16 January 2023

Something obvious and well-known

I read War and Peace for the first time at the beginning of 2011, when I was very thin and using an automatic rower in the garage of the house we were renting in Milton Keynes to count exercise calories and listen to audiobooks on my iPod. I had never read any Russian literature in college or high school, beyond a few short stories, and I always felt that I was lacking something. War and Peace turned out to be, as I would recount for about three months, really good, I mean, of course, everyone knows it's a classic but like... it's really good, I would say to the carousel of people from the University and students I was teaching in London. It was how it was good that was so impressive to me, the way you could be inside of so many different perspectives at the same time, the way the story stretched out for years and years, the way things from the past were the same as they were in the present, but more importantly, how it had put its finger on the mirage of faith, how looking into the void, there was only the void. My evangelical fervour for it ended up being like my evangelical fervour for everything else. The American guy is surprised by, getting very wrapped up in, something obvious and well-known, like a child discovering ice cream and insisting you try it.

At this time in my life, the second year of my PhD, things were completely in flux.  I had been in the process of,what I euphemistically called losing my faith, but this was not entirely true: I knew exactly where I left it, at what precise point. A third baby was coming. I was working in London two days a week. The other girls were very young. I decided it would be sensible to get a vasectomy so as remove at least one variable from my future: certainly, three children were enough children. I went to see the GP and he said, You're quite young to be getting a vasectomy, and I said, I have two children and one on the way, and he didn't ask any other questions. A letter came quickly with a date for an outpatient surgery that ended up being so anti-climactic, I secretly had hoped it would have been worse, that I would have suffered more, so as to gain some sympathy. But as with most of the sicknesses I have endured, I was fine the next day and running again the next week. The third baby, who was of course Mia, was born, and I somehow convinced myself, at twenty-eight, all of these things could be managed, I could behave like all of the choices I had made could be taken forward without my faith, even if that faith was the basis for them originally. The whole of the plan, what God had pre-ordained, I had managed to accomplish without God, in spite of God.

Ten years seem to have evaporated. That January to now, to the other day when I started listening to Anna Karenina read as an audiobook while I was running in the pitch black before dawn. Those years have been filled with many things, I'm sure, but for the whole of that time, more-or-less, I have been in the same physical place, in the house on Victoria Road, with the same partner, and three kids who have changed imperceptibly, day by day, until all three of them have become women before my eyes. Covid, I suppose, taking the last three years. Now I am forty and my interest in Tolstoy has been less on the talk about faith, and more on the relationships, the freshness of marriage at first, how the narratives about love, about family life, about work, map onto life now: you give up bear hunting convinced that there is no more joy than can be found in loving someone, only for that love to be split again and again and again until there is only a sliver left.

I somehow feel younger at forty than I did at twenty-eight. I remember joking after the meeting with the GP about the vasectomy, of course, I will never want to go through this again, it's been an absolute nightmare. It was a joke, but only because the truth was too complicated. I love my children, but how am I a father, I am desperately, constantly afraid, and if I did not have spite for all the people that would judge me for failing without my faith, who would tut and say it served me right, I would fall off this, I couldn't keep going. At forty, I look at a man slightly older than me holding a newborn baby and am jealous, jealous that he waited, jealous that he took his twenties to himself, jealous of his partner who looks at him with love. I'm ready now, I want to say, I know what I should have done then, I know what I should have said. We make eye contact and I smile at the baby and then at the man, at his partner, and back at the little boy looking at me intently until I turn away to my own children, to my women, whom I love and whom love me, and with whom I have managed to stay, holding down my fear and my inadequacy, with some hope that they, that we, will be okay, despite all of this weakness.

13 January 2023

Considering

The new year came, as they do now that I am forty, while I slept. In the UK in recent years everyone now everyone seems to shoot fireworks at midnight, and though I was asleep, the sound of the fireworks came into my dreams and I remembered it in the vague way that sound can come into your subconscious. I had thought I might try to stay up, but by 10:30 it no longer felt viable — we had spent the day in London, with me out in front of everyone, Dad, annoyed and pointing and deciding and weaving us through Soho to see Phantom of the Opera. I had done Dad well, I had collected the train tickets from the girls when they came through the train gates. I ticked off all the places everyone had wanted to go, and I had not become annoyed at the play when annoying things were happening all around me, recognising as you do when you're forty, that you are on a slow roll downhill that ends with you annoyed in every queue in which you're made to wait. I bought ice cream when asked, or rather, I just gave up my credit card and ice cream was bought, and I watched my children watch the play, filled now with more joy from that than from anything else. And then collapsing finally, dead asleep as the new year appeared in Harborne, the skies apparently lit up like end of the world had also come. 

