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.