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Friday, January 27, 2012

Resolute

My resolutions for 2011 were to read 20 books, write one book, get a full-time job and visit Scotland. I accomplished none of these things. In a majority of categories, 2011 was a failure for me. Thankfully, the categories of life of not weighted equally, so the areas in which I succeeded -- relationships, primarily -- easily covered for the deficiencies of others. I don't tend to remember specific years, nor to measure my life by them, but I suppose that if I did 2011 would be the year in which I fell in love and not much else.

There aren't so many days left in January, so I feel it may be a bit late to be talking about my resolutions for 2012, but, hey, each moment is new. So, I don't really need to hit a specific day to set myself toward a goal. Besides, maybe I'm going by the Chinese calendar, in which case these resolutions are timely; Chinese New Year was Monday and, traditionally, celebrations for the event last eight days.

Apparently, this is a year of the dragon. I was born in the year of the dragon that was 1976, so am hoping this will bode well for my 2012. This is my year, bitches. And in it I am hoping to read 12 books, write one book, get a full-time job and visit Scotland.

Twelve books:
My failure to meet even 1/5 of my target last year resulted in my lowering my literature expectations for 2012. I honestly don't know what went wrong with me. Off the top of my head I can only remember reading three books -- Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver; A Hole in Texas, by Herman Wouk; and The Rembrandt Bomb, by James Moore -- but I'm pretty sure there was a fourth. I think perhaps I can blame my lack of external input on the shifts occurring internally. Slowly, and in such a way I can't really identify yet beyond simple awareness of its having occurred, I underwent a kind of foundational shift in 2011. The most obvious example I can give is the way in which I effectively divorced myself from the Welsh-language world. Two days after my birthday, I made a conscious decision: "I don't really care about this stuff anymore."
I don't know. This idea of flux causing me not to read may be bullshit. I am the one positing the theory and I struggle to make it connect.
Regardless of why it happened, I read very little in 2011 and in looking at 2012, I decided I should try not to set myself up for disappointment and therefore lowered the bar. Already this year, however, I am en route to achieving my goal. Whereas four books were read in the whole of last year, I am now reading my fifth book of 2012. Long train journeys to work, and a Kindle from Mom and Dad, have served as catalyst.
By the way, did you also get a Kindle for Christmas? You did? Then, why not get my novel: The Way Forward.

One book:
I can't remember when I started to seriously formulate Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama, the book I am working on presently. A year ago, I was intending to complete Sgidiau Caerdydd, a Welsh-language novel about an Iraq War veteran who sells his car to God. I had already written roughly 30,000 words of the novel for my masters degree. But whereas the Cardiff University School of Welsh referred to it as fresh, well-structured and wholly new, Welsh-language publishers Y Lolfa referred to it as too edgy to sell. Welsh-language publishers Gwasg Gomer, who had published my book Cwrw am Ddim, simply refused to respond to my correspondence.
The thing is, I am not an edgy writer. I'd like to think that I am able to approach themes in a fresh way, but by and large I don't think I have ever written something that could honestly be described as edgy, let alone too edgy. The Welsh-language world is lost, so badly killing itself with refusal to glance forward that a guy who draws most of his inspiration from Dave Barry is deemed too edgy. It is comically sad.
And, yes, I am bitter.
But, any hoosiers, the project was dropped. I've had a handful of people suggest to me that the reasons for rejection are exactly why I should push forward with the novel -- fighting to get the book published so that something new exists in a field full of literature that repels all but the most nationalist of Welsh speakers with its torpidity. But, honestly, why?
I am not a Welsh nationalist; Welsh is not my language; Wales is not my country; the Welsh are not my people. Why should I expend so much energy on such a project? If I am going to burn myself up in trying, it is wiser and more profitable (emotionally and financially) to do so attempting to find foothold in the saturated English world.
I managed to draw up a rough outline of Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama, and a few thousand words, by October, but for the most part whatever it was that kept me from reading was also keeping me from writing. I languished until late December, when my agent on The Way Forward got in touch and asked if I was up to anything new. That and my first Christmas home since 2005 have served as a push and I am now, slowly, getting up to speed with Tales. I am hoping to have a solid first draft completed by May, though I have no idea whether this is a realistic timeline, nor why I would choose May as a due date.

