16 January 2020

The low lights

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The winter is not as cold as it should be and I'm running still. My knee stopped hurting at some point, but when pain goes away, sometimes you can't notice it. You have to think back on it, think back to a time when you might have expected to feel and there is nothing there, no memory of it. There is one place I had always felt it, going up the first hill on the way out towards the university — I can think of it because I had always started thinking that I had somehow overcome it and then it would be there, and I would think to myself that I should stop. Now, without the pain, the anticipation of the pain is also gone and I run and run and run and am unhappy with my time and my weight and everything that I think I can control, but the pain, the thing I can't control, is gone.

I'm staying in a 150 year old house near town in Växjö, the town I can never pronounce until I get here and hear a Swedish person say it and I think, ah yes, I have have not been saying it right, have I. I know it well enough now that when I arrive I don't need to pull out my phone to make sense of where we are and all my past, my last times here alone and with the family, come back in the ways that old memories do. The summer I ran and ran early in the morning went swimming in the lake before seven, the way you can here, just pulling off all your clothes and run into the water, it slowing you down until you fall into it and it catches you. 

03 January 2020

Fall on my enemies

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I was in Costa on the second of January waiting for coffee while my kids, two of them now old enough to be left alone in a store, bought donuts in the shop two doors down. A man, an older man, was asking to see the manager in the queue ahead of me, and we all watched as the manager came out of the back, a man younger than me, but tired looking, and he listened across the counter, nodding and eventually shrugging. Whatever it was, the attitude of the person who had served him, or the thing that he wanted which wasn't available, could not be solved. The older man sat down with a woman who must have been his wife, who was also tired it seemed and I wondered how many times she had to sit, waiting for him to talk to the manager. She must, in some way, also be on his side. She must be — how else can a relationship survive.

Since my running through the cemetery in Germany in November, my knee has been full of doubt. I worried, when it was at its worse: perhaps I have bottled it, all my plans of running this marathon in Wales in April, shot on my overeagerness to get stronger. Every morning that I set out on it, I felt the sort of pain that makes you wonder if the knee will give out entirely. Of course, it won't and you can read all about your patella and the pain you might feel in it from overtraining, or undertraining or whatever. Luckily, it's the kind of pain that you can run through and the kind of pain that diminishes if you keep running, but are careful to not run too much or too hard. After six weeks, as I pushed up the hill to the house on Victoria Road and I thought about how much weight I must have gained over the holiday, the knee was remarkably absent in my narrative of failure and that itself is a kind of middle-aged success. At least my body has not entirely failed me.

The miles or kilometers stack up, depending on how you count them, and I managed to finally talk myself into something about running I have been trying to learn for years and years: you can't always run as fast as you can. That in fact, most of the time you need to run slow or you won't be able to run fast when you need to run fast. You need to run slowly to build your capillaries in your legs, to get the oxygen throughout the whole body. You can breathe as deeply as you want — if the oxygen doesn't move through you, you can't use it. I kept running one day even though my watch had failed and when I came home and checked my time, I had run as fast as I needed to without knowing it. You only need to run fast on race day.

The girls did get their donuts, the vegan ones that Greggs is doing now and we wandered around the British strip mall, me staring at my phone — news of the world burning or drowning or war and the girls sorting through clothes and cards. We bought pasta and made it at home, Naomi and me. I was terrified of being a father when I became one, when I was twenty four, but it's twenty-twenty now and I am thirty eight and I own a home and will have a teenager this year. Naomi made sauce from scratch and I watched and helped boil the pasta feeling elderly, a sliver of my future. Is the pasta done, I asked, and we each pulled one out, ate them and agreed they were done.

28 December 2019

Who says you can't get stoned

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Christmas came and went at the Pihlajas of Harborne like it has for the last three years now, with everyone shuttling between St Peters and the house, the girls singing in the choir and the mulled wine and the sun setting sometime around four.

