31 October 2019

Value for Money


Marathon 2012

I woke up on Sunday morning and changed all of the clocks in the house that hadn't automatically ticked back to Greenwich Mean Time. When you do this well as a father, there is naturally some kind of confusion when people start to wake up as to what time it really is — surely not all of the clocks had changed themselves overnight. Like all the other magical things that happen at night, Santa or the tooth fairy, you wake in the morning and something good has somehow came and went unnoticed. Dad sitting on the sofa with his phone to greet you; good morning, a whole world of things happened while you were sleeping.

I started running when I was 23, that year when everything was changing for me. In the autumn of 2005 when Yoko and I started going out, Neal showed me the cheap prefectural gym down by Ogata, by the Jusco, by the elementary school I used to work at every Friday. There was a teacher at that school I had a crush on the year before, the kind of woman who had everything sorted out, a Japanese Mary Poppins who made you think, I should probably dress better. That sense that I should probably dress better is my abiding memory of my early twenties. I had been fighting through a constant corn syrup hangover, my life essentially being organised like I was ten year old with cashflow. I bought sleeves of cookies for 100 yen because I could. But the incongruity of the life I wanted to live and life I was living became more pronounced as I found myself regularly stood next to Yoko, dressed smartly in her white pressed blouses and skirts that sat perfectly on the knee. It was time to grow up.

Getting healthy was key to my attempt at self improvement, and I remember awkwardly getting on the gym scale for the first time after someone had barated me for not taking my shoes off, and not knowing what to make of the number. The prefectural gym experience was always slightly awkward because there were no other foreigners there, just Neal and I sticking out like AAA baseball team mascots. This meant we had regular conversations around exercise equipment with old Japanese men and women who, long retired, were both healthier and more confident in their own bodies than me. I remember a very strong man in his late seventies, shockingly fluent in English, telling me that I was fat around the back and had a lot of potential for growing my upper body strength. I started running on the treadmill and then outside, in the rice paddies early on Saturday mornings, and by the time I had married and Naomi was born, it was two years later and I transformed into something unrecognisable, the sort of guy who got up at five in the morning to ride my bicycle in the hills around Shiibata to be back by eight to cook eggs for the girls, my wife and daughter, whenever they woke up. 

Somehow, after some time, all of that managed to turn dark, the way you reveal the spirits within you when you tinker around with the structure of your body — genetic spirits, the obsessive ones, that tell you what you may and may not eat. The ones that come to you through your mother's side of the family, the letters your Grandfather wrote to your Grandmother when he was deployed in Korea, warning her not to get fat. You get the first taste of control, of realising that after 27 years of being fat, you could be thin, actually people could call you thin. You tick off a day and another day of a calorie deficit and strip down to weigh yourself in the early morning and you are actually thin.

I run much faster now than I did when I was younger — when I was younger I believed I had limits to how fast I could run, but those limits had no basis in the physiology of my body. Now, I know the numbers, can plan to run eight kilometers tomorrow in thirty four minutes, because that is the pace I need as a baseline to reach whatever goal I've set out. I don't feel much magic when I run, not like I did, but it does come sometimes and I have become the quintessential middle-aged runner, the kind who hopes to feel the way I did when I was younger, when the sun came up over the mountains east of Niigata. That feeling when you're somewhere out there in the world, but you're not entirely sure where. A rice paddy on the Agano River, a stone bridge in rural Buckinghamshire. You stand in the morning mist and feel something of which you can't conceive, so you can't name it. You just feel it. 

I'll be fat or thin the rest of my life, I realise. It's just the way it is now. There are better days than other days. I can run fast and then eat secretly at night, the ice cream that I bought and since there is only a little left, I can eat it without feeling like I need to explain it to the girls who keep close tabs on the amount of ice cream in the house, whenever there is some. It's a Pihlaja problem, eating ice cream at night, I tell myself. It's a genetic thing.  Everything is physiological — that both comforts and unsettles me. There are metrics you can put against whatever you want. Spreadsheets for budgets, value for money, sure, but also for weight. Here is a spreadsheet of numbers — it tells me how fast my body can run. The eighty nine kilogram version of me climbs on the scale for the first time and shrugs, not knowing what he's gotten himself into.

24 October 2019

Sifting

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The fog rolled in yesterday and I kissed Yoko goodbye in the dark as I left early. There are too many things going on day-to-day, the girls swimming and choir and my work things and dinner here or there. But we still stand for a moment in the kitchen, in the blue light, and stop, like we are young again, like we are saying goodbye when we were young. Like our love is the same love as when we were young, that night we walked down to the Sea of Japan in the dark. We sat together in the sand, didn't we, without the words to say whatever would come from that exact moment when you lean into a lover for the first time and trust your weight against theirs.

I competed in mock trial club when I was in high school. Mock trial was the sort of brainy performance sport that appealed to me as a fourteen year-old — appearing clever, regardless of whether or not I was actually clever. We were homeschooled, and some critical mass of us attended the same church, so we managed to field a team in the regional competition. They did it one year before I was in high school and I watched jealousy, then when I was a freshman and my brother was a senior, we teamed up with another family in the church, a family of thirteen that had three or four of them in high school — all the same sort of brainy performative types that my brother and I were.

Being homeschooled, I was never quite sure how brainy I was — we took standardised tests as children that told us we were brilliant, but when it came time to go to university, my scores were average at best. I didn't get into the most competitive school I had applied to, having bottled the interview. They asked me about how I understood my role in my community and I didn't have any answer. I had never thought of my community.

The mock trial competition pitted us, the homeschooled team, against a larger Catholic private school called Cathedral. At the time, the political nature of this competition was lost on me, but we were, the homeschoolers, representing an ideology more than anything. That yes, we were intelligent in spite of being religious and our parents could teach us as well as any private school could. Fourteen year-old me didn't have any sense of this struggle in a real way, even though I was participating actively in it. I wrote to the El Paso Times once chastising them for not referring to evolution as a 'theory' in their reporting on some story, and showing this printed letter with a broad, contemptuous smile at Sunday School when it appeared. I had shown them, hadn't I.

One of the sons from the family of thirteen was my best friend. We did the things that brainy best friend homeschoolers did: listened to Phantom of the Opera on CDs and had sleepovers and stayed up late talking, although about what, I can't seem to remember now. We spent the night once in his family's van when we were driving back from a Promise Keeper's rally in Dallas and parked at his aunt's house in Midland. We visited Tony Evans' church on that trip too, I remember, and there was a skit about masturbation, a word that I had never heard, and I remember leaning over to ask Gabe what it was and he said, it's like when you do it with a bed, and I nodded like I understood, but wondered what it was exactly.

That year, the year that I was on the mock trial team, we won the regional final against Cathedral. It was close, I think, a few points out of fifty, but we were intensely proud and went on to the State competition in Dallas. I don't remember much about that trip to Dallas except that there were strip clubs lining the freeways and we did very poorly — we didn't manage to make it out of the first round, even though Cathedral got to the semifinals or something, I think. It didn't matter though — we had made our point. The Christian kids, the ones who supposedly lacked social skills and the intellectual benefits of public education could perform as well as their peers. Even better.

I ended up leaving for Chicago that next year. I don't remember saying goodbye to Gabe when we left, or if I have felt any sadness going. I don't think that I did. I remember that an adult from the church gave me Green Day's Dookie and I put it in my CD player in the back of car as we left — I'm not growing up, I'm just burning out — and thought that I needed to keep this to myself if I was going to keep it.

I saw him years later in New York City, when I was doing my PhD and had two small children and was chasing some odd, stray connections with researchers who had invited me for one-off talks to undergraduates. He had gone on to NYU law school and was working in corporate law in the city. We had dinner in a sushi restaurant in midtown with dark lighting and he looked many years older, tired in the way you are tired in your late twenties, and paid for us. He had left the church like me and he and several of his siblings had come out. It all seemed obvious as I thought back on it, but hadn't occurred to me when we were kids talking all night. That was before there was sex, before I would talk the same way with my girlfriend a few years later, lying on her bedroom floor waiting for curfew to come. He showed me some pictures of him with his partner in Mexico and we said goodbye and I went back to Milton Keynes in England where Yoko and I were living.

What is love, I think now, I am now able to think. It must be many things. It must be things of which you can't even conceive, can't articulate, at the time you experience them. I tell my students that our conceptions are tied to words, and without words, we have don't have concepts. What is love. Naomi hugs me as she leaves and I kiss her head and watch her walk away, down the street, into the fog. I love you, I say. I say, I love you, but it is a love more than I can conceive. You let your weight lean into someone for the first time, you hold each other up and a life cascades out. Years and years, children, a list of things you can never articulate. All you can do is stand and watch it. Perhaps you'll name it when you're older.

