Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Seventeen hours of my life

5:40 - The alarm on my phone goes off. My mind allocates exactly half a second of total alertness to allow me to hit snooze. I roll over and wrap my arms around Jenn.

5:50 - The alarm goes off again. This time I am utterly confused, struggling to fully comprehend the concept of sound, let alone the sound I am hearing or its source. Amid some confused grunting I manage to click off the alarm and fall -- literally -- out of bed.

6:00 - Beep beep beeeeeep. The BBC pips inform me of the time as I butter toast. For pretty much the whole of my life my breakfast has been two slices of toast, jam and tea. I sit down and eat these things at the table, listening to Vanessa Feltz on the radio explaining that things are not going well in her "Strictly Come Dancing" training. I hear Jenn get up and moan as she walks into the kitchen. In a few minutes she brings me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, which I drink in one gulp. Breakfast done, I pack my things and get ready to head out.

6:54 - I catch a glimpse of the time on the platform display at Cardiff Bay train station just as I bank my bicycle to the left. I like cycling this early in the morning. There are very few cars to contend with, and the stretch of my commute that takes me across the Cardiff Bay Barrage is particularly peaceful. The tide was in as I rode by this morning and the water calm. Looking across the channel I could see the sun rising over the Mendip Hills in Somerset and the lights of Weston Super-Mare and Bristol.

7:00 - beep-beep. My little Casio watch marks the hour. I am in my office switching out of my cycling shoes and into a pair of running shoes. In the last month or so I've started going to a gym just across the road from my office. The gym is deplorable; it is like working out in the physical manifestation of a person's memories of regret. The gym used to be a large nightclub, notorious for tolerance of underage drinkers, which was shut down in 2006. Absolutely no work has gone into changing the interior since then. The DJ booths are still there, the dancer podiums are still there, the bar is still there. The only changes are the addition of weights and workout machines and shower/locker rooms that have been installed at the lowest possible cost. I would not go there were it not so incredibly convenient and cheap.

7:17 - I am on the dance gym floor. Today is a sweaty day -- cardio. I choose a running machine from the many empty ones that are available. Generally I choose a machine that is as far away as possible from Weird Boxer Guy. He's there every morning along with a trainer who I'm guessing is a former boxer who got hit in the head one too many times. The trainer is probably about 5-foot-6 and speaks in a quick and totally incomprehensible Valleys accent. I mean totally incomprehensible. I used to work in the Valleys and never had trouble understanding people but this guy is impossible. Were it not for the fact that Weird Boxer Guy will respond to him in English I would assume him to be speaking another language.
Weird Boxer Guy rarely speaks, though. Generally he just mindlessly runs or cycles at really high speed, wearing a sauna suit that makes him look like a jacket potato. Occasionally he and the trainer will occupy a little corner of the gym and he will do that thing of hitting pads that the trainer holds up. He strikes with a sickening amount of force. I mean, just from the sound of the pads you can tell there is tremendous power in the hits. I am certain a single clean punch from that guy would knock me completely unconscious. This is why I prefer to keep my distance.

7:55 - I have just finished running 5k and rowing 3k. I did the run in 24:06 and the rowing in 12:30. My face is stinging from sweat. I usually like to work out until 8 a.m., so I look around for something to do. I climb onto a stair machine of some sort but can't seem to really get it going. According to the little digital display, the machine is under the impression that I weigh 190 kg (418 lbs.). I cannot figure out how to convince it otherwise. I decide to do push-ups until the top of the hour.

8:40 - Freshly showered and dressed, I am in the office, eating porridge at my desk and reading RideApart. This is the way I roll, yo. Since I started properly working out again I find I am hungry all the time. So each work day starts with an Oat So Simple pot of porridge. I'm sure this is a detail you really care about.

9:05 - Jenn calls. She got the job.
Earlier in the week she had applied for a position in Bristol that would see her taking on greater responsibility and taking home more pay. The implications of her getting a job in a city 50 miles away (30 as the crow flies) are exciting to think about. We'll almost certainly move there, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. In the immediate, I am simply letting her know how proud I am of her for getting the job. As I do this, I hear my voice arc exactly as my father's does when someone tells him good news. When we do this we sound like we're lying, like we don't care at all about your good news. 
I can assure you that we are, truthfully, really excited for you -- we just don't sound that way. I have long had a fear this same disingenuous tone would also come out at shocking news. Specifically, I have found myself anxiously imagining a scenario in which the police come to tell me that a close friend or family member has been murdered, and I incriminate myself by not sounding very surprised or upset.

10:00 - I tear into a cereal bar. I have been staring at the clock for at least five minutes, waiting for the top of the hours. I am hungry all the time.

11:00 - I open a box of raisins. Hungry all the time.

12:00 - Lunch. A ham sandwich and sea salt crisps. Hungry all the time.

13:34 - I am eating an orange, looking out on a rainy miserable day. Cardiff gets roughly 44 inches of rain a year. The average precipitation in St. Paul, Minnesota is 32 inches a year. But it's the cloud cover that really bothers me. Through September there will be breaks, sunny days, but by late October a great heavy grey blanket will have been pulled across this island that will not lift for at least 6 months. Very soon my cycle to work and home will both be in pitch dark. This causes me a tremendous amount of anxiety. Last winter I suffered a depression so bad and so impenetrable that I now fear the coming Long Dark. Really, I have anxiety dreams about it.
On a slightly cheerier note: I have just checked and, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Bristol gets just 35 inches of rain a year. It is also, apparently, "amongst the sunniest" cities in the UK. I think I may be grasping at straws here.

14:09 - I am eating a piece of courgette and lime cake that Jenn made. In my mind I have decided that her new job is part of a logical progression toward her one day being given an MBE.

17:02 - I happen to catch a glimpse of the time as I cycle past a bus stop display at the Doctor Who Experience. I am tired and not at all looking forward to the uphill climb back into Penarth. At Paget Road there is a 100-foot climb in a space of about 200 metres. Writing it out, that doesn't sound terribly impressive to me, but I assure you the hill is very steep and -- despite the fact I cycle up it every day -- very exhausting. In fairness, Paget Road has nothing on Bristol's Park Street, which is so intense elite athletes compete on it. To avoid Paget Road, I go about a quarter of a mile out of my way to a zig-zag path that was recently installed. Climbing the hill is no easier here but affords one the opportunity of doing so without impatient drivers riding up behind you. On the whole, British drivers are overly aggressive and often completely blind to what's in front of them. This creates a somewhat adversarial feeling to my evening commute that I try really hard to contain. I will admit to occasionally being one of those cyclists that you hear about.
I realise, though, from conversations with in-laws, that some people drive poorly around cyclists because they simply don't know how to handle the situation. So they take less-than-safe actions in trying to simply speed past the whole confusing mess. If you are one of these people, here is my advice. Nay, here is my plea: Count to 15.
I have found that in the overwhelming majority of urban situations an opportunity for a car to pass safely without risk to myself or others will present itself within 15 seconds. Really. I used to say 30 seconds but then I started counting to prove my point and found the delay time is dramatically less. So, if you find yourself "stuck" behind a cyclist, simply keep a distance great enough that you would not run over him or her were he/she suddenly to fall over, and start counting to 15. Within that time, scan well ahead of the cyclist (don't just target fixate on the immediate obstacle) and identify safe opportunities to pass. It's just that simple, and 15 seconds is not going to make or break anyone's day -- it's certainly less time than it takes to fill out a police report should you injure a cyclist, and considerably less time than the prison sentence you'd receive for reckless driving were you to kill someone.

17:37 - I am in the flat, drinking tea and eating biscuits.

18:50 - Jenn and I sit down to dinner. It is not so terribly exciting; I have made fish cakes, rice and peas while Jenn has been studying for her driving theory test, which is tomorrow (EDIT: She passed!). The meal is quickly made and quickly eaten because we need to get out the door soon to make our dance class. Thursday is Lindy Hop night, where we learn how to dance like this. We aren't quite at that level, yet; after a year of classes I still have a tendency to suffer mental shutdowns, like when a computer freezes up because you've issued too many commands. Still, I really enjoy it. The teenage boy in me especially loves Lindy Hop class, because it means getting all handsy with about a dozen women.

