Monthly Archives: January 2014

On thin ice

I hadn’t planned to write this today but I’m atrophying in my dressing gown still, mid-afternoon, on a Friday. It’s a snow day today. Yes, you read it right. A snow day. In Houston. Where there’s no snow. We’ve been building up to this for a day or two now. On Wednesday, iPhones were showing – dramatically and pictorially – freezing rain for today, like a beautiful but menacing iced-up waterfall high in the Derbyshire Dales mid-winter. (Oh, if only!) All day yesterday we debated whether or not the buses would run or school would be open, and even before the temperature started to drop a preemptory email arrived saying they/it might not and R, my 15 year old, tried hard not to get too excited about the prospect of an extra lie-in,  but he can’t help himself.

So the ice storm blustered in overnight with a swooshing dip of the mercury but otherwise not much else to show for itself,  but lo and behold we woke to messages confirming that school was shut. I roused R, then checked, then told him the good news as instructed by him (for the delicious pleasure of being able to roll right over and go straight back to sleep). I gave F an extra hour too. In the meantime, I made myself coffee and returned to bed, with iPad. Where I’ve been since. Flicking from email to Facebook to the Guardian and back again, commenting here, clicking on links there, watching clips, but mainly reading and contributing to the collectively amusing and sardonic posts about the weather non-situation. I thought about heading out for a spinning class and checked the timetable (on the screen) but couldn’t tear myself away from the cryptic crossword. Which I finished (though, to be scrupulously honest, with three word cheats, but I’d’ve got there eventually).  I forced R out of bed at 9, F was already hard at work. I brewed more coffee and retired again. I had a little read of my book. R decided to do some art, which was fine by me, so I helped him with his model-making (a New Orleans plantation house, since you’re asking) – holding together glued edges, that type of thing, all very constructive.  I made him bring it into my bedroom to do it, mind you.  I got up to grill a bagel for what I suppose you could call brunch, mumbled something encouraging to F doing his maths (can’t specifically help him there in any other way, of course), suggested R might take on something less entertaining and creative, and more academic and strictly necessary than his artwork – like chemistry homework, just as an example – but didn’t really press the point. The plantation house, I have to say, is looking good already.

If school was on I’d’ve been up and at the day. I’d’ve had a run and gone for coffee and cake to celebrate C’s birthday (cancelled due to too many people invited now with small children to care for – careless planning I’d say, next time C just invite those of us with teens!); maybe I’d have got on with some writing work too. At the very least, I’d have cleaned my teeth and be dressed by now.  But outside there’s a steely grey, flat sky; it’s bone-achingly cold and damp – and nothing like a proper, rip-roaring snow day:  there’s not even ice left (there wasn’t much to start with), let alone any fluffy white stuff. No drifts to jump in, drives don’t need shovelling clear. And even if there had been snow, there are no hills to go sledging down, or anyone out and about to throw snowballs at, no gritters and snow ploughs with their intoxicating wintery-ness, or trains and buses heroically forging through. It’s very quiet and there’s absolutely nothing to get excited about; on the contrary it’s chilly, overcast and boring.  Even the boys have been sighing. We’re stir-crazy but uninspired (and, I suspect, a bit uninspiring, sorry).

Ours is not the only school closed, all Houston schools are, along with most businesses. The main rationale behind this shutdown is that, because they build the roads so ludicrously high here, when it actually dips below freezing it can be quite slippy slidey up there on the freeway feeders, treacherous even for the otherwise apparently invincible Texan pick-ups. Today is the one day in a thousand that (maybe) justifies the year-round “Beware of ice on bridges” signs that quirkily adorn every single slight incline on the roads of this normally blisteringly hot city.

But still! It’s lame and unsatisfactory and disappointing and not like home and I blame it (yes! the freaking lack of weather) for this oxymoronic state of torpor and restlessness that I find myself in, which I’m trying to shake off by writing this.  Come ON girl, time to get dressed…

Romantic? Moi?

I was thinking about writing my next blog about last Sunday’s Houston marathon and half marathon, in the context of how well Americans do big events compared to the Brits (I don’t mean the people taking part in them do better, of course, I mean specifically how well organised and supported they are). Possibly sounds a bit boring, but I’ll probably get round to it anyway sometime. But not here today, because,  while chatting with some pals this morning another thing struck me.

