Friday, 29 March 2019

Wish You Were Here: Why not Wales?

So, the producer of an NFL podcast posted something on Twitter the other day that gave me pause for thought. The tweet was positive, and expressed some of the same emotions I felt when I first found out that I was coming here:

I began to pen a reply, but then didn't want to be That Guy trying to slide into her DMs. But the tweet made me recall something I often think when foreigners (usually Americans) consider the UK: Why not Wales? Why, when I said I was coming here the first time, did so many of my friends not know where it was, and why, even now, do so many of them say that they would love to come visit Whales some day?

Stereotypical American geographical ignorance aside, I just don't get why Wales is so often overlooked when people come to, or think about, the UK - especially those from the US who are tracing their Celtic roots. I mean, what do Ireland and Scotland have that Wales doesn't...?

Rich folklore and magical, mythical creatures? Check! The Welsh are considered by some to be the original Celts on the British Isles - archaeologists have traces the migration of the first settlers here from Europe, to (modern day) Wales, to Ireland, back over to Scotland and then back down again. Along the way, they developed a deep and passionate love of storytelling, especially through poetry and song. The first known written mention of King Arthur is in the Sixth-Century poem Y Gododdin, written by the bard Aneirin in 594 CE. You also get great stories of giants like Ysbaddaden and Rhudda; tales of cities being lost to the sea because someone was too drunk to close the floodgates, and of  tragically brave dogs who are given a hero's burial. You can keep your banshees, leprechauns and Broonies - the Welsh have them all beat.

Cool patron saint? Check! How is it that everyone knows about Saint Patrick (who was Welsh, by the way), most people know about St. Andrew and St. George, but nobody has heard of Saint David, the patron Saint of Wales...? Maybe it's because he's the only saint whose flag didn't make the cut for the Union Jack. Maybe it's because the Welsh don't tend to dye their rivers and get rat-arsed once a year to celebrate his day... it's enough to wear a dafodil, eat a Welshcake and wish everyone "Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus!"

Funky national dress? Check! Well, kinda. The Welsh don't traditionally wear kilts (a relatively modern Scottish fashion, by the way), but they DO have a traditional costume. I've only ever seen it worn on March 1 (St. David's Day) or in the Eisteddfod, but it does exist. Why this one isn't more well-known, I can sort of understand: it's neither that unique, nor very flattering. But then again, neither is lederhosen, and everyone seems to get on board with that.

Cool flag? HELL YES. Don't get me wrong: I love Ol' Glory. I honestly think that the USA flag is special. But the Welsh flag takes vixilogical badassery to a whole new level. No crosses. No stars. No tree leaf. Just a great, big fuck-off  DRAGON. A. DRAGON. No wonder it was featured in the Black Panther, and has recently been voted the coolest flag in the world.

And then there's the country itself: modern, sophisticated and international in some places; depressed, poor and deprived in others; rural, grand and picturesque in others. Cities, hamlets, beaches, cliffs, mountains, rivers, fields and lots and lots of sheep. What more could you want? We recently played hosts to an old friend of mine and his family. As the Headmaster of an international school, my friend has lived in many countries, and traveled to even more. At 15 and 14, his kids have seen more of the world than most people will see in their lifetimes. But even with all of those miles under their belts, they still were in awe - literally - of what was in our back yard. I love those visits, even if all they do is to remind me how lucky I am to live in this little corner of the big blue marble.

And we could, of course, go on. Music, theatre, cinema, politics, civil rights, government, engineering, technology - the scope and breadth of Welsh influence on history is truly remarkable for a county that no one seems to know about.  Maybe I'll cover some of that later.

Maybe, another time, I'll look into the real question of 'Why not Wales?' I suspect, without any real research, that it's probably a combination of a lack of catastrophic diaspora, the lack of accessibility via civil infrastructure, the lack of an historically united and self-governed sense of nationhood, and, if we're completely honest, a lack of colonial ambition in the Welsh themselves. They seem to me to be a nation that is quite happy to stay in Wales, to keep Wales to themselves, and to take good care of it. And who can blame them, really? Living in one of the world's most beautiful, friendly and under-appreciated places suits me just fine.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Suffering in Silence

Let me start off by saying that I am very aware that I've used the term 'suffering' loosely. I know that there is proper suffering in the world, and I have experienced almost none of it. So don't let this post be confused for a cry for sympathy; it's not. I'm sitting in a heated house, with superfast broadband (in rural Wales!) and a bottle of ice-cold beer from my fridge. On a world-wide scale of suffering, I'm pretty close to the bottom.

