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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 30, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Sleeping Cars and Bad Education

I've been touting trains for a long time as a viable alternative to cars and planes.

Partly this was based on my experience of the usefulness of trains in Europe and Britain, where cities are more compact and walkable, trains go everywhere, they come and go frequently and on time, and parking is hard to come by if you do drive a car.

Partly, though, I based my advocacy of train travel on my own memories of long train trips as a child. When my dad finished his bachelor's degree at the University of Utah and our family moved to California, where we would live while my dad pursued a master's degree at San Jose State College, Dad drove the family car to Santa Clara and left my mom to bring four kids (I'm third) on the train.

We took a roundabout route, since part of the plan was for us to spend part of the summer with cousins in Benton City, Washington. Trains didn't go everywhere even back in 1957 -- when it came time to join Dad in Santa Clara, we took a long car trip to Portland, Oregon, to catch the southbound train.

I was a five-year-old kid, which meant that I never felt cramped in my seat in the economy section, and I slept easily wherever I happened to fall asleep. I do remember distinctly that the food was awful -- it was the medium rare salisbury steak in the dining car that nauseated me and gave me my lifelong loathing for meat with even a trace of pink in it.

(This loathing was later confirmed by tin-foil campfire cookery on Boy Scout camping trips, but that's another long and whiny story.)

There was also one memorable day when Mom piled the younger kids (a group of which I was then the oldest) into a double-decker commuter train that ran along the peninsula to meet Dad at his part-time job near San Mateo.

Those cool stairs and the ability to look down on the world from the upper story were thrilling to me at age eight. They still are.

Since then, I've taken trains from Greensboro to DC, from DC to New York, from New York to Boston, and enjoyed them all.

There are drawbacks. For one thing, American railroads are in such bad condition that the tracks give a constant jolting and, too frequently, turbulence that can knock you over.

There is no excuse for our having allowed our tracks to deteriorate like that. Train rides can and should be smooth. They were when I rode Polish trains last summer. Think of that -- a former Communist country that suffered a severe depression after liberation manages to maintain its trains better than the richest country on Earth.

As it is, on an American train you're dreaming if you think you can use a laptop with a mouse -- the mouse is constantly on the move because of the jolting of the track, which means your cursor is all over the screen.

Instead, I have to use the glidepoint controller built into the laptop, which is, to see the least, way more tedious and distracting to use than the mouse.

After the last couple of incidents of groping and probing at airport security -- fat people like me have the choice of looking like a sausage in tight clothing, or wearing loose, comfortable clothing and then having strangers press and poke us everywhere -- I decided that until they had body scanners everywhere I was going to avoid flying completely.

Then came my stroke in January. I had visions of having a stroke while in flight (probably induced by the stress of being fondled by strangers) and having it take so long to land the plane and get me to a hospital that I passed the window during which aggressive treatment can strongly reduce the damage from the stroke.

So I'm turning down everything that involves flying. I've taken the occasional car trip of as many as five hours' duration -- usually with a backup driver -- but I've simply turned down any trip that would take longer.

Until my publisher really wanted me to go to New Orleans to speak and sign books at the conference of the American Library Association.

And I really wanted to go. Librarians are smart and discerning readers, and they're so nice that even if they hate you, they're unfailingly polite. They've been good to me, and I didn't want to miss the event.

So my wife got us the best accommodations possible on the Amtrak Crescent, a New York-to-New Orleans train that passes through Greensboro about midnight southbound, and three a.m. northbound.

That meant a "roomette" on the way down, and a "bedroom" on the way back.

We got to the Greensboro Depot an hour before departure time as they requested, having made sure to bring luggage that met the size limitations. What we didn't know was that if you're in a roomette, you check your bags and take onto the train only the tiniest of bags with the bare necessities.

This is because the roomettes are unbelievably small. When the beds are down so you can sleep, I literally could not stand up and turn around in the tiny shred of floorspace between the bed and door.

My wife's suitcase could go into the overhead space, but mine could not; it was strapped to a wall by the door and intruded into my sleeping space. (My wife volunteered to climb up to the upper bunk, being younger and more agile than me.)

And the toilet -- yes, there's officially a sink and a toilet in each roomette -- that was just a little horrifying. It was wedged between the inner wall and the lower bunk. The toilet is so narrow, and it's so right-against-the-wall, that I don't see how anyone with wider hips than mine could ever center themselves over the toilet aperture. I barely managed it.

The toilet lid was one of the steps you had to use to climb up into the upper bunk. And since there was no separation between the toilet and the rest of the roomette, you either have to really like the person you're traveling with or make them stand outside in the aisle while you use the john.

And you will use that john. Because there is no toilet in the sleeping cars other than the toilets in the rooms and roomettes. The dining car and club car are between the sleeping cars and the economy cars that have toilets.

Unless you leap from the train on the few stops that are long enough for a smoke or a short walk, race for a public restroom, and manage to get back in time, you'll find a way to make use of that tiny, narrow, awkward, miserable, uncomfortable toilet.

