In 2003 I emigrated from Australia to the United States with only about five hundred dollars in my pocket. Long story short – I moved to Boston, got a job, a dog, bought a house, had two daughters, and wrote a couple of novels. In short, I was busy.
In order to save up a deposit for a house, I worked a fairly stressful job. And I didn’t want to stay doing that, so every evening and weekend I studied to be a programmer. You know, in the mad hope that it would be better and less stressful. Within three years, I was working as a software engineer. But that was just the beginning of the learning curve.
In short, I was effectively working at a computer around the clock, mornings and evenings and through every weekend, for the better part of a decade.
Once or twice, I tried to take a weekend off, going to places like Vermont and Maine. But I had the toughest time not working. My brain couldn’t shake myself out of it. I could barely look around – I could only think of the work that had to be done, and what I needed to do next.
Incidentally, the only people who glorify this grisly sort of narrative of ‘pulling oneself up by the boot straps’ are precisely the people who haven’t done it themselves. It’s not noble – it’s sad.
Sometimes my friends would complain that hanging out with me was little more than sitting at a kitchen table, or in cafes, with our laptops, and coding all night. That perplexed me. By then, I was a biological software engineer in the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School. I enjoyed it a lot. But spending time with friends and not working felt a bit empty. What are you supposed to do? Drink alcohol in bars? That just made people boring. It was also prohibitively expensive; I was saving every cent to buy a house, remember.
Anyway, that was both how I was and how I had to be. My friends had to be as vested in their work as myself, or else we didn’t have much to talk about. Which is not to say I was dull – I still told all sorts of outlandish stories and lived a hair’s breadth away from being fired for general cheek and insolence. Part of me wanted that to happen so I’d have an excuse to give up and write books. Which is what I’d have preferred to have been doing all along.
Then, my daughters arrived. The mad years of sitting up all night coding were at an end. I was now a stay-at-home Dad, writing novels in between changing nappies and playing with little babies. I’d become a ‘Cambridge Dad’. Somewhat. My social circle now included women who went about with yoga mats under their arms. I learned to speak convincingly on the topic of Organic Produce. I attended sing-a-longs with my babies at the Cambridge library and read books to them about saying goodnight to the moon.
Through the years, I had become acclimatised to life in Cambridge and the Greater Boston Area, as it’s called. For the better part of twenty years that was my stomping ground. It was where I’d worked and saved and struggled and – finally – bought a home. It was where my bairns were born.
Here’s the thing.
In my life, I’ve done two deeply strange things to my mind. The first, of course, was moving away from Queensland to a cold city like Boston and building a life there. And, thereafter, of course, becoming a workaholic just to survive.
The second strange thing that I did was a few months ago, when I sold that house, and moved back to Australia. The shock to the system was a bit severe, and has left me feeling mildly concussed.
I can still more easily visualise the streets around my house in Cambridge – my daily walk to the Starbucks on Ames and Broadway, for instance – than I can picture Brisbane, though this is where I now live. Once more.
The issue here is that I was an immigrant for eighteen years – a foreigner building a life among Americans. With some degree of hard won success. And anyway – as I say, coming back here meant doing something remarkably strange to my brain. I have left my familiar world and returned to something that should be familiar, but isn’t.
Australia didn’t improve while I was away; life became harder for most people – and by most, I mean anyybody who doesn’t own three or more houses. Thank you neoliberalism.
So that’s why none of you have heard from me for a few months. I’ve been setting up a house in what is effectively a foreign country, getting my girls into a school, buying miscellaneous household things, wincing at the price of food (and the antics of our government), and feeling generally perplexed at everything.
Snakes had been on my mind especially because they’re out in force. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I couldn’t walk to the grocery store without seeing a rat. In fact, there is a large burrow in the Star Market car park, off the McGrath Highway, right beside the ice skating rink – which is three blocks from my old house. Consider how odd it is, by the way, that you can live four or five blocks from the offices of Google, Microsoft, Akamai, IBM, Moderna, Pfizer, MIT, and Biogen – and still see rats practically every day.
Not many rats here in Indooroopilly, though. No … the snakes would eat them.
I saw one the other day – a snake, I mean. I was standing on the back patio, my back to the house, facing the tomato plants I’d put in, and I happened to glance around and there – right behind me – maybe an arms length away, was a two meter (seven foot) python.
LOOK AT IT! JUST LOOK! AT! IT!
He was right behind me, as I said, trying to get through the glass door into the house. As in, standing up on his tail and knocking his head against the glass. Over and over and over…
“Knocking?” said my eleven-year-old niece when I told her about it later. “Well at least he was polite.”
She makes a good point. Some snakes aren’t polite. Mind you, I don’t know what worries me more. The snake’s fearless disregard and nonchalance vis-à-vis yours truly, or its mad determination to get inside the house. Why, though? That’s the question that’s been troubling me. Something tells me that I wouldn’t like the answer.
