17 May 2018

Weighing

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There are two shops at the bottom of the roundabouts on War Lane. The War Lane cellar and another family shop, that's now a chain, although it doesn't feel like anything has changed inside. Both of the shops are owned by Southeast Asian families. Ganesha is there, in the restaurant next door, reminding me of our Indian taxi driver, Letchu, in Malaysia who awkwardly had us over to his house once. When you go into the shop, even though it's now a chain, it smells like spices and everything is overpriced except beer and Barefoot Merlot. The second shop, War Lane Cellar, is mostly booze, with one wall of snacks. Two for one pound mini-pappadums and onion rings like American funions and cheese puffs like American cheese puffs. Under a small TV, they have lager from all over Europe, all one pound nineteen or one pound twenty nine or one pound fifty nine depending. They have ice cream too, Magnums and popsicles and Twisters and Cornettos. There is an Indian man who owns it, I think, then his wife and perhaps his brother and then there is another man sometimes, an older white man, who once got upset at Mei because I had given her money to pay for everything we were buying and he said it was against the law to take the money from her because there was also beer.

Somewhere in the last year, I thought I had fixed myself, or that I had been fixed. I thought the meditation had done it. My heart rate is barely perceptible. And then, on Wednesday, I ate six thousand kilocalories. It happened in the present tense. I find myself at nine thirty at night in one of the stores at the roundabouts, buying beer and cheese puffs. I feel my thighs rubbing against each other. And I eat it all quickly and hide the wrappers in my bin at my desk underneath everything so that no one finds them. I rationalise this by saying that it's about the kids seeing and being jealous, but it's about being ashamed, about my wife finding out that I'm a child. I bought M&Ms this time and not the ice cream because M&Ms are less than two hundred kilocalories and then I am under four thousand today. I know this because I enter the calories, all of them, in my app, the calorie counting app. Four thousand better than five thousand, I tell myself, until a moment later, I thinking of buying cheese naan at another shop on the roundabout, the balti takeaway. The naan is more but I’m still under five thousand. That's bad, but it's not the worst.

My heart rate is barely perceptible. When I went to give blood a couple of weeks ago, the nurse, the sister who is really a sister, the sort of woman you want with you if you're dying, got upset because my heart rate was too low. We were face to face in a tiny consultancy room with a drop of my blood weighed down with iron at the bottom of a vile of green liquid. You gotta bring it up, she says, or you can't give blood. And we can't let you run up and down the stairs anymore, they changed the rules. What do you want to do. I felt like a little boy who had done something wrong, like Paula Johnson — that was her name wasn't it —  was shouting at that Baptist Church we used to attend in El Paso, Texas off Redd Road. I'm sorry, I said to the sister who was looking at me with faux anger, I run a lot. I meditate. I started to breathe hard and she checked me again, annoyed. Look, I'm going to give you one more chance. I'm going to go out there and come back and you do whatever you have to do, or you can't give.

I remember the way the late afternoon light was in that church in Texas. There was always some club going on, some set of activities, games that melted away into a story about God and hell and me asking for Jesus to forgive me again, hoping that it would take this time. I prayed whenever they invited us to because I was never sure whether I meant it enough, or if I even knew what it meant to mean it. I remember there were pizza parties and huge plastic gallon bottles of Walmart knock-off pop, the generic kind, Dr Thunder, Max Cola. It's not a real memory, but a conflation of memories, sitting on a folding chair, my fat legs in shorts sticking to the metal seat and a paper plate in my lap. The pile of pizza seemed to grow and grow, and then chips and we all kept eating, Paula Johnson pacing about somewhere, not upset at me exactly but upset.

How do you bring up your heart rate. I realised afterwards I should have thought of something sexy, but it didn't occur to me. I breathed quickly and shook my arm. If I could just stand up and run in place. If I could just stand up. I pretended I was running in the dark at night, and that I was being chased. I put two fingers on my throat and thought about a terrorist attack. I thought about all my family dying. The sister came back  and I apologised, and she went in again for the pulse, and then immediately to the clipboard. Fifty six. I made it, I got over fifty, they can take it from me. She started to leave and I felt like I wanted her to forgive me — please forgive me. Why do I want her to forgive me.

