From Boston to the Bay- Day 2

I spent roughly 70 hours of my Spring Break on a train traveling from Boston to San Francisco.  The following entries detail my experiences.  For the first entry, click here.

April 12, 2014

We boarded the train in Boston and so far it’s been relaxing.  The streams and dilapidated ruins of crumbling Northeast towns slowly burrow into my memory.

I caught a glimpse of the train as we curved around a bend.  For a moment, I saw the vessel carrying us forward.  In life, we tell ourselves we know what’s leading us, what’s driving us, but, like passengers on a moving train, we have a vague, elusive of what’s pushing us forward.

As soon as I reached for my camera, we crossed the bend and the train was obscured.  The train ride has been like that, brief glimpses of beauty and then onward, rushing through winter-famished trees and grey hills.

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The Northeast is remarkably uniform, but at least there’s been some sunlight.  The light warms and awakens a land ravaged by a brutal winter.  My mind has slowly drifted from the stress and rigor back in Hartford.

We stalled for an hour and a half in Albany, NY.  One more viewing of the ramshackle underbelly of a decaying upstate NY city.  I can’t imagine how life would have changed if my Dad had taken the job he was offered in Schenectady, NY back in middle school.  The brick and shattered glass, the monolithic decay would wear on you.

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Now that the day is over, the sun is eclipsed by consuming darkness. I’m left with my thoughts and the dark, vast expanse of a sprawling land.  Darkness envelops all like a deep lake only occasionally interrupted by the kindred light of a slow-moving houseboat.

I met a man working the dining car counter.  He was in his second week of training.  A dust-colored man of around thirty traded his job at the bank for a life toiling on the rails.  The man had never set foot on an Amtrak.  A desperate stab at a new life.  And then this beautiful song arrived, courtesy of Pandora, and this year, this long train ride began to make sense.

“Longer I Run”  Peter Bradley Adams

I miss the life that I left behind

But when I hear the sound of the blackbirds cry

I know I left in the nick of time

Well this road I’m on’s gonna turn to sand

And leave me lost in a far off land

So let me ride the wind tip I don’t look back

Forget the life that I almost had

If I wander till I die

May I know who’s hand I’m in

If my home I’ll never find

And let me live again

The longer I run

Then the less that I find

Sellin my soul for a nickel and dime

Tell my brother please not to look for me

I ain’t the man that I used to be

But if my savior comes could you let him know

I’ve gone away for to save my soul

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America’s “Vague, Uncomfortable Disconnection”

“most Americans today feel vaguely and uncomfortably disconnected.”  Robert D. Putnam from Bowling Alone (2000)

Walk the bustling streets of a crowded city, sit in a coffee shop, and you can not help but notice pervasive emptiness.  Human disconnection permeates public space.

“New York-Style Fisting” 1

New York City is a place long known to produce deep-seated misanthropic feelings.  A year back, a friend moved there and was ecstatic upon witnessing his first  New York shouting match.  Two people, in no uncertain terms, publicly expressing enmity.  Or the time I visited myself.  Upon my friend’s excusable second request for a young woman’s name at a boisterous nightclub, the woman responded with, “Am I a f***ing broken record?!”.  In economic terms, the overwhelming supply of people abates demand for any single human being.

Where Did it Start?

Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, asserts that our “vague, uncomfortable disconnection” started with our parents generation.  I disagree.  Our disconnection started further back during the American Revolution.  A time when America’s forefathers ardently fought for America’s individuality.  This idea was then dispersed to the masses through the Civil Rights movement.  America’s idiosyncrasies began to manifest itself as “disconnection” when it was transformed by the creations of Silicon Valley.

To be fair, America has come far.  From the depths of Japanese internment in the 1940s and separate drinking fountains in the 1960s, we have created a culture where most feel comfortable asserting pride in their ethnic heritage.  Americans, as John Elway so concisely summarized, “feel comfortable in their own skin.”

However, the advent of “selfies” and a blizzard of self-promotional Facebook posts forces one to wonder if this explosion of self-identification and confidence has contributed to a declining social structure.  For each self-shot picture of yourself or promotional post about your buddy’s gig you have unwittingly contributed to the devaluation of human interaction.

Tinder Moments

A new app, Tinder, has acknowledged and embraced abundant supply of trivial human contact by creating a trading market based solely on physical attractiveness.  The value system is simplistic, binary.  Heart or no heart.  I have noticed (and maybe even been guilty of) people clicking blindly until they got bored.  We are eroding the value of human contact.

The Binary Relationship

We have erred in our belief that we can write code for the construction of a fulfilling relationship.  We have invested in the delusion that we can create digital shortcuts to human connection.

Human connections have little to do with fiber-optics and high-resolution images and everything to do with physical proximity.  What has happened to front porches, lemonade stands, kids playing in the park? And what about the archaic art of hand-written letters laced with smudges, illegibility, and other traces of human fallibility?  Why have we allowed binary expression to prevail?

Perhaps other generations felt this distance.  Perhaps this is something humans will grapple with forever.  Or maybe, just maybe, we need to limit constant spoon-sized servings of humanity and hold out for heaping, meaningful slices of kinship.

1 Trademark, Dwight Lutz