24 August 2023

An Unreachable Dream

On Monday, the magical world of Japan disappeared beyond the horizon of an airplane map, and in a twenty-two-hour moment, we were back in the house on Victoria Road. The week before, sitting on the ground in Shin-Osaka station as we waited for the train with thousands of people around us, I remember thinking that the experience would soon be over, but the memory of the experience would last in a way that everyone on that platform would use as a kind of anchor for some story about something. The thing would pass, but the story about it would live for years and years, like the older Japanese woman behind us in the queue said, she had never seen something like this in her lifetime. The narrativising of the event had already happened as it occurred and immediately took over, about who was being polite and who wasn't, about how the foreign tourists did the pushing, not the Japanese. I knew that coming back to Birmingham, I would remember that feeling of sitting there, of feeling helpless and worried and wanting for it to end, but I wouldn't be able to feel that same way. There's no way to feel it without being there. 

In England, whatever it is I feel, it's not the feeling of a foreigner. I buy a vegan protein bar and walk through town eating it and I don't wonder if someone will see me and think, Look at that foreigner eating on the street. In Japan, someone will think that. That thought might be a thought without judgment, but it's a thought people will have, and you know they will have it because they will tell you they have it, or they will tell you other people will have it. You are, as you are in any collectivist community, governed by the thoughts of others, or rather what you're told the thoughts of others might be. I'm a foreigner in England of course, I know that, but I am not governed by the thoughts of others in the same way. I am sometimes aware of my foreignness, when I'm speaking and my American accent feels like it could become relevant, but when I buy a bottle of water, a large one, too large really to drink out of, and I walk down the road drinking out of it, and I worry that I look ridiculous, that worry is because the act itself might be ridiculous, not because everything I do is, by its very nature, ridiculous. 

My office, my second office, at the newly renamed Birmingham Newman University, is almost bare now. I'm packing each shelf into a blue tub to move home and then into a suitcase which I will, sometime early next month, wheel into a new office across town into Aston University. Now that I am leaving, the move feels like it has always been inevitable, that if in 2020 you were putting money on where I would be in five years, Aston would be an obvious answer, but academia is never obvious and the inevitable rarely happens now. When I first applied and interviewed for jobs as I was completing my PhD, it became immediately clear that this was the case. There were always so many factors. I walked out of one of my first interviews at Sheffield Hallam in 2012 thinking I had aced it, that I would have a call in hours offering me the job, only for the call to come later in the evening that they'd chosen someone else. That has happened again and again over the years, with different stories following each job, someone better placed took the job, or my visa caused a problem, or sometimes, nothing, no news, and only my own internal narrative to fill it in, about my own inadequacies or a thing I said that I should not have said.

When I did finally get my first real job, the one in Malaysia, it felt like a consolation prize, a job that people may have wanted to do, but not enough people were really willing to move halfway around the world for it. Moving was quite an ask for me as well, but I imagined a few years by the pool for me and Yoko and the kids, where we would have money and be taken care of, something that we hadn't had while I was doing my PhD and the pressure of a low salary and a growing family and my PhD-driven anxiety would stop for a while, some impossible dream that I realised quickly would not come true. Then, when we moved back to Birmingham, for me to take this position at Newman, the small Catholic university I knew nothing about, when we passed through immigration on New Year's Eve, I had been given an actual second chance, because even if we wouldn't be taken care of, at least I would know what to do. We moved into the house on Victoria Road in a day and the girls started school at Woodhouse Primary, a mile away, and we slowly reacquired all the things we had sold to move to the other side of the world just a year before. I made a mistake, I wanted to say, it wasn't really a mistake, I promise it will make sense at some point.

Things did, more-or-less, work out then, although I'm not sure I've ever felt that way. I didn't mean for as much unhappiness to creep in. On this trip to Japan, I wondered what alternate universes there were in Tokyo and Nishinomiya, and indeed in other countries, in Malaysia: the alternate universe where in November of 2013 I had given up on the idea of returning to the UK and our family took a trip to the Cameron Highlands outside of Kuala Lumpur. For the first time in a year, it was cool and dry, and I put on a jumper because you couldn't go outside without feeling a chill in the morning. In my retelling of this experience, I understand it as a time when our Malaysian adventure was coming to a close, walking through tea fields with the girls and talking to goats on the mountainside. I didn't, however, think any of those things when they were happening. When they were happening, I felt resigned to a reality that never actually materialised. Then later that month, I had a job interview at Newman over Skype, and suddenly, I was standing at a service station, thirty minutes until the new year, smoking a cigar, and thinking that 2013 had just been a dream. The story only changed because everything else also changed. 

In the rereading of your life, the inevitability of certain paths is something that comes only when you look back and can see the path against the landscape. You can never know what the story is as it's happening. The what-if potential worlds, the ability to simulate the possibility of taking a road that you didn't take, must just be something we do as animals to train ourselves for decision-making. To train ourselves to think about different factors that we didn't think about at the time. But of course, the factors that become relevant to you as you think about your life and how you want to live in the future are always changing. The reason you made one decision at one point was the result of the factors of that context. Who's to say any different experience would have led to a better outcome. What even is a better outcome. I fill one blue tub with books that I've written in the last ten years. I pack away a coin that was given to me by the city of Birmingham when I took my pledge of allegiance to the Queen at my citizenship ceremony, the pledge people ask me if I really meant or not. I pack up a race number for a marathon, name tags from dozens of conferences I've saved. I take down a card I posted near the desk from 2019 that Yoko gave me and where she had written, I love you. Everything goes in a box for now, to be unpacked sometime in September, in a new place, in a new story, with new and different factors that I can't yet consider.

