Thursday, September 29, 2011

"It tolls for thee"

An early morning experiment in writing bad fiction, complete with the most overused and cliche 6-word opener of all time. Trigger warning for violence and suicide.

"It tolls for thee"

It was a dark and stormy noon as the distant bell tower finished its last stroke. He did not know where it was; it could be as far as Downtown or Needham, or perhaps the Mattapan church belt. It did not seem to matter which church it was anymore; after days of frustrating searching, he found that no bells within two miles could possibly play that pounding low song, haunted parody of a melody.

It was a deep sound channel, man, the hemp-soaked young man at the record store drawled to him. Like in the ocean, you know? Four years of “audio engineering” and he never learned to be professional. But the glorified roadie was all too correct. The tiny house at 38 Thorndike, it seemed, was just in the wrong place. Sound from that distant tower bounced off exactly from the wrong roofs and walls, combining at this improbable node and turning his modestly decorated living room into a hellish echo chamber fourteen times a day. On the hour, every hour, seven in the morning to eight at night, came that unearthly ringing. It stayed in his ears constantly, until he could barely tell whether it was real or imagined. Day or night, sun or rain, it was there.

Any sane man would have moved. Brought buyers in at half-past the hour and bought a house a few streets away. It was not that he was not physically strong enough; he was not yet a very old man. But this house was also the house where his wife had been. He was a practical man and did not believe in such things as ghosts, and yet he knew she was there. She was there in his head, in his memories. On at the threshold could he conjure the feeling of her tender lips; only in the cramped bedroom would her lusty smile surface in his brain. No, to leave this house would be to leave her – for the final time.

The ringing in his ears subsides for a moment, and he contemplates going outside for the first time in a week. If he could put her aside for an hour, then perhaps he could clear his head and-

And that that exact moment, the hedonistic thug on the other side of the thin clapboard wall chooses to power on his heavily distorted amplifier. His reaction is measured yet automatic, as if he has been mentally preparing for years. He reaches into an empty drawer and retrieves an ancient revolver. It is surprisingly heavy in his hands. He is unfamiliar with the heft; he has not touched except twice a year to blue the steel. From a yellowed cardboard box in the back of another drawer, he pulls out six small bullets a places them one at a time into their chambers. Click. Spin. Click. Spin. He knows exactly what will happen. In a few minutes, the hooligan will get bored of creating obnoxious screeches, and he will go to the corner store. He will walk down the sidewalk, directly in front of the man’s house. The man practices aiming, firing, turning the gun upwards. He spins the cylinder and stifles a laugh: he’s playing Russian Roulette with bullets in every chamber.

The low tones begin. It is one o’clock.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Allston Depot

Two of the most thought-provoking books I've read are Freakonomics and its sequel. Although they focus mostly on economic ideas, they also explore some unintended effects of public policy. Besides my human appreciation of irony, I find it fascinating to see how one thing can cause a chain of events. As a future engineer, it's important for me to see how one decision I make can have effects down the line.

Over the last century, engineering standards for trains have increased in a similar manner to how those for cars have increased. Just as manufacturers can no longer make Pintos that blow up when they get hit from behind, they can no longer make wooden trams or railroad cars that cannot survive a collision with an automobile. Today's modern light rail vehicles (colloquially, trams and trolleys), for example, are significantly heavier than the PCC streetcars that dominated during the 30s to the 70s. (The PCCs weighed just 35,000 to 42,000 pounds; 70s-era Boeing cars weight 67,000, and modern Type 8 trams weigh 85,000 pounds empty - and 130 passengers can add 20,000 more on top of that.)

Although fuel usage is not an issue for electric trams, weight can still be an issue. Should Green Line cars ever use the Pleasant Street Incline in South Boston again, the flyover ramps would have to be rebuild for the heavier modern cars. It is for this reason that the PCCs are still used on the Ashmont-Mattapan Line: the three bridges on the route would have to be rebuilt from scratch to accommodate the newer trams, and they would not be able to get an exemption to use lighter European trams because the line has grade crossings where a tram could conceivably hit a car. There's also no sense in abandoning reliable old cars when there's still a shortage of new cars.

