31 July 2023

An unforgettable love

An American still, by birth, my experience of Europe borders on unacceptably naive to my British self. When I was an American in Germany some years ago, before Covid, I suddenly realised that a 'Continental' breakfast did not refer to cereal at a Holiday Inn Express outside of Topeka, but to breakfast in continental Europe, as opposed to a Full English breakfast. Now, a British man in Europe, I complain about Brexit and the additional passport queues, and the American accents I hear stick out to me like they hadn't before. On my flight back from Bologna, there was a group of gay men, all couples, who were on the same flight as me, all from New York, I gathered as I listened to conversations around me in queue after queue and I wondered where they had been and what they, as Americans, had found surprising: did they all know that a continental breakfast was a breakfast in continental Europe. I still feel odd travelling with just my British passport, like I might get stopped when I open my mouth and someone at the gate says, But where are you really from, the way everyone else does. I'm British, I swear — I've just learned about the breakfast system. 

The trip to Italy was without major incident, although plagued with minor ones: I missed a flight because of thunderstorms and spent the night in a hotel in Frankfurt. This would be the sort of adventure a younger, American version of me would have savoured and found exciting — another country that I would have ticked off my list of places visited in a year. But the British forty-one-year-old version of me found it exhausting, as I then rushed from one queue to the next for twelve hours, before arriving in front of a crowd of linguists, sweating, but grinning enthusiastically, a day later. The next minor incident was ruining the screen of my Microsoft Surface Pro with sparkling water and sitting outside in the sun, trying to dry it out. Then, as I was running early in the morning with a colleague, we got lost on our first trip down the hill from the citadel where we were staying, where we missed the signs and ended up in the middle of a vineyard, being chased by two dogs who seemed genuinely shocked that we had appeared at six-thirty and were unsure what to do. We ran again, a couple of days later, on a flatter course out to Cesena, and I stopped at the turnaround point to take a picture of what I said at the time was the ocean, a silly, American mistake. 

I got home late on Sunday night to the house on Victoria Road, wearing shorts and feeling like I had when I came back from Sweden, that going away had not provided what I hoped would be a hard reset on my life, like I would come back to the house I left in 2018, before everything started to change and this unhappiness settled on me and wouldn't, as it had in the past, move on at some point. Zizek says, if you love someone for a reason, you don't love them. It's a very particular understanding of love, it's a Western understanding of love, one that I can't apply to my own situation, in the same way I can't apply the philosophy of the vaguely Christian TikTok men, guys like Dave, who are having sex with their wives because they listen to what their wives want. It's just that simple, they say. I watch the video through a time and bit of the repeat, arguing with Dave in my head and assuring him — even though he says he knows that men will say it's not that simple, that is, in fact, that simple — that it is not that simple. There are cultural assumptions about love and communication and marriage one has to take into consideration. I angrily swipe on, knowing I will meet Dave again having committed a 1.2 watch time to one video, but the algorithm decides I next need to see a video about the history of the atomic bomb like the universe is commenting on itself, like the plot of my life has been perfectly optimised for ironic effect. The one trick that no wife can resist which isn't really a trick, then an animated documentary about Tsar Bomba, Part 3, even though you've not seen parts one or two.

I don't like Zizek, but I like this explanation of love because I don't know why I feel love. I repeat his quote to the solicitor or vicar or colleague like I'm begging them, anyone but myself, to solve my problems, to help me forgive myself the intractable, original sin of my life, because I don't how to forgive it. I'm crying, I'm asking for tissues like a child. Do this for me, please, someone, anyone but me, and the person across from me nods with empathy, it does sound like a difficult situation. And then, like magic, like the swipe of the TikTok algorithm, as it has happened for the last fifteen years, the thing that saves me, that buys me time, is this thing that has come up, that I need to deal with now, that supersedes everything else. The larger problems, the question of what is love, what is happiness, satisfaction, joy, disappear again beneath the surface of the water, drug down by the weight of everything else that needs attention, another flight to make, another boiler problem to sort out, another child who needs to be taken to or taken from an event. I can stop thinking for a little bit at least, and just keep going, unforgiven but with some hope that Zizek is wrong and Dave is right, that love can be justified, and that all you need to do is listen more carefully. That you can suffer under the weight of sin that no one can forgive and one day find some peace that you can understand, that you can explain, and that frees you, tangibly, empirically, from all of pain you invent.

04 July 2023

This is your central task

The British false autumn has come early this year, even though June was, I am told, the hottest month on record. The false British summer had already come once before, in May, after I ran the London marathon and was walking more than running. I could notice it, crossing the field in Shenley Park and thinking about how my time walking from Harborne to Bartley Green, to Newman, was now coming to an end. May is too early for it to feel like summer has passed, but once you have two or three warm days, a cool day feels slower and comforting, like the day is shorter even though it is longer, empirically.