The holiday period in this country, particularly for the Pihlajas of Harborne, is filled with church services and choir concerts. Almost daily it seemed I was climbing the hill to St Peter's, through the dark, bells ringing sometimes, but always with some quietness at the end of it, candles and the eucharist, which I still take without reservation. At the local pub, the girls sing and I stand there, holding bags and coats, and ordering lemonades, and wondering when all this service will be enough, when the suffering will abate, and someone who really knows, who's seen it all and has no reason to lie to me, will say, You've done a good job, considering. Divorced Dad TikTok has clear, opposing views on this: the American woman who confidently tells me she left her husband because he wouldn't drain the pool despite her many requests, and Jordan Peterson saying no one can really separate once they have had children, it's an impossibility. Both sides started coming up with a regularity that made me feel bad constantly, and the Peterson video was the last straw. I could not have some app insisting I was someone I didn't want to be: I don't want to be a person who watches Jordan Peterson videos, regardless of what my demographic interests and my use of the app said about me. I shut it off, downloaded the Sudoku app and didn't open it again. 

I remember when I was in Japan as a missionary, the spark of my linguistic interest lighted upon learning that the Japanese word for God couldn't distinguish between singular and plural forms and how this had serious, almost existential consequences like I had discovered the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for the first time. The longer I stayed and the more Japanese I learned, the clearer it became that I was a different person when I spoke Japanese, this whole world of things that everyone who didn't speak Japanese couldn't access. It felt clever, exceedingly clever, but now, some twenty years later, the opposite is obvious to me: that I was still who I was. That when I said, I love you,  in Japanese, I meant it in English, that I had no idea what the Japanese meant, past a simple one-to-one equation. It didn't mean what I thought it meant, it mapped onto a completely different set of cultural values and histories. You could translate the word, but you couldn't ever mean it in Japanese, could you. 

I woke up early on New Year's Day to run, and then the next day to run again, now that I am training for the London Marathon. Both were easy runs that I waited for the light of day to do. I went up and down the Woodgate Valley Path, like I have hundreds and hundreds of time, meeting the same people who I have seen weekly, daily even, for the last nine years. The girls came and went and at night, lying bed, I could hear them laughing below, all in a room together, full of life and happiness and whatever feeling of contentment that has been the underlying state of my life, the basis on which the sadness can be managed, came up, and I could recognise it, like some Mary Oliver poem manifest in experience. You want all these other things, the things you can't have, but what about the things you do have. What if you just accepted those things and stopped counting everything else. What if you just turned off the light for once, and turned over to sleep because today and the day before and the day before, every day back as far as you can remember, has been enough. And tomorrow too, for whatever you can't have, will be full of things you already do have. And you'll wake up to run, to work, to come home, to a life you can, in the most British way now, agree is fine, really. 

13 December 2022

Lucky you

The end of the second twenty twenty-two diet last week brought with it an aimlessness that I have tried to half-heartedly fill with a stepped-down attention with my eating, one that doesn't involve climbing naked on to the scale every morning, but still thinking about what I'm eating and when, mindfully as the woman on TikTok says. I look in the mirror and wonder if I'm thin now. In my own historical record of my weight loss, I've felt a whole multitude of ways about my body — I've felt fat or thin, or attractive or unattractive, in different ways for more than twenty years and have felt thin when I was much heavier and felt fat when I was much lighter. My experience of empirical reality, and empirical reality itself, don't have a clear correlation.  

Ten days after I hit my goal weight, I got on the scale again to check in and I had not lost or gained any more weight, and this felt good in theory, but if I'm honest, I had expected to have lost more, given what I've been eating and not eating. It is what it is. The TikTok dietician shows me sugar cubes to illustrate how much my insulin spiked when I inhaled the white bread and jam I had for breakfast which was apparently a bad choice. I swipe up and Divorced Dad TikTok appears: a man telling me I need to not even think about another relationship until I've sorted my life out. I want to say to him, But I've not left, I'm still here — the algorithm says I've left, it's predicted it, but that's just my demographic disposition, not my reality, and I swipe up to a maths puzzle, which I watch three times and still can't solve. 

Right before I got married, before TikTok could control the future by feeding me content and when I was twenty-three and living in remote, snowy northwest Japan, I shaved my head. It was one of the things I had done when I was younger, when I would be frustrated with my weight or appearance and needed to do something to completely change how I saw myself — like I could clear the deck and not have to worry about the one thing that seemed to bother me the most. Suddenly I wouldn't have to worry about a dumb haircut derailing whatever vain vision I had of myself. At twenty-three, engaged and thinking about a respectable future teaching English in Japanese universities, I needed to be moving towards a cleaner, more professional look, with Gap blazers that Yoko and I picked out together, and smart shirts with collars. 

I cut all my hair off in May of that year, 2006, after I had been away on a bicycle trip by myself around Sado Island and was still not really thinking about what it would mean to be married in a country I had only lived in for three years and to someone I didn't really know. I just did it one night, over the kitchen rubbish bin, with cheap blue clippers I had bought, and immediately regretted it, the way I always regretted it. I thought it would make me look like the lead singer of Coldplay but instead, I just looked more bulbous, less proportioned and like it was the summer of my tenth birthday. It took me a while to realise that cutting off all my hair would have consequences for the wedding photos, and that I would look ridiculous with three months of growth and no trimming.

I had a friend at the time, a guy I met through my weird network of English teachers and students, who had his own family salon and who agreed to try to clean it up before the actual ceremony, charging me something like three thousand yen to give it a bit of a fade. He was very kind to me and bought my 55cc MiniCub scooter when we moved two years later, but I've tried for several days to remember his name and it's completely gone. I can see his face and I feel like I could walk to his salon if I was in Niigata now: I remember going there on a Thursday night and talking to him about getting married and him treating me the way many of my Japanese friends and colleagues were treating me at the time: this all sounds very ill-planned, but you have to admire his ambition. 

