29 December 2016

Reliving

Kinlochbervie  

The frost is covering Harborne in the morning. Our neighbours, one down Victoria Road towards the roundabouts at War Lane and Fellows Lane, have a skeleton of an old greenhouse, dead plants coming up through the metal and covered in crystals. The sun both comes up and goes down behind the house because it's just gone winter. You can get up at seven or seven-thirty and still not be sure if it's morning. Like when we were in Scotland, and you couldn't tell if it was actually morning or if the sun had just come up at three-thirty. Two sides of the same thing.

With Christmas passed, I am spending the week getting things done around the house. Laundry that had piled up and moving some furniture. This house is too small for the five of us, but there is no energy or impetus to move. I decided instead to just change the master and second bedroom, giving the kids more space. Yoko and I are now confined to the second room, on the second bed, but it doesn't matter.  This is the self-imposed paternal martyrdom that my parents used to practice and I used to resent. From the second bed, one can see out the back window into the garden as the sun is coming up and then going down.

When we came to this house three years ago from the heat of Malaysia, it was damp and cold, covered all over with mould. Yoko still insists there is mould everywhere, but I can't see or smell it as much: I pulled out the rotting boards in the washing cupboard and then painted over all the stains underneath the sink and resealed it. I feel a kind of warmth emanating from it at night, calling me back after I've been out drinking with a friend and I fall down Victoria Road, drunk and tired.

There was never this stasis in Malaysia or even in our first run in the UK — in my mind, I was always backed into some kind of a corner. Now, it feels like nothing will change ever again. I will get fat and old. I will think about whether or not we should buy the house or a house or some house. Can we buy it or not. I finally have the money I need, but I don't feel like I have the money I need. It's always simpler to say, I don't have the money, than I don't want to, or I can't, or I'm afraid. We didn't go home for Christmas because our passports are with the Home Office. There. Finished.

I shouldn't feel old, but I do. I looked across the street when I was at the cashpoint yesterday, and I saw my reflection too clearly in a shop. My ears are larger. They look larger. I put on the sort of jumper that my dad would wear and feel increasingly concerned about this title I'm taking on next year, that I wanted for so long: Reader. I am going to read now. In this Soseki book Yoko bought me for Christmas, a character says, 'The only thing that will satisfy you from now on is the library.' I worry that this is my future, some monasticism, with all the trappings of settling. What now, I wonder, as I set out for the high street, wanting to smoke a cigarette. What about another twenty years arguing with your wife about the dentist. What about it.

If a year of personal success feels like this, I wonder what a year of failure would be like. This year had failure too, I guess, I just haven't had time to think about it. I was on the train, or I wandered off, like at the beach in Scotland. The kids played and Yoko followed them, and I, having done whatever imaginary duty I needed to do, followed the stream back up into the hill, wondering where it came from.

02 December 2016

The secret chord

The alarm clock has been waking me up at 3:30 for the last month: baseball games, the election, trips to London, Glasgow, Bristol. Today, because it was so early, I took a taxi to the city centre. The car came early, around 4 and it was cold outside, minus two, the driver said. The streets were empty and dark and I thought about Letchu, our Malaysian taxi driver, and Genehsa on the dashboard of that car. It's been three years now. He had us to his house once, for dinner and the girls played in the park across the street.

The trains are on time or late, but it hasn't mattered actually. In London, I've sat on the 8th floor of the Institute of Education, going line-by-line through a funding bid, and taking time out here and there to go to Pret to get coffee or down past Totttenham Court Road to a pizza restuarant, where I get a slice and then stand on the road, eating it and watching the city go past. That project is done now, I think: there are five or six people left to check it and see what can be done to make sure the costs are maximised for the university. 

The visa application for 2017 has hung over my head for years, but two Monday's again, the Certficate of Sponorship came through and then on Wednesday, the day that my PhD student passed her upgrade viva, I sat in the finance office with the credit card and watched nervously as two payments went through £3000 and £3320. Five people, main applicant and four dependents. I put everything in an envelope and went to send it off. I ran into the other American on campus, Trump had won, yes, I hugged her, but this, holding the envelope, this is good news. This is the best news. Forget Trump for a moment.

I was hoping for a rush of satisfaction that never came, like after my PhD when I jut sat at home and drank whiskey for a night, angry rather than relieved. It's my fault for not putting too much importance on these things, to view my future only as various obstacles to overcome. You can't just keep flirting to pass the time, to put of the inevitable.

Nothing buys happiness though and we got the letters to go do our fingerprints and biometerics at the Post Office. I was angry with the man at the window for treating me poorly and then with the girls for dawdling, and then with myself for choosing such a difficult path. It was done and we went out into the German Market up on New Street. There was nothing left to do but wait. The money saved is just a number and there is still all the usually concerns to worry about. My salary still doesn't really cover our living expenses, isn't it, I say, and it's true and not true because I work so much on other things and there is always money coming in. It's an excuse really. I go to bed without anything to say.

06 November 2016

Time is ticking away


When I was an Evangelical, for most of my life until I was about 21, I was convinced the world was going to end imminently. I worried daily — it hummed in my subconscious like you imagine the drones in Afghanistan, just waiting to take you out. I would walk outside and project Jesus coming from the sky suddenly, and it being over like that. In everything, in the literature, the sermons, the audiobooks we listening to: a constant drumbeat of time running out; DC Talk rapped, 'Time is ticking away/ tick, tick, ticking away'. I worried that I would come up short when this happened, that I wouldn't actually have been a Christian. As I grew up, this was less of a concern, but instead I worried that Jesus would appear before I had a chance to have sex, this black hole of unknown pleasure that no one talked about. I remember seeing a naked picture of Pamela Anderson in a CD recycle shop and being burdened for months. Whom do I tell, what do I say.

The silence of the early morning brings up these thoughts. I stood twice in the cold at the bus stop this week, waiting to be taken away to work somewhere, feeling impotent and tired and fat. I wanted to smoke, like I had the week before on the back stoop of Yoko's friend's house, a guy whose kids she teaches Japanese and who is lovely. He's a psychotherapist and an immigrant like me, but older. We were smoking and listening to the M5 in the darkness and talking about how you get older and forget about everything — forget about the curiosity about doing acid, for example. It would be silly at 44, isn't it. We took long drags — the cigarettes were from Sri Lanka and we talked about vices and death and how we need to accept death. Indeed, no one wants to accept it anymore. The conversation kept falling into silence, the sound of the motorway. None of it makes sense, isn't it: how you buy a house and wonder how it was that you bought a house. You are still a kid with a backpack in some foreign country, just trying to get through the year.

I saw DC Talk in New Mexico, at the NMSU basketball arena, when I was 12 or 13, I don't remember. I saw them twice, once with my parents and sister on the Free at Last Tour, my parents insisting on sitting throughout the concert while my sister and I stood nervously. Then again, when they were touring Jesus Freak, their crossover album with the video directed by someone who had directed a Nine Inch Nails video. That time, I was with the youth group and awkward in a different way, but we jumped up and down while they played. We were close to the stage, and I remember that my calves hurt badly the next day.

I don't remember who I was worried I might not ever get a chance to have sex with, who I had a crush on then  — perhaps it was still Sarah Bush, who was several months older than me and studied Spanish with my brother at the homeschool co-op. I was in a class below them, having been born in 1982 rather than 1981 and was with my sister and some other kids I don't remember. Our teacher was a Mexican woman named Liz who would make us copy Spanish sentences into our notebooks, a mixture of a grammar-translation and audio-lingual method I can recognise now as a kind of expert in these things. There was rout memory of irregular verbs, but we never said much of anything, just repeated her for hours on end. I don't remember it now even when it might be useful like when running into our Spanish neighbour and thinking about saying good morning.

There was a mother at this homeschool co-op, a vivacious woman with two boys. She was intimidating and sexual in a way that at thirteen you can't put into words. She would hug you and speak to you directly and loudly. She was convinced suddenly one day that untucked shirts were a sign of disrespect, so we had to tuck our shirts in before we went in. I remember this so clearly, standing on the stairs of a Baptist church which was old and had a 'Fallout' Sign above it, looking back at the car as my mom watched me tuck my Looney Toons shirt into my cut-off jean shorts. The world is ending soon enough — with some luck, before it all falls apart, I will pass Sarah Bush in the corridor and perhaps she will say hello.

