Trains — The New Way to Travel (Part Three)

BLOG #24, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAINS – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Three)
June 11, 2014

During that long night, the train would stop at Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City, Utah. At Salt Lake City, many got off, and many got on. But since the overhead lights were left at dim, we were only partly aware of the stops. Then came Elko and Winemucca, Nevada; but again we were little aware of the stops. Not until Reno, did we thoroughly awaken. By breakfast time, we were climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Never before had we seen so little snow in the Sierras in mid-April. It was late afternoon when the train drew into the Old Sacramento train station. Here we disembarked, rented a car, and drove up the San Joaquin Valley to Red Bluff, where my sister and brother-in-law live.

IMAX ON WHEELS

A week later, we boarded the east-bound California Zephyr in Sacramento. Right on time. By now we’d become one with the rhythm of the train and life inside it.

Europeans and world travelers are fascinated by America’s vast open spaces, the grandeur of the West; for there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the world. They don’t show that fascination in planes–but they certainly do in trains. On trains you see people from all over the world who are entranced by the majesty of the American landscape. To them, rolling through the West in an Amtrak car is like looking through IMAX lenses at some of the world’s most iconic scenery slowly rolling by. Just as interesting: to see Americans discover for the very first time their own heritage outside their windows.

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Everywhere we’d been, during that intervening week, people had asked us what it was like to travel on a train. We couldn’t have attracted much more attention if we’d announced we’d be on the next space flight. Because we live in a “ho-hum” and “whatever” time, almost never do people get energized or excited about anything any more. Planes certainly don’t excite any more; indeed, the normal response to hearing we’re taking a plane somewhere is either complete boredom or commiseration. Not even cruise ship travel excites any more. But rather, “sure hope you don’t get sick!” or “Where you going this time?” Hardly anyone travels by bus anymore. And car travel is–just car travel. This is why it’s so amazing to see so many people light up and gush when told we’re traveling by train. “Oh, be sure and tell me what it’s like when you get back!” or “You lucky guy! Can I tag along?”

Life has, in truth, come full circle: what’s old has become new, and what’s new has become old. Retro is in. Roughing it is in. Five-star hotels are passé. Children and young people are searching for experiences that are fresh, new, and not cookie cutter. This is why trains are in and planes are out.

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Interestingly enough, the same phenomenon is true on trains. All you hear around you are variations on “Thank God we’re traveling by train!” “Isn’t plane travel awful!” “Isn’t it great to be free to get up, walk around, talk to people, play games, eat whatever or whenever we want, relax or sleep, with no timetable to worry about!”

Really, it’s one big mutual admiration society! Hardly a soul wants to be anywhere else but on a train. And they love the Observation Car. The interaction with people of all ages, the running down to the snack area below whenever they want a bite to eat, the opportunity to play board games, to laugh, to reminisce, to joke–but more than anything else: to talk with people and find out what makes them tick.

Then there’s the Dining Car (right next to the Observation Car). We actually looked forward to the three full meals a day they offer there. The food was surprisingly good. And the vegetarian options were most palatable. But really, you’d have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the full difference. Had we been traveling by auto, it would have taken us two and a half days (including two nights at a motel), the stress of driving long hours, finding acceptable eating options on the road, gas costs alone would have totaled over $500 for the round trip–not counting repair problems or road hazards. Meals would have cost us at least as much, per meal, as on board Amtrak.

But oh the difference! To get on the train and be able to fully relax. No driving pressures. No hauling in and out suitcases each night. No missing much of the scenery because of driving demands. Just sit back, relax, and watch America slowly pass by. Tired of sitting? Wander down to the Snack Car, the Observation Car, the Dining Car. Get acquainted with your fellow passengers.

Occasionally, one of the train personnel would get on the mike and tell us about the history of sites we were passing by. Later on, I discovered that someone has written and published three books detailing every significant history-related spot in the entire transcontinental train route from the Atlantic to the Pacific! I saw all three in one of the train station gift shops.

There’s also not a little of “Now that we’re here, let’s close the door! We don’t want too many people to discover how wonderful train travel is, because they might then wreck it for the rest of us.”