20 October 2019

When I turn out the lights

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The rains come back in a welcome way after the summer of climate change and the worry I had every day it seemed that it was warmed than it should have been. Even now though, when we have a fire drill and go outside and a colleague points out there are mushrooms growing because it is both warm and wet, I wonder, is this because the world is burning. How quickly are things changing, how quickly will we all need to adapt. I shouldn't think about this, but I do, and then when I don't, I feel badly that I haven't, even though it does nothing but make me even more miserable than I normally am. I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of glass as I walk across campus and don't recognise the fat man I am now in this body with a beard. Who am I — I want to say it to myself, who are you. Where did you come from.

Naomi and I wandered through the city yesterday, going in and out of shops and looking at vintage clothes, before we came up to the Cathedral to see the others sing. The cathedrals cause you to look up, of course, to think about how small you are, and I contrasted this with my experience of Christianity when I was younger and how internal it was all meant to be. Everyone sang and I got lost in my thoughts so that Naomi had to point out to me where we were in the order of service when we came to the last hymn.

Outside of the church, it seems as though Brexit Britain has taken the sort of toll on the mental health of enough people that you must be careful to not trip over the young and the old people who are sitting on the ground in sleeping bags with paper cups and cardboard signs. This contrasted with the evangelical Christians that were singing on the corner with a homeless man, standing uncomfortably close to them and singing and pointing in the way that caused a kind of tension. Another preacher on the corner was telling everyone how sinful they were and how they would never repent even though that was all we needed, a kind of religious taunting, just daring us to ask for forgiveness, while another man in dreads was giving away incense that when someone tried to take without paying, was told that they should make a donation to some charity. I had the girls hold my hands so we could weave through the people, look at whatever new halloween plastic was for sale, although the girls are now aware of this, of the oceans filling with rubbish and won't buy it now.

Now it will get cold, hopefully and we'll have at least one more winter. Someone asks how I got permission to grow my beard and I want to answer, I'm thirty-seven now, my whole life has been asking for permission. I don't need permission any more. My headphone broke and I bought new headphones. I don't need permission, I don't need to say anything. I stand back and watch the children start to sort things out for themselves and I think, what does it matter anyway. I can't sleep, it's two in the morning and so I suppose I'll open up what ever file I'm working on. Meditate, and make some coffee. The world will spin with you, you don't need to do anything to have it keep you going.

24 September 2019

Surrounded by water

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Last night, I dreamt that Birmingham was surrounded by water, that you could stand at some point and see that we'd been cut off from London. I tried to turn on the TV and there was electricity, but the BBC was gone. In the dream, I accepted it — at least the house was still standing, though in the way you wonder about continuity when you're dreaming, I thought about where the food was coming from, did we have any food. We must have, I wasn't hungry or thirsty.

I woke to the buzz of my activity tracker and the blue light and the sound of rain. I made coffee and there was some sound coming from outside that I couldn't place, like furniture was being moved, and I realised it might be thunder and the rain became heavier and lighter and I wondered, listening to it, if it was too warm for September, was this what we should expect in September. I thought I would meditate to the sound of the rain and I did, counting up to four and holding for four and then releasing for four and holding for four, but I couldn't keep count, I kept feeling panic, like I wasn't getting enough air. My head hung and I realised I had nodded off — I opened my eyes and it was seventeen minutes passed and I needed to read my email now.

The weather report says it will rain all day and tomorrow and this now is something I worry about — is the rain normal, should I be worried. Are the floods coming and as I open the shade to look outside, I look to see if and how swiftly the rain water is running down Victoria road. The house itself, the energy we use to heat and run our lives is carbon neutral, but what does that matter. It's only one thing and what does it matter if we all go vegan if there is no structural change. That's what they say anyway, but that's easy to say when you don't have to face your kids every day and try to teach them something, they have to live with this, and you can't just say to them like you do to people on Twitter, it's a structural problem, it doesn't matter what you do. You can't patronise them. You can't tell them it will all be okay, can you.

When I was a kid we worried about the apocalypse, but it was always something that someone told you about, that Jesus would come back suddenly without any notice. He would appear with the shout of a trumpet, those words, and I would sometimes hear the sound of a horn and be concerned, think that things were suddenly over. There was nothing to actually see though, no weather report, no melting ice sheet. Just that Jesus would suddenly be here and it would suddenly be over. Maybe seven years of tribulation, if you believed in that sort of thing, if you were a post-trib believer and thought we would have to endure some trials to be tested before Jesus really came back and ruled in peace for a thousand years. Seven years, anyone can manage seven years.

My daughter wants to strike on Fridays and I'm not sure what to say to her. I'm the enemy now, aren't I, I was the one who for thirty years or more dumped the CO2 into the atmosphere and not thought about it. I was an adult in the year two thousand, but I didn't know. I should have known. What am I supposed to say to her, tell her no, tell her that the teachers who say they can't strike are right. The eldest one said that, We aren't allowed to strike, and I said, that's the exact point — they don't want you to strike, they won't let you strike. At what point do we all need to put everything down — I don't know sweetheart, I don't know what to do either. Shut of the TV now, it's time to go to school anyway.

23 September 2019

Where the world starts

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Shinjuku goes in all directions. Every building seems to rise both up and deep into the ground; Google maps sometimes asks you what of eight levels are you on, what space do you inhabit. When I was younger without a phone, all of this was a vibrating mess of energy and possibility. I went first when I was twenty two, exactly fifteen years ago wasn't it now, when my mission as a missionary had failed and I was taking a job I didn't know anything about and heading north to Niigata later in the week. I was still an American and I wanted to buy Dr Pepper from the vending machines — they hadn't had it in Fukuoka. I was homesick, but it was becoming clear that I couldn't go back and the future would be nothing like the past.

I'm not twenty two anymore and the future seems less uncertain, a slow decline I can see down rather than a cliff. One starts to have the false sense there's little surprise left at this point in life, that you can see how this story ends. This is the insufferable thought of your late thirties: the only person who believes you are old is you. I nodded off on the train and woke up suddenly at Ogikubo, the foreign announcement stressing the wrong syllable to make it sound strange in Japanese. Now, hotels are booked for me: I say that I want some place with a breakfast and hope that I'll find something I can eat among the eggs and bacons and fish and milk powder bread. I pull on a linen sport jacket and take the train around and meet people who they say appreciate what I have to say to them or to their classes, but I'm sceptical about it, not whether I've said anything useful, but whether there is anything useful to say at all.

Time goes in three dimensions too. I look up as I wait to cross the road and there is Keio Plaza, the luxury hotel my dad had booked when my family came before the wedding, when they had money and the world wasn't starting to burn. I wasn't concerned that week they came, three or four days before the wedding, but it makes no sense — I was getting married, wasn't I, to someone I barely knew, in a country I barely knew, in a language I barely knew. A year later, I would have a one month old baby and we would be back in Tokyo for something else, I forget what now, but there are pictures to prove it. And then two years later — eleven years ago to the day wasn't it — we were going to the UK. Was I paying attention at all. I must have been, I think, I have to give myself some credit. I must have packed it somewhere, must have had some faith, like following a portage path you trust leads to some other, some bigger body of water, even if you can't be sure.

They say that the climate crisis will get worse now, that there are feedback loops that will make bad things compound and the knock-on effects mean the second half our millennial lives will get progressively worse, that our children will suffer. We deserve it, I think, as I take my vegan meal and beer on a transcontinental flight with hundreds of other people. What am I doing, what are any of us doing, playing in-flight Tetris and annoyed that there are still seven hours left and the person in front of me has reclined their seat. Are they using a straw too, dear god, there is nothing stopping us now, is there. We do the same things, but those same things compound and what we could have absorbed before, we can't now. An angry look as young lovers meant nothing, it dissolved like salt in water. Now we've become insolvent, unable to dissolve the same thing, now the sediment settles at the bottom, you can see it grow until the water is gone entirely and it is only sediment. Who is the last one off this rocketship.

And then of course, everything is still normal despite it being a bit hot. You pay your mortgage and take a shower. Like that. You go to work and teach classes. You weigh yourself. You pull on your trainers when your Garmin Vivosmart Plus buzzes you awake at five in the morning on the other side of the world and you go in search of some straight road to run. When I was younger, I never stayed in hotels. I remember this as I make the turn and run another seven hundred meters, what does it matter. When I was younger I took the bus overnight and the whispered voice of the bus driver in white gloves would wake me in Ikebukuro. The sun would be coming up, yes, I can remember it all, and I would sit in the cafe or McDonalds and eat meat without thinking about it and wonder about the future. Now, I am older but not yet old. I sit on the curb, in front of the hotel, staring at my phone, sweat puddling on the asphalt, waiting before it's time to go back inside. 

27 August 2019

Double Fantasy


Victoria Road is lined with cars on both sides, shockingly nice ones at times, like a Ferrari or a Porsche just there, just parallel parked next to something else. Woke like I am, I both hate and desire that Porsche SUV, the perfect representation of what I would immediately buy if I managed to properly sell out and also get more for my soul than it's actually worth. Cars get stolen regularly on the street. There are urban myths now I've heard about mean in balaclavas stealing BMWs and Audis. Our neighbour's car was taken. The corridor of cars creates a need for lovingkindness, for people to give way in a polite middle class way, to let others pass, and I find this bit of British life, this cordial attitude on the road, to be evidence that at its core, the story I tell myself about England is more-or-less right. People wave and flash their headlamps, You go ahead, you were here first to be fair, lovely weather anyway, isn't it.

