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for hesitation was the fact that it is not very Britishy, what with the Norwegian flag flying out front and a quaintly outdated-looking picture of King Harald V hanging in the room where we'll have the ceremony.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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Eight things I loved about June

~ 8 ~ Starting a new job: I get up at 6:30 in the morning, have toast and tea, and put on a suit and tie. I take the train to work and read my Kindle en route. I have to remember a code to get in my building, which is old and sturdy -- built by industrialists who possessed no awareness of their impermanence. I sit, looking out the window at an old train station and create files on a slightly outdated PC. I generally eat my lunch at my desk but take a walk around Cardiff Bay during my break, popping into Starbucks on Mondays; already I am familiar with Canadian barista Bobbi. After work, I stand on crowded train platforms and rub my face with the kind of weariness that comes from spending all day beneath fluorescent lights. It is only a part-time role -- I don't work five days a week -- but it seems to establish a kind of structure for the other days. I get up early to focus on my book in a professional, 9-5 sort of way. Sometimes I consider wearing a tie for that, too.
All in all, I am relatively content with this life (there would be no need for the modifier "relatively" if I had more money). And I wonder if perhaps this is more or less the life of which I daydreamed when I lived in the United States.
Even before I started learning Welsh I wanted to live in Britain, having become enamoured with the Island of Rain during my exchange year in Portsmouth. I can remember wanting years ago to normalise Britain in my life, wanting it to become my day-to-day experience. And arguably that's something that's not really been achieved until now. The four years of university certainly weren't normal, nor so much the past two-ish years of simply getting by. All things remaining as they are, I will be at this job indefinitely; my contract is permanent. Seven years down the line, if my life is exactly the same as it is today, I may not find this continuity to be such a cheerful prospect, but, for now, I am content and loving the fact I have this stable, regular work -- doing something that is actually important to me.

~ 8 ~ Setting up a pension: Part of the fun of acting like an adult (e.g. getting up early, and not wearing T-shirts to work) is getting to think about adult things, like growing old. Woot! Oldness! Yeah!
And one of the things a person is supposed to do in preparation for such adventure is set up retirement funds. So, encouraged by my new employer's willingness to double my contribution, I set up a pension in June. I realise I am terribly behind the curve in this and should have done such a thing a decade ago. But, better late than never, I suppose.

~ 8 ~ Looking at wedding venues: Jenn and I have tentatively set the date for our wedding next summer: 20 July 2013. That's subject to change, dependent on the schedules of certain peoples. But, armed with an idea of when we want the wedding to take place, we spent a fair amount of time in June trying to figure out where we want the wedding to take place. After I finally came to terms with the fact Jenn would not allow us to get married at a LuchaBritannia event, we looked into having the ceremony at all kinds of fun places, including actual castles.
Weddings, you may have heard, are expensive things, so many of our ideas had to be abandoned in the face of financial reality. Other potential locations were dropped because we will (hopefully) have a number of Americans coming and we feel it would be cruel to ask them to venture into the notoriously difficult-to-navigate British countryside. Eventually, we settled on a spot that it is affordable, easy to access via public transportation and conveniently within walking distance of the Doctor Who Experience.
Perhaps after the wedding, we can get a few Daleks to run through the reception, shouting: "CONSUMATE! CONSUMATE!"

~ 8 ~ Getting a new TV: The Olympics are almost certain to show up on my list of eight things from July. I love me some 'lympics, man. I have told before that once I knew the 2012 Olympics were to take place in London, I made it my goal to be living in Britain by the time they were held. Although, when I made that promise to myself, I think I quietly assumed I would also have enough money to attend the games -- and the opening ceremony, specifically -- in person.
Not so much. Tickets are expensive and hard to come by. To compensate, I plan to visit London during the second week of the Olympic Games just to sample the crowded atmosphere and say I was there. And to make sure I see the actual sporting events, along with every weird God moment initiated by a U.S. athlete (a), I bought a new 32-inch HD television.
This is an experience that fits well with the whole "behaving like an adult" theme of June because, surprisingly, this is the first television I have ever bought for myself. True fact. Somehow, I had managed to live all this time without ever buying my own television. Every other set I've had has been either handed down or was owned by someone with whom I was living. Next thing you know, I'll be investing in a timeshare.

~ 8 ~ Writing: My book is moving along at a pretty good pace at the moment, which is one of the reasons I effectively stopped vlogging and blogging. And clogging. Obviously, there is always time for flogging, and in this particularly wet summer, slogging is unavoidable.
As I say, my new work schedule seems to encourage a better focus on the book and I think I am still on schedule to have a complete version by the end of September. What happens then is kind of an unknown. But this will be my third complete book and I feel already that I've put more effort into it than any previous project. I am hoping desperately that this higher level of effort will result in a higher level of success.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Devon: Jenn and I don't have a car, which is not such a terrible situation as it might be if we were living in, say, Virginia, Minnesota, but is still inconvenient if you want to visit family in Devon. The solution offered by people with strong legs and a fondness for rain is: take your bikes on the train, and pedal your way along the beautiful country lanes! Won't that be fun?!
We did this, learning first that trains seem capable of accommodating only a handful of bikes. So, if everyone actually attempted to do what sustainability campaigners beg us to do, it would be a total fustercluck. Add to this the fact that British trains are always overcrowded, so whatever minimal space is supposed to be allocated to bikes is usually being taken up by a group of moody hungover girls on their way back from a music festival.
But eventually we did make it to Devon, where we discovered that, contrary to Jenn's childhood memories from being shuttled around in cars, it is really hilly. And sometimes there is absolutely no good place to pull to the side of the road and catch your breath, unless you want to be hit by a car. Have you ever cycled so hard up a hill that you felt like your abdominal muscles were about to snap? I have. It is one of my lasting images of Devon.
To add to the fun, it rained every day we were there. This made getting around an absolute pleasure, of course, especially when an an app that was supposed to have given us bike routes directed us down a path that would normally be dirt and not all that good for cycling. After several days of rain it was a swamp, with water in places that was a foot deep.
Yet, strangely, by the end of things I was kind of enjoying myself. Once you accustom to a certain level of misery, it all gets to be kind of fun. This was especially so because we were there during the weekend of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. We had attached Union Jacks to our bikes and backpacks, and on every pub and shop and house there were even more flags to be seen. I found myself feeling very happy to see people taking some sort of pride in Britain. In Welsh-speaking circles there is a fanatical devotion to badmouthing Britain and Britishness at any opportunity, and I think that's one of the reasons I feel emotionally exhausted by said circles. I like Britain. It's got some neat things. And I think it's OK to wave its flag around every once in a while. In Devon I enjoyed seeing that I was not alone.

