31 December 2018

V is for plant-based

At eleven-twenty on Christmas Eve, we left the house to walk up the hill to St Peter's for midnight mass. The girls were singing in the choir for the third or fourth time in two days, and we came into the alcoves in the entryway of the church, as the community carol service was ending. I could see Father Graeme through the glass windows on the inside doors, wearing a black robe and collar and as I looked past the vergers, I could see him leaping in the middle of the sanctuary, willing the carolers with their coats on but open, to sing more loudly, more clearly. One doesn't always take one's coat off for worship at St Peter's. In practical terms, the heating may or may not be working, but in theological terms, you may also need to make a run for it. The community carolers were singing loudly, but not as loudly as they could and were looking at Graeme with a begging, collective weariness. It's eleven-thirty on Christmas Eve — surely, this level of enthusiasm is sufficient.

28 December 2018

As good a story

Nearly five years now in Harborne have come to an end, and more years, I thought to myself as I walked back from the High Street on Boxing Day, than I ever spent anywhere else. After living here for so many years, everything seems to run together. Which year was which; was I fat or thin that December. I find myself telling the same origin stories whenever there's someone new to tell, but I've worn these stories out. Like the story which starts with Yoko and I marrying in a fever and ends with our disastrous honeymoon. Yoko said once, as I recounted with practiced precision our misery as we came by ferry into Gozo at golden hour: He likes telling that story, and I thought, it's not that I like telling this story. It's just the story that I have to tell. If I had a different story, I would tell that story.

That's a lie, of course, every story you choose to tell has a reason for its telling — my whole career is based on this theory of narrative. I make the same point in academic presentations, proclaiming to the audience that you only tell the story of little Red Riding Hood if you're trying to get a point across. You're trying to scare your children, for example. I've made this analogy enough that I know where to pause, where the laugh lines are, like I'm some sort of failed stand-up comedian. The point is, I'll say, summing it up, whatever story you tell, it reveals something about you, about what you believe or don't, what you're cynical about: paternity, matrimony, fraternity. Whatever.

Stories don't have natural beginnings or endings; their meanings can change over time. Another story, one I initially told as an anecdote about trusting God, really needs to be told for that first story to make sense. This story began when I was twenty-one and left the States to be a missionary at a small church in Japan. The plan was simple enough: I would go, I thought, for a year, put the failed relationships of my late teens behind me, and then come back to the States to do a Master in Fine Arts somewhere, become a writer, or work in marketing, whatever it was. Healing by distance, by immersion — the things your therapist tells you you're not supposed to do. I'm overstating it, of course — I was young and had nothing going on, really. What's a year of your life when you're twenty, twenty-one.

I went to Japan in October of that year, after raising money from Evangelical Christians who wanted to hear my trusting God story and were just happy they themselves didn't have to trust God too. I had one thousand US dollars a month in Evangelical money, half of which was deposited in my US bank account and which I saved and half of which the church in Japan paid me in cash and which I spent on bare necessities. That year, I smoked a pipe and listened to jazz and had too much free time. I went to an empty beach all winter and tried to pray, tried to write, tried to study Japanese, tried to fall out of love. It didn't work out, but I can't explain why exactly. After the summer, and going back to Chicago for several weeks to lick my wounds, I left again, this time to teach English full-time in elementary schools in the sleepy industrial Northwest of Japan, someplace away from it all, where no one could find me.

The company that hired me, or rather the British recruiter, promised stability, but when I found myself that September in the head office in Tokyo after one day of training, I was slowly realising they were taking advantage of me. I wouldn't be paid for at least six weeks, but they were happy to lend me my first pay cheque with a marginal interest rate if I absolutely needed it. I was young and stuck and everyone seemed to know things I didn't know. When the recruiter was thumbing through my passport, he pointed out that it had only been by some miracle they'd let me back into the country when I left and came back in August — he held up the page: you didn't have a re-entry visa. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know why I didn't have a mobile phone or a bank account. I hadn't needed one, we were paid in cash. Hagino-san had taken care of us, I wanted to say. I began to doubt if the women from the church had been real. The recruiter was dumbfounded like he had discovered some Mormon who had wandered into the city looking for food after the church abandoned him.