This cordial attitude breaks down at times, often in dramatic ways, like the car that ploughed in another neighbour when they were parking and which sped off and which was never caught. You stand around shocked by the incivility of it all, they just drove off did they? Remarkable. Then, at other times, it breaks down when two well-groomed men, parodies of themselves, in large German cars will be head to head and neither will give way. A pissing match will play out, build to the most obvious ending of one of them finally giving way, but it can go on for minutes sometimes. They are the sorts of men you expect would not want to give way. They are not woke, clearly not worried about their carbon footprint. They sit there, in their white German cars and shout at one another, making their point like it matters. I have to stop myself from going out their in my pyjamas, and telling them the truth. I've been watching you from the bay window there, from my house. None of this matters. You're both going to die — we're all going to die.

Of course, I'm not aggressive enough to do that, but who can blame me: it's becoming increasingly obvious in the growth of my thin beard, that I have a comically low amount of testosterone, undoubtedly due to my plant-based, protein-deficient diet and the fact that my parents let me cross stitch images of Precious Moments figurines as a pastime. The contrast couldn't be more obvious. These men are driving fast and interrupted me nervously waiting for a letter from my employer, doing exactly the sort of thing a man with low testosterone might: keeping my mind off of it by watching old interviews of John Lennon on YouTube. It's a weak self-indulgence all the way down.

I went for a long walk on Friday, the first day the letter didn't come. I walked up to town and thought I might watch a film and was one touchscreen step away from seeing the new Tarantino film before I felt guilty for wanting to watch something roughly in the male gaze genre, and decided I was too woke for this, wasn't I. We've cancelled Tarantino now, haven't we, and even if I could maybe put that thought out of my head, I would be counting how long the men were talking rather than the women. How minorities were being represented. It would go on and on, wouldn't it.

So I kept walking. I had a coffee and thought about having a vegan cookie, something my wokeness would allow theoretically if I was capable of eating like a normal person, which I certainly can't at the moment. I decided against it, exerting some self-control, which I suppose could be considered Spartan. Manish. I had a series of violent dreams and woke to my daughter saying she was sick and ended up sleeping the rest of the night on the sofa. Someone on Twitter said that the beard you have is the one you have. A tautology, sure, but all the best truths are stated as tautologies. I get up and make coffee and look in the mirror. Maybe it is filling in some, I can't tell. I've been watching you, I think, none of this matters.

23 August 2019

Misanthropy

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At the foot of Snowdon, the Pihlajas of Harborne set out with the kind of gusto that can only be felt when you're eight and looking up at a mountain you are about to climb with no concept of how hard climbing that mountain will actually be. I was Dad, in the way that I am really Dad sometimes, pointing at the map and making pronouncements like I know something about something — here, this way and then up that way and if you look, you can see there where the train goes up. Dad knows because Dad can read the map and look up and make sense of it in the landscape, like a magic trick. Dad might not know specifically, but Dad knows from experience, whatever it is, Dad knows, can know, he just needs to have a look then he will make his pronouncement. Just, everyone, quiet down for a moment.

Dad certainly has its limitations, it is without any doubt, an evolutionary ruse. What certainty, what truth — like foreign job postings that have been catching my eye in the way that they shouldn't now that we have indefinite leave to remain. Dad shouldn't be thinking like this, but Dad can't seem to help it, remembering a time of not Dad that comes when autumn comes, whatever that youthful, not Dad desire for radical change is and how it comes to be tied to the seasons. I went to Japan in the autumn. We came to the UK in the autumn. When I was doing my PhD, I called it Japanic, the feeling that I just wanted to drop everything and get my family on a plane and go back, find whatever wormhole I crawled through and go back — if you came one way, you must be able to go back. Now I have the same feelings about Sweden in silly ways when I'm standing in the Ikea food market and see the knäckebröd and the umlauts and think, Here I am in Brexit Britain, of all places.

I didn't know it, but climbing Snowdon on a Monday in August must be a typical Dad thought because when you look around yourself about forty five minutes into the hike, at about ten in the morning, there are people everywhere, Dad all around. With my penchant for apocalyptic thinking, I imagined this being compounded day after day and week after week, the millions of paper cups of coffee with their plastic lids sold at the halfway house and how much rubbish must be produced in one day, even if most times Dad does the right thing and throws it away, it still ends up somewhere. Perhaps this thought isn't typically Dad — it must not be because I saw Dad with cups on the trail — but the mechanism I use to take my mind off the uncertainty of the future, is very prototypical Dad, direct from the Dad Handbook: I'm short with the children and say things that I end up regretting when they ask, How much longer is it. You recognise the sorts of awful things Dad says when you hear some other Dad chastising their kid and you think, Jesus, Dad, he's 9, and then there you are, Dad yourself, expecting your own 8 year-old to press on, to have a realistic understanding of the abstract concept of time, something you yourself don't even really understand. Getting upset when they ask how much longer it will be. What’s wrong with Dad, what the hell is wrong with all of us.

We pressed on and at some point it rained and then was cold and then was sunny and then there it was, the very top and people going on in a single file line, like pilgrims headed to maybe kiss the stone I thought, or to ask for forgiveness, or to do whatever it is that you do at the top of a Welsh mountain. The kids ate at the edge and we took pictures and eventually, we had seen the top.

12 August 2019

It starts

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The vicar mentioned said it yesterday — the weather has turned autumnal. This is British autumn, which begins at the end of July and continues on in fits and starts until November or early December when Christmas takes hold. It's raining and cool in the morning, and when I set out to run even this afternoon, I could get feel it still. I ran slow and fat, after a few days of mania, induced by some phantom stress and vivid dreams, or the lack of structure of the summer holiday where I am taking annual leave, but also still working on things that seem to be coming up. A grant application kicked back for an error. A pay appeal. Dissertation drafts to comment on. I'm on holiday, but not in the way that other people manage to be on holiday, where they go away and forget about everything. There is no money this year, at least I don't think there is, so I'm playing defense still, getting mixed signals. I probably shouldn't tell anyone the newest news — it's likely to change anyway, isn't it.

I'm growing a beard in the meanwhile, to occupy my mind. As a beard and an distraction, it's not really working. There are only so many cocky men on YouTube with beautiful, flowing, long beards  and wildly divergent views on how you should or shouldn't trim your beard that you can watch. There are only so many beard oils and balms — it takes passive time and you never notice the changes day-to-day, even if you stare at yourself. Even if you trim five or six stray hairs. I finally get the energy to run and think — think about my beard and then about my pay appeal and then the climate crisis and then about the dreams I have been having, the vivid ones that I wake up from and wonder what a body is anyway.

When I eat too much, I sleep soundly and remember my dreams. I had a dream about the house in Gurnee, the one my parents sold last month. I was there alone, at the table, waiting for something and then I called my dad asking where he was, had they come home from church, were they at church and he said it's nine thirty-one and I woke up suddenly. And then last night I dreamt I had driven out to Johnsburg and my daughters were with me, and that house, the one that my body remembers, was exactly the way that it was when I was seventeen. I woke up and fell asleep again on the sofa. They say that in jail, you shouldn't try to sleep the whole time, you should keep a schedule. You should let the time serve you. You should write something. You should process something.

So it's memories, its things coming back to me as I sleepwalk around for the month. I remember that in 2005, I had a John Lennon poster in my apartment in Matsuhama. I don't remember buying it or why I had felt the connection with Lennon initially, but then I was dating Yoko and I felt like it was all coming together in some storyline that had been told before. Yoko Ono was seven years older than John, too. We were in Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy exhibit in the Museum of Liverpool and that shirt, that New York City t-shirt he was wearing in that poster was there. I took a picture of it and it was raining outside, wasn't it, for a while and we had to wait for a minute for the rain to pass before we could leave.

I tell Yoko it's a sickness, when I can't stop eating, I'm sick, I don't know if it's a sickness. I want to fall asleep again — can I sleep until September and I have to get on the plane to Japan and work again, work until there is nothing to think about but work. Perhaps it's just a desire for routine. I'm an animal, I need to do the same thing or I lose my way. At least today is mostly done and I had some control. My beard got slightly longer. I ran. I went for a walk. It'll be September soon enough.

30 July 2019

The fluids, the humours


It was raining heavily when I walked up to the train station and I wondered what about this, what about the rain. You have a kind of strange phantom limb as a person who used to believe but doesn't believe anymore. Maybe Jesus will come back and sort this all out. Of course he won't, of course that was all a lie. But still. Still.

