22 August 2015

British Pessimism

White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover are, indeed, white. When you come over the hills, particularly in the morning, having driven through the early morning to avoid the traffic, they are stunning in the way that you've imagined them to be, like something you've seen before, but have not. The cliffs are also cliffs, which although a meaningless tautology is something you don't think about as you look out across the grass at France only to realise that there, right there, the ground is just suddenly gone. You think about people backing up for good shots at the edge. You think about the wind whipping up. The children, where are the children.

There was so much British Pessimism that surrounded the trip to Kent, pessimism including, Isn't it flooding there and The traffic will be awful and Kent? with a screwed up face, suggesting why would anyone want to go there. I realised that this pessimism about the trip was hanging over me as we went everywhere: I worried about traffic and parking problems that never materialised. Huge crowds which were nowhere, and when I moved the car closer to Botany Bay, after having parked a half mile away, happy to get a spot before realising that you could just park at the beach, it wasn't so busy, I was cross with England. Dammit, it's not so bad. We're all going to be okay, let's enjoy this: this is a lovely beach, these little coastal towns are lovely. Americans are supposed to be optimistic, and I have somehow lost that in the constant fear of long queues and crowds. I parked the car, got to the beach, took off my shoes and shirt, rolled up my jeans and thought, This is lovely.

I remembered Fukuoka on account of the smell, particularly the first time I remember smelling the ocean, the first night I was there and the pastor of the church we were serving at took us out to eat at an Italian restaurant on the beach. I remember the smell, because it smelled of fish to me as a fat white kid from the Midwest. There were oysters in the spaghetti. I had walked on another beach on the way to Maebaru so many times in 2004, and that smell, that summer, the summer I started losing my grip on god, all came back to me. And then standing, looking out at France and the wind coming up off the water.

We stayed in a hostel with an Italian family and a little girl, Emma, who taught the girls how to say thank you and yes and no and good night in Italian. They played hide and seek and chased roosters around, while Yoko and I sat inside and talked about life and the lives of the Italians who ate beautiful food and were driving home, across the continent. We talked about things that you don't normally talk about as a couple with three kids. We talked about the past. I started a sentence, When I was a missionary, struggling to remember the word for missionary in Japanese: I had to say, When I did missions, and it surprised me that I had both forgotten the word and forgotten I had, despite my current appearance, been a missionary. I said, as we were on our way through Faversham to Canterbury that next year we needed to go to Europe in the car. Damn the finances, damn the visa costs, damn all the reasons to not do anything.

The girls ran around, playing in the ocean and making sand balls. They dug holes and looked for seashells and ate ice cream and we stayed until the sun went down. Then on to Viking Bay, to Broadstairs, which was like a dream, the town that I had seen in my imagination, but never experienced. There it was though, and when I walked up to see the ferris wheel, lit up as the sun went down and the girls ate fish and chips on the beach, I thought about Woolf. Woolf was the starting point to all of this; she had put the British coastal holiday town as an idea in me.  And here it was, the thing that Woolf had promised to me. It existed, this thing I was looking for and didn't even know it. The lads and beer soaked cover band aside, there it was, the hotels and restaurants and European holiday pensioners.

The fireworks came and went and we packed into the Picasso, set out for The North in the rain, the children all sleeping in the back and Yoko dozing the way Japanese do on trains and cars, leaning forward. I smiled in the sort of way you smile when things are okay, in the silly sort of way that things are okay at the oddest times. At one in the morning, passing the Oxford Services, the best band from Chicago playing on the radio. When you can suddenly take a step back from the collage of life and hold back the pessimism and fear and uncertainty, and see how it's taken shape and is continuing to take shape.

15 August 2015

Dusk as a Cambridge author

July

As British summer, the elongation of the day, ends, dusk now is stretching out, easing us into the autumn. I had some tobacco from my birthday, or just before my birthday, for father's day, that I smoked all July. I kept it, brandy flavoured and bought in the arcade off Colemore Row, in a chocolate box I pulled out of a hedge on a walk, Yoko looking at me like I was mad. It was a sweet tobacco, and burned evenly — I could light the pipe and walk down Victoria Road to Vicarage, and then up towards the church, getting light-headed and thinking that the street lamps were now on: they hadn't been on the last couple of walks.

