22 June 2022

The ideal self

With the hot summer now fully taken over, I have found myself remembering the nights in Malaysia when we had no aircon and the fans spun on high speed through the night. There was a kind of coolness in the morning, that was not really coolness, but a manageable warmth, still humid, but you didn't instantly start to sweat in it. Here, this week, a kind of tipping point comes very early in the morning from the oppressive heat that one struggles to sleep through and this same cool humidity that seems like it should be filled with the call to prayer for Fajr. 

When we first came to Birmingham, in January of 2014, I decided I needed a bike to get back and forth from Newman. I looked on Gumtree, as you do, and found something good, with pannier bags that I thought would suit what I needed and contacted the guy who posted it to meet up. He wanted to meet at the bus stop at the airport, which only seemed problematic when I arrived and he came riding up on the bike from somewhere, from off stage. I looked it over and asked about it, why he was giving it up, and he didn't seem to have a real meaningful story. He asked me what I was doing here, and I said I was teaching, and he said he wished he could do a job like that instead of doing, and he gestured to the bike and said, this. I realised later that this contained a lot, the bike as a metonymy for a whole life of petty crime. I paid him whatever he was asking and took the bike back on the train, the sinking feeling that I'd done something very wrong. 

For more than a year, I walked with the two girls up the hill in Quinton, to Woodhouse Primary. Mei and Naomi would follow behind or ride on the back of the bike and I would then cycle into Newman until I realised it was more trouble than it was worth to pull the bike out of the garden shed that was attached to the house and eventually became our extended toilet, and I started to yo-yo my weight back and forth by just running to Newman with my new backpack. The girls moved on from Woodhouse too and somehow, whatever mistake I felt I had made after my PhD felt like it wasn't a mistake anymore and we were back on track to the British Dream we had in 2011 when we had our first discussions about trying to stay in the UK and not returning to Japan.

I had another bike for many years after that, a cruiser that I also bought in dubious circumstances, although I was sure that the person was legitimate. When I went to get it repaired the first time, the guy working in the University of Birmingham bike repair shop, in a trailer under Staff House looked at me like I was an idiot, of course it was stolen, and when I protested, saying it seemed like it was not the sort of bike you'd see in this country, and he said, maybe not in Birmingham, but definitely in Bristol, and I realised he was probably right and was immediately filled with the same sense of guilt from funding what he described as an international bike theft syndicate. We did manage to break free from the bike thieves when we became more established on Victoria Road and bought a bike for Yoko from a neighbour. And then some months later another neighbour gave us another bike, a baby blue one, that I had forgotten about until a few weeks ago when four of us, four of the Pihlajas of Harborne all got on bikes and we rode into the city centre, me on this baby blue bike from the late-70s which felt light, like riding almost nothing after the many years of the heavy cruiser. 

This bike, I thought, when I first rode it, was probably a women's bike, whatever that means, but it was quite comfortable because you can step through the frame and that's really what I wanted. It also scratched my rebellious itch of challenging gender norms, and allowed me to set up a joke I was enjoying telling: I would say something like, I think it's a women's bike and then when the person I was showing the bike to would say it probably is, I say something like, Yeah, but where would you normally expect the penis to be on a bike, that's the real question. This bait and switch was a clever teaching moment, I thought to myself, glibly, until it occurred to me the joke was probably transphobic and I needed to stop saying it. Before I had this realisation, I was getting to the women's bike part of the set-up as I talked to the new guy at the University of Birmingham Bike trailer, but he stopped me and said, We're not allowed to call them women's bikes anymore like some woke liberal had taken it away from them. He quickly realised that this comment made me uncomfortable and explained the whole distinction was meaningless anyway, you'll notice this faded decal here says 'fleur' which is French for flower and there are flowers all over it and I was then more offended that he felt he needed to explain the meaning of the French word to me. I know what fleur means, I'm not an idiot. I just hadn't seen it. But to be fair, he was right: all over the bike were faded, rusty decals that appeared to have one time been flowers.

