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.

25 June 2020

Seventy-five percent


My office at Newman is a time capsule for March 2020. The computer, when you turn it on, opens five tabs of webpages that I last had opened when I left, whatever day had been my last day. I have left some notes for myself for events that never ended up running. Someone has been in to clean a few times, you can tell, and there are letters for me piled up and a book sent by a publisher, but everything else is the way it was. I sat in my chair for a moment and then gathered up the books I needed and left. I got halfway home, walking through the field on the backside of campus when I realised that I had forgotten to get my linen sport coat, the whole reason I had gone in the first place, but it didn't matter now, I thought. It's too hot even for linen. 

I'm editing a book where one author has written extensively in their chapter about Covid and I've wondered, reading it, how dated it will be in a few years. If people will remember the specifics of this time when everything stopped, of lockdown, of two metres distance between people. There is no one image to rally around, no single moment when it happened, like the way you remember where you were on 9/11 and you saw the plane hit the building, the second one because all of the cameras were trained the towers by then. Maybe it will be when you realised it personally when you knew something was wrong. I remember for me, it was that Sunday before the lockdown and the kids went to church even though I didn't really think they should and I went to pick them up and everyone was having coffee together like normal. This is madness, I thought, what are they doing, but even five days before I hadn't thought anything — we had all gone to breakfast to show our support for the neighbourhood pub. I stood in the church, staying away from everyone. One of the women who I normally hugged wanted to hug me then as well, but I was standing too far away and it was clear I was uncomfortable, visibly upset. She rubbed my arm instead, the way you treat someone who is particularly concerned about a political issue that you don't really care about. And then, a week later, it was here. 

My rescheduled marathon was cancelled after it's become more and more clear that this pandemic is not going away before September, despite how much anyone wants to pretend. I felt as though I received the news on a long run, like something you think you hear, but when you pull off your headphones, there was actually nothing. You keep running anyway, what does it matter why you're running. You're not going to stop running now, are you. Of course not, you're ticking off boxes in a plan, tracking changes in your body with metrics like body weight and fat, and heart rate and everything else. The heart rate monitor tells me I am running too many junk miles. The scale tells me I am 61% of the way to 75.9 kgs, that magic arbitrary number I've been chasing for years and years. Some time ago I was convinced I would never have to diet again and then here I am, doing the same thing I have written about for years — stripping naked in the morning to weigh myself. The same scale. The same feeling of my naked feet on the tile. The same looking up at myself in the mirror and thinking, it's okay, you're okay.

Junk miles are the miles you run at 70-75% of your max heart rate. They aren't your best, and they aren't easy. They make you miserable and tired. They open you up to injury, but they are the miles particular kinds of people run naturally. The kind of people that always want to do a little better than whatever they've set out to do. Seventy-five percent is as hard as you can go for a while, for a long time, but when you run like this, you're miserable, you're always on the edge of pain. You can keep going but you don't want to. I'm been running at 75% for years now; it makes sense that I've also been miserable for years. I heard a story of runners who retired and then ran their personal bests when the training schedules were eliminated. I've been thinking about this as I slow to a walk at the end of a run and pull off the chest heart rate monitor. Do I need this at all. Did I ever need it. The sun is well up and I feel it in the grateful way you feel the British sun. You can't put a number against that feeling of a slow easy pace, just the feeling of your body pushing blood through your veins and a road ahead that you could run for years and years.

14 June 2020

So that grace might increase


The lockdown goes on — I am counting the days in the bullet journal I started at the beginning of February and every day passes and it's now somewhere in the eighties I guess. Now though, it all feels normal and the little graces, like the opening of Cafe Nero today, feels like a small gift. There are placards up about how often everyone is washing their hands and how we can all feel safe. The economy has shrunk so much the numbers almost seem meaningless — what does any of that mean to anyone until you don't have a job or can't eat or can't get the things you need. I have a new computer that I got because I can't travel and the money in the budget needs to be spent. It's unequal like everything else. Someone, somewhere out there is dying, but the Pihlajas of Harborne, with all our other problems, have been untouched so far. 

I gained weight for the first two weeks of the lockdown, as I finished my solo marathon and stopped running and was just eating and eating further into a stress spiral. Then like that, I took a different tack and decided to instead drop weight, to make that my obsession and have been filling the bullet journal with charts and notes, to take all the mystery out of it, to analyse it so closely and carefully that when I am losing weight in the future — because I will be losing weight in the future — I will have a plan, it will be clearly laid out for me so that I don't waste my time wondering about how much I need to eat. I have been going for long walks. I've been drinking protein shakes. I've stopped being hungry. The Galaxy watch tells me how many kilocalories I've used and praising me in a way that I find more comforting than the other apps and devices I've used in the past. It understands me. It tells me it's not good to have too many restrictions. It says some weight loss plans are harder than others.