12 December 2019

Cut your losses

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The December variety of rain came at just the right time this year, this morning when I was supposed to set out for a short five kilometer run. I didn't realise how badly it was raining until I was stood at the bottom of War Lane, fussing with my smartwatch, the one I got in November on sale to replace the Garmin and which has been causing me grief with its inability to execute its promised brilliance. Why, I wondered, standing in the rain hunched over my wrist, had it stopped tracking my run, I had not stopped running. When it came to, and I continued on, my whole body ached with a mixture of injuries. My knee from over running in November. My ribs from a bike fall caused by a middle-aged women in a white SUV and my arms from a failed attempt to bench press a laughably small amount of weight on Tuesday. I pressed on anyway, determined to not let this, this of all things, stop me.

I've fallen off my bike a few times over the years. I fell badly in Niigata once. It was foggy and I was riding on the path by the sea at night. There were barriers and I didn't see them. I was fine, but I landed on my chest and tore my trousers. I walked the bike for a few hundred meters after the fall and then tentatively got on it again. The frame was bent, but I was fine. My fall this week was in the daylight: I was coming through the roundabout, on my bike, I knew that the woman in the white SUV didn't see me, because she hadn't made eye contact with me. I swerved as a precaution and then slipped, and fell on myself into the grass in the middle of the roundabout. I took a moment to stand up, as you do. The woman got out of the SUV and said to me, 'I didn't see you' and I said, 'No shit you didn't see me' and walked my bike to the adjacent road. No one stopped — the woman must have gone on and I thought of ten or fifteen things I wish I would have said to her, self-righteous things about the climate, and baby boomers, and being kind, but it dissipated and I got back on the bike and rode on.

Around that same time I fell in Japan, for some reason I spoke with an investment planner, the sort of guy who had been an English teacher for many years and decided he was now, instead, going to sell investment funds. We spoke on the phone, I remember, and he asked me a series of questions about what I wanted from my life — was I planning on getting married and having children. Would I stay in Japan long term, or was I planning on going home. When and where did I want to retire. I was twenty three and all of the questions didn't have believable answers — I sputtered through the conversation and hung up feeling worried that I had to act immediately to secure my financial future, or it would be lost. I would never retire, would I, given my trajectory which seemed to be headed towards years of Assistant Language Teacher work in elementary schools.

That didn't happen, of course, and less than a year later I was sitting in a gynecologist's office like a boy who had been pulled out of a high school class. I realised I had answered all the questions about my future in the ten months that followed — yes, apparently I was going to get married and have children. In fact, it had already begun when I hung up the phone. I just hadn't seen it.

We did, it turned out, invest in some stock, not sold by a failed English teacher, but a young Japanese woman from the bank who came to tell us about a new European fund that opened in 2007 and which we sank an unfortunate amount of our savings into, without realising again the future that was coming in 2008 when the market stopped being the market we had been promised. Everything was halved, but by that time we were in the UK, pursuing something else and I could put it out of my mind while I studied and, according to the maths I did, if we just saved the dividends we were being paid, in 20 years, the loss would be made up. It was a silly thought, but something that kept me sane about it.

Things more-or-less did work out, for whatever that means to twenty-three year-old me. The house on Victoria Road has taken over our financial lives, and we decided this last month that another room, a converted loft, would be worth more than some imaginary stock price number on the computer screen, and we finally have resigned ourselves to selling it. But really, as I time travel back to me in my early twenties, to tell him the bad news, I'm not sure he can wrap his mind around the rest of it. The money seems almost inconsequential, as I put it in the context of building out a home that we own in the UK, where, yes, we live and have lived for quite some time. Me, nearing my forties, still feels it as a loss, but I realise you can take the sting off if you get up and swear loudly, but quickly accept that it's not nearly as bad as it could have been and being angry won't help anyway. Being angry won't help anyway. The bike is okay, from what you can tell, just ride a bit more slowly, get your confidence back. It's already happened, hasn't it.

31 October 2019

Value for Money


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I woke up on Sunday morning and changed all of the clocks in the house that hadn't automatically ticked back to Greenwich Mean Time. When you do this well as a father, there is naturally some kind of confusion when people start to wake up as to what time it really is — surely not all of the clocks had changed themselves overnight. Like all the other magical things that happen at night, Santa or the tooth fairy, you wake in the morning and something good has somehow came and went unnoticed. Dad sitting on the sofa with his phone to greet you; good morning, a whole world of things happened while you were sleeping.