What it is, or tries to be, is an attempt so share with you what it's like to live with Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis, or RRP, and how living with RRP has impacted my life and the lives of those around me. What's RRP? It's a massive pain in the ass, that's what. If that's not medical enough for you, look here. Not really sure how I got it, but after several years of losing my voice periodically after a night out (one too many YEE- HAAAAAA!s), one day I went to Dublin for a Five Nations (ah, the good ol' days) game and came back without a voice. And it never came back. It was only after a long while of waiting (too long, probably), that I asked to be seen by an ENT specialist, who confirmed that my vocal chords were covered in papilloma. Around 25 years and at least  as many surgeries later, I still don't have much of a voice - though, to be fair, it's much better than it was when I was known as the 'Hoarse Whisperer,' and basically had to mime my wedding vows.

For those of you who know me personally, you'll be aware that my voice is - interesting. I've got a very low, gravelly voice - think a white Louis Armstrong without the talent, charisma, or pot. I've returned home to the US a couple of times, and my old friends who may not have seen me in 20 or more years are always shocked - who is this froggy voiced Mr Bean? To the casual observer, it usually sounds like I've either got a bad cold, been on a huge bender, or smoked 40 a day since I was nine. Most of the time, none of those is true. But that doesn't stop people - lots of people - from offering me throat lozenges, or commenting that I sound like I have a cold, or out-and-out asking, 'What's wrong with your voice?' It got to the point one time, many years ago, when I replied to someone who asked that with, 'I've just been diagnosed with throat cancer - thanks for asking.' Her face went white and her jaw dropped to the floor. At the time, I felt a little bad - I mean, I (thankfully) don't have cancer, and to say that I did is disrespectful to those who do suffer. So, apologies. But I was SO fed up with having to explain my 'condition' to people, that I opted for a cheap and easy way to shut up a stranger. Not my finest moment, but it was very effective.

And I guess that's where this post is coming from. Although it sounds like I've just got a croaky voice, living with RRP is actually pretty inconvenient and, often, very frustrating. Again, I get it: 'inconvenient' and 'frustrating' are not the hallmarks of true suffering. 'My wallet's too small for my 50s, and my diamond shoes are too tight,' right? I get it. But hear me out (you'll have to listen carefully - see above). Having limited vocal ranges has some pretty serious implications on my daily life, especially as a father of three young girls. For instance, without pitch, I only have volume to work with. As such, it is very hard for my voice to convey any emotion other than anger. I cannot change the tone of my voice to express sarcasm, or humour, or levity. I have one note, and I can say words at a 'normal' level, or at a slightly increased volume. That't it. Think about trying to read a story to your kids, and not to be able to do any character voices. I tried it the other night and I just ended up coughing violently. My poor kids have to endure pirates, fairies, talking vegetables and crime-fighting iguanas all with the same voice. And you can forget about singing. I have developed a very skilled set of expressive dance moves in the car, simply because I cannot sing along. And that is one thing I really miss. I was never a good singer, but that can't stop people like me (and Adam Levine, apparently). So everything I sing is either down six octaves and in a range between 3 or 4 notes, or it's jazz hands, air punches and Broadway-level sweeping arm gestures. The kids are instantly mortified, but it's all I've got. Don't worry girls, as far as Embarrassing Dad Things that I'm Bound to Do in your Lifetime, you ain't seen nothing yet.

There is, of course, a practical element of this condition, and it can be quite serious. Imagine being in a busy and unfamiliar place, being responsible for small children, and not being able to use your voice. It can be frustrating, terrifying and futile. When the girls were learning to ride their bikes and it was just me out with them, I got so nervous/stressed about them riding off that I brought a whistle with me a couple of times, just to have a way to communicate. Because, again, any time I try to increase my volume, it sounds as though I'm angry. Which isn't really want you want when your 4-year-old is learning to ride a bike, or cross a road, or wants to run off into a crowded supermarket. Or, think about any public function... ever. Lots of background noise, poor acoustics... a voice like mine doesn't carry and soon gets lost in most pubs, restaurants, train stations, etc.  Coping with that means either becoming less engaged in those types of situations, or avoiding them altogether. Which really isn't me - or it didn't used to be.  But now, I find myself really dreading being in those places because I know that I will either literally have to shout in order to be heard, or sit quietly and just listen. I avoid phone calls because I spent many years of not being able to be heard - and still cannot speak on a mobile phone if I'm outside or in a busy place. All of this had led to me becoming more socially withdrawn and less publicly confident - out of just sheer frustration. And let's not forget the people on the other end of my voice - they've dealt with this, too. Over the past 25 years or so that this has been going on, the constant straining to hear, asking 'pardon?', or trying not to think you're being yelled at takes its toll on human relationships, and has made it all too easy to just stop trying to communicate altogether.

