skin. deep.

Something in my wiring makes me more likely to be interested in model trains. I make that “model” distinction because, unlike the real thing, our model trains conform to patterns and repetitive behaviours and it’s in things like that I find comfort. Professionally I earn a living by mapping the ambiguous and finding ways to make the alchemic a little more predictable by the data we can collect as a way of understanding what we can’t about how we work. “Interested in patterns” doesn’t make me dependent on them just turned on by the idea that there is a predictability to things and if I’m patient enough, welcoming enough, most things will discover the courage to reveal their pattern to (I was going to say “me” but I’m not any kind of special, you can see it too). Model trains circling a ring of track is somehow calming not unlike that same peace that I find at the beach as the water dances against the shoreline. It can be hard sometimes because I’m so “into” trains that they become a communication medium. It’s in my nature to want to use them as a dialect affecting how I express ideas and since I enjoy the art of how we communicate it’s a lifelong passion to deny myself that natural instinct to use this natural language and instead adopt something less personal and more popular because not everything is about trains and very little can be described using model train experiences.

Last week we each took time out of our days to observe our first  National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The day honours the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.

 National Day for Truth and Reconciliation 

In each unmarked mass gravesite we can estimate the number of children represented but we’ll never know how many. Listening to the stories of those who survived that chapter in their lives only amplifies our need to learn more. Among those stories are also those from communities that are denied even the ability to proclaim what they know to be true. Can you imagine having your child taken? Can you imagine how that would affect your life? Can you imagine being made to not act and find your child? I can’t. We are all responsible for what we have been left with and the sense of loss and pain those families were handed in the cruelest of exchanges imaginable. I suppose I could paint some trains orange and pretend I’m helping but that just feels like the most ridiculous way imaginable to feel like I was doing something to salve this feeling inside me.

Quoting this article in The Guardian: “Nearly 3,200 workers at Canadian National, the country’s largest rail operator, walked off the job on 19 November, to protest against chronic overwork and unsafe conditions.” I mention that quote because only a few months later protesters blockaded Canadian railway lines across the country. Twice within a year’s worth of months trains stopped running in much of the country. It was amazing to observe the difference in tone in railfanning forums as train fans reacted to this interruption in our hobby. All of a sudden train fans got angry and as the rail blockades continued train fans got ugly. Here in Atlantic Canada railfans posted memes promoting the idea of running rotary snow machines through the blockades. Other railfans clicked their Like buttons. Some clicked on their Love and Laugh reactions. It was disturbing to see this reaction. In forums where administrators would aggressively remove a post for having the wrong train in it these horrific reactions were left to ferment. It was and remains terrifying to contemplate how little it took to shed our humanity. When it was railway workers the message was solidarity. Is it only coincidence that when the tone changed the reason was not justification but cultural, Indigenous? Missing and murdered women, families lost to the residential school system, railfans who would love nothing more than to drive a snowplow through people. We must expect more of ourselves because this current succession of dehumanizing people is disgusting.

My particular interest in model railroading is design. I love the challenge of exploring new ways of expressing a vision of the railway in the form of model railways. For some time now I have been evolving my understanding of human-centric design. “Human-centric” being more than simply establishing ergonomic heights for benchwork, shifting the conversation to consider the human first and their craft second; removing us from “needing” another hundred hopper cars to serve the coal mine to instead having a more clear role of what we are trying to exercise by the practice of creating and enjoying model railways. Is this a craft that serves as an act of self realization? I don’t know but I’m interested in exploring that question. It’s never enjoyable to spend time with that one person who can turn any conversation into one about model trains but, yet, a common interest in model trains can provide those of us who share that interest to provide a conversational framework through which we can explore how we understand our world and how to express the joy we feel inside and what it feels like to feel good.

Learning to build accurate model scenery is more than finding the right glue to stick down static grass or how to make the best pine trees for under a dollar each. It’s more than miniaturizing a catalogued inventory of what is there on the surface to seeing that the communities our railroads run through are complex things. We might be attracted to a particular era in real railroading’s history and modelling set in that same time period is also an opportunity to become educated in the complex social events underway at that time. We can’t make everything into a conversation about model trains but if we are entering into a place because of model trains can we use that language to mature our understanding of who we were, who we are, and who we are hoping to be? Orange paint is not the answer. Learning about where our trains operates is as important as understanding how they operate. That experience of learning is how we communicate our appreciation for having been handed a chance to learn, to grow, and to listen; so when we talk about a “sense of place” we are able to feel more fully aware of where that is and how we are part of that story.

I was born the type of person who is attracted to model trains. I can’t choose to turn that off any more than any other part of my identity. I used to think I had to be actively making model trains all the time or the flame of my interest would become smoke that itself would be lost to the air forever. I had to learn that the interest is less fleeting and trust it will be there, later. We may have met because of trains but we can talk about more than wheel standards or why (you know who) should have released S13’s instead of what they imported instead. We can be parents and partners too. Our connection bonded over model trains can be a place we return to, to employ our creativity as a toolset to learn more about our world and ask ourselves how we can be more compassionate and be part of a land that is as favourable to us all as it is to any one of us.

Categories: How I think

4 replies

  1. I love these longer reads and this in particular is a great one to start my day. Something about the last paragraph in paortivhale resonates, I’m not sure if it’s because of all you’ve written before it, or if it would stand alone, either way, it has made me think, made me feel and made me reflect. Thanks!

  2. So much goodness here. Thank you for sharing this.

    I think you’ve expressed a lot of what I felt in one sentence, “I suppose I could paint some trains orange and pretend I’m helping.” I’ve heard that called “performative allyship” and I’ve probably been as guilty of it as others.

    I can tell that you truly care and have done work to educate yourself to the indigenous experience in Canada. As white people, we will never know fully how it is to be an indigenous person, but we can listen and believe and have those difficult conversations with people who knowingly or unknowingly say or do racist things.

    P.S. this really made me laugh: “not everything is about trains” – WHAT!?

  3. Thank you for the kind words. It’s always wonderful to hear from you.

    I feel this sense of frustration and helplessness that any of us who hear the stories of communities, families, brothers and sisters, people whose lives have been and continue to be described in our thoughts as we reflect. Frustrated because there just aren’t words that ever seem like enough. Frustrated because, well, how would words ever make something better. Frustrated because there’s a feeling of helplessness that’s difficult to ignore. And frustrated because discovering these feelings is still a choice when you’re white in Canada. While words fail to feel effective I hope they express a willingness to learn and extend a willingness to listen.

    We are capable of being beautiful because we are born beautiful. Hate is something learned that we can choose to forget like any other stupid idea we abandoned because it was a terrible thing to do. If we are connected by trains, real or model, maybe that is one more connection we can use as a place to gather, listen, learn, and build love.


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