13 May 2015


At the Five Ways roundabout in Birmingham, the Islington Row Middleway turns into the Ladywood Middleway in classic West Midlands style, a fixture of 1971 asphalt and concrete. If you go straight on Hagley Road, it becomes Broad Street, lined with clubs and lads and Asian men in taxis, and then the City Centre. This roundabout is, like others in the city, the result and plan of some vision of the world built around the car, when there was peace in the Middle East and oil could never run out. These planners placed a kind of park and walkway underneath the roundabout — the idea was, it seems, that one could sit in the middle of the expressway, the cars flying by above on concrete, and have a moment of peace. A kind of modern peace.

I find myself walking through this park at odd hours, either very early in the morning to catch a bus or train, or very late at night, after having just ridden a bus or train. Today, I walked up to the city early to give platelets, the part of the blood that is yellow and causes it clot. I am healthy and make more platelets than I need, I'm told, and so I can donate them regularly. The last time I did this, which was also the first time, I got terribly ill. The NHS donor support staff were adamant that I should say if my mouth became numb — the machine they hook you up to returns some chemical back into your body to replace the platelets and when your body can't process the chemical quickly enough, the numbness is a symptom. Thinking I was fine, I didn't say anything when it first came: I could solider on. But as I sat there, the machine drawing and returning my blood for 67 minutes, the numbness became nausea and light-headedness. At 57 minutes, I had to pee terribly and I was about to vomit, but no one seemed to notice as the last minutes ticked down. When it hit zero, the machine beeped happily and the nurse came over: You don't look so good, and I said, I need to go to the toilet very badly.

I was determined to miss out on this today, and had been regulating my intake of fluids all morning and practicing the lack of courage needed to admit defeat to the machine. I decided to walk up to the City because I'm fat now and riding my bike in my jeans is too uncomfortable. Plus, I've grown concerned about accidental death in the last three weeks, and the bike feels foolishly dangerous. I woke Naomi before I left to reassure her: she's been unwell before going to school and I told her again that it was okay, she was going to be okay. I didn't say goodbye to Yoko, but saw my father-in-law on his way back from a walk he had gotten very lost on. He greeted me in Japanese and headed to the garden to smoke. I shut the door behind me and I walked up out of Harborne, down into Edgbaston and towards the City Centre to the Five Ways roundabout and that park underneath it. 

There was a man, as there sometimes are, under one of the footbridges, wrapped up in a blanket and I knew he would ask me for change. I could feel my body pull to the right as I walked pass, like I was avoiding him implicitly and indeed he did look up and say something. I mumbled and kept going forward while feeling immediately guilty for stepping over him — Jesus will damn me and people like me for this. I thought about the Tories and the displaced responsibility of society and the government, how there were some problems no individual could solve. This man certainly wasn't my fault after all: Margaret Thatcher was probably to blame in one way or another. I too was suffering, I could have said to him: have you heard of these NHS fees they're imposing now?

They put me on the platelet machine and at the first sign of numbness, I flagged a woman over and she slowed the machine down and called me Hon. Better now? Yes, it was, thank you, I got very ill last time, and she smiled, and I said, I shouldn't eat all the biscuits. I'm getting fat, but it's all stress eating. The woman smiled and adjusted the plastic tube whisking my blood away. I repressed the urge again to go on: did she want to hear about how my daughter isn't settling at school and how tired my wife is of me and how the Tories are trying to force me out of the country?

The machine drew platelets longer than 67 minutes as a consequence of putting my hand up and admitting defeat. I went on more slowly: first it was going to be 94 minutes, but then at 81 minutes, the machine said it was done. I got unhooked: they pulled the needle out and the nurse took apart the hoses filled with weak blood. She had me hold my two fingers on the gauze and sit back and relax. You alright? No, but it's not blood related, don't worry. I got up feeling like I had done something, imagining in some way that my body felt different even though it didn't and wondering what to do with myself. Couldn't I just be alone for a spell, but there was no place to be alone except by walking, so I walked and walked, down past New Street and then back to Five Ways. Perhaps, I thought, the homeless man under the bridge would still be there. Perhaps he had been an oracle and I had failed a test. If I went back, perhaps I could get a second chance.

