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 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

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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.

30 April 2020

Growth mindset


On the boat

In a lockdown, the past becomes whatever you want it to be. What do you remember. Sat on a longboat south of Birmingham, I drink coffee while the girls drink juice. They are wearing lifejackets and I am in jeans and a shirt that are tight because I have been gaining weight for the Spring. I can't stop eating. Outside of the picture, somewhere, are Yoko and her father. Yoko spent the night in a B&B and I slept miserably, hot and claustrophobic on a narrow bench, six inches separating me and my father-in-law all night, while the three girls slept in the back of the boat. I kept worrying something would happen, the boat would sink, that my father-in-law would need something or do something, and the night went on and on. I can make a list of three or four moments from the trip, looking at the pictures. I don't remember the rest of it.

The days come and go and I wake up every morning with a brief moment of forgetfulness. What had been dreams and what had been real. I dream now, every night, that Yoko is somewhere else, and I am back in high school or at work or in Japan. My watch buzzes me awake and then it is all there again. Yoko is sleeping next to me, the grey light is coming through a crack between the curtains that we never manage to close completely. It's still lockdown. We still don't know when it will end. We don't know what the end will look like.

The girls wanted to watch home videos and there was one of us in Torremolinos, in Spain watching the sunrise, before Mia was born. I'm on the edge of the video, once sitting in a swing looking out and once, holding Mei in the distance. Yoko and the girls are playing and I am watching quietly, unhappy, aren't I. Or another video of us driving through America in 2012 for my sister's wedding, and as the shot pans to the back, to the girls full of excitement and energy, you can see me and hear my music playing. I'm listening to No Knife, and I am trying, I realise now, to recapture something of being young, of driving all day or night to some show and yet, here I am in this situation, with three kids and my wife, my PhD mostly done in England with no clear future ahead of me and no way back to the past. I chose to listen to all these emo bands, like I was articulating some seventeen-year-old's feeling, even though I was 30. I can't tell what I was thinking — I was trying not to think anything.

The girls bubble and live on — it's a kind of grace. The sun too is a kind of grace, the warm weather which last year was a sign of global warming, of the climate crisis, seemingly put on hold while something else burns metaphorically for a while. I am unhappy now, I can say that without worrying about the consequences. I can tell you why and can even tell you about the past, all the things I've wanted over the years that never happened, how on that longboat trip I had thought Yoko and I might have a night together away from the kids with nothing on our minds but each other. Of course, that was a ridiculous thought, it was never going to happen, but I had it anyway, I still wanted it. I still felt I wanted it.

When you can name something, when you can say what it is, you gain power over it. I write endlessly, for years and years I have been, about how words give structure to feelings and experience. How categories, how naming things creates and solves problems. You pull out the map you've drawn and point to a place: it's here, but here is still just your drawing, some impression of some place that never will be real. Another day ticks by, so what if you can articulate your feelings. 

02 April 2020

Sickness and Health

Cotwolds

The weather is turning now, or it should be turning. I look at the forecast for Sunday, when I'm planning to run my marathon early in the morning, when I can social distance myself from everyone and run slow and heavy alone. It's going to be warm, almost. What is a summer that you watch through the window glass. What will any of the future hold. We were worried about the singularity last year — now, I just want bread flour and arborio rice.

We took a trip to the Cotswolds in January 2012. Naomi had Scarlett Fever, she was quite ill. It was an illness that I didn't think people got anymore, and could barely believe, but there it was. That year was the final year of my PhD — we had just had Mia and I had the sense of being up to my neck in water, with it rising, standing on my toes, wondering how much more was coming, when I would go under. We planned this holiday for January because it was Yoko's birthday, but the trip made less and less sense the closer it came. Still I had made the plans and stubbornly refused to cancel — I had done this before when we went in our honeymoon and Yoko was ill, but we went anyway. We couldn't lose the money, could we. That was the one thing we couldn't lose.

The car wouldn't start on Tuesday night. I had packed up the reusable shopping bags and taken a list of things to buy at the supermarket. There was still something in the battery, but not enough for it to turn over, and I opened the door of the house shouting in that the car wasn't starting, I was stuck. The lockdown goes quickly from being annoying to be a crisis — what if we don't have a car anymore, what if the car has a flat. A neighbour came out to help and it took five tries to get it to work, and then it turned over and I physically felt the pressure leave me and I wondered why I ever took something like the car starting for granted.

