25 November 2021

Slowly at first, if you can

In the video call with Mia's teacher last week, there was an impromptu reflection on the era of the Pihlaja Girls at the local primary school. All three of them had gone through this teacher's classroom, over how many years now, has it been seven years, it has, hasn't it. Yes, it has, and they have all been wonderful, models in the school, the sorts of girls that bring joy to the lives of everyone they meet. I thanked her and then we went on to have the sort of conversation I've never known how to have, given my lack of experience both in primary school as a pupil myself (I was homeschooled) and as an immigrant (how much of any of this is just British norms). The girls have always done well and the kinds of things they need to improve on seem small and insignificant and the meeting ends with me thinking, there are now only two more Parent-Teacher meetings I will have at the primary school. 

I think about this one thing often these days: how there was a last time my youngest daughter rode in the pushchair, the stroller. This passed without being noticed, of course. The day would have come and gone and then the pushchair would have sat unused someplace in the front room for a time before we eventually got rid of it. I do vaguely remember donating one to a charity shop on the high street, thinking what I often thought about pushchairs, that they take proper abuse and though when I was a young, the young father that I was, I tried to save money on them, I quickly realised this was a mistake. Something would break and there you would be, stuck with a child or two or three that needed to be transported. I'm sure that the best one we had — a Mama and Papa's one that must have been over £300 new — was given to us, or we had bought at some discount in a car boot sale or from a friend. 

We took that one to Malaysia, and I remember the first day, we left the hotel for a walk, thinking we could push it on the street, but it became quickly clear this wouldn't work. The pavements weren't level or there were stones missing. We walked over a ditch where there was water flowing and I remember Naomi saying, there's rubbish in the water, and indeed there was. That pushchair was then relegated to the back of the car, to be pushed in malls, the Sunvalley Mall, when we went on Saturday or Sunday and drank Starbucks coffee for 15 ringgit and then had lunch for about the same price in the employee food court that we found by accident one day, looking for the toilet. Mia would sleep in it, and the other girls would tag along, and we would go to Toys R Us or the expensive supermarket where I would pretend to be the sort of white person everyone thought I was, with the expensive British pushchair and fat shorts I bought because I was gaining weight. 

My own parents take some measure of pride, I've sensed, in how they raised their children, but I have not managed that same pride, not even in secret, not even when some external validation comes. Mia's teacher praises our family and I immediately am embarrassed — Yoko, certainly, but not me, this has all been in spite of me. I want to start telling stories of my own selfishness, the times I've been short with them, or shouted, or how they can tell immediately when I'm displeased, or the ways my own terrible habits have turned up unexpectantly in them, how we've barely held on at times, how they've been very sick and I've thought they were not, how I caught Covid from Mia only because I didn't actually believe she had it. The list is endless — how can you even begin to count the good against the bad, the accidental wise decisions against premeditated ones that were terrible mistakes. 

People tell you to cherish the time when your children are young, and you certainly should if you can. But cherish is a word that you use when you're forty when you can even begin to think back about pushchairs with some sense of nostalgia. It's hard to cherish in your twenties because you're just pretending. Everything is pretend, it can be undone as easily as it's done. But you can't, of course, say you're pretending when you're a young parent. You can say it after the fact, but not while you're doing it. You have no momentum. You're like a pack mule weighed down and pushing up a mountain. You can never stop, you can't risk any loss of movement forward. Someone tells you to cherish this moment instead of whatever it is you're doing, sweating or being annoyed, and you try to smile and agree. 

Now, a decade has passed, and I can sense myself wanting to say the same thing to people, to the woman with the baby on the train when I was coming back from France and feeling unsettled, the baby with the full head of hair who was smiling at me. I wanted to go over to her and say that thing I hated being told, to appear to her like some middle-aged ghost and tell her to cherish this moment, it's gone now, it's always going away. I didn't say it, thankfully, for this one time at least, I could control myself perhaps because I too am still in the middle of the cherishable time. I still have time, I still have moments that I should cherish. And I know better now, after years of missing them, that the moments you cherish, you don't recognise when they're happening and that's okay. It's okay, because given some space, or a different context, or a decade, you realise that you did cherish the moment, you were there. All of you was there, despite everything else. 

16 November 2021

What you deserve

 


When I started my PhD at the Open University in 2008, England was a novelty. Our lives, Yoko and mine, had completely changed in the course of two years. We had both been two single people accidentally living in Northwest Japan, and then we were having children and living here, before here felt like a place you live rather than visit. Those first three years, we travelled when we could, going to the States and to Europe, to see as much as we could, because I was sure this would end at some point and I would end up back in Nagoya, in a better position than I had left, sure, but teaching English and making my family's gaijin-hafu life in Japan. We went to Paris the first year, after Mei was born and when she was still very small. We took the Eurostar and arrived at Gare du Nord like it was a magic trick. I remember it raining and raining, but then suddenly it was clear, and the final night, we walked through the Latin Quarter, with the double pushchair, the two girls sleeping and it felt like whatever sacrifices we had made to come here were worth it. We were in Paris.

I was in Paris again last week and the moment I realised my passport was missing, I was only several hundred feet from where I had been with the double pushchair eleven years ago. I realised this when I hung up the phone with Yoko after having been in the Parisian police station and I didn't have any sense of what I should do, which way I should walk, ten o'clock on a Wednesday evening in November. I should walk north, I thought at first, towards the big train stations and the hostels there. I could find a bunk bed for twenty euros, somewhere to stay for just the night before I could go to all the places I had been during the day to look for my passport. The museum was the most likely place I had lost it, where it must have fallen out of my pocket when I used the toilet or sat down to take a phone call from the girls' school saying one of them had been sick. It must have been then.  

