22 September 2017

It's the end of the world


Yesterday, as the rain was stopping, Naomi and I set out for an open night at the secondary school she will likely attend — an all girls school just about a mile walk from the house on Victoria Road. We walked up there and back, holding hands and chatting about the school and life in the UK and the trip to Japan Yoko and the girls will take sometime next year. The school was everything I wanted for her, from my impression — small and serious, but not too serious and the student that took us around had an intelligent conversation with Naomi and me about the things that they did. I worried a bit outloud about it being single sex, and the student told me not to worry, that girls took on the role of boys in the school sometimes. It's hard to explain, she said, but I knew what she meant. Later, I brought it up to Naomi during a small rejoinder about gender fluidity, after she shrugged her shoulders when I returned to the point.

On the way home, Naomi and I also talked of alcohol and drugs because the year sixes has seen a video wherein some boys have a drink with their mates. Naomi used that word mates to describe the friends and that stuck with me for some reason, standing out like an odd marker of Britishness in an otherwise unmarked conversation. Naomi was adamant about never taking drugs or wanting to drink and we chatted about our experiences, her's with me drinking, and mine with my teetotal parents. We talked about her friends and the schools they wanted to attend and the entrance exams. We rounded the corner at War Lane and came back to home, Naomi disappearing into the house and me lingering on some work that I needed to do on my computer in the front room.

The contracts for the house on Victoria Road are finally signed today. Once the landlady has signed them, no one can pull out, which seems to be the underlying concern in house buying — it will be ours from the second of October. Like the completion of the PhD or my weight loss this summer, the ending of this process has felt like less of an accomplishment than I thought it would. I'm thirty five, and this is the first home I've owned. I shouldn't be worried about settling down, and the implications of another three to five years in this place, but I am. What other future could have been imagined, I think as I ride my bike down and then up and then down and up again to Newman University on the edge of Birmingham, this place that I love, but only really fell into by accident. Chris came through on Wednesday night, sleeping on our sofa on the way to Herefordshire like it was 2015 again, and I suddenly wanted to be back in the Swedish woods, heaving with spirits. Some image of me, the atheist, standing after a long run, my shirt off and sweating in the early morning air, mouthing take me with you to the trees, like my life might suddenly become a Haruki Murakami novel.

The whole of my experience in this country can be described in the anecdote of ordering toast instead of full English breakfast at a men's breakfast. I describe myself as an immigrant and people stare at my blankly — I guess that you technically are, but it's different. There are immigrants, and then there are immigrants. Of course you would buy a house. I feel my British consciousness magically appears at these moments to say, You must remember that the organising principle in this country is class. Your class dictates the future you have, not your immigration status. My life is full of these little interactions that are best explained in the awkwardness they produce — it's funny the things one can learn by being stared at blankly. Oh, you were being disingenuous. Right, yes, sorry. Who knows if you should apologise or just shut up.  There is nothing less British than a genuine apology.

I feel fine. I feel out of place and awkward. I feel baited. I feel complacent. I lack energy. I feel the opposite of angry most of the time now, but I don't know how to describe it. I feel like I have more to do than others. I feel tired. I feel worried about the end of the world, and then silly for worrying about the end of the world. I feel happy to be under seventy six kilograms and then immediately worried that next week, or next month, or next year, I will not be. I'm frustrated with Britishness and my lack of it. I've let my coffee get cold, haven't I. The sun is coming up — I best go for my run.

17 September 2017

Seventy six


The weather continues to fall into wet leaves and early sunsets that will now repeat until March of next year. This, for me, is a welcome return, one that signals an end to one kind of mania triggered by the sun coming up before five in the morning. I reluctantly turned on the heating on Friday, after feeling like I wasn’t going to ever get warm underneath a jumper and my coat. I stood by the radiator as it warmed up and thought about the things that we need to do to fix the living room after we torn out all the carpet in July. I need to seal the floorboards and put some sealant under the skirting. Buy a rug. Have the boiler replaced.

The house is almost nearly ours, after several months of going back and forth with the solicitors. I email Tina every few days now to push the point that things haven’t been completed and ask why it seems to have taken so long. Tina assures me that they have been passing information back-and-forth between each other, two sets of British solicitors having tea at every occasion they can and moaning about something having gone pear-shaped, one imagines. Or rather, what I imagine, as an American who is trying to get in the minds of the islanders and who just wants it all to be done last week.

