29 March 2021

When the breathing gets hard

The house on Victoria Road has again undergone changes, and I woke up this morning for the first time with nothing planned for the immediate future. The work has come to a natural stop. The next thing is the garden, which needs sorting out — paving stones for the patio and a new shed in the back, and then maybe planters and a new place to compost. The man who will do it — who was also the man who did the fence — his name is Mike, and he was standing there yesterday gesturing to Yoko and me as we imagined with him where the planters might go and did the thing that I've learned to do about any work you're planning, saying, well, if you're going to do it eventually, you best do it now when you're doing everything else, and he nodded along. I had a sense about Mike, the way I have a sense about someone being Mormon sometimes like he might be religious in the way I was religious when I was younger, that being honest was an important part of how he ran his business and his life because he saw it as part of his witness, but I couldn't put my finger on why I felt that exactly. He said he would get us a quote and I assumed that I would accept it without asking anyone else because once someone does good work for you as a contractor, you have them do work for you in the future. It's a truism of home renovation. 

The man who did the floor, who was in our house for two days smelling of some cologne I vaguely recognised, also gave off a positive vibe, but in a different way. This Mike, his name was also Mike, had tattoos and had broken up with his wife, but he told me about his son and how when his son had turned 18, Mike needed to let him go do what he wanted to do, regardless of how Mike felt. We had a long conversation about this, about parenting and knee health, after I complimented his work on the floor and said that I had done the laminate upstairs. We talked about America, as you do, and about my own dad and power tools. When I offered Mike coffee, as you need to do when you have builders, he said he brought his own kettle, it was easier that way. He laid the flooring in two days and was done and the girls and Yoko said for days how much better it was. 

There was a strange sense of completion like we had put the last piece of the puzzle into this project that had started some four years ago when we decided to buy the house and I had pulled up the carpet just to see what was underneath. The kids remember me doing this, how shocking it was, to just tear everything up and expose the floorboards. Then, that year, it seemed like I was giddy with the sense of things maybe, potentially, working out, that I could become a homeowner, that we could get residency, that this whole gamble of staying here and not going back to Japan would work. None of it seemed fixed — it felt like winning at some casino game where you put all your earnings back into the game again and again. I was just waiting to lose, because that how I am disposed to think about the world. Certainly this can't work, certainly it has to go wrong. 

I went to run pace on Thursday morning, with my heart rate monitor strapped to my chest. I ran up the hill and then started out after five minutes, down Greenfield Road and in the darkness it came back to me, that gasping for breath I felt back in January. I fought through it for a mile, and then on the canal when it didn't get any better, I gave up and slowed to a trot, a jog, the speed of failure that ended up as a walk when I got to Harborne Park Road. I trudged up the hill feeling fat and defeated, wondering about how I would ever run pace when this was so exhausting to me. I had been running so well at the end of last year and then this. How can you run pace when you can't breathe.

The answer, at least when it comes to running, is to run again. You rest and you run again. I want to run fast every day, but of course that's impossible. Even the best runners run slowly. The house is sorted, I should be happy with that for a minute, stop worrying if the cabinets are yellowing or if I will run as fast as I can in my next race. A friend said to me you need to respect the process, not the goal. Forget the goals, if you honour the process the goals will come. So you set out again, I guess, reset the watch and try again. You'll get another chance, don't worry. 

30 January 2021

Thankfully, for my sanity

The house on Victoria Road remains in a state of perpetual metamorphosis. I made two payments yesterday, one to the loft conversion company and one to the Ikano bank, the bank that deals with zero percent Ikea loans, marking both the end of kitchen project from three years ago and also this most recent project of converting the loft into a fourth bedroom and bathroom. I thought that this would be the end of this round of renovations, but having carpeted the upstairs, we need now to redo the flooring downstairs, which means first renovating the fireplace with a nice feature piece: a cast iron log burner. I don't really want to prioritise this, but there is a key principle of renovation: never do anything that you will have to undo to do something else. So sure you can do the floors, but don't do them if you think you're going to knock down that wall — you best argue with your partner about that first before you decide. I learned this principle from a friend of mine, someone with much more experience and wisdom about British construction who came over one night several years ago after I bought the house and laid out the whole process. You gotta think about the tile you like, he said, and the door handles — everything.

Thankfully, for my sanity, the experience has only been sort of like that: everything hasn't needed to be decided, piece by piece. I've never actually been asked about door handles, although as I think about it now, I have managed to develop an opinion about which kind I like. For the first project, a guy called Wayne did everything for us and in the matter of a few months, we had another bedroom and bathroom and new Ikea kitchen. I hardly remember the process now. The loft conversion, the next phase, was needed to make space for all the children I had in my twenties, but was also the right choice in terms of investments. Adding a bedroom to a terrace house in a desirable postcode is classic British wealth building. We called Wayne again, but in the end decided to go with an established loft conversion company that had done our neighbours' house. A man called Rob came that time, in an Audi, looking vaguely like the father of a girl I had a crush on in high school and talked to us about fire doors and Grenfell, and we paid our deposit but then lockdown started and everything was stopped. I worried through the summer that my deposit had been lost, that this was just my luck, but they started responding to emails in September and then at the beginning of the second lockdown, on a Tuesday, they put up the scaffolding and things started to move again.