A full-time job:
Part of my problem is that for a certain portion of 2011 I was limiting my job search to those where I could make daily use of the Welsh language. In Welsh-language teaching we always claim that Welsh will help you get a job, but I have found this to be bullshit. Unless the job you want is that of a ragged, underpaid, drowned-in-idiot-paperwork Welsh tutor. Even after mentally divorcing myself from the Welsh language I was still trying to play friends with privileges with her, so it was not until the later stages of 2011 that I started to really expand my search beyond Welsh-language opportunities.
Now, I have expanded my search beyond Wales -- to Bristol, Bath, etc. -- and set a rule for myself that, bare minimum, I must apply for one job a week. If I find myself a year from now still without full employment I will at least be able to comfort myself in a blanket of 52 rejections.

Visit Scotland:
How long have I lived in Britain? It is sad and ridiculous that I have never been to Scotland. It is right and logical that I've never been to Scunthorpe, but Scotland? What's wrong with me? Partially, I'm going to lay the blame on the above employment situation. I ain't gots no money, bitches, and that makes travel particularly tricky. On top of this, homesickness seems to consume me at an alarming rate, so any time there is money at hand it is spent on trips to the United States.
I am forced to concede that this resolution is this year again dependent upon the fulfilment of another; I have not yet taken any steps toward planning a Scottish venture. I am hopeful that this dragon year will be my year, that work and money will be found, and that this and all the other resolutions will be met. The next 11 months will tell the story.

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(I can't help but be aware of a grumpiness running through this post. As I was writing it I heard a builder working on the café across the street scream, "Oh! Fuck!" and the sound of power tools suddenly stop. I looked out the window to see him, gripping his arm, run to a van with a co-worker and be sped off, their tools still lying in the road. Whatever my laments, I can probably be thankful I am not that guy.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Eight things I loved about December

I can't remember whether I did an eight things post for November. Let me check... Nope. No, I did not. That's a shame because November had some good bits in it. Thanksgiving, for example; Jenn and I travelled out to London to see my old friends Jen and Dave, and we had a great time.

But I suppose it's not surprising that I didn't manage an eight things post for that month because at roughly the same time my writer's block was reaching its peak and a depression that would hold me until Christmas was starting to settle in.

I have been struggling with words a lot lately. Sometimes I think the vlog is to blame, allowing me an opportunity to more immediately express my thoughts rather than leaving me to ruminate on things. Stories and the desire to tell them are built of sitting and thinking and thinking; it's possible the vlog steps on that somewhat. That said, I like doing the vlog -- for the most part -- so, I'm unwilling to stop. I would rather train myself to do both things.

Each new year I, like almost everyone else, start out with a head full of steam as to what I hope to accomplish in the coming months. And as with years previous, one of my goals is to push myself to write more. I can't help but approach this goal with a certain amount of cynicism because I have lost count of the number of "I'm back"-type posts I've written.

But carrying around cynicism toward my own ideas hasn't gotten me very far; it has produced no books. So, I will take whatever optimism this new year gives me and see what I can make of it. Optimism is the point of an eight things post, to identify at least eight good things that happened to me during the past month. December, admittedly, was an easy one:

~ 8 ~ Getting engaged: As mentioned before, Jenn and I got engaged over the Christmas break. If I were to tell you that I don't now feel just a twinge of nervousness, I would be lying. What if I mess things up? But as Shawn Michaels once advised Chris Jericho about doing a backflip off the top rope: "You just have to go up there and do it, brother."
OK, perhaps it's best not to ween marital advice from professional wrestlers. And perhaps it's additionally unproductive to worry too much about what might happen well beyond my current scope. Right now I know that I love Jenn and am excited about the idea of being able to call myself her husband, and there's no reason to sit and try to force myself to second-guess that.
At the moment, we are thinking the wedding will take place in spring 2013. We've not gotten so far as to nail down any real timeframe other than the fact it would be less of a hassle if the wedding occurs sometime before May 2013, when my visa expires. Ah, such fun. Other couples lament over how many guests to invite and what colour the napkins should be, we have the additional worry of not having one of the wedding participants be tossed from the country.

