31 January 2022

The man comes around

The wind blew loudly all last night through Harborne, and something has been knocking around on our roof, making it hard for everyone to sleep. After I woke up and had my coffee and came back upstairs, Yoko and I took turns looking out the dormer in the front roof, like sailors sticking out heads out of a ship porthole, trying to figure out what had been making the noise. It must the redundant satellite dish that some previous tenant had put up, well before we even had thoughts of Harborne as place. We switched back and forth, looking again at the roof, the various antennas, the fitting on the top of the chimney, the roof more generally, but it all seems secure enough. The sound remains a mystery.

Last Spring, after Covid Classic had passed and I had recovered from my breathing difficulties, I could make it up the hill again outside our house without losing my breath. This was an accomplishment at the time and as I think back on my terrible marathon times for the last year, I probably should take this into account — in March, I was still having trouble running up hills. When all that passed, I would still get an occasional sore throats. I went to the doctor for my diagnosis, worried it was cancer, but of course, it wasn't cancer, it was a symptom of long Covid and that the sore throat and my occasional awareness of it has come and gone based seemingly on my need for some omen of coming disaster. I felt it when Mei got Covid in October. I felt it again in December when Omicron came the first time, and I felt it this last week, when the Pihlajas of Harborne fell one at a time, to the disease. 

I was sure that I had avoided the disease this time around, despite having been very close to everyone and those tests coming back positive every day. Not initially, of course: initially, I assumed I would be hit next, particularly when the youngest got it and she had been the one who had given it to me last year. But days passed and my sore throat maintained its mild, cold air running level, and though I cancelled my face-to-face meetings and wore a mask and stayed two metres away from everyone, Thursday came, and then Friday, I was sure this time I had made it, I had passed through it, even if eventually it would come back around, this time at least, I had stayed away from it. I had avoided it, despite being surrounded by it.

Beating expectations was an important part of my life growing up as a homeschooled kid in the States in the late eighties and early nineties. We were told there was the constant threat of the government coming and taking me to public school and our Christian faith becoming illegal, even though, as I reflect back on it now, the Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan were running things, and it's hard to see how that would turn quickly to all the born-again Christians being rounded up and thrown into Communist concentration camps. Still, that backdrop somehow meant we had to be on our best behaviour, to exceed expectations so as to not give them a reason to round us up. I could proudly tell you when I was nine that I read at a post-High School level, even though I was not entirely sure what that meant. I listened to classical music and took up odd hobbies to highlight this faux-prodigy aura I wanted to give off at church, so the other Evangelicals would see me as a kind of boy genius. Listen to him recite the book of James by heart. 

This desire to succeed, to do things kids couldn't do, and to please my parents culminated in me developing a sudden interest in getting a pilot's license. The idea must have been seeded from a news report of a pre-teen getting their license and flying across the States or some other story that ended up in the news. Somehow, I managed to talk my parents into letting me take ground school, the part of learning to fly a plane that involved studying rules and machinery and not actually flying as an elective for my first year of high school. I studied the books by myself: they had come in a grey bag with some instruments and I spent an hour a day for a semester trying to make sense of it all. I took the theory test at the end of all this when I must have been fourteen. I remember that I did well enough, the man administering the test on the old IBM computer was impressed that I had come as close as I had to passing. But I hadn't actually passed — the limits of my intellectual prowess had been very clearly defined, and I remember leaving dejected, even crying perhaps. Prodigies don't just do a pretty good job at difficult tasks. They don't just get close to passing.

After that year, for the most part, I gave up on wanting to be known for my intellectual prowess. Instead, I discovered big jeans and loud music — much easier ways to stand out without having to cross-stitch and wonder if I actually enjoyed Vivaldi, or if I only really enjoyed saying I enjoyed Vivaldi. The final nail in my prodigy dream coffin came when I took the college placement tests and couldn't get a particularly good ACT score: my girlfriend who didn't care about the test at all and hadn't studied got the same score I did and had nearly gotten a perfect score on the English portion while I had just done okay through the whole thing. I applied to one prestigious university in the suburbs of Chicago, and failed the interview in a spectacular fashion. They were looking for people who were brilliant, self-evidently brilliant, not kids who had bought a Baroque Classic CD collection to impress some women in their mother's bible study. I was decidedly not a prodigy. 

