01 October 2014

October Vignettes, Day 1

2014-10-01 05.00.38

At 4:45, everything is still. I slept almost 6 hours. The gym doesn't open for an hour, so I answer e-mails, make tea, walk back and forth between the front office and the kitchen in the back. It's getting cold enough to need coats now, the ones we've passed down from child to child over the years, and didn't sell when went to Malaysia. I, foolishly, gave mine away, and so think, passing the coats: given enough time, you need all the things you left behind.

30 September 2014

Vignette for mornings, September 2014

2014-09-28 08.17.31

Every morning, I leave to go to the gym between 5:50 and 5:55. I run up the hill, and depending how early I am, there are people milling about in front of the automatic doors, waiting to get in. I used to wait with them, but now I just keep running, add another three or five minutes on and come back after they have opened the doors. Whom do you want to talk to at six in the morning anyway.

I see the same people every morning, like the two old men who are having a chat on War Lane. There are young men sitting sometimes on the benches at the top of War Lane, drinking or smoking, either coming from or going to work. A teenager on a BMX bike whom I see every day now. Coming down the pavement, he scared me the first time.

In the gym, there is the same group of people, including one of the old men from the road who appears and stands in a dark corner of the functional workout space to do simple biceps curls, no one bothering to turn on the lights. There are middle-aged, middle-class men and women who are giving it a go, trying to get in shape because their GP told them, when they had that scare last year with the chest pain, that then needed to take some exercise. They plod along purposefully on the treadmills, looking out onto Lordswood Road, the sun starting to come up.

On Tuesdays through Fridays, there is a spinning class, filled mostly with women in their early thirties, and one older white  man, balding, who does biceps curls beforehand, and sometimes a middle-aged black man, with a gut. Another woman at the front plays loud music and asks every day if anyone has any injuries — no one does — and then shouts at them for a half an hour.

I stand in the back of the room, but turn around and face the wall, doing a cycle of functional exercises: thirty five seconds on, fifteen seconds rest. Burpees (3x), sit-ups with medicine ball (3x), press ups on hanging stirrups (3x), burpees (3x), planking (3x), dumbell lifts (3x), kettle bell throws (3x), and burpees (3x), or some mix of those things. I sweat all over my pad and wipe is up vigorously with paper towel because one of the guys — a guy with dreadlocks whom I also meet walking the kids to school and at gymnastics on Saturdays and at swimming class on Sundays or Fridays — told me that someone had complained about the Canadian in glasses not wiping his mat. I try not to think about anything, about the other people in the room, or who might or might not see me. Steve, the guy with the dreadlocks, tries to have a chat some times, but I feel awkward and silly and pathetic, sweating like a pig. A guy once said to me, 'Mate, it looks someone dumped a bucket of water on you.' Yes, it does.

I finish sometime after six thirty and run out past the workers waiting for the bus. Today, there was a guy with an energy drink and cigarette and hat. Very slim. I chugged past, the new me, the fat man in the deflated body. All my clothes reminding me that I am a fat man: they hang more spectacularly now, soaked and heavy like a flag on a pole. Here I am, swimming in the old me. I get home, take it off, make eggs, and sit in front of the iPad. Everyone will wake up eventually: I can hear Yoko showering, the girls' alarm clock squawking in Japanese. It's just a moment, I tell myself, this body, this life, this vocation. Every day you stand up and open the door and go out, is a gift.

28 September 2014

Where the spirit meets the bone

2014-09-28 08.05.14

Somewhere along the way, you always lose the reason that you started out. This is a metaphor that is not true of its own concrete sense. No one forgets their destination on a real journey. On a real journey you never have any question when it is over. We have arrived. The end.

The metaphor of the journey is insufficient but only in the way that all metaphors are insufficient. Conceptual places are not places at all,of course. They are nothing, they are the firing of synapses in the brain. They are electricity and chemicals. That's it: that's all anything else ever can be.

On Sunday, Naomi had her first swim meet and we, as a family, took another step in that direction — the one where we are consumed with all the coming and going of the family life and whatever it was that I had wanted, as a 23 year old, sitting with Yoko on the beach in Matsuhama, seemed to have faded entirely into the vapour of real life. It's not in any way a complaint, just an observation. So it goes.