The things you remember when your calves hurt — I have been going to the gym again after taking the summer off and trying to be healthy but not crazy, which seems to be a kind of balance I can't manage. I can reject the existence of god, sure, but I'm still 13 and convinced that it will all come to an end. I still want to take communion. I'm 34 now, I think, looking at myself sweating in the gym mirrors and feeling 34. The world didn't end, did it. I sit back in a booth at a pub, drunk and tired, all the conversation spinning around me. The world didn't end, did it.

02 November 2016

Travelling


There are Irish travellers on Selly Oak Park now — I saw them over the weekend when I took the kids to the park to play. I saw the caravans first and wasn't sure what to make of it and then it suddenly made sense. I took an Instagram photo like a tourist and the kids asked if they were camping, and I said, yes, sort of. We walked back up to the play area and the kids played on the zip line, and a white Ford Ranger with a twenty-something kid at the wheel rolled up on the grass past me. We leered at each other and I don't remember what I said, but he shouted, 'Why don't you mind your own business?' I said, This is my business, and he laughed and said something like, 'What are you going to do, four eyes?'

He started to pull out towards the main road, but he turned the car back to me, pointed it and reved the engine. I sent the kids running to the jungle gym, but then he did a donut on the grass, spinning around and around, before peeling off. The girls went back to playing and I called the police. A man was there on the playground, without any kids, in a track suit and I wondered if he was one of them too. People say you can just tell, that you just know, but I don't. The American is useless at the pub quiz, there are so many things he doesn't know.  Like the vicar at my church mentioning to me a philosopher I think I am supposed to recognise and have read. I don't. I haven't. I'm sorry.

The police operator sounded tired and bored and I suddenly had the sense we needed to run, to get away. I told the kids we had to go and they complained, but I got angry and hustled them off to the car: we'll go back up to the park by the house, where it's safer.

The Irish Travellers on Selly Oak Park are like a flash of colour in an otherwise grey autumn that's felt unseasonably warm. I watched YouTube videos of them boxing and some documentary about their history, while quizzing colleagues about them. What other things didn't I know.

My life is less interesting otherwise — we trudge up the hill on Sundays for the church service and Mei is singing in the choir, with the white collar and gown. I go when I feel like I can put my unbelief aside, but there are days that I can't and I retreat away to my work because there is always work to do. The pay slips come and now, the edge is off, like the whole plan might have worked. Now to time travel and go back to me some time in the past, the me that was riddled with anxiety and say it will be okay, yeah? You'll make it through. You're being melodramatic.

The girls have started to organise themselves. This was the promise of having three children in 2010, that September when we decided. I feel like it was something I heard while sitting on the edge of a bed. Yoko now tells me that Naomi has organised the Halloween candy they got so Mia won't eat it in the morning, which she had done even though she had promised she wouldn't. It was my fault: their father laden with an evil spirit about him, I took them out trick-or-treating. The last two Halloweens it's been foggy and brisk, and the girls were full of a kind of energy beyond them. They ran and laughed and Naomi said it was like a paradise for children. This, of course, is what makes it worthwhile. Whatever it is. People ask you how you are and you say the kids are happy. What else matters, anyway.

12 October 2016

Domocile

The autumn's come as it does, and I can't seem to find my footing. I keep wanting to write, but not having anything to say and falling further and further behind to the point that I have to write about not writing to begin writing. This makes sense to me as a pattern, but it makes for bad writing.

Everything is fine though — the days fill up and empty themselves, the girls getting bigger and those so full now of things and people. How long we can stay in the 100 year old terrace house, I don't know. We will trip over each other until that day sometime in the future when the word comes or doesn't come that we can stay permanently. Still, I feel like I'm sleepwalking — I can't tell what's real.

The leaves are coming down and you can smell it. I get up in the morning and run to work, to the gym, the sun coming up. I teach and then in my office, I open the door with the cold air coming in. I bought a chair that I sit in now, that I can fall asleep in, the sun just coming in for the last times, directly, on my feet. I get up and run again, kiss the girls, all the fleeting moments of childhood.

30 September 2016

End of September

This month slipped away. I wrote and wrote and wrote, but wrote nothing here.

29 August 2016

The End of the World

Into the water


Britain ends somewhere in the Scottish highlands, not far from the cottage in Kinlochbervie where we spent the week. The end of the island on northwest side is Cape Wrath, which is the real end, and we waited to take a ferry there on Tuesday until I realised that we needed to take a bus on the other side and it would cost more than I thought, something like sixty pounds altogether. So we instead went back to the beach in Durness, the rain just starting to fall again.

If you know anything about the Scottish Highlands, you know it is famous for small biting insects called midges and for the rain. Both of these things can be particularly bad in August, but in May, when I made the plans for the trip and booked the cottage, I didn't think about that. Instead it was a kind of attempt to recapture my own childhood, taking the car north to Ely, Minnesota, to Wolf Lake where my grandmother had a cabin, or rather a mobile home parked on a berm looking out at the water. I wrote and wrote and wrote about memories of Wolf Lake and Ely when I was in college, about ghosts of dead relatives and the people that disappeared in the woods. 

When I wrote in college, I didn't think much of my parents,  but they are there in the writing as I look back at it now. I wrote:
The house my mother grew up in has been painted. A deck has been added to the front stoop, the sidewalk where my uncles pressed handprints, torn out. Now, as I stand in the snow ten years after I was last inside of the house, I need to look away to remember everything. I look away to remember how the cement stoop, painted red, peeled in July heat or how, when I was six, I woke up from a nap one afternoon to hear my brother and father coming back from fishing. The things that make up memory, like this place (the cabin my grandmother had at Wolf Lake, the paddle-boat, the dock), decayed, fell over, turned upside down, were left behind in the snow. The space between them is closer now and I talk outloud about how they used to be as though, if I stop talking, I will forget.
Kinlochbervie may be in the north, but it has little in common with Ely — there are only four hundred people in Kinlochbervie and a Spar and petrol pump attached to a Post Office. It is quiet in a way that there is rarely ever in the south. You stand and you can hear nothing manufactured, no planes or cars or hums of machinery. On the first day, we trudged an hour and half through the heather and rocks to Sandwood Bay which you can't reach by car. The girls and Yoko pressed on while I worried the whole way about one of them collapsing and being caught out in the middle of nowhere with nothing. I was worrying too much, wasn't I. We crested the hill and there it was, a mile of pristine beach and only the people who had persevered through the heat to see it. The girls ran the last half mile, pulling clothes off before they finally fell into the water.

My parents are minor players in my childhood memories of the lake — this makes sense now as I watched the girls run in and out of the water and on the sand. Where is dad anyway, where has he wandered off to — it's a thought that sits just beyond consciousness. He's hiding maybe.

The midges came out like a cloud when we left Sandwood Bay at five. The girls pressed on, Naomi especially, and I thought about my worrying on the way out: here, this is what I was worried about. I pulled a blanket over my head and we all kept going until Mia was sobbing, a mile away from the car. I put her on my back, underneath the blanket and she went limp like she had passed out. I carried her a while and then had her walk 100 steps while I rested. Up and down, up and down, until we were back to the car and laughing and joking about it all. What was there to worry about.

We used to fish in Minnesota, and we would sit out in the paddle boat on the water, casting again and again. I don't remember catching fish. I remember there was a suana that we would sit in naked. I remember that when I was 14, one summer my sister and I went to see Grandma alone and she let me drive the minivan up and down the access road to the cabin. I was growing and filled with an awkward kinetic energy, but that is all I remember, just the energy.

On the ride home in the car, the girls fell asleep at different times: we drove back in silence, out of the south of Scotland and towards Carlisle. Why isn't there ever anything to say. I thought and I thought, remembering some trace of my father, but then not sure if I had the memory or was projecting him into a place I knew he would have been. There, a fleeting thought of us, eating lunch on the rocks, as we took canoes into the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada. There he is, sitting and smiling. I'm sure I can remember it.

01 August 2016

What to expect when you're expecting

Canon Hill Park

Whenever I travel, I save my train tickets in a rubber band like baseball cards . This year, I've been back and forth to London every month, to Euston and then parking myself in Senate House or Starbucks or some other place as I wait for some meeting I've booked. Sometimes I've taken the 4AM Megabus to save money, to squeeze all that I can out of the £300 I asked for at the beginning of the year. All these trips haven't amounted to much yet, even though last week or the week before, I thought that they might. I had one last trip this school year, for an interview that went well. I rode the train home that night not sure of what narrative I needed to tell myself. There are so many different narratives you can tell.