Engineering standards, particularly crashworthiness standards, also affect mainline rail operations. Speeds are limited on many lines because in order to run above 70 miles an hour though grade crossings, the first car must be a locomotive or unoccupied car. FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) rules require certain steel side beams for operation above 125 mph. These side beams are located right where fold-down stairs go, so the high-speed Acela has no stairs - and can only stop at high-level (4 feet high) platforms.

Heavy modern steel railroad cars also require more energy to slow down, and to speed up, than the light wooden cars of years past. Again, this poses little problem with electric locomotives (or self-propelled electric railcars), but only the Northeast Corridor plus (most of) the New York and all of the Philadelphia commuter lines are electrified. When, like Boston, all of your commuter lines are diesel locomotives hauling 4 to 8 cars, it is impractical to have stops less than about 2 miles apart. Although their are some exceptions (Melrose, Needham, and Dedham have 3 stops within 1.5 linear miles, and West Roxbury has a 4-stop cluster), the trend is for fewer, wider-spaced stops, particularly on the newer lines.

During the nadir of rail travel - from about 1950 to 1980 - many lines were abandoned, or service was reduced to starvation levels. To reduce maintenance costs and to save on fuel, many stations were closed even on active lines. The Worcester-Framingham Line, like others, saw a number of its stations closed, particularly in the inner belt. Stations at University (BU), Allston, Brighton, Faneuil, and Newton were closed, leaving the Allston-Brighton area devoid of good transit options and heavily car-dependent.

The Allston depot was built in 1887 by the Boston & Albany Railroad, replacing the 1868 "Cambridge Crossing" depot. Although it closed at an unknown date, it still stands where Cambridge Street crosses the Mass Pike. It was once Sports Depot restaurant; now it's Regina Pizzeria at the Depot. (It housed a steakhouse even when it was still operational.) I took a walk two weeks back, to explore Allston and to photograph the building. With permission from the manager, I took some shots. It's a fairly large building, and the first two are panoramas I stitched together.

Front view from Cambridge Street

Side view from Franklin Street

Side view from the pedestrian bridge over the tracks and Mass Pike. Note how the former platform area is now an enclosed dining area - a brilliant reuse.

The saga of Allston Depot is not yet over, though. CSX is leaving Beacon Park Yard (the large rail yard between BU and Harvard) and moving those operations to Worcester. This will permit the MBTA to run more trains on the Boston-Framingham segment with less freight interference. Harvard is calling for the establishment of a new stop in Allston, and money talks. If the MBTA can purchase the tracks in that area, then they may well remove or relocate one to make room for a platform. The favored site is under the Cambridge Street bridge - exactly where the stop was first located 143 years ago.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Walking through Somerville and the North End

On last Tuesday evening, I went to a public meeting in Somerville. It took me one trolley, two buses, and a lot of walking to get to Somerville High School. That's an indication of the poor state of public transit in the area (I missed a bus at Lechmere, so my options were waiting 30 minutes for the next bus, or a mile's walk), which I'll touch on more later with the Green Line Extension.

The meeting was about the upcoming Lowering McGrath study, which is a really cool thing. They're going to take an ugly concrete viaduct from the 1950s, which carries Route 28 but divides Somerville, and transform it into an at-grade boulevard. It will facilitate pedestrian and bicycle access and unite the two sides of the city.

The meeting got out just past 8. Rather than take a bus, I decided to walk back to Boston. I wasn't sure I wanted to walk four miles (or more) through the unfamiliar street grid of Cambridge, so I headed for the North End. This route took me along a mile of Route 28, including much of the viaduct. It's a monstrosity, and it wasn't the best walking. The sidewalks - where there were sidewalks - were narrow, unlit, and often flooded.

In Somerville, I passed a building with several arched doorways that I though might have once been a trolley barn. The pictures I took were, sadly, dramatically underexposed. It turns out, though, that it is related to the history of the first elevated railway in Boston, a short-lived monorail. I hope to return soon and take pictures.

My journey took me over the Route 28 bridge under the Green Line's Lechmere viaduct. The viaduct is closed for construction at Science Park, but it still provided a fascinating photographic subject. The viaduct, which turns 100 next June, still contains some original catenary (overhead wire) poles:

Any view west from the bridge is blocked by the Museum of Science, but the hundred-foot arches of the viaduct provide wonderful framing for the Bunker Hill Bridge. (The Spaulding Hospital is on the right side of the bridge.)
I played with saturation on the top image. I love the artistic manipulations that digital photography permits.