~ 8 ~ Visiting West Sussex: There were flags up in west Sussex, too, even a week or so after the jubilee celebrations. Though Jenn and I were there to celebrate the far more important anniversary of Bronagh, Jenn's best friend, and her husband, Simon. Bronagh's mother lives in West Sussex, in a house that made me think of the Great Gatsby, replete with 1920s-style tennis lawn. At dinner we sat at long tables, eating scallops and drinking wine from "the cellar" and I got locked in a conversation about the nature of free will, which dragged on to midnight.
"I'm in some kind of film," I thought that night as I finally dragged off to bed, many of the others still going strong. "This is the sort of thing we pictured the Europeans to be doing, and I'm doing it."

~ 8 ~ The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach: Baseball-infused novel The Art of Fielding has gotten a lot of press -- a little more than it deserves, I feel. Most likely this is because of America's poetic love of baseball. It is probably now more common to hear references and allusions to basketball in modern American pop music, but I think baseball still holds a higher place in the romantic mind. So, this book that features baseball, little dissertations on the game, and a sense of praise for its players was inherently destined to draw a weighted amount of praise.
This is Harbach's first novel and it earned him an advance of more than $600,000. Knowing that affected my reading of the novel. It makes it difficult for a person to ignore little things, like the fact that not one character in the book is believable. One of the characters is apparently autistic, another appears to be suffering a terrible degenerative disease that no one has diagnosed, and another goes from being a womaniser to being the submissive gay lover of the only likable character in the book, without any explanation whatsoever of how he made such a transition. How can that be worth more than half a million dollars?
Without knowing Harbach's paycheck, though, it is an enjoyable book. The sections describing the game were enough that I now find myself constantly debating whether I want to pay to watch MLB games online, and the character of Owen was unbelievable but fun.

(a) After events, the BBC always manages to chase down an athlete to ask his or her opinion of their own performance. British athletes, and any others with a command of the English language, apart from Americans, will ramble on about times and technical aspects. But U.S. athletes always use that moment to proselytise, which makes the BBC person uncomfortable.
REPORTER: "You performed particularly well in the last 200 metres; has that been your strategy all along? To hang in with the crowd through most of the race and pull ahead right at the finish?"
US ATHLETE: "Well, I just went in there and put my faith in Jesus. I put this race in His hands."
REPORTER: "Uhm... yes... and your... uhm.. nearest rival. Were you concerned that she might be able to take this race?"
US ATHLETE: "Like I say, I put this race in His hands. I gave 110 percent but, you know, it couldn't be done without the guidance of my Redeemer."
REPORTER: "Uhm... I see the Taiwanese athlete who came in last, I'm just going to go talk to her now."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Behind schedule

I'm a mark for Google stuff. Most of it, at least. My Android phone -- an HTC Desire -- is an intolerable piece of poo, and I plan to go back to using an iPhone as soon as the next model is released. But Google's software stuff I like. I'm writing my book, Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama, in Google Docs, for example. I've used Gmail since those heady days when I had to beg Rex Sorgatz for an invite. This blog is hosted by Google affiliate Blogger. I still quietly hope that G+ will someday actually take off. And I've used the Google Calendar feature for pretty much as long as it's been available.

I carry a special fondness for the calendar. I love its "Exists Everywhere" nature, available any place on any platform, which makes it far more relevant to me than those old-school things one has to carry around. Those things are silly and frustrating. They get lost or forgotten and are too easily made messy with scribble. Google Calendar is easy to use and can be accessed from any web browser. It is the bee's knees. I wish they were paying me to say that.

From time to time, I like to click far ahead on the calendar -- several months or years into the future -- and leave little notes for myself. Messages from a former me, in the form of reminders. When doing this, I generally try to click ahead at random and pay no attention to the day in which I am leaving these notes. The idea is for me to forget about them and for my former voice to occasionally pop up and remind me of who I wanted to be.

One of those notes from long ago showed up recently, on 20 June.

"Buy a house," it said.

That's pretty ambitious -- not the sort of thing most people can do on a whim -- so, it must have been written some time ago. Perhaps it was written back when I was still proofreading news copy in Saint Paul. Perhaps it was written before the whole Move To Wales idea was really formed. It is strange to think of myself then, and I wish I could send a note back to him. Though, I don't really know what I'd say.

I think about that a lot: the "If I could speak to my younger self" scenario. It's a dangerous one. I'd like to somehow avoid all the terrible heartache, but still come out of it more or less where I am. More or less. Obviously I'd like to have saved some money, so I could afford that house I wanted.