The narrative, it turns out, is the same one I've been telling myself for the last two and a half years, of working at a small university and affecting change in a meaningful way, one that I've gotten very used to saying as I hand out the teardrop shaped business cards I've been given. When I drove Mei up to Newman last Wednesday, to print a picture for her friend that was going away, we stopped at the statute of the university's namesake John Henry Newman in the centre of the quad and I brushed off some cobwebs from the back. I thought of Newman the man, who only wanted to radiate Christ's light to the world, and felt guilty about my own lack of interest in serving others, before taking Mei's hand again and heading back to the car.

Instead of a new narrative, I replayed an old one, coming back to Cagliari, in Sardinia, for an academic conference on authenticity and style. I had been here in 2014 at the beginning of my time at Newman, for a conference on metaphor and I remembered, the way that you remember by being somewhere a second time, a night I had met two beautiful German PhD students who knew my work and were perched on the steps of Chiesa San Michele smoking cigarettes and drinking. I got a beer at a shop that had beads hanging in the door frame — everything was golden and faded, and we sat there looking out over it.

This time, I've felt older — sweaty and fat trudging up and down the hills, thinking about my failure again to secure a better job and all the questions I should have answered in the interview with more focus on teaching English rather than all these other things I've been writing about. And how does sexuality fit into your work on religion? The truth is I'm not sure that it does — I just assume that in twenty years I'll look back on my life and it will make sense. It's all narrative, isn't it? The panel looks at you, but no one writes anything down: this is a sign that you haven't said the right thing.

I told someone about the interview and they said, I'm sure you did wonderfully, but I immediately thought, how would you know though. What if I didn't. 

My book was on sale at the conference for twenty euros, but no one was buying it, and in the end I asked the publisher to let me have it to give to one of the plenary speakers, someone whom I had wanted to give it to for a while. I got the book and as I sat in a session and thumbed through it, I worried that she had left the conference already. This is okay, I thought, not that bad, before finding a spelling error and a poorly written sentence and stuffing it in my bag. When the session ended, I went in search of Elena, the speaker, and had a sense that she would be sitting outside, under a tree in the shade, which she was. I went down with it and gave it to her, You might find this useful, I said, and went back to another session. 

I went running on Saturday morning with a Japanese colleague, although we didn't speak any Japanese and he was a much faster runner than me. I felt like an ox next to him, and said at one point, you should set the pace, it's been too long since I've run. It was early and the Sardinian baby boomers, the ones you can imagine have been told then need to take tablets and get some exercise, were out jogging and walking on the sea front. We took a narrow path on the road, towards the river and the centre of the island. Suddenly, and without warning, I tripped and fell on my hands and knees, immediately shocked and embarrassed. I fell down, I said, and got up wanting to keep running, to pretend it didn't happen, but we walked a short way. I was fine — an ox is resilient, but I felt like a child the way you do when you fall. I scrapped my knees; I'm okay.

It's August first now, and my flight back leaves in three hours. I have to put on my warmer clothes, and get ready for another year of the train and Megabus. The girls are waiting for me: the girls who forgive me and find meaning without need of a narrative yet. I will shut and lock the door while Yoko reads them a Japanese storybook and they all fall asleep, their father lingering and hunched over his laptop in the living room trying to fix another sentence before giving up and falling asleep too. Let the imagination take over the narrative for a bit, let it dream in the cool Birmingham night, the sun just below the horizon and coming again before you know it.

15 July 2016

Nothing but time

IMG_2180

The US Embassy in London is full of Americans — this goes without saying. I go every two years now with one of my daughters, to have a passport renewed and be reminded, despite all the feelings of familiarity in this country, that we are not in fact British. The Americans in the US Embassy are abrasive in their American politeness. They call you, 'Sir', but in a condescending way. Once, in Japan, when I went to get married, I got scolded for taking an oath while chewing gum. Spit your gum out, Sir. I didn't even realise I was taking an oath.

This time, I was with Mia: Mia who is incredibly grown up provided her mother isn't around. I imagine she will be the one who smokes cigarettes when she gets older, if there are still cigarettes when she is older. She had her baby with her, baby Sky, but I had to watch Sky while she ran off to play in the play area.

London is big if you are a little person, and in all my comings and goings, I've forgotten how your eyes swell when you see any of these things for the first time. Euston Station, and Grosvenor Square. The rush of air in the underground when a train is coming. Sitting on a packed train, your legs dangling off of the seat and your father sat next to you, holding your hand. The crowded pavement and the men sleeping on the stoops of buildings.

We had a muffin together and after the American woman behind the glass shouted instructions at me (Anything you can do to help me, Sir), we went to the toy shop on Regent Street. Floor by floor, we looked at everything together. And then we went to Liberty to look for something for Mummy and then to the M&M store and then pizza for lunch. Mia wanted to look at a fountain, with the horses and then wanted to go back and I said, Yes, look as long as you want, I have nothing but time.

27 June 2016

Leaving

Nana in England

This year has been consumed with leaving, or the thought of leaving. When Yoko and I went to sleep on Thursday night, the iPad screen glowing in the dark had said things were going to be okay, but I woke with a start at three and checked again. It was not okay anymore and like instant karma, the pound bottomed out. The truth is, you are never better alone, are you.

When we came to England in 2008, we were following my dream, the one I had chased through Virginia Woolf novels in college to the House of Parliament in 2002, when I sat and watched a debate, the green benches from the television suddenly in front of me. I sat behind a pillar in St Martian's in the Fields, a ten pound ticket to see Mozart's Requiem by candlelight. I went home that next day, a whole idea of the country germinating in me, like the first time I saw Oasis on a Walmart TV screen in Wisconsin.

Then we were here, me and my daughter and my pregnant wife. We stayed in a little cottage in Woolstone, in Milton Keynes, and the woman who owned it with her husband, George, let me keep boxes in their garage and told me about how it had been in the past, before there was Milton Keynes and it was just fields. George had been in the house for his whole life: I asked him how he had dealt with all the things that had changed and he smiled and shrugged.

I've outlived Jesus now. I woke up and felt exactly the same — fat from eating and eating again. I can't stop eating. I went out running in the morning, before everyone got up, before Yoko started hitting the snooze on the alarm. It feels like it just goes on and on.

23 June 2016

Outliving Christ

IMG_2138

When I came back from Malaysia, it was cold and I was smoking cigarillos. The taste hangs on to the memory: I bought Hamlets when I was last in London, so I could stand on the corner and look angry. I smoked them too quickly and assumed they would kill me, but they didn't. I'm on the edge now of outliving Christ — I'm terrified. I won't be in my late-early thirties anymore, but my early mid-thirties or maybe just my mid-thirties. You slip into the second-person. Your hair starts to fall out. You go to sleep before the children do. I reach for Mei as she runs up for bed. Hug your father, I love you.

18 June 2016

Promise Hill


The hotel I stayed at in Fitzrovia didn’t have a toilet in the room: I’m not sure how I had missed this when I booked it. It was £49 and the woman who checked me in was European — I say European because it doesn’t matter now where in Europe you are from if you are in this country, we're all in the same boat. My room was on the top floor, the British third floor, and when I opened the door, I thought this will do: what do I have to complain about.

I changed quickly, so I could get a run in. It was the second day of the British summer, which lasts for two or three days at a time before tapering off in August. I waited at the light and then set out into the park, towards the zoo. There was a fat man running in front of me, and I thought that I felt fat too, but in a way that I’ve come to accept since seeing Julie for the last month. We can both agree you’re not fat, she says, and the part of me that agrees with that agrees with her. I ran up the outside of the park, past a fit couple running together and then out the back up what is called Primrose Hill. I know London well enough, but I had never heard of Primrose Hill, which I read as Promise Hill. There, in the middle of the city, a hill looking out over everything.

I ran up it and smelt weed: someone on one of the blankets, the young white and beautiful people, and then past Chinese exchange students with new iPhones, and finally to the top looking out. Yes, London, I thought, and ran back to the hotel.

Dismantling anger leaves you with a void: if you aren’t constantly and selfishly blaming your partner for everything bad that is happening to you, it’s your own fault, or worse, nobody’s fault. My inheritance came from my Grandfather and suddenly I was sobbing like he hadn’t been dead for months now. Why would money be the trigger. I reach for the tissues, and stop to think. That’s it, isn’t it. Stopping to think about it all.

