30 December 2015

Seven boxes


'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Mark 8:36

In my parents' house, in Gurnee, Illinois, there are seven boxes with my things: the dark matter of life. In its concrete sense, dark matter is a thing that we think is there, but we can't see. We infer its presence from its effects. When you are standing at the top of a hill in Harborne in Birmingham in the United Kingdom where I live, at three in the morning because you can't sleep and the church bells are ringing, the things in those boxes, they speak through time to you: you know what's there, or what you think might be there. Your journals. Your empty CD cases. Your Bible awards. You stand and look up at the ringing church bells, how many thousands of miles away, and you can feel it pulling on you.

Chicago is my lost city: I come back and remember a time in my life I made plans to stay and be here forever. In my senior year at Knox, I was going to do research at the Newberry Library. I was going to have a small studio apartment near Washington Square Park. And then, the next year, I interviewed for a job in the Aon Center. I wore a black suit.

The dark matter of those years, when I left high school and went to college, is piled up in short stories I wrote for writing classes and in textbooks. Poems about hands and breasts. In a lunchbox I bought as a joke in 2001 before the towers exploded, there are all the pictures of my band. The fire red Gibson SG with those pick ups. (They make such a fat sound, I say to Yoko in Japanese and ask if that metaphor works: if I say the sound is fat, do you understand?)

Before I came back home for Christmas this year with Yoko, my wife, and my three children, I made a plan to finally deal with my things, to throw away and give away all that I could. All the books. My papers. My past as an Evangelical and conservative Republican. Most of it was comedy, my letters to the editor I wrote as jokes when I was 12 and 13. A response from Oprah Winfrey to a letter I had written her (I had written Oprah a letter). But there was also the dark, dark matter. The dark matter of a failed high school relationship, and the things I was unable to throw away the last times I had been home. I didn't know what they were exactly until I was holding them, swallowing, traveling in time. A box of Virgina Slims, cigarettes I had taken from her in a fit of self-righteous rage. When I had faith.

There are some stories you can't tell without implicating others. I don't want to implicate anyone else. I can only tell the bits of the stories that implicate me, a seventeen-year-old hand holding another hand. There was some point in my life when I could follow the story past my own body, into hers, but it's been fifteen years and now the story stalls. There are only artefacts: the cigarettes, a pair of socks, and photos.

When I was in England, I thought I might see her and catch up, but when the time came, I almost panicked like I needed to escape. What was I doing, what sort of complex lie was I telling myself. Instead, I sat waiting with tea and let myself remember, look out into the snowy darkness, the cars passing, all of Chicago aware that the lost son has come home for the night and looking back at me like an absence, a Tolstoyan void. The well of memory doesn't dry up. It's a metaphor.

Chicago, I lost you, but I gained the world. Istanbul, yes, and Paris. London and Dhaka. A Sunday morning in Moscow and then Seoul and then Seoul again. Madrid. Amsterdam, when I was drunk on that bike. Rome, of course. Tokyo, and the night I smoked outside the walls of the palace. Fukuoka. Kuala Lumpur. Vientienne, and the Mekong River. Bangkok. In the absence of god's perfect plan for my life, I had set out to gain the world, the parts of it I could at least. We have to, don't we. We have no choice but to make our own path when we are led into the thicket. When we are stuck, when we have no way out, we must take risks. We must say the things to the absences in our lives that we mean to say to ourselves. You don't need to implicate others, do you. We want forgiveness, but we can only forgive ourselves. We want understanding, but then we only need to understand ourselves. When finally you can say the things you needed to say, you are just speaking out loud to yourself. You look back at yourself when you were young and you say, don't worry. It's okay. You're okay.

Standing ankle deep in snow slush on North Wells, I finally realise this. After all these years. I am pushing a black Ford, the tyres spinning in the ice. A man comes out of nowhere to push with me. And then another and another. The car rocks back and forth and back and forth without going anywhere. Back and forth and back and forth and then the feeling you have when you are pushing a car and it breaks free. You are suddenly pushing against nothing. You are standing there with your bag. You are alone after having not been alone, but you can do anything, can't you. The world is yours.

16 December 2015

Giving up on 2015

Selfie

After the party last night, I walked home from the city centre, stopping at Morrison's to buy cigarillos. I didn't have my pipe, but I wanted to smoke, the way you do when you've drunk three-quarters of bottle of wine. I bought Hamlets, five for five pounds almost exactly and stood outside in the mist and lit one, a kind of time machine back to the night I came back from Malaysia and smoked at the service area on the M1. That was the end of 2013, of course, right at the end, I remember thinking that from that point on, things would be okay, that I had a hold on things.

The girls have been inundated with parties and events — Mei excitedly told me about her performance of the nativity and how there had been a donkey, a real donkey, at the school. We watched a video together and she assured me that the donkey was just out of the frame and she scolded Yoko for missing the most important bit of the video, the donkey, not her dressed as an angel. Mei and Naomi came too as I watched the video on the camera and they crowded around chattering and full of stories, until I shut it off: it's time to eat, you need to eat before swimming.

The year has been a non-stop series of things for the girls to go to, one after another, another party, another swimming lesson, an art lesson. Yoko has been subsumed by it in a way that I haven't, and I'm somewhere on the periphery, watching, but not present in the way they are. I'm working five jobs now, that I can count. I'm writing a book. I'm sleeping on the sofa.

I woke up again on the sofa at 2:30. I had gotten up at 10:30 and 12:30 and couldn't get back to sleep. I made coffee and cooked two eggs which I ate with chopsticks. I made coffee and turned on the computer to send e-mails: please don't check the timestamp, I wasn't working that early I swear. I should work on the book a bit. I have a couple of things I wanted to get down. A thought as I was smoking the night before, as I was walking back to the house. The light upstairs was on when I got back, but I didn't go up. I answered e-mails and when it was time to brush my teeth, I noticed the light was off.

So it goes. 2016 will be another year on the periphery. At some point you get legitimacy, you get welcomed back in. Not now though. Not this year or next. Sometime in the future.

01 December 2015

She holds a smile

IMG_1423

The sun did not come up on Saturday before I had to leave; the man at the hostel opened the iron gates for me and I left into a morning that was still night. At the park where I had been running, I turned up towards the sea and the building I was supposed to stand in front of I assumed, where the minibus would pick me up. It was still very early and the wind was blowing: a British kid with red trainers and skinny jeans was walking in front of me on an iPhone. I stopped and stood where I thought I needed to: if the minibus didn't come, I would get a cab. But like it had been planned, a woman appeared suddenly from the dark across the street, pulling a suitcase and speaking Spanish at me: I said I didn't understand. She smiled and was suddenly Welsh: was this where the minibus was supposed to come. Yes, I thought so, I didn't know.