I started running when I was 23, that year when everything was changing for me. In the autumn of 2005 when Yoko and I started going out, Neal showed me the cheap prefectural gym down by Ogata, by the Jusco, by the elementary school I used to work at every Friday. There was a teacher at that school I had a crush on the year before, the kind of woman who had everything sorted out, a Japanese Mary Poppins who made you think, I should probably dress better. That sense that I should probably dress better is my abiding memory of my early twenties. I had been fighting through a constant corn syrup hangover, my life essentially being organised like I was ten year old with cashflow. I bought sleeves of cookies for 100 yen because I could. But the incongruity of the life I wanted to live and life I was living became more pronounced as I found myself regularly stood next to Yoko, dressed smartly in her white pressed blouses and skirts that sat perfectly on the knee. It was time to grow up.

Getting healthy was key to my attempt at self improvement, and I remember awkwardly getting on the gym scale for the first time after someone had barated me for not taking my shoes off, and not knowing what to make of the number. The prefectural gym experience was always slightly awkward because there were no other foreigners there, just Neal and I sticking out like AAA baseball team mascots. This meant we had regular conversations around exercise equipment with old Japanese men and women who, long retired, were both healthier and more confident in their own bodies than me. I remember a very strong man in his late seventies, shockingly fluent in English, telling me that I was fat around the back and had a lot of potential for growing my upper body strength. I started running on the treadmill and then outside, in the rice paddies early on Saturday mornings, and by the time I had married and Naomi was born, it was two years later and I transformed into something unrecognisable, the sort of guy who got up at five in the morning to ride my bicycle in the hills around Shiibata to be back by eight to cook eggs for the girls, my wife and daughter, whenever they woke up. 

Somehow, after some time, all of that managed to turn dark, the way you reveal the spirits within you when you tinker around with the structure of your body — genetic spirits, the obsessive ones, that tell you what you may and may not eat. The ones that come to you through your mother's side of the family, the letters your Grandfather wrote to your Grandmother when he was deployed in Korea, warning her not to get fat. You get the first taste of control, of realising that after 27 years of being fat, you could be thin, actually people could call you thin. You tick off a day and another day of a calorie deficit and strip down to weigh yourself in the early morning and you are actually thin.

I run much faster now than I did when I was younger — when I was younger I believed I had limits to how fast I could run, but those limits had no basis in the physiology of my body. Now, I know the numbers, can plan to run eight kilometers tomorrow in thirty four minutes, because that is the pace I need as a baseline to reach whatever goal I've set out. I don't feel much magic when I run, not like I did, but it does come sometimes and I have become the quintessential middle-aged runner, the kind who hopes to feel the way I did when I was younger, when the sun came up over the mountains east of Niigata. That feeling when you're somewhere out there in the world, but you're not entirely sure where. A rice paddy on the Agano River, a stone bridge in rural Buckinghamshire. You stand in the morning mist and feel something of which you can't conceive, so you can't name it. You just feel it. 

I'll be fat or thin the rest of my life, I realise. It's just the way it is now. There are better days than other days. I can run fast and then eat secretly at night, the ice cream that I bought and since there is only a little left, I can eat it without feeling like I need to explain it to the girls who keep close tabs on the amount of ice cream in the house, whenever there is some. It's a Pihlaja problem, eating ice cream at night, I tell myself. It's a genetic thing.  Everything is physiological — that both comforts and unsettles me. There are metrics you can put against whatever you want. Spreadsheets for budgets, value for money, sure, but also for weight. Here is a spreadsheet of numbers — it tells me how fast my body can run. The eighty nine kilogram version of me climbs on the scale for the first time and shrugs, not knowing what he's gotten himself into.

24 October 2019

Sifting

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The fog rolled in yesterday and I kissed Yoko goodbye in the dark as I left early. There are too many things going on day-to-day, the girls swimming and choir and my work things and dinner here or there. But we still stand for a moment in the kitchen, in the blue light, and stop, like we are young again, like we are saying goodbye when we were young. Like our love is the same love as when we were young, that night we walked down to the Sea of Japan in the dark. We sat together in the sand, didn't we, without the words to say whatever would come from that exact moment when you lean into a lover for the first time and trust your weight against theirs.

