19 September 2022

If I loved you, that's my fault

And like that the oppressive British climate crisis summer is done and we now start worrying about the cost of heating our homes, the same heat we were trying only a month ago to get out by any means necessary, sleeping in the loft conversion with the covers and duvet thrown off of the bed entirely. I purchased two Uniqlo polyester suits, which are advertised as 'wool-like', and had them tailored to fit for my fortieth birthday with money my parents sent me. They feel great, but like I am cosplaying some other future, some job I applied for in 2019, but wasn't shortlisted. Still, they make me feel like I have some positive energy, some sense of being able to hold it together enough to dress for myself, the thing for which I mercilessly judge other men my age. I'm forty now. 

My family was quite religious growing up and errant displays of religiosity were important to set us apart, although I'm sure that's not how my parents would have described them. We did things like praying and kissing one another before meals. I remember this feeling quite awkward to me when I was younger, particularly when we were eating at a restaurant, Perkins, let's say, the Midwestern pancake diner, and I could, my sweaty hands holding my brother's and sister's hands on either side, sense a waiter behind me coming up to ask if we would like ketchup and unsure what was happening, my father thanking God for some blessing or another and taking more time than I would have liked. And then everyone kissing, my parents kissing each other on the mouth and everyone else across the table. Whatever embarrassment I felt was immediately matched with shame for that embarrassment, whoever denies me before men, I will disown before the father

I've been rolling this around in my mind since my parents were here this summer, and I felt the way you do when you have a partner and parents and sentient children all looking at you at the same time. In my research area, we talk about context collapse, where on social media you need to be an authentic person before different audiences at the same time, and how much stress this causes as you try to both remain professional on Twitter and somehow stay true to your own eccentricities. The truth of the matter though is that you have to do it all the time in real life; for example, when driving a nine-passenger mini-bus in the highlands of Scotland, I was struck by an oncoming camper that broke the sideview mirror and all I wanted to do was swear loudly and be inconsolably frustrated and bitter for a couple of hours. That would have been authentically me, but it was not an authentic me that was appropriate for all of the audiences in the nine-passenger mini-bus. Instead, I pulled over and assessed the damage and then continued on like it was nothing, an achievement of forty-year-old me, now also authentically me, a man who will not say what he's thinking when what he's thinking won't make things any better. 

When I believed, I assumed everything would change when I stopped believing, but the same world grinds on, the world where God has everything planned, and we all must suffer those plans regardless of how we feel about them. I don't believe, but the believer in me keeps living, like one of those TikTok videos where the parasite animates a hollowed-out scorpion. You can follow the plan without belief, it can be indistinguishable: indeed what made you think the plan had anything to do with belief in the first place? 

There is no plan, of course, there was never any plan, but I can't seem to let it go. I can even hear I never loved you and still believe. No, you did, you're just saying you didn't because you're angry, but you did, you must have. I look at some picture from the past, some place i can remember feeling loved, loving, and think, that will come back. Maybe not today, maybe not this year. But it will come back. It's faith. It's something I don't control. I chose to leave belief, but believing hasn't chosen to leave me. 

09 August 2022

Sentience

Somehow, again, the summer got away from me, like I've been waiting for something to happen, something to write about, that never seems to happen. I turned forty and couldn't manage to write about it, except to say that I was unhappy. It wasn't a new unhappiness, I am exactly the same person I have always been, worried about having peaked, worried I've had all the big thoughts I will have, and coming to the realisation that this is just who I am. This is just the way that it is and this is all there is. Classic midlife crisis. Helpfully, my own existential dread became manifest in what turned out to be the hottest days ever in the UK rolled in. I was in France for a week and came back unable to stay awake, falling asleep on the sofa and then in bed some two or three hours before everyone else. On the day the record was broken, on a Tuesday, I came into the office and fell asleep on the floor, thinking that if I wasn't awake for the worst of it, it would pass. I bought some short-sleeved shirts and a pair of shorts, which felt like a kind of resignation, another step towards the irrelevance of a man in his forties, in sandals next probably, maybe my shower flip-flops from work. 

Last week, we drove up into the Brecon Beacons to camp in Wales, as we have now every summer since the pandemic. The grey Picasso I bought after the other grey Picasso gave out during the start of the second year of the pandemic, is really too small for this sort of adventure and whenever I am packing this car, I feel a sense of deep failure as a father, that I had got this car without really thinking carefully enough about how it would fit the rest of the family and failing to ask enough questions about the size of the boot. We all still fit, for now, and I've come to a kind of father discourse which includes a future when one of my kids will not be living with us full time: that is, we don't really need a big car in the long term because one of the kids will be slowly leaving us in the next two or three years. And then another, and then another. Mia finished primary school and we all stood around on that last day when she was saying goodbye to her friends, feeling like some era was over now. The Pihlajas of Harborne have kids who went to St Peter's, not kids who go there anymore. 

The car trip into the mountains was manageable, and even stuffed tightly, the girls seemed fine, or happy enough, singing and chatting and full of the sort of youthful energy that you listen to as a parent and can't help but think sounds older now than it did even a year ago. You don't have anything to add, it turns out, nothing from your own experience that is even remotely related; like at some point you could have said something, but you can't anymore. If you feel anything, it's an irrelevance, but irrelevance laced with a profound sense that you are necessary, or needed, if the distinction between these feelings can be made meaningful. It's a uneven and inconsistent necessity, but you are still needed.

