25 March 2015

A strange light

Last week, on Friday, there was an eclipse. I didn't know one was coming and had not prepared — instead I had made my way to the barber to have my hair cut and think about some things. Dez, my barber, charges £6.50, but I always pay him at least £8 because I enjoy talking to him so much. Dez was not there when I arrived at 9, but the lights were on and I knew he would be close, so I stood outside in my shorts, thinking I would go running afterwards. Dez came around the corner eventually, holding a coffee and a newspaper and excitedly talking about the eclipse. Where had I been: how did I not know about it.

I remembered, as we stood outside, trying not to look directly at the sun, a moment in my childhood when there had been an eclipse. A full one, in Texas. I remembered that we had been sold these visors like sunglasses that allowed us to look at it, but being told again and again, 'Don't look directly at the sun.' As a child I was curious, but also terrified, both of god and my parents, so I didn't look up at it as I was told. 

With Dez, however, he implored me to look at it — 'Look at it! But just a second, like this' and he held up his hand to cover and uncover the sun briefly. I looked at it briefly as well, but felt guilty suddenly, like I had done something wrong.

Dez cut my hair and chatted on and on: this is how religion started, someone had to explain this. Look! There are two magpies outside, have you ever seen magpies in this area, even the birds know.

I had my glasses off and let Dez clip away, happily, as we talked about the sun and longboats and caravans, the things Dez and I discuss. He told me about the caravan park where his caravan is, just into Wales, where it's beautiful. He worked steadily and finished, handing me my glasses. That'll do, of course, here have £8, and Dez said, Oh are you sure: bless you, have a chocolate. 

We went outside again: Dez had said it would be pitch black, but it wasn't. It was just a strange light, like a lampshade put on. I ran home, wondering how the people in the past had seen that, before religion and god. Was it an omen or portent. What did you do when it went back to normal and never happened again: how could you explain it to others, would they believe you. One day the light went strange. I don't know what it means. 

06 March 2015


The Birmingham University Library is a kind of icon for me: a place that my whole world revolves around. I have heard they are planning to knock it down to make way for a newer, less red brick building. If there were a more insufferable metaphor, I can't think of it. I feel I can get away when I come to this University, even while being trailed by my e-mail and mobile phone. At Newman, everyone knows you and this is both an asset and a liability. On the Birmingham campus, you get the sense that you are just another electron in the humming machine of the University.

It's been a glorious day, and I have been sitting in a particular corral, working on various things and catching up on some reading. I listened to a lecture that the PVC of research gave on Wednesday night, and which I missed as I was at home with the kids. I sent a longish e-mail, and remembered to do something that I had promised to do over drinks last night and which I worried I might not remember. I did something I promised to do when I was drunk: There should be awards for this.

I have been eating bread again, which is like drinking for other addicts. When I eat bread, I can't stop: I can't have just one slice or two. I have ten. I eat Naan and bagels and cheese rolls. Today, I went to a shop, the kind of shop I would normally avoid going into, but because I am eating bread I went to it. There were Southeast Asian men calling other Southeast Asian men 'brother' when completing their order. As I was leaving, I thanked the man who gave me the naan I had ordered and the older man, the owner I would have thought, standing at the front of the shop said, 'Thank you, brother.' This felt like a small grace: I walked on in the sun, eating the bread and thinking about what I would do with the afternoon: where on campus I would sit.

I'm not sure what the bread endgame is. I don't see an ending. I had a cookie earlier. I could have another. And another. I'm depressed, sure. Perhaps if the sun comes out, if there is something to look forward to in the future. For now though, I think I'll have another coffee and think about a muffin.

01 March 2015

Seven Love Letters

Yoko and Stephen

I remember now suddenly August 2005 — standing outside of the door of Yoko's mansion apartment in Niigata, in a suit holding flowers. I felt the way you do when you fall in love — terrified, like I might just run away. I rang the doorbell before I could run and waited, my blue two-door Nissan Alto parked illegally for the moment.  We were going to go to a jazz concert, and I was wearing a white tie. It was inappropriate: I looked like a big dumb animal dressed for a wedding. She was the real deal though, career-minded and strong, and all I had was potential. A Canon Word Tank electronic Japanese-English dictionary in my pocket. I remember the door not opening, waiting.

Yoko's apartment in Monomiyama was closer to the city centre than mine, and is really the last vestigial memory of our lives as separate people. I remember its layout so well: I remember I broke a wine glass that was important to her, one her father had brought back from Italy. I asked her to marry me there, and in seven months time, we moved her out, into my world in Matsuhama, the old fishing village on the Agano River and whatever it was that we were before July 2006, before Naomi came into our lives two and half months later, was gone.