We stood and chatted and then she went up to the wall to light a cigarette and tell me about her uncle who had died in bed, almost in his sleep and the funeral she was going back for. I wanted to ask for a cigarette.

The flight left from an airport built on corruption in the middle of the desert: it looked like the Southwest. The airport had been built and left empty. The Welsh woman with the dead uncle told me that until Ryanair had decided to fly in and out of it twice a week it had just been sat there. I was annoyed with everyone — all I wanted was some coffee. I heard: Se habla español? and was angry with the woman: no, of course not, look at me. There was a vending machine that didn't work, and no coffee: I sat at the end of a bench on the plastic and thought about nothing in particular, how I had lost control of my eating again, and was bloated.

As I've been away the last month, both in body and spirit, the kids have grown up. Naomi is not a little girl anymore: she feels responsibility and can cook sometimes. Mei lets me brush her hair and then has her mother fix it after I turn away. Mia can chat about anything in English, about sweeties and the birthday parties she's been invited too. At one party on Sunday, I stood outside a disco room while the earnest 4 and 5 year-olds danced with a woman in a giant cat costume. A German man, one of the kid's father, stood out with me, looking in and said, 'It's very surreal.' Mia was dancing by bending her legs and watching the cat carefully. She didn't look happy, but afterwards, telling her sisters about it, she was proud and smiling broadly. 

The girls put on warm clothes in the morning to walk to school with Yoko although I haven't been there for a week now. I am looking for work, but I don't need to say anything about that. I'll say something when I leave: until then, this year of failure and heated up chick peas in pasta sauce can continue on. I wake up, go to sleep, wake up again. A surprise cigarette with a friend, waiting for a bus. Another bus or train taking me somewhere.

22 November 2015

Forgiveness

A shadow

The park that snakes the edge of Valencia is paved with stone, so when you run, you feel it. I brought my shoes with the expressed purpose of running: I looked on the map and thought the park was a place I could run. When the alarm went off though in the morning, at 6:30, I balked, fat again and bloated from stress eating and failure. And it was dark too, so dark for the morning. I remembered that time we were all in Torremolinos, now four years ago, and Yoko had wanted to take the kids to the beach to take pictures with the sun coming up.

Somewhere in my gut memory, the Spanish language floats around. I can remember it, bits of it, when I'm pressed, although so much has been supplanted by Japanese. The numbers are still there, and the things you say when you leave. The Spanish accent, when I hear it again, always surprises me and my first reflex is to laugh at it. I remember my sister and me on a train to Paris when the Spanish announcement came on and we laughed. We looked at each other and laughed. 

There are so many things to remember if you travel to Europe. When Paris got shot up, all the insufferable digital memory of my generation appeared: the digital photographs and the narratives of being right there. We all have been, of course — who hasn't been to Paris and taken the picture of the Eiffel Tower and had some story to tell about it. There was first the story of the trip I took with my little sister, my younger sister. That trip we said goodbye to each other in a way: she grew up suddenly. My story: we sat on the top of the tower, typical of our generation, amazed at how we had gotten there, buying into the lie of Paris like believing Disneyland is real. We sat and we looked out over the city, having the experience that is not at all unique, but which millennials like me think is unique.

Then another time, with the girls, with Mei and Naomi, when they were so young and it rained and rained and we soldiered on in the rain. We traveled those years because we had planned to go back to Japan and knew that Paris and London would evaporate if we didn't take the chance when we had it. We had a completely different imagined future, full of Japanese paid tours and university professorships at out-of-the-way Japanese universities in the mountains. Yoko getting older, her spine bending and me getting fatter, but happier, my polite Japanese developed from years of committee meetings.

No, none of that came true. The real future was me in Valencia for a couple of days, a conference to attend but starting the day by looking in the mirror and realising my hair was falling out, and that I was getting fat again and I needed to run in the dark. I set out, imagining gunmen in the dark streets and Europe falling apart around me; please, all we want is for our happy fantasy to go on and on. I ran into the park and back again, the sun coming up and the well-dressed Spanish runners speaking in that accent. I showered and went to my conference, bloated and angry about this year of failure.

The pictures hang on like a memory as I run out into the dark. The girls were so young then. I had ideas then that hadn't yet failed. The sidewalks were marble there too, shining in the darkness.


Yoko and the girls at the Eiffel Tower

07 November 2015

Kissing the relics

Shrine of Blessed John Henry Newman

After the mass on the first Sunday of the month at the Birmingham Oratory, in the side chapel, the shrine of Blessed John Henry Newman, people gather to pray. John Henry Newman is the same Newman as Newman where I teach Stylistics: the fourth or fifth university in Birmingham, depending on how you count it. You can get into Newman with two Es, a guy tells me at a comedy night in Cradley Heath and I say, That's not exactly true.

I sat in the back of the shrine, though the woman I was with had gestured for me to sit next to her. One miracle has been attributed to Blessed John Henry Newman now: a crippled deacon in America prayed and was healed — he could walk again. The Catholic church verified this miracle with a team of investigators. Newman was beatified. He intercedes for the faithful: it is an empirical fact. In the shrine, people pray for a second miracle: they write the requests on papers that the priest reads out loud.

When I hear a Hail Mary prayed, I think of my Grandmother who died on the first floor of our house in America, north of Chicago, in the winter of 1999. I was just 16 then, and Grandma Tootsie came, the cancer growing through the months. We had Christmas in her room because she couldn't come downstairs to the tree and she was hollowed out by the cancer. I remember being angry when, after her death, the priest said that the rosary, the Hail Marys, had brought her comfort in the last days. I righteously thought, bullshit, we brought her comfort in her death. My mother bathing her. My father helping her up and down the stairs with the oxygen tank. Bullshit. 

Now, my own faith vetted, the Hail Mary is the prayer I most want to pray: I want Mary to pray for me in the hour of my death even though I don't or won't or can't believe that she will.

In the shrine, the priest raised his voice to say, with confidence in his heavenly intercession, we make the following petitions and read off the requests — for a man to come back to the sacraments, for a terminally ill someone, for another terminally ill someone, for a deformed baby, for peace, for the poor. I sat watching, seated, not kneeling like the others — for the recently passed mother, for the terminally ill brother, the chronically ill sister, for the unemployed son.

And then we stood to kiss the relics and I remembered suddenly the miracle. I was in the jungle, wasn't I, just two years ago today when the e-mail came that they would interview me for a job at a university I had never heard of named after a famous Catholic intellectual. I had given up at that point; I had resigned myself to a future of traffic jams and heat. Then an interview and that night an e-mail, Newman calling me out of my exile, back to the West. I remember wanting to cry: why did I want to cry. It wasn't ever that bad.