I can't remember which ward the company's office was in. I can't remember how long I was there. I remember vague things about the building and my hotel. I remember the vending machine outside the headquarters had Dr Pepper. I remember standing on the north side of the Imperial Palace, smoking a cigarillo and looking up at the stone walls. I remember feeling panic as I realised how far from home I really was. I convinced myself that the whole mess was a punishment for doubting, for giving up on the mission. I was Jonah in the belly of the whale. I was Samson chained to the pillar.

That story doesn't have a natural ending: it ends wherever you want. With an apartment on the Agano River that had a glimpse of the Sea. With Yoko before she was my wife, kneeling seiza and reading the newspaper spread out on the tatami. With us leaving Niigata two years later on a ferry. Or with me, this last week, walking home from Sainsbury's on Boxing Day. I texted Naomi and we met up, all five of us, in the car park of St Peter's, where Mia was roller-skating and Mei and Yoko were riding the scooter around and around. I said hello and climbed up onto the brick wall and walked down it, balancing like a child and standing at the end, looking up at the church clock tower. Yoko tells me that it was completed during a plague that killed all the good artisans — the plague explains why the clock is not perfectly centred. I had never noticed it before she said something, but yes, if you look closely and don't allow your mind to adjust it, you see it's not exactly right. Of course, you can't see it unless you're looking for it. I jumped down from the wall and Yoko said to the girls, Shall we go? Dusk is falling, down the hill to Victoria Road, where our home is, like it has for years. Tracing on tracing, a dark line now, a rut, a beginning or ending of some other story.

27 December 2018

No time is wasted

From the top of the estate behind Saint Peter's, there is a steep hill leading down into the valley. The fog comes in and sits there, waiting for some change to dissipate or move it, but nothing changes. The sun comes up late and goes down early and the valley is still full of fog. It's perfect weather to run in, but I'm resting my legs. Instead, I put on my grey coat, the one my mother bought for me in two thousand and three for thirty dollars at a thrift store in Park City, before I left the States forever. I walk through the church cemetery to the other edge of Harborne, to fetch one of my daughters from an address scrawled on some scrap paper. Early afternoon now, and night is falling. 

It's been five years in the house on Victoria Road. With the work done, the new plaster and paint, the nagging inconsistencies of the white paint and the furniture we need to buy aside, things are finished for now. There are no gaping holes in the wall. I wake up and the blue-grey light comes in from three sides, like we had knocked a wall down. I make posher coffee than I have in the past and stare up and out the window as the kettle boils away. 

We watch the end of the year, the different shades of grey sat in the valley. Next year there will be more waiting, won't there. In Malaysia, the never-ending summer meant that the year went on and on without a perceivable sense of future. In the UK it's different, of course. Things stall, they don't spin out. I ask Naomi, as we look up into a tree at some birds, if she remembers the monkeys in Kajang, at the top of the hill near our house. I remember them as proboscis monkeys, but they must not have been. The mind plays a trick. 

Whatever profound thing I meant to say gets lost in the muddle of memory. I'm staring at my phone again — I'm lost in some other world. Night is falling, we need to get home before dark. 

17 December 2018


I fell asleep on the sofa with my head next to the iPad I had set an alarm on — thirty six minutes to sleep after meditating and then I would run. I woke before the alarm went off and had another apple and cup of coffee before finally willing myself to put on my trainers, open the door, let my activity tracker catch the GPS and then I can start running. Just start running, nothing more. I tell myself I can stop, if I want to, but once I start and I make the first kilometer and then the second, I am on the trail and of course I am not going to stop running, what sort of dumb lie was that.

