31 December 2014

26 December 2014

Boxing Day

It rained all day until we opened the door to head out, the first time in two days. The rain looked heavy, and then yes, as we stood in the doorway, it was snow: thick and heavy and wet.

20 December 2014

1910 cold & a top that won't wobble

The house on Victoria Road is cold now. Cold like when it was first built and whoever lived there made fires to warm the whole house. A 1910 cold. I have been building fires sometimes, when I have the energy to tend them, but most days I just stand at my desk and am cold. We went to St Peters on Sunday morning, a rash decision for me. I was lying under a blanket on the sofa and the girls wouldn't go with Yoko, but wanted to stay with me. So I got up and we walked in on the liturgy. The heaters were broken and everyone was wearing coats. When the vicar spoke, you could see his breath. Who are you? he asked, and it rang out in the way that sound does in the cold.

When you settle, the things you own settle with you and do not physically weigh you down. In 2013, we packed boxes, all of our things and tried to make everything fit into a space much smaller than it could. Now, the weight of the things I own is dispersed throughout the house at Victoria Road. I don't know how much it weighs unless I try to move it. I don't know how many thirty kilogram boxes we would need if we had to move in a month.

Every morning, after I wake and eat my breakfast, I go upstairs, pull on my running gear and pack my bag with my computer and some of the things I need for the day: some weight, to be sure, but not nearly all of it. I touch Yoko on the leg, and say, I am leaving, and she says goodbye. I open and close the front door and lock it — run down Victoria Road to the double roundabouts at the end of War Lane and then head into the darkness. Cross the road at the first pelican crossing or later down the road because it doesn't matter. I run like I could run this same route, down this same road, for five or ten years, all my things safe and sound in the house. It could go on and on and on, like a top spinning, but never falling. You watch it and wonder when you'll see the wobble.

I work out and shower and write and teach and then run home. Sometimes I pick up the kids at school. I get home, I shower. It's warm in the house at the end of the day and I don't worry about the heating bill anymore. It's irrelevant anyway. I go to bed and wake up and take the kids to school and run up and down the same roads again.
When the plane pulled up, away from KLIA, I shut my eyes and put my head back. Every choice you make is just one in a string of choices. Which ones are good and which are bad, who really knows.

05 December 2014

If I just keep saying it

Tonight’s Bible study was pretty great. We talked about idolatry and I realized that I've never talked to someone who honestly worships an idol. The conversation was really encouraging because we got to talk about some of the things that Japanese think about Christianity and life in general. Sensei told us a little bit about the history of Christianity in Japan and how Buddhist monks persecuted early converts. Hagino san cried. Anyway, it looks like we may be making headway with at least one of our students. Sensei said that things look like they are improving with her and she seems to be a little bit less hostile. That would be great. I'm excited about it now.
When Christmas came to Fukuoka in 2003, when I was a missionary, my mission partner and I had just arrived. I was feeling, as you do when you land somewhere so disorienting, tired and fat and displaced. I had come to share my Christian faith in the darkness of the East, but the metaphor wasn't really holding — Fukuoka pulsated with electricity. The white missionaries were out of place, as fat and awkward as me, but I did my best to pray and persevere. Of course there would be challenges. The walls of our apartment in Susenji were thin and I could never relax, lying on the futon, trying to sleep hours away on the weekend. There was no money and going out meant spending money. I walked and rode my red bicycle. I tried to grow a moustache. 

My father came with the video camera that December and I remember being so self conscious: he sat us down and had an interview to show at church, a video I'm sure no one ever watched, but it documented, as I remember it, how scared I was and how It seemed I might blurt out, 'Something is wrong.' That wrongness was blossoming in a way that I couldn't really say.
We (Sensei and Hagino san and I) dropped him off at the airport at the crack of dawn this morning. In true Japanese fashion, it was much more difficult than it needed to be and we ended up following him into the airport and watching him go through security. We prayed before he left, a very awkward moment where we held hands. It was just weird. I ended up talking Hagino san and Sensei out of having us stay and watch his flight leave. I got home around 7:30 and just went back to bed. When I woke up, it was like I had been asleep all weekend. Mom called and I didn't really have anything to say to her. I pretended that the weekend didn't really happen until I went to work tonight. Now, it seems like I have enough distance. 
At some point during that year, I stopped praying. The missionaries would go on about the darkness, like they were in a different world. I wanted to apologise, to say that I had made a mistake. I told a story to myself and everyone around me that allowed me to escape: I wanted to be in the world of the Japanese, not the church. That's where I could make an impact. I told myself and everyone around me the same thing: I believed it even though I didn't. I wanted to believe it, even if I didn't. I went through the motions, until I was sleeping on the shinkansen on my way through the mountains to Niigata City. I got off the train: my huge suitcase was broken and someone from the company had come to pick me up. I didn't have a bank account or mobile phone — only a bit of cash.

I remember the smell of the woman's car who picked me up: she took care of me that year, but I don't remember her name. She was shocked that I didn't have a phone. I went to open a bank account directly from the station and she said, 'You need to deposit something.' What was the minimum, I asked. I had two one hundred yen coins. Was that enough? She took it from me, and they printed it in my first Japanese bank account book: 200円. There it was.

She took me to my one room apartment — Nunogawa san, I just remembered her name. She had some bedding for me, that she had from a friend. She would pick me up the next day again and take me to visit the schools I would teach at. Was that okay? Did I need anything? I didn't, no: I thanked her and she left me her number, although she laughed because I had no way to contact her. We'd have to go to the shop first thing tomorrow.

That apartment was like a cell — the company had only set me up there because you didn't need key money or a deposit, and it had some basic amenities. It didn't matter: it was a beginning. I set up my computer and looked out the window at Matsuhama, where I had landed. In this world, no one told me that I was surrounded by darkness. I e-mailed my parents to say I had arrived, made cup ramen, and went to bed alone. Whatever it was, it was different and that was something, some place to start, at least.