We were talking about the half marathon, which I took part in. [Before I go on, I should say that I know lots of people who did it, and some who did the full one, and as this was my tenth half, my slowest ever and I was the last to finish out of everyone I know, I’m honestly not angling for congratulations; the truth is that I had the best run in the best conditions that I could’ve hoped for given my crap training regime, less than sleek body and pre-, inter- and post-Christmas drinking (hence the crap training regime/less than sleek body) so I actually ENJOYED my run, and even had a wee glug of beer at 11.5 miles in celebration of the knowledge that I was, after all, going to get over the line both still running and happy, and if any congratulations are in order for my performance they go to Jill, Sian and Diesel the dog who accompanied me mentally and physically on my training runs listening to my whinging despite not entering the race themselves]. Anyway, as I was saying, we were talking about the half marathon this morning, and I mentioned that I arrived home afterwards to an empty house, euphoria ebbing and glutes already stiff, and, in that moment, really really missed Mr N.  [Drum roll.]

For those of you who are still loved up – I can think of two good friends not so long ago married/re-married and still in a mushy flush, as well as some of you who just, well, don’t seem to have ever lost it – then this might not seem that remarkable, let alone worthy of blogging about. But I suspect that for most of you, at least those who are 40 or 50 something and a good few years down the marriage/partnership line, then a little bit of wear might have crept in around the edges of your life-long and loving relationship from time to time. Forgive me my sighing cynicism [“the cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man, and never fails to see a bad one”*], but through 25 years, three kids, stressful jobs, lack of stressful jobs, mad mother, strained friendships, fights with each other, fights with family, out and out shouty arguments, in and in stretches of silence, bad behaviour, wrong decisions, unwilling compromises, disappointments, disagreements, misunderstandings, mishaps, not enough dancing, way too much alcohol and did I mention three kids? – all of these things have led to a life together that I can safely say has been exciting and adventurous and active, and a bond that I would describe as irreplaceable … but romantic? Uh uh.

Regular and attentive readers will know that Mr N is away at the moment for quite a chunk of time. There is nothing new in this, and it’s not specifically an ex-pat thing for us – in fact he has been away far less with this Houston job than he ever was before I trailed after him here. When I had babies and toddlers, his trips away were a real trial. Relentless, thankless, tiring, tedious days followed one after another, and so I missed him, but mainly for the wrong reasons. I wished he was home to cook dinner, read the bedtime stories, take over at bath time, get up early, help me feel less tired, be there so I could not.  As the kids got older and I worked more, the trials were different – more juggling, more lift-sharing, more calendar co-ordinating, favour swapping, childcare reciprocating, work balancing kind of stuff; I had more energy and it was easier to get out of an evening, and – compared to when he was at home – I was way, way more organised, so I probably missed him less and certainly didn’t spare the time to think about it too much.

Now though? Life’s less frantic, my children don’t need me in the same sort of uncategorical way – yes they can do with a bit of a kick up their arses from time to time, occasionally ask my advice or opinion, and I can help R with his French and both boys with their English, but on a day to day basis, that’s about it frankly, if I’m honest. With oldest, H, in the UK, and the boys frequently still in bed, not in, incommunicado or simply not interested in doing/watching/discussing the same things as me, now when Mr N’s not here, his physical presence is notably absent. I miss talking to him, I miss his insights, his spontaneity, I miss sharing the funnies and annoyances and gripes from our days, I miss him in bed, I miss chewing the fat, in short, I miss his company. What hit me today was that (pass the bucket), turn up for the books, I’m missing him for all the right reasons!