Over the years, I've tried to find a haircut that suits me, but if I'm honest, it has very little to do with whether my hair looks good to me, and more so whether I think that I look or am thin. When I got married, that year, I thought I was thin, even though now I know that I wasn't. When I looked at myself, I felt thin. And not only thin, I felt like every other white man in their early twenties who grows up in the suburbs of Chicago believing in Jesus and suffering no real difficulties feels: I was on some path of self-improvement that meant I would continue to get closer to the man I wanted to be, even if I wasn't quite there yet. It was, I assumed, an inevitable consequence of growing up, that you made good choices and good results would follow, even if it wasn't entirely clear how. You just needed to be faithful.   

My hair did end up looking okay for the wedding ceremony, and we bought a three-piece Spanish suit that has never really fit since that day and after I lost more weight. But in 2006 it was perfect and the pictures were fine, and my hair was longer than I remember. Looking at them, I feel annoyed the way a forty-year-old feels annoyed with themselves in their mid-twenties like this younger version of me in a suit he will only wear once needs to be told to take the whole thing more seriously, that he needs to realise that real life is at stake, you can't just giggle through it all: real shit is just around the corner, man. Real shit. 

I got a similar haircut this last week, twenty years later, at the Turkish Barber on the Harborne High Street, although my fade now was shorter and better balanced for my head shape and size. I can articulate what I want in a way that I couldn't when I was twenty-three, when I just naively assumed everyone was acting in my best interest. I've been joking about getting an old man haircut, by which I mean a haircut that needs little maintenance and which has given up on trying to be anything stylish. Now that I am thin, or at least think that I am thin, the haircut, the very close mid-fade, looks better than when I was twenty-three and still chubby, a little boy not quite sure of what was about to happen to him. How in less than a year from that picture, he would be holding a baby girl, his own baby girl and everything would be completely different. There must then be things now I don't realise, surely something is around the corner that I can't see, but I hope I can look back with more empathy and forgiveness at some point, and understand it, the way you understand a lover, the way you can forgive things because everyone is just doing their best, aren't they. What else are they supposed to do, what other thing can you expect of them then to act in their own character.

26 November 2022

Making Weight


Like a barometer for my mental well-being, my weight goes up and down. When it is up, something is wrong, generally, and when it is down, something different is wrong. I've never managed, for most of my adult life, to find some way to stay even, ever since I discovered how to lose weight when I was twenty-three and about to marry. I was still a child then, and I didn't understand the connection between what I ate and how much I weighed. It was just an idea. There was a family restaurant, Saizariya, near my house where I could sit and study Japanese because they had a ¥299 Drink Bar. I would drink cappuccino, sometimes six of them in a row without thinking about it. When I finally learned how many calories were in this, I turned into a kind of evangelist about it: dude, do you know that has like as many calories as a coke, it's nuts. This was just the start of it, of all the things that I didn't know, but these huge gaps in my knowledge seemed to be papered over by the fact that I was in Japan, and living a relatively productive life and managing myself fine: it didn't matter that I wasn't exactly clean, or I wasn't paying any attention to what I was eating. I must have been doing something right.

The loss of weight, in that first instance, taught me how to exercise control, control that became the hallmark of my early twenties. My faith was slipping away and with it, any sense that God had a wonderful plan for my life that I needed to seek out and follow. Instead, I started to date again for the first time in years, and the woman I was with was smart and professional and, what I would have said at the time, out of my league. It was all very civilised — not the sort of paralysing passion that I'd experienced in the past and created as much pain as anything else. I felt like an adult suddenly. We weren't doing the cheapest things all the time: I was eating in Japanese restaurants, rather than just getting pizza whenever I could. She was older, more settled. And I was working out and began my MA and she would come after work and sit on the tatami and read the newspaper, while I studied. In a year, I was eight kilograms lighter, married, and soon to become a father. 

A couple of weeks ago, I gave platelets, and it went fine, but the following day I got a message that my next appointment had been cancelled, and then on Friday morning, as I was waiting for some shoes to be delivered, I got a letter from NHS blood and transplant saying that my blood work had come back abnormal, with the abnormal numbers and a note to see the GP. I, of course, googled these numbers and was immediately concerned, even though the letter was clear that this could be an error. I told a few people, but couldn't manage to tell people in a way that got the response that I wanted, and I fell into a Tom Sawyer fantasy about how much I would be missed if I did, in fact, have a rare form of blood cancer and was dead by the end of the year, like that TikTok filter had told me in January would happen this year. Instead, the prevailing explanation became that I had actually gotten Covid before my marathon and had stupidly run through it, giving me the numbers I got. That or the rapid lab results were just wrong.