11 May 2015

Election and Predestination

On Saturday, Mei turned 6 and we, the UK Pihlajas, did what we have seen all the other British families do and felt obligated to do ourselves: throw a birthday party. We chose a relatively inexpensive option — or I should say, Yoko did. I watched on, as I do, paying for whatever we needed and doing the heavy lifting of speaking English. This inexpensive option was the Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park, a very small zoo off of Canon Hill Park. We paid £30 to hire a party room for two hours, and then admission for everyone that came and then pizza and cake. What should be provided at these parties is set: cake and party bags, and the people attending should provide a gift with a retail value of £10. The kids eat cold pizza and the parents look on and when it's clear that the kids are only picking over everything anyway then the father takes a pizza from the table and offers pieces to the weary parents, who must first reject and then begrudgingly accept the pizza.

This is the most British of experiences: the conversations you have reflect the class structure you have found yourself in. I was asking one of the parents, who is Scottish, about the election and the sweep of the National party. The conversation was, however, quickly taken over by another father who said, 'Surprising result in the premiership earlier today,' and I awkwardly went back to cleaning up serviettes, and pretending that I was of some use and belonged there. I don't even know where Sunderland is.

A friend of mine, a scholar from the OU, wrote a book called, 'The Idea of English in Japan', which is about conceptions of the English language, and its symbolic status, in Japan. Of course, the conceptualisation of the language has little bearing on what it actually is — the Japanese are so displaced from any real use of the language, that it becomes something entirely different. The idea of England in the world, in many ways, is similar: England, the United Kingdom, is not what you imagine it to be as a foreigner.

The idea of England was planted in me in college, reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. There was an air of refinement that I wasn't familiar with. I’d read Beckett in high school, but without any context; I was all-American in the worst possible way. I remember once at a poetry reading, a student who had just come back from a semester abroad in Italy was complaining about the food on offer: cola and Oreos. ‘You can’t match two sweets.’ He was incredulous, and I was confused, What do you mean, I remember asking. ‘Well, you can't eat and drink sweet things together, you need to balance it. Like have some wine or something’ and I remember thinking, Isn't wine sweet like Coke?

I was wise enough to avoid saying things like this because although I was ignorant, I learned to hide my ignorance at times. I was homeschooled and realised quickly when I was first thrown into large social situations that my social awareness was cripplingly narrow. I would sometimes spectacularly say the wrong thing, like asserting once that women didn't masturbate. But I was mostly good. I never mentioned the time twelve-year-old me wrote the El Paso Times a letter they was published, complaining about an evolution quiz they had run. It was only a theory, after all. I didn't tell people I voted for Bush the first time around or that I had done street theatre with my youth group in front of Watertower Place in Chicago.

Woolf started to untangle some of this, offer another way of being in the world. That dream of England subsided some when I got lost in Japan for that spell but returned in 2007 when I had decided to want a PhD. The dream percolated back up and we came here finally in September of 2008, Yoko, me, and Naomi, who was just starting to walk confidently. At that time, the only thing I wanted was to spend a few years here, and see the Rothko Room in the Tate and have my British experience. I took a picture on the Thames one warm December day, the first time we were in London.

Some eight years after that first yen to come, the sea change in the British politics and the rejection of immigration as a necessary or good thing by the government, has started to decimate whatever dream of life here we had built. In the conversations with the fathers at the birthday parties, I find myself on the flip side of where I was in college: knowing more than I need to or should and trying to pretend that I don’t. ‘So you don't want to stay on then?’ No, I say, it’s just very expensive to stay. ‘Oh, yes, life in the UK is expensive.’ No, I say, well, that, but the visas are expensive, too expensive, and the laws are always shifting and unstable. ‘No kidding? I thought anybody could get in here’ and I laugh too, but I'm not laughing, No, that’s not the case. ‘But the kids are British, right, they are born here, right?’ No, I say again, trying to hold back what I want to say: The average British person doesn't even know why they’re British. Instead, I say, No, no, that’s not how it works. ‘Huh,’ and the conversation ends.

