25 March 2020

I wish we'd all been ready

Batu Cavees 

When the lockdown order came, we had been expecting it. These are unprecedented times people are saying, but then that is starting to sound trite even after a week of it. It all came so slowly and then all at once. A week ago, I was still going to work, I think now. A week ago the kids were still in school. A week ago, we could go to the pub. Writing about it now, in the midst of it feels melodramatic. We can't go outside except for essential goods and that suddenly feels normal after only a day and half of it. Now we say things like, I hope there is bread in the supermarket, but if there's not, we'll manage. We feel like things haven't gotten that bad, that they could still get worse, but that we could still be okay.

I went to Sainsbury's in Selly Oak on Saturday afternoon to get Yoko a card for Mothering Sunday and some other things, some fruit and veg and some bread, whatever we could find. People were not panic buying, but there was no toilet paper and some of the refrigerator cases had blinds pulled in front of them because they were empty. I got apples and bananas and cucumbers and found a card for Yoko, although I didn't know what to buy. There were no bagels at first glance, but when I got down to look in the bottom shelf, there were two wholemeal bags, and a man, seeing me on the ground asked me to get one for him. I gave him the one I had, and he said, Thanks ever so much and then Oh, no, these are wholemeal my wife isn't that healthy. I took both of them thinking, is there any time for that now, for not liking one kind of a bagel over another.

I ran on Sunday morning, twelve miles up the canal, and finally, the weather was good — crisp and clear air and the water from the canals reflecting up in the underside of the bridges. I passed people running and had the sense that the air they were breathing out was the air I was breathing in, that I was closer to them than I had ever been aware. I ran under Galton Bridge and when the watch ticked over 6 miles, I turned to go back, thinking that the lockdown order was coming and this might be my last run for a while.

You want to think back to remember some happiness from the past. What had it been like to be able to do anything and choose not to. What were the concerns about money, about planning for the future. What had stopped you from doing anything. 

Before all of this, we had been paying a woman £40 an hour to help us talk to each other and make sense of where we've found ourselves at this point in our lives, like Tom Sawyer and Becky having unwound kite-line as they ventured into the cave. For years and years, we've unravelled it, heading deeper and deeper into the dark, and when asked to pull on it, to remember the way back, the line's gone slack. I pull and pull hoping at some point it will become taunt, that it will finally catch on whatever we anchored it on. And then what's the point of catching on that anchor, of finding a way back if the tunnel collapsed at some point. You can say you never should have come in, you never should have started, but none of that matters now. We are where we are, sat in the dark together.

I ran again this morning, joking as I left about government-mandated exercise. The girls are all in high spirits, watching films, and chatting with their friends on the phone. Every night they make a presentation about their days, which are clever and funny and then we read the Hobbit out loud and I obsessively check the news on my phone, until I am completely mad. We go to sleep and then wake up and maybe we will think about the future at some point, about what it is we want, about what love is, really, about what we want. For now, it's just another day. The sun has come up and for now, we can go into the garden and sit in it and be grateful.

09 March 2020

In these final hours


Every long run this year has found me caught out in the rain and wind — this is the peril of training in February in the UK. The other day I got up too early on a Saturday morning to run twenty miles, the peak of the training schedule which you hit twice in this particular plan. You pull on your shoes this early in the morning and you set out alone, but you can't think about it too much. You can't think as you huff up Victoria Road, you can't think that you have almost three hours of this ahead of you. You just have to go.

This run went well until mile thirteen where I may or may not have hit the wall, but the real problem was the torrential downpour that started right as I came back through the city centre and was trying to cross a bridge. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there was wind and big, heavy drops of rain and I lost a minute on mile fifteen and then sixteen and then seventeen and then up the hill back to the house eighteen and nineteen. I got home and my hands were frozen, and I spent the next hour reliving it in my mind, looking at the data my smartwatch had recorded, thinking about heartrates and race pace.

I was alone during the Chuetsu earthquake in 2004, the year before I met my partner and wife and everything changed. I was watching Magnolia on a VHS tape and sitting on a used sofa, in my apartment on the Agano River and I remember wondering what to do. Should I go outside. Should I shelter under the table. I wanted to call someone, but there was no one to call, I realised. I just sat through it, feeling the building shake and thinking it was too much like an amusement park ride. It felt fake. And then it stopped. My apartment building — Heights Riverside, spelt in katakana haitsu ribasaido — which was old and rusting, stayed standing and I looked out the window into the night to see if anything had changed and at least in that small fishing village on the edge of Niigata, nothing had.