This was the only thought I could have, that it had fallen out of my pocket when I wasn't paying attention, even though it hadn't for the previous day when I had been getting up and down on the bus. When I had slept on the bench on the ferry. It had not fallen out of my pocket. When I noticed it was gone, Landis and I ran back to two places we had last been and looked for it, but of course it wasn't there or then because of course it had been pickpocketed after I showed it to Landis when we crossed over the Seine and I was so engrossed in whatever it was that we were talking about that I don't even remember those thirty minutes of my life. I would have been the easiest target, but that thought did not even occur to me. It didn't even cross my mind.

The week before, I had been running hills early in the morning on Harborne Park Road and there was some commotion across the street, a car alarm going off, and a car pulling dangerously into traffic and then stopping suddenly. When I came back down on a return, the car door was open and there were cars stopped behind it. On the next return, it was clear then that the car had been abandoned, and there was a man standing out in front of the car, and a bus behind, stuck, with more and more cars stuck behind it. I got home, and it finally occurred to me that the alarm had been real, that someone had been stealing the car. I hadn't seen anything useful, nothing to report, but it had been an attempted robbery, hadn't it, but my mind had not been able to process it, until well after the fact.

I told people for a day that I had lost my passport, because I was sure it had been lost, that I had been careless in some way and this was the punishment for my attempt to get away for a day and leave my job and family for some frivolous, selfish time with a friend. It was now costing more and more with each hour that passed and I had completely failed at my plan. When I was alone and didn't know what I would do, I didn't feel fear or anger, but shame and guilt. This was, of course, what I deserved.

In 2021, a stolen passport is not nearly the worst thing that can happen to you in Paris. I applied for my emergency documents after I went back to the Rodin museum to confirm it wasn't there and a kind woman helped me find a good place to take a picture against a wall. I booked a hotel and was upgraded to the garret. They called me from the UK to check why the name of my place of birth didn't match my city of birth, and the next morning, like a dream, I entered the British Consulate in Paris as a British citizen. In 2021, you can book plane tickets on your phone for a flight back to London in six hours for £70 and be back in your bed that night like you had just spent the day at work. I remember thinking this same thing on the Eurostar, coming back from Paris with the kids in 2009, as we came into St Pancras — how close everything is. In 36 hours, it's almost as though nothing had happened at all.

I paid all the money I needed to and was back at work on Saturday afternoon, working the English Subject Area table at our university Open Day like I had been planning. I had only been away from the house on Victoria Road for an extra night. Everyone asked me for a week what had happened, and I told the story in an increasingly efficient way, hitting only the high points, and downplaying any chance that I had lost it, that it had been my fault. Of course, it wasn't my fault. The whole thing was expensive, but money stolen is, for some reason, easier to stomach than money lost. It did feel better, slightly better, slightly more forgivable. I've been told you can forgive yourself for anything if you can just let yourself. I've been told that there are some bad things that happen to you that aren't actually your fault. I'd like to believe that, but my phantom faith begs to differ. When you're a sinner, everything is your fault and no one will just forgive you, not even God. Of course, I say I don't believe this anymore: You can say you've stopped believing, anyone can say they stopped believing. The real trick is meaning it. 

14 November 2021

As you're told

For a year in college, I stipulated that you could ask me to do a dance, at any time, and I would do that dance

After my disappointing race finish in Chester, I immediately signed up for another marathon, this one outside of Manchester in December. The quick turnaround replaced the sense of failure with a sense of possibility, but it's meant getting up earlier and earlier every weekend to make all the commitments of the training schedule. Running coaches will tell you that it's normal to miss runs, that there is no one that can do a training schedule perfectly, but that sounds defeatist to a person like me who was raised religiously and learned somewhere along the way that if you don't perfectly complete something, then you've failed. I'm sure this isn't a healthy approach to running, or indeed, anything else in life, but it has motivated me to get up and out of the house much earlier than I would otherwise, and get through that first half-mile of a twenty-two-mile run, starting several hours before anyone else in the house will wake up and into the dark that won't become light until you've forgotten that you are running in the dark.

This obedience to the plan, to doing what I'm told, is who I am. Next year I will be forty and there is something that happens at this point in your life, where you give up on the dream of becoming a real rebel, someone who genuinely fights the system, and accept what you've actually become: someone who just tweets snarky things and is full of self-pity. For all my aspirations to true rebellion, it's always been the same for me, a mixed desire to both follow the rules and rebel, to be able to get away from whatever was expected of me, but in a way that did not bring the crushing guilt of having sinned and needing repentance. In jr high school, this meant taking on all sorts of eccentricities often related to gender norms, wearing Hawaiian shirts exclusively, then cross-stitching, then listening to classical music. These were all acceptable hobbies in the confines of my homeschooled, conservative world, but also slightly weird. Still, no one in the late nineties either in the church or in my family could put their finger on what the problem was: what could you say about the Hawaiian shirts that wouldn't require saying something you didn't want to say. I wore a pink Beloit Girls Softball shirt that said COACH on the back. It's okay, I would say, pointing to the back, I'm the COACH

For someone so good at following the rules, I was also a master of finding the weak point in a conservative obedience ideology, doing a thing that, if someone in authority were to confront that thing, they would have to say something that would expose how weak their logic was. I remember my mother once accidentally opening the door of my room as my friend and I were shouting along to some Christian hardcore music which objectively sounded angry and demonic, but had a clear and consistent Christian message. 'You're shouting, "When I die,"' my mother said, 'It's disconcerting.' I'm shouting, 'When I die/ I live' was my retort, which was an unimpeachable theological position. You couldn't argue with it.

Around this same time, I was also a student leader in my church youth group, a position that was well-suited for my obedience and eccentricities, in that I could both generate excitement and toe the line. You could sense the discomfort with some of the adult leaders at times, always on the edge of saying something but never being able to quite articulate it. I'm sure everyone knew I was baiting them, particularly those that worked with teenagers regularly — I was taunting them to draw a line they couldn't defend and then I could point out their hypocrisy because they had clearly not thought about what they were saying and I had. It was my whole aesthetic, I had a complete worldview wrapped around it, and I knew, in the end, it would come down to someone saying to me, You have to do it just because I say so and once that happened, once I could get someone in that situation, I would have won. I would have proved the point. 