03 December 2014

Half truths and outright lies

I used to write fiction exclusively — I'm finding it now on my hard disk as I clean things out and look through all the old writing I'd done at college. I find these stories that I see right through, having written them. They're full off embodied memories of the past, nights from high school where all the rooms I was in late at night had Christmas lights hung about and the drone of indie rock in the background. This week, I hung the Christmas lights we took from Malaysia in the living room here, in Birmingham, on Victoria Rd, and they pulse on and off through the night. I told the girls that when mummy and I started dating I had the lights hung round my apartment, which is true: that tiny place in Matsuhama where the Agano River flows into the Sea of Japan. I had a Nissan Alto too, another thing I point out to the girls as I walk them to school and for some reason, there is an Alto on Tennal Rd. Blue like mine was blue. I had this car, I say to the girls.

Where my ability to write fiction went, I don't know. I read through the stories and think about how I was trying to hide and encode memories of things. My character sits on the sofa with his girlfriend and thinks about putting his hand up her shirt. It's plausible deniability in fiction: my character says fuck all the time, not me. I read through these stories that lead to tremendous precipices, and teeter on the edge. I liked to drive up the tension and not resolve it for the reader. This says something who I was at the time. A liar, really, but the kind of liar that thinks he's telling the truth.

One story was called 'Half Truths and Outright Lies', a term I had taken from an accountability group I was in. Accountability group met on Wednesday nights, in Martin's apartment: we were a group of 'men' who had a list of 11 questions we asked each other. One of them was about telling half truths and outright lies. The list of questions though really centred, as these sorts of Christian self-criticism sessions do, on sex and purity, a metaphor now as I think about it, but the kind of metaphor that was lost on me at the time. Yes, of course I had looked at a little porn and lusted, but less than the week before. Someone had a streak of 10 days. There was one of us who never looked at porn and we were very impressed.

I remember, particularly, walking home from accountability — the mytonym we used for the group — in the middle of the night, across the Knox College campus, wondering about my future, about Heather and whether we would make it through the year apart from each other. In December, I went home and asked her, in my parents' garage, to promise to marry me. I don't remember if it was that year or the year before.

Now, I have fewer reasons to lie, but I still hide things throughout my writing. There are no more characters, just myself as a character. Stephen is a fat white man, looking away: I encourage you to fill the truth about what I'm looking away from or towards, whatever it is that you want. In ten years, I suppose I will come back to this writing and remember the feeling of sitting in this room, in the terrace house on Victoria Rd, in the cold with my back to the radiator as the Christmas lights blink on and off. I will remember what I was thinking. There is a list of new failures, not as simple as they were when I was 18 and 19, trying to keep the girl I loved from walking away from me. Now, there are wives and children and bank accounts. No one's leaving anytime soon, nothing as simple as putting your hand up someone else's shirt, or worrying that you might be caught out, that your parents might wake up at the wrong time. Now, there is less to hide — why hide anything at all.

I hear the girls stir in bed. One might have woken up. In this Christmas light lit world, the writing stops at a different precipice.

01 December 2014


December has come around, and for the first time in two years, the Pihlajas are not packing everything away to send to a new country. In 2012, I was standing, this week, in the garage, as two Malaysian men loaded up a lorry with 14 boxes — it was snowing that day in Milton Keynes, or it had snowed the night before, and they were taking photos of it and throwing snowballs. Snow, could you believe it. The house emptied and was emptied throughout the month until that last day when we all hugged and said goodbye and I told a lie at the time: Don't cry, we will be back in a year.

And then last year, we were doing it again, in Kajang, outside of Kuala Lumpur. I wanted, that time, to just leave it all and chalk it up as a complete failure. All the broken and cheap furniture, the plans I had for making something. I wanted to leave behind Yoko's burning skin and all the tension of a bank account with this currency I didn't trust. The car, the house, the whole thing: I wanted to just walk away, back to Milton Keynes and the snow and pretend it never happened. When we got on the plane, at the end of the month, our Malaysian experience behind us, the stress was like a residue on my hands that I couldn't wash off for months and months. If I apologise more and work harder, maybe then it will go away.

Of course, it did work out — it wasn't a loss. It's hard to say how much better I feel this 1 December, the first first of December that I have, in 6 or 7 years, felt like I am standing on two feet. The financial news is optimistic — it has always been fine, but now it is optimistic. The girls are healthy and happy, even though they have always been, but I, for once, am also happy and healthy too, on a first of December. Not waiting for the implosion or snapping again at my wife for saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question.

We took the bus into the city centre yesterday: walked through the Christmas market and had coffee and I looked at Yoko and thought, For some reason, we have made it more than nine years. We have three kids, and a pension now, and a place that feels like home. We both are wearing the same coats we wore in Niigata City in 2005. When I say now, I love you, I mean it. I meant it, in 2005, when I said it for the first time. But now, I mean it.

21 November 2014


The Harborne High St in the cold, crisp air and the smell of pipe tobacco on my fingers, reminds me of the first week I was here, across the street from Cafe Nero, looking for a house to move into. Now, it all feels like home, like we have been through Christmas here once before. I'm sure that we have, in fact — the girls seem to know it like a phantom memory. 

There's something about being away from writing that makes it hard to write again, to find the entry point to the experience of the last month. It's gotten cold, and I've kept working out, running to work in the morning and then at home in the evening. My parents came and went and I drove to and from the airport with the sort of anticipation that doesn't seem to ever wear off. 

It's been a year now. Exactly a year ago.

05 November 2014


Last week, as I was on the train to Norwich, I flipped through this small moleskin notebook that I have had for years, one that I will always think will be more useful than it is. I was writing down what I ate, a practice I took up to make sure that I didn't start to put weight on after my successful three months at the Harborne gym. I left, I said, nearly 11 kgs on the floor there, jumping up and down and throwing balls against the wall. The letdown of stopping after three months was mitigated by my consequent membership at the Newman University gym, which is quite a bit smaller, but better equipped and with fewer people wandering around to make you uncomfortable.

Flipping through the notebook, I came across another list of food, from two or three years ago. My handwriting looked exactly the same, and the sorts of things I had eaten — small apple, ham, eggs, beans — were all the same. Somehow, I landed back where I started, doing the same thing, in the same clothes.