After my father came, I finally ordered the smart phone I have wanted for a year, the top of the line budget phone that came in the mail and was, the way new electronics are, wrapped in plastic and perfect to the touch. I ran with it the first day, thinking about my father and how he had encouraged me to get it and how the support of a parent is something we desire, despite being thirty three, the age Jesus died, and on the other side of the world. As I thought this, I was running through the field behind Asda on my way to Newman, and suddenly, inexplicably, the phone jumped out of my pocket, clattering on the pavement, and I thought, yes, this is to be expected.

The phone survived, thankfully, although part of me had hoped it would be broken beyond repair. It would have served me right. Instead, it was only very slightly marked on the screen and edges, a reminder to me that the reason we can't have nice things is me, and my bloody hands. Not the children.

We've spent the summer holiday doing little more than the things the girls had written on their 'Ten Things We Want To Do On Holiday' list. My plans were big and untenable: going to France and drinking wine from PET bottles while sitting on the beach. They just wanted to go hiking and the movies and stay in a hotel one night. So we've been crossing those tasks off, one by one. We hiked and had a picnic in the woods, the British rain coming right as we set out to eat boiled eggs. We saw a film, a movie, that Mia sat nervously through, trying to focus and be a big girl. Next week we will go to Kent, I told one of the school friend mothers when we bumped into her at Waitrose, and she scowled: The traffic will be awful. 

Going to the park was on the list too, so last Thursday we walked around Canon Hill Park and Naomi cried because she couldn't decide on which ice cream to get and Mia cried because she ate all of her ice cream and then it was gone and Yoko was cross because I was cross with the children for crying about their ice cream. When we spent enough time wandering on the grass past all the Asian families having picnics in the sun and looking at the flowers, we got in the car and drove up to the Tesco at Five Ways, which is going out of business, expecting to find soap and frozen things on sale. The store was largely empty, though there were still no rock bottom prices. Yoko asked me where I'd heard that things were on sale, and I was embarrassed to say on the Internet, on Reddit, so I just shrugged and pulled out my new phone to disappear in the cola aisle and look busy.

The phone struggled to connect to the Internet, and I had a moment of frustration and smugness thinking, in the past I would have wondered if it was my phone that was shit or the wifi that was shit, but now I know it is just the wifi that's shit, certainly not my new phone. I finally connected to an open network and waited, then connected again, and an icon I'd been subconsciously waiting for popped up.
I am delighted to be able to tell you that on Friday, 7th August, the Press Syndicate gladly agreed to offer you a contract to publish your monograph with Cambridge University Press.  I am very pleased to be able to welcome you as a Cambridge author...
I shrieked, and looked around for someone to show the screen to. A Cambridge author: did you see that? I found Yoko and told her and she punched me in the chest like you would punch a person who had just hit a home run. 'Look at that!' I beamed and the children, confused in a happy way, danced around. Let's celebrate with more ice cream.

We went home, and Yoko took the girls to swimming. I stayed to send e-mails to people who I suspected were annoyed with my self-aggrandisement, but feigned happiness: at least he'll be content for the weekend. I kept repeating Cambridge in case people missed it: it's a place even my American parents would recognise. I'll have a book with Cambridge, both annoyed with the lack of enthusiasm in responses and hating myself for being so excited about it.

I wore myself out, finally retreating to a more menial task of making a list of things to do over the next two weeks, including a new sub-list titled 'Book'. Yoko and the girls came home, and I asked, as I do every night, if they wanted to join me on my walk. The tobacco's gone now, so there's no worry that they will see me smoking and they always say no anyway. I'm free to have my moment, my fifteen minutes, alone. Naomi, though, said yes, this time and we pulled on our shoes and set out, holding hands until she ran out ahead of me. We walked up Vicarage Road, towards the nine o'clock chiming of the bells at St Peter's. Naomi is eight now: in ten years, she will be gone. We chatted about her swimming, about the next year of school, and about the ice cream she had and will have on holiday. We came down the road back to the house: it was a short walk, and time for bed, of course. Mia was crying, Mei insisting on sleeping naked. I insisted on sleeping as a Cambridge author, something I can, despite this year of failure, be proud of, the darkness of the bedroom lighting up one last time so I can scroll to the e-mail and reread the words, before falling asleep.

