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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The best and worst of 2013: Mein German nicht so good

This picture is not related to anything in this post.
I just think it's funny.
I have a tendency toward compulsion. Though, I don't really like saying that because OCD is the "in" thing these days and I really dislike those moments when I catch myself being cliché. So, let's say instead that I have a particular ability, which is often employed by my mind without conscious intent, to focus rather acutely on given subjects.

I do it on both large and small scale. A large-scale example might be the whole experience with Welsh: teaching myself a language, moving to another country and earning two degrees in a thing that really, honestly, I have always known to be pointless. A small-scale example might be the way I respond to mosquito bites: I will scratch until I create a scar, until there is nothing left to scratch.

It's a blessing and a curse this ability. I think it's one of the main reasons I'm not particularly hot at multitasking, which, I think, is at the heart of why I struggled so much in school as a boy. I wasn't allowed to pay attention to just one thing. But when I am allowed to do that, that's when the ability shines and I end up knowing A WHOLE LOT about whatever thing I'm focusing on.

One slight fault in my mental design, however, is that I have a tendency to know A WHOLE LOT  about things that aren't terribly useful or interesting to a broad cross-section of people. This is why I am so useless at parties. Approach me at your holiday soiree and you will inevitably find yourself being briefed on such stultifying topics as: the Welsh language and its history, motorcycles, "Strictly Come Dancing," things and people of Minnesota origin, and professional wrestling.

And I have a tendency to share this information in the sort of byzantine fashion that leaves a person stretching their eyes open, as if trying to stay awake on a too-long car journey, and wondering why I've chosen such an indirect conversational path. For example, it took me four paragraphs to even get around to mentioning professional wrestling, and it is only now in the fifth paragraph that I am explaining its tenuous link to this post.

But, as the Welsh say, there we are.

Where I was going with all this is simply to say I've found myself reading a lot of Uproxx reviews of WWE programming lately, and it is from there I have stolen the format for this personal review of the past year. 

I am inclined now to just delete all of the above and find a way to sum it up in a single sentence, but, see, that is my blogging downfall these days. Or, at least, part of it.

Blogging is very much a first-draft sort of thing. An idea exists and –– if the blogging is done correctly –– soon becomes more or less buried by all the other ideas that come after it. Sure, it's nice to reword things here and there, and run a spell-check, but if you employ your magic ability to over-focus on things, you soon get lost down the proofreading rabbit hole and you more or less stop writing altogether. I direct the court's attention to Exhibit A: this blog. In 2013 I managed just 25 posts. At least one of which was just a link to a stylised YouTube video about motorcycle dudes.

And that leads me to my first point:

WORST: Chris' periods of writer's block are now lasting longer than the average run of any sitcom starring Jim Belushi
Last year was not a good one for creative output. In late 2012, I finished a book that I still count as the best thing I've ever written but thereafter sat on it doing nothing. Theoretically, I was waiting to hear back from an agent in the United States to whom I had sent the manuscript, but that's not how things are done and I know that. 

Stone Cold Steve Austin (let's just accept that pro wrestling is going to be the theme of the day) says that if you're good at something, and you know you're good at something, so good that you honestly believe people should pay you to do it –– whether it's wrestling, singing, or designing traffic systems –– you still have to pick up the phone and let the right people know. Being good at something has no (monetary) value, he says, if you're the only person who knows it.

Certainly one of the best ways to ensure no one has a clue how good a writer you are is to lovingly, painstakingly craft a 90,000-word book, send it to just one agent and thereafter let it languish in the nether workings of the cloud. Which is exactly what I did with the book I am tentatively calling Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama. It just sat there in my Google Docs, untouched, for most of the year.

On top of this, I wrote no short stories, I dropped my Welsh-language column in BARN magazine, I wrote only a handful of letters to friends, and I produced the fewest number of posts in this blog's nine-year history. Meanwhile, on the creative input side of things, I managed to finish reading just five books. It wasn't a good year. 

