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.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Friday night in P Town

It. Never. Stops. Raining. I am baffled at times that people live in this country. Not that I would expect no people at all -- people will live anywhere. It wouldn't be a surprise to find a few hardy, muddy souls in the caves and hollows of this island. But that there are so many people, that is sometimes confusing.

There are millions upon millions of them. Literally millions upon millions, all stacked up on top of each other and squished together, covering every little bit of space with narrow, pockmarked roads, crumbling walls and litter. This country would be half it size without litter.

All types pass by on the glossy-wet street below. Some stumble off and on the pavement like a silent film drunkard. Young people, seemingly in competition to see who can dress the most ridiculously, wrap arms around shoulders and necks in an attempt to create a kind of multi-legged creature more suited to the challenges presented by an undulating world. Big-bellied, arm-swinging, bald-headed grinning fools lurch forward as if pulled by a rope. Barefoot women with too-thin cardigans held over their heads wave their shoes in the air.

Most people walk without noticing the rain, though it falls hard. It is drunkenness, perhaps. More likely it is Britishness. They either walk as if always in rain, or walk in the rain as always. I can't decide.

A group of men orbit themselves as if following badly drawn concentric circles, eating chips from styrofoam square bowls. They cross the roundabout by its diameter. One drops his styrofoam container right at the roundabout's centre, lets it bounce off his leg and pays it no attention.

Taxis speed past, take the corners hard. Slope-shouldered men's faces are lit blue by the screens of mobile phones. Fat women huddle together. Voices call out. The world is orange and glistening. It is Friday night in P Town. And it keeps raining.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Eight things I loved about April

~ 8 ~ Writing: Why, yes, I have added this to every eight things list this year. So? I still love writing. Though, sometimes I'm not sure "love" is the best word. I feel compelled from deep within to string letters into words and words into sentences and on and on. I feel incomplete if I go long stretches of time without doing so. I love telling stories, I love yammering on, and I love the feeling of my mind spinning. The way in which all of that most obviously manifests is in the experience of writing.
The actual act of writing is, in fact, quite wearisome and nowhere near what films always lead you to believe. I frequently lament this -- that I have no great oak desk, for example, buried beneath wobbling towers of paper, and sat in a sun-bleached room of a cabin or beach hut or whatever. I have, instead, a hallway and a cheap pine table from IKEA. I hardly move when writing, so my body grows cold. My eyes start to ache and blur slightly from staring at the screen of my laptop. I do not write things by hand -- that is stupidly inefficient and whole strings of thought are too easily lost in the time it takes to scrawl out a phrase rather than type it on a keyboard. Nor do I use a typewriter. I prefer a laptop and have grown quite fond of my Macbook, specifically. I bought a typewriter once in high school and enjoyed using it only slightly more than walking around with a fish in my pants.
Actually, I have never tried walking around with a fish in my pants; I might enjoy it.
Once I have finished writing a passage I am left to go back over it, think about it, think about it, think about it, and usually hate it. Jenn comes home and I am either still lost in my head and un-talkative, or inclined to moan about how whatever it is that I'm writing isn't good enough and what if no one will print my book and what if I never amount to anything and woe is me.
But it's what I want to do. Being a writer isn't a great deal of fun. Neither is cleaning a toilet, however. The former activity gives me far more a sense of purpose and worth than the latter. So, I love doing it. I would rather not do anything else.
Thanks to the Easter holiday, April provided me with a fortnight of time to work solely on my book. I am never happy with what I manage to accomplish in any given space of time but I did get a lot done. At the moment, I am a little over the 50,000-word mark, with about 30,000-40,000 more words to go before I have a complete first draft.

