28 July 2014

Through the mail slot

I went and came back from Slovenia — stories I wanted to tell about transit and Vienna all melted away because I am a lazy writer, not writing when I should write. I am, however, also a guilty writer, so I come back to writing at times not because I want to, but because I feel I have to. Not for you — not for the reader or me or future me, but for the writing. Not for anything else.

There is not much to tell from my trip, except all the things that I can remember now. A train ride out of Austria to the south. I felt tired and heavy the whole time, the weight of my family, which I can never seem to shake, which this whole blog is now devoted, in some way or another. I left one day, the last day, to go running on the river. I said to the people at my table, I am going running, and one of them said, You should go: life's too short. I said outloud what I thought: Is it? It doesn't feel that way. It feels like it's been going on and on, like it won't ever stop

The truth was that I wanted to run in the heat and run to the edge of my endurance, where I felt like I wanted to throw up and pass out on the path. I wanted to run in the worst way, the beer and all the shit I had been eating for the last week, trying to save money and wandering around the city after the conference, aimlessly waiting for the next day. 

Can the work of the Lord be quantified. I suspect not. 

When I came home, home to Birmingham, the nights were noticeably shorter, like summer is just starting to wane. The British will say, 'We've had lovely weather, to be fair' and they're right, it's been a lovely summer. Last summer too, though I wasn't here, was lovely too, I'm told. Now, we begin to feel the touches of autumn, and the promise of long winter, with sweaters and some snow, I hope. It's been a long time since it's snowed.

Through the mail slot this week came first very good news about our finances and then very bad news: the specifics of it are unimportant, except that our choice to live here, in England, is going to continue to be hard financially. No light at the end of the tunnel for now, except some vague future. I had the first moment ever when I thought that maybe leaving Malaysia had been a mistake, as I looked at a photo of friends in an open air food court. No, no, of course not, I reminded myself: another set of article proofs come. Another book that I'm in. No, no, stick to the plan — keep your head down and work hard. There is always something coming, if you can will it. 

16 July 2014

All the differences

I spent early Tuesday morning waiting for the 900a bus from Moor St, the first bus to the airport from the city. I had planned to spend the night in coffee shops, but as it goes, there are no coffee shops open all night. I went, instead, to McDonald's, starting the night out near New St station.

As you can imagine, McDonald's at 12:30 on a Tuesday morning is filled with all the people waiting that Dr Suess writes about in that book every millennial got for graduation. I read it to my kids.This morning, McDonald's was full of people waiting for trains and two black men eating food that had not been purchased at McDonald's, unless McDonald's is now selling full apple pies in pans and cider. They tried talking to these two women sitting next to me, asking the younger looking one what she was doing and where she was going. When they left, the man with the pie gave me a piece of advice about watching porn: I  couldn't do it on the WiFi, he said, I would need to tether my computer to my phone. I thanked him and left soon after, looking for another McDonald's with a power point and more coffee.

I ended up on Corporation St and as I was going into that McDonald's a younger homeless guy asked me for some change, for a coffee. I of course told him no, thinking as I've been taught he would only use the money for drugs.  He followed me in though and I was suddenly, irrationally scared that he might knife me.  After I ordered, he took out a saver card that they have here: when you buy 6 coffees the seventh is free and ordered a hot chocolate with  four sugars and sat down near the power point. I followed him there, to plug in my computer and keep waiting for the bus, working as it turns out on my article about porn.

Around 2:45 a woman came in to get coffee, another homeless woman, and knew the guy I was sitting near. She tried to order something, but didn't have the money and asked if her friend had 10p which I was suddenly eager to fish out of my coin purse. Another homeless man came in,  carrying a black plastic bag,  ordered a coffee. He dropped his lid over the rail to where I was sitting and I picked it up for him: he said, thanks and then, You's ain't homeless, is you? and I said, Oh, no, no, just waiting for a bus. Where's you from? he asked. Well, I live in Birmingham, but I'm from Chicago originally. Ah, he said, could be from Birmingham, Alabama, he said, and we both laughed: but you's ain't got the accent.

Around 3:40, I packed up to go, the guy I had been sitting with and initially afraid of now curled up and sleeping in the corner booth. The night manager went out front to smoke, and didn't say anything, standing at the threshold of the door,  looking out like an Edward Hopper painting. I pulled on my bag, and set out into the night again, the 900a bus coming on time and taking me away.

15 July 2014

Neither the best, nor worst

On Friday, Naomi and Mei got their reports for the six months they were at their school, Woodhouse Primary, on the top of Tennal Rd, on the edge of Quinton, just where the shine of Harborne begins to wear off. The reports were all good: they are a pleasure to have in class. They are engaged. They have wide circles of friends. I read the reports, sitting with the girls in the Ikea parking lot, before we went in for dinner. Both of the girls beamed, Mei particularly, so happy to be told she had done well. I too beamed, in the way that you do when you hear that your children are well-adjusted and kind.