I competed in mock trial club when I was in high school. Mock trial was the sort of brainy performance sport that appealed to me as a fourteen year-old — appearing clever, regardless of whether or not I was actually clever. We were homeschooled, and some critical mass of us attended the same church, so we managed to field a team in the regional competition. They did it one year before I was in high school and I watched jealousy, then when I was a freshman and my brother was a senior, we teamed up with another family in the church, a family of thirteen that had three or four of them in high school — all the same sort of brainy performative types that my brother and I were.

Being homeschooled, I was never quite sure how brainy I was — we took standardised tests as children that told us we were brilliant, but when it came time to go to university, my scores were average at best. I didn't get into the most competitive school I had applied to, having bottled the interview. They asked me about how I understood my role in my community and I didn't have any answer. I had never thought of my community.

The mock trial competition pitted us, the homeschooled team, against a larger Catholic private school called Cathedral. At the time, the political nature of this competition was lost on me, but we were, the homeschoolers, representing an ideology more than anything. That yes, we were intelligent in spite of being religious and our parents could teach us as well as any private school could. Fourteen year-old me didn't have any sense of this struggle in a real way, even though I was participating actively in it. I wrote to the El Paso Times once chastising them for not referring to evolution as a 'theory' in their reporting on some story, and showing this printed letter with a broad, contemptuous smile at Sunday School when it appeared. I had shown them, hadn't I.

One of the sons from the family of thirteen was my best friend. We did the things that brainy best friend homeschoolers did: listened to Phantom of the Opera on CDs and had sleepovers and stayed up late talking, although about what, I can't seem to remember now. We spent the night once in his family's van when we were driving back from a Promise Keeper's rally in Dallas and parked at his aunt's house in Midland. We visited Tony Evans' church on that trip too, I remember, and there was a skit about masturbation, a word that I had never heard, and I remember leaning over to ask Gabe what it was and he said, it's like when you do it with a bed, and I nodded like I understood, but wondered what it was exactly.

That year, the year that I was on the mock trial team, we won the regional final against Cathedral. It was close, I think, a few points out of fifty, but we were intensely proud and went on to the State competition in Dallas. I don't remember much about that trip to Dallas except that there were strip clubs lining the freeways and we did very poorly — we didn't manage to make it out of the first round, even though Cathedral got to the semifinals or something, I think. It didn't matter though — we had made our point. The Christian kids, the ones who supposedly lacked social skills and the intellectual benefits of public education could perform as well as their peers. Even better.

I ended up leaving for Chicago that next year. I don't remember saying goodbye to Gabe when we left, or if I have felt any sadness going. I don't think that I did. I remember that an adult from the church gave me Green Day's Dookie and I put it in my CD player in the back of car as we left — I'm not growing up, I'm just burning out — and thought that I needed to keep this to myself if I was going to keep it.

I saw him years later in New York City, when I was doing my PhD and had two small children and was chasing some odd, stray connections with researchers who had invited me for one-off talks to undergraduates. He had gone on to NYU law school and was working in corporate law in the city. We had dinner in a sushi restaurant in midtown with dark lighting and he looked many years older, tired in the way you are tired in your late twenties, and paid for us. He had left the church like me and he and several of his siblings had come out. It all seemed obvious as I thought back on it, but hadn't occurred to me when we were kids talking all night. That was before there was sex, before I would talk the same way with my girlfriend a few years later, lying on her bedroom floor waiting for curfew to come. He showed me some pictures of him with his partner in Mexico and we said goodbye and I went back to Milton Keynes in England where Yoko and I were living.

What is love, I think now, I am now able to think. It must be many things. It must be things of which you can't even conceive, can't articulate, at the time you experience them. I tell my students that our conceptions are tied to words, and without words, we have don't have concepts. What is love. Naomi hugs me as she leaves and I kiss her head and watch her walk away, down the street, into the fog. I love you, I say. I say, I love you, but it is a love more than I can conceive. You let your weight lean into someone for the first time, you hold each other up and a life cascades out. Years and years, children, a list of things you can never articulate. All you can do is stand and watch it. Perhaps you'll name it when you're older.

