Sunday, December 18, 2011

Why I like Princeton.

I wasn't expecting to.

I came here two years ago, only I showed up to the Institute for Advanced Study. To be honest, I wasn't impressed. Don't get me wrong, the academic records of the people there are staggering, but the place itself was kind of underwhelming. There was usually nobody in the common room, and when there was, they were usually reading quietly. And there were no blackboards! Most of all, the place cleared out by 5:00. Where did everyone go? Surely not to explore Princeton's nightlife.

This time, I showed up to Princeton itself (both the university and IAS are in the town of Princeton; within walking distance of each other on a day with pleasant weather). What a great place! I walked into Fine Hall, was welcomed by my collaborator Takashi Taniguchi, and soon ran into lots of other people I knew. The atmosphere was buzzing, with people talking excitedly about math problems and also about much else. I got to play Arul Shankar at chess (and I lost badly), and I was assured the common room is buzzing at midnight. After being there for a few days, I fully believe it.

I had some specific work in mind, and I've worked on that, but that hasn't been the interesting part. I've taken part in a normal of informal and semi-formal math discussions, and also attended a lecture by Peter Sarnak, which turned out to be two and a half hours long (no break) and staggeringly good. And I haven't even met with Manjul yet.

Beyond that, I even got invited to a graduate student party (I have an old friend from San Francisco here), and the grad students have quite a lively life here. The people were pretty awesome -- clever, energetic, and just downright fun. (And, needless to say, seriously smart.)

This place is awesome.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

First semester in Columbia.

So I'm basically done for the semester, the calculus exams are graded. Tomorrow evening, like the undergrads, I'll leave Columbia for the entire break. To Princeton for a week to meet some collaborators, home for the holidays, then the AMS Joint Meeting, back in time for my first class.

I've meant to blog more. One day I took my camera around, and took a bunch of photos, and was going to write a blog post about "Things I like about Columbia". The obvious -- beautiful residential neighborhoods -- as well as the nonobvious -- a very useful bike/pedestrian shortcut in a town where few walk or bike. But, there is a special gizmo I need to connect my computer to my camera, and I have no idea where it is. It's in some box I haven't unpacked yet.

I've been variously asked if I've gotten "settled", "adjusted", "used to" Columbia. My dean was told, "Yes, thank you," but the truth is no. I haven't unpacked most of my boxes and South Carolina doesn't feel like home. But then again, I don't -- yet! -- want to be settled. For now, after living a few years each in a couple of amazing places, and knowing all sorts of interesting people who came and went, and getting used to constant change, "settled" doesn't seem to describe anything that appeals to me.

So far anyway, I've kept extremely busy. I have a 2-1 teaching load this year, and I requested the 2 up front. So I taught calculus and analytic number theory, both of which kept me busy. There are some things in my department I don't really like -- a lot of students who come in with very weak backgrounds, and a fatalism on the part of the faculty that much can or should be done about it. However, I have much more good than bad to say about USC math. My fellow professors have been unusually kind, consistently offering me suggestions and helpful advice, telling me what they would do but also letting me know when I don't have to follow their advice. Committee work has been kind of a drag, but it's also illuminating, I've gotten to learn a little bit about how universities run.

I've been on the road a lot. Indeed, I think I've spent less than half of the last four months of weekends in town. I've been to four (four!) conferences over weekends and have travelled elsewhere to give talks as well. Montreal especially was tremendous. I also hosted some visitors, which is a blast.

And on top of that, I wrote an NSF grant proposal, finished two papers, etc. The list goes on. Work is very, very good.

Outside work? I've tried and seen a lot. I went to the State Fair (fried Kool-Aid, anybody?), I saw Gamecocks football (I started feeling pity for our opponents), I played in a (weekly!) duplicate bridge tournament (1.9 MP's!), I went ballroom dancing (mostly older people, but they're very nice). All pleasant and enjoyable -- but, unfortunately, all kind of forgettable. Everything I've done so far compares to something else I've done on a bigger scale. The one thing that has been genuinely unique is my yoga studio -- I've been to excellent yoga classes before, but this place has a unique Southern twist to it. It annoyed me at first (c'mon people, bound side angle is not that hard), but it's grown on me, and one day they coaxed a full side crow out of me (which Yoga Tree in SF never did).