The man healed through his prayers to Newman, who could miraculously walk was struck down again after three years. The article in the Telegraph highlights this point, but that part of the story can and should be left out. What does it matter how it ends. Newman was buried in wood and moss, his body completely decomposed. We are making up a story about him anyway: say whatever you want and leave it at that.

I asked, Should I kiss the relic too? and she nodded. I stood and waited and put my lips on the gold. For his insight into the mysteries of the kingdom, his zealous defence of the teachings of the Church, and his priestly love for each of your children, we pray that he may soon be numbered among the Saints. Yes. I am not one of the children, am I. I am one who lights the candles and buys the cards with the pictures of the saints because I like candles and images and prayer cards. I like to look at the people who gaze into the void and can see something. Never mind what I cannot see.

06 November 2015

A kind of exhaustion

October 2015

The days continue to get shorter in Birmingham. The time changed like a metaphor and then it was dark in the middle of the day again and I run home now in the dark. Because it is dark all the time, my insomnia came back to me and I got up this morning at 2AM and thought I couldn't sleep anymore. I can't sleep in my clothes — I start to sweat. Yoko and the girls are asleep and fine, and I am fine too. I just can't sleep.

I can't write either: I try to not write about writing unless I can't write and then I have to, until I can find the next story, or pick up the narrative thread wherever it left off. The fact that I can't find that moment, I can't follow the thread back to some point suggests that I've lost the plot and I need to start a new story to find it. New stories don't just generate themselves. You have to go out and find them. Or you have to mine them from your experience. Find something to talk about in the flow of the days and days of the same thing. Like you're an ox walking in a circle, pulling the yoke.

Nothing is ever that bad. The girls are all well. Jun, their Korean friend, comes in the morning and walk them all to school, scolding them for walking slowly. We drop off Naomi and Jun and they stand at the window and wave goodbye to us. Then I walk Mei and Mia through the cemetery to the infants school on the other side of the church. All the parents are around and we all pretend to be good parents. No one is ever harsh with their children in front of the other parents. I walk home on the wet leaves that have fallen. Winter is coming, but so is spring.

The girls are all well. All I want is that, I guess. Yoko says we have bought Christmas presents for them, the exact thing they want. There is nothing better than knowing the exact thing you want.

30 October 2015

Back and forth

Today, I walked through St Peter's, through the cemetery surrounding the church and school and looked up at the walkway that comes through the cricket greens and into the town centre of Harborne. I thought I might take a picture. The leaves are coming down and the path glows from above with the orange light. You feel something. I walked up to the town to get £50 for Naomi for her school trip and £20 for Yoko to have curry tonight with some friends and £10 for myself, in case I needed cash. I got free coffee at Waitrose and 3 for 2 Cox Apples. I walked home, opened and shut the door and went back to work.

That is the day. Walking up and back. Money in and out. The kids to school and back. Yoko sitting drinking tea and another Skype meeting or job application sent out. All this talk of the precipice this last month and nothing. No one wants to hear about my visa.

So I plod on and find myself in silly, disastrous situations. I tried stand-up comedy in a club, but got a minute into the set and realised I didn't know what I was doing. It was palpable. I said, 'I don't think I'm supposed to do this' handed the mic to the organiser and walked out. I still don't believe it happened. Maybe it didn't.

If there was anything else to say, I would say it. I don't think there is.

08 October 2015

One night

Yoko and Stephen

The kids are going to school again every morning in yellow polo shirts and black jumpers — the summer rolled up like a rug you and the man with the van hoist on your shoulders. I am standing or sitting in front of a class again. After the crises of wondering what's next or why we are on the path, there is less time to reflect when you're working — you just have to go forward with all the things you need to do. It's not will or desire, although you need both will and desire, but it is habitual and ritual and seasonal.

Yoko and I have been together for ten years now. The anniversary of that night in September, walking towards the Sea of Japan, when I spoke English out of the blue to her. We sat on the beach that night and looked out into the darkness. I put my arm behind her and she rested back on it. That place where the Agano River came out into the Sea. What was this really: just two people smiling at each other and joking about my bad Japanese. This will be fun, at least for a little while. 

Then, ten years later: I am trying to iron my shirt this morning and the breaker keeps blowing. The washing machine has stopped — I know, I know, Jesus Christ. I wait outside the toilet door as Mei finishes. I rush through the shower, the baby pigeon that Yoko is nursing back to health looking at me with disdain. Naomi's Korean friend — Korean by way of Germany — comes in the morning now and we all go to school together. It's a rush, 8:25, we have to go now, ladies, now, and I kiss Yoko and Naomi hugs and kisses Yoko and we all rush out, up the hill, towards St Peter's, politely, smiles, greeting all the women dropping off the kids.

And then it starts raining. The real autumn has come now. I'm in London again.

25 September 2015

Madness, but never real madness

Canon Hill Park

The days tick off at the same weight, 75.2 kgs. I get up every morning and get up at different times, but still I get the same number. Three in the morning or four or five, I peel off all my clothes in the dark — Yoko still doesn't want the light on in the toilet as it might wake the orphaned bird she is nursing back to health — and listen for the beeping. 75.2. Good. Good enough.

Of course, if you feel like you are unstable, you are not unstable. You are insufferable — the sort of white, middle-class, millennial navel-gazing that is the consequence of the screen and digital histories. A guy said to me today that he was getting older, and he was just in his late twenties. Yes, you are getting older. We are all getting older. Saying that to someone older than you is insufferable. There is always someone older than you until you are actually old. Then you are only as old as you feel. My grandfather takes all of his meals in his room now. He can't or doesn't want to leave the room because of the madness of all the old people in the home. He's not old, he doesn't feel it, he says. He's still 17, 18, the landing craft door slamming down and all the bloody water of Normandy.

I still feel fat, as fat as I've ever felt, until just now when I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. The number, 75.2, is accurate of course, but losing weight, after you have lost weight is hard to judge by numbers. You remember numbers, though. I was 71.5 for a long time. Even 69.9 once, one morning in 2011. That's too much for me, probably. It's hard to tell. Hard to tie whatever it is you're eating now — how you feel, how hungry you are — to that number. It's just a number.

Nietzsche is said to have gone mad seeing a horse being beaten. I'm always happy to think that this is something I won't ever see. The other day, we went to the toy shop and the children were like they had been shot up with adrenaline. This they wanted and then that and then that. I wandered around feeling a sudden rush of regret, thinking of all the boxes here and then in all the stores in the mall and then in the city and then in the country and then in the world. All these toys to be played with for a moment and then thrown away forever. I felt an odd sense of panic, one that you can't explain, but need to get away from suddenly, leave the mall, leave the city, leave it all. Mei wanted something, it was only a pound. She knows that something is good if it is cheap: who taught her that? I did, didn't I. No, no, let's go. Let's go now.