I'm revisiting my apocalyptic fears that I had as a child with the now very real presence of the deteriorating climate all around us. The flash heating of airline travel has been on my mind as the summer of bad climate news continues on and all of Europe seems to be burning up. I'm not sure what superpower will enable me to ignore this, except for a change in the weather over the weekend when it was suddenly autumn again and I felt a kind of calming that has evaded me all month. It's not like the false prophecy of the second coming where you can just say, no, it's not real, and go on with things. I want to blame it on something, on some other thing outside of me, but clearly whatever it is, it is inside of me, waking me up at all hours, and wanting to be fed, literally, with food. I'm eating all night long and I wake up thinking I can run it off. What an elaborate set of lies you can tell yourself; I will do this, this, and then this and it will be okay then.

Someone said to me, during the heat, This humidity must remind you of Malaysia, and I had to think about it. Yes, of course it did, but then, it seemed like all the worries were closer. Whatever money I had or didn't have. I was eating fried chicken in honey sauce with cashew nuts then. I had stopped running and was content to be fat. Not content, of course, what am I saying. It's funny how the way the present is changes your view of the past — that is what I said to the person asking me about Malaysia, anyway, as I looked out the window of his office at some tree. I focused on different things then, didn't I.

Now, the summer is coming and I'm supposed to go on leave. We haven't got plans, really, because we didn't have money when I needed to do the planning. I will be up every hour, one assumes, eating something and then feeling guilty and then running. It's silly, isn't it.

16 July 2019

The mother we share

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In the student accomodation at the University of Liverpool, you can pull a kind of sliding Ikea cabinet door over the window to block out the light. On the ceiling, there is what seems to be a pull-cord alarm marked 'Anxiety Alarm' without a cord. In the course of the conference, it came out that this was true of all the rooms, none of the anxiety alarms had cords. What sort of metaphor is this, I thought: they've installed an alarm, but it can't be used. When my Garmin Vivosmart+ buzzed me awake on the second day, I felt disoriented the way you do in a new place, inside this cabinet. I sweated all night because the window didn't open more than an inch, presumably so if you felt anxiety, you didn't jump. I took a piss and pulled on my trainers, and set out on a run towards Everton, where I had looked online and found a long park to run through with some stretch of road that seemed like you could go down without thinking.

The house my parents sold early this week is the house I grew up in, but that's a bit of a misnomer. I didn't grow up in any single place — we moved around a lot, I say, although that's only true in a small, un-American way. We moved a normal amount; this was the house I was a teenager in and where I went home for all of my twenties and twice now, in my thirties. The house was, by any standard, huge, much bigger than my family ever really needed. I stayed in the finished loft and had it full of guitars, and for most of high school treated like a museum to myself. I saved anything that meant anything: pictures, ticket stubs, receipts, the strings from the acoustic guitar that I had used when my band recorded our EP. I had all of my books from university for most of my twenties, but then when we were back the last time, I gave them all away in a fit of minimalism, even my Faulkner books which I regret now, though I would never read them if I had them. My grandmother died in one of the rooms. And then all the memories you can't say to anyone, the ones that you keep to yourself. I think now, if Jesus hadn't spoken to me there, if he hadn't called me to Japan that summer, what had.

After my legs warmed up and I came to the top of the hill at the park, I saw the Mersey and the port down below and suddenly I could see slave ships coming and going like a kind of tracing paper over the horizon. The past stacking up on itself. I ran past a Victorian building that had been boarded up, and in the blue light, everything was haunted. Then at the conference dinner, when I got away from the crowd for a moment and looked out, I had the same sense — who had fallen here, had been killed or beaten. How much blood was in the water, diluted after a hundred years or more now of everything circulating in and out.

It's a silly thought. Why this violence, why this memory. I was on the phone with a friend on Friday night, ecstatic to share some vague positive news. I had ordered an insufferable pizza without cheese — I clarified to the man several times I didn't want any cheese and he had to clarify it several more times to the man further back in the shop making it. I went outside and was talking and pacing and almost stumbled over what I thought was a pile of rubbish, but turned out to be a homeless man bent over and barely conscious. But this is not an emergency in Brexit Britain, not even something to note. You just think, I best not get involved, and walk away, because these tragedies are on every corner and what am I: I'm one person and I pay my taxes and this is what they, the British wanted, isn't it, and can feel marginally better about myself.

The metaphors continued: there wasn't enough vegan food and then too much. The girls are collecting toys to give to a girl they know about who's become homeless. I got back to the house on Victoria Road on Sunday and it was cool and empty — some of the children were gone, although I forget where and which ones. You eat sandwiches for eight days from conference tables and you feel disoriented and bloated. I'm not sure what to eat anymore. Am I high fat, or am I no longer thinking about calories — have I stopped making the protein cookies or do I need to start them up again. I drank more than I normally would in all that haunted darkness, but it was vegan wine and vegan ale. Local, of course, that ale. Ethically sourced. I eat an apple and sit at the dining table, waiting for the girls to start to wake up and thinking that I should meditate.

10 July 2019

When to say goodbye

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Niigata City, in northwestern Japan, is the Japanese Pittsburgh, I've said in the past. Hull, in the UK, I suppose, more accurately, a grey port city with a river and paper factories spewing smoke in a way that I was never comfortable with when I taught in the primary school across the road. I ended up in Niigata by accident, having failed as a missionary in Fukuoka City and hoping to hide for a time, to regroup and make sense of the world again and decide what it is that I wanted. Have a good time maybe, for the first time in my life. Nothing had worked out the way that I thought, and all I wanted was to disappear, buy a motorbike and make some money. Take a year or two out, and then get back to it.

When I left Niigata four years later, I was married with a one-year old baby and another child on the way that I didn't know about. We got on that ferry that pulled away from the city and I knew I would not be back, there would never be any reason to be back even though it was, by any measure, my home. The tiny 2DK apartment I had in Matsuhama outside of town — the one I rented because I could afford it and it was convenient — is a perfect metonymy for everything my life has become: accidental and random and blessed through misguided bloody mindedness. You could just see the river between the houses from the window in the second room. Yoko came to me in that apartment, and then Naomi came, just like that, without any effort, without any plan. The windows could open on three sides to let in the sea air. Everything changed so suddenly, in ten months really, but it didn't feel like that at the time. It felt like a day was a week, that we had been together for years and years and of course, whatever we did, we would be okay, because what is love but a commitment to being okay, no matter what. You say that, don't you, when you marry, when you lie to each other about what you'll do and not do. In good times and bad, sure, how bad can it get.

That was almost fifteen years ago, as I think about it. I romanticise it now, but that's just because I was reckless and me in my mid-to-late thirties admires the recklessness of me in my early-to-mid twenties, even if he was misguided and foolishly optimistic. Even if he was full of magical thinking and insecurity. That version of me didn't give a fuck. He wasn't thinking about consequences — I was twenty-three, what was the worst that could happen. My broken Japanese was a joke. We got married on a clear blue day and the windows were open because it was warm and the cicadas were out and the future, what was the future, before everything, before the melting ice shelf, before the mortgage and the visas and the children needing whatever they need. I walked to the seven-eleven to buy ice cream.

Of course, you're only twenty three for one year and then you're twenty four, and then twenty five and then and then and then. Now, the children are leaving for school and I too need to get on with things. My petty responsibilities that pay the bills, the new four hundred pound vacuum cleaner that I would have been apoplectic about even last year now seems to make perfect sense. I had to sell my motorbike at some point, the mini-cub that you kick started and went faster than it was legally allowed to go. It was fun while it lasted, but eventually the baby, the fleck, the shadow that I saw for the first time on an ultrasound monitor and took my breath away became real. I didn't even have to think about it — things become real without you doing anything. You see the face of your child and it is part your face and that sense that the world is just spinning what does it matter, ends. It counts now. I trawl through pictures from that year and see it in my eyes, the slow realisation that things have started to count.

03 July 2019

Try to forgive

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The British summer hangs on, and it’s bright and cool in the morning. I can, for the minute it takes my Garmin to find a GPS satellite, stand and enjoy it. There was more bad environmental news and I think about all the self-talk and cognitive dissonance the changing world will require of us. I have a car, how silly that is as an evolutionary coping mechanism. I want to attribute blame for things that we cannot blame anyone for. Maybe it’s Trump’s fault, or Boris Johnson, or whoever. Some rich person who doesn’t think about using plastic. Not me, the insufferable plant-based vegan who bought Quorn slices without checking if they had egg whites and then struggled for the next half hour with what to do as I walked from Sainsbury’s to Starbucks. There was no choice, it seemed, but to throw them away or eat them. I bought vegan shoes with birthday money from my in-laws, but the shoes are plastic, non-biodegradable, so I have to apologise for them too, to people that care, anyway. They’re pouring some terrible amount of concrete every minute in China, but these shoes will last for two hundred or more years and that will be my fault.

