Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, June 26, 2017

This City Was Made for Walking: The Higashi-Yokobori River

Osaka is flat and I mean FLAT.  It's great for walking or bike riding.  As I mentioned in an earlier post it's hard to get lost if you know more or less where the canals and rivers are.
This morning I set out early and followed the Higashi-Yokobori River all the way up to Nakanoshima Park where the Okawa River meets the Tosabori and Dojima Rivers (no. 9).  As you can see from the map the waterways in central Osaka form a square.  Once upon a time there were smaller canals within the square and merchants could move their products around or out of the city.  I read that most of the canals were gone by the late 1960s but there are still many small businesses and warehouses in this area though goods are now moved by truck.

The Higashi-Yokobori River route must have really been something in its day.  Every few blocks there are small bridges - some of them quite beautiful.  Alas, someone decided years ago that this was the perfect place to put an elevated freeway.  What was a nice tree-covered promenade along the canal has been closed off to the public and is untended along long stretches.  What a darn shame. The city has projects for improving it (Aqua Metropolis Osaka) but I think the freeway isn't going anywhere unless nature intervenes.  I sure wouldn't like to be anywhere near it during an earthquake.   Remember Kobe?

Here are a few pictures from this morning.  There is a happy ending to the walk - another beautiful rose garden.

The pylons for the freeway are sunk into the middle of the canal

One of the many small bridges over the canal

An old house surrounded by apartment buildings
More pylons and still water

And finally here is where the canal meets the rivers.
And here is the happy ending - the rose gardens at Nakanoshima Park

But the freeway continues....

Friday, June 23, 2017


After I published yesterday's post I received an email from a reader who expressed surprise that weightlifting was my preferred sport.  But it is, my dear Flophouse readers.  No lie.  I love the weights.

Now I agree that watching weightlifting (or American football) is about as interesting as watching paint dry.  But lifting itself is a sport that is not only extremely gratifying; it's an excellent way to counteract some of the worst side effects of my cancer treatment.

I first learned about lifting in France,  Yes, the land of wine drinkers and cheese lovers is also one that is very sportif.  For one of the best shows in town, I invite you to go stand somewhere near the Eiffel tower in the morning and watch the local fireman out for a run.  A not-to-be-missed sight for tourists and residents alike. Furthermore, my French spouse has been lifting for years, is an avid Crossfitter, and recently did the Spartan Race in Tokyo.  He had a very good score but I still winced when I saw all the bruises.

I started lifting about 7 years ago.  About the time I stopped drinking and before I was diagnosed with cancer.  I began with a Jane Fonda tape and what  you might call the "baby bells" - small dumbbells ranging from 1 - 6 kilos.  Consistency meant that I outgrew the small weights and went looking for something a little harder and I found Stumptuous, a site run by a Canadian woman lifter with advice, encouragement and challenging routines.  That was my entry into the world of Ladies who Lift which is still a tough one because sterotypes abound.  As Mistress Krista writes, "You see, dear milennial babies, there was a dark and silly time when old men in suits decreed that girlpeople could not lift heavy things at the Olympics, because lo, their uteruses would explode and all males present would spontaneously be emasculated."

That attitude is alive and well and it goes something like this: "don't lift heavy weights because you might get muscles and that's so unattractive in a woman.  The phenomenon appears to be cross-cultural; a Japanese Crossfit coach I know sometimes despairs of ever getting Japanese women into the gym because they would rather be skinny as opposed to having the beautiful muscles of a ballet dancer.  Something that is entirely within their reach, mind you, but they prefer to believe that dancers look the way they do because they eat nothing but lettuce morning, noon and night.  Right.

But forget the dancers and have a look at these lady lifters.  They are amazing.

I still enjoy Stumptous but I found my joy with The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess by Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsythe, and Alwyn Cosgrove.  The one bit of advice I read there that has stayed with me?  Women almost always underestimate how much weight they can safely lift.  Always go a little bit heavier than you think you can manage because, chances are, you will be pleasantly surprised.  There is a lesson in there for women and life in general and I'll let you consider the connection for yourself.

So I moved from baby bells to bigger and bigger dumbbells and finally, with Crossfit, into the world of Olympic lifting:  squats, deadlifts and so on.  My front squat still sucks but I now have a bar and weights at home so I can work on it.

Why do I like it so much?  Well, I can lift just about anywhere - at home or in a box.  Crossfit, by the way, is often criticized but one thing they do very well in the boxes I've been to in Belgium, the US and Japan is welcome women without any condescending crap.  Asshattery is not permitted in a well-run box.

