31 December 2017

Moral economies and madness

I stopped eating meat in December of 2014 – I had to think what year it was when a room full of people were quizzing me last night. I had wanted to go for thirty days or six weeks, I forget what I had decided, and when the time was up, I ate a sausage at dinner with the family, thinking that would be the end of it. I don’t remember if I finished the sausage or not, but something had changed and whatever switch I had been able to flip to not think about meat in terms of a moral economy, was gone and I couldn’t do it. Something about avoiding violence, sure, but also something about the environment, and something about my health. At the time, I appreciated the insufferability of it all, but there was nothing I could do. It was like when I stopped having faith: I wasn’t scamming anyone, it just was what it was. I looked at the meat in the freezer and could only think, that is a dead thing that doesn’t need to be dead.

I've never been comfortable being called a vegetarian due to the complaints of a roster of cynics in my head who are responsible for overthinking everything. They like to hector me about this label, though they have a variety of different reasons. For example, American Stephen, the voice in me that understands Donald Trump on a basic level and has been looking with covert lust at SUVs, hates Vegetarian Stephen for thinking he’s better than everyone, for how much trouble he causes at dinner parties, the way he implicitly judges everyone who eats meat. American Stephen has Vegetarian Stephen’s number: he’s just a hipster, a fraud, a bullshit artist. He doesn’t actually believe in avoiding violence, he just wants to be perceived that way so his liberal friends like him. When pressed, American Stephen is full of whataboutism that goes on and on, about air travel and plastics and bottled water, an endless list of things that culminates with him throwing his hands in the air and eating half a bag of Doritos because he can. American Stephen has worked hard and he deserves what he has.

American Stephen can sometimes tag team with Aspirational Vegan Stephen, the one who hates Vegetarian Stephen for some of the same reasons as American Stephen, for his hypocrisy and his trendiness and his leather, but also his lack of vigilance and passivity. Whereas American Stephen wants to throw up his hands and give up, Aspirational Vegan Stephen wants to try harder, to be more ethical. Aspirational Vegan Stephen wants Vegetarian Stephen to give up his boots and to stop lying by saying he bought them before he was serious about animal products. He wants Vegetarian Stephen to stop drinking milk and eating cheese like that is somehow not any worse that killing an animal – newsflash, asshole, they do kill those dairy cows too.

The moral economy makes for hard living in 2017, almost 2018. We took the kids shopping with their Christmas money and I thought I too might buy something, but just hated myself after five hours of walking through racks and racks of things to buy. I finally found a jumper on sale that I wanted and pathetically showed it to Yoko like I needed some special dispensation for buying it. It was money I had gotten as a gift, it was for me to spend on anything I liked, and although I already have three jumpers (four, if you count my dad’s wool fleece that I brought back from the States), but I want this one too. Is that okay? I put it back on the rack and left the store and then went back to buy it, feeling heavy as I took it home and then guilty for how good I felt wearing it.

I'm unhappy with how this has turned out, the meaningless moral choices and hypocrisies. I'm unhappy with my own unhappiness. The jumper is just a foil. We got back to the car and Nihilist Stephen suddenly, saying we could give up, forget about all of this and head out into the woods by myself. Forage for nuts and berries like a bear and be whatever animal we are. What does any of this matter, why all the confession. It's madness. This lasted for a full quarter of a minute while the kids strapped in, but then real life started again. The car key needed to be turned  and someone, Daddy Stephen, had to push our way into the jammed traffic of the strip mall. So it goes, I end up thinking: the traffic moves and another year ticks by. I guess I am a vegetarian, I say, when it comes up again. It's complicated; I don't really like talking about it. I'll just not have the cocktail sausages, but please, enjoy yourselves. Really, they look delicious.  

28 December 2017

Ten percent more

The snow came again on Boxing Day. I was closing up the house for the night and rain falling in the streetlights got heavy and changed as I watching. The girls saw and shouted back and forth to each other that it was snowing again. I got up the next day hoping I could run, but it was clear from one look that it wasn’t going to happen. I weighed myself a few times over the holiday period, worried that this would be the end of me, all the food and chocolates and fruit filling up the kitchen and my complete lack of self-control. Somehow, I managed it the best I could and today, after changing out the batteries on the scale and taking off all my clothes, I felt some sense of accomplishment of having failed but having caught it quickly enough that I didn’t spiral into a month or a year of bad habits. Maybe 2017 can be the year of learning to accept failure and success.

The family has been hibernating, or at least Yoko and me, waiting for the new year to come and all things I have to face: book proofs again, a trip to London on the eighth, a new module to write, the travel and budgets and everything else. I haven’t been able to sleep much this year, but I managed a couple of long rests on this holiday — I slept once for more than eight hours, which is the longest I had slept in years. I’ve avoided my real work, the reference I need to write for a student and some marking, but have been reading all the books that piled up at the end of last year. I was reading through a slurry of things, about consciousness and mysticism, feeling like there was some meaningful connection between everything. Of course, the connections are whatever I'm choosing to make. You can make them if you want and then if someone asks or you find some way to talk about what you’re reading, you can make all the connections in hurried, exhausting discussion of the eternal now and god as a void and the gender.

Perhaps if there were no snow, I could run off some of this caged energy, but the ice is still thick on the pavement, and running on it is only asking for a trouble. Instead, I’ve been doing pushups and looking the mirror, wondering if my back is more defined because of course it wouldn’t be, but maybe it is. I’m finding my way to the rug where I meditate and listening to a kind woman with some sort of accent that’s not British or American tell me to focus on my breath. I chant along with her and feel silly until it stop and my chest is still humming with the same repetition of syllables. Is this the void, I wonder, and the moment I think it, it’s gone. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t. I fold up my stool, check my Twitter feed to see how the President is winding people like me up. The new year, I think, will be 10% better. Ten percent less of this and I’ll be doing well for myself. I'll be 10% less angry at the traffic, and my wife and kids. Ten percent less likely to fall into some bad habits, of purging on long runs and self-pity.

19 December 2017

The signal and the noise

Winter came down hard for two days last week, closing all of Birmingham and locking the Pihlaja family together in the house on Victoria Road for several days. The girls were ecstatic about the snow, running back and forth, across the roads and in the garden, like they had been infused with some magic natural drug that made everything new and unknown. After school opened up again, I sorted through the things that had been cancelled, feeling fat and lethargic having missed a couple of days of running. I wanted to meditate on Wednesday, to binge on emptiness, but found myself instead on a bus headed to a couple of schools. I was meant to advertise English degrees, but didn't do well at it, feeling awkward in my long grey coat and American accent, the one you can't hide in front of teenagers. What can you say about the future that isn't a lie, I thought as I sputtered through some nonsense about following your dreams.

This heavy, foreign feeling comes back at surprising times. I sensed it when I got off the bus in Sparkbrook on my way to one of the schools. The snow and ice hadn't been cleared and there were Aunties in the row houses, some hanging out of front doors and some clearing the ice with a battery of different tools. One had a small axe and hacking away at the pavement looked up when I walked through, surprised and apologetic. I smiled, and she smiled and the other Aunties smiled and I walked carefully past them.

The ice finally had its way with me a couple of days later. I went to Newman on Friday morning to mark a presentation and retake my staff photo. After it was done, I got on my bike and was headed back towards town, to meet Yoko for our weekly sit down. As I approached the intersection, my bike suddenly went out from underneath me and I fell back, landing flat on my ass. I went to stand up immediately, ignoring the pain to try and announce to whomever was around that I was okay. But I couldn't, I was twisted around the bike. I saw now that a car was directly behind me and two people, a man and woman, were looking on concerned. It was all ice, I could see, the whole road.

The fall turned out to be an omen — that night, news came of a failed funding bid. I got the notification as I was leaving to take Naomi swimming on Friday night and instantly regretted looking again before the weekend. We, of course, knew we were likely to fail, but then it happened, and I sat sulking in the stands at the pool. I sent seven or eight e-mails, muttering under my breath and quickly trying to turn it into something positive, the way you pull yourself out from underneath your bike when you've fallen. I'm sorry I fell, I'm not hurt, it's okay. You feign optimism and lie to everyone around you about how you're coping just fine. There's nothing acceptable about self-pity.

Sunday morning, when it was warm enough to run and I got out earlier that I would have normally. I ran slowly and was just coming down the Birmingham Ring Road when I saw there were police everywhere, a tape pulled across the whole of the dual carriageway. I pulled out my headphones and shouted to the cop on the other side, Can I run through? and he shook his head no. There was a black cab I could see, on its side, and another cop up further with a surveyor's tripod. I turned around, being careful because there was still ice on the path.