~ 8 ~ Various day adventures: Money is tight these days. It's rarely otherwise where Jenn and I are concerned, but we make do as best we can. Fortunately, her majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland affords a fair number of opportunities to do things for little or no cost. Such is the beauty of things like the National Trust and the National Parks system. The UK is not unique in these things, admittedly -- indeed, such areas are far larger and more wild in my home country -- but the benefit here is that it is better integrated; these places are usually closer to where all the people are.
In both cases, of course, enjoying things that are free or low-cost usually hinges upon agreeable weather. It rained through most of April, but Jenn and I seized whatever opportunities we could. Early in the month, we cycled from our flat in Penarth out to Dyffryn Gardens, which is one of our favourite spots. Originally the estate of some extraordinarily wealthy person it has been in the care of the Vale of Glamorgan (the county in which we live) for a few decades and will soon be taken over by the National Trust, which will likely bring a boost in funding and help to ensure that it remains a very pretty place to spend an afternoon.
On the other end of April we got it into out heads to walk along the River Usk, from the village of Usk to Abergavenny -- an overall trek of roughly 16 miles. The trip was mostly along scenic river valley and only once did we have to run across railroad tracks, followed by a four-lane highway followed by an airstrip. No, really, the path actually led us on such a comically dangerous course.

~ 8 ~ Getting to see Jenn do something she cares about: Jenn started work in April for an organisation that helps to promote sustainable transportation in Britain. She is part of a project aiming to inform people in Penarth and the immediate area about the sustainable transportation options available. I knew already, of course, that the aims of the project were important to her, but had I needed any additional proof it came on her first day of work when the number of flirting texts I received through the day dropped considerably. She is focused and keen to work hard. She comes home at the end of the day completely exhausted but does not complain and would not have it any other way. I am happy for her and just a little bit jealous; I think we all wish for that job where we feel like we are affecting positive change.

~ 8 ~ Eating candy with Sarra Elgan: Oh, the places you'll go. The Welsh language, for all the unpleasant experiences it has delivered me has also, I have to admit, quite often added colour to the great pinging hullabaloo that is life's path. In April, for the purpose of marking no particular occasion, I was invited to the studios of BBC's Radio Cymru to be a guest on the "Dafydd a Caryl" programme. It is your basic mid-morning chatter of the sort that is so popular in the UK and so uncommon in the United States. Americans seem to prefer to listen to screaming people (be it about politics, religion or sports) at that time of day. In the Soggy Nations, it seems, we prefer to listen to people talking about affordable fashions or how to make good Welsh cakes or the mundane affairs of mundane celebrities or just about anything else unlikely to induce a screaming test of Godwin's Law. In the case of my visit, the conversation topic was candy: which side of the Atlantic Ocean has the best.
When I got into the studio, the show's producer eagerly showed me an entire tray of British and American sweets. She explained that Goobers would be pit against Maltesers and these against those and that against this -- about 30 different kinds of sweet in total.
Regular host Caryl wasn't in on that day and was being replaced by guest host Sarra Elgan, of whom I have spent many years saying perverted things in Welsh. In my book, Cwrw Am Ddim, there are a number of paragraphs dedicated to the idea of knocking boots with Sarra Elgan. I had never met her before, but now here she was, sitting right next to me and I spent the whole time feeling like a pre-teen boy who is meeting a WWE Diva and trying very hard to: A) be cool; B) not stare. She was friendly and charming, which is one of those talents that attractive people seem to pick up, and laughed in that sort of way that gets you all excited when you are a bit starstruck ("Hey! I said something to make her laugh! I am the most awesome person ever!"), and the half hour or so of radio slipped by. In the end -- to my surprise, because I was intentionally trying to favour the home team -- American candy was deemed the best. I walked out of the studios feeling happy and energetic, and as I stood on the Danescourt platform, waiting for my train back to Penarth, I suddenly realised that it had been my most fun, most enjoyable experience in the Welsh language since going to visit Llŷr at Oxford in November 2009 (a).
And I have to admit that made me a little sad. Almost three years had passed since I had felt really, really happy in a Welsh-language situation. Too often my Welsh is only used to talk ad nauseum about my Welsh. I talk about the language and learning the language and being an American. Though, should any BBC types be reading, I should probably point out that I do not mind so much talking about American things, such as elections or candy or traditions. I just tire of talking about me as an American and how Americans are different and, oh, isn't it fascinating, in a flea-circus sort of way, that an American would teach himself Welsh. And I find myself indebted to Lowri Cooke, who, it seems is behind almost all of my opportunities to speak Welsh outside of the American Welsh Learner context. She was responsible for my being on a programme many moons ago about Cardiff, and again for my spending a surprisingly long time talking about mince pies on live radio in December, and again for my getting the chance to swoon next to Sarra Elgan as I ate Hot Tamales.

