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speed of life

maura @ 11:58 am

I’m on a train, heading north to go to a conference tomorrow, trying not to be too crabby that I drew the short straw in the Sitting Next To People Who Do Not Understand The Quiet Car contest. (Who was I in this contest with? Do the other travelers on this train know about the contest? Also the quiet car in general just seems less…quiet than on trips I’ve taken in the past, which makes me sad.)

I should be working on an article. I’m not working on an article. I’ve done a little thinking on/outlining of the article. I browsed some twitter. I read 2 chapters of one of the 3 books I brought (for a 2.5 day trip, lol, librarians gonna librarian). I ate my lunch.

I’ve done lots of staring out the window. Connecticut and now Rhode Island are both green and watery. There’s always so much to look at on a train trip, starting with NYC in all of its amazing detail though really every place has amazing detail. The tiny wispy cloud behind the electrical lines in a sunwashed blue sky out the window right now. <3

I love to work on trains, but today I’m just not feeling it. Today I’m feeling like looking out the window and listening to music. This is an unusual summer in that we’re not really taking a big trip, our big trip was earlier this year, and it feels less summery in some ways because of that (though we will have some family visiting before the summer ends). I’m taking days off here and there, trying to devote some time to research/writing and some time to errands/chores and some time to true unabashed leisure, lying on the sofa with a cat on my lap reading, or trying to figure out how to do the right combo of jumps and backflips to complete that one shrine giving me trouble in Breath of the Wild. I’m trying not to go into next year carrying over too much annual leave time, trying to decouple my brain from a too-narrow focus on productivity, trying to make space for all of the other things I want to do but can’t always do for a whole range of reasons.

I’m looking out the window on the train, on my 3rd listen to David Bowie’s Low. We are almost there.

Two days later and I’m on the train home, another weirdly crowded quiet car (ask me about my theories of institutional control of seating arrangements that result in lots of folx on the quiet car who don’t actually want to be there!).

My brain is conference-full, so much great stuff to listen to and learn about yesterday, so humbled by and grateful for the work being done by so many rad librarians. Thinking that this trip home will also be a not working on the article trip (sorry, article!). The trees are still green and the sky is full of impossibly puffball clouds and I am taking this time to think and reflect. The article will be waiting for me on Monday.

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maybe see me there

maura @ 9:37 am

By now everyone has seen the news about Amtrak’s writing residency trips, right? It’s been all over mah twitterz, though since I (unsurprisingly) follow a whole pile o’ academics* and journalists and other writerly folks perhaps that’s just me. There was this article about the joys of writing on trains,** then this one about the practicalities of the whole residency thing. Both are fascinating.

* Shocking, I know, that academics would even use twitter, because we don’t like to talk to anyone but ourselves. Nope, we don’t blog in multiple places or have websites for our research projects or send op-eds to the Times (to get rejected) or nothing, why would you think that? </Kristof rant>

** Though I have to say, her trip on the Lake Shore Limited sounded much more pleasant than when Jonathan and I took the train to Chicago many (eep, more than 15?!) years ago. That’s the sleeper car for you — 18 hrs (one-way, with delays) in the cheap seats was, at times, somewhat unpleasant.

I am, as regular readers know, a huge fan of both train travel and writing on trains. When I think about the writing I’ve done in the past almost-6 (next month!) years since I’ve been a full-time librarian + professor, what I’ve written on train trips stands out. It was on one of our 9 hour Amtrak odysseys to northern Vermont to visit family that I wrote the very first IRB application for what ended up being our huge (because we couldn’t stop collecting data, it was so interesting) research project on how commuter college students do their academic work. I took the train to DC and back a few years ago for a conference, and wrote several blog posts and other small things. And the first book proposal that emerged from the aforementioned research project was also (partially) written on the train, when I took a trip up to Saratoga Springs for another conference. Last month I took the train to Delaware for a family thing and also got lots of writing work done, this time on the theory part of chapter 1 of the book, which was particularly challenging to write. The train helped.

I love writing on trains for all of the same reasons the author of the Paris Review piece does. Travel by train is so pleasant, compared to other forms of travel, that it seems to free up more mental space to accomplish other things. Perhaps most importantly (though also perhaps most difficult to describe), there’s the suspended animation dreamtime aspect of train travel. The time component is critical: with a set amount of time to write, it’s easier to write (that’s why people use pomodoros and all of those other writing strategies). Also, on a train you are physically moving forward: if you get stuck or need to take a break it’s easy to look out the window and let the pleasant scenery rush through your brain and unstick you. On the quiet car it is even more awesome, because there tend to be other folks who are writing (and as the students who participated in our study were quick to tell us, it’s easier to work when the people around you are working too).

All of which has me wondering when my next train trip will be. Really I’d love for us never to fly or drive again when we travel anywhere east of the Mississippi river, but unfortunately train travel is still a smidge too expensive for that to happen in all cases (esp. the sleeper car, and esp. now that the kid is big enough that he’d need his own room). But it’s worth researching for sure.

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trips to faraway lands

maura @ 2:02 pm

We took a trip for the holidays, a longish trip to a warmish place, not the usual for us at xmas. It was lovely, which took me somewhat by surprise: as someone who is especially sunburn-prone I don’t tend to seek out sunny places for vacation. But I’ve also become more and more grumpy as I age about winter’s short dark days (even worse when there’s no snow, which is pretty much the whole point of winter), so I was happy to find myself with the opportunity to relax in a warm place with beautiful scenery and few obligations.