Four years go quickly, it must be said. We were just, a moment ago, standing in the tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The air was so dry and it felt like we had come through the clouds to some world above the sweaty depression of the city, the paycheck-to-paycheck bus rides out to the the university. It would all be over soon, I should have known, but I didn't. I didn't know. Yoko and the girls were so happy, the windows rolled down and everything fresh and clear, just waiting.

05 December 2017

Bloody Minded

When I fall down, particularly when I'm running at night, I feel both old and young at the same time. It happens once a year maybe — I misstep and if I'm lucky, I roll into the fall and the momentum isn't absorbed entirely by my wrists and hands. I fall and am there on the pavement like a child and wondering who's seen me. There are so many cars passing, you assume someone did, but then again, the drivers of the cars are so self-absorbed normally. Normally, they don't see you, do they. I pick myself up quickly and walk it off, until I feel like my body isn't actually hurt anywhere and I get back my pace, back into my normal gait, not the gait of an old man, but a man on the precipice of not yet being middle-aged.

The fall tonight resulted from a lack of focus and being preoccupied with getting home in time to meet my daughter and waiting for a phone call from a courier whom I had waited on all day and who never came. It was a metaphor for my day. Meditation, I had hoped and indeed felt for a moment, would be a kind of magic bullet to soothe through this particularly madness. The antidote, I've been saying to people: it is the antidote to Evangelical Christian thinking, to the Protestant Work Ethic. A way to calm down, which seems to the thing that everyone has said to me the last ten years or so. Slow down, calm down. Of course, none of this has happened, there has been no real magic, particularly because meditation, it seems, doesn't really want you to slow down. Meditation wants you to take in the moment, to be in the moment, but that moment can be any moment. It can be all kinetic energy which you take in without thinking of the past or future. It can be toppling over yourself on the pavement and the pain when you scan through your body and wonder if you'll be able to get up. That's what it is, isn't it — the present without the past or the future, whatever that present is.

On Saturday, I drank too much and ate naan and bowls of cereal in the middle of the night until I just went to sleep to get away from it. Then I ran and ran and ran on Monday, again the pilgrim whipping myself. The same cycle again. I'm not any happier, not that one would expect to be any happier from just sitting and thinking about one's breath. I sat in a meeting on Friday and played with a string of beads, nine beads that the kids had been given in Malaysia, and I counted breaths and thought about multiples of nine. But then suddenly I snapped at someone who was being unreasonable about a student. That fierceness of my father — biting his lip and reaching out for Mia who is being so damn loud — just under the surface. No, of course I haven't changed, it's all there still, looking for a moment to come back out. All my angry words in my mind, the things I don't have the courage to say to my kids or my wife, but which I can shout in my mind like a coward. It's all just under the surface, like the fat man, the seven deadly sins, the Evangelical doubt, the white drama.

My knees stopped bleeding after a half hour or so and Mei came home and I went to the shower, feeling the pain of the fall and the phantom bloatedness from Saturday and the urge to count out calories even though I am not counting calories. Certainly, the moment does not want that from me, I thought looking at myself in the mirror — this very moment doesn't care about what I ate three days ago. The moment wonders what is more ridiculous than wanting to be 700 or 800 grams lighter than a week ago. Why hang your happiness on that, on anything, the moment wonders — on what your wife or kids might say or not say. No, the moment is just the awareness of pain — bloody and miserable in my attempt to no longer be miserable and doing my best. Not doing my best. Doing what I can, what I can manage. One hundred and eight breaths again this morning, one hundred and eight moments broken down into different multiples of three or nine or eighteen or thirty-six. I can breath in and out just this once. I can manage that.

23 November 2017

Levels of abstraction

It's been windy in Harborne this week, leaves drifting like snow and I indulge the urge to kick my way through them. The kids, the two older ones, are now walking to school by themselves and we stand in the entryway of the house on Victoria Road, kissing them goodbye. This is the story of the rest of my life, I think to myself, or at least the next ten to fifteen years. I try to calm whatever panic that emerges when they slip out of view, up the hill. They're fine, they'll be fine — you can just breathe, and count your breaths, you can manage to not think about anything.

I've taken off my health tracker, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ (the plus being for GPS tracking) that I got this summer to track my running, but which has become a technology of controlling my weight loss and counting of calories. Taking off the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ and deleting the app from my phone, which I did today as I was sitting in the local pub eating toast, was not something I thought I could or would do, particularly at the moment I did, but finally it occurred to me that my reliance on technologies of fitness had gamified my life and led to a level of abstraction that was bordering on absurdity. Does anyone really need a spreadsheet with a caloric deficit over the month? That number is completely made up, values placed on food quantities and steps taken and your heart rate. Certainly, it can't be healthy to think to yourself, right, half of a scone would equal X amount of calories, and walking to the store would account for Y amount of calories, and if I overeat today I can do Z minutes on the treadmill to compensate. Last week, I threw my back out trying to get a 1200kCal burn from a treadmill, a number that my Garmin Vivosmart HR+ was making up based on some algorithm. What am I doing to myself, I thought, staring down. So I took it off, came home and had a sensible lunch, thinking this is my future, this is the new me.

I'll give this about one week to fail, when I apologise to the app and the tracker and submit again to the late-Capitalist approach to health monitoring, in which an app sells me to advertising companies in return for controlling what I eat and what I don't eat. But I feel better and not in a way that I'm suddenly going to start eating everything I can get my hands on. This has been the problem in the past, when I've ballooned up without the numbers to tell me what to eat or not eat. No longer, I think. I will probably still weigh myself tomorrow morning, but that's one less level of abstraction, and one moment of madness in a day of twenty-four hours, instead of a string of madnesses, checking number of steps again and again and the pointless reward of a number on a spreadsheet.

One wonders what happens next — this divorce from the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ happened so immediately like I had it in my mind and then it was done. One wonders what other madness could be just given up. I was proofreading my book, the book I was so proud of in theory, and then as I read it, felt like a pilgrim whipping myself with every unnecessary word I read. I felt awful about myself, my ability as writer, an academic, an anything. None of this is good, I thought, I should just give up, get on a plane and get away from it all. Someone must want me, somewhere in the world. It was the most pathetic, silly thought, but so real, like some baby crying for the love of their mother. I'm thirty-five, for chrissake.

Of course, I didn't, I went page by page, deleting prepositional phrase after prepositional phrase. Fixing tautologies, places where I said I had done something, but had actually done the opposite. I also tried to do it with loving kindness as the voice on meditation app tells me to treat myself. Self-care, that millennial word I am just on the edge of unironically accepting, although everything inside of me tells me not to. God doesn't think you are good enough, but god is dead. We can love ourselves now, until the thoughts of the rising, toxic, plastic-filled oceans derail us. We can keep trying, isn't it, we just have to start again, counting our breaths to nine and back. 

15 November 2017

Loving kindness

I'm busy proofreading my book manuscript, so it can come out early next year as planned. Like my PhD thesis in the weeks before my viva, I couldn't open the pdf the publisher sent for the first couple of days, terrified of what I might find. Then, when I finally did have the courage and did open it, there were immediately a flurry of errors. Tautologies and repetitions and misspellings and statements that were demonstrably false. I tried to sleep, but sleep has been impossible this month — I go two hours and I'm up again. I know I should just eat, but I can't just eat because the number has been steady and I feel fine. I don't want to sleep anyway — I want to work, to confront this manuscript and sort everything out because everything can be sorted out.

After gnawing on the edges of meditation, I've finally gone all in, making an effort every day to get down on the ground, on the little bench I built for myself, and take a few minutes. At first it was ten and now it's twenty: I feel like it will keep going up the worse I feel about it. The moment when you kneel and you stop, that moment, is everything I could wish for. I breathe in and out and in and out and suddenly there is nothing. There is nothing for a moment, for one breath, and then there is something and something else and then something else and I have chased the silence off. This is nothing new in the experience of anyone who has ever meditated. I shouldn't be surprised by its acuteness, but I am. Every frustration I can't confront coming back again and again. People I love to hate and my petty grudges. Or if not them, then the things I like, the visions of grandeur. Or the to-do list. Or the future, the planning of the extension, the tiles. Or the children. Or Trump, the permafrost melting, my impending doom, all of our impending doom — Trump again of course, who could forget Trump. Or calorie counting and running and weight. A flood of things, of all my insecurities, over and over and over again until the timer and my eyes open.

