Category Archives: Personal

The Storytelling of the Everyday

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I like having a date in the future that I can both look forward to and work towards. I try to avoid having a blank calendar. I’m not a planner, but I find that having a proverbial jackrabbit to chase after gives me a sense of forward momentum in life. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to attach narratives to life, to think of its events as forming a greater story. I don’t want to give you the impression I’m religious or anything like that- I don’t believe in things like destiny, or that life has any grandiose meaning for all of us. I’m a believer in individuals creating their own meanings. I’m aware that my tendency to perceive events as stories is an act of creation on my part, and I’m aware of why I do it. I’ll target one or two events on my calendar and think of the time between them as being a distinct “chapter of my life”. That’s why I like having something in the near future- whatever it may be, a trip, a wedding, anything– that signifies the end of one chapter and the start of a new one.

For example, last year I had three such events that ended up dividing my 2017 into quarters. I had my best friend’s wedding in March, my departure for Texas in May, and my return to the U.K in August. I compartmentalized the time before and after each one into four distinct chapters that formed the narrative of 2017, because I knew that each event was going to be an emotional experience. At the end of each chapter, I would have learned something. One way or another, I’d have something to look back on. I’d carry something with me from the previous chapter into the next.

I don’t think I’m alone in doing this. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Wow, these must be the ramblings of a serial killer” and if that’s the case I wholeheartedly apologize for not getting through to you. But I’m thinking that many of you have similar thoughts. You might look upon an internship, a gap year, a semester abroad, a maternity leave, as having its own story, as affecting you in some way so that when it ends, you are a different person. I’m sure a lot of people don’t necessarily think of a certain period of time as a distinct narrative until it has long since passed, until they find themselves reminiscing about it. I have difficulty just living in the present, so I’m not really such a person. But life throws all kinds of surprises at you, and if you’ve watched as many movies or read as many books as I have, you’ll find you can’t resist isolating emotional memories as the bookends to a particular segment of your life.

Maybe it’s something as small as you saying “Hey, remember when, for a week, the three of us sat together in math and every day we made power rankings of our celebrity crushes? We were like the Three Musketeers that week”. Or perhaps it’s something as big as losing a loved one, and you find yourself during the months after taking long walks in the evenings. It’s an event that bleeds into the rest of your life until the next thing happens. A new job, a new partner, the discovery of something new, or the recovery of something lost.

We can’t help but look for stories in our lives. But sometimes it’s not such a good thing. I’ve mentioned how I tend to do it because I have a romantic outlook on things, and sometimes it helps to motivate me to enrich the time I have, to work harder with the hope that I can attain something lasting and important from a particular phase of life. However, too much creation on my part can sometimes result in a nasty bout of anxiety. What we take with us isn’t necessarily good. We have bad experiences. We’re all troubled by the human condition like Holden Caulfield. We all suffer. And I have found that creating a narrative out of everything gets me in trouble sometimes. Perhaps you wake up with a headache, and as you’re getting ready you accidentally step on your 8-year old’s art project. Just as you’re rushing to glue it back together, you get a letter in the mail telling you that your bank account is overdrawn. A lot of people- myself included- would then say “It’s just not my day” and subconsciously create this narrative of a bad day. But really, it’s just a coincidence that these things all happened on the same morning. There’s no conspiracy against you, but you’re drawn into believing that everything’s just going wrong. It colors the rest of your day, and things like taking the little brats to school, going to work, making them supper, doing the laundry, seem all the more daunting. You’re crushed by the immensity of it and it all ends in tears and a cheap bottle of wine.

It can be hard to take yourself out of time, to remove yourself at that point from the narrative you have created and realize “Hey, this day can still be good if I want it to be”. As you know, I’m not at all an expert on being happy. Happiness is a tricky business. But if I am feeling swamped or anxious, I find that the best way of ending the “It’s all going to shit” narrative is to go on a walk (preferably at night or when it’s cool) and follow it up with some Yoga Nidra meditation.

So I’m careful when I feel myself making a story out of everything. I have to remind myself to be aware I’m doing it. 2018 is still in its infancy. In April I’m heading off to Eastern Europe for a short solo adventure. I’m pretty excited for it, and I’m looking forward to seeing how I traveling alone affects me. But, as my wise roommate cautioned me, expectations often live in the extremes. There’s the best case scenario where I come back a champion of self-confidence and knowledge, stepping off the plane with a finished novel in one hand and a shapely Carpathian bride on the other. And there’s the worst case scenario where I get lost at night and in my desperation accept the directions of a Transylvanian serial killer intent on leading me back to his windowless rape dungeon. Most of the time, neither scenario comes true, and your experience lands somewhere in the middle.

I’ll provide more updates on my trip pretty soon, but for now I just wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about the way I perceive things. Let me know in the comments if you can relate!

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“Just Another Mental Health Post”

I never planned to blog about my mental health issues as much as I have. It was only when I started writing my series of memoir-posts about my 2012 student exchange that I realized there was no way around it. To leave out my struggles with anxiety and depression would have been to tell a hollow narrative. It would have been a sequence of pointless events not really worth writing about. It wasn’t until that first post that I realized that to tell the story of my study abroad would mean telling the story of my mental health. I realized through writing about the events of that semester that every moment seemed to be tied in some way to the imbalance in my brain chemistry. Every social situation, from intramural soccer to my first day at class had to be told through the lens of my anxiety, because that’s how I experienced it. Sometimes I felt a little nervous about discussing these issues, because I’ve always been emotionally fragile and hyper-sensitive about what others think of me, but I decided to write them anyway. Part of me felt guilty about blogging about it, and worried at the kind of reaction I’d get. Ultimately I knew I would, because I knew the writing demanded it, and the quality of my writing is more important to me than pretty much anything else- certainly more than fear of embarrassment. But up until now I’ve only ever blogged about mental health insofar as it relates to my experiences and memories. I haven’t done a piece specifically addressing my issues, because I feared that doing so would be stepping into a realm beyond my expertise. I might suffer from these issues, but I’m no medical professional, and that’s my reason for not wanting to discuss mental health in a general sense. I’m uncomfortable offering advice or discussing the experiences of others. I’m nervous about trying to contribute something useful to an issue so destructive for so many people.

