31 December 2017

Moral economies and madness

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I stopped eating meat in December of 2014 – I had to think what year it was when a room full of people were quizzing me last night. I had wanted to go for thirty days or six weeks, I forget what I had decided, and when the time was up, I ate a sausage at dinner with the family, thinking that would be the end of it. I don’t remember if I finished the sausage or not, but something had changed and whatever switch I had been able to flip to not think about meat in terms of a moral economy, was gone and I couldn’t do it. Something about avoiding violence, sure, but also something about the environment, and something about my health. At the time, I appreciated the insufferability of it all, but there was nothing I could do. It was like when I stopped having faith: I wasn’t scamming anyone, it just was what it was. I looked at the meat in the freezer and could only think, that is a dead thing that doesn’t need to be dead.

I've never been comfortable being called a vegetarian due to the complaints of a roster of cynics in my head who are responsible for overthinking everything. They like to hector me about this label, though they have a variety of different reasons. For example, American Stephen, the voice in me that understands Donald Trump on a basic level and has been looking with covert lust at SUVs, hates Vegetarian Stephen for thinking he’s better than everyone, for how much trouble he causes at dinner parties, the way he implicitly judges everyone who eats meat. American Stephen has Vegetarian Stephen’s number: he’s just a hipster, a fraud, a bullshit artist. He doesn’t actually believe in avoiding violence, he just wants to be perceived that way so his liberal friends like him. When pressed, American Stephen is full of whataboutism that goes on and on, about air travel and plastics and bottled water, an endless list of things that culminates with him throwing his hands in the air and eating half a bag of Doritos because he can. American Stephen has worked hard and he deserves what he has.

American Stephen can sometimes tag team with Aspirational Vegan Stephen, the one who hates Vegetarian Stephen for some of the same reasons as American Stephen, for his hypocrisy and his trendiness and his leather, but also his lack of vigilance and passivity. Whereas American Stephen wants to throw up his hands and give up, Aspirational Vegan Stephen wants to try harder, to be more ethical. Aspirational Vegan Stephen wants Vegetarian Stephen to give up his boots and to stop lying by saying he bought them before he was serious about animal products. He wants Vegetarian Stephen to stop drinking milk and eating cheese like that is somehow not any worse that killing an animal – newsflash, asshole, they do kill those dairy cows too.

The moral economy makes for hard living in 2017, almost 2018. We took the kids shopping with their Christmas money and I thought I too might buy something, but just hated myself after five hours of walking through racks and racks of things to buy. I finally found a jumper on sale that I wanted and pathetically showed it to Yoko like I needed some special dispensation for buying it. It was money I had gotten as a gift, it was for me to spend on anything I liked, and although I already have three jumpers (four, if you count my dad’s wool fleece that I brought back from the States), but I want this one too. Is that okay? I put it back on the rack and left the store and then went back to buy it, feeling heavy as I took it home and then guilty for how good I felt wearing it.

I'm unhappy with how this has turned out, the meaningless moral choices and hypocrisies. I'm unhappy with my own unhappiness. The jumper is just a foil. We got back to the car and Nihilist Stephen suddenly, saying we could give up, forget about all of this and head out into the woods by myself. Forage for nuts and berries like a bear and be whatever animal we are. What does any of this matter, why all the confession. It's madness. This lasted for a full quarter of a minute while the kids strapped in, but then real life started again. The car key needed to be turned  and someone, Daddy Stephen, had to push our way into the jammed traffic of the strip mall. So it goes, I end up thinking: the traffic moves and another year ticks by. I guess I am a vegetarian, I say, when it comes up again. It's complicated; I don't really like talking about it. I'll just not have the cocktail sausages, but please, enjoy yourselves. Really, they look delicious.  

28 December 2017

Ten percent more

Snow at night

The snow came again on Boxing Day. I was closing up the house for the night and rain falling in the streetlights got heavy and changed as I watching. The girls saw and shouted back and forth to each other that it was snowing again. I got up the next day hoping I could run, but it was clear from one look that it wasn’t going to happen. I weighed myself a few times over the holiday period, worried that this would be the end of me, all the food and chocolates and fruit filling up the kitchen and my complete lack of self-control. Somehow, I managed it the best I could and today, after changing out the batteries on the scale and taking off all my clothes, I felt some sense of accomplishment of having failed but having caught it quickly enough that I didn’t spiral into a month or a year of bad habits. Maybe 2017 can be the year of learning to accept failure and success.