I went to see the GP on a Tuesday morning, when it was raining heavily and I had another meeting to make at the primary school afterwards, and the doctor, talking to me, seemed to heavily suggest that the blood and transplant on-site testing was not something I should trust and if my lymphocytes, which were the real concern, were actually ten times what they should be, I would not be running a marathon. He managed to get an me an appointment in an hour to take my blood and I cycled over in the rain, missing my other meeting, and they told me the results would be back in three days and if I didn't hear anything, it meant they were fine, but I could call and check if I wanted to be reassured. I got on with things and then, the next day, as I was waiting for a group of primary school pupils to come over to Newman for a lecture I was giving called 'What is University', a text message came saying the blood work showed only 'very mild abnormalities and they needed to be redone in three months. There was, apparently, no blood cancer. 

This year, I have been down and back up with my weight twice. The first time was ahead of the Great Welsh Marathon. Then I attributed my success in running fast to losing ten kilograms after my previous race in the autumn, but I put the weight back on in three months. This second time, I'm back after I lost control of my eating serving a mountain of stress that began with the unwanted and returned bean-to-cup coffee machine on my birthday, topped by a visit from my parents and driving a nine-passenger van around Scotland for a week. I don't know why eating is my response to stress: it makes me feel terrible physically and mentally, emotionally. The frustration compounds: everything becomes ungovernable until I open up some app again and commit to an unsustainable regimen of logging everything I eat, something I'm a kind of master at now: That apple is 90 calories, I just know. 

The loss of control is not something I realised was a feature of growing older. You can control a lot more when you're younger, or you think you can, before your choices set in and your options begin to narrow. I can still lose weight, and indeed, it seems, do so in a way that doesn't include counting every calorie in an app, or trying not to eat when you're actually quite hungry, or taking a day off running because something has come up. It's a small success, not something to write home about: the breakdown of control in every other area of my life still remains an unsettled tangle, too many intersecting personalities now. Maybe with luck, those tangles work themselves out. Or maybe the tangle is just the way it is, and you sit down every so often, have a go at untangling it. Maybe you make progress. Maybe you don't. But you give up eventually, let it lie there and try again to accept it. 

07 November 2022

The practice of the presence of God

British Summer Time came to an end and I did not adjust quickly. Instead, I found myself on the sofa at four in the morning, wide awake, sending emails from my phone and sorting my weekly schedule, lining up things to do when the sun came up and I could go into work and sleepwalk through a day of difficult conversations and the tense silence that is always lurking at home, before falling exhausted into bed around nine, Yoko sitting on the other side knitting and me being dead asleep before she turns out the light. As November has edged on, I've gotten back to a normal schedule a bit, but still I'm sleeping in a way that I haven't in years. Unsettlingly deep, my last thought always before my body gives up being, if this the closest analogue to death we experience, do we only accept it because we know we will wake up? 

On Tuesday, I gave platelets like I have every month now since the pandemic, and feeling particularly smug this time as I had asked the homeless guy in from Tesco if he would like something, and when giving him the strawberry milkshake he wanted, two people from a homeless charity were speaking to him and one of the guys said, thanks, in an unexpectedly sincere way, and I felt like I had not done something wrong. Everything went fine, and the women, not the nurses but the women who put the needle in and monitor you, were all kind to me and knew my name, and I booked my next three appointments and rode my bike into work. On Wednesday, however, I got a text saying my next appointment had been cancelled, and I didn't think anything of it until I was home on Friday morning, waiting for some shoes I had ordered to arrive and a letter from NHS Blood and Transplant came instead saying that my blood had fallen outside of the normal range, and I needed to go see the GP, followed by a series of numbers that I then foolishly google'd.

I studied creative writing at Knox College — I was told I showed promised, at least in the context of white suburban young men from the Chicago area. My writing now is not that different than it was, except that at nineteen I wrote stories about men who, by some trauma, generally World War II, became disconnected from their social world and drank themselves to death. These stories were a terrible affront to the axiom write what you know because I hadn't had any real trauma in my life, had never drank much less been drunk, and was still basically a virgin. But I was earnest in my own sadness, and the unravelling of my faith that had just started and my own social awkwardness lent itself to a kind of outsider charm, like an alien writing about being human. I wrote a novella as a part of a college honours project, when I went vegetarian for the first time, and met weekly with my supervisor who was a young poet and teacher that I in retrospect had an enormous crush on and whose opinion meant everything to me. She particularly liked a line I had written — lid his breath in a mason jar — and one day, I went to an antique shop, and bought a mason jar and put a feather in it and left it on her office door. 

That optimism I had at nineteen, when I thought I could write poetry and I loved God, left me at some point. It couldn't be sustained after I finished university and didn't have the private college tutoring, the inflated ego I developed sat in a liberal island in the middle of rural Illinois where Abraham Lincoln once debated. It started falling apart in the last couple of months I was there, and I remember the final meeting I had with Monica, when I told her I hadn't been selected to go as a missionary to Central America, omitting the part where it had been because of my apparent sexual immorality. I knew that would make even less sense to her than to me, but she was still livid, how in the world could they have turned you down, of all people, you're the most committed person I know. I was stuck like I had been for years at Knox, between an inexplicable Evangelical fundamentalism and the secular world where my faith didn't make any sense, because the whole point was that it wasn't supposed to make sense. I had nothing to say: I couldn't explain it to myself, much less to her. I graduated and moved to Japan and we never talked again, really.

