28 May 2018

The rains came down, the floods came up

Several thunderstorms have rolled through Birmingham this weekend, and yesterday I stood at the window of my house on Victoria Road, watching the water rush down the street and thinking, given my anxiety about a string of bad luck I feel like I'm experiencing, it would not come as a surprise if this house were to wash away now, after some hundred years. We sang songs about this as children in Sunday School, about the wise man and the foolish man, and the rains coming down and washing away the house built on sand. Luckily, in the hundreds of pounds I spent last year on surveys, I know exactly what the house is built on — I saw Wayne the Builder digging it out by wheelbarrowful in February. It is not sand. The lightning flashed close to the house, and I remembered suddenly my own father, building a rock wall in the rain in the eighties, because our house, the house that he had built to his dream specifications on a hill in Minnesota, was also potentially about to wash away. Of course neither happened, and my Edwardian terrace house, which I can afford for the moment, made it through the afternoon and a muggy, almost Malaysian air was left hanging when I went to take the rubbish bins out.

Somewhere in Tokyo, near Roppongi I assume but I've forgotten now, I had to make my first application for a British visa. The UK government which is constantly saving money and has been saving money for many years now, still maintained an office to make an application, a physical location, but it wasn't at the embassy. Instead, Yoko and I took a train down from Niigata to a nondescript office building, with a placard saying the UK immigration service was on the Japanese second floor (rather than the British first floor). A man in the sort of silly fake police uniforms that security guards wear in Japan sometimes, spoke in curt Japanese to me and Yoko, going through our documents, and I was angry that I had to speak Japanese at this moment, the moment I was escaping a future of Japanese bureaucracy and English language classes. It would be all worth it.

We got into the waiting room, despite the security guard's misgivings. I don't remember if he sent us away to make more copies. He might well have. Inside, there were no British people, but a row of desks with Japanese people behind them, looking out at us, and large posters on the wall, of Big Ben and then a red double decker bus, that made me think that this was all a giant scam, that the letters I had gotten from the Open University, which I partially doubted was a real university anyway, were not real and maybe some toothy TV presenter would appear and this would be some joke, some elaborate sick joke. When, however, we were finally called to a desk, the woman spoke clear and fluent English to me and although indeed I didn't have all the paperwork with me I needed, it would be okay, and I could come back the next week to provide it. We got back on the train and rode back to Niigata and in some six weeks or eight weeks or ten weeks, we were lying in a bed and breakfast in Woolstone, in Milton Keynes, and everything had changed.

The next day after the rain, there is little trace of it. Victoria Road looks as though the potholes have grown, but I wonder now if that is something I am just noticing because of the rain or if it is actually the result of the rain. It's hard to tell. The girls are going away for a party on this bank holiday, and I am debating what to do, where to walk to for the day and pass it not working, if I can manage. I have already done some work. My excuse, as I wave my hands and try to convey my deep sense of anxiety as I as do my taxes and prepare for another visa application, is that I feel like this is the only thing I can do now, the only thing I can control. I can work, I can work more and harder than everyone else.

These are the rush of thoughts when I close my eyes and start to count. One: In a year, or next August, I won't have the same excuse, but I'll deal (two) with that in a year. I'll have the flexible mortgage to blame. I'll have the rising (three) costs of education, and the uncertainty of Brexit and climate change. Look (four) now, the rain's come back, hasn't it, (five) and slowly eroding my hundred year old brick. It hasn't given out (six) yet, but that is no guarantee it won't give out soon. Seven. There is no guarantee. Eight... Nine... One.

17 May 2018


There are two shops at the bottom of the roundabouts on War Lane. The War Lane Cellar and another family shop, that's now a chain, although it doesn't feel like anything has changed inside. Both of the shops are owned by Southeast Asian families. Ganesha is there, in the restaurant next door, reminding me of our Indian taxi driver, Letchu, in Malaysia who awkwardly had us over to his house once. When you go into the shop, even though it's now a chain, it smells like spices and everything is overpriced except beer and Barefoot Merlot. The second shop, War Lane Cellar, is mostly booze, with one wall of snacks. Two for one pound mini-pappadums and onion rings like American funions and cheese puffs like American cheese puffs. Under a small TV, they have lager from all over Europe, all one pound nineteen or one pound twenty-nine or one pound fifty-nine depending. They have ice cream too, Magnums and popsicles and Twisters and Cornettos. There is an Indian man who owns it, I think, then his wife and perhaps his brother and then there is another man sometimes, an older white man, who once got upset at Mei because I had given her money to pay for everything we were buying and he said it was against the law to take the money from her because there was also beer.

