43. A song for my family

Both of them

When you have a Scottish mum, she’ll call you her wee boy.

Five years ago, when I was having some issues with my brain and being alive, my sister sent an email that set the tone for everything that’s happened between then and now. In the email she asked if I was gay and wanted to come out to the family.

The email wasn’t completely random. I had been saying a lot of gay things, about falling in love with, and having my heart broken by, men, and keeping it all hidden while juggling a burgeoning career as an Evangelical Christian. It was the kind of question only someone who cares deeply about you can ask.

What struck me most about that email was her absolute certainty that no matter what I had to tell them, my family would understand and support me.

Early on I knew my family was different. We enjoyed spending time together. We seemed to like each other. Contrary to every lesson television tried to teach me, I’d introduce people to my parents early and often. I saw them as another arrow in my quiver of reasons to know me, to be my friend, to love me.

To this day I still feel excited when a new person gets to meet them.

And yet… it never occurred to me I could tell them what I was going through. I didn’t come out to myself until I was in my 40s. Didn’t understand that being queer was something I needed to talk about to release the terrible tension gathered around my heart. I’ve thought many times how my life might have been different if I could have told them how I felt.

And so, since that email, I’ve been talking about it. On podcasts, at company-wide meetings, and currently while co-leading an employee resource group on queer identity. I do it partly for me, and partly to be the thing I never saw growing up: a queer Asian man happy with his life.

I do this from a position of incredible privilege.

If you’re lucky, you have one. A family. Either by blood or, as Rina Sawayama sings, by choice. Rina didn’t coin the term, but she did write and perform the song with Elton John that makes me cry and cry and cry so she gets credit today.

If you’re insanely lucky, you’ll have both. One which has known you longer than you have known yourself. And another by choice, your friends of shared community and identity and circumstance.

I don’t think coming out to my family would have been easy. But I do know they would have been there. They wouldn’t have left me alone with my fear and pain.

I once told a crowded room that the greatest gift my parents ever gave me was raising someone other people like. Same for my sister. I don’t know if that’s a humble brag or just straight up arrogance, but I’ve spent so much of my life not liking myself I’m just going to allow it.

And thanks to my one family, I’ve been blessed with another. People spread across three continents, who will welcome me into their homes, share their food, and grace my life with their presence.

Here’s a song for my family, about families. The ones you’re given and the ones you make. It’s about what happens when you don’t want to live and people won’t let you die. It’s an apology and a declaration and a thank you and a prayer.

A song for my family

Oh mother, please forgive me
I didn't mean to make you cry
Oh father, please believe me
I didn't want to take my life
Nothing lasts forever
there are still the ties that bind
blood is thicker than water
and kin is more than kind

Thoughts can be heavy as a stone
carried in your pocket to the shore
throw them to the crashing waves and foam
or they'll drag you down through the cold

Oh sister can you hear me
news won't ease your weary mind
it's certain life ain't easy
and there's a devil on the line

and he burdens us with wickedness and shame
promises of glory and fame
when all we've ever had was our name
to our kingdom no one can make a claim
cause we're a family

And we won't ever let that sword fall
When they push our backs to the wall
We'll stand side by side ten feet tall
and sing how love overcame it all

No you can't have him that's our boy
You can't take him down to the soil
there's nothing on earth you can own
like loving someone to make a home

42. It is not wrong, part 2

It is still not wrong

Part 1

It is not wrong to feel that nothing has changed.

It is not wrong to let your Disney Plus account roll over month after month without watching anything because it's comforting knowing you could at any time binge Wes Anderson’s filmography.

It is not wrong to hate talking to people while constantly craving random interactions.

It is not wrong to simply not know, not even a little, just not know one damn bit.

It is not wrong to leave the job you just started.

It is not wrong to watch a rocket go into space and hope it will explode.

It is not wrong to say, "It's flower day, bitches," and spend half your day rate on a bunch of flowers.

It is not wrong to despise the Olympics and fall in love with every athlete.

It is not wrong to look forward to things that will certainly disappoint you.

It is not wrong to gather no rosebuds, carpe no diems, or make not a single hay while the sun shines.

It is not wrong to put on a song with the worst possible lyrics and belt that out like your life depended on it.

It is not wrong to fail to do, on a daily basis, the things that are expected of a functioning adult.

It is not wrong to use Linkedin as a dating service.

It is not wrong to give a damn when, seriously Helen, not giving a damn would really improve your life right now.

It is not wrong to respond to an email with a letter.

It is not wrong to mark every email as read.

It is not wrong to print out an email, fold it into a crane, light the crane on fire, film it burning down to ashes, and send that video back with the caption, “It did not find me well.”