I would like to be able to produce a handy explanation as to why. There are the usual culprits, of course, such as homesickness-induced depression and work schedules and so on, but I feel that in general these things are just excuses. I have in the past produced far more in far less ideal conditions. For some reason, whatever the reason, very little happened in 2013. I'm not happy about it, but the only thing I can do at this point is try to focus on where I want to be.

In the past few weeks I have found myself trying to resuscitate my creative energy. Admittedly, I've done this mostly by half-composing blog posts in my head whilst cycling to or from work. But I have also gone to the trouble to again proofread my book and start sending off submissions to various literary agents. As I was writing this post, I received my first rejection email. This is to be expected. And, to be honest, I suppose a teeny-weeny part of me would feel disappointed if I didn't get at least one or two rejections. 


BEST: I get paid to say nice things about Britain
I started out 2013 working just two days a week, but ended it effectively working full-time for the UK's national parks. It is always terribly unwise to mention your employer on your blog but, hey, they mentioned my blog in my job interview. And I am only mentioning them to sing their praises. I am wary of going over the top here, if not simply for fear of jinxing my situation, but I think working for the national parks may be the best job I've ever had.

That is true in both what I do and how I am treated. In terms of the latter, my boss looks out for my interests more than I do, I have more holiday time than I know what to do with, it is acceptable for me to suddenly take a day off because the weather is nice (within reason), and the office atmosphere is so relaxed that we generally don't wear shoes.

In terms of the actual work I do, remember that, although I can filibuster people into a coma whilst speaking on the topic of All The Things That Are Wrong With Wales, originally I came here because, you know, I kind of liked the place. And the fact is, I still do. Or, more correctly, I like Britain. I like it quite a lot. I like the place and I like the idea. Is it better than other places and other ideas? I don't know. Yes, if you're talking about North Korea.

Random memory, in 1997 the Conservative party under John Major unsuccessfully ran for re-election under the slogan: "Britain is better." A friend of mine at the time saw this slogan on a pamphlet and said to me: "Ah, see, what they've done here is fail to complete the sentence. It should say: 'Britain is better... than Zaire.' Which is true. Probably. Britain is not better than any of its neighbours in Europe, mind, nor better than it used to be, but it is, probably, better than war-torn Zaire."

Anyhoo, I like Britain. Back when the Conservatives were claiming it was "better" I was here on an exchange programme. I fell in love and started pining to return pretty much as soon as I left. And when I finally did come back, it resulted in a tremendous amount of financial and emotional sacrifice. Although I will today sometimes try to suggest as much, my being here, and especially my staying here, is not something that just happened. It is the result of wilful action. So what better job could I ask for than one that requires me to focus on and talk about the assets that caused me to fall in love with this soggy archipelago in the first place?

Britain has some very pretty places. And through my churning out of press releases and endless social media noise and so on, in some very small way I am helping to protect those places. By creating awareness I'm helping to ensure they will be there for some other 20-year-old boy from Minnesota who ends up here on an exchange programme. Then he, too, can fall in love with those places; he, too, can have the course of his life changed by them.

And I get paid to do that.


WORST: Learning to ride a motorcycle was a stupidly expensive and emotionally challenging experience that may have scarred me for life
Late in 2012, I read Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels at the same time as I was serving as a bicycle courier for Sustrans. The cosmic aligning of these two things somehow served to rekindle a latent desire to get a motorcycle. I had earned my Minnesota motorcycle endorsement when I was 18 years old, but a U.S. license is of little use in Her Majesty's United Kingdom, so getting a bike here meant first having to go through the European training and licensing process.

In fairness, that was probably for the best. It had been a very long time since I had been on a motorcycle and the training I had received in my teenage years, in the parking lot of a YMCA, had been lackadaisical at best. The drawback, however, was that, like every sort of certification in Europe, the process was inanely bureaucratic, fastidious and expensive.

Motor vehicle licensing in the European Union is a standardised process, with a few regional variations to allow for additional testing if a particular country should so choose. Britain so chooses, and as such getting a motorcycle license in the United Kingdom is a multi-step process involving six different tests. I managed to pass each of my first five tests on the first attempt but stumbled terribly at the final hurdle. When it came to my practical riding test, in which one spends 40-ish minutes being followed around a city by an examiner, it took me three times to be successful. The first attempt went particularly badly: I ended up having an argument with the examiner in the middle of the test.