Unhappiness is not depression. Frustration is not ungratefulness. I used to mix all of my feelings up. Now, I can put my finger on the distinctions, even if can't solve them as problems. Or even if I am unwilling to solve them as problems. Perhaps I have realised that one simple problem is better than a series of increasingly complex problems. I thought about this as I sat naked in a Welsh river, flowing down from Llyn y Fan Fach, the sun coming through the trees at an angle. The river next to the camp was clean enough to drink without filtering and before dusk, I put on some running shorts and took my towel and walked up through the riverbed to the place where it was deep enough to crouch down and submerge my body in it. It was cold, but not too cold, and to enjoy it, to have the full experience of it, you needed to persist through the initial discomfort. Then, at some point, it was alright. And you can then think, it's okay to have a season of unhappiness. It can last a decade even, this is not unheard of in a life. Just beyond the horizon there, through the trees, there are people that need you.

22 June 2022

The ideal self

With the hot summer now fully taken over, I have found myself remembering the nights in Malaysia when we had no aircon and the fans spun on high speed through the night. There was a kind of coolness in the morning, that was not really coolness, but a manageable warmth, still humid, but you didn't instantly start to sweat in it. Here, this week, a kind of tipping point comes very early in the morning from the oppressive heat that one struggles to sleep through and this same cool humidity that seems like it should be filled with the call to prayer for Fajr. 

When we first came to Birmingham, in January of 2014, I decided I needed a bike to get back and forth from Newman. I looked on Gumtree, as you do, and found something good, with pannier bags that I thought would suit what I needed and contacted the guy who posted it to meet up. He wanted to meet at the bus stop at the airport, which only seemed problematic when I arrived and he came riding up on the bike from somewhere, from off stage. I looked it over and asked about it, why he was giving it up, and he didn't seem to have a real meaningful story. He asked me what I was doing here, and I said I was teaching, and he said he wished he could do a job like that instead of doing, and he gestured to the bike and said, this. I realised later that this contained a lot, the bike as a metonymy for a whole life of petty crime. I paid him whatever he was asking and took the bike back on the train, the sinking feeling that I'd done something very wrong. 

For more than a year, I walked with the two girls up the hill in Quinton, to Woodhouse Primary. Mei and Naomi would follow behind or ride on the back of the bike and I would then cycle into Newman until I realised it was more trouble than it was worth to pull the bike out of the garden shed that was attached to the house and eventually became our extended toilet, and I started to yo-yo my weight back and forth by just running to Newman with my new backpack. The girls moved on from Woodhouse too and somehow, whatever mistake I felt I had made after my PhD felt like it wasn't a mistake anymore and we were back on track to the British Dream we had in 2011 when we had our first discussions about trying to stay in the UK and not returning to Japan.

I had another bike for many years after that, a cruiser that I also bought in dubious circumstances, although I was sure that the person was legitimate. When I went to get it repaired the first time, the guy working in the University of Birmingham bike repair shop, in a trailer under Staff House looked at me like I was an idiot, of course it was stolen, and when I protested, saying it seemed like it was not the sort of bike you'd see in this country, and he said, maybe not in Birmingham, but definitely in Bristol, and I realised he was probably right and was immediately filled with the same sense of guilt from funding what he described as an international bike theft syndicate. We did manage to break free from the bike thieves when we became more established on Victoria Road and bought a bike for Yoko from a neighbour. And then some months later another neighbour gave us another bike, a baby blue one, that I had forgotten about until a few weeks ago when four of us, four of the Pihlajas of Harborne all got on bikes and we rode into the city centre, me on this baby blue bike from the late-70s which felt light, like riding almost nothing after the many years of the heavy cruiser. 

This bike, I thought, when I first rode it, was probably a women's bike, whatever that means, but it was quite comfortable because you can step through the frame and that's really what I wanted. It also scratched my rebellious itch of challenging gender norms, and allowed me to set up a joke I was enjoying telling: I would say something like, I think it's a women's bike and then when the person I was showing the bike to would say it probably is, I say something like, Yeah, but where would you normally expect the penis to be on a bike, that's the real question. This bait and switch was a clever teaching moment, I thought to myself, glibly, until it occurred to me the joke was probably transphobic and I needed to stop saying it. Before I had this realisation, I was getting to the women's bike part of the set-up as I talked to the new guy at the University of Birmingham Bike trailer, but he stopped me and said, We're not allowed to call them women's bikes anymore like some woke liberal had taken it away from them. He quickly realised that this comment made me uncomfortable and explained the whole distinction was meaningless anyway, you'll notice this faded decal here says 'fleur' which is French for flower and there are flowers all over it and I was then more offended that he felt he needed to explain the meaning of the French word to me. I know what fleur means, I'm not an idiot. I just hadn't seen it. But to be fair, he was right: all over the bike were faded, rusty decals that appeared to have one time been flowers.

The bike is a dream though: five very hard gears, 1978 gears, and a shifter on the bike frame that is not a regulated shifter so you move between them like notes on a violin. It's lighter and more nimble and I can pick up speed quickly, feeling the way you feel on a bike sometimes, totally liberated from the madness of a burning world, of £1.90 petrol. My ideal self, unashamed of riding a bike not marketed to my assigned gender, and willing to aggressively challenge people about it if they are foolish enough to say anything. To ask them directly to identify the genitalia on the bicycle, I'll wait. It's not the real me, the real me is insecure and terrified the older boys from Sunday School will harass me, that they'll follow me into the toilet to mock me. But who says I can't pretend like it is, pretend that there is no limit to what I can do if I claim it for myself, if I do it confidently. 

