19 October 2017

Absolute zero


After all the white drama, at noon on the second of October, I became a homeowner. This came, of course, without any fanfare, given that we were already residents of the house on Victoria Road. Nothing happened. I was at work, and had to teach. The solicitor e-mailed me to say that things had all gone through and the mortgage company was giving me some cash back. I came home and there it was. The house on Victoria Road as it has always been, with all of its problems that we can now start to chip away at. With the carpets pulled up, and the floorboards sanded and stained, there is a warmth that was lacking before. I tore down three of the doors that had partitioned the ground floor rooms. We got rid of a sofa and I drove out deep into Leicestershire to buy a table from someone in a farmhouse. All things that we have wanted to do for the years we've lived here, but couldn't. Yoko bought lamps, and now the rooms much dimmer at night. Tonight, for example, I was alone in the living room, one lamp lit and all the girls out at various events. I didn't want to go out and understood something I hadn't understood ever before.

This levelling off and achievement of what seemed to be unattainable this time last year, when I still hadn't resolved either my visa nor the money for the visa, makes me think anything is possible. It's a patently American thought. Trump is President; I own a home — what other realities can be made with confidence only. With saying, I will do this.

It is difficult not to feel optimistic. Of course, the persistence, the British pessimism of Brexit and the looming visa applications, the English test for Yoko, and the money to be spent on fixing the house... there are still plenty of holes to fall into. I need a new suit that fits me. I need to put the kids to bed. One thing at a time.

22 September 2017

It's the end of the world

Yesterday, as the rain was stopping, Naomi and I set out for an open night at the secondary school she will likely attend — an all girls school just about a mile walk from the house on Victoria Road. We walked up there and back, holding hands and chatting about the school and life in the UK and the trip to Japan Yoko and the girls will take sometime next year. The school was everything I wanted for her, from my impression — small and serious, but not too serious and the student that took us around had an intelligent conversation with Naomi and me about the things that they did. I worried a bit outloud about it being single sex, and the student told me not to worry, that girls took on the role of boys in the school sometimes. It's hard to explain, she said, but I knew what she meant. Later, I brought it up to Naomi during a small rejoinder about gender fluidity, after she shrugged her shoulders when I returned to the point.

On the way home, Naomi and I also talked of alcohol and drugs because the year sixes has seen a video wherein some boys have a drink with their mates. Naomi used that word mates to describe the friends and that stuck with me for some reason, standing out like an odd marker of Britishness in an otherwise unmarked conversation. Naomi was adamant about never taking drugs or wanting to drink and we chatted about our experiences, her's with me drinking, and mine with my teetotal parents. We talked about her friends and the schools they wanted to attend and the entrance exams. We rounded the corner at War Lane and came back to home, Naomi disappearing into the house and me lingering on some work that I needed to do on my computer in the front room.

The contracts for the house on Victoria Road are finally signed today. Once the landlady has signed them, no one can pull out, which seems to be the underlying concern in house buying — it will be ours from the second of October. Like the completion of the PhD or my weight loss this summer, the ending of this process has felt like less of an accomplishment than I thought it would. I'm thirty five, and this is the first home I've owned. I shouldn't be worried about settling down, and the implications of another three to five years in this place, but I am. What other future could have been imagined, I think as I ride my bike down and then up and then down and up again to Newman University on the edge of Birmingham, this place that I love, but only really fell into by accident. Chris came through on Wednesday night, sleeping on our sofa on the way to Herefordshire like it was 2015 again, and I suddenly wanted to be back in the Swedish woods, heaving with spirits. Some image of me, the atheist, standing after a long run, my shirt off and sweating in the early morning air, mouthing take me with you to the trees, like my life might suddenly become a Haruki Murakami novel.

The whole of my experience in this country can be described in the anecdote of ordering toast instead of full English breakfast at a men's breakfast. I describe myself as an immigrant and people stare at my blankly — I guess that you technically are, but it's different. There are immigrants, and then there are immigrants. Of course you would buy a house. I feel my British consciousness magically appears at these moments to say, You must remember that the organising principle in this country is class. Your class dictates the future you have, not your immigration status. My life is full of these little interactions that are best explained in the awkwardness they produce — it's funny the things one can learn by being stared at blankly. Oh, you were being disingenuous. Right, yes, sorry. Who knows if you should apologise or just shut up.  There is nothing less British than a genuine apology.

I feel fine. I feel out of place and awkward. I feel baited. I feel complacent. I lack energy. I feel the opposite of angry most of the time now, but I don't know how to describe it. I feel like I have more to do than others. I feel tired. I feel worried about the end of the world, and then silly for worrying about the end of the world. I feel happy to be under seventy six kilograms and then immediately worried that next week, or next month, or next year, I will not be. I'm frustrated with Britishness and my lack of it. I've let my coffee get cold, haven't I. The sun is coming up — I best go for my run.

17 September 2017

Seventy six

The weather continues to fall into wet leaves and early sunsets that will now repeat until March of next year. This, for me, is a welcome return, one that signals an end to one kind of mania triggered by the sun coming up before five in the morning. I reluctantly turned on the heating on Friday, after feeling like I wasn’t going to ever get warm underneath a jumper and my coat. I stood by the radiator as it warmed up and thought about the things that we need to do to fix the living room after we torn out all the carpet in July. I need to seal the floorboards and put some sealant under the skirting. Buy a rug. Have the boiler replaced.

The house is almost nearly ours, after several months of going back and forth with the solicitors. I email Tina every few days now to push the point that things haven’t been completed and ask why it seems to have taken so long. Tina assures me that they have been passing information back-and-forth between each other, two sets of British solicitors having tea at every occasion they can and moaning about something having gone pear-shaped, one imagines. Or rather, what I imagine, as an American who is trying to get in the minds of the islanders and who just wants it all to be done last week.

Luckily, thanks to some apparent personal growth afforded by meditation, the house-buying process has beem less upsetting that it might have been last year. Two or three weary British acquaintances looked at me with pity when I talked about my brother buying a house in a week in the Lubbock, in the States, and told me to expect it would take several months, even in the best case scenario. So I’ve relaxed now, and am taking it in stride, saving my wrath for customer service elsewhere, like my father might. Besides, something is bound to break on the house in the next week anyway, and better it be the landlady’s responsibility.

In the meanwhile, there are other things to attend to, like my weight, which finally has fallen back below seventy six kilograms, to where I was in the end of 2015 for several months. It took a couple of weeks, once when it was low and I was euphoric before it ticked up again for a week, and then low again, and then back up, but now up and below seventy six, which is what I wanted all along. I don’t feel good about it, unfortunately – now it just feels like a number. Instead, I have the sort of nervous energy that comes with having accomplished something that you now need to maintain. Thinness is not something achieved, it is something maintained. You gotta do it every day, while still thinking to yourself, I am a fat person. You look in the mirror and still see eighty eight kilogram Stephen looking back at you.

My legs are hurting from running on new insoles, so I had to take a day off of running, but with no weight to drop, that part of the game and the motivation to bring down the number even further diminishes. There is little else to do. The fitness vloggers I watch all talk about an endless series of challenges, but this just sounds exhausting to me. I don’t want to have a positive mindset. I don’t have the patience for it. Instead, I just want to be normal. I want to eat a cookie and not think about it. I want to wander around a pet store without feeling lethargic and tired, without taking note of the expected life span of the small animals, and wondering about the next thirty years, and whether I will feel this way forever.

Instead, I am still overly cautious, ordering toast at a men’s breakfast I went to with some people from the church, and causing some consternation among the organisers for not ordering what everyone else had and then suggesting, it appeared, that I was eating less as some morally superior position as a thin person, rather than the truth that I was worried about eating too much and spending too much of the family’s money, which makes no sense from the outside. You look fine, Stephen – you have plenty of money and no one is going to kick you out of the country. Yes, no, you’re right, it’s just that, I just don’t… and of course it can’t be explained.

The work is beginning to pile up again and I marked MA dissertations for several weeks and then worked on transcriptions for one of the new books and then transcriptions for another book chapter about deixis and then edited some of the writing for another. We had a staff meeting and I took over some responsibility for our research group and managing a small budget. Yoko and I had coffee and I disappeared into the the Birmingham University library for an afternoon. All the things that have become habit around this time of year, ignoring the feeling of my body and however uncomfortable or comfortable it is. I look in the mirror and still feel fat – I can’t seem to make sense of myself as a thinner person. My suit coat is probably too big now, isn’t it, but I will also probably be fat again in no time. Better wait it out until after Christmas at least.

