30 June 2014


Today marked six months back from Malaysia. The heat is forgotten almost entirely and the daylight goes on and on. The girls are up until ten or ten thirty, but it doesn't seem to matter. July is just around the corner, and then August and then the autumn that I have waited and waited for. A brisk walk across the Newman quad, and then in Kensington and Bloomsbury. A home, if there is still a home.

I closed our Lloyds international account this morning, the one that came with a black card with a black, charging stallion on it. When I put it on the counter at the branch in Harborne, it felt like an artefact from potential life that I had surrendered. I stared at it while the attendant — with the name Leghorn, so British — pulled up a screen to return to life before Malaysia, with a simple current account. A green card with a black stallion.

We had signed up for this international account when we left the UK. I remember the first time I used the card in Kajang, in the mall, after walking from the hotel with Mei, over the dirty river and through the heat to Giant. The card worked and I remember feeling like things would be okay: if we had money for a couple of months, we would be okay.

The card was replaced after four weeks — when our visas came through, and we could open a bank account in Semenyih — with a cheap debit card from the Malaysian bank, Maybank, that didn't even have my name printed on it. It had pictures of apples and the numbers even rubbed off in three months. I had an argument with a Maybank employee in a tudong about it: she said it was my fault. She said the numbers on her card had not rubbed off and she had her's for many years. The two cards, the black stallion on the Lloyds card with my name in raised letters and the Maybank card with the numbers written in Sharpie, were a great metaphor for the differences in lives, the hardships. I could even use the Lloyds card as a prop if I ever needed to explain why going back to England would be easy: I already have this. It took me five weeks to get to this point in Malaysia.

Leghorn printed the forms and had Yoko and I sign them, the black stallion cards in front of him on the desk still. Do you want me to dispose of these? He said, and he bent and ripped them in front of me. All done. Twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours. the money will be in my new old account, back to square one.

Yoko and I left and went for coffee with Mia: the Nero on Harborne High Street has tall windows that they open when it's warm. I sat with my back to the sun, sipping espresso and thinking about how much I had just spent. Four pounds, that would have been twenty-five ringgit. Dinner for the whole family, easily — I would have thought about that money this time last year. This time last year, when Ramadan was starting and you heard the Mahgrib in a way that you didn't before. I was going mad. Just a year ago, just over that horizon.

26 June 2014

The terrible threes

Mia came so quickly. I asked her last night if she remembered being born, and she said she did. 

I remember her being born, remember Yoko touching my leg to wake me up when the labour had started. It was the second year of my PhD, and I was a pile of dry leaves, trying to keep from burning up. After she was born, I wrote for 16 days straight. I stayed up all night and wrote. 

Mia is a fascinating little person. I'm sure she will keep that up.

24 June 2014

What I was doing was fascinating

In 2006, after Yoko and I got married, we went to Malta and Italy for our honeymoon. In my mind, there was no more romantic place than Italy. I had never been there — I had imagined it, idealised it in the way that Midwestern boys think about anything beyond the hundreds of miles of corn separating us from anything. Italy, yes, where people eat the sorts of food they do on PBS documentaries, and drink strong coffee and wine. What does wine even taste like? Two students came back from studying in Florence when I was at Knox, and were suddenly wearing leather shoes and complaining that someone had set out juice and cookies at a poetry reading. They're both sweet, we need something bitter to balance it.

I spent this weekend in Italy at a conference and was struck again with how Italian Italy is: very much like one imagines it to be. Yes, the people golden and well-dressed, smoking cigarettes and sitting effortlessly beautiful in cafes in the setting sun. Still the Midwestern boy, I look on with a sense of aspirational awe, like someday I too might be able to shed this hunched, sweating white body and transform into one of them. I am, after all, 1/8 Italian — my grandmother’s maiden name was Albie. I walked around in the evenings after the conference, buying pizza and gelato, watching all of the people that are 1/8 me and wondering how, in only three or four generations, we had ruined ourselves: a people who drank wine at lunch and slept from 2 to 4, to dreadful Puritans and Calvinists, wound so tightly. What part of my blood is to blame for that?

Whatever aspirations I have, I still feel like a tourist, in the way that all millenials are now tourists, having been somewhere in the world to study or volunteer or do some other insufferable thing. You can hear the young American accents in the cafes and you suspect that if you went over to the table, you could strike up a conversation about Angkor Wat or a wet market in Bangkok. Everyone’s been everywhere now, any place in the world feels like a different part of Disneyland. There are still wars, of course.