However, I’m in an angry mood this afternoon. And it’s this anger that’s prompted this blog post. It’s not a post I have scheduled and it’s not one I’ve planned. I was actually scheduled to release an entirely different post today, but that can wait. I need to get this off my chest while I’m still fired up about it. So think of this as a kind of spontaneous rant. I’m not sure where it’s going, or whether it will amount to anything worthwhile, but here goes.

A little while ago I saw a post on Facebook that caught my eye. For the past two years I’ve been taking an antidepressant called Citalopram. I was in a phase in 2015 where I didn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. I didn’t want to try anything. I loathed myself and I consciously wished that I would fall asleep and never wake up. The pills have helped eschew those dark thoughts and now I’m in a phase where I find myself very unwilling to part with the medication. Anyway, the post on Facebook that I saw contained a picture of these pills, and I was naturally drawn to it. It was a long Facebook post in which the user was discussing the side effects of the medication on her health. It was very interesting to read about someone else’s experience with the same drug I was using. However, the first paragraph of the post was filled with defensive and self-conscious statements such as “I don’t want this to be just another mental health post but…” and that got me thinking. At first I was annoyed because she seemed to be disparaging other mental health related posts even though she herself was clearly trying to write the same thing. But then, I started wondering why she was so self-conscious about writing about mental health. She was obviously worried about the kind of reaction her post would get. She seemed to be echoing a fear that social media is oversaturated with mental health posts, that because more and more people are sharing their stories, the supposed “real issues” were becoming clouded. It hinted at widespread suspicions of anxiety not being a real medical problem, or the sentiment that “everyone’s diagnosed with something now”, a sentiment which (to me) suggests that because so many people are opening up about their suffering, that the issue’s seriousness is therefore diminished.

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I’m not an expert, so I don’t know, nor do I pretend to know, how widespread the issue of anxiety is. But even if it is so common, that doesn’t make it any less toxic. I’m angry today because it’s apparent that we’ve got a long way to go toward making our society more sensitive to these issues. What really set me off today was reading through the comment section of an article on Bleacher Report about Johnny Manziel’s Bipolar diagnosis. I loved watching Johnny Football when he was in college. I wouldn’t say he’s a hero of mine or anything, but he was an exciting athlete doing some pretty flashy things. Reading through the comments beneath the article, I was appalled at the idea that because this guy has made some mistakes in his life, that he is somehow not entitled to our sympathy. In a recent interview with Good Morning America, Manziel was forthcoming about his Bipolar diagnosis, depression, and his commitment to sobriety and therapy. If there’s one thing I admire it’s an individual that tries to better him or herself. We don’t have to like Johnny Manziel, and that’s not my point here. My point is that the reaction I observed to the news of his mental health issues was symptomatic of a wider societal problem regarding the perception of depression and anxiety. Sympathy is never a finite resource; we don’t have to choose between feeling concerned about Syrian refugees and a college football star’s search for a healthy state of mind. Every form of suffering is worth our attention, and in order to create a more sympathetic world, we have to stop categorizing suffering.

I know that sounds preachy, but fuck it. My blood’s up now. I have to express my rage and do what rage demands, what it’s good for; to turn it into a written statement. I was chatting with a friend recently who was describing a “rut” he’s been in. During our chat, he said something that really stuck with me. “I don’t want to use the word depression” he said. It made me think he felt guilty about adopting that word, that his issues weren’t as important as mine. The fact that I take pills doesn’t make my anxiety any more real, or any more important than his or anyone else’s. We should be encouraging people to share, and getting to the root of our problems, so I told my pal to use whatever word he felt best described his experience. It comes back to the idea that because mental health issues are suddenly more widespread, that not every claim is as valid as the next. Are people tired of anxiety related posts? Are they annoyed by them? I’m not. Nothing pleases me more than seeing people share their experiences, be it orally or in a written piece. I love reading the blogs of some of my fellow Creative Writing graduates that touch on issues such as depression or social anxiety. Nothing makes a person so interesting to me as their openness, their self-awareness and self-reflection. I don’t enjoy hearing that other people suffer, but it is comforting to know that my issues are shared by so many, and I seek out these brave accounts of suffering. But you don’t need a degree in Creative Writing or a Citalopram prescription to share your story. Don’t ever be afraid to express your own experiences, and don’t be made to feel that what you are going through does not warrant our attention, because to share is to contribute the continuum of human experience and our understanding of these issues.

I’mma get me some ice cream. Nothing cools me off like a bowl of Neapolitan. Vowles out.

Dressing the Part

When I entered the USA for the first time, I was very much intent on absorbing as much as I could from the local culture. In some ways I arrived a tabula rasa– a blank slate. A land that could only exist in movies was suddenly real and tangible. I was so curious about how these Americans lived and how they thought, and I wanted to get as close to that experience as I could. I wasn’t really sure how I would ingratiate myself in this land of s’mores and denim, but before I even set foot on its mythical shores, I had a deliberate commitment to “When in Rome…something something…”

I say I was a blank slate because at the time I had none of the elements in my life that now seem so important. I was lacking in life experience and social exposure. I was naïve, and I even told the student exchange coordinators in Winchester that my reason for going was, quite frankly, to become more worldly. I was also wayward and uncertain in my own homeland, living as the campus recluse and wondering if I was missing out on things key to a person’s social development. Honestly, I was like Quasimodo, only venturing out my room when I was sure I had no chance of seeing anyone. In that respect, I felt different to the other exchange students who traveled with me from Winchester to Eau Claire. They seemed like complete persons, people with distinct identities. I imagined that they would bring the U.K with them to Eau Claire, teaching their new American friends interesting nuggets about their life across the ocean. I imagined them challenging Americans on “Proper English” and introducing them to British drinking culture. They were, in my mind, exciting prospects for waiting Americans, bringing the exotic British experience to their lives. Their interactions with the locals looked like a two-part exchange.