My father was here this weekend and we didn't argue, were not even on the edge of argument. I attribute this to the cushion, to being down on the ground, but this is a falsehood, a vanity — my father has changed too and now we've come to the point in a paternal relationships where you put your defences down and realise that it's silly to fight about silly things, isn't it. I order beer over lunch and there's no reason to talk about Trump, about the permafrost, and why I am not raising my children to be terrified to me. Last year, I felt I needed to say something, to explain my position, but now I wonder what it matters, what can I say anyway that would make me feel better or feel heard or validated. The validation is already there, you just have to uncover it inside yourself.

One of the things you learn when renovating is the actual size of a space. Not what you imagine it to be, but what it actually is. The space where we are putting our new bathroom is small – 1710mm by 2350mm. That space is smaller than you think and when you start to insert bathtubs and toilets and radiators into it, it becomes even smaller. I had imagined it to be much larger, like you could have a separate toilet and bathtub, in two separate rooms. But of course, you can’t actually. There isn’t really space for that. The space goes up, thankfully, with the ceiling on the left hand wall when you look back going up to the height of the vaulted ceilings in the house, and I think this slope upwards will feel comforting in a way, when it’s finished. Like the space is small, but not that small.

As I comb through the Internet and look at the different possibilities, the space is starting to take shape too. The colours of tiles, which I initially was dispassionate about, started to be clearer to me. I like this and not that. I think back on different aesthetics I’ve appreciated over the years and how I’ve always hated black leather sofas and dark spaces. I do have an opinion, it's always been there it turns out. I can remember them from my childhood, weird memories like the neighbours who had the rottweiler and high chain link fence. Everything was black in their house and it felt like a cave. I didn't like it, did I. 

To be able to choose what you want to do with your living space is not something I suppose I would have appreciated as much when I was in my late twenties. There was no time between the babies, and the pregnancy, and the PhD. Everything was treading water. Now, I suppose I am more busy, but I have more more money and more security. Things are starting to come together, and the anxiety about the future was just my own general anxiety manifest in a particular way. As the anxiety recedes, it feels like things can be bought and I can relax. It should work out, it has been thirty five years of working out, after all.

Perhaps relax is the wrong word. I don't think I'm actually relaxing. I am sprinting on a treadmill, trying desperately to make fifteen kilometres in sixty minutes. I'm reaching as far as I can to have empathy for my students. I'm looking at the dishes that haven't been washed and trying to be better. There's more to realise, to think about, or try not to think about. Breathe in deeply again and again and again. Keep trying. You'll never make it, but keep trying. The sun is coming up anyway. 

04 November 2017

10% happier

After completing on the house last month, there has been an endless list of tasks – things to buy and tear up and paint. With the crowbar, I pulled off all the doors in the downstairs and like that, everything opened up. I replaced the curtains in the front room and pulled up the rest of the carpet to scrape and sand everything down. The architect is coming on Monday to talk about extending the back of the house out to make a bathroom. I made a list of things we need to decide when we redo the kitchen and make this extension: all the fittings and the bathtub and toilet. Sinks and light switches. A spreadsheet of miscellany. A friend of mine, a guy who enjoys these types of projects, came round the other night and I listened, nodding along and thinking how little I cared about all these choices that needed to be made. Tile colours: surely there isn’t a multiverse where I care about tile colours.

Instead, I’ve felt a dull silence attaching itself to everything. I can or can’t sleep and wake up just wanting to sit and avoid whatever decisions need to be made. I’ve been meditating again, but the silence which is so sweet at the beginning grows into a dull roar of thoughts about everything and anything and nothing. You’re taught when you meditate to accept the thoughts as they come, to not judge yourself, but I have been judging myself for thirty five years. How do you just stop. I keep thinking I’ll fall asleep, but then I open my eyes and I haven’t been sleeping, but I haven’t been anywhere.

And then there is the number, whatever that number is. It got stuck for a month and I was frustrated, meticulously marking down what I ate like a slave. I am judging myself by a number because I make that number to mean not failing like I have again and again. Whatever failing is. The number is right, but what is right. I'm still fat, because fat has nothing to do with a number. I ate some ginger snaps and feel like I should confess it, but to whom. 

I saw a couple of shows last week: the Sleaford Mods and then Weezer. I didn't plan on seeing Weezer but had gotten on the guest list after a series of weird interactions on e-mail with the lead singer and his PA. They played most of the Blue Album, which keyed into the nostalgia I was looking for, but which felt less compelling as the night wore on. I wasn't ever that happy when I was a teenager. I knew from looking at the set lists online that they would play Buddy Holly in the encore, and I thought about leaving early. What did I care anymore about the drama of high school. About kissing dating goodbye, and purity, and loving Jesus more than everything. I didn’t, I realised — I didn’t care about anything. I came home and Yoko and her friend were drinking wine in our house, the house that we own, in Harborne, in Birmingham, with the white people. I sat with them, eating cheese and talking about home renovations and how I thought I was going to get married when I was seventeen. It's worked out, I guess, I said in Japanese, and went to bed, the rest of the world spinning on and on and my body waiting a couple of hours to wake me up again.

19 October 2017

Absolute zero

After all the white drama, at noon on the second of October, I became a homeowner. This came, of course, without any fanfare, given that we were already residents of the house on Victoria Road. Nothing happened. I was at work, and had to teach. The solicitor e-mailed me to say that things had all gone through and the mortgage company was giving me some cash back. I came home and there it was. The house on Victoria Road as it has always been, with all of its problems that we can now start to chip away at. With the carpets pulled up, and the floorboards sanded and stained, there is a warmth that was lacking before. I tore down three of the doors that had partitioned the ground floor rooms. We got rid of a sofa and I drove out deep into Leicestershire to buy a table from someone in a farmhouse. All things that we have wanted to do for the years we've lived here, but couldn't. Yoko bought lamps, and now the rooms much dimmer at night. Tonight, for example, I was alone in the living room, one lamp lit and all the girls out at various events. I didn't want to go out and understood something I hadn't understood ever before.

This levelling off and achievement of what seemed to be unattainable this time last year, when I still hadn't resolved either my visa nor the money for the visa, makes me think anything is possible. It's a patently American thought. Trump is President; I own a home — what other realities can be made with confidence only. With saying, I will do this.

It is difficult not to feel optimistic. Of course, the persistence, the British pessimism of Brexit and the looming visa applications, the English test for Yoko, and the money to be spent on fixing the house... there are still plenty of holes to fall into. I need a new suit that fits me. I need to put the kids to bed. One thing at a time.

22 September 2017

It's the end of the world

Yesterday, as the rain was stopping, Naomi and I set out for an open night at the secondary school she will likely attend — an all girls school just about a mile walk from the house on Victoria Road. We walked up there and back, holding hands and chatting about the school and life in the UK and the trip to Japan Yoko and the girls will take sometime next year. The school was everything I wanted for her, from my impression — small and serious, but not too serious and the student that took us around had an intelligent conversation with Naomi and me about the things that they did. I worried a bit outloud about it being single sex, and the student told me not to worry, that girls took on the role of boys in the school sometimes. It's hard to explain, she said, but I knew what she meant. Later, I brought it up to Naomi during a small rejoinder about gender fluidity, after she shrugged her shoulders when I returned to the point.

On the way home, Naomi and I also talked of alcohol and drugs because the year sixes has seen a video wherein some boys have a drink with their mates. Naomi used that word mates to describe the friends and that stuck with me for some reason, standing out like an odd marker of Britishness in an otherwise unmarked conversation. Naomi was adamant about never taking drugs or wanting to drink and we chatted about our experiences, her's with me drinking, and mine with my teetotal parents. We talked about her friends and the schools they wanted to attend and the entrance exams. We rounded the corner at War Lane and came back to home, Naomi disappearing into the house and me lingering on some work that I needed to do on my computer in the front room.

The contracts for the house on Victoria Road are finally signed today. Once the landlady has signed them, no one can pull out, which seems to be the underlying concern in house buying — it will be ours from the second of October. Like the completion of the PhD or my weight loss this summer, the ending of this process has felt like less of an accomplishment than I thought it would. I'm thirty five, and this is the first home I've owned. I shouldn't be worried about settling down, and the implications of another three to five years in this place, but I am. What other future could have been imagined, I think as I ride my bike down and then up and then down and up again to Newman University on the edge of Birmingham, this place that I love, but only really fell into by accident. Chris came through on Wednesday night, sleeping on our sofa on the way to Herefordshire like it was 2015 again, and I suddenly wanted to be back in the Swedish woods, heaving with spirits. Some image of me, the atheist, standing after a long run, my shirt off and sweating in the early morning air, mouthing take me with you to the trees, like my life might suddenly become a Haruki Murakami novel.