Before and during the stress and embarrassment of having to take the test multiple times were a number of... What's the word? Challenging? We'll go with challenging –– it's the most diplomatic. There were a number of challenging experiences linked to my training.

One could, of course, simply take the tests. If you were to already know how to ride a motorcycle to the persnickety British standard and you had someone who was willing to lend you a motorcycle upon which to take your test, you could skip the whole training process. But most people find that if they want to get a motorcycle license they must first hunt down a local training school and spend quite a lot of money to putt around town on a beat-up and oft-dropped standard motorcycle, wearing a radio earpiece in their helmet. The radio, of course, allows the instructor to ride along behind you –– or frighteningly to your side when he wants to prove you're not checking your blind spot enough –– telling you what to do.

The primary instructor for the school I chose provided me with a wealth of information and advice that I find myself drawing upon every single time I ride, but he had a tendency to deliver this wisdom through shouty torrents of profanity. Via a radio earpiece. This meant that his voice was effectively in my head as I was riding along. Because I was busy, you know, riding a motorcycle, I could not turn the radio off or the volume down.

I don't know if you've picked this up about me, but I kind of already have voices in my head. Voices that are already bombarding me with criticism of every little thing I do. Voices that are already impossible to silence or quiet. The addition of my instructor's voice was often more unsettling than helpful. And it contributed to the terrible emotional lows I suffered with each defeat.

Honestly, after failing the exam for the second time I became so upset and angry that I considered just heading straight to the airport and flying back to the United States, leaving everything and everyone behind. In my mind I would just fly to whichever U.S. city I could get the cheapest flight and thereafter spend my life wandering North America like Lorenzo Lamas in "Renegade." Except, not necessarily running from the law, nor righting any particular wrongs. But definitely wearing cowboy boots.


BEST: I used words to get a motorcycle
In the end, I persevered and finally managed to earn my full UK motorcycle license. When that victory finally came, however, it didn't feel quite as amazing as I might have hoped because I didn't have any means of making use of my newly earned license. Remember that early on in the year I was only working two days a week. I had dipped into the dangerous well of credit card debt to pay for my training and now had definitely no money at all whatsoever for a motorcycle.

But life is not black and white. And there's a caveat to what I said about my lack of creative output in 2013. I may not have been working on a book or writing short stories or the like, but I was definitely churning out post after post after post on my Motorcycle Obsession blog. So much so that my writing gained the attention of a fellow motorcyclist who just so happened to be looking for a copy writer. He got in touch and offered to give me a motorcycle in exchange for some work on his website. I was excessively sceptical at first but the end result is that I own a Honda CBF600SA.

Motorcycles, Hondas in particular, tend to have uninteresting names. The mesh of letters and numbers that comprise the name of my motorcycle probably don't bring to mind anything in particular, so, here's a picture I took the other day:


It is utterly reliable, has anti-lock brakes, apparently has a top speed of 150 mph (though I've never tried) and has served to be a tremendous positive in the lives of both myself and Jenn. Thanks to my motorcycle I feel a little less confined, less trapped in my everyday life. I refuse to use the cliché word "freedom" but, yeah, it offers me something similar to that.

A kind of freedom, at least. Freedom of movement, in multiple senses of the word. I am able to go where I want, when I want. And I am able to do so in a way that leaves me feeling more connected to the world around me. Many moons ago, I drove my father's car from Minnesota to Texas in the heat of summer and insisted on doing the entire drive with the windows down. As I explained at the time, my primary reason for doing so was to gain a real sense of the America through which I was driving:

"How much do you get of a place by only looking at it?" I wrote. "If you roll up the windows and crank up the AC as you sail through Arizona desert, how much more do you really know of it than some bloke sitting on a vibrating chair watching the same thing on a high-definition television set? Touching a real woman's breasts is infinitely better than seeing pictures of them on the internet. Swimming in a river helps you understand it better than simply standing on its banks. And watching a landscape unfold before you has greater worth when you breathe it in."