And then I arrived in Norwich and then the campus of UEA, a place that I was in 2012 to interpret for a group of Japanese nursing students. I stayed in the same lodge, the same room, more-or-less, looking out over the quad. The talk I gave went well, from what I could tell: everyone was polite, and afterwards, I had a quiet dinner with one of the many mentors in my life, who complained about the corporatisation of the university and the pressure we are all under now. I ordered a salad and wine, conscious that I would write it down later, but less obsessed than I have been — I am thin now, but I will be fat again, and then I will be thin again. I got a bit drunk, the way you do on an empty stomach, and we laughed and talked about the future, his in Germany or the Netherlands, and mine in the world somewhere too, Southeast Asia again for a time, certainly, then somewhere in Europe again after some time back in the UK. And then the ferries in Japan, with a motorbike, like Yoko's dad.

The next day, I got up and took the bus and then the train and landed at Liverpool Station, the station that feels the most like a London rail station should, at least in my mind. The weather was glorious and I walked down to the river, and across to the Tate, savouring it in the way that you do as an American in London, so far away from home. I looked at Rothko and then at the terrifying Bill Viola installation that reminded me of Chicago. I walked out and then up towards Euston, to Senate House to sit in the music reading room and work on my articles and book proposal and mark. And then the train to Birmingham, rushing past Hemel Hampstead and Milton Keynes and all the stations I have heard called out of years and years now. I'm sure, somewhere in the book, there is a note about London from the past too.

30 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 30

On March 11, 2011, I was in this same Starbucks, as the pictures of the tsunami came onto my computer. Today, there is no tragedy: I am on my way to Norwich to give a talk about second-person address on YouTube. This week, I have felt the pangs of being overwhelmed for the first time this year, like there is so much to get done. I haven't looked at the book proposal in weeks. I'm writing three different things to get money for different projects I want to do. There's going to be marking to do here quickly. And visitors: my parents, some scholars from the Czech Republic. Need to go and go and go, but I'd like to stop here, in London and remember how good this all is. There's a train to catch.

29 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 29

Got up for the second to last time to go to the gym in Harborne. It's been more than three months now, but the membership is up and there's no reason to stay on. This week, the girls have had their half term so I have been going straight on from the gym to work, not stopping at home. I stuff everything in the locker and workout without any of the purpose and drive I had in August: it doesn't really matter now if I lose any more weight or not, although I feel silly if I don't work hard. I got up, didn't I? What's the point of coming if you don't go hard. Today, I left satisfied with how much I had sweat — a silly indication that I had done enough, whatever enough is any way. I pack up, put everything into my bag and head off into the morning, which is brighter now that summer time has ended. One more day and then I move on to Newman's gym.

28 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 28

Obsession and counting is not always a bad thing. Obsession is like anger: you have to be careful with it. Obsession leads to success if you handle it right and you hide it. You need to hide your obsessions because they make people uncomfortable. People want to think that everything comes naturally, that you don't have to count. You do. You do have to count. You have to count kilocalories and miles and reps and minutes and words and expenditures. If you're a good counter, you can do whatever you want. If you don't count, if you relax and do what comes naturally, the rut pulls you in naturally. So you go back to counting. Start counting until the wrong numbers go down and the right ones go up. Until you your goal is not a goal any more, but the next thing you're trying to leave behind.

27 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 27

St Peters church sits at the top of Vicarage Rd, with the cemetery surrounding it and Mei's little school tucked behind it. If you go towards the city, you walk past the cricket grounds, and then the Catholic church, if you cross Harborne Park Road. On Sunday morning, Yoko and I and the kids finally went to the service there, squeezed into the very narrow back pew, the Pihlaja family stacked on top of each other and warm. We fumbled with the hymnals and order of service, the Bible and these books in the middle that I had never seen. The Prayer of Manasses, like something from the Book of Mormon. The organ was deep and powerful in the last stanza of the hymns (in books, numbers on the wall, not powerpoint slides), the bells above us, and halfway through Yoko and Mia and Mei went to the nursery room. I sat, the way you can in a church that doesn't demand anything of you. I sat and listened and silently disagreed and agreed, without any of it mattering, or a peppy young person bothering you during the greeting in the middle of the service. Just a line of old men in grey suits asking if I was American and then if I was Episcopalian. Perhaps I should have been, I wanted to say, you have the right aesthetics: the man in the robes, the women and men in the robes, the candles, and the organ again.

26 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 26

Having been moved into the front room of the house, with the bay windows, to do my work, the last piece of the puzzle was getting the fireplace running. I pulled newspapers that someone had stuffed up into the chimney to stop the draft and when I pulled the last bit out, the corpse of a pigeon tumbled down. I cleaned the whole thing, got all the dust and dirt out and now, the fire is blazing, So much can change in a year, I think, standing and writing on Victoria Road, in Harborne. There is never any end to the possibilities.

25 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 25

Names tell histories. In Harborne, there is a Station Road, but no station. You have to read the history of Harborne Walkway, the old railroad line, and look at the GPS coordinates to see where it was. Then it all makes sense. There was another station on Hagley Road, right after the tunnel that I am afraid to run through in the dark. That building is still there, I think. When I ran the walkway this morning before sunrise, I tried to think about history and not be afraid. There is nothing to be afraid of, but I am afraid of the nothing, the dark, the empty path. How does one overcome their fear of god and retain a fear of ghosts. I confront it when I can, and when I run into it, the fear dissipates with each step until my phone announces that I have now run six miles and tells me my slow pace in a voice that sounds friendly to me. Do not be afraid — how can you lose your fear of god, but not his word.  Given enough time, enough steps into the dark, your eyes adjust. The night is not dark anymore, or even the night, but the bright edges of a Seiji Fujishiro lightbox.

24 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 24

How do you prepare your children for a world in decline, for a future that can't be as economically prosperous as this one: the energy and capital (literally and metonymically and metaphorically) is simply not there. I worry about the values that emerge as white (mixed) children of privilege in Harborne, what they are learning about property and capital from me and the world around them. Of course, if the right values emerge, their futures will take care of themselves. Yoko is an excellent teacher and giver of the best thing they have going for them, should the world fall apart: the Japanese mountains. You — the Japanese 'you' which encompasses the mixed-race expat American-Japanese English resident who conceives of themselves as Japanese —  could go high into the mountains of Tosa, where the water comes down into the valley, and make enough food there to support yourself and family. You have been doing it for centuries; you will be doing it centuries from now. You won't need guns and baked beans because the society is already interdependent and communal. You can cast off that American, Western independent identity and only confront it when you look in the mirror. You can sit up high, above it all, grow old and come down to ruins of the city every now and again, to see if the world has sorted itself yet.

