I was in Chicago Saturday. I needed to get to Detroit. What not take the train.
I'm a train buff. So the train always occurs to me. And I think of it especially when confronted with the prospect of spending any time in a crowded, airless metal cylinder at 31,000 feet. Whenever I can take the train, I do take the train. (I hope the train reduces my carbon footprint, but honestly I don't know that it does. We burned a lot of diesel getting to Detroit. [If anyone knows how to do the "carbon math" here (train vs. plane), please let me know.])
Love of trains aside, I was also looking for a culturematic opportunity. My definition of the culturematic: "a little machine (or pretext) that helps make a cultural artifact." (See the post called "Culturematic: a device for making culture in two easy steps" here.)
The simple rule in this case: tweet whatever happens to you on a 5 hour train ride. There's something nicely bounded about a train ride. It edits the world for us, driving lots out, keeping lots in.
With this culturematic working for me, I didn't have to make very many literary decisions of my own. Just write about whatever happens on the train. These days people are not very well acquainted with train travel and I am assuming relatively few know the Chicago-Detroit run. It looked as if this simple rule would craft an interest artifact.
It went pretty well, I think. Over 5.5 hours, I tweeted around 60 times. (These are reproduced below. Note that they should be read in reverse order.) I did everything from my ThinkPad using my own wireless AT&T link. (The train doesn't have WiFi.) There were some moments of poor reception, interminable pauses as I waited for a text and photos to upload. The audio files were especially time consuming and I lost a few. But generally, things went smoothly.
I had a set of rules within my culturematic. I wanted to be entertaining and for this I was prepared to be maximally opportunistic. I would use anything that came to hand. I also felt some vague compulsion to give the reader the sense of "being there." So I was looking for things that helped me tell "the train story." The general idea then: be lively, be interesting, have fun, craft something that had some internal coherence and some expository heft.
Some tweets were a simple gift. The sound system at Union Station in Chicago has a glitch so that each gate is announced by a disembodied voice that has its own build-in repetition and echo. I recorded this using Tweetmic. (I think the links in the stream below are live. If they aren't I will try to insert them here.) It sounded like something straight out of Blade Runner, the movie. Excellent. I now had a "literary" reference.
Ethnographic observations are called for. One of these occurred to me in the waiting room from which I tweeted.
"Chicago2Detroit by train: from the waiting room: some travelers absorbed in their books. Others self conscious & look at watches ostentatiously."
(It's 6:30 in the morning so I misspell ostentatiously. Don't look.) People are often self conscious in public, and one of the usual deflection/displacement techniques we use is to look at our watches. It's says, "I'm not just sitting here. I'm waiting for something." But of course everyone in the lounge was also waiting for something, the same thing, so the message was in this case badly formed…and therefore kind of charming. We are reminded of the master observer of social life, Irving Goffman, who recorded many of the rules of public life. Its unlikely that readers see this tweet as an evocation of Goffman, but it made me feel like I now I had a "social science" reference too.
Then there was the Safety brochure in the seat pocket. Perfect. It easy to see what the problem was. The designer felt obliged to use icons, because, as we all know these are the secret of clear communication. Please, she had one for fire that was pretty standard. But smoke? How to represent smoke? Hmm. She did her best, leaving us with a perfect target for a little gentle ribbing: "This is what smoke looks like in a train emergency."
No train travel is complete without intrigue. Everytime I went to the club car, I noticed a woman scribbling furiously. My tweet:
"There's a writer in the bar car. It's easy for a noticer to notice a noticer. I just asked her to let me know if she publishes something."
I kept missing good photos. Working with an iPhone (slow) from a train (fast) means you often find yourself thinking "damn, that would make a good photo" when blammo, the train hurtles onwards and the opportunity is gone. Hm, I thought, the problem is tweetable.
"Several missed photo opps: Farmhouse with "FIREWORKS" written hugely on side. A tiny bank with it's sign installed upside down."
"Lunch on the train. Hold the silver. Hold the china. Bring on the I-cysteine azodicarboamide.
Pretty easy target. But I'm not proud. I'll take anything that comes my way. Naturally, I felt a certain pang here. I didn't especially want to make fun of the train. Some part of the point of the exercise was to persuade to use it more. Still, I think the honest tweeter must include the bad with the good, in this case, Amtrak warts and all.
I think the most effective pieces were the recordings. (And for these, many things to the application called Tweetmic.) I managed to record the sound of the station, the train leaving the station, the voice over apologizing for a brief delay. I almost got a woman talking to her mother. I hope you can hear these in the links below. (I'm not sure how to include them if you can't.) Let's see if this works. Click
for a sound file of the train leaving the station.
I leave it to you to decide whether this culturematic worked. I think it is probably best experienced in real time episodes.
Thank you to Jeanne Vaughn, Celestine Arnold, Christine Huang, and Global Hue for the invitation and to Google for the hospitality. Thanks to Russ Hopkinson for hosting an impromptu meeting of planners.
The Twitter feed for my train trip from Chicago to Detroit, Saturday, November 7.