You can feel fat, but have moments of thinness. I did intervals this week, on a time preset called Tabata for some reason. You work — the euphemism for intense exercise in interval training —  for twenty seconds and have ten seconds rest. I did a bunch of different exercises, one including throwing a weighted ball at the ground as hard as you can again and again. The cut on my hand from my fall over my bicycle last week started to bleed and blood speckled the ground, a little more with each throw. The set finished and my heart was racing. I put my fingers on my pulse and took three deep breaths. My heart came back down in a moment, like it had been told to stop, like I had switched something off.

When I lie in bed, dying in 58 years like my grandfather, I hope that my children are around me like birds. And their children and their children's children, all women. I hope they haven't forsaken me like I have forsaken mine. I didn't intend to, of course, but it seems that if you follow the path too far, you can't come back. There is no way back — you just keep going forward. Whatever time you wake up, whatever that number is in the dark. You just keep going forward.

16 September 2015

Coming to port

Canon Hill Park 

The leaves change colours from the edges, but you can see the creep up and inevitably inwards. The girls started school in new uniforms, and the first day, Yoko and I took them all, walking back holding hands to the house. It's colder but not yet cold and I made a couple of fires with wood I bought from a man in Quinton. The night is coming more quickly, and you cannot sleep with the window open, under the duvet, because it is too cold now. The girls found an injured bird on the way home from school one day, and Yoko is nursing it back to health. I asked her what she wanted to do now that the kids are in school, and there was no answer. The passage of time is suddenly obvious: there are no children in the house in the morning. Just like that: a kind of empty nest.

This is the first year I have come back to the same university in the autumn to work full-time. At Middlesex, when I was working at the Trent Park campus in the middle of that forest reserve, there were two years that I went back to teach, but it was different. I rolled over all my teaching materials and instead of counting the hours that I had to teach, I felt like I wouldn't have enough time with the students. Only three hours a week for 11 weeks, less than that really. The term will be over before it begins if I'm not careful. 

I can't sleep again, getting up at three or four to tend to the part-time work that I have piled up around me suddenly. It's good work, work that doesn't take long, but is well-paid and takes the edge off the things I am afraid of, like paying whatever fees they will levy on us to stay in this country another year or two or three or twenty. I'm willing to pay, it turns out. Every little helps, the British supermarket says. I get paid to write feedback on MA essays and dissertations, something I am good at doing quickly, my only skill, I said to Yoko as a joke that wasn't really a joke. You copy this sentence here, write that there, praise this and criticise that and you're done. £45 or £35 or £100 in your pocket. The sun comes up and I run sometimes, or go to work, or the library, or stay at home. The kids go to school and come back.

The bicycle has also played a sort of soothing role in my life. After I had it fixed for £60 and bought new tyres for £20 and a kickstand for £3 and a mirror for £4, the thing rode like a dream. I float down through the university to Canon Hill Park and then up to Moseley, the whole way thinking that I would ride as slow as possible, like I was drunk. Like I was walking, or trotting along. Nothing to rush to or away from, and the boulevards, the wide ones that you find in Birmingham sometimes, lined with trees. All inviting, the leaves, like I said, with touches of red. I thought, as is a rare grace every now and then, this was what I wanted all along without knowing. The autumn in this country, on this bike. My 29 year-old body back under me, but with another four years in my head. Things only get better as you get older. At least some things. Mei and Mia hug and kiss me goodbye. I set out again: there's still more to do, of course.

08 September 2015

Bikes

Stephen at the ocean

When I went to Japan as a missionary in 2003, I had a red bike. Dan and I bought one a piece, paid for by his grandfather, ten thousand yen each. The bike, I realise now, was a beach bike. It was meant for cruising up and down the boardwalk, where there was one in Fukuoka, but we used them to commute. We looked silly, I'm sure, gaijin peddling around town on the brightest red bikes, the Word of God fresh and alive in us like fish. I liked that bike and how you sat on it, not like a mountain bike, but like you were on a motorbike almost. I rode it in ways it wasn't meant to be ridden, out to the ocean and back through the mountains. I needed to get away and it took me away.

The beach bike was left in Fukuoka when I left the ministry for my job in Niigata City. My dad brought me my mountain bike from the States and I rode that for years. Then the Louis Garneau bike which I loved and rode in Shibata for miles and miles and then in Milton Keynes. It was stolen in Belgium some years later, I'm told. And then when I came back to England, another bike I bought off a man who had obviously stolen it. I felt guilty as it occurred to me that I was buying a bike taken from someone's back garden. I fell off it earlier this summer, when I was still fat, and it broke, and I disassembled it.

Now, with the autumn here and the need to get around faster than I can walk, I've needed another bike, and have been looking for one that is old and like the beach bike. With bikes, you just need to find one and commit to it, and given that I don't want to buy anything new at the moment, if I can avoid it, I looked online and found one quickly on Gumtree. £45, and I asked £40. It looked okay in the pictures. I went to pick it up and was given an address, and told to call when I arrived. I went and called and an Eastern European man, thin and old and covered in grease, appeared with the bike. He clearly did not live there, this was clearly not his bike, but it was very old and if it was stolen, it wasn't in this country or in the last ten years. I got flustered, rode it a bit and gave him the money. If you have problem, you call me, he said. I don't want to see you again, of course, but if problem, and he disappeared into the back alley.

Of course, the bike had all the potential of being a lemon, but I thought that if it was, it would serve me right: things have been going too well recently. So I rode it home, sure it would fall apart. The shifter made more noise than it should, and I was certain that the back tyre was losing air. It was fine though, and I got it home without any trouble, moving some of the parts from the old bike onto it and cleaning it up. The chain is loose and it needs to be tuned better, but I thought whatever I should have paid for it, something closer to £20 maybe, the extra money would be a kind of indulgence, given to this man or the man he stole it from or someone. 

I rode it to work and felt that same sense that I felt in Fukuoka, when you are leaned back on a bike and not pushing forward. You can go leisurely, slowly. You can wear a suit. Yoko said it was cute and when I said it made me happy, she said, It's good that there are good things, insinuating that I'm miserable all the time. 

I'm not sure how long this bike will last, but it's a sanctifying bike. One that is not quite what I want yet, but a bike that has the potential to become what I want. It's a simpler bike with fewer moving parts to go wrong. I can replace all the bits, bit by bit, so when the karma catches up with me, I can say, I assumed it was stolen, but isn't everything stolen. I did my best with it; I took care of it. Take it back now, man behind the house in the alley. It was yours all along anyway. 