By contrast, I had very little to share. I was looking to make myself anew. Kind of like a phoenix, except not as graceful and majestic. I was to be born again in the chapel of “Howdy pardners” and “You betchas”. I used the word soccer instead of football and I put my hand on my heart during the Star-Spangled Banner. When asked to perform my own national anthem, I refused, saying I hated the Queen and that garbage song. I remember that lack of pride specifically shocking the Americans, and I wondered if in a dorm room on the other side of campus, the other Winchester students were proudly belting out “God Save the Queen” in front of their cheering American admirers.

Even though I would later adopt a lot of Americanisms, I don’t want to give the impression that I was somehow destined to be Americanized or anything. It wasn’t a smooth transition at all. As I got to know Aaron, Jimmy and Zeke better, I began to realize just how differently they thought to me. As I have stated in other posts, the traits that seemed to define my new friends were openness, direct language, decisiveness, and a lack of fear of embarrassment. What I mean by that last one is not that all Americans are flawless extroverts, but simply that they came across as not showing any outward signs of shyness. I couldn’t have been more different to them. I was self-conscious, passive, bumbling, and awkward. But I’ve covered that in previous episodes. Today I want to draw attention to more superficial changes.

Believe it or not, at the time I had a “no-denim” rule. I wasn’t quite sure what my fashion sense was, but since the age of 15 or so, I refused to wear jeans. All of my trousers were black office-style pants. I often wore button-down shirts tucked into a black belt. I guess I was trying to look old-fashioned or something. Anyway, in the U.K this never really stood out. At Winchester there’s kind of a hipster atmosphere anyway, and what I wore was never a point of conversation. But right off the bat in the USA, the locals seemed perplexed at my choices. Americans were shocked that I didn’t have any jeans. I was told that if an American were to dress this way, they’d be considered “preppy” and “a nerd”. That’s not to say that all Americans dress the same, but what the exceptions did was really own it. Their style was a way of expressing themselves and considered a part of their identity. They weren’t self-conscious about being the girl that always wears a beanie or the guy that always wears a trench coat. I was no such exception. I had no such ownership and confidence in the way I dressed. I was still figuring it all out, trying one item and then the next.

“It must be really formal in your country,” one person told me.

“This is normal for the English,” another person explained, as if defending me against accusations of being a dork.

I’d say most Americans at the time wore jeans when it was cool and athletic shorts when it was hot. I didn’t even own any shorts! But both girls and guys alike seemed to be stocked with them. Almost all Americans wore backpacks too. When I was 11 years old and I went from Primary School to Secondary School in the U.K, I was told immediately by older kids to adjust my straps to wear my bag as low as possible, or I’d get bullied. If you want a snapshot of life in a British school, then just picture every person’s backpack level with their ass, because that’s how it was. The kids that didn’t make the change quick enough were probably hounded into a discreet corner and given a good beating. Anyway, no such rule existed in the USA. Aaron took one look at my low bag and said “That’s just stupid,” before adjusting it to its proper height for the first time in a decade. I later logged into Facebook and saw a status from my friend and fellow writer who was studying in Oregon. She was saying how she couldn’t get over how high everyone’s backpack was in the USA, and recalled how kids with high backpacks would get bullied in school. And she was from Shropshire, so it’s clearly a nationwide insanity in U.K schools.

I got my first pair of jeans when I went deer hunting during Thanksgiving break. They were an old pair handed down to me from my host dad, and I had to wear a tight belt to keep them up, because I had no defined butt whatsoever. I was rail-thin. My host dad said “We just had to sort you out,” and gave me a brown leather belt to replace my black one. All of a sudden I felt like a cowboy. That day drinking beer in a tree stand seems like a turning point now, because when we got back from the hunt, I had lifted my decade-long ban on denim. I quite liked feeling rustic and unpretentious for a change, and within months I had completely shed the French philosopher look. I went to the student building on lower campus and bought myself a gray sweater. I rushed back to my dorm and tried it on with my new jeans. I then walked across the hall into Aaron and Akbar’s room and I remember Aaron looking up and going “Whoa! You look great”. My new style was already winning me compliments. People said I looked like “an American college boy”, and I wondered if I would possibly get mistaken for a frat bro.

F-Stops & Flood Plains: My Weekend Part Two

I’ve been nothing if not introspective in the wake of the New Year. I think that’s just how I’m wired. I spend a lot of time in my own head. I can’t really experience something without thinking it to death afterwards. I’m given to considering its place in the larger continuum of my life and attaching a greater significance to it. In my last post I wrote about my Saturday afternoon, in which two friends visited me in my hometown of Nailsea. I wrote about how the visit got me thinking about 2018 as a whole, and the strange feeling I had that I was leaving one chapter behind for a new one.

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Well, the second half of my weekend only extended the dialogue in my head. 2018 does feel very in-betweeney. When I returned last summer from Texas, I was picked up by my kid brother Frank in his Ford Fiesta. Like me, he had just passed his driving test that year. I was so happy to see him, because for the first time in six years, we would be living together again. I left for the University of Winchester in 2011, and he the University of Plymouth in 2013. And due to the fact that I was now living in the USA every summer, I’d gotten used to the idea that seeing him was a special treat. We still spoke every day on the phone, but he was out attending lectures on phytoplankton, conducting research into soil, and giving guided tours of a local aquarium on Devon’s south coast, while I traveled the USA from the Mennonite country stores of northern Wisconsin to the pawn shops of Pasadena, Texas. We were out making new lives, but now- for the first time since 2011- we are living together again.

But I’ve realized that this stage of our lives will likely be over in a flash. Frank’s done well since his graduation to snag himself a pretty sweet job as a flood risk engineer. We’ve been making more of an effort to spend some quality brother time together now that we’re in the same place again, and his presence has really helped me to cope with the routine blues that come with leaving my American roommates. Last Sunday we decided to go for a little hike to the site of an Iron Age fort that overlooks the town I live in.