23 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 23

When I bought my Saddleback bag in 2011, I didn't plan to ever buy another bag, but now I run and I need a bag to run. These artefacts of day to day life, jersey and backpack, slung in the corner to be picked up and used again and again and again. I wear this bag all the time: I can pack it in a minute, I know it so well now. I can take off my sweatshirt while wearing the bag and running, tie the sweatshirt around my waist without stopping — it's a science: structured, constructed, mobile space that is here and mine, wherever here is. When you have a good bag, you can go in a minute if need be. Just throw what you have in it, the laptop and change of clothes and you're gone. A bit of freedom, the omnipresent here.

22 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 22

It's been a while since I made a mixtape or a playlist. I used to: if you look back on this blog somewhere, you can find evidence of it. Last night, I tried again: what would a 32 year-old mixtape sound like. Millenial and navel-gazing, I suspected. I carefully chose all the most interesting music I could think of, insufferably avoiding anything that might look like I was who I actually am, a man who bought John Mayer's album when it was on sale. I thought about adding Bitch, Don't Kill my Vibe sarcastically, but I chickened out. What is the truth anyway.

21 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 21

Newman University has worked out. When I left Malaysia last year, I was terrified that I had made a mistake again, gambled again on an unknown quantity and taken too many chances with my fragile, newborn career. Newman: nobody really knew anything about it. The first day I drove the hired Vauxhall Corsa there. Every day since then had been good in its own way. I have been saying all year, in a hushed voice, 'Touch wood, it's really been good for me, I really like it here.' And today, I sat through two graduation ceremonies, wearing the suit I was married in and Zara plimsolls I bought at Midvalley Mall in Kuala Lumpur and my Open University PhD gown, which makes me feel Marxist and proud. Knox College, University of Birmingham, the Open University, now Newman University. All institutions I am proud to represent in a small way. Watching the Muslim families cheer their Muslim daughters and sons across the stage, you can see how catholic (with a small 'c') Newman really is, even the Cardinal in his robes and institution: he reached out as a friend passed in the processional line. It's so good to see you. Stories of John Paul the Second eating dinner with friends, talking about poetry. How lovely this whole thing has turned out for me, sitting in the most beautiful space, surrounded by friends. How lucky I was that night in November last year, that the tiny Skype image of me made its way here and guided me home. All warm embraces, these families watching mothers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters graduate. The first ever in our family — no one had dreamed of this before.

20 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 20

I watched that Wes Anderson film about travelling in India last night, after everyone had gone to bed. It was fitting, given the whole day of nostalgia, that Malaysia, southeast Asia, would appear in this waking dream. The film is, of course, all cleaned up, white fantasy about India, a 90 minute stereotype, but shot beautifully and symmetrically. I thought about my own trips on buses, rather than trains, in Thailand and Malaysia. I felt that draw towards the adventure of it all again and some other life in another iteration of the multiverse, where I just travelled into my thirties and didn't make any commitments. Somewhere, my time in Asia isn't done...

19 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 19

I spent part of Thursday talking about the States. It's been 11 years this week that I've been abroad. 19 October we landed one day late in Japan. For three months, I was homesick: I dreamt of going back, having the final year of college that I had missed. Every Thursday night, all my friends on that side of the world were listening to jazz at the Cherry St pub, and I was looking out over the north suburbs of Fukuoka. It didn't stop until February. Eleven years on, whoever I was in Galesburg in 2003 is gone entirely, but the feeling that I am not where I should be comes back now and again. I deal with it in different ways. I look at impossible Christmas flights from BHX to ORD. I put on my Twins cap, browse the American candy kiosk at the mall, and now, think of Japan too, Imazu Bay where I took pictures and slowly turned over the past in my mind.

18 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 18

This morning's run took me through a forest, up out of Harborne to the north and into the dark because the sun is not up until later. I ran confidentially despite being able to see the pavement below me. I ran through the tunnel under Hagley Rd without being able to see anything but a small light on the other side. I ran through puddles and mud without stopping or thinking, the sun just on the edge and the moon hidden behind the clouds. I ran all the way to Dudley Rd, almost the city centre, through Summerfield Park lined with the old Edgbaston houses, all that history and the huge trees. If you cross the road there, you will get to the canals, but I didn't know that. I stopped, as I have been now at the middle of a run, the simple out and backs, to catch my breath, look around, and be a thankful that — despite all the problems I can't solve and the relationships I keep spinning like plates waiting to fall — I have another day, another morning.

17 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 17

Some days, you run from something: you can't help it. Some days, you run to find the void, like Murakami says. Some days, you run just because you can. And some days, if you're lucky, you can get up before the sunrise and head out into the midst. Run past the gates and stables and church, run out on the country lane, where there are no cars yet, where the horizon is just starting to show. Run when you can't see the pavement, but you know it's there. Run fast or run slow, it doesn't matter. Run until you can't run any further on that road and turn back.

16 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 16

Now, I'm going to Staffordshire, to stay with the second year students as they write, and maybe do some writing myself. If I'm lucky. If the gods smile on me.

15 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 15

I have bouts of insomnia and fastidiousness — put together, I am up at 5 in the morning polishing my shoes. I had worn them on Monday and they were soaked. I dried them out with newspaper and then put them on the radiator. And then this morning I polished them for fifteen minutes, while I waited for the gym to open. The insomnia, I realise, is just a reaction to the responsibilities of adulthood. Your wife and children don't ask for anything from you when they're sleeping, so you are free to do what you want. Polish shoes, build a dataset, work out. Write, or do nothing. The less you sleep, the more time you have for yourself, to be quiet and enjoy the things you enjoy, without having to answer for them.