19:24 - I am awkwardly hugging my motorcycle in the street, holding out the choke with my left hand as I start the bike and hold in the brake with my right. I have to hold the choke out, otherwise it will pull itself back in. According to the internets, this may have something to do with my throttle cable. I don't know this at the time, however, so I am left standing there with my hand up Aliona's skirt (a), as it were, waiting for the engine to warm.
Normally we would take the train, but this week the class is in a different, less-train-friendly location. To be perfectly honest, I am happy about this because it gives me an excuse to go somewhere on the bike. When I first came up with the idea of getting a motorcycle I told myself it would allow me greater freedom -- the ability to go where I want to go when I want to go there. But it turns out that I don't really have the desire or time to go places as often as I would have previously thought. Possibly, though, this is due to my having stifled such a desire for seven years. I haven't explored Britain at all, and perhaps the fact I haven't is the main reason I now don't; I have beaten myself down into an anti-adventure mindset.

20:35 - I am 'trucking' about in a small, hot room. Trucking is a move where you move side to side, as if skating. Groucho Marx does it here in comedy style. There are no mirrors in the room, so I can't tell whether I'm doing it right. It doesn't feel as if I am because the move is hurting my knee. Still, I am having fun. I genuinely missed my calling by failing to get into swing/Lindy sooner.

21:10 - We are back on the bike and heading home. We choose a circuitous route because both Jenn and I enjoy being on the bike. This is a happy development one might not have guessed a year ago, when I first started all this talk of motorcycles. Back then, her response was a pretty firm "No." In hindsight, though, this was not so much opposition to my having a motorcycle but to my buying a motorcycle -- an obstacle I would eventually find a way around.
In Leckwith, I choose to filter through a line of traffic stopped for a light, but do so timidly, so that when the lights change I am still between two lines of cars rather than out ahead of them. This is a bad place to be because although most drivers in the UK are content to have a motorcycle zip alongside them, they are unwilling to ease back at all and allow the motorcycle into a proper lane. I guess the thinking is: "Hey, you can't have it both ways. The law allows you to jump to the front of the queue, so either get to the front of the queue or don't filter."
Fair enough. One of the benefits of my bike is that it can out-perform most people's cars, so I simply twist the throttle hard with aim of getting out ahead of the traffic. As soon as I do this, however, I realise I have not communicated my intentions to Jenn. I feel her legs squeeze me as she struggles to maintain her grip on the bike's thankfully largish luggage rack. Feeling her unsettle causes me to immediately close the throttle and she comes lurching forward, our helmets colliding. We get to another set of lights and I apologise profusely. She doesn't care, but the thought that I might could have thrown her off with such an idiot move will bother me for the next several days.

21:36 - I am eating a cereal bar and fretting over all the things I need to do before bed.

22:40 - Having showered (dancing is sweaty business) and made everything ready for the next day, I finally crawl into bed with Jenn. She is already half asleep. Instinctively she rolls over and puts her head on my shoulder. I kiss her, then reach my right hand up to click out the light.

(a) Aliona is the name Jenn gave to my bike, after my favourite Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer, Aliona Vilani.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Seven things I've learned

Over the past month or so things have been pretty hectic in preparation for the wedding, so I didn't get a chance to note an important anniversary: 12 July marked seven years of my living in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. OK, perhaps it wasn't all that important an anniversary. But it was an anniversary, the sort of thing one feels strangely obligated to blog about.

Meanwhile, if we have learned anything from the existence of BuzzFeed it is that people love lists. So, here are Seven Things I've Learned Since Moving to the UK:

7) Their understanding of "clean" is different.
My friend, Dani, lives in Houston and prides herself on her spotless baseboards. She goes through her Venetian blinds with a toothbrush. She irons her bedsheets. She washes her dishes, then puts them in a dishwasher. Despite her having two children a dog and a cat, you will not find dust in her home. Her case is, perhaps, just a bit extreme but exemplary of what many Americans strive toward. Dani has never been to the UK, but I reckon a visit here would see her slowly unhinge.
It is not that Britons are filthy. Indeed, I read a statistic a while back claiming Britons use more bath soap and shower gel per capita than any other European country. But people here definitely have a different attitude toward the concept of "clean." Dust bunnies, cobwebs and water stains are easily found in the typical British home. Tea mugs are often reused with just a simple rinsing of cold water. Tea pots can go years without being washed out with soap. It is not terribly uncommon to detect the wafting aroma of rotting food in a kitchen. In certain UK regions, when washing dishes, people will get a dish soapy and place it on a drying rack without rinsing it first. Everywhere you look, the standard of clean is generally the same as you'd expect from a fraternity attempting to draw pledges: clean, but, you know, not really clean. They don't even sell Lysol here.
When I first moved to Cardiff I found all this disconcerting; I didn't like living in an environment that wasn't antiseptic. But over the years I've adapted to it. Indeed, I now see it as a reflection of the fact that Britons are generally more laid back. They're not trying to maintain a fresh-out-of-the-box newness to everything and perhaps that helps to keep them from going crazy.

6) The grass is not greener.
This is more of a lesson I've learned throughout my adult life, but one I have only come to accept (and at that not fully) in Britain. By and large -- war zones and Toledo, Ohio, serving as obvious exceptions -- one particular place is not inherently better than any other particular place.
Well, no, see, even as I say that I don't believe it. Unless your value metric is based solely on the number of Buffalo Wild Wings franchises a place has, you have to accept that London is better than, say, Des Moines. But what I mean by using the greener grass cliche is that if you are unhappy in Des Moines moving to London will not necessarily improve your situation. Moving from Bloomington to Moorhead to Portsmouth to Fargo to Incline Village to Reno to San Diego to Saint Paul to Cardiff I didn't quite cotton to that; I have for long sections of my time in Wales been miserable. I am quite certain that there are myriad towns and cities better than the Cardiff region, but now accept that moving to them won't make me happy in and of itself.

5) Football Soccer is boring.
When you first come to a new place and want to fit in, you feel a tremendous pressure to like all the things that the people of your new location like. So it was with me and soccer. For my first few years in the UK I would force myself to watch every match that was televised on free channels and would occasionally go so far as to drag myself to a pub to watch big matches. I would tell myself over and over that I cared, that this stuff was important and was relevant to my fitting in.
I have since come to realise, however, that most (though definitely not all) of the people who like watching soccer are not actually worth talking to. And the sport they get so wound up in is stultifyingly dull. It is just 90 minutes (sometimes more if you're unlucky) of watching a pack of undereducated rapists run around without direction. Occasionally, though far less often than you would expect, one of them manages to kick a ball into a space the size of a small house. For this they are paid more than the annual GDP of certain Polynesian islands. No thanks, I'd rather watch pure competition, like "Strictly Come Dancing."

4) The word "cock" is always funny. Always.
I haven't lived here long enough to understand this one, but you see it over and over and over in pub conversations, comedy clubs and television programmes: throw that magic word into the punchline of a joke and it almost guarantees riotous laughter. Don't get confused; the British are capable of cerebral humour -- stuff that is incredibly clever and brilliantly planned out. But they unite on the hilarity of a cock joke.

3) Free health care is a really, really good idea that actually helps a market economy.
Going against the claim of Britons being cheap are the billions and billions of pounds they invest each year in their public health care system. Some Americans (and, sadly, a tiny portion of Britons, too) look at that amount of money spent and see it as an argument against such a system. But ignoring the whole "people living healthier, happier, longer lives" thing, I think it is a system that can actually encourage capitalism.
In the United States, one quite often weighs a job on the value of its benefits. A person will choose and stay in a job because of something like health care. Similarly, he or she will choose to turn down a job that doesn't offer good health care. Employers are forced to offer benefits and long contracts to ensure those benefits, for the sake of getting the best employees.
The British system allows more fluidity. An employee here is relatively content to work on a short contract, content to move from position to position, because he or she knows that no matter what they'll still have those heath care benefits (admittedly, the UK's generous welfare system plays a role in this, too). I'm pretty sure that fully implementing a similar system in the United States would increase the ability of businesses to compete.

