These models we build are amazing works of engineering and of art. They are something to be proud of and the time invested in them was wisely spent not just for the satisfaction of a model’s completion but for the growth we triggered in ourselves as we honed the craft of the hobby and our mastery of its skills.”

This quote by Chris Mears from his Prince Street blog has stayed with me all week. 

Chris also asked this question and, it’s a great one: “What’s so wrong with discussing the hobby maturely?”

Indeed. Why does that seem so difficult?

I’ve been thinking on this topic for several days, trying to sort it out for my own benefit as I struggle to understand and clarify my thoughts about why this craft seems so compelling to some and so banal to others. Let me burst any bubbles of expectation now, I have no clue about any larger answers. I can only share my own perspective.

My dictionary was disappointing in its definition of the word conversation, saying simply that it’s an informal talk. That only left me wanting more, because many of my most enjoyable conversations went far beyond simple, informal talks. The best ones were explorations into the world without and within; being not only about the subject at hand but also my views, my bias, and my understanding or pitiful lack thereof. They were true vehicles of discovery that helped me grow and such discussions were also rare and therefore, cherished.

In the starkest contrast imaginable to that idea, so much of the rhetoric surrounding the hobby of model trains is shrill, ego laden, histrionic and useless babbling that only seeks to win an argument and eliminate or discredit any dissenting views rather than explore and understand them.

I’m not ignorant. I realize that many open forums are profoundly skewed by a minority who seem to do nothing else but blather on, displaying their own lack of judgement for all to see. What’s truly sad is that this is the only impression many people will ever have about this craft. Three questions about the conversation come to mind:

Why does it have to be this way?

What could it become?

How might we do it differently?

Why does it have to be this way?
It may be simplistic, but the human condition accounts for much of the answer to the first question and, I’m really not qualified to explore this line of thinking, so I’ll leave it alone.

But there are other factors in play. We perpetuate a culture that reveres answers. The existing literature is built around answering What and How. What car is that? It’s a Pullman Standard 5344. How do I lay track? You get some cork roadbed material and…

Once answered, the issue is resolved, and while there is certainly a time, place and need for them, these definitive answers often become the sole definition of the hobby for people.

Such a relentless focus on what and how is less tolerant of questions about Why. Such open-ended questions often challenge the pat answers and definitions, which can feel threatening to many. Asking why doesn’t lend itself to simple answers.

What could it become?
Again, I can only offer a personal perspective. For me, the craft is an ongoing conversation between my understanding of full-size railroading and its creative expression in miniature.

Valley Jct. looking east

My Classroom.
Where I not only learn about the full-size world but also about what I bring to it.

My exploration of this work is a classroom that teaches me as much about myself as about the subject at hand. Seen in that light, it need never grow stale or boring unless I bring my own boredom to it. Further, it’s only limited by my spirit of inquiry. This quote from watercolorist Chinmaya Panda from The Art Of Watercolor magazine sums it up beautifully for me.

“I consider myself a learner: I believe that I am still in a learning mode and this helps keep the artist inside of me alive. Learners are curious and I am naturally curious. It is this curiosity that drives me, motivating me to paint, to put my ideas, my perspective of the world around me onto paper. No matter how skillful you become, painting never gets easy. The reason why painting remains so demanding is because as you improve, your results grow more rewarding, which pushes you to increase your skill. That, in turn, will carry with it enriched insights and an urge to pursue greater challenges requiring still greater mastery, and so on. The demands of painting will always remain greater than your expertise.” 

Those last three sentences strike me as profound and completely applicable to modeling trains in miniature, regardless of whether you consider yourself a model builder or an operator.

New section of scenery ready for vegetation

My Studio.
Where theory meets practice and I learn who I need to become to do the work I’ve chosen.

Once basic skills are in hand, what then? This is as far as the majority ever go, simply repeating the same things at the same level and wondering why they’re bored; never knowing, and I paraphrase:

The reason why painting (model railroading) remains so demanding is because as you improve, your results grow more rewarding, which pushes you to increase your skill.  That, in turn, will carry with it enriched insights and an urge to pursue greater challenges requiring still greater mastery, and so on. The demands of painting (and this craft) will always remain greater than your expertise.” 

Mill Street Mood -My Indiana & Whitewater

My Canvas.
Where the demands and possibilities of the craft will always exceed my expertise.

How might we do it differently?
I’m fully aware that framing the craft as a ongoing conversation is beyond the pall for many who just want to play train. It’s just more of the nonsensical ramblings of someone who needs to get a life. Yet, the change in the conversation has to start someplace, and your own mind is a good place to begin. Whether we need anyone else’s validation or whether others like our views isn’t the point. We are pursuing the craft in ways that enrich our lives and that is the point and, the work itself is the only validation worth seeking.