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Frank’s one of those people with many strings to his bow; he’s got a seemingly endless supply of energy to learn and discover. Everything interests him. He’s unable to spend his free time simply resting. What I admire about him is that he seeks to fill it with as many vivid experiences as possible, and he doesn’t let something completely new intimidate him, or stop him from following his curiosity like a pig digging for truffles. It’s like he recognizes that life is short. No sooner had he acquired his new job than he was seeking out something else to consume his focus; within a week of becoming a flood risk engineer he was searching for new hobbies and experiences- refusing to let this latest career achievement define him.

Frank has been curious about nature photography for a while, and armed with a camera lent to him from his girlfriend and a free Sunday afternoon, decided we ought to go on a hike and take some pictures. I hadn’t used my dSLR in a while; it hangs around in the background silently judging me alongside my banjo and microphone. Three years ago I took a class in photography that taught me the basics of how to get the best out of a single lens reflex, and it’s something I’ve put to use when exploring Northern Wisconsin or indeed serving as the photographer for high school graduations and weddings. So I discussed focal ratios and shutter speeds with him and we stopped to try out different shots of nearby sheep and barbed wire fences.

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As we ascended the hillside we had the sensation of déjà vu one gets when walking a path that was once so familiar. It’s the same feeling I get when I find myself on the old route I used to walk to high school. I can’t walk past the dry cleaners without that strange, damp smell bringing me back to the cold mornings talking about girls or Premier League football. It’s the same with the trail to this ancient fort. My parents used to take us here all the time, and Frank and I would always charge ahead fighting imaginary goblins or battle droids, depending on if we were into Lord of the Rings or Star Wars that day. I think little hikes and trails are great for kids. We used to do it a lot and every time we let our imaginations run wild. Even after all these years, the trail was as familiar to us as the sound of our mother’s voice. The mud clogging up the center of the path, forcing us onto the grassy banks. The other sentient bipeds that would always say “Hello” in that breathless way they do, sometimes accompanied by Labradors and children in mittens. “Don’t worry, she wouldn’t hurt a fly. Come on, Tulip, come on…”

The trail has several gates and stiles. As kids we would jump on the gate as our parents would open it, enjoying the brief ride. I decided to do this as my brother unlocked it. He cast a smile my way in recognition of my journey to the past. The trees were leafless and what patches of grass remained untouched by the January sun were hardened by frost. The winter has its own aesthetic, I said. Frank replied that he would be back in spring to capture the place in an entirely different way. Even though it was cold out, we weren’t cold ourselves. Walking uphill negates that. It was bright too. I hate the January sun. It’s white and shapeless and its low position in the sky means that it blasts light like an aggressive search helicopter.

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As we reached the top of the hill we entered the wide bowl of the old Roman hangout. In the distance a couple of boys ran along the ramparts, lost in a play reminiscent of the kind of adventures Frank and I used to have. Not everything was the same, however. There were areas of trees cut down; it was more open, less mazelike, which disappointed me. I passed by the entrance where a big tree ripe for climbing used to stand, and I recalled a particular memory from when I was eleven years old. I decided to take my friends on a “UFO hunt” after reading that the best place to catch a flying saucer or a Roswell Grey with designs on your prostate was in the countryside. It started out super serious and one of my friends even claimed to have seen a big spaceship in the distance but it only turned out to be a cell tower. When we reached the top we forgot about UFOs and started playing with our imagination while my mom read a magazine on a blanket.

Frank and I walked through the fort to the edge of the hill, where the trees part to give an unobstructed view of the valley below. Nailsea is surrounded on all sides by marshes and farmland. Frank pointed to all the flooded areas of the pastures below and how he’d studied it for his dissertation. We continued taking pictures of the barren trees, the winter flowers, a few lonesome mushrooms, and on our way back I thought I saw a dog running free across the hilltop. Something brown and athletic like a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I didn’t have my glasses on. Blinking, I realized I was looking at a deer. It came around towards us, up the earthen mound of the rampart and bounded across the flat center of the fort. It was quite a sight; that this place once served as a hub of activity, bustling with Dobunni hunters and later, Roman soldiers, and now existed as a barren expanse of cold, pale grass where wild deer roamed free. It’s hard to imagine that empty silence filled with the clank of boots, the warmth of fires, the laughter of men and women. Pots and books and candles and tables and plates and chests and weapons. Frank and I broke into a run, chasing it as far as we could, but by the time we got to the other side, the deer was long gone.

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To bring this post full circle, hiking with my brother gave me an impression of the immensity of the past behind me. It might be the last walk up that hill I ever take, but if that’s the case then I’m okay with that. While the sights, smells and sounds of Cadbury Camp evoked the past, our conversation was fixed entirely on the future. One way or another, 2018 is going to be an interesting year for us both. And I wonder what memories I have yet to create that will one day give my older self a sense of déjà vu.

Lamb Boobs & Spanish Typewriters: My Weekend Part One

The first weekend of 2018 turned out to be pretty rad. My dear friends Elizabeth & George came to visit me on Saturday- and it was the first time I had seen them in person since I served as the photographer for their wedding in March of last year. I’ve written in the past about my experience of and obsession with the Greek concept of Philia– the love of friendship, and having two of my closest companions drive all the way to Nailsea of all places, getting lost in Bristol on the way, just to visit me, definitely gave me an emotional rush. The friends my 2012 student exchange in the USA brought me have now become old friends. We’re basically family, and the small network of Wisconsinites I’ve been adopted by treat me with the same openness and give me the same feeling of importance as if we were blood-relatives.

The town I grew up in- while boasting a population of about 20,000 or so- is nonetheless small in regards to its infrastructure and facilities. It’s kind of like one big residential area, an endless labyrinth of semi-detached brick houses and prickly hedges. The streets are quiet and empty, save for a few grey hunchbacks who cross the road at the speed of a banana slug dying of boredom. But then just when it seemed as if the town itself might be taken off life-support, George and Elizabeth’s beat-up “pimp-mobile” in dire need of an exhaust pipe replacement comes roaring through the sleepy afternoon and oh hot dog I feel like Harry Potter when the Weasleys show up in that flying car.

“Your town is so cute!” Elizabeth likes to say with her palms against her cheeks, looking to the cobblestone walls, the church spires, the old fish & chip shop, and the suspicious stares of the townsfolk in flat caps walking dogs.

