02 April 2018

Pasta for love


I woke up in Tokyo a few weeks ago. There is something settling about the transfer to the JR line, the Yamanote, that makes me feel young and at home. I had a hotel room this time, a proper one rather than the capsule I stayed in last time when I was on my way to Sapporo. After dropping my bags, I walked up to Ginza, remembering for some reason a day that Yoko and I had been in a Starbucks there after Naomi was born. I don't know why we were there, if it was because of visas for the UK or what exactly. I just remember sitting there in the summer and Yoko looking healthy and happy after the pregnancy, and feeling like things were going to be okay.

The next day, I took the shinkansen north to Toyama City and fell asleep again through the tunnels where the pressure changes and your ears feel it. I had taken a shinkansen north the second year I was in Japan, when I wasn't paying for it and the company I had gotten a job with told me to meet Mrs Nunogawa in Niigata and bought the ticket. I had a pit in my stomach then, a fear that I had made a mistake and shouldn't have left Fukuoka, or Chicago, or anywhere. That I was stuck, but didn't have any choice but to keep going, what else was I going to do. Nunogawa-san did meet me in Niigata station and took me up to a little apartment near a school I was teaching at, just down the road, and I realised as we came into the town, and looked out, the Sea was right there. I could walk to it. 

My new apartment

Last year, there had been a build up to my return to Japan and we were in the midst of some visa crisis, thinking we would need to go back to Japan after being deported by the Home Office. This time, I didn't have time to think about much — Yoko and I had lunch the day I left, eating without anything to say. I finally came around to packing my bag at three or four in the afternoon and drove to the station with Yoko and Mia, the other girls all off with their friends. I drank a small bottle of wine and got on the plane in Charles de Gaulle with the intention of just sleeping. We took off and I fell asleep and then read and then slept through the landing, looking out to see Tokyo in the rain. 

Japan creates a different pit in my stomach now. It's regret, I think — if I'm looking for the best English word I know — regret for a life that I could have lived, in Kobe where I would have taught English and done my PhD part-time. Yoko and I would be better, I tell myself as the train coasts through some town in the mountains and a well-dressed family passes with bento lunches and the father smiling. There would be less pressure on us to make things successful. There would be no British pessimism, Edwardian terrace houses, or non-stop Anglican lent services. 

On Sunday morning, I ran the 10 kilometers from the University to the Sea of Japan. In Matsuhama, where I lived in Niigata, you could just about see it from my window. Yoko and I stayed in that apartment when we got married — Naomi came back to it, and the windows could be opened to let the sea air in. I ran the Matsuhama Bridge over the Agano River again and again thinking about the future in the UK or some other place, like I needed to prove it to myself.

This time, in Toyama, I ran up to the sign, the one that said you couldn't go any further on the jetty. I stopped and took pictures of the grey morning. There were men fishing on the rocks and the sun was coming up. I took pictures until I realised this was it, this was all there was. There was no magic to be had, all you can do is look and turn around and keep going. The decisions can't be remade.

12 March 2018



The weekend seemed to flare out. I woke this morning and thought that I needed to get up, even though it was dark still and I didn't know what I needed to do. I made eggs and then listened to a meditation, lying on the new kitchen floor tiles that haven't had the grout put in yet. The woman in the meditation assured me this wasn't a waste of time and that my self-care was good for everyone, but all I could think was how much I had eaten over the weekend and the clanging of whatever argument had derailed things. The tile is cool and although I know I am not supposed to lie down when I meditate, I did and it was good enough. Today is another day, isn't it.

A few Tuesdays ago, I came home to find a box from Cambridge University Press on the table in the living room, among all the things I've been buying for the house extension, the lighting fixtures and 18 LED light bulbs. The box contained 6 copies of my book — my second book, I say, depending on how insufferable I'm feeling, and I thumbed through it, until I found an error and a part of the analysis that was inelegant, and I shut it quickly, knowing that looking any further wouldn't end well. I sent out a couple of copies to family members, that only signed after wondering for a while if they would want their books signed, something that only an academic would think. I tidied up the pile of things in the living room and went upstairs to put my running kit in the washing hamper.