06 September 2015

Making weight

IMG_1192

The last two times I have tried to give platelets, something has gone wrong, and the return, the part of the process where they give you back your red blood cells and some anticoagulant, fails. The machine alarms in a worrying way and someone rushes, in the way nurses rush when they don't want to frighten anyone, and take you off the machine. You're bruising, they have to stop for now. Don't worry, emphasising that you shouldn't worry, making you think, perhaps there is something I should be worried about.

On Tuesday, I climbed onto the scale and there it was, the last number I had been looking for, seventy five, the real ending of my weight loss from the summer, all my sins of drinking with my father-in-law and all the bread and butter paid for. I got off the scale and didn't know what to do. What do you do. You certainly can't suddenly start eating. I checked my e-mail and ate what I would normally eat, and got back to my writing. There is a lot to write now, five things I counted, with the first two due at the end of the month. Something about metaphor.

Making weight is something that you can't explain to someone who hasn't done it before. They assume you must be happy and you are, but it's an uneasy happiness because you aren't sure what to do next, really. You certainly aren't done thinking about your weight. You certainly can't suddenly start eating all the things you have been trying to avoid. You just sit there, thin and confused, struggling to make sense of it for someone else. There is nothing worse than trying to make sense of something for someone else, when you can't even make sense of it for yourself.

But I got up and ran and then ran again this morning, and coming into Birmingham on the canal this morning, the sun shining, and I felt it: that elusive feeling that you feel when you want to run and where running makes sense and whatever reason you run for is clear, at least for a moment, when the sun, the early morning sun, hits the water and the path in front of you is straight and flat, at least for as far as you can see.




01 September 2015

The autumn

The girls

The autumn has been knocking since the middle of July and then yesterday, it was there, raining because rain is really the beginning of autumn. I got up at 4AM, not sleeping again and weighed myself. I was seventy five kilogrammes even, seventeen point four percent fat. I spent more time looking in the mirror than I normally would. I heard the rain outside and opened the window to the toilet, the bathroom, and looked out at it. 

I ate all sorts of things and then sat on the sofa, waiting for the sun to come up and the rain to stop. It did not, so I pulled on my raincoat and decided I would run anyway, despite it raining so hard and despite being that weight that I have wanted to be for the last four years. The last five years. I did a breathing exercise that I found on YouTube — empathetic breathing — and felt my body, my stomach, rise and fall while a man talked about how we rock out nervous system with our breath. Bullshit, I thought, but rocked and breathed and felt like I wasn't there for a second. 

I ran and felt fat, the way you do when you have lost weight and are no longer fat, but still feel it around you like, a kind of phantom limb. You wonder what will trigger another gain, whether you will be fat again in a couple of months. I got home and was so wet, the sweat on the inside and the rain on the outside. I am running faster than I ever have: not in the rain, of course, not in a raincoat.

Focus on breathing has replaced smoking for a moment. There are so many videos to watch about breathing on YouTube. Five counts in, or six, or four, or two short ones. I stand up straight, or sit up straight, or force my belly to go up and down as I lie in bed. The heart can be so loud, if you let it, the whole world regressing into it. And then you fall asleep. 

I walked home after my run — six miles in forty three minutes and some change — trying to think of some mantra to recite as I breathed. Was it the Doxology or a Hail Mary. I recited them. Maybe it was Whitman, I thought: I don't know any Whitman by heart. 

Things are piling up: again, I feel at a false precipice. I say false in case it turns out to be nothing, but say it anyway, because I want to remember and feel prescient if this is indeed the precipice. The girls are getting ready to go back to school and it's raining. It's always raining at this time of year.

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 hours 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.

Change

29 July 2015

When the lie stops

When you gain weight, you lie to yourself: you are not gaining weight, you are not eating too much, you are, for whatever reason, feeling slower and more depressed. Your clothes fit more tightly and you compensate by saying you are under a great amount of stress. You don't think when you eat: you just eat. You eat when you are happy and when you are sad. You eat because of those things, and then in spite of them. You eat not because you need to, although you need to, but because you are obsessed with it. The clothes get tighter and tighter and you keep lying to yourself until you can't any more, and the lie of it all catches up with you.

The University of Kent is on a hill: you become aware of hills when you run. The Kentish hill, Kentish being an adjective meaning 'of Kent' or 'in Kent' or 'coming from Kent', is steep even in a car and when we sped up it in a taxi on Wednesday afternoon, I was happy that I hadn't decided to walk it initially. I would have arrived at my talk sweating and exhausted. On Saturday morning, I woke up with the incredible yen to run to the sea, like it was my birthday. I followed the path, the signs to Whistable that I both trusted and distrusted until I came first to the harbour and then the beach, a man with a metal detector. I chose three rocks from the sand and ran back up the hill.


Now, I've slipped into a summer holiday. Birmingham is flirting with rain today: I am on the fourth floor of the university library with the books I need and some I want. The girls are at home giggling and chasing each other. 

14 July 2015

Metaphors that work until they don't

The jungle

On the bottom of War Lane Road, where there is a double roundabout, you can go in six directions. One is Victoria Road, our road. Vicarage Road leads up to the cemetery and church and the girls' school. And War Lane goes back towards the city. The cars go around like a figure eight and we, the girls and I, stand on the edge, holding hands and waiting for a lull in the traffic to cross.

Yoko had told me that on the roundabouts there was an Indian takeway  that had tosai, or dosa, the lentil pancake you could get at Ayza's in Kajang for RM1. We used to eat there on a Wednesday night, with the sun going down. All the food courts in Kajang were open, without any doors or walls, and Ayza's was halal — there were no Carlsburg banners strung up. Ayza's was run by dark southeast Asians, not Malays, perhaps Indian, but Muslim: several of them wore kufis. It would cost less than £4 to eat there: I convert it out of ringgit to make a point of how cheap it was, although it didn't feel cheap at the time. I would order tandoori chicken sometimes, and there would be cats that came up and we would get ice cream afterwards.

The tosai, the dosa, at Dosa Mania in Harborne is ten times more expensive: £2, but this is reasonable to me and we can get it to takeaway, with the savoury sauces and soup. The Masala Dosa is perfect for the children, stuffed with potatoes and not too spicy. When I come home with the plastic bags, I'm a kind of god. We sit out in the garden to eat it, with elderflower lemonade that Yoko has made.

Dosa Mania is guarded in the entryway by a large statue of Ganesha, a kind of Carlsburg sign that differentiates it from the other Indian takeaway in this row of shops, the one where the men wear kufis and long beards. When I see Ganesha, I feel a kind of Southeast Asian safety. The kind of safety that makes you forget to put your seatbelt on or worry about the chemicals in the food you're eating. I remember Letchu, our taxi driver in Malaysia, who told me that Ganesha was his god because his mother had said to him, 'Letchu, this is Ganesha. He is our god.' Letchu had us to his house once for a party, and there were paintings of Ganesha. We had curries and savoury snacks, and the girls played in the park across the street.

