25 November 2021

Slowly at first, if you can

In the video call with Mia's teacher last week, there was an impromptu reflection on the era of the Pihlaja Girls at the local primary school. All three of them had gone through this teacher's classroom, over how many years now, has it been seven years, it has, hasn't it. Yes, it has, and they have all been wonderful, models in the school, the sorts of girls that bring joy to the lives of everyone they meet. I thanked her and then we went on to have the sort of conversation I've never known how to have, given my lack of experience both in primary school as a pupil myself (I was homeschooled) and as an immigrant (how much of any of this is just British norms). The girls have always done well and the kinds of things they need to improve on seem small and insignificant and the meeting ends with me thinking, there are now only two more Parent-Teacher meetings I will have at the primary school. 

I think about this one thing often these days: how there was a last time my youngest daughter rode in the pushchair, the stroller. This passed without being noticed, of course. The day would have come and gone and then the pushchair would have sat unused someplace in the front room for a time before we eventually got rid of it. I do vaguely remember donating one to a charity shop on the high street, thinking what I often thought about pushchairs, that they take proper abuse and though when I was a young, the young father that I was, I tried to save money on them, I quickly realised this was a mistake. Something would break and there you would be, stuck with a child or two or three that needed to be transported. I'm sure that the best one we had — a Mama and Papa's one that must have been over £300 new — was given to us, or we had bought at some discount in a car boot sale or from a friend. 

We took that one to Malaysia, and I remember the first day, we left the hotel for a walk, thinking we could push it on the street, but it became quickly clear this wouldn't work. The pavements weren't level or there were stones missing. We walked over a ditch where there was water flowing and I remember Naomi saying, there's rubbish in the water, and indeed there was. That pushchair was then relegated to the back of the car, to be pushed in malls, the Sunvalley Mall, when we went on Saturday or Sunday and drank Starbucks coffee for 15 ringgit and then had lunch for about the same price in the employee food court that we found by accident one day, looking for the toilet. Mia would sleep in it, and the other girls would tag along, and we would go to Toys R Us or the expensive supermarket where I would pretend to be the sort of white person everyone thought I was, with the expensive British pushchair and fat shorts I bought because I was gaining weight. 

My own parents take some measure of pride, I've sensed, in how they raised their children, but I have not managed that same pride, not even in secret, not even when some external validation comes. Mia's teacher praises our family and I immediately am embarrassed — Yoko, certainly, but not me, this has all been in spite of me. I want to start telling stories of my own selfishness, the times I've been short with them, or shouted, or how they can tell immediately when I'm displeased, or the ways my own terrible habits have turned up unexpectantly in them, how we've barely held on at times, how they've been very sick and I've thought they were not, how I caught Covid from Mia only because I didn't actually believe she had it. The list is endless — how can you even begin to count the good against the bad, the accidental wise decisions against premeditated ones that were terrible mistakes. 

People tell you to cherish the time when your children are young, and you certainly should if you can. But cherish is a word that you use when you're forty when you can even begin to think back about pushchairs with some sense of nostalgia. It's hard to cherish in your twenties because you're just pretending. Everything is pretend, it can be undone as easily as it's done. But you can't, of course, say you're pretending when you're a young parent. You can say it after the fact, but not while you're doing it. You have no momentum. You're like a pack mule weighed down and pushing up a mountain. You can never stop, you can't risk any loss of movement forward. Someone tells you to cherish this moment instead of whatever it is you're doing, sweating or being annoyed, and you try to smile and agree. 

Now a decade has passed and I can sense myself wanting to say the same thing to people, to the woman with the baby on the train when I was coming back from France and feeling unsettled, the baby with the full head of hair who was smiling at me. I wanted to go over to her and say that thing I hated being told, to appear to her like some middle-aged ghost and tell her to cherish this moment, it's gone now, it's always going away. I didn't say it, thankfully, for this one time at least, I could control myself perhaps because I too am still in the middle of the cherishable time. I still have time, I still have moments that I should cherish. And I know better now, after years of missing them, that the moments you cherish, you don't recognise when they're happening and that's okay. It's okay, because given some space, or a different context, or a decade, you realise that you did cherish the moment, you were there. All of you was there, despite everything else. 