14 August 2015

Picking back up

I've had an odd taste for filter coffee for the last couple of years. I think it's since coming back from Malaysia. Coffee was one of those things in Malaysia, proof life there wasn't always cheap: Sure, you can get nasi lemak for RM2, but try to get a decent cup of coffee for that. Now, it seems filter coffee is everywhere in England, something new since we came back. You can read about different roasts in a matte magazine printed and given out at Quarter Horse in Birmingham. The coffee is sweet, has touches of berries. You feel like American hipsters have brought this back to us from the 1950s, the same way they've given me the haircut I've wanted my whole life and can now have because there is some taste and vocabulary for it. Even Dez, my barber, approves: It suits you, he says, and I think to myself that his phrasing, the use of the word suit is a sign that I should keep it up. Until my hair falls out, I say to Dez, joking, but not really joking.

Words like suit in this situation have been on my mind because my father, dad, was here this last month, flying over from Germany on the way back to the States. I always feel oddly foreign around my parents: Yoko and the girls and I eat odd food and use odd words like toilet when we mean restroom or bathroom. Most days, I don't recognise these words, or my use of them, but with my father, my dad, around, I'm suddenly very aware. I'm going to the toilet. It sounds filthy to my American ears when I remind them we are American. These differences run deeper, like the way my parents say I love you when they hang up the phone: I can't remember the last time Yoko and I had anything explicit to say to each other about love. It sounds so odd in Japanese to say I love you.

The girls adore Papa Scott. His suitcase is full of all the American things that we don't have here, and the presents from Baba Jo that they've been hearing about for months now. The suitcase smells of my childhood house in the States, on New Haven Avenue, the faux New England sub-sub-division in Gurnee, Illinois, the town built around a roller coaster and a mall and I94. Gurnee is all bittersweet nostalgia for me, first kisses and rock shows and Jesus and memory. Not a real place anymore. The trees have grown up in our sub-sub-division and it is not as young and novel as when we moved in twenty years ago. The smell though is the same. The smell of my parents, of dryer sheets, and Yankee Candles — arresting on this side of the world, where I have run away from it. I imagined my youth pastor would also come out of the suitcase as well and say, Yes, you're probably right, but what if, let's just say what if, I'm right? like I had never heard Pascal's Wager before.

It's not just the word toilet, of course, that hangs over my father and me, but a whole series of life choices I've made. The choice to be an atheist, I suppose, is both the hardest to accept and the easiest to classify. But then there are the things less clear, less obviously sinful, like putting on a sport coat to go to the supermarket. This is a kind of vanity, one that makes little sense when you think about it. Why dress up when you don’t have to, just to pick up some bread.

In spite of all this lack of understanding, we share running, and we like to run together. It's something we can talk about easily, without any sense of right and wrong, and he can admire something about me, my seven and a half minute miles. We run for different reasons, of course. I thought once of sending him Murakami's book on running, but that would probably just exasperate the gap — my father does not run to seek or dwell on or accept the void. I mapped an interesting run for us, ten miles or so, up to the city on the canals and then back into Harborne on the old railroad track. We went slowly and I held water for him, narrating as we went along, We are coming up on a small hill. This is where the city starts. This is the ring road. They are redoing this path.

The time comes and goes quickly. Everyone is cautious about money now, and my father checks several times to make sure that he's given me enough money for gas, petrol. On the way back to the airport, sat in the car that my father tells me is small, the time runs out for Jesus to come up. At the M4, we begin our goodbyes, yes, the kids were happy to see you, thanks for coming, you've given me enough money, don't worry. We'll think about coming home for Christmas, but it is so expensive. Maybe Mom can come back in November if her health is good. We say goodbye at Terminal 2 and hug longer than we have in the past. Time is always running out, it is always so short. His father is dying now. I love you. We say that to each other and mean it. I get back in the car, and head home, wherever home is, BBC Four whispering to me and taking me back away, further away, somewhere to The North.

Dad on Phone.jpg

05 August 2015

Running to the end

Swings
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
The feeling that autumn has come won't seem to go away, despite all my feelings that the summer never really appeared. I have been on series of personal crusades since my father-in-law left to make myself a better person, or at least a more in control person. This all started with the decision to try and control what I was eating and has now cascaded into trying to improve my typing accuracy and speed. Really, at some point, I should just accept that some things in my life can't be perfected, but these two things, my weight and my use of my right hand when typing seem like easy successes, if I can somehow manage them. 