08 September 2017

Bull by the horns

The weather took a turn last week, when things got wet and then cold and on my bicycle, riding down and back to Quarter Horse Coffee in town, I noticed the leaves changing on the Bristol Road. People in Birmingham refer to Bristol Road with a determiner, ‘the’ for a reason I can’t seem to figure out, despite the fact that language is my expertise and I am a doctor of it. There is word of a new cycle path, going from the university to the city, and if this does happen, my life will reach a new level of perfection, on my bike that I bought stolen from an Eastern European man on Gumtree and capped with my new Bern helmet. A young man, younger than me, not middle-aged, said, as I was riding up Victoria Road, That’s a shitty bike, and I immediately responded, Well, you’re a shitty person, and felt incredibly smug for thinking of such a great comeback so quickly.

Pithy, belittling replies are something that my bout with meditation has challenged me to give up. Cultivation, the metaphor that the Buddhists use, has been subtly appearing in other parts of my life, like when I am standing barefoot at my computer and notice the feeling of my feet on the ground. Or when I avoid saying something angry to Yoko or the children. We learned about this in Christianity, but under the heading of holding your tongue which is a metaphor followed by a metonymy, and is about self-control. You are bad and you need to control yourself. Now, with no need to be good, the anger you withhold is just about having less negativity around you and in you. I say that as an interpretation of what I experienced. I’m not sure what it is exactly. We all have to fight less now.

I don’t know if this has been noticeable to the rest of the family – whenever I proudly announce a personal achievement, it’s rightly met with scepticism. I’ve been walking with better posture, have you noticed? I cleaned up the garden, did you see? It’s silly. There are enough children in the house, I don’t need to behave like one as well.

Perhaps this is just what normal people do, at normal times. Someone said to me, as I recounted all the restrictions of my visa and what is and is not illegal, You’re very concerned about doing something illegal, aren’t you, and I said, Yes. Yes, if you do the wrong thing, you might get thrown out of the country. Or sent to jail. Or judged by god. I explain this to people, or try to. I grew up in a cloud of fear. The world was ending. Jesus was coming, likely before I had a chance to have sex. There were only a very few people who could be counted faithful. I hoped it would be me, but I wasn’t sure. It might not be and where would that leave me. Burning in hell, for all eternity, that’s where. Think of how that would be. So best try to avoid stupid slip ups, like doing illegal things.

I open my eyes after an hour and look around. Things are brighter and louder and when asked if I have something to say, I genuinely have nothing to say. There is hope, you think, if you have nothing to say, because silence has an untangling effect. Sure, the past remains, but the past always remains, isn’t it. You don’t need a pat on the head for doing right, or Jesus to reward you. The reward is there already. You just have to stand up, breath in and out. Unlock your bike and ride home. The insurance algorithms will protect you or they won't. Who's to say.

07 September 2017

Ready to die

I woke up again this morning at three. I’ve made peace with this when it happens. Some concerns remain about my own longevity and the pestering sense that I will just drop dead at one moment, my body healthy otherwise. These are silly though — I can buy so much insurance for so little. The algorithms are all in my favour. Still, I'm trying to improve on it, get back to the goal I had in 2011, before everything happened. I took all my clothes off and weighed myself, the feeling, and then reminded with that number, of being right on the precipice. Almost there, but not quite there.

The recovery of my health and the feeling of imminent death seem to go hand-in-hand. When I went to give blood, the nurse struggled to find my pulse, and when she did, she had the apologetic look on her face that I remember from a couple of years ago when I was running a lot. I had to sprint up and down the stairs to get my pulse above fifty. When I come back, slightly out of breath, and she checks me again, I say, joking, I promise that I’m not dead yet.

My own death has been a kind of nagging existential thorn as I turned thirty-five this summer, but the practicalities of it have also been on my mind, as I buy the house on Victoria Road. My death, apart from the conceptual struggle, is only problematic if it actually happens. Not because I end up dead, I'm ambivalent about that, but because it interrupts cash flow. The family can't afford to do business without me, to be frank. I have resented this in the past, of course, but something about my experience meditating has dislodged this resentment. That quiet voice of whoever is leading, telling you to be kind and non-judgemental of yourself. To appreciate that when your mind wanders, that is the moment that you have learned, that you have noticed it. That acceptance has started to creep into the other crevices of my life. You do not have to be good.

When I wake up early, I tend to avoid thinking about death. Instead, I think of all the things I need to do — all the marking and the transcription and then the nagging feeling of the insurance, yes the house insurance and the life insurance, which I've been putting off. I finally decided to face it — went to my bank's website and played with the sliders of the different things that they could offer me, with different variables. When will I need the money, and how much will I need. When will Mei be eighteen: 2027, isn't it, ten years. Mia will be eighteen in 2029. I will be forty-seven. How much money will they need then. I play with the sliders and end up on a number and agree to it. There, I think, and set up a direct debit for the 25th of the month, right after I get paid. And then I face my pension too, I had been putting off a problem I was having accessing my information online. My e-mail I sent never got answered, so I called and fought through the phone tree and queue, fifty-one people ahead of me I was told and thirty minutes of waiting. I went to work and printed out the form and turned it in, it should all be fine now.  Now I can die. I am ready to die.

I had been daydreaming last Thursday about my next trip to London and when it might come — there was no business there anymore, from what I could tell. But then there was an e-mail from the ESRC, the Economic and Social Research Council, that I and some colleagues have been trying to get money off of. There was news that my improbable bid , the one that I've fought to push forward for the last year, on the phone the day before Christmas holiday last year, begging finance to look at an e-mail for me...that bid had been reviewed. I opened the pdfs — they lined up on the window and there it was. Good. Good enough.

I went to London then, early in the morning the next Monday, sitting across from two men who were going down to the city to work. They were my age, I guessed, talking back and forth about the team from Birmingham that was headed to the Big Smoke for work. As we went down, news was coming through on mobiles of people missing trains, and £80 emergency fares. They talked about making easy money overnight as a foreman, and the one worker's wife, who kept having children. She has children every time one goes to nursery, the fatter guy said, and the other shook his head knowingly. There was a pause. Perhaps they would get off at three today.

The train arrived and I worked and I left and woke up the next morning again early. The girls had school for the first time this year and I walked them up, kissing them goodbye and meeting the new teachers. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and went running. The sun went down and came up and it was three again. It doesn't matter I think, pulling on my jumper and reaching for my glasses. We'll get back to sleep eventually, I'm sure.

27 August 2017

Writing as building, building as writing

When my father came to England last month, he brought me some tools. I was working on replacing the floorboards in the entryway of the house, but there was a long queue of things to do and I need a saw and a sander. He brought me some cordless drills and a circular saw which broke, frustratingly for him as the quality director of the company making the saw. As he tried to unlock the blade unsuccessfully, I thought of the poor person who would face the wrath of this failure. I was successful with the floorboards, and then with the shelves I put up, made of T&P plank wood I bought at a reclaimed wood shop that Yoko discovered and which is my new favourite place. You go with a plan in your pocket, but you need to be willing to improvise, to look at whatever they have and how many metres of wood you need. I stand there, feeling like I am competent, even though I'm not, talking out loud to myself and pulling the measuring tape off my belt to double check that I'll have more than enough.

When I was making the floorboards, I was still trying to save money, not buying more than I needed and trying to do it as cheaply as possible, a position my father gently corrected, suggesting that the five quid I'd save in wood wouldn't be worth the stress of having to go back to the home centre when I inevitably cocked it up. He was right of course — my father has built many beautiful pieces of furniture in his life, and talked to me about how much easier my project would be with a table saw. The house of Victoria Road is not big enough  for a table saw, unfortunately, but I already have my eyes on a shed and restarting some generational dream of building as building, rather than a metaphor for something else. My father got a satisfaction out of watching me fuss with the floorboards, I think, and I said that it left no doubt in my mind that I was his son.

There's an ongoing joke in academia about finding some other work, getting out and doing something more tangible. I've had a productive summer, working on three different book proposals while pacing around in the small wooded area behind the Quaker Centre in Bournville. The writing sorts itself out, if you give it time and persistence; if you're willing to let it percolate and don't give up. There's some measure of just waiting and writing while waiting, which I've managed to finally understand. In the second year of my PhD, I wrote and wrote and wrote endlessly, missing the point altogether and sitting awkwardly with my PhD supervisors as we all avoided the most obvious point of the meeting, which was that I hadn't gotten it yet, had I. When you're doing a PhD, you're constantly asking, 'Am I doing this right?' the response to which is, That's the wrong question, and no, you aren't.

Giving up on the right way has applications to building as well, where you have to be willing to pull apart what you've done and start over. You do it in life too. You do it in everything. Yoko taught me this, to stop using the word right to describe certain things, certain feelings. It's not about rightness. It's about being willing to pull apart whatever you've built and have another go at it. Sometimes you can re-assemble it, sometimes you have to replace something. Sometimes you have to scrap it all. Sometimes you finish, and something is not quite right, so you have to go back to it. Sand it, or stain a bit. Sometimes pulling it apart makes it worse, rather than better. Sometimes it's just not perfect, and that's okay — it's good enough. Sometimes the planks sit just right together and when you give a pass with the stain, once and then twice and then again, it's perfect. You can step back and look at it and say, I made this this. I did it.