The one sad negative for the host of wanabee train travelers is that trains service all too few locales across the country. Radically different than it used to be when trains connected virtually every hamlet in America. Europe is much more fortunate than we are in this respect.

Next week, I’ll be bringing to a conclusion my paean to train travel.”

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WSJ – Best Kept Secret in America?

BLOG #22, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WSJ – BEST KEPT SECRET IN AMERICA?
May 29, 2013

It certainly was a secret where I was concerned, for all those years I just considered the Wall Street Journal to be merely the best-known of all financial newspapers, and what tycoons and wannabe tycoons subscribed to. Was I ever wrong!

Perhaps up until recently I just wasn’t ready to find out, lulled as I was by the assumption that, after half a millennium years of cultural dominance by print and paper, nothing significant was likely to alter that state of affairs.

But then came the long societal earthquake which triggered a seemingly endless succession of toppling dominoes. Small-town newspapers were first; then large dailies such as Rocky Mountain News in Colorado. At first I managed to console myself that the demise of that beloved old paper might not be all bad if the surviving paper, The Denver Post, would thereby become twice as strong, twice as rich, twice as interesting – but that didn’t happen. Then I began to hear of the demise of other well-known newspapers. And the ones that managed to survive seemed to be but pale shadows of what they once were, kept alive only by advertising; and when that too began to go elsewhere, massive staff layoffs became the norm.

Magazines were next. Actually, this equally sad development was anything but new, for magazines had been in steady retreat ever since the Great Depression hit in the 1930’s. Indeed magazines had ruled supreme over all other media in the 1910’s,1920’s and 1930’s, magazine editors paying writers more than book publishers or movie studio producers. Even though my wife and I had subscribed to both Time and Newsweek over the years, we’d always preferred Newsweek. Then I began to hear rumors I first considered to be all but impossible: my favorite news magazine, after a century of vibrant life, might not make it. And, not long before its last print issue; same for another news magazine I’d often read or consulted: U.S. News and World Report.

And then came what I first assumed would be merely a fad: e-books. Not in my wildest dreams did I envision electronic books ever challenging the supremacy of printed books! But like Dickens’ immortal supplanter, Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, e-books seemingly were determined to supplant traditional ink and paper.

Just when I’d almost given up on print, one day at an airport, I idly picked up a copy of WSJ. Huh? Couldn’t be! After all, USA Today had a monopoly on national newspaper readership. Or did it?

I kept buying WSJ, then subscribed to it. An eye-opening series of daily newspaper thefts (always the WSJ, never The Denver Post), jolted me. Was the WSJ so good that people would break the law to steal copies that didn’t belong to them? Evidently so.

Gradually I became aware that a phoenix was arising from the graveyards of print. A newspaper that was a print window to the world. In depth, well-written, fascinating articles, columns, reviews, etc., that kept me informed on events, not just local, not just national, but global. And not just financial, not just political, but something I as a historian of ideas had only seen in Smithsonian’s incredible monthly magazines – art, music, books, fashion, religion, history, anthropology, geology, biography, cinema, television, burning cultural issues, sports . . . on and on. And Friday and Saturday’s expanded issues were so fascinating it would sometimes take half a day to fully digest them. I no longer missed Newsweek.

Having said all this, in many respects the same conclusions could be drawn for newspapers such as the New York Times, that also deliver well-drawn windows to the world. Indeed, a case could be made for reading both newspapers in order to arrive at a balanced synthesis of opposing political viewpoints.

Nor am I maintaining that faithfully reading newspapers such as WSJ or NYT each day may alone result in Renaissance men or Renaissance women, for today we are bombarded by such incessant streams of knowledge and information (mostly electronically) that the big problem may have to do with the distillation of it: making sense of it all.

We ought to be concerned about the demise of journalism, evidenced by the killing off of elementary and secondary newspapers, for the result will be a further diminution of adult journalistic minds. For make no mistake about it: electronic sound-bytes, thirty-second attack ads, electronic infomercials, and half-hour news broadcasts that include no more news substance than would fill one-half-page of newspapers such as the WSJ or NYT, are no substitute for thoughtful in-depth reading; for simplistic pre-digested information, not offset by broad in-depth reading, inevitably will result in adults crippled by myopic views of life and current issues.