Somewhere along the way, you let your expectations get away from you and forget to tamp them down, to temper them. And then suddenly, they aren't attainable. It’s like how lovers sometimes turn on each other, try to become so unbearable that the other will leave and they will be free of the consequences of choosing to end it themselves. I feel silly that this is the analogy I come up with for my relationship with the UK now, this giant machine, the government, the home office, whoever it is that doesn’t want me or my family here. We won't tell you to leave, but we'll make it too hard for you to stay.

I want to call someone up on the phone and tell them about Woolf and this history we have here: we're worth it to keep, I swear, don't force us out. When you're an immigrant, you’re always displaced: saying you're displaced is a tautology. This house on Victoria Road is just temporary, despite the way we treat it, the things we buy that make it difficult to leave. How can you explain visas to kids or tell them they can't have things because we don’t know what the parliament will decide in the autumn.

06 May 2015

The second circle of hell

On September 11th, 2001, I was walking back from breakfast with Rob my roommate, back to the DARE House where we were living on the bottom floor. We were living with girls, something I neglected to tell my parents until the day we moved in. The Kellys, both of them, Kelly and Kelly, were already upstairs. It was fine, I assured my parents, we were downstairs, they were upstairs — we weren't sharing a bathroom anyway. I don't remember my parents responding one way or another, which must have meant they didn't say anything.

The eleventh was clear and electric blue, the same weather as New York. We stood there, in the living room, watching that plane come into the second tower, and you could feel the collective dropping out of the nation's stomach. It wasn't an accident, was it. We responded quickly, calling a prayer meeting immediately. The Christian group's paid staff member came and talked soothingly and clearly while we sat in a circle and prayed.

I had spent that summer painting houses, growing my hair out, and listening to that Jimmy Eat World album, 'Bleed American', the one that made them famous. They had to change the title after the attack, I remember, and then change it back when we started the second war. I was miserable that whole summer, feeling like a dog tied to a pole. I couldn't paint to save my life, but I didn't have anything else I could do, so I did my best to pretend I was okay. My high school courtship plans had failed and it was clear that I wouldn't be married the summer after I graduated college. Things weren't predestined in the way I had thought.

I got in me the idea that I needed to work with the poor, to be a kind of aid missionary to somewhere in South or Central America. It's hard to explain why — I'm not sure why. It was a thing that you could do as a young Evangelical in my circles. The process was one I was well-versed in: you were called somewhere, you raised money, and you went. I don't remember having anything by pure motives and everyone thinking this was a wonderful idea.

The process of going, of being called, took two years of preparation. I passed the initial screening in 2002 and during spring break 2003, I spent $500 to attend a one week training seminar in Phoenix. This would be the final confirmation of god's will in my life and begin the process of fundraising.  Several weeks before I went, I was sent a psychological evaluation form to fill out: a list of questions and personality auditor. I clipped through it: no, I didn't drink or smoke; no, I didn't have any anger issues; hadn't ever been arrested; hadn't ever been told I shouldn't go into ministry. 

And then: Have you have had any struggles with sexual impurity? It depended, I thought, on what you meant by struggles. Not any more than the next guy, not any more than anyone I knew, but yes, I suppose: we had code words for it in accountability, Q and R. Everyone struggles with Q and R.

I landed in Phoenix and my dad's friend picked me up at the airport, a retired co-worker who had a beautiful house on the edge of the mountains. I slept there one night and he took me to breakfast in the morning.

The meetings I was meant to have for the week were all in a Christian retreat centre: I arrived and suddenly met a group of people that all shared the same calling, couples and families and one other single guy like me. Just now, as I find all the pictures I took, I remember some of their names and where they ended up going. Phil and Christine, yes, they did work in Africa for many years. I got their prayer letter. The citrus trees were blooming and the night air was clear and pure. We ate spaghetti with our hands, sitting on mats, and that Thursday night, we were in the living room of one of the organiser's houses, and Bush started the second war in Iraq on the television.

