29 March 2021

When the breathing gets hard

The house on Victoria Road has again undergone changes, and I woke up this morning for the first time with nothing planned for the immediate future. The work has come to a natural stop. The next thing is the garden, which needs sorting out — paving stones for the patio and a new shed in the back, and then maybe planters and a new place to compost. The man who will do it — who was also the man who did the fence — his name is Mike, and he was standing there yesterday gesturing to Yoko and me as we imagined with him where the planters might go and did the thing that I've learned to do about any work you're planning, saying, well, if you're going to do it eventually, you best do it now when you're doing everything else, and he nodded along. I had a sense about Mike, the way I have a sense about someone being Mormon sometimes like he might be religious in the way I was religious when I was younger, that being honest was an important part of how he ran his business and his life because he saw it as part of his witness, but I couldn't put my finger on why I felt that exactly. He said he would get us a quote and I assumed that I would accept it without asking anyone else because once someone does good work for you as a contractor, you have them do work for you in the future. It's a truism of home renovation. 

The man who did the floor, who was in our house for two days smelling of some cologne I vaguely recognised, also gave off a positive vibe, but in a different way. This Mike, his name was also Mike, had tattoos and had broken up with his wife, but he told me about his son and how when his son had turned 18, Mike needed to let him go do what he wanted to do, regardless of how Mike felt. We had a long conversation about this, about parenting and knee health, after I complimented his work on the floor and said that I had done the laminate upstairs. We talked about America, as you do, and about my own dad and power tools. When I offered Mike coffee, as you need to do when you have builders, he said he brought his own kettle, it was easier that way. He laid the flooring in two days and was done and the girls and Yoko said for days how much better it was. 

There was a strange sense of completion like we had put the last piece of the puzzle into this project that had started some four years ago when we decided to buy the house and I had pulled up the carpet just to see what was underneath. The kids remember me doing this, how shocking it was, to just tear everything up and expose the floorboards. Then, that year, it seemed like I was giddy with the sense of things maybe, potentially, working out, that I could become a homeowner, that we could get residency, that this whole gamble of staying here and not going back to Japan would work. None of it seemed fixed — it felt like winning at some casino game where you put all your earnings back into the game again and again. I was just waiting to lose, because that how I am disposed to think about the world. Certainly this can't work, certainly it has to go wrong. 

I went to run pace on Thursday morning, with my heart rate monitor strapped to my chest. I ran up the hill and then started out after five minutes, down Greenfield Road and in the darkness it came back to me, that gasping for breath I felt back in January. I fought through it for a mile, and then on the canal when it didn't get any better, I gave up and slowed to a trot, a jog, the speed of failure that ended up as a walk when I got to Harborne Park Road. I trudged up the hill feeling fat and defeated, wondering about how I would ever run pace when this was so exhausting to me. I had been running so well at the end of last year and then this. How can you run pace when you can't breathe.

The answer, at least when it comes to running, is to run again. You rest and you run again. I want to run fast every day, but of course that's impossible. Even the best runners run slowly. The house is sorted, I should be happy with that for a minute, stop worrying if the cabinets are yellowing or if I will run as fast as I can in my next race. A friend said to me you need to respect the process, not the goal. Forget the goals, if you honour the process the goals will come. So you set out again, I guess, reset the watch and try again. You'll get another chance, don't worry. 

30 January 2021

Thankfully, for my sanity

The house on Victoria Road remains in a state of perpetual metamorphosis. I made two payments yesterday, one to the loft conversion company and one to the Ikano bank, the bank that deals with zero percent Ikea loans, marking both the end of kitchen project from three years ago and also this most recent project of converting the loft into a fourth bedroom and bathroom. I thought that this would be the end of this round of renovations, but having carpeted the upstairs, we need now to redo the flooring downstairs, which means first renovating the fireplace with a nice feature piece: a cast iron log burner. I don't really want to prioritise this, but there is a key principle of renovation: never do anything that you will have to undo to do something else. So sure you can do the floors, but don't do them if you think you're going to knock down that wall — you best argue with your partner about that first before you decide. I learned this principle from a friend of mine, someone with much more experience and wisdom about British construction who came over one night several years ago after I bought the house and laid out the whole process. You gotta think about the tile you like, he said, and the door handles — everything.