* HW Beecher Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit


There but for the grace of…

It’s been beautiful lately here in Houston  – big blue skies, fresh in the morning, balmy and breezy by the afternoon, days to die for really. I went for a late run yesterday, not something I’ve done often here because my running crew typically meets up at the school bus stop first thing. The deliriously gorgeous weather after some unreasonably low temperatures (-2°C, real feel -9!) had brought out everyone and his dog so for once our place had a buzz, lots of bikes, smiles and cheery hellos. In my previous life, after work was the only time we could run during the week, but although I don’t have to head to the office every day any more, I had been hard at work all morning, writing all afternoon and dinner was on the go, with the boys keeping an eye on it.  I’d forgotten the feeling – slightly hungry, long-shadowed light, a mental and physical marker to close the day and start the evening.  Our house is quiet and not full enough, the physicality of absence is powerful in the first few days. H’s bedroom door remains firmly shut for a week or two until I can face seeing the debris of her visit. (Good excuse not to have to clean and tidy it up just yet, too.)  But, despite the yank of the all-too-recent departures of husband and daughter – one to Oz and one to the UK – out running at tea-time yesterday, I felt great!  

It is easy to wallow in a bit of sadness – at least I find it so, paradoxically it can sort of make me feel better, like it’s a fair exchange for my life of ease and an excuse for a glass of wine. But I’m not gonna bang on again about how I feel guilty or disconnected because that’s boring and self-indulgent.  It’s just that feeling so good so unexpectedly got me to wondering why, and on reflection I guess it’s the old, oft-repeated, count your blessings thing.  I help downtown at SEARCH,  providing breakfast and lunch, and it was there I was yesterday morning.

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The work imanual and straightforward and routine: I sliced roast turkey off the bone and cubed it, chopped tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce for salad, made coffee, served French toast and eggs and sausages and syrup and muffins for breakfast, and chicken and stuffing and said salad for lunch, I cleaned out the warming drawers, wiped tables and swept the floor. While doing so, I wore latex gloves and a head scarf.

As usual, I had a crack with my co-workers and with some of the homeless “clients” too. (Sorry, had to put that word in inverted commas, it’s so PC, but I can’t come up with a better one.) But in case that sounds patronising (“oh yah, they’re real people dontcha know?”), they weren’t all jolly pleased to see me or unspeakably thankful (though several are unspeakable in the sense that they are silent). There are always some who are bloody rude – one regular snatched the cup to hold under the coffee as I poured, shouting “you always fill it too full” at me, and I’ve been told to “shuddup talking” while dishing up the meal because I’m spreading germs, and there’s usually at least one person who turns his or her nose up at the food being served. We see ashamed, dignified, affable, talkative, belligerent, mute, drunk, high, barely awake, clean, dirty, proud, appreciative, meek, disdainful, ill, depressed, hopeful. Let’s be honest, they can be unpleasant – smelly, shaking, incoherent, toothless. But then again, there are those with a twinkle in their eye, a raucous laugh, a funny joke. And beery and out of it one day, scrubbed up and positive the next. You just never can tell. I rather think that, in the same situation, I’d be uncommunicative, far from friendly and possibly drunk, but of course I don’t actually know, really, how I’d cope having no home, no job, no support, and few good options.

Over on one table, S, a lady whose back story I know a little about – her father was a pilot and she herself went to boarding school all over the world, including in England –  had tears streaming down her face as she ate. I don’t know what about, and there was plenty of concern for her, but this desperate display from the desperate is heart-rending to come close to. Later on, while S sat stoically reading the paper as she regained her dignity,  someone else had a seizure but by the time the paramedics arrived she was seemingly back to her normal self and we gave her seconds (not allowed as a rule).  Meanwhile, J – young and previously aloof – turned up for the first time in a while, his hair and goatee trimmed neatly and dyed dark blue, and his nails mani’d “just yesterday” in a fetching diamond sparkle; he was on top form and in control, looking just how he wanted to look.

My fellow kitchen workers are employees, or volunteers like me, or volunteers not like me who used to be homeless and/or are on community service. W, in her 50s, was once an air hostess, witnessed a fatal shooting about which she has been traumatised ever since, but she sure keeps the ovens spick and span; T – of indeterminate age, tall, taciturn, hard-working but moody and lowering and unpredictable – is possibly still occasionally back on the streets judging by his sometimes unexplained absences, and I can’t tell if he likes me or loathes me because he barely acknowledges me, even after more than a year; Mr B (for some reason always called that) is gentle and kind and always always there; Gangster Granny (as she chooses to introduce herself) – with family she can turn to but whom she has shunned in the past, through shame about her alcoholism and not wanting to be a burden, preferring to live on the streets out of what some might see as a misplaced sense of pride – is funny and sharp and – like all of them – a grafter.