Now there is a lot that I know about that I haven't yet explored. I haven't yet been to the UU congregation in my neighborhood, nor the Buddhist meditation circle which meets on Wednesdays. I've been to Art Bar a couple times, but it seems to be home to the local counterculture and I haven't fully explored it yet. There is also apparently an excellent karate teacher in town, and I have badly missed the martial arts.

So in the new year I hope to have it both ways. I hope to keep up the serious math -- which has been a huge solace this fall, as I have left behind so much that I love. But I'll be looking for some serious distractions, in whatever form (people, activities, organizations, ...) -- the kind that grab on your heart and wrench, hard. ;)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The adventures of a Columbia pedestrian.

Columbia is a beautiful town to walk in. It is full of old Southern houses, friendly pedestrian districts, trees all over the place... and of course there is the beautiful State House in the center of town with all of the interesting monuments around. It looks a bit sad and forlorn, like a relic from a defeated and subjugated culture. And then the Confederate flag, still flying high, reminds you that it is.

I ended up living in Shandon, the residental neighborhood just east of campus, and so about a mile and a half from the statue of Senator Strom. I walk to work each day, covering a mile in about twenty minutes. Sometimes I'll go to Cool Beans (a coffee shop) or the Nickelodeon (an indie theater) afterwards, or stop by restaurants or a yoga studio which are directly on my way home. All on foot.

Now there's an amusing twist to this story. I thought I would save money by not renewing my California car registration (expired a week after I got here), but when I got here and went to the local DMV, my paperwork was not in order and so I have to wait a month while paperwork makes it through the mail. Until then, my car is parked outside and I can't legally drive it.

Some people would be really annoyed, and I seem to be surprising people with my Zen-like attitude to it all. Groceries two thirds of a mile away? Show up with a large backpack. (This earned me a visit from the security guard at Food Lion, and admiration from the cashier at Earth Fare.)

The drivers seem oblivious, and I have had a couple moderately close calls with careless drivers. I'm also a little bit annoyed with pedestrians who always wait for cars (no, you get to go first) and with businesses who put sprinklers out and drench the sidewalks. But nothing serious.

It's created some interesting etiquette situations too. I showed up to my yoga studio, which is in the middle of a busy neighborhood, is exactly between work and home, and where there is even a pedestrian shortcut across a rail line. I'll keep walking there even once I have my car. To my very pleasant surprise, I got invited out to dinner a mile away, and I so I happily showed up 20 minutes later, carrying my gym bag as well as my briefcase from work. I didn't see the issue, but when I mentioned I'd walked, my companions fell over themselves to apologize to me, and told me they'd worried.

I hate to cause concern, but really, I'm fine. This is a beautiful city, and walking around here is quite lovely. You might try it sometime.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Postcard from Columbia!

Wednesday, August 10, 8:45 a.m. I had slept poorly the previous morning, in a cheap motel two miles outside of downtown. Today was the first day of faculty orientation, and the first day I'd had to set my alarm for quite some time. That said, it was showtime, and I had shown up to the top floor of the business school.

"Hello, welcome! Can I have your last name please?" A perky, cheerful woman greeted me as I walked in. Simultaneously, I noticed an array of name tags in alphabetical order that had been laid out on the table, and picked mine out. "Thorne," I told her, pointing to my name tag.

She smiled, but a bit awkwardly. It seemed she was there that morning was to help people find their name tags.

I then turned my attention to the room. I had arrived fifteen minutes early, not counting "Coffee: 8:30-9:00", and yet I seemed to be nearly the last one there. Everyone was quite chipper, and in a dress shirt and slacks I felt distinctly underdressed: at least half of the men were wearing suits.

Welcome to Columbia! I have just arrived from San Francisco, where nobody gets up before 9:00 if they can help it, where the same shirts made me overdressed, and where if your friend is flying into town, you give them your address so they can find the place on their own. This place is really different.

Columbia is beautiful. It has a distinct, understated Southern charm, especially on the USC campus and in the residential neighborhoods around. The state house is a half mile to the northwest, and beyond that the historic Main Street. Main Street is beautiful, and is emerging as the hip new place to live, but I learned that "up-and-coming" means "not there yet" when I walked the entire length of it on a hot Sunday afternoon, attempting in vain to buy something cold to drink.

The people are really quite friendly. As I mentioned before, people are often eager to help me do things that I am used to doing without any help. Some of them don't really seem to be very expert. (The librarian in the math library, for example, was very obviously fresh blood.) But the kindness is genuine.