On Saturday morning, I ran and picked up the groceries and went to take my lateral flow test, confident that this round I had avoided it. I swabbed my throat and nose and put the sample on the test and the liquid filled up in the plactic housing, past the part that contains the test strip, on to the control strip. The control strip started to turn colour and I felt a sense of relief, but then you could see the colour start to come into the test strip. There it was, no way to deny it. I hadn't been lucky, I hadn't avoided it.

These Covid years have been a practice in slowly watching your expectations fall, your ideas about what is and is not the worst-case scenario slowly come down. This time, I had just wanted to be able to take my daughter and her friend to see Six, this show we bought tickets for, before Covid came. Now, I just want her to be able to go. I wanted to get my pilot's license at fourteen or fifteen, but now I wonder if I actually wanted to actually be a pilot, or if I just wanted people to be impressed by me. Maybe this has been my whole life, thinking I'll do something because other people will think I'm something I'm not. That I'm a mascot of some belief system or some organisation or some lifestyle. I'm just me, of course, just me. Non-prodigy, but earnest. That's enough, surely. 

27 January 2022

I continue to test negative

Covid continues to knock on the door of the Pihlajas of Harborne. Every day since last year when it came the first time, it seems like you can deny it and deny it until finally, it's back again. The kids' school send letters almost every day — another kid has it, the kid your kid sits next to. It goes on and on. Now all of us have had it once, and my number feels like it is up again, like we've batted through the order and are back to the top. Unlike the days of Covid Classic, back when having Covid meant something, back when you didn't really know you had it until you had a proper test that you couldn't actually book, now we have daily testing that you trust. I say that you trust it, and you do, but sometimes you shouldn't trust these tests. They can be wrong, they are wrong sometimes. This is still better than reports I hear from the States where people have to buy them: here you just get them, someone just gives them to you on the street, or at Asda, or the security lodge at the University. I have tested negative today, but I know I won't be negative much longer. It's inevitable. 

You can see it this way: your body is bound to betray you at some point. On Saturday morning, I got up and did the thing I have been dreading for a year, the thing I'd put off because I couldn't face it even though I knew what sort of truth was waiting for me. I pulled out the scale, set it on the tile, and stepped on, like a sinner returning to confession. Forgive me, it's been four hundred and twenty-five days since I last confronted you, my body weight. If you're an expert dieter, you know already how much you weigh before you weigh yourself. You know what the number is and then you inflate it a bit, so you will feel better about the actual number, the number that is the true number. 

On Saturday the number was eighty-three-point-six, two-point-four less than what I had prepared myself for and I felt two-point-four points less like a failure than I might have otherwise felt. The trick had worked, thankfully, in part because over the last three weeks I had been starting to confront the problem of thinking constantly, obsessively about what I was eating or not eating. Of course, that's always been the problem, I've known this for many years, but hearing the right thing at the wrong time is as useful as not hearing anything. You don't need to try harder, the TikTok advice-givers I've watched for a year will say, you need to be intuitive. You need to trust your body. This is right, of course, but it's like telling someone who obsesses constantly to stop obsessing. It only leads to more obsession. I have obsessive thinking about my own obsession. My body just wants to eat white bread. That's what it wants. If I intuitively eat white bread, I will eat so much white bread. I won't stop eating white bread.

No, trust your body is not great advice for me, in this body: we all know our bodies can lie. Mine lies to me all the time when I'm running, stop now, it says, go eight kilometres not ten, slow down, you're not going to make it. When you don't believe it, you find that actually you can go ten kilometres at that speed and you can match whatever speed your watch thinks you can keep up for a given distance. The watch knows, it's been monitoring things for the last year and has the data. You just need to press through the pain, trust the science, overcome the urge to quit. My body tells me I need to eat white bread for days and days. I know in my mind that this isn't true, but something will unsettle that knowledge and whatever lie I've told myself from before I can remember will reappear like an apparition. Eat it, just eat it, if you don't eat it, I'll make you think about it until you eat it. The ten kilometre lie can be disproven. The white bread lie is harder to disprove.   