14 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 14

When I came back to the UK in the winter, I needed a jacket, so we went to TK Maxx in Milton Keynes, and I got a grey jacket that fit perfectly: £30. I wore it to all the functions I needed to as a new member of staff and brought it around to presentations and dinners. It was a 42R, and over the last three months, it's become too big to wear, the shoulders drooping off me pathetically. We went to the charity shops on the High St this weekend and I hurriedly replaced the grey jacket with two others, which fit much better at the shoulders. Sharper and cleaner lines: two for £8. The other jacket is lost now, until I get fat again, sometime in the future. 

13 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 13

The rain keeps coming down. I got caught it in four times today, but I dried myself off and kept going. When it rained in Malaysia, you needed to stop and wait. Here, you soldier on. How bad is it really.

12 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 12

The weekends are packed in: gymnastics, then to the High St for shopping and coffee, then out cycling, then swimming the next day, and hiking in Pinfields Wood, and shopping. We ate frozen pizza tonight as a kind of reward and I drank some real ale. There are gargoyles on St Peters church in Harborne: of course, you have to look up to see them, but I did look up and notice them this weekend.

11 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 11

This morning, I wanted to run, but I didn't want to know how long or how fast or how far I'd run. I just wanted to get up and go. I ran out into Edgbaston and up towards the city, the safe direction from Harborne, at least as I imagine it. At 6AM on a Saturday morning, you can run in the streets for the most part. Everything is open. You only meet people waiting for buses, or other runners, or a group of Chinese university students walking home. Of course, if you run enough, you know how long and how far and how fast you ran, even if you don't measure it. I got home, feeling light and pulled off my shirt in the garden, the steam rising off my body, the moon setting, Birmingham waking up. 

10 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 10

I'm working from home today. I woke up to the alarm, a shock. I went to work out and then walked the kids to school in the electric air and blue sky. Yesterday, for the first time, I put on my old jeans, the ones that I had worn when I was thin and they fit perfectly again. I felt again like I can come home in another way: my clothes fit. It's cold enough now to pull out my long grey coat with the waist taken in. Silly things to think about, I know.

09 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 9

It's raining again. It's been raining all week, and I've said and will say again, It's time to hibernate and wake up in March. This is not a bad feeling, particularly given my insomnia. Wanting to sleep is better than not wanting to sleep. Everything else feels like it's being held at a distance from me; I'm paranoid. I woke up at 4 again, after going to sleep at 8 and getting up at 10 and then 1 and then 2. I'll just stop trying. Keep pushing ahead with my plans. Stop exercising everyday after this month. Try to get some sleep.

08 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 8

I can't take a photo of insomnia. I wander around the house alone, doing small chores, tidying up the living room. This morning, I cleaned out all the waste bins in the house and put the rubbish out around 5:30. I had been up for two hours. The moon was full and bright, but on the other side of the sky, setting like the sun. I had seen it rise the night before, as I drove to Derbyshire to pick up a standing desk I had bought. Sure, I could try to sleep, but why sleep if you don't want or need to. There are worse crosses to bear than the stillness of a night about to end.

07 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 7

Today felt like the morning after the snow melts. It was brisk and wet, walking up to school with the girls. I kissed and hugged them goodbye and ran to Newman. By the time I got to campus, the sun had broken through and everything was fresh and golden.

06 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 6

Any day in London is a good day, even if it's rainy and cold. I rode the Boris Bike from Euston to Kensington and then back up to Senate House and then back to Kensington and then back to Euston. I rode through Hyde Park less hurried this time, compared to last, because I know where to turn and not turn. So there it was, that moment I had wanted forever, browsing books at Senate House and feeling like this was it.

05 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 5

Today, we went home to the house on Booker Ave. Everything about it is the same, more-or-less. I sat there thinking about how much of our lives had passed there. Everything is so clean and open, compared to the house on Victoria Rd. The sun comes in through the conservatory and the garden stretches out in the back. Of course, after it's gone, you can recognise how good it was.

04 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 4

At work on a rainy, cold, Birmingham October day. I ran in and my legs felt much better than they have all week. Who knows how long this runner's high will last, but it keeps going. Nothing seems to deter it. There is no such thing as bad weather for a runner, right? You need to bring water when it's hot and made more layers when it's cold. A raincoat if it's raining, but there is no bad weather, only different weather.

03 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 3

This is the autumn I waited a year and half for, and now it is ending. It could snow any day now: don't lie to yourself. The statue of John Henry Newman in the middle of campus looks over the changing of seasons and although I am not Catholic, I am happy to be catholic, from the Greek words kata and holos, Google tells me just now: in respect of + whole. All-encompassing. All-embracing. I'll take that over small 'c' capitalism, I like to tell people. I have a rosary my brother-in-law gave to me and that I used to pray: I skirt on the edges.

02 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 2

You run down into the valley from Woodhouse Primary and then up towards Bartley Green where the university is. Running down the hill in the morning is easy, running up the hill in the afternoon, on the way to pick up the kids is easy in a different way. I pass some people when I run, sometimes the same people.

01 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 1

At 4:45, everything is still. I slept almost 6 hours. The gym doesn't open for an hour, so I answer e-mails, make tea, walk back and forth between the front office and the kitchen in the back. It's getting cold enough to need coats now, the ones we've passed down from child to child over the years, and didn't sell when went to Malaysia. I, foolishly, gave mine away, and so think, passing the coats: given enough time, you need all the things you left behind.

30 September 2014

Vignette for mornings, September 2014

Every morning, I leave to go to the gym between 5:50 and 5:55. I run up the hill, and depending how early I am, there are people milling about in front of the automatic doors, waiting to get in. I used to wait with them, but now I just keep running, add another three or five minutes on and come back after they have opened the doors. Whom do you want to talk to at six in the morning anyway.

I see the same people every morning, like the two old men who are having a chat on War Lane. There are young men sitting sometimes on the benches at the top of War Lane, drinking or smoking, either coming from or going to work. A teenager on a BMX bike whom I see every day now. Coming down the pavement, he scared me the first time.

In the gym, there is the same group of people, including one of the old men from the road who appears and stands in a dark corner of the functional workout space to do simple biceps curls, no one bothering to turn on the lights. There are middle-aged, middle-class men and women who are giving it a go, trying to get in shape because their GP told them, when they had that scare last year with the chest pain, that then needed to take some exercise. They plod along purposefully on the treadmills, looking out onto Lordswood Road, the sun starting to come up.

