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.

I don't want to decide anything. I don't have an opinion. I feel this is 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


Kent

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

Wat

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

Fantasy

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

Silence

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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. 

05 February 2017

Liberty

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When we first came back to Birmingham in January 2014, this house that I rented, the house on Victoria Road, was the only house I thought I could I afford. Six hundred and fifty pounds a month — I didn’t have to convert Malaysian Ringgit to pounds or wonder about the hidden costs or feral dogs. I asked the realtor to show me houses in my price range and this is the one that I could afford. There were two, and I remember that he didn’t let me ride in his car, I had to walk up to them. There were only two, so like that, I chose it and we moved in. It was mouldy, yes, and dirty and cold, but choosing is really where pain comes in. Better to limit the choice and just make a decision. I sat in a coffee shop after I had done it and thought about the future.

You can make anything work. It’s three years later and whatever I imagine home to be, the house on Victoria Road is the closest thing. We have been thinking of buying it, but have assumed it to be out of our price range. With my new visa, however, and my promotion, and a sense of purpose, I decided it was time to sort it all out. On Friday, I went around banks to see about getting a mortgage, something I have been told I can't get because my leave to remain is limited. I had my passport and my residency card and at the first place, a young Asian man told me, after checking with someone upstairs, that I could borrow the money I needed, provided I put a quarter of the value down. I was surprised, and clarified with him several times that he understood my situation. I’m a dirty immigrant, you’re sure this doesn’t matter. It wasn't a mistake, he assured me, he had gone upstairs to check. And then? The rate? Same as everyone else. Can I do it now, I asked. He looked at me confused, Do you have a house in mind. I'll take any one, I thought. Check the catchment area, and sign me up.

I left feeling hopeful — no one had ever told me that I wasn't a credit risk. I could borrow money, lots of it, provided I was willing to put my life savings against it. I went home and transferred some money from the States to make sure it worked. I talked to my parents. What is there to lose, really, other than money. So I’ve made an offer to buy the house on Victoria Road. Just like that, I wrote a carefully crafted, appropriately apologetic offer in an e-mail to my landlady and sent it off.

I have a history of making quick decisions after years of uncertainty. I did this when I moved to Japan — it was only a month or so from when I heard about the opportunity to having the tickets. And then Yoko and I decided to marry in about two weeks, having only dated for four months. It doesn’t make sense now when I think about it, but it made sense. We just did it — I was 23 and I didn’t think about it longer than I needed. I bought the ring for 70,000 yen at Isetan in Niigata City and took it to show Neal and then went to Yoko’s apartment. Close your eyes, put out your hands, ‘Let’s get married’ or ‘Shouldn’t we get married’ or ‘Getting married would be good.’ I don’t remember the grammar precisely.

These things sort themselves out. My Protestant beliefs said that the outcome, how things sorted themselves out, was based on my character. Don't worry about what others say; worry about your character. It’s become clear that character is just a stick that narcissistic men shake at you to make you behave. Perhaps I can just believe in fate now, or something like fate. Or you’re lucky or not lucky. Or you can tell a story that fits whatever master narrative you want to make for yourself. I lost money, but I learned a lot. I got lucky and things worked out. Or more likely, so many things happened. Some were good and some were bad. I’m back in the same place, the same coffee shop. Some things have changed, but some things have not.

30 January 2017

Sweden is the Reason



The false January spring did seem to come like it always does about two weeks ago, when you went outside and thought that the winter hadn’t been that bad this year. Then, like always, the cold snap came and everyone is bundled and walking up Warren Street, smoking or wearing big cheap headphones. I was up at 3:30, and made coffee and hard boiled eggs and half of a bagel, before standing out, waiting for the 4:38 bus, the 23, to New Street. I had another cup of coffee and then fell asleep on the Virgin Train into Euston, waking just as we passed Wembley and everyone looked the way they do on the train after you’ve woken up suddenly, like they have been staring at you the whole time.

With the visas and passports back, life had permission to continue on, and I sorted out the rest of my trip to Sweden and started thinking about the semester in front of me, like it might actually happen and we wouldn’t be on a plane to some other place on 15 February, when our previous visa was up. Now it was at least another three years, even though no one seemed to pay any attention to it but me. I want to keep talking about it, to keep bringing it up causally in conversations. It was £6,441, and I had to pay none of it out of pocket. I say this proudly and whomever I am talking to has a blank look on their face. It’s remarkable, isn’t it and they take my word for it. It’s remarkable.

My obsession with Sweden has been ongoing. I cornered a man once at a conference, a British man living in Gothenburg, peppering him with questions, It’s a socialist utopia, isn’t it. Everything is great there, right? and as he tried to dissuade me, it only sounded like everything I imagined. I was primed to only accepted the rosiest picture. And then, indeed, everything comported with what I believed, because it’s what I wanted. The buses run on waste, coffee is vitally important, the people are actually this polite, university is free. It went on and on.

I got off the train, in Växjö, and the air was clean — like it's been washed, Chris said. The cabin in woods where I stayed was also a part of the utopian dream, like Walden. No running water, and when you went out in the middle of the night in clogs, across the grass to the edge of the woods to piss, it was like whole darkness of the wilderness was looking at you. There was something about being taken care of, not worrying about what needed to happen next. Chris cooked and drove and took me around. I didn't need to do anything, just wake and go. I once talked about this in counselling, of a time I had been in Malaysia and Yoko and the girls weren’t there, and I had been driven around without having to make any decisions. It’s a utopia.

Now, there are any number of things to do. I was in London again, I was sleeping again on a train. I am going to Japan next, in April. Working on a book series proposal. Finishing my own book and beginning work on the third one. Watching people walk up and down the street. There is probably more to do and say. When I figure it out, I’ll do it and say it.

14 January 2017

Leave to remain

December Misc

When the doorbell rang on Saturday morning, before 9, before everyone had woken up, I felt the same feeling I had in my stomach on Wednesday when the doorbell rang. Then it was the postman holding a box, and I was disappointed — yes, I would be happy to give it to the neighbour, but really, it was not what I wanted. On Saturday though, I opened the door, and he had his machine out for signatures and was holding a white A4 envelope. I signed, and held it and indeed, it felt like passports settled in the bottom and the address was from Sheffield. I ripped it open and read the first line: Thank you for your application which has now been approved. The letter was repeated five times with five different Pihlaja names. I whooped, as you do, for joy and ran upstairs, having fished the passports out, holding them, showing Yoko who had just woken up. She said, in Japanese, Yokkata ne which is what you might say when your partner found socks on sale or got a free coffee by chance. This was always going to happen though, wasn't it.

Three years ago, when we packed up and came back to the UK, I hadn't thought it would be like it has been. I'm not sure what I had thought. I thought it wouldn't be as hot and easier in some ways. It has been, to be fair. Naomi said last night, 'Was there a bee nest in the house in Malaysia?' and I remembered that yes, there had been. I remember that, she said. I do too, now that she says it. I remember the toilet we had out the kitchen into the back terrace. There was no water heater and it didn't really matter. I thought about that terrace, about Naomi and the cats that would come up. But then it fades away. The children need to go to things, the successes and failures are wiped out because we need to keep going. Someone needs to be somewhere, and we're late.
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