The whole of my experience in this country can be described in the anecdote of ordering toast instead of full English breakfast at a men's breakfast. I describe myself as an immigrant and people stare at my blankly — I guess that you technically are, but it's different. There are immigrants, and then there are immigrants. Of course you would buy a house. I feel my British consciousness magically appears at these moments to say, You must remember that the organising principle in this country is class. Your class dictates the future you have, not your immigration status. My life is full of these little interactions that are best explained in the awkwardness they produce — it's funny the things one can learn by being stared at blankly. Oh, you were being disingenuous. Right, yes, sorry. Who knows if you should apologise or just shut up.  There is nothing less British than a genuine apology.

I feel fine. I feel out of place and awkward. I feel baited. I feel complacent. I lack energy. I feel the opposite of angry most of the time now, but I don't know how to describe it. I feel like I have more to do than others. I feel tired. I feel worried about the end of the world, and then silly for worrying about the end of the world. I feel happy to be under seventy six kilograms and then immediately worried that next week, or next month, or next year, I will not be. I'm frustrated with Britishness and my lack of it. I've let my coffee get cold, haven't I. The sun is coming up — I best go for my run.

17 September 2017

Seventy six

The weather continues to fall into wet leaves and early sunsets that will now repeat until March of next year. This, for me, is a welcome return, one that signals an end to one kind of mania triggered by the sun coming up before five in the morning. I reluctantly turned on the heating on Friday, after feeling like I wasn’t going to ever get warm underneath a jumper and my coat. I stood by the radiator as it warmed up and thought about the things that we need to do to fix the living room after we torn out all the carpet in July. I need to seal the floorboards and put some sealant under the skirting. Buy a rug. Have the boiler replaced.

The house is almost nearly ours, after several months of going back and forth with the solicitors. I email Tina every few days now to push the point that things haven’t been completed and ask why it seems to have taken so long. Tina assures me that they have been passing information back-and-forth between each other, two sets of British solicitors having tea at every occasion they can and moaning about something having gone pear-shaped, one imagines. Or rather, what I imagine, as an American who is trying to get in the minds of the islanders and who just wants it all to be done last week.

Luckily, thanks to some apparent personal growth afforded by meditation, the house-buying process has beem less upsetting that it might have been last year. Two or three weary British acquaintances looked at me with pity when I talked about my brother buying a house in a week in the Lubbock, in the States, and told me to expect it would take several months, even in the best case scenario. So I’ve relaxed now, and am taking it in stride, saving my wrath for customer service elsewhere, like my father might. Besides, something is bound to break on the house in the next week anyway, and better it be the landlady’s responsibility.

In the meanwhile, there are other things to attend to, like my weight, which finally has fallen back below seventy six kilograms, to where I was in the end of 2015 for several months. It took a couple of weeks, once when it was low and I was euphoric before it ticked up again for a week, and then low again, and then back up, but now up and below seventy six, which is what I wanted all along. I don’t feel good about it, unfortunately – now it just feels like a number. Instead, I have the sort of nervous energy that comes with having accomplished something that you now need to maintain. Thinness is not something achieved, it is something maintained. You gotta do it every day, while still thinking to yourself, I am a fat person. You look in the mirror and still see eighty eight kilogram Stephen looking back at you.

My legs are hurting from running on new insoles, so I had to take a day off of running, but with no weight to drop, that part of the game and the motivation to bring down the number even further diminishes. There is little else to do. The fitness vloggers I watch all talk about an endless series of challenges, but this just sounds exhausting to me. I don’t want to have a positive mindset. I don’t have the patience for it. Instead, I just want to be normal. I want to eat a cookie and not think about it. I want to wander around a pet store without feeling lethargic and tired, without taking note of the expected life span of the small animals, and wondering about the next thirty years, and whether I will feel this way forever.

Instead, I am still overly cautious, ordering toast at a men’s breakfast I went to with some people from the church, and causing some consternation among the organisers for not ordering what everyone else had and then suggesting, it appeared, that I was eating less as some morally superior position as a thin person, rather than the truth that I was worried about eating too much and spending too much of the family’s money, which makes no sense from the outside. You look fine, Stephen – you have plenty of money and no one is going to kick you out of the country. Yes, no, you’re right, it’s just that, I just don’t… and of course it can’t be explained.

The work is beginning to pile up again and I marked MA dissertations for several weeks and then worked on transcriptions for one of the new books and then transcriptions for another book chapter about deixis and then edited some of the writing for another. We had a staff meeting and I took over some responsibility for our research group and managing a small budget. Yoko and I had coffee and I disappeared into the the Birmingham University library for an afternoon. All the things that have become habit around this time of year, ignoring the feeling of my body and however uncomfortable or comfortable it is. I look in the mirror and still feel fat – I can’t seem to make sense of myself as a thinner person. My suit coat is probably too big now, isn’t it, but I will also probably be fat again in no time. Better wait it out until after Christmas at least.

08 September 2017

Bull by the horns

The weather took a turn last week, when things got wet and then cold and on my bicycle, riding down and back to Quarter Horse Coffee in town, I noticed the leaves changing on the Bristol Road. People in Birmingham refer to Bristol Road with a determiner, ‘the’ for a reason I can’t seem to figure out, despite the fact that language is my expertise and I am a doctor of it. There is word of a new cycle path, going from the university to the city, and if this does happen, my life will reach a new level of perfection, on my bike that I bought stolen from an Eastern European man on Gumtree and capped with my new Bern helmet. A young man, younger than me, not middle-aged, said, as I was riding up Victoria Road, That’s a shitty bike, and I immediately responded, Well, you’re a shitty person, and felt incredibly smug for thinking of such a great comeback so quickly.

Pithy, belittling replies are something that my bout with meditation has challenged me to give up. Cultivation, the metaphor that the Buddhists use, has been subtly appearing in other parts of my life, like when I am standing barefoot at my computer and notice the feeling of my feet on the ground. Or when I avoid saying something angry to Yoko or the children. We learned about this in Christianity, but under the heading of holding your tongue which is a metaphor followed by a metonymy, and is about self-control. You are bad and you need to control yourself. Now, with no need to be good, the anger you withhold is just about having less negativity around you and in you. I say that as an interpretation of what I experienced. I’m not sure what it is exactly. We all have to fight less now.

I don’t know if this has been noticeable to the rest of the family – whenever I proudly announce a personal achievement, it’s rightly met with scepticism. I’ve been walking with better posture, have you noticed? I cleaned up the garden, did you see? It’s silly. There are enough children in the house, I don’t need to behave like one as well.

Perhaps this is just what normal people do, at normal times. Someone said to me, as I recounted all the restrictions of my visa and what is and is not illegal, You’re very concerned about doing something illegal, aren’t you, and I said, Yes. Yes, if you do the wrong thing, you might get thrown out of the country. Or sent to jail. Or judged by god. I explain this to people, or try to. I grew up in a cloud of fear. The world was ending. Jesus was coming, likely before I had a chance to have sex. There were only a very few people who could be counted faithful. I hoped it would be me, but I wasn’t sure. It might not be and where would that leave me. Burning in hell, for all eternity, that’s where. Think of how that would be. So best try to avoid stupid slip ups, like doing illegal things.

I open my eyes after an hour and look around. Things are brighter and louder and when asked if I have something to say, I genuinely have nothing to say. There is hope, you think, if you have nothing to say, because silence has an untangling effect. Sure, the past remains, but the past always remains, isn’t it. You don’t need a pat on the head for doing right, or Jesus to reward you. The reward is there already. You just have to stand up, breath in and out. Unlock your bike and ride home. The insurance algorithms will protect you or they won't. Who's to say.

07 September 2017

Ready to die

I woke up again this morning at three. I’ve made peace with this when it happens. Some concerns remain about my own longevity and the pestering sense that I will just drop dead at one moment, my body healthy otherwise. These are silly though — I can buy so much insurance for so little. The algorithms are all in my favour. Still, I'm trying to improve on it, get back to the goal I had in 2011, before everything happened. I took all my clothes off and weighed myself, the feeling, and then reminded with that number, of being right on the precipice. Almost there, but not quite there.

The recovery of my health and the feeling of imminent death seem to go hand-in-hand. When I went to give blood, the nurse struggled to find my pulse, and when she did, she had the apologetic look on her face that I remember from a couple of years ago when I was running a lot. I had to sprint up and down the stairs to get my pulse above fifty. When I come back, slightly out of breath, and she checks me again, I say, joking, I promise that I’m not dead yet.

