05 December 2017

Bloody Minded

When I fall down, particularly when I'm running at night, I feel both old and young at the same time. It happens once a year maybe — I misstep and if I'm lucky, I roll into the fall and the momentum isn't absorbed entirely by my wrists and hands. I fall and am there on the pavement like a child and wondering who's seen me. There are so many cars passing, you assume someone did, but then again, the drivers of the cars are so self-absorbed normally. Normally, they don't see you, do they. I pick myself up quickly and walk it off, until I feel like my body isn't actually hurt anywhere and I get back my pace, back into my normal gait, not the gait of an old man, but a man on the precipice of not yet being middle-aged.

The fall tonight resulted from a lack of focus and being preoccupied with getting home in time to meet my daughter and waiting for a phone call from a courier whom I had waited on all day and who never came. It was a metaphor for my day. Meditation, I had hoped and indeed felt for a moment, would be a kind of magic bullet to soothe through this particularly madness. The antidote, I've been saying to people: it is the antidote to Evangelical Christian thinking, to the Protestant Work Ethic. A way to calm down, which seems to the thing that everyone has said to me the last ten years or so. Slow down, calm down. Of course, none of this has happened, there has been no real magic, particularly because meditation, it seems, doesn't really want you to slow down. Meditation wants you to take in the moment, to be in the moment, but that moment can be any moment. It can be all kinetic energy which you take in without thinking of the past or future. It can be toppling over yourself on the pavement and the pain when you scan through your body and wonder if you'll be able to get up. That's what it is, isn't it — the present without the past or the future, whatever that present is.

On Saturday, I drank too much and ate naan and bowls of cereal in the middle of the night until I just went to sleep to get away from it. Then I ran and ran and ran on Monday, again the pilgrim whipping myself. The same cycle again. I'm not any happier, not that one would expect to be any happier from just sitting and thinking about one's breath. I sat in a meeting on Friday and played with a string of beads, nine beads that the kids had been given in Malaysia, and I counted breaths and thought about multiples of nine. But then suddenly I snapped at someone who was being unreasonable about a student. That fierceness of my father — biting his lip and reaching out for Mia who is being so damn loud — just under the surface. No, of course I haven't changed, it's all there still, looking for a moment to come back out. All my angry words in my mind, the things I don't have the courage to say to my kids or my wife, but which I can shout in my mind like a coward. It's all just under the surface, like the fat man, the seven deadly sins, the Evangelical doubt, the white drama.

My knees stopped bleeding after a half hour or so and Mei came home and I went to the shower, feeling the pain of the fall and the phantom bloatedness from Saturday and the urge to count out calories even though I am not counting calories. Certainly, the moment does not want that from me, I thought looking at myself in the mirror — this very moment doesn't care about what I ate three days ago. The moment wonders what is more ridiculous than wanting to be 700 or 800 grams lighter than a week ago. Why hang your happiness on that, on anything, the moment wonders — on what your wife or kids might say or not say. No, the moment is just the awareness of pain — bloody and miserable in my attempt to no longer be miserable and doing my best. Not doing my best. Doing what I can, what I can manage. One hundred and eight breaths again this morning, one hundred and eight moments broken down into different multiples of three or nine or eighteen or thirty-six. I can breath in and out just this once. I can manage that.

23 November 2017

Levels of abstraction

Before the break up

It's been windy in Harborne this week, leaves drifting like snow and I indulge the urge to kick my way through them. The kids, the two older ones, are now walking to school by themselves and we stand in the entryway of the house on Victoria Road, kissing them goodbye. This is the story of the rest of my life, I think to myself, or at least the next ten to fifteen years. I try to calm whatever panic that emerges when they slip out of view, up the hill. They're fine, they'll be fine — you can just breathe, and count your breaths, you can manage to not think about anything.

I've taken off my health tracker, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ (the plus being for GPS tracking) that I got this summer to track my running, but which has become a technology of controlling my weight loss and counting of calories. Taking off the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ and deleting the app from my phone, which I did today as I was sitting in the local pub eating toast, was not something I thought I could or would do, particularly at the moment I did, but finally it occurred to me that my reliance on technologies of fitness had gamified my life and led to a level of abstraction that was bordering on absurdity. Does anyone really need a spreadsheet with a caloric deficit over the month? That number is completely made up, values placed on food quantities and steps taken and your heart rate. Certainly it can't be healthy to think to yourself, right, half of a scone would equal X amount of calories, and walking to the store would account for Y amount of calories, and if I overeat today I can do Z minutes on the treadmill to compensate. Last week, I threw my back out trying to get a 1200kCal burn from a treadmill, a number that my Garmin Vivosmart HR+ was making up based on some algorithm. What am I doing to myself, I thought, staring down. So I took it off, came home and had a sensible lunch, thinking this is my future, this is the new me.