It is not wrong.

41. Fail up and up and up

Recently, I turned 45.

When I was 8 I wanted to be a scientist. The two things I knew about scientists were 1) they wore white lab coats and 2) they used a key card to get into buildings. I knew this from watching movies.

An 8 year-old scientist would be a phenomenon. A 45 year-old scientist is just a scientist. What I’m saying here is, no one is impressed by a 45 year-old doing anything. Whatever you are at 45 is pretty much what you’re supposed to be.

When I was 13 I had a very clear idea of how my life was going to unfold. I’d get married at 24. Have my first kid at 26. Second kid at 30. I met my first wife when I was 18, putting me in a great position to hit those targets. When we didn’t get married for 9 years I figured I still had a punter’s chance.

Here’s how the next 15 years of my life went:

  • separated at 29

  • divorced at 33

  • married again at 34

  • separated at 40

  • divorced at 43

In 1785 the Scottish poet Robert Burns penned an ode to a terrified mouse whose house he’d just overturned with a plough. What starts as a whimsical apology pivots to a rumination on the very nature of existence, delivering one of the most important lines in all of English literature:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,

152 years later John Steinback would borrow it to title his Depression-era novel about how, to quote Oliver Burkeman, “the future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it.”

Let’s talk about failure.

When I got married I didn’t think I’d get divorced. Not the first time, and not the second time. I won’t say no one gets married thinking that, because obviously some people do.

I talk about divorce a lot because I think such a regular human occurrence should be normalised. Same way I talk about falling in love with men or eating ice cream for dinner. It happens.

The other reason I talk about divorce is it’s a pretty useful way to reframe what we think about failure, specifically what we think failure is.

If you’re not currently in a relationship, 100% of your relationships have ended. To this crowd-pleasing, feel-good sentiment I’ll add, if you are in a relationship right now and it’s your second, 50% have ended. Third? 66%.

And then, in a move historians will one day call “a real point maker”, I’ll ask, does it make sense to talk about something as complex as relationships in terms of success and failure when most of us, at best, will “fail” in over half of them?

If you’ve watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and aren’t a sociopath, I’m sure you were struck by the employee who, for three solid years, does nothing but make tamagoyaki, the wonderfully soft egg omelette that forms one of the first courses.

Every day, omelettes. Every single day. For three years. The day Jiro finally tells him this is how I would have made it, our egg hero sits in the small hallway behind the restaurant and cries.

I’m not comparing marriage to making an omelette, even before you get to the whole breaking a lot of eggs bit. But I am saying relationships are one of the few things we seem to think we’re supposed to be good at right away. How do I know this? The fact we’re still surprised when they end.

Relationships aren’t practice for future relationships, except of course they are. How could they not be? Everything you do is practice for some version of you in the future doing it. So why don’t we call failure, practice?

One reason might be that, at least in the context of relationships, this makes you sound like a sociopath. Go around telling people they’re practice rounds and frankly, you deserve whatever happens to you.

And yet, arguably, it’s stranger still to treat every relationship as a unique and therefore self-contained occurrence. To be like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, unable to break the spell of a coin continuously coming down heads, only to surmise they must be “a spectacular indication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails”, and therefore is no surprise when it does.

To try is to fail. After 45 years my list of “successes” is a small pond, my continuous and necessary “failures” a vast stupid ocean. I’ve failed so much, in so many ways, to such a consistent degree, I’m sometimes shocked I’ve accomplished anything at all.

This isn’t some “business leader reveals their worst failures” bullshit. I have, by most metrics, failed at almost everything I’ve ever tried, and continue to fail at most things I attempt, IF, again, the purpose of any action is the completion of that action in only one, specific way.

And what this newsletter presupposes is, what if it isn’t?

We know from our friend the egg man and Gladwell’s Failure for Dummies that you have to not do a thing the right way a lot before you can do it well.

So what makes something a practice run and something a failed attempt? Intention? Context? It couldn’t be, I mean it just couldn’t be, some arbitrary metric used to qualify our behaviour for social and monetary gain. That would be ridiculous. It can’t be that if one day you succeed you get to call all previous attempts training, and if you don’t you just failed a lot.

That can’t be it, because then a lot of people would probably feel terrible about their lives, the barren fields that are, again by necessity, almost all endeavour. We’d only celebrate people who had already triumphed, and endlessly mock anyone who was still trying. Unless of course, they triumphed. Then we’d reassess their lives to place proper emphasis on all the practice they’d done.

Modern businesses like to make a thing about embracing failure. Learning from failure. But the main thing you’re meant to learn is how not to fail again.

That’s like a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step so let’s just get to the end everybody let’s do it heck let’s skip all the steps yes success winning yes.