The week began with the psychological evaluation, and I remember being brought to a room with a woman who I was told had a degree in counseling. She had all of my papers in front of her, and that one paper, with 10 nos, and one line you could see across the table, where I had been honest: the 'No, but' line. She looked at this first and praised me for my honesty and then asked the sorts of questions that you squirm thinking about now. How often do you masturbate. When do you look at pornography. Do you do it alone or with other people. You could feel the paint peel off the walls, No, no, of course not. And then there were graphs and charts, This test seems to indicate that you struggle with depression: do you feel depressed? Were you molested as a child? It went on and on, the room collapsing down on me as I remember it. I finally got out: she thanked me for my honesty again and looked me in the eye and shook my hand, a kind of grace despite the overwhelming embarrassment.

I forgot quickly about this woman, and the questions: the week only confirmed everything I already knew I wanted to do. I took meticulous notes about fundraising, and thought about whom I would call and what I would say. I needed to raise something like $80,000. It seemed like a lot, but they showed us how it broke down, how it wasn't that much at all if you had the community of believers behind you. I was well-liked, this will be easy for me. Everyone will be happy to support this.

But on Friday night, when we were all to get out assignments, one of the men from the organisation suggested that we take a walk, get away from the group and sit up on the hill. They had been impressed with me, he said: I was clearly a good kid who loved god, but there were concerns about this test, about using pornography to cope with depression. I didn't know what to say: I wanted to explain it again, No, I think she misunderstood. He told me, in confidence, that there was a single guy with the ministry who they were thinking of taking back off the field because of these same problems. I wondered how in the world he was downloading thirty seconds clips from Showgirls in the jungle: did the Internet even work out there? He suggested I get some counselling, take a year off and re-evaluate after I got some help. We walked back down to the group, to all the people asking about where I was going. I didn't know what to say.

My brother came to pick me up — he was living in State at the time and I had to tell him first, I can't go: I look at pornography and I masturbate sometimes. I'm sorry. He called my parents for me. I took a picture. Yes, he's fine, but there's a problem. He'll tell you when he gets home. The flight out of Sky Harbor, I recited the lines I would need to say when I landed. It would be hard, yes, but there was no way around it, no way to avoid it.

And then for a week, this worst sort of confession I had ever experienced, telling my parents then my sister then everyone at college who knew about the calling that I wasn't going, I couldn't go, that I had a problem. I told people at my church back home. I got so used to saying it outloud that the shame wore off at some point.

I was clear-eyed and diligent: I called around to churches to see if there was a counselor nearby, one that I could see for free, and I found a pastor across the railroad tracks, in a Baptist church. I went to see him one day after classes. He asked me why I was there: I was told I was depressed and that my depression was leading to sexual sin. I had also, once during a football practice, been touched by a coach when we were in a huddle: just right here, just for a second, but the woman in Phoenix seemed to think I'd been molested and all these things were connected. I'm here to sort that out.

The pastor looked concerned and asked me if I had ever been attracted to men. No? I said, not that I know of. And he said, Good, because young boys who have been molested sometimes think that they're gay, that they have sexual feelings towards other men. You don't feel that way, do you? No, I said, no, of course not.

He thanked me for coming, said I didn't have anything to worry about, but to come back and see him if I had any more problems. I walked back to campus, utterly confused, wondering what to do. There was some miscommunication in all this, the lines got crossed. I was willing to be sent, wasn't that enough. 

Within six months I was in Japan, a different calling with a different church and a partner to go with, someone to save me from those pixelated breasts and keep me accountable. It worked out, in its own way, but that's a different story altogether.

And I don't remember much else about September 11th. We were so far removed: life just went on. Something like two hundred people jumped from the Twin Towers while they burned. If you watch the videos on YouTube, if you can stomach it, you can see the moment when people give up and resign themselves to the end. The bodies tumble through the air, like they are dead before they hit the ground. I don't remember seeing any of that live, I don't remember any of that. They say it is hard to know who jumped and who was forced out by the fire and smoke: where is agency when the tower burns. We watched the second plane explode and knew, immediately, that it wasn't an accident. 

