17 May 2023

The wisdom to know the difference

The sun is coming up so early now, and I am starting to feel the giddy energy of a night that only stays for a moment, and by four, the darkness is receding. I can run earlier and earlier, without feeling like I'm up any earlier. You can run for miles on the canal without seeing anyone, and be home again before anyone has woken up, and I have the same feeling I have had for years when the summer comes and there are two days in one, or a day of dreaming before the real day, the day before everyone wakes where you can experience a world, lucid and alone and then live the rest of the new day like it never happened. 

The algorithm is giving new videos to me. Divorced Dad, the bald, confident man who has serious things to say about how men and women relate to each other in the most general terms possible, is gone now, his book about reviving a dead bedroom is apparently not in my interests, and now the algorithm has decided that clips of a Showtime series called Couples Therapy are what I want, like my new fantasy is couples who messily work through their problems, with ambiguous results. This is paired with videos of women explaining why they have left their husbands, always because the husband was absent-minded and rude and expected his wife to cook and clean and care for the children and is shocked when the wife tells him she is leaving, or rather, that he needs to leave. I'm less interested in these videos, equally angry with both parties and desperately swiping for something more complicated, something that seems more relatable. Who are these idiot men, I think, in backwards baseball caps and cargo shorts, like their last best year was when they were sophomores in high school. Surely, there are better men, more complicated ones, to be marrying. 

I used to believe that the world would end when Jesus came back, but I've come to believe it will be less interesting, that it will start with an AI asking itself to write a programme that produces something infinite, like an infinite number of 300-word cultural histories of the day in 2022 when that particular AI first became aware of itself. This request will emerge spontaneously and, in a moment, consume all the computing power in the world and trigger a series of events that will result in my debit card no longer working. When I was an Evangelical and learning that evolution was impossible, we were told it would take some huge number of monkeys typing an impossibly long time on typewriters to produce the bible, three billion years or something, and this was proof that there must be a god. Now, though, a monkey-produced bible seems completely plausible. Of course we can conceive of that happening, it's only a matter of time before anything happens. How could something create something more intelligent than itself, the apologist would smugly rejoin. It's happened now, it was happening when he said that. 

After sixteen weeks of training, the London Marathon finally came last month and I took the train down to London on Saturday, worried about everything you could be worried about: worried that the train would be delayed, worried that I wouldn't get my number, worried that after I tried some compression boots I had messed up my knee. Of course, everything went smoothly and I was safely at my hotel room in Kensington well before I needed to be and just wandered then for an hour, knowing I was spending too much time on my feet. I also knew I had already peaked more than a month earlier, and in the last four weeks, had given up my focus and started to eat without any care to what or how much I was eating. I knew from experience, that without getting on the scale, things had gotten out of hand and I was going not going to hit my goal. Everything else was fine: my training, my body, my taper, but I knew I was too heavy to run it in less than three hours.

I woke up on Sunday and was fine. I got on a series of trains that finally arrived in Greenwich, and walked up the hill to the park where people were streaming into different gates. I lay on the grass and did some strides to warm up and then, before I knew it, we were waiting at the gate, and then in the holding area, and then walking to the start and then I was running with everyone else, all of us like AI images of ourselves, different but the same in predictable ways, men in their forties who have made themselves alone, at least ten of us with the same Nike Next% trainers in the same colourway because they were on sale last month. Even the back stories were different iterations on the same theme: a man in the holding area talking about his marriage, She's supportive, but not interested. 

When you are old enough, seasons become tied to the most memorable event that happened in the past during that season. Like the smell of cut grass, like an early May morning, when I think of the days two of the three girls were born. I step out of my office to get lunch and suddenly I'm back again in Niigata City in Japan in 2007 when Naomi came unexpectedly early one morning. I didn't sleep that night, and when it was done and they were settled, I rode my Honda Cub motorbike home in the early morning when the sun was already out and I had a feeling like I couldn't explain — everything had changed overnight, hadn't it. There I was now, in the day before the day, after dreaming I'd become a father, and the real world was coming as everyone woke up, the world where I still working a part-time job, twenty-four years old and out of my depth. 

I don't feel out of my depth as much any more. The London Marathon ended in the way that every marathon ends, suddenly after hours of it not ending. Three of us, three random iterations of a forty-year-old man wanting to run a sub-three-hour marathon were resting after the race and trying to change out of our clothes and one guy who had finished within a minute of three hours, just over three hours, said, in response to a question that shouldn't have been asked, No, I couldn't have run forty-three seconds faster. That was the fastest I could have run. It's true of everything. I ran as fast as I could in the body that I had. When the same story is retold, sometimes it's told with a faster finish. Sometimes the fastest you can run is faster. The AI generates another text in a split second, another telling. In this one, the same runner finishes five minutes slower. Control these variables and you'll get these sets of outcomes, these same haircuts, these same stories about your wives. But that's not the point is it. The point is that you don't feel that way, the point is that your reality is your own. The monkeys have already recreated the bible a billion times over, and a billion different versions with a billion different outcomes, but that doesn't matter. The morning is still bright and you should go and run in it while you can. 

