08 July 2018

What we can count

Before Recessional.jpg

On Friday, I stepped on the scale, after my first week of eating more whole foods and another failed attempt at implementing a ‘plant-based’ diet. This is what you say when you don’t want to use the world vegan, with its potentially negative valence for people who inexplicably take pride in eating meat. The failure had been marginal, a bit of cake (butter and milk) and then some butter with my toast at the Plough, though I had asked them specifically not to bring it and was upset that I had been forced into the ethical conundrum of throwing away versus consuming the butter. I ate it, of course, and hated myself and the world for making it so easy. Still, I had done well, I hadn’t eaten too much, the app said, and had eaten cleanly. The app had even praised me and promised a small loss of weight over the next five weeks. But inexplicably, after I stripped down and prepared myself to see a slightly smaller number than last week, my weight was up, a full kilogram and a half, which made no sense. Why, I wanted to ask. Explain this to me. 

Yoko and I married twelve years ago, today. We married when I was just barely twenty four and when I was confident in a way that you are when you marry someone whose language you barely speak and whom you have dated for less than a year. I knew and didn’t let myself doubt it, the commitment of a believer or soldier. Within a year, that confidence had melted away, but that wedding day was glorious and perfect, my family from the States nervously happy, and my future unfurling like a flag in the July sun. The day before, I had smoked cigars with my new brother-in-law on the beach and he had said to me, whatever happens, remember that you have family. It didn’t make sense at the time. 

What can’t you quantify. My Fitness Pal, my smartphone app, helps you log the food that you have eaten in a day. The calorie, or the kilocalorie, is just a measure of how much energy it takes to consume something. How much you have to burn it, physically burn it with fire, in a lab before it disappears. They say — the Internet, the experts on it — one kilogram of fat is burned with seven thousand kilocalories. This science is applied as a pragmatic truth: if you want to lose a pound, make a thirty five hundred calorie deficit. It’s only right as a guiding principle based on an abstraction about fat in a vile in a lab. But it’s like saying most successful couples aren’t afraid to fight: try to apply it and you only get so far.

My ongoing epistemological crises make me a terrible party guest: what is a number anyway — it’s just a metaphor isn’t it. I have an anecdote about numbers and the Vietnam War, but I’ll spare you. And what is twelve years. What is one year. What is a minute — we sit silently with the same cups of coffee in front of us in the pub searching for things that haven’t been said. I didn’t think of this, sitting at the front of that church in Niigata City, waiting and pushing down all my anxiety. You can’t quantify faithfulness. You can count cups of coffee that have gone cold, and nights you’ve gone to bed angry. You can count the time before another child needs to be picked up and brought somewhere else. You can count years together, but it won’t tell you much of anything. You might gain or lose, depending on the conditions. All love is unspeakable anyway, it’s just an abstraction of the day-to-day making and unmaking of a relationship. When you say you are thankful that we are all still healthy, that is love. It is a different love. 

05 July 2018


Stephen Helps Baby

Every summer I fall into the same cycle of wanting to run faster and run farther. The last couple of years, this has been a distraction from losing weight, but this summer, for the first time in years, I am not fat and am not trying to lose weight. These conditions should lead to a sense of calm, a faster, more open pace, and they have, to an extent. Still, there is also the nagging reminder of the old man (Ephesians 4:22-24), a biblical principle which I seem to portage from one stage of life to the next. I run with the weight of the old man on me, the one that is corrupted by its deceitful desires and was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). Somehow, despite being dead, it lives on — a typical Paulian double bind. The old man is both something that you must recognise as being dead, but something you must actively lay aside because it lives on in you.

Whatever is flowering along the newly paved Woodgate Valley path in Birmingham where I run in the morning, smells of Milton Keynes in two thousand and nine, when I first ran long distances in this country. At that time, I was nostalgic for the rice paddies in and around Niigata City and Shiibata, where I had run for much of my early twenties, across Matsuhama Bridge, the Agano River flowing out of the mountains into the Sea of Japan, if you call it the Sea of Japan. Now, running with this smell, I am nostalgic for my late twenties, when I lost my faith, while reading Nietzsche and running along the canals in Milton Keynes. I feel a nostalgia for that precipice, before my faith was gone and before anyone had noticed that I wasn't mouthing along with most of the words anymore. 

