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.