I have been advised to lower my standards, and this has been discouraging. For example, I checked out a yoga studio, and told the instructor I'd been taking classes in San Francisco, and she cautioned me not to expect too much. Actually, she was quite knowledgeable, and the class was technically excellent, but she didn't push us hard. I barely broke a sweat. Similarly, I have been warned that the undergraduate students are poor, compared to Wisconsin (let alone Stanford).

That said, one happy exception is my department chair. USC is looking to hire this year, and I mentioned that "The market is really bad this year, you'll be able to hire someone really great." He replied, "We'd be able to hire someone really great anyway." I like this guy.

I've found a lovely apartment, with a cool seventies vibe to it. Currently I have no furniture whatsoever, but my furniture from SF arrives this week, and I've also got some stuff I ordered arriving. I'll be getting my bicycle, which will prove useful thanks to a misadventure (ahem!) I had at the DMV. I've made friends (and already been invited out), and classes start this Friday.

I won't lie, it's a bit difficult, because I never wanted to leave the fast pace of San Francisco. But I have little idea of what my life might look like in a couple of years, which automatically makes the present the biggest adventure of my life.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Packing boxes. Humility and mortality.

In a little under three weeks I'm moving to Columbia, South Carolina.

I'm not being too organized about my move. Many people have advised me to take an apartment-hunting trip out there and look at places beforehand. I ignored their advice. Some people in similar situations have moved to their new job already. I'll be showing up around two weeks before the start of classes, which is cutting it a little tight.

But not absurdly so. Especially since I'm starting to prepare for my teaching now, I've been researching apartments on the internet, and I have an appointment with a moving service on Thursday. I'm thinking about road-tripping it, and I got the Lonely Planet USA and am working out which national parks I want to visit along the way.

In some ways I've been thinking about my move for a very long time. I fell in love with San Francisco straightaway, and it's always been on my mind that I would only have a couple of short years before I said farewell to the people and places I care about.

But, for the first time, I am thinking about my move in practical terms. Looking for apartments, for example, was a bit odd. Rents are cheap, and the most attractive neighborhoods in Columbia are all close to the campus, so I can get whatever I want. But as I browsed Craigslist I realized that I have multiple, incompatible notions of what I want. Still, it is my privilege to decide.

I also dug out some of my boxes, and began to triage what I want to keep and what I'm happy to throw away. There's always something sad about this. A couple of my boxes haven't been opened since I packed them in Madison. I looked inside, figuring that surely I'd throw them away, and I threw away some of the contents, but not all. There were notes I took in graduate classes, printouts of draft books not available elsewhere, and so on. They seemed worth saving. For when, I don't know, but I saved them.

There was more. Under my bed was my electronic keyboard, gathering dust. I dug it out and found the power cord (a decidedly nontrivial task). It turns out that I more or less remember Bach's Invention #4.

I also found some karate uniforms, belts, books, and weapons. I haven't practiced karate in the last three years, a fact which brings me at least a little shame. Karate was so important to me for so long, and out here I just stopped doing it. For good reason -- it is very difficult to change dojos, and so I decided to wait until I settled somewhere more permanently to pick it up again, and I may indeed practice again in Columbia. But for now my gi was gathering dust.

And so on. Perhaps after I move, I will take piano lessons (which I have never actually done!) and join a dojo. But then my guitar and yoga mat will gather dust instead. There is no avoiding the dust.

And indeed, to dust I will return too. Packing has reminded me that I am growing older, and that while I can do anything, I can't do everything. I sort of always felt in the back of my mind that in the long run I could do everything.

I am going to die. A sad fact, but the Buddhists teach that it's joyous as well. I can't do a damn thing about it (other than, perhaps, lay off the Diet Coke), and it will not be any less true if I ignore it. It frees me to be bold, to take risks, and to accept each moment as it is.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The stress of moving.

Beautiful weather today. Working from home. Decided to go for a midafternoon run, which I haven't done in awhile. The run was nice, and then when I went to the subway stop to go home, I saw a couple things I hadn't seen in awhile. In the first place, the subway stop itself -- it has been a month or two since I've ridden. But also, a colorful schedule for the Castro Theatre, as well as an ad for a local dance company. A happy reminder that San Francisco is still new, that I haven't done everything and can't do everything.