21 June 2022

Who you say you are and who you are


The Spring seemed to go by quickly this year; I've been sleepwalking through most of the days as they've gotten longer and longer, drugged by my phone and the dread that it brings with news of violence, always violence. I keep waking up in the middle of the night to eat, after having slept for ninety minutes, exhausted and bloated. Some people are suggesting to me that this is normal for a man my age, that I'm just going to bed too late. If that first ninety-minute cycle happened from eight to nine-thirty, and it was in front of the TV, I will have officially become my father. I'm still managing to run every morning, but only on the routes that I can run without thinking, up and down the Woodgate Valley path, seeing the same people day after day, people who I feel like I know now, but have never actually met, people with dogs and older couples and men with tattoos. 

I was running on the canal two Sundays ago and looked up to see a young man coming towards me and looking nervously over his shoulder. I looked down and saw he had drawn a switchblade knife and I didn't have any time to turn around or do anything but keep running, and I imagined in the seconds between when I saw him and we passed what it would feel like if he were to plunge this knife into me, how it would feel. Nothing happened, I ran past him and then past the man he was presumably looking back at and I came home and recounted the story to Yoko, but in a way in Japanese that couldn't capture how I actually felt: There was a man with a knife on the canal. I was running. I ran past him. I was scared. This long string of simple sentences that makes me sound like a child experiencing the world as a child. It reminded me in a way of a time I fell off my bike in Japan when I ran into a barrier at full speed in the fog and fell over the handlebars. I cycled to Yoko's house after I cleaned myself up, cut and bleeding, and in trying to tell her the story, I started crying. I remember a sense of profound frustration in my own inability to convey my feeling about it like I was trapped in a language that wouldn't let me say what I needed to say. At twenty-three, I didn't recognise how important that was for me, how much I needed it, and what a big mistake I would make by ignoring it. 

I'm turning forty next week and want to say something profound about it, but all I can manage is a series of complaints. More people expecting things from you: more maturity, less desire and passion, more goodly old man, and I'm still stuck on all the recriminations I have from when I was twenty-three, like some football player arguing with the referee about a call five matches ago. I ran this last Sunday and an elegant crane, the sort that will see you coming and fly away in what looks like slow motion, was standing in the path, looking at me, and then stuck its head into the grass and pulled out a mouse. The crane flew up and away and about 100 meters later, I saw it again on the other side of the canal, swallowing the mouse whole. That was it. I saw a crane. It ate a mouse. I kept running. 

The dentist says to me yesterday, 'What are you doing after this?' and I say, 'Going to work,' and I pause and then I say, 'unfortunately.' And he says, 'Is it unfortunate?' He's right, of course, the thing he implies is right: it is not unfortunate, it is in fact very fortunate. How ridiculous to feel dread, to feel unsatisfied and want something else. Ezra Klein answering a question about why he chose to have kids when everything is burning asks, When in human history has everything not been burning? When half of the children didn't make it to 13? We are spoiled, I am spoiled, as I get annoyed that people misunderstand my feelings of frustration about whatever small thing that has annoyed me. I'm sorry, you're right, it is fortunate. My teeth are fine, the sun is out. These are all blessings when you are forty. I'll accept that. Help me accept that.  

16 April 2022

What's love got to do with it

The Travelodge in Llanelli smells like you would expect, like a suspended, accidental moment of sadness, with no mobile phone service and a 30 inch flat-screen TV bolted to the wall. When I checked in, with my two bags and Hoka One One Carbon X shoes in my right hand, the receptionist told me that I needed to pay for parking if I was staying later than eight on Sunday morning. I said I would be out earlier, I was running the marathon the next day, and she laughed and said, I think everyone here is. I had not wanted to stay in the Travelodge and had in fact booked and cancelled and rebooked an AirBnB room on three occasions over the last two years as the marathon was scheduled and cancelled again and again due to Covid. This time, two days before, the woman whom I have been messaging since March of 2020 told me that she had tested positive for Covid and said, 'I suppose you'll want to cancel now' but I didn't want to, I wanted to go anyway, who cared at that point. I thought better of it and the Llanelli Travelodge had a room open still, so I booked it and decided it was better than my other options.

When I was finishing my PhD some ten years ago now, I got in my mind that I wanted to run the Milton Keynes marathon. I trained for twelve weeks on some beginner plan I found online and trained early in the mornings, running around the redways and up and down the long Railway Walk. The rain was terrible the day of the race, but the kids were young and energetic, and Yoko took them around the course to cheer me on — they had signs and sweets to give me. When I finished ahead of the time I thought I would get, they found me wandering around in the rain looking for then, shaking from the cold. Yoko was noticeably disappointed in herself like she had let me down by not being at the finish line like she planned. I remember trying to make sense of what had just happened, the way you have to make sense of things when you run a marathon. We ate at McDonald's and I had a Big Mac, and the kids had happy meals, and we went home to the house in Bradwell Common. I had a PhD supervision the next day, I remember, and it was like it hadn't happened, I just went back to things. 