We celebrated by eating at Ikea, which is a simple sort of celebration, but about what we can handle right now. Pulled out of Malaysia, things are, in theory, much better, but I've yet to see the positive impact, after paying to get here, and for the government to let us stay. I'd like to feel better about the choice, about coming back — it was certainly better than where I was, but I wonder, I worry about chasing some dream. Some unrealistic, stupid dream. There was a job posted in Hiroshima: how much easier, simpler would life be in Hiroshima.

On Saturday, word came down that the children had been invited to a birthday pool swimming party and that I was needed to help the adult to children ratio. Standing in my trunks, when the time came to head out with the kids into the water with the other men, I felt the absence of humiliation. Like humiliation would be wasted on me if I felt it and that I must, as these other men — all five to ten years older than me — accept that this was our fate. We are fat and flaccid and now our wives and children have put us together in the water, in our trunks, and we are to maintain eye contact and make small talk. Yes, I am Mei's dad. Yes, and Naomi and Mia too. Yes, 7, 5 and 3. Yes, the water is warm. Yes, I am from the States, all while pretending to not be standing waist deep in a kiddie pool.

Of course, the kids loved it and after we were allowed to get dressed again, we stood around awkwardly while the children ate ham and margarine sandwiches, followed by cake. The men all hunched over their smart phones at this point, looking to do important business, and I too was persuaded to pull out my cheap Samsung Fame, which I got on offer, and pretend as well that I had I gotten an important e-mail, rather than another alert from Facebook. At some point, after the children had eaten what the mothers felt they would eat, we were offered the leftover sandwiches, which of course, we feigned lack of interest in, before giving in: Well, if someone needs to eat them.

We left with the kids bounding around, full of energy and candy: it had been the fourth party they have been to in three months and they compared notes among the ones they liked best. Yes, the pool had been good, much better than the others.

Tonight, as I packed for my trip to Slovenia, Naomi came to my office and asked me if I was working or just watching YouTube videos. I told her that I didn't know anymore. What's my job or not my job. Is this part of my job? I left, kissed them and Yoko goodbye and got on a late bus to sit in a McDonalds until an early bus comes, and an early flight, and a train then to Eastern Europe. What  kind of dream isn't stupid, really, isn't misguided or wasteful.

05 July 2014

Re-reading the past

The news reported that we had a record high this last week: 27.2, sweltering heat for the West Midlands and England in general. The whole nation is encouraged to run outside with Pimms and sit in garden chairs, soaking it in while listening to Wimbledon on the radio in the background. Andy Murray is out now; the English team was pathetic in the World Cup this year. Still, before the rain comes in again, we should enjoy the good weather while we can. It's bound to go sour sooner rather than later. The weather, the attention to the weather, is so British.

The girls and I walk to school every morning, up Tennal Rd, from Harborne to the edge of Quinton where Woodhouse school is. The walk is a nuisance when you are doing it — getting the kids all ready to go and out the door before eight twenty — but is actually the substance of their childhood and the thing you will remember in your fifties when you think back about the children as children. Remember walking to school everyday; remember holding daddy's hand. We chat about everything in their lives: their plans for school or the missing cat posters stapled to telephone poles or what Valerie, the troubled girl at school, did yesterday. At the gate of the school, I insist that they kiss and hug me, however reluctantly.

While life in Malaysia had dramatic moments which served as perfect depictions of life in the developing world, our English life is markedly less dramatic. Yesterday, I packed my bag — the Jack Wolfskin backpack I bought myself for my birthday — and set off to run home. It began raining as I came up Woodgate Rd. I stopped, after crossing into the path by the creek, and put on the rain cover and then ran on. Nothing happened; no one stopped me. I came in the back door, peeled of my wet clothes and took a shower. The rain is the complicating event in that story.

The rain could also be a complicating event in a story in Malaysia, like when I found myself caught in a deluge, the whole left lane of Jalan Semenyih covered in a foot of water, probably more. That day I was riding my bike in that rain and almost killed myself. I was soaked all the way through — I stood in a strip mall outside a Chinese grocer shop and wondered if the rain would let up enough to get home that night. Cockroaches coming up out of the sewers.

The past is a rag that we wring out. I sit down to write and wonder if there is still more to come out, if it is dry now. No, I have not exhausted it, there is still more to say. You can re-read it again and again — the Jack Wolfskin bag, a kind of embodied writing prompt. I sinch up the shoulder straps and remember riding on the bus back to Kajang in the heat of some afternoon, thinking about a future that I am now living.