My own death has been a kind of nagging existential thorn as I turned thirty-five this summer, but the practicalities of it have also been on my mind, as I buy the house on Victoria Road. My death, apart from the conceptual struggle, is only problematic if it actually happens. Not because I end up dead, I'm ambivalent about that, but because it interrupts cash flow. The family can't afford to do business without me, to be frank. I have resented this in the past, of course, but something about my experience meditating has dislodged this resentment. That quiet voice of whoever is leading, telling you to be kind and non-judgemental of yourself. To appreciate that when your mind wanders, that is the moment that you have learned, that you have noticed it. That acceptance has started to creep into the other crevices of my life. You do not have to be good.

When I wake up early, I tend to avoid thinking about death. Instead, I think of all the things I need to do — all the marking and the transcription and then the nagging feeling of the insurance, yes the house insurance and the life insurance, which I've been putting off. I finally decided to face it — went to my bank's website and played with the sliders of the different things that they could offer me, with different variables. When will I need the money, and how much will I need. When will Mei be eighteen: 2027, isn't it, ten years. Mia will be eighteen in 2029. I will be forty-seven. How much money will they need then. I play with the sliders and end up on a number and agree to it. There, I think, and set up a direct debit for the 25th of the month, right after I get paid. And then I face my pension too, I had been putting off a problem I was having accessing my information online. My e-mail I sent never got answered, so I called and fought through the phone tree and queue, fifty-one people ahead of me I was told and thirty minutes of waiting. I went to work and printed out the form and turned it in, it should all be fine now.  Now I can die. I am ready to die.

I had been daydreaming last Thursday about my next trip to London and when it might come — there was no business there anymore, from what I could tell. But then there was an e-mail from the ESRC, the Economic and Social Research Council, that I and some colleagues have been trying to get money off of. There was news that my improbable bid , the one that I've fought to push forward for the last year, on the phone the day before Christmas holiday last year, begging finance to look at an e-mail for me...that bid had been reviewed. I opened the pdfs — they lined up on the window and there it was. Good. Good enough.

I went to London then, early in the morning the next Monday, sitting across from two men who were going down to the city to work. They were my age, I guessed, talking back and forth about the team from Birmingham that was headed to the Big Smoke for work. As we went down, news was coming through on mobiles of people missing trains, and £80 emergency fares. They talked about making easy money overnight as a foreman, and the one worker's wife, who kept having children. She has children every time one goes to nursery, the fatter guy said, and the other shook his head knowingly. There was a pause. Perhaps they would get off at three today.

The train arrived and I worked and I left and woke up the next morning again early. The girls had school for the first time this year and I walked them up, kissing them goodbye and meeting the new teachers. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and went running. The sun went down and came up and it was three again. It doesn't matter I think, pulling on my jumper and reaching for my glasses. We'll get back to sleep eventually, I'm sure.

27 August 2017

Writing as building, building as writing

When my father came to England last month, he brought me some tools. I was working on replacing the floorboards in the entryway of the house, but there was a long queue of things to do and I need a saw and a sander. He brought me some cordless drills and a circular saw which broke, frustratingly for him as the quality director of the company making the saw. As he tried to unlock the blade unsuccessfully, I thought of the poor person who would face the wrath of this failure. I was successful with the floorboards, and then with the shelves I put up, made of T&P plank wood I bought at a reclaimed wood shop that Yoko discovered and which is my new favourite place. You go with a plan in your pocket, but you need to be willing to improvise, to look at whatever they have and how many metres of wood you need. I stand there, feeling like I am competent, even though I'm not, talking out loud to myself and pulling the measuring tape off my belt to double check that I'll have more than enough.

When I was making the floorboards, I was still trying to save money, not buying more than I needed and trying to do it as cheaply as possible, a position my father gently corrected, suggesting that the five quid I'd save in wood wouldn't be worth the stress of having to go back to the home centre when I inevitably cocked it up. He was right of course — my father has built many beautiful pieces of furniture in his life, and talked to me about how much easier my project would be with a table saw. The house of Victoria Road is not big enough  for a table saw, unfortunately, but I already have my eyes on a shed and restarting some generational dream of building as building, rather than a metaphor for something else. My father got a satisfaction out of watching me fuss with the floorboards, I think, and I said that it left no doubt in my mind that I was his son.

There's an ongoing joke in academia about finding some other work, getting out and doing something more tangible. I've had a productive summer, working on three different book proposals while pacing around in the small wooded area behind the Quaker Centre in Bournville. The writing sorts itself out, if you give it time and persistence; if you're willing to let it percolate and don't give up. There's some measure of just waiting and writing while waiting, which I've managed to finally understand. In the second year of my PhD, I wrote and wrote and wrote endlessly, missing the point altogether and sitting awkwardly with my PhD supervisors as we all avoided the most obvious point of the meeting, which was that I hadn't gotten it yet, had I. When you're doing a PhD, you're constantly asking, 'Am I doing this right?' the response to which is, That's the wrong question, and no, you aren't.

Giving up on the right way has applications to building as well, where you have to be willing to pull apart what you've done and start over. You do it in life too. You do it in everything. Yoko taught me this, to stop using the word right to describe certain things, certain feelings. It's not about rightness. It's about being willing to pull apart whatever you've built and have another go at it. Sometimes you can re-assemble it, sometimes you have to replace something. Sometimes you have to scrap it all. Sometimes you finish, and something is not quite right, so you have to go back to it. Sand it, or stain a bit. Sometimes pulling it apart makes it worse, rather than better. Sometimes it's just not perfect, and that's okay — it's good enough. Sometimes the planks sit just right together and when you give a pass with the stain, once and then twice and then again, it's perfect. You can step back and look at it and say, I made this this. I did it.

26 August 2017


The purchasing of the house on Victoria Road, a process that began sometime in June and continues on as various kinds of searches are undertaken and solicitors make cups of tea, has been an instructive experience. Homeownership, for whatever you can say about it, is much more important in this country than I thought. Once we said we were buying the house on Victoria Road, our neighbours spoke to us differently, and there was a sense in church that we, the Pihlajas of Harborne, might be sticking around. Yoko is the main face of the Pihlajas of Harborne, helping the elderly ascend and descend to the altar at church and chatting to everyone on the road. I appear surprisingly for the first time to these people, like we are some kind of Russian nesting doll and I'm the next layer down. The neighbour next door, an old Welsh man, was marvelling at our work together in the garden, and I thought of how marriages transform into a dull, satisfying symbiosis over time. Like two worker ants, we adapt to objects introduced to the environment. Introduce a house to the system, and the two of us tend to it, like we tended to a child when a child was introduced.

In preparation of buying the house, I was told I needed house insurance as a condition of my mortgage, and my mortgage adviser, Ian, also suggested I look at life insurance, which I've avoided getting out of a distaste for betting on my own death. However, the Pihlajas of Harborne are no longer an idea, but becoming an established entity, one that depends far too much on me staying alive. We can't allow for the possibility of my disappearance without some financial compensation for the trouble this would cause. I took a call from Ian on the day of a conference, standing in an alcove of the main hall at the University of Birmingham. Ian said he understood I was busy, and I looked around at everyone mulling around without coffee and said, well, I'm not that busy. Ian suggested a plan, one that would cover my death and any number of critical or terminal illnesses, I forget the precise terminology. He said, 'Now if you were single, I wouldn't suggest this. If you didn't have a family, you get hit by a bus, it wouldn't matter.' I stopped him there, 'It wouldn't matter, Ian?' I said, and he was apologetic, 'Sorry, I'm trying to be quick because you're busy.' The policy he suggested was more than I wanted to pay, particularly if the only silver lining would be money I would never get to enjoy. I don't want to die. Still, I begrudgingly accepted it, agreeing to reassess the situation when I returned from Sweden, provided I didn't die in an accident.

I'm thirty-five now, which is still young, but old enough to be considered middle age. What counts as middle age came up in a discussion last month, and I was assured I couldn't be considered middle-aged until I was forty. I disagree. Dying at seventy would not be tragic in any way, and given the amount of hair I've lost and the growing patches of white on the sides of my head, I'm willing to accept it. Better thirty-five more years than the fate dealt me in a dream this week, where I got brain cancer and had months to live. In my dream, I told Yoko and she laughed — I woke up unjustifiably angry, thinking I needed to call Ian before I actually got sick.