While the Milton Keynes marathon followed all the paths I normally ran, the Great Welsh Marathon course was only what I could project it to be from our camping trips to Wales over the last few years. The course goes up the coast from Pembrey, into Llanelli, and back, with the turnaround at fifteen miles rather than the halfway point, so most of the race was into the wind. I had worried about the wind, and assumed it would be part of the recriminations for whatever failure was coming. The morning of the race though it didn't feel bad, and as we did the first mile on a closed circuit in the park, I thought maybe I would be fine. Then the course reached the water, and we were properly exposed for the first time, a mile of beach at least in front of us and I felt it hit my body hard and thought, Well, this should be manageable, and then wondered if it actually would be. After working alone in it for few miles, I came up behind two men in matching jerseys from the same club and I said we should work together in a pack of three to break it, each taking the lead for a bit, and they agreed, but one of them quickly fell behind. Greg from Somerset and I ran together for a couple of miles, keeping each other company before he too fell back. He yelled up to me, after I looked back to check on him, Run your own race, mate, and with that, I was alone for the next seventeen miles, passing slower runners and moving up, place by place as I kept to the plan. I hit the half marathon mark just ahead of the time I wanted, despite the wind, and I worried that I had gone out too hot, that I had already lost the chance to succeed. At mile fourteen I suddenly felt tired, but then the first runners started coming back the other way and I realised I was close to the turn and then like magic, the wind suddenly disappeared, the way the wind disappears when it's at your back — it feels like nothing, it feels as if there is no wind at all. 

I don't remember what plan I had when I ran my first marathon, what I thought about precisely, or what I was trying to do: I must have just been trying to finish. I ran on the same shoes I trained in, and I can see in the video, I was inexplicably wearing a coat when I started, which I peeled off and gave to Yoko at the three-mile marker. I don't remember taking gels, I just remember how badly it was raining and how cold I was at the end. I remember buying cookies before the race and eating and eating and eating and being nervous and afraid the way I was that whole year, not sure what the future was, how I was going to finish my thesis and support my family. How the visas were going to work out and how any of what I had started would be viable. 

Ten years later, now all I can think about is love and how much energy Yoko must have put into that day. I remember feeling guilty, not feeling like I was worth it, the whole thing was just my dumb hobby, my distraction from everything I should actually be working on. As I look at these pictures and video, at how I behave when I run past them, when I give them my coat or whatever piece of clothing I needed to shed, that I must have still believed in unconditional love, in the insolubility of love, that love would survive anything, any argument, that you could forgive and forget endlessly, that seven times seventy was a metaphor, not a precise number of occasions on which you could be forgiven, that you could use them up like tokens. I didn't know that all love is conditional, and you don't know those conditions until you contravene one and love turns out to be soluble. I didn't know any of this, putting on the marathon running medal the girls had made for me, that Yoko had helped them make for me. I didn't know that this was temporary, that it would go away, that in ten years I would watch the video and this, of all things, would be what I found so amazing. 

On the Great Welsh run, sometime around mile eighteen or nineteen, I thought I gave up. My watch kept chirping with the disappointment that I wasn't going at the speed I had told it I wanted to go at this point in the race. I came up behind someone who was much fitter than me walking up a hill, and I thought that I too would end up walking. Before the race, as I visualised the ending, I thought by mile twenty-two I would know definitively whether I would finish in under three hours, but I couldn't bring myself to check my overall average pace. Instead, the doubt hung on me and I thought again and again that I had failed, that I had gotten close, but I had ultimately failed. I did the self-talk and imagined as I do when I am running and I am tired, that I am commentating on the run after I have finished, that I am writing about it, but I don't remember any of the things I said to myself. Then, the last two miles, I realised I was physically close to the finish line, that the course was going to take a sharp right and I would be back in the park and indeed, I could hear people, the announcer, and I was back on the track that we started on with a sharp uphill and downhill and as I rounded the corner, I could see the gun time still under three hours and it was clear then, finally then, that I was going to make it. 

I'm a much better runner than I was ten years ago. I'm much fitter, I'm much more aware of my body and what it needs. I know I can do seven High5 gels in the course of a race, and I don't need to drink water unless I am thirsty. I know that the doubt will start at mile sixteen, but it is a temporary doubt. I know that I don't need to eat nonstop for ten days before a race, that I don't need to feel bloated. I know that I will shake uncontrollably at the end, that I need to drink water and let the feeling pass. I know that my body is capable of a two-hour fifty-nine-minute thirty-four-second marathon, or it was when I was thirty-nine years and two hundred and eighty-seven days old. It's needlessly precise, but needless precision is the foundation of much of my success as a runner. My success, not anyone else's. I don't know what anyone else should do to run faster. I don't know what love is, if it can come back after it has gone, if you can be forgiven four hundred and ninety-one times, or if you need to start again with someone else and hope you've learned enough lessons to not run out of forgiveness. I know you need to be kind when you can though, and appreciate the homemade running medals when you get them. You need to remember that love — not negative splits, or low resting heart rates, or strong finishes, or low body fate percentages — love is the thing to marvel at, the real impossibility I keep chasing.

07 April 2022

Non-player character

The wind has picked up in a troubling way again, and the top of the house on Victoria Road is back to the same set of eerie sounds and shuddering that kept us up in February. I've been watching weather reports closely as I am planning to run the Great Welsh Marathon on Sunday in Burry Port in Wales and knowing how the wind can come off the water on the Welsh coast, I am concerned I will be blown over, or worse: the wind will stop me from achieving whatever I've convinced myself my nearly 40-year-old body is capable of achieving. The report changes regularly although the closer we get to the day, the more accurate I imagine it's getting. The wind now is forecast to be between ten and twenty miles per hour out of the southeast, which I've searched online with the childlike question: what does a ten mile per hour wind feel like. Ten miles per hour is a faster pace than I hope to run. A ten-mile per hour wind easily completes a marathon in three hours. The charts I found don't discuss it that way, but instead tell you what the leaves and branches behave like under different wind conditions, and feeling slightly more confident, I lie down in bed and close my eyes and imagine what the gentle swaying of the tree branches means in terms of headwind.