26 August 2017


2017-03-13 08.52.28

The purchasing of forty-seven Victoria Road, a process that began some time in June and continues on as searches are made and solicitors make cups of tea, has been an instructive experience. Home ownership, for whatever you can say about it, is much more important in this country than I thought. Once we said we were buying the house on Victoria Road, our neighbours spoke to us differently, and there was a sense in church that we, the Pihlajas of Harborne, might be sticking around. Yoko is the main face of the Pihlajas of Harborne, helping the elderly ascend and descend to the altar at church and chatting to everyone on the road. I appear surpringly for the first time to these people, like we are some kind of Russian nesting doll and I'm the next layer down. The neighbour next door, an old Welsh man, was marvelling at our work together in the garden, and I thought of how marriages transform into a dull, satisfying symbiosis over time. Like two worker ants, we adapt to objects introduced to the environment. Introduce a house to the system, and the two of us tend to it, like we tended to a child when a child was introduced.

In preparation of buying the house, I was told I needed house insurance as a condition of my mortgage, and my mortgage adviser, Ian, also suggested I look at life insurance, which I've avoided getting out of a distaste for betting on my own death. However, the Pihlajas of Harborne are no longer an idea, but becoming an established entity, one that depends far too much on me staying alive. We can't allow for the possibility of my disappearance without some financial compensation for the trouble this would cause. I took a call from Ian on the day of a conference, standing in an alcove of the main hall at the University of Birmingham. Ian said he understood I was busy, and I looked around at everyone mulling around without coffee and said, well, I'm not that busy. Ian suggested a plan, one that would cover my death and any number of critical or terminal illnesses, I forget the precise terminology. He said, 'Now if you were single, I wouldn't suggest this. If you didn't have a family, you get hit by a bus, it wouldn't matter.' I stopped him there, 'It wouldn't matter, Ian?' I said, and he was apologetic, 'Sorry, I'm trying to be quick because you're busy.' The policy he suggested was more than I wanted to pay, particularly if the only silver lining would be money I would never get to enjoy. I don't want to die. Still, I begrudgingly accepted it, agreeing to reassess the situation when I returned from Sweden, provided I didn't die in an accident.

I'm thirty-five now, which is still young, but old enough to be considered middle age. What counts as middle age came up in a discussion last month, and I was assured I couldn't be considered middle aged until I was forty. I disagree. Dying at seventy would be not be tragic in any way, and given the amount of hair I've lost and the growing patches of white on the sides of my head, I'm willing to accept it. Better thirty five more years than the fate dealt me in a dream this week, where I got brain cancer and had months to live. In my dream, I told Yoko and she laughed — I woke up unjustifiably angry, thinking I needed to call Ian before I actually got sick.

The first pile of house-buying paperwork came from the solicitor soon after we got back from Europe, and included a survey of all the kinds of hazards that had been in the area over the years, including the amusing terms 'unspecified heap' and 'unspecified pit'. I wondered what they were, but not enough to ask anyone. It's fine, all fine. There was also a note that the owner didn't want us to take the property until thirty September, which annoyed me less than it might have in July. Instead, I lingered on the planning map, which showed all the property lines on Victoria Road and highlighted the plot that I was buying. A tiny, sliver of England; mid-terrace, Edwardian and mine, all fifteen percent of it.

Part of becoming the Pihlajas of Harborne requires the belief in the short to medium term insolvency of the family and, as its basis, my marriage, something I feel like I believe, but rarely have to put into action. When pressed some time last week, I managed to give an eloquent description of a future where Yoko and I have dogs and a cottage in a village and the girls come to visit with their friends or lovers. I could see it, almost, the Labrador Retrievers and the walls lined with books. So I am pressing on. I put up the fence and built a stand for the kids' computer I've been meaning to make for a while, but have put off, unconsciously thinking that this might all come to end, the job, the life I've built — Yoko and the girls headed back to Japan and me, rudderless and adrift. Instead, in this reality, the daylight is fading, and Naomi needs to go to swimming. My CUP book has a website now and I am established as a scholar in my field. This was the dream, I need to remember, when I was singing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes with a classroom full of primary school students in Niigata City in 2004, when I left missionary work and had bottomed out. This is success. I pull out an electric drill to fuss with a screw I put into the desk to stabilise something. My editor e-mails, and it's the weekend now, the future here in a way.

25 August 2017

Generational depression

2017-01-02 14.00.04

My father used to take my birthday seriously. He would get the day off work and we would always do something. In Minnesota, this was Gasoline Alley, a go kart track and arcade and mini-golf place, in Blaine. Sometimes we would go just as a family, or I would have a friend, my best friend, Ben Anderson. Dad was happy on those days and things would happen that wouldn't normally happen, like going to a sporting goods shop and him buying me a Minnesota Twins hat, a spring training one that was white, just like that. Not as my present, my big present, that would come later in the day, but just because it was my birthday.

He would also always take us to breakfast on our birthdays. In Minnesota, this was to a place called the Pannekoekin Huis, a faux Dutch dining chain that had a restaurant in Long Lake. We would ride bicycles some time, ten miles, and have pancakes or waffles. I remember this having a tense excitement, that there might be something big to talk about, about Jesus or something I had done wrong, but it never was. You could have waffles with whipped cream and strawberries and Dad was smiling on the other side of the booth, just the two of you.

The vivid unhappiness makes me sceptical of these memories, although they've been a useful heuristic as my birthday ticked by this summer. I've managed to be away from the house for my birthday the last couple of years, at conferences or seminars, and have snuck away for things to pretend I was celebrating myself, to take stock. A couple of years ago it was a cigar in Winchester. I was in London one year, and then New York the other. Mia's birthday is now one day before mine, and the year she was born, I knew that this meant my birthday as an event was gone. I turned 29 the year she was born though, and I remember thinking how pathetic it was to want to have someone celebrate my birthday, to have a party.

This year, I turned thirty five, and it passed without much mention, on a Tuesday. I have become terrible about gifts from Yoko, particularly at this time of the year when I'm always tending to spend money on other things, the house, the kids swimming, gymnastics. To spend any money on something I don't need or want, really, seems irresponsible. She bought me a beautiful watch a couple of years back that I accepted with happiness, without questioning where the money came from, but otherwise, I've been completely insufferable. This year Yoko put a bottle of whiskey in the trolley at CostCo and I said, No, it's fine, I don't need anything, sabotaging it and feeling immediately guilty. There's a house to buy and holiday to plan and that bottle of whiskey takes one and half hours of part-time work for me to cover. It's not even the one I like.

As I trawl back through the past, I remember feeling tension when my father was around, and wonder now, as I sit with my kids, and I hold Naomi's hand as we walk to swimming, can she relax with me when we're together. I just ask, but it's an odd question to ask a child, 'Can you relax when you're with me?' Yes? she says, like it's a stupid question and I want to tell this story of my own father and how much tension there was and how I don't want to pass that on to her. I want to say to her that this persistent unhappiness is hereditary, and we can't let it control us. We can take medication or not, or believe in God to heal it or not. We just can't let it ruin everything. Instead, I just say to her, Good and then I love you, because that is enough for now, I hope. Beyond lost tempers and bad attitudes and the frustrations of every day life, at least I can give you that, the same way my father did, in his own way, through his own unhappiness and cloud. At least we have love.

19 August 2017


With all my different eccentricities and madnesses about weight and health, a natural product for me to own would be a fitness tracker, a Fitbit. A Fitbit could tell me how many steps I had walked, and a more expensive one might also tell me my heart rate. I have avoided getting one, mostly because they cost money and I feel like it is an unnecessary purchase, particularly this year given the house and the trip to Sweden and the children needing whatever they need. I had made rumblings though that I wanted one, not a Fitbit, but a Garmin GPS watch (a running watch, not a fitness tracker, to be clear) for my birthday, my 35th, which passed this summer. Living on one income as a family means my money is both my money and not my money and I showed these watches to Yoko, like I wanted some sort of absolution for buying one. This was, of course, an illogical and opaque desire, one I didn't ever communicate, but when a package came from Yoko's parents, including some cash for me for my birthday, I had exactly the cover I needed to buy the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ with an accent on one of the vowels, on sale at Curry's.

When you see someone with a fitness tracker, you recognise a shared madness and feel an instant sense of camaraderie. You're counting calories and steps too, I see. My Garmin, however, is a running watch, so I'm a better kind of crazy. I make sure to point this out to people as a way of virtue signalling. I'm a runner and I run more than you do, probably. This pride will quickly turn to shame when I burn out on running in October and I start to gain weight again, showing myself to be the fraud and imposter that I am. For now though, I can show the Garmin to people — an interested acquaintance at a conference, for example — and as I clip through the features of the device, I can use it as a foil for bragging about my health. This shows your resting heart rate which is 32, remarkably low, I know, this shows your latest run, Yes, I ran 26 kilometres this morning before breakfast.