Thankfully, for my sanity, the experience has only been sort of like that: everything hasn't needed to be decided, piece by piece. I've never actually been asked about door handles, although as I think about it now, I have managed to develop an opinion about which kind I like. For the first project, a guy called Wayne did everything for us and in the matter of a few months, we had another bedroom and bathroom and new Ikea kitchen. I hardly remember the process now. The loft conversion, the next phase, was needed to make space for all the children I had in my twenties, but was also the right choice in terms of investments. Adding a bedroom to a terrace house in a desirable postcode is classic British wealth building. We called Wayne again, but in the end decided to go with an established loft conversion company that had done our neighbours' house. A man called Rob came that time, in an Audi, looking vaguely like the father of a girl I had a crush on in high school and talked to us about fire doors and Grenfell, and we paid our deposit but then lockdown started and everything was stopped. I worried through the summer that my deposit had been lost, that this was just my luck, but they started responding to emails in September and then at the beginning of the second lockdown, on a Tuesday, they put up the scaffolding and things started to move again.

My motivation for all of this, this paterfamilias organisation of the house, the physical structure we all live in, is motivated almost entirely by a phantom Evangelical Christian guilt about doing the right thing. The right thing is the thing I have always managed to do in almost every area of my life, for years and years. Doing the right thing has never been about what I wanted to do — in fact, wanting to do something was a sign that you shouldn't do it. It wasn't about the joy or fulfilment of doing the thing, but the joy and fulfilment of following God, something separate from the thing you were doing. Of course, that belief in a personal God, a God obsessed with me, was the one part of the whole system I couldn't abide and all that's left is the obligation and guilt. The discussion about the fireplace and log burner, what I wanted or didn't want, made my whole depth of internal conflict evident in a terrible way — it's an investment, Mario, I wanted to say to the Polish builder who came to measure and give us a cost. While it might be possible for me to care less about this, it's a task in an endless series of tasks that my life has become and financial stability — investment in things that have some potential to appreciate and which my wife doesn't dislike — is a key part of this. But it's a task, Mario, something I need to get done. I'm sorry I'm not full of joy.

Last night, I watched a poetry reading at my college back home on Zoom. I studied creative writing at a small liberal arts college, and wanted to be a writer for much of my younger life — not the sort of writer I am now, but the sort that writes about the long stretch of horizon in the Illinois farmland, the sort of writer that would produce a novel that went on for pages and pages with descriptions of people sitting in silence. I was supposed to do an MFA, to go home after being in Japan and reclaim my American sense of agency, and have people I respected tell me that my writing spoke to them, to get that same feeling I had as a nineteen-year-old in a private college with fourteen other writers in a workshop convinced that what I had to say mattered. That feeling of safety, that I could say things about myself and I wouldn't get judged. That people would celebrate my revelations, the deeper, the darker, the realer, the better.  What happened to that confidence, I wondered, staring at myself on the webcam, now how many years later, how many thousands of miles. Now I want to be a politician, to always hedge what I say, to never reveal too much. What had gone wrong, I wondered, why wasn't I willing to tell the truth anymore. 

I woke up to more British snow and a refund for the furniture that came on Wednesday and didn't fit in the house. That problem had taken up more than two hours after taking up three days of trying to get it ordered in the first place, and I was now dreading another conversation about flatpack furniture and sofa placement and scolding for whatever bad attitude would percolate up when everything that had been resolved would need to be resolved again. I keep having vivid dreams about these disagreements, the rennovations, that something has gone wrong and I need to fix it, to do the right thing, to not be annoyed about it, to be happy enough that my family can tolerate me. The log burner will be nice, to be fair, and the flooring. And having my partner still tolerate me after 15 years is what I'm told saves me from whatever rabbit holes selfish, middle-aged men fall into when they think about being younger. You don't need any of the things you think you need — you don't know what you've got until it's gone. Of course life would have been different with a different set of choices, but other things would be different too. You wouldn't know what you missed, you would have longed for the cast iron log burner in some other universe. 

23 January 2021

So what if we forget

Some climate change news I read once that said the UK will eventually stop having snow, but for the last three years, it seems to hit us hard every January. Last night, the kids came downstairs, asking if we could go out for a walk in it, and we did, in coats and pyjama bottoms and Naomi took pictures of us. The flakes were clumping together as they fell, fat and heavy like you get them when you're right on the edge of snow and rain. I think now, when I go out with my kids, that they are not quite kids any more, that they probably could have gone out by themselves and been okay. It's been seven years since we moved here and in seven years from now, Naomi will be twenty. Surely that can't be right, you find yourself thinking. This trick of ageing, where things speed up and slow down in random, terrible ways and you're old when just yesterday you were young. 

There's a liminal space between being a person with Covid and being a person who has had Covid. I was scheduled to give blood on Thursday, but when I went up the stairs, I was greeted by a banner saying you couldn't donate if you had had a fever or continuous cough or loss of taste or smell in the last 28 days. I stood in the threshold of the door and spoke to the woman holding the clipboard and said, 'I've just seen the sign and I have had, or I mean, I had Covid in the last 28 days, I don't have it now, but it's not been 28 days since I had it.' She crossed my name off the list and I left feeling like I had broken the rules. 