Everything in that apartment was used or had been given to me. A woman from my company, Mrs Nunogawa, took me to some house where she was helping a friend move and she gave me flatware and something to hang my washing on. She found me a car, a Nissan Alto, for 50,000 yen that needed snow tyres I couldn't afford, and which had a load of VHS porno tapes stuffed in a paper bag underneath the driver's seat. I was still faithful then, still worried about things like purity, and when I put the first tape in and saw what it was, I shut it off immediately and threw it all out, feeling guilty and afraid and excited.

I keep trying to remember that year, 2004, 2005, remember what I was feeling without fifteen years of everything that's happened obscuring it. I was alone a lot wasn't I. I was wandering around the back streets of Niigata on the weekends, trying to get out of the debt I took on moving there. I had been teaching English at a church in Fukuoka and I felt like Jonah, but without a call I was running from. I was starting then to realise that terrible yawning black hole thatbwould eventually swallow me: there never was a call was there. Whatever I had planned, whatever future I thought was in front of me when I was so certain and so young, had been an Evangelical fever dream. None of it had been really real. And now, in the absence of that, there seemed to be nothing left to lose, I thought I had lost it all.

You remember yourself fifteen years later and wonder how you could think that, but that's it, that's what I was thinking. I was twenty-two.

I have my students define love sometimes because it's hard and it makes the point that useful concepts are difficult to articulate, that words are a mirage. What is love. You think about this when you're on a long run and you've filed through whatever backlog of thoughts you've had for the week, the arguments you need to avoid, so you have them in your head. When there's little left to think about, when you've been alone for two hours on an empty canal towpath outside of Birmingham on the other side of the world from where you started. You're shaking out your mind like a piggy bank, trying to make that last coin align perfectly and come out in your hand. That perfect truth, whatever it is before the rain starts up again and your body takes over.

10 February 2020

A Fundamental Unhappiness

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In February 2005, I was in Niigata and teaching in elementary schools every day until four in the afternoon. This is fifteen years ago now. I had nothing going on, and would ride down to Bandai in the city sometimes after I got my motorbike and didn't have to pay to park. A friend told me that everything has changed there, that money came in and there are far more high-rise, luxury apartments, but then, all of the golden era money, the eighties and the unlimited flow of cash, had dried up and it was the beginning of another lost decade. I made enough money at the time to buy the two new Bright Eyes CDs that came out that month, but I'm sure that I wasn't happy about paying whatever I had to pay for them — two thousand yen each, it must have been. I can remember getting them and opening them up and then listening to them for months on end.

When you're asked to think back, to remember something specific, all the mundane details of life, of fifteen years, are essentially gone. There are some stories I've told over and over again through the years that have highlights and laugh lines — these stories gloss over the things I actually said, but don't remember saying. The cutting things, the blunt things, about wanting or not wanting to have kids. About whatever my expectations were when I went to Japan, or came to Britain, or married. I'm thirty-seven now, so I imagine that I saw the world the way that I see it as a thirty-seven year old, but of course, I did not, did I. I saw it how I did when I was that age — it was neither right nor wrong.

It was raining and windy yesterday, but I went out running anyway. The marathon training schedule said I needed to run 17 miles and I mapped a run longer than that to be able to mark the distance the same forward and back. When I left, it was not bad, but I came up to Greenfield Road and a tree had fallen and there were men cutting it apart and clearing the road. I ran down to the High Street and back up on to my route, keeping a decent pace for the first six miles and then slowly my legs began to give out, little by little until I got to the turn-around point and thought, there's no way I can make it back like this.

As a rule, when you're running and tired, you need to engage in positive self-talk, saying this and that about the nature of pain and accepting that things will get better if you press on. They will, of course, get better, you can make it through almost anything, but I hadn't prepared for this run — I hadn't eaten properly or brought water and I thought, as I came to mile fifteen, realising that I had got too far out and it would be more like nineteen miles in the end, of course it's going to be okay, but what if it's not. What if it isn't and I collapse here on the side of this canal. I haven't seen another runner in thirty minutes, but surely someone would see me.