Obsessions with wind speeds and other race variables are inevitable for almost forty-year-old men who are deep into marathon preparations and whose sixty-mile peak running weeks get halved. The best way to deal with concerns about the wind is to just go run if you're a runner. However, the YouTube videos and everyone around you will tell you how important it is to rest before a race, how important it is to cut down to almost nothing in the week before a marathon and do things like think about your race mantra and plan your race day schedule and sleep. The race mantras people suggest are things like I can and I will but these are counter-intuitive to me, because I am a natural pessimist and don't like telling myself that I'm capable of something I'm not sure I'm capable of. I wonder if it could be something less ambitious like, I won't die today. Or, I run to find the void, my favourite Murakami quote from when I could stomach Murakami's writing. The YouTube non-elite runners making Top 8 Tips for Marathon Preparation videos don't seem to address this. Perhaps my mantra will just be silence — these middle-class runners have appropriated the concept of the mantra anyway, so why insist on even using that word. Just run. Stop thinking about it and just run.

Obsessions are not healthy, but more importantly, they quickly bore your audience. You can only sustain interest in navel-gazing about running for two paragraphs, tops. Maybe two and a half if you can stretch it into a larger point about ageing, or self-awareness, or mental health. I talk about running at the dinner table and can only get three turns of a conversation before we are talking about something some teacher at school has said or done, or the rats that we have now, that my daughter got after waiting four years, that we went to pick up in a community centre in a part of Birmingham I knew of but had never been to, where the Midlands Rat Club was having a competition. The stories where I am not the protagonist: far from it, I'm the dad wandering around in the background trying to buy a Coke Zero or finding the toilet or fidgeting on his phone. The non-player character in someone else's game, my daughter's or my wife's, or someone whom I have only met once or twice. I've got one dimension: I talk about running early in the morning and the weather, particularly the wind speeds. In the game, you need to speak to me briefly so I can tell you which way to go to find the kidnapped princess, or whatever goals there are in video games these days, which of course I don't know because the whole of my specialist knowledge is limited to sale prices for Ciele running hats and marathon strategies for men of a certain age.

I can and I will. When I got on the scale last Saturday morning, the number was one and four-tenths of a point too high and I was immediately depressed. Against my better judgment, I went out to do a Parkrun, thinking that I should try to get a PB when I was in such good shape so that even if I bottle the marathon next week, I'll have a good 5k time to my name. The parkrun was hard, and a teenager drifted behind me and overtook me in the last straightaway and I finished, upset that I'd been too weak to hold her off in the end. But then I looked at my watch and couldn't believe it: I said to the man scanning the runner barcodes, I ran a minute faster than my PB. I was shocked. How had that been possible, I hadn't really thought of my speed at all beyond a glance at my watch every mile — I'd tried, but I'd not really felt like I tried. I'd just run. Whatever that number was doesn't matter, of course, it's just a number, but I couldn't help looking at it again and again. I jogged back home forgetting about everything else as the sun came out and I had nothing to do for a moment. The protagonists are off doing something else, but in this part of the game, I'm running around the Edgbaston Reservoir, being chased and overtaken by a young woman twenty years younger than me, and I'm elated. I'm telling the story to myself, I'm looking in the mirror and saying, The wind will be strong this week, the branches will be gently swaying — you can run as fast as you can. 

21 March 2022

Making Weight


Since January, I have been suffering again from the knowledge of good and evil I uncovered by accident when I first tried to lose weight in 2005, around the time I met Yoko and thought I might be able to get her to like me if I cleaned up a bit and lost some weight. That autumn, I had begun running in a Japanese city gym on a treadmill, before realising that I could also run outside when the weather was nice, and that if I just kept a simple ledger of what I ate, I could become thinner than I thought I ever could be, that Fat Stephen, the jovial and annoyed and loud figure of my youth, could become vaguely attractive, could have a jawline and could maybe get with this kind, beautiful Japanese woman seven years older than me, with a car and nice apartment and full-time job and a seemingly endless well of patience. It was all very simple, I just had to pay a bit more attention to what I ate and like magic, in three months, I would no longer be fat. 

On Saturday morning, this Saturday morning some fifteen or twenty years later, the same story I've told like a founding myth, only now with apps and running schedules, and fitness trackers, that same story that I was so proud to tell the first time, got told again: I woke up and stripped off my clothes and weighed myself, having been in a caloric deficit now for something like eleven weeks. The Japanese scale we bought around the time we got married and which we still have leaned against the toilet wall in the house on Victoria Road beeped and calculated and came back one-tenth of a point too high. Seventy-six even. I shut it off and climbed on again and then I did it again, and then it was magically the right number, the number of success, the obsessive goal accomplished. The first time this happened in 2005, I was elated: I had done it, I had made it happen, against the empirical reality that I was a sloppy, disgusting child with no self-control, but who had somehow started on the path to maturity. This wasn't, of course, true in any way, and now, with every subsequent retelling, the whole process feels less and less like a success, and more like the inevitable event at the end of a chain of other events that take over my life for a time and give me a sad purpose. The scale screen went blank and I put the number into the calorie tracker and the running app and the spreadsheet and had a cup of coffee.

At least this round of pursuit of the number was markedly uneventful, healthy even. My worst impulses stayed a bay. I ate more-or-less what I wanted and did avoid, more than I have in the past, the sort of weird obsessive things I have found myself doing in other retellings. Going for a walk at nine-thirty to burn another hundred and fifty calories for example. Or eating two thousand calories before eight am and then trying to make it through the rest of the day eating nothing. Or saying no when offered some cake at work and hiding the real reason you were saying no with the most unbelievable lie that I wasn't actually hungry like that was even possible. I didn't do any of that. 