The void, of course. Everything is just looking into the void in one way or another. I sat down to write on Monday morning this week thinking that exact thing. Here are some blank pages. I apologise constantly. I take the kids to school, up the road, in the rain this week. Mia cries holding her umbrella and I yell at Naomi for being insensitive. The new bakery opens. We go to the library and I read Mia a story. It’s okay, of course. You apologise and move on — nothing’s really wasted though.   

23 May 2016

Habits

IMG_2072

At least the sun is shining now. The kids, in the morning with their lunches and bags, walking up Victoria Road. It is non-uniform day, which means you can wear what you want, including your uniform, the girls say. I worked out first and then put on my shirt and jeans before taking them to school because I noticed I was the only dad taking the kids to school in workout clothes. And then today, I notice everyone else is now wearing running shorts. Hug and kiss, I say to Naomi and Mei and Mia before they run off. Hug and kiss. A proper kiss. 

When I get off the bus and am walking towards the station, two men are staggering and drunk and one of them has a bottle of beer. I keep my head down, as you do, because I am in a suit and headed the opposite way. One of them says, ‘Mate, do you know where the pub is?’ And I look up and say, ‘Which pub?’ And he says, ‘The one across the road.’ I don’t know, I say, there are pubs on Broad Street. And I keep going, ignoring him saying after me, ‘You American mate?’ like I didn’t hear.

I sleep nervously when I need to get up early. I woke up at 3:04 and checked the time. I’ll lie here until the alarm, I think. And then at 3:30, I get up at the first sound, before the alarm can wake Yoko who has finally come to bed sometime in the night. I make eggs and put on a suit and go out to wait for the bus, although I can order a taxi, I think, I'm not paying for it anyway.

Because it is almost summer now, the sun comes up so early and there are touches of the light on the edge of the horizon at the bus stop. The War Lane Road roundabouts are quiet and everything is closed. I stand there for a moment, in the quietness, and look at the big van across the way that says, 'Man and Van'. 

How many of my problems are just built on bad habits, bad habitual actions. This week I realised I had grown up eating constantly; I was always eating. An Italian woman, a parent of one of kids' friends who I am talking to at a birthday party at Boing Zone says this to me, triggers a series of thoughts: The problem with the British is that they are always eating. They will eat on the street. In their cars. In Italy, we eat three times a day, unless you are a child then you will eat a snack maybe in the afternoon because you can't control yourself. As she says this, a mother comes by offering us cake that the children have passed over, Asda cake, a Galaxy chocolate cake, and I take a piece while the Italian woman of course refuses. I think, yes, this is the problem. I am a child. 

In a committee meeting the other day, when I am referred to unironically as the 'subject expert', I feel again like a child in an ill-fitting suit because I ate a cookie that morning — I felt unhappy and stressed and ate a cookie, like a child. I know they are all thinking, look at this fat child, what is he doing here, even while they say, this is the expert, let's hear from him. 

I know I appear like a bureaucrat now, but I used to be someone who wanted to be a writer. And then I realised that writing is not a vocation, it is an identity. It can be a vocation, sure, but who wants to get paid to write. I want no strings attached. My father asked me when I graduated from university [I say university though I mean college because as an American masquerading as a British bureaucrat, you need to know the lingo], he asked me, What did you learn? and I said, I learned how to write a sentence. 

Later, I recounted the story to my father, and he said, 'You said, I learned how to write a good sentence, or I learned how to write a sentence well. You qualified it.' And I had to agree, because I didn't remember saying it anyway, but I thought, actually, that's not a very good sentence if I put a qualifier into it. It should have been, 'I learned how to write a sentence' and I should've trusted the reader to fill in the rest. 

I finished my expert committee role and thought that even though I had money to ride the tube, I should walk up from South Bank to Soho. I had, as I said, eaten a cookie, and then later a scone, and then later a cheese sandwich and some crisps. I was a fat man again with my bag, weaving through the traffic. I remember this same feeling in Malaysia, the feeling of being stared at even when people aren't necessarily staring. You get it in your head and you start talking to yourself in the voices of all the young men on motorbikes: Look at that fat white man, who is simultaneously a child and rich bureaucrat with a nice home. Earlier, I saw him eating ice cream at the seven eleven.

I walked up towards Westminster, past all the Asians and Italians with selfie-sticks on the bridge in front of Big Ben. And then up towards Trafalgar Square, past all the war monuments, the men on horses and the Americans taking pictures, and I was feeling hot and fat and angry at the world for loving war so much. Really though, I was angry with myself, the cookies, and tight fitting shirt that ripped at the elbow when I went to pick up something. I know I'm not blending in, I too would take a picture of the men on the horses and the clock and everything else if I wasn't so self-conscious. I may appear on the outside like a good bureaucrat, but wait until I open my mouth. 

It's a habit to eat when you are happy or when you are sad or when you are angry or when you stressed or when you are bored or when you are afraid. Here, this cookie will solve your problems, Stevie, you child. Jesus will come back soon enough. At least I realise it now, I say to myself, the fat reflection of me in the mirror. I say, You look fat to me, but I know you are not fat. It's okay: any habit can be broken. You just have to break it. 

14 May 2016

Under the tree

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Why are you here.

London had touches of spring last week. The Megabus was late, but it didn't matter in the end. I woke up as I seem to always wake up when the driver swings past Marble Arch, and I look up and try to remember how this was ultimate success when I was 19. This was the dream; this is living one of the dreams. I got off, got on a bike and rode up towards UCL, towards Senate House library, through Hyde Park in the sun. Hyde Park, where I came when I first came to England, when I first had whatever insatiable sense that there was something here, something in this park that wasn't wherever I was. I parked the bike, I got coffee, I went to my meetings. At 8:30 that night, I stood in Euston Station looking up at the boards and fell asleep on the train going home.

The time keeps going and going and when I sit to say something, to write it out, it disappears. I thought I would write on the train and then, after the 15 hour day, I couldn't do it. Was it 15 hours, I thought? Was it more? I had gotten up at 2:30. Every day this year I've done something. Why can't I remember it now. The girls had their birthday party: I told the woman at St Martian's about it today, trying not to cry like you try not to cry sometimes because you've been told it makes you look weak. I'm not happy, I say: we were at the zoo and the girls were there with my wife and it was them and it was me, like there was some wall. She gestures, I gesture, this is what separation looks like when you make it with your hands. I am here, they are there. Another gesture, I'm stuck. I sit back, and she smiles and takes out forms we need to fill in.

Do you purge. What a miserable word: I mishear it first, 'What? Purge? Like vomit? No, of course not,' I say and then realise that is the wrong thing to say, 'I mean: no.' Okay, good: that's the real problem. If you just eat, if you just binge, you just gain weight. I want to stop the conversation there: no just. Just is the wrong hedge. I marked an essay about hedges, I'm thinking about hedges. No, no, I don't purge, I eat sometimes and I can't stop. It's a terrible experience. She nods. No, I don't want to hurt myself. I don't want to hurt others, no.

There's a pause and I make a point to stress that these are extraordinary circumstances. I'm okay, normally, if I was in a normal situation I would be okay, but it's not normal. My family isn't here, my parents or my brother or sister: we're alone, there's so much uncertainty. She nods and I realise I've gotten worked up. I've been waving my hands: I can see myself and I can see what she says, It sounds like you have a lot to be anxious about, which I do, but I wonder, Is she saying that because she actually thinks that, or because it's what she thinks I need to hear. I sit back. I do, I say, I feel like I do.

The girls just keep going and going, getting older and older. The birthday party, the one I held bags through, and played with my phone until the phone died, graciously, sacrificially — they ran around the zoo and I asked Naomi, What do you think you'll remember about being a little girl, about me and about your birthdays? She laughs: I don't know. We were all sitting under that tree that was blossoming, will she remember that? They all swapped toys that they had won in a game that Yoko made for them. Perhaps they will remember that. Perhaps they won't. 

I don't remember my father. I remember his shoes, his big shoes that I used to put my feet into. I remember him sleeping on the sofa after work. I remember that on my birthdays, he was always happy. He took me to breakfast at Pannekoeken Huis, a Dutch pancake house that we rode our bikes to. So. I took the girls to breakfast for their birthday, like my dad did. I tried to talk them into a nicer place to eat, a finer restaurant, but they weren't having it: We all sat on the high stools at McDonald's while Yoko slept at home. Everyone was so happy. Everyone chatted.