I decided to take my friends to the best place in town to get some hearty food- the pub I’ve been working at these last few months. It was strange to walk in as a customer instead of an employee, and I wondered as I approached the door if my entrance would be like that scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta is snapping his fingers at all the wiseguys he walks past, strolling with effortless confidence and a cocksure swagger to the best seat in the house, stopping only for all the people coming up to him to shake his hand and pay respects. No such thing happened. In fact, the place seemed pretty deserted. There were a few other patrons, talking in hushed voices because the place was so quiet. The only folks on duty were the bartender, a waitress I hadn’t met yet, and my friend Daniel who cooked our food, and came out afterwards for a chin-wag.

My friends seemed very impressed by the pub and we enjoyed a good meal and many drinks. I opted for the stuffed lamb breast, one of the fancier dishes on the menu.

“I’m just imagining a massive boob on a plate,” Elizabeth said and started laughing hysterically.

“I can just see the little lamb teat pointing upwards,” her husband chuckled.

“Sheep have udders, right?” I said, not very sure myself what lay beneath all that wool. When Elizabeth first visited me in England 3 years ago, she was entranced by all the fluffy sheep in the fields. It’s something my parents and I remember so distinctly from her stay. I guess sheep aren’t exactly a common sight in the northwoods of Wisconsin, and they’re everywhere here. That’s one of the things that happens when you host a foreigner in your country- they point out things you never thought twice about. You begin to look at your surroundings in a different way.

During our meal, we talked about everything from Ed Gein to the chocolate shops of Gent. Elizabeth started hiccupping loudly and I thought she might startle the nearby pensioners into the prone position. George fetched her a glass of water as his wife swore like a sailor after each new quake. I really got the sense that we were now old friends, and after pouring through our shared memories we began to talk excitedly about the future and the creation of new ones. 2018 so far feels like a transitionary period, in which the past and the present seem almost equally large. I feel like I’ll look back on this part of my life as an in-between stage, an intermission between two big acts. My choice of clothing represented the past- I deliberately picked the fringed suede rancher jacket that Elizabeth had helped me afford one day in the summer of 2015 at an antique store on Eau Claire’s Water Street. We talked about three of the weddings we’ve been to together over the years (including their own), before moving irresistibly to the weddings to come- such as Elizabeth’s brother Aaron and his high school sweetheart Anne-Marie.

It always seems surreal having my American family in the town I grew up in. It shouldn’t, because this is the fourth visit I’ve hosted in Nailsea, but it does. My life in the US and my life in the UK have always felt so separate. I swear my sense of reality gets warped and I feel like George Constanza ranting about “worlds colliding”. As always, the visit was a resounding success and it lifted my mood immensely. One thing I have definitely discovered about myself is that I like having something to look forward to, to work towards. If I haven’t got anything on the horizon I get super-restless and create something to look forward to. Itchy feet have resulted in many a purchase of plane tickets, assuming I was able to swing it. But what made Saturday’s visit so significant- and worth blogging about- is that it’s given me my first indication of the shape 2018 might take- the potential it has for personal growth and what it might come to mean in years’ time. Weddings, thanksgivings, new year’s eve celebrations. We talked about the lot, and the trip ended in the most amazing way possible. George is a collector and frequent user of typewriters, and decided to gift one to me, given my love of writing and desire to write in different places. I was over the moon at this wonderful gift- a Spanish typewriter no less- and Elizabeth suggested I feature some scanned typewritten blog posts on TumbleweedWrites, so stay tuned. In conclusion, the visit left me feeling very loved and more than a bit excited for the future.

50 Reasons Why I Love Elvis

No blog about my life would be complete without a post devoted to my favorite singer of all time. I celebrate January 8th every year because it’s Elvis Presley’s birthday, so it stands to reason that today’s the day I write this post. If he were still alive, he’d be 83 today. Anyway, here are 50 reasons why I love Elvis!

 

