Saturday, February 18, 2012

The constant slow

A return ticket to Ebbw Vale costs £7 (US$11) from Penarth. A ticket to Newport is £5.80 ($9.12) return and then an additional £2.75 ($4.32) to get the bus out to Caerleon. I go to Ebbw Vale twice a week, Caerleon once. Total weekly travel cost: £22.55 ($35.44).

The distance between Penarth and Ebbw Vale is roughly 24 miles as the crow flies. I'm not a crow, so I have to take the train on outdated rail up through worn, post-industrial mountain valleys. The journey takes almost exactly an hour and a half, assuming no cows or drunken teenagers get loose onto the tracks. Once there, I have to walk an additional two miles to the LAC, where I teach. On Mondays I have one lesson, on Thursdays I have two. Afterward, I walk the two miles back to the station and do the whole journey in reverse. In the evening it takes a little longer to get home. In total, I spend 10 hours a week commuting to and from Ebbw Vale. I teach there six hours a week.

The back and forth to Caerleon isn't quite as bad. The distance between is about 16 miles and travel via train and bus only takes an hour and a quarter. The walking is not so much that I really notice; I'd guess I cover about a mile overall. The journey back is more of a pain because unlucky timing can dramatically increase how long it takes. If I do everything right, I'm home in a 1 hour and 15 minutes; if I do everything wrong, it can take two and a half hours. On average, it takes an hour and a half. I teach two hours a week there.

Of the two commutes, I prefer the one to Ebbw Vale. It takes longer but the time on the train allows opportunity to read; being guaranteed eight miles of walking each week keeps me healthy. And there is less stress. On the trip to Caerleon, I switch from train to bus in Newport, which is not exactly world-renown for its safety. At night I have to walk through a series of pedestrian subways, which strike me as ideal places to be attacked. The alternative, though, would be running across a mesh of roads where people are driving upward of 50 mph. I think constantly of how I will respond if attacked; I fill my head with violence.

"Kill them," I tell myself. "If someone comes at you, fight back with intent to kill. They will probably be stronger than you, probably be tougher, probably be on drugs and more impervious to pain. Your only hope is ferocity. Simple defence won't be enough. You must try to kill them. Hopefully, that will be enough to make them run away."

I think often of buying a hatchet to carry with me on that walk. Because if some dude pulls a hatchet on you, that's just nuts. It sends the right message: whatever this guy in a second-hand coat may or may not have on his person isn't worth the hassle. But I've yet to buy one because: a) I'm guessing such a thing would be difficult to explain to a police officer, should one see me walking down the street with a hatchet; b) I don't really have the money for such a thing; c) I'd be doing all this just for the sake of teaching Welsh.

All in all, I earn £162.60 ($255.54) a week, before taxes. That is only slightly more than what I'd get from Jobseeker's Allowance, but as an immigrant I am not eligible for any assistance from the state. I've been out of full-time employment for some years now. Technically, I've not held a full-time job since 2006, but four of the past years were spent earning my bachelor's and master's -- degrees that have proven to be utterly useless.

Unemployment affects your brain, distorts it in some way that I can't ever fully describe. I am reminded slightly of my rugby-playing days and the feeling of an accepting confusion that comes after being kicked in the head.

We were once playing against Metropolis RFC and it had started to snow. We were getting killed and I had spent the match on the sidelines. As time wound down, I knew I wasn't going to be brought in because my captain had a deep personal vendetta against Metropolis and very little faith in me. So, I wandered around and drew little patterns in the snow with my cleats. Then, suddenly, my captain was screaming for me. A third flanker had been injured; I ran onto the field cold in every sense.

In my first play, I got the ball, made a few yards and was trampled in the ruck. I still have the cleat marks in my upper back, almost eight years later. Getting to my feet, I reached back to gently prod the ripped flesh and then looked at my hand, covered in blood. Everything felt out of step. My timing was wrong. My cold muscles wouldn't respond as I wanted them to. But my captain's rage drove us all on.

There was a quick fight and my captain got even hotter. A few phases after, the fly-half popped the ball to me and my captain swung in behind as support. He screamed, "Crash! Crash!" and I put my head down to simply drive into the defense -- no finesse, just throwing a body full-speed into a wall. His calling the play had tipped off the defense and I was driven down by three forwards. But using three defenders on a single player had created a gap.