I haven't had symptoms in the last 18 days, or at least the main ones. My smell and taste have come back, I think, although I can't tell sometimes, like when they put new carpet in the loft now, I assume I should be able to smell something but don't smell anything. Perhaps then, according to the sign, I still have Covid. 

Before I had Covid, or before I knew I had Covid I was also not sure if I had it — I was just hungover, I thought, having had Christmas whiskey and trying to stay healthy doing some ridiculous in-home YouTube workout led by a man much stronger than me. Then it was a few days and I had sweat through my clothes a second night and went off to get tested. When I came home, I kept my mask on in the house and Mia moved out of the unfinished loft that I had been painting just a week before and I set up the folding table with my computer and the gymnastics mat and stayed there for the next week, working and sleeping and sorting out different things for the house that needed sorting.

In the end, I never got very sick, not the way that you hear about people struggling to breathe or move around their homes, but there were moments when it was suddenly very real, like a fever that turns to a chill and suddenly you are shaking uncontrollably, and you need to lie down until it stops. Or waking up in clothes that are wet like you could wring them out in the sink. Or lying down and suddenly feeling pressure on your chest. You feel fine or fine enough, but why go to sleep when months ago you had read a news story about someone, a young person, having a brain aneurysm. Because you're young, that's how you die. Or suddenly your face going numb, or you think had gone numb. You can't smell, but what even is a smell, you begin to wonder, how would you know if you could smell, how often do you notice smells anyway at midnight alone in your room. 

Then, all of it went away. I was up and running a week after the symptoms were gone, slow and fat of course because I have been eating all my stress now for several months, but I could breathe. And then I did several long runs and started my marathon training again. It was all normal, the electrician came and then the carpenters, and the bed delivery and all the things that had been on hold came back. It snowed, and Yoko and I went for a walk, trying not to slip, trying to make some plans for another year of uncertainty. The world is small for everyone now I guess, I said. It doesn't bother me, I've had enough anyway. We stopped at the road to look for traffic, and walked across, arm in arm like old people, like people with kids who can be left at home. Surely that can't be right, but it is. 

26 November 2020

Eating Dread

In Bochum last year, I stayed in a small room in a commuter hotel at the station, the sort of place that I'd been staying when I travelled all that year and the year before. As I imagine the restaurant where we ate breakfast, I can't think if I am remembering the right place, or if I was thinking of the hotel I stayed at in Portsmouth, or Cardiff, or any of the other places I had found myself at various university events. All the commuter breakfasts were the same, really: bread and butter and jam continental spreads that I was always disproportionately excited about. That one in Bochum was truly continental, of course, being that we were on the continent, a smug etymology point I had worked out and kept to myself in case there was a lull in a conversation and I could fit it in as a joke between spoonfuls of German fruit salad shovelled into my mouth, my American ignorance thinking that the thing I just learned is something that no one else has ever known before and would make a clever joke: who among you has thought of the origins of the term 'continental breakfast' this morning.

This was only a year ago, but it was before I myself was British and still actively encouraging myself to think of Britishness as something I would or should never understand. I imagined saying, the concept of the continental breakfast is British — they think everything revolves around them, and everyone at the table would stop and think to themselves, well that's quite a clever point, Stephen, I've never thought of it that way although I have used that term many times

The right moment to say this line never came up. Instead, I had more and more rye toast with jam, and let the conversation fall into why my budget flight was so much more tedious than everyone else's, and why I needed to fly to Frankfurt and no one else did. Surely some mistake had been made. 

Everyone in this country understands why one would need to distinguish, as a place of business, between a full English breakfast and a continental one. We weren't, after all, in a Holiday Inn in Topeka with a pancake machine. Every new thing I learn now is just something that everyone else knows, and my own tacit, experiential knowledge, the knowledge for example of the pancake machine at the Holiday Inn in Topeka, which people in the German commuter hotel might actually be interested in hearing about, is deeply embarrassing knowledge, base and feral and some part of me I'd rather forget. 

That trip, I was drinking beer and eating too much at night, and then running early in the morning, in what I thought was a park when I saw it on Google maps, but what turned out to be a cemetery. The loop around it was something like two or three miles. I remember that there were leaves on the path still, and although it was dark, my eyes would adjust enough that I could see what I needed to see, whatever was or wasn't in front of me.