From the Charles, I walked east on Nashua Street. My camera was still on night setting when I took this shot of a shuttle bus. It's not the quality I was seeking for Wikipedia, but instead I find a little artistic merit:

From much of the North End, the Bunker Hill bridge is visible above trees and buildings. The Big Dig was in many ways a colossal waste, but I love the bridge. Bridges are frequently beautiful - the same curves that make them strong are often aesthetically pleasing - and this is among the best. It is clean and white, resembling a pair of sailboats more than a freeway.

I walked down Causeway Street, behind North Station and TD Garden. The street was for almost a century covered by the Causeway Street elevated, yet just seven years after its removal few traces remain. Its remains, too, are a future photographic target for me.

At Government Center, after 3.3 miles of wandering, I finally gave in and boarded the T. I hoped to photograph the Brattle Loop, once a busy streetcar turnaround for cars from as far as Medford and Chelsea. Now it's usually empty, with the former platform visible to the thousands who pass through the station despite a wall that hides much of it. However, that night, it was occupied by spare Green Line trams.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gender and Language

Three posts ago, remember how I wrote about feminism, from the perspective of me as a man? Okay, good. Now, two posts ago was about hyperfocus.

That essay about feminism was written in one of my hyperfocus ("Spark") moments. After sitting a few moments awake in bed, I climbed down the latter, booted up my laptop, and typed for twenty solid minutes without stopping for more than a few moments. It was as close to taking material directly from my brain and placing it onto a page as is possible, and the result was quite nice. It's rough and unpolished, but it's a direct statement of what I believe.

I didn't do a lot of editing. That's not necessarily out of pride, though I do have some in the finished work, but mainly because it didn't need very much. True grammatical polishing, in fact, would take away some of the impact. Last post, about precision, applies exactly here. Even when repetitive and sometimes in odd uses and forms, the words in the piece were exactly how I wanted them. I digest, over and over again, media where turns of phrase are perfected to the point of beauty. Firefly, where every line is a quotable sound bite, and Snow Crash, where every sentence is carefully constructed to make the characters a little more awesome, and two personal favorites. That shows in my best writing, where some of my best lines could stand alone.

I made almost no grammatical edits to the piece. I added a short paragraph to the middle, which I mostly composed during the rough draft but didn't type out then. But there was one part I edited over and over, and I am still unsatisfied with. It was the first paragraph, especially the fourth sentence. The final incarnation is "I am a man because that is who I am; I did not choose to be a man." It makes my point: being male, unlike being a feminist, was not a conscious choice I made.

But it's problematic, because so many people do not fit into the gender binary of {{male and masculine}} versus {{female and feminine}}. It fact, even ridding ourselves of the stereotypes of masculine and feminine, the divide between {{male}} and {{female}} is not absolute. I first became aware of this on a prominent internet forum known for its inclusiveness. There are about a dozen openly transgender and genderqueer people on the forum, and I read what they have to say. There are people who start their lives as "normal" males and discover later in life that they feel that they are female, and vice versa. It is customary to refer to such transgender people by the pronouns they prefer, regardless of their appearance or genitalia. Other people are even further from this gender binary. There are people who feel they belong in neither male or female, or in both. Cultures from Native Americans to the Thai recognize the idea of a third sex. And there are countless situations where birth defects and genital anomalies cause a person to be improperly sorted by sex at birth, or make such sorting impossible. There are at least eleven different ways that a person with no conscious feelings outside the gender they grew up as, can in fact be sorted into a different gender, because no marker like external genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, or appearance can sort genders with 100% accuracy. (This also happens to be an argument against heterosexual-only marriage, because when defined by these tests a person's legal gender can differ from the gender they were raised as, and identified with, since birth).

