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

Imbalance

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. 

You know, and I know, and they know

I don't care how many times I watch this, it's awesome every time.