Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Long Train Runnin'

So, now I get to commute to my new job via train. I like it, to some extent, but in some other ways, it represents a certain loss of innocence. There's a magic to trains that can very easily get lost.

I don't know where this magic comes from. I do think I'm not imagining it, however. Think of a movie like The Polar Express, in which a train takes children away to meet Santa Claus, or various movies like the serious thriller Runaway Train or comedy Throw Mama from the Train in which people in trouble with the law make their final bid for freedom via the rails. There's this feeling that seems to subtly pervade the culture that says that a train is the way to get away from your problems to somewhere better. This is the real story of the Little Engine That Could.

For me personally, I had actually put a start to a story I was going to write--and who knows, I still might get it done--about my personal take on the whole phenomenon. For me, I think I know exactly what it was. When I was in grade school, I used to live in a house right next to the freeway, and on this particular stretch of freeway, there was a set of train tracks running up the middle. I remember lying in my bed at night, listening to the sound of the traffic, and the occasional clack-clack noise of trains moving along.

I lived next to the freeway, but personally, I never took it. My school was actually on the exact same street as my house, but on the other side of the freeway, so every morning, I'd walk through an underpass to get to school, and when I arrived, I could look back and see my house from the top of the monkey bars. On a regular daily basis, I essentially went nowhere. But trains and freeways? Those went places.

Once, I went on a train trip to Portland to visit my favorite cousin. I got to travel with my grandmother, of whom I was very fond. I remember spending a great deal of the trip sitting in the lounge car, which was all windows, and one could look out and see scenery. Not the same scenery every single moment like one sees at home, but new scenery all the time, always changing and scrolling by, and I can almost hear my young mind thinking, "This is very beautiful, but we're leaving it behind to move on to something new and exciting, and each piece of scenery will somehow be more exciting and beautiful than the last."

I was definitely smitten, although it may not have been just trains. Maybe it was the freeway as well, and time has made me forget much of that. After all, the thing that greatly enchanted me more than anything was the idea of moving, of going someplace new. Freeways will do that, and airplanes most of all, although for me, airplanes may have been more routine (I flew a lot as a kid), or perhaps they just seemed too much like nothing was happening with the scenery so far away that often all there is to look at is the clouds.

Of course now, here I am on the train, and there isn't much to see anyway. As I write, it's six in the morning, and outside the window is largely just an expanse of blackness with an occasional lonely streetlight flitting by. This is what I dread. Even when the afternoon brings me back, and when the seasons change and allow me to see the scenery during the morning commute, the scenery will still all be the same. Every day, I will take the same train, pass the same landmarks, arrive at the same destination, and all of this will become routine. As it is, even so early in my train commuting experience, there is a decided lack of excitement. The wheels of the train turn over and over, and the same expanse of track will take me back in a few hours. Tomorrow, I will repeat the trip, and the day after that.

Instead of the excitement of the wheels turning to take me somewhere new, the time comes that this is routine. I remember in college, I had an astrophysics professor who scoffed at the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which envisioned the stars and planets fixed in circles upon circles in the sky. I don't think he (Ptolemy or my professor) thought that there were supposed to be literal physical circular structures affixed to the dome of the sky, but my professor thought the whole thing was ridiculous, saying, "If you get enough circles, you can map out any path, so what's the point?" I thought it was very clever, since the Ptolemaic system was surprisingly accurate for being "incorrect". Today, we understand that the planets travel pretty much in ellipses, which are very circle-like. We live on a globe that turns about roughly once per day, and travels around our sun in a roughly circular path, while that sun travels in a circle around the galaxy.

See, everything goes in cycles. There's our daily cycle, and most of us have five daily cycles that fit into a weekly cycle, and fifty-two weekly cycles make a yearly cycle. Various aspects of our government run in two- four- or six-year cycles, and the U.S. conducts censuses in ten-year cycles. All of that cycling becomes rather routine. The fact that we're on a hunk of rock that flies through space on an elliptical path with a radius roughly 93 million miles should be fascinating, but by the time we're old enough to fathom the concept, we realize we've already been riding that path for numerous repetitions, and it's almost instantly old hat. Space travel? No biggie, I've already travelled at least twenty-one billion miles through space just within our solar system. Going just to the moon is a snorefest in comparison.

So here I am on the train, but I'm not convinced it's really taking me anywhere. It's a shame, and not just because of my supposed disillusion with trains. Really, I ought to be looking at it differently, and precisely because of that 93 million mile ellipse, and because I've taken a plane about halfway around the world before. There's a romanticization involved with the idea of moving in physical space, but even when we seem to be holding still, we're moving at a great rate, all the time. People are always riding on trains and driving on freeways. (As a child, I remember the sound of the freeway never completely stopped, but went through a cycle of intensity throughout a 24-hour period.) In our modern society, where everything is moving quickly all the time and information travels around the globe in an instant, the only real movement that matters anymore is socio-economic movement.