16 November 2021

What you deserve


When I started my PhD at the Open University in 2008, England was a novelty. Our lives, Yoko and mine, had completely changed in the course of two years. We had both been two single people accidentally living in Northwest Japan, and then we were having children and living here, before here felt like a place you live rather than visit. Those first three years, we travelled when we could, going to the States and to Europe, to see as much as we could, because I was sure this would end at some point and I would end up back in Nagoya, in a better position than I had left, sure, but teaching English and making my family's gaijin-hafu life in Japan. We went to Paris the first year, after Mei was born and when she was still very small. We took the Eurostar and arrived at Gare du Nord like it was a magic trick. I remember it raining and raining, but then suddenly it was clear, and the final night, we walked through the Latin Quarter, with the double pushchair, the two girls sleeping and it felt like whatever sacrifices we had made to come here were worth it. We were in Paris.

I was in Paris again last week and the moment I realised my passport was missing, I was only several hundred feet from where I had been with the double pushchair eleven years ago. I realised this when I hung up the phone with Yoko after having been in the Parisian police station and I didn't have any sense of what I should do, which way I should walk, ten o'clock on a Wednesday evening in November. I should walk north, I thought at first, towards the big train stations and the hostels there. I could find a bunk bed for twenty euros, somewhere to stay for just the night before I could go to all the places I had been during the day to look for my passport. The museum was the most likely place I had lost it, where it must have fallen out of my pocket when I used the toilet or sat down to take a phone call from the girls' school saying one of them had been sick. It must have been then.  

This was the only thought I could have, that it had fallen out of my pocket when I wasn't paying attention, even though it hadn't for the previous day when I had been getting up and down on the bus. When I had slept on the bench on the ferry. It had not fallen out of my pocket. When I noticed it was gone, Landis and I ran back to two places we had last been and looked for it, but of course it wasn't there or then because of course it had been pickpocketed after I showed it to Landis when we crossed over the Seine and I was so engrossed in whatever it was that we were talking about that I don't even remember those thirty minutes of my life. I would have been the easiest target, but that thought did not even occur to me. It didn't even cross my mind.

The week before, I had been running hills early in the morning on Harborne Park Road and there was some commotion across the street, a car alarm going off, and a car pulling dangerously into traffic and then stopping suddenly. When I came back down on a return, the car door was open and there were cars stopped behind it. On the next return, it was clear then that the car had been abandoned, and there was a man standing out in front of the car, and a bus behind, stuck, with more and more cars stuck behind it. I got home, and it finally occurred to me that the alarm had been real, that someone had been stealing the car. I hadn't seen anything useful, nothing to report, but it had been an attempted robbery, hadn't it, but my mind had not been able to process it, until well after the fact.

I told people for a day that I had lost my passport, because I was sure it had been lost, that I had been careless in some way and this was the punishment for my attempt to get away for a day and leave my job and family for some frivolous, selfish time with a friend. It was now costing more and more with each hour that passed and I had completely failed at my plan. When I was alone and didn't know what I would do, I didn't feel fear or anger, but shame and guilt. This was, of course, what I deserved.

In 2021, a stolen passport is not nearly the worst thing that can happen to you in Paris. I applied for my emergency documents after I went back to the Rodin museum to confirm it wasn't there and a kind woman helped me find a good place to take a picture against a wall. I booked a hotel and was upgraded to the garret. They called me from the UK to check why the name of my place of birth didn't match my city of birth, and the next morning, like a dream, I entered the British Consulate in Paris as a British citizen. In 2021, you can book plane tickets on your phone for a flight back to London in six hours for £70 and be back in your bed that night like you had just spent the day at work. I remember thinking this same thing on the Eurostar, coming back from Paris with the kids in 2009, as we came into St Pancras — how close everything is. In 36 hours, it's almost as though nothing had happened at all.

I paid all the money I needed to and was back at work on Saturday afternoon, working the English Subject Area table at our university Open Day like I had been planning. I had only been away from the house on Victoria Road for an extra night. Everyone asked me for a week what had happened, and I told the story in an increasingly efficient way, hitting only the high points, and downplaying any chance that I had lost it, that it had been my fault. Of course, it wasn't my fault. The whole thing was expensive, but money stolen is, for some reason, easier to stomach than money lost. It did feel better, slightly better, slightly more forgivable. I've been told you can forgive yourself for anything if you can just let yourself. I've been told that there are some bad things that happen to you that aren't actually your fault. I'd like to believe that, but my phantom faith begs to differ. When you're a sinner, everything is your fault and no one will just forgive you, not even God. Of course, I say I don't believe this anymore: You can say you've stopped believing, anyone can say they stopped believing. The real trick is meaning it. 