I'm going back to London again on Monday. And again on the twenty fifth, and again on the first, the sixth, the seventh, and then the tenth. The part-time work trickles in and now, after being told emphatically, No, you can't work part-time, I can. I have a contract. And I think I have enough money. Touch wood, fingers crossed, we're going to be okay. I can take today off and walk around in the sun. Have a cup of coffee, go with Yoko and the girls to dinner at a friend's house. Buy some pipe tobacco, maybe. Maybe have a drink. Go back to the woman at St Martian's, try to sort happiness next: gesture less, or more, or whatever amount of gesturing is normal for me, for my circumstances, for my illness. And work on my book some more.

29 April 2016

Sometimes is Snows in April

My ankle gave out on me while running: it was a metaphor. This year we have pushed and pushed and not made progress one way or another. I gained all the weight back. I couldn't sleep and then I slept too much.

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25 April 2016

Half of the way

Yesterday, as we trudged up Vicarage Road to St Peter's, it struck me that Naomi will be nine soon. Almost ten, almost eleven, almost eighteen. She's moody now, like me, annoying her mother in the same way I annoy her mother. She doesn't want to go to church, but does because she has to. She sits with her legs crossed, thinking. I put my arm around her because I want her to be close to me.

Mia needed to be held yesterday, just while her mother cleaned her boot. I held her and it was awkward because she is too big to be held now. She will be five.

On our hike, which Naomi didn't want to be on until she did, we talked about Justin Beiber song lyrics. We talked about teenage things, about love and who they liked. I saw a man struggling with a pram and thought that I would never do that again. I had already done my time.

Now they cook for themselves, and make pancakes. Naomi says that I have too much white hair. Yes, I say, let's make a pact and never grow up, you and me. Let everyone else grow up and we'll stay young and happy and carefree. They laugh and ride off on bicycles. Mia too, now: go on, I say, and then immediately, please stay, I'm sorry, don't go.

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23 April 2016

Touches

Now, spring comes to Birmingham in fits and starts. I've been waiting to write something. I want to come to that moment, when I can make some sense of the last month, but it's never quite what I want. I lost and gained weight. People came and went. I taught. The girls were home from school, and I took my pagan communion at St Peter's several times. Yoko and I stood around in silence in different places. The girls went back to school; Mia cried loudly and demanded things while I scowled. Mei lost her hearing for a while. Naomi worked on a presentation about guinea pigs.

I've been writing too, working on a book, a special issue of a journal, an edited collection, a couple of book chapters and an article with a friend about the use of scripture to justify violence. I've been writing an application for a prize that requires me to say something about how influential I've become, but I'm not very influential at all, it turns out. I wrote a blog post for another site. I wrote references for students. 

Writing a book is an insufferable experience, surrounded by insufferable phrases like, 'I'm working on a book' or 'I'm writing a book' or 'I was working on my book yesterday.' People say, Oh yeah? I'm thinking of writing a book too, and you want to say in response, You have no idea what you're talking about. I'm submerged in a collection of ideas that I'm not sure is right, that I'm not confident is right, but I'm thirty one thousand five hundred and eight words in now: I can't turn back. The only way out of a book is to write it, and every day you write it you feel like you failed that day because it's still not finished, regardless of how well you did. I wrote four thousand good words when I only intended to write three and I felt remarkably unsettled. I walked home, ignoring my ringing phone in my jeans.

I wrote for four days at the Quaker retreat centre I go to sometimes. I wrote and wrote and wrote, more than ten percent of the book at the end of the time, but when I got on my bike and rode home on Thursday evening, the hill on Bristol Road felt like too much to handle. Like I couldn't get up it. I wanted to sit on the pavement, and just stop. Not say anything or do anything or decide anything for the rest of the night. I saw a man at the top of Victoria Road doing this once, with a beer. Just sat there. Yes. Let me be that person, please. 

The man at the gym at the check-in desk, to whom I pour out my heart sometimes, looks at me like I'm mad. 'Body builders must have eating disorders, it's an inevitable result of trying to take that much control, right?' I'm wearing flourscent yellow shorts. I take my work too seriously. I come home and I can't make any decision about anything. The girls run round and round and round and I sit in the middle of it. I've been writing and writing and writing. I'm writing about writing. I got up this morning at 2:30 and I was writing. 


09 April 2016

Ganesha


I asked the taxi driver about Ganesha: could he protect me as well, a sweaty fat white man. He could, of course, but don't you have your own god? Aren't you a Christian? No, I said, I'm not. I'm not anymore.

29 March 2016

Let go and let god

When we bought a car in November 2008, it was kind of necessary failure. I had thought, when we packed up our things and moved from Niigata that summer, that somehow we would be okay riding the buses around the Milton Keynes roundabouts. They were so regular, the buses, almost two an hour or so and we only had to walk up out of the estate we were in to the main road and stand waiting for it. We could walk to the large Tesco too, I said, on the path which was very safe, pushing the pram, which had been the stroller in Japan, looping the bags on the handle while Naomi rode happily looking forward. It had made perfect sense.

We left Niigata in a rush: after three months of moving and building our life there, it was suddenly aborted: the letter came through that I had been accepted to the Open University, a mythical place in a mystical place, and we decided to go, just like that. It made sense: my PhD would be paid and Yoko could stay at home with Naomi, something that had been taken away from her in a rush to return to work and back to a life of smart skirts and blouses, after a year of caring only and solely for Nana.

This year marked, in many ways, the year I grew up and my time on the road, a time that I realised, as I walked to the train station in Oxford this last week, the day getting longer and starting to stretch out, was coming to an end. How this time on the road began, as I think back on it, doesn’t make any sense. We had been newly married and then had Naomi and acquired so many things. We had settled and Yoko was working and I was working, and our little three person family had, for all intents and purposes, been a success despite the surprise of Naomi coming.

And then we moved. The refrigerator and bed were sent to Yoko’s parents, we sold everything, and got on with life without thinking about it.

14 March 2016

Forgiveness


With so much sin to account for, you struggle sometimes to know how you will fare when the judgment comes down. I have been, I said last week, insatiably angry, something I recognised when I shouted at a man with a poodle, after the poodle jumped at me. At that moment, for some reason, the dam had broken and all the fear I have been holding back broke over, or broke through. I knew, however, that the moment with the poodle was not isolated and that, because I run the same roads at the same times, I would see the man and the poodle again. I knew this the way that you know you are going to die; that is, I did not really think about it, but rather the thought of it was just below my consciousness ready to come up at the right moment.

And then it happened, only two days later. I was on the other side of California Rd and I was coming up the hill. The man and the poodle were coming down and yes, he recognised me as he moved the poodle to his right side, away from me and held the lead more tightly, with no slack. I slowed to a walk and approached him and said, I’m sorry, I shouted at you last week when your poodle jumped on me: I was surprised and scared, but I shouldn’t have shouted at you.

The man, at whom I now got a better look, was in his sixties, a pensioner and white and red the way old British people are in the cold. I saw a woman this colour one morning while running and almost shouted out, she startled me so much. The man was afraid initially, but once I said I was sorry, he softened and was nervous and said, ‘No, no, he shouldn’t have jumped up.’ I realised both of my hands were out, one toward the dog and the other towards the man, like I was going to touch them and be absolved. The American shouting and then apologising, as you would expect: we are so stereotypically open with our emotions. I apologised again and then was running back up the hill like it had never happened, towards the house, towards Yoko and the kids.

My life is filled with train tickets to different parts of the country. London and then Nottingham and then Oxford and then back to London, for meetings about different things and symposiums and talks to give. I stand on the platform in a suit, a suit I bought this weekend with a set of other suits for seven pounds each, or rather six pound and ninety-nine pence each. I look at my reflection as the train comes -- how do you describe that feeling of awkwardly wearing a new suit when you rarely wear suits. You were a teenager and you remember being that teenager who wore t-shirts from thrift shops. I’m telling everyone I see about the three suits that I got all from one man who must be dead now. Brown, blue, grey. His things were still in the pockets: handkerchiefs and medications and business cards. Two shelled peanuts. They are a conservative cut and classic, like I can wear them for years and years, until I die too, and someone finds my oddities in the pockets.

