May 25, 2007

From Past to Future

Category: Academic,Tech — Biella @ 7:15 am

In the last two weeks, life has been jam packed, full of movement and travel and a bit of sensory overload. I went to San Francisco to visit friends from the past but also took a trip to NYC to help set things up for the future. Logistically, it certainly was not enjoyable to travel from Edmonton to SF to NYC and back to SF before heading back to Edmonton, which was only made worse by the fact that I was sick flying back from NYC to SF. But taken from an aesthetic point of view, there was something that made sense about going back and forth between cities that in reality connect my past with my future. For it was my time in SF when I did my research that more or less made possible my future life in NYC.

I had not been back to SF since I had left in the summer of 2003. My mom’s illness kept me away from the west, pulled instead toward the east. In fact, right before I left SF was also the time when my mother’s condition took a turn for the worse and I started to travel only for work or to visit my mom PR (or Debconf, which is, well, somewhere in between work and play). Because of my relatively long absence and the many memories of the area, my return hit vividly. You may leave a place, but when you return you are reminded of how much a place always leaves some imprint in your body and soul, which resurface upon your return.

Feelings and memories of the past flickered to consciousness when my eyes first absorbed the stunningly beautiful (but also vulnerable) geography of the Bay Area: the pale blue sky, the colorful bridges and houses, the ridiculously steep hills, the wispy and thick fog. San Francisco is a city, it seems to me, that has made a Faustian pact with nature. Nature and the geography have not been completely conquered. They seep right into the man-made environment, which is why it is so beautiful here. But it comes at a price measured in ways small and large. Daily battle with the hills is a small reminder and the larger reminders come in the form of terrifying earthquakes.

It was really great to see many friends, many of whom I have stayed in constant touch with on IRC, but of course, from time to time, a little flesh and blood goes a lot further than the bits and bytes. While SF does not have a high retention rate (apparently 30% of the population changes every 2 years), many of my techie friends have faithfully remained and other techie friends have since made their way to Bay Area.

As much as I find this city amazing, I was reminded of how much I find San Francisco’s weather completely objectionable, disliking it even more than the cold Canadian north (really).The damp cold and constant wind are impossible to escape, only made worse by lousy indoor heating like the “cozy” heater I already blogged about (and apparently, this is how you can fix it).

I am staying in the outer Mission district, which is where I lived for a while, and I do love the slightly warmer temperatures, flatness of the streets, and very colorful murals. While Valencia street has moved up a few notches on the gentrification scale, it does not seem out of control. And of course, the city is brimming with a particular mixture of youth and tech. In the many coffee shops, youthful faces are illuminated by Shiny New Laptops and it seems like at least every third person you meet works in the technology industry.

I had not planned on heading out to the east coast but since I was given the option of seeing a couple of apartments courtesy of NYU housing, I decided it was well worth my while to make the cross country trip, given that it may be my future home for many years. Spring in NYC is one of its more flattering incarnations for there is a slight touch of nature that drapes the city, a touch that is absent during the height of the summer when the hot concrete jungle overtakes the flowers and trees.

Heading to NYC briefly also reminded me that moving to NYC feels like a really BIG move. And not because the distance between Edmonton and NYC is 3900 KM but because of what it represents. It sort of dawned on me recently that becoming an assistant professor is not unlike the grueling period real doctors go through once they graduate medical school: residency. Even though by the time you start your job, you have been bequeathed with the title of a “doctor,” and are prepared to teach, advise, etc., in reality you are only half-baked and there is more cooking for you to go under. You need to go through a few more years of somewhat intense training to seal the deal and that is what is awaiting me starting this fall.

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