So it's very difficult to pin down wording for that sentence that identifies me as immutably male without unreasonably marginalizing all of these people - which make up perhaps 1% of the population, and a highly invisible percent at that. I am not a male because I was born with a penis rather than a vagina. I am not male because it was on my birth certificate, or because my genotype is XY. I am not male specifically by birth. I am male because that is how I personally identify (and, lucky me, those physical characteristics happen to agree). But English, with its roots as a heavily gendered language, make it hard to express this. Like highways and suburbs designed before walking came back as a form of transportation, the language simply did not evolve with any real capacity for describing gender and sex other than {{male}} and {{female}}. I found it difficult to convey the idea that I am mentally male while avoiding implying that my physical characteristics differ. Precision suffers.

There's workarounds, and I try to use them. For the sentence in my essay, some ambiguity with "because that is who I am" works as a kludge, though not as an elegant solution. But one of the simplest situations is also the most frustrating and complex. If I have a person, who I am referring to in the third person singular, what can I use if "he" or "she" would be incorrect because I do not know their gender, or wish to hide it, or it doesn't fit simply into the binary?

Conventional formal English dictates that I default to "he", a sexist protocol that I find distasteful. Equally ugly is "it", which is at least neutral, but totally dehumanizes the person. "One" only works in rare situations. (S)he is so inelegant and so worthless for fiction that I refuse to consider it as a serious use. Certain workaround pronouns have been proposed, and I've even been known to use "hir" and "xe" at times. They're not pretty, but they're the least evil in a field that includes "thon", "per", "yt", "co", "en", "mer", "hy", "hu", and "e".

But the solution is obvious. "They". It works for multiple third persons of indiscriminate sex; why not for a single? The singular they has a controversial history. Shakespeare made frequent use, and it was more or less standard until grammatical standardization and reforms in the nineteenth century, when the stereotypical British prescriptivists outlawed it, along with other glories like the split infinitive and the ending of sentences with prepositions. With modern equality movements and linguistic changes it is beginning to make a comeback, but it is still considered inappropriate for any serious writing.

I consider this unacceptable. It is a long-used and elegant solution for a thorny problem that only will get more prominent as strict societal enforcement of the gender binary loosens. The singular they, I say, is here to stay!


Metaposting is either the lowest depths of writer's block, or a legitimate way to improve my writing, by thinking about how I write. In either case I'm not too shameless to do so, not even two posts in a row. I personally think that analyzing my writing, and the language that underlies it, I can improve how I write. A style requires a highly subjective mastery of tone, vocabulary, and how to manipulate words to create emotion, and I don't think that can be picked apart with any real positive result.

But good writing also requires precision. Exactness of grammar, wording, and pattern creates the most meaning when it is followed exactly - except when imprecision is necessary to create a style. With this I cannot help but to quote Raymond Chandler, the master of noir. His ability to mix perfect prose with idiosyncratic cant was necessary to his gritty style: "By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." Even in that meta-sentence, he juxtaposes turns of phrase like "convey my compliments" with "God damn it."

My writing is precise to the point where I cannot normally write fiction because I am too exact about it. My style is half the formalized prose of American secondary education and half the mixed-dialect measured neutral tone of the longtime Wikipedia editor - with word pairs and tidbits from all sorts of my readings thrown in. I have a tendency to sound like who I read. When I read Douglas Adams, I find triple-digit-word-count, half-paragraph run-on sentences to be the funniest thing since the banana peel. When I read William Gibson, my prose tightens. I read enough that my voice becomes an amalgam and mostly my own rather than near-plagiarism, but on occasion I find myself with a finely-crafted sentence, only to depressingly realize that I read the sentence last year in Richard Feynman's autobiography. Perhaps reading Ayn Rand (more on that later) is causing me to write 600 and thousand-word posts out of nothing.

This post started as a discussion of transgender issues in language. I began with few words on how my feminism post started as a single flowing document. That became 1100 words about hyperfocusing and the nature of genius. Then this post began as that same post... and with this doubly-meta, self-aware sentence it's pushing 500 words about precision in language. Thinking about the way I write causes me to write. I can only hope next post actually goes where I intend it to go.

Sparks Fly

That last post was created by my creative spark. I get it occasionally; the short (10 minutes to a few hours) burst of extreme focus and higher thinking. It's quite powerful; I've written entire thesis papers in a matter of hours when it gets turned on. My rhetoric develops a maturity that I can't normally conjure up, my prose gets tighter, and I frequently get my very best writing from this spark. Sometimes it's a nonfiction essay, like last post. On a few occasions, I've even written short fiction - and that's the only time I can write decent fiction.