2) Latinos make the world a better place.
This may seem like a strange thing to have learned in Britain but as Joni Mitchell says: "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone." Live in a country where Latino food, music, humour and culture are only slightly more common than unicorns and you soon develop a deep and unabaited longing for son clave rhythms, flavourful food and all the other tiny little things so commonplace in U.S. culture that we don't even realise their origin. Express this observation to a Briton and he or she will helpfully direct you to a so-called Mexican restaurant like Las Iguanas, but you'll find yourself incredibly disappointed. It's similar to asking someone for a donut and being given a tree. The world sin los Latinos is just not as good.

1) I need the sun.
When I lived in San Diego I knew a girl who would claim to be suffering from S.A.D. every time it rained. It only rained three times a year, but, oh, did she moan on those three days. I knew people in Minnesota, too, who said they struggled through the short-dayed and sometimes-grey winters. But I always felt these people were ridiculous. You're not Birdman, gathering your super powers from the sun. Suck it up, Billy, and stop whining about a few little clouds.
Then I moved here, where the sun disappears for months on end. From October to April you will not see the sun in the United Kingdom. Maybe it won't rain every day, but there will always be a thick, impenetrable blanket of cloud overhead. In the height of winter, you will find yourself going to and leaving work in nighttime darkness. Day after day after day of the same thing until one morning you wake up and wish very much that you hadn't. This last winter was full-on hell for me and I carry a trembling fear of the winter to come.

All of this having been said, it should be noted that I still live in the UK and have no immediate plans to leave. I complain about the place constantly, but if a nonresident were to do the same I would almost certainly do the quintessentially British thing of first identifying the solitary exception to the rule (the food at Cantina Laredo is awesome) and follow it up with a catalog of ways in which where you're from is, in fact, the worst place ever. Then I would call you a cock and laugh uproariously.

Because although the primary lesson of living here has been that I will never stop being American, I feel now, too, that some part of me will always be British.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


This is the speech I gave at Jenn and my wedding reception, 20 July 2013.

(Addressing Jenn) 

"Time with you is perfect. Never boring. Never wasted." 

That's one of my favourite lines, from a poem that is, on the whole, not very good. The poem is by Henry Rollins. Which is proof, I suppose, we can find beauty in the strangest things. We can find love in odd pairings. Boy from Texas; girl from Devon; united by their love for "Strictly Come Dancing."

But it's true. Time with you is perfect. Never boring. Never wasted.

Remember when we first started seeing each other? I think it was our second or third date, when we were still in that awkward stage of thinking: "Oh, should we be smooching? I don't know..." We sat up until 3 in the morning, talking, until we were just too tired to speak anymore –– but unwilling to say goodbye. So, we just sat on the couch not saying anything. I put my arms around you, and we listened to the radiators clicking and the sound of each other's breathing.

That is what I'm talking about.

Remember the time we cried while watching Mr. Popper's Penguins? The time a lovely spring stroll somehow led to our wandering through a mental hospital? The time we dressed as professional wrestlers? The time we discovered that certain rocks, when heated in a bonfire, will explode? The time we went skinny dipping and were interrupted by an urban youth group? The time I went to the States for a visit, and when I came back you were there at the airport to meet me, and you held on to me for the rest of the day and wouldn't let go.

That is what I'm talking about. Time with you is perfect. Never boring. Never wasted. And I love you. I love you far more than I thought myself capable.

(Addressing everyone at the reception)

That's the point of today, of course: Jenn and I standing up in front of all of you and declaring our love for one another. We say it to each other all the time, almost to an obnoxious degree, but a wedding is about saying these things in front of our friends and family, before God or whatever it is you want to call that thing that connects all of us.

So, I want to thank all of you for being here. You are an incredibly important and necessary part of today. I know it can sometimes feel otherwise; it can sometimes feel as a wedding attendee that you are getting dressed up in uncomfortable clothes, sitting in an uncomfortably hot room and not trying to look bored, just for the sake of filling out numbers.

But you are important. You make today what it is. Think how silly and self-indulgent this whole thing would be if it were just Jenn and me in this room.

I know that everyone has had to put effort into coming. The overwhelming majority of the people in this room have had to travel at least 50 miles to get here, most have had to travel several hundred miles, some have had to travel several thousand miles. And I am wholly aware that you have had to fork out hundreds and thousands of pounds, euros or dollars to do that. I cannot thank you enough. It means so much that you are here.

There are a few people who couldn't be here, of course. My grandparents, for example, aren't in the sort of health one needs for international travel. A number of my friends in the US simply couldn't afford to pay for flights. And there are also the close friends and loved ones who have passed away.

A wedding is a celebration of life. One of the unhappy truths of life, though, is that we have to suffer loss. And those losses are hardest to suffer on a day like today. It is heartbreaking to me, for example, that I never got a chance to meet Jenn's mother. I can see her influence in Jenn and Jenn's family, though, and there is solace in that. The people who aren't here in the flesh are here in the sense that we carry them with us. A person is an amalgamation of the people he or she cares about, and all those who care about him or her.

The same is true of a marriage. It is more than just two people, more than the couple. It is also those persons who are so important to the couple: the people who get dressed up in uncomfortable clothes and come to sit in an uncomfortably hot room. See? I told you you're important. Again, thank you. Thank you for being here so I can stand up and say: "Everybody, this is the woman I love."

So, everybody: this is the woman I love. I realise that because of the distances some of you have had to travel, you might not have had a chance to meet her yet. So, I'll introduce you. Her name is Jenn. She's from Devon. She is beautiful and fun and clever and wonderful. She sings along to almost every song on the radio despite the fact she rarely knows the words. She talks in her sleep. She likes walking around the house naked. And she has an absolutely filthy vocabulary. But she has, too, one of the purest hearts I've ever known. She is deeply caring –– about her friends, about her family, about people in general, and about the planet we all share. In what she does and strives to do she makes the world better.

That is especially true in my case: Jenn makes every day better. She makes every moment better. Time with her is perfect. Never boring. Never wasted. And I love her.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cowboy hats and Coors Light: My exclusive interview with Chris Cope

- By Emma Carrbridge
Chris Cope stopped giving interviews about three years ago, which isn't terribly surprising for a person who has yet to do anything of note. That he was ever being interviewed at all is probably more a testament to the desperation of Welsh-language media than anything else. The last time he did an interview in English was roughly four years ago, when he inexplicably served as a guest on the Roy Noble programme. The general consensus is that the show's producers thought he was someone else.

Nonetheless, when Chris' publicist (Chris) informed me the struggling author was willing to sit down with me for an exclusive interview, I decided to take him up on the offer. I did this in part because we are old friends -- we have known each other since fourth grade, when my mother made me square dance with him at school -- and in part because, as a construct of Chris' imagination, I kind of didn't have any choice. (The aforementioned square dance experience actually happened to Los Angeles-based artist Erin Cooney, but Chris has imagined it into my own incongruous past.)

We meet on a sunny afternoon at a cafe in Penarth, the Victorian seaside village where Chris lives with his wife, Jenn. I am keen to ask about Jenn, of whom Chris hasn't spoken a great deal in public, as well as their exact relationship status, but first I am taken by his appearance. Wearing a white cowboy hat that reminds me of those satellite dishes they place on dogs to keep them from licking stitches, he greets me with a nod and a raised can of Coors Light.

I had heard about this. He is in danger of becoming a caricature.

"So, I guess we'll start with this," I say waving my hand at him as I reach into my purse for my notebook.

"What's this?" he asks, flapping his hands sarcastically but, in fact, correctly identifying the two things that are causing me the most concern.