I ended up reading more than writing while on vacation. Partly because I was reading a book about Lynda Barry and partly because I’ve been thinking more about zines recently, I’m mulling over making a zine about the trip, though I might cave and just write about it here. Not sure how I would illustrate the zine since I can’t really draw. I could cut pictures from magazines? The only paper magazines we get anymore are the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Ranger Rick, and Science Illustrated, which might actually cover it.

Before that, a couple of weeks before thanksgiving, I took the train up to Saratoga Springs to speak on a panel at the New York Library Association annual conference. It was a fun time presenting with some of my favorite folks in the CUNYverse. Because there aren’t that many trains to Saratoga I ended up having to get one very very early in the morning the day before our panel, and took advantage of the travel (and the rest of that day alone in my hotel room) to finish up our book proposal. It’s been so hard to get more than a few hours at any one time to work on the book that it was just incredible to have one whole day — I got so much done!

Saratoga Springs was quaint and odd and dreamy. I called a taxi and when it pulled up was delighted to find that my cabbie was a lady! The ride was fairly short, maybe 10-15 minutes, and it cost FOUR DOLLARS. 4. $. I couldn’t help myself, I gave her a huge tip and blurted out “you can’t even get into a cab for $4 in the city!” On the cab ride we chatted about the fact that there was no snow at all, nor damage from Hurricane Sandy, that far upstate (this was right after the weird snowstorm). She called me a downstater — not in a mean way! — which I found surprising.

Wandering around the town I came across a carbonated spring and took a picture. Skidmore College is just up the road and I have to say that, now that I’ve been to Saratoga Springs, it brings Steven Millhauser’s writing to a whole different plane in my brain. I mean, of *course* you’d write stories like that if you live in Saratoga Springs. Or maybe you live in Saratoga Springs because you write stories like that? It’s hard to explain, but between the carbonated spring and the huge beautiful public library and the sullen yet charming teens hanging out on the swinging bench in the Ben & Jerry’s parking lot and the carousel on the edge of a pretty park overrun by fat noisy ducks… I could almost see the edges of the flying carpets whizzing by or the dust of the invasion from outer space settling onto the sidewalk.

Anyway, I started writing a blog post on the train on the way up to Saratoga and feel weird leaving it abandoned and unfinished, so here it is:

So much water. The river seems high, seems somewhat threatening now, even though it’s a lovely crisp fall day and the sun shines bright.

I don’t know that I’ve ever taken the train on this route before. This is the way we should have traveled to Montreal last year, but we took the bus instead, silly us. This train goes up up up along the Hudson River. Not through the old brick factory towns in Massachusetts like when we used to train to Vermont. Not through the Eastern cities like when I last took a train to a(n) (un)conference. This route’s all bluffs and cliffs and hills and trees and houses nestled in. And the wide river, I forget how wide it is in parts.

I still feel all kinds of messed up about living near water, the hurricane wasn’t long enough ago, so many folks (esp. in public housing) are still powerless and displaced. But it’s hard not to enjoy a train trip, train travel is just intrinsically delightful, Amor de Dias in my headphones and my laptop plugged in so I can work on the book proposal as the trees fly by. Jonathan called this my traincation, and he’s right.


if it’s okay i’m going to the rocky garden full of stars

maura @ 9:08 pm

Okay, the train was kind of a bust on the way home last weekend: we had some mechanical problems, were stuck in Philly for 90 minutes, and ended up having to transfer to another train for the rest of the trip. It was kind of comical actually: on the first train I was in the quiet car and had no seat neighbor, which was brilliant, while on the second train I was on a crowded noisy car. Oh well, them’s the breaks.

I discovered on last weekend’s trip that Amor de Dias is the most perfect train music ever. It’s Lupe from Pipas (a band I lovelovelove) and Alasdair from The Clientele (a band I’m kind of meh about). They are poptastic: quiet and dreamy and just perfect for watching the scenery slip by and relaxing your brain and feeling a little sad about Baltimore but also a little happy about the little bit of snow and the waning afternoon light. Go to their website and listen to Late Mornings right now! (Esp. the ‘oooohs’ that start around 0:57 — so dreamy.)

Today is the first day of the semester. It’s been a long month full of deadlines and much, much busier than a January *should* be, I think. Of course there are always deadlines but I think the busiest bit is past, which seems funny to say on the first day of the semester. But I’m optimistic, and thinking of that train ride makes me evermoreso.


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dispatches from the rails

maura @ 4:12 pm

Look, I get it that lots of people like cars. But those people are stupid. How can they possibly resist train travel? The scenery slipping by, the ability to read/write/nap, and (of late) plentiful electricity and usable-if-pokey wifi.

Yes, there are other people, egads! But there’s something kind of comforting about the we’re all in this togetherness of a train, as opposed to the hurtling by at high speeds in our own personal metal coffinness of cars.

(Though like a good 49% [or is it 51%?] introvert I am wearing my headphones but not listening to anything because I don’t want anyone to talk to me.)

I can see you suckas on the NJ Turnpike right now! Ha! You are not typing on a computer, you are paying attention to the road! And hoping there’s not any early rush hour traffic in Philadelphia! (And if you were me as a passenger, you’d be feeling barfy and carsick probably right now, too.)

I do wish that the tray tables were a bit lower, though. Or that my laptop didn’t run as hot as it does. Makes for toasty knees.

Dear Amtrak, please don’t go bankrupt. Please figure out a way to score a huge investment of funds so you can build more track and speedier trains and make it so I never ever have to drive or fly anywhere east of the Mississippi ever again.
Yr pal,

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