The family has been hibernating, or at least Yoko and me, waiting for the new year to come and all things I have to face: book proofs again, a trip to London on the eighth, a new module to write, the travel and budgets and everything else. I haven’t been able to sleep much this year, but I managed a couple of long rests on this holiday — I slept once for more than eight hours, which is the longest I had slept in years. I’ve avoided my real work, the reference I need to write for a student and some marking, but have been reading all the books that piled up at the end of last year. I was reading through a slurry of things, about consciousness and mysticism, feeling like there was some meaningful connection between everything. Of course, the connections are whatever I'm choosing to make. You can make them if you want and then if someone asks or you find some way to talk about what you’re reading, you can make all the connections in hurried, exhausting discussion of the eternal now and god as a void and the gender.

Perhaps if there were no snow, I could run off some of this caged energy, but the ice is still thick on the pavement, and running on it is only asking for a trouble. Instead, I’ve been doing pushups and looking the mirror, wondering if my back is more defined because of course it wouldn’t be, but maybe it is. I’m finding my way to the rug where I meditate and listening to a kind woman with some sort of accent that’s not British or American tell me to focus on my breath. I chant along with her and feel silly until it stop and my chest is still humming with the same repetition of syllables. Is this the void, I wonder, and the moment I think it, it’s gone. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t. I fold up my stool, check my Twitter feed to see how the President is winding people like me up. The new year, I think, will be 10% better. Ten percent less of this and I’ll be doing well for myself. I'll be 10% less angry at the traffic, and my wife and kids. Ten percent less likely to fall into some bad habits, of purging on long runs and self-pity.

19 December 2017

The signal and the noise

Cameron Highlands

Winter came down hard for two days last week, closing all of Birmingham and locking the Pihlaja family together in the house on Victoria Road for several days. The girls were ecstatic about the snow, running back and forth, across the roads and in the garden, like they had been infused with some magic natural drug that made everything new and unknown. After school opened up again, I sorted through the things that had been cancelled, feeling fat and lethargic having missed a couple of days of running. I wanted to meditate on Wednesday, to binge on emptiness, but found myself instead on a bus headed to a couple of schools. I was meant to advertise English degrees, but didn't do well at it, feeling awkward in my long grey coat and American accent, the one you can't hide in front of teenagers. What can you say about the future that isn't a lie, I thought as I sputtered through some nonsense about following your dreams.

This heavy, foreign feeling comes back at surprising times. I sensed it when I got off the bus in Sparkbrook on my way to one of the schools. The snow and ice hadn't been cleared and there were Aunties in the row houses, some hanging out of front doors and some clearing the ice with a battery of different tools. One had a small axe and hacking away at the pavement looked up when I walked through, surprised and apologetic. I smiled, and she smiled and the other Aunties smiled and I walked carefully past them.

The ice finally had its way with me a couple of days later. I went to Newman on Friday morning to mark a presentation and retake my staff photo. After it was done, I got on my bike and was headed back towards town, to meet Yoko for our weekly sit down. As I approached the intersection, my bike suddenly went out from underneath me and I fell back, landing flat on my ass. I went to stand up immediately, ignoring the pain to try and announce to whomever was around that I was okay. But I couldn't, I was twisted around the bike. I saw now that a car was directly behind me and two people, a man and woman, were looking on concerned. It was all ice, I could see, the whole road.

The fall turned out to be an omen — that night, news came of a failed funding bid. I got the notification as I was leaving to take Naomi swimming on Friday night and instantly regretted looking again before the weekend. We, of course, knew we were likely to fail, but then it happened, and I sat sulking in the stands at the pool. I sent seven or eight e-mails, muttering under my breath and quickly trying to turn it into something positive, the way you pull yourself out from underneath your bike when you've fallen. I'm sorry I fell, I'm not hurt, it's okay. You feign optimism and lie to everyone around you about how you're coping just fine. There's nothing acceptable about self-pity.