It’s bad for business and just as bad for when you’ve put years into being with someone and now even holding hands feels like a bridge too far, you’ve run out of careful words and are hurling fists of dust that sound like sentences from the moon, carrying every hard moment on your back like rocks to the top of a mountain, to a volcano where the only logical step is to throw them all in, throw yourself in, down to the centre through the deepest pain imaginable and let it all burn, burn, burn, until you can crawl out of its guts scrambling for air, for light, for the earth to just hold you, for the trees to gift a shadow, for you to try, always trying, to try again, and again, and again.

40. Future perfect

How walking will have changed my life

(This month marks the second anniversary of this newsletter. I started it when I closed my Facebook account, as a way to maintain those casual digital connections. Two years in it remains a work in progress, and also a work out of progress. In many ways, it just is.

May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. I’m very aware of my mental health, and a lot of this newsletter deals with that.)

Thanks for reading.

Five years ago walking changed my life, a little or maybe a lot. (I am bereft of profundity, to the point I’m writing sentences like “I am bereft of profundity”.) It did change my life. Really.

How are you?

Five years ago I left my second wife. I tried to write that differently, but that’s the truth of it. People say it’s easier to be the one who leaves and those people need to shut the hell up. I don’t know anyone who’s ended a relationship and not felt terrible about it, even people in objectively awful relationships. This shit is hard.

I paired that with a yearlong sabbatical from having a home. See, what you want to do when you experience a giant life change is add another giant life change, so you can’t tell whether what you’re feeling is caused by one thing or the other. This is classic Art of War shit, where you overwhelm your enemy with competing, equally compelling areas of focus. The enemy here being my own thoughts.

I developed a bad case of insomnia. Can you call something a “case” if it lasts a year? It was a yearlong case of insomnia. I either couldn’t get to sleep before 2am or I’d wake up around 4:30, that kind of wide awake where you think you’ve forgotten to write an essay you’ve had all semester to write. PING! Like someone’s shouted FIRE and you’re on a submarine.

At first I tried to deal with it like any reasonable adult—by hoping it would go away. You can imagine my surprise when it didn’t. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture. It’s incredibly incapacitating, akin to being drunk. Trying to think your way out of insomnia is like trying to dig your way out of a hole. And boy howdy I was digging up!

I didn’t want to be alone. I felt strange around other people. I’d leave a pub night and on the bus or overground experience an intense sense of dislocation. Since public transit meltdowns are about as fun as they sound I’d get off and start walking. After awhile I started doing this on purpose, before I could feel wrong, getting off at earlier and earlier stops until finally I was walking all the way home.

Dalston to Peckham. Regent to Victoria Park. Huge stretches of London along streets I’d otherwise have never seen. This didn’t cure my insomnia. I’d get back exhausted and pass right out, but still be wide awake by 6. That probably doesn’t sound too early for some, but relative to my sleep schedule I was basically taking power naps.

So I started walking to work in the morning, sometimes arriving an hour before anyone else. This, along with my pseudo-homelessness, lead to the rumour I was living in the office. I did not live in the office. I just used it to do my laundry. And occasionally sleep. And cook.

This also didn’t cure my insomnia. Only therapy and running and quitting my job and various other life changes did that. And while walking is recommended for providing a host a benefits, physical, mental, and emotional, that’s not why I did it so much.

The main reason I walked so much was to reach the state of having walked.

Walking taught me the motivation that can be found in wanting to have done something. In grammar this verb tense is known, somewhat awesomely, as the FUTURE PERFECT.

A lot of decisions I’ve made since then I’ve made by asking, will I have wanted to have done this? Being in a musical. Running a half marathon. Applying for a job. Leaving a job. In the perfect future, what choice will I have made? It’s not magic, to the extent I don’t time travel. But imagining a future Thom looking back puts me in the position in which I often find myself, namely as present Thom agonising over the past.

What if you could shift that to the now, before it even (doesn’t) happen? Can’t wait for the Christopher Nolan movie about this.

Right now I’m mulling over some big life decisions. Or maybe they’re irrelevant. That’s the funny thing about decisions. On a long enough timeline, all of them kind of flatten out. And I’m wondering what future Thom will make of them. What will he have wanted present Thom to do? I think I know. I’ve gotten to know present Thom quite well. He’s not so bad, when you walk with him for awhile.

On 13 May 2021 I walked from Haarlem to Amsterdam, a journey of about 21km. I did it to have done it, but also to make this video. I hope you like it.

39. The green one goes here

Arranging elements for optimal pathways

(Since last we spoke I moved to The Netherlands, spent a month getting internet set up, and ate my body weight in nieuwe haring.)