I made the comment in passing last week about how going to Malaysia had been a mistake, a detour. After I agreed to go to Malaysia, but before I signed my contract, I had the chance to apply for a job at the OU. I would have probably gotten it: it was a temporary post, but all the temporary posts eventually became permanent. If I had applied for that job and got it, I would have never met Letchu or Ganesha. I would have never had my shoes fixed by that man sitting on the street outside of the mall in Kajang. Mei asked about the cats in Malaysia the other day — she wanted to go back and see them. None of that would have happened. Yoko laughs at me when I say it was a mistake: what is a mistake. It's all snakes and ladders anyway: you catch some breaks, you fail other times. Now my life is complicated, but so much less so.  

08 July 2015

Love over time

Hakusan

The day Yoko and I married, the weather was perfect. The rainy season came abruptly to an end and the sky was clear, without being hot. I don't remember waking up that day. I don't remember feeling anything but the rush of movement forward, like a whole machine we had built piece by piece over the previous six months was suddenly moving on its own. I don't remember feeling any doubt or fear: I remember being confident and sure, like if I wasn't sure, I would somehow jeopardise it. I had bet on Japan again and again over the last few years, each time raising the stakes, and then we were sitting there, the two of us, in front of this crowd. The pastor, Koibuchi sensei, speaking about something which I didn't take the time to listen to carefully because the momentum was pulling us forward. You let go at some point and trust your instinct.

In my trip to Chichester, reading through my journal, I realised I had been looking for something, some point where I explained this momentum, explained how it all started. It wasn't there, wasn't in the e-mails I had written to people at the time — I met a girl, we had fallen in love, we were getting married. I felt in a way guilty to not find something more convincing, surely there had been more to my thinking, I must have written it down somewhere. I simply hadn't written it down.

Something happened though, something implicit: you can see it in the photographs over the two years. I started dressing more smartly, I lost weight. I took up running, the early Saturday morning into the rice fields on the outskirts of Niigata, under the overpasses and further and further towards the mountains. All the memories have no words. We had been hunting for fireflies in that river. We went to the mountains and held hands and I struggled with my Word Tank electronic dictionary as I read Murakami and fell into this fabulous metaphor of Japan as an enchanted forest you wander into deeper and deeper. It was all mystery without uneasiness: Japan would and was and did take care of the things that needed taking care of. You just needed to let it guide you. 

I do question the inviolability of marriage as a rule: nothing is inviolable. The moment you feel you have something right, that you have perfected something, it falls apart. Relationships end; we shouldn't be surprised when they do. And, conversely, there is no reward for soldiering on, for making things work. Making it to your or your partner's deathbed is not success. I don't valorise relationships; they are what they are. When you stack everything up, our relationship seems untenable. We are separated by cultures, nationalities, generations, and a language. We have never lived close, or indeed the same country, as our families. We live in countries that constrain us, put an end point on the time we can legally be together in the same location. We have built everything we have together, the two of us, by ourselves. That is an achievement, if there ever was one. We live the lives that we imagined in so many ways: we've given that to each other. 

Relationships are what they are. That thing I was looking for, what I couldn't write down, but I realise now, nine years on, is the thing I recognised in Yoko and which keeps this going: she is my antidote. She doesn't save me; relationships can't save you. She sanctifies me. She pulls me upwards, towards things that matter, are timeless in a way. Where the children don't take away from your relationship, but are the embodiment of it. Where passion and commitment burn slowly and steadily for years and years. I couldn't write that in 2006 — I didn't have the words. I only knew to get into the water, wade until my toes didn't touch the river bed, and let it take me away.

07 July 2015

Impracticalities

Uniform

In Midvalley Mall in KL a couple of years ago now, I bought white plimsolls at Zara. They were and are John Lennon shoes, like ones if you look in that famous Abbey Road picture. I got them on sale at a time that I felt I needed to let go a bit, stop worrying and get some of the things I needed, like new shoes and some shirts and shorts. I thought of all the things the kids needed or wanted: anything for yourself as a parent seems selfish, even when it's needed. Still, the shoes were perfect: I took off my sandals and wore them the rest of the day.

As I think back, Midvalley was a kind of retreat, where on a Saturday, we could go and pretend to get away from the kampung, the local area, where we were living. In Midvalley, the air conditioners pumped on and on, and there was Starbucks and Aeon, the Japanese supermarket that wasn't really a Japanese supermarket. And Zara, of course. Now, as I think about it and remember, all the bad bits, the insecurities of schools and taxes and my motorbike have been chipped off and all I remember is sitting in Starbucks, the sun shining outside, like we were on a very brief holiday from this mess that I had landed our family in. Mia was still, if you can believe it, in a stroller.

These white plimsolls have treated me well, but now have holes in the toes. When I wear red socks, the red comes through and I think the holes are well-earned and make the shoes all the better, like they show the length of the journey. I've been thinking to buy some new ones, something for my birthday perhaps, but that moment seemed to have come and gone. Instead, we went to Pizza Express, as you do. Yoko got me Bombay gin and the suggestion that I should fly back to the States in August for a couple of weeks to see my dying grandfather and my new niece and nephew. It was a nice thought, but impractical. The gin was lovely. 

We're all getting relentlessly older: Mia will start school full time and I sat yesterday at the parent induction, holding a file full of different forms for me and Yoko to sign, giving them liberty to take pictures and change the kids' pants if they need it. I remembered that when Mei went to school full time, she became a little girl so quickly. And like that, now she is 6. She had a piano recital in St Augustine's in Edgbaston, a huge Catholic church with vaulted ceilings and spires. It was an impressive place for a first piano recital I thought, as an American — my first piano recital had been in an Evangelical church with carpet and a shiny grand piano. Mei played well, a proper little girl, and there were cakes and ice cream afterwards. The girls ran round and round the church and I shouted when they got too close to the road. 

Relentlessly older, yes: another birthday party and a weekend of swimming and then swimming and then another birthday party. It all passes without you noticing. I sat and read Murakami's new book in English, The Strange Library, in a soft play birthday party centre called 'Treasure Island' — the sort of place where sad fat people pump children full of sugar and chemicals. In Murakami's books, there are no fat people or children — only young men who work and read and go for Ramen in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. In The Strange Library, several worlds overlap and a man becomes a Turkish tax collector he is reading about, at least in his mind. A perfect Murakamian collapse. I looked up from the book at Mei running around, and thought of Istanbul and the call to prayer. Yoko wanted to buy a fish sandwich from the boats. We ate mulberries and walked around the Blue Mosque. There was a Starbucks there too, yes, and the cobblestone streets. The Adhan again and again: Inshallah, you will be back, someone says. Mei runs up to me, with her face painted, This is the best party ever, and runs off. It is? It can't be.