Despite the news of my white blood cell count, I felt and still do feel fine, but I am also suddenly hyperaware of my body, my throat has been sore hasn't it and my face is twitching today and the soonest I could get an appointment with the GP was in ten days. On Friday night after dark, I took my colleague's dog we were watching out for a walk, and after I made it up the hill to the churchyard and Pippa was busy investigating a pile a leaves, my phone buzzed with an email telling me Monica was dead, suddenly, unexpectedly. I stared at the screen, the dog pulling at the lead, and I didn't know what to do. I walked home and posted about it on Facebook, which she would have hated, I know. I said something about how she had made me the teacher I am, how I imitate her, how I loved her, and managed to finally cry when no one could see me, when I wouldn't have to explain it to anyone, and fell without trouble into the British Summer Time sleep. 

I'm fine, I'm sure, and the daydream fantasy of an impending or sudden death is much less appetising when death is real, when you remember that it can, and occasionally does, just end. I had left so many things unsaid to Monica, I had meant to email her this semester, but I hadn't yet: I didn't have anything to say, no news to report, and no way to say whatever I really wanted to say, what I always thought I would say when I was older and it could be laughed off, I love you: I know all of your students love you, but I loved you, in my own unique way, through all my Evangelical fog. All I ever wanted was to write sentences you would love. I remembered that I had emailed her over the years, and dug back through my inbox, what was the last thing I had wrote, or rather, what was the last thing she wrote, was there a blessing from whatever goodness has kept me on track through the bouts of sadness over the last twenty years, my inability to find the love I need, to find someone to believe in me the way she did. And of course, it was there and it was perfect:

And this: over the summer, I was out west on a research trip, and one night in the mountains, I had a dream of you and your girls. Most days, I don’t remember my dreams, but this one I did. For days, I could recall their very real laughter, their small but strong voices, and your sturdy voice among them. Who knows now what happened in the dream. We were talking about books, a life of letters, the girls were circling and running and being children, and there were mountains near. But mostly the impression stayed with me, and from time to time in this long season here, I’ve thought of it, and of you. 

25 October 2022

Of Love that is strong to suffer


...all the sin and sorrow of the world, is revealed as the comfort and confidence of man, whose own deepest experience is love that suffers, whose highest worship therefore must be of Love that is strong to suffer. -Julian of Norwich 

I don't know why I run. I know why I started running. I know why I've made various choices about running over my life, but why I actually do it? I don't know, and I particularly don't know around the twenty or twenty-second miles of the Abingdon Marathon, muddy and wet, when I start to write and try to distract myself with the things I will tell people about the race. I used to have a mantra, taken from Murakami, I run to find the void, but that's not something that comforts you late in a race. You aren't running to find the void, you're running because you'll feel shame if you drop out. You're running because you don't want to stop in front of the supporters, the ones saying things in a quiet voice, You're doing great, you're almost there, well done, the way you coax a child when they're throwing up in the middle of the night. 

Several people said to me before the race, Enjoy yourself, and I understood what that meant intellectually, but I didn't understand it in my body. Running is my hobby, but I don't think I'd say I enjoy it. I realised that after running for two and a half hours on Sunday — I was not, on any level, enjoying this experience. Surely there must be something else I could be doing: I turned this over in my mind, what would I rather be doing if it was purely about enjoyment, but things that I thought I might genuinely enjoy if I wasn't worried at all about public perception of me, were all some vice, embarrassing in one way or another, and having them as a hobby would require a lack of shame, something I'm particularly incapable of. No, I've always chosen my interests based on how they fed a perception of being socially desirable, determined, intelligent. In jr high school, for example, I liked classical music, but I'm not sure if I actually did like that music, or if I just liked how it made other people think I was whatever it was they thought I was.

Running has pulled me in because it fulfills my beta desire to be physically strong. It's given me a thing I never had when I was young: athletic success. I was never good at any sports, but I'm a pretty good runner, whatever that means. Being good at running, particularly to be good at long-distance running, is just the ability to do a straightforward thing over a long period of time. It's a sport that rewards persistence, bloody-mindedness. I follow marathon training plans like they are the gospel, like I believe them, like any deviation from them will lead to judgment. And indeed, when I ran the Great Welsh Marathon in the Spring, when I broke three hours and felt a sense of accomplishment that matched almost any sense of accomplishment I'd ever felt, it made some sense to me. You keep going and going and going and then, eventually, you succeed.

These last three months though, I have not been training well. I've been running what you call junk miles, not easy miles, not hard miles, but in the miserable middle miles, just barely testing your ability and never resting. For me, that's one hundred and forty beats of my heart per minute. I can run a fast marathon at one hundred and fifty-eight, those thirteen extra beats a minute are all the difference in the world, and if you don't train for it, you can't do it. Or rather you can do it, you are able to do it, your body is able to do it, but you can't do it. You can't make yourself do it and when you're slow, when you're losing time as you get into the last hour of running, you need to tell yourself a story with a reward. When the reward is just finishing, all you can do is finish. The reward becomes your family still being together, your marriage not having broken down yet, your career progressing, and your body having no major illnesses. That's enough, really, when you shuffle into the final six hundred meters, and willingly forget whatever pleasure you would have felt if you had run just eight and half minutes faster than you did. 

