The summer of 2001 had started well for me. I had just finished a successful stint working with the Scottish Parliament, and I had accepted a new job, perhaps my dream job, working as a mediator in Edinburgh. Kristy and I had just returned to Scotland from a two-week vacation in Chicago and Kansas City, and I was more optimistic and excited about the future than I’d probably ever been. I was happy.
So what do you think happened next?
I wonder if your expectations about the next part of this story says anything about you? When everything appears to be going well for the protagonist in a story, do you anticipate that their happiness will continue? Or do you assume that such moments of contentment and satisfaction will inevitably be followed by discontent and strife?
I know what I thought at the time. I don’t know if it is a Scottish trait or if it’s just the way I am chemically wired, but I tended to believe that my happiness was only temporary. And even worse, I felt guilty about enjoying any good times because I was afraid that somehow my happiness would be punished.
I don’t think I was born with that outlook on life. I think it was just drilled into me over the years living in Scotland, learning about Scottish history, and following Scottish sport. I wrote last week about how I was optimistic as a naïve six year old watching Scotland score a goal against Brazil in 1982. But then I was chastised for feeling that way by my elders.
There is a mentality for many Scots that we are losers. That the sun will always be replaced by rain. That we should be happy with what we have. That bad things will happen if we try to improve our lot. Why? Because “they always have and they always will”.
I’ve worked hard to try and eliminate those thoughts from my life now, but in the summer of 2001, I was probably really, really, worried that everything seemed to be going too well. I would have been concerned that my optimism and happiness was about to be crushed. And, well, it was. But that’s not the point.
So Kristy and I spent two weeks in the US on vacation and then we got back to Edinburgh. I was due to start my new job as a mediator on the following Monday. Kristy had been homesick for a while and I had thought that spending some time with her family and friends in America might cure that. But it had the opposite effect. When she got back to Sunny Scotland, she realized that she missed the US even more than before.
So a couple of days after we got back to Scotland, Kristy told me that she was going back to Austin. Immediately. Without me.
We’d been together for two years, and married for 18 months. But she took her monthly paycheck that we relied on for half of our rent and bills, and she bought a plane ticket to Texas. She left me in Edinburgh the same day I started my new job, and less than a week after we’d been in Chicago.
I was surprised to say the least. She told me that she wasn’t leaving “me”, as such, but she said that she just needed to be in Austin. She said that I could come with her, but rationally I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t just walk away from everything, my new job, our lease, my family, my friends, and go to a new country. I didn’t even have a visa to live or work there, and I didn’t have any money to travel anyway. Kristy left by herself. When I asked her if she would be coming back, she said, “I don’t know”.
So my first day on the new mediation job was an interesting one. “Mixed feelings” would be one way to describe it. Completely shattered and lost would be another way. But I’d worked so hard to get that job, and I really wanted to see it through.
I’d spent hundreds of hours training to be a mediator and volunteering with projects all over Edinburgh to get mediation experience, in a profession where there were only a handful of jobs. Mediation was still a relatively new concept in Scotland at that time, but I was excited to be at the forefront of it. I had dreams of resolving major international conflicts and making the world a more peaceful place. This was to be the first step.
The mediation job was with a project called Enquire, operated by the charity Children in Scotland. Enquire was the national advice service for children with special educational needs, and it was funded by the Scottish Government. They also operated a helpline for parents, teachers, and young people who were in need of advice on how to obtain additional support for learning.
My role was to help set up a pilot mediation project across five regions in Scotland to help resolve conflict in matters relating to special educational needs. Part of the job was to help train mediators, to work with local authorities, to put together the first ever mediation conference in Scotland, and then to write a report on the project for the Scottish Government. Originally it was just a 9 month position, but if the project was successful, my contract would be renewed for another 3 years.
It was everything I wanted to do and so much more. The people I worked with were extremely talented and committed. The work was challenging, but it was new, it was creative, it was helping people. It was making a difference. I was making a difference. I knew that first day that I would love that job.
But my wife had gone to Austin and I didn’t think she was coming back. The job was in Edinburgh. I couldn’t do both. I had to make a choice. Marriage or Career?
Well I was only 25 years old. I figured that if I could build a career for myself once, I could do it again. Also the idea of going to live in a new country held no fear. I’d already done it when I went to Melbourne. I’d already done it when I went to Austin the first time. But I believed that I was in love. And I couldn’t be sure that I could ever find love again. So I didn’t really have a choice to make.
I remember Stu came up to visit me in Edinburgh in early August, while Kristy was still in Austin. She had been sending me emails saying how she wished I was there etc., but she still wasn’t planning to return to Edinburgh.
I’d not seen Stu in a while and it had been 5 years since we were together in Austin. He was now working as a lawyer and, in similar circumstances to me, he had married a girl that he met in Austin, and she was now living with him in the UK. Of course I asked his advice on what to do, and we both concluded that if the answer to the question: ‘Are you in love?’ was ‘Yes’, then I had to be with the person I loved.