Remember in Malaysia when there was no autumn? Now, you can have it all the time.

And then my own father came this last week. We ran a very slow ten miles together, and I have now been wanting to run again to feel myself move in the silence and stillness of the canals of Birmingham. On Monday I went for a long run alone, 14 miles, up the canal towards the M42, a run that I had never done before. The canal tow paths are perfect for running: you can start to follow them and trust that for the next 10 or 15 or 20 miles, you will not need to think about anything but your pace. You just go and go and go.

Running without thinking or obsession. I arrived at a long tunnel, one without a tow path on the side. In the past, in the days when the canals were not just an escape for the burnt out middle class and the travellers, they would pull the boats with horses and when they came to the long tunnel, they would take the horses over the top and the boatmen lie on their backs on the narrowboat roof and push along the tunnel with their feet. There are no lights in the tunnel. I ran up to the road above the tunnel and immediately got lost, not sure where to go. I followed the road the wrong way, and then, like a sign, the right direction was clear and I was back on the tow path. 

I ran 7 miles and then turned around, feeling good until I hit the eighth mile. I started to lag, the smart phone app telling me that I was losing seconds on my average speed with every mile. I made it to the final hill by the house and had to will myself up it, the whole of my body saying that it was time to stop. I made it back, sweating and shaking, but happy that I had persevered. And now I am dreaming about doing it again.

I'm on my holiday but taken up by little tasks that I have left undone. Writing to get done and planning of different things coming up and part-time work. We have less than 18 months left, if you trust the visa, and there are so many things to do to make that time worth it. I need to make more money to pay to stay here. I need to continue to look for other opportunities. There is no end to the things that one can push oneself towards. I get up and read. It's been so long since I just sat and read. 

First Day of School

02 August 2015

At what point

Some time in July, I woke up on a Thursday morning at 5:30, the light streaming into the bedroom. British summer is not summer, strictly speaking — it is an elongation of the day. The sun comes up and because it is so early, there is a kind of bright silence that I imagine just intensifies the further north you go. Then, at night, even if it is cold or cool, you can open the window, get under the duvet and look up out the window at the orange sky behind the red brick terrace houses on the other side of Victoria Road. You fall asleep and wake up in the light.

The Thursday I woke up, there was an e-mail, sent late at night by our landlord, saying she was happy for us to stay another year and she only wanted a little more money a month. I quickly agreed, even with other things left undone, because Yoko and the girls want to stay here. Victoria Road and St Peter's school; the Waitrose within walking distance; Queen's Park; Grove Park. I cut back the bushes in the garden in the front and the back. I moved more furniture into the attic and, when the girls and Yoko had gone to sleep, I sat in the garden and smoked my pipe, listening to the bells chime from St Peter's.

Finding where to live, and being able to stay in that place for more than a year, is a treat for our family, I feel. When I think about this, and the lack of security I have managed to engineer around our lives, I feel ashamed, like given another opportunity, I would have made another choice. Where, at what junction, I'm not sure. Was it when I first left for Japan, the year I chose to go rather than stay. Was it the night Yoko and I had our first proper date, and we walked together through that rice field from Meikun High School to the ramen shop on the other side. Was it getting on the ferry in Niigata City, headed to Kobe and then on to England. Was it that night I drove from from Semenyih and chose to come back to the UK. 

I complain about the government, about the visa constraints constantly, to the point that I can now notice exhaustion in the eyes of my British friends. God, this again. I feel the same way, the British verision of me frustrated with the immigrant verision of me. The American in the baseball hat, his accent giving him away. I hope things work out for you. I do too: I'm sorry I'm so miserable, I'm not that miserable.

My father came and went and I tried to explain again what I'm thinking, what I'm trying to do. My life will make sense when I look back on it, I try to say. All these things I plant, these cups of coffees with people here and there, a network of support. You write thirty e-mails and one comes back to you. The kids are happy, I say, Yoko is happy. What will my thirty-three year-old children say to me, I wonder, in which country. Will I buy them coffee too, will I understand why they do what they do. Will I be proud, despite what I know and believe. We all just want people to visit us when we are dying. My father, my father's father. I am a father, but not a good one, I say. I'm trying to be wise and cautious, in spite of it all.

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