~ 8 ~ Christmas with my family: I proposed to Jenn in Minnesota. It was her first time to visit my adopted home state and my first time home at Christmas since 2005. I had spent five Christmases away from family, yo. No wonder I was beginning to dislike the Yuletide.
In my absence, my family had forgotten all the traditions that it had always been my responsibility to uphold: "No, we do things such and such way, remember?"
They don't remember because in addition to being the one to keep holiday traditions I am generally the one to have created them. I have always been thankful for the fact I come from a family that doesn't stick to traditions. And having lived in Wales has taught me that traditions are a load of nonsense that can restrict you intellectually and creatively. But all this time living away from family has shown me their value, as well. They are reliable ways to connect.
But, of course, the best moments are those that simply can't be set up. I ensured that we delivered presents in a certain order, and had our big breakfast and so on, but the very best moments came at the end of our trip when my family went to dinner and afterward found ourselves just sitting around talking and telling stories. I think my father and I are the most prolific storytellers, but my brother, Jon, the best.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Minnesota: I can't adequately express how terribly I miss Minnesota at times; I will feel physically sick. Recently I wrote an article for Barn that simply referenced visiting Eric and Kristin's cabin and found myself weeping as I wrote. I miss the extreme seasons most: summer and winter. There are no such things here on the Island of Rain. It gets cold enough to make you miserable in this country but never enough to make you happy. There is no skiing (cross-country or downhill) or skating on frozen lakes. And only rarely does it get warm enough to wear a short-sleeve shirt in the evening; the last time it was hot enough for me to actually want to go swimming was 2006.
Britain is the climate version of being on medication for depression: no extreme lows and no extreme highs. And perhaps that's OK for some but it leaves me feeling that I am missing out. The climate is too mild for autumn to force an explosion of colour, for winter to bury you in snow, for summer to push you into rivers or the sea.
Frustratingly, all that said, Minnesota was not nearly as cold as I had expected/hoped. There was no snow on the ground but for our last few days and at one point it was too warm for us to skating at Centennial Lakes.
Still, I was happy to see it -- happy to be able to wander down into forest, happy to squint my eyes against blinding winter sunshine, to see eagles nesting in the trees and hear coyotes yipping in the night.

~ 8 ~ Seeing my friends: I will admit there may be places more naturally beautiful than Minnesota. The reason I love it so dearly, of course, is the people there. I have no close friends within a 50-mile radius and the majority live even further away, most in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. As I get older and realise more the importance of good friendships I find it ever harder to be so far away from them. Getting back to Minnesota is like finally reaching the water's surface and being able to breathe again after diving too deep. I wonder if my friends realise how much it means to me to just be able to sit around at their houses, drinking beer and talking about nothing. At Eric and Kristin's we ordered Mexican food and sat on the sofa; at Dan and Johanna's we ate Sloppy Joes and sat around outside. Who the hell travels 5,000 miles just for that?
I do.

~ 8 ~ Hearing from my agent: Did you get a Kindle for Christmas? If you did, remember that you can get my novel, The Way Forward. You might already know that before being effectively self-published that book was shopped around to a few big editors in New York. The person doing that groundwork was a super-nice lady named Rebecca. Not too long ago she contacted me and asked if I was up to anything. To be honest, I was spinning my wheels at that point because I had lost a lot of faith in myself as a writer. I still haven't really recovered from that but the fact that she saw enough potential in me to ask what I was up to despite a previous lack of success has lit a fire under me recently.
Unless she suggests altering my course, I have begun working on a book tentatively called: Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama: How the Tiny Nation of Wales Crushed My Dreams and Robbed Me of My Will to Live. It is effectively an updated English-language version of Cwrw am Ddim, with the focus switched so that it (hopefully) appeals to a wider audience than just those who are Welsh-speaking or particularly keen on Wales. I'll keep you posted on its progress.