One weekend during my senior year of high school, the youth group had planned to go bowling, and I, as one of the more responsible leaders, was chosen to drive a group of younger students from church to the bowling alley. On the way, we got in our heads that it would be funny to put someone in the trunk of the car, and so at the next stoplight, I shut the car off, opened the trunk, and Amos jumped in, and we drove off. We arrived at the bowling alley, and Amos popped out, and we all had a good laugh, with the exception of one of the adult parents who had been driving behind, and who pulled me aside to let me have it for being so irresponsible, for doing something so dangerous and stupid, particularly after the trust had been placed in me.

I spent the week feeling terrible about it, completely devastated that I had let Mrs Bergin down, that I'd done something so clearly over the line, not thinking about the worst outcomes, if we had been rear-ended, or in another accident. I wrote her a letter that I gave her in church the next week, explaining why I'd done what I'd done, and apologising profusely, begging for her forgiveness, all I wanted was her trust back. When I graduated, she gave me the letter back, and that was that — she died some years later, well before she should have, and I felt for many years that letting her down had been one of my biggest failures, that all I wanted was for her to have said I'd made the amends I needed to, that she had completely forgiven me, and I hadn't let her down. 

Now, I'm almost forty. I should be over this teenage rebellion, seeing as I have teenagers of my own. One daughter had a climate event this week, related to the COP26 summit, and was encouraged to wear natural colours, and I said, there is no such thing as an unnatural colour, wear anything you like. She pushed back, they were meant to wear greens and browns, something natural. Every colour is natural, it's a meaningless thing to ask, I said, and I was eventually excluded from the conversation because I wasn't helping. But I'm right, I said, after it was done and I insisted on showing them a picture of a rainbow and demanding they tell me the rainbow wasn't natural — I know what they mean, I'm not an idiot, wear something brown or green or whatever. But I'm right. 

13 October 2021

It cannot always be night

Sometime yesterday, a water pipe burst outside the house on Victoria Road. I found out about it on the Road Group Chat while I was in a tutorial with students. When I finished the meeting, I came outside to look at it and talked with two women from the Road who were also looking at it and commenting, the way we need to as British people, on the variety of ways in which this was bad, but really, it could be much worse. This happens in a volley where one person suggests something negative and then the other offers some mitigation, to which the first responds, that's true, and then continues with the positive thread until the second comes back in with something negative to offset it. The conversation ended with one saying, well, I'm getting wet, and it was then that I realised it was just barely raining and I too had started to get wet.

Maybe this has nothing to do with being British. Actually, I'm sure it doesn't, but that way of categorising things continues to work for me as a heuristic. Several students have complained about me this year and in each case, I've managed to repress my more carnal American urge to fire back in anger and instead have managed to mask my crippling fear of being wrong through a response I've told myself is the most British way possible to respond to a complaint: bureaucratic language stuffed with fully formed paragraphs, conditional clauses and seventy-five-word sentences, headed sometimes even with the word 'Whilst' which I savour when I type it without any sense of irony. You can seethe in the most polite anger, nothing but logic and the way things should be on your side. Please don't argue with me, I have been doing lecturing for many years now.

This has a limited success rate, particularly when I am met with over the top apologies that suggest I've not done a good job of hiding my anger, or worse, the same response, an even more masterful speaker of British English who silences me, someone who has not only learned this way of communicating but was raised in it. At that point, the whole charade is off and I have been utterly and completely exposed for the fraud I am. I can't compete with real British authority, you can hear the truth every time I open my mouth and pronounce a vowel. My kids can point it out immediately and mock me. The moment I say water is pouring out of the pavement: Okay, but before I deal with this report, where is that accent from?

I only think this way, I only hear authority in people's voices, because I was raised to be acutely aware and afraid of authoritarian grandstanding, particularly when it came supported by big words or in a British accent, the sort of voice you'd hear in a WWII documentary, Winston Churchill maybe, or the Queen. British English was an older and therefore better version of whatever language I spoke. God spoke with a British accent, certainly. I can pretend here and there, but everyone knows that I am simply pretending, my American friends wondering who the hell I think I am spelling favour with a 'u', like some college junior that went to Barcelona for a semester and now speaks with a lisp. We get it. 

I shouldn't pretend that I'm the authority on anything. My daughter having tested positive for Covid was asked on the phone to list all the friends she was in contact with and I knew only one of them. I go into their rooms to say good night or ask them to do something and they are looking at screens that I can't see. When I was younger, when I thought of having children, I assumed that I would never be like my parents, oblivious of the things that were happening or possible right in the house. I thought at the time that I was some sort of exceptional person, not entirely taking advantage of the gaps in surveillance. Now, of course, I realise how foolish all this was, how my parents of course knew, if not exactly, approximately, and that I wasn't some exceptional child, but that I had come to monitor myself. That the surveillance had already come into me. All the second-guessing, the anxiety, the fear I've lived with for years and years, of getting caught, of being wrong — that was the feature, not the bug. 

Water is still coming out of the pavement, but the supplier must have decided that this was not a priority. The sun should come up any minute and then they may be more willing to come out and fix it. It's not an emergency anyway, and we still have water in the house. These are the things you say in the volley of bad news that isn't really bad news for you, though you feel a kind of relief that this is the bad thing that will happen. Of course, two bad things can happen, but that seems unlikely. It's more likely that now something good might happen.

04 October 2021

We are liars

The mornings have felt like Malaysia this week, the same as last year, because it was cool, but also humid, and cool and humid in the way that you knew the rest of the day would be hot. The British, or should I say we because I now feel this way too and I am British, need to comment on weather like this, to talk about how we had so little weather like this in the summer. I didn't pay enough attention to how hot it got and found myself on two occasions arriving at a location for a meeting, sweating, trying to stop sweating, and apologising for sweating, before launching into the same story of living in Malaysia when I would get up and sweat through a shirt three times before getting to work. 

