suppose it did.

I was still in the phase of always wearing a pen around my neck in those days -- a Uniball Micro Deluxe 0.5 mm, clipped to a bit of leather shoelace that I wore as a kind of necklace. It was my blatant attempt to copy Jeff Nelson, who had worn the same thing when we were in high school. Obviously, the goal of such a fashion accessory was to make one of those heavy-handed teenage declarations of identity: "I am a writer. So, I wear a pen around my neck. Because a pen is something you write with. And I'm a writer."

I didn't actually write all that much in those days, and I read even less. But I had a fondness for storytelling and an ever-present writing utensil, so I felt I was well on my way. For the most part, what I did in my late teens was talk to girls. It wasn't always flirting, necessarily. I just liked getting attention from girls. If I could make a girl laugh, it felt like more an achievement than making a guy laugh. I enjoyed it more, I felt more important.

So, I could often be found speeding through the cavernous aisles of Sam's Club trying to hunt down Beth because I had thought of something funny to say and wanted to tell it to her. I once ran up, placed an enormous ham in her hands, sang, "Hold my ham. I want you to hold my ham," to the tune of "Hold My Hand" by Hootie and the Blowfish, and ran away.

Because of the pen and the self-appointed "writer" title, Beth's nickname for me was "Hemingway." I pretended I didn't like that nickname, but really, I did. I really, really did. And it is only because of that nickname that I ever actually went to the trouble to read anything by Ernest Hemingway, having to that point managed to limit my field of literary knowledge to little more than Dave Barry, Henry Rollins and Douglas Adams. I read The Sun Also Rises which somehow led to my reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road -- thereby setting me on the well-worn path of just about every white American writer boy alive today.

It's cliché, but I still list Hemingway as one of my favourite writers. I still sometimes find myself copying things he did. For example, in the book I am working on now, there is a conversation between myself and an imaginary person. This is bald-faced theft of a trick Hemingway used in Death in the Afternoon.

What I do not copy, however, is Hemingway's famous brevity. He would not have used all the above words just to meander to this point: there is in Cardiff a road called Hemingway Road. And when I first came across it many years ago, I got all excited to think there might be some kind of previously-unknown-to-me connection between the author who had inspired me and the city I wanted to call my home.

"It's fate!" I thought. "This is some kind of a sign!"

In fact, the road is named after Robert Hemingway, a marginally successful 19th-century Cardiff businessman of no apparent relation to the great American author. Nonetheless, some part of me gets excited when I cross Hemingway Road, as one must always do when walking from Cardiff Bay train station to the restaurants and pubs of Cardiff Bay. I feel exotic in a way I can't quite explain. 

It is a feeling facilitated by Cardiff Bay station itself, I suppose. Now just a concrete platform, one can see it used to be something more. There is an old station building there, boarded up and with weeds growing from the chimney stacks. It sends your mind back to some past to which one is inclined to apply a kind of Instagram filter for the imagination. 

I imagine that inside -- hidden in a cobwebbed case -- there are dusty bottles of glorious, old, red wine. I imagine breaking in, streaks of sunlight exposing an old table and some old chairs. I would dust them off and somehow a young Ernest Hemingway would show up. He would dig one of the bottles from the case, hold it up to the dust-heavy light to try to read the label and then grumble something along the lines of: "Well, needs must."

He'd use the bottle as a way to launch into a story about driving through Spain with a matador and three whores, casually working and then pulling the cork as if it were punctuation in his narrative. He'd take the glasses and hold them at waist height, then pour the wine from about shoulder level, explaining it's an unpretty but effective means of allowing the wine to "breathe" quickly. From his bag he would pull sausages and bread and we'd sit and eat and drink and he'd teach me how to write a really amazing novel.

Or something like that.

I started a new job Monday. It's not a full-time, but, honestly, the only reason I care is the fact I remain financially strapped. What does that phrase even mean, by the way: "financially strapped"? I use it to mean that even with this job I will still not really be able to do things I want to do, like see my family at Christmas or buy a car or adequately fund our wedding. But, I find I want to do this job far more than any previous roles, so the money thing upsets me less. Before I was poor and doing work I found unfulfilling. Now I'll be poor and doing something I care about.