When I say I was drinking beer, I mean that I was gaining weight. I am always gaining or losing weight. I lie to myself some times and say that I am trying to maintain my weight, but when I weigh myself, I know that's a lie because of how I feel about whatever number is projected back at me. When I was eating pretzels and drinking beer at the airport bar, full of whatever stress I was feeling at the time, I didn't expect that I would come home thinner, even though I guess I was telling myself that I would, because I was still running every morning. It was the sort of weight-gaining lie you tell yourself that you know is a lie, but is plausible enough that you can keep doing whatever it is that you're doing provided you don't think about it too much.

Weight gain at the end of the year over Christmas is an inevitability that I try to put off as late as possible. I am now, with my plans to run my marathon in the Spring, over-concerned with not gaining weight but at the end of my rope with counting every kilo calorie. I can't weigh out everything I eat for the rest of my life, I think, pouring cereal into a bowl on a scale, embarrassed knowing that it will come out at some point that I am a person who does this. The kind of person who chooses one vegan sandwich over another at the university shop because it is 53 kCals less, like that means anything at all. Normal healthy people just eat what they want, I'm told: an attractive, healthy young woman on TikTok goes on and on about intuitive eating and I think, but my intuition is to eat everything, to keep eating until there is nothing left. That's my intuition.

The way to fix one's intuition about eating is to get to the roots of the problem, to think back to your childhood to understand how your feelings about food are linked to all the guilty overeating you did, how ice cream was treat, how pop was a treat, how you started drinking Diet Coke when you were nine or ten, when you first realised you were fat. Yes, of course, it's all there, endless stories about treats and McDonald's collector cups and the American way of life that I can't defend now as a British passport holder and someone who's never going back to it. It's become foreign to me too, I say, feigning ignorance of some attitude I pretend I've overcome, but secretly understand, like the part of me that sees a Chevy Suburban, and thinks, I'll have that, sure.

Now vegan, and bearded, and thinner if not thin, I am trying again to do what this woman on TikTok wants me to do. I agree, weighing bowls of Fruit and Fibre is not healthy, that it's hurting my relationships, that my partner, my wife, can sense the madness of it all, the getting up in the middle of the night to eat a bagel. So I try again to be normal: I eat two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a jam and a cup of coffee and I sit and I think about it — how do I feel. Do I feel full. What even is feeling full. What even is a feeling. 

This year of fallow will end. I crossed the street yesterday on the way to give blood and suddenly wondered whether I would ever use my British passport I was so excited about. There must be commuter hotels in Germany in my future again, or B&Bs in Sweden, where you eat berries for breakfast by candlelight. Surely, I will be in New York again and with it too this intuition will fail at some point and I'll be back to counting almonds. The things you learn about yourself are the things that you already know, anyway. Saying them out loud doesn't change them.

22 November 2020

Where do we go when we fall asleep

 


British Summer Time ended, but my body doesn't seem to understand that the clocks have changed. I stopped setting my alarm, hoping this would help, but it hasn't — I wake up at 4:30 and don't want to go back to sleep. I make my protein powder and berry slurry, eat fruit and meditate for twenty minutes. I think maybe at some point I might try to sleep again, but I don't. The kids wake up and it was half-term so nothing is happening anyway. The virus still, of course, but that's just the way it is now. 

I've kept waking up in the middle of the night — this week it was once to the screams of one of the girls who was having a bad dream. Everyone was fine and I sat in the kitchen with the range hood light on, and ate a piece of toast, scrolling on my mobile phone and thinking to myself, I should be scrolling on my phone, I should be sleeping.

After watching some very convincing videos by some very skinny distance runners on YouTube, I've been running more mileage with the goal of hitting my sub-three hour marathon before I turn forty. To run fast over a long distance, you need to run a lot, they say, and then the video cuts to a shot of them running, skinny, through some remote and beautiful place. My running is not remote or beautiful. I get up and it's still dark and I lumber out, thinking, well, one mile first, that's all you need. Sunday mornings are the hardest, the long runs, but there is nothing happening before ten anyway, particularly during lockdown. If you get out early enough, you can run on the canals without anyone, but if you wait like I did today, you have to deal with groups of very slow runners, in packs or herds, who are impossibly annoying if you meet them after sixteen or seventeen miles of steady work.

At the beginning of this, the first week I’d run sixty miles, I had pain in my left testicle or groin or upper leg, a pain that I couldn’t quite place, but over the days, it had settled in the testicle and it became clear I needed to go to the doctor. Given the timing, the Covid spike again, I called first and spoke to the GP who said I needed to come in and get examined, which I did in my mask. He did the exam and ended it abruptly, saying I could pull up my jeans, and washing his hands, asked, ‘Where are you from?’