I wore the brown one yesterday to St Anne’s in Digbeth, where there was a St Patrick’s Day mass. I was overdressed and thought about asking Yoko to put on that dress we got for my sister’s wedding in 2012, when I was about to turn thirty and losing my mind with my PhD. Yoko asked me if I wanted to go a few days before, asking the question in a way I hate by adding the conditional clause, ‘If you don’t have any work to do, would you…?’ Still, I wanted to see the building, and I feel like if we attend different churches on different Sundays, we’ll be harder to track. So I said yes, and stood quietly like a trained dog as the mass began and the Irish music started for the processional. 

Digbeth, south of the city, was a centre for Irish migration I learned, and the mass was raucous. Everyone was wearing the colours of their county, and I thought of my own trip to Ireland  to see my sister in 2002. I’d gone for St Patrick’s Day and had been growing my hair out for a year. Martha, my sister, and I, have been around the world together when we were young, to Ireland, and Tokyo, and Paris. Ireland was just the first place and I remember how green everything was: the insufferable obvious thing that millennial world travellers remember about Ireland. I remember the smell of cigarettes and now, as I think back, I have a profound sense of understanding of my sister, who was living in Europe for the first time and realising all the things I would some years later, about Americans and how American Americans can be when abroad.

The mass came to an end with everyone belting out the The Valleys of Erin! and I felt the whole of the experience, my time with Martha, and then walking through the Republican side of Belfast that morning a few years ago, coming back to me. This brown suit and St Anne’s in Digbeth, the children looking on. The sun and the stained glass windows. Christ beside, Christ below me, Christ to the left of me, Christ to the right of me. There are so many things to say, so many experiences packed inside each other. CD Wright, before she died, had talked about trying to make a chain reaction as a writer. Precisely, I think: you can’t possibly say them all.

10 March 2016

You're acting all holy

When we came to the hotel in Kajang, when I took the job in Malaysia right after I finished my PhD, the Christmas tree was still up and I remember thinking, the way you do when you are in the heat and you are confronted with something like Christmas, that this was the known unknown I had been expecting. You know when you move abroad that there will be things you won’t expect, but you don’t know what those things are until they are there. You say in interviews that you know how to deal with them. You tell a story about landing in Japan and the vending machine at the crossroads of two rice paddies, in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t have expected something like that. You couldn’t have expected a Christmas tree in the hotel, not yet cleaned up from the holidays.

Our life revolves around St Peter’s church on the hill, the top of Harborne. It is surrounded by a cemetery and a school. The headstones are sinking into the ground, and yesterday, when it was raining heavily and the path was flooded, we crawled over the headstones with our children to avoid the water. We, the middle class parents who worked hard to get into the catchment area and who attend the church on Sunday to varying degrees of commitment. I recognise one of the fathers when we are sharing the sign of the peace. We are embarrassed in the way you are when confronted with a person that you have ignored consistently and systematically for the last 18 months. Peace be with you. And also with you. I think we’ve seen each other before. Have we? I think we have.

These fathers are the ones that are happy: they are only a few years older than me, but you can tell they are older because of the way they dress and how they’ve let themselves go in simple ways. I judge them viciously, and I sit in the pew, the worst sort of church-goer, the worst sort of Pharisee. I imagine them eating kebabs and chips on Fridays and then also running sometimes, some Saturday mornings. I judge them for eating meat in the first instance, and then for eating unhealthy meat on top of it. There is so much kale and butter in this country, you can get it at Waitrose, you fat slobs. I see their cubicles or offices and resent them for their happiness, like a miserable hobo who has been invited to the feast, but refuses to enter out of pride. They smile and hold their kids with a kind of peace that I never had when I held mine, like they are settled and content.

These are the lies I tell myself about them, all the narratives I come up with as I watch people go up for communion, and I hang back again because my most recent attempt at reversion won’t take. Yoko goes up with Mia, and Naomi and I and Mei stay in the pew, in our coats, because even though it is March and the sun is out, St Peter’s is remarkably damp and cold.

This community around the church and around the kids going to swimming and gymnastics: when I pull my head up from my phone I start to notice all the same faces. The community around the church is not built on faith, from what I can tell. No one is ever talking about Jesus. Instead, it’s like we are sheltering under the bones of a Leviathan that had washed up on the shore. Like the church is what’s left of a memory, a kind of skeletal social construct. The bones shield you against the climate, the constant rain and softness of the soil, which is swallowing the rest of the world around you.

The kids sing songs now, some of them that come out of my own past in the church in the States, the sort of Christianity where Americans would close their eyes and lift their hands up when they are singing, something you would never see at Saint Peter’s, regardless of how welcome it might be. I say in a lecture I’m giving, when I ramble off because I can and the students must listen to me because I have a doctorate and am paid to talk to them: I know all this because I am a good Sunday School boy. I can recite the Fruits of the Spirit, and shock my girls who are good British Sunday School girls now, too. ‘Daddy, how do you know that, are you a Christian too?’ like they keep forgetting the times I have answered that question with such an emphatic no. I am Peter at the fire while they kill Christ on the other side of town, ‘You were with Him, weren’t you?’ they ask me and I answer them with a curse: no, of course not, what are you talking about.

Yoko asks Mia if she remembers Malaysia. She responds in the way that Mia does, hamming it up and joking, but not answering the question. Mia is that girl, I realise: you won’t ever be able to get a straight answer from her. Yoko reminds her of the Aunties, and I am standing in the kitchen and feel the rush of memory of slacks and the Uniqlo shirts I would sweat through once I left for work. Mia playing in the garden in front of the house. The girls putting on their uniforms there and then here. ‘Mia, do you remember Auntie?’ and Mia smiles and laughs and doesn’t give an answer one way or another.

07 March 2016

Persistence



There is an odd persistence to winter in Birmingham. After the long February, we turned the corner, I thought, and the days were noticeably longer. And then I was sitting in the cafe with a friend and I looked out at the street and it was snowing again — heavy, thick flakes. We said goodbye outside, and then it stopped and I got in the car, the heater on full and drove back home to my freezing office and the guinea pigs, waiting to be fed.

It's like that, isn't it. The snow coming back when you least expect it. I've been drinking again, when I can, despite my desire to be thin. Whisky has no carbs, I learned, triumphantly. No carbs, so you can drink it and not feel bloated like you feel bloated when you drink beer. I had two shots at the Junction on Friday and then regretted that I hadn't ordered a nicer brand because Bell's is only eighty pence less than the better stuff. I could've drunk Japanese whisky. I walked home feeling like I hadn't gotten a buzz and wondered about the effects of a high-fat diet on the absorption of alcohol. I'm eating butter straight — that can't be good for the uptake of alcohol into the bloodstream.

We went to Costco the next day and I bought a litre of Bell's, which is cheap enough and although I felt slightly guilty about the indulgence, I've given up on the guilt because it doesn't serve me in any valuable way. All my money is spent the day I make it anyway, what does it matter if I take a bit off the top to get cheap whisky. We bought everything and it came to ninety-five pounds and some odd pence, and the girls ate half of a hot dog each, before throwing away the rest. Or not throwing away: Yoko took it home wrapped in foil to sit in the refrigerator for several days, and then throw away when the plan wears off.

I had a day of eating some carbs when I went to give blood the other day. I ate an apple. Two apples. When I had my initial consultation, the woman, Anita, said my heart rate was too low. Forty eight. She had someone else come in to check. Still too low.
I'm a runner, I said, but I can bring it up if you'd like.
And Anita laughed and came across the room to put both of her hands on my cheeks: I bet you can.

Anita got her first tattoo when she turned 50, she said and then the other one when her mum died, but she didn't want it to say mum
'You know your mum's name, innit.'
I said, Of course you do, and the machine, the one I was hooked up to, separating out my platelets and counting down the time in minutes, whirled away.
And then I said, Did it hurt, Anita?
Here and here was okay, she said pointing: but here was really nasty.
I said, I've heard that, yes.
Her daughter has a tattoo on her foot and rib cage.
Nothing major.
Right, I said, of course.
Her daughter went to Wolverhampton and now teaches in Birmingham. Her father, her daughter's father, was Iraqi, but they broke up before the girl could go to King Edwards School where she was going to go. No matter, though. She's done well for herself. She's playing the violin.