As an instrument, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ is fine enough. It celebrates my 10,000th step every day with a buzz and some animated fireworks on the display, which I like. But it's slow connecting to the GPS and has failed me on several occasions not logging the last half of a run, for example, and rendering that run non-existent in my apps. I feel like I am lying as I insert it manually, like the machine doesn't believe me that I went 10 kilometres instead of 7.3. Or that I earned an additional 150 kilocalories so drinking this beer is fine. You have a kind of internal dialogue with it, and the app that comes along, which also tells you how well and long you sleep.

I put it on Tuesday morning for a run, the last day of our holiday in a caravan park outside of Bruges. I looked online for a running route and decided I should just go all the way into town 10 kilometers in and 10 out, from the weird suburban landscape of Jabbake with a manmade lake, to the beautiful old market town. I left a little after six and as the kilometeres ticked off, I wondered if I was going the right way, certainly the town would be there now. It didn't appear after 7 or 8, but then there it was, in the morning sun. I went through a gate and was transported into the past the way old European towns do. Dance clubs and convenience stores in centuries old buildings. People coming home from the clubs too, loud and drunk, and then, as I turned the corner towards the cathedral, the men getting ready to do construction work in a square. The Garmin ticked up to 11 kilometers, buzzing on my wrist and I thought it was time to turn back, to find the right cobblestone street, and go home, to England or Birmingham or wherever it was I needed to go.

18 August 2017

Making weight

Stephen loses at life

I've been fat my whole life — I was in fact born fat. Ten pounds, zero ounces. The doctor said he needed help holding me when I came out. I remember looking in the mirror as a kid and seeing pouches of fat at my armpits that other kids didn't have. I was fat, other kids called me fat. My uncle who is a doctor once told me it was good that I had fat on my legs because he said I would use it if I got sick. That memory sticks out like a bent nail, like the time Sandy Sleck said to me I was insecure. Why do I remember this. I was fat through junior high school, but then there were other kids who were fatter. When I played football that one dreadful year, my fatness was between a defensive guard and a linebacker. Being a linebacker is a good fat. I wasn't fat enough to be on the line. After that, I don't remember thinking that I was fat. I was fat, sure, but other people were fatter so it didn't matter.

I don't remember a number getting associated with my weight until I applied for a passport when I was sixteen. I wrote 201 pounds, but I don't remember why that was the number. I must have been to the doctor in the last year. I don't remember thinking that number was fat, but I think I lied and the number might have been higher. It feels like something I did, or thought about doing so much that I might as well have done. I don't remember caring one way or another after a year because I got a girlfriend who was not fat and much prettier than I thought I deserved, so it all made sense. I could be funny and intelligent and fat and it wouldn't matter. And everyone else was getting fatter anyway, particularly in college. I drank eight cokes a day, what did it matter — I was growing my hair out and serving God. I was fat in Japan, but of course, that was just being American. All Americans are fat, right, you're just another one. I eat a lot, yes, lots on my plate. I eat peanut butter and pop tarts and pasta. Yes, sure, yakiniku, beef on a stick, I love it all. It was a kind of a joke — everyone was going to stare, what did it matter what you ate.

Neal got me to work out for the first time, in Niigata, the same month that I met Yoko and I started thinking about wearing sport coats. I weighed myself there at the sports centre for the first time and did the thing I learned you weren't supposed to do: kept my shoes on. It was 89 kilograms. Not over 90. I kept a food diary for the first time, and realised that when I drank 5 cappuccinos at Saizeriya in Ogata — while I was studying kanji for the Japanese proficiency test — they were making me fat. Or better, I could just control what I ate and be whatever weight I wanted. All I had to do was stop. It was easy enough. Yoko and I got engaged — my mother said she didn't recognise me in the pictures. I rode my bike after I got a couple speeding tickets and lost weight. The fat started to come off, particularly in my face and I had a jawline and then a wife and a daughter and I wasn't fat, but healthy. I was running too, up and down the Agano River for 10, 20, 30 kilometers. Alone and quiet and the sun coming up while my wife and daughter slept in Matsuhama.

And then I was fat again, in England this time, starting my PhD in a tiny apartment with Yoko, pregnant, and Naomi. It was Tiger bread and butter — again, I remember. I thought, there are so many calories in this. I know there are. There's a picture of me that I remember, a picture of me fat that I saw and thought, I'm fat. Mei was born and I started running again and I took the weight off, like a cycle that I repeat and repeat. Gain from November until May, lose from June to September.

When Mia was born, I was thin for the first time. Not just not fat, but thin. Thinner than I had ever been. I was meticulous about numbers, what I was eating and how much. I weighed everything. I weighed cereal and milk. I counted everything I ate, a carrot, some celery. I hit 69.9 kgs one day, the lowest I had ever been since I was... I thought a long time about that, how long ago I had been that weight: 154 pounds. It must have been junior high school. I was thin, but I was still fat. I thought about the whole thing like it was a tight rope I could fall off of at any moment. If I just had one bad day it would be over. And then I had a bad day and it was over. We went to Malaysia and I gave up. I remember the precise moment I gave up. I was trudging through the sun and humidity trying to find some furniture while Yoko and the girls were sick in the hotel. I was at a convenience store and I bought some ice cream. I remember exactly what it was: a Nestle crunch bar. It was so cheap and I felt I needed it. I was fat anyway, what did it matter.

In my thirties, I have been fat and then thin and then fat and then thin and then fat for a year and now thin again. My 30th birthday I was thin — I ran in Washington Square Park, but then I had red velvet cake in a box and a beer and I was fat on a plane back to the UK. Being fat tracks with rejection and depression and running and and happiness and mania and obsession. Am I depressed? I might be fat or thin as a result. Am I running a lot? I might be fat or thin. Someone asked me, 'Have you lost weight?' and I didn't know what to answer. I have and I haven't. It depends on the last time you saw me. When was the last time you saw me.

I may be thin again, but not as thin as I have been at my thinnest. I put on a thin t-shirt today, the aspirational ones I bought last year. Small and snug. I still feel fat though, still look in the mirror and feel fat. In Sweden I ran and ran and ate and ate. I sat and talked to Chris after running 26 kilometers and put my hand around my wrist like anorexic people do, I'm told. It felt thin, but I was eating so I was going to feel fat in an hour.

You can look in the mirror and feel fat or thin. You can weigh yourself several times in row. You should do it first thing in the morning, after you use the toilet, and are completely naked. Don't drink any water first, of course. The weight can be up, or it can be down, it can differ each time, even if you just shut it off, move it, and turn it on again. The fat percentage is probably not accurate, you know that, but you can track it and it goes down if you are healthy. The weight can be up, but the fat percentage down. Or the fat percentage up and the weight down. You can eat too much or too little, but it will catch up with you, one way or another, you know it will. You'll eat and drink too much in a couple of weeks at that party that you are planning for. You can try to eat well at it, or you can let yourself go — neither will feel good. You can weigh yourself or not weigh yourself. You can count calories or not, count macros or not. Avoid sugar or not. Eat meat, not eat meat. Eat only meat, eat 7 eggs and nothing else. You can do it all, and still be fat, regardless of how thin you are.

14 August 2017

The itch

The smell of motorbikes and diesel fuel in the city attaches to a whole knot of memories. At first it is Malaysia and then it is Rome and then it is Berlin, where we landed on the end of this longest holiday the Pihlajas of Harborne have managed. The trip started as an idea, in January, when I went out to Växjö to teach Discourse Analysis to some MA students. That idea managed to percolate through all the other things that have happened this year, the house buying and visa we almost lost. I said at one point in May that it would be one or the other – the trip or the house, but then it became both and I was looking at ferries to cross from Rostock to Trelleborg and then back, perhaps through Berlin.

The idea of driving through Europe incubated in me for years, a kind of holdover of whatever bit of American culture I still want to be associated with. Jack Kerouac, On the Road, the Beats. After fighting through the Swedish and German websites for three nights, every time giving up when I couldn't get my credit card to work or the website made the room I wanted disappear, I finally booked it all and showed Yoko the e-mails like it was some kind of promise. Yoko didn't respond in any way I could recognise, and none of it felt real, not for a month at least. After the last conference of the summer season, I bought all the things I needed for the car, a plate to tell everyone I am from Great Britain and the stickers to keep the headlights of the UK car from blinding the French and German drivers. I didn't buy additional car insurance until we were sitting in the waiting area in Dover, checked in for the ferry to Calais, like it was finally happening. It was happening, wasn't it.

