I have been having this nagging feeling in the back of my mind every day that I am not doing enough. I am not accomplishing enough, I am not writing enough, I am not reading enough, I am not active enough, I am not social enough, I am not paying close enough attention to Daniel or Popeye, and my life is not epic enough for my liking. It hits between 4-5 p.m., this feeling, and then I spend the rest of the evening with it. And I question again why I write these things down, and then immediately, I remember: this is a record for the kids of what life was like for me, for us as a family, and so that they know who I am and what I did and what they were like.
But life is getting away from me – it is September, and I am writing about July. I need to do August, too. Two kids, and everything falls apart.
July started with a conversation with Sunny. Among other things, I mentioned that I recently started noticing that there are some non-obvious (to me, until now) differences between the way women and men dress. Women’s clothing is much more interesting. Men’s fashion seems to be limited to a handful of brands, which are differentiated almost exclusively by having different logos, and the difference between men’s fashion in the UK and the US is that the brands are different. Brands attempt to stand for different values; there are sports brands, “athletic” brands, brands that are associated with the outdoors, leisure brands, etc., and men seem to choose clothing based on the image they wish to project to other people.
The problem, as an immigrant, is that…none of this stuff makes sense. What story does Jack Wills tell? The White Company? Crew Clothing Company? Superdry? (Does Superdry strike anyone else as more than a little racist?) None of these brand stories make any sense to me, but I think it is because I don’t have any deep-seated brand identification from when I was little; they haven’t been telling me what they stand like in the same way that Reebok and Nike and Vans have been doing for decades.
The core difference between these brands comes down to the stories they tell – the stories brands tell to consumers, the stories the consumers attempt to tell to others, and the stories the consumers tell themselves. Wearing Patagonia or North Face is like driving an SUV: there is virtually no chance that either the clothing or the vehicle will be used for any rugged outdoor activity, but the person wearing a Patagonia rain jacket or the Ford Explorer wants others to think of them as outdoorsy types, and they want to think of themselves that way. The reason British fashion is so meaningless is that I don’t know the intended story or image. Consumers tell themselves the story through their choice to buy certain brands and items, and the success of that message comes with brand awareness.
And so part of adjusting to a new culture, a new country, is determining what the stories are that are being told between the people, the stories the people value, and then knowing what story you want to both tell yourself and tell others. It may be that the story one tells is the same as the story told in the home country – a lot of Americans come over here and wear college sports hoodies from home, as if people here would know the significance of the University of Oklahoma Football Team, or know of the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio. At the same time, people here buy Ohio State shirts without knowing anything whatsoever about Ohio State – for some reason, American university clothes tell the right story for them, even if they don’t know what that story is.
And it strikes me that a consumer can change their life simply by changing the stories that they tell themselves, and that they can change the stories they tell themselves by doing something as simple as changing their consumption habits, the uniform they wear, the way they present themselves to the world.
So. I am resolved to pay more attention to these stories, because I suspect that they affect everything in our world; and I will learn more about what is intended by the clothing people here wear, because I have lived in this country for seven years, and it is probably time for me to know what stories I see every day.
Then we went on vacation to Wales. It was the second time in two years we have vacationed in The Mumbles, and we have already made plans to go again next year, and the year after that. We found some amazing AirBNB hosts, and I hope that they will watch Daniel and Nick grow every summer. On the second day, I decided to come up with some vacation traditions – things that the kids will just start associating with us being on holiday:
- I will start the first full day of vacation by getting a haircut at the old man barber in town.
- I will shave every few days.
- I will shower as often as I shave.
- Instead of showering, though, I will swim every day in the ocean – preferably in the morning, first thing, whether the tide is high or low.
- I won’t bring anything to read on vacation. Instead, at the beginning of each trip, we will get books at a thrift store, both for the kids and for ourselves. It could be trash; it could be a book that changes my life. Regardless, I will leave it to the vagaries of chance.