I occasionally get it with other things besides writing. A few times, I have had an insight with a problem in a program I was creating, which led to a fury of work that solved the problem, often in elegant fashion. Similar things occasionally happen with problems or problems with designing a rocket.

(I use the term "spark" here in allusion to Girl Genius, a webcomic I'm very fond of, where The Spark is a state of hyperfocus that certain characters make use of. I'm not as skilled as they, but I recognize the description of the feeling.)

It's almost impossible to control. Thinking about a problem or essay for a length of time can sometimes trigger it; when I need it to make a thesis paper perfect, it may take a week or longer before I get to it. Sometimes it appears when I think on a problem for an hour or so with nothing else to entertain me; it was such boredom that produced my rant on feminism. Sometimes, it's triggered by a single idea: a thought in Marine Science last year about self-replicating nanobots quickly warped into a humorous monologue.

About llamas.

I've made it a point to analyze it when it does appear, which, fortunately, is more often than it used to. Being able to harness it, to call it at will, would be an extraordinarily powerful ability. I could write at my best any time I wanted to. That means thinking as fast as I can type (20-30wpm*) with almost no need to revise**. At my best, I come within spitting distance of 1000 words per hour.

I know that it comes most often at night. I am a loner by nature, and though I have an impressive ability to focus with distractions around, late night when everyone else is sleeping is still my best hour. Even though I am frequently extremely tired, the hyperfocus causes me to ignore sleepiness and hunger as well as less base things like other things that normally crowd my mind. The late-night nature is both a blessing and a curse; while it's saved a number of assignments (and at least one semester paper) at the eleventh hour, it also effectively prevents sleep for as long as it lasts, and more than once I've hit save with the first hints of dawn beginning to grace the eastern sky.

Besides the witching hours, the other contributing factor seems to be stress. As I've noted, on a number of occasions it's appeared when I have an essay due the next day (a habit I'm attempting to get out of for college). Even when it blesses me with a non-academic gift - like the aforementioned monologue, and last night's essay - it's a product of having too much on my mind. Which is not good when, say, I really ought to be working on differential equations instead.

So I'm trying to figure out how to trigger it in ways other than staying up late and procrastinating on my homework. Thinking a lot in the absence of other distractions (like books and the internet) may help, and it's why walking at night is something I'll be doing more. Certain music has an effect; it can't be catchy, but it has to be powerful. Ozzy's raw power distracts; Dio's melodic songs are better for trying to focus. Symphonic death metal - particularly with Norwegian lyrics that I don't listen to because they're not in English - and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's masterful guitar work seems to be best.

One thing that definitely helps is simply being good. I got this spark only a handful of times before 11th grade, when I had Ms. Park. We had our differences at times, but I respect her perhaps more than any other teacher I've had, because she made me develop my style. She gave assignments that didn't require trying to shoehorn myself into a literary style; they required creating arguments and backing them up with evidence. She allowed me my idiosyncrasies within the bounds of reason and focused on shoring up the weak parts of my writing. Very quickly, I was writing much further above my age than I usually had. Now that I can write at a level equal to my ability to think, it is much easier to produce when I do get the spark.

I don't know how it works for other people. Perhaps everyone gets hyperfocussed on occasion, and I'm simply overanalyzing a normal phenomenon. Perhaps I'm just lucky. My suspicion is that it is often correlated with high intelligence plus what are sometimes termed mild autism-spectrum disorders. Anecdotal evidence from a few other people seems to support this idea. I certainly fit the psychological and behavioral patterns for high-functioning Asberger's. Regardsless of the source, though, it is my opinion that true genius requires not only a high degree of skill, but also an ability to summon that hyperfocus almost at will. I can only wish I had that ability.