All of this is silly, really, given everything else going on. Perhaps you could just be kinder to yourself, I think, looking at reflection in the mirror after I wake up. I feel like this is the other truth I've never heard at the right time. What relationships have I destroyed by not being kind, what relationships can be saved still by being kinder. The TikTok woman acts like this is so natural, that you can just be at peace with yourself. That you can just love yourself — she says it like it's just a thing you can do. I do have love, I want to say back to her, but it's not that easy. My body is lying to me about all sorts of things, it won't just stop all of a sudden, I won't just suddenly be okay. I don't have to try harder, I get that, I accept that, but I do have to keep trying. I say something like that to my colleague: I have to go running, and he calls out my modality: it's not have to. It's want to. It's get to. You're still alive, you're still here. You get to keep trying. 

21 January 2022

The dark won't hide it


December came and went the way it always does in the West Midlands, with the ground freezing and then thawing and then freezing again, with the morning and the possibility that things might be coated in frost. It's now January and the same cycle continues on, but some days you notice, or you think you notice, that the day has gotten a bit longer. This is both empirically true and true in one's lived experience — that is, you both want it to be true, so it is true, and it is true, so it is true. Still though, if you want to run before everyone wakes up, you need to do it in the dark, and you need to accept that it will still be dark when you return home. I've accepted this and overcome my fear of running in the dark through the woods, not because of any act of will, but just because the fear has left me. I don't know why. Your eyes adjust and you forget about it, and if you run long enough, you don't notice when it is no longer dark. It just suddenly isn't. 

Just before Christmas, I ran a marathon in the North, just outside of Manchester. It ended up being muddy and solitary and foggy and so poorly marked in places that on at least two occasions, I stopped completely to think back to where the last sign must have been wrong. Around mile eighteen, I came to an aid station with two people sitting and waiting and surprised to see me, like I was some sort of traveller. Only one other person had come through they said, he had gotten very lost too. I managed to finish fifth, although it should have been second or third, considering the numerous other factors. You do a kind of apologetics after a race to explain whatever deficiencies you've identified in your own running, deficiencies that no one cares about but you. That was the third marathon of the year, the fourth if we're counting the one I ran on the canal in May. None of them felt particularly good, and the photos from Chester captured me as I've felt, bloated, drenched in sweat, and grimacing. What is the point, the photo asks, of any of this

That's a fair question to ask this year, the year I turn forty, an age that feels both old and young to me now that I have arrived at it. Recently, the other forty-year-olds I know look younger to me, and I wonder if this is just an effect of ageing and that when I am seventy, I'll look at other seventy-year-olds and think the same thing. Of course, the next thought is to wonder if I will make it to seventy, which although mathematically much more likely once I am forty, still feels impossibly far away. I had always said glib things about how being healthy in my thirties would pay off as I got older. Now I don't know. I have a pain in my throat and think, is this cancer. It must be cancer. I've had these thoughts for many years, it's not necessarily a new thing, and it most certainly is not cancer. But still: when you're almost forty, you need to pay closer attention. You're not young anymore. I've been known in polite conversation to smugly say, On a long enough timeline, most men will get prostate cancer, but that's no longer comforting to me. I'm on that timeline and it's getting longer. 

An email came from our energy provider saying that we had some ungodly deficit in our account and our costs were going up, this after another letter came saying I had underpaid my taxes and they needed to collect, again, an ungodly amount of money from me in the next three months. I resented the language in both of these letters, which seemed to suggest some moral failing on my part, or that I had some agency in how much tax had been collected or what the energy provider had been taking in our direct debit, when in fact they had been things that had been decided for me, on my behalf. Now I am worried about the next three months and indeed, the rest of the year, when taxes are meant to go up and the cost of living is meant to increase. Where is this money supposed to come from, how much more can I work. 

When I was younger, worries like this flowed through me without a filter, but if I've learned anything, I've learned that unfiltered worry poisons relationships. You have to dismantle the worry for yourself, manage it for yourself. Because worry is all imagined pain, death as a kind of abstraction or metaphor for other things, things that are not actually death, not even close to death. Real death comes as a phone call in the middle of the night, in the moment from when you wake up wondering what has woken you up, in a chain reaction of thoughts that resolve in a second, but are so distinct and clear that they can be articulated as a story. Like the way Yoko touched my leg to wake me the morning Mia was born: It's time. You get up and get dressed even though there is nowhere to go, nothing to say. You sit and wait like you are waiting for something, for the sun to come up at least and the girls to fill up the house with sound and movement. What is worry when the worst has happened. It's a luxury. There's nothing to worry about after it has happened.