He bought the hat as a joke a few years ago, when the two of us were tipsy on Summit at the Minnesota State Fair. He wears it now with increasing earnestness. When jokes become truths there is cause for concern. I suppose I can concede him this; it is an eccentricity in Britain and he has always sought to stand out in small ways. But the beer is unforgivable. Coors Light. So many previous incarnations of Chris Cope would be appalled.

"I guess it's a homesickness thing," he explains. "It's like those Irish guys you'll meet from time to time at Irish pubs in the United States. They're really, really, really Irish -- more so than anyone you'll ever meet in Ireland -- because they miss home so much. Their homesickness makes them a bit stupid and subconsciously eager to reinforce national stereotypes. So, I miss America; I'm drinking crappy beer and I've stopped reading challenging novels. I'm also considering the merits of libertarianism."

He flashes his charmingly crooked grin. I offer him the accepting roll of eyes I can tell he is seeking, but can't help fearing that such joking, like the cowboy hat, reflects something he is trying to say about himself honestly. He talks a lot about homesickness these days, almost the way a committed dieter talks about food: it is the alpha and omega of his thought process.

In our personal conversations he talks about it in such depth that I had hoped to ignore it in this interview. But I ask him, anyway. I ask if he feels it means something, if there is a reason he talks about homesickness so much.
"I can't help it," he says. "It just is. And it eats me up. It kills me. But I guess another part of me wants to hold on to it in some way. To remind me, you know?"

"Remind you of what?" I ask.

"Well, that I want to leave Wales, for one," he says. "I have to. I'm not happy here. Whatever I can be, I won't be that here. This place is wasted time now. But saying that, things are pretty comfortable at the moment. In most ways, better than they've been at any other time in the seven years I've lived here. We've got a flat we own. Some friends. Good jobs. And it's not just me. On my own, you know, hell, I'd live in a car. But it's 'we.' And if we were to leave right now, where would we go? Jobs? A house? There are a lot of stresses and unknowns Jenn and I would have to tackle. It just wouldn't be prudent to leave right now." 

I raise an eyebrow at the word "prudent." It is an old man's word. I sense Chris is using it deliberately, to convey a feeling of stodgy inadventure. He questions whether his declarations about prudence are relevant to him. 

"At the same time, I can't let myself fall into something," he says. "Some pattern. That inertia that is so prevalent here. I don't want to wake up one day, 60-something years old and living in a semi-detached house in Barry or Rogerstone or some fucking place and think: 'Oh my God. The one life I have and I've wasted so many years of it.'

"So, I guess I feel I need to hold on to it -- the homesickness -- to remind me: this is not my place. Build now. Build toward leaving. I tell myself I'll leave on my 10th anniversary of coming here. Or before. I hope. I don't know how realistic it is."

He takes a gentle sip of his beer.

"I saw this quote the other day from JP Morgan," he says. "'The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.' I need to remember that. I've made my decision: I'm not going to stay in Wales. I need to hold to it."

Chris' confused and acrimonious attitude toward Wales is another thing I had hoped to avoid in this interview. His tone toward the UK region reminds me of a boyfriend I dated in college: silly and embittered. The boyfriend was in a band of sorts and after we broke up he produced an entire album highlighting everything he perceived to be a fault. Honestly, one of the songs was titled: "Red-Headed Girl Who Doesn't Know How to Eat Spaghetti the Right Way."

I decide to change the subject.

"Tell me about the motorcycle thing," I say.

Chris' eyes light up and he begins rambling off makes and models of motorcycles -- an indecipherable babble of letters and numbers that somehow have meaning to him. It is all stuff I have heard many times before, of course. And there are times I feel there is a little too much cowboy hats and Coors Light to it all. But on the other side, a motorcycle is just a machine -- a means of transportation. And zeal for that fits with the Chris I've always known. When we were teens, one of his measures for self worth was his ability to drive a car.

He didn't fill his head with facts and figures about cars in those days, nor keep a blog about them. But perhaps that is only because we didn't have the internet. No one knew what a blog was, and the only way to learn about things in those days was to go to the library -- a place Chris visited less often (and less enthusiastically) than the dentist.

Besides, he has always been a person of intensity. If he loves you, he loves you A LOT. Which allows me to finally steer the conversation to Jenn. For all Chris' lamenting of Wales, it is here that he met his wife. And, yes, "wife" is correct.

"Yeah, a lot of people have been confused by that because our wedding isn't until late July," he explains. "We were officially married back in November [2012], but it was a small thing."

Chris and Jenn wed on the weekend of Bonfire Night, primarily to avoid immigration issues that would have cropped up had they waited until their wedding date. However, they kept the summer wedding planned for the sake of Chris' friends and family. Most of us live thousands of miles away and some would not have been able to attend the November wedding on such relatively short notice.

"So, then I didn't really talk much about getting married because I didn't want people to not come to the actual wedding," he says. "That's what this wedding is to me -- the one coming up -- that's the actual wedding. Because it's about everyone being there and me saying, in front of all the people I care about: 'This is the woman I love.' I wanted them to be there for that. And I didn't want them to think it's not important just because Jenn and I will already have been officially married."

His shoulders drop a little and he lets out a breath. Staring at the Coors Light can and thumbing the opened pull tab, he says: "But I guess I feel kinda stupid about that now. 

"Because, you know, first, I was finding myself sort of censoring Twitter updates, or what have you, not saying how awesome Jenn is. Because I didn't want to give away that we were married. But that's stupid. Hiding it. As if I was embarrassed or something. No. I should have owned it. I should have been shouting it."

I point out that this closemouthed behaviour is more in conjunction with the overall way in which he deals with Jenn on his blog. In comparison with so many other things, he doesn't seem to discuss her much.

"Because it's not a story," Chris says. "Jenn isn't a character and our being in love isn't a narrative. I have a tendency to treat my life otherwise, to give people nicknames and so on, and sometimes I've looked back and wished I hadn't shared that much. It's an odd thing for me, because I am such a fan of oversharing. I'll talk for as long as a person wants to listen, and then a few hours more. But a relationship -- that's not for someone else. It's not created."

I ask him about that which he does create: his writing. Late last year, Chris completed work on a book that at the time he claimed was the best thing he had ever written. A single literary agent in the United States chose to give it a pass and he seems to have been stalled ever since.

"I still believe in that book," he says. "I still think it's the best thing I've written. I don't know why I'm sitting on it."

Here he meanders into postulation that Wales is somehow to blame. I let the tangent run its course and steer him back to the issue of his writing career.

"I tell myself that I want to find an agent in the UK," he says. "I think that's possible, but first I need to readjust the book for a UK audience. There's no heavy lifting; it's just a matter of taking out references to corn dogs. Stuff like that."

"What book did you write that it was so corn-dog centric?" I ask.

"They're an important part of American literature," he jokes. "But, yeah, honestly, that's the point. There's not a lot of work to be done. But for some reason I'm not doing it. I got really, really down when my former agent gave the book a pass. But, you know, that was months ago and every writer has to face rejection. I know that in order to get this book published I will have to overcome a hell of a lot more rejection. And maybe that's part of the laziness. Both those things. First, there was the severe depression I was suffering through the winter -- every year it gets worse, this whole homesickness thing. And secondly, there is an exhaustion that comes from thinking about the mountain I have to climb. I know I can climb it, but thinking about it makes me tired."

Chris has unwittingly touched upon one of the greatest frustrations of being his friend: he can "climb the mountain" but too often does not. Even this might be tolerable were he not so accutely aware of his own failings. Listening to someone rigorously identify each and every one of his weaknesses, yet fail to correct them grows exhausting after a few decades.

At the same time, his self-assessment is often unrealistically harsh. He seems to lament the fact that he is not a kind of eccentric renaissance genius.

"I suppose that's true," he says. "I've always wanted to be Johnny On The Spot for all things. Everything that can be done well is a thing I wish I could do. That would be my super power: the ability to do All the Things. Write novels, fix cars, throw baseballs, plant tress, whatever. I wish I could be good at all of it."