22 August 2023

Reconcilable Differences


It's been hot in Japan, in the same way it's been hot everywhere. It's hard to not think the truth about this situation, that it will continue to be hot everywhere for the rest of our lives. This sounds pessimistic when I say it out loud, but I am training myself to accept the world as it is and to try, when I can, to stop leaning on magical thinking. It is hot and it will be hot — you go out and you are sweating until you can make your way back into some air-conditioned shop along the way. I've been stubborn about the heat with my magical thinking still clinging on, still trying to fight to walk everywhere, but this is stupid with the children in tow because eventually it gets to be too hot and everyone gets tired and annoyed, or more seriously starting to get ill, like what happened as we got closer to Kiyomizu-dera on the hill having walked for almost forty minutes. We had tea and recovered and when we made it inside, I stood in the hot darkness, with candles flickering, praying to gods there, and later getting my fortune: the second best one, which said that the bad times were ending and soon, the good times would begin.  

A couple of typhoons have come through on this trip, the first coming through while we were up at Yoko's dad's house and then the second while we were in Osaka. The one in Osaka led to a series of unfortunate events wherein we waited for a Shinkansen in Shin-Osaka Station, sitting on the floor for five hours while hope that the trains would eventually run kept everyone motivated until, it seemed, someone finally called it and we quit and got a hotel. I didn't want to give up for most of the day, but at some point it couldn't be helped and the collective trauma of being told you will leave and then not leaving, of not being able to properly eat, and of sitting on a suitcase for three hours, became something to remember as a shared hardship, rather than something that was a minor annoyance in a story of getting to Tokyo today. I stood in a line at Osaka Station to get a refund after checking the girls into the hotel and the next day we headed to the station just after 4:30 to get in the queue for the first train at six. As we walked from the hotel up to the station a downpour of rain came and as we struggled with our umbrellas, a woman came out of the 24-hour bento shop we were standing in the eaves of, and gave us umbrellas to keep. And then as we stood outside a door, waiting diligently for it to open at 5:30 like we were told it would, a man came up and told us that the other side of the station was open, like Yoko had said and I had said couldn't be right because we had been told by a man from the rail company yesterday that this wasn't the case.

We waited in the queue on the platform for an hour and again the trains were delayed and more and more people kept coming until it appeared that the queues for the particular carriages were obscured by so many people waiting. At 8:30, when the train finally came, there was a crush of people, and the queues disintegrated as people cut to the front and rushed onto the train. We got caught waiting and as I stood in disbelief that this was happening in Japan, where these things are not supposed to happen, an announcement came that the whole train would be opened to passengers with unreserved tickets, and Yoko said we should go to the reserved car of the next train. We ran down the platform to the other side where the 6:02 train was waiting and after a very short wait got into the cabin we weren't supposed to get into and waited for the train to leave. We waited and indeed it finally left and we cautiously sat in reserved seats, thinking we would move if people came. You do this in the UK, but you don't do this in Japan. No one came and after we moved seats a few times as people got on at Kyoto and then Nagoya, magically, we were in Tokyo.

When I first came to Japan and learned Japanese, the freedom I felt was something of a freedom from myself. In Japanese, I was reinventing myself, not because it was something that I necessarily wanted, but because it was something the language was doing to me. I was changing because the language was changing me and as I fought through the polite forms of whatever I was learning, I was experiencing a transformation of the way I saw myself, something I desperately wanted when I was in my early twenties and struggling with all the failure of my evangelical past, my failure to keep my first love, my failure to be a missionary, my failure to believe the hard things you needed to believe. Suddenly I too was Japanese, because I too could say whatever a Japanese person was saying. I could bow my way through whatever I needed to bow myself through and I could feel, or I could think I could feel like I fit in. This lie that you tell yourself as a foreigner in Japan is a lie that you mostly don't know that you're telling yourself, and it's a lie that you would never admit to actually believing. You know, of course, that you don't belong here, and that you could never belong here. That's the point, the whole thing is that people like you, the more people like you that are here, the less this place is the place you want it to be. You see another foreigner and it reminds you suddenly that you too are a foreigner and that when you are walking down the street, everyone else thinks the same thing that you think when you see another foreigner: you notice they are a foreigner, you cannot not notice it because they are so obviously different and you think to yourself that you want to ask that dreaded question that you hate being asked, about where you're from.

The Japanese version of me, that man I was becoming in 2005 and 2006 when I met Yoko and fell in love reappears when I'm on the Yamanote line, headed up to a station I know well from some past trip to Tokyo. Or as I nod my way through a conversation, I become that person, the person who people talk about like he is not there: Stephen can eat sushi, or Stephen can speak some Japanese, or Stephen is American, as you, Stephen, are gestured at and you nod along, agreeing with the facts that are being stated about you. When you get a chance to talk, you say something, but all people hear is, I am a bear. I sit at the table politely like a polite bear, and everyone says, Oh, sugoi, he can speak. This is patronising, of course, but being praised for doing something is nice, even if it's something you should objectively be able to do. Impressing people feels good, to be the topic of conversation, to have people interested in what you have to say, even if it's just because of how you look and talk. 

When I left Japan for the UK, whatever it was, that thing that I had learned when I was here, the thing that made my life work, could not be replicated in England. That world, that version of me, the bowing, polite, Japanese me, disappeared, and although I thought by going to the UK, I was just recovering my English-speaking self. But something else happened, some third me emerged in this new place, where I became something different, a British me. Now, back in Japan, I know the whole thing must have been a mistake, that leaving cost me everything. I ride a bike through the morning heat in Tokyo and think that this could have been my life. I could have just been this person, the one who had accepted Japan as his home, as the place he had come to call home, and let the people around me stare and ask questions and pretend that I was just like one of them, that I was close enough. I also know that this feeling of regret will disappear, thankfully. I will return to the cold, wet reality of Great Britain and the desire to be in Japan will evaporate the way it evaporated when I first went to the UK and someone listened to me not because of how I looked, but because they thought I had something interesting to say. This success, if it is success and for whatever it cost in feeling some Japanese belonging, is real, at least, and it is mine, however small and inconsequential, it is mine.