~ 8 ~ The return of Great British Menu: Unintentionally, I seem to have a rule about British television, which is this: if it's not on the BBC I won't watch it, and if it is on the BBC I will watch it, no matter what it is. This can be the only explanation for my tuning in to Great British Menu, the programme that pits top-level chefs from various British regions against each other, whittling them down to a super catering team for a banquet of 100 really special people. In America, this programme would somehow involve things catching on fire and, perhaps, a fair bit of shouting. In Britain, this programme is just three blokes in a kitchen, each staring intently at potatoes and lettuce -- sweating profusely as they attempt to balance said items on a bit of carrot.
Still, Jenn and I are faithful to this silliness, regularly cuddling up on the couch to find out what will happen next in the great saga of uptight white men who all effectively make the same thing but in different ways (ever notice that desserts are about as inventive as an episode of Davey and Goliath?). At the end of it, they get to cook for olympic athletes, which, I would think, should not be all that difficult. Give them something other than a protein shake and they'll be happy.

~ 8 ~ Signing up to get a weekly Riverford box: Jenn and I have a National Trust membership, she works for a sustainable transportation organisation, and now we are having organic vegetables delivered to our door each week. Middle class, we are you.

~ 8 ~ The Artist: About a month or two after everyone else, Jenn and I finally went out to see The Artist in April, which was, surprisingly, just as good as everyone says it is. You get the sense that such a thing is really a one-off concept, though I am certain it will be copied several times before people accept that to be true. Nonetheless, it is well done. It's no Silent Movie, mind (I mean how can you best anything featuring Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise?), but still pretty good.
It reminded me of my college days in Moorhead, when the head of the film department would organise evenings at the Fargo Theater in which they would bring in a Wurlitzer organ and have someone play a silent film's soundtrack, as would have been done in the silent film era. In doing a quick internet check, I see that the Fargo Theater is still there, which makes me feel a little better about the world.

~ 8 ~ Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen: I really liked the strength of writing in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Interestingly, though, the more distance I have from it, the less I like it. It was a novel about New York depressives being depressed and doing the New York depressive thing of having a kind of scab-picking addiction to bad life decisions. Thinking about it now, I feel exhausted and frustrated. At the time, though, I enjoyed the book well enough that I really was not able to put it down. Perhaps my memory is being unfair, because immediately after reading Freedom I read Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, which is, essentially, another novel about New York depressives being depressed and doing the New York depressive thing of having a kind of scab-picking addiction to bad life decisions. So, maybe my mind has looped them together into one enormously long and tedious experience. Maybe not. Freedom is plenty long and tedious on its own. But still strangely good. I find a lot of the themes to be annoying, but I would recommend it.
Primarily, however, the reason I list it amongst my eight things for April has more to do with the fact I am loving reading so much more in 2012 than I did in the year previous. At the moment, I am reading my twelfth book of the year, which means I am soon to have accomplished one of my New Year's resolutions. Reading the book also got me thinking about the modern American literary voice: what is it? And I would like to find some good modern (i.e., published within this century) American authors who are not writing from an East Coast perspective. I'd like to avoid the California voice, as well, I think, because it, too, is so prevalent. One thing I'd really be interested to read is quality work from a Southern or Latino author (or a Texas or Minnesota author, because of the personal connection). Anyone want to make a suggestion?