08 May 2018

Arriving

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I came up from Copenhagen to Växjö in the snow. Or, it came to snow as the train pulled into Växjö on Easter night and I found my cab after going up and down the wrong set of stairs. Everything was quiet on campus, where the cab dropped me off at the castle and where I checked into a small cottage on the edge of the castle grounds. The window in the bathroom above the toilet had a large, clear glass window that looked out on the lake, and I wondered if people could see in.

I had made a mistake in telling everyone I was coming a week later than I actually could come, causing a sort of Swedish trouble I couldn't properly gauge as an American having spent too much time in the UK. I can’t seem to take anyone at their word about their feelings. Because of this error, the next day was lost — a holiday, Easter Monday. I still woke up early, and ran around the lakes on campus. And then I wandered into town to buy fruit and bread and have an early fika.  I sat at the table in a cafe away from the square, where we, Yoko and the kids and Chris and me, had sat at in the summer, and I slipped into the hum of nostalgia I knew would follow me on the trip, as I walked up and down the main road of the city. The experience felt oddly internal — I didn't make eye-contact with anyone, except a man my father's age, as we both tried to reach for the coffee jug at the same time, smiling and apologising the way you do when you're not confident in a language.

There were two young American women sat at the table across from me, Macbooks open, planning for the next part of a trip, to go further east towards Russia with the money they had left and I thought that it must be Spring Break in the States. I listened to them the way you fantasise when you're young and imagine meeting other young people abroad, but then remembered suddenly that I was old to them, probably, that I wasn't their peer. The fantasy fell flat as it awkwardly required me to confront whoever I was, a mid-level academic in my mid-thirties, sitting alone with a cup of coffee and a roll. What was I doing in Sweden anyway — I could see myself trying to explain and falling into some convoluted story that wouldn't include simply being on break from college, because they would say college as Americans, not university. My story, as it might need to be told to a stranger in a Swedish cafe, goes too far back.

I was there for the rest of the week and every morning I ran around the lake and meditated and then had Swedish breakfast in the castle, cutting thick slices of bread and cheese, and piling on muesli and eggs and biscotti. I drank too much coffee and found my way to the centre for post-colonial studies where I was meeting people and stood at a borrowed Ikea desk and transcribed a debate between a Muslim scholar and an incorrigible old Christian apologist. I apologised daily for having made a mistake in telling everyone when I was supposed to come, but it didn't matter in the end. People bought me lunch and we talked and talked about everyone's work, about the Qur'an and computer-assisted learning and polemics and translation and America and Sweden and the UK. Another cup of coffee and fika here and there, before it was Saturday and I was again on the train back to Copenhagen thinking I would be back in a month again, and it didn't need to be anything but routine.

The plane was on time. We descended into Amsterdam and I stepped out on the tarmac in the sun. The first beautiful day in the city this year, someone said. My flight to Birmingham left later in the evening and I made my way towards the connecting flights, before suddenly turning around and heading the other way, to the city. I know Amsterdam well enough, I thought, I can have pizza and beer on the canal and wait for the plane there. I took the train in and walked up, through the heavy tourist armaments at the front of the station, towards Vondelpark. I didn't get that far, instead collapsing in a pizzeria and ordering a beer. I ate and took my time wandering back to the airport and my flight home to Birmingham, sunburnt and bloated and satisfied.

There are absent memories of a backpack version of me, if he was ever even real. I feel like I was in Germany one summer, trying to sort out train tickets, but I know that I wasn't. At 21, I was already settled in Japan and then married with a baby at 24. It all happened so fast — I ended up in Europe only after I became an academic, and had two kids by then. I remember taking the train in Spain, but I was a PhD student then with all sorts of attachments. I was never that young, was I. I never chatted anyone up anywhere.

It doesn't matter, it turns out — if you just keep going the adventure doesn't have to end. Perhaps you get old and don't get to have any sort of regrets, if things worked out anyway. I remember thinking this for the first time, coming out of the chunnel from Paris into St Pancreas, our trip to France finished. France was over for the time being, yes, but England goes on and on. The kids were small then and I was younger, but it's the same. It goes on and on.

05 May 2018

Conclusions

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When I bought the house on Victoria Road last year, there had been plans to have work done on it. The house is, after all, Edwardian, which means a hundred years old or nearly, and the house had a list of things that needed doing. This list, I had proudly said to people, was what I had used to negotiate a lower price for the house, but after the sale finished, it felt like a burden and wondered if it would have been better to just buy something else, on another road. My passion, however, for Victoria Road in Harborne hasn't been rational, so we started to chip away at the list.