Sweden, for whatever bit of American culture I am trying to keep smoldering in me, is old world nostalgia by the ton. The old woman who lives in Björnamo 1 – just in view of Chris' cabin and the pine grove clearing where you shower naked outside – is 85 and gave the girls some muffins she baked. She said one night when we drank wine and whisky by candlelight, that they had relatives who emigrated to the US, to Duluth. She said this through her son who spoke English like a Minnesotan, and I lit up like this was the thing I had been waiting to hear. Yes, Duluth, that's where my family is from, from that area. Chris brought out an atlas and I pointed emphatically. It looks the same there, the trees and the glacial rocks that were sledged into the forest moss and then left when the ice sheet receded some tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Yes, it's all the same, isn't it.

And then Berlin, when we we came out of Friedrichstraße, there was the smell of the city and another memory from our honeymoon and coming out of the Termini in Rome on some warm October night, Yoko somewhere behind me as I was trying to get our bearings. It's that smell of a small Vespa, the one that you imagine you have in some alternate universe where you studied abroad, and learned a Romance language, or German, and then found some way to make money here. Not the version of your life where you go to Japan as a missionary. The sky is electric blue in the same way as it was in Rome. There are so many alternate universes.

The forest, in Sweden, in Japan, in Ely, Minnesota, is heaving with spirits – the fairies and gods and ancestors. When I ran in the morning, on the roads around Björnamo, I could feel them in the way I felt God when I was a teenager. I willed their existence. I ran without my shirt, and ran ticking off kilometres like there was nothing to think about. I tried to relax when I wasn't running, here and there, but we kept moving, the way you do when you have three kids, 6, 8, and 10. There is always so much to do. But when I ran, that was all I needed. I ran down to the main road to the south and on the way back, it was still before eight and I turned down a dirt road, thinking there would be a lake. There was a lake, a lake bigger now in my memory than it is in real life, with no one around. I peeled off my shoes and running kit and waded and fell in naked, quiet and freezing cold. I swam out, 10 metres, 20 metres. I looked back at the shore, thinking of a dream Chris had where I died of a heart attack swimming alone in the lake after running. I swam out further, rolled onto my back and looked up before closing my eyes.

29 July 2017

An incidental silence

The house of Victoria Road is not yet legally our's. This hasn't stopped us from beginning the work that we have planned for it. The surveyor came, and looked at everything in a quiet, disinterested way, making notes and wandering around. When he was done, he asked me some questions about the house, about double-glazing and water damage. And then he said he was done and there was a pause. I said, Can I ask some questions? and he said, What do you want to know? I wasn't sure what I wanted to know, I thought — I wanted to know if he thought I should buy it, if I was getting a good price. If he would buy it, in the same circumstances as me. If he could tell me that I would be able to get a visa without too much trouble. I want him to tell me it was okay.

When he left, I looked at Yoko and we started pulling up the carpets to see the floorboards, to start making the house what we wanted. I spent a day and half breaking through the ones in the entryway — sanding and painting and cleaning and then doing some other small things, like changing the curtain for a blind in the living room. They are nothing, completely negligible, but have started to make the house feel less like just a place we live and more like a place that is our home. We can get rid of some sofas next and start to have nice things. Or nicer things.

23 June 2017

The House on Victoria Road

March 2014

What can I say about the house on Victoria Road that I haven't already said. I've told the story again and again of landing here in Harborne, in the middle of the British winter. The girls were sleeping somewhere outside of Milton Keynes, and I came up here alone to find a place to live. I rented this house — it was sufficient, that's really all you could say about it. It was dirty, but sufficient, which seems like a metaphor as I think about it. I'm not sure what analogy I would like to draw though, as I think about it. Compared to the house in Malaysia, it was damper, with no tile. Parts of it were rotting. The linoleum, the walls in the cupboard where the washing machine has been kept.

All that has been pulled up and out now. The whole place is cleaner and after a year or two, it started to feel like home and then now, after three years and half, after a scare with my visa this spring, and a visit from a builder and conversations with all the British people I know who make money on properties, I decided we would buy it. I say I because I mean I. Yoko has felt strongly about the house for a long time, wanting to stay here, close to St Peters Church where she climbs the hill three or four times a week towards the ringing bells. But I needed to decide, to make the machinery actually work. So with more white hair, and sitting with a man who is putting numbers into a computer, I start the process. We talk and we talk and we talk and then at one point, I finally give a credit card number. There it is. It has started, hasn't it. I look at him for some sort of assurance, like I have done. You're almost old enough to be my father, I want to say. Tell me it's okay. Tell me this is the right thing to do.

To decide while at the same time not having an opinion: these two opposing things are, I feel, expected of me the older I get and the more ensconced I am in the apparatus of a family. I am a kind of necessary internal organ that one thinks about only when it is causing problems. The father who appreciates a bottle of whisky added to the trolley, that he still must buy, but must buy for himself as a gift to himself — one must also provide for gestures of kindness to oneself. And one must not draw attention to this. You think about Foucault in this situation, speaking French and seeing the whole of the system perpetuating itself. You want to point to him; Foucault can explain this.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
You don't unchain yourself from ideology. The talk about letting the horse out on the lead and letting it run without feeling the pull of the lead. It is still on the lead, even when it doesn't feel the pull. I am the horse always at the end of the lead, always it digging in my neck and telling everyone else, There is a lead here, don't you see it. And everyone shrugs to remind me that if you don't pull on it, you can't feel it. That's not the point, I want to say.

I sign a couple of papers and there it is. It's started, like you have pushed off from the shore now in your own little boat. You orient yourself towards the deeper water. I'll be 35 on Tuesday — I started late, I think. I'll catch up though. Don't worry. It's worked out better than we all imagined.

07 June 2017

I'm hardcore, but I'm not that hardcore

There was a kind of false summer a few weeks ago, right before half term, giving us the sort of evenings that seem to go on and on, and you can sit in the park, while the kids play, watching the trees and thinking that there is nothing you should really want. This, of course, will end, everyone said to each other — we must make the most of it while can. Open the windows, let the light and air in before it starts raining again. And a day later, of course, the heat is on and you think to yourself, wasn't I just walking outside yesterday in shirt sleeves?

To make the most of the two days of summer, we took the kids hiking up to Lickey Hills on the edge of Birmingham on Saturday. Naomi wanted to stay home and rest, but I pushed the point and we all headed out, Naomi and Mia dragging their feet and cross that we didn't stop for sweeties, into the forest and hills. I've been caught up in meditation recently, which has made me want to just stand places, natural places particularly, and look at things. At Lickey Hills, we went on the Woodpecker Trail and headed out over the road and up Beacon Hill overlooking the city and a golf course. At the top of the hill, we all sat down and ate jelly beans that the girls had brought — there were sweeties after all, it turned out. They discussed the ones they liked and passed them back and forth. I had the sensation of not wanting to move or push things forward, but to just be there, with them, for that moment. Naomi, 10 and strong-willed and still happy to hold my hand. There might be rain coming, I thought.

Meditation has been an antidote to my Evangelical Christian-induced anxiety, where my fundamental badness could only be soothed by God, but if God was going to soothe it was anyone's guess really. You needed to worry — if you didn't worry then you ran the risk of falling away. You were also not supposed to worry, and these two contradictory weights held you down and let strong, confident sounding men control you. You prayed as a kind of casting out, trying to catch something to come back to you. Peace or forgiveness or faith, because you couldn't make the faith yourself. It didn't come from inside of you — it only came from God, who was always beyond the horizon and loved you unconditionally, on the condition that you loved Him back.

There is enough uncertainty, isn't it. The city centre is full of police with guns, and we all seem to be waiting for Birmingham to be hit. Surely it will, people say, it's only a matter of time. The IRA bombed Birmingham — people remember this now, we all imagine some disenchanted kid who can't keep up and can be convinced that he can make himself famous, and earn God's favour. That's the point after all, I say, to a few White British people looking at me with blank expressions. They've somehow stumbled into asking me what I thought about all of this, as a way of finding a way to tell me what they think. But I don't say whatever they expected and block out their contributions like I do when I talk to Christians who tell me about their own sad, begrudging vote for Trump and lower taxes and a supreme court justice — I'm trying to be better at listening, to not just wait to talk, but not on this point. It's my area, I say: I study this. My next book is about this exactly; I'm waving my hands.

I ride by the Edgbaston Cricket Grounds and Pakistan is playing so there are people everywhere with Pakistani flags. As I come into Moseley, a cab has a woman in the back with the window open, the green and white flag hanging out and people cheering. Is this where it happens, I wonder, as I ride my bike past the police barriers, past the police and all the people walking up the road. Of course, it doesn't; of course nothing happens. Yoko meets me at the coffee shop after having been in the city centre and I breathe a sigh of relief. Of course not, of course she's safe. I am not afraid, I say again and again and again, and tell the kids to say to it themselves: Be afraid of the right things. They know about moments of silence and suicide bombers and we all just sit there together.