The training sessions for the marathon have finished now. It's been a year of training, with the cancelled races and Covid and everything else that seems to bog me down, at least in how I think about running. My confidence about what I can do. When I finally came to run the Chester Marathon yesterday, I was tired in the way that my Protestant self would not accept — I was tired from my sinful nature, really, from eating too much and not trying hard enough, because if you're honest with yourself, you can always try harder. 

But really, there was nothing more I could have done. I ran everything I was supposed to run at the times I was supposed to run them. I couldn't stop eating, but that is a recurring problem in my life, one that I can't simply undo with will. The week couldn't have been more stressful either, with complaints from students, Yoko starting a new job, work and more work and then other work. The petrol shortage. I was exhausted at the beginning even before I got in the car and set the phone to guide me North, to wherever Chester is. I ended up leaving late and stayed in the sort of Airbnb you think is probably ruining this country, a room in a beautiful house in the countryside that no real person can afford, and which smelled like a farm outside. I slept and woke up at 2:43 to the sound of a car leaving — I got up to check it wasn't my car, that someone wasn't stealing the grey Picasso. 

This was, of course, a silly, strange thought, but one that seemingly made sense in the middle of the night before a marathon, when other thoughts also make sense, and then you wake up and they are either gone or you don't remember. I got up and forced myself to eat a bagel, something that I hadn't done for the marathon I ran in June and for which I blamed my failure then. If I had only been properly fuelled, I would not have caved late in the race.

Caving late in a race, or in the back half of a race, is a feeling you can't quite describe. It's demoralising in a way few things are demoralising. You have trained for months, you have been tired and frustrated and angry and uncomfortable, and then for ten or twelve miles, it all seems to come together. Imagine feeling that way, feeling like you might actually be able to do it, and then it just leaves you and you become a kind of ghost. The pace falls out and you slow, every mile, losing time. You want to throw up, or cry, or stop. People begin passing you and there are then suddenly two hills, but lined with people shouting your name because your name is written on your bib. Imagine that. 

When it was over, I couldn't imagine it. My legs came back quickly enough and I walked a mile to my car along the river in Chester, the rain coming down and people walking the other way. I was in the top ten percent of finishers, but I didn't know that, I only knew that my spirit had left me and when I had done the things I said I would, to straighten my back and to quicken my stride, that it hadn't worked. I came under the bridge to where the cars were parked, all empty like everyone had died and I was the only one left. I pulled off my wet clothes and sat down in the silence. It is what it is, I thought, what else can you say.

18 August 2021

The Production of Memory

For some time now, I've felt our life in England has become impervious, that there is no future anywhere but here. Why would we want to go anywhere else, having won the hard-fought visas and then citizenship. Our children speak like British children and the house on Victoria Road has been ours for almost four years now. The girls are happy more-or-less, with the circumstances, with their schools and friends and if you listen to them talk to one another, as I did last week driving back from the holiday through the Welsh countryside, everything seems to be careless and free the way you want your children's lives to be. You want them to laugh and argue with one another and for the five of you to sit around a fire with the sun setting and think, the incriminations aside about how the tent should or shouldn't be put up, or how happy I never am on holiday, or how no one is particularly comfortable, despite all that, things are okay. 

The Welsh campsite this time was packed fuller than before, with families who clearly had been doing this for many years, with Land Rovers and tents you can stand up in. I walked up to where I needed to wash the dishes and saw some other guy, older and thinner than me, with a full beard, wearing proper camping clothes and coming from a proper tent, one that he clearly had not been given by a friend after it had sat unused in a loft crawl space. That guy, I thought, he has it together. He waited to have children until he had money and he and his slightly younger wife had spent many years travelling together in Europe before they settled down, getting drunk, making love, and lying on the balcony of some Maltese hotel for days and days. Some time later, after some deliberation and one pregnancy scare that didn't materialise, they decided together to have kids. He accepted that he was not getting any younger and at thirty-five when the boy was born, he knew things would change, but it was time for things to change. He knew that, he accepted that, and consequently exuded the sort of steady male energy I'm never managed to summon. 

That was the story I told myself about him anyway, as I balanced the dishes in the plastic tub and thought that I would likely not be able to wash them to an appropriate level of cleanliness and I sensed in my future, a fork being scrutinised, and some remnant of an overcooked plant-based burger being scraped off with a fingernail while I sighed loudly and annoyed — that exchange you can have when you are with someone for long enough, where you avoid the same arguments with performative metonymy, one disapproving look for all disapproval, followed by one expression of discontentment for all discontentment. You needn't say anything actually, it's all been rehearsed so much that like stars in a long run of Waiting for Godot, you could play your partner's part one night, say all their lines with the same passion and conviction, and no one would know. 

The production of camping as a family is, I realised, the production of memory for children and the memories you produce are unlikely to centre on anything remotely related to the inter-turmoil of the father figure. As I thought about my own experiences camping, when I was a child canoeing deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota, my parents are almost non-existent characters. I remember it all without any sense of stress or danger, even though I remember dangerous things happening: I fell and cut my hand badly; a canoe went over and my brother and mom fell into the lake with our food and supplies. There was a bear on the island we stayed on one year, and I slept walked then too, waking up in the middle of the night to shout that the bear was coming into the tent. I can remember all of this, but I can't remember my parents. I don't remember them playing any role in this experience that they had produced, that they were integral to, that they must have in some way also suffered through. 

I also, as I thought about it, remembered that we had camped together once, before the children came, in the month we were alone after we married. We had a two-person tent that had, again, been given to us, but I don't remember who had done that. All I remember is that we drove north on a Saturday, it must have been, up the coast from Niigata and Shiibata to Murakami, the windows open and some food for the night and next morning, and just set up the tent on the beach and made a fire from driftwood. I remember that we swam and took pictures and that the tent was hot at night. I can't remember any turmoil, beyond the heat and the way you're awkward when you're first married, but before anything seems to matter too much. Before any serious responsibility could suddenly catch you unaware. 