My captain was desperate to capitalise. He was in full sprint behind me and decided, as I was being thrown to the ground, to kick the ball forward rather than bend down and form a ruck, rather than rely on anyone else on the team. So, he kicked the ball. The ball that I was holding. The ball that I was protecting by curling up into the fetal position. The ball I was clutching so tightly that it went nowhere. The force of his kick slipped his boot off the ball, to my forehead.

I don't know what happened. And then I was being pulled to my feet by one of the Metropolis players. All the action had moved a good 20 yards beyond, and it felt that he and I were the only ones on the field.

"You alright, bud?" he asked.
"Yeah. I think so," I said.

He slapped me on the back and we jogged forward to join our respective teams in beating the crap out of each other. My team lost, 27-17.

Obviously, there is no physical pain caused by long-term unemployment. But what I feel is that from-the-soul deep mix of confusion, sadness, exhaustion and betrayal. That feeling of thinking, "What am I doing? What is the point of this? Why have I been left alone?" of wanting to sit down and cry from all of it, but instead just carrying on running halfheartedly forward.

I apply for jobs constantly. When there are no jobs to apply for, I write to companies and organisations telling them of my skills and asking if there's any chance they could find a place for me. I cast a wide net: everything from Google to Prince Charles. Rejections trickle in at a slower rate than my applications -- most companies don't even bother getting in touch to say no.

I try to keep busy. Often you hear stories of the unemployed and they are listless, dislikeable people who spend their days watching television and drinking cold tea from dirty mugs. I read, I tidy the flat, I apply for jobs, I try to stay healthy. I also spend time working on another book. This will be my third. The other two sold only enough copies to cover a week's travel expenses. But I feel that this book is the best of my options. Two years of constant rejection has driven me to believe that my best hope, my only hope lies down the twice-unsuccessful path of being an author.

I try to tell myself things will get better. But in my heart I know they won't.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mr. Holt's first time

"And... uh... OK... uhm... Do you, do you... I'm trying to think if... Uhm. Oh. Mae'n flin 'da fi. Dwi newydd golli fy lle. Pawb yn deall? Na? No... I'm... I'm not..."

Mr. Holt was lost. Totally. Whoever had been sent forward, wherever he had come from, he didn't have a clue. He didn't shout, "Hey-hey now!" He didn't step back to the podium to check his notes. He didn't wave his hand across the room, randomly pick a student and say: "Atgoffwch fi: ble 'dyn ni?" He didn't even look at his wrist.

His reaction to the episodes was the best part of Mr. Holt's class for most people, I think. I mean, what the hell were so many people going to do with the Welsh language? Mid-sentence, he would rock over and to the side, his head moving in semi-circle, then he'd right himself, and his eyes would refocus onto a roomful of people sat up and eager to see who had been brought forward this time. Probably the best episodes were the ones that brought forward a Mr. Holt who knew all the routines, one who had already had several episodes and had learned to easily deal with them.

Sometimes, thinking we'd not noticed, he would slyly look at his wrist and try to play it all off as if nothing had happened. Other times, he'd run to the window like a little boy to see what kind of day he'd been given. Often, he would smile and joke. I remember his coming out of an episode once, staring quietly at Callum Johnson for about half a minute, then leaning forward and putting his hand on Callum's shoulder.

"I have grave news for you, my boy," he said. "Your haircut makes you look an absolute fool, and I'm pretty sure everyone in here knows it."

This episode, though, was obviously different. This Mr. Holt didn't know what to do. Instead of being fun or joking he looked sad and almost terrified. His shoulders slouched down. He touched the right side of his head, looked at his hand. And in his being lost we were all lost, too. We just stared back until finally Marilyn tapped me on the shoulder and said: "Hey, you're supposed to help him out."

"Mr. Holt?" I said, raising my hand. "Hi, it's me, Minnesota. Look at your wrist, Mr. Holt. The band on your left wrist."

"Moorhead. 23.09.24," he read.

He stared at it, blank. The wristband didn't even make sense to him!