There, then, but for the grace of … well, no, let’s not go there. The sentiment’s what I want to express but I don’t believe god has anything to do with it. Some people are lucky, some people are unlucky, some people work hard, some people don’t. Some people make really bad decisions, some are lazy, some are poor, some are alone, some too proud. Some squander what they might have had, others never had anything much in the first place. Some are mentally ill, others perfectly healthy. But I have come to understand that no matter what it is that has brought someone down that low – self-imposed or otherwise –  it’s really not so far to fall and I’m left grateful to my core that it’s not me.  Day in, day out, I don’t always remember that, but a cobweb-clearing, azure bright, self-affirming run certainly did it for me last night.

Back to normality (aka abnormality)

I’ve been a bit lazy with this blog-writing over the last few weeks, not up to the previous number of self-imposed target pieces which I’ve set myself. I do this (target-setting) to provide some discipline, which is a bit missing from this job-free, trailing, lunching, sportive, ex-pat life of mine. It’s not the only reason I write the blog (I really like writing is another big one!) but it’s what has kept me churning it out regularly so far. The only other things in my life right now which ensure normality stays on my radar are a) being the first out of bed every morning  to make coffee and breakfasts, sort out packed lunches and basically underline my only proper role in this household which is getter-upper and getter-out-of-the-house-in-timer,  b) my regular volunteering work which requires me to be downtown by 8am a couple of times a week, and c) getting drunk. So you see it’s important for maintaining a sensible perspective (and sobriety) that I have something else that makes me think a little bit, and which requires a semblance of mental effort and application, without which I would undoubtedly begin to flail around in the self-reproach of my hedonic existence.

But I think I can be forgiven for a bit of a lapse lately as we’ve had a houseful for more than three weeks, it’s of course been Christmas and New Year and the daily routine has disappeared. Even now, although the boys are back at school, routine has not yet resumed. Oldest offspring H plus boyf are still here (hooray), with two more days to go before they return to university in the UK, but even more unusually, Mr N has been off work –  for the whole of 2014 so far – prior to a very long trip to Australia starting from tomorrow.

Quite clearly, then, I have had to keep busy this whole time. No little restorative afternoon snoozes or cheeky day-time trips to the cinema to be had while he’s been hanging around, no no no, busy busy busy I’ve been with cleaning the house and washing the shower curtains and all the sheets and towels and stuff like that that I should always be much more vigilant about but can’t usually be bothered with or even find the time to do.  The truth is, of course,  I live a privileged, charmed life which I thoroughly enjoy, am thankful for and appreciative of, but – and it’s a big but – also feel deeply guilty about.  So I’m not always completely forthcoming about how I’ve spent my time while he’s been at the office not enjoying himself one bit: a long, lazy lunch out with friends and Sauvignon Blanc in the warm sunshine perhaps overlooked in place of the food shopping at Kroger; a bit of culture at an art gallery, a coffee after a long run, a mid-morning tennis lesson – all things sometimes forgotten about in the retelling of the day.

Actually though, these recent days we’ve also been out and about a lot, showing the boyf a bit of Houston and beyond [subsequent blog post coming about small town Texas btw], making the most of his first trip to the States, and of Mr N’s relaxed frame of mind after a stressful last few months. It’s been unhurried and companionable and restorative, everyone in a good mood – the family’s been together, Mr N’s sanity is renewed, and for once I’m not the only one who’s not been working. I guess  what I’m saying is that’s why I’ve not felt compelled to bash out this blog quite as frequently as I have been doing.

But, oh my days, this halcyon interlude is coming to an end very soon, with Mr N due Down Under in less than 24 hours and H off over the Atlantic less than 24 hours after that.  Six will become three, just me and the boys, and – some time for self-indulgent sadness aside – absolutely no excuses for the reintroduction of control and intellectual goal-setting.  You can expect my blog posts to ramp up again to their more usual frequency as everyone else returns to their rigorous and important and, well, real, roles while I flounder back to the simultaneous normality and abnormality of mine.