The first pile of house-buying paperwork came from the solicitor soon after we got back from Europe, and included a survey of all the kinds of hazards that had been in the area over the years, including the amusing terms 'unspecified heap' and 'unspecified pit'. I wondered what they were, but not enough to ask anyone. It's fine, all fine. There was also a note that the owner didn't want us to take the property until thirty September, which annoyed me less than it might have in July. Instead, I lingered on the planning map, which showed all the property lines on Victoria Road and highlighted the plot that I was buying. A tiny, sliver of England; mid-terrace, Edwardian and mine, all fifteen percent of it.

Part of becoming the Pihlajas of Harborne requires the belief in the short to medium term insolvency of the family and, as its basis, my marriage, something I feel like I believe, but rarely have to put into action. When pressed sometime last week, I managed to give an eloquent description of a future where Yoko and I have dogs and a cottage in a village and the girls come to visit with their friends or lovers. I could see it, almost, the Labrador Retrievers and the walls lined with books. So I am pressing on. I put up the fence and built a stand for the kids' computer I've been meaning to make for a while, but have put off, unconsciously thinking that this might all come to end, the job, the life I've built — Yoko and the girls headed back to Japan and me, rudderless and adrift. Instead, in this reality, the daylight is fading, and Naomi needs to go to swimming. My CUP book has a website now and I am established as a scholar in my field. This was the dream, I need to remember when I was singing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes with a classroom full of primary school students in Niigata City in 2004 when I left missionary work and had bottomed out. This is success. I pull out an electric drill to fuss with a screw I put into the desk to stabilise something. My editor e-mails, and it's the weekend now, the future here in a way.

25 August 2017

Generational depression

My father used to take my birthday seriously. He would get the day off work and we would always do something. In Minnesota, this was Gasoline Alley, a go kart track and arcade and mini-golf place, in Blaine. Sometimes we would go just as a family, or I would have a friend, my best friend, Ben Anderson. Dad was happy on those days and things would happen that wouldn't normally happen, like going to a sporting goods shop and him buying me a Minnesota Twins hat, a spring training one that was white, just like that. Not as my present, my big present, that would come later in the day, but just because it was my birthday.

He would also always take us to breakfast on our birthdays. In Minnesota, this was to a place called the Pannekoekin Huis, a faux Dutch dining chain that had a restaurant in Long Lake. We would ride bicycles some time, ten miles, and have pancakes or waffles. I remember this having a tense excitement, that there might be something big to talk about, about Jesus or something I had done wrong, but it never was. You could have waffles with whipped cream and strawberries and Dad was smiling on the other side of the booth, just the two of you.

The vivid unhappiness makes me sceptical of these memories, although they've been a useful heuristic as my birthday ticked by this summer. I've managed to be away from the house for my birthday the last couple of years, at conferences or seminars, and have snuck away for things to pretend I was celebrating myself, to take stock. A couple of years ago it was a cigar in Winchester. I was in London one year, and then New York the other. Mia's birthday is now one day before mine, and the year she was born, I knew that this meant my birthday as an event was gone. I turned 29 the year she was born though, and I remember thinking how pathetic it was to want to have someone celebrate my birthday, to have a party.

This year, I turned thirty five, and it passed without much mention, on a Tuesday. I have become terrible about gifts from Yoko, particularly at this time of the year when I'm always tending to spend money on other things, the house, the kids swimming, gymnastics. To spend any money on something I don't need or want, really, seems irresponsible. She bought me a beautiful watch a couple of years back that I accepted with happiness, without questioning where the money came from, but otherwise, I've been completely insufferable. This year Yoko put a bottle of whiskey in the trolley at CostCo and I said, No, it's fine, I don't need anything, sabotaging it and feeling immediately guilty. There's a house to buy and holiday to plan and that bottle of whiskey takes one and half hours of part-time work for me to cover. It's not even the one I like.

As I trawl back through the past, I remember feeling tension when my father was around, and wonder now, as I sit with my kids, and I hold Naomi's hand as we walk to swimming, can she relax with me when we're together. I just ask, but it's an odd question to ask a child, 'Can you relax when you're with me?' Yes? she says, like it's a stupid question and I want to tell this story of my own father and how much tension there was and how I don't want to pass that on to her. I want to say to her that this persistent unhappiness is hereditary, and we can't let it control us. We can take medication or not, or believe in God to heal it or not. We just can't let it ruin everything. Instead, I just say to her, Good and then I love you, because that is enough for now, I hope. Beyond lost tempers and bad attitudes and the frustrations of every day life, at least I can give you that, the same way my father did, in his own way, through his own unhappiness and cloud. At least we have love.

19 August 2017


With all my different eccentricities and madnesses about weight and health, a natural product for me to own would be a fitness tracker, a Fitbit. A Fitbit could tell me how many steps I had walked, and a more expensive one might also tell me my heart rate. I have avoided getting one, mostly because they cost money and I feel like it is an unnecessary purchase, particularly this year given the house and the trip to Sweden and the children needing whatever they need. I had made rumblings though that I wanted one, not a Fitbit, but a Garmin GPS watch (a running watch, not a fitness tracker, to be clear) for my birthday, my 35th, which passed this summer. Living on one income as a family means my money is both my money and not my money and I showed these watches to Yoko, like I wanted some sort of absolution for buying one. This was, of course, an illogical and opaque desire, one I didn't ever communicate, but when a package came from Yoko's parents, including some cash for me for my birthday, I had exactly the cover I needed to buy the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ with an accent on one of the vowels, on sale at Curry's.

When you see someone with a fitness tracker, you recognise a shared madness and feel an instant sense of camaraderie. You're counting calories and steps too, I see. My Garmin, however, is a running watch, so I'm a better kind of crazy. I make sure to point this out to people as a way of virtue signalling. I'm a runner and I run more than you do, probably. This pride will quickly turn to shame when I burn out on running in October and I start to gain weight again, showing myself to be the fraud and imposter that I am. For now though, I can show the Garmin to people — an interested acquaintance at a conference, for example — and as I clip through the features of the device, I can use it as a foil for bragging about my health. This shows your resting heart rate which is 32, remarkably low, I know, this shows your latest run, Yes, I ran 26 kilometres this morning before breakfast.

As an instrument, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ is fine enough. It celebrates my 10,000th step every day with a buzz and some animated fireworks on the display, which I like. But it's slow connecting to the GPS and has failed me on several occasions not logging the last half of a run, for example, and rendering that run non-existent in my apps. I feel like I am lying as I insert it manually, like the machine doesn't believe me that I went 10 kilometres instead of 7.3. Or that I earned an additional 150 kilocalories so drinking this beer is fine. You have a kind of internal dialogue with it, and the app that comes along, which also tells you how well and long you sleep.

I put it on Tuesday morning for a run, the last day of our holiday in a caravan park outside of Bruges. I looked online for a running route and decided I should just go all the way into town 10 kilometers in and 10 out, from the weird suburban landscape of Jabbake with a manmade lake, to the beautiful old market town. I left a little after six and as the kilometeres ticked off, I wondered if I was going the right way, certainly the town would be there now. It didn't appear after 7 or 8, but then there it was, in the morning sun. I went through a gate and was transported into the past the way old European towns do. Dance clubs and convenience stores in centuries old buildings. People coming home from the clubs too, loud and drunk, and then, as I turned the corner towards the cathedral, the men getting ready to do construction work in a square. The Garmin ticked up to 11 kilometers, buzzing on my wrist and I thought it was time to turn back, to find the right cobblestone street, and go home, to England or Birmingham or wherever it was I needed to go.

18 August 2017

Making weight

I've been fat my whole life — I was in fact born fat. Ten pounds, zero ounces. The doctor said he needed help holding me when I came out. I remember looking in the mirror as a kid and seeing pouches of fat at my armpits that other kids didn't have. I was fat, other kids called me fat. My uncle who is a doctor once told me it was good that I had fat on my legs because he said I would use it if I got sick. That memory sticks out like a bent nail, like the time Sandy Sleck said to me I was insecure. Why do I remember this. I was fat through junior high school, but then there were other kids who were fatter. When I played football that one dreadful year, my fatness was between a defensive guard and a linebacker. Being a linebacker is a good fat. I wasn't fat enough to be on the line. After that, I don't remember thinking that I was fat. I was fat, sure, but other people were fatter so it didn't matter.