I promise now to never take it for granted, but it's ridiculous. Like how I said a prayer, a kind of prayer, when I put the key in after shopping and willed with everything I had in me that the battery wouldn't be dead again. Please. And it started and I thought again, I will never take this for granted, and of course, I will take it for granted.

When I was younger, I got pneumonia once. I remember very little about it now, except that I felt something from my parents I don't ever remember feeling again. It was a kind of love, now as I think about it, that a parent feels for a sick child. A prayer even if you don't pray — a will, that sheer will for your energy to flow out of you into your child to make them well. Take me instead of them, even if it's ridiculous, even if the child is not that sick, but you think it, don't you. You think stupid things when you're scared. I remember getting a shot that was big and necessary and I remember my father holding me. 

Most illnesses you survive, of course. Even Scarlett Fever and when you look back at the pictures, depending on what you want to remember, you can remember what you want. I don't know what I want to remember now. I have wanted forever to be positive, to put a positive spin on the hard times, all the hard times, there have been. Each year there was something, wasn't there. We made a practice of not telling the truth because it was too hard. I keep wanting to cry, I'd been crying weakly, pathetically before the lockdown. Now, there is no context for it. I wake up from a dream about a world that doesn't exist anymore. I was on a plane, and I wake and think, oh there are no more planes. It was just a dream. 

30 March 2020

Before everything

Warwick Castle

Mei says, The start of Week Two, while stretching her arms above her head and I think, yes, it is isn't it. It's been one week or two weeks, or two months, or two years — it doesn't seem to matter. Someone said on the TV that we might be like this for six months and I thought, what is six months. September? Who even knows what a month is, time is just a construct.

The apocalypse was never far off when I was young — I lived in constant fear of the rapture, that Jesus would appear in the clouds and take my family and hopefully me, on to paradise. I've been told a story about when I was young, sometime before I can remember, of coming into the house and telling everyone excitedly that Jesus was coming back. My parents ran out with me into the garden, the American backyard, and there over the trees, a Mickey Mouse hot air balloon had appeared. This story is supposed to be funny, but it's not funny to me anymore, because now all I can think is how, in this time that I don't remember, had I known a story of Jesus coming back. How primed had I been from two or three or four to think that in a moment, everything would stop, that a trumpet, an actual physical trumpet, would be blown and Jesus would come back to either take me away or not, depending on some set of rules that I could not, of course, understand. How fundamentally unstable does that make a person. 

That end never came. I wonder now about the people that were the most whipped up. There was this kid called Lance and his parents were prophesy junkies who thought the rapture was even more imminent than my family did. I wonder if this crisis has them back into it, reading Revelation like they can figure out who the beast is now, and what each of the seven heads and ten horns, and the crowns on the horns, represent. I'm sure, somewhere in my family's basement there is a three-ring binder from a course his parents taught at the church, explaining what each of these things represented in the early-mid-nineties, when it must have been Madeline Albright or Bill Clinton. But who is the antichrist now. What things can you count as multiples of ten or seven or what could be added up to be six-sixty-six. It was credit cards then for a while, wasn't it — the beast was everywhere. 

Marking time in a lockdown is not simple. The weekend came and went and as I think about what we did, I can't remember. I suspect this will be the whole experience. We were in lockdown for three or four or six months. We fought sometimes and cried sometimes and laughed sometimes. We did a lot of drawing and school worksheets. We didn't think about the future for a while. We tried to stay out of each other's way as much as we could. Or some concrete things: I finally cleaned a stain on the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. I finally fixed my bike brakes. Naomi and I made dinner. We ate together and put aside some of the frustrations. There's no point in making any decisions anyway if we are here for now in suspended animation. I will get paid this month, yes? And next month too? Then we will be okay. 

Things feel okay now, but it's hard to tell. They say deaths are a lagging indicator in a pandemic, so more people can be dying even when things get better. And any number can mean anything you want it to mean. There is always something that will have killed more people than this virus. And Jesus could still be coming back, we can't rule that out. This is just another chance to be right, another series of three-ring binders to fill with cloze test nonsense answers. It turns out you can count anything by ten or seven or six. It's Monday now, the thirtieth. Make of that what you will.

