A train story, part VI


Welcome to part 6 of my life-long quest to write 88 Train Stories. I really do intend to finish this series in sixty years’ time.

Last weekend, I took the Amtrak down to DC from Penn Station. I opted for the train over the bus, which means I’ve passed Level 4 of Adulthood. Next on the list is being able to fold my clothes properly.

Right outside of Philadelphia, the train came to a screeching halt. The engine shut down, the AC turned off, and you could hear a pin drop in the car.

No power. No AC.

After thirty minutes, we’re still sitting there. The train has become a sauna. Why the hell is it 95 degrees in September.

Thirty minutes after that, we’re still sitting there, roasting nicely. No one’s really told us much.

Finally, after an hour of waiting, we’re told that they are sending a replacement engine. Fifteen minutes later, it arrives. Fifteen minutes after that, the power is back, the sweat beads dry up, the train breaks out in applause, and we’re on our way.

But this isn’t a post about Amtrak. Or my heat stroke. Or the lack of customer service.  I’m not going to air my grievances about Amtrak, because no one cares. This is a post about choice.

You see, kids, whenever we face the inevitable suckitude of life – those everyday mundane annoyances like waiting in traffic or standing in line or sitting on a hot dead train – we have a choice. We can get frustrated, annoyed, impatient. This is our default setting as humans. It is wired into us, and like many things that are wired into us, it is hard to shake.

Or we can just, like, deal with the problem in a thoughtful way, and force ourselves to stay calm and reasonable.

So as I sat there on the train, I thought of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water speech. This is what I often do in annoying life situations. Here’s DFW:

“The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work
of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long
checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious
decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be
pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural
default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about
me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home,
and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way.”

I tried to make a conscious effort to not get angry, to instead accept that the situation is out of my control. I tried not to ask Why me? Why this train? Because I am not immune from the crap that life throws at you. I tried to just sit there in peace and listen to some music.

Of course, I failed miserably. I was frustrated. My blood pressure rose. How could it not? Then I texted several expletives to my friends waiting for me in DC. But, here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t yell a ‘GODDAMMIT’ like one of my fellow passengers. I didn’t openly complain to the conductor, even though it was probably warranted. I didn’t complain to other passengers that I simply cannot be late. I didn’t get angry, I didn’t show my frustration, and after awhile I realized that there was nothing I could do, and then I calmed down, and then it was fine.

And I considered that a small victory, because it’s hard to stay sane in those situations. It’s hard to look at those situations as anything other than miserable. But as I’ve often said, it’s not a bad thing to have optimism as a default setting. And so I came out of that situation thinking that things could be a lot worse.

This isn’t to say that you can’t get angry. By all means, get angry! Sometimes it feels good to get angry. Remember when Ryan Dempster hit A-Rod in the back a few years ago? It was the most blatant hit by pitch of all time, and he wasn’t ejected, and yeah, I got pretty angry about that.

I’m not trying to provide a moral compass here – as DFW wrote: “Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to. “

But I do think it is important to approach life in a way where you’re, I don’t know, aware? Aware of what is around you. Aware of what you can and can’t control. Aware that you can decide how to respond to certain situations.  Yeah, I think simple awareness is a good step towards getting through those situations without enduring misery.  And breathing. Breathing is good too.


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