Which brings me back to the reason I walk out each morning to the mailbox: to pick up The Denver Post (that fills me in on local/regional news) and the Wall Street Journal (that broadens my horizon so that I can see the broad global picture – the Zeitgeist).

What a pity that so few Americans today realize what they are missing by their disregard of newspapers, magazines and books.

I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!

BLOG #31, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!
Part One
August 1, 2012

Yes, it’s true! Six days ago, Terry Bolinger and I were privileged to experience tomorrow’s publishing world before it actually arrived. The venue was one of the oldest and largest publishing conglomerates in the world, and we were graciously given a two-hour VIP tour.

As we threaded our way through room after room of machinery, we experienced first a world I felt supremely comfortable in: the world of traditional print, that began during the decade of 1440 – 1450, with the German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg leading the way with his 42-line Bible in 1456, 556 years ago. That Golden Age of Print reached its zenith during the century beginning in 1880 and ending in 1980 (roughly speaking). I am personally a product of its last half.

Occasionally, during my blogs and published writing, I have referred to the tides of life: periodically, both collectively and individually, we experience ebb-tides and incoming-tides. They are God-given because nothing in all creation is static, for change is constant. But both ebb-tides and incoming-tides dramatically alter our lives, for better or for worse.

Perhaps some of the most poignant and pertinent lines in all literature were penned by the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson in “The Mill,” which contains in its muffled understated lines two work-related suicides:

“The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
‘There are no millers any more,’
Was all that she had heard him say;
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.”

The second stanza contains his suicide by hanging, and the third concludes with her drowning.

Back then, every self-respecting hamlet and town boasted a mill, where farmers brought the product of their land to be ground into food for themselves and their livestock. But suddenly, due to the pace of technological change, the miller realized with a shudder that since “There are no millers anymore,” his place in the world had been eradicated; the only career he knew was, without preamble or advance warning, no more. The mill itself, in which he and his ancestors from time immemorial had invested their life savings, was now all but worthless. Facing absolute financial ruin, he concluded that suicide offered the only viable alternative to starvation and bankruptcy; and she, facing a world which demeaned women and offered them terribly few career options, was so overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation, that she quietly slipped into the mill-pond, feeling it offered the least messy departure from life.

There is an equally powerful short story written by the English author John Galsworthy. Simply titled “Quality,” it tells the story of a London shoemaker who prides himself on making the best and longest lasting shoes and boots it was possible to make. His customers knew their footware would be custom-made to their own foot contours. Of course they took time to make for each was a one-of-a-kind work of art. But technological change made possible mass market footware at lower prices and instant availability. And Galsworthy’s protagonist ends up starving himself to death rather than compromise on the issue of quality. Whenever I have read this story out loud to my students, there has been absolute silence in the classroom, the ultimate tribute to a life-changing story.

So what Terry and I saw and experienced six days ago represents both an ebb-tide to a vanishing way of life and an incoming-tide whose long-range impact can only be guessed at. One reality is, however, inescapable: life as we know it, and have known it, will never be again.

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We will pick up where I left off (beginning the publishing house tour) next Wednesday.

A TREMBLING WORLD – Part 4

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

A TREMBLING WORLD – Part 4

It is a very sobering picture, isn’t it (the last three blogs)?  It is indeed.  Yet, even so, I promised last week that we’d now turn to the up-side, affirmation, hope, solutions.

It is time.

A DIFFERENT WORLD

You will remember that, several times in recent months I have referred to my earlier prediction that, historically speaking, the other side of the zeros (100-year-turn, 500-year-turn, 1000-year-turn) invariably turns out to be radically different from all that came before—and that this one, being all three (100, 500, and 1000) would inevitably prove to be the most seismic since the years 1500 and 1000.  We are only now beginning to realize that the ebbtide of the old order is taking place before our very eyes.  What we don’t know yet is what kind of incoming tide will replace the receding one.  We can only guess.