This summer I'm moving to Columbia, South Carolina. I'm really excited about my job, but confess that I will find it difficult to leave San Francisco. After my run, I recalled a conversation with my sister and her fiance about the stress of moving.

"Yeah, it is really difficult," they told me. (They had moved from Chicago to Boston a couple of years back.) "You don't even know where to buy groceries!" But somehow the conversation failed to comfort me.

I thought more about why moving is stressful, and the interesting thing is that for me, not knowing where to buy groceries actually mitigates the stress. The first time in any grocery store is an adventure. You don't know what's there, and you don't know what to buy. You are forced to engage your senses. But now that I've been to my local Trader Joe's forty times, I typically tune out mentally and just buy all the same stuff I bought last time.

The stress for me is having few friends, few connections to the community, and few things to do on a Friday night. (This has happened every time I've moved.) It's interesting comparing my experience to my sister's. I feel there's something I can learn from it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A memory from Japan. Not knowing is most intimate.

Today, while visiting a Japanese-style hot spring bath, I recalled a story from Japan. A little bit of regret, but still a good memory.

I used to live in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, and I made a habit of visiting as many onsens (hot springs), Shinto shrines, and Buddhist temples. I loved the Buddhist temples in particular -- the experience of visiting felt profound to me -- a meeting of spirituality, history, mystery, and adventure. These spots had been on the map, and attracted pilgrims, for hundreds of years, and I was adding my name to the long list of people who had gone before me.

Arguably the most famous sacred spot is Mount Koya. It's the home of Shingon Buddhism, of which I could say much more, but for now let me just say that it was a breathtaking place. Around May of 2000 I made arrangements to visit. I invited my friend Dave Walter, who was less into temples than I was, but was often good for a weekend's excursion. I invited him on trips to temples, and he invited me to parties, and between this we managed to stave off boredom.

Anyway, we got to the monasteries, and I was looking forward to a quiet, contemplative experience -- and Dave annoyed me by chatting up all the foreigners he saw -- and especially all the attractive women -- thereby disturbing my silence and contemplation. But, in true Buddhist fashion, I went with the flow, and it indeed turned out that this experience was much greater than the one I had planned. Several of the foreigners were cracking sarcastic jokes the whole time, but several of them were as moved and as serious as I was. And it was with them that I visited the oku-no-in, the inner sanctuary.

I could not possibly do justice to this place in this blog post, so let me say that it was the most breathtaking place I have ever visited, and move on with the story. The rest of the story is simple, and familiar. The group split up, we went back to the temple where we were staying, and Dave went back to his room to do whatever. But I stayed talking with one of the women; she told me about all of the sacred spots she had been to, and those she intended to visit. She was deep, adventurous, and unafraid. And she was equally interested in what I had to say.

Eventually curfew came (we were staying in Buddhist temples, and were to be woken early in the morning), and we traded contact information and promised to keep in touch. She worked as an English teacher somewhere in eastern Japan, far away. I took the paper with her e-mail address and saved it.

And didn't do anything. Neither of us contacted the other again.

The regret is obvious. I wish I'd called her up and asked if I could visit. What would have happened? I have no idea -- which is precisely why I should have gone.

It's a very forgivable mistake. She lived damn far away. (Tochigi, I want to say, but I could be wrong.) I've forgotten her name. Maybe that piece of paper is still with the stuff I saved from Japan, in my parents' attic. Probably not, but it could be.

Today, for better or worse, this wouldn't have happened. We have Facebook, and I friend more people than I actually keep in touch with. It is kind of funny how this drains some of the mystery out of life. I wonder what that girl I had a huge crush on in in high school is up to nowadays -- ? Well, I just checked Facebook, and she was exasperated because her daughter refused to participate in her YMCA soccer practice. (That said, she is also an oncologist.)

But, this one woman -- since I don't remember her name, I can't look her up. Perhaps she is volunteering in Africa; perhaps she is an entrepreneur; perhaps she lives some humdrum life in some suburb somewhere. I don't know.

Not knowing is most intimate. Such was the subject of a Zen koan workshop I went to, and it is true. I could have been brave and hopped on the train to visit this mystery woman eleven years ago. But I at least had the nerve to hold my chin up high and talk to her for an evening way back then. And the more I think back to the past, the more I recall oddball moments like these, that I didn't seek out or expect -- the more I have hope for the future and appreciation for now.