And I suppose I still feel the same way. A motorcycle allows me to breathe in the landscape. I can feel little changes in temperature. I can taste the air. I can hear more of the things around me. The wind. The rain. The sunshine. The cold. The warm.  Admittedly, the British climate demands a certain hardiness, but I generally feel it is worth it. On a road trip to North Wales a few months ago, I found myself shivering with cold and completely soaked with rain. At no point, however, did I wish to be doing anything else.


BEST: Oh, I also got my UK driver's license
It took me 7.5 years to get around to earning a British license because:
i) I already had a Minnesota driver's license. And no matter how long I live here I will never shake the inherent feeling that the United States of America is, well, better. So, obviously that means that my U.S. driver's license is better; why spend the time and money getting an "inferior" license?
ii) I hardly ever drove for the first four years I lived here because I was so insanely focused on university.
iii) Jenn and I don't have a car.
iv) We don't have the money to buy a car.

But Jenn made my getting a UK driver's license a stipulation of getting a motorcycle license. The two are separate entities in the United Kingdom, and it is possible to have one without the other. Whereas in Minnesota, for example, you must have a driver's license to be able to earn a motorcycle "endorsement." So, perhaps in that way the British system is better.

Either way, the process of getting my driver's license here was pretty simple. Thanks, in part, to the fact that I had been driving for 21 years before taking the test. And I had already gone through the hell of getting my UK motorcycle license. It helped, too, that the driving examiner turned out to be a big motorcycle enthusiast. I passed without a single error.


BEST: Marrying Jenn. Again
And here we have Chris' classic tendency to bury the lede. Without doubt, Jenn and my wedding in July was the very best moment of 2013. And no, I'm not just saying that because I'm supposed to. It was, unequivocally, the best moment. July 20, 2013 shines in my mind as about the most perfect day one can have on Earth.

A number of my friends from the United States had not been able to attend the wedding because of the exorbitant cost of travel. And although I understood their absence from a financial/rational standpoint, in the months leading up to the wedding I couldn't help feeling upset. But by the time the wedding day arrived my focus had thankfully shifted to those people who would be there, and my incredible gratitude to them for spending the not-inconsiderable time and money to do so.

One of those people was my friend, Shawn, who had gone to high school with me. He burned a hole in his wallet and missed the birthdays of both his daughters so he could come to Cardiff and officiate our wedding. He had to be away from his wife and kids and sleep on a crappy Ikea sofa bed in an un-air-conditioned Victorian home during what turned out to be the hottest week of the year, and he did it with aplomb. And the fact is, he –– and all the friends and family who were there –– made the wedding. They are the reason it stands out so brightly in my memory.

Because, you know, in truth, Jenn and I were already married. We had gotten officially married several months before, in November 2012. We refer to that as our "paper" wedding, something we had done for mostly procedural reasons (i.e., keeping me in the country legally). Our proper wedding, we had always told ourselves, would be the one in July. I don't think we realised, though, just how "proper" it would feel.

Our friends and family gave the day incredible depth and meaning. The weather was once-in-a-decade amazing and warm. And Jenn was beautiful. I mean, beautiful. Everything went right.

It wasn't just the wedding. The day afterward, Jenn and I, Shawn, and my friends from Dublin –– Donal, Isobel and Elisa –– all met up at the Mochyn Du and spent a perfect summer afternoon talking and laughing. A few days after that, the fun carried on in Dublin itself. My parents had decided to incorporate a family vacation into the wedding plans, so my mom and dad and brother and his girlfriend and Jenn and I all stayed in an apartment in Dublin city centre for several days.

So, my memory of the wedding is more than one day but of several days filled with laughter and friends and joy.


WORST: Weddings are ludicrously expensive things, so now Jenn and I can afford to do little more than sit at our window watching traffic go by
A side note to the above: Jenn and I still have not had a honeymoon. We haven't been able to afford one. We are hoping that somehow, some way, we will be able to travel to the United States in late June for my grandfather's 90th birthday and will within the same trip somehow manufacture a little vacation just for ourselves.

Anything more exotic than that probably won't occur for quite some time. Despite help from both sides of the family and all our friends, Jenn and I still managed to put ourselves into a debt that we will be paying off for the next four years.