He wasn’t concerned, he assured me, but I need to have an ultrasound just to double-check, but because the hospitals were rammed with people from Covid, it might be six or eight weeks, and I acted as though this was fine because I'm good socialist and think that of course, the people with the most need should be served before me, despite my unsettled feeling when I sat on the sofa that I could feel, if I thought about it, a growth, even though I knew it wasn’t.

The ultrasound came sooner than was promised, and I went and sat outside of a window called ‘Ambulatory Care’, a term I had never heard before, and a young woman who pronounced my name correctly called me back. The ultrasound technician was a middle-aged man, but the nurse and another young woman would be there with us, he said, as chaperones. I thought about how that word made me feel foreign, like I was a high school dance and someone was watching to see where my hands were when I was awkwardly dancing.

I didn’t, of course, have cancer, and I pulled up my trousers and walked out of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital thinking that this was, whatever the outcome today, my future: finding lumps and having pain in new places and tests that would mostly be okay until some time when they weren’t okay. Thirty-eight is a strange young age, that’s still young, but not that young, and your body begins to feel less precious and sexual and mysterious, and franker. Here is my body, me pathetically holding a paper towel across my stomach while three people look quizzically at a computer monitor and we casually discuss the reasons I got a vasectomy, what, ten years ago now, is it.

My dad likes to remind me of one time I said that runners would rather talk about running than run, but when he reminds me of it, I think condescendingly about myself then. I can’t describe running as something I want or don’t want to do anymore; it feels more like a responsibility, or impulse, or inevitability. When it isn’t in my life, it leaves an absence. It's like marriage: I don't choose to run every time I run, I chose to run some time in the past. The sun came up this morning and my body felt good, if tired, and I thought about inevitability and how the road seems to narrow the older you get, but how you can run faster and further and steadier when the path is narrow. You don't have to follow the line, the line is the path. The end might be coming, eventually, in the future, but for now, for this season, there is more still to be done.

18 September 2020

I know I said the end was near


There's been a strange kind of humidity in the air that reminds me in a way of Malaysia. In Kajang, in the kampung, it is was never cold, or even cool, but sometimes, near dawn, you could think that it was. It was always humid, so the heat seemed to suspend itself in the air, and as I said goodbye to whoever was in the house when I left on Tuesday morning, I couldn't tell if I was hot or cold. By the time I was at work and pulling my mask out of my bag, I was sweating, but once I stopped moving it settled back into that liminal space between hot and cold, where I looked out the window of my office and stopped working and just stared for a bit. 

We've had our coronavirus scares over the summer, each one seeming more unlikely in retrospect then at the moment they happened. There was one night I started coughing and couldn't stop. There was the time everyone had a slight fever in March. This week, it was Mia's sore throat that we were told required a test so she could go back to school. I spent the day trying to get through the government website and in the end just went to a testing centre on the University of Birmingham campus, walking past the school of education with Mia in her pyjamas, holding her hand. The whole experience feels like the beginning of the end of everything, where we start to realise that the systems don't work and the fires that happen every year are getting bigger and there is no one to help us. You can't say that though, can you, when you have people looking up at you, expecting you to do something. Mia's sore throat passed and she went back to school — I went on the radio to talk about it, and the DJ said the experience of trying to get her a test sounded like it had circus music in the background. It did, I said, except that if she were actually really ill, I would have been terrified, the truth being worse actually — I was terrified, I just got angry to hide it.

Our yearly anniversary of coming to the UK passed and I made a point to plan something for it, fish and chips, and Beyond Burgers for dinner, not because I'm particularly happy to mark the date anymore, but because we needed something to celebrate this year. I wanted to ask Yoko if she regretted all of this, but I knew the answer wouldn't be simple and the question itself was the sort of thing I would think about, not her. I want black and white answers — no, I would say now with everything that has happened in the last three years. Conclusively, it wasn't worth it. In Japan, I lived the consequences of my decisions — here, I've forced them on everyone around me, my partner, my family, my in-laws, my own parents. Anything that happens is the result of that choice, any difficulty — a form, or a customs fee, or a lack of good-paying jobs, or planes that won't fly — don't exist if we weren't here, if I hadn't made this choice on behalf of all these people. Here, every problem is a British one, every car driving too fast or silly law or incompetent leader or stabbing: they are all British, primarily British, occurrences. How else can you read it as a foreigner. If we weren't in Britain, it wouldn't be British.

