Monsters on bikes

I recently wrote for CityLab about the conflict between cyclists and pedestrians in Amsterdam. I found fascinating that this city’s cycling culture is so often held up as an ideal for other cities to emulate — and yet pedestrians are so often forgotten in the equation.

Our picture of an aggressive cyclist is also often that of a middle-aged man in lycra, but in Amsterdam it can also be teenagers in jeans, young women in heels, businesspeople in suits. Amsterdammers are highly individualistic and extremely direct, which is fuel to the flames when added to the implicit power that comes with cycling. It’s a blessing that few foreign visitors understand Dutch’s idiosyncratic insults — ‘I hope you get cancer/typhoid/syphilus’, because they would probably keel over in the bike lane.

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On pain

Recently I thought I might like to write about pain. It’s a state I’m often in, thanks to myriad overlapping conditions. If I’m writing to explain and describe my existence, then pain is primary.

But the thing about pain is that it shrinks the mind. Consciousness is reduced to a stabbing, thudding, pulsing, sensation that screams its primacy through the brambles of everything else. And it’s entirely subjective. Empaths can transport themselves inside someone’s emotional pain, but barely anyone can truly recall physical pain, other than its intensity or their despair at experiencing it.

That’s why writing about pain is uninteresting. We find it hard to imagine — it’s a sensation locked inside ourselves. All we see is a grimace, which we don’t enjoy looking at for too long. We see the tears on the face of people we love, but we don’t know how to help. We wish for stronger injections, some kind of relief, but we have no idea of how it feels.

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Nature confounds logic

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Nature sometimes seems to confound logic.

The forest fires we’re now seeing could have been prevented, or limited, if small-scale fires had been allowed to break out more regularly. These small fires, which are a forest’s own way of keeping its ecosystem in check, burn up the brush and undergrowth on the forest floor, which would otherwise act as connecting fuel for a larger fire.

But modern forestries are eager not to let any potentially saleable wood go to waste, so they extinguish these fires quickly when they do break out. That allows the undergrowth to grow unchecked. After a period of no rain, it dehydrates and crisps up, becoming a tinderbox that allows a forest fire to spread rapidly.

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Football as stress relief

DhGlallXkAIXGsT.jpg-largeWatching England play has always been an excruciating experience for my generation. It’s bum-clenching, temple-pounding, teeth-grinding kind of stuff. I watch games between my fingers, or from behind cushions, as if it were the Blair Witch Project. Apart from the repeated trauma and particular sting of lost penalty shoot-outs, there lingers always a terrible feeling that something is going to go wrong: the captain will get sent off for savagely kicking a member of opposition, the defence will fall apart like a badly packed kebab, a country with a tiny population of whale hunters will beat us.

Which is why, last weekend, I entered the England match as ‘WATCH ENGLAND LOSE’ on our weekend to-do list. My husband, somehow deceived into believing England are a good side because it hosts the Premier League, couldn’t understand my pessimism. ‘Because they always lose,’ I explained. ‘Even if the other team are crap. But especially if they’re half-good.’

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Against Convenience

It started four years ago, walking the sodden streets of London with a Japanese friend. Forced to wind around an interminable diversion at London Bridge, I moaned to him about the inconvenience of London compared to Tokyo, expecting him to empathise. Instead, he said, “What are you complaining about? A bit of inconvenience is good for you. It makes us human.”

Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what convenience means — what it is, who it’s for, and what it’s doing to us. The definition of convenience is something that saves time and/or energy, but it’s manifested in extremely diverse ways, from ready-meals to sensor-led traffic lights to longer opening hours to lifts to good service and tear-open packaging. Convenience is patently wonderful and liberating.

But it isn’t all good. Convenience saves us from making an effort, or rather, expending mental, social or physical energy, and in doing so, seems to be making us stupider, less empathetic, less patient, more unfit, and fatter. And as most things that save humans energy require energy from somewhere else (an escalator instead of the stairs; a Deliveroo instead of a walk to the supermarket) and more packaging, it’s also doing damage to the environment.

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Back in Japan

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When I walk around the city I feel like all semblance of nature has been scrubbed away and replaced with a simulacra of reality.

Coming back to Tokyo after just six months away after seven years of living here is surreal. Instead of feeling “natsukashii”, recalling all the things I’ve forgotten, it feels weirdly over-familiar, as if I was here yesterday but just have no specific recent memories. Amsterdam and all that has elapsed since I left seems like a dream that occurred at a non-specific point in time. Tokyo, meanwhile, is exactly how I left it, as if just before I hit my head and fell into an amnesiac six-month sleep.

There are some things that I notice now that feel different, however. The fug of thick humidity and the way my body swells in it, making my rings fit again. The bright, bright, white lights and the way maps of restaurants and menus are backlit with a piercing, blinding illumination. Walking the city at 10pm but feeling wired because all the lights are on and my pineal gland is pinging like crazy, sending spurts of adrenaline and cortisol and whatever other hormones do not go the fuck to sleep at night. Continue reading “Back in Japan”

Olympic destructionism

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The stadium is half gone. When I cycled past this morning, the cranes were already pecking at the rubble like vultures, the half-demolished stands hovering forlornly over them. Dust rising from the concrete guts.

They didn’t really need to get rid of it. The stadium itself was perfectly serviceable; the gym beneath, the best-kept secret in Tokyo. It was a relic of the 1960s, and the equipment embodied the training philosophy of the era: straight-forward, unapologetically hardcore. There was no padding on the machines, no TRX, no rodeo saddles for the “core”. No fucking Smith machine. Just rows of squat racks, barbells, kettlebells. It looked like the kind of place Arnie would train. No music: just the clatter of plates and heavy panting. The clientele was an incongruous mix of pensioners and powerlifters with belts and gum-guards. The middle-aged women stretched and did laps of the track, while the wiry older men did squats in their ‘80s-coloured spandex. One once coached me through the clean and jerk when he saw me squatting. There was even a separate room for Olympic lifts with a podium.

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