29 July 2015

When the lie stops

When you gain weight, you lie to yourself: you are not gaining weight, you are not eating too much, you are, for whatever reason, feeling slower and more depressed. Your clothes fit more tightly and you compensate by saying you are under a great amount of stress. You don't think when you eat: you just eat. You eat when you are happy and when you are sad. You eat because of those things, and then in spite of them. You eat not because you need to, although you need to, but because you are obsessed with it. The clothes get tighter and tighter and you keep lying to yourself until you can't any more, and the lie of it all catches up with you.

The University of Kent is on a hill: you become aware of hills when you run. The Kentish hill, Kentish being an adjective meaning 'of Kent' or 'in Kent' or 'coming from Kent', is steep even in a car and when we sped up it in a taxi on Wednesday afternoon, I was happy that I hadn't decided to walk it initially. I would have arrived at my talk sweating and exhausted. On Saturday morning, I woke up with the incredible yen to run to the sea, like it was my birthday. I followed the path, the signs to Whistable that I both trusted and distrusted until I came first to the harbour and then the beach, a man with a metal detector. I chose three rocks from the sand and ran back up the hill.

Now, I've slipped into a summer holiday. Birmingham is flirting with rain today: I am on the fourth floor of the university library with the books I need and some I want. The girls are at home giggling and chasing each other. 

14 July 2015

Metaphors that work until they don’t

On the bottom of War Lane Road, where there is a double roundabout, you can go in six directions. One is Victoria Road, our road. Vicarage Road leads up to the cemetery and church and the girls' school. And War Lane goes back towards the city. The cars go around like a figure eight and we, the girls and I, stand on the edge, holding hands and waiting for a lull in the traffic to cross.

Yoko had told me that on the roundabouts there was an Indian takeway that had tosai, or dosa, the lentil pancake you could get at Ayza's in Kajang for RM1. We used to eat there on a Wednesday night, with the sun going down. All the food courts in Kajang were open, without any doors or walls, and Ayza's was halal — there were no Carlsburg banners strung up. Ayza's was run by dark southeast Asians, not Malays, perhaps Indian, but Muslim: several of them wore kufis. It would cost less than £4 to eat there: I convert it out of ringgit to make a point of how cheap it was, although it didn't feel cheap at the time. I would order tandoori chicken sometimes, and there would be cats that came up and we would get ice cream afterwards.

The tosai, the dosa, at Dosa Mania in Harborne is ten times more expensive: £2, but this is reasonable to me and we can get it to takeaway, with the savoury sauces and soup. The Masala Dosa is perfect for the children, stuffed with potatoes and not too spicy. When I come home with the plastic bags, I'm a kind of god. We sit out in the garden to eat it, with elderflower lemonade that Yoko has made.

Dosa Mania is guarded in the entryway by a large statue of Ganesha, a kind of Carlsburg sign that differentiates it from the other Indian takeaway in this row of shops, the one where the men wear kufis and long beards. When I see Ganesha, I feel a kind of Southeast Asian safety. The kind of safety that makes you forget to put your seatbelt on or worry about the chemicals in the food you're eating. I remember Letchu, our taxi driver in Malaysia, who told me that Ganesha was his god because his mother had said to him, 'Letchu, this is Ganesha. He is our god.' Letchu had us to his house once for a party, and there were paintings of Ganesha. We had curries and savoury snacks, and the girls played in the park across the street.

I made the comment in passing last week about how going to Malaysia had been a mistake, a detour. After I agreed to go to Malaysia, but before I signed my contract, I had the chance to apply for a job at the OU. I would have probably gotten it: it was a temporary post, but all the temporary posts eventually became permanent. If I had applied for that job and got it, I would have never met Letchu or Ganesha. I would have never had my shoes fixed by that man sitting on the street outside of the mall in Kajang. Mei asked about the cats in Malaysia the other day — she wanted to go back and see them. None of that would have happened. Yoko laughs at me when I say it was a mistake: what is a mistake. It's all snakes and ladders anyway: you catch some breaks, you fail other times. Now my life is complicated, but so much less so.  

08 July 2015

Love over time

The day Yoko and I married, the weather was perfect. The rainy season came abruptly to an end and the sky was clear, without being hot. I don't remember waking up that day. I don't remember feeling anything but the rush of movement forward, like a whole machine we had built piece by piece over the previous six months was suddenly moving on its own. I don't remember feeling any doubt or fear: I remember being confident and sure, like if I wasn't sure, I would somehow jeopardise it. I had bet on Japan again and again over the last few years, each time raising the stakes, and then we were sitting there, the two of us, in front of this crowd. The pastor, Koibuchi sensei, speaking about something which I didn't take the time to listen to carefully because the momentum was pulling us forward. You let go at some point and trust your instinct.