I'll give this about one week to fail, when I apologise to the app and the tracker and submit again to the late-Capitalist approach to health monitoring, in which an app sells me to advertising companies in return for controlling what I eat and what I don't eat. But I feel better and not in a way that I'm suddenly going to start eating everything I can get my hands on. This has been the problem in the past, when I've ballooned up without the numbers to tell me what to eat or not eat. No longer, I think. I will probably still weigh myself tomorrow morning, but that's one less level of abstraction, and one moment of madness in a day of twenty-four hours, instead of a string of madnesses, checking number of steps again and again and the pointless reward of a number on a spreadsheet.

One wonders what happens next — this divorce from the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ happened so immediately, like I had it in my mind and then it was done. One wonders what other madness could be just given up. I was proofreading my book, the book I was so proud of in theory, and then as I read it, felt like a pilgrim whipping myself with every unnecessary word I read. I felt awful about myself, my ability as writer, an academic, an anything. None of this is good, I thought, I should just give up, get on a plane and get away from it all. Someone must want me, somewhere in the world. It was the most pathetic, silly thought, but so real, like some baby crying for the love of their mother. I'm thirty-five, for chrissake.

Of course, I didn't, I went page by page, deleting prepositional phrase after prepositional phrase. Fixing tautologies, places where I said I had done something, but had actually done the opposite. I also tried to do it with loving kindness as the voice on meditation app tells me to treat myself. Self-care, that millennial word I am just on the edge of unironically accepting, although everything inside of me tells me not to. God doesn't think you are good enough, but god is dead. We can love ourselves now, until the thoughts of the rising, toxic, plastic-filled oceans derail us. We can keep trying, isn't it, we just have to start again, counting our breaths to nine and back. 

15 November 2017

Loving kindness

I'm busy proofreading my book manuscript, so it can come out early next year as planned. Like my PhD thesis in the weeks before my viva, I couldn't open the pdf the publisher sent for the first couple of days, terrified of what I might find. Then, when I finally did have the courage and did open it, there were immediately a flurry of errors. Tautologies and repetitions and misspellings and statements that were demonstrably false. I tried to sleep, but sleep has been impossible this month — I go two hours and I'm up again. I know I should just eat, but I can't just eat because the number has been steady and I feel fine. I don't want to sleep anyway — I want to work, to confront this manuscript and sort everything out because everything can be sorted out.

After gnawing on the edges of meditation, I've finally gone all in, making an effort every day to get down on the ground, on the little bench I built for myself, and take a few minutes. At first it was ten and now it's twenty: I feel like it will keep going up the worse I feel about it. The moment when you kneel and you stop, that moment, is everything I could wish for. I breathe in and out and in and out and suddenly there is nothing. There is nothing for a moment, for one breath, and then there is something and something else and then something else and I have chased the silence off. This is nothing new in the experience of anyone who has ever meditated. I shouldn't be surprised by its acuteness, but I am. Every frustration I can't confront coming back again and again. People I love to hate and my petty grudges. Or if not them, then the things I like, the visions of grandeur. Or the to-do list. Or the future, the planning of the extension, the tiles. Or the children. Or Trump, the permafrost melting, my impending doom, all of our impending doom — Trump again of course, who could forget Trump. Or calorie counting and running and weight. A flood of things, of all my insecurities, over and over and over again until the timer and my eyes open.

My father was here this weekend and we didn't argue, were not even on the edge of argument. I attribute this to the cushion, to being down on the ground, but this is a falsehood, a vanity — my father has changed too and now we've come to the point in a paternal relationships where you put your defences down and realise that it's silly to fight about silly things, isn't it. I order beer over lunch and there's no reason to talk about Trump, about the permafrost, and why I am not raising my children to be terrified to me. Last year, I felt I needed to say something, to explain my position, but now I wonder what it matters, what can I say anyway that would make me feel better or feel heard or validated. The validation is already there, you just have to uncover it inside yourself.

One of the things you learn when renovating is the actual size of a space. Not what you imagine it to be, but what it actually is. The space where we are putting our new bathroom is small – 1710mm by 2350mm. That space is smaller than you think and when you start to insert bathtubs and toilets and radiators into it, it becomes even smaller. I had imagined it to be much larger, like you could have a separate toilet and bathtub, in two separate rooms. But of course, you can’t actually. There isn’t really space for that. The space goes up, thankfully, with the ceiling on the left hand wall when you look back going up to the height of the vaulted ceilings in the house, and I think this slope upwards will feel comforting in a way, when it’s finished. Like the space is small, but not that small.

As I comb through the Internet and look at the different possibilities, the space is starting to take shape too. The colours of tiles, which I initially was dispassionate about, started to be clearer to me. I like this and not that. I think back on different aesthetics I’ve appreciated over the years and how I’ve always hated black leather sofas and dark spaces. I do have an opinion, it's always been there it turns out. I can remember them from my childhood, weird memories like the neighbours who had the rottweiler and high chain link fence. Everything was black in their house and it felt like a cave. I didn't like it, did I. 