Admittedly, I can do all those things. I also have six Olympic gold medals, a Congressional Medal of Honor, and I frequently receive love letters from both Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron. But mine is a unique case. I point out to Chris that, unfortunately, the human corporeal experience is finite. Because of that, perhaps it is best to pick a few things and actually do them.

"Be a good husband," I say. "Be a good writer. Lay the groundwork that will allow you to leave Wales comfortably. Work on those things. Make them happen. Don't just say; do. Accept that you will never throw a baseball well and instead be the man you can be."

He looks at me. I frown because I've been drawn into lecturing him again.

"OK. I will," he says. "But I'm keeping the cowboy hat."

~ EC ~

-- Emma Carrbridge is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is, in fact, a figment of Chris Cope's imagination. Partially his alter ego, partially a reflection of his own aspirations and partially the representation of his nebulous and impossible vision of a perfect woman, she is the author of 11 best-selling novels. She speaks seven languages and is the great-granddaughter of Cary Grant.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Probably the best day of the year

Left to right: Rich, Clint, Laura, Jenn, Carl and me
I had a car when Jenn and I first started dating. It wasn't much of a thing –– an old Peugeot that would later try to kill me with failing brakes –– but I think it helped our budding romance. I was able to take her places. Specifically, I was able to take her to the various outdoor places of which Wales has an abundance.

Jenn is something of a country girl at heart. Or, at least, as 'country' as anyone from England can be. (Remember that southern England is the most densely populated area in Europe.) And when she is out in a natural space she feels reconnected, rejuvenated.

"This is my church," she told me a few years ago, when the two of us hiked to the top of Pen y Fan to watch the sunrise.

I suppose I'm the same way. I became the person I am when my family moved to Minnesota, where I was free to swim in Nine Mile Creek and wander the infinite woods on the banks of the Minnesota River. One of the things that drew me to Wales is its accessible natural beauty. This tiny bit of land that is no larger than the Chicago metropolitan region is home to three national parks, five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a whole hell of a lot of other spots that are unofficially just lovely.

Brecon Beacons National Park
After the old Peugeot gave up on me in late 2011, I bought a £500 Honda that held up for less than four months. It was so cantankerous and expensive that Jenn and I decided we were better off without a car. After all, both of us have jobs that allow us to cycle to work, and pay cheques that by their minisculity (1) strongly reinforce such behaviour. Why get a car to only use occasionally, the rest of the time having it sit out on the road as a target for drunken chavs?

Because cars take you places, yo. One of the things I have learned from my recent exhaustingly long and unending bout of depression is that I need the ability to go. Sometimes the place I go isn't so terribly important; I just need to be going. But frequently, back in the days when I had a car, I found myself going somewhere beautiful.

This is one of the truths about personal cars that environmental groups hate to admit: they can take you places that a public transportation system goes nowhere near. Such is the flaw of most public transportation: it takes people where they have to go, rather than where they want to go.

But I've come to realise, with increasing panic and anxiety lately, that getting to the places we want to go can sometimes be as important as getting to the places we have to go. So, I'm working on that. I am trying, desperately, to manage a way to bring some form of individual motorised transportation back into our lives, be it a car or a motorcycle.

Not a motorcycle.
Accomplishing that will still take some time. Fortunately, this past weekend we had something better: friends with cars. Jenn and I were not only able to get out to the sort of natural scenery that makes life worth living, but to enjoy it with some of the people who help to make our everyday scenery more tolerable.

Clint had devised the walk: an 8-mile circular stretch running from Torpantau to Fan y Big, staying always within the shadow of Corn Du and Pen y Fan. I realise these are probably just unpronounceable words to you. And even if you understood the meaning of the Welsh place names (2) your imagination likely wouldn't run wild. But put simply, this walk was the sort of thing I spend my days promoting for the UK's national parks.

Indeed, all the above unpronounceable places are to be found within Brecon Beacons National Park, one of the 15 members of the UK's national park family. Visit 'em all! Tell your friends!
Our friends and we had packed into two cars and trundled up the A470, then along a series of comically narrow roads (in Wales one is never more than a half hour's drive from the year 1250 when it comes to road quality), the six of us each bringing along bags loaded with sandwiches and crisps and fruit and chocolates and cakes and tea and coffee to consume along the way.

When your friends become a promotional photo.
All these delights made the first long incline of the walk a challenge, but soon enough we were up onto the undulating ridge that eventually leads to Pen y Fan, the highest peak in southern Britain (3). The weather was perfect -- sunny and not too cold. A Briton would have phrased that differently, proclaiming the weather to be sunny and not too warm. But as an American I feel it is never too warm in Britain. "Too warm" is impossible to achieve here.

After a few hours of walking we found a spot, some 2,400 feet above sea level, and stopped to eat lunch. Stretching out in front of us was the endless quilt work of British farm fields, dotted with little villages and sewn together by hedge-hidden lanes. This was a Mountain Dew Moment, mis amigos. We just needed a rope swing.

Or, well, it was a British version of a Mountain Dew Moment: six people amiably sharing tea and chocolate biscuits. No one shouted "woo." Not even once. It's not the done thing, old boy.

We carried on to Fan y Big, then scrambled down to walk along the Neuadd River, stopping at one point to take off our boots and wade into its icy current up to our shins. For those of you playing along at home, don't be fooled by the word "river." It was a stream, no more than 10 feet across and never any deeper than one's knees. But it was still enough to completely soak Clint when he fell in. That's when you know you're having fun: when one of the group ends up falling into the water.

Laura and Rich
Fortunately, he dried out on the way back to the cars. Then it was back down to Penarth, where Jenn and I hosted everyone for dinner. Burritos and beer and red wine. Jello and ice cream for dessert.

We stayed up into the night playing dominoes, drinking all the beer and coming up with our own stupid jokes. There was nothing so terribly special about it, but for the fact it was happening. I have a personal rule that I don't drink more than three beers in a setting unless I am in a really good mood and can be certain the alcohol won't find its way to the dark side of my thoughts. I almost never drink more than three beers; on this night, I had five bottles of Corona.

With the beer gone and the day's hike wearing on them, everyone filed out of the flat a little before 1 a.m. -- an early night for that particular group. Afterward, as Jenn and I lie in bed, she turned to me and said: "I think that was probably the best day of the year so far."

Yeah, I think it probably was.


(1) To my knowledge, this is not a word. But it should be.

(2) Torpantau = "Bottom of the hollows"
Fan y Big = "Peak of the alluvial fan"
Corn Du = "Black peak"
Pen y Fan = "Top of the alluvial fan"

(3) This is what we in the UK National Parks PR wing always say about Pen y Fan: "the highest peak in southern Britain." I can't help but question that claim. Take a look at the land mass that is Great Britain (ie., the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales). I would argue that the whole of Wales could be classed as being on the bottom bit of that land. Which would mean that Snowdon should carry the "highest peak in southern Britain" tag.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Take me home, car. I'm drunk

Driverless cars, y'all. That is the future. Indeed, to a certain extent the future is now. But I find myself completely fascinated with the various news articles that predict driverless cars will be the norm within 20 years. A future in which cars drive themselves is one of my favourite things to daydream about. And I love that this is a future imaginable within my lifetime.

Because the thing is, old people are not very good drivers. I used to work as a member of the American Media Conspiracy and it seemed stories of senior citizens careening their land yachts into houses, or motorcycles or pedestrians were almost weekly. Type the phrase "elderly driver" into a Google news search and be amazed at what a menace to society are your grandparents. Soon enough it will be your parents. And then it will be you.

That last one is the most important to think about, I suppose: one day it will be you. When I worked in the American Media Conspiracy I would frequently lean back in my chair and pontificate to any and all within earshot my opinion that licensing should be more stringent. I would lament the political might of the AARP and AAA and automakers, and their combined capacity to prevent any such measures from ever being seriously discussed.

But think about it a little more deeply, with or without various organisations' interests, and there is something very sad and cruel in such suggestions: you're taking away a person's freedom of movement, their freedom to go where they want to go when they want to go.

