29 Nov

Making Tracks

“Along for the ride” in Main Line Today (December, 2012).

The burgundy engine hums to life with a subtle twist of the wrist, leaving behind fathers with suitcases and moms clutching the hands of children. Frozen on the platform, the tiny figures wait for a train they’ll never board.

The ride is corky smooth, over fields of green sandpaper and through snowy mountains with papier-mâché peaks. Orchard trees mix with tall evergreens. Boldly standing too close to the tracks, one tree is quickly uprooted and lies awkwardly on its side, a casualty of the passing Pennsylvania steamer.

Emerging from the picturesque countryside, the train descends into the valley and its town of lampposts, park benches, and stalled cars. Lights glow from the houses, church, movie theater, gas station, and hardware store. Townsfolk mill about; boys deliver newspapers; carolers sing; families skate on the mirrored pond. Some brave the cold to catch It’s a Wonderful Life at the drive-in. A nearby baseball field sits empty.

The tiny engine pushes on, past water towers, quarries, and factories; over trellis bridges and back to the station, where the dads with suitcases and moms with children still wait patiently. A quick engine switch, and the journey begins anew.

So it goes with the time machine that is the model train. No matter the engine – Conrail, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and the rest – the train has the magical ability to stop time. Frozen in the moment like the motionless figures on the platform, the conductor is freed from the future so that he may enjoy the present while reliving the past.

Women often question the allure of the model train for grown men. (If you’re a female reading this, I commend you for getting this far.) But the attraction is quite simple. As boys, it was a hobby that allowed us to fashion our own world free of the busyness and silliness we witnessed in the one ruled over by adults. We lived in the moment, and hoped it would last forever.

I’m convinced that it all goes back to the book of Genesis and our desire to escape God’s world and create our own. On the first day, boy created the platform and laid the grass. Day two brought the tracks; days three and four, the mountains, trees, and ponds. The fifth was dedicated to villages and their frozen inhabitants.

But there was something missing. Boy was lonely. And so, on day six, he invented the model train.

Years later, we’re still trying to create our own world, a refuge from that busy and silly adult world in which we now live.

Sadly, our fantasies are typically relegated to a small plywood platform in a cold basement or garage – and even then, it’s often just for the month of December. After that, it’s time to pack up our world into cardboard boxes again. Life must go on.

Still, we’re happy to vanish to the place of our banishment, so long as we can turn that knob on the transformer, send power through those tracks, and bring an engine to life.

You see, day seven is our day of rest. Eve has her world, and we have ours. And God saw that it was good.

22 Nov

Thanksgiving and the Quieting Season

“Quiet Time” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 22, 2012).

Stepping out into the cold November night, I shut the door behind me and listen. Inside, muted voices laugh and reminisce; children holler; an uncle plays “Heart and Soul” on the piano. Outside, however, all is still save the winter wind. Trees sway, a honking goose passes by above, and the streets are empty. Society has gathered indoors this evening, giving thanks and stuffing hearts and bodies with the sustenance of family and food. Outside, the quieting season has arrived.

I breathe in the cool air on this smoke-filled night as chimneys exhale deep warm breaths. The fiery scent warms my soul. It is as if the night itself were one continuous benediction. I grab hold of the fleeting quiet, fearing its farewell.

For me, Thanksgiving is the beginning of the quieting season. The natural world slows down with the coming of winter; squirrels squirrel away their collections of nuts; frogs find refuge under a muddy bed of leaves; bears take to their dens; and trees stand bare.

As nature goes, so should we. The season offers us a chance to embrace nature’s quiet and turn off the noise that invades our every waking moment. When we quiet our lives, we give ourselves a chance to reflect, contemplate, and simply be. Quieting is essential to our well-being.

Sadly, while many embrace this practice on Thanksgiving, by day’s end the noise begins to encroach on the quiet. And the noise is everywhere.

There’s Black Friday noise, which once reverently conceded a day of quiet to Thanksgiving. Not anymore: “Hurry up and carve the turkey, Grandpa. Walmart opens in an hour!” The noise also hit our front steps this morning with the heavy thud of circulars crammed into the day’s paper, and the clamor and clatter will begin in earnest when the stores’ doors begin to open tonight.

Noise has many disguises, and some of it is actually quiet in form. It has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, and we’ve unwittingly embraced it all.