This memory reoccurred with brief talk of returning to Japan this week, a thought that managed to linger longer than I thought it could, my assumption that everyone would have been roundly and passionately opposed. I rolled it around in my mind in a way I had not in a long time, thinking of the parts of Tokyo that feel like the post-war Showa era, or even a Soseki novel. The sound of cicadas in the trees and the heat like there is never really heat in the UK. Lying on tatami and looking up at the ceiling. I wanted this suddenly for the girls, forgetting the rest of the trouble that would inevitably come from leaving everything behind. This is the first requirement of radical change, to put aside any thought of the inevitable reality of things and focus instead on some ideal which you can will into revealing itself. The inevitable reality, when it sets in, will be too late to stop you. You'll have already made the decision, be years into it, before you realise what you've done. 

I look back at pictures for some insight about my founding myths, how the first time you do something, you establish what it will be. That year, the year we married, went so quickly, I had been so bold and sure of myself. I had pushed all my doubt out of my mind. Anything could change, I thought, if I willed it. I could be whatever I wanted and the world would unfurl for me like a flag. You say when you're older that you miss people or miss places, but you always need to preface those statements with some awareness that things were different then. You were younger. You had fewer responsibilities. There was less to bog you down. It would almost certainly be different if you went back, you need to keep that in mind. 

17 August 2021

The Pursuit of Happiness

When I stand on the top of the cliffs of the Welsh coast in the south, overlooking the sea, I think that I am only one or two steps, realistically, from falling to my death. This is a thing one thinks when you have kids, three of them, to watch out for. Several years ago in Dover, I was completely distracted by it the whole time, worried that one of them would wander off the edge. Now they are all older and have a sense of this themselves, so I spend less time worrying that they might fall, but instead, that in some moment of irrationality, I would throw myself off. Like I could just do it if I'm not careful, if I don't keep my wits about me. It's a part of that same pattern of thoughts, that everything I am experiencing isn't really real, that the world could just end suddenly. A friend tells me I need to stop blaming everything on pastors and my religious upbringing and this is true, I do need to stop doing that, I do need to take some responsibility, but the impending end of the world, I still blame my faith for that. There's a clear line you can draw from one feeling to another. 

When you come down from the cliffs, to the beach, the sense of impending death goes away, thankfully. The girls and Yoko all went out for swims at Church Doors, and I, in my strange, uncomfortable body, sat on the beach thinking about how all of this needs to be paid for, or how much work I had been putting off, or how tired I am. I went around the corner to pee in an alcove and an older man came out of nowhere and we were both embarrassed, but he assured me he had done the same thing, but higher up, in a cave. I went up that way, and then slipped and fell badly, landing awkwardly on my hand, on my thumb, and I limped back to the girls. I ended up dozing off on a rock and listening to the waves until everyone was ready to go and we walked back up to the car. The night came and went and came and went again and then we were home.

I can't seem to get my heart rate up even in what I think is an all-out sprint. It is not an all-out sprint my watch tells me when I finish, as it's been keeping tabs on all the things that you can't keep tabs on, me being a person with a body rather than a machine. It's hard to tell yourself to keep running, to run harder and harder when you are at your anaerobic threshold, but to get better, to improve, you need to push past that and the watch, it can't make you run harder. You have to sort that out for yourself, and as I come lumbering through the forest, past dogs on leads, I think that to myself. I need to run faster, I need to get my heart rate up. The watch will not be happy with me if I don't work harder. It will call this run average, rather than exceptional. This feels like an exceptional effort.

Of course, if I've learned anything, it's something about the uselessness of metrics. The watch, the app, you can follow them for only so long and then they stop working. This is true of all placebos, all the things you use to control your body and mind until they stop working, until the real you comes through again. The fat you, the angry you, the you that doesn't want to try any more for anything, to be a good person, to be a good husband or father, or a good runner, or a good worker, or happier. That you never seems to go away. Still though, evangelical and bloody minded, I keep trying something else. Some other magic that might overcome it. I've cracked the code, I'll say, I've figured it out. How many times can that same line come back, how many times can you keep trying. You fall asleep on the sofa, but wake up to try again. Let's try again. 

14 July 2021

Shame


It's July now and in Birmingham, the summer has the sense it could suddenly end, particularly after it has rained, when I step out of the house to run and feel like I might need to wear a fleece sooner than I would expect. The stress of climate change is of course on the news all the time, but at least this summer, in this one part of the world, we've managed to sleep through it. I run whatever I'm supposed to run and come home thinking, well whatever, I did what the programme asked for. What else can you do.

I ran the Milton Keynes marathon this last month, on my 39th birthday, not something I had really wanted, but the result of months of Covid delays. I felt fat and tired the day before and standing at the start line with a group of men in their mid-40s, all clearly ready for it, I thought, we're all just trying to avoid the inevitable, aren't we. When I went to through the inflatable start gate, I knew immediately it would not be a good run, and indeed, it mostly wasn't. The course snaked through Milton Keynes on the biking and walking paths, up and down through the subways, and my new running watch buzzed and beeped every kilometre, slowing and slowing through to the end. When it was over, it felt almost like it hadn't happened — I went back to the hotel to shower and drove home and sat on the sofa like I had dreamt the whole thing, because it would have been the sort of dream I would have, running in this place where I had brought Yoko and Naomi what is it 13 years ago now. Running past parks where I had pushed the pram and held little hands, all while trying to grow up through my twenties. 

When the results were posted, I saw my name with a British flag next to it, and thought about the group of men I had finished with, the fifty or so of us in the 3:20-3:25 range, certainly a type. Everyone talking about the elusive three-hour marathon and what had gone wrong today because no one running between 3:20 and 3:25 is happy with that time. For me though, the time was what the time was, and I determined that the problem was my weight, it is my weight. I have not had the drive to do anything but eat constantly like I did at the beginning of lockdown last year. From seven until I go to sleep, I just fight it, walking back and forth to the kitchen and then chastising the kids for doing the thing I'm doing: what are you having cereal for, it's nine o'clock, go to bed. If only there were some way to break away from this, from whatever coding error occurred in my childhood that taught me to react to any disturbance in my life by just eating. 