I was the safe one in high school, despite wearing clothes that made my parents uncomfortable and wanting to listen to Christian hardcore music. My mom once came into my room to find a friend and I jumping around, listening to a Strongarm song that all she could understand was someone shouting when I die. This being a Christian hardcore bad, I was able to retort quickly, 'He's singing, When I die, I live,' which was unarguably a Christian principle, and she shut the door nervously and Chris and I went back to expelling whatever energy had been winding us up. All of these bands had names that sounded in some way violent or dark, Living Sacrifice being the best example, that also doubled as safe references to the death cult elements of Evangelical Christianity, which somehow got hidden behind men in polo shirts and khakis, holding Bibles in canvas Bible covers.

Some 20 years later, and free from all the dogma, I seem to have not shaken this sort of miserable safety and I resent where it's led me. I have a pension, like I am ready to die, but another 50 years to go. Another 50 years of a calorie counting app, of drinking too much on a Friday night and then arguing with my wife about Japanese particle use and sentence construction. There are no mirrors hung in the house now where you can look into them above sinks, so I feel like I can just lie to myself, avoid looking myself in the eye and taking stock.

23 February 2018

What we cannot imagine


Daily, the builders come in two trucks and make their way up through the passage to the back of the house and in through the backdoor. For the first two weeks, they weren't in the house, but working in the three small rooms behind the house that had been used for storage for the last fifty years, but are now becoming the bathroom. We didn't see much of the builders then. They tore down and rebuilt the walls, and then one day, broke through the wall into the kitchen. They took out the chimney breast which had needlessly been taking up space in the kitchen and the house smelled like one hundred year-old smoke for a week.

The builders use the two mugs that we have with Union Jacks. Yoko buys a mix of biscuits: Jammy Dodgers and digestives with and without chocolate. Rich tea and Tesco Bourbon Creams Biscuits. They get fish and chips for lunch sometimes, from the shops at the roundabout, and work steadily from 9 to 4:30 every day. More and more we linger to chat about things, about their families and I'm starting to feel like I will miss them when they leave.

The walls went bare one day, and then they were patched and plastered, and then the floor was torn out and then replaced and then the kitchen went in. Last Friday or Thursday, they put in a new boiler, moving it from the bathroom to under the stairs. I thought this would be incredibly difficult, take weeks to do, but just suddenly it was there and I felt stupid for not realising how the whole thing worked. I asked the plumber how much the boiler had cost, but this question made him uncomfortable. He said he had the receipt and would talk to Wayne, and I knew immediately that I had made a mistake. I don't pay the plumber, I pay Wayne the Builder. Wayne the Builder will tell me how much it is. There's a hierarchy.

Every day you pull back the curtain that is feebly trying to hold the dust in the back of the house, and another part of the old plastic kitchen, more of the mouldy particle board and linoleum, has been hauled out to the skip. Now, there's no trace of it and this thing I had imagined, just simply imagined, has become an empirical reality. Look at this, I want to say to everyone, look at these pictures on my phone. You'll never believe what's happening, where my life has brought me. In a presentation this week, I said that I want to be a good immigrant, something  I've said in the past to audiences. It's an unintended laugh line. I'm not joking, but because I'm white and speak English, people think it's a joke. Of course, it is easy for me to adapt, to make sense of this society and do the right thing. But of course, it's also not easy, I want to say, it's been a struggle, this whole thing has been a struggle. I feel silly saying that, so I don't say it. It hasn't really been a struggle, has it. It's been easy, hasn't it.

28 January 2018

The birth of the asylum

Broken down walls

Last weekend, after I had agreed to pay Wayne the Builder to do the work on our house, the house on Victoria Road that I bought last year, I felt a kind of freedom from choice. Having weighed the options, it made sense that we should go with Wayne. He is older, although Yoko and I, sitting up in bed like an old couple, couldn't agree on what we thought his precise age to be. It's certainly over fifty. I wasn't sure when Wayne would appear, but it was Monday morning, when I received a cheerful e-mail from Yoko that he had arrived and they were already knocking down walls. Well, I thought, that's that.

Wayne works with another man, whose name I asked and then promptly forgot. He gives me a thumbs up in the morning, as I look out the window from my standing desk and watch them. They come in a flat-back truck and a van, both with WAH emblazon on them, and I feel like I should go out and help. We have tea and biscuits for them, which I heard through a colleague is what one should do when one has builders, although I thought hard about the quality of tea and biscuits we were providing, and whether or not this gave the impression that we had more money than we have. They had a skip delivered on Tuesday and filled it quickly with bricks and mud and some other sundries that seemed to be coming from another site. I gathered that they, Wayne and the other man, had negotiated some understanding with a builder working across the road. That builder is younger and his van has nothing written on it — at the end of the day, they all lean against the flat-bed truck and exchange, I assume, information.