Probably goes without saying that nowadays I morbidly check that the screen doors are closed at least twice an hour. I never signed up to be the kind of father who stomps around exclaiming, ‘Who left the screen door open!’ but I don’t think anyone could blame me at this point.
“I don’t want to be on the couch,” I explained, heatedly, to my daughter, Hattie (5), this very morning, “and find a seven foot python sitting next to me. And that’s why we close the screen door!” Then I twitched involuntarily and stumbled into the kitchen to brood. Because if there’s anything I hate, it’s having to be the voice of reason.
Is this what life is? You go about, slowly collecting an assortment of low-level traumas, becoming increasingly brittle and vulnerable to petty shocks? Until one day, you see an unexpected length of string, and your brain finally succumbs to madness?
Because even though it hasn’t happened yet, I can easily imagine staggering out of my room first thing in the morning and losing my mind at the sight of a piece of string.
Picture Hattie, wheeling me into her classroom at school for ‘show and share’.
“This is my Daddy. He ran head first through a wall because he saw a piece of string. The doctor says he can’t talk any more, he just does whatever my sister and I say. What a good Daddy – here’s a biscuit.”
Can you believe that there was a time when I actually thought rubber snakes were mildly amusing? Nowadays, I wouldn’t be emotionally equipped to encounter a rubber snake in a toy shop.
A few weeks ago, I took my little girls over to Sandgate. It was low tide and we walked hundreds of meters off shore, calf deep in water. My girls were splashing about, their father gazing into the horizon at the hazy smear of Moreton Island, watching the cargo ships making their departure from the Port of Brisbane.
As it happened, I was talking on the phone to my friend Zoya, at whose house we stayed in Maine during the winter, when I noticed a shadow moving through the water – directly between me and my daughters.
It was a sting ray. And I swear this is true, I said to Zoya: ‘Oh my god, I thought it was a snake.’
Obviously, I’ve been under a bit of strain this year. The other day, a plumber working on my house told me that he was up in the crawl space of a house a few streets away and saw a bunch of four-meter long snake skins (that’s thirteen feet, Americans).
He said to me, “Nope Ropes, I call ’em mate. Danger Noodles.”
Imagine living under the same roof as a four meter Danger Noodle, and not even knowing? Is it better to know, or not know? That is the question.
And, for the benefit of Hattie and Boudica, in case they’ve somehow found their way onto the internet (shakes fist), if I should ever see so much as a length of cord draped over the couch in a provocative way then you will both be staying with your Aunt Zoya in Maine. Indefinitely. Not as punishment, obviously, but because Daddy will have some serious convalescing to do.
I know they inherited my dark sense of humour. Obviously. Because the universe is cruel, etcetera. But boundaries need to be respected, which, in this case, roughly speaking, are a ten kilometer radius around their father’s sensibilities. Thou shalt not startle thy father, for though normally robust, he has, of late, been of peculiarly delicate disposition.
I’m not sure this is amusing or anything, but it’s at least worthwhile mentioning that Qantas this week has started to remove its international fleet of aircraft from storage (international flights had been largely grounded through the pandemic), and anyway – a spokesman for the company made an announcement that was basically to the effect of, “Well, it’s only logical that – and this is not a big deal, really, but we thought we should mention it anyway, just to get it out of the way, and just so you all know – um – passengers can expect to find a few snakes on our planes. But not too many, and thank you everybody for your time.”
You know what’s odd? I really enjoy writing these newsletters but for one reason or another, the old ‘mental state’ has been a bit too fragile to write one of late. As I mentioned, it should be significant that during a recent brush with death via sting ray, my most immediate thought was ’thank goodness that isn’t a non-venomous backyard python, having a bit of a paddle’.
Oh, you know what? I did a lot of work on Wrongcards in recent weeks. The ‘Send/Receive’ functionality of the site is greatly improved. You can send to multiple recipients now. And card scheduling works as advertised. Finally! It was amusingly random for a few months. Thank you for your letters about that. Yes, people were receiving birthday cards months later than expected. Well, it’s thought that counts, I always say. I couldn’t fix it sooner, unfortunately. It’s been an eventful year.
Besides, I’ve also been writing this science-fiction adventure novel. And – provided nothing untoward happens to me (like, I discover a seven-foot serpent beside me on the couch) – then it is possible the book will be finished in the next few weeks. That would be good for everybody, I think.
The new novel is a fun adventure. Witty dialogue, as always. The characters definitely grab you from the first pages. The whole book feels like a tremendously cool place to be. Sadly, I’m still the only person who has actually, you know, read it but … goodness me, I shall be watching my future career with great interest, let me put it that way.
If you’d like to be a beta reader, hit me up; reply to this email, or get in touch via my contact form, and I’ll put you down on the list.
Anyway, I have to go. An hour has passed and I haven’t checked the screen doors are securely closed. He says with forced serenity.
With chaste affection,
Indooroopilly, QLD, Australia