In Spring of that year before we married, I got two traffic tickets for running a red light on my scooter and not stopping fully at another light in my Nissan Alto. Simple mistakes, nothing serious. I learned that Japanese police officers are polite, but not interested in hearing excuses, particularly from fat white men with bad Japanese. They understand, of course, but the law is the law. So I took to riding my bicycle everywhere. 12 kms to work, and then another 6 or so into the city and then another 12 back on the Sea of Japan, under the Shinano River in a tunnel, coming out on the other side, right where Yoko lived.

I worked on Thursday nights, I remember, teaching a class of kids that I got paid 5000 yen an hour for — a crisp, perfect bill in a brown envelope at the end of the class. It always felt electric to get money like that in cash, particularly if a class had been good and I was on a teaching high anyway. One night though, there was fog on the path going down to the tunnel. I was riding slowly, but still making good time when suddenly, unexpectedly, I was lying on the ground, having been ejected off my bike. There was a barrier up to keep cars off the bike path and I had run into it, directly. I didn't have time to get my hands in front of me. After I figured out what happened, I picked myself up in the fog; the wind had been knocked of me and I was gasping. Had I broken something. Where was my bike.

I sat on the asphalt looking around and found my bike: the chain had derailed and the frame was bent, but not seriously. I had a cut in my Dickies shorts, my hand was bleeding a bit, but I was okay. I put the chain back on, and tried to ride it again. Yes, it was going, the tyre was okay, everything was okay. I made my way down the tunnel and to Yoko's house.

When she let me in and made me instant coffee, we sat on the floor and I told her about my day. I couldn't explain the accident well enough in Japanese at the time, and suddenly, as happens in places like Japan where you are on edge all the time and weak constantly and can't fully express yourself in a language that's not your own, I lost face and started to cry. I had been scared: it was dark and foggy and late and no one would have found me if I had been seriously injured. Yoko laughed, I remember, It's okay, it's nothing to cry about, and I was suddenly a little boy, a child that needed to be patted on the head, picked up and sent on my way. It passed, of course, just a moment of weakness. We sat together and eventually, I rode home into the darkness, everything behind me.

On the Megabus on Monday night, I awoke when we got to Coventry and half the people were filing off. I thought of going back to sleep, but since the whole day had been a success and a bike ride back was ahead of me, I decided to slowly wake up, watching outside the windows as we rushed up the A45 towards the airport and then Hill Street in Birmingham City Centre.

An Asian man two rows up on the opposite side, was  sitting next to a silent woman, and arguing on an iPhone with another woman named Phyllis. Phyllis, listen to me, he kept saying, No, Phyllis no, that is not what we said in Stratford, do you remember what we said then, Phyllis? Do you remember what we said about Alihan? The conversation went on and on, painfully. He had left Phyllis for another woman when Phyllis was pregnant with Alihan, who I assumed was next to him. Alihan was living with Phyllis and the man, whose name I never heard, had not been able to pick up Alihan from school that day. Phyllis, there is no need to shout. Phyllis, I am on the bus. You are embarrassing yourself.

At one point Alihan was on the phone as well, and his father's tone changed and he referred to Alihan as baby, assuring Alihan that his father would be there soon. There was a Muslim man sat across from me with his wife, a hijabi, and we both shared a knowing glance, judging the man with the iPhone for different reasons. When we arrived at Hill St, Phyllis was still on the phone, and I got off quickly to find my bike, texted Yoko, and rode home into the night towards Victoria Road.

On Saturday, Yoko and I stood outside another door in Milton Keynes. Another doorbell I had just rung, and the same urge to run away. It's been nine years since I fell off my bike that night, and here we are on the other side of the world. The door opens and a woman smiles and invites us in. Why are we here? There's a pause, a rush of memory. We're here because we love each other, because we've always loved each other. It's a thread we've pulled through history, more than nine years now. Across the two different generations we come from, across a gap in culture and language, and three children. The thread gets tangled sometimes, and it's okay for the thread to be tangled, isn't it? I say, We just need some help to get it untangled now. We can't do it ourselves. 

It's okay to cry when you need to: to ask for help and say what needs to be said. We're entitled in spite of it all, to be happy when we can be and remember faintly, that feeling of waiting with flowers, expectant for whatever mystery love wants to reveal to us. There's no reason to hide.