I have found myself thinking a lot about this in recent months because of the unexpected side-effect that came from Jenn and I getting rid of our car last year (1). My inability to just hop in the car and go has exacerbated my homesickness to the point of debilitating depression. This is one of the reasons I have become so obsessed with motorcycles lately: they are a cheaper (and often more environmentally friendly) means of achieving that all-important sense of personal freedom. It is incredibly important to me.

One day, though, in, say, 20-30 years, my hips won't really be limber enough to throw my leg over a motorcycle. And afterward, in another 10-20 years, my eye-hand coordination won't really be quick enough that I should be operating a car. But I doubt very much that at that point I will be mentally content to just sit and watch CNN for the rest of my life.

In imagining my life that far forward, I feel tremendously relieved to think there will be driverless cars. I will not have to lie to myself about my driving ability ("Oh, my eyesight isn't that bad... and I'm only going down to the store...") to maintain personal freedom, I will be able to just get in my car and let it worry about the road. Perhaps auto manufacturers will even think to install some sort of voice software that will patiently listen to whatever rantings are going through my old-man brain. Imagine the scenario:

"Why, Mr. Cope, what a good idea you have," the car will say. "It's a shame there aren't more men like you, instead of all these kids with their boomity-boom music."
"Hey, car," I'll say. "Did I ever tell you about the burlesque dancer I fell in love with?"
"You have, Mr. Cope. But it's one of my favourite stories. Please tell it again."

I find this all to be an incredibly happy thought. What a wonderful future it will be. Seriously. It's going to be so awesome. Sure, there will always be enthusiasts who will want to drive cars manually, but most of us, old and young, will leave the driving up to the vehicle itself.

And it occurred to me the other day: when this awesome future arrives, what will happen to road signs? Cars will be navigating via SatNav and shared mapping and radar and lidar and so on, but they won't really be reading road signs, will they? I mean, take a look at the intersection on the left, which is what I see from my office window at work.. 

Look at all the signage. A driverless car would not need three stop lights, placed in different positions to ensure they are seen. A driverless car would not need an enormous arrow telling it which side of the road to drive on. A driverless car would not need a box junction marking. A driverless car would not need 'No U Turn' signs. All this information could be communicated to the car electronically.

A few signs might be kept if they are useful to pedestrians. And perhaps at least one stop light for old-school manual driving enthusiasts, but much of the visual clutter could be removed.

Additionally, will these cars need street lights? Will the cars themselves need lights? In areas where there are no pedestrians, such as motorways, perhaps visual pollution could be eliminated. The act of driving cross-country at night could become a safe, high-speed stargazing experience.

I love to think about it. I love to imagine being able to go where I want to go when I want to go but with the added joy of being able to concentrate on other things. What an amazing future it will be:

"Did I ever tell you, car, about how I used to have to do all the driving myself?" I'll ask.
"Yes, Mr. Cope. It sounds exhausting. You also explained how the driver's licensing system was a racket controlled by the corrupt and unimaginative."
"Oh, Lord, car. It was. It was. Hey, do you mind putting on some music?"
"I'd love to, Mr. Cope. I certainly hope you're thinking of blaring ZZ Top again."
"Car, you are in luck. Because that is exactly what I was thinking."


(1) I still had not earned my UK driver's license and the cost of insurance for a foreigner is insane.

Friday, May 3, 2013


So, let me just spoil your mood for a moment and tell you that in the past several months there have been countless times in which I have thought I was dying. Homesickness, financial woe, loneliness and their resultant depression are at fault here. Suffering them has become an inescapable, recurrent facet of my life. And in those moments when I've felt they were killing me –– eating me from inside –– I have often wished they'd just hurry up and get the job done.

But as I said in a previous post, I am cursed with good genes and a healthy lifestyle. Death will not come for me anytime soon unless I force it, and I'm too awesome for that.

I have reached a point of extreme imbalance in my life. On one side I wake up each morning to Jenn, who I swear gets prettier every day. I'm sure I'm not just imagining that. I think it is physiological fact. Though, when I look at pictures of her and I when we were first starting to go out, she's damned hot there, too. Either way, I sometimes look at her and think: "What? How is this my life?"

And often just she is enough to outweigh the extreme misery of homesickness-induced depression.

I'm going to digress for second here, but, dude, where the hell did that come from, by the way? Remember when I was going crazy with need to move to Britain? Remember when I first moved here and only half-jokingly said I planned to throw away my U.S. passport because I didn't intend to use it anymore? Where's all that sentiment now? And how did things swing so far in the opposite direction? OK, yes, a lot of awful things happened, but how I feel is now so incredibly different from how I used to feel that it is hard to fathom.

Whatever the case, this homesickness-induced depression is so, so, so awful. I have had days in which I've sat there in bed thinking: "I can't go on." 

Each breath hurts, such is the emotional pain. Every single intake of breath is filled with sorrow and ache and hurt and loneliness and fear and the terrible, terrible feeling that too many of my 37 years have been irreparably wasted. And then comes the awful realisation that even though I'm curled up in a little ball, crying and thinking, "I can't go on," in fact, I will. I'll keep breathing for years and years to come. And I'll have to endure this evil hurt for decades more.

This hurt is exacerbated by circumstance. Caused by or causing it all is the feeling that I have lost my creative writing mojo, that I will never be the writer I want so much to be able to call myself.

That, mis amigos, is imbalance. On one side is this incredible, beautiful woman. On the other side is every negative emotion one can generate. 

I do want to go home. I'm not cagey about that anymore. 

For a long time, it was the case that if someone asked me about moving back to the United States I would do that thing my father does when he's asked a question he doesn't particularly want to answer: starting his response with a protracted "Well..." and following it up with diplomatic language he hopes will bore the person into forgetting their question before he has to get around to actually answering it.

So, I used to say: "Weeeeeeeeellllllll, you know, I'll grant you that on the outset it can appear that there may be certain areas in which the overall quality of American life may perhaps rival or in some cases exceed that which is experienced in the United Kingdom. Climatically, for example, one might prefer the greater variations afforded to the United States, especially in terms of summer months. This all said, however, it's important to weigh other aspects...."

And on and on. Now, though, my answer is: Yes. I want to move back. If you can help me achieve that goal, let me know. Otherwise, stop rubbing salt into my wound (1).

Because the fact is, y'all, this is where I live. I am here now. And in as much I can either keep wishing each breath could be my last, or I can try to rediscover myself and the whatever-it-was that made me give up everything to come here in the first place.

This is a realisation I was coming to in November, as the rumblings of a new great depressive episode were becoming impossible to ignore. In the months previous I had managed to shake off an exhausting bout of depression and writer's block to complete work on a book I've titled Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama. Already by that point the project's momentum was beginning to falter. I had written the thing and sent it off to my agent but was now doing little more than waiting. 

Since then, of course, the agent has rejected the project, which was/is the source of all kinds of pain and confusion about who I am, what I want to be, or what I even can be. But I'm digressing.

The point is that I knew a depressive hell was coming and I wanted to counteract it. At roughly the same time, I had suddenly become terribly interested in motorcycles. The interest fed into by desire to fight against depression, to find a way to connect with this place that is my home at the moment, regardless of whether I want it to be anymore.

"When have I been happiest?" I thought. "When have I felt most myself, or, at least, most like the self I want to be?"

When I'm moving. When I'm in a car or pickup, trundling along with just my thoughts and the ability to go wherever I want. Often that 'wherever' is not so great or exciting –– in my teens I rarely drove beyond Bloomington's city limits –– rather it's the ability that's important.

I decided I should get a UK motorcycle license. Motorcycles are considerably cheaper to run than cars and better suited to the tiny roads of her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whilst providing that all-important ability to just go. But additionally, I felt, getting my license would be an accomplishment, a thing done, that could bolster my confidence and help me to take on other challenges, like finding a way to get my book published.