Of course, it was fine. The road was still closed at Greenfield Road and I got home, inside of the house with the girls watching whatever it was that they were watching and I realised my hands were seizing up and I drank all the water I could, pouring sugar in it, and Yoko asking if I was okay. Of course, I was okay, but I couldn't answer. I sat down on the toilet seat and told myself I was okay, that I had made a dumb mistake. It was just a dumb mistake, wasn't it. I made my way to church and sat in the front row alone while the processional came in and I thumbed through to the first hymn, and then I wasn't okay. We sat and stood once or twice and it was getting worse and when we stood again for everyone to recite the creed, I slipped out the side of the pew, said I was sorry to the sidesperson and went to the bathroom to throw up.

You should, when asked, be able to recall a specific happy moment from some period of your life, but I find it hard to come up with something, particularly when the parameters are narrowed. Recall a happy moment from that February in Niigata. I can, I'm sure that I can, but the inability to answer quickly is unsettling. I remember an awkward conversation I had in my little blue Nissan Alto. I remember it always being windy. You can make a narrative out of the absence of a specific answer. You do it when you've given up, when you don't want to have to do something anymore. You say to yourself, I can't remember because I never have been happy. You know that isn't true. Of course, it isn't true. You were happy. You just can't remember anymore.

30 January 2020

Testify

American with meat

I stopped eating meat for the first time in the autumn of 2002, having been to an academic talk about the sexual politics of meat. The year had been tough for me, for a number of reasons that I don’t need to go into here. I don’t know what was particularly effective about the presentation, but at that point in my life, everything seemed to be up in the air, while at the same time, I was still young enough to think there was some safety net below me. and at the next dinner with friends, I said that I was thinking about giving vegetarianism a try and one of the first year students started laughing — You? There’s no way you can be a vegetarian.

That was true, basically. Vegetarianism didn’t match my character in any way. I was a loud, fat, white, American male college student who loved Jesus. I had every right to eat meat, all day every day. Still, my vanity at the moment, my own bloody mindedness, somehow caused me to dig in, to want to show Shirley that, no, I could actually do it. I went some six months without meat that time until the next year when I graduated from college and everything went weak in the knees for a few months and I never seemed to find my footing again.

As a child, I was terrified of the apocalypse — that Jesus would come immediately and I, at 12, would either be left behind in the tribulation to fend for myself because my family, the really spiritual ones, were taken away. Or worse, that I would be taken too, and somehow miss out on the rest of life. I was fervently religious, evangelical, ready to argue about pro-life issues at the drop of a hat, with imaginary people whom I had never met, the liberals, the gays, the atheists, the vegans.

This is relevant only because I really believed it, and I remember really believing it. I remember thinking the world was a particular way that it turned out not to be and I remember the feeling that you have when you have to rethink not just one thing in your life, but everything. I’m not sure where and when I really realised it, but I remember when it started: sitting across the table from a seventy-five year old Japanese man to whom I was supposed to be teaching the gospel at a small church in Fukuoka, in Japan, in 2003. Where I finally thought to myself, what if everything I know about the world is wrong.

I came back to vegetarianism when I returned to the UK in 2014, when I was sat round a table with a bunch of colleagues I was trying to impress and it turned out half of them were vegetarians. I told my story from college and went a month without meat until having two sausages in February and realising that I didn’t need it anymore.

And then sometime in 2018, that summer, I started to cut out milk and butter and was at a party where someone asked if I was going vegan and I said I was trying. They said something about how it was impossible to be vegan because you had to bring your own food everywhere and about not being able to give up butter and cheese — this cake we’re eating has milk in it — and I went on to say the sort of thing I’ve been careful not so say in polite company now, Yeah, but if some cow was in front of us and we could see it being inseminated and giving birth and the baby being taken from it to be slaughtered, we’d probably be less like to want to have its milk, wouldn’t we. This cake wouldn’t taste so good.

That same summer my brother and I went to Paris and walked some 50 or 60 kilometres in three days and found vegan food everywhere and then I lived in an apartment by myself in Sweden for a month and cooked plants only and wrote and wrote and it was over then, I had converted. I didn’t, it turns out, miss cheese at all.