* I was taught to type in the standard style, but I never took to it. I'm possessed of a pair of abnormally large hands, which make it difficult to fit ten fingers in position on a standard keyboard. I also didn't have the patience to go through the absolutely demeaning exercises required to learn such a method. So, instead, I simply typed with what felt naturally - hunt-and-peck with just my index fingers - whenever my teacher wasn't looking. Since then, I've spent so much time typing that I can type 20 to 30 words per minute - and as high as 45 wpm on typing tests - with just two fingers. My only problem is a tendency to transpose certain two-letter patterns, particularly ng to gn.

** In tenth grade, I turned in a thesis paper that I didn't edit after the first draft. It was half act of juvenile defiance, half refusal to spend time editing something that was already just as perfect as I felt it should be.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I am a Feminist

I am a feminist, and I am a man. I do not see this as a contradiction. I am a man because that is who I am; I did not choose to be a man. I am a feminist because I chose to be a feminist, because I believe in the apparently radical idea that women are people. People, just people, exactly as men are people.

Some people tell me this is a contradiction. They say that a man cannot be a feminist, because feminism is about women, and I am not a woman. Or they say that it is silly to be a feminist, because I am not a woman, and giving women equality will not give me anything. I find this to be ridiculous: should I not believe in the equality of black people because I am not black, or not fight for gay people to marry simply because I am not gay?

I believe that equality is necessary on its own merits, that no person should be denied an equal chance because of something as trivial as because they happen to be female. I do not need to justify its benefit to me, because having a fair society is worth anything I can do. But even the silly arguments make me think. What does feminism bring to me? Can it be justified on a personal level, in addition to a global level? It maybe is not important that it can – but it can absolutely be justified on any level. I am a feminist because I think it is good, but I am also a feminist because it is good for me.

I am a feminist, because when I walk into my job, I will have the very best possible coworkers. They will have been chosen at every level for their ability and creativity, their rationality and brilliance. There will be women there, because maybe they will not have been told at five and ten and fifteen and eighteen and twenty-two that women don’t become engineers, that maybe they should become a nurse of a teacher instead, because that’s what women do. There will be women sitting in the fancy chairs, because we will have purged from our collective memory banks the idea that only men can make decisions.

I am a feminist, because I will have sex with a woman, and I will know that we are having sex because we want to have sex with each other. It will be good sex, because she will have been taught that her body is good and she can enjoy it, and that sex is good and she can enjoy it too. I will not worry that she would rather be having sex with a woman, or with no one, or with someone else entirely – because she will not feel a pressure to ignore her feelings and have sex with a man – and I will know that we are having sex because she happens to want sex. She will not feel shamed by society for having sex, even if she has sex with other people too, or if she gets birth control so that she does not have to have a baby.

I am a feminist, because I will watch movies, and I will watch television, and I will watch strong female characters. Except I will not even think of this, because strong female characters will be so normal I will not notice them, because they will not be an anomaly any more. I will watch these women have jobs and hobbies and talk to each other about things besides men, because that is how women act in real life. 

I am a feminist, because I will hold doors for people. I will not worry about being expected to open doors for women simply because they are women, and I will not worry about insulting a woman’s strength by opening a door for her. I will open doors for people because it is basic human kindness, and I will be able to open doors for all people.

A note: this was originally written about 2:30 in the morning a few nights back. It's an amalgam of several nights of thought. It's written in a bit of an idiosyncratic style, I realize, and I refuse to have it any other way.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Walking Boston

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a smallish neighborhood in a smallish town in a smallish state. My particular subdivision was designed in the late 1950s, when car culture still reigned king. Although the immediate neighborhood is mostly walkable, venturing beyond requires a car. It is impossible to get to the town center by any mode but by vehicle; even to get to the nearer village area would require traveling in the narrow and sometimes absent breakdown lane of a major state road with fifty-five miles per hour traffic. In a town six miles square, there is less than a mile of sidewalk, because most of the faster two-lane roads were upgraded or built, of course, during the Fifties. On the two major roads, there are only two pedestrian crossings, and neither is protected by an adjacent traffic light nor routed onto a dedicated bridge. Even the sole walkable destination from my neighborhood – the junior high school – can only be accessed by crossing a state route less than 50 yards from a blind corner, after crossing (with permission) private property to avoid a section of road with no margin. It’s not a friendly place for alternative modes of transportation.

