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.

38. "You're so resilient"

Overcoming our own ability to overcome

Remember what you wanted.

Those things still matter. A pandemic could not erase them. Perspective has not replaced them.

Beware the ones who will tell you what you wanted no longer applies. The ones who climb ladders and pull them up as they go. The ones who say the goal posts have moved as they plow the entire field.

They’ll hang over your fence and say you should have planted corn in your rose garden.

When they praise you for your resilience they are praising you for overcoming the difficulties of the world they refuse to mend.

When they praise you for your resilience they are saying thank god that did not break you because we cannot afford to change.

When they praise you for your resilience they are watching a drowning person claw their way to shore while standing on the beach and clapping. And clapping.

And clapping.

Resilience is not meant to be a daily ritual. Survival isn’t a virtue.

Nothing that happened this year was unprecedented. We’ve been through disasters before. And the only consistent thing from one disaster to the next is our utter unwillingness to help the most vulnerable prepare for the next disaster.

Because we’re resilient.

And what does not kill us makes them stronger.

37. Trees don't try to fit in

A few weeks ago I couldn’t do it anymore, so I stepped out the front door and walked in no particular direction for no particular purpose.

And then I noticed the trees.

Spilling out of the ground. Tearing up the pavement. Fighting roads.

Growing up I had a ropey relationship with my body. I thought I was doing pretty good for an eleven year-old, and then we moved to Vancouver and all my relatives called me “fat boy”.

You know what’s messed up? Adults calling a kid fat.

London is home to some majestic trees. Tall. Sturdy. Noble. These are good trees. You’ll find them all over the city, minding their own business, getting papped by tourists.

And then you’ll spot a tree just casually eating a metal fence.

This tree is pushing over your wall. What’re you going to do about it? That’s right, nothing. You built a wall next to the tree like you’re the Macbeth of brick laying, and now guess who’s at the door? Ding dong, it’s hubris calling. Your wall’s falling over.

Have you ever laughed and in the middle of your personal joy had someone comment that you have a loud laugh? Wow, they might have said, in a manner that suggested they were witnessing something truly outside their regular existence, wow, you have a really loud laugh.

And did you then and there decide to laugh more quietly?

When I was in my mid-20s I went on a diet to improve my cycling. The chart in the magazine said that a 5 pound weight reduction would equal a 30 second bonus on a 6-mile ride over a 3-percent grade.

On my bike I imagined the weight leaving my body as little numbers with each breath.

I wanted to tell you to ignore them. That other people don’t get to decide how we feel. That our bodies are spaceships and the fact they’re afloat in the cosmos, powering us towards the sun, is a miracle in and of itself. That every body is a good body.

I wanted to tell you this but I couldn’t, because I didn’t believe it.

Next time I’ll be a tree. I’ll let my roots grow wherever they want. I’ll let squirrels chill in my branches. And when I get too close to other trees, I’ll shyly withdraw my crown.

36. It is not wrong

A litany against optimisation

It is not wrong to lose touch with someone, realise you miss them, reach out to them, and then discover as two adults what it all means.

It is not wrong to stay in bed until noon.

It is not wrong to start a book, enjoy a certain amount, and decide not to finish it.

It is not wrong to watch a how-to video, even several how-to videos, and not do the how you now know to do.

It is not wrong to eat a salad for lunch and veggie curry for dinner one day, and then the next day nothing but Manomasa Serrano Chilli and Yucatan Honey tortilla chips.

It is not wrong to think you can store up vegetable days to distribute during the rest of the week.

It is not wrong to give your sourdough starter the name you might give an adorable dog and then let it die.

It is not wrong to be on a Zoom call and ask someone to repeat what they just said because you stopped listening.

It is not wrong to add items to your cart, go to the checkout stage, add your payment info and shipping address, and then close the window before making the purchase, several times a week for months on end.

It is not wrong to learn to draw and then go so long without drawing you forget everything you learned.

It is not wrong to stop following friends on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter because you never want to see what they post.

It is not wrong to take longer to do literally everything.

It is not wrong to believe something at the beginning of a world changing event, live through some totally insanity-inducing situations, and find at multiple points during that time your beliefs require reassessing and you reassess them.

It is not wrong to buy a special pen for making lists.

It is not wrong to reward yourself for flossing.

It is not wrong to have the time you always said you needed to write a novel and then not write that novel, or even start writing it.

It is not wrong to decide on a Monday morning that it’s a “cocktail Monday”.

It is not wrong to leave it until tomorrow.

It is not wrong to be tired and sleep.

It is not wrong to ask for help.

It is not wrong.

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