  1. I discovered Elvis when I was 10 years old after a free CD with a small selection of his songs came attached to a newspaper. My mom played it in the kitchen and after listening to it, I quickly fell in love with his music.
  2. The song on that CD that I liked best was “Burning Love” and in the beginning that was my favorite.
  3. I was given more Elvis CDs by my family, opening up a myriad of new songs for my happy ears. I put them in a big CD-player I had and listened to them every morning before school as I took my shower, covering the stereo with a towel because I was paranoid about the adding of water to electricity.
  4. As a kid I preferred the concert songs of the 1970s, Vegas-era white-jumpsuit Elvis, but as I got older I was drawn more to the rock and roll tracks of his early career- the raw, rebellious, 1950s Elvis.
  5. I envied that the older members of my family had gotten to live at the time when Elvis was alive, and I hounded them for information on any memories they might have of him. I distinctly remember my Aunt telling me that her favorite number was “All Shook Up” and my grandma, when pressed, thought that “Blue Suede Shoes” was his most famous or iconic song.
  6. When I was 11 years old I was doing a school project on Richard Nixon, and on the front page I put a picture of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands. However, our printer was godawful so the whole thing had this sickly green hue to it.
  7. Over the years I’ve collected a lot of memorabilia. I’ve got Elvis scrapbooks, atlases, encyclopedias, cookbooks, biographies, limited edition issues of the official Elvis magazine, and even some rare Elvis trading cards I got on eBay. In addition to countless Elvis-themed clothing items, a dozen documentaries and several of his concerts on DVD, and other such merchandise, an American flag with his face on it hangs above my bed.
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  8. I’ve never dressed up as Elvis, and the thought of becoming an impersonator used to make me very uncomfortable. I had my doubts that it was the respectful way to remember him, and I thought that doing so might be too emotional for me. However I’ve grown to respect the artistry of some particularly skilled impersonators, and now I’m at the point where I won’t rule out becoming one in the future.
  9. I don’t particularly like Elvis’ movies, barring a couple of exceptions. I consider his movie career to be a low moment in his history, because it not only stunted his growth as a music artist, but it wasted his raw potential for acting.
  10. The biggest exception is King Creole, which is my favorite Elvis film. It’s essentially a gangster movie set in New Orleans, that doubles as a musical with some of the best songs of his career as a musician, let alone an actor. The best ones are “King Creole”, “Trouble”, “As Long As I Have You” and “Hard-Headed Woman”, all of which are amazing.
  11. I’m not a fan of Colonel Tom Parker, despite him being a pretty good manager in the early part of Elvis’ career (before he went to West Germany). Parker was essentially this old fashioned carnie guy, motivated solely by profit, and was either oblivious to or dismissive of Elvis being an artist that wanted to express himself. Instead he kind of treated Elvis as a circus act to be paraded around, a brand, something passive and without substance, to be cynically marketed in the most blandly inoffensive way possible.
  12. Elvis wanted to be a serious actor, and deeply admired Marlon Brando and James Dean. However Tom Parker wouldn’t let him contribute as one actor equal to the others in a given film; he demanded that Elvis have top billing, that he essentially play himself instead of trying to stretch his wings as a character actor, and that the movie would basically be a family-friendly “Elvis movie” instead of a film with artistic vision. It makes me sad to see Elvis’ potential wasted as he is forced to act in these dumb films he absolutely hated, which sent him into a depression.
  13. One of the biggest reasons I was drawn to Elvis as a person and not just as a singer was his status in the 1950s as a symbol of teenage rebellion. I remember my English professor at school telling us how, before he came along with rock and roll, there didn’t exist a concept of teenagers as being a distinct group in-between children and adults.
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  14. Elvis was part of a trend in the 1950s that was more controversial and edgy than even the most savage gangsta rappers we see today. People literally thought he was the devil incarnate, and there were efforts to get him off the screen and even to ban his live performances. The most famous example is of course the way they would only shoot him from the waist up, because they considered his gyrating hips and legs to be scandalous.
  15. As I said above, Elvis greatly admired the actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Movie stars were practically godlike in those days, and had a profound effect on popular culture. Both Brando and Dean planted the early seeds of that rebellious 1950s image of teenage youth that Elvis and other rockabilly artists would then go on to popularize in their music. Brando did so as early as 1953 in the outlaw biker flick The Wild One, and Dean followed it up two years later in the groundbreaking masterpiece Rebel Without a Cause. If it weren’t for these two movies, Elvis’ iconic greaser-come-rockabilly look might have been a lot different.
  16. Elvis styled his pompadour haircut off of Dean’s character in that movie, and both of them were inspired by Brando’s sideburns in The Wild One. Between Dean and Brando’s movies about teenage delinquency and Elvis’ sexually-charged music, anyone wearing a leather jacket and sporting sideburns was considered a complete thug.
  17. Half a century later, the whole style affected me too; in the past I’ve grown sideburns, and on special occasions I’ll use a special Elvis-branded pomade to slick back my hair. I also collect leather jackets which I don’t think can be a coincidence.
  18. I went to get my degree in creative writing at the University of Winchester and during a class in my first year, we were asked to bring in a song that spoke to us emotionally and then do some writing on it. Back then I was pretty embarrassed about sharing the songs I liked with people, because it felt like showing them my emotional landscape and I guarded my feelings back then with about as much mercy as a cornered honey badger. Extremely nervous, I brought in my iPod and played the song “Don’t Be Cruel”, which was my favorite at the time. When asked what I thought about the piece, I described it as “electrifying”.
  19. At the end of my first year, we had to produce a creative art project that we would then display in a gallery. It was the last assignment of the semester and I wasn’t sure what to do. A girl from the class I had played “Don’t Be Cruel” in suggested something to do with Elvis, since his music was something I was passionate about. I liked the idea, and although nervous at sharing my passion with my colleagues- with whom I felt like the class wallflower, always fearful and reclusive- I did feel a kind of joy at the idea of opening up. I settled on creating a massive map of Elvis’ America, and after drawing the outline of the USA, I added in pictures and pieces of information from various points in his life, creating something that was both a timeline and an atlas.
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  20. During some of my lonelier moments in that rough first year of university I would turn to Elvis’ music to cheer myself up, often listening to the likes of “An American Trilogy” or other slower numbers on my iPod in bed to drown out the sound of the partygoers. I later wrote a poem about the importance of his music and the comfort it provided me for a class project.
  21. A few months after making that big map, I got to finally make my pilgrimage to Graceland in August of 2012. We were there during Elvis Week and the 35th Anniversary of Elvis’ passing, so the place was absolutely packed with tourists from around the globe.
  22. One thing I loved about being in Memphis was how the legacy of Elvis was everywhere you looked. It was like the whole city was gearing up for Elvis Week; his face was everywhere- on billboards, in store windows, on restaurant menus. Near the city’s famous Beale Street there’s an awesome statue of The King.
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  23. If you are curious about some of Elvis’ favorite dishes, a lot of restaurants in the area serve Elvis-themed cuisine. I got something called the “Love Me Tender Platter” which was a fricking mountain of fried chicken, at a place opposite our hotel.
  24. The “Elvis Sandwich” is the most well-known and iconic meal inspired by The King. You can get it at a lot of places in Memphis and obviously at the eateries around Graceland. It’s known that he especially enjoyed grilled sandwiches of peanut butter, mashed bananas and bacon.
  25. Other essential eating for the diehard Elvis fan includes fried chicken, meatballs wrapped in bacon, T-bone steaks, biscuits fried in butter and filled with sausage, tomato fritters, fried pickles, Monkey Bread, and coconut cake. These were his favorite dishes and I love how decadent they are. Elvis loved the hearty, home-cooking of his native South, and never really took to foreign cuisines.
