19 August 2014

An imperceptible

The autumn continues to creep in as it does in England — a process that continues almost in perceptibly from the last week of July clear through to October. In Malaysia, when September came, a sort of depression hit me as I realised it wasn't going to get cooler and the summer that had stretched on and on from January would continue on, with nothing ever changing. 

This morning I woke up earlier than I wanted to, the house quiet and Mia sleeping next to me. Yoko had come and gone in the night. I weighed myself and had two pieces of toast, a banana and a bit of cereal. Some time in the last three weeks, my mania for eating has subsided and I'm back to something normal, something before last year. I had a cup of coffee and the girls began to wake up: Mia came downstairs calling for mummy and looking first in the laundry closet and then seeing me sitting on the sofa. Naomi promised to fold the laundry and put it away if I gave her some money: they are saving change to go to Disneyland now and I kissed everyone goodbye before running to the gym.

09 August 2014

Bear Crawl

The Pihlaja family, in an effort to help the kids stay active and healthy, have become members of the Harborne Health and Fitness Club, which we joined for £20.12, and will pay £58 in direct debit payments in September and October. This membership gives us access to everything in the gym, importantly the pool, but I chose the £58 option over the £40 option, as it would give us access to the weights and the chance to again recover my body after the last 18 months of stuffing myself with nasi goreng and then, more recently, yo-yoing 4 or 5 kgs back and forth, depending on how manic I feel, and whether my mania is driving exercise or eating.

This time last year, sitting in the heat of the Taman Sri Minang, my trip to Europe done for the summer, I had resolved to be back in England, come hell or high water. I made the first payments for Naomi's private school, and made my first series of applications for jobs back here, back in England. At the time, I didn't think it would be possible, that it was impossible to somehow right the ship after we had gone back to Asia. It was over: in three years I would be back in Japan, teaching English like always expected I would end up.

Put in that perspective, sitting in Harborne, the windows open with the cool autumn air just touching everything, is a kind of dream come true. The sky is blue and the girls are playing downstairs, waiting for lunch.

In Malaysia, there was always an event to crystallise how I felt at any moment. I fell in a hole on the way to the bird park. There. That's all you need to know. Here, in Harborne, there is no experience like that. The benefits letter sitting on the kitchen counter for days, perhaps? No, there's nothing.

28 July 2014

Through the mail slot

I went and came back from Slovenia — stories I wanted to tell about transit and Vienna all melted away because I am a lazy writer, not writing when I should write. I am, however, also a guilty writer, so I come back to writing at times not because I want to, but because I feel I have to. Not for you — not for the reader or me or future me, but for the writing. Not for anything else.

There is not much to tell from my trip, except all the things that I can remember now. A train ride out of Austria to the south. I felt tired and heavy the whole time, the weight of my family, which I can never seem to shake, which this whole blog is now devoted, in some way or another. I left one day, the last day, to go running on the river. I said to the people at my table, I am going running, and one of them said, You should go: life's too short. I said outloud what I thought: Is it? It doesn't feel that way. It feels like it's been going on and on, like it won't stop (which is, of course, a joke Louis CK uses). 

The truth was that I wanted to run in the heat and run to the edge of my endurance, where I felt like I wanted to throw up and pass out on the path. I wanted to run in the worst way, the beer and all the shit I had been eating for the last week, trying to save money and wandering around the city after the conference, aimlessly waiting for the next day. 

Can the work of the Lord be quantified. I suspect not. 

When I came home, home to Birmingham, the nights were noticeably shorter, like summer is just starting to wane. The British will say, 'We've had lovely weather, to be fair' and they're right, it's been a lovely summer. Last summer too, though I wasn't here, was lovely too, I'm told. Now, we begin to feel the touches of autumn, and the promise of long winter, with sweaters and some snow, I hope. It's been a long time since it's snowed.

Through the mail slot this week came first very good news about our finances and then very bad news: the specifics of it are unimportant, except that our choice to live here, in England, is going to continue to be hard financially. No light at the end of the tunnel for now, except some vague future. I had the first moment ever when I thought that maybe leaving Malaysia had been a mistake, as I looked at a photo of friends in an open air food court. No, no, of course not, I reminded myself: another set of article proofs come. Another book that I'm in. No, no, stick to the plan — keep your head down and work hard. There is always something coming, if you can will it. 

16 July 2014

All the differences

I spent early Tuesday morning waiting for the 900a bus from Moor St, the first bus to the airport from the city. I had planned to spend the night in coffee shops, but as it goes, there are no coffee shops open all night. I went, instead, to McDonald's, starting the night out near New St station.

As you can imagine, McDonald's at 12:30 on a Tuesday morning is filled with all the people waiting that Dr Suess writes about in that book every millennial got for graduation. I read it to my kids.This morning, McDonald's was full of people waiting for trains and two black men eating food that had not been purchased at McDonald's, unless McDonald's is now selling full apple pies in pans and cider. They tried talking to these two women sitting next to me, asking the younger looking one what she was doing and where she was going. When they left, the man with the pie gave me a piece of advice about watching porn: I  couldn't do it on the WiFi, he said, I would need to tether my computer to my phone. I thanked him and left soon after, looking for another McDonald's with a power point and more coffee.

I ended up on Corporation St and as I was going into that McDonald's a younger homeless guy asked me for some change, for a coffee. I of course told him no, thinking as I've been taught he would only use the money for drugs.  He followed me in though and I was suddenly, irrationally scared that he might knife me.  After I ordered, he took out a saver card that they have here: when you buy 6 coffees the seventh is free and ordered a hot chocolate with  four sugars and sat down near the power point. I followed him there, to plug in my computer and keep waiting for the bus, working as it turns out on my article about porn.

Around 2:45 a women came in to get coffee, another homeless woman,  and knew the guy I was sitting near. She tried to order something, but didn't have the money and asked if her friend had 10p which I was suddenly eager to fish out of my coin purse. Another homeless man came in,  carrying a black plastic bag,  ordered a coffee. He dropped his lid over the rail to where I was sitting and I picked it up for him: he said, thanks and then, You's ain't homeless, is you? and I said, Oh, no, no, just waiting for a bus. Where's you from? he asked. Well, I live in Birmingham, but I'm from Chicago originally. Ah, he said, could be from Birmingham, Alabama, he said, and we both laughed: but you's ain't got the accent.

Around 3:40, I packed up to go, the guy I had been sitting with and initially afraid of now curled up and sleeping in the corner booth. The night manager went out front to smoke, and didn't say anything, standing at the threshold of the door,  looking out like an Edward Hopper painting. I pulled on my bag, and set out into the night again, the 900a bus coming on time and taking me away.

15 July 2014

Neither the best, nor worst

On Friday, Naomi and Mei got their reports for the six months they were at their school, Woodhouse Primary, on the top of Tennal Rd, on the edge of Quinton, just where the shine of Harborne begins to wear off. The reports were all good: they are a pleasure to have in class. They are engaged. They have wide circles of friends. I read the reports, sitting with the girls in the Ikea parking lot, before we went in for dinner. Both of the girls beamed, Mei particularly, so happy to be told she had done well. I too beamed, in the way that you do when you hear that your children are well-adjusted and kind.

We celebrated by eating at Ikea, which is a simple sort of celebration, but about what we can handle right now. Pulled out of Malaysia, things are, in theory, much better, but I've yet to see the positive impact, after paying to get here, and for the government to let us stay. I'd like to feel better about the choice, about coming back — it was certainly better than where I was, but I wonder, I worry about chasing some dream. Some unrealistic, stupid dream. There was a job posted in Hiroshima: how much easier, simpler would life be in Hiroshima.

On Saturday, word came down that the children had been invited to a birthday pool swimming party and that I was needed to help the adult to children ratio. Standing in my trunks, when the time came to head out with the kids into the water with the other men, I felt the absence of humiliation. Like humiliation would be wasted on me if I felt it and that I must, as these other men — all five to ten years older than me — accept that this was our fate. We are fat and flaccid and now our wives and children have put us together in the water, in our trunks, and we are to maintain eye contact and make small talk. Yes, I am Mei's dad. Yes, and Naomi and Mia too. Yes, 7, 5 and 3. Yes, the water is warm. Yes, I am from the States, all while pretending to not be standing waist deep in a kiddie pool.