25 March 2020

I wish we'd all been ready

Batu Cavees 

When the lockdown order came, we had been expecting it. These are unprecedented times people are saying, but then that is starting to sound trite even after a week of it. It all came so slowly and then all at once. A week ago, I was still going to work, I think now. A week ago the kids were still in school. A week ago, we could go to the pub. Writing about it now, in the midst of it feels melodramatic. We can't go outside except for essential goods and that suddenly feels normal after only a day and half of it. Now we say things like, I hope there is bread in the supermarket, but if there's not, we'll manage. We feel like things haven't gotten that bad, that they could still get worse, but that we could still be okay.

I went to Sainsbury's in Selly Oak on Saturday afternoon to get Yoko a card for Mothering Sunday and some other things, some fruit and veg and some bread, whatever we could find. People were not panic buying, but there was no toilet paper and some of the refrigerator cases had blinds pulled in front of them because they were empty. I got apples and bananas and cucumbers and found a card for Yoko, although I didn't know what to buy. There were no bagels at first glance, but when I got down to look in the bottom shelf, there were two wholemeal bags, and a man, seeing me on the ground asked me to get one for him. I gave him the one I had, and he said, Thanks ever so much and then Oh, no, these are wholemeal my wife isn't that healthy. I took both of them thinking, is there any time for that now, for not liking one kind of a bagel over another.

I ran on Sunday morning, twelve miles up the canal, and finally, the weather was good — crisp and clear air and the water from the canals reflecting up in the underside of the bridges. I passed people running and had the sense that the air they were breathing out was the air I was breathing in, that I was closer to them than I had ever been aware. I ran under Galton Bridge and when the watch ticked over 6 miles, I turned to go back, thinking that the lockdown order was coming and this might be my last run for a while.

You want to think back to remember some happiness from the past. What had it been like to be able to do anything and choose not to. What were the concerns about money, about planning for the future. What had stopped you from doing anything. 

Before all of this, we had been paying a woman forty pounds for fifty minutes to help us talk to each other and make sense of where we've found ourselves at this point in our lives, like Tom Sawyer and Becky having unwound kite-line as they ventured into the cave. For years and years, we've unravelled it, heading deeper and deeper into the dark, and when asked to pull on it, to remember the way back, the line's gone slack. I pull and pull hoping at some point it will become taunt, that it will finally catch on whatever we anchored it on. And then what's the point of catching on that anchor, of finding a way back if the tunnel collapsed at some point. You can say you never should have come in, you never should have started, but none of that matters now. We are where we are, sat in the dark together.

I ran again this morning, joking as I left about government-mandated exercise. The girls are all in high spirits, watching films, and chatting with their friends on the phone. Every night they make a presentation about their days, which are clever and funny and then we read the Hobbit out loud and I obsessively check the news on my phone, until I am completely mad. We go to sleep and then wake up and maybe we will think about the future at some point, about what it is we want, about what love is, really, about what we want. For now, it's just another day. The sun has come up and for now, we can go into the garden and sit in it and be grateful.

09 March 2020

In these final hours


Every long run this year has found me caught out in the rain and wind — this is the peril of training in February in the UK. The other day I got up too early on a Saturday morning to run twenty miles, the peak of the training schedule which you hit twice in this particular plan. You pull on your shoes this early in the morning and you set out alone, but you can't think about it too much. You can't think as you huff up Victoria Road, you can't think that you have almost three hours of this ahead of you. You just have to go.

This run went well until mile thirteen where I may or may not have hit the wall, but the real problem was the torrential downpour that started right as I came back through the city centre and was trying to cross a bridge. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there was wind and big, heavy drops of rain and I lost a minute on mile fifteen and then sixteen and then seventeen and then up the hill back to the house eighteen and nineteen. I got home and my hands were frozen, and I spent the next hour reliving it in my mind, looking at the data my smartwatch had recorded, thinking about heartrates and race pace.

I was alone during the Chuetsu earthquake in 2004, the year before I met my partner and wife and everything changed. I was watching Magnolia on a VHS tape and sitting on a used sofa, in my apartment on the Agano River and I remember wondering what to do. Should I go outside. Should I shelter under the table. I wanted to call someone, but there was no one to call, I realised. I just sat through it, feeling the building shake and thinking it was too much like an amusement park ride. It felt fake. And then it stopped. My apartment building — Heights Riverside, spelt in katakana haitsu ribasaido — which was old and rusting, stayed standing and I looked out the window into the night to see if anything had changed and at least in that small fishing village on the edge of Niigata, nothing had.