Somewhere in the last year, I thought I had fixed myself, or that I had been fixed. I thought the meditation had done it. My heart rate is barely perceptible. And then, on Wednesday, I ate six thousand kilocalories. It happened in the present tense. I find myself at nine-thirty at night in one of the stores at the roundabouts, buying beer and cheese puffs. I feel my thighs rubbing against each other. And I eat it all quickly and hide the wrappers in my bin at my desk underneath everything so that no one finds them. I rationalise this by saying that it's about the kids seeing and being jealous, but it's about being ashamed, about my wife finding out that I'm a child. I bought M&Ms this time and not the ice cream because M&Ms are less than two hundred kilocalories and then I am under four thousand today. I know this because I enter the calories, all of them, in my app, the calorie counting app. Four thousand better than five thousand, I tell myself, until a moment later, I thinking of buying cheese naan at another shop on the roundabout, the balti takeaway. The naan is more but I’m still under five thousand. That's bad, but it's not the worst.

My heart rate is barely perceptible. When I went to give blood a couple of weeks ago, the nurse, the sister who is really a sister, the sort of woman you want with you if you're dying, got upset because my heart rate was too low. We were face to face in a tiny consultancy room with a drop of my blood weighed down with iron at the bottom of a vile of green liquid. You gotta bring it up, she says, or you can't give blood. And we can't let you run up and down the stairs anymore, they changed the rules. What do you want to do. I felt like a little boy who had done something wrong, like Paula Johnson — that was her name wasn't it —  was shouting at that Baptist Church we used to attend in El Paso, Texas off Redd Road. I'm sorry, I said to the sister who was looking at me with faux anger, I run a lot. I meditate. I started to breathe hard and she checked me again, annoyed. Look, I'm going to give you one more chance. I'm going to go out there and come back and you do whatever you have to do, or you can't give.

I remember the way the late afternoon light was in that church in Texas. There was always some club going on, some set of activities, games that melted away into a story about God and hell and me asking for Jesus to forgive me again, hoping that it would take this time. I prayed whenever they invited us to because I was never sure whether I meant it enough, or if I even knew what it meant to mean it. I remember there were pizza parties and huge plastic gallon bottles of Walmart knock-off pop, the generic kind, Dr Thunder, Max Cola. It's not a real memory, but a conflation of memories, sitting on a folding chair, my fat legs in shorts sticking to the metal seat and a paper plate in my lap. The pile of pizza seemed to grow and grow, and then chips and we all kept eating, Paula Johnson pacing about somewhere, not upset at me exactly but upset.

How do you bring up your heart rate. I realised afterwards I should have thought of something sexy, but it didn't occur to me. I breathed quickly and shook my arm. If I could just stand up and run in place. If I could just stand up. I pretended I was running in the dark at night, and that I was being chased. I put two fingers on my throat and thought about a terrorist attack. I thought about all my family dying. The sister came back  and I apologised, and she went in again for the pulse, and then immediately to the clipboard. Fifty six. I made it, I got over fifty, they can take it from me. She started to leave and I felt like I wanted her to forgive me — please forgive me. Why do I want her to forgive me.

08 May 2018


I came up from Copenhagen to Växjö in the snow. Or, it came to snow as the train pulled into Växjö on Easter night and I found my cab after going up and down the wrong set of stairs. Everything was quiet on campus, where the cab dropped me off at the castle and where I checked into a small cottage on the edge of the castle grounds. The window in the bathroom above the toilet had a large, clear glass window that looked out on the lake, and I wondered if people could see in.