Of course, the kids loved it and after we were allowed to get dressed again, we stood around awkwardly while the children ate ham and margarine sandwiches, followed by cake. The men all hunched over their smart phones at this point, looking to do important business, and I too was persuaded to pull out my cheap Samsung Fame, which I got on offer, and pretend as well that I had I gotten an important e-mail, rather than another alert from Facebook. At some point, after the children had eaten what the mothers felt they would eat, we were offered the leftover sandwiches, which of course, we feigned lack of interest in, before giving in: Well, if someone needs to eat them.

We left with the kids bounding around, full of energy and candy: it had been the fourth party they have been to in three months and they compared notes among the ones they liked best. Yes, the pool had been good, much better than the others.

Tonight, as I packed for my trip to Slovenia, Naomi came to my office and asked me if I was working or just watching YouTube videos. I told her that I didn't know anymore. What's my job or not my job. Is this part of my job? I left, kissed them and Yoko goodbye and got on a late bus to sit in a McDonalds until an early bus comes, and an early flight, and a train then to Eastern Europe. What  kind of dream isn't stupid, really, isn't misguided or wasteful.

05 July 2014

Re-reading the past

The news reported that we had a record high this last week: 27.2, sweltering heat for the West Midlands and England in general. The whole nation is encouraged to run outside with Pimms and sit in garden chairs, soaking it in while listening to Wimbledon on the radio in the background. Andy Murray is out now; the English team was pathetic in the World Cup this year. Still, before the rain comes in again, we should enjoy the good weather while we can. It's bound to go sour sooner rather than later. The weather, the attention to the weather, is so British.

The girls and I walk to school every morning, up Tennal Rd, from Harborne to the edge of Quinton where Woodhouse school is. The walk is a nuisance when you are doing it — getting the kids all ready to go and out the door before eight twenty — but is actually the substance of their childhood and the thing you will remember in your fifties when you think back about the children as children. Remember walking to school everyday; remember holding daddy's hand. We chat about everything in their lives: their plans for school or the missing cat posters stapled to telephone poles or what Valerie, the troubled girl at school, did yesterday. At the gate of the school, I insist that they kiss and hug me, however reluctantly.

While life in Malaysia had dramatic moments which served as perfect depictions of life in the developing world, our English life is markedly less dramatic. Yesterday, I packed my bag — the Jack Wolfskin backpack I bought myself for my birthday — and set off to run home. It began raining as I came up Woodgate Rd. I stopped, after crossing into the path by the creek, and put on the rain cover and then ran on. Nothing happened; no one stopped me. I came in the back door, peeled of my wet clothes and took a shower. The rain is the complicating event in that story.

The rain could also be a complicating event in a story in Malaysia, like when I found myself caught in a deluge, the whole left lane of Jalan Semenyih covered in a foot of water, probably more. That day I was riding my bike in that rain and almost killed myself. I was soaked all the way through — I stood in a strip mall outside a Chinese grocer shop and wondered if the rain would let up enough to get home that night. Cockroaches coming up out of the sewers.

The past is a rag that we wring out. I sit down to write and wonder if there is still more to come out, if it is dry now. No, I have not exhausted it, there is still more to say. You can re-read it again and again — the Jack Wolfskin bag, a kind of embodied writing prompt. I sinch up the shoulder straps and remember riding on the bus back to Kajang in the heat of some afternoon, thinking about a future that I am now living.

30 June 2014


Today marked six months back from Malaysia. The heat is forgotten almost entirely and the daylight goes on and on. The girls are up until ten or ten thirty, but it doesn't seem to matter. July is just around the corner, and then August and then the autumn that I have waited and waited for. A brisk walk across the Newman quad, and then in Kensington and Bloomsbury. A home, if there is still a home.

I closed our Lloyds international account this morning, the one that came with a black card with a black, charging stallion on it. When I put it on the counter at the branch in Harborne, it felt like an artefact from potential life that I had surrendered. I stared at it while the attendant — with the name Leghorn, so British — pulled up a screen to return to life before Malaysia, with a simple current account. A green card with a black stallion.

We had signed up for this international account when we left the UK. I remember the first time I used the card in Kajang, in the mall, after walking from the hotel with Mei, over the dirty river and through the heat to Giant. The card worked and I remember feeling like things would be okay: if we had money for a couple of months, we would be okay.

The card was replaced after four weeks — when our visas came through, and we could open a bank account in Semenyih — with a cheap debit card from the Malaysian bank, Maybank, that didn't even have my name printed on it. It had pictures of apples and the numbers even rubbed off in three months. I had an argument with a Maybank employee in a tudong about it: she said it was my fault. She said the numbers on her card had not rubbed off and she had her's for many years. The two cards, the black stallion on the Lloyds card with my name in raised letters and the Maybank card with the numbers written in Sharpie, were a great metaphor for the differences in lives, the hardships. I could even use the Lloyds card as a prop if I ever needed to explain why going back to England would be easy: I already have this. It took me five weeks to get to this point in Malaysia.

Leghorn printed the forms and had Yoko and I sign them, the black stallion cards in front of him on the desk still. Do you want me to dispose of these? He said, and he bent and ripped them in front of me. All done. Twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours. the money will be in my new old account, back to square one.

Yoko and I left and went for coffee with Mia: the Nero on Harborne High Street has tall windows that they open when it's warm. I sat with my back to the sun, sipping espresso and thinking about how much I had just spent. Four pounds, that would have been twenty-five ringgit. Dinner for the whole family, easily — I would have thought about that money this time last year. This time last year, when Ramadan was starting and you heard the Mahgrib in a way that you didn't before. I was going mad. Just a year ago, just over that horizon.

26 June 2014

The terrible threes

Mia came so quickly. I asked her last night if she remembered being born, and she said she did. 

I remember her being born, remember Yoko touching my leg to wake me up when the labour had started. It was the second year of my PhD, and I was a pile of dry leaves, trying to keep from burning up. After she was born, I wrote for 16 days straight. I stayed up all night and wrote. 

Mia is a fascinating little person. I'm sure she will keep that up.

24 June 2014

What I was doing was fascinating

In 2006, after Yoko and I got married, we went to Malta and Italy for our honeymoon. In my mind, there was no more romantic place than Italy. I had never been there — I had imagined it, idealised it in the way that Midwestern boys think about anything beyond the hundreds of miles of corn separating us from anything. Italy, yes, where people eat the sorts of food they do on PBS documentaries, and drink strong coffee and wine. What does wine even taste like? Two students came back from studying in Florence when I was at Knox, and were suddenly wearing leather shoes and complaining that someone had set out juice and cookies at a poetry reading. They're both sweet, we need something bitter to balance it.

I spent this weekend in Italy at a conference and was struck again with how Italian Italy is: very much like one imagines it to be. Yes, the people golden and well-dressed, smoking cigarettes and sitting effortlessly beautiful in cafes in the setting sun. Still the Midwestern boy, I look on with a sense of aspirational awe, like someday I too might be able to shed this hunched, sweating white body and transform into one of them. I am, after all, 1/8 Italian — my grandmother’s maiden name was Albie. I walked around in the evenings after the conference, buying pizza and gelato, watching all of the people that are 1/8 me and wondering how, in only three or four generations, we had ruined ourselves: a people who drank wine at lunch and slept from 2 to 4, to dreadful Puritans and Calvinists, wound so tightly. What part of my blood is to blame for that?

Whatever aspirations I have, I still feel like a tourist, in the way that all millenials are now tourists, having been somewhere in the world to study or volunteer or do some other insufferable thing. You can hear the young American accents in the cafes and you suspect that if you went over to the table, you could strike up a conversation about Angkor Wat or a wet market in Bangkok. Everyone’s been everywhere now, any place in the world feels like a different part of Disneyland. There are still wars, of course.