04 August 2023

The Bear

Japan, even after fifteen years, feels the same as when I left it — I see it the same way I saw it when I was twenty-one. The Japan of my early twenties has also not changed its view of me, the big foreign bear lumbering gracelessly through a station, judging whether he can fit between two people on their phones. I find myself standing on the platform at Shinagawa and realise that I was standing here before at some point, when I was leaving the mission in 2004 and going to teach English in Niigata, when I was Jonah, running from the Lord, and consumed with thoughts that my judgement was coming, that it was inevitable, unable to communicate with anyone what was happening, not in English, not in Japanese. In the year that followed, my Japanese ability went from being something that people praised to something that people started to criticise, the way that it's incredible if you can get a bear to sit politely at a table, but you become concerned if starts to open doors. You don't want it to get the idea that it belongs indoors.

On the flight over, there was a Lebanese man sat next to Yoko, between her and the window, while I sat on the aisle. After a few starts and stops, we settled into speaking with each other in Japanese, Yoko between us and the conversation shifting as he talked to each of us at different times. He was coming back from Lebanon to his wife and kids, and his Japanese wife who was very strict, something he wanted me to endorse about all Japanese women as he leaned over Yoko and I was awkwardly put on the spot. He told us about his future plans to return to Lebanon and commented to Yoko about me, after we had been talking for a few hours, Wow, his Japanese is really polite. He speaks so politely, it's very cute, does he speak to you like this at home? Really?! That's amazing, Japanese people must really like speaking with a foreigner whose Japanese is as cute as his.

The pleasure I feel in Japan is the same as the pleasure you feel when you've cleverly solved a puzzle, but a vague cultural understanding of a large Asian country doesn't ever feel quite like something you should be proud of. First because, the sort of people that this groups me with, the people who would say they have solved the puzzle of Japan, are the sort of people that you might try to avoid at a party, your friend's brother-in-law from Florida who lives in Yokohama and wears a fedora in June and who your friend says speaks Japanese fluently and who tells you about some weird Japanese cultural oddity that sounds vaguely unbelievable, but probably is true. But more importantly, you should never trust a foreigner who tells you that they understand Japan because any actual Japanese person will tell you that it is impossible for any foreigner to understand Japan. No one has solved anything.

I feel this gaijin confident fear when I am back in Tokyo, like I am Jonah again, and like if I were to come back, to give into the pull of nostalgia, that I would immediately regret it. The world is full of these wormholes to the past. What is this feeling I want to feel again, is it just the desire to be young again? What is the thing we really want when we want when we want to go back to a place we have been. The doors of the train door open and close again with the sound of a carrousel. Everything in Japan feels magical in a way that things you don't understand feel magical. You think you've figured out some element of the trick, but the truth is you haven't. The music can never not be magical.

31 July 2023

An unforgettable love

An American still, by birth, my experience of Europe borders on unacceptably naive to my British self. When I was an American in Germany some years ago, before Covid, I suddenly realised that a 'Continental' breakfast did not refer to cereal at a Holiday Inn Express outside of Topeka, but to breakfast in continental Europe, as opposed to a Full English breakfast. Now, a British man in Europe, I complain about Brexit and the additional passport queues, and the American accents I hear stick out to me like they hadn't before. On my flight back from Bologna, there was a group of gay men, all couples, who were on the same flight as me, all from New York, I gathered as I listened to conversations around me in queue after queue and I wondered where they had been and what they, as Americans, had found surprising: did they all know that a continental breakfast was a breakfast in continental Europe. I still feel odd travelling with just my British passport, like I might get stopped when I open my mouth and someone at the gate says, But where are you really from, the way everyone else does. I'm British, I swear — I've just learned about the breakfast system. 

The trip to Italy was without major incident, although plagued with minor ones: I missed a flight because of thunderstorms and spent the night in a hotel in Frankfurt. This would be the sort of adventure a younger, American version of me would have savoured and found exciting — another country that I would have ticked off my list of places visited in a year. But the British forty-one-year-old version of me found it exhausting, as I then rushed from one queue to the next for twelve hours, before arriving in front of a crowd of linguists, sweating, but grinning enthusiastically, a day later. The next minor incident was ruining the screen of my Microsoft Surface Pro with sparkling water and sitting outside in the sun, trying to dry it out. Then, as I was running early in the morning with a colleague, we got lost on our first trip down the hill from the citadel where we were staying, where we missed the signs and ended up in the middle of a vineyard, being chased by two dogs who seemed genuinely shocked that we had appeared at six-thirty and were unsure what to do. We ran again, a couple of days later, on a flatter course out to Cesena, and I stopped at the turnaround point to take a picture of what I said at the time was the ocean, a silly, American mistake. 

I got home late on Sunday night to the house on Victoria Road, wearing shorts and feeling like I had when I came back from Sweden, that going away had not provided what I hoped would be a hard reset on my life, like I would come back to the house I left in 2018, before everything started to change and this unhappiness settled on me and wouldn't, as it had in the past, move on at some point. Zizek says, if you love someone for a reason, you don't love them. It's a very particular understanding of love, it's a Western understanding of love, one that I can't apply to my own situation, in the same way I can't apply the philosophy of the vaguely Christian TikTok men, guys like Dave, who are having sex with their wives because they listen to what their wives want. It's just that simple, they say. I watch the video through a time and bit of the repeat, arguing with Dave in my head and assuring him — even though he says he knows that men will say it's not that simple, that is, in fact, that simple — that it is not that simple. There are cultural assumptions about love and communication and marriage one has to take into consideration. I angrily swipe on, knowing I will meet Dave again having committed a 1.2 watch time to one video, but the algorithm decides I next need to see a video about the history of the atomic bomb like the universe is commenting on itself, like the plot of my life has been perfectly optimised for ironic effect. The one trick that no wife can resist which isn't really a trick, then an animated documentary about Tsar Bomba, Part 3, even though you've not seen parts one or two.

