Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Eight things I loved about May

~ 8 ~ Finishing the academic year: "There's another day done," an old man commented to me Sunday as Jenn and I walked past him on the disused railway path that runs from Penarth station.
Because I was wearing a cowboy hat, we assumed it to be some kind of Old West reference. The only thing turned up by a Google search, however, are the lyrics to a song by Genesis. For the old man's sake -- because he seemed a nice enough fella -- I'm going to assume he didn't know he was quoting Phil Collins. Perhaps it was just a turn of phrase that came to him. It was, indeed, the end of the day -- the summer light turning golden as the sun shifted low and westward. We have been experiencing a spate of genuine summer days and at the end of each of them one feels a certain sense of satisfaction and content. Another day done, and a good one at that.
Monday saw another academic year done. Teaching Welsh is a great uphill struggle, literally and metaphorically. Literally: after travelling an hour and a half on a train to Ebbw Vale I have had to walk two miles uphill to the building where I teach. The actual process or journey or whatever term you want to use of getting a room full of people from the point of not being able to pronounce the sounds of Welsh to being able to make simple statements about who they are and where they live is equally uphill and exhausting. I fear I don't make the greatest leader on these journeys. Persisting with the trekking metaphor, I have a tendency to teach as I walk -- plodding forward, somewhat insouciant of others. Some people have simply slipped away. In one class, I started the year with 13 students and just four showed up on the final day; in another class eight became four; in another class nine became four.
It has been uphill in a financial sense; the money earned simply is not enough to make ends meet. It is hardly enough to even move the Sisyphean stone of financial burden. I mentally decided I was done with teaching back in January, when I had to face the reality it could no longer sustain my owning a car. Take an American's car away from him and he will turn against you forever.
I stuck with teaching out of sense of duty, and because no other employment opportunities have presented themselves, and because I have taken some quiet pleasure in getting to know my students. I especially loved talking with a retired teacher whose face would contort like an excited child when he grasped some new element of the language. He is an infuriating Welsh nationalist but still one of the most likeable people you could ever meet, the sort of person who induces in you an inclination to pray: "God, please let me be like that when I'm 80. Or even now."
Another student: a retired steelworker who spends a lot of time painting, a hobby that I think gives him greater descriptive power when telling you about life in the Ebbw valley. He remembers orange sulphur clouds wafting across the football pitch as a boy, and the holiday trips that seemingly the whole town would take en masse to Barry Island.
Another student was incredibly quick and witty but had almost no formal education beyond community classes and so seemed bound to stay on the dole ("on welfare" for those of you playing along at home) forever.
I enjoyed the process of coming to see Ebbw Vale as a real place. Not a real place I would want to live, perhaps, but also not a caricature of a town, which is how the south Wales valleys are generally seen: "Here be chavs."
There be indeed chavs -- great, depressing failures in the human experience -- but also plenty of people who are warm and take to you quickly and use your name at the end of every sentence: "Lovely weather today, isn't it, Chris? How's your misses, Chris? Can I get you a tea, Chris?"
It was warm and summery as I stepped out of the LAC Monday evening. Another year done, and this one my last. Golden sun lit the soft green hills of the valley and birds sang. Mischievous children shouted to one another as they swarmed past me on Razor scooters. A woman smoking a cigarette outside the Conservative club held a conversation with another woman leaning out the window of a building across the street. As I walked out of town and down closer to the bottom of the valley, the moist summer smell so familiar to my Texas and Minnesota childhood drifted up from the river. I felt a certain sense of satisfaction and content.

~ 8 ~ Getting a (part-time) job: I likely would not have returned to teaching in the autumn either way, but the fact I now have work in Cardiff Bay makes it a hell of a lot easier to stick to that course. I feel like I shouldn't outright state who I'll be working for, though that's information easily found on my LinkedIn profile. And I'm sure it will become obvious in the future when I am waxing poetic about this or that British landscape. Suffice to say, it is a role that puts me back in my comfort zone of media/PR and it is one of those situations I have always wished for -- being able to apply my talent toward something I care about rather than descriptions of house fires and pit bull attacks.
My only lament is that it is not full-time. But, I will take home slightly more per week than I have been and spend roughly 12 hours less in commute. And I get holiday pay. And a pension. And I will see Jenn at night. And there will be plenty of time to focus on writing my book(s). For the first time in a very long while I find myself not just hopeful but -- oh so slightly -- optimistic about the future. Hope can exist anywhere. Optimism, I feel, is a positive view of likely outcomes. It is easy to hope, to dream; it is more difficult to be optimistic. I am optimistic for what can come with hard work and, admittedly, a bit of luck.

~ 8 ~ The Avengers: Dude. Did you see the Avengers movie? If you did not, why? Do you hate good things? Does awesomeness make you miserable? Are you coolness-intolerant? Honestly, go see it now. It was like riding a roller-coaster on a track built of rainbows and the laughter of children and explosions.

~ 8 ~ Walking from Penarth to Rhoose: Finances are always tricky in the Cope-Champion household but May was especially challenging. We spent the final fortnight of the month living off credit cards and potatoes. The potatoes we ate, of course; the credit cards we used to buy the potatoes.
With so little money to hand, we were left to seek whatever adventure could be had by walking out our door. At the first little sign of warm weather, we decided to pack lunches and walk a stretch of the newly completed Wales Coast Path, trekking from Penarth to Rhoose -- about 15 miles.
The phrase "newly completed" is somewhat misleading because it implies that more was done than simply looking at existing routes along the coast of Wales and seeing how they all link up. Really, the Wales Coast Path is the result of someone's obsession with maps, like when I used to try to work out how one could travel from Mission San Diego to the Hollywood Bowl using only non-Amtrak rail-based transport.
So, the "coast" path leads you through a fair bit of urban area as you pass through Barry, along busy roads and not within sight of anything that could be described as coast. But things eventually got pretty again and I found myself thinking I'd like to try to walk all the way around Wales at some point, making use of the Wales Coast Path and the Offa's Dyke Path.