The truth is not that simple, of course, no one ever said it was despite my urge to make a consistent narrative in this novel I've been writing about my life where I used to be the protagonist. Now, my children, who are capable conversationalists and see my weaknesses and can exploit them, are the main characters. They say things like your tattoo has faded beyond recognition, what did it even say. They say I said something and when I dispute it, it turns out I'm actually wrong. I did say the thing I said I didn't say. I've become like the father from some Russian novel who is always in another room, absent except in flourishes, a necessary plot device, but not the most interesting person most of the time. And for all the talk of coming to the UK, this is not their story — it's mine and it's a story that's run its course without an ending. It just trailed off. No one remembers Japan, the blue and white Mini-Cub I rode to and from work, or their Mum's apartment before we married, where she had her whole life together that I just crashed into, a sloppy American tourist breaking glasses by accident and sputtering out Japanese verbs and taking whatever opportunity was presented. The story they know doesn't start there; it started here, in the same country that they are in now, with no dissonance in the narrative, Japan and America, places that you can visit, or see on TV, but not real in the way they are for me, like a deep trench underneath me as I tread water on the surface. Nothing is British here, it just is the thing it is. There aren't British problems, they're just problems.

We finished our dinner and although I kept turning back to my own nostalgia, there was nothing really to say. Here we are, another day in a pandemic, something we have lived with for so long it feels normal. I slouched down in one of the chairs we bought for camping, having eaten too much, Yoko starting a fire from dried branches and wood we have leaned against the back shed. The kids playing on Tik Tok, the sun setting, and the house on Victoria Road, the thing they've only know, glowing in the late light. In another world, this wouldn't be our reality, in another world, things would have kept going like we had agreed when we first met and I was less effective in my ambition. When I ran, but I ate meat and prayed and wasn't so crazy. I'm sorry, I say at some point during the day, when something else minor, something British, has not gone right and we are on the edge of things falling apart again into bitterness and frustration, the veneer of patience and duty that can slip down suddenly and expose the rotting undergrowth of resentment. It's a tension we've lived with for years, I realise, the consequence of entering this cave, and losing our way. It's not a cave, but if it helps to say that, to conceive of it that way, I'll say it. I've never said the right thing, and now I can't even try. I'm sorry, it's my fault. I didn't know. You can say, in some other world, it wouldn't be like this. What else can you say.

11 September 2020

My money's on you



The kids are all back at school now, despite the pandemic and the concern that there will be an outbreak again and lockdowns. There are rules in place everywhere, but they are changing back and forth — the girls didn't need masks in the corridors and then they did. They are reliant though and all of the discourses of confusion, if you want to call them those, the things that older people say about not understanding what the rules are and why they are changing, don't seem to be picked up by the children in the same way. They accept it and do what they're told and like every September for the last seven years now, they leave in the morning, up the different roads to their different schools, needing less and less help every day it seems. 

My third book is finished and I've been working through the proofs while the project editor emails me like I'm a child completing a homework assignment. I've missed the deadline, but only because I put the wrong date in my diary, not because I'm trying to be obstinate. The proofs are late and I feel guilty, but am distracted by everything else. This week it was all my photo files on Flickr and the feeling that someone could have just downloaded every photo I have ever taken over the last 15 years.  The children are now not children really, and have opinions about what others can see about what their past lives. They have friends I don't know about, friends who found some embarrassing picture of them as a baby. I read back through the things I've written and feel a sense of terrible dread, that I treated them the way I promised I never would: like they were just characters in some novel about me. 

These are distracting, unuseful thoughts, the result of the same narcissism where I worry about the effect of my actions on others because of how it will make me feel if they are disappointed in me. Everything is about you, Stephen, isn't it, I hear some antagonist say, the same one that says jump when I run over a bridge in the early morning. None of this is about me anymore: the book, the family — it's about the project, the artefacts made up of all these words that come out of me when I was soothing myself and coaxing those words out by saying, Don't worry, you can fix it later, just write now, just let it happen. All I can see is the errors and clumsy sentences. I get angry with my manic self for lying to me. You said I would have time to fix this, you said I would be better in six months. The manic me borrows from the depressed me, and never pays the time back. Here, I've left you with this mess — it's not like you could have done any of this yourself.  I find a passage where I am writing confidently about Bhaktin, but I think to myself, what do I even know about Bhaktin. I wrote about him when I was doing my PhD, I had some grasp of it then, or at least I thought I did, but why do I think I still do. I reread the same sentence five times and although I know what it says, I can't tell if it makes sense.

I've been going for long walks, long for me at least, an hour or so to do a loop around the edge of Harborne, to avoid getting fat and feeling like I'm stuck in the house. I think irrationally that I should quit academia, or get a job in market research, or move back to Japan, or become a community organiser, or just take any job I can that doesn't require me to think all the time. I go to sleep and wake up in the middle of the night inexplicably, hungry. I go downstairs and eat my breakfast with the morning still hours off. I try to meditate and repeat the routine I have since 2016 when it started to get worse. I mark some essays and wait for the sun to come up. The sun is coming up, of all the things that seem to be displaced this year, at least here in Birmingham the sun is still coming up and not obscured by smoke the way it is in California now, or how it was in Malaysia when Sumatra was burning. The sun has come up and the book is still due. 