The same environmental news that had me thinking about a world without clouds and how soon it would be before the antibiotics stop working, also mentioned 2014 and I remembered that year like it had just happened, or indeed was happening now, the way the past is omnipresent when you're thirty seven and starting to feel like there's little chance things are going to change drastically for you. We had just come back to England, free from Malaysia and I was ready to be nostalgic. The weather this week, that crisp morning when it’s still a bit dry, makes me think of the Cameron Highlands and how we had gone strawberry picking and walked out into the tea fields in the mountains, whatever sweaty haze that was below us, hanging about KL, gone in a memory. And then in a month we had come back, come home to England and started the new chapter of troubles, our visa troubles, a chapter which is itself finished. What now, you wonder, what troubles now.

Mia had her birthday party, her first real one, at a trampoline park. We never really have had a proper birthday party for her, an embarrassment that came up when she was naming off potential friends to invite. I initially thought that can't be right, but I was smart enough to shut up because it must be, they told me it was. Eight partyless years — I thought about them while waiting for the late children to appear so I could shepherd them up to the trampolines. What litany of mistakes have I made as a father and husband — sure, I am holding my daughter's purse and phone now, but what things have I failed to notice, what things have been wanted that I didn't provide. The party clipped on, and the kids were happy with the junk food served to them by a tired twenty-something woman who didn't seem bothered by the copious amount of wasted plastic we generated. Like that, the eight partyless years faded into memory — I bought slushies for whoever wanted them and offered leftover sandwiches to the parents standing on the edge and watching.

In their grace, the girls seem blissfully unaware of my failings so far, although they do occasionally call me out for my constant swearing and furrowed brow. One assumes that they have noticed something, that they’ve encoded all of this stress deep within their psyche, the way I have vague memories of my father being upset, but I can't remember when or about what. I can hear my irritated sarcastic comments in their British voices sometimes, like some developing polaroid of myself.

Of course, you need to keep your expectations in line. What’s a manageable goal. What responsibilities do we have. The Garmin catches its satellite and buzzes that it’s ready. How silly, next to this car, I have a machine that I tell where I am going so that it will then tell me how fast I’ve gone there. How silly that I run in circles and circles because I’m afraid I ate too much. How silly to have plastic vegan shoes so that some animal, somewhere might not suffer. I ate the vegetarian Quorn slices with the egg whites in them and tried to forgive myself. Can this chapter be about forgiveness, can we do it all again from the beginning. You could wind back in the tape, like a cassette and a pencil. Of course, that assumes some beginning, doesn’t it. Before everything, before the children and the news about the ice shelf melting. I’m waiting for you, anyway, out by the garden, because it’s sunny now and they have the windows open.

17 June 2019

Thirty four


Saturday, the mania high water mark finally came. I had been planning to wait until Monday to see if I had erased the visa stress eating four kilograms, the weight for which I blamed the Home Office and every unsympathetic person I have met over the last five years who didn’t know what their country had put my little family through. Four kilograms was nothing, not even real weight, but if we don’t have metrics, we don’t have anything. My plan to wait until Monday made sense on paper, but then it didn’t and when I got up at 2AM on Saturday, I was too tempted. I stripped down naked to climb on the scale and stop it all. And there is was, the Japanese algorithm from this scale we’ve dragged with us from country to country, telling me that I was thirty-four years old, in terms of the metrics. This doesn’t feel good, I thought, looking down at the number. It doesn’t feel like anything. I got dressed again and put the scale back and went up again to bed for another couple of hours. There it is, I guess. I guess now I can go back to being normal.

Father’s Day I got up to run, but was immediately distracted — made coffee and meditated and procrastinated. I looked online at things and scrolled endlessly until I finally realised I needed to go now, right now, or it wouldn’t happen. It had not been raining and I felt good, as good as I have anyway. My body being light and aged only thirty four years, in terms of the metrics, I put on the 180 beats per minute running track list and went to a little loop up by the hospital where you can run one kilometre, going down an incline and then up a hill. Around and around, my Garmin GPS watch buzzing off the pace on each kilometre. I went eight and then nine and then ten and thought, I should do a half marathon one of these days, now that I am thin again and eleven buzzed and then twelve and then thirteen and I kept going.

Mei and Yoko were waiting for me at the door with a handmade card, and I was drenched with sweat. The card opened with a little cut-out for me, with my beard and glasses, but smiling. Mei had written ‘Vegan’ in the corner with a slab of meat crossed out, and I thought, yes, this is what I am now, this is what everything is revolving around. I showered and Naomi and I walked to church together. We sang some hymns I didn't know, but it didn't matter and I felt ill about halfway through the service and realised my body was weaker from the run than I thought even though it only was thirty four. The service ended and we had tea then the girls and I and Yoko went to town to have coffee and celebrate.

In ten days, I will be thirty seven, but that doesn’t matter because your age is just a number. Your weight is also just a number. Everything, it turns out, is just a number. I woke up at four AM and it was just a number. I showered and put on my sport coat to go to London for the day. The sun had come up and the rain had stopped again.

14 June 2019

More than you want

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The rain keeps up for the fifth or sixth day now and I think I've finally adapted. I can't write. I can't sleep. I keep waking in ninety minute intervals, ready to eat, ready to do something, first at one and then at two thirty. I act like I don't know what it is that's keeping me up, but I do know of course; I'm not eating enough to cover my running. I'm obsessive and then eat too much and then too little and then it's high fat then it's calorie maintenance then it's something else and I can't control it. Or I can control it too much, too carefully. I wake up and look myself in the mirror, look at the beard I'm growing and tell myself to be normal, you can be normal. You'll be thirty seven in thirteen days. Be normal, stop being whatever this is.

A student, one of my favourite students from a few years ago, was in campus and we chatted about the last couple of months and what he was doing. He was eating something which he offered me, and I didn't know what to say: No, not for any number of reasons, but thank you for offering. We walked together and I gave some advice about life plans, what another degree is worth in the grand scheme of things. We said goodbye at the top of the stairs and I went on to the next meeting, but I was happy the conversation had steered clear of animals and climate change and how tired I look — good, that's not what I'm here for anyway.

In thirteen days, I will be thirty seven. Every year you live, your life expectancy increases and even though I feel old, what an insufferable kind of old thirty seven will be. I will be young again when I'm forty, but until then I will just be getting older and older. My parents sent me a tracksuit, and I grew a beard — it's incongruity all the way down. You need someone you trust and love enough to say to you, Stop. Just stop. I wake up and eat again and have more coffee and meditate until everyone wakes up and the excruciating television show of the moment is turned on and off in the other room. I let the cat out and go back to my work, these two paragraphs I'm revising that I can't quite get right about how people avoid talking about the things that matter. Stare at a map of Tokyo trying to make plans for my autumn when I'll break free again, the guilt of however many kilograms of CO2 my flight will produce hanging over me like a judgement.

Instead, I'm just running and running. Running faster than I have before, with a metronome in my ear 178 beats per minute or 184 beats per minute like the trail is a treadmill and there are not hills. I got new shoes and ran so much they don't look new after fourteen days. I have a metric for that, the app will tell me how many  kilometers they've taken me if I look: there it is, 143.3 and I'll do another seven this afternoon. The rain stopped me a day or two and I found myself wandering around the house after I had proofread the pages I needed to and stood in my pyjamas looking out at Victoria Road, the water rushing down and thinking about the impending climate disasters that we rightly hear about now. Where are my children. Are they out in this.

Of course they are. The world has not stopped spinning, has it, all the concerns about net zero emissions and at what point we say the rain has become a part of a climate crisis and not just the rain, not just another day of rain. I don't know. I bought a new phone and felt guilty. I ordered something and it came in plastic and I felt guilty. I ran home and ate beans and curry. Waited to fall asleep and then wake up again.

07 June 2019

Home


My accent can create a kind of fishing expedition, with whomever it is I’m talking to, eager to tell me something about themselves, about where they have been in the States or their aunt or cousin living in Boston. I don't have patience for this like I should — when people ask me where I'm from, I will say I have lived in the UK for ten years and when their face drops and you can see they are searching for that phrase they know they should say 'Yeah, but where are you really from' I will throw them a bone and say, ‘But I grew up in Chicago.’ This is a demonstrable lie to anyone who knows anything about me or Chicago, but it’s close enough for British ears, something that perks the asker back up, the exotic Windy City, whatever that entails for you.

For me, Chicago, or Gurnee rather, the real place I grew up in the suburbs, is sort of embarrassing. It’s a town known for a rollercoaster and mall, if I’m being honest, and if I'm really being honest, I grew up in several places, in Texas and in Minnesota, and I was actually born in North Carolina, but this sort of story loses people around Minnesota, so I try to avoid getting further into the specifics. 

And now my parents are in the process of selling our home in Gurnee. After that, I will be from nowhere. I knew this was coming and now it has come and there's a final day. I could go back, but of course now, I have my family, and the children and work and so many other things to think about. I get asked how I feel — I don't feel anything, do I. What memories come up — nothing I can say to anyone, nothing I can write about while we're all still alive. It would implicate too many people. So that's that, isn't it. I hang up the phone, one of the kids needs something, I can hear them.