For the first time at an academic conference, I wasn't a student trying to be heard or get a job. I am now just another academic in the pile, without the protection of my supervisor who had helped found this particular association and whom I had, in the past, stood and sat next to at important times in the conferences, feeling like people were listening to what I was saying. In 2010, I remember now, I was sitting in a terrace restaurant in Amsterdam, above Vondel park, with everyone I was reading at the time and citing in my upgrade reports and I felt like I had arrived in some way, had somehow taken a place among all these important scholars who would listen to me when I talked about my research.

Four years on, my supervisor has retired  and she, at least this year, was a kind of ghost. A third of the people presenting cited her in one way or another — a keynote speaker quoted and disagreed strongly with her, but because she was not there, it seemed odd to assert an opposing position. I wondered if I should stand from the back, one of the last students that orbited her and shout out some opposing point. You've misrepresented her. I know — I was sitting there when she said that for the first time. Without her standing next to me in the lunch line, people I thought would remember me, did not remember me. I’m Stephen, I was Lynne’s student? I say. We spoke at length in 2010: you thought was I was doing was fascinating.

Instead of falling into some family of academics, I feel even more American than ever, setting out to make my own path at a University no one knows yet, and slowly building my own reputation — my own people in my own orbit. After all, in a couple of years, no one will ask or care whom you studied with. It feels terribly lonely though: a string of publications with my name only, no one else standing with me. I shouldn't, of course, be bothered — this is my path. I'm forty-fifth generation Roman and with some luck, somewhere I can recover in some small way, my ancestors — 1/8 of them — who looked out at the Mediterranean and weren't so bothered.

17 June 2014

Father's Day

Today, Mei's class performed for Father's Day at the school assembly. The kids went around and recited lines — things they loved or respected about their fathers and then held up pictures they had drawn. Mei nailed it, proudly held up this picture of my madness. The kids sang a song about their fathers being superheroes, but at this school, being a good father amounts to simply being present. Mei was happy and embarrassed and proud, this mix of emotions that comes over her when she is in front of a group of people. You can watch her go through these stages, as she files in, sees her parents and then focuses on whatever she needs to do. 

We spent the weekend with Yoko's Japanese friends in Milton Keynes: beautiful children running around a bazaar held in a church. The men with the children, as I've said before, are all older than me, with wives my age, and children the ages of my kids. I'm never sure where to put my hands when I find myself in these situations. Does this all seem ridiculous to you? I wander off, play with the phone, hope no one has noticed that I'm not there. 

I dread the end of June, my birthday and father's day, particularly this year when bills have come in. I heard Adam Carolla once talking about his wife getting him a flat screen TV for his birthday. He laughed off the absurdity of it: the money was coming out of their account anyway and he was the only one working. Of course, that's not a thing that you should say, but I broke the rules this weekend in the worst possible way when Yoko and Naomi brought home Glenlivet 12 year whisky, Naomi saying Happy Father's Day. The car tax was two hundred and five pounds. Naomi's swimming fees were close to fifty pounds. Mei's passport was one hundred and fifty pounds in the end. I like whisky, but this is not the month to drink whisky. 

I said something to this effect, the wrong thing, of course, to say, but I couldn't hold it back, couldn't pretend. I felt bad later, opened the whisky anyway and started drinking it: why add the humiliation of returning a gift to be married to such an asshole who would say something like that in the first place.

Goffman said it: family life, social life is this presentation, this performance on stage, in front of a curtain. We are puppets, but we're supposed to pretend that we aren't. Sometimes, the curtain flips up a bit and you can see behind it. Sometimes the curtain comes down completely, and you find yourself still dancing in front of an audience that doesn't seem to notice that you're a puppet. 

All these other superhero dads must just be better at pretending, saying the right things to their wives instead of being obsessed with these unseen social constraints that push you one way or another, make you repeat lines that you don't want to repeat anymore. Social structures are not fair or logical or truthful — they are functional. They exist because they function. That's it. To expect more of them is silly; it will drive you mad. 

12 June 2014

A phantom limb

When Job's friends come to visit him, when he is covered in boils and sitting in ashes, they sit in silence for a week.
And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.
Job's friends in Evangelical Christian discourse have a bad reputation, but like Pontius Pilate, I have an affinity for them: they are just doing their best.

I finished Moby Dick last week and have been turning the last couple of chapters over and over in my mind. My famed older brother said that it's a shame people have to read these great novels in high school when they can't necessarily appreciate them: I feel that way about Moby Dick. Obsession is hard to understand as a life force until you are obsessed for years and years. I love when Ahab finally comes off the rails in the end:
I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God.
Yes, I can see how it would come to this.

The obvious Biblical metaphor for chasing a whale is Jonah, but I love that Melville continues to allude to Job, to the leviathan. Job is the better metaphor for being forsaken and destitute, provided you avoid the creamy, impossible ending. The real question is the one Ahab gets stuck on, 'Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?' The answer is obvious.