20 October 2019

When I turn out the lights

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The rains come back in a welcome way after the summer of climate change and the worry I had every day it seemed that it was warmed than it should have been. Even now though, when we have a fire drill and go outside and a colleague points out there are mushrooms growing because it is both warm and wet, I wonder, is this because the world is burning. How quickly are things changing, how quickly will we all need to adapt. I shouldn't think about this, but I do, and then when I don't, I feel badly that I haven't, even though it does nothing but make me even more miserable than I normally am. I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of glass as I walk across campus and don't recognise the fat man I am now in this body with a beard. Who am I — I want to say it to myself, who are you. Where did you come from.

Naomi and I wandered through the city yesterday, going in and out of shops and looking at vintage clothes, before we came up to the Cathedral to see the others sing. The cathedrals cause you to look up, of course, to think about how small you are, and I contrasted this with my experience of Christianity when I was younger and how internal it was all meant to be. Everyone sang and I got lost in my thoughts so that Naomi had to point out to me where we were in the order of service when we came to the last hymn.

Outside of the church, it seems as though Brexit Britain has taken the sort of toll on the mental health of enough people that you must be careful to not trip over the young and the old people who are sitting on the ground in sleeping bags with paper cups and cardboard signs. This contrasted with the evangelical Christians that were singing on the corner with a homeless man, standing uncomfortably close to them and singing and pointing in the way that caused a kind of tension. Another preacher on the corner was telling everyone how sinful they were and how they would never repent even though that was all we needed, a kind of religious taunting, just daring us to ask for forgiveness, while another man in dreads was giving away incense that when someone tried to take without paying, was told that they should make a donation to some charity. I had the girls hold my hands so we could weave through the people, look at whatever new halloween plastic was for sale, although the girls are now aware of this, of the oceans filling with rubbish and won't buy it now.

Now it will get cold, hopefully and we'll have at least one more winter. Someone asks how I got permission to grow my beard and I want to answer, I'm thirty-seven now, my whole life has been asking for permission. I don't need permission any more. My headphone broke and I bought new headphones. I don't need permission, I don't need to say anything. I stand back and watch the children start to sort things out for themselves and I think, what does it matter anyway. I can't sleep, it's two in the morning and so I suppose I'll open up what ever file I'm working on. Meditate, and make some coffee. The world will spin with you, you don't need to do anything to have it keep you going.

24 September 2019

Surrounded by water

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Last night, I dreamt that Birmingham was surrounded by water, that you could stand at some point and see that we'd been cut off from London. I tried to turn on the TV and there was electricity, but the BBC was gone. In the dream, I accepted it — at least the house was still standing, though in the way you wonder about continuity when you're dreaming, I thought about where the food was coming from, did we have any food. We must have, I wasn't hungry or thirsty.

I woke to the buzz of my activity tracker and the blue light and the sound of rain. I made coffee and there was some sound coming from outside that I couldn't place, like furniture was being moved, and I realised it might be thunder and the rain became heavier and lighter and I wondered, listening to it, if it was too warm for September, was this what we should expect in September. I thought I would meditate to the sound of the rain and I did, counting up to four and holding for four and then releasing for four and holding for four, but I couldn't keep count, I kept feeling panic, like I wasn't getting enough air. My head hung and I realised I had nodded off — I opened my eyes and it was seventeen minutes passed and I needed to read my email now.

The weather report says it will rain all day and tomorrow and this now is something I worry about — is the rain normal, should I be worried. Are the floods coming and as I open the shade to look outside, I look to see if and how swiftly the rain water is running down Victoria road. The house itself, the energy we use to heat and run our lives is carbon neutral, but what does that matter. It's only one thing and what does it matter if we all go vegan if there is no structural change. That's what they say anyway, but that's easy to say when you don't have to face your kids every day and try to teach them something, they have to live with this, and you can't just say to them like you do to people on Twitter, it's a structural problem, it doesn't matter what you do. You can't patronise them. You can't tell them it will all be okay, can you.