I've been trying to write about my dreams in my journal as well — I'd heard this was something that Bobby Byrd does, writes poetry in the morning based on his dreams. Mei has gone back to school, two days a week, and last night I dreamt she was young again, two or three and her body was covered in growths. I didn't know the name of the disease when I saw it in my dream, and googled all day trying to find it, find its description and a photo of it and finally did: Neurofibromatosis. Of course, Mei is fine, and the dream was just my own insecurities playing out from this active memory of when I was paralysed at the end of the PhD and we were moving and Mei had the most awful eczema and Yoko was washing her in the shower and Mei was crying and Yoko was saying in Japanese, We will not lose to this, again and again. I don't remember having any agency, I remember just listening and feeling a pit in my stomach — I was gaining weight then too, wasn't I. 

The other things, all the work, the books, the three books I'm writing or have written or have edited, the funding bid, the student meetings, have been filling the bullet journal as well and I have been dutifully ticking things off as they come up. At the end of the year, there is an imperceptible moment where the tide has turned and the requests and meetings start to thin out more and more until there are almost none and you have to begin thinking about next year and whatever it will be that you have to do next. What will the Pihlajas of Harborne do when there is some freedom. Now, with none, we do what we can, we go for long walks up towards Hagley Road, and stop to buy iced coffee, which we can buy, a small grace. I fall asleep on the sofa, watching TikTok videos, and shopping for things I don't need online. Before money stops having meaning, I should get a thing. Jeans or a new computer monitor. It is all ending, it's just a matter of how long we can hang on. 

05 May 2020

Should we keep on sinning


There was news this week leaked to the press that schools might reopen for year sixes and Mei, having been putting on the bravest face for this lockdown, was happier than I have seen her, jumping up and down and texting her friends. It's just a report, but we need something to look forward to now, even if it doesn't happen. I keep dreaming every night — Yoko and I are lost somewhere in the car and it's raining. The phone isn't working and I can't bring up a map, but Yoko keeps driving. Or I am somewhere, a mall that was near my house when I was a teenager and I am trying to get an Uber back home, but I don't know where I live. There are sometimes other people with me, but sometimes I'm alone. I wake up and wander downstairs to scroll through my phone, look at the death count here and in the States, and wonder how we'll all remember this in ten years.

I had been training for a marathon since the autumn. I was supposed to run it this last month in Wales. I had trained through the winter, running in Germany when I was there and then in Sweden, when I hurt my back the very last day I was there. I remember still, in the middle of March, saying to someone, I wonder if it will be cancelled. I kept training through to the end though, as the restrictions started to come in more and more and it got to the point that they didn't even want you to run on the canals anymore. And then when it got cancelled, I kept gaining weight, running slower and slower, my shorts getting tighter and tighter. 

Still though, I thought I would run the distance, avoiding the canals where I would have preferred to do it, and instead just run up and down Woodgate Valley nine times, with my Camelbak and some of these vegan jellies I had gotten to eat. I didn't think I would run well — all three months I've had in my mind that I could probably run a three-hour marathon given the right conditions, even though these would clearly not be those conditions. I started out anyway, early on the morning of the fifth of April, like I would have in Wales, but with my headphones in and carrying my water and running back and forth through the woods.

Things went well for about thirty minutes and then it all started to fall apart. I wasn't running fast — I was fat and bloated and the water was heavier than I thought. I was running the steps per minute that I wanted, but I was still slow and my water started to go. It was warmer than it had been, and when I got to the eighteenth or nineteenth mile, I had nearly run out of water, was sweating and exhausted and decided I need to end at the petrol station where I could get water, rather than my plan to walk home after finishing in a flat space. But it became clear as I was going that I wouldn't make it, and when I turned back on mile twenty-three, I knew it was over. I tried to take a sip from the Camelbak and there was nothing there. I came over one of the hills and there on the trash can, leftover from the night before, some party that must have happened in the woods, was a rockstar energy drink. I took it without thinking — it was almost completely full and I poured out some to see there was nothing else in it, and drank out of it. 

My kids are old enough now that I can say what I want sometimes without scaring them. They know to account for my pessimism. Naomi asked me, for a school project, if I believed in life after death and I said, of course not. She said why, and I said, what were you before you were born? You were nothing, and she wrote that down.  

I barely finished, hobbling to the petrol station where I had to ask the attendant to get water and sports drink for me, because they weren't letting anyone in the shop. I sat on the cement and felt again the crushing sense of failure that this year has been, realising that I needed to ask Yoko to come pick me up and drive me home like a child. I sat in the sun and waited and she came in our grey Picasso, a towel over the seat for me to sit on, and an apple. I'm sorry, I said, thank you. 

There must be nothing when you die. How will you know when you're dead anyway: you feel your arms start to go numb, but that's nothing new. Your vision has narrowed this much before. You just press on, you keep running, you'll be fine. The dreams are strange, but everything is strange now. What was I before I was born, I think that in my dream too, standing in someplace that dissolved into something else, that underground supermarket in Helsinki or is it Mundelein in Illinois. The mind soft assembles a reality to offer you, that it thinks you might accept. This seems real enough. There are some familiar parts.