14 May 2021

Kiss, Marry, Kill

Little in the UK makes me feel more patriotic than waiting for a service from the NHS. I am British now, but once I open my mouth you can tell that my Britishness is something I achieved later in life. I'm put off when random people point this out to me, when everyone, all three of the people I interact with, in a car dealership, when I'm simply trying to buy a new used car, comment on it. I say something annoyed, a long pause before I answer in an annoyed tone that only I can hear, I'm originally from Chicago, which is also a lie in the way broad approximations are lies, but a sufficient lie and the sort of lie that shuts down the conversation most of the time, particularly if I follow it up with something more on task for whatever it is I'm doing with this person: from Chicago, originally, how much longer is this going to take

For as annoyed as I get when reminded I don't sound like I'm from around here, the truth is I still process the world as an American teenager. When I went to buy the new used grey Picasso, I thought about needing to get a car that could account for every possible use that I might require of it, even if I never actually required it, the most American of approaches to car buying I have inherited from my father, who could keep in his mind all of the various things you need to keep in your mind when car shopping. One day I could very well need to tow something, and then camping, the car will need to be able to handle a yearly three-day camping trip over the next six years. Surely more is better. 

This same American mentality becomes awe and wonder when interacting with the NHS, and today as I stood in a queue with hundreds of other British people like me, waiting to do our duty and take the vaccination so we can get on with it, whatever it is, I felt actually British. No one asked me where I was from, and my name and the first line of my address on Victoria Road were in the system like everyone else's name was in the system. I had paid for this with my taxes, but it felt like I hadn't paid for it. Like it had been given to me. 

The vaccination centre was in Harborne's Mormon church, and for as American as I am, I have never actually been in a Mormon stake — stake being the word that they use for churches that I was always told are not actually churches. In the stake turned Covid vaccine centre, there were traces of the Mormon faith, like the picture of Jesus looking like he had been born in Ohio in 1875 and the fact that after getting the vaccine, I sat in a pew, although the man I was sitting with was decidedly not Mormon from what I could tell, unless Mormons have become more accepting of working-class British men with shaved heads with blurred scorpion tattoos on the side. Seated behind me was a woman I recognised as an employee of the local Waitrose — I awkwardly nodded at her and then surveyed the room looking at the younger people who were there for their first jab, thinking, this is what the late thirties looks like, is it? We're still fairly attractive, most of us. 

The American teenage me is, for all his failures, how I idealise myself — when I still believed and played in a band and listened to loud music, rebellious in the way young Evangelical Christians in the States in the late nineties were: I annoyed my parents with my nail polish and baggy jeans, but I was honestly more conservative than they were. There was something imminently marriageable about me, even when I was fifteen. I exuded stability. One night, in high school, there were separate sleepovers for guys and girls in the youth group, and the girls stayed in our house. I stayed wherever the guys stayed, and when I got home, this group of young women had put post-it notes all through my room, with vaguely flirtation messages, like under my pillow, one of them had written, 'Do you dream about me?' or something to that effect. It filled me with giddy, impotent energy, the realisation that someone might actually like me, although I was entirely unsure how to respond and I ended up just ignoring it, without an meaningful attempt to act on what would be in retrospect, my sexual peak. 

A marriageable spirit is not something young men my age were told to have, were told is actually what was what the youth group girls were looking for. It's not the thing we told one another about our own attractiveness and it's something that was rarely ever pointed out to us either, because there was nothing worse than being told you are attractive primarily because you are marriageable. It's not what you want to hear, you would rather have big dick energy, you would do anything to avoid thinking that the main attractive thing about you is your stability: you'd rather be wholly unattractive. Thankfully, I'm not sure how aware I was that this is what was attractive about me to the young women in the youth group. Instead, I was arrogant and probably thought that, although I was fat and generally unkempt, I was funny enough and smart enough and kind enough that women found me attractive. This wasn't true, but it didn't matter in my experience because I landed in a long-term relationship with someone I felt I didn't deserve and things more or less worked out until my neurotic stability couldn't compete with actual sexual magnetism. It became painfully clear that marriageable eighteen-year-old men are like war bonds that haven't matured and the lull in my attractiveness through my very early twenties was unlikely to resolve in sexual experiences and a revolving cast of women so much as grey Picassos that I would buy on a whim and need to live with for a decade or two. 