When I was a kid we worried about the apocalypse, but it was always something that someone told you about, that Jesus would come back suddenly without any notice. He would appear with the shout of a trumpet, those words, and I would sometimes hear the sound of a horn and be concerned, think that things were suddenly over. There was nothing to actually see though, no weather report, no melting ice sheet. Just that Jesus would suddenly be here and it would suddenly be over. Maybe seven years of tribulation, if you believed in that sort of thing, if you were a post-trib believer and thought we would have to endure some trials to be tested before Jesus really came back and ruled in peace for a thousand years. Seven years, anyone can manage seven years.

My daughter wants to strike on Fridays and I'm not sure what to say to her. I'm the enemy now, aren't I, I was the one who for thirty years or more dumped the CO2 into the atmosphere and not thought about it. I was an adult in the year two thousand, but I didn't know. I should have known. What am I supposed to say to her, tell her no, tell her that the teachers who say they can't strike are right. The eldest one said that, We aren't allowed to strike, and I said, that's the exact point — they don't want you to strike, they won't let you strike. At what point do we all need to put everything down — I don't know sweetheart, I don't know what to do either. Shut of the TV now, it's time to go to school anyway.

23 September 2019

Where the world starts

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Shinjuku goes in all directions. Every building seems to rise both up and deep into the ground; Google maps sometimes asks you what of eight levels are you on, what space do you inhabit. When I was younger without a phone, all of this was a vibrating mess of energy and possibility. I went first when I was twenty two, exactly fifteen years ago wasn't it now, when my mission as a missionary had failed and I was taking a job I didn't know anything about and heading north to Niigata later in the week. I was still an American and I wanted to buy Dr Pepper from the vending machines — they hadn't had it in Fukuoka. I was homesick, but it was becoming clear that I couldn't go back and the future would be nothing like the past.

I'm not twenty two anymore and the future seems less uncertain, a slow decline I can see down rather than a cliff. One starts to have the false sense there's little surprise left at this point in life, that you can see how this story ends. This is the insufferable thought of your late thirties: the only person who believes you are old is you. I nodded off on the train and woke up suddenly at Ogikubo, the foreign announcement stressing the wrong syllable to make it sound strange in Japanese. Now, hotels are booked for me: I say that I want some place with a breakfast and hope that I'll find something I can eat among the eggs and bacons and fish and milk powder bread. I pull on a linen sport jacket and take the train around and meet people who they say appreciate what I have to say to them or to their classes, but I'm sceptical about it, not whether I've said anything useful, but whether there is anything useful to say at all.

Time goes in three dimensions too. I look up as I wait to cross the road and there is Keio Plaza, the luxury hotel my dad had booked when my family came before the wedding, when they had money and the world wasn't starting to burn. I wasn't concerned that week they came, three or four days before the wedding, but it makes no sense — I was getting married, wasn't I, to someone I barely knew, in a country I barely knew, in a language I barely knew. A year later, I would have a one month old baby and we would be back in Tokyo for something else, I forget what now, but there are pictures to prove it. And then two years later — eleven years ago to the day wasn't it — we were going to the UK. Was I paying attention at all. I must have been, I think, I have to give myself some credit. I must have packed it somewhere, must have had some faith, like following a portage path you trust leads to some other, some bigger body of water, even if you can't be sure.

They say that the climate crisis will get worse now, that there are feedback loops that will make bad things compound and the knock-on effects mean the second half our millennial lives will get progressively worse, that our children will suffer. We deserve it, I think, as I take my vegan meal and beer on a transcontinental flight with hundreds of other people. What am I doing, what are any of us doing, playing in-flight Tetris and annoyed that there are still seven hours left and the person in front of me has reclined their seat. Are they using a straw too, dear god, there is nothing stopping us now, is there. We do the same things, but those same things compound and what we could have absorbed before, we can't now. An angry look as young lovers meant nothing, it dissolved like salt in water. Now we've become insolvent, unable to dissolve the same thing, now the sediment settles at the bottom, you can see it grow until the water is gone entirely and it is only sediment. Who is the last one off this rocketship.

