On a Train

It’s 11:18 on Sunday morning, May 24, and I’m on the bullet train to Hangzhou. The train is mostly full, but, in our group, we are fourteen – twelve teenagers and two chaperones. It’s one of ISB’s Senior class End-of-Year trips, we’re traveling at about 310 kilometers per hour, and the word that keeps appearing in my mind is DERAILMENT.

Not, like, literal derailment. This train is smooth, clean, and comfortable. It’s just been a hectic few weeks. When I think, I see words. Literally. When I spell a word, a name, a phrase, or an idiom, and I see it there, written on my mind’s white board, I know it. DERAILMENT.

This past Tuesday I began my first course with UAA’s MFA program. I’ve been plowing through the required reading: The Best American Short Stories of 2014 and two works by Ron Carlson – A Kind of Flying and Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Carlson so easily and effortlessly captures voice in his short fiction. Reading inspires my own writing, and, after reading a little of Carlson, all I want to do is sit, type, and get stuck in story. I want to finish this piece that started with a playground. Now, it’s morphed into dementia, an affair, and physics, I think. Not sure where it’s going, but it’s going. All I want to do is finish, but I know it needs time. I need time to sit on it, let the characters marinate a bit more until the story’s juicy and ready to be either grilled or thrown in the freezer. I need time to type and then delete and then repeat until it feels real. Time, however, is not on my side at the moment.

Yesterday, a few friends and I went “busking” at 798, an artist district in Beijing. I had never heard of this term “busking” until I told another friend this past week what we were planning.

“Busking in 798,” she said. “Don’t get arrested.”

Apparently “busking” is a real term, and even though we didn’t have a permit to play music on the street, we didn’t get arrested. It was a successful event, which means we drank a lot of beer in the sun, I jammed on my djembe with the rest of Dirty City until my hands were swollen from playing euphonic praises to the universe, and we had our picture taken with many, many ever-so-curious Chinese passersby. iPhones ablaze. We were run out of one location, but quickly found a few others, and found, too, some future gigs. Dirty City likes 798 and vice versa. It felt good, too, to escape Shunyi – the Beijing suburbs – and play for an audience outside of our typical teacher-expat crowd.

Friday night there was more music. I sat in with the bits and pieces of a few local expat bands – past and present – to honor and celebrate folks finally saying good-bye to Beijing. We played well past my bedtime, but it was fun, again, to jam and chill with friends.

We’ve just passed through Nanjing, and once we hit the countryside it doesn’t feel like China. To me, China feels like a dream I always had growing up: it’s the beginning of some super-important bball game, I’m starting point guard, but I’m stuck in slow motion, while everyone else is at normal, human pace. I’m excited to be there in the moment, but I can’t catch up. I’m nervous. I’m confused. I’m lost. I’m frustrated. That’s what China feels like to me: at least the mega-city China. Watching the mountains and rice paddies and farms and clearing blue skies of the countryside doesn’t feel like that. I feel like I can breathe out here. It’s slowing down a bit.

One of the first official assignments of CWLA A662 was to submit a short bio and picture to the course discussion board on UAA’s Blackboard. It was one of those on-line thing-a-ma-bobbers, though, that won’t let you read what others have written until you actually submit. I needed some Jedi Knight trickery. What do I write? I don’t want to write too much and sound all over-anxious or dweeby, but then I don’t want to write too little and sound aloof. It took me an hour or more and I ended up rambling about Run the Jewels 2, James Baldwin, Africa, and our dog Bear. I submitted a picture – a selfie, in true Chinese fashion – of Jazzy and I outside Rome’s Colosseum, where she recently finished a marathon in 4 hours. I read the other bios. I’m nervous. DERAILMENT.

I haven’t had consistent physiotherapy time for my knee the last few weeks, but I’ve gotten into a good routine: light swimming, spinning a few times a week, push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups. It seems like forever ago when I had a physical derailment, but I’m getting back on track. Knees are no joke.

The “real” writing I’ve been doing lately is a graduation speech for next week’s commencement ceremony. I’m cool with the writing part; it’s the actual speaking that worries me a bit. The delivery. Classroom speaking is easy, but addressing a crowd of, like, adults and stuff, all dressed up. DERAILMENT. I reckon, though, the universe will provide. The Big Man upstairs will have my back.

My first impression of Hangzhou is holy humidity. It’s not sweat-through-my-shirt humid, but I can tell, tomorrow, I’ll feel it. It is a nice change from Beijing where it’s always dry and the palms of my hands are always ashy. We arrive at 1:30 p.m., and I assign each kid a different task. D____ will find subway line number 1 and figure out how many stops to our hotel. W____ will purchase the subway tickets and make sure we get the proper fapiao (receipts) to submit to our school. The fapiao is a big deal, and I imagine the China paper trail must be longer than The Great Wall. I’ve tasked S____ to use her 4G iPhone to find walking directions from the subway stop to our hotel. It all works.

Later, we meet in the hotel lobby at 6 p.m. and then walk to Hefang Street. The teenagers lead and I follow. They flip-flop through the touristy street that’s got trinkets and more trinkets. This could be called Trinket Street. J____, S____, and K____ get matching temporary tattoos on their feet. It’s that type of street. A few others buy durian fruit candy that smells real bad, but they swear it’s tasty once you bite into it. I tell them I’ll try one tomorrow. In between Silk World and some type of green tea specialty shop, there’s a haunted house. It’s 20 RMB (about US$3.50) to enter, and, outside, the guy selling tickets is yelling about how scary it is. He’d be an amazing carnie. I tell the kids they should try it, but then S____ says, “but, Mr. P, we can’t get a fapiao for that.” She’s probably right.

At dinner, they talk about what teenagers talk about. They gossip about last night’s prom. Who did what and why. I pretend not to hear. Or, maybe I pretend not to listen, because I don’t want those stories. I already lived those stories.

We get back to the hotel at 10:18 p.m. I call Jazzy and ask her how Bear’s doing because he threw up this morning before I left. I tell her I miss her and love her and that I’ll message her before I go to sleep. I love yous and stuff.

Tomorrow, I’ll check back in with CWLA A662 and UAA’s finicky Blackboard. I’m sure my next assignment will be posted. I think about my playground-dementia-affair-physicist short story, but there’s no way I can touch that now. Less is more. Before I close my eyelids for the night, I’ll try to read more Carlson. SLEEP has replaced DERAILMENT for now. I’m happy, though, to be off one train at the moment. I’m just on a little layover, waiting for the next one.

3 responses to “On a Train”

  1. Brad, thanks for sharing all of your thoughts. Great imagery!

  2. Breathing room. That is why I love Bozeman, MT. Room to breath. And the air tastes so sweet.

  3. Darren Donauer

    Another great read. I am also working on the key note speech and it is scary. Hoping for no derailment! Best of luck Brother and enjoy!

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