  26. What I loved about my time at Graceland was that I was, for the first time ever, surrounded by people like myself. There was an army of people young and old sporting sideburns and dyed black pompadours, people from every corner of the world, all of them wearing Elvis merchandize like myself. I felt a sense of belonging, especially at seeing so many younger Elvis fans. The army around me had the same sense of religious fanaticism you might get from a crowd of sports fans.
  27. We had to be taken to Graceland via these mini buses, each group regulated by guides because there were so many of us. Once we were through the gates and I was standing in Elvis’ front yard, we had to wait until we were allowed in. Each group had a certain amount of time and you had to keep walking. You couldn’t double back and check out a certain room again, or move freely.
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  28. As we waited, one of the guides told us facts about Elvis’ legacy and my brother told me that given my encyclopedic knowledge and fervent zeal, I could easily get a job here.
  29. What struck us most about the house was that it wasn’t quite as grandiose and extravagant as you might expect given Elvis’ absurd wealth and fame. It’s definitely fancy, but it’s also quite homely and snug. It feels very much like a place that was lived in, rather than some cold, soulless mansion. It’s the kind of place that looks bigger and grander than it actually is if you’ve only seen it in pictures.
  30. I felt a pang of emotion when looking at the swing sets and tricycles used by a young Lisa Marie. Elvis and his wife Priscilla divorced when Lisa Marie was at a very early age, and a few years later Elvis passed away. It’s sad to think of the childhood memories she missed out on.
  31. Sadder still was the moment of looking upon Elvis’ gravestone. All around were beautiful wreaths and works of art made by fans from as far away as Taiwan and Denmark. My brother confessed to feeling a surge of emotion as he looked down upon the memorial.
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  32. The highlight of my trip came when news broke out that Lisa Marie Presley was conducting a radio interview here at Graceland, and I was able to get quite close to the front of the crowd gathering at the barricades. I was probably an arm’s length away from her, and proceeded to take the best pictures I could, all the while feeling completely paralyzed with awe.
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  33. Before leaving Graceland I checked out the gift shop and bought myself a TCB necklace, something I’ve always wanted. The TCB stands for “Taking Care of Business” which was Elvis’ motto. He outfitted his entire entourage with pins bearing these letters arranged around a lightning bolt, and the logo can also be seen on Elvis’ private jet, the Lisa Marie. If I were ever to get a tattoo, that’s what I’d get.
  34. One time someone in the USA came up to me and informed me they hated Elvis. I told my brother and he went into a rage.
  35. I went to see an Elvis concert in Bristol, where a live orchestra provided the instrumental accompaniment to his voice, and a 3D holographic image of Elvis from his Vegas concerts gave the closest thing you can get to experiencing Elvis in concert. It’s an amazing production, and it’s been so successful that they have taken to touring the world. The one I went to sold out fast and we were lucky to get tickets.
  36. King Creole is my favorite fictional Elvis film, but my favorite motion picture overall is the documentary Elvis On Tour. The montage sequences were supervised by a young Martin Scorsese and if you’ve ever studied Mean Streets or Taxi Driver you can tell how his distinctive cinematic genius has touched the production.
  37. In 2014 I visited the Green Bay area of the US state Wisconsin, and on the last day of my time there, my friends took me to an amusement park called Bay Beach. There’s a ride there called the Zippin’ Pippin’ which is said to be Elvis’ favorite ride. I made sure to get my picture with the plaque boasting to that effect, before braving my fear of roller coasters with my friend Elizabeth to give it a go.
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  38. My all-time favorite Elvis song is “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, and I put a dollar in the jukebox at a bar in De Pere, WI called The Old Number Seven to play this song. I was playing darts and drinking beer with my American family, and when the song started playing I took a special joy in seeing my best mate Anne-Marie singing along.
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  39. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is my favorite song overall, but there’s an Elvis song for every occasion. If you want something inspiring and uplifting that touches on social issues, then go for “In the Ghetto” or “If I Can Dream”, the latter of which is based off of Martin Luther King’s speech. If you want a more edgy rock and roll sound, then I’d recommend “Hound Dog”. And you can’t leave out “Suspicious Minds”, which is generally considered his greatest song pound for pound. I tend to pick which of his songs to listen to on the basis of my mood at the time.
  40. Following up that last point, Elvis is in 23 Halls of Fame for his musical achievements. That’s why I encourage people to give him a go, because there’s a lot of variety to his songs. He’s considered a legend in the genres of rock and roll, country, pop, blues, and gospel!
  41. Elvis served as a huge inspiration for so many successful music artists. It’s well documented how the likes of John Lennon and Bob Dylan worshipped him, but even modern singers discuss how influential he has been on their careers. Notable examples of Elvis fans that come to mind in today’s industry include Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, and Harry Styles.
  42. I was so pleased when playing Fallout: New Vegas that there was a street gang of Elvis impersonators. It’s one of my favorite games and when I play I always join that faction.
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  43. Essential movie-watching for Elvis fans includes Lilo & Stitch, Blade Runner 2049, and Forrest Gump.
  44. Fun fact: Charles Manson had a plot to assassinate Elvis Presley and even showed up at one of his Hollywood residences, looking deranged and suspicious. Fortunately, Elvis employed all his high school buddies as his personal bodyguards, the Memphis Mafia, and they told Manson to get lost.
  45. One of my favorite things about Elvis was his generosity. There are so many stories of Elvis giving expensive gifts to complete strangers, such as cars and houses, a job if he could hire them, a wheelchair if they needed it, and every year he gave huge donations to charities, hospitals and schools. But Elvis wasn’t perfect- he was as flawed and human as the rest of us. He made mistakes and lost his temper, and he really would have disliked the Christlike image in which some people regard him.
  46. My brother loves Frank Sinatra, and in 1960 the great singer hosted Elvis on his television show in a special episode welcoming him home from the army. Previously, Sinatra had regarded Elvis and the rock and roll movement with disdain, thinking that they were just a bunch of crude reprobates. However, after meeting Elvis he came to admire him very much, after seeing that the rebel image Elvis had was just that- an image, a marketing tool. Privately, Elvis was a very humble, polite person who deeply loved his mother- traits that won Sinatra over.
  47. Elvis was a huge football fan, a fact that makes my heart happy. He loved to both play and watch the game, and was a complete nerd when it came to the sport. He loved being tested on football trivia and knowing the names and numbers of all the players. If he were alive today I’m sure he’d be a fan of the Tennessee Titans, and celebrating their weekend win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card round of the playoffs. However, his favorite team was actually The Cleveland Browns, who just this season finished 0-16. It’s not that surprising though, because believe it or not, the Browns were utterly unstoppable when Elvis was young. Otto Graham was an ice-cold badass, the most winningest quarterback in NFL history, who won Cleveland the 1954 championship game by throwing for 3 touchdowns and rushing for 3 more, not long after Elvis got back from the Louisiana Hayride.
  48. Elvis’ favorite player, however, was the immortal Jim Brown- perhaps the greatest player of his era pound-for-pound. Of course, Elvis became friends with Brown and there’s an awesome photo of the two giants in their respective fields chewing the fat.
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  49. This talk of football and music brings to mind the inherent zealotry of fandom. I’m not the kind of Elvis fan that’s going to come up to you and fill your earhole with preachy rhetoric about how great he is- which admittedly sounds ironic given this post- but all the same, I am nothing if not shy, so I don’t try to convert people. My approach to music- and life in general- can best be described as live and let live. That said, I can get quite defensive if someone comes up to me and slanders his name- much in the way I can get heated when people insult Aaron Rodgers.
  50. It’s reported that on the last full day of his life, Elvis had tried to get Lisa Marie a print of Star Wars: A New Hope, which to me is the perfect fact to end this list on!