- To the greatest extent possible, everything we consume should be local – beer, cider, butter, meat, vegetables, all, preferably, from local producers, or Wooldacots Family Butcher. (I went into Wooldacots on the last day of the trip, with Daniel, and the owner came out to talk; he asked if we were “a’right,” and I said “No, I am furious.” He got a bit wary, and I said, “This is the very last day of our trip, and it is only now that we are stepping foot inside your shop, and I am furious, sir, that we did not come earlier.”)
- At the beginning of the trip, we will find a baker and a coffee shop, and go there daily.
- I will wash my boat shoes in the water, just like French Ben taught me to do.
- We will barbecue. A lot.
One night when we were barbecuing, actually, we started talking about how it would be in ten or twelve years – Daniel and Nick meeting kids on the beach and then suggesting that their families come over for dinner. We would have drinks and food ready, and cook on the long, green lawn, and the family friends would grow more abundant every year – we would start to coordinate our trips with the kids’ new friends, and that would mean that the kids would all have play friends to look forward to seeing. I had a vision of the boys picking up girls, or other boys, when they are older, and bringing them around, and joked with Alice that I would have fun with it – telling the potential romantic partners about how when Daniel and Nick were little, they used to have explosive shits in their nappies, and how Daniel vomited all over a table once in a restaurant in Stirling, and all the embarrassing stories I could remember.
But in reality, I will be polite to the potential partners, but make it very clear that I am checking them out to see if they are good enough for my sons. I will ensure that during the pre-dinner drinks, Daniel and Nick will be responsible for popping the tops off of beer bottles using bottle openers they have in their pockets, and I will slip one of them my Zippo beforehand, then overtly ask to borrow it when it is time to light the tiki torches or the barbecue, so that the other kids know that my kids are trusted with the gift of fire. In fact, I won’t ask to borrow the lighter – I will ask them to actually do the lighting, so Daniel, for example, will be able to casually pull the lighter out of his pocket and flick it open and turn the wheel. I will call them from across the lawn – can they mix an Old Fashioned for Mrs. Gibbons, and a Whiskey Sour for Mr. Jones? Nick will be in charge of marinating the meat, and in fact we will call him the Meat Master, and everyone will praise his secret chicken marinade, even if it just comes from a jar. They will both be responsible for entertaining the little children with magic tricks, and refereeing games, and making sure the elderly get to their cars safely, and in between all this, they will find time to flirt, and the demands placed on their shoulders will make their attention seem all the more valuable and powerful and important. They will be blessed with responsibility and massive amounts of social proof.
I am going to be the greatest father-wing in history.
It tied in with a book that I read over vacation, the only book I read in July, The Status Game. If there has been a book that has reflected my thinking over the last year more concisely and eloquently, I have no idea what it could be. In short: everything we do is related to status, and as humans we are consumed by it, but we only rarely consciously acknowledge the role that status plays in our lives. We should think about it, though – it can make us happy or sad, can change the entire trajectory of lives, for good or ill. Even the act of recognising that can be a game-changer.