I will, of course, keep running and will run another marathon — on Monday I got news, sitting in my favourite pub eating breakfast, that the two hour fifty-nine minute, thirty-four-second marathon last April meant I could run the London Marathon next year, having qualified in what they condescendingly label Good for Age, but this describes me well, describes my whole life from when I was three onwards: I am good for my age. Whatever I thought on Sunday, less than 24 hours before, when I thought this was meaningless, why suffer, why do this of all the things I could do, all the vices, why get up every morning so early and run in the dark. Those questions were gone: who wants a religion they have to choose, a tweet I see quotes Hauerwaus as saying. I agree: I only had to choose it once and then I stopped choosing it. I don't want anything I have to choose, much less choose more than once. I want the plan to tell me what to do, I want it to work out when and where I will rest. I want people to praise me for the things I do. It doesn't need to make sense. 

19 October 2022

The Taper

I was homeschooled until I was sixteen — sometimes I feel like leading with that explains more about me than anything else I can say. My unchecked enthusiasm, lack of filter, oversharing: I blame all of this on not having real negative feedback when I was a child, no one telling me to shut up, only my siblings goading each other on with whatever snippet of reality we'd captured from church group or better, the kids in the neighbourhood. I've always felt like I'm in the uncanny valley of social normalcy, performing some version of appropriate social behaviour that I learned from watching Saved by the Bell and playing with the Mormon kids in our cul-de-sac. Here is where we laugh, here is where we listen, here is where we speak.

In this country, where I am a British foreigner, it's less of an issue because before I am a homeschooled person, I am a foreign person and precisely an American foreign person. In the constellation of things that make me whoever I am in this context, being homeschooled is less important than at least ten other things. I left a message on someone's phone last night, and just said, Hey, it's me, without saying who me was, and after I hung up, I thought about calling back and clarifying that I was the one who had called, but thought, she'll get it from my accent, how many American men are calling her. Today, I saw her and joked that she probably didn't have that many Americans calling her on a Monday night, and she said she knew a Canadian guy, it could have been him, but it didn't matter she hadn't heard the message anyway.

Being homeschooled, you live with a known blindspot, filling in things that it appears other people learned in school that you didn't quite pick up in the church youth group that was meant to supplement the lack of interaction with other kids your age. As I've grown older, I've felt this feeling of not being in on the joke, fade in some ways. Everyone's personality develops differently, surely, and even if my gregariousness emerged out of that, I've been living like a normal human being in the normal social world for many more years than I was homeschooled. I have only myself to blame. Still, though, I wonder what I've missed, particularly when I'm in a primary school, where I have found myself quite a bit over the years, first with the girls and now as a school governor. I look at the kids interact, and I think, what are they all learning that I never learned. I'm not confident I could take a punch: is that the sort of thing these kids know about themselves, or am I just projecting.

After the Great Welsh Marathon this spring and my inexplicable time of two hours, fifty-nine minutes, and thirty-four seconds, I have not had much of a yen to run. Instead, I've found myself eating and then running out of a sense of guilt and self-pity, that this is the time I can have alone, without any expectations on me, provided I'm back before it gets light. In the glow of the time this Spring, I signed up for the Abingdon marathon, a place I had not ever really heard about, but in comparing my options for an autumn run, decided it was the best because I could drive there in the morning and not have to stay in a Travelodge the night before, lying awake in a strange room and wondering what I was doing with my life. Now, I only have to spend ninety minutes thinking this, as I drive down the M40 in the darkness of an October Sunday morning, hoping the car breaks down, and I won't actually have to run. 

The training has not gone well, partly because I achieved my goal of running a marathon in under three hours already, and partly all the turmoil at home which started four years ago, but seems to have really come together this summer, when I was given and promptly returned a bean-to-cup coffee machine I received for my birthday. After that, things have not been right, and I have dealt with this not-quite-rightness with eating, taking on more and more responsibility, and running. The imperfect balance of gluttony and binge exercise hidden as self-improvement got me through a trip to Scotland with my parents and immediate family, but at the end of September, I had had enough of it and was determined to drop the extra weight I'd gained in three months, something ridiculous like eight kilograms, and try to get some control. I've done it for many years, this same cycle. It's impossible to break until suddenly it isn't. You just flip the switch. I can't explain it.

Things have gone well enough since that flipping of the switch. I've lost about four kilograms and am running with a bit more strength ahead of my marathon, although this week, the taper week, has been full of cold symptoms and running about with obligations that seem to endlessly cascade on me until some time in the evening when I sink an hour or more into my phone and feel guilty that I've not written anything all day and not made any progress in mending the fallout of the bean-to-cup coffee machine, something I need to mend for some semblance of a future. I fall asleep and wake up exactly where I was the day before, another series of tasks and time when I should be writing that I end up watching YouTube videos about drama or chess or some influencer who is pregnant now and unbelievably happy, although I know that they are not, of course, unbelievably happy. 