Instead, I did more acceptable obsessive activities, ones that can be found in charts about how to run a sub-three-hour marathon. The charts don't say it, but I knew there was one clear, ugly truth: I can't run a sub-three-hour marathon if I'm eighty-six kilos, even if I'd trained as hard as I possibly could. It's just a simple calculation. You run faster if you have less you to drag around the course. I motivated myself with the thought of how pathetic I felt at mile twenty-three of the Chester marathon when I almost started to cry. You shouldn't hate yourself, or hate your body, but if I'm honest, I never hated myself more than I did in that moment, my body failing me and having no choice but to keep going. 

When I first lost weight, I did it for a lie about love, essentially: some spurious thought that I could accomplish a series of tasks that would result in Yoko loving me. This was silly, the way that many thoughts I had as an American twenty-three-year-old Evangelical Christian about relationships and marriage and sex were silly: they had no real attachment to reality, particularly in a Japanese context. The weight loss this year honed in on a much more real and tangible and empirical lie about love, a love that can be attained through effort. On Sunday, I ran with this love in mind, the way a thin man nearing forty runs fast in a slow way, the perfection of a marathon strategy that requires running well below your ability for some ten miles and then easing into a marathon pace. It's a counter-intuitive love: you have to be patient, to fall behind, to let your body find the pace rather than tell it what the pace is, and then at some point to let it overtake you and to run with everything you have, with all the energy you have saved up, with passion, with abandon. This sort of love. 

I thought the obsession with my weight would stop at some point. I've been told that the older you get, the less concerned you become with the things that you were concerned with while you were younger. That you come to accept yourself as you are, and whatever you lose in ambition, you gain back in peace of mind. You become easier to live with, even if you become less sexually attractive, and for anyone hoping to make it in a long-term relationship, the sort of relationship that leads on to the two of you sitting in some new coffee shop on the high street, pleasantly chatting despite forty years of each other's insufferability, staying sexually attractive is the least of your concern. In fact, the loss of sexual attractiveness does you more and more good the older you get. You should welcome it, you should stop trying to lose weight and wear the jeans you wore when you were thirty and the thinnest you ever were. You're not thirty anymore, now you eat cake and laugh and fall asleep. 

But here I am again, naked on a scale early on a Saturday morning trying to be thin. I dreamt I died last night and I woke up at a party and a woman I didn't know, a woman who was younger than me, but not young, had a dog and asked me to go for a walk with her and I said I would, surprised even in my dream I had shed my Evangelical guilt which has been always present in my subconscious. I'd gone with her without being afraid that I would get caught, that somehow my parents would appear and look at me and I would know I had done something wrong. I woke up before the alarm and made coffee and planned another run, twenty days now from another marathon on the Welsh coastline when I either will or will not run in less than three hours. But I will love it, even if I'm not sure what it is. I will be alone and the night before, I will look at my thin body and touch my stomach the way I do when I've lost weight and I can't seem to believe that I, the boy who has always been fat, am thin now. Maybe just for a moment, but really, everything is just a moment, every love is transient, both coming and going at the same time.

10 March 2022

Light where there was no light

After all the internal turmoil I felt taking down the trampoline, another storm blew in and the girls remarked coming home from school last week that someone else's, some friend's trampoline had ended up in a neighbour's back garden and it was good that I took ours down when I did. James and the lad who was not quite a lad showed up unannounced as I was heading out on a Monday morning, and I did my best to hide my annoyance at not being told they were coming because I had been worried that they had done a runner with my deposit — indeed, earlier that very morning I had said as much to my neighbour. I quickly threw everything we had onto the grass and moved the metal shed that I had cut myself badly on when I put it up so four years ago and by the time I was finished clearing things, James was already pulling up concrete slabs. I got a call after I finally went to work that they were going to need another £150 to fill in a hole underneath the old slabs, and this sounded reasonable to both Yoko and me. I came back and James told me it had likely been a bomb shelter, there were many of them built along these terrace houses and I, full of videos of bombing in Ukraine and crying families, felt the terrible collapsing of history that you feel at times in these old houses.

After four days of work, some more men came with the new pressure-treated wood shed and put it up, and Yoko got the cash out of the bank. When James counted it, I nervously watched, making him nervous, and it was £20 short. He assured me that he must have miscounted, and I assured him it was right, although I really had no idea, it was just the money they'd given us at the bank. I held back saying something about this being the problem with paying in cash because that wasn't the point. They did an amazing job and when they left, I pulled apart the old metal shed in the rain and put it out front for a guy from Facebook to come and take away. He showed up with a small Corsa and a wireless drill and when I went outside to tell him it was all there, he said it seemed flimsy, and I said, it will be more rigid when you put it together when I actually wanted to say, JR, you're picking up a shed for free from a guy that you met on Facebook — let's watch the attitude. I gave him the thumbs up and went back to a meeting I had on Zoom about school governance and he was gone when I had finished. 

Having settled this part of the restoration of the house at Victoria Rd, there is nothing left on my spreadsheet of things to rennovate. Now, I have to start fixing all the things that have deteriorated from the first renovation, like the drawer that broke off on Pancake Day because there was too much weight in it and which I scolded my daughter about, before realising mid-scolding that she had nothing to do with it being too full in the first place, what was wrong with me, and that my frustration was really with some other person who annoyed me, and not even with them, but with myself. I apologised and made a sudden deliberate shift in my mood: it's Pancake Day, goddammit, you're right, it should be happy, I'm ruining it. Afterwards, I replaced some screws and refitted the drawer, showing it to Yoko like a boy showing his mother he had managed to put his trousers on the right way round: praise me for my basic competence.