Another reason is that the results are very pleasing regardless of where you start. Age is certainly no impediment.  In Seattle there was a 75 year old man and women of all ages and fitness levels in the box and, damn, was I impressed.  They could lift far more than I and with better form.  I've been thin for most of my life but I can't say that I was fit or that I am at the peak of personal fitness now.

What I can say is that around 40 beating my body into submission with a starvation level diet and cigarettes just didn't work anymore.  I was writing checks my body could no longer cash.  I was starting to get things like flabby skin under the arms.  I like that I have muscle tone in my arms and legs.  I look good in a pair of jeans (all those squats and lunges).  At 52 I can wear shorts and show off my long legs and tattoos. :-)  I can lift heavy boxes off the floor and head home from the supermarket with big bags of groceries in hand.  I can run up stairs in the metro.  I can walk for miles without getting tired.  I just feel good when I lift.  It's a huge confidence-builder to know that you are strong and not just skinny.

Most importantly, I can EAT.  You don't build muscles with lettuce and water.  You need a balanced diet with lots of protein.  Your actual bodyweight is not terribly significant so to hell with the scale. As Schuler and Cosgrove say, "The scale doesn't know what you looke like, much less how strong you are or how good you feel.  It's just number detached from context." As for this notion that you have to be fanatical about food, you learn when practicing any sport that food is primarily fuel and the effects of poor eating habits have immediate consequences;  I feel weaker when I lift after a few days of fast food or baked goods.  And the cherry on the cake I will regret eating?  I have osteoporosis and lifting and running/walking are perfect ways to combat it. Lifting is, in my case, oncologist approved.

So there you have it.  I really recommend it as a sport.  Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove just published a new lifting book for women called Strong.  I'm at Phase 1, Stage 2 in the routine and I love it. There are planks, Romanian deadlifts, goblet squats and lots of push-ups and inverted rows. It's a huge kick to watch your progress from week to week as you add plates to the bar.

As you can tell I'm pretty happy and motivated to be a lifter.  If you have liked what you have read so far but you are still on the fence about exercise in general and lifting in particular, just listen to Mistress Krista:

"Lifting weights is not rocket science. Find a heavy thing and pick it up. Put it down. Pick it up again. Rest a while. Pick it up and put it down again. Next week, try a heavier thing. Occasionally, pick up your right foot and put it in front of your left foot. Repeat with other side. Perform this alternating motion for 20 minutes a few times weekly."

"Look, honey, you only get one container. And you get what mom and dad gave you. You can make it the best possible container it can be, and love it for what it is, or you can waste your life pissing and moaning about something that isn’t possible. Control what you can control, change what you can change, and forget about all the other stuff. Celebrate health and living free of pain. Stop obsessing about BEING and LOOKING, and start DOING."

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Brexit Podcasts

My reading about current events is sporadic.  Some days I do a full pass of the newspapers and websites and some days I'd much rather dedicate the day's reading entirely to actual books with bibliographies.  Think of it as carbohydrates versus protein - an analogy that may not speak to you but makes sense in the context of my favorite sport:  weightlifting.

One topic that I do try to stay on top of is Brexit which hits so many of the themes I like to think about:  migration, citizenship, borders, integration, and disintegration.  It was also a topic mentioned by British participants in my study of Anglophones in Japan.

However, I would go blind if I tried to read all the words on the screen that have been published on the Internet and since the story is still unfolding I mistrust the books that are available.  Too soon for a deep, intelligent analysis of even why they voted to leave.  As for where Brexit is going all we have is speculation.

So I've turned to podcasts.  I like the sense of being privy to a discussion without having any obligation to contribute to it.  And they tend to be longer than an article (15 to 30 minutes) but still short enough that the contributors have to make their points clearly and succinctly.

The one I've been following for a few weeks now is The Guardian's Brexit Means....  The most recent discussion (June 19) is organized around the question:  What can we expect as the Article 50 talks begin?  At about 7:30 they touch on citizen's right and the rights of non-EU spouses. (Note that there is another, earlier podcast entirely devoted to EU citizens' rights.)  At 12:52 they talk about the Irish border.

Another that I've started following only recently because it is very new is BBC Radio 5's Brexitcast.  Their first offering is very similar to the latest one from The Guardian so you get two discussions from a UK perspective on the same topic.  Theirs is called Brexit Begins.