I remember I scoffed at the fact that Engels, that idealistic co-author of The Communist Manifesto happened, in his spare time when not subverting the dominant paradigm, to be the owner of a factory. Hypocrisy? Maybe, but then, how can one change the world without money? They say money makes the world go around. Well, some do, while others say love. Others still in ancient times said that it was the heavenly spheres set in motion by the gods, but in modern times, we know it's really the forces of gravity. Ramble, ramble, ramble, do I have a point?

Physical mass is what makes the physical world spin. What makes the socio-economic world spin, if that's the movement that really matters? Well, it is money and love after all, isn't it? I have a great deal of love for my family, and most of the best ways to express that love involve money: providing shelter, clothing and food; giving them gifts for fun; enjoying entertainment together; all sorts of things. Love and money provide inertia for the non-physical world, and we all need both of them, in one form or another.

Why am I taking the train? What's the real purpose of this movement, the beginning of a repetitive series of motions in which train wheels will turn thousands of times along a track to carry me to place where I will perform repetitive motions and climb aboard another train that will carry me back, rolling along those very same tracks to return me to my starting point? The moving of myself as an object to another location, just to put that object back again over and over, day after day? Physical movement is just a means to an end. I'm here because of money, which I don't like, but I need it. I'm here because of love, which is difficult, but I want it.

In order for the train to move hundreds of miles away, the wheels have to turn around and around in a tiny little radius; in order to make the wheels turn, the pistons of the engine have to shift back and forth along a short little path. Repetition, repetition, repetition, do you have a point?

By going back and forth, those little movements get translated into larger movements, and those (relatively) tiny little wheels on the train move the whole world. There's a sense of magic in that, it's just not so romantic unless you let it be. When the train approached my station, I leaned forward and eagerly strained my eyes to see what the day would have in store for me. I think there's still hope for me.


marauder said...

A couple random comments vis-a-vis the magic of trains:

Kids love 'em. Maybe because trains are so big, maybe because the world zooms by so quickly outside while it's so still inside, maybe because the world along the train tracks looks so different from anywhere along the roads, maybe because it's a special treat to take a train, kids love to ride 'em. When I would take my older daughter to Babylon, we always took a few books to read or school lessons to complete on the train, and it was always a loss once we left the station. She was so lost in the magic of riding a train that it was impossible to redirect her back to her work. She would cheer and carry on each time the train took off, or stopped at a new terminal, and would rabbit on so excitedly during the trip that it was infectious. Even commuters who rode the Northeast Corridor twice a day would be lost in her wonder for at least a while.

2) Trains retain a mythical presence even to this day, maybe because of the raw power they represent. They were so important to the nation's growth in the 19th century and are now fading to black like a lost relic of a simpler era. Even Superman is "more powerful than a speeding locomotive." "Superman: The Movie" showed him racing against a train that a young Lois Lane was riding with her mother; "The Dark Knight Returns" showed a subway train he had stopped to save a man who had fallen onto the tracks.

3) Lots of folk songs celebrate trains, like "The City of New Orleans" (named after the train, not the city), "Casey Jones,"
"John Henry," "Freight Train," "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "She'll Be COmin' Round the Mountain When She Comes," and what else.

4) Trains historically were a major part of American life in more ways than one. They took passengers places, it's true; but they also delivered merchandise, raw materials, essential goods, and news; and when the weekly train arrived, everyone in town would go down to the station to meet it. Plenty of towns in the nation have a name like "NEshanic Station" or "Saunders Station"; with few exceptions, those are places trains stopped, and communities grew up around them.

I get what you're saying about the loss in trains becoming part of your routine. It's like the opening line in "Brief Lives": "It was, of course, a miracle."

Brucker said...

1) Yep, all of the above. Trains are a big treat for any kid, for some reason. My kids want to go to work with me one day, just so they can enjoy the train.

2) Interesting observation about Superman, but I think both of those scenes are meant to evoke that classic line, of course.

3) What else? Why, "Long Tain Runnin'" of course, my favorite train song.

4) Yes, trains are a big, important part of our history. Put the Pony Express out of business, which PETA would never have allowed to exist today.

I'm still liking the train. Around the station near my work, there is a lot of train-related junk lying around; I'm considering picking up a loose spike as a souvenir, but I'm not sure what I'd do with it.