Mid-way through vacation, I went on my own for a swim. I left the back door of the rental, walked down through the back yard, then cut right through the hedges to the path and out through the black iron gate. I dodged through the blackberry bushes, and past the wild roses and down the steep stone steps to what Daniel called the “Rumbly Rocks.” As soon as I got to the sand, I took off my flip flops, then walked down to the water and left my towel and shirt on one of the giant stones. I thought about how the US forces used this beach to practice their landing on D-Day as I waded into the water, brisk and cold, and stood, waiting to dive in. Every swim, I waited, for some reason, for minutes on end, willing myself into the water; I was always ecstatic when I finally plunged under a wave and started swimming, and never had any problems with the cold after I got in, but it always took so much effort to overcome that initial resistance. I did a breast stroke to warm up, then switch to a front crawl after I had passed the crowds of paddlers and entered deeper water; on this day in particular, the sunlight was slicing deep into the water and playing on the sand, and it made me think of The Sun Also Rises, when Jake swims to the little diving raft. Hemingway is dangerous to read; it always makes me go on a two-month bender where I drink beer or wine or whisky or cider every day, then fall into a fitful sleep every night, and I was drinking every day over the holidays, local cider or beer, often delicious, but never fulfilling. They make cider at the heritage center; we got two bottles, and they were both still fermenting in the fridge. I thought of Nicole Diver, then, on the Riviera, and how she could roam through the world knowing that she had wealth in her investments, in stocks, and how that meant that people around the world were working every minute to make her money. And isn’t that the same for me, with my pension funds invested in diversified ETFs? Why can’t I remember that I am just in as privileged a position as Nicole – wouldn’t that make me feel wealthy? I could meet a clerk at WalMart, or a partner at Goldman Sachs, and shake their hand, and thank them for working so hard to benefit me – the owner of their time. Shouldn’t that make me confident and secure? I made it a rule, a while back: if I was interviewing with a company that was publicly listed, I would buy shares in it before the interview so that I knew the interviewer was my employee. That was a good policy; I was never daunted.
Occasionally, I would switch back to breast stroke to make sure that I didn’t hit anyone, or to swerve around people floating in the water. When I switched back to a crawl, the sun would strike my eyes with every breath I took to the right, and sunspots would dance in my vision; they would bob through the green water all the way down to the tan sand. I realized that the tide was coming in; suddenly, the waves got stronger, higher, breaking over me when I was trying to breathe. Did a tide coming in mean larger waves, and a tide going out mean smaller ones? That would make sense. Did surfers know that? They must. Did Matt know that? He must. Why didn’t he tell me? I should pay attention to the status symbols he respected; that would tell me a lot about him, and about what was cool in California.
I turned at the end of the bay and started to swim back, and the swim was a symbol, had meaning. I had torn my rotator cuff earlier in the year, and had gone through months of rehab with a physiotherapist; at the beginning of our first session, I told him that I only wanted to swim again, to be able to cut through the water, and here I was. I was back.
That was a good thing to do in July.
And then, later in the month, I made a list of things that make me feel like a wealthy man:
- I got a 34-page handwritten letter from Bianca. I think this would have been a luxury in any age, but particularly in 2022, it felt like receiving several million dollars in the mail.
- The week that we got back, I went for coffee with my friend and workmate, William, at a Neapolitan cafe around the corner. We got our drinks, and were going to pay, when the credit card machine went down. Antonio, the owner, was frustrated in Italian and then just said, “Is okay, you just pay when you come back.” I looked at him, and thought: Yes. When the owner of my favorite cafe knows I will come back to pay him, and trusts me, I have made it in the community.
- And then I got word: my application for citizenship was accepted. I would become British, and have a British passport. I would be able to live here forever.
- Eric Sandy linked to my last blog in his summary of June; it was really cool to have inspired him to write like that in a month where he became a father.
- And on writing this, I realize that, on a daily basis, I think my life is stagnant, is not advancing, that I am running just to stay still, and nothing is really going on, and then I have a chance to look back and think: holy shit, that was an epic month.
Finally, our friend Lina wrote this. I almost can’t believe how perfect it is:
There are more things that happened in July, but this has been delayed enough, and I need to get it out so I can think about August. But one more thing: isn’t this little guy cute?
Always enjoy these. Rotator cuff – kimura?
Unfortunately not. Downward Dog. A bit embarrassing, considering all the other abuse my body goes through.
Congratulations on your dual citizenship.
There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t regret not doing the same during the 10 years I lived over there.
BUT….women’s clothing is more interesting?
Wake up and look around!!
These days all women wear pants. How can one pair of pants be more interesting than another?
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I am charmed beyond words. Your reflections delight me with their free association. And I can’t wait to meet Meat Man!
Ahh that’s frustrating. I always resented tearing my Achilles from my first 5 min on a tennis court and not something I cared about like bjj or climbing.
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Ooh – maybe you want to vacation for a week in Wales next summer?