And this morning I found the Inside Politics podcasts on Brexit from The Irish Times.  Ireland definitely has a dog in this fight because they are in the EU and they have a very sensitive border with the UK.  The Irish Times doesn't have a Brexit series but the topic, as you can imagine, comes up often.  The latest is an interview with Fintan O'Toole, an award-winning Irish author/journalist who just received the Orwell prize for journalism.  Hell of an endorsement and I will take the time to read his work. And I call your attention to the DUP 2017 manifesto which O'Toole refers to.  It outlines their approach to Brexit on pages 18-19.  

Here is the O'Toole interview which I recommend highly to you:  Fintan O'Toole on Brexit, English Nationalism and the DUP

And now back to my books.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

From Osaka to Brussels to Canterbury

Public Domain,

"He only is a well-made man who has a good determination.  And the end of culture is not to destroy this, God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.  Our student must have style and determination, and be a master in his own specialty.  But, having this, he must put it behind him.  He must have a catholicity, a power to see with a free and disengaged look every object."

The Conduct of Life by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Doubt is a great impediment to determination.   The mind is not a friendly neighborhood, but a ghetto of pitfalls weighed against possibilities.

I re-entered the academic life in middle-age with a career behind me and a number of uncertain paths ahead.  I had a passion for a subject and I was content for a time just reading and writing about it in this blog. To do more would have meant choosing one path over the others with no guarantee of success.  This was the paralysis of analysis where the mind constantly explores the possibilities and ultimately rejects them all, only to revisit the matter the next day with the same result.

But as I sat still, my world changed around me.  I saw my preferred options narrowing if only for a predetermined period of time.  I began to pay attention to other voices that had been telling me for years that academia and I might be a good fit. So I applied to the school of my choice in the specialty closest to my heart, and to my surprise I was accepted as a student.

Thus began my time as a graduate student at the University of Kent Brussels School of International Studies.  I went to study International Migration but that wasn't the only education I received. I learned, for example, that my unruly mind that lived in the wreckage of the future simply didn't have the capacity to imagine all the possibilities open to me and greatly underestimated my ability to do things I had never done before.  Guided by a friend in Paris, I found a place to live and a flatmate who turned out to be one of the most delightful women I have ever met.  I could pay my rent, cook for myself, explore the city,  Perhaps at this point you are laughing - of course a grown woman can do those things.  But consider this:   at 50 I had never lived on my own.  I missed my family but I gained confidence in my ability to take care of myself.

I also learned that the voices were correct.  I could do the classwork, I could finish the required reading (though sometimes it was a struggle), I could participate in seminar and I could write those papers in the proper form with an argument and sources cited as they should be    A great deal of that success was due to humility.  I hadn't darkened the doors of academia in 30 years and that was in the American system not the British one. When I didn't know what I was doing, I asked and my professors were more than happy to help, particularly my program director, Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels, who was very patient with my never-ending inquiries.  From here are my research questions, are any of them promising? to what citation system should I use?

Less doubt meant more determination.  Nevertheless, I was still very worried about my dissertation. I did my fieldwork in Japan and I started doing the research and setting up the study as soon as I could.  That was another exercise in humility because studies that involve human beings meant understanding research ethics and submitting the study format and questions to an ethics review board.   Graduate students are not simply loosed upon the world to ask questions of anyone, anytime, anywhere. There are rules and there is supervision.  I had no idea.

Last step was writing it up.  14,000 words more or less, a research question, an argument, data I spent weeks reviewing, literature review that places this work within a context of other works and the absolutely necessary but truly dull business of citing sources and compiling a bibliography.  Ever day was filled with anxiety watching the deadline approach and counting down the number of days I had remaining.  I was up at 5 or 6 AM every day and went to bed at 10:00 PM when I was so exhausted that my vision was blurry and everything I wrote was utter crap.  The family was kind and ignored my grumpiness; they took over the household duties and proofread when asked.  I even had a weekly skype with my thesis advisor who finally gently gave me this bit of advice:  "There are perfect dissertations, Victoria, and there are finished dissertations."

I submitted a day before the March 22nd deadline.  Still consumed with doubt I tried to reread what I had already sent and when I found a spelling error on my first pass, I decided that the insanity had to end. I closed my text and let it go. Factum es.