Yoko and I went to Ikea on Tuesday and in two hours decided how the kitchen would come together. Over coffee and soup, I talked about my feelings with my wife whom, twelve years ago that day, I had asked to marry me. We made a series of decisions and cheerfully worked through a series of decisions about what we wanted,  Judy the Ikea Planner clicking away and drawing it all together.

I wonder what Wayne thinks about our little family, if he thinks anything at all of us. I thought about this as I stood in the kitchen drying dishes and listened to them working. They weren't talking to each other because there wasn't anything to say. I opened the door to wave goodbye, tell them that I had left tea and biscuits for them and, of course, if they needed anything to let me know. I wanted to tell them something about how I'm feeling, about the miracle this all seems to be, but it didn't seem appropriate. How silly, isn't it, that I feel the way I do, because of course this is a thing that people do.

15 January 2018

False Spring


Every January, there is a day or two where things become unseasonably warm. You feel a sort of British guilt that the winter seems to have gone away. With some luck, the weather report will warn of snow and sleet later in the week and you can relax knowing that you aren't getting away with anything and the whole of it will back sooner rather than later. You can walk up the street to take care of whatever errand needs taking care of and think, well, you have to enjoy it while it lasts.

A year ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would be standing in a shop trying to pick out tiles for renovations on our house, but that is what I was doing this weekend. Now, I have some elementary knowledge of building materials and VAT costs for builders and negotiating techniques. A year ago, I wasn't sure we were going to get our visas. Now, I seem to have put away any concern about the impermanence of life in the UK or the house on Victoria Road with all the British assurances I can now give about how when one invests in brick and mortar, one is guaranteed a return. I say this, but it's not entirely right.

I attribute this lack of concern for the future to meditation and Donald Trump. These two forces are duelling, different sorts of nihilism — one extremely positive, the other an acceptance that evil wins out eventually anyway. The vicar this Sunday spoke about homelessness in a poignant way, refusing to come to a happy conclusion. How we all want to be seen as doing good, but don't actually want to make any sacrifice — I then wondered if anyone can do good at all anyway. I shamefully helped a woman up to the alter for communion, shamed because my initial thought when she asked for help was smug, about how good I must appear with my beautiful wife and kids, the perfect sorts of immigrants. The atheist husband, dutifully coming along and participating despite his own misgivings. I'm a hypocrite from every angle.

During the creed, I don't recite any line except the last one: the life of the world to come. I recite this because it reminds me of the Mountain Goats, but also because if there's anything I hope for, it's that. Some life in some world to come. Not after death, really, but what comes next, the now that one hopes to stretch out in front with some certainty. Donald Trump and North Korean missiles aside, of course.

What is there to be afraid of, if not the possibility of something bad happening in the future. Last night, at ten forty, the doorbell rang, and I tensed up with fear, before going down and realising that it had just rung. The doorbell is old, it does this sometimes, but when I laid back down, after checking and locking the backdoor, I thought about spirits about evil and a story or stories my father had told about praying evil spirits out of the house, asking for angels to watch over us. Now, and last night lying in my bed, this all seemed silly, despite the fear that washed over me in the moment and my desire to reach out for something outside of myself to steady me. I took a couple of deep breaths. No one was going to kill me, the house on Victoria Road is old, not haunted. There are plenty of things to fear if I need to be afraid — best not worry about ghosts or evil spirits.

Something must be said about ontology and reality — I keep trying to parse this in conversations with people in an annoying way. My brother said after I told him that my wife had been telling people at church that I was an atheist, You are, no? I am, yes, I am, but it's complicated, isn't it. God is not real in an ontological sense, but he is real in the sense that he is the ghost captain of the ship behind a closed cabin door. You put your ear against it and think you hear the scratching of something inside. If you're a believer, you say it's the thing you believe in and you pray for angels to watch over your children. If not, you say it's just the sound a ship makes.

What you say about the closed door and what you project behind it makes reality what it is. When you meditate, you don't judge the voice or speak to it's realness. You just accept it as part of your experience, without judgement. It doesn't matter if the captain is there or if he is speaking, isn't it. It only matters what you hear, and what you do with what you hear. I'm not happy to say there's nothing to hear, that sometimes doorbells go off without any reason. It's just the truth, it's just not real in an ontological sense. I'm sure you can make it real in another sense.
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