And they give me vacation time. And match my payments into a pension. I feel like a grown up. I have to wake up ungodly early, put on a suit and take the train into work. These are things that will almost certainly lose their novelty in, oh, mid-winter, but at the moment I think they are very cool. I think, also, that the building I work in is very cool. It is old, has been there at least 100 years (though, I would guess it to be closer to 150 years old) and it is believable to think it will be there some 100 years more. It is not a part of the 20-year cycle. I will be able to come back to it many years from now and not feel lost.

But one of the things I like the most is that I have a big window at my desk, which looks out upon Hemingway Road. The crumbling, old train station is right there in my view. Occasionally, I look up from my computer screen and see it in the corner of my eye. I feel a rush of that strange unexplainable excitement. If a young Ernest Hemingway ever turns up, I'll be ready.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Friday night in P Town

It. Never. Stops. Raining. I am baffled at times that people live in this country. Not that I would expect no people at all -- people will live anywhere. It wouldn't be a surprise to find a few hardy, muddy souls in the caves and hollows of this island. But that there are so many people, that is sometimes confusing.

There are millions upon millions of them. Literally millions upon millions, all stacked up on top of each other and squished together, covering every little bit of space with narrow, pockmarked roads, crumbling walls and litter. This country would be half it size without litter.

All types pass by on the glossy-wet street below. Some stumble off and on the pavement like a silent film drunkard. Young people, seemingly in competition to see who can dress the most ridiculously, wrap arms around shoulders and necks in an attempt to create a kind of multi-legged creature more suited to the challenges presented by an undulating world. Big-bellied, arm-swinging, bald-headed grinning fools lurch forward as if pulled by a rope. Barefoot women with too-thin cardigans held over their heads wave their shoes in the air.

Most people walk without noticing the rain, though it falls hard. It is drunkenness, perhaps. More likely it is Britishness. They either walk as if always in rain, or walk in the rain as always. I can't decide.

A group of men orbit themselves as if following badly drawn concentric circles, eating chips from styrofoam square bowls. They cross the roundabout by its diameter. One drops his styrofoam container right at the roundabout's centre, lets it bounce off his leg and pays it no attention.

Taxis speed past, take the corners hard. Slope-shouldered men's faces are lit blue by the screens of mobile phones. Fat women huddle together. Voices call out. The world is orange and glistening. It is Friday night in P Town. And it keeps raining.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

No one has ever fit so perfectly in my arms as Jenn. You would expect me to say that, she is my fiancee, but it is also genuinely true. My arms wrap around her easy, we entangle into perfect holds. Strange, wonderful submission holds. The cuddle trap.

That I could feel so strongly about her after a year and a half -- still wanting in all moments to hold her close and breathe her in, indeed, wanting her more than ever before -- suggests a longevity to our relationship that is at once incredibly comforting and just a little bit terrifying. Always and forever means always and forever carrying the mistakes, as well as the good times. I am fearful of making really bad ones. Of course I will leave the toilet seat up or spill wine on her favourite dress or awkwardly joke with her brother about his sex life. There will be mistakes. But I fear making big ones -- mistakes that never become funny with time, mistakes that erode, mistakes that somehow act as tiny burrs to ruin those perfect moments when we are wrapped in each other.

It is the first morning of May. May Day. We are lying on our sides, pressed warm and safe and happy against one another, our arms and legs in a tangle. The alarm rings for the third time and I can feel in the muscles along her ribs that Jenn is really going to get up this time.

"OK," she sighs.

And already, at 7:15 a.m., the best part of my day is over.

I bury my head in her pillows and breathe her smell as she gets up and heads to take a shower. There is the sound of her moving around, getting something from the kitchen, the bathroom door closing, and now just the rain. It has rained nonstop since I can't remember when. It seems my feet are always wet. I feel the last time I saw the sun was five months and 5,000 miles ago, when Jenn and my father and I went for a walk along the Minnesota River, though I know that to be factually untrue.

I hear the rain hit the windows and the pavement below and the roof of our downstairs neighbour's almost-certainly-not-built-to-code extension. The rain finds its way into all corners of our 130-year-old building and drips down from a crack in the ceiling to a waiting drinking glass set on the window sill. Drip. Drip. Drip.