You can, if you look, find the positives. As a coach it was always a very useful tool to get people to be quiet and listen. And, according to lots of really helpful - and slightly inappropriate - strangers, I have been convinced that I'd have a very lucrative career as a phone sex operator. And thanks to today's uber PC-world and Kathleen Turner, I can call customer services and claim to be my wife without being questioned. So it's not all bad.

But, and maybe this is the simple point I'm trying to make by writing 5000 words, don't assume that because you can't see my condition, or that it manifests itself in way you think you recognise as a result of my own misbehaviour, that it's OK to mock me or to make light of what I, and those in my life, are going through on a daily basis. Would you offer a crutch to a stranger with a pronounced limp, or ask them how they did it? Maybe - but probably not. And not because you're not a helpful or kind person, but because you probably recognise their condition as none of your business. You have no idea what happened, why they are how they are, and what impact that might have on their life. And unless I have panda eyes and reek of donner kebab and Snakey-Bs, you probably don't know why I speak the way I do, either.  So please don't offer me a Strepsil. Just bear with me, listen closely, and understand that this is the best I can do. I haven't lost my voice. This IS my voice.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

TUnESDAY: Who Rules the World?

Slowly, painfully slowly, the reins on the control over music in Jackson (my car) are being loosened. Since our trip Stateside, I've gradually been able to introduce music that isn't being sung by a personified pony, a doe-eyed princess or a talking French candelabra.

And, while it's liberating to some degree, it's also a little daunting as I've realised that these - and the years coming - are going to define those moments in my daughters' futures when they say 'We were raised on ________ in our house' - and that could be anything A-Ha to ZZ Top. And THAT could open them up to be either ridiculed or revered among their peer groups forever more. Or at least until they tell me to turn that junk off and lose themselves in a sea of tuneless, meaningless, manufactured modern shite. God, I'm old.

Anyway - what SHOULD I be pre-emptively brainwashing my kids with? I had a small but important moment of pride not so long ago when, just before the drum line kicked in and asked , 'Are you ready to rock?' But I'm not sure that my rock one compilation CD consisting of Kid Rock, Kansas, Foo Fighters and Van Halen will be enough to hold back the inevitable onslaught of talent show winners-cum-pop-icons.

That's not to say I don't LOVE a good pop song. I've been known to bob along to [insert generic short-lived teeny-bopper build-a-band here] from time to time. And, hey - let's be honest, I was never cool enough in high school to appreciate the Doors, the Stones or whatever other classic artist I was meant to love at the time, much to the dismay of most of my friends. It got worse in college, when I was left to my own devices. McFly? Loved em. Busted? Right on. McBusted? Holy Hell... yes, please! But whatever my own glaring shortcomings musical taste, I'm now responsible for setting up three lives with some modicum of musical credibility, and I can't afford to let them down by only playing Five Colors in Her Hair.

Luckily, the oldest seems to have taken a shine to Pink. It doesn't matter that she picked out that particular artist from Lady Marmalade - the fact is that she seems to like Pink. And I think that's not a bad choice. A strong and talented woman with creative flare, playing with the boundaries between rock, pop and ballad. I don't mind that at all. And yes, of course, somewhere along the line, they'll all need to hear other strong females who represent different takes on musical genius. The time will come for the Diana Rosses, the Dusty Springfields, the Stevie Nickses and the Janis Joplins. But she will also get to enjoy Sia, Christina Aguilera, Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga along the way. And, for now, I'm going to concentrate on filling her head with these more accessible Women of Song, in the hopes that it will pave the way for a deeper appreciation for women in music and a greater resistance to the soulless cookie-cutter drivel that weakens us all.

Now, I can hear all of my seriously musically-minded friends screaming that some (if not all) of the artists I names are nothing more than peddlers of the trivial nonsense that I claim to be fighting against. And to be fair, you're probably right. I've already said that I don't have very sophisticated taste in music - what did you expect? All I can say is that they will get a wide selection of all music has to offer. AC/DC and Little Mix? Sure, why the hell not? They'll get it all.

Except jazz. Even I have my limits.