In Praise of Trains

I write this on a sleeper train to Montreal from Moncton: the VIA Rail Ocean. Because of my general antipathy to air travel and because of their equivalent price, I splurged for an upper berth. VIA called and upgraded me for a cabin for one. This is the first long-distance train I’ve taken in a long time, certainly since learning to drive, and I have forgotten the way trains facilitate flow.

By flow, I’m thinking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s, the Hungarian-American psychologist, concept of the mental state of being immersed in an activity, with focus, energy concentration, and enjoyment, so that one loses track of time and feels “in the zone” (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins, 2009.) Although Csikszentmihalyi means what occurs when skill is matched to challenge, I am referring to the feeling of being fully immersed in the present.

The train facilitates flow.

The train has been an unexpected time to think, daydream, and write. Neither driving nor flying facilitates flow in the same way. Part of the reason is that the train is slow. I left Moncton yesterday at 5:30 pm, and I won’t get into Montreal until 10 am. After that, I go to Ottawa. It’s a 20-hour train journey.

The same flight takes a couple of hours, and requires rushing, people, stimulation, a terrible schedule, security, and lots of interruptions. While fast, flights don’t create time. The train can.

The semester was busy: four classes, a grant application, and a few writing projects. The train has been an unexpected gift of time.

I’ve graded term papers, entered grades, had dinner, stretched, meditated, sent some messages, had a beer, slept, had a leisurely breakfast, and written this. The steady sound of the train passing over the tracks lends itself to flow.

Prior to the pandemic, I used to travel for academic conferences. At times, they left me exhausted. But, at their best, conferences were space to engage ideas, to think about other people’s work, and to read. The travel to and from the conference were part of the fun, which is why I’ve not been terribly excited about online or hybrid conferences. I never seem to take the time. But, next conference, if I can swing it, I think train travel has air travel beat, precisely because it makes time.

Why I Suck at Email and Social Media

As academics, we get a lot of emails. Sometimes, my response time can vary from a few seconds to a few months. I’m not a Luddite, but if I want to prioritize the most important work, such as writing articles, books, lectures, and supervising students, then email has to come last. To free myself from the tyranny of email, I try to follow a few rules—often, I fail.

I try not to read or reply in the morning, and I attempt to avoid checking emails on weekends. I schedule emails to be sent the next morning and access them only on my computer.

As I get older, I try to avoid social media.

No email or social media on mobile devices.

So, what do I do when I’m not writing or checking email? Sometimes, although not often enough, I play with my children. Other times, I work in the garden, run errands, repair a crumbling farmhouse, ski, or find other ways to avoid writing. Not enough, but still significant, is the time I spend reading, drafting, transcribing, revising, editing, or engaging in other writing-related activities.

Often, I try to walk.

Writing a book is a time-consuming endeavour. It requires years of fieldwork, thousands of pages of notes, and a considerable amount of cutting, polishing, revising, and editing. In my written work, I come across as thoughtful, articulate, and well-written. However, I am not as articulate over email or social media.

The same goes for social media.

If I can write a good sentence for every unwritten post and unliked tweet, I am happy. I do post sometimes, but my posts are mostly about the process rather than my work or current affairs. I have no hot takes or quick analyses.

I am a slow writer.

I spend a lot of time on the computer, but I struggle with email and social media. I want to focus on writing. I often fail.

So, by all means, get in touch. I may reply, and if I do, it’ll be late in the day.

Updated 29 April 2023.