In my trip to Chichester, reading through my journal, I realised I had been looking for something, some point where I explained this momentum, explained how it all started. It wasn't there, wasn't in the e-mails I had written to people at the time — I met a girl, we had fallen in love, we were getting married. I felt in a way guilty to not find something more convincing, surely there had been more to my thinking, I must have written it down somewhere. I simply hadn't written it down.

Something happened though, something implicit: you can see it in the photographs over the two years. I started dressing more smartly, I lost weight. I took up running, the early Saturday morning into the rice fields on the outskirts of Niigata, under the overpasses and further and further towards the mountains. We had been hunting for fireflies in that river. We went to the mountains and held hands and I struggled with my Word Tank electronic dictionary as I read Murakami and fell into this fabulous metaphor of Japan as an enchanted forest you wander into deeper and deeper. It was all mystery without uneasiness: Japan would and was and did take care of the things that needed taking care of. You just needed to let it guide you.

I do question the inviolability of marriage as a rule: nothing is inviolable. The moment you feel you have something right, that you have perfected something, it falls apart. Relationships end; we shouldn't be surprised when they do. And, conversely, there is no reward for soldiering on, for making things work. Making it to your or your partner's deathbed is not a success. I don't valorise relationships; they are what they are. When you stack everything up, our relationship seems untenable. We are separated by cultures, nationalities, generations, and a language. We have never lived close, or indeed the same country, as our families. We live in countries that constrain us, put an endpoint on the time we can legally be together in the same location. We have built everything we have together, the two of us, by ourselves. That is an achievement if there ever was one. We live the lives that we imagined in so many ways: we've given that to each other. 

Relationships are what they are. That thing I was looking for, what I couldn't write down, but I realise now, nine years on, is the thing I recognised in Yoko and which keeps this going: she is my antidote. She doesn't save me; relationships can't save you. She sanctifies me. She pulls me upwards, towards things that matter, are timeless in a way. Where the children don't take away from your relationship but are the embodiment of it. Where passion and commitment burn slowly and steadily for years and years. I couldn't write that in 2006 — I didn't have the words. I only knew to get into the water, wade until my toes didn't touch the river bed, and let it take me away.

07 July 2015


In Midvalley Mall in KL a couple of years ago now, I bought white plimsolls at Zara. They were John Lennon shoes, like ones if you look in that famous Abbey Road picture. I got them on sale at a time that I felt I needed to let go a bit, stop worrying and get some of the things I needed, like new shoes and some shirts and shorts. I thought of all the things the kids needed or wanted: anything for yourself as a parent seems selfish, even when it's needed. Still, the shoes were perfect: I took off my sandals and wore them the rest of the day.

Midvalley was a retreat for the family at the time, the Pihlajas of Kajang, where on a Saturday, we could go and pretend to get away from the kampung, the local area, where we were living. In Midvalley, the air conditioners pumped on and on, and there was Starbucks and Aeon, the Japanese supermarket that wasn't really a Japanese supermarket. And Zara, of course. Now, as I think about it and remember, all the bad bits, the insecurities of schools and taxes and my motorbike have been chipped off and all I remember is sitting in Starbucks, the sun shining outside, like we were on a very brief holiday from this mess that I had landed our family in, halfway around the world. Mia was still, if you can believe it, in a stroller.

These white plimsolls have treated me well, but now have holes in the toes. When I wear red socks, the red comes through and I think the holes are well-earned and make the shoes all the better, like they show the length of the journey. I've been thinking to buy some new ones, something for my birthday perhaps, but that moment seemed to have come and gone. Instead, we went to Pizza Express, as you do. Yoko got me Bombay gin and the suggestion that I should fly back to the States in August for a couple of weeks to see my dying grandfather and my new niece and nephew. It was a nice thought, but impractical. The gin was lovely. 

We're all getting relentlessly older: Mia will start school full time and I sat yesterday at the parent induction, holding a file full of different forms for me and Yoko to sign, giving them liberty to take pictures and change the kids' pants if they need it. I remembered that when Mei went to school full time, she became a little girl so quickly. And like that, now she is 6. She had a piano recital in St Augustine's in Edgbaston, a huge Catholic church with vaulted ceilings and spires. It was an impressive place for a first piano recital I thought, as an American — my first piano recital had been in an Evangelical church with carpet and a shiny grand piano. Mei played well, a proper little girl, and there were cakes and ice cream afterwards. The girls ran round and round the church and I shouted when they got too close to the road. 