Sunday morning, when it was warm enough to run and I got out earlier that I would have normally. I ran slowly and was just coming down the Birmingham Ring Road when I saw there were police everywhere, a tape pulled across the whole of the dual carriageway. I pulled out my headphones and shouted to the cop on the other side, Can I run through? and he shook his head no. There was a black cab I could see, on its side, and another cop up further with a surveyor's tripod. I turned around, being careful because there was still ice on the path.

Four years go quickly, it must be said. We were just, a moment ago, standing in the tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The air was so dry and it felt like we had come through the clouds to some world above the sweaty depression of the city, the paycheck-to-paycheck bus rides out to the the university. It would all be over soon, I should have known, but I didn't. I didn't know. Yoko and the girls were so happy, the windows rolled down and everything fresh and clear, just waiting.

05 December 2017

Bloody Minded


When I fall down, particularly when I'm running at night, I feel both old and young at the same time. It happens once a year maybe — I misstep and if I'm lucky, I roll into the fall and the momentum isn't absorbed entirely by my wrists and hands. I fall and am there on the pavement like a child and wondering who's seen me. There are so many cars passing, you assume someone did, but then again, the drivers of the cars are so self-absorbed normally. Normally, they don't see you, do they. I pick myself up quickly and walk it off, until I feel like my body isn't actually hurt anywhere and I get back my pace, back into my normal gait, not the gait of an old man, but a man on the precipice of not yet being middle-aged.

The fall tonight resulted from a lack of focus and being preoccupied with getting home in time to meet my daughter and waiting for a phone call from a courier whom I had waited on all day and who never came. It was a metaphor for my day. Meditation, I had hoped and indeed felt for a moment, would be a kind of magic bullet to soothe through this particularly madness. The antidote, I've been saying to people: it is the antidote to Evangelical Christian thinking, to the Protestant Work Ethic. A way to calm down, which seems to the thing that everyone has said to me the last ten years or so. Slow down, calm down. Of course, none of this has happened, there has been no real magic, particularly because meditation, it seems, doesn't really want you to slow down. Meditation wants you to take in the moment, to be in the moment, but that moment can be any moment. It can be all kinetic energy which you take in without thinking of the past or future. It can be toppling over yourself on the pavement and the pain when you scan through your body and wonder if you'll be able to get up. That's what it is, isn't it — the present without the past or the future, whatever that present is.

On Saturday, I drank too much and ate naan and bowls of cereal in the middle of the night until I just went to sleep to get away from it. Then I ran and ran and ran on Monday, again the pilgrim whipping myself. The same cycle again. I'm not any happier, not that one would expect to be any happier from just sitting and thinking about one's breath. I sat in a meeting on Friday and played with a string of beads, nine beads that the kids had been given in Malaysia, and I counted breaths and thought about multiples of nine. But then suddenly I snapped at someone who was being unreasonable about a student. That fierceness of my father — biting his lip and reaching out for Mia who is being so damn loud — just under the surface. No, of course I haven't changed, it's all there still, looking for a moment to come back out. All my angry words in my mind, the things I don't have the courage to say to my kids or my wife, but which I can shout in my mind like a coward. It's all just under the surface, like the fat man, the seven deadly sins, the Evangelical doubt, the white drama.

My knees stopped bleeding after a half hour or so and Mei came home and I went to the shower, feeling the pain of the fall and the phantom bloatedness from Saturday and the urge to count out calories even though I am not counting calories. Certainly, the moment does not want that from me, I thought looking at myself in the mirror — this very moment doesn't care about what I ate three days ago. The moment wonders what is more ridiculous than wanting to be 700 or 800 grams lighter than a week ago. Why hang your happiness on that, on anything, the moment wonders — on what your wife or kids might say or not say. No, the moment is just the awareness of pain — bloody and miserable in my attempt to no longer be miserable and doing my best. Not doing my best. Doing what I can, what I can manage. One hundred and eight breaths again this morning, one hundred and eight moments broken down into different multiples of three or nine or eighteen or thirty-six. I can breath in and out just this once. I can manage that.
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