26 November 2020

Eating Dread

In Bochum last year, I stayed in a small room in a commuter hotel at the station, the sort of place that I'd been staying when I travelled all that year and the year before. As I imagine the restaurant where we ate breakfast, I can't think if I am remembering the right place, or if I was thinking of the hotel I stayed at in Portsmouth, or Cardiff, or any of the other places I had found myself at various university events. All the commuter breakfasts were the same, really: bread and butter and jam continental spreads that I was always disproportionately excited about. That one in Bochum was truly continental, of course, being that we were on the continent, a smug etymology point I had worked out and kept to myself in case there was a lull in a conversation and I could fit it in as a joke between spoonfuls of German fruit salad shovelled into my mouth, my American ignorance thinking that the thing I just learned is something that no one else has ever known before and would make a clever joke: who among you has thought of the origins of the term 'continental breakfast' this morning.

This was only a year ago, but it was before I myself was British and still actively encouraging myself to think of Britishness as something I would or should never understand. I imagined saying, the concept of the continental breakfast is British — they think everything revolves around them, and everyone at the table would stop and think to themselves, well that's quite a clever point, Stephen, I've never thought of it that way although I have used that term many times

The right moment to say this line never came up. Instead, I had more and more rye toast with jam, and let the conversation fall into why my budget flight was so much more tedious than everyone else's, and why I needed to fly to Frankfurt and no one else did. Surely some mistake had been made. 

Everyone in this country understands why one would need to distinguish, as a place of business, between a full English breakfast and a continental one. We weren't, after all, in a Holiday Inn in Topeka with a pancake machine. Every new thing I learn now is just something that everyone else knows, and my own tacit, experiential knowledge, the knowledge for example of the pancake machine at the Holiday Inn in Topeka, which people in the German commuter hotel might actually be interested in hearing about, is deeply embarrassing knowledge, base and feral and some part of me I'd rather forget. 

That trip, I was drinking beer and eating too much at night, and then running early in the morning, in what I thought was a park when I saw it on Google maps, but what turned out to be a cemetery. The loop around it was something like two or three miles. I remember that there were leaves on the path still, and although it was dark, my eyes would adjust enough that I could see what I needed to see, whatever was or wasn't in front of me.

When I say I was drinking beer, I mean that I was gaining weight. I am always gaining or losing weight. I lie to myself some times and say that I am trying to maintain my weight, but when I weigh myself, I know that's a lie because of how I feel about whatever number is projected back at me. When I was eating pretzels and drinking beer at the airport bar, full of whatever stress I was feeling at the time, I didn't expect that I would come home thinner, even though I guess I was telling myself that I would, because I was still running every morning. It was the sort of weight-gaining lie you tell yourself that you know is a lie, but is plausible enough that you can keep doing whatever it is that you're doing provided you don't think about it too much.

Weight gain at the end of the year over Christmas is an inevitability that I try to put off as late as possible. I am now, with my plans to run my marathon in the Spring, over-concerned with not gaining weight but at the end of my rope with counting every kilo calorie. I can't weigh out everything I eat for the rest of my life, I think, pouring cereal into a bowl on a scale, embarrassed knowing that it will come out at some point that I am a person who does this. The kind of person who chooses one vegan sandwich over another at the university shop because it is 53 kCals less, like that means anything at all. Normal healthy people just eat what they want, I'm told: an attractive, healthy young woman on TikTok goes on and on about intuitive eating and I think, but my intuition is to eat everything, to keep eating until there is nothing left. That's my intuition.

The way to fix one's intuition about eating is to get to the roots of the problem, to think back to your childhood to understand how your feelings about food are linked to all the guilty overeating you did, how ice cream was treat, how pop was a treat, how you started drinking Diet Coke when you were nine or ten, when you first realised you were fat. Yes, of course, it's all there, endless stories about treats and McDonald's collector cups and the American way of life that I can't defend now as a British passport holder and someone who's never going back to it. It's become foreign to me too, I say, feigning ignorance of some attitude I pretend I've overcome, but secretly understand, like the part of me that sees a Chevy Suburban, and thinks, I'll have that, sure.

Now vegan, and bearded, and thinner if not thin, I am trying again to do what this woman on TikTok wants me to do. I agree, weighing bowls of Fruit and Fibre is not healthy, that it's hurting my relationships, that my partner, my wife, can sense the madness of it all, the getting up in the middle of the night to eat a bagel. So I try again to be normal: I eat two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a jam and a cup of coffee and I sit and I think about it — how do I feel. Do I feel full. What even is feeling full. What even is a feeling. 