Relentlessly older, yes: another birthday party and a weekend of swimming and then swimming and then another birthday party. It all passes without you noticing. I sat and read Murakami's new book in English, The Strange Library, in a soft play birthday party centre called 'Treasure Island' — the sort of place where sad fat people pump children full of sugar and chemicals. In Murakami's books, there are no fat people or children — only young men who work and read and go for Ramen in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. In The Strange Library, several worlds overlap and a man becomes a Turkish tax collector he is reading about, at least in his mind. A perfect Murakamian collapse. I looked up from the book at Mei running around, and thought of Istanbul and the call to prayer. Yoko wanted to buy a fish sandwich from the boats. We ate mulberries and walked around the Blue Mosque. There was a Starbucks there too, yes, and the cobblestone streets. The Adhan again and again: Inshallah, you will be back, someone says. Mei runs up to me, with her face painted, This is the best party ever, and runs off. It is? It can't be.

Face painted Mei

05 July 2015

33, the year they killed Jesus

 On Saturday a couple of weeks ago, I turned 33: this was, as Google reminded me, the year that Jesus was killed. I was in Chichester for a conference on the use of the Bible in contemporary culture, and got up early to run. I run every birthday, as a kind of antidote to getting older. I feel compelled to run further than I normally would. This year was no exception. I headed out right after 5 and ran along the walls of the city, and then to the canal and then straight, further and further up the canal until I had run further than I did the morning before and I kept going and going.

 I gave a talk at this conference that morning – a talk based on an article I have finished, but I did a remarkably small amount of preparation. Made my slides and got up and talked and left. It was my birthday, after all.

 I don’t like to get on about years being good markers of time in life: what is a year anyway. Still, thirty-two was one of the hardest, in many ways. The year, if I’m honest with myself, I almost gave up. I’m not sure what giving up would have entailed precisely, but I felt the urge that you do sometimes as a family man in this culture with these people around you, like you could just walk away and it would solve all your problems. No one to argue with, no one to need, but not want you. You scan studio apartments online. The problem with these fantasies is, of course, their lack of a clear conclusion. One leaves. Then what. This isn't 1957. No one just leaves anymore.

 Instead, I spent the year like a coward, just getting up and going. I lost and then gained weight. My book came out. Yoko’s dad came for a month and Yoko and I stopped talking to each other entirely. The perfect Japanese marriage: there was nothing to say anyway. The girls had birthdays and I ate and ate.

 On the trip to Chichester, I found and read my journal on my computer from when I met Yoko and that year, 2005, when we fell in love and then in 2006 when we got engaged and then married and then Naomi came. It just all happened, suddenly. I was single and wandering and then, 12 months later, I was married and Naomi was percolating up: not Naomi then, of course, the baby, the fleck of baby. In one year, I managed to accidentally decimate my adolescence, while the world went on drinking and fornicating and spending money. When Naomi came and I held her for the first time, you can see in the pictures that whatever I had been that time the year before was gone.

This is the first thing I have written about Yoko, on 16 June 2005:

Also, tonight, I had the most fabulous time with Yoko and Ben and Yui. Yoko, she is a really fabulous person. I really enjoy being with her.

You think sometimes of the past as a kind of retreat: if we could go back to that, we would be okay again, but of course, re-reading what I had written makes it clear that you can’t got back in time to something you aren’t anymore. Who is this guy anyway, and this woman he was falling in love with.

 No, of course, this is not possible. Yoko’s dad left and I stopped eating cheese and bread and cake and drinking whisky. I started counting out almonds for breakfast, the sort of obsessive behaviour that is the inverse of the fat version of me. I’ve been running and jumping rope and going to bed hungry, all the signs pointing to a return to the person I want to be. Yoko and I had a date, and afterwards, stood in the Milan Sweet Centre on Stoney Lane. We held hands and a lesbian couple in front of us ordered, the sort of odd marriage that Birmingham is, where the Muslim man calls the lesbian woman my love and nobody seems to care what anyone believes or does, at least on the face of it. We cut through a supermarket with spices in burlap sacks on the ground and notice as we drive out, the exact place where gentrification line has been drawn. We sit in a cafe with each other, drinking flat whites, watching the world go by, talking about the kids. In 15 years, we will wear flip-flops and walk to the beach in the South of France. We promise each other. Now there are kids to tend to and swimming lessons. But the arc of the future is long and there is more coming.