And so, the poet Bashou (松尾 芭蕉, 1644–1694) writes:
Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo's cry
I long for Kyoto
I prefer a more literal translation of the Japanese which makes clearer what the poem requires of you:
Kyoto, even
Kyoto nostalgia and
At some point, the never-ending summer becomes a drought. The patches of yellow grass are worrying, and I am starting to see them, as I cut through Senneleys Park on the way home. The football pitch is usually too damp to run through, but not this summer. The British are right, of course: every pleasure turns to worry. The wells dry up and you begin to want the rain, to beg for it. Naomi puts on shoes and hugs me before heading out to secondary school for the first time, for her induction. She cried in that summer heat in Matsuhama, in Japan, now more than ten years ago, when I longed for Matsuhama in Matsuhama. When I pulled on my own shoes to head out and run, like I will this morning, and tomorrow and every day after. The drought can only last so long and it will rain again. This is the nature of things.

02 July 2018


The British summer goes on and on, like the biggest lie I have ever believed. Yoko set up the tent in the garden and I slept out in it with Mei the other night, surprised by the light, at eleven thirty and then two thirty and then four thirty, giddy with the coolness and the warmth and the feeling of the grass through the bottom of the tent. I went running and running again and again, on the canals and through Woodgate Valley, the sun omnipresent, like a bodhisattva sat on the edge of my meditating mind. The book I’m reading now says that we need to see and that means to experience the world before the narrative. If only we could see the world before we start to talk to ourselves about it, start telling whatever story we want to hear.

Seeing is harder than it seems because the narrative imposes itself. Somedays, it’s easier than others. You can look down the walkway at Harborne Cricket Grounds, through the canopy of trees, towards St Peter’s, where bells are almost always ringing. And then, on Sunday, in this same place, a man on a bike, shirtless and drunk, ran up on me and the girls as we walked slowly through the shade, sunburnt and full of stories from the High Street carnival we were going home from. This man rode past and scowled at me, and I said, ‘You aren’t supposed to ride here’ and he slowed, angry and looking back said, ‘It’s a dedicated cycle path.’ He used the word dedicated, which sounded odd, and I laughed a bit pointing at the sign with the bike in the red circle, and he said, ‘I don’t give a fuck what the sign says — this is my country, not yours’ and rode off. The girls didn’t hear, and I said to them, but also to everyone who was there, the people behind us on the path and the woman walking ahead of us, ‘Did you hear that?’ They hadn’t. No one had, just me and this man, who was gone, and whom I hated with all the hate I had in my heart.

White Tara still won’t appear in the summer heat, even though I sit quietly in the coolness of the Buddha Hall. The hay fever, and the frustration of whatever is frustrating me. Where is my compassion, my grounding — White Tara is said to be touching the ground. Why do I hate someone for suffering, there is so much suffering. The leathery skinned man on the bike, full of Strongbrow and angry and afraid, is suffering too: this is what you see prior to the narrative about him, about his hate and ignorance. Who can see him. At St Peter’s, we break to share the peace and I find Yoko through the crowd to share the peace, to make peace. What will guide us through the storm, I wonder, looking up at the stained glass and whatever light is behind it. I’m suffering, and now I see my suffering. Will the narrative drop away in this neverending summer, as the girls run ahead of me, after I have insisted that we go for a walk. My feet are on the ground. I can reach down and touch it.

19 June 2018

Still the breath


When the sun doesn’t go down, you feel giddy and even though you are tired, you aren’t tired. This is what someone said to me in Sweden last week, a man with a moustache in a restaurant who was instantly believable, the way Swedes are in my experience. They come off as having no pretense and when I left after dinner, when I walked home in the midnight sun, I thought he was of course right, and I appreciated this word giddy like I was some sort of child waiting for a summer birthday. I woke up at four or five in the morning because I didn’t bother to close the curtain and left the window open when I went to sleep and the sun kept waking me up. After a week of travel and writing and listening and talking, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t stop myself from getting up and going, running around the lakes in the cool air and finding, by a stroke of luck when I was trying to run another kilometre, a new path through the woods, through the canopy of trees, deeper and deeper into the forest.

Växjö is a small place, but big enough to buy falafel from immigrants in the town centre or to get lost in some group of houses that might as well be a subdivision in the American sense. I saw, walking down the road, an American Chevy Suburban, the big SUV that had surprised me with its ubiquity in Queens this spring. It didn’t seem out of place, but more civilised next to the smaller house and the narrower Swedish streets that had, in one place, flower planters in the middle of the road to slow the traffic. This, I thought, is very Swedish, ardently un-American — people over wealth and machines. I wanted to snap a picture, but didn’t in the end, thinking of how they, the beautiful, imagined Swedish people I was trying to impress, might perceive it, me standing in the road like an idiot. Instead, I kept walking, until I saw Chris across the road and felt whatever feeling you feel when you’ve come home.

