Monday, January 03, 2005


Tomorrow, I return to California. The holidays are a grand time to catch up with family, friends, and food -- the three Fs, I might call them, if I didn't already know a different trio of activities by the same label. Besides, while I can call cats felines, I can't recall a synonym for books that starts with F, so the idea of classifying my winter break activities by a letter of the alphabet is... fundamentally and fatally flawed, I fear.

I'm now the proud owner of a t-shirt emblazoned with the words Books. Cats. Life is sweet. The shirt is decorated with a picture of a pile of books and a happy, goofy cat sprawled on top. I think I read twelve books this break, most of them science fiction, and I certainly spent many hours observing the cats. The best combination, of course, involves a book, a cat curled up at my feet, and a mug of something hot. There are three cats around the family home, now. Misty is the oldest of the lot -- he's an old grey tom, big but peaceable, who has been part of the family since I was in high school. Pounce and Jasmine are the other two: both of them were born after I left for graduate school, but I know them from previous visits and from hearing about them and seeing the photos. It's no surprise that I get along best with Misty, who is a more familiar figure, and who is also less skittish than the other two.

Among the authors I've read or skimmed this break between bouts of cat-watching are Alistair Cooke, Garrison Keilor, and Andy Rooney. All three write much as they speak, and I can hear their voices in my head when I read particularly characteristic phrases. It's impressive. Few of us speak in prose, at least not with any regularity. We often speak in a garbled mish-mash of sentence fragments, half-thoughts, stutters, and verbal tics which we would find mortally embarrassing were it set to paper. Fortunately, the ear forgives more readily than the eye does, so we overlook most of our verbal miscues. The remarkable thing about these authors, then, is not so much that they write as they speak; it's that they speak in a prose style that appeals to the ear and the eye alike, without seeming stilted or awkward to either one.

Of course, if I admire an author's words, it doesn't always mean I agree with them. In the opening paragraph of the preface to Word for Word by Andy Rooney (a book I swiped briefly from my mother's shelf), Rooney writes

Writing is difficult. That'w why there's so little of it that's any good. Writing isn't like mathematics where what you've put down is either right or wrong. No writer ever puts down anything on paper that he knows for certain is good or bad.

and later in the preface, he repeats the point:

The English language is more complex than calculus, because numbers don't have nuances.

Writing is hard. But numbers certainly have nuances, and mathematicians are as capable as anyone else of writing statements which are right, but are poorly-argued and not very useful; or superficially wrong but good, and fundamentally right underneath; or are otherwise gloriously mixed-up counterexamples to the premise that a mathematical result is right or wrong with no further subtleties. So when I read that, I hemmed and I hawed -- and realized I was getting worked up talking to myself about a nit. This is, I think, a good sign that it's time for me to return to my normal routine.

In particular, it's time for me to go back to my normal work routine. I haven't left aside all computing, of course: I've scribbled recurrences all over the card I'm using as a bookmark, I've read with gusto pieces of the optimization book I got for Christmas, and I've penned a long letter in what my friend who will receive it has dubbed the problem of the month series. It has all been unfocused play; and if I've done none of the work I'd hopefully scheduled for completion while at home, I'll probably finish more in the long run because I've had the time to play. Still: it's a new year. Time to be at it.