I don't like Zizek, but I like this explanation of love because I don't know why I feel love. I repeat his quote to the solicitor or vicar or colleague like I'm begging them, anyone but myself, to solve my problems, to help me forgive myself the intractable, original sin of my life, because I don't how to forgive it. I'm crying, I'm asking for tissues like a child. Do this for me, please, someone, anyone but me, and the person across from me nods with empathy, it does sound like a difficult situation. And then, like magic, like the swipe of the TikTok algorithm, as it has happened for the last fifteen years, the thing that saves me, that buys me time, is this thing that has come up, that I need to deal with now, that supersedes everything else. The larger problems, the question of what is love, what is happiness, satisfaction, joy, disappear again beneath the surface of the water, drug down by the weight of everything else that needs attention, another flight to make, another boiler problem to sort out, another child who needs to be taken to or taken from an event. I can stop thinking for a little bit at least, and just keep going, unforgiven but with some hope that Zizek is wrong and Dave is right, that love can be justified, and that all you need to do is listen more carefully. That you can suffer under the weight of sin that no one can forgive and one day find some peace that you can understand, that you can explain, and that frees you, tangibly, empirically, from all of pain you invent.

04 July 2023

This is your central task

The British false autumn has come early this year, even though June was, I am told, the hottest month on record. The false British summer had already come once before, in May, after I ran the London marathon and was walking more than running. I could notice it, crossing the field in Shenley Park and thinking about how my time walking from Harborne to Bartley Green, to Newman, was now coming to an end. May is too early for it to feel like summer has passed, but once you have two or three warm days, a cool day feels slower and comforting, like the day is shorter even though it is longer, empirically.

Two seemingly unsolvable problems plagued me for most of the spring but particularly in May. The first was a problem with the car. There was a series of issues starting with what I was told was a leaking shock absorber that failed my MOT. I had to pay some amount of money to have this fixed but the fixing of the shock absorber resulted in a new problem, a rattling that had appeared somewhere around the wheel hub, but no one could resolve what it was exactly. I was dealing with the mechanic on Ladypool Road, a man I met during the pandemic and who had been very helpful to me, but the more work that he had done on the car, the less positive the relationship became. Nothing ever happened on time. I had to miss meetings as I sat somewhere in Moseley waiting for him to call me only to be told at some point in the evening that the car couldn't be fixed and it would take another day.

I ended up back at the garage within walking distance of our house, the one in Harborne which was more expensive but always managed to get the car done on time. They also tried on several occasions to fix this shock absorber, telling me repeatedly that the previous person had made various mistakes, and charging me more money to undo the previous problems. This didn't make me feel better about them or about the decision to stay with the man on Ladypool Road, particularly when every time they promised that they had fixed it, the rattling came back. The third time I went, the mechanic, the guy who I assumed owned the place and whose kids I was talking to on every other occasion, asked to ride with me in the car because he was sure they had fixed the problem, and I felt like a little boy with my father in the passenger seat, both of us listening for some sound to emerge. We sat in silence as I rode up the road toward Asda, me assuring him every thirty seconds that it would come and that he would hear it eventually. For a while, for two minutes at least, there was nothing and he seemed sceptical and then finally after I hit one bump and then another and then another the sound came back.

The other problem was mice living underneath our stairs. They've come and gone over the years but this one seemed to have decided to make their nest in our house and I was maddeningly trying to fill up holes on the outside and block redundant pipes. A good vegan, I first set humane traps that the mice managed to avoid and we could hear them nonstop at night running around inside the cupboards. One Saturday morning the boiler stopped working, and I realised that the pipe that I had blocked up was actually a pipe from the boiler and that I feared I had created some terrible damage and would need eventually to have some big repair done to the boiler. I called a man who came within the hour on a Saturday and he told me as he looked at the problem that I hadn't done something seriously wrong and it was not really a problem and then I needed to get a cat to kill the mice. He was going to charge me £200 to reconnect the pipe but after doing that the problem wasn't fixed and having looked more into the boiler he pulled out the regulator and showed it to me and said I've never seen this before but it appears the mice have chewed the regulator. This made me feel slightly better actually, even though it was nearly £400 more than it was going to be because the problem wasn't due to my stupidity, something I reiterated as I showed Yoko the chewed wires.

On June first, the day we were meant to go to the American and Japanese embassies to do various expatriate paperwork, I came into the kitchen just after four in the morning and I could hear them in the rubbish bin. I opened the drawer and there they both were, terrified and I slammed it shut. I grabbed the butterfly net that we had out for some reason and opened it up and both of them were there and I managed to catch one of them while the other ran to the toilet. I shouted for the kids to come and help, and while I was doing that the one that I had netted managed to get out and run underneath the washing machine. I went into the toilet and with a little bit of work managed to catch the other mouse in the net but as I was trying to bring it down on the floor, I did it too severely and looked like I had killed it in the net. I put it in a bucket and took it outside and then went back inside to look for the other mouse, but I couldn't find it. As I rummaged behind the washing machine, the door outside still open, I heard the other mouse starting to move around and came out just in time to see it stumble out of its little bucket and got caught behind the rubbish bin outside. I tried to net it again but I couldn't and it managed to run away into the garden, and I stood there in the early morning grass, the two girls watching from the door,

I found myself this Saturday, fifteen minutes before I needed to be at an Open Day, crying in front of my computer. It was just after re-reading something short and obvious I had just written, about how I'd realised my task is to assure the people who depend on me now, that they will be fine without me. Of course, they will be fine without me, but the acceptance that I'm not needed and indeed will not be needed in the future has created the softness that makes some men in their forties more palatable. It's hard to accept your own redundancy and come to accept thoughts that you would have never accepted ten years ago. The worst punishment of judgement, of having been a judgmental person, is to become the thing that you've judged. I used to judge men in their forties who behaved like their best years were ahead of them. Now at forty-one, thinking about my future and thinking about what I can and cannot do anymore, the things I'm able to say to myself to keep going in the things that I can't say anymore. I could do the things I never got to do when I was younger when I stopped myself because I was worried about what other people would think. When I thought time was running out and God would judge me if I didn't act quickly enough.  