This year of fallow will end. I crossed the street yesterday on the way to give blood and suddenly wondered whether I would ever use my British passport I was so excited about. There must be commuter hotels in Germany in my future again, or B&Bs in Sweden, where you eat berries for breakfast by candlelight. Surely, I will be in New York again and with it too this intuition will fail at some point and I'll be back to counting almonds. The things you learn about yourself are the things that you already know, anyway. Saying them out loud doesn't change them.

22 November 2020

Where do we go when we fall asleep


British Summer Time ended, but my body doesn't seem to understand that the clocks have changed. I stopped setting my alarm, hoping this would help, but it hasn't — I wake up at 4:30 and don't want to go back to sleep. I make my protein powder and berry slurry, eat fruit and meditate for twenty minutes. I think maybe at some point I might try to sleep again, but I don't. The kids wake up and it was half-term so nothing is happening anyway. The virus still, of course, but that's just the way it is now. 

I've kept waking up in the middle of the night — this week it was once to the screams of one of the girls who was having a bad dream. Everyone was fine and I sat in the kitchen with the range hood light on, and ate a piece of toast, scrolling on my mobile phone and thinking to myself, I shouldn't be scrolling on my phone, I should be sleeping.

After watching some very convincing videos by some very skinny distance runners on YouTube, I've been running more mileage with the goal of hitting my sub-three hour marathon before I turn forty. To run fast over a long distance, you need to run a lot, they say, and then the video cuts to a shot of them running, skinny, through some remote and beautiful place. My running is not remote or beautiful. I get up and it's still dark and I lumber out, thinking, well, one mile first, that's all you need. Sunday mornings are the hardest, the long runs, but there is nothing happening before ten anyway, particularly during lockdown. If you get out early enough, you can run on the canals without anyone, but if you wait like I did today, you have to deal with groups of very slow runners, in packs or herds, who are impossibly annoying if you meet them after sixteen or seventeen miles of steady work.

At the beginning of this, the first week I’d run sixty miles, I had pain in my left testicle or groin or upper leg, a pain that I couldn’t quite place, but over the days, it had settled in the testicle and it became clear I needed to go to the doctor. Given the timing, the Covid spike again, I called first and spoke to the GP who said I needed to come in and get examined, which I did in my mask. He did the exam and ended it abruptly, saying I could pull up my jeans, and washing his hands, asked, ‘Where are you from?’

He wasn’t concerned, he assured me, but I need to have an ultrasound just to double-check, but because the hospitals were rammed with people from Covid, it might be six or eight weeks, and I acted as though this was fine because I'm good socialist and think that of course, the people with the most need should be served before me, despite my unsettled feeling when I sat on the sofa that I could feel, if I thought about it, a growth, even though I knew it wasn’t.

The ultrasound came sooner than was promised, and I went and sat outside of a window called ‘Ambulatory Care’, a term I had never heard before, and a young woman who pronounced my name correctly called me back. The ultrasound technician was a middle-aged man, but the nurse and another young woman would be there with us, he said, as chaperones. I thought about how that word made me feel foreign, like I was a high school dance and someone was watching to see where my hands were when I was awkwardly dancing.

I didn’t, of course, have cancer, and I pulled up my trousers and walked out of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital thinking that this was, whatever the outcome today, my future: finding lumps and having pain in new places and tests that would mostly be okay until some time when they weren’t okay. Thirty-eight is a strange young age, that’s still young, but not that young, and your body begins to feel less precious and sexual and mysterious, and franker. Here is my body, me pathetically holding a paper towel across my stomach while three people look quizzically at a computer monitor and we casually discuss the reasons I got a vasectomy, what, ten years ago now, is it.

My dad likes to remind me of one time I said that runners would rather talk about running than run, but when he reminds me of it, I think condescendingly about myself then. I can’t describe running as something I want or don’t want to do anymore; it feels more like a responsibility, or impulse, or inevitability. When it isn’t in my life, it leaves an absence. It's like marriage: I don't choose to run every time I run, I chose to run some time in the past. The sun came up this morning and my body felt good, if tired, and I thought about inevitability and how the road seems to narrow the older you get, but how you can run faster and further and steadier when the path is narrow. You don't have to follow the line, the line is the path. The end might be coming, eventually, in the future, but for now, for this season, the thing in front of you is long and straight and clear.