In the midst of all this, insomnia came around again and the dark passenger reappeared, the one that I recognise only when I'm eating hummus at three in the morning and pacing back and forth waiting to run. When I went to give platelets and was giving my health stats, the nurse said, eighty-two kilos, is that right, and I said, no, uh, I'm more like seventy-eight now, and she looked at me concerned and asked if that was on purpose. Yes, I said, I'm training for a marathon and I need to drop my Christmas weig- but she had stopped listening and gone to talk to the proper nurse, the one who had the nametag with Sister on it, the nurse that I dread because she always makes me feel like I've done something wrong. Sister Nurse came over and said, Have you lost weight? and I said, Yes, I'm training for- and she had stopped listening, and said, Do you get the tingling sensation ever when you give blood? and I lied and said no, and she said, It will take longer now, like it was something I could change at the moment, like I could say, Oh, nevermind, I'll put the weight back on. I said, fine, and she looked at the other nurse: Just write, he's on a diet, and she walked off. But I'm not, I wanted to say, I'm training for a marathon. I ran remarkably fast yesterday and it was because I've lost weight. There was another trade-off and the first nurse passed my chart to the next nurse and briefly talked about me, with the phrase, He's on a diet, being said again and me sitting there awkwardly, like some voiceless seventy-eight-kilo body that had only a month ago been eighty-two kilos.

The blood donation went smoothly and I didn't have any tingling, but I felt unsettled the whole time, having listened to other people talk about my body in front of me and knowing of course, as a woke, feminist white man trying to be a part of the solution rather than the problem, that women are subjected to this sort of public talk about their bodies all the time. Really feeling it is obviously a different thing. I remembered being seventeen and having to go to the doctor for a hernia check and after dropping my pants, the doctor remarked, Well, your first problem is that you have a small penis, followed by an awkward silence that felt like a year, followed by him saying, I'm joking, but it wasn't a joke, it can never be a joke, I want to say back to him as an almost forty-year-old man. It's not just a diet, I'm not dieting, I'm trying to run faster. Please let me define what it is I'm doing.

Of course, I am on a diet. Why lie to myself. I feel amazing. I've been running faster than I ever have. The winter has passed and now, I am on the canal at six in the morning, the sun is coming up, and there is no one but me, running faster than I have ever run. I have suddenly begun to believe that I can actually run a three-hour marathon, that my body can actually do it. I come home before seven and there are a myriad of things that need to be done, excruciatingly carefully worded emails to write, or kids to help, or soaring energy prices to mull over, or dishes to wash, or compost that needs to be rummaged through, looking for a flask gasket that has gone missing and inexplicably costs £22 to replace. All of those things are what they are, but I ran five kilometres in eighteen minutes and forty-nine seconds this morning. Do you have any idea how that feels.

17 February 2022

Like little pieces of the sky


The wind has been terrible the last couple of days and sat in the top of the house on Victoria Road, in the loft we converted last year to make enough space for everyone as they got older, I have some uneasy feeling that the whole thing might be blown off. There are also inexplicable sounds when the wind blows. A banging once, for example, what is banging, I wondered, looking up from my phone. Thankfully, these passing concerns are embedded in a much larger constellation of thoughts about how the loft conversion was a brilliant use of funds and solved all the problems it was meant to solve. The builders were trustworthy and there's no real concern about whether everything will stick together, even if you might feel uneasy about it. They were the sort of builders you trust implicitly because you have a sense of their goodness. It's hard to explain. 

The loft conversion, and the fireplace and fence were the key jobs completed last year, and Mike, the man who had done the fence, was meant to come back and replace all the stones of the patio and the walkaway and put in a larger shed after a month or so. Mysteriously though, Mike stopped responding to my texts and WhatsApp messages and even when I called, would not answer the phone. I couldn't tell why this was, if I had offended him in some way, but after a few months I gave up. We got another quote from the guy who did the neighbour's tree, but that quote was, as far as I could tell, the sort of quote that suggested that guy didn't actually want to do the job. It was far too much, and the underlying message was, You're paying mostly for my lack of enthusiasm here. To be fair, I respect this view of work immensely, but I couldn't see spending an additional four thousand pounds, particularly after having had Mike put in my head that it could be much cheaper.

A year passed and our new neighbours had some landscapers around to do some work, James and the lad who isn't really a lad, and I stopped them one morning to ask if I could get a quote. We walked through the garden pointing out this and that, the different options, and I spoke disparagingly about Mike, I said he ghosted me, then regretted it, wondering if Mike and James knew one another and this would get back to Mike. We looked at everything and James said he could work out the quote, if I gave him a minute and I knew I would accept whatever it was, because this working out of the quote on the table in the garden definitely couldn't include the cost of his enthusiasm — that is only added later, at home, when one thinks does one really want this, is it really worth it. And sure enough, it was almost the original Mike cost, and I immediately agreed, with the caveat that I needed to speak to my partner, but she would say yes, she would have to say yes, this was the last piece of the puzzle.

The impending work on the garden means the inevitable has come, the dismantling of our seven-year-old trampoline, the one that Yoko's dad bought in 2015, and which, like all the things your children have, lost interest over time, in a way that you can't notice until it is completely gone. When was the last time it had been used, you wonder — it has been years, potentially. I had the explicable yen to do it in the dark on Tuesday night, and pulled the whole thing apart in thirty minutes before feeling like I'd made a huge mistake: what if they wanted to jump on it one more time, what if we didn't actually want to get rid of it? What if all of this has been a dream and I'll wake up and they'll be six and four and two again. What will I do then.