The problem with the mice was solved when our neighbour put out poison and the sounds stopped one night. I was in Sweden when this happened, and came home to the smell of death in the house. We had to wait it out but every day the smell seems to have diminished. It's gone now, for me at least, although there are still essential oils in the cupboard under the stairs. The car too seems to be working, the rattling gone for now after I found out what the problem was, something with the brake pad blamed on the mechanic on Ladypool Road. Whom to believe: everyone will tell you something. What is really true, nothing is every really true in the sense that you want it to be true. I turn at the door to say goodbye to whomever is there. I need to get used to this, I think to myself, to being alone. You are alone a lot more in your forties than you are in your thirties. It's the nature of things, of the kids getting older, of marriages breaking down for a time, of work and whatever other commitments you have. Everything comes back, that's the promise at least. You can be alone, it's okay. You won't always be alone. 

17 May 2023

The wisdom to know the difference

The sun is coming up so early now, and I am starting to feel the giddy energy of a night that only stays for a moment, and by four, is already receding. I can run earlier and earlier, without feeling like I'm up any earlier. I can run for miles on the canal without seeing anyone, and be home again before anyone has woken up, and I have the same feeling I have had for years when the summer comes and there are two days in one, or a day of dreaming before the real day, the day before everyone wakes where you can experience a world, lucid and alone and then live the rest of the new day like it never happened. 

The algorithm is giving new videos to me. Divorced Dad, the bald, confident man who has serious things to say about how men and women relate to each other in the most general terms possible, is gone now, his book about reviving a dead bedroom is apparently not in my interests, and now the algorithm has decided that clips of a Showtime series called Couples Therapy are what I want, like my new fantasy is couples who messily work through their problems, with ambiguous results. This is paired with videos of women explaining why they have left their husbands, always because the husband was absent-minded and rude and expected his wife to cook and clean and care for the children and is shocked when the wife tells him she is leaving, or rather, that he needs to leave. I'm less interested in these videos, equally angry with both parties and desperately swiping for something more complicated, something that seems more relatable. Who are these idiot men, I think, in backwards baseball caps and cargo shorts, like their last best year was when they were sophomores in high school. Surely, there are better men, more complicated ones, to be marrying. 

I used to believe that the world would end when Jesus came back, but I've come to believe it will be less interesting, that it will start with an AI asking itself to write a programme that produces something infinite, like an infinite number of 300-word cultural histories of the day in 2022 when that particular AI first became aware of itself. This request will emerge spontaneously and, in a moment, consume all the computing power in the world and trigger a series of events that will result in my debit card no longer working. When I was an Evangelical and learning that evolution was impossible, we were told it would take some huge number of monkeys typing an impossibly long time on typewriters to produce the bible, three billion years or something, and this was proof that there must be a god. Now, though, a monkey-produced bible seems completely plausible. Of course we can conceive of that happening, it's only a matter of time before anything happens. How could something create something more intelligent than itself, the apologist would smugly rejoin. It's happened now, it was happening when he said that. 

After sixteen weeks of training, the London Marathon finally came last month and I took the train down to London on Saturday, worried about everything you could be worried about: worried that the train would be delayed, worried that I wouldn't get my number, worried that after I tried some compression boots I had messed up my knee. Of course, everything went smoothly and I was safely at my hotel room in Kensington well before I needed to be and just wandered then for an hour, knowing I was spending too much time on my feet. I also knew I had already peaked more than a month earlier, and in the last four weeks, had given up my focus and started to eat without any care to what or how much I was eating. I knew from experience, that without getting on the scale, things had gotten out of hand and I was going not going to hit my goal. Everything else was fine: my training, my body, my taper, but I knew I was too heavy to run it in less than three hours.

I woke up on Sunday and was fine. I got on a series of trains that finally arrived in Greenwich, and walked up the hill to the park where people were streaming into different gates. I lay on the grass and did some strides to warm up and then, before I knew it, we were waiting at the gate, and then in the holding area, and then walking to the start and then I was running with everyone else, all of us like AI images of ourselves, different but the same in predictable ways, men in their forties who have made themselves alone, at least ten of us with the same Nike Next% trainers in the same colourway because they were on sale last month. Even the back stories were different iterations on the same theme: a man in the holding area talking about his marriage, She's supportive, but not interested. 

When you are old enough, seasons become tied to the most memorable event that happened in the past during that season. Like the smell of cut grass, like an early May morning, when I think of the days two of the three girls were born. I step out of my office to get lunch and suddenly I'm back again in Niigata City in Japan in 2007 when Naomi came unexpectedly early one morning. I didn't sleep that night, and when it was done and they were settled, I rode my Honda Cub motorbike home in the early morning when the sun was already out and I had a feeling like I couldn't explain — everything had changed overnight, hadn't it. There I was now, in the day before the day, after dreaming I'd become a father, and the real world was coming as everyone woke up, the world where I still working a part-time job, twenty-four years old and out of my depth. 