But you do what's necessary, and we did, and we still love each other, and I hate airplane toilets, too, and public restrooms on car trips are often a horror, so all in all, the roomette toilet-beside-the-bed solution isn't the worst thing in the world.

Having a roomette on the way down, however, certainly made us appreciate the larger bedroom on the way back! Here there was a tiny shower with the toilet right inside it, and it was about the same level of crampedness as an airplane bathroom. It also had a nice tight seal on the door for privacy.

On both legs of the trip I was able to spend hours writing, which was good because I have several ironclad deadlines looming and I couldn't afford to lose time.

Here was where the train proved its value. The table was cramped; the train lurched so badly sometimes that I just had to take my hands off the keys and wait till we got to a better-maintained stretch of track; but even with these problems, I got in as many hours of work as I usually do at home.

In fact, on the return trip, I sat in a swiveling captain's chair that was far better than the horrible, back-breaking chair I had to use in the hotel in New Orleans. And we had learned our lesson -- we checked our two suitcases and carried on only a couple of very small bags plus my laptop bag.

I plugged in my laptop the whole way, and we recharged cellphones and Kindles easily. I had internet access because I have a Verizon VZaccess account and a modem that lets me online wherever there's cellphone coverage. There were only a couple of gaps between here and New Orleans.

Sleeping on the train isn't ideal. But the beds were long enough for me at 6' 2" and while they were very, very firm they weren't actually hard. The linens were clean. The attendants were helpful, friendly, cheerful, and competent.

I envision crossing the country in the near future. This involves changing trains, and I've resolved that I'll structure my trip so that at the train-change stops, I'll spend a day and night in that city, making use of hotel beds and showers.

This makes the trip even longer -- but since I have to pack up and leave the train anyway, why not? I can write in the hotel just as on the train (and even use a mouse!), so I haven't lost a day of work, and breaking up the train trip like that makes sense.

Sleeping cars are expensive, but on long trips I really don't have a choice. Sitting in a seat the whole way would be like one long redeye flight with no relief. And while I got a lot of writing done in a miserably crowded compartment on a Polish train last summer, it was not fun and nothing I'd want to duplicate later. (But I finished The Lost Gate, so it was worth it.)

I had visions of walking the length of the train for exercise, but that didn't happen -- the aisles are too narrow and the train lurches like a ship in a storm sometimes, making it rather dangerous for a recovering stroke victim who lurches sometimes even on level ground.

But there was room in the roomette and the bedroom for me to stand and stretch and do some exercises, at least when the beds were folded up. And the ability to lie down completely was a lifesaver. My wife and I arrived at both destinations reasonably rested and comfortable. Better than a redeye, I must say.

There's a critical mass to these things. Right now not enough people ride trains to pay for the costs of track upkeep. Freight traffic has to bear the costs, and freight doesn't care of it's a somewhat bumpy ride.

But you can't increase ridership until trains operate on a better schedule and go to more places. I'd commute to my teaching gig at Southern Virginia University by train -- if there were a train that went there from Greensboro.

I'm going to use the train when I can and when it makes sense, partly because I hate planes, and also because I can't write while driving a car. The train gives me back some of my traveling time, rather the way that listening to audiobooks on an iPod turns exercise and shopping and driving time into reading time.

I guess at my age, you begin to feel how little time there is, and driving a car is a colossal waste of time if you have an alternative. For me, the train is that alternative.

And the more of you who feel the same way, and act on it, the better the chances of Amtrak increasing the number of trains and the number of destinations served. They might even spend a little money upgrading the tracks.

I find it absurd that the Republican Party is ridiculing Obama's attempts to encourage the improvement of rail transportation. We won't free ourselves from foreign oil until we stop guzzling it for trips that don't need to be by car. Improving rail until it's a viable alternative to car travel for a greater percentage of trips makes perfect sense. It's a wise investment of public money -- a thousand times better than building large sports venues.

I'm proud that Greensboro has turned our railroad depot into a combination bus station and train station, attractively designed, with plenty of parking. We felt perfectly safe walking to and from our car in the middle of the night, and the lot was well-patrolled while we were gone. That was a good use of public money, too.

Even if you don't use the train yourself, it's a good use of your tax money, because everybody who takes the train instead of driving (and we would have driven, not flown, to NOLA) is helping reduce both the price of oil and the total amount of foreign oil we use.

And because Greensboro has a nice train station, it gives a good impression to the travelers who come to our city by train. With any luck (and good sense!), there'll be more and more of them in years to come.


For years I've been criticizing the absurd way our universities teach English, which filters down to the terrible way we teach English in our public schools.

We have abandoned the teaching of grammar, so that more and more adults are completely unaware of what their own language even means, or how to use it effectively.

Worst of all, by the selection of works to read and the way we force students to respond to literature as if it were a coded message intercepted from an enemy, instead of a story about characters making important choices, we teach children that reading is hard work and a waste of time.