When it ended, I woke up in my own bed, in Birmingham, at four thirty in the morning, the British Summer seemingly gone now and my wife sleeping next to me. I made coffee and looked out in the garden, my garden in my home that I can afford for the moment. I weighed myself and felt the fleeting pride of staying thin for another week. I cooked my breakfast and sat at the Ecrol table I bought last autumn after years of eating on the coffee table and thought, but why am I here and not there, or anywhere, in Japan, or Malaysia. It’s the same thought I’ve had for fifteen years, although it lingers less now that I am soon to be thirty six and have begun to realise there's no master narrative. Now, there are things to be done, meditation to get on with and then emails and then the kids will be up to hug me around the neck. There is also, I am reminded, still the breath. Yes, the breath, which you can come back to at any moment. There it is — in and out. Here, in and out, Sweden, in and out, Japan, in and out. In and out. It will continue for some time.

09 June 2018

The heat

Taman Sri Minang

You’ll remember the heat, won’t you, I thought in Malaysia, when the last few weeks of my time there were coming, when I was standing, looking out of the house in Taman Sri Minang into the park that had at times been filled with packs of feral dogs or with men spraying chemicals to kill the dengue-laden mosquitoes. Naomi remembers this well. It was always hot. It rained and things would become muggy and cooler, but it was still hot. You could lay on the bed without covers, in the heat, and look up at the fan, knowing that the autumn wasn’t coming but still thinking that it would come.

The heat that came to Birmingham this year is not real heat, but British heat. The numbers are meaningless, but they are enough to make you sweat when you walk and wear jeans and boots. This is hot in the United Kingdom. It’s muggy until you think of any other place where it is also muggy. I bought linen trousers and told everyone about them. I walked up and down the High Street, enjoying my temporary thinness, cool against the sun, and taking issue, as an international figure in the community, when someone complained about the weather. Let me tell you something about Southeast Asia and Texas. Let me tell you about heat.

Cyprus is hot too and I’m told that Cypriots also think that it is hot. They aren’t stupid, they know what heat is. Momentarily thin in well-pressed linen slacks, I stand in the shade, in the heat, and soak it in. I like it when I don’t have to move, when I can look out at it.

My Grandmother, my father’s mother who raised him alone, who was one half Italian, also loved the heat. Her skin was leathery from the years and years of lying in the sun, smoking cigarettes, though her hair was jet black well after it should have gone grey. I remembering thinking of her as mad and eccentric, but what these mad eccentriticies were exactly escape me now. She liked the sun, and had a fur coat that my parents bought for her. She was petty at times, known to give and then take back gifts. She bought our piano and then resented us when we stopped playing. She said what was on her mind, but couldn’t abide other people doing the same thing, particularly her son and his wife, my mother and father, who loved her with Christian diligence and quiet sadness.

Rosie is hard to pin down as a figure in my mind, now the result of an archeology through reports of her and memories. I can’t tell, as I think about her and her life, what is true. We, my family, my parents and brother and sister, were strict fundamentalists, and Rosie was a free spirit. She was in Germany for a while, sending us nutcrackers at Christmas, and then she was in Minnesota where we would visit her in a house that I remember vaguely. There was a tennis court in the backyard, and a man, shirtless, smoking a pipe. She lived with or nearby an aunt or great-aunt, a woman who appears in my mind as sat at a table in a small room watching television and pressing out from a waffle iron pizzella cookies that would then come to our house by post, stacked and wrapped in aluminium foil.

In my memory, Rosie is there, but not there. I can’t think of anything she said or did. I can’t see her. I remember the clothes she wore, light sun dresses and hats. At some point, she coudn’t stand the Minnesota winters anymore and moved to Arizona and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Dad and I visited her once, sleeping on a fold-out sofa bed. There must have been tension, knowing my father, knowing her, knowing my father and me, but I don’t remember the tension. I remember the smells of Tucson, the citrus, but I can’t find any memories of Rosie.

We are trying our luck in Britain. Another weekend of sun before I left on my trip to Europe. Where are you going again, another person asks, treating my travels like they are much more elaborate and exotic than they feel. Another trip, is it, where to now, Stephen, what country are you going to now? I feign being annoyed, in my linen slacks and thin European shirt. Look at me, I have broken free from my American-self, the fat one in the heavy polo shirt and cargo shorts. I’m just going to Europe for work, as you do. I put on sunglasses and head out onto the tile patio in the Cyproit heat and the blue sky. See me, Rosie, your grandson. I am here now.
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