And then of course, everything is still normal despite it being a bit hot. You pay your mortgage and take a shower. Like that. You go to work and teach classes. You weigh yourself. You pull on your trainers when your Garmin Vivosmart Plus buzzes you awake at five in the morning on the other side of the world and you go in search of some straight road to run. When I was younger, I never stayed in hotels. I remember this as I make the turn and run another seven hundred meters, what does it matter. When I was younger I took the bus overnight and the whispered voice of the bus driver in white gloves would wake me in Ikebukuro. The sun would be coming up, yes, I can remember it all, and I would sit in the cafe or McDonalds and eat meat without thinking about it and wonder about the future. Now, I am older but not yet old. I sit on the curb, in front of the hotel, staring at my phone, sweat puddling on the asphalt, waiting before it's time to go back inside. 

27 August 2019

Double Fantasy


Victoria Road is lined with cars on both sides, shockingly nice ones at times, like a Ferrari or a Porsche just there, just parallel parked next to something else. Woke like I am, I both hate and desire that Porsche SUV, the perfect representation of what I would immediately buy if I managed to properly sell out and also get more for my soul than it's actually worth. Cars get stolen regularly on the street. There are urban myths now I've heard about mean in balaclavas stealing BMWs and Audis. Our neighbour's car was taken. The corridor of cars creates a need for lovingkindness, for people to give way in a polite middle class way, to let others pass, and I find this bit of British life, this cordial attitude on the road, to be evidence that at its core, the story I tell myself about England is more-or-less right. People wave and flash their headlamps, You go ahead, you were here first to be fair, lovely weather anyway, isn't it.

This cordial attitude breaks down at times, often in dramatic ways, like the car that ploughed in another neighbour when they were parking and which sped off and which was never caught. You stand around shocked by the incivility of it all, they just drove off did they? Remarkable. Then, at other times, it breaks down when two well-groomed men, parodies of themselves, in large German cars will be head to head and neither will give way. A pissing match will play out, build to the most obvious ending of one of them finally giving way, but it can go on for minutes sometimes. They are the sorts of men you expect would not want to give way. They are not woke, clearly not worried about their carbon footprint. They sit there, in their white German cars and shout at one another, making their point like it matters. I have to stop myself from going out their in my pyjamas, and telling them the truth. I've been watching you from the bay window there, from my house. None of this matters. You're both going to die — we're all going to die.

Of course, I'm not aggressive enough to do that, but who can blame me: it's becoming increasingly obvious in the growth of my thin beard, that I have a comically low amount of testosterone, undoubtedly due to my plant-based, protein-deficient diet and the fact that my parents let me cross stitch images of Precious Moments figurines as a pastime. The contrast couldn't be more obvious. These men are driving fast and interrupted me nervously waiting for a letter from my employer, doing exactly the sort of thing a man with low testosterone might: keeping my mind off of it by watching old interviews of John Lennon on YouTube. It's a weak self-indulgence all the way down.

I went for a long walk on Friday, the first day the letter didn't come. I walked up to town and thought I might watch a film and was one touchscreen step away from seeing the new Tarantino film before I felt guilty for wanting to watch something roughly in the male gaze genre, and decided I was too woke for this, wasn't I. We've cancelled Tarantino now, haven't we, and even if I could maybe put that thought out of my head, I would be counting how long the men were talking rather than the women. How minorities were being represented. It would go on and on, wouldn't it.

So I kept walking. I had a coffee and thought about having a vegan cookie, something my wokeness would allow theoretically if I was capable of eating like a normal person, which I certainly can't at the moment. I decided against it, exerting some self-control, which I suppose could be considered Spartan. Manish. I had a series of violent dreams and woke to my daughter saying she was sick and ended up sleeping the rest of the night on the sofa. Someone on Twitter said that the beard you have is the one you have. A tautology, sure, but all the best truths are stated as tautologies. I get up and make coffee and look in the mirror. Maybe it is filling in some, I can't tell. I've been watching you, I think, none of this matters.
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