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

2017-01-22 09.21.01

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 running into the water, it slowing you down until you fall into it and it catches you. 

03 January 2020

Fall on my enemies

IMG_8346

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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