Train of Thought: Reflections on the Coast Starlight

In celebration of World Book Day, I’m previewing a sample chapter from my forthcoming book Train of Thought: Reflections on the Coast Starlight.

You can pre-order it now on Amazon


train of thought
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The train represented that ‘third place’ between work and home, a space for both productivity and relaxation. It could hum with the ambient sounds of a coffee shop — a scientifically proven pitch for productivity — yet lull people to sleep in the quiet car. While most passengers relaxed in private, their habits were all too revealing. Snorers, nail-biters, and loud eaters all advertised their flaws in public space.

Paul spent the past four years commuting in and out of New York City on the Metro-North Railroad. While most people considered the commute routine, Paul viewed it as a journey. Instead of pursuing the structured procrastination of work email, he used his free time to watch people, to catch up on reading, and to listen to music. He wore a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to avoid fated eavesdropping, especially on Friday nights when the entire train turned into a rowdy bar car. Paul nonetheless enjoyed all the stimulation.   

As a noticer, he rode the train with the eyes of a restless photojournalist. He liked to document everyday life: the Wall Street executive folding the newspaper in quarters, a teacher fastidiously marking up papers in red pen, the intern shuffling between playlists on her iPad, and the 9-to-5-er using the Fordham Station tunnel reflection to preen their hair. The mobile camera condemned Paul to record and remix the world around him. He felt compelled to recast his surroundings into new patterns and abstractions. A wannabe outsider, he piloted a future that strived to fight genres.

But the train also offered him one of the few moments in the day where he could disconnect and prime his brain for the day ahead. First, he wrote for five minutes in his journal trying to answer the eternal question — ‘what would make today great?’ Then, he meditated to induce a slow, purposeful experience to link his presence up to the train’s centered locomotion.

Every day, the New Haven Line slithered through the woods, passing colonial style homes before crossing into graffitied Bronx ghettoes. The train traveled over the Harlem River Bridge into Manhattan at 125th street before sliding underground into the Park Avenue tunnel to dock at Grand Central Station.

________

Paul liked the way railways seemed to skim the world, stitching together the surrounding landscape like pictures in an Instagram feed while the experience on the guts of the train was unedited and all too real like an Instagram Story. Every passenger adhered to the mores of their business world. Yet, the train was the engine of progress, the great social equalizer among the plurality of classes.

Paul looked for commonalities amid business people, custodians, and tourists in this shared space. Regardless of their bank account, everyone occupied the same-sized seat, a pitch of 39 inches b 23 inches in width, still roomier than most airline economy seats. On the Metro North, there was no such thing as the first class. Everyone was a temporary resident with Wifi.

Nearly every passenger stared into an electronic widget of some sort annihilating space and time of the world around them. No one appeared to care what reality they were living in as long as technology and the internet inured them to boredom. Paul hashtagged the phenomena–#neverlookup–to his Instagram photos although he too fell victim to screen culture.

Train-spotting bled into all Paul’s work. It helped him see patterns of conformity in all movements of capitalist realism. Climbing the ladder meant jumping through hoops and doing what you were told. While the corporate racetrack paid the bills, it drained creativity. Paul often felt too tired to “rage into his art” after a day of obedience.  Work beat the rebelliousness out of him.

His persistence ebbed and flowed. Like a true millennial, he refused to become another cog in the system yet he couldn’t quite nail down what his career had in store for him. The only thing he knew was that mediocrity was the antithesis to leading a meaningful life. At the end of the day, he wanted to do something that mattered.

He had reached an inflection point in his career. Unlike his friends peaking in their thirties, he was concaving downward. Working in the internet space shifted life too often to make five-year plans. He needed to get ahead of the next software upgrade; to be nimble and adapt, and fight like hell to develop a lifestyle that allowed him the freedom to do what he wanted.

One of the supposed answers to Paul’s mid-life crisis, at least in his head, was to write a book. The only thing stopping him was making time and doing the work. He struggled in facing the resistance but knew at the end of the day, the only thing that counted is if you could finish. People only remember what ships. 

One November morning Paul picked up a newspaper that had been left on the seat. One of the headlines read “Now Boarding: Amtrak Writers Residency.” Amtrak was gifting authors multi-stop tours across the United States. Paul felt excited but instantly dismayed by his lack of merit. He operated a blog in which he was the sole subscriber; the rest were paid bots. He built himself up just as quickly as he tore himself down. Stuck in a crisis of confidence, he never treated himself like a friend. 

The web leveled the playing field — you no longer needed permission to call yourself an artist — but it also unleashed mediocrity and created more noise than signal. The SoundCloud and Instagram generation seemed to over filter their work, making it all sound and look the same. You were better off making something unique for the long-tail instead of striving to become a celebrity in a hits business.  

Ever the amafessional or well-informed professional, Paul was more than happy to steal the travel writing concept to fund his own Amtrak experience. He googled Amtrak routes and discovered a West Coast adventure called the ‘Coast Starlight.’ It traveled daily between Seattle and Los Angeles. Paul’s brother lived in Los Angeles so he planned on staying with him there for a few days. 

He reserved his ticket online, snagging one of the last sleeper rooms on the bottom car. He emailed his boss to let him know he’d be gone the first week in December; days he had to use anyway before they expired at year-end. He forwarded the email to his girlfriend to get it on their shared Google calendar. 