Never a fan of dialectics, I've spent the year looking for my own words to describe what is essentially a dialectic — the void and self-efficacy. My weight has been some measure of my own self-efficacy, my ability to say I will do something and then do it. It's an imperfect measure, and after struggling for years, and going through periods of weighing myself day in and day out and then lapsing, eating without stopping, loaded down with cookies and whatever else I can get my hands on, it all seemed to stopped this year once I committed to my insufferable plant-based lifestyle.

I still fear weighing myself after a period of not weighing myself and that fear is irrational; I accept that. I accept that all my thoughts about my body and what I should and shouldn't eat are self-made problems, the result of letting my obsessing mind take over different parts of my life, with promises of diminishing returns of success and eventual burnout. I'm a sucker for obsession. If I could, I would wake my wife up at two in the morning and share whatever concern I have on my mind, likely about our application for our visa. I'm proud of myself for not doing this, but you can't ask someone to appreciate that you haven't done something bad to them, even though you want to.

On Saturday, I peeled off all my clothes and willed myself onto the scale, afraid like I have trained myself to be afraid, but there it was. I had no one to announce this to, of course, no one should care. I made coffee and sat on the sofa reading all the online bad news and waiting to feel some sense of accomplishment for having willed myself into a body that I wasn't given. I used to be fat, I tell people, a-matter-of-factly, like the rejoinder should be, And now you're not. Well done.

The ax is already at the root of the trees. Jesus prunes the branches while John cuts the whole tree down. The run is over before I know it. I think I should do more, perhaps, press for another ten minutes, but I don't. Some years ago, on this day, I finished my PhD and then moved to Malaysia the next week. It was ten days later. See, anything is possible. You don't need anyone to pat you on the head, you just need to get up.

15 December 2018


It hasn't snowed heavily this year, but the cold has set in, the bitter 1920s cold of the house on Victoria Road that comes in through the fireplace. I don't want to ride my bike, so I have been running everywhere, changing out of my running kit into a jumper and jeans like superman when I arrive at work or the city. It's a good cold for running and feeling the inevitable mud-suck of winter removing your agency in the nights that become longer and longer until they don't. At the end of the year, everything is erased — nothing has happened. I feel it as I struggle through the paperwork of my final visa in this country, the indefinite one. I went through my calendar for the last five years, everything that had happened as entries of events and plane departure and arrival times, but I couldn't tell if they had really happened. I was in the States this year, wasn't I. I was in Japan. There was that AirBnB in Queens, and the runs around the lakes in Växjö. I'm sure they happened. I'm sure there are pictures.

Evidence is both a verb and a noun. Evidencing the truth can be a complicated matter, particular when you need to evidence an ongoing state. Evidence that you have lived in the house on Victoria Road with your partner, as an example. This does not mean evidencing that you both lived in the same place, this means evidencing that you lived together in the same place. It's a small, but important distinction that the government judges through official letters addressed to both of you, at the same address. But what does any of this mean — I came home from work and shuffled through papers, happy to see that the water bill and council tax bill were in both of our names. Proof: see here, proof that I am married, that my marriage is real and not just some discourse accumulated over the years.

I can't sleep, of course, that should go without saying. A few days ago, I got up, hungry at two in the morning and ate and just kept going. Who needs to sleep when there is no evidence you exist any way. I read the news and meditate and then the kids start to wake up and I pester them. They need things from me, one pound coins for Christmas jumper day at school, or use of the credit card to pay something, or spelling words read out to them from the Tory spelling curriculum. I happily oblige, like they are some handhold on the cliff edge of my own reality in the world, because the evidence otherwise is just not there. At work, I'm told the right people had not authorised everything I've done. I sit in a chair in a small office and say that I didn't know I was supposed to report whatever it was that I was supposed to report. I'm sorry. I say to the barman at the Plough, our pub in Harborne, after I put my phone up to the credit card machine to pay for my toast and coffee, It's weird that this NFC chip in my phone makes me real. It's a neoliberal trick — capital as evidence you have agency and that agency is just the capital itself, it's not really YOU in any meaningful way and he asks me which table I'm sitting at.