There’s Facebook noise. Postelection noise. Continuous Christmas-caroling noise on the radio. TV noise, even in checkout lines and at gas pumps. Cellphone and text-message noise. Weather-forecast noise. Hectic-calendar noise. Donald Trump noise. Talk-radio noise. #StopTheNoise Twitter noise. Remote-control noise. Spam noise. Self-help noise.

Like a virus, noise is transmitted to us unnoticed, infects our bodies, and reaches a feverish pitch that makes us ill. There is no medicinal treatment for it; our bodies are left to their own defenses. So it is with noise. No one is going to stop it; we must do it for ourselves. After all, we have chosen much of the noise.

Sometimes we just need to choose quiet. If you’ve ever stumbled upon public television’s yearly fund-drive showing of Alone in the Wilderness and found yourself drawn to Dick Proenneke’s simple life in the Alaskan wilderness, you know the yearning to choose quiet. Sure, Proenneke impresses us by whittling a spoon or a log cabin with equal ease, but what truly transfixes viewers is the hunger to live his poetic life of quiet simplicity, even if only for a little while.

That little while can be now. After we gather with friends and family and fill ourselves with food and memories to last through the approaching winter days, the quieting season is upon us.

Let’s seize the silence, mute the noise, and listen to the quiet of the soul. We might be surprised by how much it has to say.

01 Nov

Without a Trace

“Mud and memories” in Main Line Today (November, 2012).

I stood on the front stoop, looking left and right. A sneaker dangled from each hand.

All was quiet. Too quiet.

Lawn mowers, blowers, and circular saws were silenced. The bouncing echo of the basketball faded. The Sunday sun was about to call it a day. My unseen neighbors were enjoying their suburban silence.

Summoning the courage to shatter the stillness, I stretched out my arms, paused briefly for dramatic effect, and then violently clapped my sneakers together.

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

As the sound echoed throughout the neighborhood, a day’s worth of dirt trickled to the ground like a dusty rain falling over the grass. Sneaker treads, having captured the earth in adventures on it, returned soil to its source in brittle, zigzagged molds.

I held up the sneakers to inspect. Both heels stubbornly held onto earthen souvenirs. I stretched out my arms again.

WHACK! WHACK!

Dirt crumbled and caked off. A large patch of mud, dried into a partial footprint in a fossilized relic of muddy play, fell to the ground.

One more WHACK for good measure and the sneakers were ready for adventure again. The clap echoed in the stillness.

I stole a glance left and right to make sure I was not spotted. Suddenly, though, a police siren sounded in the distance. They’re coming for me! Disturbing the peace! Disorderly conduct! Creating a nuisance! Littering! Maybe even a charge of Tom Foolery too! I ran inside and slammed the door shut behind me.

All was quiet. Too quiet.

My heart jumped at a heavy rap at the door. I opened it a crack.

“Yes, officer?”

 “Sir, we received a call about a noise violation.”

“I don’t know anything about that, officer. All’s quiet here.”

The officer held up a fossilized footprint in his hands. “Sir, is this yours?”

I quickly tried to shut the door but he pushed it open. There I stood, caught Ked-handed. Sneakers at my side, I simply shrugged my shoulders and pleaded for sympathy. He would have none of it and immediately launched into a recitation of my Miranda rights. Barefoot, I was handcuffed and led past gawking neighbors to the back of the police cruiser.

As we drove to the precinct, I gazed out the window and watched clouds cover the sky. It began to rain.

Parents called out to children, hurrying them off green yards in a frantic bid to protect both lawn and living room from any potential source of mud. Brightly colored Crocs, incapable of collecting a day’s worth of play underfoot, were kicked off at the door.

“To the mudroom, children! Crocs to their cubbies!”

Such a sad shoe, I lamented. A child could conquer the world in a late summer day: climbing trees, discovering a wooded world beyond the manicured grass, and trolling for turtles by the pond. And yet, when done wearing Crocs, hardly a trace of the glorious day would return home. No muddy treads; no clapping Crocs. There is nothing more dissatisfying than the weak sound of clapping Crocs together. If it doesn’t echo, it can’t be a shoe.

The cruiser continued through town, and we passed a soccer match at the high school field. Lots of muddy cleats tonight, I smiled. As we drove closer, though, I saw the artificial turf and the smile faded. No mud in the mudroom tonight, I guess.

We pulled up to the station just as the soft rain turned to a downpour. The officer led me across the puddle-filled parking lot to the entrance. Before opening the door, he looked down at my grubby bare feet and gestured to the welcome mat.

“Wipe your feet, son.”