I can't sleep, or rather, I can't sleep as long as I think I should. I wake up because the sun is up and I think back to last year when I was in Sweden and the sun never seemed to come down and you could sleep with the window open, waiting for some number on the digital clock so I could go out and run around the lakes, have a big breakfast and try to stay awake the rest of the day.

There's so much to be done, isn't there. I open my eyes and and it's 4:27, too early to get up, too late to go back to sleep. What does one do. I wander downstairs and stack dishes or wash them. Meditate. Turn on the computer. Burn some candles and wait for the rest of everyone to wake up.

12 May 2019

Protection

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Mei's tenth birthday party went off without a hitch, Yoko busy in the kitchen for the day and me standing around awkwardly cleaning or proofreading a chapter or staring at my phone. The girls came in like a whirlwind and ate and laughed and shouted, and I, in a lapse in judgement, told this story of a time when we, my brother and father and I and some other men, drove out on a Friday night into the New Mexican desert, towards the Florida Mountains, on the edge of Mexico, and found a place to camp at the foot of one of them. The story was about how cold it gets at night, even in the desert, but when you were packed in together, you can be warm. We slept under the stars, I said, and one of the girls piped up to ask, what if it rained and the other one said, it's the desert.

I remember this story in the way you remember weird things floating inside of your library of memories. Things you are fairly sure actually happened, but who really knows. I'm sure it did and now, looking on the Internet, I can see the names of the mountains that I didn't know and road we must have taken. I can see, although I never thought of it, that our house faced west. But I don't remember who exactly had gone. It must have been the church and Dennis Powers, the scholar in our lives, the geologist that my dad respected even though Dr Powers knew the earth was not ten thousand years old, must have brought us there. This would have been around the time of Promise Keepers. It was all men, there were no women. We ate a lot of meat, I'm sure, and pancakes in the morning, the food all packed in thick plastic Igloo coolers. Again, I don't remember this exactly. I remember sleeping under the stars and feeling safe as you do as a child, surrounded by men to protect you. Something deep in our subconscious where all embodied metaphors come from. 

The girls listened to the story and then decided they wanted to sleep outside in the tent I'd pitched earlier, which hadn't been the plan. They started shuttling things out to the garden, and I was sent out back to the tent to dissuade them, although of course at this point I couldn't. They would wear coats, they said, it would be fine. When the night came though, I suddenly thought about the time we had been broken into, and the stabbing, but as they watched Britain's Got Talent on the flat screen TV, giggling and eating popcorn on the sofa and blankets on the floor, I fell asleep watching Goodfellas in my bed. The time came for them to camp out and they stomped through the house full of giddy energy, and I went out to tell them to be quiet and sleep. I said I would sleep on the sofa, but then Yoko took the blanket and did instead, like the mother bear, the tiger with the cubs, the light on in the living room. 

At 4, I woke for the day, my own giddy energy for marking and running and writing, and sent Yoko back to bed, waiting in the grey light, trying to meditate and thinking about care. That morning in the desert, we had packed up as it got warm and I took off my hoodie and was in shirt sleeves in the sun and we drove back east to El Paso. We must have, I don't remember it. I remember those mountains, always in the distance then, when the thunderstorms would come. In the night, I stir — my daughter in the other room is screaming in her sleep like I do sometimes. I think I might wake her, but I stay in bed, waiting, wondering if it will pass.

11 May 2019

Work until you die

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There was a stabbing in Harborne, just on Tennal Road over the hill from the house on Victoria Road. It was a Wednesday night, and Yoko had been out walking. A neighbour dropped off Mei and we heard the sounds of the police, but didn't know what had happened. They cordoned off the road and the Birmingham Mail published pictures of women standing in the street with their faces in their hands, crying. I ran up the street the next weekend and there were balloons and pictures and flowers and I thought, yes, this is the place you would knife someone — the pavement narrows here and there's nowhere to run. The boys must have known each other and we, the British middle class say all the things we can to avoid talking about race and class. We talk about the estate over the road. We talk about how old the kid was — they were just kids. I'm not really worried, of course not, but the girls should be careful walking to and from school.

Then there was a hit and run on our street, someone plowed into a neighbour and sped off, this on a bright Sunday afternoon. Everyone stands around in disbelief, this is a thing that happens apparently, and you wonder if you should add now to that point, am I that age, the age where I talk about how things have changed and gotten worse. I blame Brexit, of course, the lack attention of the government to the things that really matter. The rich are getting richer, but so am I, that's the thing, the house values have gone up, and we don't see them going down. We all stand outside, hands on hips, shaking our heads.

I'm still just thirty-six. I went to the doctor because I hadn't been in years and having given my obsessions over to the plant-based diet, I've worried that the liars who lie to you about meat and diary might secretly be right. The GP, a woman who must have been my age, asked why I was there and I sputtered through some things, about being vegan and obsessive and having this lump on my leg. She looked at it, have negotiating my consent to touch it and then came around to getting a blood test. I had blood drawn and walked back the next Monday, worried that my B12, the dreaded B12, would be down, but it wasn't. I was in perfect health, astonishingly good cholesterol. Liver and kidney, normal. No diabetes. Blood pressure was great, pulse outstanding. Just slightly low iron stores from giving blood, but I could top those up with iron pills for a month or two. I was fine, of course, no cause for any concern.

I thanked her and left disappointed in the way you are when you think you're missing something but you aren't. Being deficient would have been convenient, wouldn't it, I could then eat something and feel better. It turns out I'm eating whatever I'm supposed to, that death is still a long way off, and I have to keep up for everyone that depends on me. That boy who was confronted by the other one with the knife, thrown over into the luminous void without a second to reflect. I've lived twice as long as he did. What do I have to show for it. Yoko says cancer is not a bad way to die. It's like going into the bath, slowly letting yourself down into the water. I think, yes, I will put on my backpack now and head out like a child to Europe to search for whatever it is I'm missing. It's not B12, apparently.

The weather changed and then changed back and I woke up this morning to put up the tent for Mei's birthday party. I did it barefoot and came inside realising my feet had gone numb in the grass. The sun is up though and it will warm over the morning. Maybe I will go for a run before the party or maybe I won't, thinking that my body is so tired still and I'm not sleeping well with all the things on my mind — sure, the stabbing, but then there is everything else, the other raft of middle class white male problems. Existential ones, but only in a metaphorical way, stupid ones. My daughters barrelling towards adulthood. A marriage that is a diary filled with things the children need to do. Reflection on life like going through things for the recycling. It's unremarkable. It all ends up in the same place, doesn't it — you wheel the rubbish bin to be picked up the next morning. You shut off the lights and go to bed.

17 April 2019

Running fast

Naomi and Norte Dame

Settled for over a month, the phantom ache of impending judgment is gone, now some medical metaphor: a gap you tongue in your mouth where an abscessed tooth has been removed. I gave blood on Thursday after writing all morning and then went to look at an apartment to buy, a second property, on a whim, because I have convinced myself I need some passive income, what with the children and eventual costs of universities and travels abroad. I didn't have the money I needed, short almost the exact amount I had lost to my visa. I left the office feeling unhappy, but the sun was shining and there was nowhere to be, and I sat in Rep Theatre sending some emails and thinking about cycling home.

To run fast, you need to try to run fast. This is a tautology. If you are running, you can run faster if you just do. I realised this one year, in Kent, when I was running in the forest and I was alone and bored. I just ran as fast as I could, and I ran faster. Now, finally, after the change in the time, the sun is coming up earlier and staying out later and I can run outside again. I gave up on the shoes I bought in the autumn that had been hurting my feet and went back to the shoes I've had for 16 months now and are getting close to having two thousand kilometers on them, but they fit perfectly and I can go run my 10k as fast as I can. I say as fast as I can, but the first kilometer is still too slow. I say to myself that I won't run the first kilometer for speed, but then I do. I say I won't start sprinting at some point in the eighth kilometer, but then I do. I say I won't pay attention to my heart rate and then I do, I get it at 150 and then I just watch it for a minute or two minutes or ten. And I am back running wherever it was that I am remembering running. Finland last year, wasn't it, or Chicago or wherever.

We were in London on Monday, pin-balling over from Regent Street to Soho, so Naomi could use the Hamley's voucher she'd won in a photo contest. We had bibimbap at a Korean shop near Soho Square Gardens and then went through to some place over by Covent Garden, a shop with two white British otaku selling Japanese and Korean kitsch. The kids were overjoyed over it all, thumbing through things you could never get anywhere else and telling me how much cheaper everything was in Japan and I stood there bemused and awful, thinking about how none of this was really Japanese, was it, this false otaku national narrative about a country no one has ever been to, but I have, I've been there, I wanted to say. It's nothing like this. It's drunk salarymen, and ramen, and packed trains. And old women hunched over in rice paddies that look up when you ride your bicycle by them. No one goes to maid cafes.