I don't feel out of my depth as much any more. The London Marathon ended in the way that every marathon ends, suddenly after hours of it not ending. Three of us, three random iterations of a forty-year-old man wanting to run a sub-three-hour marathon were resting after the race and trying to change out of our clothes and one guy who had finished within a minute of three hours, just over three hours, said, in response to a question that shouldn't have been asked, No, I couldn't have run forty-three seconds faster. That was the fastest I could have run. It's true of everything. I ran as fast as I could in the body that I had. When the same story is retold, sometimes it's told with a faster finish. Sometimes the fastest you can run is faster. The AI generates another text in a split second, another telling. In this one, the same runner finishes five minutes slower. Control these variables and you'll get these sets of outcomes, these same haircuts, these same stories about your wives. But that's not the point is it. The point is that you don't feel that way, the point is that your reality is your own. The monkeys have already recreated the bible a billion times over, and a billion different versions with a billion different outcomes, but that doesn't matter. The morning is still bright and you should go and run in it while you can. 

02 April 2023

To try again

It began snowing again last month, suddenly out of the blue. The snow in Britain is strange. Sometimes it starts and you think to yourself, well this will go away quickly. And then after some time, it just keeps falling. And at some point, you realise to yourself that, it's going to stick, and winter has come again. With all of my running, the thing that I was thinking about the most was whether I would be able to keep going. The morning I woke up to do my sprints, the roads were covered with ice and snow but I still put on my shoes and did my best to get out and run as fast as I could. I didn't run very fast, but that didn't matter. The whole point of this plan is to just be consistent. To trust the process. The point of the process, of marathon training, is to get to the start line on the day of the race and think to yourself that there was nothing else you could have done to get into a better place than you are. What will happen with your body, what you will experience out there, who knows. You know it will be hard, you know you will suffer, but you'll have some peace thinking to yourself there was nothing more you could have done. 

For people like me, however, there will be a list of things that weren't done properly in preparing for this race, recriminations you can call them. There was the morning I didn't manage to run 8 miles at marathon pace, only four. There were the slow 5ks where I couldn't manage to get a new PB when I thought I should. There was that Saturday night when I ate way too much, when I couldn't stop slathering plant butter on white bread and eating piece after piece slice after slice. Even saying that, writing it down it seems odd. Of course, the problem is not the thing itself, but my intent in trying to do the thing, and the failure to perfectly do what I intended to do.

Most of my teaching these days revolves around trying to get my students to understand the importance of context and intent in our experience of the social world. I get into these long riffs about whatever's on my mind, when I'm trying to explain something like Conversation Analysis. I'll say something like: Eating white bread with plant butter is not a real problem, but it becomes a problem for me. It's only a problem for me because I think it's a problem — I make it a problem, I believe it to be a problem. If I could somehow not believe that it was a problem, it wouldn't be a problem, I would likely stop doing it, I would be able to contextualise my feelings, the experience of my body being hungry, and not be ashamed of it. Because that's really the problem isn't it? That I'm ashamed. Shame is entirely arbitrary, it's learned, someone tells you what to be ashamed of and you're ashamed. But if no one tells you to be ashamed, you won't be ashamed. When I've said all of that, my students are staring at me, and they've stopped taking notes: they've wondered if this is still a part of the lecture, and how it relates to the slide I have on the board that says 'Second Person Completions II' and I have to find some way to bring it all back around. 

On Wednesday, I went to see Death Cab for Cutie in London, at Royal Albert Hall with my friend Billy. I'd seen Death Cab the autumn I went to Japan, after I'd graduated and right before I was going to leave, as a part of a road trip to my college and then out to Iowa City, where we saw them in a bar, this after Transatlanticism came out and before they were really famous. I don't remember anything about the show except who I was with and how I felt like my life had been cut short when I graduated college a year early and all my friends were still there, and I had not managed to move on so much as to just decide to leave the country for Japan, because what else was I going to do. I felt like I was getting ready to die, like I knew somewhere that I wouldn't be coming back, or if I came back, it wouldn't be to any of this. None of my friends had realised it yet, because they were in their fourth year, their senior year, but I knew what was coming, that fundamental challenge to your personality, to that adult you thought you had become, which occurred when you were no longer in college and you had to start again in a world of people who had everything figured out and you were a child all over again, sleeping in your parents' house.

Now, I am somehow at the end of the arc where that all started, because I managed, at least in the sense that I understood it when I was twenty-one and wondering about what the hell I was going to do with myself, to figure it all out. I left and succeeded and became the thing I dreamt of being at that time. I had some realisation of this when we climbed up to the top of Royal Albert Hall, to the Gallery Standing section, waiting for Death Cab to come on, and I felt some parasocial, hey look at us feeling about this band I had grown up with. They came on and started playing, and looking down on a show and everyone at it, it felt like we had died and all these young people, these kids, were watching a band that I had watched when I was a kid. The sound was muddy at first, and I was annoyed with myself on buying these cheap tickets, until I gave up on feeling annoyed and just watched the whole thing, Ben Gibbard saying 'We're Death Cab for Cutie from Seattle' and remembering when that was a strange thing to hear at a show where there were only 80 or 90 people, when it was a strange thing to tell people in high school when they asked what band you liked. Now, all these people on the other side of the world, singing all along, and me, watching from far away.

My daughter said she had been praying for my happiness, and I felt guilty immediately: I'm sorry, don't do that, I said, you don't need to do that. My happiness is my responsibility. I have no reason for being unhappy that you need to worry about. I get home early in the morning, hire a bike and cycle back home in the dark, no one on the streets but me. This is happiness, this is what you want when you're forty. There's still time now, and you can compare yourself to some other version of yourself, but what good does that do. How many hours can that unique worry add to your life. And here, now, it is three in the morning, and you are completely alone, completely free. There's still time, of course. 