06 September 2020

Civil Twilight


The air changes in Britain around the end of July and suddenly it starts to feel like autumn, even if it's hot for days and days as it is now with climate change. I couldn't sleep for a week this year, and I felt like the summer became a liminal space, me waking with surprise to find Yoko still here and the children going about the day like all of this is normal. It was my holiday, but resting has been out of the question — this is my fault, blame me for making it harder for myself than it needs to be. I come from a lineage of men that fidget in any queue, that pace outside of public restrooms where people seem to be taking too long inside. We talk to managers, we complain about teenage staff. Of course, now, I just think it, think that I would do those sorts of things if I were in some way more unhinged than I am, but I've managed to just internalise it. Surely I've lost a year or two of life to worry and senseless passive rage.

The lockdown eased, but not entirely, we decided this was the year to go camping. We got tents and supplies and headed to the peaks to hike and look up occasionally at the clouds to tell if the rain was coming or not. Most of the time, three days out of four, it was raining, of course — this is Britain after all, and it should be expected, but we did our best, eating well and being patient with each other. We came home and unpacked our equipment to dry in the sun and there was a downpour and it got soaked again. 

Now that the summer is ending or ended, civil twilight — the proper name for dawn when the sun is six degrees below the horizon — is later than it is in June and July, but still, you can get up around five for a run starting at quarter to six and be okay. There are no cars and it seems lighter when you get outside and find your rhythm. Of course then every minute of the run it gets lighter and lighter and suddenly you wish you had your sunglasses. This morning at least, I felt that way, when I got up and set out for a twenty-mile run. At six, the canals are quiet and when I do meet runners, they're not, the sort of people running two together and not making any space, the sort of people I find myself cursing at under my breath. At six in the morning on a Sunday, it's only the people that care, that have invested something and you can ignore them, or give them a knowing wave when you pass, but they never get in your way. I found my rhythm today around the fifth mile and made my way south towards Alvechurch, so far that the towpath stopped being paved around the point I turned back. The sun came up slowly and the all of a sudden and I drank through my Camelbak and was home, peeling off my clothes in the downstairs toilet before anyone else had woken up. 

On Friday I went back to work for the first time since July and it felt eerie in the way that this is what it is now. A colleague was leaving and of course, we couldn't shake hands or hug like you normally might, but this is all fine with me because there are now clear rules about simply not touching others and you don't have to do any guesswork about what is or isn't expected of you. I had files open on my computer that I was supposed to work on, but I never got around to it seriously. There is so much bad news now that I've lost my expectation that things will be better. I said last night, to Naomi as I was talking about my run and coming home, 'I'll see you in the morning' and after a beat, we both said at the same time 'hopefully', and I immediately felt guilty for all the pessimism I've brought to the Pihlajas of Harborne over the years.

Obviously, good things can happen despite the pessimism. Everyone is healthy and happy in the house, despite death being one the edge of our experiences: terminally ill family members, or pre-cancerous blemishes, or knife attacks, or the virus, of course. This morning, at around the fourteenth mile I felt good for a moment and my pace ticked up. Nothing remarkable, but I ran one mile fifteen seconds faster than the others. It came out of the blue and I wondered why I was just suddenly energetic. What had gotten into me. It faded, of course, but having felt it, having it come up, reminds me that it is still there, ready to come out of me as long as I didn't give up. 

07 August 2020

Making Weight


Town, the city centre, feels like the beginning of something, like whatever is going to happen now has started, but hasn't really started yet. I had to give blood and was early, so I walked into the station, to see what was open, what was left. John Lewis is closed now, but the American sweet shop wasn't, and I went in looking for graham crackers for the kids, because we are going camping in a few weeks, and the whole point of camping is eating s'mores. The restaurants were open, with the signs about social distancing and masks and hand sanitiser and I walked up to the blood donation centre wondering what this would be like in a year or two years. What would be left.

My heart rate is a constant concern for the blood donation attendants. A heart rate needs to be more than fifty beats per minute for me to donate, but every other time or so that I go, the nurse takes my wrist, and counts while watching the clock and then looks at me concerned. She'll need to get someone else to check and the person who comes into check sees me and knows me: oh it's you, and I give my story again about running a lot and this and that and she takes my wrist to check again. I can get my heart rate up if I think about something terrifying, so this time I imagined running from that explosion in Beruit, like I was there and the cloud of smoke was coming to consume me. I tried to breathe hard and tap my feet, and after a minute the nurse looked at me and said, fifty-two. Just barely then. I can go back to my normal anxiety.

