Friday, July 30, 2004

I like paper. Part of this, of course, is because I love to read, but there's also the smell and the heft and the texture of it. Flipping through a book can be a wonderful experience even without the words on the pages, just because of the feel of paper on finger tips. Books smell good, too, whether they're new or old. So sometimes I flip through a book even if I don't feel like reading it, just for the feel of flipping through the book.

In a brief break this afternoon to rest my eyes from the monitor and let the world regain non-pixelated edges, I flipped through Desolation Island, the next of the Patrick O'Brian books in my queue (The Mauritius Command was fun, by the way). I wasn't paying a great deal of attention to the words, though I sometimes paused to sample a sentence. But an indented passage of text caught my eye, and I stopped to read

Before my bed, clear moonlight
Frost on the floor?
Raising head, I gaze at the moon
Bowing head, I think of my own country.

Winnie taught me that poem last weekend! At least, she tried to teach me; I remember how to say the first two lines in Cantonese, but when I was practicing I mistakenly said chicken head instead of raising head, and promptly forgot everything from there on. I laughed at the coincidence, and that broke the sour mood that I hadn't even realized I'd fallen into.

This morning, like so many other summer mornings, the sky over Berkeley was overcast. But the clouds broke in the afternoon to let the sun through, and so I extended my break to take a walk. I went to the office to pick up a book, then wandered through downtown Berkeley to Safeway to buy fruit. Jazz music, the smell of cheese, and a queue of customers wound their respective way out of Cheeseboard Pizza as I passed, and the smell of coffee and the sound of espresso machines wafted out of the cafes. I passed a seeing-eye dog leading a blind woman and a woman walking a blind dog with eyes clouded by cataracts. I heard conversations in Spanish and Mandarin and English, and perhaps in Russian and Greek as well. As I made my way home, the sound of the BART train passing through the tunnel mingled with traffic noise and shouts from a soccer game in the park. And I walked and looked and listened, and hummed Walking in Memphis under my breath, and was pleased with the world.

Cities and neighborhoods have personalities. Getting to know a place is a little like getting to know a person. There are first impressions, sometimes right and sometimes wrong; there are things the city shares with one person but not with another; there are shades and shifts and changes over time, and there are things that stay pretty much the same. And we get to like a place, or dislike it, or live with it happily, or ignore it, or treat it nobly or ignobly in many of the same ways we treat other people.

So I wandered, and I let my mind wander. I thought about how alien Berkeley felt when I first came, how it became more familiar over time, how it changed as friends arrived and left. When I stopped at the office to pick up one of my books on eigensolvers, I read an e-mail from a professor at College Park, who I hadn't heard from since I took his course on ODE theory as an undergrad; and so I was thinking about Maryland, too. The squirrels will be out in force on campus at this time of year, sporting around the end of McKeldin Mall like a particularly playful invading army. It's probably hot and humid, perhaps with a smell of rain in the air, quiet as campuses always are in the summer.

And then I came back and sat down and discovered that I didn't feel like returning to my strivings with Matlab. I picked up a fountain pen and thought for a moment about writing a letter; but after playing with it for a moment, much in the same spirit as I flipped through the book earlier in the afternoon, I put the pen down. I wasn't sure who I would write to. So here I write, and, it would seem, here you read.

And now I'm going to have some bread and water (a wonderful combination given an undeserved reputation by association with solitary confinement), and do some more work.