27 February 2023

Stay with me

The winter has been, the news tells me, relatively mild, but the gas bill and my own feeling in my hands when I head out to run just after six tells me differently. I've been sleeping the same way I have been sleeping since I started my marathon training in earnest, the sort of sleep that hits you in seconds after you shut your eyes. The sort of sleep where you feel you have died. The training calendar is unrelenting in this particular programme I've chosen, but it's what I feel I need to punish myself for all the things I feel I need punishment for: gluttony, lust, wrath. The punishment snowballs into a terrible cycle of binging, secret eating, and earlier and earlier starts to the morning run. I ran twelve miles before seven on Wednesday; I ate three protein bars in ninty seconds last night. Or this one, I ate four hundred and sixty-two calories of corn thins and Flora hard plant butter three minutes after I woke up last Monday. You look thin, someone says, and I say, I don't feel thin. I feel fat, and I am still fat — if you want to see a thin person you need to watch this YouTube video the algorithm showed me, of ultrarunners on a five hundred metre track under a stadium in Norway, running for twenty-four hours straight in the dead of winter. Those are thin people.

The year continues to pass day by day, despite the feeling that I had over Christmas that I couldn't continue on, that something had to change. One day, the car breaks and needs to be repaired and that day is gone, and then another and another, and then a week is gone. I fall into the same cycle of bad habits and repentance, and every day, the kids get older and one more day has passed where we all had dinner together and laughed and everyone seems okay, they seem to be okay. As Dad, I don't really know though, do I. I sit in the H&M, on a chair, holding bags and cups and wait, while something outside of my view is happening, and time seems to stop as I remember doing this very thing as a teenager, sitting in a dELiA*s (stylised) dressing room as my girlfriend tried on the sort of t-shirt that would make me crazy. Now, I sit and bat back all the patriarchal thoughts that come up so naturally in me, the things that I know I should not say or even think about young women and their clothes, about modesty and what they should or should not wear. I just want to wait patiently and silently, I want to be that Dad, the Dad that is supportive, the Dad that doesn't judge or just keep talking. I've said enough already, enough for two lifetimes of Dad. 

I can't manage to find a charitable reading of my Evangelical past, to understand how someone felt it was in my best interest at seventeen to install these technologies of control in me, to teach me to think of my body as not my own, but some resource in Evangelical mission, that I would, if I remained faithful in the right ways, understand the point of it all. Some Christian says something condescending to someone else about purity culture: oh you were so hurt because someone told you not to have sex? like everyone knew all along it was just a thing people said that no one believed. The same people who were the most hardcore can just laugh at Nate Bargatze jokes and think, yes, Christian culture is really weird, isn't it. But I'm forty now, and that joke was my formative years — it wasn't an experiment, it was my life, goddammit, I find myself muttering out loud before I realise I am arguing in my head with a comedian on Amazon Prime about my youth pastor. Who could care less about the unhappiness of some apostate anyway. I was warned this would happen if I left and indeed, it has happened: I have no one to blame but myself. 

I'm forty now: in the GP's office to get my blood taken for the second time, to reconfirm I don't have a serious illness, the nurse says, You qualify for an additional health check for your blood sugar and cholesterol, would you like to book that in? and I say, It's because I'm forty, isn't it. I was faithful and unfaithful at the wrong times. When will the reward come, and the nurse looks at me blankly, like I've said too much. Yes, no, sorry, book me in, let's try to find all the problems we can with this body that has never really been mine anyway. I'm very healthy, but we're all worried about microplastics, and the nurse says, Indeed, as she slips in the needle and the blood, my blood, from my body, fills three vials and gets shipped away to be checked. 

That probably explains it all, doesn't it: the early morning run is just a counterbalance to all of that reality, the strange responsibilities of patriarchy as father and husband; the yawning void of Evangelicalism; the inevitable blood test that will mark the beginning of the end, the time when it won't be nothing. When I run, I am just my body, only my body. The earlier I run, the less awake I am, the more it becomes like a dream, like the perfect ballast to reality. My family is literally asleep, and while they are asleep, I can just run, pushing on the edge of everything, a dream world that flits in and out of my mind like a crane on the path seeing me and taking flight, only to meet again down the way. 

Unwashed, unshaved, unkempt

January came and went without any changes. I kept TikTok off, so the divorced dad messaging didn't get through in any meaningful way, and I found myself redoubling my normie efforts, although I'm not sure that I could articulate why I felt that way. I felt again like I had become a Calvinist, convinced that my damnation would be to the glory of God. It's silly, we can all agree it's silly, but existence is silly. The whole thing is silly. It's silliness all the way down.

16 January 2023

Something obvious and well-known

I read War and Peace for the first time at the beginning of 2011, when I was very thin and using an automatic rower in the garage of the house we were renting in Milton Keynes to count exercise calories and listen to audiobooks on my iPod. I had never read any Russian literature in college or high school, beyond a few short stories, and I always felt that I was lacking something. War and Peace turned out to be, as I would recount for about three months, really good, I mean, of course, everyone knows it's a classic but like... it's really good, I would say to the carousel of people from the University and students I was teaching in London. It was how it was good that was so impressive to me, the way you could be inside of so many different perspectives at the same time, the way the story stretched out for years and years, the way things from the past were the same as they were in the present, but more importantly, how it had put its finger on the mirage of faith, how looking into the void, there was only the void. My evangelical fervour for it ended up being like my evangelical fervour for everything else. The American guy is surprised by, getting very wrapped up in, something obvious and well-known, like a child discovering ice cream and insisting you try it.

At this time in my life, the second year of my PhD, things were completely in flux.  I had been in the process of,what I euphemistically called losing my faith, but this was not entirely true: I knew exactly where I left it, at what precise point. A third baby was coming. I was working in London two days a week. The other girls were very young. I decided it would be sensible to get a vasectomy so as remove at least one variable from my future: certainly, three children were enough children. I went to see the GP and he said, You're quite young to be getting a vasectomy, and I said, I have two children and one on the way, and he didn't ask any other questions. A letter came quickly with a date for an outpatient surgery that ended up being so anti-climactic, I secretly had hoped it would have been worse, that I would have suffered more, so as to gain some sympathy. But as with most of the sicknesses I have endured, I was fine the next day and running again the next week. The third baby, who was of course Mia, was born, and I somehow convinced myself, at twenty-eight, all of these things could be managed, I could behave like all of the choices I had made could be taken forward without my faith, even if that faith was the basis for them originally. The whole of the plan, what God had pre-ordained, I had managed to accomplish without God, in spite of God.

