Stepping into an illustrious tradition

As I continue to get excited about traversing the United States (and parts of Canada, and possibly a dip or two into Mexico) I find myself thinking of others who have made similar travels, and who inspire me.

I recently learned from my mother that even my own grandfather—her father—made a somewhat similar travel decision in another time of economic uncertainty.

A Canadian citizen, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1930 with two degrees (one in forestry, for which he later earned a master’s degree at Harvard University, then spent his career working for the US Forest Service in Idaho and Utah). In 1930, right after the US stock market crash, jobs were even harder to come by in Canada than in the US. Rather than look for employment (or perhaps following a fruitless search) he decided to travel the world. He managed to spend a mere $200 for the entire trip, which my estimates show to be worth about $2325 in current US dollars. For this cost, my mother speculates that he must have traveled primarily on freighter ships. We know that he stayed with family members around the world, including Australia, France, Switzerland, and England. The purpose of his trip was mostly fun and adventure, rather than a larger humanitarian aim. However, I’m sure he learned a tremendous amount in his travels—before the days of television, much less the Internet—and it was interesting to me to learn that there is such a “meandering precedent” within the past two generations of my own family.

Outside my family, I have been inspired by the stories of Peace Pilgrim and John Francis, both of whom traveled on foot around the United States promoting peace and environmental responsibility, respectively.

I read John Francis’ book Planetwalker, at the recommendation of my friend Sunshine Dixon, last September on my epic cross-country train trip, and found his story very impressive. (I recommend his TEDTalk.)

Years ago, my friend Diane Emerson gave me Peace Pilgrim’s book, and I am embarrassed to say that it remains on my “to read” list, but I plan to read it soon; upon hearing of my upcoming travels, many other friends have recommended it.

Another fascinating character I just learned about, from my friend Avi, is Paul Erdős. From Wikipedia:

He was one of the most prolific mathematicians and producers of mathematical conjectures of the 20th century. He was known both for his social practice of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (Time magazine called him The Oddball’s Oddball).

Described by his biographer, Paul Hoffman, as “probably the most eccentric mathematician in the world,” Erdős spent most of his adult life living out of a suitcase. Except for some years in the 1950s, when he was not allowed to enter the United States based on the pretense that he was a Communist sympathizer, his life was a continuous series of going from one meeting or seminar to another. During his visits, Erdős expected his hosts to lodge him, feed him, and do his laundry, along with anything else he needed, as well as arrange for him to get to his next destination.

Erdős published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed. He firmly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians.

This lifestyle fascinates me. I dream of being someone who brings such value to the world, and to my hosts—by listening deeply to their dreams and/or existing projects, and helping them to enhance as well as publicize them—that they would wish to host me in such a way, and we would both consider it a win-win proposition, much like the intention I outlined ten years ago. Rather than solving mathematical problems, my intent is to collaboratively solve social and environmental problems.

I am setting an intention right now that this vision will come to pass.

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