For the first time at an academic conference, I wasn't a student trying to be heard or get a job. I am now just another academic in the pile, without the protection of my supervisor who had helped found this particular association and whom I had, in the past, stood and sat next to at important times in the conferences, feeling like people were listening to what I was saying. In 2010, I remember now, I was sitting in a terrace restaurant in Amsterdam, above Vondel park, with everyone I was reading at the time and citing in my upgrade reports and I felt like I had arrived in some way, had somehow taken a place among all these important scholars who would listen to me when I talked about my research.

Four years on, my supervisor has retired  and she, at least this year, was a kind of ghost. A third of the people presenting cited her in one way or another — a keynote speaker quoted and disagreed strongly with her, but because she was not there, it seemed odd to assert an opposing position. I wondered if I should stand from the back, one of the last students that orbited her and shout out some opposing point. You've misrepresented her. I know — I was sitting there when she said that for the first time. Without her standing next to me in the lunch line, people I thought would remember me, did not remember me. I’m Stephen, I was Lynne’s student? I say. We spoke at length in 2010: you thought was I was doing was fascinating.

Instead of falling into some family of academics, I feel even more American than ever, setting out to make my own path at a University no one knows yet, and slowly building my own reputation — my own people in my own orbit. After all, in a couple of years, no one will ask or care whom you studied with. It feels terribly lonely though: a string of publications with my name only, no one else standing with me. I shouldn't, of course, be bothered — this is my path. I'm forty-fifth generation Roman and with some luck, somewhere I can recover in some small way, my ancestors — 1/8 of them — who looked out at the Mediterranean and weren't so bothered.

17 June 2014

Father's Day

Today, Mei's class performed for Father's Day at the school assembly. The kids went around and recited lines — things they loved or respected about their fathers and then held up pictures they had drawn. Mei nailed it, proudly held up this picture of my madness. The kids sang a song about their fathers being superheroes, but at this school, being a good father amounts to simply being present. Mei was happy and embarrassed and proud, this mix of emotions that comes over her when she is in front of a group of people. You can watch her go through these stages, as she files in, sees her parents and then focuses on whatever she needs to do. 

We spent the weekend with Yoko's Japanese friends in Milton Keynes: beautiful children running around a bazaar held in a church. The men with the children, as I've said before, are all older than me, with wives my age, and children the ages of my kids. I'm never sure where to put my hands when I find myself in these situations. Does this all seem ridiculous to you? I wander off, play with the phone, hope no one has noticed that I'm not there. 

I dread the end of June, my birthday and father's day, particularly this year when bills have come in. I heard Adam Carolla once talking about his wife getting him a flat screen TV for his birthday. He laughed off the absurdity of it: the money was coming out of their account anyway and he was the only one working. Of course, that's not a thing that you should say, but I broke the rules this weekend in the worst possible way when Yoko and Naomi brought home Glenlivet 12 year whisky, Naomi saying Happy Father's Day. The car tax was two hundred and five pounds. Naomi's swimming fees were close to fifty pounds. Mei's passport was one hundred and fifty pounds in the end. I like whisky, but this is not the month to drink whisky. 

I said something to this effect, the wrong thing, of course, to say, but I couldn't hold it back, couldn't pretend. I felt bad later, opened the whisky anyway and started drinking it: why add the humiliation of returning a gift to be married to such an asshole who would say something like that in the first place.

Goffman said it: family life, social life is this presentation, this performance on stage, in front of a curtain. We are puppets, but we're supposed to pretend that we aren't. Sometimes, the curtain flips up a bit and you can see behind it. Sometimes the curtain comes down completely, and you find yourself still dancing in front of an audience that doesn't seem to notice that you're a puppet. 

All these other superhero dads must just be better at pretending, saying the right things to their wives instead of being obsessed with these unseen social constraints that push you one way or another, make you repeat lines that you don't want to repeat anymore. Social structures are not fair or logical or truthful — they are functional. They exist because they function. That's it. To expect more of them is silly; it will drive you mad. 

12 June 2014

A phantom limb

When Job's friends come to visit him, when he is covered in boils and sitting in ashes, they sit in silence for a week.
And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.
Job's friends in Evangelical Christian discourse have a bad reputation, but like Pontius Pilate, I have an affinity for them: they are just doing their best.

I finished Moby Dick last week and have been turning the last couple of chapters over and over in my mind. My famed older brother said that it's a shame people have to read these great novels in high school when they can't necessarily appreciate them: I feel that way about Moby Dick. Obsession is hard to understand as a life force until you are obsessed for years and years. I love when Ahab finally comes off the rails in the end:
I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God.
Yes, I can see how it would come to this.

The obvious Biblical metaphor for chasing a whale is Jonah, but I love that Melville continues to allude to Job, to the leviathan. Job is the better metaphor for being forsaken and destitute, provided you avoid the creamy, impossible ending. The real question is the one Ahab gets stuck on, 'Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?' The answer is obvious.

01 June 2014


When we left Malaysia, there was little I felt we were truly leaving behind in terms of quality of life. Every day had become a hurdle of traffic and heat, and when we were called out, I believed in purgatory, at least as a useful concept in framing experience. We had paid our dues and were back on track. Still, there were small things we left behind, one being the access to very cheap extracurricular activities. RM50 a month for swimming and another RM50 for gymnastics. We could all go swimming for about a pound and then have dinner, piles of food in the food court, for less than five quid. I was reminded several times that this would not be the case in the UK: it would cost much more, more than we could afford.

We quickly went to work to find places for Naomi to swim and Mei to do gymnastics. Naomi got on two swimming club waiting lists, but as luck would have it, Mei was able to join a gymnastics club that meets on Saturday in the University of Birmingham gym and only costs £3.50 a time. Naomi, however, didn't get a place in the swim club, and we have been waiting and waiting for the e-mail saying she could start.

The e-mail did, finally, come last week and she was given a trial spot in a private club, one that, looking at the website, you feel is quite serious. We took the spot, of course, and waited patiently for this morning, when we all got up early to drive her like the Bundrens to the King Edward's High School across from the University of Birmingham, where the club meets. The University of Birmingham, the red brick and the crests are all matched by the King Edward's High School (for boys and for girls, but not co-ed). There are well-manicured playing fields surrounding it, with the University clock tower looking down as it does in Edgbaston and Harborne and Selly Oak. I had a moment of pride as I do sometimes in these places, a feeling of anticipation for the future: I had been saying that we might send the kids to a school like this, if they wanted to learn Latin and have a chance at going to Oxbridge. They could, I had been thinking — this was now a possible future in the Pihlaja multiverse. A kind of ascension from the bottom, from the public swimming pools in Putrajaya.

 The woman running the whole event  looked like my PhD supervisor, and was kind enough: a coach, a serious coach. Naomi was placed in the learners’ group one, but was quickly promoted to group two. Yoko, Mei, Mia, and I sat on the side of the pool with the other forty or so parents. Mia kept complaining that she wanted to swim, and Yoko disappeared with her and then reappeared and she was wearing her swimming costume, beaming like a three year old. I was embarrassed at first: here we were, the immigrants, stepping up and we had to go and have Mia running around making everyone uncomfortable thinking she’s going to jump in the water.

She kept running around in front of us, getting in the way of one of the coaches, but we would apologise and pull her back. Yoko and Mei and Mia ran off to the toilet and I played with my phone, looking up every now and then. Eventually, Mia appeared from across the pool, running out of the ladies room and headed towards me, and I thought, Jesus, she shouldn’t be running, but I couldn't manage to shout out to her. She got about halfway, and then started running back, Yoko standing at the door of the ladies room. Mia, I said, trying not to yell and starting to run after her, and she started to run faster.

Somewhere deep in my reptilian brain I thought this was probably not a good thing, that I shouldn't run, but it didn't catch up with me until, suddenly, a loud whistle was blown and the whole of the pool stopped, all thirty kids swimming, all parents looking up, and the coach looking directly at me and shouting. Shouting? Was she shouting at me? She was, yes, and I was standing there with Mia and now, Yoko at the door, who didn't realise initially that the whole pool, everyone, was staring and the coach was still shouting. I apologised, but she couldn't hear me — I may have even bowed. There was silence for a second and then everything started up again. I walked back to my seat, in front of the stands of parents, all looking at me sympathetically, and me apologising the whole way back, Sorry, I wasn't thinking, sorry I’m sorry, sorry, yes, I know, sorry, and sheepishly sitting down.