To be able to choose what you want to do with your living space is not something I suppose I would have appreciated as much when I was in my late twenties. There was no time between the babies, and the pregnancy, and the PhD. Everything was treading water. Now, I suppose I am more busy, but I have more more money and more security. Things are starting to come together, and the anxiety about the future was just my own general anxiety manifest in a particular way. As the anxiety recedes, it feels like things can be bought and I can relax. It should work out, it has been thirty five years of working out, after all.

Perhaps relax is the wrong word. I don't think I'm actually relaxing. I am sprinting on a treadmill, trying desperately to make fifteen kilometres in sixty minutes. I'm reaching as far as I can to have empathy for my students. I'm looking at the dishes that haven't been washed and trying to be better. There's more to realise, to think about, or try not to think about. Breathe in deeply again and again and again. Keep trying. You'll never make it, but keep trying. The sun is coming up anyway. 

04 November 2017

10% happier


After completing on the house last month, there has been an endless list of tasks – things to buy and tear up and paint. With the crowbar, I pulled off all the doors in the downstairs and like that, everything opened up. I replaced the curtains in the front room and pulled up the rest of the carpet to scrape and sand everything down. The architect is coming on Monday to talk about extending the back of the house out to make a bathroom. I made a list of things we need to decide when we redo the kitchen and make this extension: all the fittings and the bathtub and toilet. Sinks and light switches. A spreadsheet of miscellany. A friend of mine, a guy who enjoys these types of projects, came round the other night and I listened, nodding along and thinking how little I cared about all these choices that needed to be made. Tile colours: surely there isn’t a multiverse where I care about tile colours.

Instead, I’ve felt a dull silence attaching itself to everything. I can or can’t sleep and wake up just wanting to sit and avoid whatever decisions need to be made. I’ve been meditating again, but the silence which is so sweet at the beginning grows into a dull roar of thoughts about everything and anything and nothing. You’re taught when you meditate to accept the thoughts as they come, to not judge yourself, but I have been judging myself for thirty five years. How do you just stop. I keep thinking I’ll fall asleep, but then I open my eyes and I haven’t been sleeping, but I haven’t been anywhere.

And then there is the number, whatever that number is. It got stuck for a month and I was frustrated, meticulously marking down what I ate like a slave. I am judging myself by a number because I make that number to mean not failing like I have again and again. Whatever failing is. The number is right, but what is right. I'm still fat, because fat has nothing to do with a number. I ate some ginger snaps and feel like I should confess it, but to whom. 

I saw a couple of shows last week: the Sleaford Mods and then Weezer. I didn't plan on seeing Weezer but had gotten on the guest list after a series of weird interactions on e-mail with the lead singer and his PA. They played most of the Blue Album, which keyed into the nostalgia I was looking for, but which felt less compelling as the night wore on. I wasn't ever that happy when I was a teenager. I knew from looking at the set lists online that they would play Buddy Holly in the encore, and I thought about leaving early. What did I care anymore about the drama of high school. About kissing dating goodbye, and purity, and loving Jesus more than everything. I didn’t, I realised — I didn’t care about anything. I came home and Yoko and her friend were drinking wine in our house, the house that we own, in Harborne, in Birmingham, with the white people. I sat with them, eating cheese and talking about home renovations and how I thought I was going to get married when I was seventeen. It's worked out, I guess, I said in Japanese, and went to bed, the rest of the world spinning on and on and my body waiting a couple of hours to wake me up again.

19 October 2017

Absolute zero


After all the white drama, at noon on the second of October, I became a homeowner. This came, of course, without any fanfare, given that we were already residents of the house on Victoria Road. Nothing happened. I was at work, and had to teach. The solicitor e-mailed me to say that things had all gone through and the mortgage company was giving me some cash back. I came home and there it was. The house on Victoria Road as it has always been, with all of its problems that we can now start to chip away at. With the carpets pulled up, and the floorboards sanded and stained, there is a warmth that was lacking before. I tore down three of the doors that had partitioned the ground floor rooms. We got rid of a sofa and I drove out deep into Leicestershire to buy a table from someone in a farmhouse. All things that we have wanted to do for the years we've lived here, but couldn't. Yoko bought lamps, and now the rooms much dimmer at night. Tonight, for example, I was alone in the living room, one lamp lit and all the girls out at various events. I didn't want to go out and understood something I hadn't understood ever before.

This levelling off and achievement of what seemed to be unattainable this time last year, when I still hadn't resolved either my visa nor the money for the visa, makes me think anything is possible. It's a patently American thought. Trump is President; I own a home — what other realities can be made with confidence only. With saying, I will do this.

It is difficult not to feel optimistic. Of course, the persistence, the British pessimism of Brexit and the looming visa applications, the English test for Yoko, and the money to be spent on fixing the house... there are still plenty of holes to fall into. I need a new suit that fits me. I need to put the kids to bed. One thing at a time.
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