Since the beginning of June I have been waiting to hear if I passed or not:  checking my school email every day.  Last night the verdict appeared in my inbox and it said:  "I am pleased to inform you that you have satisfied the Examiners in the examinations for the above degree at the appropriate standard."  And not only did I pass but with "Distinction" - the highest of the three grade categories (pass and merit are the other two).

So sometime at the end of November I will be in Canterbury Cathedral in Kent for the graduation ceremony.  I never attended the one for my BA so long ago but for my MA?  I wouldn't miss it for the world.  And let's be very clear, an MA doesn't make me a master of my specialty but it has made me a better observer and researcher in all the areas that interest me.  But above all, it represents to me the triumph of determination over doubt.  I honestly did not know if I could do it.  But I did.

With a great deal of help and encouragement.  The acknowledgements in my dissertation take up nearly an entire page.  Some of them may not even remember what they said that made a difference and are oblivious to how much it stayed in my mind until I was ready to act on it.  Thank you for having faith in me.

And now, on to other things.  The gardens awaits.  The job hunt begins.  And we'll see what this middle-aged woman can make of herself now.

A suivre.....

For anyone who is interested, I feel comfortable circulating my dissertation about Anglophones in Japan.  For those of you with more experience with academia, is there a place I can upload it?  Do I have the right to do so or do I have to ask my school?  If not, just send me an email ( and I'll send you a copy with one caveat which is that I would like your thoughts and comments in return.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Bac 2017

Oh yes, it's that time again.

High school students in France are taking their final exams for their "Bac" (le baccalauréat) It is a grueling exercise that is stress for children and their parents. I lived through it twice and I am so glad I am done.   The elder Frenchling passed in 2011 and did so well that she was accepted by McGill University in Montreal.  We were and are so very proud of her.  The younger Frenchling passed in 2013 and also went off to Canada for university. We've been singing O Canada ever since but there are some days I wish we were all back in France playing on the beach in Brittany.

Le Monde has published the subjects for the June 20, 2017 exams for the Bac S, ES and L:  Physics/Chemistry, Economics and Social Sciences and Literature.  Have a look.

Bac 2017 : les sujets de physique-chimie, d’économie (SES) et de littérature

Could I answer these questions?  Not a chance, but perhaps some of you might do better.

The Meandering Path of an Eclectic Reader

I have been chided in the past for the diversity of topics on the Flophouse.  The most vocal critic died recently and I miss him.  He said that he saw potential (always gratifying to hear) and he gave me tips on how to improve this site - advice that I did not take.

My writing comes from experience married to my reading and if I were to restrict myself to one or two topics than I would feel obliged to see my experience through the prism of just a few topics and I would have to devote more of my reading specifically to them.  I suppose I do have some meta-topics in my head - some questions that I am always seeking to answer.  I do maintain two reading lists Citizenship and International Migration and the American Diaspora after all.

But I like having the liberty to discover new books, new authors and new topics, Reading widely means being able to make connections and no genre is out of bounds here.  Yes, I know that there are only so many hours in the day and I do occasionally consult lists of this or that prize-winning novel or non-fiction but I refuse to restrict myself to the opinions of the gatekeepers/critics, nor will I listen too much to those who say that a genre is "trash" and should be avoided lest one's intellectual credentials be forever tarnished.  I prefer to let one book lead me to another; I am an avid reader of bibliographies.

Just for fun today I'll tell you what I've read recently;  what led me to the book, what I thought of it, what I took away from it and where it's taking me next.

Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 by Kyle Harper. I watched a video of a conversation between Bill Maher and Dr. Michael Dyson and I found it so intriguing that I bought and read Dyson's latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.  At the end of that one Dyson had a list of further reading and I went looking for them but I was frustrated because they weren't available on Kindle and hard copies would have to be ordered from the US.  But as I was looking I stumbled on Harper's book about slavery in Rome and thought Why not?  It turned out to be a very good read.

Harper says there is a difference between a slave society and a society with slaves. The late Roman Empire was the former as was, it is argued, slavery in the US.  Harper is also very clear about the paucity of sources from that era and does a thorough job of listing what does exist and its relative merits and demerits.  If you, like me, had the impression that slaves were mostly agricultural workers, think again.  In Roman times, the evidence shows that slaves could be of almost any profession:  doctors, architects, teachers as well as skilled and unskilled labor.  Think on that for a moment.  In another time your skills or knowledge would have simply upped the price for your person in a slave market.

The big question at the end of this book is Why or how did slavery end? and there are theories but no definitive answers.  Having finished that one I then went in two directions:  one toward fiction and the other toward more history.

The Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor.  This is a mystery series set in Republican Rome. The protagonist is a plebeian citizen known as Gordianus the Finder. Rollicking good reads.  It's fiction but Saylor did his research and you learn quite a lot about such things as how the Romans in this era kept time.  It's also a world where slavery is taken for granted and even a poor citizen has a slave or two. Now that one requires quite a leap of imagination because of the cultural and temporal distance. But I think of it in the light of what Raymonde Carroll says about cultural analysis:

"a method of seeing as 'normal' something that I see in people of a different culture that I initially find 'bizarre' or 'strange'. To do this, I must imagine a universe where this act that shocks me is normal, has meaning and may not even be noticed. In other words, it means that I must try to penetrate for a brief moment the cultural imagination of the other."

If indeed the past is a foreign country (as the title of a book on my to-read list suggests) this is not a bad way to approach it. Keeping in mind, of course, that an attempt to understand the past should not lead to its misuse in the present. Slavery is not somehow better because it was practiced in times past by no less than the illustrious Empire of the Romans.  "History is all things to all men.  She is at the service of good and bad causes.  In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most." (The Whig Interpretation of History.)  

Butterfield also said that "all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history" and that led me to...

The History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy.  Some 30 years I was forced to read excerpts from Livy but never the full text. Easier to read than I remembered but the version I selected has a good translator.   The previous books on this list made reference to things I vaguely remembered and it's nice to get the full story of Romulus, Remus and the Wolf.  I am still reading this one and I'm at book two which is also something of a revelation  You can't read it and not reflect on the state of democracies in the world today.  Some things like the disagreements between plebeians and patricians are eerily familiar as is the blood shed in the service of one political cause or another.  It's almost too close for comfort and so from time to time I need a break (a palate cleanser, if you will) and last week I turned to....

The Pheonix Pack series by Suzanne Wright.  An excellent paranormal romance series featuring a pack of wolf shifters.  (Think of what Romulus might have been had he merged with the wolf instead of simply being suckled by it.  It might have made an ever better story , but perhaps that was a bridge too far for the Romans. )   I love the series for its dysfunctional Alpha males and its very strong female protagonists.  It's pure fun - great dialogue, interesting stories, a bit of romance and some truly lurid sex scenes.  There is, in fact, one in the first book of the series which is much admired and widely-known for its eroticism but I'll let you discover it for yourself.  :-)

And there you have it, folks. That's more or less how reading works for me.

 What's next?   Well, there are 20 books on my to-read list today and I will certainly drop some and add others.  But I'm thinking about some of the descriptions of Roman building material, volcanoes and earthquakes and so maybe back to geology with The Planet in a Pebble.   Or I could continue thinking about history and the past with The Past is a Foreign Country -Revisited.  Or I could circle back and try to find a local copy of  The Peculiar Institution (Amazon Japan would have to order it and they say delivery will take 1-3 months).  Or something just might pop up as I read something else that will send me off in yet another direction.  

If you feel inspired, let me know what you're reading.  Maybe you can send me down another path.  I'd be grateful for a signpost or two.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Twilight Express

I was awake at 5 AM this morning thanks to the crows.  One bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios in me and a cuppa coffee in front of me, I am easing into the morning.  Having finished my morning reading, I'm ready to write something that you can peruse over your breakfast.  This one is for my stepfather, the man in my life who has a passion for trains.

The Japan Times reports that the new Twilight Express Mizukaze, a luxury sleeper train that leaves from Osaka, is finally on the track and taking passengers.  "The train accommodates only 34 passengers in 16 rooms. A one-night tour with a room for two costs between ¥250,000 and ¥1.25 million ($225 and $11,300), with suites starting from ¥750,000."

The last time I saw a train this luxurious it was parked in Train World, a train museum in Brussels. Just goes to show you how little I know - luxury trains are not solely a 19th/early 20th century form of elite travel.   This site has a list  of  elegant 21st century train travel possibilities from the Al Andulus in Spain to  the Tsars Gold Trans-Siberian (China, Mongolia, Russia).  Pick one at random and dream a little on a Monday morning.

And then, if you like, you can go to the Twilight Express website and watch their video (a nicely done advertisement). But, personally I much preferred  this bit of reporting from Japanese television (February 2017) which not only takes you on two tours of the interiors of the cars but has reactions and commentary.  You don't need to speak Japanese to share in the appreciation and pleasure.  Enjoy.