“Do you know where “policeman” comes from, sir? Vimes hadn’t. “Polis” used to mean “city”, said Carrot. That’s what policeman means: “a man for the city.” (Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms)
“A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.” (Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms)
I finished reading my first Discworld novel last October. I’d been meaning to read the series for a while, but was intimidated by how many books and storylines there were.1 I liked the book I started with, and I’ve since read several other entries in the series, my favorite so far being Men At Arms. Pratchett’s writing is notoriously clever, and each book strikes me like an indie rock song bursting with hooks.
The Discworld City Watch novels largely center around Samuel Vimes, a member of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Vimes is an excellent character, and one of his best qualities is how in tune he is with the city of Ankh-Morpork. He’s not blind to the city’s faults, but he fully inhabits it nonetheless. He’s walked the streets so much that he can tell where he is just by the feel of the streets through his boots, a polis-man in the original sense of the word.
It was while reading the third book in the City Watch series, Feet of Clay, that I finally made the connection between Vimes and a new habit I picked up at the beginning of the pandemic.
I’ve been working from home since March of 2020. After the initial jolt of the transition from a blissfully short commute to a non-existent one passed, I felt myself becoming unmoored from the outside world. I’ve never spent much time out on the town or roaming the countryside; I spend most of my time inside, looking at a screen. The world I construct inside my home has significantly more impact on my life than the environment which surrounds it. This generally isn’t a problem for me, but as the dreariness of doing the same thing every day set in, I realized I had to change something. I had been relying on my commute to get me out of the house, and now, without that, I was losing touch with my surroundings to a level I hadn’t before. To remedy this, I started making an effort to get outside every day, even just for a walk to the mailbox and back. I was exercising indoors separately and continued to do so; the express purpose of this walk was to serve as a reminder that my inner world was not the whole world, and it worked wonderfully.
Last October I moved from Austin back to Western Massachusetts, and I’ve continued my habit in the year since, with a few new wrinkles. The past several months, I’ve lengthened my daily walks, and I’m beginning to understand what Vimes feels as he patrols the city streets.
The impetus for these longer walks has been the transition from summer to fall.
Seasons are a new experience for me. Texas has seasons, but they’re less distinct. A large part of the year is spent in summer, and a short fall bleeds into a mild winter, which transitions into a spring that, while lovely, is overshadowed by the looming 100-degree temperatures. Even when I lived Western Massachusetts for college, I didn’t experience the full depth of its seasons. I was able to avoid the worst of New England winter with nearly a month’s respite in Austin each year, and was still subject to Austin summers. The college campus is a bubble of its own, separate from the towns surrounding it.
In many ways the past few months have been the first time I’ve been able to enjoy the changing of seasons, and I couldn’t enjoy it as much without feeling connected to this place by my walks.
It helps to encourage my walking habit that even in Texas, fall was always my favorite season. The first crispness in the air is refreshing. At the risk of sounding like Jeff Winger giving a campaign speech, I like rainy days, I like pumpkin flavors, and I like hoodies.
Being in a place subject to seasons has also helped me enjoy the baseball postseason more. The postseason is an October affair, and as the teams progress closer to the World Series, fans and players dress warmer and their breath begins to show against the dark autumn sky. As I become more attuned to the rhythm of my neighborhood, I feel more aligned with the rhythm of the sport that I love.
By walking outside each day, I pick up on small daily shifts in the environment. Some days, a cat eyes me warily from a sun-dappled patch of grass (best admired from afar). The stream under the bridge is louder after a rainy day, but not deafening. Halloween decorations have sprung up, gradually at first, then all at once. I’m allowing myself to experience the weather; some days the fall wind is crisp enough to hurt my ears, and some days my jacket is relegated to a familiar position over my shoulder halfway through.
This is not a love letter to a specific place, but to having a sense of place. I have no doubt that this habit will stick with me as I connect more to the places I inhabit and develop my own sense of place. I still spend most of my time indoors, but for a little while each day, I know exactly where I am: here, in the city, a polis-man, walking my beat.