~ 8 ~ The final Mince Pie Monday: One of the highlights of autumn was Jenn and I coming up with the whole Mince Pie Monday nonsense for the sake of our daily vlog. It was an amusing (to us, at least) little feature that involved us forcing ourselves to eat mince pies late at night. I had a lot of fun doing it and am now just a bit sad that we've not thought of anything to replace it. For the last Mince Pie Monday (in which we taste-tested Duchy Originals mince pies) we even got dressed up. This sort of thing is at the heart of why I love Jenn: she is ridiculous. Just like me.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Devon: In addition to visiting my (adopted) home territory in December we visited Jenn's homeland as well. Ostensibly the purpose of the visit was to celebrate Jenn's grandparents' 60th anniversary (they received a card from the Queen!) but it was also a chance to deliver Christmas gifts and visit with the family that Jenn sees about as often as she sees mine. Time and travel challenges make a visit across the Bristol Channel almost as tricky as a visit across the Atlantic Ocean.
I was insufferably grumpy on my first day there because my moneytrap of a car developed a new issue: the electric window would not roll back up, thus allowing in the rain and misery for which this island is famed. But the problem created a kind of opportunity for me to bond with my future father-in-law as the two of us hovered over the door, mumbling and pointing for several hours. Eventually we disconnected the window from its lifting apparatus and wired it shut.
I knew already at that time that I was going to propose to Jenn, so throughout the visit I found myself thinking: "These people are going to be my family." And I am quite happy with that.

~ 8 ~ Waterfalls: The aforementioned moneytrap car has since been sold for scrap. But one of our last adventures in the Honda was a day trip to the Neath valley, where there are a number of waterfalls. You will no doubt pick up in the tone of this blog post a certain greyness-induced cynicism toward Wales -- it is something I have been struggling with a lot -- but getting a chance to see its natural beauty helps to alleviate that condition. It was dark and rainy the day we went out but I had a good time; I am happiest when my feet are moving, there is a pretty girl beside me and there is no concrete to be seen.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A letter home: 11 January 2012

My dearest Emma,


Happy New Year! It's been a while since I last wrote but I suppose that's alright considering I saw you a few times while Jenn and I were in Minnesota. A figment of my imagination, you are so often where my heart wants to be. So, you were there at the bonfire at Dan and Johanna's house, at the lake when Jenn and I went ice skating, at Eric's gig on New Year's Eve, and a few other places during the fortnight.


The rest of the trip went well, too. This was my first Christmas home, first Christmas with family, since 2005. I have never been one who could be described as a family type, Emma. Those narratives about the strength of blood ties have never really made sense to me. Surely, for free-willed creatures the bonds we create with a person can be stronger than those inherited because the person is chosen rather than simply the daughter of the son of the woman whose mother is the same as your father's. The whole "blood is thicker than water" theme is silly.


But I do enjoy seeing my family. And as I get older and more reflective I feel I can understand them more. Or, at least, I feel more willing to try to understand them, and I enjoy their company more. My father and I are skilled at talking a lot of nonsense, and when I get the chance to sit and chat with him I am reminded of how much I miss doing so. I miss, also, my mother's increasing eccentricity. And my brother's way of telling a story. He will deliver a punchline with a kind of subtlety that resonates. So, you do the little preliminary laugh that is almost instinctive for any punchline but then the idea expands in your head, the way he has laid it out plays in your imagination, and you find yourself laughing louder and fuller.


I think one of my favourite moments from the whole of the trip came on our final day, when everyone went out to eat and we found ourselves at the end of the meal telling stories of various mundane jobs we had all held. Jon had me laughing so hard my lungs hurt.


Obviously, Emma, that was not the best moment of the trip. As you know, I proposed to Jenn while we were in Minnesota.


I had bought the best ring I could afford on a Welsh teacher's salary and brought it with me on the trip, unsure of exactly how or when I would propose. Past experience has built a deep cynicism in me, Emma, and I do not like the idea of highly orchestrated proposals. I understand the sentiment behind getting down on one knee and shouting "I love this woman" in Trafalgar Square (remember that old jewellery advert that used to run in the 90s?) or getting a group of friends to spell out "Will you marry me?" with towels on the beach or some other ridiculous thing, but I have come to see love as a deeply, deeply personal thing. I am quite happy to tell you that I love Jenn, but I'm not sure I need to put on a fireworks display to prove it.