Again, it was cold this morning, but the sun is coming up earlier and I can forgive the coldness. I put on my gloves and went out running, down California Road towards Newman. I worked out, lifted and kept copious notes on my phone about sets and reps and weights. I worked all day, trying to sort out seeing a counsellor, in between lecture notes and meetings. It's time again, I've thought: all my friends are breaking up or have broken up, but I keep telling everyone it's not an option for us. 'I would lose my kids,' I say, and besides I don't have the energy for a divorce. I don't have energy for anything. Sign me up to talk to whomever will listen, I say, for whatever chance of a future there might be, the chance that passion and romance are not completely out of my life at thirty-three (which is the year Jesus died).

I ran home, and on the way back up California, there was a man walking a huge poodle that he didn't have control of. I ran past and just as I came by, the poodle jumped up at me. I stopped and pulled out my headphones, shouting, 'What the fuck, man!?' And the man, who was older and surprised, first shouted at the dog and then said to me, 'You surprised him.' No shit, I said and crossed the road, trying to get my heart rate back down. I'm angry, I wanted to say, incredibly, insatiably angry and there is nothing I can do about it. I didn't, of course, say anything: I was worried about myself. Put my headphones back in and got right back up to pace in five steps. Nothing stops us unless we let it.

20 February 2016

Consent


January did catch up with me in the end. There was the false spring that comes for a few days in England, when you think the winter might be over, but then it snowed again. Of course there is more winter to come, of course it wasn't the end, despite those one or two brilliant afternoons where the sky was perfectly blue and the sun brighter than it has ever been.

The weather doesn't matter though, does it. Naomi is swimming, and the other girls have their activities, their own friends. Last week, we took the kids to gymnastics on Saturday morning and I went to the library at the University. We came home, had some rice balls, and then I drove across town to drop Yoko and Naomi off at a pool. It was raining, and there was no parking. I drove back to the house and then at 3, Mei and Mia to a party at their Romanian friend's house over near Woodgate and then back again, across town to the swim meet. I found Yoko in the stands: she was shouting out the names of the other swimmers on Naomi's club, and paying attention to times. Naomi swam well, but not better than the best swimmers. I hugged her small wet body when she came up into the stands, said she did well and I was proud of her, and we got back in the car, back to the Romanian friend's birthday party and the cake and then to KFC and then home to have a Skype conversation with my parents who are both 60 now.

You have to force yourself sometimes, don't you. Yoko and I laid in bed yesterday and she told me about some problems we had with her Japanese bank account and the stock we had bought after Naomi was born in 2007 before the crash. It was all the money I had saved teaching English and those fuckers, those bankers and their speculation took half of it from me. 

The Japanese banking system has been changed and we can't get what's left of the money out, at least not in an easy way. We have to jump through some hoops. Yoko might have to go back to Japan for a few weeks to sort it. I said that sounded like fun: I rolled over as she was telling me this. What does it matter anyway: I have five pounds in my wallet. We always could use more money, but we aren't moving back to Japan, are we. We are tied into this cold British life. Just let the yen go at this point. I don't care.

I said this in Japanese, 'Our cold British life,' but it was a British thing to say, like Yoko telling me this week that the kids are having friends over for tea. This assimilation, this way of speaking is kind of resignation to success. Those things, those mundane things, are all markers of success. The insecurity about money after ten years of marriage, the swim meets, the unfinished books you are writing. The job, the friends over for tea. The knee that heals after you hobble it. Yoko shuts off the light sometime in the night, after she resolves the banking problem. Of course, it is all resolved in the end.

24 January 2016

Sleeping


When we landed in Birmingham, it was raining. We got off the plane and stopped at the bathroom, as you do when you are a family travelling with small kids. There was no queue at immigration by the time we got there, and the border agent joked with the kids and they gave him a sweet, which he took and ate. Our bags had already come and the girls ran around the carousel, pointing and trying to pull them off. There was no one else to stop us and we walked out into the rain to the waiting Sikh men in black cabs, and then to our hotel where we had been parked. I worried for the ten days we were in the States that the car wouldn't start, but it did. We got home, and unpacked the basic things and then slept 18 hours, like we hadn't slept for a week.

When we came to Birmingham in 2014, I was rushed and pressured to put everything in place quickly, to right all the wrongs of having wandered off to Malaysia. I was terribly insecure: this wouldn't work out, would it. Famously, I rented our house in a morning, 2 hours. This and this and that, and we were settled. I wrote five module datasets that January too, and finished my book, and prepared for teaching, and filled out visa applications, and schools for the girls, and car insurance, and a car, and the list went on and on. There was a momentum though, the kind of momentum I can't remember now, the way I can't remember the heat of Malaysia or the bugs. Like it was all some dream.

Last night, I said goodnight to Yoko and fell asleep more quickly than I have in years. Yoko came to bed and I didn't hear her come to bed. The alarm goes off at 2:30 or 5:30 or 5:40 and I get dressed in the dark, and kiss all the girls goodbye and go. Where am I going today, who am I meeting today. I looked in the mirror as I was running and saw, for the first time, me as a father and husband, not as anything else. Fatter and older, but like the lines in my face had taken in a meaningful way.

04 January 2016

Seven Love Letters

Yoko!

I fell in love with Yoko in a moment. It was this picture that did it. When you fall in love with someone you can't initially communicate with, you fall in love with something inexplicable about them. Their energy, the way they move and touch you on the shoulder while laughing. My Japanese was overconfident and sloppy: Yoko was older and had her shit together. She had a nicer apartment than me and clothes that fit well. She was perennially optimistic, and this day that I took this picture, we walked out to the beach with our group of friends and I strung together simple sentences with simple verb structures. I am teaching English. I am going to do an MA by correspondence (I had learned that word). I am happy in Japan.

In a year, almost exactly one year from when this picture was taken, we were married. It was madness — complete madness. We held hands and then kissed and then we were engaged without stopping to breathe. When we went back to America in March, four months before the wedding, I sat at our dining room table with my friends, confident in the way that makes other people confident. Confident enough that my parents projected happiness and support. What would you say to me anyway: I was mad and in love. I was speaking in tongues, in simple Japanese verb structures.

At the end of that trip, after getting through security and on the plane, the wave of madness crested, hit the high water mark, and began to recede. We argued — I don't remember about what. We got on the plane and then, as if madness was suddenly gone, we started sobbing, Yoko first and then me, on the right side of the plane, the sunlight streaming through the windows. We sobbed in the way you can't control, something guttural, something that if you tried to stop would only get worse. We held hands and a man threw a packet of tissues to us over the seats. This was real — there was no going back.

We married anyway. Yoko suddenly went off the pill because she was so sick and we found out on 19 September, two months after the wedding, that Naomi would come in May. All the energy and the chasm between us suddenly gone like two people stranded in a lifeboat together. You can't be mad when a fleck of baby floats inside someone you love. I bought new clothes and lost weight and went shopping for baby buggies and nappies. We went to the classes and I sat with other nervous men in the waiting room of the clinic thinking, this is the great leveler, isn't it. All of us have no clue what we're doing here, do we. It doesn't matter that I'm 24. We're all just making this up as we go along, aren't we.

And then ten years passed.

On Sunday, we went to church: the children had new dresses, so we walked up the hill to St Peters with umbrellas. Yoko hung back with Mia and Naomi, who were slower, while I dragged Mei on, scolding her for walking into me. The vicar preached on love overcoming fear and I listened until it was time for communion. The vicar said the table is always open to everyone, provided you had been baptised, but really, that didn't matter either. I thought of the times Yoko had gone forward by herself these last two years, how I had sat and waited for her to come back. I thought of all the graces I have experienced this last week, of forgiveness and understanding despite my obstinance, Jesus, the idea of Jesus, of the Kingdom of Heaven coming and having come in Yoko: this woman who had followed me across Asia and Europe. Who had never given up on me.

I stood and experienced St Peters in a way I hadn't before, walking up the centre to the alter. Kneeling and Father Graeme ever enthusiastic and confident saying, Do this in remembrance of me. There's nothing wrong with this, I thought: remembering Christ with my wife and children knelt there. There is god no god but god, and there is no god. I ate the bread and drank the wine and remembered Jesus: that's all we need to do, isn't it. We need to follow our conscience and do what we are inclined to do, when we are convinced it is right. Remember Christ even if he died at 33, the age I am now. At least he tried; you too should try.