The swimming ended, and I apologised to the coach again, to the woman taking the money, to the parent who sympathetically said to me, Oh that must have been awful, just awful, I felt so bad for you. No, no, I'm sorry, I said: it’s my fault, we were in Malaysia last year, my wife is Japanese, the children are much less restricted in Asian countries.

These things, of course, happen: it's certainly not part of some bigger picture, some bigger narrative about being places one should not be — in the boy's pool at King Edward's High School, that I feel I have infiltrated, as an American with my Japanese wife. We don’t belong there, do we: we don’t have old Edgbaston money, or a cottage in the Lake District. We have somehow clawed our way into this world, where we don’t belong, but are trying to. When I open my mouth, you know that I am American, right? My wife is clearly not British, you can see that, I know you can. Standing there waiting for the girls to come out of the toilet, I suddenly felt a rush of empathy for the woman in the hijab having an awkward conversation with another British woman from the swimming club. What are any of us doing, what do we think we’re doing.

23 May 2014

Happyness is a choice

My sister says to me the other day that basically, given enough time, all men will get prostate cancer. It's not entirely true, the internet tells me, but it's also not entirely false. I haven't been able to stop thinking about prostate cancer since she said that. It's one thing to know that you're going to die, I thought, it's another to know how. Luckily, it appears that prostate cancer is not a cancer that kills you and if it does, it will kill you around the time in life you expect to die. Not now, not this year: some time displaced in the future.

I am thirty one now, almost thirty two. If you double that, you get sixty four and I expect to live well past sixty four. Last week, I smoked the last of the pipe tobacco that my father-in-law had left for me in Malaysia. It feels like another life now, but it was only five months ago that we were sitting on the vinyl sofa in front of the house, watching the hot Malaysian night. I put the pipe back up on top of the cupboard and thought it was time to take a break: smoking has been making me sane, but I need to choose a less dangerous vice. Alcohol and sex are both out. Drugs, too, of course. I've not had the energy to run long distances. What other vices are there? Is clear-eyed stocism a vice?

I found a small pipe tobacco shop in the city centre, right off Colmore Row in the Great Western Arcade, the sort of old tyme English shoppe you expect in England — next to a place selling whiskey, next to a candy shop. I went in, trailed by Naomi who looked concerned and said, as I was looking at all the options, 'But daddy I thought you were going to stop smoking your pipe?' The woman behind the counter smiled at me and I said, yes, yes, I did, and left without buying anything. Maybe another time.

The kids bring with them complex responsibility that fences you in odd ways, acts as a conscience following you around. At a writing retreat on Thursday, after a day of selfishly typing away while my wife and kids waited for me, a young woman I had just met asked, 'So do you like having kids?' What an odd question, I thought: it's not the sort of thing one can like or dislike, is it? I didn't want to problematise the question, but my pause, my repeating of the words 'Like having kids?' made it worse, more awkward than it needed to be. I left, I walked out into the rain, and went home.

Mia fell asleep to me reading the other day: laid on the sofa under a blanket, while Mei sat next to me and I recited Daisy Head Maisy. I don't read enough to the kids, don't spend enough time with them in general. Mei loves it when I read. Rapunzul and Snow White, and Oh, the Places You'll Go. That one, of course, is the one that I like the best. We crack it open and look at the wide open air, all the choices the book tells you that you can make. 'Where do you want to go, Mei?' I ask, and we map out the streets that one would avoid and why. There's a dinosaur there? Yes, I say, it looks dangerous doesn't it. We finish, and I carry Mia up to the big bed.

Dr Seuss must have known about the cave, but chose to ignore it in his writing. You'll look up and down streets, look them over with care, but your future is more complex than just picking one street over another. Who wants to believe that even if it's true; who wants to tell that to their children. Like faith, like belief in fate and order, you have to choose to ignore some things, simplify others. Sure, you may get prostate cancer, but who doesn't. You'll be okay either way.

14 May 2014

A Quaker faith

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.
When someone asks, why are you here, it's always a long story for me. How far back would you like me to go, I want to ask. To the beginning? Which beginning is the beginning of this?

Somewhere in the course of today, I told the story of my failed honeymoon, a story Yoko doesn't like me telling, but one I have perfected over the years: starting with us standing in our apartment in Matsuhama in Japan — Yoko having been so sick from the pregnancy — plane tickets in hand and trying to decide whether or not to go on... and ending with me walking alone around Rome, angry and displaced. Look, the Sistine Chapel. Great. This last line is the laugh line, delivered deadpan and sarcastic, the ending that draws it all together before moving on or back to whatever prompted the story in the first place.

That night that Naomi was born, we were still in Matsuhama, in the small 2DK apartment where, if you craned your neck looking from the bedroom window, you could see the Agano River flowing into the Sea of Japan. I paid 42,000 yen a month for it, and when Yoko and I got married, we moved her out and into my place. The night we completed the move, I remember shutting the door with all of her things piled in the kitchen and thinking, this is where we will start. We had been cat-napping in the bed for six months, Yoko always going home around two or three to avoid the appearance of staying over, but we were married now and this was where it was all going to happen. We shut off the lights and opened the windows and although I don't remember being able to hear the water, I can remember it now. That bed we had, we had bought it together, and it was so big, I remember, bigger than any bed I slept in for years. 

Naomi came, as I've said again and again here, unexpectedly both in the first instance and in the last, when at 1:30 in the morning, only 40 minutes after Yoko and I were happily chatting and waiting for the doctor, I saw her face emerging and suddenly there and in my arms. Look at her and how much she looks like me: my own little girl, after so many months of only resenting her and hating everything she had done to my wife and marriage. No, how stupid that had all been, I remember thinking as I left the clinic early the next morning to go home and shower and stand in front of the teacher room at Meikun High School and announce that she had come in the night. Everyone pitied me, I think, a silly gaijin assistant language teacher with a year-to-year contract and nothing to speak of in the works. At least his wife has a good job, I could imagine them saying right before I came in the room: at least they have something.

And then, seven years later, this morning, standing at the top of Bristol Rd in Selly Oak. It was bright and clear, and I had just been in Sainsbury's looking for a birthday badge: Naomi said that she wanted a badge. I came down past a part of the University I hadn't seen yet, another series of buildings on both sides of the road, and finally at the bottom of the hill, the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, and that question, at reception, why are you here? There's no good answer for that question, not ever: I don't know, I want to say, somewhere I took a wrong turn and ended up here. Here is as good a place as any, isn't it? If you don't mind and it isn't too much trouble, I'd like to do a bit of writing and stay, at least until I can figure things out.

05 May 2014

The battle of Flers

At the church on the hill, the one with the bells that ring through the night, I've been reading gravestones while the children run or ride their bicycles in front and behind me. The cemetery has been not be looked after, and many of the headstones have fallen over, or sunk into the ground. One, from the late eighteen hundreds, for a boy that died when he was six months, is almost completely gone, swallow up by the soft moss that covers Harborne like a blanket.

The headstones show how some men were devastated when their wives died, buying tonnes and tonnes of granite to memorialise them and assuage some guilt. You can tell yourself all sorts of elaborate stories if you want to, imagine some Emily Dickinson poem giving the Victorian creepiness presence — like Mei saying she doesn't want to ride her bike there because the dead people are watching and she's shy. Eighteen hundred eighty seven, Nineteen hundred and seven, eighteen hundred and seventy five — the dates written out.

The kneeling angel without hands, watches over several people, notably John Randolph, aged 52, who fell at the Battle of Flers. Wikipedia tells me that nearly 30,000 British soldiers died with him. It was the first battle where tanks were used, but largely unsuccessfully — many wouldn't start. In this war, the great war, people just died, over and over and over and over. The memorial placard at the church on the high street, with the virginal couple strumming the guitar and singing, showed how devastating the war was even for Harborne. A hundred names, at least.

So many people come past the church on the way up to town. A couple of boys in trainers with iPhones. Old couples with lap dogs, and Mei falls down hard on the path and I have to go pick her, up rub her knees and say, It's okay, it's okay — here get on the bike again, try again.