Everything in that apartment was used or had been given to me. A woman from my company, Mrs Nunogawa, took me to some house where she was helping a friend move and she gave me flatware and something to hang my washing on. She found me a car, a Nissan Alto, for 50,000 yen that needed snow tyres I couldn't afford, and which had a load of VHS porno tapes stuffed in a paper bag underneath the driver's seat. I was still faithful then, still worried about things like purity, and when I put the first tape in and saw what it was, I shut it off immediately and threw it all out, feeling guilty and afraid and excited.

I keep trying to remember that year, 2004, 2005, remember what I was feeling without fifteen years of everything that's happened obscuring it. I was alone a lot wasn't I. I was wandering around the back streets of Niigata on the weekends, trying to get out of the debt I took on moving there. I had been teaching English at a church in Fukuoka and I felt like Jonah, but without a call I was running from. I was starting then to realise that terrible yawning black hole thatbwould eventually swallow me: there never was a call was there. Whatever I had planned, whatever future I thought was in front of me when I was so certain and so young, had been an Evangelical fever dream. None of it had been really real. And now, in the absence of that, there seemed to be nothing left to lose, I thought I had lost it all.

You remember yourself fifteen years later and wonder how you could think that, but that's it, that's what I was thinking. I was twenty-two.

I have my students define love sometimes because it's hard and it makes the point that useful concepts are difficult to articulate, that words are a mirage. What is love. You think about this when you're on a long run and you've filed through whatever backlog of thoughts you've had for the week, the arguments you need to avoid, so you have them in your head. When there's little left to think about, when you've been alone for two hours on an empty canal towpath outside of Birmingham on the other side of the world from where you started. You're shaking out your mind like a piggy bank, trying to make that last coin align perfectly and come out in your hand. That perfect truth, whatever it is before the rain starts up again and your body takes over.

10 February 2020

A Fundamental Unhappiness

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In February 2005, I was in Niigata and teaching in elementary schools every day until four in the afternoon. This is fifteen years ago now. I had nothing going on, and would ride down to Bandai in the city sometimes after I got my motorbike and didn't have to pay to park. A friend told me that everything has changed there, that money came in and there are far more high-rise, luxury apartments, but then, all of the golden era money, the eighties and the unlimited flow of cash, had dried up and it was the beginning of another lost decade. I made enough money at the time to buy the two new Bright Eyes CDs that came out that month, but I'm sure that I wasn't happy about paying whatever I had to pay for them — two thousand yen each, it must have been. I can remember getting them and opening them up and then listening to them for months on end.

When you're asked to think back, to remember something specific, all the mundane details of life, of fifteen years, are essentially gone. There are some stories I've told over and over again through the years that have highlights and laugh lines — these stories gloss over the things I actually said, but don't remember saying. The cutting things, the blunt things, about wanting or not wanting to have kids. About whatever my expectations were when I went to Japan, or came to Britain, or married. I'm thirty-seven now, so I imagine that I saw the world the way that I see it as a thirty-seven year old, but of course, I did not, did I. I saw it how I did when I was that age — it was neither right nor wrong.

It was raining and windy yesterday, but I went out running anyway. The marathon training schedule said I needed to run 17 miles and I mapped a run longer than that to be able to mark the distance the same forward and back. When I left, it was not bad, but I came up to Greenfield Road and a tree had fallen and there were men cutting it apart and clearing the road. I ran down to the High Street and back up on to my route, keeping a decent pace for the first six miles and then slowly my legs began to give out, little by little until I got to the turn-around point and thought, there's no way I can make it back like this.

As a rule, when you're running and tired, you need to engage in positive self-talk, saying this and that about the nature of pain and accepting that things will get better if you press on. They will, of course, get better, you can make it through almost anything, but I hadn't prepared for this run — I hadn't eaten properly or brought water and I thought, as I came to mile fifteen, realising that I had got too far out and it would be more like nineteen miles in the end, of course it's going to be okay, but what if it's not. What if it isn't and I collapse here on the side of this canal. I haven't seen another runner in thirty minutes, but surely someone would see me.

Of course, it was fine. The road was still closed at Greenfield Road and I got home, inside of the house with the girls watching whatever it was that they were watching and I realised my hands were seizing up and I drank all the water I could, pouring sugar in it, and Yoko asking if I was okay. Of course, I was okay, but I couldn't answer. I sat down on the toilet seat and told myself I was okay, that I had made a dumb mistake. It was just a dumb mistake, wasn't it. I made my way to church and sat in the front row alone while the processional came in and I thumbed through to the first hymn, and then I wasn't okay. We sat and stood once or twice and it was getting worse and when we stood again for everyone to recite the creed, I slipped out the side of the pew, said I was sorry to the sidesperson and went to the bathroom to throw up.