On Tuesdays through Fridays, there is a spinning class, filled mostly with women in their early thirties, and one older white  man, balding, who does biceps curls beforehand, and sometimes a middle-aged black man, with a gut. Another woman at the front plays loud music and asks every day if anyone has any injuries — no one does — and then shouts at them for a half an hour.

I stand in the back of the room, but turn around and face the wall, doing a cycle of functional exercises: thirty five seconds on, fifteen seconds rest. Burpees (3x), sit-ups with medicine ball (3x), press ups on hanging stirrups (3x), burpees (3x), planking (3x), dumbell lifts (3x), kettle bell throws (3x), and burpees (3x), or some mix of those things. I sweat all over my pad and wipe is up vigorously with paper towel because one of the guys — a guy with dreadlocks whom I also meet walking the kids to school and at gymnastics on Saturdays and at swimming class on Sundays or Fridays — told me that someone had complained about the Canadian in glasses not wiping his mat. I try not to think about anything, about the other people in the room, or who might or might not see me. Steve, the guy with the dreadlocks, tries to have a chat some times, but I feel awkward and silly and pathetic, sweating like a pig. A guy once said to me, 'Mate, it looks someone dumped a bucket of water on you.' Yes, it does.

I finish sometime after six thirty and run out past the workers waiting for the bus. Today, there was a guy with an energy drink and cigarette and hat. Very slim. I chugged past, the new me, the fat man in the deflated body. All my clothes reminding me that I am a fat man: they hang more spectacularly now, soaked and heavy like a flag on a pole. Here I am, swimming in the old me. I get home, take it off, make eggs, and sit in front of the iPad. Everyone will wake up eventually: I can hear Yoko showering, the girls' alarm clock squawking in Japanese. It's just a moment, I tell myself, this body, this life, this vocation. Every day you stand up and open the door and go out, is a gift.

28 September 2014

Where the spirit meets the bone

Somewhere along the way, you always lose the reason that you started out. This is a metaphor that is not true of its own concrete sense. No one forgets their destination on a real journey. On a real journey, you never have any question when it is over. We have arrived. The end.

The metaphor of the journey is insufficient but only in the way that all metaphors are insufficient. Conceptual places are not places at all, of course. They are nothing, they are the firing of synapses in the brain. They are electricity and chemicals. That's it: that's all anything else ever can be.

On Sunday, Naomi had her first swim meet and we, as a family, took another step in that direction — the one where we are consumed with all the coming and going of the family life and whatever it was that I had wanted, as a 23-year-old, sitting with Yoko on the beach in Matsuhama, seemed to have faded entirely into the vapour of real life. It's not in any way a complaint, just an observation.

I am not, I've never felt, built for this life or this part of my life, despite my overwhelming commitment to it and desire to somehow be like all the other men, the good fathers who are present and engaged. Instead, I feel as ever like some actor, an extra in the social world play, who if you look closely enough is just standing there, not really taking part. As someone who has wasted so much of my life on social theory, I've become a kind of a disgruntled magician watching a magic show. All this threat of violence in the whistles and command — even the cheering on, all a threat of euphemistic and imagined force. The bake sales. The entrance fees. The angry middle-aged women and men in matching polo shirts. Anyone can make a social structure capable of control given the possibility that something can be won.

Naomi swam after I watched these heats after heats of kids I didn't care anything about, hating the sound of the whistle with each blow. She swam as well as she could, neither the best nor the worst and got out of the water after waving at us. I took the other girls out for a walk and took pictures of the old King Edwards School, looked over by the Birmingham University clock tower. It had been warm after a cold August and the girls told Yoko, when we got back, that we had been on an adventure.

I wonder if I had been better at this given more time, if I had waited, as my generation has so far, to have kids later, if at all. At the school on the adventure with the girls, I could hear a church meeting inside one of the buildings, an amazingly uninspired praise song leaking out of the doors. You are mighty to save. I had sung those exact words as a believer, as someone watching the show and believing in it, but now I can only think of the metaphor that I can't seem to access anymore, mighty to save. What did I think that had meant. Had I thought it meant anything.

At some point in the play, all the extras have to recite the chorus lines and of course, I mouth along. Naomi is unhappy with her result and I comforted her the best I could. It's a lifetime of disappointment, I want to say. You think it's bad now, wait until you start falling in love. The best you can do is rarely enough to win. Best get used to it. Instead, for a moment, I manage to tell the truth, to reach down and find the part of me that is a competent father, the one that I want to be: I love you, I say, the one thing I actually mean. You did your best and I love you. I can't give you much, but I can give you that.

27 September 2014

The things we carry

Joanna Skelt writes about swifts, birds from Africa, migrated to Birmingham:
like magnets they are pulled
navigating on a memory of stars
to rear their young under the eaves of our houses.
Sometime between Wednesday and Thursday, my two months of getting up every morning to go to the gym paid off, and my weight came back to roughly what it was before all of this started. All of this: the run-up to my viva and the move to Kajang. The first two weeks in that hotel when I was unsettled in a way that I had never been before and ate and ate every breakfast they had set out for us — Malay, Indian, Chinese, Western. All of this: all the times I had stopped, walking home from the bus or station to buy pork pau, the big one that was only RM2.

All the ice cream and beer, the cheap Indian whisky I bought at Cold Storage, or nights at the Commonwealth Club, when I smoked too. The mee goreng, nasi goreng, nasi lemak, tandoori, naan, tosai, curries, nasi ayam. All of this: I had carried it back with me to England, and then kept it coming with the stress here, feeling heavier and heavier eating handfulls of cereal late at night. Something to cover the fear and nervousness: what will fall apart next, when will the whole thing be found out.

When you know how much you weigh, and how much you have weighed in the past, you can't see yourself with other people's eyes: You look fine, seriously, I thought you had gotten fat: you're not fat. It was the principle that bothered me; an unwillingness to give up and accept that I am older, I will weigh more. It is not just fat from getting older: it is fat from insecurity and lack of control. It embodied an inability to cope and followed me around. I would look in the mirror and see it reminding me that I wasn't really okay: you can hide from others, but you can't hide from your own gaze. This morning, though, I stood on the scale with the weight lifted. I looked in the mirror and didn't see my own insecurity built up and hanging on.