I am not, I've never felt, built for this life or this part of my life, despite my overwhelming commitment to it and desire to somehow be like all the other men, the good fathers who are present and engaged. Instead, I feel as ever like some actor, an extra in the social world play, who if you look closely enough is just standing there, not really taking part. As someone who has wasted so much of my life on social theory, I've become a kind of a disgruntled magician watching a magic show. All this threat of violence in the whistles and command — even the cheering on, all a threat of euphemistic and imagined force. The bake sales. The entrance fees. The angry middle aged women and men in matching polo shirts. Anyone can make a social structure capable of control given the possibility that something can be won.

Naomi swam after I watched these heats after heats of kids I didn't care anything about, hating the sound of the whistle with each blow. She swam as well as she could, neither the best nor the worst and got out of the water after waving at us. I took the other girls out for a walk and took pictures of the old King Edwards School, looked over by the Birmingham University clock tower. It had been warm after a cold August and the girls told Yoko, when we got back, that we had been on an adventure.

I wonder if I had been better at this given more time, if I had waited, as my generation has so far, to have kids later, if at all. At the school on the adventure with the girls, I could hear a church meeting inside one of the buildings, an amazing uninspired praise song leaking out of the doors. You are mighty to save. I had sung those exact words as a believer, as someone watching the show and believing in it, but now I can only think of the metaphor that I can't seem to access any more, mighty to save. What did I think that had meant. Had I thought it meant anything.

At some point in the play, all the extras have to recite the chorus lines and of course, I mouth along. Naomi is unhappy with her result and I comforted her the best I could. It's a lifetime of disappointment, I want to say. You think it's bad now, wait until you start falling in love. The best you can do is rarely enough to win. Best get used to it. Instead, for a moment, I manage to tell the truth, to reach down and find the part of me that is a competent father, the one that I want to be: I love you, I say, the one thing I actually mean. You did your best and I love you. I can't give you much, but I can give you that.

2014-09-28 10.44.36

27 September 2014

The things we carry


Joanna Skelt writes about swifts, birds from Africa, migrated to Birmingham:
like magnets they are pulled
navigating on a memory of stars
to rear their young under the eaves of our houses.
Sometime between Wednesday and Thursday, my two months of getting up every morning to go to the gym paid off, and my weight came back to roughly what it was before all of this started. All of this: the run-up to my viva and the move to Kajang. The first two weeks in that hotel when I was unsettled in a way that I had never been before and ate and ate every breakfast they had set out for us — Malay, Indian, Chinese, Western. All of this: all the times I had stopped, walking home from the bus or station to buy pork pau, the big one that was only RM2.

All the ice cream and beer, the cheap Indian whisky I bought at Cold Storage, or nights at the Commonwealth Club, when I smoked too. The mee goreng, nasi goreng, nasi lemak, tandoori, naan, tosai, curries, nasi ayam. All of this: I had carried it back with me to England, and then kept it coming with the stress here, feeling heavier and heavier eating handfulls of cereal late at night. Something to cover the fear and nervousness: what will fall apart next, when will the whole thing be found out.

When you know how much you weigh, and how much you have weighed in the past, you can't see yourself with other people's eyes: You look fine, seriously, I thought you had gotten fat: you're not fat. It was the principle that bothered me; an unwillingness to give up and accept that I am older, I will weigh more. It is not just fat from getting older: it is fat from insecurity and lack of control. It embodied an inability to cope and followed me around. I would look in the mirror and see it reminding me that I wasn't really okay: you can hide from others, but you can't hide from your own gaze. This morning, though, I stood on the scale with the weight lifted. I looked in the mirror and didn't see my own insecurity built up and hanging on.

This week, I walked across the Newman quad to teach for the first time, my body back underneath me and a sense from the people around me that things were going to get better — empirical evidence, a pay scale progression sheet, a pension number. I rode my bike into the city centre to Joanna's poetry reading full of hope and happiness: somehow I had managed to make it back to a home that becomes more home every day. A swift from the poem, a foreign bird making my own home on Victoria Rd. The flooring men came and pulled up the mouldy linoleum and gave us a new kitchen. I rode a bike through Hyde Park, and kept waking up at 4:30 wanting the day to start.

We've seen the high water mark. The water is receding. Pull on my shoes, head out into the dark, the University of Birmingham clock tower watching over me. Every step of every run is a step back and forward, to erasing the past and building on it. The kids wake up. Yoko does their hair. The leaves change colour and we walk to school. Every day is a new day.
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