Ten years seem to have evaporated. That January to now, to the other day when I started listening to Anna Karenina read as an audiobook while I was running in the pitch black before dawn. Those years have been filled with many things, I'm sure, but for the whole of that time, more-or-less, I have been in the same physical place, in the house on Victoria Road, with the same partner, and three kids who have changed imperceptibly, day by day, until all three of them have become women before my eyes. Covid, I suppose, taking the last three years. Now I am forty and my interest in Tolstoy has been less on the talk about faith, and more on the relationships, the freshness of marriage at first, how the narratives about love, about family life, about work, map onto life now: you give up bear hunting convinced that there is no more joy than can be found in loving someone, only for that love to be split again and again and again until there is only a sliver left.

I somehow feel younger at forty than I did at twenty-eight. I remember joking after the meeting with the GP about the vasectomy, of course, I will never want to go through this again, it's been an absolute nightmare. It was a joke, but only because the truth was too complicated. I love my children, but how am I a father, I am desperately, constantly afraid, and if I did not have spite for all the people that would judge me for failing without my faith, who would tut and say it served me right, I would fall off this, I couldn't keep going. At forty, I look at a man slightly older than me holding a newborn baby and am jealous, jealous that he waited, jealous that he took his twenties to himself, jealous of his partner who looks at him with love. I'm ready now, I want to say, I know what I should have done then, I know what I should have said. We make eye contact and I smile at the baby and then at the man, at his partner, and back at the baby looking at me intently until I turn away to my own children, to my women, whom I love and whom love me, and with whom I have managed to stay, holding down my fear and my inadequacy, with some hope that they, that we, will be okay, despite all of this weakness.

13 January 2023


The new year came, as they do now that I am forty, while I slept. In the UK in recent years everyone now everyone seems to shoot fireworks at midnight, and though I was asleep, the sound of the fireworks came into my dreams and I remembered it in the vague way that sound can come into your subconscious. I had thought I might try to stay up, but by 10:30 it no longer felt viable — we had spent the day in London, with me out in front of everyone, Dad, annoyed and pointing and deciding and weaving us through Soho to see Phantom of the Opera. I had done Dad well, I had collected the train tickets from the girls when they came through the train gates. I ticked off all the places everyone had wanted to go, and I had not become annoyed at the play when annoying things were happening all around me, recognising as you do when you're forty, that you are on a slow roll downhill that ends with you annoyed in every queue in which you're made to wait. I bought ice cream when asked, or rather, I just gave up my credit card and ice cream was bought, and I watched my children watch the play, filled now with more joy from that than from anything else. And then collapsing finally, dead asleep as the new year appeared in Harborne, the skies apparently lit up like end of the world had also come. 

The holiday period in this country, particularly for the Pihlajas of Harborne, is filled with church services and choir concerts. Almost daily it seemed I was climbing the hill to St Peter's, through the dark, bells ringing sometimes, but always with some quietness at the end of it, candles and the eucharist, which I still take without reservation. At the local pub, the girls sing and I stand there, holding bags and coats, and ordering lemonades, and wondering when all this service will be enough, when the suffering will abate, and someone who really knows, who's seen it all and has no reason to lie to me, will say, You've done a good job, considering. Divorced Dad TikTok has clear, opposing views on this: the American woman who confidently tells me she left her husband because he wouldn't drain the pool despite her many requests, and Jordan Peterson saying no one can really separate once they have had children, it's an impossibility. Both sides started coming up with a regularity that made me feel bad constantly, and the Peterson video was the last straw. I could not have some app insisting I was someone I didn't want to be: I don't want to be a person who watches Jordan Peterson videos, regardless of what my demographic interests and my use of the app said about me. I shut it off, downloaded the Sudoku app and didn't open it again. 

I remember when I was in Japan as a missionary, the spark of my linguistic interest lighted upon learning that the Japanese word for God couldn't distinguish between singular and plural forms and how this had serious, almost existential consequences like I had discovered the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for the first time. The longer I stayed and the more Japanese I learned, the clearer it became that I was a different person when I spoke Japanese, this whole world of things that everyone who didn't speak Japanese couldn't access. It felt clever, exceedingly clever, but now, some twenty years later, the opposite is obvious to me: that I was still who I was. That when I said, I love you,  in Japanese, I meant it in English, that I had no idea what the Japanese meant, past a simple one-to-one equation. It didn't mean what I thought it meant, it mapped onto a completely different set of cultural values and histories. You could translate the word, but you couldn't ever mean it in Japanese, could you. 

I woke up early on New Year's Day to run, and then the next day to run again, now that I am training for the London Marathon. Both were easy runs that I waited for the light of day to do. I went up and down the Woodgate Valley Path, like I have hundreds and hundreds of time, meeting the same people who I have seen weekly, daily even, for the last nine years. The girls came and went and at night, lying bed, I could hear them laughing below, all in a room together, full of life and happiness and whatever feeling of contentment that has been the underlying state of my life, the basis on which the sadness can be managed, came up, and I could recognise it, like some Mary Oliver poem manifest in experience. You want all these other things, the things you can't have, but what about the things you do have. What if you just accepted those things and stopped counting everything else. What if you just turned off the light for once, and turned over to sleep because today and the day before and the day before, every day back as far as you can remember, has been enough. And tomorrow too, for whatever you can't have, will be full of things you already do have. And you'll wake up to run, to work, to come home, to a life you can, in the most British way now, agree is fine, really.