I like walking, though. If I was the sort to believe in the concept of a soul, I’d say walking is good for said soul. It certainly clears both lungs and brain. But my neighborhood, as mentioned, fits the general description of ‘smallish;’ the longest possible loop barely exceeds a mile. The paths behind my house through the woods are marginally better. Both are also heavily restricted to daytime use. Should I choose to venture outside after dusk, the neighborhood is filled with paranoid folks who would gladly call the police claiming that I’m a burglar (and I’ve gotten strange comments from using a telescope in the privacy of my own yard), and the local skunk population seems to be exhibiting ideal unrestricted exponential growth. In high school, the twin forces of homework and the internet combined their wiles to keep me inside in my easy chair.
Just as I was about to become permanently sedentary, along came college. Instead of a cowtown in Connecticut, I now find myself in Boston, Massachusetts. The BU campus is hardly a campus at all – just one and two rows of buildings lining Commonwealth Avenue (henceforth Comm Ave) and parts of Beacon Street. But I don’t find myself missing the insular grassy feel of similar institutions like Harvard and Northeastern. I like the urban experience, with crowds of students, cars, taxis, buses, and trams sharing the street. I’m now in a city where the locals were strolling around three centuries before Henry Ford.

With the exception of the interstate highways and a few other expressways, every road in the area has sidewalks. Some roads, like Comm Ave east of Kenmore Square, even have the wide, green pedestrian / bicycle dedicated center medians common in Europe (and which I loved in Lima). Boston also has its own quirks: the walk/don’t walk signals have no correlation on whether it’s actually safe to cross, and enough people crossing can bring traffic to a halt even on a green light. I started by just walking to campus events and classes, and I had no plans to walk any further than necessary. But then, on my first day of classes, I found myself done with classes by 12:30, with almost no homework. My realization then has shaped much of my activities since: the realization that I could walk anywhere I wanted, as far as I wanted, almost anytime I wanted. I can find myself in busy Kenmore square in just minutes from leaving my room. Twenty minutes will get me to the middle of the Charles (on Harvard Bridge), or to the peace of the Back Bay Fens.

College gives me a lot of stress, and this freedom to clear my mind and stretch my legs is my saving grace. I am a loner by nature; though I can enjoy social company, sometimes I just need to be alone. Normally such solitary escapism is nearly impossible in a city, but ironically I often find it in the middle of crowds. I can stroll up Mass Ave through Central Square in Cambridge and feel free and easy even with hundreds passing me by.
A few days ago, I found myself leaving West Campus at perhaps eleven at night. I turned right at the BU Bridge and wandered into Brookline, where I don’t know the street grid. A few blocks down the street, I realized that I was in a traditionally “bad” situation: alone in a city at night, on a dark and empty street, not entirely sure of my route, and without a single other sole knowing where I was. Yet, I did not feel the least unsafe. I feared no muggers appearing from behind the oak trees. Instead, I felt very much alive. After half an hour exploring Brookline, I reached familiar streets and made my way back to my dorm. I came back feeling very refreshed.

As much as it is a very modern city, Boston is also full of history. Some of it – Fenway Park and Faneuil Hall, Boston Common to Beacon Hill – is obvious to even the most inattentive onlooker. But much of it is gone or in ruins – and one must search for the ruins. My nerdy obsession is the T (the public transit system) and its predecessors the Boston Electric Railway (BERy), Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway, and the M.T.A. (of Kingston Trio fame), and the city and its suburbs are full of remains just beyond the public consciousness. I make it my business to seek out and photograph these bits – like the concrete wall just east of Kenmore, which was once a busy streetcar portal. Until I have more literary remarks to make later in the semester, much of my blogging will focus on these ruins of the T.
But beyond the trains, there is much for me to walk for. It’s grand exercise – and now that I find myself walking four to six miles a day, I have the inclination to eat four full meals a day. I’m learning the geography and shape of the city from my excursions. But one that pulls me often is the mystery.

As an example, take this stone house. It’s not out of character for the city – except that it’s located in Charlesgate, surrounded by entrance ramps for Storrow Drive and Mass Ave. Why is it there? Is it a fancy maintenance building, or an older construction that never got torn down? I may never find out – but merely knowing the existence of the mystery is a satisfying result. For that, I will be walking Boston.