Naomi says to me, 'Daddy, how do you say tengoku in English?' Heaven, I say. 'Daddy, do you know I believe in heaven, so I will go there because I believe?' Oh? I say, why do you want to go to heaven? 'Because it's happy there and there are no sad things.' It sounds boring, I say to her, laughing, and she laughs too, and we head on to the park, to practice riding the bicycles some more.

01 May 2014

The momentum of settling

Part of the momentum of settling — a strange oxymoron of my life now — is the accumulation of things that tie you to a place. For now, Birmingham feels like home for me. As we came back from the South several weeks ago, Yoko commented on it too — the ramp off the M6 onto the A38, down into a trench that leads to the city. You come through a series of tunnels under the city, and up towards Edgbaston, where the University of Birmingham is. Bristol Road has a grassy median lined with trees, something I remember from my first time in Birmingham in 2009 when I gave a talk at Westmere House. Now, the car guides itself up towards Harborne, the terrace house on Victoria Rd which, with each furniture adjustment and evening spent in the garden, feels like home.

Pets were, of course, always next on the list and although I managed to keep kicking that decision down the path — much easier in Malaysia and Milton Keynes when there was a expiry date to our time — there was nothing holding us back anymore. We have no plans to leave and no reason to not give the kids what Yoko and I had growing up, menageries full of all sorts of small animals and rodents. Although I am allergic in an awful way to cats and dogs, Yoko had made up her mind that we would get guinea pigs. I joked that it was like when we decided to have Mia — the choice had been made before the conversation began and I found myself relegated to participant observer. I watched it all happen at a distance, hearing myself say the words I knew I was supposed to say.

The guinea pigs came through Gumtree: two in need of a home because 'Kasia', the seller, was moving abroad. I felt good about these pigs, more so than the ones at the pet shop, because I imagined the Kasia was Polish and I have only had good experiences with Polish people. I also, however, imagined that we would go to pick them up and would be surrounded by beautiful, blonde Polish children who would be giving up their beloved pets, a scene ending in heartbreak and sobbing, something I wanted to avoid at all costs.

Instead, we found the house on the north of the city to Handsworth, the guinea pigs actually the property of a teenage girl and her mother, who were indeed going back to Poland. Naomi had the chicken pox, but they didn't care — Mei and Naomi both held a pig a piece, while Yoko waited in the car with Mia who was sleeping. As the girls cuddled the two of them, I waved Yoko in and knew that this was it, the next piece of the puzzle. It was £37, they had posted — 'Here's forty,' I said to the teenage girl, 'You can keep the change' and she said, 'That's very generous.' For some reason the word 'generous' stuck in my mind. I am not generous. I am the least generous person I know, I wanted to say. I'm vain actually, I don't want to look petty asking you for three one pound coins.

It was clearly hard for the girl to give them up, Bogdan and Philip, but I said we would take good care of them '...isn't that right Naomi?' and Naomi said, earnestly, 'That's right, we'll try not to kill them with knives.' I was shocked:  'No, no, of course not,' I said, 'Don't say that. It will be fine, they will be fine.'

Bogdan and Philip have been renamed several times, and I'm still not sure what their names are, but the girls have been taking care of them every morning with Yoko's help, of course, and taking them out in the garden after they come home from school. Yesterday, it was perfect. Bogdan and Philip sitting in their cage outside, watching as Mei and Naomi performed Disney songs and danced. Mia had the trowel and was helping me, she said, her old dad who was smoking his pipe and drinking a £1.25 Stella Artois from a tall can and cutting brush. Let it go, let it go, the girls sang, with overly dramatic dances and waves of arms, Bogdan and Philip looking on. Won't hold me back anymore. Yes, I thought, pausing, looking up at them all, yes, that's right.

28 April 2014


In 2002, I went to Ireland for the first time to visit my sister, who was studying in Limerick. It was the sort of trip that I have repeated again and again, taking the long way out to save money and get a sense of how things are in a place. We stayed in a castle (a castle!) and I ate Cadbury eggs and took a lot of video of Martha, but now, looking back on it, I understand her much better — what it is like to leave the States and have people visit you from the States. Loud and big and ignorant all at once: I had even grown out my hair for a year. I remember humming 'Hail Britannia' on the street because I thought it was funny: the sort of loud, awful American things you do when you don't have any clue about anything. It had been a hard year, but I was starting to feel like the future was coming. Martha's friend cut my hair the second to last night I was there. The protest is over, I said.

This last weekend, I was back, this time in Belfast. As a rule, I've ditched the video camera for the most part and I don't take pictures very often when I travel alone. They're all there on the web anyway, any famous thing you want to see. In the sorts of places I go, I want to pretend that people aren't aware that I'm not from around there. It's stupid: I'm obviously a tourist in a pink shirt and a backpack and an American accent. I don't know what you've said to me, I'm sorry, I'd like a scone please. Is that not a scone? I'm sorry, I'll have that. Still, I imagine myself as better than that couple over there, so fat and awkward with their maps and shorts.

Belfast gives you the feeling that you need to take sides. I realised that as I was standing alone, looking at Nationalist paramilitary murals in Whiterock. It was grey and cold and no one was out. Most of the houses had Irish flags; I found a couple of the shrines to people who had been killed or murdered, depending on how you thought about it. I stood there, at the edge of the ghetto wondering what it would take me to care enough about something to shoot someone.

When we left Kajang, Yoko wanted very badly to keep a bike that her friends had given us — a white and blue 16 inch American bike that had been bought in Japan and brought to Malaysia. The bike had gone in the Frankenstein box, the box the my father-in-law and I had constructed with tape and a refrigerator box. Naomi had learned to ride in front of our house, although I was always afraid that she would get hit by a car, one of the many careless drivers that sped through the taman. Naomi rode in circles around the park, sometimes stopping when Chinese or Indian aunty would come out of the house to talk to her. I would stand in the park, in the middle, wandering around and thinking about how we would get away, what our escape plan would be.

I was talked into packing up the bike, although as I imagined it, everything like this, used bikes in particularly, would be cheaper in the UK. We could go, I said to people, to car boots sales and pick these sorts of things up for next to nothing. Good things, but used. Still, the bike went into the box and when the things came last month (it's been a month now), I pulled it out carefully and put everything back together with the tools we had sent over.

The bike is now too small for Naomi, so Mei is learning to ride it, but we don't have the space in front of our house like we did in Kajang. Still they have been finding places to ride, here and there. Yoko got them guinea pigs this last weekend too. They are little girls, living little suburban lives, with a father who travels on business every now and then and does work in the garden. How many miles have passed since the protest — the long hair and Pedro the Lion button. How peculiarly it has come together, now 12 years later. Still American, of course, though maybe if I'm lucky, I'll never really have to take sides. Just keep walking around, undetected, remembering each mural, in place of pictures.

14 April 2014


The Queen Elizabeth Hospital is between our house and the University of Birmingham; I walk through it once or twice a week on my way to the library. Three interconnected curved buildings, all brand new and white, are surrounded at the entrances by the sorts of English people who always seem to have trouble around them. I remember them from the night that Mia was born, when I walked my labouring wife through the A&E on an early Sunday morning. Today, a man was smoking in a green hospital gown, covered in prison tattoos, a massive cast on his right arm, and an IV stuck in his left hand. I try hard not to judge these people, but only because I grew up saying that I didn't judge people like this. The truth is, I do judge them, tell stories to myself about them, as I walk past. I've never gotten drunk and hit my wife.

Classes are finished now — my first term at Newman University flew by. There is, of course, marking and extensions and e-mails to answer about margins on essays, but when I left the classroom on Thursday, having dispensed the last bit of advice, I felt lost again, like the list of things to do had been cleared and my purpose was gone. I can go home, but there is nothing worse than your father in the house, wandering around aimlessly in his pyjamas, snacking and pretending to be of use. I say, I have to go to the library to get a book about Islam, which I do, but really, what I want is to just wander around outside: sleep in parks and get very, very lost — become for a day the Stephen of another universe, the Stephen who never married nor had kids.