"Where you are, and the date," I explained. "The wristbands help you get your bearings. You like to write the date like that. You know, September 23rd, 2024. That's today."

Probably the easiest way to think of it is to say that Mr. Holt was a time traveller. Except that he never actually went anywhere. Mr. Holt sometimes compared it to an old TV show, "Quantum Leap," which I've never seen. Apparently, though, the main character would travel through time and find himself in the bodies of different people. But in this case it was always just Mr. Holt in the body of Mr. Holt. It was mental illness rather than science fiction. Various things would cause him to have flashbacks, the same things that cause flashbacks in all of us, I would guess: the weather, a smell, lighting, someone's clothes or voice, whatever. It happens all the time.

Like, I'll be in the grocery store and suddenly think of being 6 years old and singing old Lady Gaga songs in my underwear. But where it's different is that I'm still in the grocery store and I'm still 20. Mr. Holt's mind sends him back and finds that person he was, then, as quickly as the mind works, it sends that older version of himself forward, intact. He has an episode and suddenly there's a younger version of Mr. Holt standing in front of you. Or, at least there is as far as he's concerned. Sometimes he's a few years younger, sometimes only a few days.

His condition made him famous for a while all across the country. He was on all kinds of shows. He's still a celebrity up here. His classes fill up every year, despite the fact that they are hard, and in a subject no one cares about. He suffers about two or three episodes a month and usually they wear off within an hour or so -- sometimes before the end of class. That's the funny thing about him: he always just rolls with it and keeps teaching. Nothing will stop Mr. Holt from making us conjugate all the forms of "bod."

"I'm sorry. It's the year 2024?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"And I'm in Moorhead?"
"Moorhead, Minnesota?"
"This, uhm, iPad thing in my hand... I'm up here teaching Welsh, it would seem. I'm teaching Welsh in Moorhead, Minnesota?"
"It's called a tablet. And, yes, you teach Welsh at MSU Moorhead."
"How the fuck did that happen?"

The class laughed. Partly in relief.

"You say that a lot," I said.
"I do, huh? I'm sorry, please don't be offended, but do I know you?"
"Yes," I said. "It's me, Minnesota. Remember?"
"Your name is Minnesota?"
"Ah. It's a very pretty name. Unique. Beautiful, actually."
"Well, I guess you'd think that. You're the one who came up with it," I said.

Light chuckling through the classroom.

"What, I named you?"
"Yes. I'm Pete Ericson's daughter."
"Pete? My best friend, Pete?" he rubbed his face, doing that man thing of trying to rub away tears. "What? After Alia and... the boy... he's not even born yet."

There was that mystery solved. This Mr. Holt had come from a time before my older brother had even been born. That put him about 22 years or so from the present -- the youngest version of Mr. Holt I had ever met. From his confusion, this was the first time he had ever experienced an episode.

"Pete let me name one of his daughters?" asked Mr. Holt. "Why on Earth did he let me do that? Was your mother in on it? She let me do that?"
"Well, I guess maybe it was their way of saying thanks for the house you bought them."
"I bought your parents a house?! How the hell did that happen? I don't even have money for new shoes, love!"

Laughter. This was why people showed up to Mr. Holt's classes -- the joy of getting to watch someone see himself with fresh eyes. Our lives are so much more than we usually realize. We get lost in the immediate, in the day to day, and lose grasp of how amazing is the whole.

"I guess things get better for you," I said.
"I guess they do. That's very comforting. And I'm very glad to see, Minnesota, that you've not inherited your father's looks."

He was starting to warm, more aware of the fact he had an audience. He grinned and did a little dance of shifting his weight from one to another. His eyes wandered out the window, to the autumn leaves and ivy on the walls of MacLean Hall.

"Minnesota, I'm afraid I've got a lot of questions I'd like to ask you," he said. "For example, this wedding ring on my finger. I'm looking forward to finding out who's on the other end of it. I hope she's hot. Well, I'm sure she is; I've always had very good taste. I'm also eager to find out where I live. And this whole Moorhead thing -- that's really intriguing. But, first, I see by the clock that it is 11:10. I am guessing that, bare minimum, this class does not end until noon..."

