Tag Archives: amtrak

Flawed Education and Millennial Nostalgia: Good Writing, 9/30/19

30 Sep

A quick digest on what I’ve been reading now that I’m back in Duluth after two weeks on the road:

Sometimes I think I could just spend my entire blogging life commenting on George Packer’s work, and he shows off his characteristic range of observation in his account of raising children within the New York school system. He captures the absurdity of the tracking system that tests two-year-olds for admission to preschools, the anxiety suffused through the American meritocracy, and the Trump era over-politicizing of everything by well-meaning progressives and its ensuing effect on children. The opening paragraph is as brilliant a summation of the conscientious parent’s paradox as I’ve ever encountered.

Sticking with the education system, you’ve probably heard about STEM education and how it is supposed to prepare students for the jobs of the future. In American Affairs, Jared Woodward marshals the best data and literature available to show that injecting technology into classrooms has a detrimental effect on actual learning and is a colossal waste of money. One could argue this conflates STEM with a more general influence of technology on learning, but the results are clear enough: the emerging system serves technology, instead of technology serving students.

As an undergrad I frequently took Amtrak back and forth between Minnesota and Washington DC, a wonderfully leisurely way to start or end a semester and move large amounts of personal goods. One of the great highlights of these journeys was a meal in the dining car, where I got to meet random people and share a reasonably good meal. To this, I bring you the deplorable news that Amtrak is beginning to eliminate its dining cars. Most disgustingly, Amtrak is justifying the death of the dining car on the backs of millennials because its officials think we enjoy leading harried, cheap lives devoid of human contact. (Or maybe they know this lifestyle is more a product of being overworked and enduring stagnant incomes, but they also know lazy tropes can help them justify cost-cutting.) This millennial is incensed, and so is Rainesford Stauffer in the New York Times.

On a lighter but still millennial-focused note, Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker’s Official Scribe of the Millennial Zeitgeist, starts a review on the film “Hustlers” but ends up discoursing on her nostalgia for 2008 pop music and its ability to capture that pre-recession moment. If your memories of 2008 also involve slurping on jungle juice while “Love in this Club” pulses away at an underage party, this article is for you. And yes, other generations, you now must endure millennials finding nostalgia for the stupid pop culture moments that defined our quickly fading youth, just as you subjected us to these reminders as we grew up. How fleeting it all seems now. And does anyone else think M.I.A’s “Paper Planes” is a glaring omission from Tolentino’s list?

Let’s close with a quote from Wendell Berry in a semi-recent New Yorker interview:

The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on. The historian John Lukacs, whose work I greatly respect, said that “the indiscriminate pursuit of justice . . .  may lay the world to waste.” And he invoked modern war, which kills indiscriminately for the sake of some “justice.” He thought the pursuit of truth, small “t,” much safer. I want to remember—and this comes to me from my dad, to some extent—that our system of justice requires a finding of truth, and it labors to see that justice is never done by one person. There’s a jury of twelve. There are two lawyers, at least, and a judge. It doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the result is injustice. But, the effort to discover the truth that goes ahead of judgment is extremely important. It requires us to think about the process and what’s involved.

It’s a very humbling thing, finally. People speak of “the environment.” They don’t know what they’re talking about. “The environment” refers to no place in particular. We’re alive only in some place in particulars.

Reverie by Rail

31 May

I took my first Amtrak adventure when I was fourteen, a largely miserable affair that should have led me to swear off trains for all eternity. My mother and I went west to visit some family friends who had decided to give themselves a little culture shock by moving from Madison, Wisconsin to Ogden, Utah. We made a national tour out of it, from Minneapolis to Chicago to Salt Lake, and then on out to Sacramento and up the West Coast before heading back to Minnesota. It included obnoxious people, five near-sleepless nights, and a newfound hatred for freight trains. And yet, in spite of it all, it won a convert.

The first leg was a fairly quick jaunt from Minneapolis down to Chicago, though even that start was inauspicious, with the train rolling in a few hours late to the dismal station in St. Paul, one that has thankfully been put to rest since. The route follows the Mississippi and visits Wisconsin Dells, and there are docents on board to enlighten riders in the glass-encased observation car. It went smoothly enough, and after a night with relatives in Chicago, we were ready for the westward leg of our adventure.

The next day we set out on the California Zephyr, plowing across the prairie and readying for our first night on the rails. Unenthused by my seat, I tried to relax and sleep in the observation car, a window-filled car where one can stretch out across several chairs in a feeble imitation of a bed. That night is etched in my mind thanks to a loud teenage girl holding a deep, meaningful cell phone conversation with some distant friend. “Hello? What? Hello? What?” she bellowed for several hours on end, desperately seeking service as we wove across Iowa and Nebraska.

I woke the next morning in the gloom of eastern Colorado, a desolate stretch of factory farms and cattle ranches. There was a chance to get out and wander a bit in Denver, where the sun poured down through a high-ceilinged station. The train then began its steady meander into the Rockies, and before long, it snaked in and out of tunnels and clung to the side of the Colorado River gorge, us and I-70 and the moon-happy river rafters all flowing along. I ate the best peach I’ve ever had in Grand Junction, Colorado, and in time we were closing in on the State of Deseret. We spent a week in the Beehive State, climbing mountains east of Ogden and venturing down to do some August desert hikes in Capitol Reef National Park.