I don't remember a number getting associated with my weight until I applied for a passport when I was sixteen. I wrote 201 pounds, but I don't remember why that was the number. I must have been to the doctor in the last year. I don't remember thinking that number was fat, but I think I lied and the number might have been higher. It feels like something I did, or thought about doing so much that I might as well have done. I don't remember caring one way or another after a year because I got a girlfriend who was not fat and much prettier than I thought I deserved, so it all made sense. I could be funny and intelligent and fat and it wouldn't matter. And everyone else was getting fatter anyway, particularly in college. I drank eight cokes a day, what did it matter — I was growing my hair out and serving God. I was fat in Japan, but of course, that was just being American. All Americans are fat, right, you're just another one. I eat a lot, yes, lots on my plate. I eat peanut butter and pop tarts and pasta. Yes, sure, yakiniku, beef on a stick, I love it all. It was a kind of a joke — everyone was going to stare, what did it matter what you ate.

Neal got me to work out for the first time, in Niigata, the same month that I met Yoko and I started thinking about wearing sport coats. I weighed myself there at the sports centre for the first time and did the thing I learned you weren't supposed to do: kept my shoes on. It was 89 kilograms. Not over 90. I kept a food diary for the first time, and realised that when I drank 5 cappuccinos at Saizeriya in Ogata — while I was studying kanji for the Japanese proficiency test — they were making me fat. Or better, I could just control what I ate and be whatever weight I wanted. All I had to do was stop. It was easy enough. Yoko and I got engaged — my mother said she didn't recognise me in the pictures. I rode my bike after I got a couple speeding tickets and lost weight. The fat started to come off, particularly in my face and I had a jawline and then a wife and a daughter and I wasn't fat, but healthy. I was running too, up and down the Agano River for 10, 20, 30 kilometers. Alone and quiet and the sun coming up while my wife and daughter slept in Matsuhama.

And then I was fat again, in England this time, starting my PhD in a tiny apartment with Yoko, pregnant, and Naomi. It was Tiger bread and butter — again, I remember. I thought, there are so many calories in this. I know there are. There's a picture of me that I remember, a picture of me fat that I saw and thought, I'm fat. Mei was born and I started running again and I took the weight off, like a cycle that I repeat and repeat. Gain from November until May, lose from June to September.

When Mia was born, I was thin for the first time. Not just not fat, but thin. Thinner than I had ever been. I was meticulous about numbers, what I was eating and how much. I weighed everything. I weighed cereal and milk. I counted everything I ate, a carrot, some celery. I hit 69.9 kgs one day, the lowest I had ever been since I was... I thought a long time about that, how long ago I had been that weight: 154 pounds. It must have been junior high school. I was thin, but I was still fat. I thought about the whole thing like it was a tight rope I could fall off of at any moment. If I just had one bad day it would be over. And then I had a bad day and it was over. We went to Malaysia and I gave up. I remember the precise moment I gave up. I was trudging through the sun and humidity trying to find some furniture while Yoko and the girls were sick in the hotel. I was at a convenience store and I bought some ice cream. I remember exactly what it was: a Nestle crunch bar. It was so cheap and I felt I needed it. I was fat anyway, what did it matter.

In my thirties, I have been fat and then thin and then fat and then thin and then fat for a year and now thin again. My 30th birthday I was thin — I ran in Washington Square Park, but then I had red velvet cake in a box and a beer and I was fat on a plane back to the UK. Being fat tracks with rejection and depression and running and and happiness and mania and obsession. Am I depressed? I might be fat or thin as a result. Am I running a lot? I might be fat or thin. Someone asked me, 'Have you lost weight?' and I didn't know what to answer. I have and I haven't. It depends on the last time you saw me. When was the last time you saw me.

I may be thin again, but not as thin as I have been at my thinnest. I put on a thin t-shirt today, the aspirational ones I bought last year. Small and snug. I still feel fat though, still look in the mirror and feel fat. In Sweden I ran and ran and ate and ate. I sat and talked to Chris after running 26 kilometers and put my hand around my wrist like anorexic people do, I'm told. It felt thin, but I was eating so I was going to feel fat in an hour.

You can look in the mirror and feel fat or thin. You can weigh yourself several times in row. You should do it first thing in the morning, after you use the toilet, and are completely naked. Don't drink any water first, of course. The weight can be up, or it can be down, it can differ each time, even if you just shut it off, move it, and turn it on again. The fat percentage is probably not accurate, you know that, but you can track it and it goes down if you are healthy. The weight can be up, but the fat percentage down. Or the fat percentage up and the weight down. You can eat too much or too little, but it will catch up with you, one way or another, you know it will. You'll eat and drink too much in a couple of weeks at that party that you are planning for. You can try to eat well at it, or you can let yourself go — neither will feel good. You can weigh yourself or not weigh yourself. You can count calories or not, count macros or not. Avoid sugar or not. Eat meat, not eat meat. Eat only meat, eat 7 eggs and nothing else. You can do it all, and still be fat, regardless of how thin you are.

14 August 2017

The itch

The smell of motorbikes and diesel fuel in the city attaches to a whole knot of memories. At first it is Malaysia and then it is Rome and then it is Berlin, where we landed on the end of this longest holiday the Pihlajas of Harborne have managed. The trip started as an idea, in January, when I went out to Växjö to teach Discourse Analysis to some MA students. That idea managed to percolate through all the other things that have happened this year, the house buying and visa we almost lost. I said at one point in May that it would be one or the other – the trip or the house, but then it became both and I was looking at ferries to cross from Rostock to Trelleborg and then back, perhaps through Berlin.

The idea of driving through Europe incubated in me for years, a kind of holdover of whatever bit of American culture I still want to be associated with. Jack Kerouac, On the Road, the Beats. After fighting through the Swedish and German websites for three nights, every time giving up when I couldn't get my credit card to work or the website made the room I wanted disappear, I finally booked it all and showed Yoko the e-mails like it was some kind of promise. Yoko didn't respond in any way I could recognise, and none of it felt real, not for a month at least. After the last conference of the summer season, I bought all the things I needed for the car, a plate to tell everyone I am from Great Britain and the stickers to keep the headlights of the UK car from blinding the French and German drivers. I didn't buy additional car insurance until we were sitting in the waiting area in Dover, checked in for the ferry to Calais, like it was finally happening. It was happening, wasn't it.

Sweden, for whatever bit of American culture I am trying to keep smoldering in me, is old world nostalgia by the ton. The old woman who lives in Björnamo 1 – just in view of Chris' cabin and the pine grove clearing where you shower naked outside – is 85 and gave the girls some muffins she baked. She said one night when we drank wine and whisky by candlelight, that they had relatives who emigrated to the US, to Duluth. She said this through her son who spoke English like a Minnesotan, and I lit up like this was the thing I had been waiting to hear. Yes, Duluth, that's where my family is from, from that area. Chris brought out an atlas and I pointed emphatically. It looks the same there, the trees and the glacial rocks that were sledged into the forest moss and then left when the ice sheet receded some tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Yes, it's all the same, isn't it.

And then Berlin, when we we came out of Friedrichstraße, there was the smell of the city and another memory from our honeymoon and coming out of the Termini in Rome on some warm October night, Yoko somewhere behind me as I was trying to get our bearings. It's that smell of a small Vespa, the one that you imagine you have in some alternate universe where you studied abroad, and learned a Romance language, or German, and then found some way to make money here. Not the version of your life where you go to Japan as a missionary. The sky is electric blue in the same way as it was in Rome. There are so many alternate universes.

The forest, in Sweden, in Japan, in Ely, Minnesota, is heaving with spirits – the fairies and gods and ancestors. When I ran in the morning, on the roads around Björnamo, I could feel them in the way I felt God when I was a teenager. I willed their existence. I ran without my shirt, and ran ticking off kilometres like there was nothing to think about. I tried to relax when I wasn't running, here and there, but we kept moving, the way you do when you have three kids, 6, 8, and 10. There is always so much to do. But when I ran, that was all I needed. I ran down to the main road to the south and on the way back, it was still before eight and I turned down a dirt road, thinking there would be a lake. There was a lake, a lake bigger now in my memory than it is in real life, with no one around. I peeled off my shoes and running kit and waded and fell in naked, quiet and freezing cold. I swam out, 10 metres, 20 metres. I looked back at the shore, thinking of a dream Chris had where I died of a heart attack swimming alone in the lake after running. I swam out further, rolled onto my back and looked up before closing my eyes.

29 July 2017

An incidental silence

The house of Victoria Road is not yet legally our's. This hasn't stopped us from beginning the work that we have planned for it. The surveyor came, and looked at everything in a quiet, disinterested way, making notes and wandering around. When he was done, he asked me some questions about the house, about double-glazing and water damage. And then he said he was done and there was a pause. I said, Can I ask some questions? and he said, What do you want to know? I wasn't sure what I wanted to know, I thought — I wanted to know if he thought I should buy it, if I was getting a good price. If he would buy it, in the same circumstances as me. If he could tell me that I would be able to get a visa without too much trouble. I want him to tell me it was okay.