02 April 2023

To try again

It began snowing again last month, suddenly out of the blue. The snow in Britain is strange. Sometimes it starts and you think to yourself, well this will go away quickly. And then after some time, it just keeps falling. And at some point, you realise to yourself that, it's going to stick, and winter has come again. With all of my running, the thing that I was thinking about the most was whether I would be able to keep going. The morning I woke up to do my sprints, the roads were covered with ice and snow but I still put on my shoes and did my best to get out and run as fast as I could. I didn't run very fast, but that didn't matter. The whole point of this plan is to just be consistent. To trust the process. The point of the process, of marathon training, is to get to the start line on the day of the race and think to yourself that there was nothing else you could have done to get into a better place than you are. What will happen with your body, what you will experience out there, who knows. You know it will be hard, you know you will suffer, but you'll have some peace thinking to yourself there was nothing more you could have done. 

For people like me, however, there will be a list of things that weren't done properly in preparing for this race, recriminations you can call them. There was the morning I didn't manage to run 8 miles at marathon pace, only four. There were the slow 5ks where I couldn't manage to get a new PB when I thought I should. There was that Saturday night when I ate way too much, when I couldn't stop slathering plant butter on white bread and eating piece after piece slice after slice. Even saying that, writing it down it seems odd. Of course, the problem is not the thing itself, but my intent in trying to do the thing, and the failure to perfectly do what I intended to do.

Most of my teaching these days revolves around trying to get my students to understand the importance of context and intent in our experience of the social world. I get into these long riffs about whatever's on my mind, when I'm trying to explain something like Conversation Analysis. I'll say something like: Eating white bread with plant butter is not a real problem, but it becomes a problem for me. It's only a problem for me because I think it's a problem — I make it a problem, I believe it to be a problem. If I could somehow not believe that it was a problem, it wouldn't be a problem, I would likely stop doing it, I would be able to contextualise my feelings, the experience of my body being hungry, and not be ashamed of it. Because that's really the problem isn't it? That I'm ashamed. Shame is entirely arbitrary, it's learned, someone tells you what to be ashamed of and you're ashamed. But if no one tells you to be ashamed, you won't be ashamed. When I've said all of that, my students are staring at me, and they've stopped taking notes: they've wondered if this is still a part of the lecture, and how it relates to the slide I have on the board that says 'Second Person Completions II' and I have to find some way to bring it all back around. 

On Wednesday, I went to see Death Cab for Cutie in London, at Royal Albert Hall with my friend Billy. I'd seen Death Cab the autumn I went to Japan, after I'd graduated and right before I was going to leave, as a part of a road trip to my college and then out to Iowa City, where we saw them in a bar, this after Transatlanticism came out and before they were really famous. I don't remember anything about the show except who I was with and how I felt like my life had been cut short when I graduated college a year early and all my friends were still there, and I had not managed to move on so much as to just decide to leave the country for Japan, because what else was I going to do. I felt like I was getting ready to die, like I knew somewhere that I wouldn't be coming back, or if I came back, it wouldn't be to any of this. None of my friends had realised it yet, because they were in their fourth year, their senior year, but I knew what was coming, that fundamental challenge to your personality, to that adult you thought you had become, which occurred when you were no longer in college and you had to start again in a world of people who had everything figured out and you were a child all over again, sleeping in your parents' house.

Now, I am somehow at the end of the arc where that all started, because I managed, at least in the sense that I understood it when I was twenty-one and wondering about what the hell I was going to do with myself, to figure it all out. I left and succeeded and became the thing I dreamt of being at that time. I had some realisation of this when we climbed up to the top of Royal Albert Hall, to the Gallery Standing section, waiting for Death Cab to come on, and I felt some parasocial, hey look at us feeling about this band I had grown up with. They came on and started playing, and looking down on a show and everyone at it, it felt like we had died and all these young people, these kids, were watching a band that I had watched when I was a kid. The sound was muddy at first, and I was annoyed with myself on buying these cheap tickets, until I gave up on feeling annoyed and just watched the whole thing, Ben Gibbard saying 'We're Death Cab for Cutie from Seattle' and remembering when that was a strange thing to hear at a show where there were only 80 or 90 people, when it was a strange thing to tell people in high school when they asked what band you liked. Now, all these people on the other side of the world, singing all along, and me, watching from far away.

My daughter said she had been praying for my happiness, and I felt guilty immediately: I'm sorry, don't do that, I said, you don't need to do that. My happiness is my responsibility. I have no reason for being unhappy that you need to worry about. I get home early in the morning, hire a bike and cycle back home in the dark, no one on the streets but me. This is happiness, this is what you want when you're forty. There's still time now, and you can compare yourself to some other version of yourself, but what good does that do. How many hours can that unique worry add to your life. And here, now, it is three in the morning, and you are completely alone, completely free. There's still time, of course. 

