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 ~

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Eight things I loved about March

~8~ Turning 36: I'm not sure I'm exactly happy about turning 36 years old. I suppose I am happy that I didn't not turn 36 years old -- i.e., I'm happy I lived to be 36 years old -- but I didn't really do a Finally Made It To 36 jig on the morning of 20 March. Perhaps I should have. After all, as of that day I became two parts eligible to run for president of the United States (I remain ineligible, however, because I have not spent the last seven years living in the country). Additionally in the United States, I became old enough on that day to legally have sex with someone half my age. Here in Britain, I think Jenn would strongly object to the latter and probably not be all that keen on the former, either.
Jenn took the day off for my birthday and we went on a walk along the coast, near Llanilltud Fawr. We ate our lunch on a windy sea cliff and Jenn produced a bottle of ale to go with our sandwiches. Then she put a candle in a lemon cupcake and spent five minutes unsuccessfully attempting to light it. It was the sort of thing that would be in a Why Chris Adores Jenn montage in the film version of my life.
Turning 36 has induced a certain amount of introspection leading to all kinds of laments about whether I could have built a better life by now. I suppose that all depends on the unit of measurement -- something I can never decide on. I too often change the rules on myself to ensure that I lose.
The negative spin is that of an unemployed, bankrupt and artistically limited misanthrope growing a year closer to his death. The positive spin is a budding author sitting in the soft, thick Marram grass with a beautiful girl -- the two of them in love and laughing as they share a birthday picnic -- knowing that he has within him the ability to fulfil his ambition. 

~8~ Progress Wrestling: Celebration of my birthday carried into the weekend, when Jenn and I travelled out to London to visit with my old friend, Jennifer, and her husband, Dave. Seeing Jen and Dave is enough a treat in itself. I've generally come to put them in the mental category of "family" rather than "friends," so fond am I of them. That fondness has rubbed off on Jenn to the extent she will sometimes copy their style in decorating our flat.
The weekend was one of good food and games and deep talks and cheesy jokes. But it was highlighted by the fact that we went to see a show put on by the fledgling Progress Wrestling promotion. It's pretty well-established that I am fond of professional wrestling and one of my favourite wrestlers, Colt Cabana, was part of the show. I was looking forward to it but worried it would bore/annoy my companions. As it turned out, we had a great time. The crowd was vocal and it turned out to be one of the best overall wrestling shows I've ever seen (though I've seen better individual matches).
One of the highlights was getting to meet Colt Cabana and shake his hand. I walked away from the experience with an autographed Colt Cabana T-shirt, which is now my favourite article of clothing ever. I may insist on wearing it on my wedding day.
There's a fair bit of footage to give you a feel for the show on my vlog from that weekend.

~8~ Writing: I've been adding writing to my list of eight things for a few months now, but keep in mind that I spent almost all of 2011 in a kind of writer's block. Memory of that writer's block keeps me in a state of constant fear and uncertainty about my writing. I still feel I am not really clicking as I could, and I am terrified to wake up one day and find that I have again lost that strange mental-emotional filament that connects talent and ambition and industriousness to create good writing. Each month that passes in which I can claim to have actually written something more than a Welsh-language column and an Eight Things post, is one for which I am thankful.

~8~ Being awarded a bursary by Literature Wales: At the moment, the primary focus of my writing is on the book I've tentatively titled Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama. In March (and the last few days of February), I received an emotional boost in writing the book when I got some good news that I wasn't allowed to tell anyone. I made reference to it in February's Eight Things post. I can now finally tell you the good news is that I am to receive a bursary from Literature Wales to work on the book. I wasn't allowed to publicise that until the unsuccessful candidates had been informed. Myself having thrice been an unsuccessful candidate for this bursary in the past, I could imagine how much it would suck to have received rejection in a secondhand way like that. Rejection is shitty, but it's worse when it doesn't come through official channels.
When the 2009 Book of the Year list was being compiled I thought I might have a shot with Cwrw Am Ddim. I found out that I was not on the long list when Siân mentioned her book, Y Trydydd Peth, being on the list well before it was released to the public. For some reason, finding out that way made it hurt worse.
Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama will be my second English-language book and I am hoping it will have a bit more support/momentum/success than The Way Forward. The fact I've received this kind of an endorsement from Literature Wales makes me optimistic and has given me a sense of purpose that I was somewhat struggling to develop before. I am hoping to have a solid version of the book, ready to be torn apart by an editor, sometime in mid- to late-summer.

~8~ One year of vloggery: As one creative outlet builds the other ebbs. March saw the completion of one full year of vlogging every day. It was an interesting project and has provided me with an audio-visual record of thousands of little moments that are otherwise lost in the day to day. It was a good reminder that life is not so horrible as I sometimes feel it to be when lost in the grip of my swingy-uppy-downy broken brain. But the daily vlog was also incredibly time-consuming. "Writer" is the single word I am so desperate to use in describing myself. Being a daily vlogger was, I think, cutting into that. So, as soon as the anniversary was reached the nature of the vlog was changed. I am now putting up videos just twice a week. That may change, too. We'll see.

~8~ Jenn getting a new job: There is some sort of bloggery conventional wisdom that suggests I should not tell you the organisation of which Jenn became an employee in March, though I'm not entirely certain why it would matter. Without doubt, Jenn is very happy to have gotten the job and proud to be doing something that makes a difference in terms of both health and environment. For the next several months she will be part of a campaign encouraging people to make more use of sustainable transportation like trains, buses, bikes, feet, etc. I am very proud of her and, I will admit to you, just a bit jealous that she has an opportunity to do a job that actually means something. It is one of those jobs I've always dreamed of having.

~8~ Interviewing for a job: This one is kind of a lie. I didn't love interviewing for a job. I didn't love the job for which I was interviewing. I didn't love being rejected for the job. I didn't love how the job for which I interviewed mishandled that rejection. I didn't love continuing to be poor. I didn't love continuing to be out of full-time work. Indeed, there is nothing to love about the fact that I have been mostly unemployed for so long. It has become a kind of weird mental plague of its own, sapping me of my limited self-confidence. And it is something which exacerbates my natural swingy-uppy-downy broken brain. It is a slow, inescapable muck that makes me bitter and fills me with sickness (physical and mental). I hate how useless and impotent I feel, and that anger spills all over the place into things that may or may not be directly linked. For instance, few are the days I do not want to open the window and shout, "FUCK YOU, WALES," despite the rather valid argument against placing blame for the global economic downturn on the shoulders of one of the global economy's least influential players. That's just how I feel, man.
But what I do love -- and when I say "love" what I mean is "take melancholy pride in" -- is that I am carrying on. The job interview I had in March was the first in more than a year. Being rejected was crushing. But I am back now to applying constantly, building contacts and trying. Always trying. I have dreams of one day selling books, but in the meantime I am pushing, trying to find something that will pay the bills, something that will help us build up enough money to pay for a wedding, something that will help us build a better life.