There was a climate change protest that we walked through and I felt the same sort of cynicism about the hare krishnas and the hipsters and thinking that we had no chance because people who looked like my dad weren't out there yet, and then hating myself for being cynical and embarrassed by something I actually believe, particularly after the vicar for St Peters, Father Graeme had, on Sunday morning when we went from the cricket ground to the church singing some Palm Sunday Hymn, implored us to not be embarrassed. I thought to myself, what's there to be embarrassed about, this is the national religion in the most middle class of white suburbs in the city. Are we afraid of the smirking atheist, walking by and judging us. I'm right here, I wanted to say, I've given up, nothing can touch us any more.

But the girls spent their pocket money and they were buzzing and I too caught the buzz, the sort of happiness you feel when your children are happy and we made our way to the National Gallery to sprint through the way you do when you have children they have grown tired. I saw the Pissarro's 'The Boulevard Montmartre at Night' and Mei told Yoko and me about Delaroche's 'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' which she knew an impressive amount about and I stood there in front of it, thinking of how much can change in just nine days, Lady Jane Grey's hand looking like it is reaching for the cutting block to stabilise her, the Lieutenant guiding her, the description says, using that verb guide.

It's like that isn't it, all the things your children come to know that you don't know. On the underground, they seemed more capable than they have in the past, but you still can see on their faces how big the city is for small people. I can now see them as they are in the future, living down there and me as their father visiting them with the phantom memories of what I thought was my present now have become my past. I used to work here, I think, it seems like last year but it was ten years ago, when climate change was happening in hundreds of years, not now. The same autumn we went to Paris the first time, and were in that Pizza Express on Quai St Michel and I was taking those pictures of Naomi. I was there with my sister then that next year, wasn't I, we had kebabs on the Seine, down on the concrete, and then with my brother this summer, when we just walked and walked and walked. I look up on the Bakerloo line and tell them, this is our stop. How do I know it is. I just do. I was here once, I think. Some memory is just on the edge.

03 April 2019

Something before nothing

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There was snow in the highlands this morning, or at least the neighbour tells us this as Yoko and I make our way up Victoria Road, back from the High Street and a failed attempt to buy a shirt. Yes, there was frost on the car, and ice patterned like spider web on everything when I had gone out this morning, barefoot, at five in the morning. Winter holds on until it doesn't — we wave goodbye and are home then, to do whatever needs to be done for the afternoon and until the children come crashing back.

After the letter last month, after the money had been spent and I had worked myself up and had my final complaints in with everyone, it was just silence. How many years had it been, I said, since I had a permanent visa — I have never had a permanent visa in the 16 I have been wandering away from home. What do you do when you get the thing you have wanted — it felt like marriage, where nothing and everything changes over night. You can't see the change.

I still can't sleep. I wake up after 90 minutes or three hours. I wander downstairs, I make breakfast, or I don't. I check my email and wonder if I should work, if I should just keep going or if I should try to sleep again. I look in the mirror. I go back to sleep. I wake up again and make coffee. Something will happen now.

18 March 2019

Feed me till I want no more

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The sun came out again this weekend. I walked up to St Peters in the morning alone, because the girls had all gone ahead for choir. For five or six days now, my thoughts have been searching for footing, like standing on solid ground after having been at sea for the day. You know now that things underneath you aren't moving, but you still project that they are, that they could be. I turn the corner and head up the hill. How have I spent so much money. Who will I direct my anger at now. I said, or have been saying, that life never presents you with a series of choices. It presents you with one choice at a time and you make that choice and then you find yourself at the accumulated end of those choices. I'm here now, in this place, but only because I didn't have a plan. This is the result of not having a plan.

It will take some time to accept, one imagines. I still can't sleep. I still wake up and eat in the middle of the night, and on Sunday too, like there's nothing coming. I want to sleep it off, whatever hangover this is. Whatever it is that I am trying to get over now, the parallel universes, all the versions of me that have proliferated like cracks on glass until they hit the edges. This is the end of what you would call my time on the road, I said a while back, and now it seems that this is indeed the case. I look around at the house and say it in my head.

Now to deal with the clutch on the car and my boots that need new soles. I ate too much again, there is nothing that can be done about that — Naomi made vegan cookies, it can't be helped. The kitchen counter needs to be redone, resealed, and I need to figure out how much money we've spent this month, although it probably matters less now that we are standing on solid ground, that the sway is imaginary. Brexit is on hold. We have the state pension and the house. I can work all the part-time work that I want now, there are no restrictions. Perhaps I can find some balance. Pull on my running shorts and head out to try again, another week. Acknowledging reality is the first part of any recovery plan. I should find the courage to climb on the scale and see the damage some time later this week. There's time to right any wrong now, don't worry.

13 March 2019

I have fought against it

Trip to Spain 2010

I was teaching when my Facebook messenger rang through, Yoko calling me in the middle of the day for some reason, and I laughed because I was talking then, just at that moment, about how social media had permeated our lives, how we were never able to get away from it. I looked down again and there was a picture of a package, a document shaped package with a return address from the Home Office, exactly eight weeks after I had sent the application in. Of course it would come today, I suddenly realised, of course today was the day.

Where does this story begin, my British story. It begins in 2002 maybe, when I was sleeping on the floor of Terminal Three in Heathrow, after I had I spent the week in Ireland with my sister and the day in London, wandering around and finally taking the underground back to the airport. I can still remember exactly where it was that I slept. Or maybe it starts in that second time we came back, when we flew in from Malaysia and there we were in queue at immigration on New Year's Eve and I wondered if the paperwork I had would be enough to get me into the country, my exhausted family behind me, another time we'd packed and sold everything. That night, when the girls and Yoko and her friend went on and I stayed back with our things, hired a car and stopped, on the way up the M1 to smoke a cigarillo at a Welcome Break. Maybe that is the beginning.

Everything is hard until it's not. I ran home from work and Yoko wasn't here and I texted and called and she came home finally with the package. Eight weeks, I told myself, and I opened it and read the first page, which said nothing, it said our Biometric Cards would come in a week. Yes, but where did it say we were successful, had we been successful. I turned the page and there, finally, was the sentence, Your application for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom has been approved. There it is, there is the sentence. I pointed to it, and we pulled out our passports and took pictures with mobiles and I read the letter again. See, it was nothing. There it is, it's all done now. You did so many things wrong, didn't work all the loopholes you could have, didn't get reimbursed like you had thought, missed the chance to apply for numerous other jobs, didn't go to Finland when you could have, but now none of that matters. We took pictures and I read the lines to the kids, and we had dinner and it was over.

Where does it begin. Yoko and I are in Shibata and we've been arguing like young married people do with the baby there, and the email came saying I had won the PhD studentship — of course we couldn't say no to that. We were on the ferry with Naomi as a baby, pulling away from the port and I was thinking that I would be back in a few years. Of course I would be back, what else would I do. Or the night we left Milton Keynes for Malaysia in a taxi, a black van, down the M1. What did we think then. It was over then, wasn't it, or did I know that it wasn't.

The house on Victoria Road fell asleep and now, just now, wakes up like any other day. Someone will be crying again, and I will try to write and make my way up to the Plough to see Yoko and then have meetings at work and run home to trade-off the kids. I will now kick myself for the mistakes I made, for the things I should have known that I didn't know, the five thousand pound loophole that I missed, and work more and harder and feel guilty that we were okay in the end when so many other people weren't. I'll realise it all doesn't matter one day, I assume, whenever I realise the thing I've been trying to get has been here all along. When the girls wake up and I hug them and they tell me whatever it is they need to tell me. When the house is quiet before it is loud again, when I meet neighbours on the High Street and greet them. We were pretending until now, you can't see it, but we aren't pretending anymore.

11 March 2019

False summer

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We had a week of unseasonably warm weather, the summer in February. Warmth like this has been a reprieve in the past, but now, with the oceans full of plastic and slowing, I walked up to the high street under the cloudless sky and thought of a world without clouds. A friend of a friend came to visit and we had cake at the Lebanese restaurant. It was sweet and vegan and the children all sat together. We walked home from there and I forgot for a moment about everything, all the existential crises piling up, the visa, and Brexit, and climate change, the perfect set of fractal problems. None of these things are in line to resolve quickly.

I keep having the intention of working early in the morning, but the plan stalls somewhere on the way to the front room and my computer screen. Today, I fell asleep on the sofa, trying to meditate and then giving up at some point. The sun is coming up earlier, and that seems to be something. I could be running, of course, I could be doing something else. Instead, the children start to knock around upstairs and I wake with a start at seven fifteen to whatever new drama is unfolding in the house for a Monday morning. All you want is quiet until you have it — this seems to be the curse of having children.

Still, things continue on like there are no problems, or that the problems can be overcome, at least here, at least in white middle-class Birmingham. Yoko and I still meet every Wednesday morning for toast and coffee at the Plough and hold court in a way, the owners coming by to chat with us, or people from church, or whoever is about. It's a small universe of things and discussions about children and whatever work is being done on the church that is more or less expensive that you think it might be. Yoko and I speak in English and then back to Japanese to our own world inside of this other one. We can shuttle in and out to greet and chat and joke, and then back to whatever dark conversation in which I have netted us. The story of a house broken into, the rising temperatures. The nice racist people that are everywhere around us.