27 February 2023

Stay with me

The winter has been, the news tells me, relatively mild, but the gas bill and my own feeling in my hands when I head out to run just after six tells me differently. I've been sleeping the same way I have been sleeping since I started my marathon training in earnest, the sort of sleep that hits you in seconds after you shut your eyes. The sort of sleep where you feel you have died. The training calendar is unrelenting in this particular programme I've chosen, but it's what I feel I need to punish myself for all the things I feel I need punishment for: gluttony, lust, wrath. The punishment snowballs into a terrible cycle of binging, secret eating, and earlier and earlier starts to the morning run. I ran twelve miles before seven on Wednesday; I ate three protein bars in ninty seconds last night. Or this one, I ate four hundred and sixty-two calories of corn thins and Flora hard plant butter three minutes after I woke up last Monday. You look thin, someone says, and I say, I don't feel thin. I feel fat, and I am still fat — if you want to see a thin person you need to watch this YouTube video the algorithm showed me, of ultrarunners on a five hundred metre track under a stadium in Norway, running for twenty-four hours straight in the dead of winter. Those are thin people.

The year continues to pass day by day, despite the feeling that I had over Christmas that I couldn't continue on, that something had to change. One day, the car breaks and needs to be repaired and that day is gone, and then another and another, and then a week is gone. I fall into the same cycle of bad habits and repentance, and every day, the kids get older and one more day has passed where we all had dinner together and laughed and everyone seems okay, they seem to be okay. As Dad, I don't really know though, do I. I sit in the H&M, on a chair, holding bags and cups and wait, while something outside of my view is happening, and time seems to stop as I remember doing this very thing as a teenager, sitting in a dELiA*s (stylised) dressing room as my girlfriend tried on the sort of t-shirt that would make me crazy. Now, I sit and bat back all the patriarchal thoughts that come up so naturally in me, the things that I know I should not say or even think about young women and their clothes, about modesty and what they should or should not wear. I just want to wait patiently and silently, I want to be that Dad, the Dad that is supportive, the Dad that doesn't judge or just keep talking. I've said enough already, enough for two lifetimes of Dad. 

I can't manage to find a charitable reading of my Evangelical past, to understand how someone felt it was in my best interest at seventeen to install these technologies of control in me, to teach me to think of my body as not my own, but some resource in Evangelical mission, that I would, if I remained faithful in the right ways, understand the point of it all. Some Christian says something condescending to someone else about purity culture: oh you were so hurt because someone told you not to have sex? like everyone knew all along it was just a thing people said that no one believed. The same people who were the most hardcore can just laugh at Nate Bargatze jokes and think, yes, Christian culture is really weird, isn't it. But I'm forty now, and that joke was my formative years — it wasn't an experiment, it was my life, goddammit, I find myself muttering out loud before I realise I am arguing in my head with a comedian on Amazon Prime about my youth pastor. Who could care less about the unhappiness of some apostate anyway. I was warned this would happen if I left and indeed, it has happened: I have no one to blame but myself. 

I'm forty now: in the GP's office to get my blood taken for the second time, to reconfirm I don't have a serious illness, the nurse says, You qualify for an additional health check for your blood sugar and cholesterol, would you like to book that in? and I say, It's because I'm forty, isn't it. I was faithful and unfaithful at the wrong times. When will the reward come, and the nurse looks at me blankly, like I've said too much. Yes, no, sorry, book me in, let's try to find all the problems we can with this body that has never really been mine anyway. I'm very healthy, but we're all worried about microplastics, and the nurse says, Indeed, as she slips in the needle and the blood, my blood, from my body, fills three vials and gets shipped away to be checked. 

That probably explains it all, doesn't it: the early morning run is just a counterbalance to all of that reality, the strange responsibilities of patriarchy as father and husband; the yawning void of Evangelicalism; the inevitable blood test that will mark the beginning of the end, the time when it won't be nothing. When I run, I am just my body, only my body. The earlier I run, the less awake I am, the more it becomes like a dream, like the perfect ballast to reality. My family is literally asleep, and while they are asleep, I can just run, pushing on the edge of everything, a dream world that flits in and out of my mind like a crane on the path seeing me and taking flight, only to meet again down the way. 

Unwashed, unshaved, unkempt

January came and went without any changes. I kept TikTok off, so the divorced dad messaging didn't get through in any meaningful way, and I found myself redoubling my normie efforts, although I'm not sure that I could articulate why I felt that way. I felt again like I had become a Calvinist, convinced that my damnation would be to the glory of God. It's silly, we can all agree it's silly, but existence is silly. The whole thing is silly. It's silliness all the way down.

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


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.