31 October 2019

Value for Money


Marathon 2012

I woke up on Sunday morning and changed all of the clocks in the house that hadn't automatically ticked back to Greenwich Mean Time. When you do this well as a father, there is naturally some kind of confusion when people start to wake up as to what time it really is — surely not all of the clocks had changed themselves overnight. Like all the other magical things that happen at night, Santa or the tooth fairy, you wake in the morning and something good has somehow came and went unnoticed. Dad sitting on the sofa with his phone to greet you; good morning, a whole world of things happened while you were sleeping.

I started running when I was 23, that year when everything was changing for me. In the autumn of 2005 when Yoko and I started going out, Neal showed me the cheap prefectural gym down by Ogata, by the Jusco, by the elementary school I used to work at every Friday. There was a teacher at that school I had a crush on the year before, the kind of woman who had everything sorted out, a Japanese Mary Poppins who made you think, I should probably dress better. That sense that I should probably dress better is my abiding memory of my early twenties. I had been fighting through a constant corn syrup hangover, my life essentially being organised like I was ten year old with cashflow. I bought sleeves of cookies for 100 yen because I could. But the incongruity of the life I wanted to live and life I was living became more pronounced as I found myself regularly stood next to Yoko, dressed smartly in her white pressed blouses and skirts that sat perfectly on the knee. It was time to grow up.

Getting healthy was key to my attempt at self improvement, and I remember awkwardly getting on the gym scale for the first time after someone had barated me for not taking my shoes off, and not knowing what to make of the number. The prefectural gym experience was always slightly awkward because there were no other foreigners there, just Neal and I sticking out like AAA baseball team mascots. This meant we had regular conversations around exercise equipment with old Japanese men and women who, long retired, were both healthier and more confident in their own bodies than me. I remember a very strong man in his late seventies, shockingly fluent in English, telling me that I was fat around the back and had a lot of potential for growing my upper body strength. I started running on the treadmill and then outside, in the rice paddies early on Saturday mornings, and by the time I had married and Naomi was born, it was two years later and I transformed into something unrecognisable, the sort of guy who got up at five in the morning to ride my bicycle in the hills around Shiibata to be back by eight to cook eggs for the girls, my wife and daughter, whenever they woke up. 

Somehow, after some time, all of that managed to turn dark, the way you reveal the spirits within you when you tinker around with the structure of your body — genetic spirits, the obsessive ones, that tell you what you may and may not eat. The ones that come to you through your mother's side of the family, the letters your Grandfather wrote to your Grandmother when he was deployed in Korea, warning her not to get fat. You get the first taste of control, of realising that after 27 years of being fat, you could be thin, actually people could call you thin. You tick off a day and another day of a calorie deficit and strip down to weigh yourself in the early morning and you are actually thin.

I run much faster now than I did when I was younger — when I was younger I believed I had limits to how fast I could run, but those limits had no basis in the physiology of my body. Now, I know the numbers, can plan to run eight kilometers tomorrow in thirty four minutes, because that is the pace I need as a baseline to reach whatever goal I've set out. I don't feel much magic when I run, not like I did, but it does come sometimes and I have become the quintessential middle-aged runner, the kind who hopes to feel the way I did when I was younger, when the sun came up over the mountains east of Niigata. That feeling when you're somewhere out there in the world, but you're not entirely sure where. A rice paddy on the Agano River, a stone bridge in rural Buckinghamshire. You stand in the morning mist and feel something of which you can't conceive, so you can't name it. You just feel it. 

I'll be fat or thin the rest of my life, I realise. It's just the way it is now. There are better days than other days. I can run fast and then eat secretly at night, the ice cream that I bought and since there is only a little left, I can eat it without feeling like I need to explain it to the girls who keep close tabs on the amount of ice cream in the house, whenever there is some. It's a Pihlaja problem, eating ice cream at night, I tell myself. It's a genetic thing.  Everything is physiological — that both comforts and unsettles me. There are metrics you can put against whatever you want. Spreadsheets for budgets, value for money, sure, but also for weight. Here is a spreadsheet of numbers — it tells me how fast my body can run. The eighty nine kilogram version of me climbs on the scale for the first time and shrugs, not knowing what he's gotten himself into.

24 October 2019

Sifting

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The fog rolled in yesterday and I kissed Yoko goodbye in the dark as I left early. There are too many things going on day-to-day, the girls swimming and choir and my work things and dinner here or there. But we still stand for a moment in the kitchen, in the blue light, and stop, like we are young again, like we are saying goodbye when we were young. Like our love is the same love as when we were young, that night we walked down to the Sea of Japan in the dark. We sat together in the sand, didn't we, without the words to say whatever would come from that exact moment when you lean into a lover for the first time and trust your weight against theirs.

I competed in mock trial club when I was in high school. Mock trial was the sort of brainy performance sport that appealed to me as a fourteen year-old — appearing clever, regardless of whether or not I was actually clever. We were homeschooled, and some critical mass of us attended the same church, so we managed to field a team in the regional competition. They did it one year before I was in high school and I watched jealousy, then when I was a freshman and my brother was a senior, we teamed up with another family in the church, a family of thirteen that had three or four of them in high school — all the same sort of brainy performative types that my brother and I were.

Being homeschooled, I was never quite sure how brainy I was — we took standardised tests as children that told us we were brilliant, but when it came time to go to university, my scores were average at best. I didn't get into the most competitive school I had applied to, having bottled the interview. They asked me about how I understood my role in my community and I didn't have any answer. I had never thought of my community.