Now, my own daughter is 12. I don’t know what to say to her about anything, because I remember being 12 and being terrified of my parents, of doing the wrong thing, of making them unhappy. She’s a vegetarian, and I’m proud, of course, but I worry as you do as a parent, about your influence on your kids, about the things you say, what they’ll remember when they’re older. I don’t eat meat, I’ll say, you do what you want — it’s of course never that simple. I want it to be, but it’s not. The other girls still want chicken nuggets and I buy them and feel guilty. I want you to not want this. But not because I want you to not want it. I just want you to not want it. When you say it, it’s madness, isn’t it. I want you to want this for yourself.

16 January 2020

The low lights

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The winter is not as cold as it should be and I'm running still. My knee stopped hurting at some point, but when pain goes away, sometimes you can't notice it. You have to think back on it, think back to a time when you might have expected to feel it and there is nothing there, no memory of it. There is one place I had always felt it, going up the first hill on the way out towards the university — I can think of it because I had always started thinking that I had somehow overcome it and then it would be there, and I would think to myself that I should stop. Now, without the pain, the anticipation of the pain is also gone and I run and run and run and am unhappy with my time and my weight and everything that I think I can control, but the pain, the thing I can't control, is gone.

I'm staying in a 150 year old house near town in Växjö, the town I can never pronounce until I get here and hear a Swedish person say it and I think, ah yes, I have have not been saying it right, have I. I know it well enough now that when I arrive I don't need to pull out my phone to make sense of where we are and all my past, my last times here alone and with the family, come back in the ways that old memories do. The summer I ran and ran early in the morning went swimming in the lake before seven, the way you can here, just pulling off all your clothes and run into the water, it slowing you down until you fall into it and it catches you. 

03 January 2020

Fall on my enemies

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I was in Costa on the second of January waiting for coffee while my kids, two of them now old enough to be left alone in a store, bought donuts in the shop two doors down. A man, an older man, was asking to see the manager in the queue ahead of me, and we all watched as the manager came out of the back, a man younger than me, but tired looking, and he listened across the counter, nodding and eventually shrugging. Whatever it was, the attitude of the person who had at the counter, or the thing that he wanted which wasn't available, could not be solved. The older man sat down with a woman who must have been his wife, who was also tired it seemed and I wondered how many times she had to sit, waiting for him to talk to the manager. She must, in some way, also be on his side. She must be — how else can a relationship survive.

Since my running through the cemetery in Germany in November, my knee has been full of doubt. I worried, when it was at its worse: perhaps I have bottled it, all my plans of running this marathon in Wales in April, shot on my overeagerness to get stronger. Every morning that I set out on it, I felt the sort of pain that makes you wonder if the knee will give out entirely. Of course, it won't and you can read all about your patella and the pain you might feel in it from overtraining, or undertraining or whatever. Luckily, it's the kind of pain that you can run through and the kind of pain that diminishes if you keep running, but are careful to not run too much or too hard. After six weeks, as I pushed up the hill to the house on Victoria Road and I thought about how much weight I must have gained over the holiday, the knee was remarkably absent in my narrative of failure and that itself is a kind of middle-aged success. At least my body has not entirely failed me.

The miles or kilometers stack up, depending on how you count them, and I managed to finally talk myself into something about running I have been trying to learn for years and years: you can't always run as fast as you can. That in fact, most of the time you need to run slow or you won't be able to run fast when you need to run fast. You need to run slowly to build your capillaries in your legs, to get the oxygen throughout the whole body. You can breathe as deeply as you want — if the oxygen doesn't move through you, you can't use it. I kept running one day even though my watch had failed and when I came home and checked my time, I had run as fast as I needed to without knowing it. You only need to run fast on race day.

The girls did get their donuts, the vegan ones that Greggs is doing now and we wandered around the British strip mall, me staring at my phone — news of the world burning or drowning or war and the girls sorting through clothes and cards. We bought pasta and made it at home, Naomi and me. I was terrified of being a father when I became one, when I was twenty four, but it's twenty-twenty now and I am thirty eight and I own a home and will have a teenager this year. Naomi made sauce from scratch and I watched and helped boil the pasta feeling elderly, a sliver of my future. Is the pasta done, I asked, and we each pulled one out, ate them and agreed they were done.
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