When you meditate, you don't judge yourself or your thoughts. You confront them and you admit that they are your own thoughts. There is no stuffing down and away. There is no casting off, or trying to get something else. It's already there. Sit with it, with yourself, it's okay. You can have your feelings, the woman says, feel whatever you feel. This poem she reads.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Fuck, I think, yes, exactly. I want to open my eyes and announce it — You don't have to be good. You don't have to do anything.

26 May 2017

Before the bombing

On Sunday, the end of Christian Aid week, there was a bake sale at the church and Yoko made rice crispy treats with dark chocolate so that Mei could eat them and they could be sold with cupcakes during the time after the service. The church is on the hill above Victoria Road and the bells ring at 9:30, when I am walking Mei up to the choir practice before the service, and then back down in the sun as summer, British summer, is taunting us. We sing our way through the service and then communion and the processional and I get caught up talking to the old academics at the church hall afterwards, the men that I look at and think have lived the dream, teaching and working well into their seventies and only stopping because they can’t physically do it anymore.

I walked up to the university, Mei and Mia at a friends house, to pick up a book I had ordered then sit and read it a bit before walking back into town to buy a some pale ale in a can and walk up the high street, everything closed because it was after five on a Sunday, but the afternoon seeming to go and on as it does at the end of May.

I came past the takeaways at the end of the High Street, and the barber that I used to go to until Brexit and I started getting my hair cut at the Turkish barber shop. I turned the corner, and then was struck suddenly, like in the sort of pathetic manic way I am at times, by the beauty of the road, leafy as they would say here, and sun streaming through the trees that had been there forever. Yoko and I once found a picture of the church and the pub next to it from a newspaper in the early-1900s. It looked the same, the same huge trees coming up around it. Do you see this, I wanted to say to the guy passing in the tracksuit, headed somewhere – do you see where we are. This is where Virginia Woolf was. This is where it all happens.

I slowed down, thinking about when I first came to this country in 2002, when I had just cut my hair. I spent 18 hours in London, wandering around and making my way to Hyde Park. It was what I thought it would be – massive and grand and British, the way you want Britain to be. I don’t remember much of anything really. I remember sitting on a bench and thinking, naively and foolishly, Well, what comes next then. What comes next.

20 May 2017

Spirit of my silence, I can hear you

Pangkor Island Trip, March 2013

In Malaysia, I remember wanting summer to end. We arrived in summer even though it was December and the Christmas tree was still up in the hotel and summer continued on and on, through January, February, on through the real summer and on until autumn. It was summer, only summer. You would wake up to summer and go to sleep to summer. I waited two months for a man to come deliver the aircon, but he never came. We escaped the British winter and returned to the British winter, like it was some wardrobe to Narnia.

It's May now, late May even, and the heater is still on in the house on Victoria Road, the damp one where the sun rises at four thirty. On this side of world, there isn't any feeling of false abundance like there is in Malaysia, cab drivers reminding you again and again that they can. Can what, you ask, and they can anything. In Britain, everything is cannot from the beginning. It is the first thing you say in the morning to each other, that you are tired and miserable and everything has gone a bit pear-shaped. No one is fine, no one is feeling good today. We're all just holding on, aren't we, in quiet desperation, like the song said, you with your smiles and fake American optimism. Look where it's gotten you.

Yoko showed me a picture of a nicer house near us, down the road, with three bedrooms and well-presented. It was £1395 pcm: well over half my take home salary. I was marking something when she showed me and I felt the sort of panic that you mask with anger when you realise you're just pretending, that you can't actually afford to live the life you want to, can you, not in this place, not in Harborne. What are we doing here, who are we kidding. I looked at another house on Hartledon Road, just down from Victoria Road, perfect in location and size, and owned, the realtor told me in the way you tell someone about a black friend, that the house was owned by two men, a fantastic couple who were moving into their other home. I had my three kids with me — Yoko was at church, and we traipsed through it, me thinking, yes, I could afford this thing I need if perhaps I was a gay man with a working partner and three fewer kids. Instead, I gave my card to the realtor, lied about making an offer perhaps, and held Mia's hand as we crossed the road.

All this pretending about competency, telling the kids to clean their bedrooms, and reading pointers online for healthier relationships. Nietzsche blames Jesus, but Jung says we need our myths. I'm far less reasonable, shouting in my mind at my father for fucking this whole thing up, for electing Trump and this crushing shame of unrighteousness. I bought Naomi a book for her 10th birthday, a book that had won some awards in the States and is about this family of three black sisters living in the 60s. Yoko laughed, American, of course. America like I feel about it — foreign and strange and wrong. We've been reading it to each other, Naomi and I — I read a chapter outloud and then she does. Mei is at church and Mia is upstairs doing something and I drink a £1.19 Carling Premier that I bought at the War Lane Cellar. I look out the window into the garden and that huge tree behind the Victoria Road house, listening to my daughter's British accent read African American English. I think about the forty or fifty years I probably have left, and how, when I'm an old man, I hope Naomi will read outloud to me again. I remember when I first held her, as a baby, pretending as you do when you hold your first child that you have any idea what you're doing.

07 May 2017

Dollar signs and Amy Grant


It’s funny the things you remember. I remember singing a praise song that included the lines ‘Holy Ghost, we appreciate you’ when I was a child and my parents had Bible studies. This was the end of the song, the last verse, after you had appreciated all the members of the godhead, one-by-one, eyes closed and hands raised up. ‘We love you, adore you, we bow down before you.’ I never thought much about this, but I was a child. Now I’m judgemental everyone who wasn’t, but still sang and didn’t think about it.

The last two months have passed with little to comment on. I wanted to write about death and dying for most of April, particularly after I came back from Japan and the kids’ guinea pig died, the blondish one they called ‘Pilly’. Pilly had gone through his life with people always asking, clarifying that his name was in fact ‘Pilly’ and Naomi saying the name again to them like they were stupid for mishearing, Pilly. The day after I came back from Japan, he was suddenly ill and laid in the cage. His brother, the ginger one, crouched down next to him, and then he was dead. Everyone cried and I did too. Ricky, his brother, spent the night with the body and then we buried Pilly with flowers in the garden, before I went to work.

Japan, it turned out, was a kind of trip in a time machine. I walked around feeling like I was 24 again, particularly in Shinjuku when I walked past the Keio Plaza where my family stayed when they came for the wedding and I stayed with them. My parents had money then and I remembered one night going out of the hotel to this plaza that I walked through last month, and talking to Yoko on my phone. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember anything specific. And I remember one other time, my dad staying there at that same hotel and he and I going to Roppongi to eat and argue about Jesus and the church and George W. Bush and war. I don’t remember the specifics.

Now, some ten years later, there I was again in the heat and walking up towards that park in the shadow of the metropolitan government offices, seeing the families and thinking about some parallel universe in which I live there and we are happy and Yoko doesn’t have to learn English. There is no Brexit and no Life in the UK test. No house on Victoria Road that is too small and lacks sufficient shelf space. None of it.

29 April 2017

A crow looked at me

Jyozankei Onsen was empty. When I went to the hotel with my ticket to enter the baths, there was no one in the the lobby but me. I put my shoes in the locker and traded them for slippers and key, and there was no one as I walked through the back to the changing rooms and then no one as I pulled off all my clothes and stuffed them in the locker.

We don't know what you remember. I came up through a department store in Sapporo station and there were bikes for sale and the smell of rubber and I thought, of course, yes, you would buy a bike here, wouldn't you and I remembered buying my first bike — I remembered the store and crisp 10,000 yen bills.

On the bridge, there was no one around and it was snowing. I looked down into the valley, where the river was coming down there the mountains and there was a crow, and I thought, a crow.

12 March 2017

Chained to the rhythm


The sun is starting to come up earlier behind the house on Victoria Road. I’ve been sleeping better, without waking up to wander around in the middle of the night like I had been in January. This morning though at five fifteen, I woke up naturally, shut off the alarm and looked out into the darkness from our back window, thinking about spring, and the frame of the neighbours old green house that fell down in the storm a couple of weeks ago. There is now no fence between us either — the storm took that as well. I would have been concerned about that when I was thinking of buying this house earlier last month.

On Friday morning, after I dropped Theron off at New Street, I stopped at the Esso station by the university, needing to buy something, although I wasn’t quite sure what. I’d fallen into the trap of eating bread and sugar, and I went in feeling guilty. It was just after five in the morning, and the whole place was full of drunk students. I bought a hobnobs breakfast bar, and a chilled coffee and went to the front, where they have pulled out the self-service machine and forced everyone to interact with the woman behind the till. A drunk student and his girlfriend were buying something and speaking loudly to the cashier: How can you work all night long, I’m so impressed. They were both white, and the cashier was not —  she smiled wearily at them. The back of the leg of the kid's jean had a rip — he went on and on about how amazing it was that this cashier could work all night long.

