Monday, October 19, 2009

The Passage of Trains

One of the primary ways we ship our processed bales is by freight train. In the case of paper, the trains go to mills in Arizona and Oregon. Several railroad tracks pass the recycling facility on their way to (ironically) the coal power plant across the street. (You would think that with all its radical inclinations, Boulder would have converted to a clean energy source by now, but my comrade Davey Rogner tells me this is not the case in many progressive communities across the nation). After delivering its evil, black cargo, Mr. Peabody's coal train comes back up the rail to our platform, where the forklift operator loads bales directly on to the rail cars, a process that usually takes several days. Each bale is roughly a ton, each rail car holds up to twenty bales. If we don't fill up a rail car to its capacity of 40,000 pounds, we are often losing money. This rarely happens however, and if anything, we suffer from a lack of rail cars coming in, which often leaves stacks of bales outside, another money loser that creates among other things, transitional housing for rats (somebody call FEMA!). My supervisor Lou claims the railroad companies are like whole other sovereign entities, ironfisted in their business dealings and authority, and we, their malcontents, are often struggling to order more choo choo trains.

I never really got into trains as a kid--I was more fascinated by Legos and spaceships--but I do remember my grandpa expressing an enthralling interest in all things train; I still have his wooden train whistle. I always wanted one of the mega Lego automatic train sets, and my grandpa was no doubt routing for me in this endeavor, but my petitions were always denied (along with several others like a video game system, but I'm not bitter..), and so my relationship with trains has suffered. With the exception of Mr. Dolan's impressive model trolley conglomeration in his basement, train fascination seems to be taking the route of other cherished American memories like Scooby Doo/malt shops, white picket fences, and Mr. Rogers, who in his episodes featured a model train set. I never quite understood the buzz til now, probably because the trains I'm used to are subways, but there is something nostalgically appealing about the movement and platonic form of trains. I guess once you see how much the railroad permeates life out west, even today, and hearing them blast their horns at night especially, you come to appreciate their antiquity and consistent, linear motion.

Trains are one of those man-made inventions that inevitably changed the course of history, specifically in the last few centuries. There is no biblical parable or Dao meditation on the train, although it feels like there should be. Rail transport is prevalent in almost every developed country across the world, and you can take great scenic journeys across vast spanses of land via rail. I hope to complete one of these journeys in the near future. A mystical aesthetic remains associated with rail travel. This usually manifests itself artistically in some ghostly rural landscape or the meandering architecture of time, always time, and industry, pressing on the heels, or memory, casually observing. A train passing offers both calm and disruption, both connectivity and separation.

Dynamic interpretation of trains abounds in all art forms. A list of movies involving trains, provided by our friends at Amtrak, gives you a glimpse of this. Three of my favorite movies involving trains that aren't mentioned on that list are Before Sunrise, The Festival Express, and The Darjeeling Limited. All three address time or memory in some way. Before Sunrise deals with forming a relationship under the time constraints of a Eurorail vacation. The Festival Express pieces together footage of an epic music tour including rock greats Buddy Guy, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead and The Band across Canada by rail. The Darjeeling Limited reunites three brothers on a trans-India rail journey in a search for their estranged mother as well as some spiritual reconciliation in each of their lives.

Trains are referenced or alluded to in many pieces of music including Bob Dylan's "Freight Train Blues," The Wailer's "Stop That Train," Ellington's "Take the A Train," James Brown's "Night Train," multiple renditions of Dylan Thomas' poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," a poem that expresses anger and resilience in the face of death, to name just a few. (The next time you're playing Kings, and the category is "Songs that have 'train' in them," you'll be ready). Train noises are often imitated in music from folksy interpretations of the railroad like Johnny Cash's "Orange Blossom Special" to modern soundscapes like Don Meers' "Train Noise." In all these examples, the meditation is not stagnant, but moving; always having a place to go and destination in mind. I enjoy taking trips for this very reason, and I suppose a similar analogy could be made for the recycling stream..

My mother once told me that an allusion to the passing of trains in literature usually means that some change or revelation is occurring; kind of like deja vu means that something has changed within the Matrix, but not quite. So in writing this reflection that tackles the daunting topic of locomotion (hoping to no avail to avoid using cliches), I must be hinting at the passage of time. Indeed, major changes have occurred in my life: some are by choice, some undoubtedly have yet to come, some probably should not be, but I prefer not to get caught up in Galadriel's mirror. The ever-growing growing pains are enough to bear. I am now at the turning of the tide. Invitations to bumpin parties have all but disappeared. I can't stay up much past midnight like I used to. I go to bed usually around nine or ten depending on my fatigue level, a fact that puts me on par with my parents' bedtime, and then, even after ten hours of sleep, I struggle to get up. My hair seems to be slowly receding into the old Fretz horseshoe. From looking at some of the veterans here at the MRF, I fear this might be hastened by wearing a hard hat.. From a hike one Saturday up the 12,500 ft. Meadow Mtn. (which was my roommate Aaron's 100th peak of the year), I learned I am no longer the graceful gazelle I used to be, galloping from rock to rock on the way down, but am now more like a speedy buffalo (not quick by any human measure) mixed with the fragility and dart speed of a mountain goat (bumbaclaaaat). A muscular fawn. Mr. Thomas with more testosterone perhaps?

In any case, I have noticed that as I grow older, time seems to speed up. I mentioned this once to high school math teacher and clarinetist Cyrus Ishikawa who laughed. Physics easily disproves this faulty intuition by measuring the microwave emissions of a caesium atom's electrons during energy changes to recognize a second. When it comes to perception, however, philosophy trumps science. Since we have no distinct sense for viewing the fourth dimension, our perception of time is registered by using our other senses to observe and attribute causal relations between event A and event B, and the undeniable fact that time moves in only one direction. T.S. Eliot once wrote "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." Placing aside other existential meanings of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, we see Eliot's perception of a day passing was gained by observing the time frame between cups of coffee. While comparisons to my own caffeine-saturated life could be made including the yellow vapors, another reference to the Matrix would yield the observation, "there is no spoon," which isn't exactly encouraging.

The perceived increase in time passing, like all things in life, has its advantages and disadvantages. The work day and week for that matter go by in a flash, but then, so does the weekend. Where before I got bored as a kid, now I can train my mind to focus on varying tasks and thought chains, putting the mental over the physical as planned, but am still not able to conquer everything in the time I thought I would. My comrade Masala Justice was able to count down the hours until his train left for Delhi, something a younger self probably wouldn't have had the patience for, by musing on all the people bustling around him. As he hung out the door catching the fresh air and observing the countryside passing by, the train ride allowed him to reflect on his journey thus far: "Another story I may or may not recall, another piece that adds to this imperfect puzzle." I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' it-self, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time, a puzzled world crisscrossed by train tracks, passengers ranging from business class sleepers to stowaways, the unseen conductor directing the traffic.

And indeed, there will be time.

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