18 July 2018

A more suitable metric

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The clouds moved in yesterday, over Newman, and I set out walking back towards town with the feeling that I might get rained on. I walked up through Weoley Castle and past Selly Oak Park where I had, several years ago, confronted some travellers for driving on the grass. The clouds stayed dark for most of the walk, but there was never any rain and I came across to the University of Birmingham both relieved and disappointed because we really do need the rain now.

Like a new convert, I have taken to the insufferable life of plant-based and ethical eating with my typical religious zeal, but I've been feeling like a failure, to be honest, with all the nibbling I've done on the edges, both consciously and unconsciously. The last straw was the vegetarian Quorn sausage I eat at work, which turned out to be full of (free-range) egg whites. My frustration about losing them and about my carelessness in not realising they weren't plant-based slipped into feelings of inefficacy about the state of the world, a spiral of thoughts about Trump, Evangelicalism, and the plastic that seems to choke everything in the modern world. On a better day, I would have turned inward to focus on my breath, meditation being the other wire of zealotry I am holding at the moment. I've recently learned that there is no self anyway, no me to eat the (free-range) egg whites, and if I were just able to see (in italics) the world as it is, my anxiety would fall away. I've had promising results, but more often than not, I find myself drowning in an elaborate story, my past and present flooding over me. I'm told I should expect this.

The sausages behind me, I recommitted myself, in the queue at Costa. Turning over a package of a nut and dark chocolate snack, I figured it was okay — no egg whites or milk or butter lurking inside. Sure, it had sugar, added sugar even, but I could forgive myself for that, today at least. I ordered an iced coffee and was disappointed with myself for not having my own cup. I asked for no straw or lid and the barista taking my money nodded annoyingly, but told no one else. Having experienced a similar situation before at the Harborne Costa, I knew I would have to follow its progress. Glancing up from my phone, the plastic cup did, of course, get a straw carelessly thrown into it. I panicked and leaned over the counter to repeat myself for the woman making the drink, the one to whom the message had not been passed: I asked for no lid or straw, please. This woman also stared at me, confused and annoyed, and I shot an angry look at the first barista, while pushing down the urge to make more out of it. I'm living more ethically, I stopped myself from saying, a series of insufferable choices has led me here.

Despite the vigilance this plant-based diet requires, I'm feeling a noticeable freedom from choice and anxiety, bad habits I've fostered about food since I was seven and half or eight years old. I've called off the agreement I made with the fitness app, the agreement which stipulated that as long as I was below a certain, arbitrary number, I could eat as much butter as I wanted. Now, with it all out of the picture, I'm free to pursue other, more suitable metrics. Perhaps, eventually, what I see, when what I see stops being a lie.

I woke up this morning, made my vegan protein pancake with almond milk and applesauce (normal, not unsweetened — ego me absolvo) and pulled on my shoes to run. I've focused recently on keeping the heart steady at a high aerobic rate, one hundred and forty nine beats per minute. This is always hard initially. My body chugged to a start — the old man, the fat man, telling me that I was still fat. But then it broke through, as I got to the canal, to one hundred and forty five and then fifty and then I slowed and sped up and fell into a groove, like a metronome. There it is, I thought, the yawning now, the thing I am meant to see, the blue morning light and the narrowboats mooring on the banks. One hundred and fifty, and then slowing and falling back. I stopped looking at my wrist, my body now somewhere underneath me or beside me or in me. My body somewhere, breathing in and out, in and out, like a lung.

08 July 2018

What we can count

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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

Pace

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:
京にても
京なつかしや
時鳥
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
hototogisu
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

Lodestar


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

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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.
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