If the wedding hadn't turned out so incredibly well, I'd be more inclined to rant. In truth, I don't feel we spent more than we should and there is nothing I would change about the wedding but for my mistake of putting Janelle Monáe on the playlist.

I love me some Janelle Monáe, but apparently she's a little obscure and people will not dance to songs they have not already heard.

Anyhoo, the money was well spent, but goodness gracious was a lot of it spent. And on those British winter days, when it has been raining for a fortnight and suddenly Jenn comes across an internet deal that would allow us to spend a week in Malta for £199, I can't help but wish we could have somehow spent less.


BEST: Oh my gosh, Britain had an actual summer
Generally summer in these parts is more a state of mind than a genuine climatalogical phenomenon. The days grow longer and the calendar tells us it is summer, so we put on shorts and sit outside drinking cider, despite the fact that the temperature is no different than a few months previous when we were all wrapped up in scarves and eating potato-laden stews.

But in 2013, holy smokes, we had an actual summer. No, a real one that people from other countries independently verified as being quite summer-like. There were Texas-born people at my wedding who agreed that the weather was, indeed, pretty warm. Sure, the Britons and the Irish described it as "boiling" and expressed fears of heat stroke, but, you know, we were more or less on the same page. Everyone could agree that it really was summer.

It was the first real summer I had experienced in Cardiff since 2006. And thanks to the timely aquisition of a motorcycle in early June, Jenn and I were able to enjoy it. We rode out to the beach, to country pubs, to waterfalls, and, on one of my favourite adventures, to Hay-On-Wye, where we ended up skinny dipping in the River Wye.


WORST: I am a disappointment to my erstwhile adventurous self, especially as pertains to Scotland-related ambition
The 2,013th year of our Lord came and went without my having visited Scotland. It also came and went without my having visited Mongolia or Tasmania or Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but those places haven't been on my list of personal goals for the past several years. Whereas for quite some time I have promised myself I would finally travel the not-at-all-far-for-a-guy-who-once-drove-from-Boston-to-Seattle-and-back distance up to Scotland because Scottish accents.

And space. My Scotland-born friends, the Phins, frequently mention their homeland when I bemoan the lack of open space in the United Kingdom, and my knowledge of Scotland's two national Parks suggests they are right. The two parks, by the way, are Cairngorms National Park and Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park. Look at this lovely photo from the Cairngorms; note how there are no people in it. Or roads. Or buildings. That's my kind of place. And even beyond the boundaries of the national parks there is –– reportedly –– even more big, open space.

Meanwhile, I'll sit in my one-bedroom flat in Penarth, listening to cars accelerate from the five-road junction next to which my building stands. I'll listen to my upstairs neighbour practice his bass, while my downstairs neighbour yells at his cats, while my next-door neighbour practices his drums. I'll listen to people shouting conversations/drunken arguments in the street, revving engines and blaring stereos, and I'll think: "This. This is the sort of thing that leads one to becoming an axe-murderer."

Yet somehow I've failed to put two and two together. I've failed, year after year, to explore. I've failed to seek out the places and things that might make me happy,

Part of it, I think, is that there is some underlying aspect of British life that stymies local exploration. It's definitely not the case that Britons lack an adventurous spirit, but it's a spirit that seems to manifest more when they are away from home. By and large, they don't explore their island. You'll meet someone who has been to Morocco and Thailand, Shanghai and Lagos, but they won't ever have set foot north of Manchester –– which they visited only once, as part of a work-related training course. There are people in East Anglia who have no idea the Welsh language exists, and people in Wales who could not tell you one single thing about Northumberland, including its location on the map.

That's a line of thinking that infects me. So, whereas in the United States I used to drive hundreds of miles on a whim because I knew of a good restaurant in some other city, I now have a tendency to rarely stray beyond of a 5-mile radius of my flat.

Another reason for this stagnation, though, is lack of ready cash flow. See above, re: Jenn and I spending all our money on a wedding. That expense doesn't explain the lack of visits in previous years but it was the primary excuse in 2013. I fear that our attempts to visit Texas this summer will serve as reason for not visiting Scotland in 2014, but hope springs eternal.


