Last weekend I received an email from my past. A couple whom my wife and I had known well at university some 35 years ago had found our email address through a Google search and contacted us. It was great to be back in touch with them and I immediately sat down to write a reply summarising the last 35 years in a few well-chosen words.
What defines me? My job? My hobbies? My children? My friends? My location?
It seems depressing that I should be identified by my job although many people, when met at a party and asked what they do, immediately respond with their job: “I’m a teacher/accountant/engineer/….” or, worst of all, “…/homemaker” (presumably a sort of brick-layer).
To some extent my friends do define me although I like to think that I define them, possibly in my own likeness. As Wilde said, “…he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die”. If friends define me then, moving around as I have all my life, I have had many deaths. Hobbies? I had a medical scare recently (which turned out to be nothing but a faulty machine at the medical laboratory) which made it appear possible that I would lose my first class aviation medical. To stop flying would have been another Wildean death.
Frankly, I feel myself defined in terms of the latest book I’m reading. At the moment this happens to be David Corfield’s Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics. I’m about half-way through and have been somewhat distracted by his reference to George Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form, possibly the most eccentric book I’ve ever read. This is where two strands of my identity come together—amazingly a friend of mine just happened to have a copy on his bookshelf!
My first reaction to receiving that email from the past was to say “have you read Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics?” I am essentially not the person who works at Nortel, nor the person who sings Schubert Lieder, nor the person who teaches people to fly, nor the person who helped create Emma and George, nor the person friendly with X, Y and Z, nor the person living in Ottawa but the person reading that book.
Corfield’s book is also somewhat eccentric. There are a few typos (the last paragraph on page 95 is a good example) but the major characteristic of the book is the wildly varying level of mathematical maturity assumed by the author: for example, explaining parenthetically the meaning of “pole” before dropping without further help into a passage about infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces. A very exciting book however and one with which I’m currently absorbed. I suppose it’s that last term “absorbed” that defines me.
Dear friends, from whom I haven’t heard for 35 years,
In the past 35 years I have been absorbed in the following: X and then Y … and then Z. That progression defines who I am (or, “what I have become”).
Postscriptum: While I was writing this blog, the Globe and Mail for 10th June 2006 lay unread on the table in the kitchen. When I’d finished writing I opened it and found Ken Wiwa’s final column for that newspaper—he’s returning to Nigeria to become a special assistant to the President of Nigeria covering peace, conflict resolution and reconciliation. For those who don’t read the Globe and Mail, I should perhaps say that he is the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian military regime in 1995. Wiwa’s column has sometimes been extremely ill-informed (he commented once on the SCO/IBM lawsuits with an astonishing lack of understanding) but always sincere. His life has clearly been formed by external events, particularly the death of his father. It’s interesting that one of the things I omitted from my list of life-shaping influences was “external events”.