This week, I walked across the Newman quad to teach for the first time, my body back underneath me and a sense from the people around me that things were going to get better — empirical evidence, a pay scale progression sheet, a pension number. I rode my bike into the city centre to Joanna's poetry reading full of hope and happiness: somehow I had managed to make it back to a home that becomes more home every day. A swift from the poem, a foreign bird making my own home on Victoria Rd. The flooring men came and pulled up the mouldy linoleum and gave us a new kitchen. I rode a bike through Hyde Park, and kept waking up at 4:30 wanting the day to start.

We've seen the high water mark. The water is receding. Pull on my shoes, head out into the dark, the University of Birmingham clock tower watching over me. Every step of every run is a step back and forward, to erasing the past and building on it. The kids wake up. Yoko does their hair. The leaves change colour and we walk to school. Every day is a new day.

24 September 2014

Staying up

I've been going back and editing some of the blog posts I've made over the last three or four years, to clean up dead links and delete dead photos. As I've read back, I'm amazed at how little changes in what I write and think about, and how much I've internalised as I've gotten older. There's more to share, but it seems like I am sharing less of it. Where are the dieting charts now.

The weekend was full of children, the way weekends are and will be for a while. Mei went to gymnastics, and I stayed home to walk up to the High Street to order new linoleum flooring for the kitchen. I went to the used bookstore and walked towards the university to go to the library and then meet Yoko and the girls. I had run in the morning, so everywhere I passed had the residue of the morning memories when I had pulled on my trainers at 6 and set out to run. I had gone all the way to the city centre and then come back on the canal, getting stuck at a barrier and having to go back. I got home just before 8 and had run a half marathon slowly, but to the end at least. I drank coffee and waited, as I do every morning, for the first sounds from upstairs.

On Sunday, we had two birthday parties, the first at a farm near Coventry and the second, in the evening, at a pub in Harborne. The kids spent the day overwhelmed with happiness and energy, running from thing to thing. Pigs and guinea pigs and ponies. We walked out into a corn field and picked corn too — it was so fresh and sweet that when the girls turned away, I ate it off the stalk.

Then to the pub, and the ball pit. Yoko and I and one of mothers sat and chatted, as I always do with everyone I meet, about options. Our life narrative, it seems, gets people to think about stability and movement and mobility. Where will the girls grow up, how had they adapted.  I felt proud talking about them, about Naomi crying at first and then growing strong with each school that she has had to change. She is remarkably strong now.

At that party, everyone got called upstairs to eat, but I was sent away because only 5 parents were allowed in the upper floor. I went back downstairs and imagined the awkward watching which happens at these parties when the children are given their food and are oblivious to their parents standing around, not being allowed to eat until the children declare themselves finished and the mother or father who has paid for the food, grabs a serving dish and offers the leftovers to the parents. We all feign disinterest. It's like Ramadan almost, the parents watching the children eat.

And then we drove home. I had a bit of leftover cake, Yoko cooked and put the girls to bed. I made tea and sat in the front room, in my new office, looking out onto Victoria Rd. One year ago, exactly, I had been looking through bars on the windows of the house in Taman Sri Minang, waiting to hear about a job in Manchester. Everything, this whole universe was imagined, but I wanted it so badly. What I got, what I am getting, is so much more than I wanted . All the burning angry and frustration — the nervousness — feels like it is fading. The edge came off, I feel less caged. I closed the curtains and shut off the light, sipping the tea in the darkness.

14 September 2014

Digging through

In 1986, my family was in the middle of moving between Maple Grove and Maple Plain, Minnesota, two nondescript suburbs of Minneapolis, although at the time, Maple Plain was further out into the woods. My parents were building a house, their dream house, on a hill with ten acres of land surrounding it. We spent weekends that summer going back and forth to the house, checking on the progress.

I remember all of this very vaguely. It was, however, the summer that I asked Jesus into my heart, a story that I told and told myself again and again. It was one conversion of hundreds for me though — every chance I had I prayed that Jesus would come into my heart, in case it didn't take before, that he hadn't actually come in. This was the first time I remember though. We were staying at a family friend's house and my sister and our friend, the older girl we were staying with, were playing in the backyard. I came out and asked them what they were playing, and they said Christians. I didn't understand: I said, 'What's a Christian?' and the older girl asked me if I had asked Jesus into my heart. I hadn't, I didn't think, so I did, running back into the house, Jesus, come into my heart.

On the trips between our old house in Maple Grove and the house being built in Maple Plain, we would come over some train tracks on the way out of town towards the building site. On one occasion, for some reason, I had money, my allowance, in my mouth. Some coins — I forget how much exactly. Coming over the train tracks, I swallowed one — a nickle — and had a moment of panic. What should I do, I had to tell someone, didn't I? Mom would be so angry, Dad would be so angry.

I don't remember telling them. I remember going with mom and a stick into the woods when I had to shit. I don't remember passing the penny. I don't remember much else. The woods, the ten acres, became my playground. It went on and on. We played baseball and war and made forts.

Sometime this last week, Mia may or may not have swallowed a white button. It's hard to tell as she and Mei piece together the story: was it a bit of paper or a button? These are important distinctions for adults, but for children, it's hard to tell. It was a button. Where did the button come from? I don't know. Was it paper? Yes. A paper button? No, a button, a white button. There are no white buttons missing from anything. Where did it come from? I don't know. Where was it? Where did she get it?

Mia sits on the potty and when she finishes, I or Yoko sift through looking for a white button.  No button this time. Mia plays happily and is going to school now. After how many days do you go to the doctor? What will she remember of her angry father.

The prayer, to be sure, didn't take, but not for lack of trying. I prayed again and again. I was sorry for what I had done: how much more sorry can a child be. Jesus, I was sure I had felt him in my heart, speaking to me.