My throat is on fire and my body feels weak, aching and shaky. Odd hours, unhappiness and an inability to take care of myself have again conspired to make me ill. This would be deserved if I were coming home from the pub at midnight thrice a week. But my hours are a result of teaching night courses and having to rely on public transportation. My life is a string of minor illnesses. I feel the last time I was really healthy was back on that walk along the Minnesota River. Though I know this, too, to be factually inaccurate; I had a fever on that day.

My world of raindrops and Jenn smell and pillow softness bends time and Jenn is now back in the bedroom. I hear her rubbing on body lotion, rustling through her drawers, her hair dryer.

"Do you want to get a little more sleep, babe?" she asks.

"No," I say. "I want to have breakfast with you."

I roll to my side of the mattress, feel under the bed for the tracksuit bottoms I wear as pyjamas and hold them without moving. I hear the kettle roar and click. Time bends. I hear Jenn scraping butter on toast.

"M'up!" I shout, finally throwing away the covers and searching the floor for yesterday's underwear.

There is tea and toast and two kinds of jam. Jenn eats muesli, which, if you've never had it, is exactly as appetising as its name. Muesli. It sounds like a Victorian ailment: "Me da' can't work the mines no more. He got the muesli, he does."

Jenn is running late, as usual. I have never known her to operate in anything other than a tornado. She does this with a kind of amiability, though -- chatting about her day ahead, how cute the dog is of the person walking by on the street, what she's going to make for dinner, and our plans to see a movie tonight as she consumes museli in great spoonfuls, occasionally jerking her head to look at the clock. She finishes breakfast before me, kisses me, says "I love you" six times and heads to work. The door shuts and again it is just me and the sound of rain. The radiator. The clock.

I finish my tea, find some ibuprofen to help with my throat and spend an hour or so looking for jobs. I want to work in Bristol. There is no particularly solid reason for this, but for the fact I am so burned out on Wales and, more to the point, my constant applying for jobs in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and all points between has not resulted in employment despite more than six months of real, actual, not just saying I'm trying but really trying.

At midday I take the train into Cardiff city centre to attend an informal interview at a temp agency.

"How did you find the test?" asks a young woman in a headscarf. "Alright?"

I am lost in trying to decide whether I know her. I feel like I do, but can't guess where from. She looks to be of Somali origin and suddenly I feel a kind of embarrassment as I wonder whether I think I know her just because I am, in fact, a dumb white guy who deep down inside thinks that all black people look alike. I tell myself this is not true and quickly recall the distinctive faces of various black people to prove my point: Carl Weathers, Florence Griffyth-Joyner, R. Truth. I have probably just seen her around town, I decide. Cardiff is not so big and I have lived here six years.

This all takes place in an instant. Her question about the skills test I took a fortnight ago finally filters into my head. Strangely, my brain offers the Welsh phrase "digon syml" as a response and then stalls out in searching for a tactful, intelligent English equivalent.

"Oh, uh, uhm," I say.

"No need to be worried about it," she smiles. "You did exceptionally well. You scored 98 percent."

She asks me questions about what work I'm doing at the moment, my availability, whether I'm willing to travel, and so on. She does not ask me what kind of work I would like to be doing, but I volunteer this information, anyway.

"If it were at all possible, I'd love something commensurate to my experience and skills," I say.

She smiles at me gently, as if to say: "You'll get what you get."

I emphasise my Welsh fluency and my two university degrees and all my years of experience and the fact I am good at all kinds of things, knowing that telling her all this doesn't matter but needing to because there is no one else to tell it to. I have had just one job interview in the last year. She listens politely and writes nothing down.

"At the moment," she says, lilting her voice in that South Wales way of letting you know that whatever follows is going to be disappointing, "we're probably looking at nothing coming up until July. So, don't be concerned if you don't hear from us for a while."


I walk back to the train station, almost getting run over by a bus I didn't see. On the train platform there is an old lady wearing an eyepatch that is decorated with a silver bespangled butterfly. I cannot help but grin. Rain patters on the metal awning and I hear a sea gull tumble-walking just overhead. Trains roar and announcements rattle and brakes squeal and it rains and rains and rains.

Back home, I take off my wet shoes and make lunch. I eat my hamburger sitting in front of my laptop, watching YouTube clips from the previous night's Monday Night Raw. I watch wrestling a lot these days. It is so ridiculous and predictable, it is about the only thing I know will not make me cry.