When he left, I looked at Yoko and we started pulling up the carpets to see the floorboards, to start making the house what we wanted. I spent a day and half breaking through the ones in the entryway — sanding and painting and cleaning and then doing some other small things, like changing the curtain for a blind in the living room. They are nothing, completely negligible, but have started to make the house feel less like just a place we live and more like a place that is our home. We can get rid of some sofas next and start to have nice things. Or nicer things.

23 June 2017

The House on Victoria Road

What can I say about the house on Victoria Road that I haven't already said. I've told the story again and again of landing here in Harborne, in the middle of the British winter. The girls were sleeping somewhere outside of Milton Keynes, and I came up here alone to find a place to live. I rented this house — it was sufficient, that's really all you could say about it. It was dirty, but sufficient, which seems like a metaphor as I think about it. I'm not sure what analogy I would like to draw though, as I think about it. Compared to the house in Malaysia, it was damper, with no tile. Parts of it were rotting. The linoleum, the walls in the cupboard where the washing machine has been kept.

All that has been pulled up and out now. The whole place is cleaner and after a year or two, it started to feel like home and then now, after three years and half, after a scare with my visa this spring, and a visit from a builder and conversations with all the British people I know who make money on properties, I decided we would buy it. I say I because I mean I. Yoko has felt strongly about the house for a long time, wanting to stay here, close to St Peters Church where she climbs the hill three or four times a week towards the ringing bells. But I needed to decide, to make the machinery actually work. So with more white hair, and sitting with a man who is putting numbers into a computer, I start the process. We talk and we talk and we talk and then at one point, I finally give a credit card number. There it is. It has started, hasn't it. I look at him for some sort of assurance, like I have done. You're almost old enough to be my father, I want to say. Tell me it's okay. Tell me this is the right thing to do.

To decide while at the same time not having an opinion: these two opposing things are, I feel, expected of me the older I get and the more ensconced I am in the apparatus of a family. I am a kind of necessary internal organ that one thinks about only when it is causing problems. The father who appreciates a bottle of whisky added to the trolley, that he still must buy, but must buy for himself as a gift to himself — one must also provide for gestures of kindness to oneself. And one must not draw attention to this. You think about Foucault in this situation, speaking French and seeing the whole of the system perpetuating itself. You want to point to him; Foucault can explain this.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
You don't unchain yourself from ideology. The talk about letting the horse out on the lead and letting it run without feeling the pull of the lead. It is still on the lead, even when it doesn't feel the pull. I am the horse always at the end of the lead, always it digging in my neck and telling everyone else, There is a lead here, don't you see it. And everyone shrugs to remind me that if you don't pull on it, you can't feel it. That's not the point, I want to say.

I sign a couple of papers and there it is. It's started, like you have pushed off from the shore now in your own little boat. You orient yourself towards the deeper water. I'll be 35 on Tuesday — I started late, I think. I'll catch up though. Don't worry. It's worked out better than we all imagined.

07 June 2017

I'm hardcore, but I'm not that hardcore

There was a kind of false summer a few weeks ago, right before half term, giving us the sort of evenings that seem to go on and on, and you can sit in the park, while the kids play, watching the trees and thinking that there is nothing you should really want. This, of course, will end, everyone said to each other — we must make the most of it while can. Open the windows, let the light and air in before it starts raining again. And a day later, of course, the heat is on and you think to yourself, wasn't I just walking outside yesterday in shirt sleeves?

To make the most of the two days of summer, we took the kids hiking up to Lickey Hills on the edge of Birmingham on Saturday. Naomi wanted to stay home and rest, but I pushed the point and we all headed out, Naomi and Mia dragging their feet and cross that we didn't stop for sweeties, into the forest and hills. I've been caught up in meditation recently, which has made me want to just stand places, natural places particularly, and look at things. At Lickey Hills, we went on the Woodpecker Trail and headed out over the road and up Beacon Hill overlooking the city and a golf course. At the top of the hill, we all sat down and ate jelly beans that the girls had brought — there were sweeties after all, it turned out. They discussed the ones they liked and passed them back and forth. I had the sensation of not wanting to move or push things forward, but to just be there, with them, for that moment. Naomi, 10 and strong-willed and still happy to hold my hand. There might be rain coming, I thought.

Meditation has been an antidote to my Evangelical Christian-induced anxiety, where my fundamental badness could only be soothed by God, but if God was going to soothe it was anyone's guess really. You needed to worry — if you didn't worry then you ran the risk of falling away. You were also not supposed to worry, and these two contradictory weights held you down and let strong, confident sounding men control you. You prayed as a kind of casting out, trying to catch something to come back to you. Peace or forgiveness or faith, because you couldn't make the faith yourself. It didn't come from inside of you — it only came from God, who was always beyond the horizon and loved you unconditionally, on the condition that you loved Him back.

There is enough uncertainty, isn't it. The city centre is full of police with guns, and we all seem to be waiting for Birmingham to be hit. Surely it will, people say, it's only a matter of time. The IRA bombed Birmingham — people remember this now, we all imagine some disenchanted kid who can't keep up and can be convinced that he can make himself famous, and earn God's favour. That's the point after all, I say, to a few White British people looking at me with blank expressions. They've somehow stumbled into asking me what I thought about all of this, as a way of finding a way to tell me what they think. But I don't say whatever they expected and block out their contributions like I do when I talk to Christians who tell me about their own sad, begrudging vote for Trump and lower taxes and a supreme court justice — I'm trying to be better at listening, to not just wait to talk, but not on this point. It's my area, I say: I study this. My next book is about this exactly; I'm waving my hands.

I ride by the Edgbaston Cricket Grounds and Pakistan is playing so there are people everywhere with Pakistani flags. As I come into Moseley, a cab has a woman in the back with the window open, the green and white flag hanging out and people cheering. Is this where it happens, I wonder, as I ride my bike past the police barriers, past the police and all the people walking up the road. Of course, it doesn't; of course nothing happens. Yoko meets me at the coffee shop after having been in the city centre and I breathe a sigh of relief. Of course not, of course she's safe. I am not afraid, I say again and again and again, and tell the kids to say to it themselves: Be afraid of the right things. They know about moments of silence and suicide bombers and we all just sit there together.

When you meditate, you don't judge yourself or your thoughts. You confront them and you admit that they are your own thoughts. There is no stuffing down and away. There is no casting off, or trying to get something else. It's already there. Sit with it, with yourself, it's okay. You can have your feelings, the woman says, feel whatever you feel. This poem she reads.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Fuck, I think, yes, exactly. I want to open my eyes and announce it — You don't have to be good. You don't have to do anything.

26 May 2017

Before the bombing

On Sunday, the end of Christian Aid week, there was a bake sale at the church and Yoko made rice crispy treats with dark chocolate so that Mei could eat them and they could be sold with cupcakes during the time after the service. The church is on the hill above Victoria Road and the bells ring at 9:30, when I am walking Mei up to the choir practice before the service, and then back down in the sun as summer, British summer, is taunting us. We sing our way through the service and then communion and the processional and I get caught up talking to the old academics at the church hall afterwards, the men that I look at and think have lived the dream, teaching and working well into their seventies and only stopping because they can’t physically do it anymore.

I walked up to the university, Mei and Mia at a friends house, to pick up a book I had ordered then sit and read it a bit before walking back into town to buy a some pale ale in a can and walk up the high street, everything closed because it was after five on a Sunday, but the afternoon seeming to go and on as it does at the end of May.

I came past the takeaways at the end of the High Street, and the barber that I used to go to until Brexit and I started getting my hair cut at the Turkish barber shop. I turned the corner, and then was struck suddenly, like in the sort of pathetic manic way I am at times, by the beauty of the road, leafy as they would say here, and sun streaming through the trees that had been there forever. Yoko and I once found a picture of the church and the pub next to it from a newspaper in the early-1900s. It looked the same, the same huge trees coming up around it. Do you see this, I wanted to say to the guy passing in the tracksuit, headed somewhere – do you see where we are. This is where Virginia Woolf was. This is where it all happens.

I slowed down, thinking about when I first came to this country in 2002, when I had just cut my hair. I spent 18 hours in London, wandering around and making my way to Hyde Park. It was what I thought it would be – massive and grand and British, the way you want Britain to be. I don’t remember much of anything really. I remember sitting on a bench and thinking, naively and foolishly, Well, what comes next then. What comes next.