I run off at 12:10, hating myself in this fractal world, headed to the Buddhist Centre to meditate alone with whoever else is free on a Wednesday afternoon at one — a bunch of pensioners and former convicts living a halfway house nearby. I close my eyes on the mat and pretend to ignore the coughing and snoring behind me. What does it matter. I start to fall asleep too and look up at the Buddha, hand offering something to me and remember suddenly the reclining Buddha in Thailand. The bells ring and I get up and run off in the rain. The clouds came back, thankfully, although I think any reprieve isn't good. We need to suffer, don't we, to realise what we've done. I pull up my hood and run off. It's cold but I'll be warm in a minute.

29 January 2019

The roundabouts


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There is rain and then there is snow. This is the end of January in Birmingham. I’m still running to and from work, like a breath that goes in and out. I cross the road at big roundabout by Asada and watch the cars coming round and time my run across and then I’m headed up the road, towards home. I say it all the time — this is what I will miss the most whenever I leave Newman, whenever that future finds me in years. I run to work, what better thing can be said about ones quality of life than you can run to work.

On Saturday, after days of bad news and the stress of waiting for the postman, who is actually a man, I am simmering a constant state of fear, that a letter will come through the door and say that we need to go. Or worse, that I have made an error in my application and I can reapply, but it will cost me. I want to start crying at all hours of the day — what does that mean. The paint is cracking now too on the new plaster and something about that, like a straw that broke the camel’s back made me want to just stand and beg god to take me now. I must have done something bad enough to be judged like that. Please. Do your worst.

The middle finger, in Pope Francis’ five finger prayer, is for leaders. Who is leading us, really.

22 January 2019

The word of God

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On Sunday night, the doorbell rang at ten twenty-three. A neighbour had been by earlier looking for a parcel, I thought it might be him again, although it seemed odd that he would come back this late. I turned on the front light and saw someone smaller than me through the glass of the front door. It had been cold all day, rain just barely falling until it was suddenly raining. I opened the door and there was an elderly black man, shaking, one hand full of one pound coins, and a cane in the other, and he said, please, I need help, and I, as quickly as I opened the door, shut it, walking backwards away from it. He didn't wait or protest, just turned around, I could see through the glass, and walked away.

I feel like a brain tumour has been removed and we're trying to figure out if I'll recover or not. Still waiting to hear the results of the biopsy. I had one last flourish of visa panic, the kind that is trying for everyone around me, the kind I create myself, but subsides whenever some new information comes to light and whatever it was I had worried might happen is proven to be irrational. The cold and perpetual Brexit hanging on has helped tamp everything down — everyone is depressed and moving slowly except the children who seem to be completely unaffected. One of them is crying, sure, devastated, but that's over her portion of chicken nuggets, not anything purely existential. I can laugh, it'll be okay sweetheart, do you want me to buy you some more, I can, we can do that.

The Pihlajas of Harborne all went to get our pictures and fingerprints taken at the Post Office on Saturday, the final piece in the immigration paperwork puzzle. The man with the perfect beard taking our money said, Are you really a doctor? and I said, Well, yeah, I have a PhD, yes, and he said, Oh, and I could tell that he was disappointed. We were there with another family, probably refugees because there are only visas for skilled workers and students and I couldn't tell myself a story where they were either. They had four small children and we smiled, feeling a kind of solidarity, but of course, what did we really have in common. I said to Yoko, this is just an inconvenience for us — there's no end to this story that isn't better than 98% of the people in the world. Ninety nine percent, really: we paid our ninety six pounds and left through Victoria Square up to Starbucks to get coffee. I let go of the stupid pretence I usually have about what they can and can't order — that thing parents do when they pretend spending ten pounds and making the kids get something they didn't exactly want is any different in the grand scheme of things financially than spending fifteen pounds and letting them feast. What does any of it matter.

I am eating like I do when I'm stressed, like I can't stop, like I'm drowning and eating keeps me afloat. I know I should drink more water, that I shouldn't work out as hard to compensate, I'm just making it worse. I go to bed and fall asleep almost immediately. Yoko said it's less than three minutes, but I don't remember. I heard a noise, it woke me this morning at 4:15 and I went downstairs ready to confront whatever addict had come back for our phones, or was caught in the cold and wanted something, but it was only my youngest daughter, using the toilet. I was surprised: could she get up by herself now and go downstairs? Only hours ago she was weeping about having to share a children's meal with her sister. She looked at me matter-of-factly like she was a teenager, and I felt old.

I decided not to go back to bed, started eating and meditated. I checked the bank account and did some quick maths, had another piece of toast and looked at a picture of animals suffering on the PETA Twitter feed. And then that's all. My coffee's gone cold. That man who came last night, I suddenly remember, the man with the coins that needed help and I shut the door. I imagine for a moment that he might be lying on Victoria Road, dead. Was he Jesus, did I fail my test to show compassion to the stranger. Or did I fail in opening the door and inviting the chance that he might stab me and kill my family. Did I fail in not helping him, or in thinking I could help him. I'm lukewarm, I'm waiting to be spit out. I mouthed no, as I shut the door, I remember this now. No. I'm sorry, but no.

17 January 2019

I love you, stay with me

Tower Bridge

But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? -Moby Dick

Harborne High Street, the Blockbuster video that has been deserted since before we arrived now some posh shop selling a five hundred pound accent chair in the window, was grey and miserable on Monday morning, and a man in a gold Mondeo, a Ford, an American car, didn't see me running. He didn't see anyone on the pavement, but had to stop to get let in. I walked out in front of his car when he finally made eye contact and I held it as I walked by. He was incensed, slammed into the street and leaned out the passenger window, shouting at me, 'You think you own the road, you fucking wanker! I'm gonna run you over!' That first part I don't remember exactly, what word he used, but it was something about ownership or privilege and he definitely called me a fucking wanker. I stopped and looked at him and shrugged, like what did he want from me, did he want to fight me, like it was some sort of farce, some complete stereotype of the person I hate, so British, so entitled, so white, so angry. He started to pull over and then slammed on the accelerator again, swearing and speeding off. 

There is another man, or two or three of them, homeless on this same street, under sleeping bags and looking up for change, on drugs the people from church tell me, and two women who sell Big Issue in front of Waitrose and Holland & Barrett. They say, 'Big Issue, please', and I try to place their accent, the structure of that request which makes sense, but is the opposite of what it means as I think about it. I go in and pull out my self-check Waitrose scanner and check to see what vegan wines I can buy now that I'm becoming even more vegan and still want to drink wine. I want to say Traveller or Romani, but question myself without saying it aloud, or lowering my voice, because I'm not sure what word we should use. Waitrose is now full of vegan foods and wines and ways to eat with a clean conscience without thinking about how we exploit the female reproductive system in the consumption of cow milk, an argument I heard for the first time last week and seemed plausibly convincing. I bought carrots in plastic bags, feeling guilty about contributing to that part of the degreation of the world like the hypocrite I am, and then avoiding eye contact with the woman selling the magazine as I left the store — I'm sorry, I don't carry cash anyway.

I've been waiting for years to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in this country that these other people on Harborne High Street have found themselves through no fault of their own. On Tuesday I was standing in HR and they gave me the letter I needed. I read it and there were no errors. I went back to my office and double-checked my application, and found a small mistake — I had found two the night before when I checked it, and I wondered if I should check it a third time. I clicked through to the payment page, took out my debit card and entered the number. The page froze and I panicked, clicked continue and I was back to the site asking me for the payment again. I checked my account and it looked like the money had not gone out. What had happened, what happens when you make two payments for £11,940 in a row, surely the algorithm has to start blocking things. I refreshed the page and a payment screen appeared — payment successful, your application has been received, print out this form and return it with your documents. There. Done. Print these out and take them to the Post Office and have your photos and fingerprints taken. There. It's done. The money is gone, don't think about it. I went to the Post Office and mailed it all by registered post, the most secure way you can, I asked, and bought my father a birthday card and tried to write some message in it. There. Done now. 

The worry was supposed to go away with the papers, but I immediately replaced it with another series of potential problems that could happen now. I felt nothing but hate in my heart for the man in the Mondeo, for doing this to me, for making me feel so badly. For taking all this money off of me, and for not having clear instructions on the government webpage. For voting for Brexit without understanding the Northern Ireland issue, like the idiot he is, like the smouldering abusive hateful racist that he is. I want to beg him to hold me while I cry — could I just cry a bit over all of this, could you forgive me and stop hating me. I finish my run and shower and the girls come home one-by-one and I can't explain any of this, can I. I'm worrying them, I'm worrying my wife with my Google searches about qualifying periods and explaining a series of irrational fears in broken Japanese. This was supposed to end, the fear was supposed to end. So it's not okay? No, it is okay, it just doesn't feel that way. It might not be, I don't want to hear anyone else tell me it will be okay. I'll stop now, I promise. I promise I'll stop now.
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