The blindspot I sense here is an inability to pace myself against others, something I never learned as a homeschooled kid. I couldn't think of anyone but myself, and what I was capable of and whether I was achieving that. Was I doing my best: I certainly wasn't, I never was. Jesus, when Jesus could be a bit of an asshole, said, Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. I took this seriously like it was a thing that could be done, not catching the irony, actually considering cutting off my hand for sinning. How high should I jump, Jesus, just tell me and I'll do it. My kid ask me what I want out of life and I say sarcastically, I don't know, to be happy? but I'm actually sort of serious about it. I say something about the pursuit of happiness, being American, and I can't tell if I'm joking anymore. Who can really think about that in an honest way when there are so many other things to think about. Can I be honest? I want the people I love to not resent me. I want to be loved and wanted. What a pathetic middle-aged man thought, it's embarrassing. In a dream, a woman I don't know flirts with me — how silly it was to fear that when I was younger, to never believe it was okay to be wanted. I do want to be happy, as petty and silly and American and immature as that is.

14 October 2022

The burning heart of God

The period in my life from 1997 when I moved to Chicagoland to 2003 when I left for Japan, was marked by going to shows. Every show I remember is bundled with some other memory, something adjacent to whatever band I went to see, often about a girl one way or another. All of those bands at the time were only mildly popular — they were playing in the Fireside Bowl, or some smaller theatre. They then ended up breaking through at some point, Jimmy Eat World was probably the biggest one, but then Death Cab for Cutie, and the Dashboard Confessional, and Weezer of course, each of which is now embarrassing to like on one level or another, even though I remember being in the back of Colin Crockett's car in 1999 hearing My Name is Jonas on tape, for the first time, and no one having any idea what a Weezer was. When I left in 2003, I wasn't cool anymore, not that I had ever really been, but at least I knew bands that other people didn't know. Now, everyone knew about everything, and my whole personality collapsed. I saw a reunion show for Hum at the original Furnace Fest and I was already nostalgic for a time that I had actually not really lived through.

I did have several exceptions, bands I liked that everyone else liked, namely Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows, both of whom had big hits in that same time I had not been old enough to really clock it because I was still listening to DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline and Jars of Clay, the Christian knock-off bands that didn't swear and talked about not having sex. My older brother though somehow managed to get around this, and got into bands that didn't sing about Jesus, bands like Pearl Jam and the Spin Doctors, and of course, Counting Crows: he had Recovering the Satellites, and the year he was a junior in High School and I was still in the eighth grade, the music was percolating through, I was starting to hear it in the car with him here and there, until he left for college and I got a copy of Dookie, ironically from someone at church, and I started to cultivate my own pipeline to real music.

Counting Crows was the sort of band that I wouldn't normally see, because you had to get the tickets through Ticketmaster and I normally didn't want to spend more than ten dollars on a show, particularly if there was only one band I wanted to see. I did this with my brother earlier that year and regretted it: we went and saw MxPx with Blink 182 at the House of Blues, and we left after MxPx because all the other bands had been joking about sex and swearing and I was very uncomfortable. Counting Crows in 1999 had released their third album and they were still big, but on the backside of the crest of their popularity. I loved the third album though, and when they announced the tour, I got tickets to see them in Milwaukee in November with my brother and girlfriend, and waited months and months for it. The show itself was unmemorable: it was at the Eagles Ballroom and there were way too many people, but I remember it being one of the first shows I stood behind a girl with my arms around her waist, singing along, and feeling like life was on this constant edge, everything just about to come but not quite there.

It's twenty-three years later and when I saw that Counting Crows were coming to Birmingham, I thought about going, but couldn't justify spending fifty-five pounds on a ticket. I more-or-less knew what it would be like anyway and had no motivation to buy a ticket, particularly because I had no one to go with: your patience for music your partner likes but you don't begins to wane exactly one week into the second trimester of your penultimate pregnancy and never returns. Still though, on Sunday afternoon, a day before the show, lying on my side of the king-sized zip-and-link bed, I looked at a resale site and bid for one, for £34 with fees. I'll go alone, fuck it, I said to several people, telling a story about a show in 2003 when I bought one ticket to see a band I misremembered to be Dave Matthews at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin and the couple I sat next to, upon hearing that I was alone, said, Well, now you're here with us, but as I told the story several times, I realised it was actually Radiohead on the Hail the Thief tour, not that any of that matters to anyone. The rest of it was true. 

When Counting Crows played in 1999, they were tired and on autopilot, I think: this was the year of Woodstock and how many years of being as big as they were. There was terrible feedback all night, expensive production, frat boys, and twenty-somethings that had liked them in 1993 and were even then starting to realise they were getting older. Now, of course, that realisation has metastasised and spread, resulting in divorced dads pushing fifty, or well past fifty, and me, alone, in the middle of it all, realising that I too might as well be a divorced dad: being seven years younger than someone at this age is nothing, and I'm indistinguishable from everyone around me. My judgement on the whole system, all these normies, is now a judgement on myself. I'm just another charmless, sweaty middle-aged man, annoyed at the cost of everything and all the other sweaty middle-aged men around me, and angry with a number of them who had managed to talk their partners into coming out, or worse, whose partners were happy to be there with them. 