14 November 2021

As you're told

For a year in college, I stipulated that you could ask me to do a dance, at any time, and I would do that dance

After my disappointing race finish in Chester, I immediately signed up for another marathon, this one outside of Manchester in December. The quick turnaround replaced the sense of failure with a sense of possibility, but it's meant getting up earlier and earlier every weekend to make all the commitments of the training schedule. Running coaches will tell you that it's normal to miss runs, that there is no one that can do a training schedule perfectly, but that sounds defeatist to a person like me who was raised religiously and learned somewhere along the way that if you don't perfectly complete something, then you've failed. I'm sure this isn't a healthy approach to running, or indeed, anything else in life, but it has motivated me to get up and out of the house much earlier than I would otherwise, and get through that first half-mile of a twenty-two-mile run, starting several hours before anyone else in the house will wake up and into the dark that won't become light until you've forgotten that you are running in the dark.

This obedience to the plan, to doing what I'm told, is who I am. Next year I will be forty and there is something that happens at this point in your life, where you give up on the dream of becoming a real rebel, someone who genuinely fights the system, and accept what you've actually become: someone who just tweets snarky things and is full of self-pity. For all my aspirations to true rebellion, it's always been the same for me, a mixed desire to both follow the rules and rebel, to be able to get away from whatever was expected of me, but in a way that did not bring the crushing guilt of having sinned and needing repentance. In jr high school, this meant taking on all sorts of eccentricities often related to gender norms, wearing Hawaiian shirts exclusively, then cross-stitching, then listening to classical music. These were all acceptable hobbies in the confines of my homeschooled, conservative world, but also slightly weird. Still, no one in the late nineties either in the church or in my family could put their finger on what the problem was: what could you say about the Hawaiian shirts that wouldn't require saying something you didn't want to say. I wore a pink Beloit Girls Softball shirt that said COACH on the back. It's okay, I would say, pointing to the back, I'm the COACH

For someone so good at following the rules, I was also a master of finding the weak point in a conservative obedience ideology, doing a thing that, if someone in authority were to confront that thing, they would have to say something that would expose how weak their logic was. I remember my mother once accidentally opening the door of my room as my friend and I were shouting along to some Christian hardcore music which objectively sounded angry and demonic, but had a clear and consistent Christian message. 'You're shouting, "When I die,"' my mother said, 'It's disconcerting.' I'm shouting, 'When I die/ I live' was my retort, which was an unimpeachable theological position. You couldn't argue with it.

Around this same time, I was also a student leader in my church youth group, a position that was well-suited for my obedience and eccentricities, in that I could both generate excitement and toe the line. You could sense the discomfort with some of the adult leaders at times, always on the edge of saying something but never being able to quite articulate it. I'm sure everyone knew I was baiting them, particularly those that worked with teenagers regularly — I was taunting them to draw a line they couldn't defend and then I could point out their hypocrisy because they had clearly not thought about what they were saying and I had. It was my whole aesthetic, I had a complete worldview wrapped around it, and I knew, in the end, it would come down to someone saying to me, You have to do it just because I say so and once that happened, once I could get someone in that situation, I would have won. I would have proved the point. 

One weekend during my senior year of high school, the youth group had planned to go bowling, and I, as one of the more responsible leaders, was chosen to drive a group of younger students from church to the bowling alley. On the way, we got in our heads that it would be funny to put someone in the trunk of the car, and so at the next stoplight, I shut the car off, opened the trunk, and Amos jumped in, and we drove off. We arrived at the bowling alley, and Amos popped out, and we all had a good laugh, with the exception of one of the adult parents who had been driving behind, and who pulled me aside to let me have it for being so irresponsible, for doing something so dangerous and stupid, particularly after the trust had been placed in me.

I spent the week feeling terrible about it, completely devastated that I had let Mrs Bergin down, that I'd done something so clearly over the line, not thinking about the worst outcomes, if we had been rear-ended, or in another accident. I wrote her a letter that I gave her in church the next week, explaining why I'd done what I'd done, and apologising profusely, begging for her forgiveness, all I wanted was her trust back. When I graduated, she gave me the letter back, and that was that — she died some years later, well before she should have, and I felt for many years that letting her down had been one of my biggest failures, that all I wanted was for her to have said I'd made the amends I needed to, that she had completely forgiven me, and I hadn't let her down. 

Now, I'm almost forty. I should be over this teenage rebellion, seeing as I have teenagers of my own. One daughter had a climate event this week, related to the COP26 summit, and was encouraged to wear natural colours, and I said, there is no such thing as an unnatural colour, wear anything you like. She pushed back, they were meant to wear greens and browns, something natural. Every colour is natural, it's a meaningless thing to ask, I said, and I was eventually excluded from the conversation because I wasn't helping. But I'm right, I said, after it was done and I insisted on showing them a picture of a rainbow and demanding they tell me the rainbow wasn't natural — I know what they mean, I'm not an idiot, wear something brown or green or whatever. But I'm right.