This weekend, I searched around and around for a cheap, small outdoor stove to burn firewood in. I got the kids all amped up about it, telling them how much fun it would be to have fires. I cut brush in the very back of the garden, the sort of American pastime that we all judged George W Bush for taking part in, but which I secretly understand completely, and have felt deprived of for the last year. In Malaysia, we would wait on a Saturday for a man, an Indonesian or Bangladeshi man, on a bicycle to come by and cut the grass for RM10. I would sit jealously inside, fat and white, watching him and thinking that, of the many things Malaysia had taken from me, gardening was the most surprising.

On Sunday, like everything else, I got that small piece of myself back. I spent the day outside: I pruned all the trees and made a pile of branches taller than me. The kids helped me move compost to lift up a few sunken patio stones. When night finally came, I lit the fire in triumph, though I was immediately worried that I would burn down all the houses in the terrace on Victoria Rd, every British man and woman in their houses quietly spiting me for making the neighbourhood smokey.

Neal and I used to make fires on the beach in Niigata, with whoever else was around. We would build them huge, as big as we could, using driftwood on the sand. There was nothing around for miles, just two kids running out and back with bigger logs, more sticks, more brush, as the fire grew higher and higher and higher.

Back in England, I burnt for an hour, pacing around the fire and watching the embers rise up and then die out. A flashback suddenly to burning grass and garbage in front of another terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. I guess I had done some gardening; it wasn't all bad. None of the neighbours there were worried, of course: just perplexed that the fat white man wasn't having the grass taken away. Chinese and Malay uncles sometimes just watching, standing in the street or park, without saying anything. It was hot and the fire made things hotter, but here, in Birmingham, the fire felt good. I stopped pacing when I realised no tragedy was going to befall me, and finally sat down as the fire died down, pulling closer and closer at the embers flickered and glowed and slowly went dark.

08 April 2014


We put everything in boxes only a week before we moved. Yoko's dad came and we spent the days sorting and throwing away and walking around central Kajang looking for a refrigerator box to put the keyboard and guitar and bike in. We taped everything up and they came to take them away when I wasn't there. I came home and almost everything was gone. Yoko and I have done this together before, so the tamping down of everything into a pile that gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it is only the 150kgs and hand luggage you are allowed to take on the plane felt much less like a miracle this time. We do this, we can do this, as hard as it might be.

When the things get taken, or when they have been taken, I think about how liberating it would be to lose everything I own in a shipwreck. All the useless things I imagine are in the boxes sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, like a lost Malaysian airplane headed nowhere. I send everything off, they take away the boxes, and I forget about everything, or most everything. This time, I remembered my coffee grinder: when the coffee grinder came to Birmingham, I would be whole again, I thought. Everything else can sink.

Then, last week, when I was sitting in the Cadbury Research Library in the basement of the Muirhead Tower, an e-mail came, and I called and our boxes were here, in the UK, ready to be delivered. I wondered what would be broken and whether or not my guitar would be shattered, or if a box would have split, my coffee grinder broken by some careless, underpaid, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant in Malaysia, who was being even more screwed than I was when I was there. Would the coffee grinder have survived the ordeal like me and Yoko and the kids.

Like when the boxes came to Kajang, to the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, I was gone. This time when they came, I was teaching and Yoko texted to say they had arrived, all 17 and they looked good. She said it like that too in her text: 'looked good' surprising me with how natural she sounded in English. I came back and there they all were. We started cutting them open. The coffee grinder, yes. Henderson the Rain King, yes. And my guitar. I pulled it out of the box, the 'Frankenstein' box my father-in-law had called it, with bike and keyboard. I popped open the locks of the case and pulled it out. It was okay, as okay as it has ever been with the same damage it's had all along. The split heal when we put in the strap peg. The damage on the top when Natalie Dear fell on it in 1999. I remembered that suddenly, touching it again: I had been so upset that I sat on the stoop to my parents' house, feeling so sorry for myself — Heather coming out to find me, saying I looked like I was going to cry.

I pulled it out and strummed a D chord — it was fine. I tuned it a bit and played an E and an A, a praise chorus coming back to me suddenly: I love you Lord/ and I lift my voice. There it was. Everything exactly as I left it, just a bit older and detuned. No matter: Malaysia was over now. There was nothing left to wait for. 

04 April 2014


The train ride into Euston station felt like coming home. You relax when you are a place you know well doing something you have done before. All of this part of London makes perfect sense to me. This year, I will have been in England longer than I was in Japan, even though Japan still feels like the place I really belong in some way, like I should go back there for some reason or another. The Japanese call this place that you come from, your home, ふるさと furusato. I am only thinking about this because I met a man who had been living in Japan for a long time and he referred to Southport, here in England as his furusato. He used that word even, in the midst of an English conversation. I could hear myself saying that same word to someone that would understand it, I could hear myself using the whole phrase as a matter of fact, but it occurred to me that I can't ever remember hearing a Japanese person say it. I'm sure I have. I must have.

Another conversation had me thinking again about how drawn back I feel at times, but how inevitable it is that I will likely stay hear for a while. There is no reason to go back beyond these false feelings of warmth. False only in that I know they don't represent every day life in a genuine way. The same could be said of Euston and London. All these false feelings of warmth. Of course, it's not actually like this, of course it rains in London. These clear blue skies are a lie.

And then another moment today as I was walking back from taking the kids to school and smelled something that reminded me of the ocean in Fukuoka, of coming on my bike around a rocky bend into Imajuku. There it was again, the feeling like there was one point that things changed and the narrative took a clearly different path.

23 March 2014


Walking up to the park, last Saturday, we came through the cemetery that surrounds the church at St Peter's on the hill, a beautiful old building with bells that chime wildly on Sunday afternoon, as if to drive something out. In the cemetery, the children ask about different things, about death and Jesus and angels and we, Yoko and I, talked to them about what we wanted when we died. In Japan, if we were Japanese, we would have a family tomb. Yoko's family does, and we could, I suppose, claim our space there. Yoko told the girls about the responsibility of grave-keeping in Japan — the need to clean it and look after it. Much better was daddy's plan, to be cremated and thrown out into the ocean from a Japanese beach. The girls didn't think much of it, laughing and running ahead, not bothered by anything.

That beach: when I was in Fukuoka, I finally got a map and bicycle and realised the ocean was not far from our apartment. I would, on days off, pack my Bible and something to eat and head out to a beach that no one swam at. I would sit against the break wall and try to read the Bible or pray for longer than a couple of minutes, always frustrated with my inability to focus, to really connect in the way that I needed to, the way that the other men in my life seemed to. Instead, I would study Japanese word cards that I had made and walk up and down the beach alone.

The metaphor is so obvious, insufferably obvious. 


I heard Mia crying and came upstairs to find her standing with her head in her hands leaned up against the wall of the hallway. I picked her up and carried her back to the bedroom in the front of the house. She pressed her face against my shoulder the way children do when they want to sleep, and I looked out onto Victoria Rd, the cars coming and going.

I feel at times that things are all held together by a bit of fraying string, and then other times that we have established everything we need to coast into the next 40 years without a second thought, our savings growing slowly at 1.25% APR. Yoko writes, looking at the picture of all of our bags, 'またやるかな~、これ。' and I think the same thing. Will we do this again. It applies to everything: the circuitry of marriage and life; the same things repeating again and again. If the string doesn't break perhaps.

17 March 2014


I've been trying to put my finger on the difficulty of writing this year. I sit down again and again and keep failing — trying to avoid writing about writing, or writing about the inability to write. But I can't seem to do it. So here, I'll just write something. Tell you how things are. When you don't write, you write the same thing over and over and the same story can go from happy to depressed. Give any story enough time and it will change.

On Friday, I walked around the University of Birmingham in the sun, feeling like I needed to enjoy this spring twice over. The smell of the flowers, as I run up the hill to the Newman campus, is a memory and then another memory: first, of every spring in Milton Keynes for four years and running up and down the old railroad path towards Newport Pagnell. And then, a memory of the trees blooming on the Shinano River in Niigata City, nine years away now.

Stephen at the ocean

Or ten years ago, a selfie in Fukuoka before there were selfies, where the digital trail drops off and all the other memories, the ones older than that, are stuck inside of me, or in photographs somewhere in my parents' basement. Or dispersed in the basements of parents all over the Midwest. The very edge of recovery.