With some petty Foucauldian archaeology, you can trace back to moments of diversion if you try. For me, the moment of diversion, when that thing became this thing happened in 2008, in March, nine years ago now. I was in Vientiane, in Laos. I had bought a sickle and hammer t-shirt in a market as a joke, after riding over the border from Thailand in a tuk-tuk with some well meaning university-aged backpackers. I was sitting in the back of a van, and someone was driving us to the Lao-American College. We were talking, a bunch of men from the West who were teaching English in Japan and were married to Japanese women. I was talking about the future, about what I was doing and where I might go, moving on to the UK to do my PhD or staying in Japan, teaching and studying by distance. That was the plan that I upended, those three or four weeks in August of 2008 where we packed everything up and just left Shibata and that little job I had at that little university. When Yoko made more money than me and I didn’t worry about much of anything but the future.

I drove home from the Esso station and thought I would do some work, but fell asleep back in our bed, with Yoko and the girls sleeping in the front room. The alarm went off at some point and I kept sleeping, while Yoko and the girls got up and got ready. 

26 February 2017

A fever dream

After avoiding alcohol for a month mostly in service of an attempt to get my body back, this last week I have been wandering to and from pubs in Harborne, finding myself buying naan on the walk home for 80p at the takeaway just past that old blown out roller skate rink. On Monday, this stop involved having a chat with a police officer about corruption in the UK police force compared to the US, me trying very hard to not appear like I had just been out drinking and this man, excited to have a bit of culture in his otherwise cultureless night. I turned over my one pound coin and wished him and the man behind the counter good luck awkwardly. Good luck with what.

There was another conversation on Friday with Tom, after two beers and a peaty, smokey whisky that turned into me recounting all the people I had touched that day, and how meaningful all that physical contact had been. I had patted a colleague on the back in the Sanctuary, the University's religious-sounding cafeteria where Justin Bieber and the BBC news are projected on a screen, and another colleague had hugged me in her office. They meant a lot, I was saying, feeling suddenly nostalgic about everything in my life. Tom left for the toilet and a woman at the other table asked me where my accent was from – she had been listening to our conversation and I answered the typical sorts of questions that you answer, feeling like my moment with my smartphone was being taken away from me unjustly. She asked me about my partner, who I said was Japanese and she responded, Oh you mean like Chinese, and I said, No, I mean like Japanese. And she looked confused and said, Yeah, but she looks like a Chinese, right?

And then last night, the church had a variety show, something that felt very British with vaguely colonial moments, and Yoko gave me five pounds to buy a bottle of white wine. I drank it over the two hours of the performance, the whole thing fading moment by moment into a surreal fever dream of 17 year-old me, thinking about England and Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath somewhere up in the Yorkshire Moors before she stuck her head in that oven. At the end, the lights came on and everyone belted out God Save the Queen, me included, full of cheap wine and irony, thinking, well, this is fitting. I tried to sober up enough to say goodbye to the Vicar, and thank him, Give me a passport now, I said. I'm British. Of course, I'm not British.

The Pihlajas of Harborne is an imaginary iteration of our family that I've been toying with while thinking again about my relative value in the community — am I just residing here for my own benefit, my beautiful children leeching off the welfare state with our free education and healthcare and Mia's free hot lunches. To be fair, very few British people seem to think this about me, the friendly white American man with the beautiful children and Chinese-looking wife. A mortgage advisor said to me several weeks ago when I was thinking I might buy a house, If we're getting rid of people like you, then we're really lost. Sure, I thought, but you don't know much about immigration policy in this country. It's not supposed to make sense. That's the point.

Despite my Tier 2 status, I want to believe I have something to offer. Surely Harborne benefits from this splash of colour. Today, in McDonalds, where I had taken the children in spite of Yoko's objection, I was drinking espresso from a paper cup. A younger mother, with a boy and two little girls in highchairs, yelled over to me, Can I use your phone, mate? I didn't know what to say, I hesitated. It's fine, she said, I just need it to call someone to pick me up, I'm here with my kids, I'll give you a pound. I didn't know what to say, It's not about the money, it's just that- and I realised I had nothing to say, so I pulled my phone and gave it to her with all the Protestant judgement I could muster. Call your meth dealer on my phone, I thought, I've been feeling like I have nothing to lose anyway.

She was thankful and had a short angry conversation on the phone before saying she needed to send a text. I had eased into the situation thinking about the parable of the sheep and the goats, which I had taught earlier in the week in a metaphor class and felt increasingly like this might be a freebie: do whatever you need to do. She lightened up, Where are you from? she asked, and I said, Chicago, and she smiled happily and pointed at the girls, And them? Mia said, Japan! just as I was saying, America too, and it felt disjointed and awkward. Well, you're from America too, I said to Mia, which is, of course, a lie.

The woman thanked me and went back to her table and I got back to nicking fries off the children and feeling bad about myself.  The woman stood up and signalled to me that she needed to take a call on her own phone, which appeared, and left her kids. The boy was focused on me, It's hot in Chicago, right? And I said, well, no, not really. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught his sister in the high chair starting to get up to try and get a balloon she had dropped. I sprung up to stop her, suddenly holding this little girl saying, no, no sweetheart, you have to sit here, you can't get up. She sat back down, and I pulled my chair over. The woman came back, asking to use the phone again, starting up with some explanation but I waved her off, just use it, don't worry. She had another angry conversation, and then gave the phone back again, thanking me, and asking, Texas – is Texas in America? I was confused: Yeah? I said realising she wasn't joking, yeah, it is. The little boy looked like he had seen a celebrity and that maybe somewhere in one of my pockets, there were tickets to America, to some different life free from all the drama of the Birmingham Ring Road McDonald's.

We packed up our stuff and I threw away the rubbish. I held Mia's hand as we walked out and the woman thanked me again as we passed. I said, Good luck, and she smiled at me. In the car park, Naomi asked about her, and I gave some boilerplate liberal platitude about privilege and what we had been given. If caring for the poor is the pathway to heaven, I have no chance of getting in. I avoid eye contact with people on the street. I left this woman and her kids before it cost me anything more than a few phone calls. I voted for Bernie, isn't that enough. I made sure that Naomi and Mia were strapped into their seats and we drove home, an American family caught up in some fever dream.

20 February 2017

A vivid unhappiness

American with meat

The third false spring came last night, when I was standing outside the house with the recycling bin and flip-flops, speaking to the neighbour in shirt sleeves. We were talking about the weekend, which has been good or bad, I don’t remember, and their trip up to Lancashire to see his in-laws. The conversation fell into property prices and I took pleasure in my use of terminology, saying numbers like two twenty-five to refer to two hundred twenty five thousand pounds, the counter-offer that the landlady made for our house and how ridiculous I thought it was. I pointed at the roof, That’s going to be at least six to replace, and he nodded knowingly.

The truth is that I have been giddy about the whole thing, feeling like Pinocchio after he becomes a real boy – I suddenly exist in this society as the most valuable member: potential property owner. Yoko and I saw the most perfect house the other day, although it was out of our price range and the real estate agent seemed to sense that. She spoke to us like children, and I resented it — in five months I will be a Reader and I will be able to buy any house on this road. I thought about slipping this into the conversation even though it wasn’t really true. Instead I nodded begrudgingly when she told us it would be good if we ‘registered our interest’, a phrase I thought was peculiar. We walked back, Yoko and I, in the sun, feeling warm and I had a rare moment of optimism, despite it not really being a possibility. I imagined the two of us in that house for ten or fifteen years, the girls coming home from university at times with young men or women and me, retiring to the ensuite master bedroom to write whatever I’m writing in 15 years.

In April, I am going back to Japan for the first time in nine years – this too has produced a kind of giddiness in me. Being in Japan as a visiting scholar and ‘foreign expert’ is a kind of dream come true, one that a younger version of me would have been impressed by. I’m particularly looking forward to the feeling that I don’t need to do everything as cheaply as possible, which was the real hallmark of my life in Japan in my early twenties. No, this trip to Japan in April is markedly different from the first time I went in 2003. That time, I went with a friend from youth group as a missionary, sent to teach English and oblivious to the colonial undercurrent of the whole thing. We had people lay hands us in the suburbs of Chicago, men in polo shirts and our mothers too and I said all sorts of nonsense with conviction, testimonies full of the most awful notions of manifest destiny applied to some nominal notion of the Orient. I had been caught up in a narrative of purpose — we were headed to the mission field, like Paul and Barnabas. 