Little did he know, this thirty-six-hour train ride was going to be an experience of a lifetime. But would he finish the book he so desired to write?

train of thought
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Newsletter: Emotional agility

Web Gems

WHEN IT COMES TO OUR LIVES ON SOCIAL MEDIA, ‘THERE’S ALWAYS ANOTHER STORY’

We usually post things that we wish were, not as they are. Social media presents the best of the best, an online Truman Show that excludes the beautiful struggle in between. At the very least, social media is pseudo-news that often omits context. “There’s always another story,” indeed.

Listen to Hidden Brain: Ep. 68: Schadenfacebook

EMOTIONAL AGILITY: GET UNSTUCK 

Our inner dialogue is all over the place. The harder we try to tame the monkey mind, the crazier it gets. But instead of anxiety loop, we can “step back and ask: “Is this useful?”

“During the average day, most of us speak around sixteen thousand words. But our thoughts – our internal voices – produce thousands more.”

Recommended book: Susan David Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life

  • Bonus Read: Dutch soccer player Meijer Stad survived Nazi execution with ten bullets in his body.  Read this fascinating story. ⚽ 

  • Video: Watch health psychologist Kelly Mcgonigal explain how to make stress your friend in her Ted Talk.

CHAPPELLE BREAKS DOWN THE MILLENNIAL CONDITION

Have we grown immune to catastrophe?

Perhaps Huxley was right: we’re so inundated with screens and breaking news that we forget to care. The long-term consequences for such insouciance mean that evil can seep through unperturbed.

EXPERTISE MATTERS

“Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge.”

We’re all created equal but we’re not all experts. Experts are the hedgehogs, the servants; they do one thing well. They’re indispensable like doctors. Yet, the internet came along and unleashed a free for all of know-it-alls.

Recommended book: Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:

GET HAPPY: FOUR WELL-BEING WORKOUTS

Happiness doesn’t come easily to everyone but thankfully there are some exercises. Bicep curl you brain with these mental exercises:

  1. Identify Strengths: “Write down a story about a time when you were at your best.”
  2. Find the good: “Set aside 10 minutes before you go to bed each night to write down three things that went really well that day.”
  3. Make a Gratitude Visit
  4. Reply Constructively

QUOTES I’M CHEWING ON

“The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter.” — Bertolt Brecht, War Primer (1955)

“If you suppress the spirit of spontaneity, you will destroy the true democratic spirit of revolution which has to be unpredictable.” — In Our Time Podcast on Rosa Luxemburg

“If I do something what I do not understand, I force myself to think about it in my dream, and thus find a solution.” — Tesla

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair

“Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking.” — John Goodenough, To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old

“Don’t get caught doing more than you need to but less than you want to.” – Seth Godin


Digging In The Crates

Flako is Dario Rojo Guerra, a Berlin-based producer known for his helter-skelter beats. I first discovered him in 2010 with his jaw-dropping Pharcyde sample on the track ‘Love.’

Now releasing music under his rebranded name Natureboy, Flako has done some reworks most notably with Malian Wassoulou Oumou Sangaré’s track ‘Yere Faga.’

LISTEN

Kara-Lis Coverdale is “one of the most exciting young composers in North America,” proclaims The Guardian. It’s not hard to understand why.

Her new 22-minute track ‘Grafts’ is gorgeous, rolling in hypnotic piano layers and echoes, “never fully coming to a resolution,” as Boomkat describes it, “Lingering on like a slowly dispersing plume of smoke.”

LISTEN

After a long series of original mixtapes, Thrupence has crafted a debut album called Ideas of Aesthetics.  The nine-track album represents a collection of songs he’s produced over the last six years, including two collaborations with his brother Edward on vocals. “It has become a diary of places I’ve lived and people I’ve met over this time,” says the artist.

‘Forest On The Sun’ and ‘Rinse Repeat’ are my two favorite tracks on the album, mixing elements of soft piano and choppy electronic beats that’ll make you nod your head and smile 😉

LISTEN

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The best of the best

IRL

Facebook makes you unhappier because it produces envy. We always want in our feeds what we don’t have in real life: a stable relationship, a high-paying job, a weekend vacation in the Caribbean, a beautiful house, a new car, the latest gadgets–the list goes on.

But social media is edited real life. We tend to over-post happiness and under-post negativity. Who’s going to share about their mental illness, a divorce, or a family death? That’s sad stuff, even if Facebook allows you to respond with a weepy face instead of a thumbs up.

We usually post things that we wish were, not as they are. Social media presents the best of the best, an online Truman Show that excludes the beautiful struggle in between. At the very least, social media is pseudo-news that often omits context.

“There’s always another story,” indeed.

Listen to Hidden Brain: Ep. 68: Schadenfacebook

The life of an Instagram post

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Image by Wells Baum

The first five minutes in the life of an Instagram post are key. This is your ‘hype’ period where the velocity of likes predetermines the organic reach of your content.

As the clock strikes 11 AM, your goal is to publish something you know people will like, not what you think they’ll like. Predictability is the name of the game. There’s little room for experimentation, the freedom of trial and error.

Instagram went from a tool for seeing to a competition of optimizing an algorithm, which seems to emphasize its users’ activity on the platform. Instagram rewards its members with more attention if they like and follow other people’s accounts. The social network wants you to act like a bot so it can sell your rabid activity to advertisers.

We are all Instagram’s participants and its workers, chomping at the bit for more followers and thus more credibility. The expectations hamper creativity and reward conformity and mechanical behavior. It’s all a bit banal, addictive more than exciting.

If you care about the art of photography, you’ll have to go elsewhere.