I had made a mistake in telling everyone I was coming a week later than I actually could come, causing a sort of Swedish trouble I couldn't properly gauge as an American having spent too much time in the UK. I can’t seem to take anyone at their word about their feelings. Because of this error, the next day was lost — a holiday, Easter Monday. I still woke up early and ran around the lakes on campus. And then I wandered into town to buy fruit and bread and have an early fika.  I sat at the table in a cafe away from the square, where we, Yoko and the kids and Chris and me, had sat at in the summer, and I slipped into the hum of nostalgia I knew would follow me on the trip, as I walked up and down the main road of the city. The experience felt oddly internal — I didn't make eye-contact with anyone, except a man my father's age, as we both tried to reach for the coffee jug at the same time, smiling and apologising the way you do when you're not confident in a language.

There were two young American women sat at the table across from me, Macbooks open, planning for the next part of a trip, to go further east towards Russia with the money they had left and I thought that it must be Spring Break in the States. I listened to them the way you fantasise when you're young and imagine meeting other young people abroad, but then remembered suddenly that I was old to them, probably, that I wasn't their peer. The fantasy fell flat as it awkwardly required me to confront whoever I was, a mid-level academic in my mid-thirties, sitting alone with a cup of coffee and a roll. What was I doing in Sweden anyway — I could see myself trying to explain and falling into some convoluted story that wouldn't include simply being on break from college, because they would say college as Americans, not university. My story, as it might need to be told to a stranger in a Swedish cafe, goes too far back.

I was there for the rest of the week and every morning I ran around the lake and meditated and then had Swedish breakfast in the castle, cutting thick slices of bread and cheese, and piling on muesli and eggs and biscotti. I drank too much coffee and found my way to the centre for post-colonial studies where I was meeting people and stood at a borrowed Ikea desk and transcribed a debate between a Muslim scholar and an incorrigible old Christian apologist. I apologised daily for having made a mistake in telling everyone when I was supposed to come, but it didn't matter in the end. People bought me lunch and we talked and talked about everyone's work, about the Qur'an and computer-assisted learning and polemics and translation and America and Sweden and the UK. Another cup of coffee and fika here and there, before it was Saturday and I was again on the train back to Copenhagen thinking I would be back in a month again, and it didn't need to be anything but routine.

The plane was on time. We descended into Amsterdam and I stepped out on the tarmac in the sun. The first beautiful day in the city this year, someone said. My flight to Birmingham left later in the evening and I made my way towards the connecting flights, before suddenly turning around and heading the other way, to the city. I know Amsterdam well enough, I thought, I can have pizza and beer on the canal and wait for the plane there. I took the train in and walked up, through the heavy tourist armaments at the front of the station, towards Vondelpark. I didn't get that far, instead collapsing in a pizzeria and ordering a beer. I ate and took my time wandering back to the airport and my flight home to Birmingham, sunburnt and bloated and satisfied.

There are absent memories of a backpack version of me, if he was ever even real. I feel like I was in Germany one summer, trying to sort out train tickets, but I know that I wasn't. At 21, I was already settled in Japan and then married with a baby at 24. It all happened so fast — I ended up in Europe only after I became an academic, and had two kids by then. I remember taking the train in Spain, but I was a PhD student then with all sorts of attachments. I was never that young, was I. I never chatted anyone up anywhere.

It doesn't matter, it turns out — if you just keep going the adventure doesn't have to end. Perhaps you get old and don't get to have any sort of regrets, if things worked out anyway. I remember thinking this for the first time, coming out of the chunnel from Paris into St Pancreas, our trip to France finished. France was over for the time being, yes, but England goes on and on. The kids were small then and I was younger, but it's the same. It goes on and on.

05 May 2018


When I bought the house on Victoria Road last year, there had been plans to have work done on it. The house is, after all, Edwardian, which means a hundred years old or nearly, and the house had a list of things that needed doing. This list, I had proudly said to people, was what I had used to negotiate a lower price for the house, but after the sale finished, it felt like a burden and wondered if it would have been better to just buy something else, on another road. My passion, however, for Victoria Road in Harborne hasn't been rational, so we started to chip away at the list.