Luckily, thanks to some apparent personal growth afforded by meditation, the house-buying process has beem less upsetting that it might have been last year. Two or three weary British acquaintances looked at me with pity when I talked about my brother buying a house in a week in the Lubbock, in the States, and told me to expect it would take several months, even in the best case scenario. So I’ve relaxed now, and am taking it in stride, saving my wrath for customer service elsewhere, like my father might. Besides, something is bound to break on the house in the next week anyway, and better it be the landlady’s responsibility.

In the meanwhile, there are other things to attend to, like my weight, which finally has fallen back below seventy six kilograms, to where I was in the end of 2015 for several months. It took a couple of weeks, once when it was low and I was euphoric before it ticked up again for a week, and then low again, and then back up, but now up and below seventy six, which is what I wanted all along. I don’t feel good about it, unfortunately – now it just feels like a number. Instead, I have the sort of nervous energy that comes with having accomplished something that you now need to maintain. Thinness is not something achieved, it is something maintained. You gotta do it every day, while still thinking to yourself, I am a fat person. You look in the mirror and still see eighty eight kilogram Stephen looking back at you.

My legs are hurting from running on new insoles, so I had to take a day off of running, but with no weight to drop, that part of the game and the motivation to bring down the number even further diminishes. There is little else to do. The fitness vloggers I watch all talk about an endless series of challenges, but this just sounds exhausting to me. I don’t want to have a positive mindset. I don’t have the patience for it. Instead, I just want to be normal. I want to eat a cookie and not think about it. I want to wander around a pet store without feeling lethargic and tired, without taking note of the expected life span of the small animals, and wondering about the next thirty years, and whether I will feel this way forever.

Instead, I am still overly cautious, ordering toast at a men’s breakfast I went to with some people from the church, and causing some consternation among the organisers for not ordering what everyone else had and then suggesting, it appeared, that I was eating less as some morally superior position as a thin person, rather than the truth that I was worried about eating too much and spending too much of the family’s money, which makes no sense from the outside. You look fine, Stephen – you have plenty of money and no one is going to kick you out of the country. Yes, no, you’re right, it’s just that, I just don’t… and of course it can’t be explained.

The work is beginning to pile up again and I marked MA dissertations for several weeks and then worked on transcriptions for one of the new books and then transcriptions for another book chapter about deixis and then edited some of the writing for another. We had a staff meeting and I took over some responsibility for our research group and managing a small budget. Yoko and I had coffee and I disappeared into the the Birmingham University library for an afternoon. All the things that have become habit around this time of year, ignoring the feeling of my body and however uncomfortable or comfortable it is. I look in the mirror and still feel fat – I can’t seem to make sense of myself as a thinner person. My suit coat is probably too big now, isn’t it, but I will also probably be fat again in no time. Better wait it out until after Christmas at least.

08 September 2017

Bull by the horns


The weather took a turn last week, when things got wet and then cold and on my bicycle, riding down and back to Quarter Horse Coffee in town, I noticed the leaves changing on the Bristol Road. People in Birmingham refer to Bristol Road with a determiner, ‘the’ for a reason I can’t seem to figure out, despite the fact that language is my expertise and I am a doctor of it. There is word of a new cycle path, going from the university to the city, and if this does happen, my life will reach a new level of perfection, on my bike that I bought stolen from an Eastern European man on Gumtree and capped with my new Bern helmet. A young man, younger than me, not middle-aged, said, as I was riding up Victoria Road, That’s a shitty bike, and I immediately responded, Well, you’re a shitty person, and felt incredibly smug for thinking of such a great comeback so quickly.

Pithy, belittling replies are something that my bout with meditation has challenged me to give up. Cultivation, the metaphor that the Buddhists use, has been subtly appearing in other parts of my life, like when I am standing barefoot at my computer and notice the feeling of my feet on the ground. Or when I avoid saying something angry to Yoko or the children. We learned about this in Christianity, but under the heading of holding your tongue which is a metaphor followed by a metonymy, and is about self-control. You are bad and you need to control yourself. Now, with no need to be good, the anger you withhold is just about having less negativity around you and in you. I say that as an interpretation of what I experienced. I’m not sure what it is exactly. We all have to fight less now.

I don’t know if this has been noticeable to the rest of the family – whenever I proudly announce a personal achievement, it’s rightly met with scepticism. I’ve been walking with better posture, have you noticed? I cleaned up the garden, did you see? It’s silly. There are enough children in the house, I don’t need to behave like one as well.