You should, when asked, be able to recall a specific happy moment from some period of your life, but I find it hard to come up with something, particularly when the parameters are narrowed. Recall a happy moment from that February in Niigata. I can, I'm sure that I can, but the inability to answer quickly is unsettling. I remember an awkward conversation I had in my little blue Nissan Alto. I remember it always being windy. You can make a narrative out of the absence of a specific answer. You do it when you've given up, when you don't want to have to do something anymore. You say to yourself, I can't remember because I never have been happy. You know that isn't true. Of course, it isn't true. You were happy. You just can't remember anymore.

30 January 2020

Testify

American with meat

I stopped eating meat for the first time in the autumn of 2002, having been to an academic talk about the sexual politics of meat. The year had been tough for me, for a number of reasons that I don’t need to go into here. I don’t know what was particularly effective about the presentation, but at that point in my life, everything seemed to be up in the air, while at the same time, I was still young enough to think there was some safety net below me. and at the next dinner with friends, I said that I was thinking about giving vegetarianism a try and one of the first year students started laughing — You? There’s no way you can be a vegetarian.

That was true, basically. Vegetarianism didn’t match my character in any way. I was a loud, fat, white, American male college student who loved Jesus. I had every right to eat meat, all day every day. Still, my vanity at the moment, my own bloody mindedness, somehow caused me to dig in, to want to show Shirley that, no, I could actually do it. I went some six months without meat that time until the next year when I graduated from college and everything went weak in the knees for a few months and I never seemed to find my footing again.

As a child, I was terrified of the apocalypse — that Jesus would come immediately and I, at 12, would either be left behind in the tribulation to fend for myself because my family, the really spiritual ones, were taken away. Or worse, that I would be taken too, and somehow miss out on the rest of life. I was fervently religious, evangelical, ready to argue about pro-life issues at the drop of a hat, with imaginary people whom I had never met, the liberals, the gays, the atheists, the vegans.

This is relevant only because I really believed it, and I remember really believing it. I remember thinking the world was a particular way that it turned out not to be and I remember the feeling that you have when you have to rethink not just one thing in your life, but everything. I’m not sure where and when I really realised it, but I remember when it started: sitting across the table from a seventy-five year old Japanese man to whom I was supposed to be teaching the gospel at a small church in Fukuoka, in Japan, in 2003. Where I finally thought to myself, what if everything I know about the world is wrong.

I came back to vegetarianism when I returned to the UK in 2014, when I was sat round a table with a bunch of colleagues I was trying to impress and it turned out half of them were vegetarians. I told my story from college and went a month without meat until having two sausages in February and realising that I didn’t need it anymore.

And then sometime in 2018, that summer, I started to cut out milk and butter and was at a party where someone asked if I was going vegan and I said I was trying. They said something about how it was impossible to be vegan because you had to bring your own food everywhere and about not being able to give up butter and cheese — this cake we’re eating has milk in it — and I went on to say the sort of thing I’ve been careful not so say in polite company now, Yeah, but if some cow was in front of us and we could see it being inseminated and giving birth and the baby being taken from it to be slaughtered, we’d probably be less like to want to have its milk, wouldn’t we. This cake wouldn’t taste so good.

That same summer my brother and I went to Paris and walked some 50 or 60 kilometres in three days and found vegan food everywhere and then I lived in an apartment by myself in Sweden for a month and cooked plants only and wrote and wrote and it was over then, I had converted. I didn’t, it turns out, miss cheese at all.

Now, my own daughter is 12. I don’t know what to say to her about anything, because I remember being 12 and being terrified of my parents, of doing the wrong thing, of making them unhappy. She’s a vegetarian, and I’m proud, of course, but I worry as you do as a parent, about your influence on your kids, about the things you say, what they’ll remember when they’re older. I don’t eat meat, I’ll say, you do what you want — it’s of course never that simple. I want it to be, but it’s not. The other girls still want chicken nuggets and I buy them and feel guilty. I want you to not want this. But not because I want you to not want it. I just want you to not want it. When you say it, it’s madness, isn’t it. I want you to want this for yourself.
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