None of this makes sense now. I’m unrecognisable in the pictures, with the worst mix of naivety and arrogance, like I was assuring everyone it was okay — I had been prayed over. I happily shared my testimony in the church we worked at, translated by a nervous woman who struggled to piece it all together and whose struggle I didn’t fully understand. What’s the problem? I remember thinking: just say it in Japanese. There’s little about those first three months that stuck, as I think about it. I bought a maroon Yamaha Vino that loved. It was almost new and only cost 60,000 yen, but as I think about it now, I only drove it for a few months before I left for Niigata. I remember that I put it over on its side once in the apartment car park. I remember getting pulled over one night. Everything felt so serious, like I was on the precipice and if I wasn’t careful, Satan could knock me off.

All that fear is gone now, completely out of my imagination, replaced by a vivid and persistent unhappiness. I sat, as the service started at St Peter’s, thinking about how different the world seemed now, some 15 years later. My family was sprawled out in the third pew and a woman from the church came up with an order of service and asked if Yoko and I would be willing to bring up the bread and the wine. We were both unsure for different reasons — Yoko afraid of doing the wrong thing, me afraid of being found out to be hypocrite, the apostate taking the path of least resistance. The woman was insistent, however, so we agreed and after the peace we made our way to the back with the girls. I took the wine and walked that long aisle up to the altar. Hello, Stephen the Apostate is here with the blood of Christ. This is the body and blood of Christ at least for a moment, the sun streaming through the stained glass.

13 February 2017


First Day of School!

There are limits to telling the truth — I’m learning them as I look at houses. The trouble starts with the task of identifying and communicating with stakeholders. I learned the word stakeholder last year. Stakeholders have different needs and desires, and you as the father, or researcher, or other person responsible for coordinating efforts, must somehow match synergies and lead on innovation. These are phrases you use to paper bad ideas, but they are also things that need doing, dumb tasks that fill up hours and days: looking at houses on the Internet, showing iPad screens to wives, and engaging energetic men and women in the real estate community. Banks are also stakeholders, so I also faced the fear of calling the States to transfer some of my savings over to the UK. Every step of the process has been filled with a dread doesn’t seem to be substantiated, but it has followed me, gnawing away. When I finally called, I was connected through to a polite young man, who called me sir and after forty minutes of confirming and reconfirming my details, assured me that my money would be received before Valentine’s Day. I felt triumphant hanging up the phone, like I had faced some substantial imaginary fear and come out better for it. This is what adulthood is, after all.

The houses themselves are all perfect except for one thing: a price, or a second room, or a location. We’ve gone to them one by one over the last couple of weeks uncovering new and imperfect places around the B17 post code. First liberated by the feeling that I could buy a house, the decision itself has been harder as the imperfections make themselves known. The first house we we saw, just a short walk up Tennel road, had a building in the back, and then a shed as well — places I fantasised that I and the guinea pigs could hide out if needed. No one else liked it though, and I started to learn the things you need to do when you’re house-hunting. Forget fantasies of hiding out with the pets – there are more important things to consider, like damp and the presence or absence of an entryway. When you walk through, you must scan the ceilings, looking for water spots, and then find the boiler and comment on whether it is new or relatively new or old, and in need of replacing. You must not appear too eager and not ever say, under any circumstance, the word perfect.

On Thursday, I went further up Tennel Road to a smaller house. I packed and smoked the last bowl of pipe tobacco I had before setting out as a way to offset the dread. Everything about the house was perfect (although I didn’t say it) until we came into the second bedroom. The agent, James, looked at me with a false optimism when I asked if you could fit a bed in it. He said, A one and a half, certainly, and I wanted to say to him, You aren’t married, James, are you? This, for me, is a sticking point, a ‘deal breaker': the bedroom must have space for a bed that is large enough for me and my wife. The next house was bigger with a bedroom that had two cribs in it and space for a loft conversion. The agent spoke to me in a hushed voice, like someone who wasn’t there might be listening, and said that they would consider any offer above two zero five. This is a code language for two hundred five thousand pounds. It sounds like a significantly smaller number, or series of numbers, if you say them as single digits. I nodded knowingly, like it meant something to me, but really I just wanted to get away from it and apologise, I’m sorry James, this whole thing has been a lie. I’m just pretending that I have any idea what I’m doing.

The kids wanted to go to the park after that viewing, but I was sick with indecision. Instead of going to the park, we drove home, but when Yoko said she would take them alone, I felt guilty and went round and drove back amidst cheers of the children behind me. We all got out and as we walked up the path, Yoko and I fell into silence without discussing this last house or the loft conversion. The numbers sound so much different in Japanese — when you say them, you find yourself thinking in yen, not pounds, and it sounds like it should be substantially more. You feel the need to add zeros. The girls went on to the playground to make snowmen and have a snowball fight. I hung back and stood around like I do, awkwardly, my hands in my pockets because I had forgotten my gloves. I stood in the cold for a few minutes, then excused myself, giving the car key to Yoko and walking home alone — I was cold and needed to think.

The house on Victoria Road also grows becomes increasingly less perfect as we consider it. Holding instant coffee and talking to a man in the church hall after the service, we discuss post codes and damp and the weather. I use the code ‘two zero five’ to describe the Court End Road house we saw with the cribs and he winces —yes, it has become expensive now, remarkably so. Another man appears with a coffee cup and story of a church member waiting to have part of his lung removed. It’s been cold, hasn’t it.

I suppose you just have to wait. Having smoked the last of my Christmas tobacco, I have no reason to go for a walk at night and escape the house. There’s no reason to tell the truth about how I feel when Yoko glances across the room or church sanctuary, looking for some comfort, some answer about something. I don’t have any answers, I want to say — I got the money over from the States and I have to go to work on again on Monday. What more can I do. I’m starting a midlife crisis, I fantasising. I’m wondering about the future. I’m going for a walk. I’ll be back eventually, don’t worry. I’ll bring the car around.

12 February 2017



Somewhere outside of Susenji, the neighbourhood on the edge of Fukuoka where I first lived in Japan, there was a beach that I found one afternoon when I went looking for the ocean. On one end, there was a grove of pines and a shrine — a red gate opening out into the water. And on the other, there was a small mountain. I would park my bike and walk up and down it, or stop sometimes to study Chinese characters and try to pray, my back against a concrete wall. There was the water in front of me. If I swam out, I thought, I would eventually make landfall in the States. It was silent — I would pray and look out into the distance before giving up and going home.

The silence had followed me from the States, from elementary school when I had prayed again and again for salvation and never heard anything. One night, when our youth group had been on a retreat, there was a worship service that everyone said had been particularly meaningful, that the spirit of the Lord had been there. I remember saying, yes, it was there, I felt it, but that had been a lie — I had sung and reached out and tried, but it wasn’t there. People were crying and I felt nothing, but the need to say, Here I am, send me. We were told to say that, by men in polo shirts and khaki trousers, holding guitars and praying. Here I am, send me. At Devil’s Head in Wisconsin on another retreat, I had been sent away from a van in the car park by our youth pastor, a fiery man with red hair. We were to practice the spiritual discipline of silence. I sat on a rock and tried to be silent, to not think of my girlfriend who had come on the retreat too and had also been sent away from the van, somewhere in the woods, wearing a one piece blue bathing suit with stars underneath her clothes. I tried not to think about it, to sit and say it, Lord, send me. Send me.

When I went to spread the word of God, to Kyushu, 400 years after the Portuguese, Japan was precisely the swamp for Christian belief Cristóvão Ferreira said it was. Christianity cannot take root because there is no cultural context for it. There is no word for a Christian god. The Japanese Christians are anomalies; the true believers were the worst — a group of theology students from Tokyo building a fire at a summer camp and telling the kids they would burn in hell if they didn’t convert. The children cried and prayed for forgiveness — they didn't want to burn. I remembered this last night as I watched the Scorsese film — the fire pyres in the film where they burnt the Christians in Nagasaki looked like the one the Christians had built that night in the camp. I remember being told about the conversions, the morning after it happened, and being shocked — this isn’t something we do, this isn’t what we are supposed to do, I said, but the Japanese believers reassured me it was okay. I fell into despair over it, over the whole concept of hell: what was my belief anyway. I sat on my futon in the concrete apartment building, the sounds of the city outside, waiting in the silence. Here I am. I’ve come. Why is it still silent.

Ferreira became an apostate after five hours of torture, although they say that he recanted after many years and died a martyr. What does it matter though. At some point, it becomes clear that what you hear in your head is from inside of you. It can’t be anything else. When there is silence, you don’t have the answer. You can tell yourself a story, but you are just papering the silence. It is only silence. My apostasy didn’t lead to anyone’s freedom, it didn’t stop any torture. I got on a plane and flew away from Kyushu, deeper into the swamp. Whatever truth I had before, Japan took it away from me. I had just been lied to by people that didn’t know they were lying. There is just silence. 
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