08/05/2013* My thanks to Glenn Sanders for his help in restoring the text of the missing entry from last week.
You thought I was going to say traveled didn’t you?
A few days ago I received a thoughtful email from a reader in Australia. He wanted to say
thanks for the ideas expressed in Volumes 1-2 of The Missing Conversation. He shared the
frustration he’d experienced over the last three years or so in trying to plan a layout for a
modest spare bedroom. He told of how he had tried all of the accepted layout planning
methods: givens and druthers, planning squares, LDEs and that none of these methods,
useful as they might be, were helpful in producing an acceptable outcome for his situation.
Needless to say he was frustrated. In time, he understood why; he was trying to follow
someone else’s path and ideas instead of listening to what his gut was telling him.
A 10′ x10′ spare bedroom doesn’t leave a lot of space for a layout in any scale. In such a
modest space it’s easy to overcrowd things to the point of excess and caricature. My
Australian friend was stumbling because he was trying to design a layout and operating
scenario that was far too large and complicated for his space.
He had his epiphany when he started paying attention to the qualities that attract him to
full-size railroads. He also gave himself permission to ignore the design conventions of
traditional layouts and operations because he simply doesn’t have the space for them. He
decided to focus on what many would consider a highly intangible quality about his chosen
prototype: the “mechanical presence” of an Australian Outback diesel. This understanding
led him to a suitable prototype location with the features he was looking for. The layout
design he came up with is a much better fit for his space and allows for the full expression
of that intangible mechanical presence. He’s now happy and satisfied with his choices. That’s
all any of us can reasonably hope for from the hobby.
As a writer it’s very gratifying to learn your work has had a positive impact like this.
Though I can’t take credit for his successful outcome. He did all the hard work and made the
If I can’t see it , it don’t exist.
I write a lot about the intangibles of full-size railroading. Things like atmosphere, texture,
mood and storytelling. Maybe some readers are sick of it and just wish I’d move on to
something more useful. I’m here to say, however, that those intangible qualities that we all
have a hard time articulating are what separates one layout from the dozens of cookiecutter,
look-alike efforts out there. I’ve cited my favorite examples of this many times and I
won’t embarrass those folks again.
We’ve become so focused on the tangible stuff: the locos, the cars, track designs and such,
that we think that’s all the hobby consists of. For most it is. The tangibles are real. You can
touch them, see, hear and interact with them to your heart’s content. In sum, we give them
value because of their physical nature. All this artsy intangible stuff? Ahhhh….I dunno (read,
“and I don’t care”).
Okay. Fair enough. Might we agree though that a model locomotive that moves with a silky
smoothness that conveys the ponderous mass of the real thing has value too? Isn’t that
impression of mass conveyed by the smooth motion a pretty intangible quality and far more
preferable to one that rockets off like a bat out of hell every time you touch the throttle? I
think so and I know which one I’d choose.
Furthermore, why do we add sound effects to a model, or background sound even? That
plastic air horn isn’t really blowing, nor the bell ringing, or birds singing, so why bother?
What purpose does it serve to make a hunk of plastic look old and rusty? Oh right, they all
add something intangible like an increased sense of presence, realism and life.
Whether we can articulate it or not, doesn’t the meaning of those intangible qualities have
value as well? My answer is absolutely yes. However, you’ll have to decide that for