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(a) I feel I should also mention the fun of being a goof with Anni and Gwilym during our graduation ceremony last summer.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

She has not seen the pan

This is a passage from an email my mother sent me recently; a story about my grandmother, Libba:
In addition to the four herons who are nesting and raising their babies in her pecan tree, she's had a couple of episodes with bats inside the house.  The first involved a bat that was flying, running into the ceiling, knocking itself out. The second time it did this, she was prepared with a big pan, which she used to cover it.  Now familiar with the bat protocol, she called the police even though it was 11 PM.  Two of them came to the house promptly but with no more than a paper sack.  Borrowing a large vinyl garbage sack from Lib, though, they were able to capture the bat, pan and all and remove it to be tested for rabies.  She has not seen the pan, but the report came back negative for rabies.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May.day

No one has ever fit so perfectly in my arms as Jenn. You would expect me to say that, she is my fiancee, but it is also genuinely true. My arms wrap around her easy, we entangle into perfect holds. Strange, wonderful submission holds. The cuddle trap.

That I could feel so strongly about her after a year and a half -- still wanting in all moments to hold her close and breathe her in, indeed, wanting her more than ever before -- suggests a longevity to our relationship that is at once incredibly comforting and just a little bit terrifying. Always and forever means always and forever carrying the mistakes, as well as the good times. I am fearful of making really bad ones. Of course I will leave the toilet seat up or spill wine on her favourite dress or awkwardly joke with her brother about his sex life. There will be mistakes. But I fear making big ones -- mistakes that never become funny with time, mistakes that erode, mistakes that somehow act as tiny burrs to ruin those perfect moments when we are wrapped in each other.

It is the first morning of May. May Day. We are lying on our sides, pressed warm and safe and happy against one another, our arms and legs in a tangle. The alarm rings for the third time and I can feel in the muscles along her ribs that Jenn is really going to get up this time.

"OK," she sighs.

And already, at 7:15 a.m., the best part of my day is over.

I bury my head in her pillows and breathe her smell as she gets up and heads to take a shower. There is the sound of her moving around, getting something from the kitchen, the bathroom door closing, and now just the rain. It has rained nonstop since I can't remember when. It seems my feet are always wet. I feel the last time I saw the sun was five months and 5,000 miles ago, when Jenn and my father and I went for a walk along the Minnesota River, though I know that to be factually untrue.

I hear the rain hit the windows and the pavement below and the roof of our downstairs neighbour's almost-certainly-not-built-to-code extension. The rain finds its way into all corners of our 130-year-old building and drips down from a crack in the ceiling to a waiting drinking glass set on the window sill. Drip. Drip. Drip.

My throat is on fire and my body feels weak, aching and shaky. Odd hours, unhappiness and an inability to take care of myself have again conspired to make me ill. This would be deserved if I were coming home from the pub at midnight thrice a week. But my hours are a result of teaching night courses and having to rely on public transportation. My life is a string of minor illnesses. I feel the last time I was really healthy was back on that walk along the Minnesota River. Though I know this, too, to be factually inaccurate; I had a fever on that day.

My world of raindrops and Jenn smell and pillow softness bends time and Jenn is now back in the bedroom. I hear her rubbing on body lotion, rustling through her drawers, her hair dryer.

"Do you want to get a little more sleep, babe?" she asks.

"No," I say. "I want to have breakfast with you."

I roll to my side of the mattress, feel under the bed for the tracksuit bottoms I wear as pyjamas and hold them without moving. I hear the kettle roar and click. Time bends. I hear Jenn scraping butter on toast.

"M'up!" I shout, finally throwing away the covers and searching the floor for yesterday's underwear.

There is tea and toast and two kinds of jam. Jenn eats muesli, which, if you've never had it, is exactly as appetising as its name. Muesli. It sounds like a Victorian ailment: "Me da' can't work the mines no more. He got the muesli, he does."

Jenn is running late, as usual. I have never known her to operate in anything other than a tornado. She does this with a kind of amiability, though -- chatting about her day ahead, how cute the dog is of the person walking by on the street, what she's going to make for dinner, and our plans to see a movie tonight as she consumes museli in great spoonfuls, occasionally jerking her head to look at the clock. She finishes breakfast before me, kisses me, says "I love you" six times and heads to work. The door shuts and again it is just me and the sound of rain. The radiator. The clock.

