Why do we do the things we do?

When Ron Keith sought me out at the train show in Burnaby in November 2012, the doctors were giving him until Christmas to live.  Ron wanted to give me a plow that he had built from a photograph I had given him more than a decade before.  A couple of weeks later, I was at Ron’s house, admiring his collection of more than 300 plows he had built over his modelling career, including the two that he was still building, and didn’t expect to finish.

Ron looked at me with amazing clarity, and asked, “Why do we do the things we do?”

Why indeed?

Lately, Chris Mears and Mike Cougill have been discussing a similar question at the other end of a modelling career.  If I may paraphrase, “How can I find the thing to do that will inspire me for a lifetime?”

Chris suggested we find a list of questions that could help explore our intentions, and I took the risk of suggesting some.  If they are any good, they should at least explain why I’m modelling Pembroke.

Here they are:

  • What is your favourite photograph? 
    A tough one, and it probably changes all the time.  One that I enjoy looking at every time is a period photograph taken in upper New York state, which shows a pair of tracks curving past a station into the mist.  There is a crossing in the foreground, and the station agent stands on the platform looking at the camera.  I find myself wishing I could stay and wait for the train.
    Another set of images that I enjoy are Monet’s Gare St. Lazare series.  I love the colour and light and moving steam that Monet captured so well.
  • What was your most enthralling railroad experience?
    This is another tough one, as there are so many.  However, I think I would choose sitting on a pile of ties as a teenager somewhere outside Montreal on a day trip with OVAR, while 1201 thundered past at speed.  It was unexpected, although I think those in the know were aware that we would be in for a show.  The pounding and noise and speed and smell impressed me for years.
    My first experience with standing on the platform at Slough when an Intercity Express careened by at the better part of 100 miles per hour, was another enthralling experience.
  • When someone views your model, what would hope that they think? 
    None of my business, I suppose, but perhaps something like, “How did he do that?” or maybe, “Oh, that was a good idea!”
  • When someone operates on your railroad how would you like them to feel? 
    I think welcome and relaxed, and perhaps edified.

Well, that was fruitless.  From these answers, I couldn’t have come closer to finding what inspires me.  Let’s try the set that Mike suggested:

  • If you had one, what was your first encounter with a train?
    I’m not sure which is first, either a trip from Manchester to London to see the sights, or a trip from Montreal to Halifax for my Uncle’s wedding when I was five or six.  The latter utilized a business car and sleeper that my Grandfather had procured from his employer, Canadian National.
  • What impression did that encounter make?
    The main thing I remember about the London trip is getting sick from eating pizza, and that we had to attempt the trip twice as the first time was cancelled due to an IRA bomb scare.  The Halifax trip was in winter, and I remember the warmth and the rocking, and stopping and getting off in Moncton in the middle of the night to meet another train and visit the locomotive.
  • Who was with you or were you alone? 
    My sister and father went to London with me.  A whole sleeping car of uncles, aunts and cousins went to Halifax.
  • What quality of railroads stirs your imagination? Why? (C’mon, you knew the why question was coming.)
    “Imagination” is a key word in this question, I think.  There are many aspects of railroads that I find aesthetically pleasing (all those parallel lines), and others that I find enthralling (big trains moving quickly).  The main imagination muscle that tends to get exercised when I consider railroads is how I would accomplish what I see or learn about in model form; clearly I have been doing this too long.
  • Can this quality be reproduced in miniature? 
    Yes, to all three.

Mike’s questions are well grounded in the typical motivation that drives so many modellers: nostalgia.  And the realization that it may be impossible to capture the essence of nostalgia in miniature is pure genius.  However, while interesting, none of these questions explains why I am modelling Pembroke at all.  So, they may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to explain or explore all our motivations.

Let’s keep trying.

7 thoughts on “Why do we do the things we do?

  1. Thanks Rene’.

    The questions I offered are hardly comprehensive. They are more of an off-the-top-of-my-head brain dump. Clearly this is unfamiliar ground for all of us.

    Mike Cougill

  2. René,

    That’s a brilliant post. Your précis of what I also think was the most important point Mike made, that “it may be impossible to capture the essence of nostalgia in miniature”, is in the “I wish I had said that” category. I have found this revelation of Mike’s to be fundamentally liberating. I no longer wish to modelmy memories: they involve senses and sensations that I cannot replicate. And indeed, my memories may be based on the well-known assumption that nostalgia is based on a polite agreement to overlook the faults of the past.

    You end your post by saying that the questions don’t answer why you model Pembroke. If I might make an observation: most of your questions are not, “Why?” but “What?”

    Maybe the answer is the trite philosophy sophomore’s response to the question why, “Why not?” or “Because”?


    1. I have to agree that Mike’s observation is indeed one of the more interesting ones I’ve read in a while.

      Your assessment that my questions all ask only what but not why is indeed astute. I was trying to model my questions on the ones from “Inside the Actor’s Studio” in Chris’s initial post (http://princestreet.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/eureka-what-he-said/). However, even if I explore the “why” for each of my questions, I fall short of explaining why I am modelling Pembroke.

      So, we’re not done yet.

      1. “…we’re not done yet.”

        I suspect we never will be: to which my answer is, “Good”.

        PS Chris’s post was a real cracker, wasn’t it?

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