Afterward, standing at the window and eating an orange, I find myself thinking of the doctor's office down the road. I went in to be treated for depression in January and was put on a waiting list. I am still waiting. I think, too, of the white trash fathers of some of the friends I had growing up in Dallas or Houston. I don't know if they were drunk -- I was too young to identify such behaviour -- but I did know they rarely seemed to be anywhere but the couch. I can remember wanting, even at that age, to reproach them, wanting to say: "You know, I don't ever see my dad in the middle of the day. Because he has a job. He's working."

Their laziness annoyed me. It felt like some kind of weird airborne disease -- the muesli -- that you could breathe in and never shake. I hated being in those friends' houses. Once, when I was a very young boy, my mother had to console me because I had woken up from a nightmare in which I had grown old and amounted to nothing. I feel now that wastefulness, that uselessness is on me. Despite the work ethic of my own parents and my friends and all the things I've achieved, I feel I cannot shake the sapping illness of being a big waste of space.

My throat hurts. I feel ill. I feel old and tired and stupid and far away. I feel like a big mistake.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A letter home: 27 April 2012

My dearest Emma --

Greetings from the cluttered, cheap IKEA table that is my desk, in the drafty, windowless hallway that is my study. I have been uncontrollably homesick lately, Emma -- so much so that at times I melodramatically feel it could literally stop my heart -- and that is a condition that induces thought of all the things I am and am not. This desk is where I tell myself I am a writer; it is where I sit and feel frustrated that my claims to such a title have not been quite as profitable as I would have liked. It is where I feel overwhelmed by the exhaustion of chipping away at success.

I have to modify my lament about profit, of course, because some of my writing has actually paid off. Welsh-language magazine Barn pays me for the columns I write; with no real promotion whatsoever, at least one copy of The Way Forward is bought every month (who are these people, Emma? I love them); though no one is buying Cwrw Am Ddim anymore, I can't really complain about the rental car it paid for, a few years ago, when I went on a road trip in the United States; nor can I really complain, considering the overall lack of success in my previous efforts, about the generous bursary recently awarded to me by Literature Wales.

But you, Emma, being a figment of my imagination, know better than anyone that I can't help but complain, anyway. I may be a writer, but I am not a really successful one, which is something that bugs me to no end. Especially when I can't afford to buy Jenn dinner, let alone pay for tickets for us to fly to the States, so I can overcome some of this homesickness.

What I wish, Emma, is that I were successful enough to own a little cabin on some lake in Minnesota. Like the cabin on Nameless Lake in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, but without all the infidelity and tedious middle-aged unfounded personal misery. I would go to that cabin for weeks at a time and write novels that would sell more than one copy a month. Occasionally in the summers, I would travel down (or up -- I gots love for southern Minnesota, too, yo) to the Cities to sit in the back yards of friends' houses, drinking Miller High Life and saying snide things about the Twins bullpen. The rest of the time would be spent here in Her Majesty's Soggy United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because they don't have Toby Keith here, and I wouldn't want the burden of homesickness to shift to Jenn's shoulders.

All this may be a tad unrealistic. Probably it is. I mean, this two-home-owning, straddling-the-Atlantic-Ocean fantasy seems to assume that I will develop an interest in the Twins' pitching staff. Presently, I cannot name a single player on the roster, save Joe Mauer. And right after typing the previous sentence I felt compelled to quickly check that Mauer is, indeed, still on the roster.

So, one of the questions I ask myself when I sit at my table/desk and pine for better days is: what is Good Enough? At what point can I feel not so unhappy with my career, not so false in claiming to be a writer? Is that point a monetary thing? Not really. Though, I do want to be focused primarily on writing and, by extension, I feel that means not being distracted by other income-aquisition methods.

Certainly, at the moment -- and especially on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays -- I feel I would be doing Good Enough if my writing could somehow get me out of teaching Welsh classes. The connections to that world (Welsh-language society) are very painful and I am frustrated that I am still not able to sever them.

Though, I'll admit that some part of me would miss Ebbw Vale. In a strange way.