01 June 2014


When we left Malaysia, there was little I felt we were truly leaving behind in terms of quality of life. Every day had become a hurdle of traffic and heat, and when we were called out, I believed in purgatory, at least as a useful concept in framing experience. We had paid our dues and were back on track. Still, there were small things we left behind, one being the access to very cheap extracurricular activities. RM50 a month for swimming and another RM50 for gymnastics. We could all go swimming for about a pound and then have dinner, piles of food in the food court, for less than five quid. I was reminded several times that this would not be the case in the UK: it would cost much more, more than we could afford.

We quickly went to work to find places for Naomi to swim and Mei to do gymnastics. Naomi got on two swimming club waiting lists, but as luck would have it, Mei was able to join a gymnastics club that meets on Saturday in the University of Birmingham gym and only costs £3.50 a time. Naomi, however, didn't get a place in the swim club, and we have been waiting and waiting for the e-mail saying she could start.

The e-mail did, finally, come last week and she was given a trial spot in a private club, one that, looking at the website, you feel is quite serious. We took the spot, of course, and waited patiently for this morning, when we all got up early to drive her like the Bundrens to the King Edward's High School across from the University of Birmingham, where the club meets. The University of Birmingham, the red brick and the crests are all matched by the King Edward's High School (for boys and for girls, but not co-ed). There are well-manicured playing fields surrounding it, with the University clock tower looking down as it does in Edgbaston and Harborne and Selly Oak. I had a moment of pride as I do sometimes in these places, a feeling of anticipation for the future: I had been saying that we might send the kids to a school like this, if they wanted to learn Latin and have a chance at going to Oxbridge. They could, I had been thinking — this was now a possible future in the Pihlaja multiverse. A kind of ascension from the bottom, from the public swimming pools in Putrajaya.

 The woman running the whole event  looked like my PhD supervisor, and was kind enough: a coach, a serious coach. Naomi was placed in the learners’ group one, but was quickly promoted to group two. Yoko, Mei, Mia, and I sat on the side of the pool with the other forty or so parents. Mia kept complaining that she wanted to swim, and Yoko disappeared with her and then reappeared and she was wearing her swimming costume, beaming like a three year old. I was embarrassed at first: here we were, the immigrants, stepping up and we had to go and have Mia running around making everyone uncomfortable thinking she’s going to jump in the water.

She kept running around in front of us, getting in the way of one of the coaches, but we would apologise and pull her back. Yoko and Mei and Mia ran off to the toilet and I played with my phone, looking up every now and then. Eventually, Mia appeared from across the pool, running out of the ladies room and headed towards me, and I thought, Jesus, she shouldn’t be running, but I couldn't manage to shout out to her. She got about halfway, and then started running back, Yoko standing at the door of the ladies room. Mia, I said, trying not to yell and starting to run after her, and she started to run faster.

Somewhere deep in my reptilian brain I thought this was probably not a good thing, that I shouldn't run, but it didn't catch up with me until, suddenly, a loud whistle was blown and the whole of the pool stopped, all thirty kids swimming, all parents looking up, and the coach looking directly at me and shouting. Shouting? Was she shouting at me? She was, yes, and I was standing there with Mia and now, Yoko at the door, who didn't realise initially that the whole pool, everyone, was staring and the coach was still shouting. I apologised, but she couldn't hear me — I may have even bowed. There was silence for a second and then everything started up again. I walked back to my seat, in front of the stands of parents, all looking at me sympathetically, and me apologising the whole way back, Sorry, I wasn't thinking, sorry I’m sorry, sorry, yes, I know, sorry, and sheepishly sitting down.

The swimming ended, and I apologised to the coach again, to the woman taking the money, to the parent who sympathetically said to me, Oh that must have been awful, just awful, I felt so bad for you. No, no, I'm sorry, I said: it’s my fault, we were in Malaysia last year, my wife is Japanese, the children are much less restricted in Asian countries.

These things, of course, happen: it's certainly not part of some bigger picture, some bigger narrative about being places one should not be — in the boy's pool at King Edward's High School, that I feel I have infiltrated, as an American with my Japanese wife. We don’t belong there, do we: we don’t have old Edgbaston money, or a cottage in the Lake District. We have somehow clawed our way into this world, where we don’t belong, but are trying to. When I open my mouth, you know that I am American, right? My wife is clearly not British, you can see that, I know you can. Standing there waiting for the girls to come out of the toilet, I suddenly felt a rush of empathy for the woman in the hijab having an awkward conversation with another British woman from the swimming club. What are any of us doing, what do we think we’re doing.