Face painted Mei

05 July 2015

33, the year they killed Jesus

Stephen by Philip Seargeant
St Pancras Station photo by Philip Seargeant

On Saturday a couple of weeks ago, I turned 33: this was, as Google reminded me, the year that Jesus was killed. I was in Chichester for a conference on the use of the Bible in contemporary culture, and got up early to run. I run every birthday, as a kind of antidote to getting older. I feel compelled to run further than I normally would. This year was no exception. I headed out right after 5 and ran along the walls of the city, and then to the canal and then straight, further and further up the canal until I had run further than I did the morning before and I kept going and going.

I gave a talk at this conference that morning – a talk based on an article I have finished, but I did a remarkably small amount of preparation. Made my slides and got up and talked and left. It was my birthday, after all.

I don’t like to get on about years being good markers of time in life: what is a year anyway. Still, thirty two was one of the hardest, in many ways. The year, if I’m honest with myself, I almost gave up. I’m not sure what giving up would have entailed precisely, but I felt the urge that you do sometimes as a family man in this culture with these people around you, like you could just walk away and it would solve all your problems. No one to argue with, no one to need, but not want you. You scan studio apartments online. The problem with these fantasies is, of course, their lack of a clear conclusion. One leaves. Then what. This isn't 1957. No one just leaves anymore.

Instead, I spent the year like a coward, just getting up and going. I lost and then gained weight. My book came out. Yoko’s dad came for a month and Yoko and I stopped talking to each other entirely. The perfect Japanese marriage: there was nothing to say anyway. The girls had birthdays and I ate and ate.

On the trip to Chichester, I found and read my journal on my computer from when I met Yoko and that year, 2005, when we fell in love and then in 2006 when we got engaged and then married and then Naomi came. It just all happened, suddenly. I was single and wandering and then, 12 months later, I was married and Naomi was percolating up: not Naomi then, of course, the baby, the fleck of baby. In one year, I managed to accidentally decimate my adolecence, while the world went on drinking and fornicating and spending money. When Naomi came and I held her for the first time, you can see in the pictures that whatever I had been that time the year before was gone.

IMG_0945


I wrote this: the first thing I have written about Yoko, on 16 June 2005:
Also, tonight, I had the most fabulous time with Yoko and Ben and Yui. Yoko, she is a really fabulous person. I really enjoy being with her.
You think sometimes of the past as a kind of retreat: if we could go back to that, we would be okay again, but of course, re-reading what I had written makes it clear that you can’t got back in time to something you aren’t anymore. Who is this guy anyway, and this woman he was falling in love with.

Stephen and Yoko

No, of course, this is not possible. Yoko’s dad left and I stopped eating cheese and bread and cake and drinking whisky. I started counting out almonds for breakfast, the sort of obsessive behaviour that is the inverse of the fat version of me. I’ve been running and jumping rope and going to bed hungry, all the signs pointing to a return to the person I want to be. Yoko and I had a date, and afterwards, stood in the Milan Sweet Centre on Stoney Lane. We held hands and a lesbian couple in front of us ordered, the sort of odd marriage that Birmingham is, where the Muslim man calls the lesbian woman my love and nobody seems to care what anyone believes or does, at least on the face of it. We cut through a supermarket with spices in burlap sacks on the ground and notice as we drive out, the exact place where genetrification line has been drawn. We sit in a cafe with each other, drinking flat whites, watching the world go by, talking about the kids. In 15 years, we will wear flip-flops and walk to the beach in the South of France. We promise each other. Now there are kids to tend to and swimming lessons. But the arc of the future is long and there is more coming.

22 June 2015

Carnival

The Harborne Carnival took over the high street yesterday. There was candy floss for sale and the girls, Mia and Mei, rode the swings, tickets sold my a toothless carnie.

Surely there's more to say after a month. The sun won't go down anymore, and after my father-in-law left, there was no more tobacco and whisky in the house. I had been sleepwalking since February: I had been to Cardiff a couple of times, hadn't I? I woke up fat and angry and went running again and again and again.

13 May 2015

Teleology

The metaphor is obvious.

At the Five Ways roundabout in Birmingham, the Islington Row Middleway turns into the Ladywood Middleway in classic West Midlands style, a fixture of 1971 asphalt and concrete. If you go straight on Hagley Road, it becomes Broad Street, lined with clubs and lads and Asian men in taxis, and then the City Centre. This roundabout is, like others in the city, the result and plan of some vision of the world built around the car, when there was peace in the Middle East and oil could never run out. These planners placed a kind of park and walkway underneath the roundabout — the idea was, it seems, that one could sit in the middle of the expressway, the cars flying by above on concrete, and have a moment of peace. A kind of modern peace.

I find myself walking through this park at odd hours, either very early in the morning to catch a bus or train, or very late at night, after having just ridden a bus or train. Today, I walked up to the city early to give platelets, the part of the blood that is yellow and causes it clot. I am healthy and make more platelets than I need, I'm told, and so I can donate them regularly. The last time I did this, which was also the first time, I got terribly ill. The NHS donor support staff were adamant that I should say if my mouth became numb — the machine they hook you up to returns some chemical back into your body to replace the platelets and when your body can't process the chemical quickly enough, the numbness is a symptom. Thinking I was fine, I didn't say anything when it first came: I could solider on. But as I sat there, the machine drawing and returning my blood for 67 minutes, the numbness became nausea and light-headedness. At 57 minutes, I had to pee terribly and I was about to vomit, but no one seemed to notice as the last minutes ticked down. When it hit zero, the machine beeped happily and the nurse came over: You don't look so good, and I said, I need to go to the toilet very badly.

I was determined to miss out on this today, and had been regulating my intake of fluids all morning and practicing the lack of courage needed to admit defeat to the machine. I decided to walk up to the City because I'm fat now and riding my bike in my jeans is too uncomfortable. Plus, I've grown concerned about accidental death in the last three weeks, and the bike feels foolishly dangerous. I woke Naomi before I left to reassure her: she's been unwell before going to school and I told her again that it was okay, she was going to be okay. I didn't say goodbye to Yoko, but saw my father-in-law on his way back from a walk he had gotten very lost on. He greeted me in Japanese and headed to the garden to smoke. I shut the door behind me and I walked up out of Harborne, down into Edgbaston and towards the City Centre to the Five Ways roundabout and that park underneath it. 