I learned a saying while getting my hair cut the other day, a Dutch saying if my barber is to be believed.

(It’s only been one haircut but make no mistake—this man is now my barber. He’s been cutting hair for 41 years, 35 in Haarlem, and lives above his immaculate shop where there are only two chairs. One for washing hair, one for cutting.)

The saying goes like this:

He’s had 12 jobs and 13 accidents.

As I understand it, it refers to when someone has switched jobs a lot due to possibly self-inflicted misfortune. I’ve not looked the saying up to confirm this. I want to preserve the moment we had, barber to customer. One of life’s greatest couplings.

When I moved to London one of the first things I did was find a barber. And there he was in Spitalfields, like a paean to hipster haberdashery. Babbo. Babbo the Barber.1 Cutting hair in what was, at the time, an antiques dealer/Mac repair shop. I never did figure out the relationship between the businesses. It’s a Cubitts now.

Babbo cut my hair for 7 years until he, well, disappeared. Vanished. He eventually popped up a year later to tell me he’d gotten divorced and was moving to Australia. I have no idea where he is now, but I hope he’s doing well.

After Babbo came two years with Steven until the pandemic hit, and then it was me shaving my head for a year. Now, through my new barber’s skill and I guess the passage of time and maybe even Dutch water, I have the hair I’ve wanted since 1995.

Namely, Brad Pitt’s hair in Se7en.

If you’ve not seen Se7en, then you don’t know about Brad Pitt’s hair. The hair every guy wanted in 1995 and no Asian guy, outside the very blessed, could have. In and of itself, the haircut is unremarkable. Fade on the sides. Longer on top like a shag.

The defining feature of a shag is its non-committal length. Medium. Which is hairstyle parlance for “give me something I can not care about between cuts”.

So why was Brad’s hair the subject of such intense male longing? It was a short shag.2 If you watch the movie, you’re going to see Brad run his hands through that hair roughly eleventy million times. Each time, each and every time, the hair looks the same as it did before his hands touched it.

If you’ve never had to work to maintain a hairstyle you won’t understand how profoundly unsettling this was, like watching someone throw a pebble into a pond and produce no ripples.

It looked like magic.

Anyway, that’s what my hair does now. I have the hair I wanted since 1995. And the world keeps burning.

There’s an English saying, by which I mean English the language not English the people, though it may well have originated from them, that, depending on the teller, goes something like this:

Polishing brass on the Titanic.


Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.3

It’s supposed to mean futile actions taken in the face of certain catastrophe, but has come to mean pretty much any slightly ineffective action in the face of almost any consequence. As we are with vowel sounds, so we are with the specificity of our sayings. That’s how a word like terrible can go from “fit to cause terror” to “kind of bad, not good I guess”.

People say this when they think you’re doing something not likely to move the needle, another phrase I’d pay good money to never hear again. If you’ve worked in a startup you know moving the needle is one of the best things you can do, while not moving the needle is likely to get you 360° reviewed out of a job.

Well, the other day while sorting my books in order of [REDACTED], I came up with a saying of my own. Yes, I’m the only one saying it, but if you don’t count towards your own mythology then I don’t know what to tell you.

My new saying is

Treading water can be a huge win when the alternative is drowning.

It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but it has the benefit of being absolutely true. I’m not going to engrave it on my tombstone. It’s just something to hold in the mouth, like a lucky stone in your pocket, or, as I did for a few years, a small brass pig.

Treading water for me has taken the form of buying plants. Nothing says “futile action” like living alone and set dressing your bathroom. Given the choice between repotting a fern and staring into the gaping void of existence, I’m buying plants. I’m buying all the plants.

This is the “maybe I’ll kill you” corner.

I’ve also started doing this.

I don’t know what this is, but I’m doing it. Yes, I bought these pastries based on how they’d look on these plates.

Which were bought based on how they’d look next to these pillows. On this rug.

I mean, I ate them! I just looked at them a lot, first. Staging meals for two (did I mention I live alone?) in pleasing colour combinations is the baking sourdough of 2021. Get in early.

I looked at them and photographed them and rearranged them slightly and then I ate them, the nuttiness reminding me of a cake I had in a small village in Japan, made by a woman who had trained in Paris, trained to be a world-class pâtissier, before moving back home to set up her bakery. Her specialty was chiffons, light as air, the texture of dreams. I ate these pastries very slowly, sitting on my rug, watching them renovate the prison outside my window. They’re turning it into a university.


Babbo is not his name.


This will be very funny to British readers.


I imagine a person’s choice of metal versus furniture coming down to whether they think Jack could have fit on the wood plank. Brass polishers say no.

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