13 December 2022

Lucky you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 November 2022

Making Weight


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

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

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

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

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

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

07 November 2022

The practice of the presence of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 October 2022

Of Love that is strong to suffer


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

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

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

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

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

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

19 October 2022

The Taper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 October 2022

The burning heart of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 October 2022

You could forgive me

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

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

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

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

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

19 September 2022

If I loved you, that's my fault

And like that the oppressive British climate crisis summer is done and we now start worrying about the cost of heating our homes, the same heat we were trying only a month ago to get out by any means necessary, sleeping in the loft conversion with the covers and duvet thrown off of the bed entirely. I purchased two Uniqlo polyester suits, which are advertised as 'wool-like', and had them tailored to fit for my fortieth birthday with money my parents sent me. I feel in a way like I am cosplaying some other future, some job I applied for in 2019, but it's a positive energy, some ability to hold it together enough to dress for myself, the thing for which I mercilessly judge other men my age. I'm forty now. 

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

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

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

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

09 August 2022

Sentience

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

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

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

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

22 June 2022

The ideal self

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 June 2022

Who you say you are and who you are


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

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

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

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

16 April 2022

What's love got to do with it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 April 2022

Non-player character

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

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

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

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

21 March 2022

Making Weight


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 March 2022

Light where there was no light

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

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

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

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

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

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