05 May 2015


I was a responsible teenager and I came from a culture of responsibility. There was no margin for error. It's hard to explain this to people, particularly outside of the States. I can only do it in anecdotes: I had a friend who was grounded — couldn't go to the cinema for a year — because he saw Titanic without his parents' permission. There were, I'm sure you'll recall, breasts in Titanic. I can recall them because I saw them too and still feel guilty for seeing them if I think about it too much. Or this: I was in a men's accountability group that spent up to an hour each week talking about avoiding sexual temptation. Not having sex, of course, but just thinking about it.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 
I lived my teenage years thinking I was an adulterer, having cheated repeatedly on my wife, whom I had never met, but who I was told would be deeply hurt by all the things I had thought I might think about doing. I prayed again and again — perhaps it would take at some point. I harassed everyone around me: we cannot, must not, lose our purity. Our future marriages depend on it.

What was that I said about lying to your children, or needing to lie to your children. Naomi was crying again this morning, not wanting to go to school, and I have nothing to offer her. I never went to school, I never moved schools. I have no idea what to say: I hug her and put her on the back of my bicycle and say, sternly, You're going to be okay, you're going to be fine. I don't, of course, believe that she will be. I say it as a kind of imperative. What I mean is, Be okay, be fine. Accept this, move on.

Yoko was telling the story of our move to Malaysia, and as I thought about what she was saying, I remembered how ridiculous and hair-brained the whole mess had been. When we got off the plane in Dubai, Mia was crying and the other two girls were sleeping. We had ten carry-ons and three car seats. We're moving, I'm sorry. I remember getting to the gate, the next flight and Yoko taking Mia away for a moment and thinking that this was all going to come undone at some point. Who was I fooling anyway.

And then the story cascaded into another, yes, and it was worse because it was a repeated mistake, one that I had made when we first moved to the UK and had brought fourteen 30kg boxes with us with no way to get them to Milton Keynes. And then repeated again when we came back to the UK and we packed that Chinese taxi full of all our crap and Mei sat on my lap as we raced toward the Kuala Lumpur airport, the old Chinese driver swerving on the road, either drunk or just exhausted. I hadn't learned anything about anything.
In retrospect, Kate Winslet's breasts in Titanic were the least of my worries. Or making out under a streetlamp with impunity, consequences be damned. All this fear of sex and losing my purity. No, you lied to me about the real trouble. In three years, none of it mattered: the real trouble was something entirely different.

04 May 2015

What is that song you sing for the dead?

Oh death, you hector me, decimate those dear to me. 

The last few weeks have been saturated with death: people dying, or waiting to die. Songs about death and realisations that some people are closer to death than others. We turn a corner at some point where people's moms and dads start to die. It's happened twice now in the last six months. It won't stop happening.

When I was in high school, I was responsible. People thought of me as responsible. I played worship songs on the guitar while my girlfriend sang, and people looked up to us. I didn't smoke or drink or run with people who did. In our youth group, I was a leader of some colour family: we had 'family' groups that were assigned a colour. You could be in the blue family or the red family. There were two adult leaders, a male and a female, and then two youth leaders.

One night in September or October, we went bowling as a family and although it was church policy that students not drive to these events (or at least, as I recall it being explained to me), I was trusted to pack a car full of students and make our way down to Mundelein. Somewhere along the way, I had the idea that it would be funny to put Amos in the trunk of my car. We stopped at a light and I said, Amos, you want to get in the trunk of the car, and of course, Amos obliged and I hopped out into the rain and opened the trunk and he jumped inside.

The idea, of course, was that we would arrive at the bowling alley and Amos would jump out of the trunk to everyone's delight. He did, although I remember the joke falling flatter than it should have. Look! It's Amos! In the trunk of the car! None of the girls were impressed or interested.