Also, perhaps my thinking comes from the fact I have so many years experience writing and broadcasting. I know how to put a shine on things. And I know that you can make some things shine quite brightly without really caring about them. I wanted my proposal to be purely heart-driven, unprepared, honest. So, I carried the ring around in my pocket for several days, concealed in a box of mints, waiting for that moment when I knew and felt the time to be right.


On 23 December we went for a walk along Nine Mile Creek, that insignificant stretch of water that means so much to me. As we walked, I got lost in telling Jenn about the various memories that sprung up: over here is where I liked to swim, over that way is where I fell through the ice, this bend is where Eric and I turned over in our canoe, and on and on. Just a few hundred yards from the hill that Corbett and I used to terrify ourselves speeding down on our bikes, I replicated such adrenalin and nervousness by reaching into my pocket.


"Each time I'm down here I think about everything I've been, everything I am and everything I want to be," I said. "And when I think about what I want to be, what I want for the future, I know I want you to be part of it."


Or something along those lines, Emma. I'm sure what I actually said was slightly less poetic and littered with pauses. But it is what I meant, what I felt, and she said yes.


The triumph of hope over experience, Emma. But there is that past experience and I'll admit that because of it I get fearful when thinking of my life with Jenn. I fear making mistakes, screwing up. That past experience hurt so very much. It wasn't just the pain shared by two people but the crushing sense of defeat and failure from seeing the breakdown of a thing that philosophically was not supposed to have done so, and then the years of deconstruction and reconstruction. I trust Jenn, love her madly, but still can't help but feel timid of the pain that could come.


But probably the very best way to ensure you will never be happy is to fail act for fear of a wonderful thing changing beyond your present scope. To a certain extent, it's the same as refusing to step outside on a sunny day for fear of how the weather may be in 2036. I'm speaking to myself here, Emma, so perhaps this doesn't make sense. Besides, the overall thing to draw from this is that Jenn and I will be getting married and I am incredibly happy.


Our aim is to be married in early 2013. This allows us time to plan and, more importantly, try to save some money for the wedding. Them things is expensive, Emma. We live in a world where we encourage people to begin stages of their lives carrying a heavy debt burden. Start your career with a mountain of student debt; start your life with someone shouldering a financial weight. Hopefully, though, a bit of time will give us the chance to avoid starting out in the red.


Though, it is hard, Emma. I still cannot seem to find a full-time job. Last week I decided to scrap my car to save the cost of petrol, insurance, tax, maintenance, etcetera. It saves money but adds a tremendous amount of time to my commute; travelling the roughly 35 miles to Ebbw Vale and back now takes six hours and involves 4 miles of walking. Meanwhile Jenn works two jobs. On Sundays, if we are lucky, she is able to take home unused food from the restaurant where she waits tables. If we ever succeed, these will make good stories.


And when we tell these stories, I suppose the emphasis will be on the fact that through it all we had each other. I am the poorest I have ever been, and the least financially optimistic I have ever been, yet cannot remember enjoying life quite so much.


It is tempered by experience, Emma, but I am starting the new year with hope. I tread gently forward.


Please say hello to everyone back home. Send nude photos; Jenn would like to see them.


I remain your faithful friend,
~ Chris ~

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Random 4 a.m. thoughts on Welsh literature

Welsh-language literature seems to be an old man in a care home. Occasionally there are flashes of lucidity (Owen Martell), but for the most part it just sits there: drooling on itself, repeating the same wearied themes, rambling incoherently about a past so mis-remembered that it never was, coughing up phlegm and ruminating it like a cow chewing cud.

The nurses dress him in loud shirts from time to time and celebrate him annually with mylar and plastic and simplistically structured songs but if you sit and look at the old man you see he's hardly there, despite lively attempts to make it appear otherwise. And if you look at him honestly you start to feel deeply sad and wonder whether perhaps the least-embarrassing thing to do would be to simply shut off the machines. Stop pouring so many resources into this thing that isn't and will never be.

That's a hard decision to make. To think it seems cruel, feels like betrayal. But is it right to keep a man alive simply because you don't want to put his nurses out of work?