Adam Duritz, for anyone not following any of this, is the lead singer for Counting Crows and known for his insufferable depression, a kind of poster boy for dreadlocked, white male angst from that era. Indeed, if one were doing an archaeology of my own insufferably, he would be an important figure, sat brooding alone on a chair, hugging himself, singing, I am fine when clearly he wasn't and just hoping that someone, ideally a woman, would attempt to comfort him and get sucked down into that darkness. Something, however, has happened in the last several years: Duritz cut off his dreadlocks, gained weight, and started to get close to sixty. The result, it seems, as the lights went down and the band came on stage with just their instruments and venue lights, is a kind of gratitude. He sang all the songs the same way, about grey being his favourite colour and being covered in skin, but it felt a bit like he was covering those songs, like he was actually genuinely happy to be on stage after 31 years, with all of us, us middle-aged men some with real-live partners, singing loudly like we were at a football match for guys who like Counting Crows. There was a kind of strange intimacy, like hey look at us: we're still here, on a Monday night, past nine

I learned all the wrong lessons from Duritz — women don't want to save brooding, insufferable men. My girlfriend broke up with me after I went to college, and in my mind, those last two years of high school became a kind of missed turn in my life that I tried again and again to backtrack to, a place in my journey when I felt like I was going in the right direction. When the show ended and I got past the crowd, I felt and then remembered the feeling of ringing in my ears after a show, how you were underwater and how quiet home was after you'd made out in the car as long as you could and raced back for curfew. It is silent, but sound hangs on in a strange way inside you. Now, I let myself into my own house, the house on Victoria Road that I would never have imagined in 1999. I check the locks and get into the sort of bed we bought which would purposefully not disturb each other. I turn off the lights and close my eyes and the sound hangs on. 

13 October 2022

You could forgive me

As the autumn returns, the same social media reminders come up for me, the same set of pictures of that day we first came here, that Wednesday night in 2008, with Naomi and Yoko and just barely the beginning of Mei. It feels far away and it is now, far away, well before there were five of us and when I was so full of hope that I was unrecognisable from who I am now, a version of me that won the lottery. I remember riding my bike in Milton Keynes in the morning to the University and feeling out of control, but lucky, genuinely and obviously lucky. Whatever you want to believe about dreams coming true, this was it. When you're that age and you're newly married, the sheer force of will is enough to accomplish things — I said we would do it and we did it, the end of a five-year period of my life where I was just ahead of the wave and couldn't seriously articulate any potential downsides for all the decisions I was making. The only possibilities were good ones. 

When the Queen was reported dead, we were all there as a family, watching the television and waiting for it. The last week I had been in London with Mei and her friend and we walked by Buckingham Palace and I remembered feeling the way that I felt when I first saw it, when I saw it as a foreign thing. I can still see it that way if I try. I can still feel whatever I felt when I saw the Houses of Parliament the first time as a fat American, the way everything in England seemed old and serious. Now, of course, the artifice is obvious, embarrassing even. From the inside, Britain's neither that old nor that serious. It's the two guys sitting on the pavement outside of the Co-op asking for change, that's Great Britain as it is, where you need to decide what it is you're going to do, if you're going to stop and talk to them, or ask them what they need, or just keep walking past. It's class discrepancy and racism and the sort of embedded colonial thinking that makes you think the apocalypse is the only solution, how can something so corrupt be remade into something good: it can't be.

The framing of the world, and the world to come, in biblical terms is not something I find useful, but I've come to accept that I'm beholden to it. Even if I can't mouth along with the Apostle's Creed, even if I haven't prayed in fifteen years and have no desire to, I'm beholden to it. I can still quote verses from the Bible that I memorised when I was eight or nine, earning trophies and certificates, and being the best Christian boy I could be. What's the point of denying it, when your first thought is some verse, when your whole worldview is to do good while there is time, Ephesians 5:16, the days are evil and the end is coming. It feels like everyone has finally caught up with the dread I felt when I was seven: you can conceive of the end any way you'd like to, it's coming.

I wake up every morning and the end hasn't come. Instead, it's another day wondering when salvation will arrive at the Pihlajas of Harborne, when I will be forgiven not for what I've done, but for who I've become, the person whose will is not enough anymore, who cannot will love or respect, but only duty now. Somehow that is the bit that hangs on, the disease without the cure. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast in the bread, you can't see it anywhere, it's just there, but I'm still trying to disbelieve something else, some false gospel, some Moral Majority trick that got played on me before I was even aware of it. Before I can even remember, I was anxiously looking into the sky for Jesus to come back, to judge us all. I can curse it, I can deny it, but it keeps rotting inside of me somewhere.

The Kingdom of Heaven is good seeds sown among tares, it all grows together, who can differentiate which from which. So I get up again and say good morning, and keep trying for another day — if it's duty now, it's duty. Maybe forgiveness can come, maybe I can see my sin as sin and repent. Or maybe there is no sin, maybe I am the one being sinned against: who can tell, good seeds grow up with the tares and we all just wait. Forgive my debts and I will forgive those indebted to me. I don't believe, help me in my unbelief. 

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. I feel in a way like I am cosplaying some other future, some job I applied for in 2019, but it's a positive energy, some ability 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.