The main building that needed doing was the renovation of the kitchen and the conversion of the upstairs bathroom into a bedroom, or moving the bathroom downstairs, depending on how I explained it. Discussion of this project always included the word 'nightmare' when I spoke with my faithful British friends and colleagues who had done work on their houses. Everyone had a nightmare story, and spoke about it as a necessary evil, which makes up most of life in the UK, I've come to believe — a series of necessary evils. The list of things that can go wrong at any one time is frankly staggering.

Still though, I got the quotes and Wayne the Builder said he could squeeze us in before spring, and before I knew it, we had spent the first ten thousand pounds on the architect and planning and first round of breaking down the walls. The space started out as an image on an Ikea planning screen and then piece by piece came together until last week when Wayne came the last time, and I bought the emulsion paint and finally did the painting I needed to. I resealed the sink and counters and put the toilet paper holder up, the one that said Victoria on it. I wiped paint from the floor.

Of course, the work will go on and on: the house of Victoria Road has years of projects to be done, one imagines. But for now, I had wondered what it would be like to stand in a space that wasn't in the house before, how you could create a space to live where there wasn't one before. Now, there is this space, a concept that became physical, the word made flesh as it were. The light pours in now, there is no stopping it.

01 May 2018

Archaeology of self

America is an idea that gets transmitted through the Internet in clips on YouTube and overheard accents when I stop myself from swinging around in a store or on a train and seeing who is there with me. Waiting in line to pre-clear US immigration in Dublin, I stood in the US citizens' line, with a photo of Donald Trump looking over me and suddenly the voices were everywhere. A man in a goatee and long-sleeved henley t-shirt standing there with his partner, whom you would not call his partner, but his girlfriend or wife, depending. The number of them only grew as I got further along in my trip: on the campus at the university where the conference was, other varieties of Americans I hadn't thought about in years. Everyone in sweatshirts, and people talking the way that Americans talk. You can't put your finger on what it is exactly, if it's the topic or the words they are using or what exactly. A conversation I overheard about whether or not a friend was being 'immature' or not and I wondered, have I ever heard a British person describe someone as immature. Is that a word they use.

On the subway, there was a man lying on the bench opposite from me, using his shoe as a pillow. He was black and perhaps homeless and there were raisins on the ground in front of him. He was like that, laid out, from Queens all the way into Manhattan when I got off. I watched people interact with him, or rather his body. Who sat and who didn't sit. Who moved when they could, or just stood, glancing at him and then at their phones. Later, I recounted this to my meditation teacher, Naga Davi. I told her that I found myself daydreaming about all of them, these people with this sleeping body — where they were going and what they were doing and if they had families and partners and mothers and fathers who cared for them. Was this a manifestation of metta, unconditional love for all beings, I wondered. Perhaps it was. It was something.

The conference I went to was ostensibly about Language and Religion, but most of the talks focused on translation. Someone mentioned metta. Someone talked about the Bible in the Solomon Islands. Someone talked about the Jewish scriptures in Greek. Between talks, you could look out from the huge windows of the university at the New York City skyline and eat fresh fruit provided on plastic plates which people used and threw away without any obvious guilt. It's America, after all — not Trump's America, but America America. With all the diversity of Americans who are still American, the SUVs and the drugstores that we don't quite have in the same way in this country. You can throw everything away.

And then I was in Newark, getting back on a plane to fly through the night and arrive home by bus. I came back inside the house on Victoria Road, which I own, and Yoko said, Is that all you had with you? I took off the small backpack I had brought, with a couple of shirts, my toothbrush, and A Hundred Years of Solitude, which I had read on the plane instead of sleeping. It was only a couple of days, I said, I didn't want to get bogged down. This was the truth, of course. I wanted to leave quickly, if I could, because I was unreasonably afraid of running into someone I knew, even in that huge city. I was afraid of the American me appearing, with a stain on a polo shirt, fifteen pounds heavier, telling me to stop lying. I am an American. It's insufferable to have to say that to yourself. Of course America is who I am, and where I belong. There are buttons on my shirt, yes, but you can't hide with this accent, with this passport. Everyone here will still ask where you're from. Near Chicago, that answer will never change, no matter how many British houses I buy or British children have my name and call me daddy. I'm American. It's obvious, isn't it.