BEST: Someone please tell my 20-year-old self that the man at the pub was lying, but Cornwall is still nice
Though I didn't make it to Scotland in 2013, I did at least finally go to Cornwall, which is another place I've wanted to see for a long while. I've wanted to visit since I was an exchange student at University of Portsmouth in 1996. That particular winter was at the time proclaimed as the coldest in 500 years, and because I had neglected to bring any of my heavy coats from Minnesota, I was miserable.

A random guy I met at a pub claimed that Cornwall would be warmer because of the Gulf Stream or some such nonsense. I decided there and then that I needed to go to Cornwall. On that particular occasion, I ended up going to Barcelona instead, but the desire to visit the most southerly bit of Britain stuck with me.

What luck that I married a woman whose extended family live there. Even better luck that some of those family members own holiday cottages there –– on Bodmin Moor.

Side note: If you ever go to Cornwall, you have to stay at East Rose Farm. It is in the middle of the Cornish peninsula, but if you stand atop the provacitively named promontory that is Brown Willy, you can see both the Celtic Sea and the English Channel on the north and south sides of the peninsula.

Brown Willy is within walking distance of my in-laws' cottages and if you walk up it or anywhere near it in late December you will find that Cornwall is no warmer than any other spot in Southern England. Though that doesn't stop it from being lovely. It was quiet, when the stars were not hidden by cloud they were multitudinous, and the open space of the moor reminded me, in a good way, of the rolling emptiness of northwestern Minnesota.

Also within walking distance of the cottages we found an old pub that had a roaring fire and a cat that liked to sleep in the window. On longer excursions we ventured to Land's End and ate stargazy pie in the place where it was first created: the not-pronounced-as-you'd-think village of Mousehole. We drank wine and ate all kinds of wonderful things and I came away feeling more positive about my life and my future than British winter normally allows.


BEST: I felt like part of a family
A major reason for that positivity was spending time with Jenn's family. The cottages are run by Jenn's cousin, Matt, who, along with his partner Becky and newborn son Edward, live on the property in a 16th-century farmhouse. They had us over for meals or drinks a few times and I had to resist the urge to clap my hands in childlike glee at the massive fireplaces that keep the ancient house warm.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we travelled to the town of Bodmin, home of Jenn's aunt and uncle, and we ate enormous meals with a great throng of family –– 15 of us in total. There was too much food and chocolates and desserts and beer and wine and mysterious homemade alcohols and games and everyone talking at once and laughter and presents and kids running around and paper crowns and all the other things one sees in the modern presentation of a British Christmas.

On both nights, when we drove back to the moor and snuggled into our cottage bed, Jenn rolled up to put her head on my shoulder and said, simply, happily: "Family."

It made me happy to have been able to get Jenn down to Cornwall, thanks to the aforementioned good job and UK driver's license (we rented a car –– Christmas presents for all the family would not have fit on the back of my motorcycle). I like when I can be that for Jenn: someone who makes things happen. Before she met me it had been quite some time since she had seen her family, because trips down to Devon required long, expensive, hard-to-coordinate travel on trains and buses. We still don't see her family and friends there as much as we'd like but things are certainly improving and I take tremendous pride in instigating that.

Though it is not for her benefit alone. I feel welcome in Jenn's family; I feel a part of it. And that was a feeling that came back to me over and over during the holiday season. It was painful to be thousands of miles away from my mom and dad and brother and so on, but, I realised, I also have family here.

A week after Christmas, Jenn and I were back in Penarth and we rung in the new year with her brother. Finally falling into bed in the early hours of 2014, I found myself thinking again about family and friends and motorcycles and the amazing, beautiful woman I get to call my wife, and I thought: "Yeah, I suppose 2013 was a pretty good year."

2 comments:

Debbie said...

I never found your conversations dull and always enjoyed chatting to you. Chris, you really are a very interesting person. Really glad lots of good things happened for you in 2013.

Huw said...

Nice post this.
Don't go to Malta (dreary) go to Madeira if you can (stunning)
Toodle pip