My motivation for all of this, this paterfamilias organisation of the house, the physical structure we all live in, is motivated almost entirely by a phantom Evangelical Christian guilt about doing the right thing. The right thing is the thing I have always managed to do in almost every area of my life, for years and years. Doing the right thing has never been about what I wanted to do — in fact, wanting to do something was a sign that you shouldn't do it. It wasn't about the joy or fulfilment of doing the thing, but the joy and fulfilment of following God, something separate from the thing you were doing. Of course, that belief in a personal God, a God obsessed with me, was the one part of the whole system I couldn't abide and all that's left is the obligation and guilt. The discussion about the fireplace and log burner, what I wanted or didn't want, made my whole depth of internal conflict evident in a terrible way — it's an investment, Mario, I wanted to say to the Polish builder who came to measure and give us a cost. While it might be possible for me to care less about this, it's a task in an endless series of tasks that my life has become and financial stability — investment in things that have some potential to appreciate and which my wife doesn't dislike — is a key part of this. But it's a task, Mario, something I need to get done. I'm sorry I'm not full of joy.

Last night, I watched a poetry reading at my college back home on Zoom. I studied creative writing at a small liberal arts college, and wanted to be a writer for much of my younger life — not the sort of writer I am now, but the sort that writes about the long stretch of horizon in the Illinois farmland, the sort of writer that would produce a novel that went on for pages and pages with descriptions of people sitting in silence. I was supposed to do an MFA, to go home after being in Japan and reclaim my American sense of agency, and have people I respected tell me that my writing spoke to them, to get that same feeling I had as a nineteen-year-old in a private college with fourteen other writers in a workshop convinced that what I had to say mattered. That feeling of safety, that I could say things about myself and I wouldn't get judged. That people would celebrate my revelations, the deeper, the darker, the realer, the better.  What happened to that confidence, I wondered, staring at myself on the webcam, now how many years later, how many thousands of miles. Now I want to be a politician, to always hedge what I say, to never reveal too much. What had gone wrong, I wondered, why wasn't I willing to tell the truth anymore. 

I woke up to more British snow and a refund for the furniture that came on Wednesday and didn't fit in the house. That problem had taken up more than two hours after taking up three days of trying to get it ordered in the first place, and I was now dreading another conversation about flatpack furniture and sofa placement and scolding for whatever bad attitude would percolate up when everything that had been resolved would need to be resolved again. I keep having vivid dreams about these disagreements, the rennovations, that something has gone wrong and I need to fix it, to do the right thing, to not be annoyed about it, to be happy enough that my family can tolerate me. The log burner will be nice, to be fair, and the flooring. And having my partner still tolerate me after 15 years is what I'm told saves me from whatever rabbit holes selfish, middle-aged men fall into when they think about being younger. You don't need any of the things you think you need — you don't know what you've got until it's gone. Of course life would have been different with a different set of choices, but other things would be different too. You wouldn't know what you missed, you would have longed for the cast iron log burner in some other universe. 

23 January 2021

So what if we forget

Some climate change news I read once that said the UK will eventually stop having snow, but for the last three years, it seems to hit us hard every January. Last night, the kids came downstairs, asking if we could go out for a walk in it, and we did, in coats and pyjama bottoms and Naomi took pictures of us. The flakes were clumping together as they fell, fat and heavy like you get them when you're right on the edge of snow and rain. I think now, when I go out with my kids, that they are not quite kids any more, that they probably could have gone out by themselves and been okay. It's been seven years since we moved here and in seven years from now, Naomi will be twenty. Surely that can't be right, you find yourself thinking. This trick of ageing, where things speed up and slow down in random, terrible ways and you're old when just yesterday you were young. 

There's a liminal space between being a person with Covid and being a person who has had Covid. I was scheduled to give blood on Thursday, but when I went up the stairs, I was greeted by a banner saying you couldn't donate if you had had a fever or continuous cough or loss of taste or smell in the last 28 days. I stood in the threshold of the door and spoke to the woman holding the clipboard and said, 'I've just seen the sign and I have had, or I mean, I had Covid in the last 28 days, I don't have it now, but it's not been 28 days since I had it.' She crossed my name off the list and I left feeling like I had broken the rules. 

I haven't had symptoms in the last 18 days, or at least the main ones. My smell and taste have come back, I think, although I can't tell sometimes, like when they put new carpet in the loft now, I assume I should be able to smell something but don't smell anything. Perhaps then, according to the sign, I still have Covid. 

Before I had Covid, or before I knew I had Covid I was also not sure if I had it — I was just hungover, I thought, having had Christmas whiskey and trying to stay healthy doing some ridiculous in-home YouTube workout led by a man much stronger than me. Then it was a few days and I had sweat through my clothes a second night and went off to get tested. When I came home, I kept my mask on in the house and Mia moved out of the unfinished loft that I had been painting just a week before and I set up the folding table with my computer and the gymnastics mat and stayed there for the next week, working and sleeping and sorting out different things for the house that needed sorting.

In the end, I never got very sick, not the way that you hear about people struggling to breathe or move around their homes, but there were moments when it was suddenly very real, like a fever that turns to a chill and suddenly you are shaking uncontrollably, and you need to lie down until it stops. Or waking up in clothes that are wet like you could wring them out in the sink. Or lying down and suddenly feeling pressure on your chest. You feel fine or fine enough, but why go to sleep when months ago you had read a news story about someone, a young person, having a brain aneurysm. Because you're young, that's how you die. Or suddenly your face going numb, or you think had gone numb. You can't smell, but what even is a smell, you begin to wonder, how would you know if you could smell, how often do you notice smells anyway at midnight alone in your room. 

Then, all of it went away. I was up and running a week after the symptoms were gone, slow and fat of course because I have been eating all my stress now for several months, but I could breathe. And then I did several long runs and started my marathon training again. It was all normal, the electrician came and then the carpenters, and the bed delivery and all the things that had been on hold came back. It snowed, and Yoko and I went for a walk, trying not to slip, trying to make some plans for another year of uncertainty. The world is small for everyone now I guess, I said. It doesn't bother me, I've had enough anyway. We stopped at the road to look for traffic, and walked across, arm in arm like old people, like people with kids who can be left at home. Surely that can't be right, but it is.