09 September 2014

The supermoon

LORD MURUGAN - The LEADER of DEVAS - LORD SHIVA and GODDESS PARVATHI'S AGNIPUTRA - Artist AniKarthikeyan,Chennai,TamilNadu,India

I've been having trouble sleeping, the way you do when you start getting up early to work out. I felt this way when I was training for the marathon in 2012 and getting up at 4 in the morning to run. I just wanted to sit in a chair in my trainers all night, waiting for the alarm to go off.

The gym membership has got me up and moving now every day early in the morning. They open at six, and on days that I want to be out and working earlier, I go for a run before they open and stop off on my way to work. This morning, the alarm went off at 5 and touched Yoko's head to say goodbye and ran out, up through Edgbaston, through the hospital and University campus, and then back up towards the city centre, all the old money houses still sleeping. There aren't any cars on the quiet streets, so I don't have to run on the pavement and I can slip into my inner world, flipping through thoughts like an old Rolodex. This one to the next to the next to the next.

This morning as I came up Harborne High Street, my smartphone announcing through my pocket that I had been running for 40 minutes, I caught sight of the moon — the supermoon — just setting down our way, behind War Lane. I pushed myself harder and harder towards the end, trying to get the splits to be closer to seven and half minutes, something I could brag to myself about.

Coming back to running is such a gift. In Malaysia, in the heat, I would run a couple of miles at most, around the hill outside of Taman Sri Minang, the azan coming over the hills, but the heat still intense even so early in the morning. My body felt so fat — my father-in-law wondering outloud how I could run when I was so fat.

Up Victoria Road, it's different. My body responds much more quickly and I am, in a mile or so at pace and pushing and pushing into the night, the darkness of the trees where the supermoon hasn't quite reached.

07 September 2014

Home, or a kind of home

In October, I'll start my twelfth year abroad. This last week, as I was retelling the story of the last six years to someone, they said, Wow, you like to move around, and I didn't know how to respond. It sort of happened, I said. I'm not capable of making a decision and sticking with it. Or, other things keep coming up that look better and I take them. Or, life's too short. I laughed, Sort of.

Now, however, it seems settling is imposing itself on me. After looking at the house last week, I felt like we had found the perfect next step towards long-term stability, but no one really wanted to move again. Yoko said, Do you want to know the truth? when I asked her how she felt, and of course, I didn't. I don't ever want to know the truth about anything.

I did what I do: I wrote a note to the landlord, an e-mail that might have been the most carefully constructed bit of writing I have ever done, balancing three competing interests. And then she responded immediately, yes, we could stay for the same price and she would replace the mouldy floor, which were the only reasons we started looking in the first place. There it was: problem solved. I walked the kids to school the next day, past the house I wanted and thought, well, one day, I suppose.

There are all these hints of home here though, when I came back, as I did this last couple of days from a conference in Warwick. Harborne High St and the bus rattling up the hill to the Green Man pub on the corner on the other end of town. Yes, something familiar, even if it's only been nine months. I walk down Victoria Rd. The kids go to their school, and Mia starts on Wednesday. Nine months becomes ten and eleven and before you know it, it's been a year or eleven. I didn't really choose it. What can you say.


01 September 2014

Coming up

Over the weekend, the weather finally broke and we had the sort of autumn day you wait and wait for in the UK, with the electric blue sky and the sun streaming in every window. You throw everything open to air it out. The kids played in the garden squealing and running around, and I sat inside, reading the Murakami book my in-laws had sent at the beginning of the year, the new collection of short stories in Japanese.

I have been on a Murakami binge. Yoko's parents had given me another book, Murakami's new novel, when I was in Malaysia, but thought I had lost it in the move, a recurring problem I have with presents from Yoko's parents. I felt bad — ashamed really — having wanted to finish it before the English translation came out, the Japanese language ability badge of honour. It was gone, though, and the times I had looked for it had turned up nothing, until last Saturday when I looked again through Yoko's books and saw that it had always been there on the shelf, I had overlooked it because I thought I remembered the cover.

I read my first Murakami book Norwegian Wood in Japanese, in the summer of 2005, when I was starting to become interested in Yoko. The story I tell again and again: I was reading at a plastic table in downtown Niigata, across from the McDonalds. Yoko texted me, asking if I wanted to meet up. I'm downtown, I responded, where are you? At your apartment — it's okay, another time then. I can come now, I replied, I'll be there in twenty minutes. No, it's fine, she texted back: another time.

Having found the book and been given another chance, I was determined to not make the same mistake. I read and read and read for three days, feeling like I was watching a film. I got to the end, and had an epiphany, a remarkable moment of clarity, after a summer of Yoko's skin burning and the money evaporating and another day and another day and another day. There had been nothing to look forward to, but then the end of this book seemed to remind me that, yes, the future was coming, yes, it was bright, yes, it will be okay. Reading Japanese again made me feel remarkably strong, like I could say things to Yoko clearly after a year and half of mumbling and picking the easiest word, dropping articles, and losing all the precision that written Japanese has.

The momentum feels like it is building: Yoko got medicine from the doctor and is beginning to feel better. I keep going every morning to the gym to do my circuit training and sweat out my old self, the Malaysian self that ate all that food and sat at the computer deep into the night waiting for the autumn to come. Yoko made curtains for the windows because I didn't want to spend any more money. I get up and touch her on the leg before I head out: I'm going to the gym. A little bit more of me will come back in a couple of hours. 

On Thursday, the landlord confirmed that she would renew our contract, but wanted to put the rent up. We took it in stride and I looked for another house all weekend, resigned that I would be paying another £25 a month for this mouldy, dark terrace house. This morning, though, we viewed a property up on Tennal Rd with wood floors and larger refrigerator and no mould under the kitchen flooring. The light comes in on three sides and I stood at the top of the landing, looking around feeling like this is a house we could grow up in. It felt possible, plausible, this whole thing. The whole goddammed year we have been clawing along, but here: a kind of gift. A better place to live, for the same price, for less really. No penalty for moving. No more mould and dirty carpets. The deal isn't done, but it doesn't matter — the potential is there. 

At the end of the Murakami book, the protagonist is sucked into the darkness and the world of dreams. It's funny to remember again, at 32, the magic of books and of escaping into another person's perspective. Don't worry, you can still escape every now and again.