You should have seen it recently, Emma, as the town did its best to get spruced up for a visit from the Queen. She and Prince Phillip are taking a road trip up and down and across the UK in celebration of her 60 years of rule. I'm not sure why Ebbw Vale was placed on the visit list. Perhaps, sensing that death is not so impossibly far away, she is keen to visit places that will help her feel better about a permanent departure from this sceptre'd isle.

Whatever the reason for the visit, the townsfolk were keen to give her a welcome. Stretching through the whole of town were brightly coloured bunting (pennant flags), swooping back and forth across the road, from building to building. Individually, the flags looked ragged, like discarded women's underwear, but the overall effect was festive. In each shop, cafe, hairstylist and even tattoo parlour were hung Union Flags and more bunting, featuring the Queen's face (I wonder what it must be like to always have people waving pictures of yourself at you everywhere you go). Flower beds were installed near the non-functioning built-too-look-hip-and-modern-but-now-looks-old-and-busted-in-its-painfully-obvious-and-failed-effort-to-look-hip-and-modern town clock. Enough barricades to hold back the population of the entire Ebbw River valley were set up. And the Scouts were sent out to sweep, or, at least, stand around with brooms and high-visibility jackets and occasionally shout at girls whilst God did the actual work of cleaning the town by simply making it rain nonstop.

On that particular day, I didn't mind so terribly that I had to be in Ebbw Vale. I felt kind of happy about it and thought about how much I like the Queen and how she and all the silliness inherent in the continued existence of her position is one of the things I love about living in Britain.

I like the British monarchy, Emma. I will make no attempt to defend the idea of a monarchy, but its hollowed-out form here is quaint and totally harmless and loveable. It is like a grandparent one never has to worry about losing. One day, theoretically, there will be no more Queen Elizabeth II, and that will be sad, but her awkward son will be there to take her place, and then her awkward grandson and then his awkward son or daughter and so on. They will always be there to put on silly clothes and wave uncomfortably at whoever happens to wave at them. They will be there to offer a kind of consistency, a tiny feeling of comfort that some things will remain always the same. It is like the way my grandfather would always give me a pack of Big Red gum when I was a boy. The way my grandmother still always makes poundcake when I visit. Tiny, unchanging things. But with the added comfort of knowing they will always be there.

Imagine that, Emma: imagine if someone could say to you, "There will always be a place where poundcake will be waiting."

There will always be silly people in their silly clothes to wave at you and even, maybe, woodenly shake your hand if you've managed to do something special (like, perhaps, sell considerably more than one novel per month). That promise of an always is something you don't get too often in real life.

One of the greatest pains of homesickness is knowing there will be change; there is change, and it is happening without you. They will bitch about the haplessness of Carl Pavano (I looked him up) without me. Their kids will grow and all the huge, universe-shifting changes inherent in child-rearing will take place beyond my scope. Get-under-the-coffee-table summer storms, and thank-God-we-have-plenty-of-hot-chocolate winter blizzards, and I-cannot-believe-a-tree-can-make-me-cry-like-this autumn colours will come and go and come and go without my seeing them. And as they do, the things I know will shift. And perhaps, Emma, the home I am sick for will disappear. It will become something different, something I no longer know.

But then what about all the open-every-window-in-the-house soft breezes that blow in the British spring and summer? What about bottles of wine and big, eight-hour dinner parties? What about making snide comments about Strictly Come Dancing? What about watching the children of Jenn's friends grow up? What about getting to spell "colour" with a U, and dusty old churches, and comically tiny roads, and actually getting to be one of the people the Queen waves at ?

And that is the worst thing about this homesickness, Emma: I realise there is no escape.

At least, not until I sell a few more novels. So, I suppose I had better get back to work on the book I'm writing at the moment.

Elsewhere, things here are OK. I have been unsuccessful -- despite intense effort -- in finding full-time work, but I keep applying. Jenn is liking her new job and trying not to think of what will happen when her contract ends in August. The previous two facts don't bode well for my wish to buy a new TV in time for the Olympic Games, but I remain hopeful. The weather has done nothing but rain for the past week. I am trying to improve my health by going to the gym more often. I remain on a waiting list to see a doctor about my depression; they put me on the list in January.

I miss you, Emma. Usually you are where my heart wants to be, so I don't really know where you are these days. I hope you are, at least, well. Please send nude photos.

I remain your faithful friend,
~ Chris ~