Despite feeling fat and slow, June came with some clarity. I shaved my beard. I had an epiphany about love. I realised how much of my life I've been waiting for someone to give me what I want instead of asking for it, I realised how tired it is to say, I want you to want me, instead of saying, I want you. Where did those thirteen years go — what had I forgotten to enjoy when I had it, what had I known to enjoy, but couldn't because I wasn't capable, I didn't have the words to access that happiness. At mile seven or eight, I turned the corner, tired and slowing and there was the Open University, the Stuart Hall building where I had studied for four years. I was on the path I had walked again when I was frustrated with my writing. Funny how it is all the same, isn't it. 

14 May 2021

Kiss, Marry, Kill

Little in the UK makes me feel more patriotic than waiting for a service from the NHS. I am British now, but once I open my mouth you can tell that my Britishness is something I achieved later in life. I'm put off when random people point this out to me, when everyone, all three of the people I interact with, in a car dealership, when I'm simply trying to buy a new used car, comment on it. I say something annoyed, a long pause before I answer in an annoyed tone that only I can hear, I'm originally from Chicago, which is also a lie in the way broad approximations are lies, but a sufficient lie and the sort of lie that shuts down the conversation most of the time, particularly if I follow it up with something more on task for whatever it is I'm doing with this person: from Chicago, originally, how much longer is this going to take

For as annoyed as I get when reminded I don't sound like I'm from around here, the truth is I still process the world as an American teenager. When I went to buy the new used grey Picasso, I thought about needing to get a car that could account for every possible use that I might require of it, even if I never actually required it, the most American of approaches to car buying I have inherited from my father, who could keep in his mind all of the various things you need to keep in your mind when car shopping. One day I could very well need to tow something, and then camping, the car will need to be able to handle a yearly three-day camping trip over the next six years. Surely more is better. 

This same American mentality becomes awe and wonder when interacting with the NHS, and today as I stood in a queue with hundreds of other British people like me, waiting to do our duty and take the vaccination so we can get on with it, whatever it is, I felt actually British. No one asked me where I was from, and my name and the first line of my address on Victoria Road were in the system like everyone else's name was in the system. I had paid for this with my taxes, but it felt like I hadn't paid for it. Like it had been given to me. 

The vaccination centre was in Harborne's Mormon church, and for as American as I am, I have never actually been in a Mormon stake — stake being the word that they use for churches that I was always told are not actually churches. In the stake turned Covid vaccine centre, there were traces of the Mormon faith, like the picture of Jesus looking like he had been born in Ohio in 1875 and the fact that after getting the vaccine, I sat in a pew, although the man I was sitting with was decidedly not Mormon from what I could tell, unless Mormons have become more accepting of working-class British men with shaved heads with blurred scorpion tattoos on the side. Seated behind me was a woman I recognised as an employee of the local Waitrose — I awkwardly nodded at her and then surveyed the room looking at the younger people who were there for their first jab, thinking, this is what the late thirties looks like, is it? We're still fairly attractive, most of us. 

The American teenage me is, for all his failures, how I idealise myself — when I still believed and played in a band and listened to loud music, rebellious in the way young Evangelical Christians in the States in the late nineties were: I annoyed my parents with my nail polish and baggy jeans, but I was honestly more conservative than they were. There was something imminently marriageable about me, even when I was fifteen. I exuded stability. One night, in high school, there were separate sleepovers for guys and girls in the youth group, and the girls stayed in our house. I stayed wherever the guys stayed, and when I got home, this group of young women had put post-it notes all through my room, with vaguely flirtation messages, like under my pillow, one of them had written, 'Do you dream about me?' or something to that effect. It filled me with giddy, impotent energy, the realisation that someone might actually like me, although I was entirely unsure how to respond and I ended up just ignoring it, without an meaningful attempt to act on what would be in retrospect, my sexual peak. 

A marriageable spirit is not something young men my age were told to have, were told is actually what was what the youth group girls were looking for. It's not the thing we told one another about our own attractiveness and it's something that was rarely ever pointed out to us either, because there was nothing worse than being told you are attractive primarily because you are marriageable. It's not what you want to hear, you would rather have big dick energy, you would do anything to avoid thinking that the main attractive thing about you is your stability: you'd rather be wholly unattractive. Thankfully, I'm not sure how aware I was that this is what was attractive about me to the young women in the youth group. Instead, I was arrogant and probably thought that, although I was fat and generally unkempt, I was funny enough and smart enough and kind enough that women found me attractive. This wasn't true, but it didn't matter in my experience because I landed in a long-term relationship with someone I felt I didn't deserve and things more or less worked out until my neurotic stability couldn't compete with actual sexual magnetism. It became painfully clear that marriageable eighteen-year-old men are like war bonds that haven't matured and the lull in my attractiveness through my very early twenties was unlikely to resolve in sexual experiences and a revolving cast of women so much as grey Picassos that I would buy on a whim and need to live with for a decade or two. 

In Japan, however, my Christian stability came roaring back as an even more rare and desirable trait in the right circumstances. There were almost none of us, and mixing the entitled sense of gaijin power with biblical knowledge and Christian fervency, I had a renewed sense of over-inflated self-worth and a false belief that somehow, despite the obvious, maybe I actually was attractive, maybe women did want to sleep with me. I remember another foreign guy, less religious than me, expressing disbelief that I had become engaged to Yoko, someone he perceived to be well out of my league in every imaginable way. This made me feel a kind of alpha energy that was almost immediately replaced by fear because I knew he was right and these thoughts only made me scared that history would repeat itself and she would realise her mistake and that would be the end of it. 