"Yeah, class goes 'til 12."

"Fifty minutes. Cool. Good," he said, grabbing pieces of paper from the podium. "And I'm guessing these are my notes. Hey-hey now, da iawn. This looks like the lesson I was just about to teach, actually. I was in Newport just now, setting up for a night course. I had been attacked whilst walking to the class but hadn't called the police because it would have meant missing the lesson. And I needed the money, see?"

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When we get to cheat

John Thompson had his arms ripped off by a piece of farm machinery when he was 18 years old.

That sort of thing happens in North Dakota. Go to the diners and bars and churches of the Peace Garden State, look at the worn hands of old men and you will see fingers missing. Sometimes the whole hand. Sometimes more. The fabric of the universe is woven together with unfairness and sometimes the simple act of trying to feed your family will cost a piece of you.

John's arms were ripped off just below the shoulder and he was knocked unconscious. His dog brought him back, licking his face, whining and barking. Confused, blood pouring from his body, John rocked himself up and onto his feet. 

"I didn't want to lay there and die," he later told a newspaper.

He dizzily made his way 150 yards to the house and managed to open the door with a series of kicks. He fell inside, found a pencil with which to clench in his teeth and dialled 911. He calmly explained to the person on the other end what had happened, asked if they wouldn't mind sending an ambulance, then went to sit in the bathtub, so he wouldn't get blood on his mother's new carpet.

It was January, which is a bitterly cold and awful time to be in North Dakota, unless, perhaps, you've just had your arms ripped off. The cold and snow helped to preserve his arms. Because of it, all three items -- John, his left arm, and his right arm -- arrived the hospital in about the best condition one could expect for things which shouldn't ever be separated.

The state of North Dakota, of course, is conveniently located next to the state of Minnesota, which, fortunately for John, is home to all kinds of amazing medical research. John and his arms were quickly transported there and it was collectively decided by family and doctors: Hey, what the hell -- let's try strapping these things back on and see what happens.

The story made national news. I was 13 years old at the time, living in a Minneapolis suburb, and John's story was to be found on every newscast, every night, for several days. Over and over they'd show an airbrushed high school yearbook photo of a pimple-faced, scrawny boy with one of the most embarrassing mullets you've ever seen, posing next to his dog. A local daytime talk show promised to have an expert on to discuss John's case and I faked illness to be able to stay home and watch it.

Eventually, he was there in front of the cameras, painfully shy and awkward, his arms in slings and his hands purple and puffy, but amazingly and miraculously intact. He quietly apologised to his mother for getting any blood on the carpet and promised to clean it up as soon as he could, and smiled a quiet little smile while the whole room laughed and cheered and cameras clicked and whirred.

Several months later, he was asked to sing the National Anthem at a Twins baseball game. He came and stood in front of thousands of people and the shyness on his face suggested he might have preferred to just have his arms ripped off again rather than suffer all this attention. He warbled through the anthem and I found myself crying as I watched. 

That was 20 years ago. His story has stuck with me ever since. I found myself thinking about him again this morning.

I am a cynical person. I often blame my years working in journalism, but I don't know if that's actually true. Maybe I am just a miserable person. And when I look at the world around me, I see running through it, as I say, unfairness and cruelty. These things are constants -- they are inevitabilities. Bad stuff is going to happen. When another baby is mauled to death by a pit bull, when another child drowns, when another young mother is brutally murdered, when another father is killed by a drunken driver, when another grandmother dies of neglect, I find myself frustratingly unaffected. It is sad, but not surprising. Terrible things are waiting for all of us.

John's story has stuck with me because it feels as if he cheated. His arms were ripped off, but then someone put them back on so he could wave his middle finger in the face of fate. And when one of us somehow gets away with such a thing -- even just one of us -- it gives you hope. It makes me think: Maybe I, too, could win that lottery, could somehow pull off a stunning upset against the incontrovertibility of misery. Chilean miners, Ernest Shackleton walking 32 miles over mountains, and John Thompson getting his arms back are things that help me get out of bed in the morning.

But when good things happen to me, I get worried. I think: maybe that was it; maybe that was my last triumph; maybe I won't get to cheat again.