There was a man, as there sometimes are, under one of the footbridges, wrapped up in a blanket and I knew he would ask me for change. I could feel my body pull to the right as I walked pass, like I was avoiding him implicitly and indeed he did look up and say something. I mumbled and kept going forward while feeling immediately guilty for stepping over him — Jesus will damn me and people like me for this. I thought about the Tories and the displaced responsibility of society and the government, how there were some problems no individual could solve. This man certainly wasn't my fault after all: Margaret Thatcher was probably to blame in one way or another. I too was suffering, I could have said to him: have you heard of these NHS fees they're imposing now?

They put me on the platelet machine and at the first sign of numbness, I flagged a woman over and she slowed the machine down and called me Hon. Better now? Yes, it was, thank you, I got very ill last time, and she smiled, and I said, I shouldn't eat all the biscuits. I'm getting fat, but it's all stress eating. The woman smiled and adjusted the plastic tube whisking my blood away. I repressed the urge again to go on: did she want to hear about how my daughter isn't settling at school and how tired my wife is of me and how the Tories are trying to force me out of the country?

The machine drew platelets longer than 67 minutes as a consequence of putting my hand up and admitting defeat. I went on more slowly: first it was going to be 94 minutes, but then at 81 minutes, the machine said it was done. I got unhooked: they pulled the needle out and the nurse took apart the hoses filled with weak blood. She had me hold my two fingers on the gauze and sit back and relax. You alright? No, but it's not blood related, don't worry. I got up feeling like I had done something, imagining in some way that my body felt different even though it didn't and wondering what to do with myself. Couldn't I just be alone for a spell, but there was no place to be alone except by walking, so I walked and walked, down past New Street and then back to Five Ways. Perhaps, I thought, the homeless man under the bridge would still be there. Perhaps he had been an oracle and I had failed a test. If I went back, perhaps I could get a second chance.

11 May 2015

Election and Predestination

A special moment.

On Saturday, Mei turned 6 and we, the UK Pihlajas, did what we have seen all the other British families do and felt obligated to do ourselves: throw a birthday party.

We chose a relatively inexpensive option -- or I should say, Yoko did. I watched on, as I do, paying for whatever we needed and doing the heavy lifting of speaking English. This inexpensive option was the Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park, a very small zoo off of Canon Hill Park. We paid £30 to hire a party room for two hours, and then admission for everyone that came and then pizza and cake. What should be provided at these parties is set: cake and party bags, and the people attending should provide a gift with a retail value of £10. The kids eat cold pizza and the parents look on and when it's clear that the kids are only picking over everything anyway then the father takes a pizza from the table and offers pieces to the weary parents, who must first reject and then begrudgingly accept the pizza.

This is the most British of experiences: the conversations you have reflect the class structure you have found yourself in. I was asking one of the parents, who is Scottish, about the election and the sweep of the National party. The conversation was, however, quickly taken over by another father who said, 'Surprising result in the premiership earlier today,' and I awkwardly went back to cleaning up serviettes, and pretending that I was of some use and belonged there. I don't even know where Sunderland is.

A friend of mine, a scholar from the OU, wrote a book called, 'The Idea of English in Japan', which is about conceptions of English language, and its symbolic status, in Japan. Of course, the conceptualisation of the language has little bearing on what it actually is — the Japanese are so displaced from any real use of the language, that it becomes something entirely different. The idea of England in the world, in many ways, is similar: England, the United Kingdom, is not what you imagine it to be as a foreigner.

The idea of England was planted in me in college, reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. There was an air of refinement that I wasn't familiar with. I’d read Beckett in high school, but without any context; I was all-American in the worst possible way. I remember once at a poetry reading, a student who had just come back from a semester abroad in Italy was complaining about the food on offer: cola and Oreos. ‘You can’t match two sweets.’ He was incredulous, and I was confused, What do you mean, I remember asking. ‘Well, you can't eat and drink sweet things together, you need to balance it. Like have some wine or something’ and I remember thinking, Isn't wine sweet like Coke?

I was wise enough to avoid saying things like this because although I was ignorant, I learned to hide my ignorance at  times. I was homeschooled and realised quickly when I was first thrown into large social situations that my social awareness was cripplingly narrow. I would sometimes spectacularly say the wrong thing, like asserting once that women didn't masturbate. But I was mostly good. I never mentioned the time twelve-year-old me wrote the El Paso Times a letter they was published, complaining about an evolution quiz they had run. It was only a theory, after all. I didn't tell people I voted for Bush the first time around or that I had done street theatre with my youth group in front of Watertower Place in Chicago.

Woolf started to untangle some of this, offer another way of being in the world. That dream of England subsided some when I got lost in Japan for that spell, but returned in 2007 when I had decided to wanted a PhD. The dream percolated back up and we came here finally in September of 2008, Yoko, me, and Naomi, who was just starting to walk confidently. At that time, the only thing I wanted was to spend a few years here, and see the Rothko Room in the Tate and have my British experience. I took a picture on the Thames one warm December day, the first time we were in London.

Some eight years after that first yen to come, the sea change in the British politics and the rejection of immigration as a necessary or good thing by the government, has started to decimate whatever dream of life here we had built. In the conversations with the fathers at the birthday parties, I find myself on the flip side of where I was in college: knowing more than I need to or should and trying to pretend that I don’t. ‘So you don't want to stay on then?’ No, I say, it’s just very expensive to stay. ‘Oh, yes, life in the UK is expensive.’ No, I say, well, that, but the visas are expensive, too expensive, and the laws are always shifting and unstable. ‘No kidding? I thought anybody could get in here’ and I laugh too, but I'm not laughing, No, that’s not the case. ‘But the kids are British, right, they are born here, right?’ No, I say again, trying to hold back what I want to say: The average British person doesn't even know why they’re British. Instead, I say, No, no, that’s not how it work. ‘Huh,’ and the conversation ends.

Somewhere along the way, you let your expectations get away from you and forget to tamp them down, to temper them. And then suddenly, they aren't attainable. It’s like how lovers sometimes turn on each other, try to become so unbearable that the other will leave and they will be free of consequences of choosing to end it themselves. I feel silly that this is the analogy I come up with for my relationship with the UK now, this giant machine, the government, the home office, whoever it is that doesn’t want me or my family here. We won't tell you to leave, but we'll make it too hard for you to stay.

I want to call someone up on the phone and tell them about Woolf and this history we have here: we're worth it to keep, I swear, don't force us out. When you're an immigrant, you’re always displaced: saying you're displaced is a tautology. This house on Victoria Road is just temporary, despite the way we treat it, the things we buy that make it difficult to leave. How can you explain visas to kids or tell them they can't have things because we don’t know what the parliament will decide in the autumn.
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