I finish my tea, find some ibuprofen to help with my throat and spend an hour or so looking for jobs. I want to work in Bristol. There is no particularly solid reason for this, but for the fact I am so burned out on Wales and, more to the point, my constant applying for jobs in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and all points between has not resulted in employment despite more than six months of real, actual, not just saying I'm trying but really trying.

At midday I take the train into Cardiff city centre to attend an informal interview at a temp agency.

"How did you find the test?" asks a young woman in a headscarf. "Alright?"

I am lost in trying to decide whether I know her. I feel like I do, but can't guess where from. She looks to be of Somali origin and suddenly I feel a kind of embarrassment as I wonder whether I think I know her just because I am, in fact, a dumb white guy who deep down inside thinks that all black people look alike. I tell myself this is not true and quickly recall the distinctive faces of various black people to prove my point: Carl Weathers, Florence Griffyth-Joyner, R. Truth. I have probably just seen her around town, I decide. Cardiff is not so big and I have lived here six years.

This all takes place in an instant. Her question about the skills test I took a fortnight ago finally filters into my head. Strangely, my brain offers the Welsh phrase "digon syml" as a response and then stalls out in searching for a tactful, intelligent English equivalent.

"Oh, uh, uhm," I say.

"No need to be worried about it," she smiles. "You did exceptionally well. You scored 98 percent."

She asks me questions about what work I'm doing at the moment, my availability, whether I'm willing to travel, and so on. She does not ask me what kind of work I would like to be doing, but I volunteer this information, anyway.

"If it were at all possible, I'd love something commensurate to my experience and skills," I say.

She smiles at me gently, as if to say: "You'll get what you get."

I emphasise my Welsh fluency and my two university degrees and all my years of experience and the fact I am good at all kinds of things, knowing that telling her all this doesn't matter but needing to because there is no one else to tell it to. I have had just one job interview in the last year. She listens politely and writes nothing down.

"At the moment," she says, lilting her voice in that South Wales way of letting you know that whatever follows is going to be disappointing, "we're probably looking at nothing coming up until July. So, don't be concerned if you don't hear from us for a while."

July.

I walk back to the train station, almost getting run over by a bus I didn't see. On the train platform there is an old lady wearing an eyepatch that is decorated with a silver bespangled butterfly. I cannot help but grin. Rain patters on the metal awning and I hear a sea gull tumble-walking just overhead. Trains roar and announcements rattle and brakes squeal and it rains and rains and rains.

Back home, I take off my wet shoes and make lunch. I eat my hamburger sitting in front of my laptop, watching YouTube clips from the previous night's Monday Night Raw. I watch wrestling a lot these days. It is so ridiculous and predictable, it is about the only thing I know will not make me cry.

Afterward, standing at the window and eating an orange, I find myself thinking of the doctor's office down the road. I went in to be treated for depression in January and was put on a waiting list. I am still waiting. I think, too, of the white trash fathers of some of the friends I had growing up in Dallas or Houston. I don't know if they were drunk -- I was too young to identify such behaviour -- but I did know they rarely seemed to be anywhere but the couch. I can remember wanting, even at that age, to reproach them, wanting to say: "You know, I don't ever see my dad in the middle of the day. Because he has a job. He's working."

Their laziness annoyed me. It felt like some kind of weird airborne disease -- the muesli -- that you could breathe in and never shake. I hated being in those friends' houses. Once, when I was a very young boy, my mother had to console me because I had woken up from a nightmare in which I had grown old and amounted to nothing. I feel now that wastefulness, that uselessness is on me. Despite the work ethic of my own parents and my friends and all the things I've achieved, I feel I cannot shake the sapping illness of being a big waste of space.

My throat hurts. I feel ill. I feel old and tired and stupid and far away. I feel like a big mistake.