How do you reorient yourself. This missing plane: they talk about invisible GPS points in the sky that work as markers. You go straight until you reach one, and then you turn, all the time arbitrary and precise. Of course, you need training to recognise them, the places you should turn.

We all have to wade through the collective insufferability of a generation with its past perfectly preserved — in digital artefacts that we can all recall immediately — struggling with getting older, while all the while too cynical to actually do anything, to tell any real truth. Here, look at this. Look at how much older we all are now. There are so many pictures of it.

10 March 2014


This weekend, I uploaded all of Naomi's photos from the last year (from the camera I bought her, which Yoko insists on telling people was the cheapest camera in the shop) in hopes to use the flash disk for another project. As I skimmed through them, the whole last year through her eyes unfolded. The terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. The month away in Japan that I feared would stretch into a year or lifetime. All of the pictures are honest in a way that the pictures that I take are not — they have an accidental quality to them. They don't have any shame or pretence to them — a photo of Mia sitting naked at the gate of the house in Malaysia, blurry and unplanned, haunting in a way.


The window is open here at the office, to let the air in and the sound of the birds. I keep trying to reach back to Malaysia, to the last year, and remember something about the heat and I can't. Sunday, the weather was beautiful and I slept on the sofa in the sun for hours while the girls watched Japanese TV. The night before, we had been at a party and I had drunk Mexican beer while the children ran around upstairs, so the day felt sedated and slow, the way Sundays are for sinners who have nothing to do, nowhere to check in. When it got later in the afternoon, we all walked up to the park, past Vicarage Rd and the church surrounded my headstones that are split or splitting. We all talked about dying and being dead, looking at the names and dates. We went to the park and everyone played, and then we sat in a coffee shop on the high street, the doors open because it was warm, and talked about nothing in particular. We walked home, had pasta, the children bathed, and we all went to sleep, a kind of perfect performance of the middle class life.

26 February 2014


Nothing to write about now but the coming and going in the morning, or the bike ride up to the University of Birmingham, the red brick clock tower a kind of guide through the streets of terrace houses. There is an International grocer on Harborne Park Road with sunflower seeds and all things Polish. Then you come up on a bike lane, past the hospital, past the station, and you are on campus.

The other way, you ride down to through the valley and then up the hill to Bartley Green and the university there is on a hill. Even in the early morning, when I am out running past it, the lights of the library are on and the whole place is glowing. The days are starting to stretch out bit by bit and when I go home at night, it's not as dark as it was in January.

The talk inside of buildings here doesn't want to be written about: it's all the silence of the day in between my coming and going that I want to tell you about. How I rode my bike in my jeans and new desert boots across town. Or the silence of the University of Birmingham library, where you pull a string to make the lights come on in book stacks. Sitting, reading about narrative, I look out and watch the rain start and then stop and then start again. I should go home for dinner: the clock tower chimes like Big Ben.

If Malaysia, if last year was about confrontation, of waving cars off while crossing the road, this year is about none of that. There are no cars in the road ahead of me — I run down the middle of the lane. Naomi and I hold hands, walking to have coffee together in an old church turned cafe. She sits across from me, looking away at the cupcakes, and I ask her if she is having a good time. She is still only six: I haven't wasted my time with her yet. She still loves me, still wants to be held sometimes and carried. Fathers think about this when we look at our kids. We wonder when they will grow out of us and their need for us.

I stop typing and hear nothing. No one is in Oxford Hall with me. There is a rejection letter telling me things that I need to do to be a better writer and scholar, but there's no reason to hurry towards that. I am alone and the sun is going down. I can walk or run home, it doesn't matter. I will come back tomorrow and the day after that. And next week and next year: nothing is obstructing me.

20 February 2014

The body without organs

Following a running schedule is easy if you don't think about it. You wake up, you see the number of miles you are supposed to run, and you run them. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you are tired, sometimes you aren't. You get cold and hot; you get wet from run and sweat. You watch the sun rise and people wake up. You learn which streets are well lit and which ones are not. You just run and run and run and run, when you want to and when you don't want to.

The University of Birmingham still feels like the centre of my universe in some way, and today I rode my bike from Newman to the Main Library, cutting through back roads, looking up to the bell tower for direction. From the library at Newman, you can look towards the North and see all of this half of Birmingham in front of you: the University, Queen Elisabeth Hospital, and the skyline beyond it. Looking out the window in the corner of the humanities room, I looked out past the rain on the window to the clock tower and thought, This is a red brick university.

And then a week passes, or two weeks or three. I've forgotten how long it's been since we've been back. 

07 February 2014

Running fast


The first month in the UK ticked by without any celebration or notice. The visa application went in and then we went to have our photos and fingerprints taken. Then, on Thursday, the 30th, the residence permits came: five cards with five photos, each one of us looking grim and serious. Like that, all the nervousness I had felt about the process was gone. Of course, it wouldn't be an issue. Of course, they would accept it. In retrospect, nothing seemed up to chance or fate or luck.

The girls quickly settled into their school and their new friends, Naomi chasing a little girl through the playground yesterday while they both giggled. Mei made a birthday card for her teacher, Mr Oakley, who is 25 — no, 26 now — and Mei blushes when she says his name with a bit of melody. Today was bright clothes day and after a discussion about what could or could not be categorised as 'bright', we all — Naomi, Mei, and I — walked up Tennal Rd to the school, laughing and chatting and talking about the day ahead of us. I will come home in the evening to shouts of 'Daddy, daddy' or no shouts at all, if they are playing upstairs, the house on Victoria Rd taking on a sense of place for us all.

In the midst of the settling, the bits of British life that I had to cast off while in Malaysia are coming back. On Sunday I ran for one hour and forty-five minutes in the early morning, the sort of run where you are fifty minutes into it by the time there is any natural light. You have endless imaginary conversations with the people in your life, your mind working like an old Rolodex, flipping from thought to thought, person to person. By the time the sun came up, I was near the University, on the road coming past the reservoir and I hit my stride as you do around that time, listening to the gulls on the water while the wind blew in my face.

There's been little else to say: my mind doesn't seem to want to reach back yet to Malaysia, to make sense of 2013. I look at pictures and can't remember the heat at all. It was so hot, wasn't it? I can't even remember.

On Wednesday night, I ran home from the University as I do now three days a week. Twenty two minutes, if I am running on pace. I stopped at the roundabout at the bottom of Victoria Rd and went into the fish and chip shop to buy two kebabs for dinner. Doner and mixed on naan, nine quid. I stood outside in the rain after ordering to cool down and look up at Harborne, the terrace houses spindled off the roundabout. When I imagined British life as a 19 year-old reading Virginia Woolf, it looked more like this than anything I have experienced. The streetlamps feel incandescent and warm, not harsh like the light in Taman Sri Minang. I looked up while stuffing my sweatshirt and jacket into my bag and felt for a moment like I wasn't falling anymore, like I had been caught without knowing it. The children are right there, warm and waiting for me to come home. There's nothing else that I have to do. 

29 January 2014

Sinners in the hands of an angry god

All wicked men's pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do.
At the end of War Lane, coming out of Harborne, there is a double roundabout that leads all the different directions our new life goes: one up Victoria Rd to the terrace house on the right, one up Tennal Rd towards the girls' school, and one down, Northfield Rd, toward the University. We walk through it in the morning, the girls and I, me pushing the bike and Naomi or Mei sitting on the back. I ride home through it in the evening and there is a small off-license, the War Lane Cellar, owned by Asians who advise me on real ale. Last week, Naomi wanted to go for a walk so we went, holding hands and going up War Lane after buying candy and Worthington's in a can.

Last week, in three days, £6,000 left my Lloyds account: part for the visas and part for the car. The feelings of panic kept coming at the same time every day, around one or two in the afternoon after I had worked the morning, and my mind wandered off to all the things left undone. When we went to Malaysia and when we came here the first time, I had put things off for months, particularly getting a car, afraid to spend the money, but this time I did it right away, not wanting to go on like I had in the past, putting off the inevitable. After I had paid the money for the car — after it was taken out in a second by a handheld debit card kiosk — and after I turned off the ring road in Kidderminster headed back toward Birmingham, I felt like I had finally not repeated a mistake of my past. Like I had learned something.