Family

03 January 2016

A number

Me and my new girllfriend

My number is low for a man of my age. Men tend to round their number up, counting any sexual activity. Women round down. Studies suggest reasons for this, that men are not necessarily reporting in bad faith, we just count differently when asked. I'm emotionally a woman, but terrified of being caught in a lie, so I report my number as getting close to 2. Maybe one and eight-tenths, just to be safe. I'm 33 now (the year that Jesus was killed) and married, so this number is of little importance to anyone. I sleep with my wife — every document I have reports this to you.

I grew up terrified of sex in the way you are terrified of something that is hidden from you. I bought a cassette in the late-nineties, DC Talk's 'Nu Thang', that first introduced me to the idea of sex as something to avoid. DC Talk was the Evangelical response to NWA, so they rapped about sexual purity instead of fucking the police. One song I remember well was all about not wanting sex — the band sang 'I don't want it/ I don't want it, want it/ I don't want/ your sex for now.' I remember my parents hearing this for the first time and hurriedly asking for the lyric sheet before resigning themselves to the fact that the word 'sex' was going to enter our lexicon at one point: it might as well be at the hands of some cool Christian rappers who were warning us off it, like it was a drug.

The ethos of the culture which produced 'Don't Want it' affected me deeply. More than sex, I wanted to not want sex. I dreamt of being above it in some way, free from it. The best Christians not only avoided sex, they avoided sexual desire entirely. Like monks: I once thought I should be a Franciscan, and called a Catholic retreat in Wisconsin asking if I could come up for a visit over Spring Break. The person I talked to on the phone told me it was essential that I be Catholic before I considered the monastic life. I can't see how my commitment to Calvinism would allow that, I thought as I hung up the phone.

The Evangelicals around me rejected the notion that children should be taught about sex by the State. Instead, they argued, it was the responsibility of the church and the family. Having won the right to keep the State out this part of their lives, nothing was subsequently taught to me about sex. I construct that sentence passively because I'm not sure who to point fingers at. The church or my parents or my mentors or any of the adults. It was no one and everyone. 

Instead of sex, we were taught exhaustively about avoiding sex and about marriage and the roles of men and women. We had books like Every Young Man's Battle that saw sexual desire as something to struggle against, a kind of medieval fight with swords and armor. We learned about how to be good husbands, Promise Keepers. Men were to be the heads of their wives. Men were to lead the family. Women were to serve. Marriage was the goal for all of us suffering with chronic erections: in five years or so we would be led to a woman, and god would open that door for us. He would bless us. Until then, we were to suffer, to avoid sex completely, to never masturbate, and to sit quietly through church services, fighting. Struggling.

Purity was described in different metaphorical packages: imagine a piece of gum that has been chewed by several people — would you want to chew that piece of gum? Sex is like pouring two cups of water into a vase. Sex is giving up part of your soul that you can never give back. We all imagined our wives and husbands sobbing with the revelation we had masturbated once when we were 15, that part of our soul thrown away in some bathroom tissue and now, unrecoverable. We believed this.

I remember a bachelor party where we thought it would be funny to take the groom to Walgreens to buy condoms and lube before his wedding day and then to have the person at the register, a tired looking 18-year-old woman, call in a price check on the condoms. How embarrassing, we thought, to be stood there as they price checked the condoms. This guy was going to have sex: look at him.

Now, some 15 years later, I wonder about the mindset that thinks a man the night before his wedding needs to be taken out to buy condoms and lube of all things, by a crowd of horny, confused Christian boys. Of course, karma paid me back: there was me, standing in a convenience store in Japan six weeks after I had been married trying to buy condoms. It wasn't funny anymore: I didn't know what I was doing. I called a friend on my phone, one of my friends who might have known about this stuff I needed help, I didn't know what I was doing.

If the wages of sin is death, the wages of faith is guilt. The Evangelicals will tell you that at least the terror about sex protected you. It protected you from unwanted pregnancy and STIs. While all your peers were lined up at abortion clinics, you were not, were you. You did well on the SAT and went to a good college where you told others about Jesus and had many good friends that were girls, but whom you never slept with. And then you married when you were supposed to and had sex like you were supposed to. What do you have to complain about. Look at the others, the sinners, who fell into debauchery and unwanted pregnancy. Into alcoholism and drugs. You did well, didn't you: with the eight-tenths exception, which (if we're honest) we can knock down to zero based on your record of good behaviour. Who among us hasn't fingered a lover in the back of their parents' car. We're only human. 

At 33, the year Jesus died, I am still one and eight-tenths. This number is unlikely to change. Instead, I am now responsible to my children. I need to tell them all the things I needed to hear, but didn't. I need to tell them the number matters less than how they respect themselves and the people they make love to through the years. That the number matters less than consent and love. That the number doesn't speak to their character. That they should pee before and after they have sex: someone should tell them that. That they have to be responsible, but you will often be irresponsible. That it's okay: whatever it is, it is okay. No one will be angry or surprised. Perhaps this can assuage my own guilt for being naked when I wasn't supposed to be, and the fear that someone might come down the stairs suddenly and find us entwined and confused and searching. There are some things that can't be avoided.

02 January 2016

Share in Christ's suffering

Me and Dan and the Ladies

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11

As a boy, I memorised Bible verses in different clubs. My trip to America reminded me of how mad for the Bible we all were and how much I excelled in the madness. There are, in my boxes in my parents' closet, awards for memorising the most verses and for being able to find the verses fastest in the Bible. I won second and first prize in different years: I still have the ribbons. My daughter asked me if I was famous for memorising verses. Yes, I say, in a small way, in a small church in rural Minnesota. Yes, we were the famous, well-behaved, homeschooled children who knew the Bible well.

The verses we memorised all served an ideology built on the doctrine of original sin: we are all sinners. Yoko says I like the word sinner. I do: it's appropriate to describe everyone. Romans 3:23. The wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23. The gift of god is eternal life. Acts 16:31. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. It was a connect-the-dots exercise of decontextualised sentences. The Roman Road because it was mostly in St Paul's letter to the Romans (circa 55 AD).

The explicit threat of judgement came up in skits and sermons, and the constant presence of the tribulation — a time when Jesus would unexpectedly come back and if you hadn't been saved, you would be left to a world without god, a world that would last seven years more. The mark of the beast: 666. Could you say no to the mark: I wasn't certain I could. I was 9 or 10. I laid in bed thinking about it: how and where I might hide. How hungry could I be before I gave up. How would I like to die. 

These are not the verses you see written in flowing script on placards in my parents' house. The face of the church is one of love with euphemistic concerns about gay marriage. We love you, we're just worried about you. The words are a political dog whistle now. We are Christians, but the real kind, not the fake ones. The ones that believe in a literal hell. You will literally burn. You understand, right. If you don't, you probably aren't the right kind of Christian. Fundamentalists who meet me now will just say that I had a false faith: it's easy for them, but it was not a false faith.

And then I was 22. It was nine at night, and I was standing on a river bank in Japan with a group of Japanese school children and some theology students from a seminary in Tokyo. There was a bonfire and they were talking about hell. My Japanese wasn't good enough then to follow it, but there it was: the Roman Road in Japanese. All the fear and terror replicated in complex, passive verb structures that I was familiar with in English: God is not sending us to hell, we are sending ourselves. We are being sent by ourselves. We have already been sent by ourselves. And I was losing it. We were asked: what image do you have of god and drew pictures. I drew a heart filled with love for the world and realised it couldn't be right. I didn't actually believe that, did I.

My God

A year later Yoko and I would be walking on a beach in Niigata for the first time. I said I wanted to be with someone who wanted what god wanted for me. I was waiting for god to open that door for me. I didn't know what it meant, but knew what whistled. I didn't intend to stop then: I never intended to give it up. 'What if you had dated someone you met playing baseball and all you did was talk about baseball and play baseball and you got married and the person you married suddenly started hating baseball. Hated everything about baseball.' I don't know. I'm an injured baseball player, I say: the metaphor doesn't work. I stopped playing baseball because I was injured and couldn't play anymore. I still want to play, but I can't. The metaphor doesn't work.

My punishment for leaving the faith is the pain it causes. My wife suffers; my parents suffer. Sola fide: in faith alone — but only the right faith. The dog whistle faith. The tombstones at St Peters sink into the ground for another year as the soil gets softer and softer. I'll pack my pipe and walk around the block again. In another world I kept on, don't worry. You don't suffer in that other world. 
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