I went to get my shoes at the counter and remember seeing Lori, one of the adult leaders, come angrily in the door of the bowling alley and make her way towards me. She had been driving the car behind us and didn't think this was funny at all: what if we were in an accident. I remember thinking, as responsible kids do, I hadn't thought of that. I felt horrible for days and days and ended up writing her a letter to apologise. I'm sorry, Ms Bergin, you had trusted me and I failed.

When I had my first daughter, Naomi, she gave the letter back to me, smiling and knowing. I was absolved now, I would understand in time.

Naomi and I walk up to the High Street yesterday. I owed her one, one pound coin that she had given me the other night. I get the money and we buy a secret treat. The sun is going down late now and all the red brick glows from eight until nine. Well-dressed middle class men and women coming in and out of the Junction.

We pass a sign that said: Does God exist? Yes, No, or Probably. Naomi says, Daddy, which one would you tick? I don't know, I say, and we walk on a bit before I ask her. Yes, she says, I think there's a god. We get talking about heaven and I finally tell her the truth, that no, I didn't think there is a god or a heaven, but it is fine if she thinks there is: most people do. She doesn't seem bothered by this. What happens when you die? she askes me, and I say, Well, what was it like before you were born? Naomi thinks and says, I don't remember, and I say, it's sort of like that, I suppose. You don't remember.

She thinks again and I say, How is your new school, you've changed schools a lot? I help her climb up to hang on the fence of the Cerebral Palsy home where a woman was earlier shouting out at us. If I have to change schools again, I think I'll kill myself. I have the urge to chastise her, to tell her not to say that, but I try not to, I've been trying not to. Why's that? Because it's hard, and there are new people. She jumps off the fence and we walk the rest of the way home. You'll be okay, I say. You'll be okay.

There's some scientific research to be done on how much we lie to our children. I'm trying to lie less. Play the long game, when and if I can. It's impossible with books about Jesus lying around and prayers that must be said in school. This word, hector. We are hectored by death, but more so by the remedies we accept to alleviate its pain. All the songs and words and myths. There is no shade in the shadow of the cross. We just fall asleep. Do we. The bells of the church chime again, on the quarter of the hour. You can hear them, like a call to prayer.

01 May 2015

Death with dignity

St Peter’s church, on the top of the hill in Harborne, is surrounded by a cemetery. The headstones, when you take the time to read them, tell the story of the parish and the town by extension, reaching back hundreds of years. Some of them are sunken deep into the ground now, only the very tops sticking out. There, the ground has settled to betray that there was once a body under the soil, but that body is gone now. It’s five years or six years only and the body is gone, taken back, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

The kids are now accepted, all of them, at St Peters’ school, which comprises two buildings on either side of the church and cemetery. Every morning, the kids walk to school and are surrounded by the dead and the ringing of bells, like it is 1930 or 10 or 50. The buildings are all red brick, and you can look down at the University of Birmingham if you get the right view. There is the walkway into the town centre, past the cricket greens. It is the best of the options we have now, in our little orbit of the house on Victoria Rd that is still cold and damp even into May. The kids can walk there, with Yoko, in less than ten minutes. The whole ecosystem of our life shifted, recentred, on this hill, with the dead couples going back hundreds of years. Millions of pounds of granite.

I have, however, lost hope, in a way that I haven’t ever before. I wonder, as I think about it, if this is a function of a time in life or a natural consequence of the choices I’ve made, trying to fit a lifestyle from twenty years ago into 2015. It’s simply not a life that can be lived on one income, three kids, a foreign residence, the pets, organic food, Japanese imports. Mei has finally been accepted to swimming club and the question can never be, can we afford it: we must afford it, this is the life we’ve chosen, we can’t let anyone down. Every other conversation is about money and what someone needs. Thank you, daddy. 

I get up, and run to work. I'm still gaining and losing weight. My hairline recedes some more. I hear one of the daughters screaming in her sleep. I'll be 33 soon and then 34. The government doesn't value me anymore. I've heard if you go into care with a full bank account, they can drain it. Death with dignity: best to buy those shoes you want now. Best to not gamble it away.