When the car insurance came through and, on Saturday, we gave our fingerprints and pictures at the post office in the city, the things left undone were minimal. I argued again with the tax office in Malaysia and with the HR at Nottingham, and on Tuesday I had completed the last thing I had worried about: moving the final bit of money from my account in Malaysia to my account here. Twenty-eight days from when we landed: less than a month.

Although Naomi cried and fought going to school, by the end of her first week, she had friends and homework, and I helped her make compound words while we all sat in the small reception room. Mei runs off to her classroom now, forgetting to hug me goodbye. Yoko's friends came one weekend, then mine this weekend. We do the things you do in Harborne on a Sunday: take a walk up to the High Street for coffee and cakes, the children running in front and behind.

For the first time in seven years, things appear stable: nothing to change or do except to do what I am doing now better. I can go home without the feeling of something undone, no problems to solve or institutions to fight for the time being. I cancelled all the job alerts I was receiving: I will be here for at least three years, I can stop thinking about the next step for a moment and think instead about something else, the things people think about when they are not constantly under threat.

The silence is a thing you could almost touch. Even today, after working all morning, I went out into the rain to smoke my pipe. I stood on the edge of the awning at the gym, looking out at the terrace houses of Bartley Green, the rain coming down in the gloomy way it does here. I remembered my father-in-law on the sofa, sitting outside before we moved, the feral dogs beyond the gate in the dark. Somehow, we are all the same people, in the same world.

21 January 2014

Panic and settle

Newman University is right on the very edge of Birmingham, in Bartley Green. When you come in through the main entrance, a plasma TV shows the next buses and an energy certificate for the building. There is a Starbucks kiosk and when you go into the library, to the first floor, the front wall is complete glass, overlooking the Bartley Reservoir and beyond it, the edge of Worcestershire. As you go back into the campus, the new development of the front fades into its own history, red brick from the late-60s and early-70s, like the core buildings at the Open University. My office is in the newly renamed Oxford Hall, tucked away from where students might normally come, in a corridor that has been quiet for the last three weeks. I asked for a standing desk, and the maintenance man, a certified pipe-fitter who has been with the University for years and years, cut the legs down on a narrow table they had in the shed, and I soon was standing to work.

Birmingham as whole feels familiar. I get off at University Station from Birmingham New St, but instead of going left towards the University, I go right towards Harborne, where we are living. The new terrace house on Victoria Rd is nothing like the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. There are no bars on the windows or gates. You turn one lock on the front door and one on the back. After we cleaned it up and the refrigerator was replaced, the house warmed up and suddenly felt inviting. The boiler is on all day, pumping hot water into the radiators, and the Pihlajas sit in a single reception room, under blankets, watching Japanese television on YouTube and waiting the winter out.

After looking for schools for a week, we put the girls on a waiting list at the local Church of England school and enrolled them in the closest school with open space, a comprehensive primary school on the top of Tennal Rd away from the middle class safety of Harborne. Where there are more Asians and the white people wear track suits and can be ruder than those in Harborne. All the language of British class and race came back quickly: Asian means Southeast Asian, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi. There are no East Asians. 

The school seems good, I said to a woman in a green coat waiting with her daughter today, and she said, It's improving: another euphemism.

Last year, 2013, has just disappeared. It's simpler to leave it out when answering questions for insurance companies and on applications for various things. Our last address was in Booker Ave; Taman Sri Minang was just something that I imagined. I bought a bicycle from a man that met me in the Birmingham Airport bus station, and I took it away without thinking too much about the interaction. I bought a car from a dealership in Kidderminster, two train transfers away in the countryside. In two weeks, I have made more big decisions than I can, and am starting to feel the stress in moments of panic. I keep faking stability for the girls, for Naomi in particular who cries in the morning. I'm sorry, but you must go to school. I want to let you off, to let you stay back. I want to let all of us off, but we can't. Get up again, go again; this year will be our year, I promise.

14 January 2014

Drawing on top of a drawing

The sickness in the house is improving: the kids one at a time starting to get up at the right times. The feeling of sickness and things still not done ― the visa applications, pushchair and car to buy, the book manuscript unfinished ― leave everything untidy. There is still time, of course, but how much time is difficult to tell. The children are still waiting to start school, and I am running errands, feeling panic in supermarkets as I suddenly realise what I've done. This turbulence will end in a couple of months, but it will be a couple of months before it ends.

Today, I left the untidiness to drive the rental car back to the shop, pleased that I had not run it into a wall after a year of driving the small, automatic Hyundai Matrix. I felt like I had accomplished something, until the energetic young woman with an American accent carefully looking at the paint job asked me where the hub caps were. There were hub caps? They're gone? She treated me with more suspicion than she needed to as we circled the car, with the obvious answer that they had been stolen somehow not good enough for her. They took my £200 deposit and promised to return what they didn't use, but I was angry with the tone of the conversation and sat on the shuttle bus back to the underground, thinking about what I should have said. What the hell would I have done with a set of Corsa hub caps, I'm a doctor of linguistics, goddammit, a university lecturer.

They dropped me at the station and I stood in line to buy a new Oyster card, trying to remember the way up to Camden and listening to a middle-aged American couple talk loudly with the station attendant about their credit card and where they would need to transfer to get to their hotel. I went down to the platform to wait and found myself in the midst of my people again, a North American group of college backpackers, having a stupid discussion about saving money. We're everywhere now, I thought, you can't escape us. I tried moving toward the front of the platform, only to hear the original couple now at the map repeating lines from the transcript of every middle-aged trip to London: I know you know where it is, but I want to know too.

Of course, I also had stood on that platform as a college student, with a stupid haircut and a wide-eyed stupid excitement about a day in the city. Big Ben, of course, and the House of Parliament. Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. I had even brought my own stupid journal to write my stupid thoughts about Virginia Woolf. After fifteen minutes of sitting in the park, in the brisk spring air, I had stupidly thought I'd gotten it, finally, really understood Woolf.

On the train a couple of high school lovers kissed and held each other, making love in public the way that teenagers can. Another couple, an older woman and her husband, kept looking on disgusted, the teenagers at first oblivious and then defiant when someone moved away from them. The girl was wearing blue tights and looked vaguely like Mei might one day, I thought. They got off in the city, and the older couple looked relieved, but I found myself caught up, the way one remembers being in love and resenting people who resented you for it.

I looked for shoes at the British Boot Company, the first shop to sell Dr Martens and flexed my own British shoe knowledge for effect, Oh, in Northampton? when the shopkeeper told me the Solovairs were made in the old Dr Marten factories. This of course wasn't my first time in the shop, I had been many times. I had lived here, you know, when I was a PhD student. For four years ― I worked in London too. I would walk from Camden to Euston. Philip and Frank and I ate where we did last year in December: I kept joking that we needed to completely repeat the past, this while looking in the mirror across from me and realising I was probably wearing the same shirt I was at that time, albeit fatter now and more foreign.

I wanted the shoes I liked to fit. I willed them on my feet but didn't have the courage to commit to them. The shopkeeper reminded me that leather stretches, but leather doesn't stretch, rather it is stretched. The shoes I was wearing, I said, they were this tight and it took me two months to break them in. I walked sock-footed into Malaysia.

When I got on the train home ― home now in Birmigham ― at 8:43, I had forgotten the£200 and was remembering instead everything I still had to do. Tomorrow would be another day of little progress as I was seeing a man about a bike and returning to Milton Keynes ― Milton Keynes where I did not alight on this ride home, but instead looked out at the window and remembered. This new life is a sketch, with old experiences like tracing paper underneath to check the accuracy of the lines. My own ghost standing on the platform there, thinking about a thesis chapter and scowling in the rain. The same story getting played out: when I was 19, through my 20s, and now into my 30s. How many more hundred rides on the Piccadilly line will I watch the teenagers get younger and my own memories deeper and deeper. I should have bought those shoes: any shoes worth having are worth hurting for.


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