In Japan, however, my Christian stability came roaring back as an even more rare and desirable trait in the right circumstances. There were almost none of us, and mixing the entitled sense of gaijin power with biblical knowledge and Christian fervency, I had a renewed sense of over-inflated self-worth and a false belief that somehow, despite the obvious, maybe I actually was attractive, maybe women did want to sleep with me. I remember another foreign guy, less religious than me, expressing disbelief that I had become engaged to Yoko, someone he perceived to be well out of my league in every imaginable way. This made me feel a kind of alpha energy that was almost immediately replaced by fear because I knew he was right and these thoughts only made me scared that history would repeat itself and she would realise her mistake and that would be the end of it. 

This misreading of the world is common in how young arrogant white men assume that everyone sees the world through their white twenty-three-year-old eyes. In fact, it wasn't my sexual magnetism driving the relationship, of course I had no sexual magnetism. I had terrible posture, an elementary school level of Japanese, and a part-time job as an assistant teacher at a private high school, this wasn't something I needed to worry she would find out, it was blindingly obvious, it was who I actually was. No, the whole point was that this lack of attractiveness, the lack of sexual magnetism is itself the feature of marriageable men, not a bug. It's what makes us stable, it's what makes us marriageable. The less interesting, the less magnetic, the better. Marrying attractive, magnetic men would be a recipe for disaster. 

The vaccination took without any trouble and I left and drove the new used Picasso to work, to my new office at Newman that I don't have to share with anyone because I got a competitive grant, again the sort of thing marriageable men excel at. I took off my shoes and turned a Zoom conference in the background, someone talking about distressing data, and re-read a message thread of an argument. Sixteen-year-old me would be impressed, I suppose, with all of this. The office and the foreign country, yes, and speaking passable Japanese, even though your wife will remind you that you're not fluent — you will have a wife, I know you're worried about that, you shouldn't be, you need to relax, but yes, you'll have a wife. And a car with a moonroof and your own teenage daughters. You'll have a nice guitar that you won't play very often. You'll have written several books. You still can't relax. You should try to relax a bit more. 

13 May 2021

Lest you be judged


On the canal, past the Cadbury factory that, when you run past it at certain times early in the morning, smells of chocolate and biscuits, there is a bridge that you run under and then over to cross from one side of the canal to the other. The iron footbridge underneath the brick trusses of the larger bridge has a beautiful symmetry I noticed for the first time last week as I ran on the towpath in the early grey light and looked up and imagined that someone had hung themselves on the middle post above the canal. I don't know why I saw this, or thought I saw it, but I chalked it up to exhaustion and my recurring fear that I will discover a dead body while running. I did my solo marathon eleven days ago and faded terribly after mile eighteen, the sign of a lack of spirit than a lack of strength. You can run to the end, but when your legs don't feel like they can, you create a negative feedback loop with each mile slowing until your make it to the end, and everything feels like a failure, except that you've finished which is itself the success of that run. You need to remember, I tell myself, that it used to be a miracle one hundred years ago. 

When I had finished my stint as a missionary in Fukuoka, in Japan in 2004, I was looking for any sort of job to stay in the country. I was called that summer to an apartment to meet a woman, who in turn introduced me to a man with an untrimmed pinky fingernail who ran a marriage chapel and who was in search of someone to officiate weddings: a white man, of course, but there had been a small scandal recently where it got out that some of the wedding officiants were just English teachers, not actually religious, and since I had a history in the church, I was a good candidate. At the time, I found this abhorrent, the use of religion in a performative way, and felt like taking the post would ensure swift and terrible judgment, first for having left the ministry, and second for taking up the false gospel instead. I had given up my belief in hell, but I wasn't ready to test it. 