This misreading of the world is common in how young arrogant white men assume that everyone sees the world through their white twenty-three-year-old eyes. In fact, it wasn't my sexual magnetism driving the relationship, of course I had no sexual magnetism. I had terrible posture, an elementary school level of Japanese, and a part-time job as an assistant teacher at a private high school, this wasn't something I needed to worry she would find out, it was blindingly obvious, it was who I actually was. No, the whole point was that this lack of attractiveness, the lack of sexual magnetism is itself the feature of marriageable men, not a bug. It's what makes us stable, it's what makes us marriageable. The less interesting, the less magnetic, the better. Marrying attractive, magnetic men would be a recipe for disaster. 

The vaccination took without any trouble and I left and drove the new used Picasso to work, to my new office at Newman that I don't have to share with anyone because I got a competitive grant, again the sort of thing marriageable men excel at. I took off my shoes and turned a Zoom conference in the background, someone talking about distressing data, and re-read a message thread of an argument. Sixteen-year-old me would be impressed, I suppose, with all of this. The office and the foreign country, yes, and speaking passable Japanese, even though your wife will remind you that you're not fluent — you will have a wife, I know you're worried about that, you shouldn't be, you need to relax, but yes, you'll have a wife. And a car with a moonroof and your own teenage daughters. You'll have a nice guitar that you won't play very often. You'll have written several books. You still can't relax. You should try to relax a bit more. 

13 May 2021

Lest you be judged


On the canal, past the Cadbury factory that, when you run past it at certain times early in the morning, smells of chocolate and biscuits. There is a bridge that you run under and then over to cross from one side of the canal to the other. The iron footbridge underneath the brick trusses of the larger bridge has a beautiful symmetry I noticed for the first time last week as I ran on the towpath in the early grey light and looked up and imagined that someone had hung themselves on the middle post above the canal. I don't know why I saw this, or thought I saw it, but I chalked it up to exhaustion and my recurring fear that I will discover a dead body while running. I did my solo marathon eleven days ago and faded terribly after mile eighteen, the sign of a lack of spirit more than a lack of strength. You can run to the end, but when your legs don't feel like they can, you create a negative feedback loop with each mile slowing until your make it to the end, and everything feels like a failure, except that you've finished which is itself the success of that run. You need to remember, I tell myself, that it used to be a miracle one hundred years ago. 

When I had finished my stint as a missionary in Fukuoka, in Japan in 2004, I was looking for any sort of job to stay in the country. I was called that summer to an apartment to meet a woman, who in turn introduced me to a man with an untrimmed pinky fingernail who ran a marriage chapel and who was in search of someone to officiate weddings: a white man, of course, but there had been a small scandal recently where it got out that some of the wedding officiants were just English teachers, not actually religious, and since I had a history in the church, I was a good candidate. At the time, I found this abhorrent, the use of religion in a performative way, and felt like taking the post would ensure swift and terrible judgment, first for having left the ministry, and second for taking up the false gospel instead. I had given up my belief in hell, but I wasn't ready to test it. 

In 2006, a few years later, when I married, I remember insisting that we kiss in the ceremony. This, of all the petty things, was central to me as I thought about weddings, that whatever Japan was going to take from me in terms of this expression of my love, it wouldn't take this. Everyone would have to sit there awkwardly and observe this, even if it made them uncomfortable in a curious way. I insisted like I had insisted at other times in Japan on small cultural things because it would reaffirm that what I wanted, or what I knew, or what was normal to me, was in fact normal. I remember the pastor giving in, not contesting it in a real way and it didn't matter in the end, the way nothing I had worried about came to pass in the way I thought it would. It was all performance anyway.

The grey Citroen Picasso, the car I bought when we moved to Birmingham seven and half years ago, had a failure in the brakes this last week. For a few years, I've been imagining the car would finally give up on us, but when it happened, it was a strange sadness, this thing that had been consistent in our lives, which we had relied on, was going away. We had driven it through Europe to Sweden, that trip three years ago before things seemed to turn noticeably worse, and we had gone skinny dipping in a pond in the woods, and then later, swimming out deep into another lake with Chris and looking back at the shore to the silhouette of my wife on the beach, I made the sort of memory that you are aware is already memory when it is happening, how you can see the same naked body hundreds of times, and then feel like you are seeing it for the first time. 

I needed to replace the car quickly and made a rash, a permanent decision grounded in reasoning that was more-or-less right — buy a good used car with low mileage from a dealership and negotiate on the margins about whatever you can. In this case, the thing at the margins was the value of the old grey Picasso, which Lewis, who was taking the car as a trade in, looked over briefly with a clipboard. He was polite but he didn't need to be polite — it looks like shit, Lewis, that's the point. It's done everything it can for me, and now it's time to move on. Whatever you say it's worth, whatever number you say and whatever number I say in response, we're both making those numbers up. It's okay, we can pretend, but let's not be too serious about something that doesn't matter. This doesn't really matter.

Having had a successful seven years with a grey Citroen Picasso, my plan was to replace like for like, and I managed to find another grey Picasso. On first look, this Picasso, eight years newer than my old one, was slightly smaller, but Lewis assured me it was the same size. I bought it after a short test drive in which Lewis told me about wanting to go to LA on holiday, and I came back on Wednesday having paid the bank transfer. I drove the new old Picasso home, feeling the way you do when you buy a new used car. Was the aircon broke? No, no, the dial was just different. And then the cruise control? No, it was fine too. I heard a ticking in the engine when it idled but it didn't seem serious — and after all, I got it from the dealer so I could bring it back if I needed.

But then I got home and showed everyone, it was smaller, not much smaller but smaller, with the key difference being the middle seat in the back, which was not a seat as it is in the old Picasso, but just a middle space between two other seats. I looked again online and realised I had made a mistake: there were now two Picassos, one slightly larger than the other and I had bought the smaller one. How had I missed this. How was this going to be okay, with my kids who were growing and when we went camping. Of course, no one was as worked up about this as I was. The kids assured me it was fine, they liked the moonroof. We could get a carrier for the top when we went camping. Why was I being so emotional.