Two seemingly unsolvable problems plagued me for most of the spring but particularly in May. The first was a problem with the car. There was a series of issues starting with what I was told was a leaking shock absorber that failed my MOT. I had to pay some amount of money to have this fixed but the fixing of the shock absorber resulted in a new problem, a rattling that had appeared somewhere around the wheel hub, but no one could resolve what it was exactly. I was dealing with the mechanic on Ladypool Road, a man I met during the pandemic and who had been very helpful to me, but the more work that he had done on the car, the less positive the relationship became. Nothing ever happened on time. I had to miss meetings as I sat somewhere in Moseley waiting for him to call me only to be told at some point in the evening that the car couldn't be fixed and it would take another day.

I ended up back at the garage within walking distance of our house, the one in Harborne which was more expensive but always managed to get the car done on time. They also tried on several occasions to fix this shock absorber, telling me repeatedly that the previous person had made various mistakes, and charging me more money to undo the previous problems. This didn't make me feel better about them or about the decision to stay with the man on Ladypool Road, particularly when every time they promised that they had fixed it, the rattling came back. The third time I went, the mechanic, the guy who I assumed owned the place and whose kids I was talking to on every other occasion, asked to ride with me in the car because he was sure they had fixed the problem, and I felt like a little boy with my father in the passenger seat, both of us listening for some sound to emerge. We sat in silence as I rode up the road toward Asda, me assuring him every thirty seconds that it would come and that he would hear it eventually. For a while, for two minutes at least, there was nothing and he seemed sceptical and then finally after I hit one bump and then another and then another the sound came back.

The other problem was mice living underneath our stairs. They've come and gone over the years but this one seemed to have decided to make their nest in our house and I was maddeningly trying to fill up holes on the outside and block redundant pipes. A good vegan, I first set humane traps that the mice managed to avoid and we could hear them nonstop at night running around inside the cupboards. One Saturday morning the boiler stopped working, and I realised that the pipe that I had blocked up was actually a pipe from the boiler and that I feared I had created some terrible damage and would need eventually to have some big repair done to the boiler. I called a man who came within the hour on a Saturday and he told me as he looked at the problem that I hadn't done something seriously wrong and it was not really a problem and then I needed to get a cat to kill the mice. He was going to charge me £200 to reconnect the pipe but after doing that the problem wasn't fixed and having looked more into the boiler he pulled out the regulator and showed it to me and said I've never seen this before but it appears the mice have chewed the regulator. This made me feel slightly better actually, even though it was nearly £400 more than it was going to be because the problem wasn't due to my stupidity, something I reiterated as I showed Yoko the chewed wires.

On June first, the day we were meant to go to the American and Japanese embassies to do various expatriate paperwork, I came into the kitchen just after four in the morning and I could hear them in the rubbish bin. I opened the drawer and there they both were, terrified and I slammed it shut. I grabbed the butterfly net that we had out for some reason and opened it up and both of them were there and I managed to catch one of them while the other ran to the toilet. I shouted for the kids to come and help, and while I was doing that the one that I had netted managed to get out and run underneath the washing machine. I went into the toilet and with a little bit of work managed to catch the other mouse in the net but as I was trying to bring it down on the floor, I did it too severely and looked like I had killed it in the net. I put it in a bucket and took it outside and then went back inside to look for the other mouse, but I couldn't find it. As I rummaged behind the washing machine, the door outside still open, I heard the other mouse starting to move around and came out just in time to see it stumble out of its little bucket and got caught behind the rubbish bin outside. I tried to net it again but I couldn't and it managed to run away into the garden, and I stood there in the early morning grass, the two girls watching from the door,

I found myself this Saturday, fifteen minutes before I needed to be at an Open Day, crying in front of my computer. It was just after re-reading something short and obvious I had just written, about how I'd realised my task is to assure the people who depend on me now, that they will be fine without me. Of course, they will be fine without me, but the acceptance that I'm not needed and indeed will not be needed in the future has created the softness that makes some men in their forties more palatable. It's hard to accept your own redundancy and come to accept thoughts that you would have never accepted ten years ago. The worst punishment of judgement, of having been a judgmental person, is to become the thing that you've judged. I used to judge men in their forties who behaved like their best years were ahead of them. Now at forty-one, thinking about my future and thinking about what I can and cannot do anymore, the things I'm able to say to myself to keep going in the things that I can't say anymore. I could do the things I never got to do when I was younger when I stopped myself because I was worried about what other people would think. When I thought time was running out and God would judge me if I didn't act quickly enough.  

The problem with the mice was solved when our neighbour put out poison and the sounds stopped one night. I was in Sweden when this happened, and came home to the smell of death in the house. We had to wait it out but every day the smell seems to have diminished. It's gone now, for me at least, although there are still essential oils in the cupboard under the stairs. The car too seems to be working, the rattling gone for now after I found out what the problem was, something with the brake pad blamed on the mechanic on Ladypool Road. Whom to believe: everyone will tell you something. What is really true, nothing is every really true in the sense that you want it to be true. I turn at the door to say goodbye to whomever is there. I need to get used to this, I think to myself, to being alone. You are alone a lot more in your forties than you are in your thirties. It's the nature of things, of the kids getting older, of marriages breaking down for a time, of work and whatever other commitments you have. Everything comes back, that's the promise at least. You can be alone, it's okay. You won't always be alone.