My New Year’s Resolution

I have always been attracted to the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, because I love having a sense of direction in life. I love the idea of building something. It’s not enough just to earn money to stay alive. I love having a project. But I’m not entirely at ease with the concept of Resolutions. I don’t think people should be made to feel that they have to have one. If you’re happy, why change? A cynic might argue that having a Resolution is a sure way to make yourself disappointed in the future. When I listen to other people’s Resolutions, I find they’re most often based on eschewing perceived vices. Vowing to stop eating donuts, smoking cigarettes, or watching porn. But come Spring they have Type 2 Diabetes, a voice as rough as a cement mixer, and they’ve swiftly gone blind. And while I absolutely encourage efforts to live a more healthy lifestyle, it’s not quite the type of Resolution I’m drawn to. It’s what I think of as a Negative Resolution- aimed at resisting a temptation of some kind. It’s often seeing how many months you can go before you’re rushing out to the store for a box of Shipley’s, a packet of Camels, and presumably a fresh stack of tissues.

I’m more interested in what I call Positive Resolutions- an end goal that I work towards. However, I realize we live in an age that encourages dreams and the entitlement to individual achievement. And so it can sometimes be unhelpful to pressure others to feel like they need a dream or a target of their own. I certainly endorse the idea of striving to improve as a person, but you don’t need some grandiose, lofty Resolution to do that. I asked three people on New Year’s Eve what their Resolutions were. The first to answer was an old friend of mine, who declared he wanted a new job. A nice, solid goal to work towards. The next to respond was his cheerful girlfriend, who was less certain. After thinking about it for a bit, she then decided that if she were to have a target, it would be to compete again in a bodybuilding competition (she’s ripped). The last fellow to answer was the most caught off guard. We thought of Resolutions for him, but concluded that honestly he didn’t need one. Resolutions are like freckles. Sure, they look cute & pretty & distinctive, and you might want them- but you don’t need them. Similarly a Resolution is a fine thing to have, but you’re not missing anything by not having one.

I had the same conversation a day later with my family as we sat down for the first supper or 2018. My brother went first, and with wild-eyed excitement told us that he wanted to try a new hobby, something completely new, exotic, and challenging like Kendo, ballroom dancing, or amateur dramatics. My mom went second, and opted for the becoming less-reliant-on-chocolate-to-get-through-the-day route. When it was my dad’s turn, he answered with a stony face and a gruff voice “I don’t believe in Resolutions.”

Then it was my turn. As the eyes around the table fell on me, I thought about what I wanted from 2018. There were a bunch of areas in my life one might think ripe for a Resolution. This blog for example. What’s the next step for TumbleweedWrites? To reach 1000 subscribers? To blog full-time? The answer is I want this blog to steadily improve, to grow, but I don’t have a specific target in mind for it. I will most likely finish my Study Abroad series of personal essays pretty soon, and I have another big subject lined up for this Spring that will surely feature quite heavily in my writing for this site. More details on that will come very soon.

And what about other aspects of my life? Of course I intend to keep my job and perhaps even get a promotion, but it’s not my Resolution. The same can be said for fitness. I need to lose some of this chub and get my stamina back, but once again, that’s not my main ambition for the year. Those of you hoping for a Mrs Tumbleweed to emerge sometime soon will also be disappointed, because getting a girlfriend is not my focus either. If Mrs Right comes along then that’s swell, but I have decided that I’m not going to treat being single as some kind of problem. I need my energy for writing, and I’m not prepared to enter into a relationship that isn’t organic and natural. So I won’t be reinstalling Tinder or hitting the bars.

I would say that my main objective for the year is to find a literary agent for my novel, which (judging by my current rate) ought to be finished by February sometime. But I don’t think it’s helpful for a writer to worry about something beyond his or her control. Maybe it will get represented, maybe it will get published, maybe it will be on shelves at a bookstore near you- but none of those are things I can really control. At that point your manuscript is in the hands of other people. All a writer can do is write. I hope to write at least one other novel before the end of the year, so that’s a more interesting and worthwhile target I think. Finish the current novel and write a second one.

But truly, my New Year’s Resolution is much more personal than anything I have listed above. Mental health is my primary concern. I’ve spent the last 24 hours deep in thought. I’m reevaluating my progress as a person, and I’ve realized that I’m far from where I want to be. Anxiety is a part of me for better or for worse, and I know I want to manage that better. A panic attack is a wake-up call- a reminder that however much I might feel like I’m doing better, I can slip right down to rock bottom at a moment’s notice. I think my Resolution will be trying to become more self-sufficient, more mentally strong and to be able to handle things on my own. I’m still too much of a people-pleaser, I still compromise too much, I’m passive, and lacking in confidence in the moments when I need to back myself the most. This year I hope to be as thoroughly myself as I can possibly be. And this post here is where it starts. My blog has always been a way to hold myself accountable, and TumbleweedWrites will serve as a record of my progress. When I look back on this post in December, what will I think?