The mock trial competition pitted us, the homeschooled team, against a larger Catholic private school called Cathedral. At the time, the political nature of this competition was lost on me, but we were, the homeschoolers, representing an ideology more than anything. That yes, we were intelligent in spite of being religious and our parents could teach us as well as any private school could. Fourteen year-old me didn't have any sense of this struggle in a real way, even though I was participating actively in it. I wrote to the El Paso Times once chastising them for not referring to evolution as a 'theory' in their reporting on some story, and showing this printed letter with a broad, contemptuous smile at Sunday School when it appeared. I had shown them, hadn't I.

One of the sons from the family of thirteen was my best friend. We did the things that brainy best friend homeschoolers did: listened to Phantom of the Opera on CDs and had sleepovers and stayed up late talking, although about what, I can't seem to remember now. We spent the night once in his family's van when we were driving back from a Promise Keeper's rally in Dallas and parked at his aunt's house in Midland. We visited Tony Evans' church on that trip too, I remember, and there was a skit about masturbation, a word that I had never heard, and I remember leaning over to ask Gabe what it was and he said, it's like when you do it with a bed, and I nodded like I understood, but wondered what it was exactly.

That year, the year that I was on the mock trial team, we won the regional final against Cathedral. It was close, I think, a few points out of fifty, but we were intensely proud and went on to the State competition in Dallas. I don't remember much about that trip to Dallas except that there were strip clubs lining the freeways and we did very poorly — we didn't manage to make it out of the first round, even though Cathedral got to the semifinals or something, I think. It didn't matter though — we had made our point. The Christian kids, the ones who supposedly lacked social skills and the intellectual benefits of public education could perform as well as their peers. Even better.

I ended up leaving for Chicago that next year. I don't remember saying goodbye to Gabe when we left, or if I have felt any sadness going. I don't think that I did. I remember that an adult from the church gave me Green Day's Dookie and I put it in my CD player in the back of car as we left — I'm not growing up, I'm just burning out — and thought that I needed to keep this to myself if I was going to keep it.

I saw him years later in New York City, when I was doing my PhD and had two small children and was chasing some odd, stray connections with researchers who had invited me for one-off talks to undergraduates. He had gone on to NYU law school and was working in corporate law in the city. We had dinner in a sushi restaurant in midtown with dark lighting and he looked many years older, tired in the way you are tired in your late twenties, and paid for us. He had left the church like me and he and several of his siblings had come out. It all seemed obvious as I thought back on it, but hadn't occurred to me when we were kids talking all night. That was before there was sex, before I would talk the same way with my girlfriend a few years later, lying on her bedroom floor waiting for curfew to come. He showed me some pictures of him with his partner in Mexico and we said goodbye and I went back to Milton Keynes in England where Yoko and I were living.

What is love, I think now, I am now able to think. It must be many things. It must be things of which you can't even conceive, can't articulate, at the time you experience them. I tell my students that our conceptions are tied to words, and without words, we have don't have concepts. What is love. Naomi hugs me as she leaves and I kiss her head and watch her walk away, down the street, into the fog. I love you, I say. I say, I love you, but it is a love more than I can conceive. You let your weight lean into someone for the first time, you hold each other up and a life cascades out. Years and years, children, a list of things you can never articulate. All you can do is stand and watch it. Perhaps you'll name it when you're older.

20 October 2019

When I turn out the lights

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The rains come back in a welcome way after the summer of climate change and the worry I had every day it seemed that it was warmed than it should have been. Even now though, when we have a fire drill and go outside and a colleague points out there are mushrooms growing because it is both warm and wet, I wonder, is this because the world is burning. How quickly are things changing, how quickly will we all need to adapt. I shouldn't think about this, but I do, and then when I don't, I feel badly that I haven't, even though it does nothing but make me even more miserable than I normally am. I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of glass as I walk across campus and don't recognise the fat man I am now in this body with a beard. Who am I — I want to say it to myself, who are you. Where did you come from.

Naomi and I wandered through the city yesterday, going in and out of shops and looking at vintage clothes, before we came up to the Cathedral to see the others sing. The cathedrals cause you to look up, of course, to think about how small you are, and I contrasted this with my experience of Christianity when I was younger and how internal it was all meant to be. Everyone sang and I got lost in my thoughts so that Naomi had to point out to me where we were in the order of service when we came to the last hymn.

Outside of the church, it seems as though Brexit Britain has taken the sort of toll on the mental health of enough people that you must be careful to not trip over the young and the old people who are sitting on the ground in sleeping bags with paper cups and cardboard signs. This contrasted with the evangelical Christians that were singing on the corner with a homeless man, standing uncomfortably close to them and singing and pointing in the way that caused a kind of tension. Another preacher on the corner was telling everyone how sinful they were and how they would never repent even though that was all we needed, a kind of religious taunting, just daring us to ask for forgiveness, while another man in dreads was giving away incense that when someone tried to take without paying, was told that they should make a donation to some charity. I had the girls hold my hands so we could weave through the people, look at whatever new halloween plastic was for sale, although the girls are now aware of this, of the oceans filling with rubbish and won't buy it now.

Now it will get cold, hopefully and we'll have at least one more winter. Someone asks how I got permission to grow my beard and I want to answer, I'm thirty-seven now, my whole life has been asking for permission. I don't need permission any more. My headphone broke and I bought new headphones. I don't need permission, I don't need to say anything. I stand back and watch the children start to sort things out for themselves and I think, what does it matter anyway. I can't sleep, it's two in the morning and so I suppose I'll open up what ever file I'm working on. Meditate, and make some coffee. The world will spin with you, you don't need to do anything to have it keep you going.

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