The bike is a dream though: five very hard gears, 1978 gears, and a shifter on the bike frame that is not a regulated shifter so you move between them like notes on a violin. It's lighter and more nimble and I can pick up speed quickly, feeling the way you feel on a bike sometimes, totally liberated from the madness of a burning world, of £1.90 petrol. My ideal self, unashamed of riding a bike not marketed to my assigned gender, and willing to aggressively challenge people about it if they are foolish enough to say anything. To ask them directly to identify the genitalia on the bicycle, I'll wait. It's not the real me, the real me is insecure and terrified the older boys from Sunday School will harass me, that they'll follow me into the toilet to mock me. But who says I can't pretend like it is, pretend that there is no limit to what I can do if I claim it for myself, if I do it confidently. 

21 June 2022

Who you say you are and who you are

The Spring seemed to go by quickly this year; I've been sleepwalking through most of the days as they've gotten longer and longer, drugged by my phone and the dread that it brings with news of violence, always violence. I keep waking up in the middle of the night to eat, after having slept for ninety minutes, exhausted and bloated. Some people are suggesting to me that this is normal for a man my age, that I'm just going to bed too late. If that first ninety-minute cycle happened from eight to nine-thirty, and it was in front of the TV, I will have officially become my father. I'm still managing to run every morning, but only on the routes that I can run without thinking, up and down the Woodgate Valley path, seeing the same people day after day, people who I feel like I know now, but have never actually met, people with dogs and older couples and men with tattoos. 

I was running on the canal two Sundays ago and looked up to see a young man coming towards me and looking nervously over his shoulder. I looked down and saw he had drawn a switchblade knife and I didn't have any time to turn around or do anything but keep running, and I imagined in the seconds between when I saw him and we passed what it would feel like if he were to plunge this knife into me, how it would feel. Nothing happened, I ran past him and then past the man he was presumably looking back at and I came home and recounted the story to Yoko, but in a way in Japanese that couldn't capture how I actually felt: There was a man with a knife on the canal. I was running. I ran past him. I was scared. This long string of simple sentences that makes me sound like a child experiencing the world as a child. It reminded me in a way of a time I fell off my bike in Japan when I ran into a barrier at full speed in the fog and fell over the handlebars. I cycled to Yoko's house after I cleaned myself up, cut and bleeding, and in trying to tell her the story, I started crying. I remember a sense of profound frustration in my own inability to convey my feeling about it like I was trapped in a language that wouldn't let me say what I needed to say. At twenty-three, I didn't recognise how important that was for me, how much I needed it, and what a big mistake I would make by ignoring it. 

I'm turning forty next week and want to say something profound about it, but all I can manage is a series of complaints. More people expecting things from you: more maturity, less desire and passion, more goodly old man, and I'm still stuck on all the recriminations I have from when I was twenty-three, like some football player arguing with the referee about a call five matches ago. I ran this last Sunday and an elegant crane, the sort that will see you coming and fly away in what looks like slow motion, was standing in the path, looking at me, and then stuck its head into the grass and pulled out a mouse. The crane flew up and away and about 100 meters later, I saw it again on the other side of the canal, swallowing the mouse whole. That was it. I saw a crane. It ate a mouse. I kept running. 

The dentist says to me yesterday, 'What are you doing after this?' and I say, 'Going to work,' and I pause and then I say, 'unfortunately.' And he says, 'Is it unfortunate?' He's right, of course, the thing he implies is right: it is not unfortunate, it is in fact very fortunate. How ridiculous to feel dread, to feel unsatisfied and want something else. Ezra Klein answering a question about why he chose to have kids when everything is burning asks, When in human history has everything not been burning? When half of the children didn't make it to 13? We are spoiled, I am spoiled, as I get annoyed that people misunderstand my feelings of frustration about whatever small thing that has annoyed me. I'm sorry, you're right, it is fortunate. My teeth are fine, the sun is out. These are all blessings when you are forty. I'll accept that. Help me accept that.