I'm on leave this week, which means I'm not supposed to be working, but there is no way to avoid it. The emails still come in even if I shut off the notifications and my book proofs need to be gone through and I have marking to do at the part-time jobs I keep up. There's a low grade of worry that also seems to be persistent. It used to be about my visa, but now it seems to be replaced by my taxes, which I've never worried about before. Some institutional work that I have to do that I don't feel confident about and how I fear making a mistake — apparently I have that space in my head like a cavity for a tumour to grow and even if I remove one, another one will replace it.

After the lockdown started in March and I finished my lonely marathon and was still eating like I was running thirty miles a week even though I wasn't, I gained some weight and felt heavy, like the world and my family and marriage were all being dragged down. The one thing I could control, my eating, I controlled for 82 days, a rational number I thought for losing 100 grams a day and getting back to my goal weight. I obsessed, of course, and magically, after 82 days, was exactly where I wanted to be: I had made weight. I stepped off the scale, like I have again and again over my lifetime, fifteen years now, and thought, well, there we go.

Now what. I get up early and go for a walk. I keep counting calories until I don't want to anymore. Yesterday, for example, I said I didn't want to play the calorie counting game. That seemed to be enough, but also it was the beginning of a stage that will inevitably include gaining weight. Another round of self-talk about feeling or not feeling full. Will I be doing this at fifty, I wondered. Sixty-five, when I retire, if I make it that far. It's a ridiculous way to think, of course. I can remove the app from my home screen. Take a break. Try not to think about it. It'll come around, don't worry. 
 

17 July 2020

How it decomposes


The lockdown ostensibly ended a few weeks ago, although it was hard to really sense what had changed since the children were still not really going to school and I couldn't get back to work. Everything was the same — I woke up before 5:30 to the sun coming through the window and went downstairs to weigh myself and meditate and write some different things in my bullet journal: my weight, and the number of words I had written and how much I had eaten the day before. I turned over the compost in the garden, breaking up clumps and mixing in the grass clippings. I got a haircut on the first day I could, even though that seemed extravagant and unnecessary, a thing that had been the focus of the lockdown and what everyone seemed more concerned about than anything. Was what you were doing needed.

At the beginning of all of this, I watched the numbers closely, who had gotten ill and how the deaths were trending, until it finally became normal and a thousand people dying a day was okay. The perception of things kept changing, what you thought was bad and unacceptable then became acceptable. In the US, you can see it in the way that numbers of dead and infected have been discussed. A few weeks ago they said the numbers might get as high as a hundred thousand a day and that sounded impossible, but then every day they have been creeping up and it seems like a smaller number than it was. How long before you can accept anything in life, any hardship that is placed in front of you. 

For me, it's still just a number. I've only known people in my periphery who have gotten ill and I said to Yoko that I wanted to see it, that I wanted to know what it was actually like. I don't, I'm sure, given the actual chance, I would immediately regret saying what I said. If there were a hundred thousand people injured in car accidents, how different would that look. There could be people at the scene taking pictures. We could look at it and know what it is exactly. Instead, now, it's just a cough and a fever that one day turns and you have no oxygen in your blood anymore and then you die or you don't, depending on a number of factors that we don't really understand yet. We, the newsreaders, the people who follow different news outlets and blogs and then report back to our Boomer parents who doubt everything they read now. Say things authoritatively because we read them somewhere.

Last Wednesday, I walked up to the supermarket, to Waitrose, to buy some things and in the course of the walk, I decided it was time to shave off my beard. I don't know why exactly, why that moment was the moment that was chosen for me, but walking home, the sensation felt like something I needed to hold on to or it would pass and I would lose the courage. I opened the front door, left the bag in the kitchen, locked myself in the toilet, and shaved it all off. More than a year of growth, a whole personality, gone like that. I looked at myself and my chin was shorter, my face shrunken down from the pandemic hair around me. Ten years younger, or more. Just like that. 

With no restrictions, I can run on the canal and not worry so much about how it's perceived. The marathon was cancelled again, but it doesn't matter anymore. I get up and meditate and eat and write my numbers in my book and then run. My heart rate monitor broke, but it didn't matter suddenly. All it had taught me was that I could probably slow down when I was tired. And that slowing down when you were tired, without any good explanation, made you run faster in the end. My knee hurt and I rested. I got to the end of my miles and instead of pushing another half mile, I stopped, turned off my watch and walked the rest of the way. What does the number matter in the end, it's just me and I don't have to care, do I. The rain started to fall a bit and it didn't matter.