Maybe my outspokenness on this subject has something to do with why I'm not invited to speak at many universities. Why should an English Department spend part of its budget bringing in a speaker to tell their students what an awful waste of time their approach to literature is?

But now and then I get a bit of proof that somebody is listening. Joni Newman, an English teacher, recounted an incident when she was in a college class and confronted a professor with a quotation from me on this very topic.

I think you'll enjoy reading what she has to say. I'm quite sure you'll enjoy the long quotation from me, because if you have read this far into this column, you have already proven you have a high tolerance for Orsonisms.


Meanwhile, let's keep in mind that teaching children to hate literature while giving them no tools to understand and use their own language is not the only sin of our worsening public schools.

I'm sure people meant well when they instituted the rule that every high school student must take a math course every year, but it is an unbelievable bit of stupidity when you see the results.

The overwhelming majority of careers and life paths do not require that a person master any math beyond algebra and geometry. Only those going onto statistical research, engineering, or math and sciences have any use for trigonometry or calculus.

(And don't write in with your arguments -- you're simply wrong. I have never used anything more sophisticated than geometry or basic algebra in forty-four years since high school, and don't know anybody who has, apart from friends in the careers I listed. If there are exceptions, good for them -- but they could have studied these things on their own.)

Here's the problem. Bright students can be on the border of calculus before they get into high school. What if they know they are never going to need calculus because they have no interest in any career that requires it? Why should they take any math in high school?

There should be a threshold which, if you pass it with good grades, should be the end of math in high school. Period.

A course in formal logic, now -- that is useful for everyone in the talking professions, which includes teaching and business; I think it should be a minimum requirement before you are allowed to write a letter to the editor or a political column, too.

And it is possible to have a math survey course that describes the many different branches of math from calculus to topology to chaos theory without requiring students to actually do any of the calculations. This would have great value -- I use the things I learned in such classes and readings all the time.

But no, in our schools, even students who have learned all the math they will ever need are required to go on taking year after year of math -- which uses up time they could have spent on courses that will matter far more in their lives.


And then there's that religion class that students are encouraged to take instead of one year of science. I refer to the "environmental science" class, which is basically a year of indoctrination in the dogmas of the religion of environmentalism, with zero scientific rigor and an awful lot of untested or openly disproven doctrines taught as if they were fact.

Environmentalism, as currently practiced, has about as much to do with science as creationism does. I say they should both be taught outside the public schools, and leave the high school years for teaching useful, factual information and exposing children to the shared culture of the American people.

Children would gain far more benefit from a year of music, art, and film history than from a year of "environmental science." At best, ecology deserves a mere unit within a biology class, taught within the context of testable and tested science. There it has real value; but there is no way to spend a year on it without its becoming mere indoctrination.

I think of the young college student from Chapel Hill who showed up at my house the other day. I was in the open doorway of my garage, stretching after a run, when I saw a car pull up and drop her off.

She came cheerfully up to me, starting a spiel about how, as part of a class on the environment, she was educating people on the need to "save the outer banks" by preventing offshore drilling.

You see how a class in a supposed science is actually functioning like a religion class, sending students out to proselytize for a particular set of beliefs.

Unfortunately, I know a great deal more about environmental science than she does, and vastly more about the real ways to stop offshore drilling -- which is dangerous, but also unavoidable.

So I interrupted her by saying, "You came here in a car. You're part of the problem."

But, she explained, she was coming from Chapel Hill. How else could she get here?

"If you ban offshore drilling here, without reducing demand for gasoline, you've merely moved it somewhere else, where it will damage the environment somewhere. And you've merely passed the profits from oil-drilling to other places and other countries.

"Banning offshore drilling in American waters does not help the global environment even a speck, and it causes serious geopolitical damage. So that car you rode in to get here is the cause of the environmental damage that oil-drilling causes. You are part of the problem, and you are solving nothing."

Unfortunately, partway through that speech she just walked away, moving on through the neighborhood. I was clearly not going to convert to her religion.

That's what "environmental science" is in the American university and high school -- a seminary in the doctrines of a religion. "Creation science" and "environmental science" are simply a joke when it comes to actual education. You come out knowing less than you knew when you started.

But I'm sure she felt very good about herself. So if the goal is self-esteem-building rather than actual scientific education, then any class that lets young people feel smugly superior to everyone who doesn't share their faith will certainly do that job.

If you regard "environmental science" as selective group therapy, then maybe it's pretty effective.

Viewed as religion, though, it has the effect of convincing the true believers that they are so right that they don't have to take opposing viewpoints into account; that those who oppose them should be silenced. They're not many steps away from the inquisition.

But in our high schools, where children are not being taught anywhere near as much dispassionate history as they need, and where they are being actively turned away from literature and language, we make them spend years on needless math and "environmental science" while they are left deeply ignorant of much of our culture -- which has the effect of killing that culture, bit by bit and year by year.

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