23 February 2015

Is the sunlight

Matsuhama Bridge 1 

The Fireside Bowl in Chicago — in the memories of aging white hipsters, the purists — was the place for B-grade emo and punk and hardcore acts, a central reference point as we all evolved through the late-nineties. Our jeans got progressively wider at the bottoms, until we decided it was time for them to be tight. I remember the first couple of times I was there, and all the awkward energy of being 15 or 16, standing in the back of a room as it filled up with older kids, and being worried about making curfew.

It closed for a while, the Fireside, but that was after I left. I don't remember the last show I went to, but the last show I remember was the Dashboard Confessional in May of 2002. Heather and I went together, although we had broken up already, and the place was packed out: Chris Carrabba, the singer was just about to break out and he shouted at one point, 'If you aren't going to sing along, get out because there's a whole crowd of people outside who wanna get in and sing!' It was just starting to get hot in the city, and after the show finished, we wended through the crowd holding hands, like we had forgotten we had broken up.

I was telling myself all sorts of lies that summer and growing my hair out while I painted houses. I was going to get over this, no matter what, I thought, pull my old life out of the abyss and resurrect it all, but the summer ended and I went back to school. And then autumn came and I fell in and out of love and in the Spring, I was in Hyde Park, just a half mile from where I am right now, sitting on a bench and thinking that there was no way any of this would get put back together, was there.

Then, this January, the Decemberists put out a new album and I saw they were coming to Birmingham. Yoko and I talked about going together, but we still haven't found someone to watch the kids and Yoko excused me to go without her: you should go, you should get a ticket. I held out hope that we would work something out, that we'd get someone to watch the kids, but then Yoko's friend from MK planned to come up and stay the night and the plan of the date dissipated. 

When Wednesday night came, the night of the show, I wasn't quite sure what to wear, but put on a blue Gap jacket that I bought in Niigata in 2007, on sale for 5000 yen and rode my bicycle to the City Centre. I met my friend Minnesota Matt at the venue, and we got in when the doors opened and waited for his wife to come via three or four buses from work. I bought an overpriced beer and we talked about all the bands we had seen, all the places we had seen them. Matt's wife came after the opener, we were all chatting when someone started calling my name. I think this person knows you, and indeed I did: it was a friend from college who was there, of course, yes, she was living near Brum and, yes, of course, we were all at the Decemberists together. All the Americans would be, these two are from Minnesota, can you believe it?

A guy I watch on YouTube says that scents are strongest memory triggers; perhaps faces should be on that list as well. I had a sudden rush of memory like you do when you see someone you haven't seen in a while, and when you have changed so  much. She knew me when I was growing out my hair and following Jesus and not wearing shoes. Yes, I remembered now, I had particularly hounded her about Jesus, and we were in the same writing classes and I could remember lines of her poems. Her mother  had died. I remembered that we had a reading together once in the Knox College Old Main Common Room and I remembered what an asshole I had been those years. 

The band started to play, finally, all these songs that I have known for years and years now. Records that spanned all the countries and timezones: I had the Crane Wife in Japan and ran across the Agano River bridge, listening to it on my iPod shuffle. Then the song that is on the new album, the one I've liked so much because it describes how I feel so well: I am waiting, should I be waiting. Yes, what should I do. Everyone was dancing almost. All that energy, my mouth open and singing along.

I rode the bike back home and Yoko and her friend and I sat on the carpet in the house on Victoria Road and drank leftover champagne. I told them the story of the night, of my friends and my former life in college and all the embarrassing things I had done simply because young love didn't work out and I believed in the wrong things. The long thread of the past can be untangled enough for it to make sense for a moment, for an audience of Japanese women patiently listening to me retrace my steps. All before you knew me, before I started to cut my hair and think about my posture. All these mistakes I had made, when I was barefoot, my Evangelical Jesus phase, and how young I felt all night long — that tightly drawn guitar string inside of me plucked again.

 I'm hopeful, Colin Meloy sings, should I be hopeful. The past is a kind of residue, a smell on my hands that fades until something serendipitous happens again. I'm not sure hoping has consequences one way or another. 


The early morning bus to London leaves at 4:45 from Hill Street in the centre of Birmingham. It's been a long time since I have been on a bus in this country. The last time was when I went to Newcastle for a conference. I think, at least. I don't remember.

I had been excited about the bus initially because of the WiFi, which worked brilliantly at first and then, as these things do, went away. I sat pushing connect again and again for about ten minutes, before giving up. I had said to Yoko as I showed off the £1 ticket and the website, ‘The bus has WiFi, so I can work,’ and she had said something about how it might be good if I spent some time not working. This sounds good in theory — not working — but I'm not sure I am capable of it, given how my work is really just thinking about things and writing down the interesting thoughts that come up. I suppose I could stop writing all of them down, but that seems like a waste.