There are numerous decisions to make with James about the sandstone pavers and the sort of shed to get. For example, should the shed have a window or not: the pros and cons of this one, simple decision could take up a day of consideration. I've not insisted on pressure-treated wood, I'm not willing to pay for it, but of course I should be because in four years it will be like the kitchen, slowly coming undone and I'll think back to 2022 Me, that fool, and wish that he hadn't just made a bunch of quick choices to get it over with. We should have paid £500 more for the limestone if that's what we really wanted, but I still can't seem to believe the future will come, that I will be here in five years from now, that we'll still be in this house, that anything which has gone on and on for all these years will continue to go on. Of course, it will don't be stupid, I say to myself, before making another decision that is meant to only last until 2025, when I seem to think the world will end. I can make it one more month like this, I have been saying to myself for years now. It's just another month. 

This isn't healthy. The girls had some performative sadness about the trampoline, but honestly, I'm not sure how safe it was anymore. I said that to them because I wanted it to pass without a moment of inflexion, where I would have to witness them jumping on it for the last time, where they might be young again and I would see them as young again. It's too much, I'm sorry. I did it in the dark when no one was watching. When I woke up the next day, it was just gone. The new thing is coming now, we'll have new memories to make, we'll eat out there every day. And it too will grow old and the nostalgia will grow in it, like weeds between the cheap sandstone pavers, until in some future world, some other person, maybe me as an older man, will decide again that it's time to change it. 

07 February 2022

Something in the way

When Covid cleared the house, I had the sensation that can only be felt after all the limitations of self-isolation come off: when you step out of the house for the first time, legally free. Of course, you might have left during your self-isolation period, to pick up a child in a car because it was too dark for them to walk home, or drive another child to school because they have not had a good morning, but can go now. You don't feel like you were free then, you feel like you are breaking the law. But when Friday came, I could lace up my new Nike Zoom Pegasus 38s which I had bought at a heavy discount only two weeks ago. I felt like everything was possible again, that my body was completely renewed and whatever was coming that day didn't matter. I was out in the world and running again, not fast or slow, not at any pace because it didn't matter did it. I was just running. 

I used to joke that I was looking forward to the day when there would be no crying in the house. This was some time ago when the children were much smaller and there was always some sort of three-to-eight-year-old problem that needed resolving, often by giving or withholding something, or by simply picking them up. You could do that at some point: just pick them up. Three girls, people would say, you'll have your hands full won't you, but I always wondered what ratio of boys to girls would make it easier: surely I'd have my hands full with three boys — would one boy and two girls be okay? At what point would my hands have not been full, theoretically? 

A day did eventually pass, I'm sure, where there was no crying in the house, but I never clocked it. The absence of crying is a hard thing to note, something we don't tend to think about in any given instance: there is no one crying here. As it went though, the crying that's come later, the crying of kids who are past eight is much more unsettling, something that can't be solved simply by giving or withholding or picking up. You could assert your compassion when they were younger, you could smother the tears like a fire with a blanket. You could make any feeling go away. Now, with every year, you have less and less control. You no longer know the right thing to say, or what needs to be done, to make it stop, to make it okay, to make the world make sense. The kids know anyway, they experience it every day: life doesn't always make sense. There isn't an answer sometimes.

When we bought the house on Victoria Road almost five years ago, and did all the work that was needed in one round, the Ikea kitchen we had installed was remarkable. The previous cabinets, the manufactured wood and veneers of late-stage capitalism had moisture inside of them, the way things get moisture in them in the UK. The new ones were clean and dry and durable. Now, four years have passed and I noticed in the last year that they were yellowing and the steam from the kettle had begun to warp the cabinet door above it. The sink is also chipped. The truth is, as I look at it, the kitchen will need to be redone in five years, won't it. It will be manageable for another two or three years and then everything is going to start breaking. Yoko had intimated this at some point, but we were burning through money on white goods, we couldn't afford to double the cost of the kitchen — besides, there is a warranty, I said confidently. Twenty-five years. 

Without knowing it, I myself stopped crying sometime last year. I cried a lot at the start of the pandemic, in a small converted garage, off a fantastically large house near Mary Vale in Bournville. It was unproductive crying, the sort of crying that you do and afterwards feel less settled than when you started: you feel pathetic and pitiful, and I seemed to have subconsciously resolved to not do it anymore, at least not in the presence of anyone who could judge me for it, who might think I was weak because of it. Why cry in front of your wife, what sort of pathetic, adult person does that. That's it, isn't it: we're adults now, even the kids are adults. There is no one to pick us up, to tell us it's okay, to soothe us. To desire that is infantile, isn't it, to want someone to soothe you and reassure you, particularly when you yourself have never been especially supportive. Besides, you're almost forty. 

I haven't been entirely successful, in part because it's not who I am, but also because grief continues to stalk around outside the Pihlajas of Harborne, always it seems on the edge of breaking back in, making itself known in a rush of negative energy. They'll tell you this, of course, when someone dies, that everyone moves on even when you don't. Even yourself, you'll move on without noticing, but she is still gone and it's only been a month. I read The Year of Magical Thinking, and of course, everything that we've experienced is normal. The sense, particularly when you're so far away, that it didn't actually happen. That you'll get an email or some report from her, like you did for fifteen or sixteen years, when you didn't really appreciate it like you should have. Sometimes you'll remember that this won't happen again, you'll be on the stairs, just coming down for a glass of water, and you'll remember.