Perhaps this is just what normal people do, at normal times. Someone said to me, as I recounted all the restrictions of my visa and what is and is not illegal, You’re very concerned about doing something illegal, aren’t you, and I said, Yes. Yes, if you do the wrong thing, you might get thrown out of the country. Or sent to jail. Or judged by god. I explain this to people, or try to. I grew up in a cloud of fear. The world was ending. Jesus was coming, likely before I had a chance to have sex. There were only a very few people who could be counted faithful. I hoped it would be me, but I wasn’t sure. It might not be and where would that leave me. Burning in hell, for all eternity, that’s where. Think of how that would be. So best try to avoid stupid slip ups, like doing illegal things.

I open my eyes after an hour and look around. Things are brighter and louder and when asked if I have something to say, I genuinely have nothing to say. There is hope, you think, if you have nothing to say, because silence has an untangling effect. Sure, the past remains, but the past always remains, isn’t it. You don’t need a pat on the head for doing right, or Jesus to reward you. The reward is there already. You just have to stand up, breath in and out. Unlock your bike and ride home. The insurance algorithms will protect you or they won't. Who's to say.

07 September 2017

Ready to die


I woke up again this morning at three. I’ve made peace with this when it happens. Some concerns remain about my own longevity and the pestering sense that I will just drop dead at one moment, my body healthy otherwise. These are silly though — I can buy so much insurance for so little. The algorithms are all in my favour. Still, I'm trying to improve on it, get back to the goal I had in 2011, before everything happened. I took all my clothes off and weighed myself, the feeling, and then reminded with that number, of being right on the precipice. Almost there, but not quite there.

The recovery of my health and the feeling of imminent death seem to go hand-in-hand. When I went to give blood, the nurse struggled to find my pulse, and when she did, she had the apologetic look on her face that I remember from a couple of years ago when I was running a lot. I had to sprint up and down the stairs to get my pulse above fifty. When I come back, slightly out of breath, and she checks me again, I say, joking, I promise that I’m not dead yet.

My own death has been a kind of nagging existential thorn as I turned thirty-five this summer, but the practicalities of it have also been on my mind, as I buy the house on Victoria Road. My death, apart from the conceptual struggle, is only problematic if it actually happens. Not because I end up dead, I'm ambivalent about that, but because it interrupts cash flow. The family can't afford to do business without me, to be frank. I have resented this in the past, of course, but something about my experience meditating has dislodged this resentment. That quiet voice of whoever is leading, telling you to be kind and non-judgemental of yourself. To appreciate that when your mind wanders, that is the moment that you have learned, that you have noticed it. That acceptance has started to creep into the other crevices of my life. You do not have to be good.

When I wake up early, I tend to avoid thinking about death. Instead, I think of all the things I need to do — all the marking and the transcription and then the nagging feeling of the insurance, yes the house insurance and the life insurance, which I've been putting off. I finally decided to face it — went to my bank's website and played with the sliders of the different things that they could offer me, with different variables. When will I need the money, and how much will I need. When will Mei be eighteen: 2027, isn't it, ten years. Mia will be eighteen in 2029. I will be forty-seven. How much money will they need then. I play with the sliders and end up on a number and agree to it. There, I think, and set up a direct debit for the 25th of the month, right after I get paid. And then I face my pension too, I had been putting off a problem I was having accessing my information online. My e-mail I sent never got answered, so I called and fought through the phone tree and queue, fifty-one people ahead of me I was told and thirty minutes of waiting. I went to work and printed out the form and turned it in, it should all be fine now.  Now I can die. I am ready to die.

I had been daydreaming last Thursday about my next trip to London and when it might come — there was no business there anymore, from what I could tell. But then there was an e-mail from the ESRC, the Economic and Social Research Council, that I and some colleagues have been trying to get money off of. There was news that my improbable bid , the one that I've fought to push forward for the last year, on the phone the day before Christmas holiday last year, begging finance to look at an e-mail for me...that bid had been reviewed. I opened the pdfs — they lined up on the window and there it was. Good. Good enough.

I went to London then, early in the morning the next Monday, sitting across from two men who were going down to the city to work. They were my age, I guessed, talking back and forth about the team from Birmingham that was headed to the Big Smoke for work. As we went down, news was coming through on mobiles of people missing trains, and £80 emergency fares. They talked about making easy money overnight as a foreman, and the one worker's wife, who kept having children. She has children every time one goes to nursery, the fatter guy said, and the other shook his head knowingly. There was a pause. Perhaps they would get off at three today.

The train arrived and I worked and I left and woke up the next morning again early. The girls had school for the first time this year and I walked them up, kissing them goodbye and meeting the new teachers. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and went running. The sun went down and came up and it was three again. It doesn't matter I think, pulling on my jumper and reaching for my glasses. We'll get back to sleep eventually, I'm sure.
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