The adventure really got going on the way west from Salt Lake. We’d planned to meet some friends from the Bay Area in Sacramento when the train arrived in the early afternoon, but the freight train-induced delays began somewhere in the dusty wastes of Nevada. We sat on the tracks in the town of Sparks for eons, but that did little to prepare us for an endless wait atop the Donner Pass just across the California border. To be fair, it was a beautiful spot to get stuck, but as the delays mounted and the obnoxious guy further down the car got progressively more drunk, I began to find a little sympathy for the Donner Party and their decision to sink their teeth into the more useless members of their party.

We finally came to Sacramento just before midnight, over nine hours past the scheduled arrival time, and with just forty-five minutes to make our connection north to Portland. But no, it couldn’t be that easy: there had been a tunnel fire somewhere up the route, and the train wouldn’t be going through. My mother said some words I’d never heard her say before, and we were bundled on to a bus headed for Eugene, Oregon. It was a miserable ride made even more miserable by the need to stop in all the small towns along the Amtrak route north into Oregon, many of which are not along a convenient major highway. Still, it was a sight to awake from my fitful night’s sleep to Mount Shasta looming over us in the morning sunlight, and the coach rolled on through Klamath Falls and past Crater Lake through the endless forests, and once we finally got back on the train to Portland, I managed to catch a Yankees-Mariners game on a travel radio. (Remember those things?)

The last leg of the trip, on the Empire Builder back to St. Paul, was a blur; I have only vague memories of the Columbia River gorge, Glacier, and Havre, Montana. We mercifully slept through North Dakota before bringing our odyssey to an end. One would think I would have learned my lesson after that one. Yet as time passed the absurdity of the story became an object of laughs rather than misery, and when I was going to school in DC, an idea wormed its way into my head:  Amtrak is the perfect way to cart a lot of cargo across the country without a car or excessive airplane baggage fees, isn’t it?

That bright idea would take a little fine-tuning, as my freshman year roommate can attest. At the end of the year, I was somehow compelled to try to pack my entire life into two monstrously heavy boxes for the ride back to Minneapolis. The terrified taxi driver helped me get them out of the trunk, but the Union Station porters refused to even touch them, so I somehow managed to heft the two of them—well over two hundred pounds in total—on to a decidedly inadequate cart and get them to the counter, where a sympathetic ticket agent waited patiently through one of the less dignified moments of my life, full of sweat and panic and miserable pleas. My two large boxes, battered by their adventure from one end of Union Station to the other and hopelessly over the weight limit, were summarily broken down into ten Amtrak baggage boxes. I spent another unexpected night in DC and went out on the train the next day.

Years later, I’m still using those same Amtrak boxes to cart my junk around when I move. And once I got it down, the train ride between DC and Minneapolis became a delight. Amtrak’s schedulers wisely time sleep for the Indiana and Ohio bits of the trip. Head east, and one wakes to the mists of the Ohio River and the steel mills of Pittsburgh; head west, and the lights of the Steel City are the last thing one sees before nodding off. The Maryland-West Virginia leg is especially pretty as one heads west, snaking along the Potomac and through historic Harpers Ferry before coming to picturesque Cumberland, Maryland for sunset. The western route always dumped me in Chicago early in the morning, and sometimes I’d meet up with family or old friends during my layover; other times, I’d just wander the canyons between the skyscrapers, maybe foray down to Buckingham Fountain, and, in one memorable instance, pass out on a stone bench in a garden next to the Art Institute. One other memorable journey had me on an alternate route out east that wound through the hills of West Virginia, a frighteningly slow race between the train and Hurricane Irene to DC. My boxes and I all made it ahead of the storm, and my roommate had some hurricanes and dark-and-stormys waiting for me as we bunkered down at the start of my senior year.

Amtrak’s greatest romance comes in its people, who all come together in a place where time matters little. We’re all stuck together, we have nowhere to be, and talk flows freely. Yes, there’s the occasional clod, but they’re cause for commiseration for the rest of us, free to roll our eyes and laugh at the shrieking self-righteous homeschooler or the Mexicans who fail to understand that the coach is meant for sleeping after midnight. I paid the price for the dining car dinner once every trip, and it never disappointed. My best seatmates were a British couple on holiday in the U.S., and we talked for hours on matters great and small as we climbed into the Appalachians. There was also the personal trainer for former New York Giant and Philadelphia Eagle Steve Smith, who rearranged his medicine balls to let me into a seat and joined me in watching some old Duluth East hockey DVDs, marveling at the spectacle.

The observation car brings out even more conversation. I once sat with a Canadian guy on a month-long train journey with his son, and a couple traveling back along routes they’d visited as kids, with vague memories of the parks along the way. One lady shared her love for Jane Jacobs, and an eccentric grandmother gushed about some flower festival that I—the horror!—had never heard of. There are often Amish, using the lone long-distance form of travel available to them, always showing a delicate mix of reserve and curiosity when confronted by us moderns. I had a number of drinks bought for me—a debt I’ll have to pay forward someday—and whiled away many nights with people I’d never seen before and will never see again before settling in my seat, scrawling a few meditative lines in a notebook (interspersed with stream-of-consciousness curses directed at anyone in the car who wouldn’t shut up) before the train’s steady rumble lulled me to sleep. For days after each ride, I feel that gentle rocking when I settle in to bed at night.

It was only fitting that Georgetown’s senior ball took place at Union Station, giving us a chance to waltz about its grandiose halls, dressed in the opulent costumes its riders might have worn in a bygone era. Or maybe it was all just a dream after all? A few days later I was on the train home one last time, slamming beers with a jolly man from South Bend and penning one last reverie by rail. Amtrak has its share of ills, as recent crashes and funding crises show all too well. But its allure lingers, that escape from time into a shared journey past so many of this country’s marvels, and the timelessness should keep the dream going for years to come. Anyone else ready to climb aboard?