Before long, the whole motorcycle thing had become an obsession with me, to the extent I even set up a separate blog where I talk of nothing else. But it turned out not to be the confidence booster I had hoped. Getting a license in the UK isn't as easy as when I got my license in the US.

Firstly, there are more tests –– five in total. I started the whole process in February and only finished yesterday. Secondly, it is more expensive a process. And thirdly, the tests are harder, especially the last one, which I failed twice before passing. This confidence-boosting exercise backfired. It filled me with anxiety and self doubt that was only exacerbated over the months by all the depression and homesickness and then the fact that my book had gone dead in the water. It ate up money I didn't really have and in so doing worsened the situation I was trying to fight against.

In March and April, especially, I felt myself drowning in frustration and sadness. 

Yes, OK, let's step outside of me for a second and admit that much of this is a great big pity party. I am an educated white male with all the privilege that society still gives to such a status; I have a super hot wife; we live in a flat that we own; we live in a country that has had a stable government for several hundreds of years, which has been at peace with its neighbours for more than half a century, and which provides really great things like free health care and Strictly Come Dancing. There are literally billions of people on this planet who would lose their shit for the opportunity to have half of what I've got. And I'm sitting here going into death throes because my not-very-exhaustive efforts to get a book published were unsuccessful, I don't have bragging rights to claim immediate awesomeness in manoeuvring a two-wheeled piece of machinery according to the notoriously persnickety British standard, and I miss sunshine and Dairy Queen.

But it's the internal, y'all. This is what makes depression so hard for people to understand. I can list off my strengths all day. I can without exaggeration paint myself as the most incredible muthahuggah you have ever met. But that doesn't take the pain away. A defeat is a defeat regardless of context and it carries extra weight within the mind of a depressive.

In March and April, my book was rejected, I was turned down for a full-time job for which I had interviewed, and I twice failed the final motorcycle exam. These defeats left me feeling further away from the people and places (most of them in Minnesota) to which I would turn in such a situation. It felt like hell.

There's just Jenn trying to counterbalance all this incredible negative weight, and it's not fair. I want so much to fix myself, to be the better man I think (maybe "wish" is a better word) I can be. But I feel otherwise alone in trying to do so. 

Family and old friends are thousands of miles away, as are the roads I would drive and the creeks and rivers I would swim. I went to the aforementioned provider of free health care, but in Wales that does not extend to mental health. I was told there was not really anything they could do for me. They had me go to the library and check out a book, so maybe I could sort things out on my own. In the introduction of the book it says this: "It may not be wise to undertake [the methods prescribed in this book] while in the midst of an episode of clinical depression."

But then I finally passed my motorcycle exam. The weather was perfect –– sunny and warm –– and as we rode the bikes back to Cardiff (the test had been in Newport) I felt so greatly content and at peace. I had the ability again, and perhaps that could help me rediscover my ability in other things.

Perhaps. It's hard to say. In the process of writing this post I received phone calls rejecting me in two jobs for which I had interviewed last week. I feel now the reality of my same old situation: I may have a license but I still do not have the money for a bike. I still cannot explore any part of this country I tried so hard to move to. I am still thousands of miles away from family and old friends –– both physically and financially. The energy with which I awoke this morning has slipped away.

After the second rejection phone call came I sat down on the bed and held my face in my hands. 

"I'm not sure I can do this anymore," I said aloud. 

But in fact, I will. And that's the most depressing part.


(1) Seriously, yo. People will say things like: "Why don't you just move back?" 
Hey, why don't you just kiss my ass? Are you going to pay for an international move? Are you going to find me a job? Are you going to find Jenn a job? If your answer is "no" to any of these questions, shut your cake hole. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

The art of failing

I don't know how to start this blog post. I feel obligated to write something, feel an internal longing to try to organise the noise in my head with words, but I'm not sure I really care enough to do so.

I turned 37 years old last month. It used to be that on each birthday I would write a blog post or column (remember when I wrote columns?) pretending to lament the fact I was still not president of Cuba. It's an old in-joke –– a response to yet another spate of sustained failure. 

Failure is what I do well, yo. It's not just a matter of never accomplishing things, but failing to accomplish them in such a way that is baffling, that leaves just about everyone, myself included, thinking: "Gosh, I don't understand how that happened."

That's the mark of an artiste. The guy who fucks things up completely, no one ever believes in him. But me, I almost get it right, even excelling in certain areas to make the failure seem all that more happenstance. A fluke. A one off.

Look at my history, though. Look at the past 20+ years of my life. Look at how many big ideas I've had. Look at how many times I've almost gotten things right. There's a pattern there, amigos. My failings are not lone misfortunes, they are the one consistency of my character.

But I'm jumping ahead. In high school, when all my friends were looking forward to going to exotic universities in exotic places, I was faced with an indeterminate number of months of summer and night school before I could earn my diploma. As our senior year drew to a close we were asked to state for all-time yearbook posterity what college we were going to and what our future plans entailed. I said I was going to the University of Havana and planned to become president of Cuba.

The faux lamentation of my continued civilian status started about a decade ago –– around the time I decided seriously that I wanted to be a writer.

Oh, hell. I feel like such a fraud to have ever called myself such a thing.

Last year I got a writer's bursary from Literature Wales. Amazing! They gave me money to sit in front of my laptop and tap away. Awesome! And that's exactly what I did. Fantastic! I wrote what I felt was the best piece of something I had ever written. Super-duper! 

But since then it's gone nowhere. Classic Chris-style failure.

The book languished in the hands of an agent until recently and now I find myself wondering whether I even care anymore. Career-wise I am almost exactly where I was 10 years ago with my writing, possibly a little further back because I've spent so much time swimming in the stagnant pools of Welsh literature. 

(I don't really mean that as an insult, just that if you're writing in Welsh, well, you're not going to go very far with it. The same things are written by the same people for the same minuscule audience over and over and over. It's a dead end.)

I can't help feeling I should stop.

When I was a teenager, my family was blessed to live in a house so large we had a room we didn't know what to do with. Down in the basement, I called it the Room of Forgotten Things. When there was an item no one really knew what to do with –– an old jacket, a possibly useable bicycle part, a silly hat –– it would end up in the RoFT. Don't confuse yourself into thinking this was a storage room, though. Things are organised in a storage room. People store things in them, to be used again. The RoFT was a place to throw something you couldn't quite get yourself to put in the garbage.

I use the word "throw" literally. We would just open the door to the room and heave the item in question into the air, usually shutting the door before the item landed.

This is where should go my writing ambitions: into the RoFT of my mind. Put it there with every other bad idea and dumb thing –– from the time I spent trying to get people to call me by my first name, to attempting to assimilate to Welsh-language culture.

But in this case, I suppose, the 'F' in RoFT stands for something else. It is the Room of Failed Things, and it is too full to close the door. Things spill out and suddenly attack me in the middle of the night.

I have been toying with the idea of giving up on writing. I don't know how serious I am in this because I don't know what else I'd do. I am cursed with good genes and a relatively healthy lifestyle. It's fair to assume I've got 50 more years on this planet; I need to be doing something. And if not writing, what?


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Friday, March 8, 2013

Doug Stanhope: Come to America

"America is fucking great. It really is. I know you don't want to hear this from me but that's the truth. Brits love to bitch about America, and they love to hate America –– the government and the wars and the torture. But that's not life here, come on.

Life in America is actually fantastic. Everything works; come here. I want you to be here. Just get a nonstop from Heathrow, go directly to Florida, walk down that ramp and tell me if you can't immediately sense: something's really good here.

Rent a car. Get a convertible. Fill up the tank. Look at the price –– fucking $11 a gallon (in the UK). Look at the price; you're going to fill up your tank, you're going to fill up the backseat, as well. Just because it's that fucking cheap comparatively.

Drive down big, empty highways. Drive to the beach. There'll be a half a dozen cabana bars open, it's only 8 o'clock in the morning, and they're waving at you. They're smiling at you and they're waving for you to come on in. They want you to be there. Because they don't know yet that you don't tip.