~ 8 ~ Summer weather: In Britain, we use adjectives like "scorching," "sizzling," and "boiling" to describe weather that Texans would describe as "cool," "fresh" and "you might wanna take a wrap." But it has been summery by British standards, and Jenn and I are desperately making the best of it: sitting in beer gardens, visiting friends for barbecues and running during the hottest part of the day (sometimes I even sweat!). Ice cream cones are consumed and hours are spent sitting in the park reading. Our windows stay open and at night we kick off the duvet. We go for long walks and I even get to wear my cowboy hat (which Welsh people are physically incapable of avoiding comment on).
I don't remember growing up wild for summer. I enjoyed it, of course -- swimming, running, sweating. But I grew up in places where one could be confident of its annual arrival. Here, where summer seems to show up every six years or so, and usually only for a week, I feel a kind of rapturous panic: MUST ENJOY SUN! I am desperate to cram everything in, to compensate for the long, long, long months of wet, dark, cold that turn me into a miserable depressive.
I can do things now, I can believe in who I am and who I can be, because the sun is shining. But because I know how rare is this meteorological condition, I am fearful of what happens when it goes away. Summer in Britain is never long enough for you to pine for other seasons.

~ 8 ~ Rioja night: I don't know how we fell into this habit, but we've taken to splitting a bottle of Rioja on Sunday nights. Arth Wine, the wine shop down the road, sells a Rioja fruity and flavourful enough to overcome my general dislike of wines. We pour the wine into a decanter to let it breathe for an hour or two and then have it with dinner. It is the sort of middle-class activity that I simultaneously disdain and delight in. Jenn and I both work for organisations with an environmental focus, we are card-carrying members of the National Trust, making dinners using organic ingredients from our weekly Riverford box and drinking red wine that we have let "breathe." We are intolerable. Our only redeeming quality is that we also never miss an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles.

~ 8 ~ The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver: Never mind her tendency to get lost in great fields of prose on the experience of motherhood, nor her proclivity toward over-simplistically singing the virtues of communism (despite a distinct lack of historical evidence to suggest such a system is truly sustainable beyond the idealist realm), Barbara Kingsolver is one of the best living authors the United States has. When she is no longer living, she will simply be one of the best American authors ever. Put her in the same breath as Vonnegut and Hemingway; teach her in schools; etc. But I think the reason I particularly loved reading The Poisonwood Bible is that it helped me achieve one of my New Year's resolutions: I have now read 12 books.
I am carrying on, trying to read as much I can, and thankful to the anonymous person who suggested that I read Leif Enger. I am reading So Young, Brave, and Handsome at the moment and really enjoying it. Living now in a Kindle-based world, I don't tend to think in pages anymore, but I read 45 percent of the novel in one day. If anyone else wants to suggest something, t'would be appreciated.

~ 8 ~ Seeing the Olympic flame: Remember that scene in Blues Brothers when Aretha Franklin comes charging at Jake and Elwood like a bull moose, shouting: "Don't you blaspheme! Don't you blaspheme in here!"
That's kind of how I am when someone speaks ill of the Olympics. I have found myself systematically eliminating grumpypants types from my Twitter feed because of their inane Olympics hating. It's the Olympics, for the love of Pete! How terribly dead inside are you that you would genuinely sit there and complain about the Olympics? It's the Olympics! I feel actual sadness for you -- to be so utterly devoid of the capacity to feel happiness. What do you do in the morning? Kick a few puppies before your breakfast of wood shavings, then bathe in your own effluent?
I love me some Olympics, yo. I love just about everything about them, even the bits that I find boring. I love the philosophy behind them. I love the opportunity for safe patriotism -- a chance to wave a flag and paint your face and cheer for someone solely on the basis that they were born in (or moved to) the same country as you. I love cheering for people whose countries I would struggle to find on a map. I love that the huge lumbering circus-machine of the Olympics can induce dramatic civic changes that no amount of politicking ever could. I mean, a light rail in Salt Lake City -- that would have never happened without the 2002 winter games. No, I won't watch swimming at any other time, or gymnastics, or rowing, or, in fact, most of the sports featured in the Olympic Games. But I feel that's some of the point: an opportunity to go wild for people who work really hard and usually don't get to hear people going wild for them. I am fully aware of creating in my mind a false state of interest, a kind of suspension of belief I would use for watching a film or reading a book, and I feel that's perfectly acceptable. Why not cheer for people who try? Why not take joy in such a thing?
And to have the games now in the country in which I live, just 150 miles away from ol' Caerdydd, I find incredibly exciting. I am heartbroken that I could not afford tickets to any of the events, but eager nonetheless to travel to London when the games are taking place so I can mingle in the atmosphere of so many people all come together to wave little flags. With money from my writer's bursary, I plan to buy a large TV so Jenn and I can watch the games in style. It is exciting and it is incredibly likely that I will never again be as physically close to the games as I am this year.
So, it was a given that Jenn and I went to see the Olympic flame as it passed through Cardiff. Hundreds of people packed together on the street, and the whole thing lasted approximately 15 seconds (it would have been less had the torch-bearer not been walking), but I am happy to have seen it. A little tiny piece of history, and I was part of it.


Anonymous said...

What specific Rioja are you talking about?Ilike Rioja with my Sunday evening roast

Chris Cope said...

Honestly, I can't remember the name. In Arth Wine it's the one that costs about £7.50 and has a little "Favourite" recommendation card below it.