Evidencing is not something everyone understands. As I write this, a letter comes from the water supplier that I ordered to evidence that Yoko and I were together in the house on Victoria Road in the first quarter of 2017, but the letter they have issued has yesterday's date, with all of our water use for the last two years. No, I say, in my head to the woman I chatted with on the Severn Trent website on Wednesday, No, you don't understand. I don't need to prove that I have used water for the last two years, or that I have paid for that water. I need to prove that you, the water supplier, thought in 2017 in March, that Yoko and I were using water together in the house on Victoria Road. That's the proof I need — what you've sent is useless to me. I have literally already thrown it away. I argue with a woman at the Life in the UK test centre about where I was born. I argue about immigration law with people who need to write letters for me, official letters. I go to bed, but I wake up forty-five minutes later. You're stressed, you should relax, I tell myself in the mirror. You shouldn't worry. The LED light has been flickering, you should replace that, anyway. That you can do without evidence.

04 December 2018


It's a mild heresy to start advent on the first of December — Advent begins on the first Sunday of December. The children have their advent calendars with chocolates and I considered getting a vegan one for myself, because I am a child too. I thought better of it and instead, followed my wife and daughters to the first carol service at St Peter's, to sit in the dark in my long grey coat that I've had for years now and try to clear my mind. In Japan, Japanese men are expected to avoid sweet things. 

When I was a child, Christmas was a straightforward, Capitalist anticipation for goods — some heap of plastic coming in my name. All I felt for a month was desire for things, big things. This made sense in the American context, but now, I am thirty six and half and have my own children and my Japanese wife and we are living in a country that I never can quite understand. What we should do, what we should keep and discard from our cultural repertoires gets muddied without any momentum. It comes to a head at holidays. I'm not sure what I should be doing, what I should be giving to my children. It leads to a kind of paralysis, a starting and stopping of incomplete traditions. I let things happen to me rather than do anything myself. I sit in the darkness of the church, and wait for the darkness to fill with the sounds of singing voices, for something about the past to help me make sense of the present.

The house of Victoria Road was finished, or mostly finished, this last week, when the plasterers came and made all the holes in the walls disappear. We had had been living with them for what felt like a lifetime, but was really only several months. I did a poor job painting and laid down some laminate flooring and suddenly a corner had been turned and it felt like it had always been this way. You can walk from the front of the house to the back and not be distracted by some ongoing construction, a wall that appears to be falling down. The next step is to get furniture — I threw away a sofa and on Saturday bought a big TV, big beyond reason, after debating back and forth about whether or not I needed it. Was it excusable, an excusable offence, when there is so much suffering and I've done so little. I bought it, finally, gave in and drove home and hung it up in the living room like it was some evidence of something. Look at your father, look at your husband. He can be normal. 

Of course, the pantomime of normalcy doesn't last. Soon, I'm berating my children about some behaviour I irrationally expect from them. I'm complaining in bad Japanese about the UK immigration system. I'm not eating normally. I have a burn on my hand that people are staring at, but I can't decide if I should bring it up or not. I'm meditating but thinking of shelving. Of plastic in the ocean. Of something I said in 2006. Of whatever unknown unknown will come up in my application for indefinite leave to remain in this country. Of my own body which is bloated, or not bloated.

The singing starts and my candle gets lit by Naomi, who sits next to me, who sits with me as the lights come up and we sing 'O come, O come, Emmanuel'. Emmanuel is a placeholder as I sing — O Come, Something, O thing for which I am stretching out in the darkness. My eyes have stopped trying to adjust. I just sit now, and listen. It will come to an end, won't it: Graeme assures us all that we will be judged. The applications will go in to the government, I will pay whatever fees are required. The house on Victoria Road's walls will be scuffed by small hands. The church choir will keep singing and all of us, with faith or no faith, will sit with candles, listening.