The main building that needed doing was the renovation of the kitchen and the conversion of the upstairs bathroom into a bedroom, or moving the bathroom downstairs, depending on how I explained it. Discussion of this project always included the word 'nightmare' when I spoke with my faithful British friends and colleagues who had done work on their houses. Everyone had a nightmare story, and spoke about it as a necessary evil, which makes up most of life in the UK, I've come to believe — a series of necessary evils. The list of things that can go wrong at any one time is frankly staggering.

Still though, I got the quotes and Wayne the Builder said he could squeeze us in before spring, and before I knew it, we had spent the first ten thousand pounds on the architect and planning and first round of breaking down the walls. The space started out as an image on an Ikea planning screen and then piece by piece came together until last week when Wayne came the last time, and I bought the emulsion paint and finally did the painting I needed to. I resealed the sink and counters and put the toilet paper holder up, the one that said Victoria on it. I wiped paint from the floor.

Of course, the work will go on and on: the house of Victoria Road has years of projects to be done, one imagines. But for now, I had wondered what it would be like to stand in a space that wasn't in the house before, how you could create a space to live where there wasn't one before. Now, there is this space, a concept that became physical, the word made flesh as it were. The light pours in now, there is no stopping it.

01 May 2018

Archaeology of self

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America is an idea to me now, that gets transmitted through the Internet in clips on YouTube and overheard accents when I'm out, where I have to stop myself from swinging around in a store or on a train and seeing who is here with me. Waiting in line to pre-clear US immigration in Dublin, I stood in the US citizens' line, with a photo of Donald Trump looking over me and suddenly the voices were everywhere. A man in a goatee and long-sleeved henley t-shirt standing there with his partner, whom you would not call his partner, but his girlfriend or wife, depending. The number of them only grew as I got further along in my trip: on the campus at the university where the conference was, other varieties of Americans I hadn't thought about in years. Everyone in sweatshirts, and people talking the way that Americans talk. You can't put your finger on what it is exactly, if it's the topic or the words they are using or what exactly. A conversation I overheard about whether or not a friend was being 'immature' or not and I wondered, have I ever heard a British person describe someone as immature. Is that a word they use.

On the subway, there was a man lying on the bench opposite from me, using his shoe as a pillow. He was black and perhaps homeless and there were raisins on the ground in front of him. He was like that, laid out, from Queens all the way into Manhattan when I got off. I watched people interact with him, or rather his body. Who sat and who didn't sit. Who moved when they could, or just stood, glancing at him and then at their phones. Later, I recounted this to my meditation teacher, Naga Davi. I told her that I found myself daydreaming about all of them, these people with this sleeping body — where they were going and what they were doing and if they had families and partners and mothers and fathers who cared for them. Was this a manifestation of metta, unconditional love for all beings, I wondered. Perhaps it was. It was something.

The conference I went to was ostensibly about Language and Religion, but most of the talks focused on translation. Someone mentioned metta. Someone talked about the Bible in the Solomon Islands. Someone talked about the Jewish scriptures in Greek. Between talks, you could look out from the huge windows of the university at the New York City skyline and eat fresh fruit provided on plastic plates which people used and threw away without any obvious guilt. It's America, after all — not Trump's America, but America America. With all the diversity of Americans who are still American, the SUVs and the drugstores that we don't quite have in the same way in this country. You can throw everything away.

And then I was in Newark, getting back on a plane to fly through the night and arrive home by bus. I came back inside the house on Victoria Road, which I own, and Yoko said, Is that all you had with you? I took off the small backpack I had brought, with a couple of shirts, my toothbrush, and A Hundred Years of Solitude, which I had read on the plane instead of sleeping. It was only a couple of days, I said, I didn't want to get bogged down. This was the truth, of course. I wanted to leave quickly, if I could, because I was unreasonably afraid of running into someone I knew, even in that huge city. I was afraid of the American me appearing, with a stain on a polo shirt, fifteen pounds heavier, telling me to stop lying. I am an American. It's insufferable to have to say that to yourself. Of course America is who I am, and where I belong. There are buttons on my shirt, yes, but you can't hide with this accent, with this passport. Everyone here will still ask where you're from. Near Chicago, that answer will never change, no matter how many British houses I buy or British children have my name and call me daddy. I'm American. It's obvious, isn't it. 

02 April 2018

Pasta for love

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

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

My new apartment

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

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

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

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