Come on in. Come on in. Have a seat at the bar. She's going to hand you a big breakfast menu... You know what we have for traditional American breakfast? Choices. Yeah, lots of choices. You want some eggs? How do you want them done? We can do them 10 different ways. You want French toast? You want a waffle? Pancakes? We have chocolate chip pancakes. They'll put a whip-cream smiley face right on there for your fucking British ass. Or maybe you want a whip-cream frowny face to match that dour expression. You're still trying to fight liking here.

Order a cocktail and she's going to do something you've never seen before: she's going to pour it like this, and it'll go up and down and she keeps pouring it. How can this possibly be right? In the UK when you order a mixed drink some scientist pops out of the floorboards in a lab coat, and he uses a system of weights and measures and a fucking stainless steel cylinder that assures that you will not get any more –– even the vapors –– of one measured ounce in your fucking $15 cocktail.

Life here is really fucking good. Yeah, we have a lot of dumb people here, but you can afford to be dumb here. Everything makes sense. You're lost, you don't know where you are. Where are you? 77th Street? Go a block, you know what's next? 78th Street. It makes sense. You don't have to think. It's not like your roads that are all criss-crossed and mesh-mashed and they're all built 1,100 years ago for donkeys and carts, and you don't know where the hell you are or where you're going.

Hitler did his best to help the UK and level that country flat so they could start over. Like "Extreme Country Makeover." And what did the Brits do? They spat in Hitler's face and built it back, brick by brick, exactly the way it was 1,100 years ago when it didn't make sense.

Come to America, you can stay on my couch."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ability and audacity

I cycle past the Senedd every day. Well, every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But still, it's kind of a nifty thing. If my life were a film and its producers strangely insistent upon keeping Cardiff as the setting, they would almost certainly have me cycling past the Senedd every day.

It's an establishing shot, you see. Nothing says "This story is set in Wales" quite so firmly as having someone pedal past the seat of Welsh legislative power. Of course, if the film were shown anywhere outside of Wales (or, indeed, in a fair few places within), the significance of the Senedd might not be immediately recognizable. I'm sure Americans would think my commute took me past a really swanky Holiday Inn.

I'm part of the elite 2.3 percent of Cardiffians who commute on bicycle (1), an act facilitated by a relatively temperate climate and a handful of traffic-free cycle routes. One of those routes is the one that takes me past the Senedd -- a roughly 1.25-mile stretch of car-free road connecting Cardiff Bay to Penarth. It is a route that suffers occasionally from inattentive skateboarders and frequently from strong gusts of wind that cut across the bay and Severn Channel, but those things are tolerable given the absence of speeding multi-ton metal boxes.

The other section of my commute, however, requires that I be on the roads: tiny, cars-parked-on-both-sides streets; hectic, there-are-no-rules intersections; and sooty, drive-as-fast-as-you-can city arteries. In Penarth I have to be alert for high-strung parents taking their children to work and drivers who are keen to do everything in their car other than, you know, drive (2). On the roads in Cardiff Bay I find myself dodging buses, white vans, and visitors to the city who DON'T HAVE A CLUE where they are going. And, of course, all of these people have to get wherever it is they are going now. No, now. Right now.

"If cycling conditions remain much as they are across Britain, cycling will remain a very minor mode of urban mobility, practised mainly by a committed hardcore of cyclists who feel able to 'do battle' with motorised traffic," wrote Guardian reporter Peter Walker in a recent blog article.

There is a sense of that in my commute, most certainly. When I get ready in the mornings -- pulling on Lycra, fastening Velcro straps, pulling on a high-visibility vest and clicking the clasp of my helmet -- I am reminded of the ritual of getting ready for a contact sport. I think of my brother when he played ice hockey, fastening all the pads, or myself before a rugby match, taping my ankles, knees and wrists.

On the road, too, my mind clicks in the same way it did when I played rugby, trying always to keep aware of and away from the 15 guys who wanted to tackle me. But getting hit by even the most vindictive prop is still preferable to collision with a Ford, so in the back of my mind there is knowledge that the repercussion for mistakes may be severe.

I have no doubt this is part of why the percentage of bicycling commuters is so low. If you were to ask my mother, for example, to navigate some of my route ("OK, Mom, you just need to zip across these three lanes, hell for leather, and move into this turning lane. When you get there, you'll probably want to not put your foot down because the gaps between cars are very small and you'll need to be able to get going again very quickly -- there will be a large van or truck behind you, which will give you exactly 3 inches of space.") she would patently refuse. Hold a gun to her head and she would seriously consider the bullet.

City cycling produces challenges some people are not willing to take on. It requires ability -- knowing the laws, being aware in what ways those laws are most commonly broken by drivers, and the physical/mental stamina and agility to maneuver through and amongst cars -- but also audacity. A confidence cranked to 11. Arrogance. The power to exude your will over people who can kill you simply by putting their foot down. Anyone who's known me for a while is probably aware that I am fully capable of being a hyper-aggressive ass. I generally try very hard to avoid being such a person, but on the road I find it hard to imagine how I could be anything else and still stay safe.

To that end, I often think it is not just the conditions that keep cyclist numbers low, but also those who are cycling.

There is the attitude, of course. Having spent many years on the fringes of the minority community that is the Welsh-speaking world I have learned that niche groups, communities of people outside the mainstream, are often littered with obnoxious, evangelical zealots. In the Welsh world it's the All-Welsh-All-the-Time hyper-nationalists who are desperate to turn any outsider's action into an affront; in the cycling community it's the people who reference the Dutch in every conversation and seem to place motor vehicles somewhere on the Evil List near Nazism and baby punching.

Then there is all this gear we're wearing. Oh, for the love of Pete, we wear so much purpose-built gear. Lycra, helmets, breathable windbreakers, Velcro straps, gloves, scarves, special bags, special shoes, lights, reflectors. And the cottonpicking high-vis. The phrases "bad-ass" and "high-vis" are almost never uttered in the same sentence. I hate wearing high-vis, but also can't deny that every time someone moves past my office window wearing high-visibility clothing my eye is automatically drawn to him or her. High-vis is supposed to make me see a person, and against the interminable gray of daily British life it is very effective.

I have to think it's all likely to put off a novice. It creates the feeling that you have to act a certain way, have to look a certain way, and have to spend a certain amount of money before you can even take part.

In the equally small and silly motorcycling world there is the word ATGATT: All the gear all the time. It's a term used for that guy who dresses like he's about to do the Isle of Mann time trial when he goes out to get milk. The ATGATTer's response, of course, is simply to point to his skin and note that it's all there -- a crash is going to have the same effect regardless of destination or intent.

The same is true for bicyclists. Indeed, I have lately been legitimately considering getting a full-face helmet (3). But there's no denying I look like a damned fool. And even if I don't look as silly as I feel, if I were someone trying to promote cycling I'd worry a person would look at me -- or any of the other roughly 9,000 commuting cyclists in Cardiff -- and think: "I don't have all that gear, nor do I have the money for all that gear, so cycling isn't for me."

What all of this means, however, I don't know. The reason I started writing this post was simply to note that I cycle past the Senedd thrice a week, which, as I say, is a kind of nifty thing to have in one's commute. Whether I actually enjoy my commute, and whether I think other people should be doing the same thing. I'm not sure.


(1) A somewhat impressive figure if you consider that Welsh attitudes toward commuting via anything other than car are often quite similar to American ones. It is higher than the UK average but still a good distance from London, where as much as 10 percent of the population -- depending on neighborhood -- uses a bicycle.
(2) Seriously, yo, if you text and drive I have nothing kind to say to you. I don't care how slow you think traffic is moving, nor how good a driver you think you are. I have friends who text and drive and, genuinely, I wish injury upon them. Nothing awful, nothing from which they cannot recover fully, but I think they deserve a very expensive accident that results in a major broken bone and months of discomfort.
(3) Not only would it provide considerably more protection in a collision, I think it would also signal to drivers that I may be insane and should be given wide berth.