Side note – I’m not saying that we were wrong to reach that conclusion, but both Stu and I’s first marriages to American girls ended in divorce.
Anyway, back to the story. About two weeks into the mediation job, I told Kristy that I would give it all up and move to Austin with her. But I asked her to come back to Edinburgh so we could prepare properly. That way, I could finish the 9 months with the mediation project, I could go through the green card application process, and we could try and maybe save up some money before we left. She agreed and she came back to Edinburgh in late August 2001.
So Kristy was back in Scotland on September 11, 2001. Like most people we were glued to the television for hours. It was especially hard for her seeing her country under attack. I thought it might give her second thoughts about moving back, but it actually made her want to be there sooner to be with family and friends.
I remember getting a call from Nelly that night. We were all in shock watching the news. He said that his girlfriend of nine years had just dumped him and kicked him out of the house. Normally that would have been a big deal, but it barely registered with us. But he was homeless so I met up with him and Cheesey at Craigy’s bar ‘The Watershed’ and he came to stay with us. I remember Cheesey saying that Muslims would get the blame for 9/11, and that his life was about to change too. None of us knew how right he was.
It didn’t change our plans though. I continued working on the mediation project and we went through the laborious and expensive green card process. The mediation job was even better that I had expected. I got to travel all around the country meeting inspirational people, and I learned a lot about children and young people with disabilities and the parents that care for them.
Once a week I took my turn on the Enquire Helpline, answering calls from exasperated parents who had nowhere else to turn, as they tried to deal with the pressures of having a child with special needs. That was the hardest part of the job. Sometimes I’d be on the phone with the same parent for over an hour. I wasn’t an expert in special educational needs. But sometimes people just needed someone to listen to them. And I could do that.
Ultimately, the pilot mediation projects were a success, my report to the Scottish Government was warmly received, and the projects were renewed for another three years. The mediation conference I put together was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but there were more than a hundred people who attended, including the Deputy Minister for Education in Scotland, and it’s still something of which I’m really proud.
I did everything from booking the speakers to ordering the sandwiches, to designing the logo and the punny name, (‘Re:Solutions in SEN’). And I held my own seminar too, on the top floor of the Point Hotel, overlooking Edinburgh Castle. That was in February 2002, and after that we had only a few weeks left to say our goodbyes.
It was especially hard for me to leave, because I was really loving life in Scotland again. I was regularly going through to Glasgow to see Celtic and Scotland games and at various times we had Jambo, Nelly, and Craigy lodging in our spare room. Doctor Dave was in Edinburgh too, and Thursday night became a regular pool and poker night for us lads.
But I was leaving. The decision had been made. And I didn’t know if I would ever be back. My Mum and Dad were not happy. One night I remember my Dad telling me that he thought I was crazy to leave. Generally he was supportive of my decisions, but he told me that he couldn’t understand why I was giving up everything I’d worked so hard for. He was right too. It didn’t make sense. I see now that he was also probably devastated that his one remaining son was about to move to the other side of the world. But I was blind to all that. My mind was made up.
I arranged one more final farewell to the Pump before I left. A long weekend of boozing in Dublin. That was the time we all drank too much Guinness and then we took turns professing our love for each other. It was a great weekend, and I got to catch up with some of my Irish friends from Melbourne too.
Kristy and I had a last night out in Edinburgh the day before we left. I remember we ended up in the Traverse and Billy Connelly was hanging out at the bar. He started chatting to us and we told him about our plans to leave. He bought us a drink and even he told us that he we were mad.
But even Billy Connelly couldn’t change our minds. Our possessions had all been sold, my green card had been approved, and our flights had been booked.
We went the long way round to Austin, spending three weeks in Thailand, three weeks in Australia, a week in Fiji and then driving with Kristy’s Dad from LA to Austin via Vegas and the Grand Canyon.
There were several times on the trip when I questioned if I’d done the right thing. Like when I crashed a motorcycle in Koh Phangan, or when I caught a bacterial disease in Fiji and I couldn’t eat for a week. But we did it. We arrived in Austin just in time for the 2002 World Cup. Kristy was happy, and once again I was excited and optimistic about the future.
So what happened next? Did I live happily ever after with my ex-wife?
No I didn’t. About a year later we were separated, and then divorced. Once again, my happiness and optimism was short-lived. And when the discontent and strife followed, I was deeply depressed and embarrassed.
But it wasn’t short-lived because the forces of the galaxy were punishing me for feeling optimistic. It wasn’t short-lived because I am Scottish and Scots are pre-destined for a life of glorious failure. I don’t believe that for a second. I was right to be optimistic, and I was right to feel bad when it all turned to shit.
My happiness was short-lived because I was married to the wrong person. Not everything happens for a reason. It took me a long time to understand that, and I’m not afraid to be happy or optimistic any more.
There will always be ups and downs. There will continue to be moments of joy followed by unrelated moments of despair. I know that now. That being said, my story will end happily, if I have anything to do with it.