What we can predict with a high degree of accuracy is that the pace of life and change will continue to increase in speed as the world continues to constrict into nanotechnology.  So when did all this begin to accelerate?  Only three-hundred years ago: when the zeros of 1800 replaced the zeros of the 1700’s.  Up until that crucial watershed (turning point), for millennia, the pace of life had remained relatively unchanged: the fastest land-speed being a galloping horse and the fastest sea-speed being a sailing-ship.  Because neither of these optimum speeds could be long sustained (obstacles on land and becalming on water), there was no need for clocks; sundials worked well enough, until the industrial revolution of the 1800’s when steam-power replaced sail-power.  Only when ever faster locomotives made it imperative that we divide the nation into time zones, did accurate time become relevant, for before the invention of mechanical engines, no one could possibly know for sure when either a land-vehicle or a sea-vessel would arrive at a given destination.

Every year since 1800, the pace of life has continued to accelerate.  Sometimes at such a rate that the juxtaposition of two opposites proved to be ridiculous (such as during World War I, fought with both cavalry horses and armored tanks; fought with both drifting balloons and power-driven airplanes).

Nostalgically, my thoughts drift back in time a half-century to a musical play my high school students put on during the mid 1960s.  Our theme song was “Far Away Places,” and the play began and ended with a dreaming teenager in her home bedroom, and the lyrics had to do with “those far away places with strange-sounding names.”  The music that followed came from all over the world.  Places that seemed strangely exotic to us back before jet travel replaced prop-engine travel. The world seemed so vast to us back then!

I remember when I first heard the phrase: “The world is a vast web, and you can’t touch any part of it without it affecting the lives of everyone else.”  That seemed so far-fetched back then, really too much of a stretch to take seriously.  So what if rainforests in far away Brazil or Papua New Guinea were being cut down at an ever-increasing rate?  It surely couldn’t affect me!  Far-fetched then because I’d never been to either place, and with the pace of travel back then, it seemed unlikely I ever would.  But that’s not true today when I can doze off in one continent and wake up next morning in another, thousands of miles away.  When astronauts can return to earth after having actually walked on the moon!

But the flip-side of speed is nanotechnology: being able to reduce all life and technology to such infinitesimal proportions that the naked eye cannot see it at all.  And thanks to this new  technology, sports victories can now be accurately calibrated down to a hundredth of a second—even a thousandth!

Not surprisingly, national boundaries are increasingly viewed as both indefensible and outdated, and dictatorships are toppling like rows of dominos thanks to the worldwide web of the Internet.  Not even the strongest walls in the world can keep the Pentagon’s innermost secrets from being hacked.  Corporations can set up shop in the loosy-goosiest countries (regulation-wise) on the planet; and jobs can be out-sourced to wherever in the world the hourly pay is the cheapest.  No longer does someone in the most powerful country in the world have the edge over someone in the poorest country, given that access to a computer so levels the playing field that Thomas Friedman can justifiably announce that “The World is Flat.”

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So now comes this global slowdown that dramatically changes every aspect of life for every person on this planet—not just ours here in the U.S.  Everything was working so well—as late as only three years ago.  Then Bam!  Bam!  Bam! —one after another, the bludgeon blows continue, with no apparent end in sight.  No one appears to have the answers.  In the words of that timeless baseball skit: “Nobody’s on first.”  Nobody.  Not here in the U.S.  Not anywhere else in the world either.  All even the most powerful leaders in the world know is this: the old order, the old template that enabled all the markets in the world to peacefully coexist and churn out prosperity for the majority of the world’s industrial powers, is broken, and there isn’t a mechanic in the world who knows how to fix it.

That’s just it: it is unfixable.  The answer nobody wants to hear is this: A new template, evolved from scratch, must be created from our new realities.  It is anything but a quick fix, and it is almost certain to take a long time to develop.  And we have to face the likelihood that when we do finally get it up and running again, so that the world’s markets once again purr their satisfaction, even that template will be foredoomed to a short shelf life, because change in future years will be near continuous.

The good news is that these are exciting times in which to live.  We have been long overdue for a course-correction; unfortunately, we waited so long that this one is likely to be the mother of all lulus.

Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss silver-linings.