The truth is that this mistake, this rash decision, had come at the wrong time and my rationalising only made other things, other challenges suddenly sharpen. The girls are getting older. Naomi is fourteen this week. When are we ever in the car together, all together. I insisted on it last night, to test the new car, and we drove to Starbucks, but how strange, how rare was it. Everyone played along — people will humour me if I make a point of it, even if they don't want to do it, even if it only matters to me. That's the point, isn't it, you can pretend if you need to, if it gets you what you want in the end. I'm still a true believer, for all my critical self-loathing. I believe in the hustle, don't I — every big, rash decision I've made has worked out by being bloody-minded, by insisting it was right, by ignoring the sunk cost fallacy and pressing on. If I just keep saying it, it will be right. You do it when you run, when you say that your body, the thing your body is saying to you is wrong. What would it have mattered if the person marrying you was an English conversation teacher by night. What did it matter that you really believed or didn't, if you were doing it for the aesthetics. Nothing matters, so kiss me. Kiss me, it's important to me.

15 April 2021

Every lie you tell and are told

You don't always feel the same when you're running. You can run the same run one week apart and struggle one week and not the next. You can run 6:45 min/miles for ten miles without any problem, but that doesn't mean you can run 6:45 min/miles whenever you want. You can run them when your body allows for it. You don't know when that will be. On Sunday, I set out behind my new running partner as he kept pace for me. We'd done it the week before and I'd kept up, but this week, in the first mile he started to slip away and then in the second I had to pull it in. It wasn't happening today and we said all the things you say about why you can't do it, you have had too much volume this week, it was a good session last week, you have to trust your body. But failure is failure. You can only run as far as your body will let you run. When it stops, when it can't go on, you can't push it anymore. You can't force it to do what it cannot do.

When I tell the story of my faith or lack of faith, I always start with sitting across the table from a Japanese man in a church in Fukuoka, Japan. I was ostensibly teaching him English in exchange for him listening to a Bible lesson that he was obligated to then attend, and which he seemed to enjoy. Of course, he enjoyed it because it was more time to speak English, but as a missionary, I mistook this as a sign of an open heart — he was listening to me because God was working on him. He was the sort of person that made a good anecdote for a prayer letter — you could say that Koga-san had asked good questions this week and tell the American patrons that their money, their support for you, had borne some vague fruit. This was also what they had paid for in sending you, a story of their dollars at work for the kingdom of God, a work they could contribute to without making any real sacrifices themselves. The body of Christ is made up of many different parts. Koga-san, of course, didn't need Jesus any more than anyone else in those classes did and once while he recounted to me his preparations for the invasion of the Americans at the end of the war, when he was too young to enlist and they were training with wooden guns, a small fracture appeared in my faith and I thought about what I had to say to this man as a 21-year-old kid. I knew nothing about Japan and had been in his country for less than a month. I sensed this inadequacy, but understood it as doubt and dismissed it. 

Throughout my time in Fukuoka, I found myself in strange situations that might be described as dates in other contexts, but I was oblivious to, as everything I experienced blurred together into a series of events that never made much sense. You might think someone was taking you shopping at a mall that had an American food shop, and five hours later you would be sitting naked on a rock in a hot spring watching the sun set. I was inexplicably on an island one day with Kagimoto-san and her friends and we were looking at flowers. It didn't make any sense, but then again nothing made sense — trying to make sense of any of it was itself a mistake. There were Japanese conversation classes and then church picnics and then birthday parties where you answered awkward questions. It was impossible to see the kind of desperation that had built up from the pressures to marry and marry a Christian, a Western Christian even, something that would save you from the whatever pressures might come if you married someone who wasn't, what their families would say and how your faith might be scrutinised by in-laws that judged you and whom you embarrassed by attending church.

I didn't realise this, or more clearly, I realised it, but I didn't accept that I was caught in this same system. That I could somehow, by just looking at the flowers and having coffee, but knowing what was happening, that I would never find myself tricked, because that was how I saw it: you got tricked or not. There were real relationships and false ones. Somehow, I thought I was above everything, that I had escaped the culture or both cultures. I was a Christian, but I got it, I understood the problems, I could articulate them and provide thoughtful answers. I was American too, of course, but I understood my Americanness, I transcended it. I wasn't one of those guys, those white men who had failed in the States and were only in Japan because I couldn't succeed at home. And when I did have a relationship, it was different, ours was genuine — we spoke Japanese and it was different: the ideologies, the national religious ones, the racism and sexism, the lies, hadn't touched me. 

Of course, I wasn't above anything and those ideologies made themselves known, their insidious hooks, in everything that then happened. I had wanted to pretend that I was smarter than I thought I was, that my choices, my decisions were entirely my own and I knew what I was doing. That the narratives didn't apply to me like they did to everyone else, the people who hadn't seen through them, the people who weren't as good as me in whatever way I thought I was. In the next years, this all fell apart and the doubt seeded when I first thought I was wrong, listening to Koga-san, grew around me: what if we were just the stereotype. Our friends and family had told us all these things they'd heard about relationships between Asian women and white men. What if all of that was true. What if just telling it made it true. What if there was no freedom really, what if you can't do anything, what if we really are all just living the master narrative everyone else has already lived, and you were a fool for thinking you weren't living it. 

At thirty-eight now, almost thirty-nine, none of this matters anymore. I get angry about it, meaninglessly — I'm still married, I have children, there's no one to be angry with. Every feeling about the past is a cul-de-sac. You go around and come back out the way you came in. Or maybe that is the wrong metaphor. Maybe things do get better — it has been better, I think. Just because I can't measure it doesn't mean it hasn't changed. When you fail at a run, you can go back, run again and hardly remember the last run. Your legs can feel different, you can run faster, you can have energy when you didn't have energy before. You learn you can't judge your best ability on your worst days. You run fast sometimes and slow others. Not everything is the same, sometimes it is and sometimes it's not. You have to accept that.

29 March 2021

When the breathing gets hard

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

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

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

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

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

30 January 2021

Thankfully, for my sanity

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

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

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

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

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

23 January 2021

So what if we forget

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

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

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

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

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

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