In 2006, a few years later, when I married, I remember insisting that we kiss in the ceremony. This, of all the petty things, was central to me as I thought about weddings, that whatever Japan was going to take from me in terms of this expression of my love, it wouldn't take this. Everyone would have to sit there awkwardly and observe this, even if it made them uncomfortable in a curious way. I insisted like I had insisted at other times in Japan on small cultural things because it would reaffirm that what I wanted, or what I knew, or what was normal to me, was in fact normal. I remember the pastor giving in, not contesting it in a real way and it didn't matter in the end, the way nothing I had worried about came to pass in the way I thought it would. It was all performance anyway.

The grey Citroen Picasso, the car I bought when we moved to Birmingham seven and half years ago, had a failure in the brakes this last week. For a few years, I've been imagining the car would finally give up on us, but when it happened, it was a strange sadness, this thing that had been consistent in our lives, which we had relied on, was going away. We had driven it through Europe to Sweden, that trip three years ago before things seemed to turn noticeably worse, and we had gone skinny dipping in a pond in the woods, and then later, swimming out deep into another lake with Chris and looking back at the shore to the silhouette of my wife on the beach, I made the sort of memory that you are aware is already memory when it is happening, how you can see the same naked body hundreds of times, and then feel like you are seeing it for the first time. 

I needed to replace the car quickly and made a rash, a permanent decision grounded in reasoning that was more-or-less right — buy a good used car with low mileage from a dealership and negotiate on the margins about whatever you can. In this case, the thing at the margins was the value of the old grey Picasso, which Lewis, who was taking the car as a trade in, looked over briefly with a clipboard. He was polite but he didn't need to be polite — it looks like shit, Lewis, that's the point. It's done everything it can for me, and now it's time to move on. Whatever you say it's worth, whatever number you say and whatever number I say in response, we're both making those numbers up. It's okay, we can pretend, but let's not be too serious about something that doesn't matter. This doesn't really matter.

Having had a successful seven years with a grey Citroen Picasso, my plan was to replace like for like, and I managed to find another grey Picasso. On first look, this Picasso, eight years newer than my old one, was slightly smaller, but Lewis assured me it was the same size. I bought it after a short test drive in which Lewis told me about wanting to go to LA on holiday, and I came back on Wednesday having paid the bank transfer. I drove the new old Picasso home, feeling the way you do when you buy a new used car. Was the aircon broke? No, no, the dial was just different. And then the cruise control? No, it was fine too. I heard a ticking in the engine when it idled but it didn't seem serious — and after all, I got it from the dealer so I could bring it back if I needed.

But then I got home and showed everyone, it was smaller, not much smaller but smaller, with the key difference being the middle seat in the back, which was not a seat as it is in the old Picasso, but just a middle space between two other seats. I looked again online and realised I had made a mistake: there were now two Picassos, one slightly larger than the other and I had bought the smaller one. How had I missed this. How was this going to be okay, with my kids who were growing and when we went camping. Of course, no one was as worked up about this as I was. The kids assured me it was fine, they liked the moonroof. We could get a carrier for the top when we went camping. Why was I being so emotional.

The truth is that this mistake, this rash decision, had come at the wrong time and my rationalising only made other things, other challenges suddenly sharpen. The girls are getting older. Naomi is fourteen this week. When are we ever in the car together, all together. I insisted on it last night, to test the new car, and we drove to Starbucks, but how strange, how rare was it. Everyone played along — people will humour me if I make a point of it, even if they don't want to do it, even if it only matters to me. That's the point, isn't it, you can pretend if you need to, if it gets you what you want in the end. I'm still a true believer, for all my critical self-loathing. I believe in the hustle, don't I — every big, rash decision I've made has worked out by being bloody-minded, by insisting it was right, by ignoring the sunk cost fallacy and pressing on. If I just keep saying it, it will be right. You do it when you run, when you say that your body, the thing your body is saying to you is wrong. What would it have mattered if the person marrying you was an English conversation teacher by night. What did it matter that you really believed or didn't, if you were doing it for the aesthetics. Nothing matters, so kiss me. Kiss me, it's important to me.