In December, I stopped eating meat. It wasn't the first time — in college I became a vegetarian on a dare of sorts from a beautiful first-year Sri Lankan student in the Christian group I was leading. After I had gone to some talk about sexuality and the portrayal of women as meat and was saying, I'm not sure if I can keep eating meat, she looked sceptical: ‘Of course you can’t stop eating meat. Look at you.’ Indeed, this seemed impossible. I was probably eating meat at the time I said that I would stop. None-the-less, I gave it a go and held up for some six months. It caused a great deal of stress to my mother, I remember, at Thanksgiving, because I wanted some Quorn chicken nuggets, or something ridiculous. Suddenly I was better than everyone, a recurring theme in my life.

The WiFi taunts me some more. It’s connected it says. I click. It has not actually connected.

This time, I stopped eating meat for some different set of reasons, mostly about trying to ‘do less evil’ or some other nonsense, following a dumb conversation on Facebook. Say what you want about sentience, I said, but meat farming is one of the single worst things we are doing for the environment. This was true, in the way that stupid things young white hipsters say are true. Yes, of course, not eating meat is probably better for your body and for the environment. Fine, so is not wearing that shirt made god knows where and those leather shoes. Your belt is leather too, asshole.

Anyway, I stopped eating meat and it went fine: I was eating lentils and bread, and the kids had accepted it, but my body suddenly lost control of itself and I gained back some seven kilogrammes from the weight I lost at the end on 2014. It felt ridiculous that bread would do this to me, but the numbers didn’t lie, and despite running around like a madman, the weight kept pushing up. I felt awful, I looked awful, so I relented, finally, and had some chicken, thinking this would help solve things. Of course, it didn't, I just felt worse that I had both gained all the weight and also now was killing something, thinking it would make me sane. My weight stayed up, and I was angry now too.

All of January felt that way, a bit mad and manic as it usually does, although I’ve lost the extremes in my domesticity. To be fair, my talent as a writer or academic or theorist (which is what I really want to be, now that I'm edging into my mid-thirties) doesn't really justify being mad. Besides, there were things to do all month: I had some meetings the first week back and had to give a talk in London. I interviewed to become Reader, and after the interview knew immediately that of course no one had any real interest in making me Reader, but again, there was no time to be depressed: the kids needed to go to swimming, after all, and gymnastics. All I could manage was muttering under my breath in English and stepping out to take a walk and smoke. Where’s daddy? He's walking around the block, don't bother him, he's left his wallet.

Sure enough, the letter came two weeks later in February, stamped twice ‘Private & Confidential’, sitting on my computer keyboard on a Saturday morning. Yoko hugged me, but it was the sort of consolatory hug you have as partners after nine years, Sorry about that, you'll do better next time — we need to get the kids to the gym, put your coat on.

The Megabus WiFi page comes up. It asks me to accept the terms and conditions. Yes, of course I do, I tick and click. Nothing. The page reloads. Do you accept the terms and conditions? I just did. I tick and click. The exclamation mark appears above the WiFi bars. You don’t have Internet access. No shit.

In the end, I felt the Readership didn't matter: I didn't want it anyway, did I. Waiting three or four weeks helped. Yes, of course not, it’s not time yet, just let me get over it now and pretend that I didn't make a fool of myself in front of the top management of the university, all looking at me like a twelve-year old in an ill-fitting sport coat. I’ll get back to my bid writing and my mediocre teaching. Answer some reviewers commenters: everyone’s got the same criticism. You aren't really saying anything, are you.

February will be done soon enough. I get paid tomorrow and we’re finally going to get some help, Yoko and I. I ate a bit of chicken, and then told myself I can be a flexitarian, it’s okay: be an aspiring vegetarian. Vegetarians are hard to accept as they are so successful, healthy, and moral; aspiring vegetarians you can accept as failures like everyone else. I’m still feeling fat, but only when I think about how thin I've been in the past. I'm doing okay, actually: my thin jeans are fitting fine.

And the sun is coming up over London. I’ll give the WiFi another shot, but it doesn't really matter at this point, does it. I’m here in London. The million dollar Zone 2 homes outside the window. Maybe this is in my future. It’s okay to have dreams, isn't it. Just keep them realistic, okay. Don’t expect too much from your dad. He’s going for a walk now, give him a bit of space.

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